Thursday, 29 October 2015

Let the Mystery Be

This morning I am following up on yesterday’s sermon and pondering the mystery of life.  I based my sermon (which is posted seperately) attached) on the reading from the book of Job.  It is something of a mystery why the book of Job was included in the canon of the bible as it puts God in a less than favourable light.  Job becomes the pawn in a celestial wager between God and Satan with dire consequences for Job and his family.  However, the story does have a happy ending for Job. All that Job loses is restored to him and he lives happily ever after and dies at a ripe old age of biblical proportions.
In the course of the story Job demands an audience before God and demands justice.  However, God is less than sympathetic to Job’s plight and states that God and God’s works are beyond Job’s comprehension.  Job humbles himself and admits to God that it is beyond his comprehension:
Then Job answered the Lord: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”     
It is hard for us human being to live in the mystery of life.  We can deny it as some people with a scientific bent try and believe that we will solve the mystery of creation.  Or, as religious people, we can try and put God in a nice box that we define and tie up with a bright bow.  However, if we are honest and humble enough, as Job was, we can try and live in the mystery of life.  In my sermon I quote Helen Luke, one of my favourite authors who is one of the great explorers of this mystery:
true mystery is the eternal paradox at the root of life itself—it is that which, instead of hiding truth, reveals the whole not the part.  So when, after having made every effort to understand, we are ready to take upon ourselves the mystery of things, then the most trivial of happenings is touched by wonder, and there may come to us by grace, a moment of unclouded vision. 
True paradox can be difficult to understand and to live with but it is in paradox that we can discover God.  I believe that we are called to let the mystery be in all its wonder and respond to God with praise and thanksgiving.  I will close with a verse from my favourite song on this mystery; Let the Mystery Be by Iris Dement:
Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from. Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done.
But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me.
I think I'll just let the mystery be.

Sermon October 25, 2015 Job 42:1-17

The book of Job does not come up in the lectionary very often, and I don’t believe that I have ever preached a sermon based on it, so I thought I would take this opportunity to use today’s reading as a basis for my sermon.  Indeed I don’t think that Job is one of the books that is often used for sermons.  I checked my source for sermon ideas and there were no sample sermons based on today’s reading from Job.

Indeed when you look at the book of Job it is surprizing that it actually is part of the canon and was included in the bible by the church fathers.   It may not be all that familiar to many people because of this so I thought I would spend a bit of time explaining the context for today’s reading.  The story of Job opens with an idyllic scene of a perfect life.  Job is the best of men living in the best of possible circumstances.  He is a man who has a happy family.  He is rich by any measure.  He has many servants and cattle.  Above all, we are told he fears God and live a blameless life — it is almost too good to be true.  This passage when we read it leaves us with a chill for we are certain such good fortune cannot last — conflict must arise otherwise there would be little point in telling the story.  As this account of a good man is included in Holy Scripture we except that God will enter the picture to save our hero from whatever evil befalls him as in the case of Esther or Isaac when he is about to be sacrificed by his father Abraham.  However, we discover that when evil does indeed enter to disrupt Job’s idyllic life, the source is not what we expect.

The surprizing thing about the book of Job is that Job becomes a pawn in a celestial wager between God and Satan.  Now it must be understood that this was before Satan had been expelled from heaven after his revolt against God. 
He is one of the ‘heavenly beings’ who come to present themselves before God.  It is, in effect, like a royal court appearing before a king.  Satan, which appropriately means ‘the accuser’, lives up to his name and holds that Job’s fear of God and blameless life mean nothing as Job has never been put to the test.  Satan bets God that if God permits him to send troubles into his untroubled life Job will curse God.  

Satan does an exemplary job of troubling Job, killing his children, and destroying his property and still Job does not curse God.  Satan ups the ante and with God’s permission Satan attacks Job’s person ‘inflicting loathsome sores on Job from soles of his foot to the crown if his head’ — yet still Job’s faith in God holds firm.  Job is further inflicted, however, rather than Satan this time, it is with a visit from so-called friends who insist that Job’s troubles must be due to Job’s own action.  Job demands an opportunity to appear before God to seek justice.  God permits this, however God attacks Job’s impertinence in questioning God’s actions as a mere human is not in a position to question the creator of the universe.  Job wisely defers to God’s omnipotence and Job’s fortunes are restored and more.  He is blessed with possessions and children albeit not the same ones.  In addition, as a bonus, Job’s erstwhile friends are punished.  

This is where today’s reading begins.  God requires that Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite make restitution to Job for their betrayal of his friendship.  The ending is happy, at least from the author’s perspective.  All is restored or replaced that was taken away from him by the celestial wager between God and Stan.  He has thousands of sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys.  He has a new family with seven sons and three daughters.  

