Saturday, February 6, 2010

Prophets on the edge, Jan 31, 2010

Texts: Jeremiah 1: 4–10 (before you were formed in the womb, I set you apart) Psalm 71: 1–6 (God is our fortress and sheltering rock), 1 Corinthians 13: 1–13 (love is patient and kind), Luke 4: 21–30 (Jesus is driven out of Nazareth)

Being a prophet can be a difficult and dangerous job, it seems. This morning Ethel read about the call of the prophet Jeremiah when he was a teenager in Jerusalem 2500 years ago. In Jeremiah's long and colorful career as a prophet, he was beaten and threatened with death more than once as he asked the Hebrew people to repent.

This morning's reading from Luke is about Jesus as a prophet in danger. It continues last week's story of Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. Having identified himself with the prophet Isaiah, Jesus goes on to suggest that the saying "no prophet is accepted in his hometown" will be true for him as well. This prediction soon comes true when the worshipers react with fury at his next comments. They drive Jesus out of town, and try to throw him off a cliff. Mysteriously, Jesus walks through the crowd, escapes, and continues his ministry in other parts of Galilee where people still value his teachings and healing.

Why are the people in Nazareth so angry with Jesus? Their anger follows his mention of two earlier Hebrew prophets, Elijah and Elisha -- how Elijah and Elisha gave help and healing to non-Jews. Do the people of Nazareth want their hometown hero to bring healing and wisdom to his own people and not "waste" it, as did Elijah and Elisha, on foreigners? Are they furious because Jesus is implying that his good news is for all peoples and not just for the Jews?

This story of Jesus being attacked by people in his hometown brought to my mind the story of a prophet in our own United Church, our current Moderator Mardi Tindal. Two weeks ago on January 17th, Mardi read an Open Letter to Canadians on Climate Change in her hometown church, Sydenham St. United, in Brantford, Ontario. Brantford, as all Albertans above the age of 30 probably know, is also the hometown of Wayne Gretzky.

Was Mardi trying to emulate Jesus in the synagogue? Did she expect that the good people at Sydenham St. might react with fury, drive her out of town and try to throw her off a cliff? Perhaps if her hometown church had been in Fort McMurray?

I consider Mardi Tindal a friend, so I was really pleased when she was elected our 40th Moderator last August at the United Church's General Council meeting in Kelowna, B.C. Mardi and I met on a canoe trip in Algonquin Park in 2002. This trip was organized by the Five Oaks retreat centre, where Mardi has worked for the past 15 years. Mardi was the program director on that trip, and for six days and nights, 18 of us canoed and portaged through the beauty of Algonquin while Mardi led us in early morning yoga, worship, and sharing circles. I loved this week and I enjoyed getting to know many people, not least of them Mardi.

Mardi and I bonded on the first portage. We had spent the morning canoeing across a large lake in the face of strong winds and choppy water. On the far shore, we had a one kilometer portage to the next lake. Each portage was done twice -- the first time with a canoe on one's head, the second with an enormous pack of belongings or food.

While resting at some point along the trail, Mardi and I chatted. We both admitted that we had never worked so hard. We both admitted that we were scared that we might not be up to the physical challenge. We both confessed that our chiropractors had urged us not to go on the trip. And we shared together the realization that after crossing that first lake and hauling our belongings to the next one, there was now no going back. Even if we wanted to quit, there was no way out but through. We had to keep going forward one lake and one portage at a time in order to arrive back where we started. This conversation with Mardi really helped me. I was pleased to have a companion with whom to share my worries during the week.

In the event, my back got stronger during the week, and we all seemed to have a wonderful time. I certainly loved the week, and it marked another step forward in my journey back to church and towards faith. I found that I could trust my body, trust my companions, trust our camping leaders, and trust the water, rocks, and trees through which we moved.

During morning yoga, Mardi taught us an ancient Sanskrit saying, which I believe was popular in CGIT groups when she was a girl. It goes like this. "Yesterday is a dream, tomorrow but a vision. But today well-lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day." R

A few minutes ago, Ethel read the famous Scripture passage, 1 Corinthians 13, Paul's Hymn of Love. Paul ends by holding up the virtues of faith hope and love. In Algonquin, I learned to trust more, which is the heart of faith. From Mardi's Sanskrit saying, I learned that hope is grounded in the present -- in today, well-lived. And I was reminded that looking well to this moment requires love. In the canoe trip, we formed an instant community. To play our part, we had to look after ourselves. And to flourish over the week, we relied upon, shared with, and came to love one another. By trying to live and love well in the moment, we turned all our yesterdays into dreams of happiness. And by loving each moment, we turned our fears about tomorrow into a vision of hope. I learned a lot that week.

At the end of the trip, Mardi took me aside to thank me for my participation in the sharing circles and to offer encouragement in my journey in the church. And that too was a key moment for me. I owe Mardi a lot. And so for the remainder of my time, I will use what I learned about faith, hope and love during that week in Algonquin Park to examine Mardi's Open Letter on Climate Change from two weeks ago.

