Finding the Unknown God

(Preached at Ripley-Bervie/Kinloss Pastoral Charge, May 21, 2017)

The 17th chapter of Acts starts with Paul in the city of Thessalonica. For three sabbath days in a row, he goes to the synagogue to argue with the Jews and explain the scriptures in light of Jesus the Messiah.

Some of those who heard were receptive, and became believers.

Some of them became incensed. They went to the house where Paul and Silas were staying. When they didn’t find the two men, they dragged their host Jason and some other believers before the city officials, accusing them of “turning the world upside down” and of proclaiming a king other than the Emperor.

Paul went on to Beroea, where more Jews and devout Greeks listened and receive the Word, but the jealous Jews followed them and incited the crowds against them.

Paul fled again, this time to Athens. He was deeply disturbed to find a city full of idols, and spent his time arguing with anyone who would listen—in the synagogues, in the marketplace, wherever he happened to be.

Athens at that time was noted as a cosmopolitan city where the inhabitants were entranced by the new and improved, but Paul seemed to confuse them. Was he proclaiming a new religion or a new god? Was he drunk? What on earth was he trying to say?

So they grabbed him and brought him to the Areopagus, which could have been either the council of the Areopagus, or the hill itself. Either way, they asked him to explain himself.

He starts off by complimenting his audience. Those idols which so distressed him are evidence of a deeply religious people who are searching. But the altar with an inscription reading “To an unknown god” indicates to him that they’re not really certain what they’re searching for.

Paul then goes on to explain to the Athenians that the God they were searching for was God who created the universe. He explains that the Creator is separate from the creation, and does not need to be served by it. God is not made of gold or silver, God does not live in a temple. All human beings are from one ancestor, and are one people, created in God’s own image and that we are born searching for God.

And Jesus, in the Gospel of John, tells us that God, through the Spirit, is with us always, and simply waits to be recognized.

What a powerful pair of readings for today’s world!

It seems that the entire world has become one big Athens—everything has to be new and improved.

Line up at midnight to get the latest iPhone before everyone else does, because the one you bought six months ago is already obsolete!

Listen to the talk show doctors, who advocate a different weight loss strategy every week.

Throw out last year’s clothes and buy new ones—styles have changed since last Spring, don’t you know?

And of course we’re all waiting anxiously for the next season of America’s Got Talent, because who knows what crazy thing the contestants will do to get noticed?

And yet our society is more religious than ever.

We can pick and choose not only which God to worship, but how to worship that God. Sacrifice or incense? Meditation or dance? Traditional worship service or snake handling and speaking in tongues? Do we throw coloured pigments, or smear foreheads with ashes?

Even the atheists have a form of religious expression, sermonizing against the evils of religious expression.

And many of us are babblers, which my bible helpfully describes as someone who pick up scraps of learning here and there and welds them together into a less-than-coherent whole.

Everywhere, there are the lost, searching for the God they do not know.

I believe the desperate search for the novel, the addiction to the “new and improved” is a symptom of an illness that can have tragic results. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for well-thought-out and -researched change. I enjoy new products, new activities, learning new things.

But I do that all from a base of knowing who and what I am, and knowing in whose image I am made.

When the base isn’t there, that deep down knowledge that we are loved, that we are created in the image of God, that we are only a part of a whole that is much larger than our own selves, the pain and suffering can be deadly.

Today’s world is not the world in which our ancestors lived. In times past, children grew up knowing to which class they belonged, what their employment and income would likely be, what kind of person they would marry. Most people lived and died within a very short radius of where they were born. They followed the religion and traditions of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.

Mobility did happen, but not quickly, and not to many people.

Athens in Paul’s time was more like a modern city than like a village of its own time. People came from everywhere, and they didn’t necessarily follow the paths laid out at their birth. To paraphrase the musical Hamilton, “In Athens you can be a new man,” or woman. Choice was possible, but with choice comes a severing from the roots.

