Posts Tagged ‘bible’

“Thirsty Souls”

A sermon based on Exodus 17: 1-7

In a number of different contexts, I have been encouraging people to practice an ancient Christian tradition: lectio divina, or ‘holy reading’.

You take a passage of scripture and work through four steps with it. Here’s how I have described the steps:

Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina is a slow, contemplative praying of the scriptures. It helps us to listen deeply for God in the scriptures and engages us in conversation with the living God.

LectioRead the scripture passage  (or a portion of it, if it is long) slowly, preferably out loud. Do this several times (at least three times).  Pay attention to the words or phrases or images that speak to you.  Some unexpected word or phrase may emerge as you repeatedly read the passage.

MeditatioMeditate on the word or phrase that has drawn your attention as you read through the passage in the lectio stage. What thoughts, hopes, memories, desires, concerns, ideas come to mind?

OratioPray the word(s) or phrase(s) that you have been meditating on. Enter into an unhurried, loving conversation with God.  Interact with God as you would with one whom you know loves and accepts you. Offer to God the experiences that emerged in your meditation. Let the words or phrases from the scripture text speak to those experiences, with God’s healing grace.

ContemplatioRest in God’s presence, allowing yourself to receive God’s transforming love.

For many people, this is a different way of engaging the scriptures. As with any new skill or habit, people can feel uncomfortable with it. They tend to say, “I don’t get it”, or “I am not getting anything out of it”. When someone is learning to play the piano, it takes some time before they actually ‘hear the music’. When someone is first training to run in a long distance race, it takes some time before they find the rhythm. You learn to dance, to paint, to play baseball by making your way through a time period when you feel awkward.

Generally, we have been used to reading a passage of scripture in order to understand it. You ask, “What does this tell me about God or about Jesus or about how I should live the Christian life?” Some people get more serious about studying the Bible and seek to understand the historical background of a passage. What was the culture like when the story was happening? What did the words mean originally?

Other people, using the scriptures in their daily devotions, may approach a passage asking, “What does this tell me about prayer? about how I should treat my neighbour?” They stand back from the passage and figure out how it applies to their lives.

Many people have found these approaches helpful. However, a lot of people could not see how the Bible applied to their lives. There were some passages they just could not understand, no matter how much background information they got. Eventually, they gave up reading the Bible altogether.

Lectio divina does not invite you to understand the Bible. It invites you to stand under it. It says, “Do not step back from the scripture; step into it.” In lectio divina, you do not go to the scriptures to find out about God. You got to the scripture to encounter the living God, who is waiting to meet you there.

I encourage people to develop this practice because I am convinced that people do not first of all need to know more about God. They need first and foremost to know God. Years ago, I was at a workshop where the instructor asked someone, “Do you know the Shepherd’s Psalm?” The participant answered, “Yes, and I know the Shepherd too.”

We have thirsty souls: souls that are parched for the living God. Do you know what a thirsty soul feels like? When our throats are thirsty, they are dry and scratchy. When a soul is thirsty, it can feel like that deep yearning that hovers in the backgrIMG_3676ound of a busy life: a yearning that, when you stop long enough to attend to it asks, “Is this all there is?”

A thirsty soul can feel like a deep loneliness that does not go away, even when you have lots of family and friends.

In today’s Bible story, thirsty souls showed up in the midst of a crisis about having no water in a desert. The people were afraid and angry and feeling powerless. They turned on Moses because they needed someone to blame.

They turned to Moses, because that’s what we often do with our thirsty souls. We look for someone or something to fill the emptiness or to stop the loneliness. We think that it is someone or something that we are yearning for.

One of the elemental lessons to learn in your spiritual journey is that your deepest yearning, your deepest thirst is for the living God.

Somehow Moses knew that. When the people started complaining to him, he knew that he could not give them what they wanted. he know that only God could do that. So, he turned to god. He prayed a direct, honest prayer. He does not begin with polite or vaguely religious words. He launches into prayer: “What can I do with these people? Any minute now, they are going to kill me!” In other words, “This is your problem, God! Do something!”

Sometimes our prayers don’t go very deep because we are too polite with God. We only bring the surface stuff into our conversation with God — the places where we are still in control; the places where we still retain the illusion that we are in control. It is harder to trust God with the ugly parts of our life, with the broken places in our souls.

