You probably have heard the expression, “When the wise man points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger.” Somehow I experience this reality every day with my dog. We say, ‘Go eat your food’ or ‘Go to your bed’, and our dog does not move. He rather follows our finger. Do not get me wrong. He is a great family dog… far from being the smartest, but still a great dog. I might complain a little about my dog, still on some days most of us are not that smarter. For example, when we first hear that a tragedy just hit our world, our initial reflex is often to turn on the television and to watch CNN, FoxNews or CBC News Network. The tragedy might have been over for 4 or 5 hours, and we keep watching. They may go to a reporter on site who is repeating exactly word for word what has been said 15 minutes previously; they might keep showing the same 2 minutes clip in a loop over and over again, and for some reason we are glued to our screen. Sometimes we are not even sure why we are watching. We know from experience that nothing else will happen anymore and most likely no significant information will come soon, and yet we are still watching.
The beginning of the Acts of the Apostles somehow feels that way. You probably already know that this biblical book was written by the same author as the Gospel according to Luke. In today’s terms, we could call it a sequel or the second instalment of a series. We almost expect hearing a narrator saying, “Last week on the Bachelor”. The Book of Acts opens with a short reminder that the previous book was all about what Jesus did and taught during his life, followed by an account of his passion, death and resurrection. Now it is time for the author to address the episode when Jesus was taken up in heaven, an event also known as his ascension.
In Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, the ascension of Jesus tends to be an important festival highlighting Christ’s glory and power. However, for most mainline Protestants these days, Jesus’ ascension is a problematic story, to say the least. It is a hard sell, or perhaps more precisely, something that pasted its sell-by date. It might have been believable a few centuries ago, but not today. Come on! Resurrection is already difficult to accept for a modern time mind, because we are told that Jesus unequivocally died and came back to life 3 days later. This is not how biology works, and yet, since it is such a central point of our religion, we are ready to go with it. Ascension… Pffff! Are we to believe that Jesus began to fly like a bird? Was he beamed up like in Star Trek? Did he finished his ministry on earth as a rocket rising a few hundred miles above the planet? And where is he supposed to be now? Is Jesus floating in space with satellites? It does not compute. This ascension stuff does not make sense.
Most likely, this whole story also did not make much sense for Jesus’ disciples. After the resurrection of their master, after appearing to many for 40 days, after giving them numerous convincing proofs that it was really him, they surely taught this was finally the time when Jesus would restore the kingdom of Israel, when the realm of God would lastly arrive. But no. Once again, Jesus is leaving them. It certainly felt like one disciple showed up and said to another, I have a good news and a bad news for you. Well, begin with the bad news. Jesus is gone. He is not among us anymore. Ok, what is the good news? There is no good news. He has gone over there. He is gone. Yes. Over there. Did he say something? He said he will come back. Did he say when? No, we do not have a clue. So he is gone… over there… like gone gone… Maybe if we look up long enough, something will happen. Maybe we will see him… or the kingdom or… oh… never mind, it’s just a bid… So he is gone... over there… like gone gone…
The disciples would probably be still standing and gazing up toward heaven as I speak if two men in white robes, most likely angels, stood by them and wondered, ‘Why are you looking up?’ It’s Jesus… he is gone… over there… like gone gone… Ok, we are not doing this again! The angels asked, My friends from Galilee, don’t you have something else to do? We do not know, probably replied the disciples. Jesus used to tell us what we should do. Now he is gone. Did you not pay attention to what he said just a few moments ago? He said, ‘Go to Jerusalem and wait over there’, and you are standing at the same place. Stop looking at the sky and just go.
This apparently simple moment most has been the biggest transition in the lives of the disciples, probably more important than the day of Pentecost itself. Up to this point, everything revolved around Jesus. He was the one who healed the sick, fed the people, forgave sins and preached about the promise of a new world based on new values and principles. During all these years, the disciples progressively understood who Jesus was and some even discovered who they truly were. But Christ’s ascension definitely marks the beginning of a new era in the history of the nascent church. Jesus of Nazareth is no longer the main character of the story, because he is gone, over there. Now it is up to the disciples to make sure their movement, the revolution they began, continues, not up there but over here.
