Monday, 28 September 2015

Sermon September 27, 2015: 17th Sunday after Trinity

Some years ago I learned an approach to understanding the Gospel.  There are actually three rules to this approach.  The first of the rules is, ‘the Gospel is always astonishing’. The second rule is ‘The Gospel is not fair’. Finally, ‘in the Gospel, God always acts first’. 

Now I must admit that I don’t always use these rules.  However, I have found that when I do they can be helpful in trying to figure out what the Gospel is saying to me in the current moment.  I thought of this approach when I read today’s Gospel.  Specifically, I was surprized/astonished when I read that Jesus went to the house of the chief Pharisee.  Now, if I had been asked I would have said that this is the last place that I would expect Jesus to be.  It is like Daniel going into the lions’ den voluntarily.  Jesus was never reluctant to criticise the Pharisees and hold them to account for their approach to religion and their seemingly making a god of the law e.g. the Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath.  

Here we have the Gospel with Jesus breaking bread at the chief Pharisee’s house.  We might have thought that perhaps the fence—or should I say chasm—that separated the Pharisees from Jesus might have been mended and bridged. 
But we are disabused from that possibility almost immediately.  We are told, “that they watched him.”  In effect they had invited Jesus to dinner to do what they always seemed to do; try and catch him in some faux pas of religious law so that they could condemn him and his message.  That, of course, in itself is a breaking of the rules of hospitality.  That is not what a host should do.  The host should welcome a guest and put him or her in the place of honour. 

The drama unfolds and we have what seems to be a set-up by the host.  There is a man among them who has dropsy.  Now I wasn’t actually sure what dropsy is.  I looked it up on the source of all knowledge—I Googled it and found out.  It is the old term for Oedema which is an observable swelling caused by accumulation of fluid in the bodily tissue.  So it seems that this man—who had a condition that Jesus couldn’t miss—was invited there to be bait to trap Jesus in a blasphemy.  They probably thought that Jesus might be moved by his condition and heal him.  And as we are told it is the Sabbath and therefore he would have performed work on the Sabbath and broken the Holiness code.
However, Jesus is no fool (except perhaps for Christ). He beats them to the punch-line so to speak.  He asks the assembled religious leaders and lawyers, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day?”  They know that they have been caught in the trap they set for Jesus so they do the only thing they can and say nothing.  He goes ahead and heals the man.  He doesn’t however stop there.  He uses the opportunity to show them what they should know as religious leaders.  He shows them that the law does allow work to be done if it is for compassionate reasons.  They would rescue an animal that was in need of saving.  Would not God expect the same for His people? 

He then gives them the final lesson—the icing on the spiritual cake so to speak.  He gives them a lesson in true hospitality and shows them what the spirit of the law is.  He shows them that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  They are not to hold that they are the important ones.  They are to humble themselves. They are to be poor in spirit as Jesus will later tell us in Beatitudes.  Then they will be blessed. 
Where does this leave us?  Do we then have to remember to show true hospitality to other?  That sounds fairly easy doesn’t it?  If we invite someone to dinner we should not do it for nefarious reasons.  All well and good.  However, with Jesus I don’t think we get off that easy.  Jesus is calling us to true humility in all aspects of life.  It is like the Pharisee who is beside the tax collector praying “Thank God I am not like the tax collector”.  We are like that when we hold ourselves to deserve the best seat at the table in all aspect of life we are not humbling ourselves as we are called to do by Jesus. 

When we engage with someone what kind of an internal conversation do we have?  Do we compare ourselves to the other person and see where we are better or not as good as that person?  Do we put that person in a category of worthy of our friendship or even our attention?  We consider if this person is worth our while.  What do we think about those who are struggling? Do we categorize them as the worthy poor who should get our help or even the help of government?  So we think that refugees don’t deserve our help because they are probably terrorist anyway.  Jesus didn’t worry about the worthiness of the man with dropsy—he healed him. 

