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Monday, May 30, 2016

The many facets of faith

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 7:1-10.

If you look up the word 'faith' in the dictionary, you will find a series of definitions that largely have to do with trust, confidence and belief.  In other words, the dictionary definition of faith consists largely of words which are considered to be synonyms for faith.

But sub those words into phrases we use on a regular basis: "I have trust"..."I practice confidence"..."I am a person of belief" any of these ring true or really accurately describe what it is to have faith, to practice faith or to be a person of faith?

Not for me, and neither, I suspect, for you.

The thing is that faith is actually a much deeper construct that trust, confidence and belief.  It is, I would argue, a tool kit for living that is much more versatile that just having trust, confidence and belief (which are all important and nice to have, mind you).  I would argue that faith is like a Swiss Army knife of coping skills and virtues, and I think today's Gospel passage exemplifies that.

Today's Gospel passage centers around a Roman centurion who asks Jesus to heal his sick and dying slave.  Seems like a simple enough scenario, but there are actually quite a few oddities that should leap out to us immediately.

First, this man cares about a slave.  As I have mentioned before, slavery was very common in Jesus' time, and although there were laws that governed the treatment of slaves, slaves were essentially commodities, to be cared for only insofar as they were able to discharge their duties.  When they were unable to do so, they were discarded.  Although it would not be unheard of for masters to develop a bond with their slaves, it was certainly a rarity.

Second, this centurion loves the Jews and they love him back.  Bear in mind, the Romans were a hostile force who had conquered and were occupying the area.  There ought to have been no love between Roman and Jew.  The former was the oppressor, and the latter was the conquered.  But Jewish elders approach Jesus and plead on behalf of the centurion for him to help.  They tell Jesus that he loves their people and even built them a synagogue.  Although it seem that in many areas, the Romans tolerated the practice of Judaism, to have a centurion encourage and support the practice of the Jewish faith would once again have been quite rare, and for Jewish elders to plead on behalf of the oppressor would have been equally rare.

Third, he asks Jesus to help his slave.  Due to his position and rank, he could have commanded Jesus to heal him, and perhaps threatened him with torture or even death should be refuse, but the centurion debases and humbles himself.

It is this humility which I think is the heart of this passage.

The centurion sends a message to Jesus as he is en route, saying "I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one 'Go' and he goes, and to another 'Come' and he comes, and to my slave 'Do this' and the slave does it".

This is a man who is used to getting what he wants.  This is a man who enjoys wealth, power, rank and authority.  He is used to issuing commands and getting stuff done.  But here is something he can't command: the illness of his slave.  Here, he is presented with a situation in which all of his power and money and authority are worth precisely squat.

And so he humbles himself and asks someone for help, and I would argue that humility is an expression of faith.

Jesus responds, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith".

His response is reminiscent of several other Gospel passages in which he tells someone, "Your faith has made you well", or that their faith has made someone else well.  I am thinking here specifically of the woman who was suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years and the Syro-Phoenician woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter.

The first woman had spent all her money seeking a cure for her condition.  She had likely visited legitimate doctors and quacks, and had probably tried every snake-oil cure known at the time, but all to no avail.  12 years is a long time to be sick.  Why didn't she just lie down and give up?  What made her get out of bed and seek Jesus out on the slender chance that he would be able to cure her?

Hope, which is one expression of faith.

The Syro-Phoenician woman stuck her neck out in approaching Jesus.  First, she was a Gentile, which explains Jesus' first response, "It is not right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs".  Jews and Gentiles did not get along.  Second, she talks back to him, saying "Even the dogs can eat the crumbs the children drop".  In that day and age, women did not talk back to men.  So what made her risk rebuke at the very least?

Courage and love for her daughter, both of which are expressions of faith.

I think you see where I am going with this.

Yes, faith is trust and confidence and belief, but faith is also hope when you have no good reason to hope anymore.  Faith is courage when you feel anything but courageous.  Faith is the humility to know you are out of your depth and need to ask for help.

