Monday, 29 July 2013

Raffles and Roofs and Liturgy

I presided at St. George's Montague PEI yesterday and had a great experience worshipping with the BCP.  Part of what made the experience so positive was the singing of the liturgy by the congregation.  Although they a not great in number - there were 17 in attendance yesterday - they sing very well - both the liturgy and hymns.  There is also a very competent organist who is a life-long Anglican.  He plays at the Catholic Church in Souris before coming to Montague a bit of a rush for him but he usually makes it on time.  Yesterday the Catholics were worshipping 'in the field' -as he put it (their parish picnic as he clarified) and he left the music up to the guitarists.  Therefore he was able to arrive without it being a rush.

One interesting point occurred after the service.  One of the ladies of the church was, as I later found out, selling raffle tickets on behalf of the St. Alban's in Souris - their sister congregation in the Parish. St. Albans is raising money for a new roof - or I should say half roof.  They have enough money to  replace one half and need to raise the funds for the other half.  The lady selling the tickets instead of offering me an opportunity  to buy one or more said that she shouldn't let me see what she was doing.  When I found out what she was doing I realized that selling raffle tickets was frowned on by the Ecclesial powers that be in Diocese as they are in my home Diocese of Huron (gambling and all that).  However, I assured her that I had no problem with raising money in this way for such a good cause.  I was quite happy to buy some - Lorna actually did the evil deed buying 6 for $5.00 so my hand are clean.  It probably means I will not be able to use the quilt if we are fortunate enough to win it. 

Yes life does give us these serious ethical issues even at the cottage.  I hope yours are as easy to resolve. 

Sermon July 28, 2013 Ninth after Trinity Luke 16: 1

I think I must be doing penance this morning for some past sin that I don’t know about.  The Gospel reading today is not one that is the easiest to preach on.  The lesson from this parable of Jesus - the parable of the dishonest steward as it is often called – seems to be giving us a perverse message.  The steward who is about to be dismissed with cause (in today’s jargon) decides he is going to assure his future by conspiring with his customers to defraud his master.  He carries out this fraud quite successfully by discounting the bills of the customers.  A hundred measures of oil now become fifty.  A hundred measures of wheat become eighty. 

This sets the scene.  What we expect at this point is that Jesus is going to condemn the steward for his dishonesty and condemn the customers for their complicity in the conspiracy.  However, what do we have Jesus telling us?  To our shock we have Jesus commending the dishonest steward.  Jesus holds him up as an example of how the children of light – his followers - should behave.  You almost expect him to start to walk away after this set up and shout ‘April Fools – just kidding’.  But he doesn’t.  He leaves this lesson intact.  He leaves it for us ‘Children of Light’ to ponder and wonder, ‘What was he thinking!’- definitely followed by an exclamation point or two or three. 
It would be as if Jesus returned on a cloud of glory and landed in the middle of Wall Street and proclaimed that those bankers and financiers responsible for the economic collapse five years ago which caused untold hardship throughout the western world should be our role models. 

It is as if Gordon Gekko the financier in the movie Wall Street who proclaimed as his creed ‘greed is good’ has been elevated to one of Jesus’ apostles. 
It is tempting to look for a way to avoid the difficult passages in the bible such as this one or when God orders the Israelites to commit genocide on the people on the way to the Promised Land.   There are many other examples of such difficult passages that don’t fit with our view of God and Jesus as his Son who is usually upholding Love as the guiding principle of the universe.  There is a tradition in Jewish interpretation of scripture that holds it is not the truth of the interpretation that sanctifies the work – it is the struggle to understand it.  If that is the case this passage certainly does lend itself to sanctification.  It requires a great deal of struggle to understand what Jesus is telling us.

