Monday, October 17, 2016

Law And Order Sunday: A Sermon For the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at St. Margaret's of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, 16 October, 2016

RCL readings    : Jeremiah 31: 27-34;  Psalm 119: 97-104; Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18: 1-8

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 37:33)

A grumpy judge.

Did you notices that judges and judgement run through our readings this morning?  In Jeremiah, God speaks like a judge who has gotten tired of punishing Israel and is going to try something different.   In Luke, Jesus tells a parable of a grumpy judge who is persistently badgered by a widow until he gives in to her.   In second Timothy. Paul tells us to follow Scripture and do the right thing, until the day when God and Jesus return “to judge the living and the dead”.

That’s a lot of judges and a lot of judgement.   It makes me wonder how comfortable we are with this legalistic aspect of our relationship to God.   To be sure, our faith teaches us in the creeds to think of God as our judge, but if you’ve ever been in a courtroom, and seen a judge in action, you may not draw a lot of comfort from that image.   The legal system can be very intimidating when you see it working. 

I remember going to court as a character witness for a young soldier who had done something stupid. On the whole, it could have gone a lot worse for the soldier.  Afterwards, he told me “Padre, I was scared, that judge was really mean!”  I said no, I thought he was being fair, but I did agree that it was a scary business and suggested that he stay out of courtrooms in future.

I think the same is true of our faith lives.  We know that one aspect of God is that he is a our judge, but we all hope to stay out of the courtroom.   It’s easier for many Christians, myself included, to focus on a personal relationship with Jesus as friend and Saviour.   Or maybe, if we are feeling guilty and nervous about that final judgement, we may think of Jesus as the defence lawyer who will gain us the mercy of the court.

Even if judges and courtrooms make us nervous, I doubt any that any of us would want to live in a system where the legal system is either corrupt or just doesn’t work.   We want just laws, fairly applied, because we hope that they will protect us, our loved ones and our property.   So much of the anger in politics today, especially in the US election, seems to be about certain people being above the law.   I think too that if we are honest, we will admit that we need laws and judges to protect us from ourselves and our worst instincts.  Take a church, for example.  We put some people in positions of responsibility, with access to the very young or the very vulnerable.  Others have responsibility for money.   The system only works if everyone takes responsibility for their actions, and if they are held accountable.  That's why we as church volunteers submit to police background checks, even if we would rather not want to (has *anyone* ever been happy to get one?).

So if we can agree that law and judgement are desirable, even necessary, for our society, can we also say that law and judgement are necessary for our faith lives?  As Christians, like our Jewish older brothers and sisters, we believe in a God who is looking out for our welfare.  Like a parent, God sets rules to protect us and guide our development.   Paul reminds us of this in our second lesson when he says that God gives us scripture so that “everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work”.  

I find that word “proficient” to be very interesting, because it is a word that belongs to the world I work in, the world of military training.  Someone who is “proficient” is well trained, skilled, highly capable of doing something.   You want a soldier to be proficient with weapons, just as you want an artist to be proficient with paints or a carpenter with tools.   So as Christians, Paul is saying, we are expected to be proficient in good works, which is presumably what Paul elsewhere calls the fruits of the spirit: mercy, kindness, charity and so forth.   We get proficient, Paul says, by keeping ourselves locked into the church’s teaching and “sound doctrine” and teaching.

The only problem for me when I hear this passage from Second Timothy is that I worry about how proficient I am, because I take proficiency tests all the time in the military and I do ok, but not great.    For example, in June I took a proficiency test in French language skills.  I was rated ok, meaning I can speak French and be understood, but it would be no great joy for a French person to listen to me.  Last month I did my annual test of physical fitness test, something all military members must pass.   I passed, which was great, but the evaluation basically said that I wasn’t a choice physical specimen.   “Even though you’re in your fifties and we’re making allowances for that, you could stand to lose some weight, you could be a lot faster, you could be a lot stronger.”   Yaaaayyyy, me, I said in a discouraged voice.

Now if I had to take a test of spiritual proficiency, to see if I was a good Christian, I think I would get the same sort of mixed results.  Well Michael, the angel would say afterwards, looking at its clipboard, you go to church, you give some money away, and you’re kind to stray kittens.  So you get a pass.  But, you lost in in traffic the other day, you spend far too much time thinking about your clothes, you said you were too busy to volunteer at the mission when you really just wanted to watch the baseball game, and you couldn’t name all ten commandments or get them in the right order.”  You get a pass, 51%, but you have to take the remedial class.  

I suspect that a lot of us think about our spiritual lives in this way, wondering if we make the grade, fearful to imagine what’s inside the ledger book that God keeps on each of us.  I also wonder if one of the problems we have in our relationship with God is that because we are taught to see him as a judge, we therefore see him as an impartial judge.  After all, we want judges to be impartial, we want to be treated fairly.   When I go to the hymn for my physical fitness text, the examiners don’t care who I am.  They just want to see how much I can lift and how fast I can run.   That’s why they use stopwatches.   You can’t lie to a stopwatch, any more than you can le to a police breathalyzer, and you get judged on the results.   This is the reason why judges and police act stern in public, because they have to uphold the law fairly, without favouritism.   Fortunately for us, God isn’t that kind of judge.

