Thursday, September 30, 2004

Mark Noll: "None of the Above"

Renowned Evangelical historian explains why he's not voting in November's presidential election. Excellent article. Food for thought. Read it here. I pulled this from Jesus Politics, who pilfered it from Philocrites. I guess the internet is working just as it should!

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Christianity Today on Bush and Kerry

Christianity Today ran a profile on each major presidential candidate, George Bush and John Kerry, with a clear prefence for Bush. They've even interviewed Bush (but not Kerry), asking no difficult questions.

I still don't get the evangelical love-affair with George W Bush. He turned Christianity into a swaggering smirk of a faith, as if character assassination and pre-emptive war were basic Christian values.

Monday, September 27, 2004

"Is it Vietnam, yet?"

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. This is one of Marty's usual asute analyses.

Sightings 9/27/04

When Is Now?
-- Martin E. Marty

If my reading is accurate, last week was the turning-time. Major politicians of both parties, pundits of neither, and clergy-beyond-parties asked, with brash Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg: "Is it Vietnam yet?"

The current conflict, according to Steinberg, is not about "the 1,000 troops who have died in Iraq," but "about not losing 10,000 more by the time the campaign of 2008 comes around." He adds, "I never met a person who cared about whether the Iraqis enjoy the fruits of democracy or not." That's a low blow. Who could not care, deeply.

But one can cite many sources across the spectrum who say that the main reason for our fighting in Iraq now is because we do not know how to stop, with some measure of integrity. Columnist Robert Novak, in his September 20 syndicated column, conjectured that, from here on in, it's a matter of when and how it ends, not "whether." Neither party has a clue about the "how."

While the Wall Street Journal editors (September 24) said they accepted the rosy portrayal given by Ayad Allawi before Congress, others will dismiss it. Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation" (September 19), said: "I don't think we're winning," the U.S. is "in deep trouble in Iraq," and that some "recalibration of policy" was urgent. On the same day ("Fox News Sunday"), Arizona Senator John McCain said, "the situation has obviously been somewhat deteriorating, to say the least." Both of these war-supporters based their assessment not on Allawi's sales talk, but on a president-authorized and classified National Intelligence Estimate. It foresaw an unstable Iraq or, worse, a civil war, from which we would finally have to turn.

Suppose these bipartisan analysts and foreseers are, in the main, right. At what point may, and must, some moral and religious voices be raised to call the continuing venture immoral? Many clerics of many persuasions would say, or whisper, or hint: "now." Chicago Tribune's Tim Jones, on the divided mind of Missourians (September 24), quoted pastor Robert Hill of Kansas City's Community Christian Church. Hill, speaking on behalf of many preachers, complained of the "absolutely despicable" "tactics of fear-mongering" that condemn questioners as being unpatriotic.

Not ready to whisper or be silent is Father Andrew Greeley. He says that, when he points out that Pope John Paul II questions and condemns preemptive "just war" and the conduct of the Iraq war, he gets much favorable correspondence, but also much "obscene" hate mail (Chicago Sun-Times, September 24). Typically, "You are even worse than the priests who abuse little boys." According to Greeley (who does not always defend the pope), many conservative fellow-Catholics shun the pope and attack his defenders on this issue.

"Yet I am curious," he writes, "that the writers think that a priest does not have the right -- and indeed the obligation -- to express a moral teaching." Greeley and the pope may both be wrong, but neither seems ready to succumb to what Pastor Hill calls "the politics of fear."

Are religious defenders of the war, as prosecuted, also subjected to that kind of restriction on religious _expression?

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Sermon: Pentecost 17 - Year C

Kevin Powell
Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd
Pentecost 17 – Year C
September 26, 2004

In an Associated Press article the writer interviewed a man named Randy Baines. As it turns out, Baines lived in the same long-term hotel in Boyton Beach, Florida, in the summer of 2000 with one of the 9/11 highjackers, a man who called himself Waleed Alsheri. The two talked frequently and chatted about football and baseball, particularly the Florida Marlins. Alsheri seemed to be a real Marlins fan. “He was a really nice guy, very hospitable,” reports Baines, a 48-year-old carpenter. “But if he was involved in one of those plane crashes, I hope he goes to hell.” (From Why Not Send Lazarus? By Frank Honneycutt)

Who do you hope goes to hell? Who is on your short list? Osama Bin Laden? Child abusers? Murderers? The neighbour next door that lets his dog bark all night? Hell has taken a centre stage in our religious imaginations and has dominated much of our theological discourse.

But it may surprise you to learn that the bible doesn’t talk a whole lot about Hell. The OT is virtually silent on the issue. Much of the OT talks about Sheol, which means a shadowy place below. No torment or bliss, just a place where people go rest. Both good and evil. Hell is introduced in the NT and the word that Jesus often used for it is “gehenna” referring to a place just outside the city where people burned their trash.

But here Jesus was clearly talking about a place. And a rich man goes there because he a tripped over the poor man named Lazarus everyday sitting just outside his house, ignoring the obvious pain Lazarus was in.

I don’t know about you but this story haunts me every time I’m downtown and I see a drunken person passed out in a doorway. Should I step in and get involved? Should I wake him and find him some food? Should I call the police so they can deal with him? I guess this story doesn’t trouble me as much as it should because, like the rich man, I step over the anonymous drunk on the sidewalk, and hustle down the street on my merry little way, trying to think of something spiritual to say for Sunday’s sermon.

But Jesus seems to be telling us that if we ignore this person, we do so at our own peril. Because if we keep our ears perked, we will hear nothing from him about Hell as a consequence of lack in belief in Jesus, nor do we hear anything about the sins we tend to think about most often, namely sins of the flesh, as the most condemning. The rich man didn’t go to Hell because he was lax in his moral hygiene, slack in his daily devotions, or even because he didn’t have a relationship with Jesus. This story, the only story we have where Jesus actually talks openly about Hell and who goes there, he talks about the rich man ending up in Hell because he was indifferent to poor people.

But if we listen even more closely, we will hear that this isn’t even a story about Hell or the afterlife at all. This story is about this life. Jesus wasn’t threatening his listeners with eternal damnation for having too much money. This wasn’t about the personal perils of riches. This story is about how we treat one other with regards to money. And I think, speaks clearly to how we relate to money in our lives. Although such a story might be easier if Jesus were talking about personal morality.

Barbara Brown Taylor puts a clarifying mirror to many of our faces when she says,

“On the whole it is easier for me to dodge charges of personal immorality than to dodge charges of social injustice. As long as I can manage to stay in a monogamous, heterosexual marriage I can enter into discussions about adultery, homosexuality, and divorce with all the sound and fury that I want because it’s not likely that the discussion will require me to change anything. But switch the subject to money, as Jesus himself did, over and over again, and I may become quiet. Because I have a lot of money. If we’re going to talk about wealth, how we get it, how we spend it, and what it tells us about the gods we really worship, than I’m probably not going to get out of the room without hearing a call to repentance. Could we change the subject back to sex, please.” (BBT, Bible Lecture)

But, of course, Jesus, ignoring our middle-class discomfort with conflict, keeps turning the discussion away from sex back to money, whether we want it to or not.

But we might protest and say, “Jesus, we know you’re strong on spiritual matters, but you’ve obviously never studied economics. Making the poor dependant on charity only ruins whatever hope they have of getting up on their own two feet. By helping the poor, we’re hurting the poor. Sometimes some tough-love is needed with these people.”

But Jesus, unmoved by our justifications, may point to the single mom who lost her welfare cheque because her teenage daughter got a part-time job after school at Burger King. How is that helping her? Jesus may point to the 30 000 children under five who die each day from malnutrition and hunger-related diseases. Is that what you call ‘tough love’? He may point to developing countries being crushed under a debt load that’s been paid off many times over but the interest keeps compounding, offering no hope of relief. How can they get back on their own two feet?

