JESUS TAUGHT IN PARABLES

REFLECTIONS ON PARABLES

Greek Lexicon says, “parable” – “paraboleh in Greek” is the story to compare with reality.

In 1968, I went to Africa with a newly acquired graduate degree in theology. So I was sure of the quality of my theology. However, when I delivered my first sermon in Sesotho, my language teacher James Tente said, “Your sermon may be a good theology but I didn’t understand anything. Tell us stories like Jesus.” James, school principal, the best educated man in the village, did not understand anything I said! I was crushed; I thought I had solid theological education. However, I heard James and began to tell stories to preach. People began to appreciate the message though my grammar and pronunciation were atrocious. That was how I learned to preach in stories. Sermon is milk and honey of nourishment, not acid test of correct doctrine.

We are people of stories. Legends, myths, and parables shape our identity and create community: like the Baby Jesus, wise men from the East and shepherds. We sing “Silent Night.” Scientific research denies historicity of Christmas story as myth. But it establishes our identity as Christians as we share it. Our identity comes from the shared stories that have been told in churches for millennia, like a story told repeatedly in the family. They are mixture of facts and fading memories, even some exaggerated brags. Mark Twain said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” A bunch of individuals become a community of people when they share and own the same story. Jesus taught in parables. (Mark 4) His intention was not to lecture in history or science. He was telling us who we are, so we become one people who share the same story.

Of course science is important. It tells us objective facts. Let the scientists tell us the truth in biology, chemistry, history, mathematics, and physics; or textual analysis. But let us speak about our spiritual life in stories that are preserved in legends and myths, in dreams and visions. Language of empiricism is too restricted and shallow to describe profound human reality.

I did my seven year course designed for candidates for ministry at a theological seminary. There were 36 students in my class. By the time I finished Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.), after seven years, there were only six of us left. Rigorous theological examination of your faith does not stand if it is not grounded emotionally on the level deeper than mere reason. Theology is not fertilizer for faith; it is a critical scientific analytical test the authenticity of your spirituality. Myths and stories strengthen faith and let us withstand rigorous scrutiny of theology.

You can analyse parables and stories scientifically. But when you do, you must realize that you are not exactly dealing with the living faith; you are reading the written record of the past faith journey. If you want to look at life, do not cut it up to look inside while it is alive. It will die if you do. When I was a child, I got a biology tool set and dissected a live frog. Of course, the poor thing died on the table. Don’t let scientific truth kill a beautiful living faith: you can kill life sustained by myths and stories with science. Faith is different reality from empirical phenomena.

In Biblical Theology, you examine letters and texts, that have been dead and expired. When you kill myths you grew up with, you kill your soul. Take the case of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Though it is a myth and you know it might not have happened that way as you read in the Bible, don’t abolish Christmas and don’t stop singing “Silent Night.” It’s part of us. Primarily, spiritualty is not nurtured by scientific analysis and research. Spirituality belongs to the world of deep consciousness, emotion, imagination, inspiration, passion, and soul. Do not dismiss them because they are without historically and scientifically demonstrable evidence. They belong to the realm of art, music, and poetry; felt in emotion, seen in dreams and visions.

When it comes to your sense of yourself and self-esteem, you more often than not find them in legends and myths of your community, family, and nation than historical and scientific facts. None of the drop-outs from my seminary class gave up the career in ministry because of theological challenge. They left because of lack of emotional community support. Never let theologians tell you that your faith is inferior to theirs because you have not read theology. Faith is maintained by community support. Community support comes from the group of people who share same stories.

Jesus told stories and taught in enigmatic parables, intentionally to confuse scholarly Pharisees, because his message is the matter of faith not of reason. This explains his mysterious comments. Jesus said to Pharisees (lawyers) and scribes (scholars), “Only those with ears can hear it.” In other words, he told them: “You may know dead letters well, but don’t have ear to hear the voice of the living faith.”

Myths and stories bind people emotionally and spiritually together and give them “(spiritual) ear to hear.” Some myths are fantastic stories of dragons, gods and heroes; wizards and witches. But Jesus told parables from ordinary life experience like bread, lost coins, robbers, lost sheep, seeds, father and son, vineyard owners and workers, and yeast.

Jesus’ parables appear only in three books in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, and Luke: mainly in Matthew and Luke. Mark, which provides the source material for the Matthew and Luke, is primarily interested in deeds of Jesus, while Matthew and Luke added another source material that provides Jesus’ words. Even in reporting the same Jesus’ parables, there are differences. It is no use to try to define the authentic original words of Jesus. The Gospels are not too interested in historical facts.

Also, though the first three Gospels are using the same source material, each of them has a specific message. Mark was targeting none-Jewish Christians, Matthew the Jewish Christians, and Luke for the people of the whole world. The writers freely interpreted the original source material and reported differently on purpose to suite their audience, like the notion of “poor” Matthew and Luke. Gospels are different because their readers were different, and the writers’ messages were different accordingly. Variation was intentional not mistake. Stories vary not by mistake but by design, because the situations where readers lived were different.

Exercise: PARABLE AS ALLEGORY : Take each character in the parable of “Good Samaritan” Luke 10 : 25-37, and ask, “When was I like a robber or a Levite (etc.) and how?”

End of the world?

Is the Book of Revelation the prediction of the End of the World?
– The answer is “no.” –

Admittedly, the last book of the Bible is very strange. Preachers like me try to avoid it. Fundamentalist Christians take it literally and preach a very dangerous message: “The world will end after a cataclysmic global war at Armageddon ( chapter 15 & 16). When that happens all the Jews will accept Jesus as Messiah and only the chosen few will go to heaven.” During the Cold War, many fundamentalists Christians took such scenario seriously. They predicted the apocalyptic global nuclear war that will end the world, as the Revelation prophesied. They also called natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis as God’s punishment on homosexuals.

However, if you read it like you read “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis or “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien, you will find there is nothing strange about the Book of Revelation. They are Christian literatures written about Christian faith by 20th Century Christian professors of Oxford University. John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” belongs to the same literally genre. They are written in symbolic language.

Unlike fundamentalist Christians, we must not take its prediction literally as the future fate of our world. The Revelation is an interpretation of the events unfolding in the Mediterranean world under the Roman Empire during the first Century. It suggests how Christians can read the signs of the times from the current affairs. The Revelation gave hope to those early Christians who were suffering terrible hardship.

When you study the history of the first Century Roman Empire, particularly under Emperor Nero, you will understand how the Christians saw the situation and described it in symbolic language, i.e. the empire as an ugly beast with seven heads. You must also be aware that in the Revelation events are not presented in a linear fashion. Events are not written sequentially. They are not necessarily related either. When you read the history of Roman Empire, such as Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of Roman Empire” and compare it with the Revelation, it is interesting to see how Christians interpreted the events happening around them.

Also you must recognize the fact that it was written in secret codes. The first three hundred years of the Christianity were dangerous time for the followers of Jesus Christ. Often it meant death when discovered, because Christians were seen as members of the fanatic religious sect founded by a treasonous agitator, a blaspheme, and a heretic; and incredibly an atheist. They were seen like today’s ISIS sympathizers. This is why many church leaders wrote their messages in coded language so that only Christians could decipher it. The one still current even today is the sign of a fish to symbolize “Jesus Christ.” Fish in Greek is ιχθνσ IXTHUS. The Christians saw those characters as the initials for “Jesus Christ Son of God – Iesus Christus Theos Fuios – IXTHUS.”

The Revelation is not the only example of such literal form in the Bible. The Hebrew people had had a long tradition of writing their dreams, messages, and visions in secret code when they lived in dangerous times. The Book of Daniel in the Old Testament was written in the same literal form. The writer of the Book of Daniel lived after Israel was defeated by the Babylonian Empire and the elite and the leadership were taken captive and exiled in a foreign country. Like the Revelation, the latter half of the Book of Daniel is a collection of strange images and visions. It is a coded document passed around among the Israeli prisoners and those who lived in exile.

The literal style of Revelation and Daniel is called “apocalypse” to mean the end of the world. Also some scholars claim that Mark’s Gospel chapter 13 takes the apocalyptic style. It is because it prophecies the end of an era. The Revelation is predicting the end of the Roman Empire, not the end of the world. Be that as it may, it’s supposed to hide the real message in secret language so that only people who know the code would hear its message.

Nobody knows who wrote the Revelation. It carries the name of John and follows the style of Greek language resembling that of the Gospel according to John and three letters which also carry the same name. It is impossible that they were written by Apostle John, he should have been more than a hundred years old had he written it. But there is a connection between those Johannine literatures. For one thing, their Greek language has common features; in fact it sounds like childish Greek written by a child in the grade two. As a first year seminary student, I began reading Greek with John’s Gospel: easy to read like baby-talk. Secondly whoever wrote them worked among the Christians who lived in the present day Turkey, Asia Minor. Letters to seven churches indicate the writer was familiar with those churches in present day Turkey. Whoever it was he must have belonged to the group began by Apostle John.

Let me list a few examples of coded words and numbers:

Angels – intermediary. Animal or beast – Roman Empire. Colour white also crown – victory. Eyes – knowledge. Horns – power. Lamb – Jesus Christ.

Often number do not mean mathematical numbers. They have meanings, often representing objects:

One – unity, 2 – union, 3 – completion, 6 – weakness, 7 – spiritual perfection, 8 – new birth, 12 – perfect government, 22 – light, 23 – death, 33 – promise, 200 – insufficiency, 7000 – final judgement, 144,000 – number of Jews.

The Revelation is a document in coded language, secretly passed around among the First Century Christians who lived in the present day Turkey. It is a commentary of the events unfolding around them, often suffering persecution by the Roman authorities. You must not read it literary. You must know the code. You must never try to apply its prediction to our situation. But we can admire the courage of those Christians who lived under such a severe situation without losing hope and were determined to keep their faith.

Four words for love

FOUR WORDS FOR LOVE
– Luke 15 and 1 Corinthians 13 –

Can you love someone you hate? Yes you can: love is complex. “In the world of four letter words, Care is short of Love, but just beyond Work.” (Anne Boyer, “Canadian Art” – 2018 Winter Issue.) You can not put a dynamic life force like love into the prison of mere one word. Jesus told parables and stories not theology. (Luke 15) Otherwise, he simply acted on it. When Jesus was asked what to do with the adulterous woman who stood in front of him, he just hunkered down, kept doodling on the ground, and did not say a word. (John 8: 1-11) Perhaps for us, art and music are better media to communicate love than mere words.

Although it is quoted as the “hymn for Love,” oddly the First Corinthians chapter 13 in the King James Version of the Bible does not speak about “love.” It says “charity” in its place. Why? In Greek lexicon, you will find at least four words for love. Three of them are in the New Testament. The Biblical scholars who worked under King James decided that “charity” was closer to the original Greek word “agapeh” meant to convey.

The fact that there are more-than-one word for love is a problem for English speakers, because love is so central to Christian teaching; there should be clear without any confusion. Lack of clarity due to short of the right word is the reason for ambivalence about love in our culture. Inhuman acts are committed in the name of love. I don’t think that the writers of the Bible were confused. They knew exactly what they were writing about; it’s why there are four words for love.

Forgive me writing Greek letters. I wanted to show how the four words looked different representing different concepts, though it is one word in English. They are agapeh – αγαπη, epithumia – επιθυμια, eros – ερwσ, and phileo – φιλεο. It shows the complexity of the most important value of the Christian faith. Perfect goodness is not simple: love is complex. But it is pure and simple in real life. This is why Jesus told parables to teach love. (Luke 15) This challenge is affecting our behaviours often resulting in the abuse of the word and deeds; like making selfish demand in the name of love. Maybe we should stop talking about love but live the life like the stories in the Bible.

English is not the only language with problems of “love” word. Sesotho, an African language for example, has the same problem: “lerato” means desire and love. However, Buddhism clearly distinguishes them with different words, desire is “bon’noh” and self-giving charity is “jihi.” The question is whether those four Greek words present irreconcilable difference or they are related and can grow into perfect goodness. Can selfish desire turn into selfless act of pure love? Can greed become generosity?

This is a challenge of translation. The Bible is the document written in Greek from the oral traditions originally spoken in Aramaic and Hebrew. All Bibles are translations. The Church in Rome translated it into Latin and called it “Vulgata” meaning it is a vulgar version

Every time a word is translated into another language, the scholars of languages have to choose the word closest in meaning to the original. There is none meaning the exactly the same as the original, because languages are the product of different cultures and histories.

So what is “love” according to the Bible? . The word in the Corinthians chapter 13 represents the perfect love, and it is “agapeh – αγαπη.” I suggest that we take the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians as the standard representing the true and godly love and evaluate other love words.

Let me begin with the most popular and yet often abused word. It represents erotic and/or romantic love. Εροσ – eros became so closely connected to sexuality that by the time New Testament was adopted as the authorized holy scriptures (Canon), it was banished from all church vocabulary. It was replaced by another Greek word, epithumia – επιθuμια. Greek philosophy defines ‘spirit’ good, and ‘physical body’ bad. This Greek dualism corrupted the Hebrew view of the body and spirit being one and the same.

I think this is unfortunate because in ancient Greece, circa 500 B.C., thinkers like Plato used the word eros to mean an irresistible impulse for beauty and perfection. Sex was only a tiny part. I think it is a pity that our natural yearning for beauty and perfection was so degraded in common understanding of the word. It is a source of ambivalence about our body and sexuality. All are God’s creation and good. (Genesis 1) Sexuality is godly. Jesus loved – epithumia to eat with disciples. (Luke 22:15) We have to remind ourselves that for Jewish mind there is no separation between mind/spirit and body. A healthy mind dwells in a healthy body. When a body ails, so does spirit.

Natural love in Greek is “phileo” as in “philo-sophy” (love of wisdom). Friendship, brotherly/ sisterly and parental love, all fall into this category. (Matthew 19:37) It is a natural emotional and often passionate love. It is also self-giving love. When you love your child, you would sacrifice yourself for the love of your child. But it is spontaneous and natural; has to be given up for higher purpose. (Matthew 10:37) Love your parents but you may have to stop loving them if such love prevents you to follow a higher goal. This is why you find puzzling sayings of Jesus like Matthew 10:37. John 21: 15-17 is interesting: Jesus asked Peter if he loved (phileo) the master. Peter said, “Yes, of course…” But that was not enough, Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” In other words,”You have to prove it with deeds.” Phileo must be elevated by action.

Lastly, agapeh. It is the godly love as in “Love your enemy.” It can be against natural instinct. (Matthew 5:43 – 48 and Luke 15) This is why Jesus uttered impossible to understand words like, “You can not be my disciple if you love your father, mother, brother, or sister.” (Matthew 10:37) Agapeh love and phileo love are two different things. You must love (agapeh) ones you don’t love (phileo). Jesus from the cross asked forgiveness of those mocking him, torturing him, and killing him?

The most chilling words I heard recently were victim impact statements in the trials of a murder and of a perpetrator of multiple rapes: “I hate you.” I totally understand that sentiment. I have such a problem with one man who murdered several friends in South Africa. Can you demand forgiveness from the families of victims of the Holocaust or from “Indian Residential School” survivors? We don’t quite understand the distinctions between different loves therefore can not agree to love enemies. The important question is: “Can one kind of love grow into another kind of love?” Can Eros become self-giving Phileo such as parental love? I suppose it is possible. From time to time, one hears of incredible grace of forgiveness – an example of true Agaphe: such as Nelson Mandela.

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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,

.

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.

 

 

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: FREEDOM FROM OURSELVES – FIRST SUNDAY OF OCTOBER

FREEDOM FROM OURSELVES

Exodus 20, Psalm 19

October 6, 1996 by Tad Mitsui

Today”s Scripture lesson introduces the Ten Commandments for the first time in the Bible. Unfortunately the laws that begin with "Thou shalt not" are not very popular nowadays, because they sound repressive and seem to stifle joy of life. It is important to remember, in this context, that it is not God, who are responsible for making the laws instruments of oppression. It is people who have abused the laws as a means to exercise power and exploit others. It was not God”s intent to make laws to oppress us. The law was a way of God to make us independent and free. God gave us laws as a way to free us from slavery. Let us take a look at the second commandment, "You shall not make yourself an idol." as an example.

No one worships a piece of stone or wood in this day and age, of course. But if you look carefully, you will be surprised how many people are still practice idol worship. When you interpret the idol as something that enslaves you, you will be surprised to realize how serious the power of idols is, keeping many people in slavery of one kind or another, even today.

An idol is something that should not dominate your life, but it can trap you like a few notes of melody that does not leave your head. Worse still, it can totally control your life. When that happens, this commandment snaps us out of such a nightmare and frees us. "Do not let anything that is below your dignity control your life." So what are some of the idols in our lives? Francis Bacon, a 16th Century English philosopher, made an interesting list of civilized people”s idols. It is not an exhaustive list, but it is a convenient list, as a starter for our reflection. He listed four idols, and called them the idols of "cave, theatre, market, and tribe."

First of all, the idol of the cave is created by people who can not see anything outside of their own life. In Japan, the same notion is found in an expression, "A frog who lives in a well." For that frog, a tiny little sky he sees from the bottom of the well is the whole of the outside world. The dark wet hole and a bit of water held in it are the whole world for him. He is trapped in the well, but he does not know that. Some of us can behave and think like that, when we do not see anything beyond what we know. By refusing to believe that what you see is all there is in the world, you become free to go beyond a little world of our own and discover a much wider world of God”s creation.

Secondly, the idol of theatre keeps us in bondage in a belief that whatever is entertaining and popular is absolute and must have its way. Women no longer suffer from corsets made of whale bones, but the same principles still keep them in bondage. What you wear must be must be in fashion and pleasing to look at. You are made to feel inferior, because you do not look like fashion models or because you only have the clothes you bought five years ago. It does not matter even if they are very comfortable to wear. The same principles ensnare men, also. When you believe in the idol of theatre, everything you do and say must be pleasing and acceptable to others, no matter how wrong it is. You completely lose your own creativity and identity in order to be acceptable and pleasing to others.

Thirdly, the idol of the market makes you believe that the life is about money and profit and nothing else. If there is no bucks at the end, you feel that you life is wasted. Of course, market place and the bottom line are important components of our life. They provide the means of exchange of material goods that are essential for our survival. But some people have made money and profit their ultimate goals of life. They even made God as the servant of the bottom line. They lose faith in God when they fail to make money. We must remember that we can be free of obsession with cash. There are many people who have managed to be freed from the idol of market place, and have found the way to live a contented life despite modest financial achievement.

Finally, the idol of tribe makes you reject people outside of a little world of your own. We believe that our family, community, and our country are often the very reason for our existence. Our language, our culture, traditions, food, and even idiosyncrasies are the essence of our identity. They are very important, for sure. But some people take those things too seriously and do not accept others who are different, and deny the legitimacy of their ways of living. Then you are limiting your life to a small world of a cave where your own kind live, not only that you are being unjust to those people who may be different from you. Those who believe in the idol of the tribe believe in it absolutely. Therefore, they don”t recognize that other people also are the children of God and have rights to live according to their ways of life. This idol worship is often exercised in a form of racism. And we must know that such belief and practice are an insult to God”s creation. Besides, it”s fun to taste foreign food and dance to a different music sometimes.

I hope that now you know why the prohibition of idol worship is freeing not restricting. It is a means of love of God to free us and make us independent. The most basic principle of our life according to our belief in God of Jesus Christ is love; love of God and love of our neighbours. All the laws must help us to love and to free us from the arbitrary measures that exploit us and repress us. If any human laws and rules enslave us and oppress us, remember that our Lord Jesus gave us freedom from such laws by becoming an outlaw himself. It cost him his life. The symbolic meal which we share today is the reminder of that defiance of love.

B: HORRIBLE AND WONDERFUL BIRTHING – SECOND SUNDAY OF NOVEMEBR

HORRIBLE AND WONDERFUL BIRTHING

I Samuel 1:4-20, Psalm 16, Mark 13:1-8

November 16, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

I learned the language living among the villagers for six months and lived in an old abandoned Mission station, in the mountains of South Africa. There was a cemetery for missionaries in the compound. There were many graves of babies, who died during the first year of their lives, and of mothers who died while giving births. One French missionary lost one infant every year and in the fifth year he lost his wife and the child. It made me realize how horrible birthing used to be only a century ago. Times are definitely better today for expectant mothers and new born babies. Though birth meant a big risk for women and children, it was always seen as a harbinger of great blessing. According to Mark”s Gospel, Jesus forbid us to despair, even as he predicted terrible disasters, "because they are only the beginning of birth pang."

When Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple, he meant more than a mere demolition of a nice big building. It is historically correct that the temple in Jerusalem was totally razed to the ground in 65 A.D. when the Romans crushed the last Jewish rebellion. But it meant more than a loss of a temple. It signalled a loss of the soul of a nation. The spiritual traditions and values of the Hebrew nation lay in the ruins. Times are likewise hard for us, because of changing values. What many people used to respect do not mean very much for them any more. Many people don”t go to church. Sex is a casual entertainment. The pattern of the family life is changing. People do not respect the institutions any more; they distrust people in the Government and the police . The mail services are no more sure things. Market is volatile. There are still earthquakes, floods, epidemics of deadly diseases, and wars. But those disasters are not as serious threats as they used to be, because we are more confident that they can be overcome someday in the advanced civilization. But when the values you used to hold dear seem discarded, you have lost the foundation of your life. You don”t know where you stand any more. That is hard.

We suffer from loss of jobs or money, because in our system it means loss of dignity and security. This is because our operating values are for the individualistic society. In a collective society, security comes from a sense of being connected with the family and community. Old people who have no financial security do not suffer in such a society. In the traditional African or Asian communities, for example, families and communities look after the elderly. The older people keep their dignity because they know they are respected. On the other hand, being dispossessed by the family or community means death in such a society.

I had my first spiritual crisis, when I found a stack of years of my letters to Santa Claus in the bottom drawer of my father”s desk. This confirmed my doubt about existence of the jolly old man in the funny red outfit. That did not bother me, because I was right after all. But, a sense of betrayal, "My dad has been lying to me all these years." was a real shock. Thus, a rebel was born. You may find this a cute little story. But when it comes to a serious attempt to challenge other people”s culture and values, it is no longer a laughing matter. When you deny someone”s customs, language and spiritual values, you reject the existence of that person. You are saying to another person, "You are not good enough. You have to become someone else." As an English speaking people in Quebec, you understand how difficult that is. But we must come to terms face to face with such hurt and pain, and grow. Then, you will appreciate a crisis as a catalyst.

We know how difficult changes are, just like loss of your home, your church, or your money and property. Earthquakes, fire, flood, and economy cause those losses. Conflicts and wars also destroy and kill. But they are much worse because they divide friends and cause hatred among brothers and sisters. Destruction of the temple is a metaphor for the change in the value system, which is more serious than any material and physical change. even then Jesus still says, "Do not despair." They are but birth pains.

After many years of infertility and humiliation, Hannah at last became pregnant and bore a son. She was so very happy. Even with a possible social stigma as an unmarried mother, when Mary was informed that she was pregnant, she was happy. How can such horrible experiences of pregnancy and birthing be so wonderful? Birthing is horrible but wonderful, because it is not just an experience of sickly symptoms and pain. It means not just a change, but it means life is being transformed. When a fetus begins to give a sickly sensation or kicks the stomach from inside, it signals transformation of a woman into a mother. A carefree woman becomes a caregiver who is totally responsible for another life. You are utterly changed into another category of human being. This is not just a change. It is called transformation. It is like a larva changing into a butterfly. When a change is transformative, pain that accompanies it is like birth pain. You can anticipate a joyful conclusion at the end of a birth channel.

Change is a crisis. But transformative change is a creative crisis. A matured person can turn a crisis into an opportunity. You think that security is found on a solid ground. That is not so. Life is fluid. Life is like a river. You can not stay on one spot in a river. The art of living is not knowing ”how to stay put”. An art of living is knowing how to navigate a current, that could be slow and easy; or could be rapid and dangerous. Life is about taking up a change and turning it into a creative transformative process.

The Gospel according to Mark was written in a Roman prison. Mark was waiting to be executed. Remember, at that time, merely being a Christian was a capital crime. Peter and Paul, and many other Apostles had already been executed. Seeing that many people who knew Jesus personally were dying, Mark felt that he had to write the life and sayings of Jesus Christ before he himself was killed. He hoped that the succeeding generations could read about Jesus after those who had known Jesus were long gone. Mark wrote his Gospel in such a desperately critical situation. Is it a book of despair? On the contrary, Mark knew that all that suffering was a passing phase. He was not in despair.

This is how Mark remembered Jesus speaking about birth pang. A mother knows how horribly painful but wonderful experience to give birth, just like Hannah who gave birth to Samuel, and Mary who gave birth to our Lord. Jesus came to introduce new values. They upset the Jews and Romans alike. That”s why they persecuted the followers of Jesus. But Christ”s kingdom was beginning its journey in the birth channel of the world. Mark knew that.

 

 

 

A: THREE STRIKES AGAINST JESUS – LENT3

THREE STRIKES AGAINST JESUS

Romans 5: 1-11, Psalm 95, John 4:1-42

We don”t quite understand why the disciples were so shocked to find their master with a Samaritan woman by Jacob”s well, as it is described in the today”s Gospel. John said that the disciples were so astonished when they found who was with Jesus. They were too embarrassed to ask a question. Jesus must have had a knack of doing things wrong. He angered, annoyed, astonished, and disgusted many people. This is why the leadership of society, and even the public who used to follow him, demanded his death after only a few years in his ministry. And this episode in Samaria epitomizes Jesus” ministry that drove him to the death on the cross. It must have been pretty shocking incident. As far as I could gather, Jesus made three big mistakes.

The first mistake was that he spoke to an unaccompanied woman in public. She was a stranger, too. That was a very serious breach of etiquette. According to the custom of the time, no man is permitted to speak to an unaccompanied woman in public, unless she was his daughter or wife. This still is the case in many cultures even today. Worse still, Jesus asked for a drink of water. You can do it only in an intimate relationship. You don”t do that even today, unless you know the person well. According to the custom of the time, you might be permitted to ask a stranger for water. But you must bring your own container. Jesus had none. The woman said, "But sir, you don”t even have a bucket." She would have had to offer it to him with her own bucket. This could happen only between intimate friends or between family members. If you ask for a cup of water without your own cup, your are asking for relationship. And they had never met before. So you know how an outrageous act that was.

So the woman was surprised. But she did not run away, because she was a woman of experience with men. Anyhow, she was a Samaritan woman. That was the second strike against Jesus. It was a serious breach of Jewish customs. Samaritans had been despised and loathed by the Jews for nearly one thousand years. People even took long detour to avoid travelling through Samaria. Samaritans were an artificially created nation. King of Assyria defeated Kingdom of Israel in 900 B.C., drove the people out of Samaria, and like deportation of criminals to Australia, forced massive immigration from five different nations. They eventually intermarried and became a nation of mixed blood people. The king of Assyria did this out of spite to humiliate the Jews.

The Jews considered the Samaritans to be not only bastards but also pagans who desecrated the Hebrew religion. Samaritans brought in a Jewish priest to learn about the religion of the land they inherited. But they ended up mixing the Hebrew religion with their own and created a hybrid religion. So Jewish people at the time of Jesus despised and deeply hated the Samaritans for a religious reason, also. Jesus not only spoke to an unaccompanied stranger woman, but also to a Samaritan woman. A disgusting thing to do.

Thirdly, this Samaritan woman was a person of ill repute. She had five husbands, and currently was living with a man but not married to him. Jesus did not hesitate to be friends with women of ill repute, even with prostitutes. They were eager to learn the truth about God and spiritual life. He did not discriminate people who followed him. That was bad enough for his reputation. But this woman was a Samaritan. He had gone too far. I would be reluctant to be seen in a company of certain kind of people, especially discussing an intimate subject like history of sexual relationships.

What is interesting is the fact that nobody asked whether her misfortunes in her married life were because of her failings or were they due to circumstances beyond her control. But it was assumed that her many failed marriages indicated that she was not a good woman. Isn”t it possible that she was simply unlucky? She might have been widowed a few times. And yet, she was ostracised in society. She had to come to the well in the heat of the day – noon. Noone wants to go outside in the middle of the day in the Middle East, when the Sun is too hot. Temperature could be more than 100 degree F. Besides, it was a common custom in many cultures for women to socialize and to exchange useful information as well as gossips at the well or by the river. It was a good time for women. Why would this Samaritan woman come to the well at noon, when nobody was around? There must have been some serious reasons why she had to avoid more comfortable part of the day and pleasant company of friends. It was all because of her unfortunate marital past, which might not have been her fault at all.

It is the same with the status of the Samaritans. The origin of the Samaritan nation might have been a shameful event for the Jews. But that was not the fault of the Samaritans. Samaritans did not cause such an abnormal beginning. They did not even exist when such disgrace was forced upon the nation of Israel. The Samaritans were also the victims.

We have an appalling tendency to blame the victims rather than the perpetrators. We blame the poor and say it is their fault that they are poor. We blame the victim of sexual violence and say she must have been insolent. It is like beating your baby for not stop crying at night, only to discover that the child was in a terrible pain because of a broken bone. Jesus could see injustice in such treatment of victims. He did not hesitate to have a conversation with a Samaritan divorced woman. Jesus saw that she happened to be a person of profound spiritual insight. Jesus did not discriminate in the choice of his followers and friends. He did not see the labels on people, but saw spiritual quality in them.

You see, what Jesus said in the beginning of their conversation was enigmatic, if not totally puzzling. He spoke about living water. He said that it would make people never to thirst again. The woman was sceptical. She was not convinced until Jesus switched the subject of conversation to her personal life. He guessed about her failed married life. Then she immediately realized that this man was not teasing her or making a pass at her. It is to her great credit that she recognized Jesus as the Messiah, the one who would bring salvation. It showed that she was a person of some spiritual depth. Also it is, of course, due to Jesus” extraordinary spiritual capacity to recognize that, beyond a appalling reputation in society, this Samaritan woman had a inner gift of understanding in the spiritual matters.

For Jesus Christ, the labels on people had no meaning. A woman, a pagan, a half breed, a loose woman, all these were just the labels, some of which might have been false. Even the religious questions, such as whether to worship God in the Samaritan mountains or in the temple in Jerusalem, whether you kneel or stand to pray, or you are Catholic, Presbyterian, Muslims, Jews, or United Church; those are questions about labels and often are meaningless distinctions as far as God is concerned. He spoke about worshipping God in truth and spirit. He was not interested in discussing the difference between Jewish religion and Samaritan beliefs. He was only interested in salvation of all people.

This is why Jesus was a very disturbing element for those people, for whom religious differences, national distinctions, and social statuses were more important than God. This is why the ministry of Jesus had three strikes against him, in this story of Jesus and a Samaritan woman. Because some people are more concerned about keeping out other people, in order to preserve the purity of institutions. In the same token, we can say that the suffering and death of our Lord are the signs of his integrity and of his uncompromising love. He did not allow superficial labelling interfere with the matter concerning salvation of people. Jesus loves, and is ready to die again and again for us because he does not stop loving.

A: LIFE IS NOT ABOUT REACHING A GOAL – FOURTH SUNDAY OF OCTOBER

LIFE IS NOT ABOUT REACHING A GOAL

Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90, Matthew 22:34-46

October 24, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

In April, 1994, many South Africans, for the first time in their life, cast ballots to elect their government. It was a hard won freedom. They were so happy that their dream came true after decades of struggle. I witnessed this historical event with my own eyes as a member of the International Election Observer Team. When the voting day actually came, many people went to the polling stations very early, even the night before. There was a mile long queue everywhere. There was an old man who was so frail that he had to be carried to the poll. He was determined to exercise his right for the first time. He had to wait in the hot Sun for his turn to vote. By the time he reached the door, he died. He was completely exhausted. But people around him said that it probably didn”t really matter to him. His life time dream came true, and was actually lining up to vote. He died a happiest man.

Moses, too, died before his people entered the Promised Land. Some people interpret that as the price he had to pay for his mistakes, and God did not allow him in the land of milk and honey. I don”t accept that interpretation. Moses was happy and contend when he died, just like the old man in South Africa who died before he could vote. Life long dream was about to be realized for both men. Moses gave up his life as the Prince of Egypt to help his own people win their freedom. He wandered about the desert for forty years with people. Despite their never ending grumbling and repeated betrayals, he never gave up. He stayed faithful to people, and helped them to realize their dream, because God was always faithful to him.

Many people think that reaching the goals is very important and ignore the quality of life. Often personal life suffers in the process of reaching the goals. But they think that the goals are worth the sacrifice. They say, "His marriage fell apart, but he was a success." Or "He is not a nice man, but he is a self made billionaire." According to this view, reaching the goal is what life is all about. There is, however, another way of looking at life. I call it a quality oriented view of life. According to this view, the quality of personal life in the process of reaching the goal is as important, if not more, as the goal itself. The relationships with others determine the quality of life. Moses had had good quality of life, as he lived with God. This is why for him dying before entering into the Land of Milk and Honey was not a failure. He saw the promise almost came true, while he and God had wonderful forty years working together. For Moses that was enough. He died happy.

I once lived in a country where people valued the quality of life as much as the goals. In the beginning, this attitude used to drive me crazy. For example, when you go to see someone but he or she is not there, they always say, "He will come back very soon." The expression they use often in such a situation is "Hona joale", literally meaning "right now." Basotho people always say things positively not to discourage you. While you wait, you strike a nice conversation with the host. But the person you want to see doesn”t come. "Right now" becomes one hour, and you ask, "Are you sure he is coming soon?" The host looks a little hurt. "I told you he is coming very soon. Didn”t I? Don”t you trust me?" You may have to wait all morning, even all day. But he is still coming very soon, as far as your host is concerned. In the meanwhile, you are having a grand time enjoying the company of your host. As far as the host is concerned, time is well spent. We have had a good quality of life.

Moses had his moments with Hebrew people. They grumbled at every time they ran into a crisis. They even tried to kill Moses accusing him of leading them astray. They were often unfaithful to God. What kept him going was God”s faithfulness. God never betrayed Moses. Moses” life was complete, in his belief that I was living and working with God.

Our culture sees the value of reaching the goal a little bit too much. We have grown to expect a happy ending of any story, "And they lived happily ever after." It would be nice if it is like that. But we know it isn”t like that. Often a real trouble starts when you think you have reached a happy ending. Marriage with your love does not give you a paradise. It is often a beginning of the real struggle in relationship. You have to work harder for the quality of the relationship after the wedding. Otherwise, marriage can be a beginning of hell. Wealth is the same. How many troubles start with wealth or in the process of earning a fortune? Power, fame, and possessions can be the goals which many people strive for. But if you forget that the quality of life in the process is as important as the goal itself, you will see life only as a succession of failures. A goal is only a door into the next stage of your life. This is why there are so much unhappiness in the midst of wealth. We must know that nobody lives happily ever after without paying attention to the quality of life.

Setting goals is important for sure. They punctuate your life, and give you chance to celebrate your life and to thank God for his love. But reaching the goals are not what life is all about. What counts as you proceed is the quality of your relationship with other people and with God. In my first Pastoral Charge in Vancouver, there was a couple who succeeded in having a first child at last in their mid-forties. But the child had a defective heart. They rearranged their whole life, with mother and the child moving to the city where all the best medical facilities were available, while father stayed in Prince George where he worked. But the child died after three years. I had no word to say in such an utterly tragic situation. But in tears, she said she was grateful that God granted her such a privilege to have one”s own child. You may have to move on to the next stage even without reaching the goal. But the most important at such a moment is the quality of your spiritual life – your life with God.

 

 

 

 

 

B: FRUITS OF WISDOM – Third Sunday of August

Fruits of Wisdom

1 Kings 3:3b – 13,16-28, Psalm 111(VU833

1 Cor 3:18 – 19, 4:10

August 20, 2006 at Southminster United Church

by Tad Mitsui

One car was seen going around and round the block. A man working in the garden asked if he could help. He said, "No. I know where I’m going. There is a gas station selling the cheapest gas around. It’s just that a little bit of gas is still in the tank, you see. I want to fill it up."

Often, very smart people do very stupid things. Truly wise people know they do stupid things sometimes. King Solomon, who was considered to be the wisest king ever existed in Israel, knew that there was a limit to human intellgence. This is why he wrote the most bleak literature in the Bible. He believed that those who might be very wise and successful, could still be deficient.

Solomon was the most successful king of all times, not only in Israel but also among all kings and leaders. 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, and politically. But most importantly, he was known for his wisdom. When he became a king, he first asked God for wisdom and nothing else. He was not only a successful king, but he was also a wise king, as the story in today”s lesson shows.

In fact, many of so-called "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 many 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 earthy and funny. For example, in Proverbs there are sayings like: "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 ended up being sceptical about his achievements. Because he was wise, he was able to realize how limited humans 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 and pessimistic?

A Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy made the same point, in one story. The story goes like this: there was a man who was told that he could get all the land he wanted provided he could go around it on foot in one day. So, at dawn, he started to run. By late afternoon, of course, he could not go on any more. He was absolutely worn out. But with incredible 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 in the west. But he died of exhaustion right after the Sunset. In the end, all the land he acquired for free was a piece of land with a size of 3 by 6 feet, where was buried. Now then, the question is: is all we do in this life is 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 don”t think that is what King Solomon was saying. For one thing, he tried his best to be a good king, for people and for the country. And he was a good king and a wise one, too. His country benefited from his wisdom and achievements. But because he tried so hard, he realized that all humans 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, much more, to make life worthwhile. Solomon in toward the end of the Ecclesiastes, said, "Remember your creator in the days of your youth.", as though to say, "whatever you do, you do it with God in mind from the beginning." 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, once 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 and do not use their minds, turn their religions into superstitions.

The first article of faith in the Christian teaching is "God is love." Therefore to honour God is to love others. 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 stupid person ever lived on the earth. It is because he died in order to love people. 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

B: THEY TALK BUT DO NOT COMMUNICATE – FOURTH SUNDAY OF NOVEMBER

THEY TALKED BUT DID NOT COMMUNICATE

II Samuel 23:1-7, Psalm 121, John 18:33-38

November 23, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

One mischievous man went to a wedding and approached the reception line. The bride”s mother had a permanently fixed smile on her face. Smiling as well, he said to her as he shook her hand, "My mother died yesterday." She said, "Oh, that”s nice. Thank you." Nobody listen to others at a party, especially at a wedding. So, people don”t hear you if you suddenly introduce a notion which comes from a different situation. It is as though you are speaking in a foreign language. Communication breaks down when two persons are speaking from two different sets of circumstances. Parents and teenage children, for example, often do not live in the same world. So teenagers can not see how parents can ever understand their lives. Most of you have heard this conversation before! "Where are you going?" "Out." "What are you going to do?" "Nothing."

The interrogation that Pilate conducted before he condemned Jesus to death was a bizarre encounter. Even though they were talking about the same thing, they were not communicating. Jesus and Pilate were facing each other in the same room and were trying to focus on the same subject of whether Jesus was a king, but their minds were in two different worlds. A similar situation happens in our lives, too, maybe too often.

When Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?", He was using the word "king" as it was understood in the Roman Empire. The notion of "king" has to do with control, territories, and power. How much power a king had depended on the size of the land he controlled. In the territory he controlled, he had absolute power. The life and death of many were in his hand. The king had armies to enforce his authority. He lived in a palace, had many servants, and wore nice clothes. That was what Pilate had in mind when he used the word "king".

The Jewish religious leaders, on the other hand, used the word "king" for Jesus to provoke the wrath of the Roman governor. They were angry about the title people began to give to Jesus. People began to call Jesus, the "Messiah" which is the word reserved for the second coming of King David. The leaders believed that only they could decide when the Messiah had arrived. Jesus began to be a threat to their authority and power. They hoped that Pilate would eliminate Jesus for being a threat to the Roman Empire. That would fit their purpose just fine, if the Roman authorities got rid of Jesus. If people got angry, they could always blame the Romans.

Pilate did not take the bait immediately, because Jesus, who was standing before him, did not fit his image of a king. Jesus had no army, nor land, nor even decent clothes. He dressed like a peasant. At most, he looked like a leader of a band of crazy religious fanatics. How could such a pathetic figure be a threat to the mighty Roman Empire? Pilate had no idea that the influence of this man he saw as a travesty of a king would eventually overwhelm the whole empire.

Jesus was indeed handed over to the soldiers and crucified in the end. But his followers never stopped speaking about him, and continued to live according to his teaching. They had the strength to do this, because they believed that Jesus defeated the power of death, and was still living with them and guiding them. Their faith meant that their numbers increased rapidly. This was amazing, because during the first three centuries, it was illegal to be a Christian. The penalty was death. Jesus was a presence in their lives that continued to inspire courage and loyalty. He did not need the trappings of power. His apparent powerlessness was the sign of real power. This power remained so strong that even his death on the cross did not deter his followers.

When Pilate asked Jesus if he was the king of the Jews, he replied in a question. "Who said that I was the king?" He needed to know what kind of situation had led Pilate to ask such a question. We must also learn to do the same thing more often in our lives. We answer questions too quickly. If you don”t know what lies behind the question, you may be giving a completely wrong answer. When a child comes to you when you are busy with a thousand other things to do and ask you too many questions, probably the child is not interested in your answers. He is asking you to, "Please pay attention to me. Please show me that you care about me."

When Jesus asked Pilate, "Who asked you to ask me that question?" Pilate said, "I am not a Jew. It was your leaders who told me." It was clear to Pilate, that Jesus was not his problem. He was just a nuisance. He was ready to release Jesus, but also just as easily he was ready to execute him. Obviously, Pilate didn”t care. Justice and truth were not his concern. He didn”t care whether his judgement was just or unjust, so long as it was effective. Pilate had shown the true nature of his worldly kingdom. He murdered the true king, and made the corrupt leaders happy.

