"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for January 2012

What do you believe?

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Preaching through Mark. 29 January 2012, Mark 4:21-5:20, Epiphany 4
St John the Evangelist Edmonton

We’re here at our fourth instalment of our sermon series through Mark’s gospel, and we’re continuing to learn about Jesus’ authority over all of creation, and that theme continues today capped by a particularly interesting exorcism.

In broad strokes of the brush, today’s reading opens with short parables to explain the parable of the sower which we’ve just read…and to continue on with the theme of explaining the kingdom of God. Then comes the crossing of the lake and the quelling of the storm, and finally the encounter with the Gerasene demoniac. The first striking phrase comes to us in verse 24-25, Jesus said to them, Pay attention: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has more will be given, and from the one who has less, even that will be taken away.

We pray each time we gather with the words of the Lord’s prayer, with this couplet: forgive us our sins; as we forgive those who sin against us. This affirmation reflects a spiritual truth – our ability to receive God’s forgiveness is, to some extent, related directly to our ability to forgive others. A hardened heart that refuses to forgive (not forget, but forgive) is likewise hardened and unable to receive God’s grace. In these short parables Jesus utters a similar couplet of words: with the measure you use; it will be measured to you (and more will be added). This presents a frightening concept for us – Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God, and the statement tells us that we will receive using the same measuring cup that we use to measure out what we give. This is not talking about something as simple as the giving of money, and it is not establishing a simple transactional relationship – if you give a, you will get back a plus more…sounding a bit like a divine Ponzi scheme…is not what is being spoken of. What Jesus is talking about is something much more fundamental for people of faith – the state of our hearts.

How do you measure out love, compassion, empathy, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, self-control, gentleness, time with loved ones? (Gal 5:22) Do you begrudge time taken to serve others? How are the fruits of the Spirit measured out in your life? Like forgiveness, what is being told to us is that what we hold in our hearts when it comes to being Christ-like in the world, is the same measure that God will use to measure back to us…and, while this could be a message of condemnation, Jesus goes on to say, and still more will be added to you…even when we are stingy with our measuring out of ourselves, God blesses us with more than we would give ourselves.

The closing portion of this reading begins with a mysterious trip across the lake. A great storm arises…and even with a reefed mainsail and jib, the boat begins to fill with water, while Jesus sleeps in the stern. This parable is often used as an example of the disciples lack of faith…but it seems they have faith, the problem that concerns them is Jesus’ lack of care – he sleeps while they get ready to drown. Their call to the sleeping Jesus is telling, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Their problem is not a lack of faith, but that it seems to them that Jesus does not care what is happening to them at that moment.

This seems quite profound, for it reminds me of the times in my life when I have not doubted God’s power and authority to act, but wondered precisely why he was not acting in my present distress…or at least not acting in my present distress in a manner and mode that I thought was needed. So I find that I, along with most of us, have gone through times when I have cried to the Lord of heaven and earth…”Teacher, do you not care that I am perishing?” only to have the storm stilled, and God’s presence and concern reinforced again. This setting demonstrates conclusively that Jesus is the Lord of nature. There is also a play on the OT story of Jonah here – while Jonah slept in the boat to avoid his calling, Jesus wakes and demonstrates his calling, including His dominion over the seas and winds. Jonah was the victim of the storm, Jesus is the master of the storm.

You should also be seeing a pattern of the naming of Jesus. Jesus is named by God at his baptism as My Son, My beloved. After that Jesus is only named by one type of person – the demons. Here’s the summary so far: Mark 1:24, a demon, “Holy One of God”; Mark 3:11 unclean spirits, “You are the Son of God”; and just coming in Mark 5:7 a legion of demons, “Son of the Most High God.” There is more than a little irony here, as Jesus had come to defeat the forces of evil, to free the prisoners including those possessed by Satan, and it was those very demons that are the only ones to recognize Jesus. Contrast this with the disciples who, even after seeing Jesus command the storm to be still ask the question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Indeed, who then is this? Perhaps the disciples should ask the demons?

