Tag Archives: faithful living

Stone, Cornerstone, Rock

 Let us pray: O God, we think of you as a rock – a solid place of grounding in our relationship with you and creation. We think of you as Spirit – filling the cracks and crannies of our own being and of all being with your presence. We think of you as way, destination and beginning point. In other words, O God, you are everywhere and everything in time and in space. And so, we know that your presence is here as well – perhaps in these words and perhaps filling the spaces between them. Help us to know your will and your way – whether it is because of the words I say or in some sense in spite of the words I say. Amen.

First of all, an admission. I’m not quite all here this morning. I’m somewhere between the sunny beaches and rocky landscape of the island of Maui and the rocky landscape of this piece of homeland, the ancient rocks of the Canadian Shield in this taiga on which we live.

I have discovered in my years of worship preparation and leadership that despite the pressures that the process places upon you, it is always best (at least for me) if liturgy is crafted close in time to when it will be used in worship.

That was not what happened with the liturgy for today. Knowing that I would not be returning from vacation until Saturday, I prepared much of the worship service for today before we left, some two weeks and many thousands of kilometres ago.

I recall that the days just before we left were very busy, with many things to accomplish. I tried to make the pattern of worship preparation as close as possible to the usual one that I follow, but even that was skewed by the fact that we left on Thursday, and thus the process was already disrupted.

However, in the few hours I had to devote to the planning of worship for today, I remember reading the scripture passages we just heard and thinking to myself that it all would have been much easier if they had been some of my favourite passages, if they consisted of stories and situations that lend themselves to somewhat easier preaching. But no, the passages were not in that category at all. The stoning of Stephen. Great, nothing like a story of religious hatred and violence to make your day. And then, that great passage from John, which seems to tell a story about exclusion and Christian triumphalism. Not one of my favourite passages at all, in fact, it probably fits in the category of my ten, five or one least favourite passages of all time.

So. I sent out a bit of an apb – well not really an all points bulletin, more like a one point bulletin. It just so happened that I had arranged a Skype meeting with Alison Mock – who will be coming to Yellowknife in September for four months of internship with us. She wanted to have a conversation about Yellowknife United Church because she was preparing a presentation for her home congregation – who by the way – will be helping us to fund the internship.

As the conversation closed I mentioned that I was preparing worship for this day and invited her to send along any inspiration she might have for me as she prepared worship for the church in which she is doing some summer supply ministry.

As it turned out, she did. She wrote with (as she put it) an underdeveloped connection between the story of the stoning of Stephen and an open letter to the LGBTQ community that our Moderator, Gary Paterson, published in anticipation of the International Day Against Hompophobia and Transphobia – a day which has now come and gone – it was yesterday.

And so with thanks to Alison, and with some vague recollections of what was on my mind more than two weeks ago, I offer these thoughts on the passages which we just heard.

Alison drew a connection between the passage from Acts and the open letter from the Moderator because they both address the issue of fear. Fear is a powerful force in the human psyche. It can create unimaginable consequences, events, reactions and outcomes that seem to have no logical connection with the emotion that gave them their start.

Flight or fight is the way that reaction to fear is often portrayed. Run away in fear, or stand and use every method available to defend ourselves from real or imagined harm. But there are other ways to deal with some kinds of fear. Education, knowledge, and dialogue are all ways that come to mind as useful alternatives in the presence of certain kinds of fear.

I want to read a couple of paragraphs from the Moderator’s open letter to the LGBTQ community, and in so doing I would commend to you the full text of the letter. I printed a copy of it and posted it on the bulletin board. You can also find it on the web at united-church.ca and I would further commend to you Gary’s blog entry from May 6 in which he expands on some of the things he has to say in his letter. Here are a couple of excerpts:

I am writing today as the spiritual leader of Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, The United Church of Canada. I am also writing as an openly gay man, married to another United Church minister. This introduction may come as a surprise, seeing that so often it is religious leaders who condemn homosexuality, quoting scripture to justify their prejudice.

We all deserve to live without fear, nurtured by communities that support our healing and empowerment. This is why I also feel a deep sense of appreciation for and am inspired by all the countless LGBTQ individuals who give so much of themselves to their communities, family, and friends to make the world a safer place.

It is astounding to me on one hand that the Christian faith should be on the forefront of some of the most vitriolic homophobia that can be found in the world today. But of course, on the other hand, when a faith expression takes literally the passage from John: I am the way, the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father except through me, it is perhaps not that all that surprising.

