Sunday, March 13, 2011

Is Sin a Myth? A Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

Is Sin A Myth?

Is sin a myth? That may seem like an odd title for a sermon, and granted it is a bit provocative. I chose it because one of the first stories about sin in the bible is the one we heard in our first lesson, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The account of Adam and Eve’s eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and their resulting expulsion from paradise is foundational to Judaism and to Christianity. It’s often been referred to as The Fall. It’s attracted theologians such as St. Augustine and poets such as Thomas Milton. When a young couple bring their newborn to be baptized, even if they aren’t churchgoers themselves, the story of Adam and Eve is probably somewhere in the background of their decision. Often when I talk to these couples and ask why they want baptism the phrase “Original Sin” comes up, which is the idea, however vaguely understood by the parents, that human nature is contaminated because of the Fall of Adam and Eve, and baptism is God’s way of fixing it. The church's thinking on baptism has changed over the last century, but sin and redemption are still involved in that sacrament.

So is sin a myth? Perhaps we could defer that question for a moment while we ask if we think creation is a myth, since creation comes before the fall in Genesis. While many Christians accept the creation story as literally described in Genesis, many Christians do not accept the creation story, including Adam and Eve, as literal truth. Since Darwin's time we have come to know too much about the fossil record, about biology, geology and anthropology to readily accept the Creation and the Fall as described in Genesis, even if we do have a common ancestry somewhere millennia ago. I remember last summer, standing on a beach at Joggins, Nova Scotia, and hearing a young and very smart curator speak in disgust of what he called “religious people” who rejected the fossil record as a trap planted by Satan to lure the faithful into doubting creation. For this bright young man, his science trumped the bible every day of the week because the Christian doctrine of creation had been discredited in his eyes by the Christians he had met.

Now when you see a fossilized tree sticking out of a cliff as you can at Joggins, it is very powerful proof that the world is a very ancient place, but that doesn’t mean the world isn’t a created ancient place. The doctrine of creation is where all theology starts. As Christians, we believe that a generous God brought the world, indeed the universe, into being so that we might enjoy being in relationship with God and with one another. The preacher and evangelist John Bowen says that he wishes Christians who believed in literal creation and Christians who believed that God let the created world evolve could agree to disagree, since we aren’t saved by how we believe the world was created. What saves us is our faith in Jesus Christ who died on the cross to save us from our sins.

I keep talking about sin without directly answering my question, is sin a myth? To finally answer my question, I would say that yes, sin as it is explained in the Adam and Eve story is a myth, if we accept myth as the Princeton University website described it, as “a traditional story accepted as history [which] serves to explain the world view of a people". But there is nothing mythic about sin as it exists in the world we live in. The theologian G.K. Chesterton said once that “original sin is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved”. I don’t need to belabor this point because we all have some sense that there is something wrong with the world which can be explained by human actions. I said here on Ash Wednesday that the disobedience of Adam and Eve in Genesis is really a story about how human choices and actions influence the world for better or, more likely, for ill. We who live in a relatively prosperous part of the world are blessed to be insulated from the most egregious things which blight the world –- war, famine or at best subsistence existence, poverty and stunning imbalances in wealth - we know all that from the news, but forget the news if yu want proof of the reality of sin. We don’t have to go far into sleepy little Ralston to find proof of that. Consider something I’ve talked about before, the terrible vulnerability of military families. How many homes around us are blighted by (and this list is not exhaustive) emotional numbness, gossip, verbal and mental cruelty, addiction , debt, indifference to parenting and to parental authority, adultery, depression, loneliness, anger and the other psychological wounds that afflict warriors and their families?