Now we come into the final encounter of our readings today, between Jesus and the man usually called the Gerasene demoniac. Before we talk about that, I need to ask a question about how we receive Scriptures – particularly given the number of times in the past few weeks we’ve been discussing demons and unclean spirits. What do you hear when you hear the account of a demon being cast out? Do you hear a clear accounting of God’s rule over even the powers and principalities of this world, His ability to force even Satan to submit through these Gospel accountings of real encounters? Or do you hear the Gospel through the filter of the culture?

We are immersed in the culture and, although we are to be apart from the world as Christ’s own, we are still shaped by that culture. Paul tells us to take every thought captive, and it is important that we do so when hearing the Scriptures read – so how do you hear this account of a man possessed by a legion of demons? Do you rationally answer the story by saying, I’ve never seen empirical proof of possession, so it is likely that this is metaphor, or a story of some psychiatric illness that was healed through Jesus’ love for the man. Do you hear the story and say, I’ve never personally experienced possession, so while it may be true for them, it is not true for me? Do you hear the story and say, Mark was writing this to claim God’s power over the Gentiles through a display of great power…and whether it is true or not does not matter? Each one of those reactions is very influenced by culture – or do you respond through a Christian world-view, that thanks God for his authority over all of creation, including Satan and his apostate angels? I will leave that question hanging, as taking every thought captive also means understanding how we react to God’s holy word when read to us…is our first response disbelief? Revulsion? Love? Fear and awe? Faith? It is an important aspect of self-awareness as a person of faith. As Paul tells us, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” 2 Cor 10:3-5 Our warfare is not of the flesh, but divine power to destroy strongholds, which is exactly what Jesus does upon landing on this shore.

What I just reviewed were three cultural perspectives on Scripture that were roughly Enlightenment (pre-modern); modern; and post-modern in interpretation. It is important to understand how we receive Scripture…and to think about your first response when you hear about a demon being cast out.

The first think to realize it that this is another commentary on the barrier-breaking of Jesus when it comes to the Jewish purity laws: this is a Gentile area, in the area of the tombs, and he encounters a man possessed with an unclean spirit who lives with the dead people next to a herd of pigs, an unclean animal. Gentile, tomb, dead people, unclean spirits and swine…this chap is wholly unclean and impure. Incredibly, the man no-one and no-thing could control because of his wildness and supernatural strength, runs to Jesus and falls down before him. He recognizes Jesus, screaming out his name as the “Son of the Most High God” and begs that he not torment the unclean spirits who name themselves as ‘legion for we are many’ (a Roman legion was between 5 and 6 thousand people). The legion beg Jesus to not send them out of that geographic locale, so instead he gives them permission to enter a herd of 2,000 pigs, which rush into the sea and drown.

On commentator on this passage notes that the modern mind jumps first to the economic question about the cost of 2,000 pigs, and quickly to the question of cruelty to animals. The passage is about neither, and I’ll note Jesus does not command the pigs to die, this is the result of the entry of the demons, reflecting the self-destructive tendencies that the man earlier displayed. That same commentator notes that perhaps focusing on the reduction in the size of carbon footprint is a safer focus (aside from the 2,000 pig corpses now floating in the lake, releasing their sequestered carbon, that is).

Unclean spirits into unclean animals – it seems quite neat…except of course to the swineherds, who run away and tell people what happened, and everyone comes to see. The suggestion here is that what has transpired is not just the deliverance of one man, but the deliverance of the geographic area as well – and the destruction of the unclean spirits in the unclean animals, a symbol of Gentile impurity, underlines Jesus’ authority in this Gentile land. It is also interesting to consider the impact of this healing on the residents of the land, who, we can imagine, had great difficulty burying their dead…can you imagine the procession to the tombs when that place was occupied by a wild, possessed man who ran around day and night crying out and cutting himself with stones? With his healing, the locals could now return to proper burial of the dead, which further underlines the redemption of the land, and not just the one man.

What do they see when they arrive? Jesus sitting down with the previously crazed, possessed man that no one could control, not even with chains and shackles. No one could control him, but Jesus is not no-one, but rather the Son of the Most High God, and so he has again brought healing, purity, a restoration of right relationship to those who were prisoners. What happens next is telling.

