Unlimited forgiveness?

September 14, 2014
Bible Text: Genesis 50:15-21: Psalm 103:1-13; Matthew 18:21-35 | Preacher: Rev. Harry Klassen Genesis 50:15-21  Joseph Forgives His Brothers Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. Matthew 18:21-35 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’ There are many challenges before us today as we look at the passages from Scripture. They are so instructive and encouraging if we understand them correctly. First let us take a brief look at the Joseph saga stories. Beginning at Genesis 37, we have depicted the fall and rise of Joseph, Jacob’s favoured son. Many times in the Hebrew scriptures we have examples of sibling rivalries that lead to catastrophic results but which are very instructive for us. For example: the Ishmael/Isaac split comes right down to today with Arab/Muslim people tracing back to Ishmael and the Hebrew people asserting Isaac as their forefather. Briefly, the brothers cannot stand Joseph their youngest brother and so sell him off to slavery and tell their father that he was killed by wild animals. The brothers had dipped his wonderful coat in goat’s blood and took it to their father Jacob, and let him draw his own conclusions. Meanwhile Joseph is sold as a slave and rises through Pharaoh's court to a position of prominence. He is able to interpret dreams and have the people of Egypt prepare for years of famine. Eventually the brothers come to Egypt because they are running out of food. Eventually they become aware of the presence of the powerful Joseph, and stand before him in fear. This is where our passage begins. The brothers' continuing sense of guilt is striking. Have they been reconciled to Joseph, or not? With this scene, have we come to the end of the fratricide and familial deception running throughout Genesis? If the story of Joseph is any indication, family wounds continue to fester; those who do the hurt often wound themselves, and the healing balm of forgiveness may need to be applied more than once. And often, the words of forgiveness are not the words we want to hear. Capping off this story is Joseph's insight: where we see hurt, God sees good (50:20). How the brothers, or we, respond to that good news, remains an open question. - Marg Odell The Hebrew verb is, in effect, a metaphor; ‘to forgive’ is to remove a heavy burden, like taking a dead weight off someone's shoulders. Joseph does not use the words: I forgive you,’ but he does urge them to see their guilt as God sees it. They devised evil, but God saw good. However Joseph does act powerfully to indicate forgiveness: I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them. Joseph’s declaration that “God intended it for good” reminds us that the stories of biblical families are not just lectionary-sized snippets of individual family dramas, but rather they are part of the long and ongoing story of God’s relationship with Israel, chosen for blessing and in whom all families of the earth will be blessed. (Genesis 12:3). - Cameron Howard workingpreacher.org A Jewish commentator Wendy Amsellem helps us understand the complexities of forgiveness. She states: They cannot accept Joseph's forgiveness because they cannot forgive themselves. And so, in our portion, when Jacob dies, what the brothers are saying in part is "if only Joseph will hate us and repay the evil we did him." If only Joseph could avenge himself and give us back the wrong we did him, then perhaps we could finally be at peace. It is a complex moment, with their instinct for self-preservation mixing with their desire for ultimate absolution. They both want Joseph's hatred and yet need his protection. But Joseph does not crave revenge. All he yearns for is reunion with his family. He has spent 22 lonely years, and now he wants his brothers back. He will give them everything--forgiveness, sustenance, vocations, even riches--and all he wants in return is once more to be part of the family. With that story acting as a backdrop, we come to the Matthew passage which focusses upon forgiveness. Remember the context is Matthew dealing with troubles in his post resurrection community. Peter continues the discussion: How often should we forgive? As many as seven times? It is a quantitative question but Jesus changes the arithmetic and provides a qualitative answer. ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. Some translations have seventy times seven. The 77 may refer to an ancient text about Lamech indicating he would seek vengeance 77 times over. Gen. 4:24. A new order has come into being where in the kingdom of God, vengeance has no place; but rather forgiveness dominates center stage. Jesus then tells another memorable story unique to Matthew. At first blush, the story seems obvious, but as we examine it more closely questions emerge. In that day, kings would assume absolute power, and become fabulously wealthy. But they have several retainers and managers who assured the system worked and the king’s coffers were always full. From time to time, the king would conduct an audit. One of the slaves, not literally, because a person of such immense wealth, would be very high up in the government of the king. Ten thousand talents is an astronomical sum, exaggerated to make a point. This was a well trusted, efficient and skillful bureaucrat who knew the king’s trust. That is why the king would be so angry as to have his entire family sold into slavery. [likely referring to a Gentile king because Jewish law did not permit the family to be sold to pay the debt of the father and husband.] No matter, the bureaucrat pleads with the king: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. Knowing that the bureaucrat could not even come close in a few lifetimes of paying off such a monstrous debt, the king simply decides to write off the entire amount. William Herzog: “To receive forgiveness both enables and obligates one to offer forgiveness, not as an occasional exception to the rule but as a way of life and not without an awareness of the forgiveness one receives but as a response to it.” p.133 Parables as Subversive Speech The king’s act of forgiveness is of messianic proportions. It suggests a whole new era is about to begin. Debt forgiveness is all about the messianic age. The king has made it a point of honour - no longer exploitation and ruthless extraction of resources from the common people. What the king has done, the retainers must also do. But this same retainer, who has himself several underlings, realizes that one of them owes a small sum to him. In words reminiscent of what he had said to the king this slave also pleads: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” However, the act of forgiveness does not take place. Perhaps the bureaucrat is trying to reassert his authority amongst the host of underlings and let it be known that he is back minding the shop. Without an ounce of pity, he throws the underling into prison. The other underlings realize his lack of concern and report him to the king who is outraged. A new order of things has been introduced by the king’s magnanimous act of forgiveness, but this high ranking bureaucrat has returned the system to exploitation and injustice. Therefore he deserves the king’s utmost anger. To be in a state of grace, to realize that you can never repay what has been offered to us freely by God in Christ, is to acknowledge that we have no right to withhold forgiveness from another. Otherwise we do not understand who we truly are. When apartheid was dismantled in South Africa, rather than the country fragmenting and disrupting into civil war, they chose to go a different route and implemented a truth and reconciliation commission. One of the foundational principles of this experience is what Desmond Tutu calls “Ubuntu.” It is a Xhosa word that stands for the idea that we all share a common humanity. It says that the only way the human family can thrive is together. That means that when we look at another human being, even someone who has wounded us deeply, we cannot see an enemy, but rather a fellow human being, a brother or a sister. It seems to me that, in order to pray the prayer, “forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” and mean it, we have to practice “Ubuntu”—we have to acknowledge that we share a common humanity even with those who wrong us. When we can look at those who inflict pain on us and see brothers and sisters, then we can begin to forgive as we have been forgiven. Then we can begin to set them and ourselves free from the vicious circle of bitterness, hatred, and violence, and move into the freedom of forgiving as we have been forgiven. found in Tutu’s Made for Goodness Eric Barreto from the internet. “Forgiveness heals relationships by requiring us to let go, to turn the page, to refuse the right to hold on to bitterness and anger. Forgiveness, in short, sets things right again. Forgiveness is a powerfully healing force but also an incredibly difficult thing to receive or share. ..... Jesus concludes by noting the seriousness of our forgiveness of others. Just as the faithful hold the ability to bind and loose, our unwillingness to forgive will redound on us. Forgiveness is neither optional nor contingent. Why? Because God’s forgiveness knows no end and so also should our relationships be governed by a grace that knows no bounds. I like the way Nathan Nettleton sums up these stories of forgiveness. God continues to come to us. For in the extravagant love and mercy of God, even our refusal to accept the way of forgiveness and our inflaming of our man-made hells cannot quench God’s passionate desire for us. Despite all the pain and betrayal and violence, God continues to refuse to bear resentment, and continues to refrain from striking back at us, and continues to absorb all our hatred and hostility and callousness, seeking always to draw the sting out of them and offer back only love and compassion and tender mercy. God continues to forgive, seventy times seven, and to grieve over our refusal to be transformed by that forgiveness into a people who participate in living out that forgiveness in an angry violent world.         Laughing Bird liturgical resources. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. May it have new meaning for each of us when we pray it weekly or daily. Continue reading

Centrality of Community

September 7, 2014
Bible Text: Ezekiel 33:10, Matthew 18:15-20 | Preacher: Rev. Harry Klassen Ezekiel 3310 Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: “Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” 11Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?12And you, mortal, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not save them when they transgress; and as for the wickedness of the wicked, it shall not make them stumble when they turn from their wickedness; and the righteous shall not be able to live by their righteousness when they sin. 13Though I say to the righteous that they shall surely live, yet if they trust in their righteousness and commit iniquity, none of their righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. 