Gary talks about the right for everyone to live without fear, but ironically I think that much of the homo and trans phobia that we find in the Christian faith and in society in general is a response to fear. And this is where I go back to education, knowledge and dialogue as ways to deal with fear – particularly the kind of fear that gets expressed in hatred against certain people.

I also wonder how much those seemingly exclusive words from John’s gospel were written as a response to fear. There is no doubt that the early Christian community was exposed to persecution. The Jesus followers, the people of the way, had to meet in secret with secret codes and icons to identify them.

That kind of context nurtures quite different reactions than a context in which different forms of religious expression are more widely accepted and in which diversity is more widely embraced.

When faced with fear, a community reaction can be to draw into tight circles to meet the so-called enemy or persecutor – and those circles can be described both physically and metaphorically – with well defined rules of belonging – like this: the way, the truth and the life.

But when fear subsides, and persecution is diminished, the way can become a way, the truth can become a truth and the life can become a life. In other words, an exclusive motto of inclusion and belonging can become an open invitation to try something that works for us.

I remember from more than two weeks ago that I was struck by the image of stone, and cornerstone that was contrasted in the first two of our readings today. In the first, as we’ve heard, stones were used as weapons – a way of expressing fear of the unknown and unfamiliar as they were hurled against Stephen and then in the second the stone becomes a cornerstone – a solid foundation for the building of a life of faith. This passage also outlines the contrast – a stone can become a stumbling block, it can get in the way of progress, even something that prevents us from moving on, but it can also be something on which to build a life of faith – a place which doesn’t move – as a starting point, a cornerstone on which to build our relationship as members of the community, as followers of the way, as companions on our journey with God.

There is a wonderful Bible passage – one that does fall into my list of favourites – about swords being turned into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. But the metamorphosis can happen with only a change in thinking – a rock changes from weapon to foundation, stone from missile to cornerstone.

The Christian way – as Moderator Gary suggests, as Jesus preached, as many others have demonstrated is a way of metamorphosis – of transformation, a way of changing from fear to safety, from ignorance to knowledge, from rejection to acceptance, from closed and tight to open and welcoming. Stone is cornerstone, rock is foundation. Like a rock, like a rock, God is under our feet. Behold, behold we can make all things new. Amen.

 

Money and Happiness

18th Sunday after Pentecost

Let us pray: O God, you continually call us to new ways of being, thinking, feeling and doing. You stir us up with things we’ve never imagined before and you invite us to be transformed and transforming as we engage with people and creation. May the words I speak and the actions that flow out of these words, be ones which are true to your call, your stirring and your spirit. Amen.

I don’t know how many of you are following the blog of our moderator, Gary Paterson. A recent entry told of his trip to the Greenbelt Festival in England. He invited one hundred United Church clergy to go with him to this celebration of Christian life and faith and backed up the invitation with some financial support. By design, fifty of the invitees were under forty – and the other fifty were over forty – hoping for a good mix of youth and experience – with the expectation that the experience of this cohort would expand well beyond their personal accounts to bring an air of excitement and renewal to the church. We’ll have to see about that, as those who attended come back and take the opportunity to share what they saw and learned. I had occasion to spend some time with one of them this week, Donalee Williams, the minister in Fort McMurray, and certainly from the short account of her time in England that I heard her tell, it was a memorable and formative experience for her.

In his blog entry Moderator Gary told about the t-shirt he was given by London Conference and invited to wear during his visit to Greenbelt. On the back it had “The United Church of Canada” and on the front – Risking, Loving, Serving. It was created to be worn by members of The United Church of Canada in the London (Ontario) Pride Parade. But Middlesex Presbytery in London Conference wanted Gary to have something to wear while he was in the land of the other London, so they sent him the t-shirt and according to the blog entry, he wore it a lot.

His blog entry begins with a reflection on being proud. The shirt was created to be worn in a Pride parade and he was being asked to wear it with pride at an international Christian gathering. As Gary states: I know it’s probably not a politically correct word, to be “proud” of the United Church – pride goeth before a fall, and all that; nevertheless…

He then goes on to tell what a great experience it was to be at Greenbelt and to wear the t-shirt and how proud he was to be identified by it.

I had a similar kind of dilemma in the lead-up to this week’s reflection.

We just heard that strange and wonderful and mysterious parable about the Shrewd and Dishonest Manager. The strangest part is that Jesus uses this story of the manager who was looking out for himself as an example of the way we should be in our relationship with God and in our living out of that relationship in the world.

