Month: June 2015

Deconsecrating but not Disappearing

(a homily for the deconsecrating of the Finnish church home in Montreal)

stone fence removed one 

Do you remember the famous leaning wall of Simpson? We never called it that. But that’s what it was. The Finnish leaning wall. The stone wall that, over the years and over the decades, decided it didn’t want to stay in one place anymore. That wall started moving even before we did.

I remember one day meeting Frank Berninger, Kati’s husband, standing by the wall with cement, trying to fill in some of the cracks that had developed as it ever-so-gently tipped out over the sidewalk. Or more often, poor Ismo, out there how many times a year?, measuring the angle of the stones, how much every winter freeze up and spring thaw would nudge the stones just a few more centimeters out of place. All those church council meetings where we sat thinking, and worse, imagining, not daring to say it out loud to each other: what will happen if someday that whole humpty-dumpty arrangement comes tumbling down and there’s a car, or God forbid, a person walking by when all those stones let go and gravity takes over completely?

How can we forget? All that beautiful field rock. And now? In the words of Jesus about a different Temple, not one stone is left upon another. The wall – that long, beautiful wall that looked so permanent – is gone. As is the garden. As is the day when young Finns would sit and pose by the fifties and the hundreds for black and white photos like we have hanging in the dining room. All gone.

But WE are still here. By your endurance, Jesus said to his disciples, you will continue. Life, hope, growth, vitality. They are not so easily measured, nor given up.

We human beings are easily fooled. We think that bricks and stone, mortar and wood will outlast us. That might be true, in terms of us as individuals. But in terms of us as the children of God, as the family of the Almighty, and as the realm of the Creator in this age, that kind of thinking is dead wrong. Brick and stones will NOT outlast us.

The God of the Bible is big on promises – big on vision. And it’s almost a constant, that the most certain time for a promise is precisely the moment when things seem at their darkest, when it feels like the whole world, and not just a wall, is tipping.

If ever a congregation was facing tough days, it would seem to be our little community of Finns. Here we are, wondering how it will be for us to move in with the Estonians. Here we are, dividing up books and looking at odds and ends, and recycling and taking home bits and pieces of this and that and the other. We’re like survivors of a shipwreck. This building that is so loved it is called not just a church, but a church HOME for so many years, will change. Its façade will stay. But when the massive front end loader shovels dig in behind, it won’t be pretty.

So what a day to receive such words of promise!

The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, says the Psalm we have heard in the greeting and in the liturgy. Not only now – but from this time forth, and forevermore. This is a vision for AFTER the stones come tumbling down. When not one is left atop another. This is a vision of care and concern and support. It’s a FUTURE. We should make no mistake. It is a promise. Not as the world judges it, but in the eyes of the one who knows us better than the world. I will pour my spirit out, says God through the prophet Joel, so that your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old folks shall dream dreams, and your young people shall see visions.

If we are people of faith then we are always in some kind of crisis, because crisis is where God takes us in order to move us forward. In the midst of THIS crisis, this closing of the Finnish church home, it’s especially important to hear this call: in what ways, right now, are WE supposed to dream dreams and see visions?

In the “great and terrible” day of the LORD, things are reduced to their essentials: what is the ministry of this community? What can we do to reach out, not just to the church, but in God’s world, which is so much bigger and more exciting a place? How can being reduced to nothing (to speak like Paul in 1 Corinthians) …how can being reduced wind up being a beginning point of great opportunity for you and for me and for the Finnish community?

The days are surely coming, and are here, not just for this little congregation, but for all of us who call ourselves Christian, when you and I will be called on to do something NEW. We have no choice. The church is changing all over Europe and North America. There will be no walls to protect us. No false securities. The old has passed away. The new has begun. The Lord is your keeper. The Lord is your shade at your right hand, so that the sun shall not strike you by day nor the moon by night.

SO: let us remember that God is the greatest dreamer of all.

The leaning wall of Simpson wasn’t just the leaning wall. It was the leaving wall. What seemed so solid has detached and is gone. It led the way and now it is our turn as a community, also to leave, and to go forward into a future where we do not know our paths, but only the one who walks those paths with us.

The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth and forevermore. In these coming weeks, and in this coming year, which will surely be unsettled, may we see where our TRUE foundation lies. May we see the liberation that comes with losing something so that we might gain something else. May we recognize our Lord in the wilderness. May THAT be what inspires us, and the point of view that gives us direction. Our heads are raised. May God grant us a vision, and through this present passing, bring new life to us all.

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Why Religion and Politics should Mix

Eagle Ottawa national monument

A friend of mine was recently riding his bicycle when he was pulled over by the police. He was on the sidewalk, which is illegal. But. He was also going through the Atwater underpass, where there is no bike lane, and LOTS of scary traffic. In some spots there are just inches to spare between you and the cars. A driver swerves slightly, and they’ll knock you down. Not to mention the potholes. You may remember that a cyclist died not long ago going through an underpass like Atwater. After that, the mayor of Montreal, among other people, has told cyclists that they should take the sidewalk on those small stretches in underpasses where NOT to do so would be dangerous.

Apparently the Montreal police haven’t been listening to the mayor. When my friend came through the underpass on the sidewalk, the police were waiting. They pulled him over and hit him with a fifty-dollar ticket. As it turned out, however, that was only the first of his problems.

