Trump and Jesus

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Donald Trump appears to be leading the world into a time of belligerence, building walls, turning on your neighbours, and picking fights with everyone about every little thing.

People of Jesus, do not follow him in this. Our Lord is about compassion, forgiveness, caring for the poor, welcoming the stranger, loving enemies and praying for those who hate us, sharing the good news of God’s love, and seeking first the Kingdom of God built by love, not the earthly empire built by force and coercion.

Let’s commit ourselves to following Jesus in loving God, our neighbours, and even our enemies.

Last or First?

trump-tweet-dec-22Reading Donald Trump’s tweet about nukes yesterday (‘until the world comes to its senses about nukes, we need lots more of them!’) reminded me of an old story about a Puritan and a Quaker in eighteenth century colonial America (I’m telling the story from memory, and I may not get all the wording right).

The two were arguing about ‘pacifism’ (the Quaker rejected all violence as incompatible with following Jesus, while the Puritan did not). Eventually the Puritan said to the Quaker, “Well, if all men were as you are, I would believe as you do too”.

To which the Quaker replied, “Then the difference between you and me is that you want to be the last good man on earth, and I want to be the first”.

The Trouble with Normal

Suddenly, this Bruce Cockburn song from the early 1980s seems horribly relevant again.

 

Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs — “Security comes first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Callous men in business costume speak computerese
Play pinball with the third world trying to keep it on its knees
Their single crop starvation plans put sugar in your tea
And the local third world’s kept on reservations you don’t see
“It’ll all go back to normal if we put our nation first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Fashionable fascism dominates the scene
When the ends don’t meet it’s easier to justify the means
Tenants get the dregs and the landlords get the cream
As the grinding devolution of the democratic dream
Brings us men in gas masks dancing while the shells burst
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Written by Bruce Cockburn • Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Carlin America Inc

Don’t Rest Your Hope on Human Leaders (a sermon on Psalm 146)

In today’s psalm we have my favourite verses for an election year, whether in Canada or the United States:

‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’ (Psalm 146:3-4 NRSV).

Eugene Peterson has a lovely paraphrase of these verses in ‘The Message’:

‘Don’t put your life in the hands of experts, who know nothing of life, of salvation life. Mere humans don’t have what it takes; when they die, their projects die with them’.

‘Do not put your trust in princes’. Oh, but we love to put our trust in princes! We’re so tired of the gang that was ruling before, and then along comes a fresh new leader, with a bright vision about how it’s all going to be different this time! ‘Make America great again!’ ‘Change you can believe in!’ ‘Sunny ways!’ The slogans are so predictable, the rhetoric is so exaggerated, and maybe for a brief, bright honeymoon period, we can actually persuade ourselves to believe them. But then the first mistakes are made, and the first evidence of human sinfulness appears, and eventually we sigh and think to ourselves, “I guess he’s just a human being, like the last guy”. He’s not the Messiah, and the kingdom of God is not going to come on earth as a result of his election victory.

Psalm 146 explains to us why this is the case, so let’s take a closer look. The psalm falls pretty clearly into three sections. We have a brief introduction in verses 1-2, and then in verses 3-4 we get the command not to trust in human rulers, and the reasons why that’s not a good idea. Finally, in verses 5-10, we switch our attention to the Lord, the one true God, and the reasons why it’s much, much better to hope in him. The psalm ends as it began, with the Hebrew word ‘Hallelujah!’ – ‘Praise the Lord!’

I want to focus today on the second and third sections of the psalm. So let’s look again at verses 3-4:

‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’

In these verses our poet gives us two reasons why it’s a bad idea to put your trust in princes, or human leaders of any kind. First, because they’re not God. They’d like to think they are, but when push comes to shove, these folks can’t deliver on their exaggerated promises.

Verse 3 says ‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help’. The phrase ‘in whom there is no help’ could also be translated ‘in whom there is no deliverance’. When the Bible uses the word ‘deliverance’, it doesn’t just mean ‘giving people a little bit of extra help so that they can get the job done’; it means ‘saving people from something that had them totally in its power’. Think of the Israelite slaves in Egypt, totally under the power of Pharaoh. God didn’t look at them and say, “Well, they’re almost strong enough to set themselves free, and if I just give them a tiny bit of extra help, they’ll be able to finish the job!” No – the situation was desperate, the slaves had absolutely no hope of ever getting free, and when God intervened, it was a complete surprise to everyone involved.

So for a prince or earthly leader to claim to be a ‘deliverer’ was a claim to be God – rather like the Roman Emperor in the time of Jesus, who had as one of his official titles the Greek word ‘soter’ – Saviour. And it did look as if old Caesar Augustus had a good claim to that title – after all, if someone was condemned to die, he could pardon them (although he rarely did!). But while the Roman emperors were sitting on their thrones congratulating themselves on how powerful they were, an unknown village carpenter in Galilee was setting out on a ministry that would touch the lives of millions of people around the world, and would change the course of world history for the next two millennia. And now, two thousand years later, we only have a historical interest in the Roman emperors – but over a billion people around the world call Jesus their ‘Saviour’ – their ‘Deliverer’.

