“The greatness of Christianity”

Text: Galatians 2:15-21 (“Christ lives in me”)

Questions of identity often confront us. This summer, with the sacraments of the church in the background, we have reflected on physical, emotional, and intellectual identity.

Do we base our identity on ancestral heritage? On feelings and desires? On how we articulate perspectives and ideas?

For Paul, the answer is “none of the above.” In the passage we just heard, Paul writes: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Having encountered the Risen Christ in a moment of crisis, Paul’s ego has dissolved and his identity merges with the universe.

Paul’s words describe a state in which normal concerns about aches and pains, feelings and relationships, or ideas and values have faded into the background. In their place, rises the Source of Love known to him as Christ.

In such an ecstatic union with the Divine, it does not matter if one is Black or White, gay or straight, young or old. When we are grasped — if only for a moment — by an awareness that ego is an illusion, we are freed from concerns about family and nation, pain and pleasure, or right and wrong. We have entered the eternal now in which we know that our Source is in Love and it is to Love that we return.

A writer who has helped me think about St. Paul’s startling words is another theologian named Paul. Paul Tillich wrote the following in 1955. “The greatness of Christianity is that it can see how unimportant it is.” This quote, which inspired the title of this reflection, is from a book of sermons by Tillich called, “The New Being.”

Tillich is not only my favourite theologian. He was also my father’s teacher when he studied in New York in 1949 at Union Theological Seminary.

Tillich had moved to New York from Germany in 1933 after being fired by the Nazi government from his position as a theology professor in Frankfurt. As a Lutheran minister, Tillich was the first non-Jewish professor to be removed by the Nazis after their election victory that year. They did so because Tillich had disciplined some Nazi students who had beaten up anti-racist students.

Nazism has been in the news lately because of a rally by neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and other white supremacists in Charlottesville Virginia last weekend. One of the racists drove a car into the counter protestors injuring 20 and killing one.

When this fascist murdered Heather Heyer with a tactic borrowed from ISIS, most of us reacted with unequivocal sorrow and anger. But in his response, the U.S. President, blamed last weekend’s terrorism not just on the Nazis who had gathered to spread hatred with torches, swastikas, and Confederate flags, but also on people like Heather Heyer who rallied against hatred and fear. The President then joined the call of the far-right to preserve monuments to the pro-slavery revolt of the Confederacy in the 1860s . . .

Some people have complained about the frequency with which I mention the U.S. President, and I think I understand. Not everyone feels about the President the way I do; and even some who do feel the same might want Sunday to be a sanctuary from the rancour that has characterized North American politics for so long.

Nevertheless, I speak again about the U.S. President today. The fact that 63 million Americans last November voted for a candidate who panders to racism highlights the difficulties we face in knowing who we are today.

The success of racism as a political brand in the U.S and elsewhere is what motivated this summer sermon series on the stages of spiritual growth and identity formation.

I also speak about the President today because of the support his immoral and racist brand has received from the white church. That support was crucial to his election victory and it helps explain why one third of Americans still support the President despite what looks to me like a uniquely disastrous seven first months in office.

Last week amid a flurry of resignations by key advisors to the President, Rev. A.R. Bernard, a pastor of a New York megachurch, became the first member of the President’s Evangelical Advisory Council to resign. I applaud Rev. Bernard for doing so and urge the others who remain to follow suit.

Racism has gained new traction, many believe, because of globalization, post-colonial wars, and the spread of digital technology. Amid ever-increasing social change, many of us are confused about who we are. And so, politicians who appeal to a pre-modern culture when people on different continents had no connection with one another find resonance.

In times of fear, the colour of our skin, the nation in which were born, and the religion of our grandparents can become key markers of identity. Racism asks us to retreat to our tribe and to fear the stranger.

I can understand the appeal of racism. Those of us who are not of Native descent may feel uncomfortable to realize that we live on stolen land. Those of us who are not Black may feel awkward to realize that much of today’s wealth is founded on 350 years of the cross-Atlantic slave trade.

In the face of relentless social change that erases pre-modern markers of identity like skin-colour, religion, and gender roles, we may feel relief when racist politicians urge us to turn our backs on these changes.

Take, for instance, the question “who am I?” A racist politician might urge me to identify myself as a white, Christian, Canadian, heterosexual, cis-gendered male. All these adjectives are true, but is this the best way to define myself?

At times, my heritage can seem terribly important. But at other times, these markers fade into the background.

It is true that eight generations ago my ancestors came to Canada from Ireland and Scotland. But thousands of generations before that everyone’s ancestors lived in Africa. And millions of generations before that, our ancestors were non-human. All human are kin; all branches of life are kin.

With effort, any of us can identify with the lives of all people. Through shared work, conversation, and cultural encounters we can learn from people of all languages, sexualities, and nationalities. As humans, we can seek and find unity through shared values like beauty, truth, and love.

Racism seeks to divide us. But spiritual growth, at its best, helps to dissolve differences in the struggle for justice and in the work of healing and compassion.

The two Paul’s help direct us away from division and towards universal love. St. Paul finds ecstasy when his ego dissolves and the Risen Christ takes its place. I don’t imagine that such a state can be sustained for longer than a moment. But they point us to our connection to all of life and to the Source of Love we call God. They also remind us that no matter the joys or pains of our individual lives, we have nothing to fear in death.

Paul Tillich makes the startling claim that the greatness of Christianity is found in how unimportant it is. By this he means that Christianity points beyond itself to God as Source. Jesus of Nazareth helped his friends find a path beyond their religious heritage towards something closer to Love. In a similar way, the Christian church at its best is always about what is coming next. This is the Protestant principle of a reformed church that is always reforming.

