Thursday, 11 September 2014

Whose Prosperity Do We To Serve

Victoria Osteen, who is the wife and co-pastor of mega-church pastor and televangelist celebrity Joel Osteen, has raised a lot of eyebrows in Christian circles by her recent statement.  Victoria Osteen has been reported to have said:
When we obey God, we're not doing it for God...we're doing it for ourself. Because God takes pleasure when we're happy. Do good 'cause God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you're not doing it for God, really. You're doing it for yourself because that's what makes God happy.

This is obviously wrong on many levels and particularly when you consider what Jesus Christ taught and what Christians generally profess.  How do you reconcile this with statements such as, turn the other cheek, go the second mile ,  and of course the beatitudes such as blessed are the pure in spirit and the meek shall inherit the earth, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the poor.  I probably don’t need to go on.  The statement by Victoria Osteen smacks of the prosperity Gospel which holds that, “financial blessing is the will of Godfor Christians, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to Christian ministries will always increase one's material wealth”.   The Osteen’s are apparently big in the Prosperity Gospel movement (if I can call it that).
The basic problem that I see with this theology is that it gives free reign to the ego and all that the ego desires.  Humans can easily fall into the hubris of creating God in our own image rather than what we are told in Genesis — that we were created in God’s image, male and female He created us.  The ego is our great gift from God and an integral part of being created in God’s image.  The Ego is an integral part of what makes is conscious beings and knowing that we are Children of God and not the centre of the universe.  However, the ego also wants to keep things in our lives just as they are.  The ego hates and resists change.  It wants security and comfort.  As Richard Rohr noted, “if there is one thing that the ego hates more than anything else, is to change. I know that if I keep meditating, it is going to change my worldview, my priorities, and my preferences”. 

That is what we called to do.  We are called to put God ahead of ourselves and to try as best we can to do God’s will and not our ego’s will with my priorities and my preferences.  The Prosperity Gospel emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, holding that it is God's will for his people to be happy.  I believe God does want us to be happy.  However true happiness for people comes when the ego is in service to God and not in maintaining our self-interest.  I will close with quote from Br. Robert L'Esperance, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “In the Christian worldview we’re not at the center of everything. God is the center of things: God and God’s creation, of which we’re a small, wonderful, privileged part. John 10:10 reminds us that Jesus, not overconsumption, is the way to “abundant life”.”  Blessings.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Sermon August 31, 2014 Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

Luke 18:9 The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (tax collector)

Today’s Gospel invites us into the world of parables.  Parables have been called “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.”  Jesus was not the originator of parable form — however, we can say without a doubt that he was the master.  In using the parable as a teaching tool, Jesus used the things of everyday life — the experiences that those around him could relate to — the lives of people in everyday situations; the actions of Pharisees and tax collectors; home life of the woman who has lost a coin and work places of the shepherd who has lost a sheep; travellers in dangerous foreign lands; problems with troublesome neighbours.  They deal with the nitty gritty of the real lives of real people.  In all these day to day issues it is important to remember that there is a heavenly message behind these stories — “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” 
How, then do we explore the world of parables to understand the heavenly meaning that is contained in these earthly things?  One way that I have found to be effective is to put ourselves in the role of one of the characters. 

Who is the character that resonates most with us?  Who is the person we relate to most closely in the story?  Let’s explore a couple of the best known of Jesus’ parables.  First there is the story of the Good Samaritan.  I’m sure everyone knows this story.  We have five main characters; the traveller — let’s call him everyman; the priest the clergyman who passes by on the other side; the Pharisee the righteous layman who also passes by; finally there is the Samaritan of the title.  Which one do you relate to?  Of course I think most of us would like to think we would be the Samaritan — the hero of the story.  However, to do that we have to consider what it would be like to be a Samaritan in Jewish society in Jesus time.  Not a comfortable position. 
Let’s look at another of Jesus’ best known parables — The Prodigal Son.  Here we have only three main characters:  The long suffering indulgent loving father who gives his gad about younger son his inheritance when the son decides he want to go out and experience life to the fullest; the older dutiful son who always does the right thing and never hesitates to let people know he is the better son;

