Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Sermon: August 13, 2017 9th Sunday after Trinity

Luke 16: 1-13

The Gospel passage for today has probably given preachers headaches since people have been delivering sermons.  It certainly is not one of the more straight forward Gospel passages – like the lesson of the lost coin and the lost sheep.  That is a parable that makes sense and all the preacher has to do is make it come alive and meaningful for the congregation. Those who hear the sermon only need to be given a perspective on the lesson which will be meaningful for them.  Of course I shouldn’t say ‘only’ because that is not such an easy thing.  However it is a lot easier that finding meaning in today’s Gospel lesson that makes sense. 

Here we have what seems to be a lesson that teaches that it is all right — actually commendable to cheat.  It is entitled in some versions of the bible “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager” which is quite apropos.  The manager, on finding out that he is being dismissed, decides to swindle his master and colludes with some clients — who have accounts payable to the master’s business — to discount their bills and have them pay less than the master is owed.  We are told his motive for doing this, “I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses”.  He wants those people — the co-conspirators — to be in his debt so he can call on them for help his after he is shown the door.  Seems like a good plan on his part and pretty straight forward; probably not that unusual even today. 

However the surprize — the twist — comes next.  Rather than calling the police and having the dishonest manager thrown in jail and perhaps suing his co-conspirators — the master commends him, “And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely.” 
Not only that but the narrative changes and we have Jesus seeming to agree with the Master, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I say unto you, make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.”  Rather a shocking statement from Jesus. 

Does this mean that everyone is free to swindle and steal from their employers because money is after all the root of all evil so there is no sense in trying to be honest about something that is evil – just go out and be shrewd and get whatever you can? 

However, there are a couple of parts of the statement that can put a different light on this.  First we are told that the Children of Light are not as shrewd as the children of this age.   What Jesus is saying here is that the Children of Light i.e. Christians are not intended to place our priority into worldly things.  Our focus and goal in life is not to be on the financial and the material success of this world.  We are to put our focus on following Jesus, in loving one another as Jesus loves us. 

Jesus also tells us to look to the worldly as examples:
He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.  If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own?
Jesus is telling us that the worldly are exemplary in the devotion they give to worldly things.  They focus their energy on being successful in making money and accumulating possessions.  They do it well; as we should - only giving our devotion to God and not mammon.

The punch line of the lesson really says it all and brings it into focus.  Who are we going to serve, “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon”.  Are we going to be like the children of this age and serve mammon—make money and material possessions our god —or are we going to be children of light and follow Jesus? 
As I addressed in last Sunday’s sermon, which wolf of our nature will we feed; the good one or the evil one?  This question is based on a Legend of the Cherokee people; in effect, we have two wolves inside us; a good one and an evil one.  The question posed is which wolf will win?  The answer is the one we feed. 
Which master, God or mammon, will you follow – which wolf will you feed? 


The Meaning of the Cross

This week I want to continue my exploration/musings on theological issues.  I know it is the dog days of summer and my mind should be on a murder mystery or other cottage reading rather than a theological mystery.  However, that seems to be where I am there days.  Perhaps it is because I am writing a sermon regularly as I help out in the parish here.

In any case rather than a murder mystery by Sue Grafton or Agatha Christie, I would like to explore the ultimate murder mystery of the cross i.e. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  One of the principle ways of understanding this event is “substitutionary atonement” i.e. Jesus died for our sins.  In effect, God required ‘His’ only begotten son to be sacrificed on the cross as a way of redemption for humankind.  God’s greatest creation, made in ‘His’ own image could only be redeemed by sacrificing ‘His’ son in the most horrible way imaginable. 

This has not been the only way of understanding the events of Good Friday as noted by Richard Rohr recently drawing on Marcus Borg:

