Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Glory of Shame


Everyone loves a parade! Two months ago, Donald Trump stated that he would like a really big parade in Washington, probably on July 4, to help lift everyone’s spirits in the United States. Other countries from France to North Korea have their own parades to show off their own military strength. Some of the best parades of all take place in England – the English know how to do pageantry right!

We have our own annual parade in Steinbach. We celebrate with tractors and flags, reflecting the community’s farming background and the present influence of immigration on our community. I remember our Pioneer Days’ Parade a few years ago, when I carried the flag from Zambia (where I was born), one of over 100 flags of different countries represented in Hanover.

Today, we started our service with our own little parade, but this is a parade with a difference. We remember Jesus and his “triumphal entry” parade into Jerusalem. Instead of tanks or warhorses, he had a donkey. Instead of soldiers, he had ordinary people cheering for him. Instead of a powerful speech, he went quietly into a room, where he washed his disciples’ feet (another unusual action for a leader).

We read the account in John 12 this morning, and we read a passage behind the events of Holy Week from Isaiah 50. We look at these passages, asking what’s going on in this unusual parade, and what it means for us.

John 12
The triumphal entry, as we call Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, is recorded in all four gospel accounts. This event begins what we refer to as Holy Week. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), it is followed immediately by Jesus cleansing the Temple of the moneychangers, an action that shows Jesus’ desire to renew the true worship of God. In John, the account of the cleansing comes near the beginning of the gospel, linking this renewal with the whole of Jesus’ ministry. By detaching the account of cleansing the temple from the parade, John provides a clear focus for the entry into Jerusalem: It leads directly to the cross of Jesus. These verses lead to several questions (among others):

  • Who planned the parade?
John’s account leaves the planning unclear. The first three gospels suggest that Jesus planned the entry, and the disciples carried out his wishes. John notes simply that there were many Jews in Jerusalem, present to celebrate the Passover. They were drawn into the parade by the enthusiasm of the disciples, and by the rumours of the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11). The verses immediately after our passage make it clear that the Jewish leaders were afraid of Jesus’ evident popularity. They responded by putting their plans in motion, which led to his death.

  • Why did Jesus ride a donkey?
The donkey is a nice touch. Jesus enters Jerusalem as the king, a clear claim to be God’s Messiah. Such a claim could only cause concern among their Roman rulers, who were used to such triumphal parades. Any Roman triumph was led by the conquering Emperor or General, riding on a warhorse. Horses can be majestic creatures, and a warhorse is impressive, especially with a warrior king on his back. Jesus rides on a donkey, because he comes as the Prince of Peace, not as a warrior. Jesus enters Jerusalem peacefully, inviting the people to follow him.

  • What’s up with the palm branches?
The crowd gathered up palms from the streets, perhaps from outside of people’s houses, where they may have been placed in anticipation of the Passover Feast, or from the palm trees that lined the road. They were easily found, and the people used them with joy. They cried, “Hosanna!” “Save us!” Save from whom? Save from the Roman Empire! Clearly, they saw Jesus as a potential King, ready to overthrow their Roman rulers. Jesus rides the donkey, confounding their hopes and making it clear that the Messiah comes in peace to bring peace. The road to the cross is a road of pain and a road of peace.

  • What does it all mean, anyway?
Jesus knows where he is going. He is going to die. He is going to the cross. He is entering the place of pain and suffering, even as the people cheer for him. He comes in glory, but enters into the place of shame and suffering. As Anglicans pray every Friday, “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: ….” We will come back to this thought – that Jesus is going to the cross. This is the centre of our faith, from which all else flows.

Isaiah 50
This passage is one of four passages in Isaiah that we sometimes call “the servant songs”. Commentators have looked carefully at these passages, connecting them to their historical context, preparing for the return to Israel from Exile in Babylon and Persia. A proper consideration of the servant songs must wait for another occasion. This morning, I note one basic truth about them.

As someone has said, the Bible was written for us, not to us. That is, each book of the Bible was written to a particular audience in a particular historical context. Commentaries and biblical studies help us to discover this original audience and context, the people each passage is written to. Behind or beneath these specifics, there are principles from God, which are written for our benefit.

In our text this morning, Isaiah 50 is written to people in Exile, waiting for their salvation, for their return to their homeland. The prophet refers to the servant who suffers in order to save his people from Exile here and in Isaiah 53. The prophet probably means that Israel as a people is God’s suffering servant, and that their suffering also brings their salvation. Some suggest that Isaiah saw Jeremiah as a model of this suffering servant, which makes sense, given Jeremiah’s own difficult experience as God’s prophet.

In the New Testament, Jesus applies these passages to himself, and the early church clearly understood them to be prophecies about the suffering Messiah, whose work on the cross saves not only the Israelites, but the whole world. In Acts 8, for example, Philip explains Isaiah 53 to the Ethiopian eunuch as applying to Jesus. In Luke 24, Jesus explains to the two disciples walking home to Emmaus how the prophecies of Scripture were fulfilled in the death and resurrection of the Messiah.

With this understanding, then, we hear the words in verse 6: “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.”

