Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Sermon July 24, 2016 9th Sunday after Trinity

What was he thinking?  That could be, I believe, a common reaction by preachers who are given the dubious gift of preaching on this Gospel passage.  You have to think, “Why in heaven’s name did Jesus teach this parable to his disciples and what was the lesson he was trying to teach them”?  Then you have to wonder why it was included in Luke’s Gospel.  The only thing positive I could think of initially is that it is only in the Gospel of Luke and not the other three.
The next thing that came to my mind after reading it this week was, “Perhaps someone did not get the story right.  After all is was written down at least forty years after Jesus was crucified and raised from the tomb and ascended into heaven.  Perhaps the story got mangled along the way.   

It reminded me of that wonderful scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, where someone listening to Jesus deliver the Sermon of the Mount asked the person beside him, ‘what did he say, was it blessed are the cheese makers’.  That doesn’t sound right.  Why should the cheese makers be blessed?  But I guess that’s what he said.” 

This Gospel passages raises more questions than it seems to provide answers.  But let’s try and unpack it and understand what Jesus is telling us.  I will summarize the parable briefly for our consideration.  A rich man calls his steward—in effect his manager of his property—to tell him he is being dismissed for “wasting his goods”.  The steward decides that as he cannot make a go of it by either manual labour or begging he will collude with his master’s customers to discount their bills.  In that way the customers will be in his debt and will owe him and by implication enable him to succeed in life after he has been dismissed.

All well and good; this seems to be the usual moral lesson.  The lesson should be that dishonesty doesn’t pay and that dishonest steward will be cast into the outer darkness with the other children of darkness.  However, now comes the twist; the rich master praises the steward for his prudence.  It is a distorted echo of the Parable of the Talents where the first two servants who make prudent use of their talents are told, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master”. 

If that is not enough of a surprize Jesus then seems to confirm this assessment and tells us, “Make to yourselves friends by means of mammon of unrighteousness; and when it fails you, they will receive you into everlasting habitation”.  So much for blessed are the poor in spirit or otherwise for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

I have done more research into commentaries on this passage than I usually do.  I need all the help I can get to try and understand this puzzling parable. 
I must thank Lorna in finding a commentary on-line which shed some light on this puzzle.  The commentary notes that it is important to put it into the cultural context which I agree is always a good idea.  The author notes that parable as reflecting the Palestinian laws and customs of agency and usury. The steward would have acted as the agent for his master and was legally empowered to act in his name. But custom permitted him to make a profit for himself, which may not have been precisely authorized by the master. By discounting the bills the manager has, therefore, merely foregone his own profits on the transactions and has not cheated the master out of what was owed him.  In this case his subsequent conduct is hardly dishonest, since he is renouncing what in fact was usury.

That may explain the master’s positive response on discovering the steward’s action.  However, in my view, it doesn’t ring true in excusing the steward’s behaviour.  It seems apparent in the way the events unfold, that the steward was gaining from this at the expense of his master; otherwise why would he have done it rather than taking what he was owed him in cash which would have been more beneficial to him in his present circumstances.  Both positions can be argued but I don’t believe it sheds much light on Jesus’ message.

Another perspective the author of the commentary brings is helpful.  He notes that the parable is placed in Luke’s Gospel between the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  There are two messages here that are relevant.  First the rich man in today’s parable commends the steward for his prudence.  The prodigal son was not prudent with his inheritance and wasted it on wine, women and song.  As noted in the commentary the story of the Dishonest Manager admonishes Christians about the prudent use of riches and the danger of slavish servitude to them. The verse immediately following our Gospel today which is often included in the Parable, notes that, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” 

The story of Dives and Lazarus as it is often called, shows what happens to the rich man who has no pity on the poor man Lazarus who sits by his gate every day.  He ends up in eternal damnation beyond help.  This reflects Luke’s position on what has been called the preferential option for the poor.  Luke particularly emphasizes Jesus’s association with those on the outside of acceptable society.  
From this perhaps we can conclude in the words of the commentary that, “the dishonest manager can become the model for Christians, who are expected to grasp the dramatic situation of the kingdom and the crisis that it brings into the lives of men. It is a situation which calls for a prudent use of one's material wealth. In this there is a connection between this parable and those of the Prodigal Son, the Talents, and Dives and Lazarus”.