Even after God provides water for the people, Moses call the location “the place of quarrelling; the place of complaint”. This, too, is part of the journey. There will be places and times when our thirsty souls cry out, quarrelling with others, complaining about what we do not have. This story signals that even our quarrelling and complaining are invitations to encounter God. Even our brokenness and yearning and emptiness are invitations to place our whole lives in God’s hands.

Interestingly, when God answered Moses’ prayer, God provided water but, more importantly, God provides God’s own presence: “Go to the rock that you will strike with a rock and water will come out AND I will be standing there in front of you.”

God is not just ‘there’ to meet your needs and to answer your prayers. God is standing there in front of you, longing to enter into relationship with you; yearning to be in communion with you. In every part of your life, God is reaching out to be with you and to share God’s great love and grace and transforming power with you.

Do you believe that?

Brennan Manning was an author and public speaker who, often, would invite people to trust that deep love of God and to enter into it. In one talk, he says, “In the forty-eight years since I was first ambushed by Jesus in a little chapel in the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania, and then, in the literally thousands of hours of prayer and meditation, silence and solitude over those years, I am now utterly convinced that on judgement day, the Lord Jesus is going to ask us one and only one question: “Did you believe that I loved you, that I desired you; that I waited for you day after day; that is desired to hear your voice?”  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQi_IDV2bgM)

Do you believe that? That is what your soul is thirsty for. Jesus offers you himself — living water to quench your thirst. That is the invitation the lectio divina offers: an invitation into the heart of God’s love and God’s great longing for you.

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I’ve been  doing some research on congregational amalgamations. One thing is very apparent: amalgamations have a greater chance of being ‘successful’ if they are driven by a conviction that the participating congregations are able to serve God’s mission better together than separately.

What is also apparent is that most congregations enter into the conversation about amalgamation when they are desperate: the leadership of the congregation are tired of working very hard to keep things going; the building is in need of major repairs; the finances are unable to sustain the ongoing costs.

Often, then, people enter into the conversation hoping that an amalgamation will solve those problems. Past experience indicates that that will probably not be the case. If nothing is done to address the dynamics that caused the decline and the crises in the first place, within a few short years, the new congregation will be facing the same problems again.

Addressing those dynamics is hard work. Once a congregation enters into the process of amalgamating with another congregation, its people can be easily distracted from that hard work by the technical details of making an amalgamation happen. However, figuring out why God has called them to be the church in a particular place and time is critical to their becoming a flourishing congregation. That work needs to be done before, during and after the amalgamation process.

In the recent past, many congregations tried to do that work by developing mission or vision statements and by listing their values. I am not convinced that that has been helpful or fruitful. Many congregational mission statements are merely generic descriptions of what the people think a church should be. They are seldom very compelling. They are usually focused primarily on the church rather than on the mission.

So, what does a congregation do in order to get a clear sense of what God is calling them to be and to do in their particular place and time? I suspect that the answer to that question lies in story-telling. The Church is a story-formed community. The Bible doesn’t list a set of values. It tells stories about the Triune God and about the people who have lived in response to and in obedience to that God.

What would it look like to reclaim that way of being the Church? People would need to know the Story well. It would need to dwell deeply in their hearts and their lives. The sad thing is that so many Christians have given up on our Story. They are not convinced that the stories in the Bible have much to say to the way they live their lives. It is a great challenge for their leaders to wrestle with the scriptures so deeply that the Story catches fire in their own lives. Then they will have something to offer their people.

The people will need to know the Story well enough that they are able to work with it creatively. Then, there will need to be a culture in the congregation that nurtures in them that creativity and celebrates it.

I am wondering if a way to start would be to give story-telling a more prominent place in the life of the community of faith. Have people tell the stories of what God is doing in their lives. Discover what biblical stories are living at the heart of the community. Learn those stories. Wrestle with them. Tell them to each other. Let those stories shape the decisions that are made. Let them be the lens through which the congregation sees what God is calling them to be and to do.

Does anyone know a congregation where that is happening? I would love to hear about it.

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This is the thirteenth in a series of posts from research I have done about lay leadership training in the United Church of Canada. In the previous four posts and this one, I examine the context in which that training needs to happen — a context in which many churches are struggling to serve faithfully while their numbers (attendance, finances) are declining.