Theologian Marcus Borg (1942-2015) points out that the substitutionary understanding of Jesus’ death “was not central in the first thousand years of Christianity.”  Borg explains:
[The] first systematic articulation of the cross as “payment for sin” happened just over nine hundred years ago in 1098 in St. Anselm’s treatise Cur Deus Homo? [Why Did God Become Human?] Anselm’s purpose was to provide a rational argument for the necessity of the incarnation and death of Jesus.
Unfortunately, this became the primary lens through which the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament were read. The substitutionary atonement “theory” (and that’s all it is) implies that the Eternal Christ’s epiphany in Jesus is a mere afterthought when the first plan did not work out.
The “substitutionary atonement” understudying of the cross is not one that I can accept.  It makes no sense on so many different levels and one I cannot resolve with my belief in a Loving God.  I must concede that I have no assurance that my particular belief is the absolute truth any more that we can know that the “substitutionary atonement” theory is correct.  It is one in which makes sense within my overall understanding of God and my relationship to God, who in case you didn’t pick up on the earlier hints I do not understand to be solely a masculine father figure. 
So I’m sure you are now eager to know what my understanding of the crucifixion is.  First, I believe that it was a willing sacrifice by Jesus as shown in the Garden of Gethsemane.   Jesus did ask his Heavenly Father (which admittedly the way he primarily thought of God) to remove this cup from him.  However, that was not a question of God demanding the sacrifice.  Jesus throughout his life became aware of who he was created by God to be.  He was for us a model of a person, indeed the Third Person of the Trinity, who showed us what it means to live fully and completely the life he was created to live. 
For Jesus to fully realize who he was and is i.e. the person he was created to be meant that he would inevitably be murdered by the authorities of this world.  To be true to who he was meant that he could not do anything else.  As he told his disciples he must go to Jerusalem that knowing that meant he would be executed by the Roman authorities with the collusion of the religions authorities.  He did this willingly knowing he could do nothing else if he was to be true to who he was—the unique person fully human and fully divine. 
That is my challenge and calling i.e. to discover and be as fully as possible the person God created me to be.  That is something I know I will never fully succeed in doing or being but it is my lifelong quest of my journey; Blessings on your journey.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Sermon August 6, 2017 8th after Trinity

One evening a wise old grandfather told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, "My son, the battle is between two "wolves" inside us all.
One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?"
The wise grandfather simply replied, "The one you feed."
From this old story, which comes from the Cherokee people, the evil wolf can appear in sheep’s clothing. There are at least two aspects of ourselves which can seem to be a war within us.  We have devices and desires which encourage us to go places that we know we should not go and do things that we should not do.  St. Paul was very aware of this battle.  He complains to God in a prayer of desperation, which is unusual for him, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate”. 
The collect for today sums it up:
O God, whose never-failing providence ordereth all things both in heaven and earth; We humbly beseech thee to put away from us all hurtful things, and to give us those things which be profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Do we always know what is profitable for us today?  Do we always know which wolf we are feeding?  I don’t think it is.  Perhaps it has never been as two thousand years ago St. Paul was struggling with this challenge.  I don’t know the origin of the Cherokee Legend but it legends are usually ancient.
But what of profit; is it always a good thing?  Today the world certainly looks at profit as a good thing.  A company which has its bottom line in the black is looked on as a good investment.  However, making a profit can be good whether it is personal or corporate or for government.  Profit is considered to be an admirable thing.  However, it depends on what you do to make that profit.  We can live lives that are profitable when we look at the bottom line of our bank accounts, but how we are spending our resources. 

Which wolf will we feed?

The quest for corporate profits can be ruthless when it seeks to put share value and the bottom line over proper treatment of workers.  It can seek to break unions and seek the lowest wage jurisdiction without regard for what happens to workers.  It can encourage corporate managers to line their own pockets with stock options rather than the long term health of the company. 

Which wolf will we feed?

The same can be true for us as individuals.  How are we giving back from our bounty?  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.  There is nothing wrong with that.  However, 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?
Which wolf will we feed?

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?  Jesus lays it on the line for us.  We can have a debt free financial bottom line.  We can spend our money on vacations and cottages and all sorts of luxury items.  Can we gain our worldly security and lose our souls?  
That is true for us and it is true for individuals and our corporations and our governments.  How are those who are on the fringes of society treated by our governments who represent us?  How are treated by us personally?  How much support do out governments give to refugees and aid to third world countries? 

Which wolf will we feed?

Jesus tells us, “Ye shall know them by their fruits.”  Are our lives going to produce good fruit or will it produce grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?  A good tree bringeth forth good fruit and a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit. 

Which wolf will we feed?

We do have two wolves within us; an evil one and a good one—an evil tree and a good tree.  It is not always easy to recognize which is which.  And when we do recognize it, it is often not easy to feed the good one as St. Paul tells us. 
All we can do is to make the effort to recognize which is which.  When we do recognize it we can strive to feed the right one.  When we fail, when we fall into sin as we inevitably will, we can repent and turn around.  We have the assurance of God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ. 

Let us feed the wolf of our better nature.  Amen.