To this I would add that Jesus was not, I believe, talking only of money or mammon.  He was speaking about the use of our talents in the non-monetary sense—the prudent use of what gifts God has given us to follow the will of God and to work for God’s Kingdom.  We cannot serve two masters; we cannot make mammon our master and serve God.  We can use the gifts that God has given us, monetary gifts and non-monetary talents to serve God.  Amen.  

Mazes and Labyrinths; Perfection and Union

Some time ago I wrote about the difference between a maze and a labyrinth.  I would like to continue my exploration of these to paths in the perspective of the goal of union rather than perfection.

Both the maze and the labyrinth are ancient forms which appear in antiquity.   To review, the maze which people are more familiar with, presents the person who enters it a puzzle.  The maze does provide a route through it.  It has many twists and turns and there are dead ends if you take a wrong turn.  You cannot see the path from the ground when you are trying to navigate it.  The maze often has a different entrance and exit and it you are successful you will travel through the maze.  Mazes have become very popular in recent years using various materials to create them.  The corn maze is a particularly popular form.

The labyrinth, which is often confused with the maze, has a similar lay out of a path to follow without seeing how it is going to end.  However, in the case of the labyrinth a path is provided which, if followed, will being you to the destination which is in the centre.  On the outward journey you follow the same path and if you stay the course you will be brought back to the place where you began. 

Image result for labrynth diagram

The approach to navigating these two forms is very different.  The maze is seen as a puzzle to be solved.  You can figure it out by trial and error or often by trying to be clever enough to solve the puzzle.  In this it is a challenge for the ego.  In many ways it reflects how we approach life—as a puzzle to be solved and a challenge to be met and won.  That unfortunate saying that was popular some years ago sums it up nicely; the one who has the most toys wins. 

The labyrinth can be understood as the representation of the spiritual journey.   It is found in many ancient cultures and has been revived in modern times and is now walking the labyrinth has become a well know spiritual practice.  It is considered a moving prayer in which we follow the twists and turns of our spiritual life to the centre and back.  Sometimes it seems we are getting close to the centre and then there is a sharp turn in our lives and we seem to be moving away from our goal.  However, if we follow the path that our savour prepares for us we will reach it even though at times it might seem as if we have reached a dead end in life. 

One way of looking at the different approaches offered by the maze and the labyrinth is the difference between perfection and union.  The maze offers us way that holds up a goal of perfection.  However, the labyrinth offers us the way of union.  Richard Rohr gives a very clear distinction between the two approaches to life:
The path of union is different than the path of perfection. Perfection gives the impression that by effort I can achieve wholeness separate from God, from anyone else, or from connection to the Whole. It appeals to our individualism and our ego. It's amazing how much of Christian history sent us on a self-defeating course toward private perfection. Union is instead about forgiveness, integration, patience, and compassion. The experience of union creates a very different kind of person.  Richard Rohr Daily Meditation July 20, 2016

Western culture has bought into the ideal of perfection to its great detriment.  Unfortunately, Christianity has walked arm in arm with our culture and encouraged Christians to try and achieve perfection.  We need to relearn again the message that Jesus showed is at the last supper that we are called to serve and not be served.  That message is truly counter cultural and radical.  It is a difficult one for us to truly learn but it is the way.  Blessings.  

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Sermon July 17, 2016 Doing God's Will 8th Sunday after Trinity Matt 7:15-21

Lord, Lord!     Lord, Lord? 
What is your response?  What did you think or feel when I said that?  Well it was a statement and a question.  Jesus tells us that this is one of the ways that you can enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  At least that was one of the beliefs in Jesus’s time.  Perhaps we can conclude that there was a belief that if you said the right things i.e. prayed the right prayers in the right way and followed the proper ritual in worship you would assure yourself that you were going to enter the kingdom and be with God when you time on this earth had run its course.  I think people still believe that today. 

