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.

 

 

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.

 

Luke 24: 1-12 (Easter)

 

This morning I would like to begin my reflection by showing you a clip from the movie Elizabeth: The Golden Age, featuring Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I and Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh who is trying to explain what is the New World.

 

[Clip]

 

Believe it or not, even if he is known as the one who introduced tobacco in England, Sir. Walter Raleigh himself never visited North America; he only led two expeditions in South America.  His knowledge of the New World was quite limited.  Yet, the way he spoke about it was very inspirational and he influenced many other explorers to venture in this direction.

 

Somehow this makes me think of the Oort Cloud.  A few days ago, my son drew something on a piece of paper and said, “Look Dad!  This is the Oort Cloud.”  Is there someone here who does know what is the Oort Cloud?  O-o-r-t.  In 1950, the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort hypothesized the existence of some sort of huge and distant thick bubble of icy debris that surrounds our solar system.  The satellite Voyager 1 which has been launched in 1977 and is the farthest human-made spacecraft from Earth on this day has travelled 1/10 of the distance to reach the Oort Cloud.  Of course, no direct observations have been made so far and when Voyager 1 will reach this destination in a few centuries, we will only have a very partial knowledge it.  This is, my friends, the Oort Cloud… and the proof I am no longer the smartest man in my house.

 

Formations like the Oort Cloud are for most of us difficult to understand and conceptualize, probably like the New World was during the Elizabethan period, probably like the Resurrection is for most Christians today.  We wish we could have some visual or tangible proofs to support this claim.  We wish we could have better words to describe this event.  We wish we could have seen it with our own eyes.  Unfortunately, we have none of this.  We stuck with hearsay and stories collected several decades after the fact.  We are forced to use our imagination if we want to fill in all the blanks of this story.

 

On some days, especially like this morning, this lack of intelligible information is so frustrating.  How great would it have been if the authors of the Gospels could have written exactly how the resurrection worked with all the skill they could muster?  How great would it have been if we were told what exactly happened between Saturday evening and Sunday morning?  If it were the case, I would probably be out of a job right now, but I would not mind.  At least we would know.  Instead, we have fairly cryptic ancient texts filled with confusion, symbols and people running to and fro.  And who are those men in dazzling clothes?  Where is Jesus?  Why there are no more explanations?  It is so difficult to understand.

 

And yet… maybe this is the whole point of this story.  What if the real purpose of the resurrection is to expand our human minds?  What if this event is supposed to open us to something new and unexplored previously?  What if its main reason is to blow out our minds and challenge us to go beyond what we can see and touch?  We ought to wonder if God used this specific moment to lead us in directions we never considered before, directions we never taught even existed.

 

Resurrection is far more than claiming that Jesus’ body was resuscitated, because it happened before when Lazarus was risen from the death and somehow it happens today in our hospitals when people are resuscitated.  Resurrection is a statement that God who created the world in the past is still able to create in the present an entirely new reality altogether.  Resurrection is an affirmation that breaks the rules, assumptions and beliefs that govern our lives.  As Benjamin Franklin wrote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  Well, if the dead don’t stay dead, what can we count on?  What other assumptions have we gotten wrong?  Which knowledge of our universe is about to be shaken by a new discovery?  Resurrection is a reminder that we can be thrown off balance at any moments and our lives could totally go out of whack without warnings.  Resurrection is not as much an event as a mindset, a way to approach our whole existence.

 

I have been asked a few days ago if this year we could finally tackle the idea of resurrection and explain it.  My answer to you today is that I am nor sure if I can explain it and maybe this is exactly the point of the whole story.  Something happened, there can be no doubt.  Something that we can barely devise, imagine or understand.  Something that the people who experienced it tried to retell it with fragmented, shadowy and incomplete statements.  We will probably never fully understand the extend of the resurrection.  All that we are left with is faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”.  My friends, he is Risen. He is Risen indeed.  Hallelujah and Amen. 