Free Will or Not Free Will; That is the Question part 2

Last week I went where perhaps fools rush in and began to delve into the question of free will.  I want to continue to explore that further this week.
As I noted last week the mathematics which is used to develop Quantum Mechanics apparently leaves no room for free will.  All in the universe is apparently predetermined if you have all the variables.  At least that is my understanding of what the theoretical physicists are saying.  However, the physicists whom I quoted last week, Leonard Mlodinow, did concede that that the universe and human beings are so complex that in effect it appears to us that we do have free will.
The other factor conceded, if not believed by physicists, is that the math does not account for an intervention from God or a god-like force interceding from outside of the structure of the universe.  However, as Mlodinow states:
If you believe that there are no exceptions, whether they be big miracles or minor deviations from the laws of physics, whether you look at the quantum laws that are fundamental or Newton’s laws, whichever laws you look at, neither set of laws has room for deviations or choice — let’s say, conscious choice. So if you believe that the brain follows those laws, as everything in the laboratory that we’ve ever looked at does, then it’s not a question for scientists.
So the question is directly in the court of those who believe in a higher power.  If God has given us free, will which I believe God has, what does that mean for us as Christians and other believers in a higher power? 
As I addressed in this Sunday’s sermon (attached), which wolf of our nature will we feed; the good one or the evil one?  This question is based on a Legend of the Cherokee people which is provided at the beginning of my sermon.  In effect, we have two wolves inside us; a good one and an evil one.  The question posed is which wolf will win?  The answer is the one we feed. 
Even if we do know which is which we do not always choose good one as St. Paul notes, I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate”.  If, St. Paul is correct, and I believe anyone who has any level of self-awareness will agree, do we then have free will?  The reality is that we have less free will that we like to admit or even than we realize.
There are forces within us, symbolized by those two wolves, that seem to be at war and that at least influence if not control our decisions and our actions.  Carl Jung was the great explorer of these forces and developed/discovered the concept of archetypes which are the way that the energy within us is organized and operates to influence us.  These are unconscious forces we usually are not even aware which are influencing/controlling us; ergo the cry of St. Paul. 
The great gift of Carl Jung was to not only present a psychology which explains a great deal of how we have been created but to understand it in terms of how we can develop and mature into the people that God intends us to be.  Jung called it individuation. 
The challenge for me as a Christian is to become the person that God intended me to be when God created me.  There are many aspects of myself which I do not hold to be admirable and which I struggle to acknowledge; the evil wolf in the legend.  Jung has named these forces The Shadow.  However, these are a part of who I am and unless I acknowledge them and learn how to relate to them, they will prevent my better wolf from being fed. 

Let us feed the wolf of our better nature.  Blessings on your journey,

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Free Will or Not Free Will; That is the Question

Last night Lorna and I were returning from a concert at St. George’s Anglican Church in Montague.  It was a wonderful concert by Coro Dulce (Sweet Singing), a choir from Charlottetown.  They lived up to their name with a very interesting program to celebrate Canada 150 with music that was written in or around 1867.  It included, among other things, Joy to the World and The Canticle de Jean Racine (which is one of my all-time favourite choral piece). 
In any case, we were driving home along hwy 310 to our cottage and came to a construction traffic light which had been set up as one lane was closed.  We sat there at the red light.  First, I pondered why in the six or seven times we had encountered this light it had always been red?  But more to the point this morning as we sat there with the light red in both directions and a car stopped on the other side.  There was the delay to clear the construction area.  I asked myself  why I didn’t just drive ahead and I knew it would be perfectly safe.  Of course, I decided it was because I was Canadian and usually obeyed things like traffic signals believing in peace, order and good government as opposed to, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  However, I wondered if I truly had free will why I didn’t decide to drive on and ignore the red light?
I had been thinking about free will recently after listening to interviews with a couple of physicists who revealed that according the mathematics of Quantum Physics there is no room for free will.  They maintain that this proves that free will does not exist.  I am still having trouble following the intricacies of the math involved being anything but a mathematician.  However, the bottom line is that mathematics used in quantum physics predicts things such as string theory and dark matter which are beginning to be verified.  It also has no room in the equations for free will.  All is determined/predetermined by the forces of the universe.   
One of the physicists being interviewed, Leonard Mlodinow,  did concede that the universe and human beings are so complex that in effect it appears to us that we do have free will:
DR. MLODINOW: And the idea that we have no free will is an interesting philosophical question. In reality, we do have free will. Because in reality, a system as complex as the brain with 100 billion neurons, and I think 1,000 to 10,000 connections between each of them on average, is so complex that, not only could one say that one can’t, in principle, model it or predict exactly what it’s going to do next, but almost in principle you can’t. Because in very complex systems, small changes in the state of the system produce large changes in the output. That’s called chaos. But that’s typical of very complicated, non-linear systems.
So, in effect, it may seem to us that we have free will but it is only because of our limited perspective.  Of course, I think that Dr. Mlodinow, if he conceded that there was a God, would agree that God with unlimited perspective would be able to calculate everything that is at work behind the universe of God’s creation; ergo no free will.  Of course the scientific belief is that humans will able to figure everything out eventually.
If the mathematics of Quantum Physics is correct and we do not have free will what does it mean for human beings?  All would be determined/predetermined and there would be no point in anything and everything from prayer to following the commandment of Jesus that we love one another as he loves us.  Or would there?  The humanists would certainly say there is because if we lead an ethical life it will be a better world and they believe that people do not need God to threaten or bribe us into living in ways that follow the golden rule which does not depend on the existence of a higher power. 
Dr. Mlodinow does leave room for miracles or at least the effect of exceptions to the rules of nature in which case the laws of physics by definition do not apply:
If you believe that there are no exceptions, whether they be big miracles or minor deviations from the laws of physics, whether you look at the quantum laws that are fundamental or Newton’s laws, whichever laws you look at, neither set of laws has room for deviations or choice — let’s say, conscious choice. So if you believe that the brain follows those laws, as everything in the laboratory that we’ve ever looked at does, then it’s not a question for scientists.
Is it all then a matter of faith?  There is nothing wrong with that.  Faith is after all “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  That is certainly true.  However, I also like to look for assurance for my faith in God and all that flows from God, including free will, in places that physics does not look or at least identify as God at work in the world of God’s creation. 
I have probably raised more questions than I attempted to answer.  There is much more I would like to explore about this but I will leave the discussion for this week with one more point; can the universe that is so complex that merely one part, the human brain with 100 billion neurons and 1,000 to 10,000 connections between each, not have been created.  If it has been created; by Whom? 
Blessings on your journey whether or not you have decided freely which road to take. 


Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Sermon July 23, 2017 6th Sunday after Trinity

Being baptized in to death is not a very appealing idea.  I don’t know about you but the idea of dying is not something I embrace and welcome.

We do not normally embrace death.  Indeed, I was listening to a program on CBC radio this week an episode of Ideas, that wonderful program that explores exactly as it is named ideas for our world today.  This episode was an interview with Yuval Harari.  He is an historian who speculates about where humankind is heading.  A lot of his speculation is hopeful but a lot of it is troubling.
Harari proposes that the next great technological breakthrough is going to be the development of immortalityor at least the quest for it.  He proposes that no one would want to have a pill that would guarantee you a life span of a million years.  However, he says that everyone (he does qualify by saying almost everyone) would agree to living ten years longer in good health.  Harari proposes that technological breakthroughs will offer extended life and extended mental capacity to people.  However, as with all technology it will be at a priceone that is going to be very expensive.  What will then develop is a Brave New World with biologically separated classesa cast system which will be based on biological inequality.

This is a very frightening possibility.  But if you look at the premise, who wouldn’t want to extend their lives by ten years of good health,  Then when the ten years is over you can be offered another ten years and so on and so one – ad infinitum.  It would be a renewable contract.  I certainly would like a longer life in good health.  But opening that Pandora’s Box of eternal life is another matter entirely.  I don’t know how many times I would want to renew that contract.

What would it mean if we did not have the reality of our mortality informing our lives?  We would certainly be tempted to believe that we were like God’s and live our lives accordingly.  Out mythological first parents were expelled from the Garden of Eden as God feared they would eat of the tree of life and become gods.  The danger of that temptation has been a reality since we began to walk this earth. 

How, then, does this relate to being baptized into death to being buried with Jesus by baptism into death?  It is exactly this desire to be immortal that the story of the Garden of Eden was warning against.  When we are baptized into death with Christ it is exactly what we are dying to.  We are dying to the old life in which we can have the temptation that we can be like god and have life eternal and all the power that goes with it.

When we are baptised we die to the old life of desiring to be in control of our live and trying to maintain that control of ourselves and our world.  Jesus came into the world to show us that this way of being was wrong.  The old way of being was a way that wanted to control our lives to the extent that we try to ensure that God would give us what we want.  The old way of the covenant was to live in a way that God would give us what we want.  The Israelites believed that if they lived according to the commandments not just ten but all 900 or so of them—God would grant them a favoured existence.  In effect, God would give them what they wanted.  God sent his son into the world to show us that there is another way. 

It is a way that is based on love.  He tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart and mind and soul and mind and strength; and to love your neighbour—including your enemies—as yourself.

He also came to give us the grace of forgiveness.  When we do not follow this commandment—when we do not try or when we try and do not succeed—we will be forgiven and we are given the opportunity to try again.  That is the new life that we are born to when we rise out of the waters of baptism.

How then are we to live in a life of love; loving God and loving our neighbours?  Well the Gospel hymn gives us a pretty sound picture of what it would look like. 

O Master, let me walk with thee
in lowly paths of service free;
tell me thy secret; help me bear
the strain of toil, the fret of care.

Help me the slow of heart to move
by some clear, winning word of love;
teach me the wayward feet to stay,
and guide them in the homeward way.

Teach me thy patience; still with thee
in closer, dearer company,
in work that keeps faith sweet and strong,
in trust that triumphs over wrong;

In hope that sends a shining ray
far down the future's broadening way,
in peace that only thou canst give,
with thee, O Master, let me live. Amen 

The Holy Spirit and the Church part 1

I have a line that I use to describe the position of the Holy Spirit in organized religion, “it is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Trinity—it don’t get no respect”. 
Although the Holy Spirit is given its due on Pentecost Sunday and a few other times in the church calendar, it seems to me that not a lot of attention is paid to it in our branch of religion in any case.   Pentecostalism of course gives it its due.  However, speaking in tongues is not a biggie in Anglicanism and generally other branches of mainline Christianity.  Not that I am proposing that speaking in tongues become a part of Anglican liturgy.  I wonder what would happen if some parishioners started in one of our services.  It would be very interesting to say the least. 

