Ten Commandments

ETHICS ARE BASED ON RESPECT – Exodus 20: 12 – 17

Christians believe that the most important rule that should govern the relationship with others is LOVE based on Leviticus 19:18. However, the Ten Commandments suggest it is RESPECT. It is not a contradiction. Respect is a starting point that paves the way to love. “You can take a horse to water, but you can not force the horse to drink water.” Respect is like “taking a horse to water” to create the condition that will lead us to LOVE.

Respect stops you to commit murder, adultery, theft, dishonesty, envy and greed. And it begins with appreciating your parents. Acknowledge that your parents brought you into the world and therefore give them respect. It is not a matter of choice. Without parents, there is no ‘me nor you.’ Respecting your parents, even imperfect ones, means you are affirming your own existence. Not respecting your parents is to deny your own existence. That’s a starting point. The remaining five rules are deeds as the result of respect. They are necessary rules for our own survival in the interdependent world.

When you read the Old Testament however, you will find the Ten Commandments demanding observance of those six rules hypocritical. The commandment, “Thou shall not kill, steal, commit adultery, lie, nor be envious,” was required only among the Israelis. They were gratuitously violated otherwise. The God of the Old Testament freely allowed Israelis to not only ignore them but often were encouraged to violate them.

The same is true today. There are many excuses to disobey the six Commandments. In fact, despite the universal acceptance of the Ten Commandments as the fundamental rules for any decent human being, they are shamelessly ignored and violated. War, capital punishment, under-cover police operation, espionage, and competition in the market motivated by envy and greed should be all illegal among all children of Abraham – Christians, Jews and Muslims. The Ten Commandments are the basis of our ethics and legal systems. But that is not the case. Why? Why you must not murder your fellow citizens but can kill your enemies? How can you explain that?

It’s the contradiction stems from the conundrum caused by the juxtaposition of specific and universal. When you say, “Charity begins at home,” you recognize the universal importance of charity, but you have to begin practising it specifically at home. The circle begins small but must expand. When it is not big enough, the contradiction exposes itself. When you say, “I love my country.” your statement is based on your limited experience and specific knowledge of people and communities you know. You do not know whole of Canada and all Canadians. But you can not claim to love Canada if you do not love some Canadians you met and the parts of Canada you know. Your love of the country begins at home. Specific and universal are one undivided continuum . There can not be one without the other. You can not claim to love Canada if you hate your home town.

Jean Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” He does not know life. We are not alone. We exist because of others people. In an African language, there is a saying, “ Motho ke motho ka batho.” It means “ a person can only be a person with people.” That is what Nelson Mandela called, “Um Buntu.” Interdependence is the only viable way for us to survive as a species. This is why welfare of the whole community is vital for us. “A man is not an island.” So when you recognize the importance of interdependence, you know that respect other persons is also critical for our survival. Respect is not only an article of moral ethics, it is an indispensable ingredient of the recipe of life. No one can survive if the community you live in is not functional, where members want to kill and/or deceive each other. Guns do not guarantee your safety.

When a community is small, there must be respect for family, friends, and neighbours. But outsiders must be repelled, therefore the rules that are essential within a community do not apply to outsiders. They can be ignored and other rules must be followed. So do not kill your neighbours but may have to kill the outsiders. But as the size of the community become larger, those rule must be applied to the larger number of people. This is how tribal laws become national, national become international, and international to universal. Same rules that have to be applied to humans will have to be expanded to include animals and plants when interdependence of all creatures are recognized to be essential. The world we live in can continue to exist only when all rules become universal.

Now briefly the specific rules:

Respect your parents: this is not a matter of choice, it is given. You don’t choose your parents, likewise you don’t choose the Creator. You deny God at your expense. The stupidity to deny your origin will lead you to your own ultimate demise.

Do not kill: killing other people is an act of suicide in the interdependent society. When you respect another person, you are exercising an art of survival.

Adultery is an act of disloyalty: when your impulsive pursuit of self-interest takes over, your are not behaving according to respect. A community where there is no loyalty will not live long.

Theft is the result of lack of respect for the boundary between you and other persons. In many societies where sharing is the norm, there is an understanding that sharing is different from theft. Theft is an act as a result of lack of respect for other person’s boundary.

Deception is the result of ignoring truth for selfish interest.

Envy and greed also is the result of selfish pursuit ignoring the need for the interdependent community.

There can be many other examples of the ways to exercise respect, but the author of those rules were restricted to reach and stop at the number “10″ as the number for the perfect laws. Therefore, the number can be altered. In fact, many followers of the ancient Jewish traditions later added and expanded the scope of moral ethics. Christians did the same such as Seven Deadly Sins.

However all rules must be based on love because it is the sum of all laws. (Romans 13:8 – 10)

WE BELIEVE IN ONE GOD

WE BELIEVE IN ONE GOD – What does it mean? –

The Ten Commandments – Exodus 20

Laws in the Old Testament are published in two different formats; many of them are in the form of stories. The Ten Commandments, however, are another style which is a listing of code of conduct item by item. Listing format in the Western legal tradition is first found as the Code of King Hammurabi of Mesopotamia (1554 B.C.) It predates Moses by about five hundred years and is a precursor of the Ten Commandments.

For many of us, the list format is easier to understand than stories because it is short, pointed, hence clear. Our laws are promulgated as itemised lists. The story format is ambiguous and is left to interpretation. However, it is debatable if list is more effective. In later years people like St. Paul questioned its efficacy. (Galatians Chapter 3) Be as it may, it is very important to recognize that the principle of the rule of law was introduced at the time the arbitrary power of the monarchs was on the rise. The Bible has always been sceptical about the power exercised by humans. Remember the story of the first King of Israel Saul? God was not sure if any human should have power over others. (I Samuel Chapter 8) Rule of Law rejects the notion of arbitrary power of human: no one should be above the law.

The Ten Commandments are actually amplification of two basic principles: The first principle is that there is only one God, or perfect truth. Secondly, the ethics of interpersonal relationship is based on respect. However in ancient days, numbers had meaning and ‘two’ had to be avoided, because it meant division. Laws must not contradict each other. Thus two fundamentals were expanded to make a list of ten rules. ‘Ten’ makes it the perfect law.

I. The first and second commandments – verses 3 – 5:

The verse 3 and the verses 4-6 are two sides of a coin. There is only one God and anything conjured up by human is an idol – false god. Because of this belief, Christians during the time of the early Church were persecuted and/or killed for not recognizing the divinity of the Roman emperor. They refused to pay tax because it was called an offering to a god. Likewise, twenty centuries later my father was detained from time to time during the Second World War for not publicly acknowledging the divinity of the Japanese emperor in his sermons; the act considered to be treasonous as was interpreted as a rejection of the authority of the military. The military were considered to be the instrument of a god the emperor.

Christians and Jews believed they had to refuse any recognition of human power to be divine and insist that anything human was temporary and could be wrong. That was the basis of the second commandment; prohibition of idol worship. (Verse 4 – 6) We must recognize that this is a refusal to accept any assumption, hypothesis, idea, image, and theology of God to be absolutely true. Many religions, though claim to be monotheistic, often appoint a certain human figure and/or institution such as church hierarchy, pope or prophet and bestow upon them the ultimate divine authority. We believe they are also idol worship. No human can be god and possess ultimate truth.

It is natural that we want to know perfect beauty, perfect goodness, and perfect everything; happiness, love, power, justice, peace, or pleasure. Because we don’t know or have never seen what that perfection is, humans decided to call it “god”: Plato called it “ideals.” Many people, except Christians, Jews, Muslims, called anything amazing, beautiful, big, merciful, or powerful ‘god.’ Today, many people believe money, profit, and wealth as such the most important therefore god-like. Therefore, there are many conflicts among gods. Though monotheism began as a tribal God of the Jews, rejection of idiolatry eventually led it universal monotheism. This is the meaning of rejecting idols: All things imagined or perceived by humans can not be perfect and ultimate. Therefore, search continues.

The belief in One God is the motive of all enquiries and never ending search for truth. It means no hypothesis nor imagination should be termed as complete and final. Hence monotheism is intrinsically doubt-driven; so the search for truth never ends. This is the reason why monotheism, the Jewish-Christian-Islamic tradition has always been the primary mover of scientific pursuits. All scientific conclusions are hypothesis and are discarded with a new discovery. Jewish Albert Einstein made Christian Isaac Newton redundant. Likewise all human search for the ultimate reality never ends.

Belief in one God means an unceasing search for absolute truth. It is why it is called “belief” or ‘faith” not knowledge, because no one possesses it. Jesus said, “Nobody has seen the wind, nobody knows where it comes from. We only know it is there because we feel it.” If you claim to know it, that is no longer belief or faith, it’s a knowledge. Once it is a knowledge it is no longer eternal, because it is limited to the capacity of a human brain. Faith is like rendez-vous; ‘waiting for a lover.’ You wait because you believe the love you are not yet 100% sure exists but continue to wait because you trust your lover. The great philosopher, Socrates, said, “One thing I know for sure is that I know little.” Here faith and science have a common ground. Since we know little, we keep looking for it. That is the life of a believer.

Faith is a journey, not ownership; nobody owns God.

The third and fourth commandments: (Verses 7 – 11)

The third commandment is not a mere prohibition to swear. It prohibits any action in the name of and/or on behalf of God. None of us has a complete knowledge of God therefore has no right to act in the name of God. We are seekers. Just like scientists never stop to seek secrets of the universe, and artists search for beauty, we seek the truth. And the search never ends. We can never assume that we possess answers. Life is a perpetual process of search. But alas, so many people claim they know God and speak for Him! They are all liars and idol worshippers.

The fourth commandment regarding Sabbath is often misunderstood. We must take note that the word Sabbath comes from a Hebrew word ‘shabbat’ which means ‘rest.’ The idea that Sabbath is the day of worship did not come from Ten Commandments. It comes from the synagogue and the church in their institutional need for the people’s support . It recognises an importance of rest – break from routine. It is ‘holy’; the word simply means ‘special’ or ‘different.’

In search of good government

First ISAIAH – Chapters 1 – 39
In search of the good government

As you begin to read the Book of Isaiah, you can feel trapped in doom and gloom. You must understand that Isaiah was angry and afraid of the future of his nation of Hebrews. He condemned not only his own country but also many of the surrounding ones. He was fed up. It is rumoured that because of harshness of his criticism, he angered the king and was executed. You have to read it patiently to see beyond the angry rhetoric. You will find here and there his yearning for an ideal ruler – a good government. His dream is so alive that it looks like he was seeing a figure of Christ. This is why Isaiah became known as the prophecy of Jesus the Christ. “Christ” is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah,” meaning “anointed one”.

Isaiah condemns nations in many parts, (Chapters 1,2,3,13,15,17,18, 19, 22 – 39.) Isaiah criticised them for their bad governments (kings), corruption, and immorality. He predicts destruction and suffering as the consequence. He condemns not only Hebrew states but all nations in the Middle East. (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 13, 15, 17, 18, 19, 22 – 39.) God is also non-discriminatory in choosing his agent. For example, he chose non-Hebrew Persian and Assyrian kings to be the messiahs. (chapter 10). I don’t think Isaiah intended to predict appearance of a person like Jesus. He just wished there was a government (or king) which was faire, just, merciful, and wise.

The book of Isaiah is an influential book in Christian faith. Frederic Handle wrote the beloved oratorio “Messiah” often quoting verses from the book of Isaiah to characterize Jesus the Messiah. In the entertainment world also, the recent Walt Disney cartoon movie, “Zootopia” is inspired by an ideal world (11: 2-9 & 65: 25) where preyed and predators live together without being harmed. The first sermon Jesus gave when he began his ministry at a synagogue in Galilee was a quotation from Isaiah. (Luke 4: 16 – 19) Isaiah greatly influenced Christian idea of social justice too.

The question is: Is Isaiah predicting what the life of Jesus would be like? Was Isaiah describing a man yet to come eight hundred years later? Or did Jesus tried to emulate his life according to the image dreamt by Isaiah? Or did the Church altered, or fabricated some parts of the oral tradition about the life of Jesus to fit Isaiah’s prophecy? In my way of thinking, it really does not matter. Faith does not necessarily have to be based on historical facts. Spiritual truths can be expressed in different literal forms; fictions, history, or poetry. “What is it trying to tell us?” is the question we should be asking. I think that debating facts or fiction of the Biblical passages is a meaningless exercise in our spiritual life. Faith is a conviction of things not seen nor known. (Hebrew 11:1)

For example, in search of a good government, Jesus was made to be a descendant of King David in order to qualify him as the ideal king; “the King of kings” – the best government. Matthew made Bethlehem as his birth place. The city was known as the city of David, his birth place. (Chapter 9) The difficulty of this notion is that if Jesus was a result of immaculate conception (virgin birth), he was not the son of Joseph therefore not the descendant of King David. Isaiah traced David back to Jesse as his ancestor. (11:1) Matthew traced Joseph’s ancestry to David. Mary the mother of Jesus was not an offspring of David. So, Matthew’s argument is a bit of a stretch. It isn’t history. Matthew tried to build up Jesus’s image of the Messiah by manipulating some facts. But we get the idea. The life of Jesus was the model of the best king (government).

A prophet in the Bible is not a fortune teller. He/she does foretell the future sometimes but that is only one aspect of his multiple mission. Like Moses, a prophet conveys the word of God: in other words, he/she was a preacher. Like Miriam, she celebrates the miraculous God’s action after crossing it on a dry sea floor with dance and music by the Red Sea: a worship leader. Like Samuel, he anoints kings, advises and often scolds kings like Nathan. He declares justice on the street like Amos. The prophetic function is one of today’s preachers’ dual mission, proclamation and teaching. A prophet is a messenger of God.

The Book of Isaiah was not written by one person Isaiah. It probably began as the document recording the original words of Prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C. It looks like his autobiography in many parts, particularly in chapter 6. But other prophets added their writings. It is a compilation of many prophetic works written in three centuries. In ancient days, it was not unusual for people who admired a particular writer to add their own writings to the original text. You realize that before printing press was invented in the 16 Century, all documents were hand-copied onto a piece of parchment or of skin or chiselled on a piece of flat stone. Copiers added, edited, and omitted freely as there was no copy-right laws. The book of Isaiah is the work of many people who agreed and admired the original prophet. Imagine editing Jane Austen!

Scholars agree that it contains the writings of at least three major prophets. The first is Chapters 1 – 39 written by the original Isaiah written just before the defeat of kingdoms of Israel and Judah by the Babylonian empire – the eighth century B.C. The second is the chapters 40 – 55 written by a nameless prophet in Babylon (the present day Iraq) just before the liberation of the Jews from captivity in the seventh century B.C. And the third is the chapters 56 – 66 by yet another nameless person after the return of the Hebrews to Palestine, in the sixth century B.C..

The prophets in the Bible speak about three dimensions of life: the relationships with God, with people, and with the world. In today’s preaching, the first two are major common themes; first about the nature of God; secondly about personal moral ethics. But rarely do we hear the third dimension; politics, foreign relations, history, and society.

Today, politics is often off limit in religion. On the contrary in the prophetic tradition, as you can clearly see in Isaiah, politics and society are dominant themes. He spoke prominently about morality of kings (politicians and governments) and foreign relations. He spoke about historical events as the consequences of political actions and God’s responses. In fact, politics and history are the major themes of the first Isaiah: 1 – 39. Let me pick a few salient points the first Isaiah raises:

– God hates empty words and showy rituals – worship service. Building, clothes, and ornaments mean nothing to God. They are like wine left to become sour and waterily. (1:12)

– God’s rule is peaceful and just. Beat swords into ploughshares. (2:4)

– A young woman will bear a child, who will be a wise counsellor and Prince of Peace. (7:10) The word “young woman” was changed into a Greek word “virgin” when the Catholic Church translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. It followed the traditions of other religions which often made the birth of their gods the result of immaculate conception.

– The poor will be protected and widows and orphans will be treated justly. (10)

– A non-believing foreign king, Syrian, can be an instrument of God. (10:5)

– The vision of the world under God’s rule. A David’s descendants will produce a new king who will rule with wisdom and treat the poor fairly and defend the rights of the helpless. Wolves and sheep will live in peace. (11: 2 – 9)

LEVITICUS – OUTDATED RULES ? OR STILL VALID.

LEVITICUS – Book of Rules

– MOSTLY OUT DATED BUT SOME ARE STILL PRECIOUS –

Jesus said, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself,” and called it as the most important law of our faith. It is a quotation from the Book of Leviticus. (19:34) But the abomination of homosexuality also comes from Leviticus. In fact, many of the rules in Leviticus are outdated and impractical. If all the commandments are strictly followed today, a large percentage of the world’s population, at least among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, will have to be put to death. How many people would survive if those who spoke against their parents and those who engaged in sex outside of marriage are to be stoned to death?

Leviticus was written as the manual for the priests who were known as Levites. They were custodians of the correct form of worship and the standard of moral ethics. The source of its content is known among the Biblical scholars as “P” for priest. Not only P is the main content of the Leviticus, it is also often quoted in other books of Torah – Law, the first five books of the Old Testament. However, in this paper I am not touching on the first 10 chapters for the sake of time, because it is all about rituals and contains an entirely different category of subject matters from what I decided to discuss.

The basic motif of Leviticus is that God is holy therefore we have to be clean to be acceptable to God. (19:2) What then do the words “holy” and “clean” mean? Simply put, holiness equals cleanness. To be clean determines our action towards God and towards fellow humans and other creatures. The notion of “holy” was actually nothing uniquely religious originally. It simply meant ‘special’, ‘different’, or ‘unique’ as oppose to ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’. It was in later years religious institutions made it a religious notion, hence adoption of the word like ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ to distinguish it from secular sounding adjective.

It seems that the idea of ‘holiness equals cleanness’ has a lot to do with health and procreation. Basically it derives from a concern for our well being and secure future. But to determine what is clean seems to be dependent on subjective, aesthetic, and emotional reactions, no way objective or scientific. So there can be difference of opinions depending on different cultures, places, and even on climate. So we who live in different circumstances from the Middle East often don’t understand some peculiar rules. How can an animals with divided hooves and eat cud are clean, but that do not eat cud are unclean? We who live in different places and times have no idea why such distinctions were made. I suppose it is totally contextual and/or subjective judgement.

Granted some rules have survived the test of time and geography and are still valid; e.g. prohibition of mildew or incest. (13:47 & 18: 6 ff.) However, many ethical decisions were made according to cultural and/or aesthetic bias. Anything that looks yucky, disgusting, and slimy looks unclean, therefore is bad for your health and bad for your spirit. The logic is, “It looks disgusting and unhealthy so God must hate it.” Liquid and solid discharge from any orifice of the body is deemed to be disgusting according to the cultural bias therefore determined to be unclean. Of course, some rules stand the test of geography and time. But most passed expiry dates and are obsolete, such as rules against eating certain animals like shrimps and pigs.

As for the rules against male homosexuality (18 ff), it is interesting to note that lesbianism is not mentioned. It shows that the prohibition of male homosexuality has to do with the need for preservation of seeds for future offspring, hence abomination of male masturbation as well. Preservation of the blood-line in a harsh desert climate and in the hostile neighbourhood was the primary concern. In milder climate and/or more civilized less violent societies, like ancient Athens, male homosexuality was thought of as natural and positive. In fact, in ancient Athenian society attraction between men was considered to be the most beautiful emotion, and is an ubiquitous theme in literature.

We must not forget that in ancient times people died very young and in large numbers especially in the harsh condition of the Middle East. Tribal wars were common. Death was ubiquitous. Survival of species was of utmost importance. The rules against waste of blood and semen were very much in keeping with this spirit. Scholars speculate also that the reason why male homosexuality is particularly detested has also to do with sensation of disgust about anus, a source of uncleanness.

At the same time, you must discover and recognize the positive aspect of Leviticus. You will find many precious gems that last forever. “Love your neighbour” is one. Love should be a criterion to weed out obsolete rules. There are other gems also that should be more strongly emphasized such as the notion of Jubilee. ( Chapter 25 and following) I often wonder why we have ignored those wonderfully humane commandments.

What I particularly think precious is the idea of Sabbath – sacred seven; after seven days taking time off to restore health and sanity in your body and in your relationship. The notion of seven is extended to seven years, and seven times seven years (forty-nine years). On the seventh day, you stop working to bring physical strength back and get together with family and friends to restore relationship. After seven years, you stop planting in order to give soil rest allowing time to recover richness of soil, and do not charge interest on the loan so that the poor people have a break. After 49 years (7 x 7), all debts must be forgiven, and all slaves must be freed. If anyone was forced to sell the house or land in the past 50 years, it has to be returned to the original owner. In the year of Jubilee – the 50th year; all must be forgiven out of love and welfare of community, nature, as well as of yourself.

It is such a companionate and humane idea. It’s such a radical idea that human race never had courage to follow the commandments of “sacred seven.” Seven is God’s time therefore it should mean love, restoration and salvation. Human race never followed it because it is bad for business. Leviticus spends many pages how the concept of Sabbath (Sacred Seven) should be implemented compared to relatively minor requirements like taboo on male homosexuality.

No matter how we screen out some of the obsolete and outdated rules, Christ’s primary “love” command is supreme and forever lasting. All others must be judged according to the supreme commandment, and be preserved or be allowed to expire. In conclusion, Leviticus has to be examined carefully to be applied in our life and time.

Creation Myth

Preface: “The Bible is not…..”

The Bible is not a collection of the words of God. Humans wrote it. However, reading those human words, you will be led to the Word of God. It is a collection of the record of the search for God in their experiences. It is written in different literary forms. The Bible is not a history book neither is it scientific. There are too many mistakes as history or as science. It is not even the book of morality, though it shows you the way to find it. It is like finding a pearl in a pig sty; there is a lot of muck around it as Jesus put it in Matthew 13: 44. Martin Luther compared the Bible to the trough in the animal shed. There is so much dirty and smelly stuff but that’s where the Holy Child is laid. The way to read the Bible is not to take muck as the words of God. But find God among it. Do not throw that away ; if you do you may throw out the Baby with garbage. You must examine what’s around it to understand the context in which God revealed himself.

Let us find what the writers of creation stories tried to say to us:

Humans have to this day always wanted to know how we came into existence. By knowing how we began we think we will know the purpose of our lives a better. This desire to know the beginning is universal. Every race has its creation story. And all creation stories are about intentional actions; not accidental happening. People who wrote creation stories did not believe humans came into being by accident. It was not like a monkey sitting in front of a computer banging away on the key board and by sheer accident voila “Romeo and Juliet.” Humans saw themselves to be the beings with purpose. Someone wanted us to exist and brought us into existence for a reason. That someone we call God.

Wise men and women of old imagined how the world could have come into existense, passed the idea around by word of mouth by the fire. It was written down later. They are all fictions inspired spiritualy wanting know more than just superficial facts. However, though they were the result of imagination, they tell us the importance of the belief that what we see is not all that there is and there is something important beyond what we see.

However, even during those ancient days, there were people who did not believe that there was anything or anybody beyond the visible world. They think that what is here is the result of series of accidents. Greek philosopher Epicures for example, believed that we came into being by accident and our lives had no purpose: A monkey wrote Shakespear, a sheer accident. The writers of the Bible did not believe that. Which one to believe? Choice is ours.

The creation stories of the Bible contains at least two different, perhaps three, traditions. All of them come from the region which includes present day Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Chapter 1 and 2 contain two distinctively different stories. Even God is different in Chapter one and in two. Chapter one has a god who is translated and called in English as “God.” But in chapter two, he is referred to as “Lord God.” The word in chapter 1 for god is “Elohim.” It is a generic word for god, could be any divine being, Islamic or Hindu. The second one is specifically Hebrew God and is spelt in Hebrew script as “YHWH.” Nobody knows for sure today how those four consonants should be pronounced. Jews see those four consonants today and always say “adonai.” It means “Lord.” It is not the pronunciation of YHWH. They had not pronounced it by obeying the commandment, “Thou shalt not mention God’s name.” So now they do not know how it should be pronounced anymore. Chapter one’s god means all gods. But the second one is distinctively Hebrew, the Jewish God of Abraham and Sarah.

Not only do they have different names, their characters are different like they are two persons. The god in Chapter one “commands” with words and creates out of nothing. God addresses himself in plural “us” as though there is a family of gods. In Chapter 2, God works with hands, takes a walk, gets angry, and knows loneliness; in other words more human. God in chapter 2 created human by moulding mud into human shape, not out of nothing. God created the world in seven days in Chapter one, whereas in two there is no such reference to the time God took to create the world.

As for 7 as the number of days it took for God to create the world, we must recognize that numbers have always carried specific meanings, even today, to mean something other than just numbers. Seven, for example in Hebrew tradition, meant perfection. The writer of Genesis chapter one did not actually mean “7 days.” It was meant to be perfect; could be several billion years from the time of Big Bang. Other examples: One means God, five means grace, 6 means sin, etc. In Japan. 4 means death and the total number of gods is 8 million, ten thousand means “never-ending.” The Great Wall of China is called “Wall of Bannri (Ten thousand miles):” the wall that never ends.”

Speaking of 8 million gods, the reason Japanese think there are that many gods is because they deify all elements and phenomena in the world: Mt. Fuji is a god, Tsunami is a show of anger of the god of sea, earthquake is caused by a god who looks like a dragon. The Sun is a godness. The Greek/Roman gods are the same: for example the god of love-Venus, etc. Here is a definite and importance difference of divinity. The God of creation is beyond our reach and totally other being from our experience, while the other traditions (Asian and Greek/Roman) is god as a part our visible world. This is an important difference. It is like our contemporaries think that money and wealth are most important thing in the world: money is god. Ancient Israelis were always tempted to worship the golden cow, a symbol of fertility and wealth. The Bible definitely insists that God is the totally Other, the existence beyond us.

There is one difference between chapters 1 and 2, which requires special attention. It is the view about man and woman. Chapter one says, human are made like “us” (note that god in plural), and made them male and female. There is equality between men and women, and share God’s likeness. (1:26 ff) However in chapter two, God made a man first then woman from a rib of the man. Man was here first. How should we read this?

Though there can be many other interesting questions in the creation stories, one thing that needs to be emphasized is what is created is good. God was pleased with what he saw. The point is also made by the use of the number “seven” for the number of days he took to create the world. The number seven means in Hebrew tradition completeness. That the world is perfect is the basic belief of the writers. Nature is good. If there is any problem, it is because someone or something is behaving against nature.

REINVENTING MISSIONARY

WHERE IS MISSIONARY?
Acts 16

The word ‘missionary’ comes from a Greek word ‘apostolos’ (apostle). It is translated into a Latin word “missio.” It means, “being sent out into an unfamiliar place with a good news.” Mission is an integral part of Christian living; Jesus sent disciples out for a mission. (Mark 6:6 – 13) Some one rephrased Mark’s Gospel’s message, “a beggar telling another beggar where to find food.” It is an action in humility and love, not of domination and power. However, the idea had been wrongly understood and practiced by the Church for centuries. It’s time to rediscover its true meaning. Acts 16 helps us find the mission of Jesus Christ in true form.

When I went to Africa in 1968. I was sent out by the United Church as a missionary, almost one of the last ones to be called by that title. We were a group of twenty-six people trained together, ordained ministers, a dentist, physicians, nurses, engineers, accountants, and teachers. We also studied in Paris because our destination was the church that followed French Huguenot tradition. There, I trained with a Swiss mechanic and his wife, a nurse. Already the notion of “going out into the dark continent to lead heathens to Christ” was quite redundant. We were commissioned to help the local indigenous churches with skills they needed. Today the United Church does not send missionaries. It sends out “overseas personnel” when requested by overseas church partners. Why the change? It is a result of post colonial revision of history, where the word “missionary” became a bad name.

In Africa, I ran into harsh criticism of the Western missionary movement coming from African colleagues. They termed former missionaries as the agents of Western colonialism and imperialism. They said, “When you (missionaries) came, you had the Bible and we had the land. Now we have the Bible and you have the land.” Canadian indigenous people make the same observation. David Livingstone was followed by British soldiers who conquered East Africa from Cape Town to Nairobi. Cecil Rhodes famously asked the Colonial Office, “Send us more missionaries. They are cheaper than policemen.” Although today Christianity is the fastest growing religion in Africa and in the world, something went terribly wrong in the process.

The cause of this travesty was the marriage of the Roman Imperial power with the Catholic Church. Religion became a tool of the Empire. For eight centuries, there was no distinction between church and state. It distorted and re-defined the notion of the Mission of the Church. So the missionaries and the armies marched together into Asia, Africa, and Americas. Consequently, in Asia there are only two countries which have never been colonized: Japan and Thailand. Why? Both countries prohibited the Christianity by refusing entry of the missionaries and brutally persecuted and killed those who had been already in the countries. Those locals who had already been converted met the same fate. In Africa, only Ethiopia was not colonized. Ethiopia had long been a Christian country with the well established Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which is older than the Roman Catholic Church. All the rest of the continent became colonies of European countries. However, missionaries from Americas did not represent colonial powers but preached Western culture. American missionaries urged locals to accept Christianity as the way to become civilized. Thus the strategy of the Christian mission switched from use of state power to cultural intimidation.

However, despite the negative effect of the wrongly implemented the vision of the mission of Christ, you can not deny the importance of the apostolic faith and the centrality of mission. For nearly eight hundred years, the Church got it all wrong. Swiss theologian Emil Brunner called it “A glorious misunderstanding.” But do not dump the baby out with bath water. It’s time to rediscover the true meaning of Christ’s mission. Let us see how the Acts of Apostles chapter 16 helps us see the true way of Christian mission.

Timothy’s circumcision, verse 3: Timothy was a son of Greek father but because his mother was Jewish Paul circumcised him. Customarily all children of Jewish mothers are considered to be Jewish. It shows Paul’s flexibility and sensitivity. Despite a great controversy about the circumcision and his objection, he was ready to be accommodating, because the matters that were culturally important to the Jews. Compare that to the Canadian churches’ determination to stamp out all native customs like Pow-wow and Potlatch.

Speaking to the believers, verse 4: Paul never forced his way in. He approached only those believers who were ready to listen. And as in the case of Lydia (next paragraph) this verse does not say which God these Romans believed in. Would Paul speak to a believer of a pagan god?

Women, verse 11: In Phillipi, he was hosted by a rich merchant woman, Lydia, whose home became the church. Sociologist Rodney Stark who studied the rise of Christianity attributed the prominent role women play as one of the most important reasons for rapid expansion of Christianity. Unfortunately the advancement of women’s status in the church was halted when the empire took over the control and the church adopted the male dominated power structure of the imperial government. But the Bible records many important roles women played in the early church.

Healing, Verse16: Christians always followed the example of Jesus and showed compassion for the sick in body and mind. Rodney Stark again pointed this out to be the reason why many Christians survived the plagues and the church grew fast. When mental and physical afflictions were considered to be punishments for evil deeds, patients were often abandoned to die alone. But Christians took care of the sick and the possessed thus they survived.

Charitable work often offends money and power, 19 – 24: Paul and Silas were imprisoned because their healing act caused loss of business and offended the people in power.

Forgiveness, 25 – 34: Paul did not hold grudge against the jailer and gave him a new life. Only politician I know in world’s history who forgave those who inflicted injustice was Nelson Mandela. All others, though being Christians, practiced the law of revenge and called it justice.

Forgoing privileges, 36 – 40: Paul and Silas did not insist on the privileges they were entitled to as Roman citizens. Whereas Western missionaries always rode on the coat-tails of the colonial power, and took advantages of the special status where-ever they went. For example, my salary was better than the locals, and I had a free car though locals walked.

WHY DO WE SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF?

WHY RELIGIONS FIGHT OVER SMALL STUFF?

Acts 10 – 11 and 15: 1 – 25

Late Hugh MacCullum, a former editor of the United Church Observer, told me once that a large number of protest subscription cancellation happened each time after the publication of articles about women and sexual ethics, not so often about international and political issues. The first serious fight in the early Christian Church was not about faith in Christ. It was about food and circumcision. Were they that important? Granted, any question, no matter how trivial, can represent an important question worth fighting for. However, a sad fact is: more often than not, so many unimportant matters cause divisions.

After a bitter fight about food and circumcision during the first Century in the early Christian Church, a compromise was reached by dividing the church into two language groups; into the Greek speaking people and the Hebrew speakers. Greeks lived mainly outside of Palestine and Hebrew Christians around Jerusalem. This arrangement allowed different life-styles to co-exist by separating them geographically. Accordingly, Greek speakers whose number increased exponentially were allowed to eat whatever they used to eat and were spared from knives of circumcision. The Hebrew speakers continued to observe the traditional Jewish laws like Kosher food and circumcision.

The fight must have been fierce judging by the angry tone of the Letter of Paul to Galatians. Paul wrote the letter around 54-56 A.D. Consequently the big council meeting of all church leaders was called in Jerusalem to resolve it. (Acts 15:1-35) However, when the Acts of Apostles was written about 30 years later, compromise measures had been in practice for some time, hence the gentler tone of the book.

It is interesting that the Apostles and the leading charter members of the church in Jerusalem could not simply prevail over new non-Jewish members. The new comers were converts to the Jesus movement and mostly lived outside of Palestine. They spoke Greek and their customs and moral conduct offended the observant Jews, who still thought the Jesus Way was a reformed Jewish religion. The leaders of the church in Jerusalem lost the power over the new members because the number of those “gentile Christians” was large. (Acts 10 & 11) Also, the church in Jerusalem began to be heavily dependent on the financial support of those converts. (1 Corintians 16:1-4)

Why were food and circumcision such serious subjects? My guess is: often superficial differences touch people’s nerves more than invisible spiritual matters. How many people today criticize Muslims from their knowledge of Koran? Their objections are about ‘head-cover’ (nuns used to wear those) and because some of them are terrorists. Have people count the number of Christian criminals? Some Jews still blame Christians for holocaust. Vladimir Putin is a devout Orthodox Christian. But we don’t term Christianity a criminal organization because some of the criminals are Christians.

A concern for health was not so much about science, but very much a part of religious life. Bodily cleanliness and spiritual purity were the same thing. Practice of circumcision for example came from a sanitary concern, and was not invented by the Jews. Many regions in Africa and Middle East have a long history of this custom because of hot climate and scarcity of water.

When I went to Africa to live in 1968, I found that circumcision had been an entrenched tradition until European missionaries prohibited it as a heathen custom. It was never completely eradicated. The practice has continued clandestinely. Recently, ironically it has become a widely accepted knowledge that circumcision reduces HIV transmission, and is now encouraged.

As for food taboo: fear of anything that crawls and creeps on the dirt or ocean floor, slimy and weird looking things such as pigs, oysters, snakes, snails, shrimps, and worms, etc., were all suspect because of their disgusting appearances. Also men feared blood while women didn’t. For men blood represented death and violence while for women menstruation meant readiness for new life. Males dominated religious life, thus mixing blood was prohibited in foods. Blood was offered only to God as a symbol of sacrificial death.

In antiquity a concern for physical and spiritual health was one and same. Bacteria and virus as causes of ill-health were not known. Sickness was considered to be the punishment from angry gods. They were also the acts of evil spirit. This is why when Peter was faced with God’s command to eat with a captain of the Roman army, it was compared with the eating unclean foods. Italians are seafood eaters after all. Because cleanliness was spiritual matter, water and washing are not only acts of cleaning but also important part of worship in many religions.

However, were the issues that bothered the followers of Jesus still so important when Paul started to travel among non-Jews? Should the community based on love and mercy kick out some people because they eat different food? Peter was forced to change his mind and ate with the Roman. Paul and those who spoke Greek didn’t think food was an essential part of the faith in Jesus Christ.

It is interesting to note that even the minimum conditions the Jerusalem Council imposed on non-Jewish Christians were soon abandoned and ignored. Times change rapidly. How many European Christians stopped killing chickens by strangulation or stop making blood sausage? There is a fundamental problem with detailed rules of conduct and treat them as the core faith practice. Laws were introduced as a way to be obedient to God. But they immediately created problems. As Paul said, Law brought to us curse because we now know what is the right thing to do which we do not want to do. We know what not to do, so we do it. (Romans 7: 19 & 20) This is the perennial dilemma of human conditions. Rules are often temporary.

The same problem still rages today in many religions. The society is divided over abortion, assisted death, head-covers, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Violence and even wars are fought over those cultural and life-style questions. Often words of the Holy Scriptures are used to justify the positions that are not really core values. This is why it is important to learn from the experience of the early church; how they separated the core faith matters from the customs and traditions which were mere temporary expression of faith. They are often time specific. What then is the core value of Christian faith? That is the most important question.

HOW DID SAUL WHO HATED CHRISTIANS BECOME APOSTLE FOR CHRIST?

JEWISH SAUL MET RISEN CHRIST
AND BECAME CHRISTIAN PAUL

Acts 9

The gift of the Jews to all humanity is “monotheism” – belief in “One and Only God”. Paul’s importance lies in the fact that he made that uniquely Jewish faith universal. Before Paul, Judaism was the only religion that espoused the notion of one god. Belief in the one that transcends all human imagination, the absolute other, is now the belief of two third of world’s population who believe in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or native spirituality. Most of other millions of gods were reflexion of human’s own aspirations and desires, such as longevity, money, sex, power etc. Paul says of this type of belief, “they are serving their own bellies.” (Romans 16:18)

Paul is a central figure of Christian faith: dare I say he is the second most important person next to Jesus himself. His letters and those that carry his name, and his life story dominate the New Testament; 14 out of 27 books. Some people have even called him the founder of Christian religion. But oddly enough he never met Jesus alive. His claim to be an Apostle is based solely on his encounter with the Risen Christ, while all other Apostles lived and walked with Jesus alive. This is why the resurrection of Jesus is central to Paul’s faith (1 Corinthians 15: 14).

Also his nemesis alleged Paul was an imposter who wanted to start his own religion by claiming he met the risen Christ. Saul was a Greek speaking diaspora Jew; opponents alleged his Jewishness was corrupted by Greek philosophy. Worse still, he had been an enemy of the Jesus movement known as the “WAY” as the church was known, jailing its members and overseeing their execution. (Acts 8:1) No wonder he had difficult time being accepted into the church.

So what happened on his way to Damascus? He had heard there was a thriving community of the members of the “Way” in Syria. With a licence from the Temple authorities, he was on the way to arrest those Christians. But something happened on the way that transformed him. This episode has been often called “Paul’s conversion.” (Acts 8:1-3 & 9:1-31) However, I would argue that it was God’s call to a new assignment. It was not a conversion. It was a step in the evolution of his long held Hebrew faith which he did not throw that away.

On the way to Damascus, he was called to be a missionary to spread the way of Hebrew God to the Greek speaking non-Jewish world. In other words, Saul did not reject the Hebrew tradition. He realized that the resurrection of Christ was the fulfilment of God’s design to be the God for all peoples, not just for the Jews. This is why he adopted the Greek version of his name “Paul” in stead of the Hebrew name Saul. (Acts 13:9) He became a missionary of the monotheistic spiritual tradition to the world of many false gods.

The way it happened as described in the Acts sounds like a heat or Sun stroke: “a sudden light flashed around him, and he fell to the ground from the horse-back and became blind.” (Acts 9:3-4) Likely story: the distance between Jerusalem and Damascus is 200 k.m. in a straight line, more than a week of horse back ride under the hot Sun of the Middle East. It was a long ride. Heat/ Sun stroke probably induced hallucination. He must have been thinking about those brave and faithful people like Stephen who stood face to face with a brutal persecution. “Who are they? What made them so strong in their belief?” It must have troubled him enormously.

Another factor that has to be kept in mind is the fact Saul was a member of the Pharisees, the party led by scholarly lawyers and teachers (rabbi). Another dominant group was the Sadducees, who believed in importance of the Temple and the rituals. They were often in conflict with the Pharisees. They quarrelled over many issues about spiritual life. For example, Pharisees believed in resurrection and Sadducees didn’t. For Sadducees, the religion was a this worldly institution; buildings, hierarchy, order, rituals, finance, etc. But for Pharisees, it is about deed/ morality, belief, doctrine, learning and teaching. Jesus himself took upon himself the life-style of the Pharisees rejecting temple culture. Jesus criticised hypocrisy of Pharisees but not their philosophy. The Sadducees disappeared after the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 68 A.D.

The next question is: how can a man change so completely? On the way to Damascus, Saul realized the mistake he had made in his belief and completely changed his view of Jesus. This really shocked him. He didn’t know what was happening to him. He could not see his way. People rarely change their basic attitude. Can a zebra change its stripes? However, changes are normal in other context. Swans are black when they are chicks but they grow up to be white. Change of mind is natural; a normal progression of life. When you stop changing, you are dead.

An example: I am reading a auto-biography of Nelson Mandela’s personal secretary, Zelda la Grange. She is a white Dutch descendant. She grew up in a conservative Calvinistic home and became convinced that Black people were inferior race. How did she change after being chosen by Nelson Mandela to be his closest assistant after he was elected the first Black President! She became the closest confidante and the trusted friend of Nelson Mandela. A sheer strength of Mandela’s charisma did it.

How did Saul become Paul? It was a growing process of his belief system. It must have been quite a shock for Paul but was natural; a progression from a tribal god to the universal symbol of love. It was so shocking that he could not face the world immediately afterward; he went into hiding for 3 years in Arabian desert. (Letter of Paul to the Galatians 1:15 – 18) He did accept the new assignment eventually to be an Apostle to the non-Jews, and faced both external and internal enemies. Thus began the process of the belief in one God, began among Hebrew people, becoming the universal God for all people through Jesus the Christ.

With Saul changing to Paul, Joshua Messiah in Hebrew language became known in its Greek name Jesus the Christ (Iesus Christus). But many Jewish Christians insisted on keeping Jewish customs such as kosher food and circumcision: they thought those Jewish customs should be kept as an integral part of Christianity. But Peter and Paul didn’t. Thus the people of “the Way” became “Christians” in Greek word.

Stephen and suicide-bomber

STEPHEN, THE FIRST CHRISTIAN MARTYR
ACTS 6:8 – 8:1

Boxing Day is St. Stephen’s Day. Remember a Christmas Carole “Good King Winceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen.” Stephen was a martyr stoned to death for his faith, thus became the first Christian martyr.

Thinking about Stephen the Martyr, I want to make it quite clear that our faith does not encourage suicide. Christian faith does not glorify death. Death of an innocent person happens because evil hates goodness and innocence. So evil kills a good person, especially when a good person tells the inconvenient truth.

A martyr does not seek death recklessly. Remember Jesus’ prayer on the night he was arrested to be crucified in the Garden of Gethsemane? “Father, take this bitter cup away from me.” Jesus did not seek death. He dreaded it. There is a distinction between martyrdom and suicide. Christian faith is based on the respect for life therefore does not glorify gratuitous death. It is important to recognize this today when some religious extremists glorify suicidal acts.

When I lived in Palestine in 2003, I saw many pictures of Palestinian young men and women on community bulletin boards who died committing suicide-bombing. They were called “martyrs.” It is a wrong use of the word; they were not martyrs. ISIS terrorists also misuse the word in the same way. Likewise, during the WW II, Italy and Japan misused the word: Japanese suicide bomber pilots were called “Kamikaze – wind of God,” and in Italy the sailors rode torpedos and steered it to the enemy warship and died. They were not martyrs though were called as such and celebrated as heros. Martyrs die for their conviction, but do not commit suicide.

A best-selling Japanese Catholic novelist, Shusaku Endo, examined the notion of the word “martyr” in the church and wrote a historical novel called “Silence.” (You can buy it in English through Amazon.) Endo tells a story of a historical figure, a Portugese Jesuit missionary priest in Japan during the 16th Century. His name was Christovo Ferreira. At that time, in Japan, practice of Christianity was prohibited punishable by death. Covert Christians were tested, by being asked to step on the image of Mother and Jesus. Those who didn’t were burned at the stake or crucified. Endo depicts Ferreria as a man who could not bear watching his beloved Christian converts dying because of what he taught them. Ferreria decided to outwardly recant his own faith, and appear to give up his own salvation, in order to set an example and try to save the lives of Japanese converts. Endo criticised the cult of martyrdom that celebrates these individuals as heros and saints.

Did Stephen have to die? He was stoned to death by crowd who heard Stephen’s speech. A rumour had it that he was speaking against Moses (Laws) and the Temple. High Priest asked him if the rumour was true. (Acts 6:13) He did not deny the charges. But he gave a long speech to explain his belief. (Acts 7) Stephen recalled the history of the Hebrew people who repeatedly behaved against God and against the messenger of God, Moses. Also, he reminded people that God always went to wherever people moved to. God ordered people to pitch a tent for him. Stephen reminded people that God did not live in the houses built by humans. (Acts 7:48) People did not obeyed the God and killed God’s messengers, prophets, many times. In the end, they killed the Messiah they were waiting for, referring to the crucifixion of Jesus. (7:52)

The question is: did Stephen knowingly say these things in order to be killed? And was it even a legitimate death penalty? There are some interesting questions raised in the New Testament instances of execution. For example, Jewish authority technically did not execute Jesus. Crucifixion was a Roman method of execution; Hebrew custom was death by stoning. Jesus was crucified for an offence against the Roman Empire as a terrorist. Meanwhile, Stephen died using a traditional Hebrew custom–though without an official trial. The Council officials participated in the stoning, but it was a “knee-jerk” response; they behaved like an unruly crowd. In other words, it was a lynching. It is obvious that the official temple authority avoided the responsibility of due process for Stephen’s death. In the case of Jesus, the Temple authority shifted responsibility of his death to the governor of Roman Empire; and, in the case of Stephen, left it to an unruly crowd. The temple authority and the office of High Priests did have authority to formally examine and execute offenders of religious crime, such as adultery. Why did they evade the responsibility in the case of Stephen?

In both cases of Jesus and Stephen, what angered the religious authority was a threat against the temple, not Jesus’ teaching as such. Jesus upset the finance of the temple by disrupting its market system. Jesus’ action against merchants triggered the plot to kill Jesus. (Mark 11:18) Stephen questioned the legitimacy of the temple by telling the traditional story of the tent called the “tabernacle”, as the meeting place of people with God. David was not allowed to build a temple. Solomon did, to show off his success and wealth in building his empire. Building was a symbol of power, not of God but of humans.

When religion becomes a matter of domination and power in stead of respect for God and love for fellow humans, it becomes demonic; evil not blessing. That was what Jesus showed through his life and teaching. Jesus was about love, not power and domination. This is why he had to die. As far as the religious authority was concerned, what Jesus stood for was not allowed. It was the same with Stephen. He had to die.

However, religion can not overtly claim to be in a position to seek power for itself. It has to be seen as acting for the welfare of the world. This is why in both cases, of Jesus and Stephen, the temple authority avoided the responsibility for the deaths of two good and innocent men; shifting it to the Romans and to the unruly crowd. This is hypocrisy. Jesus often condemned hypocrisy more severely than immorality.

When Salman Rushdie was under a threat of death by Iranian authority, he did not condemn Islamic religion as such. He said that when religion assumed power it became evil. Christian church was guilty of it many times in history just like a certain groups of Islam today. Religion is about mercy and love, not about power and wealth. Therefore when religion begins to claim the right to domination, power, and wealth, it no longer has legitimacy. Particularly if it claims the right to kill, it becomes a demonic power. This was what Stephen was fighting. And he didn’t back down. Did he commit suicide, or did he have to die? Good question.

The First Church – a commune

THE CHURCH BEGAN AS A COMMUNE

ACTS 2:42 – 47, 4:32 – 37, 5:1 – 11, 6: 1 – 6

After the ecstatic euphoria on Pentecost five weeks after the Passover, many people who were present became convinced that Jesus was risen and was alive: He was indeed the Messiah Jews had been waiting for. They stayed together and organized themselves into communes. It was a necessary process for unorganized crowd to become a viable institution as the church. A big crowd often creates euphoric frenzy. I attended a meeting of eight thousand people once: the once in a decade World Council of Churches Assembly in 1983. Through two weeks of living together on an university campus with many inspiring speeches and motivational talks, music and singing, prayers and endless conversations in big and small groups, even a sceptic like me was swept away into an emotional fury .

It is up to us to decide if Pentecost was a work of a transcendental power like the Holy Spirit or a mass hysteria. I do not reject the legitimacy of such a collective phenomenon even if it could be termed as a emotional fury of the crowd. There is a place for a collective uplifting experience such as, dare I say, a rock concert. The one in Woodstock during the 1960’s became a turning point of Anti-Vietnam War movement. But if it is an authentic event that should evolve into a a long-lasting positive life force, the initial excitement has to be followed up by a long term process of a collective reflection and interaction. Lack of such a process leads a emotional high to disillusionment and disappointment; even to boredom. This is why an effect of the huge Evangelical assemblies often fizzles out. But Pentecost kicked off the two thousand year history of the Christian Church. So how did it all begin?

The first church was a communal living in a loving, sharing, and caring community. They regularly met to celebrate the risen Christ. It has become Sunday observance to celebrate the day Christ rose, the third day after the death on the cross. They told each other stories of Jesus in endless conversations while sharing food. They shared possessions also. Thus the first Christian Church was a commune. They gathered at the temple in Jerusalem to worship according to the traditional Jewish rites. Then, they went to the homes of members, who had big enough space to accommodate large number of people. They talked about the amazingly uplifting experience they just went through. At the temple, they were prohibited to preach about Jesus; his teaching was considered to be heretical by the establishment religious authorities. Therefore sermons were given in homes by Apostles who actually met and followed Jesus physically as disciples in his ministry . The sermons were stories of Jesus’ life and teaching, the collection of which eventually became the Gospels of the New Testament.
(2: 42-47)

The church communes were made up of diverse peoples. Though the majority were Jewish, there were also many non-Jewish peoples who came from all regions of the Mediterranean world. In today’s terms they came from Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Greece, and even Italy, Spain, and islands of the Mediterranean sea. (2: 9-10) Among the Jews, there were at least three different kinds of them. A majority spoke Hebrew who lived mostly in Judea. But there were Jews from the northern countryside of Galilee including Jesus and most of the disciples. They spoke Aramaic. Also by then many Jews were already scattered throughout Mediterranean world and spoke Greek which was the universal language of the day like today’s English. They were also from different classes such as different income groups, and educated and uneducated. Furthermore, there were many non-Jews who did not follow Hebrew laws, therefore were disdained as being unclean. How could such a diverse group as that stay together?

In order for them to stay united as a coherent group, first they had to learn to live together overcoming the hurdles, suspicions, and even hostility the difference generates. First step was; they tried to overcome the different degree of wealth. They brought all their wealth together and put it into the common purse to share; many even selling property. They ate together at the same table. That table evolved into Communion Service. They did this in the homes of relatively well to do members, such as the mother of John Mark, the writer of a Gospel (Acts 12:13). Some faith groups like Amish and Hutterites maintain this life-style. This regiment must have been strictly observed judging from the severity of punishment imposed on the cheaters. (4:32-37 and 5:1 – 11)

More difficult was difference in language and culture. It seems that the Jews who spoke Hebrew dominated because there were more of them. So those who were in minority unfamiliar with the Orthodox Jewish customs were looked down upon. The first target of discrimination were Greek speaking Jews: it is just like people who don’t speak English in our community. They were often neglected in the daily distribution of provision. Also sometimes, poor people and widows missed the meals at the common table: Paul reported that by the time the poor and widows came to the table there was no food left though early arrivals were well fed, even drunk with wine. Some others were looked down upon because they did not observe kosher, eating prohibited food. Something had to be done.

There was a need for the designated persons to keep the order so that everybody was treated equally. So Apostles, whose job was preaching and teaching, selected seven persons to look after the practical aspect to keep of the organization. Hence there appeared leaders who attended the administration of the order of the church. In fact, those seven proved themselves to be most dedicated and faithful people to the extent that the first person who died for his faith was from this group of seven – Stephen. (6:1-6)

Thus developed three essential components of a sustainable institution in the first church: Emotion, Reason, and Order.
– Emotional elements began with passion of Pentecost, and nurtured by empathetic and caring communes.
– Reason was maintained in teaching and preaching.
– Order was overseen by the two groups of leaders: twelve Apostles who looked after the spiritual aspect of the communal living and seven Serving Elders who took care of the practicals.

Why the Old Testament more angry than the New?

WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT ANGER

Anger: a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility  –   Oxford English Dictionary.

I looked up Oxford Dictionary and the Concordance that lists all the words of the Bible.  I thought interesting that in English language an angry emotion prompts both constructive and destructive actions.  Anger can motivate you to take a positive restorative action; but when anger turns to hatred, your ensuing action becomes destructive.  The use of the anger word in the Bible also has the double-edged implication.

In Concordance I found the adjective “angry” 174 times in the Old Testament (OT) but only 3 in the New Testament (NT); the noun “anger” 65 times in the OT and 6 in the NT.  I looked up the ‘anger’ word only, but there are also a lot more angry situations in the OT than in the NT.   In other words, there is more anger in the Old Testament.  Why is that?  There must be a good reason for this.

The OT contains 39 books and NT 27.  But a third more number of books in the OT does not explain why there are so much more anger in the Hebrew Bible.  My guess is that the belief in God evolved among the Jews: from an angry, dominating, jealous, and possessive power towards a caring and faire-minded parent figure.  That was an evolutionary process of belief system, from the creation story through the history of Hebrew people, finally into the time of Jesus in the space of about four thousand years.  God of Yahweh is very different by the time He revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth.  The Bible is the travelogue of a progressive spiritual journey.

In the beginning, there was a god who claimed all the power, was jealous and vengeful against all those who annoyed him or did not completely submit to him.  You find him most in the first five books of the Bible.  He was angry with Adam and Eve just because they didn’t obey God’s commandment: they ate a forbidden fruit because it would give them god-like ability.  This does not make much sense because God made humans according to his image.  And yet, he didn’t want them to have a god-like ability: a contradiction within the same book.

God was angry with Cain who killed his brother Abel out of jealousy.  God chose Abel’s offering of animal sacrifice over Cain’s vegetables.  It shows the hunter gatherers’ anger with an economic  progress; from hunting to agriculture.   It is a typical case of anger of the one who becomes obsolete.  This passage clearly shows religious people’s nostalgia for ‘good-old hunting days, which are passing.  Why did they think God was angry with progress?

God was also angry with the whole world who acted against his wishes: angels were marrying human women and creating a race of giants.   Why is this so bad?  It does not make much sense to me.  But God punished the whole world and killed every living thing with a great flood, except those who were on the boat.  But He in the end regrets the cataclysmic consequence and promised Noah never to repeat such a devastating punishment.  Here a merciful God appeared.  The story of Jonah is another one where God decided not to punish people: an introduction of a loving God.

Then, the faithful people ran into a serious dilemma.  Pain and suffering were not always angry God’s punishment for the evil and unfaithful.  Obedient people suffer too.  Job was angry with God, because he was always faithful and just and yet suffered grievously.  He asked God, “Why, why, why?”  The Book of Job does not really give an answer.  It simply concluded that God was powerful and in charge, so just “suck it up” was the message.  He is still arbitrary God.   But one can be angry with God, and can question Him, “why.”   So the Bible progressed from an angry God to anger of people with a seemingly unfair God.

Another step forward taken in the Bible is the anger of righteous people with unjust measures and unfair business: the anger with unjust people.  Prophet Amos was angry with crooked scales used by profiteering merchants who cheated customers.  He went on to denounce injustice generally.  This is the third stage in the progress: God is just and fair, no longer arbitrary.

What is wonderful is an appearance of forgiving, loving, and merciful God in the Prophet Hosea.  God never gives up unfaithful people just like Hosea didn’t.  He loved his wife.  Hosea went after promiscuous unfaithful wife even to a brothel where she ended up.  He spent fortune to buy her back.  In Hosea, anger is shifted from people to evil itself.   He is angry with evil that enslaved his wife to illustrate the love of God.  God is now forgiving and loving but hates evil that ensnares people.

The final stage of the progress, to my belief, in the evolution of God, is the image of a suffering servant, a lamb who suffers and dies for others.  (Isaiah chapter 53)  That is the image of God that became reality in the life of Jesus.   “God so loves the world that he gave his own son.” (John 3:16)  And this is the apex of our Judeo-Christian tradition.  Does angry God disappear with Jesus Christ?  No, it goes toward a different direction: false religions that exploit vulnerable people.

Jesus got angry with religious leaders who misled people away from the belief in loving God.  He was angry with the religious establishment who profit from innocent and gullible people. He kicked out money changers and sellers of animals for offering from the temple court yard, who enriched the temple and made priests fat and powerful.  The temple religion tried to convince people that they have to buy forgiveness.

Another kind of anger you find post-Jesus is with legalism.  Paul was angry with those who insist on the observance of the laws of Moses as the way to salvation, rather than belief in the forgiving and merciful God. (Paul’s letter to the Galatians)  He was angry with the redundant and retrogressive idea that you have to follow the letters of the laws to please the angry God, rather than believing in his love.  Paul’s anger is restorative not punitive.  Ephesians 4:26 says, “Do not let your righteous anger lead to sin (destructive action).  The case in point is the anger of the older brother of the prodigal son.  He was angry with the one who strayed and wasted his life and father’s money.  (Luke 15:28)   This is a destructive anger, while father’s was the love that forgave the prodigal son.

Conclusion: Nature of anger evolved in the Bible as our belief in God.

 

 

 

 

Bible and Morality – Uncomfortable Truth

THE BIBLE AND MORALITY

This article will make you uncomfortable, because morality requires honesty, and honest truth is not comfortable.  But remember, God loves us all. Therefore we must love God and all creation.

Do you know that banks have been ignoring the teaching of the Bible?  In  Deuteronomy 23: 19, God says: “When you lend money, do not charge  interest.”   But, our economy is based on credit.  Without interest,  the system will collapse.  Does that mean the economic system is against the Biblical teaching therefore is immoral by definition ?  A good question.  This is only one of the examples to show that it is impossible to follow every teaching of the Bible.

Do we have to follow every word of the Bible about moral ethics?  The simplest answer is “no.”   Why then so many self-righteous Christians justify their position about what to do and what not to do claiming it is based on the Bible?  A short answer is: it is because of a widespread misuse of the Holy Book based on misreading of the truth in it.  Likewise, in history the church is also grossly guilty of abuse of the Bible.

I firmly believe that the highest moral standard is found in the Bible.  I really do.  But each and every word of the Bible does not always give you the appropriate and correct answer to everyday practical question on ethics.  A lot of the Bible contains myths.  Myths and stories often express much more profound truth because it is impossible for mere words to fully express truth.  This is why Jesus told stories.  Every word of the Bible is not necessarily literally appropriate all the time, because many moral questions are time specific.  When you have this understanding,  you will find the basis of moral ethics in the Bible.

First off, what is absolutely clear is the most fundamental commandment in the Bible is,  “Love God, and love your neighbour as you love yourself.”  (Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 22:40)  All the rest is circumstantial.  All ethical requirements must be measured against this fundamental dictum.

A journalist for the New York Times, A.J. Jacobs tried to live according to the Bible for one year and wrote a book about the experience: “ The Year of Living Biblically – Humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible.”   In no time, Jacobs ran into legal issues of the Biblical requirements.  You can not stone the person  to death who cheats on wife or husband, neither can you kill your child who speaks against you, for example. (Leviticus 20)  Such killing is illegal in most of the societies today.

If every Biblical commandment is not applicable today, why and how apply only selected ones?  Why should you pick the prohibition of male homosexual act and condemn all homosexuals, ignoring the fact that there is no prohibition of lesbianism in the Bible.  It is because preservation of clan, tribe, or race was the paramount necessity at the Biblical time when mortality was extremely high, and producing offspring was supremely important for survival of blood line: hence the prohibition of wasting semen, masturbation or sodomy.  Widespread disgust about anus is another factor.  Once you begin to selectively apply some rules not others, you are acting according to your interest, your preference, your taste, or your opinion, not necessarily according to God’s demand.

Let me mention an example of impracticality:  A. J.Jacobs tried not to sit on anything his wife sat on when she was having period, following requirement of Leviticus.  She became extremely annoyed and made it impossible for him to live in their home.  She sat on everything in sight.

Another example to show contradictions in the Bible:  Kings Saul and David were ordered by God to kill everyone and everything  of the Amalekites, (1 Samuel 15).  But Saul had a pity on the King of the Amalek and spared his life and a few animals.  God was extremely unhappy about his disobedience and decided to dump him as king.  On the other hand David killed absolutely every Amalekite and every animal, gained God’s favour, and became the most beloved king of Israel.  How should you think of this story in terms of  Ten Commandments that tell us not to kill?  Examples of contradiction like this are just too many in the Bible.

The message of A. J. Jacob’s book is that you can not take the Bible literally and apply every word.  You must read Biblical demands in context considering the circumstances; when and where it was written and for whom.  You must find the reason why a particular commandment was necessary at the particular time and place.  Once you know the basic principles motivating the commandments, you will know that the basis of all moral ethics can be found in the Bible.

You must understand that every demand in the Bible was made appropriately for a specific time, place, and circumstance.   Answer to an ethical question is always circumstantial: “It all depends” should be the opening sentence of all answers.  Does that means: anything goes?  Absolutely not!  There is a book written by Joseph Fletcher, “Situation Ethics” dealing exactly with this question.  Fletcher says:  the central and most basic ethical requirement for all  is found Matthew 5:43 -44, 19:19, 22:37, 39 and Romans 13: 8 – 10, which are based on Leviticus 19: 18.  “Love God and love your neighbours.”  Jesus said all the requirements are contained in this commandment, and all others are attempts to interpret  this basic law appropriately for the particular time and place.  You lie for love for example.

It makes you work hard to find the right conduct when situations change.  It is easier to remember a set of rules and follow them in all circumstances blindly.  Unfortunately life is not that simple.  You have to think when situations change.  All Christian ethics are situational. Christian’s search for ethical living is hard work.  It is easier to follow arbitrary rules blindly.  But this is a lazy person’s way.  Many dictators and dictatorial false religious leaders take advantage of this weakness and exercise their power not for God but for themselves.  Remember God created us as intelligent beings in his image.  Our brains are God’s gifts.  Let us use our brains.

This is why, when faced with difficult ethical questions we need community of believers to think together and exchange ideas.  Faith and faith-in- action are communal work.  This is why we have communities of faith.  The church is an essential part of our faith that works together to find answers.  Good luck to any person who claim that he/she can be spiritual and lead godly life alone.  Some people are gifted and can help others in this process.  Some people can be trained to interpret the Scriptures to apply them in the daily life.  This is why some of us can be teachers, or ministers.  But all believers can do that, by learning and thinking.  Besides, elders, ministers, teachers, and thinkers need help too, because none of us is perfect.

Another important factor in our effort to make right ethical decision is a need for some principles that help bridge the gap between the supreme LOVE commandment and practical challenges of our daily life.  Letters written by Paul in the Bible are very helpful in this regard.  When I was in the seminary, one teacher called those in-between principles “Middle Axiom.”  They are accepted-by-many propositions to interpret the basic commandment in practical situations.  They are points of reference like: justice, equality, kindness, respect for life, compassion, harmony; avoiding negativity like hatred, selfishness, or greed;  just to name a few.

More of them are found in the letters of Paul.  Romans 12 – 15, 1 Corinthians 5:1 – 7: 40, Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9, Titus 3 list some of the helpful suggestions.  However, again we have to keep in mind that all those practical teachings are time and place specific, and may have to be revised when situations change and time moves on.  Women do not have to wear hats in the church any more, for example.  No matter how much changes come to pass, we must remember that the one and only supreme commandment never changes.  If I may repeat:  “Love God and love neighbours.”  As Paul said in Romans 13: 8-10, that passage sums up all commandments.

Finally let us contemplate what the supreme Love commandment means.

First: What does it mean to love God?  It is a passionate belief in the loving spirit that is beyond our capacity to understand.  That is what loving God means to me.  We, the Christians, believe God has shown himself in the life and teaching of Jesus.  Even then, nobody knows how and what aspect of God Jesus revealed.  The fact is nobody has seen, heard, or touched God.  This is why we keep pursuing the meaning of the life of Jesus Christ with devotion and passion, because we love what we have heard so far.

On the dark side of this is: “Do not trust any human who claims to know the absolute truth absolutely.  Look suspiciously at people who speak in absolute terms; be they Christian fundamentalists or the Muslim extremists.  We keep looking and searching for truth with our fellow travellers passionately but humbly.  Situations change and the world changes, so do you have to adapt your behaviours accordingly.  You can do this if you are humble, ready to understand  different circumstances.

Secondly, we must love our neighbours as we love ourselves.  But who is my neighbour?  Jesus was once asked this question.  As an answer, He gave was a story of a good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25 – 37)   Who is a Samaritan?  At the time of Jesus, Samaritans were the most despised and hated people.  That means, the neighbour could even be an enemy.  He is not a relation nor a friend; you may not like him.  A neighbour represents a person, any person.  You have no choice of a neighbour.  He/she represents anybody who happens to run into to you, could be one standing next to you at a supermarket cashier counter.  You can extend the notion to all creation, even to a tree, a cat, or a gecko.  Love your neighbour.  This is the basis of Christian moral ethics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MINISTRY

MINISTRY: THEN AND NOW

– I Corinthians 11 –

In the Old Testament, three words defined the Ministry of Hebrew religion: Calling, Prophet andPriest.  The New Testament added Rabbi, Scribe, and Apostle. However today’s Church calls the member of the Order of Ministry differently from the Bible; Elder, Minister, Priest, Pastor, Preacher, or Deacon. How did those titles evolve? What are their job descriptions?

In the Old Testament, there were ‘Priests and Prophets.” Those two designations still summarise the vocation of ministry. Priests were the caretakers of the religious institutions and the spiritual care-givers for people; while prophets discerned the mind of God and communicated it through interpretation, preaching, and teaching. In many Protestant Churches such as our United Church of Canada, there is no “priest” in the Order of Ministry. We believe in the priesthood of all faithful through Christ.

Another important principle of the ministry is that it is a calling or a vocation. Ministry is not a “job.” A simple way to distinguish a calling from a job is to ask: Do you live to work? Or Do you work to live? In the case of the first, job defines you. In the second case, life is a mission and work is what makes that possible. If two are the same, it is a happy situation; just like a physician or a teacher whose calling is to heal or to educate while letting you make a living in the course of answering the call. But often those two don’t come together. Art is the calling for artists for example. But only lucky ones can make enough money to live by making art. They often work in non-artistic jobs so that they can follow their calling. Likewise, ministry does not necessarily allow you to make a living. Ministers in some countries have second jobs. Many convents and monasteries operate money making industries. In other cases, monks and nuns go out to work in day jobs.

In the Old Testament, Moses and his brother Aaron were the first prophet and the first priest respectively. Moses was called to be the prophet. God called him from a burning bush. (Exodus 3) Aaron, his brother, was anointed by Moses to be a priest. (Exodus 29) Moses relayed God’s words to people. Aaron officiated rituals to lead people in prayers and sacrifices (service). Moses was the first of present day preachers and teachers. Aaron was the priest and the administrator of an religious institution and the officer of religious rituals (sacraments). Priests were also watch-dogs for the correct practice of religion.

While it is easy to assume that priests made living from sacrifices (offerings), one can only speculate how prophets earned their living. There were some prophets established their positions by kings and were paid by them like Nathan (2 Samuel 12) and Isaiah (2 Kings 19). However, their primary job was to communicate the word of God in preaching and teaching. Therefore they were free of human authorities even from the ones who employed them. From time to time, the authorities didn’t like what some prophets said, and they had to run for life or killed. Their demand of the vocation came before their livelihood. Elijah had to run to save his life. (1 King 19) A legend has it that Isaiah was executed by a king. Some were clearly anti- establishment freelancers such as Amos, who preached on the streets and made living with a day job. Amos was a shepherd.

At the time of Jesus, the New Testament mentions several ministry positions in the lives of the Jews in Palestine: Priests, Elders, Scribes, and Rabbis. The first three were mentioned together in the Gospels as those who worked for the Temple in Jerusalem. Priests officiated rituals and were guardians of orthodoxy with elders as their consultants. Scribes were the Biblical scholars, as their job was transcribing the Scriptures, thus became knowledgeable of them. King Herod consulted scribes to find where Jesus was born for the wise men from the East. Also there must have been many low ranking priests scattered all over Palestine. When Jesus told a healed leper to go to a priest to be certified as clean, he was referring to the local priest, not the one in Jerusalem. (Luke17:14) That episode indicates that priests also looked after the welfare of people. Today, it is the minister’s pastoral work.

Also the New Testament mentions other Jewish religious institutions, “synagogues and rabbis.”  It was rabbis, literally meaning “teachers”, who continued the prophetic ministry. It seems synagogues were everywhere Jews were found, not only in Palestine but also in the whole of the Mediterranean world. Synagogues were ubiquitous, hence not all were possibly served by rabbis. You must remember, however, that in Jewish life, religious observance has always been a family affair. Head of the house read scriptures and said the prayers. Many men who could read were quite capable to step in to act in place of rabbis and cantors (readers) in the synagogues. Anyone capable spoke in synagogues. Hence, that custom allowed Jesus and disciples to begin their ministry. In a synagogue, Jesus was given the Scriptures and was asked to read a certain text and to explain what it meant. So he did and surprised people who saw Jesus only as a country bumpkin. (Luke 4) Synagogues provided the venue for Jesus, and people who were ready to hear the Word even from an unknown man like Jesus.

It seems rabbis were accepted as such without formal paper qualifications. Exception was Paul; he had the highest possible Jewish education. (Acts22:3) In general, some people must have been accepted and called “rabbi” if they sounded good enough to be one. There must have been many fakes and frauds also. This is why there were watchdogs like priests and scribes to keep eye on those who spoke in public and perform miracles. This is how, in the synagogues, the Good News of Jesus Christ began to spread throughout the Roman Empire.

However, in the early Christian church the new order began to develop. It began with twelve men who followed Jesus and were called “disciples.” After Jesus was crucified and no longer on the earth, they changed their titles to “apostles.” The word means “the one who is sent out with a mission.” In the Gospels such as Matthew 10 say, disciples were sent out by Jesus to heal the sick and spread his message. They became the first leaders of the church. A criterion to being “Apostle” seemed to be the personal knowledge of Jesus. Their successors later became bishops, who oversaw the church in teaching and practice of religious life.

However, two apostles were added later in addition to the original Twelve. One was James, a brother of Jesus. The other one was Paul. There didn’t seem to be any problem for James accepted as an Apostle, because he was after all a brother of Lord Jesus. But for Paul, there was a problem about his claim to be an Apostle. (Acts 26 and Galatians 2) Before his conversion, he persecuted many Christians and even supervised the stoning death of the first Christian martyr Stephen. (Acts 7: 58) Paul was accepted as an apostle only by some who accepted his claim of having met the Risen Christ on the way to Damascus. Some others didn’t. This was an important

episode in the life of the Church, because Apostles were an important link with Jesus, and Paul was the person who defined a large part of what is Christianity today. Without Paul, Christianity could have remained a mere heretical sect of Judaism.

There was no woman Apostle, though there were many women leaders of the church in the New Testament e.g. Acts 16:22 ff and 18. Many women faithfully followed Jesus even to the cross while all men ran away. It is an important question today why they were not Apostles. Anglican and Lutheran churches have recently installed women bishops, at last, to be the successors to the Apostles.

Many churches still consider the unbroken chain of succession of spiritual gifts from the original Apostles the most important source of the authority in the church. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Churches, to name a few, adopt this doctrine. They all have Bishops as the successors to the Apostles. Most of the protestant churches do not recognize the Apostolic Succession, because we believe all believers are sent out to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ and to do good work. (Luke 10:1 ff.)

As for other positions of the order of ministry in Christian Church, the evolution seems to have begun when seven men were ordained to help Apostles in the day-to-day business of the church. They were filled with spiritual gifts according to the Acts 6: l-7. Their duty was primarily looking after the material aspect of the church life. They later became known in the church as Elders (Presbyters): Teaching Elders (ministers and pastors) and Serving Elders (deacons and stewards). The significant part of this development is the fact that the first martyr, Stephen, in the Christian history, who died for his faith, came out from this group of serving elders (Acts 6: 8 – 60). His address before his death was one of the most impressive sermons recorded in the Bible.

I have briefly surveyed the Bible to find the references made of the Order of Ministry. There have been variety of designations beginning with Prophets and Priests: Elders, Rabbis, Scribes to Christian titles like Apostles, Deacons, and Stewards. Those Christian terms have evolved into Popes (the successors to the chief Apostle Peter), Bishops (successors of Apostles), Priests and Ministers; and Elders and Deacons. In the United Church of ours, there are now Ordained Ministers, Commissioned Ministers, Lay Pastoral Ministers, and Lay Worship Leaders. No matter how much names change, three things remain unchanged. It’s a calling, it is prophetic in preaching and teaching, and is concerned about the spiritual welfare of believers.

 

THE NAME OF GOD: WHY THE FUSS?

JEHOVAH – Who is he?

Jehovah is the name of God that appears mainly in older versions of the Protestant Bible.  The name was adopted by William Tyndale who studied Hebrew in Germany and was the first person to translate the Bible into English during the 16th Century.  Many scholars believe that the usage of the particular word began in Latin language during the 11th Century.   They took the symbol for God “JHVH” or YHWH, and fitted the vowels from the Hebrew word “adonai” (A, O, and Ai) into it.  “Adonai” is a Hebrew word and means “my lord.”   It created a Latin word Iehouah. This way of applying the vowels from a Hebrew word into another word in another language was probably a mistake.  Nevertheless many ancient English translators of the Bible adopted Jehovah  as God’s name: among them were those who produced the King James Version of the Bible first published in the 17th Century.  More recent English Bible translations, however, do not use it any more.  They prefer to use the word “Yahweh” in its place.   Many Evangelical Protestant denominations and others like the Jehovah’s Witness and the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints – the Mormons, continue to use Jehovah.

Jewish people incidentally do not use that name.  They, in stead of  pronouncing God’s name, substitute another word and say “adonai” every time they come across the symbol “YHWH.”  The generic word for God in Hebrew is “Elohim.”  Jesus called God “Elli” in his native tongue of Aramaic, and Muslims call him “Allah”, both from the same Hebrew root “El.”  When the Bible uses Elohim, the English versions translated it into “God,” while the symbol YHWH appears, it is  translated into “Lord God” or “Lord.”  However, the United Church of Canada still uses Jehovah but only once; namely in the Voices United hymn book No. 651: “Guide me O Thou great Jehovah.”  This is because the hymn is much loved by so many people in the original form; no-one dares to change it.

You may ask, “Why so much fuss about God’s name?”  Here you must ask “Why should God need a name, if there is only one God?”  It is like mother’s name among siblings.  If they have one mother, why should they bother to call her by name?  “Mom” is enough.  A baby doesn’t know mother’s name but knows who she is.  Likewise: Isn’t calling God just “God” enough?

True: we believe in one God and don’t need to know the name.  When there is only one God, isn’t a name as such redundant?  You must understand, however, that it was necessary to refer to their God by name because ancient people were surrounded by many gods. They fought for their god’s supremacy over other gods.  They had to fight off the likes of Jupiter, Zeus, Venus, etc.  Furthermore, during the days of Roman Empire, every emperor claimed to be a god, and forced people to worship him, hence tax was meant to be an offering to a god.  This was why the Jews and the Christians who lived under the Roman occupation had problems about tax because it was an offering to a god the emperor. (Matthew 22: 15 – 22)

All in all, God’s name was a dilemma for the Jews.  In fact, when Moses heard the voice of God in the burning bush and asked what the name of God who was speaking to him was, God answered, “I am who I am.”  What God meant was this: “You can not describe me by any name or in any human language.  It’s just me as you hear me, see me, and experience life with me.” (Exodus 3:14)  It’s like calling the one and only loved one “my love” without a name.  Who needs to call her name because she is the only one?  Nevertheless, the name of God does appear in the Bible.  I guess it is a compromise to avoid confusion.  The compromise was: “Yes, God of Israel needs to be identified distinct from other fake gods, so here is God’s name if you have to know. But don’t vocalize it.”  Thus the third article of the Ten Commandment Exodus 20:7 came to prohibit calling God’s name: “You shall not call my name in vain.”  This is how holy names have become bad words in the Western culture, because we were told not to call the holy name.

