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Monday, April 25, 2016

What does our behaviour say about our God?

My sermon for this week was based on Acts 11:1-18.

When I was a kid in school, we would sometimes go on field trips.  Without fail, our teachers would always sit us down before we left, look at us sternly, and say, "Remember children, when we are out there in the world, you represent our school.  People will judge our school based on how you behave.  If you behave badly, what does that say about our school?"

As I recall, not many of us cared much what people thought about our school or about us, but as I get older and (hopefully) wiser, I realize that it does matter at least to a certain extent what people think of me and the organizations to which I belong and/or represent.

Don't get me wrong, I don't care what people think of my choice of clothing or music, or that they like my sense of humour.  But I do care that people see me as someone with integrity, and I care that people see the church as an organization with integrity, inhabited by people with integrity.  An organization without integrity, populated by people without integrity is not an organization I or anyone in their right mind would want to be part of.

Are we aware, I wonder aloud and quite rhetorically, that people will and do judge us as Christians, our church, our religion and even our God based on our behaviour?

For example, we call ourselves Christian and we speak of "Christian morals and ethics", but I know so-called Christians who act in the most reprehensible manner at times.  I have done so myself.  If we walk around calling ourselves Christians, but we act in a profoundly un-Christian way, what does that say about our own personal integrity, and what does it say to others about the integrity of our church, and yes, even our God?

Nothing good, you can be sure.

One of the things that vexes me most about modern Christianity is our exclusivity.  Over the centuries, the church at large has excluded just about everyone but white, heterosexual males.  In my lifetime, I have seen people excluded from the church for being gay, having mental health problems, having addiction problems.  Many of you have probably witnessed people being sidelined or dismissed because they were too young, too old, too new to the church, too this, not enough that.

This is ironic because if Christ showed us anything about God, it is that God is characterized by radical inclusivity, and this is a point that is driven home by Peter's vision which he recounts in the reading from Acts.

Contrary to popular belief, Jesus was not born with a fully-formed religious manifesto in his hand.  He didn't even have one when he died.  The Apostles struggled to find the right path after his death, as we still seem to be doing today.  One of the earliest struggles they had was what to do with Gentiles.

It must always be remembered that Jesus was not Christian.  He was Jewish, well-steeped in Jewish tradition and as far as we know, quite observant, although he did play pretty fast and loose with many points of orthodoxy.  Every single one of the Apostles and the overwhelming majority of his followers were also observant Jews.

But partway through his ministry, he opened his message up to the Gentiles, and after his death, this movement began to attract a significant number of Gentiles.

The problem was that these Gentiles were not circumcised and did not follow ritual purity laws or food laws.  They ate things and did things that according to Jewish Law made them ritually unclean.  This was a cause for alarm for many Jewish followers of Christ who still followed the Law, and so they protested Peter's association with "the uncircumcised".

Peter answers by relating a vision he had of a sheet being lowered from heaven.  On this sheet were all types of animals, clean and unclean.  A voice tells him to eat, and he balks, saying, "Nothing unclean has ever touched my lips".  The voice responds, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane".

This vision erased the line in the sand that told people "this people is sacred, that people is profane", "these people are beloved by God, those people are not".  This vision told Peter that God was inclusive, not exclusive.  I think this was one of the things Jesus demonstrated most during his life.  Look at who he made it a point to be with: lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, Gentiles...all the people no one else in his culture would have anything to do with because they were unclean and therefore were believed to be unloved by God.

Although I am sure we would like to think that we are far more enlightened than we were 2000 years ago and that we have progressed, have we really?  We still seem to be a people that delights in drawing lines.  Two millennia later, we are still drawing lines in the sand.  We have drawn lines in the past between men and women, between whites and aboriginal peoples of every land we have touched, between straights and LGBTQs.  The church has excluded divorcees and single moms because this was regarded as sinful.  All these lines still exist to a greater or lesser degree.

And what does that say about our God?  What does it say to other people?

It says that God is exclusive. It says that God draws lines. It says that God is not, in fact, "steadfast in love and infinite and mercy".

How can we claim that God is love, that God represents mercy, justice, peace and tolerance out of one side of our mouths, and then curse refugees, gay marriage and people with addiction problems out of the other?

Short answer: you can't.

Let's play pretend for a second: let's pretend that someone who calls themselves a Christian thinks that to be divorced, to be refugee, to be LGBTQ or to be an unwed mother was actually a sin (I hasten to add that I believe none of those things, let's just pretend).  By definition, that would make that person a sinner.

