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Archive for July 2015

“Therefore, remember” [who you are] — Final Version

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Pentecost +8 Ephesians 2:11-22 and Mark 6:30-34 and 53-56; July 19, 2015, St John the Evangelist

Our epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians brings us a powerful and concise image of what it is that we are to be as a community of faith.  A good text to consider as we’re about to start a season of renovation.  Such things can redefine the community.  So to be clear, we are not a building, but part of the mystical body of Christ that exists here, and wherever 2 or 3 gather in the name of Christ.  That has nothing to do with the physical infrastructure that keeps the rain off our heads while we sing.  Another good reason is that we live in a highly secularized culture and the text today explicitly tells us who we are to be in the midst of that culture.  Let’s start with culture.

Back in April this year, there was a decision by our Supreme Court to support a ban on Christian prayer in the Saguenay city council.  This all unfolded as a result of a human rights complaint made by an atheist who attended city council meetings and objected to having Catholic faith practiced in a secular, municipal government setting.  Shortly thereafter, our Edmonton city council also ceased the practice of public prayer before council meetings.

There was some outcry from Christian groups against this change, although I admit that I greet most of these sorts of events in the secular world with a shrug.  I am cavalier about prayer at the city council because I don’t think it matters one bit to the faith.  I’ll go a bit further and say that a good case can be made that public, secular institutions like municipal governments should not be inviting prayers from any faith tradition.  We’re about different thinks, as Paul tells us today.

We still live under the legacy of Christendom in the west.  Christendom arose out of the juxtaposition of the church and the state into one geopolitical apparatus from about the medieval times onward.  We’re not in Christendom anymore, but we Christians like to think we are…face it, those days meant huge influence for the church, and access to the hallways of power.  As a bishop reminded me the other day, bishops love their power, as do the rest of us.

The danger in this relationship is that it allows us to avoid the real, radical call to community that exists in the call to follow Christ.  We are told quite directly that our role is to submit to the rulers of the state, because they have been put in place by God and, even if unbelievers, will ultimately serve the will of God (Romans 13).  That same text does not tell us that our rulers are supposed to lead us in a form of theocracy or pray before meetings.  The text is rather indifferent to who the rulers might be or even what they might do, including persecuting the church.  What the text is all about is what people of faith are supposed to do.

A focus on prayer in secular space also misses the purpose of prayer – which is a worshiping activity of the Christian community.  What is it we do when we pray as a group?  The leader puts to voice the prayers of the community before the throne of the Almighty… meaning public prayer is always a corporate action of the body of Christ.  Now, if you put that prayer into a secular context, like a school classroom or a city council meeting, what happens?  Where is the Body of Christ? The gathering of people are not all believers, and probably include followers of other faith traditions along with atheists and agnostics.  How then are the words of the prayer putting to voice the petitions of the community, when there is no Christian community?

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas was asked to pray at a secular gathering honouring a Christian novelist, Reynolds Price.  He at first refused because Hauerwas rejects quite directly what he calls ‘civil religion’, the use of Christian actions to dress up secular events.  Then he decided he could do it, and wrote a prayer titled, “Addressing the God who is not the ‘Ultimate Vagueness’”.  Here it is:

God, you alone know how we are to pray to you on occasions like this. We do not fear you, since we prefer to fear one another. Accordingly, our prayers are not to you but to some “ultimate vagueness.” You have, of course, tried to scare the hell out of some of us through the creation of your people Israel and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But we are a subtle, crafty and stiff-necked people who prefer to be damned into vagueness. So we thank you for giving us common gifts such as food, friendship and good works that remind us our lives are gifts made possible by sacrifice. We are particularly grateful for your servant Reynolds Price, who graces our lives with your grace. Through such gifts may our desire for status and the envy status breeds be transformed into service that glorifies you. Amen.

Prayer in a secular context is incorrect because it is not voicing the wishes and burdens of a Christian community.  The Supreme Court’s conclusion in that case about Saguenay was that the provision for freedom of religion in our Charter did not permit public institutions like city councils to define themselves as Christian (or Muslim or Hindu for that matter).  Freedom of religion does not permit the secular state to re-define itself as a theocracy, and that’s a reason to give thanks to God.  I know, as a student of history, that one of the things we’re guaranteed to do when God enters our discourse in governance is to figure out how to use God as a tool to acquire greater power for ourselves.  And before we get too righteous about our courts taking away our right to prayer as a fundamentally un-Canadian thing to do, we should stop and consider that there were once laws enforced by those same courts that were intended to stop our indigenous brothers and sisters from practicing their faith.  We don’t want the secular institutions of our secular world imposing what they believe to be the proper faith on anyone, meaning prayer stays separate from gatherings that are not comprised of the Body of Christ.

Onto the text.  This short snip of eleven verses contains a dramatic description of what it is that we are being here today.  I’ve summarized the textual analysis on the handouts so you can follow the greater structure that I’m outlining.  Paul sets up his analysis in three sections: the first talks about what we were, the second talks about what Christ did, while the third tells us what we are now, on the down-stream side of Christ’s sacrifice and our individual decisions to follow Jesus.

