Sunday, June 16, 2013

Christ, self, hymns and eternity

Text: Galatians 2 15-21 (dying and rising with Christ)

Selfishness is a common pitfall for many of us. But have you ever considered that feeling bad about one's self might also be a form of selfishness? Pride is a self-centred feeling. But so are self-blame and self-hatred.

I have been feeling bad about myself the last few weeks. I have had a pain under my right shoulder-blade, and it has slowed me down.

When I feel pain like this, I fear that it might reflect a character flaw. At the least, the pain leads me to work less and spend more time moping. And now I have an additional fear that my preoccupation with my shoulder is self-centred.

In today's reading from Galatians, Paul shows us an extreme way to avoid selfishness. He writes that he has been crucified with Christ and that he no longer lives. Instead, it is Christ, or the sovereign Spirit of God, that lives in him.

Paul is liberated from the demands of religious law by the grace that comes with death. Further, since Paul's self has died, he can't act selfishly anymore, can he? Since he is already dead, worries about pain and desire also disappear.

Paul, I think, is suggesting that the individual self is an illusion. It might seem like the most obvious and important thing in each of our worlds. But in truth, the self is just a necessary illusion. When, with grace, we become aware of this illusion, the self dies painfully with Christ. After this crucifixion, Christ is reborn in our hearts, and we are free to enter eternal life in God.

Paul's statement strikes me as quite remarkable; and today's reading from Galatians is the most important one in the Bible for me outside of the Gospels. I believe in what he writes. I am sure that it gets to the heart of God's Grace. But this does not mean that I don't have trouble understanding Paul's message or living into it.

When I came up with the idea to use this service as a time for singing favourite hymns -- this after hearing complaints from many people about the strange hymns I often choose for Sunday worship -- I wondered if I might postpone preaching on Paul's text from Galatians until after my summer break. Maybe I would feel more up to that difficult task after a month off.

In pursuit of that idea, I pulled a book about hymns off of my shelf to see if it might help. It is called "Simple Gifts: Great Hymns: One Man's Search for Grace." An inscription in the book reminded me that it was a gift from a woman who had looked to me for spiritual guidance three years ago.

I have now read the book with pleasure. The book and the story of my friend, Phyllis, who gave it to me linked up in my mind with today's reading from Galatians about self and death, Christ and grace. So today I tell the story of my friend Phyllis, and of the book she gave me as a way to approach Paul's astonishing letter, Galatians.

I met Phyllis three years ago when I was a student minister in Didsbury Alberta. She came to worship on Mother's Day 2010 as I was nearing the end of my 10 months in Alberta. Her mother, Shirley, had been a keen and active member of Knox United in Didsbury for many years, and was now dying of cancer. Phyllis travelled with her husband Jack from New York to be with her mother and the rest of Shirley's family for one last Mother's Day.

Shirley died a few weeks later and I got to know Phyllis better in the preparation for the funeral. It was the last one at which I presided in Didsbury. Phyllis also came to my final service in Didsbury, which was held on June 13, 2010, and she was the last person I spoke with before I drove out of town and headed back east to Toronto.

Phyllis continued to correspond with me via email. She told me that the funeral and the two Sunday services in Didsbury had inspired her to become a minister herself. When she and Jack visited friends in Toronto in the summer of 2010, I spent an afternoon with her talking about options she might pursue to become a minister. It was then that she gave me the book about hymns.

At my suggestion, Phyllis enrolled in the United Church's Ministry-Based-Ordination Program run out of the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax. In this program, students work as supply ministers and do most of their coursework online. They also gather for six weeks in Halifax each summer over five years where they take other courses in intensive bursts. I told Phyllis that I wished I had known about this program when I made the crazy leap of faith to become a minister six years ago.

The next summer in 2011, Phyllis had almost finished her first summer term in Halifax when I got a strangled phone call from her husband Jack. He told me that she had unexpectedly died in her sleep on her last night in Halifax, probably as a result of complications from surgery she had had a few years earlier.