On the other hand he may point out how multi-million dollar hockey players protest salary caps while 20 percent of Canadian children go to school hungry. Jesus may open the newspaper and point out, that genocide and atrocities are happening in Sudan but there were more reports of Britney Spears wedding then of the bloodshed in Darfur. Jesus then may lower his eyes and speak of the widening gulf between the richest and the poorest people in the world. “This is not about politics,” he would say. “This is not even about economics. I don’t care how money is distributed because the kingdom of God has nothing to do with money. But this is about right and wrong, this is about loving your neighbour, this is about how we treat one another. And I would remind you that, “where your treasure is, there your heart is also.”

Jesus may then point out to us that we don’t lack the resources, tools, talent, or brain-power to deal with the problems crushing humanity, we lack the will.

My friend Kevin Little, the minister at Mackay United Church in Ottawa tells of when he was a university student at Dalhousie and he I had a professor named George Grant, whom many of you who’ve studied philosophy might have heard of. “[Grant] asked us to read the four gospels and give our impressions. I thought this odd, given that the course was a philosophy credit. What struck me then as a 17 year old was how the people that didn't matter in the Roman Empire, to the Religious authorities, to us today, were the ones who mattered most to Jesus.

“Grant asked us a bold question. He asked us, who were the campus do-gooders, to account for our actions, why did we care so much about others? Some offered up the possibility that it was an innate human quality. Grant quickly dismissed this. Clearly, unlike animal life, our passions to sacrifice often took us to lengths well beyond a mother and her young. "How do you account for that" he would ask. Some thought self-interest. After all if you look after others, they'll be inclined to look after you. "Pretty cold" said Grant. He reminded us that Nietzsche had pretty much refuted that argument, that the strong would eventually resent the weak and how they sap resources that could be used to further their great visions.

“In the end the only convincing answer was that something, someone, had willed a reality for us as humans that could not be reasoned or debated, it just was. That we are all equal cannot be proved. It just is. And we know this from our baptism. We know this from the one who gives our chaotic world a purpose. We know this because when we look in the eyes of our neighbour we glimpse a reflection of what the experience of God is.”

I think he’s right.

We may lack the will to tackle the world’s greatest problems, but God doesn’t. I often wonder if looking for political solutions to resolve the terrors of poverty, hunger, war, and whatever else is causing chaos in the world is really the answer. While I have a more than a passing interest in politics and the bible talks about Christians supporting their leaders because doing so leads to peaceable living, the bible is also not na├»ve to the dangers of power. Even if we elect the right people and enact the correct policies, the kingdom of God will not arrive. The kingdom cannot be legislated. Governments change. Policies evolve. But the kingdom of God remains the same. The Kingdom of justice, the kingdom of peace, the kingdom where the poor, the sick, the suffering, and the neglected, take their place at the head of the table.

Can we build this kingdom? No, but God asks us to keep it in our vision, to remember that our baptismal calling is always to keeping learning how to follow Jesus. We learn by living, sharing, daring, tearing down fences, challenging our pre-conceived notions about how the world works, and being transformed by the power of God’s compassion, we then discover the kingdom that Jesus was talking about and our lives begin to reflect the kind of love that God has for the world – a love that suffers, a love that liberates.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Some Clarifications from yesterday's post.

After a conversation with my wife last night I think I need to clarify some things. Spong was talking about Archbishop Rowan Williams' decision to ask Jeffrey John to remove himself from consideration of Bishop of Reading in the Church of England before he was ordained to his seat, even though Johns is a celibate gay male. I couldn't disagree more with Williams' decision because it violates every statute within the Church of England relating to homosexual behaviour and same-sex relationships. Gays and lesbians can serve in ordained postions as long as they remain celibate. Jeffrey John certainly meets this criteria.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with this position (The Issue itself is another debate, right now I'm concerned with church governance), this is where it stands and it was wrong for Williams to remove John from consideration to such an important post.

But perhaps most troubling, Williams has opened up a big can of theological worms surrounding the ontological foundation of the human person. In other words, he was saying that not just the behaviour or relationships contradict church teaching, but the very act of being homosexual is contrary to revelation (scripture, reason, and tradition - the three-legged stool in the C of E.). So just being homosexual, according to this astonishing precedent, is grounds for being passed over to important church posts.

Within the Anglican Communion this theology is found only within the radical wing of the conservative side, the loudest group that speaks on this issue and unfortunately the part of the Church of England to which Williams capitulated. To suggest that one is lacking some fundamental and personal characteristic for high office simply because of homosexual orientation is a modernist heresy and needs to be exposed as such. No one is more (or less) ontologically sinful than another. We all cling to the same cross for our salvation. Williams knows all of this, which is why it is so regrettable that he made the decision he did.

But I still think that Spong's Ad Hominem remarks do not help the debate one iota.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Rowan Williams has failed says bishop

John Shelby Spong, in an article in yesterday's Guardian regarding Archbishop Rowan Williams' leadership around the issue of homosexuality (hereafter referred to as The Issue) and the Anglican Communion, is quoted as saying.

"[Archbishop Williams'] actions have revealed a fatal character flaw. He has no courage, no backbone and no ability to lead. Seldom have I watched a quicker collapse of potential. It was an abdication of leadership so dramatic as to be breathtaking.

"He is now destined to be a long-serving but ineffective and empty man who has been revealed to be incapable of carrying the responsibility placed upon him. Leaders have only one opportunity to make a first impression. Rowan Williams has failed that test miserably."

Wow. Quite a condemnation, especially from a colleague. I guess the Archbishop missed the memo that he was to check with Spong before making any important decisions to make sure that they fell within the exclusive range of liberal fundamentalism.

Maybe it's just me, but I find such remarks such as Spong's, unhelpful to the debate. While it is no mystery as to where Spong stands on The Issue, his black and white, us-against-them, attitude is just as troubling when it comes from a fire-breathing liberal as when it spews from the mouth of a frothing fundamentalist. Too many people are stuck in the middle in The Issue and are being polarized by divisive statements, such as the ones that Spong makes.

In my congregation, like most in the ELCIC, there is a strong diversity of opinion regarding The Issue. While I may vehemently disagree with many folks here at Good Shepherd, I still recognize that they are part of my family of faith, and I am called to love and minister to them as well to one one with whom I agree.

I hear much polarizing rhetoric in my denomination as we struggle to find our way through this controversy. The Issue has been a litmus test for faithfulness for some folks on both sides of the debate. "Where do you stand on The Issue" is not merely a query as to what a person thinks, it now represents a whole host of theological questions most central being Biblical Authority. It grieves me that the conversation we are having is a heated argument between two rival factions rather than a prayerfully discerning dialogue or debate that searches for the heart of God.

I've also heard it said that The Issue is more than homosexuality, but that to become more welcoming to gays and lesbians will put us on a slippery slope toward a liberal theological agenda that will end in our demise as a national church body. I'm not convinced. While many pro-gay advocates certainly are of the liberal persuasion, many that I've talked to are not. In fact, some "pro-gay" advocates believe that the gospel compells them to welcome all people.

As our church struggles with this issue, I'd like to hear more compassion for those caught in the middle and who are honestly searching and discerning where they believe God is leading us. It is my prayer that God will lead us through this difficult time of discernment and at the end make us stronger and more united as a family of faith.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Elie Wiesel On the Atrocities in Sudan

I found this on the BlogsCanada site. Wiesel's message speaks for itself.

