The Gift of Discernment

December 28, 2014
Bible Text: Isaiah 25:1-9 | Preacher: Rev. Dr. Zander Dunn THE GIFT OF DISCERNMENT To discern is to be able to recognize or see clearly. For a Christian to discern is for him or her to see or figure out where God is working in the world. A discerning Christian can point to God at work among us. Most of the characters in the Christmas story did not use the gift of discernment. The shepherds were terrified by singing angels. They didn’t discern anything godly among them. Herod didn’t discern God in the wise men. Herod figured that the “King of the Jews” whom the wise men sought was a threat to him and he tried to get rid of Jesus, the interloper. Even Joseph and Mary, the parents of Jesus, didn’t discern God in him. Both Mary and Joseph, when Simeon, in the temple, spoke about their son, “were amazed at what was being said about him.” An angel had told Mary she’d been chosen by God to give birth to the eternal saviour. Why would she be amazed at Simeon’s words? His parents berated Jesus when he didn’t return from the Temple with them because they couldn’t see that Jesus was in his father’s house. They didn’t see or discern God at work in their son. But Simeon - now there was a man of discernment! Eight days after Jesus’ birth, Simeon took the infant Jesus in his arms, praised God, and said, “O God, now I can die in peace. I’ve seen your salvation in this little child. I can see that in this One you’ll save the Gentiles, the Jews and all people!” But Simeon discerned more than that. He could see that Jesus would make enemies; he could see Jesus would divide the people. Simeon warned Mary that she’d feel a sword pierce her soul because she’d watch her son die. Also in the Temple was Anna, an old female prophet who discerned that Jesus would redeem Israel. She discerned Jesus as the Saviour of the people. What enabled Simeon and Anna to discern, so well, the will of God in Jesus? Nothing’s explained but the narrative gives us clues. First, it’s significant that Simeon and Anna were old. Simeon was at the end of his life and Anna was 84. The gift of discernment isn’t reserved for old people, but it’s a gift which takes time to develop. It takes time to learn the ways of God. It takes time to look past the obvious to see where God’s acting. It takes time to recognize God in the small, dirty, weak things of life. Here’s a confirmation class discernment exercise. I strewed pictures of people around the room. I usually included a picture of the pope, a picture of a minister, a picture of a starving baby, a picture of an old woman, a picture of a beggar, a picture of a king or queen, a picture of a sports hero, a picture of a famous musician, a picture of a movie star, a picture of a doctor, a picture of a teacher. I asked the members of the confirmation class to tell me which one of those people looked most like God or Jesus. I wanted them to discern in which one of those people God was at work. Most students identified the pope as the one most like God. Several were diplomatic enough to say the minister was like God. Some would say the king or the doctor looked most like God. A few pointed to the sports hero or the musician as God-like. Nobody saw God in the starving baby or in the beggar, or in the old woman. There’s no right answer, of course. God might look like any of those people. God might work through any or all of them. But the young people hadn’t had enough experience of life to discern that God can come to us in the weak, the hurting, the poor. They were blind to the ways of God and so they missed God. It’ll take them time to learn how God works. It takes time to develop the gift of discernment. Second, notice that both Simeon and Anna were devout people of worship and prayer. Worship and prayer are the tools of discernment. Today worship and prayer are not much in vogue. We’re too busy. Even in the Christian church the active, outgoing, exciting things we do seem to be valued more highly than worship and prayer. Worship and prayer don’t show instant results. It would seem that worship and prayer are impractical when it comes to building a relationship with God, developing stewardship, teaching in the congregation, appealing to people. Worship and prayer are for “introverts” who can spend hours alone and don’t need the support of others. None of that’s true, of course; but that’s the perception. What is true is this: worship and prayer bring us closer to God and make us more sensitive to God with us. Worship & prayer needn’t be formal or involve words. They may be spontaneous and include feelings and colours. Worship and prayer may be silent or ecstatic. But worship and prayer are part of our tradition and practice and we’d be foolish to ignore all that, or to look elsewhere. The truth is that if we want to develop the gift of discernment we’ll have to take time for worship and prayer. Third, note that both Simeon and Anna spent much time in the temple. The temple, for the Jews, was the place where God was to be found; was where the people of God gathered; was where the things of God happened. The Jews and Jesus knew - as we know - that God can’t be tied to one place. God isn’t only in the temple or mainly in the temple. God is everywhere and is the ruler of all things. But the temple is one obvious place for God. God can be found in the poolroom and the strip club but the poolroom and strip club don’t attract spiritual people and they’re not devoted to searching for and meeting God. In the temple men and women apply themselves to considering the ways of God and they grow in the knowledge of God shared there. Jesus went out among the people where they ate and drank and did their daily chores but he also went to places