In our gospel today, Jesus tells the parable of the widow who wears down a corrupt judge with her ceaseless petitions.   Sometimes we get confused about the moral of this parable, and think that it’s about how our prayers only get results if we make a total nuisance of ourselves.   On the contrary, say many biblical scholars, the point Jesus seems to be making is more subtle.  If this corrupt judge shows mercy to a woman he doesn’t really care for, just to get rid of her, how much more will God do out of his love for us?  God, Jesus says, will “quickly” grant justice to us.

Our first lesson makes a similar point.  At this point in Jeremiah, God is rebuilding his relationship with his people, Israel, because they trashed the first relationship.  As Simon noted a few weeks back, Jeremiah was writing when Israel had been captured by its powerful enemies, its people scattered and enslaved in foreign lands.   The people of Israel  had started to believe that the promised land came with an unconditional guarantee.  They forgot that God had asked things of them:  follow the law given to Moses, do not worship false gods, treat the widow and orphan with justice, welcome the stranger, and so forth.  These laws were written in various books of scripture called the Torah, they were repeated by the prophets, and taught in the synagogues.  

Now God promises a new relationship with the people he has forgiven and restored.   Not only will Israel get its land and cities back, but it will have a new relationship with God.   In this new relationship, God’s law will not be set down in stone tablets, sacred scrolls or books.  Instead, it will be intensely personal, even intimate.  God`s law will live inside his people, written on their hearts, pulsing in their veins, as important as breath and life.     It will be a new way of living, rather like a stage in the spiritual evolution of God`s people, and it will be for ALL the people.   They ‘shall all know me, from the least to the greatest`.

God continues to give this gift to the church today.   Not all of us are theologically trained or gifted.  We don’t all go to bible study, though it’s a good thing for most of us and some of us should go more often.    We may not be able to name all ten commandments in the right order.   But, if we open our hearts to God, he will come to us and give us a sense of what he wants for us, and wants from us.   That internal voice, that guidance, is always there.   Call it the work of the Holy Spirit, call it our growing and maturing in the mind of Christ, but it is there, sometimes not even working at the level of words, but keeping us pointed to God.

I think this idea of an internal voice or guidance that keeps us pointed towards God helps understand one of the famous passages in Romans 8:  “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

In all of our readings this morning, we have seen this image of God as a judge, and we are reminded that we are accountable for our lives, both in this world and in the next.    Rather than scaring us, the idea of accountability should comfort us, because it reminds us that God cares for us and wants us to live well, in our homes and families, in our workplaces and in our churches.   Accountability is part of our two-way relationship with God, because just as are held accountable, so God takes responsibility for us, guides us, and even forgives us for the many ways we fall short.   So we can be grateful that God is not an impartial judge after all, but rather a merciful and kind judge who is always there for us, even when we are far from him.  After all, earlier in Jeremiah 34, as God considers how Israel got in trouble because it forgot him, Jeremiah imagines Israel saying these words.

I was ashamed, and I was dismayed
   because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’ 

And God responding:

 Is Ephraim my dear son?
   Is he the child I delight in?
As often as I speak against him,
   I still remember him.
Therefore I am deeply moved for him;
   I will surely have mercy on him, 
says the Lord. 

If that sounds a little like the parable of the Prodigal Son, then perhaps it is because one of the enduring figures of the bible is not the stern and terrifying judge, but rather the loving parent, waiting patiently for a loved and lost child’s return.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Trump And The Christians

It's time for Christians to get off the Trump Train.   It is certainly time now, and it was time a long while ago. 

I get why some still want to stay on, even as it hurtles towards a scene that will eclipse the big final moments of either The Cassandra Crossing or Breakheart Pass (something about Trump seems to invite metaphors based on 1970s disaster films - or is that just me?).

Their argument is that even though Trump has said (and apparently done, according to his growing legion of accusers) the sorts of things as an old man that would have had a youth pastor fired in a heartbeat, he is nevertheless the last best hope for Christian America, because after Hilary comes the Deluge, apparently.

Here is an example of how this argument works.   Ralph Reed and Jerry Fallwell Jr., lay out a case for Trump as the candidate most likely to advance a pro-Christian agenda by appointing suitable judges to the Supreme Court and to further curtail access to abortion, which Reed has called the “defining moral issue of our time.”

This argument appeals to an overarching theological claim of American Exceptionalism, meaning that God has created America as a second Israel, and has entered into a covenantal relationship with American Christians by which he gives special blessings and rewards in return for America's faithfulness.   This theology was central to Ted Cruz's Republican nomination bid this year and now Reed and others are willing to give this standard to Trump, who must win lest America suffer ''a moral and spiritual and a cultural death from within that starts at the heart and soul of a country.”

According to Reed and Falwell, Trump must win to champion the causes that “matter most to the Christian community'', even though the events of this past week have confirmed that Trump is a morally deficient standard bearer.  One senses that for Reed, the stakes are too high to wait for a more suitable champion.  As Reed said on 10 October to Liberty University's convocation gathering,  “I think retreating to the stained-glass ghetto from whence we came and refusing to muddy our boots with the mud and mire of politics is simply not an option for a follower of Christ
Leaving aside for a moment the idea that the Christian faith is worth dragging into ''the mud and mire' of politics'' in order to, supposedly, save it, is the idea of Christian America theologically and historically defensible?