and finally the younger son who knows what he wants and asks for it and gets it — a case of be careful what you ask for if I ever heard one.   Which one of these resonates with you?  Perhaps not quite as obvious as the first example.  It may depend on your stage of life.  Fathers and mothers of grown sons and daughters might relate to the long-suffering father who desires nothing more for their children to grow up and see them as people and not just as authority figures to rebel against.  You might relate closely to the older brother — particularly if you have a younger sibling who never seems to have to face the consequences of his or her actions; or perhaps even the young wastrel who comes to his senses. 
This putting ourselves into the role of one of the characters can make the story come alive.  But what if you were asked to put yourself in the role of one of the characters you don’t have sympathy for?  What about the two who passed by the traveller — the everyman of the Good Samaritan parable?   How many of us have walked by someone who stops us on the street and asks for a handout?  How many of us would not stop and help a homeless person sleeping on the side of the road?  I know I have certainly been in the position of the priest and the Pharisee of the story.

How many of us dutiful sons and daughters would secretly like to be the carefree son who never seems to face consequences of his actions?   Here’s where these parables — these stories of Jesus begin to really hit home.  Here is where we get closer to the heavenly message contained in the earthly story. 
Now let’s turn to today’s parable — the story of the Pharisee and the Publican.  Here we have only two characters — the self-righteous Pharisee and the self-berating publican — or tax collector.  Here it is obvious that we do not want to be in the role of the Pharisee.  Who would want to be a self-righteous insufferable person who looks down on the person sitting next to us in the pew at church?  It is very easy to say I would not do that — not to my fellow church goer.  Well here’s a simple test — look at the people sitting around you in church this morning?  Is there anyone about who you have every thought to yourself, “thank God I am not like that person”?  Well perhaps not.  Try this one on for size, “thank God I have been more successful in my life than” — fill in the name.  I must be honest and admit that I have thought that way about some people I have known in church in my life.  Of course I don’t know any of you well enough to make that kind of comparison.  But give me time and I probably will.

Another perspective is from the reverse point of view.  Have you ever looked at someone sitting next to you or in the next pew and thought, “why couldn’t I be as successful as that person” or “why aren’t I as good looking”  or “why aren’t I as ……” — you can fill in the blanks here as well.  The publican doesn’t say to himself while he is at the temple, “why aren’t I a righteous person like the Pharisee?”  No, he deals with what he sees as his own failings — his own sins.
That is the key to this story.  That is how we get closer to the heavenly message.   We don’t compare ourselves to others — either positively or negatively.  We look at ourselves and humble ourselves before God.  We admit that we are sinners — we admit where we have missed the mark.  That is the meaning of sin — to miss the mark that God intends for us.  Where have I missed the mark in being and becoming the person that God intends me to be? 

In response to our inevitable failing — our inevitable intentional and unintentional sins all we can do is follow the example of the publican and pray “God be merciful to me a sinner”.   Indeed this is very much like the Jesus Prayer which I find so helpful in response to day-to-day life.  It is marvellous in its simplicity and its power.  ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; have mercy on me a sinner.’ 
Let us join together in that prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.  Amen

Never Say Never: Exploration in Anglo-Catholic Liturgy

Never say never.   That was never truer for me than yesterday when I was presiding at St. Peter’s which is the Pro-Cathedral in Charlottetown.  St. Peter’s is the high Anglo-Catholic church on the Island.  Having been introduced to Anglican worship in mid-life at churches which are definitely not Anglo-Catholic and worshipping primarily with the new liturgy of the Book of Alternate Services — which I though was quite ‘high’ compared to my experience in the United church — St. Peter’s is quite a different world of Anglican liturgical worship.  St. Peter’s uses the traditional Book of Common Prayer which I had a little experience of and less experience of the Anglo-Catholic form of the service.  Finding myself processing into the worship service at 10:00 o’clock behind three servers with candles, a crucifer and a lay reader was something I would have said I would never experience.