14Again, though I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” yet if they turn from their sin and do what is lawful and right— 15if the wicked restore the pledge, give back what they have taken by robbery, and walk in the statutes of life, committing no iniquity—they shall surely live, they shall not die. 1Matt. 1815“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Most of us acknowledge that community is very central in determining what it means to be human. From the earliest pages of Scripture, God declares that it is NOT GOOD for the earth creature to be alone. A companion/partner is required before the earth creature becomes human, ‘created in the image of God, male and female. It is not only religious people who have a focus upon community. An article from this week’s Maclean’s, shares some thoughts from a developmental psychologist, Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect . The article by Bryan Bethune states: “Like many other contemporary thinkers who are not devout themselves, Pinker is strongly interested in religion.... social scientists are impressed by the benefits of community. In a study of 90,000 women who attended religious services at least once/week were twenty percent more likely to have longer lifespans. Small wonder there are increasing attempts to establish atheist churches to gain the benefits of community and comforting ritual. Pinker says: “Our digital devices are fabulous for gaining information, for scheduling our lives, for reaching the people we want and avoiding those we detest, but those devices have not been good for human relationships, because they cannot engender trust.” Ezekiel was written at a difficult time in the history of Israel. Trust in God had not been lost in the terrible consequences of exile. Experiencing exile in a strange land, they did not know where to turn, but realized that it was punishment sent by their God for ignoring the prophet’s warnings, especially Jeremiah. They readily acknowledge this: Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live? But trust in God had not eroded because they realized their plight was self inflicted. However, their traditions lay in ruins - no temple; no king. Sometimes our traditions do not allow us to shape new questions and we stagnate. But if our minds remain open we are in a position to be perpetual learners. I would like to share what a one hundred year old church member at Aurora United told me. She said to me: "One of the great things about growing old is that there is always more to learn." What an attitude! What a great statement! Unfortunately, the road to fulfillment is often seen in terms of instant gratification. In a recent book, The Impulse Society: America in the age of Instant Gratification the author Paul Roberts states that the drive to consume is falling short of what we actually need. The great irony Roberts states is that for all our emphasis on pleasure and gratification, society’s main output these days seems to be anxiety. We are paying a steep price for a quarter-century’s disengagement from one another. In other words, the age of short term solutions and digital communication is not succeeding in achieving what really counts - the importance of community, engaging one another face to face. This emphasis upon community is well spoken. As Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, has observed: “Community is the great assumption of the New Testament: From the calling of the disciples to the inauguration of the Church at Pentecost, the gospel of the kingdom drives believers to community. The new order becomes real in the context of the shared life.” Call to Conversion p.113. Accordingly Jesus insists that in this new community of his followers, we are to deal very carefully with interpersonal relationships. What is at stake is the very survival of the community, and its mission. If two of you agree, my Father will grant your request. Binding and loosing again comes into play, and has implications that are far reaching for life on this earth. Perhaps an example of an anti community will help us understand. With the emergence of the new terrorist threat through ISIS, we need to recognize that their goal is to set up an exclusive Islamist state. They have a concept of community, but it does not include any diversity. From that perspective, the question the world ought to be asking right now is not “How do we capture, kill or lock up the terrorists so that they can’t do it all again?” but “How do we successfully deconstruct the power of this ritual, so that the desire to do it all again is displaced into something more life-affirming?” Why are we not equally concerned with the humanitarian disaster in Syria, displacing so many people leading to the death of so many children. What about the concern for Central West Africa where over two thousand lives have been lost to Ebola virus. Of course, aid is compromised because of the civil strife happening at the same time. How do we intervene positively so that Syria/Iraq can return to some degree of normalcy? How do we contain the Ebola virus in Africa? Community has been seriously disrupted, and life for some in these threatened areas becomes strictly a matter of survival. What about our little community here. How do we embrace our future? It may not be easy, because there is a critical mass required for us to move forward. How then can we live and thrive into our future? From the gospel lesson it would appear that if two or three agree, the Lord is in our midst and will grant the request. Of course this agreement has to be consistent with what God wills. What is our attitude as we face the coming year. Are you anticipating excitement? What do you think we can accomplish? We are slowly making some changes and improvements around here. I have a sense that there is a strong committed core wanting to move the congregation forward. It will be a challenging task. Dietrich Bonhoffer in his book Life together suggests that we do not have to achieve community. In Jesus Christ, we are a community - it is God’s gift to us. However, Jesus points out how difficult it is to maintain community. Not only do we have different opinions, but more seriously we often sin against one another through thoughtlessness, prejudice or not taking another person seriously. This may be more difficult than it seems. For example, a central tenet of the Christian faith is ‘to love one’s neighbour as oneself.’ Most here would agree with that statement. But the implications of such a statement are complex. In the writings of Gustavo Gutierrez, a liberation theologian, you find this penetrating thought: “....when faced with a situation [of massive injustice] neutrality is impossible and calls for our active participation,... passivity or indifference is not permissible when the issue is justice and the defense of the weakest members of society. Passivity or indifference would be neither ethical nor Christian.” Essential Writings. p.119 He quotes the former Archbishop of Mainz: Under the Nazi dictatorship in Germany, “an attitude of unconditional neutrality in political questions contradicts the command of the Gospel and can have deadly consequences,” which of course it did. It divided the Christian community in Germany, and has led to challenges in Latin and Central America. So important differences will emerge in the Christian community as in Matthew’s church. Jesus spells out steps to be taken. Interesting that the one aggrieved initiates. Points out the other’s fault; if there is no repentance, brings some one else along to assist with the communication. If that does not work, you bring it to the congregation and finally remove the person from the community in order to ultimately bring the person to his or her senses. Nowhere is there the idea of punishment; it is all about restoration and harmonious community. A vibrant community of love and forgiveness commends itself to the broader neighbourhood, but do they know it exists here? How do we get the message out? In small measure we are attempting to reach out to the island in a variety of ways: from the Garden Party, to the fish fry to the forthcoming concert and PCW evening presentation. Finally, however, unless we communicate at a very personal level, all these attempts, productive as they are, will not bolster community. We have to be a welcoming presence that invites people to come to know a God who cares, loves and forgives. Let the attractiveness of Jesus shine through us!   Continue reading

The Bread of Life

August 17, 2014
Bible Text: 1 Kings 3:3 | Preacher: Rev. Harry Klassen 1Kgs. 3:3   Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.   4 The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.   5 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, "Ask what I should give you."   6 And Solomon said, "You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.   7 And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.   8 And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.   9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?"  10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.   11 God said to him, "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right,   12 I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.   13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honour all your life; no other king shall compare with you.   14 If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life." Jn. 6:51   I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."   52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"   53 So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.   54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;   55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.   56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.   57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.   58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever." Pause for a moment at the outset of this sermon to reflect upon the tragedy of our world. Consider the mess of the middle east and the inability of leadership to stem the tide of violence; thinking that war and civil strife can solve something. Instead we are left with dissolving countries of Syria and Iraq. Israel and Gaza are at constant war it seems. Russia and Ukraine cannot agree. Violence erupts in Ferguson, Missouri when a white police officer kills an African America unarmed youth. Where are the leaders who pray the prayer of Solomon: Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?" 10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. Notice how God responds: because you have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, God will give him riches and wisdom and long life. Notice that God is pleased that Solomon did not ask for the life of his enemies. The Islamic State terrorists should listen to this passage of Scripture. Centuries ago Christians were no better, forcefully converting Jews and Muslims on the pain of death, but hopefully those days are long since passed. So much happens in the name of religion that is displeasing to God. But leaders who ask for wisdom and act with justice at the forefront of their mandate are pleasing to God. Unfortunately the problem with democracy is that in order to get elected, you act not out of justice but out of self interest. Can you imagine a premier in Alberta saying the oil revenues of the province are to be shared for the good of all Canadians? Can you imagine Quebecers wanting to share their hydro electric power with all? Can you imagine a former time when Ontario’s manufacturing was the hub of the Canadian economy. Would we have shared our wealth for the good of all? But this reality seemingly does not exist. Many pundits realize that there can be no global security unless we have a common security where injustices around the globe are sorted out. Do we honestly believe that pouring billions into the arms race accomplishes more than pouring billions into feeding the poor and protecting our health systems. Discrepancies and inequalities around the world exacerbate the issues in which terrorist groups can flourish. Although we know this, the rich and powerful have a vested interest in war machines and we do so little to say ‘enough! That has never worked and will not work now.’ One of the leading theoreticians of global capitalism, George Soros, makes this crucial concession: “International trade and global financial markets are very good at generating wealth, but they cannot take care of other social needs, such as the preservation of peace, alleviation of poverty, protection of the environment, labour conditions, or human rights– what are generally called public goods.” On Globalization 2002 p14 Solomon was very wise. Unfortunately the very blessings that were bestowed upon him led to his undoing. When he became rich and powerful he made some foolish decisions with the result that at the end of his life, the state of Israel broke in two following a civil war after his death. Where does that wisdom come from? Jesus indicates that we need to be rooted and grounded in God's love for true life and justice to flourish. He stated: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." Is bread not more powerful than a bomb? Instead of wasting billions on armaments, if we fed the world's hungry, who would the terrorists be able to recruit? So the wisdom of Jesus is portrayed in feeding hungry crowds. A word about bread - In a delightful little book called Elegy to the family farm - 80 Acres the author, Ronald Jager, pens these words: ". ..to them (city slickers) those country things were like manna from heaven. The appreciation they expressed for - of all things! -- bread was a revelation to us. Jaded children of the land, we casually consumed a dozen loaves of my mother’s bread every week, not realising that it was twice as nutritious and tasty as ‘boughten’ or baker’s’ bread that we always craved but seldom had. “Give us this day our daily bread we always prayed” but when the Hoechzma’s were with us we ate each other’s bread and fruit and gave a happier thanks.” p. 73 Annemarie confirms this sentiment exactly. Growing up on a farm where her mother always baked the bread, how she craved Weston’s white enriched bread on which mice would die of starvation if that were their sole source of food. As for me, when I visited her from the city how delighted I was to get homemade bread. The Gospel reading for today follows after the feeding of the 5000 with five loaves and two fishes. As a result the crowd attempts to make Jesus their king. The crowds follow the next day and Jesus “explicates” what has transpired. 26 Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.   27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal."   28 Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?"   29 Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." 30 So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?   31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"   32 Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.   33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."   34 They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always." Notice that the people are not overwhelmed by the event that has just transpired. Instead they ask him for a sign. Really? What just happened? But rather than turning this into a nice church growth opportunity - Jesus suggests that the one thing needful is for them to believe in him, and accuses them of not believing. When he calls himself ‘the bread of heaven,’ a bread better than manna, they start to murmur and complain. Is not this Joseph’s son? Unlike today, when the debate may rage: 'how did Jesus accomplish such a miracle?' the question for the people who had eaten was more mundane. Let us take care of our immediate problem and make him our king. Surely a greater than Solomon is in our midst. It is a reminder that power elicits great temptation and opportunity. Think of the good Jesus could do for his people if he were to reign instead of Herod. Anyone who could feed 5000 with such meagre resources surely could challenge the Roman empire. I believe we underestimate the seductive nature of this temptation for Jesus. Instead he retires to a mountainside to pray, and presumably to get it straight one more time what his mission truly was. Jesus insisted that the kingdom he inaugurated is "not of this world" (John 18:36). Almost all human kingdoms and powers go to any lengths to exercise power over others (political, economic, military, cultural), whereas the reign of God that Jesus taught and modeled flourishes—counter-intuitively and paradoxically—by what he calls "power under" others, a radically counter-cultural mandate for an alternative ordering of human affairs. He did not allow himself to be co-opted by any political ideology or party of the day. From his birth when King Herod tried to murder him until his death at the hands of Pilate, Jesus threatened the political powers of his day, not because he sought to control what they controlled but because "he undercut its pretensions and claims to supremacy" (Wills). If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not Lord. Thus, concludes Garry Wills, Jesus did not acquiesce in silence before political power, he confronted it, so that "the program of Jesus' reign can be seen as a systematic antipolitics" (What Jesus Meant). Have you ever seen a miracle? Would you like to see one? Why? What would it do for you? There were serious obstacles to belief then and there are even more serious obstacles to faith now. Remember, the feeding of the 5000 was not a proof but rather a sign pointing in a direction. A sign that the people did not accept. I like what Jean Vanier suggests: “Today, some two thousand years after the event some of us may smile cynically: miracles! As if they were wholesome stories intended for children. We may laugh and say: ‘How wonderful if Jesus were present today. We would not have to go out and buy bread!” He continues: “Jesus reveals a caring God, a God who is concerned for our well being and wants us to be well.... It is not just a miracle of multiplying food but also of creating and building a caring community where people are concerned for one another.” p.119 Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Reflecting upon the experience of the people in the wilderness, Jesus said: John 6:48 I am the bread of life.   49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.   50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.   51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." What strong language! The metaphor of eating his flesh sounds positively cannibalistic. The passage before us is acknowledged to be Eucharistic. The Aramaic with which Jesus spoke had no distinct word for body as in Greek. So the reference to flesh is quite likely original. Various commentators have pointed out that the passage is awkward in its placement. - What would the crowd understand?Did they not have a right to be confused? But what Jesus is saying is that where we belong is near to the heart of God. The next time you partake of communion may you appreciate anew that you are engaged in a very intimate act where Jesus mysteriously comes to you in the bread and wine and makes his dwelling with you. Rev. 3:20   Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. "That's when I want you—you knower of my emptiness, you unspeaking partner to my sorrow. That's when I need you, God, like food," wrote Rainer Maria Rilke in his Book of Hours. Rilke's intense hunger for God is one known and expressed throughout our faith tradition, from the Israelites' walk to freedom, to Jesus. From Elijah, who promised that "they shall eat and there shall be some left over" (2 Kings 4:43) to Jesus, God always provides extra. In some of the most powerful writings of the New Testament, John describes the embodied God as our only source of nourishment and true life. In Christ our deep hunger and loneliness is fully satisfied: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever" (John 6:51). Realistically, Jesus reminds us in the Lord’s prayer of how important this nourishment of bread really is. Give us today, our daily bread. Come to the God of abundance who from meagre resources not only filled the crowd, but there was an exceeding overflow of twelve baskets. Continue reading

Speaking with God

August 10, 2014
Bible Text: Psalm 22, James 5:16 | Preacher: Rev. Dr. Zander Dunn Prayer is speaking with God. Prayer is more than speaking to or at God. Prayer is more than listening to God. Prayer is the back and forth of speaking with God. Recently somebody phoned me and said, “Zander, I’d like to speak with you.” By that, I understood that both of us were going to speak and both of us were going to listen. We were going to have a conversation. That’s what prayer is - a conversation with God. The Psalmists were good at speaking with God. They not only told God of their love, their gratitude, their hopes and fears, they also blasted God in anger. They had enough confidence in their relationship with  God that they knew they could express their their rages, their complaints, their sorrows to and with God. Jesus, at the worst time in his life, hung on the cross and complained, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Those words were taken right from Psalm 22. The psalm begins in fury and disillusionment, but it ends in the assurance that God is there with the psalmist. Prayer is also about speaking honestly with God. The trouble is that we’ve learned that prayer is mainly asking God for things. Prayer is far more than that. Even the Bible can be misleading about prayer. Matthew says, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, with faith, you will receive.” Luke says, “Ask, and it will be given you.” Even Jesus is reported to have told a parable about persistence in prayer: pray, pray, pray ... and God will eventually give in. The problem is that all these verses are taken out of context. Prayer doesn’t guarantee you’ll get whatever you want The purpose of prayer is not to get what we want; the purpose of prayer is to connect with The One who is important above all others. Some of us bargain with God when we’re in trouble: “O God, get me out of this and I’ll go to church every Sunday.” or “O God, save my wife from dying and I’ll give the church $1,000.” or “O God, save me from cancer and I’ll go into the ministry.” Prayers asking for things on behalf of others are “intercessory” prayers: we intercede with God. Prayers asking for things on behalf of one’s self are called “petitionary” prayers: we petition God. These are the prayers we pray most of the time. If God doesn’t answer our prayers, then we figure we’re not good enough or that we’ve offended God somehow. We can get that attitude right from the Bible. In James 5:16 we read this: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” But what if my prayer is not effective? What if I don’t get what I ask God to give me? I must not be very powerful in prayer. I must be ineffective as a Christian. Some Christians speak about Prayer Warriors. Prayer Warriors are Christians who destroy evil just by praying. Prayer Warriors are Christians who heal the sick just by praying. Prayer Warriors are Christians who achieve great good just by praying. Prayer Warriors are Christians who manage to get God to do what they want. I’m not a Prayer Warrior because I seldom get what I want or what I think others need. A minister’s wife was stricken with cancer. The prognosis was that she’d live two years. The minister summoned all his friends to pray for her. He had many friends, so prayer groups sprang up all over the place and begged for her health. The minister’s wife didn’t die in two years. She lived for seven years before she died. The prayer groups began to think they were pushing back the disease and her death. They were Prayer Warriors fighting for God against evil and they rejected the devil, Cancer. I’m a minister and I can’t believe God works that way. I can’t believe, that because of the prayers of many, my wife would live longer than expected. Suppose the wife of a beggar in Kingston had cancer. Neither the beggar nor his wife believed in God. There were no prayer groups supporting her. She died in two years. Did God say, “I’m getting thousands of prayers for the wife of the minister so I’ll give her five more years. Nobody is praying for that beggar’s wife so I’ll let her die in two years.”