Sunday, October 28, 2012

Opening the path to healing

Text: Mark 10 46-52 (blind Bartimaeus)

Who gets access to healing? That is one of the themes of today's Gospel reading. In it, we hear again of the healing power of God in Christ. But like many such stories, it also has a shadow side. It is another instance where the disciples try to prevent a sick person from gaining access to Jesus.

When Bartimaeus shouted, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!," many sternly ordered him to be quiet. But when he persisted with his cry for mercy, Jesus heard him, stood still, and asked that Bartimaeus be brought to him. Jesus then assured him that his faith had made him well . . .

In our Bible study discussions on this passage this week in Coronach and Rockglen the topics of medicare and refugees came up. Last week, Saskatoon MP Kelly Block was the object of protests and media scrutiny about a mailing to her constituents that focused on those two issues. Her mailing trumpeted the end of what she and the Conservative government term unfair benefits for refugee claimants. It read. "until this year, new arrivals to Canada have received dental and vision care paid for by your tax dollars. They have had free prescriptions. Not anymore."

Some of those in her riding who received this mailing objected to it -- as much for its tone as for the merits of the issue. The mailing did not express regret that healthcare benefits had been withdrawn from what is arguably the most vulnerable sector of Canadian society -- refugees seeking asylum from persecution in their home countries. On the contrary, Block's mailing seemed to express pride in this decision since the sentence "Not anymore" was printed in bold and underlined.

Is there a connection between the disciples trying to prevent blind Bartimaeus from gaining access to Jesus and the federal government's recent decision to deny dental, vision and drug benefits to refugee claimants? Some might disagree, but for me the connection leapt off the page.

What follows is a possible analogy between the government's refugee decision and our Gospel reading. Those of us in Canada who have dental, vision and drug benefits would be like the disciples: people with privileged access to healing. Those who do not have such benefits -- and this group would now include refugees to Canada who, unlike landed immigrants, come to Canada without jobs and the health benefits that often come with a good job -- would be like Blind Bartimaeus. Finally, the federal government would play the role of the disciples in trying to prevent sick people from getting access to healthcare.

Canada has had universal healthcare for several generations. But medicare does not yet cover dental and vision care or prescription drugs. So perhaps the government has made the right decision in this case.

Perhaps the government should let refugees suffer from dental complications or uncorrected vision. Perhaps it should let them get sick because they can't afford prescription drugs. After all, the Conservative government has added $125 billion to the federal government's debt since the Great Recession started in 2008 and it is eager to find cost savings.

Then there is the issue of fairness. Some Canadian citizens do not have extra healthcare benefits. Personally, I am glad that my position with the church provides me with such benefits. But others of us here today may not have coverage. Seniors sometimes lose benefits upon retirement; and self-employed people like farmers have to buy insurance if they want coverage for drugs, or dental and vision care.

On the other hand, many healthcare professionals argue that denying benefits to refugees will not save money. Refugees who get sick from lack of medications end up in emergency rooms. Refugees who can't afford drugs to cure diseases like tuberculosis might spread disease in the community. Refugees who struggle with their sight while waiting for their cases to be decided, may have a harder time adjusting to life in Canada or finding work.

Personally, I support free health benefits for refugee claimants. Refugees have fled persecution or terror. Not all refugees quickly get work permits. They are often destitute and under great stress. But even if I were persuaded that the government should no longer provide benefits to this small and poverty-stricken group, I would not boast about that decision.

I agree with protestors that MP Kelly Block's mailer seemed designed to sow resentment and division among Canadians.

But why is it so easy for people like Kelly Block to divide us into an "in" group and an "out" group? The disciples illustrate this trap very well for us, do they not? They were early followers of Jesus' call to repent and proclaim the kingdom of God. In our story today, their journey from Galilee to Jerusalem has come to its end. In the very next verses in Mark's Gospel, Jesus and his followers enter Jerusalem in triumph.

During their long journey, Jesus has consistently preached that God's realm is for everyone; and that those who are last shall be first and those who are first shall be last. Jesus offers a special welcome to foreigners, the poor, and the sick. So why, even at this last hour, do his disciples still not get it? Why do they try to prevent a marginal and sick person like Bartimaeus from seeing Jesus?