There are many other facets of faith, many other expressions.  I would encourage you to reflect on what is happening in your own life and ask what facet of faith you need today.  Do you need to be courageous?  Do you need hope?  Do you need to forgive or be forgiven?  Do you need the humility to ask for help?

These things and more are all facets of faith, and I pray that you can turn to the facet you need today.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Trinity problem

My sermon for this week was based on John 15:26-16:15.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Despite being raised in a faith that was at least nominally Trinitarian, I never saw much value in the Trinity.  In fact, I remember writing a few papers in seminary in which I expressed my view that the concept and doctrine of the Trinity was entirely unnecessary.

Now a few years later, while I am not still not prepared to say that the Trinity is 'necessary', at least in the hunter-gatherer sense of the term, I can no longer say that I think it is unnecessary.  I admit, I am ambivalent about doctrine to say the least, but I have come to regard the Trinity as a very spiritually nourishing concept.

The Trinity is not Scriptural in basis.  Nowhere in Scripture will you find the words 'The Holy Trinity', and references specifically to 'the Holy Spirit' (of which there are only 2) do nothing to describe the economy or machinations of the Trinity.

However, the concept of God's spirit, referred to as representing  a number of virtues like wisdom, truth, justice and mercy abound throughout Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament Wisdom Books (also called the Sapiential Books) of Wisdom, Proverbs, Sirach, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Job and the Song of Solomon.

So while not explicitly spoken about in Scripture, the argument has been made that there are ample implicit references.

In the long run, I am not even sure that a Scriptural basis is important.  In the end, as I mentioned in my last post, the Apostles had to deal with a problem.  God, in their time and place, was perceived to be transcendent, a term that describes a God who is 'out there', incapable of being present with us or perceived by us because he is so superior to us.  Transcendent theology describes a God who is cold and aloof, and whose will can never be known, acted upon or carried out.  We are all just basically pawns who are subject to the whims of a God who can only ever be perceived of as capricious.

Then along comes Jesus, and although in Scripture, the Apostles never seem to acknowledge that Jesus is God incarnate, they certainly seem to have figured it out after his Resurrection.  All of a sudden, God was immanent, a term that describes a God who is present with us, who rejoices and suffers with us, who can be known because, at least in the person of Christ, he walked and talked with people in the flesh.

The Ascension caused a problem for the Apostles: God was absent, then God was present, then God was absent again.  But the Apostles didn't feel that God was absent.  Especially after the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon them, they felt very strongly that God was immanent indeed.  The Holy Spirit was the solution to that problem.

The Holy Spirit is tricky, for sure, and it must be said that the Holy Spirit was the 'person' of the Trinity that made me feel in the past that the Trinity was unnecessary.  Perhaps that is because I was raised with the concept of a God who was immanent.  I never had to make that shift from transcendent-to-immanent and back again like the Apostles did.  I have just always felt that the Divine was present (sometimes more present than others), and I suspect that that is the case of most people reading this.  We have never had to compensate for or adjust to such a massive shift in our theologies or worldviews.

But this brings us to our own contemporary problem.  Of what value or utility is the Holy Spirit to us as modern Christians?  Do you and I need the Holy Spirit and why?

I think we do, and let me explain why.

The downside to having a Biblical canon which was agreed upon at the Council of Laodicea (I misspoke in my recorded sermon and said the Council of Nicea) some 1600 years ago is that this leads us to the inescapable conclusion that  God has not spoke in all that time.  No new books have been added, so is that all God had to say or will ever have to say?  God basically stopped talking when John of Patmos put down his pen 1900 years ago?

Far from it.  The Divine continues to communicate with us (or we continue to become enlightened, if you prefer to see yourself as the protagonist in your relationship with the Divine), and the Holy Spirit, although perhaps not the best descriptive term as it leads us organically to personify the phenomenon of communication with the Divine, is nonetheless the term we have inherited to describe it.

In Christ's time, women were no better than livestock, slavery was a totally normal and acceptable practice and gay marriage was apparently not even a thing.  That is why Jesus never spoke about them: he spoke to where society was at the time and place.

