Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Breaking the Interior Chains

I had planned to write about sin as the things that chain us to the past.  However, with the evens at the mosque in Quebec City yesterday I am moved to reflect on that event.  As I write this it occurs to me that both topics are connected.  I do not know at this point who the perpetrators of this terrible dead are or anything about their background.  However, I know that they are in chains to their beliefs and attitudes.  They are in chains as certainly as someone who is in outer slavery.

When someone is enslaved on the inside they are much more difficult to set free.  They chains are invisible.  Only their actions and words give the evidence of the interior condition.  How do we engage these people and each of us in ways that will free them and us from our inner chains?   I certainly do not have any answers that will provide a silver bullet to break those chains.  I almost wrote to kill those beliefs but I do know that the language of killing is not the answer. 

If we respond in hate and look to strike out in vengeance we will be allowing the perpetrators to win.   If we build walls and battlements to hide behind to exclude those who we see as “the Other” we will also allow them to win.  As long as we see” the Other” as those who are out there they will win.  Rather than the aspects of ourselves which we do not want to recognize and acknowledge we will see them in “the Other” out there and react in ways that will only build a higher barrier to hide behind. 
I do not for one minute to say we should welcome those who see us in the same way i.e. as “the Other” to be eliminated.  I am not so naive or blind to the real threats that exist in our times as they have always existed.   I do believe that love is stronger than hate even though it often seems that it is not.  Hate seems to win more oftenor perhaps it just has a better press secretary. 

There does seem to be many cracks in our world right now.  To draw again on Leonard Cohen, that is how the light gets in.  I will close with a prayer I discovered on the internet when I looked for resources for a prayer service tomorrow.  It is from jesuitresouces.org :
We pray,
O God,
for all Christians, Muslims, Hindus or Jews
whose hearts are consumed
by a zeal that has hardened them;
whose vision is partial,
whose mind is narrowed,
whose perceptions are simplified,
whose soul is poisoned.
And yet,
O God,
we read of Jesus that
"zeal for your house consumed him".
His life teaches us that
without the zeal of a burning love for you
that will endure through
the night-time of our enmities
we shall not see your kingdom come.
So we ask,
O God,
that you give us
a zeal that insists on acceptance
a commitment that endures in non-violence
and a patience that works for your coming;
and teach us to hate
only our tribalism and prejudice
which separate us
from those different to us.

We ask it in the name of the Prince of Peace,
Jesus Christ
Our Lord,

Sermon January 29, 2017

Reading the Bible 

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right;
But when asked how 'bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:
You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die.

That old folk song by the labour organizer Joe Hill could be a warning to all preachers.  It is very easy to put our own interpretation on a bible passage and preach by putting the spin a scripture passage that conforms to our personal bias.  It would be very easy to feed that line to the poor and say be satisfied with your lot because you will get your reward in heaven; you’ll eat pie in the sky when you die.  Indeed some ministers, long haired or otherwise do exactly that.  If you were poor that was the natural order of things.  After all didn’t our Lord and Saviour say that the poor would always be with us?  The song goes on to criticize different branches of Christianity; the Salvation Army which he called the Starvation Army,

the Holy Rollers and Jumper who sold faith healing.  He was an equal opportunity critic.
Jesus tells us at the end of today’s Gospel, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you”. 
He also tells us that those persecuted for righteousness will receive the kingdom of heaven.  So it doesn’t look very good for this life: right. 

So how do we preachers try to delve into the Lectionary reading and understand it in a way that is true to the truth revealed in the passage?  That is true not just for preachers but for every one of us who answer the call to follow our baptismal duty to read the bible.    It is inevitable that sermons will be informed by the biases and perspectives and interests of the preacher.  When I first read todays Gospel I could easily have decided to talk about what it means to be blessed.  Or I could have looked at any of the different categories of those who Jesus says are blessed; the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek,

the ones that hunger for righteousness, the merciful, those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, those who are persecuted for Jesus’ sake.  It’s a treasure trove of possibilities for sermon topics.  
However, it could also be a trap.  It would be very easy to see which one fits your particular hobby horse that you like to preach on.  And don’t kid yourself. Most preachers have favourite topics and passages. 