The Church in Canada is journeying through uncharted territory. The landscape is unfamiliar. There are no maps that spell out the way ahead. Still, the Church carries with it gifts that form within its people the capacity to find the way forward. Three of these gifts are essential, basic practices that keep a congregation oriented toward Christ as it navigates into the unknown future. Eugene Peterson describes the practice of these three gifts as “Working the Angles”. Just as every triangle has three angles that hold the lines together and determine its shape, there are three basic acts that are so critical that they determine everything else. These are: praying, reading Scripture, spiritual direction. They are all acts of paying attention to God. “Prayer is an act in which I bring myself to attention before God; reading Scripture is an act of attending to God in his speech and action across two millennia in Israel and Christ; spiritual direction is an act of giving attention to what God is doing in the person who happens to be before me at an given moment. God with me, with his people, with this person.” (p. 2-4)

Christendom churches could function adequately without most of their people being very skilled in these basic practices. A common complaint was that the people did not know the scriptures, did not have an active commitment to prayer, and were not interested in spiritual formation. The reality was that their people did not need to be well-grounded in those things to make the church work. The structures and systems of the congregation had a momentum of their own that carried its life forward.

Now, as Christendom disintegrates, the structures and systems that served Christendom churches are losing their power. God is leading the Church into stormy waters of discontinuous change that are being churned up by the Holy Spirit. Churches that are finding their way into God’s new future are having continually to adapt their course. “Working the angles” become imperative, both for the people of the congregation and for those who are called to lead.

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Pay Attention

“Pay Attention”

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett. The worship service in which this sermon was originally preached can be found at Reformed Worship, week 2.

Scriptures: Psalm 19

Chaim Potok was a Jewish rabbi and novelist. Even as a young boy, he knew he wanted to be a writer. His mother would tell him, “Be a brain surgeon. You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.” Chaim would always reply, “No, mama, I want to be a writer.” He went away to college but, whenever he came home, his mother would try to persuade him again. “I know you want to be a writer, but listen to me. Be a brain surgeon. You’ll keep a lot of people from dying. You’ll make a lot of money.”  He would reply, “No, mama. I want to be a writer.”

This conversation went on this way over and over again. Then, one day Chaim’s mother exploded, “You’re wasting your time. If you were a brain surgeon, you could keep a lot of people from dying.” Chaim replied, “Mama, I don’t want to keep a lot of people from dying; I want to show them how to live!” (Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant, 47.)

St. Irenaeus once said, “The glory of God is seen in men and women who are fully alive”, and yet, said St. Paul, “All have sinned and fall short of the divine splendour.” (Romans 3:23) Part of the moral and spiritual poverty of our day stems from too many people who are settling for “not dying”, when we are created to be “full alive”. People settle for comfort and ease when what God intends for us is glory.

Someone wrote a book about running in which he began by saying that he reached the peak of his vitality, creativity and accomplishment when he was five years old. Do you remember what you felt like when you were five? He said that, when he was five he was a runner and an adventurer. He was an actor and a dancer and a singer of songs. At five, he could give and receive love freely. He laughed easily and took delight in many things. Then, the hurt and heartache of life began to drain all that away.

That’s what happens, isn’t it? Broken dreams, the loss of innocence, love betrayed or lost. Sometime just selfishness or complacency. They all chip away at that zest for living that we have in childhood. Sometimes those experiences lead us to doubt ourselves. Or, they consume all our energy so that we do not have space in our minds or spirits for something creative or adventurous. We live on auto-pilot, by default, doing what we are simply used to doing.

The Bible often contrasts things that are coming alive with things that are crumbling into dust. It distinguishes between ‘really living’ and ‘not really living’, between true life and life-gone-wrong. The difference between the two, it claims, is whether or not God is present. When God enters the scene, things that are crumbling into dust are given new life. God breathes and people come alive. God acts and new possibilities open up.

When the Bible speaks of God as Creator, it is never merely saying that a divine being made the world. God is Creator because the God revealed in the Bible is creative now, not just back at the origins of the cosmos. God is actively working in our lives and in our world, bringing new life.

Bill Brown, professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, points out that there are seven creation stories in the Old Testament (The Seven Pillars of Creation). Those creation stories are not trying to explain how the world got started. They were told and put together by the people of Israel when they were facing a dead end. Their society was full of troubles. It look as if there was no way to move into a livable future. Everything important to them was disappearing. It was being destroyed or it was crumbling into dust. They could not see any way to stop what was happening. It was in that context that they told the creation stories. They told stories about new beginnings and starting over. They told stories about God who offers new possibilities that they were not able to imagine on their own.

