Saturday, May 29, 2010

Let's Talk About the Trinity --- Tomorrow

[This sermon was prepared for the people of Saint John's Anglican Church in Port Moody, BC to be preached on Trinity Sunday, 30 May 2010.]

+ My sisters and brothers, I speak to you in the name of God, the Weaver who weaves us into the pattern of the Word through the wisdom of the Spirit. Amen.

Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1990, I began my first-ever sabbatical. It was a significant year for our family in many ways, especially since our youngest child, Owen, was born in October of that year. Paula and I decided that it was an opportunity for us to take a sabbatical from the parish where we had been worshipping for the past three years. We were not dissatisfied with Saint Anselm’s and would return at the end of my sabbatical, but spending a year in another parish was a way for us to have a little distance. We chose to attend the Cathedral where Jim Cruickshank, later Bishop of Cariboo and a former professor at VST, was the Dean.

We were immediately drafted! The Cathedral had a programme for the preparation of adults for baptism that was modelled on what is known as the catechumenate process. In this process the candidates for baptism attend Sunday worship and their preparation sessions focus on the readings from the Sunday gathering. They bring their questions and reflections rather than ‘receiving instruction’, as it used to be called, and the role that Paula and I were to play was more as mentors rather than providing weekly content.

Among the participants were people who were already baptized and preparing for the re-affirmation of their baptismal vows at the Easter Vigil when the others would be baptized. It was a good group and, although I cannot remember all that was said and done, it was a time that I look back with fondness and a sense of appropriate pride.

I remember one session particularly well. Among the candidates for baptism was a gentleman from mainland China who had been raised in the Buddhist tradition. He was a fine participant and contributed much to the group’s life. It was this session, however, that remains fixed in my mind and that gave rise to my thoughts for the sermon today.

This gentleman turned to the group and said, “The one thing that still confuses me is the Christian belief in the Trinity. I can understand that God is one. I can understand that God is present in Jesus of Nazareth. I can understand that the Holy Spirit is, in some way, an expression of God in our daily lives. But I really cannot understand trinitarian theology. It seems unnecessary complicated and mysterious.” In keeping with the spirit of the process, I turned to the group and said, “What do you think? How would you answer this question?” I was met with a resounding silence. When I turned to the members of the group who had been baptized, I was met by all the signs that I am familiar in seeing in my students who do not wish to respond: no eye contact, gazing out the window, sudden fascination with a text in the Bible or some other book --- you all know the routine.

Please don’t get me wrong. I happen to belong to that group of Christian teachers who believes that the Christian experience of the God whom we know as the Source of all life and love, the incarnate Word and the Spirit, gentle as a dove, burning as fire, is a central part of the story that we tell. But I am not so sure that it is one of the first things that we teach. The basic Christian confession is that when you meet Jesus of Nazareth you meet God. For two thousand years we have tried to explain what this means and how this is possible, but these efforts are commentary, inspired and necessary, but commentary on this fundamental Christian confession.

So let me share some thoughts with you about the God whom I believe we meet when we meet Jesus of Nazareth.

Throughout human history we have seen signs that God acts to unite what has been separated by human sin. When the World Council of Churches came into being in the years following the Second World War, we witnessed God’s refusal to accept that divisions created during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries between Christians and God’s work in making more visible the unity that exists between all Christians by virtue of our baptism in Christ. When apartheid in South Africa came to an end, we witnessed God’s refusal to accept that the barriers erected to maintain the superiority of one race over another could not be sustained in the face of God’s uniting purpose. When the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunited, we witnessed God’s refusal to accept as perpetual a division caused by the distrust of the Allies after the Second World War and by the oppressive structures of the East German regime. Because God is one, God works in us and through us to bring about that unity which will reflect an essential characteristic of our creation in the image and likeness of God.

But the shadow side of unity is confusing ‘uniformity’ with ‘unity’. Human beings have an unfortunate tendency to assume that we cannot be ‘one’ unless we are all doing the same things, thinking the same ways and believing the same beliefs. What we have come to see in the environmental crisis we have witnessed as species have become extinct and habitats are ruined is that there is a long-term cost to the loss of bio-diversity. As we have often heard on our coast, a tree farm is not the same as a forest. Similarly, the history of societies and religious movements is that the suppression of diversities for the sake of unity often leads to a totalitarianism which quenches the human spirit and leads to further oppression. For this reason, we confess that God loves ‘infinite variety’, so long as that variety does not deny that all of us, human and non-human, are inter-dependent and that are ultimate well-being depends upon the flourishing of all. Because God loves diversity, we learn more about ourselves and our role in God’s purposes when we hear the perspectives of gay and straight, male and female, so-called ‘conservatives’ and so-called ‘liberals’, Christians and non-Christians.