When we remember our connection to the Cosmic Christ, the markers of identity upheld by racists fall away. In Christ, we are neither Jew or Greek, American or Mexican, Christian or Muslim, male or female. We are human beings who follow a spiritual path that, with Grace, unites us with our cosmic past and points to our cosmic destiny.

Any of the stages of identity formation can trip us up and throw us away from faith and towards fear. If we can’t accept our physical fragility; if we are not grounded enough in our ancestry to be able to move beyond it; if we struggle to handle our emotions; and if we can’t build families marked by respect; we are more apt to listen the siren songs of racism and hatred.

Happily, there are beloved communities like this one in which to confront the challenges of identity and to help us stay on a path of compassion, justice and unity. So, as we struggle with social change and with difficult social problems, may we help each other to focus on the Crucified Christ who lives within us and who leads us towards a universal love that trumps even the strongest hate.

May it be so. Amen.

 

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“Too much heaven on their minds”

Text: Mark 14:1-9 (Jesus is anointed at Bethany)

“Jesus Christ Superstar”, the 1970 rock album, which was produced as a musical on Broadway in 1971 and a film in 1973, was a big deal for me and my friends. The confirmation class I studied with in 1971 discussed the album; and we probably learned more about Holy Week — that last week of Jesus’ life in and around Jerusalem — from listening to “Superstar” than we ever did in Sunday School.

The title of today’s sermon is taken from the opening song on the album. “Heaven on their minds” contrasts the worldly wisdom of Judas, who warns about imperial violence, and the star-struck followers of Jesus who have come to believe that all the talk of God is true.

Judas sings: “Listen, Jesus, do you care for your race? / Don’t you see we must keep in our place? / We are occupied / have you forgotten how put down we are? / I am frightened by the crowd / For we are getting much too loud. / And they’ll crush us if we go too far / . . . Listen, Jesus, to the warning I give / Please remember that I want us to live / . . . But all your followers are blind / Too much heaven on their minds / It was beautiful, but now it’s sour / Yes, it’s all gone sour.”

Judas understands the violence of the Empire, and he looks for a way forward that won’t get everyone killed.

In contrast, the crowds who hail Jesus on Palm Sunday are oblivious to the danger. They assume that as the Messiah, Jesus will defeat the Romans, install himself as King of the Jews, and inaugurate a reign of healing, peace, and justice.

What neither the crowds nor Judas grasp is the so-called “foolish” wisdom of Jesus, which is a vision that combines both sets of insights. Jesus knows the movement will be crushed. He knows he will be killed; and so, he welcomes the expensive perfume that an unnamed woman pours on his head. He tells the naysayers that she has anointed his body for burial. This is a reminder to them that their journey to Jerusalem is a journey to the cross.

Jesus doesn’t flinch from danger or death because he sees beyond them to new life, a life that is closer to Love than the old ways.

Those of us who follow Jesus today continue to struggle with this vision. Like Judas, we may find it easy to see the difficulties of life — how fleeting it is and how prone to pain we all are. We may find it easy to see the violence that mars social life.

We may also identify with the crowds who follow Jesus. They love his charisma, his ability to teach and heal, and his promise of a new kingdom in which the rich will be overthrown and the poor will have their rewards.

The Way of Jesus combines the visions of both Judas and the crowds. Jesus calls us to follow him to new life despite personal fragility and state violence. It is a path on which we rise to love regardless of danger and despite the inevitability of death.

Jesus had a difficult time getting his followers to appreciate the beauty of this path 2,000 years ago. Those inspired by Jesus today continue to grapple with this task. How can we be fearless in a time when the “toddlers” who rule the world foul the news media with blithe boasts of nuclear war? How can we give thanks for the many gifts of life in the face of illness, loss and pain?

Paul named the dilemma in his letter to the church in Corinth. Paul writes: “To those who are perishing, the message of the cross is foolishness. But to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise’ . . . God has made foolish the wisdom of the world . . . We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called, both Jew and Gentile, Christ is the power and wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians: 1)

Paul’s words seem strange and bold, but what can we make of them? Do we simply proclaim, “we’re all going to die” and then shout “Hallelujah!”?

News from the United Church of Canada might offer an illustration. In July, General Council announced the results of the church-wide votes on restructuring our denomination. They flow from a Comprehensive Review process that began in 2012 and which formed the centrepiece of the discussions at the General Council meeting in 2015 in Newfoundland.

All four votes were passed by a large majority of presbyteries and congregations. Mill Woods United Council was one of the those that voted in favour of them.

Last week, General Council released a proposal on to how to implement these changes. If approved by its meeting in Oshawa next August, the structural changes that flow from these votes will be in place by January 2019. They include a new funding formula, changes to Mission and Service, and the elimination of one level of church governance.

At present, there are 88 presbyteries and 13 conferences in the United Church for a total of 101 regional bodies. Mill Woods United is a member of Edmonton Presbytery within Alberta and Northwest Conference. By January 2019, these 101 bodies will be amalgamated into regional councils numbering no more than 15. I am glad that this change is coming even as I imagine it will be a challenge for our us to learn how to work together in this leaner environment.

But unfortunately, I don’t see the restructuring as relevant. The decline of the United Church in numbers and the aging of its members, which inspired the Comprehensive Review, is stark. We have shrunk every year since 1965. The latest figures released in June show that Sunday morning attendance declined by 4% between 2014 and 2015 and the number of confirmation students by 15% in that same year. Today, the United Church has less than 10% of the weight it had in Canadian society sixty years ago. Further, no one argues that the decline in numbers or the aging of our membership will stop.

