Masks, and the G-G

Some reflections on the Golden Rule

I live in a city (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) which has recently instituted a by-law requiring everyone to wear a non-medical face covering in buildings which are accessible to the public, unless they have medical or psychological reasons. Not surprisingly, there has been vocal resistance from some people. I’m not going to rehearse all the arguments I’ve heard, but they do seem to fall into two main categories. One tries to make it a matter of personal rights. The other asserts that they don’t need to wear a mask to protect themselves, and they don’t care if others become sick as a result.

It seems to me that both of these arguments fly in the face of one of the pillars of ethics. Almost every religion has a version of what Christians call the “Golden Rule.”

In the New Testament, we hear Jesus saying:

 ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.’

(Matthew 7:12 NRSV)

A poster available through various on-line sources sets this quote with with similar quotes from seventeen other faith traditions. They sound remarkably similar. (Search for “Golden Rule Poster” to find it.) The seeming ubiquity of this rule suggests that it is in some way integral to much of human ethics. What the Golden Rule does is show that ethical behaviour is reflexive. My actions affect your life, just as your actions affect my life. As John Donne wrote, “No (hu)man is an island.”

Understanding that my needs and desires are interwoven with the desires and need of all other people, acknowledging that other people’s needs and desires are as valid and important as our own, are the key to building true community. We call this ability “empathy.” Many people confuse empathy with sympathy, which expresses a feeling about another person’s situation without real involvement in that situation.

The Golden Rule elevates our striving for empathy to an ethical principle.

Wearing a mask may protect me from the COVID-19 virus, but that’s not the point. If we all want to be protected, we must ask each to protect each other — to do to others what we would want done for ourselves. It’s a reflexive benefit, working best when we undertake it for the good of other people before ourselves.

I have also had occasion to reflect on the Golden Rule in a very different context. Canada’s Governor-General has been accused of running a toxic workplace, in which staff often feel belittled and abused. The matter is under public scrutiny, and I have no knowledge of it other than what I have read in the news media. Thus I will refrain from any judgement of Mme. Payette here.

What this reminded me of was my own history as both employee and boss. I had one really bad boss in my early work life, who knew just how to make me feel inadequate and incompetent. His replacement was a revelation to me — the first supervisor I had ever had who made me feel a valued part of the team, building me up where I needed help, and letting me do my job where I was fully capable. When I started supervising others, I resolved to emulate him, by trying to be the kind of boss I would like to have myself.

That’s the “Golden Rule of Management” for me. It sounds simple, but it can be very hard to put into practice, especially if you have a tendency to perfectionism like me! What it means in practice is to listen to the people you are working with, treat them as humans, accept and help to correct their failures when they happen, and rejoice with them when they succeed.

What it means is to have empathy.

We could on at length about places the Golden Rule can be applied. I’m not sure we would ever exhaust the list. For me today it remains one of the central guiding principles of my life. Jesus taught it, and that’s where I first heard it, but it cuts across human life in a wonderfully powerful way.

So, my friends, let us strive to do for each other as we would wish done for ourselves — and the world will be a better place

Holy Relationships

Notes for a sermon at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, St. Albert AB, July 28, 2019. Texts: Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19); Luke 11:1-13

When your Rector invited me here, he asked for three weeks. I was glad to accept the invitation, but had to decline the third Sunday, August 11, because of a major event happening in our life that day. My wife Joanne & I are coming up to our 50th wedding anniversary and had already arranged to renew our marriage vows that day at Holy Trinity, Strathcona.

Milestone anniversaries should be occasions to celebrate, of course, but also to reflect on what went into all those years. No relationship, marriage or otherwise, is ever totally golden throughout its course. When clergy prepare couples for marriage in the church, we are required to ensure that they have had appropriate preparation. The Marriage Canon (lately in the news for other reasons) contains a list of the topics that should be addressed. Most of them deal with matters about which couple can and do have conflicts. The most important IMO is the matter of the importance of communication. If you can’t communicate, agreement will always be difficult.