Admittedly it is hard to overcome what seems to be our natural inclination to judge others. However, Jesus also said judge not lest you be judged.  It is hard not to judge and in some cases we need to judge; is something positive of negative; is someone acting for the benefit of others or out of selfishness?  But when we judge we are called to see the child that God has created in each person we meet.  We are called to see Jesus’ face in the face of the homeless person and the neighbour we don’t get along with.  We are called to love one another as Jesus loves us.  It doesn’t seem easy but we are called to travel that road.  It is a journey we were called to take at our baptism and it is one that continues all our life.  Amen.

True Hospitality; True Compassion

Last night Lorna and I watched Saving Private Ryan—with interruptions to watch the lunar eclipse which was fascinating.  It was one of our VHS tape finds at Value Village in Charlottetown this year.    The movie was just as engaging as the first time we saw it.  This morning Lorna made a very interesting and insightful comment.  It would have been an even more interesting movie if Spielberg had given it a dark twist and it turned out that Private Ryan had lived and completely unredeemable life after being saved by the group of heroic U.S. soldiers who all gave their lives in the effort.  The ending has the Private Ryan character—played by Matt Damon—visiting the military cemetery in France in the present day and tearfully asking this wife to affirm that he had lived a good life i.e. one worthy of the sacrifice that had been made by those soldiers who died ‘Saving’ him.  They were sent to bring Ryan to safety and to be discharged as he was the sole surviving son in a family—his three brothers having been killed in action. 

As I reflected on that insight I thought about it in the context of my sermon yesterday.  The subject of the sermon was the miracle performed by Jesus curing the man with dropsy at the home of the Chief Pharisee (Luke 14: 1-11).  This act of compassion was done by Jesus on the Sabbath and had been a set up by the religious authorities to catch Jesus in the sin of doing work on the Sabbath i.e. healing the man.  Jesus teaches them a lesson in true hospitality which, of course, the religious leaders did not show Jesus inviting him to dinner for nefarious purposes.

The connection between the Gospel lesson and the movie is related, I believe, to true hospitality.  Jesus did not determine if the man with dropsy deserved to be healed.  He acted out of compassion for the man.  The act of compassion by the military to save Private Ryan and spare his mother further tragedy would not have been lessened if Ryan had turned out to live a completely selfish or even evil life.  In the same way we do not know what kind of a life was lived by the man with dropsy.  He may have been moved to give his life to the glory of God like the one healed leper who returned to thank Jesus; however, he may not have.  That doesn’t change the nature of the act. 

There was one element of the movie that dealt with this quandary.  The band of brothers who were rescuing Ryan set a German soldier they had captured free.  He later reappears as a central character fighting against the U.S. soldiers who are defending a bridge.  He ends killing a number of the soldiers who rescue Ryan including the commanding officer played by Tom Hanks.  Lorna’s imagined ending to the movie would have truly made the viewer reflect more deeply on the nature of compassion and hospitality rather than having a Hollywood ending.  But then it was truly a Hollywood movie; a good one none-the-less.

In closing I can pose this question for all of us.  How do we show true hospitality and compassion to others?  I believe we do not do that by sitting back and turning our backs on the refugee crisis.  That is the issue facing us today.  There are, of course, ongoing ones we have to wrestle with every day.  Peace.  

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Ecce Homo; "Beast Jesus"

Yesterday afternoon I was driving home from doing a service with the little congregation of faithful Anglicans in Georgetown PEI and was able to listen to CBC Tapestry.  This is a wonderful CBC program on religion and spirituality which I don’t listen to often enough—basically because I am not mindful enough about it. 

Yesterday’s program didn’t disappoint me.  It was on the subject of the “Beast Jesus”.  If you aren’t aware of this phenomenon, as I wasn’t, it involves an early 20th century fresco in a church in Borja Spain.  An attempt to restore the painting in 2012 by, an 83-year-old widow and amateur painter Cecilia Giménez had disastrous results—at least that was the initial assessment of the work.  The well-intentioned effort turned out to be less than intended and the result was, shall we say, interesting.  The restored face of Jesus has a definite animal or bestial appearance.  I have copied a before and after picture of the fresco from the Tapestry website.

