Luke 9: 28-36
Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the apex of the liturgical season we call Epiphany. Apex, which means the tip, the point, the summit. This is my new word of the week. Apex. Some really like the story of Jesus’ transfiguration and the liturgies and hymns that usually comes with it. To be totally honest with you, I am not one of them. There is nothing wrong with Transfiguration Sunday in itself, beside that fact I am struggling to say this word. It is just that every year we read essentially the same story, regardless of which gospels it comes. Every year we hear that Jesus took Peter, John and James to the top of a mountain, his clothes turned dazzling white, Moses and Elijah showed up to talk to Jesus, Peter wanted to built tents, and the voice of God said, “This my Son. Listen to him.” Every year, as a minister, I have to find a way to explain the meaning of this rather strange Biblical passage.
Since the 2nd century, this story has been the subject of much speculative interpretation. Many believe this is a post-resurrection appearance of Christ to the disciples that was simply misplaced in the gospels. Others make a link between this event and the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles during which Jews celebrate the protection offered by God during their wanderings in the wilderness by building tents or huts. Maybe the most creative explanation for this transfiguration phenomenon comes from the presence of the words, “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep”. Jesus brought his disciples to the top of the mountain at dusk and when the full moon began to shine its light illuminated – transfigured Jesus and his shadow was somehow perceived as the two prophets Moses and Elijah, like the crosses we have at the front of our sanctuary. We have to acknowledge this is very creative… hardly plausible… but very creative.
The main problem today with understanding the transfiguration of Jesus is that we live in an age of science and technology, and everything ought to be explained logically. Dead people, how great they were, do not come back to life, even as ghosts. The colour of our clothing and tone of our skin cannot be changed suddenly. The sound made by the clouds is not God’s voice, but the thunder. We do believe in God, but in an intelligent way and most of us are convinced that only feeble minds still believe in some sort of magical miracles. How the 5,000 were fed by Jesus with only 2 fish and 5 loaves? It is simple. People had brought bread with them on that day and they began to share with one another. Voila! We are rational people looking for rational answers. We want hard data, numbers and facts on which can anchor our religious lives. We want to know God and find the precise words to describe accurately our faith.
In a few minutes we will have our Annual General Meeting. As usual, Glenda worked many hours to pull together the multiple rapports from our different groups and committees. Thank you so much for doing this. Ron, our treasurer, gave us numbers and details in his 2015 financial report and also a proposed budget for 2016. We also want to say thank you for this difficult job. In these pages we also can find statistics and information about the various projects and events we hold. We can read hard data, numbers and facts about Kanata United Church. Yet, one can wonder if this document tells the whole story of our congregation. Does it totally explain how we have been the people of God during the last year? Is there more to our story (or our stories) than the words printed on this paper?
Last March we had the incredible opportunity to welcome John Bell in our midst. For those who missed him, John Bell is a minister with the Church of Scotland and his primary concern is the renewal of congregational worship through music and liturgy. We know how many people attended the event. We know the amount of money we made from the weekend and how it really helped us to balance our 2015 budget. However, there is much more to say about this event. For two days, John Bell made us sing beautifully and it felt easy, which is not a given for some of us who have been told that we should not sing in public. He empowered us by reminding us that what we do on Sunday mornings is not a recital or a performance to an audience, but a form of prayer directed to our all-loving God. Since his passage, there is a new energy in our Music ministry. I cannot prove or demonstrate it, but I surely feel it.
