Thoughts on “Freedom” in War Rhetoric

Canada is at war.  Again.

As our leaders discuss why or why not (and where) we should be dropping bombs, I’d like to offer two different definitions of freedom that may help us sort through the rhetoric.

Definition #1Freedom is another word for having the power to kill our enemies.   “It’s a form of power, especially power over and against national enemies.  To come out say it, freedom is the euphemism for lethal power – the power to kill.  When you have power to kill your enemy and the will to do so, you’re free.  When you have the biggest, most well-trained, best-equipped, most lethal military – then you’re “free.””  (Brian Zahnd in Farewell to Mars, pages 117-118).

Definition #1 is the one most used by politicians justifying violence against their enemies.  Conveniently, it’s also used the definition used by their enemies to justify violence against the politicians (or their country, or citizens, etc).    Basically, it’s saying that both sides of an argument want the freedom to kill people who disagree with them.  And when both sides are killing each other to protect their ability to kill each other, well… Yeah.  That’s a bit of a quagmire, isn’t it?

Do you really think the only way

To bring about peace

Is to sacrifice your children

And kill all your enemies?

Larry Norman (Farewell to Mars, p. 131)

Definition #2Freedom is another word for not needing to hate anyone.  When we don’t need to project our hatred against anyone, we’re free (That was either Richard Rohr or Rob Bell, and I think they were quoting Rene Girard.  But they also got it from Jesus).  This is why Jesus speaks about the truth setting us free.  What truth?  That we are to love our enemies.  That we are to pray for those who curse us.  That we are to do good to those who hate us.

Jesus is famously quoted saying “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”  The funny part about Jesus telling us that the truth will set us free is that he’s tells it to a bunch of people trying to find a way to kill him (see definition #1).

Even the Apostle Paul is on board with this.  “It is for freedom that Christ set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” What’s the slavery?  “The desire to arrange the world in such a way that it serves the interest of our own self or our own group.”  (Farewell to Mars, 129).  What’s the freedom?  Liberation so that we’re free to love our enemies.

This definition is not used by many of us, as we tend to paint our enemies as evil and beyond redemption, and thus are able to treat them as such.

Now, I am fully aware that to some people, definition #2 of freedom is quite absurd.  “You mean I’m supposed to be free to love everyone?  Even the ones who violently kill people?”

Ummm… You do know that it’s Easter week, right?  The week where we retell the story of how Jesus was killed by both religion and state power?  Where Jesus was painted an enemy and hung up on a cross?  Where he wasn’t getting in line with the powers in arranging the world how they wanted it arranged, and the result was his death?

And how, even on the cross, the Jesus sought the forgiveness for his killers?  How he loved to the end? And how this Jesus movement was the first movement in the history of the world whose leader was killed and his followers didn’t call for vengeance?

I understand definition #1.  However, I believe in definition #2.

I believe that true freedom doesn’t lie in killing our enemies.

I believe that true freedom is not having anyone to hate at all.

And I believe that it’s along the path of definition #2 that we begin to find our salvation.


For a more in depth look at Jesus and ISIS, check out my sermon from the fall.


Spitting Venom, Ancient Farmers, and Netflix

The following is based on Matthew 25:31-46, called the parable of the last judgement, but commonly known as the parable of the sheep and the goats.

Weeks ago I saw that I was supposed to preach on the “Parable of the Last Judgement.”

And I thought, “Great. I love preaching about judgment.” (I hope you picked up the sarcasm).

And then, when I actually read the text, I realized that the parable of the last judgement was the parable of the sheep and the goats.  And I thought, “Alright!  I love this parable!  I can talk about serving people, and how actions speak louder than words.”  You know, preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.

This, after all, is one of the things that we who identify as Mennonites love.  It’s about faith in action.  Doing is what we do.

We even have that famous poem by Menno Simons hanging downstairs by our church kitchen.

True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant.

It clothes the naked.