? If God works that way, I want no part of God. God doesn’t love ministers more than beggars. God doesn’t answer strong prayers from thousands; God doesn’t reject the feeble prayers of the few. God loves us all equally and cannot be manipulated by our prayers no matter how many powerful Prayer Warriors are speaking with God. In 1985 Hurricane Gloria attacked the east coast of the United States. Televangelist Pat Robertson prayed for God to change the storm’s course to avoid hitting his headquarters in Virginia. The hurricane veered north and Robertson claimed his prayers persuaded God to save his ministry. Not only that, when the hurricane changed direction that proved that God approved of Robertson’s ministry, life and witness. As somebody later said, “Too bad for the folks on Long Island - their homes were wiped out and many died. They must have been punished.” When Christians say, “Just pray enough and God will provide,” they’re not telling the truth. In The First World War we prayed for victory against the Germans. But the Germans wore buckles, “Gott Mit Uns” which means, “God is With Us.” Nobody won that war; both sides lost that war. Imagine this: the victims of an airplane crash arrive at the pearly gates and God tells them, “Sorry, I wanted to intervene but not enough of you prayed for it.” Imagine an airplane is caught in a terrible storm but God reaches down and sets the plane on the runway safely and says, “It’s a good thing you all prayed.” Neither of those pictures makes sense. But we know that people who pray and are prayed for, recover more quickly from diseases than those who are not prayed for. So pray for healing - not because you’ll always get well but because it is possible you may connect with the powers of healing. Pray for safe travel - not because God will catch your airplane, but so you’ll be prepared for whatever happens. Pray for an end to a drought, for a job, for your kids, not because prayer controls weather, not because you influence a future employer, not because your kids are better than others, but because prayer connects you to God. Rain falls on the just and the unjust and we need to relate to God who is there in joy and sorrow. For God to be with us does not guarantee that everything will turn out right for us. For God to be with us does not mean we’ll all be safe or protected. For example, you go to work in a winter storm. There are no customers so the boss sends you home. The main roads are packed; no cars are moving; you take a side road. You skid into the ditch, roll over, unconscious. You come to, but you can’t get out of your car. You have no cell phone. Nobody is expecting you home for hours. You could freeze to death. You pray for God to send somebody to rescue you. God gets a gas station manager to put some chicken soup in a thermos, jump into a tow truck and drive down a deserted road in a blizzard until he finds your car upside                                       down and snow covered. He digs the car out, pulls you out, feeds you soup and drives you home to your family. Perhaps some people figure that’s how prayer works; that’s not usually how prayer works. On the other hand, somebody has pointed out that what I’ve just described is a coincidence. You took a back road; a tow truck took the same road. You overturned; the tow truck driver saw you there. You prayed and God responded by sending help. You can’t help yourself; the truck driver helps you. That sounds like coincidence. True, but as Archbishop Temple said, when we stop praying the coincidences stop happening. Is prayer only coincidence ... or is it more? What is more likely to happen is this: because God has a covenant relationship with us, God will be with us no matter what. When we find ourselves upside down, stuck in a blizzard, God is with us. It is very unlikely that a tow truck will rescue us. But God stays with us and will stay with us - until we’re found ... or until we die. We’d like to think and hope, that if we’re good, God will protect us and rescue us from all difficulties. But being in a relationship with God doesn’t put a divine force field around us protecting us from all harm. Being in a relationship with God empowers us to live life, no matter what happens to us. We might figure that if God doesn’t answer our prayers and doesn’t send us a tow truck then there’s something wrong with us. We wonder what we’ve done to deserve such treatment. We miss the deeper truth which is that God is with us. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas - Emmanuel, God with us. Our problem is that most of us don’t see that. We see the problem; we see the sadness. we see the injustice. we see the chaos. we see the failure. That’s all we see. We don’t see God with us. I used to have several filters for my camera. The filters would cut through the haze, enhance the colours, deepen the contrasts. The filters didn’t change the scene; they changed my perception of the scene. The filters of love, peace, and patience can help us see the presence of God in everyday experiences. If we take the time to consider all that’s happening at any one point, we’ll see God with us. Many Jewish rabbis argue that study is prayer. When they study they’re pondering things that they consider of great import. They look at the subject from every viewpoint. There are no limits to the ways in which they look at those items for study. They keep looking until they see something of God. They don’t expect to see or hear or feel or smell God in the fullness of God; but they do expect to experience something of God. If that sounds too intellectual for you, then consider this story by Teresa of Avila in her book, “The Way of Perfection.” There was a nun who could only pray vocal prayers. She came to Sister Teresa in great distress saying she didn’t know how to practice mental prayer, meditation, centering prayer. The only way she could pray was to speak aloud. When Sister Teresa asked her what vocal prayers she used to speak with God she found out the old nun was simply saying The Lord’s Prayer over and over. The Lord’s Prayer was given to us by Jesus so we must not look down on that nun for using it and only it. A good prayer can be a single word, such as “Abba.” Abba is the word for Father, or Daddy. That word expresses the love God has for us, it expresses the trust we have in God. There is no such thing as a bad prayer. Prayer is simply being open and honest with God. All true prayer is with God. I say that because I’ve heard ministers and leaders using the most impressive language to express their theology, their love, their joy, to everybody else but God. A newspaper reporter wrote that in a worship service      the minister delivered the most impressive prayer ever presented to a Boston audience. That’s the point - it was not a prayer to God; it was a prayer presented to a Boston audience. I know ministers who have trouble with having to say the right kind of prayers. They don’t want to pray to impress their people; they want to pray with God. They want to pray with God both publicly and privately. A minister friend of mine told me that getting up early, going apart from other people, reading the Bible, didn’t lead him to pray. He decided that he had to meet God in the newspaper. He was led to pray by the headlines, the editorials, the reports of world events, the obituaries, the cartoons. He felt he could share with God his concern for God’s creation and for God’s people. He didn’t pray against the Muslims, but for them. He didn’t pray against criminals, but for them. He didn’t pray against the government, but for it. He did that because he knew God loved all those people and issues and events. There are many ways to connect with God. It’s been said that there are only two questions that really matter on the spiritual path. The first is: Where am I? The second is: What time is it? There’s only one answer to each question: “Here” and “Now.” The only time in which we can encounter God is here and now - not in the future, not in the past. The purpose of prayer is to get back to the friendship God offers us here and now. Prayer is actually more than a conversation with God. Prayer is being open to God. God is there to be with us. To be with God takes time, effort, openness. And when we’re with God, then God changes us. As one scholar remarked, “Prayer is not about changing God. Prayer is about being willing to let God change us.” I stood on a huge cruise ship and watched a sailor in the ship pull on a line attached to a dinghy. I watched a man in the dinghy pull on the same line. The ship didn’t move closer to the dinghy; the dinghy moved closer to the ship. The function of prayer is to attach ourselves to God at work in our lives and to allow God to                         draw us closer to the divine. God is always there for us and wants to talk with us as we go through life. Our conversation may not stop evil from assailing us; it may not keep illness from attacking us; it may not lead to success or victory. But our prayers will remind us that God will never leave us so we can always give thanks to God no matter what.                       Continue reading

August 3, 2014
Bible Text: Ephesians 3:14-19 | Preacher: Ambassador (Ret.) John Schram LLB (Toronto), M.A. LLD (Ghana)   Times like this are hard on a church congregation. Here we are, between ministers, aware that many of our friends on the Island no longer see coming to church as important; knowing that on the mainland there are thousands more families in malls every Sunday than there are in all of our churches combined. Nothing much makes us think of the good that churches have done, or of the powerful help, faith and strength that has come to individuals, families and communities all around the world through the efforts of congregations just like ours. And that, for all of us, is a real pity. The story is a good deal more positive than most of us realize. And, for us as we look at what we want St Paul’s Amherst Island to accomplish over the next few years, it’s actually quite encouraging. We could talk for ages about what our church has meant to Amherst Island families. We could spend a long time on what St Paul’s is still doing for those of us who depend on it now. But today, if only because I know it best, let’s think of the love and purpose which has gone from St. Paul’s to the wider world well beyond Amherst Island and Kingston. And to what St Paul’s is still doing to spread Christian love and assurance in a global community so desperate for both - but still so lacking in either. We don’t think about it much, but this congregation has been a firm stalwart of the Presbyterian Church in Canada ever since its founding over 165 years ago. For all of its history, this church family has been part of what Canadians have done not only in the local cmmunty, but abroad to put into action Christ’s command to love our neighbours as ourselves, to bring home the reality of Christian love. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have come from churches like St Pauls have been taught that we are indeed our brothers’ –and sisters’ keepers. As a direct result, we do believe we have an obligation to those less well off than we are. Whatever the current drift in Canada, we know that Christ taught that we are to demonstrate practical love, worked out in all the hurly burly of the troubles of the wider world. If you think I am overstating this - that I am gilding the lily of what St Paul’s has really accomplished-- I can offer some quite convincing proof. If you were to have been with Alena and me in Ghana, or South Africa, or Zimbabwe, we could have shown you truly remarkable examples of what the Christian concern of congregations like ours can accomplish. Let me tell you about three of them: Mensahs in Ghana; Here’s one particular example from Ghana. It concerns the Ghanaian- Canadian family of David and Brenda Mensah. Brenda is from Uxbridge; David was doing a PhD at Toronto, and they met when Brenda’s father gave David a summer job on their Uxbridge farm - and thus gave David the funds to complete his education. It proved a good investment. Over the years since he and Brenda met at though a church like ours in Uxbridge, the Mensahs have helped hundreds of women start and run one of the most amazing and productive community development projects I have ever come across in our many years in Africa. With the support of Canadian churches, through Presbyterian World Service and Development, and the Sharing Way, David Mensah and his wife Brenda have inspired these rural women to raise their own levels of education, health and income from amongst the lowest in Ghana to amongst the highest. Now they market their fish, tomatoes, vegetables and shea nuts internationally. (Those of you who buy Body Shop products will be using their produce!). Women and their families who only a couple of decades ago were fortunate to see $365 in a year now make upwards of $19,000 through marketing their produce – an unheard of annual income in other rural areas of West Africa. This is Christian commitment and love at its best – an example of what Canadian churches like St Paul’s can accomplish