Handel’s Messiah has collected these verses (and others) from Isaiah and the Psalms to describe the cross of Jesus in a moving and remarkable piece of music. Hear the way that the librettist describes the cross, using OT passages:

22. Chorus: Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1: 29)
23. Air: He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53: 3) He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off His hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 50: 6)  
24. Chorus: Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows! He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him. (Isaiah 53: 4-5)
25. Chorus: And with His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53: 5)
26. Chorus: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53: 6)
27. Tenor: All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn; they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying: 
28. Chorus: “He trusted in God that He would deliver Him; let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him.” (Psalm 22: 7, 8) 
29. Tenor: Thy rebuke hath broken His heart: He is full of heaviness. He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man, neither found He any to comfort him. (Psalm 69: 20)
30. Tenor: Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow. (Lamentations 1: 12)
31. Soprano or tenor: He was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgressions of Thy people was He stricken. (Isaiah 53: 8)
32. Soprano or tenor: But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell; nor didst Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption. (Psalm 16: 10)

The libretto is a profound and moving account of Jesus on the way to the cross, entering into the shame of the world on his way to glory. I encourage you to sit down and listen to it this whole section during Holy Week, preparing yourself for Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

For Us, and For Our Salvation
All of this was written to the first readers of the Bible, but I said that Scripture is also written for us, even if it is not written to us. So, what does this mean “for us”? We can get at this question through another question. Why did Jesus have to die on a cross? This question is really two questions: Why did Jesus have to die? Why did it take a cross?

The full discussion of these questions would take far too long, so I will just hint at it. We know that sin is in the world. Sin is rebellion against God. Sin is the source of all that is wrong in our world. When we ask why a loved one had to die, or why someone has cancer, or why marriages dissolve in anger and shouting, or why someone kills other people with a bomb in Austin, Texas, the answer is always, “Because of sin.” Not that a death is connected to a particular sin, but that human rebellion against God has brought about a world in which such things happen.

Sin, then, creates space where God refuses to come. God rules all that is. If we rebel against God and seek to live under our own control, we expel God from that space. The result is a godless place, filled with all that is wrong and twisted in our world. When we cry, “God, save us!” we are asking God to remove us from this godless place and reunite us with God. Reconciliation. Reunion. Joy and health and hope restored.

God saves us by taking our rebellion into the very being of God, where it is destroyed. God enters our rebellion, our sin, our worst fears and nightmares, and takes them into the very being of God. We call this destruction “death”.

We could describe this process in terms of a court where God will judge our sin, and a penalty that must be paid. That is one metaphor we can use, but I have been using the metaphor of destruction, a kind of battle that Jesus wins – sometimes called “Christus Victor”. We are trying to describe the indescribable, the reality of human sin against God, and the path back to life with God.

The death of Jesus, then, was necessary for Jesus to swallow up our rebellion and destroy it within himself, but why did it have to be a cross? Is it not enough that Jesus died? Consider this. If Jesus enters into and carries the consequences of human sin with his death – and his death was more or less normal, I can imagine someone saying that some exceptionally bad person is not covered by his death. We might say that Hitler, for example, was simply too evil for God to save.

Fleming Rutledge has written extensively about this question in her study of the atonement, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. She observes that death on a cross was the most shameful way for a person to die. The Old Testament Law states, “Cursed is he who dies on a tree” (Dt 21: 22f). Crucifixion not only killed the person, but it also blotted that person’s memory out of the family. A crucified criminal could not be buried with the rest of the family. Jesus died by the most shameful way possible, the most agonizing death possible in his context, a manner of death that cut him off from the rest of the world. As the tenor sings in Handel’s Messiah, “He was cut off out of the land of the living.” There is no one, therefore, who is beyond the reach of the cross. Jesus went to the deepest places of our existence possible and swallows up the consequences of our sin and rebellion in himself.

None of this would make any difference if Jesus had remained dead, but Jesus rose from the dead. Next Sunday we celebrate his resurrection, and this Friday we celebrate communion to remember his death, the great saving event of all human history. This fact gives us something else to do during Holy Week. We examine ourselves and prepare for communion as we gather on Good Friday and remember the great events that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem led to.

There is one final point. Jesus embraced the most shameful death possible, and then he transformed it into glory. Jesus’ death on a cross really did deserve a parade, because he transforms our shame also into the glory of redemption.

We make a mistake, however, if we think that Jesus died so that we do not have to die. Jesus died, and Jesus invites us also to die. “Whoever would be my disciple,” Jesus said, “must take up his/her cross and follow me.” Paul put it, “I am crucified with Christ.” This path – embracing the shame of people and situations around us – is the path that Jesus invites us to follow.

My father experienced clinical depression when he retired. Jesus tells us to embrace my father in his depression, not to back away because we don’t know what to say. I have friends who are convicted criminals. One has finished his jail time, and the other hopes to soon. Our natural instinct is to isolate them. Jesus encourages us to remain in relationship, and I thank God for church communities who relate to them, accepting their shame on the path to our mutual glory. Folk in our congregation have found the glory of God in relating to people on the margins through the SCO.

None of this means that we seek bad things and then embrace them with a cry of delight. Shameful things are shameful. We are right to shrink from them. Once we get past the natural instinct to pull our hand from the flame, however, we look again at the people around us and we enter into their pain and suffering with the presence of Christ. When we do, we discover that shame is the path to glory, and we pray again the prayer of Good Friday: 
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
25 March 2018

Scriptures: John 12: 12-16; Isaiah 50: 4-9a.

John 12: 12-16
Jesus comes to Jerusalem as king
12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!”
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written: 15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
    see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”
16 At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realise that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.

Isaiah 50: 4-9a
The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed. The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away.
I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting. Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.
He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me! It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me. Who will condemn me?

Monday, March 05, 2018


Remembering a friend’s death
            Reminds me of her fall.
Tripped on the step
            Hit her head and fell
                        All of a piece.
Lying on the floor
            A gurgle deep in her throat
                        The only spark remaining.
Dark avenue opening before me
            The Road alone in the dark
                        Drowning in darkness.

