On “Faith Over Fear.”

“Faith over Fear.”

These are words that I have heard a lot in the last year or so.  I spend most of my life in and around people of Christian faith.  By and large they are generous, faithful, caring, hopeful, and loving people to the very best of their abilities.  

During the pandemic, Christian communities have taken different approaches in terms of responding to the best advice of epidemiologists on how to deal most effectively with COVID-19.  Where I live, in Florida, our Statewide stay at home orders in March and April 2020 were never applied to churches or other religious groups.  We were free to meet if we wanted. Of course, in those earliest days most, but not all, churches did cease to gather for worship. However, since then different churches have taken different approaches to bringing their people back on to campuses to gatherings.

Many churches, including my own, have continued to adhere to the advice coming out of expert bodies such as the CDC.  Many other churches have chosen to go a different way and open up their gatherings at a much faster rate than what the CDC would have recommended.  These latter groups tend to be the ones who have used the phrase “Faith Over Fear.” 

Now let me say up front regarding this three word phrase – I get it. I do. The Scriptures are filled with stories in which God invites ordinary human beings to place their trust in God; to put their faith in God and trust that by God’s grace and power they will come through a testing time.  Noah, Moses and the Israelites, and Daniel – to name just a few.  In my own life, I, too, have known times in which I was invited to place my faith and trust in God to bring me through testing times. Scripture also uses the phrase “do not fear” (or phrases like it) approximately 120 times – it is a big theme throughout the bible!

So, I get it. Christians are invited to let go of fear in their lives and walk as fully as possible in faith.

Amen to that!

But inasmuch as there is great truth contained in these three words, there is also some serious difficulty with using them the way they are being employed by many in the context of the global COVID 19 pandemic.

First, while the encouragement to live by faith instead of living in fear is a central part of the Christian faith, it rarely, if ever, invites us to disregard helps or solutions to a problem that are right there in front of us.  For example, I am sure all readers of this blog entry will have heard a sermon illustration about the guy sitting on top of his house after some serious flooding had impacted his community.  He was waiting up there to be rescued and he had faith that God would perform this rescue.  The search party pulled up to his house on their boat and told him to jump aboard.  He didn’t because he believed God was coming to rescue him.  Then a search helicopter flew overhead and winched down a helper for the man, but still he refused, saying that God was going to rescue him from this predicament.  The man was ignoring the very means by which God’s rescue was going to take place.  He had faith over fear, but he had also been completely blinded by it, to the point that he could not see the help that was right there in front of him.

The second, and perhaps most harmful difficulty with this phrase is that it has been weaponized by many who are using it. I have been in the room and heard people say that they believe that more cautious approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic have been based on fear and not faith.  Of course, this could not be further from the truth. My own local church has taken such a cautious approach. Our response has been consistent, and based primarily on the desire to do no harm, to love our neighbors, and to serve our community.  When expert voices state that the best help we can be to our community in times like this is to wash our hands, wear our masks, and avoid crowds, we are going to do our best to adhere to that advice, and even though we don’t like it we are going to choose it for the good of our community and the vulnerable within it, and we are going to do our best to remember that relatively speaking we really have not been asked to sacrifice that much.  

Using the language of faith over fear in this weaponized way is a means of speaking down to the other.  It is a way of accusing another of giving in to fear and of not having faith. I reject this.  And I recognize instead that those who are willing to act in ways that are protective of their neighbors and community are those who are acting not out of fear, but instead out of a great love that is willing to make small sacrifices for the good of the whole.  They are actually placing their faith in God: the God who calls God’s people to embody love for one another.  Fear has literally nothing to do with it.

My third issue with the use of this phrase has been the way it centers entirely on the individual.  Often, the folks I hear saying “Faith over Fear” are the some of the same folks that tell me they have had the virus and have come through it.  They wonder what all the fuss is about; why things are not returning to normal faster. 