Now many people today don’t believe that you have to worship God to get your reward.  The number of people who attend church and even the number who believe in God is declining rapidlyat least in Canada.  However, more and more people believe that if they have the right kind of possession and marks of their successthe right kind of cloths, the right kind of home, the right kind of friends, driving the right kind of car and enrolling their kids in all the right schools and the right kind of programs after school they will have made it.  They will have their reward in this lifeafter all if there is no other life than on this earth that is what matters.

Jesus explodes this idolatry with a few words, “Not everyone who saith unto me, Lord, Lord shall enter the kingdom of heaven”.  Words alone aren’t enough.  The question that arises is, if not words then what does it take?  Well, Jesus provides us the answer.  He doesn’t always do that directly but fortunately in this case he does, “Ye shall know them by their fruits”.  That lays it on the line doesn’t it.  The right words are important but words alone are not enough.  It is by the result of putting your words into action. 

That is all well and good but what kind of fruits are we talking about?  Again we are fortunate that he does tell us.  All we have to do is to do the will of the Heavenly Father—simple enough.  Well unfortunately people have been arguing over that ever since. 

One example of the arguments is the recent decision by our General Synod to change the marriage cannon to include same-sex relationships.   The vote was in favour of change in all three houses; laity, clergy and bishops.  After some confusion and some miscounted voted the needed two-thirds majority in all the houses was recorded.  Same sex blessing and marriage has been a divisive issue for many years now and will continue for the foreseeable future and would have been if the motion to change the marriage cannon had not received the necessary votes.

I am not here today to say the vote should have gone one way or another.  I believe that all who were voting at General Synod believed that they were following the will of our Heavenly Father.  The question is how do we respond to our fellow Anglicans in the difficult years ahead for the church?   I found the statement by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States, Michael Curry made before the vote to be very helpful.  I will quote from it:
Whatever you do, do it in the name of love…Whatever the specific legislative outcome, who knows what that is going to look like, but the way of loving—and I’m talking about God’s loving, not some secular idea—will lead us to the place we are all meant to be. I know that I find myself probably heading or closer to being in the right direction when I can say, "This is the best approximation of love that I can find at this moment."
Two of the things Jesus talked about in John 13-17, in his last discourse at the Last Supper; he talked about love over and over again. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” He didn’t say that you agree with one another. He didn’t even really say if you like one another, but that you love one another.   And you know the other thing he talks about? The Spirit. He says, “There are many more things I could tell you, but you cannot handle them now, but when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you into all truth.  I will not leave you comfortless, but I will send my Holy Spirit upon you to lead you.” 
There is a hymn which is fairly modern being written by Peter Scholtes in the 1960’s but which reflects in my mind the message of Jesus in today’s Gospel and the message by Michael Curry perfectly.   
We are one in the Spirit
We are one in the Lord
We are one in the Spirit
We are one in the Lord
And we pray that all unity
May one day be restored

And they'll know we are Christians
By our love, By our love
Yes, they'll know we are Christians
By our love

We will walk with each other
We will walk hand in hand
We will walk with each other
We will walk hand in hand
And together we'll spread the news
That God is in our land

We will work with each other
We will work side by side
We will work with each other
We will work side by side
And we'll guard each man's dignity
And save each man's pride

All praise to the Father
From whom all things come
And all praise to Christ Jesus His only son
And all praise to the Spirit
Who makes us one

And they'll know we are Christians
By our love, By our love
Yes, they'll know we are Christians
By our love

Thin Places and Synchronicity

Last week I wrote about Thin Places where the boundary between heaven and earth is less distinct and more permeable.  There is a psychological aspect to this phenomenon which can be seen in dream time while you are asleep but also in ways when you are awake.  One of the waking manifestations of this is synchronicity.  This is a phenomenon which was extensively studied by Carl Jung.  The simplest definition of synchronicity is ‘a significant coincidence’.  In effect it is two or more seemingly unrelated events which occur in a related way that have a connection that is significant to the person.

I have had some experiences of this nature which particularly stand out.  In one situation I had just finished my interview with the Dean of Theology at Huron University College to be admitted to the M.Div. program.  I had made the decision to enter the program with the intention of beginning the process to ordination as an Anglican priest.  It was a very positive interview and as I drove away from Huron College I turned on the car radio which is always tuned to CBC and the program involved three people being interviewed about their experience of becoming ordained ministers later in life.  I took it as a sign that I was on the path I was intended to be on.