Once the people find out what had happened, they are afraid – this is the same type of fear the disciples experienced after the calming of the storm, and the word would be more precisely translated as ‘reverential awe’. The mighty works of God, done in the midst of the people, leads to awe. But they react differently: the people of this land immediately begin to beg Jesus to depart from their region, while the healed man begs to be with Jesus. In both cases, the response is fearful awe, but it leads to different outcomes…some move from fear into faith; while others move from fear to offence and rejection of God. This encounter has always perplexed me, that so many people could see such greatness, and yet turn away, and yet this is consistent with human response.

We hear this same sort of situation in the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). As the rich man suffers in Hell, he looks up to see Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham. After some discussion he asks God to please allow Lazarus to go back and to warn his five brothers. Abraham’s answer: ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ How true – and the reason the world isn’t 100% Christian…in spite of someone returning from the dead.

We saw this last week as Don talked about the parable of the sower, and our God who extravagantly scatters seed everywhere, while knowing it will not bring forth fruit. Don made the point that 75% of the seed of God’s word that is spread does not bear fruit. We see the same thing happening here. God’s kingdom is made manifest in the healing of a man that no one had the strength to subdue, now sitting drinking tea with Jesus. Yet most of the witnesses beg God to leave, the Word of God has not found fertile soil. This encounter highlights for us the dilemma of every person who has not come to a saving dependence upon Jesus Christ. Our culture presents the choice thus: total freedom to live into your own will; or to be a slave to Christ, unhappy and dour. What we see through this encounter between Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac is the true choice that God presents us: to be bound to Satan and the world, or to be truly free through submission to Christ. Are you free in Christ, or bound by the chains and shackles of this world?

The question before us today, is what do you believe? Listen to what Paul proclaims as that belief, in Ephesians 2: “1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Like the Gerasene demoniac, we too have been saved by the grace of God, not because of our doing, but because God seeks to give us that gift. Amen.

…and next week Jesus’ authority is shown to include even the bounds of death.

And a bit I didn’t end up using:
Second set of interest today are some teachings about the kingdom of God – we’re told first that the kingdom of God is like scattering seed on the ground. We go about our lives unaware of the action of the seeds scattered, which grow all on their own until the harvest. This is reinforcing the image Don discussed last week, God as the extravagant sower, scattering seed everywhere, even while 75% of it does not provide a fruitful harvest. The seed is sown everywhere – that is into every human condition and into every place and time. Jesus speaks here of the Kingdom being catholic – that is, universal, and present every-where and in every-time. He next describes the kingdom as like a mustard seed, tiny when sown, but becomes a large tree that the birds will use to make a home. The Kingdom is at once mysterious and elusive, and at the same time ever-present, and all-powerful. There are answers to our questions in these parables – Jesus offers us the assurance that the Kingdom of God is immanent, in spite of our joy or sorrow, the Kingdom continues to grow all around us and within us. While it may have begun hidden (under a basket) or small (like a mustard seed) it proceeds with an irresistible force to its culmination, the coming harvest.

This seed theme is one that is central to the Gospel – for like a seed, it is only through dying does Jesus rise and defeat death. The power of the least of all to save everything is a common one in our literature, as would be expected for such a central theme in our faith. Think about the Hobbits in Tolkien – the least of all the people of Middle Earth, and yet the ones who save it all, including the great kings. Think about Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – certainly the king returns in the end to awaken the sleeping princess, but it was only through the bravery of the dwarves that there was anyone there to kiss. The Kingdom, Jesus tells us, is unexpected, but scattered all around us and growing in ways we cannot even begin to imagine, pushing forward to the inevitable harvest time.


Written by sameo416

January 29, 2012 at 11:16 pm

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Preaching Through Mark 2 to 3:6

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Preaching through Mark. 15 January 2012, Mark 2-3:6, Epiphany 2
St John the Evangelist Edmonton

Pray. We’re here at our second instalment of our sermon series through Mark’s gospel. As Don described last week, Mark’s presentation is terse, immediate, and there is urgency in the text that we hear loudly again this week. By the end of our readings today, just at the start of the third chapter, the plotting to kill Jesus has already begun.