While I don’t doubt that these experiences are true, and while I am thankful that COVID did not harm these folks any more than it did, I have a deep frustration with those who seem to diminish the experiences of others, or deem them not as important as their own. I get frustrated by the unwillingness of these same people to remain vigilant on behalf of others. This individualistic, “I’m alright Jack!” approach to faith is anathema to the call of God as it is found consistently in Scripture: the call to willingly and sacrificially love and serve one another. The Law and the Prophets state this often. Jesus himself said that in order to become great in the Kingdom of God we must be come servants of one another (Matthew 20:26, Mark 10:43, Luke 22:26.)

Make no mistake, I get the phrase and I understand entirely that it is most often used very innocently. But as happens so often with clichés, it is being used without much thought. I really do love this phrase, but I do not love how it has been used and is being used by many these days because it unmasks an underlying individuality and an unwillingness to make small sacrifices on behalf of the vulnerable.  

So please, dear reader, please be careful how you use these three little words in the days ahead.  Before using them, ask yourself what it is that you are really trying to say. If you are using them as an expression of frustration or accusation then maybe they would be better left unsaid.

If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen (6:60-71)

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“This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

On the back of Jesus’ ‘bread of life/eat my flesh, drink my blood’ statements some of his followers were having difficulty with what had been said. For you and me, reading this text 2000 years later away from the context of first century ancient middle eastern religious norms, that difficulty might be a literal difficulty in understanding. But that is not the case here. The conversation in the previous verses took place in the synagogue. jesus was talking with people who would have been well able to understand exactly what he was saying. No this was not hard in the sense that reading the works of Chaucer or doing calculus can be hard, this teaching was hard because it was demanding and it was taking them out of their comfort zones. Religious people (yes – that includes you and me) are generally very similar in this regard in that we have comfort zones of established belief and teaching that we have become happy with in our lives. When someone comes along and begins to say or teach something different; something which might stretch us or our established religion in a new direction we have a tendency to be extremely uncomfortable with it. It is difficult teaching. For example when mainline churches began to ordain women to ministry it was (and somehow remains to be) considered difficult teaching – so difficult that some folks left churches. It was hard teaching pulling them in a direction they felt they could not go in.

Remember Jesus is saying that he is the one chosen and sent of God. Jesus is saying that he is the Word made flesh. The folks listening to him were ready for another Moses, they were even ready for a kingly leader who might lead them in a political charge, but a carpenter’s son from Nazareth as the Messiah of God? That was a stretch too far for some of them. Jesus tries again to explain to them what is going on. The leader they are looking for – an earthly, worldly, political, kingly leader – is not the leader that’s coming because this work of God is a work of the Spirit. It is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh gives nothing. As he will say in a few chapters time, Jesus has come from God to bring life in all its fullness. The words that he has been speaking are words full of the Spirit and life.

Jesus’ words were too much for some. They walked away and no longer followed him choosing instead to go back to the comfort zones of their familiar old story. Having witnessed Jesus’ signs, and having heard his teaching some people walked away deciding that it was just too much for them. In response to this Jesus turned to his other disciples and asked them if they wanted to walk away too. It was Peter who spoke up on their behalf (as he so often did) and said:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the holy one of God.”

I think that these are some of the most powerful words that any of the disciples speak in the entirety of the gospels. They are a declaration of understanding and complete commitment. In uttering these words, Peter is saying that he and the other disciples get it. They know that Jesus is who he says he is. They have intellectually assented – agreed that Jesus is the Messiah, AND they are saying that they are ‘all in’ because believing that Jesus is the Messiah leaves them no other option but to be all in – “Where else can we go?

I hope that, if nothing else, these opening 6 chapters of John’s gospel have made you think again about who Jesus is and just what it means for him to be the Word made flesh. Perhaps some of the significance of Jesus’ identity has been lost on us as we have become used to the story we grew up hearing, and have allowed it to become nothing more than a familiar fable that teaches a good moral. Perhaps the good news of the Word becoming flesh has lost some of it’s potency in our lives. If that is the case then we need to stop here for a moment.

Stop.

Stop for a moment, close your eyes and focus your thoughts on Jesus.
Think intentionally about all that we have been learning about in these opening 6 chapters:

Jesus is not merely a carpenter’s son.
Jesus is not just another good moral teacher.
Jesus is not a preacher telling the same old story.