Today her flame burns well
            Ten years later
That night it flickered
            Almost went out
Today I remember it
            As a dream
                        A brief taste of
                                    My friend’s end.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

No Answers

No answers.
No speculations.
A long sometimes lonely road.

He walked that road before we knew him.
Two become one.
I cannot guess such loss.

He found a friend on the road.
Two become one, the unity of joy.
We knew them then, their rocky road broadening out into a high plain.

“Be careful when you shake his hand.”
A long arduous path from the heights
Descending steadily into a new darkness.
Joy is there in the darkness. Of course.
Joy is always there. So is darkness.
“Rage against the dying of the light” –
How do we rage, when light has died?

Two become one.
Separation at the end of a long journey.
We sing of hope we cannot see.
We claim new life we cannot feel.
Only questions
Untamed untameable thoughts
Continue in the dark.

The phone rings – another plea for money.
A voice says my name, then adds “Reverend”.
I guess I am. Preacher, teacher, answer man.

No answers.
No speculations.
A long sometimes lonely road.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Reflections of a White African: 5 (What’s so special about Africa?)

I have been asked to talk about Africa. I was born in Zambia and lived in Zambia and Zimbabwe for over 20 years. I lived in the USA for 25 years, and now also in Canada for 20 years. I have layers of identity (as most of us do), with Africa at the centre, so that Africa lives in my heart.

I grew up in a country run by a small White minority. When colonial Rhodesia became free Zimbabwe, many of my fellow White Africans “took the gap” – they left the country never to return. I am in contact with some of them. They are good people, but they miss the privilege that we had when half of the country’s resources were spent for a minority of five percent.

Some of them miss Zimbabwe for other reasons. Some have stayed in Zimbabwe, because Africa is home and they don’t want to live anywhere else. My question this evening is: What’s so special about Africa? What has caused White Africans to remain when they are no longer in control of the country? Why do some return after living elsewhere.

The answer varies from person to person, so I am speaking only from my own experience. I think that what I have to say applies more broadly, but you will have to talk with people from other countries in Africa to find out if what I say about Zimbabwe is true in their homes as well.

What’s so special about Africa?
1. Some people point to the scenery and the animals out in the bush. Having an elephant stalk past your little rondavel, brushing against the window as it passes, is an incredible experience. I have driven through a herd of water buffalo – slowly, not wanting a stampede – with the sound of a Wild West movie playing inside my head. And the scenery! I was born near Victoria Falls – twice as wide as Niagara Falls and one and a half times as high. Immense and powerful, with spray that drenches the surrounding grassland and turns it into a rainforest.

The truth is, of course, that Africa is incredibly beautiful, but so is the rest of the world around us. From China’s Great Wall to the Canadian Rockies, from the Rift Valley in East Africa to the Ruwenzori Mountains of the Congo, from Iguassu Falls in Brazil to the Taj Mahal, we have beauty all around us. Africa is beautiful, but that is not the primary reason that anyone would choose to go back home to live there.

2. Some people remember their youth, and they think that what they had when they were young was clearly better than anything since. This would be true for those with whom I grew up. Often they are right, but they forget the human cost of what we had. I remember Rhodesia of old. There were 300,000 White people at the most, and about seven million Black people. The White schools were excellent, but there were only a handful of places for Black scholars.

I remember the situation when I was a teacher there in the early 1970s. Consider, after grade seven Black Zimbabweans took an exam to see who could go on for further studies. The top 12 percent went on to high school. Then after grade 12 (as we would call it), they took another exam, and this time the top eight percent went on to university or teacher training college. Roughly one out of 100 Black children were able to pursue higher education. No wonder we had high standards! The whole process was built on systemic injustice. Those who think that colonial Africa was better forget the human cost of the colonial system. Remembering the old days is no reason to call Africa special.

3. I know what I miss. I love Zimbabwean music and the sound of the people singing and speaking, laughing and being. There are certain foods that I miss. I miss biltong and Marie biscuits, lemon cremes and gooseberry jam. I miss the crumbly Cadbury’s chocolate I used to get in Bulawayo and the licorice that was actually more green than black. I miss buying shelled peas from the vendor on the way home, not to mention roasted peanuts poured into a funnel made out of newspaper. I miss mealies (corn on the cob) roasted over a charcoal fire.

I miss the African night, so dark that you can really see the stars. I miss idonsakusa and icela inkobi – the names of the morning and evening stars. I miss the Southern Cross, which you can’t see in the northern hemisphere. I miss the sounds of the birds, the grey lourie crying “G’way!” I miss the brightly coloured lizards that scamper about the rocks. And I miss the rocks themselves, big boulders that make themselves into mountains in the Matopo Hills, where I grew up. But none of these things are what I miss the most. None of these things are really what makes Africa special.

What makes Africa special?
Our son once said that he wanted to go back to Zimbabwe to live. He was about 10 at the time and had been five years old when we left Zimbabwe. I asked him what was different about Zimbabwe from North America. He thought for a bit, and then replied, “In Africa, they treat people like people.” Bingo! That’s what’s special about Africa!

We have a saying in Zimbabwe. “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” Literally: A person is a person with people. More fully: You become a real person (fully human) in community, in relationship with other people. Desmond Tutu used to describe this quality of life in Africa as “Ubuntu” – humanness. When one person hurts, the whole community gathers around that person. When someone dies, we gather with the bereaved family and make sure they do not have to face death alone. When someone is in need, someone else will leave what they need at their door. No questions, no fuss, just care.