And with the severing from the roots comes a time of fear and dislocation. You wonder how you’re going to survive. You wonder if maybe you should go back to what you were, and when you find that isn’t possible, fear takes hold.

Sometimes the fear wins.

Suicide rates are high amongst those who face changes that they can’t navigate. Seniors faced with the end of their productive years, and unsure of what is to follow, but sure they won’t like it. Queer young people who come out to friends and family, only to find themselves abandoned to a world that views difference with loathing. College students, away from home for the first time in their young lives, caught between the pressure not to waste all that money partying, and the need to kick up their heels and let loose. Aboriginal peoples, longing for a way of life that was stolen from them, and unable to find a place for themselves in a country that still views them as alcoholic, uncouth savages.

There are people everywhere searching for they don’t know what.

So they worship idols. They give thanks to “whoever might be up there,” for the things that go well, and cry for deliverance to whoever is handy when trouble arises.

We live in interesting times.

On the one hand, when the whole order of creation seems to be in flux, some people, like the Jews in Thessalonica and the terrorists and hate-mongers of today, react with jealousy and anger.

But when everything is shifting, then too, we have a chance. Into the cracks of certainty, we can insert the message: There is a God, who is bigger than any evil that can happen. We are all one family, haters and lovers alike, and we are all made in the image of that God. As God loves us, so we are called to love one another. We are not alone.

Like Paul, we will find, if we take that message to the streets, that many will not listen. Some will hate us and persecute us. And some…

Some will listen. Some will find Jesus. Some will come home.

So go, and tell the Good News that God is out there, waiting to be found.

Do not be afraid, for two thousand years have shown us that the message is true and will endure.

You are not alone. You are never alone.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

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The Opposite of Love

(Preached by Ruth Cooke at Melville United Church on November 6, 2016)

If we are to understand Jesus and the message that he brings, I think it is important to understand a little of the world into which he was born and in which he lived his earthly life.

Jesus lived and preached in Palestine at a time that was near the beginnings of the Roman Empire. In 27 BC, Caesar Augustus ascended the throne of Rome and became the first Emperor. During his lifetime, Rome saw an unprecedented forty years of peace, where Rome saw a steady increase in prosperity and peace. The frontiers of the empire were slightly extended, borders became stable, and were properly defended. Improved roads provided better communications channels between outlying provinces and Rome, and new cities in strategic places provided centres for administration.

Augustus died in 14 AD, and his stepson Tiberius succeeded him.

At first, Tiberius continued the policies of Augustus. But in 26 AD, just three years before Luke tells us of John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness, Tiberius for some reason retired to the island of Capri, and ruled from there. Those who opposed this change were put to death, and he came to be known as something of a tyrant.

At that time, the Romans endorsed local rulers from amongst the populace, and these rulers reported to Rome while administering local law. At the time of the birth of Jesus, that ruler was King Herod the Great. Herod was a half-Jew, son of a Greek mother, and distrusted by the people. Not only that, he was a brutal ruler. He imposed very high taxes, and used some of that money to install a golden eagle (which was the symbol of Rome) over the temple in Jerusalem.

Jews considered this to be idolatry, and when Herod fell ill, two popular Jewish teachers and their students removed the eagle. Herod ordered them all to be burned alive.

Herod died in 4 BC, and three of his sons inherited a divided kingdom.

Of the three, Phillip, tetrarch of the Golan heights, proved to be the most able. He was fairly popular with the people, who included mostly Romans, Greeks, Syrians and Arabians and not many Jews. He was the only one to keep his rule until death.

His half-brothers Archalaeus and Herod Antipas were different.

Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, was criticized by John the Baptist for marrying his sister-in-law Herodias, who was also his niece, and had him beheaded for it.

Herodias wanted her husband to be a king, and started plotting. As a result, Herod was exiled to Lyon in the province of Gaul.