It is tempting to deny this decline and avoid the grief that accepting it would occasion. But the stories of Jesus remind us that acceptance of mortality is not the end. Instead, it can be the beginning of the most important part of life.

Happily, this congregation seems to be doing relatively well. Local offerings were up in the first half of the year. We are hopeful about a stewardship campaign that will run in this Fall. Bev has exciting plans for church school and a youth group starting in September. The new Council has had two productive meetings. Our three co-chairs have some interesting ideas to engage people in the many facets of our work. Finally, new faces keep showing up on Sunday mornings and at outreach programs like The Bread Run. I am excited about all that is happening here.

But at the denominational level, the United Church is not doing well; and I feel discouraged by our leaders’ inability to face this fact. Yes, by 2019, some changes will be in place. But the ongoing decline of the United Church — as with many other denominations from Anglican to Presbyterian — requires something bolder, I believe.

Perhaps it would help to imagine the demise of our denominations as a cross. No one asked for this decline. Most of our leaders struggle to accept it. But if they did, they would learn what Jesus teaches — that in accepting inevitable demise, we gain new energy for outreach, mission, and spiritual growth. We open ourselves to the joy of the unexpected. We enter God’s eternity and move closer to God’s Love.

Something new is brewing in Canada, which will probably result in communities of faith that will no longer be United or Catholic, Mennonite or Lutheran, Sunni or Shia, Sikh or Hindu. We can’t know what these new faith communities will look like, and getting there won’t be without grief or pain. But by taking up the cross of the end of denominations, we embrace the moment instead of fighting it.

I understand the fears of Judas. He sees the violence of the state, and so he sings, “My mind is clearer now. / At last all too well / I can see where we all soon will be / If you strip away the myth from the man, / You will see where we all soon will be / Jesus! / You’ve started to believe / The things they say of you / You really do believe / This talk of God is true / And all the good you’ve done / Will soon get swept away. / You’ve begun to matter more / Than the things you say.”

I also understand the adoring crowds. The see Jesus as healer, king, and saviour. He is all those things, of course, just not in the way they expect.

Jesus’s vision reaches farther than that of either Judas or the adoring crowds. Jesus looks to the cross and beyond to something brighter, stranger, and closer to love. He accepts the inevitable, and then moves with it to a resurrection that fulfills our hopes and dreams in a way not previously imagined.

In my opinion, the United Church has been denying its cross for years. But this is hardly unusual. The crosses that Jesus teaches us to carry can appear many times before we find the courage to accept them.

Happily, we know with unshakeable confidence that at a certain point of loss and grief, we will embrace our cross and stumble down the road to Jerusalem with Jesus. When we do so, we will taste again the eternal joy of God’s love, which is always available to us whether we feel ready for it or not.

May it be so. Amen.

 

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The talking cure

Text: Luke 4:14-22 (Jesus preaches at Nazareth)

Do you ever say magic words? Perhaps as a kid you said “abracadabra” or “open sesame” when trying to impress your friends with a trick.

Words matter. They have power. But does this power ever rise to the level of magic?

The sacraments of the church can seem magical. In preparing for today’s service, I had the Catholic sacrament of confession at the back of my mind. In the confession booth, one bares one’s soul to a priest who, after assigning a penance of prayer, offers assurance that God forgives you. The power of confession makes part of me wish that Protestants hadn’t dropped it as a sacrament along with four of the other seven Catholic sacraments 500 years ago.

This morning, we will celebrate communion, which is one of the two sacraments that Protestants retained in the 1500’s during the Reformation. Communion also has moments of magic.

In communion prayers, Roman Catholics believe that the words said by the priest over the bread and wine turn them into the actual body and blood of Christ. The moment of transubstantiation occurs when the priest says “hoc est enim corpus meum,” which is Latin, for “this is my body.”

[Until the 1960s, Catholic priests said communion in Latin and not in modern languages]

The magic phrase “hocus pocus” is a corruption of “hoc est enim corpus meum;” and while Protestants retained the sacraments of communion and baptism when they broke from Catholicism, many Protestants view the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation as so much hocus pocus. While we trust that communion helps us remember our connection to God, we don’t believe that a magical change occurs in the bread and wine just because of the words said by a priest or minister.

But I wonder if we Protestants should be more open to the magic of words. Words matter. They have power. And they way that Jesus uses words often seems magical.

In today’s Bible passage, Jesus reads from the ancient book of Isaiah. He makes a short statement about the reading. And he impresses the people of his hometown Nazareth who have come to hear him.

“God’s Spirit is upon me,” Jesus says as he reads from Isaiah. “He has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to free those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the year of God’s favour.”

After reading this, Jesus adds, “Today, in your hearing, this scripture is fulfilled!” These are bold words. One might even say they are magic.

Unfortunately, Jesus’ statement that Isaiah’s words are fulfilled doesn’t by itself heal the broken-hearted. It doesn’t give deliverance to captives. It doesn’t restore sight to the blind; and it doesn’t free all who are oppressed. This didn’t happen in Nazareth when Jesus made his statement nearly 2,000 years ago; and it still hasn’t happened today.

So why were Jesus’ words so warmly received, and in what sense might they be true today?

Words are a preacher’s main tools. We are always saying comforting things — “God forgives us.” “All is well, and all will be well.” “Death has lost its sting.” “Love wins.” “The Holy Spirit is with us now and always.”

But just because we say such things doesn’t make everything better. Or does it?

While Jesus’ announcement that this is the Year of God’s favour doesn’t solve practical problems, it points to a deeper awareness of Love. It also directs us toward healing and freedom despite the harsh conditions of life.