Canada is a great place, but we prioritize tasks over people. We care for each other, but we value getting things done even more. In Africa, we prioritize people over tasks. We want to get things done, but “in Africa, they treat people like people!” That’s what makes Africa special.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Healer of our Every Ill

We are broken people who live in a broken world. “Tell me something I don’t know,” I can hear someone say under their breath. This is not news! I have a friend who recently lost his mother. She gave him physical life, carrying him first in her womb and then in her arms. Now she is gone, and he experiences a brokenness that many of us have also felt. Another friend is nearing the end of a ten-year prison sentence. A bad decision in his university years, connected to drugs, has left him in a difficult place, with long-term implications for his life.

Many of us have been broken, but our world too is broken. This past week I read a news story about the head of the EPA in the United States, who wondered aloud if perhaps global warming is good for us. I grew up with Moody Science Films. I remember how they stressed the amazing wonder of the fine tuning of creation. If the earth were tilted on its access a little less or more than it is, or if the amount of radiation we receive from the sun were a little more than it is, or several other variables were not finely tuned, we would not have life on planet earth. God created wonderfully fine-tuned earth, and EPA head Scott Pruitt thinks that maybe we can tune it a little better. Wow!

One could multiply examples: The effects of racism and of consumerism and on and on. We live in a broken world. We know that our brokenness comes from sin because we know that God created a good earth and gave it to us. Human rebellion broke our relationship with God, and as a result we live with the long-term results of human sin (Genesis 1 to 3). We know that God wants to heal our brokenness and give us new life and new joy in a fully restored relationship with God. So, we turn to our passage in Mark 1 to see what God is doing in our lives.

Mark 1: 29-39
Mark begins the story of Jesus abruptly and dramatically. There is no birth narrative, just the announcement that this is the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. John the Baptist bursts on the scene, and then comes Jesus. Jesus is baptised and then tempted in the area near Jerusalem. Then the action shifts north to Galilee, where he preaches the gospel of repentance. He calls his disciples and then begins teaching in the town of Capernaum, on the north shore of Lake Galilee. At the close of the sermon, he casts out an evil spirit, setting the stage for our passage. Jesus went with Simon and Andrew to their home in Capernaum or Bethsaida (about three miles away). There they find Simon’s mother-in-law sick with a fever. Jesus healed her. The news spread quickly. Soon crowds of people, with sick and possessed family members, pressed around Jesus, and he healed everyone who came to him. Jesus left early in the morning, looking for space and silence. Simon and his friends found Jesus and asked him to come back to heal more people, but Jesus went instead on a preaching tour in the surrounding towns and villages. We see two basic points in these verses.
1. Jesus delights in healing people’s brokenness. When Simon’s mother-in-law was sick, he healed her. When people brought their sick friends, he healed them. Jesus healed people physically and spiritually, emotionally and mentally. We can take this as a basic principle of reality: God wants to make us whole. God has made us for an eternity of delight and joy in God’s presence, which includes removing our brokenness.

2. Jesus does not heal for the sake of healing. He said, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” Jesus came to preach the coming reality of God’s reign. God’s reign includes reconciliation and wholeness, but begins with repentance. Therefore, Jesus begins with getting people to think. The healings and exorcisms of chapter one serve God’s purpose in at least two ways – by getting people to acknowledge their own brokenness (repentance), and by helping people start to ask, “Who is this man?” Jesus wants to provoke people to examine themselves and to turn to him. The healings of his ministry meet human need, but they do so in order to do God’s will.

We turn, then, to Job 7.

Job 1: 1-7
You know the story of Job. It begins in the courts of Heaven, with God and the angels. Satan joins them, and God holds up Job as a man of unusual integrity and devotion to God. Satan credits Job’s goodness to a kind of quid pro quo: God blesses Job, and Job praises God. Remove your blessings, he challenges God, and Job will curse you. God allows Satan to remove Job’s possessions, children, and other physical and emotional blessings. As a side note to this morning’s thoughts, you observe that this action lays the brokenness of our world at the feet of Satan, not of God. Nevertheless, God is ultimately in charge, and Job knows it.

Job’s wife says, “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Job refuses. Three of Job’s friends come to him. They sit and weep with him for seven days, a remarkable show of support. Then they try to make sense of what has happened to Job. Their explanations reduce to one basic thought: You must have done something wrong. Job defends himself without fear. His conscience is clear. He knows that he has honoured God throughout his life, and he calls God to account.

In the last act of the story, God appears. God does not answer Job’s questions, but says only, “Look at me.” God asks, “Who are you, anyway?’ and redirects Job’s attention to God. Job repents (of what, we wonder) “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6), and God restores him to full health, with more possessions and children than before. God also tells the three friends to plead with Job to pray for them, because Job is righteous and they are not. They do so, and they all live happily ever after.

Job 7 comes near the beginning of the story. Job is in despair. He knows that life is short and full of pain, and he is ready to die and leave this world behind. He cannot see hope beyond his pain and says, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and they come to an end without hope. Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath; my eyes will never see happiness again.”

From this brief excerpt, we see clearly that any appeal to the prosperity gospel is false. Job suffers even though he is clearly righteous. The friends’ claim that he must have sinned brings down God’s wrath at the end of the story. We see that there are those seasons of life when all that we can see is darkness, when we also say, “I will never see happiness again.”

We see also that God had one primary purpose in all that happened to Job: God’s purpose was (and is) to glorify God. Job’s suffering was a lens to direct everyone who saw to God. God used Job’s pain to respond to the charge that people are only good when God blesses them. However well or however little we understand the pain Job experienced (and I do not understand it at all well), one thing is clear: God’s glory is the final answer to the pain and brokenness of this world.

