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Saturday, January 30, 2016

What a body

My sermon for this week was based on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.

This passage is, of course, the  classic metaphor for what it means to be a group of people: comparing a group to a body whose various parts and members must work in tandem to achieve much greater things than each of those parts and members could accomplish on their own.

To understand this passage in our own modern context, we first have to understand the culture into which Paul was speaking when he wrote this letter.

This was the first of two letter Paul wrote to the nascent Christian church in Corinth.  Generally speaking, if Paul had to write to you twice, it wasn't because he was proud of you.  This was the case with the Christian community in Corinth.

Corinth was a pretty cosmopolitan city, and so you found there a confluence of cultures, religions, philosophies and schools of thought.  You know how even in your own church and workplace (where you might expect there to be similar goals) you often find people disagreeing?  Well, try to imagine a nascent Christian church composed of converts from Judaism, from Paganism, from any one of literally dozens of different races, cultures, religions and philosophies.

The short story is there was conflict in the Corinthian church.

Although he doesn't get into much detail about the conflicts, one can only imagine they had to do largely with the distinction between sacred and profane (remember Gentiles did not share the same food and purity laws as Judaism), who was in charge, how they should worship, what their mission and vision was and probably just trying to simply articulate the raison d'etre of this new community Paul had started.

And it was to these conflicts that Paul was addressing his letter, urging the people to resolve their differences and find some common ground, but he does it in what I think is a particularly touching manner.  Rather than insist that everybody think the same, he urges the Corinthians to accept and celebrate each others' differences.

For example, I have known some churches and religions who insist on everyone believing the same thing, and no doubt, questioning or conflict is ever broached.  In other words, every member of the community is exactly the same.  I don't think I need to explain why this is not healthy, and why this is not faith.

If we transpose this onto Paul's metaphor, imagine if you will a body composed entirely of feet or hands or eyes.  Not a pretty picture, and not a very successful body.

Rather, Paul points out the obvious: hands are not feet, eyes are not ears, but each body part does something unique, and those unique gifts are necessary for the proper functioning of the body.

Back to church: religion and/or culture in general has a history of excluding people.  At one point, women were considered second class, as were African-Americans and First Nations.  Let's not lie, there are still barriers for them in many places.  Today, there are obviously still some corners of religion and culture where sexuality causes barriers.  To hear church folk speaking about world events today, it would seem that being Syrian and/or Muslim is a barrier.

These are all ways in which we say to others, "You are not part of the body", ways in which we cut others off and exclude, and it seems we are better at that than we are at finding ways to affirm to people, "You are part of this body, and an honoured one at that".

The problem is that we who are left in the body do ourselves as much harm in cutting off other people as we do to the people we cut off.

Can anyone argue that women's ordination hasn't brought new life and gifts to the church?  Can anyone argue that the Civil Rights movement wasn't right and good and in keeping with our faith?  Can anyone argue that dialogue with First Nations hasn't been healing and productive, even after all the sins of the church?  Can anyone argue that despite the difficulties, moving towards an affirmation of human sexuality hasn't been life-giving?  Can anyone argue that helping Syrians and Muslims even though up until recently they have not been part of "our body" isn't entirely in keeping with our Christian mission?

Not convincingly.  Not even close.

The rule is simple: the more "members" you remove, whether we are talking about bodies or groups, the more crippled you are.  The more members you have, the more you are able to act, and the more you benefit from the individual skills, talents and gifts of the body.

Today, I would like to challenge you to rejoice in being part of a body, whether that be a church, family, workplace or group of friends, and to take time to rejoice in the gifts that other members bring to that body.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

On the Primates' meeting, new wine and what the "I'm Sorry" is about

In 2004, a guy by the name of James Zetlen put up a website and eventually published a photo book called "Sorry Everybody".  This site/book consisted of thousands of Americans holding up signs apologizing for George W. Bush's re-election.  It was Zetlen's way, along with thousands of Americans, of apologizing to the rest of the world for the failures of their government, and apologizing in advance for the harm they feared Bush would cause during his second term.

I remember thinking that this project was weird and moving at the same time.  "How can one apologize for actions which are not their own?", I wondered.  And yet, I admired people from a country normally so patriotic publicly declaring that they did not stand with and for everything their country and its' Commander in Chief did and said.

Today I felt the need to don my clerical collar and hold up a sign apologizing.

What precipitated this was the result of a meeting of Anglican Primates from all over the world in Canterbury this past week (briefly, Primates are representatives of national Anglican bodies worldwide, so they come from different countries, races and cultures, yet are all Anglican).

