Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Scripture Shall No Longer Be Used As a Weapon of Mass Destruction

Matthew 25:31-45

 Today, in the United Church of Canada, is Aboriginal Sunday, the Sunday closest to June 21st, the summer solstice, which is the day that was declared by the Governor General of Canada in 1996 as National Aboriginal Day. Last year the day was renamed as National Indigenous Peoples Day. This is a day for all Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. The lives of all Canadians, those who have relatives that immigrated here years and years ago and those, like my friend Louise, who will become a Canadian in early August, the lives of all of us are bound up with the lives of the first peoples of this land we now call Canada. Depending on when and where you grew up, your connection with the Indigenous people of Canada may be extensive or it may have been limited or even non-existent. However, whether you realize it or not, your life is connected to the lives of the indigenous people of Canada. For no other reason your life is bound up with their lives, is because of you sitting here, right here in this space, on this holy ground, your life is bound up with the lives of indigenous people because of scripture. Because you have decided to be Christian. Because you have decided to be counted amongst those of us who follow the prophet Jesus who upon his resurrection and ascension, became our Christ. Because you woke up this morning and came here to worship instead of sleeping in or going for an early brunch. Your life is wrapped up in the life of Canada’s indigenous people because you are here today.

Throughout the history of time, humanity has used its imagination to create weapons of mass destruction so that one group of peoples could gain dominance over another. The desire for power seems to be a universal characteristic for us humans. It might, in fact, be our fatal flaw, a piece of our DNA that prevents what would actually ensure our own happiness and peace. Peace for ourselves and the peace we want for others, if for no other reason, so that their problems would no longer infringe on our lives. Or, it could be that this want and need for power is a learned behaviour so embedded in our different cultures that it’s hard to distinguish between what is nature or nurture. Humanity has a remarkable array of weapons at its disposal for use when leadership and power is threatened. Guns. Gas chambers. Nuclear bombs. Torture. Incarceration. Separation of families. Financial sanctions. These are weapons of mass destruction. But the weapon that has been used to hurt, by and far, the most number of people in the history of humanity is scripture. The word of God, the word of Allah, the Mormon word of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the Scientologist word of Ron Hubbard, the word of Saint Paul have all been used to hurt, to condemn, to ridicule, to dehumanize, to disempower, to disenfranchise, to belittle, to hate. The Pharisees used scripture to crucify Jesus and leaders today have used scripture to damage and to inflict pain upon the least amongst us. It’s being used TODAY. In our western, so-called civilized place in the world. 

The Gospel, the four books of our Bible, tells of a person of God who was so filled with the light and love of God’s peace, that people from far and wide were drawn to him to learn how they too, could be the hands and feet of God in a world that was fraught with fear and uncertainty. A world filled with people whose greed had them working diligently to oppress and repress others. Jesus showed up in a world of laws, of restrictions, of government, of empire. Jesus showed up and said to the world, the laws do not matter, the rules do not matter, sabbath does not matter, prayers do not matter, if first and foremost we do not love God and secondly if we do not love one another. Nothing else matters. He then spent the rest of his ministry trying to show the people what loving God and loving one another would look like. Like when he spoke the words we heard today. The righteous are worried, it’s not overly clear to them how they will know whether they will be the sheep or the goats when the Son of God returns. Whether they will be entering into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says, oh, that’s easy. Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me. When you have loved the other as you would have loved yourself. Jesus not only told stories but acted so that others could see how one might behave if love above all else was the driving force in life. He ate with the tax collector, with the prostitute. He visited the poor and destitute. He healed the sick on the sabbath, he offered a hand to the downtrodden, to the mentally ill, to the widowed, to non-Jews, to the uneducated, to the weak. 