We confess that God is more than we can know or understand. There is an ‘otherness’ to God, a quality that we often call ‘holy’ about the One whom we believe is responsible for all that is, seen and unseen. God’s otherness manifests itself when we realize that our perspective on our lives and on the history of our world cannot fully comprehend why we exist at all and what will be our telos, a term that in the New Testament counts among its meanings ‘purpose’ or ‘goal’. Because God is holy, there are moments in which the wonder and the tragedy of our lives overwhelm us with a sense of something more happening in these events than any human philosophy or religion can account for. Because God is holy, we are often left speechless in the face of events that can make us feel that our lives are part of a greater story, that our lives matter even when we know that the story is so vast and stretches beyond our horizon.

Yet this ‘otherness’ of God, this holiness, does not keep God away from us nor from the creation that God has made and is making. All of Scripture tells the tale of a God who engages the world in many and various ways: dreams and visions, signs and miracles, speech and silence. Abraham is promised a son and Sarah laughs, but the child is born and a new role begins for this family. Moses flees from Egypt and a bush burns but is not consumed and he is sent back to be God’s agent of liberation. Mary has a vision of an angel and Joseph is confronted with an inexplicable fact and a child comes into the world who changes all of human history. Peter goes to have a nap and has a dream that commands him to many of the traditions he believes God has commanded him to follow and a Roman soldier is paid an unexpected visit by a Jewish fisherman causing the Jesus-movement to spread beyond Judea until it reached Port Moody. Because God cannot keep the divine hands off of creation, God summons people like you and me to undertake tasks we would never imagine being set before us. We often cannot explain why we know that we have been called nor why we know what we are called to do is right, but we know we are called and we do what we are bidden all the same.

Today throughout the Christian world congregations are hearing the same readings and keeping the same feast: The Feast of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. No doubt there will be sermons preached that seek to explain how Christians have come to believe in this God who is one-in-three and three-in-one. No doubt some of these sermons will be amazing in their ability to open the mystery of God to the congregation and other sermons will lapse into either banality or heresy. In my own small way I want to avoid amazement, banality and heresy. I want to suggest to you that the world is tired of Christians talking about what the Christian faith is, what our doctrines are and how our ‘take’ on Christianity is better or clearer or more orthodox or more generous than other Christians ‘take’. I want to suggest to you that the world is not as interested in the doctrine of the Trinity or in Christian views of human sexuality or in how we understand Jesus to be both human and divine. These are not unimportant because what we believe about these aspects of Christian faith has something to say about how we understand the God whom we experience as seeking unity while honouring diversity and as being beyond us while always being present to and active in us and the creation.

I have come, reluctantly at first but now more enthusiastically, to the belief that our non-Christian sisters and brothers as well as most of our so-called ‘lapsed’ sisters and brothers are more interest in what the faith of Christians does than they are interested in what the Christian faith is. n fact I might go so far as to say that the only way we know truly what the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth is is by choosing to model the conduct of our lives more closely to what we believe Jesus does. To some this may sound simplistic and to others a matter open to considerable controversy, but there is no point, I believe, in talking about the mystery of the Three-personed God when we are reluctant or unable to talk about what that God has summoned forth from us.

‘The Father and I are one’: Jesus and the God who sent him into the world are united in the work that God is doing in Jesus and continues to do through the Spirit. What God has been doing from the very beginning, what God was doing in Jesus of Nazareth and what God does in the Spirit through us is

* to challenge unjust structures,
* to respect those who are considered outsiders,
* to choose mercy over religious correctness,
* to offer one’s very self for the life of the world,
* to forgive those who are caught in other people’s webs,
* to give sight to the blind and to choose service rather than prestige.

This is what God, the One-in-Three and Three-in-One, the holy and undivided Trinity, does.

At the end of the Nicene Creed we confess that we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Over my fifty-seven years of being an Anglican I have heard many a sermon and a lecture about what these words mean. I am the mind that we say this about the church because we understand the church to be an agent of God and that our God is a God who cares about unity, holiness, diversity and mission. We say these words about the church because we believe them to be true about the God whom the world needs to see in us.

Prior to the seventh century North Africa was a Christian region of the Roman Empire. But as Islam moved out of the Arabian Peninsula and moved east along the southern shores of the Mediterranean, many Christian converted to Islam. The reasons for these conversions are complex, but I would hazard to guess that Christian fatigue was relieved by a new faith that allowed Christians to believe in Jesus as a prophet without all the theological baggage and conflict that came with the endless trinitarian and Christological controversies that began in the fourth century.

