Tuesday, October 28, 2008

That which is hurtful ... sermon for October 26th

There is an ancient story about a young man who wants to learn the whole of the Torah, the collected Law of the Jewish people. But the young man is fairly impetuous and more than a little impatient. He approaches his rabbi one Sabbath after worship has concluded and says – "Rabboni, I would like you to teach me the WHOLE of the Torah …"

The Rabbi is very pleased, for it is not often that a young person approaches a Rabbi with such a request. And so he says with a broad smile – "Oh this thing you ask of me is wonderful. I will take you as my student and I will teach you the wonders of the Torah as we study together over the next few years …"

"Years????" says the young man, "No, I’m not interested in taking years to learn about the Torah. I want to learn about it now while I stand here before you on one foot …"

The learned man is insulted, and grabs a broom and begins swinging it wildly, "This is an insult to me, to the Torah and to Our God … study of the Torah is never a frivolous thing and it demands years of devoted study … you mock me …" and he drives the young man out of the synagogue and the town …

The young man then spends many weeks traveling from town to town asking each Rabbi he meets the same request – "Please, teach me the whole of the Torah …"

And each Rabbi responds in the same way … "yes, this is wonderful you will be my student and together we will study the Torah for years to teach you the meaning of the Torah …"

And to each Rabbi the young man says – "oh no, I am not prepared to spend years studying the Torah, I want you to teach me the WHOLE of the Torah while I stand here on one foot …"

Some Rabbis simply slam the door in his face, some shout at him, some hit him with their broom, some chase him from town … they may use a diversity of methods to drive the young man away but they ALL scoff at his absurd idea that he could learn the WHOLE of the Torah – the Laws handed down to Moses at Sinai and added to by the elders and the judges and that are loving preserved in the first Five books of the Bible, and that guide the thoughts and worship and life of the Jewish people … the suggestion that he could learn the WHOLE of the Torah, a document thousands of years in the making, while he stands before the Rabbi on one foot is unthinkable …

And then he meets the Great Rabbi Hillel, who is even to this day, renown for his wisdom … The young, having spent years on his fool hearty quest says to the Rabbi – "I would like you to teach me the whole of the Torah…"

The Rabbi nods, stroking his beard, "uh-huh" he says, "this thing you ask of me is easy …"

"Then I would like you to teach me the whole of the Torah," the young man says excitedly, the weariness from his search has evaporated, "while I stand here on your front step on one foot …"

The great Rabbi laughs – "the Whole of the Torah, everything on which the teachings of our God hinges is simply this – ‘that which is hurtful to another, you simply do not do – EVER’ all the rest is merely commentary …"

That which is hurtful to another you simply do not do …

That which is hurtful to another YOU simply DO NOT DO !!!

A century later another Jewish rabbi from the village of Nazareth took Hillel’s teaching and turned it into a more active notion – "love your neighbour as yourself" connected to the foundational notion that you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind, this Yeshua, or Jesus as we’ve come to know him, said boldly and rightly – "on these two commandments hang ALL of the law and all of the prophets".

Jesus was being provocative and BOLD in his teaching … positing the entirety of the Jewish faith tradition on the simple teachings of "Love the Lord Your God with the whole of your being, and love your neighbour as yourself" takes the idea of doing no harm to a bigger broader level …
I wonder though, how good we are as people of faith in the Church at adhering to these teachings much less following them?

Do we live our lives in a way that does no harm to another and instead shows them love and compassion? Or do we find ourselves in a place where we can say – "these are good words to strive for, but they are seriously too idealistic … He couldn’t possibly have intended us to LIVE THEM could he???"

This past week I ended my work week by taking a half an hour and wandering off the beaten path to sit down and have a face to face conversation with some of the shelterless homeless folks in Brandon. Over the last few weeks we’ve heard repeatedly about the people living under the bridge. Then late on Friday afternoon one of my co-workers found an online discussion about the people living under the bridge in Brandon.

