Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Called By Name

Preached at Alma United Church on November 3, 2013
Text: Luke 19:1-9

I was delighted to meet Marion at presbytery in September and to be asked to take the service today. I have to admit, at first I tried to pass it off to David, not because I don't want to preach here any more, but because I'm trying to step back a bit and let the kids take over. When Marion said that at least one person had asked specifically for me, I had a niggling suspicion that y'all just wanted Allison and her cello (A side note here: she drives now and if you ask her nicely, she may occasionally show up on her own!), but I really was pleased that you folks here at Alma (or at least one of you) wanted ME!

On thinking about this, I recognized how important it really is for me, and every other person alive, to feel valuable. To feel like we belong. Like we contribute something to our group, to our country, to our world.

Our New Testament reading today is one of many readings that could have been used to make this point--it just happened to be today's lectionary reading.

Zaccheus is a tax collector. Not one of those Revenue Canada types that goes by the book and acts within the laws of a democratic country, but the official of a military government who had little oversight and less pay. Not anyone's idea of a good friend, at least not anyone who was poor and trying to make a living.

But underneath the skin of the hardened cheat beats the heart of a human being, and Zaccheus wants what every human who has ever lived wants: love, recognition of his personhood, a chance to grow and change, an opportunity to contribute to society.

Jesus looks up into the tree where Zaccheus has perched, and sees not the cheating bastard, but the human being underneath the mask.

And Jesus calls Zaccheus by name, and tells him that he is to have the honour of hosting dinner for thirteen.

Zaccheus is so grateful for this recognition that he converts on the spot.

Now, I'll have to say that I'd be the first to be a little leery of an on-the-spot conversion, but Jesus does something here that modern pop psychologists are only now beginning to recognize as a valuable strategy for winning an enemy to your cause.

He asks for a favour. Not a huge one, but one that is within the means of Zaccheus.

The psychologists say that asking someone who dislikes you if they can do a small favour for you actually makes them like you more! Why could that be?

Well, it seems that human beings have a built in drive to contribute. If I don't like Heather, and I block her out and never let her do anything the least bit helpful for me, she's not going to say, "Oh, Ruth never bothers me--she's great!" Instead she'll think, "Ruth doesn't like me. She has no use for me!"

We see this in the bible time and time again. God in the Old Testament and God through Jesus in the gospels, asks for the strangest favours from the strangest people.

"Hey there Big Noah! Could you build a boat for me?"

"Hey there, Abraham! Could you do me a favour--take your wife and cattle and go for a bit of a walk?"

"Come on, Moses! Just go up to Pharaoh and ask him! The worst he can say is no, right?"

And Jesus: "Follow me! Andrew, Simon, James, John! Put those nets down--we're going on a tour of the area!"

When you ask them for favours that are within their capabilities, most people don't feel put out, they feel valued.

But we, like the humans of Jesus' time, often lump people into categories, and two of our categories could be described as "People You Can Ask For Help," and "People You Don't Ask For Help."

And our second category often includes folks like Zaccheus, who have done harm to us or to others. Folks like the woman at the well, whose lifestyle is in opposition to our deeply held values. Folks like the illiterate fishermen who work with their hands, not with their minds. Folks like David, the adulterer. Folks like Samuel, who are "just children." Folks like the Good Samaritan, who are not of our ethnic or religious background. Folks like Saul, who actively persecute Folks like us.

We put limits around who we ask for favours, and likewise put limits around who we can or will become friends with. When we do this as Christians or as a church, we also put limits around who we will allow to experience God's saving grace. And we put limits on who we allow to experience their full potential as human beings.

I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday who belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. She told me that her church has no paid clergy. Rather, every week, three members of the congregation are assigned a topic to speak on. My friend has social anxiety disorder, and her first question when she was checking out the congregation was, "Would I have to do this? Because I don't think I can..."

The answer was, "Yes. Everyone has to do this."

She was given coaching and encouragement, and has spoken to the congregation on a number of occasions. She said that when she talks, everyone goes silent. You can hear a pin drop.

I asked her if this was normal for all the speakers. She told me, "No. Only when I speak."