But today, women are equal to men (or much closer than they used to be), slavery is outlawed, and discussions around same-sex marriage have come a hell of a long way.  This is the Holy Spirit guiding us towards enlightenment as we are ready to handle it.  The Holy Spirit is that term which is given to the progressive revelation of God's will to us.  Otherwise, we would not have progressed at all since Christ's time in terms of human rights and social justice.

Like I said, 'necessary' is a big word, and I leave it up to you whether or not to apply it to the Trinity and to the Holy Spirit.  What we do need to acknowledge is that faith moves us forward.  It does not keep us stuck in the past, mired with traditions and outdated perceptions of the world, of God and of his peoples.  What is necessary is the acknowledgement that God is always working in our individual and collective lives, and we are guided by his spirit to make the world a better place.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Haunted by the Holy Ghost

My sermon for this week was based on Acts 2:1-21.

If I could go back and witness any point in time, I think I would go back and witness Pentecost as it is portrayed in the Book of Acts.  I know, you'd think a Christian and a priest would want to go back to witness some event in the life of Christ, or at least the Resurrection, but not me.  There is something about Pentecost which is so awe-inspiring.  It just sounds like the type of party I would want to be at.

Pentecost is not originally a Christian celebration, so when people refer to the scene in the Book of Acts as "the first Pentecost", they are actually in error.  Pentecost (Greek for fifty) is the Greek name for the Jewish celebration of Shavuot (Hebrew for weeks).  It is referred to as the Feast of Weeks because it is celebrated 49 days (7 weeks x 7 days in a week = 49 days) after the Passover.  If you include the Passover itself, you have 50 days, hence Pentecost.

The first Passover, we will recall, happened on the eve of the Exodus when Moses led the people out of Egypt, and Shavuot celebrates the day 7 weeks later upon which Moses received the Law from Yahweh.  So when Peter and the other disciples are gathered together with fellow Jews from a variety of countries, the reason why they are gathered is that they are celebrating a Jewish festival together.

At this celebration, so the account from Acts goes, people could not understand one another because they all came from different countries and spoke different languages.  But the Holy Spirit ("Holy Ghost", for you older folks) descends upon the people in the forms of tongues of flame, and suddenly they could all understand one another.

Now, who knows for sure what really happened that day, and speculation abounds.  Some people believe that people literally started speaking other languages that they had not known how to speak before, the basis for those religions who practice "speaking in tongues".  Others believe that people were not speaking other languages, but were granted to ability to understand languages they did understand before.  Still others believe that the event had nothing to do with language at all, but simply with an understanding that went beyond the spoken word.

What we do know is that something very moving happened to the people at this celebration, and it had to do with understanding of some kind.

I come from a Trinitarian faith, and at it's heart, the Trinity is a mystery.  You have God the Father, Christ the Son and then the Holy Spirit.  They are all distinct, but they are all one.  Now, I am no good at math, but I am pretty sure that does not add up.  The Holy Spirit adds a much deeper element of mystery than the other two elements of the Trinity: I think we can all wrap our heads around the concept of God, and the concept of Jesus Christ as God incarnate, but what exactly is the Holy Spirit?  Although Christ makes vague allusions to it in the Gospels, one would be hard-pressed to find a real Scriptural basis for it.

Put simply, the term "Holy Spirit" is not Scriptural.  It was coined by the early Christians to describe how they were experiencing the work of God in the world in the absence of Christ.

Remember that Judaism at the time of Christ was marked by a transcendent theology of God, meaning that God was felt to be distant, somewhere "out there", unable to be discerned amidst the joy and suffering of humanity.  Taken to its philosophical extremes, transcendent theology posits that God not only does not care for humanity, but is incapable of caring for humanity by virtue of his vast superiority.

Christ represented an immanent  theology, a theology which affirmed that God was indeed present with us, was not somewhere "out there" but right here, all around us, infusing all of creation.  God, therefore, could be discerned amidst the highs and lows of life, and this theology affirms that God does indeed care for us deeply.

