One does not discover new lands without consenting
to lose sight of the shore for a very long time ...- Andre Gide
Change is never easy, and facing a future with change that may be less than positive is neither easy, nor appealling. Yet, as a people of faith, we are called not only to embrace change, but to welcome and embody it.
The world, and our lives are dynamic and seemingly unpredictable places full of change – positive, negative and neutral, and through it all, the only constant we, as people of faith have is our faith – the sure and certain hope that no matter what happens, we are not alone.
Today in the life and work of the Church, locally, regionally, provincially, nationally and globally, we are surrounded with a diverse myriad of voices challenging and counselling us to address the change that is all around us. Everywhere we turn, we find change not only inevitable, we find it at times overwhelming ... and we are left wondering what we could and should do about it.
One area calling on us to change our habits, is that of Fair Trade. Increasingly, our purchase decisions in regards to coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate, fruit and a myriad of other products are being challenged from a faith and social justice perspective. This week one of the commentaries I consulted began with a less than subtle appeal for preaching on the use of Fair Trade products in our congregations and in our lives ... it goes without saying that anything about Fair Trade catches my interest – I’ve had a LONG relationship with Fair Trade products, and for a time knew all of the companies across Canada who supplied fair trade coffee, tea, sugar and other products into the market.
So, I started reading the commentary with some interest in the subject. Using this week’s readings, the writers contend that we are called to do what is right and to seek God’s will – to change our shopping habits by intentionally supporting the families who grow the product, and ensuring that they recieve a livable wage for their effort. This idea is entirely consistent with what God wants for all of us ... the spin the commentary engages is the notion that sometimes what God wants of us seems to be foolishness in the eyes of our culture and society. Change is seldom easy ...
This concept of living by faith under girds the book “In His Steps” by Spurgeon, that saw a church try to live an entire month by asking themselves over and over, the simple question – ‘what would Jesus do?’ when they confronted a decision to be made in life, love, business, or play. It turned out to be more complicated than any of the characters in the book could have imagined, and they found themselves confronting some very unexpected decisions.
The challenge – or to be more pointed, the PROBLEM with the commentary, and with Spurgeon’s book, is that in many ways, we seek to sugar-coat the challenge of living our lives according to our faith. We want to ‘shine our light from jesus for all to see’, as the commentary says, and we become SO focused on being a good and faithful person that our ego slowly slips into the equation, and our actions slowly become more about ‘me, myself and I’ and less about being faithful.
It’s a subtle shift ... once in a conversation with a colleague, likened it to the nursery rhyme about Little Jack Horner ... “Little Jack Horner, sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie, he put in his thumb and pulled out a thumb and said “what a good boy am I!””
How many times are we like Little Jack Horner, sitting in the corner and proudly displaying the plum we have found for ALL to see?
How many times in the Church, we do what is “right” so that we can point to it, and highlight it, and say to everyone – “look, look ... see what we’ve done ... aren’t we such good little boys and girls?”
And, yet this very trend runs completely counter to the very things that Micah is speaking of ... the very things Paul is warning about ... and the very things Jesus himself is counselling through the Beatitudes.
It is admittedly, a bit of a balancing act, especially at this time of year when we’re getting ready for our AGM’s and preparing our year end reports. We want to look back and inventory what we’ve done, and what we’ve been about, and highlight the successful things we’ve done together as Church, but we need to be consciously aware of the possibility of our egos creeping in, and shifting from a place of faithful humility, and doing and serving in God’s name to doing it for ourselves ...
Regretably, in the Church is happens all the time ... we get so caught up in what we are doing, that we lose sight of ‘WHY’we are doing it, and our egos come into play ...
In this month’s Observer, there is a powerful column written by Connie DenBok, who ministers in Toronto, and who dares to raise this prickly issue within a column of observations she has made by looking back on Rural Ministry from an urban perspective.
Connie offers ten conversation suggestions for revamping the Church ... among them she notes the need to ask whether so many committees are really worth the cost, and are doing the job they are charged to do ... too often committees exist for the sake of having a committee, and thier work can and should be done in different ways ... but what complicates this, is the observation that Connie makes about the lack of diversity in the “gene pool” that exists within the Church – the same faces pop up over and over, and when we look to staff committees and task groups, we tend to pick the same people over and over ... and to be blunt, this does two things – it creates cynicism amongst those of us who are NOT part of the political establishment that this represents, and secondly, it consolidates power and limits new ideas by narrowing down the pool to seemingly like minded people ... too frequently, in this scenario, the bureacracy becomes the seat of influence and power, and the work of the Spirit is thwarted.