Perhaps Jesus must continually repeat his message of inclusion, healing for all, and an end to special privileges because our tendency to exclude so-called "outsiders" and cling to our privileges is so great. This was so back in Jesus' time. It continues to be so in Canada today . . .

The largest outcry around refugees in Canada in the past few years involved a boat filled with Tamil refugees from the southeast Asia Island country of Sri Lanka. 500 Tamil refugees landed in British Columbia in August 2010. I remember this incident well since I have a personal connection with a Tamil refugee.

Four years ago, I took a pastoral care course at Emmanuel College in Toronto, and the class was very diverse. Two of us were training to become ministers in the United Church of Canada. One woman was studying to become a priest in the Anglican Church. One man was an immigrant priest serving a Ukrainian Roman Catholic Church in Toronto. One was an immigrant priest serving a Greek Orthodox congregation north of Toronto. One student was a lesbian from the Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto; another, a Presbyterian woman from Korea; another, a baptist woman born in Canada. And finally, one student was a Roman Catholic priest from Sri Lanka, Father John Baskaran.

Father John had come to Toronto from Sri Lanka a few months earlier as a refugee. Like many Catholics in Sri Lanka, he was an ethnic Tamil, and the period during which our class met was a terrible one for Tamils. The winter and spring of 2009 saw the end of a 26-year long civil war in Sri Lanka in which the government, dominated by ethnic Sinhalese people in the south and who are almost all Buddhist, finally crushed the attempt of Tamil people in the north of the Island, who are almost all Hindu or Catholic, to establish an separate Tamil state.

We all loved Father John because of his joyous disposition and his kindness. And we were heartbroken as he told us of the parish that he had left behind and of the dreadful history of Sri Lanka that had led to the civil war between Sinhalese and Tamil people.

After he fled to Canada in the summer of 2008, the 400 people in his parish had been forced to flee their village into the jungle. Scores of them were killed in the final battles of the failed independence war. A second priest in his former parish, whom the Catholic Church had also tried to sponsor as a refugee to Canada along with Father John, was among those killed.

Father John told us that the seeds of the conflict had been planted by the British Empire during its long rule over Sri Lanka. In the 1500s when Portugal conquered the island today called Sri Lanka, it was divided among three different kingdoms: two that were Sinhalese and one that was Tamil. The Portuguese kept the three kingdoms intact as administrative units. 100 years later, the Dutch ousted the Portuguese and made the Island into a Dutch colony, but they too kept the three kingdoms separate from one another.

Then in 1802, Britain won control of the Island from the Dutch. In their wisdom and for administrative efficiency, the British decided to dissolve the three kingdoms and rule the island as one colony, which they called Ceylon. As was the British policy everywhere, they used divide and rule tactics to control the indigenous people of Ceylon. The British gave key civil service posts and other privileges to people from the Tamil minority in the North, who then ran the colony, populated mostly by Sinhalese people, for the British. For the next 150 years, until Ceylon's independence from Britain in 1948, resentment towards Tamils and their privileges built up among the majority Sinhalese population.

Following independence, this ethnic resentment led to discrimination and human rights abuses against Tamils by the Sinhalese-dominated government. Over time these abuses sparked an independence movement among the Tamils in the north, and then to the 26-year civil war, in which as many as 100,000 people were killed.

The situation for Tamils has been difficult for most of the period following independence from Britain; and one of the worst times for Tamils came after the defeat of the Tamil independence movement in 2009. Because of what Father John had told us, I was sure when the boat filled with 500 Tamils reached British Columbia in 2010, that they would all easily get refugee status in Canada.

But instead of welcoming these 500 Tamil refugees with open arms, the government tried to spread fear that Canada was being flooded by refugees. Instead of decrying the history of violence and discrimination in Sri Lanka, with its roots in British rule there, the government tried to whip up panic that the refugees might include people who had fought in the failed war of independence for the Tamils, and who might therefore be considered terrorists.

