Sunday, October 26, 2014

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Romans 3
21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ[a] for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement[b] by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Believers will gather in places of worship across Canada today to consider a difficult week and attempt to put it in perspective. The common thread between these various traditions and faiths will be prayers for peace—prayers for a land without violence or hatred, and prayers for those touched by the events of the week.

And then religious leaders will stand to speak. Not surprizingly, this will be the moment that unity will give way to a diversity of thought. The messages will be as varied as the places of worship themselves, which (of course) is one of the freedoms that defines our nation.

Some preachers will remind their people to remind others that these young men do not represent Islam. Sadly, some preachers will take the opposite tack and suggest that the problem is Islam.

Some preachers will suggest that these young men were troubled or insane, and the media (along with most Canadians) got the story wrong.

In a few places, preachers will suggest this is the after-effect of colonialism and foreign wars. And some preachers—quite ironically—will suggest religion itself is the problem.

And all this, of course, will mirror the debate that will unfold in the weeks and months to come, the debate that will precede our nation’s response. And through it all we will struggle to remember the names that should remain top-of-mind: Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.

Adding my voice to the din, I would argue that in the absence of further attacks, the debate will centre how we define the past weeks events, and the extent to which we alter our behaviour or laws in the face of them. We will hear familiar arguments from the left and the right, and I hope a consensus will emerge that deals with the problem of self-radicalization, young men and women who find meaning in hateful messages found mostly online.

And short of shutting down the Internet (which I’m sure someone will suggest) we need to create programs similar to those found in other countries that treat radicalized young people before they do the things they are being encouraged to do. By definition, home-grown terror is something we must confront at home, and our response must safeguard the very rights and freedoms some seek to destroy.

One of the stories that was overshadowed by events this week was the story of three Denver-area girls, who skipped class and flew to Germany en route to Syria. And, of course, they were busy tweeting their plans to the other kids in their high school, and so the FBI were able to arrest them before they reached their final destination.

It turns out they may have been seduced by messages from Syria that sound like something out of Disney’s Aladdin: young women promised homes and husbands and a meaningful life lived in an emerging caliphate. And it leads me to wonder how someone in an Internet cafe half a world away can convince three girls to leave lives of peace and security and head for one of the most troubled places in earth.

Part of the answer, I think, can be found in the research of Dr. Jocelyn Bélanger and his colleagues at the Universite du Quebec. Looking at extremists in Sri Lanka, Jordan and the Philippines, they “point to a single, overarching motivation, what the academics call the ‘quest for personal significance,’ leading them to join a community they believe gives their lives meaning, and adopting its ideology in an effort to be accepted.”

Prof. Belanger continues: “When, for instance, [they feel they are] not important, they don’t matter, they are a speck of dust in some kind of uncaring universe, it increases psychological pain,” he said. “One way of assuaging this negative feeling is connecting through a group.”*

Now here is the problem—listen to these words once more: they pursue “a quest for personal significance, leading them to join a community they believe gives their lives meaning, and adopting its ideology in a effort to be accepted.” If you’re thinking that that sounds like what we’re doing here in church, you would be right.

And this is where we need the work of Dr. Kendra Dean, who has spend the last few years trying to solve the opposite problem to Dr. Belanger and his colleagues: namely, why do so many young people leave church and never return. The answer, it turns out, is the same.

Studying both young people and their parents, she found that the common reaction to a life of faith for them could best be described as benign positive regard. In other words, these church-going young people and their parents agreed that church and the message shared within was ‘okay.’ Good, but nothing to get too excited about.

The common answer in both situations was passion: the type of passion that leads some down a dangerous path toward terror and an almost complete lack of passion that leads people away from church and on to anywhere else: maybe the mall, or maybe even some of those dangerous places online.

So how have we failed? This, of course, is the only appropriate question when our first instinct is to cast blame far and wide. What have we failed to provide that might stem the tide of meaninglessness and despair?

The answer, again, is passion. Rather than join the argument that some will make against passionate belief, we need to do the opposite and suggest that only passionate belief in a compassionate and forgiving God can save us. We need to help provide the meaning that seems to be in such short supply, and in doing so rescue people from the voices that offer a radical alternative. And without re-preaching my sermon of three weeks ago, when some children realize that they will not reach their life’s ambition of being rich and famous, they will need another plan that does not include the perversion of Islam called the Islamic State.

St. Paul said that ‘since we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, we are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement.’

Christ’s passion, the ‘life, death, and life beyond death’ that defines our community, is the passion that can give meaning in the face of so many alternatives. And this is not an argument against our sister religions, but rather an argument against those who would point to the marketplace or the arena or the field of battle as places to find meaning.

When God in Jesus chose to go to the cross, to experience the most painful part of the human experience—at that very moment—were were mysteriously reconciled to God, made one with God in suffering and forgiveness.

It was also at that very moment that Christ’s passion became our passion: that being reconciled to God we could be reconciled to each other, no longer seeing the things that divide us, but rather seeing only our common humanity. This, then, allows us to reach out to a weary world and offer hope. Not conversion, since only God can turn the heart to prayer, but hope—since hope alone is what will lead us to live together in peace.

May we never cease to pray for peace, and for a passionate vision that leads only to reconciliation. Amen.



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