I think that there is a growing fatigue among non-Christians and lapsed Christians with the endless theological squabbles and the religious imperialism that characterize North American Christianity. Our neighbours want to see Jesus at work in their neighbourhoods and to see what God is doing in this world that needs so much care. We can wait to talk about the Trinity for the day after we hear our neighbours say, “When we meet you, we meet Jesus. Can you tell us a bit more about who he is and more about the God who inspires you to do these things?” And may that day come soon and come often. Amen.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

God Loves Infinite Variety

[This sermon was prepared for the community of Saint Clare in the Cove Anglican Church, North Vancouver, BC and their ecumenical neighbours, Mount Seymour United Church, worshipping together for Pentecost 2010 and focuses on Genesis 11.1-9.]

When I was younger, many stories from the Bible seemed very clear in their meaning. Today’s familiar story from Genesis was one such story. Human beings, in their pride, sought to gain the heights of heaven in order to overcome their fear of being scattered throughout the world. God, having just promised Noah never to destroy the earth again, was faced with a dilemma: How could God punish humanity without breaking the divine promise to Noah? “Aha,” thought God, “I shall punish them with what they fear most.” Suddenly those who were labouring on the Tower were unable to understand each other and eventually the various peoples were scattered throughout the world. Our human diversity, seen by many as contributing to human conflicts, was a sign of our sinfulness and pride.

In this schema I was taught that today’s feast of Pentecost represented God’s releasing of human beings from the curse of Babel. Despite the linguistic diversity of those to whom Peter spoke on that Pentecost morning so long ago, the Holy Spirit broke through the divisions and made the message of the good news of God in Jesus Christ universally comprehensible. Today marked the beginning of gathering all the peoples of the world into the one people of God: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4.4-6)

But as I grew older, this schema did not work as well as it had when I was younger. For one thing, I began to study foreign languages, first German, then French, in university and then the ancient languages of Greek, Hebrew and Latin in my graduate studies. What emerged as I was studying these languages is the wonder of perspective contained within the languages we use, even when the speakers seem to share the same language. For example, if someone from the United States steps on my toes, he or she is likely to say, “Excuse me!”, an imperative which puts the onus on me to be gracious to the transgressor. If someone from Canada steps on my toes, he or she is likely to say, “Sorry!”, an acknowledgement that he or she has infringed on the rights of my toes to be free from assault. Rather than fault the transgressor from south of the border and praise the one from the north, I found it more interesting to consider what the use of language told me about their cultures and their perspectives on the world.

At the same time that I began my studies of foreign languages, sometime in Grade 10, my father began his interest in genealogy. He began to unearth the stories of our ancestors and how their stories came to be woven into the tapestry represented by our little nuclear family of father, mother, son and daughter. I learned that I am descended from the peoples who found their way to the shores of that island we now call Britain: first the Welsh, then the Saxons and finally the Normans. Each has left its mark on me, especially my own sense of my Celtic heart, clothed within a very Saxon body with a Norman intellect.

This growing awareness, however, reached a significant point when I began working with aboriginal people here in Canada through the Native Ministry Program of Vancouver School of Theology. I heard stories of the loss of culture and language as well as the discrimination that continues to this day. These stories aroused a memory in me of the meaning of the word ‘Welsh’ in English. ‘Welsh’ is derived from the Saxon word for ‘foreigner’. Imagine that, the Celts invite the Saxons to settle on the eastern shore and then lose their land to their invited guests, only to be called ‘foreigner’ in our home. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, to other stories in more recent Canadian history.

Gradually I have come to believe that diversity is the natural order of things, human and non-human, and that attempts to create unity often fall prey to the temptation to confuse ‘uniformity’ with ‘unity’. Diversity is always messy, while uniformity creates a predictable and controllable world, dependable and secure, but ultimately deadly, spiritually and, unfortunately, frequently physically. This does not deny the legitimate human desire for unity, but it does caution us as we explore various paths to that unity we desire.

Let me return to today’s reading of the fable of the Tower of Babel in the context of our celebration of Pentecost. This story follows on the heels of the story of the Flood and the re-population of the earth by the humans and non-humans preserved in the Ark. God makes a promise never to visit such destruction upon the earth again and commands Noah to be “fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.” (Genesis 9.7) From the Ark Noah and his family go forth and Genesis records their obedience to this divine command as various peoples are born from Noah’s sons and their wives. The unity of humanity is maintained not by a common language or a common territory but by the promises and obligations enshrined in the covenant that God made with Noah.

But the peoples are not entirely comfortable, it would seem, with this diversity. They come together to build a great city, discovering a common language and seeking a common identity: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11.4) Their fear of human diversity, a diversity that expresses God’s purposes, causes them to band together and to abandon that diversity and its witness to the breadth of the creativity and wisdom of God. What displeases God is not the building of a tower nor the desire to have a distinct identity, but rather God is displeased by the people’s desire for ‘sameness’, for homogeneity. It is an implicit denial of the unity that God has sought to create by means of the covenant with Noah. God responds by re-establishing linguistic diversity, thus thwarting the drive to uniformity represented by the city and the tower.