Jesus did say, "I came not for the righteous, but for the sinner", and "I came not for the well but for the sick".

If you would call yourself a Christian and believe anyone to be in sin, that would mean that it would be your responsibility as a Christian to redouble your efforts to make them feel welcome, to let them know that God loves them and that they have a place at God's table, not to ignore, sideline, exclude or dismiss them.

If we are to call ourselves Christian, every person we think is a sinner should be that very person we make an effort to talk to, to whom we should be most hospitable, to whom we make every effort to welcome, to whom we make every effort to love.  It is our responsibility to go around erasing lines in sand rather than draw them and stand on opposite sides.

A wise man once told me, "If you have a problem with someone, you're the problem".  It is easy to love those with whom we agree or have much in common, which is generally why people gather at church, because we generally agree with one another.  But the true test of Christianity is how we treat those with whom we don't have much in common, those who me might dislike, mistrust or fear.

Today, my hope is that we can all do our best to erase the lines we have drawn or that our churches have drawn, the lines that tell people who is "in" and who is "out", and let them know that everybody is in.

For thou art with me

This week, I had to depart from my normal pattern which is to preach on the Gospel for the week, as I could not pass up the opportunity to preach on Psalm 23.

In general, I love the Psalms.  Pick a number between 1 and 150, and go turn to that Psalm.  Almost without fail, you will come across a Psalm that takes you from the heights of human joy to the depths of suffering.  Most of the Psalms go from "God, you are so great" to "Why have you crushed me beneath your heel" in a heartbeat, and in that sense, I think they are some of the most honest assessments of what it is like to live a life of faith.

Even if you are not a Christian, you have heard Psalm 23.  It is ubiquitous in our culture.  It is heard in films and on television, and snatches of it have even made their way into really awful rap songs.

Most of us associate this Psalm with funerals because this is the Psalm the minister is always reading at a funeral on TV and in movies.  Indeed, in real life this Psalm is almost always read at funerals, perhaps because the words are so comforting.  It must be acknowledged that many people dislike this Psalm because they associate it with funerals, but in reality, the 23rd Psalm is one of the most beautiful things ever written, and its words of comfort are often welcome at funerals.

The Psalm opens with some very familiar imagery where God is presented as a shepherd, and his people are his flock.  Sheep, it must be said, are not very bright animals and the Psalms predate industrial farms where livestock stay in one place and food is shipped in.  Shepherds literally had to lead their flocks over the countryside to find forage and water, and the sheep were completely dependent on the shepherd for their very lives.

Many of us bristle at this imagery because we associated sheep with mindless conformity, and we resent the thought of anyone directing us.  But the imagery that is being used in this Psalm is not coercive, but tender:

"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters".

Sign me up, that sounds lovely.

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff - they comfort me."

Once again, some very reassuring words.  The rod was simply a wooden bat that was used to defend the sheep against predators and sheep rustlers, and the staff was a long hooked staff that was used to direct the sheep, to help them out of water or over tricky terrain they could not navigate on their own.

This phrase also contains the words, "for thou art with me", which is truly the beating heart and soul of this Psalm, but more about that later.

The Psalm then changes imagery.  We are no longer sheep, but we are at a banquet table in the house of the Lord, where we are assured we will dwell for the remainder of our days.

All in all, a very compelling and comforting image of a God who cares for us, protects us and in whose presence it is a delight to be.

But I want to go back to "for thou are with me".  Even in English translations of this Psalm, that passage is found almost dead center, but in the original Hebrew, it was the center of the Psalm with precisely 26 words on either side of it.

In literary terms, it's not quite a chiasm, but the centrality of this idea that God is with us is hardly a coincidence.  I think that if this Psalm has any central theme or message, it is that God is with us through times of plenty and lean times, through times of joy and times of sadness, through times of peace and times of tumult.  Literally and figuratively, these themes revolve around that central concept in this Psalm.

There is one other point which I think is quite interesting in this Psalm, and it goes back to my previous blog, "Following is not the opposite of leading".  The last phrase of the Psalm says, "Surely thy goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life" (italics mine).  The original Hebrew word in the Psalm means "pursue", so a literal translation would be "Surely thy goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life".