Jesus said, "My kingdom does not from this world; it comes from truth." Of course, Pilate didn”t understand that. So he asked, "Truth?" What do you mean by truth?" Truth had nothing to do with politics. You lie, cheat, and kill to get more territories and power. So the conversation between Jesus and Pilate stopped there. Truth was not in Pilate”s vocabulary. God”s kingdom, on the other hand, is bound by affection, allegiance, commitment, and loyalty. No truth survives without those qualities. You can be truthful if you truly love. You are a Christian no matter where you are, so long as you are faithful to God through Jesus Christ. Likewise, a country is bound by spiritual qualities like love, loyalty, and trust. You are a true Canadian no matter where you are, so long as you love this land and its people. The Roman Empire and many empires fell to ruins because they did not understand how loyalty and love were part of the language of heart. They thought that the army could threaten citizens and conquered people into being loyal. But a true leader rules with love and truthfulness. It is tragic that Pilate didn”t understand that. It is tragic that many politicians do not understand that.

We believe that Jesus Christ is the King of Kings, who is the model for all leaders. Jesus had no land, no army, nor fancy clothes, nor money. But he had the most important qualities for a leader; abundant love and absolute truthfulness. We believe that these same qualities work within our family, our community, our church, and our country. It is our responsibility as Christians to communicate that to the world. We risk being misunderstood as Jesus was. But it is only through our witness that the Messiah can be proclaimed as King, once more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

B: A COSTLY BLESSING – ADVENT 4

Luke 1:26-38, Luke 1:47-55

In order to learn the language in Africa, I lived in an isolated mission which was two hundred years old.  It was a compound of about ten acres, with a bush, a vegetable garden, a spring, a cemetery, and a huge house made of mud and cow dung.   Looking at the grave stones in the cemetery, I often wondered how missionary families survived in the last century.  Many children were buried there.  Infants died before they reached their first birthdays, with quite a few dying at birth.  The life of the missionaries must have been hard.  I can”t begin to imagine how hard it must have been for women to go through the pain and suffering of giving birth and then seeing many of their children die.
 
My knowledge of child birth is from watching TV programs and films.  My daughter was born at the time when fathers were not allowed in the birthing room.  It all looks and sounds so painful.  I don”t like pain.  This is why it is hard for me to understand how any woman would be willing to give birth even in civilized conditions.  And yet, birth happens all the time, billions of times.  Without women”s acceptance of their painful role in procreation, our species should have been extinct a long time ago.  I sometimes wonder how women can accept child birth as a blessing.  If it is, and I am sure they think it is, it is a costly blessing.  The story of Annunciation is about a costly blessing and about Mary”s huge faith in God”s plan which she largely did not get to see realized in her life time.

When Mary received the news about her pregnancy, the angel Gabriel said to her, "God is giving you a big favour.  You will bear a child.  He will be great and called Son of God."  But Mary never sounded convinced that she was hearing good news.  "How can this be?  It can”t be true."  She said.  You realize that she was only a teenager of maybe 15 or 16.  But I don”t think she was completely gullible despite her age.  She must have known the fate that awaited a pregnant unmarried girl.  It was not just the hazards and pain of child birth.  At best, it could mean being cast out from the community for being a loose woman, or, at worst, death by stoning as an adulterer, which was the sentence for a woman who became pregnant outside of marriage.  Mary was right.  How can this be a blessing?  It sounded more like a curse than a blessing.

Her fiancé, Joseph, saved her from this cruel fate.  Without his incredible graciousness in accepting Mary”s claim, we would not have Christmas.  He believed a message he heard in a dream as God”s words.  He wanted to believe in God, because he loved Mary so much.  He swallowed his pride, and accepted Mary”s story and her faith in God.  Christmas is a story of love.  It is a story of the faith of a man in a woman, of a man who decided to believe an impossible story because he loved her dearly.  Today, if we heard a teenage girl say just like Mary, "God made me pregnant," we would probably ridicule her for being gullible and stupid, if not downright insane.  The story of Joseph is another miracle of Christmas.  It is also a story of a brave young girl who accepted as a blessing what looked like a curse.  She believed in God”s plans, although she didn”t understand what it was all about.  Mary believed what she heard and accepted the fate that awaited her and her son.  "I am a servant of the Lord; may it happen to me as you have said," she said.

The Annunciation is the beginning of a story of a costly blessing.  Mary”s life with Jesus was mostly the story of a mother”s suffering.  She was distressed many times as Jesus outgrew Mary”s capacity to understand.  Her son said many outrageous things in public, offended and angered many important people.  She didn”t understand him.  She tried to take him home, because she was so afraid of her son”s safety.  One time, she even thought that her son had become insane.  She was very happy, when her son became a popular healer and preacher.  Thousands followed him everywhere.  But the good time was short lived.  He was soon arrested, publicly humiliated, and died an excruciatingly cruel death on a cross.  What an ordeal for a mother!  How could such a son”s life be a blessing for mother?

But Mary was a mother.  Mothers understand the costliness of blessings, because they live through the pain of birth.  Though there weren”t many visible rewards for Mary in her life time, the annunciation became a blessing, nevertheless, because of her faith.  She never knew that her son would be adored and worshipped so universally two thousand years later.  She only knew for a few years the small daily joys of watching her child grow.  She had never imagined that she would be admired for her courage and faith, in the arts and music, and named in some faith traditions as the "Mother of God."  Her faith gave birth to a blessing for all of us.  Thank God for Mary and Joseph, and their faith in each other and in God, which made Christmas possible.

C: IS GOD ALWAYS ON OUR SIDE? – BAPTISM OF LORD, THIRD SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS

Isaiah 42:1-9,
Psalm 27,
Acts 10:34-43

We just saw in Asia the worst natural disaster in known history.  Outpouring of generosity and support for the victims is truly admirable.  I am proud to be Canadians. But we must go further led by today’s scripture lessons.  We must remind ourselves that conflicts between peoples kill, by far, much more people than natural disasters.  For example, one bomb dropped in Hiroshima during the second world war killed 200,000 in a split second – more people than the total number of dead victims of the recent Tsunami.  The second world war killed tens of millions of people in mere four years.  We have to ask ourselves if the question of who is right and who is wrong is so important that so many people must be killed?

We are all different just like each of our faces are different.  So, if you think you are always right and others are always wrong, you will be the cause of conflicts and the menace to the world.  We all wish that other people would accept our ways, but they don”t.  We will not be able to live with other people, if all of us insist that “only my way is the right way.”  All of us eventually have to compromise in order to live in harmony.  Only immature people can not learn to compromise and do not accept other people’s ways.

We just lived through the most destructive century of conflicts in history.  And we continue to live in dangerous times, because we still don’t know how to live with differences.  The human race made amazing advances in science and technology.  But we also committed incredible acts of stupid self-destruction, because technology made the result of violent conflicts catastrophic.  The two great wars in the 20th century were the bloodiest and the most murderous in human history because of advanced weapons.  Millions since have been killed in Africa, Asia, Balkans, and Middle East.  All sides of conflicts believed that God was on their side.  Today the main cause of conflicts is three religions which believe in one God of Abraham, and follow the same book – the Old Testament.  Many Christians, Jews, and Muslims kill each other because of the difference in interpretation of the Bible.  Many think that Muslim terrorists are trying to kill Christians.  Many Muslims think that the war in Iraq is the new Christian crusade against Islam.  Some Jews believe that Arab Muslims are trying to destroy their country. 
The scripture lesson from the Acts records a sermon Peter preached in the Palestinian city of Caesarea.  Simon Peter spoke about Jesus to a group of people who were not Jews.  He baptized them right there after the sermon.  This event was a shocking event because Peter went into a house full of non-Jews and ate with them.  In those days, Jews were not permitted to eat with non-Jews because they were considered to be unclean.  The early church always met for meals, which later became our Communion Service.  Furthermore, Peter baptized those so-called unclean people without first making them Jews through circumcision.  By this action, Peter made it clear that the Jesus movement was a new religion.  Peter indicated that everybody was welcomed as soon as he/she accepted the teaching of the church.

It was unacceptable to the first generation of Christians because they didn’t believe that Jesus started a new religion.  They thought that the way of Jesus was a reform movement of Judaism.  But Peter declared that Christianity was a new religion.  Many people could not accept this.  So the church was split.  There was a faction based in Jerusalem, who still insisted that non-Jews had to be circumcised and become Jews before Baptism.  Peter believed that the church was open to all people as they were.

The conflict ended when the Church in Jerusalem disappeared.  But the other churches, which opened up their doors to all people, continued.   Peter didn’t ask "Is God on our side?" but asked "Are we on God”s side?"  Are we ready also to compromise for the sake of harmony and peace?  That is the most important question.  Those Christians who  followed Peter were Egyptians, Ethiopians, Jews, Romans, Greeks, and many other nationalities.  They were willing to give up what they held dear and compromise.  We must also be ready to give up something in order to follow what is real and true.  We should do the same between husbands and wives, between friends and co-workers too.  We must ask, “What can we do to resolve the difference?” not “I’m right, and you’re wrong.”

The three wise men who came to worship baby Jesus were astrologers – star gazers.  They didn’t know the Bible nor did they worshipped God of Abraham.  But they gave up everything and travelled in search of truth.  God led them to find the new born baby.  God will lead anyone to the truth if they earnestly seek to find it.  So, the question is:  "Are we ready to give up our ways, and follow God?" 

Whenever we run into a conflict situation, let us not think of my way or their way.  But let us think of God’s way not so much the way to win others over to our side, but of the way to find God’s way together.

A: HE IS NOT HERE – EASTER

HE IS NOT HERE

Matthew 28:1-15

Tad Mitsui, Easter, 1996

One day, I ran into a crowd of people who were watching a dead person being dragged out of the water. It was a long time ago. I was on the way home from school. At first, I was afraid to look. But curiosity got the better of me, and I joined the crowd of spectators. It was not a pretty sight. Suddenly there was a shriek. A woman was running down the river bank. She grabbed the body and hugged the lifeless figure, while she cried aloud. She could have been the mother, or maybe the wife. Whoever it was, it was obvious that the drowned person was someone special to her. I felt ashamed, watching this tragedy as though it was a spectacle. For those who did not know the man, it was just another dead body. But for the woman who loved him, it was an entirely different experience. It was the body of a person she loved, from whom separation was an impossible nightmare.

We can not understand resurrection, unless we love someone dearly. We can not understand resurrection unless we know that there is difference between the spiritual body and the mere physical body. We can not believe in resurrection, if we think that we are just flesh on some bones. But when we recognize spiritual elements of our existence as reality, we will be transformed into another being. When I became a father, for example, it was a spiritual experience. When I saw my daughter for the first time, she honestly looked to me like an ugly lump of flesh. But soon a something hit me inside. The realization engulfed me; it was my own child. That same lump of flesh was transformed into a being with an entirely different significance. She had become someone who would always remain an integral part of my being and for whose safety I would even exchange my life.

When we speak about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are speaking about this special aspect of life, which turns a mere physical entity into a precious being with infinite significance. When two women, both called Mary, came to the tomb to put spice and ointment on Christ”s body, they found it empty. An angel told them that Jesus was not there. He had risen and went to Galilee. The angel also told them that there was no use looking for the living person among the dead.

When you love someone, there is an added dimension to the physical body of the one you love. That extra dimension goes beyond this visible world. When someone you love dies, for you, this person changes appearance. It is difficult to adjust to the new manifestation, because your love has been attached to the physical body you became familiar with. But soon you will know that a spiritual existence lives on, even though it is not visible in this world. Even if your memory fades, spiritual life goes on in God”s love. This is how we believe in eternal life. Eternal life is the life that lives on in the realm of God”s loving care. Science says that there is no evidence to prove that there is spiritual reality, and that life goes on in another form. It does not matter what science says, because science deals only with the physical aspects of this visible world. We know that there is a lot more to our existence beyond the mere touchable and visible reality.

So if you look for loved ones only in this visible world, there is no end to grief. The angel said to the women at the tomb, "He is not here. He went to Galilee." In other words, there is no use looking for the living person in this perishable world. He went ahead of you to your home in Galilee. Some students of the Bible suggest that Galilee traditionally meant a frontier, beyond which there is an unknown territory. It was not the known world of politics and religion like Jerusalem. He went to the frontier, into the future, in his new form of life. Jesus was the first one to put on this new life. When Mary said to the dispirited disciples, "I have seen the Lord.", she was testifying to the new form of reality. It was a spiritual experience but real. I can say it was real, because that is the only explanation for how a group of people in absolute despair suddenly turned into a band of brave, even reckless, evangelists, people who dared to talk about the one executed for blasphemy as Messiah.

You can not mourn the dead for ever. You have to get on with your life and venture into the future, into an unknown territory of living. Then you will find your loved one there – in the future. He has preceded you to Galilee – to your future. It is difficult to forget the body which the loved one used to wear, because that is what you knew. But the real person you loved has simply changed into another attire and has preceded you into the future.

When risen Jesus appeared before Mary Magdalene, she first thought that he was a gardener. It was only when he called her name, she realized that it was her master, the one she loved dearly. The shriek of a woman changed an ugly drowned body into someone”s loving husband or son. When I saw my own daughter, first I only saw a lump of flesh, until magic of love triggered a whole chain reaction of mind and emotion to make me realize that it was my own flesh and blood. It is only when a gardener changes into Jesus Christ, that the spiritual body becomes visible to us. Death is not the end. It is a door into another reality, into the spiritual world. Jesus Christ is not here. He is no longer with us in this perishable domain. But He is risen and lives with us for ever.

B: WHO IS THIS SUPER WOMAN? – FOURTH SUNDAY OF SEPTEMBER

WHO IS THIS SUPER WOMAN?

Proverbs 31:10-31, Psalm 1, James 3:13-18

September 24, 2000 by Tad Mitsui

I went to Africa for the first time as a student volunteer. We helped a market women”s association to build a community centre in a village called Abakaliki, in Nigeria in 1964. Market women in West Africa are very powerful people. I went to the bank with the head market women one day to order cement. She tore off the name of the company from a cement bag, walked straight into the bank manager”s office, an Englishman. She was illiterate. She put down the piece of the cement bag on the manager”s desk and told him to order a thousand bags. He quickly obliged and told his secretary to prepare the paper. When it was ready, Mrs. Abiola picked up a pen and marked her "x" with greatest dignity. Market women of the West Africa have been powerful for centuries and control the trade of most food stuff. When the head of the government in Ghana decided to tax market women, food simply disappeared from the country. All the power of the Police and the Army could not break the women”s stranglehold on food market. In the end, the government gave in. Market women were not taxed.

However, I had a surprise when I went to the home of Mrs. Abiola. At home, she worked like any house wife. She cleaned the house and cooked for the family, brought her husband beer and tobacco, and grew vegetables in the garden. She was the most powerful market woman, and yet ran her home like a hard working traditional mother and wife. What did her husband do? He always sat in his stool in the court yard of the family compound and smoked his pipe. He did nothing at home. He didn”t seem to have any job either. I found a similar pattern in the country side of many other parts of Africa.

You must realize that this pattern of the rural life in Africa is an unfortunate legacy of Africa”s colonial past. When the Western countries came to Africa a few centuries ago, to exploit its natural resources, it was typical in African cultures for men to spend long period away from home, hunting, and fighting wars. It was women who grew food, ran the market, and raised the family. In such circumstances, it was easy for Europeans to recruit men to work in plantations and mines. As hunting and warfare became less a part of life, men had nothing to do at home. They knew nothing about running a house. Some lucky boys were sent to schools and universities and got Western education. They became white collar workers in urban businesses and in government offices. But in the mean time, rural communities remained the same. Men had little to do if they stayed at home and women did all the work.

Proverbs speaks about an ideal wife as someone who is good to her husband, can weave and sew the clothes for the family, buys and prepares food, does marketing far and wide, organizes servants, is good at dealing with real estate and at starting new enterprises, runs an efficient farm and diversifies the crops, runs the household well, helps her husband to be respected in the community, speaks with wisdom, is generous in the charity work, is respected by children and praised by her husband. Proverbs describes a super woman. When I read this, I thought of Mrs. Abiola of Abakaliki. Is the Proverbs trying to tell us that an ideal wife is the kind of woman who is found in an old fashioned society, like the one still existing in rural Africa? Or could it be trying to tell us something about the nature of wisdom by comparing it to a super woman?

Let”s suppose it is the first and see what it means to us. Here, you are dealing with a woman married to a member of the leading class. Proverbs 31:21 says "Her husband sits with leading members of the society." This narrows the focus of the passage to a woman like a wife of a very rich and prominent person. This woman runs a big business and manages a large finance. Her house employs many household staff. She gives generously to charities. This describes a super woman of the high society. I don”t like this interpretation, because it does not mean all that much to common folks like us. I don”t believe that we should read the passage of the Proverbs 31 as a description of the ideal wife. I don”t believe that the Bible is telling us all wives should be super women.

I believe that Proverbs is speaking about everybody. I believe that it is telling us about our relationship to God. It”s showing us what it takes to be a good citizen by giving us the image of a man married to a woman who personifies wisdom. Proverbs 1:20 says, "Wisdom cries out in the streets, in the market place she raises her voice, at the business corners, she cries out…etc." The description of a super woman is the description of wisdom. In other words, any person of significance must be metaphorically married to wisdom. Wisdom is earthy and worldly. Being married to wisdom means that care for one”s bodily needs are looked after by ensuring that there are warm clothes and good food; that matters of business are managed responsibly and that human relations are attended with care. But most importantly, according to the chapter 31:30, wisdom is wedded to someone who honours God, and not to someone who seeks beauty and charm which can be deceitful and superficial. When you read the description of a good wife or a super woman as a metaphor for wisdom, you will learn that this marriage to wisdom comes about through a life committed to the way of the Lord. I believe that the point of the Proverbs passage today is an advise to all of us to commit ourselves to such a life, and in doing so to wed ourselves to wisdom itself.

Letter of James speaks about spiritual wisdom and demonic wisdom. Wisdom in Proverbs is generous and honours God. It is not the wisdom of the founder of the Brofman or the McCain business dynasty, which makes business successful but not charitable. Rather the wisdom of Proverb is embodied in a person like Mother Teresa. It could very well be the kind of wisdom which compelled you to throw away the worldly success, just like Jesus who threw away his popularity for the sake of love.

This wisdom has nothing to do with "being smart" in an intellectual sense or being successful in worldly terms — Rather it has to do with recognizing what priorities in life really are–Caring for oneself, one”s family and one”s community. Being a good market woman really only means being a good steward of one”s resources.

Proverbs doesn”t set impossibly high standard for women to meet. It”s not saying that any wife has to be a superwoman or that any man should expect to be married to one. In fact, seeing it that way might be an example of demonic wisdom that urges us towards "success" at any price. Instead it offers us good news: If we follow and honour God, we enter into an intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit. In doing so, we marry ourselves to a wisdom that helps us care for ourselves, nurture our families, and make responsible choice about the world around us. What more can we ask for? Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A: REMEMBERANCE DAY – SECOND SUNDAY OF NOVEMBER

REMEMBERING THE PAST, THE PRESENT, AND THE FUTURE

Joshua 24:1-3, 14-18, Psalm 78, Matthew 25:1-13

REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY, 1996, by Tad Mitsui

Today we are honouring those men and women who died in the wars by remembering their sacrifices. Remembrance is an important lifesaving instinct for many living organisms. Cows do not cross an electrified fence, because they remember what happened the first time they touched it. If we do not learn from our past experience, we will not survive the future. Winston Churchill once said, "One who forgets history is condemned to repeat it." This is also why remembering Christ”s sacrifice is a very important part of Christian spirituality and the core of the sacrament of Holy Communion. By remembering God”s saving act in Jesus Christ, we live with assurance today and continue to live with confidence tomorrow.

The act of remembrance must be played out in three time zones; past, present and future.

First: We have to look the past straight in the eyes, and recognize what it is as it is. We must not sugar-coat it to make the horror of history palatable, neither must we exaggerate it in order to demonize it. We must not remember those who sacrificed their lives in the wars in any other way than by remembering how cruel their deaths were and how brave they were. We must thank those who risked or sacrificed their lives, mourn with their families who lost their loved ones, and promise that we will never repeat the same mistake, which may cause the same tragedy.

Secondly; by recognizing the awful nature of wars, we must learn to find a way to resolve the differences and problems in our lives and in our relationships in a peaceful way, instead of fighting over them. This is the challenge for today. We must give up the idea that there has to be a winner and a loser when there is a difference of opinions or a conflict of interests. History teaches us over and over again that violence never resolves a conflict completely, because the loser never forgets to come back for revenge. The horror of Bosnia is an act of revenge by a loser in the Ottoman Empire. Near genocide in Rwanda is an act of revenge by Hutus against the Tutsuis who ruled them brutally for many years. The means to resolve a conflict must be peaceful not violent, because violence always begets violence.