A few days ago, we had, what I hope to be, our 1st annual bazaar with the Kanata Muslim Association. It was a huge success. We had about twenty / thirty volunteers from each community who came to help us. We raised exactly $2,620.80 for Syrian refugees. Imam Sikander and I hold a questions and answers session that last 45 minutes. A wonderful day! However, those numbers do not tell the whole story of this event. I do not know if you looked inside our kitchen during that day. There were many women who never really worked together previously, because they belong to our community and theirs and also our Muslim friends do not have a mosque where they can cook together. Yet, they all worked side by side very efficiently to heat food, serve everyone and clean all the plates, muds and cutlery. I do not know if you noticed the teenagers who greeted everyone walking into this building on this day, and on top of this, who moved boxes of books for our Book Fair. I do not know if you noticed the people who sat down and chatted at our café in the fireside room, some of them who never met each other prior that day. I cannot present you a mathematical model explaining why so many people came and were involved in such a way, but it surely happened.
In a few days we will have our Book Fair. This week is certainly the craziest time of the year at Kanata United Church. Almost everything stops so we can set up 50,000 used books that had been sorted out and moved all year long by an incredible number of volunteers from this congregation. We will open our doors on Thursday late afternoon and depending on the weather there will be a line up. We will end the sale on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday morning we will come to this place and it will be spotless as if nothing happened. We will raise several thousands of dollars that are essential to pay our various expenses. Yet, are all those facts telling the whole story? Have you noticed that most of the newcomers to Kanata United Church chose the Book Fair as their first involvement with our congregation? Have you noticed the amount of pastoral care people offered to one another we they are culling books in our portable? Have you noticed the people with a lower income, yes there are some in Kanata, who comes to our event and can afford to buy books for them and their children like everybody else? I cannot give you specific names or examples, but it is surely a reality.
There is so much in our stories that go beyond hard data, numbers and facts. The outcomes of everything we do cannot fully be quantified, explained, or demonstrated. We cannot seriously say A + B = good stewardship or the best way to live our faith in this world or neighbourhood. On so many occasions, the question is not what we have done, but rather how we behaved. Through all we have done together, have we felt the presence of God, were we inspired by the words of Jesus and did we let the Spirit move among us?
I believe the same could be said about the transfiguration of Jesus. We could spend an unlimited number of hours trying to understand how it happened and what it means exactly. We could look for hard data, numbers and statistics that might help us to find interesting answers. Yet it probably would not tell the whole story. On the top of a mountain, three men lived a brief taste the divine. They had one of those intense experiences that have the power to transform lives. Even if they did not receive scientific proof, logical arguments or new knowledge, they fully experienced God. They might not have a clue what happened exactly, but they knew it surely happened.
On many occasions, we believe that faith, spirituality or what we do here together ought to be understood, quantified or demonstrated. We are looking for ways to explain God’s presence in our midst. However, the story of the transfiguration of Jesus reminds us that sometimes we are simply invited to be touched by the unexpected. We are asked to go beyond logic and explanations. We are called to taste, to feel and to experience how God can be with us. Amen.
I have been thinking about the Harry Potter saga lately… probably because there have been people sorting books in front of my office all week long. By the way, thank you once again to those offering a few hours to do this. In the fifth instalment of the series, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, Harry is trying to convince everyone that Lord Voldemort has returned. Some refuse to acknowledge this fact because they are in league in the dark lord or hope to benefit from his return. However, there are many, like the Minister of Magic, that refuse to believe Harry and even accuse him of lying. At the end of this episode, all have to accept that Harry was right… and it might be too late to stop Voldemort.
When I think about it, I am convinced that Harry Potter could have been easily a prophet in the Old Testament. These days, liberal and progressive Christians simply love the prophets’ inspiring speeches about social justice, protecting the vulnerable and confronting society’s rich and powerful. We often hear that churches like the United Church ought to reclaim its prophetic voice in our society. It is a wonderful suggestion. However, the only little problem here is that we seem to forget that, in our Bible, nobody really likes the prophets. They are like preachers no one enjoys listening or take seriously. Moses, who is considered the greatest prophet in the history of Israel, constantly faces critiques and opposition from his people. Elijah has to flee to escape death treats from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. The people of Judah totally dismissed Ezekiel’s words about an up coming day of judgment ushered by God. I could easily go on and on with many other examples. The bottom line is the people saw the prophets as pessimistic trouble-makers with their omens of destruction. However, when they are proven right, it is often too late for them to say, ‘Ah ah! See! Told you so!” It’s too late.
