Thank you, I’m very honoured and privileged to be here with you this morning at St. Timothy’s. This is a unique place that I have a special relationship with because as some of you know, this congregation is my childhood congregation. So a lot of the people in the KSM have known me ever since I was two or three years old. So it’s always very interesting and nice to meet up with the St. Timothy folks. I think I know the majority of people in this choir or about half, like I’ve known them since I was in elementary, along with many of you here as well. It always feels nostalgic being here as I believe I was Simon’s Sunday school teacher when he was young. So it feels nostalgic as well as it makes me feel old. But it really is a pleasure to be here. Thank you, Reverend Kim and Reverend Chung for the invitation to be here. I’ve known Reverend Kim since I first photobombed his wedding pictures. We have a long history together and I’m grateful for this opportunity. As past moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, I think I can still bring readings from the 145th general assembly. Lily, am I allowed to do that? So I’m very happy to be here, to bring God’s message here, and to share it with all of you. Let’s bow in a word of prayer, let’s pray. God, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable and pleasing unto you oh God, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.
Genuine Love vs a Declaration of Love
I want to tell you a story about Ali, who was a farmer who just recently retired and now had a lot of time on his hands. He lived in a small town and he was fairly new to the small town and he wanted to get to know the people of the small town. He learned very quickly that he was the only Presbyterian in a town full of Catholics. And he thought that’s okay, I don’t have anything against Catholics. Ali loved his beef, he loved eating meat and barbecuing every Friday. And as you know, Catholics as a practice, don’t eat meat on Fridays. So Ali’s barbecuing always kind of irritated the Catholics in his neighbourhood because it smelled so delicious and it was a very tempting aroma for them. And so his Catholic neighbours thought, “okay well we’ve got to do something about this, we got to make him stop.” And so they banded together and in a very friendly way, they approached Ali with a plan and they said: “Ali, since you’re the only Presbyterian in our small town, and there’s not another Presbyterian church for miles and miles, we think it would be a great idea if you join our church and become a Catholic.” And Ali thought about it and he thought “okay well, that sounds like a good idea, that’s probably a good idea, I could get to know my neighbours and we’d have a nice relationship.” And so Ali agreed, he talked to the local priest and they arranged a date for him to become a Catholic. And so the big day came, Ali and his neighbours were there at the church. Everyone was there. The priest called Ali up to the altar, he had Ali kneel in front of him and he put his hand on Ali’s head. And he said, “Ali, you were born a Presbyterian, you were raised as a Presbyterian”. And then the priest sprinkled some incense over him. And he said, “now you are a Catholic”. So great, Ali was happy, the priest was happy and the neighbours were particularly thrilled. They thought the problem was solved, no more tempting aroma of beef on Fridays. However, the following Friday came and again, the neighbours smelled this delicious fragrant aroma of beef wafting over the neighbourhood. And they thought, “what’s the problem, we thought we solved this.” And so they thought, “well, we got to talk to Ali again.” And so they came together, they approached Ali’s house. And as they got closer to the house, they could hear Ali talking to the steak. And Ali said, “you were born a cow, you were raised as a cow”. And then they saw Ali sprinkle some salt over it. And he said, “now you are a fish.” Do you believe that you are a person of love? Are you genuinely a person of love? Is this something that you have worked at and continue to work on? Or have you just declared yourself as a person of love because you’ve sprinkled some loving salt over yourself? Do you recognize that the authentic character of God’s love intrinsically involves a connection with others? And it’s not only about this emotional feeling of love.