The discussion was dancing along the "Just go and get a job and stop welching off of welfare" that too often enters the fray when we’re talking about homelessness and poverty. I read the comments and reflected on the three conversations I had had through the day with the Chief of Police in Brandon, the director of Helping Hands Soup Kitchen and one of the police officers overseeing the down town district and I realized that there are a myriad of reasons why someone ends up living under a bridge … some are created by poor choices … some are created by circumstances far beyond their control … some are medical and psychological in orgin … EVERY person has a story and the guy sleeping under the bridge is first and foremost a person with a story …

So on Friday afternoon as almost everyone else in Brandon was heading to their HOMES for the weekend, I walked off the beaten path and found some of the homeless folks who call a bridge not far from downtown their HOME. I wanted to learn more about who they were as people, and I wanted to hear it from them – "what would help you right now?"

The answer from them was simple – "more money in welfare so we can afford to have a place to live AND eat …"

"Okay," I asked, "someone’s gonna say – ‘we don’t want to give you more welfare, why don’t you just get a job and earn more money yourself?’ how do I answer that."

The one guy laughed and said – "would you hire me? I’m an uneducated, drunk smelly Indian … just try to get me a job … I’d take it and work hard if you could find me one. But I like to drink once in a while and I kinda get lost in it … who’s gonna hire me knowing that ?"

The other guy says – "I can’t work. I’m what you call Mental … I gotta take pills every day to keep me good … who’s gonna hire me?"

We talked some more and they said that it was frustrating to have ALL their stuff taken when they were sleeping in the picnic shelters by the River bank Discovery Centre earlier in the month.

"Guys," I said, "that was a bad place to squat. The people on the north side of the river don’t want drunk, dirty homeless people messing up their park. They don’t want to know you even exist. They’re gonna phone the cops as soon as you show up …"

They laughed and one said – "hey, I like you … you get this …"

We talked for a long time about what is helping them and what is hurting them. The concept of "do not harm" or Hillel’s "that which is hurtful" danced through our conversation. They spoke of being hassled by people, city workers, train workers, and sometimes the police. They talked about the young punks who will come and beat them up for kicks on the weekends if they aren’t hidden away safely and out of view. And they talked about the good stuff that keeps them alive … the staff and volunteers at Samaritan House, the folks at Helping Hands, the kindness of strangers …

As I reflected on the conversation while I headed back to my van I realized that these men – marginalized, outcast, and cast outs – these homeless men represent the convergence of the teachings of the Prophetic voices like Moses, Hillel, Jesus and others, AND the practical engaging of these teachings in a real world – real time setting …

They are a rubber hitting the road moment … Do we see them as people with a story and respond with love – not necessarily like, but a deep seated love that flows from our faith – the love that sees EVERYONE as a child of God … OR do we hold to the stereo types and the rhetoric, and we close our eyes and shutter our hearts and chose to look through another human being and see simply "some homeless guy" and stifle our love and compassion ??

We live in a time and a place where it is too easy to do nothing, and to find a MILLION justifications for our inaction and our complacency … and too often in the Church we hide behind our rules and our regulations and justify inaction by saying – "we can’t" rather than admitting that we simply won’t. … too often in the Church we’ve become a social club where we come to have things comfortable and nice while we wonder and fret over a declining membership and a graying of those who remain …

But then the spirit breaks through in unexpected places … the Drive Away hunger campaign and the amazing response across Westman is an act of generosity and caring that reminds us that at heart we are a generous and giving people (over 1 MILLION pounds of food nationally, the target for Manitoba was 100 000 pouonds of food for the WHOLE province - Westman alone gathered over 100 000 pounds of food, and the provincial total was in excess of 224 000 POUNDS !!!) … the donations of carrots, potatoes, and produce that roll through the door of places like Samaritan House from Hutterite Colonies across the region remind us AND challenge us to look at what we’re about … over and over we stumble across examples of what we SHOULD be doing … the problem, and it is a problem so long as there are children who are hungry, people who are living under bridges, and executives of corporations continuing to rake in BILLIONS of dollars in salaries, bonuses and stock options while the ecomomy continues to spiral into oblivion … so long as the gaping inequity exists that sees people living with next to nothing in a world of overwhelming plenty while too many have too much – it is a problem that should be front and centre in our faith struggles …

Yet, we will too easily shrug and say – "what can we do?"