These first two chapters of Mark are set out to establish the clear authority of the Son of Man over the kingdom of God, a task that involved a serious stripping away of the formal structures of the religious establishment of that day. In this big picture, the text Don dealt with last week set out Jesus’ authority over the demonic and physical illness, through a multitude of healings and exorcisms. This week’s text continues with the healings but adds additional proclamations of Christ’s authority – over sin, the Law (with a capital ‘L’, the Torah of God) and over the Sabbath and all ritual observances. The terseness of Mark’s text makes this authority clear – you almost have the image of a prize fighter laying an effective combination of punches against an opponent, that ends with the opponent (the Pharisees) realizing there is no way to win in a fair fight.

We need to set the stage by speaking a bit about Israel’s understanding of holiness, disease and impurity. For the Pharisees, the presence of physical disease was an indication of some kind of sin. This thought had been around for a while – you can see this in Job’s story, as his friends insist that he must have sinned or God would not be bringing such misfortune upon him. For a Pharisee, ‘There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity’ (Talmud Shabbat 55a-b). Think of the question that Jesus is asked prior to the healing of a blind man in John’s gospel: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) Disability was linked to sin – you’re that way because God is punishing you.

There was also an immense set of regulation build up around the cult of Israel that was concerned with the maintenance of ritual purity, developed through tradition to provide very specific rules about how one had to act in order to remain holy. The impact of the laws was that anyone who had a visible disability would be marginalized to some extent – In Leviticus 21, we hear a series of rules about the physical perfection required in priests “18 no man who has a physical flaw is to approach: a blind man, or one who is lame, or one with a slit nose, or a limb too long, 19 or a man who has had a broken leg or arm, 20 or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or one with a spot in his eye, or a festering eruption, or a feverish rash or a crushed testicle. … 23 he must not … step forward to the altar because he has a physical flaw.” (trans after Hentrich) This comes through clearly in the last healing account Don told us of last week – the leper does not ask Jesus to be healed, but rather to be made clean…that is to not only have the disease removed, but to be restored to right relationship within the community, to end the time as an outcast, to be able to return to the Temple. This making of boundaries between the pure (and we can read pure as safe, chosen, set apart) and the impure (and we can read impure as unsafe, unknown, dangerous) figures heavily into Israel’s sense of self. It is important that we understand that this is another important dynamic running through these encounters between Jesus and the world – for he has come to bring the Kingdom which means that the barriers of the old world and the old way were over. Just as the veil in the temple would ultimately be split apart, the rule-based old religion would no longer be allowed to determine who were truly of God, and who were excluded.

The fear of ritual defilement informs all aspects of your life, and so you seek to avoid anything that casts doubt on your personal purity – the priest and the Levite walk past the injured man in the Good Samaritan because the ritual purity laws preclude them from touching a bloodied and maybe dead person. In fact, the one who helps, the Samaritan, was himself considered unclean. The big problem with impurity, is that it is catching – so if I’m ritually impure, and touch a water glass, which you then pick up, my impurity has rendered the glass impure, and you touching it has rendered you impure. This is the reason why, when you read through Leviticus, there are all these very involved instructions about touching, and how clothing and dishes are to be purified.

Into this mess of rules and an almost paranoid level of concern over personal purity, Jesus comes and declares one underlying message of the Kingdom – there are no longer any barriers between pure and impure, for everything is consecrated into God’s service, including the deformed and diseased.

Our text starts with the healing of a paralyzed man, lowered through the roof by four friends. When the scribes, the teachers of the Law, hear Jesus declare forgiveness, they pass judgement – Jesus has blasphemed as only God can forgive. The punishment for blasphemy was death, so Jesus enters this chapter already guilty of a crime punishable by death. Jesus then goes further – as the forgiveness of sins did not have an outward sign he says, pick up your mat and walk. The hidden significance is that the paralytic, who would have been seen to be under God’s punishment, is healed confirm the forgiveness of his sin. Jesus declares himself Lord over sin and disease.