So, what were we?  Paul outlines a divided world, a world that is made up of Jews, who are the people of the covenant, and everyone one else: the horizontal dynamic here is Jew versus Gentile.  This two-faced view of the world reflected the Jewish perspective pre-Christ, a world of those who were in covenant (the circumcised) and those who were not, and indeed could not be in covenant (the uncircumcised).  That distinction, Paul states, was one made entirely by human hands.  The word used in the Greek for ‘made in the flesh’ is the same word used to describe the production of idols for people to worship, as opposed to the work of God.  What that dynamic set up was a litany of exclusions for the Gentiles.  Note the language of isolation that is used here to describe each of these consequences: in opposition, separated, alienated, strangers, having no hope, without God.  Note also the dynamic set up here around the role of the flesh – the identity of both the Jews and the Gentiles were set up horizontally by the flesh…so you knew a Gentile was not a Jew literally because of the covenant of Abraham and circumcision.  This is a horizontal dynamic of separation and distinctiveness that will be undone by the coming of Christ.

The description now pivots on the disjunctive word ‘But’ in verse 13 – a real cosmic but.  Because of the blood of Christ, those who were far off have been brought near…reflecting an understanding that unity in the faith has the result of removing distinction and boundaries.  This happens because Christ himself is our peace.  We usually think about Christ bringing peace, or ending strife, but here we hear that the Prince of Peace is in fact peace incarnate.  He is walking, breathing peace with two legs.  That peace has made us one.

Now, we started with the image of horizontal separation between Jew and Gentile.  Christ’s peace has removed the horizontal separation by making all people one.  Now there is no more Jew or Greek or Gentile, but only one in Christ Jesus.  This distinction in the flesh is now destroyed by Christ’s flesh which has broken down the “dividing wall of hostility”.  In the temple in Jerusalem there was an outer court known as the Court of the Gentiles.  This was the area of the temple where non-Jews could enter and conduct business.  This was separated from the inner precincts and the sanctuary by a wall, which was marked with signs that warned Gentiles to not enter the inner areas of the temple on pain of death.  Jesus comes, in the flesh, and the effect of that flesh is to remove the literal dividing wall between Jew and Gentile.

Jesus’ action continues to remove another distinction, being the place of Torah, the Law by bringing a new law to all believers.  He does this by literally creating in himself one person, where before there were two.  So this Jew comes and by his sacrifice for all people, becomes the representative person of the new way, this new unity in Christ.  This is the reason we say Christ has gone before us, trampling down death by death (as the orthodox sing), destroying the gates of death and bringing life to all believers.  As the representative person who has undone the separation of before, he has walked to pathway to heaven to open it to all believers.  This reconciliation brings together Jew and Gentile in one body.  Jesus did this by preaching peace to all both far and near, eliminating the horizontal separation that previously existed between Jew and Gentile, the near and far, two bodies separate, by bringing them together in one body in Christ.

There’s also a vertical separation at work.  The Jews, as people of the Covenant, had a particular agreement with God the Father as to what it meant to be a people set apart.  This was the Torah, the Law that set out how it was that a Jew was to live as a person set apart.  There was still separation vertically, as following Torah did not permit you to come into a personal relationship with the Creator.  Such an idea would be considered blasphemous (as you can see when Christ announces himself as the Son of God – Matthew 26:65).  For the Gentiles, there was no path to the Creator except to convert to Judaism and to become a person of the Covenant, but that would only get you part way into that relationship.  There was a vertical separation for both groups.

Now, the unified group, that One Body, is also brought into a different relationship vertically.  At verse 18, the result of all this bringing together, all this breaking down, is to permit us, through Christ, with access in one Spirit to the Father.  Now all live as One Body in communion with the One God.  There is still an “un-finishedness” about this all as the end of the story has not yet played out – the one where we will all dwell with God in a city made not by human hands, but by God.  But, the reality of our present is that both the horizontal and vertical separations have been done away with by the action of Christ Jesus.  Truly a story of Good News.

Now, I’m coming to the part that is most exciting of all, where we hear Paul describing the implication for we people of faith.  The first assertion is most interesting of all.  It is unfortunately not translated using the word which I prefer in place of alien, which is sojourner.  “You are no longer strangers and sojourners.”

The word ‘sojourner’ has a very specific meaning in Hebrew thought.  This comes from a Hebrew word that refers to a temporary dweller or a non-citizen in a foreign land.  Hebrew law contained specific protection for the sojourner because the Israelites were to remember what it was to be a people without a land.  To be a sojourner meant some protection, but it did not make you a citizen.  The place this clearly comes through is in Genesis 23:4, when Abraham is asking for a plot of land in which to bury his wife, Sarah.  Abraham is offered the land for free by the host nation of the Hittites, but refuses and replies: “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place…”  This is the passage that Paul is recalling for his listeners, and it is a distinction sometimes lost in the translation.  The reason Abraham insists on purchasing the land, is that accepting it for free from the Hittites would place him as a citizen in the land.  This was not yet to be, for the nation of Israel was not yet ready to claim Canaan, and so Abraham remained as a stranger and a sojourner and purchased the land for the burial of his beloved.