Initially when I read the Gospel I had the inspiration about the song Pie in the Sky and the poor getting their reward in heaven.  I thought I could base my sermon as a critique of the Prosperity Gospel, which is one of my hobby horses with its misinterpretation that good Christians will receive their reward in this world.  However, as I considered it and reflected and prayed about it what decided that what God was inspiring me to preach about was how to read scripture.  There are many good ways of doing this. 

I decided to talk about Lectio Divina which means Holy Reading.  Lectio Divina is a simple way to read scripture and explore prayerfully the meaning of it for you.  It is a process which can be followed quite easily. 

There are four steps in Holy Reading; Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, and Contemplatio.    Don’t be put off by the Latin.  People such as theologians and academics like to use Latin to impress but the process is quite simple.  

The first is to read the passage – the Lectio.  During the reading the intention is to be non-judgemental – just be open to what the passage is speaking to you.  Is there something especially in the passage that catches you attention – a phrase or a word?  Make a mental note of this.  You can use any passage from scripture or an inspirational work that is meaningful for you. 

The second step is meditation – meditatio.  Here we reflect and ponder on what we have read or heard.  Remember that Mary pondered these things in her heart.  Ponder and see how Jesus is speaking to you in the passage of phrase or word that resonates with you.  Ask yourself what does this mean for my life today?  Direct it to God at work in your life. 

The third step is Responding – Oratatio.  This is a prayer – a prayer which is unique and personal to you and comes from the heart.  This may lead to response in your outer life but it is an inner response initially.  It may be surrendering your will to God – not something we do easily but something which is important if we are to follow where Jesus leads us. 

Finally there is Rest – Contemplatio.  This is resting in the presence of God.  It is a knowing that God is with you and that you are in God’s hand.  As it says in the Isaiah passage:
For I, the Lord your God,
   hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, ‘Do not fear,
   I will help you.’

Let us go through the four steps using a passage from today’s Gospel.

Step One:  The reading: be open to what it is saying to you.
11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Step two:  Meditation.  Let us now take a few minutes to ponder the passage.
Step three:  Now let us respond; let us pray is silence and ask God to give us direction.
Step four: Finally let us take a few minutes to rest and contemplate what God is speaking to us about the passage.  


Tuesday, 24 January 2017

An All-Embracing Perfection

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in
(Leonard Cohen)
In his most recent column in the January edition of Huron Church News, the Rev. Jim Innes closes his column, Goof Bravely: the joy of making mistakes, with the above quote from Leonard Cohen.  I was most please to see this reference by a fellow priest who happens to be the Rector of the congregation I attend.

This quote is my favourite lyric from my favourite song writer (I have been and remain an unapologetic Leonard Cohen fan most of my lifewhich is a long time indeed).  It is from his song Anthem which was in his album The Future released in 1992.  These few lines reveal a depth of wisdom that has resonated with me ever since I heard it.  It also cracks open a challenge I have had (and still do); that is the desire for perfection. That is also a challenge which plagues many people.  It may surprise those of you who know me that I have what might be described as a perfection complex. 

I had not consciously thought of myself as a perfectionist as I did not strive to do many things in my life perfectly, as I believed that perfectionists engaged the world.  They, I believed, would spend endless time and countless energy to ensure that whatever they did was perfect.  I did not attempt to engage in things that I believed would require me to be a perfectionist.  This is true for instance in things that required me to do work with my hands such as woodwork.  I knew it was not possible and I therefore did not undertake them. There are many other aspects of life that I probably avoided in part because I knew I could not do them perfectly.    

In his column, Rev. Jim addresses this problem very well.  He notes that, “The fear of making mistakes will lead us to some terrible consequences, or that making mistakes is a sign of weakness or incompetence.”  This approach to perfection is enabled and even made worse by Christianity.  As Jim notes, “This guilt driven life sentence can unfortunately find validation in our Christian churches”. 
Christian theology tells us to strive for perfection.  For example, the Gospel of Matthew 5: 48 is traditionally translated as ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’.  This seems to contradict much of Jesus’s teaching which, for example, is addressed to the crowd not to stone the woman caught in adultery.  Jesus said only the one without sin could cast the first stone knowing that they (and we) are all sinful and need repentance.  An alternative translation to the passage is proposed by Neil Douglas-Klotz in his book A Prayer for the CosmosThe author looks at the original Aramaic, Jesus native language, and translates the passage, “Be all-embracing, as you heavenly Father is all-embracing.” 