On the Atrocities in Sudan

by Elie Wiesel

Remarks delivered at the Darfur Emergency Summit, convened at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York on July 14, 2004, by the American Jewish World Service and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Sudan has become today’s world capital of human pain, suffering and agony. There, one part of the population has been , and still is , subjected by another part, the dominating part, to humiliation, hunger and death. For a while, the so-called civilized world knew about it and preferred to look away. Now people know. And so they have no excuse for their passivity bordering on indifference. Those who, like you my friends, try to break the walls of their apathy deserve everyone’s support and everyone’s solidarity. (read the full text here)

From October's Church Newsletter

I picked up a book last week called The Resurrection of the Son of God by Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar, NT Wright. I’ve always appreciated Wright’s work because he makes what could easily be a dry and boring field of study (Biblical Theology), drains it of its dogma, and reintroduces traditional Christianity for a new world hungry for a word from God.

Also last week, I finally got around to seeing The Passion of the Christ on DVD. As I watched it I kept in mind all the commentaries, reviews, conversations and arguments that I heard, read, or participated in. Many of my more conservative friends said they were moved by the film because they felt they witnessed the sacrifice that Jesus made for them. Others, suggested that the film was excessively violent and portrayed Jesus as some divine macho-man who endured horrific torture and met death without so much as a muffled scream. Yet others complained of the films supposed anti-Semitism (a criticism, for which I have some sympathy).

But I saw the film differently. I was surprised by how deeply I was moved by it. I saw it almost as a mirror into myself and the world we inherited. The glee with which the Roman soldiers whipped and tortured Jesus (while not historically accurate, they provided the film with strong theological content, making the movie less a historical re-enactment as much as it is a devotional and theological expression of the mystery of Jesus the Son of God dying the death of sinful humanity – our death. The Roman army may have been brutal, but they were also disciplined and would not have enjoyed scourging someone with the cruel abandon with which the soldiers were portrayed in the film) echoed the glee with which many kill innocent victims and claim a victory for themselves, for their god, or for their country (or all three).

Both the film and the book made me question the ease with which we speak of “Christ crucified and risen” as if his death was little more than a theological construct and his resurrection was scarcely other than a pithy postscript added on to an otherwise dark and difficult story.

As I read the book and watched the movie, I was struck by how well the two experiences worked together. The film (with all its flaws) brought to life the world that Wright described. The strength of our faith story lies deep in its historical roots, a particular history of the God of Israel made flesh in the human being named Jesus.

When we reflect upon who we are as a people of God, and as we plan for the future, it is important for us to remember who this particular God is when we ask ourselves, “What does it mean to follow the poor man from Nazareth, who was tortured and executed, and who rose from the dead three days later?” This is a question that challenges me in my work. This is a question that I hope challenges all of us as we look ahead in great anticipation to where God is leading us.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Too much to do on Tuesday

Today is one of those days that I just want to vegetate and read some good books, but I have too much on my desk this afternoon (I took the morning off to look at after Naomi while my wife could work around the house. Sophie was at pre-school).

So here’s my prayer for today, which is meant to be read and prayed s-l-o-w-l-y:

Lord, kindle our hearts within
A flame of love to our neighbours,
To our foes, to our friends, to our loved ones all,
From the lowliest thing that lives
To the name that is highest of all.

(Gaelic traditional)

Monday, September 20, 2004

Sermon: Pentecost 16 - Year C

Luke 16:1-13

Let me just say right off the bat that NO ONE knows what this story is about. I must have read at least 25 sermons on this reading this week, countless commentaries, and consulted some colleagues, and no two people can agree on what this passage from Luke is all about. So then I consulted the fountain of all wisdom and the source of all knowledge - my wife Rebekah. She pointed me to a brilliant sermon she published on this text, but despite her creatively ingenious unpacking of the story, she didn’t solve the problem as much as she skillfully and imaginatively deepens the tension we have with it. I had my nose stuck in a book most of this week hoping that some of the big name scholars might be able to help me out, but all of them seemed just as lost as I was.

The problem is this: This parable makes absolutely no sense. As Willimon points out: “We teach our children to be honest, and then Jesus praises dishonesty? We teach our children to be thrifty and hard-working, and then Jesus celebrates laziness and waste? Maybe Luke dozed off while writing this one down. Maybe something is lost in the translation. Maybe, Jesus, or Luke, or the Holy Spirit put this story in the bible because it was incomprehensible, to keep us humble, lest we believe ourselves masters of scripture.”

Whatever the reason, this story is in the bible and it is the reading for the 16th Sunday of Pentecost – Year C. There is no getting around that.

But it’s clear that Jesus was warning his listeners about the perils of riches. I know what you’re thinking, I can tell by how some of your eyes are glazing over: “Yes, we get it.” You might be thinking to yourself, “Money isn’t everything. Materialism and consumerism is killing us, blah, blah, blah…” I know you’re thinking that because that’s what I was thinking last Monday when I looked up the readings for today. “Here we go again,” I thought to myself. I’m probably just as tired of talking about the dangers of money and wealth as you are probably of hearing about it.

Some of us might take Jesus’ message seriously enough to want to make radical lifestyle changes. We muse about selling off the boat, living more simply, giving more money to charity. Methodist preacher Will Willimon makes fun of our brief willingness to change our lives, “You may hear a sermon and think, ‘I’ll go home and be Mother Teresa. I won’t be materialistic anymore. I’ll pray five times daily for an hour. I’ll be a saint.’ But it won’t last past lunch time….admit it. You won’t be Mother Teresa. You’ll still be materialistic; it’s the air we breathe.”

So what do we do then? Admit defeat then move on? Maybe you’re going to brutally honest and simply say, “I’m not likely to sell all I have and give it to the poor, becoming a modern-day Francis of Assisi.” But maybe I can do what I can. Maybe I can drop some food in the food bank bin, maybe I can kick in a little more cash to Canadian Lutheran World Relief, maybe I can donate some old clothes to the Salvation Army. Is this what God wants from us? Perhaps.

But I’m not entirely sure that Jesus knows what he’s saying. In the parable, the connection isn’t totally clear between honest and dishonest wealth, and which kind of wealth Jesus was praising and which he was condemning. Why was the master happy that he just got cheated out of half what he was supposed to get back? Maybe he thought that getting half was better than getting nothing. But what then is Jesus praising? Jesus seems to be saying that scheming is a good thing, that people should be just as shrewd in sacred things as the steward was with his business dealings. But then Jesus gets angry with them for being able to effectively work the system. Then Jesus, almost out of nowhere launches into a diatribe about serving two masters. So which is it Jesus, is it a good thing to be manipulative and scheming? Or should we shun the system altogether because our loyalties might get confused? Jesus, a little more clarity would be helpful here.

But Jesus says what he says, and leaves it with that. You can almost see the puzzled looks on the peoples’ faces. Was Jesus being intentionally obtuse or did he mis-speak? What exactly is Jesus trying to say?

But we do know that this parable is about money, but he has a funny way of getting there. Jesus speaks here, and throughout Luke’s gospel about something other than the unfettered acquisition of wealth, and warns of the perils of riches. Tucked away in Luke’s gospel is some vision that life is more than money. But that, of course, is something we already know, we don’t need the Son of God to tell us that life is about more than what we possess and what we gain.

So, again, what is this story about?