I believe that this is due to the fact that if the Holy Spirit is given the attention and reverence it is due, religious leaders would not have the control that they believe is necessary to ensure that Christianity, as they understand it, will survive and thrive.  Richard Rohr addressed this recently in one of his Daily Meditations:
If religious teachers told their parishioners about contemplation, where individuals can experience the mercy of God for themselves, they would not be so dependent upon the clergy. Although this codependency is not engineered maliciously, it does create job security. We all have a hard time doing things that essentially work ourselves out of a job or make ourselves unnecessary. Sin management does hold the flock together, but soon we realize that there is little maturity, or even love, in a flock that is glued together in this way. The passive, passive-dependent, and passive-aggressive nature of the church is rather obvious to many of us who have worked on the inside.
Richard is speaking of contemplation; however, this is just one form that the Holy Spirit can and does work in our lives and in the world.  The problem with the Holy Spirit is that, as John declares in his Gospel, “The wind* blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).   It is hard to develop church policies and procedures around something that is out of our direct control.  

The Holy Spirit is the Person of the Trinity which is at work in the world.  It brings change and creates as it did when all of this was begun by God, “In the beginning when God created* the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God* swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1: 1-2).  

As Richard notes, it is normal for church leaders to try and ensure that the church and especially the laity are dependent on them.  It is not just a case of “job security” as Richard suggests, although that is probably at least some of the motivation.  Any organization needs to ensure its existence; indeed it has been proposed that this is the first concern of every organization.  The church, although it is ordained by God and was created on Pentecost by that very Holy Spirit, is run by people who are very human.  

I don’t believe that this is an either-or situation in respect to the Holy Spirit and the church.  Indeed Richard Rohr believes that dualistic thinking is not the goal of our development.  I know that if Christians are to live out their calling in the world we are called to be in community in which we gather in Jesus name; the church is absolutely necessary; it is ordained by God.  So, how can we be the church and be open to the Holy Spirit?

The Holy Spirit is at work in the world in more ways than we can ever grasp or imagine.  Indeed, as a Spiritual Director I attempt to help directees identify and deepen the ways in which the Holy Spirit is at work in their lives.  Richard notes one way, through contemplation.  Another is through dreams.  I consider dreams to be “God’s Forgotten Language” which is a term of John’s Sanford (and the title of his excellent introduction to dream work).  In my training in leading dream groups through the Haden Institute it is stressed that dream groups are best when they are under the umbrella of a church congregation/parish.  This enables the work of the Holy Spirit to have a container which will allow the work to take root and flourish. 

Similarly, the contemplative life needs to be grounded in and through an organization whether it is a church congregation/parish, a monastic community or other religious structure.  
The question that we are faced with in the church today is how do we enable the Holy Spirit to work in us both as individuals and those organizations we are part of?  I will explore that more next week.

I will leave you with the question, “how is the Holy Spirit at work in your life today and how do you best recognize its presence in your life”?
Blessings on your journey.


The Holy Spirit and the Church part 2

Last week I reflected on the attitude of the organized church to the Holy Spirit.   I believe that the organized church, at least in most established parts, does not revere the third person of the Trinity.  As I noted, if the Holy Spirit is given the attention and reverence it is due, religious leaders would not have the control that some believe is necessary to ensure that Christianity, as they understand it, will survive and thrive.

The question I want to explore further is whether or not the Holy Spirit ever destroys what is there or does it just bring about transformation in the world.  I believe after some consideration I clarified my position regarding the transformative nature of the Holy Spirit. 

The best example of the work of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament is the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came with roaring winds and tongues of fire and speech.  Those present were so transformed that a new church was born, one which spread quickly over the known world.  There was no destruction in that act; rather, something new was born.

However, when viewed from the perspective of those involved it can be very different.  The lives of those who were present in that room were changed radically.  They were no longer the same people.  They were now new people in a new way.  They went out from that place and changed the world.  To them it must have seemed like the old way had died.  Richard Rohr addresses this, “I see transformation and change occurring in three stages: order > disorder > reorder”.   When the old way dies the birth pangs of the new order can seem to be like destruction and perhaps even chaos as the new way takes root.  The wind and fire of Pentecost caused confusion to those who witnessed it. 