This morning, we read a passage from the beginning of the book of Jeremiah. Some might be familiar with it because the words, “before I formed you in the womb I knew you” is a reference often used by the pro-life movement. If I can take a few seconds here, I would like to explain something. Languages have different ways to put emphasis on something. For example, there is a difference between a fish and a VERY HUGE FISH! Here God says to Jeremiah, “I know you! You want to know I much I know you! Well, I know you since your birth! You know what? I knew you even before your birth, when you were in still your mother’s womb! This is how much I know you, man.” You see the emphasis? End of the explanation. God comes to a young Jeremiah and tells him he is called to become a prophet, which means literally to be a spokesperson for God. His age or inexperience to speak in public does not matter. Jeremiah is chosen to pluck up, to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow in God’s name.
We might feel that Jeremiah’s mission is somehow negative and depressing, but we need to acknowledge he lived during a difficult time of national transition. Jeremiah preaches over the reign of five different kings who seemed to compete with each other about who would bring Israel’s demise the fastest. It was that bad. His harsh critics are a passionate denunciation of a corrupt political system and an immoral society. His warnings concerning an upcoming exile are an attempt to save his people cultural and religious life. If nothing changed, he says, the people of God will lose everything.
How do you think the people reacted to Jeremiah’s words? Do you think everyone came to him and claimed they would radically change? Some probably told him something like, “Blablabla! Jerusalem survived many crises before. There is no reason it would be different this time.” Others really did not want to hear what Jeremiah had to say. For bringing God’s word to God’s people, the prophet is beaten, thrown in a well, imprisoned, hounded and ends up, according to tradition, exiled to Egypt where he dies as a martyr. Yet, beside the physical suffering he endures, Jeremiah mostly laments over his nation that seems to refuse the salvation God is offering. He feels like a total failure because his people’s choices are taking them further and further away from God. The more he preaches, the more they turn away from him. When the Babylonians finally arrive, destroy everything and sent the people of God into exile, it is too late to say, “Told you so!” It was too late.
These days, many in our churches somehow feel like Jeremiah. We live in challenging times. We do not have to look far to see major problems in our society. We live in a country that struggles to address the many generations of systematic discrimination against the people of the First Nations. We live in a time when God’s Creation is abused to a point we are not even sure anymore if humankind would be able to survive in a century or so. We live in a system in which a growing number of vulnerable individuals are oppressed by a 1% of… I almost said people, but they are corporations and faceless multinational groups who decide if we can afford vegetables for dinner. We know something is broken. We know it cannot go on forever. Many of us are trying to speak up. Many of us are trying to say that things have to change. Many of us are trying to share our message with the world, because we believe our message of love, acceptance and forgiveness is a good message worthy to be proclaimed. Many of us are trying, but it seems we live in a time when most people do not want to hear what we have to say. We are told, “Who do you think you are? Why do you always want to change everything? Why are you never happy? Go back to your prayers grandma!” Unfortunately, we cannot because we are just afraid that it might too late.
It has never been easy to be a prophetic voice, to speak God’s words. Some days we are just discouraged and tempted to simply give up. We wish we could receive a few words of encouragement, a gesture of affirmation or some sort of reward that would help us to continue. In Jeremiah’s case, God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you a prophet to the nations. So do not be afraid, for I am with you.” God claims that Jeremiah was created for just such a moment. He was made for these places, times, and events. He received the gifts, attributes and character that made him tougher and able to cope with his difficult call. I do not know about you, but if I were Jeremiah, my answer would have been, “That’s it? You know me so I should not be afraid? Youpi-lai-dou!” Personally I would have preferred some sort of shield from all the troubles coming with proclaiming God’s message rather than being known since the beginning of my life.
