Sunday, October 27, 2013

"Thank God for self-righteousness!"

Text: Luke 18 9-14 (two men pray)

Who here today would you say is the best Christian? Is it me because I'm the minister who takes up most of the air time? Is it the person who gives the most money to the church? The one who spends the most time visiting the lonely and the sick? The one who works the hardest at organizing pie socials?

Making judgements like these seems like an inevitable part of life. When we look at others in family, church, or neighbourhood we are tempted to compare. Who is taller, smarter, more attractive, and so on?

We build up our sense of self partly through such judgements. They help us figure out who we are and what is possible in our time and place. But although judging is seems inevitable, it gets us into no end of trouble.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus tells a joke about judging others. Two Jews walk into a temple to pray. One is a Pharisee who is pious and obedient. The other is a tax collector who collaborates with the Roman oppressors.

The Pharisee begins his prayer by offering thanks to God. But he gives thanks not for his blessings, but for being better than people like the tax collector. He implies that he has earned his superior status by fasting and tithing. As the text says, he trusts in himself to be made right with God and regards others with contempt.

In contrast, Jesus upholds the prayer of the tax collector who simply says "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" Whether we know it or not, we are all humble sinners, and only God can make us right with God.

Jesus' joke about two men praying points to a central paradox of our faith. We don't have to do anything to be saved. At the same time, family and church urge us to obey God's laws and follow in God's way of peace and love.

After years of trying to walk in the way of Jesus and to study the teachings of our faith, I don't feel confident that I have wrapped my head around this paradox. But I continue to try since it strikes me as so important.

Our egos are mostly an illusion. Our individual selves, with all the qualities we assign to them, depend on forces beyond ourselves.

The atoms that make up our bodies were forged in stars that exploded before our sun was born. Our lives are connected to the entire web of life and to its three billion year long history. Our minds are composed of concepts that flow from thousands of years of human history. Our personal circumstances are dependent upon the family and communities into which we were born and the clash of economic forces.

Each of us, though unique, is dependent upon cosmic, biological and cultural evolution. We give thanks for the blessings that create us. But to think that we create these blessings is a mistake, Jesus reminds us.

As Christians, the name we give for our dependence upon the forces of the cosmos is God. This might imply that we are puppets. However, I don't imagine God as a puppeteer. The God revealed to me in Christ is a God who sustains us in ways too numerable to fully know or name, but one who does not ordain our actions.

And yet we cannot earn our salvation by good works or religious obedience. Does this imply that we can do whatever we want? Is it OK for the tax collector to continue to help the Romans? Is it OK if the Pharisee were to stop giving one tenth of his income to the Temple?

To me, the parable suggests that the Pharisee should feel empathy for the tax collector instead of contempt. Both of these men are caught in the grip of the Roman empire. Both cope with the empire in their own ways but without being able to overthrow its violence and inequality.

The main difference between the two is that the tax collector knows that he is a sinner. The Pharisee, on the other hand, thinks he has raised himself above sin through his own efforts. He is blind to the ties that bind him both to the tax collector and to Rome.

Today we are caught in similar circumstances, both those of us who are regarded as righteous and those who are regarded as sinful.

Jesus calls us to reject such labels. We are all sinners, less for what we do than for the chains that imprison us. The good news is that we are also all saved. The God who sustains us also promises to release us from our bondage and oppression. This does not always happen during our lifetimes, but it surely occurs at the end of life.

In Jesus' time, a central source of sin was the power of Rome. Today a central source of sin is the power of industry and the pollution that it causes. As with Rome, resisting industrial pollution can sometimes seem impossible. In many instances, we are forced to cope with the problems caused by industry and get on with our lives despite our wishes that the world was different.

Take the energy industry as an example. The burning of coal, oil and gas pollutes the atmosphere. In Borderlands, as in so many other areas, we are dependent upon this industry with a coal mine and power plant in Coronach.

Should we, like the tax collector, ask God for mercy because one of our region's main industry pollutes? Should people like me who live in a coal region but don't work in the industry feel smug like the Pharisee and thank God that I am not one of those so-called rogues who work in the mine or power plant?

Well, none of us decided to be born into a world filled with internal combustion engines and coal-fired generating plants. None of us decided that there should be seven billion people on earth instead of the 200 million who lived at the time of Jesus. None of us decided that rail traffic should largely be replaced by trucks and cars. All of these are simply the given facts of our time.