Archalaeus was ethnrarch of Samaria and Judea, which included both Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Archalaeus inherited the mess in Jerusalem. An angry crowd demanded that those responsible for the deaths of the two Jewish leaders and their students be punished. In answer, Archalaeus sent soldiers into the temple during Passover and slaughtered some three thousand worshippers.

Then he went to Rome to be crowned. Fresh riots broke out while he was away. In response, he crucified another two thousand people.

Archalaeus ruled so badly that he too was banished, to Vienne in Gaul.

It was in this conflicted and hostile world that Jesus began his ministry.

In the Jewish community, there were four different groups, each with a different way of dealing with the brutality of Roman rule.

There were the Zealots, who were revolutionaries advocating armed resistance and rebellion.

There were the Sadduccees, wealthy lay persons who took a pragmatic approach and advocated accommodation. As those at the top of the pecking order, they were more concerned with present day comforts than with what would happen after death.

There were the Pharisees, idealists who sought to live a life of spiritual purity by following the laws of Moses in every respect.

And there were the Essenes, who withdrew from society, often to a monastic like setting. John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness and ate locusts and wild honey, was a type of Essene.

Fast forward to 2016:

Right now, the world is polarized. The US election has all of our attention these days, but the conflicts and problems that are at the centre of the debates are not of Hillary or Donald’s making.

The refugee crisis brought about by the instability of the Arab world and the extreme poverty in Africa.

Unemployment and low wages in North America that are coupled with crippling shelter costs.

And of course, the rapid changes that started in the sixties with desegregation and women’s rights continue with technological breakthroughs that have made global communication instant and personal privacy non-existent.

And we are responding in the same ways as the Jews of Jesus’ time.

The Zealots still advocate armed rebellion. Recently, police officers have been shot while simply sitting in their squad cars. Citizens with guns commit mass murders against groups of people perceived as “the enemy.”

Sadducees still advocate cooperation and accommodation. Life isn’t perfect, but with a little elbow grease, anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If you’re not wealthy, it’s your fault, because if the son of a Kenyan goat-herder can become president of the United States, than anyone can!

Pharisees still seek spiritual purity by following laws written down thousands of years ago for people who led a long-extinct way of life. Oh, they’ve been adapted, and some have been discarded, most notably those that the Pharisees don’t want to follow. Can’t have your eggs without your bacon, can you?

And of course, the world will always have its Essenes. Turn off the television, don’t read the paper, and hide your head under a pillow. Or read Lord of the Rings for the fiftieth time, or play Minecraft on your computer until your fingers fall off. Buy twenty acres in the country and grow your own organic vegetables and raise your own free-range chickens and home-school your children. Hide in your basement and hope that the world will go away while you’re down there.

And if you haven’t guessed, I have a more than slight tendency to be an Essene. Unless I’m really upset, and my inner Zealot goes on a rampage.

We react in these predictable range because change causes fear. We can’t plan ahead, we can’t predict what will happen.

Terry Pratchett, a writer of humorous fantasy, says in his novel Feet of Clay that what people want, more than prosperity or fortune or health or anything else, is stability. We want to wake up in the morning fairly confident that today will be pretty much like yesterday. Because then we feel in charge. We know what to do and how to act.

And when we are confronted by change, when we don’t know which way is up anymore, we start to feel afraid.

And fear casts out love. It becomes every person for herself.

And things get worse. People respond to the change by rioting, or by building walls between themselves and the world. And those on the other side respond, not by changing the rules or their behaviour to make things better, but with violence of their own, because they now feel fear, and seek to maintain their own position.

And along comes Jesus, who tells us, “Do not fear.”

To the Zealots amongst us he says, “Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you.”

To the Sadducees he says, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. Give to everyone who begs from you. Lend, expecting nothing in return.”

To the Pharisees he says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

To the Essenes he says, “You cannot make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?”

Jesus advocates humility, courage, engagement with the world, and radical, self-giving love to counter the fear that comes with change.

It’s not beyond our capacity as human beings to do what Jesus asks.