The “restoration” was halted when the church officials saw what was happening to the work.  However, as you may have guessed that is not the end of the story.  The fresco has become something of a sensation and has attracted many curious people.  It has apparently become a significant tourist attraction and has revitalized the economy of the small town of Borja, Spain. 

The subject of the work is Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), a depiction of the Jesus presented to the    crowd by Pontius Pilate after the scourging (John 19:5) shortly before his crucifixion.   It is an interesting case of intentional fallacy—the literary criticism which addresses the issue that often the intention of the author or artist is not the most important meaning.  In this case the intention of the restorer was to restore the work to its original glory.  However, something unintended was created with unintended results.  The results are interesting in a number of ways.  First the popularity has had apparently positive economic results for the town.  In addition, a comic opera is in the works, which was the subject of the Tapestry program. The intention is to have the world premiere in Borja and an annual performance thereafter which will help the positive impact on the town to continue. 
There is also another unintended consequence which I find as interesting.  As pointed out in the CBC program the impact of the new image of Jesus is more dramatic than the original.  As can be seen in the pictures below, the original face of Jesus has the eyes looking up to heaven.  The new face of Jesus is looking at the viewer with the eyes engaging the viewer eyes.  In the view of the interviewee on Tapestry, the librettists of the opera, the eyes on Jesus seem to be asking, “What is it that you are doing in world”.  To that I could add, “What are you doing to follow me”.  

That is where the subject connected to me yesterday.  My sermon took the passage from Luke 7: 11-17 in which Jesus raises the widow’s son from the dead in the town of Nain (a copy is attached).  I compare this to the miracle he performs and casts out the unclean spirit “Legion” in the country of the Gerasenes (Luke: 26-38).  In the case of both miracles the reaction of the crowd is to be afraid; however their response in very different.  In the case of the people in Nain, they praise God for sending them a great prophet.  In the case of the Gerasenes, they, in effect, run him out of town on a rail.  They were afraid because the people knew that Jesus could change their lives in radical ways—a valuable herd of swine were destroyed in the town of the Gerasenes.  If we take Jesus seriously we are going to be faced with Jesus asking us what are we doing in the world?  Are we going to run him out of town or are we going to rejoice that God has sent us a Saviour and Messiah.  If take Jesus seriously our lives will be changed radically and we know what happens to radicals in our society; It is often not pleasant.  

Monday, 21 September 2015

Sermon September 20, 2015: The16th Sunday after Trinity

Today’s Gospel is an account of Jesus raising someone from the dead.   If I was to ask you about an account of Jesus doing this, many people would think of Lazarus.  In many ways the account today of Jesus is not as dramatic as that account.  After all there is much more drama in the story of Lazarus.  He is a good friend of Jesus and he delays his arrival at Lazarus’ tomb much to the dismay of Mary and Martha Lazarus’ sister.  Indeed Jesus weeps when he sees their distress.  One of the two times we are told Jesus does this. 

However, there is, of course, drama in today’s Gospel.  Jesus and his disciples arrive at Nain and they are met with what seems to be a funeral procession carrying the corpse of a young man.  Jesus is moved by the distress of the man’s mother and without being asked raises the man from death.  This is, like the story of Lazarus, a dramatic account of the power of death being defeated and is a foretaste of the Easter story. 

One of the interesting, dramatic aspects of the story for me is something that might well be missed.  We are told that when the crowd sees what Jesus has done they begin to fear him.  This is not the usual reaction to the miraculous deeds of Jesus.  Often they are singing Jesus’ praise.  Well actually that is what they do here.  What do they do as a result of their fear?  Do they run away and hide?  Do they see Jesus as a threat and threaten to stone him?  Actually, they glorify God—in effect they are thanking God for the sending a great prophet to them to perform these wonderful deeds.  That is not the way we normally react to fear.

Let’s look at another example of how people reacted to Jesus’ miraculous actions as reported in Luke 8: 26-38.  Jesus is in country of the Gerasenes and exorcises a man who is possesses by an unclean spirt or spirits whose name is Legion.  He sends the spirit into a large herd of swine who run off a cliff and are killed.  How did these people react to his making the possessed man whole—a man they had known all his life who was so possessed that, “For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.  We are told that:
37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.