I see no contradiction between being a driver of an automobile, a coal miner, or a person who heats his home with natural gas, and also as someone who advocates for a world without fossil fuels. The sad truth is there is often not much we can do to bring about such a huge change. In this crazy world, someone is going to mine coal, gas and oil. Someone is going to burn fossil fuel for electricity. Someone is going to drive cars and trucks to get from point A to B even if we don't.

I try to remain aware of the dangers of burning fossil fuels. I regard our society's energy industry as irrational and sinful. But just as the tax collector and the Pharisee couldn't overthrow the Roman Empire, neither can we do much to change the energy industry. I don't want to be judged because I adapt to this industry instead of always resisting it. I want to be understood and embraced by fellow sinners who, like me, are trying to humbly cope with the world as we find it.

Sin abounds, and carbon pollution is just one aspect of it. But grace abounds even more. And so with the tax collector, we pray, "God be merciful to me, a sinner!"

We were all born into a crazy and broken world, even as we are blessed by the mysteries and wonders of that same world. All of us are sinners, broken on the stones of family and community life, even as we are blessed by those same families and communities.

Sometimes, we may react like the Pharisee and feel superior to social pariahs like tax collectors.

My prayer is that instead we will become more like the tax collector and realize that we are caught in forces stronger than we can withstand. May we also realize that God's mercy is here to bring us back to his Love, which is beyond sin.

In the freedom of this realization, we can act in small or large ways to confront the sins of our times. May we also accept God's grace to change things we don't like about ourselves and grow more fully into our status as children of God who bear the face of Christ.

"God be merciful to us, sinners all!"


Sunday, October 13, 2013

The mystery of giving thanks

Text: Luke 17 11-19 (the healing of 10 lepers)

This week, a minister in a Facebook group asked why churches make such a big fuss about Thanksgiving. His point was that all worship involves thanksgiving. Despite this, I am glad that Canada has borrowed the tradition of Thanksgiving from American Pilgrims and that we celebrate it in church.

This is the last of three Thanksgivings that I will spend here in Borderlands, and today I begin with some of the things for which I am grateful.

I am grateful that I was placed here following ordination. On my own, I would not have chosen to come to such a remote and sparsely populated place. But in that case, I would have never encountered the rolling hills of this area and the near-constant sunshine. I would never have witnessed the fierce productivity of this land and how it responds, often magnificently, to sharp turns in the weather.

Most importantly, I would not have met and known all of you. I understand that city people sometimes stereotype country people, and vice versa. But this obscures how unique everyone is.

Each of us bring a unique perspective, personal story, and mix of feelings to any moment. After 2.5 years here, I know a little about life in small-town Saskatchewan. But mostly, I know some of the colours of the bright flame of each of you just as I hope that you know some about the flame that flickers inside me.

Ministry, when practiced at the depths we yearn for, opens us up to each other's stories. A city is filled with a million unique characters while a small town is filled with scores or hundreds of unique characters. But no matter how big or small a congregation, there is never enough time to share all of our stories.

I am thankful that 20 of us came to a meeting on Wednesday night to discuss what is next for our churches. People shared fears, hopes and dreams. Despite not knowing how to proceed yet, the meeting itself showed us again why we gather for prayer, food, or fellowship.

With more prayer and conversation, I am confident that the love that has sustained our churches for four generations will continue to be expressed here. Ministry might not look the same in 2014 or 15. But people will continue to praise God and give thanks, to support each other in our vulnerability, and to reflect on our shared values of faith, hope and love.

On this Thanksgiving, I am also grateful that the congregation of Mill Woods United Church in southeast Edmonton has called me to be their minister. This is the first time that I have accepted a call. Previously, I had been placed in pastoral charges --  first in Didsbury Alberta in 2009 by an education and students committee and then in 2011 to Borderlands by a settlement committee.

I have loved my time here in Borderlands just as I loved the 10 months that I spent as a student minister in Didsbury. But going to Edmonton in response to a call feels different. It is a mutual response to God's Spirit by a congregation and a minister.

In my work here, I have felt sometimes like I was just keeping my head above the water. Partly this was being new in ministry. Partly it was adjusting to life in a remote area. Partly it was my own immaturity, despite my age.

The older I get, the more I sense the challenges involved in being  a parent. But my ex-wife and I did not have children. Without the highs and lows of that challenge, I have not always felt confident that I could rise to the challenge of ministry. And yet, by walking with people in sickness, and by presiding at funerals, baptisms, weddings, and at worship each week, I have learned a lot here.

