Monday, July 27, 2009

the fifth page for Sunday, July 26, 2009

In last Sunday's sermon I made reference to non-canonical texts- documents similar to those we find in the New Testament, that did not “make the cut” when decisions were being made about what would be included in the “official” scriptures of the Christian church. Many of these texts are available in libraries, bookstores, and of course, on-line. This Sunday I read a portion of the “Gospel of Thomas” in the worship service. It roughly paralleled the style and content of the other reading for the day, which I chose from Mark’s Gospel.

Gospel Reading: Mark 8:27-33 (New International Version)
Then Jesus and his disciples went away to the villages near Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, "Tell me, who do people say I am?"
"Some say that you are John the Baptist," they answered; "others say that you are Elijah, while others say that you are one of the prophets."
"What about you?" he asked them. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Messiah."
Then Jesus ordered them, "Do not tell anyone about me."
Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: "The Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. He will be put to death, but three days later he will rise to life."
He made this very clear to them. So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But Jesus turned around, looked at his disciples, and rebuked Peter. "Get away from me, Satan," he said. "Your thoughts don't come from God but from human nature!"

Gospel of Thomas 13:1-8 (Patterson/Robinson translation into English)
Jesus said to his disciples: "Compare me, and tell me whom I am like." Simon Peter said to him: "You are like a just messenger." Matthew said to him: "You are like an (especially) wise philosopher." Thomas said to him: "Teacher, my mouth will not bear at all to say whom you are like." Jesus said: "I am not your teacher. For you have drunk, you have become intoxicated at the bubbling spring that I have measured out." And he took him, (and) withdrew, (and) he said three words to him. But when Thomas came back to his companions, they asked him: "What did Jesus say to you?" Thomas said to them: "If I tell you one of the words he said to me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me, and fire will come out of the stones (and) burn you up."

The complete text of the Gospel of Thomas, in several different translations, is available at a website offered by the Gnostic Society:

Monday, July 20, 2009

the fifth page for July 19, 2009

From the Song of Faith: (words in italics)
Scripture is our song for the journey, the living word
passed on from generation to generation
to guide and inspire,
that we might wrestle a holy revelation for our time and place
from the human experiences
and cultural assumptions of another era.
God calls us to be doers of the word and not hearers only.

For at least the last 100 years, most mainline seminaries (training schools for ministers) have taught an historical approach to the study of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In a nutshell, what that means is that ministers have been taught to read the Bible as the product of actual human communities, that existed in a particular time and place. The content of the scriptures was produced as part of the faithful response of people in those times and places to their experience of God.

Some ministers of previous generations seem to have held back from making this view of scripture explicit in their preaching and teaching. Some have theorized that ministers found it too much work, or too risky. Perhaps there was a concern that members would leave their congregations if the “party line” on the literal truth of the Bible was not upheld.

This strategy may have backfired. Mainline congregations (the ones that tend to be the most “liberal” in their thinking) have bled members in at least two ways. People who craved a more literal interpretation of the Bible have migrated to more fundamentalist churches. Some members who craved a more intellectually honest approach have drifted away altogether.

The recognition that scripture is a human and not a divine product is crucial, not only to interpreting the actual texts, but also to presenting our faith in a way that has intellectual integrity, and respect for other cultures and traditions.

We are long past the time when preachers and churches can get away with dismissing any and all questions about the Bible by saying, “The problem is that you lack faith! The Bible is true, because it is God’s Word.” (So shut up and pray for more faith!)

The Spirit breathes revelatory power into scripture,
bestowing upon it a unique and normative place
in the life of the community.
The Spirit judges us critically when we abuse scripture
by interpreting it narrow-mindedly,
using it as a tool of oppression, exclusion, or hatred.
The wholeness of scripture testifies
to the oneness and faithfulness of God.
The multiplicity of scripture testifies to its depth:
two testaments, four gospels,
contrasting points of view held in tension—
all a faithful witness to the One and Triune God,
the Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

the fifth page for July 12, 2009

Evil Thoughts:
According to Wikipedia, “The term 'Theology' literally means the study of God, deriving from the Greek word theos, meaning 'God', and the suffix -ology from the Greek word logos meaning "the character of one who speaks or treats of [a certain subject]", or simply "the study of a certain subject". It now means the science of God or of religion, typically as it is practised in a systematic and reasoned or philosophical manner.”