of worship. Jesus worshipped in the synagogues and the temple. He did that because he knew he could expect to deal with the God issues of life and it was in the synagogues and in the temple that such issues were raised. Simeon and Anna developed the gift of discernment because they spent years maturing in the temple in worship and prayer. Simeon and Anna were able to discern, to recognize Jesus when they met him - even when he was a baby. What about us? Do we have the gift of discernment? Can we discern Jesus among us? Can we recognize God at work? Everybody has the gift of discernment to some extent. But we need to face the fact that it’s difficult for our untrained eyes to see Jesus in the world. I visited an art gallery run by a Christian man. I was impressed by all the oil paintings on the walls, on the floors, on the chairs. Many were abstract paintings which said little to me. I spent some time in front of one painting with flashes of green across the bottom and splotches of brown across the top. There was something that resembled a lamp-post on the right and a star in the upper left corner. In the foreground there was a broken bottle. In the middle of the picture there were black spots as if flies had crawled into black paint and walked across the canvas. When the curator asked me what I saw, I could only reply, “Nothing.” He persisted, but I could see only chaos, confusion. Then he pointed out a form -“Do you see this?” I replied, “Yes.” He explained, “That’s hair. Now look at this chin, those eyes, and those hands folded in prayer.” To my amazement, there, in the midst of what appeared to be disorder, was an image of Jesus in Gethsemane with hands clasped in prayer. Isn’t that symbolic of life? Around us there’s turmoil and confusion. We try, but we can’t see any meaning or purpose to it. But, when someone else recognizes the presence of Christ and bears witness to his presence, they help us discover him in the midst of life. All around us, scientific discoveries are being made in the material world, and it may be that one day the substructure of the physical universe will be explored to                                           discover an even greater indication of God in that realm. The tools of our research in the depth dimensions of life will be responsible commitment and creative action. Our difficulty in seeing Jesus in life isn’t unique. The Christian Jews of Paul’s day, couldn’t see Jesus in Paul’s relationship with the Gentiles. Paul’s conviction that Jesus was in the midst of the non-Jews led to his persecution, his suffering and his rejection. Most Christians couldn’t discern Jesus in those who weren’t Jews. But the Church exists today because of Paul’s inclusive vision. Because Paul saw Jesus alive and active among non-Jews, the Church was able to reach out beyond Jews to embrace the world. If Paul hadn’t discerned Jesus beyond Judaism, Christianity would’ve remained a Jewish sect. My wife, Nance, is amused by me when I always try to  discern the Christ figure in the movies and plays we see. Sometimes there is no Christ figure but often there is, & it’s good to exercise the gift of discernment. Once upon a time, a minister was told by God, in a dream, that Jesus would visit his church the next week. The minister figured he’d better get ready. He called in the custodian and told him to work overtime and do a special job of cleaning the sanctuary. The custodian said he would, but then he spent almost an hour recounting his family problems to the minister. The minister was very impatient and worked hard to escape from the custodian. When he got free he then went to the secretary. He directed her to straightened up her desk, to do up her hair, to put on some good clothes because a special guest was coming. The secretary said she’d do that, but she took much of the minister’s time talking about people she knew in the congregation who needed visits. He tore himself away from the secretary and went to his associate minister and told her to prepare a specially good sermon because the church would be visited by God that week. The associate minister wanted to waste his time talking theology. She argued God was always trying to get into that church but often had a hard time because few cared, or listened, or invited God The minister had to tell her to stop her rambling and get on with doing a super sermon. So the church was cleaned, the desks were tidied, the staff was well dressed, the associate’s sermon was good. But the minister never saw Jesus. He never saw anybody remotely resembling Jesus at his church that week. The next week he complained, in prayer, that God had not kept the promise to come to visit his church. That night he had another dream in which God appeared to him. In that dream, before God could say anything, the minister berated God for not coming to visit when God had promised to do so. God replied to the minister, “I came to you three times in three people but you didn’t discern and wouldn’t listen. I approached you in the custodian but you refused to see me and you didn’t hear my story. I reached out to you in the secretary, but you could only see her messy desk and bad hairdo and didn’t hear what I had to say about the members of the congregation in need. I spoke theology to you through your associate but you didn’t want to talk theology. You wanted to be the boss and tell her what to say. I tried to get you thinking about how I come into this church but you couldn’t “see” what I had to say. I’m sorry you missed me. You know, Life’s like baseball. Three strikes and you’re out. By the way, when I couldn’t get into this church, I went down the road to St. Alban’s Anglican church. I bet you never thought I’d go there.”          

