Ancient Answers


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The Unspoken Morality

Viet Thanh Nguyen came to the United States in 1975 as a refugee from Vietnam. He was interviewed last night by Christiane Amanpour on PBS. They discussed the current policy of the United States to separate children from their parents if they enter the US “illegally”. After playing a clip of Attorney General Jeff Sessions defending the policy – even in the wake of revelations that the US government has lost track of about 1,500 such children who were separated from their parents.

Mr. Nguyen commented that separating children from their parents is “inhumane and immoral. So it’s a moral question that I don’t think we should lose sight of. And I think too many people in this country have lost sight of that as they stick to this rhetoric of legality.” That’s precisely the missing point, I thought to myself: No one is talking about the morality of the policy! And that is very much the problem with much of what transpires today in political debates.

Nguyen went on to discuss the visibility of American involvement in Vietnam and how that prompted a responsibility to take in refugees after that war. But, Nguyen pointed out, American involvement in the conditions south of the border that created some of the economic and political reasons for refugees coming north has mostly gone unnoticed, invisible to most Americans. So many Americans feel they have no obligation to these refugees, and so it’s “easier to behave toward them in inhumane and callous fashion.”

White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, spoke out against immigrants and refugees who he feels will not assimilate to US society because of their low education and rural background. But as Nguyen went on to comment, his own mother was precisely the kind of person Kelly describes – born poor in a rural area, who had 6th-grade education! Yet, she was a heroic woman who worked hard and produced children who went on to Harvard. John Kelly’s own grandparents were Italian and Irish working-class labourers. And that has been the history of immigration in this country. Every wave of new immigrants has been greeted initially with suspicion and prejudice until after a generation or two.

The “boat people” who left Vietnam as refugees were in hindsight considered the “good” immigrants. Should the current refugees from the south be considered not “good”? Nguyen reminded Amanpour that the “oceanic refugees” (his substitute label for the “boat people”) had a 50% survival rate. And only 36% of the American people wanted to accept these refugees – even then! So perhaps not much has changed after all. People feared that the “boat people” would bring all sorts of problems and contamination to this country. But 40 years later, most Americans have forgotten the coming of the “boat people.” Even many Vietnamese themselves now oppose accepting new immigrants and refugees! With a smile on his face, Nguyen vouches for the fact that many of the Vietnamese refugees that he grew up with in California were pretty bad refugees, doing things like welfare cheating and scams and “much, much worse”! But they overcame. His point is not that immigrants or refugees are perfect, but given the opportunity they tend to succeed.

We all have a story; we’re all storytellers, Nguyen reminded me and other viewers of his interview; though most of us will never win a Pulitzer Prize like Nguyen did. But when Donald Trump says “Make America Great Again” he is telling a story in four words that is very seductive and powerful to many people, and they repeat that story, over dinner and in other settings. So those who believe in a story about an inclusive America, a welcoming America, an America that is about all kinds of people – it’s important to tell this other story, and make America love again! On that note, Mr. Nguyen ended his brief but illuminating interview with Christiane Amanpour.

I’m an immigrant myself – and not once, but twice! I emigrated to Canada in 1963, at the age of 10. And I became an immigrant to the US in 1983. After studying theology in New York (1980-83), I was offered a job by the Greek community in Astoria, New York, in 1983 to teach Chemistry and Physics at the St. Demetrios High School. I subsequently got married and that sealed my decision to stay in the United States. My experiences with immigration in both Canada and the US have been completely positive. I never experienced prejudice or suspicion in either country.

I received undergraduate and post-graduate education at Canada’s top three universities: McGill in Montréal, University of Toronto, and University of British Columbia in Vancouver. My two brothers had very little proclivity for academic work and preferred to have a good time. But both eventually settled to work for their own and for the family’s improvement. There were, to be sure, members of my extended clan who engaged in petty welfare fraud and took advantage of Canada’s very generous health and social support programs in ways that didn’t sit well with me. And there were one or two cousins who jumped ship in Halifax and entered the country illegally. But they became law-abiding productive members of Canadian society and eventually moved to the United States where they became successful businessmen. So certainly we were not all perfect immigrants, and I can relate a bit to what Mr. Nguyen was sharing about his own life among other refugees in California.