Another time I was taking a course at the University of Toronto as part of my undergraduate studies.  The course was on the psychology of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.  The class in which we discussed synchronicity was held on April 1st.  The reading for the class included a letter by Carl Jung discussing the subject which was written on April 1, 1949; that is the date of my birth.   So we have the date of the class studying the phenomenon of synchronicity; we have the date of the letter being studied and we have my birthday.  I understood this to be an affirmation of the meaningful reality of synchronicity. 

Now it is easy to dismiss these events and others like it as mere coincidences without any significance.  You can also do that with dreams and others events that are influenced by the unconscious life.  However, if we pay attention to our dreams and such events in our waking life we will receive information about ourselves that is important for us to know.  During these times the barrier between our conscious life and our unconscious life is more permeable.  I believe that dreams and other such events are ways in which God or the divine—if that is a more acceptable way for you to look at it—speaks to us.  One way of looking at dreams is, God’s Forgotten Language.  God does speak to us in many ways as God does work in mysterious ways that we do not always recognize.  May we have eyes to see and ears to hear and dreams to remember and consider.  Blessings.     

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Sermon July 10, 2016 Seventh Sunday after Trinity

These are the days of miracle and wonder 
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all, oh yeah
In his song The Boy in the Bubble, Paul Simon tells us that we are in a time of miracles.  That is true today even more than when the song was written in 1986.  It was a long distance call but today we have smart phones and the internet and all that comes with it; we have social media; and apparently we are going to have self-driving cars before we know it—actually they being tested on our roads today.  I heard on the radio this week that the first fatal accident involving a self-driving car has happened.  There will be more to come and they tell us they are inevitable; they are the future of driving.  So hang on to your hats and your steering wheels.

We do have things at our finger tips that would seem like miracles even when Paul Simon wrote that song.  I looked up the date it was composed on the internet and had an answer in less than a minute.  And yet with all these miracles around us we are in an age that no longer believes in what can’t be explained by science and technology.  Likely none of us here today can explain how the internet or most of what we use works. 
However, that doesn’t stop us from using them and considering them just a normal part of our lives.  Indeed if we didn’t have access to everything that involves computers and the internet our society would grind to a halt. 

Despite all these miracles many people dismiss religion as superstition.  They cannot believe what is portrayed in the biblical miracles such as the one described in today’s Gospel passage—the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  This modern movement to demythologize the events in the bible that could not be understood in our modern day perspective was proposed most notably by Rudolph Bultmann who attempted to demythologize the biblical accounts such as the story of the loaves and the fishes.  Indeed much liberal theology today continues with this approach.  The accounts of the miracles of Jesus and other such accounts are explained away psychologically or sociologically or even literary contexts. 

My father, who was a United Church minister, was very much in this approach to theology.  He did not accept that miraculous things such as this account of the feeding of the four thousand could have been a miraculous event as it was described.  I even recall discussing this account with him many years ago.  His explanation was that the miracle was the reaction by the crowd that was gathered. In his understanding the people gathered had food hidden under their cloaks and were moved by Jesus to share what they had with their neighbours.  As a result there was more than enough for everyone—there was even food left over.

In preparing to write this sermon I found out—another example of the modern miracle of the internet—that this was a common interpretation of the Gospel passage amongst theologians and clergy of a liberal bent. The desire or need by some people to have everything in life explained is, to my mind, a critical mistake.  The attempt to consider everything from the perspective of the intellect is a fatal mistake. As Hamlet says to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”Mystery which is the purview of the divine does not deal only with the intellect.  That is a part, albeit an important part of God’s creation but there is much more to creation than intellect.  I believe it is a mistake to make the belief in miracles and other mysteries of our relationship with God to be the litmus test for orthodoxy on either the traditional or liberal understanding of God.