Jesus is the Word of God
Jesus is the light in the darkness.
Jesus is the Chosen One of God
Jesus is the Messiah sent by God to reconcile all things to God.

Jesus is here to announce and enact the rule of God over all the earth.
Jesus is here to announce again and enact the very heart of God for God’s people – that we would walk in new life.

New life.

Jesus is calling all people, including you and me, to follow him in this world; to join Him in being light in the darkness; to live distinctively and differently, modeling the kingdom of God.

If you and I have lost that vision of Jesus; if we have become stale and allowed Jesus to become just another character in a moral story that we like, then we need to stop and ask Jesus to do a work in us so that we can join in with Peter and say:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the holy one of God.”

Either the teaching and demands of Jesus are too much for us and we walk away, or the teaching and demands of Jesus are the only place that we can come to, and we must surrender to him as the Word made flesh and go ‘all in.’

There is no in between.

Which way will we go?

Privilege and Prayer

Two weeks ago I was contacted by a member of a local church.  She had been asked by her pastor to call around several churches and pastors to see if they would have an interest in coming together to have a time of prayer.  The pastor had been led to initiate this in the wake of another fatal shooting in our local town, which had happened just a few weeks before. The plan was to have a planning and information meeting the next day and then bring folks together 10 days later for a prayer walk through the area where the shooting took place to the local park and then have a small gathering for more prayer there.  This is the kind of unity I love to work in and so I readily agreed to attend the meeting and the gathering.

When I got to the meeting it became very clear to me, very quickly that I was the only caucasian in the room.  I knew that the church which had contacted me initially was indeed an African-American church.  I also knew that the area of town we had been invited to walk through was an area predominantly populated by the African American community.  I had no problem with this whatsoever, in fact, as I have mentioned above, this is the kind of unity that I love to work in – the unity that brings people across the divides that have historically been created.  So we planned and we discussed and everyone had their say.  Then we agreed upon when and where we would meet.

The gathering took place just last Saturday.  I met with my new friends and we walked the 1.6 miles from the scene of the shooting to the park.  The walk took place in silence as everyone brought their own prayers and intercessions before God; praying for the community, for the homes, for the individuals we walked past; for the groups that were gathered in the various places we walked past.  I was walking through an area of town that I have not been in during the two years that i have lived here.  In contrast to the cosmetically pristine places where i live and work, I was walking past condemned buildings, houses that were in disrepair, yet still were lived in, pieces of land that were littered with trash and broken glass.  All the way along, I was aware that this was a new place for me; a place which my privileged life does not normally take me to.

When we got to the park we gathered under the gazebo there.  The plan which had been agreed was to let every pastor who was there pray for around 3 minutes.  This would not be a problem for me – I know how to pray and I knew what I wanted to pray about.  There was no order.  We were just going to get up and gather as we were called upon.  The pastor who had had the vision for the whole event was the first to take the microphone.  As she began to speak, I started to understand that what we were being asked to do was to say a few words and then lead people in prayer.  As she began to speak and pray, I began to recognize that familiar style, which the African-American Christian tradition is famous for – the passionate and zealous proclamation of Scripture, the literal crying out to God for something to give, and for things to change, the deep breath taken before each phrase is spoken. The gathered group were active in encouraging the speakers with their cries of “Amen!,” the loud noises of affirmation and agreement, and their continuous claps of applause and loud cheers of solidarity with what was being spoken.  There was life and vitality and hunger and even a sense of desperation in both the speaking/praying and the actions of the listeners.  It is a style which is completely foreign to me and yet also completely attractive to me; a style which causes a sort of spiritual envy within me: why can’t I preach and pray like this?

My turn came. I was the third one to take the microphone.

“My name is Charlie.  I am a pastor of a Methodist Church here in town, and I guess i am the only Irish guy here today…”

They laughed with me in appreciation of the way I had pointed out the very obvious difference between the rest of the group and myself.  I spoke for a few minutes and then led the people in prayer.  By contrast to what had already been said and done, my prayers were timid in volume and presentation.  By no means would I say that they were any less genuine – my heart was in tune with all the cries of the other prayers.  But they were certainly offered in a different manner.