Historically Christianity has spent a great amount of time and energy on topics like systematic theology, the concept of the Trinity, or describing what might be the afterlife. This is not necessarily wrong in itself, if we do not not forget to connect this with the reality of the world surrounding us. The promises of a beautiful heavenly and everlasting life might be more attractive than the daily realities of our ugly, imperfect, and challenging society. Still, this is where we live. This is where our brothers and sisters struggle. This is where the poor who are oppressed need our help. This is where the outcast search for compassion and acceptance. This is where those who are afraid long for our presence. This is where our ministries have to be done.
Today, we are the successors of the first disciples. Since Christ has not come back in full glory, it is up to us to do something and to be active in our world. The kingdom of God, the new realm Jesus came to announce is now our mission. It is up to us to make it happen. This means we are called to be involved, to use the numerous gifts we received, to be brave and courageous, to act even if it is scary at first, even if not sure we do it right, even if we never done it before. We are called to stop standing and looking up for something and to go where we are needed.
It is far safer and far less demanding to be a spectator than someone involved in our world. As disciples of Jesus the Christ, we are not called to stare at the same reality over and over again, but to act, to try, to undertake new projects, and to dare to be the church. Instead of passively waiting for Jesus to come and fix everything for us, we can all actively participate in the work than need to be done. It is up to us to make a difference not over there, but down here, right now. Amen.
John 10: 22-30
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, only a third of Americans say they talk about religion with people outside of their families at least once or twice a month. We do not have numbers for Canada, but I believe we could fairly assume that it is somehow similar over here. For many historical and sociological reasons, religion and faith are not necessarily the flavour of the month our daily conversations. And yet, at the same time, it seems there is an appetite in the media for debates on controversial religious topics. I am not just referring to Greta Vosper who was recently in the Toronto Star. I do not know if it is just me, but I have seen on many occasions a show that would bring the craziest Christian they could find and place that individual in front of a hard-core-science Atheist, and they let them fight each other with the hope that one would knock-out the opponent and win the people to his or her cause. Have you ever seen something like that?
At Kanata United Church, we are not keen for those sorts of debates. Still, we know that out there, there are people do not believe in God or do believe in something but do not come to church. They might have gone to Sunday School when they were young; they might know many stories of the Bible; they might be aware of the basics of Christianity, but they are still not joining us on Sunday mornings. Like the wide majority of Christians, we tend to believe that if we could find the right words or the right arguments said at the right time, we would gain them to our cause. We convinced that if we could be precise about our theology, beliefs, values or mission statements, we would pin them down. They would come back home where they belong and follow Jesus.
In today’s reading from the Gospel according to John, Jesus is walking in the Temple in Jerusalem. Suddenly, a group of Jews comes to him with a direct and simple question, “Are you the Messiah or not?” Obviously, they have heard about Jesus and his elusive teachings, enigmatic sermons or mind-boggling miracles. Hence their question, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Let’s cut the mumbo-jumbo. No more strange parables. No more the kingdom of God like… whatever. No more riddles. Stop swirling in shades of gray and say something that is black and white. For once, give us a direct answer. If you are the Messiah, tell us precisely and concisely. Just tell us!
For most Christians these days, this is a puzzling demand. Many of us do not understand why these Jews failed to see what is so obvious. After all, he is Jesus THE Christ. What is not to understand? The answer to their question is in his name. He is Mr. Christ… I was speaking about crazy Christians on some debates earlier… Seriously, we read this text and we have the feeling that there must be something else going on here. We feel the urge to say, ‘Please be careful Jesus. It’s a trap. These men are baiting you. They want to provoke you so they could start a scandal. Regardless what you will answer, they will spread gossips that will be used against you in the future. Just be careful Jesus.’
“If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” This request might be seen as simple today, but in Jesus’ time it carried some heavy baggage. ‘Messiah’ was not just a religious title among many others. There was a full agenda associated with being the Jewish Messiah, and everyone knew about it. The Messiah was expected to become a king, to rule with justice for the poor and weak, and to build peace with all Israel’s neighbours. The Messiah was expected to lead and win an apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil. The Messiah was expected to be a righteous priestly figure and to restore right and proper worship in the Temple. Being called a Messiah was a highly loaded statement. It was part of a revolutionary language against the establishment. It was dangerous to raise this question in public. Once again, ‘please just be careful Jesus about what you will answer.’