Since his execution, the followers of Christ have interpreted his words and actions. Some of those interpretations made it into the Bible. Letters were written. Prophecy and revelations were shared. But, if you’re Christian, you understand that no further divine laws were created after Jesus. However, this has not stopped humanity from searching through the words written and bound up in the Bible to find ways to gain or maintain authority and power in their lives. Scripture from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians was quoted to keep slaves in their place in the United States – servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart. The Bible was used to tell black people that they needed to submit to white people and then used to help the white people whose riches were built literally on the backs of the black people, to develop a gospel of prosperity, declaring their success was a sign that God’s favour was upon them. The Presbyterian and Methodist churches took a line from Matthew 28, the one where Jesus says, go and make disciples of all nations, they took that as direct instruction to go and compel those unfamiliar with Jesus to declare Jesus as their personal lord and saviour. Because of this mission, along with their strong commitment to universal public education, it was a natural fit for the Presbyterians and the Methodists to assist in running Residential Schools for the Canadian Government. 
Unfortunately, their mission goal of providing education and proclaiming the gospel was not tempered by respect for the existing culture, values and spirituality of First Nations. In another letter from Paul, written to followers of Jesus who were living under a dictator and whose lives were under constant threat, Paul commends the fledging church to keep its head down, to submit quietly to the prevailing political winds so that they might evade persecution. He wrote them, ‘everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities.’ These words from Romans 13 were used by Adolf Hitler to legitimize the Nazi authoritarian rule in 1930s Germany. I’m sure these words were used by the fictional leaders of Gilead to subdue the handmaids. And they were used this very week by a nation’s administration that seeks to repel, not welcome the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

The problem with picking and choosing pieces of scripture to back our leadership, to justify of our actions and our beliefs, the problem is that we forget something crucial, we deny something essential. And that is underlying everything that has been written and said about Jesus since the time of his ascension, needs to be laid upon the foundation of love. Which, according to the story today, is understood through action, through the treating of each and every person as if it were Jesus himself standing before you. Or at the receiving end of your email. Or is the one impacted by the law or bill just passed in Parliament. Or the one waiting line in front of you at the drive through at Tim Hortons. Sometimes it’s hard to remember you’re honking at a real person rather than just a vehicle when you’re waiting in line at Tims, isn’t it? Or is that just me? I can understand that the Presbyterians and the Methodists viewed the native people of Canada as the least of these that Jesus spoke of in story of the sheep and the goats. The establishment of the treaties and the resulting system of Reserves set in motion a series of circumstances in which the cultures and languages of the native people were not valued. As such, people new to the land that became known as Canada did not gain awareness or learn about the fullness and richness of the lives of indigenous people that existed when the Europeans began showing up on their shores. 

When the Methodists and 70% of the Presbyterians voted to create together the United Church of Canada, they brought with them, responsibility to oversee twelve Residential Schools across Canada – from Norway House in northern Manitoba, where my family lived when I was a small child, to Alberni in British Columbia to Mount Elgin in Ontario. The church leaders and volunteers who ran these schools understood one of their mandates to be was to form the Indian child so that they could grow up to interact and be productive in the western European culture that the new country of Canada was being built upon. We hear today the phrase used behind closed doors in certain government meetings was, ‘beat the Indian out of the child’. The Indians were annoying. They were barriers to complete control and ownership of the vast lands of Canada. Mixing this belief with the religious seeking to convert the so-called savage allowed for the devastation of the Residential Schools to develop.

Can you imagine, just for a moment, what might have happened if those religious leaders, those faithful at the table planning with the government, if they remembered for just a moment Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats? That Jesus said, whatsoever you did not do the least of these, you did not do to me. And whatever you did do to the least, you did it also to me? If the faithful imagined for a moment that Jesus, as young child, would no want to be separated from his family or, possibly as a parent, would not want to have his children taken from him. Or from their mother. I can’t help but think that if some Christian, early on in the process of creating Residential Schools, if that Christian stopped to think, hmmm…what a minute, Jesus never said anything about destroying cultures when bringing the Word of God to all people. Jesus did not tell us to conquer and divide. Jesus taught us and showed us how to build up one another with love.

This is why the lives of each one of us here are bound up in the lives of all indigenous people today. Because scripture calls us, Jesus tells us, that for the kingdom of heaven to be possible on this earth, we must first treat the least of those amongst us as if we were treating Jesus himself. And we now know better than we did before. We are aware of the necessity and value of a diversity of cultures and people living together in the same land, in the same nation. We know that we have much to learn from one another. That one way of being does not supersede another. We have admitted wrongdoing. We have apologized. We have participated in a Commission to find out what truth and reconciliation might look like. And, we’ve been told, it looks like what is contained in the 94 Calls to Action listed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a series of actions which are intended to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation. We are bound up in the lives of others because our scriptures tell us that peace on earth is not possible without caring for and creating justice for the least amongst us. The least like Jordan River Anderson from Manitoba.