In our next encounter we have the calling of Levi, a tax collector followed by a dinner at Levi’s house along with all of his tax collector and sinner friends. Not only has Jesus called someone from the margins to his inner circle, but he openly has dinner with them. This is a direct assault on the rules of ritual purity that dealt with the act of eating and being close to others. If you could not guarantee the purity status of everyone in the house, you yourself were placed at risk, because of all the touching that could go on…and you don’t know where all those people have been. You can see how this set of rules would overlay any involvement with people you did not know well, for if you were rendered impure this would exclude you from community, the temple, worship and require that you purchase and make a sin offering in order to regain purity. Jesus declares his Lordship over the body of purity regulations.

He is also challenged as to why he and his disciples do not follow the fasting rules, and His answer is that while he is present it is the time to party, for there will be plenty of time to mourn and fast afterwards. Jesus declares his Lordship over the body of holiness regulations.

Our next encounter is on a walk through some cornfields on the Sabbath, and his disciples pluck the grain and eat. There was an equally oppressive set of rules concerning work on the Sabbath and limited anything that could be done on that day of rest. I’ve mentioned before the ‘sabbath mode’ on some ovens – it is forbidden on the Sabbath to press buttons or to adjust temperature, so the practice was to turn on your oven before the Sabbath and just leave it on…and that Sabbath mode suppresses the auto-off feature on most modern ovens. Even that mode won’t help you according to rabbinic teaching: “In our opinion, use of “Sabbath Mode” to change the temperature of an oven on Yom Tov represents an assault on the sanctity of Shabbos and festival days and will lead to deterioration in their observance.” Legalism to make your eyes water – which Jesus, like the temple veil, rips apart.

The disciples commit a number of Sabbath offenses – they are travelling, they harvest grain and presumably separate the grain kernels from the chaff. The Pharisees ask Jesus why he is not enforcing the proper observation of the Sabbath, and he says three things in reply:
– King David fed his companions the sacred bread reserved only for the priests, so when you are in need of food the rules don’t apply.
– The Law was made to help you, not hinder you. You should not be serving the Law, it was meant to serve you.
– The Son of Man (that is God’s son) is Lord of the Sabbath.
If your job as a religious leader was to develop and enforce the rules, this would form a bit of a challenge to that role. So Jesus declares himself on par with King David, the master of the Law and Lord of the Sabbath. Here the religious authorities had taken a rule intended to help, ‘on the Sabbath day do no work,’ and turned it into an oppressive bureaucracy that controlled what people could do, and required a body of officials to enforce the Law and to judge transgressions (and to demand sacrifice to restore purity, which would be purchased through the temple system). /// Sounds a little like photo radar, doesn’t it?

The climax of this passage comes with the healing of the man with the withered hand. Jesus has been all over, and the final healing culminates with a reclaiming of the centre of worship and teaching in the Jewish community, the Synagogue, and the literal power centre of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law.

The encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees sets up the focus of the Kingdom contrasted with the focus of the religious authority. Jesus asks a question – is it lawful to do good or harm, to save life or to kill on the Sabbath? There were well-known exceptions to the work regulations on the Sabbath, for example that a farmer could pull a lamb out of a pit if the lamb was in danger of dying. Jesus calls the disabled man to stretch out his withered hand, that is to display what he would have been ashamed to display in the community, and as the man acts the hand is healed. Jesus heals, makes him clean, removes his sin and restores him to right relation with the community – in short Jesus does good and restores life on the Sabbath. The response of the religious establishment? They immediately go out to conspire on how to destroy Jesus. That is, they go out on the Sabbath to bring about harm and death, the exact opposite of that just proclaimed by Jesus. Jesus is Lord of the synagogue, and the Lord of life and good. In the final nail in the coffin of the purity regulations, look at what has been happening: Leviticus says that anyone with a deformity is prohibited from bringing an offering to God, for fear of polluting the house of God with their impurity. In the first two chapters of Mark, a whole series of deformed, disabled and diseased along with tax collectors and sinners have been invited to come and touch and be near God incarnate – Jesus. God invites those most in need of God – those the religious establishment have branded as impure – to dine with God. A complete and utter reversal. (from you can not approach God; all who seek the Lord are welcome)