With that said let continue to struggle with this most perplexing passage.  When looking at parables, the lesson – the punch line - is always important to consider.  What is Jesus trying to teach us with this story?  In my reading the message seems to center around the comparison Jesus makes between the Children of Light and the children of this age.  He tells us that the steward acted with prudence and that the children of this age are more prudent than the children of light.  Certainly there was a difference between the people in Jesus culture and the followers of Jesus.  Jesus certainly did criticize the approach that the leaders of his age took to how the people should live.  The Sabbath was no longer for people.  They were teaching that people were made for the Sabbath.  The leaders criticized him for healing on the Sabbath rather than praising God for the miracle of healing.  In effect they were making a god of the rules rather rules being a way to bring people closer to God. 
That has not changed to any great respect today.  Our world seems be moving in the direction of secularism to a greater and greater extent.  So is there anything that we as Children of Light can learn from the children of this age?  Perhaps Jesus is telling us that we should take a lead from how dedicated and committed people can be in the secular world.  A young woman I know and her husband are both lawyers who have worked on Bay Street.  She is currently at home with their daughter but when she was working at a law firm I was amazed at the number of ‘billable hours’ they were expected to work. They received significant remuneration for very long hours of work.  Another example comes from the small town I live in where I was the parish priest before I retired.  The secular God of that culture is hockey.  Most of the kids are focused on competitive hockey.  They put in an amazing amount of time dedicated to the game – many of which seem to occur Sunday mornings.  The family spends many weekends travelling to  tournaments.  They are expected to give hockey the priority in their lives.  When they sign up for the season they are expected to make what could be called a covenant that they will be at every practice and every game.  If they miss too many they are off the team.   I often wondered what it would be like if we put those kind of expectations for attending Sunday School.  Of course that would mean putting the same kind of resources into Christian Education as people put into hockey.  A final example is from an article I read recently about amateur bike racers.  These were not world class racers who were in training for top class competition.  These were week-end warriors who competed against others like them.  They spent thousands of dollars on their bikes and the accessories.  They train in serious way.  Winning was so important to them that there was even a culture of doping.

To quote from the article: “Something rational is lost when one joins the religious order of serious amateur cyclists.  Self-worth is measured against how thoroughly one thrashes others in the same cloistered sect.  The outside world shrinks, dims and disappears.  In this context, regardless of how meager the stakes seem to those on the outside, cheating becomes about the survival of the self”.  Notice the religious language that is used ‘religious order’, ‘cloistered sect’.
Perhaps that is something that we Children of Light can learn from the children of this age.  Not that we should use dope to succeed or work such long hours that home life is next to impossible.  What is described is life’s purpose gone badly off course.  Rather, the sense of giving our all – being fully committed to something in our lives is what we can strive for.  We should give all we can in leading the lives that God desires for us to lead.  Lives that are balanced and focused on our families as well as our careers; lives that give to others as well as to ourselves; lives that will let the world  as the ancient hymn say ‘know we are Christians by our love’. 

The bottom line is what god do we serve?  Is it the god of success in our culture?  Is it the god of hockey or and other activity or the god of mammon or the god of winning at any price?  Or is it the one true God who is our creator and redeemer?  Thou shalt have no other god before me.  That commandment hold true today as much as it did when it was delivered to Moses and when Jesus walked among us.  Amen. 


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Cottage Reading

One of the many lovely things about summer is the opportunity to read books that are for pure enjoyment.  They don't have to be a learning experience and in my case currently on the curriculum of the Spiritual Direction Program that Lorna and I are taking.  While at my extended stay at the cottage I have had some good cottage reads including a couple a books by PD James.  I have not read much of her work but have enjoyed the TV adaption of inspector Dalgliesh and from what I have heard any of her books are worth diving into.  The most recent book I just finished  is Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold which is a real page turner right to the end. 
The heroine of the story is a fourteen your old girl who was murdered and is narrating the story from her heaven.   It is her heaven because each person has their own heaven which can intersect with other people who they have encountered on earth and some who they haven’t.  The geography is what they most liked on earth.  Our heroine is watching how the lives of her family deal with her death and how they move on with their lives or not.  I highly recommend it as a great read and as I say it is a page turner.
The question running around my head this morning is, “what kind of a heaven do I believe in?”  I don’t believe in angels floating on and I don’t believe that when a bell rings another angel gets his/her wings.  I also don’t believe that all is revealed the moment after we depart this life.  However at this point I believe that possibly we go through some kind of purification in the process of reaching a more complete union with God.  Leaving out the possibility of hell at this time I think it may be something akin to purgatory and heaven depicted by Dante in the Divine Comedy.  Speaking of comedy (not in Dante’s sense) I do believe that there will be a great deal of holy humor in heaven.  God certainly does seem to have ha great sense of humor that I don’t always get immediately. 
To end with an Irish blessing, may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Reading the Bible 28: Genesis 35 – Jacob’s Twice Told Tale

Sometimes we don’t get the message the first time.  This is particularly true of the messages we get from God.  Jacob seems to need to a recapitulation of the encounter with God at Bethel.  After all he has gone through with Esau and the tragic events around Dinah God speaks to Jacob again and tells him that he must return to Bethel – that place where he wrestled with God.  HE must go through much of what he experienced the first time.  He again sets up an altar to God and consecrates it.  There is a renaming of the place as El-bethel – the God of Bethel - which seems redundant as Bethel means the house of God.  God also again renames Jacob Israel – the name he was given after striving against the messenger of God and prevailing.  Israel means the one who has striven with God.  So, why this encounter with God that seems to cover the same territory?

