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Lamentations and Celebrations

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, and may they tell of your glory. Amen.

Last winter or spring and then again in a repeat this summer I heard a good natured debate between William Davis, a medical doctor who wrote the book Wheat Belly and  Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta. If I were to summarize the thesis of these two food experts it would be this: William Davis contends that the goodness that used to be in wheat flour has been removed genetically for reasons of convenience and other modern day priorities. What we’re left with, he says, is a product that has few redeeming qualities and many negative ones. He advocates the elimination of wheat based products from our diet, citing them as a cause of many bad modern day conditions and ailments. Timothy Caulfield, on the other hand, suggests that Dr. Davis’ thesis is really only one of a number of fad diets that will fade away like all the other fad diets that rise and fall with the passage of time. Again in what is probably a too-simple summary, he advocates an overall approach to diet that does not focus on only one particular ingredient, but a comprehensive consideration of everything we eat.

I mention this debate not because I want to pursue the topic in the same detail that was presented in the debate, but as an example of a modern day phenomenon and as an object lesson in a dilemma presented to us in the passages that we just heard.

I certainly do not intend to give you pause as you step forward during communion and think too hard about what type of bread you will take, at least as far as your thinking extends to the relative health benefits of the bread you choose. I do hope that you take pause for other reasons – reasons suggested by this particular Sunday in the Christian year – and in this particular time in Christian history.

A moment ago I suggested that the debate pointed to a modern day phenomenon – but really I want to suggest that while it may be modern in occurrence it is actually post-modern in form. Post-modernism is characterized by a sceptical perspective on everything, a deconstructionist view of all that was once taken as given. Post-modern thought has I believe had a great influence on present understandings of church and organized religion, and has much to do with the kind of angst and threats we are feeling in the modern Christian church.

There is a part of me that enthusiastically cheers this post-modern perspective – relishing the opportunity to challenge past assumptions and reinvent or reset the ways in which we relate and understand the world.

There is also a part of me that wants to run away to something safe and predictable.

Thus we have the competing themes of lamentation and celebration – coalescing in this day – and by that I mean this twenty-four hour period and this period in which we live.

What I am left with is a big question about what is the faithful response, what is the right way to be as a follower of Jesus in this time. I suspect that you might be living the same questions.

Our gospel passage today has Jesus telling us that there is no such thing as lots or a little bit of faith – you either have it or you don’t. But in a time when structures, organizations, ways of being are all being questioned and often with really penetrating analysis, and persuasive arguments, what does it mean to have faith?

These are the questions that I am left to ponder in this day. What does it mean to celebrate WorldWide Communion – when the Christian church in the western world seems to be spiralling in to non-existence – at least in any kind of familiar form – and even though the Christian church is on the rise in other parts of the world, the ways in which the Christianity is expressed seems foreign in some of its most basic concepts. In case, this seems a bit obscure to you, let me give but one example. The Anglican world which has a very wide reach across most of the continents of our world is locked in a very loud and disagreeable battle over the place of homosexuality in the Christian faith. Many African Christians and the bishops who represent them, hold very conservative views on the issue of homosexuality, a view that I and many others in the Canadian Anglican communion and in many other mainline churches in Canada do not think is consistent with a desire to follow the way of Jesus.

I had the honour of attending seminary with a priest from the Anglican Church of Tanzania. I appreciated Basil Sambano and all that I learned from him and about the church in Tanzania, but I also remember having a conversation with him about the nature of Jesus that left me aghast that such attitudes could be so firmly held. I remember reading a year or two after our time at seminary, that he had been elected as a bishop and so when I also heard about the tenacity of African bishops on the issue of homosexuality, and the ordination of women priests and bishops across the Anglican communion, I was not surprised.

There is much to lament – both within the Christian faith and about the condition of the church in our time and place.

Last week a good number of people from Northern Lights Presbytery – including Cynthia Creed, Lloyd Henderson, and myself, gathered for our fall meeting in Valleyview. Several people have asked me how the meeting went.

It was a really good meeting. In part, my enthusiasm for the meeting stems from a report by two people from our conference that travelled with moderator, Gary Paterson, to the Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, England.

I mentioned this festival a couple of weeks ago because I had met Donalee Williams – another of the 114 United Church clergy that accompanied Gary on this pilgrimage.

As I heard James Ravenscroft and Sharon Foster talk about their experience – their recounting of the many different expressions of faith that were to be found at Greenbelt I found myself sometimes literally vibrating with excitement with some of these fresh expressions of the faith for modern or dare I say post modern times.

To give you but a taste of some of the styles and forms of worship, let me just list a few. James told us about Forest Church – a gathering of people who worship outdoors in the forest – something that is a bit more possible year round in England – with a very strong creation centred approach to their liturgy and practice. Sharon and James both have been aware of the Order of the Black Sheep – a gathering of folks who have felt like Black Sheep in the various communities of which they’ve been a part – black sheep in their families, black sheep in their churches, black sheep in their communities.

We heard about U2charist – a communion liturgy based on the music of Irish Rock Band U2 and a Christian community that connects with aboriginal celtic spirituality and a focus on the seasons, the celtic cross and the linkages between pre-Christian religious practice and the Christian story.

And for some reason it was this one that got me really excited: a group of Christians that use geo-caching as a spiritual discipline – hiding and finding caches with spiritual and religious themes attached to them and leading to a once a month meeting in a different location to explore the experience and the journey that got them there. I don’t even know why it so excited me, but I sense it was a glimpse of the spirit that I was responding to.

Despite all these fresh expressions and the attractions they hold for me, I also find myself wanting to immerse myself more deeply in what we already have. At least some of the time, I just want to not have to worry about where we’ll be in numbers in five or ten years. It sometimes seems better to be smaller and deeper in who and what we are than wider and more appealing to a wider audience of people who have not as much experience of the religious language that is our lingua franca as followers of relatively ancient liturgy and practice.

And I think that’s the way I need to leave it – lamentation and celebration – important elements of the faith story and the spiritual journey – times of pain and separation – times of struggling to discern what God would have us do and even where God is in the midst of it all – and times when the Spirit is clearly present – leading us to new understandings, new expressions of our faith and deeper relationship with each other even if our numbers are smaller than they were before.

What I do know is that we’ve been invited to be in community with each other – small groups of followers gathering around this table – which is part of a larger table set before us this day – and that the process of discernment is just as important as what we will discern. May the bread we eat be the bread of life and the cup we share be the cup of peace. 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.