My family emigrated from Greece for economic reasons. We fled poverty to come to a country that offered opportunities to get ahead, to receive quality education, and live a mostly comfortable, but not luxurious, life. We were not political or war refugees.

Like Nguyen, I also am deeply saddened when I see fellow Greeks speak against immigrants today and support inhumane treatment of refugees and undocumented immigrants. How easily many of us forget where we came from, and why we came. When I see people who benefitted from the generosity of the United States – and even engaged in welfare fraud! – now promote anti-immigrant vitriol, it makes me angry. And I wonder whether such people have ever known the love of God in a personal way. People hear talk about the love of God in church gatherings, in Liturgy; they pay lip service to this love of God when it works to their own benefit. But they cannot see how this loving God might also be loving toward others not like us. And how this loving God may just be telling us to love others who are not like us.

I don’t know what religion Viet Thanh Nguyen subscribes to, if any. Did he become a Christian after his emigration to the United States? Is he a Buddhist, or an atheist? I don’t know. But hearing him raise the moral question today in the interview with Amanpour really hit the nail on the head. When “legality” takes precedence over morality, it is a very troubling matter for conscientious Christians. This is a moral question! And it disturbs me when I see millions of allegedly “evangelical” (that is, gospel-believing) Christians promote hatred toward people who are seeking a chance at a better life.

One of the greatest theologians the United States has produced was Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). In 1932 he published what became his most famous book, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, in which he claimed that that people are more likely to sin as members of groups than as individuals. This was a very controversial idea at the time, though the imminent rise of Nazi fascism quickly put a stamp of reality on the book’s thesis. And unfortunately, what is happening today in many countries, including or especially our own, is clear proof of the group dynamics of much immoral and hateful attitudes. People who are pleasant, supportive and welcoming in their inter-personal behaviors can quickly become something else when immersing themselves in “fake news” or when they are surrounded by cheering true believers at political rallies.

The Judeo-Christian scriptures are clear; the behaviour and teachings of Jesus are clear! Perhaps I will give voice to some of the scriptures in a later post, but for now this present post has grown long enough. My point has been to raise the moral question. Though Nguyen and I have partly and necessarily addressed the present political situation, the attitudes that ignore the moral question extend beyond partisan politics and religion. Nguyen’s point that we are all storytellers is the challenge that hit me personally. What story am I writing in this moment of world history? What is the story we are all creating as a country, as a planetary culture? For how long will refugees and immigrants continue to be a moral problem?

Hannibal Hamlin, 15th Vice President of the United States

P.S. As I finished this post and prepared to publish it, a new episode in the PBS series American Experience came on. The title of the episode: “The Chinese Exclusion Act” – about an 1882 law aimed against Chinese coming to the United States. Worth searching on-demand or online. There were voices of dissent, but not enough to prevent Congress passing the law. Standout among the dissenters was Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, who twenty years earlier had been Abraham Lincoln’s first vice-president, and was now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On the floor of the Senate he denounced the Chinese Exclusion Actt: “I’m opposed to this. It violates fundamental American principles…I leave my vote, the last legacy to my children, that they may esteem it the brightest act of my life.” “This is a person with enormous moral authority,” the program narrator added. That is what we need today, persons with enormous moral authority.


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Another School Shooting…More Hypocritical Prayers

In the wake of today’s school shooting in Texas, Ted Cruz, senator from Texas, appeared before the cameras, as politicians do in order to fool voters into thinking that they care about anyone or anything. So Mr. Cruz is talking about the newest shooting and as he links it to other recent shootings and tragedies in other communities in his home state – the great gun-toting state of Texas – he starts talking about how in these communities people have been “leaning” on each other and praying… And at that point I cursed Mr. Cruz under my breath and I turned off the television to avoid listening to any more hypocritical nonsense. It’s almost as if Mr. Cruz was trying to say: Look how much good comes out of these tragedies. Communities come together, people lean on each other, pray for each other, comfort each other… Yes, Mr. Cruz, communities and people do come together. But why should it take the killing of children to do this? (And let’s face it, even then it only lasts a day or two, or a week, or a month. Then it’s back to looking out for number one.) Why can’t communities come together to create a society that is less death-obsessed and death-worshipping?

