Sunday, October 21, 2007

29th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18
2“There was a judge in a certain city,” he said, “who was a godless man with great contempt for everyone. 3A widow of that city came to him repeatedly, appealing for justice against someone who had harmed her. 4The judge ignored her for a while, but eventually she wore him out. ‘I fear neither God nor man,’ he said to himself, 5’but this woman is driving me crazy. I’m going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!’”

2 Timothy 3
14But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

“I bought your father the secret and he’s reading it, so don’t say anything.” This was my mother’s way of saying ‘hello’ on a recent visit, a puzzling greeting that I soon learned anticipated my objections before I even opened the front door.

My mother, of course, is an adherent of that new religion called “Oprahism,” whose chief tenet is ‘whatever Oprah recommends must be good.’ And while I admire Oprah, particularly her work to educate people about poverty issues, I’m always a little apprehensive about the marketing side of her world. Imagine the future archeologist who stumbles upon an entire library of books with stickers on the front that say “Oprah read this Book.”

Now, since I didn’t have a hot clue what secret my mother was talking about, or how this secret was going to transform my poor father, I sat down to read. It turns out “The Secret” is a film and a book and a phenomenon that is taking the world by storm. Taking a lesson from Dan Brown himself, the author ‘reveals’ the secret that a handful of famous people knew and applied throughout their life. Imagine “The DaVinci Code” mixed with “The Power of Positive Thinking” and just a hint of Deepak Chopra.

Like the parent who goes to the art museum and says “my kid could paint that” I was left with the nagging sense “if only I had thought of that.” Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” has appeared and reappeared at least once in every generation, and the idea that famous people have been passing something down to each other through time will make any book publisher blush.

The so-called “Law of Attraction” says that your thoughts and feelings will attract a similar set of events in the physical world around you. Your success is only limited by what you can imagine and your failures belong to you alone. By framing it as a “scientific law” like gravity or entropy, the author has dressed up American-style optimism and self-reliance and called it fact. She has even gone so far as to suggest that victims of natural disasters have “attracted” misfortune by negative thinking on a national scale.

“The Secret” is really easy to discredit, but the idea that lives nearby, persistence, is not. This Sunday doesn’t have a formal name, but if it did, we could call it Persistence Sunday. The persistent widow is at the centre, endlessly seeking justice until the cynical judge is worn down to help. The author of 2 Timothy urges us to be persistent in proclaiming God’s message, and the Psalmist persistently studies God’s instruction day and night.

It is easy to see how the message, “don’t give up” could be misused by those who promote self-reliance and other new age fallacies. The temptation to believe that hard work and determination will always provide success has found it’s way into religion from the beginning. We want to believe that we have control of our destiny, rather than God or the natural unfolding of events. We want to believe that people who fail have somehow contributed to their failure, rather than the innumerable circumstances that play out in out world. It is the ultimate simple solution: you create your own reality.

Someone asked Jesus: “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Notice the two thousand year-old desire to figure out who is to blame for this man’s blindness. Or using a more modern expression, who attracted this condition, this man or his parents? The answer, said Jesus, was neither. And, as it happens, Jesus power to heal will demonstrate God’s power. The idea that we can quickly fix blame is no more.

Earlier this week, the National Post interviewed our Moderator, David Guiliano, and asked him about a recent letter sent to congregations. The letter was a simple one concerning the priorities of the national church and the role of congregations. He also added the message that we should worry less about decline in members and focus more on doing mission in the world. The newspaper, of course, picked up the story and suggested that the Moderator had given up. What was really a “remember your mission” message was reinterpreted as a “resign yourself to failure” message. It seems newspapers and Moderators don’t mix.

And while the paper was busy misunderstanding Moderator David, there were plenty of people in the church holding the view that he is accused of suggesting. Accept our eventual demise, goes the thought, and focus instead of being faithful as we die. This is an offshoot of the “righteous remnant” theory that appeared a few years back that said “if the church is shrinking it must mean we are being faithful to the difficult message most people are unwilling to hear.” In other words, we will keep ourselves pure while the world goes its own way.

Now, I’m not going to give an inch on this “Secret” thing, but someone could make the suggestion that some in our midst are busy willing our decline and death. If we give up, will that speed up our failure?