**At this point I shared with the congregation that I had just recently realized how close Jordan's story is to my family situation. I had a sister who was born in 1961 while my family was living in Norway House, MB - the same community as Jordan. She was also born with a very disease and was flown to Winnipeg. The health care system permitted my sister to live at home for periods of time between hospital visits until she died in Norway House at the age of two.**

Jordan’s Principle, as it’s called, is the basis for the third call to action listed by the TRC and it states: We call upon all levels of government to fully implement Jordan’s Principle. Jordan was from Norway House Cree Nation. He was born in 2000 with a very rare disease that required hospitalization. As people from northern Manitoba do when they need acute medical care, Jordan was moved to Winnipeg where he lived the rest of his life. He lived in the hospital for two years until it was determined that he could move out to a family home as long as it was near the hospital. However, the different levels of government could not decide who would pay for what. The result of which meant that Jordan lived the rest of his days in hospital. He died at five years old having been prevented from living in a family home due to financial disputes. Eleven years later—eleven years!! the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal determined that approaches to services for First Nations children was discriminatory and Jordan's Principle was created. It says: all First Nations children can access the products, services and supports they need, when they need them. This means giving extra help with a wide range of health, social and educational needs when needed so First Nations children have an equal chance to thrive. Which, in a nutshell means, the government of first contact pays for the service and resolves jurisdictional/payment disputes later.

There is nothing easy about the 94 Calls to Action and nor should there be. Travesties were done in no small part as a result of taking scripture and using it to deny the spirituality that was in this land long before any European arrived. But surely to God, we can manage number three which more or less says that we will treat children, who are vulnerable, who need love and care, who enter the world at no fault of their own, who live in remote areas, we will treat these least amongst us just as we would treat my sister and any other child in our  country regardless of ethnicity, language used, family of origin, where they call home or who their parents are. We could use scripture for the good news it was supposed to be. We could stand up and demand that we treat the least of us as would treat Jesus. We can stand up and declare that our children will not be left hungry, not be left naked, not denied the access to return home just as we would never deny those things to Jesus. It is time to take back our scriptures and no longer allow them to be used for weapons of mass destruction. It is time to take back our scripture and use them as Good and Holy News for our world, for our communities, for our friends, for our family, for ourselves and always, always, for the least that live amongst us. May it be so.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Images of God: House Fires and the Burning Bush

Exodus 3:1-15

**Remarkably enough - when I got home after church on this Sunday, I discovered that someone in my life lost their home to a house fire in the early hours of Sunday morning.**

This year on Pentecost Sunday, which was just on the long weekend last month, anyway on Pentecost Sunday, colleague of mine, who lives in a small town, went to church in the morning, as usual, and led worship. He preached, as I did that day, about the miracle that happened on the first Pentecost—he spoke how tongues of fire came down, as if from heaven, and rested above the heads of those followers of Christ who began to gather together in community in the days after his  ascension. Remember the fire represented the Holy Spirit moving in and amongst the people who were not giving up the teachings of Jesus, even though he was no longer there in body to lead them. God, through the Holy Spirit, inspired Peter to preach and three thousand were joined to their number that day. Anyway, my colleague preached about this fire descending upon God’s people and it did not harm or burn anything. He left church after worship and returned home as he normally does on Sundays. And then his beeper went off. Not his phone or an alarm. It was the beeper he carries everywhere with him because he is volunteer firefighter. He spent the rest of Pentecost Sunday trying to quell a fire that ended up consuming a family’s home that afternoon.