The Bible’s creation stories direct us to places were hope and courage and the capacity to persevere are found. They remind us that we are not alone in a world that is descending into chaos. We worship a God who speaks into chaos and makes a new creation. We live in covenant relationship with a God who put the stars in the heavens and who guides the blazing sun across the sky day after day.

It is as if the sun arises each day, joyfully anticipating new life, making a fresh beginning, eagerly running towards God’s glorious creation and God’s restoration of all things. “The heavens are telling the glory of God; the earth proclaims God’s handiwork,” shouts Psalm 19.

Wake up! Pay attention! Lift your eyes higher than the troubles that are wearing you down. Your life is set in the large, expansive context of God’s ongoing creativity. There is more going on here than just you and me trying to make all things work out right. There is God and God is at work in our world. God is at work in Christ, reconciling the world to Godself. God is at work, calling people to live well, to be human, to live up to our creation and into our salvation.

Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) He invites us on an adventure that requires of us courage and sacrifice as we join in his work of renewing human society. That adventure includes conflict and struggle as we resist those forces that would diminish human dignity and freedom. That adventure takes us both to the heights and to the depths of loving and being loved.

There will be times when you cannot see a way forward. There will be times when you will be so weary that you cannot see how you can possibly keep going. There will be times when you will be tripped up by your own selfishness or foolishness or fear. There will be times when you will be blind-sided by someone else. You will stumble and fall and lose your way. That, too, is part of the journey.

Then, the great grace and mercy and forgiveness of God will pick you up and set you on your feet again and enable you to begin again. Your life is significant and important because you are part of God’s great and holy work to renew the earth. You have a part to play, a part you need to play or you will miss out on the glory.

How do you get in on it? How do you join the adventure? How do you know how to play your part? God has given God’s Word to guide us, says the Psalmist. God’s Word reveals to us what God is up to in the world and pulls our lives toward where the action is. God’s Word acts as a signpost, pointing out the right road. God’s Word is a life-map, showing the way to joy. God’s Word leads to wonder and awe and reverence at the persistent, mysterious ways that God is overcoming the power of death that makes things crumble into dust. God’s Word leads to wonder and awe and reverence at the surprising, unexpected ways God is opening up new possibilities. God’s Word steers us away from death valleys and directs us to the paths that lead to life.

God’s Word is a great treasure, more precious than gold, sweeter than honey. When we set ourselves under the Word of God— when we wrestle with it and let it form our lives — we come alive to all that God is doing in our life and in the world.

It is said that the rabbis would place a drop of honey on the Torah scroll. Then, they would invite their very young students to lick the scroll. They wanted them to experience, even before they could read, that the Way of Life revealed in the scroll was sweet.

Today, we are invited to be reminded of that as well. As Psalm 19 is read again, you are invited to come forward and share the fruit that is on the communion table. Enjoy its sweetness. “Taste and see that the Lord is God” (Psalm 34). Then, take a few minutes to reflect on words of scripture that have been precious in your life. And pray, “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord my Redeemer.”

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The Church, by its very nature, is missional: the Holy Spirit gathers people into the Church and then sends them out into the world with the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.The first gift that the Holy Spirit gave to the Church at Pentecost was the gift of speech. The early Church expected that every member would witness to the amazing work God does in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

I can’t speak for other denominations but, in the United Church of Canada at least, it can be difficult to get people to witness to the work is God is doing in their lives. People might share some stories with their pastor but they resist telling others, especially in a public context.

There may be a number of reasons for this: many of the people in our congregations were raised in an era where faith was considered to be decidedly private; they may feel that they don’t have appropriate language to speak about their experiences; they don’t want to be associated with those aggressive, brash types who want to know, “Are you saved?” and have only one particular kind of answer that would be considered adequate. Some fear that, if they were to share their experiences, other people would make fun of them. They would dismiss their witness as delusional.

There was a time when people thought that words weren’t necessary in order to witness to one’s faith. The deeds you did would speak for themselves. A popular quotation (mistakenly attributed to St. Francis) was, “Preach the gospel often and, if necessary, use words.” That may have been appropriate in Christendom, when people assumed that ‘everybody’ was Christian and could easily attribute good deeds to an underlying Christian faith. However, we are no longer in Christendom. Most people do not associate Christianity with the doing of kind and good deeds. They also recognize that people who do good things are not necessarily Christian. Years ago, a friend who was a missionary in Nepal told me, “When I do something kind and good in Nepal, I cannot assume that people will realize I am doing it because I am a disciple of Jesus. They are more likely to assume that I am doing it because I sinned in a previous life and am now working to atone for my sins.” The situation is now similar in North America — people will attribute our actions to any number of motivations. Words have again become necessary.