This point is the connecting point with Mark 1. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus healed the sick to stimulate the question, “Who is this man?” He wanted them to see God. In Job 7, the underlying theme of Job’s suffering (visible only when we get to the end of the story) is that it strips away Job’s defenses until he sees God’s greatness and glory. This does not mean that God breaks us so that we can see God. It doesn’t explain pain and suffering. Rather, this point tells us what happens in our brokenness.

You remember the sermon on the first Sunday of Advent last year. Julia Thiessen told us the First Nations story of the raven. The raven broke the containers of light so that light could stream through the brokenness into our dark world. That is like the truth I’m stating here – that God uses our brokenness to reveal the light of God. 

The Man Who Was Thursday
One hundred and ten years ago, G.K. Chesterton wrote a small book called The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s a strange little book, which Chesterton described as coming from a time early in his life when his ideas about what he believed were quite unsettled and unsystematic. Bear with me while I try to describe it.

Gabriel Syme is a detective who is given the job of infiltrating a circle of anarchists in London, England. The Anarchists want to destroy society, and Syme is recruited by a large man in a dark room to infiltrate the anarchists’ central governing council, which has seven members named after the days of the week. When he tries to join the council, his chief rival is an anarchist named Gregory, a real anarchist. Syme is elected over Gregory, and he joins the council as Thursday. The head of the council is Sunday, who calls a meeting to plan a political assassination, but instead tells the council that one of them (Tuesday) is a traitor and a policeman. He expels Tuesday, threatening him with destruction if he ever talks about them. 

After the meeting, Syme is followed by one of the others, who also turns out to be a policeman, recruited by a large man in a dark room to infiltrate the anarchists. One by one they uncover each member of the council, from Monday to Saturday, and find that they are all policemen, recruited by the same large man in a dark room. They realise that Sunday is the large man in a dark room, and pursue him all around Europe and England, going through agonies and danger that threaten their lives and almost destroy them. Finally, they catch up with Sunday in a mansion in the English countryside, where they are each given a room and bath to clean up, and then they join Sunday in a great banquet. They have suffered greatly together, and now they sit down to eat with their tormentor. As they eat, they realise that Sunday represents both God and the One who has led them into great danger – much like Job. As they talk during the banquet, Gregory, the real anarchist, walks in and challenges all of them. I read now from the book. 
There was complete silence in the starlit garden, and then the black-browed Secretary, implacable, turned in his chair towards Sunday, and said in a harsh voice—
“Who and what are you?” “I am the Sabbath,” said the other without moving. “I am the peace of God.” 
The Secretary [who was Monday] started up …. “I know what you mean,” he cried, “and it is exactly that that I cannot forgive you. I know you are contentment, optimism, what do they call the thing, an ultimate reconciliation. Well, I am not reconciled. If you were the man in the dark room, why were you also Sunday, an offense to the sunlight? If you were from the first our father and our friend, why were you also our greatest enemy? … Oh, I can forgive God His anger, though it destroyed nations; but I cannot forgive Him His peace.” …
[Each member of the council makes his complaint in turn and Sunday replies.] “I have heard your complaints in order. And here, I think, comes another to complain, and we will hear him also.” …
“Gregory!” gasped Syme, half-rising from his seat. “Why, this is the real anarchist!” “Yes,” said Gregory, with a great and dangerous restraint, “I am the real anarchist.” 
“‘Now there was a day,’” murmured [Saturday], who seemed really to have fallen asleep, “‘when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them.’” 
“You are right,” said Gregory, and gazed all round. “I am a destroyer. I would destroy the world if I could.” … You are the Law, and you have never been broken. … … I do not curse you for being cruel. … I curse you for being safe! … Oh, I could forgive you everything, you that rule all mankind, if I could feel for once that you had suffered for one hour a real agony such as I—” 
Syme sprang to his feet, shaking from head to foot. “I see everything,” he cried, “everything that there is …. It is not true that we have never been broken. We have been broken upon the wheel. It is not true that we have never descended from these thrones. We have descended into hell. … I repel the slander; we have not been happy. I can answer for every one of the great guards of Law whom he has accused. At least—” 
He had turned his eyes so as to see suddenly the great face of Sunday, which wore a strange smile. “Have you,” he cried in a dreadful voice, “have you ever suffered?” 
As he gazed, the great face grew to an awful size, grew … larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black. Only in the [darkness] he seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?”

Chesterton expresses something beyond our understanding here. God comes to us most clearly in our brokenness and vulnerability. When we are broken and accept our brokenness, we find Jesus, who was broken on the cross. We live, someone has said, in a cross-shaped world. In the darkness of systemic racism, we find Jesus. In the loss of the mother who first carried us in our arms, we find Jesus. In the fear that I feel when I think of the way that we abuse the earth, we find that Jesus is there – not there in our abuse, but there in our fear. I can embrace the darkness of our broken world, because there I find the light of Jesus.

Remember Mark’s gospel. Jesus loves to heal. God loves to heal. He is the healer of our every ill. Jesus is the great healer who comes to us in life and in death and gives us life, life deeper than all the pain and suffering of this world. The path to healing is the path of the cross.

This week we begin the season of Lent – the path that leads to the cross, and therefore also the path of our healing. Jesus is indeed “healer of our every ill.” I love this time in the church’s year, in which we find that our deepest fears are the place where God is most at work, bringing to birth “joy unspeakable and full of glory.”