Mark quickly takes us through a further series of encounters that place in our mind the complete Lordship of Jesus: Lord over sins; Lord over illness; Lord over the purity and holiness regulations; Lord over Torah, the Law; Lord of the Sabbath; Lord of David; Lord of all places including the synagogue; and the Lord of life and good. After this complete authority has been established, we’re left with the beginning of the end, and the plot to murder the Son of God. What has been placed in stark relief for us is the complete revision of a system in which holiness could only be obtained through literal and flawless fulfilment of the Law (an impossible task for we humans) – into a system where holiness can always be obtained through He who is Lord of all the Law, Jesus. Those with a lack of grace, shown through physical disability or isolation from the community are infused with an abundance of grace in the person of Jesus. Sinners, all of us, have complete forgiveness available for the asking. No longer do His people – that is all of us – need to be bound into oppressive and power-centred structures to determine who would be able to call themselves worthy, because Christ’s Lordship makes us all worthy, and all we have to do is ask. Thank God for that. Amen.

Written by sameo416

January 25, 2012 at 4:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

My Identity in Christ?

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Identity in Christ – Men’s Epiphany Dinner, January 7, 2012

This is perhaps the central question in any person’s life – who am I? For men, in particular, that question carries some particular burdens, just as our sisters in Christ carry particular burdens as a result of their womanhood. So I want to talk about the radical redefinition of self that comes through faith, beginning with a bit about my own search for identity. Rather than reading one bit of Scripture up front I’ll include it throughout, beginning with Galatians 3:23-29:

“Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

This is really the primary answer to the question “who am I?” for the Christian. If you are Christ’s, there is no longer any title or role in the secular world that fundamentally defines your essence – none. Paul’s talk about the Law applies to us directly as well – in a slightly different meaning of the word for us, law can mean the rules of the secular culture, the law that puts more worth on a man based on his earning potential, or the size of his truck. Paul makes this explicit in his words in the third chapter of Philippians:

“Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: (the titles game) circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish (Skubalon: any refuse, as the excrement of animals, dregs of things worthless and detestable), in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.”

Paul is explicit here that all he has done of his own merit is like animal turds, and he strives for only one thing – faith in Christ, for on that all eternity turns.

I’ve been spending some time reviewing family history, including researching the military histories of several of my great uncles. It strikes me reading those accounts, including the three who won medals for bravery in the first and second world wars, that the image of a man in 1910-1950 could be summed up in a few words: courage, strength, stability, bravery. I wonder what words our ancestors might use to describe our time when it comes to manhood? My own indoctrination into manhood was a bit dysfunctional, as with everyone, my parent’s marriage ended after about 6 or 10 years of infidelity. My mom’s dad, Al, was perhaps the only image of a traditional male I had to hang onto. Al was the proverbial self-made man, with a grade 6 education who retired as foreman of a chemical plant and then travelled as a consultant for the corporation. As a teenager he rode the rails during the Great Depression, and was still hunting moose alone in northern BC when he was 73. When I look at myself, and my own values, I’m realizing how much of who I am results from Al’s place in my life. The lesson for we men is never to under estimate the impact we will have not only on our own children, but on our grand and even great-grand children.

Now Al’s fierce independence and ability to do almost anything, I sought to mimic by seeking titles and qualifications. I couldn’t ride the rails, or leave school at grade 6, as these were things of a different time, Al’s time. So to define my identity I seized on the things of this world – university degrees and the military. I did a good job with titles, and I can do a pretty good job playing the “who has the most titles” game – I could go a few rounds with even St Paul. Al was a great role model, by he was not me, and I needed to find my own identity. If you’ve followed that path on your own, you perhaps recognized, as I did, that with each new laurel you felt better for a bit, but then realized that it really didn’t fill the hole inside – just as any earthly pursuit, material goods, sexual conquests, the best children on the hockey team, all ultimately leave us empty and seeking something bigger in order to convince ourselves that we have worth.

