Message for June 10, 2018
Speaker: Minister Vicki McPhee
Alright, I’m about to say something controversial here. Gird your loins. Are you ready? Ok, here it is. The Bible was written, every single word of it was written by human beings. It was not written word for literal word by God in Hebrew and Greek and then translated into a bazillion different languages. Men wrote the Bible. (And I’m not being gender neutral here cause the fact of the matter is that it was very likely all men who put the actual words to paper.) In this context, here at Symons Valley United Church, that information—not that men wrote the Books of the Bible—but the fact that God’s self did not write the Bible probably does not really shock you. And, if it does, I’m sorry. Come see me after worship and we can chat. Anyway, I wanted to put out in front of us that people, real life people who were birthed into the world, who were loved and cared for by family friends, who experienced loss and pain in the course of their living, people who knew the joy and celebration and the hurt and dismay of living in a world controlled by men who were not their people, by men whose greed and fear motivated ongoing violence and oppression of their fellow men and women, these real life people wrote the entirety of the Bible. The Bible was written by people who were very much like you and me. By people who were living the best they could with the brokenness of that surrounded them—the brokenness of their neighbours and the brokenness of themselves. The Bible is the very real outpouring of folks who were seeking a better way of living and a better way of being.
And because the Bible was composed by everyday sort of people, that means the construction of the Bible was not a flawless process. The remembering and the collating of stories to be included in the canon was dependent upon the sensibilities of many different people, over a long-time frame. And so, there repetitions here and there, there are continuity issues—you know when you are watching a tv show and a character is wearing something in a scene but when the camera angle changes and we see them from a different perspective, they are not wearing it? The Bible has moments like that. We notice it when we align the common stories from each Gospel side-by-side. Who exactly discovered the tomb empty? Was it Mary alone or was it a group of women? Was the woman who poured oil over the feet of Jesus Mary from Bethany or was it an unnamed woman? These discrepancies exist and, because of that, biblical scholars through the ages have bickered over which version is correct and tried to determine if the differences matter. Some of the bigger discrepancies in the Bible concern seemingly contradictory lessons or pieces of wisdom. Today’s reading is central to a big argument that took place in the time of Martin Luther and carries on with us today. You see, when Paul wrote his letters to the emerging Christian communities of faith, he often argued against legalism. Doing precisely this or doing precisely that did not make up the instruction manual for getting good with God. To be a faithful Jew means following a lot of rules concerning one’s behaviour—rituals, eating only permitted food*seafood, refraining from certain actions. To honour God, one had back in ancient times and still do this day, a daily list of what and what not to do. Paul essentially threw the rule book away and said, the laws don’t matter, only your faith matters. Just believe and have faith and you’re good with God.
But then, along came James. James the Just. James, the brother of Jesus. James who likely witnessed the Risen Christ. Paul argued again legalism, James argued against anti/no/mian/ism – which is a twenty-five-dollar word meaning to be freed by grace from the necessity of obeying the Mosaic Law. More or less, God loves me so I don’t have to worry about avoiding the steak and lobster special when I go out for supper. James recognized that by giving up the rituals and the laws of Moses—the ones Paul said people did not have to worry about—James noticed folks around him were not really concerned with the world around them. They believed. They were good. God had their back. There was no needed to fret about the state of the world. James said, no, no, no. You can believe all you want but your faith only adds up to a hill of beans if there is no action. This is what we heard today. Have faith and then work towards righteousness. It’s not the make-work rules and legalism that you have to work at, but you need to work at being decent to those around you. It would seem, at this point, the Bible is not clear—is it by faith alone or through works that one finds themselves on the right-hand side of God? Biblical scholars say that while each position seems counter to the other, they, in fact, are undergirded by the same God. As such, to believe in and to have faith in a merciful and compassionate God that loves without end is to be someone who works for the wholeness of the world, not just the wholeness of ones-self. So, two weeks ago you heard loudly and clearly from Stephen that God loves you and will never forsake you and today you will hear, God loves you without end and what now are you going to do about it?
A few verses after what Debra read, James states, loving your neighbour fulfills the law. Two millennia later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German minister and theologian who was imprisoned and executed because of his association with an assassination plot of Hitler, wrote “What is nearest to God is precisely the need of one’s neighbour”. Just as Jesus did not name names when asked who exactly is one’s neighbour but rather described what being a neighbour looked like, James explains what types of actions makes one a good neighbour. He says we are to be quick to listen and slow to speak and be slow to anger. Now I have to admit that when I read the reading this week, I chuckled and then phoned the love of my life, the one who knows me like no other and read it to him. He laughed out loud and said he needed to make into a sign—I think he means to have it somewhere near him at all times so that when my personality dips its toe into the lake of volatility that I seem to live right next to at all times and I start ranting about this or that, particularly when he’s been awake for only a few minutes and I’ve been up for a whole hour already listening to the news or reading about the latest insanity that is politics these days, he can just put up the sign and go about his business of getting a cup of coffee. But I digress.