When they addressed Jesus, this group of Jews were probably expecting an honest and straightforward answer like, ‘Yes I, Jesus, am the Messiah and these are the reasons and arguments why I am making this claim.” However, Jesus rather answers, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” Good one Jesus! It is a bit cocky, but straight to the point. It is true. You already have told them on many occasions in the Gospels and they choose not to believe you. It’s not your fault if you are not meeting their messianic expectations or the ones of their ancestors. Those who listened to you have recognized you as the true shepherd. If the others do not want to follow you, maybe they do not belong to the flock after all. You know what? Bravo, Jesus! You just won the day. Yah team Jesus.
And then today’s passage tells us that Jesus continues to speak and we just want to say, ‘No, no, no. Please stop there Jesus. Don’t ruin this. You have a good solid answer for once. You just burned them. Stop there.’ Did he stop there? Of course not. He added, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” What? Works? Jesus surely wanted to say ‘words’, not works. Words, like the words we use in our creeds, statements of faith and documents codifying our beliefs, like Article 1: God is… Article 2: Jesus is… Article 3: Sin is… Words. This is what we expect. This is the way we have been told. We have spent a great amount of time to develop beautiful pamphlets displayed at the entrance of our church with all the right words to explain who we are and why people should come here to worship. Words.
Sometimes, we spend so much time trying to find the right words that could convince everyone that we forget to act upon them. Sometimes, we speak at length about justice for the poor and how to be in solidarity with them, and then we enter into a store and buy what is not fair trade nor providing a decent living. We pray for peace on earth, but we barely raise an eyebrow when our government sells guns and weapons to countries not respecting basic human rights because it will create good jobs in our country. We claim we are good Christians, but we struggle to welcome strangers who are asking us for help outside proper channels or allotted time of the week. On some days, I wonder… If people took a close look at our works, would they see that we believe that Jesus is our Messiah? Would we be able to stand on our works alone? Would we be considered as those who cannot see what is obvious, as those who do not listen?
And yet, we know from experience that our actions, even our smallest ones, have the incredible power to say more about our faith than maybe all the words in the dictionary. They are living testimonies to our relationship with God. And Jesus’ words are our source of motivation to act in this world. Our call to build a just society can begin with our own hands. Loving our neighbours can start around a simple cup of coffee. Peace on earth can find its meaning in forgiving one of our siblings who hurt us in the past. All these actions are simple, clear, to the point. There is no mumbo-jumbo or anything complicated. Just facts. Just faith incarnated every day.
The expression says, sometimes, less is more. When we encounter people who ask us if Jesus is the Messiah or why they should come to our church, maybe we should follow Jesus’ example. Maybe we should simply answer, ‘Come, see what we are doing. Look at our works. Who knows? Maybe you might find the answer you are looking for.’ As Francis of Assisi said, ‘may the deeds we do be the only sermon some persons will hear today.’ Amen.
In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful. Quran, Chapter 67:
"Glorious is the One in whose hand is the Kingdom (of the whole universe), and He is powerful over every thing, (1) The One who created death and life, so that He may test you as to which of you is better in his deeds. And He is the All-Mighty, the Most-Forgiving, (2) Who has created seven heavens, one over the other. You will see nothing out of proportion in the creation of the All-Merciful God. So, cast your eye again. Do you see any flaws? (3) Then cast your eye again and again, and the eye will come back to you abased, in a state of weariness. (4)"
Good Morning Ladies & Gentlemen, It's a great pleasure to be here with you on this fine morning.
I would like to begin by thanking you, your church and the United Church of Canada for the friendship and care you have shown to members of the Muslim community over the years. Your kindness and generosity mean a lot to us, so from the bottom of our hearts, thank you.
After a long winter that was much a like a guest who arrives late and then is in no hurry to leave, we have finally had some April Showers, which means May flowers are just around the corner.
Our lawns and gardens are coming back to life - birds chirping, flowers blooming, garden centres sprouting up.
We are incredibly blessed to have to have this beautiful earth as our home. Imagine if the entire earth was dry and red like Mars or grey and rocky like the moon. Life would be so dull and boring, if it were to be possible at all.
Instead, God has blessed us with this beautiful earth, on which we find blue waters of the Caribbean, the glaciers of the Arctic, the deserts of
Africa, the towering mountains of the Himalayas and the Canadian Rockies, the thunderous falls of Niagara, just to name a few.
