Sunday, February 12, 2006

Sun, February 12, 2006 - Exclusion and Inclusion in God's Name

2 Kings 5:-14
Psalm 30
1 Cor 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

When it comes to religion, humankind has, for the most part, used it well. We have allowed religion to support us through difficult times, to spur us to great acts of love and sacrifice, to give us meaning and hope in times of despair. I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe in the value that religion can bring to the world.

But that's not what I want to talk about this morning. That's not the premise of our Bible passages for this morning. In fact, it's pretty much the opposite. Today we are confronted with the shameful truth that oftentimes humankind has used religion badly. We have used religion to support and encourage racism and all kinds of bigotry and prejudice, we have used it to stir up hatred against others, to make some people's lives worth less so that ours are worth more.

It starts, sadly, with our own Bible. Although these days we highlight Bible passages that talk about God's grace being available to all, and about Jesus touching the untouchables, the truth is that there is a strain in the Bible that is not so inclusive. We see it in the Old Testament, beginning with the exclusion of non-Israelites. Certain stories are written to give us the impression that God does not show mercy or favour or grace to anyone outside of God's chosen people. When the Hebrews leave Egypt, their successful escape is attributed to God sending plagues to torture and kill the Egyptians and using the waters of the Reed Sea to wipe them out and finish the job. As the people of ancient Israel move into Canaan, their victory and complete slaughter of the Canaanites is attributed to God being on their side, and not on the side of the pagans. As the Israelites reel from the destruction of their temple and exile into Babylon, the book of the prophet Ezra attributes it to God's punishment of them for getting involved in mixed marriages and contaminating their "holy seed" with the blood of non-believers.

Using God as an excuse to practice discrimination about who is in God's circle is a definite strain in the New Testament as well. The authors of the Gospel of John filled its pages with holy condemnation for those who aren't Christian - namely, the Jews, and did it in the name of Christ. Paul insults and even vilifies pagans because they don't follow Jesus, and encourages his readers to separate themselves from those whom he thinks fall outside of God's favour. It never occurs to Paul to question the fact that the people he doesn't like and the people God doesn't like always seem to be the same people.

So, we acknowledge that our Bible has exclusionary tendencies and that sometimes people used God as an excuse for their own prejudices and hatred. That's not the problem. They are a part of our religious history, we take them for what they are, and we seek the good in them. The problem comes when we take these mistakes of our past and bring them into the future, into our present. The problem comes when we continue, in this modern age, to use religion to keep people out of God's circle, to justify our turning our backs on them when they need help, to reinforce our subtle biases against those aren't the same as us.

There are a number of examples I could give of Christians, in particular, using the Bible and religion as an excuse to practice hatred. Women have historically, and even today, been told that God has no use for them. Blacks have been kept out of white churches and white families on the premise that God wants it that way. The assault and even murder of gays and lesbians today is tolerated because some people seem them as undeserving of God's grace and even, it would seem, God's gift of life. But the example that's most on my mind these days is the shameful treatment, by people who call themselves Christians, of Muslims.

It's on my mind, of course, because of the recent troubles over insulting cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. While the violence of the last few weeks can never be condoned, what I find particularly appalling is the way Christians have either done nothing or inflamed the situation by reprinting cartoons that offend the faith of others. The fact that all of the countries who have reprinted the cartoons, with the exception of Jordan, are traditionally considered "Christian" countries is telling. And what it tells me is that as Christians, we do not consider Muslims to be either worth our attention and support, or even worse, worth respecting when it comes to matters of religion. What it tells me is that when it comes to Muslims, we believe that God is on our side, and therefore God is not on their side. Like the situation of the Hebrews and the Egyptians, or the Israelites and the Canaanites, or Paul's Christians and the Roman pagans, we seem to have put a religious spin on our own biases and prejudices. We seem to have decided that God is for us, which means God is against them. And so we have acted as all people do who think that God is on their side alone, and we have said, either directly or indirectly, that God is against the Muslims. We use religion to malign them and separate ourselves from them, we rejoice when they suffer, we proclaim that God is favouring us when we achieve victory over them. And we find justification in our religious writings, in our Bible, for doing so.

If we look closely, though, we will find condemnation for our behaviour in the Bible, too. Because as I mentioned in the beginning, our Bible does contain stories and the message that God is a god of grace and inclusion. Two of our readings for today are stories of God acting in ways that are so gracious and inclusive that they were offensive, and even blasphemous, to the people of the time. The first is the story of Na'aman, the commander of the king of Aram. Aram, as I found out when researching this passage, is now known as Syria. And like today, Aram and Israel were not friends, to put it mildly. They were enemies. Which makes the story of Na'aman without parallel. For one thing, the story starts by saying that because of Na'aman, "the Lord had given victory to Aram." Now, if you think about it, that's a really subtle way of saying that Na'aman was victorious in battle against Aram's enemies. And who would those enemies be? Yup, Israel. So the story is set up that a non-Israelites, an anti-Israelite, if you will, falls sick and the only cure is to go and see a prophet of God, a member of the Israelite nation. And God, through the prophet Elisha, heals him. Can you imagine how offensive that would have been to the Isrealites? To hear that God had chosen to heal one of their mortal enemies, a man who was committed to wiping them out, someone who didn't even worship the right god? It's almost unbelievable that God would show favour to one whose life was so outside the circle of whom the Israelites considered acceptable. And yet God did.