Now they might have been more concerned with the death of the swine.  They might have been afraid that their lives would be disrupted by this miracle performing rabble rousing rabbi.  In any case the Gerasenes wanted nothing to do with Jesus.  And Jesus acceded to their request.  They probably didn’t ask him very politely.  People who are seized with fear don’t usually exchange pleasantries.  They probably wanted to run him out of town on a proverbial rail.
So here we have two very similar events—two miracles performed by Jesus.  The effect on those who see it are similar but also different.  They both become afraid.  And yet they respond is different ways.  One glorifies God giving thanks for the wonders that Jesus performs.  The other demand that Jesus get out of town immediately.

 The question for us today is how are we going to react and respond to the Good News of Jesus Christ in our lives?  Make no mistake, the message and reality of Jesus will have a profound effect on our lives—if we take it seriously and try to follow him.  Both groups in Nain and the Gerasenes were afraid because they knew that Jesus was dangerous.  He was a man from God and could do powerful, miraculous things that could radically change the lives of people he come into contact with.  The Gerasenes were afraid that he would disrupt the economic foundation of their lives – a very valuable possession—the large herd of swine had been destroyed.  If we take Jesus seriously our lives are going to be completely disrupted.  We are going to love our enemies; we may have to sell our possessions and give the money to the poor; we are going to turn the other cheek when someone strikes us; we may drop our nets and leave our boats and follow him; we may have to turn our back on our families and our families will become the other followers of Jesus.   There is no wonder that the Gerasenes drove him out of town.

Make no mistake about it, Jesus is dangerous.  Jesus can and does change lives in radical ways.  You know what happens to radicals in our society; we kill them just as Jesus was killed.  The choice is ours; we can run Jesus out of town on a rail or we can glorify God giving thanks that we have Jesus as our Messiah and Saviour and live and our lives accordingly in radical ways.  Thanks be to God.  

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Sermon September 13, 2015 Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity What, Me Worry

Do you remember Mad Magazine from the sixties and seventies?  The character on the cover was usually Alfred E. Neuman who was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, at east in appearance.  In my memory he appeared on the cover of every edition of the Magazine.  He would often have words of “wisdom” when he appeared on the cover.  These are a few of the pithy sayings:
We are living in a world today where lemonade is made from artificial flavors and furniture polish is made from real lemons.
You can be on the right track and still get hit by a train.
In retrospect it becomes clear that hindsight is definitely overrated!
Most people are so lazy; they don't even exercise good judgement!

Alfred was a bit of a clown in appearance.  If you aren’t familiar with him, he was a rather gormless looking character with ears that stuck out, a missing front tooth, and hair that was never quite combed.  He looked a bit like Alfalfa from the Our Gang Comedies of even longer ago.   He might be considered rather a fool to look at him.
But like the classic fool in the king’s court he was able to speak the truth if you get below the surface appearance.  The classical fool was there to keep the king from getting too high and mighty.   He would remind the king that he wasn’t infallible.  He was mortal and in the end he would have to answer to God.

Alfred E. Nueman’s tag line was, “What, me worry?”  Now when he said this, you could easily dismiss it as being foolish.  If Alfred didn’t worry it seemed it was because he didn’t quite get it.  However, if we dig a bit deeper the truth in his statement is exactly what Jesus is telling us.  “Which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his or her stature”?  Why are you anxious concerning your clothes? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin, yet Solomon in his glory was not arrayed as one of these.”  

Worry and anxiety are the curse of the 21st Century.  There is no shortage of things to worry about.  As our society becomes more complex the number of things to worry about piles up until it is a mountain that is impossible to scale and conquer.  Coincidentally (if you believe in coincidences) Huffington Post had a headline last Sunday about high paying jobs that are low stress.  Some of the jobs listed were fork-lift operator, lab-technician, tenured professors, librarians, tailors and jewelers.  The reasons given for the low stress included job security, being able to set you own pace, and not having to deal with demands of co-workers. It is interesting that the things that cause stress are insecurity, and demands placed on you by others.  However, there was no mention of jobs that provided fulfillment and a sense of accomplishment or even jobs that are meaningful.  