Unfortunately it was not so well with the Job’s original children who were killed as part of Satan’s test of faith, but apparently in that time what was important was to have children so Job’s lineage would be assured.
As you can see this book does not put God is a good light.  So the question we must ponder is why was it included as a book in the bible?  I believe there are at least two reasons.  First, there is the question of faith.  Despite everything that God has apparently put Job through, Job’s faith is not broken.  His faith in God as his Redeemer is unshakeable.  This is a lesson  which is very applicable to us today as it has been universally for people.  It is inevitable that we all are going to suffer losses in our life.  A loved one is going to die; our health is going to betray us; we are going to lose a job at a critical time.  We have the question, why do bad things happen to good people?  How do we maintain our faith in a loving God at these times?  It may have been easier in Job’s time as God was understood to be wrathful and vengeful at times ever to God’s people.  Fortunately our trials will not be as severe as Job’s but they may seem so at the time.  We fortunately have the love of God as shown in Jesus Christ.  We know that the love of God is there to sustain us even though it is sometimes hard to recognize.  

The second reason for Job is the great mystery of life.  We human beings are God’s greatest creation.   We have many gifts that God has given us; intellect, reason, questioning hearts and minds, the desire to know God and the belief that we are able to discover and discern who and what God is.  We have created science which has done much to unravel the mysteries of the universe.  Science and scientists have discovered so much of how the universe works that they are beginning to believe that they will discover everything and will be able to explain everything.  They may even imagine they have discovered what they are calling the “God particle” which they think may be the source of everything. 
However, as much they have and will eventually discover about all of God’s creation, they will reach the limits.  We human being are limited and we will never fully know God and the mind of God.  To think otherwise is hubris. 
That is what the author of Job was attempting to express.  He was facing the mystery of all.  Job was granted his audience with God and came to acknowledge that God was beyond his understanding.  Today we know much, much, more of God’s creation than people knew in the time that the author wrote his account of one man’s attempt to understand the unknowable.  As much as we know and will ever know, God will remain the ultimate mystery.  To quote Helen Luke, “true mystery is the eternal paradox at the root of life itself—it is that which, instead of hiding truth, reveals the whole not the part.  So when, after having made every effort to understand, we are ready to take upon ourselves the mystery of things, then the most trivial of happenings is touched by wonder, and there may come to us by grace, a moment of unclouded vision.”  We can have the faith that Job had and proclaim as Job did, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another”.  Amen

Monday, 19 October 2015

Sermon October 18, 2015 Mark 10: 35-45

Has anyone every asked you to do a favour for them?  Did they do that without telling you what the favour was?  Well if they did you realize that was a set up.  It is an open ended request that could be for anything.  You could blindly say “yes”, but it could be for something that you find you can’t do or don’t really want to do.  That is the set up that James and John try on Jesus.  You think that they would know better.  They are Jesus’ close companions.  They knew him and what great insight he had about human nature and the foibles and follies people sometimes tried on other.  After all, he had been having mental duels with the Pharisees for quite a while. So here we have James and John, trying to pull a fast one on him.  They ask Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 

Of course we are not surprized by Jesus’ response.  He does not fall into the rather obvious trap they have set for him.  “What is it you want me to do for you?”  They go ahead and tell him what it is they want.  What they want is quite the request. They want to be seated in the place of highest honour in God’s kingdom, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  This does not put them in a very good light when we step back and take a look at it. 

They are thinking quite highly of themselves—not something you think of as being good disciples.  I guess they were absent for the lesson on humility.  The parallel passage in the Gospel of Matthew gives it an interesting twist.  Matthew reports the mother of James and John doing the asking.  Matthew, in his Gospel, which was written later than Mark and based much of that Gospel on Mark’s, appears to realize that James and John are not put in a positive light and try to put it on their mother.  After all, what are mothers for but to do it all for their sons. 

What we have is a misunderstanding concerning will.  James and John believe that it is their will that should be in charge.  They want, understandably, that they should be rewarded for all their faithfulness and sacrifice.  After all, they had dropped their nets and left everything to follow Jesus when he offered to make them fishers of people. They had stuck with him through thick and thin, through the hard times and the good times.  Why shouldn’t they have the place of honour in the Kingdom Jesus was proclaiming.  It is only right and just.  If not them, who else? 

Unfortunately they had forgotten one of the key lessons that Jesus tried to get through their seemingly thick heads, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister”.  He reiterates this lesson, albeit in Matthew’s Gospel when he teaches them to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.  Your will be done—not theirs or ours—but God’s will.  

