Ancient Answers


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United by our Deficiencies

 

I love reading the Acknowledgments page in every new book that I buy. In his most recent book, Principalities in Particular-A Practical Theology of the Powers That Be, Bill Wylie-Kellermann included an acknowledgment of his church community in Detroit with the following words: “St Peter’s Episcopal Church, place, base, sanctuary, beloved community, hospitaliters, water distributers, and ministry makers, who have allowed me to bend their hearts and ears, preaching on my mentors and the powers.” Beautiful words, clearly coming from deep experience of shared ministry.

The paralytic in today’s Gospel reading had no one to help him, no one to share his pain. He and his fellow sufferers by the pool were in competition, survival of the fittest, win-lose. Nothing shared, nothing sacrificed. As I was reflecting on this Gospel reading, I received an email from Deane in Damariscotta. He can’t come down more than a few times a year, but he stays in touch through emails. He sent me a homily by the British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Rabbi Sacks is very well known and he sits in the House of Lords in London – that’s the upper house in the British Parliament. In this homily Rabbi Sacks talks about Noah and the flood in the book of Genesis. He makes some interesting observations that are worth repeating.

Genesis 1 tells me that I am in the image of God. Genesis 9, after the flood, tells me that the other person is in the image of God.

This really is a life-changing idea. It means that the greatest religious challenge is: Can I see God’s image in one who is not in my image – whose colour, class, culture or creed is different from mine?

People fear people not like them. That has been a source of violence for as long as there has been human life on earth. The stranger, the foreigner, the outsider, is almost always seen as a threat. But what if the opposite is the case? What if the people not like us enlarge rather than endanger our world? 

Rabbi Sacks quotes a common Jewish blessing in which God “creates many souls and their deficiencies.” A strange blessing: Why should we praise God for creating deficiencies? Rabbi Sacks answers:

If we had no deficiencies, we would lack nothing, and we would never need anyone else. We would be solitary rather than social. The fact that we are all different, and all have deficiencies, means that we need one another. What you lack, I may have, and what I lack, you may have. It is by coming together that we can each give the other something he or she lacks. It is our deficiencies and differences that brings us together in mutual gain, in a win-win scenario. It is our diversity that makes us social animals.

Rabbi Sacks concludes:

Next time we meet someone radically unlike us, we should try seeing difference not as a threat but as an enlarging, possibility-creating gift. God asks us to see His image in one who is not in my image. 

That is a brilliant and truly moving statement. Should I repeat it? God asks us to see His image in one who is not in my image. 

When I preach on the miracles of Jesus I usually don’t focus on the miracles themselves, but rather on the messages around the miracles or hidden in the miracle stories. Clearly the message today is about helping each other in our deficiencies – what did not happen in that pool in Jerusalem. I’m no Bill Wylie-Kellermann, and we’re not St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit. From what he writes in his books, it is clearly a church with a heart for social ministry. Our heart might be a little different than theirs. And our deficiencies might be different, to return again to the beautiful thought of Rabbi Sacks. And that is why we need each other. Let no one be left behind. God asks us to see His image in one who is not in my image. 


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Church Without Gimmicks

 

Sermon of 3 May, 2015, Audio file:

 

miracle-healing-of-the-paralytic-sheeps-poolJohn is called the Theologian in the Orthodox Church, for good reason. There is much theology in today’s reading of John 5:1-15; but there is theology in all the miracle stories in the Gospels, as I always try to point out. At the heart of today’s miracle story is a rejection of superstition – and religious beliefs practices that are little more than superstition! Thus the double attack in this reading: the water and the sabbath!

Command to sin no more = don’t go back to the same old same old! Follow a new path, the path of Christ, the Word of God incarnate. It is amazing how people can twist the written word of God and each person interpret in his/her own way. But the living Word of God, the one who is a person rather than a page in a book, is different. His way is different. He is the end of religion; not all religion, but religion that relies on rules and magical beliefs.

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In his book, Christianity and the Religions, author Jacques Dupuis quotes the opening prayer of the Koran, the fatiha:516XBCKXN3L
In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Ever Merciful.
All praise belongs to Allah alone,
the Lord of all the worlds,
Most Gracious, Ever Merciful,
Master of the Day of Judgment.
You alone do we worship and You alone do we implore for help.
Guide us along the straight path –
the path of those on whom
You have bestowed Your favors.,
those who have not incurred Your wrath, and
those who have not gone astray.

 

Some scholars call this the “Our Father” of Islam! I totally disagree. There is almost nothing in common between this prayer and the Our Father. The fatiha could have been prayed by the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Our Father is not a prayer of religion or the religiously righteous. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as in heaven; give us this day our daily bread; forgive us as WE forgive; etc. Nothing in here about worship, or judgment, or how we’re different from those who have displeased God and gone astray, etc.

Sin no more, Jesus tells the man. In the context of this miracle story there is ONLY ONE thing that this command could possibly mean: “Don’t go back to the old ways of magical and mechanical religion. I healed you and I will continue to heal you and guide you. I am the way, the truth and the life.” And those are his words to us as well. I value our church practices and traditions. Our worship is beautiful. Religion is God’s gift to human beings; but it is meant only as a guide, a means of sharing life with others who are on the same path. But the path is Jesus. And the end-point is Jesus. Anything that stands in the way of hearing the voice of the Word is an obstacle, like the water was an obstacle for 38 years to this man.

For many people, churches are an obstacle to finding God. And churches often scramble to find new and creative ways to attract people. So churches resort to marketing and gimmicks. Churches try to be current and relevant. Churches try to make worship as comfortable and non-threatening and warm and fuzzy as they can. So I found it very insightful what Rachel Held Evans wrote in the Washington Post last week. She is a millennial. That’s the usual name given to people born from the early 1980s to early 2000s. Here are some extensive quotes from this article (you can read the full article here).

Millennials prefer classic to trendy churches, sanctuary over auditorium. For a generation bombarded with advertising and sales pitches, and for whom the charge of “inauthentic” is as cutting an insult as any, church rebranding efforts can actually backfire, especially when young people sense that there is more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following Him. Millennials “are not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion,”

Blogger Amy Peterson: “I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘relevant.’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”

According to Barna Group, among young people who don’t go to church, 87 percent say they see Christians as judgmental, and 85 percent see them as hypocritical. A similar study found that “only 8% say they don’t attend because church is ‘out of date.’

In other words, a church can have a sleek logo and Web site, but if it’s judgmental and exclusive, if it fails to show the love of Jesus to all, millennials will sniff it out. Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community. We’re not as shallow as you might think.

You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.

What finally brought me back was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.

Did you hear the key words? Authentic, non-judgmental, inclusive, sacraments, faith, community. Not marketing, not trendy, no gimmicks. The water in today’s miracle story is a gimmick, a marketing tool. Jesus ignores it and reaches out to the man in need. That’s what the church should be, and that’s what we will continue to strive to be. Most of all, I love that phrase: “an ancient-future community.” Let’s be that; let’s explore what it means to be that.