This steward was manipulative; there is no getting around that, but the violation of what seems to be the right thing to do can be used in astonishing new ways by God. Jesus never spent too much time with the squeaky clean. He seemed to prefer the company of those whose lives coloured outside the lines, those who never really quite fit in inside the houses of official religion or even inside the halls of economic prosperity. But this motley crew, this gaggle of misfits, this group of nobodies became his followers and changed the world. But if we know our bible at we know we shouldn’t be surprised that God never chooses saints to do God’s work. What about Jacob the liar and the thief. Noah never saw the inside of a bottle that he couldn’t cozy up to. Moses was a murderer. What about Dorothy Day? Divorced, having had both an abortion and a child out of wedlock, sneaking back into the church, serving the poor and beginning a religious movement that remains as vibrant today as when she gathered people together in Harlem back in the 30’s. Consider Martin Luther King Jr, an adulterer and a plagiarist. Just consider you and consider me. I’ve been here long enough and I know myself well enough that none of us can claim total righteousness. None of us is wholly pure and none of us is completely saintly. The most charitable among us would say that we are, at best, a jumble of mixed motivations, a concoction of sweet wine and sour vinegar, a mishmash of both the good and the evil that stalks the world.

So maybe Jesus is telling us in a round about way that there is no clear division between clean and unclean, between good and evil, between comedy and tragedy. Maybe Jesus is saying that just as there is no such thing as clean money there is also no such things as a pure person, and that God can use us small, sinful, dishonest selves to accomplish God's work. We are mixed both with the blood of Jesus which declares us clean, and the blood of Adam and Eve which announces us broken and sinful. We are, as one writer puts, “citizens of heaven and tax-payers of earth. It’s no excuse for the trouble we get into, but it does explain our spotty record.”

So what does this story mean? I still don’t know. But what I do know is this: the world will behave shrewdly and with calculation. Perhaps Jesus is asking us to make the best of a bad situation by being shrewd and calculating ourselves, not worrying about following every rule, but daring to colour outside the lines, knowing we aren’t saints, but forgiven stewards trying to figure out how to live authentically and faithfully, serving one master who is merciful and loving and in who’s name we are saved while living with another master who asks us to be shrewd and calculating. Maybe Jesus saw just how impossible such an arrangement is. Maybe that’s why Jesus offered us a way out through his cross. Amen.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Peace: A Prayer

Christ is the light
which illuminates our existence

Before this light
the darkness of evil and war and sin
will not prevail

Even death is defeated
for God’s love is eternal

God desires communion with us
and makes us enter beyond death
into his eternal life

from Parkminster Abbey

"The world will never be the dwelling place of peace till peace has found a home in the heart of each and every person, till every person preserves in himself [or herself] the order ordained by God to be preserved." (Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris)

Thomas Merton on Peace

"I have learned that an age in which politicians talk about peace is an age in which everybody expects war: the great men of the earth would not talk of peace so much if they did not secretly believe it possible, with one more war, to annihilate their enemies forever. Always, "after just one more war" it will dawn, the new era of love: but first everybody who is hated must be eliminated. For hate, you see, is the mother of their kind of love.

Unfortunately the love that is to be born out of hate will never be born. Hatred is sterile; it breeds nothing but the image of its own empty fury, its own nothingness. Love cannot come of emptiness. It is full of reality. Hatred destroys the real being of man in fighting the fiction which it calls "the enemy." For man is concrete and alive, but "the enemy" is a subjective abstraction. A society that kills real men in order to deliver itself from the phantasm of a paranoid delusion is already possessed by the demon of destructiveness because it has made itself incapable of love. It refuses, a priori, to love. It is dedicated not to concrete relations of man with man, but only to abstractions about politics, economics, psychology, and even, sometimes, religion.." Originally published in The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, (New York: New Directions, 1977, page 374-75)

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Does John Kerry Pass the Faith Test?

John Kerry has no faith. George Bush has too much faith. So we hear from pundits religious and secular, Republican and Democrat. But Luis Lugo of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life adds more grist for the mill in his article in this morning’s Miami Herald. Jim Wallis, social activist, evangelical preacher, and founder/editor of Sojourners Magazine is afraid of Bush’s theology of empire in his article from the online edition.

Politics can bring out the worst in Christians. Just ask James L. Evans, pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Alabama. He's been following a scary Orwellian tactic used by Christians to make sure churches aren't endorsing any (or the wrong) candidate and reports in an article for "Sightings" sponsored by the Martin Marty Centre:

In Kansas, a group known as the Mainstream Coalition is outraged by churches who openly endorse candidates for office. According to published IRS guidelines, organizations granted tax-free status under federal law "may not participate at all in campaign activity for or against political candidates." In an effort to force these churches to comply with the law, the Mainstream Coalition is enlisting volunteers who will regularly attend conservative churches during the campaign. These undercover visitors will witness and record instances of church services being used for politicking.

The news of monitoring church services has stirred some concern in the local faith community. According to a news story in The Kansas City Star (July 31, 2004), a group of pastors reacted strongly to the Mainstream Coalition's plan to monitor church services for potentially improper political activity. "We are alarmed at such scare tactics," said Ad Hoc Pastors for Biblical Values in a written statement. "These are the methods of coercive rulers. There is no place for this type of intimidation by 'secret police' in our land."

The Mainstream Coalition responded with a warning that churches need to keep partisan politics away from the pulpit. A spokesperson for the group said, "If they're not doing anything wrong, they shouldn't be worried about anything. Our goal is not to intimidate anyone. Our goal, which I think we've achieved to some degree, is to raise public awareness about this issue."

Meanwhile, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a conservative group calling themselves the Big Brother Church Watch is sending volunteers throughout Virginia to sit in liberal church pews and take notes. This group wants to make sure everyone is playing by the same rules. If conservative churches are at risk of losing their tax exempt status by engaging in partisan politics, then liberal churches should be equally at risk if they endorse candidates. Peggy Birchfield, spokeswoman for the Brothers, said, "You tend to hear more about the conservatives, but no one is checking the liberal churches." In particular, the Brothers are keeping an eye on Metropolitan Community churches, Unitarian Universalist fellowships, and African Methodist Episcopal churches.

It's hard to estimate, at this point, just how much these clandestine worshipers will add to church attendance during the campaign season. Reports from both groups seem to indicate that the monitors will be going out two by two. But from small seeds come mighty weeds. Monitoring pairs could easily become monitoring teams. We could witness the rise of monitoring communities. What begins as a tiny mission effort of a faithful few could eventually become a mass movement -- they may even establish their own college.


Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Tony Campolo: "Evangelical Christianity Has Been Hi-Jacked!"

Tony Campolo has been an outspoken advocate and activist for social justice from a biblical perspective for years. Here is an excellent interview with him from BeliefNet, where he rightly points out that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, and Jesus cannot be co-opted into endorsing anyone’s campaign. No matter what Pat Robertson says.

The overemphasis on faith in this year's American Presidential campaign has been troubling me deeply. George W Bush, the "Christian" candidate has been less than Christ-like as he attacks and mis-represents Democratic challenger, John Kerry. Many American Christians seem to hear only Bush's Christian rhetoric as if being a Christian means little more than praying every day and reading the bible supplimented with "My Utmost for His Highest."

John Kerry has also been very inarticulate regarding his faith. He often falls back on the "my religion is a private issue" response which suggests to his critics that his faith has little or no bearing on his public policy decisions. I'd like to see him emphasize the compassion of Jesus for the poor and most vulnerable. I'd like to hear him give a similar speech that Bill Clinton gave to the historic Riverside Church in NYC, where Clinton points out that Jesus would probably be more interested in helping people out of poverty than in giving the most wealthy 3 percent a tax cut (go to the c-span website and enter "Clinton Riverside Church" in the search).

I guess I'm troubled by the full-throated support many Christians are giving Bush simply because he knows their lingo, strokes their fears, and makes them feel powerful. But Jesus wasn't about dominating power or the unfettered pursuit of wealth. Jesus told us that we can't serve God and mammon, and that the first will be last and the last will be first in the kingdom of God. I hear none of this from either Presidential candidate. So it makes me wonder what "God" the candidates speak of in their speeches, and on what, truly, is their faith based?

