Thursday, June 17, 2021

Smellfungus and the Sermon on the Mount

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

                                   Matthew 7:1-5 NRSV

During our Trenton United Church study group on the Sermon on the Mount using Amy-Jill Levine's excellent book of the same name we received many of her insights into verses and passages we may have read for a lifetime. One was regarding Jesus' often misunderstood teaching on not judging others. This has always seemed both hopeful and baffling, at least to me. We make judgments every day which are necessary, everything from entering an intersection while driving to weighing moral circumstances which are choices between good and evil. It would be naive to suggest that we can live without elements of judgment.

Levine suggests that Jesus is speaking about the fault-finding which can be so destructive, including in communities of faith. I thought about all this again when I came upon a word I'd never heard before which is "smellfungus." 

It was coined in the 18th century by author Laurence Sterne, a poet and author. A smellfungus is a person who grumbles and complains and finds fault in others. This is a brilliant word and seems to sum up the worst of judgmentalism, as opposed to the sound judgment we all need to practice. 

I was blessed during my decades of ministry to meet and work with hundreds of fine Christians who lived the gospel of Jesus Christ in ways that inspired me. This is my lasting memory of congregational life. 

I also had to deal with individuals and "clatches" of people whose surname should have been changed to Smellfungus. Too often their pernicious grumbling and fault-finding undermined the well-being of congregations and quenched the spirit of life together as the body of Christ. At times it sapped me of energy for leadership and sadly some left congregations because of the nastiness of the complainers. 

It wouldn't be a good idea to find fault with Jesus, all considered, but it would have been helpful if he had offered an over the counter topical smellfungus treatment which might be daubed on lips rather than feet. I would have purchased it in bulk. Perhaps that would be too great a miracle to expect!

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Weaponizing the Eucharist?

                                                          Last Supper Paulo Medina

Come to Christ’s table not because you must, but because you may.

Come not because you are fulfilled, but because in your emptiness

you stand in need of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and assurance.

Come not to express an opinion 

 but to seek Christ’s presence and receive the Holy Spirit.

Come to this table, then, sisters and brothers, as you are. 

I                            Invitation to the Communion Table

 Today Roman Catholic bishops in the United States gather, the beginning of three days of virtual meetings. The theologically conservative bishops have included an agenda item which can't possibly receive the support needed to make it policy but is contentious, just the same. The goal is to deny communion to politicians supportive of abortion rights — including President Joe Biden.  No matter that Biden a faithful churchgoer and the first Roman Catholic to occupy the Oval Office in 60 years. There is a group of bishops and other clerics in the US who are obsessed with abortion and supported the execrable Emperor Trump, a  man who violated virtually every notion of decency and was thrice married (an RC no-no) because he was supposedly anti-abortion. Biden has the temerity to separate church and state and to respect the reproductive choices and rights of women, regardless of his own convictions.

I wrote about this before but there has been an intriguing development. The Vatican and Pope Francis has pointedly directed the bishops not to pursue this wrong-headed censure of the president. According to a New York Times report: 

“The concern in the Vatican,” said Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest and close ally of Francis “is not to use access to the Eucharist as a political weapon.” Pope Francis, who has explicitly identified the United States as the source of opposition to his pontificate, preached this month that communion “is not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners.” His top doctrinal official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, wrote a letter to the American bishops, warning them that the vote could “become a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger church in the United States.”

I appreciate that phrase communion "is not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners."  I do wonder whether the fixation on abortion and the "right to life" is part of the denial of the appalling secrecy around sexual abuse by priests in the United States and around the world. Untold thousands had their right to a full and meaningful life compromised by these predators, and they had no choice. There is also the undertone of misogyny amongst some conservative Roman Catholic leaders which is disturbing. 

I'm glad the Vatican is emphasizing healthy theological and sacramental practice rather than the manipulative tactics of what we can pray is an unsuccessful minority. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

A Baptismal Swim


                                         Depot Lakes Swimming Spot -June 13 2021 photo: Ruth Mundy

It's likely that next Sunday we'll return to in-person worship, either outdoors or indoors. This is good news, although virtual worship means that we can "go in church" at our convenience. This past Sunday we took advantage of an excellent forecast, including low wind speeds, to take our kayaks to Depot Lakes Conservation Area, a gem north of Kingston with one lake allowing camping on its islands and shores. 

We wanted to paddle, which we were able to do with virtually no other boats on the lake. We also stopped at a vacant campsite (they were nearly all without campers) where we had our lunch and the first swim of the season. With all the hot weather of recent weeks the water was refreshing but not cold. There is something wonderfully Canadian about swimming in a lake with pine trees and granite in view. 

I was grateful to the Creator as I called out "baptism!" to Ruth. There was a sense of the holy in our swim and it caused me to ponder Baptism, which is one of our two Protestant sacraments. Along the way many denominations lost much of the sense of the immersive, sensory experience which was Jesus' model for us. For too long we were virtually hydrophobic when it came to the use of water in baptism, although in the past forty years clergy have been encouraged to be more liberal in its use.