So the human rulers can’t provide ultimate help because they’re not God. A second reason they can’t provide that help is because they won’t be around long enough. Verse 4 says, ‘When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’ – or, in the lovely translation in ‘The Message’, ‘when they die, their projects die with them’.

The books of 1 and 2 Kings in the Old Testament tell the stories of the people of Israel and Judah from the time of King David’s son Solomon until the time of the Babylonian exile – a period of several hundred years. Have you ever read them? There are some good stories in them, but on the whole they make for pretty depressing reading. The authors have two standard ways of describing the kings of Israel and Judah: ‘He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord’ and ‘He did what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord’. Two sad truths make these books depressing reading: First, there are a lot more kings who ‘did what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord’. Second, even in the case of the kings who did what was right, the good they achieved didn’t last; they tended to be followed by a bad king who undid all the good they’d done.

In a modern democracy, leaders have an even shorter time to do the good they want to do: one election cycle, or maybe two or even three if they’re lucky! But even twelve years isn’t long enough to solve some of the most difficult problems we face as modern human beings, never mind eight, or four. And of course when governments are defeated, they tend to be defeated by people who disagree with the key parts of their program – so the chances are that a lot of the things they’ve tried to achieve are going to be reversed by the ones who follow them.

Verse 10 says, ‘The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations’. In ancient times people sometimes said ‘May the king live forever!’ but they probably didn’t actually want him to live forever – and whether they wanted him to live forever or not, he wasn’t going to! No, God is the only one for whom the words ‘for ever’ and ‘for all generations’ can properly be used. No one else is going to be around long enough to get the job done.

So we shouldn’t trust in princes or politicians because they aren’t God, and because they aren’t going to be around long enough. There is, of course, a third reason; it’s not one that’s specifically mentioned in this psalm, but it’s assumed throughout the Bible. It’s the fact that princes and politicians and human leaders are all sinners just like the rest of us. And let’s remember what the word ‘sin’ means in the Bible. It’s a happy coincidence that in English, the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ in the centre of it. When I’m at the centre of my own life – when I’m being selfish and self-centred and acting as if I was god of my own world – then, in biblical terms, I’m living like a sinner. We all do it – some of us do it more than others – but there is no one who doesn’t do it at all.

We all know the old saying, “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. In other words, it’s very hard for ordinary human sinners to resist the temptation toward empire-building, feathering their own nests, and ruling for their own benefit. I’m not saying it can’t be done; I’m saying it’s very hard. It certainly shouldn’t surprise us when we discover evidence of corruption; after all, how confident are you that you’d be able to resist the temptation, if you were in their shoes? How many people get angry at politicians for sins that are identical to ones they’ve committed themselves, except that they weren’t in positions of public power and authority when they committed them?

So ‘Do not put your trust in princes’, says our poet. Does that mean we shouldn’t honour our political leaders, or do our best to elect people of character, people who’ve had some success in resisting the temptation toward corruption and feathering their own nests? Of course not; it’s right for us to get involved in the political process and try to get the best possible candidates into office.

But we shouldn’t pin our hopes for making a better country, or a better world, on the shoulders of those people. That’s a burden they can’t bear. They aren’t God, they aren’t going to be around long enough, and they just don’t have the ability to be perfect! So our poet counsels us to look somewhere else – to look for a better and much more capable Deliverer. Look at verses 5-10:

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD!’

What is it that makes God a worthy object for our hope and our trust? Well, first of all, it’s God’s creative power: God is the one ‘who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them’ (v.6). The presidents of the United States and of Russia probably still have it in their power to use their nuclear launch codes to destroy the earth, or at least to make it completely uninhabitable for thousands of years. Neither of them, however, has the power to create ‘heaven and earth’. With our present technology they’d be dead long before they’d even completed the journey to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our own – never mind trying to create it in the first place. And there are billions of star systems, most of them unimaginable distances from the Earth, all of them completely out of reach of our tin-pot dictators and earthly leaders. But God in his wisdom has created them all, and he knows them all intimately.

But this great creator God is also a God who has a special concern for the poor, the needy, and the oppressed. He ‘executes justice for the oppressed (and) gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down…The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow’ (vv.7-9, excerpts).

This is the story of the God of the Bible. He’s the God who went down to Egypt to deliver the oppressed slaves and bring them home into their own land. He’s the God who used a little shepherd boy to defeat the mighty soldier Goliath and set his people free from the Philistine oppressors. He’s the God who cared for the widow of Zarapheth and sent Elijah down to help her and her son make it through the drought. He’s the God who came among us in Jesus to set people free from the power of evil spirits, to give blind people their sight again, and to reach out to marginalized people – tax collectors, prostitutes, enemy soldiers, and Galilean fishermen with weird northern accents!