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

A Sermon on Prayer

Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults. 1 Cor. 14.20

In the monastery of Mt.Athos in Greece, a groups of monks gather at the beginning each day, light their candles, chant their psalms, and pray for the concerns of the world. Day after day. Year after year. Century after century. That is their job – to pray. I think we can learn a lot from them.

Prayer doesn’t come easily to me. I’ve always been amazed at and even a little envious of those who confess to have a vibrant prayer life. Folks, for whom prayer flows from their mouths like streams of living water, whose words and passion echo the heartbeats of the angels crying out to God on behalf of those who wish but can’t seem to begin to understand their longings, must less put them into words.

Also, growing up Anglican made life difficult when I wanted learn to pray by myself. The only model I was given was the profound eloquence of the Book of Common Prayer, with its vigorous beauty, depth of human understanding of both sin and forgiveness, and soaring cadences - reverberations of the passionately devout utterances of saints past. When it came to piecing my own prayers together, reaching for a word here and a phrase there, I just couldn’t measure up to the poetic refrains of those ancient prayers that smoldered in my ears. After a while, I simply stopped trying.

But as I listen to myself say that, I wonder if it was a just an excuse to stop praying. If not being ranked among the masters disqualified me from doing anything, I would have stopped playing trombone because I don’t sound like the guy in the Chicago Symphony, I would have stopped writing music because it certainly doesn’t sound like Beethoven, and I definately would have stopped preaching because I am no Billy Graham, Martin Luther, or Kevin Little. As I reflect on it, I wonder if the real reason I stopped praying was because I didn’t hear anyone answer back. I didn’t really know what I was listening for, but I also knew that I wasn’t hearing it. When I stepped into the darkness of my prayer closet, I was met with the deafening sound of absence. God’s absence. And I couldn’t shake the funny feeling that huddled down on my knees feebly pouring out the desires of my heart to a God who wasn’t answering back, I looked decidedly silly. But of course, to whom was I looking silly? If no one was listening, probably no one was watching either.

So I stopped praying altogether.

But I must confess there were times when I muttered a desperate prayer walking unprepared into an exam in university, as if God was in the business of bailing out lazy students who spent too much time in the pub instead of the library the night before. And maybe then God’s absence was more an act of divine discipline than a bone fide spiritual crisis.

However, I began really asking questions about prayer when, in my hometown of St. Catharines, Ontario, a 15 year old school girl named Kristen French was kidnapped, sexually tortured, murdered, and dumped on the side of the road. Between the times she disappeared and when her naked body was found, the city cried out to God, day and night for the safe return of this young woman. Churches held all night vigils and 24 hour prayer watches. People gathered in homes to pray, people prayed on the streets. The city was soaked in prayer. When her body was eventually found on the side of a lonely road just outside of the city, the praying stopped. I guess the faithful in the churches of St. Catharines received their answer from God.

I was reminded of W.H. Auden’s poem Victor, a Ballad, where Victor is betrayed by his wife. So…

Victor walked out into the High Street
he walked to the edge of town ;
he came to the allotments and the rubbish heap
and his tears came tumbling down.
Victor looked up at the sunset
as he stood there all alone;
”Cried: “Are you in heaven, Father?”
But the sky said “Address not known.”
(Auden, W.H, Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, Random House, Inc, 1940, quoted in Steimle, Edmund, “Address Not Known” from From Death to Life, Fortress Press, 1973)

When I hear easy assurances from Christians that “God hears and answers prayer” I cringe. I cringe because I think of St. Catharines crying out to God in desperate prayer for the safe return of a young woman, and receiving the answer “address not known.”

I think this is what Paul is talking about in tonight’s reading, “Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults.” Of course Paul was talking about welcoming outsiders into their community and to not let their speaking in tongues confuse or put up walls between those on the inside and those on the out. But I also think he could just as easily been talking about prayer, and how we talk about it.

I think Paul would be telling us to be honest about where we see God and where we do not see God; where God is so powerfully present and where God is so devastatingly absent. Where God’s fingerprints are all over our lives and where even the rumour of God is almost an offense against the suffering of innocents.

Paul would remind us that he carried, throughout his life, what he called, “a thorn in the flesh,” where he called out to God to remove it so he could get on with the rest of his ministry, but instead of the warmth of divine healing flooding his body, Paul received a terrible and cold silence, broken only with the divine word, “My grace is sufficient for you.” In other words, “I am not at your beck and call. I have given you what you need to carry out your ministry.”

But maybe – just maybe, we’re looking for God in all the wrong places, places where perhaps we’ve lost sight of God. Chances are we’ll look for God’s presence in the bible, in the creeds, in liturgy, in worship, in the places where think God might turn up. But maybe – just maybe – God is hidden in the dark corners of our world. Maybe God is hidden beneath the quiet agony of the young woman dying of cancer. Maybe God is hidden within the awkward conversations of the married couple who after 25 years have become strangers. Maybe God is hidden inside a mother’s profound grief upon hearing of her daughter’s horrific murder. I don’t know. I just wonder.

I wonder because in all my hoping, in all my dreaming, in all my living, I’ve seen, what I can only describe as “God” working in the weirdest places. I’ve talked with people whose bodies are being eaten alive by cancer who confess profound peace in their spirits. I’ve seen celebrations of life break out during funerals. I have seen the hardest of hearts, break down in liberating sobs of repentance upon hearing the life-renewing message of grace.

So I began to pray again, even when it hurt, even when soured by verbal constipation. I pray because I will not let the powers of darkness triumph in the world. I pray because even just the tiniest glimpse of heaven on earth is enough to tell me that gates of hell will not prevail against the world. I have learned through hard won experience that prayer is an act of hope-filled defiance. We pray in spite of evidence to the contrary, we pray when we see no discernable difference in our lives or the world, we pray, ultimately because prayer changes us into that for which we pray and gives us a peek into the heart of God which the bible calls the Kingdom of Heaven.

One of my favorite authors, Thomas Merton once wrote, "The secret of prayer is a hunger for God." I think that’s a wonderful beginning. We begin with the hunger for God, not with God’s abundant and abiding presence. We hunger for that which we do not have in abundance. When we don’t have God in abundance, we pray with hope and not with certainty, we pray with our hands and our hearts empty, waiting, waiting, and waiting some more, until we are surprised by the grace of God’s renewing presence that nourishes us, changes us, and brings us to the joy of the resurrection.

Maybe you’re not where I am. Maybe prayer comes easily to you. Maybe you see God answer prayer richly in your life and the lives of others. That’s wonderful. I want to encourage you because you’ve been given an astonishing gift. Keep praying. Keep your eyes open to the handiwork of God. And pray for the rest of us.

But for those of us for whom prayer comes through much toil and effort, I say keep hungering, keep searching, keep praying, until that day comes when we become what we pray for, and the Kingdom of God arrives in all its fullest. Amen.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Kinsella on Rock Stars and Politics

Liberal party bad boy Warren Kinsella’s piece in today’s Globe and Mail asks whether rock stars should get involved with politics.

To my ears it sounds like a silly question. But others obviously don't agree. Alice Cooper charges Bruce Springsteen with treason because the Boss raises money to help defeat George W Bush. Just turn on Fox News or listen to the rantings of Sean Hannity to hear similar hysterics. This is a typical Republican tactic. Remember when the Dixie Chicks were black listed because of their anti-war views? Or when folks threatened to stop watching the West Wing because Martin Sheen (aka "President Bartlett") spoke too loudly about his left of centre views and that people might take him more seriously because it was said that folks can't distinguish between a real president and a character on TV? Celebrities should have no voice in public affairs, they were told. Just make your movies, record your CDs, and keep your mouths shut about anything of consequence.