During the time when slavery was legal in the United States, many loving and courageous people helped slaves to escape. Some gave up their freedom, and some even lost their lives to aid in the cause of freedom.

During World War II, Schindler and many untold others risked everything to help Jews escape the death camps.

In the face of increasing hostility towards refugees, especially Muslim refugees, some people have responded by taking a leadership role in welcoming them to Canada.

Down through the years, many have spoken up to change unjust laws and customs. Women can now vote, gay men and women can now marry, children with disabilities are now given an education and flourish within their families, rather than being hidden away in institutions.

Truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa and Canada have helped oppressors and oppressed heal.

Many, many people give freely of their abundance to the Mission and Service Fund, food banks, and many other fine organizations that seek to aid the disadvantaged in their struggle to improve their nutrition, health, education and overall quality of life.

Fear can, if we let it, overwhelm our being and cause us to act in ways that are hurtful to ourselves, to fellow human beings, and to the universe itself.

Love can cast out that fear, and help us create new paths that lead to healing and joy for all.

Amen.

Zero To One: A New Wineskin

(Preached at Melville United Church, August 28, 2016)

I was born in August of 1960.

The world was changing. The United States elected its first Catholic president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Smoking was linked to heart disease in middle-aged men. Xerox introduced the first commercial document reproduction machine. And despite their astronomical price of $219.95 for a 23-inch black and white television, there were over one hundred million sets in use world wide. The FDA approved “The Pill.”

In other ways, the year 1960 was much like the years and decades before it.

65 out of 100 children lived in a family with their biological, married parents, where mom stayed home and dad worked. Only one child in 350 lived with a single, never-married mother.

80 percent of Americans thought that people who wanted to be single were “sick” or “neurotic” or even “immoral.” Only 28 percent of the adult population was single—divorced, widowed or never-married. Gay men and lesbians were not only sick and neurotic and definitely immoral, but criminals as well, according to the laws of the time.

Almost everyone went to church on Sunday, and stores and entertainment venues were closed.

The FDA may have approved the pill, but it wasn’t legal or available to single women.

The average cost of a new house in 1960 was $12,700. A man in manufacturing in Canada could expect to earn $1.98 per hour. A salaried worker on average earned $116.41 per week. Given a forty-hour work week for that manufacturing worker, the average house cost just over three years’ worth of wages. A worker would earn the equivalent of about ten loaves of bread per hour, and it would take him over one hundred hours to earn the cost of that television set.

Back then, a moderately-priced computer cost about one million dollars and took up several rooms. Those are 1960 dollars, unadjusted for inflation by the way. Only government agencies, universities, and large corporations could afford a computer, and they rented out time on it to smaller entities by the hour, charging thousands of dollars a day.

It’s now 2016, of course, and the world has changed.

The average wage of someone working in manufacturing is now $21.06 per hour, according to Statistics Canada. Interestingly enough, if that worker buys the store brand of bread, he or she is still earning approximately ten loaves of bread per hour. Despite moaning and groaning to the contrary, food and wages seem to have kept pace with one another.

As for technology: that 23” black and white television has become a quite modest Insignia 32” 720 pixel High Definition LED Smart TV, only two hundred and nineteen dollars and ninety-nine cents, on sale this week, only at Best Buy! Instead of over one hundred hours, it now takes the worker a little shy of ten hours to earn wages equivalent to the price of a decent television. And my Moto G cell phone, which I got for free when I signed up with Wind Mobile, has more computing power than that one million dollar gigantosaurus from 1960.

It’s not all good news, though. This week I looked up the average price of a house in Guelph. A modest house is now selling for about four hundred thousand dollars.

In wage terms, that’s about ten times a full-time manufacturing salary. But it’s obvious from the Stats Can data that a lot of workers are not working at full time permanent jobs, even in manufacturing. The average yearly salary is just over 30 thousand dollars, which is about 75% of a full time salary. Which makes a house worth more than thirteen times the yearly salary of a manufacturing worker.