This is an important point for us to understand what it is that Paul has been speaking of, since his concluding passage about what we are now begins with: We are no longer strangers and sojourners, because we are now fellow citizens with the saints, and with all the members of the household of God.  This is the point on which my opening words on public prayer by secular bodies comes back in to the discourse.  Our citizenship is not of this world, or this country, or this city, but rather with the people of God.  Prayer is the particular language of the people of God, and it is only publically at home with the people of God.

This is not to say you should not bring prayer into your circles of secular friends and acquaintances, into your place of business or work, to the gym for your workouts.  Rather, it’s to say that prayer in the secular context is properly the practice of the individual believer.  As an example, in my soon to be past-job I performed appeal work for the workers’ compensation system.  You don’t get much more secular.  We made decisions engaging fundamental issues of justice for people who are sometimes in horrific situations – I have always considered my work there to be a Christian social justice ministry.  But that doesn’t mean that at the start of an appeal hearing I publically pause, on the record, for a prayer.  I work with a mix of believers and non-believers and people from all sorts of faith traditions.  Some of them would appreciate the prayer, some would be indifferent, and some would be outright hostile.  I could not use public prayer in a gathering such as that.  But, that doesn’t mean my presence in the workplace is not transformative.  Why?

A Christian in a secular environment is transformative because we carry the light of Christ.  It’s like wearing strong aftershave in a scent-free workplace, but far more subversive…as people can’t smell you walking down the hall.  Yet your presence changes things.  The second way my work presence is transformative is because I’m constantly holding the place and the people up in prayer, just silently.  I start every hearing with a prayer for compassion and an ear for truth and that God’s justice will be done…but I do that quietly and before I sit down with my colleagues.  I think this is a far more subversive approach.

The reason? Our allegiance is ultimately with another city, the City of God.  Paul’s concluding words tell us about that city.  It is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and has as chief cornerstone Christ Jesus.  Rather than being static, that whole structure is constantly growing into a holy temple in the Lord, and each of us, as members of that One Body, are constantly being transformed and conformed together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

This is a relationship that exists independently of the secular structures of our culture, and particularly of the structures like this building that keep us dry while we pray.  We exist independently of whatever culture we happen to live within, and we carry with us a citizenship that will bring us brothers and sisters anywhere we happen to travel.  This community of Christ gathers from the towers of Cathedrals to the faithful praying underground (Newsboys, “He Reigns”) unified as one by the power of Christ, and constantly transforming us into a home for God.

As the ground around our secular home is broken in the weeks to come, and as we hunt for parking spaces, may God remind us that we are no longer strangers and sojourners in this world, but members of a Holy people and servants of the Most High set apart to serve our Lord.  Amen.

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Written by sameo416

July 18, 2015 at 10:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

“Therefore, remember” – rough draft (still far too long)

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Pentecost +8 Ephesians 2:11-22 and Mark 6:30-34 and 53-56; July 19, 2015, St John the Evangelist

Our epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians brings us a powerful and concise image of what it is that we are to be as a community of faith.  Some have called this text the most significant ecclesiological text of the entire New Testament – ecclesiology being the study of how the community of faith exists.  I want to focus on this text today for two reasons – as a community we’re about to start a season of renovation and repair on our physical building.  When such things happen within a community of faith, it can quickly become the defining factor of who we are…so to be clear, we are not a building, but part of the mystical body of Christ that exists here, and wherever 2 or 3 gather in the name of Christ.  That has nothing to do with the physical infrastructure that keeps the rain off our heads while we sing.  Second reason, we live in a highly secularized culture and the text today explicitly tells us who we are to be in the midst of that culture.

Paul begins this snip today with the words, “Therefore, remember…” and my goal today is to walk through a sermon of remembrance, a call to be who Christ has made us, and not what we or the world think that entails.

Back in April this year, there was a decision by our Supreme Court to ban the use of Christian (and Roman Catholic) prayers in the city council of Saguenay and to require the removal of a crucifix and a statue of the sacred heart of Jesus.  This all unfolded as a result of a human rights complaint made by an atheist who often attended city council meetings and objected to having Catholic faith practiced in a secular, municipal government setting.  Shortly thereafter, our Edmonton city council also ceased the practice of public prayer before council meetings.

There was some outcry from Christian groups against this change, although I have to admit that I greet most of these sorts of events in the secular world with a shrug.  The reason I am cavalier about whether or not a city council prays before a meeting, is because I do not believe it matters one bit to the faith, and I think a good case can be made that public, secular institutions like municipal governments should not be inviting prayers from any faith tradition into its midst.  I’m particularly comfortable with that perspective because I have a very good idea about what we are as a community of faith, which is Paul’s principle goal we hear in this discourse from Ephesians.  Let’s spend another moment discussing the secular world before we dive into the text.