Yet… Being known… To be in an intimate relationship… Maybe these are among the deepest longing of every human being. I firmly believe we all aspire to find a profound intimacy with someone else, may it be love, friendship, companionship. I believe we desire to find this special someone with whom we can treasure every moment we have. I believe we want to know someone with whom we always love to spend our time. How wonderful it is to be with someone for so long that we are certain what he or she is thinking or is about to say. In this day and age of mass communications and social medias, to be in a close relationship in which we do not have to pretend and can be truly ourselves is probably more precious than gold. This is what God offered to Jeremiah and also to all of us. In good times and in bad times, we are promised that God is with us. In moments of celebration and indignation, we are never alone. In the presence of God, we can share our dreams for this world. We can lament about the humankind’s mistakes. We can be with someone who understands how life could be difficult.
Throughout scripture, God reaches out, calls and commissions unlikely men and women to become prophets, spokesperson for God, and thereby puts them in trouble. Jeremiah was called to pluck up, to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow in God’s name, but the people did not listen to him. Being a prophetic voice has never easy and will never be because it leads to proclaim essential but most often unpopular messages. Nevertheless, we should at no time give up because the advantages outweigh the hindrances. We have been chosen because God knows us, desires to be in a relationship with us and wants to work with us closely to build a better future for all. What more can we really ask? Amen.
John 2: 1-11
You know the expression: timing is everything. Whether it is telling a joke, making a dramatic entrance on stage or playing Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto no 2, timing is essential if one wants to achieve success. Large corporations are doing extensive research to find when would be the best moment to release a new product or launch a new initiative. For example, how many movies do you think were released in North America the same weekend as the latest “Star Wars”? I looked and I can tell you not much. According to the box office, the most profitable new movie after “Star Wars” was “Alvin and the Chipmunks”, with approximately 20 times less revenues than “The Force Awakens”. Like I said; it’s all about finding the right timing.
I have told you often that the Gospel according to John is different from the three other ones in New Testament. Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the Synoptics because they follow a similar chronology and present Jesus’ life as a succession of events. One day Jesus does something. Then he goes to another place. The next day he meets some Pharisees and so one. The Gospel according to John is completely different. In this text, timing is almost irrelevant. The narrative is not organized chronologically. For example, the cleansing of the Temple happens in the second chapter of John and not a few days before his crucifixion like in the other Gospels. Instead of telling the life of Jesus, the Fourth Gospel prefers to focus on symbolism in its presentation of the good news. The only goal of the author is, as it is written at the end of the Gospel, “that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”.
In today’s passage, at an unspecified time, Jesus attends a wedding with his mother and some of his disciples. We are not told how old Jesus is, but I suspect he is still a teenager. You see, when Mary tells his son that the wine ran out too early, which is always a catastrophe regardless of the wedding – I could share some horrible stories when this happened, but is not the topic of today’s sermon – when Mary tells his son that there is no more wine, Jesus’ answer is, “Pff! Mamememdadf”, which was beautifully translated in our bibles as, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come”. His “why should I care about that”, makes me think that Jesus might still be a teenager. For me, the exchange between Mary and her son sounds very similar to any parent who has told their 14 years old to clean up their room because friends or family are coming. “Not now, Mom. I do not feel like doing it. I’ll do it later. My hour has not come yet.”
Humour aside, maybe Jesus’ initial refusal is not base on laziness. Maybe this wedding in Cana was not the time nor the place to perform miracles or amazing deeds. For the author of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is nothing less than the Messiah, the Christ who had come to change everything, to reinterpret Scriptures for the people of God, and to manifest God’s majesty to the world. The glory of the Word made Flesh is ultimately revealed through his passion, crucifixion and resurrection. Hence Jesus’ curious reluctance to act following his mother’s statement that the wine had run out might be understandable. Did Jesus really have time to waste on such trivial matters? Should it more useful for him to focus on more divine issues? Maybe it was true that his hour has not yet come… or has it?