Ubuntu means interconnected
Martin Luther King jr said, “desire has an I quality, hope has a we quality and can never be selfish.” Isn’t that the fundamental message of the gospel, that God has come to us in the ministry of Jesus Christ and the ministry of reconciliation, calling us into communion and lifting up our eyes in hope, towards hope. There’s no individualism in Christianity, and there is no room for selfishness or self-centeredness. In our Christian faith, it’s all about the “we quality”, the community quality, the together aspect, the community aspect, and the body of Christ aspect. That’s what it’s all about. It’s Christ’s body, the different members of the body functioning together as one. That’s what the body means, it’s just not a gathering of people. It’s the interconnectedness, the interrelationship of how those different members live and work and function and serve. In my readings, in the philosophy of Southern Africa, I came across a term called “Ubuntu.” Maybe some of you have heard about Ubuntu, it has a multifaceted definition. It means respect, helpfulness, sharing, community, caring, trust, unselfishness. It’s an African proverb that says “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” As Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes it, there is an assurance from the knowledge that you belong in a greater whole, and you aren’t diminished when others are diminished or humiliated when others are tortured or oppressed. And so Desmond Tutu stresses that “Ubuntu” is not the same as that Western European philosophical axiom that says, “I think, therefore I am.” In other words, my humanness, my humanity is all defined by my capacity to think or my cognitive ability. Desmond Tutu says Ubuntu is the opposite of that. Ubuntu says I am human because I belong, I participate, I share. It goes beyond just the ability to think. Archbishop Tutu goes on and he says, we think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals separated from one another. Well, Ubuntu is the essence of being human. It speaks about our interconnectedness. Well, Ubuntu says you can’t be human all by yourself. That sounds very New Testament, doesn’t it? So the conviction is I am what I am because of who we all are. We are joined together. We are interdependent and interconnected.
True fasting is not hunger but sharing
In the 58th chapter of Isaiah, the people were fasting. They were praying to God as spiritual worship and devotion. There’s nothing out of the ordinary in that. That’s what religious and observant Jews did, they fasted. They prayed as an act of worship to God and this is what they were doing in Isaiah 58. But they were doing all this, all of these spiritual things in a very narrowly defined way, thinking that they were being spiritual, assuming that what they were doing pleased, God,. Isn’t that a natural assumption? When you fast, you pray, you assume you’re doing it for God. and you assume God must be pleased. But through Isaiah, God indicts their behaviour. It reads “you claim to fast and be humbling yourselves, but during your fast, you quarrel with others, you fight with others, you strike each other with fists, you oppress your workers, you are so self-interested.” And it goes on to say the kind of fasting God desires of you is that you break the bonds of injustice to unburden the oppressed. True fasting means to share your food with the hungry, To welcome the homeless poor into your house, to cover the naked. Then the Lord will see your faith. It’s funny, there’s no mention of fasting and praying. Then it goes on to say, if you help those in need around you, then your light will rise in the darkness. You will set the foundation for future generations and you shall be called. You shall be called repairers of the breach. By this false sense of spirituality, people were disconnected, utterly disconnected from one another. And this is what they were boastful about before God, they were content to live in breach. They were content to just fast and then treat each other any which way they wanted as if their spiritual devotion made no difference in their practical lives. This reminds me of what Gandhi famously said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” That stings and I think that stings because we know that that’s true, but we don’t always demonstrate the things that God has taught us. We don’t live out Christian faith, the way that we’re supposed to. We claim to love Christ, yet we don’t follow. This Isaiah story, this is a real example of that. Isaiah tells the people that they are to be repairers of this breach. It’s broken, be repairers of it, fix it. What is the breach? A breach is something that’s broken, it’s ruptured, it’s a torn condition. There’s a gap, there’s a disconnect, there’s a break. Isaiah says we’re called to repair that breach to be repairers of it. So how do we do that? Quite simply, it’s by acts of love, acts of compassion, acts of justice, fairness for others. That’s how we repair the breach. And we can’t do that unless we expand our focus away from ourselves only to others. To have their interests also in view, sometimes more than our own. Our practise of spirituality is not to be expressed solely in our focus on ourselves or merely a private sense of faith. And we’d run into that, that kind of language. “Well, my faith is private, it’s something that I just hold and keep it to myself. And as long as I know what I believe, then that’s okay, my faith is private.” We’ve gotten into this habit in our society, thinking that it’s just a privatized faith and nothing else outside of our private realm matters in the way we live out our Christianity. And it was never meant to be anything even remotely private because Isaiah tells us if you are spiritual, if you want to worship God, then feed the hungry. Welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, comfort all who are hurting. Who around us is hurting? Do we even know, do we even care? Is that even on our radar? Isaiah has been saying this, close the gap, heal the rupture between one another, truly connect with people on a genuine level and recognize their humanity, recognize their belovedness in God’s eyes,. Support what is just and fair on their behalf. Then Isaiah says, then we can be reconciled to one another, which is that explicit expression of the reconciling character of God. That’s real devotion. According to Isaiah, that’s real obedience. And then you shall be called repairer of the breach. Isaiah says, if you do all of this, this is true worship. And that’s real love, the real love of God.