We have benefited for the past several hundred years from the idea of Christendom, a state founded in Christian principles, that has been the dominant mode of being in the western world basically since the early medieval period to the modern period.  We still hear the after-echoes of that concept coming to us through history, and one of the places it was hanging on into April 2015 was around the idea of prayer having an integral place in our government processes.

I’m old enough to remember as well the days when all students stood every morning in school, recited the Lord’s Prayer and sang O Canada and God Save the Queen.  I also remember a sense of sadness when those practices were stopped, not so much because it was another ending of Christendom, but because it was something I had done daily as a child.  Christians often lament those sorts of events as the end of faith in the public square – but it raises the question if faith should have ever been in the public square in the first place?  Christendom arose out of the juxtaposition of the church and the state into one geopolitical apparatus that was used to effect the will of the sovereign.  This carries with it many challenges to the faith which I’m not going to engage except to point out one of the most frequently discussed – what does the church do when the state wages war?  From Constantine onwards the answer to that question has often been the church’s role is to endorse the warfare of the state as righteous and serving the will of God.  We can hear some continued echoes of that relationship in our brothers and sisters to the south, where the Protestant Christian right is sometimes indistinguishable from a political group, and I can’t help feel uncomfortable every time I hear a politician say something like, “God bless America” or “God bless Canada”.

The danger in this sort of relationship is that it allows us to avoid the real, radical call to community that exists in the call to follow Christ.  We are told quite directly that our role is to submit to the rulers of the state, because they have been put in place by God and, even if unbelievers, will ultimately serve the will of God (Romans 13).  That same text does not tell us that our rulers are supposed to lead us in a form of theocracy, in fact the text is rather indifferent to who the rulers might be or even what they might do, including persecuting the church.  What the text is all about is what people of faith do.  That indifference is one of the reasons why prayer in city council is not really that important to me.

There’s a greater reason for my preference that prayer not happen in public places except in the context of a community of Christ.  What is it we do when we pray as a group with one person leading the prayers?  The leader puts to voice the prayers of the community before the throne of the Almighty, so prayer is always a corporate action of the body of Christ.  Now, if you put that prayer into a secular context, like a school classroom or a city council meeting, what is being done?  The gathering of people there are not all believers, and in today’s Canada may be followers of other faith traditions.  The gathering will include atheists and agnostics.  How then are the words of the prayer putting to voice the petitions of the community, when there is no Christian community?

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas put this forth clearly when he was asked to pray at a gathering honouring a Christian novelist, Reynolds Price, in the context of a luncheon at a university.  He at first refused because Hauerwas rejects quite directly what he calls ‘civil religion’, the use of Christianity to dress up secular communities, usually just to add solemnity to an otherwise secular event.  Then he decided he could do it, and wrote quite a dramatic prayer titled, “Addressing the God who is not the ‘Ultimate Vagueness’”.  Listen to his prayer as an example of why I’m so uncomfortable with prayer in secular settings:

God, you alone know how we are to pray to you on occasions like this. We do not fear you, since we prefer to fear one another. Accordingly, our prayers are not to you but to some “ultimate vagueness.” You have, of course, tried to scare the hell out of some of us through the creation of your people Israel and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But we are a subtle, crafty and stiff-necked people who prefer to be damned into vagueness. So we thank you for giving us common gifts such as food, friendship and good works that remind us our lives are gifts made possible by sacrifice. We are particularly grateful for your servant Reynolds Price, who graces our lives with your grace. Through such gifts may our desire for status and the envy status breeds be transformed into service that glorifies you. Amen.

Prayer in a secular context is incorrect because it is not voicing the wishes and burdens of a Christian community (Stackhouse: “prayer is a ritual meant to express a single sentiment on behalf of a unified group to a deity they wish to petition.  It isn’t an exchange of views such as a university debate”).  I recall a week I was on a course on addictions counselling in Winnipeg, while I was still serving on a fighter squadron.  That’s where I was on September 11th.  When we heard the news part-way through the morning of the World Trade Centre collapse, I was asked by one of the instructors, who was a sister in the faith, if I would lead the group in a prayer.  I did, but have realized since then that the prayer was less about lifting up the will of a community of faith before God, and more about putting to voice the concerns of a classroom full of soldiers about what the future would bring to each of us and our families.  A couple of other believers thanked me afterwards for my intercessions on their behalf, but the vast majority of people in that room merely edited out my references to God and Jesus and hung instead on my words as a source of comfort and solace.  Now, how would that make you feel, as a leader of prayer, to discover that the majority of your audience ignored the faith parts and hung on your words as a source of comfort rather than turning to the One God as the ultimate comforter?  Maybe that’s a good reason to talk about a tragic event that will change all our lives, but maybe not the best circumstance to pray to a God that most of the listeners do not believe in.