I felt guilty about Phyllis' death. It was at my suggestion that she had decided to to study in Halifax. Maybe if she had been home in New York with her husband, he could have gotten her to treatment in time to save her, although who knows?

Nevertheless, the facts are what they are. Phyllis was inspired by services I led in Alberta. She took my advice about which program to attend. She died while in Halifax. And she left me a book about hymns, which now informs my thinking today.

The author of the book, Bill Henderson, reminds me of myself, which is what Phyllis had written in her inscription. He was raised in a devout family, left the church as an adolescent, and returned after years of skepticism. Like me, he is inspired by hymns. Like me, he appreciates theology that points to the end of the self or ego and argues that salvation, eternity and heaven are states that arise in the here and now when our small self dies and we become aware of the inner Christ. Like me, Henderson appreciates Galatians 2 and St. Paul's suggestion that the self is an illusion.

Henderson focuses on the Quaker hymn "Simple Gifts," "Amazing Grace," "Be Thou My Vision," and "Make Me A Channel of Your Peace." The latter hymn ends with the line that it is only by dying that we gain eternal life.

But is it true that the self is an illusion, and is this what Paul is suggesting? Many religious leaders seem to say the opposite. Heaven is thought by many to be an endless existence for the ego where all moments are blissful ones. Hell is supposed to be an endless existence for the ego where all moments are ones of torment.

For me, such ideas are both incoherent and self-centred. Am I supposed to be so full of myself that I believe either that I am so terrible that God will torture me forever, or that I am so wonderful that God will sustain my ego in a supposed state of bliss?

I embrace the ideas of eternity and salvation, but I do not connect them to an illusory and pain-filled ego or self. True, we cannot function without a notion of the self even if it is an illusion. It is the most well-developed and complex concept in our minds. Our egos are the pole around which we make all decisions and digest all of our experience, feelings and thoughts.

Nevertheless, our egos are completely dependent on earthly life with its billions of years of history and the thousands-year-old human culture within which we live. They key product of culture is language with which our minds are constructed.

The earth, life, and humanity are Sacred to us. To the extent that there is anything Sacred about us as individuals, it is not our egos. We each carry within us a Sacred flame, which reflects our connection to the earth, to life, and to the rest of humanity. In the church, we call this flame the inner Christ. It is both far more profound and far less unique than our egos. In Galatians, Paul reminds us that the Christ within us is everything and that our selves are nothing.

The ups and downs of life can help show us that individuality is an illusion. With grace, we sometimes realize that we are not as great as we imagine; nor are we as wretched as we sometimes feel. We are children of God who are dependent on God for everything. We are not responsible for the earth, life, or the culture in which we find ourselves. We are not the source of either life's triumphs or its tragedies.

Grace is waking up to this reality. In order to be crucified with Christ, we don't have to do anything. In order to rise to new life in Christ beyond the small self, we don't have to do anything. For me, this is amazing grace.

The best we can hope for in worship, I think, is to sometimes get help to become aware of this grace. Becoming aware of personal crucifixion and communal resurrection does not always come easily. But we are confident that we can taste it at any moment. Most importantly, we are sure that this reality is unavoidable when our individual bodies finally die.

This idea of dying to our old selves and rising to new life in Christ is not a ploy to let us off the hook for our actions. Rather, it reminds us that we live within God's freedom and joy, despite our individual problems. Within this Sacred realm, we can work for God's kingdom without attachment to any outcomes.

I am sorry that Phyllis died unexpectedly two years ago in Halifax, just as I am sorry that her mother Shirley died not so unexpectedly three years ago in Didsbury. I am glad that I didn't die when I rolled my car in February. I am glad that we are here today to pray, to sing, and to worship together. But as Paul reminds us in Romans, whether we live or we die, we are God's. For this, we give thanks and praise.