The fact that people study religion, and think and write about God in a disciplined way tells us at least 2 things. The first is that these questions continue to be of interest. The second is that we don't have it all figured out.

One of the greatest challenges is what has been called the problem of evil, which has implications for our fundamental understanding of God, the universe, and everything.

In their book, “Remedial Christianity: What every believer should know about the faith but probably doesn’t” authors Paul Alan Laughlin and Glenna S. Jackson refer to the four classic approaches to the Problem of Evil. I have summarized and put my own spin on them, below:

1) Evil as a value judgment: There is really no such thing as evil, and our subjective opinions are based on our preconceptions, our experiences, our values. Others may look at what we see as “evil” from a different perspective.

2) Evil as a Deprivation of / Deviation from the Good: the authors used the analogy of a spacecraft that heats up as it nears the sun, but cools as it moves away. The cooling effect is not produced because the ship is nearing a huge ice cube in space, but because it is more distant from the heat source. Evil does not have a source or substance, it is the absence of Good.

3) Evil as an Attribute/Aspect of the Good: God uses events and people to mete out justice and retribution. The Hebrew Scriptures are very prone to name a military defeat as the hand of God at work to correct a faithless Israel. This also minimizes the role of a devil- Satan is depicted as an agent of God rather than a being in direct opposition to God.

4) Evil as a Force Opposed to the Good: Satan is the Evil One, unleashing torment and affliction on humanity as part of the larger cosmic struggle. This is a significant departure from Jewish thought, which understands itself as strictly monotheistic. Some Christians seem to elevate the “Evil One” to a status rivalling that of God. One positive effect is that in the Christian Scriptures God does not appear as bloodthirsty and prone to violence as in the Hebrew Scriptures.
In my sermon for July 12, 2009, I talk a bit about the way the Garden of Eden story has been used to try to account for the existence of pain and hardship in life. It can be found at

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The fifth page for July 5, 2009- the continuing voyage...

The fifth page for July 5, 2009- the continuing voyage...

You can read the text of my sermon (once it is posted) on the church's website:

In my sermon /teaching time on Sunday morning I mentioned that in its 84 years, the United Church of Canada has occasionally expressed its faith in contemporary terms. The first effort it made in this direction can be found in the “Basis of Union”, prepared by representatives of the three founding denominational groups that came together in 1925. To this day, candidates for ordained or commissioned ministry are asked if they are in “essential agreeement” with the doctrine found in this document. Here is a link to the Basis of Union:

Here is the part about God:

2.1 Article I. Of God.
We believe in the one only living and true God, a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being and perfections; the Lord Almighty, who is love, most just in all His ways, most glorious in holiness, unsearchable in wisdom, plenteous in mercy, full of compassion, and abundant in goodness and truth. We worship Him in the unity of the Godhead and the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three persons of the same substance, equal in power and glory.

In 1968, the United Church offered “A New Creed”, which very quickly became a part of worship services in congregations across the country. The creed was revised a few years ago, when the line “to live with respect in creation” was added:

We are not alone,
we live in God's world.

We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others
by the Spirit.

We trust in God.

We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God's presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.

Every time I read or hear the “new creed” I remember a remark made by a friend who grew up in the United Church, but left as a young adult to become an Anglican. He is now an Anglican priest in Manitoba. He told me that he thought our creed sounded like the mission statement of the USS Enterprise, as spoken by the captain at the beginning of every episode of Star Trek:

Space... the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

My Anglican friend meant this to be a disparaging comment, but I decided I liked the connection. It suggests to me that our United Church, like the crew of the USS Enterprise, has remained open to the mystery and adventure of the unknown.