Thirdly: the memory of the past must also affect our attitude towards the future. The scripture today speaks of ten bridesmaids waiting for the arrival of a wedding party. It was getting late. One interpreter of the Bible suggests that the final negotiations about the amount of dowry often took place just before the reception. It often took some time to reach an agreement, as you can imagine. The job of bridesmaids was, of course, to accompany the bride and groom into the reception hall, in this case holding lamps to light up the passage. Five of them had spare oil, just in case. Five of them did not have spare oil, because they had not remembered the importance of carrying extra. So when they went out to look for a store to buy more oil, the bridal party arrived and the reception began without them.

What does "having spare oil" have to do with Remembrance Day? The memory of the past must teach us the way to prepare for our peaceful future. The oil of preparedness in this case is respect for others. If we respect others, we will never run out of patience to talk things over no matter how difficult the issues are. You never know; after lots of time talking, you may even end up liking the other people, whom you could have been tempted to fight because of some differences. Respect becomes a source of light to guide us through the darkness of disagreements.

So as I said at the beginning, remembrance is something that crosses 3 time zones. We remember the sacrifices of the past for the sake of the present and for the future, just like we remember the cross of Jesus Christ. Lest we forget.

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: THERE IS NO UNIMPORTANT PERSON – SECOND SUNDAY OF OCTOBER

THERE IS NO UNIMPORTANT PERSON

II Kings 5 : 1 – 14

There is no unimportant person in the eyes of God. This is why God”s choice of the agent can be very interesting. Who would ever have expected, for example, that an unmarried teenage girl from a small village would be chosen as Mother of Jesus Christ? The story of healing of Naaman is another example. People who played the most important roles in this story were slaves, two of them not even mentioned by name. Supposedly important people like kings, prophets, and generals play very small roles.

Let us recall the story: Naaman was a general of the mighty Syrian Empire. Compared to Syria, Israel was a small and weak kingdom. Naaman was a formidable figure as the head of the Armed Forces of such an superpower. Everybody was afraid of him. He was rich, too.

The only problem was that Naaman had leprosy, that debilitating, ugly flesh eating disease. All his military might and all his wealth could do nothing to resolve this fatal problem. There are many rich and powerful people with fatal problems, both physical and spiritual. It must be frustrating. All their lives, they work so hard to attain what everybody envies. But often, they can do nothing to be rid of the one fatal flaw in their lives.

The only person who could suggest a solution was a slave girl, whom Naaman captured in Israel, a lowly servant of his wife. The Bible does not even mention her name. Probably many people did not know her name. She was just, "Hey, you." to many people in Naaman”s household. But she knew about a famous prophet in Israel, who cured many diseases. His name was Elisha and was Naaman”s only hope.

Naaman swallowed his pride and asked permission of the king to go to Israel. The Syrian king willingly wrote a letter to the king of Israel and said, "You may cure him of his disease." perhaps. There was an arrogant tone of this letter, what could the little country of Israel have that the mighty Syrian kingdom did not? Naaman did not spare any expense for his journey. He went to impress. He took 7 of his dress uniforms. Talk about dress for success. And tons of gold and silver for possible payment.

We always have had a strange tendency to think that money can solve any problem.

When the king of Israel read the letter from the king of Syria, he knew he was doomed. He tore his clothes in despair. Such an impossible demand from a mighty empire. "I am not a god, I can not cure leprosy. It must be a trick to create an excuse to start a war." The Prophet Elisha heard of the king”s distress, and sent a messenger directing the general to come to him.

When Naaman came to the prophet”s house with pomp and ceremony, horses and chariots, and his whole entourage, Elisha did not even bother to come out to greet this mighty general. He simply sent out one slave to tell the general to wash himself seven times in the river. Naaman was enraged. "Who does he think he is, to talk to me like that? I am a General of the mighty Syrian Empire. Wash myself seven times! I let my slaves to do that for me. He hasn”t even bothered to come out to greet me. He should have come out in his ceremonial best and invoked the Almighty God in a most solemn liturgy, so that this special client can receive God”s very special favour."

He was so angry that he was ready to go home and send in the army. When you think that you are somebody, humiliation is one of the most difficult things to bear. Pride blinds you to see the reality about yourself. An excessive sense of self importance often is a sign of z lack of genuine self-confidence. It comes from insecurity, which forces you to cover yourself with pretence. Truly confident persons do not need pomp and circumstance to claim their places. They know who they are, no matter whether others recognize them or not. It is like the difference between a Chiwawa who yaps all the time and a Great Dane who doesn”t need to. God sees for who we are, not who we want to appear to be.

Because of his bloated sense of self importance, Naaman could not follow the most obvious course of action. It was another nameless slave who brought him to senses. "Master, what is wrong with washing yourself in a river. Such a simple thing to do. It can do no harm." It was common sense. Really what could Naaman lose? Such common sense overcame the barrier of Naaman”s ego. So Naaman washed himself seven times in the river and his leprosy was cured.

He was so grateful that he offered a fortune for payment. But Elisha would not accept it. The cure was a gift from God. Naaman should just thank God for his kindness. Naaman was now truly impressed. He promised to give offerings to the god of Israel regularly. He took with him two mule-loads of dirt from Israel as souvenir of this memorable experience.

But there was a man in the Prophet”s household whose name was Gehazi. He felt that such a wealthy man like Naaman should not get such a lucky break free. There is no free lunch so he should pay. Everybody must pay. That”s justice. Gehazi thought nobody is interested in collecting the fee, then why not me. So he went after Naaman”s entourage and said that the prophet had a second thought and ask for payment for the service rendered. It was a modest charge, some silver and clothes. No problem. Naaman paid the double of the amount requested. But when the prophet Elisha heard about this, he cursed Gehazi with the leprosy left behind by Naaman. It is interesting. Isn”t it? This swindler who defrauded God, Elisha, and Naaman is remembered in the Bible by his name, while other slaves who did good were not. I wonder why.

So what are the lessons we can learn from this story? I am sure that there are many. But I would like to pick up three:

1. In God”s eyes, there are no unimportant persons. Everybody is equally important. God”s work can be performed by a person whom society does not think very much of. Some people who perform even mighty works for God are not necessarily remembered by their names. Many workers who built the great wall of China or Pyramid are not even mentioned in history books. A king”s order is not enough to make such a structure reality. And what about the voyageurs who opened up Canada for European settlers? I don”t think any of them are remembered by name.

2. Because in the eyes of God there is no difference between important persons and unimportant persons, those who are considered to be important by society are forced to learn humility. Wealth and status do not play any roles in matters of spiritual importance. Rich and famous people often do not understand that peace of mind can not be bought. It is humiliating to discover that what you treasure so much is worthless in the spiritual world.

3. Lastly, it surprises us often to discover that the most important things in life come free of charge. In fact, the most essential elements of our life are so precious that you can not buy them. How can you measure affection, care, love, security, tenderness, warmth? As soon as you begin to quantify them in terms of money and property, you degrade them and make them cheap. You can only accept them as gifts and be grateful.

This is a lesson in humility for us all. To learn how to receive and how to live out our thanks. We can never repay God for all that he does for us.

Introduction

The sermons recorded here are the ones I gave mainly at Howick United Church in Quebec, Canada between 1995 and 2001.  A few more sermons were added after my retirement.  They are the ones I gave in Southern Alberta as a pulpit supply.  They are in a chronological order.  

They are not copyrighted.  You are welcome to quote any part or whole.

Year A began in December, 1995 and December, 2001, and 2004.
Year B from December, 1996 and December, 1999, 2002, and 2005.
Year C from April, 1995 and December, 2000, and 2003.

“ADVENT1, etc.” are Sundays in December until Christmas
“CHRISTMAS SUNDAY” is the one closest to Christmas
“FIRST (and SECOND) SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS” is the one between Christmas and January 6 (Epiphany)
“EPIPHANY” is the one closest to January 6.
“EPIPHANY1,etc.” are the Sundays between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday.  (Up to ninth Sunday, normally January until March)
“LENT1,etc.” are the Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter (Up to 6th Sunday)
“PALM SUNDAY (or LENT 6)” is the one before Easter
“EASTER1,etc.” (Sundays, including Easter day,  until Pentecost – up to 7th Sunday)
“PENTECOST” is the day of Pentecost.
“PENTECOST 1" (or Trinity Sunday)
Sundays after Pentecost between May 29 and November 26 are dated as "FIRST SUNDAY OF JUNE," Etc.

A: WHO”S AFRAID OF Y2K? – THIRD SUNDAY OF NOVEMBER

WHO”S AFRAID OF Y2K?

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Matthew 25:31-46

November 21, 1999 by Tad Mitsui

 

Too many people speak about the year 2000, so-called Y2K, these days. Some people are planning big parties, and some are worried about it. I, for one, believe that it”s no big deal, there is nothing to fear. Those who lived through the Ice Storm in 1998 in Quebec know that when you live in a community of caring people, you will be able to cope with most difficulties. We should not be afraid of any technical glitch that may happen on the New Year”s day. Neither should we be bothered by some religious fanatics who predict "the end of the world". Quite frankly, I think that those doomsday millennium scenario are none sense.

 

In today”s Gospel, when Jesus said, "When Son of Man comes in his glory,…he will sit in the throne of his glory,…he will separate people one from another…", he was speaking about the last judgment day. The belief in one determining moment, like "the end of the world", "the Second Coming of Christ", or "the final judgment day", was very important for early Christians. During the first few centuries of the church history, they suffered a lot because of their faith. Christianity was a new religion. So both the Roman Emperor and people were very suspicious of Christians. They seemed odd: they were too kind to everybody, met at night, sometimes in the cemeteries, and shared a piece of bread saying "This is my body." That”s why some people thought that Christians were cannibals. So Christianity was prohibited. Many Christians lost their lives for refusing to give up their faith. You understand why the promise about the final judgement and the second coming of Jesus Christ was enormously comforting to them. It was a promise that their faithfulness would be recognized. It was not a threat of some scary cataclysmic events. Jesus was saying to those faithful followers who were suffering the consequences of their belief, "God knows your faithfulness. Your reward awaits. Do not be afraid. Continue to be good to other people."

 

In 1970, there was a coup d”etat in Lesotho, where I lived. The Army took over the government by force. They declared the result of the election null and void, because they didn”t like the political party elected to take power. Many people were arrested, tortured, killed, or went into exile including many of my students. We were all afraid, because nobody knew what was going to happen next. There was enormous fear especially among the foreign residents. Many of them were desperately trying to think of the ways to escape. The British High Commissioner came to calm our nerves. The British authorities were supposed to be responsible for the security of Canadians, also. We discussed the possibilities of a rescue by air lift or a breakout by an armed convoy, etc. None of us believed that the British would undertake such an expensive operation for a handful of us in a tiny insignificant African country. The best advice came from the Roman Catholic Bishop. His advice was simple, "stay with your people." He was so right. People, who love and trust you, are the best protection against all dangers. There is nothing more secure than living in a community made up of caring people. Today”s lesson from the Gospel makes the same point.

 

It says that on the day of judgement, Christ the King will come in his glory and sit on the throne. He will praise those who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the strangers, took care of the sick, and visited the prisoners. He said that those ordinary acts of kindness were the proof of true devotion to God. "When you are good to those poor people, you are being good to me." – he said. "You will share the glory of Christ the King." It can be a criticism of those who think that they are Y2K prepared, because they debugged their computers and VCR”s, drew out enough cash, stored enough food and water, and are keeping a rifle handy to protect what”s in the storage.

 

The message of our Lord is very clear. If you are kind and loving persons offering day-to-day acts of kindness to others, you are already in the Kingdom of God. These words were a huge comfort to those followers of Christ, who had already been living in such a life-style. They treated each other as though each person was Christ himself. They were kind especially to the most hard pressed persons, like a hungry person, a person without decent clothes, or even a criminal who was in a prison.

 

I found the following story about a daughter of a minister, in a magazine for preachers. Her name was Susan. She is now a Lutheran minister herself. One Sunday afternoon, when Susan was a child, the family was having their customary Sunday dinner. There was a knock on the door. Father went out to answered the door. He did not come back for a long time. So Susan went to check out what was happening. There was a shabbily dressed woman speaking with her father. She had two small children with her. Father took them to the Food Bank and the used clothes storage of the church which was next door to the manse. When Susan came back to the table, her brother asked who the visitors were. She answered, "Jesus and her two children." Susan was not quite correct in facts. But she knew correctly the meaning of the teachings of Jesus, especially the one about feeding the hungry, clothing those who had no clothes, etc. Yes, her father was being kind to Jesus and her two children, as Jesus said, "Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me."

 

We will go into the new millennium in a few weeks. When Y2K arrives, God will be with us as always. And there will be no problem we could not cope with, if we carry on as we always have; to continue to work with God to build a caring community of all God”s children, which is the Kingdom of God on this earth,.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

C: Knowing A Person by name – FIRST SUNDAY OF SEPTEMBER

KNOWING A PERSON BY NAME

Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139, Philemon 1-21

September 6, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

I have a friend who made it big in business. He jets around the world these days. A few years ago, he and some of my old cronies invited us to a reunion in a Chinese restaurant in downtown Tokyo. After the dinner, we went on our separate ways by taxis and public transport; no sane person brings a car into downtown Tokyo. Muriel and I walked to our hotel with this businessman friend. He had his chauffeur and the Mercedes limo waiting for him, not in the restaurant parking lot but quite a few blocks away. I could kind of guess why my friend did not want to be seen with a chauffeur driven limo. He wanted to relive our good old innocent days, when none of us had money. When we needed a place to sit and talk, we went into restaurants and spent hours talking, pretending to have difficult time deciding what to order. We kept sipping glass after glass of water. In the end, we walked out pretending that there was nothing that interested us. We called ourselves "Waterman”s Club". We were poor, but we had lots of fun together.

The status symbols like clothes and cars can build barriers between people. A millionaire and a street person do not become friends easily. The letter of Paul to Philemon tells a unusual story of two Christians who broke a barrier between them. It is a letter Paul wrote to his good friend Philemon. He was a prominent leader of the church in Colossae. The letter was carried and hand delivered by Onesimus, who used to be Philemon”s slave. Onesimus, according to the letter, was a runaway slave, who managed to reach Rome from Turkey and became a member of Paul”s inner circle of friends. Paul was under house arrest waiting for a trial. Before he was executed, he sent Onesimus back to Philemon asking him to accept him back as a Christian brother.

If you know the status of slaves during those days, you realize how incredible this story is. Slaves did not have any place as a human being in society. They were regarded to be the same as domesticated animals, and were bought and sold like animals. An ancient Roman document has it that on one occasion an escaped slave, after being captured, pleaded with his master not to throw him into a crocodile pond as an entertainment for guests. Even as recently as the last century, the slave ships used to lose, on the average, a quarter of their cargo between West Africa and the U.S. Their cargo was African men, women, and children who were abducted and sold as slaves in the United States. Many died of disease and suffocation in the cargo hold. Also, the slaves were often thrown overboard during the storms to save the ships. We treat our cattle and pigs better than they used to treat slaves.

When a News paper reports about a traffic accident, it does not report the names of cows. They are just animals. So were the slaves. The price of a slave could have been cheaper than a prized horse. Today, we believe that the slavery is absolutely unacceptable. Slaves were people, not animals. But it took nearly two thousand more years from the time of the Bible for all of us to realize that the slavery is unacceptable. So, you see how amazing this letter is. How incredible it is to see Paul not only calling an escaped slave by name, but also calling him "my child". We know nothing about the friendship between Paul and Onesimus; how they met and how they became close friends. But the fact that Paul called him by his name alone, says a lot.

Paul didn”t have a grand scheme to abolish slavery as such. He was merely following the examples and teachings of Jesus. He accepted each person as a child of God just as Jesus did, ignoring the kind of things that normally created barriers between people. Jesus befriended the rich and the educated, attended their banquets and parties. He loved the company of children, too. Also he was a friend of social outcasts like sinners and prostitutes. He treated the untouchable like lepers and insane people just like he would the ordinary people. The lepers, in those days, were obliged to warn people that they were coming, so that the ordinary people had time to go inside of the house and lock the door. But Jesus talked to them and touched them as one human to another. Nothing came between Jesus and people.

Paul summarized Jesus” attitude towards people in the letter to the Galatians, "There is no longer Greek or Jews, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female. We are all one in Christ." You realize that even today in some countries you will be jailed for saying the same thing as Paul said. But Paul was merely following the examples of Jesus Christ.

When you follow the examples of Christ, and get to know people as persons by their names not as the adjectives like rich, poor, good, bad, healthy, sick, African, French, or English, all the barriers that divide people come down. You don”t have to start a revolution. The society will change when everybody gets to know and learns to love each other. I am not underestimating how difficult it is to ignore those barriers. There was an elderly woman in Vancouver who lived alone in a downtown rooming house, who became a good friend. I met her when I was delivering Christmas hampers. I always enjoyed visiting her. She kept saying that one of those days she should come to church. She had to keep me honest, she said. But she never came. Before I left Vancouver, she apologized for having never heard my sermon. She said, "I really wanted to come. I didn”t lie. But I had no clothes to wear to church." It was clothes that stood between the church and this woman who really wanted to come. I didn”t know whether I should cry or I should clobber her.

When you think of our church, you realize that even in our small congregation, you have so many nationalities and people of different back grounds. But those differences are not barriers for us, because we think of each other as just friends. Thank God for that. We are all one in Christ after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A: JOSEPH HAD A DREAM – ADVENT 4

Isaiah 7 : 10 – 16,
Psalm 80,
Matt. 1 : 18 – 25

Just imagine; if this is not a Bible story.  A man had a nightmare.  How could it be just a dream?  His young fiancé told him that she was pregnant.  He and she were the only ones who knew that he was not responsible for her pregnancy.  It took tremendous amount of faith, love, and trust for Joseph to believe Mary”s explanation. Stories around the first Christmas are full of faith and love.  And the story of Joseph is one of them.

A mother is the only reliable natural link between a child and the family.  This is why a Jewish person must come from a Jewish mother regardless of the father”s nationality.  The love of a father for his child begins with trust.  A father has to learn to love a child, he has not carried it inside himself for nine months.  And if Joseph did not trust Mary, Christmas would not have happened, because she could have been stoned to death for adultery.  The laws regarding adultery applied also to engaged couples.  What could Joseph do?  He was a law abiding man, but he also loved Mary dearly.  The child could not be Joseph”s child.  And Mary makes a preposterous excuse.    She says, "It”s God who made me pregnant."  Oh, sure.  Imagine?

So he was going to quietly annul the engagement to make it look as though it had never happened.  She might be branded as a loose woman by giving birth to a fatherless child, but her sin would not be labelled adultery.  Being a loose woman was shameful, but it did not signify she broke faith with her husband, or husband-to-be, because there was no such man.  This way, Mary”s life would be spared.  Then one night he had a dream.  An angel appeared and told him that indeed Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that he should name the child Jesus – Yoshua, "he who saves people."  He wanted to believe such a message because he loved her.  That was enough.  He decided to travel with her to Bethlehem to register their marriage and possibly their new born child.  According to the custom of the land at the time, when a couple of a man and a woman undertook a journey together without chaperon, they were considered to be legally  married.

Evangelist Matthew told this story of Joseph to remind the Jews who were under Roman occupation of what happened about 800 years before to King Ahaz.  During the reign of Ahaz, the kingdom of Judah was under tremendous pressure from an alliance of Syria and Israel which was ready to invade and conquer Judah.  At first, Ahaz could think of no other way out but to enter an alliance with Egypt, though he knew that was a bad idea.  Egypt would surely absorb his tiny country eventually.  It was a Catch 22 situation.  The Prophet Isaiah agreed with Ahaz”s analysis that this alliance would be a problem and told him not to enter such an agreement.  But Ahaz needed a sign that he was taking the lesser of two risks by not entering into the alliance.  Isaiah gave him a sign from God as an alternative course.  The sign was, "A young woman becomes pregnant and bears a baby boy.  He will be called ”God is with us”.  He will bring people milk and honey, and other powerful nations will be no more."  

Who could have believed in such a preposterous sign?  King Ahaz didn”t.  Many of us still don”t.  But Joseph did, 800 years after Isaiah”s initial prophecy.  Joseph believed it,  because he loved Mary and wanted to believe in her faithfulness badly enough to trust God”s message.   He could believe that a baby of a questionable origin could be a sign of hope for the whole people.  Love is powerful.  Crazy?  Maybe, but it is the only way.  Joseph teaches us that love and trust are the only way to make this world work.  Even economic and military alliances do not work where there is a lack of the basic ingredients of human civility and decency, based on trust.  Where there is no trust even Empires will fall, because of the weight of the cost of maintaining a credible deterrent against possible betrayal.  [That”s how the Soviet Union fell.  Disintegration of our societies can not be stopped by toughened measures against crimes, where there is no trust between people.  When the police realized that they can no longer catch up with the rising crime rate at the time of shrinking tax dollars, they devised community policing.  They brought back foot patrol, and introduced bicycle squads and store front mini-stations to get to know people.  They want to restore trust between people and the police.]  A society that lacks trust is always under a threat of  disintegration.