While it is tempting to think of modern America's founding in New England by devout Puritan exiles as the basis of a national identity based on Protestant Christian values (Chesterton's quip of a nation with the soul of a church), the reality is far too complicated and pluralistic for that idea to hold water.  The founding fathers were primarily 18th century Deists, whose view of a distant, uninvolved God was far removed from contemporary evangelicals.  The Christianity of slaves become African-Americans, Hispanics, and Irish immigrants from the Old World was far removed from, and almost unintelligible to, white Protestants through much of the 19th and early 20th centuries

Jewish, Catholic and Protestant Americans forged new alliances in the mid 20th century (see Kevin M. Schultz's excellent book Tri-Faith America).  Then came immigration from Asia and the globalization of religion and now Jews and Christians are finding that mosques and temples are now also part of the religious landscape.   Sikh soldiers in the US Army want their distinctive beards and turbans to be authorized as part of their service dress.   Buddhism, once an exotic counter-cultural option in the 1960s, is increasingly familiar.  A Mormon won the Republican presidential nomination.  'Spiritual but not religious' and 'nones' are now recognized categories in religious polling as the proportion of Americans who do not identify with Christianity increases year by year. 

American religion and society is pluralistic.  This seems to me to be a fact on the ground that is as much historical as it is contemporary and demographic.   The author of the excellent religious blog Bensonian made this point when he wrote, back in February, that he could not accept Ted Cruz as a presidential candidate because Cruz was running to be the Christian president of Christian America.  In his post, Bensonian quotes the scholar Paul D. Miller on why the idea of Christian America so dear to Cruz, Reed and Falwell, Jr. is so problematic. 

America is exceptional, but not because of any special access she enjoys to God. The United States had a highly unique origin in the acts of the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, and its national identity is uniquely rooted in ideas of equality and liberty, rather than race, class, or language, as had been the case for most European countries at the time.

But America is not the special vehicle of God’s purposes in the world. Some conservatives love to quote Psalm 33:12, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” The nation whose God is the Lord is the Christian Church, not the United States. The church, not the United States, is the vehicle of God’s purposes in the world. To believe otherwise is to confuse the nation with the church, the spiritual with the temporal. That sort of confusion can justify all sorts of dangerous messianic political movements.

As a Christian, I believe that I am called to follow a moral and ethical code based on the law of God and the imitation of Christ.  I hope that in so doing, however imperfectly, that I am a good influence (salt and light to use biblical terms) on those around me.  However, I can't ignore the fact that I live n a pluralistic democracy where Christian faith is widely perceived as a lifestyle choice.   For me to believe that I have a right to impose Christian-based laws and governance on those who do not subscribe to them would be at best hubristic, and at worst theocratic.  In any case, how could I do when Christians can't agree amongst themselves on key issues like pacifism, abortion, and sexuality? To impose a Christian view on those who don't share it could only be a coercive act, and coercion, as I read the gospel, is antithetical to the nature and invitation of Christ to follow him willingly.

The history of Christianity in the west has long been composed of some groups buttressing the power of the day in throne and altar alliances (e.g. Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans), and dissenters (e.g. Mennonites) retreating into self-isolating communities.   Starting in the late 20th century, once dominant religious groups were slowly disenfranchised by secularization and political change.  American evangelism, like British Anglicanism and French/Quebecois Catholicism before it), now seems to find itself on the way into exile which is why the stakes in this US election seem so high.  Lose the Supreme Court to Clinton and the last chance of legislating a Christian agenda for at least the next few generations vanishes. 

I think, though I can't prove, that this is why the authoritarian aspects of Trump's character have attracted American evangelicals even when his morality has been exposed as a sordid mess.   If it takes a tribune to make America Great again, in Trump's phrase, as 'one people, under one God, saluting one flag', and if the popular vote threatens to elect Clinton, then democracy be damned. 

Second to their betrayal of Christ's gospel of love, the betrayal of a republic that so many non-Christians have fought and died for, and that so many across the world still see as our best hope, is the great treason of the religious right in America.   Their desire to impose a Christian agenda on America, even if well-meaning, has blinded them to the terrible danger that Trump poses to democracy.   The political scholar Jill Lepore laid out this danger eloquently in a recent post for The New Yorker.

Donald J. Trump ... leads the Republican Party the way the head of a rebel army holds a capital city. This isn’t an ambush or an act of treason or a kidnapping. This is a siege. He plans to build walls; he promises to put his opponents in prison. He enjoys harems. He admires tyrants. He erects monuments to himself in major cities. He holds entertainments in America’s stadiums, where he toys with his political enemies, delighting his band of followers while terrorizing other citizens. Over the weekend, he insisted that he will neither retreat nor surrender.

Meanwhile, he invokes the people: they, he says, have chosen him, and will elect him; the people love him. Do they? Joe McGinniss once observed that the American voter “defends passionately the illusion that the men he chooses to lead him are of a finer nature than he” and that “it has been traditional that the successful politician honor this illusion.” That tradition has ended. No one in the Republican Party can possibly believe that Trump is a better person, a man of finer nature, than the ordinary American voter. The problem for the Party is that no one, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, can even pretend to believe that anymore. No one can believe that in daylight, or in the darkest hour of night, while Trump, restless, tweets about the conspiracies that he believes are being hatched by his enemies—men and, especially, women—to fell him.