To Do Justice

November 23, 2014
Bible Text: Micah 6:8, Isaiah 53:10, Psalm 51 | Preacher: Rev. Dr. Zander Dunn   “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” That verse from the Old Testament is one of the best-known, most popular and most often preached about parts of the Bible. I’m sure Jesus heard those words in the synagogue when he was growing up. The prophet Micah said those words. Micah was one of the most insightful and powerful prophets of the Hebrew Bible. A prophet was not somebody who foretold the future. A prophet was a man of deep spiritual and moral insights who addressed the political, the economic, the social and the religious issues of his day. We get the idea that the prophets could foretell the future because the prophet Isaiah is quoted as saying that a young woman would bear a son and would name him Immanuel. But the word for “young woman” some scholars, years ago, translated as “virgin.” It’s from that prognostication that we get the doctrine of The Virgin Birth of Jesus. Today we know better. We know Isaiah was not talking about a virgin giving birth to a boy in the future. We know now, Isaiah was talking of a young woman giving birth - a sign that God was with the people and had not given up on them. We also get the idea that the prophets foretold the future from the strange books of Daniel and The Revelation of John. These two books, more than any other parts of the Bible, have caused trouble and have led people astray. Our televangelists use these books of the Bible to scare people by predicting doom and disaster. They warn us that God will punish us and they blame us for the hell that awaits us. It’s bad enough that we see these books as foretelling the future; it’s even worse that we take them literally and get pictures of God that are evil and unloving. No, the prophets didn’t dabble in the future. They stirred up public issues ... and everything that affected the welfare of humanity in their day. The prophets speak to us today, not because we live in their future, but because the problems they dealt with then, are the problems we’re facing today. In Old Testament days, in Jesus’ days, today, society was, and is, often unjust, unfair. A good example of a prophet in action is Amos. At a time when things seemed to be going well God called Amos to preach harsh words to a comfortable, complacent people. Amos blasted the people for several things: for their trust in military might, for their cruel injustices to the poor, for their disgusting sexual immorality, and for their shallow, meaningless piety. Of course, that made Amos unpopular with his people. That’s how it was with most of the prophets. The prophets didn’t tell about an inescapable future; they warned about a conditional future. That’s to say, they promised that if the leaders of the political, economic, and social aspects of the country continued in their greed and corruption they and the whole nation would collapse. They cared about the whole community. They didn’t speak out simply to criticize one person or to blame one family or to bemoan one tribe. They were concerned about what was happening to the entire nation. The early prophets weren’t solitary figures, isolated in ivory towers from the real world. They were members of the community living in the midst of all its struggles. Their main concern was the relationship of their people to the Lord God. These prophets didn’t try to foretell the future. They were concerned to tell what God’s will was for the people of God. The prophets usually predicted God’s judgment on the nation when it did wrong. But the judgment they predicted was not about God laying an unavoidable divine punishment on the people. No, the prophets warned of God’s displeasure so that the people would turn back to a good relationship with God. Yes, sometimes the prophets warned of terrible things in the future, but always there was the expectation that the people would return to God. The prophets always had hope for the future. They had hope for the future because they believed in Yahweh, the God who loved the world and cared for the people in it. James Michener in his book, The Source, tells about a Canaanite village 2,200 years before Christ. The people of that village worshipped sexy and amazingly well endowed fertility idols. They sacrificed their first born sons to make their families and their land more fertile. Temple prostitutes acted out fertility rites with men to encourage better crops and more children. One wise wife scoffed at her husband who sacrificed their first born son and had intercourse with temple prostitutes. She knew the fertility was not in sacrifice or in prostitution. The fertility was in her and in her husband. She felt, rightly, that if her husband believed in a different god he’d be a different man. The character of the God we follow determines our characters as people of faith. It’s our trust in The God revealed in Jesus, which makes us the persons that we are. The God of the Bible is a just God. God’s justice is not retributive justice; God’s justice is not based on revenge. God’s justice is distributive justice; God’s justice is distributed to all of us to share. God’s concerned about equality and fairness. God doesn’t want to punish or seek revenge. A violent God begets a violent people. If we learn violence we’ll use violence. If we learn equality and love we’ll seek equality and love. Albert Schweitzer was a modern prophet and he said, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, (I don’t know the future) but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found out how to serve.” This business of service, rather than revenge, is no easy thing. For example, consider Isaiah 53:10, “It has pleased the Lord to bruise the servant.” Isaiah saw the Jewish nation as The Suffering Servant. Certainly they were, and are, a bruised people. Yet from them has come all the goodness of The Old Testament or The Hebrew Scriptures - the very Scriptures Jesus learned. Jesus responded in love to the bleeding woman, the cheating tax collector, the mothers who wanted their babies blessed, the blind men who wanted to see, the crippled woman who needed straightening. It’s no accident that Isaiah 53 and the song of the Suffering Servant (the Jewish people) is quoted in the New Testament more than any other part of the Old Testament. Not only that, the most glorious music of Handel’s “Messiah” is based on Isaiah 53. Isaiah’s telling us