In 2016, only 22 percent of children are living in homes with a mom and a dad where mom stays home and dad works. Another 22 percent live with single moms, and half of those moms have never been married.

Single adults are no longer seen as sick or immoral, and comprise about 44 percent of the adult population. It’s no longer illegal to be homosexual, and transgendered people are slowly making headway with respect to human rights.

Most people don’t go to church on Sunday. Stores and entertainment venues are open not only on Sunday, but sometimes 24/7. Even most banks are now open Saturdays.

Not that anyone uses a teller anymore. A worker is often paid electronically, pays the bills electronically, and pays for purchases electronically. In today’s world, you can be broke and get rich and go broke again, all without ever handling a single piece of cash money!

The world has changed. The reality that my children inhabit is vastly different from the one that I encountered as a young adult, and even more different from the one that many of you encountered when you were their age.

They meet their mates online, even if they’re old high-school friends. They play games online, get their news and weather and sports information online, they shop online and very often work online (and from home).

Most of our young women now attend college or university, and over 50 percent of university graduates are now women. A high school diploma is a necessity if you want to work at Linamar, or even get promoted to a junior management position at McDonald’s.

With student debt skyrocketing, and house prices soaring, fewer young people are able even to dream of owning their own home. Not that it’s always practical anyway—our society is much more mobile that it was, with the average person moving about every five years.

Everything seems to have changed…

Or has it?

Growing up in the 1960s and 70s in the United Church, I remember a little bit about the services. There was an opening call to worship, and some prayers, and three or four hymns, and two or three scripture readings, and a sermon, and the offering, and an anthem, and a prelude and a postlude. Sunday morning, ten-thirty to eleven-thirty, in the same building. Everyone sat in the same pew they sat in the Sunday before. Kids went off to Sunday School.

The hymns have changed, and we’ve changed the words to the prayers, and our theology has evolved. Most churches now don’t have the children go off to Sunday School right at the start of the service, but have them stay for a short while. We’ve added a children’s time.

But we still gather every Sunday morning, often in the same buildings we were meeting in then. We still have prayers, sing hymns, listen to the sermon, put money on the plate. And in most mainline churches, the people in the pews are the ones who were there ten and twenty and thirty and even forty or more years ago. We’re just older.

And we wonder why, with “all these changes,” our children and grandchildren aren’t coming to church. Where are all the young adults? We need them—to fill our pews and help us feel less alone, to bring their kids to our Sunday Schools, to put their money in the offering plate, to learn and perpetuate the values and traditions we hold so dear.

I was introduced a couple of weeks ago to the concept of “zero to one.” It’s a way of talking about innovation. Ordinary innovations are most often of the form “one to n,” which in commercial terms means it’s “new and improved.” We add features, or tweak existing features slightly in order to improve a current product.

Think of your basic kitchen stove. When I was a kid, our stove had four burners on top, and an oven on the bottom with two elements. If we wanted to broil, only the top element came on, and if we wanted to bake, they both came on.

Today’s kitchen stoves are substantially the same, with a few tweaks. They’ve got digital clocks and timers so that dinner will start cooking when you want it to start cooking. You no longer have to guess whether or not the oven is up to temperature—the sensor beeps when it’s finished preheating. Some stoves have flat glass cooktops instead of those spiral electric burners most of us are used to.

That’s the “one to n” concept—adding to and improving a current product.

Zero to one happened for cooking with the advent of the microwave oven. The only thing my microwave has in common with my stove is a clock, a timer, and an electric plug. It uses the electricity to heat the food directly, instead of heating up the whole oven beforehand and cooking indirectly. As a result, it’s much faster.

It’s not a replacement for my stove. There are things my stove does well that my microwave doesn’t (like produce a luscious roast of beef or a wonderful peach pie), but there are things that my microwave does much better than my stove. For example, I can cook oatmeal, NOT the quick kind but the large flake, yummy kind in large batches in ten or more minutes on my stove, or I can put 1/3 of a cup of oats and 2/3 of a cup of water in a bowl and microwave it for three minutes, and it never burns.