That which is hurtful to another – you simply DO NOT DO!

Poverty, hunger, homlessness and inequity are incredibly hurtful to many … the response is ours … we can chose to do nothing … or we can be faithful in our response of life and world view …
If we dare to listen to our heart, our soul and our mind and allow the love of God and each other the response will simply flow forth and be how we live and move within the world …

May it be so – thanks be to God …

Let us pray …

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Two Simple words ...

I would like to begin this morning with the very non-scriptural opening three paragraphs from the Associated Press’ account of the American Congressional Hearings into the melt-down on Wall Street. A melt-down that will cost American Tax Payers, in excess of 700 BILLION US dollars to slow, but perhaps NOT entirely stop … On Tuesday the Associated Press published:

The now-bankrupt investment bank Lehman Bros. arranged millions in bonuses for fired executives as it pleaded for a federal lifeline, lawmakers learned Monday, as Congress began investigating what went so wrong on Wall Street to prompt a $700 billion government bailout.

The first in a series of congressional hearings on the roots of the financial meltdown yielded few major revelations about Lehman's collapse, and none about why government officials, as they scrambled to avert economic catastrophe, declined to rescue the flagging company while injecting tens of billions of dollars into others.

But it allowed lawmakers still smarting from a politically painful vote Friday for the largest federal market rescue in history to put a face on their outrage at corporate chieftains who took home hundreds of millions of dollars while betting on risky mortgage-backed investments that ultimately brought the financial system to its knees.

The best was yet to come in the article though … in recounting the testimony of Mr Fuld the CEO for Lehman Bros Bank, it noted that just four days before Lehman Bros collapsed there was a pay out to two departing excecutives in excess of 18.4 MILLION dollars, and another executive who was quitting received a compensation package worth in excess of 5 million dollars.

The Republican representatives noted that Mr Fuld was pretty free and loose with “other people’s money” as he headed the now bankrupt company.

But the true topper in the article came with the following exchange …

But while Fuld said he and executives did everything they could to protect the company, committee chairman, Waxman slammed Fuld for earning $484 million in salary, bonuses and stock sales since 2000.

"Your company is now bankrupt, our economy is now in a state of crisis, but you get to keep $480 million," Waxman said, displaying yearly compensation figures on large TV screens in the hearing room. "I have a very basic question for you. Is this fair?"

Fuld said the figures were not accurate and he probably received "a little bit less than $250 million, still a large number, though."

Wouldn’t it be nice to receive over 250 MILLION in bonuses and salary over 8 years ??
But what is even more shocking was the demeanour by which Mr Fuld CORRECTED the Congressmen on the actual number for his compensation over the last 7 tears … 480 MILLION or 250 MILLION – either way, it is way more money that ANY OF US will ever see, even cumulatively in our life time, and this is the NORM for Wall Street.

One commentator I heard this past week pointed out that in a single year, Wall Street would pay out more in bonuses, salaries and premiums to executives than the United States of America would send to Africa as Aid in five years … Africa the continent wracked by diseases like HIV/AIDS, poverty and famine … a continent that is desperately poor and where the average person survives on about a dollar a day … if you can call their life survival …

And half a world away executives are saying – “oh I didn’t earn THAT much, it was ONLY 240 million dollars …”

There is something wrong with your world … and this thanksgiving, it is a good time for YOU and I to pause and to give thanks for what is really important …

As I considered Mr Fuld and the 700 BILLION dollars it will take to begine to address the mess the unbridled greed of he and his cronies, I thought of a poem by poet Ann Weems, that reminds us that it is too easy to lose perspective, and to fall into the error of believing that we need more and more and more …