that suffering comes before service. We must be crushed before we can care for others. Jesus calls to those who would follow him, “Repent, and believe in the good news.” When we repent, we turn around, we leave behind destructive, violent, unjust practices so that we can become partners with God in seeking justice and love. Several commentators play on this image. One states that “to repent” means “to crumble.” Another says repentance is like roto-tilling the heart. When we repent our hearts get softened by tears. Another commentator points out that the Latin     behind the word “compunction” means “punctured,” a punctured heart. The prophets were those leaders who pierced the hearts of the people and made them break because of the injustice of the nation. God brings justice through our broken hearts. Psalm 51 declares, “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” When our hearts are broken we can work for justice. What breaks your heart? What brings tears to your eyes? Poverty - living below the poverty line? Abuse - physical, mental and sexual? Disease - Cancer, Polio, Ebola? Substandard housing - mould, poor insulation? Capital punishment - killing the innocent? War - destroying and punishing the civilians? Illiteracy - keeping uneducated people in the dark? Greed - stealing from the poor to enrich the wealthy? Perhaps God is calling you to do something about it! God, through the Jews, didn’t deal with abstractions. Instead, God called the Jews to deal with widows and orphans, corrupt judges, false scales. The prophets went to the slums to demand justice. They didn’t sit with the wealthy and say to the poor, “Go in peace; keep warm; eat your fill” and then do nothing to help them. We can sound loving and concerned ... but then do nothing to correct injustice. Christians must be men and women of action - action on behalf of the poor and forgotten. One theologian has declared that religious people are divided into two different camps. One group asks,“What can God do for me?” Those people expect these answers: “God can save me.” “God can give me victory.” “God can make me prosperous.” “God can make me successful.” The other group asks, “What can I do for God? What gifts do I have to serve the poor, to upbuild the depressed, to teach the unlearned?” On several occasions Christians have asked me, “Have you been saved?” They’re really asking me, “Have you had a personal experience of God’s grace in your life so you can accept Jesus as your personal saviour and get to heaven?” What they don’t ask me is this: “Have you been in a relationship with the poor, the handicapped, the victims of hatred?  Are you feeding the hungry? Are you helping the forgotten? Are you seeking justice for the oppressed and maligned?” They don’t ask those questions because they’re not doing those things. Sure, some of us give money to the poor, but we do nothing to change the systems which keep those people poor. Our whole system is structured to favour the rich. We favour the rich to the detriment of the poor. Many rich people give big gifts to help the poor. But many rich folk do nothing to fix a system which charges the rich lower taxes than it charges the poor. A theologian has warned us that whenever Christians become concerned primarily with helping a few poor souls at Christmas, they’re saying that the social system is O.K. Nobody ever attacks the rich for helping the poor. But sometimes, when the poor can’t live any longer on the minimum wage that the rich legislate, they rebel and try to destroy the system. Right now we know that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. We also know that it’s the 1% who own most of the wealth of the nations. The 99% can see there’s no justice in that. Ours is not a just society. So we get upset when the Occupy movement takes over or when the First Nations are Idle No More or when thousands march against Global Warming. The system’s broken; it’s not just; it’s not of God. Some people give up in hopelessness. Others use violence to express their frustration. But all it takes is a prophet - perhaps you - to work steadily toward justice. All it takes is one person to stand against the system. Elizabeth Warren, the senior Senator for Massachusetts, has written a book, “A Fighting Chance,” which is all about how she became a prophet in the U.S.A. As a professor of bankruptcy law, she heard many stories of how people had lost their homes and had gone bankrupt because of the things the big banks had done to them. So cold, cruel and criminal were the big banks, that she felt she had to speak out on behalf of the victims of the evil bank practices. She worked in government agencies but realized that if she were to protect the people from the banks she’d need to get elected to the senate. She ran for the Senate and won in 2012 because the little people supported her against the lies, the injustices and the illegalities of the banks. One person stands up to send forth a ripple of hope. Another person joins that one and hope expands. A group emerges and the ripples become a wave and waves change things. No prophet is perfect and can never be perfect. One man declared he could not stomach a modern prophet on the side of the poor because that prophet criticized Capitalism. There’s nothing sacred or perfect about Capitalism. Communists, nihilists, atheists all have things for us to consider even though don’t agree with them. The prophets called the people of God to wake up to the injustices being perpetrated in their midst. The prophets challenged the people who were for justice and love to stand up and put their faith into action. The prophets didn’t have all the answers. But they recognized injustice when they saw it. They stood up, spoke out and provoked change. Christians can never be content with the status quo. There are always improvements to be made. We can band together to vote, to present petitions, to support those who care for the poor, to peacefully demonstrate our views. Often even more is demanded of us. We must put our money toward the goal of justice. We must invest our time to cause justice. We must work hard to make justice happen. I’d prefer not to have to do anything. But when I see our Native people being diminished, our sick being victimized, our poor being neglected, our weak being downtrodden, then, by God, I must act. That I believe because I trust in God, the God of justice, hope and love.                            

Who was Jesus?