This is the origin of swear words.  Many of them come from religious language in Christian culture.  In other cultures, however, bad words come from other aspects of life.  The Japanese, for example, use names of animals to swear or insult others.

 

The word that appears in the Bible for the name of God is written as YHWH in Hebrew script.  You must realize that Hebrew language, even in Israel today, does not have scripts for vowels.  Written Hebrew is all consonants.  Also another the fact you must recognize is some characters are pronounced differently in different countries.  For example, Y and W sound different in some countries.  “Y” can be “I” in Greece and Ireland, and can also be “J” in Spanish.  So John becomes Ian in Ireland.  “W” is pronounced like “V” in Germany and other northern European countries.  Even vowels can sound different.

“A” in my name “Tad” can easily be “eh or ai” in the Southern United States.  Likewise, my daughter’s mother-in-law is a Russian Yiddish speaking Jew and calls me “Ted” like they do in Southern States.

So, this is how Yahweh became Jehovah.  There is another good reason for this mistake.  After the Jews were freed from their captivity in Babylon in 450 B.C., a stricter observance of the laws of Moses was imposed.  For example, because they were not allowed to mention God’s name according to the Ten Commandments, the Jews began to say “adonai,” in stead of the proper name.  After nearly a millennium of substituting the name of god with “adonai” in place of  YHWH, the Jews completely forgotten the vowels for it.  Thus they lost the memory of its pronunciation.  By the time Protestant Christians began to translate the Bible from Latin and Hebrew into English or German nearly two thousand years later, translators tried hard to guess how YHWH was and should be pronounced.  They decided to take, mistakenly, three vowels from the word adonai, namely A, O, and A, and fitted them between Y(or J), H, W(orV), and H.  This was how the hybrid word “Jehovah” came into being.  A sacred legend was born.  Many people still believe that that was not a mistake and continue to call God “Jehovah.”  I don’t mind that so long as they know whom they are referring to.

More recently, most of the Biblical scholars, after many years of research, have adopted “Yahweh” as the much more likely pronunciation of YHWH.  However, I don’t take this debate too seriously because our God is the God of Jesus Christ and I believe who he was, and his name is LOVE.  I don’t need to know the correct pronunciation of the name of the only one I dearly love.  In Japan, for example, people can not pronounce my wife’s name “Muriel.”  There is neither “L” nor  “R” in Japanese language.  It doesn’t matter.  My family love her dearly anyway no matter how mistakenly they pronounce her name.  Their hearts are in the right place. 

 

Long live Jehovah, long live Yahweh!  God’s name is love!

HE ROSE FROM THE DEAD, BUT HOW?

JESUS DIED BUT CAME BACK BUT HOW?

– What does resurrection mean today? –

That Jesus Christ died and came back to life is the most important article of Christian faith, but it is not history.  Resurrection is a totally un-scientific story but conveys the very important human values essential for our existence.  In a nut-shell, Easter is a message of infinite optimism, which is strictly a spiritual matter, not of science.

 

However, intoxicated by the power given by the Roman Empire as the state religion, the church gave itself the right to assume the divine authority, and had lived in the hallucination of entitlement to judged all aspects of human life.  This was how the church often came to dismiss science as heresy for the reason that it did not conform to the stories of the Bible.  It decreed that the Bible is history and science. This is how bodily resurrection of Jesus became an official doctrine and a matter of history.  Thus the true meaning of resurrection was lost in a superstitious delusion.

Now the table is turned upside down, and many people think that science can answers all questions.  Science has assumed the absolute authority and replaced the church of the Middle Age.  Many don’t take the story of Easter seriously, because science says the dead person does not come back to life.  This is shallow-minded arrogance like the church had.  It shows inability to separately appreciate two qualitatively different world views.   Can you imagine deciding a value of a human person by putting a price on each chemical component of a human body, calcium, carbon, iron, salt, water, etc. and adding them up?  A totally inappropriate way of valuation.  My worth could be less than one hundred dollars.

Faith and science do not belong to the same category therefore it is wrong to compare them.  We can not dismiss other ways of viewing the world such as aesthetics and spirituality as unscientific therefore untrue or inconsequential.  Another example: knowledge and wisdom belong to two different categories of paradigm.  We must recognize the different categories of world views on their own merits.  Then we will understand the message of Easter.

Now about Easter: one thing absolutely certain is that something extraordinary happened to a group of people after Jesus died on the cross.  Nobody can explain what it was that happened.  It happened simultaneously to many people and changed them completely.  Disillusioned followers of Jesus had run away after Jesus was killed on the cross.  But  a few days later something extraordinary happened and they all came back together again.  They all claimed that they saw Jesus alive.  Their stories were all different, often contradictory.   There is no conclusive evidence to any of them.  But one thing is certain: they were transformed into completely new persons, no longer afraid not even of death. They behaved as though death was no longer the end of the story.  This is the story of resurrection.   We must find its meaning though it was not a historical event.

We perceive death today differently even from decades ago.  Its negativity has diminished.  For example, my mother died at the age 96.  She was not ill.  She dies in her sleep.  She was happy until the end, but she was tired.  Besides all her friends were gone.  If she was offered a chance to live longer, she would have probably said “No thank you.”  What was the point of the belief in eternal life for my Mom?    What is going to happen to the traditional faith in eternal life, now that the sting of death has diminished?  The question about life has now shifted to the quality of life, not its length.

Paul declared that the faith without the resurrection of Jesus is useless. (I Corinthians 15:12-14)  Really?  I believe in the resurrection of Christ, yes, but I don’t believe he came back into his 32 years old physical body.  For me, death in the Bible meant ultimate despair, not necessarily physical death.   The message of Risen Christ is a victory of faith over hopelessness.  A quick survey of the passages of the Bible about the dead coming back to life has proven that point.

Throughout history, humans have been driven by three kinds of fear: the fear of hunger, of death, and of extinction of species.  Now that we are getting ever closer to the resolution to all those catastrophes, thanks to progress of science and technology, the relevance of traditional beliefs are rapidly becoming redundant.  We are no longer so afraid of them as our ancestors use to be.  Then the question is: is the belief in next life really that important, if it is a mere revival of the dead to life?   What is the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus Christ when we are not so fearful of death and not so attracted to longevity as before?

We live many more years than we have ever imagined, perhaps we live too long.  For many people death can be a relief.  Of course, death of the infants and the young must be avoided at all cost.  But it is possible for many to live to ripe old age of 90’s into 100.  The question now is more on its quality.  The current debate about assisted suicide and euthanasia is a serious concern morally and spiritually.  All in all, we can say, “Death has lost its sting. ” (Letter of Paul to the Romans: 13)

Let me go back to the beginning.  Why was the belief in life after death (or eternal life) so universally important in many religions?  It is because death use to be so ubiquitous and life so short.  Many new born infants and their mothers died.  If they survived the birth, they died of illness and violence, if not mal-nutrition and starvation, before they reached the age 50.  Death was everywhere.  It was the end.   It represented despair and hopelessness.  It was hell: in fact death and hell are the same one word in Hebrew language.  Therefore, avoiding death was an ultimate blessing and salvation.  Is it still so when some people began to live too long and are so tired to keep going?

 

So what is the meaning of resurrection today?  Why should it be so important?  What does the Bible really say about resurrection?  I suggest we look at some passages to find the answer to the question:  Is the Bible speaking about resurrection as the return of physical life after death?  Or is it speaking about an overwhelming sense of the presence of a dead person? In other words, “Did Christ walked among people physically alive or was he like a spiritual presence, a ghost?”  My answer is the latter.  That is how I view resurrection: the overwhelming sense of presence of a dead person.  Many who had followed Jesus Christ felt the presence of Jesus Christ so strongly that they felt he was there alive, but in actuality he was there spiritually.  They came to believe that death did not kill him.

The earliest account of an incident beyond death and back to life, in the Bible, is the story of dry bones coming back into life in the Prophet Ezekiel 37.  This is obviously a metaphor, a vision of hope beyond hopelessness.  The bones came back to life with muscles and sinews when the word of God was spoken to them.  This is the message of Easter that death can not kill spirits.

In all of the resurrection stories, Jesus the risen Christ appears and disappears from and into thin air, goes through a locked door, appeared to 500 people at the same time, and said, “You can not touch me. ” to Mary.  He was in a different body.  True, he told Thomas to touch his wound.  But that didn’t happen: Thomas didn’t actually took the offer.  He was overcome by the feeling of his presence and only said, “My Lord, my God.”  Risen Christ had barbecued fish for breakfast with Peter and Andrew on a beach.  But we all do that with the dead ancestors in Japan during the Obon festival, eat with them and remembering their lives.  A few years later,  Paul claimed that on the way to Damascus Jesus appeared to him too.  Christ struck him off the horse and made him temporarily blind.

No Jesus did not come back into a physical body.  All who met Christ on and after the day of Easter had a powerful sense of his presence and for whom death lost its power.  The meaning of Easter is:  power of faith in Jesus the Christ does not allow hopelessness.  Death no longer speaks the last word.   Easter is still the most important event worthy to celebrate not just once a year but on every Sunday.  Sunday began not as Sabbath, but on the day after Sabbath as a weekly celebration of hope beyond hopelessness.  And the standard greeting in the early church on that day was, “Christ is risen!” and responded ” He is risen indeed!”  A good custom to remember when the Christians are often discouraged due to declining membership.

Biblical reference

:

Ezekiel 37, Matthew 27:57 – 28:1 – 20, Mark 16 (the original Mark’s Gospel did not have the resurrection story.  It is believed that this chapter is a later addition by another writer), Luke 24: 1-53, John 20 – 21, Acts 1: 1-14 and 9 :4 – 6, 1 Corinthians 15:1 – 58

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WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT DEATH?

DEATH IN THE BIBLE

I have come to believe that the word “death” in the Bible means more than the mere end of life.  It’s finality is more profound.   It means utter despair and absolute hopelessness.  That means, a living person can be dead when one has lost all hopes according to this understanding of death.  It can also mean that a dead person can be alive and present.

When doctor- assisted suicide and euthanasia are a pressing question demanding answer, what the word “death” in the Bible means is an important question.  It’s because we take the Bible as the authoritative guide.  Medical ethicists and lawmakers are challenged to come to a conclusion urgently.  Quebec is attempting to allow medically assisted suicide by law.  In some countries, the assisting someone to commit suicide is allowed by law.  Today for some people, living has become a burden and a nightmare because they are living in excruciating pain or abject quality of life, while they can continue to live on in the wretched conditions for a long time.  Thus for some people living has become hell.  This is because, thanks to rapid advancements of medical science and availability of better nutrition, most of the people are living far longer than imaginable even a decade ago.  Is it possible that death can be a blessing for some people?  What does death mean in the Bible today?  Many Christians still consider suicide as a serious sin as bad as murder.  They never tolerate euthanasia under any circumstance.  The United Church, on the other hand, took the position that Robert Latimer should be released accepting the idea of mercy killing.

Only a few decades ago, the Apostle Creed had a sentence “he (Christ) descended into hell” after he was crucified.   However the new United Church version changed it to “he descended to the dead.” The reason is: death here is a synonym of hell.  If hell is where sinners go according to our common understanding of the word, Christ could not have gone to hell, because he was without sin.  So hell in the Apostle’s Creed is not what we understand it today.  Creed simply means that Christ died.  Not punished.  Death in those days was more profoundly hopeless and tragic, but not the place where punishment is meted out.  Death in the Bible is more dead than a mere end of life: it is the very end itself, absolutely nothing beyond it.  Death is hell because it is the place where there is absolutely no hope.  We understand death and hell differently today.

When you scan the Old Testament and survey the use of the word death, you will soon find that the Hebrew writers didn’t believe there was anything beyond death, neither heaven nor hell.  I went through about 100 passages that contained the word “death” in the Old Testament.  I was impressed by the tone of absolute finality in the word.  “In the world of the dead, nobody remembers you.” (Psalm 6:5)  Death is the door into nothingness: no future.  You become no entity when you die.  An ultimate blessing is, “you shall not see death.”   But only person who was accorded this ultimate blessing in the Old Testament was Prophet Elijah.  He didn’t die; he went into heaven on the Chariot of Fire. (2 Kings 2)  Jesus Christ, on the contrary, died on the cross.

Towards the end of the era of the Temple of Jerusalem when Jesus walked on the earth, there were two different understandings of the religion among the Jews.  The main-line Jewish religion, which was centred in the Temple served by priests, believed that there was nothing beyond death.  Scholars who were called “Sadducees,” were the intellectual guardians of this temple centred priestly tradition, and advocated this position.  They insisted there was no life beyond death.  There was no resurrection of the dead, neither was there a place of eternal punishment.  The dead went nowhere: They just become non-existent according to the Sadducees.

About the same time, the Pharisees appeared on the scene.  They were the lawyers and the guardians of the Law (Torah). They believed that there was life beyond death and the dead could be resurrected.   They also believed that there was a place of eternal torment where sinners went upon death.  You can clearly see the influence of Pharisee’s thinking in the New Testament, in the parables of Jesus such as “Rich man and Lazarus.”   In Luke 16:19 the poor man Lazarus died and went to sit next to Moses but the heartless rich man went to the place of torment.  Christ also spoke about paradise (Luke 23:43).   Particularly in the Gospels and the Paul’s letters, the resurrection is the most important article of faith.

Sadducees maintained the liturgy centred religion in the temple, while Pharisees kept moral ethics and scripture learning as the centre of religious life.  Therefore, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were theological enemies when Christ was living.  When the temple was destroyed and priests were killed or scattered, their religion died too.   The emphasis on learning the Holy Scriptures and living accordingly in ethical living took over the Jewish religious life.  The church today is the descendant of this Pharisee’s tradition.  We hear the Words as the essence of worship, not so much of the rituals, and putting into practice what we hear is the centre of our spiritual life.

Pharisees have a bad name among the Christians, because of Christ’s frequent criticism of them.  Jesus criticized pharisees for their hypocrisy, for not practising what they preached, but did not criticize their basic attitude toward ethical life-style.  We should remember that they followed Jesus everywhere asking many questions.  Jesus dined with them and also had a serious conversation with a Pharisee rich young man about eternal life.   He was buried in the cemetery plot owned by a Pharisee Joseph of Arimathea.  Christ was against the Temple culture, calling it “a den of thieves.”  Jesus Movement was very much in the Pharisee tradition, not of Sadducees.

 

Let us go back to the subject of death in the Bible: That death stands for an absolute finality as held firmly by the tradition of the Old Testament and maintained by the Sadducees has an important merit.  It affirms the seriousness of this physical existence here and now, not “pie in the sky when you die” kind of fatalism.  “There is nothing beyond this world therefore be serious about this life.  Do it right,” they said.  It leads us to the recognition of the importance of here and now.  “You have only this life.  You can not repeat it.”

The problem is: though they were serious about being good before God, their good deeds and ethical life was not often recognized nor rewarded.  That is what the followers of the new teaching by Jesus began to ask.  Their master was killed on the cross, thus their hope had been shifted to his return.   This is where the belief in resurrection becomes central to our faith.

LOVE IS THE MOST MISUNDERSTOOD WORD

TELL ME WHAT LOVE IS ABOUT

IN THE BIBLE THERE IS NO ONE WORD FOR IT

It may come as a surprise to you but there is no one word for “love” in the original Greek and Hebrew Bible.  This is a problem for English speaking people.  It causes misunderstanding about the most important value of the Christian faith.  The popular but very old English translation of the Bible, King James version of 1839 does not use the word “love” in the famous I Corinthians chapter 13 but it uses  “charity” because of this difficulty.  It seems a mere word “love” does not quite convey its true meaning.  It shows the problem of translating the Greek word into English.  It is not the difficulty that the word “love”poses, however.   It is the limitation of human language.  Human experience is much larger than our spoken and written words can explain.

A certain emotions and human conditions can only be adequately described in stories.  This is why Jesus taught in parables.  This is why poetry and myths, even fictitious stories, are better media to convey and express spiritual quality than theories.  The parable of the good shepherd (Matthew 18:12), and the father of a prodigal son (Luke 15: 11ff), for example, are much better descriptions of love than First Corinthians 13: “Love is.”  I am going to examine the Biblical love words to show the inadequacy of English language.

I can think of at least three words which are all translated into one English word “love”.  I think all of them contain some of the ideas but not quite all.  How is it possible that such an important and the most frequently used quality of Christian faith can not be expressed accurately in English?  I can not answer the question, but I can make an attempt to reflect on all three  “love” words and see if we can come to a better understanding of Biblical love.

Let me begin by dealing with the word which is not in the Bible.  I dare to begin with this word though it is not biblical, because it is the most popular understanding, rather misunderstanding, of love in our culture today.  The word I am referring to is “eros.”  You can not find this word in the Greek Bible.  Isn’t it significant that the word most people think and use it in relation to love is not there?  The oldest use of the word “eros” was by Greek philosopher Plato of the 4th Century B.C.  Even then, Plato’s usage of eros is not the same thing as we use it today with sexual connotation.

Plato extol the notion that everything has its ideal model.  It’s the idea of the perfect form to which everything is striving to become.  That irresistible force of pull toward or yearning for perfection is called “eros” by Plato.  This is where sex may find an excuse to come in.  It is the idea that unless one attains the act of union with a perfect object physically, one can never be satisfied.  But that is only one of the erotic acts.  One can feel strongly in need of making a perfect chair, for example.  That passion for a perfect chair is eros too.  The Bible does not touch this Platonic concept.  One word closest to Platonic “eros” in the Bible, according to my first year university Greek lexicon, is “epithumia” translated as “desire.”  That obviously does not convey exactly what Plato meant, for it lacks passion for idealism.  Such is the problem of translation.  By the way, Buddhism calls it “bonnow,” which we must abandone in order to reach “Nirvana.”

There are two Greek words that have been translated into one word “love” in the English Bible.  Though they are translated into the same one English word, they carry different meanings.  It means that the word “love” is not quite accurate translation of those two words, hence “charity” that translators of the King James chose to use.  The difference between those two is not just nuance: it’s substantial.  Therein is the problem of our understanding of love.

The first is “agapeh” or verb “agapaow.”  It refers to self-giving and sacrificial love that God endows.  Its typical usage is John 3:16:  “God so loved the world He gave his own begotten Son.”   When a human person does it in a self denying manner, such as “Love your neighbour” or “Love your enemy” without expecting any return, the Bible also uses agapaow (Matthew 5:43 & 44).  It means human is also capable of the divine love to some extent.  For example, the first Corinthians chapter 13 uses “agapeh.”  No wonder the translators of the King James version did not use “love.”  They must have felt the word “love” inadequate.  They chose “charity” to indicate that it is the passion for self-giving and sacrificial acts.

Another word translated also into “love” is human instinctive force expressed in Greek word “philo” or verb “phileow.”  It is self-giving love as “agapeh” is, but it is instinctive human emotional drive.  It is used to describe that which exists between parents and children, brothers and sisters, man and woman, and between friends.  As you can see, there is qualitative difference between agapeh and philo.  The first one does not need any reason to love but does, while the other is something one can not help and does.  It is an instinct and is a natural urge.  The former is intentional and the latter spontaneous.  In either case, one does it no matter how much it costs while expecting no return.  It is sacrificial love like mother’s love of her child.

There is one word which is not translated into an English word “love” in the Bible but we call it “love.”   It is the Greek word “epithumia.”  The English Bible translates it into “desire” in stead of “love.”  It is closest the Bible gets to what we call “eros”, though it includes not only sexual desire but also greed like insatiable desire for materials goods or wealth or power.

To sum up, in the Bible there are three words that are currently translated into or understood as love.  Divine love and human love, both of which induce selfless acts, and lastly selfish desire to fulfil one’s desire.  The last one is not called “love” in the Holy Scriptures.   But we do.  We love money and power, etc.  I feel there ought to be different English words for each of three categories.  Because of this paucity of English language, such an important value in our life “love” is treated so cheaply and badly misused.   However, the following song written by a Dominican monk expresses love more adequately than anyone can ever articulate.

“Love is a giving;  Love is a baby boy; Love is your brother; Love is your sister;

Love is a joy.  Love is the tenderest thing; Love is a song of a bird; Love is a wind in the trees;

The man on the hill.”  Amen.

WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT EASTER?

HE DIED BUT CAME BACK TO LIFE

– So what’s the big deal?  Does it matter? –

My mother died at the age 96.  She was not ill: she dies in her sleep.  She was happy until the end, but she was tired and wanted to rest.  If she was offered a chance to live forever, she would have probably said “No thank you.”  What was the point of the belief in Life Eternal for my Mom?  What is going to happen to the traditional faith now?

Paul declared that the faith without the resurrection of Jesus is useless. (I Corinthians Risen Christ by Michelangelo15:12-14)  Really?  I believe in the resurrection of Christ, yes, but I don’t believe he came back into his physical body and returned to this world.  For me, death in the Bible signifies ultimate despair, and the message of Risen Christ means a victory of faith over hopelessness.  A quick survey of the passages of the Bible about the dead coming back to life has proven that point.

(The picture on the right is a drawing by Michelangelo,    “Risen Christ.”)

Throughout history, humans have been driven by three kinds of fear: the fear of hunger, of death, and of extinction of species.  Now that we are getting ever closer to the resolution to all those catastrophes, thanks to progress of science and technology, the relevance of traditional beliefs are rapidly becoming redundant.  We are no longer so afraid of them as our ancestors use to be.  Then the question is: is the belief in resurrection really that important?  Let us re-examine the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus the Christ when we are not so fearful of death and not so attracted to longevity as before.

In fact, the situation often is opposite today.  Food, for example, is plentiful today.  If we achieve justice at home and abroad universally, we will have a capacity to eradicate hunger altogether.  Irony is: the problem of food in our society is opposite of want: we suffer from availability of too much food and from over consumption of it.  In fact, we are killing ourselves by eating too much cheap food.  Obesity is now our major health hazzard.

Thanks to the progress in medical science and technology, our life-span has more than doubled in less than a century.  Because people now live so many more years, the problems relating to aging is our most important challenge: we live too long.  For many people death can be a relief.  Of course, death of the infants and the young must be avoided at all cost.  But it is possible for everybody to live to ripe old age. In my last pastorate, for five years I hadn’t had a single funeral which was not a relief, a relief to the deceased and the family. The current debate about assisted suicide and euthanasia is a serious concern morally and spiritually.  All in all, we can say, “Death has lost its sting. ”

The danger of the extinction of human species comes not from an external factors like disease and hunger any more, but from our own making, such as violence, war, and climate change all of them due to our stupidity.  If we are not so stupid, there is no problem multiplying the number of humanity to be like starts in the sky and grains of sand, as God promised to Abraham.  If anything, the problem today is over-population: we are getting to be too many for our planet to sustain.  I am convinced that the Biblical prohibition of homosexual acts and masturbation is based on the fear of extinction of the tribe, nation, or of human species.  That’s why the Bible is silent about lesbianism and female masturbation.  “Don’t waste the seeds” was the command only for men.

Let me go back to the beginning.  Most of the spiritual traditions put those concerns as longevity and avoidance of death, at the centre of their faith. Why was the belief in life after death (or eternal life) so universally important in many religions?  And make faith the solution to them?  It is because death use to be so ubiquitous and life so short.  Many new born infants and their mothers died.  If they survived the birth, they died of illness and violence, if not mal-nutrition and starvation, before they reached the age 50.  Death was everywhere.  It was the end.   It represented despair and hopelessness.  It is hell: in fact death and hell are the same one word in Hebrew language.  Therefore, giving an end to death was an ultimate blessing and salvation.  Is it still so when some people began to live too long and are so tired to keep going?

 

So what is the meaning of resurrection today?  Why should it be so important?  What does the Bible really say about death and resurrection?  I suggest looking at some passages to find the answer to the question: “Is the Bible speaking about resurrection as coming back to physical life after death? or is it speaking about an overwhelming sense of the presence of a person who is  dead?”  In other words, “Did Christ walked among people physically alive or was he a ghost?”  My answer is the latter.  That is how I view resurrection: the overwhelming sense of presence of a dead person.  Many who had followed Jesus Christ  felt the presence of Jesus Christ so strongly that they felt He was there alive, but in actuality he was not there physically.

Th earliest account of an incident beyond death and back to life is the story of dry bones coming back into life in the Prophet Ezekiel 37.  This is obviously a metaphor, a vision of hope beyond hopelessness.  It is about the fate of the Kingdom of Israel which was hopelessly like dead dried up bones.  They come back to life with muscles and sinews when the word of God was spoken to them.  I believe the central message of Easter was established in this story.

In all of the resurrection stories, Jesus the risen Christ appears and disappears from and into thin air, goes through a locked door, appeared to 500 people at the same time, and said, “You can not touch me. ” to Mary.  He was in a different body.  True, he told Thomas to touch his wound.  But that didn’t happen: Thomas didn’t actually took the offer.  He was overcome by the feeling of his presence and only said, “My Lord, my God.”  Risen Christ had barbecued fish for breakfast with Peter on a beach.  But we all do that with the dead ancestors in Japan during the Obon festival and remember Grandma and her delicious cooking, for example.  In the end Paul claimed that on the way to Damascus he appeared to him too, who struck him off the horse and made him temporarily blind.  That was a few years after the Easter.

No Jesus did not come back into a physical body.  All who met Christ on and after Easter had a powerful sense of his presence and for whom death became meaningless.  The meaning of Easter is:  Power of faith in Jesus the Christ does not allow hopelessness.  There is alway hope.  Easter is for me still the most important event worthy to celebrate every Sunday.  Sunday for me is not Sabbath, it is a celebration of hope beyond hopelessness,

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A: LET”S SUPPOSE WE WERE ROBBERS OR VICTIMS? – SECOND SUNDAY OF JULY

ROBBERS AND VICTIMS

LUKE 10: 25 – 37

Nobody wants to be a victim, neither does one want to think of oneself as a robber. This is why we prefer to speak about the Good Samaritan and not so much about the other characters in the story. But there are many important lessons to be learned about robbers and victims, too. Because we”ve all heard about the good Samaritan, I decided to talk today about being robbers and victims. I must warn you though, it may make you feel a bit uncomfortable. I found it so myself.

About the victim: Unfortunately, everyone is a potential victim. In the story Jesus told, a man was on a way from Jerusalem to Jericho, and encountered an unexpected disaster. He was robbed, wounded, lying on the ground totally helpless. Travelling from point A to point B, that kind of things can happen to any one of us. But we prefer to think that being a victim only happens to other people.

This is because we want to be in control of ourselves all the time. Our culture places high value on being independent and in charge of our lives. We take all sorts of precautions so that we will not be in a helpless position. We are proud to be able to look after ourselves. This is why, when disaster strikes, we feel guilty. We feel that we have fallen into this situation because we were not prepared, were not good enough, or we did something wrong. We say that to the victims, too, saying, "It”s your own fault." Victims are punished instead of the perpetrator being named.

We blame poor people for being lazy. We blame assaulted women for inviting such a fate by being insolent or wearing provocative clothes. One of my past parishioners was once very angry when I visited him in a hospital. He did not want anyone to know that he was seriously ill. He firmly believed that sickness was a result of sinful living. Poor man. He did not want to admit that he was vulnerable. He did not allow others to care for him and love him. He was proud, so being cared for was a shameful state of affairs.

The most serious problem about not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is our reluctance to open ourselves to others. Because we are proud and think that we are in total control of ourselves, basically we don”t want others to help us. We shut them out. We don”t allow others to love us, or care for us. There is absolutely no shame in being loved. But we somehow feel ashamed – and this is especially true for men – that other people know we are in need of help, and are vulnerable. We must know the limit of our abilities. There comes a time in everyone”s life to realize that receiving a loved one”s care is normal. Let”s admit that we are sometimes helpless, and that there is no shame in that.

Because we are proud, we have a tendency to prefer taking what we need rather than waiting for others to give it to us. We live in a culture which admires aggressive people rather than patient people. I think this is why violence in entertainment is popular. You see, we have the seed of a potential robber in all of us. If we don”t have something, we take it. The only way to keep the robber in us in check is to nurture humility. Humility reminds us that we are not the almighty. There are things that we can not do. We need to wait from time to time for others to come to our rescue. And we have to be ready to accept that. That is called humility. Otherwise, how can we believe that Jesus Christ died for our sin? We are totally vulnerable before the cross of Jesus. That is the basis of our Christian faith.

There is another interesting twist in this story. It is called opting out. It was the option chosen by the priest and the Levite. It can also be called lack of commitment, making excuses, or cowardice. You say, "Sorry, no time, I have a dentist”s appointment." You know how it goes. You may even have done it. I remember doing it from time to time myself.

The priest and Levite were professional do-gooders. It was their job to act as God”s agents. But they had excuses, probably good ones. There must have been an important worship service, where hundreds were waiting for the priest to arrive. You can”t let down the hundreds on account of mere one wounded man. There could have been an important congregational meeting in which the Levite had to chair. You can not run an efficient organization with sentimentality. We know. Don”t we? So we passed by on the other side of the road, pretending that we did not see the dying man.

The typical moral drawn from those characters of the priest and Levite is that we too easily wait for others to pick up the slack, to do the things which we should do. But wait a minute, didn”t I just say that there are times when we must wait for others to help us? Perhaps it”s a question of balance. The trick is to have the wisdom to know the difference between when to act and when to wait. There is a prayer I love to say from time to time, written by a great American Christian and theologian, Reinhold Niebur. "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Of course, there will be times when we have to act with courage, without waiting for others. That is the time for assertive attitudes and action. But there is a world of difference between acting courageously on behalf of others, and acting aggressively on behalf of ourselves. It is wisdom, coupled with humility, that helps us judge the line between assertiveness in aggression and assertiveness in courage. The exercise of such wisdom is itself an act of courage, and not an excuse. Sometimes such wisdom leads us to wait, to accept the fact that there are some things we cannot do, and to accept the care of others. Sometimes such wisdom motivates us to act. But then the action is based on love for God and love for other people. Love is the measurement for what is important and what is less important. It helps us to discern the difference between waiting and opting out.

Let us hope that we will learn to know God”s standard of love so we know what we can not do and admit it honestly, and what we can do and act on it courageously. The victim, the robber, the Levite, the Priest and the Samaritan all travel within us. Only love can tell us which character”s footsteps most mark our souls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

B: SMALL IS BIG – 3RD WEEK OF JUNE

SMALL IS BIG

I Samuel 17, Psalm 107, Mark 4:35-41

June 22, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

 

I once saw the one and only 10th Dan judo master doing a demonstration. As you may know, in judo the black belt class has ten levels. Each level is called "Dan" – like the first level is "1st Dan". The minimum requirement to be a master, with a licence to teach, is a 3rd Dan. There is only one 10th level person in the whole world. I believe that in Canada, the person who holds the highest level is a 4th Dan. Anyhow, this 10th level person was a shrimp of a man, barely 5 ft tall. He was 76 years old. But he threw down men who sometimes looked almost twice his size, one by one. It was a spectacle of skills over strength, a brain over muscles.

 

God created us with many faculties. They must work together under the direction of intellect and wisdom. Even though we all know that the body must follow the dictate of the mind, a strange thing about us is, we keep coming back to the most uncivilized value. We keep regressing to the respect of brutal force. The story of David and Goliath teaches us how stupid this attitude is.

 

We love beautiful and powerful things; cars, machines, trees and mountains. However, we seldom stop to think what they are for. They can be good or bad. They are nothing unless we give them their worth. Like Jesus said, "a pearl means nothing to a pig." Whatever we treasure must serve our purpose. I may have told you about the air raid that burnt down the whole city, where I was living, during the last world war. I tried to help an old lady who was trying to get out of a burning house. I took the neighbour”s hand and started to run. But she said she left something behind, and went back into the burning house. Her charred body was found next morning. Whatever she forgot surely could not have been more valuable than her life. Possessions and even our bodies can destroy us unless we know what they are for and use them appropriately. Sense of priority comes from wisdom, and wisdom helps our mind to decide how our bodies should behave. Wisdom belongs to the spiritual world.

 

Goliath was a giant. He was nine foot tall, and wore the armours weighing 250 pound and carried a spear that weighed 15 pound. The highest known man in the world today is said to be a Korean basketball player, now training in Canada, by the name of Michael Ri. He is 7 feet 9 inches tall. Considering an average height at the time being 5 feet or less, a mere sight of Goliath must have caused absolute terror among the Hebrew troops. People with little confidence and imagination can easily be intimidated by superficial show of force even though it may be empty inside. Excessive bigness is not only useless but nuisance, like a combine harvester in Muriel”s patch of vegetables in our backyard.

 

Then appeared David, a tiny boy of about fourteen years old but was full of self-confidence and tricks. He volunteered to take Goliath on, alone. Everybody laughed but David was serious. King decided, "Why not. What we”ve got to lose. He is only a little boy, hardly a loss to the nation." So they gave him the whole set of armours and weapons and told him to go out to kill the giant. The armours and weapons were useless to him, too big and too heavy. He only needed what he always used. A slingshot and a stone were all David needed to defeat Goliath. The same kind of story keeps repeating itself in our history. And yet, we, especially men, keep admiring physical strength and big sizes. We keep glorifying muscles, guns, big machines and big explosions on movies and TV stories. The lessons from the story of David and Goliath are still poignant today.

 

How, then, does one acquire such self-confidence and wits like David did? The story of young David gives some interesting insight into the way he grew up. He had to live alone in the desert looking after his father”s sheep, fending off lions and wolves not with muscles nor weapons but with a few little tricks. He not only acquired survival skills, he also sung his own songs with his small harp, probably hand-made. He learned to cope with boredom and loneliness with his own music and poetry. He wrote many songs of praise and about his faith, some of which are still with us in the Bible. Many psalms were written by David. After the victory over Goliath, David was promoted to become King Saul”s page, whose job was to comfort him with music. Isn”t it telling? Even after the spectacular act defeating Goliath, which clearly proved David”s intelligence and military skills, Saul could see only a little boy who could sing and play a harp well. Saul did not understand true meaning of art that would inspire spirits and nurture intelligence.

 

From ancient of times, human race expressed the deep feelings and thoughts; their faith, love, thanksgiving and prayers in arts, dance, drawings, paintings, music, and poetry. Before writing was invented, humans expressed themselves only in dancing, music and paintings. Ancient paintings are still being found in caves in Africa. Old musical instruments were found in many archeological sites. Arts and music are very important tradition of our faith. This is because God is beyond our limited vocabularies. It is because many of our aspirations of our faith are beyond the existing means of communication, so we sing, hum, and enjoy hearing others making music.

 

Reformer John Calvin tried to abolish music and art in the church. He believed that the words were the only good enough expression of faith and arts could lead us to idolatry. But he never succeeded. He did not understand how important for people to express their faith and feeling towards each other in arts that inspired them. Calvin was constantly in pain with migraine and ulcer. Poor man! When I was a student, with disdain we, the Methodists, used to look at the Presbyterians class mates, followers of John Calvin, and said, "the preacher who can not sing becomes a Presbyterian minister." Of course, the Presbyterian students said of us as "those who can sing but can not preach a decent sermon." The point is; David was a man of faith, that”s why he was a poet and a musician. If you forgive my male oriented language, I say, "Arts ain”t for sissy." King Saul did not understand that. David was a good and cunning soldier, because he was an artist and a poet. He was a musician and a poet, because he was used to having conversations with God alone in the desert. Arts gave him a sense of himself, and self-confidence.

 

When the boat ran into a sudden gale coming from Golan Heights, Jesus was fast asleep. But the disciples were afraid. Even today, a gust of sudden wind is not uncommon on the lake Galilee. It comes suddenly but it goes away in a few minutes. Disciples should have known that, because some of them were fishermen. But they panicked. We too panic when we don”t know what is going on and are not sure of ourselves. Do you remember the last time you panicked. I do. At the parking lot at Dorval Airport. I could not remember where I parked my car. I happened to have a lot of cash in the glove compartment on that day. I panicked. I shouted to Muriel, "the car”s stolen." Jesus said to the sea, "Peace. Be still." But actually, he said that to the disciples. "Be still, I am here. What”s the problem.", says God. A regular conversation with God in solitude is an art we lost in these days. We must recover that. We can do that in the garden, in the field, in the barn on the road alone doing whatever we are doing. We can sing and dance. Nobody has to see it. We will find God and ourselves like David did.

 

B: LETTING GO, LETTING BE – EASTER 7

LETTING GO, LETTING BE

I John 5:9-13, Psalm 1, John 17:6-19

May 11, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

One of the difficult experiences for a parent is having to leave your child behind. I once had to leave my own crying two year old alone in a hospital. She was frightened and did not want me to leave her. It was one of the most difficult experiences for a young parent; I wept that night. It must be the same difficult experience when your teenage child leaves home for college or for the first date. There is a fundamental difference between letting go of a loved one and abandoning someone. There is an old saying in Japan: "If you love your child, let him travel." Letting your child alone is a test of your parenthood. Jesus”s prayer in the today”s gospel should be read in the same light.

Jesus knew that soon he had to leave the loved ones – disciples, family, and friends behind. He prayed that they would be strong enough to withstand the difficult time which awaited them. Jesus prayed, "I am no longer in the world, I am coming to you, Father. I am asking you, on their behalf, to protect them." It sounds like a prayer of a parent who is leaving a child behind. I may sound cruel; but if it feels impossible for you to leave the loved one behind, it can mean that you are being too possessive or you are emotionally so attached that you will not let your child grow up. This is not love. It simply shows your immaturity as a parent. Most of us know this in our mind. But emotion does not always move as fast as what reason says it should. Reading his prayer, you can feel the agony and tears of our Lord. Yet, he is trusting God, ready to leave the disciples behind. Letting go of one”s emotional attachment, and going away from one”s loved ones is the test of maturity in love and trust.

I notice three marks of such mature love in Christ”s prayer. They are knowledge, faith, and readiness to risk. Progress towards maturity begins with knowledge of each other, which produces faith in each other. Finally mature love risks fostering independence.

Jesus prayed to God, "I have made your name known to them. I gave them everything you gave me. And they know that everything I gave them comes from you." Jesus was confident that there was complete sharing of knowledge – transparency between him and his disciples. That”s quite some trust. You don”t give all the facts of life to your child at once. As a child grows, there needs to be some progressive sharing of information between the parent and the child. And when your child reaches maturity, there must be as much sharing as possible. But all of us, I am afraid, fail to do that, because it takes quite a bit of courage to be completely honest with your child.

We must realize that God knows everything about us. In the George Burns movie, "Oh God", the first appearance of God to John Denver is in the bathroom. "Don”t worry. You don”t need to be ashamed," says George Burns who plays the part of God, "I know what you”ve got." And likewise a mother knows intimate details of her child, having changed diapers and all that, just like God knows us. This one sided knowledge must be reciprocated. As the relationship matures, there should be progressive increase in the mutuality of the knowledge of each other. There should be as few secrets as possible in a mature relationship. Just as God wishes eagerly for our knowledge of God to increase, a parent must be brave enough to encourage a child to get to know his parents. Ideally, there should come to be a total transparency between loved ones. This is sharing of ourselves.

Secondly, mutual knowledge must transform the relationship to that of total trust. Jesus said to God, "All mine are yours, and yours are mine. I am not going to be with them much longer. Protect them as you protected me, so that they may be one, as we are one." If we can trust each other with knowledge of each other, our faith in each other enable us to share everything. Sometimes, mere sharing of possessions can cover up an unwillingness to share oneself. Only when one is willing to share oneself in total transparency, does sharing of possessions become meaningful.

Because of the relationship based on knowledge and trust, Jesus was ready to risk entrusting the Kingdom of God to the disciples. They would live alone in a hostile world. Jesus” prayer does not sound easy for him. Those sentences make us almost detect his sweat and tears. It sounds like the parent”s agony of leaving a child behind. But Jesus was ready to go, and ready to have them to face the world alone. Jesus said, "I have given them your word, but the world hated them." It”s surprising to realize that Jesus was prepared to put his trust in the disciples, because by many accounts they were not trustworthy people. Still he was ready to leave them behind in the world trusting them to continue the work of the Kingdom. It is quite a risk he was taking. There is an example of total trust. Jesus trusted their ability to learn from the mistakes. Isn”t there a lesson to be learn for us parents?

When I reflect on Christ”s prayer before his departure from the world, I can not help thinking about the state of the church in the Western world. Can you imagine Jesus praying for us as we face a new era, where our accustomed ways are disappearing? We are facing a different kind of the world where the church has to find a new way of continuing its mission. I have no idea what the future of the Christ”s church will be like. It is easy for us to be pessimistic and scared. But one thing I am convinced about: God does not need our protection. I don”t think that we need to worry about God. The work of our Lord Jesus Christ will continue. God”s work does not need our protection. We are the ones who need protection. We have to ask God”s help to remain faithful.

Mothers know their children well. Likewise, God knows us. We must begin there with confidence. And yet, no matter how well mothers know their children including their weaknesses, they must trust them. Likewise, no matter how imperfect we are, God trusts us despite the knowledge of our weaknesses. He is risking a lot. We must live only by being faithful to God in response. He entrusted us with this mission. Worrying has no place in that mission. We simply have to forge ahead.

If you look outside of our small circle, you will realize that there are many signs of the Kingdom of God thriving. There are growing signs to indicate that the spiritual needs of people are insatiable. The churches in Africa are thriving. The churches in Korea have tripled in membership in last three decades. Let us not worry about the Kingdom of God. It will continue and thrive, though possibly in a totally unexpected way. So let”s not worry about the state of the church. Our place is here. God trusts us to be faithful as best as we know how. Like my favourite Sunday School hymn says, "Jesus bid us shine with a pure clear light, like a little candle burning in the night, in this world of darkness. So let us shine – you in your small corner, and I in mine."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

B: TO MAKE A DECISION IN A COMPLICATED WORLD – SECOND SUNDAY OF AUGUST

A DIFFICULT CHOICE

2 SAMUEL 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; PSALM 130; EPHESIANS 4:25

August 13, 2000 by Tad Mitsui

Once I had to fire a person who was a friend of mine. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. She was a creative person in the wrong job. After a thorough review of her performance, the committee recommended that I dismiss her. She has now been in the right job for eight years in the church. She is doing excellent work, and she is most happy. But of course, at the time of her dismissal, she felt I had betrayed her as a friend. To dismiss her was a most difficult decision. At the time, I was not sure at all whether I was doing the right thing or not.

Life would be a lot easier, if everything was clearly marked as right and wrong, good and bad, black and white, big and small. Too many situations fall in grey areas. Often, our only response can be, "It all depends." The choice King David had to make about his rebellious son Absalom was such a difficult one. A good looking and popular son rebelled against him and his kingdom. King David even had to flee for his life on barefoot in the dark of the night. Today”s Psalm was said to have been written by David as he remembered the night when he climbed a mountain in tears to escape his son Absalom, who was after his life. He loved his son, but his son was destroying his kingdom. His most trusted friends were urging King David to crush his son”s rebellion. He prayed, using gut wrenching words, "From the depth of my despair I call to you, Lord. Hear my cry to you, Lord, listen to my call for help!" These are the words of a man who didn”t know what to do.

David didn”t know what to think. He was in despair not because he was facing his own death at the hands of his own son. He was in despair because of the difficult choice he had to make between his son”s life and the welfare of his people. If he had to save his people from massive deaths and destruction, he had to kill his own son. But he could not bare the thought of losing yet another son – he had already lost two sons under wretched circumstances. He despaired because of his love for his son. So he made the wrong decision. He asked his generals to crush the rebellion, but to keep his son alive. The death of Absalom was too difficult a thing to choose. The generals, however, ignored the king”s order, in order to save the kingdom from further turmoil.

However, the story of David and Absalom gets more complicated if you read the whole story from Chapter 13. Before the relationship between Absalom and David came to a tragic climax, there were a series of sordid incidents; incest between siblings, a murder of a brother by another, etc. The whole story of Absalom and David is so juicy that any afternoon TV soap opera looks like an innocent children”s program in comparison. There was so much history between the father and the son that one comes to understand how difficult it must have been for King David to make the right decision.

What then is the point of this story? Why did the writer of the Book of Samuel think that this particular story was worth recording for posterity? What lesson did he want to give us? One of them lessons I see in the story is this: it is telling us that life is so rich that no simple answer can cover all the situations of life. We do ourselves a grave injustice, if we look for a clear cut and simple answer all the time, because life is much more complex. Life is more complicated and wonderful than we can ever imagine. Because God has created such a rich world for us, we need patience to live with ambiguity and to appreciate it. It is love that makes us patient to truly enjoy God”s lavish world.

Once I visited the cleanest country I had ever been to, and met the most honest people I had ever seen. Any trash left on the street was picked up by someone instantly. People were so honest that even a pencil left in a hotel room by accident was delivered to you two days later, after you travelled hundreds of miles. Everything was clearly understood as right or wrong, and everybody knew it. Any offence against this strict code of ethics was dealt with by harsh and instant justice, and often by execution. It was the Communist China in 1978, when it was under its most oppressive regime. I also remember breathing a sign of relief when I got on the plane to leave China.

If we look into the depth of our minds, we don”t really want a clear and instant judgements. We live in a rich and complicated world for that. We need the kind of loving patience that lets us take time to explore many options, and gives us a second chance. We need understanding even when we make a wrong decision. I heard a medical doctor speaking about the biggest problem most physicians were facing today. "The doctor has to make an instant diagnosis and prescribe remedies immediately. But what people really need is your time and the touch of your hand," he said. Then he went on to speak about his own experience as a patient in an emergency room; he was in agony. A friend of his looked in, who was a prominent physician himself. He could have prescribed a remedy right away. It was an easy job. But he didn”t do anything of the kind. He was a friend. So he held the first doctor”s hand, looking very concerned and stayed with him some time. The first doctor said to the interviewer, "I felt a whole lot better by the time he left the room. This experience showed me what was fundamentally wrong with the practice of medicine today."

Jesus was confronted by a crowd who brought a woman accused of adultery. They demanded an instant judgement of her case. Jesus didn”t speak for a long time. He just sat silently in front of the woman and doodled on the ground with a stick. When he finally spoke, he said, "The one who has never committed sin should throw the first stone." Silence followed again. People left one by one leaving Jesus and the accused woman alone. Jesus said, "I will not punish you either. Go. Don”t make the same mistake again." Jesus showed his love for people by not passing judgement quickly. David acted for the love of his son and ignored the welfare of thousands of people, after long hours of despair and indecision. Was he wrong? We don”t know. I believe that this is one of those murky questions on which we would need to spend a long time in prayer in order to find an answer. Let us not be quick to condemn others. God is not quick to judge, but patiently waits for us to turn to him and pray, "From the depth of my despair, I cry to you." God”s patience means that we don”t always need to be right or know the answer immediately. Whatever decisions face us, God will not desert us. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

A: JACOB MARRIED TWO WIVES – FOURTH SUNDAY OF JULY

JACOB MARRIED TWO WIVES

Genesis 29, Psalm 103, Romans 8:31-39

July 25, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

When my father and mother fell in love with each other, such romantic love was barely tolerated but was not considered to be socially acceptable. Normally marriages were arranged in Japan. So, Mom and Dad used to see each other in secret. They walked together but separately on both sides of the street. When they got married, they had to appear as though an officially appointed intermediary, usually a position reserved to a highly placed personality in a community, arranged it, in order to make it look socially acceptable.

You must realize that a marriage as the result of romantic love is relatively a new phenomenon. Even in the nineteenth century Europe, marriages were negotiated by the families as a part of business, political, or social arrangements. Romantic love during those days was a favourite subject only in operas and poems but was not a serious matter to be considered among the respectable families. Also you must remember that for many centuries, polygamy was a common practice. It was an insurance to keep the family property within the blood relations at the time when infant mortality was extremely high. More infants died than those who survived. So, it was important to produce many children. Polygamy was openly practiced especially among the upper class people who had a lot to lose if they were childless. Virtual polygamy continued to be practiced, even after the introduction of Christianity. Those, who could afford, took concubines openly without any social stigma even at the turn of this century. When you read the story of Jacob”s marriages to Leah and Rachel, you must understand that it happened nearly four thousand years ago. You have to keep in mind the history of social practice to read it, no matter how distasteful the story may sound today. The Bible does not sugar-coat the truth to suit the opinion of the readers. Despite the ugliness of human behaviour, God”s blessing was never in doubt.

Jacob, Leah, and Rachel were all victims. It all started when Jacob fell in love with Rachel. He asked Laban for Rachel”s hand, but he was a penny-less fugitive. So he agreed to work for Laban without wage for seven years. Meanwhile, the older daughter Leah was getting too old for marriage. So, during the seven years when Jacob was working for him without wage, Laban made a plan to take advantage of Jacob”s weak position. The morning after the wedding night, Jacob discovered that he slept with a wrong woman. He was tricked into marrying Leah. When he went to the father-in-law in anger, Laban sweet-talked Jacob into a deal for him to marry Rachel, by giving seven more years of free labour. What a treachery! On the other hand, you could say "a trickster got tricked, and Jacob deserved it."

Leah was a real victim. She was forced into a relationship with a man who loved someone else. She eventually had nine children with Jacob, but she knew that she was only a sexual object and a child making machine. Can you imagine such a humiliation? The worst was the fact that, though she was completely innocent, she was seen as a part of her father”s malicious deception. Leah must have reminded Jacob constantly of her father”s treachery. Which is why, even though Leah bore him many children, none of them was Jacob”s favourite child. Jacob loved Rachel”s two boys. Life was especially unfair to Leah. But what is most amazing and wonderful about Leah is, though she had to suffer a great deal because Jacob loved her sister, she never hated Rachel nor was jealous of her. Leah loved Rachel until the end.

Leah was a pearl. A mother of pearl does not expel a foreign object like a grain of sand in her body. Rather, she tries to lives with the pain by secreting liquid, rich in calcium carbonate, to coat the source of stress. This is how a beautiful greyish blue pearl is made.

It was not a happy-end for Rachel either. In fact, Jacob”s love brought to Rachel nothing but grief. Because her father, Laban, promised her to Jacob, she had to wait for fourteen years for her turn to be married. The Bible does not mention how Rachel felt about the whole deal. In those days, a woman”s feeling about her future spouse was almost completely beside the point. Because of the deal, Rachel was not eligible for other marriage options. She had to wait far too long, when an average life expectancy was less than forty years. That”s a big chunk of time out of her life. So, of course, when she got married to Jacob at last, it was not easy for her to have children. In fact, she died giving birth to her second child.

Jacob, Leah, and Rachel were all victims, just because Jacob fell in love with Rachel. What do you make of a story like that. You might say that the Bible tells it as it was, and there is no moral of the story. Certainly there is nobody who can be anybody”s role model. Until some time ago, some people who believed in the subservient status of women touted Leah as the model of woman”s obedience. This is a dangerous interpretation and I don”t agree with it. It may be possible to draw a lesson about the futility of treachery. You may be able to say that deception never pays. But it is a weak argument, because some people like Laban gets away with it.

I believe that the message of the passage is in the contrast between God”s love and the reality of human nature. God works among us despite dirt and muck of human conditions. God never gives up on us, and fulfils his promise of blessing. He turns suffering into joy as he endures it, and a cesspool of wickedness into a fountain of holiness. Like the mother of pearl, God does not spit us out because of our iniquity. He keeps us within, enduring endless pain. Leah and Rachel were victims of human treachery. But God made them pearls for us to remember.

B: CRAZY? MAYBE BUT ALIVE – PENTECOST

CRAZY? MAYBE. BUT ALIVE

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104, John 15:26-27

May 18, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

When the powerful IBM computer, called "Deep Blue", beat the world”s chess champion Garry Kasparov, it ignited a big discussion. The question is: "Can machines take over human beings?" The answer, of course, is "No". We make machines. A creature can never take over the creator. But the fact that this question keeps coming back in movies and novels shows how little we understand the spiritual nature of our being and our relationship with God. The reason why Kasparov lost the game is because he got frustrated and tired, not because the computer was better. The fact that Kasparov had emotions and physical limitations makes him a better creature than a computer, because it proved that he was alive and that made him closer to God. Deep Blue is only a boxful of pieces of metal that is programmed by human beings to very quickly compute all the chess moves ever made by the best chess players. We know that computers are really stupid machines which stop functioning when we handle them wrongly. It does not have the capacity to go beyond the human mind. Computers never understand why we become crazy sometimes.

Computers can not be sad or happy. They just do what they are told. They have no emotions, feelings, or intuition. On the other hand, even a little baby can recognize effortlessly her mother”s face across a crowded room. Something unexplainable is planted between two human beings when they are bonded, which no machine can reproduce. No scientists knows how to make machines laugh, because they can not make computers understand humour. Also machines can never learn from mistakes. But humans can, because we have a storehouse of capacities to convert experiences into insights and wisdom. But the same token, we should understand the happenings on the day of Pentecost not so much as literal facts but as a uniquely human and spiritual experience. Computers also lack the subtlety to translate language effectively or put the feeling into poetry or the passion into music.

When the disciples were touched by the Holy Spirit, they began to speak in many different languages which only foreigners understood. But some people thought that those disciples were crazy – they probably had too much wine and were drunk. I wonder why some people understood the language, but others didn”t and thought the whole thing was outrageous. The beginning of the Christian church obviously was not a result of a well calculated and planned event like an Academy Award ceremony. It was a happening that was inspired by a mysterious force which no human vocabulary could adequately explain. We must realize at the outset that understanding language is not just a matter of knowing the vocabularies and grammar of a nation. It involves learning a whole culture, history, and tradition. Most importantly, it involves ingredients that makes persons human.

When marriages break up, they often say, "We don”t speak the same language." It is about a break-down in communication. Sharing of whole persons is not happening. A famous Canadian pianist, Jon Kimura Parker, was interviewed by Vicky Gabereau in CBC a few days ago. His mother Keiko was a member of my congregation in Vancouver. The parents were pen pals before they met. She lived in Tokyo and he was in Vancouver. They corresponded for a few years before Keiko came to Vancouver for a visit. A few weeks later they were married. When I met Keiko and John, neither of them was fluent in the language of the partner – Japanese or English. And yet they have had a wonderful marriage. They spoke the same language even though they spoke in the languages of different nations. It was the sharing of emotions, feelings, and everything else that makes a human different from a machine, not just words. And I suspect that a similar thing, which went further than the mere utterance of foreign words, was what happened on the day of Pentecost.

When the disciples were touched by the Holy Spirit, the Bible speaks about strange phenomena occurring, like a sound of a strong wind or a bits of fire like tongues dancing around the room,. It was a powerful experience that went beyond the capacity of any human vocabulary to explain. They felt an impulsive to share the good news of Jesus Christ. So they began to speak the languages understood by those who were visiting Jerusalem. All those languages that the disciples were supposed to have spoken were Mediterranean area languages. They were like Scandinavian languages. If you ask a Swede how to communicate with a Dane, the answer would be something like, "You speak Swedish with two candies in your mouth. The Dane would understand what you say." You sort of get by speaking French in Italy. The same thing.

It finally dawned on the disciples how powerful the message of the God of love was. They were no longer a bunch of frightened people hiding behind doors. They desperately wanted to tell others how wonderful it is to know the story of Jesus. The atmosphere of the room was so charged that the only way to describe the scene was the language of fire and wind. They could not contain themselves. Many of us do the same thing from time to time. When something exciting and wonderful happens, one has to tell somebody; you can not keep it as a secret. A bunch of kids burst into the church last Sunday, and started to tell me about their brand new family van. All of them spoke at once to me, and did not make too much sense. They were speaking about the doors that open on both sides, etc. So I had to see the van in the parking lot. It is not only kids: we all do that. The disciples went outside and started to tell people of their experiences in whatever the way they knew how. I can understand that they sounded a bit crazy.

When the other party does not understand what we want to tell them, we have to learn somehow to communicate. People learned many languages to tell the stories of Jesus throughout the history. I was amazed many times how early missionaries learned strange languages so well and so fast. They translated the Bible, and even wrote dictionaries. Most of them did not earn much money doing so. The tradition of the Pentecost has continued for many centuries. It was not just the question of learning to speak in other people”s languages; it was about communicating messages. Such communication often happens despite limitations in language abilities.

In one sense, the disciples were crazy on the day of Pentecost. It was dangerous to openly admit that they were the followers of the way of Jesus of Nazareth; it was madness to expose their belief about a criminal who was executed for blasphemy, sedition, and subversive ideas. They were crazy. But were they? They were alive with Spirit. We are also alive, not machines. So we do crazy things when we are excited. God help us if we only act in a well calculated logical manner, like a machine.

Machines will continue to make life easier, healthier, richer, and yet also more puzzling. And human beings will continue to care, ultimately about the same things they always have; about themselves, about one another and about God. On those things machines and science will never make any difference; they never will. Machines and science will never take away from those things; Thanks be to God!

 

 

 

 

C: ON THE WAY TO DAMASCUS AND BEYOND – EASTER 3

ON THE WAY TO DAMASCUS AND BEYOND

Acts 9:1-19, Psalm 30, John 21:1-19

April 26, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

My great grand mother was a convert, so was my father. However, I can not think of any recent convert otherwise. Conversion does not happen very often because it is costly. A complete change of ideas or religions upsets people close to you. Suppose, one day your daughter comes home and announces that she is a converted Mormon. A convert can lose jobs or end up being a lonely person. When my great grand mother decided to become a Christian, she was disowned by the family and had to leave home. My father was also disowned by his family. He was in a medical school, when he became not only a Christian but also decided to go to a theological school. This is why I never met many of my father”s family.

Saul”s conversion was an story of a radical change. Earlier he hated Christians. He was convinced that they were blasphemous people deserving death penalty. According to the book of Acts, Saul was filled with threats and murderous intent towards the Christians. When Stephen was stoned to death for blasphemy, Saul oversaw the execution. His zeal to keep the purity of faith was so strong that he went to another country to arrest and jail the Christians. He obtained the Arrest Warrant from the Chief Priest of Jerusalem. It was not a valid document in Syria. But that didn”t bother him. He was ready to risk overstepping the jurisdiction. He was a fanatic.

I think that there is nothing more dangerous than religious fanaticism. I am against the kind of religious fanaticism, that places purity of faith before people. Saul murdered Christians to keep the Jewish faith pure. We see the same travesty of religion in many places today. Shooting the doctors and bombing abortion clinics is an example of such religious fanaticism. You hear about the same kind of fanaticism in Algeria, Iran, Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, and the U.S. They kill in the name of God. Those fanatics are more dangerous than the common criminals, because they are convinced that God is on their side and that they are absolutely right.

So, Saul was on the way to Damascus with armed men to arrest the Christians. It was about three days ride on a horse back. He had some time to think. He must have reflected on what he had been doing recently. He must have thought about those Christian whom he jailed or killed. Surely Paul must have remembered how Stephen died, whose execution he himself supervised. Before Stephen breathed his last breath, Stephen cried out and said, "Father, forgive them. They don”t know what they are doing." He must have remembered those things. Suddenly, a blinding light struck him. He fell off the horse. The shock made him blind. He heard a voice, "Why do you persecute me?"

All of us have the Spirit of God within us. In other words, God lives in all of us. Paul called our bodies "God”s temple". If you give God in you a space to work; a time for the Spirit in us to work its way, you will come to senses. God spoke to the prodigal son, when he was feeding pigs and he came to himself. Fanaticism is a temporary insanity. Likewise, when we are infatuated, obsessed, lose temper, or sink into despair and hopelessness, we are also temporarily insane. We lose common sense that God has give us. Give yourself time; count ten and calm down. A day or a week will be better. God will speak to you. But if you have not given yourself time and not given God a chance to speak to you for a long time, the voice will come like a lightening bolt. It knocks you out. Because when it comes, it makes you realize how crazy you had been and how long. When it comes, you lose a sense of direction. You don”t know where you are and what to do any more. You become blind like Saul. You need help.

Help came to Saul in the person of Ananias. Ananaias knew who Saul was and what he had done to Christians. He himself could have been one of his victims. But he went to help him. Can you imagine? What kind of a man was he with such a huge capacity for forgiveness? If fact, this part of the story has the most important message about the conversion of Saul. If Ananaias was full of indignation, he could easily have decided to revenge all the Christians who died or suffered, and could have given Saul what he deserved. But he forgave him and helped him. Ananaias showed Saul forgiveness and love of God by his deeds.

Fanatics who hate people contradict themselves in the most fundamental way the principles of all religions, no matter how much they say they love God. You can not love God while hating people, in any religion. Most of the religions are based on the belief in the merciful God and the divine love. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, or Protestantism all have the common ground in this belief. As John said, "If you say you love God and hate people, you are a liar." The voice of Jesus asked Saul after he fell off the horse, "Why do you persecute me?" Saul was not persecuting Jesus Christ. As far as Saul was concerned, Jesus was dead. He was going after his followers. But Jesus said that persecuting people was the same thing as persecuting Jesus Christ himself.

God is loving and forgiving. Jesus Christ forgave, while being still on the cross dying, those who caused so much pain and suffering. Ananaias put into practice the forgiving love of God. He forgave and accepted Saul. When Saul was touched by this amazing love, he recovered the sight. No longer was he blind. He now could see the direction of his life.

I heard this story from Stephanie Hankey, Minister of the Presbyterian Church in Delaware at a meeting last year. It was about a kind and gentle couple who adopted a troubled young man who spent many years in prison for attempted murder. They were the members of the church my friend ministered to. They visited him every week. When he was released, they took him to their home and tried to help him find a job. He couldn”t find any. The world is unforgiving. He became more and more frustrated and began to behave like an angry young man. One day in a fit of rage, he took a gun and shot and killed the kindly adopted parents. The challenge for my friend was whether she should visit him in prison. "How could I?" said my friend. No longer was there Betsy who played piano at the evening service. No longer there was Jim, who was an elder serving as a liaison with the Scouts. "How could I visit such an ungrateful beast?" said my friend. But that”s what Ananaias did, who visited Saul and helped him find the direction of life. Otherwise, the church would not have had the Apostle Paul.

A : FIRE THAT DOESN”T CONSUME – FIRST SUNDAY OF SEPTEMBER

FIRE THAT DOES NOT CONSUME

EXODUS 2 & 3, PSALM 104 (#10 MATTHEW 16:21-23

September 1, 1996 by Tad Mitsui

When Moses saw a burning bush in the desert, he was already a broken man. His passionate idealism got him into trouble a few times. He even killed a man. He not only became a wanted man, but also was a man of shattered dreams. So he went into exile, got married and settled down into the boring life of a shepherd. The fire of passion was bad news for Moses. But one day he saw another kind of fire on a mountain in the Sinai desert. There was a fire but it was not burning up the bush. He drew near and tried to see this strange phenomenon. And there he met God. And when he came down from the mountain, Moses was a changed man. He rediscovered his idealism – his passionate commitment for his people, and was more determined to pursue his goal. He was more aware of his shortcomings but was more sure of himself knowing that God was with him.

Thanks to the ingenious acts of defiance committed by some women, Moses, though he was a son of slaves, grew up in a palace as a prince. But evidently his birth mother did not allow him to forget his national identity. Inside of his well groomed and elegantly clothed appearance, there was a fire burning. It was a passion for his people. This passionate nationalism could easily be transformed into a consuming hatred towards those people who enslaved his kinsfolk. But he lived in the palace of the oppressors. What a dilemma.

One day, passion had overtaken him. He killed an Egyptian overseer who was abusing a Hebrew slave. He was going to hide his crime. And he could have got away with it; after all he was a prince. But shortly afterwards in a totally unrelated incident, when he tried to intervene in a fight of two Hebrew men, they loudly challenged him by asking if he had guts to kill them also. He realized then that he had no moral authority. The rumour must have spread. The king heard it, too. Moses became a wanted man. He fled Egypt and went into the hills of Sinai desert. There again, his good intentions got him into trouble. He defended some women against local shepherds. He managed to make himself an enemy of the men of the region. His heart was in the right place, but his acts of passion always got him into trouble. But by the end of this episode, Moses was a matured man with exhausted idealism. He married the daughter of a local priest, one of the women he had defended, and had some kids. He had no more patriotic passion. His zeal for good deeds was spent. He now knew better. He would stay away from this dangerous fire. Fire consumes. He retired into a safe life of tending his father-in-law”s sheep.

Moses had had a comfortable life as a prince in the royal household. But his passion ruined this life style. He learned the lesson well. No more passion, no more adventures. They are silly things that destroy quiet lives. This is where most of us end up. We work hard putting in long hours, raise a family and make money to be comfortable. There is no time left to be idealistic. When he reached this stage, Moses was 80 years old, according to the Bible. Even if that meant 40 years old according to our way of counting years, the point is clear. He became a mature man who stopped doing things out of passion.

But that was not the way it was meant to be for Moses. He was chosen to be the leader who would free his people from slavery. He had a mission in his life. But he did not know that until he saw the fire that did not consume a bush. God told him in a vision of the burning bush that there was fire that empowered. There is a fire that nourishes and sustains. A wick does not burn up so long as there is a constant supply of oil. But first God told Moses to honour the ordinary things of life.

When he saw the fire which was not burning up the bush, God told him to take his shoes off. He was standing on holy ground. In other words, God told Moses that what seemed to be only his boring daily life was in fact a holy place. Moses felt that he had to settle into routine life as a punishment for his immaturity after he failed in his adventures. It was silly on his part to be driven by youthful passions. But he was reminded that where he stood was actually holy ground. Much of our daily life is holy. Like Moses, we also have moments of resignation thinking that reality of our life is pretty boring, nothing to write home about. We may think: "I have no time to be like a Mother Teresa." The media do not help us either. They tell us that there are other lives that are more exciting than ours. We should go places. We should look different. We should earn more money. There are adventures out there, but not here. Then God says, " What you are doing is an important thing. It is holy ground where you are. You have to be brave to be a mother. It takes guts to be a teenager and a church going Christian. Being a farmer is not easy; farming is like a high stake gamble. It is a holy ground where you are. Respect what you are doing. Take your shoes off." No leader can lead by escaping reality. Leadership begins with respect for the ”here and now”. Take your shoes off. This recognition of the importance of the ordinary is a fire that does not consume. Any one who does not recognize the holiness of the ordinary fails in the first test of leadership.

Then God told Moses to go back to where he failed. Of course, Moses did not want to hear that. He made all sorts of excuses. "Why me? I failed in the past. Surely there are better persons to do it." He was too tired to remember his long forgotten passion. "I tried and I failed. Saving my people from slavery is a big job. There must be a better person to do it, out there somewhere, but not here. The fire inside of me got me into trouble, and made me a failure. I paid my dues. No more, please." An interesting thing about this dialogue between God and Moses is that God did not go into the subject of Moses” shortcomings. God was silent about his past failures and weaknesses. The only words the Bible records as God”s response to Moses” excuses was, "Go. I will be with you." It was a promise to accompany him.

We often forget that being human means we are limited. No one is perfect. To make mistakes is human. This is why believing that we can achieve perfection is a disease of mind, because we can not attain it. Only God can be perfect. God does not ask us to be perfect. He does, however, ask us to do our best. Excellence is not perfection. It is doing the best we can do. And God always stays with us. We only have to be aware of his presence. That will enpower and sustain us. When I learned to ride a bicycle, my father held on to the seat of my bike, and ran with me as I pedalled. He kept shouting, "Faster, faster." At one point, I realized the voice behind me was receding and began to sound far away. He was no longer holding on to the bike. I was riding the bike by myself. God tells us to "Go on your own, and give your best." He does not promise that we are perfect and we don”t make mistakes. But he promises that he will be with us always.

All of us were born with a mission. Many of us live a normal life, but some of us live differently. But to characterize some life-style as exciting and others as boring is a misunderstanding of our mission. Even those extraordinary persons who become leaders must know the importance of every person”s purpose in life. Otherwise, their inner fire will burn them up no matter how spectacular their lives seem to be. We know so many ruined lives even though they seem rich and famous. Let us take our shoes off. Where we are is holy ground. This is where God is, who nourishes and sustains us constantly. God is like the unlimited supply of oil. A candle will burn out. But our lamp can go on burning so long as there is oil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A: DARE TO HOPE – 2ND WEEK OF JUNE

HOPE BEYOND HOPELESSNESS

Genesis 21: 8 – 21, Psalm 86 VU803, Matthew 10:24-39

                                                   Voices United:288,506,560,635

June 19, 2005, at Claresholm

There was a woman who was dying of anorexia nervosa. She was abused as a child and became convinced that nobody liked her. She stopped eating as a desperate attempt to be slim and attractive. In the end, she weighed as little as 80 lb but still determined that she must still lose weight. At that point, she could never accept herself. People began to ask if it was no longer a psychological disorder, but a spiritual problem. Severe lack of self-esteem is a spiritual illness. She was in a hell of despair. In the end, she went to see an United Church minister.

When you are in despair, you don”t see any sign of hope. You are determined to see only the dark side. It is like Hagar in today’s scriptures. She so completely lost hope that she did not see a spring of fresh water nearby.

Today’s Old Testament passage is a terrible and cruel story. How do you make sense out of a beastly deed committed by good people like Abraham and Sarah? An innocent slave woman was forced to have a baby by her master, Abraham, encouraged by his wife, Sarah. Hagar, the slave, was treated like a cow. Furthermore when a child was born to the legitimate wife, the slave woman was cast out into a desert so that she and the child would simply vanish. She had no friend. The community that supported her abandoned her.

The Bible dose not hide the dark side of people, no matter how good they were. It is because its main message is that God only is absolutely perfect as no human can be. Good King David once lusted after another man”Ñ wife and had her husband killed on a battle front in order to marry her. Peter, who came to be known as the vicar of Christ, lied and said that he didn’t know Jesus three times to save his own life. Paul spoke about an elder of the church in Corinth who shared a concubine with his son. And there are more. Adultery, betrayal, incest, etc abound. The Bible is not a book about nice people.

The story about Sarah, Hagar, and their sons is one of those stories that tell us that all of us have a dark side. It is terrible but it is the truth. Like the good woman Sarah, We are capable to commit evil. But by the grace of God, we are made acceptable in spite of our faults.

Hagar and her child Ishmael were cast out into the desert by Abraham and Sarah with nothing more than a bit of water and food. They wandered around Sinai desert under the hot merciless sun. Eventually food and water ran out. Mother put down her son in the cool shade of a bush. He was crying feebly for water. And she walked away as far as she could so that she did not have to hear her child cry. She loved the child, so she could not walk away from him completely. But also because she loved him, she could not bear to hear the feeble cry of her dying child. They had no place to go: only death awaited. This is a picture of absolute hopelessness. She had no one to turn to. All humans, even good people like Abraham and Sarah failed her.

Hagar lost all hope, but not little Ishmael. He did not give up hope. Babies don’t know how to give up. This is why they keep crying. You cry to be heard. Weeping is a hand stretched in search of hope. God heard Ishmael”s cry and helped to open the eyes of Hagar. She found a well-spring of fresh water, which had always been there. Now their thirst was quenched, they regained enough strength to find food in the desert. Eventually they learnt to live in the desert. God promised Hagar that her son, Ishmael would grow up to be a mighty hunter and a good provider. According to the legend, Hagar and Ishmael were the ancestors of the present day Arab nations.

 

They thrived in the desert lands of the Arabian peninsula and North Africa. When Hagar recovered hope, she and her son found community. Hagar found Ishmael a wife in the land of her birth – Egypt, and became the matriarch of a mighty nation, no longer a slave. She was a victim no more. The cry of an innocent child, who did not know how to give up hope, helped her find salvation. She not only found water, but also God and community. Baby’s cry in the wilderness also meant she found her freedom; she became the mistress of her own destiny. She found hope beyond despair.

There is an African saying, "You can not save a cow who doesn’t want to get out of a gully." I suppose it’s the same thing as "God helps those who help themselves." We believe in hope. There is always hope beyond hopelessness. If you can not accept this, you suffer sickness of despair. It prevents you to see God who is always nearby ready to help you. Let us rejoice, God is with us. We may not deserve such grace. But God is always with us. Emmanuel, "God is with us" that’s how Jesus is called. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

A: JESUS AND A SPACEMAN – ASCENSION

JESUS AND A SPACEMAN

Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68, John 17:1-11

May 16, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

During the sixties, the Soviets were ahead of the U.S. in the space exploration. They had shot up a few satellites, and with them, one at a time, a dog, a few men and a woman into the space, long before Americans did. One of the Soviet Cosmonauts had declared that God did not exist. He said, "I went into the heavens and looked everywhere. But I did not see God." Whenever I hear a gross misunderstanding of the Bible like this, I feel strongly that we should be more clear about how we should read the Bible.

None of us take everything in the Bible literally. But we should not be intimidated by an accusation that we don”t take the Bible as the words of God. Even the most ardent believer of the literal truth of the Bible, for example, would not stone his child for speaking against the parents. Although this is prescribed in the Book of Deuteronomy, all of us know that it is not be taken literally. None of us have a problem distinguishing between the words to be taken literally and the ones to be taken figuratively. When you say you have something by the "tons", you really don”t mean tons. You mean lots of it. A nice person went to Africa as a volunteer and made many good friends. As she was leaving, she said tearfully, "I love you all. I would love to see you again very soon." Some time later, she got a phone call from the airport. "Here I am, I came to see you." Someone took her words literally, saved all his money and bought a one way ticket to the States. This is a true story. If you don”t know how to use or hear terms of endearment appropriately, you will have big problems in your life. Some people may take it literally.

Our language is limited. When you want to say something you feel very deeply, you can never find the right words to express it. To resolve the limitation of our language, the human race has developed many art forms, such as music, painting, poetry, metaphors, parables, and story telling, etc. to express things for which there are no adequate words. Especially the matters of God and the spirit are so deeply and strongly felt that they were almost always described and expressed in the figurative language. This is why the ancient Hebrews did not feel right to name God directly, for example. God is too great to be restricted by a name. This is also why the Bible speaks of the whereabouts of God in many ways such as one "in Heaven", who "abides with us" or is "in us", even in the dark "shadow of death". God is simply too immense and too majestic for us to name or to locate.

Did Jesus go up into heaven and become a forerunner of astronauts? The answer, of course, is "no". What then did Luke mean when he described the scene of Christ”s going up and disappearing into heaven? There must be more to this story than I can handle this morning. But I will mention two points. The first is the notion of Christ leaving us behind. And the second is that God is incomparable, better, greater, and superior than anybody and anything.

The notion of "God going away and leaving us behind" is a recurring theme in the Bible. The point is about our maturity and responsibility. God is not like a parent who can not let go of her child, not allowing them to grow up and to be independent. God goes away like an landowner leaving his land to his tenant farmers, a rich man who entrusts his stewards to look after his wealth expecting them to invest it wisely, or like a father who lets his son go far away with his fortune. The most loving gift that God has given us is his trust. He trust us so much that he gave us freedom and responsibility. All loving parents must learn from this. They must let their children enjoy freedom, learn to be responsible, even allow them to make mistakes so that they learn, by going away.

So Jesus Christ went away. When the disciples kept looking towards the heaven where Jesus disappeared missing him terribly, two angels appeared and said to them, "Why are you looking towards heaven? He”s gone. He will come back, but in a different form – as the Holy Spirit." Grow up and be responsible. It is now your job to spread the Good News among people everywhere.

Secondly, many cultures possess the idea that heaven represents what is ultimately the best, the greatest, or what is beyond us. It comes from the idea that God is beyond our reach. It does not necessarily convey the notion of location or direction. In China, heaven is the same word for God. There is a famous requiem written by the 6th Century B.C. Chinese philosopher Confucius when he lost his most promising disciple. It opens with a line, "Oh Heaven, why has thou forsaken me! Heaven has deserted me." If the word heaven is substituted by the word "God", it sounds almost like the Psalm 22, doesn”t it? "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!", which was repeated by Jesus on the cross. In Japan and in Southern Africa, the word for God is "Kaki" or "Molimo", which simply means "up". All of those words have the sense of "someone beyond our reach."

The disciples experienced a deep and strong feeling that Jesus they had known intimately was now with God. It suddenly dawned on them that He was indeed greater and superior than any living person or creature. He was indeed God who came to live among them as a man. They must have stood in awe realizing that "I was with God." How else could they say except somewhat inadequately, "He went up into heaven."