In the church, we’ve been concentrating for nearly forty years on changing our services to hopefully bring in more young people. We’ve changed the music, we’ve changed the theology, we’ve experimented with different Sunday School curricula. What we haven’t done is changed the basic structure. We’re trying to appeal to millennials with a wineskin that appeals to their grandparents. And they’re mostly not buying it. The new wine, the spirit that is contained in our young people, is pouring out of and away from our old wineskins.

We need to ask ourselves why, in an era where the average working family is in debt up to their eyeballs and may never be able to afford a house, why are we asking those folks to contribute to the upkeep of buildings that are locked up most of the week? Why are we asking them to commit an hour or two of their precious spare time every single Sunday morning when many of them are working two or more jobs, often with irregular and unpredictable schedules?

Don’t get me wrong. We do need the church as it is. We need it because the fastest growing age group in Canada is the over-80 age group, and those who have tasted old wine prefer it to new, and are better fed by it. We need it because some of our young people have tasted the old wine and find they prefer it.

But I believe we need a new expression of church as well, one that can hold the new wine that is the spirit bubbling through our 20- and 30-year olds.

How will it look, this new wineskin?

I don’t know, but I have some ideas. With real estate currently priced at record high levels, and with it trending steeply upwards rather than down (I just read that in the first six months of 2016, the house prices in Guelph are up ten percent over last year), more church congregations will be landless. Many may not even meet physically more than three or four times a year. An active internet presence, with blogs, Facebook, Twitter and whatever comes next will be a big part of their ministry.

And I believe they will teach that personal spiritual practices, personal scripture reading, and personal reflection are more important than weekly bible studies and participation in church-run programs.

This last was brought home to me when I was reading an article about Willow Creek Church yesterday. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the mega-church to end all mega-churches, with eight different locations. It’s basically a denomination in its own right. The mega-church model is one that requires intense participation—in addition to the “celebration services” every Sunday, each member belongs to one or more small groups that meets weekly.

The leadership team of Willow Creek conducted a qualitative study, which means they were asking not about how many people were participating, but about whether the activities in which they were participating were helping them grow spiritually.

And they found, to their surprise and dismay, that participating in lots of church-run programs did not predict whether someone was progressing spiritually, or whether they were becoming more of a disciple of Christ, or whether they loved God or people more.

Bill Hybels, Willow Creek’s founding pastor, summarized the findings this way:

Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back, it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.

Hybels confesses:

We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.

In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.

That’s actually really good news. I know a fair number of young people, and one thing that stands out to me about that generation is their passion for self-development, and having seen how computer technology has been used to transform education and gaming and shopping and banking and just about every other aspect of life, I can see how it might be used to help our young people develop as Christians.

When Jesus talked about new wine and new wineskins two thousand years ago, the Jewish culture was transitioning from temple to synagogue. Jesus preached on hillsides and plains, and asked no-one to sacrifice any animals. He did not follow all of the strict Jewish traditions around what one ate and when and where and with whom. He reached out to outcasts who would be turned away from even the most progressive synagogue. He was pouring new wine, one that was for everyone and not just a chosen people, and it needed a new wineskin. And so the Christian church was born.

A few hundred years later, Constantine wanted to unite an empire of disparate peoples, and he did that by embracing a faith that was for everyone, and not just a chosen few. The church transitioned once again, from being on the fringes of society to being the glue that held society together. The Roman Catholic church was born.

When the printing press was invented, and literacy rates in Europe soared, the church changed yet again to accommodate those who could and did read scripture for themselves. The Protestant Reformation was born.

And now, we find ourselves in the digital age, with a world that is beyond the imagination of the dreamers of the past. The church as we know it will transform yet again, but the faith of our ancestors, transmitted to us through the ages, is as alive and vibrant and new as ever. Amen.