And God did it again through Jesus in our Gospel reading. We hear the stories of Jesus touching and healing the lepers so often that it seems completely commonplace, but again, this is another instance of religious blasphemy. Lepers were outside the circle of religiously acceptable company. To touch them was to defile yourself, to make yourself contaminated and unholy. It was a religious offense to come into physical contact with a leper and not to religiously purify yourself. And yet here is Jesus, the Son of God, the most holy of all people in Israel, transgressing those boundaries, stepping outside the acceptable circle, and including in his generous love a man who was completely unworthy of being there.

God has transgressed the boundaries we've set up in God's name again and again throughout history. When we used the Bible to say that women were not holy enough to be included in the circle of God's ordained ministers, God showed us we were wrong, that God's circle was big enough. When we used the Bible to say that blacks weren't holy enough to be included in the circle of God's worshippers, God showed us we were wrong, that God's circle was big enough. So I have to ask: Is it going too far, is it too offensive to say that when we use the Bible to say that Muslims and other non-Christians aren't holy enough to be included in the circle of those whom God favours, that God will show us that we are wrong? That God's circle is more than big enough for them, too?

I don't think so. I don't think it's going too far to say that Muslims, too, are included in the circle of those whom God loves. Because the truth that we proclaim is that there are no limits to God's favour, no boundaries on God's grace. God welcomes everyone into the circle, Christ died for all people. Our Lord welcomes in those who are excluded, and thank God, even welcomes in those who do the excluding. There's no need for us to use the Bible to draw artificial lines between us and them, to say that we are marked for God's grace while they are not. For goodness' sake, it's not like God doesn't have enough grace to go around.

But more than that, there's no need for us to stay silent when others use religion to try and close the circle off, to keep people away from God's mercy. In fact, the Gospel, which proclaims that we - as people who are both excluded and who exclude - are welcomed and loved by God, compels us to speak out when we see this happening. We are compelled to reach out, as Jesus did, to those who have been shunned in the name of religion, to reach out, as Elisha did, to those whom are considered God's enemies. We are compelled, as forgiven and welcomed sinners ourselves, to proclaim that forgiveness and welcome to others, without discrimination or prejudice. And that is how we will finally use religion, in particular Christianity, well - as a way to demonstrating great acts of love and compassion, as the means to achieving justice and peace, as a the way to bring God's love to the world. Amen.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Revisiting To be Right or To be Silent

It seems to me that the issue around the "Mohammed cartoons" is about being right or being silent. Yes, freedom of the press is an important freedom, and people should never be afraid to publish what they think. On the other hand, in this particular case, wouldn't it have been better for those newspapers who chose to reprint the cartoons in support of that freedom to be silent? Their proclamation of their "rightness" has offended the faith of Muslims, and while it's true that Paul was only thinking of his Christian brothers and sisters, surely we take a wider view of the world than he did? We who are "strong" should show more compassion to those who are "weak."

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Sun, February 5, 2006 - Healing and the Kingdom of God

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

I spent a lot of time in medical facilities this week - visiting a congregation member in the hospital, waiting in a doctor's office, visiting a physiotherapist - and as I did, it struck me just how much sickness is a part of our lives. I would guess that everybody sitting here knows at least one person right now who isn't well - a friend or a family member, or even you yourself, someone who is physically ill, or mentally or emotionally, or even spiritually ill. I don't even have to guess to know that every one of us here has, at some point in our lives, been sick - whether from something minor like a cold or the flu, or from something major like cancer or a heart condition.

In any case, while I was noticing all this sickness that touches our lives, I got to thinking about what it would take for disease and illness to be completely eradicated from our world. It's pretty astonishing, really, what would have to change for sickness to become a thing of the past, mostly because you'd have to address the root causes of illness. To get rid of all the things that make people unwell, we'd have to get rid of malnutrition - a major cause of all kinds of disease. We'd have to do away with poverty and homelessness, two more major factors that contribute to people getting and staying sick. We'd obviously have to take environmental factors into consideration - polluted air and water cause all kinds of diseases. Naturally we'd have to end wars and all kinds of abuse - things that can lead to mental and emotional diseases, not to mention the physical consequences of violent conflict. In short, for people to be well and whole their whole lives, the world would have to become a place where everybody was cared for, fed, protected, and at peace. The world would have to become, well, heaven. Or, as our Gospel writer would say, the world would have to become the kingdom of God.