What is remarkable is what happens next. The peoples go forth and are fruitful and multiply. Languages and nations arise. Humanity returns to its intended diversity but without the unity promised by the covenant with Noah. So, in the story as told by the ancient scribes, God conceives a new plan, a new covenant, that involves a fellow by the name of Abraham and two women, Sarah and Hagar. This new covenant does not replace the older covenant with Noah but becomes a more focused witness to God’s desire for unity within diversity rather than uniformity. Although you and I are accustomed to hearing the story of Abraham and Sarah, we should not forget that God also makes a covenant with Hagar and Ishmael. When Sarah in jealousy convinces Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, God speaks to Abraham to assure him that God will make “a nation of [Ishmael] also, because he is your offspring.” (Genesis 21.13) With these two covenants we see the concrete expression of God’s desire for a diversity that unites us in covenants of promise and obligation.

For us who have been made a new people by water and the Holy Spirit, our celebration of Pentecost is not a celebration of the reversal of the sin of Babel, but a celebration of the renewal of God’s covenant to bring about a unity that rejoices in diversity. What happened on that morning so long ago is not that the diversity of human languages and cultures was erased by the preaching of the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth but that the good news enters into every human language and culture to bring about that unity sought by God as dearly as God seeks to maintain the diversity of human and non-human life: “Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? . . . [In] our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’” (Acts 2.7-8, 11b)

Friends, the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth is that we are united to God and to one another not by our own efforts but by God’s initiative and gift. We are invited by God to enter into a covenant, a covenant begun with Noah, focused in the covenants with Abraham and Moses and, for Christians, embodied in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth. This covenant does not demand uniformity but rather a unity that already exists by God’s gift, a unity that longs for concrete expression. Recently I adapted a prayer from the Jewish tradition, ‘A Blessing for Wisdom’ as found in the Reform prayer book, The New Union Prayer Book. It expresses, for me, some of the concrete obligations of the covenant God has invited us to undertake:

These are the obligations without measure, whose reward is also without measure:

• To honour father and mother;
• to perform acts of love and kindness;
• to study Wisdom daily;
• to welcome the stranger;
• to visit the sick;
• to rejoice with those who marry;
• to console the bereaved;
• to pray with sincerity;
• to make peace when there is strife.

Do these things, in your own way, in your own community, with the means that God has given into your hands and you will experience the unity that overcomes fear, the unity that honours life-giving diversity, the unity that promises the experience of God’s reign not in some indefinite future but in the definite present.

We are united as Christians in this time and place not by uniformity of belief and practice, but by a unity expressed in our gathering together to hear the Word proclaimed, to offer prayers for our world and ourselves, to break the Bread and to pour the Cup and to go forth renewed to participate in God’s unifying work by sharing the life of God within us amidst the diverse contexts in which we live, work and play. Vincent Donovan, the late Roman Catholic theologian of mission, once said, in my hearing, that we will not know the entirety of the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth until every human culture has had a chance to tell it in its own language. Every language, every culture, every age offers its perspective on the wisdom of God. Without that diversity our understanding of God becomes more limited and our ability to experience God’s presence more stunted.

So let us build cities rather than a city and towers rather than a tower. Let us speak of God in all the ways that God has given us. Let us honour God’s wisdom wherever that wisdom emerges. Let us do so with hearts, minds, souls and strength united in the love of God made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth and in the Spirit that breathes on the whole of creation.

Let us pray.

Perplexing, Pentecostal God, you infuse us with your Spirit, urging us to vision and dream. May the gift of your presence find voice in our lives, that our babbling may be transformed into discernment and the flickering of many tongues light an unquenchable fire of compassion and justice. We ask this through your incarnate Word and in the power of your wisdom-giving Spirit. Amen. (Revised Common Lectionary Prayers 2002, emended)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

What Must We Do to Be Saved?

[This sermon was prepared for the people of Saint Faith's Anglican Church in Vancouver, BC and focuses on Acts 16.16-34, the first reading for the Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.]

“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” With this question we hear the fundamental question of human beings throughout the centuries. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles the jailor is confronting a threat to his existence on two fronts. His very life is in danger because of the practice of executing jailors who allowed their prisoners to escape. This, in and of itself, is a serious threat, but the more fundamental threat is to the jailor’s understanding of the forces that shape our lives and the whole creation. An earthquake, to him, was more than a physical phenomenon; it was understood to betoken something supernatural, something that was outside human understanding and control.