As I listened to all the prayers being prayed and the words being preached, i began to recognize a significant difference.  For me, the significance of the gathering was in the reconciling, and the breaking down of barriers; that I was a white Irishman praying in unity with group of African Americans.  That wall which still remains between those two groups had another couple of bricks removed from its structure.  But for the others who were gathered, this thing was not about the ministry of reconciliation primarily.  The gathering was intended to be a gathering of prayer for the community, a calling out on behalf of a community which is ravaged with drug addiction, poverty, unemployment, broken family life and an undercurrent of hopelessness.  This is what the church in that community was crying out for: praying for prostitutes to be restored in dignity and set free from the need to sell themselves; praying for addicts and dealers who are so caught up in that life that there seems to be no escape for them or their community from it; for fathers that are not with their children; for mothers that don’t care for their children; for men to be good men, righteous men, responsible men; for women to seek holiness and righteousness for themselves and their community.  As I heard the prayers of my brothers and sisters, I realized that i do not pray into these issues with the same passion and hunger because these issues are ones are not in my face or the face of my community on a day to day basis.  When I hear of a community ravaged by crime and addiction and social breakdown, my response is to sympathetically shake my head and wonder how and why things like this happen.  The truth is that i have not walked a mile in the shoes of those who struggle in these ways.  I have grown up and lived in communities where this has not been a part of day to day life. While I have worked in such areas and certainly seen the struggle of some people in those areas, I feel bereft of the ability to practically help them.

I realized something on Saturday and Sunday as I reflected on this: Because of my privilege and relative lack of life impact due to these things, my prayers are not prayed with the same zeal and desperation as those whose lives are impacted daily by them. For sure, I pray into social issues in a generic way, but I would be lying if I said that I was moved so much that I would be literally crying out on behalf of a community.

I also realized that it is likely that not only is this true for me, but it is also true for my church.  I am the pastor of a reasonably well off, middle class church.  The community in which we are situated is not short on its own problems, but neither does it have the prevalence of social issues like what i have mentioned above.  We not only struggle to get people to pray collectively, but when we do get them, our prayers are very ordered and  timid; empty of zeal and desperation and in stark contrast to the prayers of my friends who are ministering in the African-American community.

Is it possible that our privilege and our wealth has emptied our prayers of any real hunger and sense of desperation? Is it possible that as reasonably wealthy people we have become so self sufficient that we don’t pray out of a need for God anymore and actually pray more out of a sense of religious habit and duty?

Where is the hunger?

Where is the zeal?

Where is the passion and desperation in our calls for God to move?

Truly, they seem to be absent among me and the people I serve in the reasonably well off, middle class church.

And if this is true, what is to be done about it to see an appropriate and effective change in our lives with God.

 

 

Welcoming the stranger…

was-stranger-sign

 

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

Almost a week has passed since the suicide bombs in Syria, Lebanon and the Paris shootings.  A ‘state of emergency’ continues to be declared in France.  Air attacks are being conducted in Syria by the French and their allies, and those that have not joined in on the attacks are at present debating whether or not to join in.  The world is on the edge of another great war once more.  I do not believe that violence achieves anything in life, but I understand the political pressure to do something in response when one group so maliciously attacks another.  I understand that war may indeed be a necessary evil at times, but as Jimmy Carter has said, it ultimately does nothing to help us live together well.

But the impending war is not what I want to comment on.  In the build up to last weekend has been an ongoing refugee crisis.  Literally thousands of Syrian people have left their homes and lives in Syria to seek life elsewhere.  The ongoing civil war and destruction in Syria has put people in a position where they can no longer call their home, ‘home.’ So they have fled on foot to surrounding nations, and have risked their lives by paying gangsters and extortioners to get them across the Mediterranean Sea to mainland Europe.  It has become a world crisis because the countries that these transient people are wandering to, close their doors and state that ‘there is no room in the inn.” The question around what to do about Syrian refugees has created a political storm with different world leaders having different ideas as to how best to solve the problem.  Without critiquing those each individually, it is best to generalize the responses and say that most developed and able countries have made a commitment to receive a certain number of Syrian refugees over the coming couple of years.  The decision by governments, Prime Ministers and Presidents to receive refugees has created another storm of political division country by country.