But here is the problem: Jesus eventually left the disciples.  Scripture tells us that Jesus ultimately ascended into heaven and was no longer present with the disciples in the 3-dimensional, discernible-to-our-5-normal-senses kind of way.  God, in other words, apparently went from being transcendent to immanent, then back to transcendent again.

Imagine how this must have impacted the disciples.  Although there is little or no Biblical evidence to indicate that the disciples realized Jesus was God incarnate until after his death, resurrection and ascension, they seem to have clued in around the time of the Ascension and Pentecost.  So they had to shift their theology rapidly and radically to acknowledge a God who was literally present instead of absent, and then suddenly God was seemingly gone again.  Talk about stress!

The Holy Spirit, if you will, is a bridge between those two theologies.  The Holy Spirit is that mode or manifestation of God that you and I are able to discern.  The Holy Spirit is that expression of God making himself felt and know in the world and in our lives.  The Holy Spirit, as it descended on what I guess you could call the first Christian Pentecost, was a reassurance that even though Christ was no longer present with the disciples, God, the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Righteousness, the Advocate, the Comforter, would always be present with them, to guide, to support and to direct.

I have said before that the downside of having a canon of Scripture is that this tends to lead us to the conclusion that God hasn't spoken to humanity since John laid down his pen after writing the Book of Revelation, when nothing could be further from the truth.  God is consistently and constantly being revealed to us throughout history, enlightening us, educating us, moving us closer to the goals of peace, justice, equality.

The Holy Spirit is that aspect of God that is constantly at work in the world, progressively revealing God's will to us, writing the next chapters of our progress as a people.

My prayer today is that the Holy Spirit will move through you and move through us all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Ascended God

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 24:44-53.

This week, Christianity celebrated the Ascension.  The Ascension is regarded as the last of the 5 pivotal milestones in Jesus' earthly life, the others being his Baptism, the Transfiguration, Crucifixion and Resurrection.

One would be hard-pressed to say which of those 5 events was the most important to Jesus himself, but I would argue that the Ascension is the most important event for us today as modern Christians.  I would argue that is many ways, it is even more important than the Resurrection.

The reason I say this is that the Ascension marked Jesus' last moment on earth in the company and presence of his followers.  It represents the last time he existed in the real-world, three-dimensional, discernible-by-our-five-regular-senses sense of existence.

More importantly, the Ascension represents the moment when Jesus entrusted and bequeathed his mission and ministry upon his followers.  The Ascension marks the point when Jesus left what he had started in the hands of those who followed him, and by extension, when he left that in our hands because we are literally modern-day disciples.

The Ascension marks the point at which Jesus basically said, "Ok, everything that I started is now in your hands.  It is up to you now.  You can do this, go out and heal the world, let them know of God's love".

And this is the problem: I don't know if many Christians see themselves as modern-day disciples, but that is what we are.  I think too many Christians are comfortable with an "armchair" faith where they clock in their hour a week at church, bake a tray of lemon squares for the bake sale, pray for the poor, and feel that they are done for the week.

Not that I have anything against lemon squares or prayer, mind you, but a life of Christian faith calls us to more of a responsibility than that, and the Ascension marks that moment in time where the first Disciples had  to take that responsibility because Jesus was not around any more to do it for them.

If we reflect on the story arc of the Gospels, we will notice that the Disciples never seemed to fully "get" Jesus and what he was all about.  It is pretty clear that their expectations of Jesus were consistent with the general expectations of the time: that the Messiah would be a great warrior-king who would lead an armed uprising and throw off the shackles of oppression through force.

They seemed to have no understanding of Jesus being God's begotten son, of Jesus literally embodying everything God was and had.  They seemed to willfully ignore Jesus statements that he would have to die and be resurrected.  And more importantly, they seemed not to realize that Jesus was preparing them to take over the reins when he was gone.

