Sunday, March 07, 2021

10 Commandments & the Sermon on the Mount



                              Exodus Tapestry Marc Chagall (1969) in the Israeli Knesset

Our Trenton United Church book study of The Sermon on the Mount by Amy-Jill Levine began last Wednesday. I touched on the observation by the late historian Barbara Tuchman that the Ten Commandments seemed "doable" while this body of teaching by Jesus was overwhelming (I paraphrase.) Yet Levine, who is Jewish, suggests that Jesus wasn't attempting to set an unattainable standard for his disciples and followers. As with Moses before him, Jesus went up a mountain to consider the depth and breadth of faithful living for the pilgrim people of God. Jesus, the Jew, is not attempting to supercede the Commandments or Moses but to honour their fullest meaning and spirit 

It was fitting that one of the possible lectionary passages for worship today is the Ten Commandments. Have you read them in a while? Here they are in the New Revised Standard Version: 

20:1  Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before[a] me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.[c]

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Black Jesus, Then and Now

This is the cover of the latest issue of Broadview, a magazine which looks at contemporary faith and justice issues as well as covering news from the United Church of Canada. This issue is post Black History Month, but during every month of the year we can be reflecting on Black history, culture and faith. The title, as you can see, is Black Jesus: Why Racial Representation Matters. Three Black writers offer unique perspectives on the portrayal of Jesus as a Black person. While the historical Jesus wasn't Black, in all likelihood, he was certainly brown rather than the white guy so many of us saw as we grew up. 

During my years in ministry I would offer Exploring Your Faith courses and Bible Study sessions with a focus on Jesus, and how we perceived him. I would post images of Jesus around the room and get participants to walk around and choose which Jesus spoke to them. There was always an Asian Jesus, a Black Jesus, a Latino Jesus, and one who looked as though he was actually from the Middle East.  Lots of people chose the safe white guy, including a surprising number of teens who felt attached to the moony white Jesus who had been in the hallway for eons. 

One elderly bible study member who was white and was born in the area was immediately drawn to the Black Jesus. In her thirties she had lived in an African nation, serving as a nurse through the United Church. She married a Black man, and while the marriage didn't last, her two beloved children identified as Black 

Jesus was a Mediterranean peasant Jew. He is also the universal Christ, so why not portray him in a way in which people can identify, regardless of their race and colour? 

The stained glass image of Christ below is a reminder of oppression and liberation, created during the Civil Rights movement to commemorate four Black girls murdered in their church on a Sunday morning

This John Petts stained-glass window was donated to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham by the people of Wales after the church was bombed in 1963. (Solomon Crenshaw, For The Birmingham Times)

Friday, March 05, 2021

Pope Francis in Iraq

                                           An Iraqi Priest Prepares for the arrival of Pope Francis 

A few days ago I was surprised to read  that Pope Francis would be Iraq for a visit, starting today and through the weekend. Francis has expressed concern about the COVID-19 pandemic often, urging wealthier countries to ensure that poorer nations get an adequate supply of vaccines and stating that getting vaccinated is a moral obligation. So why would this 84-year-old take the risk of being a pontifical super-spreader? This from a New York Times article 

The Vatican insists the March 5-8 trip will be a safe, socially distanced and sober visit devoid of the usual fanfare and celebrations. On Tuesday, Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, downplayed the number of cases in Iraq as he addressed reporters who asked how the pope could possibly justify not delaying a trip that could endanger so many. 

He also emphasized the relative young age of many Iraqis and said that the pope would travel in a closed car so as not to attract crowds. “No more than a few hundred people, distanced” would be gathered to see him to minimize the risks, he said. But Francis is planning a large mass with thousands of people in a soccer stadium in the Kurdish town of Erbil, and will likely draw crowds to watch him pray in Qaraqosh, a town of Syriac Catholics, in the northern Nineveh Plains.