For the jailor the physical threat of death by execution quickly passes, but it is the psychological and spiritual threat to his worldview posed by the earthquake that continues to trouble him. The conversion of the jailor and of his family to belief in Jesus as Lord comes at the intersection of these two needs in his life, the physical and the spiritual. He does not tarry to avail himself of the gift that Paul and Silas offer him, first the gift of his life, second the gift of the new life found in Jesus.

When we hear the jailor’s question in our own English language, we may immediately leap to certain images of what it means to be ‘saved’. For Luke, the probable author or editor of what we know as the Acts of the Apostles, the Greek verb he uses has several meanings.

• To be ‘saved’ can mean to be rescued from impending danger or
• To be ‘saved’ can mean to be preserved and protected over a longer period from various dangers and evils or
• To be ‘saved’ can mean to be healed or to be made whole.

In this reading from the Acts all three meanings are in play, but it is the third meaning that I want to hold before you today: “Sirs, what must I do to be healed and made whole?” It is this third meaning that I believe holds the most promise for us here at Saint Faith’s as we imagine what our future will be.

To be made whole, the jailor is told that he must confess that Jesus is Lord. In other words, he must commit himself to believing that Jesus is the authoritative encounter with the living God and that faith in Jesus involves acting in the same way that Jesus is described as acting in the Gospels. To be made whole is not about abstract theological presuppositions; it is the commitment of one’s whole being to a new way of living, a new way of being in the world.

When most of our contemporaries hear the question, “What must I do to be saved?”, they tend immediately to think that the question has a missing prepositional phrase.

• What must I do to be saved from eternal death?
• What must I do to be saved from sin?
• What must I do to be saved from God’s disapproval?

They tend to think that any religious discussion of salvation focuses on salvation as a matter of rescue or preservation from dangers, known and unknown, that involve the soul. This is not the prepositional phrase that the first Christians heard. They heard, “What must I do to be saved for?” In other words, our faith as Christians is not about being rescued, even if we may harbour such thoughts from time to time, or about being preserved from the tumults of life.

The good news of God in Jesus is that we are saved for a purpose, that in Christ and through the Spirit we are healed, made whole, to participate in the kingdom that God has made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth. We have been made whole and are being made whole in order to be witnesses to this kingdom, a kingdom that is not in some indefinite future but in the definite present. The institution that you and I know as the Diocese of New Westminster has a role to play in witnessing to that kingdom, but we should never confuse the institution with the kingdom. What God is doing in the world today exceeds what any institution, whether civil or religious, can achieve.

When we gather here to hear the Word proclaimed, to offer our intercessions, petitions and thanksgivings and to share in the bread broken and the wine poured, we do so not to be rescued or preserved. We gather here to be made whole, to grow into our true selves as creatures made in the image and likeness of God. We gather here to worship the God who is alive and active in our neighbourhoods, our homes and our workplaces. We gather here to renew our hearts, our minds, our souls and our strength to witness to the kingdom that is already in our midst.

All around us are people who are in need of healing and wholeness. The consumer-driven and success-obsessed culture of North America leaves its victims scattered all over the place. The flat world inhabited by many people cannot sustain them in the challenges of daily life. Despite the frequent use of the word ‘community’, few people know who their neighbours are and what the needs of their community might actually be.

In such a society as ours what we have to offer is ‘salvation’, a vision of what it means to be a human being fully alive, a vision of what God is doing in our own lives and in the lives of others whom we know. Rather than abstract and contentious discussions of what is and is not Christian faith, what we can offer is what the faith of Christians does.

It is a faith that leads people to live the risen life of Jesus, to bring life to others, to give light to the world so that we and all God’s children may be free, free from the delusions and counterfeits that diminish human freedom and potential. This is what God has been doing and is doing right now, right here, all the time. When we witness to God’s kingdom in our midst by telling others what God is doing in our lives, we are healed. When we witness to God’s kingdom in our midst by serving others as Jesus has served us, we are being made whole. What those who are not members of this assembly need for their salvation, their healing and wholeness, is not religion or institutional survival but the witness of our lives to the living God working in and through us to achieve God’s purposes. If what we do together in this place enables that witness, then let us give God thanks and praise, for that is surely what we are here to do. If what we do together in this place obscures or hinders our witness, then let us ask God to give us the wisdom to discern new directions and the courage to walk in those paths.

Unlike our jailor today, we are not facing possible execution, but we experiencing a cultural earthquake. The foundations of what has been the cultural world of the church in previous decades, even centuries, are being shaken and can no longer bear the weight of the institution we have built. For some, this comes as a threat, but to those who are committed to the way of healing and wholeness that we find in following the way of Jesus, the present cultural earthquake will leave us shaken but not shattered. In fact, when the dust settles, we may even find some treasures that we thought had been lost but are now unearthed.