October 19, 2014
Bible Text: Isaiah 42:1-9, Luke 6:27-36 | Preacher: Rev. Dr. Zander Dunn   The person, nature and theology of Jesus have become big issues in the church today. The Jesus Seminar has given us new insights into the life and thought of Jesus. It’s good for us Christians to go back to Jesus and to reconsider his words and actions. Men, and especially women, are seeing Jesus again for the first time. My thinking about Jesus and my faith in Jesus have changed over the years. But, no matter how much my theology has changed I still follow Jesus; I’m one of his disciples. There are as many different Jesuses as there are disciples of Jesus. I worshipped in a United Church and there was a a picture of Jesus - white, blond and blue-eyed. I entered a Roman Catholic church and there was Jesus - thin, beaten, bleeding, dying on a cross. I remember a preacher, in a sermon, telling us that Jesus was exactly 6 feet tall, even though the Bible says nothing about Jesus’ body. In the Caribbean I saw a black Jesus in the chancel. We know Jesus was a Jew and was never a Christian but most Christians don’t believe that. I said that in a sermon many years ago, and a woman told me she had never heard that before and could not believe it now. An archaeologist, using the skull of a first century Jew, reconstructed what Jesus might have looked like. A pious Christian said she couldn’t believe that sculpture represented Jesus because he looked like “the kind of guy who couldn’t make it through airport security.” She complained Biblical scholars made Jesus into “a bisexual, cross-dressing, whale-saving, tobacco-hating, vegetarian, African Queen who actually went to the temple to lobby for women’s rights.” (I see nothing wrong with any of those things). Jesus was not a sweet, popular, cuddly guy. He didn’t attract everybody; he had many enemies. He was a peasant who often spoke out against the ruling class. He was allied with the Pharisees, but often upset them with his radical views. Josephus was the only one who wrote about Jesus outside our Gospels. Our four Gospels disagree about many major issues in the life of Jesus and they do not give us a comprehensive picture of Jesus. We get snippets from the life of Jesus and we build our theologies of Jesus on them. We have only one Gospel, but four/five versions of it. The life of Jesus has too much meaning to be limited to only one account of it. Each of the four Gospels gives us a different look at Jesus. No matter how hard we try, we cannot synthesize the stories of Jesus. The Gospels are not history; they’re not objective accounts; they’re not dictated by God. Each Gospel is written by an author who saw Jesus in a unique way. Each Gospel tells us what was important to the author of that Gospel. For example, Mark, the first Gospel written, gives us very few speeches by Jesus, gives us several geographical mistakes, gives us stories about Jesus’ dense disciples. Matthew teaches us through the sermons of Jesus. Matthew sees Jesus as another Moses. Matthew focuses on new rules and regulations. Luke was the historian who emphasized the suffering poor, the rejected outcastes, the downcast women. John was entirely different than the other three because he spoke about Jesus as divine, because he was against “the Jews,” because he had Jesus making claims for himself which are hard to believe. In other words, we don’t have an agreed-upon picture of Jesus among the earliest Christians. Jesus defied definition. Nobody could capture Jesus with words. Jesus wasn’t even very religious. Seldom did he speak about God. Instead he told stories which you had to apply to God or not, which you had to read God into, which you had to figure out for yourself. So who was Jesus? And more important, who is Jesus to you today? What we know about Jesus are not all historical facts. But the things we know about Jesus are true. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Imagine a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald. In one hand he holds the Canadian Pacific railroad. In the other hand he holds the province of Quebec. He embraces the entire map of Canada - from Newfoundland to British Columbia, from Amherst Island to Baffin Island. On his back he proudly wears two flags - the Union Jack and the Maple Leaf. But none of those items is literally true. Sir John A. MacDonald did not build the C.P.R. He was not the leader in Quebec; that was Cartier. Canada did not stretch from Newfoundland to British Columbia or from Amherst Island to Baffin Island when he was Prime Minister. The Maple Leaf flag did not exist during his time. But the statue would be true because Sir. John A. Macdonald was behind all those symbols. He was the inspiration for the new nation of Canada. He got us started. He empowered the C.P.R. to unite us. He made Quebec feel part of our Canadian nation. Sir John A. Macdonald was the leader of the founding fathers of Canada. In the same way we tell stories about Jesus which may not be literally factual but which are true. Did Jesus walk on water? Did Jesus turn water into wine? Did Jesus multiply the loaves and fishes? Did Jesus give sight to the blind? Did Jesus calm the stormy sea? Did Jesus raise Lazarus from three days in the grave? You may believe those things literally happened but I cannot. And yet, I agree with you that those things tell us great truths about Jesus. That’s the important thing - not whether those stories actually happened but what those stories mean. I suspect, that while we might disagree as to whether those stories tell of historical events, we’d agree as to what they mean. Jesus walking on water signalled that he could walk all over Leviathan, the evil monster of the deep. Jesus turning water into wine showed that he came to bring new life and joy out of ordinary things. Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes revealed that he was the bread of life and that without him our spirits would go hungry and we would die of starvation. When Jesus gave sight to the blind he was saying that through him people would see the truth. Jesus calmed the seas because he revealed that in him the power of God was greater than the power of nature. Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead displayed his power over death to give new life to those who put their trust in him. Above all else the Gospels portray Jesus going to those who were hated, despised, rejected. Why did Jesus do that? Because, as John tells us, “God so loved the world (everybody) that he gave his only son.” Why did God give his chosen son? Because God wanted to put divine love into action. Look, we’ve debated the role and purpose of Jesus, but all the stories about him state that he is beyond all description, but at the same time he is the embodiment of that for which we all yearn. I like what Amy Jill Levine says about Jesus. (Amy Jill Levine is a Jewish woman who teaches New  Testament at a Christian theological college). Amy Jill Levine says that even though the Gospels don’t always agree about Jesus, we get a good picture of what Jesus was trying to promote. Jesus gathered disciples - followers. He attracted crowds by healing and teaching. He was testy, edgy, provocative. Some people wanted to kill him. Others wanted to make him king. Jesus dedicated his life to loving enemies, forgiving enemies, healing enemies. Above all, he was committed to serving God, to suggesting God’s way, to getting people to follow God. People were so impressed by Jesus and by what he did that they saw God in him. They did not think that he was God. No Jew would ever consider any man to be divine. But they saw that God so filled up Jesus that God was acting through him. They called Jesus “Son of God,” but many people were called “Son of God” to indicate their intimacy with God. Jesus was one of the great “Sons of God.” Some Christians went even further and claimed that Jesus was divine because he had been born of a virgin. They didn’t realize that the Hebrew word in Isaiah meant “young woman” not “virgin.” But they wanted Jesus to be born of a virgin because every great man or foreign god was born of a virgin. Here’s another way of thinking about Jesus. One writer says that Jesus today is walking around oppressed by layer after layer of clothing. For 2,000 years we’ve put layer after layer of clothes on Jesus and we’ve turned him into somebody very different from the man who got into the water to be baptized by John. We’ve laid on Jesus political clothing, economic clothing, cultural clothing, church clothing. Jesus is so bogged down by the clothes we’ve put on him that we can’t see the real man. As a result we claim that Jesus sends men to war. We say Jesus rejects immigrants, especially Orientals. We declare Jesus hates homosexuals, even though Jesus never said anything about homosexuals. The time has come to divest Jesus of all those clothes, to remove all the crap we’ve laid on him, to take off the layers of tradition, to lift off our ideas and theologies and get back to the Jesus who stood in the water to be baptized by John. Easy to say; hard to do. How do we remove from Jesus some of our favourite traditions, theologies, insights, ideas? I have to stand up with all of you and say, “Let’s talk about Jesus. Let’s share our views about Jesus. I have to be ready to withdraw my theology if you can convince me I am wrong, but you must be ready to do the same.” Would it not be wonderful if in the church we could talk that way to one another? Unfortunately I find that while I can live with and love those who take the Bible literally they cannot live with and love me. I can live with and love those who take the Bible literally because I know I might be able to learn something from them. I don’t agree with them now, but I find that we both follow and serve the same Jesus. Unfortunately, one of those who disagrees with me said to me once, “Your God is not my God.” If that’s true, then I’m concerned for that person because the Jesus I know and follow loves everybody and is ready to search for and to save everyone. I believe we Christians, although we differ in our theological views, are all following Jesus. One thing most New Testament scholars agree on - and they don’t agree on much - is that Jesus’ main aim was the Kingdom of God. Jesus wasn’t concerned about “pie in the sky when you die.” Jesus wasn’t talking about life beyond the grave so much as he was talking about life here and now. Jesus didn’t speak much about the future in heaven; he spoke about a political state here and now. Jesus contrasted the Kingdom of Caesar with the Kingdom of God. According to the Kingdom of Caesar, Might was Right. Rome ruled by force of arms. People who lived in the Kingdom of Caesar had no rights, no choices, no power. They lived under the oppression of Rome. The Pax Romana, The Roman Peace, was not really “PEACE.” The Roman Peace was the absence of rights for the people, the absence of freedom for the people, and the absence of power for the people. The Kingdom of God was the opposite. In the Kingdom of God there would be rule by love and justice. In the Kingdom of God the budget would not be for war; it would be for peace. In the Kingdom of God, the rich would not be first; the poor would get first concern. In the Kingdom of God, the healthy would not get all the attention. The sick would get first claim on our money, our time and our expertise. In Jesus’ time Rome was not the kingdom of God. The Christians turned everything upside dow and employed all the adjectives used to describe Caesar to point to Jesus. Jesus was Lord. Jesus ruled the world. Jesus was the son of God. Jesus was the saviour. All those things the Romans had said about Caesar. No wonder the Romans had to get rid of the Christians. The Christians were stealing all the Roman claims. The Christians were replacing all the Roman attitudes. The Christians were turning Roman theology upside       down. The Christians, by usurping all the Roman claims, were saying, “Rome is not the kingdom of God. Rome is not the will of God.” The Gospels kept asking, “Whose kingdom will you choose?” Today we’re asked, “Whose kingdom will you choose? The Kingdom of Canada or the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of militarism or the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of profit and money or the Kingdom of God?” The struggle I have, as a follower of Jesus, is that I have to live in the Kingdom of Canada, the Kingdom of militarism, the Kingdom of Capitalism, money, and  power and still try to proclaim the Kingdom of God. I fail too often, I know. That’s why I want everyone in the church to follow Jesus - so that they’ll not be on the wrong side but will stand with Jesus, the Lord, the one who best represents God.                