In the last few weeks, theologians like Miroslav Volf and Russell Moore have also made the case for disavowing Trump.   Yesterday it was heartening to see students at Liberty University follow suit, despite the urgings of their elders.  For those Christian leaders like Falwell Jr. who want to stay on the Trump Train, well, see my comments on The Cassandra Crossing.  It will not end well for you and it will bring shame and disrepute on the gospel you profess to preach.

For other Christian Americans, assuming (as is likely) that Hillary Clinton is the next president, the question is, can you go forward without proclaiming her as the AntiChrist, delegitimizing the election and government, and so like Samson bringing down the temple on your heads?   Robert Franklin, who teaches at Emory University, offers some suggestions for how a post-Trump civics could be achieved.   It will involve dialogue and listening on both sides, and a letting go of words like 'deplorables' and 'irredeemable', because no one and nothing is irredeemable.    Christians and non-Christians will have to find a way to live together, because the alternative is too grim and too terrible to contemplate.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Interrogator's Confession: A Book Review of Consequence: A Memoir by Eric Fair

Consequence: A Memoir is the confession of a good man who became complicit in evil.   Eric Fair, an American and a Christian with a strong sense of vocation to God and country, found himself working as an interrogator in Iraq, where he became involved in torture and war crimes.    With unflinching honesty and a total absence of self-pity, Fair tells the story of his time as a private contractor tasked with extracting intelligence from Iraqi detainees during the American occupation of the mid-2000s.  While never asking for our sympathy, he shows how a seemingly decent person can continue to make compromises and excuses for their moral failures until they find themselves in a spiritually catastrophic place.


            Born to a middle class family in a depressed Pennsylvania steel town, Eric Fair was a timid child who found a refuge in his family’s Presbyterian church.  While he became more robust in high school, his childhood left him with a profound respect for protector figures and a sense that he had a calling to a career in law enforcement.  In 1995, after university, Fair chose enlistment in the army as a brief means to an end, since training as a military policeman would make him an attractive candidate to civilian police departments.  Instead he was selected to become a linguist in Arabic. 


            In describing his time as a young NCM in the Army, as a member of a conservative church, and as a civilian police officer, Fair reveals a sense of disquiet and even alienation from cultures that were intolerant and violent.  The murder of a soldier in his unit, who was suspected to be gay, haunts him.  The violence of being a street cop proves disillusioning, while the judgemental culture of his church culture alienates him.   As he finds himself estranged from the institutions and ideals that gave him his moral purpose, Fair struggles to find purpose and meaning in his life.



            In 2003, a diagnosed heart defect left Fair unemployable as a policeman.   By then the second Iraq War is underway, and friends are encouraging Fair to go there as an Arab linguist, while his wife is encouraging him to go to seminary because she admires his sense of compassion and thinks he would be a good pastor.   Driven by his sense that he was called to serve and protect his country, he begins to research civilian contractors and government agencies that might employ him as a linguist.  “I don’t listen to Karin, and I don’t listen to the voices telling me to be patient, or consider changing course.  I apply to seminary to appease these voices and silence the advice.  In the meantime, I chart my own path back.  I intend to make Iraq the first step”.


            It’s not uncommon to see men, still young and vigorous, who deny the betrayal of their bodies after a heart attack or similar illness.   In 2003, as the US was hiring a legion of civilian employees to administer Iraq, it was easy for Fair to get hired without a medical exam.  While he may have wanted to recover his self-image as a soldier and protector, the disorganized and unprofessional nature of his private-sector employer troubles him.  He is assigned to Abu Ghraib, a former prison of the Saddam regime now used to warehouse the many Iraqis being rounded up in US sweeps, where Fair’s job will be to interrogate these men and decide who poses a threat.   The assignment fills him with dismay and leads him to this disturbing revelation:


“In Scripture, God often works in prisons, but he is never on the side of the jailer.  He is always on the side of the prisoner.  The realization brings on a physical reaction.  My hands shake.  My face warms.  I feel nauseated.  The sensation is terrifying.  Prayer in Iraq is dangerous.  I am beginning to realize that I’m not on God’s path.  I’m on my own.”


            What happened in Abu Ghraib is well known.   While Fair was not involved in the worst excesses that were documented in now-infamous images, he is honest about his own role there.   Extreme methods of interrogation, including sleep deprivation, stress positions, and physical intimidation, were standard and he participated in them.   Fair’s time in Iraq, his return to the US and subsequent physical and mental collapse are honestly described and make for harrowing reading. In 2006 he spoke to the media about his role in Iraq and was involved in the US government investigations into torture in Iraq.  Some of the final pages of the book are redacted, the blocks of black ink testifying to the official secrecy and even guilt that lingers over this period.


