Thursday, September 23, 2010

I Don't Believe in the Institutional Church!

I believe in God. I believe in being a good person. I try to act fairly, justly and ethically in what I do. I find myself finding God in quiet times, especially when I am in natural surroundings; the forest, at the ocean's edge, time away with my family. My family is first to me. I even pray and ask for help from time to time. It is the institutional church I have difficulty with. And to tell you the truth I just don't believe in it.
That's a funny thing to say for a fellow who has given his life to the church; 38 years and still counting. I fell in love with God when I was yet a child. It happened after my father died at Christmas when I was 8. The religious people said he could not go to heaven because he didn't go to church. I thought that was mean. It was bad enough to discover over time that I would never see my dad in this life, but to think I wouldn't see him in the next either, just because he didn't go to church...that was a hard thing for a child to take.
I went to church because my grandmother told me to. Actually I loved it. It was so beautiful in there, and I personally liked the time before church better than the service itself. I hasten to add that Easter was so much fun, I loved to get my Palms on Palm Sunday, and the Christmas Candlelight service was my favorite. I loved the carols then as I do now (except at WalMart).
One day, coming home from Church I sensed something in my heart that seemed to say; "Don't you know there's a special place in My Heart for your dad?" That was it! I ran home as fast as I could and asked my grandmother if there really is a God. She said; "Of course there is!" I asked her if there is a Heaven. She said; "Of course there is, why the questions?" I told her I needed to know if my daddy was there. She hesitated, I must say. After all she was English and my dad was Irish, and I knew what she thought of the Irish. They ruined Boston, after all. (The immigration stresses were no easier then than they are now, and hospitality was mixed then too as it is now).
But she did stoop down to me and put me on her knee. She held me close into the nape of her neck and she did say: "Of course he is". That's what did it. That's why I became a priest. If God is so good as to make room in his/her heart for my dad, then there's room in God's heart for all.
As it turned out, my family needed good news. My mom was divorced twice (at least as far as we know) and had an abortion. My uncle was gay. My dad didn't even go to church. Actually nobody did in my family at the time.
That's why I've spent my whole life proclaiming the goodness of God. Over time I came to realize that whatever race, ethnicity, class, gender or orientation, that we are all One in Christ. That's worth believing in. And I have a church that believes that. The Episcopal Church! We're paying dearly for that belief. All the Fundamentalists, Dave Beck among them, warn you not to go near a church like that. We are a church with a social conscience, and we believe that all humanity is one as God is One.
So much did I believe all this that I even went so far as to build a homeless shelter during my ministry. We managed transitional housing for battered women and children who became the victims of abuse. We fed the poor in church soup kitchens.
So how is it then that I can say I don't believe in the "institutional church".
Actually I do believe in it very much. But I often heard that said throughout my ministry. And for the longest time I held my tongue. I just had nothing to say and found it hard to defend the church for so much of its behavior. I've endured enough of the institution myself to have days when I can hardly wait until I draw my Social Security so I too can get the Sunday Globe, get a loaf of fresh baked bread, make myself a hot pot of coffee, and say; "The devil with the whole thing!"
My son Michael once said it well when he was much younger; "Dad, have you ever thought, 'What if this whole God thing is a crock?'" That's a good question. I merely said to him that for me I have to make a choice every day; to make the leap of faith. Some days, it is a crock. But when it comes down to it, when there is the suffering of a loved one in the hospital, when the plaintive eyes of the bereaved sigh with thoughts too deep for words; this is where my faith kicks in big time. And that is when I proclaim the Goodness of God with all my heart, mind and soul.
So then I thought this thought.
Suppose I say that I believe in Democracy; its just politics I don't like. And you and Guy Fawks can put a keg of dynamite under Congress for all I care! Does that make any sense? If we believe in Democracy, then politics is next, Congress is necessary. Yes, its messy, and the sausage that comes out of Congress can turn your stomach. But it is better than Anarchy or Dictatorship. As my old friend Winston Churchill was wont to say; "Democracy is the worst form of government in all the world except for all the others"
Suppose I say that I believe in Justice; its just lawyers I don't like and the courts are hopeless. Does that make any sense? How do you propose to have any kind of justice without those who practice the law to argue the cases pro and con, judges to rule, and juries to decide? Were it not for the institutions of justice and democracy we would all be much the sorrier lot by far.
And suppose I say that I believe in an honest day's work for an honest day's wage; its just Unions I don't like and Corporations who conspire with Unions to export all our jobs overseas.
It seems we need to think some more about our presuppositions.
Democracy is here to stay and so is politics, and the parliamentary form of government.
Justice is a given in our system of jurisprudence, and lawyers, judges and juries, are the bedrock of the Democracy we believe in.
And work and labor are the human condition. Some form of protection for the worker is necessary to hold exploitation and opression at bay. And enterprise will always be the bedrock of the economy and Corporations will likely be a necessary component of that whole mix.
So then, what of the church?
You say you believe in God.
You say you believe in Democracy.
You say you believe in Justice.
You say you believe in Labor.
Then the institution follows as the day follows the night. Like Democracy, Justice, or Labor, it will depend on each of us and all of us for our full vigorous participation. We can all try to cop out. But I am here to tell you God is not going to go away.
The church is not the sole cause of all the evils in the world, all the wars, all the bigotry, or ethnic and racial cleansing. It took a fair amount of Politics and Scientific know how to spill all the blood we've spilled over the millenia.
The church has many the blemish much like all human endeavor. But I'd hate to see God represented only by the Fundamentalists in the world in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism etc. Extremes in all quarters seem to excuse hatred and violence in the name of God. This to me is the greatest blasphemy of all. To use the Holy Name, whatever Name you use, as an excuse to kill, murder, hate or oppress is to curse God with the greatest curse there is: for humanity is God heart. Stilling a human heart is to still the heart of God. I somehow think we are to give an account of all the hearts we've stilled some day.
In its better moments, Christianity personifies love in Jesus.
In Judaism, Obedience is personified in Moses the Law Giver.
And mercy is the hallmark of the writings of God through the hand of Muhammad in the Holy Koran.
Extreme Christianity can be hateful and refuse to allow the people of another faith to build a place of worship sanctified by the blood of innocent victims on ground made holy by their loss.
Extreme Judaism can be disobedient to God's laws of justice and become inhospitable to her blood brothers and sisters.
Extreme Islam can believe that terror and the loss of innocent life is justifiable to right another wrong.
God will not go away. The institutional church, synagogue, and mosque will not go away. We need our holy places as we do our governments, our courts, and the dignity of human labor.
I believe in an institutions that promote peace with justice for all humanity. The fate of the world is at stake.
Perhaps we should take another look at the church, at government, at the courts, and at human labor.
Perhaps we had better give it our best effort. After all the church is at the heart of God and humankind. With God we live well. Without God, love dies.
I do believe in the institutional church. Pick one you can believe in and believe again!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Market Price of Sheep