In the USA,  President Obama has stated that USA should welcome a number of Syrian refugees to its shores, and do its part in response to the aforementioned crisis.  This has not been received well by each state within the union.  In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, it became clear that one of the attackers had made his way to Europe and entered the continent by posing as a Syrian refugee.  The response to this revelation in many states has been to oppose the President and state that the USA should not welcome any refugees because they have now been proven to be a risk to the life and well being of communities throughout the nation.  Of course this is an understandable response to the news reels of the last week.  None of us in our right minds would knowingly welcome a violent Jihadist to stay in our house, right?

Like I said, I understand the “close the doors” response in many people.  But i have to confess that I have struggled with the attitudes of my brothers and sisters in the Christian faith in terms of how we respond.  Ought Christian people to be more concerned with airing a political view and protecting against the fear of a potential attack upon them or their country people?  Or ought Christian people be more concerned with reaching out to those who are without a home, in dire need of a place to rest their heads and ready to start afresh in a new place?

jesus-refugee

Many memes have been doing the rounds about this issue in the run up to the holiday season.  One of note is the reminder to Christian people that the story of the Nativity, which will be enacted by children and churches all over the land, is in fact a story of traveling people who are seeking mercy and a place to stay, but cannot find a welcome anywhere but the animal shelter belonging to an inn-keeper.  It is in this place that the Savior, Jesus Christ, is born.  He grows to become the man who announces the in breaking of the Kingdom of God; a radical and scandalous notion, which throws open the doors of God’s hospitality and welcome to all who call upon God’s name.  And then Jesus also says, “Go and do likewise…”

“Go and do likewise.” Have Christian people forgotten that in all our unworthiness, and even though our lives are mired in sinful ugliness we have still found radical hospitality and welcome in Christ.  Have we forgotten that, in Christ, God no longer looks upon us as stained; that God no longer refuses to have us, and instead lovingly embraces us – just as we are? It strikes me, that the call to look out for the widow and the orphan; the great command to love God with everything and love our neighbors as ourselves has not changed and that it ought to be the guiding factor for Jesus’ people as they make response to the politics of the refugee crisis.

The bottom line is this: God is indiscriminate in God’s love and welcome of all people, and so should God’s people be.  It’s that simple.

I want to close this by employing the words of Brennan Manning, a master of communicating the welcome and embrace of God for all people.  This comes from his book, ‘Abba’s Child:’

Buchner wrote, “We have always known what was wrong with us.  The malice in us even at our most civilized. Our insincerity, the masks we do our real business behind. The envy, the way other people’s luck can sting us like wasps.  And all the slander, making such caricatures of each other that we treat each other as caricatures, even when we love each other.  All this infantile nonsense and ugliness. ‘Put it away, ‘Peter says.  ‘Grow up to salvation.  For Christ’s sake, grow up.”  The command of Jesus to love one another is never circumscribed by the nationality, status, ethnic background, sexual preference, or inherent lovableness of the “other.”  The other, the one who has claim on my love, is anyone to whom I am able to respond, as the parable of the good Samaritan clearly illustrates.  “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the man who fell in with the robbers?”  Jesus asked.  The answer came, “The one who treated him with compassion.” he said to them, “Go and do the same.”

This insistence on the absolutely indiscriminate nature of compassion within the Kingdom is the dominant perspective in almost all of Jesus teaching.

Compassion is not indiscriminate in the life of many of God’s people in USA and other developed nations.  In fact, the evidence is that many of God’s people are happy to discriminate when it comes to welcome, hospitality and compassion.  This is not good enough.

O, that our hearts might be completely bathed in a fresh understanding of the welcome, hospitality and loving mercy of God.

O, that we might throw ourselves upon the faithfulness of God and the perfect love of God so that we might know no fear.

O, that we might let Jesus in and let Jesus guide our steps.