Believing that the future of the human race rests in a baby, born by a young woman is not preposterous.  Giving birth to a child is a pilgrimage of trust and Joseph journeyed through that.  He can not be left in the background for he teaches us one of the most profound message in the Christmas story.  A sign from God that is overlooked can not change the world.  Incarnation alone means little.  But to believe in a dream, to act on trust animates that incarnation.  Joseph steps forward and shows us the path we must take as pilgrims who journey in trust.  It”ś his path that leads us to Bethlehem… and beyond.

C: SEARCHING THE LIVING AMONG THE DEAD – EASTER

SEARCHING THE LIFE AMONG THE DEAD

I Cor. 15:20-26, Psalm 118, Luke 24:1-12

and John 20:1-18

April 19, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

 

There was a man, a lonely man. He was a senior civil servant in a city hall. His burning ambitions, passionate love, and sweet dreams all failed him, with nothing but bitter disappointments, a broken heart, and cynicism. He now lived by the recipe for a successful civil servant: "Never miss work. Never late to work. Do nothing." At forty-eight, he was only looking forward to retirement and time looking at his stamp collection. One day a doctor told him that he had only a few months to live. Despair and hopelessness overtook his life; he became pickled in alcohol.

 

One morning after a night in town, he found himself waking up on a strange bed in what looked like a shabby rooming house. A child brought him a cup of coffee. She was selling roses in the bar last night. Her mother had already gone to work, she said. He watched the girl playing with a cheap stuffed monkey he gave her. He picked it up somewhere in his drunken stupor. He was moved to see how the girl was absorbed in the play with the cheap dollar store stuffed animal. She looked utterly happy talking with a monkey in her pretend home. She looked so much alive. It was her very first toy in her entire life. He realized then that he was with people who lived in a slum area of town. A few years ago, the residents of this area asked the city to provide a playground for children. Their petition was sitting in his file for years. He had had no intention to do anything about it. But that morning, he became a changed man. He was late to work, because he had to look at all possible sites for the playground, before he got to the office. He ordered the Parks Department to draw up a plan and make a cost estimate, immediately. He encouraged the residents of the area to organize themselves and start lobbying the mayor and the key city councillors. He pestered his superiors to move things faster. He stepped on far too many toes and annoyed everybody. They thought that his thus-far-safe career in the city hall was ruined.

 

On the day of the official opening, the mayor came, gave a speech and cut the ribbon. After everybody went home, the now-very-sick man and the girl were on the swing, swinging back and forth, singing the old Japanese favourite, "Life is short, let us fall in love." Everybody remembered "that man" in the city hall, whenever they came to the park. Death made him more alive in people”s mind. But nobody remembered anything he did during his twenty-five year career in the city hall before the playground.

 

The resurrection of Jesus Christ tells us that there are some dead people though may be dead, can still be very much alive and continue to communicate with the living. On the other hand, a person may be biologically alive, but is, in truth, as dead as the dry bones. We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ was the first person who died physically, but is very much alive among us today.

 

The Jewish people believed that at death absolutely everything was over. Many people do not realize that the ancient Jews did not believe in the life after death. Life after death was an ancient Egyptian belief. Read the Old Testament carefully. You will not find the notion of life after death in it. At death one entered into nothing – void. This is why the Hebrew word "Hell" in the Old Testament is the same word for "Death – sheol." Because life ended with death, they treasured this life very much. They tried to live life – here and now as fully as possible, because to them this life was their only chance. So, they tried very hard to live this life in the best way possible. They enjoyed all the pleasures of life with gusto. But also they tried to do it right so as not to waste it. This was why the law became the very important guide to them.

 

This was how they came to the conclusion that the life that was wasted without joy and without purpose was not worth living; you might as well be dead. Also they decided in the same logic that sin was the same as death. Life is so precious that it had to be lived correctly and fully. Authentic life and death were not the same as biological life and death. Jesus Christ was the first fruit of the authentic life that did not die with biological death. He loved people completely. He enjoyed life, too. You notice how many times the Bible mentions about Jesus at the banquets, and about a dinner in his parables. He knew how to live fully and joyfully by loving people absolutely.

 

It is ironical. Isn”t it? Because he loved people unconditionally, he had to die. The society could not tolerate such love. So the people who had vested interest in the existing system had to kill him. People who hold power hate changes. But because Jesus truly lived by loving others, death did not have the last word. We can not prove this scientifically, but we know he is alive today. In Jesus Christ, we find a genuine life that travels back and forth between the biological divide of life and death.

 

There is not much point looking for the living among the dead. Mary came to the tome to embalm the dead body. But she did not find it. She was weeping by the empty tome. She didn”t know what to do; she was lost. It was only when she turned around in the direction of the voice of an unknown person, she saw a life truly living – the life that was not defeated by sin which tried to exterminate love; she met the risen Christ.

 

In the desert of the Western Sudan, many women and children were trying desperately to eke out meagre living on the perched dry sand. Their husbands and fathers are either missing or dead during the two decade long civil war. But life goes on despite the stupid greedy and power hungry men who don”t want to make peace. Men, who are determined to keep fighting for power, caused the two decade long civil war, which gave people nothing but misery, poverty, and death.

 

Women used to cultivate land when they were living among the green lush hills and fresh water lakes of the Southern Sudan. Now the dry sand of the refugee camps in the Sahara desert does not allow them to grow food as they used to at home. Only way they know how, to make a living in such a situation was to make beer out of sorghum and sell it. There are many thirsty men who buy it, though it is illegal under the Islamic law to consume alcohol. The prisons are full of women who were caught selling beer. So the church has been teaching them the different ways to make living; making soap out of palm oil and crushed lime stones, tie and dye cotton material, and sewing clothes. The church has a rotating loan fund providing them with money to buy sewing machines and start up their own businesses. Some of them started to crush peanuts into butter while waiting for customers and sold them besides dresses and materials. Others collect frankincense in the desert and sell it besides their tie and dye. Their children are now fed and have change of clothes now. There is life in the desert. Children are laughing and running in the dry land.

 

Jesus conquered death, not in the battle ground or in the forum of politics, but by loving people absolutely. That”s why Jesus is alive today, tomorrow, and forever. Hallelujah!

 

B: A CHILD AND A DOORMAT – THIRD SUNDAY OF SEPTEMBER

A CHILD AND A DOORMAT

Proverbs 31:10-31, Psalm 1, Mark 9:30-37

September 21, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

I have a book of traditional Swiss cuisine at home. It is a gorgeous book with pictures of many mouth-watering dishes. The front cover is a reproduction of an old painting of a rich medieval family at their dinner table. The mother and father sit at the head of the table. Four older boys sit on one side, four older girls on another side, and the youngest boys and girls are at the far end opposite their parents. The parents sit on the large padded chairs and are provided with all three kinds of cutlery on the silk covered trays. Obviously the parents were the most important members. Older children sit on wooden chairs, but only the boys have knives and forks. The older girls also sit on wooden chairs but have only knives. Finally, the little boys and girls, like the older girls, have only knives, but they don”t even have chairs. They stand at the end of the table. The girls and the little children, I guess, were expected to eat with their hands.

In various ways, the world has been ruled by the laws of the jungle. The old, the sick, the small, and the weak have been treated like doormats, left on the floor of the society to be trampled on, and in the end to be thrown away. Children, too, used to be treated like that like the Swiss family in the picture. It was a common practice in many cultures to see the best portion of dinner was always kept for the man of the house; women and children ate the left-overs.

 

We want to believe that today we treat children better. But I sometimes wonder. Today”s gospel reading still has a lot to tell us. Are we very different from those days? Remember what Jesus said, "Whoever welcomes a little child, welcomes me. This sounds like such a "nice" message, but I wonder if we”re really up to accepting, not just children, but all the weak and powerless in the way that Jesus was suggesting. It was a challenge that both the disciples and the early church struggled with.

One day, Jesus predicted the suffering and death that awaited him in Jerusalem. He had done that once before. It is quite clear that the disciples did not hear what Jesus had said, either time. The disciples completely misunderstood what Jesus meant. We must admit that, just like the disciples, we also do not hear what we do not want to hear. We hate bad news. As Jesus and his company travelled towards Jerusalem, their minds were fixed on one idea. Jerusalem was where their master would at last be recognized as the true messiah. He would take the throne of David as the king of the Jews. Their heads were swollen with the dream of sitting next to the king. They started to argue about who was more important than the other, and who would be closest to the seat of power. They had no idea that what Jesus had referred to as the kingdom was different from what they had in mind.

So, Jesus challenged their ideas about status and power. He picked up a little child and said, "Do you want to be great in my kingdom? Be like this child." A "child" represented a person with no power and a low status. Power or status means nothing in the world that Jesus had been speaking about. The kingdom of God is ruled by justice and love, not by money or power. The humble person like a little child would be the priority in God”s world. However, I have to caution against a romantic image of a child. As all parents know, children can be cruel, greedy, possessive, and selfish, just like any one of us. When we watch a few toddlers play together and fight over toys, we know that all of us are born with greed and selfishness.

By giving priority to a child, Jesus gave us two messages. First, we must treat any defenceless and helpless person as though each of them is Jesus Christ himself. Secondly, the most important person in the eyes of God can be like a child without any power or position. Many things that are important in this society have no consequence to God. Then, what is important to God?

 

I have a book by sociologist Rodney Stark that examines why the Christian Church grew so fast in the first few centuries. Though it was illegal to be a Christian at the time, the church grew from a group of a few hundred uneducated Jews into a great company of 33 million people from all classes and nationalities in the Mediterranean world. How did this happen? Stark”s book mentions a few interesting features of the early church that led to this rapid growth. Remember, Christianity was an illegal religion; they could not advertise and or hold public meetings. It was friends and relations telling others where to go to hear the good news, that spread the Gospel. One of the most intriguing phenomenon the book tells us about is how the attitude of the Christians towards sick people led to the rapid expansion of the church. During the first few centuries after Christ, several waves of the plague wiped out nearly a third of the population of Europe. It was during those spells of the plague that, curiously, the church grew faster. Why? Because Christians looked after the very sick, when it was the custom of the day to abandon those who were dying from a serious illness. Thus, the early Christians made their mark by looking after the weakest in society.

Bishop Dyonisius of North African, in his Easter letter during the plague of 260 A.D., gave a lengthy tribute to the heroic nursing efforts of local Christians, many of whom lost their lives while caring for others. But many people with the plague survived in the church, because they were lovingly cared for by fellow Christians. Seeing that the sick were looked after and survived better in the church, many people began to join the church to be saved. But it had not been the intention of the early Christians to bring in more members when they looked after the sick. Most of the sick people were beyond any hope of recovery. Many of the care-givers risked their lives or died while caring for them. And yet, the long term result of such devotion to the suffering people was a growing and lively community. The church grew, while the population was being decimated. A community ruled by the laws of the jungle, where the weak are treated like a doormat, may survive, but only marginally. But the community ruled by the laws of love, in the end, thrives.

You can judge the quality of a community by the way it treats its weakest member. In a caring society, no cost is spared for the disabled, the elderly, the sick, and the young. As Jesus said, "Whoever welcomes a child, welcomes me." But as we have seen this "nice" message is really revolutionary. It can upset the seating plan at the table of society in profound ways. Yet God”s message is such that we can only find our strength and power by caring for the weak and the powerless. In God”s kingdom, our place at the table depends on inviting the "children" to sit on our knees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

B: I LEARNED IT ALL WHEN I WAS A CHILD – FIRST SUNDAY OF NOVEMBER

I LEARNED IT ALL WHEN I WAS A CHILD

Ruth 1:1-18, Psalm 146, Mark 12:28-34

November 2, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

We hope that we will someday live in a society where every person is respected and never snubbed no matter where he/she comes from. The problem is: where nationalism is strong, often one culture is considered to be more important than others like the situation in Quebec. Can we not respect one tradition without diminishing another? The book of Ruth is an attempt to answer this question by telling the story of three women caught between two countries. It tells us that simple respect for other people will solve much of the problem of conflict between different cultures.

I said "simple respect" but I am not saying that it is easy. Simple things are often difficult to do. We invent conditions and make exceptions to excuse ourselves from doing simple decent acts. Robert Fulghum wrote a book titled, All I really need to know, I learned in kindergarten. His point is that most of the basic wisdom of life is quite simple. We learned it all when we were children. But later we learn not to follow what we tell our children.

Fulghum recalls those lessons: "Share everything. Play fair. Don”t hit other people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don”t take things that aren”t yours. Say you are sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush the toilet. (I like this next one.) Take a nap every afternoon…. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together." The list goes on. And it”s all very simple. You do not have to go to university to learn all this, because you probably have learned it all already when you were kids. It”s all the matter of respect and common decency. Note that these lessons do not discriminate. It does not say, "Share everything only with people you like." or "Don”t hit people of your own kind." But often we conveniently forget that we must respect everybody especially if we don”t like some people who look different. So what do we do to cover our hypocrisy? We say, "It”s not all that simple. Life is complicated." So children learn important lessons in their first few years, but spend many more years to learn that those rules are childish, naive and stupid. No wonder our world is in a mess.

The book of Ruth was written at the time of a great resurgence of Hebrew religion and culture. It was the time when the exiled Jews were allowed to return to Palestine after their captors were defeated by the Persians. The Hebrew nation was back together again in their homeland. The oppressors had tried to destroy the Hebrew nation by prohibiting the practice of their religion and traditions. But they were now free to worship their God, rebuild their temple, and re-discover their traditions.

Unfortunately at a time like this, when people enthusiastically take pride in their own culture, language and traditions, they tend to be suspicious of foreigners. They began to see foreigners and their influence as bad for their traditions. It was the reaction to the humiliation they suffered under the Babylonians. Racism begets racism. Consequently those who were keen to keep the purity of their culture and religion saw marriage with those outside of their race as unacceptable. They even told those men who had married foreign women to divorce them and to send them home. The book of Ruth was written during such a time. It was written to remind the Jews that the great-grand mother of their beloved King David was not a Jewish woman. The book was written to remind people that faithfulness to God is the same thing as being kind to every human being, whether friend, relative, or stranger. Preserving one”s own heritage does not mean the oppression of others who may be different. You will truly be able to respect your own culture when you know how to respect others”.

As the story has it, when the Hebrew people were still new in the land, they were fighting wars against neighbouring peoples all the time. During those difficult years, the crops failed a few years and there was a famine. A man by the name of Elimelech and his wife Naomi decided to migrate to avoid starvation. They went to the land of Moab on the east shore of the Dead Sea. Though the Moabites were enemies of the Jewish people, Elimelech and Naomi had no problem settling down among them. The Moabites exercised simple respect for their neighbours and extended their welcoming hands to hungry people. Today, we call Moabites Arabs who live in the kingdom of Jordan.

Elimelech and Naomi had a comfortable life in their adopted country. It shows: Both of their sons married Moabite women. The names of those daughter-in-laws were Orpah and Ruth. Now Elimelech and his two sons died one after another. The Bible does not say why. I don”t think that is a significant point of the story. Men have always died earlier than women, as they still do. The point of the story is the love between a mother-in-law and her daughters-in-laws. When Naomi decided to go back to her home in Bethlehem in the land of Judah, where she still had some relations, the two daughters-in-laws wanted to follow her, even though they knew they would run into difficulty in a foreign country. So the point of the story is the love that overcame cultural and national boundaries, and not so much about relationship between in-laws.

Naomi told the two young women to leave her and go home. She wanted to spare them the hostility they might run into in a country of former enemies. "No way." said the two. They loved Naomi and wanted to follow her. But after some persuasion, Orpah decided to go home. There were many tears and kisses as Orpah went back to her kinfolk in Moab. But Ruth stayed with Naomi. Ruth said, "Wherever you go, I will go. Your people shall be my people." So the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law went to Naomi”s home in Bethlehem. There they ran into a very kind person who was a relative of Naomi”s. He helped them to survive the first difficult days and saved them from going hungry. Naomi even taught Ruth a cunning way to find a husband. Thus the Moabite Ruth and her Jewish man Boaz got married, raised a family, and became the great-grandparents of King David.

It is a simple story of genuine affection between three women, who overcame the fact that they were from two different countries, cultures and religions. Even when it describes Orpah who decided to remain in her own country, there is no hint of condemnation for her decision. The story recognizes and respects the Moab people and their culture. That is why Orpah was described as someone who was following a natural course of action. On the other hand, Ruth successfully fitted into the life of the people she married into. She could do that because she loved her mother-in-law and her husband. Both Orpah and Ruth were affirmed in this story even though they took different courses of life. When people are bonded together in love, differences between them will not be obstacles to their relationship. Differences may not go away, but through respect may enrich the relationship.

Some scholars of the Scriptures asked Jesus what the most important commandments were. They challenged Jesus with a question, which they assumed to be very difficult for an uneducated man like Jesus to answer. But Jesus answered by repeating the simplest and oldest commandments from Leviticus. "Love God, and love your neighbour." It was incredibly simple. The Bible clearly says, "There is no other commandment greater than these." Those educated people, just like us, were so used to seeing everything in such a complicated framework that they could not remember the simple basic rules of life; "To love God and to love people." The more we learn, the more we make simple things complicated. Today we must remind ourselves that those simple rules of life can resolve the difficult problems like the ones where cultures and nations collide head on, like in Quebec, Algeria, Northern Ireland, or Palestine. We learned it all when we were children. "Share everything. Don”t hit other people. Clean up your own mess. Flush the toilet. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together."

 

B: SNAKE – AN AGENT OF HEALING OR OF DEVIL – LENT 4

IS A SNAKE AN AGENT OF HEALING OR CORRUPTION?

Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107, John 3:14-21

April 2, 2000 by Tad Mitsui

I used to take a group of boys to camping in Lesotho, Africa. There was a 11 year old bully called Morgan Archer, who was a son of a Canadian Professor of Education. He could sustain one burp long enough to sing "Twinkle, twinkle little star." Naturally, other boys respected him. They followed him everywhere. He took them on a snake hunt. They all pretended that they were not scared. They carried their catch in cotton bags. In the middle of the night, a fight broke out. They were fighting over snakes. It seemed that some snakes crept into the wrong bags. So, I had to keep all the snake bags in my tent to keep the peace. Everybody managed to sleep a little that night, except me. Fifteen years later, I ran into Morgan Archer in Toronto. He was a manager of a Second Cup Coffee outlet near the church office on St. Clair Avenue. I asked him if he still loved snakes. He said he never did. He just pretended that he liked snakes. What a price to be a bully!

The snakes have a bad reputation. They are often seen as a symbol of evil. They bite and kill people. This is why today”s scripture lessons surprise us. A bronze figure of a snake was lifted up by Moses as a symbol of healing and salvation. The Gospel according to John compares Jesus Christ, who was lifted up on the cross, with the bronze snake. It sounds puzzling. A snake first appeared in the Bible as an animal who tempted Eve into eating a forbidden fruit, thus caused the first rebellion against God. This incident branded the snake as evil ever since.

Careful reading of the Bible, however, shows that this characterization of the snake as an evil creature is incorrect. Take the first account of the snake in the Genesis. It says that the snake was the most cunning animal God has created, but does not say that it was evil. Snakes appear 58 times in the Bible. But only two times in the Book of Revelation, the snake is called Satan. Even there, it speaks about a huge dragon referred to as "an ancient snake". The Revelation was speaking about a different kind of creature, not a normal snake. All other references to the snake characterize them as cunning or clever, though it may have to crawl on the ground and eat dirt. Christ even commanded us to be like a snake saying, "You must be wise like a snake, and gentle like a dove." A snake as a model of wisdom certainly is a different image from what we used to think of it as a creepy and crawly vermin.

Back in Lesotho, Morgan Archer and the boys knew that most of the local snakes were harmless through Prof. Thelejane”s research project. He was a biologist doing a research on the snakes in the region, and had a huge collection of them in a tank. Most of the poison snake bites happen when people accidentally step on them. In fact, snakes are the ones who avoid people. We are the most dangerous enemies for snakes. When you walk on the grass in a snakes infested country, you should wear heavy boots, cover the legs, and always carry a stick and beat the grass ahead of you as you walk. Snakes do not attack you, if you give them enough warning. Generally speaking snakes are safe, if you know how not to bother them.