At a recent conference, she was asked to be the keynote speaker and give a 45 minute talk. She tried over the two months before the conference to prepare for the talk, and every time she finished a draft, she felt God say in her heart, "It's not quite right." She went into the presentation with fifty pages of notes that stayed in her briefcase. She talked until she was finished, then looked at the clock. Exactly forty-five minutes had elapsed.

This woman is so shy that if she came into a United Church and sat at the back, I'm not certain anyone would know her name until about the third or fourth month of her attendance, if then. And she was asked to speak in front of her church. And she discovered a gift she never knew she had, and she's been affirmed as a valued member and speaker by others who have been touched by her stories.

Needless to say, she's a devoted member of that congregation.

Sometimes we get so caught up in either doing things ourselves, or asking our friends and proven allies to help us that we forget that there's a whole world of people out there, waiting to be asked for help. We don't always need to be the givers. We don't need to lecture Zaccheus, we need to involve him in our ministry. We don't need to stone the adulteress, we need to listen to her story and ask her to spread the news. We don't just need to buy fish from the fishermen, and feel good because its sustainably sourced. We need to ask them to preach, to heal, to follow.

Christianity is under siege. We've been told that, and its true. We're no longer the "state religion." People of other religions and no religion are demanding that their voices be heard.

If this siege knocks us out of our privileged way of doing things, then it's quite possibly the second-best thing ever to happen to Christianity after Easter. If we stop relying on sermons and lectures and biblical texts and residential schools to convert the so-called heathens, and instead use those sermons and texts and education to convert ourselves, if we stop giving "charity" and instead ask for equal partnership and help, we'll begin to actually live the life that Jesus called us to two thousand years ago. And the Christian church will once again begin to thrive.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Postcards from Everywhere Part I: The Project

Sometime late last spring, or perhaps it was early in the summer, I was thinking about my role in the church. I'm not ordained, I'm not going to be ordained.

I don't even really want to be ordained any more.

I'm a writer. I'm also a researcher, with an interest in many things, among them the role of the church and religion in today's society. So I thought that I might do a bit of a project: for one year, on the first Sunday of every month, I would "travel" to a different church, and sometimes even a different denomination or religion, not to critique, nor yet to steal ideas (though I'm hoping that my home church will learn and grow from this project), but simply to witness what is happening in my area an beyond. To absorb and learn from others who, like me, feel the need to pay respect to the holy on a regular basis and in a group setting.

The project quickly gained traction. I mentioned it to a friend who I thought might be interested in accompanying me on my journey -- she enthusiastically agreed, and had her own set of reasons for doing so.

I mentioned it to one of our ministers, who mentioned it to the others, and the word came back to me that it might be nice if I wrote "postcards" from wherever I travelled to, so that others might journey along with us.

Hence the "Postcards from ... " Project.

Those of us who go to church every Sunday almost always fall into a bit of a rut. We go to the same service if our church has more than one. We sit in approximately (or in some cases exactly) the same seats as we always sit in, and talk to the same people every week. There is comfort in routine.

However, there's a danger, too. We become blind to our faults. Things like not realizing just how much of our ritual and language is incomprehensible to outsiders. If a church is looking to grow, especially if it's hoping to reach out to the unchurched, this is a fatal flaw that needs to be noticed and corrected.

Things like how we always talk to the same people, and often don't even see the new person, until one day we do. Then the conversation goes something like this:

"Hi! Are you new here? I haven't seen you before."

"No, I'm not new. I've been coming here for three months!"

Embarrassing and off-putting for the new person.

Things like not telling folks at the beginning of the service simple things, like where they can find the nursery or where they can find the bathrooms.

Yet those are the things that make people feel at home.

So I'm taking one Sunday every month (more or less, as you'll see) to become an outsider.

I've already learned that church folks are eager to have you share their worship experiences. When I mention the project to others, I get the response, "You should come to my church!" That's heartening -- it means that most people who go to church really are happy in their communities.

I've also learned there are many more than a year's worth of churches I want to visit, and so the project is likely to take a couple of years at least. (And that's just those within an hour's drive of home!)

So come join me on my journey! Heather and I are already three months into the project, although one postcard will be from a church I preached at, and another will be from a joint service recently held in Guelph for all the United Churches. But I have some interesting and (I hope) valuable observations for each of these, so I'm going to write them up and post them too.

God bless you all!