Have mercy on us, O God, against you and you only have we sinned.  Lay hold of your people and turn them towards you, so that we may be light and compassion and welcome, in a dark, unloving and unwelcoming world.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Slaves first…

‘You know how it is in the pagan nations,’ he said. ‘Think how their so-called rulers act. They lord it over their subjects. The high and mighty ones boss the rest around. But that’s not how it is going to be with you. Anyone who wants to be great among you must become your servant. Anyone who wants to be first must be everyone’s slave. Don’t you see? The Son of Man didn’t come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life “as a ransom for many”.’

I have been working through N.T Wright’s “Lent for Everyone – Year B” in the weeks since Lent started. Personally I have found it great as devotional reading – I find pretty much all of Tom Wright’s work to be fantastic! It has also been a helpful guide in preaching too – I have been using Mark’s gospel as the basis for our church’s life and worship through Lent. For me, Mark has been quite brilliant as I have read it through again and again in the last few months – his explosive, no-nonsense way of writing suits me. And my willingness to work at getting Mark’s bigger picture has put every little individual section in Mark’s gospel in a brand new light for me. Admittedly, in my Christian life, I have been poor at reading the books of the Bible with any sense that they were written by skilled authors who had plan and purpose in their work. I have been too quick to read the bible as a series of short, inspirational, living, preach-worthy sections and stories and not to see them as something which has been included in a bigger work with some bigger points to make. This has been to my devotional detriment over the years.

Today, I turned up the reading and was led to the passage in which the above quote appears – Mark 10:35-45. Because of the way in which I have been guilty of reading Scripture in years gone by, I was quick to recognize that this is a passage which I have read many times before and listened to many a sermon preached on too. The worry when I recognize a passage in that way is that it can become too easy to switch off, just read the words and not really think them through. However, today this is not the case. I am reading this passage no longer as a stand alone story from the life of Jesus. Rather, I am reading this passage as a story carefully placed by Mark in his attempt to help readers like me understand the points that have already been firmly made in the previous two chapters, namely that Jesus is the Messiah(8:29), God’s own Son (9:7), and that what lies ahead (suffering and death) is the plan of God for the salvation of the world (8:31, 9:12, 9:31). It is by that suffering and death, which is going to happen in the coming days, that Jesus will finally be declared King of kings. The disciples have spent the last couple of chapters in confusion over the things that Jesus is saying. Peter declares Jesus as Messiah but then rebukes him for saying that he will suffer and die; on the mount of Transfiguration, they understand that what is happening is sacred, holy and special and their only reaction is to ask if they should build tents for Jesus, Elijah and Moses in order to preserve the moment. Mark is painting a picture (in these chapters) of the disciples as ones who seem to be able to say the words “Jesus is Messiah” but struggle with what the implications of that are in the plan of God. They can be forgiven for reacting with such confusion. After all, when a person is declared King the expectation would naturally be that they have been or will be victorious. For Jesus to begin to name himself as the Messiah and then talk about his suffering and death does indeed seem like a bit of an unvictorious anti-climax for the long, arduous story of Israel’s wait for their king.

The Transfiguration was certainly a turning point for James and John. On that mountain, they realized for sure that Jesus was who he had been revealing himself to be. They saw the heroes of old and they heard the voice of the Father. As they came down that mountain and re-entered life as they knew it, their understanding would have been that Jesus is or would one day be the King. They now had an idea of the true identity that Jesus was getting ready to take on. But they still had no inkling of what that would mean for Jesus or for themselves. For them, for Jesus to be King was for Jesus to take on a new power and authority; it was for Jesus to be in charge; for Jesus to be giving the orders, and they wanted to be right in on that action with him.

“Hey Jesus, could you maybe do something for us?”

“What is it that you boys want?”

“When you are in your glory, as King, would you let us sit beside you – one of on your right and one of us on your left?”

It was clear from their question that they still had no clue about what Jesus had been trying to get across to them about the nature of life in the Kingdom of God. Wright put it very well in his writing on this passage:

“Actually, he’s been telling them about this for the last two chapters and they still haven’t even begun to grasp the point. He is going to die; and his death will not be a messy accident, will not simply be the kind of thing that happens to people who lead powerful renewal movements or who go about declaring that god is now becoming king, and acting in accordance with that. His death will be the means by which he becomes king, and hence – since the two are intimately bound up with one another – the means by which God becomes king. This is how, as he said in 9:1, God’s kingdom will come with power – but it is a power that, as Paul saw, is utterly redefined.