Not only does such rhetoric ignore the fact that Canada's prosperity, like that of most rich countries, depends on large and growing immigration from poorer countries; it also helps sow distrust between those of us who already live in Canada -- virtually all of us descendants of immigrants and refugees -- and those who come seeking hospitality in times of desperate need.

Of course, the best solution to the world's refugee crises -- whether in Syria and Burma today, or Sri Lanka and Afghanistan a few years ago -- is for all countries to treat their citizens with respect and civil rights; and for all people to have adequate food, water, education and healthcare. But as long as ethnic conflicts in countries like Sri Lanka and Syria erupt into civil war, there will be refugees seeking safety.

When such refugees make it to Canada -- whether by church sponsorship, by airplane, or on a boat run by commercial smugglers -- I would hope that Canada would welcome them. As I read it, the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls on us both to offer hospitality to refugees and also to work for a world in which people are no longer forced to flee their homes because of persecution.

The good news contained in today's Gospel reading is that God in Christ offers healing to marginal people despite the best efforts of people like the disciples -- or like the federal government and MP Kelly Block -- to prevent them from getting it.

God in Christ offers sight to the blind and healing to the sick regardless of nationality and social status, and regardless of the cost of such healing for Jesus. Jesus is willing to bear any burden for us sinners, even death on a cross.

He also calls us to follow him on this journey of self-sacrifice and love. He calls us to include all, heal all, love all. He calls us to end divisions. He calls on all of us -- blind and sighted, citizen and refugee, sinner and saint -- to enter Jerusalem with him, to take up our own cross, to die to our old small lives, and to rise to new life in Christ.

And with God's help, we can all follow Jesus on this path to healing and new life.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The 13th Man: in the stands, on the field, on the cross

Text: Mark 10 32-45 (greatness in service)

This past Monday afternoon, we read a version of today's Gospel story at church school in Coronach. (In Rockglen, we read a different Gospel story in what was our first church school on Thursday afternoon -- the one about Jesus welcoming children since that seemed like an appropriate choice for a first class. Five children came, including Shelby and Sadie who are here this morning).

This story about two brothers, James and John, who ask to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus when he is in his glory hit a chord with the children. They themselves are often focused on small privileges such as who gets to blow the candle out after opening worship, who gets a second cookie during snack time, who gets to sit beside whom, and so on. And when there are 20 children -- as there have been so far this fall in Coronach -- the noise volume of the requests for such privileges can become quite high!

So I was pleased that this week's Gospel passage was about a childish request made by two of the disciples. The children's attention seemed to shift as we got to the  part of the story where James and John ask for pride of place. Perhaps in these two brothers the children finally saw some disciples with whom they could identify!

At this point, Jesus' journey with his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem is almost over. He has just given his followers a third and final prediction of his passion, death and resurrection. And yet James and John still don't get it. Jesus' glory is one that comes from a baptism of suffering and death, and from drinking a cup that is composed of tears and blood.

Jesus agrees with James and John that they will be baptized in the same baptism as him and will drink the same cup as him. But the privileges that flow from this baptism and this cup -- the two great sacraments of our life in the church -- are the privileges of a servant and not the privileges of a great leader.

Jesus reminds the 12 disciples that he came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. He also says that James and John (and by extension, all of us) will follow him in his great sacrifice -- drinking the bitter cup of suffering and being baptized by the fires of crucifixion. There is new life and glory to be found in this baptism and in this cup, but it is not the glory pursued by the world's rulers. To be baptized with Christ into his death and resurrection is to find joy in the death of one's ego and a new life that is expressed in serving others and not in fulfilling childish desires for individual advancement.

Of course, we do not arrive at a mature place of selfless service without first going through many of life's ups and downs. This is why I love the metaphor of Jesus' journey with his disciples to Jerusalem. It is a journey filled with wonders and marvels; with misunderstandings and bickering; with friends who fight with, and care for, one another; and it is a journey that ends in pain, death, and new life.