The last few suggestions Connie raises are where the issue of faith versus ego are laid most bare ... we need to remember WHY we exist – we are a CHURCH – the Body of Christ called to share the good news ... we need to be more attentive to the process of calling, discerning and training our clergy – she notes that too many clergy spend eight years in training, only to spend three years in their settlement charge, then end up on long-term disability because due diligence in the call process was overlooked ... we can ALL cite examples of this, and yet they continue ... Then finally, Connie dares to name the strongest grip ego has on the Church by calling for the disbanding of the special interest groups formed in the 80’s when our denomination was being torn apart by mis-understandings and misjudgements on all sides ... instead of maintaining AFFIRM and the renewal groups, perhaps it’s time to focus on our commonalities, and build for the future instead of focusing on the anger of the past ...
And in that moment, we hear Paul’s voice speaking to the Church at Corinth ... trust in God’s wisdom, not in human foolishness ... rely on God’s strength, not in your weakness ... see things God’s way, not from our flawed and clouded vision ... it becomes about faith NOT ego ... it becomes about humility NOT pride ... it becomes about living out our calling, not trying to hype and highlight ourselves.
At the end of the day what is important is living out the values of our faith for the right reasons – daring to let go and trust in God !
To go back to the Fair Trade example – it is now chic to use fair trade, you can find fair trade products almost everywhere – even the big coffee companies who were the cause of Fair Trade coming into being, have jumped on the band wagon and offer fair trade products amongst their regular products.
Aside from the question of whether it is really Fair Trade, one has to ask the simple question – WHY do we need to have Fair Trade products anyway? A faithful and just response would be to ensure that people growing coffee, tea, bananas, chocolate, and other products throughout the third world are NOT impoverished economic slaves to massive multi-national corporations. Instead of hyping as a solution, the widespread use of fair trade products, why not advocate for a financial re-ordering of our global food production that ensures a farmer in Grey County, or Colombia, or Kenya is PAID a fair, adequate, and LIVING wage for his labour? Instead of being Jack Horner lifting up the bag of Fair Trade coffee and saying – “look at what a good boy am I!”, why are we not willing to say – “pay them enough to live and prosper ...”
Ten years ago, Jim Wallis put it bluntly when he said – “if you work hard you shouldn’t be poor.”
The faithful response is THAT simple.
Unfortunately, we tend to shy away from simple solutions ... we want to put asterix’s beside those kind of simple statements, and make them more palitiable.
Even the writers of the Gospels did that with Jesus Beatitudes – the readings we shared a few moments ago from the book of Matthew.
We heard – (Matthew 5 text).
But what if we accept, even for a moment the version scholars think Jesus offered over and over in his ministry:
Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall recieve mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
When you are sitting on the margins – the poor, the hungry, the isolated – Jesus' words resonate differently than when you are sitting in a place of power and comfort.
Jesus’ original audience were NOT the powerful and the wealthy, they were the poor, the marginalized, the hungry, ... those who sat on the outside looking in. Along the way, the Church became a powerful entity. It had money, wealth, power and influence ... and the harshness of Jesus’ words became uncomfortable. So, a few little alterations happened ... a softening of warnings ... a lightening up of the judgements.
Jesus words became less judgemental and more inspirational ...
Yet, the whisper continued to resonate through the Church – “and what does the Lord require of you?”
I’ve always like Micah’s answer, because he records the “oh you know” piece in the text ... after listing an inventory of almost priceless items, the prophet shakes his head and says – “O mortal, you know what God wants of you ... to seek justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God.”
No ego there ... just faith ... trusting in God, and trusting in our faith.
So, at the end of the day – in this moment, as we look ahead as the Church and wonder where the path will lead us, we need to ask the simple question “what does the Lord require of you ... of me ... of each of us??”
The answer is SO simple ... so amazingly simple ... it’s not about social justice ... it’s not about fair trade ... it’s not about being in the right group, or on the right committee ... it’s not about anything connected to our personal or collective egos ... it’s about being completely, vulnerably, and humbly open to WHAT GOD WANTS OF US. The answer is exactly what Micah said so many centuries ago – “to seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God ...”
Our problem is that we simply can not believe that it could be THAT simple, and so we want to complicate it, protect it, and nice-ify it so it justifies our involvement, and our existence as a Church ... Today, perhaps like no other time in our history as a Church – not a Congregation, but the Church Universal – we stand in a place where the prophetic words of Micah, Paul, Jesus, and the others challenge us to let go of what is and has been, and trust in the Spirit to guide us to where we are meant to go ... In considering the implication of the quotation I began with from Andre Gide, I like the idea put forward by Mark Twain, that is good advice for the Church to consider as we contemplate our calling, our faith and our future:
Twenty years from now
you will be more disappointed
by the things that you didn't do
than by the ones you did do.
So throw off the bowlines.
Sail away from the safe harbor.
Catch the trade winds in your sails.
Explore. Dream. Discover.
May it be so – thanks be to God ... let us pray ...