My hour has not yet come. I am not ready for this. I have enough on my plate right now; I do not have time for this. How many times have we said similar words? On how many occasions have we invoked a lack of time for refraining from doing something? Many of us like the idea of being involved in our world, to join a great enterprise or sharing our gifts with those who are less fortunate. However, we like to do it on our own time. We want to prepare ourselves before beginning a new project. We prefer to think about it first. We look for a good book or a workshop to deepen our understanding of the issue. We desire to put all the dots on our i and cross our t before taking action. Not that there is anything wrong with this, but sometimes life does not follow the strategies we carefully devise. Demands come to us. Challenges knock at our doors. New appeals emerge just in front of us. Unforeseen events force us to change our beautiful plans and preferred timing. As it often seems to be the case throughout Jesus’ ministry, the needs of people all around us send our own hour to the back seat.
Our understanding of our own hour is also often disturbed by people like Mary. Regardless of the possibility she was related or not to the wedding party, Mary saw a problem and decided to act upon it. First she goes to Jesus because she believes he was able to improve the situation. She tells him, ‘My son, do something now!’ Then she goes to the servants and tells them, “Do whatever he tells you”. Mary, like many others in our world, is not the kind of individual who sits back and remains inactive in front of a problem. She does not wait for a situation to be solved by itself. She is attentive to her surrounding and somehow she finds ways to pull in everyone, despite their initial reaction. She is convinced that the right time to be involved is now.
We know the rest of today’s story. Jesus instructs the servants to fill six large stone jars of water, to draw some of that water, now turned to wine, and take it to the chief steward. This new wine was even better than the initial one. The wedding and the honour of everyone were saved.
Interestingly, besides the servants, nobody seems to know that Jesus saved the day. Only a few witnessed this extraordinary deed and believed in Jesus. It would have been easy for him to stand up and shout, ‘Hello! Look at me! I’m the one who made all that extra wine… your Messiah! Don’t tell me I wasted one of my miracles for nothing. Can you at least show me some consideration?” It would probably be easy for Jesus to do so. Yet he did not because this miracle was not done for his glory or own convenience, but to respond to ordinary human needs.
In our congregations or personal lives, we are constantly called to take action or to react to unforeseen events. We are told the many ways we can make a difference in our world. On some occasions, yes, the projects feel almost impossible to accomplish, like turning water into wine. But most of the time, we are invited to do simple deeds like a giving a hug that convey unbounded love, making a small donation of food or money that can make the difference between scarcity and abundance, or share a simple smile just at the right time. All of this is possible when we are open to re-arrange our plans. When we ready to accept to let go of our preferred timing, we can discover how the reign of God might break in through ordinary and mundane moments of our lives.
Like I said a few minutes ago: timing is everything. Whether it is telling a joke, making a dramatic entrance or revealing God’s glory to the world, one has to find the perfect timing. In Cana, the realm of God became a reality not in an hour of exuberant triumph, but in a moment of human need. Maybe Jesus was not ready to begin his public ministry. Maybe he had a few more things to figure out. Still, he seized the opportunity offered to him. Jesus helped the people where they were. He was reminded by his mother that it was the right time to act. As we read this story today, we are reminded that whatever time we think it may be, it is always God’s time, and during God’s time all things are possible. Amen.
1 Corinthians 12: 1-11
This Sunday marks the end of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The benefit to have belonged to more than one Christian denomination is to discover that all churches face similar problems and virtually everyone believes their denomination is the best. Not that we have something necessarily against the other churches down the road, but “we are the ones who do it best” seems to be built into the very way in which we describe ourselves. Still, because of our theology and also our past, we, members of the United Church, like to believe in some sort of unity between Christian churches. We might even pray for it.