What must we do to be saved? Trust in the God whose kingdom is being unearthed even as I speak. Follow Jesus who is our way, our truth and our life. Remember that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. If we do these things, then we shall be made whole. Amen.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Time for a Paradigm Shift?

RCL Easter 5C
2 May 2010

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

+ Holy One, may our love for you and for one another be a sign of your love made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The story is told of a young Baptist preacher beginning his ministry in a small congregation in the tobacco-growing region of North Carolina. On his first Sunday in the congregation, he chose to preach on the evils of drinking. At the end of the service, the Board of Deacons came to him and praised him for the sermon he had preached. The young pastor was buoyed by the praise.

The next Sunday the young pastor chose the topic of adultery and how it shattered the family. Once again his preaching was praised, not only by the Board of Deacons, but by some of the members of the congregation. Two Sundays of homiletical success elevated the young pastor’s self-confidence, so, on his third Sunday, he chose the evils of smoking as his topic.

After the service the Board of Deacons and a larger crowd of congregational members descended upon the young pastor who was somewhat confident that he had succeeded once again in winning the praise of his congregation. This confidence was rapidly shattered when the Chair of the Board of Deacons announced without preamble, “Pastor, you’re fired!” “Why?” asked the young pastor, “I’ve preached on smoking and adultery and won your praise.” “True enough,” said the Chair, “but you’ve moved from preaching to meddling.”

Some may find my sermon today to border closely on meddling, but that is the risk that any preacher faces when trying to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth.

While I was driving home this week, I was listening to ‘On the Coast’, the afternoon show on CBC 1. As I was listening, I heard an interview between the show’s host and the owner of an auto body shop in Coquitlam. This man's shop is located in a part of the city where there is a forested area frequently used by homeless people as a campsite. Over the years he and his employees had become friends with many of the people who used this forested area. The workers and the owner had begun to supply the homeless with food, with clothing and with other small services that made their lives a little bit easier.

Recently a company that is in the business of converting shipping containers into temporary housing units contacted the owner of the body shop and asked if he would be willing for them to put one of their units on his property. He immediately agreed. Within three weeks the city of Coquitlam sent the owner a notice informing him that unless he closed the housing unit he would be subject to fines of up to $150 per day. The notice informed him that his business was located in an area zoned for industrial use and that the small self-contained temporary housing unit was in violation of the zoning bylaws. Let me say that the housing unit has electricity, a small bathroom and has been certified by the CSA and fire departments as safe and sanitary.

Let me give you a bit more background about this story. First, his activities were supported not only by charitable organizations but also by the other businesses located near his body shop. Second, this man had been involved in a housing task force in Coquitlam that was looking at the problem of housing for the homeless. This task force, however, envisioned such housing being online in three to five years. Furthermore, they were not supportive of this temporary solution and supported the city's decision to shut it down. When the interviewer asked this gentleman why he had done this, why he, a business owner, was trying to help the homeless rather than move them out of his area, the man spoke of his own life's story, a story that had had its ups and downs, though homelessness had never been something he had suffered. As the interview drew to an end, he said something very simple, yet something that struck me quite deeply. "They are people like you and me," he said, "and they deserve more than they are getting."

Now this may seem to some of you a strange story with which to begin a sermon given the readings that we have heard this morning. But there are at least three things about this story that I want to hold before you today:

i) a man has an experience which redefines the boundaries that had previously described his world;
ii) the man is changed by this experience and
iii) the old world fights back.

There really is something remarkable about our first reading today. You may not know that what we heard this morning is actually the retelling of Peter’s experience which it takes place in the previous chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. This experience is so important to the writer of the Acts that it must be told twice, in Acts 10 and then Acts 11, as well as form part of the background to the events described later in Acts 15. In Acts 11 Peter retells the story of the dream that led him to Cornelius, a Roman centurion, a Gentile with whom Peter should have no contact. In his encounter with Cornelius Peter sees the Holy Spirit at work among the Gentiles, the family of a man who serves in the army that is occupying Palestine. Peter is forced to make a choice. He can ignore what he sees and follow tradition or he can do what his instincts tell him he must do and recognize the reality of the Holy Spirit working in a person whom Peter has always been told is outside the boundaries of God's activity. The good news for you and for me, Gentiles living some two thousand years after the fact, is this: Peter decides to act on his instincts rather than his tradition.