We are all disciples on this journey. Even when we stumble or fail to understand, God in Christ leads us forward. We begin the journey with baptism by water -- as did Jesus with his baptism in the Jordan River at the start of his ministry in Galilee and as will happen (or occurred) this morning in Rockglen for three children. We end life's journey with a baptism by fire and the bitter cup of death, which Jesus models for us in his passion, death and resurrection. We cannot escape this second baptism and this bitter cup. They are our greatest fear and also the greatest gift of grace that we will ever receive.

But before this bitter, fearful and glorious end, we have to live our lives . . .

The children who come to church school in Coronach and Rockglen have a lot to teach me, probably because I am not a parent. The ones in kindergarten are willing to do pretty much anything and follow all directions. The ones in later grades are more easily bored and have more challenging questions. All of them -- like James and John -- know what they want and have no difficulty in asking for it.

Being with kids can remind us of our own journey through life -- how passionate we can be in our likes and dislikes; how bitter our disappointments can be; and how delightful our fulfilled wishes can seem.

The children we baptized today in Rockglen have only shown the first glimmers of the people they will become. The children in church school spend all day long trying out new aspects of their egos and figuring out their own capabilities. After our first baptism, life can seem glorious, bright, and full of promise.

We who are older also have learned a lot about the difficulties of living in this broken society. While we remember the promise of childhood, the hard knocks of life point us to our own cross and to the inevitable second baptism of fire that is found in confronting worldly powers and creating families and communities in difficult conditions.

We know that the cup we are forced to drink in this life will sometimes taste as bitter as the one Jesus drinks in Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. We know that glory awaits us. But it is not the same glory we chased as children or young adults. It is a glory that comes from leaving behind our childish egos -- as essential as they are -- for a more mature life in Christ. This new life is about community and service and not about individual privilege . . .

Besides church school, one other theme came into my mind when preparing this worship service. It comes from the passion here in Saskatchewan for our one professional sports team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

While I was in Alberta last week, I taped the documentary, "The 13th Man" on TSN. It is about the history of the Roughriders and its fans. It focuses on the unbelievable heartbreak of Grey Cup 2009. In that game, Montreal squeaked out a victory over Saskatchewan with no time on the clock because of a penalty caused by too many Roughriders on the field.

Does anyone here remember that? (Just joking!) In November 2009, I was a student minister in Didsbury Alberta and I watched the game in astonishment. As a non-Saskatchewan resident, I had only a vague sense of the pain of that moment. But living here for 16 months and watching the TSN documentary have now given me a better sense of what that defeat must have felt like for so many here.

One of the many things that struck me in the story of that defeat in 2009 was the refusal of either the players or the fans to name the 13th man who was most directly responsible for the penalty that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for the Roughriders at the very last second. Some fans who had always prided themselves on collectively being called the 13th man -- the roaring partisans in the stands whose vocal love for our team always provides the Roughriders with an extraordinary home team advantage -- came forward to also identify themselves as the 13th man who caused the Grey Cup defeat in 2009.

This gracious movement reminded me of two things. The first is the 1960 historical movie Spartacus, which tells about a slave revolt in ancient Rome. At the end of the movie when the slave army of Spartacus has been defeated, the victorious Roman soldiers need to identify the slave leader identify himself so they can crucify him. A Roman general demands that Spartacus step forward from the other slaves whom he has led so well. He does so and proudly says "I am Spartacus." But then another slave steps forward and repeats the line "I am Spartacus," then another, then another, until all the men have stepped forward to receive the glory and the agony of identifying with their leader.

Is it not the same with baptized Christians? In our baptism, we are baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Christ. We are marked by the sign of the cross. We gain a new identity, not as individuals, but as part of the Body of Christ. As St. Paul says in Romans, "All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life."

Who is the 13th man? All of us in Saskatchewan are the 13th man. Who is Spartacus? All the slaves who battled for their freedom from the Romans are Spartacus. Who is Christ? All of us who have been baptized into his death and resurrection are Christ.

The Roughriders were defeated in 2009, but all who make up the 13th man found continuing self-respect by standing in solidarity with the team. The Roman slaves were defeated, but they lived a life of love and solidarity by fighting for freedom. Christ was defeated, but he and his disciples were raised to new life in God after fighting and dying for the values of love, compassion, and truth that shaped the journey of their lives . . .