It is interesting to notice that the people of Israel were bitten by snakes, after they started to complain to God and Moses about hardship that the life of freedom brought to them. They said, "Did you have to bring us out of Egypt to die in the desert? We have to find water and food here. In Egypt, we did not have freedom but at least we had lots of food." Food was more important for them than freedom. They had not yet understood that dignity which freedom gave them was the most important gift from God. That was a sure sign of immaturity. We expect babies to want milk without worrying about their nakedness or wet bum, because they are babies. But if adults do not see the value of dignity, they have a serious problem. The problem with addiction, for example, is the fact that things like alcohol, drug, gambling, money, or even work take over their lives, and dignity is forgotten. They become slaves of substance or habits, and abandon the marks of adulthood such as dignity and responsibility. If such immaturity dominates adult”s life, anything, even the good things in life can become poisonous.

This is why I think the image of a snake as a metaphor for salvation as well as poison is very meaningful. Venom from poison snakes makes serum – a remedy for snake bites. We know that all drugs are poison, if we abuse or misuse them. They are medicine, because we know how to handle them. A mature adult knows how to remain in control of our environment, things we consume, and our habits. A snake meant disaster for immature Israelites, because they couldn”t handle responsibility therefore couldn”t appreciate freedom. A child can not handle freedom, so do not understand why one has to take responsibility. An immature person hates freedom and responsibility, like darkness hates light. The immature people never understand the value of dignity. They do not understand what healing and salvation mean. The Gospel according to John spoke about the coming of Christ and said, "The light came into the world, but the darkness rejected it." This is why those who did not see the true meaning of healing and salvation killed Christ on the cross. They thought that Jesus Christ was a disaster – a traitor to their dream, like the Israelites who thought that God and Moses were killing them by giving them freedom.

Life is a life long process of learning. We never stop growing and learning until the end. When you stop growing, you become a living dead no matter how young you are. Let us keep growing towards maturity without stopping at any instant gratification of a superficial pleasure. When you can see infinite possibilities that freedom of the wilderness offers, and when you can see healing beyond the frightening appearance of a snake, you will appreciate the meaning of salvation Christ brought to all of us.

 

 

 

A: NOBODY IS PERFECT – FOURTH SUNDAY OF OCTOBER

NOBODY IS PERFECT

I Thessalonians 2:9-13, Psalm 107-VU831(Parts 1 and 4 Matthew 23:1-12

Voices United #229,264,504,651

October 30, 2005 by Tad Mitsui

 If somebody says to me that he never lies, never cheats, and is never interested in money, I know he is a hypocrite and a liar. Then how come we still take politicians seriously who say they are always right and never make mistake. We too often say, "I’m right, and you’re wrong," even though we know that nobody is perfect. Jesus is warning us about a danger of this kind of hypocrisy.

 

The scribes and Pharisees were often accused of being hypocrites. But they were the experts on the Bible. They were respected and feared. They told people what was right or wrong. People gave them great power. They always sat at the head table. They became used to being praised in public. Many Pharisees, for sure, honestly pursued the truth, like Nicodemous who came to see Jesus in the dark of the night. The Pharisees were God fearing good people.

 

Unfortunately, many of them got used to being praised and came to believe that they deserved this exalted status. Arrogance and pride overtook them, and humility diminished. This is what happens when righteous people become self-righteous. We must remember that only God is absolutely right and just. No human is perfect. But we can be closer to God, if we acknowledge God”s grace, because God forgives our shortcomings. In this sense, we must remember that all of us who go to church are good people, not because we are good by nature but because we are made good by the grace of God. So it’s important to feel good about ourselves.

 

Church goers are lucky people, just like people who made it to the hospital in time. C.S. Lewis compared a Christian to a patient in a hospital who has checked in a little earlier than other people. Of course, there is something wrong with him. He is sick. That”s why he is in a hospital. But he got there a little earlier than others. He knows that when one is not well, the hospital is a good place to be. He can give others some tips about how to cope with hospital life, and can assure people that they should not be afraid.

What is interesting in this Gospel passage is that Jesus affirmed the Pharisee”s profession. He said that they sat on Moses” seat. So Jesus told people to respect and follow their teaching, even though some of them were hypocrites. Think of some people who left the church. Often people who leave the church are not against God or the teaching of Jesus. They are against some people who, to their opinion, behaved badly or said things they should not have. People become disillusioned by hypocrisy in the church. Jesus said, however, that despite hypocrisy of some Pharisees, what they taught was still God”s law. So he said, "Do whatever they teach you and follow it."

 

Of course, when you find some wrongs in the church, you should hear Jesus saying to you, "Do not do as they do, because they do not practice what they teach." In other words, he said, "Reject hypocrites, but follow their teaching of God”s words." It is very difficult to admit that someone you consider to be a hypocrite may be saying the right thing. But it happens. In fact, all of us are not perfect but we all have grains of goodness. The important thing to remember is that whatever good we say is acceptable by the grace of God. All of us are capable of speaking the word of God, not because we are perfect, but because God gave us the ability to do so. The church is not a gathering of people without sin. It is a gathering of forgiven sinners. We are like beggars who know where to find food. Evangelism is beggars telling other beggars where to find food. Let us listen to the word of God no matter how inadequate the carriers seem to be.

 

The problem of Pharisees and the scribes was that they had begun to believe that they by right deserved admiration and respect. They began to think that it was them whom people respected. They forgot that it was God who gave them pieces of divine knowledge and wisdom. It was this arrogance that made them hypocrites and failures as humans, even though they might have been conveying God”s messages. Arrogance in the Bible is termed as one of the biggest sins, because it makes a person self-righteous thus shuts off all channels of communication with God. It makes a person feel that he/she is complete and does not need any more help from God. It also shuts one off from further learning, because it makes one think one knows everything there is to know.

The church is a good place to be for us. But it is not a place for self-appointed saints to boast how good they are. It is a place where people gather, those who know their weaknesses but feel that they are accepted and safe. We are not afraid to admit the our limitations. The whole point of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is based on forgiveness and acceptance of repentant sinners. It is this humility that makes us transparent, allowing God-in-us to shine out. This is why the church is a good place for us to be.

YEAR A: BUILD A HIGHWAY FOR JESUS – ADEVNT 1

ISAIAH 40:1-11, PSALM 85, MARK 1:1-8

When you take a drawing lesson, you will probably do an interesting exercise.  The teacher gives you a pencil drawn picture of a face of a person, and tells you to put it upside down, and to copy it as exactly as you see it, upside down.  A human face doesn”t look like you think it should look, when you see it upside down.  So you have to look at every millimetre of every line carefully and faithfully, to reproduce what you see.  I guarantee you, it does not look like anything you know.  Once you finish the drawing and put it rightside up, you will see a more accurate duplicate than the one you could draw looking at the picture right-side up.  When you have a picture of a face right-side up, you do not look at the face in the picture as carefully as you should, because you think you know a human face looks like.  But it is an assumption.  Then, unconsciously you draw what you think a face should look like, and not what you really see.

Assumption often betrays truth.  When you think you know, and start acting according to that belief, you can be completely unaware when you make mistakes.  This point was made by the recent revelation of how badly three particular murder cases had been handled by the Canadian justice system.  Three men were tried, found guilty, and incarcerated for crimes they did not commit.  Donald Marshall, Guy-Paul Morin, and David Milgaard were found innocent by a confession of the witness who lied, in the case of Marshall, and DNA tests, for Morin and Milgaard, after spending decades in prison.  In all three cases, the men who were really guilty were found and sentenced.   

The whole justice system assumed that the guilty men had been caught.  No one, in the Police, the Provincial prosecution services, the courts, or the Federal Justice Department had the intention of subverting justice.  But the system had assumed those men”s guilt.  Those three men were outsiders and stereotypical losers – the types of people easily assumed to be shady characters, if not criminals.  Donald Marshall is a Micmac Indian, David Milgaard was a rebellious long haired teenager, and Guy-Paul Morin was a rare Francophone in South Western Ontario.  They were all at the wrong places at the wrong time, when the crimes were committed.  The whole justice system had assumed their guilt.  So with all the resources available, the whole Canadian justice system went out of its way to build up the case against them.  The Police and the courts believed they were right, so they did not see the point of looking at other evidence, which would have proved them wrong.  Their minds were shut and they did not see other possibilities.  Their minds were made up, and no facts could disturb their resolute.

From time to time, we all need to question assumptions to get to the truth.  I believe that this is what the messages in Isaiah and Mark mean when they said, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God."  It is like Curling.  A heavy stone is slowly moving, and the sweepers must clear the way furiously.  In the Bible, this action to clear the way is called repentance.  Repentance is not just to say "I am sorry."  It means completely clearing the mind of all assumptions and to start afresh with an open mind.  You have to look at life up-side down, to rid yourself of biases and to see what life really is.  It is not always easy to forget the old assumptions, and try something completely new with an open mind.  All of us want to believe we have been right all along.

Both Isaiah and Mark spoke about calling people to repent in the wilderness.  In the desert, nothing functions as you expect.  When the path ahead looks completely safe, it may be a cover for a deadly hazard.  You don”t take anything for granted in the desert.  I was travelling in the Sahara on an uneventful boring day.  Suddenly, the driver forced the gears into reverse and the Land Rover violently jerked backward.  We had narrowly avoided quick sand.  Even an experienced driver who travelled the desert thousands of times didn”t see a patch of quick sand.  The wilderness is a dangerous place, because there you can not assume anything.  Everything is unpredictable.  Experienced explorers know that you must respect the desert and never take the wilderness for granted.

In our life too, we all run into "deserts" – times of  life, when nothing looks familiar.  It can be a happy experience or can be a sad one.  It can be exhilarating or can be devastating.  It is a very unsettling place to be.  But it can also be a very creative place and time.  Nobody knows what”s going to happen.  Everybody is equal in the wilderness.  All of us, poor or rich,  can get lost.  Thirst, hunger, loneliness, and heat hit everybody equally.  Age, experience, wealth, social standing, and nationality don”t give you any advantage nor disadvantage over others.  Successful persons can be humiliated because nothing they know or own is any good in the desert.  On the other hand, you may find amazing strength to endure all sorts of difficulties among those people who are on the bottom of social scale.  Like the prophesy of Isaiah predicts,"  All the dents of humiliation are filled and lifted, and all the bumps of arrogance is knocked down and levelled."  In the wilderness, all are equal.  Only those with open minds will survive and thrive in the desert.  That is where and when Jesus Christ comes to meet with us.

Advent is time to learn about preparation.  Isaiah said, "Prepare the highway in the wilderness for the Lord.  Fill up the valley and knock down the rocky hills."  In other words, we must sweep away the garbage of assumptions to keep an open mind, knock down the hills of arrogance, and fill up the valley of sagging spirits.  That”s the way to prepare the way for Christ child.

C: THE MARK OF LEADERSHIP – CHRIST THE KING

THE MARK OF LEADERSHIP – CHRIST THE KING

Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 103, Luke 23:33-43

November 22, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

We will vote in a Provincial election in a week from tomorrow. I suspect that many of us are anxious about this, because our votes at this election may be crucial for the future of Quebec. However, the most unfortunate aspect of our election is the fact that we have to choose a party not a person. It is the party that decides in our system. So too much attention is given to the leaders of the parties, and many of us do not bother to find out who the candidates in our riding are. This is unfortunate. We have lost the practice to hold each of our representatives accountable. We are voting for a person who might as well be a dummy. We have to make each one of them responsible to us again rather than to their party leaders.

Traditionally, today is the last Sunday of the church calender year. It is called "Christ the King" or "Reign of Christ" Sunday. It is the last Sunday before the Advent – the season to prepare for Christmas. Today, we remind ourselves that Jesus Christ is the true King. It is he who demonstrated all the marks of authentic leadership. If we think of Jesus Christ as the ideal leader, we will learn how to choose a good leader by examining political figures according to the standards of leadership Jesus Christ had set.

We must first notice the significance of the Scripture passages chosen for today to celebrate Christ as King. The Jeremiah passage speaks about the shepherds, and the Luke passage depicts the scene on the cross on which Christ died. The image of a shepherd projects an image of a leader who takes care of the flock. Christ himself portrayed his role as that of a shepherd. The cross is the symbol of forgiveness and self-sacrifice. The crucified shepherd is a lofty role model for our political leaders. We can not expect any human being to fully live up to the kind of a standard set by Christ. But we can set the Christ”s example as a 100% perfect score – "A+", and grade our political figures accordingly.

Let us think about the image of a shepherd. We have a long tradition in our religion of comparing leaders with shepherds. Jeremiah compared the kings with shepherds who destroyed and scattered the flock to pass judgement on the performance of the bad kings. Jesus told his disciples to be shepherds also. Our present day understanding of that comparison may not quite fit with what the Bible intended to say, because livestock have become commodities, not friends. But when the authors of the Bible used the image of a shepherd, the relationship between people and animals was much closer – almost as though animals were part of the family. They roamed the barren land together in search of grazing land, sharing the good times and bad. They depended on each other, and their emotional attachment to each other was strong.

So when the Bible compared the kings with the shepherds, the expectation was that they would behave like the ones who cared about the people as much as they did about themselves. The kings were expected to be more than parents. A shepherds is visible. The shepherd had to be seen by the flock, walked in front of them, and often exposed themselves to the danger of the elements before their animals. The shepherd exercised their leadership by being visible as well as by being caring. There is a risk that goes with being visible. Bill Clinton must have learned that lesson. A leader is expected to be a role model by being open and visible. It is true not just for the political figures, but for other public figures too, teachers and ministers included.

Sometimes the price for authentic leadership can be extremely high. In the case of Jesus Christ, the price of his leadership was death on the cross. He did not have to be so public about loving the sick, the poor and the outcasts more than the rich and powerful. He could have loved them quietly, in private. But the mark of Christ”s leadership was that he demonstrated his loving care in public so that others could see God”s love clearly revealed and would follow his example. His deeds spoke more loudly than his words. When he prayed even in his extreme suffering, "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.", all his teaching about love and forgiveness became more credible than ever.

Human history records many persons who, like Jesus, paid the price of visible leadership. They met their demise because they tried to live out their beliefs. Peter and Paul were executed because they publicly professed their faith in Christ. Many martyrs followed their examples; some of them did so without the knowledge of Christ. In recent years, there were Mahatma Ghandi, Indira and Rajiv Ghandi, Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Steve Biko, Bishop Oscar Romero, and the most recently Itzak Rabine in Israel. I don”t think that they intentionally sought death. But they did not hesitate to express their conviction openly even though there was a risk in doing so. A Japanese saying has it, "A nail which sticks out inevitably will be hammered down." A leader must be seen when exercising leadership, and so sticks out like a sore thumb. A principled leader always takes a risk of being hammered down. A leader must be courageous to truly lead.

I can not say that all those human leaders I mentioned were perfect. In fact, all of them had flaws in their characters. But consciously or unconsciously, they all tried their best to live up to the standard of a perfect leader – Jesus Christ. Consequently, they paid the ultimate price in their sacrifice. As we stand in front of a ballot box, let us remind ourselves of the marks of a true leader. A true leader cares for us and is responsible to us. Also a true leader is ready to pay the price of leadership even at the expense of own demise. Most likely, we will have to settle for the very cheap and flawed version of a true leader. It is also possible that our riding will elect the wrong person for the wrong reasons. It is then our responsibility to demand their accountability and to make constructive criticism, according to the standard we believe in – of true leadership: Jesus Christ, the true leader of all other leaders, the crucified shepherd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

C: Tender Love and Tough Mind – SECOND SUNDAY OF SEPTEMBER

TENDER LOVE AND TOUGH MIND

LUKE 14 : 25 – 33

True love requires an intensely tough mind. Such toughness is so intense that sometimes it feels almost like hate. We should not ignore this, though this probably is one of the most difficult aspects in the art of loving. Jesus in today”s Gospel is telling us that if we do not deal with this love/hate relationship, we do not really understand his love. The lesson from Jeremiah also makes the similar point about the difficult demands God makes of people, like a potter who smashes up imperfect pots and remoulds them until he sees perfection.

The backdrop of the story in today”s Gospel was Jesus” final journey to Jerusalem where he died on a cross. By then he was an enormously popular man. He was always followed by a large crowd of people. But were they all truly dedicated followers of Christ? Some of them might have been. But, the majority were not. In fact, many of them soon turned their backs on Jesus and became the very crowd that demanded the death of Jesus. Jesus put a difficult test to them so that they would realize how tough it is to be true disciples.

The test was, indeed, tough. Most of us do not understand what he meant at a first glance. He said, "Anyone, who does not hate father and mother, brother and sister, himself or herself, and does not carry the cross with me, is not my true disciple." It sounds like a complete reversal of everything Jesus stood for. We don”t understand why he used the word "hate".

In the case like this, I usually look at the same story in other Gospels, like Matthew and Mark. They used a little milder expression to say the same thing. Jesus said, "If you do not love me more than you love your father and mother, etc." Difference in language shows that Luke felt more strongly about the point that Jesus was making than other writers of the Gospels. In other words, Luke felt it so strongly, that a negative word like ”hate” was necessary to make the same point.

We must realize that hate is not the opposite of love. Love”s opposite is apathy, or lack of care. Hate, like love, is a powerful emotion that takes over your whole being. Yes, hate is extremely negative. But if you don”t care, you don”t hate. It is why love often causes negative emotions like jealousy or hate. Some Old Testament literatures even describes God”s love by saying, "God is a jealous God." This is no puppy-love.

What then does it mean to love Jesus more than to love anyone else? If you love Jesus intensely, you will be shocked to see the contrast between his enormous capacity to love and our way. The difference shows up so starkly that it is like looking at yourself in a very sharp uncompromising mirror. If it is a good mirror, it shows us in detail. It does not necessarily flatter us. You can”t be fooled by what you think you look like and how you really appear. Jesus was an embodiment of perfect love and a perfect human being. By loving Jesus, we see an honest refection of ourselves in contrast to a perfect model of human being.

Likewise when we look at our parents, our spouse, our children, and ourselves in comparison to the best model of human being, Jesus Christ, of course, we will find them lacking. There are some people who are exemplary, but most of them are still far from perfect. Yes, we do admire most parents for the way they love their children. Yes, there are many saint-like people whose sacrificial dedication to good causes is amazing. But we still believe that God”s love shown in the life and death of Jesus Christ is far superior to any human examples, even of Mother Teresa or of Albert Schweitzer.

If we ignore what is lacking in us, we are in danger of making an idol out of something that is less than perfect. That would be very dangerous, because that lets us create a world of illusions and live in lies. But it is extremely difficult to name the problems in our intimate relationships, especially when we love each other. But an important test of relationship is whether one can deal with something imperfect in a loving fashion. Ignoring the problems of your loved ones is not kindness. Indulgence by ignoring problems is a weakness, a lesser love and a beginning of a dangerous relationship. Parents often make that mistake by ignoring the children”s problems and by continuing to believe that their kids are perfect. There are many extremely kind and loving persons, who ignore the problems and continue to be nice to people they love. It is very difficult to tell them that their softness in love, in the end, is unkind. True love is tender but tough. I know a woman in my family in Japan who is married to an alcoholic. It is so very difficult to tell her that she must be tough, because she is very kind and obviously loves her husband. I feel rotten to have to tell her the reality of life.

By telling us to love him more than we love anybody else, Jesus meant to tell us that if we truly love anyone, we must name the problems honestly and deal with them squarely. Because there is no human being who is perfect, by loving Christ as the perfect model of our life, we should be able to deal with the problems of our imperfection. Love is the tenderest thing. But a true love is also tough. It does not encourage cheating reality. It faces reality and deal with it. Love is courageous and tough. Tender love requires a tough mind. Loving is not cheap, not just sugar and honey. You identify the problems by looking at the Christ mirror, and name them and deal with them.

Remember; Jesus was led to the cross by those who believed in cheap love. They believed in him as a popular magician, or a politician who would give them what they wanted. They did not want to see the tough side of God”s plan and terrible sacrifice required by God. They wanted milk and honey without the wilderness nor the crossing of the river. Cheap love can turn one into a traitor overnight. This is why Luke felt strongly enough to use the word like ”hate”, to stress the importance of looking reality right in the eyes, and hating the shortcomings one is bound to see in any human being. It was an act of the hatred of sinfulness that Luke was talking about, and not the hatred of persons. True love does not allow for avoiding of reality. This is why Paul said, "Love rejoices in truth."

King Lear, in a Shakespeare”s play, did not understand this. He disinherited the youngest daughter Cordelia and banished her. He thought that she did not love him, because she said things he did not want to hear. Yet, she loved him truly thus spoke the truth without fear. He did not like that. Often truth is harsh. So he divided kingdom into two and gave them to the other two daughters, who were all sweet on the surface, but who, in the end, betrayed him. By the time the king realized the true nature of Cordelia”s love, it was too late. She was murdered.

We see from time to time some tragedies in relationships, not so much because people hate each other, but because their love was not tough enough to confront reality, and because they ignored their problems. Let us remember that in our journey through this life, we must learn love”s toughness as well as its tenderness.

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.