Ann writes:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
God’s mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning.
The Lord God gave the peoples of the earth a garden,
And the people said: “That’s very nice, God,
but that’s not enough. We’d like a little knowledge, please.”
The Lord God gave them knowledge,
And the people said: “Now that we have knowledge,
we’d like things.”
The Lord God gave the people things,
But they always said: “That’s not quite enough.”
So the Lord God gave them gifts unequaled:
The Sun
Lightening and Thunder
Rain and Flowers
Animals and Birds and Fish
Trees and Stars and the Moon
God gave them the Rainbow
God parted the Red Sea and gave them Manna
God gave them Prophets
And Children
And Each Other,
But still the people said, “That’s not quite enough.”
God loved the people,
And out of ultimate merciful goodness
God gave them the Gift of Gifts—
A Christmas present never to be forgotten—
God gave them Love
In the form of God’s Son,
Even Christ Jesus.
There are some that don’t open their eyes
or their ears or their hearts
And they still say, that’s not quite enough.
They wander through the stores looking for Christmas;
But others open their whole being to the Lord,
Bending their knees to praise God,
Carrying Christmas with them every day.
For these the whole world is a gift!

That’s not quite enough … are we a grateful and thankful people, or do we grumble and say (even if it never passes our lips but rather is lived out in our lives): “That’s NOT quite enough.”

On many levels, that the issue that underlies the story from our Gospel Reading this morning … the people, the descendents of the folks who journeyed into the Promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey had grown profoundly complacent in their faith. They were no longer appreciative nor grateful for things they received, and the words “Thank you” never escaped their lips and it even more seldom arose to their minds.

They simply were no longer a people appreciative of God’s many blessings and bounty that they so easily enjoyed …

And so Jesus is journeying from Galilea, presumably heading south towards Jerusalem and he encounters ten lepers – outcasts, who were no longer welcome in civil society. From a distance they hail him. And from a distance he heals them … he sends them to the priest to not only bless them, but to affirm their return to wholeness.

These men were not only physically sick with leprosy, by virtue of that ailment, they were now ritualistically unclean, and forbidden from contact with the rest of the Jewish people. So the blessing of the priest was the ONLY way to re-enter society and become a member of the community once more …

Yet, in the story – the ONLY man to come back and offer thanks to God, and to Jesus for the healing miracle wasn’t even a Jew … he was a Samaritan.

The problem for us – is that we simply can’t not comprehend how reviled a Samaritan was. There is NO parallel in our world to a Samaritan in Jesus. There is no one as feared and loathed and hated as a Samaritan. The Samaritan was regarded as something less than human for a wide range of reasons – and yet in Jesus’ ministry they keep popping up as the hero in parable and story … and now, THIS – the ONLY one to come back and thank God, was a non-Jewish Samaritan … the very act of HIM thanking the JEWISH God Yahweh was an abomination to the Good Jews of the day … and yet, not one of the other nine, presumably a few good Jews among them – NOT one of them has the decency to come back and thank God – THEIR God …

The lesson is lost on us – but not lost on those who first heard this story as it was passed through what would become the early church. The very fact that it was a NON-Jew thanking God, and even worse than a run of the mill non-Jew, but a Samaritan who turned back – that detail would have caused howls of outrage … yet, in those howls was a profound lesson …

I’ve frequently preached on the lesson my Grandfather taught me of not pointing a finger of accusation at someone else, lest the other three fingers point back at yourself … WELL, in this moment, the howls of – “OUTRAGEOUS !!! How could Jesus let a Samaritan praise God and offer thanks for the healing …” would catch in the throats of the speaker who would realize that AS they protested, the question – WHEN did YOU thank GOD??? Would arise in their own conscience …

“DANG !!” to quote my son …

That’s the point of the story … not that 10 men were healed and only one turned back – but the morale of the story was and remains – the ONE who remembered to turn back wasn’t a Jew at all, yet he KNEW it was important to say two simple words – “THANK YOU” when appropriate. And when you’ve been given your life back as the ten men had … there is perhaps NO more appropriate moment. And it was a contemptible, despised, and reviled Samaritan who no only remembered that lesson – but rubbed the noses of every Good and faithful person in it …