This process of transformation is captured wonderfully in the sacrament of baptism.  As I discuss in my sermon this week, in baptism we die to the old life and are born to the new life.  This is done symbolically in the Anglican tradition by pouring water over the head of the baptismal candidate.  Unfortunately, this is not direct enough for people to realize what it represents as it does not truly capture the impact of what happens—the symbol has lost much of its energy.  When we are immersed into the waters our old selves are drowned and die.  We are born anew when we rise out of the water.  This is exactly what is portrayed in the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.  Jesus was fully immersed by John.  When Jesus was raised up out of the water the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove.  Immediately after that, what happened?  He was “led” by the Spirit into the wilderness for a forty-day spiritual retreat/vision quest. 

The Gospel of Mark states, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him”.  I prefer this version to the other Synoptic Gospels of Mathew and Luke which has the spirit leading Jesus.  I believe that usually we resist the new life that the Holy Spirit brings because our lives are going to be changed irrevocably in ways we cannot fully conceive or perhaps can conceive and do not want to embrace.   People do not generally embrace change. 

The prophets were often reluctant to take on their missions given to them by God as in the case of Jonah.  Richard Rohr distinguishes the role of the prophet from the role of the priest in the church today:
The role of the prophet is to lead us into sacred space by deconstructing the old space; the role of the priest is to teach us how to live fruitfully inside of sacred space. The prophet disconnects us from the false, and the priest reconnects us to The Real at ever larger and deeper levels. Unfortunately, most ministers might talk of new realms but rarely lead us out of the old realm where we are still largely trapped and addicted. So not much genuinely new happens.
This brings us back to the Holy Spirit and organized religion.  We have a “divinely intended tension” between the old and the new.  How do we as Christians seek to follow where the Holy Spirit is leading us and maintain and renew a community which we are called to as the church, born two thousand years ago on the Day of Pentecost?  We need to let go of what is no longer gives us new life and try and discern where the Holy Spirit is calling us.  That is truly a challenge but one that we are called to. 

Blessings on your journey,


Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Sermon July 9, 2017 4th Sunday after Trinity

Luke 6: 36

It appears at first glance that the Gospel writer got it wrong.  Luke tells us that Jesus told a parable to his disciples.  However, what he says does not appears to be a parable—a least not the kind we are familiar with.  When we think of a parable we think of a story with a message.  Certainly there are many examples of this; the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son or as we heard last week the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  One source numbers Jesus parables at 46.  So there are a lot of stories with a message.  They are not all presented as stories but most are. 

Often there is a twist at the end like the prodigal son where the wayward son is not given a chance to throw himself on the mercy of his father.  There are ones that surprisingly seem to uphold negative behaviour such as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager.  This is one of the most puzzling in which a manager is dismissed by his master and he connives with the people who owe his master money to cheat him.  Jesus concludes the parable by having the master commend the dishonest manage—go figure.

However, what these all have in common is that they are presented as stories.  Indeed one definition I looked up defines the parable exactly this way, “a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson”.  However, the same source does give a second definition, “a statement or comment that conveys a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison, analogy, or the like”.

In today’s Gospel reading Luke presents Jesus telling his disciples what Luke calls a parable.  However, it doesn’t fit either definition.  It certainly isn’t a story.  It is only a list of characteristics and traits of people that are not positive; the blind leading the blind, the disciple not being above his master, not seeing the beam in your own eye.  He calls us all hypocrites.  This is a bit closer to the second definition.  However, there is no indirect meaning here; Jesus is telling us directly, do not be like this.

There is certainly a lesson in here for us.  So that is possibly what Luke had in mind when he calls it a parable.  The parable always contains a lesson, even when it is not always easy for us to get it right away.  I particularly like it when his disciples complain that parables are hard to understand; I am with them on that.  Jesus occasionally does relent and givens them and us the meaning of the parable as he does in the parable of the sower who sows on the bad soil and the good soil—thanks be to God for that. 

However, in our parable today there is no mistaking Jesus’ message.  In the beginning of the passage he tells us directly: judge not so you won’t be judged; do not condemn and you won’t be condemned; forgive and you shall be forgiven.  In the parable portion he is less direct; he poses a question.  Perhaps that is more parable-like; can the blind lead the blind?  He gives a direct answer—no, they will both end up in a ditch.   Perhaps this is not completely direct.  I don’t believe Jesus was speaking of people who have eyes that do not see.  He is taking about people who are blind in other ways.  Then he switches back to a direct statement; a disciple is not above his master. 
Perhaps some of Jesus’ disciples were getting a bit above themselves and Jesus wanted to give them the proper perspective.  Then the kicker, take care of the beam in your own eye rather than the mote—a truly tiny thing— in your brother’s eye. 

All this set’s up what seems to be an impossible standard for us to live by.  Indeed we are even told that everyone who is perfect shall be as his master.  Jesus seems to be saying that we should strive to be perfect.  Indeed, in the Gospel of Matthew (5:38) Jesus tells us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.  This certainly sets the bar pretty high. No, let’s not mince words; it sets the bar at an impossible level.  How are we supposed to strive to be perfect?  It really is impossible for any human being to be perfect.  Aside from Jesus himself, is there anyone in history who was ever perfect?  Not that I am aware of. 