When we share brokenness with someone who listens with an open heart, a large measure of healing can happen. When we preach liberty to those who are oppressed, we strengthen the community’s intention to work for justice. When we proclaim recovery of sight to those who are blind, we uphold the value of enlightenment. Blind people might not regain physical sight, but the words remind us to stay awake.

Words spoken from the heart can stir us; they can change us; and they can heal us. In this sense, words can work magic.

Unfortunately, words can also obscure and hurt. Too often we are surrounded by the clanging words of advertisers, politicians and pundits. Insults get hurled and outrageous claims are made.

I try to weed out harmful words by checking if the speaker has a hidden agenda. Are their words full of judgements instead of feelings and personal perspectives? Do their words unite or do they divide based on race, religion, or nation?

In a culture filled with the noise of insults and judgements, it can be difficult to tune into our feelings and to express our deepest values. Perhaps this is why we come to church. In church, we separate words of wheat from those of chaff. We remember our sacred values. And in church, we stop, pray, and reflect. Then, after listening, we allow words to arise in our hearts and come to our lips in the hope that they will reflect love and not hate; hospitality and not exclusion; humility and not pride.

Sometimes, when we do this, magic happens. A moment of prayer helps us cope with loss. A kind word lifts some of our loneliness. An honest exchange of feelings helps understanding to blossom.

The phrase “the talking cure,” which is the title of this sermon, refers to the work of psychologists. By talking with a sympathetic therapist, past traumas and current hurts become clearer. Combined with an ability to name and express feelings, this greater understanding can turn a person’s life around. The same thing can happen when friends listen to each other with love.

In church, we practice the talking cure. We hear the stories of our tradition. We share our personal stories. We listen for the still small voice of God. And when we feel so moved, we speak words of hope into the silence. In doing so, we build community and spread enlightenment in a way that can seem magical.

Words are not everything, of course. Sometimes prayer needs to be accompanied by ritual, as at the communion table. Sometimes nothing can replace actions of outreach and solidarity. But at other times, words are our only option.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus preached liberty and announced a new day of hope for the poor. Today, his words continue to encourage the work of love and justice.

Regardless of any pain or difficulties we may be experiencing, Jesus reminds us that this is the day of God’s favour. Healing is at hand. Understanding is available. Freedom is coming.

And because we trust that this is true, we may feel moved to say again into the silence some magical works of healing — “All is well, and all will be well.”

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

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“Love Among the Ruins”

Text: John 2:1-11 (the wedding at Cana)

Marriage is the most challenging and rewarding relationship that many of us experience. So, when I meet with a couple to plan their wedding, I recommend that they attend a marriage preparation course.

At the same time, I usually bring up the quote from therapist David Schnarch that is printed in today’s bulletin: “Nobody’s ready for marriage. Marriage makes you ready for marriage.” It is from his 1997 bestseller “Passionate Marriage.”

His statement reminds us that marriage brings unanticipated challenges, which, with grace, lead to spiritual growth. Marriage is a crucible that provides opportunities to confront our strengths and weaknesses, turn our potential into reality, and refine our ability to love and be loved.

At its best, marriage — like any significant loving relationship — is a vessel in which our watery potential is turned into something like a spirited and satisfying wine.

When John wrote the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding feast, I doubt this analogy was in his mind. But I think an analogy between marriage and winemaking works. The people in a couple are like the grapes on a vine in which rain, nutrients, and sunshine have combined to produce fruit. The soil is family, and the nutrients and sunshine are the social matrix in which they have grown.

In marriage, two people who have fallen in love vow to care for each other and live together. This is analogous to the process of pressing and fermenting the grapes. Marriage vows create a crucible that is like an oak cask in which wine is aged and which gives it much of its flavour.

Like winemaking, the spiritual growth that occurs in a marriage is messy. But the love that results give our lives much of their meaning. The vintage produced in a marriage is a love refined by trials and tribulations of all kinds.

Of course, not all marriages yield the hoped-for results. In Canada today, almost half of marriages end in divorce. Living with a spouse and raising children are difficult tasks, and no marriage or family is ever perfect. Sometimes the wine turns sour. Sometimes the end-product does not satisfy.

Nevertheless, we fall in love, get married, raise children, and develop deep relationships with friends because love — despite all that we don’t understand about it — is our source, our deepest calling, and our sure destiny.

Loving other people is predicated on self respect and acceptance of one own’s reality. So today, I focus on some of the barriers to self-acceptance.

So far this summer, we have examined four stages of spiritual growth. Three weeks ago, it was the blessings of our ancestry. Life is a gift, and our families are a huge part of that. But no family exists that hasn’t been scarred by the traumas of the past — things like war, poverty, and oppression; and our bodies are not only the awesome product of 14 billion years of cosmic and 3 billion years of biological evolution. They are also fragile, prone to pain, and mortal.

To accept our physical reality, we are forced to accept that fragility and mortality, which is a difficult step for most of us. To accept our heritage, we are forced to come to grips with the wounds of past traumas as well as past blessings.

Two weeks ago, we looked at emotional identity. Our bodies yield a myriad of sensations that give rise to feelings and which motivate our behaviour. But human feelings include both the ones we like — pleasure, curiosity, and joy; and ones we struggle with — anger, fear, and disgust. Accepting our emotional reality means finding ways to cope with the whole gamut, which is a challenge for most of us.

Last week, we looked at personal identity and power. As we mature into adulthood, we develop our abilities to act and engage with the world. Unfortunately, we are also faced with the many things we can’t do. Especially galling may be our inability to create the world of justice and peace for which we yearn. Accepting our personal power also involves accepting our limitations, which is a challenge for most of us.

