Sunday, October 21, 2007

29th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18
2“There was a judge in a certain city,” he said, “who was a godless man with great contempt for everyone. 3A widow of that city came to him repeatedly, appealing for justice against someone who had harmed her. 4The judge ignored her for a while, but eventually she wore him out. ‘I fear neither God nor man,’ he said to himself, 5’but this woman is driving me crazy. I’m going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!’”

2 Timothy 3
14But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

“I bought your father the secret and he’s reading it, so don’t say anything.” This was my mother’s way of saying ‘hello’ on a recent visit, a puzzling greeting that I soon learned anticipated my objections before I even opened the front door.

My mother, of course, is an adherent of that new religion called “Oprahism,” whose chief tenet is ‘whatever Oprah recommends must be good.’ And while I admire Oprah, particularly her work to educate people about poverty issues, I’m always a little apprehensive about the marketing side of her world. Imagine the future archeologist who stumbles upon an entire library of books with stickers on the front that say “Oprah read this Book.”

Now, since I didn’t have a hot clue what secret my mother was talking about, or how this secret was going to transform my poor father, I sat down to read. It turns out “The Secret” is a film and a book and a phenomenon that is taking the world by storm. Taking a lesson from Dan Brown himself, the author ‘reveals’ the secret that a handful of famous people knew and applied throughout their life. Imagine “The DaVinci Code” mixed with “The Power of Positive Thinking” and just a hint of Deepak Chopra.

Like the parent who goes to the art museum and says “my kid could paint that” I was left with the nagging sense “if only I had thought of that.” Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” has appeared and reappeared at least once in every generation, and the idea that famous people have been passing something down to each other through time will make any book publisher blush.

The so-called “Law of Attraction” says that your thoughts and feelings will attract a similar set of events in the physical world around you. Your success is only limited by what you can imagine and your failures belong to you alone. By framing it as a “scientific law” like gravity or entropy, the author has dressed up American-style optimism and self-reliance and called it fact. She has even gone so far as to suggest that victims of natural disasters have “attracted” misfortune by negative thinking on a national scale.

“The Secret” is really easy to discredit, but the idea that lives nearby, persistence, is not. This Sunday doesn’t have a formal name, but if it did, we could call it Persistence Sunday. The persistent widow is at the centre, endlessly seeking justice until the cynical judge is worn down to help. The author of 2 Timothy urges us to be persistent in proclaiming God’s message, and the Psalmist persistently studies God’s instruction day and night.

It is easy to see how the message, “don’t give up” could be misused by those who promote self-reliance and other new age fallacies. The temptation to believe that hard work and determination will always provide success has found it’s way into religion from the beginning. We want to believe that we have control of our destiny, rather than God or the natural unfolding of events. We want to believe that people who fail have somehow contributed to their failure, rather than the innumerable circumstances that play out in out world. It is the ultimate simple solution: you create your own reality.

Someone asked Jesus: “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Notice the two thousand year-old desire to figure out who is to blame for this man’s blindness. Or using a more modern expression, who attracted this condition, this man or his parents? The answer, said Jesus, was neither. And, as it happens, Jesus power to heal will demonstrate God’s power. The idea that we can quickly fix blame is no more.

Earlier this week, the National Post interviewed our Moderator, David Guiliano, and asked him about a recent letter sent to congregations. The letter was a simple one concerning the priorities of the national church and the role of congregations. He also added the message that we should worry less about decline in members and focus more on doing mission in the world. The newspaper, of course, picked up the story and suggested that the Moderator had given up. What was really a “remember your mission” message was reinterpreted as a “resign yourself to failure” message. It seems newspapers and Moderators don’t mix.

And while the paper was busy misunderstanding Moderator David, there were plenty of people in the church holding the view that he is accused of suggesting. Accept our eventual demise, goes the thought, and focus instead of being faithful as we die. This is an offshoot of the “righteous remnant” theory that appeared a few years back that said “if the church is shrinking it must mean we are being faithful to the difficult message most people are unwilling to hear.” In other words, we will keep ourselves pure while the world goes its own way.

Now, I’m not going to give an inch on this “Secret” thing, but someone could make the suggestion that some in our midst are busy willing our decline and death. If we give up, will that speed up our failure?

I know that Jesus would have just one word for us: persistence. Our primary call is to make disciples, to share the life we have found in Christ Jesus. The primary orientation of a disciple is to be sent: to be sent into the world to share the message of God’s desire to be in relationship with every living thing, to redeem everyone who was turned away, to heal every ill. God’s persistence is the only viable model we have: seeking the lost, seeking justice and seeking to share God’s story in scripture.

Listen again to advice found in 2 Timothy:

2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

It might be fair to say that we are in the unfavourable time the writer describes. Eighty-one percent of Canadians choose not to worship. Churches that once dotted the landscape are becoming parking lots or converted into condos. People turn to convenient new age ideas that reinforce their existing values, or think their way out of Christianity and suggest that God isn’t real. They have itchy ears, and find the least challenging form of belief or no belief at all.

It would be tempting to give up, or water down, or focus on being that righteous remnant, but none of these seem faithful. It would be easy to fall into a new age trap and blame ourselves for failing to think or feel or way to some sort of success. It seems much harder to rethink our current path and search the scriptures for a way forward, but this seems our last best hope. Following Dan Brown and the author of the secret, I think the answer has been hiding in plain view all this time: Love God, love your neighbour, and make disciples.

We love God and we gather to praise God week by week. We have demonstrated our love for neighbour with food and kindness and a desire to help. But we have a tough time with the last one. We are severely challenged in the disciple-making department, unsure I think, to even understand what the command means.

Let’s begin with assumptions. The first assumption is that we have something to share. If we sincerely believe that a relationship with God through Jesus will transform lives, then the need to share this message is self-evident. It would be truly selfish to have such wonderful knowledge and keep it to ourselves. We are compelled to share.

The second assumption is that people will welcome this message. The lesson of “The Secret” and “The DaVinci Code” and every other pseudo-spiritual bestseller is that people are profoundly hungry. It’s not that the world is not interested in our message, it’s that we’re not ready to share. Are we simply too polite? Call it the curse of Canada: too polite to share our faith with each other and too polite to tell the world we’re the best.

The final assumption is that others will fill the void we leave open. If we don’t tell our friends and neighbours about this church, and the gift of belong to this community of faith, then every other force in society will step in. No other group or activity or business is as reluctant as we are to tell the world that we’re vital and viable and worth taking seriously. Some say we’re suffering a sort of collective malaise. Some say it’s too late for us. But I’d rather be persistent. I’d rather repeat the best possible message at the worst possible time and see what happens. I know that God has the power to surprise and wants us to be persistent. Amen.


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