I feel guilty about leaving Borderlands because only now do I feel ready for ministry. A process that started when I returned to church at Kingston Road United in east Toronto in 2001 and which accelerated when I decide to pursue ordination one Sunday in 2007 as I walked down the hill from that church to my apartment near Lake Ontario now feels complete to me.

Of course, I do not know what 2014 and beyond will be like for me or for Mill Woods United. But I go there filled with gratitude for God's Love, for the United Church of Canada, and for the three churches of Borderlands.

When I got a phone call from Mill Woods last Sunday afternoon to let me know that the congregation had voted to accept the search committee's recommendation to call me, I felt both glad and burdened.

I talked with family members and friends. I went for a walk, watched some TV, and tried to put the call out of my mind. When I went to sleep that night, I was exhausted and felt as though a veil was obscuring my sight.

When I woke up on Monday, the veil lifted. A big part of it was reading more about Pope Francis. In my sermon about the new Pope last week, I incorporated some excerpts from an interview he had given to the atheist editor of a major Italian newspaper on October 1st.

On Monday, a Twitter post finally led me to the full interview, which I have now read; and it astonishes me. I fear that if Francis keeps this up, I might have to become a Catholic priest! I pray that Francis lives a long and healthy life. There is no telling the impact that he might make given more time.

One of the things he talked about was mysticism. He said. "I love the mystics; [Saint] Francis [of Assisi] was a mystic in many ways . . . The mystic manages to strip himself of action, facts, objectives and even the pastoral mission and rises until he reaches communion with the Beatitudes . . . these are brief moments, but ones that can fill an entire life."

The interviewer asked the Pope if he ever had such moments. Francis said they were rare, but he mentioned one from the night when he was elected Pope:

"Before I accepted, I asked the other cardinals if I could spend a few minutes alone in the next room. . . I was seized by a great anxiety. To make the anxiety go way, I closed my eyes and made every thought disappear, even the thought of refusing to accept the position. After a while, my anxiety disappeared. Then at a certain point I was filled with a great light. It lasted a moment, but to me it seemed very long. When the light faded, I got up, walked into the room where the cardinals were waiting, and signed the act of acceptance. Then we went to the balcony for the proclamation, 'Habemus Papam' [We have a Pope]"

This summer, a cardinal said to Francis, "you’re not the same guy I knew in Argentina" Francis replied: "When I was elected Pope, an inner peace and freedom came over me, and it’s never left."

The Pope's mystical experience has given him courage make radical statements such as the following from that interview: "[Trying to convert people to Catholicism] is solemn nonsense," he said. "We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us."

He praised the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965. He talked about a friend from university who was a Communist and who was later tortured and killed by the Argentine military. He spoke about leading the church away from glory and toward a mission for the poor that transcends doctrine and religion.

I mention this interview again this week because it fills me with hope.

Mystical experiences like that described by the Pope are ones in which we wake up to Grace. Attachments drop away. We enter a space beyond fear that is filled with light. We may only rarely experience such moments. But I believe that all of us enter into such a state at the end of life.

God's Grace does not depend on our actions. Still, when we wake up to grace, we are freed to act boldly. To put this in a local context, I don't see any requirement that there be a United Church in Borderlands. But God's grace give us the freedom to try to continue, perhaps in new ways.

Mystical moments allow God's light to enter our hearts and minds. In such moments, we might behave like the healed leper in today's Gospel reading who runs back to Jesus, get downs on his knees, and gives thanks.

Habemus Papam. We have a new Pope. While I will never become a priest, I intend to listen to Francis' words of mercy and try to follow his deeds of compassion.

In the years ahead as our churches continue to shrink, I expect that followers of Christ from different backgrounds will unite in ways we could only have dreamed of a few years ago. Together, we will run back to God, fall on our knees, and give thanks.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Soul food for a divided church

Text: John 6 25-35 (the bread of life)

Pope Francis seems like a breath of fresh air to me. When his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI resigned this past February, I assumed that the next pope would be another conservative moralist. But since Francis was elected in March, I have liked much of what he has said and done.

On this World Communion Sunday when we celebrate our connection to Christians around the world, I begin by speaking about the Roman Catholic Church. Half of the world's Christians are Catholic, and this fact makes the Pope the most prominent Christian leader in the world.

Pope Francis has decided to ignore many of the imperial trappings of the papacy. He lives in a small apartment instead of a palace. He drives a beat-up old car. He dresses simply and shows great warmth when meeting ordinary people, including non-Catholics and non-believers.