I know that Jesus would have just one word for us: persistence. Our primary call is to make disciples, to share the life we have found in Christ Jesus. The primary orientation of a disciple is to be sent: to be sent into the world to share the message of God’s desire to be in relationship with every living thing, to redeem everyone who was turned away, to heal every ill. God’s persistence is the only viable model we have: seeking the lost, seeking justice and seeking to share God’s story in scripture.

Listen again to advice found in 2 Timothy:

2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

It might be fair to say that we are in the unfavourable time the writer describes. Eighty-one percent of Canadians choose not to worship. Churches that once dotted the landscape are becoming parking lots or converted into condos. People turn to convenient new age ideas that reinforce their existing values, or think their way out of Christianity and suggest that God isn’t real. They have itchy ears, and find the least challenging form of belief or no belief at all.

It would be tempting to give up, or water down, or focus on being that righteous remnant, but none of these seem faithful. It would be easy to fall into a new age trap and blame ourselves for failing to think or feel or way to some sort of success. It seems much harder to rethink our current path and search the scriptures for a way forward, but this seems our last best hope. Following Dan Brown and the author of the secret, I think the answer has been hiding in plain view all this time: Love God, love your neighbour, and make disciples.

We love God and we gather to praise God week by week. We have demonstrated our love for neighbour with food and kindness and a desire to help. But we have a tough time with the last one. We are severely challenged in the disciple-making department, unsure I think, to even understand what the command means.

Let’s begin with assumptions. The first assumption is that we have something to share. If we sincerely believe that a relationship with God through Jesus will transform lives, then the need to share this message is self-evident. It would be truly selfish to have such wonderful knowledge and keep it to ourselves. We are compelled to share.

The second assumption is that people will welcome this message. The lesson of “The Secret” and “The DaVinci Code” and every other pseudo-spiritual bestseller is that people are profoundly hungry. It’s not that the world is not interested in our message, it’s that we’re not ready to share. Are we simply too polite? Call it the curse of Canada: too polite to share our faith with each other and too polite to tell the world we’re the best.

The final assumption is that others will fill the void we leave open. If we don’t tell our friends and neighbours about this church, and the gift of belong to this community of faith, then every other force in society will step in. No other group or activity or business is as reluctant as we are to tell the world that we’re vital and viable and worth taking seriously. Some say we’re suffering a sort of collective malaise. Some say it’s too late for us. But I’d rather be persistent. I’d rather repeat the best possible message at the worst possible time and see what happens. I know that God has the power to surprise and wants us to be persistent. Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

28th Sunday after Pentecost

2 Timothy 2:8-15
8Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, 9for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. 10Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; 13if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.
14Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. 15Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

One of the distinct pleasures of having kids is being able to say, “Back in my day…” In my day we didn’t have calculators. We didn’t get driven to school. We walked two miles uphill, both ways! You get the picture. And with the pace of change in our world, even younger people can get in on the action, naming things that didn’t exist even a couple of years ago.

As time passes, even the church begins to change in sometimes-dramatic ways. Back in my day, if you thought about becoming a minister, you simply mentioned it to your minister, she would set up an interview with the Session, and presto, you were ready to be a candidate for ministry. Not a member of the church? Not a problem, just join some Sunday and meet with the Session later that day.
Contrast that with today: a non-member waits two years to start a discernment process that takes up to two years itself. This means that what used to take a few days now takes up to four years. Did you know we have a shortage of ministers?

Back in my day (if you will permit me a little nostalgia), I had my little thirty minute meeting with the Session, meeting with the minister and a couple of elders. Alvin, who had been reading his Observer back in 1986, when first. “I have only one question for you Michael…are you gay?” Camillia, my minister, turned white. She had a sense that this question was off-limits. Mary, who is also my mother’s best friend, started to giggle, knowing some of my dating history. And poor Alvin looked confused, thinking that he was asking a perfectly reasonable and very topical question.

It turns out that ministers have some human rights. Not a full set, but we have some. The place where our rights are violated is every time we have some sort of job interview and people want to know about our faith. If you’re interviewing for a job at Wal-mart and they ask you your views on the Holy Trinity, you can get a good lawyer and sue the pants off them. It would be a bit like winning the lottery. If you want to become a candidate for ministry, they might not ask that exact question, but they’re going to ask you something about your faith.