The redefinition, in fact, is the point of it all. James and John, like Peter at Caesarea Philippi, are still thinking as humans think rather than thinking as God thinks. Look at the pagan world, says Jesus. ( We look around at our own world and – guess what! – remarkably little has changed.) The rulers of the nations lord it over their subjects, and people in positions of power boss other people around. That, no doubt, is what James and John wanted to o, and it is what a great many people in our world long to do. If you can’t beat them, join them. But that is not how things work in the Kingdom of God. Back, once again, top the lesson which the disciples had to learn but still hadn’t learnt, after the encounter with the rich young man.

In God’s upside down world (or should it be right-way-up world?) everything is reversed. It’s like ‘Through the Looking Glass.’ Anyone who wants to be great must be (what did they expect: ‘prepared to work hard’ or ‘exceptionally prayerful and well behaved’ or ‘utterly trustworthy and responsible’?) – must be your servant. The one who hands you a fresh cup to drink out of. The one who cleans up when you have finished eating. The one who scrapes the mud off your boots when you come in from the field. The one you take for granted, who does things you can’t be bothered to do. Yes: your servant. In fact anyone who wants to be first must…again what do we expect? ‘Must have exceptionally sharp elbows and be prepared to get up very early in the morning to get ahead of all the other pushy people out there’? No: to be first you must be the slave of all. Slave! Even lower than ‘servant’. The slave has no rights; no human dignity. Nothing to make you envy or look up to him. People despise slaves. Treat them as dirt. Look the other way rather than catch their eye.

Yes, precisely. Now watch:

“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him; nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.

That is the passage (Isaiah 53:2-3) that jesus had in mind. It goes on to speak of this slave, this ‘servant of the Lord’, wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, receiving in himself the punishment that made us whole (53:5). He will give his life ‘a ransom for many’

It isn’t just that James and john haven’t been paying attention to what jesus has been saying about what will happen to him in Jerusalem. They haven’t begun to even glimpse that jesus’ forthcoming death will be the moment when, and the means by which god’s saving power is revealed in all it’s glory.”

I don’t think I had grasped it either. But this passage of writing by Wright certainly helped.

Everything about Jesus points to our call to be servants. I get that wrong all the time. My suspicion is that many do.

It’s time to stop getting it wrong and start putting it right.

To be first, I must choose to be last and to be servant and slave to all. That’s the model of Jesus and therefore also the model for my life.

#Ferguson…

I grieve this morning for what is happening in Ferguson.

I grieve because what is happening there is very similar to what was happening in Belfast and Northern Ireland in the year or two before my departure from there.  And that was literally heart breaking as I lived in the midst of it and saw a country attempting to “return to Egypt” so to speak

I have no comment of any value to make on the happenings in Ferguson.  It seems very simple to me: on one side, a group of people feel that an injustice has taken place, and on the other side there is a group of people who disagree that an injustice has taken place.  The major problem is that both sides want to be right and claim, passionately that they are right.  Both sides will stick to their guns (literally) and fight to the death (literally) in order to “win,” and thus have their sense of “right” prevail.

The problem is that there can be no winner.

There is still a grieving family.

There is still a police officer who has had his life and career marked forevermore by what took place at the start of all this.

There is still a community that perceives itself to be oppressed by powers and authorities.

There is still a community that feels that the other community is not oppressed.

There is still the decision of a Grand Jury which has observed due process, and made all its papers available for scrutiny in the interests of accountability and transparency.

There are still two sides who want to be the winner over and above everything else.

Whatever happens in Ferguson over the coming days, all of these things will remain true.

So is there a better way?

Of course there is.  But it takes a complete laying down of self and all that is important to self and even that which has so far defined self.

It is the way of Christ.

As part of our church’s life of prayer, each week we choose a book of the Bible to read in-between prayer gatherings.  We read it, seek encouragement in doing so, and then hope to encourage each other as we communicate what we sense God has been saying to us in our reading.  It is a very simple act of devotion and encouragement.