Individual life is fleeting, but communal life within God's spirit is eternal, which is a truth we can taste in any moment through the power of the Spirit.

Singing has often helped me become aware of new life in Christ. I love hymns, even if I sometimes disagree with the words. I love choirs, even when we don't sing perfectly. Hymn singing takes me beyond my small self and into the bigger realm of  humanity and God's Holy Spirit.

Today, I feel somewhat discouraged that after three years of ministry, I cannot better describe the good news that our small selves are an illusion and that Grace is found in a communal life within God's Spirit. But somewhere in the swirl of ideas and memories I have mentioned this morning about singing, about Phyllis, about my painful shoulder, about death, and about surprising new life, I believe there is a sermon struggling to get out. Maybe next year . . .

Even more importantly, I hope that the hymns we sing after this sermon will help us know again that the Spirit of God in Christ is within us and between us. We often suffer from pain, even a pain as terrible as crucifixion. The good news is that after crucifixion, Love comes to new life as Christ within us and in others, both now and always.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

Good news, religion and change

Texts: Galatians 1 (different gospels), Luke 7 1-10 (healing by faith)

Change is a constant in all of our lives. Each day brings changes to ourselves, to our families, and to our surroundings. Each day brings changes to the culture in which we live. These changes can feel both exciting and frightening. They give us new possibilities, but they can also threaten old ways of doing things.

Today's Scripture readings are about change. In the reading from Luke, Jesus meets the friends of a Roman soldier who ask Jesus on this officer's behalf to heal one of his slaves. Jesus remarks that he has never found faith in Israel as strong as that shown by this Roman soldier.

Paul's angry letter, Galatians, of which we heard the first chapter today, presents his side of his argument with Peter. Peter was the disciple whom Jesus called the rock upon which he would build his church. Peter says that non-Jewish followers of Jesus must adopt traditional laws and customs. Paul disagrees. He says that to insist that non-Jews follow those ways is a violation of the good news revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Like the reading from Luke, Galatians highlights big changes that are occurring in the religion into which both Jesus and Paul were born.

Today, I discuss these readings against the background of change in our church today. Last weekend, I was in Estevan at the Annual General Meeting of the Saskatchewan Conference of the United Church. Much of our discussion was about the decline of the church. And this past Tuesday, eight of us from Borderlands sat around Anne Borgerson's kitchen table to talk with a facilitator from Regina who is part of a large team gathering input from congregations across Canada. These conversations will help the United Church's Comprehensive Review Group make recommendations to the next General Council meeting of our church in 2015. Their recommendations are expected to be both radical and dramatic.

Like Paul 2,000 years ago, we are faced with the question of how to preach the good news in a changing context. For Paul, this context was the Roman world outside of Judaism. Paul preached to people who were not Jews and who wanted to be faithful Christians without having to also follow Jewish traditions.

For us in the 21st Century, the challenge is to be Christian at at time when more and more people locate their spiritual life outside of the church. Church today is in crisis, just as Judaism was in crisis after the burning of the Temple in Jerusalem in the First Century. Jesus said that non-Jews could be as faithful as any Jew. Paul argued that Christ's good news did not depend on old religious practices.  I hope that looking at their words from 2000 years ago can help us today as we struggle with a world that is moving beyond the church.

Much of the New Testament focuses on tension in the early church between Jews and non-Jews. Peter says that the gospel does not do away with the need to follow Jewish laws. Paul disagrees. He says that the good news liberates us from tradition. Simply by dying with Christ and rising with him to new life, all can be saved. Nothing else matters besides this good news, Paul argues, including religious traditions.

Paul preaches this gospel even though his whole life has been steeped in a Judaism that is about sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem and following the commandments found in the Hebrew Scriptures -- 613 of them according to one count. These commandments detail how one is to eat, dress, and conduct everyday life.