            An opening quotation from the medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, seems to signal Fair’s purpose.  Maimonides wrote that “a person is not forgiven until he pays back his fellow man what he owes him and appeases him.  He must placate him and approach him again and again until he is forgiven”.  The reader may struggle to decide if he or she is indeed placated, or if Fair is even seeking our forgiveness.  At times the book feels like nothing more than an extended confession, to which our task is only to bear witness.   In April of this year, after the book was published, Fair told National Public Radio that while his book offers “long discussions about why those things happened ... and how difficult it was to sort of break from those expectations of being a soldier  … none of that matters. I made horrible mistakes. ... I have a responsibility to confess those things openly." 


            For military chaplains, Fair’s book offers much food for thought.   It invites us to reflect on the vanities that may lie concealed in our sense of vocations, and whether our projects and identities come from ambition rather than true calling.   Fair’s confession shows how easy it can be to rationalize our involvement with evil, and how we can compound the moral damage by cutting ourselves off from God when we persuade ourselves that our prayers are unworthy of him.  Finally, as moral and ethical advisors in these dangerous and alarmed times, Fair reminds chaplains of the need for truthful language about how we humans injure one another, rather than using dishonest words such as “enhanced interrogation”.  As Fair told NPR, “I think that the minute you violate another human being's will … we have an obligation to call that torture.” [i]


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Kenneth A. Briggs on the Vanishing Bible

An article in today's Religion News Service has me wanting to read Kenneth A. Briggs' new book on the diminishing place of the bible in North American Christianity, The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America (Eerdmans). 

In her article for RNS, reporter Emily McFarlane Millar describes what Briggs found as he was writing the book:

Along the way, he met a homiletics professor who encouraged her students to explore the text by exchanging roles with the characters in biblical accounts, and he came across professors at evangelical colleges surprised by how little their incoming students knew about the Bible. He attended a meeting of Bible promoters in Orlando, Fla., worried nobody was reading their tomes; the academic Society of Biblical Literature convention in Chicago; and a traditional Presbyterian church in Pennsylvania. He was deeply moved by his visit to a federal prison in upstate New York, where, he said, the inmates knew the Bible better than he did.

As a preacher in a liberal Protestant denomination, I have found I cannot take for granted that congregations have a working biblical literacy.   Thanks to the three year lectionary, they will probably know the core gospel readings, but most do not seem to know the grand lines of the biblical narrative, what Richard Hooker once called the "main drifts" of scripture.   By "grand lines" I mean covenant theology (old and new), the adoption of the gentiles into the chosen people, the relationship of Jesus to the prophets, or how Revelation concludes God's plan of redemption (as opposed to it being a book of predictions and prophecy).   It's difficult in a fifteen minute sermon to develop any of these ideas, especially if, as I am, one is an occasional preacher.

Bear in mind that I am speaking now of a dwindling group of churchgoing Anglicans who have been doing this, most of them, for a long time.   I am interested in knowing what the bigger picture is, according to Briggs, but I am sure it is not a pretty one.

I am not clever enough to point to all the reasons why the bible is fading from our consciousness.    I can guess at a few of them.  Within the church, I suspect it may be an erosion of belief in preaching among clergy, or a sense that it is not foremost among their priorities.   Most parishioners, I find, have low expectations of the sermon.  My late father once said that the sermon was a time when he could lightly close his eyes.

Among the culture as a whole, I suspect there is a widespread distrust in the bible as an archaic book of bronze age make believe.  Watch any half hour of the political comic Bill Maher on HBO and you will get this loud ad clear.  There is also a skein of post-modernity which distrusts narratives of authority, and easily deconstructs the bible as an arbitrarily compiled compendium of texts by the men who ran the church.  There is also a widespread and (I think, often justified) suspicion of Christian fundamentalists who use the bible in a highly selective way.   Fans of The West Wing will remember President Bartlett taking apart a fundamentalist evangelist by using the contradictions in her proof texts against her.

If you have read my sermons here on this blog, you will, I hope, agree with my assertion that I am a thoughtful preacher who approaches scripture carefully.   I try to be mindful of the strangeness of the bible, of its foreign and difficult nature, and I am often leery of it.  But, I am also enough of a follower of Karl Barth to agree that without this scripture, we only have our own ideas and constructs of God (which Barth dismissively referred to as religion) to fall back on.   Simply put, I can't know God except through the bible.  I would have nothing to say as a preacher without it.  I believe that the bible helps us to be human, and so I conclude these thoughts with some of Briggs' words in the RNS interview.

One thing we miss in this is the potential to enlarge our minds and hearts and spirits. I think the Bible is the springboard to opening all kinds of ideas, thoughts, beliefs about what our life is about. And I think without it, it narrows our perspective and gives us a much more truncated view of what the possibilities are. I don’t think we’re getting as much of the larger picture by avoiding the source that has been that pathway to all kinds of discovery. (It’s been the pathway to) entertaining most profound thoughts about what possibly we might belong to beyond ourselves or our immediate communities.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Why Go To Church? A Sermon For The 14th Sunday After Pentecost

Preached Sunday, August 21 at Trinity Anglican Church, Barrie, ON.  