Goodness and mercy are not things that follow us like lost puppies or tired children, they are things that actually pursue us, that hunt us down wherever we go.  No matter how far off the path, no matter how deep into the valley of the shadow of death, no matter how far from grace we fall, those two things, goodness and mercy, that characterize the nature of God so well, will hunt us down and find us.

As I write this, I know that several people in my life are going through difficult times, and maybe so are you.  I hope that the words of the 23rd Psalm are words in which we can find solace, words from which we can draw the same hope and strength that countless generations have found in those same words.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Following is not the opposite of leading

My sermon for this week was based on John 21:1-19.

As I read the Gospel passage for this week, I was struck by the final words  Jesus says to Peter: "Follow me".

They seem simple enough, but it got me to thinking.  As a Christian, I call myself a follower of Christ, as I suspect many other Christians would also call themselves.  But when was the last time any of us really thought about what it means to follow Christ?  How do we follow him?  What do we do to follow him?  What does following Christ actually look like?

Does going to church every Sunday make us a follower of Christ?  Does praying or reading Scripture make us a follower?  Does wearing a cross?  Does volunteering?  Does celebrating Christmas or Easter?

These may all be part of following Christ, but respectively, I know many weekly churchgoers who pray and read Scripture regularly, yet who act fundamentally un-Christian the rest of the week.  I know lots of people who wear crosses or have tattoos who just think it is a cool symbol.  I know atheists who volunteer and who celebrate Christmas Easter, because hey, gifts and chocolate, what's not to love?

All this to say, I think most of us have only a superficial understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ.  We would be hard-pressed to say, "This is what defines me as a follower of Christ".

Part of that difficulty comes from the versatility of the word "follow".  If you look it up in the dictionary, there are several different applications of the word:

1. to go or come after; to move or travel behind (the police followed the suspect)
2. come after in time or in order (Pope Francis followed Pope Benedict)
3. act according to an instruction or precept (I followed the recipe)
4. pay close attention to (I followed the discussion)
5. practice a trade, profession, course of action, study (I follow a strict exercise program)

Do any of those actually hit the nail on the head for you?  Does any single one or combination of those uses of the word follow actually describe the way in which we follow Christ?

Certainly not for me.  The way in which I follow Christ is more than just following instructions, coming after him in time, paying close attention to his teachings, and so on.  Those are all part of the way in which I follow Christ, but it doesn't quite get at the heart of the matter, and I suspect it doesn't for you either.

I think the Gospel passage for today might go some way to explaining how we ought to follow Christ.  The scenario is familiar to most of us: following Jesus' resurrection, he appears several times to his disciples.  This time, the disciples all seem to have gone back to their day jobs.  In this case, he appears to a group who have gone back to fishing, and Peter is among them.

After helping them net a miraculous catch (which in and of itself is a topic for a whole other sermon), Jesus has a heart-to-heart with Peter.  He asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?", to which Peter answers, "You know that I love you".  All three times, Jesus responds, "Feed my sheep".

There is something very touching and meaningful about this exchange.  It is widely believed that in asking Peter this question three times, Jesus is cleaning the slate of the three times Peter denied him.  Peter is given the opportunity to affirm Jesus rather than deny him.

But there is a consequence to this love.  I have mentioned before that properly understood, love is a verb.  It is an action word, not a noun.  Love moves us to do things, to reach out, to act.  It is not something that allows us to be inert.  When Peter affirms that he loves Jesus, Jesus responds with a consequence: "Feed my sheep".

This might seem like a non sequitur because they are on the beach surrounded by fish, not sheep, but obviously Jesus is speaking metaphorically here.  He is referring to God's flock, all of humanity.  And at the end of his discussion, he says simply, "Follow me".

This is the consequence of being Christian, of being a follower of Christ.  It is not about following rules, regulations and dogma to the letter.  It is not about regular practices of piety.  It is not about being able to regurgitate Scripture chapter and verse.  I am not saying those things cannot be part of how you or I follow Christ, but I think we need to go deeper than that.

Following Christ is about feeding others, spiritually, emotionally and even physically if need be.  It is about sharing the abundance of God's love with everyone you meet.  It is about being as Christ was in the world, practicing acts of love, justice, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, charity...all the things that are of God that Christ tried to make so obvious to the world.