If we look above, we find a super high-resolution canvas on which God displays His artwork during the day, often in the early morning and late evening. He also displays jewels in the dark sky at night. As the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has told us, "God is beautiful and He loves beauty.”
God Almighty has created His creation perfectly and has made it available for our use. That too is an incredible blessing.
The earth, and the universe it resides in, are still beautiful - even after all the damage we humans have caused.
Let us go back in time for a moment. The Prophet Adam (peace be upon him) was the first human on earth. Imagine his first day on earth.
How great would it have been to walk on a pure earth, to breathe its pure air, to eat its pure and organic fruits. No cities, no factories, no cars, no pollution, no smog, no genetically modified foods, no pipelines, no landfills, no islands of trash in the oceans, no space junk.
We have come a long way since Adam's first day on earth, but sadly, it appears we've made a few wrong turns along the way. Air quality is suffering, Arctic ice is melting, temperatures are increasing, water security is becoming an issue and we're seeing more severe weather, just to name a few.
The Quran states:
“Spoilage has appeared on land and sea as a result of people’s actions and He (God) will make them taste the consequences of some of their own actions so that they may turn back.” (Qur’an 30: 41)
It is a wonderful to see concern for the well-being of our planet. One hundred seventy-one countries have come together to sign the historic UN Framework Convention on Climate Change otherwise known as the Paris climate agreement. It's also great to see the federal government and provinces come to an agreement on carbon pricing.
These are some of the ways to deal with the problem. But are these real solutions? Or is there something deeper at play here? Are the root causes being addressed?
In a June 2010 address, Prince Charles raised a very interesting point. He said:
“I would like you to consider very seriously today whether a big part of the solution to all of our worldwide “crises” does not lie simply in more and better technology, but in the recovery of the soul to the mainstream of our thinking. Our science and technology cannot do this. Only sacred traditions have the capacity to help this happen.”
What he was suggesting was that look to spirituality for solutions, not just in addressing the environmental crisis we are facing, but many of the other crises we find ourselves immersed in today.
One commonly missing trait - which is found in practically all faith traditions and is particularly emphasized in Aboriginal teachings regarding the human's relationship with nature - is humility. The Quran tells us that God despises arrogance and loves for His creation to be humble - in their relationship with Him and with other fellow creatures.
It appears the absence of humility and the presence of arrogance have led humans to believe that they are the masters of the universe, instead of the Almighty. This mistaken belief appears to have given humans a licence to be reckless and heedless - with fellow human beings, with nature and in their relationship with God Almighty Himself.
God has made His creation available for our use, not abuse.
The roots of arrogance can be traced back to before Adam's arrival on this beautiful earth. In the Islamic tradition, it was Iblees the Satan who first displayed arrogance.
He was a jinn — a creature made of fire who, like humans, has free will. However, he was so knowledgeable and pious that he was upgraded to the company of angels, who constantly glorify God and cannot disobey Him.
God honoured Adam and commanded the angels to prostrate to him. They all did, but Iblees the Satan refused. Despite his knowledge and piety, arrogance got the best of him. Instead of repenting, he challenged God further and promised to lead Adam and his children astray through different avenues.
Thus, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) described blameworthy arrogance as that which leads a person to deny the truth and look down upon others.
In another report, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) also told us that a person with even an iota of this type of arrogance cannot enter paradise.
Iblees's incident also teaches us that it is just as important to follow God's commands as it is to have a pure heart that is free from diseases such as arrogance.
Ignoring God's guidance while possessing a good heart can still land one in trouble.
Every single one of us is on a journey that began somewhere, long before we were born, and is taking us elsewhere. Our time on earth is but a short stopover that will decide our destination.
There is much to learn during this stopover, physically, mentally and spiritually. God has created lots for us to discover and appreciate on earth, which we do through travel, study and research.
There is also another dimension - the world of the unseen, that has to do with our soul and our spiritual heart. This dimension is lesser known but also has much to offer - perhaps even more than the physical dimension of the world.
In order to be found, this spiritual dimension requires a deep and truly sincere yearning for the truth. It often comes after much seeking and pleading.
Our life, our relationships, the Earth that we live in and everything it contains are great blessings of God.
Let us cherish life, and explore and appreciate the blessings of God with humility and sincerity.
Thank you for this opportunity - it has been a great pleasure and privilege. Thank you for all the good that you do.
May God bless our journey and may He grant us all that which is best.