Today our focus is on love looked at through the lens of marriage. We yearn to both love and be loved. But to love our spouse and children we need to love ourselves. None of us can do this perfectly, especially during the earlier stages of life, which is one reason why so many of our marriages run into trouble.

The route to self-acceptance often involves grief. Even as we rejoice in our ancestors and our physical bodies, we often need to grieve that there is so much dysfunction in our heritage and so much bodily pain associated with injury, sickness, and aging.

Even as we rejoice in our sensations and our feelings, we often need to grieve that so much hurt, fear, and anger is part of the mix.

Even as we rejoice in our personal power, we often need to grieve that there seems to be little that we can do to confront injustice, heal our own wounds and those of others, and create a society of peace and abundance for all.

Grief work is not a one-time thing. Most of us build a circle of friends, date people to whom we are attracted, fall in love, get married, and start to raise a family long before we have done all the work required to accept life in its awesome and contradictory fullness.

When we first fall in love and marry, we do so with much of our grief work undone. We build families while we are still burdened by old defences and with unconscious wounds that lie about us like so many land mines on a field of battle.

And that is OK, because nobody is ready for marriage. It is only marriage that makes you ready for marriage. It is only parenting that makes you ready for parenting. It is only ministry that makes you ready for ministry . . . and so on.

Happily, marriage, parenting, and ministry inevitably confront us with our stuff. Problems arise. Communication breaks down. Disagreements and unhappiness accumulate. And so, we are given opportunities to let the ferment of this pain produce grief and then acceptance. Even as we create families out of love, the vicissitudes of life give us chances to refine love and deepen it.

The stories of Jesus’ disciples help to illustrate the process. Today’s story of the wedding feast occurs right after Jesus has called them. They are simple peasants who minister with him in Galilee and then travel to Jerusalem. They respond to Jesus’ call out of love, but they do so in ignorance. The disciples don’t know their own capabilities. They don’t understand the significance of their teaching and healing. They are dumbfounded when Jesus talks about death and resurrection.

And yet, most of them complete the journey. At the end, they don’t get what they want — whether power or pleasure. Instead, they get what they need, which is a new life closer to the Spirit of Love we call God.

Love is our most sacred value, but it is also hard to define. I like the definition provided by M. Scott Peck almost 40 years ago in his mega-bestseller, “The Road Less Traveled.” In 1978, he wrote that love is work we do to extend ourselves to nurture the spiritual growth of one’s self or another. Love is a conscious act of will directed towards growth. It is difficult but joyous work that takes us beyond the ego space from which we first meet friends and spouses to something closer to Source.

By cultivating compassion towards self and others, we grow in love even as our ego boundaries dissolve a little in the fires of life. As we grieve our losses, joy flares forth. We learn that life is not about us. It is about the Ground of Being, Life and Love — the Source we call God.

Here is what Khalil Gibran wrote about Love in “The Prophet” almost 100 years ago:

When love beckons to you, follow him,
though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you, yield to him,
though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you, believe in him,
though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you, so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth, so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches,
so shall he descend to your roots and shake them
in their clinging to the earth.

At the start of their journey with Jesus, the disciples gather at a wedding feast at which water is turned to wine. At the end of their journey with Jesus, the disciples gather in an Upper Room to receive wine as a symbol of self-sacrificing love.

In between, they stumble down the road together in ignorance and sometimes in distress, but always with love of God and neighbour in their hearts.

May our journeys in family and church lead us, like the disciples, to the wine of arrival. Creating this wine may take years of aging as with grape juice in oaken casks. But the stories of Jesus remind us that the love that results is a joyous new life with friends and lovers on a loamy path of death and resurrection.

May it be so. Amen.

 

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Rebel with a cause

Text: Luke 2:41-52 (Jesus as a youth in the Temple)

The four gospels tell us little about the childhood of Jesus. Mark, which was written first, starts with Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan and covers just the few months from that event to his crucifixion in Jerusalem at Passover. Matthew, the next one written, is a copy of Mark, although it adds a birth narrative in Bethlehem and a resurrection appearance in Galilee.

The final gospel, John, also begins with Jesus’ baptism and says nothing about his birth or childhood.

This leaves Luke. Like Matthew, Luke is a copy of Mark; and like Matthew, Luke adds a birth narrative in Bethlehem, although one that is different from Matthew’s. Luke also adds one scene from Jesus’ childhood, the story of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, which we just heard. This is the only story about the childhood of Jesus that appears in the Bible.

I chose to hear this story today because our theme is adolescence — that period in which we become more independent from our parents in word and deed.

In the story, Jesus and his parents have made an annual trek from Nazareth to Jerusalem for Passover, a journey of 150 km. After the Passover Festival, Mary and Joseph join a caravan to begin the long ride home. At the end of the first day, Jesus is missing. So, they return to Jerusalem and spend another few days looking for him. Finally, they find him in the Temple discussing issues with religious teachers.

His parents are upset. Mary says, “Son, why have you done this to us? Can’t you see that your father and I have been so worried, looking for you?” Eugene Petersen’s translation “The Message” puts it this way: “The religious teachers were all quite taken with Jesus, impressed with the sharpness of his answers. But his parents were not impressed; they were upset and hurt.”

Luke says that after this display of independence, Jesus returns to Nazareth and is obedient to his parents. But by the time of his adult ministry, his obedience has disappeared. As an adult, Jesus regularly flouts religious, civic, and familial rules.