In fact, I think there is a great danger in trying to be perfect.  We can easily try to hide our imperfections from others and more importantly from ourselves.  Unless we are able to be honest with ourselves about our shortcomings—those aspects of ourselves we don’t really want to acknowledge, Carl Jung calls it our shadow— we will not become the people that God intends us to be. 

I don’t believe that Jesus truly expects us to be perfect.  He was, after all, fully human as well as fully divine.  He also knows us too well to expect that of people.  I have found a better translation of the word which is usually translated in these passages as perfect.  One source translates the original Aramaic, which was Jesus’ native language, as ‘all-embracing’ rather than perfect.

That is something which we can all strive to do and be.  Be all-embracing as your heavenly father is all-embracing. We can embrace life, all of God’s creation and strive to live as God intends.  Let us be all-embracing.  Amen 

Don’t Confuse Me With Facts.’

I want to explore facts this morning.   

The idea of fake news and the apparent disregard for the truth in the recent politics of the United States has been rather perplexing to me.  It has been very apparent that facts do not matter in changing people’s minds and convincing them—at least it has a much more limited role that I would have expected. It appears that many of the supporters of Donald Trump are not interested in the facts or truth that their leaders are offering.  It would appear that many of Trump’s supporters have lost their secure position in life and they believe that it is because of the leadership—the political elite generally— and Free Trade and illegal immigration which they have introduced specifically.  Donald Trump was able to tap into that belief and has connected with their discontent.  He has given them the hope that he is the one that can “drain the swamp” and “build the wall” (and make Mexico pay for it) and put things right i.e. return them to a golden age in which they had a secure job and a secure future for themselves and their children.

A poignant example of this was an interview with prominent supporter of Trump—I believe it was Rudy Giuliani.  In the interview he was speaking about the current rate of violent crime being the highest in history.  The interviewer corrected him with facts stating that the crime rate was the lowest it had been in years.  Giuliani responded that it feels like it is so that is the reality.  In effect, that is the way people feel so that is their reality and don’t confuse them with facts.  At the time I was shocked at this view but on reflection I believe he was exactly right.  It is the “reality for the lives of many who live in fear. 

Facts do matter, of course.  There is global warming and we need to address it for our benefit and the benefit of the world.  But there are people who do not believe it is a fact or do not believe it is caused by human activity.  No amount of ‘facts’ are going to change their mind.  Similarly, I’m not sure what it would take to change my mind that global warming is a fact. 

What is at play here is what Carl Jung calls the ‘feeling value”.  Jung does not use feeling to mean emotions such as fear or sadness.  Rather feeling is an orientation that gives value to something.  He addresses this in discussing what is required to engage with the unconscious forces at work within us, “The feeling-value is a very important criterion which psychology cannot do without, because it determines in large measure the role which the content will play in the psychic economy.”

So, if facts and information do not have the primary position in influencing much of our actions, what then can we turn to?  The answer is, at least in part, story.  In two occasions this week I have encountered people who have addressed the need for story to enable people to engage one another when we are not on the same wave-length.  The first is one of the Daily Meditations by Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan Priest:
I am convinced that many, if not most, modern neuroses are a direct result of the lack of a common, shared story under which our individual stories are written. As a result, our tiny lives lack a transcendent referent, a larger significance, a universal meaning. Our common life is a “dis-aster,” literally disconnected from the cosmic “stars.” We are lost in insignificance.

The other was an interview with Lyndsey Stonebridge who is a scholar on the life and works of   the philosopher Hannah Arendt.  Arendt is best known for coining the phase ‘the banality of evil’ in her study of Adolf Eichmann. The interview was an episode of the NPR program On Being, where she was interviews by the host, Krista Tippett.  Below is an excerpt from the transcript of the interview:
Thinking and Friendship in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt for Now

Ms. Stonebridge: Testimony.

Ms. Tippett: It needs experience. It needs human experience around it. Yeah.

Ms. Stonebridge: Yeah. And so I think she — that was why testimony was important to her. It’s why history and the sense of a myth were all important to her because it’s what makes truth meaningful to people together in a community. If you want a culture that’s going to take on fake news, and the political lie, I say as someone who teaches literature and history, what you need is a culture of the arts and humanity. What you need is more storytelling. What you need is more discourse. What you need is more imagination. What you need is more creation in that way, and more of a sense of what it is that ties us to those words and ties us to those stories.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. We need three dimensional — we need stories and facts and conversations between people and all of that working together.

Both of these excerpts point to the same place i.e. that we need to have shared stories that enable us to relate to one another and to the larger world.  We need to be able to discern how our stories, individually and collectively, fit into the meta-stories of our world.  That is how we know that our lives have value and we are valued.  That is where and how we will find meaning. 