People may want to share their faith but find it difficult to be comfortable in doing so. I have been wondering what a church could do to help. The impulse to speak about one’s faith arises from the love that the Spirit of Christ places in human hearts — love for those who need to hear the good news of God’s unwavering love, of the hope that Christ offers, of the Spirit’s liberating power. So, I am wondering if, for many of the people in our congregations, it is their love for their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren that could be a gateway for learning to speak about faith to others. They are puzzled and troubled by the fact that their children have so little to do with the life of the Church, even though they were brought to church activities all their lives. They are concerned that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are growing up without hearing the stories of Jesus. They long to pass the faith on to the next generation, knowing that it has been a source of strength and comfort and guidance throughout their own lives. Some of them faithfully bring their grandchildren to worship and to Sunday School, even though the parents don’t attend, hoping that the stories will be told there.

Christian faith is story-based. It is through stories that Jesus reveals to us what God is like and what the reign of God looks like. It is through stories that our lives are shaped and we develop the lens through which we see the world. If the faith is going to be passed along to the next generation, it will be important to get those stories deep into hearts and minds and souls.

So, I have been wondering: What if a congregation asked the adults, “What is your favourite Bible story? Why is it important to you? What is one Bible story you want your grandchildren to know? Why?” The stories could be gathered into a booklet or the adults could tell the story in a video. The artists in the congregation could illustrate the stories. The booklet (in whatever form it eventually took) could be given to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren as a gift, offering an opportunity to read or view it together. Perhaps a booklet/video could be produced for each season of the Christian year. Over time, these booklets or videos may be places to start a deeper conversation.

As I was thinking about these things, it occurred to me: Learning to talk about our faith takes practice. It is a critical practice for the church in this new context. However, it may be that what is more basic than that even is not our faith but the faith. What is more critical is learning to tell the Story, as a way of learning to find the words to tell our part in it.

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, Ontario on August 26 2012.

Scriptures: Luke 18: 11-27

After you read the scripture passage, ask, “What feelings or questions does this story raise for you?”  Anger? Shock? “This is a harsh story”?

It’s stories like these that give the Bible a bad reputation. “A nobleman goes to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. . . . a delegation of his own citizens declares, ‘We don’t want this man to rule over us.’. . .  Nevertheless, he becomes king and, when he returns to his country, he says, “As for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to be king over them, bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.”

The worst of it is that this is a story told by Jesus. Sometimes people will say, “The Old Testament depicts God as violent and vengeful, destroying enemies by slaughtering them. In the Old Testament, God’s people go to war, believing that they are acting in God’s name. But, all that changes in the New Testament. Jesus is not like the God of the Old Testament. Jesus is all about love and kindness and peace.”

Well, except for this story. Jesus has been telling parables, stories, on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. Nine parables about God seeking the lost; about forgiving and praying and  sharing what you have with others. Then he tells this one.

You could just leave this one out. Just ignore it; forget that it’s in the New Testament. That’s what the lectionary does. The lectionary is a three-year cycle of scripture readings. This year, it takes us through Luke’s gospel. Right up until this story. It leaves this one out. It goes back to Luke 6. Then, the next Sunday it picks up the gospel readings after this parable.

If you’ve been in the church for a while, then you’re probably more familiar with Matthew’s version of this story. It gets used more often. It’s more gentle. Certainly no slaughtering. There’s the bit about being cast into ‘outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’, but if you leave that part out, Matthew’s version can be read as a nice little story with a moral about using your talents to the best of your abilities. In fact, it becomes the kind of story you don’t need to get up on Sunday morning and come to worship to hear. You could sit at home and watch the Olympics if you want to hear that kind of advice: take your natural abilities and gifts, work hard, believe in yourself, and you can achieve your goals.

Turn this parable into a little moral story and there is no need for the inconvenience of worshipping on a Sunday morning or for dealing with Jesus Christ and his awkward demands or for dealing with the peculiar company Jesus keeps.

What do you do? Do you throw out some stories because they’re embarrassing? Do you just forget about stories like this morning’s gospel reading because it seems to advocate slaughtering those who disagree with you?