This is a radical and powerful story … the one who turned back reminds us to live our lives with gratitude, appreciation and thanksgiving … is it a lesson we are willing, and that we DARE to live? Or are we people who receive with open hands ALL of God’s blessings and bounty, only to say – “that’s nice, but it’s NOT quite enough …”

We live in a world where it is far too easy to fall into the place of being un-grateful and living our lives by not appreciating what we have around us in abundance: our lives, our family, our friends, our community, our church … food on our plates, a home to live in, and all of the wonderful things that we have around us …

This thankgiving, let’s have the courage to LIVE the chorus of the Raffi song that I shared with our children earlier:

“All I Really Need is a Song in my Heart
Food in my belly and love in my Family
All I Really Need is a Song in my Heart
And love in my family”

We are called by faith to give thanks for what’s important … may it be so – thanks be to God … Let us pray …

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sermon for Worldwide Communion - October 5th 2008

Today is one of the days in the Church calendar when it is worth pausing to consider the implications of who we are, and what we are about as a people, a faith community, and most importantly a Church.
In the moment as we break bread and pour out the cup, the fundamentals of who we are and what we believe and what we live in faith, rise to the fore, and we are confronted with either the celebratory expression of our faith lived in its fullness, or the contradiction of a faith that says one thing and lives another …
We live in a world of abundance and plenty, and despite the new reports lately focusing on the economic turmoil south of the border, there is MORE than enough to go around, and MUCH MORE available to end poverty, disease and homelessness than we realize.
One commentator on the radio this week pointed out that in an average year close to five times more money is paid to CEOs on Wall Street for bonuses and premiums, than is spent on AID to Africa.
Think about that for a moment … in a continent torn apart by violence, struggling with hunger and famine, a continent shackled by HIV/AIDS … a continent where the average person survives on less than 2 dollars a day … we as investors, clients, shareholders and tax payers are PAYING CEOs and Executives of already incredibly wealthy corporations, bonuses that are almost five times what is sent to the entire continent of Africa to help address the poverty driven issues that are killing in excess of 30 000 children EVERY SINGLE day across the planet … and that doesn’t even mention the already obscene wages and salaries these guys are being paid …
We live in a world of plenty and of abundance … but we’re so conditioned to the idea of not having enough that we simply can’t see it any longer … we want to protect what we have … we want to guard what we possess … we want to ensure that we will ALWAYS have enough …
In the Church we speak of the Gospel – the Good News … and when we open the Bible and begin to read the texts, we are repeatedly confronted with proclamations of plenty and abundance and living life with an attitude of thanksgiving.
Easy words to say and think … harder words to live …
Today, though as we prepare to break bread and pour out the cup, the concept of plenty and abundance rest on the table. Not abundance and plenty as defined by the flawed business model that has fettered us – but abundance and plenty that comes from opening our eyes to what exists around us …
Bread – the staple food that comes from the very fields that surround us … wheat, grain, canola, oats, flax … the prices may not be what they SHOULD BE, but one can not dispute that the lumbering grain trucks and the full bins sitting in yards across westman speak to us about the ABUNDANCE that exists around us.
The cup – a staple food that comes from the fruit that surrounds us … grapes, strawberries, apples, blue berries, saskatoons, raspberries … a bountiful gift that comes in seasons – a reminder of the sweetness of these gifts that need only time and patience and an ice cream bucket to gather and savour and share …
The elements on the table are about simple abundance. Taking the simplest of foods and saying – “there’s MORE than enough” for all … then after giving thanks to God for these gifts we gather around a table and celebrate the abundance of community and relationship and family … we break bread and pass it to one another in COMMUNITY.
In this moment we are NOT alone. We are part of a group – a community – a family … we have the abundance of relationships as we break bread from the abundance of creation.