 

 
Acts 9: 1-6

A few months ago we introduced our son to the Star Wars franchise…  and when I am saying we, I really mean my wife…  We began with the first trilogy, episodes 4, 5 and 6.   That was so complicated to explain why we ought to begin with episode 4 and not 1.  My son understood quite rapidly that Darth Vader was the bad guy of the story.  However, he struggled a little more with the end of “The Return of the Jedi” when Darth Vader turned back to the light side of the Force to save Luke Skywalker and kill the Emperor.  My son was puzzled about the reasons leading someone very bad to become one of the good guys.  I could have tried to tell him that Vader’s redemption was an essential part of the story George Lucas was trying to tell.  Instead I told him that it is what every good father does for his son.  I do not know if he bought that.

For many different reasons, we usually really enjoy a good redemption story.  We love when a wicked or evil character has an epiphany, understand one’s mistakes and commit to follow a righteous path.  There is little surprise in the fact that the story of Paul, the persecutor of the early church, who was knocked to the ground, blinded by a bright light, addressed by the risen Christ himself and eventually became one of the greatest apostles of Christianity, has such an important place in our religion.  No other conversion stories are as spectacular as his.  If Paul could turn to Christ, everyone can.

From his initial appearance at the end of the seventh chapter of Acts, Saul, the name by which he is known at that point, is the ultimate villain of the New Testament.  The first thing we learn is that he stood by and even supported the stoning of Stephen… a story I personally never liked.  As resistance and even persecution of Jesus’ followers heated up, Saul participated enthusiastically by “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison”.  At the beginning of today’s passage, he goes further by asking for authorizations to hunt down the followers of the Way (the early name of the Jesus movement) as they spread their message up the road to Damascus.  He wanted to bind them and drag them back to Jerusalem.

Saul’s zeal and vigilantism could be understood in the context of a religious conflict to determine which Jewish sect would have the upper hand in the area.   Yes, I said Jewish sect.  Despite what many like to believe, on the road to Damascus, Saul did not convert from Judaism to Christianity.  He did not move from one religion to another.  Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe Saul’s conversion as within his own tradition, from one way of being Jewish to another way of being Jewish, from being a Pharisaic Jew to being a Christian Jew who saw his Judaism anew in the light of Jesus.  In today’s term, we could compare Saul’s conversion to moving from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism or the United Church.  Yes, it is different, but the basics remain the same.

One of the main reasons behind Saul’s actions against Jesus’ followers is the rise of the Pharisee party in the first part of the 1st century.  As these men increasingly assumed the leadership in the Jewish community and progressively became the establishment and the religious authority, they understood themselves as those better suited to maintaining Jewish identity and orthodoxy.  The Pharisees were in a position to determine what was acceptable or not.  No wonder they did not appreciate the emergence of a new sect within Judaism proclaiming a different reading of the scripture or promoting new religious practices.  People like Saul were surely very motivated to get rid of this new movement, this heresy, like Christianity had eliminated countless heretics throughout the centuries, like current major religions fighting to maintain their orthodoxy.  Like the expression says, there is nothing new under the sun.

On his way to Damascus, Saul’s life takes a dramatic turn.  Everything was under control until, out of nowhere, a light from heaven flashed around him.  He felt to the ground.  By the way, the horse associated to this story only appeared several centuries later in arts and folklore.  It is not biblically based.  He felt and then Jesus spoke to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”   I mean you are a smart man.  You were born in the great city of Tarsus.  You are a Roman citizen.  You speak many languages.  You are a respected religious man who studied under the famous Gamaliel.  You want to protect God and everything God does for your people.  So tell me, why are you resorting to such violence?  Is persecution of fellow human beings the best you can do?  Do you really think you are following your God given call?