But where was the Republican outrage when Arnold Schwarzenegger manoevered his own Total Recall and ousted California Governor Gray Davis (D) after only a year in office? What about Stephen Baldwin's cozying up to the Religious Right at last month’s Republican Convention? Where was Sean Hannity’s righteous indignation then? Did Rush Limbaugh take a bathroom break? I guess it's okay when Republican celebs get involved with public issues, but Democratic celebs dare not utter a word,lest one feels the wrath of Rupert Murdoch and his ilk.

But as Kinsella points out,
…I heard the first Clash album, circa 1977 or so. And then I read what British kids had to say about the first Clash album. It was raw, it was loud, and it was fiercely political - about things that were largely beyond my ken, like Britain's system of the dole, and police brutality, and race riots. But here's the thing: The Brit fans adored that LP, and not simply for its sound. They loved it, they said, BECAUSE IT WAS MUSIC THAT WASN'T AFRAID TO URGE KIDS TO CHANGE THE WORLD. There: I wrote that last part in capital letters to ensure that not even Alice Cooper could miss the point - to wit, that rock 'n' roll matters, and not simply because it's fun to dance to.

For me it was Dead Kennedys, 7 Seconds, Subhumans, and a host of other punk bands that aroused my political instincts, and, dare I say, influenced my Christianity. Who can listen to Soup is Good Food without hearing a rallying cry for social justice? Or who could sit through The Stars and Stripes of Corruption with lamenting the co-option of democracy by well moneyed lobbyists?

But a more fundamental issue is at stake: Since when does a person have to give up the right to freedom of speech simply because she or he has become famous? Some celebrities may say some deeply weird stuff, and some celebrities may be hopelessly naive about important political issues. But that doesn't mean that they shouldn't have the right to express their opinion, no matter how deeply informed or embarassingly asinine it may be. Isn't that the essence of strong democracy?

But as a Christian, I don't look first to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to determine or defend my life choices because Christianity is not first and foremost about rights. Christianity is about servanthood in Jesus' name. That's why I look to Jesus before I look to the Charter. Jesus talked about carrying the cross with him as a mark of being his follower. Jesus talked a lot about the corrupting influence of money. When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God he described a way of living in, relating to, and influencing the world through God’s self-giving, suffering love. For me, as a teenager in the 1980’s, a lot of punk music spoke these values to my life far more deeply than any sermon I heard at church. Maybe Jesus speaks through prophets that most of us wouldn’t recognize or even accept. Maybe that's why rock stars should talk politics.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Pentecost 15 - Year C

Luke 15:1-10

“Todd”, one of the characters in Douglas Coupland’s novel Life After God is a restless wanderer. Todd dropped out of university a decade ago and began scamming full time between tree planting and E I – a way of life he shows no interest of ever altering. He shares a wartime house off Commercial Drive in East Vancouver “with an ever-changing ragtag ensemble of ecofreaks, slackers, Deadheads, Quebecois Nationalists, and part-time musicians,” as the narrator describes Todd’s life, not so much judging his friend, as despairing of him.

“But then” the narrator says, “every so often, through the fog of drugs and a downwardly spiraling life style, the real Todd will shine through, and then I remember why I make the effort to see him through the years. For example, I will ask him what he thinks about while he plants baby trees in the lobotomized northern clearcuts. He will snarl and laugh and say, ‘The money.’ And then he will stop and say,

“I know you guys think my life is a joke – that it’s going nowhere. But I’m happy. And it’s not like I’m lost or anything. We’re all to F***ing middle class to ever be lost. Lost means you had faith or something to begin with and the middle class never really had any of that. So we can never be lost. And you tell me – what is it we end up being, then, - instead of being lost?”

That’s a good question, don’t you think? So what does it mean to be lost? “The lost” is a term that gets thrown about among church folks, and to be honest, I’m not sure I know what it means. I know that some folks like to use it as term to describe the “unsaved” or those without a “personal relationship with God” (another term, I confess, I don’t really understand). And after reading today’s gospel, I’m even more at a loss of what that means than when I started.

But I do think Todd is on to something. In our gated, well- maintained, neatly manicured, middle-class world, we’ve put up safeguards that protect us from ever being lost. I’ve always wondered if being lost was perhaps a little more exciting than a pursuing sheltered way of life that may shield us from the debris that often is hurled at us; and where we sedate ourselves with such banalities as Reality TV, making our way to the next day relatively unscathed, but also uninspired.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells a few weird little stories about being lost and about being found. A lost sheep, a mis-placed coin, a wayward son, all were lost and then found, and, it is said, the angels rejoiced. Jesus told these stories about God to those who grumbled about the company he kept. But as Jesus told these stories, the questions that hung in the air that everyone probably asked, but not out loud, were: where am I in his stories? Where is God in all this?

But, the question that has always bothered me is: Do people know when they are lost? If they don’t know, then are they really lost? Can we be arrogant enough to suggest to folks like Todd that they can be lost without even knowing it? If they are happy with their lives, who are we to suggest that they are lacking in some way? Wouldn’t that be rather presumptuous? Or to turn the question back on us: What would it look like if Todd was “found”? Would finding a stable job, getting married and raising a family, attending church, make Todd more “found?” or at least less “lost?” Does Todd have to join the ranks of middle class respectability to be “found?”

As Barbara Brown Taylor so astutely points out, “These two parables are full of problems, not the least of which is that they do not seem to mean what Jesus says they mean. According to his explanations, they are about heaven’s joy over one repentant sinner, but the lost sheep does not repent as far as I can tell and the lost coin certainly doesn’t. They are both simply found – not because either of them does anything right, but because someone is determined to find them and does. They are restored thanks to God’s action, not their own…” (BBT, The Lost and Found Department)

Taylor goes on to suggest that Jesus probably told these stories as we read them, but then maybe his editors wanted to make sure that the reader didn’t miss the point with such open-ended-ness. Or, she says, these parables are not stories about lost sheep or misplaced coins at all, “but stories about good shepherds and diligent sweepers.”

I think she’s right. Jesus may have been talking to the multitude on that hill, but he was directing these stories to those standing just outside the perimeter, those with their arms tightly folded across their chests, their eyes squinting, and their ears perked, ready to pounce on anything that came from Jesus’ mouth that didn’t fall in line with official religious pronouncements.

I wonder if we do the same thing when we confuse middle-class respectability or a Canadian version of the American dream with the Kingdom of God, settling for a comfortable lifestyle, pouring cold water on the passionate faith that so many people yearn for. I wonder why we turn our energies toward working so hard building ourselves a life that we loose the intimate contact with those whom know we should cherish.

For us middle-class Canadians, “lostness” has more to do with the worry and busyness that dominate our lives, so the flurry of activity that marks our days drowns out the anxieties we have for the future. Busyness has become a hallmark of strength and achievement. If we’re busy, we’re valuable. We contribute. If we’re not busy, we’re lazy and don’t contribute. If we don’t contribute, we’re worthless.

Do we keep schedules so hectic so we don’t have time to think about our lives because we are too busy living them? Our calendars are too full for us to stop and think about where we’re heading because we are moving full throttle through life. Are we moving away from something painful or towards something beautiful? Because the way we deal with what is behind us is crucial to how we understand our lives as Christians. What about the past? You past? Our past? If we are honest we know that the past is filled with both blessings and curses.