There’s a huge amount of material available today in various media on building good relationships. In this social network age, when people are supposedly more connected, relationship problems sometimes seem to be getting worse, not better. It may be that interpersonal communications have tended to become text-driven and superficial—but I’m not here to slag Facebook and Instagram! Rather, I am here to suggest that our readings today have something to say about relationships, both interpersonal and between people and God.

Let’s start with Hosea, the most difficult one. Did it seem to be written in code? That’s because we miss the vivid wordplay in the original Hebrew. Hosea has given names to his children which point to the decline in the relationship between Israel and YHWH. The first part of the book is structured around an image some may find offensive, likening Israel’s behaviour to that of a prostitute.

In response to a word from God, Hosea married a woman on the fringes of society, and fathered children who would immediately also be marginalized. His marriage and children became a living metaphor for his people’s broken relationship with their God. They have gone off after false Gods. The children’s names, especially the latter two, express a divine reaction to the people’s unfaithfulness: they will not be pitied; they will no longer be YHWH’s people.

If we ended our reading at verse 9, things would look very bleak, but verse 10 turns things around: “it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’” The reversal of fortune here, echoed so beautifully in the Psalm, is a theme that will be repeated again in the book: [the] fact that we Christians must never forget but too often do: our faith is in the God who never gives up on us.”

In human relationships, as most of us well know, people do give up on each other. People’s willingness to keep promises is at times not matched by their ability to do so. Not so with God: the message is that our God not only will not give up on us but CAN not give up. It is God’s nature to be faithful and loving. As God self-described to Moses

The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…
(Exodus 34:6f)

The heart of the divine-human relationship is “steadfast love,” the usual translation of the Hebrew word “hesed.” It is the love that can not let go, not blindly, but out of deep compassion for the other. It is conscious. It is active. Above all, it is persistent. It stands as the model for all human relationships. If we fail to live up to this ideal, it is because we are human. The wonder is that God forgives, and will forgive, every time we turn and re-turn to God.

Continuing in our own relationship with God through Christ is not always easy. There are many occasions when we can stray from our life in Christ. Some of them may be obvious temptations. Others are not so clear, as in the issue Paul addresses in Colossians: people criticizing the church for not attending to some particulars of religious practice that they consider essential. How many of us have experienced the judgment of others in whose eyes our own faith walks don’t quite seem to measure up?

Paul will have none of this. He tells his readers to “live your lives in him,” as the NRSV puts it. Other translations give a more dynamic idea: the King James Version says “walk ye in him.” The Contemporary English Version has:

You have accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord.
Now keep on following him.

The point of the life of discipleship, a life lived in relationship to God, is thus not to believe we’ve arrived, or that we have it all figured out, but to keep on. Live in Christ. Walk in Christ. Keep on following Christ.

And how do we do that? One important part of that answer is to do just what we’re doing here today. We gather as God’s people, in relationship with each other and with God, seeking always to deepen our bonds of holy love. The life of discipleship doesn’t just mean gathering on Sunday, but in walking with Christ and being in relationship with him every day of the week.

The essential tool of building that relationship is the subject of today’s Gospel: prayer. The passage ties the Lord’s Prayer to teachings about the need to persist in prayer.

For many people, prayer mostly means asking God for something. We may and do take our desires and wishes to God, but that’s only the last and least part of it. Prayer is the conscious cultivation of our relationship with God—and that requires communication.

Remember those things we clergy are supposed talk to couples about, and how I suggested communication is the most important of them? Same thing with God. Prayer is keeping the lines of communication open, which means that listening is of prime importance. I believe that prayer is not so much about getting God to agree with us, as about getting us to agree with God.

It takes work.

It takes persistence.

And all of it comes through the gift of the Holy Spirit, freely poured out upon all who seek and all who ask.

God won’t give up on us.

Let us never give up on God.

Amen.

Believing is Seeing

Notes for a sermon at Holy Trinity Edmonton, April 28, 2019
Text: John 20:19-31

Many of us will be familiar with the adage “seeing is believing,” which may well originate in today’s Gospel story, and is sometimes taken to be the point of the story. I don’t think so. There’s a lot more happening in the story of Thomas’ encounter with the Risen Christ than how we often over-simplify it:

  1. Thomas hears the news from the other disciples and demands visual evidence before he believes.
  2. Jesus appears to Thomas and gives him the proof.
  3. Thomas believes. Seeing is believing. End of story.