I hope that it is now clear that the ascension of Jesus was not a story about the first man in space. It is about the greatness and godliness of Jesus Christ. It is also about our God given freedom and responsibility, and God”s trust in us. Let us thank God that the pioneers of our faith did their best to record their experience, no matter how inadequate their language might have sounded. Let us also learn from them to be bold in our expression of faith without being shy about our inadequacy. And let us trust that future generations will come to understand what we mean.

 

 

 

A: AMAZING GRACE – 3RD WEEK OF JUNE

AMAZING GRACE – BLOOD INTO BLESSING

Genesis 12:1-3, Psalm 33, Luke 8:43-48

June 6, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

The author of the much loved hymn "Amazing Grace", John Newton, had been born blind. Despite his handicap, with sheer determination he became a successful and wealthy businessman. He traded in African slaves. To him, African people were a mere commodity, and cargo to be thrown overboard when the ship was at peril in a storm. Then, "Amazing Grace" burst into his life, and he was given the gift of sight. One day, he looked into the eyes of one of his slave cargo and saw a human being, a child of God. Years later, he wrote "I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see."

If you think that the cure of John Newton”s blindness was a miracle, you are completely missing the point. The real miracle was that he gained spiritual eye-sight. He could now understand that there was a fellow human being in a person who had been a mere commodity. Likewise, the miraculous healing of a woman who had suffered twelve years of haemorrhage was not so much about the cessation of bleeding, but it was about the recovery of her membership in humanity. These days, science can sometimes give sight to the blind and stop a haemorrhage, but it is only the Holy Spirit that makes a human a child of God.

So the woman in the Gospel story was in double jeopardy. She had a physical problem and trouble with the society. She has bled for twelve years. The society made her feel even more rotten by labelling her "unclean" and "untouchable." Doctors did not take her seriously, because she was nobody in the society – she was an untouchable. How can any doctor examine a person without touching? It must have made her feel so frustrated and angry. Ancient societies often had a double standard about blood. They often considered natural flow of blood like a women”s monthly cycle, or natural flow of any kind of body fluid, disgusting and unacceptable, thus unclean. Coming into contact with it was a taboo. A taboo did not necessarily cause medical problems. It was more related to religion. In the meanwhile, men”s experiences of blood have often been related to death. They considered blood related to deaths and heroic acts of sacrifice noble, yet nevertheless life-denying. So they thought that the shedding of blood without an outward sign of wound must have been the indication that below the surface the devil was at work. For men, there was no healthy blood. Blood always had to do with either death or evil.

On the other hand, women have known blood to be life-giving – a sign of God”s blessing. Their regular monthly flow indicates that every month their bodies are prepared to nourish life. But men”s fear of blood made the woman having her period classified as unclean and untouchable. A woman who gave birth was also untouchable because of blood of birthing. She was isolated for a month, or even for years in some cultures until the baby was weaned. The woman had no health problems, but she was a taboo during her period. No one could touch her, and everything she touched was considered to be unclean. So imagine how this haemorrhaging woman in the Gospel was treated. She had bled for twelve years. Her bleeding problem could have been a medical problem. But for religious reasons she had to be made an outcast, unclean and untouchable.

When she sought a cure of her haemorrhage and touched the hem of Jesus” outer garment, she was really looking for wholeness. As a sufferer of recurrent headache, I understand her very well. When migraine persists for a period of time, you begin to feel guilty, because you are not doing anything and wasting the space you occupy. Often this lack of self-confidence becomes more of a problem than what actually ails you. Behind your search for a cure, you are really looking for acceptance. Acceptance makes you feel whole. Wholeness is genuine "healing", which is the same word as "salvation" in the Bible. When you feel healed and wholeness is gained, you are at peace with yourself; then you feel truly healthy. So, she touched Jesus” clothes. Touching was an important feature in many healing miracles of Jesus. By touching the handicapped and the sick, Jesus declared, "They are not untouchable. These people are the children of God, as lovable and precious as you all are." Touch conveyed the message of acceptance and affirmation.

In this case, however, it was the seeker of healing who touched Jesus. There are many stories of people who demanded justice and salvation in the Bible, and this is one of them. The woman in this story knew deep inside that her problem was merely physical and that she committed no offence in the eyes of God. But she did not want to shock people by an act of open defiance. So, she extended her hand to touch as a quiet act of petition, and she felt affirmed, and was healed. Jesus said, "Daughter, your faith made you whole." She was now a beloved and precious daughter. In the Bible, the expression "daughter" always suggests a special loving relationship. She was now a daughter of God. She was healed, she was made whole.

David Lochhead is still on life support, totally paralyzed except his eyes. Marta reported to friends on the internet on May 29, "Today David gave me a beautiful gift. With his eyes he told me that he wanted to communicate something. We took out a board with the alphabet. He dictated, "I love you." You can imagine my reaction! If David loves, he will be OK……We are open to the will of God. Thank you for your support. Marta." Here are a couple of persons, like the woman who had bled for twelve years, healed and made whole by love and grace of God despite a seemingly hopeless situation.

The story of John Newton, the author of "Amazing Grace", the story of the woman with the haemorrhage, and Marts”s message about David Lochhead, all touch us that God”s grace is available to each of us, if only we are open to it. By that grace we are healed and restored to our rightful place as daughters and sons in the family of God. Thanks be to God.

A: MARY HAS CHOSEN THE BETTER WAY – THIRD SUNDAY OF JULY

MARY HAS CHOSEN THE BETTER WAY

Luke 10: 38 – 42

Mary and Martha owed Jesus a great deal. He saved their brother Lazarus from death. Not only did they owe Jesus their brother”s life, but also they owed him their dignity. According to John”s Gospel, Mary was reportedly a person of ill repute. The Bible does not give the details of her problem. But it is clear that she was not accceptable in a circle of so-called decent people.

John tells us that Mary came uninvited into a large dinner party one day. She was crying. She went straight to the honoured guest – Jesus. She broke a jar of very expensive perfumed ointment and poured it onto Jesus” feet, and wiped them with her hair. People were so shocked that nobody moved to stop her. The disciples were outraged. "How dare she? This is no place for a base woman. Besides what stupidity! Wasting so much money in such an emotional and meaningless act. We could have spent that kind of money in a much better way." But Jesus praised Mary”s action and restored her dignity in the eyes of the public.

Mary must have had a knack of doing things in the wrong way. She did irrational things. She irritated people. Today”s Gospel gives another example. When an important guest comes to your house, there are a thousand things to do. Where was Mary in the midst of all this busy-ness around Jesus” visit? Sitting by the guest without helping Martha in the kitchen. So obviously for Martha, Mary did the wrong thing. "Sitting and talking, monopolizing the guest”s attention, when there are thousand things to do! How dare she?" Mary always did the wrong thing.

 

However, there is an evocative word used to describe Martha”s behaviour that hints that something was amiss. "Martha was distracted by her many tasks." Distracted by chores? Is cleaning the house distraction? Is setting the table distraction? The word used here means not only distraction, but also anxiety or a troubling thing. There are so many things to be done for the guest. And there is so little time. Chores no longer were a joyful labour of love, but a source of anxiety.

At any rate, Jesus” response was a surprise. "Mary chose the better way." Poor Martha! I don”t think, however, that Jesus put down Martha by saying that. I am sure Jesus meant, "I am grateful for what you are doing. But some things can wait. Come, sit down. I want you to hear what I have to say." I think that he was simply pointing out to Martha that there are different ways to look after a guest. On this occasion Mary chose the better one – listening. If you look at your life in perspective, there are tasks that can wait for the sake of one timely thing which is more appropariate at that moment. There is no point being anxious about other things. You can attend to them later.

I think it is especially significant that Mary took the time to listen. Listening is a form of ministry often overlooked in the church. When you sit in the pews and listen to the message of the Bible on Sunday, you call it service. That was what Mary did. She was serving the Lord by listening. Listening is an act of giving oneself. Likewise, we can also serve each other in the community by listening. We are often too busy to listen, because we have too much to do and too many things to say. After saying what we think needs to be said, we run out of time to listen. So we cut out the listening part from our life. I believe that our society is partly in trouble, because we are forgetting the art of listening.

Just think about how little listening we really do at a party for example. One man went through the reception line at a wedding and said to the mother of the bride just for fun, "My mother died yesterday." The bride”s mother responded, her smile undiminished, "How charming, thank you very much." Obviously he was rather unfair to pull such a prank. But it does say something about the way we listen to each other. Unconsciously we think that most of the people say things that are not worth paying too much attention to.

We must realize that listening to others is an important act to show affection and respect. We are always pleased and happy if others listen to us. I don”t think we are as happy, when others talk at us all the time. You see, when someone listens to you even if you are not saying anything interesting, you feel that someone paid attention to you. We are happy when we are listened to, because we are taken seriously. Notice how your young children fight over their turn to talk to you. "No, it”s my turn." When one child at last gets the turn, does he have anything to say? Not necessarily. But that doesn”t matter. If you listen to him, he feels that he is taken seriously. He feels loved. That”s the point. It is quite possible that what your loved one wants is neither food nor fuss, but you. Listening proves that your loved one has the whole of you, not just a piece of you, such as your money, food, or a present, or even the legacy you leave behind. It”s you that they want, the whole of you.

In 1984, during the height of famine in Ethiopia when thousands were dying everyday, the Ethiopian church invited many churches from other countries to see the situation and organize a massive relief operation. I was recruited as Coordinator of Famine relief. One man from a small church from Iceland who attended apologized and said, "We are a small church. We can give some dried fish, but not much money." But the Patriarch of the Ethiopian church said, "But you came. You care. That is most important for us to know. Your presence gives us courage to carry on this daunting task of feeding hundreds of thousands of people."

I visited once a person who had suffered a long and painful process of dying. One day as I went into his room he told me, "Tad, I will die soon." The doctor must have told him. What would you say to him? I had a few ready made words of comfort in my sleeves like any minister should. But I did not have time to say anything. He continued, "I”m darn glad that I can get the hell outa here." It was obvious that he was genuinely glad to get out of pain; he was tired of suffering. So we prayed together thanking God for sparing him from any further indignity. In the end, I didn”t need those words of comfort. All I had to do was to listen. And in the listening, I discovered the most appropriate response to this man”s situation. Letting him express his feelings to me and to God was all that was really neccessary. You see, if you listen, the appropriate action that should follow can be quite an unforeseen surprise.

Jesus had only several days to live when he was visiting Mary and Martha. At the time like that, it was most appropriate labour of love to listen to him. When there is good listening, the action which follows can be most appropriate. And if you don”t listen, your kindness can be quite wasted. In sitting by Jesus, Mary chose the better way to serve him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

C: THE CHURCH BEGAN WITH A WIND – PENTECOST

THE CHURCH BEGAN WITH A GUST OF WIND

 Joel 2: 26 – 29, Acts 2: 1 – 13

The Church began with a gust of wind. There was a sound of a gust of wind, and spirit came down like tongues of fire. And suddenly a dispirited group of people came alive and began to speak boldly about their faith in public. That”s how the Church began, according to the Acts of Apostles.

What was that wind or that fire? I don”t know but it must have been something potent to revive a miserable bunch of discouraged people.

My father used to tell us kids about the days when radio broadcasting service and telephone service began in Japan many years ago. Telephone poles were built and wired. People were told that those wires would carry messages by what was called telephone. So people hung letters on the wires. Nothing happened, the letters were not delivered, of course. So when the government presented the idea that messages could be carried in the air, when the radio broadcasting began, nobody believed it. Nevertheless, the day when radio broadcasting was supposed to begin, everybody in the village gathered in the village community hall. A huge machine with a pair of earphones was brought in. And the time came. The man with the earphones listened intensely. He heard nothing. So the next man tried. Again, nothing, no sound. Another Government lie, and everybody left. They discovered later that it was the wrong day. The broadcasting began the next day.

You see, the point of the story is that no matter what a wonderful machine you have, if there is no radio waves in the air, the radio receiver is useless. It is like buying an expensive car with all sorts of bells and whistles, when you really want to go nowhere with it. You just want a nice decoration in your garage. What”s the point? You see, the church is not just a building, a minister, or a bunch of people. It has to have something else. We call that something else, Spirit. In other words, the church must catch the spirit of Christ and create a community of love. Otherwise, what”s the point?

You may be interested to know that in Hebrew language, in which the Bible was written originally, the word for Spirit is the same word for breath, breathe, and wind. So when God created man and woman, and when he breathed life into them, he also put spirits into Adam and Eve. It is essential for us to breathe the spirit in and out as much as we need air every moment. We have something unexplainable in us which distinguishes us from vegetables. We call that the soul which is like our lungs, and it has to be filled by spirit, like the lungs need air, to make us human. And the church nourishes us with spiritual food, like the table provides the essential nourishment for our physical body.

I once saw a gentle and kindly woman having turned into something a bit less than a full human. She was a member of my congregation in Vancouver. She had terminal cancer. Towards the end of her life, the pain became too intense, constant and unbearable, she required dangerously much morphine. The doctor decided to disconnect some nerves, so she did not feel the pain any more. After her nerves were cut, she looked peaceful with a perpetual smile in her face. She spoke normally, but there was something missing. I could only described her condition as someone who lost the spirit. She lived only a few days after. Another friend, who was a brilliant criminal lawyer, was diagnosed as having a cancerous brain tumour on the side of the brain that controlled intelligence and feelings. He was told that he could live on for a long time after a surgical removal of that tumour, if he does not mind living like a vegetable for the rest of his life. He opted not to have the surgery, and remained an active brilliant lawyer for a few more years. He died a very painful death, but his intelligence and feelings remained intact. You see he died like a human being, not like a vegetable. The church does not give you food or money. The church teaches you to breathe in and out spirit.

Now, the church in Canada is facing a turning point. We have to make a decision. Should we remain spiritual and small? Or should we become big and wealthy? You can opt for size and wealth, if you really want. A lot of television churches do that. They earn millions of dollars. But I say, let us remain spiritual and authentic as the church. I say this because I believe that the problem we have as the church is not declining membership nor the loss of power in society. It is the loss of spiritual values in society. And the church does not seem to be giving leadership, because it is too busy worrying about our declining numbers and finance.

As you may remember, there was a terrorist attack using sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system that killed scores and injured thousands of people. When we were in Tokyo recently, a cult known as Aum Shinri Kyo under the leadership of one blind charismatic man was found to be responsible for this terrorist attack and the perpetrators of this hideous crime were arrested, including the cult leader. They believed in the immanent end of the world, and the terrorist attack was supposed to have induced the last war of Armageddon to bring about the apocalypse – the end of the world. However, what is remarkable about this group and people involved in the crime was the fact that there were many well educated people directly involved in the crime. Many scientists with PHD degrees and medical doctors and lawyers became members of this religion and used their training to plan and execute the attack. Many commentators agreed that this was partly the result of a society successful in building a dynamic economy and technological advancement without any respect for spiritual values.

We are by nature spiritual beings, as well as having a physical existence. Mere material fulfilment does not give us a full sense of being. If social status and wealth are all we need to live like a human being, how come there is so much unhappiness among the rich and famous? How come there are so many personal problems in the richest countries like U.S., Canada and Japan?

The church has to bear some responsibility for this state of unhappiness. The church has been too preoccupied with the size of membership, money and buildings. We neglected spiritual matters. Spirit is the thing that started the church. And we have neglected it. Many people seek spiritual fulfilment, but can not find them in traditional religions. That”s why so many people go to strange, and often fraudulent religious groups.

When the old mill was turned into this Church seventy years ago, those stones were used to turn the site from a business enterprise into a house of God where people would hear the good news about God”s love and the message that they were to care for each other. If we lose that spirit, there is not much point continuing. But if we keep that spirit, no matter how small the group that meets here becomes, this church built with the stone of an old mill, will not revert back into a mere money making enterprise. It will remain a place of worship where people are comforted, and encouraged. You never know. You may offer a real cure of the ills of the world. David Lochhead once described Howick United Church to me as, "a spot of sanity in the chaotic world."

May you continue to breathe with the spirit of faithfulness, and send many gusts out. You may transform the world around you.

B: ALL MY GLORY IS SHOWN THROUGH THEM – EASTER 7

ALL MY GLORY IS SHOWN THROUGH THEM

John 17:6-19, Psalm 1

June 4, 2000 by Tad Mitsui

I love our cat. I think she is the most beautiful cat in the world. But all the cat lovers say that their cats are the most beautiful cat in the world. Some of them are ugly. Cats mess up the house. But it doesn”t matter. When you love a cat, you love it even if it is not good looking or does all sorts of naughty things. But when we love a cat, it doesn”t matter even if it is absolutely useless. We love to love someone we love. Love itself is a joy and a reward, even if it is useless. That”s what love is.

Think about a baby in a family. Everybody loves a baby. Does a baby do dishes, clean the house, or helps you doing the chores in the barn? A baby is usually nuisance. It cries at night and keeps you awake, makes a mess, and gets sick. Babies don”t earn money but cost a lot of money. Babies are useless. But we still love the baby, a lot. Why? It is because love has nothing to do with being good or bad. Love does not come as a reward for being good.

Jesus prayed to God thanking him for giving him the friends he had during his life. He said, "All my glory is shown through them." He was saying that all the people he spent time and worked with were wonderful people. He must have loved them very much, and he must have been very proud of them. But if you think about the kind of people Jesus was speaking about, you will not understand why he said that. Many of them didn”t understand his teachings and often they completely misunderstood them. When he needed their help very much, all of them ran away, and Jesus was left alone. They were not dependable at all. One of them even betrayed him. How can Jesus be proud of them? How could they be the source of his glory? Jesus must have loved them very much. He could love them, because his love did not depend on whether they were good. It is just like our love of a baby. Love does not ask question like "Have you been a good boy?"

I remember the day when I did not do my home-work and went to school. I tried very hard to hide behind the friend who was in front of me, so the teacher would not find me. Sometimes we wonder if our parent still loves us even when we did not do as we were told. We don”t have to worry about that, because love has no relation with being good or bad. You are OK. Jesus loves you no matter what. God loves you no matter what.

C: JUDGEMENT AS AN ACT OF LOVE – THIRD SUNDAY OF AUGUST

JUDGEMENT OF LOVE

Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80, Luke 12:54-56

August 15, 2004 by Tad Mitsui

When I was a child, I used to enjoy the summer festival at a Buddhist temple. There was a community dance, a circus, rides of all sorts, a big open-air market and the exhibitions of arts depicting Buddhist legends and stories. There was one room I avoided. It had a huge mural depicting scenes of Hell. It was a horribly vivid painting of many torture scenes. Seeing it first time, I had nightmares that night. So I never went back again. In Europe too, you will see the same kind of gory pictures of Hell among medieval religious art.

We don”t talk much about hell in our church these days. I believe that our idea of hell has changed. Today”s passages in both Isaiah and Luke tell us that God”s judgement is certainly an important part of the message of the Bible. But judgement and hell are not the same. This morning, the suggested Bible passages make us think about judgement in our belief.

First of all, we notice that the Prophet Isaiah began speaking about the judgement of God in a parable and called it the love-song of the beloved. This sounds a little bizarre. Judgement is a love-song? We usually dread God”s judgement. We call it in such terms as "Fire and brimstone, Eternal damnation, or Hell," etc. But we must realize that here the Bible spoke about the judgment as the time of reckoning. And in God’s accounting, the bottom line is justice and mercy, not punishment.

In this sense, we disagree with the ideas of Hell as represented by the old religious arts. We realize that many religious leaders have used the image of Hell as a threat to exercise their power blackmailing ignorant people into submission. Let us not go back to the dark ages where God was a jail guard. We believe in the religion where our God is love. In his love God credits us where credit is due and points out to us the mistakes we may have made. That’s true love.

Unfortunately, some religious people abuse their power with a threat of God’s judgement even today. Their words were full of condemnations, hatred, and punishments and rejections. We remind ourselves that we believe in a merciful and loving God who does not enjoy punishing people.

How, then, can the judgement be described as a love-song? The answer lies in our belief in our loving and trusting relationship with God. It is just like our relationship with our spouses, children, and friends. In such a relationship, it is an important to pause from time to time, to celebrate what we have accomplished together, and correct it where it went wrong. We do that at the dinner table, while we are driving, or in a quiet chat before we fall asleep. Nowadays, we call it a quality time.

The parable in the Isaiah begins with a vineyard owner working hard to create the best conditions for the vines. Likewise, God loves us and takes the best care of us. That is the nature of our relationship with God. On that well prepared soil, we do our part to grow and produce fruits. It is a partnership. God does his part and we do ours. God trusts us.

When a partnership works well, the time to stop and check each other is a time of delight. From time to time, we celebrate our life together big time like harvest time. Anniversaries, birthdays, weddings, even the funerals are the time of celebration of our lives together. They are important time of accounting. The judgement of God is the time for accounting. For those who do their part faithfully, the reward of justice is a source of comfort and joy, and recognition of shortcomings is a gift of an opportunity to learn.

True love demands justice and fairness in accounting. The judgement of God is not a rejection. When we fail, we will bear the consequences. But even then God patiently waits for us to start a new vineyard. He gives us chance to begin afresh. God is ready to forgive us and to bring us back into a new relationship.

Often you hear of parents who defend their criminal child. You may want to call it foolish love. But if I was a criminal, I would be grateful that there was at least one person in the whole wide world who would still love me despite my mistakes. God is like the parent who never ceases to love. God does not ignore our guilt. Instead, he suffers more because of it, like the parent of a criminal does. The judgement of God is not an act of rejection. It is an opportunity to take stock of his relationship with us. Let us look forward to it. And if we fail, let us learn lessons from it. Judgement of God is a love song, not hell.

A : PUSHED INTO DESPAIR – 3RD WEEK OF JUNE

Link

PUSHED INTO DESPAIR

Genesis 21: 8 – 21, Psalm 86

June 23, 1996, by Tad Mitsui

The Genesis passage chosen for today is a terrible and cruel story. Preachers dread having to deal with a Bible passage as this. How do you make sense out of a beastly act committed by good people? The story does not match our images of apparently nice people like Abraham and Sarah. An innocent slave woman was forced to have a baby by Abraham in order that an important family would have an heir. She had no say in the matter. As a mere slave, she was not much better than a cow. Furthermore when a child was born of the legitimate wife, the woman, whose body was treated like a convenient tool, was pushed out into a desert so that she and the child would disappear and hopefully die. What is the message of such a terrible story?

Let me try three points. You may think of more.

1. There is a dark and evil side in all of us.

2. There is a spiritual disease which rejects all hope.

3. Salvation is always nearby.

Point No. 1: We do not want to admit it, but all of us have a dark side inside of us that we don”t want to admit exists. The Bible tells us about the dark sides of many good people. King David, a beloved figure for all Jewish people, once stole another man”Ñwife, using his position as the Commander-in-Chief of the Army arranged her husband to be killed on a battle front, and married her. Peter, the most passionate one of all Jesus”s disciples who came to be known as the vicar of Christ, disavowed Jesus three times one evening in order to save his own skin. Paul, before he became a disciple, had persecuted Christians and facilitated the first martyrdom of Stephen and condoned his execution. The Bible never hides the ugly sides of people no matter how otherwise faithful and good they were known to be.

Sarah was a good woman, worthy of being called the mother of a nation. But when she saw her son playing with his half-brother by another mother, she was consumed by a sudden surge of jealousy, and told her husband to get rid of Ishmael and his mother Hagar. It did not matter that it was Sarah”s idea that her husband took another woman to have a child. Now, she hated her husband”s mistress and her son. What a terrible raw hatred. It is easy to condemn Sarah. But what this story is telling us is that all of us have a dark nature within us. It is terrible to admit it even to ourselves. But it is true.

Why did God create us with such an awful nature? It is because God gave us freedom. If there is only one option before us, there is no choice. That is not freedom. Without freedom, we are like other animals who have no choice but to follow our natural instincts. Freedom requires the conditions wherein one can choose. But there is also an awful risk in freedom. We can make good decisions or bad decisions. It is entirely up to us. That is what it means to be free. So we must be honest and admit that we are capable of making a bad decision and committing cruelty. This is why it is very important to believe in forgiveness. We are made acceptable despite our faults by the grace of God. Let us be honest about ourselves, and recognize evil in us without being crushed by guilt.

Point No. 2: Now Hagar and her child Ishmael were pushed out into the desert with nothing more than a skinful of water and some food. She didn”t know where to go. Mother and the child wandered about Sinai desert under the hot merciless sun for several days. Eventually food and water ran out. She put down Ishmael in the cool shade of a bush. He was crying feebly for water. And she walked away as far as she could so that she did not have to hear the child cry. She could not stand to watch him die. Yet she could not walk away. This is a picture of absolute despair. She loved the child, so she could not walk away from him. But also because she loved him, she could not bear to listen to the feeble cry of a dying child. She was in limbo. She had lost all hope.

When you are in despair, you don”t see any sign of hope, even though it may be nearby and clearly visible. One of the most tragic things about people, who have lost all hope, is that they refuse to be hopeful even if it is possible. They are determined to be pessimistic. Hagar was so despairing that she did not see the well of fresh water nearby.

A friend of mine, a United Church minister who was sitting with me at the same table at the Conference in Ottawa last week, told me about a woman who was dying of anorexia. She was abused as a child and became convinced that nobody liked her nor loved her. Worst of all, she was convinced it was all her fault. She stopped eating as an attempt to be slim and presentable, so that she could be acceptable at least in physical appearance . She had reached 80 lb and was still convinced that she needed to reduce weight. At that point, people around her began to ask if it was no longer a psychological disorder, but rather something even more profound – i.e. a spiritual disease. She could never accept herself. She basically wanted to disappear. No medical doctor nor psychiatrist could help her, so she was referred to the minister. And my friend was not sure if she could help her. When one has totally lost hope, one can not see even a very visible sign of hope nor accept a helping hand.

The final point: When Hagar lost all hope, God heard Ishmael”s cry. It is interesting. Isn”t it? The Bible was describing Hagar”s conditions until then. But suddenly the attention was switched to her son. The Bible said, “God heard the voice of the boy.” Obviously, the boy never stopped crying. Hagar was so much in despair that she had even stopped crying. Her tears had dried up. One cries when one subconsciously knows that there is someone who can hear the cry and help. One cries when one hopes to be heard. Ishmael did not give up hope. Weeping is a hand stretched in search of help – a manifestation of hope. I still remember when I wept for the first time as an adult in the presence of other people. It was when my father died. I had just finished Theological School. As one who was brought up to behave like a man in the macho culture of Japan, I had tried hard not to cry. But it was no use. I had to cry. I immediately became conscious of the eyes of other people. What would people think of a grown man not being able to control himself? I realize now that at that moment I was asking people to help me. Soon I felt the whole weight of despair lifted while weeping. People did not look at me with disdain. Instead, I rediscovered a community of people who cared.

God heard Ishmael”s cry and helped to open the eyes of Hagar. She found a well-spring of fresh water, which had always been there. They regained enough strength to find food in the desert and eventually learnt to live there. God promised Hagar that her son, Ishmael would grow up to be a mighty hunter and a provider in a desert. According to the legend, Hagar and Ishmael were the ancestors of the present day Arab nations, who have thrived in the desert lands of the Arabian peninsula and North Africa. Hagar found Ishmael a wife in the land of her birth – Egypt, and became the matriarch of a mighty nation, no longer a slave. She was a victim no more. The cry of an innocent child, who did not know how to give up hope, helped her to find salvation. That cry in the wilderness also meant she found her freedom; she became the mistress of her own destiny, because she found hope beyond despair.

 

 

 

B: WE ARE WHAT WE EAT – EASTER 6

WE ARE WHAT WE EAT.

Acts 10:1-14, Psalm 98, John 15:9-17

May 28, 2000 by Tad Mitsui

One day when I was living in Africa, I found a bowlful of roasted and salted termites in the fridge. My daughter and her friends brought home those winged critters, roasted them alive in the oven, buttered and salted them for snack. They are the favourite snack for the locals, which my daughter and her best friend also loved. This ignorant father told them to throw out the stuff. The native people who live in the Arctic do not like to be called Eskimos, because it means in their language "people who eat raw meat." Europeans called them by that name to insult them, because they thought eating raw meat was disgusting.   Jokes were on Europeans who didn”t know that eating raw meat was the best way to get vitamines where fresh vegitables were noexistent.

It is interesting. Isn”t it? We often consider foods eaten in other cultures disgusting, and forget that our food could also be disgusting to some people. In Japan, eating red meat use to be a taboo – a disgusting behaviour according to the Buddhist belief. Europeans introduced beef and pork into Japanese diet during the nineteenth century. A story has it that the early ones brave enough, or crazy enough, to taste red meat were vulgar bad boys. They cooked it outdoors, because most of the decent people did not allow meat inside the house. This is why the famous Japanese beef dish is called "Sukiyaki", meaning cooking on a blade of a plough. They must have prepared the meat dishes outdoor using something like a spade as a frying pan. It was the nineteenth century Japanese version of BBQ.

We are very particular about food, because food is intimately personal. We keep personal things like personal habits and favourite food private. They can be the source of misunderstanding unless we know each other well. This is why being in a position to share the intimate moments is an important mark of a close personal relationship. Only family members and very close friends share what is private. Food is one of those things. We are very particular about what we eat and with whom. We can now see the meaning of the story of Peter and strange animals as food in the book of Acts. In this story, God gave Peter a lesson about his relationship with a non-Jewish person – called Cornelius. The Bible is telling us in this story that by eating other people”s food, you are accepting other people as your own brothers and sisters.

Throughout the Acts of Apostles, you find one central and important message from the early church. The Church that began on the day of Pentecost was open to absolutely everybody. It was firmly grounded on the belief in One God, the Jewish God of Abraham and Sarah for sure, but through Jesus Christ, it has become the religion for all peoples of all nationalities. On the Pentecost, the Apostles began to speak in many languages, so that all nationalities could hear the stories of Jesus in their own languages. When Paul began to baptize non-Jewish people, he did not require them to be circumcised. In other words, he did not require them to become Jewish before they became Christians. Peter”s vision about food was another sign making Jesus Christ for everybody. Christianity is an inclusive religion. It is a religion that accepts everybody; saints and sinners alike. Accepting others through love is the central belief of our religion.

Unfortunately, insecure people are rigid and self-righteous. They feel they have to protect themselves against any difference. They say, "My way or no way." All of us are like that sometimes. It is easier for us to demand others to change their way, than trying to understand different views and adapt and compromise. The Church in Jerusalem in the first century was a group of such self-righteous people. They insisted that all foreigners become Jews first before baptism. They said that Jesus was a Jew and the disciples were Jews, therefore Christians had to become Jews before Baptism. The Church in Jerusalem did not want change the Jewish customs. So, because of their narrow mindedness, within two hundred years, the Jerusalem church disappeared. But the Church which began with the missionary work of Apostles like Peter and Paul thrived in Europe because of their open-mindedness, and became the foundation of today”s church.

I watched last Monday on PBS an interesting program about the Vikings. The program probed the reason why the once thriving Viking settlements in Greenland completely disappeared. Scientists discovered that when the last ice age came, the Vikings could not sustain their cattle and sheep based agriculture in the ice covered Greenland. Most of the people gradually died out of malnutrition and diseases, leaving magnificent stone houses and churches in ruins. In the meantime, in Iceland the Vikings switched to fishing, changed their diet to sea food, and survived. Greenland Vikings did not learn anything from their Innuit neighbours. Historians speculate that because Innuit were pagans, the church prohibited any contact with them. The result was that the Vikings had no chance to learn the Innuit”s survival skills in the extreme cold climate. They didn”t learn to fish and hunt. Least of all, they never learned to eat fish, seal and whale meat raw. They would have provided plenty of fat and vitamins to protect them in the cold and long winters. They never thought of wearing seal furs and skins like their Innuit neighbours. So when their sheep died, they had no more wool to make clothes. Their fear of pagan practices didn”t allow them to survive in the extreme cold. So they died out. After my episode with angina, I too have to change my eating habit. It is hard to learn. But it is a vital life skill for me.

I am not saying that accepting other people and their ways of life is just a survival skill. Even if loving and accepting others is costly, Jesus” most fundamental commandment to love God and to love neighbours still is our most precious Christian responsibility. But the history often proves that an exclusive and rigid attitude causes disasters, and an inclusive and flexible life-style leads to survival. Remember what Peter heard in a vision? "Don”t call anything God created unclean." We must accept and understand other people”s views and life-styles. It is an act of loving our neighbours, and perhaps the only way for our species to survive.

 

 

 

 

 

A: A HEALTHY DOES NOT NEED A DOCTOR – 2ND WEEK OF JUNE

A HEALTHY PERSON DOES NOT NEED A DOCTOR

Genesis 12:1-9, Psalm 33 #5, Matthew 9:9-13

June 9, 1996, by Tad Mitsui

Matthew was a tax collector, and knew that nobody liked him. Not only people hated tax collectors, which we still do today, they also excluded them from community religious observances, because they were seen as an unclean class. But Jesus not only became Matthew”s friend for a dinner, but also made him a disciple. No wonder the righteous people were scandalized.

In many ways, I do understand why tax collectors had such a bad reputation. Palestine was under the Roman occupation at the time. The last Jewish rebellion against Roman Empire was brutally crushed in the first century B.C. To add insult to injury, the administration of tax revenue was given to some selected Jewish persons on a commission basis. In other words, tax collection was privatized. The more money tax collectors collected, the richer they got. The Romans adopted an universal dictum of any conqueror; "Divide and rule." And they were very successful. People hated tax collectors more than the Roman soldiers.

The tax collectors invented many methods to impose taxes. They were a enterprising lot. Many of them made fortunes but became corrupt, took bribes, pounced on the vulnerable people who were often poor and weak. They became not only morally corrupt, but also because of their moral bankruptcy, were branded as religiously unclean. Priests and Pharisees refused to let them participate in community religious events. As a class, they were not only traitors working for the enemy but also became excommunicated, so-to-speak. They became rich but had no friends.

I could understand why the category of tax collectors was synonymous with the one for sinners. But when a whole class of people becomes an unacceptable category, the exceptions to the rule can be victims. What happened to tax collectors who were not necessarily bad people, but who were simply doing an unpleasant job to earn a living? There is some evidence in the Bible to indicate that there were some less corrupt ones who would have loved to redeem themselves and to be accepted by society. Matthew was one of those people. This is why Matthew had no hesitation to follow Jesus, leaving his job and money behind when he was invited to do so. He must have been troubled by what he had to do in his job. Even though Matthew could have been less corrupt than many of his colleagues, it would be impossible to totally exonerate him as an innocent party. Tax collectors as a group were a corrupt class, and Matthew was one of them. He must have had problems of conscience about his job, but did not have courage to quit. We can sympathize with him. It is not easy to quit a job that pays well for any reason. But the encounter with Jesus gave him impetus to get out of a profitable but questionable occupation.

From time to time, we run into a situation where we find ourselves in a bad company but do not have courage to get out. It is a big problem for many of us. But as soon as we acknowledge that we share collective guilt, we are on the way to redemption. Jesus understood the pang of conscience of some tax collectors like Matthew. And when you can feel the pain, Jesus, like a doctor, can help you. But if you don”t feel it, no one can help you. This is why it is so important to admit that there is a problem and to recognize that you are in need of help.

Here was the problem of the righteous people like Pharisees. They did not acknowledge that there was any problem in their lives. They either denied it or did not see it. They were determined to be God fearing and righteous people. In order to achieve their goals, they made for themselves a set of rules and followed them faithfully. Unfortunately, however, in the process of becoming righteous people they forgot to be good people. They forgot to be loving and kind. While they were on the way to be righteous, they became judgmental and lost the core of being Godly, which is being merciful. They became law-abiding but lost their heart. They forgot that laws were instruments of justice and love. Laws that do not achieve justice are empty shells and burden to society. The worst problem, however, for the Pharisees was the fact that many of them did not see any problem in obeying laws faithfully without being compassionate.

Paul described this state of empty piety in his letter to Corinthians, "If I have all knowledge of God”s words, ability to preach wonderful sermons, faith to move mountains, charity to give everything including life itself, but if I don”t have love, I am nothing." What is most important is what is inside of ourselves. If we do not have kindness and mercy in our hearts, any visible signs of righteousness can be an empty shell and even inhuman. We can easily be hypocrites. The tragedy of the righteous Pharisees was that in their eagerness to be acceptable to God, they became legalistic, heartless and judgmental people. Their worst problem, however, was that they did not think there was anything wrong with them. They thought that they were perfectly acceptable to God because they knew that they obeyed the laws to the last iota.

Their ignorance of how they were wanting was the worst illness, worse than that of sins acknowledged and regretted. People who know the pain of guilt have a much better chance of being made whole. If you do not admit that you have a problem, no one can help you. Socrates in the ancient Greece said that the best knowledge was the knowledge of oneself. "Know thyself." , he said. However, he said that the most valuable knowledge is the knowledge of one”s ignorance. When you know that you do not know, you have a whole unknown world open before your eyes. If you think that you know everything you need to know, the world is closed. And you slam the door shut yourself. No one can help you.

This is why Jesus thought that the sinners, who knew that there was something wrong with them, had far better chance of being saved than the righteous people who believed that they needed no help or no lesson to learn. He said, "A healthy person does not need a doctor." The irony of the context was a sick person who did not believe that they were ill had absolutely no chance of getting to the doctor, because they closed the door by themselves. Thank God for occasional pain. Pain itself is not a good thing. Don”t look for it. But it is a signal. Through pain, God tells you that you need to seek help, to change and to grow.

 

 

A: LIFE GIVING DISOBEDIENCE – FOURTH SUNDAY OF AUGUST

LIFE GIVING DISOBEDIENCE

EXODUS 1 & 2

August 25, 1996 by Tad Mitsui

Moses was one of the most important figures not only in Jewish history but also in the whole of human history. He helped the Hebrew people to become a free nation. But also he brought to all of us, for the first time in history, a list of basic moral principles, in the form of Ten Commandments. However, we must not forget the fact that there were six women who helped Moses to come into the world, without whom he would never have been born nor survived as an infant. Four of them were Egyptians and two were Hebrews. But what is most intriguing is the fact that all six of them cheated and disobeyed laws in order to bring Moses into this world. For them, respect for life took precedent over any law written by humans.

The first two women were Egyptian midwives. When the king of Egypt – the Pharaoh, ordered the midwives to quietly kill all Jewish baby boys, they disobeyed him. When it became evident that Jewish babies still continued to increase in number, these women lied. What is most interesting in this part of the story is that the king and his advisers assumed that foreign men were a threat to the country, and thus their boys needed to be killed, while in fact it was their own women who sabotaged the king”s order.

The Hebrew people provided very useful cheap labour to Egypt at the time. They were clever, and worked hard. But they proliferated fast. People usually do in poverty. The Egyptian king was afraid that those Jewish slaves would take over the country. For people with means, cash and equity provide security. But for the poor, it is children who provide security through their free labour. The best family planning method, if we are worried about the population explosion, is to help abolish poverty. As soon as people attain a certain level of income, they choose themselves to have fewer children. So the Egyptians took the wrong tack. They tried to diminish the size of the Jewish population without guaranteeing their security. It did not work. Population control without security never works. This is why teaching birth control methods in poor countries do not work even today. From the perspective of the poor, it does not make sense.

The Egyptian midwives, Shiphrah and Puah respected life. It was their vocation to look after new lives. These women knew that the babies” lives were more important than protection of an empire. Unconsciously they knew that the security of a nation comes from the respect for life. The king was wrong in hoping to protect his country by killing babies. So they had no problem with cheating on the king and lying to him to save babies” lives. The principle they held is still valid today; the best way to solve the problem of over population is to look after people.

Finally the king realized that to trust women to kill children was not a good idea. So he told the soldiers to throw the Hebrew baby boys into the river. Soldiers were trained to obey orders blindly and to kill. But here again, some women cheated the new law. Jochebed gave birth to a baby boy, but hid him from the soldiers” eyes for a while. When the baby”s cry became too loud, it was no longer possible to hide the child. Then another woman came up with a scheme to save the boy”s life. The child”s sister, Miriam, suggested that they built a basket with dry reeds and float the baby among the reeds by the river bank. She thought that someone might find it and adopt the child. It was a risky scheme. But it was better than being found by the soldiers. At least there was a slim chance of survival. The king and the soldiers had made water into an instrument of death. But those two Jewish women turned water into an instrument to save lives.

The British broadcaster, Pauline Webb, once spoke about woman”s ability to perceive some elements men fear as life-giving rather than life-denying. Jochebed and Miriam saw water as life-supporting, while the king and the soldiers made it an instrument of death. For another example, woman”s monthly cycles, said Webb, make women see blood as a symbol of life, as they prove women”s ability to give birth. Men on the other hand see blood as the result of violence and a symbol of death. It must have been his mother Mary who influenced Jesus to see blood as life. He turned his blood into a symbol of life and told the disciples to remember his blood whenever they drank red juice from grapes.

Finally, again two Egyptian women took part in the scheme to save the life of the Hebrew baby boy. The amazing thing is that one of them was a daughter of the king himself. At that moment, she could not see anything wrong in saving the life of a Jewish child, even though it was against her father”s wish. The Bible does not say whether the Princess had initially agreed with the king”s idea of saving her nation by killing foreign babies. She might have, in theory. But even if she had, as soon as she saw a child in flesh, she forgot her father”s order and decided to save him. Her woman servant, took part in the scheme too. For a servant, the risk of being caught and punished for breaking a law must have been much greater than it might have been for a princess.

So Moses became an adopted son of the Egyptian princess and grew up as a prince in the Pharaoh”s court. And the rest is history. But after hearing about those six women who disobeyed the laws to save a life of a baby, we are obliged to deal with the conflict between the laws and the rights to life, lest we go out of here thinking that we can break the laws whenever we like. A fundamental question is: what is the law anyway? Jesus Christ answered it quite simply that the most fundamental law is LOVE. Love God, and love people you encounter, he said. All the other laws will follow when this foundation is recognized. In other words, all the laws, rules and regulations must help us to love. When the laws fail to achieve the goal of love, we must change them.

This is a very important question: when our laws do not protect innocent children and the poor, but protect those who could afford expensive lawyers, there is something very wrong in our legal system. But taking the law into our own hands by carrying guns and throwing bombs is worse. You noticed that those six women who sensed that the king was wrong practised the laws of love by quietly resisting the bad laws in order to respect the life they held in their hands. They did not harm any other people. They obeyed the fundamental law. The only person they put at risk was themselves.

It is ironical that the person who set down in writing the most basic moral rules, namely Moses, was brought into the world by women who disobeyed a king”s laws for the love of life. They gave us a foretaste of what Jesus Christ ultimately taught us. That is to say: the most basic and fundamental law against which all other laws must be judged is love.

 

C: A MAN AND PIG – 4TH WEEK OF JUNE

A MAD MAN AND PIGS

1 Kings 19:1-4,8-15, Psalm 42&43, Luke 8:26-39

June 21, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

I was the coordinator of famine relief in Africa during the 80”s for the World Council of Churches. As soon as starving people arrived at the relief camp, they all went to the reception centre first. There a team of doctors and nurses made quick decisions about the condition of the new arrival. People who were in most serious condition received attention first, of course. They were carried to a feeding tent and the attendants gave them sugar water and easy-to-digest biscuits. They were under constant supervision to make sure that they received proper nourishment. People, who looked relatively fit, were given a sack of food each, and were told to go home after registration. But the persons who were too far gone and beyond any hope of recovery were carried into another tent and were laid down on a bare tarp. The staff people gave them biscuits and went away. But most of them did not even have strength to lift the biscuits to their mouths. They were basically left there to die. Life is cheap when you are poor. Most relief agencies did not have enough money for extra staff to give intensive care nor palliative care to the hopeless cases. Even a decade afterward, the sight of those people who were left to die haunts me.

We all know that people live longer in the rich countries than in the poor countries, because health care cost money. We are fortunate to live in a country where health care is available to any person, rich or poor. Not only is our country wealthy, but also we have a system to share the cost of health care. It is not always like that in other countries. Even in a rich country like the U.S, many people do not have access to medical care because of cost. I think it is terrible to have to deny someone care, because some one does not have money.

What is the price of human life? The story in today”s Gospel deals with this difficult question. The question becomes even more difficult when the person in question seems abnormal. Would you cure a mad man at the cost of two thousand pigs? Jesus refused to put a price tag on a human being, and believed that all available wealth must be shared to restore the wholeness of even one person. But obviously the owner of those pigs didn”t agree. He must have been an enormously wealthy person. When he discovered that his pigs were drowned to heal a mad man, he was very upset. He asked the authorities to throw Jesus out of the city.

It happened on the East side of the lake Galilee where people were not Jewish. When Jesus and his disciples reached the shore, a man who was possessed by many demons met him. The demons did not mention their names when Jesus asked them to identify themselves. Instead they told him how many of them there were. They said they were a "legion". Legion is a Roman terminology for a division of six thousand foot soldiers. This sick man was possessed by many demons, six thousand of them. I suppose one could say that in today”s terms he had suffered from schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder.

The demons could see who Jesus was and what kind of power he possessed. They called him the "Son of God of the most high." Perhaps one of the outcomes of this man”s schizophrenia was that it made him more sensitive to what is hidden and not obvious on the surface in people. Even in the land of Gentiles where people had no notion of Messiah, this man could sense spiritual quality in Jesus. But what a sad condition he had to live in! He lived in a grave yard among the tomb stones; among the dead. He was not a member of the community of the living. He was stripped of any dignity; he wore no clothes. Nobody trusted him. So he was chained and fettered. Until recently, we too used to incarcerate schizophrenic people like prisoners. It must have been an unbearable situation for an extra sensitive person. He must have been living in a perpetual state of rage. No wonder he repeatedly broke chains and fetters, in rage!

In order to heal him and bring him back into the community of the living, Jesus ordered the demons to go into the pigs. According to the accounts of the same story in other Gospels, there were two thousand pigs. It was a great financial loss for the owner of the pigs when they drowned. We really don”t know what exactly happened. But it is important for us to think of the reason why the writers of the Gospels decided to select this particular story and to include it in the Bible. I believe that the point is; the value of human being can not be measured with numbers and cost.

This man had a severe mental condition. A legion of demons sounds like an enormous psychological problem. It had taken two thousand pigs to get rid of all the demons that possessed him. A very expensive psychiatric treatment indeed. Unfortunately, in our normal way of calculating costs and benefits, if a problem is too costly to repair, we say we cut the cost and let the problem take its course. That is what we did at the feeding camps in Ethiopia. We could not afford the cost of looking after dying people. But that was not the way of Jesus Christ. Jesus was saying to us in this story, "A human being is worth any cost, and the community should share the cost."

Another important point of the story is in the last part of the story. The man who was healed asked Jesus if he could be a disciple and follow him. But Jesus said, "Go home and tell others what God has done." Healing is not complete until a person is restored fully into a community. The worst thing that happened to the man who lived among the tomb stones was alienation from the community of the living. We all get sick sometime. We all age, and eventually die. But that is all part of life, and that is not the ultimate mortal problem. But falling out from community is not what God wants. Separation is a serious damnation. Healing is not complete until relationship is restored.

On this day to celebrate the 70th anniversary, let us give thanks to God who in his grace has thus far sustained this community of caring at Howick United Church. Let us affirm one basic article of faith that we, the church, are a community of people who always put people first; before the building, before the money, before anything else we may be very proud of. When we acknowledge this and truly love one another, as Christ told us, we have a community of believers that gives us the wholeness of our being. And that means true health.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A : SHOULD ANYONE DIE FOR ONE”S BELIEF? – EASTER 5

SHOULD ANYONE DIE FOR ONE”S BELIEF?

Acts 6:8-15, 7:54-60, Psalm 31

May 5, 1996 by Tad Mitsui

Stephen was the first Christian martyr recorded in the Bible. He was killed because he did not lie about his belief. He was killed by those who valued institutions more than human lives. Often Stephen”s martyrdom is celebrated as the supreme sacrifice of one who is faithful. But this morning, I want to take a different tack and warn us about the danger of a culture of death, rather than emphasizing the heroic nature of martyrdom. And to answer the question I posed in my sermon title, I declare categorically that no one must die for one”s belief. The vision of the Kingdom of God is where all beliefs are respected. If anyone is forced to sacrifice one”s life because of what one believes in, our task should be to reject whatever forced death on such a person and to vow to change such conditions.

It is important for us to recognize today that our Christian faith is definitely against culture of death. There is today a culture of death that praises suicide for one”s beliefs, or justifies killing for the sake of a cause. Suicides by some cults, such as the Solar Temple recently or the followers of Jim Jones some years ago, and killings of any kind for the sake of beliefs, such as the assassination of Prime Minister Rabine or the bombings in Oklahoma City and in Palestine: They are all part of the culture of death and must be rejected by us. This is not the message of the martyrdom of Stephen. We believe in life.

Neither Jesus nor Stephen sought death. They believed in life. In other words, they were committed to more abundant life but their efforts were interfered with by those who believed that life could be expendable. There have been many people whose lives were sacrificed because of love, just like Jesus or Stephen. In those cases, we must distinguish an act of love from a death wish. They had to die not because they wanted it, but because forces of death wanted to destroy the power of love. When you hear about those mothers in Hiroshima and Rwanda, where many babies were found under the bodies of mothers who died protecting them, you can see the point very clearly. Those mothers wanted to live, but even more than that, they wanted their children to live. They fought back with the naked force of love. It was not suicide. It was the stubbornness of love. Love was the true life force, that made death redundant. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the proof of that.

Some people conclude quite wrongly that because we believe in resurrection and eternal life, this life here and now does not matter all that much. They believe that we should all give up the comfort and joy of this life and look forward to the life hereafter. They often believe that there are two kinds of life; spiritual life and physical life, one is superior and everlasting but the other is lower a form of life. This type of belief is called "dualism", and must be rejected. We do not believe in the dualistic view of life. The life God gave us is one and the same. When God created the world and all that lived therein, God looked at them and said, "This is good." Jesus turned water into wine, so a wedding reception could continue. Thus Jesus affirmed the pleasure of life.

Eating, sleeping, and all other physical pleasures are good in the eyes of God, because they enhance quality of life. Of course, you can turn those pleasures into a curse, by compulsive and destructive over-indulgence, which often comes from a lack of self-respect. Then the quality of life diminishes. In principle, we must reject the idea that somehow pain and suffering are good for spiritual life. We don”t condone masochism, and we reject suicide as a way to enter into a better life. Stephen did not wish to die. He wanted to tell people about a better way of life, by speaking about the life of Jesus as a completion of all prophets and teachings of God.

The tradition to admire martyrs for not compromising and dying for the beliefs has been very strong in Christianity. This was often misunderstood as the worship of pain, suffering, and death. Many people wrongly believed that pain and death themselves are virtuous and thus we all should look for them. We must reject this. This is not what Jesus preached. Ours is a life affirming religion.

A Catholic Japanese writer by the name of Shusaku Endo struggled with this question about martyrdom and wrote a novel, "Silence" which is about a priest who rejected senseless death. The story goes like this: during the sixteenth century, a Jesuit by the name of Francisco Xavier went to Japan and planted the seeds for the Catholic Church in Japan. He was very successful and gained many converts very quickly: about 200,000 in a few years. But the ruler of Japan – the Shogun – thought that it was a dangerous invasion of a foreign idea which could eventually erode his authority. He began a brutal persecution against the Christians. Many were forced to convert back to Buddhism, and many more were crucified or thrown into the craters of active volcanoes. The Shogun eventually closed the whole country to outsiders for four centuries just to keep the foreign ideas out.

The method adopted by authorities to track down Christians was a forced desecration of the image of Mary and the Holy Child. An inspector and his party would arrive at a village, and every villager was ordered to step onto the carved wooden image. Anyone who hesitated was taken in and was tortured until they renounced the Christian faith. Those who refused were executed. Endo”s novel was about one Portuguese priest by the name of Rodrigues, who stepped on the wooden image to save other Japanese Christians from death. He had watched many faithful people die. He was tortured by his own conscience and he asked God a question. "Is it your will that they suffer so much, because of a man-made image?" Even though it was the official teaching of the church at the time not to desecrate the image, this priest decided that it was against the will of God for people to die for it. And to set an example, he stepped on it, so that many would follow his examples and save their lives. This priest became known as an infamous figure of a traitor in the history of Japanese Church like Judas of Iscariot in the Bible. But Endo”s novel disputes this idea and poses a question to us.

The question is whether martyrdom is for life or for an institution. When an institution imposes sacrifices on people, we must always ask a question; "Is it for the love of human life or for the protection of the institution itself?" Slave owners always encouraged slaves to go to church, because the church emphasized the blessing of the afterlife rather than rewards in the present. The church also encouraged the belief that suffering in this life helped to accumulate virtues in heaven so that the slaves would not complain about the terrible conditions of their lives. We today must firmly renounce such life-negating beliefs.

Jesus was executed by institutions; because those organizations like the temples and the Roman authorities felt threatened by the idea of the supremacy of love which Jesus preached. In their mind, spiritual qualities like the love of life were dangerous, because they made people feel free and not fearful of customs and traditions. Some of them were obsolete and oppressive. They needed to rule people by fear. This was why the joyous messages of love and life had to be snuffed out. Thanks be to God, they were not successful. The martyrdom of Stephen proved that they were not.

I still have a letter from a widow of an old friend. This friend was found dead twenty years ago in a prison in South Africa. He was an accountant for an organization the United Church supported. I was in a job where I sent the money and received accounts from him. We still don”t know why Mapetla Mohapi had to die. The organization he worked for was doing things like giving small loans to small businesses, like the organization in Montreal that our church gave money to last year. Probably the idea that black people could help each other was dangerous to the South African Government at the time. It could undermine the banks. His wife, Nohle, with whom I corresponded for a while after Mapetla died, was the first witness to appear in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which held its first hearing a few weeks ago in the city where Mapetla died. I am so happy that she at last had a chance to tell her story. This proves that the life that Mapetla loved so much finally won out in that country. Life goes on despite death. That is the message of the life of a martyr like Stephen.

A: AVOIDING ROAD RAGE – LAST SUNDAY OF AUGUST

AVOIDING ROAD RAGE

Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105 (VU 828 Matthew 16:21-28

VU 213 , 560, 701, 713

August 28, 2005

Imagine yourself in this situation: You are driving on a two-lane crowded highway. You are speeding but just a little, like 5 km per hour. Someone is tailgating you with only a few yards behind. He is nudging you to speed up or to get off the road. You could understand why some people explode in "road rage" and do something stupid, but you won’t do that. The difference between those who get into road rage and commit violent acts and yourself is that your anger is under control. Your anger does not consume you, even in such an annoying situation. Thank God for the gift of self-control. But that does not mean anger as such is bad. Anger is an important passion that leads you to fight evil and injustice. We have to be angry from time to time to do the right thing, provided that you act in a controlled manner.

There are many kinds of emotions and impulses that are important for us. Anger is one. Sexual desire is another. It lets us in an intimate and pleasurable way to express our love for the one you love very much, and sometimes lets us make babies. Appetite is another one. It lets us want food. Without it, our health will fail and eventually we will starve to death. But those strong emotions impulses can also consume us and drive us into destructive behaviors such as senseless violence, sexual crime, and over eating and obesity. Emotions and passions are not bad. But they can be the causes of evil once they take over you and become obsession. When Moses saw a bush burning without being consumed by fire, God was showing him God’s important gifts of passion and our responsibility to use them constructively and responsively.

Let me go back to the beginning of the story. When Moses saw a burning bush in the desert, he was in exile and his self-esteem almost vanished. He grew up in an imperial palace as an adopted son of a princess. He was a prince of the mighty Egyptian Empire, the most powerful nation at the time. He lived with pleasure, privilege, power, and wealth. But one day, he was driven by righteous anger and committed murder. He saw an Egyptian beating up a Jewish slave. Moses got very angry and killed the Egyptian. He tried to hide the crime, but realized that some Jews witnessed his murder. When Moses tried to stop two Jews fighting, they asked, "Who are you to interfere in our business? Are you going to kill us just like you killed the Egyptian?" Moses realized that he had no moral authority among his own people. He had to give up everything, and flee into the desert in shame. He married a local girl and had to lower himself by becoming a homeless nomad – a shepherd. What a come down, just because he could not control anger. Fire consumed the bush.

He spent days absent-mindedly watching sheep munching grass. He sustained himself by eating rats and snakes or whatever he found in the desert. He slept on the sand in rags to shield himself against the chill of the night. He was completely wrapped up in boredom, despair, misery, and self-pity. On one of those dreary days, he saw a bush fire. He went to take a look and noticed that fire was burning but bush stayed the same, not consumed. Very strange indeed. He watched it for a while trying to figure out what was going on. Then he heard the voice calling his name, "Moses, Moses!" He answered, "Hear I am." Then the voice said, "Don’t come any closer. Take your sandals off. This is a holy ground." This was how God revealed himself to Moses. God is passionate without causing harm.

The Bible is filled with wonderful stories like this. They are not just wonderful, but are full of wonders. How do you read the stories that are full of wonders? Those incredible stories give us problems in this day and age of science and technology. Many have left the church having decided that religions are just superstitions, because of these unbelievable stories. For us who remain in the church, the question is how we understand the stories like this, making it possible for us to keep on believing in religion. Many people believe that every word, sentence, and story in the Bible is factually and historically correct. Because God is almighty, everything is possible for him. God is a god of miracle. If you don’t believe it, you don’t believe in the god of the Bible. For those people miracles are the proof of existence of god, they tell you.

I do not to believe in that way. And I suspect that many people in the United Church share the way I believe. But I believe that I am a genuine Christian and a no less believer than those who believe the Bible literally. I am proud of my faith in the way I believe. However, I must make sure that I never condemn the different ways other people believe. If it is important for them to believe in that way, I respect it, so long as they do not condemn my way.

I believe that many wonderful stories in the Bible are exactly that – stories. They might have happened in the way that are written in the Bible, or may not have. But I doesn’t bother me if they are just stories either. It is not important for me to know if it happened the way they are written in the Bible or they are made up stories to make a point. Jesus told many made up stories to make his point. That doesn’t make those parables, like "Good Samaritan", any less important. It is making an extremely important point. What makes them sacred and central for my belief is what those stories mean. You have to realize that ancient people did not have language to express concepts. So, they wrote wonderful stories to express their sense of sacred. That does not diminish the importance of what they are trying to say to us. They are stories to tell us truths. They are called myths.

Unfortunately nowadays, there is a tendency to dismiss myth as untruth. I think it’s wrong to call it "untruth." We must recover the importance of myth as a way to convey truth. One of the world’s greatest scholar of English language Northrop Frye once said, "Myth is an expression of the most profound reality." Some truths are beyond words. The deeper the truth, the less there are word to describe it. How do you convey your sympathy to someone who just lost a child. Words are never enough to express deepest emotions. So we tell stories and show our emotions in our actions. That does not mean the stories you tell are lies and are not important. They could be more important and true than just saying mere words and listing some facts.

A little girl said to her mother, "Mommy, I love you. I love you so much," by describing the size of her love with hands like we describe the size of the fish we caught. The distance between two hands became wider and wider, because mere distance between two hands just didn’t describe enormity of little girl’s love of mother. So in the end she just hugged mother. The little girl loved Mom so much that she threw the whole of herself into Mom’s arms. Myths are like that. I think that often words are too shallow to describe truth.

The story of the burning bush, for example, tells more important truth than a mere strange phenomenon. Any magician can easily recreate Moses’ burning bush. Such a magic does not, for me, reveal God. Such a god is too shallow and small for me. But the god who revealed himself in the burning bush to Moses was the one who affirms passion as important gift of God by telling us that it is our duty to exercise responsibility. He was telling Moses, "It is OK to feel anger when one sees cruelty and injustice. But do not be consumed by passion. Use it constructively and patiently." That was a very profound message. When Moses saw the point, he realized that he was standing before the God almighty, who was ready to send Moses off to his enormously important mission. He was to lead a whole nation from slavery to freedom.

From that time on, Moses was a powerful but patient and wise leader of the nation. He never lost the love of people. The passion for his people never diminished. But he was ever so patient, never lost love for people, no matter how many time they betrayed him. Let us learn to be passionate in love, but also to be patient and wise in loving. Let us not waste our precious gift of passion by being consumed by it.

 

 

 

 

 

A: TO ERR IS HUMAN, SO IS TO DOUBGT – EASTER 2

TO ERR IS HUMAN, SO IS TO DOUBT

BUT TO FORGIVE IS DIVINE

Acts 2:14,22-22, Psalm 16, John 20:24-29

April 11, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

Sometimes, I am glad that I am not young any more, because I don”t have to pretend that I am perfect and that I am never wrong. I know that I will feel so much better when I say, "Sorry, I was wrong, I made a mistake." I don”t have to pretend any more. I don”t have to try to be a god any more, and can be happy to be a human. Some weeks ago, Ann Landers reprinted a page from a church bulletin in the States. It goes something like this:

"If you can get going without pep pills; if you can resist complaining or bragging; if you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it; if you can overlook it when something goes wrong through no fault of yours, and those you love take it out on you; if you can take criticism-and-blame without resentment; if you can ignore a friend”s mistake and never correct him; if you can face the world without lies and deceits; if you can relax without booze; then, my friends, you are almost as good as your dog."

To err is human, it is useless to pretend that we are perfect. In the Bible, there is no perfect human. King David, for example, the most beloved and revered of all Jewish kings, was once driven by lust and committed adultery. He even murdered an innocent man to cover up his evil act. Even Mary, mother of Jesus, once thought that Jesus was crazy and tried to restrain him. Simon Peter, the foundation rock of the church in Rome, who died for his faith, abandoned his master and denied that he had any knowledge of Jesus, not just once but three times right in the earshot of Jesus. At that moment, Jesus looked at him, and Peter wept bitterly, when he faced his own undeniable cowardice. The Bible embarrasses us by being so candid about the failings of people whom we respect. We must realize that we are not gods. There is only one God, therefore none of us is perfect. We must not be inhibited to be open about our imperfection.

Thomas is one of many unsung heroes of the early church. He wrote a Gospel, known as the Gospel according to Thomas, in the Apocrypha. He went as far East as India, and established the church. It is now known as Ma Thoma Church, the Church of St. Thomas, one of the oldest Christian denominations, probably older than the Roman Catholic Church. He contributed a great deal to the life of the church. But his achievements are largely unknown, probably because what happened in the Eastern church has been largely ignored by Europe. This is why I feel that Thomas has been unfairly treated by history for being known only as "Doubting Thomas." Besides, to pick on Thomas for doubting is very unfair and hypocritical.

To doubt is as normal for us as to make mistakes. Just look around. All human activities are based on faith. Banking, business, family, politics are all based on our having faith in persons or institutions. But we think that it is important to check credibility and reliability of everything and every person before we put trust in them. Likewise, Thomas did not believe the story of resurrection without checking. So he said, "I don”t believe what you are saying. I have to check it out." It was a natural reaction. It was human. Let”s not be too hard on Thomas. Let”s learn about honesty from him. He was not the type to say anything just to be one of the crowd.

Both Peter and Thomas were great leaders of the early church, not because they were perfect, but because they recognized that they were imperfect. When you accept the reality of your imperfection, you will have a chance to grow. But if you don”t want to see the undeniable truth about yourself, you will stay like a puddle of stagnant water and rot. It is like not accepting the diagnosis of your doctor about your health problem, while you keep on taking Tylenol hoping that pain will just go away. You have to face the reality about yourself and accept it. There is no shame in that, because to err is human, and so is to doubt.

Listen to the sermon Peter preached in the book of Acts. He was addressing it to the assembly of Jews, proclaiming his belief in Jesus Christ. It is an eloquent exposition of who Jesus was in a few short sentences. A brilliant work! What a transformation it was for Peter! It was only a few weeks ago, he was so scared of a young slave girl who asked him if he was one of Jesus” followers, and he lied. When he was forced to accept his cowardice, he wept bitterly. But his tears gave God a passage to enter into his spirit. Then he was transformed. Thomas did not accept what everybody in the room was saying. He must have been disagreeable company. But he was absolutely honest. He didn”t pretend to be pious in order to get along with others. That honesty gave Jesus room to enter into Thomas” spirit. So when he saw Jesus, he didn”t have to check out his references. He immediately believed and said, "My Lord, my God."

In our head, we all know that we are not perfect, but we do not accept it in our hearts. This is why it is important for our ego to insist that we are right, and others are wrong. This is why we feel ashamed to admit that we make mistakes, and to admit that we can not believe certain articles of faith that we are supposed to believe. We must learn to be honest about our unbelief. After all, we are not gods. Only God is perfect and right. Unless we admit our imperfection, God will not be able to come to us. There is no shame to admit our humanity.

To err is human and so, too, is to doubt. But as the saying goes, "To forgive is divine." It is amazing that Jesus forgave those disciples who betrayed him and ran away. Because they had to be honest to admit that they utterly failed him, he came back to them. The gift of this amazing grace was and is free. All that is required of us is to say, "Sorry, I was wrong." It is amazing how peaceful you can be, when you know in your heart that you are only human.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

B: SUNDAY FOR PEOPLE – FIRST WEEK OF JUNE

SUNDAY IS FOR PEOPLE

II cor. 4:5-12, Psalm 139, Mark 2:23-28

June 1, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

I wonder if the Lord”s Day Act is still on the books in Canada. It must, because I never heard that it was repealed. But how things change! Who would worry nowadays about running out of cash or grocery on Sunday. I remember the mad rush on Fridays to the bank, to the grocery store, and to the beer store, so we had enough to survive the weekend. I remember laughing at an ignorant American tourist who was looking for a grocery store to buy beer on Sunday. In the US, I thought I was in a pagan country in a supermarket on Sunday, to stock up the pantry for the week following. I was staying with a family in the States. That was only in 1968. How have we changed! Is it good or bad that we don”t worry too much about Sundays any more? If we can not turn the clock back to the days of strict observance of the Lord”s Day, how then should we observe Sundays in 1997? According to the ideas found in the Gospels about Sabbath, I can say, in short, that Sunday should be different from other days in order to take care of ourselves. In other words, Sunday is for people.

The idea of Sabbath appeared first in the Bible as the day of rest. In the book of Genesis, God created the world in six days. After six working days, feeling good about what he did, God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it as the day of rest. The word "hallow" means to set aside something as special; in other words, to make it "holy". God is telling us that to rest is good for us and also important enough to be hallowed: to set it aside as a special day. Of course, work is also important. After all, he looked at what he achieved in his work, and said to himself, "That”s good!" Work and rest are both good and mutually dependent. Work will be a torture if it is not broken by intermittent periods of rest. Rest will become unbearable and demeaning without meaningful work. Work enable us to live and rest makes us human. The story of creation puts Sabbath in perspective.

Jewish Sabbath is Saturday, and it begins on Friday night. Jesus was crucified on Friday. It did not seem right to the authorities leaving the body of a criminal who committed blasphemy exposed in public on Sabbath, especially during the Passover. So he was buried on Friday night and rose from death on the third day – Sunday. The Christian Church replaced Sabbath with Sunday to commemorate the day of resurrection. Seventh Day Adventist Church, however, insists that we should still follow the Jewish customs and worship on Saturday. I am saying all this to show that many rules and debates about Sabbath have much too much to do with worship services and the rules of the religious institutions, and little to do with what is good for human being. The true spirit of Sabbath can easily be lost in a maze of religious discussions.

If you go to Jerusalem and stay in any hotel in the Western Jewish sector of the city, you will notice that there are two kinds of elevators. One is for Sabbath and the other for the rest of the week. If you take the Sabbath elevator, you don”t have to touch anything. As soon as you get on it, it opens and closes the door, and stops at every floor automatically. Never take the Sabbath elevator on the week days. It will take forever to get to your room, if you are staying on the twentieth floor. Pushing a button is considered to be a work. So you don”t push a button on Sabbath.

The story is not much different from some of the old Christian customs. Anthony Bailey, who is a United Church missionary from Montreal area now working in Jamaica, told me once how he used to spend Sundays. His father, Frank, was a beloved minister of the United Church in Maxville for a long time until he retired. But he was a strict and old fashioned Christian. He did not allow any entertainment on Sundays at home. They went to church twice on Sundays. And the only TV program allowed on Sunday was "Hymn Sing". I know that many of you, who were raised in strict Christian homes, can tell us many similar stories. I am sure that worshipping God together in a church is good for our soul. I am sure that it is good to have rules of behaviours for Sabbath, so that everybody benefits from the day of rest together. But if those rules should overtake the real spirit of the day, that will go against God”s intention. In other words, the rules regarding Sabbath must not interfere with the pursuit of a genuinely wholesome life. That is what Jesus was trying to tell us in the today”s Gospel story.

Jesus defended those disciples who collected some grains from a field on Sabbath, because they were hungry. He healed a physically handicapped person on Sabbath. Jesus recalled a story of King David who had let his soldiers eat the meat which was offered to God on the alter, because there was nothing else to eat. Only the priests were allowed to eat the offerings under the normal circumstances. His point was to say that the laws were made for people, not the other way around. So in principle, on Sabbath you should take a break from work. But if one is starving and there is no food, one must do something to get food even on Sabbath. If you see a person suffering from illness, you must heal the sufferer even on Sabbath. The whole point of Sabbath is to restore life. So some rules become hindrance to life, it is normal to break such rules to restore life.

You may wonder why we need rules to give ourselves holidays. As a person who grew up in a non-Judeo-Christian-Islamic culture, where a regular holiday traditionally came only twice a month, I like the notion of ”at least a day off in a week” as a norm. Without some kind of rules to put the brakes on, it is difficult for human beings to stop working. Because of greed, some people force others to work as long as possible. It is not only in a story like Dickens” Christmas Carol, there are many stories to tell us that human beings have exploited others everywhere. We, also as a race, suffer from workaholism like Scrooge. It is because we are incapable of looking at ourselves. So work becomes our escape. We often don”t know what to do when there is nothing to do. So we keep on being busy to avoid thinking.

The lesson of Sabbath teaches us that we are valued children of God for no other reason but for a fact that we are human beings. Work is good, fruits of our labour are good. But life is much more than work and rewards of work. When we take a break, we will find more about ourselves which we have not known before. We who come to church believe that by attending the church God will help us find important things about our life, and help us put our daily work into perspective. When I was working in Africa, one of the many lessons I learned about our faith is from the way the Africans looked at each other. They value human being regardless of income or position. No one looks down on a person who has no job, nor was there any sense of shame on the part of a jobless person. An old person who has no education, no money, no job, nor position in society, is revered because he or she is old thus assumed wise.

I am sure you heard me telling you this story before. But I love this story. So allow me to conclude by telling it to you again. One day, I was busy going places on my Land Rover in the mountains of Lesotho. I ran into an old man sitting by the road looking tired. In fact, he looked so weak that he looked sickly. I offered him a ride. He declined the offer and said, "I walked all day and came a long way – five miles. I am sitting here waiting for my spirit to catch up with me." Sunday is for people. It is the day set aside by God to help us recover a sense of what we are. Enjoy it.

A: HOW TO FEED MILLIONS WITH $37 – FIRST SUNDAY OF AUGUST

HOW TO FEED MILLIONS WITH $37

Matthew 14 : 13 – 21

August 4, 1996, by Tad Mitsui

The story of feeding of thousands in the Gospel is a celebration of the spirit of sharing. Where there is willingness to share, many impossible things become possible. The story is not so much a demonstration of the magical power of Jesus. If it should be a demonstration of anybody”s power, it is of the power that all of us possess – the willingness to give up whatever we have because we care for others.

When the feeding of thousands occurred, Jesus was sorrowfully remembering another banquet. It was only a few days before at a banquet at the court of King Herod, where the king beheaded John the Baptist only to please the King”s illicit mistress, his brother”s wife Herodia. John”s relentless condemnation of corruptions in king”s court was a real pain in the neck for many members of the royal family. So the prophet”s life was sacrificed, and John”s head was presented on a silver platter as a birthday present to Herodias. A banquet can be a place of intrigue and machination, greed and other iniquities, no matter how good the food is. Sometimes when a dinner party is intended to serve not very honourable purpose, we may have to say "No" to the invitation.

I remember the time when Archbishop Ted Scott refused to attend a banquet provided by a powerful bishop of another denomination. Archbishop Scott was the President of the Canadian Council of Churches which I was working for at the time. The dinner was a big event of Toronto high society. The list of the invited guests was a "Who”s Who" of Canada. It included cabinet ministers, the Prime Minister, the Premier of the Province, presidents of big corporations, and media stars. It was a boastful show of its bishop”s influence in Toronto society. Ted Scott”s refusal to attend it created a scandal. He was accused of being a spoiled sport, and became a social pariah. The Archbishop did not feel that he could enjoy such an event costing tens of thousands of dollars, in the midst of poverty during the recession.

Jesus”s idea of a dinner was a occasion for caring and loving, a time to enjoy the company of friends and loved ones. It did not have to be rich or plentiful. His idea of a dinner had love as its main course, and food as condiments. I once preached in a remote village in the mountains of Lesotho in Africa. I baptized some 30 babies and conducted communion, because ministers rarely went there. It was a hot scorching summer day. Harvests were poor the year before, and people were so hungry that they could not wait for their crops to ripen; they were eating green unripe crops. Women gave me a few green peaches for lunch, while the congregation feasted on corn on cobs the size of a thumb, and a small cakes of cold cooked corn-meal only the size of a cookie: not much to call dinner. It was a banquet to celebrate the initiation of many babies into the community. We danced and sang afterwards. As I headed home – a couple of hours” horseback ride – I nearly fainted of hunger. My body was spoiled by too much food and was not used to endure an empty stomach so long, as my African friends could. But it was a real joyful banquet. When we can share everything, and can trust the affection and love of your friends and neighbours, we have happiness no royal dinner can provide.

People were eager to hear what Jesus had to say. Thousands followed him all the time. When evening came one day, disciples became concerned about their physical needs. So they asked Jesus to send them home. Do not think that the disciples were callous in trying to avoid responsibility to feed the multitudes. They weren”t. They were exercising common sense. "It”s supper time, Teacher. You stop preaching, and let them go home. You have to think about their physical needs, too." But Jesus knew that they would not go away. Jesus knew that it was not the kind of crowd who would go away merely because they were hungry. After hearing about the cruel death of his cousin John the Baptist, the grief stricken Jesus had wanted to be alone and pray. He took a boat to the lake to escape the crowd. But when he and the disciples arrived on the other side, the crowd was already waiting for him. They did not leave Jesus alone. They were hungry for spiritual nourishment. Spiritually hungry people are caring people. And the caring people can achieve wonders.

When he was asked if it was possible to feed the crowd, the ever sensible Philip responded reminding Jesus gently that there was no such money to feed thousands. "Get real, Teacher!" was his message. There were so many people. Besides, the place was so far away from any town where to buy food. "Send them home, Master. They have to eat, too." But Andrew found a boy who offered what food he had on him. The boy must have overheard the conversation between Jesus and Philip. "Five loaves of bread and two fish." "Poor kid. Nice kid though, he does not know his offer is no help at all." But Jesus sat people down on the grass, so the story goes, blessed the food, and fed everybody until they were satisfied. There were even left-overs.

There are at least two theories to understand this story. One school of thought insists that Jesus performed a miracle multiplying five loaves and two fish ten thousand times, as the Son of God could do things which were impossible for ordinary mortals. But another interpretation is more rational. It speculates that everybody began to offer whatever food there was in their possession. They were touched by the boy”s willingness to share what little he had. But I think that this kind of discussion about what actually happened is missing the whole point of the message of the Bible.

As far as I am concerned, either case is possible. It does not matter. The whole point of the story is to celebrate the community of caring and sharing. Wonderful things happen when people are willing to share no matter how big or small their contributions are. I worked in Geneva, Switzerland during the 80”s coordinating famine relief operations in Africa. It was, as some of you surely remember, the worst famine that ever happened in history. It probably killed over a million people. All the major churches of the world got together and formed a joint program to raise funds and coordinate the relief work. We set a target of $100 million, as much as anything for the shock value of hearing the demand for such a large sum of money. We never thought we could ever reach such a big target. But we hoped that it would shock people into recognizing the seriousness of the tragedy. By the time my contract ended in 1987, the total amount raised surpassed $500 million. It looked like a miracle.