In my interpretation of the Gospels, Jesus never said, "Worship me" or "Start a religion in my name".  The whole concept of soteriology (salvation theology) is admittedly quite blurry and confusing to me, but here are a few things I know Jesus said, or at the very least the Gospel writers were wise enough to attribute to Jesus:

"Love others as I have loved you"

"Love your enemies, do good to them"

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength...Love your neighbour as yourself"

"Whoever wants to be great must be a servant"

Does this sound like Jesus wanted his Disciples to be passive recipients of his message, like spectators at a one-man traveling show?  Far from it.  Jesus wanted, told them, indeed empowered them to go out there in the world and do what he did: heal, preach, teach, accompany and companion the sick, the lonely, the bereft, the despondent, the hopeless.

This is action talk, not sit-down-and-take-it-all-in talk.  Don't get me wrong, I am a big fan of prayer, rest, recreation and meditation, and of course one could argue quite convincingly that those are actions in and of are not doing nothing when you rest, you are recouping energy to go out into the world.  But that is I think where the rubber hits the road when it comes to being Christian: out there in the world.

We have been granted a great responsibility and a great honour: to continue what Christ started, to go out and heal a broken world, one broken person at a time; to heal our own brokenness; to provide hope to the hopeless and solace to the lonely; to uphold justice, mercy, peace and understanding.

This is not something we do sitting down.

Today I hope and pray that as we approach Pentecost Sunday, that day where we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to guide us in our ministry, that we will have the sense of love for the world that Jesus had, and that it will lead us out as it did him to do good in the world.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

How to love well

After my sermon last week, in which I once again exhorted my brothers and sisters to follow Jesus' commandment, "Love one another as I have loved you", a parishioner came up to me and said, "You know, I liked your sermon, but I feel like I have been hearing that exact same thing for as long as I have been coming to church, and it is getting a little old".

He has a good point.  For 2000+ years, pastors have stood in the pulpit and preached some version of the theme of "Love one another".  I for one have never heard or delivered a sermon on the that theme that has made me say, "Huh, I never thought of that".  The irony is that it is such a simple instruction and yet if you take a quick fly-by of the last 2 millennia of Christian history, the one thing that might strike you is how consistently we have failed to do just that.

The flaw is not within Christianity itself, a point I have made a number of times before.  Christianity, like every religion and philosophy, has no ill intent, but it has been wielded poorly by individuals and groups over the centuries.  The flaw, I think, is in individuals and groups, and how they wield their faith.

The conversation with the individual mentioned above continued.  This person went on to say something that on the surface may sound self-evident, but after thinking about it all week, I realized it is not.

He said, "What I need to know is how to love".

My immediate reaction was bemusement.  "Well, isn't that obvious?", I thought to myself.  But after taking some time to reflect, I realized he was right.

I think every single Christian throughout history would claim that they are a loving person.  I think every Christian would probably say that Christianity is a loving, if not the most loving religion there is.  But let's just name some of our darker manifestations and submit them to the "is it loving?" test:

Most of the Crusaders would likely justify the immeasurable suffering the Crusades caused by saying they did it for the love of God.

Most of the Inquisitors would likely say the same thing.

Most of the priests and nuns who worked at residential schools in Canada and the US would likely say they oppressed Aboriginal culture, language and religion out of love for them.  Remember they thought that by "Christianizing" them, they were saving their immortal souls.

Even today, groups like the Westboro Baptist Church picket events holding up signs saying that God hates homosexuals (although they use gutter language), and when pressed in an interview to explain why they hate gays so much, their matriarch responded that they hold up these signs because they loved gays and wanted to save them from everlasting damnation.

On a more personal level, you often hear of people who resort to physical, emotional and psychological abuse of their children, spouses, parents, friends and co-workers, and some weird how, manage to think of this as a loving behaviour.

You have Christians who shame other people for being immigrants, refugees, having mental illness, having addictions, being a single parent, being divorcees, being overweight, being underweight, being gay...the list goes on.

I guarantee you, we all know someone who loves poorly, and we have all at one time or another loved poorly.  We have all, at one time or another, made another person angry, sad or hurt.