Here is what I want to say to Mr. Cruz and every other politician who immediately invokes prayers when a tragedy occurs, especially whenever a school shooting shocks us for a day or two. Have these politicians ever really read the Bible? I mean really read the Bible – not just the select verses they hear week after week in their comfortable, plush evangelical mega churches? If they read their Bibles they would be a little more cautious about how often they invoke prayer in responding to school shootings. Here is what God has to say about prayers. And God says this in the first chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. And yes, better believe that there is more in Isaiah than “a virgin shall conceive”! Here is what God has to say about prayers:

When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
     learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:15-17)

Does God listen to the prayers of politicians and their supporters whose “hands are full of blood”? When are their hands full of blood? When they do not care for the oppressed and the poor; when they worship at the altar of the NRA.

I know that stricter gun laws will not solve the problem of school shootings. Our society has gone too far into inhuman ways. School shootings are just part of an overall picture of ungodly living: extreme wealth and extreme poverty, war industries, environmental destruction, racism and bigotry, abortion, drugs…

There are no single or simple solutions. But let’s start with our churches. Do we promote social justice? Do we challenge politicians to really do the things that God desires? (And I don’t mean Christian versions of sharia law, which is what evangelical conservatives want.) Do we really preach the gospel or only nice messages to pamper the pampered? Do we comfort the uncomforted and discomfort the comfortable? These are the criteria by which God judges churches – not by what Creed we recite or how we baptize or which patriarchate is number one.

If churches that call themselves Christian really believed the gospel of Jesus Christ and really read the prophets complete, they would have an impact on a society such as ours. But churches and church leaders are cowards. I’m sure the president will ask for a period of mourning and flags at half mast. What God said to ancient Israel applies to us too:

Bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals (and flags at half mast?)
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them. (Isaiah 1:13-14)

How the faithful city
    has become a whore!
    She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her—
    but now murderers!
Your silver has become dross,
    your wine is mixed with water.
Your princes are rebels
    and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
    and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
    and the widow’s cause does not come before them. (Isaiah 1:21-23)

And lest you think that Isaiah had a mental or psychotic problem and put these words in God’s mouth, here is another prophet, Amos. God again is the speaker:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

Do not mistake God’s idea of “justice” with our ideas of justice. God’s idea of justice is the just treatment of the poor, the outcasts, the oppressed, the widows and the orphans and the homeless, and the refugees – in other words, precisely the victims of our forms of “justice”!

Will God listen to the prayers of a Ted Cruz or a Donald Trump, of the communities that suffer tragedies? I hope God will. But God will also not ignore or forget the words he spoke 2,700 years ago through the mouth of Isaiah or Amos. And he speaks them today as well, in the pages of what Mr. Cruz calls the Holy Bible.

 


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Conversation at the Core of Life

 

A Gospel reading of contrasts

Jesus in John’s Gospel is identified as Creator and life-giver – The Logos: All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. In him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:1-5).

Jesus’ thirst was the incentive for the conversation! Was he only thirsty for water? Wasn’t he also thirsty for human interaction, conversation? Isn’t that God’s basic longing? Isn’t that part of why Jesus is the Logos? Why the Bible is the word of God, but also the word of man?

  • Jesus speaks of spiritual thirst – the woman speaks of literal thirst. Another contrast? Or, rather just two sides of the same basic human craving. The well was a place of conversation in that part of the world – especially for women. Water is essential to life. So is conversation! And I don’t mean texting. 

The woman switches the subject to religion. Who is right? We Samaritans or you Jews? Where is the proper place to worship God? Here on our mountain or in Jerusalem? Jesus’ answer is shocking: No place – not yours, not ours. We must worship God in spirit and truth.

The woman is not convinced – this is too advanced for her, too radical, so she finds a way out: “When Messiah comes, he will reveal all things to us.” Which draws a momentous self-revelation from Jesus: I AM, εγώ ειμι. Jesus habitually resisted identifying himself as Messiah – but he does to this Samaritan woman, a woman not of his own religion.