It feeds the hungry.

It comforts the sorrowful.

It shelters the destitute.

It aids and consoles the sad.

It binds up what is wounded.

It becomes all things to all people.

Doing is what we do!  We makes blankets and collect rice and go to Pauingassi and sponsor refugees and rebuild houses with MDS and respond to natural disasters around the world.  We volunteer and donate money to all sorts of causes and drink fair trade coffee, purchased at Ten Thousand Villages.

Doing is what we do.

And then, when I realized that I had to preach a sermon about doing to a bunch of people who are already doing a bunch of things, I had a moment of terror.

What am I going to say that people don’t already know?  Should I be telling people that they should serve more?  That they’re not doing enough?

And then I thought about how I would react to Mel telling me that I need to do more in my life.  I would either spit venom back in his face, or I would crawl into the fetal position and cry, and say, “I’m trying my best.  My life is full.  Please don’t heap shame and guilt on to me.”

Margot Starbuck wrote a book about loving your neighbour called Small Things with Great Love, and in it she tells a story of going for a walk with a young mother.  When the young mother found out that book was meant to be a practical guide to help people love their neighbour, she seethed with anger and animosity.

“I’ll tell you what I don’t want to hear.  I don’t want to hear that my children should help me bake cookies to pass out to homeless people.    The cookies wouldn’t even get baked.  I don’t want someone telling me to take my kids to serve at a homeless shelter, because they don’t even know the difference between a homeless shelter and a shopping mall.”

And then, with tears in her eyes, she said, “I can barely get to the grocery store.”

How many of us feel that our lives are busy?  That our lives are already full?   Between work and church and volunteering and our kids and our grandkids and our parents and our grandparents, that we’re already doing all we can to stay afloat?

I was thinking, “How in the world am I going to talk about this parable without inducing hatred and animosity, or crushing guilt?”

And then, last week, I went to Laguna Beach.  R Squared

I had saved up my Professional Development money and spent a week sitting at the feet of Richard Rohr and Rob Bell, soaking up their wisdom.  Plus, I also went surfing.

And they told me a story that put this parable into perspective.

I want you to imagine ancient farmers from thousands of years ago.  Very quickly, these farmers would have realized that in order to live, they need this crop to grow.  And in order for the crop to grow, they need just the right about of sunshine and water.  Too much sun, and it’s scorched.  Too little sun, and they’re stunted.  Too much water, and they’re flooded.  Too little water, and they dry up and wither.

So, the farmer’s very existence depends entirely on forces that he or she cannot control.

Except, there is one way you can try to control the sun and the rain.  You can make offerings to the gods in hope that they will bestow the right amount of sun and rain on your crop.  So you take a little bit of your crop, and offer it as a sacrifice so the gods so you will make them happy and they will bestow their goodness of you.

But here’s the thing about offering sacrifices to the gods.

What do you do if you have a bad crop?  You probably didn’t offer enough sacrifice, so you offer more next time.

What do you do if you have a good crop?  Whoa.  My offering worked!  I should offer more next time to get more return!

No matter what the result of your crop is, in order to get the Gods on your side, you end up offering more, and more, and more.

(Thanks to Rob Bell for the farming analogy).

Based on the sacrificial system, you never know if you’ve offered enough.  It leads to deep anxiety within us. We never know our status with the gods.  Have we done enough?  Should we be doing more?  How do I get the gods on my side?

And eventually, you can’t offer more of your crop, because you need to eat, so you start offering other things.  Like animals.  And when you need your animals to survive, you start offering other things that are more and more valuable.  And eventually, what’s the most valuable thing you can offer?

Your children.  Your first born.

This is why the Old Testament is full of commands, telling the Israelites “Don’t be like them, because they sacrifice their children to their gods.”  The Old Testament is actually a radical, progressive step forward in human history.  And really, how often do we get to call the Old Testament progressive?