But what complicates matters is that sometimes you have to do things that make others angry, sad or hurt.  Don't get me wrong, abusive behaviour is always bad.  But for example, parents need to discipline their children, to show them the difference between right and wrong.  Children often respond to discipline with tears or anger, and many is the parent who has slunk away in guilt after sending a child to their room, but that is part of parenting.

Sometime, children, spouses, friends or parents need to be alerted that they might be headed down a dangerous path, despite the defensiveness we are likely to receive in return.  Sometimes, in all good conscience, we need to let people know that we disagree with them or that they have failed to meet our expectations.  On the one hand, a formative person in my life was fond of saying that I had no right to expect anything from anyone because no one owed me anything, but Dennis Miller once wrote, "The most degrading thing you can do to another human being is to have absolutely no expectations of them".

All this to say, how we love one another is not as clear as we might think.  Sometimes it is hard to tell if what we are doing is loving or not, as a friend, as a parent, as a Christian.

So how can we know?

After pondering on this for the better part of a week, I have what I think is at least a line we can follow.  I am not saying it is clear and foolproof, but after reflecting on how Jesus loved his disciples and comparing them with examples of loving poorly, I think I have a starting point.

1. Is what we are doing or saying going to build people up or tear them down?

One thing that was characteristic of Jesus' love was that it was a love that built people up, rather than tearing them down.  For example, as far as we know, he never shamed Mary Magdalene.  He never shamed the lepers he healed.  He never guilted some of his disciples for being manual laborers and tax collectors.  Even when he knew Judas was about to betray him, he placed him at the head of the table, rather than guilt him.

Chances are, if someone is doing something bad, they have enough shame, thanks.  So maybe pointing out an highlighting the source of their shame is not the best strategy.  Rather, Jesus seems to have focused on their gifts and talents, rather than their shortcoming.

2. Is what we are doing or saying showing the person that they are worthy of being loved, or is it telling them there are conditions attached?

But I think the thing that most exemplified Jesus' love, and perhaps the way we ought to try to love others, is by helping them see that they are worthy of love.  As far as we know, Jesus was not constantly telling people he loved them.  I think the reason why he focused on people's positive points, and the reason why he made it a point to hang around those whom the rest of society reviled, was that he was trying to demonstrate to people that they were worthy of love, that they had been born beloved by God, and that was something that could never be taken away from them.

You remember that old saying, "Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime"?  I think if you tell someone you love them, they might feel loved for a day.  Teach someone that they are inherently love-worthy, and they will feel loved for a lifetime.

I am not saying you have to agree with everything everybody does, but sometimes focusing on the negative aspects tells the person that they are not worthy of love unless they do what you think they should be doing.  I think back to a family I knew whose daughter got pregnant out of wedlock, and this upset her parents.  They heaped shame and guilt on her for what they considered to be a sin.  At one point, she had had enough and said, "Your guilt and shame doesn't change the fact that I am pregnant.  So you need to choose: are you going to love me and your grandchild, or make us feel guilty the rest of our lives?"

This opened the door to some great conversation, and today, the whole family is thriving and loving one another.  But sometimes we need to get over our impulse to say, "I told you so", "How could you?", "What were you thinking?" and other similarly useless questions.

Sometimes, we just need to let people know that they are loved, no string or conditions attached.

3. Is what we are doing or saying helping another become the person they want to be, or are we trying to make them into the person we want them to be?

As mentioned earlier, we all have expectations of others. We see potential in others, and we think we know what they should be or do.  But do we stop to consider that their expectations might be entirely different?  We might think our sister should become a doctor because she is brilliant, but maybe she feels called to start an organic farm.  Who are we to say that one is better than the other.  Who are we to say where another's heart will be at home?

We can't, and so sometimes we need to set our expectations aside and ask how we can help our loved ones become the people they want to be, and not the people we think they should be.

Like I said, this is not a foolproof methodology for loving well, but it is a start.  Today, may we all love well.