That is one of the greatest challenges that we face as Christians.  We need to figure out what God’s will is for us and for the world.  That is indeed sometimes hard but we can turn to Jesus as our guide and he will show us quite clearly what God’s will is.  The even harder thing is to truly put God’s will in place of ours.  We humans are will-bound and we believe that what we want should be what we get.  We want to have the place of honour in God’s kingdom and here on earth.  We can even convince ourselves that God’s will and our will are actually the same.  They can sometimes be the same but unfortunately that is not often the case. 

Our ego, which is one of the greatest gifts of God, is also one of our greatest challenges.  Each of us has an ego which wants to be in charge.  It wants to maintain the status quo.  It believes it is the centre of everything in life.  Richard Rohr notes, “The ego wants to eliminate all bothersome, humiliating, or negative information in order to "look good" at all costs. The ego wants to keep you tied to your easy and acceptable levels of knowledge.”  Ego is a Greek word that means literally “I”.  The ego wants what it wants and will try to do everything in its power to get it.  Now the ego is not all negative. 
As I said it is one of God greatest gifts to us.  Without an ego we could not be in the world.  It enables us to strive to learn; to strive for success and for things it believe will make us happy.  However, if we let the ego run us and the world, we are and will be in deep trouble.  Just look at the world.  Many of the problems in the world are due to people’s desire to be in control; people wanting power, and doing whatever they need to do, to gain it.  In our personal lives we can be self-centred and egotistical to the detriment of ourselves and others.  Think for a moment of the last time that you wanted something that you knew in your heart of hearts was not good for you or someone else; and did it anyway.  The ego must find its proper place—which is in service of God. 

The Good News in the Gospel it that James and John’s desire gave Jesus the opportunity to give us the true message of God’s will,whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  This is not an easy lesson and it is not one that we will be able to undertake and accomplish without effort.  However, Jesus tells us that with God’s help it is possible.  The next time you desire something, take a moment and reflect on whether it is what God wants for you.  Stop and say the Lord’s Prayer—the prayer that Jesus taught us.  Let us do that together

News and Views October 19, 2015

Well, it’s finally here!  It seemed like it was a neverendum referendum but it was actually an election campaign—albeit the longest in modern Canadian history.  I will not talk about who you should vote for—this is not the forum for that.  However I will suggest strongly that you do vote—exercise your civic responsibility and duty to vote today if you haven’t already.  It is a true privilege to live in a country where we can vote and in which our vote will count—despite the imperfections of the first-past-the post system.  Canada was not founded through armed revolution like our good neighbours to the south and we can be assured that the voting will be done according to the rules, now that robocall scandal has been dealt with.   We can also be assured that the results of the election will be respected by our elected and appointed officials. So vote as if our future depended on it—because it does.  The greatest threat to our democracy is the indifference and apathy of the electorate who can’t be bothered to vote.

On the subject of the elected, we Christians do have a special concern regarding election.  We are the elect.  However, don’t let is go to your head.  To be the elect in this sense means to be chosen by Christ.  That may mean we are special but more to the point it means that we have a special responsibility to put God’s will ahead of other things especially our will.  We are called to put aside our selfish and egotistical desires and make a special effort to truly discern God’s will which can indeed be a challenge.  We often mistakenly conflate our will with God’s will.  We need to turn to Jesus Christ as the ultimate authority on God’s will and follow his great commandment to love one another as he loves us and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.    I delve into this in my sermon from yesterday which is posted separately.  I hope you will find it thought provoking but before delving into it get a out and vote if you haven’t already.  Peace,

Friday, 16 October 2015

Sermon October 11, 2015

Mark 10:17-31 The Rich Young Ruler
Are any of you feeling uncomfortable hearing the Gospel this morning?  Well I must admit I am.  How many of us feel that we are rich?  We can say, “I’m not rich—the rich people are the Donald Trumps and the Bill Gates and the Warren Buffets.  They are the rich people—the billionaires.  Jesus is talking about them—I’m just comfortable.  Well I certainly am comfortable with all that I have.  I own a house and a cottage.  I own a late model car.  Indeed, a few weeks ago Lorna and I were taking about what we had and were amazed at how much we had.  Neither of us really expected to be as rich — sorry, comfortable— as we are in retirement.  I guess I should qualify that as semi-retirement while I am doing the interim.