The passage concludes with this terse assessment – in the version I was using: You can’t serve both God and the Bank.

The summative proverb that was swirling around in my head on the same theme – much as “pride goeth before a fall” was doing the same for Gary Paterson, was this one: Money can’t buy happiness.

It’s the kind of thing you can say in a quiet, contemplative, dare I say churchy crowd and everyone will sit there and knowingly nod their heads in acquiesced agreement.

And of course we all go away from such things and just as quietly or perhaps not even all that quietly live our lives as if we meant to say the exact opposite.

Of course I am exaggerating. Of course we don’t all do that, but we certainly can look beyond ourselves and say that we know or observe people around us who for sure live their lives as if money can buy happiness. Or at least as if they believe it can do so, even if it doesn’t.

And even if we are not so consumed by our own things and our own lives, we live as if money can buy happiness for others. Anti-poverty campaigns and advocacy are certainly in part based on the premise that money does indeed buy a certain amount of happiness.

And it is this – when we are not so focused on ourselves – that might be the most influential in helping to clarify just what it is that we believe about the relationship between money and happiness.

I was thinking a lot about that this week – wondering if that is the message of that strange and wonderful parable. Wondering if that is what Jesus was trying to tell us and wondering if Jesus was trying to convince his listeners to follow another way to find true happiness.

I heard of a study in the past several months that in fact calls to question that idea. The researchers discovered that money can indeed buy a certain amount of happiness.

As counterpoint I also heard a radio documentary on what is called “Sudden Wealth Syndrome”. The syndrome comes about when people find themselves suddenly extremely wealthy, perhaps because of a lottery win or when share values rise exponentially after an IPO or some other stock market event. It described people who had all the money they might ever have imagined and who were incredibly unhappy – living lives of stress and tension, often in fear for their lives, their privacy and their peace of mind.

And if you look at the statistics I mentioned last week about the activities and lifestyle of the 1% highest paid people in Canada, you would be led to think that wealthy people are convinced that money is at least a resource in the pursuit of happiness.

So what is it – are these all part of a back and forth – a failure to come to a conclusion about whether or not money is a pathway to happiness. Is Jesus wrong? Are people working as anti-poverty advocates wrong? Is the study that said that money can buy a certain amount of happiness wrong? Are the researchers into sudden wealth syndrome correct?

The key – and I think it runs across all the evidence, research and statistics that I’ve named or alluded to – is this: You cannot serve God and money. Serve. What are you serving? Where are your priorities? Is it all about as Kevin O’Leary would say – the money? If it is then you are setting yourself up for disappointment (if the sudden wealth researchers are correct), sadness and despair (if the proverb is correct), and unfaithfulness (if Jesus is correct).

Anti-poverty advocacy needs to continue to happen. The minimum wage needs to be set at a level which provides sustainable levels of shelter and food. Money does buy happiness when it relieves the daily struggle to surivive. Money does buy happiness when it can allow us to make happier the lives of people around us. It buys happiness when it eliminates stree and tension about where the next meal will come from and where we will sleep.

When Jesus was lifting up the actions of the dishonest manager as ones that we could strive to emulate – it was not the dishonesty, but the shrewdness that he was praising. Be smart in the way you work for God’s kin-dom. Be shrewd in the ways and means you use to glorify God and in the ways you choose to walk according to the way of God.

Of course it is proud to be a member of The United Church of Canada – and the work we have done in supporting PRIDE organizations and parades across this country. Of course it is appropriate to work as anti-poverty advocates – to work to increase the amount of money available for people struggling to survive. It is even okay to want some things for ourselves – to make life better and easier – so that we can focus on other things, so that our lives are not consumed with how we will find our next meal, or what we can do to rid ourselves of stress and tension. It is only when things change so that we serve something or someone other than God’s kin-dom, God’s way, God’s mission that we fall into the ways that Jeremiah was describing in that reading today. When we serve God, when we are proud for pride’s sake, we are not serving God, we are serving ourselves, and our own needs.

It’s not dead cinch easy to figure it out – we sometimes need the persepective of others to help us out. We sometimes need the support and faith example that are channelled at a time of baptism. We often need a spirit of discernment that comes when we engage in conversation with God through prayer – as Timothy was advised.

Money and happiness – a tension that is lived out in our lives – a creative tension – a tension that lays out for us the struggle and blessing that is ours as the people of God. May God give us the wisdom to choose well in the living out of that tension. Amen. 