He heals on the Sabbath and associates with women and other people whom the elite consider taboo. He allows himself to be called “King of the Jews,” which transgresses not only the authority of Herod and Pilate in Jerusalem but also the Emperor in Rome, and which leads to his execution.

When Jesus is told that his mother and brothers have come to see him, he replies: “Who are my mother and my brothers? . . . Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mark 3). In another story, Jesus says, “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters — yes, even one’s own self — can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow me can’t be my disciple.” (Luke 14).

The story of Jesus in the Temple at age 12 shows a child who realizes that his hometown of Nazareth does not offer enough. It is about a boy who sees that his parents don’t have all the answers and that he has ideas that go beyond what they and even the religious elite in Jerusalem can offer.

In adulthood, Jesus creates a new type of family — a chosen group of pilgrims on a spiritual journey. The disciples support one another and resist religious and state authority in the name of love and justice. They are people like you and me, broken in various ways but also like us empowered by the Spirit to face mortality and find new life beyond moralism and oppression.

We owe our existence to family, church, and nation, which is why they have authority over us as children. But in adolescence, we try to define ourselves in opposition to the rules of family, church and nation. While life is blessed, it is far from perfect; and so, as teens we question established wisdom and struggle against moral rules and social ills like poverty and pollution.

Few of us are as bold in our rebellion as Jesus. Nevertheless, here we are today, nearly 2,000 years later, trying to follow Jesus, a rebel with a cause.

Being true to one’s ideals in a fallen world can lead to trouble. Loved ones may worry about us. Peers may ostracize us. The state may threaten us. And yet, Jesus says that the Way of the Cross is worth the trouble. He shows us that fearlessness is the best way to live a life of Love.

And so, we give thanks for adolescent rebellion and for adult lives that go beyond the rules handed to us by family, church and nation.

But how much power do we have to effect the change we want in the world?

This question reminds me of the Serenity Prayer, which has been made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step recovery movements. It says,

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Most of our ability to effect change is with family and friends. In the personal sphere, we can act with integrity and honesty instead of lying; listen and respond with compassion and kindness instead of being mean; and express our hopes and dreams instead of hiding our feelings and wishes.

However, some of our desire to effect change goes beyond the personal. Climate change is an example. Last week, the National Post reported on a study that criticized Canadian high school textbooks for suggesting students can do their part to stop climate change with personal behaviour — things like using clotheslines instead of automatic dryers and cloth bags instead of plastic ones.

The study pointed out — quite rightly, I believe — that such actions have a negligible effect on climate change. Instead, it suggested bolder actions like not eating meat, having fewer children, and not travelling by airplane. However, I believe that these suggestions also yield results that are negligible.

The study doesn’t come to grip with the facts that humanity grows by 200,000 people every day and that the world economy is predicated upon never-ending growth. In a global population that grows by 75 million each year and by one billion every 15 years, and in which a decline in population would trigger economic collapse, tackling climate change is not something for individuals. If there are solutions, they will be found at a macro level.

I am not opposed to recycling or cutting down on meat consumption; but not if they are undertaken to stop climate change. The latter requires something more comprehensive than the action of mere individuals.

This issue also provides an example of how difficult it can be to find the serenity to accept the things we cannot change and the courage to change the things we can.

In a healthy adolescence, we define ourselves with gratitude for the family, church and nation into which we have been born, and in opposition to parts of the status quo. The result will be attitudes and convictions that mix tradition with innovation.

The process of individuation is most dramatic when we are teenagers. But it continues into old age. At all stages of our lives, we test our abilities, refine our wills, and learn more about our potentials and limits. For this reason, the Serenity Prayer can be a touchstone for us from youth to old age.

Next week, as this summer series continue, I will move from individuation to social relationships. For now, I close with a variation on the Serenity Prayer that I came across this spring. It says:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change,
The courage to change the one I can,
And the wisdom to know that this one person is me!

Friends, both as a 12-year old in the Temple and as an adult in the shadow of the cross, Jesus models courage and authenticity. The path to which he calls us is not for the faint of heart. Happily, it is for adolescents of all ages who seek more courage and who rely on fellow pilgrims and God’s Grace for both personal and social change.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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The naked truth

Text: Genesis 2 and 3 (Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden)

Do you ever have dreams in which you realize to your horror that you’re walking down the street naked? I do. Dreams like this remind me of my fears of exposure and shame.

Today’s reading from the second and third chapters of Genesis bring such dreams to mind. When Adam and Eve are created, they walk naked in the Garden of Eden with no more shame than that of any other creature. But after they eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they feel shame and try to hide their nakedness with fig leaves.

Feeling shame signals when we have crossed a boundary. It reminds us of cultural norms, like not going naked in public, and ethical norms, like not lying.

The story of the Garden implies that knowing right from wrong is a prerequisite for feeling shame. Morality requires a certain level of intelligence, personal mastery, and social learning. For this reason, morality only applies to those who have reached “the age of reason.”

Of course, many other things besides shame can be found in the story of the Garden of Eden. It is the second of two creation stories told in Genesis. Sixteen hundred years ago, the theologian Augustine based his doctrine of Original Sin on it. It has been used for centuries to enforce rigid sex and gender roles and male supremacy.

I am struck by how different this creation story is from the one in the first chapter of Genesis. In that story, God is denoted by the Hebrew word “Elohim” and not the word YHWH used in Genesis 2 and 3.

Elohim creates the heavens, earth, birds, animals, and humans over six days and in that order. In contrast, YHWH creates Adam first and then stumbles as he tries to make a companion for him. Adam patiently names all the birds and beasts that YHWH makes even as he rejects each one as a life-companion.