In today’s world, where most of us aren’t farmers, what’s our most valuable commodity?  Well, besides our children, our two most valuable commodities are our money and our time.   That’s why we say things like, “That was a waste of my time. That was a waste of my money.”  Time and money are the things we place a remarkably high value on.

And when we come to church, what are the two things that we’re hammered on the most to give?

Our time and our money.

You have to give more time.  You have to give more money.  You have to watch less Netflix and buy less latte’s, because that’s time and money you can give to God and the church.

Why?  So that God will be happy with us.  So that God will bestow God’s goodwill upon us.  So that God will send the sun and rain so that we will live.

Have you ever heard these before?

You are poor because you don’t give enough money to church.  You have cancer because you don’t have enough faith.  You are suffering because of un-confessed sin in your life.  If you only had more faith, you’d be healed.  Your parent didn’t have enough faith, and that is why they died early.  If only you hadn’t sinned so much, God wouldn’t be punishing you now. This suffering you have is God’s way of reminding you to be a better person.  If you give money to  church, God will bless you with more.

Ohhh… We’ve heard these before, haven’t we?  But there’s the thing:

God doesn’t love us because we are good.  God loves us because God is good. – Richard Rohr

Telling people that poverty and suffering and death are the result of not offering enough time and money – These are some of the ugliest manifestations of Christianity.  It’s toxic.  And yet we hear it over and over again.

But we continue to hear – Give more and give more and give more, until finally, we either lash out, get into the fetal position and cry, or simply walk away from it all.

Now, some of us here care deeply about our church’s budget, and others of us here care deeply about people using their gifts to serve a broken world, and I want to ensure you, I do as well.

But moving forward, I want to offer some definitions of spirituality that I found helpful.

Spirituality is not what you do.  Spirituality is about being aware to what’s already in front of you.  Spirituality is about waking up, about paying attention.  Spirituality is about being fully present and alive to what’s been in front of us the whole time.  Spirituality is trying to teach us about the depth of every moment, every conversation, and every relationship. – Rob Bell

There’s a story in Exodus about Moses stumbling across a bush that was burning, and he was told to remove his sandals because the land he was standing on was holy ground.

The ancient rabbis had a tradition of saying that the bush didn’t start burning and then stop burning, but rather that the bush was burning the whole time, and Moses finally noticed it.  The ground didn’t suddenly become holy.  Rather, the ground has always been holy, and Moses finally noticed it.

Spirituality is one’s awareness that everything is a gift, and that how we respond to that gift matters.  – Rob Bell

Everything is a gift, and when we realize that, everything changes.

When we realize that every drop of water we have is a gift, we can’t help but to share that.

When we realize that every morsel of food is a gift, we can’t help but to share that.

When we realize that every roof over our head is a gift, we can’t help but to share that.

When we realize that our families, our churches, and our communities are all gifts, we can’t help but share that.

And, when we look to the parable of the last judgement, the story of the sheep and goats, do you see the question that both the sheep AND the goats ask?

Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger needing clothes or sick or in prison?

When did we see you?

This is where seeing is different than believing.  Sure, we can believe whatever doctrines we want.  We can arrange the intellectual and theological furniture in our minds however we choose.  But do we see?  Do we see the divine mystery in all of creation, but especially in the sick, the downtrodden, the outcast, the ones for whom life is hard?  Are our eyes open?

When our eyes are open, when we’re truly present to the moment, we begin to see the divine in everybody, and especially in the least of these.

When we truly see the divine in everyone, we will treat them as such.

My hope for us this week isn’t that we’ll try harder, or give more, or do more.  My hope for us this week is that we will pray one prayer throughout our days.  “Lord, open my eyes.”  When we wake up, when we go to sleep, when we’re driving, when we’re at work and when we’re getting the mail with our children. “Lord, open my eyes.”

Grace and Peace to you.