As individuals and as a culture, no generation in history is more conscious of the curses inflicted on us – wittingly or unwittingly – that have left their scars on our lives. Perhaps it was an abusive parent who left you with a bruised soul. Maybe it was the spouse who left you for no good reason. Possibly it was when you were a child and you got really sick, leaving you weaker than the other kids. It’s easy to live in the past, to let those moments of defeat or loss or pain define our lives. Some of us compensate by running so fast from the past thinking we can outrun the pain that has chased us all our lives. Others stay in the hurt, stuck in the moment, using it as an excuse to stop living or making good decisions. It’s easy to make these experiences defining moments in our lives, moments where one can easily mark a “before” and “after.”

But I think an encounter with Jesus changes the defining “before” and “after” moments. Jesus tells a story about a son returning home after insulting his father and frittering away his money. Jesus also talked about a woman throwing a party that cost more than the coin she found because she was so happy that she found it. And Jesus tells a tale about a shepherd doing something stupid like leaving 99 sheep vulnerable to wolves and thieves just to find the one sheep that was lost. But like the good shepherd and the diligent woman, Jesus keeps searching for us, because he knows the joy that God wants to for us. Jesus knows that part of being “found” is leaving behind the past that hurts us for a future that heals us.

There is no one way that Jesus searches for us and no one way that Jesus finds us. Sometimes Jesus knocks us off our feet, blinds us with his love, and re-names because the old person within lies smoldering in the grave while the new person rises to new life. For others, coming to faith is more like a pot boiling, slowly, and almost imperceptibly, with the odd bubble popping to the top but soon bubbles over and the lid is blown off by the sheer force of its collective power. Still for others, Jesus is mostly a rumour, a voice barely heard, a song scarcely understood, and a promise half-believed. Holy gossip whispered between friends searching for the presence and promises of God.

I think that’s how most of us experience being “found.” Most of us wouldn’t want to explain or mark it on our calendars, but slowly Jesus our shepherd leads us past the ever present “before” and “after” moment, making our way from the painful events that shaped our lives to the God-haunted joy of a new beginning, unfolding like a slow summer sunrise, until we find ourselves immersed in the warmth of God eternal love, returning to that one holy and defining moment when we were drowned in the waters of Holy Baptism and raised to new life in Jesus. Maybe that’s what it means to be found. Amen.

Friday, September 10, 2004

A Sermon on Faith

Faith. It’s such an ambiguous word, isn’t it? It’s a word that gets thrown around the church quite a bit, but it is fraught with such volatility that I’m wondering if we should be wearing protective goggles or body armour just to utter the word. Jesus said that faith could move mountains. Paul says that we be become in a right relationship with God through our faith. If that is true, then faith is not some innocuous addendum added on to all the various components that make up our lives. Faith is not to be confused with belief, although belief is certainly a part. Faith is not to be confused with doing good deeds, although good deeds undoubtedly flow from faith. Faith is more basic, and more transcendent. Faith more human, yet connects us with the divine. Faith pulls us into the deepest pit only to lift us to the highest heaven.

In the climax of Douglas Coupland’s novel Life After God, one of his characters eloquently shows us what I think faith looks like: “Now –here is my secret” he whispers, “I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God – that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”

Sometimes I wonder if that’s what the prophet Isaiah was talking about when he unleashed his terrible invective against the people of God:

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!
Listen of the teachings of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;

They have become of burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands [to me],
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

When I hear such harsh words, I hear them directly squarely at me. A few years ago, there was a stretch of about a couple months where it seemed the whole city of Halifax knocked on our church door looking for food or, which was most often the case: money. The church didn’t keep cash on hand, so I gave whatever was in my pocket, which was usually very little. Then folks began to figure out that the pastors lived next door to the church and our doorbell would ring just as we were sitting down to dinner, or late at night after we had finally gotten Sophie to sleep. Afer a few months of this, I began to experience Compassion Fatigue. I just didn’t want to help anyone else. I was tired of being bothered at my home. I was tired of being interrupted while working in the office. I was tired of being asked for food only to find the unopened cans of beans and bottles of ketchup unceremoniously dumped in the grass behind the church.

For a time, I resented bible passages such as this. “This can’t apply to me,” I would say to myself. “Poverty was different back then, there weren’t the community resources that we have today. Can’t these people just go to the Food Bank or Soup Kitchen – that’s what they’re there for?” I justified to myself.

But as I dug deeper into my feelings, I came to realize that my resentment and fatigue came from two sources: 1) A frustration that I didn’t have the resources to meet the demand and had to look too many people in the eye and tell them that I couldn’t help their family. 2) A lack of humility. Deep down, I felt that I was better then them. After all, I had a good education, a decent salary, a job I liked, a certain status in the community. These people were parasites, living off the wages of hard workers like myself. This coming from Mr. Social Justice.

So, each day I went to the office filled with both resentment and shame. Worship became poisoned with my arrogance. Like the people of Israel who felt the wrath of a just God, I too ignored the poor and the oppressed, I too had dismissed the needs of the needy, I too disregarded the pain of the most vulnerable of those around me, and I had the bitterness of heart to prove it.

But then I realized, this wasn’t about me or my feelings. This was about what God wants for the world. Maybe what God wanted from me was more humility, the realization that I needed God to help me do what God wanted me to do. I felt like that character in Life After God. I needed God to help me give, because I no longer seemed to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seemed capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.

I thought that perhaps God was teaching me what faith really looks like. The writer of Hebrews says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

A life of faith doesn’t mean that the questions stop. In fact, the questions become more intense. But a life lived in faith is a life marked by humility. There can be no arrogant Christians because faith is not certainty. Certainty is measured, marked, tested, and proven. Faith a fumbling in the dark, stubbing-your-toe-on-the-desk-as-you-blindly-look-for-the-light-switch sort of life. It may not always be pretty, but it is honest.

But more to the point, I think a life of faith is a life lived in holy defiance; defiance of the powers of darkness of this world. Faith is when the romance has gone out from the marriage but you stay together determined to make the relationship work. Faith is grieving the loss of a child, yet still finding a way to minister to the world out that pain. Faith is looking out upon a world swallowed up in war and chaos and saying, I will not live like that.

But chiefly, faith is a life lived remembering, remembering God and God’s handiwork in our lives and the world.

35 year-old rabbi Stacy Leveson wrote,

“I recently had lunch with a friend of mine. After we finished…my friend looked at me oddly and commented, ‘You really have tremendous faith in God.’ ‘I do’, I responded, ‘when I remember to…’ There are times…when I ‘forget’ to believe in God. After moments, days, and occasionally even weeks when God’s presence pervades me and the world around me, I suddenly realize that it is gone, that my awareness of God has left me with out my notice…Yet while ‘forgetting’ is not a conscious act, ‘remembering’ is. Only when I look for evidence of God’s presence, only when I recognize that God is part of every relationship I have, every bite that I eat, and every drop of rain that falls from the sky, will my intellectual knowledge be replaced by an intimate awareness of God.”

Humility. Honesty. Hope-filled and holy defiance. Remembering God. Faith sure asks a lot from us.

Terry Anderson, the American Associated Press reporter kidnapped and held hostage in Beruit for 7 long years by radical Shiite Muslims wrote about faith upon his release in his poem appropriately called Faith.

Where is faith found?
Not in a book,
or in a church,
not often or for everyone.
In childish times it’s easier; a child believes just what it’s told.
But children grow
and soon begin to see too much that doesn’t match the simple tales,
and not enough of what’s behind their parents’ words.
There is no God, the cynics say;
we made Him up out of our own need
and fear of death.
And happily they offer up their test tube proofs.
A mystery, the priests all say, and point to the saints
who prove their faith in acts of love
and sacrifice.
But what of us who are not saints, only common,
human sinners?
And what of those who in their need
and pain cry out to God and go on suffering?
I do not know –
I wish I did.
Sometimes I feel all the world’s pain.
I only say
that once in my
own need I felt a light and warm
and loving touch that eased my soul
and banished doubt
and let me go
on to the end.
It is not proof – there can be none.
Faith is what you find when you’re alone
and find you’re not.