My understanding of God’s relationship with God’s greatest creation—humankind—does not depend on the details or facts of a particular part of scripture.  We should not get into arguments or worst over the details of a particular event portrayed in the bible or other accounts of God’s relationship with humankind.  We need to understand these accounts as myth rather than demythologizing them.  By that I mean we need to understand the meaning—the capital T truth of these events.  Why did they become part of the account of the story of God’s people?    Except for the Resurrection, the multiplication of loaves is the only miracle told in all four Gospels.  What is the truth in these accounts that made it essential for those Gospel writers to include the event?  Why did it resonate with people through the ages up to today?  What is the truth of this story regardless of the details of the story?  There are in total six different versions of this event; Jesus fed the people on at least two occasions—once 5,000 men and another time 4,000 men; once with five loaves and two fish and again with seven loaves and a few fish; once with twelve baskets of remaining bread and in another five baskets.  The details may vary but the truth of Jesus is eternal.
What then is the truth of the account of the feeding of the multitude—be it four thousand or five thousand or each and every one of us today. 

The truth is that we are fed by the person of Jesus Christ each time we partake in the Eucharist.  We are fed with the food that does not perish just as Jesus offered the Samaritan woman at the well the water that is eternal and once you drink of it will never be thirsty again.  Once you partake of the food that Jesus offers you, you will never be hungry or thirsty again.  That food that is offered is there in abundance.  There is food for everyone and there is more than we can ever consume.  It is offered freely to all.  Come and taste and see that the Lord is good.  Happy are they that trust in him.  Amen.

The Thin Places in Your Life

I have been thinking about “Thin Places” for a while.  The idea of a Thin Place is one that first came to my awareness some years ago when I was first introduced to Celtic Spirituality.  One definition of Thin Places that I found on the internet is, “A place where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin. It’s a place where we can sense the divine more readily.” 
I was reintroduced to the concept recently when I attended a workshop held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London Ontario in May.  The idea of thin places was central to one of the presentations given by Rt. Rev. Barry Clarke who is the retired Bishop of Montreal and currently the interim Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  In the workshop he was leading he asked the participants where their thin places are.  My response was “on the beach near our cottage in Prince Edward Island.  Actually that was not completely true.  There are many places here in P.E.I., including the beach (appropriately named Back Beach), that are my thin places. 
Although it is part of Celtic Spirituality, it is a part of anyone’s Spirituality whether it is formally Celtic or not.  My Thin Places include the Apple Farm Community where I go for retreats.  Apple Farm, in Three Rivers Michigan is a community founded by Helen Luke who wrote wonderful essays exploring biblical and classical themes and reveals deep spiritual wisdom contained in them. Her magnum opus is Dark Wood to White Rose which explores the wisdom in Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Helen chose the location of Apple Farm as it was for her a Thin Place as it has become for me. 
For a place to be a Thin Place does not mean that it is paradise and that life will not intrude when you are there.  Since arriving at our cottage at the beginning of June, life has intruded in different way.  The weather has been less than perfect with only a few days that would be considered a ‘beach day’. Lorna is particularly frustrated that her gardens are not doing much with the cool weather.  We have also had a few mishaps such as having to replace the glass in the door of the wood stove and I have had to deal with squirrels invading by Bunkie which is my thin place within a larger thin place where I can retreat to do much of my writing.   It is my small corner as the children’s hymn says:
Jesus bids us shine with a clear, pure light,
Like a little candle burning in the night;
In this world of darkness so we must shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine.
The idea of a Thin Place is more than just a sense of being closer to God than usual—although that is very valuable.  It is a place where we can begin to question our perception of the world.  We can begin to see that there is more to life than our small corners where we believe we are safe and comfortable.  We can begin to question our assumptions of how the world is ordered, our understanding of God’s will, and even our understanding of God.  Richard Rohr addressed this in a recent Daily Meditation:
We keep praying that our illusions will fall away. God erodes them from many sides, hoping they will fall. But we often remain trapped in what we call normalcy—"the way things are." Life then revolves around problem-solving, fixing, explaining, and taking sides with winners and losers. It can be a pretty circular and even nonsensical existence.
To get out of this unending cycle, we have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality. All transformation takes place here. We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of "business as usual" and remain patiently on the "threshold" (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown… There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That's a good space where genuine newness can begin. 

Do you have a Thin Place?  I would be interested in hearing what yours is.  Blessings.