I really hope that we can all reflect on what it means to follow someone.  I know in today's culture, we would all prefer to lead.  Followers are frowned upon while leaders are exalted, but even the most powerful leaders are still following the people who taught, shaped and molded them.  Let us allow ourselves to be taught, shaped and molded by God, and reach out to feed his people today.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The man who touched a wounded God

My sermon for today was based on John 20:19-31.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

I have always been charmed by Thomas, whom history remembers as "Doubting Thomas" because he doubted the Resurrection.  Ironically, in another Gospel, all of the disciples accuse the women who reported the empty tomb of telling "idle tales", but for some reason, none of them get tarred with the epithet "Doubting", but that is perhaps for another sermon.

The reason Thomas charms me is that I can relate to his doubt.  I have doubts.  I have questions.  Let's be realistic: if someone came up to you and said, "This guy we knew who we all saw dead and buried is alive again!", most of us would likely react with doubt.  In fact, if you did not react with doubt, I would say you were a credulous moron.  As I mentioned in my previous blog, by definition the Resurrection is unbelievable.  It's a miracle, it's not supposed to be easy to believe.

Far from being the opposite of faith, I am firmly convicted that doubt actually deepens and enhances our faith.  Abigail Van Buren once wrote, "A lack of faith is not doubt.  It is certainty".  Certainty is what drives daesh, suicide bombers and the Westboro Baptist Church.  Certainty leads to a closed mind that is not open to discussion, new thoughts, new ideas and intellectual growth.

Faith, on the other hand, coexists with doubt.  Doubt leads us to explore, ask questions, expand, evolve.  Doubt, if anything, leads us to a deeper faith than we had before.  Doubt is not the enemy of faith.  It gives birth to faith, and I think this is one of the most poignant messages of the story of Thomas.

Thomas' doubt leads him to do something the other disciples do not.  He actually touches Jesus' wounds, and in touching his wounds, Thomas comes to know Christ and God in a much more intimate way that the other disciples.  Thomas has a spiritual experience in this moment, where his entire theology and perception of God undergoes a massive shift.  This experience leads him to cry out, "My Lord and my God!"

This is the first time in the Bible that the term "God" is used in reference to Christ.  Contrary to popular belief, the disciples did not seem to identify Jesus as the Son of God during his lifetime.  They believed he was the "messiah", but although this word seems to signify "Son of God" for most modern Christians, the term actually means "anointed one" and was used to refer to any king in Judaism who had been chosen by God to lead, and who was therefore ceremonially anointed as King.

Nowhere in the Gospels, other than Thomas' exclamation, does anyone refer to Jesus as God.  This term is certainly used in the other books of the New Testament, but these were all written some years after the Resurrection, and the theology of Christ's God-hood had had time to develop.  Thomas seems to have been the first to make that leap of theology, and it was a leap from transcendent to immanent theology.

Broadly, the Judaism of Jesus' time was characterized by a transcendent theology of God which posited that God was forever removed from us, that he exists apart from reality, outside of our sphere of experience.  In other words, God by his very nature is forever removed from us and inaccessible to us.

Immanent theology, which theoretically characterizes Christianity, posits that God is manifested in creation, and as such, God's nature is all-pervasive and we can experience that nature all around us, all the time.  In other words, God is always with us and accessible to us.

And Thomas was the first to make that leap, to realize that Jesus was the very embodiment of God and of this theology.

But why?  How?

I think it had to do with Thomas touching Jesus' wounds.  A transcendent theology or philosophy has difficulty with an emotional God.  It can't seem to wrap its head around the notion that God loves, God cares, God feels, God can grieve and be wounded.  How can he?  Under this theology, God is so far from us and so elevated that we must be beneath his regard.

But when Thomas touched Christ's wounds, he suddenly became aware that God was not transcendent but immanent.  God was present with us, God cared deeply indeed.  So deeply that he was willing to be betrayed, mocked, scourged, crucified and buried.

The other disciples saw Jesus and believed, but Thomas touched him,  No longer could Thomas say that God did not know what it was to be human.  No more could Thomas say that God was not with us and among us.  No longer could Thomas say that he had not seen the face of God, because he had gone ahead and actually touched the wounds of a God who was willing to suffer with us.

And because of his doubt, he was changed forever.

So if you doubt, please know that you are on the right path.  Faith, as I have said before, is a struggle.  It is a path to self-knowledge and of coming to know the divine.  That's not easy.  It's nowhere near as easy as just knowing things.  But the consequence of following this path, despite its difficulties and trials, is a great knowledge of ourselves, of our neighbours and of God.

So keep doubting, for the love of God.