Thursday, September 09, 2004

Inaugural Post

Hi Folks,

This is my first attempt at a blog. I thought I'd use this as a forum for sharing my sermons, but I am especially interested in discussing where faith, culture, and politics collide, to gain a greater understanding of where the church is heading and how the message of the gospel is impacting the world.

But to begin with, here is a sermon I preached a few weeks ago. Enjoy!

Pentecost 13 - Year C

“Bill” was a mentally ill resident of a homemade shelter that sat on the north corner of the parking lot at Brunswick Street United Church in downtown Halifax. Everyday, “Bill” would wake up and head to the church for a donut and a coffee from the mission inside. Every so often Bill would wander into the pastor’s office and slip him a couple dollars. “Condo Fees” Bill would call it. “Just wanting to pay my due,” he would say.

No one really knew Bill very well. He kept to himself and didn’t talk very much. He would just sit alone at his table sipping his coffee and eating his donut, muttering quietly to himself as he dusted chocolate sprinkles from his long grey beard with his cigarette stained fingers. That was Bill’s life.

One morning Bill didn’t show up at the church for his morning coffee and donut. This was odd since he’d been there everyday for years. But no one gave it too much thought.

The next morning, still, no Bill. So someone from the church went outside to Bill’s shack to see if everything was alright. The 4 X 8 spruce board Bill used as a door was slightly off centre and there were various boot and shoeprints in the snow coming in and out of the shack. When she took the board out of the way and looked in, there was Bill, hanging from a pole in the middle of the shack, with his hands and feet tied together behind his back

The police were immediately called. After a brief investigation the police concluded that Bill’s death was suicide. But as a retired officer in the congregation pointed out, “It is not impossible to tie your hands and feet together then hang yourself in a structure held together with chunks of old cardboard, pieces of wood, and discarded lead pipes, but it is very difficult and highly improbable.”

But of course, the police were busy people. They had other crimes to investigate. A dead homeless man in a violence and drug infested neighbourhood didn’t rank very high on their priority list. This was a suicide, they said. Case closed.

Maybe we like to tell ourselves that the universe has been flattened, that in Canada, each person, equal under the law, is protected with rights and freedoms and that we treat our people with a dignity unparalleled when compared with other parts of the world. Maybe we like to think that as long as folks work hard, play by the rules, and keep their hands clean, opportunities will naturally unfold. Maybe we like to think of ourselves as good hearted people who see only the best in others.

But I’ve heard good hearted people make excuses for what happened to Bill. “He must have been involved with some pretty shady dealings for that to happen to him.” One person suggested to me. “Was he an addict?” another asked “He must have been mixed up with the drug trade downtown.” “He wasn’t a friendly character; maybe he picked a fight with the wrong person.” Some folks tried to pin the blame on Bill when no one really knew what happened in that shack. If Bill had been a business owner from the south end or a lawyer from Bedford there would have been public outrage. There wouldn’t have been questions about the victim’s culpability in his own murder, there wouldn’t have been suggestions that he deserved what he got, and there wouldn’t have been speculation as to his personal character. But like it or not, even within our liberal democracy there is a pecking order that determines who receives justice and who is denied justice. Where wealth is equated with virtue, poverty is deemed a moral failing. Where status is linked with merit, homelessness is tied to laziness. Where power is connected with value, mental illness is felt to be shameful.

Jesus heard the same stuff were he was, and he was sick of it. Jesus was invited to Simon’s house, and to his surprise he found himself sitting down to dinner with a bunch of Pharisees. Jesus, for the most part, had a good relationship with many of the religious leaders. He could see the good work that they were doing: trying to keep the faith from being completely compromised by the ruling Roman authorities.

The Pharisees weren’t hurting for money. They were paid very well for what they did. And they were perched pretty high in the pecking order of 1st century Palestine. They simply assumed that they were to take the places of privilege in corridors of power and in the streets. They expected people to defer to their authority on matters great and small. Some Pharisees, like Nicodemus, took this responsibility very seriously and sought to enrich their understanding of God’s promises by asking important questions and seeking deeper wisdom, no matter where it came from. Others, like ones we meet in today’s gospel, were more concerned with strict obedience to the law and with maintaining their high status in society, at the cost of sharing the vibrant and living faith, of which they were chief custodians, with a people hurting and hungry for God.

“Those who humble themselves will be exulted; those who exult themselves will be humbled.” Jesus says, and the Pharisees rolled their eyes and the disciples gasped with embarrassment.

Gee-whiz, Jesus, if you’re trying to launch a popular movement, these are not the sorts of things you want to be saying. How about Unlimited Power, Personal Empowerment, Possibility Thinking? That’s what people want. People don’t want to hear any talk of sacrifice; they want to feel powerful. People don’t want to be challenged; they want to be affirmed. People don’t want to be taught, they want to be entertained.

Even the disciples don’t get it. They love it when Jesus gets in the Pharisees’ face, but look what happens when Jesus turns it around on them. James and John fight over who gets prime digs in Heaven. Peter is horrified when Jesus asks to wash his feet. And they all scatter like cowards when Jesus finally gets caught and crucified.

For me I can sympathize with the Pharisees and with the disciples. They had great hopes for the Messiah. They were hoping the Messiah would be a great military leader who would cast off the shackles of Roman oppression and usher in the new golden era of Jerusalem rule not seen since the glorious reign of the mighty King David. Who wouldn't want to regain former glory? So the Pharisees were thinking conquest. Jesus talked about suffering. The people were thirsting for freedom. Jesus talked about rejection. The disciples where anticipating glory for themselves and for all Jewish people. Jesus talked about dying a horrible death. C’mon Jesus, this isn’t how this Messiah thing is supposed to work.

This is not the god we expect either. This is not the god that our society and culture demands. What kind of self-respecting “god’ would allow himself to be betrayed then arrested? What sort of self-respecting “god” would allow himself to be tried and convicted of false charges? What sort of self-respecting “god” would allow himself to be ridiculed, tortured, and executed? Certainly not the god of our culture, for the “god” of our culture, the god of wealth, power, status, and success abandoned Jesus on the cross, turning his face away in disgust from Jesus’ humiliating defeat.

But that’s not the way the God of the bible does things. According to the god of our culture, the God of the bible does some really nutty stuff. The God of bible would be crazy enough to ask you to sit in silence holding the hand of 90 year old woman who can’t speak, hear, or see, and probably doesn’t know who you are, but is grateful for the gentle human contact she feels as her wrinkled hand is being lightly stroked. The God of the bible would be stupid enough to ask you to spend your Thursday mornings once a month, chopping vegetables for the soup that feeds hungry people downtown – the same hungry people, day after day, month after month, year after year, seeing no discernable change in their lives other than the fact that these same hungry people have a full belly on the last Thursday of the month only because you were there to help fill it. The God of the bible is naive enough to ask you to believe that someone like Bill was a person of worth and value, even though he doesn’t offer a thing to enhance the world.

It may not be pretty. It may not be glamorous. But it’s just your normal, everyday miracle working that Jesus expects from us each and everyday. I don’t know why the God of the bible works this way but this God does. This God asks us to do some pretty strange stuff when you think about it.

“Those who humble themselves will be exulted, those who exult themselves will be humbled.”

Strange stuff, but life-giving.

May this be so among us. Amen.