Lectionary Readings for Sunday, August 21
Jeremiah 1:4-10 or Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day? (Luke 13:16)


Today I want to talk about the Sundays and why we come here Sunday mornings.    I have two points to make.  The first is that our attitudes about Sunday may be linked to rules and expectations - we may be here because, at some level, we think we should be here for various reasons - our duty to God, our duty to the church, to one another.  I think we all get this.   The second is that we are here because we need to be here, we need the healing that only God can be give us.   I wonder if we all get this.  I want to suggest that when we understand the difference between should be here and need to be here, we can be more effective at convincing others to join us on Sunday.  
If you dont know this particular gospel story from St. Luke, I am sure that you know many like it.   Many times in the gospels, Jesus does something on the Sabbath which offends the Jewish leaders, who insist that all work is prohibited on the Sabbath because of their religious law.  Many sermons on these kinds of gospel readings follow the same line, namely that the religion of Jesus day was built on laws and rules, whereas Jesus is all about being true to God rather than following man-made rules.  Personally, I dont think this sort of interpretation is very helpful, because it keeps us from asking a more important question, which is what is the Sabbath, or Sunday in our context, really for?


Let me make the question more personal.   Why do we come to church?   When there are so many more things that we could be doing on Sunday, why do we feel the need to come here and spend the best part of the morning doing what we do?   if I passed out paper and pencils and asked you to write down your own individual answer, and then asked you to pass them up to me, I am sure I would get a wide range of responses.   You might be here to be with your friends, your parish family, or because you love this church.  You might be here because you love the hymns and like to sing, or because you feel a sense of responsibility to keep this all going in age when fewer and fewer seem to need it.    Maybe, to some degree or other, all of these things are working at different levels in us.    But I wonder, how many of us are here because, like the bent-over women in the gospel, we are here because we Jesus help?


While you think of how you might answer the question of why you come to church on Sunday morning, its worth thinking about what the expectation was in Jesus time.   The obligation to honour and keep the Sabbath was part of Jewish law, as given in the Torah.   As you may remember, the fourth of the ten commandments given to Moses was to Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy (Ex 20:8).   This commandment formed the basis for the many laws and customs which forbade work on the Sabbath, customs which many observant Jews follow to this day.    The idea behind these laws and customs was to create a way of life in which the faithful were constantly reminded of their relationship to God, and of their dependence on God.   As I said earlier, sometimes when we read the gospels these laws seem petty and foolish, but when you think about it, the idea of a way of life in relationship to God sounds quite attractive.


Some people think that Jesus came along to get rid of the law, but there is no real evidence of that.   What seems more likely is that Jesus had a different understanding of the Sabbath law.


The biblical scholar David Lose notes that there are two versions of the Fourth Commandment in the Old Testament.  The first, from Exodus 20, links the Sabbath to the first creation account in Genesis, where God rests after six days of labor. As God rested, so should we and all of our households and even animals rest.


8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any workyou, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

The second version of the Fourth Commandment is found in Deuteronomy 5 where, according to Lose, it links Sabbath to freedom, to liberty, to release from bondage and deliverance from captivity.


12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 14But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any workyou, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.


This passage conveys a very different idea of Sabbath-keeping.  The Sabbath is not just a day of rest, but it is a day to remember Gods freeing his people from their captivity in liberation.  The Sabbath is not just a day to take a break from work, but it is also associated with God rescuing and saving the people that he promised Abraham that he would create out of his descendants.


I agree with Lose that this second, Deuteronomy understanding of the Sabbath as liberation and salvation, may be what Jesus is thinking of here in Luke when he confronts his opponents.   Jesus calling the woman a daughter of Abraham (Lk 13:16) is telling, I think.  By linking her with Abraham, Jesus is reminding his opponents of Gods promise to create and bless a people that would arise out of Abrahams descendants.    By linking his healing of her physical condition with freeing her from her sin, her bondage to Satan, Jesus is linking his ministry with Gods saving of Israel in the Old Testament.  Just as God led his people out of slavery in Egypt, so now will Jesus lead his followers out of their slavery to their sin.


Under Christianity, the holy day of the Sabbath (Saturday) moved to Sunday (the day associated with Christs resurrection).    Christians celebrated Sunday as the day of Christs victory over death, the victory that points the way towards our own salvation.    Over the centuries Christians assumed that the Fourth Commandment applied to Sunday, and observed Sunday as a day of rest, as a day not to work or shop or drink or whatever.  


So heres a question.  What if todays gospel is about how we as Christians should see think about Sunday and why we go to church.  What if we got rid of our ideas that Sunday was a day of obligation, that we come to church because, somehow, it is where we have to be.   What if, instead, we came to church because we know that we, like the bent woman in todays Gospel, need to be healed?  What if we came to church out of a sense of dependance on Jesus as the one person who can free us from sin, from all that we dont like about ourselves and the world around us?  What if church was the place where we turned to Jesus, confident that he can heal and free us?   What if we came to church out of an immense sense of gratitude that Jesus has allowed us to straighten up, to unbend ourselves, and to stand free of all the burdens that have been laid on us over the years?   If we had the faith to come to church for these reasons, and the belief and the courage to invite others to come to church for these reasons, then I think that we would be well on our way to revitalizing this church.   



Friday, August 19, 2016

Turning Chaplains Into Military Ethicists

The Canadian Forces Chaplain School and Centre (CFChSC) at Canadian Forces Base Borden, where I work, started its annual Intermediate Ethics Course this week. 