Of course, no one here is in the same category as Bill Gates and company—at least I don’t think anyone here is.  If there is I could ask why we had trouble balancing the budget last year.  I guess we really can breathe easier and thank God that Jesus was not talking about us in today’s Gospel.  Now, some of you might be anticipating what I will say next.  All of us are comparable to the rich man in this parable—at least when we compare ourselves to what other people have in the world today.  Any of us who have a comfortable, secure life are rich—at least materially—compared to the vast majority of people in the world.  There is no way we can elude the fact that if Jesus was among us today he would be addressing us when he gives us the well-known aphorism about camels and eyes of needles. 

All that may well be true.  But to be honest we have to look a bit closer at the Gospel.  Jesus is speaking specifically to the rich man—he is sometimes called the rich young ruler.  The Gospel tells us, “22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Jesus knew this man.  That is one of the amazing things about Jesus.  He knew people he encountered better than they knew themselves.  He knew that this man’s great sin was that he valued his wealth above all else.  He had made mammon his god. 
The question for us today is, “what or who your god is?”   Here we are getting into Ten Commandments territory.  Thou shalt have no other god before me.  Of course money can be our god as it was for the rich young man.  But of course there can be many gods (that’s with a small ‘g’) today just as there were in Jesus time.  Let’s think about what kinds of god people can have today.

There are many obvious gods in today’s culture.  We have the god of materialism.  There used to be a saying, which I haven’t heard recently (thank God) the person who dies with the most toys wins; the question is wins what?  There is the god of power and success.   We can think of the lust for power displayed by the gods of the corporate world who put profits about people and earn obscene salaries while their workers struggle to survive on minimum wages.  We have people who are more concerned about keeping up with the Jones than contributing to welfare of this country. 

It is important to consider how we do spend our resources.  I don’t believe that Jesus is telling us all to sell all that we have—but do we need to consider the poor when we consider how we spend what we do have.  Are we going to spend what we do on luxuries or even non-necessities? 

Are we going to put some of our non-essential resources into helping others?  Right now the world is facing a refugee crisis of monumental proportions.  Can we decide to give some of the excess resources we have to meet the need of refugees?  We may not be called to sell all our possessions.  However, we are called to see the face of Christ in those refugees many of whom are dying in attempts to escape death in their own country. 

Unfortunately there are many people who don’t believe there is a responsibility to share what they have with others.  For many years I have been a follower of a column in the Saturday Globe and Mail; the Financial Facelift.  This column takes a look people’s financial situation—there assets and liabilities and how they spend their money and recommend what changes they should make to reach their goals—often it is having a secure retirement or owning a house or enough money to live comfortably.  I have been saddened by the small amount that people often give to charity in their spending.  These are usually people who are relatively well off—comfortably middle class.  Sometimes they are in poor financial shape—usually because their spending is in excess of their income—sometimes radically.  However, their spending often doesn’t include much in charitable donations.   There was one column recently that illustrates this.  A letter to the editor commented on it which I will quote from:
Last Saturday’s couple in their 50’s with total assets of $2.5 million took the prize for self-indulgence.  Buried among the expenditures of a net monthly income $13,975 were vacation spending ($500), discretionary ($1,131), dining, drinks and entertainment ($775) and charity ($10).  What? Did they buy some Girl Guide cookies?
I could say that this couple was the modern equivalent of the rich man in the parable.  However, I do not think they are concerned about the kingdom of Heaven or salvation.  If they do they have a strange idea of it.  This of course is, thank God, not the only response by Canadians today.  There are many Canadians who respond generously.  However, this has become, I believe, less common than it used to be.

Today we are celebrating Thanksgiving.  We in Canada have so much to be thankful for.  We live in a Country that has the resources to easily accept many refugees.  We have a country that was not founded in revolution and continues to operate under the rule of law.  Canada and Canadians have been blessed by plenteous natural resources—even though they are not as valuable as they were a short while ago they still have given us great wealth and continue to do so.  We are a country that has a wonderful education system and universal health care.   We have a country where people—regardless of their faith can worship without fear.  We live in a country where we can give back part of what we have received without it causing us real sacrifice.  We can give back to God part of what God has blessed us with. 

What can we do then?  Collectively we could consider sponsoring a refugee— St. John’s and St. Ann’s could sponsor a refugee family.  We can also encourage our government to live up to its responsibility to sponsor more refugees.  Canada is the equivalent of the rich young man in the Gospel.  Again I don’t believe Canada is called to sell all it has to give to the poor.  Canada is called to do its part as a nation of Christians and Jews and Muslims and atheists.  We all have responsibility collectively and individually.  I am the rich young ruler; you are the rich young ruler; Canada is the rich young ruler.  How are we going to respond to Jesus’ command?  When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  Are we going to walk away or are we going to respond as Jesus commands us?  Amen.