C: EASTER AND STAR TREK

EASTER AND STAR TREK

John 20:1-18

A week ago last Saturday, two very important things happened on the new Star Trek series : Voyager. When two ugly but very scientifically advanced life-forms were beamed up and arrested, Captain Janeway was ready to kill one of them in order to recover the lungs which they stole from one of her crew members – Neelex and had used in a transplant operation. But she discovered that these life-forms were being driven to extinction, because of some virus which was destroying their organs. So what did Captain Janeway do? She decided to let him live and go. I don”t know what she was going to do with the dying crew member, who was being kept alive on a life-support system. The story never said. The second clip was about a crew whose lungs were stolen, thus he was on the verge of certain death. He was prepared to die, but didn”t because a woman offered to give one of her lungs to save his life. The story never made it clear but she had some special attachment to this particular crew member.

What did I get from those stories? Compassion and love win at the end of the day. Despair and hopelessness do not say the last word. We don”t know how it works, but love leads us to go beyond what looks like the end of all possibilities.

Mary Magdalene loved Jesus dearly. The Bible makes it quite clear that for Mary, Jesus was her life. So when he died on the cross, her life was also gone. She was in despair. Nothing mattered any more, there was no hope. Anyone who lost a loved one knows this. When my father died suddenly when he was 50 and I was in early twenties, I thought that the whole world came to an end. It simply was not possible to think of any future without him. Death in this case was more than physical end of brain or heart activity, and the beginning of the process of decomposition of our physical bodies. Death here means an absolute hopelessness.

So Mary was sitting outside of the cave where the body of Jesus had been brought in, and crying. What else was there to do, there was nothing in her life any longer. She asked two men to come, hoping that they would do something to recover the remains of her beloved teacher. But they went away as though they could solve the emptiness in their lives by being busy. We men often do that. But Mary stayed by the empty grave. What was she hoping by doing that? Nothing. She had no other thing to do, because life was impossible without him.

And he came, Jesus. She saw him. But she thought that he was a gardener. A person without any hope can not see what really is. She looked at him, and they even exchanged a few words. But she could not recognize the man in front of her as the dead beloved teacher, who came back to life. Despair inhibits the ability to see reality. Then he called her name. A very personal way to remind her of the nature of their relationship. And at last she recognized him. We parents all know that there is some unexplainable but special quality in the way your child calls you. My daughter is a grown woman. But she still calls me, "Daddy". Maybe its childish. But every time any body calls his or her father "daddy", I always have hard time controlling my tears.

There was no more despair. He was alive. How? We don”t know. We may never know how Jesus came to life again. I don”t think it matters. The main thing is that for those who loved him and owed their lives to him, they saw him and believed that the evil did not have the last word on their beloved teacher. He is risen, and lives among us.

It was obvious that Jesus came back from the dead beyond what we normally understand as physical realities. Perhaps, He came back in a spiritual form. So he walked through doors without opening them, appeared in many places at the same time. But you can not dismiss it, simply because it can not be proven scientifically, or does not fit our normal definition of what”s possible. That”s nonsense. The problem of today”s world is that many believe that spiritual world is less real than the scientifically provable world of facts. I believe that our society is sick because people dismiss the spiritual world less important than the world of science. We dismiss affection, love, beauty, joy and despair, goodness and evil as less than real. We must realize that this kind of common sense is the core of our problem.

But because Jesus loved each one of them, he came back and showed his love in a very personal way. For Mary it was calling her name. For a scientist like Thomas, he offered a physical proof. Thomas is a very modern man. He doubted everything, until it was proven with undisputable evidence. So Jesus said to Thomas, "Touch me, if you don”t believe me". For other disciples, that was not necessary. They sensed he was alive and this alone gave them new hope. Why should anybody need further proof? If you have to keep on giving expensive gifts to prove your love, love in that relationship is dead. True love does not need proof, it only needs to be expressed. So Jesus was sorry that Thomas needed proof. Jesus said, "Happy is the person who can believe without seeing and touching." But because Jesus loved each one of them in uniqueness and in their idiosyncrasies, he offered Thomas proof of this victory of love.

Mary saw risen Jesus beyond despair. Thomas saw Jesus which should have been impossible according to common sense. Star Trek may seem like a long way from the Easter story. But in both cases, Easter and Star Trek, we come to the same essential truth. Love leads us to go beyond what looks like the end of all possibilities.

Christ is risen! Hallelujah!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

C: NINETY-NINE AND ONE – SECOND SUNDAY OF SEPTEMBER

NINETY-NINE AND ONE

Luke 15 : 1 – 10

September 13, 1998 by Tad Mitsui

 

I misplace and lose things all the time. I can do a lot more in my life, if I don”t have to look for things. I am very happy when I find what I have been looking for. But the Gospel suggests that what is lost and found includes people. The lost persons are those who have problems. Then suddenly the innocent stories of a lost sheep and a lost coin become a little bit more complicated and challenging.

 

We understand how happy it is to find lost money. We also understand that bit about leaving behind ninety-nine sheep to find one who is lost. When we can not find something, we look for it almost in panic: "The key, the key." And the car is locked. We don”t worry about those things that are not lost at a time like that. Let”s apply this to people: The whole family unites when one member is in trouble. We don”t worry even about young children who are OK, and attend mother”s needs, when she is very sick, worry when father lost the job, or when a little Johnny runs into a serious trouble at school and the parents are called to the Principal”s office.

 

We normally accept it as given that we have to look after the troubled or the weakest first. We spend more time, energy, and money to take care of one person in need than we do on normal persons. A famous Anthropologist, Margaret Meade once said, "The mark of a healthy society is how it looks after its weak members." It is normal that we spend time to try to find the lost. We don”t worry about those who do not need immediate help. They are OK without our help: thank God. Jesus said, "a healthy person does not need a doctor." It is easy to understand the story of the lost coin. A coin has no mind or legs. It does not walk away to be lost. It has no responsibility for its own demise. Likewise, there are people who are in trouble for no fault of their own. Like disabled persons or the sick. Only a barbaric society that treats them like problems. Nazi society was the most barbaric in that sense, even though it was highly developed in science, strong militarily, and efficient economically.

 

It is also easy to understand the sheep who wandered away and lost. It was stupid, but it knew no better. Yes, we should be willing to spend time and to travel far to find the lost souls and bring them back. We should be happy when they are back, though they may need a bit of re-education. What is difficult for us, however, is persons whom Jesus called the lost people. Jesus spoke about people who have made wrong decisions and get into trouble. We think that it is their fault. It is difficult, for example, to be sympathetic with people, who got hooked on the drugs or threw away all money in gambling. It becomes even more difficult to accept the kind of people Jesus was talking about in today”s Gospel. You see, Jesus started all this discussion about ”lost and found”, when the Pharisees found tax-collectors and sinners with Jesus and questioned the wisdom of keeping such a company. They saw Jesus treating them like friends and eating with them. For the Jews during the Roman occupation, the tax-collectors were considered to be the most despicable people. You see, the Romans privatized the whole of tax administration. They gave the whole enterprise of assessment and collection of tax to a selected few people as their profit-making business. And the tax collectors made money, lots of it.

 

The Jews did not want to admit that such scum could be among their own people, and wished that they would just disappear. They were sellouts, traitors, blood suckers, people without any moral values. They became very rich. But nobody spoke to them nor wanted to be seen with them. Only Jesus did not reject them when they came to hear him. He even went into their homes, ate with them, and in fact, one of them became his disciple. His name was Matthew.

 

Jesus welcomed everyone who wanted to hear his teaching. He did not discriminate against people according to their reputations, names, jobs, nor their social standing. He accepted everyone, even the prostitutes. He believed in the potential of people, instead of blaming them for their past. He only saw their willingness to hear the word of God. This is because he saw the lost people as redeemable, so long as they had a willingness to change. No matter how immoral some of his followers might have been in the past, Jesus could see that some of them were willing to try to be better human beings. Serious intentions to change was good enough for Jesus. God is willing to forgive and welcome them back, when he sees seriousness about changing their lives.

 

In my father”s church, there was a retired Professor, who was Minister Emeritus. He was the Japan”s best known Old Testament scholar. He was not only a good scholar and a respected professor, he was also a powerful preacher. He preached a few times a year, and always attracted a standing-room-only audience from across the city. My father had a huge downtown church. The amazing thing about this man was that he was once a drug addict for many years in his youth. His hands trembled uncontrollably when he pronounced the blessing, because of that past. One day, as he told us, when he ran out of drug and he went into convulsion. When he regained consciousness, he found himself lying in a pew of a Salvation Army auditorium in a midst of an evangelistic meeting. There he sat and heard the good news about conversion and forgiveness. He decided to change his life right there and then to follow God”s way. He withdrew from heroin cold turkey, and went through several days of serious withdrawal syndrome alone all by himself. According to my medical doctor friend, this was almost impossible for a normal human being. Heroin withdrawal syndrome is so severe and physically painful that an addict usually wants to commit suicide.

 

This is an exceptional story which happened to one extraordinarily brave man. But my point is: yes, God is merciful and forgives all who repent and decide to return. He welcomes us back with open arms and there will be a great rejoicing. But do not think that it makes Christianity an easy religion. It is tough to admit one”s fault and change. But we can do it. Any ones can. There is always a second chance. It is up to us.

 

 

 

 

 

A: GOD, A RISK TAKER – THIRD SUNDAY OF NOVEMBER

GOD, A RISK TAKER

Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 128, Matthew 25:14-30

November 17, 1996 by Tad Mitsui

All of us have ups and downs. When I am up, I”m on top of the world. I feel so confident that I can bake the best pie in the world, run a billion dollar company, and wonder why people don”t come begging me to run in an election to save a country. But when I dropped Muriel”s treasured depression glass bowl handed down from her grandmother smashing it into pieces, I felt so humiliated by my own clumsiness that I could not even make a decent boiled egg. I feel like that every time I give a rotten sermon, too. In those times, you must not ask me to help you decide the colour of your curtain. If I put myself in a position of another person and look at myself from outside of myself, I wonder if I would trust a person like me who has so many ups and downs? Would I let him drive my brand new car, for example? I am not so sure if I would risk that.

Think about this man in Jesus” parable. Before he went away for a long trip, he gave a lot of money to three slaves and told them to look after it until he came back. Imagine the risk he was taking? To begin with, they were slaves. The slaves were not treated as humans in those days. They were never given any responsibility. Often they were treated wretchedly. So quite understandably slaves did not like their masters very much.

Secondly, value of the monetary unit used in this parable was an enormous amount of money. I estimate the value of "talent" today to be about a half a million dollars in our money. So this man gave one slave five million dollars, another one million, and the third a half a million dollars. Jesus was speaking about the situation which was almost unthinkable. No sane person would take such a big risk trusting a huge amount of money to some questionable people, who may be hating you inside.

As you may know, most of the Jesus” parables are about the Kingdom of God. They usually begin with a clause, "Kingdom of God is like:" So in this case, I believe that the point of the parable is that God”s Kingdom is in the risk taking, just like the man who trusted a huge amount of money to slaves and went away. God takes a risk trusting us. And that is what God”s rule means. I believe that the Kingdom of God is already here, though it is still in the making. Also I believe that we are participants of this project to create such a place. We are working with God to create a world, where the will of God is universally respected and followed. We are working with God to create the world where caring each other, love and respect are more important than winning and defeating others.

God takes a big risk in trusting us to work for his world. Imagine, a couple of guys who never handled big money before, played with millions of dollars of your money in risky business ventures or in a stock market. But if we look at ourselves honestly and consider our ups and downs, we realize the enormity of the risk God is taking. Those two slaves were lucky that they doubled the money. But the fact is; they gambled big-time with someone else”s money. It takes a lot of charitable spirit to give them any kind of credit, like the man in Jesus” parable. God wants us also to take risks and take part his project of building his kingdom. He does not scold us for taking risks, because we are participating in his work in the best way we know. He is pleased with us that we are sharing his risk. On the other hand, the one, who buried the money was scolded so severely, not so much because he was a coward, but because he did not share the risk the master was taking. He did not participate in a joint enterprise.

It is interesting, isn”t it. Jesus spoke about putting the money in the bank as the next best option for the weak-minded who was afraid to risk. But he did not caution against a possibility of a failure to those who participated in the business ventures. I get the impression that, for God, taking risks is, even with a possibility of failure, preferable to none participation. We can say the same thing about relationships. In our relationship with other persons, the important thing is to be engaged and to participate in a joint project called relationship. We may agree and sometimes we may disagree. We love and also we quarrel. Either way, we are engaged with each other and are participating in a joint enterprise called relationship. Love and hate – both positive and negative emotions are ingredients of relationships. This is why we say that love and hate are two sides of a coin. But if we don”t care, there is no relationship. If you don”t care, you don”t hate. The worst enemy of love is not hatred. It is apathy. If there is no love, we don”t fight because we don”t care. Then there is no relationship. To hate is an emotional involvement, hence there is relationship even in hatred. Relationship is a risk. Loving is a risk. When you love, you are taking a huge risk. But without risk taking in love, there is no participation. The building project of the Kingdom of God is participatory. God and we are partners both actively working together.

By inviting us to take part in the creation of heaven on earth, God is taking a huge risk. When I consider the mistakes that humans made throughout history, sometimes I wish that God did not give us such freedom and responsibility. If we should be like animals, always behaving purely on impulse and natural instinct, the world could have been a little better. Granted, animals fight over food and mates. But those fights are impulsive, not like the wars we humans wage using our sophisticated minds and technology. Animals fight impulsively. But humans organize mutual destruction systematically. This is why the result of human warfare is so much more devastating.

By giving us freedom to participate in his work, God also gave us an option to abuse it. God is risking a lot and he knows it. It is such an honour to be able to participate in God”s work in this world. But it is a big risk that we are also taking. To live in this world according to God”s commandment and to love our neighbours are a dangerous business. Sometimes cost of loving is enormous. If we do not want to get hurt, we must not love. We should cut ourselves off from other people. We should only take care of ourselves. Non-participation is very safe. It may mean that you have to live with loneliness and constant suspicion of others. But it is safe. You don”t get hurt. But it is not what God is calling us to be. God wants us to join him in the building of his country, Kingdom of God, by loving our neighbours as we love ourselves. There is risks in loving. But reward is huge. The reward is a joy of loving, loving people and loving God.

 

 

B: GOD LOVES THE WORLD, NOT JUST NICE PEOPLE – LENT 4

GOD LOVES THIS WORLD, NOT ONLY NICE PEOPLE

Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107, John 3:14 – 21

March 9, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

In early years of the church, there were many rumours about Christianity. Some people even accused Christians of practising cannibalism. Disturbing and incredible as it may sound, there were many good reasons for outsiders to misunderstand some Christian customs. You see, Roman authorities banned this new religion because it did not recognize the divinity of Caesar. Even those, who did not like the Romans, the Jews and the Greeks alike saw Christians with suspicion. So Christians had to often meet secretly at night in places like underground cemeteries called "catacombs". When people met, they often observed Communion in which they broke bread saying, "Take eat. This is my body. Drink of this cup. This is my blood." Remembering the broken body and spilt blood of Christ is the essence of communion, which to this day is the most important and cherished sacrament of our faith. Of course, cannibalism was a totally false and unfair accusation. And yet the wording of the liturgy could sound upsetting to many people who did not know the Christian faith. We too have to come to grips with the language of sacrifice in our faith.

In order to understand the meaning of sacrifice, it is necessary for us to remember the ancient Hebrew belief about God”s justice and love. People of the Old Testament believed, as we still do, that God was just and loving. However, often justice and love, or righteousness and mercy could run into conflict with each other. What do you do when someone you love is unjust? Do you forgive and condone evil? Or would you fulfil the requirements of justice and deny the impulse of love? The notion of sacrifice emerged to solve this dilemma. To commit sin is like owing God a debt. The idea that someone could pay the debt for another person evolved into the idea of sacrifice. In the old Hebrew traditions, animals without blemish were sacrificed to pay that debt to God, so that injustice was properly dealt with. The innocent animals gave up their lives for the sinners. This was how the debts were paid and the books were balanced. The innocent one who was merciful paid a huge price. But through its sacrifice, justice was done. This is how the notion of Jesus being the ultimate sacrificial lamb evolved, to explain the love of God expressed in the death of Jesus on the cross. It was an first theological attempt to explain, in our limited human vocabulary, the mystery of God”s amazing grace in Jesus Christ.

When the Gospel says, "For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son.", it said "the world" without qualification. God loved the world of nature and human beings, the world where good and bad, material and spiritual, beautiful and ugly, are all co-existing. It does not say that God separated them and loved only the good people, only the one belonging to the spiritual world, and only the beautiful things. It says that God loved them all, as though they were all mixed up as one entity. This is a constant reminder for us who come to church. Yes, God loves us. But God loves those who are not in the church, also. Not only do we need to remind ourselves that we are not the only ones who are loved by God. We have to treat those outside of the church also as ones who are equally loved by God. We must never hold an "us v.s. them" attitude, because God doesn”t.

One of the difficult situations I, as a minister, face from time to time is the expression of guilt on the part of people who don”t come to church. Whenever people see a minister, inevitably some people begin to explain why they don”t come to church. I always have an urge to say to these people, "I don”t care. I like you anyhow." I understand some people don”t want to or can”t come to church. I did not go to church for a period for different reasons. For many of you, and for me, going to church is extremely important like breathing and eating. We get to show our faith in a safe place, and get fed with spiritual nourishment. But we do not have right to say that other people must feel the same as we do. God does not make a distinction between church goers and non-church people. God loves us all.

I like the attitude of medical doctors and nurses in this respect. They don”t judge people for their conduct. They treat saints and sinners alike. They do their best to treat a person even if the patient is ethically a hopeless case. Doctors and nurses do not discriminate about patients nor pass judgement about them. Likewise when God loves the world, and he does not discriminate. The difference from the medical people is: God is also the God of justice, who hates evil. In this context, it becomes all the more important to remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The cross of Jesus Christ was the God”s way to love the world without compromising the principles of justice. When justice demanded retribution, God paid off our debts through Jesus Christ once and for all.

 

When I was a child, I heard a story of a dedicated and caring government official in Taiwan. Let us call him Mr. Song – a common Taiwanese name, because I forgot his name. He was sent by the central government into a remote region where mainly Aboriginal people lived to oversee its governance. He was a good man, and people came to love him dearly. Over the years, people came to regard Mr. Song as though he was the father of the tribe. But there was one problem even this good man could not solve. This particular people used to practice human sacrifice in times of great distress. They raided other tribes when plagues struck or crops failed, captured a prisoner, and made a human sacrifice and dedicate the head of the prisoner to appease angry god. The Government, of course, prohibited the practice of such a cruel custom, and meted out severe punishments whenever this happened and was discovered. But the barbaric practice never stopped. Once there was a great famine, and Mr. Song could tell that people were again ready to go back to their old barbaric custom. So he decreed that the government would overlook the practice of human sacrifice one more time – but henceforth after that, the practice would be met with an unimaginable and severe punishment. There was also a condition. Fir this last sacrifice, they would not be able to stage a raid into another people”s village: they would have to take whatever stranger who happened to pass the village. So the villagers captured the first stranger who came into the village. It was only after they beheaded him that they found this human sacrifice was their beloved Mr. Song in disguise. People wept for many days regretting their stupidity. As the story goes, from that day forward the barbaric practice of human sacrifice was never repeated in Taiwan.

For us, Christ was the final and ultimate sacrifice who paid the price of all of our transgressions once and for all. All we need to do is to believe this, and pledge to be forgiving and charitable to all of our neighbours. The sacrament of Holy Communion is our symbolic act to remember Christ”s final and ultimate sacrifice that paid off all our debts of past and future. Let us celebrate it joyfully and go out of this place as happy free people.

A: WE ARE WHAT WE DO, NOT ALWAYS WHAT WE SAY. – FIRST SUNDAY OF NOVEMBER

WE ARE WHAT WE DO, NOT ALWAYS WHAT WE SAY.

I Thessalonians 2:9-13, Psalm 107, Matthew 23:1-12

November 3, 1996 by Tad Mitsui

A comedian, Greg Malone, commenting about the debates between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, said, "If somebody says to me that he never lies, never cheats, and is never interested in money, I know he is a psychotic. Then how come we still listen when politicians make similar claims?" Jesus said that some people do not practice what they say. He said, "Do whatever they say, but do not follow their examples." This is a warning to us about a danger of hypocrisy.

The scribes and Pharisees were the experts on the Bible. In a society ruled by religious traditions, they were considered to be the experts on the Law just like our lawyers are. They were respected and feared. They also had a lot of power. They could influence public policy by being able to whisper into the ears of kings and governors. They told people what was right or wrong. People gave them great authority. They always sat at the head table. They became used to being praised in public. There were, certainly, many Pharisees who honestly pursued the truth, like Nicodemous who came to see Jesus in the dark of the night. Paul was also a sincere Pharisee. In fact, he was so serious about pursuit of the true religion that he gave up all glory and fame, once he became a Christian evangelist, and suffered the consequences. The Pharisees were, in principle,God fearing good people.