This passage and similar ones direct Christians to seek perfection and the understanding of God, as all good.  I could not reconcile them with my understanding of humanity as creatures of God, created in the image of God.  This new translation reconciled that dichotomy for me and brought my desire for perfection into a conscious awareness. 

This understanding enables me to reconcile these passages.  We are to seek wholeness not perfection.  We need the cracks in our lives.  That is how the light comes in; Hallelujah (but that is another Leonard Cohen song and another story). 

I will close with a quote from Richard Rohr:
One great idea of the biblical revelation is that God is manifest in the ordinary, in the actual, in the daily, in the now, in the concrete incarnations of life. Our experiences of ordinary life will transform us if we are willing to experience them fully. This is quite different than much of religion’s emphasis on being pure, perfect, or correct to find God. Jesus stands religion on its head! In fact, some historians of religion claim that Jesus proclaimed the end of religion. (Of course, we quickly undid this mistake!)  Richard Rohr Daily Meditation January 13, 2017

A Different Nativity Scene

Last Wednesday Lorna and I were going to Huron University College.  I had a spiritual direction appointment with one of the students and we were going to attend the worship service at the chapel and have lunch with the students before my appointment.  Lorna had an appointment with her spiritual director. 
As we drove past a church in the small community of Ivan on the way to Huron, there was still an outdoor manger scene in evidence.  I commented to Lorna that wouldn’t be interesting if these scenes had figures from the Massacre of the Innocents as a final act of the Christmas season following Epiphany.   I was half joking but on reflection it certainly would give another side to the Christmas story which isn’t often shown in the public celebrations.
I wonder what kind of a display could be developed and what kind of images would be used in such a scene?  Here is one unknown artist’s rendition I found on the internet.
Inline image 1

10th century illuminated manuscript
Attending the worship service at Huron I discovered that the Feast of the Holy Innocents which was being celebratedquite appropriate as that day was actually designated as the Feast Day.  The service was well done as it usually is at Huron with a thoughtful and thought provoking sermon on the subject preached by Todd Townshend, the dean of theology and my homiletics teacher when I was attending Huron College.  The sermon lead me to wonder more about the story of the Holy Innocents which is the vain attempt by King Herod to eliminate the presumed threat to his throne by killing all the infants in the vicinity of Bethlehem after the news of the birth of a new King of the Jews was delivered to him by the Magi.  King Herod was the King of the Jews although Israel was a vassal state of the Roman Empire. 
In looking at the story of the Holy Innocents I think it could be interesting and revealing to consider the story as a movie plot portrayed by Hollywood.  There is an interesting cast of characters with all the other elements of a ripping good tale that any screen writer could ask for.  We have the villain of the story, King Herod.  We have the victims which are the slaughtered children.  There would be the grieving families of the slaughtered children, by the way, are not mentioned in the biblical account.  We have the seemingly willing accomplices, the soldiers who are only carrying our orders and doing their perceived dutydid any of them question their orders?  We have the Gentile Magi or Wise Men (not kings in the biblical account) that are following the epiphany they have received and follow that inspiration to find the divine revelation to the whole world; Jewish and Gentile.  There is the Holy Family who escapes to safety in Egypt by paying attention to their dreams. The Magi also were warned in a dream not to return to tell King Herod of the birth of the new King of the Jews.
There is certainly is drama and tension galore in the story.  There is the plot by the evil King Herod to kill the threat to his throne.  There is the drama of the search by the wise men that make a long, difficult journey in winter.  There are the special effects of the special star leading them.  There is the tension of the threat to the hero and his family from the soldiers of the king.   There is the tragedy of the massacre of the innocent children with no divine intervention, no dues ex machine for them in any case.   
 The story certainly does not have a traditional hero.  There is no Hollywood ending with the cavalry galloping over the hill with the trumpet to rescue the innocent children from the actions of the villain.    No traditional happy ending here for the innocent victims.  However, there is one for the Holy Family.  Not your usual hero but a hero none–the–less.  However, we know the story is ready made for a sequel.  We have the hope that justice will be done after all and the child will grow up to be the hero who will ultimately save the day; but certainly not a Hollywood hero.  He is certainly is not the typical Hollywood heromore of an anti-hero in actuality.  He will be defeated by the powers of this world and die the ignominious death of a criminal. 
However, that is not the end of the story.  It is ready made for a sequel.  We have the return, if not of the Jedi, the return of a new kind of King to rule a new kind of Kingdom.  But you will have to wait for the sequel to find out what happens.  