A story in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper told of two native-American teenagers signed up for a tour of Colorado State University. One mother called the police because they looked like “they don’t belong.” She said they were quiet and “creepy” and “really stand out.” “They don’t belong” – that’s what Jews thought of Samaritans, and vice versa. That’s what many Christians today think of people who don’t look like us. 

What was that line by Rabbi Sacks last week? God asks us to see His image in one who is not in my image. If we worship God in spirit and truth, we don’t see differences. We see the image of God. We see the life-giver Christ, we see the Logos who gave life to all people.


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The Times They Are a-Changin’

 

Yesterday, March 24th, the nation saw hundreds of thousands of young people rally against gun violence. The largest rally was in the nation’s capital, where perhaps as many as 800,000 turned out. I started watching just as Ryan Deitsch was addressing the rally in Washington. As I watched this young man, I said, I need to DVR this, this is sermon material. And it was sermon material. And it is my sermon today. I rewound the DVR several times to transcribe part of his statement: “I know a lot of people out there are saying we need to make America safe again, and I know that we can. We cannot make America safe again until we arm our teachers”- and here there was a brief moment of confused reaction from the crowd, which then turned to growing cheers as Ryan Deitsch continued – “We need to arm our teachers! We need to arm them with pencils, pen, paper, and the money they need to support their families and themselves before they can support the future in those classrooms, to support the future that sits down in those desks waiting to learn. And we need to arm our students too, we need to arm them with the facts and the knowledge and the education that they need to live in the real world, not just some fantasy.”

He raised his cell phone as if to tell the world, watch out, we are connected to each other and truth. Teenagers are masters of social media, and if social media can elect a president in 2016, social media can create a revolution. And teenagers can do it.

He concluded like this: “Thank you. And hello Uncle Miron.” Leave it to teenagers to be real, and they were all real. A young woman worked up so much emotion that she threw up! After she recovered and returned to the microphone, she laughed as she shouted, “I just threw up on international television, and it feels great!” As I said, these young people were very real. She then led the huge crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” to a young man who had been senselessly murdered in front of her at the Parkland high school. And she still had marks on her face from shrapnel at the high school shooting.

I admire every single young man and woman who spoke yesterday. Their eloquence and passion were beyond anything adults are capable of. And we had a large rally here in Portland, and in 800 other cities and towns. I hope some of these young people will go to Washington some day and really drain the swamp!

I watched a young man from Chicago, a survivor of violence in that great city. And he spoke with the fervor of a black preacher:

Violence cannot drive out violence. Only peace can do that.

Poverty cannot drive out poverty. Only resources can do that.

Death cannot drive out death. Only proactive life can do that.

Wow! And he went on to quote Ephesians and 1 Peter and called for loud responses from his listeners. For a moment those 800,000 youths were in church! A black church, to be sure.

The silence that Emma Gonzalez led in remembrance of the 6:20 time span during which the shooting rampage lasted at the Parkland high school was powerful, emotional and intense, prompting occasional outbursts from some of the young people present, probably to release the pent-up anger and grief. Moments like that are rare on television.

Speaking of television, two news channels covered the speeches by the young people without commercials. One other news channel preferred to show adults talking about the march. Perhaps they were concerned that the young speakers would say something that would offend the sensitive ears of their viewers. Most adults prefer to listen to adults instead of the young.

Many of us wonder why young people are leaving our church – our churches! Because churches also do not listen to youth. Yes, we enjoy their Sunday School and Greek School presentations. But then what? And I’m not asking what programs we have for them. The kids are a program to themselves! They’re not interested in what dances and entertainments we can organize for them. As Marjory Stoneman Douglas senior Delaney Tarr put it, “We are not here for breadcrumbs, we are here to lead.”. That’s their message to the churches as well. Are we listening?

The Archdiocese organizes the St. John Chrysostom Oratorical Festival every year – a well-meaning event and some of our young people have participated. But the topics are handed out from which young people are to choose – instead of letting them speak whatever they want to speak about. So the results are the same – young people parroting what old men speak and want to hear back. And I too am an old man now.

As the rally drew toward its close, Jennifer Hudson sang the great Bob Dylan song, The Times They Are A-Changin’. Dylan wrote the song 55 years ago, but it is just as relevant today. Listen.