The Supreme Court’s conclusion in that case about Saguenay was that the provision for freedom of religion in our Charter did not permit public institutions like city councils to define themselves as Christian (or Muslim or Hindu for that matter).  Freedom of religion does not permit the secular state to re-define itself as a theocracy, and that’s a reason to give thanks to God.  I know, as a student of history, that one of the things we’re guaranteed to do when God enters our discourse in governance is to figure out how to use God as a tool to acquire greater power for ourselves.  And before we get too righteous about our courts taking away our right to prayer as a fundamentally un-Canadian thing to do, we should stop and consider that there were once laws in place to stop our indigenous brothers and sisters from practicing their faith.  We don’t want the secular institutions of our secular world imposing what they believe to be the proper faith on anyone.

Now, what does this diversion through secular life have to do with we as the Body of Christ – the answer is lots, particularly if we want to avoid falling into the traps that the secular world presents to us.  We are called to be something particular, and something particularly apart from the secular world.  In a discussion with a colleague the other day he mentioned that he thought a job change would be coming up in the near future, because after a number of years in one place he thought he was now performing the one act that God had brought him to that place to perform…which meant he would be changing jobs in the near future.  I was quite taken with this idea that our secular employment, ultimately, is just a tool through which God brings us into contact with other people who we need to minister to.  A radical concept, suiting a radical community of faith.

Onto the text.  This short snip of eleven verses contains a dramatic description of what it is that we are being here today.  I’ve summarized the textual analysis on the handouts so you can follow the greater structure that I’m outlining.  Paul sets up his analysis in three sections: the first talks about what we were, the second talks about what Christ did, while the third tells us what we are now, on the down-stream side of Christ’s sacrifice and our individual decisions to follow Jesus.

So, what were we?  Paul outlines a divided world, a world that is made up of Jews, who are the people of the covenant, and everyone one else: the horizontal dynamic here is Jew versus Gentile.  This two-faced view of the world reflected the Jewish perspective pre-Christ, a world of those who were in covenant (the circumcised) and those who were not, and indeed could not be in covenant (the uncircumcised).  That distinction, Paul states, was one made entirely by human hands.  The word used in the Greek for ‘made in the flesh’ is the same word used to describe the production of idols for people to worship, as opposed to the work of God.  What that dynamic set up was a litany of exclusions for the Gentiles.  Note the language of isolation that is used here to describe each of these consequences: in opposition, separated, alienated, strangers, having no hope, without God.  Note also the dynamic set up here around the role of the flesh – the identity of both the Jews and the Gentiles were set up horizontally by the flesh…so you knew a Gentile was not a Jew literally because of the covenant of Abraham and circumcision.  This is a horizontal dynamic of separation and distinctiveness that will be undone by the coming of Christ.

The description now pivots on the disjunctive word ‘But’ in verse 13, and this is a cosmic but describing what Christ did.  Because of the blood of Christ, those who were far off have been brought near…reflecting an understanding that unity in the faith has the result of removing distinction and boundaries.  This happens because Christ himself is our peace.  An interesting comment.  We usually think about Christ bringing peace, or ending strife, but here we hear that the Prince of Peace is in fact peace incarnate.  He is walking, breathing peace with two legs.  That peace has made us one.

Now, I mentioned the first section of the reading starts with this image of horizontal separation between Jew and Gentile.  Christ’s peace has removed the horizontal separation by making all people one.  Now there is no more Jew or Greek or Gentile, but only one in Christ Jesus.  This distinction in the flesh is now destroyed by Christ’s flesh which has broken down the “dividing wall of hostility”.  In the temple in Jerusalem there was an outer court known as the Court of the Gentiles.  This was the area of the temple where non-Jews could enter and conduct business.  This was separated from the inner precincts and the sanctuary by a wall, that was marked with signs that warned Gentiles to not enter the inner areas of the temple on pain of death.  Jesus comes, in the flesh, and the effect of that flesh is to remove the literal dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile.

Jesus’ action continues to remove another distinction, being the place of Torah, the Law by bringing a new law to all believers.  He does this by literally creating in himself one person, where before there were two.  So this Jew comes and by his sacrifice for all people, becomes the representative person of the new way, this new unity in Christ.  This is the reason we say Christ has gone before us, trampling down the gates of death and bringing life to all believers.  As the representative person who has undone the separation of before, he has walked to pathway to heaven to open it to all believers.  This reconciliation brings together Jew and Gentile in one body, the one body that we will share around the Lord’s table this day.  Jesus did this by preaching peace to all both far and near.  This eliminates the horizontal separation that previously existed between Jew and Gentile, the near and far, two bodies separate, by bringing them together in one body in Christ.