“Healer of our every ill, light of each tomorrow,
Give us peace beyond our fear, and hope beyond our sorrow.”

Steinbach Mennonite Church
11 February 2018

Job 7: 1-7
“Do not mortals have hard service on earth? Are not their days like those of hired labourers? Like a slave longing for the evening shadows, or a hired labourer waiting to be paid, so I have been allotted months of futility, and nights of misery have been assigned to me. When I lie down I think, ‘How long before I get up?’ The night drags on, and I toss and turn until dawn. My body is clothed with worms and scabs; my skin is broken and festering.
“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and they come to an end without hope. Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath; my eyes will never see happiness again.”

Mark 1: 29-39
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them. 32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.
35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” 38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

A Story of Passports

I wonder what the plural is for a group of passports -- a murder of crows, a flock of birds, a herd of cattle. Maybe, a story of passports?

My siblings and I went through Dad's stuff this past July, after Dad's funeral. He had made sure that we had taken most of what we wanted before he died, but a small room remained. His last home on this earth. In these remnants of our parents' lives, we sifted through various items. Then we handed our selection to Nevin to keep at his house, since Lois and I were flying home.

When we visited for Christmas, Nevin handed us back our stuff, several boxers symbolizing Dad's life. I found his collar and dickey -- a black dickey (sort of like a bib) with white collars, which he used to wear as a minister in Zimbabwe, more than 50 years ago. I tried to see if I could put it on, but the collars are faded and brittle. I am ordained, as he was, but I will stick to normal Western wear.

I found two of his pocket knives. Dad was never without a pocket knife, for use, not for show. With me, they are purely for show. I found his date books -- 50+ years of date books. In the last year of his life, he weighed himself daily and recorded his weight. He had trouble keeping his weight up, so he chronicled his daily journey to eat enough eggs and get enough protein.

Finally, I found an envelope. A large plain brown envelope with the address of BIC Missions and some stamps. Inside I found passports, dated from 1946 to 1963. Here (briefly) is their story.

1946. Just after World War Two. Mom and Dad were scheduled to travel to Africa to begin their first term in Zambia, but pent-up demand for berths made it almost impossible to find space to sail to England. Dad told me the story of how one day he and Grandfather C drove to New York to look for tickets to sail to Africa. After much searching, they found a travel agent who told them he could get them seats on an airplane -- not the way we normally travelled in those days. Dad and Grandpa drove back to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and out to Ira Musser's farm. Musser was the missions board secretary, and in charge of getting them to Africa. They found him in the field, ploughing, and asked him if they had permission to buy the tickets. he immediately told them to buy the tickets and to get seats for the rest of the missionary party also. I think their party consisted of eight people: Mom and Dad and Donna (above), Lewis and Gladys Sider (with son John), and Lulu Asper, Rhoda Lenhert, and Florence Hensel.

They flew from New York to Gander, Newfoundland, where they were unable to land because of fog. I think they went to Monckton, NB. The next day they went on to the Azores islands, two-thirds of the way to Portugal, and then on to Portugal. From Portugal they flew to Dakar, Senegal, and then on to Monrovia in Liberia.  Finally they flew to what today is called Kinshasa, Congo, and then to what is now Lubumbashi. The last stage of their journey was by train, from Lubumbashi across the border into Zambia, and then on south to their destination in Bulawayo. They arrived in Bulawayo on Christmas Day, 1946. The beginning of almost 20 years in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Their passport has the stamps from government officials chronicling their journey. A story of passports.

1950. I suspect that the passports had a five year limit, since their next passport includes me, issued four years later. They travelled on a family passport, showing and signed by David Climenhaga and Dorcas Climenhaga, and adding the names of their children, Donna and Daryl. I think I can see some weariness in my parents' faces. They had another daughter in between, who never made the passport, Dorothy Leigh, born in April 1948, and died in November, 1948. Expatriate life is often hard.

1956 (I think). Just before Denise joined the family. A typical missionary family photograph. You can see the collar and dickey my father wore, sort of like an Anglican priest. Odd, for Brethren in Christ folk, whose motto was simplicity, but understood by the people around us in a British colony. The same reason that my parents finally bought a wedding ring for mother about five years later. It stopped the English from thinking that they were not married, but "living in sin".

1957. Denise was born, and we added her to the family passport by the simple expedient of adding a picture of mother holding her, signed before the relevant American authorities. So much simpler than life is today. Denise looks unimpressed by the proceedings. I like the way that the side view shows mother's covering, a part of her dress that I took for granted for the first 15+ years of my life. I notice also (at least I think I saw this) that, when she stopped wearing the covering, it disappeared from her clothes entirely. Dad took off the collar and dickey at the same time, but it was still in his dresser drawer when he died, just over 50 years later.

1959. This photograph appeared in the book of missionary families in 1960, a copy of which sits in my office. here it served first to include Donna and then to remove her from our family passport. We must have travelled home to the USA on this passport in 1959 as a family. Donna remained in the USA when we returned to Zimbabwe the following year. As a result, she got her own passport, and had to be removed from the family passport. Again, a simple procedure, appearing before the relevant American official, who crossed her off, and it was done.

The last two passports complete the journey. I think that these were the first individual passports they held. Denise and I got individual passports at the same time. A little context. This was a period of political instability. Dad was the bishop of the church and general superintendent of the mission. If troubles of some sort or other broke out in Zimbabwe, especially in Bulawayo where we lived, individual passports enabled us to travel separately if necessary. Dad could stay behind and keep things going, while mother and Denise and I could head for South Africa and home.