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

My generation, the 1960s generation, rebelled, but the rebellion quickly turned to drugs and abortions. Even Bob Dylan threw in the towel, and turned into something else…and something else again… and something else again…and something else again. See, my generation liked to reinvent itself every few years. It’s part of the self-realization nonsense that so many Baby Boomers bought into. Find your bliss, and all that. I hope and pray that the young people I watched yesterday will not need to reinvent themselves any time soon. They are already fully mature and they don’t need any adult to tell them how to make their message more effective, more balanced, more acceptable to the adults, to those 60s rebels, my age group, who are now the swamp. I have great hope for these young people as they become politicized. They could bring the change the world needs – if they resist the pull of the swamp. Because as David Hogg, one of the leaders of the rally, put it yesterday near the end, everyone can be corrupted. I pray that these kids will not be corrupted.

They are the generation that knows how to use technology and social media. This generation make up 25% of the population at present and will make up one third of US population in 2020. Washington better start paying attention to them. Will the church pay attention, or will we close our doors when our populations die out? Will the church be a place where young people can find spiritual support? Not advice, support! And if not, then the church should do what Bob Dylan sang:

Your old road is
Rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.


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Stephen Hawking is now one with the Universe

No scientist since Albert Einstein has captured the public imagination and spotlight like Stephen Hawking. Diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21, doctors gave him two more years of life; he defied all odds and lived another 55 years, during which he transformed our understanding of the universe. He is now one with the universe that he roamed and explored with his mind.

 

It was close to midnight last night. I was working on some Bible Study notes with the TV playing in the background, on a so-called “news channel” that talked on and on about Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump and other such non-entities, when suddenly Brian Williams interrupted his own unimportance to announce that Stephen Hawking had died. I immediately went to my favourite source for news, The Guardian newspaper of London, and already there was a front page story on their website. It is well worth reading.

I referred to Stephen Hawking last Sunday in my sermon, which I also posted here. I referred to his search for a “theory of everything” with the hope that he and his fellow physicists will indeed discover such a theory. It will have to be other physicists who will continue the search. As a follower of Jesus Christ – I’m trying to avoid over-using the term “Christian” as it has become so defamed and trite in contemporary American society – I find the Cross at the heart of the universe. There is a spiritual heart to the universe that goes beyond the theories of physicists. Hawking, like Einstein before him, never achieved the dream of finding the “theory of everything”, but he is now one with that “everything”, and I bet he now sees the “cross” that is at the heart of everything.

Hawking was to all intents and purposes an atheist, and he cared nothing for what the Evangelical thought police would say about him. He roamed the universe with his brilliant mind and enabled us to roam with him. That was one of his greatest gifts to us: he opened our imagination to the infinite reaches of the cosmos. One famous Christian rebel of the 1960s coined the phrase, “Your God is Too Small.” Indeed, the Christian god had become too small for Stephen Hawking to believe in. Just think of the meanness and narrow-mindedness of the Evangelical god; or the Orthodox god whom we call upon to bless our ethnicities. Can I blame Stephen Hawking for rejecting what most “Christians” call “God”? I believe that now that he is one with the universe he finds there a God more worthy of his belief. The cross of Jesus Christ is an invitation to lay aside all our pre-conceptions of God and to throw off the mental shackles of religiosity.

Hawking had a beautiful mind. He stated what his own goal and purpose in life was: “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” His children quote him as saying, “It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.” Amen to that. He probed the universe with his intellectual powers, and beyond all the intricate mathematics that he worked with his brain he found love at the core of the universe’s meaning and purpose. That is the love that moves the stars. At the very end of the Divine Comedy, in Canto 33 of Paradiso, Dante wrote:

ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle

sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,

l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle. (Par. 33.143-45)

but my desire and will were moved already—

like a wheel revolving uniformly—by

the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Dante, writing his massive 3-part “poem” 700 years ago, saw the unity in diversity that exists in the universe, a unity manifested and sustained by God. The universe is our home, and love is at the heart of the universe, the reason why the universe exists. Hawking saw that as he reflected on his own loved ones. God sees Love at the heart of the universe as He contemplates His Son and the Cross of His Son. There is mystery upon mystery… and beauty.