Blessings on your journey to discover your story and the stories of others.  

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Sermon July 3, 2017 3rd Sunday after Trinity

1 Peter 5: 5    The Humble Brag 

‘I am the most humble person in the world!’  We know immediately there is something wrong with that statement — even if we’re not quite sure what.  If someone is humble they do not think of themselves in comparison to others.  In fact, the person who makes that statement is ironically prideful about their humility — which means that he or she is basically not humble.   There is an interesting variation on pride which I have run into recently; it has been coined as the humble brag.  The person who humble brags gets to blow his or her horn and yet appears on the surface as being humble. It can go something like this, “I am so humbled and honoured to be awarded this great award or honour.  I don’t deserve it but it is wonderful to be able to do the great things that I have done.”  In effect the person is saying, “aren’t I wonderful I   have done these great things and am humble as well.  Quite a neat trick, the humble-brag. 

Today’s first reading sets out a very stark contrast between pride and humility, “all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble”.  Peter is very clear – God exalts in the humble and not the proud. 
This is a change from the assured Peter who proudly claimed that he would never desert Jesus.  And we know Jesus had him pegged, “Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’”

Pride does not get very good press in the bible.  Here are a few of the verses which deal with pride: Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs); One's pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honour (Proverbs); For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy (2 Timothy);  When they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding (2 Corinthians). I could go on but I’m sure you get the idea. 

Pride is definitely frowned upon by God and by the first Christian leaders.  With this very clearly negative view of pride I’m surprized that it’s opposite, humility didn’t make it into the Beatitudes.  
Let’s look at humility – the state of being humble.  Here are a few examples of how humility is viewed in the bible: Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves (Philippians); The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honour and life (Proverbs); Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matt.); Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (James).  Our Epistle set out humility in opposition to pride – God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble.  Another passage gives a similar comparison, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom” (Proverbs).   We can see that it doesn’t seem that pride and humility can exist at the same time.  That is why that first statement I made is just wrong.  If you are truly humble you are not going to believe you are more humble than everyone else or even anyone else.  You aren’t going to compare yourself to others — you just are who you are.

From this we can see that as Christians we are to strive to be humble rather than proud.  There is an implication in some of the passages that we should strive to be humble because we will get our reward in the next life, the reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honour and life; humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.  There is an implication from this that humility is not its own reward.  We must be bribed to be humble.  It doesn’t seem to be something that comes naturally to us. 

Indeed our culture today certainly promotes pride as a good thing.  We are not encouraged to downplay our accomplishments and abilities.  We are told that to be successful we need to trumpet our accomplishments in social media.  If we are in business we see that those who don’t promote themselves don’t get customers — at least not many.  It seems that the sizzle is more important than the steak.  So it seems that to be a Christian then is to be counter cultural — to be against the culture.  I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise to us.   As Christians we are told to turn the other cheek; to go the second mile; to love our neighbours — better, to love our enemies. 

One of the reasons that true humility is difficult is because it is natural to compare ourselves to others.  We want to know how we are doing and the way we seem to do that most naturally is in relationship to others.  We seem to receive that lesson right from the cradle.  We are told directly or indirectly that we should be like others – and by implication do better than others.  We are given marks in school and by implication are those marks better marks the others —where do we stand in the class.  Even our play is turned into competition — we are taught that winning is good and losing is bad or at best it is an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and by learning win the next time.  We win awards in life – medals in sports and academia — we get the job and after that the promotion.  By implication others do not succeed and therefore we conclude that we are better than others. 

In this context then it is a real challenge to be humble.  In our world to be humble is to put others before you.  It seems to means that others are more important than you.  How are we to develop humility? 

How are we to become truly humble?  Is it something that we can work to become or is it something that will be given to us as grace from God?  One of the best definitions of humility that I have come across is by Sister Jane — an Anglican Nun.  She defines humility as ‘seeing clearly’ — to be humble is to see clearly.  When I first read that I was puzzled by that.  How was humility related to seeing things clearly?  Well I first thought that if we clearly see ourselves as we are we will know that we don’t compare that well to others at least some others in the world.  No matter how much we succeed there will be others who are better than us in whatever way we judge ourselves.  Even world champions are not the best in everything or even many things. 

However, on reflection I believe that to see clearly means that we can see what is truly important in life — we can see what is truly important to God.  I don’t believe that God wants us to be better than others.  God wants us to be the person that God intends us to be. 

God does want us to develop and grow and become fully mature human being.  I believe that we have a human need to be better than others because we believe deep down that that is the only way we will be of value — the only way we will valued by others and by God. 

If we can truly come to believe and know that God loves us unconditionally — that God loves us because we are God’s beloved children then we can just be the people of God.  That is something to be proud of.   Amen.