I have wondered about that time. I remember getting my passport. It felt cool, and I felt grown up. I'm not sure I would have felt quite so pleased if I had known why I now had my own passport. Two years later we left Zimbabwe. I returned for three years in the 1970s, so that I was there for the beginning of the Liberation Struggle, but that's another story. A story of passports.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Can God Call an Old Guy (like me)?

The question in our sermon title has an obvious answer – Yes! But the truth is that we often think of God’s call in quite restrictive ways. We think God’s Call is for young people, or for full time Christian workers, or for people facing some great crisis – in fact, for almost anyone except me. Let’s talk about God’s Call.

Some Stories
You probably grew up with stories of God’s call. I remember one my Uncle Arthur used to tell. He married Arlene Brubaker, a young woman from Ohio. They were both students in Upland, California when they met. He was a young man who knew he wanted to go into missions, probably in Africa. She also felt that God was calling her to missions, either in Africa or India. Since she had relatives in our mission work in Africa, she assumed God was calling her to India.

Arthur was a shy young man with a supremely confident exterior. He was afraid any girl he liked might say no, so he formed a club with some friends called “the woman-haters club”. When Arlene started at Upland College, she saw him across the room and thought he looked nice, but her friends discouraged her: “That’s Arthur. He started the woman-haters club. Don’t worry about him.” Of course, he had also noticed Arlene and decided to ask her out. In those days (the 1930s) “asking a girl out” included walking her home from some event or other.

Meanwhile Arlene was praying about God’s Call. So she asked God to show her if she should go to Africa or India. She prayed, “Lord, if you want me to go to Africa, have Arthur Climenhaga invite me for a date before Wednesday night.” That Wednesday, Arthur watched Arlene leave the campus by bus for her apartment. Then he got on his bicycle and rode to the bus stop where he knew she would be waiting. He rode up to her and talked for a bit and then asked, “May I walk you home from choir tonight?” He said that she just looked at him and he thought, “Oh no! She doesn’t like me!” She was thinking, “God just told me to go to Africa!”
[Disclaimer: Arthur said that he does not recommend this way of discerning God’s will – the proverbial “fleece”! I add that my memory of details such as “Wednesday night” may be quite wrong. I wasn’t there!]

I think of another story. Years before, Arthur’s Uncle, Henry Smith, was also engaged to a young woman, Katie Burkholder. Henry and Katie both believed God was calling them to mission work in Africa. Independently of each other they both realized that God was actually calling them to India. Each of them wrote a letter to each other breaking the engagement to follow God’s call. Henry’s letter travelled from Pennsylvania to California at the same time as Katie’s letter went from California to Pennsylvania. When they each got the other’s letter, they realized God had confirmed God’s call in their lives in a wonderful way.

I love these stories. God speaks to us – sometimes so directly and clearly that we know for sure what God wants us to do. But there stories contain a serious problem: They imply that the real work of a Christian is overseas missions, and that the best Christians are those who receive this kind of marvellous call. What happens to the rest of us? Does God call us too?

1 Samuel 3: 1-10
The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions. One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel. Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.
Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” “My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

You know the story. Hannah is married to Elkanah. We don’t know the details, but in their culture marriages were between families and for the purpose of having children. When Hannah had no children, no one would have been surprised that Elkanah took a second wife, and they would have rejoiced with him when she had children.

Imagine Hannah’s despair. Elkanah loved her more than he loved Peninnah, but she had no children. During their annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, she went into the Tabernacle and prayed desperately for a son. Eli the priest saw her and pronounced God’s blessing on her: “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” God granted her request, and Samuel was born.

In her joy, she promises to give the child to God to live in the Tabernacle with Eli. When Samuel is born, she fulfills her vow and takes him to Shiloh and leaves him there, probably soon after he learned to walk. In chapter 2, then, Hannah sings a song of praise that serves as the model for Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1.

So we come to chapter three. Samuel’s name may mean “Heard of God”, since God heard Hannah’s prayer. Certainly, his life was changed by hearing God’s call in the night. We don’t know how old he was, but he had been in the Tabernacle for some years when this event took place. The writer sets the stage: The people in general do not hear or see much of God, and Eli himself is failing, old and in poor health. Samuel was sleeping that night in the tabernacle itself when he heard the voice call, “Samuel!” He got up and went to Eli to see what he wanted. Eli hadn’t called him, and he went back to lie down and sleep. Again he heard the voice, and again Eli told him to go and lie down.

Verse seven signals a change in the action: “Samuel did not yet know the Lord.” This night was God’s call on his life. When he heard the voice a third time and went to Eli, Eli realized what was happening. Eli was an important figure – the first of the high priests, descendant of Aaron, priest and judge in Shiloh. Although he was a flawed person, unable to teach or control his sons, here he acted as God’s person for that moment. He told Samuel what to do. “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

Samuel did as he was told. The voice called twice this time: “Samuel! Samuel!” He replied as Eli told him: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” And the course of his life was set. He was the last of the judges, the priest at Shiloh, the leader of Israel who helped bring in the monarchy and the house of David. Since the Messiah is “Son of David”, Samuel’s life was basic to God’s great redeeming work, coming in the person of Jesus to reconcile the world to God.

The story reinforces our perceptions that God’s call is for special people, people like the leader of Israel. Consider, however, who Samuel was: A small boy, serving and growing up in the Tabernacle. God came to a child, not simply to some great leader. Another point in the story is of greater importance: God call is the formative event in a person’s life. When God calls you, you are never the same again – whether you heed God’s call or not.