We often think of the ancient times, the olden days as being idyllic and worry feel.  Life was simpler so there were fewer things to worry about.  However, as Jesus confirms, even in those simple times there were things to worry about.  People were anxious about many things.  From what Jesus said they were worried about their appearance i.e. what cloths they wore, or their appearance i.e. not tall enough, or having enough to eat.

There was also worry about not fulfilling the covenant and being isolated from the community.  Anxiety and worry seem to be part of being conscious.  Human beings have been given the gift of consciousness.  We know that we are separate from the world.  We are aware of the world and the possibilities for what lies ahead of us and the knowledge that we are going to die unlike the rest of creation.  That awareness allows us to plan and come together to work cooperatively and to develop cultures.  It also made us aware that there is a God and the need to worship God.

If anxiety and worry are a result of our being conscious, could not God have given us consciousness without anxiety?  Now it may be that anxiety is an inevitable outcome of being conscious—you can’t have one without the other.  However, it can also be that worry can be beneficial.  If we worry about having security we can strive to be more secure. Our ancestors knew they had to protect themselves from wild animals and enemies. If we worry about disease we will make an effort to develop ways to protect ourselves against disease.  If we had just accepted that we would die from different diseases scientists would not have striven to find cures.  Ironically, people today seem to be eschewing vaccinations which have done wonders in protecting us from disease because of exaggerated worries that the vaccines themselves will cause harm.  This is where worry can lead to negative results.
If we allow worry to control our lives then we are falling into a state that Jesus is warning against.  If worry gives us the incentive to do something about what we are worried then it is a positive thing.  However if we are worried about things about which we can do nothing then we are letting the anxiety take over our lives.

Jesus tells us to consider the lilies of the field; they neither toil nor spin.  Jesus is not telling us that we do not need to strive to live full lives—to work and to harvest and to reap the benefits of our labour.  He is telling us to have faith in God and to give those pointless worries over to Jesus.  
We worry about the things in our lives we cannot see; and yet faith, according to St. Augustine, "is believing what you cannot see, and the reward of faith is seeing what you have believed in."  If we believe in Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Redeemer, then our hearts will not be troubled and we will be able, if not to give up our pointless anxieties, then at least help us to bear them.  Jesus tells us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Who is My Neighbour

The heart rending picture of Alan Kurdi, the drowned three-year-old, from Syria who washed ashore on a beach in Turkey is one of those iconic pictures which has captured the conscience of people in Canada and around the world.  We can only hope and pray that this picture may result in some good in the response to the ongoing refugee tragedy.

I didn’t need anything to bring the picture to mind since I saw that picture.  However, the Gospel readings for the last two Sundays in the Book of Common Prayer brought it into even great focus for me.  The Gospel readings from both Sundays involve Samaritans.  Two Sunday ago, the Thirteenth after Trinity, was the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan.  Here the Samaritan is the good neighbour who tends to the Jew on the side of the road while the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side.  The Gospel for yesterday, the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity accounted Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers.  The one who returns to give him thanks is the Samaritan—the other nine were Jews. 
It is good to remind ourselves that the Samaritans, in Jesus’ time, were the outcasts of the family.  The Samaritans inhabited the former Northern Kingdom during the Babylonian captivity.  The Samaritans worshipped the gods of the invaders along with YHWH and intermarried with them.  The Samaritans opposed repatriation of those returning from exile.  A great animosity arose between these close relatives and continued to Jesus’ time.  Jesus uses the Samaritan as an example of the despised outsider who is the true neighbour to the Jewish traveler by the road side and the one who gives thanks to God for being made whole.