The course is a career course for CAF military chaplains to take early in their careers to prepare them for one of their roles as ethical advisors to command teams and to military and civilian personnel generally.   Building on the theological and religiously informed ethical systems that chaplains learned in their formation as clergy, we train them in a variety of ethical systems, including the CAF's Defence Ethics Program .  The training is practical, and uses concrete scenarios and case studies to prepare chaplains for the kind of real-world problems that they will face in the military context.

Chaplain candidates in fierce ethical debate.

One of the problems we face in our training in military ethics is that you need a foothold on both sides of this compound subject.    Most chaplains know something about ethical traditions through their theological formation, though they may know more about Christian ethics than they do about the classical philosophical traditions.    What they lack, sometimes, is a sufficient knowledge of the military environment to do apply the ethical traditions well.

To that end, I offered the class a short reading list of online resources to help them shore up their military knowledge, and to show them how some smart folks in the military community are tinking hard about ethics, particularly in light of new technologies and the changing battlespace.

This list may interest readers of this blog, either chaplain colleagues or folks who are generally interested in the subject.

A privately published military blog – most articles authored by US defence community people including some serving military.   Lots on foreign policy, military news, leadership, strategy, and technology.
Articles like this one on killer robots make it worth the read for military ethicists.

This online journal describes itself as “an international journal focused on strategy, national security, & military affairs”. 
Contributors are mostly US military, serving and retired, with some allied military contributors.
A quick use of the search feature for articles on “ethics”yields some impressive results:

This military news blog is anything but boring.   Its masthead says:  “From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, exploring how and why we fight above, on and below an angry world”.
 The articles on politics and culture offer food for thought for ethicists.

A very funny and thoughtful blog by a serving US Army officer.   Star Wars fans will find things to like.
By a professor of philosophy whose research and publication interest is in military ethics. 
Mostly US military – a group of active duty officers writing about the military and the military ethos.  Many of the contributors here are worth your knowing.  Many of them are also active on Twitter, which is a whole other thing to follow.
Enjoy these links and chime in on any others that you would recommend.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Five Thoughts on Sharing Faith: A Sermon For The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

I was filling in for the Rector of Trinity Anglican Church, Barrie, yesterday.   Since I know the parish's recent history, it was relatively easy to prepare this sermon.  They are currently in the difficult process of considering whether to amalgamate with another parish or to try and revitalize the parish and stay in their present location.  I thought some comments on how we share faith (a challenging subject for us Anglicans, who aren't gifted with evangelical skills), might be useful since no matter where we are, our churches need to be persuasive and attractive examples of the positive difference that God in Christ makes in our lives.  MP+

Five Thoughts on Faith Sharing: A Sermon

Texts this Sunday:  Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23; Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16; Luke 12: 32-40

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)


Sometimes in my work as a military chaplain, I meet people who are uncomfortable with religion, and I sometimes look for a joke to break the ice.   When I meet someone who I know is a Toronto Maple Leafs fan (and believe me, it’s not hard to spot a diehard Leafs fan), I have a line that I like to use.  “I see you’re a Leafs fan”, I say.  “Nice to meet another person of faith”. 


Most Leafs fans will wince and smile good naturally at that little joke.   After all, a Leafs fan is someone who is in it for the long haul, despite the evidence to the contrary.  They may see a Stanley Cup again, but since the last one was in 1967, Leafs fans may well doubt that they will see another in their lifetimes.


Part of the joke is the comparison between faith in a long-shot hockey team and faith in religion.  Both types of faith might seem misplaced to skeptics, whether the skeptics are Ottawa Senators fans, or atheists and agnostics.   Both might say, why put your faith in something that isn’t going to deliver?   The atheist might say, its even worse for you religious types.   At least the Maple Leafs are a real, actual hockey team.  We know they exist. 


Some people will say that faith is necessary because we have no proof of the existence of God.   Faith thus becomes a problem when we try to share our belief with others, because if other people don’t have faith, how do they get it?  How do we help others come to faith?  I think this can be one of our biggest problems as we try to grow and revitalize the church.


And yet, faith is real, according to our first lesson.   Our reading for Hebrews speaks of faith in terms of “assurance” and “conviction”.  The modern language bible, The Message, puts Hebrews 11:1 this way:  “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living”.  So faith is real, it’s a vital part of our lives, it’s the key to a good life.  So  today I invite you to think with me for a bit about what it means to be a person of faith and how we explain faith to others in a way that makes them want to share it? 


I think this second question, of faith sharing, is super important because we have to know the answer if we want to revitalize Trinity, or indeed, to revitalize the Christian church.    I’ve been thinking about this question since we at Trinity started to think about our future, and whether we can revitalize our church.   I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter if we put out better signs, or change the music, or even make the building more accessible.   All of those things are good in and of themselves, but they don’t make our faith attractive to others.   I think the only thing that will revitalize this, or any, church, is if we can show others that our faith makes a difference in our lives, that we have found something that they need and want.  So how do we do that?  I want to suggest five ways to understand and share faith.