Well it would be nice if we only needed to get the message once and that would be enough for us to repent – to turn our lives around and go the way that God intended.  That seemed to be the case with Saul renamed Paul after his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.  However, most of us seem to need to get the message many times and in many different ways before we stumble towards our Jerusalem.  That is certainly the case with me.  There don’t seem to have been any Road to Damascus experiences is my life.  And the messages that I do get I seem to need to hear over and over again in different ways – congenital slow learner that I am. 

The journey that we are on often or usually takes the form of a labyrinth rather than the straight and narrow path.  We make progress by sometimes heading in the wrong direction and turning again towards the center.  It often feels like we are getting nowhere or even going backwards but if (now El-Bethel).   He states that Bethel was the place where God ‘had answered me in the day of my distress’.  He recognized that the trial he had gone through wrestling with the angle was a positive thing although I’m sure he did not experience it that way at the time. 

Those times where we struggle and wrestle with our demons and angels may not seem like they are sent from God.  And I don’t want to and it is not my intention to dismiss or diminish the terrible things that people face in their lives. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger.  However, as Jacob says God, ‘has been with me wherever I have gone’.  May we always recognize that God is with us as we continue on our journeys.


Monday, 15 July 2013

Sermon July 14, 2013: WHich Wolf Will We Feed

There is a story from North American native Indians – I guess you could call it a proverb. 

An old Cherokee told his grandson: “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth.”
The boy thought about it, and asked: “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”

The old man quietly replied: “The one you feed.”
That story is applicable to both the epistle and the Gospel for today.  In the Epistle from Romans, Paul is telling is that we have a war within us about which side we will serve – will we be slaves to sin or will we be servants to righteousness?  The Gospel tells of one of the well-known events in the ministry of Jesus when he feeds the multitude with five loaves and two fishes.  The multitude is satisfied abundantly with more than enough left over – more than they started with.  In effect which side in the battle will we serve – which wolf will we feed?  How will we feed our souls with material food or spiritual food?

The epistle (Romans 6:17) tells us that if we feed the evil wolf we are slaves to sin.  However, if we feed the good wolf we will be servants to God.  One interesting thing about this comparison is the Greek work for servant and slave.  The New Testament - when it was finally written down - was originally written in Greek. 
One of the things I remember from my course in Greek at seminary was that the Greek word Doulos means both slave and servant.  We have the same word being used differently – the translators used slave in one place – slave to sin.  The other is servant to God.  I’m sure they used the two different words in translation because of the context in which they are used.  There is a definite difference for the context of a slave and the context of a servant. 

When you are a slave to something you have little or no choice in the matter.  We don’t consider slavery much these days.  After all, slavery was defeated in the 18th and 19th century for the most part.  There was the great civil war in our neighbours to the south a hundred and fifty years ago that emancipated the slaves.  Unfortunately the United States is still dealing with many of the consequences in their relations between blacks and whites.  There are still two wolves fighting in many ways in that land.  Of course we Anglicans can be proud of the role of William Wilberforce an Anglican reformer who was the force behind the abolition of slavery in Britain in the 18th Century.  He was inspired in part by John Newton the author of Amazing Grace and a reformed slave ship captain.  However, slavery was an integral part of the world in Jesus’ time.  The first Christians including Paul accepted slavery as normal part of society. 
So today, how do we relate to slavery that Paul talks about?  Well even though physical slavery has been abolished in the Western world we have many other kinds of slavery.  We have many things in society that we can be enslaved by.  We can be enslaved to money or drugs or material possession or even power.  When we become enslaved to something like alcohol or anything else we lose our choices.  Someone who is addicted has lost control of his life. 

The addict may believe that that they are in control – I can give up x any time I want to - but in truth the thing they are addicted to is controlling them.  They have becomes slaves to sin.
When we think of sin we often mistakenly believe we are taking strictly about moral behavior – committing adultery or stealing or any of the ‘nots’ in the Ten Commandments.  However, I find that the best way of thinking of sin is ‘something – anything that separates us from the love of God and from leading the life that God intends for us. 