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Sermon January 8, 2017

The Baptism of Jesus
This is really surprizing.  Jesus is coming to John to be baptized.  Why did he need to do that?  After all John was baptizing for the forgiveness of sins. Even John was surprized.  Did Jesus need to have his sins forgiven?  John certainly didn’t seem to think so.  He tells Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 

After all, John and Jesus knew each other well.  We know that they were cousins and were both born in unusual circumstances.  Both John and Jesus were part of the divine plan for God’s relationship with humanity.  They probably grew up together and were playmates and in my imagination spent a lot of time talking together and trying to figure out what is was that God had planned for them.  We know that John had been very active in his search to discover—to discern—what God’s plan for him was.  He had spent time in the wilderness away for the usual activities of the people—God’s chosen people.  He had come to the understanding that he was there to proclaim the coming of the one who would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit.  John decided he was ordained to prepare people to receive the one who the People of God had been waiting for, for two thousand years.

We’re not sure what Jesus had been doing up to the time of his baptism.  Other than the incident at the temple when he was twelve we do not have any information about what Jesus was doing.  We can only imagine that he was also, in his own way discerning what God’s plan was for him.  There are apocryphal stories about some of the miracles he performed as a boy—some which were not all that nice to his playmates.  But none of these stories has made it into the bible.  In any case we can realistically assume that it had been a while since Jesus and John had seen each other.  John was away in the wilderness eating locust and honey and wearing animal skins.  Jesus had been doing his thing probably as part of the community. 

Now Jesus appears to John and asks—no demands to be baptized.  No wonder John is taken aback.  This is the messiah; the one John is called to prepare the nation and the world to receive.

The answer that Jesus gives him tells us what we need to know, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  To fulfill all righteousness; to make everything right with God and with God’s people. 
Let’s make sure we know what this righteousness is that is Jesus is fulfilling.  The definition that applies is “acting in accord with divine or moral law”. 
So what is it actually that Jesus is doing?    He is declaring to John and to those in his community and to us that he has come to act according to the divine law.  He has come to begin to bring the fulfillment of the law and to establish God’s kingdom in this world. 

This act of righteousness by Jesus is a wonderful beginning.  There is the voice of the Heavenly Father proclaiming that this is righteous; that Jesus is righteousness, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  
A wonderful beginning; but it is only a beginning.  Jesus begins his ministry among the Jews, God’s chosen people.  It is a beginning of a journey that will take him to the cross and to the defeat of the cross to the triumph of the tomb and the defeat of death.

When we are baptized that is exactly what happens.  We are made righteous; we are made part of God’s plan for us and for the world.  We are initiated into the people of the way—the way of Jesus Christ.  We are initiated into the people who acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the only begotten son of God the Father. We are initiated into the people who follow Jesus and his call for us to live as he has commanded us to live; to love one another as he loves us.
But wait; that not all.  Just as Jesus’ baptism was only the beginning of his ministry and journey to the cross. 

Our baptism is also a beginning; the beginning of a journey—the journey of a lifetime until we are reunited with our Heavenly Father when our journey on this earth has run its course.  It is a journey which we are called to share the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the world.  Just as Jesus and John spent many years discerning their part in God’s plan for them and for the world each of us is called to discern God’s plan for us.

Take a few minutes to consider what that might be.  What is God calling you to be and do as part of God’s Kingdom that was launched two thousand years ago in the Jordan River when John baptized Jesus and the proclamation came from heaven?    

Let us close by turning to page 158 in the Book of Alternative Services for the renewal of our baptismal vows.  