  1. Faith isn’t invisible
    Yes, tour reading from Hebrews says  that faith is about things “hoped for” and “not seen”.  In v 3 it says that what we know, the world around us, was prepared by God  “from things that are not visible”.   There is a sense in which God is invisible.   Indeed, Jesus tells Doubting Thomas that “Blessed are those have not seen and yet believed” (Jn 20:29).    Fortunately, the church is visible.   The people of God are real.   The word of God can be read or listened to.   The love of God is visible in the world because of what the people of God do.   When Kay and I joined Bill and Diane and Lequita at the Bayside Mission last Wednesday, our faith was visible and it was seen by the many persons who came up after the meal and thanked us.   So, faith is visible in the lives of the faithful.  I think Trinity gets this first part pretty well, because we do a lot.   We just need to keep asking ourselves, when we seem too busy or too overstretched, if our actions are about showing our living faith, or if they have some other motive.  If our actions aren’t about faith, maybe they are not so important.
    2) Faith comes from God, not from us
    Sometimes we think that faith is something we do ourselves, that if only we will hard enough, we can make ourselves believe in God.  Instead, Hebrews makes it clear that faith comes from God and from our relationship with God.   At 11:3 Hebrew says that “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God”.   God created the world, created us, to be in relationship with him and to know him.   There are lots of ways to believe in how the world came to be, whether through evolution or creation.   Personally I don’t believe that science is incompatible with faith.   As Christians we believe that our lives come to us as gifts from God, and that God gave them to us because he is good, he wants us to flourish, and he wants us to know us.   It’s like knowing that we have someone in our lives who loves us deeply for who we are and wants the best for us.   If we open ourselves to that love in gratitude, then we can participate in that relationship,  It’s the same with God.   The starting point isn’t whether we have enough faith to know that God exists.   The starting point is deciding whether we want the relationship that God offers us.
    3) Faith is about Jesus.
    It’s true, we Anglicans aren’t comfortable talking about Jesus and being born again.   But, we are Jesus people.  We are his disciples and his followers.  It all starts with Jesus.  Literally.   At the very beginning of the book of Hebrews, it says that Jesus “is the reflection of Gods glory and the exact imprint of Gods very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:3).  In other words, Jesus was there at the creation that gave us our planet and our lives, Jesus is like oxygen and sunlight in that he sustains our lives, and Jesus wants to know us.   In our gospel today, we hear Jesus say “Don’t be afraid, your Father wants to make you part of his kingdom”.  Jesus is the one who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us.   These are all good things.  I once heard a friend speak approvingly about the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist leader.  “He talks about love, and being kind to one another, and about forgiveness.  It’s so refreshing!”   That sounds wonderful, I thought.   Jesus speaks about these things, too.  Why don’t we as Anglicans talk about the refreshment, the love, the forgiveness we have found in Jesus?     What if we were as comfortable speaking about Jesus as we were talking about out stained glass, or about our liturgy?  What if we talked about Jesus with an intimacy, even a longing, that made others wish they knew Jesus better?
    4) Faith is about the long journey
    In our lesson today, we hear about figures from the Old Testament like Abraham who “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them” (Heb 11:13).   Faith isn’t about believing so hard that we will get what we want when we want.  That’s positive thinking, not faith.   Faith is trusting that things will work out according to God’s timelines, and not ours.   Faith is what keeps the antipoverty activist going, like the people who keep the Salvation Army Bayside Missing in business.   They know that poverty isn’t going to end any time soon, but their faith and their relationship with Jesus tells them that the least among us are the dearest to God.   Faith is what keeps us going through grief, through funerals, and through the long days at the cancer war.   Faith is knowing that God is faithful to us, that his promises to us will come true in God’s time, whenever that may be.    In a world so stressed, fearful and so worried about the future, imagine how attractive faith, and the peace that passes all understanding, could be.   Wouldn’t you want to share that?  Wouldn’t you want to have that?
    5)  Faith is found in our lives.
    Earlier this summer, a member of this congregation got up to read a lesson.  Before he started, he spoke about what this lesson meant to him, and about how it summed up lessons taught to him by his mother when he was growing up.  He spoke simply and from the heart   I was totally amazed.   I tried to imagine a church where people could do similar things, sharing simple and from the heart stories about the difference that faith makes in their lives.    You see, as Anglicans I think we balk at evangelizing because we don’t know how to do it.  We don’t have the language of witnessing, it’s not part of our denominational DNA.  We are the church of shy introverts who love our books and our prewritten prayers.   Mostly we’re private people.   However, I haven’t met that many people who don’t like to talk about themselves.   Most of us I think could tell a story about how our faith got us through a significant and difficult life event or a dark time.  Imagine if you had the confidence to tell your own story to a friend or acquaintance who was going though a similar dark time, but who didn’t share your faith.  You could say something like, “That sounds like a very tough place that you’re in.  I’m so sorry.   When I went through a dark spell in my own life, my faith really made a difference.   Would you mind if I told you that story?”   I could see that sort of dialogue being far more effective than simply asking a friend to come to church with you on some Sunday.
    In this sermon, I’ve tried to suggestive ways in which we can think about faith in a way that might revitalize our church and make it more attractive to others.    I’ve suggested that:
    1)Faith is real because it is seen in the lives and actions of the faithful
    2) Faith is a relationship we are invited into
    3) Faith centre on the life, words and love of Jesus
    4) Faith is for the long haul
    5) Faith is found in our own stories, which we can share with others
    I pray that these words and these ideas may be helpful to all of us as we think about the future of our church.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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