Now to be frank, there is a lot about professional sports that reminds me more of James and John on the road to Jerusalem and less about Christ raised to new life after his passion and death. For instance, much of the love for a team like the Roughriders is tied to worldly glory.

But there is a lot about the 13th man that seems to move beyond this and to point to the path that we hope our children will follow during their lives. The 13th man is more about the journey than the destination. It is more about being part of a huge province-wide family than it is about being an individual. It is about a passion that yearns for success on the field but one that also thrives in the face of defeat, even that most bitter defeat of November 2009.

On the journey of our lives, there will be many highs and lows. With the grace of God, we can learn from both. In life's baptisms by fire we may even rise to new life within God's eternity this side of the grave.

We also face with confidence the final baptism of death. It will not lead us to the childish dreams of individual glory modelled for us by James and John. But we are sure that it leads us to the glory of new life in Christ; a new life beyond all the passionate desires and bitter disappointments of our egos; and a new life that is awake to all of humanity, all of life, the eternal now, and the glorious love of God that flows from sacrifice, service, and the Way of the Cross.

For the Twelve Disciples so long ago, the 13th man was Jesus. So may it be for us today.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Birds of the air and lilies of the field: no worries?

Text: Matthew 6 25-33 (do not worry)

Today's well-known Gospel passage finds signs of God's providence in nature. Jesus says, "look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them." And later, "consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these."

But despite the charm of these images, I wonder about them. For one, birds are hardly idle, are they? Most of the time, they are frantically busy. Nor do they always have a gentle and easy existence. Some birds are predators, others are prey; and all of them have an existence as harsh and difficult as any other living thing.

The first Sunday that I preached here in Borderlands last year, I ran into a yellow flicker as I drove between services in Coronach and Rockglen. Later that day, yanking the corpse of this beautiful bird out of the grill of my car made it difficult to see birds as models of a worry-free existence within God's providence.

Similar thoughts come to mind in the face of the statement that the lilies of the field do not toil. All day long, a lily turns its leaves towards the sun to use the sun's energy to produce sugar. All day log, its roots use this energy to pull water and nutrients out of the soil. Lilies look beautiful to the human eye -- that is, when they haven't been withered by drought, flattened by hail, or eaten by bugs. But like birds, they hardly seem idle to me.

The natural world is intricate, beautiful and mysterious. But I am not sure that it illustrates the providence of God in the way that our reading today suggests.

Next weekend, I will be in Banff for the 2012 United Church's Men's Conference. A key draw for this year's conference -- other than the beauty of the mountains and the fellowship of other ministers and lay leaders in our church -- is the keynote speaker, Bruce Sanguin. Sanguin is a United Church minister from downtown Vancouver and a prolific author. He promotes a progressive and evolutionary Christianity that draws upon ideas from Darwinian biology and the environmental movement.

I enjoy Sanguin's books and articles and I appreciate the energy with which he pursues his vision of the Gospel and the large following he has developed in the past few years. But I also question his work.

To my mind, Darwin's teachings about evolution through natural selection strip nature of its Divine enchantment. After Darwin, nature still retains its power to elicit our awe, but it does so without the idea that God ensures that everything will turn out all right. Darwinism accounts for the cruelties of predators, pain and death in nature in a way that the sunny view of the birds and lilies in our reading today do not. In my opinion, Sanguin misses this key point. So I look forward to hearing more from him next week and perhaps discussing some of this.

Then there is environmentalism. I have been concerned about the social destruction of the environment since elementary school. Over the years, I have also become discouraged at the ability of any one person, community, church or even nation to play a positive role in reversing human damage to the environment. Sanguin has a much sunnier view on this question as well, and so I also look forward to confronting this idea next weekend.

But what does all this-- an awareness of pain and death in the natural world as well as its beauty; and a pessimistic assessment of humanity's ability to halt environmental destruction -- have to do with Thanksgiving and Jesus' message that we should  stop worrying and seek instead the kingdom of God?