Copy of a sermon delivered on September 12, 2010

“The Market Price of Sheep”

By Fr. Paul Bresnahan

Sunday, September 12, 2010

According to the September issue of The Sheep Industry News, The East Coast carcass market was up 2 percent in January to $222.80/cwt. but wholesale cut values were down. The average weight of a full grown sheep is between 150-200 lbs. The margin between profit and loss in the competitive sheep market is such that the loss of one sheep can spell the difference between a good and a bad year.

Jesus had to speak in terms that his listeners could understand. (Today’s Gospel lesson Luke 15:5-15). This they could get; the price of sheep. How much more then, does God regard the value of his sheep. Then as now it was the market value of things that counted for more. For God the value of life runs much deeper.

The Golden Calf of the United States of America is the Almighty Dollar. Elsewhere, it is the Euro, the Yen, the Shekel, and for our friends in China, it is the Chinese yuan. For most of the world, this is our God: the GDP, the sum and total of all goods and services produced. This is our bottom line and it is what we truly believe in.

Our faith has been shaken by the current recession. Bank failures, and under-capitalized investment instruments have failed us. Mortgages have failed, and too many are unemployed. The future is uncertain. More of our goods are produced in China.

Yet even there the volume and up tick in economic activity has failed to hold its amazing forward and upward push.

God was full of wrath when the people turned away and forgot that it was God who brought them out of the land of slavery into the Promised Land. (Exodus 37:7-14) God’s anger burned hotly against them. God wanted to consume them and start all over and make a great nation of Moses alone.

So Moses reminded God about his honor. What will the nations think if Egypt says that God brought them forth with evil intent? Remember your promise to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, how you promised to make their descendents as numerous as the stars in the sky or as the grains of sand along the seashore.

Thus God’s wrath abated, and on the journey went, a wandering tribe of Arameans in a hot and arid land, a wilderness full of danger, and lacking in the barest of necessities. Thus, eventually they remembered to put their trust in God.

What is important to you in your life? Can you list the ten most important things to you? What might they be? Your parents, your spouse, your children each by name, your career, your home, your life savings, your investments, your dearest friends, fond memories of life when you were younger? What would your list be comprised of? Did you forget anything?

Lets say I have ten days, (ten months, ten years) to live and I have to give up something I love each day until I come to the end? Did I forget to put Jesus on my list? Or God?

Perhaps when I come to my last day, and all I have left and give up God, I have then not given up anything but won back all I lost and more beside.

Poor Paul; formerly a blasphemer, a man who persecuted the church of God and yes, even a man of violence we’re told. (I Timothy 12-17) He acted in ignorance, (Luke 15:1-10) and in disbelief, but Jesus knocked him of his high horse. Blinded was he by the brilliance of the Light of Christ, he regained his sight, as he came to understand the surpassing worth of knowing the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul knew what it was like to be a sinner, what it was like to be forgiven, to be lost and to be found.

And Jesus, how he loved those sinners; tax collectors and prostitutes, he wined and dined them and was the scandal of all the towns and villages he went about to visit. How he loved the ones who had been pushed aside from the Temple. Whatever race, ethnicity, class, gender, or orientation, to him they were one people.

And that’s what got him in trouble. That’s what earned him a place on the cross. It was his love for us, his pure unconditional love for the sinner, the outcast. Funny thing, how it is always the Pharisees and Sadducees who have difficulty with Jesus, or those who follow Jesus.

The ones who claim to follow, still don’t particularly care for the sinner. But it is the sinner that Jesus loves. It is the lost sheep to whom the shepherd is drawn. The lonely, lonesome, lost and wandering one, tired and panicked by utter despair, this is the one Jesus picks up and places on his shoulders, and carries home rejoicing to his flock, all the which the super-religious shaking their heads, aghast at the extravagance of the saviour’s love.

So what the do you want to do for the savior, given what he has done for you? Today, tomorrow and every day, what are you ready to do.

The Golden Calf is no God. There is but one God, Jesus Christ the Righteous, and he is the perfect offering for our sins and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world. (I John 2:1,2)