Monday, July 20, 2015

Is There a God?

It is a haunting question for those of us who believe, but it must be asked. Here follows just one reply; 

Is There a God?

Not long ago I had lunch with a dear friend, someone I have known since seminary days. We have always been able to be honest with one another and our friendship runs very deep. Near the end of our time together, my friend became somewhat reflective and began to lament the fact that some of his friends have been dying off. And he also began to tell me of his own thoughts in facing his mortality. He has fought depression for many years and there was a time for some silence between us.

I responded; "You do know that there is a God?"
"Ah well, sometimes I wonder!"
I continued; "You do know that there is a heaven?"
"Ah well," said he, "I do not have the faith you have."

Faith was an early gift for me as most of you will no doubt know. When I lost my dad at an early age, I was forced into a decision as to whether there is a God and whether there is a heaven. I was guided by my grandmother to the kind of "Yes!" that has led to my priesthood and to this very day. God's "Yes!" and my "yes" in reply.

But there are people who suffer. In fact we have some right here at St. John's at this very moment. The suffering may be of a minor sort that requires day surgery, or something more serious like the loss of independence; a serious loss for very independent Yankee sorts, or the loss may be of the final sort that we all ultimately face.

That's why I always come back to those two great question; "Is there a God and is there a Heaven?" And if there is, how can I know its true? 
The first way to know anything about God is through human love. Jesus himself made it clear; "Love God and love one another; that is the sum and total of Law and the Prophets."

As I plum the depths of my soul in all my hopes and all my fears, here is where my heart settles itself; I have come to know God because someone loved me first. In my case it was my grandmother who came to my rescue. She made it clear to me that there is a God, there is a heaven and the way to know it is so is through the love God has sown into our hearts.

And then I learned to pass it on to my wife, my children, my congregations, the neighborhoods where I have served, the poor, the hungry, the homeless and so on, and so on. This is because they all loved me. There is no limit to the love God pours into our hearts and through our hearts to others.

Through my years as a parish priest, I have spent a good many hours in hospitals and nursing homes, on the telephone and in my office, sharing the love that God shares with me. 

I cannot begin to tell you how many times I've entered a hospital room to tears of gratitude and hope. All I have to offer is a smile, a hug, a prayer and a blessing, but somehow this will suffice.

I can also tell you that there are times I entered a hospital room just as a matter of course, and the patient might say; "Oh my God, I didn't think it was that bad!"
Alas it is just what a priest will do, to make his or her rounds at times when the questions arise? 

And the only answer I have is the love of God. And the only pathway I know to the love of God is through human love. And the only way that I can see God is through the love I bear toward my dad, my grandmother, my mom, and hundreds and hundreds more who are gone from us here; I love you all. I miss you all. 

Sometimes, when I say my prayers, take my walks, or lay awake at night in contemplation, I think of those living and gone toward God, as I think of them, love and joy fills my heart. Those who first loved me, I now love because God loves us all. We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses!

The dividing line between us is broken by such love. The dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, Slave and Free, Male and Female, the living and the dead. All these dividing walls are broken by the love of God in the person of Jesus Christ, as we see it in Christianity. Only the love of Jesus can break the dividing wall between the races, the rich and the poor, the genders and so on.

My friend with whom I had lunch happens to be gay, as was my uncle as are two of my children. Finally, finally, the dividing wall between those of the LGBTQ community and the rest of us is also broken by this love. My uncle has been waiting for this day, even though he is long gone.

Is there a God?
Is there a Heaven?
Only love can make it so.
And from the Christian witness, only the love of God in the person of Jesus can make it so.
Anyone who has ever brought communion to the sick knows the power of the ancient prayers; 
"Almighty God, to you all hearts are open,"
"Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy,"
"Holy, Holy, Holy Lord"
"O Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,"
"The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven"
"The Peace of God which passes all understanding."

Even in the bleakest moment, these words bring hope because they bring love; human love as well as the love of God because Jesus lived, Jesus died and Jesus rose again. 

Is there a God?
Is there a Heaven?

Only as I build a pathway to love, can I possibly see it, taste it, live it and know it. 

The world we live in with all of its suffering and all of its violence, demands the courage of those who will love one another, and not just those who are easy to love...but those who wish us harm as well. 

It is the only way to turn their hearts and ours. As Jesus did, on the cross, dying for the sins of the whole world. There are so many who do not understand the pure simplicity of God's love, God's mercy, and obedience to God's Law requiring us to love one another.

The rise of Fundamentalism in Islam is matched only by the rise of Fundamentalism in Christianity and Judaism and in other religions worldwide. Fundamentalism capitulates to a primitive ethic in the Abrahamic religions; an ethic that declares "an eye for an eye". This approach to retributive justice justifies killing in the Name of God and making the whole world blind to the love of God
Fundamentalism is a renunciation of the pathway to God which Jesus articulated on the cross.

What we read today in the Biblical narrative is that God seeks a home in which to dwell in Zion. Paul seeks to develop a home for God in community; a structure built in the hearts of all those drawn to Jesus. Ultimately in today's Gospel, Jesus sees his own temple built upon the needs of the people who seem to him like sheep without a shepherd, and he has compassion on them and for them. Jesus loves them all. 