How I ended up in this interesting and not entirely comfortable position is definitely a case in point of never saying never.  Lorna and I have attended St. Peter’s a few times in the past during our many vacations on PEI.  Lorna and I (especially Lorna) do enjoy the Book of Common Prayer service as the language — although rather archaic — is beautiful symbolic and complements the mystery that we both believe is an integral part of worship.  St. Peter’s also has wonderful music and a very good choir which we both enjoy.  As I have mentioned once or twice in previous editions of these emails, we have been attending services at the small Anglican Church in nearby Montague and the smaller (smallest) Anglican Church in nearer by Souris.  Both of these churches are missions of St. Peter’s and are served by the clergy from St. Peter’s.  Consequently they both use the Book of Common Prayer liturgy with an Anglo-Catholic (but not as high) form of worship.  In the last two years I have been helping out  by presiding occasionally at St. George’s Montague and St. Alban’s Souris.  I was asked by the priest from St. Peter’s, Fr. Peter Harris (the priests are all referred to as Father which I will discuss later) to preside at St. Peter’s as Peter has traditionally taken some time off at the Labour Day weekend.  His assistant who is the priest at the nearby Milton and Rustico parish was not available for the 10:00 A.M. service. 
I agreed to preside at the service with some trepidation as it was (as I noted) a liturgy with intricacies that I had no experience leading.    In anticipation Lorna and I attended the service the preceding Sunday and I paid particular attention and took copious notes on the up’s and down (lots of genuflecting) and ins and outs (lots of other actions) and the smells (incense) and bells (of the Sanctus variety).  I was planning to meet with Peter (the person not the church) after the service, however, his elderly but vigorous father died unexpectedly but peacefully and the visitation was that Sunday afternoon.  The funeral was Monday and Peter was going to be leaving for his well-deserved and now most necessary mini-holiday on Tuesday.  Peter did send me detailed notes on the intricacies of the liturgy as a sort of Coles Notes for Anglo-Catholic worship.  I must say preparation was very much like studying for a final exam in University.  Fortunately I had my sermon prepared well in advance.

With prayer book, notes, and sermon in hand I headed off to Charlottetown quite early Sunday morning.  When I arrived I found the vestments nicely laid out for me with a note to the Altar guild that the alb which had been worn at the 8:00 service should be replaced as one more suitable to my height.  Well, I was faced with a number of vestment which I was unfamiliar with having used a simple cassock-alb or a cassock and surplus throughout my Anglican ministry along with occasionally a chasuble for special occasions.  I was soon greeted by the member of the altar guild on duty for the morning who unfortunately was not able to shed much light of the intricacies of Anglo-Catholic vestments.  She was a woman of about 70 years of age who was a long service member of the altar guild but had always followed the instructions of her mother (the source of all altar guild knowledge) who had unfortunately died recently and she was soloing for the first time.  However, the lay reader arrived fairly soon after and was able to introduce me to the mysteries of the vestment.  I was able, with the assistance of a dresser, to vest with a cassock and alb (rather than a surplus), a maniple (as far as I can determine), a stole and a chasuble.  I decided not to use the maniple which is carried on the left arm.  You may not be too interested in the details of Anglo-Catholic vestments but I hope you have a taste of the intricacies involved. 

After saying a much needed prayer with the servers, crucifer and lay reader and taking a deep breath I launched into the worship procession.  The choir processes separately from the opposite side of the building.  I won’t go in to many more details of the service itself as it is already too late to make a long story short.  However, I will say that I did not have to incense the altar as occurred on the previous Sunday as it was not a feast day or special service — just the eleventh Sunday after Trinity.  The lay-reader, servers and organist were very helpful and guided me through the service so I didn’t make too many missteps. 

I enjoyed the experience and the people.  However, there is the tensions of the Anglo-Catholic tradition — particularly in this part of Canada which is still in the early part of the twentieth century for church polity and does not believe in women priest.  It would be awkward to call them ’Father’.  However, that is not the reason they don’t agree with ordaining women — St. Peter’s does not have women in any liturgical role including servers.  Of course same-sex-blessing is out of the question.  However, with I have discovered there is often a benefit from living in tension of such things as belief and practice and holding that tension which will produce interesting results.  It is unfortunate that wonderful liturgy and music seem to be incorporated with theology which seems to be missing what I see as the truth that Jesus Christ lived and taught.  That is a whole other issue which I will leave to another day.