What about the parts of the Bible where you have trouble seeing how they connect with your life? What do you do with a Saviour who walks on water? or feeds 4000 people with five loaves of bread and two small fish? or heals a man who has been blind from birth using just a little bit of spit and a command to be healed? We live in a world where the only water you walk on is the kind you find in the lake in the middle of February. The way you feed a multitude is to grow crops with a higher yield and distribute the available food more equitably. You heal blindness with cataract surgery and corneal transplant and modern medications.

What do you do with the Bible when it has been used artlessly by people who want to impose a narrow set of moral standards on others?

You can stop reading the Bible. You can dismiss those sections that you cannot wrap your mind around. You can forget about them. Just wrap them up in a cloth and put them away.

And yet. . . And yet, we are part of a tradition that has said of these words that they are ‘sweeter than honey straight from a honeycomb’. They give life and wisdom and truth that guides one’s life in good paths. They intend to form communities that give life and justice to all people. They connect us with the living God. More accurately, they are one of the primary ways that the living God has chosen to connect with us.

Through them, God shapes a community of faith that has the courage and energy and perseverance to confront injustice and the forces of evil in the world. God’s Way is a peculiar way, granted. The world confronts injustice by passing laws or by engaging in economic boycotts or by sending in armies. Jesus combats evil with stories! What good are stories, mere words, against tanks and corrupt politicians?

And yet, his words have power — power that changes people and forms imagination. Those changed, imaginative people change the world in creative, imaginative ways. If we neglect or dismiss those stories, those words, we cut ourselves loose from the source of our life.

We are on a journey into God’s new future. One of the first things we need to do is to re-engage those stories. Take this gift that we have been given seriously. Throw at those stories your most penetrating questions. Wrestle them to the ground with your deepest doubts. Push back at them with your best arguments. Do all that. At the very least, engage them. “Do business with them.”

I want to invite you to listen again to today’s gospel story. Keep in mind that it is a parable. This is not a literal account of something that happened. This is not an historical report. It is a parable. You are meant to come to this story with your imagination set on ‘high’. Its images and metaphors make it complex and rich. It is not a simple moral tale like one of Aesop’s fables. It is a parable — the subversive way God brings in God’s kingdom.

Try this:

When you hear about a nobleman who went to a distant country, think of Jesus, who left the glories of heaven to come to earth in order to seek those who have gotten lost in their search for God. When you hear that the nobleman went to get royal power, remember that Jesus has a peculiar notion of both royalty and power. For him, the poor are royalty. For him, what looks like weakness to us is the way God exercises God’s power. What looks like foolishness to us is God’s wisdom.

When you hear about a delegation of citizens who say, “We don’t want this man to rule over us”, consider that this may not literally be referring to particular human beings. It may be referring to the forces of power and privilege that felt threatened by Jesus’ way. Those forces eventually crucified Jesus, trying to stop his ruling over them.

When the nobleman hands out 10 pounds to 10 slaves, perhaps he is not literally handing out money to each slave. Perhaps the 10 pounds are meant to call to your mind the 10 stories Jesus has been telling his disciples on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. The community of faith has been on a journey through territory where the residents of that neighbourhood do not share the faith communities stories and traditions about the way the world runs. In a culture where Jesus’ followers feel like strangers, Jesus has been teaching them about the way God rules. He has been immersing them in the peculiar ways of God’s grace. And then he says, “Here — do business with these while I am gone.  Play with them creatively. Work with them imaginatively. They are stories about living as a community of faith in a strange land — forgiving, praying, offering hospitality to strangers. See what you can make of them while I am gone.”

When the third slave says, “I was afraid of you because you are a harsh man”, consider that he may be wrong in his judgement of God. God may not be a harsh man, taking what God did not first give, reaping what God did not sow. The God who meets us in the scriptures creates a world full of bountiful gifts and lavishes it upon us to bless us. God brings life where we can see only death. When the Bible sums up everything it knows about God’s revelation, it says simply, “All is grace.” Everything we receive from God is infused and transformed by God’s grace and mercy and love.

When the king says, “As for the enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them, bring them here and slaughter them in my presence”, consider that the enemies which the victorious Christ destroys are not human beings but the ‘powers and principalities’ — the spiritual forces that destroy and distort human life. Through his sacrificial death and descent into hell, Jesus does battle with them and defeats them. The resurrected Christ has destroyed the power of death and destruction and evil finally to determine our lives. The resurrection on the third day is Christ’s victory dance.