Several times in the Bible, God shows up in people’s lives as some form of fire. God was in the pillar of fire that went before the Hebrews as they escaped Egypt. God lit the way as a torch in Genesis. The Holy Spirit came as fire on Pentecost. And God is revealed to Moses in the burning of the bush that was not consumed by fire. The bush was at foot of what is now known as Mt Sinai. Fun fact, Saint Catherine’s Monastery has been built up around what is believed to be the bush that continues to grow from the roots of the original burning bush. The experience of my colleague was a sober reminder that fire is a force in our world that we have every right to be wary of—to be careful around and to be scared of in some circumstances. I’m sure the early Hebrew people had a similar relationship to fire as we do today. Fire is necessary in our lives but we very well know that fire consumes and it harms when it escapes our control. As an aside, when the alerts went off on all of our phones in May while I was at a large gathering of clergy for the Conference. When the alert sounded on the one hundred phones in the sanctuary, the minister from Fort McMurray, went into a bit of shock as the collective noise of the alerts sounded so very much like the alarms that rang through her town in 2015, telling people they had to evacuate in a great hurry.

The power of fire is incredible and immense. Maybe that’s why the Hebrew people used the image of fire when trying to explain how God was making God’s self known in their lives. But, rather than the fire being a frightening sight, the fire that represents God is a fire that continues to burn without having to consume anything. The fiery bush is an icon of the Divine—a biblical symbol that offers a window into God’s presence—an awesome and powerful holiness that is, at once, dangerous and attractive, frightening and comforting, untamed and reassuring. We have talked about humanity being made in the image of God and how an expansive view of God goes beyond the male imagery of our Creator to include not only women but also those non-human images. We need also to consider a vast range of imagery for God because no one image can encapsulate the totality of what or who God is in our world and universe. And, as I’ve said before, we, the people of God are perfectly imperfect and so we do not have enough understanding of the mystery that is God and, as such, we cannot give a comprehensive description of the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob, the God of David, the God of Jesus. We do, however, have enough imagination to use metaphors and similes to describe our God whose face has been seen only by one person—Moses in his old age, just before he died. Each of these comparisons give a small picture of God but when we all share what we believe to be true about God, the mystery of God is revealed a little more every time and what we understand about God is increased bit by bit.

So, we have this story and the others, that are images of God filled with the immense power of fire and yet the fire is not destructive, affirming that our God is a Creator not a destroyer. Just as when the breath of God moved over the earth, it created the world, it did not destroy it. Just as the wind of Pentecost did not blow apart the gathering place of God’s people. Just as the hen of Jerusalem protected her chicks, she did not force them to stay out in the cold, all these images tell of a God that continues, without ceasing, to care for our well-being. We don’t name God after these images. They are metaphors and similes. They paint for us a picture from which we can discern the nature of God. And so, we don’t call God ‘Fire’ but we call God Powerful. We call God Beloved. We call God Creator. We call God Lover.

Later, in this story of the burning bush, God reveals something akin to a name for God’s self, which, in turn, reveals more of the character of God. Moses is being difficult with God. God tells Moses to go free the people of the Egypt and Moses is resisting. Because I have a somewhat belligerent sixteen-year-old, I can imagine the non-edited version of what this discussion with God sounded like:
  • Moses, you aren’t doing anything important right now, go set my people free.
  • Do I have to?
  • Yes, they are enslaved, they need freeing!
  • Right now? Because I’m in the middle of a game of Fortnight—I might win.
  • You have to go now, it’s important – go before I unplug the PS4.
  • It’ll be a waste of time because they won’t listen to me.
  • Oh, for the love of Pete, will you just go already? They’d be free by now if you had left when I told you to go.
  •  What if they ask for a password or something so they know it’s you that sent me? I know, why don’t you tell me your real name? Better include your middle name, so they know it’s you.
  • Arg! Just tell them I AM WHO I AM has sent you. No middle name. I AM for short. Now go!
  • Alright, alright, I’m going already. Sigh.
So, God very cleverly avoids giving Moses a name but does give this expression of I AM WHO I AM. I can’t help but think it’s like responding to the kids after they’ve asked why they have to do what you say and you say, because I’m the mom that’s why! So, Moses is resisting, and God says I AM WHO I AM and that’s plenty enough authority for you to do what I need you to. The scholarship around this great I AM suggests that this phrase could be more accurately interpreted from the Hebrew as I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE. Either way the expression ends up as YHWH in the scriptures—there are no vowels in Hebrew. In English, we pronounce that as Yahweh, which we use as an alternate name or title for God. The name Yahweh is built upon the Hebrew “to be”. Through saying, I will be what I will be, God reveals that God will be made known through God’s actions for others. And, as you make your way through the Bible, it is easy to get caught up in the chaos and turbulence in the lives of God’s people. No one would blame a first-time reader if they judged God as being harsh and unforgiving. But upon closer inspection, we realize that it is not God who is harming and punishing people (let’s not get into a discussion right now about the flood or Lot right now, shall we? I’ll need another hour of worship time to talk those ones through). If we look more closely at the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, you will see that the misfortunes that befall the people of God were because of their own actions or inaction. King David asks for a lot of smitting to happen by God in the Psalms that he composed but there is little evidence that God responded to his requests of vengeance.
If we can agree for now to set aside the flood and poor Job, it can be said that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures offers again and again for humanity to return to righteousness. To remain in relationship with their Creator, to be welcomed back again and again into the love that is God. God freed the slaves of Egypt, led them through the desert despite their contentiousness, led them into the Promised Land. God did not set aside Jacob for his greed and his betrayal of his brother Esau. God gave the exiles living in Babylon hope through the words of the prophets. God gave the people Jesus to live the love God knows that is possible in our world. God did not let Jesus perish but rose him from the tomb to declare to the world that hate and terror will never win out over the power of love. I will be what I will be – God has shown that God will be many things. God will be just, kind, loving, compassionate, forgiving, merciful, full of hope, peace and joy. There are so many images we can use for God and how the Holy Spirit moves in our life—fire, wind, the majesty of the mountains, the perfectly formed intricate flower, a crop of wheat rippling with the breeze, the open sky of the prairie, the crashing waves of the ocean.