If Jesus was walking amongst us today I have no doubt that he would be using the refugees from Syria in the account of the Good Samaritan and of being made whole.  We have a responsibility as Christians to respond to this refugee crisis.  I must admit that it took that heart rendering picture of Alan Kurdi to move me to action.  Beyond that it is up to us to shame our government into action is responding to this crisis.  It is most unfortunate that our government would wait until there is demand from the general public to do the right thing.  I was—shall I say highly disappointed— that the minister of citizenship and immigration, Chris Alexander would try, incorrectly, to blame the media’s inattention for the fact that the Canadian Government’s response had been totally inadequate.  The government system to respond to the refugee crises seemed to deliberately prevent most applications for refugees being processed. 

I trust this particular refugee crisis will pass in time.  However, one of the lessons here is that there is always a Samaritan who we want to treat as the despised outcast—and it doesn’t have to be on some foreign shore.  As Christians who are called to follow the teachings and example of Jesus we cannot wait for another heart rending picture of an Alan Kurdi to make us act. 

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Taming the Wild God

26Surely God is great, and we do not know him; the number of his years is unsearchable. 27For he draws up the drops of water; he distills his mist in rain, 28which the skies pour down and drop upon mortals abundantly. 29Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds, the thunderings of his pavilion? 30See, he scatters his lightning around him and covers the roots of the sea. 31For by these he governs peoples; he gives food in abundance. 32He covers his hands with the lightning, and commands it to strike the mark. 33Its crashing tells about him; he is jealous with anger against iniquity. “At this also my heart trembles, and leaps out of its place. 2Listen, listen to the thunder of his voice and the rumbling that comes from his mouth. 3Under the whole heaven he lets it loose, and his lightning to the corners of the earth. 4After it his voice roars; he thunders with his majestic voice and he does not restrain the lightnings when his voice is heard. 5God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend.  (Job 26: 24-27:5)
Last week I heard someone on the radio (I don’t remember the context) speaking about taming the wild God.  My thought on this was that this is exactly what religion attempts to do—tame God.  Religious doctrine must, perhaps of necessity, define God.  For most Christian denominations it is the Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Whenever we fallible human mortals try to define God we are in effect trying to tame him or her or it and make it in some respects a house pet.  In that respect we do create God in our image or at least in an image we can get our minds around and define God as something which we approve of.  When we say God is this God is that we are saying that God is not something else. 

One of the dangers in doing that is that is that we will want to have God at our beck and call.  That has been called ‘God the Butler’.  We keep ‘Him’ downstairs conveniently out of the way when it doesn’t suit us or is inconvenient to have Him around.  Then we ring for Him (or even Her) when we want something.  God is then at our beck and call.  God help God if God doesn’t live up to our demands or even expectations.  Then we say, “Well if God can’t do what I want or need Him to do then what kind of a God is that?”  The conclusion to that can be, “There is no God”. 

One of my favourite books of the Old Testament, if not the whole Christian Bible is the Book of Job.  It is also one of the more controversial and I am surprized that it made it into the canon.  It puts God/YHWH into less than a shining light.  God and Satan (before he was thrown out of Heaven) have a bargain that allows Satan to do pretty much what he wants to Job — who is described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”   The object of this little bet is to see if Satan can get Job to curse God.  Satan does his best (or worst from Job and our perspective) and yet Job is faithful.  However, he demands a hearing before God.  God justifies his actions by saying that Job is a mere mortal and cannot know the ways of God:
6Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 7“Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me. 8Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified? 9Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?
This is a hard truth but truth none-the-less.  We can’t comprehend why God acts the way we believe God does.  Jesus presented God the Father as a God of love but this world of God’s creation is unfathomable.  God is unknowable and as much as we would like to tame Him/Her and explain why good things happen to bad people and vice versa there is mystery in life that is beyond us.  We have scientific understanding for those things that the opening quote from Job that credited God.  However, that does not take away any of the mystery of creation and the wonder which is still there if we are open to it; “At this also my heart trembles, and leaps out of its place”.
All we have left is the eternal why—why is there evil in the world of God’s creating; why doesn’t God answer prayer the way we want God to; why isn’t God behaving like God should?  Beyond all these questions we have Job’s response:
25For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; 26and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God,
Thanks be to God.