Go back to the story again. Come to it with your imagination engaged. Do you hear it differently?

We have been entrusted with life-giving goods news. We can wrap it up in a cloth and neglect it. Or we can do business with it. We can get to know the stories well enough to deal with them imaginatively, creatively. When we do that, we shall have something life-giving and  liberating and hopeful to share with those who are searching for good news.

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One of the greatest gifts God has given us is the Bible. Its stories give us eyes to see what God is up to in our world and the ways God acts to save us. Its prayers teach us to pray the whole of our lives with honesty. Its poems open new horizons for us and give us hope. Its commands provide guidance and direction as we make our way through a confusing world.

One of the saddest realities of the church these days is that many people who are in our churches know the bible so poorly. They pay more attention to the stock market, to their golf game, to the hockey scores. Granted, much of the bible takes some effort to understand. What stymies me is how to persuade people that it is worth the effort. Psalm 19 says that the Torah, the Word of God, is ‘more desirable than gold, even than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb’.

I am becoming more and more convinced that mainline churches will find a way into the future only as the adult members develop a deep desire God’s Word, an expectation that God will meet them in their wrestling with it, and a willingness to have their lives formed by those stories and prayers and disciplines.  Yet, the challenge is to reach beyond the few people in our congregations who are already in bible studies. I begin Church Board meetings with a study time, hoping to expose more people to the rich treasure of the scriptures. In my sermons I try to keep closely connected to the scriptures of the day, hoping that those who are in worship will see that these stories really do have life-giving truth for their lives.

However, I recently re-read a quotation by Walter Brueggemann in Exilic Preaching:

“Our threat . . . is a technological emptiness that is filled by the liturgies of consumerism and commoditizaiton . . . the issue in our own context is whether holy presence can be received, imagined and practiced in ways that counteract that powerful, debilitating ideology. . . I suspect that for exiles, a verbal presence by itself is too thin, which is why the Priestly materials came to dominate the canon. . . Exiles who live ina profaned context have a deep need to ‘touch and handle’ things unseen.” (p. 20)

So, in worship this summer, I am making an intentional effort to include tactile, visible, active ways of engaging the scriptures. I know that newer churches already know this. It will be interesting to see what a traditional mainline congregation makes of such an approach.

What have you done to help people get in touch with the ‘sweetness’ of the word of God?

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Thoughts on the bible and ethics

I have found an image given by Marva Dawn in one of her books (although it is not original to her, I believe) helpful in terms of appropriating biblical material to contemporary contexts.  She suggests using the metaphor of a newly discovered seven-act Shakespearean play. The play is missing Act 6 and part of Act 7.  A troupe of Shakespearean actors is commissioned to put on the whole play, even the parts that are missing.  How would they do that?  They would immerse themselves thoroughly in the writings of Shakespeare until they knew the way in which Shakespeare wrote and developed his plays. Then, each evening, they would improvise the sixth act and the first part of the seventh act.  Each evening, of course, the improvised part would be a bit different; however, it would still be faithful to the spirit of Shakespeare.  So in the Church, we have the first five Acts of God’s dealings with God’s people (The Old and New Testaments).  In Revelation, we have the last scenes of the seventh act.  In each new situation, the Church must improvise the drama that takes place in Act 6 and the first part of Act 7.  We do that by immersing ourselves thoroughly in the scriptures and in the tradition that has been handed on to us.  Then, we improvise, bringing to the improvisation both our characters that have been formed by the materials we have engaged and the contemporary guidance of the Holy Spirit through the community of God’s people.  The improvisation will never be ‘perfect’; however, we dare to enter into it anyway because all that we do and say is taken up and transformed by the grace of God.

Hauerwas’ metaphor of apprenticeship offers a similar approach.  The apprentice learns the craft from the master (the witness of scripture and the tradition) and then must move the craft forward in new situations, not merely repeating what has been taught but extrapolating and being inventive according to the new circumstances.

Obviously, using either of these metaphors to guide contemporary appropriation of biblical materials in contemporary ethical situations requires an immersion in the biblical texts and in the tradition that is largely absent in many of our congregations.  The temptation will be to settle for technical approaches that give people simple principles to apply.  That may be popular.  I am not convinced that it will enable the Church to be the kind of  countercultural community that it needs to be.

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