I’ve spoken about this horizontal separation that existed, but there was also a great vertical separation in existence.  The Jews, as people of the Covenant, had a particular agreement with God the Father as to what it meant to be a people set apart.  This was the Torah, the Law and the Prophets that set out how it was that a Jew was to live as a person set apart.  There was still separation vertically, as following Torah did not permit you to come into a personal relationship with the Creator.  Such an idea would be considered blasphemous (as you can see when Christ announces himself as the Son of God – Matthew 26:65).  For the Gentiles, there was no path to the Creator except to convert to Judaism and to become a person of the Covenant, but that would only get you part way into that relationship.  There was a vertical separation for both groups.

Now, the unified group, that One Body, is also brought into a different relationship vertically.  At verse 18, the result of all this bringing together, all this breaking down, is to permit us, through Christ, with access in one Spirit to the Father.  The horizontal separation is gone, and the vertical separation is gone.  Now all live as One Body in communion with the One God.  There is still an “un-finishedness” about this all as the end of the story has not yet played out – the one where we will all dwell with God in a city made not by human hands, but by God.  But, the reality of our present is that both the horizontal and vertical separations have been done away with by the action of Christ Jesus.  Truly a story of Good News.

Now, I’m coming to the part that is most exciting of all, where we hear Paul describing what the implication is for we people of faith, as in what we are now, living downstream of Jesus.  The first assertion is most interesting of all.  It is unfortunately not translated using the word which I prefer in place of alien, which is sojourner.  You are no longer strangers and sojourners.

The word ‘sojourner’ has a very specific meaning in Hebrew thought.  This comes from a Hebrew word, ger, that refers to a temporary dweller or a non-citizen that is dwelling in a foreign land.  Hebrew law contained specific protection for the sojourner, I think at least partly because one of God’s calls to the nation of Israel was to remember that they had been sojourners and strangers for most of their history before claiming the promised land.  That is, to be a Hebrew was to have a specific recollection as to what it meant to be a people disposed and without a country.  The cycle of Hebrew ritual recalled this narrative, and so we still see the Passover feast as a remembrance of how the Israelites were “passed over” by the angel of death in Egypt.  To be a sojourner meant some protection, but it did not make you a citizen.  The place this clearly comes through is in Genesis 23:4, when Abraham is asking for a plot of land in which to bury his wife, Sarah.  Abraham is offered the land for free by the host nation of the Hittites, but refuses the gesture and instead insists on purchasing the land for a fair price.  When he replies, he says this: “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place…”  This is the passage that Paul is recalling for his listeners, and it is a distinction sometimes lost in the translation.

Now the reason Abraham insists on purchasing the land, is that accepting it for free from the Hittites would place him as a citizen in the land.  This was not yet to be, for the nation of Israel was not yet ready to claim Canaan, and so Abraham remained as a stranger and a sojourner and purchased the land for the burial of his beloved.

This is an important point for us to understand what it is that Paul has been speaking of, since his concluding passage about what we are now begins with this assertion: We are no longer strangers and sojourners, because we are now fellow citizens with the saints, and with all the members of the household of God.  This is the point on which my opening words on public prayer by secular bodies comes back in to the discourse.  Our citizenship is not of this world, or this country, or this city, but rather with the people of God.  Prayer is the particular language of the people of God, and it is only publically at home with the people of God.

This is not to say you should not bring prayer into your circles of secular friends and acquaintances, into your place of business or work, to the gym for your workouts.  Rather, it’s to say that prayer in the secular context is properly the practice of the individual believer.  As an example, in my day job I perform appeal work for the workers’ compensation system.  You don’t get much more secular that my day job.  We make decisions engaging fundamental issues of justice and marginalization for people who are sometimes in horrific situations – I have always considered my work there to be a social justice ministry.  But, as a servant of the secular state, that doesn’t mean that at the start of an appeal hearing I publically pause, on the record, for a prayer.  I work with a mix of believers and non-believers and people from all sorts of faith traditions.  Some of them would appreciate the prayer, some would be indifferent, and some would be outright hostile.  As a means of bringing voice to the community of believers, I could not use public prayer in a gathering such as that.  But, that doesn’t mean my presence in the workplace is not transformative.  Why?

Well, first a Christian in a secular environment is transformative because we carry the light of Christ.  It’s like wearing strong aftershave in a scent-free workplace, but far more subversive…as people can’t smell you walking down the hall.  Yet your presence changes things.  The second way I’m transformative is because I’m constantly holding the place and the people up in prayer, just usually silently.  I start every hearing with a prayer for compassion and an ear for truth and that God’s justice will be done…but I do that quietly and before I sit down with my colleagues.  I think this is a far more subversive and transformative approach, and I think this is what the people of Christ are called to be in the secular world.

The reason is because our allegiance is ultimately with another city, the City of God.  Paul’s concluding words tell us about that city.  It is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and has as chief cornerstone Christ Jesus.  Rather than being static, that whole structure is constantly growing into a holy temple in the Lord, and each of us, as members of that One Body, are constantly being transformed and conformed together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

As the Hebrews lost the temple, as One people of God we gained the possibility of personal and corporate relationship with the Creator.  This is a relationship that exists independently of the secular structures of our culture, and particularly of the structures like this building that keep us dry while we pray.  We exist independently of whatever culture we happen to live within, and we carry with us a citizenship that will bring us brothers and sisters anywhere we happen to travel.  This community of Christ, gathers from the towers of Cathedrals to the faithful praying underground (Newsboys, “He Reigns”), unified as one by the power of Christ, and constantly transforming into a home for God.