One percent and ten percent

17th Sunday after Pentecost

Let us pray: O God, we are here because it is part of who we are to gather as a community to say thanks, to seek guidance, to acknowledge that we are your people and you are our God. May these words be ones which help us to do all of this and which allow your presence to be a part of all that we do in the week that lies ahead. Amen.

This week the news headlines that are part of the launch page of my web browser were pre-occupied for a couple of days with news of an analysis of the latest data from a household survey conducted by Statistics Canada. The articles, and there were several of them, told the story of the wealthiest one percent of Canadians. The writer, doing some analysis and statistics calculations of their own, detailed the minimum income to qualify among the top ten percent and one percent of Canadian wage earners.

It was a stark counter point to the one percent and ten percent referred to by Jesus in the parables from Luke’s gospel today. The news items described a population that is very uniform – male, white, married, middle aged. I suspect that if we did some analysis of our context and the ten percent and one percent of our population who could be considered among the “lost” referred to by Jesus, that it would be a very diverse group.

Jesus, as usual, uses piercing insight into human nature and common sense, to make his point. I completely identified with the “lost coin” scenario. Who among us has not spent inordinate amounts of time looking for something that we’ve lost. If we valued time in a different way it would not make any sense to spend so much time looking for lost things that have little relative value. But, there is something both annoying when an item is lost and satisfying when we find it that goes way beyond the actual value of whatever it is that was lost. The search directs our energy and sorts our priority list in ways that are sometimes mystifying, even if they elicit nods of understanding when we hear about them.

Our human nature helps us identify with the “lost sheep” story as well. Of course, we are more concerned with someone or something that is lost than we are with the remaining 99%.

Jesus, of course, delves into this aspect of our common sense and human nature to tell us something about God. God has a priority system that is like ours sometimes, and not like ours at other times.

It is like ours when we are searching for what is lost to us. Jesus nails it by making it personal, appealing to our nature to help us understand. Of course, we spend lots of time in the search. It’s not the searching that requires a new definition, a refocus of priorities.

And this is where our priority system can diverge from that of God. It is not the searching, but the definition of being “lost”. If we think of “lost” then we will expend our time and energy searching.

“Lost” can happen on many different fronts. Economic loss is one that comes to mind in comparison to the news stories that first led me down this path this week. Shouldn’t our first thought when reading about the wealthiest citizens of our country be directed the other way, to those in our society who struggle to make enough to survive – the working poor.

Or “lost” because of mental health issues. “Lost” because people don’t fit the pattern of acceptance or expectation. “Lost” because of youth or age. “Lost” because of marginalization due to sexual orientation and issues of gender identity. There are so many ways that people can experience being “lost” in this world.

There is a tendency – again a part of our human nature – to identify with the heroes of Jesus’ parables. We are the found sheep. We are the woman who found the lost coin. We are the shepherd who found the lost sheep. But surely, Jesus is also calling us to identify with the “other”. That’s God’s way. That’s God’s priority system.

God’s priority system is a word of hope to those who are lost. God’s priority system is a word of mission to us, God’s people – to recognize who is lost, to refocus our priority system to be the same as God’s. To engage in seeking out the “lost” in our world, with just as much energy and focus as we do with anything else that is lost.

Accordingly, the most important part of the passage today occurs just before Jesus tells his stories. Let me read that part of it for you again:

By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered these stories.

Amen.

Getting There

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Year C
Sunday, September 8, 2013

Let us pray: O God, you speak to us in many ways – through tuggings at our hearts, pangs of consciousness, new perspectives to ponder in our minds, glorious vistas of your creation, and the still small voice that reminds us that you are here. May these words I speak be a part of the way in which we immerse ourselves in your presence. Guide them and use them. Amen.

A group of preachers is gathered in contemplation of the passages we just heard – struggling to find a way to make sense of Jesus’ warnings about the cost of discipleship – and the dire warning about family relationships. Is this really what Jesus is about – with a message destined to drive a wedge between family members? Aren’t families in enough stress and tension already without this kind of religious sanction for things to be even worse? Aren’t families among the most important relationships we will ever have, and don’t they provide the template for most of our moral understandings. What then could Jesus mean and what could this passage be inviting us to say?

Not coming to any conclusion about just exactly what Jesus or Luke was getting at, other than to come to the conclusion that being a follower is really hard work and fraught with strained relationships, one of the gathered group says, both facetiously and seriously: “That decides it, I’m preaching on Philemon!”