Here in southern Saskatchewan this year, many farmers give thanks for a productive and lucrative harvest. But we are also aware that today's higher prices come at the expense of farmers to our south who suffered a drought not just during the harvest, but through the entire growing season.

I understand that it is ever-thus in farming: years of bounty following years of hardship; and the calamity of one region being a boon to another one. But while we try to give thanks in both good years and bad, we are also aware that human-induced climate change is making the swings of weather more extreme than they were before the age of fossil fuels.

And yet Jesus urges us to not worry and to have a trusting faith. "Strive first for the kingdom of God" Jesus says, and all the material things that we worry about will be given to us.

Well, at the most basic level, Jesus is clearly wrong about this, is he not? Both yesterday and today, many saints of the church have served God and neighbour and yet suffered from poverty or the ravages of war and sickness. The kingdom of God is about love, sacrifice, solidarity, faith, and hope. But pursuing these values hardly guarantees one material success.

However, when we look at Jesus' statement from the vantage point of his whole ministry -- especially his journey from the beauty of countryside to the squalor and violence of the capital city Jerusalem -- we can hear his repeated calls to fear not from a different angle.

Jesus knows that his ministry of love, healing and service will end in arrest, suffering and death. This does not discourage him from a life of faith, hope and love. Instead, this tough awareness fuels his ministry. From a worldly point of view, there often is no way out. But from a spiritual point of view, God is always the solution.

In society and in nature, there is much that we do not like: pain, poverty, and death. But despite what looks like a lack of providence, the kingdom of God is always available to us.

If we spend our days and nights worrying about all that can go wrong, we might become paralysed by fear and miss the gracious moment right in front of us. But when we join Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, we share his awareness that it is inevitable that we won't always get what we want at a material level.

At the end of the journey, there will be suffering and death. Along the road, there will sometimes be losses, sickness, and pain. If we worry too much about these things, we can close our eyes and ears to this gracious moment, which is the only time that God's grace is available to us. Or we can relax and accept that we won't always get what we want at a material level. We can trust that God's Love is what we need, and God's love is a sure thing, both in this moment and at the end.

God's love is our source, our calling, and our sure destiny. This is true for individuals, for communities, and for the whole groaning natural world. When we accept this love, we can wake up to this moment and enjoy it and our companions on the journey without being distracted by disappointment with the past or fear for the future.

God's kingdom is based on a trusting faith, an unshakeable hope in God's support, and a life lived in self-giving and abundant love.  At any moment, we can stumble into this kingdom life when, with Grace, we confront the painful reality of all that we don't like and all that we want but can't get in life.

I never want to kill another bird with my car, but probably I will do so. I never want another beautiful natural habitat to be fouled by economic progress, but probably this will happen. I never want another international dispute to lead to war, but probably this will happen too. I don't want to die, but I know that I will.

Given the inevitable disappointments of life, our tendency to worry is understandable. When with grace our worry drifts away, we wake up with Jesus right here and now and accept the reality of life, both what we like and don't like. Based on an acceptance of reality -- personal, natural and social -- we can also accept our most sacred values of trust, community and love.

We pursue these values in church and in our families not because they guarantee that everything will turn out well the kingdoms of the world. With God's help, we pursue them because in a life that seems to have so much to fear, we want to stay awake. Despite pain, loss and death, we trust that God is with us.

Our material circumstances may not improve when we live in God's Kingdom. But we trust that these kingdom moments will wake us up to the love and acceptance we most crave and need.

In the freedom of life in God's kingdom, we continue to work for our material needs and to fight for a world of greater justice and peace; and we do so with less attachment to the outcome. Whether we have a good harvest or bad; whether our fight for justice succeeds or not; and whether we have a season of health or sickness, we continue to journey with Jesus and his friends.

Today as we gather again at Jesus' holy table, we re-enact our unity with God in our bodies and with our brothers and sisters as the Body of Christ both near and far.

We are not alone, whether in years of bounty and years of scarcity.

In the life of the material world, there will often be much to fear. But in the kingdom of God, there is never anything to fear; and there is always an infinite amount for which to be grateful.

Thanks be to God.