Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Discerning the Work of the Holy Spirit

Yesterday I preached on spiritual gifts based on the Epistle reading of 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.  A copy of my sermon posted as usual.  St. Paul declares to the church in Corinth that everyone has spiritual gifts.  The question I posed to my captive audience (actually the two congregations) is what spiritual gift they have received. 

I believe that Paul was correct (no surprize) and each of us is given spiritual gifts.  He lists a variety of gifts that are possible;
To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
However, we often do not recognize them as gifts in ourselves and others.  I believe we have problems with recognizing them because we do not recognize them as spiritual gifts and perhaps if we do, we do not know what to do with them.  I would add that there are other gifts not listed by Paul—he didn’t say the list was comprehensive.  One I find particularly helpful is the gift of dreams.  The challenge we have with all these gifts is to learn the language of the gifts; they are God’s Forgotten Language.  We need to learn the language that God is speaking to us in these gifts.

These spiritual gifts are by definition the gifts of the Holy Spirit working in our lives.  However, one of the challenges with such gifts is to know when it is actually the Holy Spirit at work in our lives and not other forces whatever they may be.  They can be the power of suggestion or emotions which can overwhelm us or other forces, some of which can be negative and led us astray.  Just because it ‘feels’ right doesn’t mean it is the right path to follow.  The question is, then how do we know if it is the Holy Spirit working in our lives?
As Paul notes in his letter, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  So that is a primary key to knowing if it is the Holy Spirit; it needs to be ultimately for our good and the common good.  However, it is still often hard to know if a particular action is for the common good.  The religious authorities who wanted Jesus done away with certainly believed they were doing the right thing, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” 

What we ultimately must turn to is the another gift; the gift of discernment.  Before we rush to embrace something we believe we are being directed or encourage to do by a divine source of any kind, we need to stop and consider carefully what the consequences are.  It is helpful in this process to have some guidelines which we aid us in discernment.  Some work has been done in this area in understanding dreams.  There can be many messages we receive in our dreams.  However, the language of dreams is in symbols which can often be challenging to understand.  Below are some guidelines which have been developed for working with dreams.  They can be helpful in discerning is what you believe is the Spirit actually for your good and the common good:
How are we to be sure that we know what God is telling us in our dreams?  The following questions can provide guidance in discerning if our dreams are guiding us to follow the will of God[1].
·         Is the course of action legal?
·         Is it in any way harmful?
·         How will it affect those I love?
·         Can I live with the repercussions?
·         Is the action impulsive?
·         Is the message persistent, presenting itself in other aspects of life?
·         Will the action lead me closer to God?
·         Will the action benefit others?
·         Will this make me a better person?
·         What does my spiritual tradition say about this?

Anglicans do have the three pillars of our faith to guide us which points us in the same direction on our journey; scripture, tradition, and reason.  I hope and pray that we all will be guided by the Holy Spirit on our journey.  Blessings,

[1] Svob, Connie Dreaming for Christians in ‘The Rose’ Summer Fall 2006

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.