Of course, there were big donors who donated many trucks or ship-loads of grains, including our own United and Presbyterian churches and Canadian government. But what I remember still vividly are the likes of $37 coming from a senior woman living in a nursing home in Beamsville, Ont. and designated it for a helicopter in Mozambique. The most of the donations were those small coins from those who could hardly afford to give those donations. They were often given through the church mission fund. This was also during the time of the last recession when mortgage rates hit 23%. It was a terrible time economically. I gained fresh faith in the goodness of people during those hectic days in Africa. Where people are willing to sacrifice because they care about other people, miracles can still happen.

One could easily think that the Ontario senior was naive in giving her precious $37 out of her pension – she could hardly afford it and $37 would be of almost no help to purchase a helicopter. But she meant well; she was concerned about the starving people in Mozambique. That kind of caring counts, just like five loaves and two fish. Andrew laughed at the boy. But Jesus didn”t. He knew that such love and willingness to give out of concern for others would perform wonders.

On the night before he died on the cross, he broke bread, divided it and gave it to the disciples saying, "Take, eat, this is my body broken for you." I don”t believes that the bread we eat at the communion is a piece of Jesus” flesh. The bread we eat at the Communion comes from someone”s oven or Marche Richelieu. There is no miracle. The miracle is Jesus” ultimate sharing of his life. It does not matter if Jesus miraculously multiplied the five loaves into ten thousand loaves or something else happened. The real meaning of the story of the feeding of thousands is the miracle of caring and sharing.

B: SLEEPING THROUGH A STORM – 4TH WEEK OF JUNE

IF YOU WANT TO SLEEP THROUGH A STORM

1 Samuel 17:32-49, Psalm 133856 Mark 4:35-41

June 25, 2000 by Tad Mitsui

I admire anyone who drives into Montreal everyday, especially between 7 and 8:30 in the morning and 3 and 7 in the afternoon. I can feel my blood pressure accelerate every time I get caught in a traffic jam at the Mercier Bridge. But by far the worst time I had was when I drove to Dorval Airport to pick up my sister”s family in May. It was Saturday. The bridge was closed for construction except one lane. We thought we had plenty of time when we left home. But the traffic came to a standstill at Khanawake circle. It took more than one hour to cross the bridge. The arrival time of my family”s flight passed when we were moving inch by inch on the bridge. No one in my sister”s family spoke French and only one or two had little English. I knew they were tired having travelled all night with two small children. Even if I had a cellphone, what could I have done? It was an absolutely helpless situation. I was in a rage.

Reading today”s story in the Gospel, I could relate to disciple”s anger and distress during the storm. They must have felt helpless like I felt on the Mercier Bridge on that day in May. All through that ordeal, Muriel, my wife, was very sympathetic and supportive of me, but she didn”t seem to be as distressed as I was. But if Muriel had been sleeping like Jesus was during a storm, probably I would have rudely woken her up and demanded that she showed some anxiety like mine. Disciples found Jesus asleep in a terrible storm and must have thought, "How dare you?" They said, "Don”t you care if we all die?" How can anyone sleep through a storm?

On the other hand, if you think about it, anxiety is not only useless but also aggravating. The scriptures teach us about the futility of worrying and panicking. Jesus knew how to trust God and to stay calm, even when the circumstances around him seemed extremely dangerous. The question is; "Is trusting God and staying calm the same thing as giving up and doing nothing?" Some people may tell you to trust God and do nothing, because the situation is beyond your control and you can”t do anything about it. I don”t think that this Gospel story is teaching us such a fatalistic "do-nothing" attitude. The Bible also tells us stories that encourage us to be more active and to be more in control of our own situation.

Take the story of David and Goliath, for example. David faced a hopeless situation confronting an invincible giant who stopped a whole army”s advance single-handedly. David was a mere teenage shepherd wearing nothing but a loincloth, and for a weapon all he had was a sling-shot. This was how he went out to face the enemy giant. What reckless foolhardiness! Goliath was invincible, and he was arrogant. David knew he was small and weak. But he had a good mind and speed; and the courage to use them; most of all he trusted God. This was how a miracle happened and David defeated Goliath. Other soldiers trusted only their own armours, physical strength, and weapons, so they had no courage to use them when they saw a superior force. On the other hand, David trusted God, so he had enormous courage. Courage made creative juice flowing in him. A creative mind made David and his sling-shot mightier than 7 foot giant with his heavy armour and the sword.

When you know that you are not perfect, you will do two things. You do your best and trust others. If you don”t have capacity to trust, you feel that everything depends on you. But of course, you can not do everything, so you are in a constant state of frustration. That”s how you come to feel that the world can end on the Mercier Bridge, because you can not do anything about it. You stay awake night after night feeling helpless, worrying about things you can not do anything about. You become angry, anxious, distressed, and fall into a state of despair. But when you know your limit and know how to trust others, you can do your best and leave the rest to God. It is very interesting, isn”t it. When you know you are not perfect, you can function better and feel relaxed.

There was once a very able young man. He did everything so well, and he knew he was the best in many ways. Because he knew he was the best, he was incapable of trusting others; and because of this he always found faults in others. He felt he was the only one responsible enough to run the world. But he was never happy, because he always found some fault even in what he himself did. So he went to a very wise teacher, and asked him to help him. The teacher listened. He then sat there quietly for a long time. The young man did not like silence. He became irritated, and began to think that perhaps he had come to the wrong man and was wasting his time. At last the teacher opened his mouth and suggested they have tea. The teacher brought out a teapot and cups. He started to pour tea into a cup. Soon the cup became full but the teacher kept on pouring. Tea began to overflow making the clean tablecloth wet and brown. It started to drip onto the beautiful carpet. The young man could not stand any more and shouted at the teacher, "You”re spilling the tea all over the place." The wise man smiled and said, "When your cup is full, you are not ready to receive."

If you want to sleep comfortably through a storm of your life, you must know your limitations and learn to trust others. The most important, of course, is to learn to trust God. We are co-workers with God. By working with God, we make our world go around. The reason why the disciples were so afraid of the storm and became angry with Jesus was because they did not believe that God was in charge. They did not trust God. This is why they became deadly afraid when the situation seemed beyond their control, and angry with Jesus when they found him totally at ease.

Let us know our limits. The world is the Lord”s. Let us work with him to put our best into it, trusting that God will do the rest.

 

 

 

 

 

C: CELEBRATING KINDNESS – EASTER 4

CELEBRATING KINDNESS

Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, John 10:22-30

May 3, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

I have been surprised almost daily by simple acts of kindness around us. I am convinced that the Canadian social programs, which we are so proud of, are in jeopardy today because the spirit of the caring for each other is fast disappearing in Canada. What we can still find in small community like Howick is the exception, not the rule. Everybody asks, "what”s in it for me?" But very few ask what they can contribute. You can not keep milking cows without feeding them. Our society is starving for spiritual feed. We need to affirm today the importance of simple kindness. I suggest that we read the story of Dorcus and Peter in the Book of Acts as a celebration of ordinary acts of generosity.

I believe that the writer of the Book of Acts wanted to applaud the generosity of a very kind woman by telling a story of the her resurrection. I don”t think that the point of this story is the miracle of a dead person coming back to life. You must remember that miracle stories were quite common, until recently when science began to be a popular method of thinking. People loved to remember great and wonderful persons by the miracles that are supposed to have happened to them or they are supposed to have performed.

I am sure that the much loved and respected personalities of the recent years like Albert Sweitzer, Terry Fox, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, or Princess Diana would have been remembered by their miracles, if they had lived a thousand years ago. Miracles stories were a form of literature often adopted to remember beloved and great personalities. We must not dismiss the greatness of those miracle workers, just because such miracles are hard to believe. It is a pity that we have lost a sense of poetry and wonder, and can not appreciate wonderful things beyond scientific facts.

However, I don”t argue with someone who insists that such miracle did happen literally. It might have. I don”t know. But it is not an important question for me. The computer is a miracle to me. I have no idea how it works. But the most important thing about the computer for me is that it does what I want it to do. I don”t want to waste time learning why and how a computer works. But I am grateful for people who like to do that sort of thing, worrying about how it works. So what did the writer of the Acts want to say by including the Dorcus” resurrection story?

According to the Acts, Dorcus devoted herself to good works and acts of charity. Because of her charitable work, she was such a beloved person. So when she died, people thought it was a major tragic event. Two men of the community were sent to Peter to ask him to come, because her death was a matter of great importance. Peter, at that time, was considered to be the head of the Church by all Christians. They said to him, "Please come without delay." We all can understand how great pain would be caused by the sudden death of such special person. There are always some precious persons in our lives, whose absence is felt almost like a disaster. When they disappear from among us, we miss them so much that we are not shy to ask for a visit by a very important person. When Princess Diana died, people did not hesitate to expect the presence of the Queen and the whole Royal family at her funeral. It was unprecedented and an unthinkable break from the tradition. But people felt it was appropriate. People in Jaffa must have felt the same about Dorcus” death. The head of the church had to be there.

So what did Dorcus do to be missed so much by so many people when she died? The Bible says that when Peter arrived, many widows were weeping and showed him "tunics and other clothing" she had made for them. It looks like Dorcus spent a lot of time sewing clothes for the widows and doing many other good works. It could be a scene from Howick. Knitting mittens for the mitten tree, and collecting clothes for some unfortunate people, so they can keep their dignity and warmth. What Dorcus was reported to have done sounds so ordinary. And that precisely is the point. This passage is a celebration of the ordinary and simple deeds of kindness, and the persons who do them. Today, people feel that what they do is so insignificant in the face of enormous social problems. We feel powerless to affect any change. But we must not underestimate ourselves. I believe that this spirit of doing simple good deeds is and must be the core of the all, larger scale social programs. The backbone to the health care and the welfare system must always be this spirit of care and kindness for each other, not money nor power.

If the church is used by ministers or others to gain power and acquire wealth, it will be a corruption beyond redemption. It should be the same with the health care and welfare systems. Selfish people who cheat and exploit the health and welfare systems can destroy our social programs. No matter how developed and sophisticated our society has become, the spirit of caring and generosity must remain the core of the whole system. Otherwise, our health care and welfare systems will be like a concrete high rise building without steel reenforcement. It will crumble in a short time.

Another important point of the story is how kind Dorcus was to the widows. Widows were in bad predicaments during those days. The word "widow" in the Bible was synonymous with the people at the bottom of society. In those days, the only way for a woman to live like a human being was to have a husband. When a wife lost her husband, she became nobody: a fate worse than being a mere unmarried woman. In other words, the widows and the orphans were the worst off people in the society. They were often sold as slaves. Dorcus was a very kind person. Her kindness extended absolutely to everybody; to the rich and poor, to the saints and sinners, and especially to the people who were on the bottom of the scale in society.

The resurrection of Dorcus is a continuation of the Easter story. Peter said to Dorcus, "In the name of Jesus Christ, get up." Jesus Christ was the first person to defeat the power of death. His amazing love enabled him to overcome death. Through Christ, we will also be able to attain the kind of life that never dies with mere biological death. The generosity and kindness Dorcus showed in her life came from the love Christ freely gave away. Let us not be confused by those big words used by politicians and professionals, who make our simple acts of kindness look insignificant. It just isn”t so. Let us celebrate the simple acts of kindness, knitting mittens for the mitten tree and visiting lonely persons. Let us heal the sick world through such ordinary and simple deeds of kindness.

C: YOU ARE THE BEST GOD CREATED

YOU ARE THE BEST GOD CREATED

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 72, Luke 13:10-17

August 23, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

I once wrote to my father asking for money. I was travelling and I ran out of money. I was embarrassed. I began my letter with a line, "Sorry to sound like a spoiled brat, but…" "I – a spoiled brat" is a common expression that Japanese people use when they ask for a favour. When I received a cheque in a mail, there was a note, "I don”t mind giving you money, but don”t say I spoiled you." Inadvertently I implied that my father was the one who made me a spoiled brat. Humility is not always a virtue. You think you are being humble, but you may be humiliating another person by denigrating yourself. For example, don”t say, "I”m just a housewife." or "I am only a farmer." You may be insulting another housewife or a farmer, who is proud of being one. Besides, if you present yourself cheaply, you are insulting God who created you.

Self-deprecation is not really humility. Jeremiah had to be told that. God appointed Jeremiah to be a prophet when he was still a young boy. But Jeremiah was afraid and tried to wiggle out of it. He responded, "How can I be a prophet? I don”t know how to speak. I am only a boy." Many important persons in the Bible made the same kind of responses when they were asked by God to take up God”s work. "I am always slow to speak – I am not eloquent." said Moses. "I come from foul-mouthed people, and I am a man of unclean lips." said Isaiah. But God did not like that kind of false humility. God said to Jeremiah, "Who are you to say that you can not do what I want you to do? I have known you long before you knew yourself. I know you better than you know yourself. I tell you to be a prophet because I know you can be." God did not accept their self-deprecation. All three of them became powerful prophets, because in the end they said "Yes" to God. They said "Yes" to life.

God created humans and looked at the man and the woman, and blessed them. God is happy with us. We must never forget that. We must never think of ourselves as unacceptable or worthless. Most of us are shy when we appear in front of a crowd. We are afraid because we don”t know who are in the crowd and are not sure if they accept us. But if you know that you are accepted as you are, you will not be shy. You are not shy at home, because at home you are accepted as you are. When you feel shy and want to hide, you are trying to protect yourself from embarrassment. When we feel small and good for nothing, let us fight the temptation to hide. We must remember that we are good, because God made us and said that we were good. Let us not hide from life, let us say "Yes" to life.

Unfortunately, we live in the world of competition. This is why humiliating others and making them feel small is the name of the game in the real world. As Christians, we reject the idea that the laws of competition should control the world. We believe in the compassionate world. We believe in the world where the smallest and the weakest are loved and respected as well as any other member of the society. We come to the church and learn how to create a world where everybody, no matter how different he or she is, is equally loved and respected. We believe in creating such a place everywhere, in the family, among friends, and in the neighbourhood.

Competition has its place. It”s fun to compete in a card game, at a curling rink, and in a baseball diamond. Win or lose, it”s all for fun. If competition is the best way to run the business, the rules of competition should be strictly for business. Business must never decide how they are treated. We must firmly reject the idea that only winning in the competitions makes a person important. We are all acceptable and immensely valuable in the eyes of God. When we know this, we will be able to live our life in the best way God has intended us to live without shying away from life”s challenge. The story of the call of Jeremiah is not only for prophets. It is a lesson for all of us.

There was a woman in Nova Scotia, who said "Yes" to life. Maude Lewis had a difficult life. She was born in 1903. She was severely deformed due to birth defect. Her fingers were all curled up, shoulders hunched, and her chin pressed into the chest. She lived all her life in an one room house without running water nor hydro. She eked out a meagre living by painting and by selling pictures on any surface of material she could find. She painted in bright colours dreamlike figures of birds and cows, fields and mountains, and pretty houses and ordinary people, on the pieces of discarded wall paper, cardboard, and wood, etc. Tourists found her paintings and started to swarm Marshalltown where she lived. She did not see much of the fruit of her success, because her miserable husband, Everet, creamed off most of the earnings and hid them from her. When she dies in 1970, she was buried in a pauper”s grave in a child size coffin. But she left behind hundreds of exuberant paintings, which made her an icon of Canadian Folk Art today. Many of them have toured widely across the country and are on permanent display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Maude Lewis lived fully as God intended her to live. She could have complained bitterly about the miserable conditions she was born into. But she didn”t. She said, "Yes" to life and shared with thousands of her visitor the beauty and joy of God”s creation.

God”s call is not only for Prophets. God calls all of us to be whatever we are meant to be. Let us not say, "I am only a…" and shy away from the idea that you can not have a meaningful life to live. Maude Lewis performed her role superbly on God”s stage. We can do that too. So let us say, "yes" to God”s call.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

C: SINGING IN A JAILHOUSE – EASTER 7

SINGING IN A JAILHOUSE

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, John 17:20-26

May 24, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

A friend of ours, Fran, was an aid worker in Viet Nam during the terrible years of that war. One day when she was having ice cream at a sidewalk café, a beggar woman came by with a baby who had a cleft palate. Fran, being a mother of an infant herself, felt sorry for the mother, and offered to help to repair the deformity surgically. As soon as the interpreter told her that, she took the money and ran away. The interpreter explained to Fran that if the baby became normal looking, it would be more difficult to win sympathy. The end of a career as a beggar. That night, my friend hugged her own infant son, and cried bitterly in frustration. Exploiting other people”s deformity or disability is a terrible thing to do. But some people say that it is a reality of our economic system to always exploit some segments of population.

 

There is nothing more shocking than making profit out of another person”s disability. But that was what the owner of a slave girl was doing in the Book of Acts. The girl was a psychic and a fortune teller. We have psychics today too. They read cards, palms, stars, and tea leaves, and some of them making good money. I happen not to believe in those things. But I have no doubt some people do. I have nothing against those people making a living in that way. But the problem with this girl in the Bible was the fact that she was not free to make her own money with her unique talent. She was only a slave and the owner was making profit. Those people we call ”psychics” were thought to be possessed by the evil spirit, and were treated and abused in the same way as a mentally sick people were in those days. That means the slave owner exploited the girl like a pimp would do to a prostitute. But the fact of the matter is, she probably was not possessed. She likely was a person with an unusual ability to discern the inner quality of people. In the medieval Europe, such women were often accused of being a witch, and were burned at the stake. Anyhow, that”s why she could tell that Paul and Silas were persons of enormous spiritual qualities. So she pointed her finger at Paul and Silas and kept declaring in public, "They will show you the way to salvation."

Those two men were annoyed by her. Why? Probably because they were in an unfamiliar territory and they were not so sure about their standing in that city. They probably preferred to work quietly for the time being. They had been in Europe only a few days. They had managed to attract only a group of a few women so far. This is why Paul and Silas told the girl to keep quiet. She did. We don”t know what happened to her actually. She was no longer ready to be a spectacle and an object of public ridicule. So she fell silent and the slave owner lost his means to make money.

The slave owner was outraged. He appealed to the city magistrate, who also agreed that those Jewish men were disturbing the local economy. The economy based on the slave labour was indeed the foundation of the Roman Empire. Giving human dignity to a slave was an intolerable act of sabotage. As recently as about one hundred years ago, even in the United States of America, they had to fight a serious civil war among themselves resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. Giving freedom to slaves was a grave threat to the economy of the Southern States. But it does not have to be slavery. The exploitation of child labour in sweat shops in Asia and South America, of women in prostitution and pornography everywhere are forms of slavery, too. You will be shocked to learn that the size of economy based on pornography is bigger today than the regular Hollywood movie industry, according to the Economist.

As far as the Roman authorities of the city of Philippi were concerned, Paul and Silas committed a serious economic crime by giving back human dignity to a slave. So the magistrate found them guilty without trial, ordered them to be stripped of their clothes, whipped severely in public, and to be taken to prison. The magistrate did not know that they were Roman citizens, even though they looked like Jews. As Roman citizens, they had every right to a fair trial. In fact, the city magistrate goofed.

So Paul and Silas were wounded deeply in two ways: physically from a severe beating and also psychologically from the humiliation in public. They were sitting in a jailhouse with their feet shackled like a couple of dangerous criminals. I would be furious if I were them. They didn”t do anything seriously bad to deserve that. They did not pursue the slave girl. She was the one who saw them first and pointed her finger at them. They didn”t do anything as serious as deliberately freeing a slave. They merely told her to shut up. It was her decision to stop acting like a mad woman. But worst still, the authorities completely ignored their legitimate rights and did them a grave injustice.

But instead of getting upset, they sat in the prison, prayed and sang hymns praising God. How can anyone sing a hymn in a jailhouse? They sang loudly, and other prisoners were able to listen to them. This is where we are reminded again that our faith is not a cheap religion but is the light to show us clearly the reality of life. If we can see the way clearly, we will know how to deal with hard realities of life. God does not promise to spare us from injustice and suffering. Jesus said, "Rain falls on the just and the unjust alike." There is a danger if we are preoccupied with avoiding difficult experiences at all costs. But unfortunately, we have made comfort and enjoyment our gods, and often can not see difficult and unexpected experiences as God”s way of showing a better way. Our faith is not a cheap religion which promises health, wealth, and prosperity without any cost. God does not promise a trouble free life, but gives us the strength to endure difficulties, and helps us see the God”s way, even through the shadow of the valley of death. Paul and Silas had strength to accept what happened to them as a road sign on God”s highway. This is why they could sing hymns in a jailhouse, even though many things that happened to them were completely unexpected.

The Ice Storm and flood pointed out our human limitations in the face of nature. Yet, in the process of facing those two crises – and having to accept rather than change the course of events – we discovered the kindness of good neighbours which helped us make the best of the situation. God acts with us when we find the serenity to accept what we can not change but show the courage to change things that we can. It is then we can sing even in the darkest prison and hear the message of salvation from the most unlikely voice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A: LOVING IS GIVING – 4TH WEEK OF JUNE

LOVE IS A GIVING

Genesis 22:1-14, Psalm 13, Matthew 10:40-42

June 27, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

In 1992, the NHL Vancouver Canucks held a charity auction to raise funds for a hospice for the terminally ill children. People were donating things so the children could spend the last days of their lives comfortably and happily as much as possible. Six-year-old Jeff Robinson of Kelowna, B.C. heard about the auction. He had a hockey stick with Wayne Gretzky”s autograph on it. Jeff was lucky enough to meet him one day at a hockey practice. After many days thinking about it, Jeff decided to give up the prized hockey stick for the auction. Jeff said, "Those kids are dying. I”m lucky." The hockey stick was sold for one thousand dollars. Some months later, Wayne Gretzky heard about this, and was deeply touched by what Jeff did. He sent Jeff a brand new autographed hockey stick.

We have only one life to live in a limited time. So we regularly have to give up a lot of things we treasure in order to keep what is more important. If you don”t know how to choose one and sacrifice others, your life will be a big mess. Let us learn some important lessons about sacrifice from the story of Abraham and Isaac.

 

Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah when they were both beyond the age of baby making. When Sarah was told that she would become pregnant, she though it was a bad joke. "Him? At his age?" "Me? With my hot flashes?" She laughed bitterly. That”s how they came to name their son "Isaac" – "laughter" in Hebrew. The conception of Isaac might have been met by his mother”s disrespectful laughter, but he turned out to be the joy of the parents” life and a source of many a happy laughter. So, they thought that it was the most cruel test of their faith, when they learned that they had to give up Isaac. Since then, many people have also interpreted that this story was about the test of faith. But I don”t agree with this view.

Abraham had believed that God required a sacrifice of his son. But at the crucial moment, God stopped him. Did God change his mind? Or was the whole thing a test of Abraham”s faithfulness, and God did not really mean to let Abraham kill Isaac? I believe that Abraham refused to accept the old custom and found the true God. In order to understand how Abraham changed his view about God and sacrifice, you need to figure out how God speaks to us. Nobody has ever heard God”s voice. God speaks to our hearts and to our minds when we are in prayers. A Scottish philosopher, Thomas Carlyle once said, "Prayer is the most sincere form of thinking." The more we become familiar with the way of God in the Bible, the more clearly we will know the mind of God. That”s how God speaks to us.

When Abraham decided to follow the custom of the day, by killing Isaac at the alter for God, he had truly believed that he was following the God”s wish. Many ancient peoples thought that sacrificing the first born child was the correct way to please the jealous God. In fact, the child sacrifice has always been a common religious practice in many cultures for many years. You still find mummified bodies of children, often young girls, who had been killed to please the supposedly greedy and voracious God in many parts of the world. They are well preserved from the elements, because they are dressed well as offering to gods. Even in the history of Israel, there are stories of children and young women in the Bible sacrificed for the good of a family or a nation in the Bible.

So Abraham was not doing anything unusual for his days. It was normal to believe that by following the widely practised custom they were being faithful to God. It must have been an excruciatingly painful decision for them, because they had waited for their own child for a long time. Abraham walked for three days towards the Mount Moriah with Isaac beside him. He had lots of time to pray and think. It was a difficult struggle. He was challenging the age old belief about the way to serve God. He was a faithful and righteous man. But he loved the child too, more than his own life. "Is loving a child against the will of God?" As he struggled with this difficult question, he began to hear a different voice of God; "Love of a child is good." A split second before he plunged the knife into the child”s body, he was seized by a firm conviction, that God would never demand a life of a child for sacrifice. He had a courage to challenge the old belief, and found a fresh belief in the loving God.

The lesson Abraham learned in this story is very important for us today too. Nobody has the right to require human sacrifice, especially of children. No one owns other human beings. You can not sacrifice what does not belong to you. That is not sacrifice. Sacrifice is to give up what is yours. The human race is still learning this basic lesson. Wars are fought on the assumption that human lives can be sacrificed for the sake of ideas or pieces of real estate. Children are abused and exploited, because some people believe that they are not as valuable as grown-ups, so they are expendable. As the result, education, health, and welfare are the first ones to be cut from the budget affecting mainly children.

However, Abraham found a lamb for sacrifice. He did not ignore the importance of sacrifice. Sacrifice is not only the indispensable part of religious life, but also is an essential life skill. All of us must know what to give up for the sake of what is more important. The people of Israel sacrificed their prized livestock in the temple of God. They gave up portions of their wealth.

When Abraham struggled with the question of what to give up, he found the truly loving God. Jesus Christ sacrificed his own life because he loved us, and showed us the love of God. Sacrifice is to give up what is precious, like Jeff”s hockey stick. By giving up something you treasure, you will know what is most important, which is love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A: TEACH US HOW TO PRAY – FOURTH SUNDAY OF JULY

TEACH US TO PRAY

Luke 11: 1 – 4

 

Prayer is like a familiar road you walk everyday. If it is not, it should be. You can walk on it with your eyes closed. You know what”s there. You feel comfortable and safe. It is like a conversation with someone you love. You are so familiar with it and do not notice it”s so precious. Like a glass of water. If conversations with someone you love becomes a chore, maybe there is some problem in your relationship.

Unfortunately, because we clatter our lives with too many things to do, many of us are forgetting how to listen. Consequently, prayer no longer is our daily practice. This is why it is good to know the Lord”s prayer. It is familiar to us and gives us an opening ritual, when we don”t know what words to pray. Rituals are useful to break the ice. You say, "Hello, how are you?" as an opening ritual when you meet someone. If you still don”t know what to talk about, you talk about weather. It is safe, familiar, and offers a way of entering into conversation. Lord”s Prayer is like that.

Prayer is a conversation with God. So it should be easy, like any conversation with someone you know. But it is difficult to start a conversation with someone you are not familiar with. When we are not used to thinking about our relationship with God, we need a ritual we are familiar and comfortable with. So Jesus taught us Lord”s Prayer. It is a good opening ritual to our prayer life.

 

Lord”s Prayer is made up of three parts: the first part is about God, the second about our physical needs, and the last part is about our spiritual needs.

We begin by invoking the name of God to make sure in our mind we are speaking to God. When he taught the disciples how to invoke the name of God, Jesus taught us to address God as "Father". It was an incredibly blasphemous teaching for the time. The Jewish religion does not allow any familiarity with God. God is so holy that nobody should even know the name nor should one depict God in any way. Allowing the disciples to call Jesus "Son of God", and addressing God as "Father" were the very acts of blasphemy which sent Jesus to his death on the cross. So what was he saying, when he taught others to address God as father, despite the objection of the authorities?

Jesus was trying to tell us that "yes, God is holy and almighty. But God is also a loving God", like the God of Hosea, who is like a man pathetically in love with his unfaithful wife and goes after her to a brothel, while others laughed at him. He wanted to tell us that our relationship with God can be of the most intimate kind. This is why he called God father. Jesus must have had a good and loving father in Joseph. If someone does not have a good father, God can be some other loving person like a mother. Didn”t he also use other images like friend, brother, teacher? God can be compared to whoever one feels comfortable and intimate with, and, who can also command respect. I like the way French people address God. They use "tu" just as they would use it for a family member. We should be able to feel comfortable being with God, like being with your father, a mother, a spouse, a good friend. That”s why in the Lord”s Prayer we call God, "Father" even though our language fails from time to time to mean what we want to mean.

We believe also, however, that God is almighty, just and wise. So the best thing that could happen is to make the rule of God reality. Wouldn”t it be wonderful if a loving and merciful figure also has absolute authority and power to rule in our universe? This is why we pray that God”s will be done. And that the world will be his kingdom.

Now about the petition asking for bread : We are not always comfortable when we ask for something we really want or need, because those things are often too intimate. I don”t think many of us can go up to a stranger and ask, "Give me food." When we are intimate with someone who seems to know everything we need, we feel a little more comfortable to ask even for something that may be a little bit too personal. Still we feel a little shy but we can do it if that person is intimate. The god of the Jewish and the Muslim people knows everything before we ask, so they don”t ask. They simply ask that the God”s will be done. Yes, God of Jesus Christ also knows everything we need, but our relation with God is more intimate, he loves us. So we are not shy to ask anything, even though we know we ask not-very-wise things sometime.

We parents know our children”s need, most of the time. But it would be a sad day when our children feel too intimidated to ask for something they want. Our relationship is not only that of supply on demand. Demands and requests form a part of our relationship. They reassure us of our intimate relationship. We can reassure each other of our affection and love, by asking each other for what we really need. It can be another way of saying "I love you." So we say, "Give us our daily food." to reassure ourselves of our intimate relationship with God.

The last two requests in the Lord”s Prayer have to do with our spiritual life: with forgiveness and avoiding evil. And they both have to do with love or lack thereof.

The question of forgiveness here can not be understood unless one speaks about it in the context of a relationship of love. Forgive others? We do that all the time amongst loved ones. Relationships do not work, unless there is forgiveness. Loving people forgive and give each other all the time. Being forgiven and accepted by God, as we accept each other, is our most fundamental spiritual need.

The last request has to do with avoiding evil. There are some people who tell you that there is no evil. They say, "There can be a temporary laspe that makes people to commit evil. But there is no real evil in the world." I, for one, don”t buy that. There may not be evil people by nature. But people can be possessed by evil, and commit horrendous evil acts. Murders, sexual assaults, violence, and acts of callous neglects do happen. We hear about them in the news. And evil, again, has to do with love; it is opposite of love. We find repeatedly teaching of Jesus saying that the fundamental basis of our spiritual life is love. And the opposition to love is the source of evil.

You see, love motivates us to give to others. So opposite of love is to rob others for selfish reasons. In other words, without love you take others as your means to achieve selfish goals. Utter disrespect of other people”s interest is the result of lack of love. That can range from a simple act of omission by ignoring poverty in our society to the extreme case of murders and holocaust.

We want to pray very hard to keep such evil far away from us. And the best way for us to work on it from our side is to keep praying that we be loving always.

C: SOUND OF SILENCE – FOURTH WEEK OF JUNE

THE SOUND OF SHEER SILENCE

1 King 19:4 – 6, 11 – 15, Psalm 42,43 , Luke 8:35 – 39

June 23, 1995

The passage from the first Kings includes a very evocative expression, "the sound of sheer silence." Elijah was running away from his destiny. He was afraid to do what he was supposed to be doing. He feared for his life. He was so discouraged and disgusted with himself that he wanted to die. There was a fierce wind like a tornado that split the mountains, there was an earthquake that nearly swallowed up everything, and after that there was fire that nearly consumed everything. But God did not speak in those events. Then, the Bible says, there was the sound of sheer silence. At last Elijah heard it, the voice of God. The voice that told him to do exactly what he was avoid doing. To go back. To go back where the Queen was waiting to kill him. To go back to install a new king against the wish of the Queen Jezebel. What an awesome task. He did not want to do it. He was afraid to do it. The job was too big for him.

However, the really interesting point of the story is that such an awesome mission was not conveyed by big noisy and dramatic media, like tornadoes, earthquakes or fire. It came instead through in the sound of sheer silence. When Jesus was asked by Pilate if he was the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus did not answer. He just stood there in silence. The real truth was conveyed in silence.

There is an important lesson for us here. The real message did not come with a bang, but in silence. Today, we are so used to hearing loud messages, in TV advertisements for example, with music, exaggerated language, sexy people, and special effects that we can not hear the small and subtle voices any more. We expect every message to amuse us. Even the news must be entertaining to watch, otherwise we ignore it or pay little attention to it. Before South African election began, genocide in Rwanda was unfolding a year ago. Mass murder was obviously more dramatic and exciting than an election. So Many international media left and went to Rwanda. And we rate our politicians as much on their TV presence as on their political goals. You see, if it is not fun, or funny, we switch the channel. We can hardly hear the inner voice that comes in silence. I think this is a problem.

Some twenty-three years ago, I was detained against my will for a few days in South Africa . It was not very serious, only three days confinement before I was kicked out of the country because of my Anti-Apartheid activities. But I nearly went crazy, mainly because I was worried about my seven year old daughter who was alone at home and did not know where I was. What made it worse was that I had nothing to read, or to write with, or to listen to, or to watch. There were just four walls. Nobody came to talk to me. You would think that there should be some sort of interrogation in that kind of a case. But I was not such a big fish. They didn”t care. They knew what to do with me. "Scare him a little, then and kick him out."

I was left alone with no explanation about why I was detained. I came face to face with myself, because there was nobody else except me. You would think that as a religious man, I would know how to cope with a situation like that. I would know how to make use of solitude as an opportunity to meditate, to pray, to think, to be alone with God. But I was not like that. I went mad. I wanted to scream, "Let me outa here. I will say anything. Just tell me why I am here, and tell me how long I have to stay here." In retrospect, I must admit, I was pathetic. You see, silence forced me to confront myself. And I didn”t handle it too well. Furthermore what happened to my life after that incident did not help me to reflect on what happened to me during those three days. When I was released, I became an instant hero among those who were fighting the Apartheid system in South Africa. I received a letter from Mitchell Sharp, then the minister of Foreign Affairs, was visited by the Canadian Ambassador, and was even mentioned in a United Nations document. I enjoyed a few months of fame. I did not need to reflect on my spiritual paucity. This is very different from Elijah”s experience. He failed, he was afraid, he was disgusted of himself. He wanted to die. So, unlike Elijah, I did not truly hear the sound of silence. I was too quickly intoxicated by the noise, which was praising me and preventing me to look into my spiritual life.

Our life is surrounded with noise all the time. We are so used to living with noises that we are no longer capable of being able to listen to our inner voice. We get bored when it is too quiet and maybe we find it hard to stay awake. I don”t remember who it was, but someone said one time that prayer is the deepest form of thinking. We pray publicly to be united with other people, to become of one mind. But we have to have another form of prayer life. We have to have a private prayer life. You can do it in any way you like, standing, sitting, or even on your back, but you do it alone. You don”t even have to say anything. You can just think and listen, but think deeply and listen in total honesty. It is like looking at yourself in a mirror alone. There is no point hiding anything, lying, or pretending. You confront yourself alone, and think. And in the silence, one may discover that one is not alone. There is a greater presence reflected there as well. That”s private prayer.

Because we are so busy doing things all the time, or are so constantly surrounded by noises and sights, we are beginning to forget how to sit and think, and thus rarely pray alone. Maybe our process of recovering our spiritual life begins here. Maybe, because we can not sit and listen to ourselves alone, we also can not really listen to our kids or to our spouse trying to say something to us. If we can not listen, sooner or later they stop trying to talk to us. The message of such silence is more powerful than any noisy chatter. We cann”t expect to be amused all the time. But kids are not always funny, especially after a long day of hard work. And your wife is not funny when she has something important to say.

But when you learn to hear your inner self, you may discover a startling truth, just like Elijah was confronted by his awesome mission. If you are sensitive enough to be able to hear your inner voice, you can also hear important messages conveyed in people”s endless talk which may not make sense on the surface. The amazing thing about the story of Elijah is that, after hearing the message from God, he left the place of silence. He went to do exactly what God told him to do, though he was deadly afraid to do it. This was the man who was so afraid of the job he had, he escaped into the desert and asked God if he was allowed to die. How did he find such courage to change? I think that the secret lies in Elijah”s ability to listen to the sound of sheer silence. If one can face oneself alone in silence, one can face anything.

A: How do you solve a problem like Thomas? – Easter

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE THOMAS?

John 20:19-31

April 17, 1996 by Tad Mitsui

Thomas has suffered bad press throughout Christian history, because he did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. He insisted on seeing the wounds in Jesus” hands and side. He is called "doubting Thomas" and thought of as being somewhat among the lesser of the disciples. But I happen to believe that Thomas has been dealt with unfairly by history. I happen to believe that Thomas was merely different from the others. He was honest to express his doubt and stubborn to not change his conviction to join the others. But just like he did for Thomas, the risen Jesus appeared in many forms so that everybody would recognize him. Thus everybody could share in the joy of hearing the good news about the risen Christ, no matter how different they were.

When Jesus first appeared after the resurrection, Thomas happened not to be with his friends. The risen Christ first appeared to Mary Magdalene, then to many others in different places. He appeared before two disciples in the village of Emmaus a week later, and was recognized only at the supper table at the end of the day, even though they had spent all day together travelling. He even appeared simultaneously before 3000 people in different places at the same time. Many of them came back to Jerusalem and often gathered together to compare their experiences. At that time, they were still fearful of the public who crucified their master. But they were excited and could not help but talk about the risen Christ incessantly. So they came together but stayed inside, and locked the doors. A few times, the risen Christ walked through the locked doors and met with his followers. Obviously, Jesus in his spiritual body was able to walk through the locked door. But Thomas was not there when all those things happened.

I know what it feels like, when one has missed out on an exciting event. All your friends are very excited about it. But you don”t know what they are talking about. You feel left out. It was like that with Thomas. He said, "I don”t believe it. I”ll believe only when I see with my own eyes the wounds on his hands and his side." I can understand his disappointment in being left out, and how his doubt was caused by unhappiness. I can see me doing that. But there is a difference between Thoams and me. He did not bend because of peer pressure. I am often swayed by the opinion of people who surround me. And I say, "yes" just to be a good sport. But Thomas was stubborn. He said, "No, I don”t believe it. I have to see the mark of nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand on his side." What a rascal! He was an epitome of a spoil sport, a party pooper. How do you solve a problem like Thomas?

What we often miss or do not appreciate in people like Thomas is their toughness. It is not easy to contradict your friends. It takes courage to stick to what you believe and uphold your integrity. Thank goodness for those stubborn spoil sports, who dare to be unpopular for the sake of truth. It is interesting that this doubting Thoams was the one who travelled the furthest among the disciples and started the church in India. In India he was reported to have been murdered because of his faith. Today, the oldest Christian church is in India, older than Roman Catholic Church or any Orthodox church. It is called "Ma Thoma" Church. I have met several people from this church. This church had been largely unknown to the rest of the world for centuries, because the history of Christian Church was written mainly by the Western Europeans, to whom India was beyond the ends of the world. Thomas went to the far East alone, and started that church in the early first Century. It takes courage and stubbornness to do such a things. There is a apocrypha book called the Gospel according to Thomas. The Western Church decided not to include it in the Bible, because it was so very different. It is pity, in a way, that we don”t get to read Thomas” account of the life of Jesus Christ.

We often do not like those people who stick to their guns. We think that they cause trouble by being so stubborn, contradicting what everybody else says. We think that they should compromise for the sake of harmony. We believe that they are bad because they cause conflicts. Shame on us who think that way. Jesus was never angry with Thomas, neither did he scold him for his honest doubt. Jesus appeared in a way which was recognizable to Thomas. He said, "Look at me. Look at my wounds. Touch them with your hands." Jesus was ready to make himself appear in a form comprehensible to a particular person.

We are all different. We all have good attributes and shortcomings. Jesus accepts us as we are, good and bad. Peter was a passionate yet shallow man, for example, who tended to be hasty and thus made many mistakes. He heard Jesus saying that all disciples would desert him when he was going to be arrested and killed. Peter said rather impulsively, "Don”t worry master, even if all others leave you, I would never do that. I would die with you." But that very evening, he denied the knowledge of Jesus three times for fear of being identified as a companion of the man who was being interrogated for blasphemy. When the risen Jesus appeared to Peter, he was on a boat, fishing. He recognized the risen Christ, and he jumped into the lake and swam ashore, leaving the boat, the net, and all the catch behind. It was like leaving the tractor behind in the field with the engine running. John, for another, was a lovely affectionate man. He often leaned on Jesus” chest to hear him speak. But he did not do anything to write home about. He was, what you might call, a "nice" man but possibly weak in character. He lived to be a ripe old age, on a Mediterranean island of Patmos, and became senile. He could not do much except to repeat, "You should love each other." like a mantra. We are all different. But Jesus Christ did not discriminate against people because of their differences. He made himself understandable to everybody, enabling people to engage in different styles of ministry.

However, difference is one of the most nagging problems in human community. We kill each other because of differences a lot of times. One thing we must do is learn that to be different is normal. Thus conflicts are a natural consequence of differences. The Japanese say that we must hide our horns at least on the wedding day. There must be sayings like that in every nationality telling people how to deal with difference. The real challenge is to know how to live with differences and conflicts lovingly. We have to learn to not condemn or reject the differences like we normally want to do, and instead learn to accept them as Jesus accepted his disciples with all their idiosyncrasies. We have to learn to take conflicts caused by differences as natural and somehow find a way to keep loving despite a difference in opinions. We are all created differently but as equals. Conflicts are natural. We must find the way to resolve conflicts peacefully without being overwhelmed by them, without suppressing one side over the other, but through accommodation.

The secret to reach such a state is love. We repeat this again and again in church. The beloved disciple John may have become senile in his old age, but he never forgot the most essential message of the teachings of Jesus Christ, "Let us love one another." So let us love one another. Then our differences will become our wealth – as the differences between Jesus” disciples was a source of richness for the early church – and our conflicts will become friendly games. So beloved friends, let us love each other. Do not doubt this.

 

 

 

 

B: GOD LIVES IN A BATHROOM? – LAST SUNDAY OF AUGUST

A BEAUTIFUL DWELLING PLACE FOR GOD

1 Kings 8:1,6,10-11,22-30,41-43, Psalm 84 644 1 Cor.: 3:10-17

August 27, 2000 by Tad Mitsui

In a book called "Children”s Letters to God", a boy by the name of Jimmy wrote, "Dear God, I went to New York City and saw St. Partick”s Cathedral. You live in a big house. Yours truly, Jimmy." There was another child who thought God lived in the bathroom. A Sunday School teacher asked her why. She said, "Every morning my Dad shouts in front of the bathroom, "My God, are you still there?" Where does God live? It”s a good question, isn”t it? In the church? Is the church a house of God? Today”s story from the Book of Kings answers some of that question.

It is a story of King Solomon who dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem. Now he and his kingdom could undertake an expensive project because he was a very successful king. He expanded his kingdom to into an empire. The people of Israel under his reign stopped fighting among each other and became one unified nation. Solomon”s reputation as a wise king became known throughout the Mediterranean world. Many foreign leaders came to pay respect to King Solomon, thus many profitable trade relations were established. As the result, Solomon”s kingdom became a very wealthy country.

But he did not feel fulfilled. He felt that he had to do something extra special for God. So he built a magnificent temple in Jerusalem. Its splendour was comparable to many magnificent ancient Greek and Roman architectures. When it was completed, Solomon enshrined the Box of Covenant with the original stone tablets of the laws of Moses in it. On the day of dedication, he felt he was blessed and humbled. His long prayer shows how proud and humble he felt. It also answers the question about the place where God lives. Let me mention three important points from his prayer.

First thing I noticed was that Solomon did not think that his Temple was big enough for God. He said, "Can you, O God, really live any place on earth? Not even all of heaven is large enough to hold you, so how can this Temple that I have built be large enough?" He built the Temple for the Covenant Box to be enshrined, and for people to pray. "Hear my prayers and the prayers of your people when they face this place and pray." he said. In other words, he believed that anything we humans could build or think of, not even what we perceive as heaven, was not good enough for God to live in. We can not box God into something we can think of. If you think that the church is the only place where God lives, you are wrong.

In other words, a church building is a people”s house. It is a place where God”s words are spoken and where we pray to God in response. This is the second point I want to make in Solomon”s prayer. The church is not the house of God, it is the people”s house of prayer. Jesus said when he chased the merchants out of the Temple, "You have made the house of prayer into the house of thieves." It is the house for people to hear the word of God, as was contained in the Covenant Box, and today as is heard in the reading of the Bible. It is also the house for people to come together and pray together. Anyone can read the Bible and can pray alone at home. But we must also come together to share our experiences of God. We all can hear the word of God by ourselves. But you must come to church to make sure that it was God”s words you heard, not the last night”s pepperoni pizza giving you heart-burn. You can learn by yourself, but it is always better if you have a chance to compare notes and learn with others. If there are sufficient number of people who want to learn together, you can put some money together and hire a teacher who might shed light into a difficult question. Those teachers were called Rabbis, and Ministers in our case. It is the same with the prayer. We all have to have our own private prayer time. But when we pray together, we feel the power of prayer.

Lastly, the Temple was built when the unity of people was achieved. Now that the people of Israel stopped fighting among themselves, they were able to undertake a big project like building an expensive temple. King Solomon was able to summon, without any fear of old feuds erupting all over again, all the leaders of the tribes and the clans of Israel to come together in Jerusalem. It is quite an achievement. Building Solomon”s Temple became possible when the unity of the nation was achieved. Likewise, the real church can exist if there is harmony among people of God. We make a mockery out of our Gospel when the church is divided. We come to church to hear the word and to pray together, not to settle the score.

When the Soviets were ahead of the U.S. in a race to reach the outer space, one Russian Cosmonaut had gone into the space and declared, "I went into heaven and looked around. But I didn”t see God." Obviously, he hadn”t read the Book of Kings. God is too big for the heavens, as King Solomon declared. What we called "Heaven" as in the opening of the Lord"s Prayer "Our Father, who art in Heaven" is a metaphor for something beyond us. Not a place "up there." God is everywhere. He comes to meet us in the church. Solomon believed in God”s presence in the words of the Covenant. As we hear the words of God in the Bible with others in the church, and we respond in prayer in words and in music, we are repeating the same thing that King Solomon saw in the Temple in Jerusalem.

God is everywhere. Most importantly, He lives within each one of us in the Holy Spirit. This is why Paul called our bodies the temple of God. This notion, in fact, is the very basis of our moral ethics. Because our bodies are where God lives, we have to try our best to keep it clean. Inevitably, a house collects dust and falls into disrepair. That”s normal. Don”t be ashamed about it. We clean it up from time to time. Because we are all the temples of God, we must be good to each other, too. When we are kind to each other, we are being kind to God. We are the beautiful dwelling place of God. Let us remember that.

 

 

 

 

A: TO RESPECT OTHERS IS TO WORSHIP GOD – EASTER 6

TO RESPECT OTHERS IS TO WORSHIP GOD

Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66, John 14:15-21

May 9, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

A minister was trying desperately to put together a decent sermon on Saturday. Her 3 and 1/2 year old child kept popping into her study and disturbing her. She told him that he must leave her alone so that she could think. "What are you thinking about, Mommy?" he asks. The minister replied, "I am trying to think about God." He looked at her directly in the eye and said, "So, what do you want to know?" I am not quite sure what exactly he meant. If he meant she could find God in him, he was right. I think that you can meet God in another person.

As Jesus was making a farewell speech to his followers in John”s Gospel, he promised that he would never leave them alone. He would ask God to be with them forever as the Advocate or the Holy Spirit. He said, "He abides with you for ever, and he will be in you." God is in all of us. God can be found in other people. To respect another person is the same thing as to worship God. However, Christ did not say we are gods. He said that God was in us. We must respect each other because everyone is with God just like a pregnant woman is with a child. We humans are limited, and unworthy vessels. But God in his amazing grace chose to be with us. We are what we are because God decides to be with us.

Paul had a problem in Athens, because the people of that city believed that they were in complete control of their lives and even the lives of gods. Ancient Greeks were known for their ability to think. They were intellectuals and produced many brilliant philosophers, who even today influence our ways of thinking. They were masters of observation and logical thinking. They were wise enough to realize that humans were limited. So they created gods, as many as they could think of, to fill the gaps which they thought to be beyond human capacity to control or understand. It was a way of giving themselves a sense of control over their universe. They created gods such as Aphrodite – the goddess of love, or Zeus – the god in charge of the heavens and Poseidon – the god in charge of the sea and the underworld. And in the end, after they thought about everything they could think about, they created a category of gods just in case they missed something very important. So they dedicated a monument to an "unknown god." It was a kind of an insurance policy. The Greek thought about all the eventualities. Even the unknown had to be neatly ordered.

So Paul took up the subject of the unknown god, and tried to explain the God of Jesus the Christ. But he was not successful. He was first mocked by them: they said, "What does this babbler want to say?" And when it came to the resurrection of Christ, it sounded so incredible that they just gave up. They went away saying, "Thank you. We will call you if we want to hear more about your god. Don”t call us." So Paul left Athens without planting a church. Paul failed in Athens, because he tried to appeal to their reason. That was the wrong way to preach the Gospel. They were not ready to see God through Jesus Christ. They were only ready to listen to reason. They were so proud of their capacity to think logically that they could see no importance in things that did not make sense.

But we must realize that many of the things which are most important in life do not make logical sense. Most notably love is not logical. Because of love, a mother does some incredible things for her child. If you think that success is the most important thing in life, a mother”s self-sacrifice doesn”t make sense. Without God in us, we will live strictly by self-interest, and love does not make sense. But with God in us, we can perform some incredible deeds for the sake of love. With outrageous love in us, we are able to surmount life”s incomprehensible questions and even tragedies.

Once I was visiting a friend in a village in the mountain region of Southern Africa. One old woman came knocking on the door. She asked me if I could take her daughter to the hospital, because she was having a difficult time giving birth to her baby. I was the only person around with a Land Rover. The young woman was in agony. It was about an hour drive to the hospital. But it was the most scary drive I have ever done in my life. It was not so much because of the twist and turns of mountain roads at night, but because the woman was really in pain; she screamed all the way. The clerk at the admission desk told me to wait to see if I needed to take the mother and the child home. It was dawn when a nurse came out to tell me that "the baby was born tired." And I should take only the baby home, because the mother had to stay in the hospital for a week. She told me all this in Sesotho, the language of the country.

Until a bundle was handed to me all wrapped up tightly with blankets and sheets like a sack of flour, I had not realized that the baby was stillborn. The Basotho people seldom refer to "death" directly in their language. They do it in many ways like "He is very tired". But my Sesotho was not good enough to know exactly what it meant. I drove back and delivered the tiny body. A month or so later, the grieving mother came to thank me. I didn”t know how to deal with a person who was grieving, especially in a language I didn”t know well. But I still remember what she said. " I am still very sad. But I am glad that God honoured me with a visit." Africans are very spiritual people. Whenever I remember an episode like this, I still stand in awe of such faith in God. By comparison, we are by far better off in so many ways than average Africans. But I sometimes wonder if we are as rich as those friends I met in Africa, who had so much respect for life and for each other because of their faith in God who abides with us.

How God can be with us and yet be so much greater than us is beyond our comprehension. We can not define or limit this God”s power to a particular realm in the way that the Greeks did. We must respect this infinite presence in ourselves and in others. Thanks be to God who waits to be discovered within.

 

 

 

 

B: WHO IS MY MOTHER? – 1ST WEEK OF JUNE

WHO IS MY MOTHER?

II Cor. 4:13-18, Psalm 138(#73 Mark 3:20-21 & 31-34

June 8, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

One of the most difficult experiences for all of us is a family conflict. It shakes up our sense of security. Your conviction is put to a severe test when it is challenged by someone you love dearly in your family. My father was disowned by his parents when he decided to become a Christian minister. Up to that point, he had followed his parents” wishes and he had been studying to become a physician. However, his conviction that he was called by God became stronger. He left a medical school and went to Tokyo to go to a seminary. He lost all family support and had to work his way through the seminary. Jesus also ran into the same kind of difficulty with his family earlier in his ministry and suffered rejection by his mother and brothers. In Howick, too, I heard of some family quarrels at the time of Church Union. Considering this, perhaps this passage is especially appropriate for Anniversary Sunday.

When his mother and brothers heard that Jesus was openly challenging the Sabbath laws and became a target of hatred of the leaders of the society, they thought that he had gone insane. So they came to nab him, to avoid further embarrassment to the family and save him from endangering his life. They were going to take him back to Nazareth, to the carpenter”s workshop where he belonged. How did Jesus react, when the disciples told him that his mother and brothers were looking for him? "Who is my mother?" he said, as though he was denying any relationship with his own mother. "Who are my brothers?" he continued. Looking at the disciples, he said, "You are, because you are the ones who obey God”s commandments." Was he in despair because his family did not understand him? Or was he being spiteful? Either way, the situation looks sad. In a way, it is reassuring that our Lord Jesus went through a real life situation like the ones we sometimes face. What does this episode tell us about family conflicts? I am going to make three points.

First of all, family members can be amazingly ignorant about each other. We think we know each other in a family. Indeed we do. But we can overlook many things because we assume we know everything about everybody in a family. Familiarity can make you blind. When we think we know everything, we lose a sense of wonder. We refused to be surprised. We even lose a sense of respect for someone or something we think we know very well. This is why I don”t like to preach in the church where I grew up. They know me too well. They still see that naughty boy who switched off all the lights in the church for fun, during the Christmas Eve Service. It is difficult to get the message across to those people who only see me when I was fifteen years old. You work hard to raise your children, so you know them well. That does not mean you can lose respect for them. Never lose respect for whom you know well.

Secondly, the Gospel story teaches us that there are wider circles of family outside of our immediate flesh and blood. Jesus said to the disciples, "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? You are my mother. You are my brothers." Jesus was not being disrespectful of his own family. He was speaking about the family which is wider than immediate flesh and blood. In the story of creation, there is a line, "A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." "Cling" is a very graphic word. When you get married, you must leave your parents. If you still cling to your mother or father after the marriage, if you are not ready to leave your parents; you are not ready for marriage. Your spouse must become closer to you than to your parents. Likewise, we must widen the circle of our family as we grow. You find a teacher, a neighbour, or a friend you come to respect and come to love very much. Those people become almost like a mother or a father. A wider circle of family is a sign of your maturity. That does not mean you are abandoning your real parents. Your family is becoming bigger. When you find a group of friends who believe in the same things, like to do the same things, go to the same church, or just enjoy hanging around together, they become like brothers and sisters. The world will be a wonderful place to live, if many more people become like our mother, father, brothers and sisters. We aim to make our church like a family. That is one way to create heaven on earth.

Finally, sometimes a real test of authentic relationship comes when you are confronted with truth. What do you do when someone you love very much disagrees with you about what you firmly believe in? Jesus” mother and his brothers thought he was out of his mind, when he acted on his convictions. Jesus believed that he was following God”s commandment. My grandparents thought that my father was disrespectful of them. He, on the other hand, thought that he was following God”s call. Do you obey God or respect your flesh and blood and go against your belief? This is a difficult question.

There was an ambitious Samurai, who was the most powerful warlord in Japan in the fourteenth century. His name was Kiyomori. His oldest son, Shigemori, was the best strategist in an art of war, and the army chief of staff. Shigemori was also an honourable man – a man of principles. One day, Shigemori learned that his father was secretly planning to overthrow the throne to replace the emperor with a stooge. So he went to see his father to find out what was going on. It was obvious that the old man was preparing for a war. He was in his armour, and men were running around with bows and arrows. The son asked him what the commotion was all about. The father lied and said that they were doing some war games. What should the son do? Stay out of his father”s dirty politics and keep his nose clean? Or stand up against his own father and defeat his army, so that he could prevent an act of high treason? He might have kill his own father. Or join his father, and become a traitor to the country? As the history has it, Shigemori joined his father in the rebellion, was defeated, and died as an enemy of the nation. He is remembered in history as a tragic figure: an honourable man who faced an impossible dilemma.

Let us hope that we don”t have to face such a difficult situation as Jesus faced. Let us hope that our flesh and blood will not present us with a dilemma like the one Shigemori faced. But if we do find ourselves in such a situation, we must remember what Jesus did. He followed God despite his family. But he never stopped loving his family. Do you think that was what your fathers and mothers did at the time of the Church Union? It is good to honour them by believing that our parents followed their conviction. We should follow their examples and pray that love overcomes every conflict.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A: REBECCA”S SONS: SECOND SUNDAY OF JULY

REBECCA”S SONS

Genesis 25-28, Psalm 119, Matthew 13:1-9

July 11, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

In 1945, the Allied Forces defeated Germany and Japan, and occupied those countries. I was a school boy in Tokyo. I remember the day when we had to cut out certain parts of our text books. We were told that some parts of them were untrue. Especially, we had to blotch out many parts of the history book. Nobody wants to see anyone talking about their ancestors as robbers and swindlers. So the Allied occupation forces wanted to erase all traces of the Japanese military propaganda about the Western countries.

Having gone through a radical alteration of history to make over a image of the past, I find the story of Rebecca and her two sons quite amazing, because it does not hide the shady characters of their own ancestors. Jacob was the first ancestor of a nation. And Essau was the ancestor of the Edomites. But the Bible speaks about Jacob as a fraud and a scam artist, and Essau a moron. Normally, a history book praises the virtues of the forefather like Jacob and his mother like Rebecca, and hide or minimize their dark side. But the Bible, the sacred history of the people of Israel, totally decimates Jacob”s respectability. If a history book makes people feel ashamed of the founder of the nation, it should be banned under the normal circumstances.

And Jacob, what a sleazeball he was! He was the kind of scam artist who rips off senior citizens and skips the town. And his mother was a partner in the crime! Yet, he became the founder of the nation, who changed his name to "Israel", which became the name of the people of a nation. Rebecca was then in her sixties. She loved Jacob. He was gentle, good looking with pale smooth skins, loved cooking, stayed home to look after mother”s sheep, and was clever like Mama Rebecca.

Essau, on the other hand, was everything Jacob was not. He was hairy, a ruddy-faced outdoor”s man. Poppa Isaac loved Essau, because he was a real man”s man Isaac wanted to be. Isaac was, by then, in his eighties. Essau”s idea of good time was to spend days in the wild hunting animals. Most people would prefer Essau to Jacob. He was big, bluff, easy-going, a man without deception. But he had no brain for some of the sophisticated aspects of civilized life like entitlement, inheritance, promises, or tradition. He had no patience to think what”s more important than his stomach. One day, he was desperately hungry. So, he gave away what he was entitled to as the elder son for mere a bowl of stew. What a sucker! A nice guy though. A bit simple like children. A child can not see the long term benefits, so does not wait. But Essau, he was a grown man. He should have known better.

Some people interpret this story of Essau and Jacob as a proof that God favoured the people of Israel over other peoples. They see it as a proof that mind is superior to passion. I don”t agree with this view. God”s judgement was on both Essau and Jacob. Jacob and Rebecca deceived the aging and blind Isaac, and seemed to have snatched the inheritance away from Essau. But what did Jacob gain from his deception? Nothing! In fact, he had to run for his life, away from Essau”s wrath, and had to live in a foreign country in servitude, for fourteen years. If Essau and Jacob gained anything from their experiences, they gained wisdom. They had to live with the consequences of their mistakes and wrong doings, and learned important lessons about God”s way. Both of them received God”s blessing equally in the end.

The Bible is a collection of records of people”s struggles as they tried to live according to the will of God. So the Bible had to be totally honest about people”s strength and weaknesses. If you are looking for perfect people in the Bible, you will be disappointed. Basically, it tells you how imperfect humans are. Instead, you can learn how just and loving God is. As we go on to read other stories in the history of Israel, you will find that the Bible tells you more about disgusting human behaviours. The Bible is full of stories of conflicts and intrigues, murders and rapes, polygamy, adulteries and even incests. In fact, it can easily be banned from the school libraries, if people read the whole Bible seriously. But they don”t. So, it collects dust safely on the book shelf. Those of us who read it, read it selectively. So we don”t run into the stories which raise embarrassing questions. But if we do, we will have hard time explaining some stories of the Bible to children.

I was once challenged by a Communist friend when I was still a student. He denounced the Bible as an unethical book and people in the Bible were disgusting. Of course, I tried very hard to defend the honour of the Bible. But to my embarrassment, he knew the Bible much better than I did. I knew only the parts I learned in the Sunday School and heard in the worship services. I did not know many passages, that described the evil and immoral deeds committed by many familiar Biblical characters. I didn”t realize that the Bible exposed the human conditions so frankly. As I grew older, I found the Bible embarrassingly closer to reality around us.

The Bible tells us how God has interacted with people. It is the book about God. It honestly described people as they were, good and evil. It also tells us how deeply and faithfully God love us, in spite of our repeated failures and unfaithfulness. It is the Holy Bible not because it has many stories of good people, but because it is a book that tells us how wonderful God was with people who had many shortcomings.

This is why we learn so much about God from a story like the stories of Isaac and Rebecca, Essau and Jacob, no matter how they were weak and deceitful. God loved them all so much that he never gave up on them. God loves us so much that he sent Jesus to us, who died on the cross for us. Let us see what”s going to happen to Rebecca”s son Jacob, next Sunday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

C: YOU CAN”T BUY RELIGION LIKE YOU BUY A CAR

YOU CAN NOT BUY A RELIGION LIKE YOU BUY A CAR

2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14, Psalm 146, Luke 9:51-62

June 28, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

The famous New York Yankees catcher, Yogi Berra once said, "If you don”t know where you”re going, you”ll never get there." The best way to walk straight is to keep looking at a distant object and stride towards it. If you look at only a few feet away or keep looking backwards to check if you have walked straight, you probably will take a longer curved route or may even end up going around a circle. I heard a story about a man, who decided to have a long walk at night during a blinding blizzard in the Northern wilderness. He never came back. His frozen body was found only a few feet away from the camp. It was clear from his foot marks that he just went around a circle all night. I don”t think that was his intention. I am sure he was desperately trying to find the base camp.

Today”s Gospel begins with a sentence, "Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem." Why did Jesus decide to leave Galilee where he was so successful in his ministry? Thousands of people were following him everywhere he went. Yet, why was he determined to go to Jerusalem where there were many hostile people. This story teaches us something about the importance of setting a goal and of commitment to it, no matter how much it costs. In the place of the expression "He set his face..", some interpreters of the Bible used expressions like "he stiffened his face towards.." or "he fixed his face resolutely towards.." They are all saying that Jesus was determined to stride towards a destination which required sacrifices. The point of this passage is that faith is a commitment. It is not like going for shopping. There can not be detour or turning back. It is more like having a family. Once you have a family, you have no choice of who your parents are, who your children are. Family is not a matter of choosing what you like or dislike. Family is a matter of faithfulness and of love. You can not change your mind and ask for refund for your parent or for your child. Likewise, faith is a matter of commitment.

Furthermore, commitment means setting priorities for the sake of a goal. Therefore, it means giving up some things in order to go forward towards the direction you have committed yourself. Here Luke recorded three examples of what you should give up.

First of all, Jesus pointed out to us that a faithful person is a traveller who is always on a move to reach a destination. A traveller always has to leave things behind. On the way to Jerusalem, people in Samaria wished Jesus and his company would stay with them, because they liked what they heard of him. Therefore, they were not happy to hear that Jesus was determined to go to Jerusalem. So Jesus said, "Sorry." and moved on to the next village. That sounds not very nice on the part of Jesus. But we must realize that in the pursuit of our goal, we have to say "Good-bye" sometimes. Parents must know that, when their children grow up and leave home. Teachers must know that, too.

When someone you love dies, you have to say an ultimate "Good-bye" and leave the dead behind. When one of his followers asked him to wait for him because he had to bury his father, Jesus said, "Let the dead bury the dead." It sounds terrible. But it shows that Jesus trusted God and that his priority was with the living. Jesus was saying, "Your beloved one is already with God. What better place can there be for him? Leave the dead to God, and let us attend to the living. There are still many people who need to know the love of God." Jesus teaches us an art of letting go of the things that are beyond our control, in order to keep on moving towards the goals in the world of the living.

Lastly, Jesus warned us of the danger of looking back. He said, "Once you have started to plough, you can not keep looking back to attend the things you left behind or forgot." If you keep looking backwards, you will never get your job done. Remembering the past is sweet. But the past can not be a shackle that stops you to move forward. The past has to be the foundation on which you build a future. The past has to teach you lessons, and should not be a distraction.

Religion is a commitment. It involves the whole life, totally. And there is no turning back. It is not a shopping trip to pick and choose what you like, and ask for refund afterwards when you change your mind. You can not buy a religion like you buy a car. Religion is not like the flavour of the week. It is a commitment. We are Christians, and are committed to follow the way of God through the teaching and the example set by Jesus Christ. Let us move forward and let the past look after itself.

 

 

 

 

 

YEAR B : MAKING SOMETHING OUT OF NOTHING – EPIPHANY 1

Making something out of nothing

Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Mark 1:4-11

January 8, 2006 by Tad Mitsui

I was once locked up in solitary confinement for 72 hours. It was during the bad old days of apartheid in South Africa. Racial discrimination was the law. I was going mad not because I was locked up but because I had too much time and nothing else. There was no book nor paper to read, no radio nor TV, not even a window to look out. Each minute felt like hours. I could not cope with having too much time. Time became my torturer. I had been so hooked to print, sight, and sound that without anything to read, listen, or watch, I was going crazy. As a minister, I should have been able to enjoy time meditating or praying. I am ashamed to say that I wasn’t able to do that. I had lost capability to live alone by myself because I was used to living with too much stuff. Today, we are drowned in images, prints, and sounds, and lost the art of memorizing poems and stories; and making things out of nothing.

The book of Genesis says that before God created the world, there was nothing but a formless void in the darkness. God created the world out of nothing. He did not buy the world in the shopping mall, neither did he assembled the world from a kit nor like a dinner from a frozen package. He made it out of nothing. We too can create something out of nothing. God created us according to his image. We are like God to some extent. Our creativity is God’s image in us. Unfortunately, more and more our society is turning us into buyers and clients of things made by some other people. Many of us no longer use our creativity. After God created the world one creature at a time, he looked at it and said, "That’s good!" There is an enormous pleasure in creating things out of nothing.

One of the joys of living in small communities like Southern Alberta is to find people still making things. You bake cookies and pies, and knit woolen mitten and socks. You entertain yourselves playing music and attending concerts by local choirs. But you must admit that likes of a lot of people in our community is rare nowadays. In big cities, many people don’t make things any more. One day in Toronto at a supermarket check-out counter, a woman in her thirties who stood behind me asked me what I was going to do with a sack of flour on my cart. She had no idea that she could make bread, cookies and pies out of flour.

Today many people buy everything ready-made including entertainment and sports. Today, sports for many people are not something you play. Sports is watching other people play sports. Entertainment for them is to sit and let other people entertain them. They don’t entertain themselves any more. They don’t make things any more. They buy everything ready made. They don’t remember the art of creation any more. Many people don’t know what to do with formless void any more. Many of us lost ability to make something out of nothing. We lost God in us.

Inability of many people today to cope with formless void is a very serious problem of our society. We ask what we can get without asking what we can do. Many people take the same attitude towards the church. Prof. Reg Bibby at the U of L found that most Canadians are still religious but they look for spiritual fulfilment in the same way as they go out for a good bargain in the shopping mall. They have no idea that religion is something they work on. They forget that the church is a community that we create. We can create good governments too, if we participate in the political process. That will make politicians more accountable to us. We complain about corruption in politics, but ignore the fact that many us don’t care about it. They don’t even bother to vote in the elections. A teenager said to me once, "The church is fun when you do stuff with friends together." A hockey game is a lot more fun if your child is playing in it than watching it on a TV where a bunch of millionaires fooling around on ice. If you are in it yourself, it can be irresistible – it can be almost like a religion. It all comes down to rediscovering the joy of creating something yourself.

Every morning in a village in Africa where I lived, a long queue was formed in front of a nearby Mission Hospital. First thing in the morning, a senior nurse came out to do a quick triage to make sure the serious cases of illness were taken care of first. Then, a long wait began for the rest of the people. All of them came with food and drink to last the whole day. Yet, I have never seen a happier group of people. Most of them enjoyed visiting each other. Inevitably, some people would start to sing which became chorus when others joined. Some of them would dance with chorus. They knew how to amuse themselves with little. They never lost of the art of making something out of nothing. They never lost an ability to enjoy each others’ company. They might be poor, but richer than we are in creativity. We, on the other hand, lost an ability to enjoy each others’ company.

The closer you get to the way God created the world out of nothing, the happier you will be doing it. We must rediscover the joy of making something out of time you have with friends; of pieces of material, yards of wool, or a sack of flour. God looked at the formless void in the darkness with twinkle in the eyes thinking of all the things that he could create. If we lose sight of that joy of creation, we will all be customers and clients of the society someone else runs – couch potatoes who only know how to complain. We will no longer be citizens nor members. We must repent.

When a group of people, be it a husband and wife or a friends, can enjoy each others’ company with nothing to do in particular, it’s a sign of good relationship. It is time for us to rediscover creativity we have lost on the way to become civilized. God created the world out of nothing and was very happy with what he made. We should do the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A : YOU DON”T GO ANYWHERE, IF YOU PLAY IT SAFE. – SECOND SUN DAY OF AUGUST

LETTING GO OF OUR CRUTCH

MATTHEW 14 : 22 – 33, MARK 6 : 45 – 52

AUGUST 11, 1996, BY TAD MITSUI

Was it Winston Churchill who once said, "All we have to fear is fear itself"? Fear is, in most cases, the fear of the unknown. Once you know what it is that you are afraid of, it often turns out to be a simple thing. This is why it is important to learn to get out of a familiar place and to experience new things. You may find that there is nothing to be afraid of. Because we are often hesitant to let go of familiar things, we are gripped by fear of things that we don”t know too much about and become paralysed. The Gospel writer gave us a lesson about the power of faith in the face of fear by telling the story of Jesus walking on water.

Most of the people who read this story usually pay a lot of attention to a supernatural aspect of the story. "How could Jesus walk on water?" And often a miracle such as this is referred to as proof that Jesus Christ was the son of God. So if I may, I want to digress a little here and deal with the question of miracles.

To me, the question about whether miracles really happened or not is not important. I don”t object if some people see it as a proof that Jesus is the son of God. But to me, it isn”t the proof. Jesus was the saviour and the Lord, because of the way he loved us and not because he performed miracles. Besides miracles are rather common place in ancient literatures. If you read old stories from different cultures, you will know that miracle stories were a literary style many ancient people adopted. Even in the Bible there were many accounts of miracles performed by various people. There are even accounts of a contest between an Egyptian and Moses as to who performed better and more impressive miracles. And there are a few other similar stories in the Old Testament. They wrote those miracle stories to get some points across. They were not all that concerned about the factual details.

In recent years, we began to trust the scientific method and adopted scientific way of seeing things. In doing so, we have developed a rather unfortunate tendency to judge nature of truth scientifically at the expense of other human aspects. And if a story of an event is not a historical fact, we dismiss it as something as not true. That is very unfortunate. By doing so, we become unable to understand many human qualities that are important and real to us. There are many truly human experiences that can be expressed only in metaphors and mythical language. A man praises his wife he has been married to for sixty years, and says "She is as beautiful as the woman I dated sixty years ago." It is very touching. Surely nobody would dismiss such a comment as only silly words from an old man. We understand what he means. But as long as we use only shallow standards of factuality, objectivity, and visibility, we have become disabled human beings. We are no longer able to keep in touch with our deepest feelings and understand those of others. Miracle stories help us to recover one of our most important human faculties. We must recover our ability to communicate in depth about human realities through mythical language.

So let”s not worry about whether you can walk on water or not. That is not the point of the story. The points of today”s Gospel are about fear, letting go, and salvation from fear. Let me make three points:

1. Danger is often about perceptions. If you know what you are dealing with and what you are doing about it, often there is no danger. Wind and waves, especially on a small lake like the Galilee, are not dangerous. They become dangerous when we are afraid of them. The disciples who were left to their own devices, because Jesus wanted to be alone, were feeling left out and became afraid of wind and waves. Even when they saw Jesus approaching them, he became a cause of their fear. They thought it was a ghost.

Ignorance is often a cause of fear. We used to be afraid of many diseases, for example. The most of them are no longer causes of fear because we know what they are now. I noticed that in the remote villages of Africa where people were not exposed to modern western medicine, even a slight headache was a reason for a great concern. They were more sick than they should be, because they did not know what troubled them. In the mean time, they did not make as much fuss as we do about visible external injuries. It was kind of strange for me to notice that so long as they could see blood, they worried less than when they had internal pain. It is a case of fear of unknown.

Death and fear of death is another example. Death is as natural as life itself. But we fear death, because we don”t know what it is and what lies beyond. Knowledge can eliminate some fear. But we can not know everything. This is why faith and trust play a crucial role in allowing us to be free of fear and go forward. The more you trust someone who gives you assurance, the less you fear to go into a new passage of your life. Even death no longer is a cause of crippling fear, if we know what it is and where we will go after that.

2. Help does come when you are gripped with fear and can not cope, just like Jesus who came to the disciples on the lake. But the question is again whether we trust the helper and take the help or let it pass by because of distrust. Help does not fall into your lap when you just sit and do nothing. When the disciples saw Jesus coming to them, they thought that they were seeing a ghost. But when he spoke to them, "Do not be afraid. It is me." They were not afraid any longer. Help does come often in the most unexpected way. Walking on the water may sound incredible. But likewise, many difficult situations are resolved in some unexpected ways. The question is whether we trust the helper or not. That is the most important question. You have to take initiative to seize the opportunity. It does not impose itself on you. Mark”s Gospel tell the same story but has one interesting sentence which is not in Matthew”s account. It says, "Jesus came towards them walking on water. He intended to pass them by." Because fear is the result of your own perception, the resolution to overcome fear must come from your own initiative. You have to take it. Otherwise, the opportunity to go beyond the fear passes you by. God is the help in times of need, but you have to take action to take it.

3. Then you have to let go of some crutches, if you should go forward. Peter tried, and got off the boat managing the first few steps that had seemed impossible. Yes, Peter started to sink after a few steps, because he was not so sure about this "walking on water" business. But the first few steps must be taken. And Peter took them. In order to do that, you have to get off the boat. Remember when you first started on your two wheel bicycle, or went solo driving a car? You have to do it by yourself. No one can do it for you. Yes, the first few days or weeks, you do fall off the bike or scratch the side of the car. But that is the only way to get rid of the fear of the unknown, to learn a few lessons, and to go forward. But first you must learn to let go of things. For ceratin, we fail a few times. But that is natural. This is how God helps us to learn the lessons of life: you can”t walk on water unless you get off the boat. And when you do, you sink into water once or twice. We must learn not to feel too bad about our mistakes.

A man approached a farmer who was sitting on a front porch, and asked, "How”s your wheat coming along?" "Didn”t plant none." was the reply. "Really. Why?" "Afraid it would rain too much", said the farmer.

"Oh! Well, how”s your corn?" "Ain”t got none." "You didn”t plant corn either?" "Nope

A: MOM CROSSES THE FRONTIERS – EASTER 6 (MOTHER”S DAY)

MOM CROSSES THE FRONTIERS

I Peter 3:13-22, Psalm 66 , John 14:15-21

May 12, 1996, by Tad Mitsui

A minister shakes many hands. As I shake hands with you after the service, I have noticed that mothers” grips become stronger – especially first time mothers – as their babies grow bigger and heavier. And their muscles on the arms grow as well. Likewise, all of us grow stronger as we adjust to the added strain of new conditions or different environments. But doing something new which calls upon the development of different muscles can be a painful process. In today”s epistle, Peter spoke about suffering you go through for doing what was right. And he said that we should not be afraid nor be intimidated, because it is a blessing, a good sign – a sure sign that you are spiritually growing.

We keep growing throughout our lives. And there are three aspects of growth we should be aware of. We grow biologically, socially, and spiritually.