Ultimately, when constrained to the secular world to answer that question, ‘who am I’, the only thing we can do is continue to pile on secular signs of self-worth in an endless and unfruitful attempt to convince ourselves that our identity is safe and strong in what we have – versus who we are. In Alberta I see that so clearly in the number of big pick-up trucks that have an add-on set of testicles hanging from the trailer hitch. If you have a set on your truck, I apologize in advance, but this seems like such a clear example of what I’m talking about – finding the answer to that question, ‘who am I?’ in the secular world. That Alberta answer seems to be, “I’m not quite sure who I am, but I know I’ve got bigger ones than you!” (as a side note, I have a very strong and ultimately self-destructive urge to carry a spray can of pink paint around with me, and to paint each pair of those add-on testes I see…I’ll admit that it’s not self-preservation that stops me, but a strong bias against damaging other’s property). Indeed, much of that self-definition in Alberta is tied up in the signs of a very affluent economy – large homes, lots of toys, big trucks…which is all fine, as long as it is not used as the source of the answer to that question, “who am I?” The problem, of course, is that when one ties identity to the physical things…like the size of the Cummings diesel in your pickup, you will always run into someone who has a bigger engine than you. Identity tied to the physical always puts us on an endless treadmill of acquisition least we be left behind and lose our identity.

Paul addresses this clearly as a repeated theme, here from Romans:

“But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Look at the test for salvation – and it is so simple, “do you believe?” If the answer is yes, you “will not be put to shame” for you will be justified in Christ. That path, the path of Christ, avoids all of the struggles of secular self-worth, by replacing it with only one thing, faith. I want to emphasize here that it is not degree of faith that Paul talks about…like, if you have at least faith equal to 5/10 on the faith-Richter scale you will be saved, but anyone who believes with the heart and confesses with the mouth is saved. So this faith of ours not only pushes aside all of the merits of the secular world, but also pushes aside any attempt we have to assign merit within the faith. Do you believe? Then I welcome you as a brother in Christ, my equal before the Lord, regardless of what the world might think of you.

In fact, even the lists of spiritual gifts are not so much about who is better on the scale, in 1st Corinthians 12: “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…” the structure of gifts is outlined as a part of a diverse body, where every part is indispensable. If you don’t believe that, consider what happens to a city when the sanitation workers go on strike…do you recall the photos from Toronto when that happened a few years ago? Hockey rinks piled high with garbage, an epidemic of rats…etc. All of the high-priced help on Bay Street could do nothing to solve the garbage problem. All parts of the body have equal value before Christ.

I see this so very clearly in my day job – I sit as a commissioner to hear appeals from people unhappy with decisions of the workers’ compensation board. You may not know that I’m a disabled person – one of the ‘hidden’ disabled as it doesn’t really show unless you catch me on a particularly bad day. In hearing appeals I see people who answer the question ‘who am I?’ by saying ‘I am disabled’ ‘I am oppressed’ ‘My life is ended’. This is not joy, this is not abundant life. This is not what Christ has promised us.

This is something that is radically different about Christianity, and I will be the first to admit that as soon as we organize groups into churches, our human nature seeks to assert itself and to make it all about us. There is plenty of careerism among clergy, and lots of self-definition based on possessions in church communities…although we often change this to the language of ‘blessings’ – see how God has blessed me! (with the implicit message, ‘nah-nah-nah, better than you!’). That the church as an organization often fails due to human weakness does not tell us anything about our faith…except to perhaps confirm that we need God more than ever!

We gather as brothers because we need each other: from a brother who has survived cancer, we learn what it is to survive cancer; from the father of a daughter we learn what it is to raise a girl; from a brother who is dying, we learn what it is to die; from a man who has lost a parent, we learn what it is to be orphans; from a brother who has lost a child, we learn how to live through grief. We need each other, and gather in imperfect communities of faith, and share in imperfect journeys of faith, and be imperfect friends, not because we will make our community perfect, but because in Christ, we have no need to because he has made us, and our imperfect offerings, worthy and blessed by His blood.