Today’s passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, depicting the many gifts of the Spirit, is a wonderful text for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Early in this letter, Paul has noted that the Christians at Corinth were not lacking spiritual gifts. It was quite the opposite. There were so many of them that it led to confusion and questioning. Paul told the Corinthians that no gift was better than another; there were just different. Some of them are to be used for services and ministries, while others are more relevant for activities and operations. Furthermore, the Corinthians should not expect to find all the gifts in the same person. Each member of the church has a manifestation of a gift appropriate to his or her self. Each member may have a different part to play depending on his or her particular talents. Each member is called to fulfil special roles for the benefit of the Church.
As you can guess, my sermon was coming along easily this week. Each denomination has a different gift to bring at the table. We are invited to use our gifts together for the edification of the people of God. All went well… until I read this blog that was asking: Are the gifts of the Spirit limited to the God’s church? Are the gifts of the Spirit only limited to Christians? Do we participate in cursing Jesus (as Paul mentions in verse 3) when we believe the gifts of the Spirit are only for “us” and not activated in everyone? At this point, my beautiful sermon was gone, because I was not quite sure how to answer those questions. Many of us like to work with people of different faith and religion. Our bazaar next Saturday is a very good example of this. Does it mean we are ready to acknowledge that the Spirit works in them? If yes, what does it mean for our theology, doctrine and beliefs?
In the United Church, THE big topic these days is not sexuality or gender justice, but Rev. Gretta Vosper who is the minister at West Hill United Church in Toronto. Few days ago I wrote on Twitter, “Thank God for Gretta Vosper, because on what else would United Church people argue about.” I was reminded once again that not everyone like my humour. I am not necessarily the best person to explain Vosper’s views because I haven’t read her books. From what I understand, she describes herself as someone who does not believe in a theistic, supernatural, internationalist divine being. On her website, she presents herself as “minister, author, atheist”. What I do know is that Toronto Conference has begun a process to investigate if she is still in essential agreement with her ordination vows. Regardless if she is still fit or not to serve a United Church congregation, Vosper raises challenging questions that lead us to go deeper in our faith to see if we agree with her or not. Because Gretta Vosper forces us to think seriously about our core and fundamental beliefs, can we say the Spirit of God work through her?
Larycia Hawkins is teaching Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College, a Christian university in Illinois. Last December, Hawkins posted a picture of herself on her Facebook wearing a hijab, and wrote, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book, and as Pope Francis stated… we worship the same God.” On January 4, Wheaton College notified that it had initiated formal proceedings to terminate her employment. In the college view, Hawkins’ words are in conflict with its statement of faith because it compromises trinitarian orthodoxy (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). If we agree with Hawkins and Pope Francis’ statement that we worship the same God, does it mean the Spirit works equally through Muslims and Jews, even if they do not believe in God’s spirit the same way as we do?
There has been a great commotion in religious circles in the United States during the last 5 years. Somehow, many Christians have discovered the existence of people who are happy to self identify as spiritual but not religious. They discovered people who are totally comfortable to be non-affiliated, the “none”. They even discovered the “done”, those who used to be affiliated, but have walked out and never want to come back again. Maybe this is not news for us, yet it is an incredible shock for many of our friends south of the border. For a long time, American unchurched or atheists were called publicly fouls. They were lost human beings lacking real values. However, when some Christians reach out to “those people”, they discovered good men and women with good values. They are involved in their society. They volunteer many hours in their community. They help the poor, the sick and the vulnerable. Could it be the Spirit of God works through people who do not even believe there is such a way as a God?
All those examples raise questions about rules, regulations, and ultimately orthodoxy – what is considered the true or correct beliefs. It is only normal that each group wants to establish its own rules and defines which are the parameters for one to belong. There is nothing unusual about an institution, like the Church, protecting some basic boundaries. For example, historically, believing in God and acclaiming Jesus as Lord have been key elements in becoming a Christian. It seems simple enough. Sadly, orthodoxy has also led many to a sense of entitlement, privilege, and superiority. Their understanding of what is a genuine belief in God or their definition of the Lordship of Jesus has been used to exercise power over others. The Spirit of God might still be at work in our world… as long it does not challenge established structure, doctrines and theology.