We do, of course, adhere to the human rights code when hiring. We can’t ask about race, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, etc. But we can ask about creed. The churches were given an exemption from this part of the human rights code because it would be just plain silly to interview people for ministry and not be able to ask them about their faith. In other words, you give up the right to avoid faith questions when you want to work in the church.

The relationship between the church and the world around it is always changing. The author of 2 Timothy is “chained like a criminal” for professing faith in Jesus Christ, and willing to endure suffering for the sake of the gospel. Much of the letter comes back to the question of remaining faithful in the face of persecution. Some have fallen away, denying Christ and leaving the church. Others have remained steadfast, taking the risk in the face of outward hostility to the faith.

It seems so far removed from our time. Professing faith in Christ is a right protected by the Charter. The community is dotted with churches. We occupy a place of privilege in the community. We don’t pay property taxes. Our revenue, like other charities, is not taxed. Even part of my salary is tax-free, something that surprises my non-church friends and makes them regret (for a nanosecond) that they didn’t become ministers. And while we may not occupy the same place of influence we once did, we are still regarded as unique and granted a special place in society.

But for how long? The government has tightened the rules on the tax-free housing allowance. Churches are now sent tax assessment forms, not to pay, but to remind us that we’re getting special treatment. Websites like remind the public that allowing some properties to remain tax-free constitutes an unfair increase in all the other properties in a given municipality. Are these minor irritants or the tip of the iceberg in terms of a changing view of religious freedom?

The news from Quebec this week is Premier Charest’s plan to amend the Quebec Charter of Rights to create a hierarchy of rights instead of the current understanding that all rights are equal. Specifically, he hopes to amend the Charter to say that gender quality is more important that freedom of religion. So, for example, if something like a Muslim woman’s veil is regarded as a symbol of gender inequality, an employer could insist she take it off or even refuse to hire her. This might also include Jewish men who choose to wear of yamika or any other religious garb based on gender.

Premier Charest, of course, heads a minority government. And he has discovered what countless other politicians have discovered since the advent of democracy. If you speak the lowest instinct of voters, you might just win the election. In 1995, Mike Harris couldn’t stop talking about welfare cheats (a problem that barely existed) and translated this mock outrage into votes. Even our Premier said he didn’t want to talk about faith-based schools during the election, but managed to turn an unpopular suggestion into a win at the polls.

It would be a stretch of the truth to say that we face persecution today. What can best be described as irritants or changes in perspective hardly constitute mistreatment. But what Premier Charest suggested in quite different. His suggestion goes further than all the other changes or suggestions we have heard to date. At least one commentator picked up traces of George Orwell’s Animal Farm where everyone is equal but some are more equal than others. It would create a system where the majority would decide which rights a minority can have, undermining the whole system.

The truth is that many and perhaps most Muslim women choose to wear head coverings or more. It has different meanings in different contexts, but most often is a reminder of religious piety. We live, however, in a time of fear and misunderstanding, and there are those in the public realm that exploit this for their own purposes. Our role as religious people is to encourage religious tolerance and understanding, since we expect the same tolerance and understanding in return.

It has taken us a long time to adjust to the idea that we are a minority. United Church worshippers make up less than one half of one percent of people in Scarborough. Across the country, less than 20 percent of the population goes to worship. In other words, more than eighty percent of the population does not share our passion for a public expression of faith. More than eighty percent of the population tolerates our choice to worship God in a public way. We are a definite minority, and though we don’t feel like a minority, we need to adjust the way we imagine ourselves.

In the United Church, we tend to be the most “worldly” of the Christian denominations. We support gender quality and gay rights, we apologize for the sins of the past and we are quick to defend “modern ideas” in the cause of fairness and equality. We describe our churches as community spaces, a place where everyone can gather and feel welcome. We enjoyed being described as a uniquely Canadian treasure, a place where civic and religious could come together. We hosted scout troops and Legion parades and recovery groups and never doubted our place at the centre of Canadian life.

This is clearly coming to an end. Community Centres and schools are the new gathering places, politicians no longer appear in the pews at election time, and we frequently find ourselves behind the social trends instead of ahead of them. We have become the minority in terms of numbers, prestige and place in society.

