Sunday, February 05, 2023

We Need More Sermon on the Mount


                                                       Sermon on the Mount -- Jorge Cocco

Jesus bids us shine, with a clear, pure light,

Like a little candle burning in the night;

In this world is darkness, so let us shine

You in your small corner, and I in mine. 

I've wondered along the way what my "emergency pack" of scripture would be if I wasn't allowed to take a New Testament with me to the wilderness cabin where I'd be spending the next year. I would certainly include a passage which included the crucifixion and the version of the resurrection story from John's gospel. Philippians 4 and the "be anxious for nothing" verses. The fruits of the Spirit verses in Galatians 5,  and Ephesians 3:28 about freedom in Christ, especially if there were going to be others in the cabin.

All of these passages would be a page or two in total, but I would definitely include all three chapters from Matthew's gospel which are what we call the Sermon on the Mount. They are the Christian Manifesto and Monty Python aside (blessed are the cheesmakers) these teachings would be transformative if we took them to heart as Jesus followers. 

We're getting a smattering or maybe a dabble of the Sermon on the Mount in the Common Lectionary right now, three weeks in chapter 5 of Matthew, beginning with the Beatitudes last Sunday. Today we're invited to be salt and light, whatever our modest sphere might be. We are to flavour our societies and illuminate the dark places. 

This is such an important reminder in a time when religion is toxic just about everywhere we look. At times I am deeply disheartened by self-serving religiosity and understand why so many are leaving institutions behind. I could make a list regarding the abuses in God's name and by Christian false teachers but it would be too lengthy. In ancient times conquering armies would sometimes salt the fields of those they overran and there is a sense that we have actually managed to poison ourselves and the world around us rather than enhance. . 

I was heartened last year when a lively and thoughtful group of people from several congregations joined me to study Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner's Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven by the ever-insightful Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar. 

We need a lot more Sermon on the Mount it seems to me, so that Jesus can speak to our hearts and minds for the turbulent time in which we live. I suppose we are alway beginners. 

Saturday, February 04, 2023

Black History Month & Union United Church


                                  The choir of Union United in Montreal in 1944. (Photo courtesy of Union United church archives)

February is Black History Month and for me its important to be aware of Black history in Canada, as well as the United States. There is both the shameful history of racism in this country, a reality we try to ignore, and a rich and notable history which should be upheld.

The Sleeping Car Porter is the award-winning novel by Suzette Mayr which is an imaginative telling of the story of one trip across Canada by a Black porter named Baxter who aspires to be a dentist but works in what it a demeaning job to save money for school. Train porters, including Baxter, were often called "George" by passengers rather than their actual names after the inventor of the sleeping car, George Pullman. The novel captures the grinding expectations of these dedicated employees who were often treated with contempt. 

I've written before about the CBC drama series called The Porter which follows the lives of a number of porters and is notable for its largely Black cast. 

Were you aware that there is a United Church congregation in Montreal called Union which was founded by porters in the early 1900s? There is an informative article in Broadview magazine about this congregation which includes this description: 

The church was founded by a group of U.S.-born railroad porters who faced discrimination when they tried to join other churches in Montreal. According to David Este, a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Calgary, the porters were often placed in the choir lofts or back pews where they couldn’t be seen. On occasion, Black people were told that they weren’t welcome at all.

I wondered if this was the congregation in which Oscar Peterson, the great jazz pianist, got his musical start and according to the article it is. His father, Daniel, was a porter who was determined that his children would have musical training and who played the organ at the church at times. 

I encourage you to read the article, and I hope all of us can learn more about Black history in this country during the next few weeks.

Friday, February 03, 2023

Medical Assistance in Dying & Deferred Legislation

 Yesterday Canada's Justice Minister, David Lametti, made an important announcement regarding changes in legislation for Medical Assistance in Dying. The amended legislation would include those who requested MAID because of mental illness, a source of concern and alarm for many, including mental health professionals and religious communities. The date for the changes has been deferred from March of 2023 to March of 2024. 

The United Church has issued two statement regarding MAID and in the second from 2020 it is specific in saying "that ending suffering due to mental illness not be a category for MAID, and that the church advocate for increased mental health resources." I'm not sure what the United Church has done in terms of actual advocacy, but the intent is clear.

Mental health issues are also spiritual health issues and vigilance by religious entities is important as an act of justice and social conscience on behalf of the vulnerable. Responding to mental illness and providing sufficient support are spiritual issues. Ensuring that those with physical disabilities living in poverty don't consider MAID as the only option is certainly a justice issue in our society. 