God is seen even these goofballs and my friends Andrew and Samson. But let us remember that images are only perfectly imperfect glimpses of our God. God will be what God will be and so take you the images you have of God, lay along beside them, what characteristics of God you know to be true to help make the picture you have be less fuzzy and more in focus. We each may only have a limited ability to see and understand God but if we can share our images with one another and talk about how God will be through describing God’s characteristics, together we might better reflect the God that made humanity, made each and every one of us, in God’s own image. May it be so.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Why Do You Stay Alive?

Two weeks ago I took two books home to read by the end of May. A big one and a little one. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s autobiography and Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. Naturally I picked up the little one first cause it wasn't going to take very long to read before I started the brick-sized book of Martin Luther King.

Well. Theory is one thing and reality is another. Matt Haig's book is a compelling read that a fast reader could whip through in a time of dedicated reading. But that would be doing him and his book an injustice.

Matt Haig is a best-selling author who is married with a couple of children. (I did a bit of work on the Google while taking reading breaks.) By all accounts, he is an accomplished man who have people who loves him and who he loves. In addition to his creative talents and his identity as a spouse and father, Matt has another facet to his life - mental illness. It is easy to look at successful people who have found love and who family in their lives and assume they are happy. But we forget each and every one of us has a history and a life full of details that we choose not to lay bare at the feet of anyone who knows of us. Kate Spade comes to mind as I write this - her death by suicide after years of depression came as a shock to those who felt they knew Kate through her designer handbags.

Depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses lie to those people who live with them. I know this because depression is not an unknown entity in my life or those I love. Matt found himself suddenly and completely disabled at the age of 24 by mental illness. With his parents and girlfriend supporting him, Matt crawled out from under his illness over a long period of time. He still has moments when the illness tries to take back power over his mind and life but he has managed to choose life over death for nearly twenty years.

Reasons to Stay Alive is a recounting and description of his debilitating illness and his subsequent recovery. It is a challenging and difficult read. It is also a story of hope and encouragement. It is an excellent read to have a better understanding of the impact that mental illness has on a person's life (and those who love that person). We would never ask someone with a broken leg to help us move our furniture and yet, people who live with mental illness, are often told they are lazy and/or unwilling to get better when they are unable to participate fully in their lives. Mental illness is very real. And it can be incapacitating. The more of us who understand mental illness, whether we have it or not, the better our world will be.

The bookends of this book have photos of reasons why people choose to stay alive. Here's my reason to stay alive.
What is your reason to stay alive? Feel free to post a photo in the comments of this blog or on my Facebook post. And then go read the book. As always, if you want to borrow my copy, drop in to the church and I'll lend it to you.

PS. I'll read about Martin Luther King next week. 😊