When tempted to despair this loss, we would do better to look back. The most dynamic period of church growth was during the most dangerous period. The years from the resurrection of Jesus to Christianity becoming the religion of Rome (300 years) was the most expansive and creative period in our history. For most of this period the church was illegal, there was no formal structure, no church buildings, no denominations or church hierarchy, no theological schools. For the first half of this period there was no Bible and certainly no ministers as we now know them. The church was illegal, powerless and without resources and grew at a rate never seen since.

All they had was belief:

I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. 10Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him.

The Lordship of Jesus. The power of his death and resurrection. These were the only things the early church possessed and the only thing they needed to remain steadfast in the face of persecution. The love of God burned so brightly in them that they didn’t need all the things we take for granted to survive. They thrived in the face of hardship, knowing full well that being a minority or being persecuted has no bearing of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The great challenge for the United Church is to be in the world but not of the world. We need to rethink our desire to be “worldly” and at the centre of public life, both because it is disappearing anyway and because we will be more faithful without these things. We don’t look for persecution, but it will eventually find us. We may no longer be able to argue why we deserve tax-free status, but we should be able to describe why we deserve respect and why our core beliefs are valid in the meeting place of ideas.

Society is becoming both secular and multi-faith. In the face of this, we need to understand ourselves better than ever, and describe ourselves more clearly. We need to protect our rights as a minority and help the others religions that surround us. And we need to remain steadfast in our faith, to proclaim what we believe and remain faithful to the God of grace and mercy. We do this in Christ’s name. Amen.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Thanksgiving Sunday

Deuteronomy 26
1When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

It appears that homes are back. Not that homes every left, but it seems we live in a time when homes are getting more attention than ever. First came the big box retailers, and the news that more people were choosing to renovate rather than sell. Then came the mavens: Martha Stewart, Mike Holmes, and entire networks dedicated to decoration and repair. Finally, came the voyeurs: we get to look inside the “cribs” of various celebrities, entering closets and refrigerators and wondering why anyone would care.

On a more legitimate level, we hear about “housing starts” and “average resale values” and the market for homes in various places. We hear about escalating prices and “bidding wars” and we either give thanks that we got in when we did or mourn the fact that we may never be able to get in at all. The papers report on the crazy prices at the top of the market, and then the equally crazy ones at the bottom. The smallest house in the city, a mere 7 feet wide, sold for $140K in the spring and was back on the market for $190K last month. The seller described it as cozy and a good alternative to renting.

Every once and a while, a voice will slip through the din and suggest that maybe it makes more sense to rent rather than buy. Just yesterday someone on the paper suggested that rising wages and a renters market made renting more attractive than ever. This, of course, is considered blasphemy. With 70% of Canadians owning rather than renting, the majority has spoken. But it’s more than just mob rule, it’s a worldview.

In the iconic book The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz , it’s Duddy’s grandfather who utters the most important phrase in the book, when he says: “A man without land is nobody.” If film is more your speed, then remember the character Delmar O’Donnel from the movie O Brother Where Art Thou. In the scene where the boys are describing how they will spend the fortune they will soon get it’s Delmar who longs to reclaim the family farm. His summary: “You ain’t no kinda man, if you ain’t got land.”

We could conclude from all of this that having land is more than simply possessing something. It is different in nature from having a nice car or a good set of mutual funds. It has deeper meaning and is tied to self-understanding and a sense of place more than all the other things we have or hope to have. And none of this is new:

“A wandering Aramean was my father; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Thanksgiving, Jewish-style, centres on the holiday Shavuot, also called the Feast of Weeks. It is customary to too eat much and read the Book of Ruth along with several other passages, including the “wandering Aramean” from Deuteronomy 26. It contains, on a few short verses, the nub of the salvation history of Israel and the way in which the faithful are to respond. This is one of those “bible inside the bible” passages, where the summary transmits the whole meaning of the story.

The short passage relates that there are three types of people, three modes of being that Israel experienced. They went from the experience of wanderers to sojourners to landed people. I’ll say a few words about each: Wanderers are on the way somewhere. Compelled to leave any kind of settled existence, the wanderer is dependent on God for direction and sustenance. Danger surrounds the wanderer, moving from place to place without the protection settlement can offer.