Let me restate the message by linking together Paul’s words from Ephesians, Colossians and Romans (Colossians 3:9-11, Ephesians 4:20-24, Romans 3:21-25):

“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. [Do not fall into the ways of the world], as that is not the way you learned Christ! As the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

Our true worth as men, is established because we are justified by faith in Christ, and that is it, full stop. Who am I? A beloved son of the Father, bought by blood, and adopted into the family of Christ, endlessly worthy, totally loved, and completely set apart by faith and God’s grace. Beyond that, what else do we need? Amen. 

Written by sameo416

January 8, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Calgary Anglican Parish Journeys to Rome

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This very interesting press release was pointed out to me by my dear friend and Rector:

“Joint Press Release of the Anglican and Roman Catholic Dioceses of Calgary, December 16, 2011

First Roman Catholic Anglican Use Parish in Canada

The Most Reverend Fred Henry Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary and the Rt. Rev. Derek Hoskin Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Calgary announce with thanksgiving to Almighty God the birth of a new “Anglican Use” congregation within the City of Calgary.

At a special service on December 18, 2011 a group of people who have been worshipping in the Anglican Way in the Church of St. John the Evangelist under the guidance of the Rev. Fr. Lee Kenyon and the Rev. Fr. John Wright will be received into the Roman Catholic Church and eventually be constituted as a Roman Catholic Anglican Use Congregation. This transition has been assisted by the good ecumenical relationship which exists between the two Dioceses.

Bishop Hoskin has given permission for the Rev. Fr. Michael Storey, the Roman Catholic Chaplain assigned to the new congregation, to use the Anglican Church of St. John the Evangelist for Christmas Services in order that the new Roman Catholic congregation will be able to celebrate our Saviour’s birth in familiar surroundings. Arrangements for the new congregation to use the Anglican church buildings in 2012 are being made.”

The rest of the release is at http://www.calgary.anglican.ca.

I’m certainly happy for this parish, and understand why they are making this move (even in a rather orthodox diocese, all things considered). My worship place is in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, and it is hard for me to read that story without feeling some yearning…the call to come home to a unified church (although I’m not sure that Rome is necessarily that place). Nevertheless, I rejoice with my brothers and sisters in Christ who are making this move.

It did cause me some reflection on how a similar circumstance played out in New Westminster last year…four parishes at odds with their bishop, M. Ingham, ended up in court arguing over who owned the property and buildings. The four parishes lost (which was not a surprise), and have relocated to new quarters (I believe). I’ve commented before that the New West situation is one that was in need of some Christian behavior and thought, from both sides:

– For the four parishes, for bringing the dispute to the secular courts (see 1 Corinthians 6:1-7, “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated…”)
– For the bishop, for making the right sort of noises, but doing nothing to actually honour the will of those four communities. There was acrimony here, for sure, but our bishops are (if not the guardians of faith) are at least supposed to be the grown-up ones in such debates, and the ones we can always count on to manifest Christ to us, even when we can’t. (A high standard, you might argue, but if a bishop is not so called, I really wonder if they should be a bishop.)

The whole New West thing could have been resolved by Ingham stating, “I disagree, but go with God’s blessing and the continued use of those church buildings, and I will pray for reconciliation.”

Now in Calgary, the parish decided to leave for Rome. The Anglican Diocese has negotiated a lease with the community to allow them to use the same building for 5 years, after which there will be a purchase option. This is marked out in a joint press release from both the Catholic and Anglican dioceses.

I can imagine that the Bishop of Calgary was not happy to say farwell, but there must be some cause for joy that the community will continue to worship together. Rather than burning bridges behind the departing community, Calgary’s option preserves relationship (while perhaps negating some problems for the Anglican diocese).

Does New West really have any use for four (almost) empty parish buildings? I’ve seen their numbers, and I’m not thinking that four dynamic Spirit-filled church plants will replace the very active communities that are now leaving their buildings. So the diocese now has property (which I expect will be shortly sold, or allowed to exist in some kind of palliative state before being sold). How, we must ask, has the kingdom been built up in New West? How has it been built up in Calgary?

Of course, God brings blessing even out of our faithlessness, and perhaps the loss of property is exactly what those four parishes need to bring them back to a solitary focus on the Kingdom of God.

Written by sameo416

January 8, 2012 at 9:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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