when they work to support people like the Mensahs and their communities in Ghana. South Africa:  My second example of what people in congregations just like St Paul’s have accomplished takes place in South Africa, in the depths of apartheid – the late eighties, early nineties before Nelson Mandela came out of jail and South Africa changed. In those years, not very long ago, South Africa was a land of racial solitudes. It was illegal or just not done to live or come together in even the simplest of social interaction - like eating a meal together. Black and coloured South Africans were not only poor; not only poorly educated, but they were consigned to townships. Breadwinners went to far-away mines or to cities as domestics. They lived far apart from their families. Outside of working hours, whites and blacks seldom met, but some amongst both groups saw that they were indeed brothers and sisters – that things should not and could not continue as they were. Against all odds, they were prepared to work peacefully and prayerfully to change it. A small minority of white men and women were willing to risk all, families, social standing, comforts, and jobs. Many of this select few were people of strong faith. Many were Christian, but many others were Jewish, Hindu and Muslim. They braved arrest to help black people challenge white busses, or to demand service for black people in hospitals, or to work for good education, or for fair court trials for black people. How did St Paul’s have a role in this? These few saints and heroes gained immense strength from knowing that the international community – not least Canadians – firmly supported them. Canadian church congregations took a lead in this effort. And thus you, the members of St Paul’s, can claim some modest pride in what Canadian and South African churches did for the future of their broader society. Equally impressively, some of you from this church will have been part of the enormous group of anonymous Canadians who sent substantial sums of money to the Defence and Aid Fund for South Africa. This is the movement that was coordinated in Canada by Anglican Archbishop Ted Scott. It collected donations from church basements, individuals and service clubs. This money was sent off to church people and lawyers in South Africa. No one outside the local distribution committees ever knew who gave it or to whom it went. Certainly we in the Canadian embassy did not know. If the South African authorities had found out, the recipients and Committee members would have been arrested and the support would have dried up. But this money from Canadians like you in local congregations offered life-saving support to political detainees and their families: it found them good lawyers to ensure fair trails; it provided education to their children; it ensured single mothers whose breadwinners were in jail could feed their families. And it kept alive the sense that the struggle against apartheid had worldwide support, and thus would ultimately be won. Zimbabwe And now we have the same sort of situation in Zimbabwe. Here is a place where an aging president and his hangers on are more interested in their own power than in the well-being of their people. Instead of pushing for the tolerance, respect for human rights and rule of law for which he was admired by PM Mulroney and Joe Clark during their work together in the Commonwealth against apartheid, the Zimbabwe president ‘does-in’ his own population. He wrecks their businesses and homes; throws white farmers off their land; turns African success story into tragedy. He has completely abandoned his earlier commitment to dialogue, democracy and the welfare of all his people just to keep himself and his own party in power. What has this to do with Canadian church people? Well, as in South Africa, the Church is active in Zimbabwe. Here, too, a brave minority of church people who are trying to promote dialogue and understanding. The Presbyterian church Alena and I attended in Harare was a depleted, downtown former “white’ church, traditionally run by past white farmers and top white political figures of colonial days. But thanks in part to churches in Canada, it now has a black minister with a commitment to a multi-racial, non-political congregation. More importantly, with the support of Canadian Presbyterians, it is part of an all-too-rare process of national reconciliation and dialogue. Once more, we can see what can be done when prayer, discussion and financial support here in Canada lead to action in other countries. And when committed people abroad are supported by congregations just like this one here on Amherst Island. So despite seeming uncertainty and drift of these times, we really do have a lot to celebrate – probably more than we ever knew. St Paul’s is part of something big. Its past is truly glorious both for what it has done here at home, and for what it has contributed overseas. Let’s thank God for St Paul’s Church -- for her history and her good works. But more, let’s thank God that this church is alive and growing, that is has younger families and many children to give it new life - and that it is still ready to help meet the age-old, world-wide need for Christian love. Let’s pray for the inspiration and commitment to carry St. Paul’s proud past forward into the challenge of an equally useful future Let us pray: Father, we do indeed give you thanks for St Paul’s Church. We thank you for so many years of past service. We thank you for all that has been done through this congregation to extend the message and action of Christian love. We thank you for St Paul’s contribution to Canadian Christian work in Africa. And we thank you for what has been done for people of this church and community right here at home. We pray for commitment, for resolution and for inspiration to push forward into these coming years of new ministry and contribution. We sense that the challenges will be greater than ever before. But we know that if we are faithful to our past and strong in our commitment to the future, your strength will be sufficient to carry us through. We pray through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen Continue reading

The Tower of Babel

July 27, 2014
Bible Text: Genesis 11:1-9 | Preacher: Rev. Harry Klassen The Tower of Babel Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘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.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. This completes the section of Genesis called prehistory, that is, Genesis 1-11. With chapter 12 and the call of Abram, a whole new story begins as we move into the beginning of salvation history. That development waits for another time. What has transpired to date: The marvelous saga of the creation or origin of the universe has unfolded in two distinct sagas. Genesis 1- 2:4a, is a highly codified priestly account recorded likely during the exile period in the sixth century BCE. The other more ancient tradition shares the story of the development of the earth creature, male and female, who are set forth to attend the garden and maintain it as good stewards. Humanity’s creation was a huge risk for God, for he had been given a vocation: to till and tend the garden; permission [freedom] everything has been placed at humankind’s disposal [exercise dominion], and prohibition [limits have been set]. They are not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. These three ideas stem from Brueggemann’s useful commentary on Genesis. Somehow, evil insinuates itself through a serpent who discusses theology with Eve. Did God say. Humankind cannot resist the temptation to assert autonomy and partakes of the forbidden fruit. New knowledge comes; they know they are naked and now the rupture in the relationship with God, leads to a rupture in human community. They find themselves hiding from God and each other. Tragically, the net outcome of this rupture is exemplified in the Cain/Abel story where Cain murders his brother Abel provoking the famous retort: “Am I my brother’s keeper.” Evil appears to be on the ascendancy and so God responds by sending a flood upon the earth. A saga told by many ancient religions in the Near East. However, the uniqueness of this story stems from the heart of God. Change takes place within God. Incredibly, God repents, that is expresses grief within God’s own heart that humanity had been created in the first place. However God seeks not so much too destroy creation, but give it a second chance through one family, Noah and all the animal kingdom saved by being inside the ark. A promise is given for all to see, a rainbow in the sky serves as a reminder to God and to all humankind, that God is about life and not destruction. God is about promise not judgment. When Noah disembarks from the ark, first thing he does is build an alter and offer a sacrifice to god. “the Lord smelled the pleasing odor.” When someone told a child that Noah built an altar right after getting out of the ark, the child said: “Yuk, he knelt in all that muck.” Through a catalogue of nations we now come to this famous story of the tower of Babel. ‘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.’ They had one language and were supposedly together in one large community. Once again we may perceive an influence from the time of exile in Babylon where the city had many elaborate structures, some extremely high. However, this story may trace its origins further back. What is at stake here is another veiled attempt to usurp the place of God. The desire to reach the heavens and make a name for themselves. In what ways does our modern society attempt to replace God with our own hubris. In the building up of empire, do we not see attempts to storm the gates of heaven and supplant God with our own sense of power. Was Hitler not attempting to build a thousand year Reich? It was legitimately claimed that the sun never set on the British Empire, circumventing the globe. ‘Make a name for ourselves.’ The Bible is not critiquing technology or urbanization here. Rather what is challenged is that humankind is going outside the limits once again. Moving forward on their own irrespective of God’s universe. We have just celebrated an anniversary of landing on the moon. Neil Armstrong stated to the watching world: “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Our son, Brent was watching with us at the age of two, in our living room in Waterloo. Here we are reaching for the stars or at least the very moon. Now we are selling tickets for travel to outer space, to the planet Mars. One thing this clearly demonstrates; - how vast is our universe. From the human side, humanity stood back and marveled at this grand achievement building a tower to the heavens. From god’s perspective we have a very humourous note: The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Apparently, what was so large from earth ‘s perspective was a mere blip on God’s radar screen, so God had to get closer for a better view. God at that time did not have the benefit of a Hubbell telescope. ‘’Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” The problem for God is that they can achieve all these things without reference to their creator, who made the human creative enterprise possible in the first place. It is not postulating that technology or urbanization or human enterprise is bad or even sinful. What God is saying to humankind and to us today, No matter what you do or what you accomplish, in order to truly be life giving and positive, it must always have a reference to the one who made us in the first place. God said to humanity: be fruitful and multiply. Fill the whole earth. Humankind said to God: We will build a tower and supplant you. In Nietzsche’s book, Joyful Wisdom, in a section entitled the Madman, the creature goes out to find god and comes back with a report that God is dead. “We have killed him. the holiest and mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled ot death under our knife-- who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse our selves... Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become gods, merely to be worthy of it.” quoted in How the World Began p. 277 God who loves diversity, God who has ordered limits to humanity so that the creature and creator should never be confused, now determines that humanity should divide on linguistic lines. “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ In other words, the new community will be based not upon common language but upon the ability to hear and listen to one another. The ability to speak with common understanding. The miracles of Pentecost, when the Spirit ascended upon the crowds, was not that they had one common language. Rather they hear one another and could understand what each other was saying even when speaking in their own tongue. How we need that today. How can the Arabic speaking Palestinians understand the Hebraic speaking Israelites so that instead of destroying one another. If the Israelis would spend a small fraction of their defense budget on building schools and hospitals in Gaza, would the population not begin to think differently on Israel’s right to exist. I would think that Hamas will have a fairly easy time recruiting new people to their cause after this is over. Why did residential schools ban native languages. In order to take the Indian out of the child, one had to remove their language. It was absolutely barbaric and we did not understand what we were doing. The marvel of Christian community is that we can come from so many different cultures and language groupings, but can hear each other; even understand each other and build not a tower or an empire, but build a solid foundation for a lasting community where we become our brothers’ and our sisters’ keeper; where we tend and care for the garden; where we treat the animal kingdom with respect and where we celebrate our differences being brought together not by hubris, but a very simple cross. To know in Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven; therefore we are new creatures and as such can reach out to all humankind Continue reading
Bible Text: Genesis 3:1-20 | Preacher: Rev. Harry Klassen As we approach another foundational topic based on the early chapters of Genesis, we are confronted by an important question. Having seen that God created the universe and pronounced it “very good,” so good in fact, that a sabbath rest is envisaged, whence derives the horrid conditions in the world today? Why is there evil in the world? The reading from Genesis chapter 3 does not attempt to answer this question philosophically or even theologically. Instead it shares a story based on the second creation account. I have chosen to divide the reading into four different scenes, but it could be divided in different ways. SCENE 1 Setting the stage: First vv. 1-6: Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. The author[s] of this story are dealing with the dilemma in part attempting to set forth the reality of the failure of human community. While it is clear that earlier in the story it is not good for the earth creature to be alone; yet the animal kingdom could not satisfy the role of human companionship. As Phyllis Trible will argue: we do not have humanity until the woman is made and the celebration begins. “Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.“ They were naked and not ashamed. 2:25 Now conversation ensues. Remember that God had given to humanity freedom, permission to have and exercise careful dominion over the animal kingdom in a manner of caring like a shepherd. Here the crafty serpent begins the conversation and immediately gets into theology [talk about God]. Did God say you shall not eat of any tree in the garden? The implication being that the prohibition that humans are under is a huge problem. Eve corrects the serpent, No, we can eat of the trees in the garden, except for the one in the middle. That one we cannot eat or even touch [which of course God did not say], or we shall die. In other words Eve defends God. Now the serpent throws some caution to the wind and engages in a direct contradiction of God’s statement. YOU SHALL NOT DIE. What will happen when you eat, you will gain wisdom like God, knowing good and evil. SCENE 2 CONSEQUENCES of their action: vv. 7-11 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ Notice the consequences: 1) Their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked. Now they are exposed to one another in ways that are totally new. Whereas before they were celebrating their sexuality which was a reflection of the divine image and were naked and not ashamed, now they are naked and afraid. Putting fig leaves together was a pathetic form of covering, but at least symbolically indicated some protection. Instead of joyful companionship, now their sexuality means vulnerability and possibly threat. There is an anecdote of a man visiting a famous art gallery with the painting of Adam and Eve and their fig leaves entitled “spring.” His impatient wife calls to him and asks: What are you waiting for? to which he replies: Autumn. 2) We no longer take limits into account, simply because we are unlimited. “if gods exist” says Nietzsche, how could I bear not to be a god.” quoted in Thielicke How the World began p. 175 Grasping for the wisdom of the knowledge of good and evil, they have now received it and realized that they have stepped outside the boundary of limits. As a result they have broken covenant with God who now becomes a subject of fear. 3) Therefore they are hide from God. However, God does not distance God from humanity. Walking in the cool of the garden God asks the question: Where are you? What tone of voice is in the asking, ADAM, WHERE ARE YOU? Is it SCREAMING [like a parent angry with his child for disobeying;] or is it more like a compassionate voice asking; Adam, where are you? Note the answer: I was afraid because I was naked. Interestingly God queries him further: Who told you that you were naked. Did you eat from the tree which was prohibited. SCENE 3 OPPORTUNITY to come clean: vv. 12,13 The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’ NOTICE THE RESPONSES: God engages the humans; not the serpent. Of course the response is classic, and we have been doing it ever since. PASS THE BUCK. Instead of taking the opportunity for a full and free confession, the ‘Adam’ now enters into the blame game. The woman whom you gave to be with me, that I once celebrated, she gave me the fruit. Adam, you wimp, you mean you could not say ‘no.’ But when Adam says the woman YOU gave me, ultimately he is blaming God. Pointing the finger right through Eve to God. The woman fares little better. She too could say, I foolishly did not exercise my God given gift of dominion having been created in the image of God, but rather blames the serpent: He tricked me. An opportunity has been freely given to humankind to come clean, to confess; to accept responsibility for their own actions, but the opportunity is not acted upon. Now it is God’s turn to act. SCENE 4: THE CURSES vv. 14-19 The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this,/   cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures;/      upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat/           all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head,/  and you will strike his heel.’ Some theologians have called this the protoevangelium. An early reference as to how God would resolve the matter. Remember no Jewish interpreter would never see this. The idea is that the Satan the adversary would strike at Christ on the cross, Bruise his heel, but as a result of Christ’s death, a final blow is struck against the head of Satan. In this story, the serpent is just that - a serpent and nothing more. To the woman he said,/‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband,/  and he shall rule over you.’ And to the man he said,/        ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree/  about which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it”,/     cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;/ and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face/  you shall eat bread until you return to the ground,/   for out of it you were taken; you are dust,/   and to dust you shall return.’ Finally I need to draw to your attention the curse that was placed on the woman in relationship to the man: yet your desire shall be for your husband,/  and he shall rule over you.‘ THIS DOES NOT REFLECT GOD’S WILL for creation, but rather represents a curse that is undone in Christ. Paul says that in Jesus Christ we are no longer Jew/Gentile; male/female; bond/free. He makes all things new. We do not have to hide from God. In fact, God comes to us and calls us: Adam where are you? Jane where are you? Harry where are you? Judy where are you? It is a call to acknowledge our humanity, one who has been given a vocation, enjoys incredible freedom, and is under an important prohibition, to know and live within the limits of creaturehood. In obedience to God, we discover what it means to be truly human. One final word: AFTERWORD V. 20. The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all who live. And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them. Their pathetic attempts at cover up were just that; a symbol of fear and hiding; but God clothes them a sign that God continues the relationship in spite of humanity’s failure. Is it well with your soul? Yes through Christ who graciously clothes us with his love. Thanks be to God!       Continue reading
Bible Text: Psalm 104:5-23 Isaiah 55:6-13 | Preacher: Rev. Harry Klassen   Seek the Lord while he may be found,  call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way,  and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,   and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth,  so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;  it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,  and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy,   and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. Genesis 1:26-28 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’  Genesis 2:15-18 [part of second creation account] The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’ Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ Just to review from last week. Humanity was created in the image of God, male and female. Not only is it not good for the Adam [dust or earth] to be alone, he is not yet fully human until the female comes into being. Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis posits three things about the garden scene. Humanity is given: i)  Vocation - They are placed in the garden to ‘till it and keep it.’ While the garden is in every way lush and abundant in its growth, it requires managing. The force of the word keep is like ‘shepherding.’ To preserve, maintain, to be stewards of God’s good creation. ii) Permission: Humans have radical freedom. They can eat of anything in the garden and the animal kingdom is under their control. Not for exploitation, but rather for careful stewardship. Freedom equates to the risk that God took in creating the creatures who have the potential of aspiring to divinity, replacing God with themselves. iii)           Prohibition: The tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Hebrew merismus meaning everything from A to Z. In other words, become like God. Here we need to remember the abundance of the garden; the humans have no need for requiring this fruit. If they can accept with gratitude that they have been placed in this delightful garden to enjoy and flourish, all will be well. The prohibition reminds the human, that she/he are creatures, not the creator. However, they have possibilities of being related to the creator and can enter into fellowship with the creator. Herein lies the problem. Humans have been given dominion because they have the possibility of forming communities; they have a relational capacity that the animal world does not have to the same extent. Although their origing may be the same, i.e. form dust, they have the possibility of conversing with each other and their maker in a way that animals cannot replicate. It is tempting to take that sovereignty over the created order of things and use it for our own selfish purposes. This scripture which states that humankind has dominion and can subdue the earth has been blamed for many of the ecological problems we are now facing. However the critique misses the mark, for humanity has been given dominion all the while reflecting the image of God. In other words we have dominion in the manner which God exercises dominion - giving to us abundance; radical freedom and ultimate care. When the disciples dispute the issue of greatness, Jesus gives them the cue to understanding how to exercise ‘dominion or sovereignty.’ Mark 10:41-45  When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ Clearly, the mandate about ‘dominion’ has a different edge to it, when placed in the context of discipleship and being a steward of God’s good earth. Our problem has not been the concept of dominion. Rather we have exercised that dominion in ways which serve our own selfish ends. Taking liberties with the earth’s resources, we have devised ever more sophisticated ways to exploit this beautiful planet, whether we are discussion tar sands, coal mining, fracking or whatever. Our record is no better when we consider the animal kingdom with its ever growing list of endangered or exterminated species. One Example: When the white man saw the seemingly endless supply of buffalo on the prairies, his penchant was to indiscriminately slaughter them, often for no good reason. Whereas the aboriginal communities had managed them carefully for centuries of time, the buffalo were now facing extinction. Ask any Newfoundlander what has happened to the cod in light of the massive fishing trawlers scooping up what used to be an endless supply of fish. Does Jesus spend much time on such issues? ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. Matthew 6:25-29 What Jesus illustrates is that the creator has concern for all creatures, even the birds of the air. Remember the old spiritual: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” Working on a slave plantation, this may not have been much comfort, but it did give some sense of hope, that under the master’s whip there was a God who would ultimately bring justice to bear. But note as well the keen observation about the lilies of the field. So Solomon who was king in the glory days of ancient Israel with his magnificent building projects, including the temple in Jerusalem, cannot match the intricacy and beauty of a common field lily. This too, is part of the garden called planet earth. So we struggle with so much in our current environment. Global warming is heaping ever more natural disasters upon us, but some still debate whether it is really happening. Where does one go to find clean air? When I studied in Pasadena, California in the sixties, the smog often meant that people could not see Mt. Wilson, over 1500 meters, at the end of our street. When it rained which was very infrequent, it was like waking up to a whole new city. “I can see.” There is much doom and gloom out there when it comes to plotting a way forward. Some will even ask if it is too late to do anything about global warming. While it is true that we can reach an irreversible tipping point, many small strides can make a huge difference. Part of our difficulty in North America has to do with wealth. When I was in Malawi, they were not worried about carbon emissions from cars - there were so few. People walked or rode bicycles if they could afford them. But here, I am embarrassed to say that even in our family, car rides were taken to the local gym [a 20 minute walk]. It requires an attitudinal shift that may be difficult to effect in a rich continent because of a sense of entitlement. On the CBC radio program “the current” this week, they talked about a study regarding wealth and the social fabric. One experiment that intrigued me was done in Los Angeles where they observed a pedestrian crosswalk with pedestrians having the right of way. Those driving BMWs tended not to stop whereas those driving lesser cars, did. Apparently those with more wealth have a sense of entitlement and ownership rather than expressing concern for their neighbour. But here is the point. God created a very good world. It is a world in which humankind reflect the divine image when they live in community [not good to be alone] and in peace and harmony. Our God given vocation is to till the garden and manage it for the sake of all. While humans have severely marred the good creation, subjecting it to futility and bondage to decay, there is hope. Listen to what the apostle Paul has to say: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Romans 8:18-25 In other words the entire created order participates in the exciting day when the new heaven and new earth comes into being; - “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” In the meantime, if you and I claim to be Christian and related to the creator God, we need to do everything in our power and ability to relieve some of the groaning of creation. God saw everything that God had made, and it was VERY GOOD!   Continue reading
Bible Text: Genesis 2:4-25, Matthew 8:5-13 | Preacher: Rev. Harry Klassen Genesis 1:26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Genesis 2:4 In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’ Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.’ Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. NRSV From two weeks ago you may recall that the reading from Genesis 1 was highly codified, with a refrain throughout: it was evening, it was morning, the first day. And it was good. This continued throughout to the sixth day with the pronouncement it was very good culminating in the creation of the Sabbath. But during the sixth day, a dramatic pause occurs after the series of “Let there be, and there was.” It now gives way to a different statement entirely. Is God willing to take the risk of creating humans in God’s own image, after God’s likeness? When God says “Let us make humanity in our image” this is not an ancient reference to Trinity, but rather to the ‘plural of majesty’ as when the queen may use the expression ‘we’ when referring to herself only. In Hebrew, a different verb form is used for ‘make.’ Our reading today reflects the earliest version of the creation account. This primeval story was passed on from generation to generation and represents a very ancient tradition, whereas the codified and systematised rendering of Genesis 1:1-2:4 may come from a period as late as the 6th Century B.C.E. Misinterpretations abound with reference to this passage in Genesis. First of all, we need to understand that the theory of evolution does not contradict anything the Bible says. Clearly God develops the human existence in common with other earth creatures from the dust of the ground which as we know from science has taken billions of years. As Helmut Thielicke observes: “ ...I can ask where man comes from biologically, and receive the answer that he comes from animal forms. Or I can ask why he is here, what is his destiny, what is the ‘role assigned to him? If I put the question this way I get the answer from the Bible that he is to be a child of God, he was intended for fellowship with God in Jesus Christ.” How the World Began p. 79. Among other misinterpretations: i) male as superior or the head. ii)   God as a divine killjoy. iii) In exercising dominion, humanity can exploit creation. iv) the notion of woman as temptress. One thing is certain. Humanity was made for community. After reading chapter one, ‘it was good, it was good, we suddenly hear a new startling statement: ‘it is not good.’ In fact, human as male only is not yet human. As Phyllis Trible points out, the entity that exists in the garden is an "earth creature" Only when the great division occurs so that they are male and female do we have the reality of the human created in the divine image. ‘Adam’ simply means ‘dust.’ Adamah is the feminine ending in Hebrew rendering the translation ‘woman.’ So we have man ‘adam’ and woman ‘adamah.’ An event by the way which man [adam] celebrates. ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.’ This speaks to our common origin. It is important to remember on this World Pride Week, we are not speaking about gender preference or identity. In fact the biblical record acknowledges that we have both female and male characteristics within each one of us. It goes on to state: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. Quite an amazing statement for a patriarchal culture to have the man leave, and yet in some marriage ceremonies we say “who gives this woman to be married to this man?” What is emphasized is a celebration of sexuality, no matter what gender, or preference. In our maleness and femaleness we are created in the image of God. But let us return to the story. After the divine pronouncement “It is not good” we now have a brilliant interlude - the parade of the animals. Giraffes, penguins, hippopotamuses, crows, robins, sea bass, etc., etc. with the conclusion that: there was not found a helper as his partner. When woman was created: NOTE: the man has nothing to do with it: the adam is in a deep sleep; we now have the partner that can assist the adam: The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.In other words, humanity is to care for creation in precisely the way that God exercises dominion - with compassion and a sense of justice for all. Because the animals and gardens were created by God [albeit over millennia of time through an evolutionary process] it needs to be of great concern when we consider our environment, the quality of our water supply and earth; of endangered species. These are not matters to be lightly passed over. Jesus once observed that a common lily of the field contained as much glory as Solomon in all his splendour, so he shared a deep appreciation of nature. However, The risk that God has taken in creating human kind becomes apparent with the challenge to obey. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’ Why would God do that? It is only humanity that can aspire to enter into relationship with God. This is the opportunity for humankind to realize that his/her destiny is wrapped up in the ability to remember that though created in God’s image [therefore the opportunity to become like God], the reality is that my living to the full depends upon my relationship with the one who made me in the first place. They are called together as joint heirs to be in community and to care for the garden. However, in their disobedience, they fall together not just as the helpless male succumbing to the wiles of the female. More about this next week. Where the adam and adamah failed, Jesus Christ came to show us that the way to fulfillment in life is to live in obedience to God. Paul refers to Jesus as the second Adam, the human we were intended to be. Our hope comes from knowing even if we have been cast out of the Garden, we are invited to the messianic banquet in the new heaven and new earth. The risk for God was that humanity would disobey and fail. At that point it would require a painful intervention of Jesus, the true Adam, dying, that we might live. If I live under God’s word, that is, allow my life to be directed by God, She will not let me down. I will learn to appreciate the abundance of the garden, but will not aspire to divinity. Rather I will till the garden and maintain it even as he said. Then I can fully enter into community and realize that it, too, is a great gift from God’s hand. Continue reading

Evil, Suffering and God

June 22, 2014