Or is it? Has anyone else noticed that there’s a big gap in this story? There are two scenes, a whole week apart. A week can be a very long time: much can happen in seven short days, especially when something like the Resurrection has happened. The text is maddeningly silent about what went on between those two Sundays. We could speculate endlessly, but it seems to me the least likely answer is that “nothing happened”. Things surely happened—for Thomas, for the rest of the Twelve, and for all the disciples who received the Holy Spirit and were sent by Jesus on that first day. When he sent them, did they just sit there? Surely not—I have to believe that they went out from that room and told many people what they had seen and heard. In that week, there would have been time for Thomas to see what was going on, to talk to his companions, to ponder what was happening around him.

What happened when Jesus appeared again with Thomas present? Thomas saw and believed: that much is clear. But he would not have been there at all had he not believed on some level in his friends’ veracity. He knew something had happened, and he had not abandoned the group. He believed—and so he saw! Proof was offered, Thomas believed, and then he made the great acclamation that climaxes John’s Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” Belief in the reality of Jesus’s Resurrection led to this colossal insight. First among his companions, he now saw Jesus as he truly was and is.

Believing became seeing.

Something like this happened recently in the world of science. On April 10 an international team of scientists announced the first successful imaging of a black hole. The existence of these strange objects was first proposed over a century ago as a result of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Half a century ago, when I was an undergraduate taking a course in astrophysics, they were believed to exist, but there was little evidence available. Succeeding years led to more and more evidence, almost to the level of complete proof. The announcement three weeks ago was the culmination of over a decade’s work, involving eight separate observatories and hundreds of people. Looking like a fuzzy yellow-orange doughnut, the image agrees almost exactly with theoretical predictions. Einstein was right!

I could go on at length about the science of black holes, but that’s not where we want to go.

What struck me about this achievement was the team’s dogged determination, and their clear belief that what they were seeking was truly there. If they had not trusted the theory and the mounting body of evidence, they would never had invested so much time and energy (not to say money!) in this arcane quest.

If they had not believed in black holes, they (and we) would never have seen one. Believing led to seeing!

The Risen Christ said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We can certainly include ourselves in this number.  The fact that we are gathered here today in this place testifies to our belief in the Resurrection – in a variety of ways and understandings, to be sure – and to the church’s continued faithfulness in proclaiming this central truth of the Gospel.

The contemporary Christian writer Diana Butler Bass (in “Christianity After Religion”) has suggested that the church needs to pay more attention to HOW we believe. We’ve been pretty good at enunciating WHAT we believe, in creeds and catechisms, but we have been less effective in putting wheels on the bus.

If we say we believe, what comes next?

What difference does it make in our lives?

Will our proclamation of the Resurrection be anything more than words?

Think of those scientists. They believed in the existence of black holes enough to devote over a decade’s work and many millions of dollars to produce the image they presented to the world. They believed, and so we see.

Friends, belief in the Resurrection can never be just a head game. It has consequences far beyond that upper room, consequences reaching into every aspect of our lives, consequences that give us a wholly new way of seeing the world.

We believe and proclaim that Christ rose from the dead. We affirm that this was not just a “one-off,” but as Paul wrote in 1 Cor 15:20, it is the “first fruits of those who have died.” The promise of the Resurrection is that death will never again have the last word.

Believing in the Resurrection of Jesus is a truly eye-opening event. To the believing eye, the world no longer needs to look like a medieval map, with “here be dragons” on its margins. Rather, we are enabled to see a world destined for renewal and resurrection – a world in which the forces of evil, while still present and active, are fighting a rearguard battle. As Fr. Chris said last Sunday, “We shall overcome,” and we can and should affirm that in our words and our actions.

Believing is seeing—seeing the world as the creation of a good and loving God, seeing death not as defeat but as the next step in God’s renewal of creation, seeing all others as heirs with us of God’s eternal kingdom.

As we believe, so may we see.

As we see, so may we act.

As we act, so may we proclaim.

And may our proclamation always be
“Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”