Is there a God?
Is there a Heaven?
It all depends of our willingness to love one another. 
As Jesus made so abundantly clear; 
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God
Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God". Amen.

If there is to be a God or if there is to be a heaven, there is much at stake, and it all depends upon our willingness to say "Yes" to God for first said "Yes" to us. 

And now may the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore. Amen.

Fr Paul

God Bless America?

On the 4th of July I put this question to our congregation;

God Bless America?

If I were to say to you; "God Bless America", what version of America would come to you mind?
Would it be a Republican or Democratic version?
A Conservative or Liberal version?
Would there be a free market or fair distribution of wealth in your version of America?
Would your America be in gridlock or would you be able to engage in open and honest dialogue with those you most vehemently disagree with?

When the holidays came around to our home and all the aunts and uncles gathered back with us, my grandmother, who was the matriarch of our clan, pleaded particularly with my uncle, "This year no talk politics or religion, please!"

"Ma, if we can't talk about politics or religion what else is there to talk about; the weather?" And so it went then. So it goes now.

The country is bogged down in political deadlock in Congress. We seem unable to find a way forward, but what is the more serious is that we seem unable to hold civil discourse with one another.

We tend to demonize one another, alienate one another, and push one another further away into one camp or another.

But we say; "God Bless America!"

We have our pancake suppers, our parades, our cookouts, and for the most part we seem civil to one another; until those irascible moments come where we find ourselves on edge over one issue or another.

The problem is that we often get stuck rather than find a way to talk our way through the problems or issues that divide us.

In is our pledge we state that we are "One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all". By the way those words; "under God" were not part of the original pledge. They were added in 1954. And, by the way, the author of the pledge was a Socialist Cristian Baptist minister, Francis Ballamy. And the pledge itself was not written until 1892, and wasn't popularly used in the nation's schools until the year of my birth, 1945. It may be useful to remind ourselves of the history of this pledge and the facts surrounding it. 

If I really mean it when I say; "God Bless America", then it follows as night follows day that I believe in "One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." That Credo puts me under the authority of those words, and as such I cannot allow myself to merely believe in my version of America, but of America in all its diversity; with all of its versions, and all people who dwell with us here. 

That becomes problematic when we discuss the matter of legal and illegal immigration. Given my own history, I find the debate a bit strained. The English side of the family came here a very long time ago and if you were to consult with the native or first Americans who welcomed them to these shores, I'm sure that they would articulate a chronicle of shabby and violent treatment. 

By the time we got the the Irish or Italian parts of our family, to tell you the truth all you had to do was buy passage on one of the many thousands of ships that came to these shores and get yourself processed at one of the many points of entry on this side of the Atlantic. And we were not always welcome on these shores either.

Given that record of immigration policy it seems a bit disingenuous to suddenly insist on somebody's notion of "legal" immigration when that just didn't seem to be a factor when my countrymen arrived on these shores.

Alas; we still say; "God Bless America."

When Jesus came to his home town, he tried to preach the Gospel there, he tried to heal them, but to tell you the truth, he found them wanting in faith. In fact the Gospel makes it sound as if he could not, was not able, to do any great miraculous deeds there, such was their want of faith. We are told that he was amazed at this. To tell you the truth, so am I. Typically, when I think of Jesus as the Son of God, I think that his miraculous powers were and are unlimited. But in this case, it seems that their want of faith also played a role in what Jesus could do.

Thus when I say; "God Bless America," or when you use that expression, I hope you do so with a somewhat more expansive view as to which version of America you would like God to Bless; your version the version of someone who is diametrically opposed to you politically, or to a version which embraces all of who we are as a nation.

To tell you the truth, I lived in Canada for 11 years and often think of my friends there as I did on Canada Day just a few days ago on July 1. I think too of my British friends on the Queen's birthday. I made some wonderful friends growing up as I did with so many Jewish folks and think of them by name at the high holidays. Now I am making friends of many Arabic folks and take special thought for them during Ramadan. 

In the words of the Psalmist; "Your praise, like your Name, O God, reaches to the world's end; * your right hand is full of justice."

On and on it goes.

Oh yes, may "God Bless America!" 

But when God created the world and all that is in it, when God formed humankind in the image of God, there were no political boundaries yet drawn. There had to be many, many wars fought to define those lines. When we look at this fragile earth, our island home from a satellite, there are no lines with countries drawn in different colors as our maps define them.

We are all one.

Just as we are all one in this country. To be sure we will all have our versions what would make the country better, God knows I have mine, but let's begin with a more expansive version that transcends my particular version and remember our Creed, namely that we are; "One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all".

In the meantime lets have our pancake breakfasts, our parades, our cookouts, our family gatherings and get togethers with our friends. Let us travel and take our vacations and enjoy God's good earth and the blessings that have been bestowed up on us in this good land...

Never forgetting that it is God's good intention that this very Blessing extend itself to all nations and to all peoples in the world God created for us all to share.

And now may the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all evermore. Amen. 

Fr Paul