Unfortunately, many of the Pharisees got used to being praised by others, and came to believe that they deserved this exalted social standing. Arrogance and pride overtook them, and humility diminished. This is what happens when righteous people become self-righteous. We must remember that only God is absolutely righteous and just. No one can be absolutely righteous and just. But we can be closer to God, if we acknowledge God”s grace, because God forgives our shortcomings and accepts us as we are. In this sense, we must remember that all of us who are church goers are good people, not so much because we are good by nature but because we are made acceptable by the grace of God. So we must feel good about ourselves, because we are loved by God.

Church goers are lucky people, just like people who made it to the hospital in time. C.S. Lewis compared a Christian to a patient in a hospital who has checked in a little earlier than other people. Of course, there is something wrong with him. He is sick. That”s why he is in a hospital. But he knows the hospital procedures a little better than new comers, and has met some of the doctors and nurses. He knows that when one is not well, the hospital is a good place to be. He can give others some tips about how to cope with hospital life, and can assure people that they can trust doctors and nurses, and not to be afraid.

What is interesting in this Gospel passage is that Jesus affirmed the Pharisee”s profession. He said that they sat on Moses” seat. Moses was the one who brought God”s laws to people. Pharisees were heirs to the Moses” seat, so to speak. So Jesus told people to respect and follow what they taught, even though some of them were hypocrites. Many of the people who leave the church do so because of conflicts. Think of some people who left the church. Often people who leave the church are not against God or the teaching of Jesus. They are against some people who, to their opinion, behaved badly or said things they should not have. People become disillusioned by hypocrisy in the church. Jesus said, however, that despite hypocrisy of some Pharisees, what they taught was still God”s law. So he said, "Do whatever they teach you and follow it."

Of course, when you find some wrongs in the church, you should hear Jesus saying to you, "Do not do as they do, because they do not practice what they teach." In other words, he said, "Reject hypocrites, but follow their teaching of God”s words." I agree; it is very difficult to admit that someone you consider to be a hypocrite may be saying the right thing. But it can happen. In fact, all of us are not perfect but we do have grains of goodness to share with others. The important thing to remember is that whatever good we say is acceptable by the grace of God. All of us are capable of speaking the word of God, not because we are righteous and virtuous, but because God gave us the ability to do so. The church is not a gathering of sinless saints. It is a gathering of forgiven sinners. We are like beggars who know where to find food. Evangelism is beggars telling other beggars where to go to find food.

Paul had many enemies. Many of the first Christians who lived in Jerusalem did not agree with Paul”s teaching, because he did not always follow the Jewish laws. But Paul was spectacularly successful outside of Palestine. He started new churches in Turkey, Greece, and Italy. Many of Paul”s enemies in the church were envious, and consequently, they bad-mouthed him. Some of them said things with the view to make Paul suffer more in prison. But he said of those people, "Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry..[and]…proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true,; and in that I rejoice." As Jesus said, let us follow the word of God no matter how inadequate the carriers seem to be.

The problem of Pharisees and the scribes was that they had begun to believe that they by right deserved admiration and respect. They began to think that it was them whom people respected. They forgot that it was God who gave them pieces of divine knowledge and wisdom. It was this arrogance that made them hypocrites and failures as humans, even though they might have been conveying God”s messages. Arrogance in the Bible is termed as one of the biggest sins, because it makes a person self-righteous thus shuts off all channels of communication with God. It makes a person feel that he/she is complete and does not need any more help from God. It also shuts one off from further learning, because it makes one think one knows everything there is to know.

The church is a good place to be for us. But it is not a place for self-appointed saints to show how good they are. It is a place where people gather, those who know their weaknesses but feel that they are accepted, anyway. We are not afraid to admit the truth about our limitations, because the whole point of the good news of Jesus Christ is based on forgiveness and acceptance of repentant sinners. It is this humility that makes us transparent, allowing God-in-us to shine out. This is why the church is a good place for us to be. Not so much because of what we say, but more so because we can practice what we believe with joy and without fear.

B: TO BE A FOOL IN ORDER TO BE WISE – THIRD SUNDAY OF AUGUST

TO BE A FOOL IN ORDER TO BE WISE

1 Kings 3:16-28, Psalm 111(VU833 1 Cor 3:18

August 20, 2006 at Southminster

VU:409,371,506,663

A car was going around and round the blocks. Seeing it coming around his house several times, a man who was working in a front yard asked if he was lost. "Can I help you find what you are looking for?" "No, no, no. I know where I’m going." He said. "There is a gas station selling the cheapest gas around here. I’m trying to empty the tank, so I can fill it."

Often, people who think they are very smart do the most stupid things. King Solomon, who was considered to be the most smart king in Israel, knew that. So he is the one who wrote the most pessimistic literature in the Bible. The story of King Solomon teaches us about the limitation of humans, even those who may be very gifted and wise and successful, nevertheless are flawed.

Solomon was the most successful king of all times, not only in the history of Israel but also in the stories of all kings. 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. But most importantly, he was known for his wisdom. When he became a king, he first asked God for wisdom and nothing else. 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 sceptical about his achievements. Furthermore, 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 humans 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 and pessimistic?

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,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. In 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: is all we do in this life is 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 don”t think that King Solomon was saying that. For one thing, he tried his best to be a good king, for people and for the country. And he was a good king and a wise one, too. His country benefited 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 what we do 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, "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, 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 for love of other people he died. 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: HOW CAN THIS BE A SIGN OF HOPE? – FOURTH SUNDAY OF NOVEMEBR

HOW CAN THIS BE A SIGN OF HOPE?

– REIGN OF CHRIST SUNDAY –

Jeremiah 23 : 1 – 6 Luke 23 : 33 – 43

The Church Calender helps us to remember important events in our faith. Today is the Reign of Christ Sunday. It is the day to highlight our belief that Jesus Christ is ultimately in charge of the world. Isn”t it strange, however, that today”s scripture reading is the story of the cross on which Christ was being executed; a sure sign that he failed in his mission? It completely betrays the expectation of some Christians that the Christian church eventually will dominate the world in the belief that Jesus Christ is the king of kings. This is because the message of the Gospel is that Christ rules the world but with humility and love, not by power and conquest. Paradoxically his death was the sign of the ultimate victory of love over hatred and self-centredness.

In the last two weeks, we have witnessed the violent deaths of two brave campaigners for justice and peace: Yitzhak Rabin and Ken Saro-Wiwa, an Israeli and a Nigerian, a Jew and a Christian. Rabin was a professional soldier, a General, a war hero turned a peace activist. He successfully fought the British, Jordanians, Egyptians, and Palestinians. He ruled the occupied land of Palestine with an iron fist as Minister of Defence. But in the end, he realized that no matter how much blood was spilt, peace would not come. He realized that security of his people could never be guaranteed with the power of arms, and that violence would cause more violence. Security could only come with peace and reconciliation. So he decided to shake the hands of his arch-enemy to reconcile with him and his people. He became a stubborn peace maker. And ironically, he met a violent death on his way not to a war but to reconciliation . He died not in a battle but for peace.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was a successful Nigerian poet and writer. He could have lived in a safe haven like Switzerland to continue his lucrative writing career. But he went back to his people in the Niger River Delta area, and organized a peaceful protest. His people belong to the minority Ogoni tribe whose livelihood was completely destroyed by an oil company which polluted the river and killed the fish stock. The military dictatorship tried him in a kangaroo court, found him guilty of a trumped up charge of murder, and hanged him. He was bad news for the country”s economy, which depended on income from oil exports.

I had a couple of friends who died in the South African prisons in the 1970”s. When I met them during the late sixties, they were students in a university Christian movement; one was studying medicine and the other Social Work. They tried to help their people to acquire self-confidence, by providing credits for small businesses through a credit union. They were arrested for allegedly inciting violence, and were murdered by the Police while in custody. The story of one of them, Steve Biko, became a Hollywood movie a few years ago.

They were not the only ones who paid for their work towards justice and peace, their wives and children lost their loving partners, fathers and a grandfathers. Saro-Wiwa”s family were not allowed even to mourn with their friends. The Nigerian dictator feared political violence by emotional admirers of the dead hero, and prohibited a memorial service in the church. Even a mention of his name is cause for arrest.

When someone becomes a martyr, the family of the martyr suffers just as much if not more. They become living martyrs. When Jesus was crucified most of the disciples ran away. But his mother Mary sat at the bottom of the cross in agony watching her son suffer. Jesus told some of the disciples who remained at the foot of the cross that Mary was now their mother, and asked them to take care of her. Unlike the disciples, Mary had never understood exactly what her son”s mission was all about. A few time, she tried to stop him in his ministry for fear of his safety. Of course, she was right. The pursuit of total love was a dangerous career.

I corresponded for several years with one of the widows of my dead South African friends. Her name was Nohle. She lost her house for lack of income, and became near destitute trying to raise her children. She often wondered why she had to be the one who married someone who would give his life to the people. Her husband”s suffering ended when he died, but Nohle”s suffering has continued.

At the state funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, 16 year old grand-daughter, Noa Ben Artzi, read the most touching piece, more memorable than any other given by the heads of states. "Excuse me," she said, " I do not want to speak a piece, but to speak to my grandfather…. Grandpa, you are the pillar fire in front of the camp, now we just have the camp alone. Dark. and we”re so cold and alone. I know that people are speaking in terms of national tragedy, but how can you comfort a whole nation and involve them in your personal pain when Grandmother cannot stop crying. We feel the incredible open space without you. Very few people really knew you. They can speak about you, but I feel like they really don”t know anything about how deep the pain is… Grandpa you are our hero. I want you to know, that in everything I did, I saw you before my eyes. Your love, appreciation took us with every step, every path and will be a light to us forever. You never abandoned us, but we are abandoning you now. I cannot do anything to help you. People bigger than me already eulogized you, but your caress, your great caress, your warm hug, that was reserved just for us. Your sort of semi-smile, that great smile doesn”t exist anymore. The pain is so great. The ground is slipping out from under our feet and we”re trying to deal with the vacuum."

This is a cry of a young suffering woman who lost a loved one for the sake of peace, which continues. It is like agony of Mary”s excruciating sadness, who lost her son to the salvation of the whole of humanity. Jesus never looked for such suffering, or for such painful death; neither did many other martyrs who followed him. Furthermore, they never intended their loved ones to suffer so much. But the families” agonies were inevitable because of their uncompromising pursuit of justice, love, and peace. Even as he was dying, Jesus forgave those who were responsible for his suffering and death. His pursuit of love continued even on to the cross.

When a just person suffers by the hands of an unjust, iniquity of the unjust is exposed. Like the snow which melts in the sun, evil can not withstand absolute love. When the good are killed for doing good, the iniquity of the power that kills the good becomes clear. As the darkest of the night is the sign of imminent dawn, the suffering of the just is the sign of hope of the end of the dominance of evil and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

When my friend Steve Biko was murdered, that was the last straw that broke American patience. The U.S. Congress immediately passed an arms embargo against South Africa. Iniquity was exposed in the bright light. The end of Apartheid began as the direct result of the death of one 31 year old medical student. Those who loved Steve carried the torch in their suffering as living martyrs. The death of Yitzhak Rabin caused so much anger in the Israeli society, that the movement for peace is now unstoppable. The word for martyr in the original Greek language (marturion) means simply a witness. Some of the witnesses for Christ died for their testimonies, but many continued to live. For every martyr, there are many living martyrs who continue the task of building a just and peaceful world in their grief.

It is a sign that the Kingdom of God is still incomplete, when the good people suffer and die for doing good. However, it is a sure sign of heaven on earth and the presence of Christ that there are brave lovers of humanity who never stop loving, even if it costs them their lives. The victory of love is achieved not just through the deaths but though the living cloud of witnesses that remembered them. The death of Jesus Christ is a sign of hope, because it means the victory of love.

 

November 26, 1995

Tad Mitsui

Howick, Quebec

B: POVERTY IS A PROBLEM OF RELTIONSHIP – FIRST SUNDAY OF SEPTEMBER

POVERTY IS A PROBLEM OF RELATIONSHIP, NOT OF MONEY

Proverbs 22:1-2,8-9,22-23

Psalm 125, Mark 7:24-30

September 7, 1997 by Tad Mitsui

In Africa, my salary was $91 a month in 1968. At the time the minimum salary of a United Church minister was about $300. It was the policy of the church not to give the impression that a missionary was just another rich foreigner. I must confess, I was worried about such a small salary. However, I found that such a small income in Canada was very large compared to the local average income. We were fabulously rich people in Lesotho. The question of who is rich or poor depends to a large extent how rich or poor other people are. It”s all relative.

The book of Proverbs says, "A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches. Favour is better than silver or gold." In other words, the question of rich and poor has a lot to do with happiness. Wealth can bring happiness when it helps to create good relationships with other people. There is not much point in being rich, if wealth causes unhappiness. Princess Diana found the purpose of her life working for unfortunate people. Royal title and wealth made her unhappy. Mother Teresa was a nun vowed to live in poverty, and dedicated her life for poor people. But her life was richer than those of many rich people. Where there is justice, wealth can create happiness. So to seek justice and to try to narrow the gap between rich and poor, is not just a matter of high minded religious devotion or sacrifice, but according to the Proverbs it is common sense wisdom. Today I am going to speak about two subjects in dealing with the sayings from today”s lectionary selection. I will speak about wealth, and about wisdom.

The book of Proverbs is a part of the Bible called "wisdom literature." Wisdom literature also is in a larger category in the Old Testament called "Writings", which are literally people”s writings, such as Psalms, creative stories like Job and Ruth, and sayings like the Proverbs and the Ecclesiastes. Though they are the words written by human beings and are not God”s words as such, those creative writings make very important points about our faith. This is why those words by mortals are in the Holy Bible.

There are some interesting things to note about wisdom literature. For one thing, Proverbs seldom quotes God”s words. They are the collection of many pieces of common place folk wisdom. The book is full of sayings like: "Watch the ants you lazybones." "Fools think their way is always right, but the wise listen to advise." You don”t need to refer to God to use your common sense. You don”t need to mention God to say, "Take your muddy boots off at the door." Of course, our ordinary day-to-day common sense wisdom is God given wisdom without saying so. Another interesting thing is that the word "wisdom" is referred to as "she" in Proverbs. It means that Wisdom is a feminine side of God. In fact, the Jewish book of Biblical interpretations called the Talmud refers to wisdom as God in a feminine term – something like saying "Mother God."

I am not quite sure how some ideas can be feminine and others male. I can see that "war" is male, and "nurture" is female. But that "wisdom" is female? I suppose that no-nonsense down-to-earth common sense can be female, and pompous sounding "command" is male. I can venture to say that an idea like "Good relationships with other people makes you feel rich." has a woman”s touch. It recognizes importance of emotions and feelings, with which men are often uncomfortable. Men like to refer to logical conclusions and commandments. The wisdom literatures like Proverbs tell us that it is as important to be common sensical as it is to be knowledgeable about commandments. In fact, I dare say that without wisdom, mere knowledge can be useless.

Speaking about knowledge, we know so much more today than any other time in history. With our television sets, we have access to virtually hundreds of channels from all over the world through cables and satellites dishes. (We could watch Diana”s funeral as it was in progress thousands of miles away.) With a modem on your computer, you have access to virtually billions of pieces of information about anything, anywhere, anytime. We are living in the information age. But are we wiser because we have so much information and know so much? I don”t think so. It is like keeping telephone books of many cities. They are absolutely useless to most people. No one thinks that a winner of the Trivial Pursuit is automatically a wise person who can run a country.

Information, no matter how much is available, is useless to us unless we know how to find what we need and use it wisely. Many forbearers of our faith did not know as much as we do. Prophets did not go to universities. Many disciples were illiterate, and Jesus did not have a University degree. We are better educated people than those in previous generations. But are we wiser than our uneducated fathers and mothers of our faith? I doubt it.

In fact, we are probably more unwise. We can behave more stupidly as we pursue more knowledge about everything. Likewise, we seek more wealth without asking what we are going to do with it. We want to know more and more, even though so much information is absolutely useless or even harmful to ourselves and to others. The recent tragedy of Princess Diana”s death is the result of the public”s desire to know more and more about everybody and everything. As we seek to know more, we have lost common sense respect. Respect comes from the true knowledge of other persons available only in relationships. Without relationship, the knowledge of another person is very superficial. Superficial knowledge without feeling does not generate respect.

I was once the spectator of a scene where a drowned man was being pulled out of a river. There were many other people like me who were watching the tragedy with morbid curiosity. The dead man was just an object of curiosity, it might as well have been a dead mouse, until we found that it was someone”s beloved husband. Suddenly we heard a shriek. A woman ran to the body, hugged it tightly, and started to wail as though the world came to an end. I was so ashamed of myself for being there watching a personal tragedy. I felt like a peeping Tom. There are many things that can be meaningful only in relationship. The life and death of a person are two of them. Wealth is another one of them. Wealth is good for you only in order to live with other people harmoniously. Otherwise, it can be a source of conflict and unhappiness. This is why it is wise to seek justice, not just because it is the right thing to do. Caring relationships make a whole world of difference.

 

 

 

 

 

Should we stop saying “”Shalom””?

Salaam, Shalom, and Khotso – Peace

During the early stage of Intifada – Palestinian Uprising during 1980”s, I ran into a situation in Gaza Strip that changed my perception of the word "Shalom".  I still have a problem accepting the word as it is supposed to mean, whenever it is said by a good Church person.  Obviously I have not reached a resolution and am still troubled by use of a word which gives different messages.  

People should remember those days when Safari suits and Army fatigue types of casual clothes were popular.  Well, I was in one of those outfits, touring Gaza Strip with a friend from the Middle East Council of Churches, looking at Mothers” Clinics which were supported by Canadian Churches.  Young children began to greet me by saying "Shalom".  I responded innocently "Shalom".  My friend suddenly told me that we should go immediately and pulled me into the car.  There, he told me to go back to the Hotel and change clothes, and never say "Shalom" to anyone.

Of course, I should have known that Army fatigues were worn only by Israeli soldiers in the Occupied Territories.  Safari suits looked suspiciously like Army outfits.  And the word "Shalom" is a most common greeting in Israel.  It is almost like the way we say "Hi".  Most of the Israeli do not think of the meaning of the word, as we United Church people attach some profound significance to the word.  Of course, this is nothing unusual.  Most of us do not think of the meaning of the words we use for greeting.  Have you thought about the theological meaning of the word "Hi" recently?

Those two innocent actions on my part on that day in Gaza Strip, clothes and the Hebrew greeting, simply meant to young Palestinian minds symbols of oppression.  Israeli occupation of their home land and the occupiers.  A possible target of a sling-shot.  A Canadian friend thought that this was ridiculous.  She said, "Have you seen an Israeli who looks like a Japanese?"
 
My friend obviously did not know about a group of Japanese who migrated to Israel.  They believed that they were descendants of the remnants of the "Lost tribe of Israel" who supposedly ended up in Japan centuries ago.  They believe that they are Jews and live in Israel.

In some ways, I was pleased to find that the word "Shalom" became common usage, during my twelve years of absence from Canada.  People know that there is no peace without justice.  Friends conclude their letters wishing me Shalom.  When I left Canada to go to Africa in 1968, the word was understood only by small number of so-called progressive Christians in the same way as the Hebrew Bible writers meant.  They were the types of people who read Harvey Cox.  I learned also from him the meaning of the word which was far more profound and wider than what English word "Peace" would convey.  It definitely meant Peace with Justice.  

Even as late as 1982, however, people were still engaging in some fierce debates about whether peace is more important than justice, or vice versa.  At the World Council of Churches Assembly in Vancouver, I saw some pointed graffiti to indicate that many people still did not understand the meaning of the word "Shalom".  One of them on a bulletin board said, "Injustice kills thousands, but wars kill us all."  Those were the dark days of the threat of nuclear holocaust.

In 1968 I went to Southern Africa, and learned Southern African languages.  African theologians like Desmond Tutu taught me also how some of the African traditional spirituality  had commonalty with other nomadic traditions like that of Hebrew people.  Desmond often compared the Hebrew Bible with Bantu oral traditions.  He was an Old Testament professor.  I taught other things I was not trained for, but that”s another story.  The word for peace in Sesotho (one of the dominant Southern African languages) is "Khotso".  This is why the office of the South African Council of Churches is called Khotso House.  I learned that the meaning of Khotso is almost identical to Shalom, as it is to the Arabic word "Salaam".

They greet by wishing each other "Khotso", which also means, "I wish you, your family and neighbours full stomach".  They say the word with hands raised with palms open showing that they hold no weapon.  A very simple way of wishing peace with justice.  An agent of the South African government bombed the Khotso House during the late eighties”.  It is clear that an idea of Peace with Justice was subversive for the Apartheid regime.  

Problem is:  when some words are used daily as part of common expressions, their original meaning wear out.  People use those words not knowing what they originally meant.  They become mere labels of their culture – like famous "Gooday, mate" for Australians.  You can not ask people