Give us your ID, the police said to him. Now. My friend is a nice guy. In his fifties. Grey hair. Clean-shaven, riding his bicycle home from his job downtown. Maybe even wearing his dress shirt, and a tie. But he knows the law, and so he said to the police: “I’ll give you my name and address so you can send me the ticket. But the law states I don’t have to give you my ID. No Canadian has to surrender their ID on demand to the police unless they’re being placed under arrest.”

He was right.

However, right isn’t always what’s important, apparently. Within seconds the Montreal City Police had my friend handcuffed, his hands behind his back. They marched him into the back of a police van. They started yelling into his face. Telling him he would be thrown in jail for obstructing justice. Telling him he was going to get a police record and never be able to cross the border into the United States again.

They searched his pockets, pulled out a USB stick that he had, and then, right in front of his eyes, broke it in half. All because he wanted his legal rights.

They say religion and politics don’t mix. Whoever said that didn’t know the Bible. My friend is not religious. But I’m saying that faith has something to say to what you and I should think of a situation like that. In fact, religion and politics mix ALL THE TIME.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together, it says in the Bible, and they came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him: appoint for us a king.

Samuel tried to tell them.

            You don’t WANT a king, the old prophet said to them. Rulers are a BAD idea. Rulers will do what they do best. They’ll tax you. They’ll form a police who will oppress you. They’ll make you slaves. They’ll take your children and put them in their armies and then your children won’t come home. A government will take your money, your food, your security and eventually, sometimes, your life. And they’ll do all this, just because they’re rulers, and you’re not. Are you sure you want a king?

And the people of ancient Israel said: Yes.

You know what they say: be careful what you wish for. Because now what are WE, and most people in the so-called developed countries asking for? Security. And we’re being asked if we’re willing to pay what that dream might cost.

True faith has never been particularly comfortable with governments. Now – for me to say that is controversial. It’s not an opinion everyone shares. But there’s a reason why the Bible says: “God is a jealous god.” and “You shall have no other gods.” It’s idolatry to mix up our faith with nationalism. The Kings were NOT good for Israel. Similarly, there’s a reason why Jesus died the way he did. Jesus did NOT die helping plague victims. Jesus was killed by a state, and in the name of law and order. Jesus was executed, as a troublemaker (remember my friend) by a legal government. A government, by the way, that was promising peace, prosperity and security.

Hmm.

Just before Jesus died something else happened that was interesting. The Gospels say that Pilate led Jesus out onto the pavement in front of the mob: “Would you have me crucify your King?” Pilate asked. And the crowds, although they didn’t know it, echoed the ancient Israelites. Jesus stood right there, in front of them. And they shouted back: “We have no king but Caesar!”

In other words, one more time people picked a man over their Creator.

The point here isn’t any specific government. The point is about giving up what the Creator first gave us – ourselves. This whole issue is about sovereignty. According to the Bible, we human beings are created in the image of God. We were given sovereignty over ourselves, in order to freely serve our neighbors, including animals and the natural world. And yet, rather than think like saints, rather than act as agents of love just a little lower than the angels, rather than risk uncertainty, most of us quickly give ourselves up voluntarily to corporations or parties or whatever else tends to enslave us. We trade ourselves for convenience.

But the prophet says to us: We do not have to be like the other nations.

This last week the Truth and Reconciliation Commission publicly released its report in Ottawa. Whatever else you might think about this or that provision, the BASIC thing that’s being asked for, the bottom line, is simply one thing: justice.

Governments – of ALL stripes – have been very bad at giving that. Apparently the Conservative minister of Indian affairs refused to stand with others when it came time to applaud the call for changes in legislation. If the prophet Samuel had been in Ottawa, he’d have said to us, ‘well, what do you expect?’ Power doesn’t help the weak. Power tends to serve power. Which is precisely why if we are children of faith, we need to act in a DIFFERENT way from rulers and governments. We need to be COUNTER-cultural. We need to take a stand for others, and with others. We need to identify and then help overcome what every state, of every political persuasion, will do to thwart justice.

Be careful what you wish for says Samuel. It’s good advice. Think about your democratic vote as a theological choice. Do we really want security at any price, including losing our own freedom? Do we really want a slightly better income at the cost of poisoning the environment? Do we really want to save a few dollars at the cost of historic injustices to the First Nations that can and should be overcome?

My friend sat in the police van for about 45 minutes. Other cyclists would come by, get their tickets, and look at him sitting there, handcuffed. “They looked scared,” my friend said. Like they were thinking: ‘what did HE do?’

But harassment didn’t win out over justice. Eventually, my friend said, a policeman came back to see him. It probably didn’t hurt that my friend had no record, and had never been in trouble with the law. The officer took off his handcuffs. When my friend asked what he was supposed to do next, the officer told him to get lost. The irony is that in the end, he didn’t even get the ticket.

Our Creator asks us to look beyond ourselves to a better world. A world that doesn’t depend on peace and security from Ottawa – or anywhere else. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed says Paul, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands. So we do not lose heart.

There have been, and will be wrongs. That’s the world’s system. But our faith tells us that we are to stand, as Jesus did, with those who need justice. Religion and politics SHOULD mix. It’s time for us to get over wishing for a king. We can wish for justice and for peace, instead. And then do what we can to help make it happen.