This Is Just To Say

This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I didn’t deliver my sermon on the Baptism of Jesus yesterday as worship was cancelled due to bad weather (Mother Nature should be sent to the naughty stool).  The sermon I prepared is attached—it is described by Lorna as a sermon in search of a congregation so I guess you fit the bill.
Consequently I had some unplanned time.  I was listening to ‘This American Life’ on NPR.  The particular episode was ‘Mistakes Were Made’, broadcast on April 8, 2008, about faux apologies and used the above poem, which is apparently quite well known, as an example.  However, it is not one that I was familiar with.   Does it strike you that the author is really sorry?  As someone on the program said the “Forgive me” is more of a command than a request.  The author doesn’t really seem sorry for his deed.  He seems to be justifying it because, after all, they were delicious; so sweet; so cold.  I guess he just couldn’t help himself.  It could be a variation of “the devil made me do it.” 
The program ended with examples of apologies in the style of the poem.  Some were very amusing; some were revealing; and some were poignant. But all revealed the truth about human nature. One which particularly resonated with me is by David Rackoff:
This is just to say
He was a troublemaker
And wouldn’t shut up.

We wouldn’t have killed him
If we knew
He was The Lord. 
I’m not so sure that “they” would have done anything differently if they had known who he was; but it is nice to think so.  If you want to consider that some more I can refer you to the novel by Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov; specifically the poem in the novel, The Grand Inquisitor.  Here is the plot of the poem from the entry on Wikipedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Grand_Inquisitor:

The tale is told by Ivan with brief interruptive questions by Alyosha. In the tale, Christ comes back to Earth in Seville at the time of the Inquisition. He performs a number of miracles (echoing miracles from the Gospels). The people recognize him and adore him, but he is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him. The main portion of the text is devoted to the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why his return would interfere with the mission of the Church.

I invite you to write a poem in the ‘just so you know style and see what it can reveal about human nature.  Blessings,

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Hypothesis of Christmas

On the ninth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

I was walking to the Post Office in Parkhill last week—I believe it was Wednesday— and what to my wondering eyes did appear but a Christmas Tree out by the side of the street waiting to be picked up and disposed of; a truly sad sight.  There is something sad about the passing out of Christmas Trees with the symbolic end to Christmas for another year; but really, three days after Christmas is truly missing the spirit of Christmas. 

As the song The Twelve Days of Christmas tells us, Christmas is twelve days long and not just one day.  The church also has the season of Christmas up to Epiphany.  However, as our culture begins the preparation for and celebration of Christmas some months earlier it is not surprizing that people are ready to throw out the tree, put away the decorations, and stop singing Christmas Carols as soon as the 25th of December is past or after Boxing Day in any case.

The non-celebration of Advent by our culture is another aspect of the whole cultural re-imaging of Christmas which has gone on for many years.  If you don’t have a season of reflection and preparation you plunge into the whole mad frenzy of doing Christmas up the way our culture holds it should be celebrated i.e. more of a Bacchanalian expression of buying whatever is the thing that has shot to the top of popularity this year.

During the days leading up to the beginning of Christmas i.e. Christmas Eve, I was rereading The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams, one of my favourite authors.  It is a wonderful and mysterious novel about the original Tarot Card, among other things, which has a theme that reflects the true meaning of Christmas.  I often reread this  at this time of year because it takes place at Christmas time and has at its grounding the theme of Christmas. 
In the novel the heroine, Sybil, who is well named, is asked by her brother if she thought the Athanasian Creed was Christian.  She answered that:
She didn’t see anything un-Christian about it—not if you remember the hypothesis of Christianity.  
“And what,” Mr. Coningsby said, as if this riddle were entirely answerable, “what do you call the hypothesis of Christianity?”
“The Deity of Love and the Incarnation of Love?” Sybil suggested, adding, “Of course, whether you agree with it is another thing.”
 Today I pose the following question for your consideration; what is the hypothesis of Christmas?
First let’s clarify what is meant by hypothesis.  One definition I propose using is,” a proposition assumed as a premise in an argument.”  What then is the proposition of Christmas?  Well, for me it is that God became incarnate and as it says in the Gospel of John, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  As Sybil says, whether you agree with that is another thing.  But if you do agree, the premise of that hypothesis is far reaching and life changing.  

If you don’t agree with that hypothesis the cultural celebration of Christmas is understandable and perhaps appropriate.  If you do….?  Well that is a whole other story for each of us to consider.
Have a wonderful time with those nine ladies dancing.  Oh, and Happy New Year.