But let us notice how quickly Peter’s decision to act on his instincts rather than in accordance with the tradition brings him into conflict with members of his own community. The events described in today's reading occur in a time in the history of Israel that is fraught with danger and uncertainty. If we are to believe the stories of the New Testament, then the events surrounding the death of Jesus as well as his resurrection would have caused grave concern to both the Roman and Jewish authorities. There were already various groups seeking to overthrow Roman imperial control of Israel. There were already serious divisions among the people of Israel, religiously and politically. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem were only able to maintain some degree of influence because the Romans permitted it. The Romans had little or no respect for Jews, for the Jewish religion or for the influence of foreign gods and foreign ideas upon Roman military officials. Does it surprise us that the leaders of the small Christian community in Jerusalem, all of them Jews, all of them with family and friends who were either believers or nonbelievers in Jesus of Nazareth, would have concerns when they heard this story about one of their leaders, Peter, becoming involved in the life of a Roman soldier?

Yet there is something compelling about this story that Peter tells. Those who are critical of Peter's actions begin to realize as they hear the story told that there is something more going on here than they may have expected. One biblical commentator writes that, "Key to Peter's explanation is that this is God's doing. Belief in Jesus and in the outpouring of the Spirit are God's gifts and are not controlled by the apostles. Likewise, the ability to respond to God's gift with 'life-giving repentance' is given by God, first to Israel . . ., now to the Gentiles . . . ." (The New Annotated Oxford Bible, 3rd ed.) The situation is no longer, if it ever was, in the control of the tradition, the leadership or, for that matter, the political powers that still hold the people of Israel under military rule. Peter has an experience which redefines the boundaries that had previously described his world and he is changed by that experience, but the old world fights back.

Today's readings from the Acts of the Apostles as well as the story with which I began my sermon today are stories about conversion or, as the New Testament Greek would have it, metanoia. Those who heard Peter's speech today believe that they are witnessing the repentance of the Gentiles from their ways of life that are contrary to God's word. It must be said that the Jewish tradition, in a manner similar to many other traditions, assumed that the Jewish way of life was superior to the Gentile way of life. For Jewish believers in Jesus to hear this story of a Roman soldier confessing that Jesus is Lord seemed to them to be a vindication of the Jewish belief in the Messiah and in the Jewish faithfulness to a manner of life which showed their belief in God’s purpose for the people of Israel.

But there are other connotations to this wonderful word metanoia. Metanoia can also mean ‘a change in the way that we think’ or ‘a change the way we look at the world’. Some might find the phrase, ‘a paradigm shift’, a helpful parse. True, there may be some repentance in that experience, but to understand the word metanoia as I have just described it gives the word a positive and future orientation. In other words, repentance can sometimes be a way of dwelling on the past and comparing my present always with my past. But if the experience that I have is one which changes my perspective, changes the way that I think about my life or even changes the way that I look at the world, then my present becomes the foundation for my future.

The man of whom I spoke the beginning of my sermon demonstrates, in my opinion, all the signs of a man who has experienced metanoia. Whatever his life experiences have been, they have combined to transform him into a person who only sees the humanity of those who many in our society would see only as signs of human failure, victims and perpetrators of their own sorry condition. So, when a man such as this body shop owner, the owner of a small business, a person who is often typecast in our society as one who sees the homeless as an obstacle to business, responds in an unexpected way, in a manner that seems to threaten the status quo, the world fights back. Letters arrive from the city administration warning him that he is in violation of city bylaws, but these letters are not accompanied by information regarding how the city is going to address the needs of the people whom this business owner has identified as being in need and in trouble. With any luck this one good man's metanoia may result in the transformation of Coquitlam, just as Peter's metanoia resulted in the transformation of the world as you and I know it.

My sisters and brothers, God is at work here and around us. Sometimes God's work finds expression in our traditions and in the ways that we have found work for us in this world and in this life. But sometimes God's work transcends our traditions and even challenges the ways that we have found to order our society, to order our lives and perhaps even our religious faith. Certainly Peter discovered that his religious faith, as he understood it to be, was challenged twice in his own lifetime, once by a rabbi from Nazareth, once by a dream that led him to a centurion in Caesarea. Certainly my unknown friend in Coquitlam was challenged in his own lifetime and it has led him to challenge quietly but firmly the commonly held expectations about how to run one's business.

Here at St. Faith's I have no doubts that metanoia will be in our future if it is not already in our present. The metanoia of which I am speaking is not one of repentance but one of a transformed way of looking at the world and how God would have us live and be in it. Even as I speak of it, I am aware of the resistance that can spring up in my own being to the new ways of being church that the future seems to be holding before us. I hope that all of us will face the challenges that are before us in the spirit of Peter and in the spirit of a Coquitlam business owner who defied expectations by providing safe and sanitary housing for eight people who find themselves homeless in "the best place on earth". May God show us here in Vancouver how we can provide a house of study, a place of prayer and a source of pastoral care for those who find themselves faithless in this "best place on earth". Amen.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Let's Hear More about What the Faith of Christians Does and Less About What the Christian Faith Is

[These are notes for a sermon preached at St Saviour's Anglican Church in Nelson BC on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 25 April 2010.]