There is MORE than enough to share … yet, we take our tiny piece of bread and our little sip of the cup … and smile … Is THAT living ABUNDANTLY ???
When I break bread I remember a time in Theology College when we were fasting … the only food we were allowed during the fast was the bread served during our weekly chapel service … my classmates and I tore enormous hunks of bread and dipped them in the cup …our stomach aching for food savoured every crumb of the chunks of bread we took … we needed FOOD … and the bread was there for the taking, so we took … we took enormous handfuls of bread to satiate our hunger … we understood the abundance of the table in a very different way that polite little tiny pinches of bread – abundance is about grabbing a handful of bread without reservation …
Later when my now teenaged son was a toddler he came forward in his mother’s arms during communion. At the time his favourite snack was a thick slice of soft French bread spread with peanut butter. (actually it still is a favourite snack for him – except now he could gobble back most of a loaf) That day the loaf of communion bread was the same type we fed him with, so when he saw the bread he looked around for the jar of peanut butter and said – “Peanut butter?” We said “no, later!”
“want peanut butter!”
You deal with these moments, particularly when you are at the front of the church … mom took a piece of bread and dipped it in the cup, but before she could put in HER mouth a little hand reached out and snatched it and stuffed it in HIS mouth with a lipsmacking “YUMMY!!” exclaimed loudly.
For the rest of the service as the bread and the cup sat on the communion table at the front of the church, our son came up repeatedly and tore off hunk after hunk of the loaf and dipped them in the cup, then turned and while stuffing the bread in his mouth with a loud “yummy” returned to the back of the little rural church to continue playing …
At the end of the service when S-- once again came up to claim the last remnants of the loaf left on the table, I commented on the lesson this little person is offering us – if we dare to listen …
Why shouldn’t there be peanut butter, and cheese and a full meal when we break bread? That’s how communion was done that first night in Jerusalem, and how the early church practiced their meal, why do we reduce it to a tiny pinch of bread and a little sip from the cup?
Why shouldn’t we take a huge hunk of bread? This is the BREAD OF LIFE, how can you sustain life with a few piddly crumbs and a tiny sip of the cup?
Why shouldn’t we come back repeatedly and take enough bread to sustain us through the day?
We sing about loaves abounding, and our daily bread, but … we take little tiny pieces of bread and call it enough …
AND – why shouldn’t we take the bread and the cup and like my toddler son – have the audacity to say – “YUM!!” when we eat???
I also recall one day walking across the village where I lived only to be harassed by the troopers … troopers got their name because together they would troop to the liquor store to make their purchase, then troop back home to consume it … They were sitting on the front step of a house in the sunshine and one of them called out: “Hey, we got the bottle. If you had bread we could have communion …” A couple of weeks later when M—was baking bread I asked her to make a smallish loaf that would fit in my coat pocket. That afternoon while it was still warm, I went for a walk and passed the house. The boys pulled the same drill – “hey, we got the bottle. If you have bread we could have communion…”
Their laughter ended abruptly when I pulled out the loaf of bread and said – “Actually, I have some bread …”
That day in the summer sunshine of a west coast village, we broke bread, passed the bottle and celebrated communion … we celebrated with much laughter the relationships they had with each other, and that I had with them … we celebrated the abundance around us and the radical inclusivity of God’s GRACE AND LOVE.
In an unlikely and unexpected place – bread was broken and the cup poured out in lavish abundance … and I KNOW my life was never the same …

We live in a world of abundance, and we are called to proclaim and share The Good News … when we gather at the table, it is HERE where these values should be most evident and obvious … in this season of harvest and thanksgiving, we need to open our eyes, not to what we think we lack – but what we have … and as we break bread and pour out the cup, let’s be less self-conscious and more thankful …
Loaves abound … cups are full to overflowing … Our God is a good of abundance, plenty and unbound generosity … let’s have the courage to not only say these things, but to live our lives believing them !!
May it be so – thanks be to God …
Let us pray …