When I read Mardi's letter, I wasn't completely thrilled with it. You can find it on the United Church's website at Mardi begins by saying that she felt heartbroken by the meeting of world leaders in December in Copenhagen -- their failure to agree to decrease the burning of fossil fuels and reverse the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But as always, hers was also a message of hope

It is not that I disagree with Mardi on climate change. The last two centuries of using fossil fuels to power our ever-growing economy -- first coal, then oil and gasoline, and then natural gas -- have been remarkable. Today, humans mine and burn about 85 million barrels of oil each day, which is the equivalent of about 30 million cords of wood, or one massive forest fire. We are quickly burning all the ancient forests of 300 millions ago, and this is radically changing the atmosphere, oceans, and climate. Almost all scientists who have studied it believe that releasing all this long-buried carbon in such a short time means environmental catastrophe.

But even if this is the case, what are we to do? Mardi in her letter suggests that we, quote, "choose hope and action over despair and paralysis, in our homes, offices, places of worship, families and community organizations, as individuals and together. Every day I receive new messages from people who are making dramatic changes in their lives. The answers are already here. Together, let us act by our beliefs."

I am not so sure about this, though. I am not keen on the approach of individual changes, especially if they are done in the hope they will help solve the big problem. At the global level, humanity does not yet have the ability to change course. No one is in charge: not the United Nations, not the International Monetary Fund, not the U.S. President, not the World Council of Churches.

Individuals can change, of course. Take me, for example. When I came to Alberta at the end of August, I could have made other choices. Instead of renting a room in Olds that is about a 20 km-drive away from the church, I could have found a place within walking distance of Knox. And if gasoline was priced closer to $100 per liter instead of $1 per liter, I probably would have done so. But as long as beautiful and well maintained roads, cheap gas, and big-box shopping centers surrounded by acres of parking are the norm, people like me will drive around in our single-occupancy vehicles as we have done for the past few generations.

I actually prefer the ecological way of life to the wasteful one. I would prefer to live in compact towns or cities with four- or five story apartment blocks, where work, school, shopping, and recreation were all within walking distance. I find such a life healthier, easier, and more communal than the one where every house has a big unused lawn, and services are only accessible by car. But since WWII, trillions of dollars have been invested in neighbourhoods that require non-stop use of cars.

It is not that I don't applaud towns and cities that go the opposite direction -- places like Portland Oregon or Madrid Spain. But since the problems are so big, I am a bit put off by letters like Mardi's which urge us to pursue individual solutions. But then, maybe I am like the worshipers in Nazareth, feeling anger towards the preacher/prophet?

Maybe. But continued growth in resource use, including the burning of fossil fuels, is enforced by a competitive world economy. Companies, sectors, nations, and empires either grow or die. An individual farmer might want to run a small, mixed farm like his grandfather's, but it wouldn't survive in the market. A country might want to conserve its natural resources and quit the rat race, but doing so would invite foreign invasion and conquest.

The race is on for the 21st Century: will China overtake the U.S. as the world's dominant power, or will the U.S. find ways, through continued growth in the consumption of natural resources, to maintain its lead? The alternative of all countries getting together, and agreeing to relax, slow down, and find a saner pace of life in which we travel less and waste less often doesn't seem possible to me.

As a church, we uphold the virtues of faith, hope and love. Each week, we come to worship to remind ourselves of these values; but we do so not because these values are obvious, but because they are not. Our world economy cares not a whit for faith, hope or love. The economy is based on competition, profit, and growth; and the future be damned -- which perhaps it is.

Prophets in the church like Mardi point out the problems, and I am glad that she is doing so. As well, we also need the other roles of church leaders: the roles of pastor, priest, and preacher. As pastors, we care for each other in faith communities, especially at times of change: funerals, weddings, job loss, new babies, times of sickness, and so on. As priests, we celebrate holy communion which binds us again to the story of Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection -- the gracious life into which we have been baptized. And as preachers we retell the stories of our tradition and relate them to today so that we remember what makes life worthwhile -- faith, hope, and love.

It may turn out that the Jeremiahs of climate change are wrong and that the oceans won't die and rising sea levels won't drown Vancouver, and Halifax; New York and Los Angeles, or Shanghai and London. But if they are proven right, then we will have work to do -- helping people from the Coast to relocate to Alberta perhaps; or finding new ways to grow food in a destroyed environment. And as things get worse, perhaps people of faith will finally win the battle of peace over violence, and of love over hate. Perhaps then the human race will unite to create a saner way of governing ourselves and creating goods and services? Who knows?

Jesus was rejected in his hometown of Nazareth when he dared to tell the truth. I don't imagine that this truth was only his openness to foreigners. I suspect it was also his message that new life is found by picking up our cross, following him to the centre of imperial power in Jerusalem, and dying for the values of faith hope and love. And we will return to those themes during the Sundays in Lent, beginning Feb 21st.

Mardi is also trying to tell the truth -- that our economy is destroying the environment. And she is probably right.

So what can we do? Well among other things, we can do what Mardi taught me in Algonquin eight summers ago. With God's help, we can look well toward today. We can remember to trust in the moment and not be afraid. And we can touch love within and around us, which is the gracious gift of God to us every moment. This may include making small or large changes in how we live, especially when these changes make our days calmer, healthier, and more loving. And it may also involve raising political awareness of the need for new ways of running the world economy.

In any case we can be sure that no matter what the circumstances, with God's help we will succeed in looking well to today. In doing so and walking humbly with God, all our tomorrows also become visions of hope.

With God's help, we have faith that today is a day of love, and hence also a day of hope. Faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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