As the ground around our secular home is broken in the weeks to come, and as we hunt for parking spaces, may God remind us that we are no longer strangers and sojourners in this world, but members of a Holy people and servants of the Most High.  Amen.

Written by sameo416

July 18, 2015 at 5:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Background: “Therefore, remember”

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A Sermon for Pentecost 8, Ephesians 2:11-22 – background materials

The text lends itself nicely to a diagrammatic analysis as a handout for note-takers.  It is always fun to do this on paper, and it is the same technique I use to do legislative analysis.  This works really well with colour, but I’ll use bold and italics to pull out some of the common themes.

—————-

“in the flesh” 11

“called the uncircumcision” (Gentiles)  by    “the circumcision” (Jews)

“made in the flesh by hands”

(Greek ‘made’ means human work versus God’s work as in an idol made of human hands) 12

In opposition to        ->       The circumcision (the Jews)

Separated from        ->        Christ Jesus

Alienated from          ->        Israel (and therefore, God)

Strangers to             ->        the Covenants of promise

Having                      ->        no hope

Without                     ->        God in the world

————- BUT! 13 ——————————————————

You who were far off          à        Have been brought near

(how?) By the blood of Christ

He himself is our peace (Jesus literally is peace) 14

“Who has made us both one” by:

  • Breaking down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility
  • Abolishing the law of Commandments 15
  • Creating in himself one new man in place of two
  • Reconciling us both (Jew and Gentile) to God in one body 16
  • Preaching peace to you far and to you near 17

————– SO! 18  ——————————————————

“You are no longer strangers and sojourners” 19 (Genesis 23:4)

BUT fellow citizens with the saints

AND with the members of the household of God, a house:

  • Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets 20
  • With Christ Jesus as the cornerstone
  • The whole structure growing into a holy temple in the Lord 21
  • Built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit 22

————————-

Other background materials (I always try to list these to ensure I’m not blindly integrating other’s ideas without offering some recognition of what I was drawing on).

Base materials from whence this came…apart from the Spirit, prayer and reflecting…

1. Stanley Hauerwas, Prayers Plainly Spoken, 16-17, 47-48 (1999 University Press)

Addressing the God Who is not the ‘Ultimate Vagueness’

God, you alone know how we are to pray to you on occasions like this. We do not fear you, since we prefer to fear one another. Accordingly, our prayers are not to you but to some “ultimate vagueness.” You have, of course, tried to scare the hell out of some of us through the creation of your people Israel and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But we are a subtle, crafty and stiff-necked people who prefer to be damned into vagueness. So we thank you for giving us common gifts such as food, friendship and good works that remind us our lives are gifts made possible by sacrifice. We are particularly grateful for your servant Reynolds Price, who graces our lives with your grace. Through such gifts may our desire for status and the envy status breeds be transformed into service that glorifies you. Amen.

2. A blog entry by Alana Levandoski, April 16, 2015 concerning a Christian reaction to the SCC decision Mouvement laïque québécois Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16.  That case directed that the Saguenay city council cease praying at the start of meetings, and also to remove a crucifix and statue of the sacred heart from council chambers.  The key conclusion is here:

Finally, the reference to the supremacy of God in the preamble to the Canadian Charter cannot lead to an interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion that authorizes the state to consciously profess a theistic faith. The preamble articulates the political theory on which the Charter’s protections are based. The express provisions of the Canadian Charter and of the Quebec Charter, such as those regarding freedom of conscience and religion, must be given a generous and expansive interpretation. This is necessary to ensure that those to whom these charters apply enjoy the full benefit of the rights and freedoms, and that the purpose of the charters is attained.

Who are we Naked? Who are we Silent? is the blog entry by Alana.

In that she quotes English author Graham Greene from the novel, “A Burnt Out Case”:

Men have prayed in prison, men have prayed in slums and concentration camps.  It is the middle class who demand to pray in suitable surroundings.

Alana powerfully reframes the loss of a crucifix on the wall of a city council chamber as a call to the believer to become the crucifix [to the world].

3. A blog entry by John Stackhouse Jr, along with a related National Post article about why Christians should avoid prayer in public events that are not actually Christian gatherings.

On the Saguenay case itself, that he terms ‘another vestige of Christendom’.

I have argued previously on this blog (here and here) that the same logic forbids me from accepting invitations to pray at university convocations, and why Christians ought to be wary, in general, of prayers at public ceremonies. I don’t know why this is a difficult line for Canadian Christians to understand and observe…unless we really just don’t want to observe it…and our failure to observe it continues to entangle us in court cases we shouldn’t contest and to make us look like we are selfishly clinging to our rapidly disappearing privileges as a Christian majority.