All living things grow continually. This is biological growth. All living cells constantly divide and renew themselves. Living things grow until they die. When they stop growing, it is a sign that the process of dying has begun. Every process of growth is a process of change – a process of renewing living cells. And all changes are accompanied with some degree of pain. Some growing pains are slight and some of them are severe. You must remember those sleepless nights you suffered with your babies, when they were teething. The thrust of a growing tooth breaking through layers of membrane, like an grown fetus eager to become an independent baby pushing its way through the birth passage out of the mother”s womb, is a painful process. You must also remember the pain you suffered each time a wisdom tooth emerged. They are all part of growing. They are never so severe that you can not bear the pain. God does not design for us to be in pain we can not bear. So it is the same with strain on a mother”s arms as her baby grows each day. Mom”s body must grow stronger to stay fit to care for the baby.

Just like a physical pain is bound to accompany many kinds of biological growth, we all must go through some degree of emotional stress as we grow socially. When you grew out of Elementary School and move to High School, when you met a boy and got married, or went through any other passages of your life, you likely went through some pains of emotional adjustment. When you move to an unfamiliar community, the stress level doubles until you become adjusted to the new environment. Moving to another country, where they don”t speak the same language, and there is no McDonald”s restaurant, can be one of the most stressful experiences. This is why crossing the frontiers is often used as a metaphor for a test of courage and endurance. But Peter”s message is that we all can successfully endure the test and grow into another phase of our life”s journey.

Not only do we grow biologically and socially, we also must grow spiritually. Peter speaks about the inevitability of pain you have to go through for being good. When you are good, and are rewarded for being good, you are naturally encouraged to continue to be good persons. But life is not always like that. Peter warned us about people who would demand explanations for some of our good deeds, because they don”t understand us or don”t agree with us. People, in other times, may even abuse you and slander you for being good, according to Peter. Do you remember as a teenager the peer pressure to conform to what your friends expected? If you defy the conventions of your peers, even when you are doing the right thing, you get punished for stepping out of bounds. Do you remember that? It is a painful experience. As a mature member of the society, sometimes you feel that you must take an unpopular position, standing alone among your friends. It can be very uncomfortable experience. Unlike emotional adjustment required to fit in socially, spiritual growth is something you often have to do alone with the only support from God. But you grow spiritually when you endure the pain of social ostracism in order to keep your integrity. You must grow into another stage of spiritual equilibrium, even if that means you find yourself temporarily alone, crossing the frontiers into uncharted land.

Being alone in an unknown land sounds very difficult. But fortunately God has given us all gifts of talent – the ability to love as parents do. We all have the capacity to love our children. Some of us may not have our own children but our love of children is instinctive. It is a good start. In fact it is a wonderful start on our spiritual journey, because capacity to love our children enables us to see the inevitable stress in loving as an incentive. Parents by instinct love their children, even if loving them is sometimes difficult and painful. We can use the model of parental love as a starting point for our journey of spiritual growth. One of the gifts of such love is its unconditional nature. We love our children, no matter what others say about them and no matter how unlovable our children are in the eyes of others. All children are beautiful and lovable in the eyes of the parents. We don”t mind being alone in our love of our children. Social ostracism does not interfere with such love. We go on loving our children no matter what society says. We can learn to be good no matter how much abuse we face by imitating the parental love.

Sometimes we hear in news stories of crimes how parents never stop defending their criminal children. You may wonder how they can do it. You may accuse them for failing to properly bring up their children. But you must admit that there is something very touching about their unconditional love. Sometimes, like in the case of David Milgaar”s mother who believed in the innocence of her son, justice in the end found its way and proved his innocence. However we must improve the way we love, so that we love more wisely. Blind love may be a start, but not good enough. Love must grow. When we mature in our love, we will be able to forgive the ones who cause pain in us. The last prayers of Jesus and Stephen before they died are the best examples of the love which reached the level of divine love. Both of them prayed to God that the perpetrators who were causing their painful deaths be forgiven. Were they fools? Maybe. But is this not the reason why Paul said of the crucified Christ, that he was a fool in the eyes of those who sought the wisdom of this world. But to those who are called to be the followers of Christ, Jesus symbolises an ultimate power and wisdom of God. Our world badly needs people with the talent of mature love who don”t mind making fool of themselves by being good, by forgiving and loving. Jesus was like that. Likewise was Stephen. And many mothers are like that.

Let us thank God on this Mother”s day for the gift of capacity to love, which God has endowed us with abundantly. We have an incentive to begin our journey of spiritual growth with joy, because it is a joy to love our children. But we must expand parental love into the wider world. We may encounter some stress on the way. But we can endure it knowing that there is blessing and joy at the end of each stage of our growth. This is how we grow stronger, just like a mothers” hands do in order to lift and hold a growing child. It is all part of our continual growing up.

YEAR A: GOODNESS OR RIGHTEOUSNESS? – FIRST WEEK OF JUNE

TO BE GOOD OR TO BE RIGHT.

Genesis 12:1-9, Psalm 33 , Matthew 9:9-13

June 5, 2005, Picture Butte

I go to the same church where a certain infamous former-member of Lethbridge City Council worships with her family. However, I always admire the way my fellow worshippers rally around her and her family. They make it clear that she has friends. This gesture must give her tremendous sustenance in a community where many people still say and write terrible things about her. Their act of kindness very much follows the example set by our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus never made the past an issue, when he made friends.

When we can not reconcile what is good and what is right, we often choose mistakenly righteousness as the Christian way not goodness. In this respect, Jesus often surprises us, because he didn’t first ask what’s right, but asked what’s good.

Matthew was a tax collector. But Jesus not only had dinner with him, but also made him his disciple. No wonder the righteous people like Pharisees were appalled. When Jesus was living, the Roman occupation authorities contracted selected Jewish persons to administer taxation on a commission basis. In other words, tax collection was privatized. The tax collectors invented many methods to impose taxes. Many of them took bribes, pounced on the poor and weak who could not complain, and often made fortunes by ruthlessly imposing taxes thus getting fat commissions. They were not only corrupt, but also sinners and unclean in religion. They belonged to the same class with lepers, prostitutes, and thieves. They were not allowed to attend religious services. They were also traitors working for the enemy. They became rich but they were outcasts. Of course, they had no friends.

But there must have been those who were just doing a job to earn a living? There were less corrupt and would have loved to be accepted by society. Matthew must have been one of them. This is why, when he was called to be Jesus’ disciple, he had no hesitation to follow him, leaving his job and money behind. The encounter with open-minded Jesus gave him courage to get out of a profitable but questionable occupation.

From time to time, we run into a situation where we find ourselves in a bad company but do not have courage to get out. Jesus understood of people like Matthew. And if you feel the pain of conscience, Jesus, like a doctor, can help you. But if you don”t feel guilt, no one can help you. This is why it is so important to admit that there is a problem in your life and to recognize that you are in need of help.

This is the problem of the people who consider themselves righteous like Pharisees when Jesus was living. They don’t acknowledge that there is any problem in their lives. They are proud to be righteous, and they forget to be good people. They are too busy being right and forget to be loving and kind. They are law-abiding but heartless. They forget that laws are instruments of justice and mercy. Laws that are not applied with justice and mercy are like the tools you don’t know how to use. The worst problem, however, is the fact that they don’t see any problem in obeying laws faithfully without being loving.

Paul described this state of empty piety in his letter to Corinthians, "If I have all knowledge of God”s words, ability to preach wonderful sermons, faith to move mountains, charity to give everything including life itself, but if I don”t have love, I am nothing." If we do not have kindness and mercy in our hearts, any visible signs of righteousness can be an empty shell. We are easily be hypocrites.

If you are totally convinced that you have no problem in your life, you are worse than those who have problems and regret it. People who know the pain of guilt have a much better chance of being made whole. If you do not admit that you have a problem, no one can help you. If you think that you know everything you need to know, the world is closed for you. You slam the door and shut yourself out of future. Then no one can help you.

This is why Jesus thought that the sinners, who knew that there was something wrong with them, had far better chance of being saved than the righteous people who believed that they needed no help. He said, "A healthy person does not need a doctor." Furthermore, sick persons who do not acknowledge their illness have absolutely no chance of getting better because they never agree to go to the doctor. They closed the door to health by themselves. Pain of guilt is a signal. Through pain, God tells you that you need to seek help, to change and to grow.

Justice and righteousness must be applied mercifully. Laws must be based on love. We must remind ourselves that Jesus was a good and loving person. And he tells us to be good persons too.

Let us not be afraid to acknowledge our problems and weaknesses. Also let us accept those who are honest about their weaknesses. Then there is an opening for God to come into your lives.

 

 

B: MARK OF LEADERSHIP – FIRST SUNDAY OF JULY

THE MARK OF LEADERSHIP

II Samuel 5:1-5, Psalm 48, Mark 6:1-13

July 6, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

On the TV last week many times, we saw the Queen, Prince Charles, and Jiang Zemin – the President of China. They reminded me of today”s passages from II Samuel, the Biblical story was about choosing a king. Of those three, if we must, whom would we choose to be the head of our country? Jiang Zemin, Prince Charles, or Queen Elizabeth? Prince Charles may be a nice guy, but he has to sort out his personal life before he wins my respect. Jiang Zemin? I guess not. I don”t want anyone like him who would send in troops to the demonstrators, as he did in Tianamein Square. I suppose I will have to settle with the Queen Elizabeth, not because she is brilliant or charismatic, which she is not, but because she is a gracious and faithful servant of God.

In our religious tradition, we always have problems with anyone holding power over other people. Basically we believe that only God is above us, and do not accept unconditionally any human being exercising power over us. This is why in our faith tradition we have never accepted the notion of an absolute monarchy. Chinese emperors claimed that they were gods. Roman emperors did the same and claimed that they were perfect. The early Christians never accepted that any human could be a god. This was why they were persecuted and were often killed. We believe also that no human being has the right to claim absolute power, neither do we accept anyone is absolutely right. The idea that no one is above other people is firmly entrenched in our tradition.

Where, then, does the idea come from that a human being can be a king, and can rule other people? According to the Bible, it did not come from God. In fact, the prophet Samuel tells us that when Hebrew people wanted to have a king like other nations, God did not like the idea. But people insisted. They thought that strong leadership, in a form of something like a monarchy, was necessary to win the war. So Samuel chose in his life time two men and anointed them kings. The first one was Saul. Then was David.

We notice two important points in this process. First, only God has the absolute authority, and all other authorities are given to some chosen people in trust. Secondly, people must give a clear mandate to those chosen ones. In other words, human leadership is given conditionally. You see, in Hebrew tradition, before the introduction of a monarchy in their political system, the word "King" was reserved only for God . The Hebrews, throughout their history, always called God by a generic word for "Lord" or "king". Because it was prohibited to misuse the name of God, they dropped the vowels from the proper name of God and have symbolized it with three letters; YHW. Whenever they came to those three letters when reading the scriptures, they always said "adonai" which meant "Lord or King". In time, they forgot how the name of God was pronounced. Christians began to use the words like "Jehovah" and "Yahweh" for God”s name. But those names are purely educated guesses. The truth is that nobody knows for sure what the original proper name of the Hebrew God was. I am saying all this to show you how strongly the forbearers of our faith believed that there should be nobody above us except God, who alone is the King and the Lord in the true sense of the word.

Consequently, none of the Hebrew kings was an absolute monarch. The Hebrew king was bound by the dual mandate; a mandate from God and a mandate from people. After king Saul died, David did not assume his authority over all tribes of the Hebrew nation automatically. For seven years, he ruled only the Southern part of Palestine called Judea. Seeing how well his kingdom was run, people in the North, which was known as Israel, came to ask David to be their "shepherd". In other words, they wanted their king to be a caregiver just like a shepherd who looked after the sheep. At last, for the first time in many years, squabbling tribes of the Hebrews were united. And his reign lasted for forty years, thirty-three years of which was over the united kingdom.

David was not a perfect man, as we will discover later this month. He made many mistakes. Despite his faults, he never lost a keen sense of his duty to God and to people. He described God the King as a shepherd in Psalm 23rd. The poem was like a motto for him to remind himself of his own duties to the people. The king is like a shepherd. A true leader sees to it that all necessities of the people are provided, stays with his people at the time of darkness, even of death, and leads them with love and justice. You can see the progression of the image of the king from a mighty Lord strong in battles to a merciful and just caregiver – a shepherd. We should also look at our political leaders in the same light, and should challenge them when they fall short. When we see the pathetic scenes our politicians create in Ottawa, I wish that more leaders would take the Psalm 23 seriously to describe their duties.

So that was how David became the model king, the anointed one. The united kingdom of the Hebrews lasted only for two generations of kings; David”s son was the last king. After King Solomon died, the kingdom fell apart, never to regain its unity. So in the tortured history of the Jewish people, the return of a David figure has become the national dream. They have always waited for the coming of the Messiah. The Messiah means in Hebrew the anointed one, the true king chosen by God. The Messiah would covenant with people to bring justice and peace. The Jews are still waiting for the coming of the Messiah. We, Christians, in the meantime, believe that the Messiah came in the person of Jesus. The Messiah has come for all peoples on the earth. This is why the word was translated into Greek, which was the universal language at the time like English is today, and became "Christ", signifying that God has sent the Messiah – the Christ to bring justice and peace to all peoples.

For us, Jesus the Christ is the true King – the Lord. Jesus came to us also as a lamb. We see yet again a progression of the image of leadership. First, God, the only king, was the law maker who knew completely what was right and wrong. Then, the king became the shepherd – a caregiver, who was just and merciful. Lastly, Jesus, the ultimate leader is described in the image of a lamb, the one who rules with sacrificial love. The lamb reminds of the animal which was killed to save the people at the time of escape from Egypt. Jesus, though he was God came to us by humbling himself to be like one of us. He suffered injustice and died on our behalf. This, for us, is the ultimate mark of leadership. Imagine telling that to Chretien and Bouchard?

 

 

B: DAVID AND JONATHAN – FIFTH SUNDAY OF JUNE

DAVID AND JONATHAN WERE TRUE FRIENDS

I Samuel 18-20, Psalm 130, Mark 5:21-43

June 29, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

I am sure I am not wrong to say that men have more difficulty making friends than women. This is why I find the story of David and Jonathan so remarkable. David and Jonathan were good friends against all odds. They truly loved each other, even though it was more natural for them to be killing each other. Instead, theirs is a touching story of two devoted friends. Let us see what we can learn about the love that made such a friendship possible. I will mention two important features of the story.

First of all, true friendship overcomes all negative conditions. Secondly, such love can only come from unmovable faith in God.

David and Jonathan lived in the context that should have made them rivals and arch-enemies. They were both skilful and popular military leaders. They both had legitimate claims on the throne. Jonathan was the legitimate heir to the throne, because his father was the king. However, David had the divine right to succeed Saul, and knew that God was not pleased with King Saul. King Saul meanwhile was a sick man – sick in the mind. He felt very insecure, so was very unstable, jealous, and prone to frequent bouts of depression. He even tried to kill his own son by throwing a javelin at Jonathan, when he found that Jonathan was a popular military leader after a spectacularly successful campaign. So you can imagine how Saul felt about David. We don”t know if Saul knew that David was chosen to be the next king, but certainly he knew that David was an excellent all round leader, and was popular. Even though David”s loyalty to the king was beyond any doubt, and even though David provided great comfort with his music and poetry when he was depressed, Saul”s jealousy was deadly to David.

There was also a regional rivalry factor at work. Jonathan and his father King Saul were people from the North – called Israel. They were used to fertile land of green hills and fields, with plentiful water in the river and lakes. People were farmers and fishers in the North. On the other hand, David”s native land was a dry rugged and rocky country of Judeah, where people were herdsmen in search of grass and water for animals. Because Jerusalem was in the land of Judeah, the South became the religious and political centre of the nation. A city developed, and its business and commerce attracted many people. Even though they belonged to the same nation, those regional differences made the Israeli and Judeans jealous siblings among the children of Abraham and Sarah.

Despite all this, David and Jonathan became best of friends. The Bible said that they loved each other very much. When David heard about Jonathan”s death by the hand of the Philistine, he wrote a heart wrenching song. "The beauty of Israel is slain upon the hills:…Oh, Jonathan, you were slain in that hill. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan:…your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." Incidentally, this last phrase is very telling, because David”s many relationships with women were exploitative. They showed that he did not understand women”s love very well. Anyhow, coming back to David and Jonathan; even though their interests collided head on, their friendship never wavered. Jonathan often pleaded with his father to stop pursuing David. Jonathan risked provoking king”s wrath by doing this.

One place I know where men bond like David and Jonathan did without involving alcohol or sex is in battles. Most of the soldiers sacrifice their lives for the sake of their buddies, not for the sake of some invisible lofty ideal like patriotism or defense of democracy. It is friendship and personal loyalty that makes men brave. Ask any veteran. They share same the bad food and rough living conditions, and become comrades ready to spare no expense to protect each other. Often we become friends for the sake of common goal like we do in the same work place. Competition does not encourage friendship between adversaries and competitors. In men”s service clubs like Kiwanis, Lions, or Rotary clubs, three topics are prohibited in conversation: business, politics and religion. Those topics can wreck friendship and harmony, because of conflicting interests.

In our faith, we believe that God”s commandment to love each other goes beyond all barriers and conflicts of interests. Some religions believe that life is one long battle between two opposing values like good and bad. We don”t share that belief. We believe in a God who embraces everything and everybody, good and bad. We believe that love enables us to forgive and forget. Love makes friendship overcome the conditions that divide people and drive them to hatred of each other. David and Jonathan loved each with that kind of love and overcame all the conditions that should have made them enemies.

This leads us to the next point. Such a highly elevated state of love, as the friendship between David and Jonathan, must have come from their deep faith in God. You see, both men had the highest respect for God”s action. No matter how insane King Saul became, David never lost respect for the fact that Saul was the anointed king according to God”s plan. Jonathan held the same respect for David for the same reason. Both men believed deeply in the providence of God. No matter how many times opportunities presented themselves where they could destroy their rivals, they never raised their hands to harm God”s chosen ones.

During the time when Saul was pursuing David, at least twice David had the opportunity to kill the king. Once David was hiding in a cave surrounded by men loyal to him. Saul came into the cave to relieve himself. It was so easy to attack him in such a compromising position. In fact, David”s men, in whispers, urged him to kill the king. They were eager to save the nation from an incompetent and insane king. But David didn”t, out of respect for the God”s anointed. Instead, he stealthily cut a piece out of King”s garment from behind the rock. He sent it to Saul to show him that he had a chance to kill him, but didn”t. Saul was touched by this and regretted his anger towards David. Of course, that period of calm did not last long. Saul began to pursue David again with his army. David again became an exile. Several hundred men deserted Saul”s army and followed him. They admired David”s leadership qualities. David became a powerful wandering warlord, with a band of many loyal fighting men. It would have been easy to defeat King”s army in its dispirited state. But David didn”t. One night, in order to impress the King with his loyalty, he sneaked into the tent where Saul was sleeping. He took the King”s spear which laid by his head and a water jar by his side. Next morning, he sent the two articles back to prove his loyalty to the king. Saul was again very sorry for his foolishness and repented. But time had run out for King Saul. Because of Saul”s irrational behaviour, it was easy for the Philistines to defeat the demoralized Israeli army. Jonathan and his two other sons were killed by the Philistines and the King killed himself.

David had faith in God and firmly believed in the correctness of the divine plan. This is why he never thought of killing someone who was once chosen by God. He had a tremendous respect for the one God loved, even though such respect went against his own interest and welfare. Such a love comes only from the respect for God. This is the source of incredible friendship like the one between David and Jonathan. We are all the beloved children of God. Like David and Jonathan, let us love each other against all odds.

 

 

YEAR C: TWO BEGINNINGS – EPIPHANY 1

Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Luke 3:15-22

January 14, 2001 by Tad Mitsui

Three years ago, Premier Bouchard said at a press conferences that the ice storm was an act of God. Neither the Quebec Government nor Hydro Quebec could be blamed, because the government had no authority to tell God what to do, he said. I don”t agree with Premier Buchard on this. The Ice Storm of 1998 was a result of Global Warming, a result of many years of disregard of environment. We believe in God who loves us. I”m going to suggest, however, that the ice storm was an act of God" to remind us of who we really are. Through the wind and the rain and the ice and the cold, God called us by name and reminded us that we were creatures. We also got to know the love of God through the loving and caring community. In fact, the ice storm was one of my best memories of our life in Howick. We had a good time enjoying good neighbourliness. Difficulties helped us find good friends.

We tend to forget that we were created by God and we have many limitations. We separate ourselves from the world God created, and depend on what we invented and produced – such as electricity and other technologies and provide for our needs. Perhaps the real cause of our trouble in the ice storm of 1998 was our arrogance in believing that we had beaten nature. We forgot that God is in charge. Now we see clearly that science and technology is no match for the power of God”s creation. The best computer simulation program could not predict the kind of severe weather we experienced. Our barriers against the natural world collapsed! We had thought our science and technology had entitled us to the name of "masters of creation", yet the month of January in 1998 reminded us that we are only one of the members of creation after all. When we forget who we truly are–when we forget our God given names–we become arrogant.

In an old Chinese legend, there was once a giant monkey called Song Gohkou. After many years of rigorous training, he acquired amazing, almost supernatural ability and became a super monkey. He could defeat an army single handedly, and could travel thousand of miles in one second. One day he challenged God. He said he could travel so fast so far that he could get out of God”s hand and out of his reach. God said, "O.K. You try." So Song Gohkou ran so fast and as far as he could go. He got to a place he had never seen or heard about before. There he found a giant pole. He put his signature on the pole with big thick bold letters and came back. He told God what he did. Then, God showed him his middle finger, and asked, "Is this what you saw?" There was the super monkey”s signature, "Song Gohkou" written on it in his own writing.

We have made progress at the expense of gifts of the spirit. People do not think that personal spiritual qualities like kindness, patience, and strength to endure hardship are important any more. Instead, we buy more expensive appliances. We have lost a sense of being called by God by our names. A name gives one an identity. People know who you are by your name. Anonymity gives you freedom to go against God. Do you think that those people, who took advantage of the disaster situation, gouged others and profited excessively during the crisis, want their names advertised? Isaiah said, "God called Israel by name." Jesus heard a voice when he was baptized naming him as God”s favourite. Being called by God by your name means that we are basically a spiritual being.

Names are very important in the Bible. A name makes you special, different from others. When you are known by your name, you can not escape from responsibility. You behave irresponsibly when you are anonymous – nameless. This is why tourists often behave badly, because they think nobody knows them. You are called by name through Christ. You are identified as a Christian and an individual. Your first name is a Christian name. It gives you a place in the universe. You are known. You are expected to possess special spiritual quality and to behave in the certain specific ways. So when you want to do something unchristian, you have to hide your name. Thank God for the Christian names. Without spiritual qualities like kindness and love of friends and neighbours, many of us would not have survived the ice storm.

When you look around in the world today, many conflicts are caused by the question of identity, not by economics nor politics. People are fighting and killing each other because they think that their God given names are denied or snubbed. There are serious killings happening in Israel and Palestine between Jews and Muslims and Christians. We have not found the way to deal with the differences of names. The only way we know how to deal with difference is to conquer and eliminate those who bear different names.

Isaiah reminded people that God had called them by name, and he quoted God, "You are special, because I love you. And I will be with you always." You realize that calling people by their names is the same thing as sharing the warmth of a home with friends and neighbours during the ice storm. It is because knowing a person by name means that this person is special. But people have been doing the wrong thing by trying to defeat, conquer, and beat those who bear different names.

We must remind ourselves that we are all called by God. All of us have names. We are all special, because God loves us all by our names. We must remember that everyone has a name and is special. We all learn to behave like neighbours during the ice storm. The world will be a much better place, if we behaved like we did during the ice storm of 1998.

C: YOU FOOL, YOU WILL DIE TONIGHT! – FIRST SUNDAY OF AUGUST

YOU FOOL! TONIGHT, YOUR LIFE WILL BE TAKEN.

Luke 12:13-21

August 2, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

There was a man absolutely dedicated to fitness. He religiously ran, swam, lifted weights, ate high fibre foods, and avoided cholesterol. He died of a heart attack anyway. When he got to heaven, he was bitter and asked God, "Why?" But God said to him, "I didn”t know you were interested in me. You had never asked ”what for”, whatever you were doing." Jesus spoke about a man with a similar problem in today”s Gospel.

A wealthy farmer had a good year and harvested a big crop. He built a big new barn to store up all his newly acquired fortune. He was very happy. He said to himself, "I made it! I made it! I”m going to have a big party." And God said to him, "You fool! What if I call you home tonight. What can you show for yourself about your life? You have never asked ”what for” you were working so hard."

Both men were doing normal things in their lives. They were good men actually. But their lives were not complete, because they lived without God. They never asked what was the meaning of their hard work. Both stories are telling us that our life is not complete until we have a relationship with God and know the meaning of our life. Without God, all the hard won affluence and physical well being are wasted, because they are good only in this life and useless beyond it. Most people know that. Even though many traditional religions seem to be on the decline, survey after survey show that most of the people believe in God today. Many books on spirituality are selling very well, and teachers of meditation are very popular. In fact, the magazine "The Economist" reports that this last week the book on top of the best seller list both in Britain and North America was the one about spirituality by Richard Carlson, not about ”how to make money”. But most people seem to think that they will be able to fulfil their spiritual needs when the time comes, like filing the income tax return before April 30th. The only problem is that the relationship with God can not be manufactured by working overnight on a piece of paper with a calculator and a pencil. Besides, nobody knows when the deadline is. It may be forty years from now or it may be tonight. When you desperately need to speak to God, you don”t know how to speak to God if you are not used to praying.

Our relationship with God, like any other relationships, grows with frequent interaction. Relationship must be like a familiar road that leads to home. You walk that road so many times that you can get to your door even at night in pitch darkness. In fact, all relationships, be it with your spouse, with your child or with your parent, must be like a familiar passage. If it is not, you don”t know how to find it when you need it. In fact, true love may begin sometimes with excitement or with tender moments, but it can sustain you and last only when it has become an ordinary normal condition like breathing in and breathing out of air.

I have a cousin, who goes to church only when I am preaching at the church accessible to him. By my count, that means he”s been only six times in the last forty years, because we have always lived tens of thousands of miles apart. He came to visit me in Vancouver, and to Lesotho in Africa. Her came to hear me every time I visited Japan; but that”s only a few times. I am glad that he appreciates my sermons so much. But he must realize that my thoughts are about God, and God appears in many different forms. Hearing only my sermons and trying to figure out what God is all about is like trying to comprehend an elephant by hearing only about its tail while completely ignoring all other parts. When you are in close relationship with a person, you know that person in many different moods and forms, morning, day, and night. True knowledge of a person comes only through frequent interaction and a steady relationship. But when it comes, you know and love that person in any form or shape, even in an ugliest of mood and under the most difficult conditions.

God appears in many different forms and ways. The God described by Hosea is God of love. The God of Hosea is so loving that he is almost pathetic, like the love of a husband who goes after an unfaithful wife looking for her even in a brothel. The God of Abraham, on the other hand, is a demanding God. God tested Abraham”s faith to see if Abraham would give up his only son for him. God loves, punishes, demands, teaches, judges, heals and feeds. God is so enormous and appears in so many different ways that he is almost impossible to know. The only way to know him is to live with him daily and to experience him in action. Jesus said, "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don”t know where it comes from and where it goes."

When you ask a very young child, who has just begun to speak, who her parent is, you probably won”t get any factual information like the name and age of the parent. But they know who Mom or Dad is, more surely than any other person does. Their knowledge of the parent is through experience and beyond words. A parent is the person who stays with the child all the time, knows every need, and takes care of the child. Our knowledge of God is like that. When we acknowledge God in action in our daily life, feel grateful every moment and every day, we become accustomed to God”s presence. That”s how we come into relationship with God. In exactly the same way as a child knows his father or mother, we will know God, maybe not completely but abundantly.

 

 

 

C: THERE IS NO UGLY CHILD – EASTER 5

THERE IS NO UGLY CHILD

Acts 11:1-10, Psalm 148, John 13:31-35

May 10, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

A tropical fruit called dorian smells like condensed sewage water to us. But those who grew up eating it love it. They say it is the fruit from heaven. Likewise, for a mother, her child is never ugly. These examples prove the point made in today”s lesson from the Book of Acts. "What God has made clean must never be called unclean." But we think that there are too many filthy things in the world. How can we accept what God has made clean but looks disgusting?

We are usually suspicious of anything that looks different from what we are used to. What doesn”t look like anything we know seems to us to be at least strange and unacceptable, and at worst disgusting and unclean, even evil. If you don”t know what they are, it is safe to avoid them. Your instinct tells you, "They look disgusting and dangerous. Don”t go near them. Don”t touch them."

Over the years people devised the ways in which they believed they could make unclean things clean, and can right the wrong. For example, the ancient Jews believed that by cutting away a bit of skin from a penis, a man”s whole body was made clean. In fact, many early Christians also thought that all non-Jews had to be circumcised first before they were baptised. This is because the early Christians were mostly Jews who grew up thinking that all uncircumcised men were unclean. They did not mix with the unclean people nor ate with them. They look at them with disdain. So their status was low in the society. But after the decision by the church not to require circumcision before Baptism, non-Jewish Christians became equal with the Jewish Christians, as well as women in the church. Baptism was performed for both men and women without precondition. By making the Baptism the only requirement to become a Christian, everybody could begin their life in the church on the equal footing regardless of their gender and nationality.

It was a departure not only from the traditional Jewish faith but also from all traditions in the Roman Empire. Many Jewish Christians could not understand how those men perceived to be still unclean could be equal with the already consecrated men. Neither did they understand how women could be equal to men. The subject of circumcision was hotly debated in the Church. In that debate, Peter was severely criticized many times, because he freely mixed with non-Jewish uncircumcised Christians and often ate with them. So by his act, Peter was making a statement to say, "You don”t have to become a Jew to be a Christian." It was a very serious policy change.

Peter believed that he made his decision according to the will of God. In a dream, God told him to eat all sorts of unclean, untouchable animals according to the Law of Moses. So he hesitated initially. But a voice told him, "What God has made clean, you must not call unclean." He took it as the commandment not to discriminate against the peoples from different cultures and traditions. God made it quite clear that the Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ would make everybody an acceptable and equal member of the church, even though they did not follow Jewish customs and traditions.

I noticed also that in Peter”s dream, food was used as a metaphor. This is very meaningful. Food goes into your body. So, eating is one of the most intimate act as sex is. We are understandably most careful and discriminating in eating and sexual acts. This is also wise. Being careless and indiscriminate in the choice of food and of a sexual partner is reckless, stupid, and dangerous. This is why it is very important for parents to tell their infants not to put everything into their mouths.

There is a good reason for being careful in approaching what is unknown and strange. But being careful does not mean you have to avoid them or hate them. If you are too cautious about the different and the strange, you may end up being narrow-minded and miss out on beauty, joy and richness of God”s world. We must find a balance between the love of what is familiar and the appreciation of what is different. How can we live in harmony with different peoples without losing our own belief and traditions? Because this is Mother”s Day, I suggest that we think about parental love as an example of God given faculty that helps us in our search of the fine balance.

It is interesting that we look at the most of the bodily things with disgust. It is less repulsive if they are our own. But it is interesting also that, as persons become closer to each other, as a relationship matures, and as affection grows into genuine love, those bodily things become less disgusting between them. Look at a mother. Nothing that comes out of her child is disgusting as far as she is concerned. Mother”s love tells us that with love and respect for another human being, we can recognize "what God has made clean."

When I was a young student, one year I volunteered to join an International Workcamp to do a reconstruction work in a devastated region on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines after a big earthquake. I had no idea of the atrocity the Japanese military committed against Filipino population during the WW II. Our camp was always surrounded by curious villagers watching a strange group of foreigners from many countries. I made many friends among them, and one of them was an one-eyed young man with a scar on his face. His name was Hector. Many evenings, we had some good time together. It was only after I returned home, another friend wrote to me to tell me about Hector. Hector was tortured when he was a boy by the Japanese military during the occupation, and lost one eye in the process. Apparently, he had been saying the first Japanese who came to his village would taste the medicine he was forced to take. My friend had assumed that was why he was hanging around me. So this friend stuck with me all the time worrying about my safety. He was now writing to tell me that he was very surprised how Hector changed, and how fast he and I managed to become friends. I broke out in cold sweat belatedly. I am grateful that Hector, knowingly or unknowingly, managed to see "What God has made clean" in me, while having fun time together. I wonder if Hector realized that "the Grace of Lord Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit" were working in him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A: WINDS OF HOPE – PENTECOST

WINDS OF HOPE

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104, John 7:37-39

May 23, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

People saw disciples on the day of Pentecost and thought they were drunk. Obviously Peter felt obliged to explain what was happening to them. He said, "Please, people, listen. It is only nine in the morning. We are not drunk." But they had good reason to think that the disciples were drunk or crazy because of their strange behaviours.

Once, a man called me crazy, too. I was so surprised that it took the wind out of me. I had just finished my master”s degree and was preparing to go to Africa. I was selected to be a leader of a group of volunteer students in Nigeria. I met a man at a party at the University, who asked me why I was going to Africa. I tried to explain to him that it was volunteer work. But he didn”t understand me. There was no money in it, neither was there much to see in Eastern Nigeria. He thought I was crazy, THERE SHOULD BE MORE MONEY AFTER I GOT MY GRADUATE DEGREE. He thought I was wasting my time.

I didn”t understand why he didn”t understand me. I was so happy and proud of myself to be chosen. To him, I suppose, I looked like one of those people who grew up in a cocoon, and had never been told about the real world. We lived in two different worlds, he and I. I grew up in a manse and made all my friends in the church. My parents did not teach me much about money or other facts of life. My heroes were missionaries. It was normal for me to think about venturing into an unknown world to do some good work. That”s how I was brought up. Probably, the world in which he was brought up and had lived was the normal world. Likely, more people lived in his world than in mine. No wonder he thought I was crazy. He thought that I had been living in a dream world that didn”t exist. I thought that my world was a better one. Two worlds in which we lived were so far apart and the gap so deep that it would have taken a miracle to be able to see the other world. After all evening arguing who was right, I did not change his mind, neither did he change mine.

There are certain things in all of us that are almost impossible to change. You may laugh if some one says, "My mind”s made up. Don”t confuse me with facts." But all of us can be so set in our ways that they can be beyond reason. You can call it habit, mindset, personality, or upbringing. Whatever you call it, it is something that is hard to change.

But from time to time, people do change their attitudes and opinions. Some changes are so fundamental that you think you are seeing a different person. Some changes happen very suddenly, while some are so slow and so gradual that you can hardly see them happening, like watching a cactus grow. But changes do happen, and some of them are complete "transformations." Insects go through such complete transformation from a larva to a butterfly, which is called metamorphosis. We humans do not change appearances as much as insects do, but the internal transformation can be as complete as metamorphosis. We call that conversion. It would take the Holy Spirit to make such a transformation, which is almost like crossing a big and deep gap into another world.

The transformation recorded in the Acts of Apostles was such a change. Take Peter, for example. When Jesus was on trial at the Chief Priest”s palace, Peter was so afraid to be associated with him. He lied and said that he didn”t know the prisoner. Even after his encounter with the risen Christ, he was still afraid to be seen in public and stayed with friends inside of a house with all the doors locked. They stayed like that for seven weeks. As they talked and prayed, one day they were overcome by the realization that they were the witnesses to the astounding love of God, demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Then something extraordinary happened. Luke described it only as something like a gust of winds and the tongues of fire. Obviously this is figurative language. They found no other adequate words to describe what happened inside of themselves.

The result was extraordinary. They were not afraid any more. It was like they crossed over into another world. They were no longer afraid of risks in speaking about Jesus Christ. They wanted everybody to understand what they wanted to say. So they started to speak the languages of many lands. People thought the disciples were drunk, if not mad. But it happens every time the spirit moves; people begin to behave differently, often in the extraordinary ways. The Spirit of Jesus Christ transforms us.

There is a moving scene in the Academy Award winning film "Life is Beautiful." A of a Jewish man forced her way into a Nazi extermination camp simply because she wanted to be near her son and husband. She didn”t have to go, because she was not Jewish. Love was stronger than the fear of hardship and death. But this is not an exceptional story. It happens all the time around us. People do all sorts of crazy things because of love.

The story of Pentecost sounds quite extraordinary. It was, and it wasn”t. The transformation of the disciples during the seven weeks after the crucifixion was remarkable. They could not find adequate words to describe what changed them so completely. But if you think about some brave acts of love you see around us, Pentecost was not all that extraordinary. How can any person who is by nature self-serving, transform him/herself into a loving parent, brother or sister, or kind friend and neighbour? But we see that all the time. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. The spirit of Lord Jesus Christ intervenes when we love someone. Pentecost happens every day. Wherever the winds of hope blow, God is in action through his Spirit.

 

A: I WISH SHE WAS A BOY – REBECCA”S STORY: FIRST SUNDAY OF JULY

REBECCA”S ADVENTURE

Genesis 24, Psalm 46, Matthew 11:25-30

July 4, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

He was in his forties. She was in her teen”s. They were the most unlikely man and woman to get married. He was raised by a protective mother, a good man, but was a type who enjoyed to be alone than to hang around with guys, and easily influenced by other people. He was a kind of man an old fashioned mother would say, "I wish he was a girl." She, on the other hand, was raised by his big brother. She was generous and kind hearted, but independent, physically strong, highly spirited, adventurous, but also cunning and manipulative. She was a kind of woman an old fashioned father would say, "I wish she was a boy." Isaac and Rebecca had not even seen each other before they got married. But he fell in love with her right away when he saw her. This is a story of Rebecca, who became the mother of Jacob who later became known as Israel.

Our God is the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, and of Jesus Christ born of Mary. The history of our religious tradition is about the faith of our fathers and mothers, a partnership of men and women. I wanted to remember Rebecca today partly because we have neglected stories of some amazing women in the Bible far too long. Rebecca was beautiful and friendly, but she was not a wallflower. She was generous and kind, but she was also strong in body and spirit, smart and cunning. She played more important role shaping the history of the Hebrew people than Isaac.

Abraham sent an emissary, whose name was Eliezer, to find a wife for Isaac in his home country. The first thing that Eliezer noticed about Rebecca was her generosity. She gave him water when asked, and watered his ten camels as well without being asked. This was no mean act of kindness. The well was deep, often hundreds of feet deep in those hot and dry countries, covered with a heavy stone slab which covered the top of the well to protect it from robbers and elements. To fetch water, they used a jug which was a heavy earthen ware attached to a long cord. It took strong muscles to draw water in those days. This is why the Bible termed the acts of offering water to strangers as extraordinary kindness. Rebecca”s own son Jacob married Rachel who also gave water to Jacob when he was a homeless stranger. Jesus gave high praises to a Samaritan woman who gave him a drink at the well. So when Rebecca gave water not only to Eliezer but also to his ten camels, he was impressed. She was kind to a total stranger. He was so impressed by her that he decided right there and then that this young woman was to be the bride for Isaac.

However, the next chapter of this episode is a surprise. It reveals that Rebecca was not only kind and physically strong, but also was she an adventurous, independent minded, and strong willed woman. When Eliezer proposed a marriage for Rebecca on behalf of Isaac, her mother and brother immediately consented. But they wanted to ask how Rebecca would feel about this. This was very unusual, because, four thousand years ago, women had no say on the matters of their marriages. Marriages were arranged often for business and political reasons and the brides” wishes were beside the point. So the fact that mother and brother felt obliged to ask Rebecca”s opinion showed a considerable degree of respect for Rebecca. It is easy to guess how she had been like growing up. With her intelligence and strong will, she must have earned high esteem from her adult members of the family even when she was very young.

The scene that followed is equally astonishing. Rebecca”s mother and brother wanted 10 days to prepare the young woman for the wedding. But Rebecca said, "Yes, I will marry Isaac, and I want go away right now." as though to say, "My mind”s made up. Why wait." She was quite ready to leave home right away to an unknown country and marry a man whom she never met, demonstrating an adventurous spirit bordering recklessness.

But the Bible does not hide the darker side of humans. It is the book about God, and no human person is described as perfect. Rebecca is not spared from brutal truthfulness of the Bible either. The darker side of her intelligence and determination surfaced as cunning and manipulative in a story for next Sunday. She didn”t hesitate deceiving her aging husband to get what she wanted.

Rebecca reminds me of the mother of a well known Canadian virtuoso pianist, John Kimura Parker. The baby John and his mother Keiko used to come to the Play Group – "Baby Band" as we called it at my pastoral charge in Vancouver. Before Keiko got married with John Sr., they had corresponded for two years. They decided to get married without ever meeting face to face. When the baby John came, she decided that the little John was going to be just like his uncle Ed, who was a famous piano teacher in Vancouver. She went to the University of B.C. to study music, got a music degree and a qualification as a piano teacher by the time the little John was five. So the poor boy had two piano teachers, uncle Ed and Mom at home. Now John Kimura Parker is a number one concert pianist in Canada today, and you can hear him on the CBC Radio often.

At any rate, here is a story of a woman who played an important role in shaping the history of Israel. Rebecca was so far away from the image of a nice woman – "sugar and spice and all that nice." But I believe it is time we appreciated tough women and the roles they play. When I was working for the Canadian Council of Churches, I had an opportunity briefly to work with Mother Teresa. Frankly speaking, I did not enjoy working with her. She was tough, uncompromising, and a skilful manipulater. Of course, that was why she achieved so much. She was tough. I think it is about time we appreciated tough women, just like we admire tough men. Jesus said, we must be like "crafty like a snake, and gentle like a dove." Thank God for Rebecca, who showed us how to be filled with tender love at the same time having a tough mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

C: WHEN A BABY CRIES – 2ND WEEK OF JUNE

WHEN A BABY CRIES

I Kings 21:1-10, Psalm 5, Luke 7:36&ff.

June 14, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

Now that the Sunday School is over for the summer, probably today is the last day to see a baby in the worship service until September. We all love babies. But in the church? It is a dilemma. Isn”t it? We all wish that many Moms come to church with babies. But we hope that babies keep quiet, which, of course, is impossible. We are delighted, annoyed, and embarrassed by the way the babies behave in the church, because they make it quite clear how they feel and what they want, very loudly.

I don”t think that the babies are doing anything wrong. It is only we think that they don”t have manners, and that”s our problem, not babies”. We have to have manners in the civilized adult society for sure. That, I think, is the problem, because good manners also can hide truth. Babies have no such problem. I sometimes wish that we could all be honest like babies. Jesus ran into a woman who expressed her gratitude in a manner which was embarrassingly explicit and intimate. But he had an eyes to see genuine faith behind an embarrassing gesture of a person who did not behave in a socially acceptable way.

One day, Jesus was invited to a dinner with a Pharisee by the name of Simon. Reading the scripture carefully, we realize that it was more a party than it was a private dinner. For one thing, there was at least one woman who the host had not invited. That means that there were many guests moving freely about in Simon”s house. Secondly, the verb used to describe Jesus” position at the table "to take" can also be translated as "recline". Only Jesus and the host were at the table in the reclining position. It meant that Jesus was the honoured guest according to the custom of the Palestine at the time. Other guests were on their feet moving about freely with food in their hands.

What happened next sounds enormously embarrassing. A woman, who was known in town as a sinner, stood at Jesus” feet, and started to cry profusely. She cries so hard that tears poured on to Jesus” feet. Noticing that his feet were getting wet with her tears, she sat down and started to wipe away her tears with her unbound hair. She also started kissing his feet and putting perfumed oil on them. A bare foot is a private body part even for us. It is much more so for Jewish people. Orthodox Jews wear their peculiar style of clothes, with their pants tucked into their socks, to make sure that they do not to expose any part of their feet. You can imagine how disconcerting this display appeared.

This woman was known in town as a sinner. The Scripture does not say what kind of sin she committed. As the word "sin" is the same word as "debt" in the Biblical language, she could have been someone who was indentured for the unpaid debt. She was a person forced to live in shame, who might have fallen to a status of a slave. She could well have been a prostitute, too. At any rate, it must have been a very embarrassing scene with such an explicit display of affection in public, especially by a person of ill repute, and also especially by a person of opposite sex. But Jesus accepted her ways and let her do it.

People must have been appalled and embarrassed. The host even rebuked Jesus for allowing such a shameful behaviour. "How dare you allow this to happen in my house!" Pharisees were the lawyers committed to uphold the moral standard of the society. So it was a slap in the fact of this upright Simon, who wanted to honour a famous teacher and a prophet. It was an event which would have boosted his already high standing in society. But this! The intended honoured guest disgraced the occasion and ruined his good name by accepting a shameful display of uninhibited affection from a prostitute.

To his host”s surprise, Jesus pointed out to the Pharisee how much this woman had to struggle to come to a public event at a respectable household, and to do what she did. She did it in the only way she could think of. She had to come so far. So, as she approached him, Jesus did not shy away from her. She must have felt Jesus” unconditional acceptance. A powerful force of gratitude overtook her. It took the last bit of inhibition away from her as the situation developed from the time she stood near Jesus. He did not pull away his feet as her tears started to drop on them, as she unbound her hair to wipe the moisture from them, and even as she started to hold the feet in her hands and kiss them. He let her continue. Jesus appreciated such uninhibited show of devotion more than what Simon offered to him, no matter how inappropriate it might have appeared.

So what”s the point of today”s story? The point is that Jesus appreciates the distance you travel more than the place you stand. Today” story is just one of many that illustrate this. Jesus valued an offering of two small coin pieces from a widow more than an extravagant donation of a rich man, because that was all she had while it was spare money for the man. Jesus appreciated the faith of a sinner who stood at the door of the Temple who prayed, "I am a sinner. I am not worthy to come to your presence." But he did not think too much of a Pharisee, who always sat at the front seat who was convinced that he was naturally acceptable to God because he always followed every letter of the law.

When a baby cries, it is the most genuine form of prayer. It is uninhibited and spontaneous expression of what a baby feels and wants. Nobody may understand it. Everybody is annoyed and embarrassed, or even gets angry. But a mother understands and accepts baby”s cry. God understands our honest cry no matter how inappropriate it may appear in our eyes. Jesus understood and appreciated a sinner”s offering of tears and oil on his feet. He risked his social standing by accepting the inappropriate offering. But he said that it was the most precious offering of faith he had seen. Jesus looks at us with the same unconditional love. No matter how far we have come, no matter how awkward our approach, we are welcomed, too. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

C: TO FORGIVE, FORGET, AND LET GO – EASTER 3

TO FORGIVE, FORGET, AND LET GO

Acts 9:1-6, Psalm 30, John 21:1-19

April 29, 2001by Tad Mitsui

One day, an elderly Bishop dedicated a new church building. The ceremony began outside of the church. Then, an attractive woman walked by on the periphery of the gathered congregation. The good bishop saw her and stopped reading the prayer book, and followed her with his eyes. A few seconds later, he resumed the ceremony. Some people noticed this, and some people didn”t. But nobody said anything about it. A few days later, two young seminarians came to the bishop”s office. They were angry about the old man”s behaviour at the consecration of the new church. They said that the bishop disgraced the name of the Holy Catholic Church. But the bishop didn”t know what they were talking about. He had forgotten about such small details. Afterwards, someone explained to him why those young men were so upset. Hearing this, the kind bishop felt sorry for the young men for their youthful obsession about the opposite sex. Because their mind was so caught up in sex, they didn”t know how to simply appreciate beauty without feeling guilty. Beauty is God”s creation and is a gift and a blessing. But once you become obsessed and enslaved by it, this blessing becomes a curse. Letting go enables you to accept that blessing.

Forgiveness initiates a process of forgetting, and allows you to let go. Forgiveness makes it possible for your life to go forward by allowing you to let go of the past that holds you back. It frees you. Two episodes in today”s lectionary are the stories of our great spiritual pioneers – the harbingers of Christian faith – Peter and Paul. Today, the Bible points out to us that their ministry began with forgiveness. Without forgiveness, there would not have been Peter nor Paul in the history of the Christian Church.

When the risen Christ met with Peter and other disciples on the shore of Lake Galilee, Jesus acted as though he had completely forgotten what Peter did to him on the night before he was crucified and killed. When Jesus was arrested and taken to the court of the High Priest, Peter followed him and sat beside the fire in the court yard with enemies of Jesus. The other disciples were nowhere to be seen. At least, Peter followed his master into a hostile crowd. But he was nothing like the brave man he had previously declared himself to be. When Jesus predicted his suffering on the cross, Peter promised that he would followed the master anywhere, even to death. When Peter was confronted by a mere slave girl who didn”t pose any threat – and she simply asked him, "Weren”t you the guy with Jesus?" – he vehemently denied even the knowledge of the man he had promised to follow even unto death. Not just once but three times! But now on the shore of Lake Galilee, Jesus acted as though Peter didn”t do anything like that. Forgiveness and the appearance of forgetfulness set Peter free. He feared nothing any longer. He followed Christ”s will even unto his own death on a cross. Thus, he became one of the founders of the Christian Church. The Roman Catholic Church even calls him the "Vicar of Christ."

Paul, on the other hand, started out by being truly anti-Christ. He hated the followers of Christ with vengeance. When angry mob stoned one of the first elders of the church to death, young Paul, who was called Saul then, supervised the execution. Many people saw the way of Jesus Christ as a blasphemy. They were angry to hear the early Christians claiming that Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses, and was indeed the Messiah. Saul obtained an authorization from the Temple to arrest and imprison, and in some cases to kill, the followers of Jesus Christ. Christians everywhere heard about Paul”s reputation. This is why Ananias asked God if he was hearing him right, when he was told to help Saul. Ananaias was told by God to forget about Saul”s part in a murder and persecution of Christians. Of all people, God chose a principal enemy of the faith to be a future leader of the church! What is amazing is that Ananias obeyed God. Without his obedience and the incredible capacity to forgive, the Christian Church would not have been blessed by the teaching of a great apostle who brought Christianity to Europe. Forgiveness is the central manifestation of God”s love, and we believe it to be the enabler of life. Without forgiveness, life is impossible.

But it is not easy to forgive and also to feel forgiven. In the Lord”s Prayer, we pray "Forgive our sin as we forgive those who committed sin against us." We rarely forgive, so we don”t feel we can be forgiven. Because we don”t feel forgiven, we don”t know how to forgive. Thus we are stuck in old animosities and bitter memories. When the Cold War ended, we thought that the world would at last be able to enjoy peace and harmony between nations. On the contrary, people scraped the scabs off old wounds, renewing the memories of old feuds, and serious fighting and killings flared up in many places around the world with renewed vigour – in Ireland, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, and in Africa and Asia. Memories mean unforgiveness. Unforgiveness means death. The same thing happens in our personal lives, too. We suffer because we don”t feel we are completely acceptable. We don”t feel we are OK. Therefore, it is so difficult for us to forgive and forget. But the experience of forgiveness helps us to forgive.

I made mistakes too, more often than I want to remember. But I also was blessed by graceful forgiving people, my parents, some of the superiors in my jobs, and friends. When I was younger and had not made many mistakes, I was self-righteous, unforgiving, and judgemental. But the experiences of gracious people who accepted me despite my mistakes made me a more forgiving person.

There was a woman who claimed to have conversations with Jesus Christ regularly. A man who was feeling heavily burdened by guilt asked her to ask Jesus on his behalf if his sins were forgiven. She came back the next day and said, "Yes, Jesus forgave all your sins." He wanted to be quite sure about this and asked her to ask Jesus to list the sins he was freed from. She came back next day and said, "There was no list. Jesus said he forgot all of your sins." Because she could not recite such a list of sins, the man became sceptical and didn”t quite believe her so-called conversations with Jesus. Pity, because this story makes an important point. Jesus forgives and frees you from the past. Our experience of forgiveness makes us more forgiving. If we all can learn to forgive and forget, our world will be a much better place. We will all be happier persons being forgiving and life affirming persons.

 

 

 

 

B: FORGIVE US AS WE FORGIVE THEM – FIRST SUNDAY OF AUGUST

FORGIVE US, AS WE FORGIVE THEM

2 Samuel 11 & 12, Psalm 51, Ephesians 4:1-16

August 6, 2000 by Tad Mitsui

One day, a colleague of mine known for her sharp tongue asked me, "Well Tad, what did you do today to justify your existence?" I didn”t know she was teasing me, so I took her question seriously. I could not think of a single achievement that could justify my existence. It was a very humiliating question. Ralph Milton admits that he is one of those men who don”t know how to stop working. He thinks most of his health problems come from the fact that he is a workaholic. He is always overworked and tired, offering his body as a breeding ground for all bacteria and viruses. He feels he has to be working all the time because of guilt. He feels guilty when he is not working. He says; you feel guilty when you have past which has not been dealt with properly, so you don”t feel you are OK as you are. You have to be working all the time to redeem yourself and earn your salvation. But in the Gospel, we believe that we can not earn salvation. We believe that we will be forgiven by the grace of God if we simply admit our guilt. We all suffer from guilt. We have to realize that we can not be absolved from our past by ourselves by working our butts off. We all need forgiveness to go on with life. Today”s story of David and Prophet Nathan teaches us important lessons about forgiveness.

A king orders the death of his brave and loyal soldier in order to go to bed with his wife. That was how King David married Bathsheba. What a disgusting story! David”s behaviour was immoral. Pure and simple. How could he be so horrible? Yet David remained a God”s most favoured king in the Bible. The child from this unholy union grew up to be King Solomon, who was the most successful king in the entire history of Jewish people. What is going on?

We will not understand the point of this story fully until we realize that David”s behaviour was no different from other kings. You don”t have to read the stories of Henry VIII to find out that the kings did the same kind of things, or even worse things, all over the world throughout the ages. Sleeping with the bride of his lackey the night before the wedding day, for example, was an accepted practice for the lord of the land even as late as the nineteenth century. It was called "l droit du seigneur" – the right of the lord.

The point of the story of David and Bathsheba is not to highlight David”s sin. David”s sex life was no better nor worse than other kings. The point of this story is to tell us that everybody sins and even a king is in need of forgiveness like everybody else. It says that nobody, not even the king, can get on with life until one”s guilt is taken cared of. King David was a great king because he admitted his guilt, and not because he was a morally better human being. I am not saying that David did nothing wrong. He was guilty for sure. But I am saying that everybody without exception makes mistakes and has a past history that causes guilt feeling. One must acknowledge that. It is not an easy thing to acknowledge that. But it is a first step towards forgiveness. David was a sinful man like everybody else. But he was more honourable in his honesty than many people. Nobody wants to admit one”s fault. This is why so many of us are busy working too hard or trying hard to have fun to escape from the deep menacing feeling that somehow we are not OK. When someone touches that sensitive spot, you would get angry and hate such a meddler. If you were a king, you would probably kill such a person. Prophet Nathan had a superb skill to tell King David that he did wrong without making him angry. The story of a rich man and a poor man”s sheep Nathan used sounded so much like a day-to-day kind of court case King David would have heard in his court. Nathan had to be careful even though as a prophet he was paid to tell the truth. He could have lost his head. John the Baptist was virtually decapitated, by telling the truth about King Herod”s personal life.

But the most important point of this story is that the king was no different from other people before God, and David was big enough to admit that he needed forgiveness. Everybody makes mistakes and is in need of forgiveness including the king. God does not demand perfection, but accepts those who honestly admit guilt and forgive them. David was a good leader, not because he was pure and blameless, but because he was honest to admit his faults and accepted his guilt. He accepted equality of all people before God in their sinfulness. Greatness of King David was that he acknowledged himself to be just another miserable guilty man in need of God”s mercy. This was how he could get on with his life and move onto do greater things for the nation, trusting in God”s forgiveness and mercy.

In our trip to Japan last month, a woman I knew well told me about her son”s recent divorce. Muriel and I were very sorry to hear that, because we cared about the young couple and a baby girl very much. She said she was devastated in the beginning. She was angry with her son. But she blamed herself more than anybody for bringing him up to be such a man of many faults, who could not make his marriage work. Not being able to see her grand daughter as often as she used to added injury to her anger. But eventually love towards her son and the grand daughter proved to be stronger than pride. Love did not allow her to dwell in a blaming game too long. She loved her son very much and had to forgive and accept him. When she could forgive her son, she felt that she was also forgiven. She felt forgiveness as she forgave her son. When she experienced forgiveness, strangely grudges she used to hold against some people had also disappeared. Experience of forgiveness changed her views of people. "It”s wonderful. The world is a better place to live," she told me.

It is indeed wonderful. We are forgiven people. We are not ashamed nor afraid of our past any more, because God has forgiven us and took care of our past. We can accept ourselves as we are. Christianity is not a religion of perfect people who never do anything wrong. It is a religion for forgiven sinners. A theologian once said, "Good News of Jesus Christ is like one beggar telling another beggar where to find food." Thank be to God.

 

 

 

A: JESUS WENT OUT OF SIGHT – ASCENSION

JESUS WENT UP AND OUT OF SIGHT

– Myth or Truth –

I Peter 4:12-14, Psalm 68 #7, Acts 1:6-14

May 19, 1996 by Tad Mitsui

Last Thursday was Ascension Day, which some European countries and churches celebrate as a holiday. It was the day, according to the words of the Acts of Apostles, when Jesus "was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight." While the disciples were gazing up toward heaven, two angels appeared and asked them why were they looking up towards heaven. They said that it was a wrong direction to look for him. This sounds like a similar comment that Mary heard when she was looking for Jesus by the tomb. The Angel asked her, "Why are you looking for the living among the dead?" It was a wrong place to look for the resurrected Jesus. Up toward heaven also is a wrong direction to look for Jesus. Jesus does not live in the sky. He lives among us, as Spirit in each of us.

In early 1960”s, the Soviets were ahead of the Americans in the race toward space. They had sent up a dog, two men and a woman, one at a time of course, into space long before an American astronaut John Glenn became the first American in the space. I remember the comment one of the Russian Cosmonauts made, after he returned back to the earth. He not only made fun of the Americans who had thus far not reached space, but also as an atheist he made fun of religion. He said, "I went up into heaven and looked around, but I did not see God." This comment is so typical of superficial human beings, who are dazzled by scientific achievements, and are no longer capable of seeing ourselves in depth.

Science and technology have given us so much and have made our daily lives much easier and richer than before. But meanwhile, some of us in the process have become poorer by neglecting the emotional and spiritual aspects of our lives. Scientific thought has taught us to value straight forward empirical thinking above all else. Many of us do not appreciate myths any more, and dismiss it as mere fantasy or superstition. Some of us do not distinguish a poetic expression from a description of facts. In this thinking, truth is equated with facts: something we can see and measure. This is why it is difficult to deal with an event like Ascension. It sounds ridiculous as a factual event. Yet, we don”t want to appear to dismiss a Bible story. So we avoid it. We must recover our ability to see truth expressed in mythical and poetic language, not only in numbers and visible matters.

You see, we are likely the only life form who knows that life inevitably ends and dies. This is because we have something more than a mere biological and involuntary survival instinct. We have the premonition of things beyond the visible, which we call a spiritual reality. We can not quite describe it by our limited vocabulary. So we resort to myths and poetry to express our emotions and thoughts about spiritual experiences. It is pointless to analyze them with scientific methods. It is like trying to measure happiness or sadness with a measuring cup or a scale. It is therefore impossible to prove or reject with science what is expressed in a mythical or poetic language. The Bible is full of poetic expressions. A fertile land becomes the land of milk and honey. A love song in the Bible sings about a lover, "You are beautiful, your eyes are like doves. I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys." And our search for God is described as a deer which thirsts for a stream of sparkling clean water. Certain realities of our lives can not be described except in metaphors and stories. This does not mean they are less important than those things that science can prove. We are certainly richer materially than our ancestors of centuries ago, but by losing the ability to express truth in mythical language, we may have become poorer.

So it really does not matter if Jesus did not actually go upward to heaven. Even though we do not stop people believing in the story of something which really happned, that upward movement was not the point. The whole story of Ascension is written in mythical language, because our fathers and mothers in faith simply adopted the only way they knew to describe their spiritual experiences of, and their belief in, Jesus Christ. It does not mean their experience was less real. They saw a very significant transformation of Jesus in the event now known as Ascension. So what does it mean, when Jesus was described to have gone upward and disappeared in clouds? What were the disciples trying to say to us about the particular aspect of their belief in Jesus Christ?

For one thing, it is certain that their message was not the fact that Jesus went upward like a space shuttle blast-off in Cape Canaveral. The comment by a Russian Cosmonaut about not finding God in space is quite inappropriate. Heaven in the Bible is not a place you find in the sky. Besides, what is upward to us is downward in China anyway. An up-and-down definition about heaven does not make any sense at all. I pointed out to you some time ago, that in the Bible, heaven and the Kingdom of God are synonymous. When they spoke about heaven in the Bible, it means a realm of authority. It is the realm of God, where God”s will is the supreme authority. It does not have a notion of geographical place. It can be here, it can be there, it is everywhere where God rules.

Another interesting point is; the clouds took Jesus out of sight of the disciples. Cloud often indicates the presence of God in the Bible. God spoke to Moses out of the cloud, or descended in the cloud, or guided the Israelites in the desert with a pillar of clouds, or from the cloud a voice said "This is my Son, Beloved." etc. In other words, the disciples saw on the day of Ascension that Jesus Christ”s earthly appearance disappeared and joined God”s company.

A discouraged and pathetic band of Jesus” followers were revitalized through their experience of encounters with the living Christ. Now this time, on the day of Ascension they had to be weaned of Jesus” company all together. Jesus now became invisible. He joined God. He has disappeared. There is no point in continuing to look upward. Angels appeared before the disciples and said, "Why are you looking into heaven? He has now joined God. He is gone until he comes back in spirit." You must start living by yourselves. Jesus will join you soon in another way. That was the message.

It is important in our lives to learn to accept changes in the nature of our relationships from time to time, if they should mature. It is unhealthy for a child to cling to the parents like a baby for too long. That is childish. The relationship must mature as a child grows older. Likewise, parents must learn to think of their child as a person gradually growing up to be an independent. You can not hang on to your children as though they are your possessions. There must come a time when parents and children become friends, no longer the possession of either. In the Ascension episode, Jesus disappeared physically. The disciples had to get on with their lives as Apostles, spreading the good news they experienced, on their own. Ascension is about the change in disciples. Disciples, meaning followers, had to become Apostles, the ones who go their own ways with a sense of mission. They had to return to Jerusalem, where Jesus was killed, and enemies still abounded. They had to get out to the people to start speaking about their experiences. They had to get on with their jobs.

And they began to get on with their lives as the witnesses of the great events and started to tell people the stories of Jesus. When they began to do that Jesus joined them in Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, Jesus came back in the form of spirit. That will be celebrated next Sunday.

 

 

 

C: HE BECAME LIKE US – PALM SUNDAY

HE HUMBLED HIMSELF AND BECAME LIKE US

Luke 19:28-40

1. Some of you may have noticed that when I came to worship with you for the first time, on March 19, I was driving a Cadillac, silver Cadillac too. I will tell you how I ended up with a Cadillac later. I frankly did not like driving it, but not because it was difficult to get used to. It was because I hated the thought of the way people might look at me driving this car. "How did he get to be filthy rich like that?" Of course, this reaction includes an element of jealousy, too. It is not easy to feel friendly towards the rich and famous. I knew people would see the car, and not the person in it.

Until I came to be with you at Howick, I did not own a car. For twelve years, I had a job in Toronto that took me out of the country a lot of the time. My office was in downtown and we lived in downtown. Whenever I was in town, I rode a bicycle. So when I came to the Conference office, some people wondered how I could do the job without a car. You know, I managed quite well. Because I came to like cycling, I did not want to give up my bike. I cycled to the office, and went to out of town places by buses and trains. I also rented cars, when I had to. I rented so many times that every now and then the rental company gave me free weekends. On March 19, they were so very sorry that they did not have my favourite Nissan. They were very sorry that they only had a Cadillac. Trust me it was true.

Some people who knew that I did not own a car did not like the way I travelled. Maybe they thought that I was cheap, I don”t know. Somehow they could not understand why I would prefer my bike over a car. But I feel healthy when I cycle. Besides, it gets me from point A to Point B, while saving a lot of money. Only thing is that you have to organize your life a little better, because it takes more time to get there. But it is not impossible.

2. Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. In modern terms, not on a Cadillac, but on a bicycle. A public relation consultant would despair. Yet, the whole city was excited about him. "A great teacher, a healer of the sick, a friend of the friendless, came to our city." Thousands came to welcome him. And he chose a donkey to ride. A pregnant woman rode a donkey, because it is low and steady. But it is an awkward, stubborn, and ugly animal, a beast of burden which normally carried only things. Not a means of transportation for a victorious leader.

3. So how should we see this Jesus who gets where he is going in the most unlikely way? God did not have to become fragile human like us. Like the ancient Jews, we could have continued to hear his word through the prophets. God loved us so much that he was not like a General sending young troops to the front to their probable death while staying comfortably behind in the headquarters. That was not God”s way. God”s way was to become like us, and so he rode a lowly donkey ahead of the disciples towards certain suffering. This was not a motorcade in a victory parade. It meant that God was ready to share our happiness, as well as suffering with us in our suffering. A friend of mine, Ko Koyama, who teaches at Union Seminary in New York city said, "God moves with a speed of 3 miles an hour, because a poor person who can not own a car walks with that speed. God moves with a poor person.

4. So God came into the world in the form of a human person called Jesus. He came as a citizen of an occupied, despised and oppressed people, and grew up as a son of a poor carpenter. He knew the humiliation of growing up as a person out of dubious birth. Trusted friends and followers betrayed him, even his mother did not understand him. And in the end, he died a painful death like a common criminal. He did not have to do it that way. He was almighty God. But you see, the difference between our kind of power and God”s is that we humans wants to exercise power for ourselves at others” expense, while God exercises it in order to love us. His love was so powerful that he was ready to make himself totally powerless. This sounds contradictory: in order to be almighty in love, he became powerless. He was willing to slow down to 3 miles an hour, to move at our speed. Choose a donkey over a stallion – maybe even a bike over a Cadillac – if that”s what it took to be at our side. That was the purpose of the incarnation, of the journey into Jerusalem: the journey that led into and beyond death. A journey that seemed impossible by a means we would expect.

A: WHERE DOES GOD LIVE? – THIRD SUNDAY OF JULY

WHERE DOES GOD LIVE?

Genesis 28:10-19, Psalm 139, Matthew 13:24-30

July 18, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

One Sunday, a Sunday School teacher asked everybody in her class to write a letter to God. So Jimmy wrote: "Dear God, I went to New York last summer and saw St. Patrick”s Cathedral. You live in a big house." But today”s story about Jacob pretty well destroys Jimmy”s theory about the house of God, doesn”t it? The passage means that St. Patrick”s Cathedral is not necessarily God”s house, neither is any church. Jacob named a place where he slept "Bethel". It means the house of God. It was where, in a dream, he saw a staircase leading to God in the desert. Jacob”s experience of God tells us that God meets with us anywhere even in the depth of despair, and that the house of God can be any place where God meets with us.

When Essau realized that his own brother Jacob had tricked him and stole all he was entitled to inherit, he was so angry that he vowed to kill Jacob. Confronted with such anger, neither his mother Rebecca nor his father Isaac could help Jacob. Both of them urged him to run for his life as fast as he could, to their homeland, ten days walking distance away. He was alone. He had nothing, no food nor water. He had only the clothes he had on. He had to run for his life.

The worst thing about it is that Jacob brought all this to himself and by himself. He had nobody else to blame but himself. When he stole blessing from his father and brother, he was thinking only about himself. He thought he was being clever. But he was too conceited see that his wit could destroy him, if he didn”t take others into account. He didn”t even think about God. Blessing comes from God. Blessing means nothing without faith in God. Isaac was only a conduit for the blessing of God. Jacob behaved as though alone he could control everything. He was wrong. Jacob could not blame anybody but himself.

He ran and ran. The sun in that part of the world can be so strong that it can kill you. By the time he laid down his head on a stone to sleep, it was more accurate to say that he just collapsed and fell into unconsciousness. Then he had a dream. He saw the stairs that landed just beside the place where he was sleeping. He saw angels going up and down. On top of the stairs was God. God spoke to Jacob, "I am the God of your grandparents and your parents. I promised to them that their offsprings will be blessed and prosper. I now promise the same to you. Remember, I am with you now and will be with you always." Jacob woke up in the morning and said to himself, "God has always been with me. And I didn”t know that." He picked up the stone which he was using as a pillow, and set it up like a monument and said, "I call this place Bethel – the house of God, because this is where I realized that God had always been with me."

This Jacob”s experience teaches us that God is with us in the darkest of the dark moments in our lives. Psalm 23rd says, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil. For thou art with me." Our fundamental code of beliefs, the "Apostle”s Creed" is even more explicit, "(Jesus) was crucified, dead and buried, descended into hell." God meets us in the most desperate situation, even in hell, to be with us.

Once I had a parishioner who became addicted to gambling. He gambled away his family business and the family home. His wife and children kicked him out. When I saw him in a downtown flop house, he said to me he really missed the church. But he said he had no nerve to go to church in his predicament. He promised that he would change, work hard, pay all gambling debts, and then ask his family to take him back. He promised that he would come to church when he could come with his family. Another story: an unemployed woman said to me, "I have no clothes to wear to church." If you take the teaching of the story of Jacob seriously, both of them were wrong. God meets with you at the worst possible moment of your life. The church is the right place for them to be. On the other hand, if the church gave them an impression that they could not come to church if they were not perfect and respectable enough, there was something fundamentally wrong about the church. The house of God should be the place where God meets with anyone who is in a dire straight. If the church gives the impression that one has to be squeaky clean to be allowed in, God does not live that church. If the church is called the house of God, it should be where the sinners meet God.

If you believe that God is with you in the worst possible moment in your life, you will have a courage to endure. Victor Frankl was a psychologist who survived a Nazi death camp, and wrote a book about his whole experience from a psychologist”s point of view. He noticed that people, who knew the meaning of life because of their strong religious conviction, had much better chance of surviving hardship than those who did not see beyond the here-and-now. God meets with us at the worst possible moment of our life.

We run into difficulties because of our mistakes and weaknesses. Also misfortunes strike all of us for no fault of our own. God does not promise to steer all problems away from us. They come, just like rains fall on the good and the bad without discrimination. But God does promise to be with us always. And that belief gives us courage and strength to endure. Jacob had to go through many difficult experiences in his life. But he lived through it all and survived. He had a courage to go back to his brother to ask for forgiveness. He could have been killed by Essau. But he was strong enough to go through all this, not so much because he was without fault, but because he had met with God at the lowest point in his life, at Bethel – in the house of God in the middle of nowhere, in the wilderness. Remember what Jesus said? "I will be with you to the end of time."

B: IN A SEED THERE IS AN APPLE TREE – 2ND WEEK OF JUNE

IN THE SEED, THERE IS AN APPLE TREE

I Samuel 16:1-13, II Cor. 5:16-17, Psalm 20,  Mark 4:26-34

June 15, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

 

I found a lovely children”s hymn in the "Voices United". It’s like this: "In the bulb, there is a flower. In the seed, an apple tree." We are a spiritual being. That means, we possess a tiny bit of the power of God to see the potential in things that are not yet reality nor visible. We can respect a seemingly insignificant thing, because we see all sorts of possibilities in it. Often living things contain amazing potential no matter how small they are. However, to see that potential, one needs to have a different kind of vision. Jesus was trying to tell his followers about an entirely different way of looking at things; God”s way of seeing things. Once we see as God sees, we will see an apple tree in a tiny seed. We will see the whole world in a tiny little baby.

 

The trouble is that we think what is bigger or more numerous is automatically better. We seldom stop to wonder if number or size has anything to do with quality. A mountain of something can be a pile of useless garbage or toxic substance. One trend in our churches, which bothers me a lot, is the way we measure the success of a church. We count the number of people and the amount of money to decide if the church is doing a good job. Of course, it is nice to see many people in the pews. It is better to have money than not. We must realize, however, a church with a whole bunch of members with unchristian attitude is a bad news. A lot of money can be a source of quarrels, too. As you know, conflicts over money and property are the best ways to destroy a church. I have seen them too many times. A successful church is not necessarily a church with many members and a large budget. It is a church that knows its mission and a community of people who love each other, no matter how small it is. The church is not a business.

 

More and more our society conditions us to see only the appearances and to appreciate only the sizes like we do in business. We are losing the capacity to respect what is hidden from us. Consequently, we are gradually losing our capacity to see the possibilities in invisible things, in an insignificant looking things, or in little things. We must recover our God-given ability to see value in things hidden and small. Jesus is reminding us today that Kingdom of God is like a smallest of seeds. It can grow into a big tree, where birds can nest. We must switch our mindset to recognize value in hidden things and to appreciate beauty in small things. Like Paul said, "From now on, we regard nothing from a human point of view." We must learn to see in God”s way.

 

Prophet Samuel was a king maker. When people felt that they needed a strong leader to fight the war, they asked Samuel to install a king for them. To win a war, a strong leader is an obvious requirement. You can not run a war democratically. You need someone who is tough enough to send people into battles even against their will. So Samuel found a very tall and very handsome man with a lot of muscles. His name was Saul. The prophet thought that big size, good looks and physical strength would earn him people”s respect. Indeed he did. People followed him. He led his troops into many successful campaigns. But God was not happy with Saul. God told Samuel that Saul had to be replaced. Saul lacked in inner qualities. He lacked toughness to follow God”s commandments. He lacked wisdom. God rejected Saul, and told the prophet to find another king. So Samuel set out to find another candidate for a king.

 

So where did God lead Samuel to find a new king? He was sent to Bethlehem, in the land of Judah. It is in the middle of a harsh region of rocks and sand and little water. Compared to the land of Galilee which is full of water and is lush green, Bethlehem was indeed nowhere. The prophet had to say; "And you, Bethlehem, are by no means least among the rulers in the land of Judah." When Samuel arrived in Bethlehem, the people were afraid. "Why did a mighty Prophet come to an insignificant village like ours? He speaks for God and can even appoint a king." They expected the worst, like you might if a policeman came knocking on your door.

 

Of course, Samuel could not say why he came to Bethlehem. If King Saul found that the next king would be chosen in Bethlehem, he might send his army to kill the villagers as well as the prophet. Samuel told the leaders of the village that he came for a special worship service. He asked them to kill a heifer, and prepare an altar on which to dedicate it as a sacrifice. They did that. Samuel asked one of them by the name of Jesse if his sons could join him in the worship. God had picked the family of Jesse by name. Jesse proudly presented his sons one by one, all of whom were all tall and handsome. But each time one of them appeared before Samuel, God said to him, "Do not look on his outward appearance or on the height of his stature, because I rejected such a man before. I do not look at things as humans do, who would look on the outward appearance, but I look on the inside – on the heart." God rejected all the sons of Jesse who were brought in.

 

So Samuel asked Jesse if he had seen all his sons. "Yes," he said, "except the youngest. He is only a boy. He is watching my sheep out in the desert. I am not sure if I could find him." Samuel told him to go and find him. It was a real let down for Jesse. He wanted to show off his good looking sons. Whatever the purpose of those interviews were, he certainly never thought of his little boy as someone worth considering for an important position. He was too young, only good enough to keep an eye on the sheep while they were grazing. Yes, he had beautiful eyes, but he was too small to be a soldier. His appearance was not too impressive to be even an altar boy. He wrote songs and could sing with his lute, but that was about the only thing he could do well. Anyhow the young boy was brought in. God said to Samuel, "He is it. Anoint him to be the next king." This is how the greatest and most beloved king of Israel was anointed. This was how the story of King David began.

 

Just as a little apple seed has all the potential of an apple tree, the potential to bear thousands of apples, any little baby has all the potential to become the greatest or the most wonderful person in the whole world. The Kingdom of God is like a tiny seed that grows up to be a big tree. Likewise, the church can have only a few members or have little money. All it needs is a commitment to uphold the spirit of Christ. All it needs is a seed that is a commitment to be a community of caring and sharing. This is how God sees it. That is how we should see ourselves, too.

 

 

 

B: CAN ANYONE MAKE A COMPLETE TURN AROUND? – EASTER 3

CAN ANYONE MAKE A COMPLETE TURN AROUND?

Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, Luke 24:36b – 48

April 13, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

In Christianity, we use the word "repent" often and believe that it is a very important element in our faith. The word means a complete turn around – about face, a u-turn. It was one of the first messages the disciples began to give as they came out of seclusion. They urged crowds to repent and to turn around to the faith in Jesus Christ. But repentance takes a great deal of courage. In fact, it is so difficult that one wonders if anyone can ever make a complete turn around. Just look around. How many people do we know who made a complete turn around, in their thinking and in their life-style? Not many.