+ May only God's truth be spoken. May only God's truth be heard. Amen.

In the fall of 1978 I entered seminary. I was very excited and looked forward to my first class in theology. Dr. Jim Griffiss was our professor and on the very first day of class he stood up and said, "I am about to tell you in two sentences all you need to know about theology. When you meet Jesus of Nazareth, you meet God. Everything else is commentary." We all rapidly wrote this in our notebooks. Then some of us closed them. Dr. Griffiss looked at us all and said “Why are you closing your notebooks?” “Well,” said one of my colleagues, “we think we're done.” Dr. Griffiss said to us, “I'm far from being done. We have three years ahead of us to learn about the commentary!”

The question that divides Jesus from his opponents is this: Can one experience in Jesus the power and presence of God in the world? Before we can answer this question, it is important to say that Jesus’ opponents are not the Jewish people but the religious authorities and the elite. These authorities have constructed a religious world and in this religious world the actions of Jesus cannot fit. They cannot hear Jesus because their understanding of what it means to be a Jew does not permit the kind of behaviour that Jesus has thus far manifested.

• In John 2 Jesus comes to Jerusalem and cleanses the Temple, an explicit critique of the practice of the Jewish leadership of the time.
• In John 4 Jesus has his encounter with the woman of Samaria and violates two principles: (i) she's a woman and he should not speak to her and (ii) she is a Samaritan, a member of a group that Jews ostracize.
• In John 5 Jesus breaks the Sabbath by healing a paralytic at the pool of Beth Zatha, choosing mercy over the strict rules of religious observance.
• In John 6 Jesus scandalizes many of his listeners by describing himself as the bread of life and saying to them that they cannot have life unless they have him in them.
• In John 8 we have the famous story of the woman caught in adultery where Jesus says ‘Let the one without sin cast the first stone’.
• And then in John 9 Jesus heals a man born blind, a man who later on when questioned by the authorities asks them, ‘Do you want to be one of Jesus’ disciples?’, one of the greatest misreadings of an audience perhaps in all of Scripture.
• And then we arrive at today's reading in John 10 which forms part of the ‘Good Shepherd’ narrative which contrasts Jesus’ style of leadership with that of the religious authorities with whom he is in opposition.

What the religious authorities are confronted with is one of the oldest religious conflicts known to humanity. This is the tension between right believing or orthodoxy, and right acting or orthopraxis. When Jesus says, ‘The father and I are one,’ he is not making a doctrinal statement about his identity. What Jesus is pointing to is what he has done. He has been sent by God to show by deed what continues to elude many people to this day: God is more clearly known by what we do then by what we say. Let me repeat that: God is more clearly known by what we do than by what we say.

‘The Father and I are one’: Jesus and the God who sent him into the world are united in the work that God is doing in Jesus. If you want to know who God is, then watch what Jesus does. What Jesus does is this:

• He challenges unjust structures.
• He respects those who are considered outsiders.
• He chooses mercy over religious correctness.
• He offers himself for the life of the world.
• He forgives those who are caught in other people's webs.
• He gives sight to the blind.
• He chooses service rather than prestige.

What John is trying to say to you and me in today's reading is this: Do the things and we will know who God is and we will have life abundant.

Many centuries ago when the Christian movement was a struggling illegal offshoot of Judaism, a wealthy non-Christian Roman in North Africa wrote a letter of complaint to the local authorities. His complaint was that the Christians were increasing in numbers. Why? Because the Christians cared for the sick, the needy, the orphaned and the imprisoned --- whether they were Christians or not. So long as the civil authorities did nothing for those in need, he wrote, Christians would multiply.

My sisters and brothers, I know that these are difficult times for us. I have no magic that will suddenly reverse the trends we have been witnessing. I am convinced, however, that our future lies in acting like Christ more than in doctrinal disputes. What ‘the spiritual but not religious’ folk or young people or those who left the church as a result of some disappointment need is the witness of Christian communities such as yours and mine who are responding to the real needs of their communities.

Our gatherings for prayer and sacrament are meant to shape us so that we can act as Jesus acts. Perhaps the world needs to hear less debate about what Christian faith is a more about what the faith of Christians does. Let me say that again. What the world needs to hear is less debate about what Christian faith is and more about what the faith of Christians does.

Today Jesus' voice whispers in our ears, ‘You are mine. Have no fear. No one can take you from me or from the loving embrace of the One who sent me. Have courage and act.’ May that voice drown out the voices of fear and doubt and despair May that voice draw us out to undertake new ventures. May we be one in action with the One who speaks to us, just as he is one in action with the One who sent him into the world. Amen.