Love is a gauge of our entire character
And just like in the Isaiah reference, just calling yourself a Christian, just attending church, just knowing the Bible, just being nice or describing yourself as a loving person, doesn’t always make it so. There’s a young man named John who wrote to his girlfriend. He said, “sweetheart if this world was as hot as the Sahara desert, I would crawl on my knees through the burning sand to come to you. If this world would be like the Atlantic ocean, I would swim through shark-infested waters to come to you. I would fight the fiercest dragon just to be by your side. Love, John, PS. I’ll see you on Thursday if it doesn’t rain.” It’s just words, it’s just sprinkling. It’s not real love. And that’s why the love of the Bible is not an automatic thing. Going to church, being a Christian doesn’t automatically make you loving. For some of us it takes work, for some of us, it takes a lot of work. But for all of us, it’s an intentional and conscious walk to walk this way of love. We have to work at it, to work at genuinely being a loving and connecting and reconciling person. The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, in his book, “The art of loving” says, “love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person, it is an attitude. It is an ordination of character, which determines the relatedness of the person to the whole world as a whole, not toward one object of love.” You know, it’s kinda like that young couple. The guy wants to impress the girl. They go to a restaurant and he’s nothing but polite and sweet and loving to his date. And yet he treats the server so disrespectfully and critically and nasty. Erich Fromm is saying, that’s not love. We don’t gauge love by how much we express it to one person or one thing. It’s a gauge of our entire character of who we are, who we are in this world, an ordination of character. As a spiritual writer, Dorothy Day put it, she said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” That’s a pretty accurate gauge. And doesn’t this echo what John said in 1 John 4. “Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love.” If we say we love God but hate others, we are liars. For we cannot love God whom we have not seen if we do not love others, whom we have seen. The command that Christ has given us is this: Whoever loves God must love others also. Has love ordained your character? Are we on that path? I’m not saying we should have arrived, but are we walking that path? Are we conscious of this process of ordination of our character by God?
Our job is to love others
We have a younger crowd here, but y’all know “All in the family, with Archie Bunker? We know the show features a family in New York City in the sixties and Archie Bunker is quite a bigot. The show is about all of his character. That show wouldn’t survive today, but it was, it was great for that period. In one particular episode, Edith (Archie’s wife) and Archie are attending Edith’s high school reunion. So Edith encounters an old classmate, his name is Buck in his earlier days. He was a strapping athlete. Now he had become morbidly obese, but they were good friends in high school. And in this reunion, Edith and Buck are just having a great time. Having a conversation reminiscing about old times, walking down memory lane, all the things that they did together and remarkably Edith doesn’t seem to notice how extremely heavy Buck had become. And later Edith and Archie are talking. And she says in her whiny voice, she says, “Archie, ain’t Buck, a beautiful person?” You know, what’s coming. Archie looks at her with this disgusted look on his face and he says, “Edith you’re a pip (a pip means a no-nothing or stupid), you know that you and I, we look at the same guy. You see a beautiful person. And all I see is a blimp.” And Edith says, “Yeah, ain’t it too bad.” With her answer, she was unknowingly profound. What we see and what we hear, what we encounter in life depends not always on the events themselves, but rather it depends on who we are as people. How we see, how we hear, how we experience these things, these moments, and how we allow God to transform us from the inside out. The classic theologian Thomas Burton said, “our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” That’s the bottom line. Has love ordained your character to love? You are the beloved child of God. We are all here today because we’ve tasted, we’ve tasted in some way, either small or large God’s love for us. We’ve tasted the sense of belovedness that God has for us. And Isaiah is saying that that love that we can claim is ours to claim. It also belongs to the world. And that same belovedness that we have, that we experience, that we feel that’s so special that has touched us. We are called to repair the breach, the disconnect that exists in our society in this world, and to bring this love, to proclaim this love in practical and concrete ways to everybody. As a result of our ordination of character, to love people, without trying to first figure out if they’re worthy of it because, in God’s eyes, we’re all worthy. And so let us share that worthiness and to declare that God’s love is truly reconciling. I want to close with Jeremiah 29 and it’s a prayer and a wish for St Timothy’s congregation. The many years that you have been in ministry and the many more years that you will be in ministry. And so I share these words from Jeremiah 29: “For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord, plans for wellbeing and not for trouble, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me. And I will listen to you. You will look for me and find me When you look for me with all of your hearts, I will be found by you, says the Lord. And to God, we honour and praise. Amen. Let us pray.