However, that did not decide it completely, for they still spent time talking about the cost that is a clear message of that passage from the gospel of Luke – what does it have to say about modern day commitment, about attachment to the Christian church, about membership versus attendance. It was noted that Jesus said these things to a large crowd. Was this a way of weeding out the fans from the followers. Was a certain part of the crowd there because they hoped to see some more mysterious miracles, or perhaps even experience a healing of their own – without the faith commitment that Jesus both invited and highlighted among those who were healed. Or perhaps they were there to see the fireworks that often erupted from these two very different religious authorities – the temple leaders and the Pharisees on one side and this upstart upsetter of apple carts – who sometimes disparaged the traditional religious authorities with piercing and direct reference to the will and ways of God – sometimes spotlighted by reference not to the religious leaders, but to the people that hung around on the edge – people with illness, people with little money, people who were spurned in the popular circles. Did Jesus turn on these gathering crowds and treat them with the same critique that he usually reserved for those same Pharisees? Was he trying to make sure that people got the message? This is not a dog and pony show – this is a life changing, life transforming, path I am talking about. If you get it, if you truly get it, it is going to require you to re-evaluate everything in your priority and value system. If family was important to you before, well then, believe me, this is such an important alternative message that it will make you re-think even those relationships.

Let me say that it wasn’t me that spoke the decision to speak about Philemon – but as it turned out, that’s what I’ve done. But it turns out that focusing on that letter from Paul to the businessman Philemon is not a way to avoid the same themes and issues. It’s a kinder, gentler treatment to be sure, and wrapped as it is in a third person letter we might think we can dismiss it by viewing it as interested observers. But as biblical commentaries remind us, things don’t make it into the scriptural record without being to and for us, as much as they are for the characters in the tales, stories and histories.

The letter to Philemon has achieved a certain fame because of its supposed treatment of the issue of slavery. While it does not specifically condemn slavery and whereas we know that slavery was a common practise for centuries beyond the writing of this letter, the case has been made that by calling upon Philemon to treat Onesimus as a Christian brother and by subtly urging Philemon to forgive the punishment that might normally be given to a returned runaway slave, Paul is calling followers of Jesus the Christ to the same kind of priority setting that is much more starkly presented in the passage from Luke.

The connection for me this week was made much more clear by the movie “The Butler” which we had occasion to see on Wednesday evening. Hopefully I won’t be a spoiler by talking about it, but let me summarize the film by saying that it follows the career of Cecil Gains – who went from being the son of a murdered slave to serve eight presidents as a butler in the White House. A major theme of the movie is the relationship between Cecil Gaines and his son, Louis – who have quite different approaches to the struggle for civil rights in the American sixties, seventies and eighties – the wedge between family members described by the passage from Luke. The movie viewer is left wondering which is best – the radical, in your face protests of the “Freedom Riders” and Black Panthers, or the slow and steady pursuit of civil rights through excellence, commitment and dedication. In my viewing this quite clearly represents the difference described by both of our Christian scripture passages today: the passage from Luke which describes radical transformation – to the point of threatening existing relationships and the gentle persuasion and appeal to goodness that is exemplified by the letter to Philemon.

Getting there – where the “there” is a faithful following of the way of God – in pursuit of justice, in pursuit of human rights, in opposition to prejudice and discrimination – is a multi-faceted journey – needing both the radical and strident push and the continual, but relentless raising of issues, especially among the holders and wielders of power.

A particular scene exemplifies this best as Louis Gaines meets with other protesters who have gathered to be inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. Louis expresses his frustration that his father, a butler in the White House does not do more for the struggle for civil rights, and that he is seemingly subjugated by the system to continue the exploitation and oppression that is so fiercely fought by the freedom fighters. But the preacher King reminds Louis that the movement needs people like his father who are changing the system from within – by showing up the system for its ignorance and prejudice and proving that there is no colour barrier in the pursuit of excellence, the commitment to hard work and faithful performance of work responsibilities.

Getting there is a lifelong journey. It is a journey of paved paths where the way is clear and a journey of rocky scrambling where the way is sometimes obscured and requires some decision making about the best way to go. But every step – whether it is the dangerous, risk laden one, or the simple first step on the rest of the journey – is a step on the path towards the faithfulness, the commitment to the justice that is God’s desire for all people. Yes there will be times when it is hard, and other times when we are gently prodded and pulled to follow along, but the journey is ours to pursue. Amen.