Against a backdrop of climate change, the Syrian refugee crisis, daesh fundamentalists running amok and all the other crises facing the world today, the meeting seems to have been dedicated mostly to arguing about whether gay people should be allowed to marry.

I realize I have readers worldwide, and so I do not know in what esteem all my readers hold gay people, but in my country of Canada and in my generation (40-something), debating whether or not gay people are entitled to equal rights is as reprehensible as arguing whether black people are equal to white people, poor people are as important as rich people or whether women are equal to men.

For the most part, my culture and my national church preach the fundamental value, worth and equality of all people, end of story, no exceptions.

I have to admit up front that I am a small cog in a big machine, and I don't know much about international Anglican politics, so I will refrain from trying to influence your opinion on the decisions that were made at this meeting because I am simply not aware of all the facts.  I will encourage you instead to Google info on the meeting itself and the responses of the Episcopal/Anglican church.

So what am I sorry for?

I am sorry for all my gay colleagues and friends who continue to be injured by the dogma and polity of religion, who continue to struggle even in this day and age just to be treated with dignity.

I am sorry for anyone who has been hurt by being excluded or made to feel less-than by these decisions.

I am sorry for my American colleagues who now suffer for their interpretation and pursuit of the Gospel.

I am sorry if this decision has convinced you yet again of the irrelevance of faith, religion, and/or church.

I am sorry for our seeming inability to learn from the disastrous effects religion has had on groups of people, whether they be of different genders, races, creeds, colours or sexual persuasions, when religion just automatically assumes that it knows better.

I am sorry for the audacity of people deciding who gets to be at the big table and who sits in the corner.

I am sorry for religions that punish or apply sanctions to any person or group with whom them disagree.

I am sorry if you were told that church was a place of love, tolerance, acceptance, equality and exploration and have ever found that to be untrue.

Tomorrow, I will have to step into a pulpit and I will have to preach the Gospel, the "good news" of Christ.  Tomorrow, I am going to have to don my collar again and try to represent with integrity a global Church which, to be honest, has lost a great deal of integrity for me.  Tomorrow, I will have to walk into a church and try to convince people that despite the actions of my global church, the church at least in Canada is a safe place to be different, in which to seek, in which to be affirmed, and in which God's love can be felt, not despite who you are, but because of who you are.

Tomorrow's Gospel is John 2:1-11, which is the story of the wedding at Cana at which Jesus turns water into wine.  This is priceless because some Bible historians claim that the wedding at Cana might have been Jesus' own wedding.  The theory is, according to these scholars, that Jewish custom at the time of Jesus was that the groom and his family were responsible for preparing the wedding feast, so when his Mary comes in in a huff and complains to Jesus that there is no wine, this clearly identifies Jesus as the groom because it would have been his responsibility to provide the booze.

Some people get upset at this theory because they can't cope with the thought of Jesus being married, as though marriage was such a profane institution that our Lord would never take part in it, yet in practically the same breath, they will deny the right of gay people to be married because it is such a sacred institution.

Do you see the problem?

But I'm not going to preach about that.  The possibility of Jesus being in a publicly professed, monogamous, loving relationship causes my faith absolutely no problem whatsoever, and in fact would only make me respect and relate to Jesus even more

I am going to preach about the new wine.  At the end of the Gospel, the steward praises the bridegroom (whomever he may have been) because apparently the custom at the time was to serve superior wine at the beginning of the feast, when the guests all had their wits about them and their taste buds were all functional.  As the evening wore on and people started getting a little tipsy and cared less about the quality of the beverages, the host would break out the cheap stuff.

The steward praises the bridegroom (whomever he may have been) because the wine Jesus provided them with was far superior to the wine that was being served at the beginning of the feast.

Now, the incorrect way of interpreting this passage, but one which I still hear all too often, is to say that Judaism was the old and inferior wine, and that Christianity is the new and superior wine.  I think it would be more accurate to say that Judaism is good wine (remember Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian), but that Jesus was bringing the people something new, a variation, a new wine, a new message of God's love which would be far richer to quaff than the wine they were used to.

The Gospel passage speaks not of lines of division between Jew and Christian (no such division existed when this event would have happened, nor even when Luke wrote his Gospel), but of a substance and sustenance that would be far more life-giving and satisfying than anything they had ever experienced.

When addressing same-sex blessing and ordination, many people who are against it turn to the Bible and say, "What does the Bible say?  What did Jesus say?".  In many ways, this question is simply irrelevant because this Gospel was written 2 millennia ago.

We really should be asking, "What would the the Bible say today?  What would Jesus say today?"