He has led a peace vigil for Syria and called for justice for the poor. He has denounced the Vatican bureaucracy and opened up the books of the corrupt Vatican Bank. He has said that he does not judge gay people just because they are gay. He has urged the church to focus more on fighting poverty and war and less on so-called moral issues like birth control or same sex marriage.

I believe that Francis is a leader who can inspire people both in and out of the Catholic Church to work for peace with justice.

The Christian church is divided by doctrines, political issues, and styles of worship. Since the split between Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago, endless conflicts have generated negative feelings.

But in the 21st Century, we find ourselves in a new era that is not favourable to the church. My hope is that leaders like Francis will help declining churches find a path on which we can remain faithful disciples of Jesus Christ even in a post-religious era.

Until the 20th Century, the world's great empires relied upon the support of one religion or another. Today, however, nation states rely more on forces like consumerism, nationalism, and the mass media than they do on religion.

This shift has led to a decline in the number of people who are religious, at least in the richest countries. In this wired age of wealth and dynamism, fewer people worship at their local church, mosque, or temple on a regular basis.

Despite the challenge of this decline, I applaud the growing separation of church and state. The life and ministry of Jesus were ones of simplicity and humility. By putting aside the imperial trappings of the papacy, Pope Francis may be signalling that the church can now move closer to the spirit of Jesus.

Francis urges us to focus more on compassion and justice and less on moral questions or beliefs, and I applaud him for this emphasis.

This is not to say that church doctrines and beliefs are not important. In today's Gospel reading, Jesus twice mentions belief. He says, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent;" and "whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

Despite this reading, I don't focus on belief as a key marker of our life as Christians. For one, I think today's reading from John is poorly translated into English. Many scholars argue that the original Greek word here translated as "believe" can be better translated as "to make a commitment" or "to give one's heart."

Those of us who are grasped by faith in Jesus orient our hearts to God in Christ and commit ourselves to his way of self-sacrificial love. Jesus urges us to come to God and to commit to God, and not to just believe in God.

When we focus less on the beliefs in our heads and more on our loving actions, members of different churches and religions can find common ground, I think.

Our differences in doctrine will still divide us. I would be thrilled if Francis went beyond a new emphasis on mission to also abandon Catholic moral doctrines on birth control or same sex marriage.

I don't expect this, but I am not that upset about other churches' moral teachings unless they pressure governments to put those teachings into law. As an example, almost all Catholics ignore church prohibitions on birth control. But if a country makes birth control illegal, the situation becomes more serious.

In the past, churches often dictated moral policies to government. Today and in the future, we have less power to do this, which I see as a blessing both for policy and for the health of the church itself.

Despite the decline of religion, there are still religious factions who try to capture state power. In the United States, The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is one example. Its leaders are mostly white evangelical Christians who believe they have a God-given duty to legislate their right-wing agenda.

They are militantly opposed to President Obama's healthcare act. To block this expansion of health insurance, they engineered this week's shutdown of the U.S. government. On October 17, The Tea Party threatens to cause the U.S. Treasury to default on its debt despite the economic catastrophe that might follow.

Tea Party leaders are spirited, but also self-righteous and narrow in their interpretation of church tradition and the Bible, I believe.

Another example of a religious movement that seeks to use the state to further narrow religious beliefs is Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which was thrown out of office by the military in August. And while I don't believe that either evangelical Christians or Islamist extremists will succeed in bringing us back to an era of imperial religion, I mourn the damage they cause in their attempts.

To temper doctrinaire religion and its spirited campaigns, I suggest that we turn to more soulful elements in the church such as the sacraments.

Today, we celebrate the sacrament of communion. It is more about feeling and intuition than it is about belief. Communion reminds us in a visceral way of our connection to God and to the love shown to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. By eating bread and drinking wine, we mark our connection to God in our very flesh and blood.

At the communion table, we also make visible our connection to Christians around the world. All who feast at the Lord's Table become the Body of Christ.

The Body of Christ is made up of people with different beliefs, politics, and lifestyles. But we have all been baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. We are all broken sinners who are healed and saved by God's gracious presence.

Our churches get doctrine wrong all the time. Spirited Christians and Muslims get involved in wrong-headed political campaigns all the time. But in simple sacraments of water, wine and wheat, we are reminded that God is with us regardless.

Churches are not united by doctrines, beliefs or politics. We are made one in campaigns of peace and love, and by a ritual of bread and wine.

Thanks be to God.