As you proceed from the four Gospels to the first book of the rest of the New Testament – the Acts of Apostles – you can not help noticing big changes in the disciples. They suddenly begin to appear confident and to sound bold. Look at Peter in todays” reading, for example. People were stunned into silent astonishment, staring at Peter and John, after seeing a miracle they performed at the gate called the Beautiful Gate of the temple. Peter started to berate them: he accused them of murdering the son of God – Messiah. The tone of his speech is so accusatory that Peter sounds self-righteous and even arrogant. When I read this passage, at first I instinctively didn”t like the tone of his speech. I don”t like anybody accusing other people while ignoring one”s own less-than-honourable track record.

Peter was a man of many faults. He was a passionate man. But one trait got him into many embarrassing, if not disastrous situations. Often, he spoke too soon without too much thought, and ended up in great grief. The worst was the predicament he found himself during Jesus” trial. Only days before, when Jesus predicted his arrest and the crucifixion, Peter bravely declared that he would go anywhere with his master even if that would meant his own humiliation and death. But on the night Jesus was tried, whipped, and humiliated in public, Peter could not bring himself to be seen in public. He tried hard to hide himself. But curiosity got the better of him. He was one in the crowd in the courtyard of the building where his master”s trial was taking place. So a young slave girl found him and asked him, "Aren”t you the man who was always with Jesus?" He was not found by a mass of people or by an important official. Nobody noticed him except a slave girl. But he was scared just the same, and said, "No way, I have no idea who that man is." He said that three times during the course of one evening. He was so ashamed of himself, and bitterly cried as a cock crowed at dawn. An interesting thing is that he told this story to others later. Otherwise, how could this be a part of the Biblical story? He did not hesitate to expose his own mistakes and weakness, later. What made him so strong?

So what happened to Peter between those denials and that moment at the Beautiful Gate of the temple in Jerusalem? In between Peter experienced the grace of God shown in the incredible forgiveness of Jesus Christ. After all those acts of betrayal, when Jesus and Peter met face to face after the resurrection, Jesus still treated Peter as he always had, just like a friend. Peter also received the spirit as Jesus breathed over the disciples. In other words, he was met with love and was empowered by the spirit. And the love which was in that spirit gave him power to change. So when Peter charged people with complicity in the death of Jesus, his point was repentance. He was only expecting them to do as he had done. His intention was not to say, "See, you were wrong. And I was right." He was not vindictive. His idea was not to humiliate people. How could he? His own shortcomings were evidence of how weak people could be. But this self-knowledge also meant he could say without hesitation, "See how much I changed? You can change also."

Peter”s call for repentance of others meant he was no longer afraid to expose his past vulnerability and weakness. It took a lot of courage for Peter to expose himself like that. I am sure he was conscious of many people remembering vividly how pathetic Peter was before and after the crucifixion. He was not afraid to face public scorn. Our society has a rather cruel tendency not to forgive people, especially men, who expose their weakness. We discovered only after they were dead for some years that Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill both suffered many spells of depression. Churchill wrote about his "black dog" many times in his memoir. But their psychological problem was hidden from the public, as it would have damaged their credibility. In addition, you must remember those would-have-been good leaders whose credibility was destroyed in the eyes of the public, because they exposed their vulnerability. Edmond Muskie”s chance of being a Presidential candidate was shattered in New Hampshire primary when he cried in public. Jimmy Carter”s credibility was diminished when he confessed that he sometimes looked at women with lust. Thomas Eagleton”s political life ended when he admitted that he once consulted a psychiatrist. It takes courage to say to the public, "I was wrong, I was weak. But I changed. You can change, too.". Because they may not accept you. Peter took that chance.

Do you remember Charles Coulson? He was one of President Nixon”s advisers who was involved in devising so-called dirty tricks. He was found guilty of lying to the Congress of the United States and of obstructing justice. During his imprisonment, he repented and converted to become an evangelist. I don”t agree with his theology, but I do admire his courage to expose his past and publicly changed the course of his life. I wish that more people would follow an example like that in the Somalia Enquiry.

So it is possible to make a complete turn around. It is possible to repent. And the secret seems to be the intervention of the Holy Spirit that convinces you of God”s love. When you have such an experience, you feel empowered to expose your vulnerability and to speak to other people bravely about the need to make a radical change.

 

 

B: A WISE FOOL – THIRD SUNDAY OF AUGUST

TO BE A FOOL IN ORDER TO BE WISE

1 Kings 2 & 3, Psalm 111, 1 Cor 3:18-23

August 20, 2000 by Tad Mitsui

Many family owned businesses fall apart when the founders pass on and the kids take over. The Eaton”s department store chain is a good example. Who would have imagined that the Eaton”s, a Canadian icon, would go bankrupt after Timothy Eaton”s kids took over. The story of King Solomon teaches us about the limitation of a person, who may be very gifted and wise and is successful.

King Solomon was the most successful king of all times, not only in the history of the Hebrew nation but also in the stories of kings everywhere. Under his reign, Israel became a powerful country extending its borders from the present day Israel to Jordan, to Lebanon and to Syria, and even to Egypt. The country became very wealthy. Solomon was successful economically, militarily, politically. He was said to have married hundreds of wives and had an equal numbers of concubines, which was a sign of a successful man in those days. But most importantly, he was known for his wisdom. As you have heard from today”s lesson, when he became a king, he first asked God for wisdom and nothing else. For this, God was very pleased. He was not only a successful king, but he was also a wise king, as the episode in today”s lesson shows.

In fact, many of "Wisdom Literature" in the Bible are said to have been written by King Solomon. They are the Ecclesiastes, the Proverbs, the Song of Songs, and some Psalms. My favourite is from the Ecclesiastes; "For everything, there is a season. A time for every matter under the heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to love and a time to hate. Etc." Some of them are humorous. For example in Proverbs he says, "If you are wise, you will keep your mouth shut." Or, "To live with someone who talks all the time is worse than living in hell." Some are full of humanity. The Song of Songs is the loveliest of all love songs. The fact that such a love song is in the Bible is an affirmation of human sexuality.

However, what is most interesting is the fact that King Solomon himself ended up very frustrated after all those achievements and successes – he was most sceptical about his achievements. Furthermore, just like Timothy Eaton, he did not succeed in creating an enduring kingdom: in fact his kingdom crumbled immediately after he died, and split up into two countries causing the eventual demise of the Jewish nation. Because he was extremely wise, he was able to realize how limited human enterprises were. The Ecclesiastes, which I believe to be the best writings of King Solomon, is the most pessimistic book in the Bible. In it, he expressed his disappointments in life. In chapter one, he said, "Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. – It is useless, useless. Life is useless, all is useless. You spend your life working hard, labouring, and what do you have to show for it? Generations come and generations go, but the world stays just the same. What”s the use?" Why did such a successful man, like Solomon, end up so disappointed.

A Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy made the same point in a story. There was a man who was given all the land he wanted if he could go around it on foot in a day. So, one day at dawn, he started to run. At one point, of course, he could not go on any more because he was absolutely exhausted. But with determination he staggered on. As the Sun was setting in the West, he was crawling but still trying to grab more land. He did make it back to the place where he started out when the Sun disappeared. But he was completely exhausted, in fact he died a moment after the Sunset. At the end, all the land he acquired for free was a piece of land with a size of 3 by 6 feet, where a hole was dug to bury his body. Now then, the question is: are Tolstoy and Solomon saying that all we do in this life is in vain therefore useless, because we die anyway? Is what we do is so useless that we should do nothing?

Some people believe that. They think that the best way is to get away from the world and spend the rest of your life in meditation. I firmly reject this view. I don”t think that King Solomon was saying that. For one thing, he tried his darnest to be a good king, for people and for the country. And he was a good king and a wise one, too. His country benefitted from his wisdom and achievements. This is why he is fondly remembered even today. But because he tried his best, he got to know that human endeavour alone had limitations. He found that his achievements fell far short of the goal. In fact without God, he found them useless. He felt the need of something more, to make life worthwhile. Solomon in the Ecclesiastes, said at the end, "Remember your creator in the days of your youth.", as though to say, "whatever you do, you do it with God in mind." He also said, "The ultimate way to become wise is to honour God."

Albert Einstein, who was considered to be the best scientist of the 20th Century. He said, "Science without religion is blind and dangerous. Religion without science is crazy." Science is one of the most important human enterprises. And the best scientist we have ever known in the last century believed that human endeavour was dangerous without God. And only lazy people, who don”t believe in science turn their religions into superstitions.

Of course, the first article of faith in the Christian teaching is "God is love." Therefore to honour God is to love. This is why Paul in his letter to the Corinthians said, "You may have to be a fool in the eyes of humans in order to be wise in the eyes of God." He said it because the way of love may seem foolish if you don”t know God. If you don”t believe that ultimately the wisdom of God is love, you will have no choice but to see Jesus Christ as the most foolish person ever lived on the earth. It is because he died for others for love. But for those who believe in the love of God, Christ showed us the true way – indeed the way of wisdom of God. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

C: GOD DOES NOT ALWAYS ANSWER OUR PRAYERS – EASTER 6

GOD DOES NOT ALWAYS ANSWER OUR PRAYERS

Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22:1-5

May 17, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

When Frank Sinatra died on Thursday, everybody said that he lived like his song, "I did it my way." We all wish, too, God answers our prayers by letting us to do it our way. But you notice that the Apostle Paul, on at least two occasions, did not have his way. God did not answer his prayers, and obliged him to go in God”s way, rather than his own. Today”s lesson from the Acts says, "The Holy Spirit forbid him to speak the Word in Asia." and "A woman (She) prevailed upon us." First sentence implies that he had not thought of ever going to Europe, but rather intended to stay in Asia. The second one says that a woman prevailed upon Paul, and he had to follow her way.

According to the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit prohibited Paul to preach the Gospel in Asia. It takes a bit of detective work to find out what this actually meant. Some of you with sharp eyes may have noticed a change in pronouns in the chapter 16 of the Acts, in verses 8 and 10. After Paul and his company crossed the channel into Europe, the writer switched the pronoun from "they" to "we". It means that the writer of this book joined Paul”s company in Europe. We all know that the writer of the Book of Acts was Luke, and he was a physician. We can assume that the reason why Paul could not continue in Asia had something to do with his health, and a medical doctor had to accompany Paul from that time on. We find many hints in Paul”s letters that he had some serious health problems, although we don”t know the exact nature of these problems. Especially, we don”t know the particular problem that did not allow Paul to continue in Asia. But his ill-health was a clear message from God; "Go to Europe instead."

A persistent health problem is annoying to say the least. How many time did some sickness prevent you from doing things you had wanted to do? It could be very frustrating. This is because we take an adverse situation like illness as a refusal, not as a message that points us in a new direction. We take it negatively and think that God or fate doesn”t allow us to do things we want to do. But we must realize that, from time to time, God speaks to us through an adverse situation, like an accident or sickness. It prevents you to do what you want to do, and directs you in a different direction – in God”s way. We will never find out God”s way if we insist that ours is the best way and the only way. We can only find God”s way when we are ready to make the best out of a bad situation. We may find that the bad situation is a message in disguise. God shows us the best way sometimes by not answering our prayers. We must learn to see the work of the Holy Spirit in disappointing situations and in our failures and mistakes. We must learn to say, "This is not good. But what is God saying in all this?"

Another surprise in today”s reading is the fact that the first European Christian was a woman. Her name was Lydia. It was in her home that the first church in Europe started. Actually, nobody should be surprised that this was the case. There have always been more women than men in the church. Two-third of the worshippers in the church everywhere are women. So it should not come as a surprise that the first person who accepted Jesus Christ in Europe and became a committed Christian was also a woman.

Lydia opened up her whole house as the place of worship. Also she offered her home as lodging for Paul and his company. But apparently those men were reluctant to accept Lydia”s hospitality. The Bible says that Lydia had to "prevail upon" them. Their reluctance is easy to understand, if you consider the accepted code of behaviours between men and women in those days. It could have been easily misunderstood if a group of Jewish religious leaders slept in a single gentile woman”s home. But they stayed in her home for a few days, and that”s how the first European church began.

The church in Philippi in Lydia”s home began to thrive, and eventually became Paul”s most beloved Church. In his letter to the Philippians, which he wrote just before he was executed in Rome, he said, "My brothers and sisters, I love you and long for you. You are my joy and crown." It is fascinating to picture the group of women who originally gathered around Lydia and to realize that a business woman and her employees, grew into a thriving church so generous and loving.

Considering the status of women throughout history, it is surprising that two thousand years ago the first important church in Europe was founded by a group of women. The Bible says that it was the work of the Holy Spirit in spite of Paul”s unsupportive opinion about the place of women in the church. He even wrote in another letter that women should not speak in the church. What happened in Philippi certainly was not within Paul”s scheme of things. But it was obvious that the will of the Spirit of Christ prevailed and some women took charge in the early church.

In fact, Rodney Stark, a sociologist, attributes the rapid growth of the early church to the status of women in the Christian community. In those days in Roman Empire, the status of women was extremely low. For example, the law allowed the killing of baby girls together with deformed children. Consequently, the ratio of men and women in Roman Empire was 14 men to 10 women – 40% more men. Many men could not marry and went to prostitutes. It was only in the Christian church this practice of infanticide was prohibited according to the teaching of Jesus. Women enjoyed more respect in the church than they did in wider society. So, naturally many women were attracted to the church and joined. Eventually, there were more marriages in the church and there was a population explosion among Christians. They practiced the teaching of Christ about the equality of men and women. It was rare in those days. And it brought about a burgeoning Christian community during the early days of the church.

If we honestly believe that God”s way is the best way, we must be ready to accept whatever may come our way, even if it was not what we have expected or wanted. Otherwise, we will never learn from our mistakes nor be able to make the best out of adverse situations. We will miss surprising opportunities that open to us when other doors shut. And we will always blame God for not answering our prayers. The Apostle Paul learned how the Holy Spirit worked when he found that he could not always do it his way. Thank God, some of Paul”s prayers were not answered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A: ABOUT DINNER – PALM SUNDAY

NOW ABOUT THIS DINNER

Isaiah 50:4-9, Psalm 31, Matthew 26:26-35

Tad Mitsui, March 31, 1996

In our church, there are two most important rituals. They are Baptism and Holy Communion. It is interesting that those Sacraments relate to basic events in our daily life; washing and eating. In Baptism, we join the community of faith through a symbolic act of cleaning ourselves with water. In Communion, we affirm the sharing nature of our community by symbolically eating a meal together, in doing so we also remember that Jesus made an ultimate act of sharing in giving his own life.

The ordinariness in our most sacred religious acts shows a very important aspect of our faith. In our spiritual tradition, there is no division between sacred and secular. This is God”s world. So everyday ordinary act of life is holy. Where we stand in our daily life at home or in our work is a holy ground. One day, last week, I was in a car with two of you. The conversation was fun. But at one point, one man said to another, "You watch your language. The minister is here." I assumed his remark was meant to be a joke, but had it been serious, it would be very unfair to the minister. He would miss out on all the fun of this world. There should not be the world of fun separate from God”s world, because there is only one world, which is God”s world. For our God, every ordinary thing is his business also. There is something wrong in our faith, if we feel that God takes fun out of our lives. He doesn”t. If it is important to us, it is important to God, also.

Eating is one of our most important functions. Therefore, it is also important in our faith. We spend a lot of time thinking, planning, acquiring ingredients, preparing, and eating food. We spend more time in learning to cook, reading recipes, and talking about what we ate. I am sure that we spend more time on food related activities, perhaps next to sleeping, than on any other daily task. Human beings used to spend a lot more time, growing, hunting, preparing food. In fact, until a century ago, food production was almost the full time occupation of a majority of people. Because the activities relating to food gathering and consumption took more time, food was arguably more precious than it is to us today. Thus it is not surprising that much religious significance come to be attached to it. If it is important for humans, it is important to God also.

There were many religious instructions about the selection and preparation of food. Many of them made a lot of sense, especially in a hot climate and with less than perfect sanitary conditions. Much of worship service was concerned with the act of dedicating food items to God. In fact, the first five books of the Old Testament are filled with instructions about preparation of food and about offering food items to God as acts of worship. Faithful Jewish people still today observe many of those ancient practices. It is called keeping kosher. So paradoxically food is important in our religious life, because it is so ordinary. There is no separation between ordinary and sacred.

There is another reason why food had much spiritual significance. It is due to the collective nature of food production and consumption. One of the reasons why human beings thrive despite our many physical shortcomings is because we are good at working together in groups producing and sharing food. Any predatory animal, which operates alone, may look fierce and strong, but actually has less chance of survival. Ants and bees may look tiny and vulnerable, but they have potential to outlive eagles and lions, because they are better at working together and sharing food. We are one of the best animals at acquiring and producing food together. Peaceful relationships are the most important element in enabling such cooperation and sharing. Justice is an important part of the code of sharing. It was not just profit that enabled human beings to become so efficient in food production. We should not forget that only a community bound by a code of justice and peace can work together well.

Food also has important religious significance because most of the food we eat comes from living organisms. In fact, we can live because many lives are sacrificed for us. This is where the notion of sacrifice emerged as an important spiritual element of food preparation and consumption. Ancient people were familiar with the sight and sound and gore of animals which were being killed for food. So thanksgiving before the meals had another dimension, which we seldom recognize today. People in earlier times remembered with thanks those who lost their lives to sustain lives.

Unfortunately, we have sanitized the process of slaughter of animals. It is shielded from the eyes of most of us. So the element of sacrifice has been lost in our idea of food. In an African country where I once lived, it was the custom to slaughter a cow for the dinner at every wedding and funeral, and at other special occasions. To kill the animal before all the invited guests was an important ritual. The animal was bound and tied down to the ground. An elder of the village would slit the throat with a sharp knife. It was important that the blood was spilt on the ground as a symbolic act of sharing the life of the sacrificed animal with God. Most of us who came from the west could not eat the dinner. We were not used to seeing such a gore before a meal. But witnessing the agony of the animal was an important part of recognizing the nature of sacrifice. By sanitizing the process of slaughter, we have encouraged people to forget the cost of our food, and thus diminished our appreciation of it.

The enslaved Jews took the best looking lambs without blemish, slaughtered them for the last meal before their liberation, and smeared their doors with the blood of the lambs. This was how the angel of death passed over the Jewish households. They also sacrificed the young and best-looking animal annually to ask God”s forgiveness for the sins committed in the past year. So for the Jewish people, dinner was not only a symbol of the sharing community where justice and peace prevailed, but it also signified what we owed to other creatures who sacrificed their lives for us. So, as we partake in this symbolic meal of communion, we not only remember the last supper Jesus shared with his followers, but also we cerebrate the everyday meals we share with our families and friends including last week”s pancake breakfast, the Spring luncheon, and Fall turkey dinner! We are what we eat. The everyday defines our lives. Yet they are not just ordinary dinners. As we enjoy the food and the company, meals remind us also of our obligation to share and to be grateful for the cost of food, in labour and sacrifice. Holy Communion reflects holiness of our daily food. I hope that this does not spoil the fun of eating. It”s like having fun, even in a company of a minister.

 

 

 

C: WHAT ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE THAN THE GOOD SAMARITAN? – THIRD SUNDAY OF JULY

ROBBERS AND VICTIMS

LUKE 10: 25 – 37

Nobody wants to be a victim, neither does one want to think of oneself as a robber. This is why we prefer to speak about the Good Samaritan and not so much about the other characters in the story. But there are many important lessons to be learned about robbers and victims, too. Because we”ve all heard about the good Samaritan, I decided to talk today about being robbers and victims. I must warn you though, it may make you feel a bit uncomfortable. I found it so myself.

About the victim: Unfortunately, everyone is a potential victim. In the story Jesus told, a man was on a way from Jerusalem to Jericho, and encountered an unexpected disaster. He was robbed, wounded, lying on the ground totally helpless. Travelling from point A to point B, that kind of things can happen to any one of us. But we prefer to think that being a victim only happens to other people.

This is because we want to be in control of ourselves all the time. Our culture places high value on being independent and in charge of our lives. We take all sorts of precautions so that we will not be in a helpless position. We are proud to be able to look after ourselves. This is why, when disaster strikes, we feel guilty. We feel that we have fallen into this situation because we were not prepared, were not good enough, or we did something wrong. We say that to the victims, too, saying, "It”s your own fault." Victims are punished instead of the perpetrator being named.

We blame poor people for being lazy. We blame assaulted women for inviting such a fate by being insolent or wearing provocative clothes. One of my past parishioners was once very angry when I visited him in a hospital. He did not want anyone to know that he was seriously ill. He firmly believed that sickness was a result of sinful living. Poor man. He did not want to admit that he was vulnerable. He did not allow others to care for him and love him. He was proud, so being cared for was a shameful state of affairs.

The most serious problem about not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is our reluctance to open ourselves to others. Because we are proud and think that we are in total control of ourselves, basically we don”t want others to help us. We shut them out. We don”t allow others to love us, or care for us. There is absolutely no shame in being loved. But we somehow feel ashamed – and this is especially true for men – that other people know we are in need of help, and are vulnerable. We must know the limit of our abilities. There comes a time in everyone”s life to realize that receiving a loved one”s care is normal. Let”s admit that we are sometimes helpless, and that there is no shame in that.

Because we are proud, we have a tendency to prefer taking what we need rather than waiting for others to give it to us. We live in a culture which admires aggressive people rather than patient people. I think this is why violence in entertainment is popular. You see, we have the seed of a potential robber in all of us. If we don”t have something, we take it. The only way to keep the robber in us in check is to nurture humility. Humility reminds us that we are not the almighty. There are things that we can not do. We need to wait from time to time for others to come to our rescue. And we have to be ready to accept that. That is called humility. Otherwise, how can we believe that Jesus Christ died for our sin? We are totally vulnerable before the cross of Jesus. That is the basis of our Christian faith.

There is another interesting twist in this story. It is called opting out. It was the option chosen by the priest and the Levite. It can also be called lack of commitment, making excuses, or cowardice. You say, "Sorry, no time, I have a dentist”s appointment." You know how it goes. You may even have done it. I remember doing it from time to time myself.

The priest and Levite were professional do-gooders. It was their job to act as God”s agents. But they had excuses, probably good ones. There must have been an important worship service, where hundreds were waiting for the priest to arrive. You can”t let down the hundreds on account of mere one wounded man. There could have been an important congregational meeting in which the Levite had to chair. You can not run an efficient organization with sentimentality. We know. Don”t we? So we passed by on the other side of the road, pretending that we did not see the dying man.

The typical moral drawn from those characters of the priest and Levite is that we too easily wait for others to pick up the slack, to do the things which we should do. But wait a minute, didn”t I just say that there are times when we must wait for others to help us? Perhaps it”s a question of balance. The trick is to have the wisdom to know the difference between when to act and when to wait. There is a prayer I love to say from time to time, written by a great American Christian and theologian, Reinhold Niebur. "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Of course, there will be times when we have to act with courage, without waiting for others. That is the time for assertive attitudes and action. But there is a world of difference between acting courageously on behalf of others, and acting aggressively on behalf of ourselves. It is wisdom, coupled with humility, that helps us judge the line between assertiveness in aggression and assertiveness in courage. The exercise of such wisdom is itself an act of courage, and not an excuse. Sometimes such wisdom leads us to wait, to accept the fact that there are some things we cannot do, and to accept the care of others. Sometimes such wisdom motivates us to act. But then the action is based on love for God and love for other people. Love is the measurement for what is important and what is less important. It helps us to discern the difference between waiting and opting out.

Let us hope that we will learn to know God”s standard of love so we know what we can not do and admit it honestly, and what we can do and act on it courageously. The victim, the robber, the Levite, the Priest and the Samaritan all travel within us. Only love can tell us which character”s footsteps most mark our souls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A: SARAH”S LAUGHTER – 2ND WEEK OF JUNE

THAT”S A LAUGH

Genesis 18:1-15, Psalm 116 (#69 Matthew 9:35-38

June 16, 1996, by Tad Mitsui

A God”s messenger told Abraham that his wife, Sarah, would give birth to a child. She overheard this inside of the tent. At first, she giggled a little at the thought of it, but soon she started to laugh harder. She could not help it, because both she and her husband were old. When the child was indeed born, they named him laughter – Isaac in Hebrew. This story intrigues me. First of all, being a man I don”t quite understand why Sarah”s situation should be so funny. And furthermore I hadn”t known that there was a story in the Bible which puts so much importance on laughter. I was brought up to think that somehow laughing is something you are not supposed to do in the church.

On the other hand, laughing is known as something only human beings do. No other animals are known to laugh. This is why the word "humour" comes from the word human. Laughing is an uniquely human activity. The knowledge of inevitable death is another thing that makes us human unique. I think we laugh because we need to ease the unbearable pain of knowing of our own future. I remember one very sick man who asked me a few days before he died, "Tad, will you say something funny about me at my funeral?" Laughter is not only contagious but also empowering. Do you remember an old Gary Cooper movie, "Beau geste"? A platoon of French Foreign Legionnaires were besieged by thousands of desert nomads in a fortress. Only a few men survived the first few onslaughts. And now they were waiting for the final attack that would surely decimate them. The situation was absolutely hopeless. Then a tough old sergeant told men to laugh. Just laugh. They were so exhausted, thirsty, scared and tense that no one could even move a muscle in their face. First someone made a hissing sound trying hard to obey the Sergeant”s order. The second man began his feeble attempt. It was only the third man who was successful making a credible laughing sound. And then it was contagious. Soon the whole platoon of survivors were laughing their heads off. The enemies were frightened by the strength of tough survivors who could laugh so hard. The last few legionnaires gained enough courage to withstand the final onslaught.

Sarah had everything a woman of her time could want. She was a beautiful woman. She was so beautiful, in fact, that Abraham had difficult time keeping her away from lustful eyes of kings and other local bullies. As they journeyed through many countries, he had to tell all sorts of lies in order to protect his wife from being taken to the harems of clan chieftains and kings. She, however, was basically a happy woman, married to a faithful, God fearing, and hard-working man. Abraham was also a rich man, with thousands of animals and hundreds of servants. She loved him dearly. She had everything except one thing. She could bear no child. This is despite the fact that God promised that their offspring would be as numerous as the number of stars in the sky. Yet no child had come. Now they were old, beyond child bearing age.

As Sarah got older, she became convinced she would never have a child. So she told her husband to go to her Egyptian slave woman Hagar, and have a baby with her. That was considered quite acceptable at the time. Hagar of course had no say in the matter. She bore him a child. They named him Ishmael. It was important for a family to have a boy child in those old times. A wife who could not bear an heir was often humiliated. So, Sarah was going to adopt Ishmael as her own in order to have a child who would carry the family name. Irony is that soon after Ishmael”s birth, Sarah was promised of her own child, which came true.

Anyhow, when Sarah heard that someone was predicting her impending pregnancy, at first the thought of having a baby seemed ridiculous. She had way passed menopause, and her husband was too old. Sharing pleasure at their age might be still possible, but having a baby? The idea was wonderful but impossible. She giggled at the thought of it remembering how it was when they were young. It was not a bad feeling to remember those good old days, the days when anything seemed possible. As she began to feel happier, so started to laugh a little louder. The visitors who were speaking with her husband outside of the tent heard the muffled laughter and asked her why she was laughing. She first denied that she laughed, because it was the kind of secret joy old people were not expected to harbour. We often deny the joy of life to senior citizens. After my mother lost my step-father, at the age of seventy-six, she became a good friend of a man a few years younger than she was, who lived in the same seniors” apartment building. My siblings and I were horrified. It was not money. It was the thought of seniors, especially one”s own mother, having a romantic relationship, that was unacceptable in our mind. But of course, that was our problem, not my mother”s. Neither was it a moral problem. God makes many things possible to make our life joyful.

It was such a wonderful thing for Sarah to remember how it had been between her and her husband, especially how the thought of having a child had always been present. But now it was an impossible dream, though a wonderful one. So she laughed and laughed at herself that she could still think of those things. She was happy to realize that she was still capable of such youthful dreams. When some idea occurs to you which is wonderfully pleasurable though absolutely impossible, what do you do? You laugh at yourself. It is a healthy kind of laughter. When you can laugh at yourself, you are fine. You have no problem. But when you are insecure or ill at ease, you can not laugh at yourself. It is too scary to look at your own reality. You avoid looking at yourself at all costs.

So what happens to a person”s laughter in this case – when you don”t like yourself too much and feel too insecure to look at yourself? Instead of laughing at yourself, you laugh at others in their disability or at their misfortune. Those are nasty laughs. You put down others to feel good. A lot of ethnic jokes and sexist jokes are said for that reason. Because you don”t feel good about yourself, you make others targets of your ridicule.

It is good to see Sarah had capacity to laugh at herself for, in those days, women had many reasons to feel insecure in their social positions. Women did not enjoy freedom and independence as men did in those days. Women were basically men”s property at that time. Powerful men stole other people”s wives and kept them in harems. Women were not allowed to possess any means to protect themselves. So they had to be dependent on men for their protection. Men took concubines when their wives could not bear children without ever considering that it might the men who were sterile. Sarah should have been an insecure person, like other women were, but she wasn”t. She could laught at herself. Why?

It must have been a wonderful dream for Sarah to be able to achieve the impossible and to bear an heir. But her laughter had a hint of defiance. When she heard the prediction of her pregnancy, she thought it was ridiculous. It was biologically impossible. So she giggled at the thought. But it might just be possible, it just might, one chance in a million kind of possibility. As the thought began to sink in, she must have realized that other people would also think such an idea ridiculous. How can one defy the laws of nature? Yet the thought pleased her. "Old age can not beat me. I will defy people”s idea of possibility. I believe in God”s promise no matter how that sounds impossible. I believe in God. I don”t care what people say." She could win in an unfair game. Then the laughter became deep and hearty.

So what was God trying to tell us in Sarah”s laughter? It is impossible to tell. The story is pregnant with a whole world of meaning. I am sure I haven”t even touched the surface of the story. At least we know that God makes us laugh at a thought of making impossible possible. Sometimes God”s message is so wonderfully incredible, and so incredibly wonderful, that the only way we can react to it is to laugh. And laughter also makes the burden of life”s reality bearable. But isn”t it wonderful to think that a nation which brought Jesus Christ into our world was begun by a man, Isaac, whose name meant Laughter? And that it was his mother”s laughter at God”s incredible promise for whom he was named.

B: A LIFE WITHOUT FAITH IS A LIFE IN HELL- EASTER

B: A LIFE WITHOUT FAITH IS A LIFE IN HELL

Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 150, John 20:19-31

April 6, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

No one can know absolutely everything. So we must act on trust, believing that people and things are where they are expected to be and do things they are expected to do. Otherwise, life will be impossible. Imagine a life where nobody and nothing is reliable. It is a description of a life in hell. If you must suspect everybody, your life will be full of fear. It is a life so difficult that you might as well be dead. Today”s Gospel tells a story of faith restored, hence life recovered. How did Jesus do it? Let us find out.

When you are gripped with paralysing fear, and lock yourself behind a door, no one can help you. When my daughter was not even two, one night she accidentally locked herself in the bathroom in a dark. She was absolutely paralysed by fear. She kept screaming so loud that she was not able to hear me. I was trying to tell her how to unlock the door. My voice behind the door might have been like a voice of a ghost for her. We had to bring in a locksmith to get her out. Fear was like ear plugs; she could not hear anything that might help her.

Fear and distrust shut off all your senses. The disciples were in that kind of a state on the day of Easter. Many of them saw Jesus alive again on that day. But they could not trust anyone outside to believe that. They were so fearful of other people. Those people welcomed Jesus and hailed him as a king one day, but within a couple of days, the same people changed completely and demanded his death on a cross. The disciples had no trust in their fellow citizens. So they locked themselves behind a door.

A society that distrusts others and refuses to believe in anybody or anything, is a society that does not function. Some cities are coming close to that state. I overheard my friend who was teaching in New York city, talking with his 14 years old son on the telephone. He told him to stay the night with his friend. He could not come to pick him up. It was already 4 in the afternoon and the subway was too dangerous. When people lose faith in other people and institutions, there is no sense of community and a city dies. Western society is in a spiritual crisis as the religious institutions are losing public support. We need spiritual life like we need water. When people don”t know how to get to a spring of clean water, they may end up drinking from a miserable puddle of dirty water. Could that also explain the recent incidents of suicides by cult members?

Another problem about doubt and fear is that once you are in that state of mind, any amount of medicine, psychology, or science can not help you. Doubt and fear are opposite of faith and trust. Faith and trust belong to the spiritual sphere. And no amount of scientific remedy can heal spiritual illness. It is no more inappropriate than trying to heal a broken heart with alcohol.

I suspect also that the disciples were crushed by guilt. Remember what they did at the time of crisis? They could have demonstrated their faith and their loyalty to the teacher whom they loved with some brave acts of heroism. On the contrary, one of them denied him three times out of fear any knowledge of Jesus. Most of them ran away from the scene of their teacher”s death. Because of those acts of cowardice and betrayal, their self-image was in tatters. The result was fear exacerbated by guilt. They had knowledge of the risen Christ but had no faith in the power of that knowledge. So they were immobilized by fear of others.

There was also an element of doubt that robbed them of the power of faith. Thomas had not seen the risen Jesus. So he did not believe what the other disciples were saying. His doubt was to be expected. After all, they were, you must confess, not very reliable friends. They abandoned their teacher at the time of crisis. Why should he believe preposterous things that unreliable people were saying? Once doubt has sunk into your mind, it is very difficult get rid of it. The mere sight of wounds on Jesus would not convince him. He wanted to touch them. It was not facts and sights that changed Thomas.

When the disciples were gripped by doubt, fear and guilt, and locked themselves in, what did bring life into them? What did Jesus do? Jesus came in through the locked door and wished them peace; showed them wounds to prove that it was indeed him; spoke about forgiveness, and breathed on them saying "receive the Holy Spirit." It was those gestures that touched the heart, that reached the depth of human reality on the gut level.

He walked through the locked door. Obviously he was in a different kind of body, though he was the same Jesus as the wounds proved. But what impressed the disciples must have been his forgiveness. He spoke to them as though they did not betray him. He spoke as though nothing happened in their relationship. This is a proof of incredible forgiveness. Their betrayal caused him so much suffering, and yet he came back to them. When doubt and fear were met with such amazing grace and love, they just melted away. No amount of argument, no mountain of facts changed their doubt and fear into faith. But forgiveness and love did.

Another interesting act of Jesus was his breathing spirit into the disciples. The word for spirit in the Bible is the same word for breath, air, and wind. And in the Bible breath, spirit, and life are intimately connected. Life is not complete without air and spirit. Breathing spirit into another person, like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, is such an intimate life giving act. When Jesus breathed spirit into the lives of his disciples, it was clear that his overwhelming love was infusing a true life force into their dispirited bodies. Thomas did not have to touch the wounds as he had demanded. When faith came back to him, he simply said, "My Lord, My God."

Life is not complete without two kinds of gifts from God. We can not live without the gifts of nature, like air. No can we live a full life without the gifts of the spirit like love, joy, mystery and wonder. Jesus gave both kinds of gifts to the disciples when he returned to them after his resurrection. And he offers them again to us in the miracle of Easter.

 

C: WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, NOT WHAT WE DO.

WHAT ARE WHAT WE ARE, NOT SO MUCH WHAT WE DO.

ISAIAH 1, 10-20, PSALM 50, LUKE 12:32-40

AUGUST 9, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

When his close friend and a co-worker Howie Mills died suddenly at the age of fifty-three, the Very Reverend Sang Chul Lee, the former Moderator of the United Church, pointed his finger at heaven said, "This is not right. You are wrong this time." This surprised me, because I had never expected Sang Chul to complain to God. He was a faithful and wise servant of God and impressed me as a person who would be willing to undertake any difficult task for God and for the church.

For me, God was the ultimate authority. I did not believe that one could complain to God. It was a kind of things that a person of no faith would do. But the Prophet Isaiah surprised me in the same way. In the verse 18, God was proposing to people, "Let us argue this out." In the beginning of the chapter, God had been speaking about all the wrong things people were doing. And yet after all that diatribe he suggested, "Let”s sit down and talk about this." He didn”t sound like someone who lays down the law and punishes whoever would not obey him. In this sentence, God is ready to negotiate with you, like a lawyer proposing immunity from prosecution.

Isaiah is reminding us that our relationship with God is a covenant – a contract between partners. The God we believe in, according to the Bible, is the God who respects us and invites us into a covenant with him. This is one important expression of God”s love for us. In a truly loving relationship, one party does not exercise arbitrary power over another. It is a give-and-take. Friendship, marriage, or parenthood can be a true relationship when there is a mutual respect for each other. Our God is the God who became a human being, by giving up his godly power, to live among us, suffered like us, and died like us. He became an equal partner. We are who we are in a relationship to someone, especially to God. That is the basis of our most fundamental identity.

We are ”human beings”, not ”human doings”. We must know what we are simply as "beings" before we do anything. However, many of us, especially men, don”t know who we are except through what we do for living. When we are asked to introduce ourselves, we usually mention our jobs after our names. This is why for many years women, who stayed home to look after children and homes were treated like nobodies, even though they had much heavier work load than many paid jobs. We must know who we are before whatever we do. Knowing who we are is knowing the meaning of life. Doing things without knowing who we are is like driving a car not knowing where we are going.

For many years, parents have expressed their hopes and aspirations for their children in the acts of naming them. Unfortunately, today we do not take the meaning of the names seriously as much as our ancestors used to. Names used to give more profound identifications to persons. Abraham in Hebrew means ”Father of Nation”, for example. Many cultures still maintain that tradition to take seriously the meaning of a child”s name. In Lesotho in Africa where I worked for some years, naming a child is a serious business. The names are always parents” prayers for the children. "Mpho – gift" for a girl and "Thabo – joy" for a boy, expressing the parents” gratitude for the gift of a child. Some children have terrible names like "Moiketsi – manure" and "Tsietsi – trouble". The idea to give such terrible names is to lure an unwanted attention of the devil away from the special child, like a first born. In Hebrew tradition, when one reached adulthood, another name was added to express one”s own hopes and aspirations. That was how Jacob later in his life became Israël meaning "God”s chosen one".

So the names in the Bible were always deeply representative of who people were. One day on a mountain, Moses wanted to know how he could introduce God to people. So he asked God his name. But God answered, "I am what I am". A name was not just an identification mark. It had to describe the whole being. This is why "I am what I am" was the only name God could give at that moment. God was trying to tell Moses that the true knowledge of God would come only through relationship with him. God did not allow a simplistic description of himself "in a nutshell." We enter into a relationship in trust in a covenant, then our knowledge of God grows as we interact with him in our daily life. It should be like that in our relationship with another human being, too.

I believe that one of the serious problems we have today is a crisis of identity. We are not quite sure who we are. If we have nothing to do, we feel worthless – we feel like nobody. When you become unemployed your self-esteem plummets and you feel you are nobody, because what you do for money is often the only way you know who you are. But being busy doing a lot of things does not solve the problem, because you don”t know who you are, therefore you don”t know why you are doing all this. It is time we claim our identities in relationships – as someone”s beloved, not just a series of numbers on a plastic card. Your children know who you are oblivious of what you do for living, because you are their parent first and foremost, and you are loved by them.

Most importantly, we are what we are in relationship with God; we are his beloved. God treats us as his equals as covenant partners, and even invites us to argue issues with him. Let us spend more time thinking about who we are. We already spend too much time worrying about what we do. Too many things to do drive us crazy and often waste our life. But when we know who we are in relationships, we will know what to do without wasting our life away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

B: STAGES OF LOVE – EASTER 6

STAGES OF LOVE

Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98 26 John 15:9-17

May 4, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

When I saw the Gospel for today, I asked myself, "How many times can I preach on love." The disciple John, the writer of today”s Gospel, lived to be a very old man in Ephesus. He became so old that he had to be carried into the church every Sunday, and had no more strength to give new or long sermons. He repeatedly recited one line, "Little children, love one another." John”s disciples became tired of hearing the same old simple one sentence sermon. They wanted to know if he had nothing else to say, and wondered if he should retire. They asked, "Master, why do you always say this?" John replied, "Because it is the Lord”s command, and if that alone is done, it suffices." I believe that John was right in saying this, though perhaps the poor old man should have retired sooner.

There is no other word that suffer from over use than the word "love". It is like years of inflation which has made our money so cheap. We used to respect the dollar, but we now call them "loonies". Likewise love is so cheap that many people think it is same as sex. This is why some religions prefer to use other words like "charity" in the old Catholic liturgy or "mercy" in the Buddhist teaching. Having said all that, I still insist that we must keep using the word, because love is the most important norm in the Christian faith. After all, we believe that God is love. Love contains the whole universe of truth according to our belief. It should never run out of steam.

For one thing, love has many faces and phases. In fact, I believe that there should be many words to express the whole notion of love. The English language has only one word for it. However, Greek language, for example, has at least three words that have been translated into the English word "love." I want to speak about them today.

The first face of love I want to speak about is self-love. We often short change self-love and give it a bad name. Self-love is not same as selfishness. Jesus said, "Love your neighbour as you love yourself." Without knowing how to love oneself, one never knows how to love anyone at all.

A Sunday School teacher asked the class where God is. One boy answered without hesitation that God lived in the bathroom. He said, "Every morning, my Dad knocks on the door of the bathroom and shouts; My God, are you still there?" Seriously, it would be embarrassing to think about God in the bathroom. In a bathroom you see yourself naked, alone. You see yourself in the most candid form. Most of us don”t want to think about ourselves in a bathroom situation, because we don”t think what we do and how we look in there are socially acceptable. We think it is a bad taste. That is the problem. If we can not accept ourselves with pot bellies and excess fat, how can we love another person who may not be agreeable. To love oneself, one must accept reality. Nobody is perfect. To love others, we must also know how to love real persons, not a dream. And love overcomes reality no matter how ugly it is.

There is a word in Greek "Eros" that is the most misused word for love. Originally what the word had little to do with sex. It simply meant attraction to what is beautiful and ideal. It is also a mysterious force that makes you see beauty in any person and makes you forgiving. For parents any child is the most beautiful thing in the world. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. That”s what Eros does.

However, since the word Eros is often used in connection with sex, I should mention something about the relationship between our sexuality and Eros love. Sex in itself is not love as such. It is a mere biological function for procreation. Sexual pleasures are blessings and incentives given by God, so that we want to continue to exists as a species. Sex can happen without love. We must learn from the notion of Eros in our sexual relationship. Then sex can be an important spiritual part of our life. It can be one of the ways to communicate love like a conversation but on a deeper level. The spiritual aspect of sexuality is what distinguishes us from other animals.

Another kind of love is the love between family members and friends. There is a Greek word "Philos", which is frequently used in the Bible. Philos is forgiving. For example, it never occurs to any mother to hate the baby, even after many days of morning sickness, much discomfort, and excruciating birth pain. Also philos love makes you willing to sacrifice yourself for others. Giving becomes as pleasurable as receiving. When you truly love another person, you would want to give the most precious thing in your life – life itself. Jesus” said, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one”s life for friends."

However, trouble is that we tend to take this Jesus” saying too dramatically. Many of us think that Jesus commanded us to die to love others. It is wrong to think that to die is the only way to truly love. You don”t run into a friend who is facing a gun man very often, so that you can throw yourself between them. You don”t need to wait until you see a child drowning, so that you can jump into the rapids. It is that faithful, daily, mundane, unglamorous loving – that is laying down our life for our friend, for your spouse, for your child, and for your neighbour. Woody Allen said, "The essence of love is to show up." It is not very dramatic just to be there everyday. But this is where true love happens. If you don”t know how to love in an everyday kind of way, you would not know how to lay down your life.

Finally, there is God”s love. In the Bible another word "Agapé" is used. Often we think that God”s love which is evident in the life and death of Jesus Christ is unattainable for human beings. I don”t agree with that. I believe we are capable of God”s love. We are created in the image of God. Each one of us has a bit of God in us. If we think deeply about the best of the kinds of love we show daily, we will realize that all of them have bits of God”s love in it. Agapé love is found in a sum total of all the best in human love.

If we are brave enough to look at ourselves honestly and to accept ourselves in a bathroom, we have made a good start in a process of learning to love our neighbours. We may learn to accept other people despite their ugly side, and eventually learn to love even our enemies. Jesus said, "It was said

C: WHERE DO YOU FIND GOD? – FIRST WEEK OF JUNE

WHERE DO YOU FIND GOD?

Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31, Psalm 8, John 16:12-15

June 7, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

Every mornings a cat comes to visit our front porch. It comes from the north side, walks on the same side of the front porch, and walks away towards the south. I”ve never seen the cat. But I am quite sure it is the same cat. Why do I know this then? I see its paw marks when it is wet outside. When it snows, I can see the same paw marks more clearly on exactly the same path. This is just like the way we know that there is God. Nobody has seen God. But the world is full of foot marks of God.

Look at the face of the person next to you. Do you know that it is almost impossible to find exactly the same face anywhere in the world? There are about five billion people on this planet. But no two persons look exactly the same. I think it is amazing. If you take one inch deep of earth from a square foot area in the woods, and look at them with a magnifying glass, the scientists say, you will find on the average 1,356 living creatures. 865 ticks, 265 springtails, 22 millipedes, 19 beetles, and 12 other kinds of living things. If you are talking about microscopic creatures, one spoon full of dirt has two billion bacteria, millions of fungi, algae, and protozoa. I can not believe all that came about accidentally. It is so amazing that we must say they are all God”s work. I believe that God created them. That”s the only explanation. We see God”s foot marks everywhere in our world.

It is amazing, also, that we instinctively know what we can do and what can not do. The Bible says that this is because the Spirit of God lives in all of us and talks to us. It is called "Wisdom". Sometimes, other people teach it to us. In those times, they are teaching us according to their wisdom – the same Spirit of God. Sometimes, we learn the wisdom through experiences. Once you burn your finger, you will never touch a fire ever again. You know you are not supposed to hurt other people. You know you should share, because when you do to others, some other time when you are in need, someone will share with you. All these are voices from the wisdom. I believe that they come from the spirit of God. You can not see God, but you can hear God when you listen to the wisdom.

Most importantly, the love of God is in everyone. When you are kind to another person, you are doing what the love of God in you is telling you to do. All of us have bits and pieces of Jesus in us. When you learn more about Jesus, we learn more and more the better ways to love other people. Here again, we can not see God nor hear the voice of God, but we can feel the love of God in kindness, and in love between family and friends.

God is everywhere, even though we don”t see him nor hear him. We can not see God like we see flowers in the garden. But when we see the flowers, we can see God”s foot marks in them.

 

 

B: DOES GOD ALLOW SICKNESS – FIRST SUNDAY OF OCTOBER

DOES GOD ALLOW SICKNESS?

Job 1:1, 2:1-10, Psalm 95, Mark 10:13-16

October 5, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

When you are sick, often you find that emotional questions trouble you more than the question of what ails you. Anxiety, guilt and damaged self-esteem is more serious than the actual sickness. I have recurrent migraine headaches. When I have a migraine, I feel useless and guilty staying in bed for a whole day. These feelings are worse than the headache itself. When we are seriously ill, we suffer as much from what illness does to our self image and sense of security as from what is does to our bodies. We often ask the meaning and reason for our sickness. I don”t think other animals ask such a question. When you ask "why", you are asking spiritual questions. The book of Job asks why we suffer.

The book of Job belongs to a category of old Hebrew scriptures that are called "Writings". Books like Job, Jonah, Ruth, Esther and Psalms, which belong to this category, are stories and poems written by people, who were seeking God”s plans in their lives. Because of their origins, it is OK for us to appreciate their good points, challenge some others, and sometimes say, "I don”t agree." The author of Job teaches us many important lessons about faith. But in the end, I, for one, don”t agree with his conclusions. I rather take the position taken by Jesus Christ, which is different from Job”s.

You see, the author of Job interpreted life as a stage where a contest between God and Satan took place. The story has it that God was proud of faithful Job. But Satan challenged God by saying, "Job is faithful to you because he is happily married, has good and hard working children, and is wealthy and healthy. But if you take away those good things from him, he will betray you." So they had a contest. God allowed Satan to take away the good things, one by one. After losing everything, Job contracted an ugly disease. His body was covered with boils and scabs. His wife thought that her husband was a fool, and told him it would be better to "curse God and die." But Job remained faithful to God. So God won the contest with Satan.

I don”t agree with the suggestion of this book because I don”t believe God, who loves us, will ever treat a person like a football in a game with Satan. God, who became like one of us and suffered for us, would never treat us like a pawn, a chessman, or a football. I wonder if the presence of Satan in this book is really the presence of our own self-doubt and frustrations with sicknesses that limit our energies and plans. Looked at in this way the contest that the book of Job teaches us about is not a contest between good and evil but a contest between our self-doubts and our faith in God”s love for us. The book makes clear that Job, who in the end accepted his suffering as the will of God, did not give up easily. He kept demanding an answer, pointing his finger at God and saying, "I did not do anything wrong. I never betrayed you. Yet you make me suffer so much. Why? Why? Why?" I do admire Job”s determination in asking questions. He never gave up, while many of us just give up and fall like a dead leaf. Job teaches us about the uniqueness of being a human. We ask, "why?" Animals don”t ask such questions. They just take whatever comes. Job”s refusal to stop asking why, shows his continued faith in a God who will respond despite all his other losses, Job did not lose his self-esteem and sense of being a valued child of God.

Buddhist philosophy stands in marked contrast to the lessons we might learn from the book of Job. Buddhism is based on the idea of "giving up" as the best way to solve of life”s problems. The founder of Buddhism, Gautama Siddhartha, knew that life was full of misery and suffering. As a wandering monk he searched for a solution to misery and suffering. After many years of search, he reached the conclusion that all sufferings came from desire. All suffering would disappear when we were free from all cravings. In other words, we must not expect anything from life and accept whatever comes to us as fate. Then we will no longer suffer. This is a philosophy that teaches people to accept suffering without asking questions. Job would make an bad Buddhist.

To accept suffering without asking questions can lead to a kind of fatalism that is damaging to ourselves and to others. To not ask why, means we may fall into the trap of seeing ourselves as our fault. Guilt is an enormous barrier to healing. To view our sickness fatalistically can also lead to discrimination against others. This is how our society justifies discrimination against mentally ill people, people with AIDS, and people with the kinds of sickness that generate feelings of disgust. We think that there is something wrong with them and they got what they deserve.

People in the Bible had a similarly fatalistic attitude towards the sick: they thought that lepers and mentally sick people were cursed by God. They made those sufferers outcast of society. This is why when Jesus touched and healed the sick people – those untouchable, it was a shocking incident. He refused to accept suffering as unchangeable. His miracles were the expressions of his concern towards people who were suffering. They were also a response to people who actively sought his help. Like Job who continued to demand an explanation from God, these people believed that their suffering was not the end of the story. From this, it is clear that God does not want anyone to suffer. He cares about us when we suffer. He expects us to have the same attitude towards sick people as Jesus did.

I can not tell you why God allows sickness. The Bible does not give a clear answer. But what is clear is that God does not expects us to accept suffering fatalistically – either the suffering of others or our own.

The book of Job reminds us that to question is to be human. It also teaches us that we must continue to believe that there is a God who will respond even if it is a response that we are not comfortable with. God does not play games with us. As Christians we have faith in a God who reaches out to us in our suffering. Believing this, not just patiently but persistently, means we may just hang in long enough for a miracle to happen.

 

 

 

B: CRUISING DOWNTOWN IN A FERRARI – THIRD SUNDAY OF SEPTEMBER

CRUISING DOWNTOWN IN A FERRARI

Proverbs 1:20-33, Wisdom 7, James 3:1-12

September 17, 2000 by Tad Mitsui

I had a stroll around the old Montreal last week. There were many people enjoying what seemed to be the last summer day. Cars were clogging the narrow streets inching forward their ways. I was so glad that I left my car in the Angrignon parking lot. Then I saw a red Ferrari. What a magnificent car it was! Everybody stopped to take a look at it. A young man in the driver”s seat was obviously enjoying the attention he was getting. In half an hour or so, I thought another red Farrari came around. No, it was not another Ferrari. It was the same one. He was just "cruising", I guess, showing off his two hundred thousand dollar Ferrari. He came around three times while I was there. If he wanted to be admired for his prized car, he did not do so well. He looked ridiculous. When I read today”s passage from the Book of Proverbs, I thought about that young man in a Ferrari – someone who should know better doing a stupid thing.

 

There is nothing wrong driving a beautiful and expensive car. I understand people who want to possess things that are beautiful and of good quality, though expensive. Cars, clothes, even pots and pans; anything can be a piece of art. When God looked at his creation and said it was good, I am sure that God appreciated its beauty as well as its usefulness. I enjoy looking at beautiful cars just as much as I enjoy looking at beautiful paintings. We should enjoy God”s creation in many ways; sight, smell, and sound as well as the benefits it gives. But some people possess beautiful things, and use them unwisely and managed to look stupid or even to harm themselves. Knowledge is one of those things that is good and valuable and makes us intelligent. But knowledge can make us unwise, too. Wisdom must be in a driver”s seat, when handling knowledge. That is what the passage from the Proverbs is telling us. "Listen, wisdom is calling out in the streets, at the city gate, and in the market-place…It is the Lord who gives you wisdom. Wisdom comes from the word of God."

You may think that knowledge always makes you wise. But the Bible says not necessarily. Today is an information age, and today”s economy is the knowledge based economy. Knowledge made Bill Gates rich. Young people are required nowadays to learn the computer and get on the "Information Highway", if they want to find a job and survive in today”s knowledge based economy. Knowledge replaced gold and diamond. Information is wealth, and knowledge is power today. You show-off what you know, just like you show-off your Ferrari in downtown.

But just like an expensive car, mere information is useless unless it becomes useful knowledge. Many people are proud of the fact that they have access to so much information and know so much. But they are silly. Mere information is something like a telephone book in your hand. It doesn”t mean you know everybody in Montreal and have many friends. Information must become your own knowledge to be any good. There is a internet site that shows how fast a piece of meat rots. Very slowly. Do you know that everyday 3 million people click on to that internet site and see how much it decomposes every hour everyday? Stupid, isn”t it? But there are people, who are proud of the fact that they have such unusual information, and make you feel stupid, if you don”t know what they know. But they don”t realize that information is rubbish until it is a useful knowledge. The Proverbs say, "Foolish people, who make fun of knowledge!" It is better to have a little knowledge and to be wise than millions of pieces of useless information.

My late father-in-law was a Canadian Air Force mechanic during the war. He was proud of his knowledge of airplanes. Every time a plane passed overhead, he said something like, "There goes DC10, 767," or whatever. Kids were mighty impressed. After he died, Muriel”s sister Lynne asked Mom how come he knew so much about planes. Mom just smiled. He was fooling them all the time. I was impressed. Dad managed to fool all those smart kids for forty years!

This story is interesting on two accounts. Men are usually the ones who like to show-off their knowledge of useless titbits, or to use things foolishly, like cruising on a Ferrari just to show-off. But women do not show off knowledge of trivia as much as men do. Muriel”s Mom just smiled at her husband”s innocent vanity. The Proverbs refers to Wisdom who cry out in the streets and in the marketplace as a woman. I find it fascinating that the Bible refers to the wisdom of God as "she". Chapter 1, verse 20 says, "Wisdom cries out, she raises her voice..At the city gate, she speaks,..etc." In fact, the word for wisdom in Greek is a female "Sophia". This not only reminds me of Muriel”s Mom, but also of my own vanity of wanting to boast the knowledge of useless trivia. Is the Bible hinting that women know something men don”t know? Do you think that”s why there are more women in the church than men? Something to think about, isn”t it?

Lastly, the Book of Proverbs says that mere knowledge without wisdom is not only foolish, but is dangerous. "Complacency of fools destroys and kills," says the Book of Proverbs. Scientific knowledge brought to us so many benefits. But don”t forget; our technology is also driving God”s creation to a cataclysmic disaster. Our highly developed technology that gave us unprecedented prosperity is causing the polar ice to melt, and driving many species of plans and animals to extinction. When the environment as we know is destroyed, we may be the next ones on the list of endangered species. But, like the Book says, fools who may possess knowledge don”t listen to wisdom.

I believe that it is about time to slow down and listen to the wisdom coming from the love story of Jesus Christ. I have nothing against loving a nice car. But for God”s sake, let us put wisdom of God in the driver”s seat and travel towards the love of God. Then, incredible human achievements will shine, and sing the hymn for the glory of God. Then, a red Ferrari may be worth the money.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

B: WE ARE ALL BORN-AGAIN CHRISTIANS – SECOND SUNDAY OF JUNE

WE ARE ALL BORN-AGAIN CHRISTIANS

Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29 (VU755 John 3:1-17

VU 315, 375, 509, 661

June 11, 2006 by Tad Mitsui

Once I went to a hypnotism show. He led a whole crowd in the theatre through an exercise to divide us into two groups: those who could be hypnotized and those who could not be. I found that I was I was too sceptical and could not easily be hypnotized. So the show went on only with people who could be receptive to suggestions, and I was a spectator. I had a lot of fun watching people making fool of themselves. There are people who are more affectionate and emotional, and others like me who think a lot and are more sceptical. There is nothing wrong with either of them. Today’s story from John tells us that we need both kinds.

A young woman asked me one day in a cafeteria, "Are you born again to Jesus?" I said, "Yes." Then she asked, "When?" I said, "Everyday." She looked sceptical, obviously didn’t accept my answer. But I believe if we believe in the Bible, we all have to be born again Christians. Today’s story tells us that thinking people need to be born again to be more passionate and passionate people need to think more.

In the Gospel according to John, you find the expression "Born Again" first used by Jesus. He said that no one could be his follower and enter the kingdom of God unless one was born again. The story has it that one night a prominent Pharisee leader by the name of Nicodemus came to see Jesus. He said, "Teacher, I know you come from God." Jesus said to him, "If you really want to follow God”s way, you must first be born again."

This really threw Nicodemus off balance. "Born again? I am a grown up man. I can not go back to my mother”s womb." He was a man who used the brain to think. He was a scholar. He was not used to be confronted with things that made no logical sense. But he came face to face with the fundamental fact of faith, that is: faith is about life and life is one with both mind and spirit together. He had to integrate reason with passion to start afresh in the life of faith – to be born again in spirit.

It is not easy for a person who is used to logical thinking to give oneself to emotion and passion. For a thinking person a passionate person looks silly. This is why Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night. He was the leader of the scholarly lawyers. He had a hunch that Jesus had to come from God. But his cool reasoning didn’t allow him to jump to such a conclusion. He had to be careful. So he came secretly at night. But faith must involve a whole person. The whole person includes feelings: emotions, and passion, in addition to a cool mind that reasons. Faith requires a whole person. A whole person is a person who draws on both mind and spirit.

There was a paediatrician who became famous in a movement to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. She was once asked why she was so emotional when she spoke about the danger of nuclear weapons. The insinuation was that "Emotional women are not reasonable. If you want to be heard, speak like a reasonable man." She answered that ”Yes, I am emotional about this. I am a woman and a mother. If my patient does not get emotional about her child, she is a psychopath. I ”ll refer her to a Psychiatrist."

Faith is not complete if passionate belief does not seek reason. Mind is a God”s creation, as much as spirit is a gift of God. Faith has to grow in mind and spirit. When faith comes into our life through emotion and passion, it has to be fed with reason as it grows. Faith does not stay alive by emotion alone. Sometime those who believe with passionate faith criticize those people who study the Bible scientifically, and examine our beliefs systematically. But those people must be born again to integrate their passion for God with reason and logic. A whole person is one with both passion and reason.

We are all called upon to be born again. Made new today, tomorrow, and many more times being born again. There are some people who can pinpoint the time and the day when he/she was born again. But we are different. For some of us, "born again" is a quiet process that repeats itself many times. I try to live like a new person everyday, refreshed by the belief that God loves me. God will help us with an inspirational or emotionally high experience. After such an experience, we must settle down and think, like a bowl of hot jelly cools and settles in a fridge. At other times, our cool rational belief system has to be shaken, perked up, and refreshed with stirring hymns or by the love of a friend. In either case, we are born again as a new Christian person.

 

A: THE CHURCH”S HONEYMOON – EASTER 4

THE CHURCH”S HONEYMOON

Acts 2:42- 47, Psalm 23, John 10:1-10

April 28, 1996, by Tad Mitsui

In the beginning of married life, we only think of our spouse and do romantic and silly things. We call this period the honeymoon. Most of us move beyond it in a few years. But some people never do. Secretly we may envy them, because it is kind of nice. But we know that we all have to grow up sometime. Ideally, the initial love matures, and we grow wiser to avoid excess and to start looking outward. The Christian Church went through a phase similar to a honeymoon after the first Easter. But the church in Jerusalem never matured beyond the honeymoon phase and consequently almost disappeared, and the active Christian church developed outside of the Holy Land.

After the resurrection of Jesus Christ, his followers were so excited and happy that they got together all the time and talked about their encounters with the risen Jesus. It soon became their custom to come together weekly on the day of resurrection. This is how the Christian Church began to meet on Sundays, the day after the Jewish Sabbath when Jesus rose from the dead. When they met, they followed the custom of the Synagogue: reading the Scriptures, singing Psalms, and listening to the followers of Jesus tell stories of Jesus Christ. After that they always had a meal together to remember the last supper Jesus had with his followers.

In the beginning, they did not think that they were starting a new religion. So they met in the synagogues, and called themselves people who followed "the Way". Soon it became difficult to meet in the synagogues, because other Jews began to suspect that the people of the Way were practising heresy. Some fanatical scholars, like Saul – who later became Paul – began to persecute the Christians by harassing them, putting them into jails, and sometimes executing them for advocating blasphemy against Judaism.

So those who followed "the Way" began to live in the new way of life especially in and around Jerusalem. They began to live in the communes eating together and making each meal like Holy Communion, and sharing all earthly possessions. Archaeologists dug out the ruins of similar communities in Palestine. One of them was called the Essenes and is well known today, because of its likelihood of being a community where John the Baptist or even Jesus himself might have lived. The Essenes located their communities in the mountains and deserts, in order to safeguard the purity of their belief.

This communal living might have been necessary. It was too dangerous to live alone as Christians in a hostile environment. But it was not just due to a need for security that they lived like this. It was mainly because of their enthusiasm and passion for their belief. Perhaps it was excessive, but they were so happy to be together, sharing the knowledge that Christ had risen. They lived in ecstasy. It was their honeymoon in their new faith.

They believed that the way of loving that Jesus taught could only be put into practice through a total sharing. They believed that if they loved their brothers and sisters in faith, they should share everything they owned. So they abolished private property. Some people kept a few possessions for themselves secretly instead of giving them all up to the communities. But they were made to feel ashamed. The Bible recorded the story of a couple who did not give everything away and secretly kept a portion of their money. They died of a heart attack because their deception was exposed. Some people stopped working for living, and devoted themselves to a life of charity and prayer. Some of them even stopped paying taxes, because they believed that Christ would come soon and establish a new kingdom of God. So they were prosecuted for tax evasion by the Roman authorities. They may have been idealistic and their devotion touching, but they were naive and not very practical.

This is why the first Christians who lived in Jerusalem became very poor and destitute. Those Christians who lived outside of Palestine, in Turkey, Greece, North Africa, and in Italy had to support them by raising funds to help them. But many of the Jerusalem Christians remained the same and stubbornly stuck to their ways. They did not fully accept those later converts who were not Jews. They insisted that these Gentiles convert to Judaism first through circumcision before they became the people of the Way. They became a cosy little group, never changing their ways and not wanting to welcome newcomers. Because of this obstinate attitude, the Church in Jerusalem nearly disappeared. The active Church, in its stead, developed in North Africa – in Egypt and Ethiopia, in Asia Minor – in Turkey, and in Europe – in Greece and Italy.

This is a classic case of people who never grew up. They never moved beyond the honeymoon. They remained inward looking and exclusive, like a newly married couple. They did this in the name of Jesus Christ. Love that does not mature becomes stale and poisonous. Their "way" became a huge boulder that blocked the road to growth rather than a highway on which to journey to maturity. The way, like a road or a street, is useful only when it allows you to move and go somewhere. The Christian way is an avenue for a movement. It challenges us to grow and move with change.

There are two lakes in Palestine, Lake Galilee and Dead Sea, which are connected to one river system – the River Jordan. One is alive and the other is dead. One can drink water out of Lake Galilee; fish are plentiful. But the Dead Sea has no visible life form living in it. One can not even stay in the water more than a few minutes, because water is too salty. The lake, as its name implies, is dead. What makes them so different though both of them get the water from the same river? Lake Galilee takes water in and lets it flow out. So fresh water moves through it continually. On the other hand, the Dead Sea is located below the sea level, and water has no place to go; it sits stagnant and evaporates leaving chemicals behind. So the lake died and killed other living things. Christ”s way of life, the way of loving is like a flowing water. It involves constant movement – that movement allows life to grow and thrive. Change allows love to become more mature.

But how? John”s Gospel today gives a very interesting hint. A true guide who leads you to safety is compared to a shepherd, but the one who leads you astray is called a thief and a bandit. Shepherding and thieving are both ways to make a living. But a shepherd makes a living by looking after others. A shepherd lived with the animals rain or shine: the welfare of the animals was the welfare of the shepherd. Shepherd made a living by caring, loving, and sharing. We know a lot of people like that. They make decent living, but equally they give well. Thieves on the other hand make a living by exploiting others without giving back in return. They certainly aren”t concerned with looking after the welfare of the victims. Their goal in life is to look after themselves, and nobody else. Others are all potential targets for exploitation or enemies. Their goal in life is strictly taking, and absolutely no giving. This kind of living will eventually leads you to self-destruction.

Just like the love life of honeymoon eventually dies and becomes poisonous unless it matures, the church that remains inward looking concerned only with itself also dies. I believe that, like the hymn we used to sing in Sunday School, "There”s a church in the valley by the wildwood" language of the church says too often "Come, come, come," and not often enough "Go, go, go." It is good to create a lovely caring community. You have in large measures succeeded in making such a community in Howick United Church. I would much prefer to be here than in a large and prosperous downtown church with bells and whistles, a paid choir and a large salary. But we must keep growing up. We must remember to consider what to do and how to do it when we leave the church building, just as much as remembering to come together for worship and fellowship. Do not forget, our guide and our teacher is like a shepherd who calls us out to journey through green pastures and dark vales, as often as he brings us back to a comfortable home through his gate.

It is he who shares the honeymoon with us as well as calls us forward to a more mature love.

C: FAITH IS A MIRACLE – FIRST SUNDAY OF OCTOBER

FAITH IS A MIRACLE

Luke 17 : 5 – 6

The disciples had been following Jesus for a few years now and watched him perform many miracles. His teaching was like a breath of fresh air. Hoards of people followed him day and night. He was so popular. The disciples felt that it was about time they should be able to show the benefit of their dedication to Jesus. After all, they gave up so much when they decided to follow him. They wanted to be as popular as their master was. They tried a miracle by trying to drive out a demon. But it did not work. They surmised that it was because their faith was not big enough. So they asked Jesus to increase their faith. But the answer they got from him was totally puzzling.

Jesus said that faith about the size of a mustard seed is quite enough to perform a miracle. Jesus was trying to say that faith is a matter of quality and is not a question of how big your faith is. The most important quality of faith is that it is alive. A mustard seed is alive, though it is very small. Even a pebble is bigger. But unlike a pebble, a seed is alive. If it is dead, being bigger won”t make any difference. So even if faith is as small as a mustard seed, because it is alive, it can perform miracles. If faith is not alive, it does not exist. It is not a question of whether you have "a little" or "very much faith." It is like pregnancy. There is no such thing as being a little pregnant . It is strictly a question of whether you are pregnant or not. There is no inbetween. There is no such thing as a touch of pregnancy that you can ignore like a cold.

So the question of little faith or large faith is irrelevant; if it is not alive, it does not exist. Jesus must have been either exasperated or chuckling, when the disciples asked him to increase the size of their faith. It never occurred to the disciples to ask the fundamental questions: "Do we have faith? And if so, is it alive?"

This is why Jesus responded, "Even if your faith is the size of a mustard seed, you can command a mulberry tree to uproot itself and move into the sea." A stupid question got an enigmatic answer. In the account of the same story, the Gospel of Matthew used a different metaphor. Instead of a mulberry tree, Matthew recorded an image of a mountain. He said, "With a mustard seed size faith, you could command a mountain to move." Mohammed used the same metaphor. He said that he could command a mountain to come to him. The saying about the faith that moves the mountain must have been very common in the Middle East.

The point Jesus was trying to get across here is that faith is not a matter of magic. What you see when you see magic is a trick: a sort of deception. But faith is a matter of trust. Asking for a greater quantity of faith, in order to perform magic is completely missing the point. Jesus was able to cure illnesses because he truly cared about the people who were suffering. He cared about people who trusted him. Miracles happened where there were love and trust. On the other hand, the disciples were eager to boost their egos. So their pursuit of faith was simply an ego trip. They were after their own fame, not a solution to the suffering of people. There was no love nor trust. Jesus must have been rather exasperated by the disciples” complete lack of understanding about faith.

You see faith is a spiritual attribute which engages others. It has a lot to do with relationship. You have faith in somebody. This is why John said in the Bible, "Those who say ”I love God” and yet hate brothers and sisters, are liars." That is to say, there is no such thing as faith if you don”t love others. So you can see how absurd it was for the disciples to ask Jesus to increase their faith, in order to boost their public image. Disciples exposed their total ignorance of what faith meant.

But if you have faith – since genuine faith is a living thing – a small amount is suffice. It can grow. Jesus said, "A mustard seed grows into a big tree where birds can make their nests, lay their eggs, and bring up their family." A person who has faith has an enormous capacity to love. I think that this is a profoundly more important miracle than moving a mountain. Today, large bulldozers can move a mountain. You do not need a miracle.

I like the punch line of the story about Mohammed and the mountain. He commanded the mountain to come to him. But the mountain didn”t move, so Mohammed went to the mountain. I don”t know too much about Mohammed. But I like the sense of humour he showed in this story. So the mountain did not come. Big deal! So what? He could walk to the mountain. No miracle was needed, miracles are for important things like love and trust. Jesus did not perform a miracle to save himself from a painful death on the cross, because the real miracle was his act of sacrifice and love. On this day of Thanksgiving, we affirm God”s love to us, and thank him for all his blessings. Yes, we worked hard to reach this harvest time. But we believe that God was with us throughout the year. We have faith in God, who loves all of us. So today we say "thank you, God".

Faith is a fundamental component of society that glues us together. Society will cease to function, if we lose our faith in other people and in our institutions. We have to have faith to bank our money and sign contracts. Without faith, those basic institutions do not work. We have to trust other people to make friends, to get married and create families. If we lose our capacity for faith, we can not trust other members of our communities. The result is a dysfunctional society. O J Simpson trial is a sad example of what happens when there is a breakdown of trust. Because of racism Los Angels Police is no longer trusted by a majority of black people. With such a lack of trust it becomes hard to believe that justice can ever be done.

Without faith, kindness shown to others become suspect. When you are nice to others, they ask you, "what”s your pay-off?" With this attitude there is no need to say "thank you" to anybody. Without faith, thanksgiving is meaningless. The early settlers who first inaugurated Thanksgiving Day in North America had difficult times. They went through crop failures and harsh winters. Many died in the first few years. But when they had the first good harvest, they believed that God was good to them, and celebrated it by saying "thank you, God."

Because we have faith, we feel blessed at this time of harvest. The season of growth is at an end. We”ve harvested not just the fruit, but seeds for next years”s planting. We feel thankful for what we have in hand as well as for the potential of next year”s growth. We feel the love of God and feel comforted even as we approach the cold and darkness of winter. As long as we don”t lose sight of that, our faith remains alive and energized by the miracle of what it may become.

YEAR A : MARY HAD A DREAM – ADVENT 1

Isaiah 35 : 1 – 10  Luke 1 : 47 – 55  Psalm 146

The Southern African custom has it that the host will ask you towards the end of a dinner, "Uena ka Khotso? – Are you at peace?"  You don”t have to struggle to find a word to express your spiritual well-being; she simply wants to know, "Have you had enough to eat?"  They believe that when you are physically well, you will be spiritually happy, also when you are happy in your soul, your body will be well.  When people are well in body and soul, there will be peace between people.  The word "Khotso" expresses all those conditions that create the ideal state.  The Hebrew word for peace "Shalom" also has the same meaning as "Khotso". 

Mary expressed the same idea of peace and justice in today”s Gospel.  She was told by the angel that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and her child was going to inherit the throne of David – the Messiah the whole nation was waiting for.  Her son will bring justice in the world.  In fact, it would be a new world that he would bring.  Peace that Mary”s child would bring would be based on justice and love, not on force.    It was an incredible message.  But in the end she believed the angel and said, if a lowly girl like her could be mother of a son of the most high, the hungry and poor would be exalted, and the rich and powerful could be humiliated. 
Is this some kind of outrageous fantasy of a poor, uneducated pregnant teenager?   Maybe she was a little demented, overwhelmed by the burden of the situation she was in.  Think of the predicament she was in.  She must have been just a teenager, perhaps sixteen at most; unmarried.  She was engaged to be married to Joseph.  I am sure when people heard that Joseph”s fiancé was pregnant, people smiled and winked at him.  Joseph and Mary were the only ones who knew that Mary”s child was not his.  Should he tell anyone about this awful truth?  Mary said God made her pregnant by the Holy Spirit.  There”s a joke that says that one day God wanted to send the Holy Spirit down to earth again because there was a big mess among people.  The Holy Spirit refused because he was afraid that Joseph might still be looking for him.  You may think that such a joke is a sacrilege.  Indeed for the Jews, Mary”s claim was a sacrilege.  Mary was not only a loose woman who betrayed her future husband but also she was blasphemous for claiming that God was responsible for her pregnancy.  It was a serious offence!  The punishment could have been death by stoning, in either case.  How could Mary speak about a new world of justice and genuine peace when she herself is in such a mess?  Was she completely confused?

I believe that the secret lies in Joseph”s love.  The fact that Mary was not stoned to death indicates that Joseph had decided to accept Mary”s explanation and not to hand her over to the authorities.  How could Joseph ever believe Mary”s preposterous claim unless he loved her deeply.   He wanted to believe her so he did.  Mary must have been deeply touched by his capacity to love.   If a man could love someone so much, and was ready to accept such a seemingly impossible situation, anything would be possible.  It could even be possible that a child born of a lowly teenage girl could bring about the new world order of peace and justice.  Is this interpretation absolutely insane?  I don”t think so.

The problem of the world today is the lack of faith in the power of love.  Practical people believe that love is a silly sentiment, and is irrelevant in our vast and immensely complicated world.  The real world is competitive and cruel.  If you don”t beat them first, they will beat you.  Get real.  Ray Kroc, the founder of the world”s largest restaurant chain "Macdonald”s", once said, "This is rat eat rat, dog, eat dog.  I”ll kill ”em, and I”m going to kill ”em before they kill me."  But I say that precisely that is our biggest problem.  Many people have handed themselves over to the rules of competition and forgotten that the most life giving force in the universe is love.  They believe more in the strength of hatred than the power of love.   I met some of them in Africa.  They were self-proclaimed revolutionaries, who were completely committed to transforming the world into the better one.   Those revolutionaries believed that the forces of hatred could create a better world.     

If you are treated unjustly, you will be angry and unhappy.  You have no peace of mind.  If you don”t have inner peace, you will be always frustrated.  Then you are ready to resort to violence.   Then how come we still believe that peace can be achieved when one overpowers others by force?  This idea has never worked because it ignores the importance of peace of mind based on justice.  This is why no empire has ever achieved enduring peace.  And whenever an empire falls, violence and blood-shed follow.  Many of the regional conflicts today are rooted in the histories of empires.  It shows no sign that the peace enforced by those empires has had any lasting effect.  Hatred that has been festering while being ruled by force demands a settling of scores.  Look at Northern Ireland.  Look at Bosnia and Kosovo.  Neighbours fiercely hate each other, simply because they belong to different religions and ethnic groups because of the histories of the empires that came and went.  Has the British victory at the Plains of Abraham produced an enduring peace in Canada?   It didn”t.  So we still live with the never ending threat of separation of Quebec.