A couple of things come to mind in light of Minister Lametti's announcement. I am relieved by this "sober second thought" deferral. I do wonder, though, what will happen during the next year to invite ethicists, theologians, and mental health professionals into the conversation in a way that they haven't been up until now. There is an expert panel which has been involved in the decision-making but critics suggest that this isn't a broad enough consultation. We can't simply dither for another 12 months without serious work being done. 

I also hope that this additional year will provide time to turn down some of the alarmist rhetoric which exists at the moment. These concerns are real and deserve attention. I have been exasperated, though, that some critics make it sound as though people are being hauled from their homes and euthanized. Guidelines do exist regarding MAID and individuals do have the right to choose. 

Recently The Fifth Estate looked at a situation in which a young man who had lost his sight was going to choose MAID until his caring family intervened. The same episode also explored several disturbing incidents in which veterans were told that MAID might be an option for their mental health issues. As far as we know, none of them followed through and it was one Department of Veterans Affairs employee who was the culprit. There was so little balance in this episode and while we need to know about the shortcomings of the system as it exists, to me it was sensationalized by what wasn't said.  

Last month an involved and respected member of our congregation chose MAID after living with cancer for several years. She wasn't going to get  better and she decided she'd had enough. She had the support of her loving husband of more than fifty years and her family. The husband gave permission for our minister to speak about what had unfolded on a Sunday morning. 

When we had our study group on the subject of Medical Assistance in Dying we explored the real concerns and we spent a session on Hospice and Palliative Care. We prayerfully put our discussion in the context of our relationship with the God of Justice and the God of Mercy. I hope the United Church can follow through on advocacy in the next year.

Thursday, February 02, 2023

Candlemas Hope

for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.

                              Luke 2: 30-32 NRSVue

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

 This is an important day in the life of our family because it is the birthday of our wonderful daughter, Jocelyn. We playfully connected her birthday with Groundhog Day when she was young and we gave her a plush toy groundhog. 

This is also Candlemas, a Christian feast day that certainly isn't one of the "biggies" and as Protestants we aren't known for marking many of the lesser traditional days. I first heard about it when I served an outport pastoral charge in Newfoundland more than 40 years ago and the person repeated the weather-related rhyme -- is this where Groundhog Day originated?

 In other times this was a day when the faithful would bring candles to be blessed at their local church for use during the rest of the year. 

As Diana Butler Bass reminds us, Candlemas also commemorates Joseph and Mary bringing the infant  Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth. In the temple they encounter the elderly, blind prophet, Simeon, who makes the declaration we read in the verses above.

Candlemas is more than a traditional curiosity for me this year. It seems that humanity is stumbling around in the dark these days, on so many fronts. Recently a group of scientists set the symbolic Doomsday Clock at 90 seconds before midnight, the closest ever to existential disaster.

 According to their press release: 

The Doomsday Clock was set at 90 seconds to midnight, due largely but not exclusively to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the increased risk of nuclear escalation. The new Clock time was also influenced by continuing threats posed by the climate crisis and the breakdown of global norms and institutions needed to mitigate risks associated with advancing technologies and biological threats such as COVID-19.

It is a challenge to focus on the light in the midst of what seems to be overwhelming gloom, yet we are the people of Christ. We may not literally light a candle today, although it might be a meaningful act of hope in such unsettling times. I'm not willing to give up on Christ's promise for a redeemed world. 

In a reflection she titles Candlelit Faith, Butler Bass offers this encouragement, making reference to the gospel reading for this coming Sunday from the Sermon on the Mount. 

The long weeks of winter candle festivals — from Advent to Christmas through Epiphany — end with us bearing light into the world. In a way, it all began so passively. Waiting for God to act, to birth peace and justice in the world. God did something for us, gave us a gift of life and light.

And the cycle concludes with a remarkable admonition — words that millions of Christians will hear next Sunday: You are the light of the world.

Yes, God created the light. Jesus is light in the darkness. And yet we — fragile and flawed human beings — are the light of the world. Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others.”

We wake up the earth. We are birthing new life. We’ve journeyed from waiting to receiving to following to joining the great procession of love and justice in and through the world.

We are the light.

 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

                                Matthew 5:14-16 NRSVue

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

COVID and Unnecessary Loss of Life


During the past nearly three years  50,000 Canadians have died of the COVID19 pandemic. A disproportinate number are the elderly, particularly those living in long-term care facilities. We failed our elders as a society and we still are.  

Sadly, thousands have died because they have failed themselves through another virus of misinformationWe heard a few days ago that a report by the Council of Canadian Academies has identified at least 2,800 Canadian lives lost to COVID19 because they believed the lies of conspiracy theorists and those who opposed vaccinations In addition, tens of thousands hospitalizations could have been prevented and $300 million in hospital costs might have been saved. How many people with other illnesses died beause they couldn't receive adequate care or surgeries during that time? 