Bible Text: Isaiah 25:1-9 Luke 13:1-5 | Preacher: Rev. Dr. Zander Dunn EVIL, SUFFERING AND GOD A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Amherst Island, ON, June 22, 2014, by Zander Dunn I have a friend who keeps asking me why there’s so much evil in the world, why there’s so much suffering in the world, why God doesn’t stop those things? She’s upset by the disappearance of Flight 370 with close to 300 people missing. She’s appalled by the kidnapping of 275 girls raped or to be sold as slaves in Nigeria. She’s horrified by the civil war in Syria - thousands killed and millions of refugees. She’s disgusted by the sinking of the South Korean ferry and hundreds of drowned students. She’s shocked by the R.C.M.P. report that over 1,000 native women have been killed or are missing. She knows much of the evil is perpetrated by men and women but she cries out that God should do something to stop such things. How can a God of Love do nothing, but simply allow such horrible things to happen? If God is good and all loving, how can evil exist? This question about how evil and suffering can exist if God is a God of love is one of the most difficult questions we’ll ever face. Let’s simply be honest and admit that life is hard. Not for everybody, but for many people evil and suffering are big issues. We, who live in a good, rich part of the world, don’t have to face nearly as many problems as do the people of poor countries. But even in Canada many of us suffer poor health and we are victims of evil. Even good people, religious people, loving people must deal with evil and suffering. We may believe in God but still we’re hurt by evil and suffering. I’ve spoken with many people who say that the best argument against the existence of God is the reality of evil. They ask me, “With all the evil in the world, how can you believe in God?” Thousands of books have been written on the problem of evil, on the source of evil, on why the innocent suffer. Even Jesus cried out in despair, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That question is ironic because I believe that God does not forsake us in our suffering. Nor did Jesus believe that God had forsaken him. He was quoting Psalm 22, a psalm which goes on to declare, “God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” I cannot explain why there is evil and suffering. Of course, sometimes we bring evil and suffering on ourselves. I cannot explain why our loving God allows evil and suffering to defeat us time after time. I believe God is with us in evil and in our suffering and that often suffering can be transformed into powerful joy. I believe God is with us always, and even the worst that can happen to us can be turned into a blessing and a new beginning. Despite what I believe, the truth is that for many people God seems to be absent when they suffer unjustly. Evil seems to defeat Goodness. God seems to be helpless when evil triumphs. Perhaps the best example of this is contained in Elie Wiesel’s book entitled, “Night.” The scene is set in the Auschwitz death camp. In that camp Jews were exterminated by the Nazis. One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained; the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains - and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel. The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him. The three victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. “Long live liberty!” cried the two adults. But the child was silent. “Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked. At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. “Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. “Cover your heads.” Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive.... For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice within me answer him, “Where is He? Here He is - He is hanging on these gallows.” Where is God when evil and suffering beset us? Jeremiah discovered the answer to his own suffering as he took the suffering of his people on himself and cried out to God for them. Jesus discovered God with him in his suffering. Yes, Jesus asked where God was. But did you notice Jesus asked God that question? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Jesus knew God was with him; he could talk to him even when God appeared to be absent, even when death appeared to win. Jesus believed not even death could defeat God. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls it “divine pathos.” Pathos means suffering; sym means with; put them together and we get sympathy - to suffer with. The Jews believed God suffered with them. In suffering with the Jews, God gave them the strength they needed to endure. One Christian theologian calls God the “fellow sufferer who understands.” The Psalmist sings: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” Sheol is the place of the dead. The Jews had no concept of hell. The Psalmist is telling us that no one can escape God. That is what has bolstered and uplifted the Jews over all the years they’ve suffered evil at the hands of other people. Despite hatred, pogroms, cruelty and injustice, even from Christians, they have endured. When so-called Christians killed six million Jews they did not defeat the Jews because the Jews knew God was with them. At the worst times in their lives the Jews prevailed because God was with them. Only a few years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book entitled, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” He wrote that book out of the sadness in his life when he and his wife discovered that their son, Aaron, was born with progeria, that incurable disease which causes aging and early death. Aaron always looked like an old man. He aged rapidly. He died, of old age, at 14. Kushner declared that often, when bad things happen to good people, God can’t help them. God may love them but God is limited. God can’t solve their problems; God doesn’t eradicate the evil in their lives; God’s unable to stop their suffering. I don’t agree with Kushner because I don’t dare try to limit God in any way. But it’s true, that when evil hits or suffering strikes, God does not intervene to save us. A blind man was brought to Jesus. His disciples asked the standard question: “Who sinned, that this man was born blind?” Jesus answered that it was nobody’s fault. That man was not blind because he’d sinned or because his parents had sinned. Bad things happen - without explanation. Luke tells us about two calamities. First, Pontius Pilate slaughtered a group of Galileans. That was an act of political violence - an atrocity. Second, a tower collapsed, killing 18 people. That was a whim of fate - a tragedy. Were the men Pilate had killed worse sinners than all other Galileans? Were those who perished in the tower catastrophe worse sinners than others in Jerusalem? Jesus told his followers: “Those men were not killed because they were bad or wrong or sinful. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bad things happen. No easy explanation. If you want to know the cause of the disasters, then blame the cruelty of Pontius Pilate or blame the poor workmanship of those who built the tower and the scaffolding. But don’t ever say God was punishing those who died.” I remember being deeply moved when I read about the death of the 21 year old son of The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the pastor of Riverside Church, New York city. Alex Coffin drove off a bridge into Boston harbour and drowned. Trying to comfort him, a woman said to Coffin, “I just don’t understand God’s will.” The Rev. Coffin lashed out in anger, “I’ll say you don’t understand God’s will, lady. Do you think it was the will of God that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper, that Alex was probably driving too fast in such a storm, that Alex had probably had too much to drink? Do you think it is God’s will there are no street lights along that stretch of road, no guard rail separating the road and Boston habour?” Coffin later commented, “For some reason I can’t get it through people’s heads that God doesn’t run around the world pulling trigger fingers, clenching knives, turning steering wheels. God is dead set against all kinds of unnatural deaths. This is not to say there are no unnatural deaths. There are. But the one thing that should never be said about any violent death like Alex’s death is that it is the will of God. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex died - but that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all hearts to break.” The tsunami of 2004 killed thousands. American television evangelists declared that God was punishing Muslims and Hindus for the ways they treated Christians. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 killed thousands, mostly black people, and Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, announced that God had targeted New Orleans because it was a wicked city,   sexually perverse. Those are lies about God. God does not punish people by storms. When a typhoon, a hurricane, a tornado wipes out a town and kills its children God is not against the people; God is with them. Our favourite passage of Scripture is Psalm 23 which tells us that even when we go through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us. We’re frustrated because God doesn’t explain why certain bad things happen to good people. God doesn’t explain; God comforts. God doesn’t comfort us by kissing our wounds and saying, “There, there. All better now.” God gives us strength to face the worst. And in doing that we come to realize we are not alone. Rabbi Kushner, also wrote a book about Psalm 23. He knows he will be strengthened at his own death. He writes, “When my time comes, I will feel less alone because I know that God is not only grieving for me but is with me at that moment.” Some people blame people with AIDS for their own predicament. They got AIDS because they shared a needle, or because they were sexually promiscuous, or because they didn’t protect themselves. I remember a minister afflicted with AIDS who came to our clergy group to be hugged. He said to us, “You’d be amazed at how many people are afraid to touch me. They won’t even shake hands with me. Good Christian people, nurses and doctors, won’t come near me. They know I’m not contagious but they fear me, they fear being close to me. The only people I know who will hug me are ministers and priests. That’s why I’ve come to be with you today. In a few weeks or months I’ll be dead. Today I’m very lonely and I need love and support. I know you. I know you’ll give me what I need.” We ministers in our group knew this man was a homosexual but we also knew that it was among homosexuals that he received the love he needed. When he came to us we received him literally with open arms. We hugged and kissed him; a month later he died. But he died knowing that God was with him. That’s who we were for him - the agents of God. God had not rejected him but was hugging him. He died knowing that God would go with him through death to new life. The truth of the matter is that God does not reject; God does not condemn; God does not punish; God does not send us to hell. God is our Father, our Mother, who loves us and will never let us go. What about those Bible verses which indicate that if we don’t do as God commands, then God will punish us by sending us to hell? You can struggle with those verses if you want; I can’t be bothered because I know that God is love. Evil and suffering seem to show God does not love us. We very quickly take the blame upon ourselves. We ask questions like these: “What have I done to deserve this pain?” “Where did I go wrong that my son is sick?” “For what is God punishing me?” Can’t we see that by asking such questions we’re saying that God is a monster? If God sent the tsunami to punish Muslims and Hindus for hurting Christians then God is a monster. If God sent the tornados to destroy homes and farms to teach us some moral lesson, then God is a monster. If God refuses to rescue us from climate chaos, vicious victors, and sadistic sickness that certainly raises questions for us but God doesn’t reverse the choices we make or save us from the consequences of those choices. In love God watches us struggle with evil and suffering and then God empowers us to go on dealing with those things. That may not be what we want and we may not understand it, but that’s God’s way. But even more difficult to understand is the unmerited love that God has for us. God doesn’t give us what we deserve; God gives us better. God doesn’t give us what we want; God gives us more. God doesn’t give us what we hope for; God give us higher than that. I don’t know about you, but I hope I can handle the evil and suffering that come my way because I know I am blessed by the love of God which will see me through all of life and all of death to new life and beyond.               Continue reading