Needless to say, this experience had been a real life changer for Saul.  All his prejudices, hatred and zeal made Saul blind to the presence and work of God surrounding him.  However, through the light of the words of Christ and the work of the Spirit his eyes opened and he found a new identity, a new community and a new way of being.  He changed his name to Paul not to erase his past or who he has been, but to mark a new beginning and a new understanding of the world.  Following that moment, the one who worked so hard to exclude those who were different than him, devoted the rest of his life to include people.  Like no one else before him, Paul pushed to extend the limits of Christianity.  Men, women, children, slaves, free, Greek, Jews…  It does not matter anymore.  All can come in.  All can join.  He radically opened the doors to the most unlikely people.  Paul did not try to converted people one by one, but instead we created communities where all could meet and be together, where all could be one in Christ.

Paul’s radical transformation is an inspirational story that still speaks to all of us today.  I am aware that probably none here this morning had turned away from religious violence in order to build churches around the world.  I will also grant you that most of us, ordinary Christians, go through our lives without ever being literally knocked off the ground and blinded by Christ’s light.  We rarely experience dramatic revelations that change the course of our lives, let alone the life of the whole church.  We mostly go from day to day, searching, learning and discerning the best we can follow God’s call.  However, I deeply convinced that each of us experience moments in our lives when we stand at a crossroads, facing a choice.  We have to decide if our words and actions would be inclusive or would they exclude people.  We have to choose if we want everyone to follow exactly the same rules or draw the circle wider and accept more than one truth, way of believing and living our faith and spirituality.  We have to establish if we are ready to open our minds or if we keep clinging to our old assumptions. 

At those specific moments we face a real challenge.  The answers usually do not come easily for most of us because it requires to put everything on the table, to accept we might have been completely wrong all those years, and sometimes even to walk away from what feel normal and natural, what we have been taught by our parents, our church and our society.  It could be really difficult.  Yet, the outcome of this whole process is usually amazing.  We are transformed.  We learn to open our eyes to new realities.  We gain new insights.  We meet new people who can teach us new wisdom.  We begin to see the world, God’s world, from a different perspective.  We become more aware about surrounding racism, sexism, homo and transphobia, pervasive discrimination against Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs…  We cannot say anymore that those people are all like that.  They need to adopt our values and customs.  They ought to believe in Christ like we do.  We begin to wonder how we can create new inclusive communities.  We want to invest our time and being in places where in our diversity we can become one.  We look for new ways of being.

Yes, on the road to Damascus, Saul went through a profound conversion event, but not necessarily the way people usually assume.  Beyond the change of name, beyond the move from one Jewish sect to another one, beyond leaving the dark side of the Force to becoming one of the good guys, his conversion led him from a restrictive understanding of God to an inclusive one.  Paul made the choice to transform what we know today as Christianity by including all.  Now it is our turn to stand up, to open our eyes and to transform this world, God’s world, one choice at the time.  Amen.
 
 

Easter morning

 Have you seen “Good Will Hunting”?  For those who haven’t this movie, Matt Damon plays a young mathematical genius who comes from the lower middle class in Boston and who works as a construction worker or as a janitor while not in prison.  His life is basically the same every day.  Each morning his friend, played by Ben Affleck, picks him up on the way to work.  Until this happens…

 [Clip]

 Despite all their differences, the story of the first Easter morning in all the four Gospels follows the same pattern.  It begins in the early morning, while it is still dark.  Women go to Jesus’ tomb.  Once there they noticed the stone has been rolled aside.  They discover an empty tomb.  From this point, we assumed the women were afraid, distressed or terrified.  We assume they initially taught that Jesus’ missing body only meant theft of interference of some kind.  We assumed they did not understand what was going on and needed some sort of Sunday school lesson about what Jesus said and did in their presence until they finally declared, “Ohhhh, that’s right, we remember now.”

 

We assume.  What if we got it wrong?  The women were perplexed by their discovery an empty tomb.  What if the emotion that followed was not fear, but surprise, amazement or even joy?  The empty tomb means that life is maybe not that bad after all.  Maybe there is hope for all of us.  In fact, the empty tomb might be the ultimate good news.  A new life is possible.  We are not condemned to an existence of misery or hardship.  New beginnings are offered to all.  Jesus is gone and maybe one day we could rejoin him wherever he is now.  He is not here.  Nothing else needed to be said, except hallelujah and amen.