I appreciate that Pope Francis has a heart for Iraqi Christians who have been persecuted in this largely Muslim nation since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Saddam was a heartless tyrant in many respects but he protected minority religious groups. Many Christians have fled Iraq over the past two decades, churches have closed, and Christians have been killed. Francis wants to encourage the Christian remnant and he will include the first papal meeting with a grand ayatollah in his itinerary. 

 Francis has asked for prayers as he begins this visit, and we can't begrudge the request. Perhaps we should have been praying that he would change his mind, at least for now. 

Thursday, March 04, 2021

The Good Book...Day

 I'm waiting for the United Nations to declare the World Day to Honour All Other Days. There are more days the international agency has declared than we could possibly earnestly observe. Just the same, I do find the descriptions of these annual days informative and the artwork is usually evocative. This is UNESCO World Book Day, in case you were wondering. It prompted me to ponder how collectively Jews, Muslims, and Christians are described as "people of the book," meaning that we share key stories from the Hebrew scriptures. In fact the name Bible actually means book, and the bible is sometimes described as the Good Book. 

Yesterday we began a book study using Amy-Jill Levine's The Sermon on the Mount as our guide through these three remarkable chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. We are in a Green zone so we could include in-person participation (suitably masked and hosed down) and Zoomers. There were 10 virtual attendees and 6 at the church, which blew me away. Sixteen people who made time in their lives to come together and find meaning in a 2,000-year-old book within a book. It's a credit to Levine that her book allows the Sermon on the Mount to come alive in our imaginations.

I've written before about the statistics showing the precipitous decline in bible reading by Christians of every stripe. I grew up in a prehistoric times when kids were challenged to do bible drill -- bizarrely called sword drill in some denominations -- where books and chapters and verses were called out and the chase was on to find them. We were given stickers as rewards for naming books of the bile from memory. during Vacation Bible School. While rote learning has gone our of fashion in every sphere of education I don't regret that challenge. 

It's an irony that we have so many excellent versions and paraphrases of the bible now, and a wealth of support material, but we are less likely to read them. Have you opened up your Good Book lately? Perhaps you could spend a few minutes leafing through your bible on this World Book Day. 

Oh yes, I was really impressed by the comments and insights from people in the study yesterday. 

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Celebrating Local Wildlife on World Wildlife Day

                                                                 World Wildlife Day 2021 Logo 

This is United Nations World Wildlife Day, which you all knew, of course. It almost slipped past me, which would have been a disgrace given my love of the natural world, what we often describe as Creation in our Judeo/Christian tradition. Our bible begins with abundance and diversity, with the Creator bringing all that lives into being. We have psalms such as Psalm 104 which praise God for "all creatures great and small" which are worthy of celebration just because they exist, not because they serve the purposes of humans. God looks on all this and declares it good. 

It's interesting that the logo for this year's Wildlife Day depicts tigers, and caribou, and eagles, some of the stars of the creaturely drama of our planet. We tend to do this -- think of  the popularity of polar bears -- yet the diversity of our world depends on the chorus and the character actors as well as the celebrities.

A couple of days ago we participated in a Zoom meeting of the Belleville Planning Committee because a wooded area less than half a kilometre from our suburban home is under application for development. This woodland is a gem on the edge of the city with old growth maples and oaks and cedars and with a Provincially Significant Wetland running through it. There are more than 2,000 on a petition to stop this development. 

This wetland is home to snapping turtles and spring peepers and other reptiles and amphibians. We hear the coyotes who live in those woods some nights, and we see the deer tracks and the beaver lodges. There are blue herons and osprey and many other birds and butterflies as well.  It's a treasure, but a substantial portion of the developer's land would be clear-cut under the proposal and more than 150 homes would be constructed over the course of a decade. 

There were excellent presentations from some of those who oppose this development , looking at traffic flow, public safety, noise pollution, and reduction of unique habitat. While there could be accusations of NIMBY - not in my backyard -- it's a stretch to find a benefit for anyone other that the developer who doesn't live in this community. Some more tax revenue, to be sure, but when do we recognize that this area is already home to creatures we all need for a healthy environment? 