To think more about God’s call, we turn to John 1: 35-42

John 1
35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” 39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).

We join the action of chapter one as John the Baptist pursues his work. He sees Jesus passing by and identifies him as the Messiah. Two of John’s disciples follow Jesus and ask where he lives. Jesus invites them to “come and see”. In effect, he says, “Follow me.” They do.

One of these two was Andrew, and he brought his brother Simon. Simon also came to Jesus, and Jesus renamed him “Cephas” – or “Peter”, that is “Rock”. Matthew’s gospel explains this name in 16: 18 as “the rock on which Christ builds his church”. Again we see the importance of God’s call, which is life-changing. Peter does not immediately become a steadfast reliable person. The greater change in his life comes in the resurrection of Jesus and the events leading up to Pentecost, but here Jesus begins the process.

So God’s call is life-changing, but the call in John is quieter, less dramatic than in 1 Samuel. “Where do you live?” “Come and See.” In understand this to mean that Jesus invites the disciples to walk with him and live with him, and the invitation changes their lives. If the story about Samuel involves a child, at least that child was especially dedicated to life in God’s house. In John, the call is more prosaic. John’s disciples are so very ordinary, they could be you or me! So let’s put these together and ask what we can say about God’s call for us today.

Applying to Life
1) My first thought is that God’s call is actually basic to every one of us. God’s call is not just important to future apostles, or priests at Shiloh, or other religious specialists. As we read the gospels, we find that Jesus had only one response when people came to him and asked what they should do: “Follow Me.” That is still true today. Whether you are 15 or 50, finishing school and ready to work, or finishing work and ready to retire, God calls you and God calls me to follow Jesus, to live with Jesus.

I was talking recently with Reg, and he noted the way that people saw his going to MCC USA from government service as “following God’s Call”, although it seemed rather less dramatic than that to him and Phyllis. I would say that they were right: Reg and Phyllis were following God’s call. I would add that moving to the RHA more recently was another example of following God’s call. I think that Phyllis was following God’s call when she established a business in Pennsylvania making and selling crafts. God’s call is the foundation of life for every one of us.

2) A second thought is that God’s call is life-changing. Simon’s name-change symbolizes more than just a new nickname. God is at work to make him a completely new person. Samuel’s response to God’s voice changed his life.

We have often thought that a life-changing call has to do with “full-time Christian service”, but actually it just has to do with life. God calls a young woman entering the work force to live as God’s person in a Steinbach business so that the people she works with and interacts with each day see Jesus. God calls a middle-aged man to start his own business so that the people he serves can see Jesus. God calls a retired couple to take people into their home through a ministry of hospitality so that the people they meet will see Jesus.

God’s call has less to do with age than with our openness to God’s voice. Like John’s disciples in John 1, we are looking for God, and when God comes to us, we respond. We say with the boy Samuel, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

3) A third thought is that God’s call changes the world. Peter was renamed for the sake of the church and the world, not just for his own sake. Samuel’s call led to new life for the Children of Israel. God calls you and God calls me to be “salt and light” in our world, so that through our response other people also come to know Jesus.

I think of an international student at Providence who moved to Winnipeg after graduation. She later said that, living at Providence, she thought Canadians were a warm and welcoming people. Then she moved to Winnipeg and changed her mind. Now she says that the people at Providence are a warm and welcoming people. That is an example of a community responding to God’s call together.

I think of another friend from Japan whom Lois used to teach. She invited him for supper and told him to bring any friends he wanted to. As we sat and talked together, he said, “This one is from Indonesia, and he is a Christian. This one is also from Indonesia, and he is also a Christian. This one if from Madagascar, and he is a Christian. I am not a Christian.” An unusual statement! Lois asked if they were his roommates, since he had invited them to join him. He said, “No. They are just the best people at the place where I work!” That is an example of three young men answer God’s call and making a difference in the world around them.

4) Two final thoughts. One: We find God’s call together. The stories I began with this morning can lead us to think that we find God’s call is a personal and individual thing. There is an individual component: You must respond for yourself. Nobody else can listen to and respond for you. There is also a vital community component: We listen for God’s voice together. God may speak through a brother or sister to tell us what to do. When we think God is speaking, it is good to check with our sisters and brothers – in care groups, over a cup of coffee, making sure that we are not just engaging in wishful thinking.

Two: Some people try to make this whole conversation into God’s pre-planned blueprint for our lives. I don’t think that makes sense. God drew Samuel and Jesus invited his disciples into a life lived together. In any given moment, God may present us with several choices, with two or three right answers to the questions that face us. Like the time that my parents, older sister, and I were crossing the ocean by ship on our way home from Africa. My sister was nine years old, and there was a game going on in the ship dining room – a horse race around a small track with models of horses that raced based on the roll of the dice. One of the women there saw my sister watching and gave her a small amount of money to bet on the horses. She asked my Dad what she should do, and he told her to choose for herself. She chose to bet the money, which was probably not what he would have done! The lesson to choose for herself proved to be more important than a prohibition on gambling, and she was still safely in my parents’ will, even though their choice would have been not to gamble.

God speaks to us through our likes and our interests. God speaks to us through to opportunities that present themselves. God speaks to us through each other. Together we respond and witness to the presence of Jesus in our world. A dramatic call to Africa is part of this picture. An ordinary step into a new situation is part of this picture. At any age, for all of our lives, Jesus says, “Come and see where I live. Walk with me. Live with me.” Like Samuel, we say, “Speak. We’re listening.” Like Peter and Andrew and James and John, we respond by walking with Jesus in everything that we do.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
21 January 2018