Jesus never fought for the equality of women and he spoke quite casually in a number of parables of slaves bringing messages to kings or being placed in charge of households and/or finances in the absence of their master.  Women were second-class citizens in his day, and slavery was a totally normal and accepted social practice.  These were simply unquestioned realities in his time and culture.  Are we therefore to conclude that Jesus oppressed women and supported slavery?  Are we to assume that feminism and the Civil Rights movement were not good and right and God-inspired?

Surely not.  Merely that the Gospel Jesus preached was relevant to the issues of his time.  I don't think it is too much of a stretch to believe that Jesus would have been an ardent feminist and abolitionist had he been born in the last century.

We need to let the Gospel speak to the issues of our time, and we need to know that the new wine Jesus spoke of is ever-new and ever-flowing.  It changes.  It is an ongoing revelation.  As with any change, there will be struggle, there will be disagreement, there will be pain.

But I will keep drinking that new wine because I have faith in a few things.

I have faith that one day there will be no more need for apology, no more need for exclusion, no more need for separation.  I have faith that the church and religion can and will be a positive space for self-exploration, for knowing God and for journeying with God.  I have faith and believe that God loves us, rich or poor, gay or straight, black or white, male or female, pierced, tattooed, dreadlocked, whether someone else says you are worthy or unworthy.

I believe that all are welcome at God's table, and as long as God grants me the privilege to serve at His table, every single person without exclusion is welcome to pull up a chair and share the new wine with me.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Use your words

My sermon for this week was based on John 1:1-18.

As near as I can tell, my parents only ever lied to me about two things: 1. They said the dentist wouldn't hurt me, and 2. They taught me that "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me".

They didn't mean to lie, of course.  In teaching me that little ditty that every school child knows, they were trying to tell me that I should not allow words to hurt me, but the fact of the matter is that words do hurt, and they can often hurt more than physical wounds and take much longer to heal.

The reason is that even today words have power, and this was even more so in Jesus' time.  Words accomplished things.  When you said "bless you" or "curse you" to someone, it was really believed you were doing something.  So when John refers to Jesus Christ as the Word of God, he is making a pretty momentous statement, one which signifies one of the greatest leaps in religious thought and philosophy that has ever been made.

Interestingly, the theology of the Word may never have come about had it not been for a problem John had to solve: how to make Christianity comprehensible to Gentiles?  Ancient Judaism was apocalyptic and messianic, meaning that they believed in an end time, and they believed someone would come to save them from and/or lead them through it.

Jesus was Jewish, as were all his Apostles and his early followers.  Partway through his ministry, however, he deliberately expanded his message to the Gentiles, many of whom were Greek, and by the time the author of John sat down to write his Gospel, Gentile Greek converts to Christianity outnumbered Jewish converts by many thousands to one.

These Gentile Greek converts did not come from an apocalyptic/messianic background, and there was little success convincing them that there was an end time coming, much less that they needed to be saved from it.  It was simply not an idea with which they associated at all.

So how do you convert people to a religion which relied so much on apocalypticism and messianic prophecy?

You don't.  You find points of similarity.

The Greeks could not relate to the apocalypticism of Judaism, but they could relate to the importance and power of words.  The Greek word for word is logos, but this concept extended much further than our own English definition of the word.  Logos could mean, logic, reason, will, thought.  It was a dynamic concept that referred to much more than the written or spoken word.  It was something that expressed the very essence of a person or being.

Think of expressions like, "You have my word on it" or "My word is my bond".  These express something that is sacred to us.

In other words, they communicate something about ourselves to others.  And that is what is at the heart of what a word is: it communicates.

A word is different from a sound or random noises.  Sure, the tone of a baby's babbling might give us an idea of what he/she wants, but there are no concepts being communicated or exchanged there.

To call Jesus the Word of God is to acknowledge that he was not just a random blip of wisdom, he was not just a really smart and profound guy, he was not just a prophet.  Rather, to make that claim is to say that Jesus Christ was the very will of God personified, the very words of God being spoken directly to us.

That's pretty serious business, and it leaves us as Christians with a pretty serious question to aks ourselves: how do we use our words?

Jesus conveyed the Gospel, literally the "Good News" to us.  He spoke words of love, justice, mercy, forgiveness, acceptance and tolerance.  Whether you are Christian or not, whether you are atheist, you can't argue that those are pretty good words to speak, and more to be preferred than words of hate, injustice, mercilessness, etc, etc.

But if you are a Christian, then that means that you have a responsibility to echo the words of Christ.  If you are a Christian, then that means you have an obligation to convey the good news, and to not use your words to hurt, damage, disparage or destroy.

Use your words, and use them well.