Now, it might be a bit of a leap for me to say that getting rid of sickness - healing the world - is connected to the kingdom of God. But in our Gospel stories for the past two weeks, taken from the Gospel of Mark, we see that those two things - healing and God's kingdom - are intimately connected. In Mark, Jesus bursts onto the scene in Galilee with the proclamation, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near." And then, immediately after that, after calling some disciples, Jesus begins to demonstrate just how near the kingdom has come by healing people. First he casts out the demon of a man with an unclean spirit, and then, as we heard today, he heals Simon Peter's mother-in-law of a fever, and then that same evening he cures "many who were sick with various diseases." And the next morning, Jesus and his disciples go off to neighbouring towns "proclaiming the message... and casting out demons." In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus' proclamation that the kingdom of God has come near is always closely followed by his healing one person or another. Throughout his ministry, Jesus is healing sick women, casting out demons, and eliminating sickness as often as he can, bringing God's kingdom to as many people as he can.

But it's not just in the Gospels that we see that God's presence among us results in healing. In a general, cosmic sense, God has been healing the world from the beginning, bringing God's creative and life-giving Spirit wherever there is sickness and illness. In our reading from Isaiah, we hear about how great and cosmic God is, having spread the stars throughout the sky, encompassing the whole world in a glance, being "great in strength and mighty in power," while at the same time we hear that God is concerned with the weak and "gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless." We have so many psalms that speak of God's healing of the world and of individuals, and today, we read [past tense] Psalm 147, where we proclaimed that God "heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds" and that "the Lord lifts up the downtrodden." From the beginning of creation, through the prophets, into the time of Jesus and even beyond into the Acts of the Apostles, we see that God brings healing to the world, and in doing so, brings God's kingdom ever closer to the world.

But my bet is that when it comes to sickness and healing, most of you aren't all that concerned with the general, cosmic overview of God's healing. My bet is that when it comes to sickness and healing, you want to talk in specifics - about specific people and about specific illnesses. In fact, my bet is that the question you're asking - because it's something I ask, too - is what about God's healing in my particular situation? Whether that situation concerns an illness that we're going through ourselves, or whether we're thinking about someone else that we care about very much who is sick, we want to know - what is God going to do in this case? Simon Peter saw Jesus heal the man in the synagogue and no doubt thought immediately of his own particular situation - of his sick mother-in-law. The people of Capernaum heard about the man in the synagogue and thought not of how the world was changing for the better with this one healing, but of how Jesus could heal their family members and neighbours. They wanted specifics, not generalities. When we think of sickness and healing and God's presence in the midst of that, we want to know when will God heal, how will God heal, and sometimes even, why hasn't God healed yet? We read books on how prayer can heal and watch healing ministry shows on television hoping for some clue that will tell us when God is going to address our own problem. We wouldn't usually put it this way, but we want to know: when is the kingdom of God going to come to me, personally?

Well, having raised those questions, I'm not sure I have a very good answer for you. Because the truth is that we have no way of knowing when or why God moves from generalities to specifics. We don't know why Jesus chose to heal the man in the synagogue, or Simon Peter's mother-in-law. We don't know why he didn't go around healing every single sick person in Israel. We don't know why some people who pray for healing get better, while others do not. We don't know why it seems like the kingdom of God seems to come sooner for some, but not for others. And the tough pill to swallow is that when it comes to these questions, we will never know.

Which sucks, I know. Things are bad enough when we or someone we love is sick - not only is the pain tough to deal with, but so is the uncertainty over the future - when recovery will happen, if it's even possible, what will happen if it's not. But then to hear on top of that that even God's involvement in the healing process is uncertain - well, that can seem like too much.

But before you tune out and wonder why I brought all this up in the first place if I haven't got an answer for you, let me tell you that there is a difference between being uncertain and falling into despair - being without any hope whatsoever. Because although we may be uncertain when it comes to God's actions, we are not without hope. We may not know how or when God is going to act, when the kingdom of God is going to come to us, but that doesn't mean that it's not coming at all. That doesn't mean that healing is an impossibility, it doesn't mean that continued sickness is permanent. In fact, what we do know, and what we base our hope on, is that as Isaiah says, the Lord, the everlasting God, "does not faint or grow weary" in the task of healing either the world or individuals. From the beginning of creation - and that's a long time ago no matter how you figure it - God has been healing on both a macro- and a micro- scale - counting the stars in the heavens and feeding the small birds in the skies.

We also know that when it comes to bringing about that world where sickness doesn't exist - when it comes to bringing to fulfilment the kingdom of God - that although we are far from certain about when that might happen, we are given every reason to hope, by Jesus Christ himself, that it will happen, and is happening even as we speak. "The kingdom of God has come near," Jesus said often and in various ways, and demonstrated it over and over again in healings and feedings of thousands and indeed, proving it definitively when he was raised from the dead. And indeed, those rare moments of healing that we do experience, those brief instances when everything seems to be going perfectly in the world, when heaven touches earth, those moments are given to encourage us to keep up our hope, as signs that the kingdom of God has come and is coming near.

I cannot say when God will bring healing and the kingdom of God to your particular situation. But I can say, without hesitation, that you and all those who need healing are a vital part of the vast cosmos that God is committed to healing. To paraphrase Isaiah, do not say that your way is hidden from the Lord, and your right is disregarded by your God. "Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.. . . Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." The kingdom of God has come near to the world. When it will be fully here, I couldn't say, but it continues to come and you will be a part of that and all will experience the healing of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.