I have always found it easy to side with Paul in this dispute with Peter since I don't find all of the commandments useful. Some of them seem burdensome or even silly to me. Many Jews, however, follow these laws and customs with joy and gratitude. Observing traditional practices reminds them of their connection to God in every moment. Being an observant Jew is like an endless prayer, they say. Religion becomes much more just than worship. It becomes an all-embracing way of life that helps one to act ethically and know with every breath that God is with us.

Those of us who remember the glory days of the United Church 50 or more years ago might be able to relate to this kind of all-embracing religion. Back then, church didn't just involve attending Sunday worship. It might also have meant choir practice on Thursday nights, Bible study, couples' clubs, youth groups, UCW units, CGIT, and community outreach. Each day began and ended with prayer. Grace was said before each meal. Social gatherings were almost always with other church people.

Today, only a minority of us maintain such church traditions and rhythms. And the key supporters of the church are much older than the people who gathered in large numbers in our sanctuaries in days gone by.

I am one of those who continue to love Sunday worship, hymn singing, constant prayer, Bible study, outreach efforts, and living to the rhythm of the church's sacred calendar instead of the secular calendars of school, business or the entertainment industry. At the same time, I try to come to grips with the fact that fewer and fewer Canadians share these passions.

Does the decline of religion mean that the good news of dying and rising with Christ is also being lost? Paul argues that religious traditions, while life-giving to those who practice them, are not the gospel. Paul remained an observant Jew to his last day. But he preached to Gentiles and created churches all around the Mediterranean in which people did not follow Jewish practices or laws. Paul preached a gospel that was beyond the old traditions, just as Jesus led a movement that was outside the religious structures of his time.

I will continue to live within the church for as long as there are people with whom to worship and serve. But can we live into the truth of the gospel and preach the good news if our old church traditions wither away completely?

Paul, I think, would answer "yes." He reminds us that religious traditions and institutions, as important as they are, are not the good news of God in Christ. People who never go near a church can find a trusting faith in life. People who don't consider themselves religious find spiritual food from any number of sources.

The challenge for people like me who worship and serve in the United Church is to find ways to live and preach the gospel even if a congregation dies or if our denomination fails.

In the First Century, Jews were forced to find new ways to worship and serve God after the Romans burned down the Temple. The Temple had been at the centre of their worship life for 1,000 years. Some First Century Jews followed Peter and Paul and found God in Christ. Others found new ways of being faithful to God in a life centred in synagogues.

Today, churches like ours are scaling back. The annual meeting in Estevan last weekend decided to not hold a meeting next year because our conferences are facing a 15% cut in grants from General Council in 2014. And the group at Anne's house on Tuesday agreed that if current trends continue, Borderlands may one day be forced to close.

For now, Borderlands is viable. I have been here for two years, and I feel blessed to serve with you. But during these two years, we have had more funerals than baptisms, which is the case in virtually every congregation in Canada today. Who knows how long it will be before we are forced to make big changes in our life as a pastoral charge within the United Church of Canada?

However, I am sure that regardless of what the Comprehensive Review Group recommends in 2015 and regardless of what happens to Borderlands in the next five years, all of us will continue to know God in Christ. I also trust that all people  -- both those who come to church and those who do not -- will find ways to to die with Christ and rise with him to new life in any moment and at the end of life.

In a few minutes, we will celebrate the sacrament of holy communion. With joy, we will remember the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. But is it also an obligation? Some Christians say that without the sacraments of the church, we cannot be saved.

This idea seems closer to Peter than to Paul, and I disagree with it. While I love communion, I am confident that God's Love would lead us home to God even if we never celebrated it again. Communion reminds us of God's grace. But God's grace does not depend upon our remembrance. God's grace is given to us all freely.

Religious traditions, like worship at the Temple in Jerusalem or sacraments like communion, come and go. But the good news lives on regardless. Churches comes and go, but faith, hope and love abide.
Love is bigger than the tradition or any religion. God is Love, and so with or without church and its traditions, we know that we are saved.

Thanks be to God.