“Hawking was driven to Wagner, but not the bottle, when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963 at the age of 21.” Nicely stated by the Guardian article. I love Richard Wagner’s operas more than any other music or any other intellectual pursuits, and it warms my heart to know that Hawking was a fellow Wagnerian. But the same man who loved Wagner also became a pop-culture star, appearing in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, where he appeared in a holodeck poker game with Einstein and Isaac Newton, and several episodes of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, where he enjoyed hilarious interactions with Sheldon Cooper and his nerd friends. He even appeared in animated form on The Simpsons. YouTube has a great compilation video of Hawking’s appearances in these shows. He lived according to his own motto: “Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”

Stephen Hawking with the cast of The Big Bang Theory

The Guardian website has a great collection of pictures to illustrate the life of Stephen Hawking: here.

And the official obituary in The Guardian today was written by a fellow great physicist, Roger Penrose: “Mind over matter

I conclude my own homage to Stephen Hawking with some of his memorable quotes:

  • “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus”.
  • “People who boast about their IQ are losers.”
  • “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.”
  • “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”
  • “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

Hawking lost his ability to speak and had to communicate through computerised voice synthesis. In an age such as ours where fewer and fewer people bother to communicate with coherent thought and sentences, Hawking was a master communicator, able to express the deepest mysteries of the universe in ways that even children could understand. At a time when talk has become cheap or is being replaced by social media and trivial texts and tweets and when people don’t talk but shout at each other from inside their political and religious bubbles, Hawking’s advice is more needed than ever:

  • “For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

Rest in the Love that moves the stars, Stephen Hawking!


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The Community Approach

 

How do we recognise Jesus? Do we expect him to look like we see him in our icons?

Icons are a very important part of our Orthodox tradition – so important that this First Sunday of Lent commemorates the restoration of icons in the year 843, after a long period of iconoclasm. But icons can also limit our ability and freedom to recognise Jesus! “When did we see you, Lord?” we might end up crying out, as they do in the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46)

The answer Jesus himself offers in that parable is that we see him in the least of his brothers and sisters. But he is not only a brother to the least; he is also our brother. We need him as much as any of the least!

Let’s pick up the story of the Emmaus walk on that first Easter afternoon, from where we left off last week. The two disciples are walking to Emmaus and Jesus joins them on the road, but they don’t recognise him. They are sad and confused about what has happened to Jesus those last few days…

And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Walking with the two disciples, still unrecognised by them, Jesus responds to their sadness and confusion by going back to the scriptures – meaning, of course, the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. The two disciples are intrigued by how this stranger understood the scriptures, so they ask him to spend the night at the inn where they are staying for the night. They sit down for dinner. And that’s where it happens. “He took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them” – and their eyes were opened. They immediately recognised him – but just as immediately he vanished from their sight.

“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” Yes their hearts burned on the road, he touched them deeply as he opened their eyes to the meaning of the scriptures. But they only recognised him at the table, when he blessed and broke the bread and gave it to them. They immediately remembered how he did the same when he fed thousands, every time he sat down to eat with his disciples, and how he took the bread, blessed, broke it and gave it to them at the last supper.

It was at dinner that they recognised him. It’s always a dinner at the heart of Jesus’ teaching – a communal meal. We recognise Jesus when we are a community. When two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with you,” he promised. The two disciples going to Emmaus were two, and he came to them. We are two, three, fifty-three… We are a community, a communion – koinonia. Not just a community as an incorporated entity,. but a living organic communion of people – diverse in so many ways, but united by the presence and bread of Christ.

This past week I considered many reactions to the recent school shooting in Florida. One came in a New York Times column yesterday. The writer made an interesting connection between gun massacres and the opioid crisis. He concludes that the root cause of both crises is isolation. Specifically with respect to guns, over many years of research, he found the same description of assailants: a lost, isolated, unbalanced (usually white) young man with legal access to firearms. Isolated, rootless. And this NYT writer points to what is lacking: Community! “All this, in other words, is a community approach to a plague feeding on our isolation. Mass murder calls for the same.”