Be quick to listen. Slow to speak. Slow to anger. Be doers of the word. Don’t only hear but do. Don’t be like someone who looks into the mirror and immediately forgets their collar is askew or their hair is all mussed up. Look into the mirror and see what needs doing and work to get it done. The United Methodist theologian and author Donald Messer who is known for his work to combat world hunger and HIV/AIDS, has written, ‘Faith without works is dead. Hoping without helping is sinful.” I have this quote and Bonhoeffer’s pinned up right up beside my computer monitor in my office. I have learned, not perfectly, but I have learned that listening is as important, if not more so, than speaking. I am still learning what it means to be slow to speak. And I think being slow to anger will always be somewhat of an elusive virtue for me. However hard it is to imagine implementing what James says being a good neighbour is all about, it is important and necessary to keep those encouragements before us as we move through life. Because loving your neighbour is not about assuming you know what their struggles are or what needs they have. You learn their struggles and know their needs by first listening—active listening in which you hear what is said then respond thoughtfully instead of sitting there with something lined up to say, just waiting for the other to be done speaking. Have a comment ready to go, regardless of what their concerns are. Listen and then do. Do with purpose, do with respect, do with intention.
Being quick to listen and slow to speak are actions but they also give us a sense of timing. Listening takes time. Being slow to speak take more time still. And slowing down the burn of anger takes even more time. Last week Simon and I witnessed a terrible car crash and it easy to know how to be a good neighbour in the instant of that moment but often figuring out what it means to be faithful, compassionate, loving doers of the word, figuring out what would Jesus do, what would God have us do in a difficult scenario, takes time. Helping without hurting, being an ally and not taking over, takes time and leads to having to get organized. Finding a plan that might work. Putting said plan in motion. I have used this example before, but it holds up. Four years ago, just before Christmas, I received a call from someone desperate for help. Her family had experienced a perfect storm of unfortunate incidences and they could not pay their mortgage. Food was hard to come by. Could the church help. Long story short, with one email to the congregation, I had $2500 in 24 hours. And I realized I had put the church in a tough spot. Only then did I slow down. It was way more money than the situation called for. There were legitimate questions around appropriate levels of fundraising outside of our policies. So, we had some conversations. Some praying happened. I reached out for advice. And a plan developed that allowed for the family to receive the money over time that was in line with how we wanted to offer justice and love to all who walk through our doors. It was good. And now we have a plan going forward. My point here is that planning is good. Sure, we can get so caught up in the planning that we can’t see the forest for the trees however a plan means we have structure to work within. And we’ll be aware when we are moving outside that structure which then might cause us to take pause and take the time to make an informed decision as to whether we want to make an exception to the rule. Flying by the seat of your pants can be fun but it doesn’t allow for sustainability. Winging it works now and then but it gets tiring not knowing what’s coming next.
Planning for what’s coming next is what stewardship is all about. You can’t harvest a field without seeding it and tending the crop in the months leading to getting the combine out, you can’t feed the homeless without assembling and preparing the food. You can’t give a quilt to someone recently diagnosed with ALS without cutting the fabric and quilting it once you’ve sewn all the pieces together. You can’t offer space to community programs, to AA, to Girl Guides, to a Muslim prayer group without clearing the snow from the parking lot, without paying the heating bill, without making sure that no one else will be in the space they need. You can’t have a visit over coffee and baking without first making it and putting it out for when the service is over, you can’t serve breakfast at the Drop-In Centre without asking for volunteers, you can’t have Livestream without technology and you can’t make change the lightbulbs in the parking lot or the foyer without hiring a lift to get you up there. Just as you can’t do all these things without planning, we cannot be a blessing to the world, to our community, to ourselves without doing first some planning. Planning takes time. Planning takes into account vision. Planning takes into account hopes and dreams. Planning takes into account what God would have us do. Planning takes into account the Good News that was given to us by Jesus, the man who walked the earth and the Risen Christ who emerged from the tomb. And planning takes into account available resources—the gifts, skills and time of human power and the resource of financial power.
A few weeks ago the Outreach Committee showcased the many different opportunities they provide for folks to get involved in issues around hunger, homelessness and caring for those with HIV. Our building hosts community programs and offers a safe and warm alternate for outdoor programs on rainy days through the summer. Our parking lot is used for bottle drives and, if you can believe it, a base for local police operations. We welcome people of the Islamic faith to worship here, in this very space, praying to the same God of our hearts. We offer a loving, affirming and compassionate welcome to all who walk through our doors. We do that. Not just Stephen and, but all of us. We can do this because we have worked together and planned with intention and with love how to do that and how to be that. And part of that planning is knowing the budget we have to work with. We generally work within our budget but between this, that and the other, we found ourselves a bit cash poor before the summer. Michelle, our long-suffering treasurer, put out a call for funds to cover the cash shortage. $$$ was raised for the faith component. Which is awesome. But can you imagine if the income needed, the general giving’s AND the faith component was given in full through planned monthly donations? No shortage would happen. Mortgage would be paid. Treasurer would sleep nice, peaceful, sleeps. The math is this. Certainly not all of us can give that amount. But lots of us can. And a few of us can give more. I say this only to encourage you to faithfully consider this month how you can help this congregation plan. How you can help this congregation do its best to be a blessing for the world, for our community, for each and every one of us. To be doers of the word. This day and forever more. Thanks be to God.