It seems that too many of us want to control the work of the Spirit. However, the Spirit is not like a vending machine providing gifts on demand for those who know how to punch the right code. The Spirit is not like a salesperson offering bundles from which we can select options to build up our spiritual identity or religious profile. The Spirit is not like the caterer of an all you can eat buffet from which we can pick and choose an unlimited amount of gifts and supernatural powers to our personal satisfaction. It would be great, but it does not work like this unfortunately.
In today’s last verse, Paul says, “All these (the gifts) are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allows to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” Just as the Spirit chooses… We are not the ones making that choice. The gifts of the Spirit are not activated for our self-satisfaction or according to our understanding of the world. They are bestowed upon individuals solely for God’s purpose, as the Spirit sees it fit. The Spirit activates those gifts regardless if one is true believers or considered within the institution, because the mission of the church is to the world, not to itself. All the gifts the Spirit has been pouring out on the church – wisdom, teaching, healing, prophecy, discernment and so on – are all signs of God’s desire to create a new and better world. The Spirit does not exclusively select Christians, but all who are needed to achieve this goal.
Maybe, with time, we have become too comfortable with events like the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I am sure the first time this idea was formulated, some said, “Are you crazy? Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and Quakers under the same room. It will never work!” Now we look at this we say Pff. Maybe what we need is a Week of Prayer for Religious People Unity or a Week of Prayer for People doing good deeds regardless your beliefs Unity. Maybe we need to stretch our minds into accepting that the gifts of the Spirit are not a reward reserved for good believers following a certain form of orthodoxy. As Yehuda Amichai, one of Israel’s most celebrated poet, wrote:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
When I still had time to watch TV, I followed the series NCIS… even I struggled with this image of the United States always on the verge to be attacked or filled with sleeping terrorist cells of all sorts. In this series, the character of Jethro Gibbs (played by Mark Harmon) has a series of rules that guide his life. Some years ago, I began my own list of rules. So far, I have 13 of them. This morning I would like to share with you one of them. Rule number 3: Never talk about the Church fight club. This rule is inspired by the movie Fight Club whose first rule is not to talk about the fight club. The rule is also inspired by a documentary of which I would like to show you the official trailer. I just want to say that this is not a spoof or joke. This is a real and genuine documentary directed by a man who did win an Academy Award. I also want to warn you that some images are graphic and might be shocking.
Where should I begin? There is enough in these 2 minutes 27 seconds for at least 10 different sermons. First, do not come to me with the suggestion of a mixed martial arts pastor versus pastor fundraiser. My answer will be which parts of sermons you do not get. Second, I agree that tough guys need Jesus, but I still haven’t found in my Bible the passage where Jesus says that we should beat each other as a way to fight evil. Third, and maybe the most disturbing part of this clip, the fear and distress in the eyes of the boy who is about to fight was, to say the least, troubling. If grown men want to whack each other brain, that’s their problem. Children fighting each other in the name of Jesus? This is not my understanding of youth ministry.
I have to admit; it really bothers me when the minister uses parts of today’s reading from the book of Isaiah to motivate the young boy. The end of verse 1 and verse 2 says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called by your name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and though the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk though fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” Obviously, this man, like many other Christians, makes a parallel between fear and an absence of faith in God. If we are afraid to begin a new endeavour, to have enough food to feed our family or to receive a punch in the face, we simply lack trust in God, because there is this injunction in the book of Isaiah telling the people of God not to be afraid. A good Christian is a Christian who is fear-less.
To be unafraid is not necessarily easy these days. In fact, we seem to live in a world that wants us the feel the opposite. If we are not frightened by the multiple potential dangers surrounding us, we are often considered naïve or delusional. We ought to be afraid. Our governments developed a system of colours to assess the security threats. We do not blink when we are asked to remove our shoes and go through a body scanner at the airport. We do not really care that a semi-secret governmental agency collects data from our cell phones and computers without our explicit permission in the name of security. All of this seems to be the new normal.