And this one, “Note to Evangelicals: not every event calls for prayer” in the NP, 16 Sept 2011

Public prayer of the sort in question is a ritual meant to express a single sentiment on behalf of a unified group to a deity they all wish to petition. It isn’t part of an exchange of views, such as a university debate or a media talk show. I enjoy participating in such exchanges. Nor is it an educational situation — such as the world religions courses I myself have taught for more than 20 years.

Prayer isn’t supposed to be an opportunity to proclaim or teach your faith to others. Instead, prayer is a form of speech offered on behalf of everyone present to God.

Prayer in public secular events is like holding up a photograph of your mother and saying, “I’ve got Mom on speakerphone now, so let’s all tell Mom how much we love her as our mother and how we hope she’s proud of us for what we’ve done at university/work/war.” People would look at each other and then at you and think, “You’re crazy. She’s not our mother, and we didn’t do it for her.”

Worse than simply not making sense, prayer at public secular events marginalizes a lot of people: people who don’t believe in God; people who don’t believe in the particular kind of deity being prayed to, and people who do believe in God of that sort and don’t like the idea of an all-purpose prayer on behalf of an institution that otherwise pays no serious attention to God’s Word in its operations–such as the University of British Columbia or my high school basketball team.

4. Peter T. O’Briens excellent commentary on “The Letter to the Ephesians”, The Pillar NT Commentary series, Eerdmans, 1999.

5. John G Stackhouse’s most excellent book, “Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World”. This is one of the best books I’ve ever encountered concerning what it means to follow Christ in a confusing and conflicted world.  You can get this on Kindle from Amazon for $9.99, well worth the price for a not-too-academic book on life in faith.

I mention at one point the line, Christ is trampling down death by death.  This is the orthodox paschal troparion that goes (in full):

Christ is risen, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!  A modern setting in English and Slavonic can be heard here.  A more traditional tone can be heard here.  This is a wonderful verse — my principal at seminary set it to a very challenging eastern tone and one Easter we chanted it while processing from the chapel, out doors to the other chapel.

Written by sameo416

July 18, 2015 at 2:39 pm

Life Transitions

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I realized with some shock the other day, that I have spent longer in my present employ (almost 10 years) than in any other job in my life. While my time with the military totalled 20 years, there was a job change every 1 to 3 years within that time. My four years at AETE were typical – I spent two years in a Captain’s position as an instrumentation engineer, one year as a deputy flight commander (as a Major) and one year as a flight commander. What struck me after that realization was that I’m quite comfortable where I am right now.

This provided some context to understand why I have been loathe to leave this place, even in the face of two years of increasing frustration (and sometimes great anger) over mismangement and generally missing the point of why we exist. Comfort is a powerful drug, one that numbs the heart and the soul to the point where the pain seems somehow small compared to the danger of change.

This was a new experience for me, as my past life had been all about adapting and overcoming in the face of constant change. Even my first four years out of the military involved 2 years of schooling, followed by 2 years of parish service in two different parishes. While the comfort is nice, it is also dangerous in that it breeds complacency.

This was reinforced somewhat by a number of job applications I sent out internal to the public service over the past 12 months. I targetted a whole variety of positions: from ones I was highly qualified for to ones I was barely qualified for. I rewrote my resume and cover letters multiple times, tried different formats and approaches. I even went through and specifically wrote in all the posting key words, in case they used an automated screener to select finalist resumes. All for nought, as I didn’t get a single call back.

Imagine my surprise when I put out my first resume in the private sector and almost immediately received a call back to come in for an immediate interview. At that point I was told that two finalists had already been selected, but my resume was interesting enough that they put the process on hold to allow me to catch up. As I told the search consultant at that point — I appreciated the interest even if it was all for nothing, just to remove the bad taste from my public service job search.

Five work days and three interviews later, I received a job offer where they exceeded my expectations to the point that I didn’t even bother with a counter-offer.

I’m unsettled in a whole new way now that the decision has been made, and resignation notice provided. The comfortable still has such attraction, even with the increasing degree of uncertainty that it presents (mostly because of a radically altered political reality). My conclusion on reflection is that if I met my inner desires, I would likely stay seated in my deck chair as the ship begins to list up to the point I fell off the deck. To do otherwise required a deliberate action to stand and chose a different path — one of some risk and uncertainty.

In my unsettledness, what I’ve realized is that I’m in much the same position as when I decided to leave the military to return to school and to seek ordination. I had some broad-brush ideas about what was to come, but that was all predicated on there first being an act of faith, a stepping off of the ledge, a choice to leap into the water rather than waiting until I fell off.

(this makes me think of the day a classmate decided to dump a bucket of ice water over me in the shower…when I saw him coming I immediately turned the shower full cold, knowing that was the only way to save myself from an even greater system shock had I failed to act)

So ultimately, it comes back to a question of faith in stepping out, and assuredness in who will be there to support me in the new challenges.

Written by sameo416

July 2, 2015 at 2:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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