People of God, sin is not a myth. Adam and Eve may be mythic figures in the sense that the first hominids were likely quite different, but they are real enough that we can see ourselves in them. We see in them our capacity to be tempted by things we think good at the time. All of us have our own needs, things which seem to us, like the fruit to Eve, “a delight to the eyes”. The preacher David Lose asks this question: "Might it be that a part of being human is being aware that we are insufficient, that we are not complete in and of ourselves, that lack is a permanent part of our condition? To be human, in other words, is to be aware that we carry inside ourselves a hole, an emptiness that we will always be restless to fill?" Adam and Eve thought that the fruit of the tree of knowledge would make them more complete. What Genesis describes is thus a response to human need, an attempt to overcome our limitation with more X or Y. For Adam and Eve it was knowledge. For us, we may think that we can make ourselves more complete through more money, more sex, more fitness, more prestige, a better car, a faster computer, a perfect spouse. For those who are wounded by our pursuits of these things and the disappointment they inevitably bring, we try to live with those wounds through anger, resentment, addiction, or other things that, like Adam and Eve, drive us from Eden.

None of us are immune to the temptation to fill our needs with things that lead us away from God. We are all Adam and Eve in that regard, which is why our gospel reading today is Matthew’s account of how Jesus resists temptation in the wilderness. Jesus confronts the same temptation that is part of the human condition, but he as St. Paul writes in Romans, Jesus is different from us. He passes the tests that we would fail because of his absolute faith in God. For Christians, the story of Jesus in the wilderness is a kind of temptation in itself, because we feel that the point of the story is to be more like Jesus. If we can just be more faithful and purer, we can resist temptation. Well, good luck with that. There is only one Jesus. I think the point of the story is to show the uniqueness of Jesus, that only he is righteous enough to resist temptation. Matthew shows him as the only one who has the power to save us, and the only one we can follow. The temptation story is a kind of spiritual battle fitness test, which Jesus passes to show that he has the power to fight for our souls.

As we begin the season of Lent, Christians are traditionally urged to examine our spiritual lives more closely, to pray or to read scripture more intensely. Sometimes we talk about giving up something for Lent as a way of making ourselves less distracted and more spritually open to God's call. All of these practices are worthwhile and can work depending on your needs and circumstances. Ultimately, though, Lent is about becoming aware of who Jesus is and why we follow him these forty days to Jerusalem and to the cross. Only Jesus is uniquely blessed and equipped by the Father to go to that place where we cannot go, to do battle with sin and the devil on our behalf. Let's follow him.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Does Religious Tolerance in Canada Have A Future?

Yesterday I posted here about the death of Pakistan's Shahbat Bhati at the hands of Isalmic terrorists, noting as many more qualified than I have already said that the grounds for religious tolerance in that country now seems almsot completely eroded.

We are a long way from that state of affairs in Canada, thankfully, but the signs for the future health of religious tolerance and accomodation in Canada are not promising. Following a larger trend in Western countries such as the UK, Germany and France, where prominent politicians have pronounced multiculturalism a failure, Quebec, perhaps Canada's most secular province, is struggling with the issue.

Today the Globe and Mail reported that several prominent academics are warning about trends in Quebec politics hostile to religious accomodation:

Quebec headed toward ‘radical option’ on religious minorities, sociologist fears

MONTREAL— From Thursday's Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Mar. 02, 2011 9:42PM EST
Last updated Thursday, Mar. 03, 2011 7:14AM EST

One of the great thinkers who helped calm Quebec’s reasonable accommodation debate is stirring it up again, saying he fears the province may be headed toward a “radical option” to deal with religious minorities.

GĂ©rard Bouchard, the sociologist who travelled the province with philosopher Charles Taylor to study Quebec’s integration of minorities, said the province still lacks coherent rules to govern accommodation.

He warned that confusion and a leadership vacuum could lead Quebec toward a hardening line against religious freedom for minorities or a free-for-all where institutions twist the rules of secularism. A third scenario he outlined could be an incoherent combination of different rules for Catholic traditions and other faiths.

“The government will have to do something. The public debate has failed to reach a consensus. There is division among the people and in this context the state must intervene. What I am afraid of now is a radical option,” Dr. Bouchard said in an interview on Wednesday.