When will we ever learn?  Haven”t we learnt that there can never be enduring peace unless there is justice?  Haven”t we ever learned that there can never be justice unless there is love?  Where there is no love, hatred rules and there will be no peace of mind.  Where there is no love, there is greed and self-centredness.  And greed and self-centredness are the causes of injustice.  A vicious circle goes around and around.  Maybe Mary was crazy.  Maybe Joseph was naive.  Maybe they were both unreal.  If so, maybe we should all be a little crazy, naive and unreal, and start believing in the power of love.  One day last month, I was walking on a street of Toronto with Alan Tysic.  Alan is a United Church minister who works with street people, alcoholics, ex-cons, drug addicts, prostitutes, and the like, in Victoria, B.C.  We ran into a few panhandlers.  Alan shook hands with each one of them saying things like, "Hi!  How”er you doing?", and gave them quarters.  I said, "Alan!  Are you crazy?  They will buy booze or drugs or worse.  You aren”t helping them."  Alan said, "I know.  Probably they will buy booze.  But if someday even one of them remembers that someone treated them like a normal human being, my quarter is not wasted."  I learned something that day.  If you can love one person, you will be able to learn to love the whole world.  If everybody learned to love another person, the world will be like the one Mary dreamed about.

We are going to celebrate the birthday of the one who declared the arrival of the new regime – the rule of love, who was also called the Prince of Peace.  Let us wait actively for the coming of peace – real peace based on justice and love, with excitement, joy, and determination, not just in this season of Advent but also in our daily life at all times.  Our waiting may seem hopeless, just as Mary”s Magnificat sounded crazy.  But the dream of one unmarried teenage mother-to-be came true with the birth of Christ 2000 years ago.  It is possible.

B: IT”S A MATTER OF HEART – LENT 5

IT”S A MATTER OF HEARTS

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 119, John 12:20-33

April 9, 2000 by Tad Mitsui

I have had some fabulous jobs in my life. That does not mean, I got all the jobs I wanted. I received more rejections than acceptances. But in retrospect, I can now say I am glad that I did get those jobs. When I sent in my résumé, I had often followed my heart not my mind. My life could have been very difficult, even disastrous, if I had those jobs that I did not get. There is a saying, "Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck."

We see in retrospect more clearly than in prospect. That”s why when we make decisions about future, we tend to follow our hearts, and they do not always tell us what is wise. Life would be a lot easier if we could see the future as clearly as we see the past. I often wish that our hearts and minds would speak in one same voice, so we have less grief. Often, I know what should be done, but I don”t do it, because my heart is not where it should be. I am completely in sympathy with Paul, who said in his letter to the Romans, "Even though I know very well what is good, I can not do it, and I do what is not right. What a wretched creature I am!" This is where Jeremiah”s "New Covenant" comes in. With the old covenant, God had to guide the people by the hand, but the new covenant would be written on the hearts of people.

Jeremiah lived at the time when the whole Jewish nation was facing a total disaster. Soon after, the Jews would become a nation without a country for three thousand years. Jeremiah said that it was the price they had to pay for breaking their covenant with God. They ignored his laws. But Jeremiah said, God would forgive them, and give them the new Covenant, which would be written on their hearts. Their minds could follow their hearts. Reason would be a tool for passion. They would want to do what was just and right.

The Bible uses the word "covenant" often. It is an important word to understand the relationship between God and people. A covenant is a solemn agreement like a contract. But there is a difference between a covenant and a contract. A covenant is a personal commitment. However, a contract is a legally binding agreement, that is enforced with the threat of a penalty, if it is broken. Lawyers say that a mere commitment without a penalty clause is meaningless, because it is not enforceable. But religion is a covenant with God, which is an agreement of hearts without the caveat of a penalty. In religion, mind should be an instrument of the heart. When the heart decides the destination, the mind will find the best way to reach it. Love is a matter of the heart, and the law is a matter of the mind.

The old covenant that God gave through Moses was often broken by people, because it had remained a matter of the mind – mere knowledge. When the rules remain only as knowledge, you will soon find how to break them because there is no commitment to abide by them. As a saying goes, "When you know the rules well, you know how to break them properly." All of us want to know the laws so as to find loopholes, which is the kind of thing that makes lawyers rich. Laws and rules without a commitment to the spirit behind them do not make sense, like following a map without having a destination.

The basis of the laws of Moses was the right relationship between God and people, and among people. We believe that the only right relationship is the one based on love. If there is no commitment to love God and others, then laws are meaningless. God demonstrated his love through the laws of Moses, because the laws showed the best way to live. People could return God”s love by obeying the laws. That was the covenant. But they broke it, because the laws had remained in their minds as mere knowledge. There was no heart in their understanding of the laws. There was no passion in their desire to keep a good relationship with God. They saw God only as a big scary guy in the sky with a stick, not as a loving parent.

So through Jeremiah, God offered a new covenant. In the new covenant, "the laws would be within them, because they were written on their hearts." God began by "forgiving their sins and no longer remembering their wrongs of the past," as the verse 34 put it. With the new covenant, the laws will be within people”s hearts, hence doing justice and righteousness will be their passion.

This does not make sense to the lawyers. To write a new contract by forgetting the past infractions and by allowing the offenders go free with impunity? Forgiveness does not make sense in law. But in a matter of the heart, it makes perfect sense. A father forgives and embraces a son, who wasted half of his fortune recklessly in a binge and on prostitutes. The father, like God, loves the son. Is this a sign of God”s incredible capacity to love or soft-hearted stupidity? In the new covenant, all the laws, all just and right things to do, are the protocols for love and caring. Then, what better way to make such protocols a matter of the heart, than demonstrating such love in an act of forgiveness? Foolish? Perhaps. Again Paul said in the letter to the Romans, "should you be wise in the eyes of God, you must become a fool in the eyes of the world."

When the laws are illuminated under the light of incredible love shown in forgiveness, your passion and knowledge become one. The knowledge of whatever pleases God becomes your desire. A psychiatrist once said to his friend, "I can help you find the source of your guilt. But I can never make you feel you are forgiven. Only God can." Jesus Christ fulfilled the promise of God”s new Covenant. He would finally performed the ultimate act of his divinity by forgiving those who made him suffer. This is why the crucifixion of Christ was the climax of the life of Jesus; the occasion of his glorification. When we can see clearly the cross as the climax of Christ”s life, we will be able to see justice joining love, and our hearts and minds speaking in one voice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A: OWE NOONE EXCEPT LOVE – FIRST SUNDAY OF SEPTEMBER

OWE NO ONE EXCEPT LOVE

Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14

September 5, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

In England one evening, I was watching a BBC television program. It was a story about an extraordinary couple in Northern Ireland. They just got married, and the program began by showing their wedding. It looked just like any other big wedding in the beginning. But when the camera caught the close-up image of the bride near the alter, I realized that this was no ordinary wedding. The bride”s face was badly disfigured and the maid of honour was carrying a baby. Then the camera focussed on the groom. He did not look like just another ordinary handsome man either. His body movement was awkward. He wore artificial limbs. Later in the interview, he said that he lost one leg and an arm.

They were the survivors of the terrorist bombing in Omagh in Northern Ireland about a year ago, which killed and maimed many people – both Catholics and Protestants. That evening when a bomb exploded in a pub, they were celebrating their engagement with some friends. She was pregnant. The bomb shattered her body waist up, and made him severely handicapped. She was in coma for several months. She gave birth to a premature but healthy baby while she was still unconscious. They were interviewed some weeks after the wedding. It was a big story in Britain. The whole chain of events sounded incredible, almost like a miracle – the fact that they survived, the birth of a child while mother was in coma, and the marriage itself despite their terrible handicaps. As I listened to them speaking about their near death experience and many difficult surgeries they had to go through while they were preparing their wedding, I was struck by a complete lack of bitterness in their comments. They looked and sounded very happy. When asked if they held any grudge against the perpetrator, (I don”t remember the exact words they used, but) they responded by saying something like, "We are so happy that we are still alive. Besides there were thousands of details we had to attend to to prepare for the wedding, and now we have a new life with a little one. There is no time for hatred." I could not help tears in my eyes.

There are too many places in the world today, where violence begets hatred and hatred begets further violence. Spiral of violence continues and escalates in East Timor, Palestine, Kosovo, Northern Ireland and many other places. No amount of talk and agreements don”t seem to stop people killing each other. I became convinced after watching that TV program in England that the people like that couple in Omagh, who were too busy celebrating love, hold the solution to the problems of hatred and violence. The story of Passover in the book of Exodus is a good example of how successfully a nation can begin its life without violence and war heroes.

Passover is the most important festival for the Jewish people. It comes at the same time as we remember the crucifiction and celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. It is the day to remember how God freed the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. For the last dinner in Egypt, God told the people to slaughter their best lambs and to collect blood, and to smear the doorposts and lintels with it. The spirit of death would pass by the houses whose doors were smeared with the blood of the sacrificed animals. But the Egyptian homes, which did not have the marks of sacrifices, lost all their first born children. Terrified Egyptians let the Hebrews go. That is how the Jewish people still remember the beginning of their nation as free people.

You notice that unlike histories of other nations, the Jews have no brave warriors or victories in battles as the beginning of their history. It was God who vanquished through sacrifices of innocent lambs. Later, Christians inherited the same spirit and interpreted our salvation as the result of the sacrifice of our Lord, Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus Christ is called the lamb of God. It was not because we were so good that we were saved, neither were we so strong that we defeated the power of evil. It was love of God that won. It was love that accepted suffering that prevails. It was forgiveness and sacrifice that had overcame hatred, and sowed the seed of their future.

This is why we believe that love is the supreme law superseding all other laws and rules. This is the teaching of the Old Testament, and was perfected by Jesus Christ as he lived by it. Paul repeated it in his letter to the Romans. "Owe no one anything except to love one another." Then why do so many people still believe that the bigger power that overwhelms violence with more violence can bring about peace and harmony? Violence begets further violence. Jesus said to one of the disciples who used a sword to fight off the people who came to arrest him, "Put down your sword. Those who take up the sword will perish by the sword." And he was led to be the sacrifice on the cross. We belong to the religion that believes in the power of love that accepts sacrifice for the sake of well-being of others.

The last stop on our holiday in England was Canterbury, where there stands a cathedral known for its martyr Thomas Becket. He was murdered in the cathedral in 1170, because he stood for faith and stood against the king Henry the second. In the Canterbury Cathedral, there is a small chapel which is dedicated to the martyrs and saints of our time. Many known and unknown people are remembered there, people like a little known nun who was gassed in the Nazi death camp with her Jewish neighbours, or Martin Luther King who fought for the racial equality through non-violent means in the U.S. and was assassinated, as well as persons like a young theological student who was murdered on a street of Teheran in Iran because he did not tell where other Christians were. They are remembered today and the love they lived and die for is still a powerful force. B

ut the evil powers who killed them are no longer existent. I lit a candle in that chapel to remember the couple in Omagh who did not die but bravely stood for love and forgave those who caused them terrible pain and suffering. Love overcomes, always. Owe no one anything except to love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

C: WHAT IS HEAVEN, AND WHERE IS IT? – THIRD SUNDAY IN NOVEMEBR

WHAT IS HEAVEN? AND WHERE IS IT?

Isaiah 65 : 17 – 25

All of us wish for a better world. No matter how content and happy we are, we wish that things were a little bit better than they are now. And for many desperate people in the world, who may be starving or dying daily of violence, a need for a better world is often a matter of life or death. Before the human race really knew how things worked, they believed that gods and spirits were in charge and could make the world a better or worse place. Many people think that this was why religions were born: out of a need for a better world. Now that we have become more knowledgeable, economists, politicians and scientists have begun to tell us how we can make this world better. Some people even suggest that there is no longer a need for religion, because we can look after ourselves and create a perfect world by ourselves.

The recent debate about the choice between federation with Canada and sovereignty for Quebec had that tone of a promise of the perfect world or Utopia. We are beginning to learn, however, that politicians more often than not renege on their utopian promises. We are learning very quickly also, that the scientists often sing the songs of their paymasters – for example in the debate about environment – and that they are not always objective. So we don”t trust the experts any more. Consequently many people have returned to their search for Utopia in the spiritual world, like the old times. Experimenting with new kinds of spirituality, or Eastern religions.

In our Judeo-Christian tradition, there has always been a strong promise of a perfect world. The Bible mentions it in different ways. The Prophet Isaiah talked of a new heaven and a new earth, or New Jerusalem. When Jesus began his ministry, he called it the Kingdom of God and declared its coming. He also called it the Kingdom of heaven, and used those two expressions interchangeably. The Bible reports that after Jesus died and rose to life, he ascended into heaven promising that he would come back again. Thus the followers of Jesus began to equate the second coming of the Lord with the coming of the Kingdom of God. I am sure that if you look for it, you will find many other expressions in our Bible to convey the notion of an ideal world and the end of this imperfect one.

Today”s passage from the Hebrew Bible contains a wonderfully simple description of a utopian world – God”s promised land. It says that in such a world: 1) children do not die, 2) old people live out their lives in dignity, 3) everyone works and eats of the fruits of their labour, 4) and everyone lives in own house which nobody takes away. And in order to create such a world, the strong and the weak must be able to live together in peace without harming each other.

What is most interesting to me in this passage is what is not mentioned. I find that there are two things missing, things which are usually very important elements in other promises of an ideal world. First of all, it does not say where such a world will be or when it is coming; it leaves out the questions of location and time. In other words, it does not say that Heaven is the place you go, after you die. Jesus Christ declared the Kingdom of God by saying, "the Kingdom of God has come." If that is so – if it has come then it is already here now, though still unfinished. It is for us to complete its creation working with God, in the present.

Going to church, according to Biblical faith is not an insurance policy that one will go to heaven after death. Our faith and church life are about living in the here and now, because we live in the Kingdom of God only by participating in its completion. The notion of the afterlife as an entry point into the ideal world definitely is not there in the Isaiah passage. God”s world is already here. This is His world.

The second thing that is missing is that there is no mention of any particular system that would bring in such an ideal world. What the Isaiah passage gives us is a standard for Utopia. There are a certain number of criteria to measure whether a system is up to the standard of the Kingdom of God. In other words, Isaiah is saying to us, "How you organize your society is your responsibility. What I care about is whether the system you create measures up to God”s standard." God”s way is neither Mr. Bouchard”s way nor Mr. Chretien”s, neither capitalist nor socialist, neither of marketing boards or of a free trade agreement, whether Mr. Clinton”s nor Mr. Gingrich”s. Our human ways can not promise the coming of an ideal world automatically.

It all depends on the question of whether Mr. Bouchard or Mr. Chretien, or whoever or whatever, can create a society that can pass the following tests: Number one; children do not die. It doesn”t matter how easily we can travel outer space. That is not a measure for a better world. The progress towards Utopia can only be measured by the wellbeing of children. Our real concern should be; "Why do 44 thousand children still die everyday from malnutrition in such a highly developed world of ours?" 44,000; that”s one hundred 747 Jumbo jets crashing down every day. Why do we not respond to such a catastrophe?

Secondly, old people live out their lives with dignity. Many of us have aging parents. I have an aging mother, too. I often wonder, looking at people at Griffith-McConnel Residence, how we are expressing our appreciation to those who brought us into this world, who brought us up, and shared their wisdom of life with us. We have a bad habit of treating people, who can not physically function as well as we can, as less than human. In the hospital situations, I have seen very intelligent people treated like mentally retarded persons simply because they had a stroke and lost their faculty of speech . God”s world accords senior citizens full dignity until they complete their full lives.

Thirdly people "shall build houses and inhabit in them, they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruits." In other words, in God”s world, nobody will steal our homes or our livelihood. The promise of the God”s world includes full employment, a decent return for our work, and housing for everyone. No exploitation of cheap labour nor bank foreclosures. Imagine: such a vision was recorded thousands of years before Christ, yet, it still seems like an almost impossible pipe dream. Is it really unrealistic to dream of such a world?

The Bible says it should be possible if we change our operating principle from competition to compassion. The purpose of might and power is not to defeat the less powerful and the weak, but to supplement what is lacking so that all may survive.

In our present world, mighty lions live by killing and eating weaker animals. When there are no more animals to kill, lions must perish. Is it not wiser for a lion to learn the way of life from a weaker animal like a sheep and starts eating grass? Grass will grow again. But if you kill a sheep, you kill not only the sheep but its children and children”s children. It is not a sustainable way of life. The more creative way to survive is to learn to eat grass and live happily together with the sheep.

So what is Heaven? And where is it? It is here, now, though it is incomplete. It is a compassionate world, which Jesus began to build. We are working together with a loving God to complete it. It is heaven on this earth. Heaven begins here and extends into the life beyond this life. Let us work together to create a compassionate world, starting from here.

 

November 19, 1995

Tad Mitsui

Howick, Quebec

B: DAVID AND BATHSHEBA – ADULTERY AND MURDER – FOURTH SUNDAY OF JULY

DAVID AND BATHSHEBA

II Samuel 11:1-15, Psalm 14, Ephesians 3:14-21

July 27, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

 

 

The story of David and Bathsheba makes me wonder if all the people in the Bible are good people? The answer obviously is "No." This story is so sordid that it makes one wonder, when children are present, if the Bible should be read selectively. The story tells of a woman bathing nude on a rooftop, of adultery, and of a murder. How do you read a Biblical story like that? There have been two popular but contradictory interpretations. One makes the woman a seducer, a temptress who used sex as a way of becoming a queen. It makes King David a victim of an ambitious and conniving woman. The other interpretation makes David an immoral king, who committed adultery and subsequently a murder to eliminate the woman”s husband. Bathsheba becomes a victim of a forced sex by a man who abused power to satisfy his illicit desire. I totally reject the first interpretation. I believe that the second one is much closer to the mark. I believe, however, that the story in the Bible is not so much to warn us about adultery as it is to warn us about the abuse of power.

 

Let me begin with Bathsheba. A woman was bathing on a roof-top. The first interpretation that I spoke of assumes that she knew that she could be seen from the palace, and she wanted to seduce the king. This sounds like a typical misogynist” excuse to view women as seducers. It is her fault that she was raped. But we must remember that Bathsheba was bathing according to the religious law. A woman was supposed to take a ritual bath on the eighth day of menstruation, according to the book of Leviticus, which defines this purification rite. Bathsheba was going through a religious act, just like baptism.

 

Also, anyone who has been to tropical countries can easily acknowledge that this interpretation which makes Bathsheba a loose woman is off base. It is not uncommon sight to see people bathing in public in hot countries. They do it in rivers and lakes, as well as in their back yards. They know how to present themselves discreetly to maintain dignity and modesty even when they are naked. We must realize also that our idea about nudity is different from people in other countries. In Europe, topless sunbathing has been a common sight for decades. Even in my life time, I remember the day when the American occupational forces prohibited mixed bathing in the hot springs in Japan. We did not wear bathing suits in the hot springs. Many of us did not understand why mixed bathing was immoral, because such nudity was without sexual overtones; thus it did not present a moral problem.

 

If anybody was a culprit in this story, surely it must have been King David. According to the law of Moses in Leviticus, it was taboo to even share a roof with a woman who was not completely cleansed after menstruation. David knew why Bathsheba was bathing; every adult woman did it in a particular manner after her monthly period. And yet he sent for her. He knew that he was violating twice the religious law in one act. There is no denial that David did something terribly wrong. But the question is; what kind of wrong did he commit? Of course, adultery is not commendable conduct. But that is not the main point of this particular story. It was how adultery was committed. It was primarily an abuse of power that is being condemned here.

 

You see, if you consider the accepted practices in those days, and even as late as a hundred years ago, for a king to take women other than his own spouse was usually accepted as a tolerable royal indiscretion. King David married many wives and took many more concubines, according to the II Samuel. Solomon took more than one thousand wives and concubines according to the I Kings. Even after the Christianization of Europe, though the church allowed only one wife, it still closed its eyes on kings taking concubines. Remember Henry VIII? And the practice continued until even more recently. What is known as "le droit du seigneur", where dukes and marquis had the right to take the new brides of their subjects to bed before the rites of marriage, was carried on even in the last century in Europe. The Opera, "Marriage of Figaro", or the story of the famous Scottish hero of the "Braveheart" referred to that barbaric but accepted practice. I am not saying that what David did was acceptable. What I am trying to say is that the kind of thing that David did was nothing extraordinary for the king in those days. So what is the point? For what reason did the Bible take exception and give this story such an important place. What was it trying to tell us?

 

I believe it is a warning against the abuse of power. No one is allowed to use power in order to exploit other persons for one”s own benefit. You see, this was the first time that David did not go to war. He was getting old. He had a need to feel that he still had some kind of power in ways other than in the battle field. It is common knowledge that sex crimes are committed by people who otherwise feel powerless. For them preying on the weak – women and children – is the only way to feel that they still have power over someone else. The prophet Nathan skilfully gave that message in his story of a poor man”s sheep and a rich man”s greed. You see, our religious tradition has never been comfortable with the idea that any person should wield power over others. We recite "for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever and ever" in the Lord”s Prayer, because we believe, since the time of the Old Testament, that ultimately only God has power. The power any human being holds is given in trust on a certain number of conditions. Power is defined as a force that obliges others to follow one”s will. According to our religious tradition, no one has the birthright to hold power over others, because we believe that we are all children of God, hence we are all equal. Power is given to some people on the condition that they do some of the God”s work. If anyone abuses the God given power for one”s selfish purposes, one is committing a grievous sin.

 

We must realize how poignant the moral of today”s story is. All of us have power over other people in various ways. As parents over our children, as owners of assets and properties, as holders of offices and positions of many kinds, we all have power to oblige others to do what we want to some extent. Particularly, politicians and business executives have tremendous power to determine the fate of other people. For all of us, the story of David and Bathsheba gives us an important lesson. It is, "Don”t ever use power to exploit others." We must remember Jesus Christ as the ultimate role model of a power figure. Though he was the son of almighty and all powerful God, he exercised his power only to care for and heal others, even though that attitude cost him his own life. That should be the model of a person with power. Not like David who used his power to satisfy his own selfish desire at the cost of another person”s life.

 

 

 

A: COMMANDMENTS AS THE MEANS OF GRACE – FIRST SUNDAY OF OCTOBER

COMMANDMENTS AS THE MEANS OF GRACE

Exodus 20, Psalm 19, Matthew 21:33-46

October 3, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

 A boy went off the trail and got lost because he did not obey the first bush commandment, "Thou shalt not go into the woods alone." When he was found after two days and two nights, he was covered with thousands of mosquito bites, dehydrated, starving, and nearly delirious. He learned the price of disobeying the rules in a very hard way. He nearly lost his life.

Though rules and regulations exist for our own good, they have a bad name – "boring". Many people believe that it is more fun to break a law than to obey it. "Don”t get caught." is a slogan more people seem to believe in than those who obey the laws. The laws are normally the expression of God”s concern for us. But they don”t fully appreciate that the laws are intended for their safety and well-being. Ten Commandments were given to people, as the means for God to express his concern for people. But we don”t appreciate them as such. We think that the laws restrict our freedom and tie us down to a boring life. Therefore, many people think that the religion is a whole bunch of "Thou shalt not." So they think that religion is boring and takes fun out of life.

We must admit that, as soon as we see a rule, our first impulse is to break it. A story has it that one day a town council erected a sign with the inscription, "It is forbidden to throw stones at this sign." Guess what happened. Within a week, the sign became illegible because so many people threw stones at it. This story tells us about our ambivalent relation with the law. Nobody thinks that laws are bad. In fact, we will probably be very upset if people break the laws openly and get away with it. But why then do we cheat the laws – customs regulations, tax laws, and traffic laws, etc? I don”t think that there are many people who have never broken any of the Ten Commandments. Governments are worst offenders of the Ten Commandments. Paul described this problem in his letter to the Romans, "If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. If the law does not say "Thou shall not be envious.", I would not have known what envy is."

This is a unique problem for human beings. Animals can do only what nature tells them to do. They do not have freedom to choose, so they can only follow the laws of nature. They know no other way, so they do not need rules. Whereas humans are free. So we have options. We have knowledge of what is good for us. But we do have freedom to obey the law as well as to break it. God”s laws are the means of his grace. The knowledge of what is good for our well-being is revealed to us in a form of the commandments – the laws of God. So we have freedom to choose to live well, if we decide to follow the commandments. Freedom is a precious gift. It means that God respects us, and recognizes our dignity as independent individuals.

But we can choose to disobey the laws too. We can exercise our God given freedom by choosing what is not good for us. If we don”t have this option, we are not truly free. So the important question is; what is it that make us want to choose the God”s way, freely. What does it make what we only know in the head, into something we really want to do from our heart? What does it make the mere knowledge of what is good into heartfelt desires? What does it change the laws into the means of grace? The Bible says it is love that makes what is in the head into a matter of heart. Jesus said that love is the fulfilment of all the laws. Love makes the laws work. But without love, the law can be a temptation to break it, as Paul put it.

I can not name myself an excellent driver. But when I was young, I was worse. I was reckless. What changed me, at least into a more careful driver was the arrival of a child in my life. Though I am far from being an excellent driver even now, following the traffic laws began to have a whole different meaning with my child in the car. A concern for the safety of the child made me realize that the traffic laws were good things. And I began to hope that all drivers obey the law for the safety of my loved one. It is love that makes sense out of the laws. It is love that make you want to obey God”s commandments.

We are celebrating the Lord”s Supper today. It is a memorial of our Lord”s death. We remember that God who gave us the laws is the same God who forgave those who crucified Jesus on the cross. God commands and forgives, because he loves us. As we partake the symbolic meal to remember the love of God, let us also remember that it was the same God who loves us through the commandments. Remembering his love, let us appreciate the God”s way and give our best to live accordingly.

 

 

 

B; THE WISE AND THE FOOL – SECOND SUNDAY OF SEPTEMBER

THE WISE AND THE FOOL

Proverbs 1:20-33, Psalm 19, Mark 8:27-38

September 14, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

I once had a colleague who came from Cape Breton Island. She told me that there were eight Gaelic words meaning "fool." They were all graded, from the ordinary kind found everywhere to the absolutely hopeless case. According to her, the worst fool in Gaelic means an "arrogant and stubborn old man." The book of Proverbs lists two kinds of fools. My Bible has two words – "simpleton" and "scoffer". Others versions use words like insolent one, brazen one, ignorant one or one who mocks. It shows that there are many kinds of fools. However, a common feature in all of them is their inability to hear the voice of wisdom, either because of stupidity or of their arrogance.

I heard of a man who drove around and around the gas station that sold cheap gas until the tank was empty, so that he could fill it with cheap gas. He thought he was being smart, I guess. And the worst foolishness is an inability to hear the voice of wisdom. "Fools despise wisdom and instruction." says Proverbs. On the other hand, the truly wise person fears God. Proverbs says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge." When you respect God, many human attributes fade into the background. In other words, a wise person is humble and sensitive enough to be able to listen and to see things beyond the surface. Humility enables one to discern wisdom despite appearances. On the other hand, a fool can not see beyond the surface.

If you fear God, you find wisdom everywhere. Proverbs describes wisdom by saying, "She cries out on the streets, in the town squares, and in the market places. But fools do not see her nor listen to her." When I was working for the church offices in Toronto, I used to change street cars at the intersection of College Street and Yonge. On that corner , there was a street preacher – a big black man with a beautiful baritone holding a placard that said, "God loves you." His booming voice could be heard on every corner of that noisy and busy intersection. He said simple things like "Repent. The end is near." Or something like that. Of course, nobody paid any attention to him including me. I was too embarrassed.

Imagine the same kind of a scene played at the market in St. Chrysostome on Friday afternoon? Of course, it might also be a fraud, someone who”s out to get you, maybe into some strange cult or suck you dry of money. You must be careful. Imagine that it is a woman who is crying out, "Repent." A woman, especially a woman, is not expected to do things like that….unless she is a well-known high profile person like Mother Teresa. They can get away with it, because of the special status we accord them. If it is an ordinary woman, probably we would look at her as though she was crazy. Maybe I am reading too much into Proverbs and making a big deal out of wisdom being referred to as a woman. A ship is referred to as "she", so is a country. Many people call their countries the "Mother land". Maybe it is significant. I, for one, think that Proverbs has very a important message to give us by referring wisdom as a woman.

When those Proverbs were written a few thousand years ago, the status of women was much lower than it is today. Women were virtually men”s properties. In such a situation, there had to be some important reasons to refer to wisdom in female terms. By presenting wisdom as a woman – a most unlikely metaphor in those days – it is saying that it would take a considerable amount of humility and open-mindedness to see something extremely important and valuable. If you truly respect God, you will be so open-minded as to see truth beyond any unlikely looking surface. Also when men see women, they often see only their appearances and can not see beyond sex. There is, of course, nothing wrong with appreciating someone”s appearance. What is wrong is men”s inability to simply acknowledge beauty, let go of it, and then see beyond the surface.

There was once a highly respected monk, known for his devotion to meditation and his wisdom. Many young men became his followers. One day, the sage was reading the Holy Scriptures quietly in the woods. Some of his disciples joined him in this meditation exercise. In the course of the day, a beautiful woman came for a walk in the woods and passed by those monks. The sage lifted his eyes and watched the woman as she passed by. He resumed his meditation after she disappeared from his sight. The disciples were very upset. They were very disappointed with their master for even looking at the woman during a meditation and told him so. But the sage said to them, "Can you not let go? Why should beauty bother you? Poor foolish souls. It is wonderful to appreciate the beauty of nature and the wisdom of God”s words." By referring to wisdom in the female terms, the writer of Proverbs challenges us to see truth beyond what is sometimes superficially attractive, as much as behind an unlikely or even ugly facade.

In Proverbs, wisdom expresses righteous anger towards people who do not see nor listen to her voice. People do not heed her warning, because meeting wisdom on the street is, at least, inconvenient, mostly annoying. When Peter was asked by Jesus who he thought Jesus was, he gave the right answer. But as soon as Jesus started to tell him the suffering and death that awaited him in Jerusalem, Peter was very annoyed. He scolded his master for saying such nonsense. It was impossible that people would reject the messiah whom they were waiting for, and make him suffer. Peter could not see the true nature of God”s love. He expected the good to meet an happy ending. He could see the end of the story of the prince of peace only in terms of "And he lived happily ever after." Peter is not any different from the rest of us. However, the anger Jesus showed to Peter at that moment was quite exceptional. He called Peter "Satan" for seeing things in a human way not in God”s way. It was just like the anger of wisdom in Proverbs.

God”s wisdom can be found often in the most unlikely places. Mother Teresa found God in the slums of Calcutta. I don”t know how many of you have actually seen slums in some of the poor countries. The worst slum I have ever seen was outside of Nairobi, Kenya called Mathare Valley. About a million people lived there, in an area about the size of Chateauguay. Skeleton like figures were walking about like living corpses in rags. Stench from all sorts of waste was unbearable. There was ankle deep mud everywhere. I could not stay there too long. And yet Mother Teresa took the hands of those dying in such a bog of human misery and looked after them in their last days of their lives. And there, she said, she "touched the face of God."

The wisdom of God is found by people who can see beyond day-to-day superficial values. This is why Paul said, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. For the God”s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom." God”s wisdom is beyond our wisdom. You may think it is impossible for us to attain such divine wisdom. Even Peter could not see it. You may think that it is only Jesus who could. And I say we can. In love, divine wisdom and our understanding come together. Think of Mother Teresa, think of any mother, who sees potential beyond the appearance of an awkward child. We can hear divine wisdom everywhere in the logic of love. Maybe that”s another good reason to describe wisdom as a woman.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A ; WAS JESUS A SUPERMAN OR JUST A MEN – FIFTH SUNDAY OF SEPTEMBER

JESUS CHRIST – SUPERMAN OR JUST A MAN?

Exodus 17 : 1 – 6, Psalm 78, Phil. 2 : 1 – 13

September 29, 1996, by Tad Mitsui

Paul was in a Roman prison writing the last letter of his life to the Philippians. He knew that his death was imminent. He was probably beheaded soon after he sent that letter. Despite the circumstances, the letter was filled with joy. He used words like "happy", "joy" or "rejoice" more than 20 times in a short letter, and asked the Philippians to join him in his happiness. How could Paul be happy in such a situation? Or was he just trying to be brave? I have no definite answer why anyone could be happy in a prison. But in this circumstance, he wrote the famous verses extolling the self-emptying love of Jesus. "Though Jesus Christ was in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave being born as a human." But I think that in his belief in the self-emptying love of Jesus, there is a clue to know why Paul could be happy despite his imminent demise.

Paul was a well educated man of high society. Now he was sitting in a prison in Rome because of his faith in Jesus Christ. If he had any doubt about the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ, he would have been screaming at a prison wall out of total frustration. On the surface, it appeared that Paul wasted his life completely. He was born of a successful, affluent, and industrious family. He grew up in a foreign country and was fluent in the universal language of the day, Greek. Because of the prominent position they held, the entire family was accorded the rare privilege of Roman citizenship, though they were Jews.

He also belonged to the Pharisees – the elite class of lawyers and scholars in the Jewish society. He was educated in the highest educational institution in Jerusalem. Therefore, his promotion in the ruling class was remarkably quick. Even when he was a law student, he had already supervised at least one trial and execution of a heretic. A few years later, he was given authority over the entire region of Syria to arrest and imprison the followers of the heretical teaching known as Christianity. When he became a Christian he threw all those privileges away. I am sure that his past in the Jewish establishment must have made many Christians suspicious of him. Not only that, he had a hard time convincing other Christians about the legitimacy of his ministry, because of his more liberal understanding of the Gospel, which stemmed from his education and overseas experiences.

We have a bad habit of discrediting good people, when we find a few blemishes in them. We somehow feel familiarity gives us a license to discredit virtues. When you hear the praises of someone you know well, you feel that you have a right to diminish their apparent virtues by adding the inside story. I know this, because I do it myself. For example, I have had the privilege to get to know many saintly people in my life. On more than one occasion, I got angry at or spoke ill of such godly persons as Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu, because I had seen first hand their idiosyncrasies and got impatient with them. Shame on me! Knowing this particular human tendency, Jesus said that prophets were rarely accepted in their own home towns. As people got to know the Prophets well, they always found faults in them. We must find ways to keep the respect for people with whom we have become familiar.

I suspect that the same psychology is at work when we think of Jesus Christ today. We might crucify him again, if he lived among us and if we knew him well. But because we have not lived close to Jesus in the flesh and do not know him as someone who is like us, it is easy for us to respect and praise him. We have no problem to say, "He is God." For us, he is someone like Superman, who came from outer space and could perform wonders. Therefore it is impossible for us to feel responsible for his death, because we respect him too much. We can not think of ourselves killing the son of God. "It was those bad people, not us, who crucified Jesus." We don”t realize that our presumed innocence is based on our unfamiliarity with the person of Jesus Christ. This is why, for many centuries, the Christians persecuted Jewish people as the nation responsible for the death of our Lord. That was, of course, totally unjust.

We have a real problem comprehending one of the important articles of faith. It is the humanity of Christ, because that makes him like us. If Jesus remained God, and stayed far away from the likes of us, there would not have been such a problem. We would not see him. We would not see anything we didn”t like in him. We would be able to continue to worship him, if he stayed away from us and remained God. But is this the real Jesus? What do we do with the verses like, "He emptied himself to become like us and lived among us."

Ralph Milton once did something very interesting, when he led a Bible study of the same passage we read today. He drew a long horizontal line, and marked one end as "100% undiluted God" and the other end as a "kinda nice person". In the middle of the line was "a saintly person". First he asked people to position Jesus on this continuum. The most of the people put Jesus on "100% undiluted God" or somewhere pretty close. Then he mentioned a few names of people they who were well respected and they knew personally. He also mentioned some godly people they respected but never met, people like Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Albert Schweitzer, etc. None of the people who they were familiar with made it to "saintly persons". They were mostly "Kinda nice people" including their own ministers. Only a few famous people, whom they did not know personally, made it close to the status of "saintly persons".

It is difficult to understand the notion of Jesus Christ being a 100% undiluted God and a 100% undiluted man at the same time, in the same person. Many Christians do not understand how Jesus could be human while being completely God. The people of Jewish and Muslim faiths do not accept that either; no human could be God, no way, no how. This is because we do not see God in people. Consequently, we are too quick to find faults in good people and reject them, as soon as we get to know them well. We must learn to see a bit of God in every person. Remember the creation story? God created humans, according to the likeness of God. We are not perfect, of course. But a bit of godliness is in every one of us. But often, because we know some people, we overlook their godliness. Disrespect increases rapidly, once someone you see in flesh does something you don”t like or something which goes against your interest. This is why the people in Jerusalem cried out for Jesus” death. They got to know him in flesh, and did not like what they saw in him, even though many of them thought that he was Messiah in the beginning.

Jesus was a human being. He was tempted to abuse divine power, when he was hungry. He was attracted by political power, and was even dazzled by worldly riches. He wept over the death of his friend. He cried and sweated all night, begging God to let him avoid the agony on the cross; he could not stand the thought of such extreme pain. On the cross, he even fell into the depth of despair and accused God of abandoning him. "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!" One neglected clause in the Apostle”s Creed is, after Jesus was crucified and died, "He descended into hell." Jesus went to hell? We thought it was the place only bad people went. No matter how it should be interpreted, it is quite clear that Jesus saw everything any human person would experience, including that of hell.

Jesus Christ was a 100% undiluted human being. And people could hear, see and touch him. It was easy to hate him, because he was close to them and visible. Likewise, we can dislike people who are close and do something against our interest, even though they are doing the right thing. Yes, we can crucify Jesus all over again, unless we learn to see God in every human being. Unless you know how to see godliness in every human being, you will not be able to see this 100% undiluted human being called Jesus Christ, who was at the same time 100% undiluted God. Let us go back to Paul”s prison cell in Rome. I could see him saying something like: "My humanity – all the failures, wrong directions, thwarted projects, and warts – is what Jesus become when he emptied himself. And in doing so Jesus showed me the godliness in my humanity."

 

A : TO LOVE GOD IS TO LOVE SOMEONE – FOURTH SUNDAY OF OCTOBER

TO LOVE GOD IS TO LOVE SOMEONE

I John 4:7-21, Psalm 90, Matthew 22:34-46

October 27, 1996 by Tad Mitsui

When you stop to think a little deeper about so-called "Great Commandment", you will realize that something does not quite jibe. Jesus said that the most important commandment of God is, "Love God and love your neighbours." One wonders, if one can command anyone to love. Love is impulsive and irresistible. To us, it is passion that hits us unexpectedly and surprises us. And often it dies against our wish. It is often beyond our control. Love comes and goes as though it has a life of its own. So to command someone to love sounds almost like there is something wrong with the grammar of this sentence.

Incidentally what is interesting about this passage is the fact that the sentences Jesus quoted were not new. Everybody, including the Pharisees who wanted to test Jesus, should have been familiar with them. They were part of what follows the Ten Commandments, "You shall love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbour as yourself." The Pharisees, like many of our lawyers, lost a basic but simple priority of life because they made God”s world very complicated with too many technicalities. When you make too many exceptions and excuses, you lose the most important core teaching.

The great commandment is very simple and while being most profound. You can meditate on the meaning of the great commandment all your life without running out of the things to reflect on. This says to us that many good things of life are quite simple but rich, like motherhood or friendship. Love is one of them. But today let me pick three points that this commandment draws attention to, though you can easily pick hundreds more. First: Love is dynamic. Love can and must change and grow. Secondly, loving God and loving some person is the same thing. To love God is to love someone. Thirdly, there is no true love without healthy self-love.

First: Love is dynamic. It is alive. It changes and grows. In fact, it must change. Notice how the Bible says of our love of God. It says that we must love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. We all know what loving with our heart means. It is the instinctive and irresistible force that draws you to someone or something. When we fall in love, we love someone with our hearts. Passion hits you with a nice, warm and fuzzy feeling. We love it. But we also know that a warm and fuzzy thing does not last every long, like any living thing without nourishment. So the Bible suggests that we must also love with our soul. This is a spiritual dimension of love. It is a matter of commitment and will. So our love that begins with a passion must make us commit ourselves to that love. Love of heart can take you so far but eventually the momentum weakens. There has to be a motor to continue. It often needs a kick start – a spiritual kick from God. Love has to grow to be a commitment. And this is a matter of the soul.

Our brain must work with our soul, too. Our spiritual life dies if we do not nurture it with constant mental support. God created us as a creature who thinks. Unless we give a mental support to our commitment to love, our spiritual motivation will eventually die. This is why some of us come to church and listen to the sermons and study the Bible.

Secondly, the love of God and of people are the same thing. John, in his letter, said it bluntly, "Those who say that they love God and hate brothers and sisters are liars." Unfortunately, among people who claim to love God and the church, there are those who do not like people. There are, among those who claim to be committed to God, people who hate and reject people of different ideas, life-styles, and religions. We must remember that to love God is to accept and love others. They are two sides of a coin. One does not exist without the other. We must see God in each one of our friends and neighbours. In the Old Testament, the word "alien" is used interchangeably with the word "neighbour". Neighbours include those who are not necessarily of our kind or among our favourite people.

Nobody has seen God. So if we must love God, we must love anyone who happens to cross our path. You never know who that person could be. This is another reason why loving someone only with your heart is not always possible, because that person who crosses our path may not always be our favourite person. We need divine intervention – a kick from God to love such a person. To love our neighbour is a matter of loving with our soul, and may not be of passion.

Lastly, an ability to love others grows out of our self-love. The commandment says: "Love your neighbour as yourself." It means, if you do not know how to love yourself, you don”t know how to love other people. You may think that it is natural and easy to love yourself. You can be so wrong. In fact, a big problem in our society today is self-hatred. The secret of many advertisements – I am sure you remember me saying this many times – is to encourage people to be dissatisfied with themselves, so that they buy things to make them feel better than they are now. We have difficulty accepting ourselves and thus often do not feel good about ourselves as we are. We believe that we can never be "okay". This is why we easily become so preoccupied with trying to be like somebody else instead of finding good in ourselves. We feel that we are never good enough. This is why we envy others for being what we are not, and covet what we don”t possess. In fact it is not too far off to say that we become self-centred and selfish, because of our preoccupation about our incompleteness. This is why healthy self-love can lead to genuine love of others.

If the love of others grows out of a healthy self-love, it is also important to remember that such self-love can come only from a strong sense of being loved. It is a gentle and kind circle: being loved by others leads to healthy self-love , and self-love enables you to love others. Of course, the other side of the story is that a vicious circle can result: not being loved enough can lead to self-hatred, and self-hatred can lead to selfishness and the hatred of others. So you see, self-love does not lead to a self-centered and selfish attitude. Rather it is self-hatred which does. Loving yourself and feeling good about yourself lead you to feel confident about yourself. When you feel confident, the whole world becomes a wonderful place to live in. That”s the basis of love.

So you see, we can follow the great commandment because of another core belief of ours. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son." We are Christians because of our conviction that God forgives us and accepts us, because he loves us. This is why it is possible for us to love someone, or anyone. And to love someone means that we can love God in return. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

B: SILENT NIGHT – CHRISTMAS

I will tell you the story of the next hymn.  It is one Christmas carol everybody loves.  It is known all over the world, even by people who are not Christians.  But few people know the fact that this best loved Carol would not have been written, if an organ did not break down in a small church.  Fr. Joseph Mohr was twenty-six years old assistant priest of a church in a little town called Obendorf in Austria, one hundred and eighty-one years ago.  It was his first church after he became a priest.  It was his first Christmas as a priest also.  Everybody came to the Christmas service.  He wanted to do a good job.  He asked a school teacher and organist Frantz Gruber to play the organ as best he could to make it a highlight of the service.

But a disaster struck.  The organ broke down on the Christmas Eve.  There was no way to fix it in such a short notice.  People would be disappointed.  They were looking forward to hearing Mr. Gruber”s special music.  What to do?  Think fast, Fr. Mohr.  So he sat down and wrote the words that came to his mind as he imagine the scene of the stable in Bethlehem where the baby Jesus was born.  He imagined the mother Mary looking at the sleeping baby.  He imagined the shepherds who came to greet the baby in a starry silent night.  He had to work fast because there was no time.  He ran to Mr Gruber and asked him to write music for the words he just wrote.  They had no time to do anything else.  But it had to be good.  The song had to be the highlight of the Christmas Service. 

On the Christmas day, they sung the song they just wrote together.  Mr. Gruber sang melody with his guitar and Fr. Mohr was a baritone.  "Stille Nacht! Heilige Natch!  Alles Schläft, einsam wacht.."  It was beautiful.  It was magical.  Soon, the song became famous in all churches all over the world and it was translated into hundreds of languages, because it was so simple that everybody could sing.

Jesus Christ was born in a stable, because there was no place for them in nice hotels.  The parents were humble people.  They could not afford a hotel.  But that was how the first Christmas happened.  The most wonderful thing happens in the simplest way, just like the way Christmas carol we all love was written.  It was written because there was no organ.  The most precious gift of God came in the form of a little baby.  That was the way God chose to show us how much he loved us.

A: WE ARE BORN-AGAIN CHRISTIANS – LENT – 2

WE ARE BORN-AGAIN CHRISTIANS

Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, John 3:1-17

February 28, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

One day, a man asked me in a cafeteria, "Are you saved? Are you born again to Christ?" I said, "Yes." The he said, "When?" I said, "Everyday." It is a pity that some perfectly good expressions like "born again" get used as labels and the original meanings are changed or lost. "Evangelical" and "Born Again" are expressions that have become labels for some particular groups of people. But if we believe the Bible, we are all born again Evangelical Christians. I feel that we must reclaim those names as ours as they are used in the Bible.

The Christians, who live in the so-called non-Christian countries, have a tendency to idealize the countries like Canada which are considered to be "Christian" countries. A Japanese Christian came to Canada to attend an interdenominational meeting. He was shocked to see quarrels between "Evangelicals" and "Liberals", Presbyterians and United, Catholics and Protestants, etc. He was disappointed to find that Christians fought in Canada too like Japanese do at home. Someone asked him, what he was. He said, "I”m a Christian, and I thought you all were."

We are Christians before we are Baptists, Catholics, United, Presbyterians, or whatever the label we put on. Furthermore, we are "Born Again" Christians according to today”s Gospel reading. In the Gospel according to John, you find that the expression "Born Again" was first used by Jesus. He said that no one could be his follower and enter the kingdom of God unless one was born again. By this definition, we all are, or should be, born again Christians. The story has it that one night a prominent Pharisee leader by the name of Nicodemus came to see Jesus. He said, "Teacher, I know you come from God. No one can do what you are doing unless one comes from God." Jesus said to him, "If you really want to follow God”s way, you must first be born again." This really threw Nicodemus off balance, because he was a man of reason. "Born again? I am a grown up man. I can not go back to my mother”s womb." He was a man who used the brain to think. He was a scholar. Reason was the faculty he valued. He was not used to be confronted with things that made no logical sense. But he came face to face with the fundamental fact of faith; faith is the matter of both spirit and mind. He had to integrate reason with passion to start afresh in the life of faith – to be born again in spirit.

It is not easy for a person who has a superior mind to give oneself to emotion or passion. One is afraid to look silly. This is why Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night. He was the leader of the scholarly and righteous lawyers who took it upon themselves to be the watch dogs of the nation”s moral standards. He knew that Jesus was a very special man. He could tell that Jesus had to come from God, because Nicodemus was a God fearing righteous man. But his cool reasoning prevented him to make a leap of faith. He could not be seen as acting in a hasty manner, especially about a matter of national importance; people were calling Jesus the Messiah – the true king. He had to be careful. So he came secretly. But faith must involve a whole person. The whole person includes feelings, emotions, passion, and can be creative and impulsive, in addition to a cool mind that calculates and reasons. Faith requires both attributes, because faith requires a whole person. A whole person is a person who draws on both mind and spirit.

Dr. Helen Caldicot is a paediatrician who became famous in a movement to stop the spread of nuclear weapons during the height of the cold war in the eighties. She was once asked why she was so emotional when she spoke about the danger of nuclear weapons. The insinuation was that "Emotional people are not credible because they are not reasonable. Women are often emotional. Therefore they are not credible. If you want to be heard, stay cool and speak with reason. Be like a man." She answered that ”Yes, I am emotional about this. I am a woman and a mother. If my patient does not get emotional about the future of her child, she is mentally ill. I ”ll send her to a Psychiatrist." Any good parent is both emotional and reasonable about one”s own child.

This also means that faith is not complete if passionate belief does not seek reason. Our minds are God”s creation, as much as our spirits are gifts from God. Faith has to grow in mind and spirit, even when faith comes into our life through emotion and passion. And faith has to be fed with reason as it grows. Faith does not stay alive by passion alone. Sometime those who believe with passionate faith criticize those people who study the Bible scientifically, and examine our beliefs systematically. But those people too must be born again to integrate their passion for God with reason and scientific logic, because faith involves the whole person. And a whole person is a person with both passion and reason.

Abraham was already a rich man when he was still in the land of Haran, the present day Iraq. He had tens of thousands of heads of livestock of all sorts and an army of workers within his household. He was almost like a head of a nation. But one night, he had a vision. God spoke to Abraham and told him to pack up all his household and move. God did not tell him where to. He just said, "Pack up and go." The Bible says that Abraham went without knowing where he was going. Perhaps it was because he didn”t know where he was going, that he went so far. It was a totally irrational thing to do for a successful farmer and businessman who made virtually billions of dollars. It was not a rational decision. It was a decision made from the heart, out of his passionate trust in God. He was ready to start afresh. At that point, Abraham was born again into faith, both in mind and spirit.

We are also called upon to be born again. Made afresh today, tomorrow, and many more times to be born anew. There are some people who can pinpoint the time and the day when he/she was born again. But we are all very different. For many of us, like me, the process of being "born again" is a quiet process that repeats itself many times. I try to live everyday like a new person, refreshed by the belief that God loves me. We have to be born again, again and again. Sometimes, God will help us with an inspirational or emotionally high experience. After those experiences, we must settle down and become stable with reason, like a bowl of hot jelly cools and settles in a fridge. At other times, our cool rational belief system has to be shaken, perked up, and refreshed with stirring hymns or by the love of a friend. In either case, we are born again as a new Christian person.

 

 

 

 

 

C: YOU CAN NOT BUY GOD IN A SUPER MARKET

GOD IS NOT FOR CHOOSING

Jeremiah 2:4-13, Psalm 85. Luke 14:1-5

August 30, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

I had a friend, who turned out to be a spy in the Secret Service of the South African government. I was opposing the policy of that government at the time. The fact of the matter is; he had never been my friend. It was a deception from the beginning. I know now that his treachery caused the deaths of a few friends. But I am more sad than angry when I realized that someone was capable of abusing a quality as precious as friendship for a tool of deception. Prophet Jeremiah spoke of God in a somewhat similar situation. People took God for convenience.

After the people of Israel settled down in the land of Canaan and became prosperous farmers, they abandoned their God of Abraham and Moses, and started to worship the god called Baal. When their need was fulfilled, they just dumped the old friend and went to someone more attractive, so to speak. "What wrong did you find in me?" asked God. "I saved you from slavery in Egypt. I guided you through the desert. I led you into a fertile land to settle. But now you ran to another god. What did I do wrong?" God sounds more sad than angry. The people thought that they had the freedom to choose God for convenience. God isn”t for choosing.

We also commit the same sacrilege too. A sociologist by the name of Reg Bibby interviewed hundreds of Canadians a few years ago, and concluded that we have changed our way to practice religion. Bibby says that God is still very popular in Canada. But Canadians nowadays tend to pick and choose religions rather than sticking to the churches they used to go. People adopted the same attitude about religion as about shopping. They shop around, and choose the religions that suit their needs or go to the churches they like. I hasten to add, though, that this is not necessarily wrong. It means that we have finally begun to exercise freedom of conscience and religion. But, the danger of this trend is in its influence in our attitude towards God.

There is an important difference between choosing a church and choosing God. The freedom to choose your church does not mean there is freedom to choose your God. There are people and things you can choose, and those you can not. The difference is like between a car and a mother. You can choose a car. But a mother is not for your choosing. If you don”t see this obvious distinction and think you can abandon your mother when she is no longer useful, there is something fundamentally wrong with you as a human being. A creature can not choose the creator, just as much as a child can not choose parents. You can choose your friend and spouse. But even there, once you have made a choice, you commit yourself to the relationship with that person. You can not easily say, "Oops. Sorry, that was a mistake." If you think that you can run to someone else any time, you have a profoundly serious problem. You have a crippled mind lacking basic understanding of what it means to be a human being.

Likewise, if you think you can pick the God of your choice, your understanding of religion also needs complete scrutiny. God is not for choosing. If you think you can pick and choose God like you choose your new car, what you have in mind is not a true God, and you don”t know what religion is. What you have is mere wishful thinking not faith.

Let us look at the people of Israel and see how they went wrong. Their escape from slavery in Egypt was fraught with extreme dangers. The forty years of life in the desert was extremely difficult. They needed God who gave them courage to live on without losing hope. God gave them laws which taught them how to live in harmony with other people. Without God, the people of Israel would have perished or disintegrated in Egypt, in the sea, or in the desert. So, they stayed with the God of Moses. With God, they survived and became a nation.

Now settled in the land of milk and honey, they prospered. But in prosperity, they became greedy. The more they gained, the more they craved. They forgot to be grateful. God became an annoying hindrance in the pursuit of pleasure and profit. They forgot the God of Moses who guided through difficulties and suffered with them. They did not want a teacher and a guide. So they became more attracted to Baal, the god who promised fertility, pleasure, and prosperity. God became a mere instrument of their greed.

Faith is a relationship with God who created us. Our option is not choosing one god among many. The choice before us is whether we have relationship with the creator or not. We live out that relationship with the creator by loving and honouring those around us. There are people who are committed to be in relationship with God and people. They seek no gain nor pleasure in doing this. If there is gain, it is the joy of being in relationship. This week, we mark the first anniversary of the deaths of two remarkable women, Diana and Teresa. They were completely different personalities. They were humans with human faults. But we remember them because of their compassion. We remember Diana in the pictures with emaciated men in Toronto who were dying of AIDS, and with children without arms and legs in Angola. We remember Mother Teresa with homeless people in rags who were dying of disease on the streets of Calcutta. They shook hands with them, picked them up, kissed them, and gave them life-giving touch of one human to another. They did not choose those people for pleasure. They chose them because, they were all God”s children. Their choice simply reflected God”s.

We too must be committed to those who are in relationship with us, parents, spouses, children, friends and neighbours near and far. They are not for our choosing. They are God”s choice for us. God is not for our choosing. He was here long before us, is with us now, and will be for ever.

 

A: A STORY OF A TOUGH WOMAN – SECOND SUNDAY OF NOVEMBER

A STORY OF A TOUGH WOMAN

Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, Matthew 25:14-30

November 14, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

 Usually, when you speak about the woman you admire, you speak about a caring and dedicated mother or wife. I can think of such a woman, for example. You must know many women like her, too. She had to delay honey moon, for six years, and had waited for her husband to come home from the war in Europe. She was the youngest in the family, so she looked after her mother as a matter of course while raising three children, singlehandedly. After her mother”s death, she took over the care of her sister-in-law who was mentally handicapped until she died. Lastly, she had looked after her now retired husband who was failing in health until he went into the home for the aged veterans. It is nearly fifty years of her caring other people. She is an amazing person. She follows the pattern of the woman”s life we all admire; their kindness and dedication in caring of other people. But there is Deborah who is remembered not because she was a devoted wife or a caring mother, but because she lived and succeeded like a man. The question is; are we celebrating Deborah of the Bible because she was like a man?

 

The story of Deborah in the Book of Judges is an amazing story of a tough woman. Even here in Canada, when we have a woman Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and a woman Governor-General, Deborah of the Bible seems head and shoulders above our powerful women. She seems to be an incredibly powerful woman. She was a wife and mother, while being a judge, a prophet, and a commander-in-chief of the ten thousand man army. If you consider the fact that the whole Canadian Defense Forces is made up of about 30 thousand uniformed men and women, you could see how powerful Deborah was. In addition to her domestic work, her duties extended to judiciary, political, religious, and military matters of the Hebrew people. It is impossible to find today such a person of multiple qualifications even among men. She was a tough woman even in today”s standard. From time to time, you find amazingly tough women in history. Joan of Arc comes to my mind. There is also Golda Meier who was the woman Prime Minister of Israel. She led Israel to a victory in the Six Days War during 1967. Someone said of Golda Meier once, "She is the only man in the entire Israeli Cabinet." But the question is: why should we have to classify a certain kind of qualities as bravery male, and some others as kindness female. We refer to an aggressive and tough man as a "true man". Or in case of a woman, we say "She is like a man." Likewise, we refer to a caring person in a female term. Why?

 

Once, any man who showed a sign of tenderness used to be called "sissy". A tough woman, who was not afraid of men, was called "a castrating bitch". Fortunately, those days are behind us, and such views are going out of fashion. We live at a time when these stereo type characterization of man and woman is being questioned. I am very glad also that we are discovering in the Bible a character like Deborah who is remembered for her toughness. Women in the Bible were not always someone like Ruth who is remembered for her tender love. Now we know that both men and women are born with capacity for tenderness and toughness, and there is nothing exclusively male or female about those qualities. There is nothing wrong for some men to be more tender hearted than to be tough. There is nothing wrong for some women to be more aggressive than to be gentle. There is no such thing like typically male character nor typically female character. All of us are born with tenderness and toughness.

 

Jesus Christ once said, "You must be clever as a snake and gentle as a dove." He is saying that we must be both tough and tender. Martin Luther King rephrased this passage by saying, "You must have tough mind and tender love." In other words, Jesus is saying to those tough men in the old fashioned sense to be more like "women." Likewise, he is saying to those gentle women in the old fashioned sense to be more like "men." Jesus told us to be both tough and gentle, because we all are born with infinitely different capacities that do not depend on sexual difference. All of us, both male and female, have talents in both tenderness and toughness. We must make use of those talents fully, just like the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew suggests. In other words, women must not bury their toughness, and men must not be shy to openly act on their impulse from tender hearts.

 

Have you noticed that many veterans who saw actions in the battle fields don”t want to speak about what they saw? Take my father-in-law. He was in the Air Force during the Second World War in Europe. So far, he has not told any of us about his experience of war. Have you notice also when, in rare occasions, some of the veterans speak about their experiences, they usually break down and cry? I think this is why they don”t want to talk about it. Men have been taught not to cry. It”s sissy for boys to cry. So many of them have their feelings all bottled up, which come out only in their nightmares. I think they should cry. It is not sissy for men to cry. And when they can cry, they will be able to tell us the horror of war more vividly, and will make us more determined to find peaceful solutions to conflicts.

 

I think that Jesus was sissy, according to the old fashioned standard for men. He cried in public, loved flowers, played with babies and loved kids, and when people came to tell him some insulting things, he didn”t shout back, but gently answered in enigmatic parables. He told his disciple to put down his sword. He was not a macho-man. He was against violence. And yet, he was not a weak man. Anybody, who can pray in the desert for forty days without food, must be a pretty tough person. He could drive out money-changers single-handedly from the temple, because the house of prayer was desecrated. He could get very angry, when he needed to be angry. That takes some guts. He was tough. Jesus was tough and gentle for the sake of love.

 

I believe we men must learn from Jesus that it is OK for men to be sissy for the sake of love. In the meantime, we must learn from the story of the judge Deborah, that women must let out the captive princess called "tough women".

 

 

 

 

 

C: THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS ARE OFTEN FREE – 3RD SUNDAY OF LENT

THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS ARE OFTEN FREE

Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63, Luke 13:1-5

March 15, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

We often consider cash as a measure for value; and this is a serious spiritual problem. Often we don”t know what real value means, and treat ourselves and each other poorly. Lord Beaverbrook, one of the richest men Canada has ever produced, was quoted as saying, "Everybody has a price… I would even go to hell if the price is right." A comedian, Jackie Mason, had a similar line about patriotism. It goes something like this: "I love America. I would give up anything for America. I would give up even my wife for America. But money? No! That”s different." We too often measure the value of things by looking at the price tags, and forget what is truly valuable does not cost money. This is why we call what is truly preciously "priceless", because we can not buy it.

Lent is the season to repent. The colour purple in the church is the symbol of repentance. To repent means not just to say sorry for what we did wrong, but also to change our mind and make a u-turn. Today”s scriptures suggest that we change our attitude and to start seeing the real value in what is freely available but priceless. Then, we will see what is truly important in our life is spiritual and free. We will understand the meaning of Isaiah”s words, "Those who thirst, come to the water. Those who are hungry, come to the food without money. Why spend money for things that are worthless. Why labour for things that do not satisfy. Come to me, says God."

Think about what you miss when you are way from home for a period. You miss people and things you have at home for free. You miss the baby who keeps you awake at night, and the kids who never stop to demand your attention and your time. You miss your wife who knows you a little bit too well. You miss your home and those messy rooms where you know exactly where things are. You feel comfortable when you are surrounded by those who love you and with things that are familiar to you. I attended many international meetings held in luxury hotels, with swimming pools, and good food, all paid for by somebody else. But always within a few days, I became homesick missing my family, my messy house and the home cooked meals.

They are the most important items in your life. And they don”t have any price tags attached to them. Also those freely available items in our lives are essential. Our life will be seriously in danger, if we do not know the affection and care that people give us freely in our homes and our communities. I was listening to the report on the sexual exploitation of children last week. Most of those children who end up on the streets, come from dysfunctional homes where they did not receive affection nor attention. Instead, they often received abuse and rejection, and their emotional growth had stopped. They are like a baby crying out for any kind of attention, even though they have the bodies of adolescents. We do not survive very long physically, if we do not receive affection.

A lack of emotional care affects us not only spiritually but physically; even animals can not survive very long without daily dose of attention. There was a well known experiment with mice. Two groups of mice lived under exactly the same conditions; same food, same environment, etc. But each mouse in one group received a head to toe rub everyday, and the others didn”t. The effects were quite definite. Those who received daily attention grew fatter and healthy looking, and lived longer. The others, though they were just as well fed and well provided for physically as the other group, but without daily rub they were less healthy and died earlier. A constant assurance of love is as essential to us as food and water.

It is well known fact that if we are emotionally secure in the knowledge that we are accepted and loved, we can stand up to difficult conditions longer than those who feel insecure. Misfortunes and tragedies hit all of us from time to time. Those who feel secure can take them as challenges, fight back, and survive them. But those who feel alone in the world because of experiences of rejection in the past, take such difficulty as a punishment. They end up bitter and often resort to self-destructive behaviours. What love gives does not cost any money. But it is far more valuable and long lasting than what money can buy.

Money represents only a part of us. Giving money is an manageable sacrifice. We can even pretend to be a good person by giving up a certain amount of money we can afford to throw away. We will look good, even though we are mean spirited inside. But in reality we can not get away with it. We must realize that the most important things in our lives, although they have no monetary value, are also very costly. It is because love demands a total commitment. There is no such thing as a partial commitment. It is just like there is no such thing as half pregnant; a commitment is always total. Therefore you can not buy love with money. Money can actually makes it cheap, and there is no such thing as cheap love. Love is always priceless. If you can buy it, it is not love; it is travesty of love, like prostitution. Love is priceless. It is so costly that it takes only a total commitment, but not in terms of money.

Loving God is a total commitment. We love God by loving our neighbours. To love God and to love people are one and the same thing. It is just like the Apostle John said in his letters, "If someone says that he loves God and does not love people, he is a liar." There are many ways to love. You can love people with money, too, if it is a genuine expression of what is inside of you. But if there is no love inside, money can be an indication of deceit.

When I was working in Africa, sometimes I saw people stuffing the coffins of their deceased family members with the receipts for the giving to the church. I appreciated their desperate attempts to make sure that their loved ones went to heaven. But money could not buy entry into heaven. Salvation is given freely. Christ sacrificed his life on the cross without demanding any payment from us. He did that because he loved us. So it was free; there was no precondition nor advance payment required. All we need to do is to accept his love and love him in return. Just like Isaiah suggested, "Come and drink the water and eat the food without money." Jesus is inviting us to come to a banquet. His table is always overloaded, the cups run over, the flour and oil never diminish, milk and honey are plentiful. You don”t need to pay, as his banquet is always free. What is it required of us, then? Nothing. Just love him. Then we will know how to love our neighbours. It is a total commitment to love. But it is a happiest commitment, because love is a great joy as we all know.

C: A DITCH CUTS OFF TWO WAY STREET – FOURTH SUNDAY OF SEPTEMBER

A DITCH CUTS OFF A TWO WAY STREET

Luke 16 : 19 – 31, Amos 6 : 1a, 4 – 7, Psalm 146

When I was living in Southern Africa, the most ridiculous act of the Apartheid Government I saw was the banning of a movie "Black Beauty". Because they were paranoid about the mixing of races, they built many barriers to keep races from each other. As the result, the ignorance and fear of the white people about other races became quite pathological. Some people could not accept a notion of black being beautiful. Even a nice children”s story about a beautiful black horse sounded subversive to some people. What a pity. If we build a barrier or dig a ditch between people, we miss the richness of God” creation in other people.

Jesus” parable about a rich man and Lazarus carries the same message. If you cut off a relationship, you cut it off both ways. Not only they can not come to you, but also can you not go to them. And where there are no comings and goings between people, mutual ignorance and fear of each other are bound to separate people even further.

 

All of us are mutually dependent on others. Even if you think you can ignore somebody, the same person may turn out to be indispensable in your life later. We all change. In the case of today”s Gospel reading, the rich man died and discovered that in the afterlife the poor beggar Lazarus was in a comfortable position, while the rich man himself was suffering desperately. The roles had been switched. The rich man suddenly needed Lazarus” help desperately. But Lazarus could not help him. This sort of reversal of roles happens very often in this life.

There was once a snowstorm in the mountains of Lesotho. Yes, there is snow in Africa, too. Especially in Lesotho, since it is a mountainous country, with an altitude of 6,000 feet to 11,000 feet above sea level. Anyhow, a group white women tourists visiting from South Africa were stranded in the snow. Their jeep got stuck on a mountain road. They had no food, no water, no warm clothes. They nearly froze to death. The white South African tourists usually came into a black country like Lesotho, only for a day. They could not imagine that they could be safe staying over night in Lesotho. But they were rescued by African villagers who warmly welcomed them into their village, inviting them to the homes, feeding them for a week until they could dig out the car. Those villagers are much poorer than the average Europeans or North Americans, many times poorer. But sharing is part of their culture. They always are prepared with food and other things for unexpected guests.

However, it was interesting to read how the South African newspapers reported this episode. The story was told as an amazing event. But for Africans, there was nothing extraordinary about it. It happens all the time, people helping people in trouble. You don”t leave a stalled car alone in a snowstorm on an isolated country road without finding out if everything is OK in Africa or in Canada for that matter. But when you shut out other people from your life, they become inaccessible to you. Not only you do not think of helping others, but also you do not think that anyone can help you. It was good that those women had enough sense to accept the normal kindness of the local people despite the racial bias they had acquired as they grew up in South Africa. If they had followed their cultural bias and refused the hospitality out of fear, they could have died.

The point of this story about Lazarus and a rich man was not about the negative aspect of wealth as such. The wealth of the rich man in this story is a metaphor for the arrogance that deceives one into thinking that one can afford to ignore other people. But the patriarch Abraham, if we are to recall the stories about him in the Old Testament, was an enormously rich man. And in this story, Abraham is depicted as a protector of the poor man Lazarus. So the wealth itself is neutral. The real issue is whether wealth makes you arrogant and apathetic or more compassionate and humane.

Once you allow your wealth to fool you into believing that you are OK under any circumstance because you are rich, then you are in trouble. Jesus in another parable spoke about a farmer who had a bumper crop. The farmer said to himself, "My three warehouses are full. I am rich. Now I can eat and drink and be merry." And God said to him, "You, fool! Tomorrow you may die." Money can not buy everything. The worst thing that wealth can do is to cut off your relationship with other human beings. Unfortunately wealth often does that, because of our preoccupation in material wealth and of our neglect of other human values, like affection, friendship, and yearning for knowledge. The rich man did not give a damn about Lazarus, even though he saw the poor man everyday at his gate. His total indifference was so callous that the only thing Jesus could compare it to was a deep chasm the rich man dug by being apathetic to Lazarus” conditions. Consequently the rich man could not go to the other side, nor could anyone come across to save him.

Jesus was saying that the chasm of apathy and arrogance is so deep and wide that even if a dead person comes back to life to warn about the danger of being indifferent to other people”s plight, the message would fall on deaf ears. Those who would dig ditches between them and other human beings are so blinded and deafened that they will not see or hear any warning.

We are observing world-wide communion this morning. It is a symbolic dinner table set by Jesus Christ, to which everyone who believes in him is invited. There is no barrier or chasm before the table prepared by Jesus. The United Church of Canada believes in open communion. That is to say, it is only Christ who invites the dinner guests, and we humans have no right to refuse anyone so long as this person believes in the saving grace of Jesus Christ and believes that he/she is invited. So, come with the rest of the world to the table of the Lord . And let us never cut ourselves off from the rest of creation.

Who found Jesus?

WHO FOUND JESUS?

Isaiah 60:1-4, Psalm 72:1-7, Matthew 2:1-12

January 5, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

January 6 is known as "Epiphany" according to the traditional Christian calender. The Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on this day. It is the day to commemorate the coming of the wise men from the East bearing gifts to worship the baby Jesus. They were foreigners – gentiles or pagans to the Jews. They believed that divine revelations were visible in the movements of stars. We celebrate this day, because it was the first time Jesus revealed himself to the believers of a different religion. The story of the wise men also tells us that God will find us when we find meaning in our occupations and are committed to the things we do in them.

What is interesting is the fact that the Bible reports only two rather odd groups of people who visited the baby Jesus. They were the shepherds and the wise men of the East. Priests and scholars knew that the Bible had predicted that the birth of a special child would take place in Bethlehem. But they did not bother to go to Bethlehem. The king was interested to know about it solely because he wanted to kill the baby who might become a threat to his throne. The inn keeper who refused Mary and Joseph, obviously, did not know anything about the birth of the Messiah. Other ordinary people did not know anything about it. The shepherds and the magi were the least expected kind of people God would invite to meet his new born child.

The shepherds were nomads who were in search of grazing land all the time. They did not have normal homes. They cooked, ate, and slept in the open or in tents. Their security was all in animals, and was always precarious. They had a hard life. They wore rags, rarely washed themselves, and had weather-worn leathery skin. Being a shepherd was not just a job; it was a full-time way of life. Ordinarily, they lived on the edge of the human community, away from normal social life. They must have been like modern-day Gypsies, who still live on the edges of settled communities, often in trailers in parking lots of England and other continental European countries. They are never like other people nor do they try to be. They live their own lives. They are stubbornly bonded to their life-style.

The magi came from the east of Palestine. There were people from ancient Persia, which is the present day Iran, who believed that stars determined the destiny of people. It was in ancient Persia where astrology was developed. *Many people in our society today believe in astrology, as you know.* Because every movement of stars was important, watching stars, recording and predicting their movements were a full-time occupation for many highly educated people. They were a respected class of intellectuals, because people believed that they could predict the future. But they were definitely not priests, prophets, or teachers of the Jewish religion. They were not expected to make an important discovery about the religion of the Old Testament. They were after all gentiles – pagans. Why should these unlikely people be the ones who found Jesus first? It”s humbling to realize that the Bible is speaking about the believers of another religion and homeless herders as the only ones permitted to meet the Holy Child during his very first few days in this world.

Here you must understand the notion of vocation to understand this puzzle. The word – vocation comes from a Latin word – "vocatio". It means "to call" or "to summon". It comes from the idea that God called or summoned you to do a certain thing. It can be the same thing as a job or an occupation. But often it is not. You are lucky if your vocation and your job are the same thing. In your vocation, you are committed to the things that you do, because you believe that God is calling you to do them. Your vocation makes your life important and meaningful. It makes your life a pleasure: something worth living. One person told me that she just loved what she did, and that she felt lucky to be paid for what she does. Some people have a job in order to pursue a vocation which is different from the job, because their vocation does not provide a living. Many artists are committed to pursue their art, which often does not pay. So they are used to the idea that they have to have jobs to support themselves, to allow them to pursue the real purpose of their lives, which are their vocations. Many Catholic religious orders are operating on that principle. They make a living by making cheeze, teaching school or becoming nurses; but they do these things only so they are able to pray, to study the Bible, or to serve people.

The wise men of the East and the shepherds had vocations. They were totally committed to doing what they were doing. In fact, those men from the East must have gambled everything they owned to undertake the journey to Bethlehem. Travelling in those days was a hazardous undertaking. They had to provide their own modes of transportation, which were not affordable to many people. There were no maps. Predators of both animal and human kind were many. It was a very costly venture. It was a gamble. They might have believed in a different religion, but they were totally committed to what they believed to be their vocation. The shepherds were committed to their vocation, too. They were not ashamed of their work, though other people thought them to be a lower class. God rewards those who are committed to their vocations by revealing the truth.

On the other hand, some people corrupt their vocation by compromising their commitments. Those priests and Biblical scholars who surrounded the king did not want to displease the king. So they did not follow what they were supposed to have believed. They did not do what the Bible said they should. Ministers of religions, medical doctors and nurses, lawyers and judges, and teachers have the types of jobs that require a sense of vocation. But we know that, unfortunately, some of them don”t live like the ones who have vocations. Ambitions for wealth, power, and often mere vanity corrupt them. They lose their vocations by making them mere jobs they do for living. They no longer have commitments. They no longer feel that God is calling them to do anything. Those without a sense of vocation will inevitably miss the new born Jesus, even if they know, in theory, where to find him.

The story of the wise men of the East is an indictment against those who compromise themselves and pursue ulterior goals while pretending to work for noble causes. It is also a celebration of those who find meaning for their lives in what they do, and are committed to doing the things they believe God called them to do. All of us have been called by God to do some meaningful work in our lives. Salvation is revealed to those who find meaning in their work. When you find the meaning of life, you have found the baby Jesus.

B: DAVID AND BATHSHEBA – FIFTH SUNDAY OF JULY

DAVID AND BATHSHEBA

II Samuel 11:1-5,14-15,24 & 12:1-7 Psalm 14(VU735 John 6:1-21

July 30, 2006 by Tad Mitsui

There are some stories in the Bible which are not suitable for children; and this is one of them. It’s a story of adultery and murder. A woman is bathing nude on a rooftop, a man sees this and takes her to bed and makes her pregnant. The man was completely infatuated and wanted her so badly that he arranged her husband to be killed. How do you read a Biblical story like that? Especially the man in question is the most admired king of Israel, David. There are two different interpretations. One makes the woman a seducer, a temptress who used sex as a way of becoming a queen. The other interpretation makes David a bad one, who committed adultery and murder. In this case, the woman, Bathsheba becomes a victim of a forced sex by a man who abused power to satisfy his illicit desire. I take the second one. However, I believe that the story is not so much about adultery as it is about the abuse of power.

 

Let me begin with Bathsheba. A woman was bathing on a roof-top. The first interpretation that I spoke of assumes that she knew that she could be seen from the palace, and she wanted to seduce the king. I don’t think this was the case. In fact, Bathsheba was bathing according to the law. A woman was supposed to take a ritual bath on the eighth day of menstruation, according to the book of Leviticus. Bathsheba was going through a religious act. No one was supposed to see it. But of course except the king, whose palace is higher than ordinary people’s homes.

 

Also, anyone who has been to tropical countries can easily acknowledge that this interpretation which makes Bathsheba a loose woman is off base. It is not uncommon sight to see people bathing in public in hot countries. They do it in rivers and lakes, as well as in their back yards. They know how to present themselves discreetly to maintain modesty even when they are naked.

 

If anybody was a culprit in this story, it must have been King David. According to the law of Moses in Leviticus, it was taboo to even share a roof with a woman who was not completely cleansed after menstruation. David knew why Bathsheba was bathing; every adult woman did it after her period. And yet he sent for her. He knew that he was violating twice the religious law in one act. There is no denial that David did something terribly wrong. But the question is; what kind of wrong did he commit? Of course, adultery is not commendable conduct. But that is not the main point of this particular story. It was how adultery was committed. It was primarily an abuse of power that is being condemned here.

