Wednesday, May 20, 2009

the fifth page for May 17, 2009

In my sermon I referred to an Interfaith Symposium I attended recently at Sheridan College, that was organized by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. There was some scheduling confusion that I don’t fully understand, and two Christian representatives actually appeared to speak that evening. I was quite happy to bow out, and listen to the “other guy”, who as it turned out, was one of my professors long ago, and far more qualified to speak. But I saved my speech, and I am offering it here as an extra long edition of the fifth page:

Good evening. I am grateful, and honoured to be one of the speakers at this event. I am here, not as an expert spokesperson for my Christian faith, and certainly not as an expert on the issues before us. I am here as a person who tries to be faithful, knowing full well that I have much to learn, and a long way to go in taking what I learn, and putting it into daily practice.

Let me begin by telling you some things that I believe: Everything we do has moral, and ethical, and spiritual dimensions. Every aspect of our lives, is part of our spiritual life. The choices we make, for good or for bad, are expressions of who we really are. When I tell my children, I love you, and hope that you will be a faithful follower of God, but they see me putting myself first, and forgetting about God, they can tell the difference between who I say I am, and who I am being.

One person has said it this way- when I get up in the morning I say, “Dear God”. When I go to bed at night, my last word is “Amen”. Everything in between is my prayer. When I remember that, and live the moments of my day, and make my decisions, with the awareness that my words, actions, thoughts, decisions are all heard and seen by God, I live differently.

The problems we face in our own lives, in the lives of our family and friends, and in the world in which we live, are not new. The underlying causes are not new. The scale of our world’s problems is larger - but the hardship and pain that people experience, the havoc that is wreaked on the environment, the aggression amongst cultures, and classes, and nations, have always been there.

It is good for us to talk to each other, and listen to each other, with mutual respect, and openness. This is a time for humility, and patience, and love. This is a time for renewed faithfulness, and courage, and hope. As people of faith, we can have confidence that we have much to offer the hurting world. Faith offers us a new way of seeing the world.

I grew up in Thunder Bay, on the shore of Lake Superior, in Northwestern Ontario. I was raised in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of that city- a place much like parts of the Kerr Street area here in Oakville. Outside of the school, the most important place for me in our neighbourhood was our church. I was there at least twice a week. Our church was a very old, very small red brick building on a street where the neighbours changed on a regular basis, because most of the houses were rental units, often with more than one family in each house.

On Sunday mornings I was taught the stories about Jesus. I was taught that Jesus came to teach that God loves every person, and that no human barriers should stand in the way of that love. Jesus taught that we can, each of us, approach God, and pray, and know that we are God’s beloved children.

I learned to pray, and got the basic message that life was not just about me, and my wants and desires. I was taught that every human being is part of God’s family. There were wealthy people who drove back into the neighbourhood to come to church, and there were poor people, and the whole range in between. There were aboriginal people, and there were 1st and 2nd generation Japanese people. There were people from Eastern Europe, and from the Middle East, and from the British Isles. We did not cover the whole human rainbow, but there was enough variety to show me that God’s love extends to us all. My little home church planted in me a vision for life that went beyond my neighbourhood.

On Monday nights I went to Cubs, which is part of the Boy Scout movement. Cubs are taught to make promises and keep them. Cubs are taught about honour, and duty, and responsibility to others. We were also taught about the wonder and beauty of the natural world.

Once a year we went camping. We would sleep overnight in tents, and marvel at the night sky, away from the lights of the city. We could sometimes see the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. That display in the sky, and the sweep of stars would sometimes overwhelm me, as a little boy trying to grasp my place in God’s universe. In the day time we would hike, and learn about plants and animals, and about caring for the creation we live in. It literally opened up my world to leave behind the concrete and pavement of my inner city neighbourhood, and go to a place where there was forest, and streams, and the wildness of nature.

These early experiences, of learning my faith with people from around the world, and revelling in nature with the cubs, have shaped the way I now see things. Each of us are part of something greater than ourselves. We are part of the human family, and we are part of God’s creation. We are all deeply connected, and connected to creation, even though much of our conditioning has encouraged us to believe in divisions.

I have come to believe that most of the distinctions that are used to divide people have their roots in fear and greed. We are afraid of people who are different from us. We are afraid that we will not have all that we need, so we find ways to justify hoarding valuable resources, usually at the expense of others.

I am a minister in the United Church of Canada. I serve the congregation called Trinity United, which is very close to Sheridan College, on McCraney, here in Oakville. The United Church has a long and rich history of cooperation and dialogue with people of faith from many different traditions. We are also committed to staying connected with other Christian groups around the world.

One of our global connections is the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Five years ago, in August of 2004, the General Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, which represents Christian churches from almost every country, met in Accra, Ghana, and reflected on what they named then as “ the increasing urgency of global economic injustice and ecological destruction”.

While they were in Ghana, delegates visited the slave dungeons where millions of Africans were treated as property, sold and subjected to the horrors of repression and death, as slaves. The dungeons were a grim reminder of the ongoing reality that greed and oppression are at work in our world. People continue to suffer the hands of others, and damage continues to be done to the creation which is our home.

The delegates gathered in Accra observed that the root causes of massive threats to life are unjust economic systems that are protected by political and military might. We are seeing in our time that not only are these economic systems a matter of life and death, but that when these systems begin to collapse the consequences are terrible.

The meeting produced a very long document called a Confession of Faith in the Face of Economic Injustice and Ecological Destruction. Here are some of the key ideas:

We reject any claim of economic, political, and military empire which subverts God’s sovereignty over life and acts contrary to God’s just rule.

We believe that God has made a covenant with all of creation. Jesus calls us to put justice for the “least of these” (Mt 25.40) at the centre of the community of life. All creation is blessed and included in this covenant.

We believe the economy exists to serve the dignity and well being of people in community, within the bounds of the sustainability of creation.

We reject any ideology or economic regime that puts profits before people, does not care for all creation, and privatizes those gifts of God meant for all.

We believe that God calls us to stand with those who are victims of injustice.
We know what the Lord requires of us: to do justice, love kindness, and walk in God’s way (Micah 6.8).

We reject any theology that claims that God is only with the rich and that poverty is the fault of the poor.

We believe that Jesus brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry; he frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind (Lk 4.18); he supports and protects the downtrodden, the stranger, the orphans and the widows.

It is quite a challenging and inspiring, (and long) document. I found it particularly important that it included some words of confession:

We acknowledge our complicity in the economic systems which benefit us, and do harm to others and to our world. We acknowledge that we have become captivated by the culture of consumerism, and the competitive greed and selfishness of the current economic system.

In other words, we are all a part of the systems which our faith is calling us to change. This humility is important, and is speaking in the spirit of Jesus. I want to close my remarks by reading from what Christians often call the Beatitudes. Jesus was speaking to a large crowd, and he had great compassion for them. These people were not the movers and shakers of the world, they were simple and poor peasants, whose lives were often at the mercy of market forces, and foreign rulers, and wealthy land-owners. They knew that they needed help, just making it through each day. Jesus tells them that they are blessed, precisely because they know that they need God’s help.

Jesus said,
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.