Three years after the two academics released their report, Jean Charest’s government has set out few clear, coherent principles and specific guidelines for secularism, integration and accommodation the province.

The government has instead boosted French instruction and produced a law to restrict one aspect of the Muslim religion – the veil – while regularly falling into headline-making cases that raise questions about official government neutrality on religion."

Read the whole article here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Zombies! Run!

I've heard of Zombie Walks, but never until now a Zombie Run, and if I was in Maryland this October, darn skippy I'd do it. How can you resist an event that offers the following benefits:

A Warwear performance tee-shirt
A racing bib (we know you always wanted one)
A medal to signify your survival (or zombie transformation)
Admittance to the Apocalypse Party
Water stations within the course
Advanced training for the actual zombie apocolypse
One less appendage

The objective of the run is to navigate twelve obstacles while, in a variant of flag football, evading zombies. Not sure if the zombies will be the shambling Romero type, or the ultra-fast ragers of the 24 Hours/Days variant.

Sounds very cool.

We have been orphaned today!” A Christian Martyr in Pakistan

A second politician who sought reform of Pakistan's blasphemy laws has been killed.
Back in January when I posted here about Salman Taseer, a man I'd never heard of until his murder by Islamic extremists angry at him for championing the cause of a CHristian woman. Taseer was a Muslim politician who was sympathetic to the rights of Christian and other minorities in Pakistan. Today the Christian cabinent minister charged with protecting those same minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also murdered. AlQaeda and the Pakistani Taliban Movement in Punjab province have taken responsibility for his killing. Bhatti, 42, was a Roman Catholic and Pakistan's only Christian cabinent minister. According to media supports, he was travelling without security the day of his killing.

Shahbaz Bhati

Here is an excerpt from the Globe and Mail's coverage:

With the death of Mr. Bhatti, Pakistani Christians lost their most prominent advocate. Christians are the largest religious minority in the country, where roughly 5 per cent of 180 million people are not Muslim. They have very little political power and tend to work in lower-level jobs, such as street sweeping.

“We have been orphaned today!” wailed Rehman Masih, a Christian resident of Islamabad. “Now who will fight for our rights? Who will raise a voice for us? Who will help us?”

The assassination drew swift condemnation from Christian leaders elsewhere.

A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the slaying was an act of “terrible gravity.” He noted that Mr. Bhatti had met with Pope Benedict XVI in September and affirmed his commitment to peaceful relations among the religious communities in mainly Muslim Pakistan. The Vatican said the killing shows the pope's warnings about the danger to Christians in the region were justified.

In Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, expressed shock and sorrow over the killing. “This further instance of sectarian bigotry and violence will increase anxiety worldwide about the security of Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan,” they said in a statement.

They urged Pakistan's government to protect Christians and bring the perpetrators to justice.

The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, also condemned the assassination, calling Mr. Bhatti “a Pakistani patriot.”

BBC coverage can be found here.

In Mad Padre's opinion, these two murders underscore the quandary of the West's relations to Pakistan. We spend billions of dollars on what we think is an ally against radical Islam, and yet this ally is either unwilling or unable (or both) to protect the rights of its non-Muslim minorities. Going beyond platitudes and trying to extract guarantees from Pakistan for the reform of its blasphemy laws and security of is minorities would likely only destabilize the regime further. It looks we have a losing hand here.

Please pray for the soul of Mr. Bhatti and for all religious minorities in Pakistan.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Determined Fisherman

Saw this several weeks ago while driving to CFB Suffield for Sunday worship at the chapel and it was too perfect, so I gingerly took this snap with my iphone as I turned off Hwy 1 onto the Jenner road. Trailer reads "When Hell freezes over, I will ice fish there too".

Wow. Our Lord always had a fondness for fishermen, and this one seems like a hardcore one. He could use a guy with this sort of attitude.

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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