This and other parts of the story might seem silly. But I appreciate how — in a dream-like way — they reflect some central dilemmas: the tension between our animal- and our spiritual-sides; the necessity of toil; and connections between intelligence and the moral choices that confront us as we grow up.

Besides shame, the story of the Garden of Eden hinges on other emotions — loneliness when Adam is the only human; compassion when YHWH finally creates a suitable companion for him; desire when Adam and Eve first meet; curiosity when Adam and Eve succumb to the snake’s temptation; and anger when God punishes their disobedience. But shame is the only one of these feelings that is named in the story.

I wish it named the other feelings that motivate the characters. Knowing about emotions and how to express them are central skills in every stage of life.

As a child, I was taught right from wrong, but not much about sensations, the feelings those sensations give rise to, and, and the desires and dislikes that are revealed by the actions that our feelings motivate.

It wasn’t until my 30’s that I got around to learning the vocabulary of emotions. I found helpful the idea that four words — “mad, sad, glad, and afraid” — can remind us of four main groups of emotions.

Of course, there are more emotions than just anger, sadness, joy, and fear. Each of them can be combined with the others and with surprise or disgust to create variants. Shame, for instance, is fear combined with disgust.

As a child, church and school did not help me to learn about feelings. Instead, I was taught to judge. I was told that people, things and events were acceptable or unacceptable; good or bad. Speaking about feelings was discouraged. Many conversations involved judgments.

Today, I believe the opposite. I accept that feelings are not only unavoidable but essential. Feelings reveal our likes and dislikes; and they shed light on our values.

By the same measure, I now try to avoid judgments. Declaring something as good or evil hides one’s feelings and makes it harder to discern the sensations behind them and the values revealed by them. Feelings reveal, I believe, while judgments conceal.

This perspective on emotions and judgments makes it hard for me to work with some parts of the Bible. Genesis One declares Elohim’s creations to be good seven times. Genesis 2 and 3 are about good and evil. The New Testament ends with the Day of Judgement. I could go on.

When we name the emotions at play in the story of the Garden of Eden, I find it more helpful. Fear is felt not just by Adam and Eve after they have eaten the forbidden fruit. YHWH also shows fear when he says “these humans have become like one of us, knowing both good and evil. They must not be allowed to take in their hands the fruit from the Tree of Life as well, or they will eat of it, and live forever.” YHWH curses them and expels them from the Garden because he is both angry and afraid.

Morality is connected to how we handle our feelings. When we express our anger, sadness, joy, or fear with violence, we run the risk of violating the values of love, justice, and kindness. Unmasking YHWH’s emotions leads me question his morality at least as much as the morality of Adam and Eve.

I understand why Adam and Eve might feel ashamed of their nakedness. Humans are a conflicted species. We are governed both by physical instincts and by complex understandings that originate in big brains that have bathed in linguistic and social history. The knowledge that arises from personal experience and social learning sometimes cuts against the grain of our physical identities and leaves us feeling unsure, fearful, and ashamed.

Some of the shame we feel — whether about nakedness, desires, or deeds — can dissolve when re-examined in the light of learning. But shame has its purposes; and an inability to feel shame under any circumstances signifies that one has either not yet reached the age of reason or has developed a kind of psychopathy.

Shamelessness has been in the news recently. The 45th President of the United States seems incapable of shame. His immoral actions — some which might reach the level of treason — don’t give him any pause. Supporters of the President revel in his shamelessness, while others are alarmed that the most powerful person in the world seems to be impervious to moral reasoning.

In my own life, I wish I had felt less shame and pursued some plans with greater confidence than my fears allowed. But I appreciate that shame is always a possibility.

Emotional intelligence includes the ability to know and recognize all feelings — whether we feel mad, sad, glad, or afraid — and how to express them in ways that don’t harm others. Naming and knowing shame is part of this.

We live “East of Eden” because we are not unthinking beasts governed only by instinct. We are social animals with minds and spirits created by languages that carry a vast cultural history.

The story of the Garden of Eden names the emotion shame. My hope is that today’s reflection on the other feelings at play in Eden has reminded us of the complexity of the task of knowing and handling our feelings. May we also trust that we are supported in this task by the same Grace that banishes us from “paradise.” Our conflicted lives east of Eden involve toil and pain. But they are also ones filled with an endless capacity for hope, joy and love.

May it be so. Amen.

 

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Faith of our fathers

Text: Matthew 17:1-19 (the Transfiguration)

Canadians have been in a reflective mood this summer. July 1st was the 150th anniversary of Confederation. So, there have been parades, bigger than normal firework displays, and many essays about the history of Canada before and after 1867. Paul and Lesley Verdin led a worship service here last Sunday commemorating Confederation, for which we are grateful. Most of the commemorations are over, while others continue through the year.

Kim and I were in Toronto for the holiday visiting my mother and brothers, and we participated in a some of the events there. On July 1, we went to Harbourfront to see a six-story rubber duck that drew about 750,000 people who marvelled at its lugubrious presence.

At the end of the day, we crammed into a subway car to return to my brother’s house. As is typical of Toronto, the subway was filled with people from every corner of the world. But one person caught my attention more than others.

He was a stout young man with a bushy red beard. He was wearing a baseball cap and shorts with camouflage patterns, and he sported tattoos of swords, crosses, and maple leaves on both forearms. What alarmed me was his T-shirt. On the front, it said “Warning: Canadian Extremist!” On the back, it read “Welcome to Canada. Now act like a Canadian or go home!”

Nothing untoward happened while he was on the subway. But afterwards, I realized that this was the first time I can recall casually bumping into a racist who proudly displayed his violent ideology.