Free Tuition, Racist Landscaping Bosses, and VLTs

Based on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard – Matthew 20:1-16

About a decade ago, there was an article in the newspaper about First Nations students from reserves attending university.  The gist of the article was that some reserves were having a hard time paying the cost of their students to attend university.

While I forget the specifics of the article, I don’t forget the specifics of the conversation I had about the article.  One person’s response was, “Good.  I’m glad they’re not getting free tuition anymore.”

I looked at them and asked “Why?”

“Because my kids don’t get free tuition, so why should theirs?”

Now, quick aside – Not every First Nation student gets their post-secondary tuition covered.  Some do, and some don’t.   There is federal money available, but not every student is funded because demand outstrips supply.  And if you don’t have a treaty number, you’re out of luck too.

But back to the conversation – “If my kids don’t get free tuition, nobody should get free tuition.  It’s not fair.”

What’s not fair about this?  It’s part of the treaties signed years ago.  It’s part of the deal.  Indigenous people gave settlers access to this land in exchange for some things, and one of them was education.   So if you look around at all the farms and houses and businesses and churches that we’ve built here, we have to remember that the land wasn’t empty before we got here.  Paying tuition is part of the deal, and, I don’t think that we got the raw end of the deal either.

I asked one more question – “If your kids got free tuition, would that make it better?”

The response was an unequivocal “Yes.”

Ahhh… Now I see.  You’ve been working in the vineyard since sunrise.

Many of us just really hate the idea of someone else getting something that we’re not.  We especially hate the idea when we believe that we’ve worked harder than the other person, and they get the same reward.

I remember working for a landscaping company one summer while I was in university.  As the summer went on I discovered how evil the company was, specifically because they charged more money to clients who weren’t white (Welcome to the world of white privilege).  I quit the day my foreman came to work drunk and still spent the morning driving the bobcat, dropping twenty yards of river stone in my wheelbarrow.  But, that aside, I remember how one day I was ticked at my boss.  I said to myself, “This is dumb.  I’m spending all day hauling rocks around for ten bucks an hour, and my boss drives around in his air conditioned truck all day talking on his cell and getting paid triple what I am.  I’m doing all the work here, and he’s getting rich of my labour.  I deserve more.”

I was certain that I had been working in the vineyard since sunrise… I thought I knew so much when I was 20 years old.

If we work hard, we just want it to be fair, don’t we?   We just want what we think we’ve earned.  We don’t want to wish ill-will on others, do we?

Sometimes, I’m not so sure.

Last January, I preach a delightful sermon series on hell.  If you want to read, just Google “3 weeks in hell with Kyle”, and you’ll find them on my blog.

And in preparation for my sermons, I read a lot of books on hell.  And I had a lot of conversations about hell too.

One of them sticks out.  I was talking to someone who had been a Christian their entire life and was deeply involved in their church for as long as they could remember.

I told them that I was preparing a sermon series on hell, and one of the questions I was exploring was if it exists or not, and if it did, what it was like.

And the response was, “Well, of course there’s a hell.  There has to be.”

Now, I had committed to preaching three sermons, and if the first sermon started with, “There has to be a hell”, I don’t know what I would have preached about for two more Sundays, so I probed a little bit further.

“I’m curious.  Tell me why you think there has to be a hell.”

“Well, because the Bible says so. And people who don’t believe in Jesus go there.”

Once again, this would have been a pretty short sermon series, so I asked another question.

“Why is this so important to you?  If you’re going to heaven, and you’ll be completely content there, why does it matter who God lets in and God doesn’t?”

“Well, you’re right.  It doesn’t matter who God lets in and who God doesn’t.  But the Bible still talks about hell being real.”

Ohhhhh… Now I see.  You’ve been working in the vineyard since sunrise.  You have sacrificed for the kingdom.  You’ve sacrificed for the church.  You woke up early every Sunday.  You wore a tie every Sunday.  You gave a lot of money.  You sat on a lot of committees, spending hours taking minutes.  You gave your life to the cause.  And if your reward is the same as someone who made far less sacrifices, your reward seems a little less like a reward, doesn’t it.