The Power of Hospitality

September 21, 2014
Bible Text: Genesis 19:1-11, Luke 14:15-24 | Preacher: Rev. Dr. Zander Dunn   Hospitality will help the church to grow. The lack of hospitality will kill the church. Several of you have told me about churches where you were not made welcome. One man told me he went to a Presbyterian Church for four Sundays in a row and nobody spoke to him; nobody even welcomed him. The result? That man decided not to attend that church. A woman told me about a church she visited because she was “church shopping.” The only one who spoke to her and shook her hand was the minister. She never went back. A citizen of Kingston said to me, “I don’t go to that church because nobody notices me; nobody remembers my name; nobody cares about me.” I read about a stranger to a church who sat in the front row with a stove-pipe hat on his head. He said he did that to show he was a newcomer. He didn’t want anybody to overlook him. The trouble was that most people feared him. He was so different they didn’t know what to do with him. There was a time in this church when people raised their arms in the air while singing hymns. That got them attention, but not a warm welcome. On the other hand, I was impressed when we attended worship in a church where three people welcomed us. After the service two people sat with us over coffee. Another person offered to show us around the church. Hospitality is extremely important according to the Bible and according to Jesus. In the Old Testament there’s the story of Abraham’s hospitality to some strangers. He ran to greet them and to make them welcome. Hospitality protected people from the dangers of travelling alone. There were no safe, cheap shelters for travellers. Those who travelled could be robbed, beaten and killed. If a needy traveller were discovered he should be welcomed, fed abundantly, and housed warmly even at great cost to the host family. Jesus went beyond that. He told a parable in which the king says to those who were given the kingdom, “I was naked and you clothed me. I was hungry and you fed me. I was a stranger & you welcomed me.” They didn’t realize that by clothing, feeding and  welcoming the stranger they were being hospitable to the king himself. Jesus challenged his followers to overcome their fear of the stranger and attend to the lonely, the excluded, the rejected. One of the most shocking parables Jesus told we call The Good Samaritan. You know the story: a Jew is beaten by robbers and left for dead; the best Jewish religious leaders pass him by; a Samaritan, hated by the Jews, attends to him. Jesus called his listeners to be hospitable even to those we hate or fear. The Jews hated and denigrated the Samaritans. Samaritans were unclean, heretical half-breeds. The Samaritans returned the compliment. We build ourselves up by looking down on others. I look down on people who look down on people. That’s prejudice and it enables us to hide our insecurities even from ourselves. The trouble is that when we look down on others we dehumanize the others but ourselves also. We can’t be human and degrade another single person. The only way to treat another human as an equal being is to be hospitable. Even today the Jews and Samaritans fear each other. When we visited Israel we travelled in a small bus. I wanted to visit Shechem, the site of the covenant renewal ceremonies, in Samaria. Our guide said we’d stop there on the way home. Unfortunately we got delayed and night fell upon us. Our guide told us that he dared not stop in Shechem in the dark for fear the Arabs or Samaritans who lived there would attack us. So I missed Shechem, the place of covenant renewal ceremonies, because of the lack of hospitality. Greek stories and fairy tales often tell about gods and supernatural beings who disguise themselves as the lowest of mortals, and then go through the earth to see how people will treat them. The Epistle to the Hebrews warns, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Hospitality is one gateway to God. Hospitality to others may be the best way to God. Hospitality is more than being kind to strangers and welcoming newcomers to church. When we’re truly hospitable we affirm that each person we meet is made in God’s image. Each person, regardless of race, nationality, age, economic class, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, each person is loved by God. That means every person must be welcomed and accepted and supported by us. Jesus lived out that attitude. Jesus accepted everybody. Jesus welcomed everybody. Remember how Jesus chastised some Pharisees for their lack of hospitality. Jesus pointed out to one Pharisee friend, who had invited him to a feast at his house, that the Pharisee had not greeted Jesus nor had he washed Jesus’ feet. He said that to the Pharisee because a so-called “bad” woman had greeted him, had washed his feet with her tears and had dried them with her hair. Obviously the Pharisee, a good, religious man, who wanted to reform Judaism, did not consider a woman, a “bad” woman, worthy of his attention and welcome. He was not hospitable because he knew he was better than that woman and he didn’t want to make her feel at home in his house. During World War II the Huguenot town of France, Le Chambon, hid many Jews away from the Nazis who were out to kill all Jews. It was natural for Huguenots to receive the poor and suffering Jews; it was part of their faith. They were very successful; Jews were seldom found. When the Nazis came to inspect the church and the people in the town, Mrs. Trocme, the minister’s wife, invited the Nazi officers in for lunch. The people were horrified, scandalized, upset. Madame Trocme explained that it was the role of the Christian to be hospitable to everybody. Even the despised Nazis were to be welcomed. There are no exceptions to our hospitality because God has made us all of equal value. Even our enemies need and deserve our love. I remember the time a woman of another church phoned me about a mutual friend. She didn’t want to invite that woman to her church because that woman wasn’t her social equal. Not only that, she was superior to that woman on an intellectual and educational level. That Christian lady asked me to visit our mutual friend and take her into our church where she was sure she’d feel more at home. I took her words as a compliment to me and to our congregation, but I marvelled at the arrogance of the woman who phoned me. Imagine, that Christian lady refused to deal with a woman whom she felt was beneath her socially and intellectually. That Christian lady lacked hospitality. As a result she lost a friend, she lost a member for her church, she lost my respect. Paul declared that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free. There are no divisions among us; we are all one in Jesus, our Lord. The Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament remind us over and over again that there are three groups of people to whom we must be especially hospitable. Those three groups are strangers, widows and orphans. Those people were the weakest, the least protected and the most disadvantaged members of society. Widows were in need of attention because they were without a man to protect and provide for them. Orphans were without a man, a father, in their lives. Strangers were listed with widows and orphans because they were alone. Strangers not only lacked a man to protect them and provide for them but they had no friends to support them. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says that the mark of true Christians is that they will “extend hospitality to strangers.” If you’ve ever felt alone you know how important it is to be uplifted by the hospitality of the people around you. We’re not made to be alone. We’re created by God for community. When we declare that we’re made in the image of God we’re saying that we are made to relate to God,  to communicate and commune with God. God works through people, so we have to take the time to see God in the others around us. As Christians we have to connect with those who are alone and lonely. There is nobody more alone than the person suffering an illness. Anybody who is chronically sick knows that he or she is often outside the fellowship of friends. True, some of those who are friends and family do wonderful things to make the sick person feel loved and needed. Still, there is a difference - I’m sick; you’re not. I remember reading about a young girl who became a victim of cancer and lost all her hair. For a girl to lose her hair is traumatic. The normal girl spends hours each day brushing, combing, arranging her hair. She felt naked when her friends came to visit. Her friends all had their hair. One of her closest friends called up the other friends - both boys and girls - and suggested a most unusual way to support the girl with the cancer problem. Two days later, when they all walked into the hospital to visit their bald friend, she broke into laughter and tears. All her friends - both boys and girls - were bald. They had not only shaved off all their hair but they had donated their hair to make a wig for their friend with cancer. What a joyful event that was - 27 young people all bald and all gathered around the bald cancer victim in the centre. That girl knew she had been welcomed, was greatly loved and would always have friends. Jesus related to the sick and the outcasts in a unique way. Jesus didn’t let anything get between him and those he wanted to welcome. Jesus broke all the rules of religious purity in order to relate to a tax collector, a woman hemorrhaging, a synagogue leader with a sick daughter. The tax collector was the most hated man in society. He lined his own pockets by collecting taxes for the enemy, the Roman oppressors. The woman who was bleeding was discharging menstrual blood which made her unclean. Yet, when she touched Jesus, Jesus commended her for doing so. Men have always feared menstrual blood. One reason given as to why women cannot be priests in the Roman Catholic Church is that if they were menstruating at the altar they                                    would pollute that holy place. The synagogue leader had tried to save his daughter. But nothing had worked. So, in desperation, he turned to Jesus. Jesus went to the home of the tax collector, Zacchaeus, and ate and drank with him. Jesus was happy when the unclean woman touched his garment so that her bleeding stopped. Nothing kept Jesus from going to be with the elder of the synagogue and his daughter, even when it was reported she had died. Jesus touched her and gave her life back to her. Jesus was most famous for his table fellowship. He sat down at table to eat, drink and talk with the sinners, the outcasts, the damned and the rejected. For those people to sit down for a meal with Jesus meant that Jesus accepted them and was open to them. He showed them that they were important. What was the meaning of all this eating and drinking with Jesus? Most people at the time of Jesus never had a full stomach. Many went to bed hungry; others starved to death. The symbol of heaven for the people was a feast. At the heavenly banquet there would be meat - the poor people hardly ever ate meat. The meat would give them strength. There would be wine, something only the rich could enjoy and then only on special occasions. Go back and read the New Testament and you’ll find many times food is mentioned and celebrated. It’s significant that Jesus shared a meal with his disciples before he was killed. Those disciples of Jesus were not good men. One had been a tax collector. One had been a zealot, out to kill Romans. One became a traitor. None of them understood Jesus. They all abandoned him in his final hours. Jesus embraced them all. I used to think that the communion service was the most sacred part of worship, and that it was for good, holy people only. In the good old days of Presbyterian history you couldn’t receive communion unless you were given a token to show you were worthy. I, as a minister, used to “fence the table.” I would put an imaginary fence around the table warning the unrepentant or unloving that they shouldn’t come to the table but should stay outside the fence. Now I know better. I now know Jesus was hospitable to everyone. Sinners, failures, the unclean and the outcasts were welcome and encouraged to share in the table fellowship of eating and drinking. So now I announce that everyone is invited to the table of Jesus - Jews, Muslims, Hindus - because he never kept anybody away. One of the greatest sins of the church is to keep God’s people from eating and drinking at the Table of the Lord. Everybody is welcome. God invites all of us to be with him in sharing the communion meal. Such is the hospitality of God. Anything less is unworthy of the Church. Let nothing separate us from the hospitality of God.                              

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.                      

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.