Ha Na Park Sermon ~ How Would You Praise God Today?

Matthew 25:31-46

I have been in this faith community, Meadowood, for about 5 months. It is still the beginning of our journey together, but I am starting to get to know more about each person here, starting from the surface and finding out more about your deeper selves every day. You are a deep well of faith and inspîration, and I am a swimmer diving down, down, and down, to meet you all deeply. Along the way of the deep diving, I am looking around, taking the temperature of my environment, learning about the character of our church, the heart of our church, the questions, the hopes, the skepticism, the wonders, the fears, the things that delight, and the things that cast uncomfortable shadows.
When I was young, I used to duck down in the bath and listen to what the world sounds like underwater. The blurred vibrations touched my ear drums, after going through the water which both delivers and blocks the vibration at the same time. Nothing is clear, but I hear the everyday sounds, changed, altered – different, but still understandable. My 8 year old son Peace also enjoys that activity. I am very keen to hear that kind of sound – the sound we hear in the water, the sound I am starting to hear from our congregation (and I need to) – what people tell me, what people don’t tell me yet, what I still have to find out. I am very keen to listen to the depth of your soul – especially your thinking self.

One of the best times I have had for that sort of listening is with our Bible study group that meets every Thursday. We call ourselves Interpreting Whispers. We’ve gone through 8 sessions this fall, and we will have a break in December, so we had the last meeting of the year this past Thursday. This group, which is fairly representative of the congregation, is a delightful surprise to me. Before meeting this group, I must admit that I wasn’t too keen on the traditional morning Bible study. I didn’t have much trust in people. I didn’t put much expectation toward “The weekday morning Bible study people” showing great acumen in theological exploration and insight. I have discovered that our morning group is full of true theologians – those who would challenge conventional interpretations of passages in the Bible if they clash with their profound belief in God’s unconditional love, grace and forgiveness towards all people.

Thursday morning study group has taught me to expect the unexpected from all of you; a congregation of travellers rather than settlers, divers-in rather than onlookers. We may be hesitant to go the extra mile at first, but eventually we move farther, we dive into the text, look into the lives around us, look into our own lives to find the truths that are not written in a book, even the Bible, seeing the truth of scripture as something that happens when people of faith get together and let the sharp edges of our real lives poke at the scripture to yield the new truth that speaks and relates to our own lives, our context.

Faithful interpretation is hard work: interpreting the whispers of the Spirit through the stories of God’s people. My discovery about the Bible study group was a surprise, especially the group’s openness, their willingness to engage in self-reflection. They helped relieve my anxiety; they showed me that we can take our time sharing our deepest truths, questions, doubts, and hopes. We can share them, or we can keep them to ourselves – nothing is forced, nothing is coerced. ‘Trust’ is the key word here; “Can we really trust our community and tell our stories without fear of intimidation or the anxiety that we may be criticized?”

When Interpreting Whispers studied today’s Gospel story, we found that we were naturally led to focus our discussion on the idea of ‘judgements.’ For example, we found that a word like “separation” needs some interpretation. Separating sheep from the goats. The uncrossable divide between Heaven and hell. Everlasting life to the righteous and eternal punishment for those found wanting. As we studied the Gospel of Matthew over the past 8 weeks, we shared many beautiful and moving insights, but we also found that sometimes we had to struggle to find the new truth, wrestling with those narratives that frequently appear through the Gospel of Matthew – the narratives of judgment/cursing.

Throughout history, Christianity has inspired lots of good works, but has also caused the infliction of harm and destruction in the name of faith. It has been used as the rationale for colonization that occupied the lands of others and exploited the earth. Bible quotes have been used to support the terrible practice of slavery. Christianity has imposed lots of ‘judgements’ towards native spirituality, not only in Canada, but in many parts of the world. Christianity has brought the Gospel, the “good news” to the world, in its true meaning, helping nations challenge the status quo, fight against tyranny, and commit to uplifting the marginalized, making solidarity to help women stand up for their independence. However, Christianity’s pairing with the colonization process established Western superiority, racism, and has even been used as a rationale for genocide. It has also taught new Christians to condemn other faiths as being ‘less than’ Christianity, to spurn and forget their own native spiritualities and practices. We can blame some of these toxic practices on the culture that flourished in the colonizing era, but we cannot deny that words such as ‘judgement’ ‘condemnation’ ‘separation’ and ‘punishment’ are deeply embedded in the scripture itself; it is very easy to misuse them.

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(Source: http://www.crystalinks.com/smudging.html)

I brought up the very recent issue of ‘smudging’ this morning, not because I wanted to blame or criticize one denomination against the other, by condemning the Pentecostal and promoting the liberal or the progressive Christian way. I hope to encourage us to think about who we are in our particular way of having and understanding faith, how we understand and interpret the Gospel, how we learn or unlearn particular narratives such as separation/judgement/condemnation/punishment by challenging the established meanings through experience-based interpretations. It seems to me that those narratives, those languages have been heavily loaded in Christianity and we still hold those words – we still tell those stories, they still bear the danger of misuse. We may ill-treat others.

The Rev. Bob Gilbert, the minister of Augustine United Church here in Winnipeg, was interviewed by CBC. In the interview he said, “Aboriginal customs, including smudging, have become part of our church… It’s a connection with God, however your relationship with God might be. The more churches that introduce them into their own worship, the more blessed they would find themselves.”

I reflected on his words, and learned that if we wish to understand things, the most important part is knowing the context. When we incorporate aboriginal customs such as smudging into our worship, or allowing it on our property, it can become the way we praise God who is Love, because of the context: The context where our faith stands is healing. Healing between the nations and for the nations, for the healing and wholeness between us and God. It’s not so much about healing between us and them – us vs. the aboriginals – as it is about us and God, because we need to acknowledge that all are equally children of God.

141123.HaNa2So, how would we praise God today?

How about imagining us to be like the leaves of a tree that is planted on a riverbank, right beside the water – the leaves of the tree that promotes the healing for the nations.Revelation 22:2

And how about remembering and practicing what Jesus tells us in the Gospel, today:

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me… I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

How would you praise God today?

And the People Said

Growing up in the United Church is where I developed my passion for social justice issues which has really shaped my life.

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