We think we know what fear, danger and threat are. We might even believe we live in the most violent period in the history of humankind. Yet, when we go back to our Old Testament, to the time associated with today’s reading, we discover we should not complain too much. The Bible provides a glimpse of the destruction of major Judean cities by the Assyrian in the late eighth century BCE. I said a glimpse because the Assyrian historical texts depict their soldiers impaling the enemy. Children guided out of the burning cities by parents in chains. Men leaving their homes with only what they can carry in their two hands. The men, women and children living back then had good reasons to be afraid.
After everything the people of God had to go through during centuries, equating fear and lack of faith is problematic. If we believe God is the creator of this world – either literally as it is written in the book of Genesis or if we are more liberal by saying the universe finds its source in God or God was involved in the creation process – regardless of our theology, we cannot but wonder why we experience war, destruction, natural disasters, evil individuals, oppressive regimes… Would not be easier and better for God to create a safer world, if not for all, at least for the nation God chose. If the people of God are the beloved in a close relationship with the Holy One, if God says, “I have called you by name, you are mine”, why are we not spared from dangers? Why are we not protected from evil? Why God allows in the first place the elements that scare the bejesus of us still be out there?
Some tries to solve this problem by believing our toils and struggles as a test of faith as we see in the documentary. God puts challenges on our path to evaluate us, to assess if we are good and truthful Christians. We might not understand it, but God must have a reason to make us suffer. It is all part of a divine plan. Others prefer to speak of the salvation and redemption brought by God when we are vulnerable. As the prophet says, “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you.” “For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.” It is when we are broken, reached our lowest point or lost everything that we are ready to let our guards down and willingly accept God’s help. It is when we pass through overwhelming rivers and walk through fire we can truly understand God’s glory. All of this is beautiful, but it brings little solace when we are the victims of injustice, when we are the one suffering from debilitating illness, when we are the one really fighting for our lives.
We struggle to make sense of all of this because Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, traditionally believe that God is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful) and omnibenevolent (all-good). However, following the Holocaust, a theology of protest emerged that do not attack the existence of God or God’s power, but what God is doing. One of the most famous tenants of the theology of protest is Elie Wiesel who is a survivor of the Holocaust. Wiesel wrote about his first night at Auschwitz, “Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.” The theology of protest finds its roots in the book of Job who argues with God about his fate, his multiple burdens and why this is happening to him. It is not afraid to claim that there is no divine justice nor master plan established by God. There is no special perk for being in a close relationship with the Holy One nor assurance of a reward in the afterlife.
In his book entitled “Night”, Wiesel wrote about this teenager hanged by SS soldiers in front of everyone in Auschwitz. As it took several unbearable minutes before the lad dies, someone in the crowd asked, “Where is God?” and the answer that came from inside of him was, “He is here, hanged at the gallows.” God is not responsible for the Holocaust, but God did not disappear when it happens. God followed the people into the camps. God suffered from starvation with the people. God was humiliated every day with the people. God died each time someone died.
If we are unable to escape from war, terrorism, oppression, crime or everything else that scares us with reason, we can find hope in the promise of the presence of God during those moments. We will have to go through some form of dangerous waters, overwhelming rivers or fire. Nothing can prevent that. However, God says, I will be with you. You will never be alone. I love you. You are precious in my sight. Do not worry; we will face these challenging times together.
Like other prophetic writings, the book of Isaiah is a subversive text that aims to modify our vision of the world. Being afraid is not necessarily positive or negative. Fear can either paralyze us when we need to take a courageous stand against oppression or prevent us from doing something completely stupid, like starting a fight club in a church. Fear is not an absence of faith and trust in God. Fear is forgetting the promise that in life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. God is with us, always and forever. Amen.