We know that misinformation was also spewed by some religious leaders, mostly conservative Christians, who had wacky notions that Jesus was going to deliver the faithful from this illness which was often fatal before vaccines were developed. Lots of the protesters who were part of the occupation of Ottawa a year ago were right-wing Christians. 

Locally, a prominent and respected businessman died in 2021 with the probable cause being COVID, although this was never acknowledged. His family had connections with the evangelical community and the word was that he chose to go unvaccinated. He was loved by his family and friends and the loss seems senseless to me.  

The irony is that in the 1950s many religious leaders promoted the polio vaccine as a gift from God, although there was also opposition.

I'm grateful that religious communities of many backgrounds, including the United Church,  supported science over superstition. 

Dr. Francis Collins, a scientist who headed the Human Genome Project in the United States and who was awarded the Presidential Medal for Freedom is also is an evangelical Christian.  He admits that he is puzzled by the attitude that if you take the COVID vaccine, it means you don’t trust God. He has offered that “This is like God just answered your prayer. It’s a gift. But you have to unwrap it, which means you’ve got to roll up your sleeve.”


                     Elvis gets his polio vaccine before appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Religion and the Repression of Women


                                                                      illustration from Wired 

Sometimes I regret that I don't believe in Hell as a place of eternal torment because there are people who I would gladly consign there. And even if I did, I doubt I would be given the role of judge by the God of justice and mercy. Who would I send to Hell? A lot of religious people, mainly men, from a variety of religious traditions. They are the ones who have convinced themselves and others that their religious convictions give them permission to control the lives of women because the deity or deities has given them this right. 

I see this in the United States where male legislators who often claim to be Christians have passed dreadful laws regarding the reproductive rights of women based on bad theology and even worse science. We've  also seen images from the fundamentalist Christian sects where women are required to dress as though they lived in the 19th century, often with heads covered,  while men wear current clothing.  

I am appalled by what is currently unfolding in Afghanistan where the Islamicist Taliban are crushing the rights of women in every sphere of life. No girls or women are allowed to attend school and they can't leave their homes without accompaniment by a man. Women who provided leadership in the country before the return of the Dark Ages are in exile or are being assassinated. Now Afghans are dying of the cold and starvation because women who are workers in foreign aid agencies aren't allowed to fulfill their roles. 

Now we're told that the Iranian government is using facial recognition with women who aren't "modest" enough in fulfilling draconian quasi-religious laws regarding wearing the hijab.  

This is evil, plain and simple. Religion is not meant to be a blunt tool for repression. Should we be surprised that so many people have been turned off religion when all of this is done in God's name, whatever name is used? It is essential that we identify these regressive practices in any and all religions, decry them, and pray for change. 

Under the Taliban, the mannequins in women’s dress shops across the Afghan capital of Kabul are a haunting sight, their heads cloaked in cloth sacks or wrapped in black plastic bags.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Pope Francis & the "Crime" of Being LGBTQ2S+

 Does it matter to you that Pope Francis says that being an LGBTQ2S+ person in not a crime? Lots of people, including three Roman Catholic theologians and advocates for the LGBTQ community claimed it is on CBC Radio a few days ago. Father James Martin, who has taken a lot of heat for his support of LGBTQ2 persons in recent years pointed out that homosexuality is still a crime punishable by prison sentence and even death in a number of countries. One of them is Russia. He also noted that Roman Catholic bishops in some of those countries vocally support the criminalization and this will challenge their perspectives. So this reflection by the pontiff is important, in Father Martin's estimation. 

“These bishops have to have a process of conversion,” Pope Francis said, adding that they should apply “tenderness, please, as God has for each one of us."

Francis did not say that homosexuality should no longer be considered a sin, although he has attempted to clarify by saying that the orientation is not a sin, but the sexual expression is. In other words, it seems to me, if you're gay you have no choice but to be celibate if you want to be a practicing Catholic.  And he certainly didn't suggest that the Roman Catholic church will consider blessing or consecrating same-gender marriages.

 I suppose it's good that Francis says that LGBTQ persons aren't criminals, and that they are loved by God, but it seems that in the view of the RC church they are not like "regular," aka straight folk, and can't expect that will be treated as such.

The panel members reminded listeners that we are all sinners, which is true. But as a heterosexual person my orientation and living as a straight person with the possibility of sexual expression (I'm married and have three adult children) does not exclude me from the rites of any church nor suggest I am a special sort of sinner.

Thirty one years ago I was on the working group for same-gender unions for the United Church General Council in Fredericton, New Brunswick, as we wrestled with these issues. We realized that there was inherent hypocrisy in what was then the UCC position.  How could we say we were accepting without full inclusion, including unions blessed by the denomination? 

Thanks, Pope Francis, but there is still a long way to go toward inclusion.