“A community approach”! When the “failing” New York Times starts talking about “community”, you know some important awareness is growing in our society of individualism. Drugs, mass shootings – “symptoms of our culture of isolation, in which we’ve lost the habit of collaborating with our neighbours.”

Dear friends, fellow believers in Christ Jesus. For many years my friend Leon Nicholas, a child of our churchcommunity and one of my altar boys years ago, has been telling me exactly the same thing: Rootless, isolated teenagers and young men are the ones most likely to go on a shooting rampage and the easy availability of deadly weapons makes it all too easy for them. Imagine, teenagers can’t drink legally but they can buy weapons of mass destruction. Of course they still drink – illegally – but that’s not an excuse for not changing some of the laws applying to gun purchases.

No, Leon has been right all these years that we have discussed social problems, and we talked again yesterday over coffee. Community is the key. An actual eucharistic community, that meets regularly, shares the same meal that Jesus shared with those disciples, and works together to manifest the grace and peace that only Christ can give. The peace that is beyond human understanding (Philippians 4:7).


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An Ash Wednesday of Sin and Horror

Among the most poignant scenes from yesterday’s carnage in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School yesterday were grieving and anxious parents with ashes on their forehead. Yesterday, of course, was Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent for Roman Catholics and Episcopalians. This is how the website bibleinfo.com summarizes the meaning of Ash Wednesday: Roman Catholic churches of the Latin Rite use this service to prepare church members to better appreciate the death and resurrection of Christ through self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Ashes from the burned palms of the preceding year’s Palm Sunday are blessed. With these ashes, the priest marks a cross on the foreheads of worshipers, saying, “Remember, man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19 KJV). Besides showing sorrow for their sins, those who honor Ash Wednesday add an additional meaning; the need to prepare for a holy death.

Yesterday was indeed a day of huge sin and a horrible encounter with death. So many young lives, full of promise and energy, cut down by the bullets of one angry, hate-filled youth! The images of parents with ashes on their foreheads were a blunt reminder that we are very much a human race that is still sunk in sin, despite the salvation and grace that God poured upon us through the death and resurrection of his Son. Lent is the time in which we prepare to confront the death and resurrection of Christ every year. But Christ told us last Sunday that he is in every one of the least of his brothers and sisters, and what we do to the least of his brothers and sisters we do unto him. It was Christ who was murdered yesterday in those 17 lives. Not just a liturgical commemoration of his death this time; but an actual, dark reminder that we live in a death-culture society. Yes, I’m sorry if that strikes some of you as an exaggeration or unnecessarily pessimistic, but there is no other word for it that I can think of. We are a death-culture society!

Death has become a constant in our society: Gun deaths, terrorist deaths, drug-induced deaths, poverty-driven deaths, refugee deaths, unborn deaths, environmental death and deaths…and the death of morality, of civic responsibility, of communication, of accountable political leadership…Need I go on? Flags at half mast. Have you noticed how many times flags are at half mast every year? Yes, half mast. It doesn’t cost anything to fly flags at half mast. A sign of national humility? Perhaps. But the arrogance comes right back up a few days later. And the forgetfulness. We shrug our shoulders and move on – until the next round of bullets at a school or at a concert or a party or a troubled home. Nothing changes, except the statistics which become more brutal every year. Second Amendment they say. I can assure you that the Founding Fathers of this nation never envisaged a future such as ours or weapons such as ours in the hands of teenagers and people with mental problems.

Talk about gun deaths in this country and you’ll be criticised for now getting “political”. “Political” – a nice label people resort to when they don’t want to confront reality. I weep with those parents with ashes – and the many others without ashes – in Parkland, Florida. I wish the Orthodox Church had an Ash Wednesday to start Lent. Every year, it’s becoming more and more clear that there are forces that aim to foreshorten human life and to return us to dust and ashes prematurely. Let’s make this Lent a time not for self-improvement and weight loss, but a time for reaching out to this death culture to transform it in any small way we can. Make this Lent a time to reach out to anyone who is troubled, to someone who is alone and needs the human touch, a kind word, a positive vision of life. Although I’m pessimistic about the death culture around us, I’m very optimistic about our power to transform it. Let’s make this Lent a time of resurrection power in the midst of sin and death.

Agape and Shalom to you today.