This brings us to the Gospel and the image of being fed by Jesus.  We have the wonderful account of Jesus feeding the multitude with a few loaves of bread and even fewer small fish.  The account presents Jesus feeding the bodies of those that gathered to hear him.  Their bodies were indeed fed by the bread and the fish but they were fed in another way.  Their souls and spirits were undoubtedly fed by Jesus.  That is why they were gathered to be with him.  They recognized that their spirit was not being fed by their present lives – by the religious leaders of their community.  The Gospel tells us that many had come from distances to experience Jesus.  They knew on some level that their spirits were hungering for the bread of heaven.   Just as we are fed by the body and blood of Jesus when we receive the Eucharist they ate and were filled in their bodies and their souls.
So the question remains which wolf are we going to feed in our lives?  The one that is Evil – the one that is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego.  Or are we going to feed the one that is Good – the one that is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth.” 

The boy thought about it, and asked: “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”

The old man quietly replied: “The one you feed.”

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Reading the Bible 27: Genesis 34 – The Sign of a non-Covenant

This episode in the story of Jacob is one which seems on the surface to be an old familiar one.  A young girl is abused – raped by someone in a neighbouring community.   This act is ultimately avenged by the girl’s family who see it as an affront to the family honour if not to the girl.  However, the events in between these two parts of the story are anything but simple.  It is stuff of obsession and stalking as well as family feuds and wars between tribes and nations. 

 On one level it rings true as an example of how human relations are complex and anything but simple; of how desire and lust can rule people and lead to acts such as rape and obsession and revenge and unintended consequences.  On another level the level there are events that clang in our ears as strange and unfamiliar.  Why would a tribe or nation submit to having every males circumcised as a condition of friendship with another group that has entered their territory?  You have to wonder what they were thinking when they agreed to what seems like an outrageous demand by what in effect were invaders albeit seemingly peaceful ones.  It raises the possibility of history being written by the winners or something being lost in translation over the generations.

What I find most intriguing is the use of circumcision in the story.  This was originally a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and had been practiced by Abraham and his descendants.  This covenantal act is now used by the sons of Jacob as a strategy – a very cleaver one - to gain revenge on their enemies.  This has the flavor of an army marching into battle declaring that God is on their side.  OF course there was no question of YHWY being on the side of Abraham’s decedents but |I wonder how he felt about his sign of the covenant being used for this purpose?  Given his later declaration about how the inhabitants of the Promised Land should be treated it may not have bothered him in the least.  Putting aside that semi-serious possibility, it raises the serious issue of the danger of believing that we can use God for our own purposes.  It is very easy to fall into the trap of believing we know God fully and being absolutely sure that God approves of what we are doing.  This of course is hubris which has led to many people falling great distances.  It is always good to err on the side of humility rather that hubris. 

Monday, 1 July 2013

Reading the Bible 26: Genesis 33 The Prodigal Brother - A Fatted Calf of Another Kind

On this reading of the reunion of Jacob and Esau I found it striking how I was reminded of the reunion of the Prodigal Son with his father.  The return of the outcast family member is greeted by the injured party without hesitation and with literal open arms.  As with the father, Esau does not stand on ceremony and custom and rushes to meet Jacob.  The careful preparation by both son and brother are moot as the true outpouring of affection and emotion overrules all.

Despite these very similar reunions the two stories take markedly different turns.  The difference appears to turn on the lack of a fatted calf.  Jacob has prepared a gift of reconciliation for Esau.  While the Prodigal Son had nothing material to offer to his father, Jacob plans to offer Esau a portion of what God has blessed him with.  This seems to be on the surface a gift from the heart.  However, there is an undertone that Jacob has not met Esau with an open heart.  He is still using his wiles to ensure his safety.  He is depending on himself rather than God who he says has been gracious to him.   

This position of Jacob’s is confirmed when he again uses his wiles to separate from Esau again.  He uses the fragile state of his children and flock as an excuse not to journey with Esau saying he will follow at a slower pace.   He then follows a different path which may have believed he must follow.  Regardless he is still not able to put his trust in Esau or perhaps God.  When faced with a challenge he still falls back on his trickster nature and depends on his wiles to save him.

We can perhaps have one of the most difficult things for people to do is to accept that we cannot control everything in our lives.  As the success of 12 step programs show we need to acknowledge that there is a greater power than ourselves before we are able to move forward from a place where the illusion that we can do it alone is no longer enough.