This week we are in Mark’s gospel and today i started by reading Mark chapters 1 and 2.  Mark is a no nonsense kind of writer.  In choosing to write about Jesus, he is not like Matthew and Luke.  He does not waste any time on genealogies or birth stories as the start point of Christ’s story of grace and Holy Spirit power.  No, Mark goes right to the heart of Christ’s message from the very start.  He refers to Christ’s call to preach the good news of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom in the world, the ministry of healing and the power and activity of the Spirit.  Mark writes about disciples being called and choosing to follow, and about Jesus’s choice to eat and socialize with “tax-collectors and sinners.”  Then, towards the end of chapter two, Mark tells the story of how Jesus was once questioned about fasting.  In responding to the question, Jesus used two very short parables about new cloth being attached to old cloth and new wine being poured into old wineskins.

I have always found this text to be tough to make sense of in preaching and teaching.  Any time I looked at it, I was happy to place it solely in the context of the question around fasting.  However,  today I am seeing it more in the context of the whole first two chapters – where Mark has made this no-nonsense, explosive account of Jesus’ burst onto the human scene.  Mark has shown Jesus to be teaching a new way; calling disciples to leave their old lives and start new ones with him; casting out old demons and releasing people into a new life.  In this context, Mark 2:21-22 makes new reading for me because it helps me to understand that Mark is showing that Jesus is not just calling stale and staid religious people to reject their old ways in order to live His new way.  No, Mark is announcing the in-breaking of the kingdom in the world and as such, he has Jesus calling people to complete surrender to him.  Jesus is calling men to leave their nets and their tax collection tables.  He is calling religious people to rethink their ideas on fasting and the sabbath.  He is calling humans to let go of their treasured, precious golden calfs in order receive the treasure of new life and freedom in him.  I think Mark was trying to get the point across, that in order to allow the in-breaking of the kingdom to take place we must let go of the golden calves; throw off the things that have defined us and that we hold to be “true” and are literally willing to kill and die for.  We must empty ourselves of all that defines and made up the “old wineskin” and become completely new and completely teachable in order for the new wine to be poured in and ultimately be enjoyed.

How did I connect this to Ferguson?

Good question.

The answer is very simple:  Jesus still calls us to leave behind our treasured, precious golden calves and follow him.  He still calls us to leave behind all that has defined us and all that we hold to be dear and true and important.  He calls us to become new wineskins so that his new wine of freedom and new life may be poured in, remain and be enjoyed.  In the context of Ferguson, or Belfast, or Jerusalem or anywhere else in the world where people are fighting for what they hold to be dear; fighting for the things that represent the very material that makes up their “old wineskin,” Jesus calls us to lay it all down and surrender completely to his way.  We are called to lay down our hunger to be the winner.  We are called to lay down our perception of injustice.  We are called to lay down our racism, our prejudice, our contentment with inequality.  We are called to lay down the notion that we are right and the other group are wrong.  We are called to lay ourselves down, in total surrender, so that the new wine of Christ and the new way of the Kingdom of God, which has broken in and become established on the earth, may become our way.  The way of the gospel is the way of heart change, but how can we have changed hearts when in our hearts we hold so dearly to these precious golden calves?

The only way for progress to be made in Ferguson today (or any other area/society where this type of conflict/division is taking place) is for the leaders of a divided community and nation to let go of the need to be the winner; to let go of the need to be right; to let go of the longing for the good old days when everything was better and people knew their place…and to surrender to the way of Christ which calls humans to humble themselves before each other; to sacrifice themselves for the needs of their neighbor; to embody reconciliation and forgiveness; and to commit to finding a way to stand together with “the other,” for the good of a whole community so that every person is treated equally and with dignity.

We can only rid ourselves of these things when we come down of our high horse and realize that our idols, regardless of how right we think they are, are nonetheless idols.  They might be the idols of perceived injustice, or idols or power, or idols of perceived national ideals such as life, liberty and justice for all.  Whatever they are, they are idols and until we surrender them and have our hearts made new, we are and will remain unable to contain the new wine of Christ.