 

You see, if you consider the accepted practices in those days, and even as late as one hundred years ago, for a king to take women other than his own wife was usually accepted as a tolerable royal indiscretion. King David married many wives and took many more concubines, according to the II Samuel. Solomon took more than one thousand wives and concubines according to the I Kings. Even after Europe became Christian, though the church allowed only one wife, it still closed its eyes on kings taking concubines. Remember Henry VIII? And the practice continued until even more recently. What is known as "le droit du seigneur", where dukes and marquis had the right to take the new brides of their subjects to bed before the weddings, was carried on even in the last century in Europe. The Opera, "Marriage of Figaro", or the story of the famous "Braveheart" referred to that barbaric but accepted practice. I am not saying that what David did was acceptable. What I am trying to say is that the kind of thing that David did was nothing extraordinary for the king in those days. So what is the point? For what reason did the Bible take exception and give this story such an important place. What was it trying to tell us?

 

I believe it is a warning against the abuse of power. No one is allowed to use power in order to exploit other persons for one”s own benefit. David was getting old. He could no longer lead an army; that’s why he was back home in Jerusalem. He was aware that he was losing power. It is common knowledge that sex crimes are committed by people who feel powerless. For them preying on the weak – women and children – is the only way to feel that they still have power over someone else. The prophet Nathan skilfully gave that message in his story of a poor man”s sheep and a rich man”s greed. You see, our religious tradition has never been comfortable with the idea that any person should wield power over others. We recite "for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever and ever" in the Lord”s Prayer, because we believe, since the time of the Old Testament, that ultimately only God has power. The power any human being holds is given in trust on a certain number of conditions. We believe that we are all children of God, hence we are all equal. Power is given to some people on the condition that they do some of the God”s work. If anyone abuses the God given power for one”s selfish purposes, one is committing a grievous sin.

 

All of us have power over other people in various ways. As parents over our children, as owners of assets and properties, as holders of offices and positions of many kinds, we all have power to oblige others to do what we want. Particularly, politicians and business executives have tremendous power to determine the fate of other people. For all of us, the story of David and Bathsheba gives us an important lesson. It is, "Don”t ever use power to exploit others." We must remember Jesus Christ as the ultimate role model of a power figure. Though he was the son of almighty God, he exercised his power only to care for others, even though that attitude cost him his own life. That should be the model of a person with power. Not like David who used his power to satisfy his own selfish desire at the cost of another person”s life.

 

 

 

B: IN THE BEGINNING… – THIRD SUNDAY OF OCTOBER

IN THE BEGINNING, GOD…

Job 38:1-7, Psalm 104 , Mark 10:35-45

October 19, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

When we see good and innocent people suffer, and evil thrive, we feel that the world is unjust and God is unfair. Then, we must remind ourselves of two of the important articles of our faith. First, in the beginning when absolutely nothing existed, God was there. Secondly, this God is the same God who loves all of us no matter how small and insignificant we are. If we believe that, we will be able to put our view of life in this world into a proper perspective.

Confucius was a master of insight into the proper order of things. He once said, "It is better to be a head of a chicken than to be a tail of a cow." I could translate that to say, "It is better to be Mayor of Howick than to be a cleaning lady of the White House." But in a small community like Howick (population 300 you will realize very soon that to be Mayor means to be a servant, getting dozens of phone calls about the sewage system after midnight. When you read the Gospel story of a quarrel between James and John in the Bible, who fought for the right to sit next to Jesus, you will realize how silly it is to fight for a prestigious position. It also teaches us about a mark of leadership. Jesus said that to be a true leader was to be a servant. God alone is the ultimate leader. If we should follow God”s example for a leader, we must also remember that he took a form of a servant in Jesus Christ.

In the beginning, there was God. God alone is greater than all others, and everybody else is equal. That is to say, all are equal before the truth. It is said that one night during his campaign into Russia, Napoleon who was already the Emperor of much of the Western Europe, took a stroll around the encampment alone without any body guard. The soldiers were asleep in their tents. A sentry stopped him, "Halt. Don”t move or I will shoot." He was under a strict order to allow absolutely no-one to pass that point. "I am your Commander-in-Chief, Napoleon Bonaparte. Let me pass." said Napoleon, standing only a few inches away from the young soldier”s face. There was silence. Napoleon assumed that the sentry understood his predicament, so he was about to walk pass him. The young soldier aimed his musket at the emperor”s chest, "Don”t go any further or I will shoot." He looked as though he meant what he said. Napoleon was not prepared to risk his life by confronting a young man who was absolutely serious about performing his duties. The Private was praised by the Emperor next day.

Everyone, openly or secretly, wants to be ahead of others. But the world will be chaos, if everybody insists on being ahead of everybody else. Each one of us have to find our own place. We live in an inter-dependent world, where each person”s function has the equal value, though it is different from each other. A head is as important as a tail. Just like Napoleon found, we must sometimes swallow our pride and accept the directives from each other. You have to have an open mind, setting aside your pride and preconceived ideas. You have to, from time to time, listen to an unexpected and objectionable truth coming out of an unexpected source. It can be a child speaking to you, or can be a homeless street person. Sometimes such truths put us in our proper place.

Job didn”t like what he heard, when he finally had a chance to hear God speaking to him. But he found the truth about his place in the universe. He lost his wealth, his children, and his health. His wife urged him to give up his faith. His good friends urged him to confess his sins. They accused Job of committing some unspeakable sins to deserve such terrible sufferings. Despite all those physical, emotional, and spiritual torments, Job kept his faith in God. So he never stop asking God, "Why?" Then, at last God spoke to Job. God did not answer Job”s question. God asked him, "Where were you when I created the world?" When Job asked a question, God answered with a question. Not a very satisfying response! What a put down.

When you run into the passages like this, you must remember that you have to be honest enough to say, "I don”t like this." This is not unbelief. If you believe in God and take him seriously, you must be honest enough to ask questions and express your doubts and feelings. A loving relationship requires honesty. You can not build a house on styrofoam blocks. You must keep asking questions. However, you must also be humble enough to accept an answer you may not like. Truth can hurt and make you angry. But you must be humble and patient enough to accept truth you may not expect like the one coming from the mouth of your own child. Where was I when God created the world? I must say, "I didn”t exist." It is a realization that makes you feel small. But it”s the truth. The world can exist without you. It will continue to exist after you are gone. You may not like this. But it is a necessary step to see yourself on a realistic position in this world.

If you go to Insectarium in the Botanical Garden in Montreal, you can see many kinds of cockroaches from all over the world, big and small, alive and dead. It was a revelation for me to find that cockroaches had existed 150 millions years before Dinosaurs appeared on this planet. Dinosaurs dominated the earth for 350 million years together with plants related to the ones we know as ferns. Those plants and dinosaurs are now extinct. Their fossils are found today in the forms of coal, gas, and oil. But cockroaches outlived dinosaurs, are still with us today, and may outlive us. When you consider the fact that human beings have existed on this earth less than one million years, you must begin to look at cockroaches with respect. Most importantly, they make us realize our smallness in a big picture, the shortness of our span of domination in the eons of time.

If, God forbid, we human beings manage to destroy this planet because of our greed and our unbridled exploitation of the earth, our brief existence will be remembered in the history book of the universe as an insignificant hiccup. On the other hand, when we realize our seemingly insignificant existence, we will truly appreciate enormity, breadth and depth of love of God. God, who was here in the beginning, before anything else existed, before dinosaurs and cockroaches, is the same God who loved us so much that he sent his own begotten son to die for us to save us.

God told Job how things are. We may not like to hear what Job heard, because it makes us feel so small and our daily concerns so insignificant. But if we feel that way, we must also remember that it is the same God who loves us infinitely. We may be able to forget about the silly rat race to be on top of others, and start respecting all creatures large and small, starting with our friends and relations, and our neighbours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A: AN ANGEL CALLED HOBBES – CHRISTMAS

Isaiah 63 : 7 – 9, Psalm 148 #18
Matthew 2 : 13 – 23

Do you have an angel in your heart?  Apparently, 60% of Americans secretly think that the angels really exist.  I looked up the Gospel lesson for today, and I debated with myself for a while if I should speak about the slaughter of babies or about the angels.  And I decided on the angels, because they are badly neglected Biblical characters.  On three important crucial occasions, Joseph was informed by the angel what he should do.  Today”s lesson says that thanks to the angel, the Jesus escaped the slaughter of babies in Bethlehem.  I want suggest that contemporary equivalent of the angel is Hobbes in the comic strips "Calvin and Hobbes."  Hobbes may be for other people a figment of Calvin”s imagination, only a stuffed tiger.  But for Calvin, he is a best friend, a constant companion, a comfort, and an inner voice of honesty and wisdom.  He is what often angels are in the Bible.  If we have problems with the idea of angels we might want to ask, "Who can be our Hobbes?"

Angels play prominent roles in the Bible.  The word "angel" comes from a Greek word for "messenger".  Most of the world”s religions have the notion of angels.  An early medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas said that the angels were a metaphor for "pure intellect, neither male nor female but also assume whatever form they liked."  However nowadays we don”t speak about them.  We can comfortably speak about God.  But Angels?  No.  I wonder if we think the idea of an angel is too bizarre, lest people think we are crazy. 

There are more people who openly admit that they talk with cats or dogs.  My daughter virtually refuses entry into her home unless I talk to her two cats.  All the animal lovers understand that.  Some people even speak with gold fish.  I must admit I don”t understand that, but that is, of course, my shortcoming.  We all need something to help us think and sort ourselves out.  Some people talk to themselves aloud.  Why not?  They are not crazy.  We need a mirror to have an objective view of what is inside us.  An angel is a catalyst who can facilitate that reflection process.  I prefer to write down things to help me think; nowadays using a computer – it”s the same thing.  I talk to a computer to think.  Discussing things with Muriel helps very much, also.  While we do that kind of thing, we pause in a space and time between realities.  We are with the angels.  It allows God to intervene.  Non-religious people may want to call it serious thinking or something like that.  But it”s the same thing.

Angels keep you honest.  In the comic strip, like any six year old boy Calvin hates Susie and all other girls, at least that”s what he thinks.  But Hobbes loves Susie, he enjoys being near her, an honest but hidden feeling of any little boy.  Hobbes sticks with Calvin thick or thin, good time or bad, together in a terrible fear of that slimy man-eating monster who lives under the bed.    He also is not afraid to say the right thing, which Calvin hates, even though he knows deep inside that Hobbes is right.  Often the reader can never tell whether Hobbes represents another side of Calvin – an inner voice – or another person, a friend.  I think that Hobbes can be either – Calvin”s inner self or another person, just like an angel can be a hidden side of yourself as can as well as a different person.

Abraham and Sarah”s grandson, Jacob, wrestled with an angel by a river all night until the angel dislocated Jacob”s hip joint.  Jacob was going to return home.  Having stolen his brother”s inheritance by trickery, he had run away for fear of his life.  He married foreign women, Rachel and Leah, and settled down in a foreign land tending his father-in-law”s herd.  But he found no other place to call home except his own place of birth and decided to go back.  He was ready to ask for his brother”s forgiveness and meet the consequences.  It might have been a right thing to do but it was a dangerous gamble.  It is sort of like Calvin and Hobbes shooting down an untried hill on a toboggan.   When Jacob saw his brother ready to meet him with four hundred armed men, naturally he was afraid and distressed.  He was suddenly no longer sure whether he was doing the right thing by returning home.  He must have struggled with his angel all night by the river looking in fear at his brother”s men.  The angel in this case could have been his own conscience but also could have been another person like Hobbes who was trying to help him making up his mind.  Jacob would not let the angel go despite his dislocated hip joint until he received a blessing.  When one is making a decision, often one is looking for assurance not another opinion.  So it was with Jacob; that was why he was determined to get his blessing.

Angels are not gods, they are God”s messengers.   Angels bring often terrible but wonderful news.  Realities are often scary, but wonderful.  It was like the first Christmas.  Shepherds were terrified to see the angels.  Mary was forced into such a terrible but wonderful predicament by the Holy spirit.  But because of the angel”s assurance, she became brave and happy, and sung a song of praises and hope.  Helped by the angels, Joseph made a decision the kind that was incredible for men to make. In those stories, angels not only brought the messages from God, but also brought assurance and joy;  with lights and joyful sounds of music and singing.  You noticed, in many pictures depicting angels, you see them with trumpets and lutes making music. 

Last week”s Christmas carols and music are still ringing in our ears.  Our musicians and singers, young and not so young, brought magic to our Christmas.  They were the magic that brought the spirit of Christmas to us here in Howick.  They were the angels for us.  And I believe that it was our love for them that made them angels.  Seeing angels does not have to be so dramatic.  When a meeting is heated up and people are tense, someone brings in tea, juice and cookies.  Angry faces disappeared instantly.  No one eats cookies with angry faces.  An angel brings tea and cookies.

Angels come in many forms and shapes.  They can be wise and true friends.  Like Hobbes, some angels do not force the correct solutions and are ready to bless whatever you decide.   And they are ready to stand by you.  When Calvin is in a mood for dare-devil bravado like shooting down an untried hill on a toboggan, Hobbes does not hide his scepticism.  Hobbes knows there may be a cliff at the bottom, but he goes through the fall with Calvin and meets the inevitable disaster at the bottom.  An angel is ready to suffer the consequences with you.  An angel is a true friend.  A true friend is an angel. 

Like an angel, Hobbes does that sort of thing not because he is reckless but because he is an incurable optimist.  And he believes that there will be life after a spectacular fall from a cliff.  It was an angel  who sat at the entrance of the cave where Jesus was buried and informed the disciples about the resurrection.  "He is not here.  Don”t look for him among the dead.  He is risen!" 

An angel informed Joseph of an impending disaster to the babies in Bethlehem, and told him to pack up his family and to seek refuge in Egypt.  Joseph was helped by the angels in his mission of protecting and bringing up the Messiah so that Jesus could begin his ministry, when he was ready.  The angels help us to also engage in our mission, being our conscience, friend, wisdom, and protector.  God does not work alone in this world.  God”s deeds are often the collective actions of God, us, and the angels.  The world we live in and work in is often as cruel a place as Bethlehem under King Herod.  But God”s work does not have to be gloomy and heavy.  Angels may lead us down a different path.  With them there can be dancing and singing.  They will bring music with trumpets and harps.  With their help, doing God”s work can be as fun as building a snow castle with Hobbes.  And who knows, they may even lend us their wings.

B: FRUSTRATION AND JOY OF IN-BETWEEN TIME – OCTOBER 1

LOOK UP. WAY UP. THERE IS A RAINBOW.

GENESIS 9:8-17, PSALM 25, MARK 1:9-15

October 1, 2000 by Tad Mitsui

 

I moved quite a few times in my life, and worked in different places and in several countries. From that experience, I can say that it takes two years before one can start working effectively in another place. In the first year, you notice and only hate the differences from the place you lived before, and remember how good things were. In the second year, you begin to forget the old and begin to appreciate the new place. The third year is the time to start functioning effectively living in their language and loving the food. You don”t have to hate or forget the old ways. Your past is what has made you what you are, and without it you lose your sense of identity. The secret to a successful transition is seeing beauty in both the past and the future. Rainbow is a fitting metaphor for such a time.

 

A rainbow appears in an in-between time, as the sun comes out when the rain is not quite finished. It is beautiful, because the interaction between rain and the sun brings out all colours of the sun separately. After the flood, God showed Noah a rainbow as a sign of hope. Today, we are living in between times. We are still living partly in the past, though it is passing. And we are moving into a time zone we have never seen. It is not an easy time. However, the message of the rainbow is that the time in between times can be beautiful, bringing out the grace of the past and the hope of the future. It is a time to remember and appreciate the old times and hope for the better times in future. Old ways do not work any more and new ways are so new that we are not quite comfortable with them. Often we hate the new ways or are scared of them. Religion seem to be on the way out and the church seems to be on the decline. Families do not look the same any more. However, we must realize that the notion of the "good old days" were not always so wonderful. If we remember how we used to live and work, we are living better today and enjoying things that we had never believed possible even a few decades ago. Times are definitely better today in many ways. We suffer today because we live in a time between times, and not so much because we don”t live in the so-called good old days. The good old days were not as good as we want to brag about.

 

Noah and his family lost everything they owned in the terrible flood. But eventually the rains stopped and land became dry. Standing in the middle of vast devastation, Noah and his family were lost and asked themselves, "What now?" They did not see that the future was theirs to make. All they saw was enormous uncertainty. They could see only the vast wilderness of chaos and wrecked humanity, and could not look up to see a beautiful rainbow of hope and possibilities of the future. Noah was a good and righteous man. But he had difficulty coping with a normal life after the experience of terrible calamity and trials. Noah had difficulty coping with an enormous potential offered by future. After the first harvest, Noah became uncontrollably drunk. He lay naked on the ground and fell asleep. His sons were so ashamed of their father and walked backward towards him trying not to see their father”s nakedness in order to cover him. Time inbetween times was difficult for Noah. Even he had a hard time coping with the first bumper crop.

 

It is important to remember the past, appreciate it and learn from it. But also it is equally important to let go of the past and move forward into the future, hopefully, and joyfully. Neglecting either of those times will cause disasters. When the past is good, one wants to remain in the past, basking in nostalgia, and does not want to look into the future. This situation creates a person who refuses to grow up. On the other hand, when the past is bad, one wants to forget it as fast as possible and run as quickly as one can into the future. Such a person is condemned to repeat the mistakes that caused the disaster, because this person does not know how to learn from past mistakes.

 

Jesus saw the rainbow of the covenant of God, when he was tempted in the wilderness. Satan offered some self-serving options for him. Money, power and popularity were attractive options for many past leaders. Jesus rejected those options. He saw God”s options differently. Jesus lived the life dedicated to others. The other end of the bargain for us in this covenant was our pledge to take care of God”s creation by loving our neighbours and taking care of this world. Let us come together to renew our promise to build and maintain the community of caring and sharing. Let us see a rainbow and celebrate it.

 

 

C: DISHONESTY OR PRUDENCE? – FOURTH SUNDAY OF SEPTEMBER

DISHONESTY OR PRUDENCE?

LUKE 16: 1 – 13

Today”s story from the Gospel is an insult to good accounting practices. The Chief Executive Officer doctored the books and cheated the owner of the business. He reduced the amount of debts owing to his boss to ensure he had future friends. How could Jesus praise such a crookedness as prudent? Donald Sutherland would have a fit if he heard about this!

The key to understanding this story is to learn about the accounting practices in the Middle East during the time when Jesus lived. Many of these practices were linked to the prohibition of usury. The Bible did not look favourably on the business of charging interest on loans. But in reality very few people actually lent money without interest. They found a way to go around the law. Where there is a law, always there seems to be a loophole.

The promissory note signed by the debtor had only one line. It indicated the total amount of the principal, the interest, and an administrative cost, all combined. So, for example, if you actually borrowed $1000, the bottom line said, you had borrowed and promised to pay back $1130, that included 10% interest – $100, and a 3% administration fee – $30. So the paper did not actually show any cost or interest.

So I would guess that what this manager did was, knowing that he was to be fired, called in the debtors and told them to change the amount of debts to that which would include easier interest rates and more charitable administrative charges. We have no way of knowing how much in extra charges he normally made, but judging from the 100% reduction he allowed on olive oil, this man must have been charging a lot of administration and interest. He must have been making large profits and pocketing a whole lot of it. No wonder the owner had wanted to fire him. But, by reducing his own profit, I am sure, he gained many grateful friends. Even the owner was impressed by his survival skills.

Another interesting aspect of this story is the backdrop of Jesus” experience about absentee landlords and the management of properties. The Galilee region where Jesus grew up had many such landlords. The landlords lived in the southern Palestine around Jerusalem which was the centre of power. Money and power were in the South, while the fertile agricultural land in the north in the Galilee region was full of tenant farmers. This is why Jesus spoke many times about absentee landowners in his parables. Because the landlords were absent, the managers had enormous power. They managed the property more or less on their own, making important decisions about investments, writing contracts, making loans to tenants, etc. They did not have to account for the details of their decisions. The land owners came only occasionally to collect their profits. For the rest of the time, they could behave like little kings.

People didn”t care too much about the landlords they did not see. But the managers were visible. The tenants, however, had real personal feelings about the managers: hating them or loving them depending on the way they were treated. So they did not much care if the landlords lost money, but they did care hugely if the managers were making large profit at their expense. When the manager was discovered to be cheating on the landlord, main concern of the tenants was how to get back the overcharged interests and administrative fees.

So when the manager found that he was going to be fired, he decided to prepare for his future by reducing his own profit to gain grateful friends. Who would not be grateful when their debts were reduced by 50% or even 100%? He had two options: to be fired with money but no friend, or to be fired but with friends with less money. He chose the latter.

This story destroys any image we may have of Jesus Christ as a nice but naive person. He knew the shrewdness of the business world. He was not dumb: he knew a few things about how to make friends. Christianity teaches tender love. But that does not mean we must be naive or simple. Sometimes loving requires shrewdness and prudence.

 

I think I told you once that, when I first went to my first church after I was ordained, one elder drew me aside and gave me a piece of advise. "Young man," he said, "if you want to be a successful minister, never touch on three subjects: money, politics and sex." I don”t think he read this parable of the dishonest manager. I wonder what kind of advise this elder would have given to Jesus. We must know how money works and how to manage it, that takes prudence and shrewdness.

But this story also teaches us that we must exercise prudence for the sake of relationships. When the crunch comes, we must opt for relationships over wealth. And Jesus said that the manager, dishonest as he might have been, made the right decision at a crucial moment and was prudent in acting on it.

I used to live among African people who still lived in nomadic culture. They trusted cattle more than money. In fact, they counted the size of their wealth in terms of the number of cattle they owned. When an amount of money is mentioned, they asked, "How many cows would that make?" I tried to argue that cash was better, because it was portable and universally accepted. But they said, "Cash is dead, but cattle are alive. Besides they procreate and increase." It was impossible to argue against such an entrenched belief as that. But it does teach us something about the limitation of earthly wealth. Jesus tried to point out to us that "money is dead, but friends are alive." Indeed, this is the lesson of the Gospel: "Wealth is temporary but loving relationship can be long lasting. And prudence is required to nurture long lasting relationships." The property manager put the prudence he acquired in business into a good use in order to have good relationships in the community. He lost a lot of money in the process, but he chose the better way. God grant us the wisdom to be prudent managers in all aspects of our lives!

 

(Optional)

I end with a joke and a quiz: There were once four good friends, a millionaire, a doctor, a minister, and a lawyer. The millionaire loaned each friend $100,000. Being a rather eccentric man, he extorted a promise from each to place $100,000 in his coffin, should he die first, which indeed he did. After the funeral, over coffee, surviving friends began to admit what they did with the money. The doctor admitted that he put only $80,000 in the coffin, as he donated $20,000 for medical research. The minister confessed that he gave $50,000 to the church. But the lawyer chided his two friends for contravening the expressed wish of the deceased friend. He placed beside the remains of the dear friend a full amount of $100,000 with his personal cheque.

Who among those three was closer to the image of the dishonest but prudent manager?

 

C: MILLENNIUM BUG – THIRD SUNDAY OF NOVEMBER

MILLENNIUM BUG

Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 33, Luke 21:5-19

November 15, 1998

For some people, there are many reasons why we should be worried today. The upcoming Provincial election, for example, could be the beginning of the end for our beloved country. In addition, a lot of people are worried about the year 2000. One religious fanatic in the U.S, for example, led people to commit mass suicide, believing that the end of the world was imminent at the threshold of the new millennium. So-called "Millennium Bug" in the computer systems is worrying many people, and the rumour has it that our government has a secret plan to mobilize the entire Armed forces and the Police to deal with the chaos caused by the massive failures of computers in such essential services like banking, business records, hydro power distribution systems, transportation, etc. Some people declare that the recent spate of unusual and often disastrous weather patterns, and endemic of terminal diseases like AIDS and cancer are the signals to warn us about the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ, the last judgement, and the end of the world. What are we supposed to think about those predictions of doom and gloom? The message of Christ is very clear. "Do not be led astray by those who come in my name to predict the imminent end of time."

When the books in the New Testament were being written, many people in the church were in a collective state of anxiety. They were waiting for Jesus Christ to come back to establish the Kingdom of God, as he promised. But Jesus did not come back as they expected. So they kept on waiting. In the meantime, the Roman Empire began to persecute the Christians, and many started to die. They were very worried that those who had died before the second coming of Christ might have missed the chance to enter the Kingdom of God. They thought, wrongly I must say, that such a kingdom would come in the form of a political system, and would defeat the Roman Empire. Christ the King would sit on the throne, and all the Christians would be vindicated. So every time, something disastrous or unusual happened, always there were a certain number of people who declared that it was the sign of the second coming. They became very agitated, when they saw or heard about events like insurrections and riots, wars between nations, earthquakes and other natural calamities, spread of plagues and other deadly diseases. As the result, some people began to behave strangely. They quit work and refused to pay taxes. The Christians in Jerusalem sold all their personal property and started to live together sharing all possessions. Having to meet in secret in small groups in homes and underground cemeteries at night so that nobody outside of the church would find them did not lessen their anxiety. But fear is not what the message of the Kingdom of God is supposed to generate. The Gospel is the good news of freedom, hope, and love, not a blackmail of doom and gloom.

This is why the New Testament is full of teachings like: the "Judgement Day" will sneak up on you like a thief, so be prepared, always keep oil in your lamp; or calamities and rumours of calamities are not necessarily the signs, so do not be swayed by those events even though some false prophets may scare you by saying "the Day is coming." It”s like my mother who kept telling me, "Always wear clean underwear. You never know." The message is clear: "Live a normal good life. Then there is no need to worry about the judgment of God or the end of the world. Give your best whatever you do, and always love others and be faithful to God. When the faithful life-style becomes your habit like brushing your teeth, you are ready to meet Christ anytime." This is why the Gospel teaches us to be kind and loving always; to give water to the thirsty and feed the hungry, visit the sick and prisoners, clothe the naked; they are Jesus Christ in disguise.

A problem is, however, our short-sightedness. We want to know the conclusion, soon. This is why we are easy suckers for those pundits who claim to predict the future. We don”t have patience to live in ambiguity and wait. This is why some unwise parents get so upset when their teenage children rebel and become obnoxious, even though we know in theory that teenage rebellion is a normal process of growing up. This is why there is so much "eschatology" among religious people. Eschatology is the whole gamut of talk about future – prediction of an ideal world in the Isaiah 65 or talk of doom and gloom like the end of the world. The first such story in the Bible is the Noah”s Ark. There are a few books like Daniel and Revelation that are almost totally dedicated to eschatology. Jesus spoke about it often, so did the Apostles.

But if you read all these eschatological writings carefully, the message is always the same. If you are faithful to God in your daily life and love your neighbours, there should be no reason to worry. You must live as though you meet Jesus Christ everyday. Everytime you love someone, and especially when you extend your kindness to those who need it, you are being kind to Christ. Difficult or unusual situations must not upset you nor push you into despair. They do not signal the end of the world.

In fact, my personal belief is; Jesus Christ did come back on the day of Pentecost, and He lives among us in Spirit. All of us have a bit of Christ in us. Christ has come back and he lives with us who believe in him. Also I believe that the Kingdom of God is here already. You may think that this world is too corrupt and too rotten to be the Kingdom of God. Remember Jesus said, "Kingdom of God is at hand." It is like a nation becoming a state. You first "declare" the statehood of your nation. You begin the work of building the nation-state after the declaration. Canada was declared a state more than a hundred years ago when the British North America Act was enacted. We still have many problems. But together we are working to build up this country. Canada is here, and yet not complete. So is the Kingdom of God. Heaven is here, and yet not.

Because there are many events to disturb us, you may want to ask, "When do we know for sure that Christ is with us?" It is like asking, "When do I see the proof of your love?" The answer is, "Now or never. If you trust me, the proof is everywhere. But if you don”t have faith in me, you will never know." According to today”s lesson the answer to many disturbing questions is, "We will know now, or never." It all depends on our faith. But I believe that Christ has come back and is with us. Let us work hard to complete the project he has started; to complete building heaven on earth.

 

 

 

 

C: A GLORIOUS MISUNDERSTINGING – PALM SUNDAY

A GLORIOUS MISUNDERSTANDING

Isaiah 50:4-9, Psalm 31, Matthew 21:1-11

March 28, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

It was fun watching the Academy Awards last Sunday night. I was happy for those people who received the awards. To a large extent, I thought they deserved the honour. But I felt bad for those people who were nominated and, in my opinion, deserved them, just as much as those who won, but didn”t. Commentators keep saying that it is an honour to be nominated as much as receiving awards. They say that to think winning is everything is a misunderstanding of the purpose of the Academy Awards. But the fact is that it is all about receiving awards. So those equally deserving excellent artists, who don”t win those silly statues, think that they are losers. It is a cruel fact of life that such a misunderstanding makes losers out of those talented people who have made tremendous achievements.

Palm Sunday is also about misunderstanding. Thousands of people cheered Jesus, as he entered a gate of Jerusalem, because they thought Jesus was somebody else. He made it clear who he was by riding a donkey. But they didn”t see the point, because they didn”t want to see it. If he was a king, as people had expected the Messiah to be, he would have been on a chariot, or at least on a horse like a general. It was like riding a beat-up old rusty pick up truck, instead of a chauffeur driven Rolls Royce. But it didn”t matter. Once people misunderstand something, they don”t see contradictions in details, and they don”t realize what a big mistake they are making. It was a misunderstanding. They believed that the Messiah would be a powerful king, like the one they remembered – like the King David. They thought that, with a mighty army, the king would lead them into a victory over the Roman Empire and re-establish a powerful Jewish Kingdom. It was a glorious misunderstanding.

So when they discovered that Jesus was not such a king, their expectation turned to anger. The same crowd who had cheered him in the beginning of the week, turned into a crowd who cried "Crucify him! Kill him." They decided that Jesus betrayed them. They didn”t think that it was their misunderstanding. Jesus made it quite clear about his mission. He was riding a donkey – an animal that carried the kind of stuff we load our pick up truck with. It”s low, so is easy to load and unload. So a pregnant woman rode it when she was too big and heavy to walk. Children rode the donkey too. It was not an animal of prestige. It was not good looking but it was tough. You don”t park a pick-up with a load of hay in front of the Ritz Carlton Hotel nor drive it to a state dinner at the Rideau Hall. Jesus wanted to demonstrate that the real Messiah was humble, was like any ordinary person. He wanted to show that such humility was a sign of God”s love. God does not seek glory. That”s why Jesus chose a donkey to ride into Jerusalem.

What a misunderstanding! The disciples enjoyed their master”s popularity as people cheered him. They just loved it. That meant they didn”t understand Jesus either. They thought that their leader was finally recognized and going to be declared a king. He would rule the whole country. No more wandering around country side like a band of outcasts, no more being thrown out of town; no more eating whatever was offered like beggars. The disciples expected that people would admire them: They would wear fine clothes and live in luxury. They completely misunderstood Jesus. This is why they ran away when Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified. That was the time when Jesus needed the show of love and faithfulness more than any other time from his disciples. They did not understand that the purpose of the ministry of Jesus was to demonstrate humility and the love of God. They had in mind majesty and power, fame and popularity. They were pole apart from the path of humility, love, and sacrifice on which Jesus was treading. They just didn”t understand.

We suffer from the similar misunderstanding today. Our misunderstanding is called Christendom. It was a misunderstanding from the fourth century. It was a glorious experience. The church enjoyed it enormously just like the disciples did when Jesus was welcomed with cheers by people. In Christendom, everybody went to church. Remember those days? The church was powerful and wealthy. Many fine buildings were dedicated for the work of the church. The church leaders were respected and feared. They were powerful. Those were the good old days. Many of us still remember those days and are nostalgic about them.

Christendom began during the fourth century when the Roman Empire made Christianity an official state religion. The church dominated Europe for sixteen centuries, expanding its influence sometimes even by force. It did a lot of good work, for sure. The church spread the spirit of love around the globe. But expansion and increasing its power still was a more important goal than creation of the caring community. Consequently the church caused many conflicts and deaths as it tried to expand. Such conflicts still continue in some parts of the world. In many ways, the current conflict in Balkans stem from the old religious rivalries. The church misunderstood its mission just like the disciples did Christ”s mission at the gate of Jerusalem.

The church is going through a difficult period of time. But I am not disappointed. We are going through the same experience as the disciples did when they watched their master crucified. But let us not run away like the disciples did. We know that the mission of the church is the same as Christ”s mission; that is to love and to be humble for the sake of love. Let us not misunderstand our mission ever again. Our mission is not to be big and wealthy. It is not to become influential and powerful. Our mission is to be humble, riding on a donkey, in order to love others as we love ourselves.

C: MERCY AND WORMWOOD – FIRST SUNDAY OF OCTOBER

MERCY AND WORMWOOD

Lamentation 3:19-26

October 4, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

Instead of "the wormwood and the gall", which I just read, another translation of the Bible, the passage from the book of Lamentations, chapter 3 verse 19 had "the wormwood and poison". The difference surprised me because the one I read reminds me of how, when I was a child, my mother used to give me a tiny bit of black powder for indigestion. It was shavings from what was supposed to be "bear”s gallbladder", a dry black ball about the size of a golf ball. It was bitter. I hated it. "The thought of my affliction and homelessness is the wormwood and the gall." I looked it up in a book on herbal medicine, and sure enough, it says that a gall bladder produces bile which is good for breaking up hard-to-digest fat in the stomach. I am not sure if it was really a bear”s gallbladder that my mother gave me, but it sure was expensive medicine. There were stories of people selling pieces of property in order to buy "bear”s gallbladder" many years ago. So I looked up "wormwood" also in the book on herbal medicine. It says that dried wormwood has been used as a traditional remedy for indigestion. It is also very bitter. Bitterness seems to help digest food: an interesting idea, isn”t it? And one that gives the passage from Lamentations a very different meaning.

The Book of Lamentations is a book of mourning. The author was bitter about the demise of the Jewish nation, which was defeated by the Babylonian army. He spoke about the desolation of Jerusalem. He spoke about the city of Jerusalem as though it was once a proud princess who completely lost her former glory and dignity. She had had many admirers but now none of them could comfort her. Her friends turned out to be sellouts to the enemy. Even her own children deserted her. She was not just a princess of a defeated kingdom but became a slave of the former enemies. It is a book full of bitterness. Yet in the midst of all this grieving, the author remembers God”s mercy. He was reminding himself that there still was hope. He says "the thought of my affliction and my homelessness is the wormwood and the gall. God”s mercies are new every morning." It is bitter, but it is not poison. Instead, it is powerful medicine. And he sees plenty of hopeful signs in the midst of desolation and despair.

There are two periods in the history of the Jewish nation when they made a great leap forward in their spiritual journey. They spent forty excruciatingly difficult years in the desert after the liberation from slavery in Egypt. It was during those years, they were given the basic laws from God, and learned to live under the rule of law. They learned to live like a nation of decent human beings, and not like animals in the desert. That was how they survived as people. The second most important period was the 150 years when the leaders of the nation spent in captivity in Babylon. This period began with the defeat and destruction of Jerusalem, which the book of Lamentations was mourning about. It was a bitter experience. All the political and spiritual leaders, in fact anyone who could read, were expelled from their homeland and forced to live in Babylon. There, they were forbidden to use their language and were prohibited to practice their religion. The intention was to destroy the Jewish nation. When the spiritual tradition of the nation is lost, the nation loses its identity; the Babylonians knew that. But they didn”t succeed. The Jews did not lose their religion. They managed to keep the language through the Bible. In fact, it was during this period, the Jews collected the books on the laws of Moses, the Prophets, and other literature like poems, stories, and proverbs. Eventually they were bound together and became the Hebrew Bible – the present day Old Testament. The intention of the Babylonian captors completely failed. When the children of the captive Jews were allowed to return to Palestine, one of the teachers named Ezra took the collection of the Books and went back to Jerusalem. The Book, the Biblos in Greek, became the foundation of the faith of the Jewish nation. It was also the only Bible available to the early Christians for about four hundred years until the New testament was authorized as a part of the Bible by the Church. The Babylonian captivity was bitter medicine, but it was an effective medicine. It brought health back to the people and made them survive and thrive.

The God of the Bible is not one to praise the virtue of suffering. God does not want us to suffer. However, God does not stop it either. Often, suffering is caused by human failures and sin. God”s greatest gift to humans is freedom. So if humans choose the path of a sinful life, God does not stop them. God does not cause suffering but we do; for ourselves and for others. Suffering comes to everyone, just like rain falls on good people and bad people alike. The difference is: the faithful people never lose sight of the God”s mercy even in the midst of suffering, and find hope beyond. In other words, the faithful find strength to go through the difficulties, and are always able to praise God for his mercies at the end.

This is why the author of the Lamentations could sing the praises of God even in the midst of mourning the loss of a nation and the desolation of his beloved city. "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning." When I look at myself in the mirror in the morning, I see signs of my aging process. But perhaps, instead of mourning the loss of youth, I should say to myself "Tad, you look wiser today. Thank you, God." I should learn to love myself anew everyday, and gain strength to face a new chapter of my life.

It”s easy to feel bitterness over losses in our lives – whether that”s youth, or health, or glory. It is a very human response. But remember, bitterness can also be medicine for renewal. Instead of just mourning the loss and dwelling in bitterness, isn”t it also time to remember how merciful God has been throughout the good days and how sweet those days were? Then we realize that his love and mercy are new every morning, even today. We swallow our medicine, and thank God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

YEAR B: WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR? – FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 2 : 1 – 5, Matthew 24 : 36 – 44

A period of four weeks before Christmas is called Advent.  It is the time of waiting for the arrival.  As children wait for Santa Claus, we look forward to the coming of the new world brought to us with the birth of Jesus Christ.

This expectation for the new world is expressed in one word in three languages; Salaam in Arabic, Shalom in Hebrew, and Khotso in Sesotho of the African Bantu.  They all have the same meaning, somewhat inadequately translated into English as "peace".  All of them are used still today as a most common form of greeting.   It means "Hello and good-bye." –  for meeting and parting.  When they meet, they wish each other peace.  And likewise they bid each other peace as they go separate ways.  They don”t think  about the meaning of the word nowadays just like we don”t think about the meaning of our greetings.

It is a pity  because I believe that this is the world”s most profound way of greeting.  A theology professor at Harvard Theological School by the name of Harvey Cox once told a touching story about the use of this word for greeting.  When a Jewish mother was separated from her child before she was shipped off to a Nazi extermination camp during the second world war, she hugged the child and said, "Shalom."   They ran into each other at the port of Haifa in Palestine five years later.  Miraculously both the mother and the child survived the death camps.  When they hugged each other, in tears they only said "Shalom."  That was enough.

It was enough because the word contains all the important ingredients of the perfect world under the reign of God.  Prophet Isaiah in today”s lesson described very succinctly this notion of shalom.  God will bring justice to the world.  And when that happens people beat the swords into ploughshares and will hear of war no more.  There is justice hence there is peace.  In the language I learned to preach in Africa, the same notion of peace is expressed in the word – Khotso.  It also has all the important ingredients of the better world, just like the Hebrew word – shalom.

In Lesotho, when you finish a dinner, for example, the host will ask you, "Uena ka Khotso?" – Are you at peace?  It means, "Have you had enough?  Are you satisfied, happy?  Are you at peace with yourself?"  They believe that when you are physically well, you are spiritually content also.  It also means there is justice thus no discord.  There is no violence among people.  When one comes into a village or into a home, one stands at the entrance raising both hands with the palms open showing that one holds no weapon, and says "Khotso."  This gesture means, "I come in peace, I am defenceless. Please include me in, and treat me like one of you."  In a society where everything is shared, being admitted into a community means one is treated justly.  They firmly believe that there is no peace without justice, and there is no want with justice.  You never starve unless everybody starves.

We can learn a lot from those nomadic traditions about peace and about justice.  On the other hand, our idea of peace has long been dominated by a notion of "Pax Romana" – Roman peace.  It comes from the idea that there is peace when a powerful nation dominates others by force, just as the Roman Empire did and controlled all of the Mediterranean region with its armies and wealth.  For as long as we know in human history, the idea has been firmly entrenched that peace could be achieved only when one dominates the others absolutely by force .  We still believe in it.  The idea never worked because justice and peace of mind were ignored.

When we lack inner peace we tend to resort to violence.  When one is frustrated or insecure, one tends to be violent.  Secondly, one is driven to anger and unhappiness, when one is treated unjustly or sees injustice done to others.  Humans have had this notion of peace combined with justice, for tens of centuries.  But we have not taken the idea seriously and have made the same mistakes over and over again. 

No empire has ever achieved enduring peace.  The longest lasting empire we have known in history was the Roman Empire, that lasted for about six centuries.  But the millennium that followed was a history of bloody conflicts, including crusades, 100 year war, 30 year war, the war of roses, etc.  The British one lasted not even two.  Domination by the Americans and the Russians has not even lasted one century and is already slipping.  And when they fall, violence and blood-shed follow.  Many of the regional conflicts today are rooted in the histories of empires.  It shows no sign that the peace enforced by those empires has any lasting effect.  Hatred that has been festering while being ruled by force demands settling of scores.  Look at Northern Ireland.  Look at former Yugoslavia.  The whole of Balkan is suffering from the memories of three fallen empires. The Roman Empire gave the Catholic Croatians upper hands over the Orthodox Serbians.  The Ottoman Empire gave upper hands to Muslim Bosnian over both Croatians and Serbians.  And the Communist Empire gave Serbians upper hands over Croatians and Muslims.  Consequently they still remember the atrocities committed to each other and by those empires.  And they fiercely hate each other.  Has the British victory at the Plain of Abraham produced an enduring peace in Canada?  It seemed to have caused more enduring dissatisfaction on the part of one group of people than it solved, judging from the never ending threat of separation.

When do we ever learn?  When do we ever learn to beat swords into ploughshares?  Haven”t we ever learnt that there can never be enduring peace unless there is justice?  Haven”t we ever learned that there can never be justice unless there is peace of mind?  Where there is no peace of mind there is no love.  Where there is no love, there is greed and self-centredness.  And greed and self-centredness drive us into participating in a structures of injustice.  A vicious circle goes around and around.

Today marks the beginning of the preparation time to for the imminent arrival.  We are waiting for the arrival of the gift from God.  What is this gift that we are waiting for?  We are waiting for the completion of the heaven in this world that began with the birth of Jesus.  We are going to celebrate the birthday of the one who declared the new regime.  How long do we have to wait?  Noone knows.  But it is coming surely because it has been declared and is here partially. 

Do we then just wait?  It all depends what sort of waiting you do.  You can wait by just sitting doing nothing.  Or you can wait actively.  When you wait for someone or something and look forward to the arrival, you do all sorts things for preparation and remain mentally active by letting your brain tick, tick, tick.  It is so exciting to wait though a bit anxious.  Likewise, when you wait for the gift of God, completion of the Kingdom of God, you wait actively by working for the Kingdom of God. 

When you are not keen on the coming of something or somebody like a dentist”s appointment, you wait passively and do nothing.  You even dread its arrival.  You hope that it goes away.  But when we wait actively, we prepare joyfully.  We can show our love of others with gifts to the loved ones and to show our concerns about the people who had set-backs, met misfortune, and are not well.  Those are good projects to participate in the building up of the Kingdom of God.

Let us wait actively for the coming of peace – real peace of shalom, salaam, and khotso, with excitement, joy, and determination, not just this season of Advent but also in our daily life always.

 

A: DO YOU KNOW HOW TO BE GOOD? – FIRST SUNDAY OF JUNE

DO YOU KNOW HOW TO BE GOOD?

Genesis 12:1-9, Psalm 33 #5, Matthew 9:9-13

June 5, 2005, Picture Butte

There is a scene in Richard Nash’s play, "Rainmaker." Rainmaker is a smooth talking travelling salesman, who goes around countryside. Rainmaker seduced a lonely, spinster daughter of the family at midnight in a barn. Her outraged brother took out a gun to shoot the Rainmaker. However, the Rainmaker’s action would restore her sense of womanliness and her confidence. The father, a wise old rancher, grabs the gun away from his son, saying, "Noah, you’re so full of what’s right you can’t see what’s good."

When there is a conflict between what is good and what is right, we often think that Christian way is the righteousness not goodness. In this respect, Jesus often surprises us.

Matthew was a tax collector, and knew that nobody liked him. But Jesus not only accepted Matthew”s invitation for a dinner, but also made him a disciple. No wonder the righteous people were scandalized. At the time, Palestine was under the Roman occupation. Administration of taxation was given to some selected Jewish persons on a commission basis. In other words, tax collection was privatized. The tax collectors invented many methods to impose taxes. They were a enterprising lot. Many of them made fortunes took bribes, pounced on the vulnerable people who were often poor and weak. They became not only morally corrupt, but also because of their immoral practices, they were branded as religiously unclean, in the same class as lepers, prostitutes, and thieves. Priests and Pharisees refused them in religious events. As a class, they were not only traitors working for the enemy but also became excommunicated, so-to-speak. They became rich but they had no friends.

I could understand why the category of tax collectors was synonymous with the one for sinners. But what happened to those who were honest. They could be just doing an unpleasant job to earn a living? There is some evidence in the Bible to indicate that there were some less corrupt ones who would have loved to redeem themselves and to be accepted by society. Matthew was one of those people. This is why Matthew had no hesitation to follow Jesus, leaving his job and money behind when he was called to be his disciple. He must have suffered bad conscience about his job, but did not have courage to quit. But the encounter with Jesus gave him currage to get out of a profitable but questionable occupation.

From time to time, we run into a situation where we find ourselves in a bad company but do not have courage to get out. It is a big problem for many of us. But as soon as we acknowledge that we share collective guilt, we are on the way to redemption. Jesus understood the pang of conscience of some tax collectors like Matthew. And when you can feel the pain, Jesus, like a doctor, can help you. But if you don”t feel it, no one can help you. This is why it is so important to admit that there is a problem and to recognize that you are in need of help.

Here was the problem of the righteous people like Pharisees. They did not acknowledge that there was any problem in their lives. They either denied it or did not see it. They were determined to be God fearing and righteous people. In order to achieve their goals, they made for themselves a set of rules and followed them faithfully. Unfortunately, however, in the process of becoming righteous people they forgot to be good people. They forgot to be loving and kind. While they were on the way to be righteous, they became judgmental and lost the core of being Godly, which is being merciful. They became law-abiding but lost their heart. They forgot that laws were instruments of justice and love. Laws that do not achieve justice are empty shells and burden to society. The worst problem, however, for the Pharisees was the fact that many of them did not see any problem in obeying laws faithfully without being compassionate.

Paul described this state of empty piety in his letter to Corinthians, "If I have all knowledge of God”s words, ability to preach wonderful sermons, faith to move mountains, charity to give everything including life itself, but if I don”t have love, I am nothing." What is most important is what is inside of ourselves. If we do not have kindness and mercy in our hearts, any visible signs of righteousness can be an empty shell and even inhuman. We can easily be hypocrites. The tragedy of the righteous Pharisees was that in their eagerness to be acceptable to God, they became legalistic, heartless and judgmental people. Their worst problem, however, was that they did not think there was anything wrong with them. They thought that they were perfectly acceptable to God because they knew that they obeyed the laws to the last iota.

Their ignorance of how they were wanting was the worst illness, worse than that of sins acknowledged and regretted. People who know the pain of guilt have a much better chance of being made whole. If you do not admit that you have a problem, no one can help you. Socrates in the ancient Greece said that the best knowledge was the knowledge of oneself. "Know thyself." , he said. However, he said that the most valuable knowledge is the knowledge of one”s ignorance. When you know that you do not know, you have a whole unknown world open before your eyes. If you think that you know everything you need to know, the world is closed. And you slam the door shut yourself. No one can help you.

This is why Jesus thought that the sinners, who knew that there was something wrong with them, had far better chance of being saved than the righteous people who believed that they needed no help or no lesson to learn. He said, "A healthy person does not need a doctor." The irony of the context was a sick person who did not believe that they were ill had absolutely no chance of getting to the doctor, because they closed the door by themselves. Thank God for occasional pain. Pain itself is not a good thing. Don”t look for it. But it is a signal. Through pain, God tells you that you need to seek help, to change and to grow.

 

 

A: SEEING GOD FROM BEHIND – THIRD SUNDAY OF OCTOBER

SEEING GOD FROM BEHIND

Exodus 33:17-23, Psalm 99, Matthew 22:15-22

October 20, 1996, by Tad Mitsui

I am fascinated by the image of Moses seeing God only in retrospect. Moses had his face covered when God Passed in front of him. A full view of God may be frightening, but the idea has fascinated the human race ever since its appearance on earth. The people of Israel also demanded to see God, because they were tired of hearing God”s plans only through a mouthpiece – Moses. But when they actually were allowed to be in the presence of God, they were terrified of the sight and the sound and begged to be spared of any further frightening experiences. Moses did not see God either. He only heard him. When at last he saw God, it was from behind. It was a rather limited view, you must admit. But it was enough to affirm the direction in which God was going.

Our society operates on the basis of "hindsight". We make choices consistent with past experience, based on known and already visible. It is more comforting that way. We resist change. In physics, this is called inertia. What is stationary tends to remain so and what moves tends to keep moving without changing direction. As a society and individuals we tend towards inertia. This is why we often reject visionary views of the future. We would love to know what future God has laid out for us, but are also terrified to know the truth. As hindsighted creatures, we can only cope with knowing so much. God alone possesses a complete foresight. Yet despite our limits, God keeps us moving forward, nudges us towards a better world, towards the kingdom of God. Our fear of change – of what the future foreseen by God may demand of us – is why we have often disliked and persecuted persons who had some sense of where God was leading.

Jesus was one of those people. He lived in occupied Palestine. When the Pharisees asked Jesus if the Jews should pay taxes to the Roman emperor, they were trying to trap him with a loaded question. If Jesus said Jews should, he was encouraging people to compromise their religion. But if he said they should not, he was inciting tax evasion and inviting wrath of the Roman authorities. For the Jews, it was a problem to use money which had images of the Caesar, because Caesar Augustus had decreed that he was a god. Caesar had claimed divinity in order to make his power absolute. The Jews naturally rejected that, because for them there was only one God: the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. So they showed their rejection of the emperor”s claim for absolute authority by using traditional Jewish coins for their offering to the temple. But the fanatics argued that if they should remain good Jews, they must not use Roman coins even in business and commerce. So the answer Jesus gave was unexpected and ingenious. He told them to live like a good citizen while committing themselves to remain God”s people. This has been the norm of Christians in this world ever since.

To the extent that we are striving to be Christians by coming to church, we are distinctively the people of God, while living in this world just like any other people. We perform civic duties like any other citizens, but we keep our own unique values. We pay taxes and engage in business in the same way as any other persons do, using money with an image of secular authorities on it. But we do not worship that image. And this is the difference; state, business, and money are not absolute for us. In the mean time, we listen to the word of God, and try to live according to God”s merciful and just design. God”s ways are often different from the accepted norms of society. They are often inconvenient, and sometimes downright subversive to the existing customs and norms.

So people who follow the teaching of Jesus Christ seem a bit odd at times. Other times, they look outrageous or like fools. For example, why didn”t Jim Houden who willed so much money to our church, spend more money for his own pleasures before he died? We are surrounded by people, who did strange things like that, because they were Christians. No doubt, Jim Houden loved Howick United Church and its people. And I can understand why. But many ordinary people would not understand him unless they know what it means to follow God”s ways. Many prophets and saints not only were ridiculed by their contemporaries, but also were often badly persecuted. It was because they listened for the voice of God to tell them how things should be. They were ahead of their time; they knew things too early. They had strong sense of God”s foresight long before other people began to see the wisdom in divine visions.

Does this mean we can ignore the conventions and norms of this world in order to live according to God”s scheme? Jesus said, "No." He said that Caesar should receive what he deserved. Jesus said that because he believed that all authorities of this world should follow God”s path, even though they might be far behind God. Jesus did not believe in anarchy, though he believed that things must change according to God”s plans. We must live in this world as ones who know that things should change towards a better world. Yet we must not give up on this world. You must try hard to change it as a person who knows better, as someone who has glimpsed the direction in which God is headed. This is a tension we live with as ones who live in this world but know that there are problems that need solving.

As Christians, all of us live in this world with this tension. We are in the world but not of the world. We must pay taxes and give what is due to the state, but we do not completely belong to any country. Our real citizenship is of the kingdom of God. So we do not worship the image on the coin, even though we perform our civic duties by using that money. We do not believe that secular powers have absolute authority over us.

As people who have a sense of God”s plan for this world, we must constantly strive to move the world forward, towards God”s goals. Even if that glimpse of what lies ahead makes us uncomfortable sometimes. Seeing God only from behind seem like a limited view, but accepting that limit frees us from relying on "hindsight" alone to guide us. It is enough to give us an idea where God is headed – to turn our hindsight into foresight – and keep all the caesar of the world in perspective.

A: IMMANUEL – GOD IS WITH US: FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 7:1-16, Psalm 80, Matthew 1:18-25

I don”t think I am the only father who squirmed when he saw his own newborn child for the first time.  It took me a little while to begin to feel real loving attachment towards a tiny, funny looking lump of flesh wriggling in an incubator.  Father”s experience with a new born child is different from mother”s.  Mother has nine months of bonding with her child.  But for a father, bonding is an art – a process to learn to connect with his child.  You may think that one does not have to learn to love one”s own child.  Love for your own child comes naturally, because a baby is the most adorable and lovable.  I suggest that it is not always like that.  Everybody does not love a new born baby.  A baby is very vulnerable.  I believe that God chose to come to be with us in a form of an infant child, because a baby is helpless, powerless, vulnerable, weak, and an easy object for abuse and exploitation.

Because we live in Canada, we have no trouble believing that all the babies are always loved and treasured.  But that is not always the case.  Children are in fact the most deprived persons in the world today.  They are not treasured as much as we think they are.  For example:  We assume that normally people die of old age, and that only a small number of babies die.  But this is not the true picture if you look at the conditions in which children live in the world.  Fact is; a much greater number of infants die than the number of old people.  On the average according to the UNICEF statistics, 44 thousand infants die everyday in the world.  We don”t talk about this awful statistics because infant deaths happen mostly in the poorer parts of our planet.  They die mainly because of malnutrition.  The weakest ones are always the first ones to suffer the consequences of poverty.  This was the situation of the children at the time of Isaiah, at the time of the birth of Jesus, throughout history, and I say is the case even today.  It is not the universal truth to say that children are always loved and treasured.

Yet, Isaiah dared to predict that a baby who would be born to a young woman would be called "Immanuel".  The word "Immanuel" means "God is with us."  Why did God choose a new born child as a vehicle to come to live among us?  I suggest that an answer lies, among other places, somewhere in the art of bonding with a new born child.  By coming to be with us in a form of a new born child, God demonstrated his love by becoming one of the least and the most humble.  You can understand the logic of this God”s action when you know how to love.  In other words, love is the eyes to see God. 

When a father holds an infant child in his arms for the first time, the power of love transforms a "funny little squirming lump of flesh" into the most precious and the most beautiful thing in the world.  You can hear him whispering, "I love you so much.  You are the most precious and the most beautiful thing in the whole world."   It is love that turns a most helpless and unattractive thing into the most precious and the most beautiful.  The real test of love is to love someone when that someone is most difficult.   When you learn to tolerate a squawking cat at 4 a.m. or a snoring husband who keeps you awake all night, you have begun to learn an art of love.   When a baby cries all night or causes all sorts of grief, when your teenage child is determined to annoy you, or when your aging parent is gradually falling into a state of dementia and doesn”t know who you are any more and tells you to get out of the room, and yet you love them dearly, you have glimpsed the sight of God.  Love is the eyes to see God.

Another important point is that a new born child symbolizes future.  There is no other power more powerful than a faith in the future.  When you can see God in the most helpless new born child, you have capacity to hope for the future no matter how it looks grim.  That kind of optimism makes the small and helpless the most powerful.  On the other hand, when you can”t see an enormous potential in children but see them only as powerless and useless appendix to a society, you are the most pathetic being, because you have no eye to see future.  It seemed easy for the King Herod to kill the Messiah when he was a baby together with hundreds of other baby boys as a preemptive action against a future rival, because babies are helpless.  But Herod also killed his own future, and is remembered as a most pathetic figure in history.  A society that does not put priority in children has no future and is doomed.

God did not come to be with us as an infant child because babies are naturally adorable and easy to love.  The child was called Immanuel, because he was vulnerable.  Also a baby is not always easy to love.  If you love a person who is difficult, you are in the presence of God.  During this season of Christmas, let us learn to see Jesus by learning to love the unlovable.  Let us learn to see God like Mother Teresa did.  She saw God among the poor dying on the streets of Calcutta.  After all, the Son of God was born in a form of a powerless and helpless child who did not even have a luxury to be born in a decent house, but was born in a stable among the bails of hay and the piles of manure.  God is with us, because He came to us as a baby in a stable.

B: PASSAGES – METAMORPHOSES – EASTER

PASSAGES – METAMORPHOSES

Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 118, John 20:1-18

Easter Sunday, 1997 by Tad Mitsui (Confirmation Service)

They say, cats have nine lives. But when we think of the changes we go through in our life time, we also have many lives. We may not change our appearances as much as an egg does when it hatches into a yellow baby chick, and then grows into a full grown chicken. But when you pull out some old pictures of yours, you realize how much you have changed. These big changes in life are called metamorphoses. Those people who confirmed their faith and joined the church today are making a lot of changes. They may not realize it, but even in those five short months of confirmation class, they grew up so much. From birth to death, all of us go through many transformations, almost as often as once in every ten years. And we call each period of time of change a passage. The message of Easter is that death is also a passage, not an end to life but a metamorphosis. Jesus showed us the way through a difficult passage called death, making our transition from mere physical existence into a state of spiritual being.

Passages often feel like difficult tight spaces to go through, which we must pass. When I am not well, I often have a nightmare of a dark, endless and narrow passage like a tube where the air is tight and suffocating. I awake gasping for air. It is frightening not only due to the fear of suffocation but also for the fear of unknown at the end of the tunnel. I don”t know what”s out there, and that”s scary. Psychologists suggest that at some level we remember the first passage we go through in our journey into the world; from our mother”s womb through the narrow, dark, and suffocating tube into open air. We usually do not consciously recall this because it is too scary to remember. We forget something we don”t want to remember. But our body remembers – so it comes back in bad dreams. After the birth passage, we go through other difficult new experiences in the first few years as a baby. Babies cry a lot, because often they don”t know what”s happening. And that”s frightening. When they are hungry, they cry because they don”t know why their tummies hurt. When they are wet, they cry because they don”t know why they have that yucky feeling on the bottom. When a baby cries, it is calling you to pay attention. It is a God”s call to love.

Puberty is another difficult passage of life. Between the ages of ten and fifteen, we go through incredible amount of change, in our bodies and in our mind. I remember I stumbled a lot because I had not realized how fast I was growing up. Friends begin to look more important than parents, though we are still very much dependent on them. Suddenly you become aware that people begin to pay more attention to you. You don”t realize that you are more attractive in appearance. You are like fresh bread just out of oven. And the attention people give you is not necessarily the kind you want. It is a difficult time.

When Jesus was twelve, he proved to the parents that he was growing not only in height but also in spirit. The mind begins to work differently at that age. Jesus and his parents went to the big city of Jerusalem for the spring festival of passover, which for us is the same time as our Easter. When they started to head home, they lost Jesus. But they did not worry. He was a big boy now. He had begun to spend more time with friends and grown-ups. They travelled looking for him among friends and relatives who were also going home. They could not find him for three days. Now they were really worried. So they went back to Jerusalem. After a frantic search of the city, finally they found him in the temple. He was talking with teachers of the Bible and the law. They were so fascinated by the young Jesus who had so much to say about religion, that they kept him in the Temple for three days talking with him. Jesus said to the parents, "Why are you worried? Don”t you know I am in my father”s house?" When you reach twelve or older, mere facts and figures alone are not as interesting as they were when you were younger. But now you want to know the meaning of things. The factual world is not enough. Also openly or secretly, you begin to be more interested in the other sex. Relationships are suddenly very important. Your interest has shifted to what is emotional and spiritual. So you ask "why" more often. You are now ready to enter into adult world just like Jesus was when he was twelve.

This is why in many cultures, the special training period for young people entering adolescence is important to prepare them for the shock of adulthood. The end of this training period is celebrated with gusto. It is important to mark this period of passage, because it is important for them to feel welcomed by a community of people who care for them. The adult world they are preparing to join is not an easy place. They must know that there are people beyond family, who have same values and same outlook in life. They must know that there are people who share happiness, and help you and support you in times of trouble. It is a way of God to tell us that he loves us. Schools do not do this.

I wish there were more celebrations of our lives” passages. Not only baptisms, weddings, and birthdays, but also occasions to acknowledge and show support for our friends and loved ones when they go through a mid-life crisis, or serious illness, separation, or retirement. They are difficult times and important times. In all those passages, we change, just like a butterfly in its different stages of development. We must have a community to celebrate together and affirm together the fact that God loves us. The community of faith is a group of people who stick with you no matter what. When we live in such a community, even death can become believable as another passage of life just like it was for Jesus, who came back from death and promised to live with us forever.

 

 

A: GOD, FOOD, AND US – THIRD SUNDAY OF SEPTEMBER

GOD, FOOD, AND US

Exodus 16, Psalm 105, Matthew 20:1-16

September 19, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

In God”s world, there is always food for everyone. The story of manna and quails in the desert teaches us this important truth. If we have faith in God and follow his commandments, none of us will have to starve. It wasn”t easy for the Hebrew people to learn a new way of living in the desert. They could not grow food or raise animals, as they used to do in Egypt. They had to find different kinds of food. They found manna and quails on the ground. Tamarisk trees secret sap, which become wafers like sweet cream puffs in the morning. The Hebrews called them manna. Greedy people did not profit by gathering more than they needed because manna went bad next day. You can still collect them in Sinai desert today. The quails migrate between Africa and Asia. Many of the weak birds do not complete the whole journey and fall to the ground in the desert exhausted. They provided meat. But all these foods were new to the Hebrew people. They still remembered sweet smell and taste of meat stew they used to enjoy in Egypt. It was not easy to change eating habits, as it is for us. But the message of the story is clear. God always provides.

One day in March, 1985, I was visiting a feeding camp near a place called Makele in Northern Ethiopia. Some of you remember that during the early eighties, many Africans were starving. Crops had failed completely for several years after consecutive drought. In Ethiopia alone, it is estimated that about one million people starved to death. I was working for the World Council of Church as Coordinator of Famine Relief at the time. There was no problem raising money and collecting donated food for relief. When people saw starving people on the TV, they responded generously. We targetted $100 million. But we collected $600 million in cash and gifts in kind at the end of my mandate. Surplus food was plentiful in the world, so the governments gave us grains by the millions of tons. A part of my job was to make sure that the relief went to hungry people. So I travelled extensively in 23 drought affected African countries.

Makele was the first place I visited in Ethiopia. What I saw was absolutely disturbing. People looked like skeletons, and were hardly able to even sit up. They were looking into void with wide eyes that looked like dark empty holes. Overworked relief workers, nurses, and doctors were doing their best. Bodies were wrapped in sheets and being carried to mass graves. After the tour of the camps, the grateful officials invited us to a lunch at the hotel in the city of Makele. It was a wonderful Italian dinner. I must confess; I enjoyed it. I was hungry. Looking back, it now seems to me to be almost obscene to eat such a good diner in the midst of absolute misery. But at the time, my hunger pang took better of me.

Then I came to realize one basic fact about hunger, the fact which now seems so obvious, but at the time escaped me. Hunger is not caused by shortage of food, but it is caused by poverty. People starve because they are poor. There is no such thing as shortage of food in the world. Food is plentiful in the world, especially today. In fact, there is so much food today that cheap food is becoming a serious problem for farmers. The reason why people starve is because they do not have access to food. They are poor. So, they can not afford to buy it or grow it. If you have money, you can always buy food or grow it, and eat it. Farmers can grow food, if they have access to credit. If anything, the real problem today is that there is too much cheap food in the world, and people eat too much. In our society, more people die because of health problems caused by over consumption of rich food. But in poor countries, people die because of malnutrition and starvation.

In fact, irony is that Ethiopia increased the volume of the export of agricultural products to Europe, while their own people starved. Export of beef, coffee, oranges, and sugar from Ethiopia, in fact, increased during the 1980”s. The producers of those cash crops received all kinds of subsidies from the government, because it needed foreign currency, and Europe welcomed cheap food. With generous subsidies, an abnormal climate like drought was not a serious problem. Money can solve many problems created by nature. When farmers are looked after, they will produce food.

Nobody should starve in God”s world, if we behave as we should according to God”s commandments, because there is always enough food. We can always buy or produce food in the world which God created and entrusted us with. The important question is what do you do with what God has given us. Jesus said, "No one lives by bread alone, but by the word of God." In other words, according to Jesus, the word of God is as important as food is for our survival. A recent "Maclean”s" magazine reported a result of a survey done among 4,000 senior citizens, which was conducted over six years period in North Carolina among poeple of 63 years of age and over. It found that 46% more people died among those who didn”t go to church reglarly. The survey concluded that not only regular church goers lived healthy life style, but more importantly also, they lived in a caring community where they cared for and supported each other. We lived by bread and by the word of God.

When we live by the word of God, we will create a society where we love and care for each other. In such a society a wide gap between rich and poor is not tolerated too long. Likewise, the same spirit helps us to live a productive life. You know how productive food producers can be, when a caring government gives credit to farmers. But if you don”t trust God and don”t observe his words, there will be hunger in the midst of plenty. Then, rich people die of over-eating and poor people suffer because they have little to eat. Remember. God always provides. Let us care for each other. We are all invited to the banquet of God. It is a fabulous spread of love and plenty.

C: CHILDREN DON”T DIE – VISION OF KINGDOM, THIRD SUNDAY OF NOVEMBER

"VISION OF KINGDOM" – CHILDREN DO NOT DIE.

Isaiah 65:17 – 25 1.

One excruciatingly hot summer day in Africa, an old man was sitting by the road looking tired or even sickly. A young Missionary had to stop the car and offered him a ride. But he declined the offer and said, "I walked a long way today. It was time to sit down and let my spirit catch up with me." Now we ask ourselves, when was the last time we got out of our car and waited for our spirit to catch up with us? Things are moving very fast now-a-days. We move an average of 50 km an hour in town, and 100 km on highways. When we fly we move with a speed of sound. Our spirit moves with a speed of 5 km an hour. We might be moving very fast but without getting anywhere, like a chicken with its head cut off. Spirit is the one who knows where we are going, not our body. When we don”t have a head, any speed might be dangerous. 2. Legend has it that Ancient king of Egypt, Thamus, often entertained himself by inviting god of invention, Theuth, and by watching the demonstration of his latest ideas. He invented Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, etc. But now he came up with the idea of letters, a writing system. No longer anyone needed to repeat oneself umpteen times to memorize some important events and sayings of the day. The next generations would know the wisdom of the ancestors from papers not from people. Wise king thought about it for a long time, but decided that he did not like the idea. He said, "Our brain will atrophy for not having to remember anything in future, because the letters will remember for you. The worst of all, we will degenerate into a state of some lower life form. We no longer have to talk with our sons and daughters telling them the important things that happened in our lives. There will be no time for families, and without time spent with families, we will be the same as some less intelligent animals. We will eventually perish as human beings." 3. This important lesson from Egypt is that new things are not automatically good unless we know what it is that these new things are good for and are not good for. One big problem we have today is that people believe whatever faster, bigger, newer, or lauder is automatically better. Once we stop to think about it, we know it isn”t always better. How come, then, we spend so much energy, money, and time to get often useless things without thinking what they are good for? 4. This is a question of values. The bigger is not necessarily the better, for example, unless we know why it is better because it is bigger. We have to have a goal to judge the values of things that are bigger, better, or newer. What, then, are our goal and values as Christians? 5. Our goal is to build the Kingdom of God here and now. We know that our values come from Love. So let us think about those. 6. The notion of the Kingdom of God is known in our Bible in many different ways: Heaven, Kingdom of Heaven, New Heavens and New Earth, New Jerusalem, etc. There are many different expressions, but they all mean the same thing. It is the world where God rules. Jesus Christ declared its coming. It is already here. The problem is, it is still in a process of completion. God expects us to join in the job of establishing the reign of God in this world. 7. How then should the Kingdom of God look like? Among many descriptions of the Kingdom of God in the Bible, I like the one found in the prophet Isaiah, Chapter 65 very much. It says that in new heavens and a new earth: 1) Children shall not die. 2) Old people live out their lives and die in dignity. 3) People build their houses and live in them. They shall not build and another inhabit. No one will take their houses away. 4) People eat fruits of their labour. They shall not plant and another eat. In other words, everyone will have work and can live on it. So our goal is to help build up the Kingdom of God, which will look like that. 8. What then are the values that create and uphold such a world? The force that gives us strength to work for the Kingdom of God is Love. When we have love, it is easier for us to see that the world must be the kind of place where the strong and the weak live together without harming each other. It is love for each other that allows lions and sheep to live in the same cave and share the same food. The strong will give way to the weak, so that all should survive. There will be no superior nor inferior, there is only difference. The law of nature ”survival of the fittest”, does not have to be the guiding principle any longer. Our ethics, philosophy, and religions do not accept the current practice of our society, which is based on competition. We doubt that only the biggest and the strongest should win the competition and survive. We can and want to let the weakest survive, because we love them. We want to live and stay with all creatures as loving brothers and sisters. We don”t condone the act of exterminating deformed and feeble-minded anymore, which was attempted many times in human history, as in Nazi Germany. We believe in the god who does not allow even a sparrow to fall. Those species which cannot compete do not have to, and must not become extinct. 9. All this sounds wonderful, but you will soon realize that I am speaking about what is an impossible dream. It looks impossible, because our society runs on the principle of competition:survival of the fittest. What deem to be weak and inferior are not allowed to remain on the scene. Most of us believe that we advance and progress because of competition. Without winning in the competitions, we will atrophy and perish, like dinosaurs did, who were presumably weaker than the elements that killed them. We believe that we will survive, because we are stronger than elements. We can beat the floods, earthquakes, and tidal waves, and wild beasts. We can beat the nature. We will outlive the nature. You can now easily see the problem in this kind of argument. We see others as competitors, rivals, enemies. And we don”t we our own destruction, if other creatures are destroyed. 10. Another problem with this argument is: we never stopped to ask, "What for the progress?" We really don”t know whether all this progress is good for us, especially if we have to look at others as enemies, or competitors at best. Competitions must produce losers, because without losers there is no winner. That is not good for those who did not make it in the society and become homeless, unemployed, or commit suicide. Secondly, all this rapid progress may not have any direction, and may be leading all of us to ultimate destruction. Destruction of our mother earth in the name of progress, balding mountains, dirty lakes and rivers may be telling us that we don”t know where we are going, and that it is time for us to stop to think where our spirit is. We must realize that if we don”t know where our spirit is, we are in a big trouble. There is nothing to tell us the direction of life.

YEAR C: THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS ARE OFTEN FREE – LENT 3

THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS ARE OFTEN FREE

Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63, Luke 13:1-5

March 15, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

We often consider cash as a measure for value; and this is a serious spiritual problem. Often we don”t know what real value means, and treat ourselves and each other poorly. Lord Beaverbrook, one of the richest men Canada has ever produced, was quoted as saying, "Everybody has a price… I would even go to hell if the price is right." A comedian, Jackie Mason, had a similar line about patriotism. It goes something like this: "I love America. I would give up anything for America. I would give up even my wife for America. But money? No! That”s different." We too often measure the value of things by looking at the price tags, and forget what is truly valuable does not cost money. This is why we call what is truly preciously "priceless", because we can not buy it.

Lent is the season to repent. The colour purple in the church is the symbol of repentance. To repent means not just to say sorry for what we did wrong, but also to change our mind and make a u-turn. Today”s scriptures suggest that we change our attitude and to start seeing the real value in what is freely available but priceless. Then, we will see what is truly important in our life is spiritual and free. We will understand the meaning of Isaiah”s words, "Those who thirst, come to the water. Those who are hungry, come to the food without money. Why spend money for things that are worthless. Why labour for things that do not satisfy. Come to me, says God."

Think about what you miss when you are way from home for a period. You miss people and things you have at home for free. You miss the baby who keeps you awake at night, and the kids who never stop to demand your attention and your time. You miss your wife who knows you a little bit too well. You miss your home and those messy rooms where you know exactly where things are. You feel comfortable when you are surrounded by those who love you and with things that are familiar to you. I attended many international meetings held in luxury hotels, with swimming pools, and good food, all paid for by somebody else. But always within a few days, I became homesick missing my family, my messy house and the home cooked meals.

They are the most important items in your life. And they don”t have any price tags attached to them. Also those freely available items in our lives are essential. Our life will be seriously in danger, if we do not know the affection and care that people give us freely in our homes and our communities. I was listening to the report on the sexual exploitation of children last week. Most of those children who end up on the streets, come from dysfunctional homes where they did not receive affection nor attention. Instead, they often received abuse and rejection, and their emotional growth had stopped. They are like a baby crying out for any kind of attention, even though they have the bodies of adolescents. We do not survive very long physically, if we do not receive affection.

A lack of emotional care affects us not only spiritually but physically; even animals can not survive very long without daily dose of attention. There was a well known experiment with mice. Two groups of mice lived under exactly the same conditions; same food, same environment, etc. But each mouse in one group received a head to toe rub everyday, and the others didn”t. The effects were quite definite. Those who received daily attention grew fatter and healthy looking, and lived longer. The others, though they were just as well fed and well provided for physically as the other group, but without daily rub they were less healthy and died earlier. A constant assurance of love is as essential to us as food and water.

It is well known fact that if we are emotionally secure in the knowledge that we are accepted and loved, we can stand up to difficult conditions longer than those who feel insecure. Misfortunes and tragedies hit all of us from time to time. Those who feel secure can take them as challenges, fight back, and survive them. But those who feel alone in the world because of experiences of rejection in the past, take such difficulty as a punishment. They end up bitter and often resort to self-destructive behaviours. What love gives does not cost any money. But it is far more valuable and long lasting than what money can buy.

Money represents only a part of us. Giving money is an manageable sacrifice. We can even pretend to be a good person by giving up a certain amount of money we can afford to throw away. We will look good, even though we are mean spirited inside. But in reality we can not get away with it. We must realize that the most important things in our lives, although they have no monetary value, are also very costly. It is because love demands a total commitment. There is no such thing as a partial commitment. It is just like there is no such thing as half pregnant; a commitment is always total. Therefore you can not buy love with money. Money can actually makes it cheap, and there is no such thing as cheap love. Love is always priceless. If you can buy it, it is not love; it is travesty of love, like prostitution. Love is priceless. It is so costly that it takes only a total commitment, but not in terms of money.

Loving God is a total commitment. We love God by loving our neighbours. To love God and to love people are one and the same thing. It is just like the Apostle John said in his letters, "If someone says that he loves God and does not love people, he is a liar." There are many ways to love. You can love people with money, too, if it is a genuine expression of what is inside of you. But if there is no love inside, money can be an indication of deceit.

When I was working in Africa, sometimes I saw people stuffing the coffins of their deceased family members with the receipts for the giving to the church. I appreciated their desperate attempts to make sure that their loved ones went to heaven. But money could not buy entry into heaven. Salvation is given freely. Christ sacrificed his life on the cross without demanding any payment from us. He did that because he loved us. So it was free; there was no precondition nor advance payment required. All we need to do is to accept his love and love him in return. Just like Isaiah suggested, "Come and drink the water and eat the food without money." Jesus is inviting us to come to a banquet. His table is always overloaded, the cups run over, the flour and oil never diminish, milk and honey are plentiful. You don”t need to pay, as his banquet is always free. What is it required of us, then? Nothing. Just love him. Then we will know how to love our neighbours. It is a total commitment to love. But it is a happiest commi