And of course most creatures are able to swim and even delight in water.  This year we've seen an otter and beaver at this Depot Lake, at well as minks and muskrats. At our home we watch the robins and blue jays frolic in the bird baths of our back yard. 

It's wonderful that we have a sacrament which connects us with Christ, with one another, and with all living things. Let the baptismal swims commence!

Monday, June 14, 2021

Our Leaders and Anti-Muslim Laws

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks from the podium at a vigil for the victims of the deadly vehicle attack on five members of the Canadian Muslim community in London, Ontario, on June 8, 2021.NICOLE OSBORNE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The Farmers Market is open in downtown Belleville, so we stopped by on Saturday morning for a few items. We purchased some delicious Syrian food from one of the families who came to our community in 2015 and 2016 as refugees. Most of those newcomers have done remarkably well, and while this family was not part of the 23 extended family members our sponsoring group brought to Canada, we have spoken with them regularly through the years. They are warm and enterprising and very impressive.

On Saturday it was mother and father and two of their older children at the stall, Bother mother and daughter were wearing the hijab, a head-covering common for women who are Muslims. When they first arrived the daughter was not expected to do so because she was a child but she's now regarded as a young woman. My mind went to the tragic murder of a Muslim family in London the week before, killed by a man who had never met them but randomly killed them because of their religion, the colour of their skin, and their dress. 

Later I read a Globe and Mail newspaper opinion piece by Robyn Urback who bluntly decried politicians who have expressed horror at this hate crime yet allow one province -- Quebec -- to pass legislation which is essentially religious discrimination against Muslims: 

How does one reach the level of shamelessness to at once pledge that the government will do everything in its power to combat discrimination and Islamophobia in Canada, and then, moments later, shrug off questions about Ottawa’s indifference to a patently discriminatory provincial law that prohibits those who wear religious symbols from working certain jobs?...

Surely it was not lost on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the same symbols that ostensibly made the Afzaal family a target for the man now charged with their murders and attempted murder in London, Ont., would have also made them ineligible for certain jobs in Quebec. Indeed, 15-year-old Yumna could’ve grown up to be almost anything she wanted in Canada – except for a teacher in one of Quebec’s French language boards, if she had chosen to wear a hijab. 

Bill 21 is quite clearly legislated discrimination, and it would almost certainly be in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms had Premier Fran├žois Legault not pre-emptively equipped it with the notwithstanding clause when he tabled it years ago... 

“To the Muslim community in London and to Muslims across the country, know that we stand with you,” Mr. Trudeau said on Twitter a day after the London attack. If he was being honest, he would have added: “unless you live in Quebec.”

Urback's observations are so accurate, in my opinion, and should be widely shared. 

I have written before about listening to women Muslim scholars who are convinced that the hijab and the burka are cultural rather than religious requirements, and that Muslim women should not feel obligated to wear them. I feel mildly uneasy when I see women in these garments, with a sense that this is a form of oppression, yet I realize that many Muslim women wear them by choice as a sign of religious devotion. 

I grew up in an era when most women wore hats to church and it was required in many denominations. Some Roman Catholic nuns still wear a wimple. There certainly wasn't and isn't the sort of discrimination and contempt in these circumstances as is directed toward Muslim women. 

What I know is that it is not my right to impose my cultural and religious values on others, nor to discriminate and restrict freedom of religious choices. And I have no time for those who intimidate or humiliate or do violence against women because of what they wear. 

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Grape Island & the Methodist Legacy

                                              Rice Bed at Grape Island -- photo: Ruth Mundy

 After a poor night's sleep on my part this had the potential to be a do-nothing day. Then Ruth proposed that we tie on the kayaks and head over to Big Island off Prince Edward County and do some exploring in the Bay of Quinte. That's what we did on what proved to be a calm and quiet morning on the Bay. We ended up paddling across to Grape Island which was the site of a Methodist Mission 200 years ago, sponsored by Bridge St. Church, the final congregation I served before retirement. Today it is owned by a single family but back then there were more than 200 Mississauga Ojibwe people who were established on the island to be taught agriculture, and to read and write. The experiment didn't last long and the residents left to become part of what is now the Alderville First Nation near Rice Lake. 

We have paddled to Grape Island by canoe and kayaks  before and I've written about the experiences, including during Bridge St.'s 200th anniversary year. The island is not large and once we arrived today we circumnavigated it in less than half an hour. It's hard to imagine 20 people living there, let alone 200+.

                                                            Dave Mowat Alderville First Nation 

During the Bridge St. 200th anniversary Dave Mowat from Alderville, a First Nations historian and conservationist and current chief, took part in a play about the early history of the congregation. I was so impressed by Dave's contribution I invited him to return for to take part in an Anniversary Sunday dialogue.On the Alderville website we find: 

The creation of Upper Canada and its colonization, and later the War of 1812, were events much larger than the Mississauga and other related groups could contain. Eventually, by the 1820’s, they found themselves forced to adapt and during this period a number converted to Christianity, primarily Methodism, from the Bay to the Western end of Lake Ontario. By 1826 the Methodists at the Bay had convinced the Mississauga to take up the development of a mission and attempts were made at teaching the people a new agrarian economy. On tiny Grape Island, the people learned to read, write, and to worship in a different manner, becoming a major target group of the early assimilation policies of Canadian church and state.