The second type is sojourner: sojourners decide to stop wandering and set down some roots, but never for long. They choose to pause in a place that is not home, and enjoy some of the benefits of being somewhat settled, but they are not home. As “resident aliens” there are constant reminders that these sojourners are trying to make a home in a foreign place. They never cease to be outsiders even when power and wealth might suggest other wise. Joseph, prime minister to Pharaoh, defines this: insider and outsider at the same time, enjoying a moment of privilege that cannot last.

The last type is the landed, those who have arrived to enjoy the security and the fruits of the land. They are instructed to bring their first fruits to the temple, to give thanks for the bountiful harvest and the saving acts of God. They are to recount the story, and celebrate with everyone, particularly the resident aliens who live among them now. The implied meaning is “never forget”: never forget that you too were once wanderer, and then sojourner, and only now a person of the land.

When we try to enter the story we most often imagine we are people of the land. We enjoy this holiday of flightless birds and autumn colours and we give thanks for the “land flowing with milk and honey.” A few might ponder the myth of pilgrims and friendly natives and the injustice that shatters this mythmaking. But, through it all we recognize that the harvest is a gift from God and for this we must give thanks.

All of this, of course, assumes that we are the landed. It assumes that we have arrived, and that we made the transition from wanderers to sojourners to landholders and now we can celebrate. But is it true? Perhaps this is myth too, and demands a closer look.

The first myth is economic. It is sadly ironic that hampers and gifts of turkey are give to the poor at Christmas and never Thanksgiving. The message seems to be “enjoy our generous gift in the season of gifts” (Christmas) but not “come and be thankful with us” because we can rightly assume that Thanksgiving seems rather hollow for the disadvantaged in our midst. I’m not suggesting that the poor are not thankful. I’m simply suggesting that the original command to celebrate the harvest with everyone in society has been forgotten and privatized in the family traditions of the holiday.

The second myth involves meaning. Look around at the people we know and ask, do they act as landed people or sojourners? We seem to be surrounded by people who seem settled, but they’re not. They set down some roots, but soon they’ll move on. They appear to belong to the community, but they are not. People may say “hello” to a neighbour, but then duck inside just before the neighbourly chit-chat begins. They may have the rights of citizens, but when they avoid community meetings or neglect to vote, they act more like resident aliens. Homeowners move, on average, every five years and renters more often than that. Every indicator that would say “landed” or “settled” is in decline, from community groups to volunteering to getting out to vote.

The third myth is religious. We pause this morning to give thanks for the harvest and remember the promises of God. It is one of those rare moments when the civic and the religious come together, as both society and church are drawing on powerful traditions. But if we look inside our churches, we find they belong, almost exclusively, to the landed. This is economic, with United Church people owning homes at a rate higher than the general population, but also spiritual.

We are a tribe of insiders. At some point in our history we “grew” more than we “drew.” We went from drawing new people to mostly giving birth to new people, and seldom looking beyond our own families for new members. When we did go out to find new people, they tended to be our friends and neighbours, and therefore just like us. We become the denomination for middle and upper-middle class, mostly educated, mostly white Canadians. When we close our eyes and imagine new people coming through our doors, we still imagine young families: mom, dad and a couple of kids that look just like most of the rest of us. There would be few of us who would close our eyes and imagine tattoos or piercing or gay couples or anything too far from the ordinary.

Someone did a study and found that the first people I described, upper-middle class, mostly educated, mostly white describes about 15 percent of the population. So why don’t we fantasize about drawing the other 85 percent. In a modern-day (and somewhat twisted) version of the lost sheep, we are leaving the very people Jesus would seek to go after in favour of that rare sheep that looks just like us.

I’ve talked long. I don’t usually have this much to say, but I’ve been reading some good books lately, and you have to suffer the consequences.

Thanksgiving is more than an opportunity to give thanks, it is also an opportunity to recall the saving acts of God. The Israelites couldn’t give thanks without remembering release from bondage and the gift of the law and all the miracles that happened on the way. It was and is always about grace. It was and is always about the unconditional love of a God for a people, and the unending desire to settle them in a land of plenty and mercy and justice.

On Wednesday I will vote in our province’s first “fixed date” election, a new innovation that tries to bring some order and a vote every four years. It falls very close to Thanksgiving, and while by accident or design, voting will be one more opportunity to give thanks, to express gratitude for the good land we possess, and the freedom we enjoy. May we continue to give thanks for all the blessings and grace we receive, now and always, amen.