And if you get the same as someone whom you think is less deserving, is that fair?

This parable about workers in the vineyard is probably one of the harder parables of Jesus, isn’t it?  It messes with our sense of justice and fairness.  That the first shall be last and the last shall be first doesn’t quite sit right with most of us.

I asked one of you this week about how this parable made you feel, and you offered perhaps one of the greatest pieces of insight into understanding this.   You said, “Well, I guess how I feel all depends on who I think I am.  If I’m the first guy, then of course I’d grumble.  But if I’m the last guy, the guy who got paid a day’s wage for one hours work, then I think this story is awesome.”

If we view ourselves as the person having their tuition paid for, if we see ourselves as the racist boss getting to drive around in the nice air conditioned truck all summer, if we see ourselves as the person getting to heaven with, as some people call it, a deathbed conversion, then that changes our perspective, doesn’t it?

If we see ourselves as the last workers, we then become the glad recipients of God’s grace, knowing full well that we don’t deserve it.  Because really, if I kept score, I know there’s be some of you far less deserving than me, and some of you far more deserving than me.  It’s a good thing we’re not keeping score so you don’t have to try to figure out that one.

So maybe, then, this parable is less about who’s who in the story, and who gets what, and what those rewards are.  Maybe it’s not about how faithful one has been, or when someone made a decision in their lives, or what that decision was.  Maybe this parable it’s not about who comes to church the most or who gives the most money or who’s the most holy.

Maybe, this parable is about our reaction to the process of God’s grace.

The vineyard owner himself says, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

The process is God giving the gift of grace to many people who are undeserving.  The process is God not treating us how we deserve.  The process is God constantly welcoming everyone back with open arms.  How are we going to respond to that gift?

Well, it seems to me that we can either be bitter and envious, that we can complain loudly, that we can think we deserve more, or that we can even end up sending some people to hell.

Or, we can open ourselves to the places where grace reigns, where we receive God’s love as a gift, where we consider it pure joy to love God and love our neighbours with all of our hearts and souls and mind and strength.

That is the challenge, isn’t it?  To stop calculating who’s more holy, who sins less, who’s the better person, who actually read the book of Matthew this month, who’s the most loving, who prays the most.  To stop calculating is the answer, because calculating leads us look at others with envy and jealousy, and then we get ticked that they get God’s gifts too, and then God moves from being a kind and generous God to a God that we think is unfair and possibly malicious.

When we stop keeping score, we can start to live our lives in gratitude.  When we see everything as a gift, every day becomes like Christmas morning.  We get excited about what God is doing in our lives, in our church, and in our world.

Here at Grace, Ashley and I get excited that our kids get to have a dozen or more grandparents at church.  Some of you get excited to have dozens of grand children.  We get excited to meet new people on Sundays, to be part of a church that works towards kids being hunger free in school, about a church that’s in a partnership with a First Nations community, to serve and eat waffles that ends up supporting prison visitation programs, to come to a place on Sunday where we can sit in silence or sing songs or share food with both friends and strangers, or come to a place where we get to give coins to children and it sounds like we won big at a VLT.  Isn’t it amazing that we get to belong to an organization that exists for the benefit of others?  These are all great things, but only if we look at them all as gifts.

As soon as we start to think that we earn any of this, that we deserve these things and others don’t, then we start to look at everyone with envy, and then we’re in trouble.

Last week I wrote in the bulletin a question for you to ponder: “Is God fair?”  Well, maybe a better question is:  “How do we relate to God’s grace?”

How do we relate to God’s grace?

This lent, may we continue to be reminded that everything before us is a gift.  May we remember that God is turning things upside down and inside out, that God is messing with our sense of justice and fairness, that the first will be last and the last will be first, and the fact that God is doing this is okay.  May we respond with open arms to the gift of God’s love and grace, both for us and for others.