This morning at Grape Island was magical in many respects. Blue herons and ospreys flew from the island and a beaver scurried into the water and swam near our kayaks. There are magnificent trees, including huge cottonwoods. We paddled through a bed of wild rice, a probable food source for the residents 200 years ago. 

It was also sobering to be there in light of the grim news about the discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at a residential school n Kamloops BC recently. Upon our return I read that another 100 graves have been discovered near a residential school in Manitoba. As we sat on the water Ruth wondered aloud whether there are graves of those who may have died while living on Grape Island. I said a prayer, repenting of what the church has done, supposedly in God's name. I hope our contrition as a nation and as Christian denominations will result in an honest reckoning and action. 

Friday, June 11, 2021

The G7, Vaccines, & Loving Our Neighbours

 Some of the drama of the meeting of the Group of Seven leaders of wealthy nations in Cornwall, England, has been diminished because the emperor-wannabe, Donald Trump, has been consigned to the scrap heap of history (we hope.) He won't have Justin to dis anymore and President Biden actually cares about forming meaningful alliances and showing respect to global partners. 

There are a number of important agenda items for this in-person meeting, including addressing climate change. There will also be discussion of how these nations will support the process of procuring and administering vaccines in countries other than their own, particularly those which are developing nations with limited financial resources. The United States took the lead in pledging 500 million doses of vaccine, Great Britain followed with 100 million, and today Canada also pledged 100 million. These are significant promises on the way to making a billion doses available, although that represents only a portion of those who will need to be vaccinated.


                                                                           World Leaders Can't Count

There has been an ongoing discussion of the ethical role of wealthier countries providing or not providing  vaccination support for other countries. Canada has not been a leader in this regard and actually been criticized for a "me first" outlook on vaccination roll-out. It's good that ethicists, including Francoise Baylis, a member of my congregation in Halifax, have been vocal in calling our government to provide the necessary leadership on the world stage. 

Canada is now at the top of the class globally in terms of first doses for our own citizens. Many of us who had accepted that we might not get that first jab until this month are impatient to get a second. At the same time we can ask what it means to "love our neighbour as ourselves." When Jesus offered this as part of his response to a question about the greatest commandment he was asked a subsequent question: "who is my neighbour?" According to Luke's gospel he went on to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan.

We have the capability to be good neighbours and Good Samaritans in terms of vaccine equality on a global scale.

Let's hope and pray that the G7 countries will make promises that they are committed to keeping.                                                               

Thursday, June 10, 2021

That We May Know Each Other

                                                Hate Has No Home Here Lawn Sign

 The young man who ruthlessly murdered four innocent people in London Ontario recently will be in court today to face charges which may include hate crimes and domestic terrorism. The entire country was shocked by this mass murder of a family which was destroyed because they were Muslim. This was the latest in a string of violent anti-Muslim crimes in Canada, several of which have resulted in the deaths of those going about their everyday lives, including attending worship. 

There was a massive rally of sorrow and support in London on Tuesday, which was heartening. Politicians made the right noises to denounce anti-Muslim sentiments, including some who voted against a motion condemning Islamophobia in Parliament a couple of years ago. How is that for moxy? And Premier Ford was there, the man who had tried to push through creating a university from a fundamentalist Christian college, which touts homophobia and Islamophobia as gospel. 

I figure that the majority of Canadians are not really Islamophobic in any extreme sense. Yet a disturbing number feel okay with being disrespectful and just plain ignorant about those who worship differently than they do, if they actually worship at all. 

We have friendly neighbours with whom we get along well, and we do our best to be mutually supportive. Not long ago she saw Ruth at a task outside and came over to help. They spoke about grandkids being schooled from home and somehow her conversation shifted to religion. To Ruth's surprise there was a "those people" comment, as in "those people come here and we can't have the Lord's Prayer in schools anymore." To Ruth's credit she offered in her calm way that this isn't how she feels. It's curious because we've never seen these neighbours head out to church on Sunday mornings in the eight years we've lived here. What is this really about? 

This is the sort of outlook which is casually expressed by those who feel entitled to do so about those with different coloured skin and different religions, even when "those people" may have lived in Canada for generations. In the case of Indigenous peoples,  they resided here for thousands of years before settlers arrived, people who lied about the allegedly peaceful  and mutual relationships they wanted to establish. Maybe those of us who are White need to get our stories straight. 

What happened in London is an extreme example of hatred, yet we need to consider what lies beneath the surface in terms of prejudice and dislike, even if the majority would never resort to violence. People have also claimed that "this is not our London" and these words have been spoken with sincerity. Yet a family out for a walk on a lovely evening in a city with approximately 30,000 Muslims was struck down. 

I think it's time for Christian congregations to revisit documents such as the United Church study program called That We May Know Each Other: United Church Muslim Relations Today from 2006. We can examine our own consciences and actions and ask how we might better exhibit the love of Christ for all. Should we all find one of those lawn signs as well?