This World Wildlife Day I'm recognizing that we can honour Creation close to home, and those creatures which inhabit our neighbourhoods, as vital to our health and wholeness. No alligators or polar bears, but wildlife to be cherished. We can aspire to "live with respect in Creation", as our creed states. 

Here is the Belleville petition, if you would like to sign:

                                               Close-to-Home Provincially Significant Wetland 

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Honouring Murray Whetung, Indigenous Elder



Yesterday I received an email from our United Church Region with the notification that a long-time participant in the life of our denomination had died approaching the age of 100. Murray Whetung was an Indigenous person involved in many important ways through the decades in the attempts of the UCC to engage in apologies. It was remarkable that Murray maintained his Christian faith despite the mistreatment of Indigenous persons by the church.

I thought I would share a portion of the content of the email with you. I never met Murray but he deserves to be honoured for his wisdom and contributions to the United Church as an elder and leader. 

Murray Whetung - February 26, 2021

Many across our region will be saddened to learn of the death of Murray Whetung, who passed as the moon was setting and the sun was rising Friday morning, in his 100th year.  Murray, from Curve Lake First Nation, was a revered Elder of the Indigenous United Church.
The decorated World War II veteran was a central participant in so many key moments in the history of our church – including being one of those present at Laurentian University when The United Church of Canada offered our country’s first Apology to Indigenous Peoples. Some may remember an interview with Murray which was part of “Truly and Humbly,” the documentary, chronicling that significant 1986 event.
Murray was chosen as the first Leading Elder of The All Native Circle Conference along with Gladys Taylor and served for many years on the Board of The Francis Sandy Theological Centre, at Five Oaks.  After years of support on that Board, Murray enrolled in the program and in his early 70’s was recognized as a Designated Lay Minister and served at the Alderville First Nation.
For many decades Murray was active at the General Council level in all aspects of our denomination’s efforts at Healing and Reconciliation.

The 1986 Apology 

Long before my people journeyed to this land your people were here, and you received from your Elders an understanding of creation and of the Mystery that surrounds us all that was deep, and rich, and to be treasured. 

We did not hear you when you shared your vision. In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality. 

We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel. 

We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be. 

We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the Spirit of Christ so that our peoples may be blessed and God’s creation healed

                   The Right Rev. Bob Smith General Council 1986 The United Church of Canada

Monday, March 01, 2021

The Not-So-Golden Idol

 This past weekend a truly weird and definitely not wonderful event took place in Orlando Florida. It's called the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, an annual gathering which brings together conservative political activists and elected officials from across the United States -- in other words, a mess of right-wing Republicans. Sunday's key speaker was none other than the soundly defeated, twice-impeached, former president, Donald Trump. Woo-hoo. 

The only reason I've noticed the shenanigans of CPAC is the bizarre statue of the Emperor Trump created for the conference by American artist Tommy Zegan, who lives in Mexico. Apparently Zegan spent six months creating the statue, which in my humble opinion is a fine representation of the sad state of the Republican party and the idol-worship of the person who may go down in history as the worst president who ever held the office. I honestly thought it was some sort of joke. 

\Not surprisingly, people immediately began comparing the monstrosity to the biblical story of the Golden Calf, the idol which the people of Israel worshipped rather than God when Moses was away on Mount Sinai. If you recall the story, this turned out badly for those who bowed down before the calf.. Zegan, a Christian,  insists that his work is not an idol. We beg to differ. We have witnessed the bizarre worship of the craven Trump for years now, and many of his staunched supporters have been the quasi-Christians who got him elected in the first place. Their fealty to this pathetic false god, chronic liar and philanderer, is beyond comprehension, but it made no sense when he was running for the Republican nomination and during his four years in office so why would it stop now? 

Yesterday,as expected, Trump falsely claimed victory in the election, disparaged immigrants and transgendered persons, and generally spoke in the hateful, xenophobic manner we've come to expect. Shame on those who delight in this sort of speech and claim to followers of Christ. 

A couple of years ago Pope Francis offered these thoughts, which are timely in this moment. 

“The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly human goal.”  Pope Francis