I took his presence as a sign of the times. When the white supremacist group Proud Boys makes the news for recruiting members of the Canadian Forces in Halifax, some of whom disrupted an Indigenous ceremony on Canada Day; when groups like the Soldiers of Odin rally against Islam outside a mosque in Calgary as they did in June; and when the Alberta Government feels the need for a new anti-racism initiative as it announced last week, I imagine that encounters with open racists may become more common, at least for a while.

The wave of populism and fear that has swept much of the world in the last few years is also evident here in Canada.

When we celebrate Canada, many of us say diversity is one of the reasons. We are so grateful to live in a country that is not only prosperous and filled with beauty, but is also one of peace, the rule of law, and equal opportunity.

But the 2015 federal election largely hinged on fear of Muslims, and the reactionary wish to undo the past 500 years in which the peoples of the world have become interconnected is here in Canada as in many other countries.

I have appreciated the discussions about colonialism and its devastating effects on Canada’s First Peoples that have been part of the Canada 150 anniversary. As we give thanks for all that Canada offers, we also try to be aware of the parts of Canada’s history that violate our sacred values. May these discussions help us in the ongoing work of reconciliation and in building a world that is closer to those values.

But Canada is not unique in having a history marked by war, conquest, and discrimination, as I hope my comments today about ancient Israel will show.

This summer, our Sunday services form a series that move through the seven sacraments of the church. Today, I focus on baptism. Baptism is a ritual that not only affirms our connection to God in Christ. It also marks our entry into a family, church, and nation. Baptism connects us to our ancestors even as it looks forward in hope to a future of peace, justice, and love.

Our reading today is about the Transfiguration of Jesus. The Transfiguration is like a second baptism because, just as with his baptism by John in the Jordan River a few months earlier, the voice of God is heard saying, “This is my own, my beloved, on whom my favor rests.” The Transfiguration also highlights the ancestry of Jesus.

As Jesus is transfigured, he and his friends are joined by two key figures from Israel’s past: Moses, the leader of the Exodus out of Egypt 1300 years earlier, and Elijah, a prophet from 900 years earlier who led a fight against the idolatry of King Ahab and his Canaanite bride, Queen Jezebel.

Both Moses and Elijah are considered heroes by the church. Unfortunately, their stories are filled with violence.

The Exodus story includes the killing of thousands of Egyptians by YHWH when the Pharaoh refuses to let the Hebrew slaves go, and of thousands of the ex-slaves when they worship an idol in the desert. The Exodus is followed by a genocide in Canaan as Moses’ successor Joshua conquers the Promised Land.

The prophet Elijah not only bests the priests of the Canaanite god Baal in various feats of magic, he also kills all 400 of them on behalf of YHWH. The presence of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration reminds us that Jesus’ nation, Israel, has a history of violence.

Jesus encounters his famous ancestors Moses and Elijah on a mountaintop as he begins his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. But unlike them, he does not kill anyone. Instead, Jesus is crucified by the Roman Empire and is raised by God as a representative of a Love that embraces all tribes and nations.

Moses and Elijah remind me of Canadian heroes like Samuel de Champlain, General Wolf, and Sir John A. Macdonald. They too were leaders who carried out racist campaigns of war and discrimination, which continue to scar our society today.

Jesus is different. He models a path of non-violence and universal inclusion. His path leads us away from the violence of the past and towards a future that is less about land and more about love. Jesus is hailed as the King of Jews. But in resurrection, he is revealed as a prince of peace for all people, one who reigns not from a distant throne, but from the hearts of everyone of good will.

Jesus could have tried to be another violent warrior like King David. But despite being born into a nation that glorifies Moses, Elijah, and David, Jesus kills no one and preaches a message of peace and love.

Like Jesus, we too have been baptized into families, faith communities, and nations that are scarred by violence. No family is unaffected by the traumas of past wars. No faith community is free of the stain of its past support for racist policies. No nation can claim that it rests on a history without war and conquest.

Because of these legacies, it might seem easy to be fearful. The scars of past violence are still evident in our hearts and minds and in discriminatory practices. How can we overcome this legacy and heal these wounds?

Then there are people like the young racist I saw on the subway car in Toronto. Like him, many of us are prone to look at the challenges of this rapidly changing society and turn to old prejudices as a way forward. As more racists gather, organize, and gain strength, it can seem easy to fear them.

Jesus models for us a path from fear to faith. Jesus doesn’t ask that we deny our fragility or the legacy of our violent past. He understands that both are part of reality and calls us to walk with him regardless. He calls us to move forward with him as holy fools on a path of non-violence, justice, and love.

Jesus does not repudiate Moses or Elijah. He simply leaves them behind to walk to Jerusalem to meet his fate; and he calls his friends and us to join him.

When we are baptized, we become a member of the community. Despite the scars of our community, we are confident that we can move toward love with the power of God’s Spirit towards a future with less violence, racism, and hatred.

In the weeks ahead, as we reflect on other stages of spiritual growth represented by the sacraments that follow baptism, I hope to expand on how a move from fear to faith might occur. For now, I simply assert what I see as a gracious truth. Even though we are baptized into families, churches, and nations scarred by violence, we are blessed by our past. We are also called by God’s Spirit to transcend our heritage and to reach for a future that is closer to Love.

Today, amid growing calls for ethnic cleansing in Canada, we stand against racism and for reconciliation and inclusion.

We welcome newcomers to Canada as fellow children of God; people who are as broken and blessed as us; and people who have been born into the great family of all humanity that is graciously filled with holy fools who struggle to build the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.

May it be so. Amen.

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