The fantastic thing about this story is that not only does God care for the poor and the humble – he tends to use the poor and the humble to help them, too! His way of changing the world isn’t usually to win a general or a president over to his cause! It’s to choose someone completely ordinary – someone who just goes humbly about their daily tasks, doing their best to serve God and love other people – and to use that person to start a movement that has an enormous effect on the world. He chose a little Albanian nun called Anjezë, and sent her to Calcutta to serve the poor and the lepers. Who ever thought that Mother Teresa would become a world figure? Or little Francesco Bernadone, who became St. Francis of Assisi? Or Dr. Paul Brand, who went as a medical missionary to India and ended up making some of the most important discoveries that helped us unravel the secrets of leprosy? Or a shy little Irish boy called Clive, who lost his mum to cancer at an early age, and who loved stories about the gods and goddesses of Asgard, but went on to become one of the most influential Christian writers of the twentieth century – C.S. Lewis?

But it goes further than that. We’ve thought about people who became famous; what about the millions who didn’t? Philip Yancey has done thousands of interviews in his career as a writer. He says that in his mind he tends to divide the people he interviews into two groups: the ‘stars’, and the ‘servants’. It’s very clear to him that the ‘servants’ – mostly unknown men and women working faithfully in obscure places to improve the lives of ordinary people – are the ones who’ve discovered the real secret to contentment and happiness. As our poet says, ‘Happy are those whose help is in the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God’ (v.5).

But what does this actually mean? It sounds pious and good and holy, but do we really think that a humble aid worker in South America is having more of an effect on the world than Donald Trump? Or that ordinary Christians like you and me can do more to advance the plan of God than Justin Trudeau or Stephen Harper? Hoe does God actually help and deliver those who put their hope in him?

Well, let me answer that by asking you a question. Let’s suppose that we take the advice of this poet. Let’s suppose that we decide we’re not going to put our hope in Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton; we’re not going to rely on Justin Trudeau or Rachel Notley or Brian Jean or whoever your favourite politician might be at this point in time. No, we’re going to put our hope in the Lord our God; we’re going to trust in the God who come to live among us in Jesus.

If we trust our doctor, what do we do? The answer is obvious – we do what she says. We put her advice into practice in our daily lives. And the same is true with God; if we put our hope and trust in God, we then offer ourselves to God as instruments in his hands. We ask him to fill us with the Holy Spirit and give us strength to do things we could never do by ourselves. And then we take the words and example of Jesus and try to put them into practice in our daily lives – loving our enemies, forgiving those who hurt us, reaching out to the poor and needy and marginalized, spreading the news that there’s a God of love who cares about everyone he has made.

Do you not think that a movement like that will have a tremendous effect on the world? Imagine millions of people following Jesus together, learning to be his disciples, doing the things he told them to do. Would they be fooled by the incentives offered by marketers to buy all kinds of useless luxuries and look to possessions to make them happy? Of course not. Would they obey the instructions of their leaders to kill their fellow human beings who happen to wear the uniform of another country? No. Would they look for opportunities to – as John Wesley put it – ‘Do all the good they can, to all the people they can, in all the ways they can, by all the means they can, as long as ever they can’? Of course they would.

That’s how God changes the world. Not by a larger-than-life politician with fake hair and feet of clay, but by his power at work in hundreds and thousands of ordinary people, people just like you and me. We don’t have to have everything together in our lives. We don’t have to have all the answers. We just need a thankful trust in God, a determination not to allow anyone or anything else to take God’s place, and a desire to hear God’s word and put it into practice in our daily lives. If we do that, God can work through us to execute justice for the oppressed, give food to the hungry, set the prisoners free, open the eyes of the blind, lift up those who are bowed down, watch over the stranger, and uphold the orphan and widow. That’s what he will do through you and me, if we put our hope in him, and in no one else but him.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Election Day musings

IMG_1245Today I voted in the 2015 Canadian federal election.

I did not find the choice to be easy. I don’t tend to be a member of the faithful of any political party, although I have joined one or two of them from time to time. Each time an election rolls around, I try to listen to the positive message the parties are presenting – piercing through the rhetoric and the barbs and the attack ads and the point-scoring, and asking myself the question ‘What vision of Canada (or Alberta, or Edmonton) is being presented here? And how does it square with the vision I believe in?’

I have to confess that this time around, my mind was still not made up when Marci and I walked to the polling station this morning. I was caught between the choice I would make if I were voting according to my true beliefs, and the choice I would make if all I was concerned about was the likelihood of my candidate being elected. I had no doubt at all which party I really supported. The problem was that, in our first-past-the-post system, my vote for that party would appear to have been a wasted vote.

Eventually, I rejected that thought. My reasoning was that if that thought was universally valid there would never have been a British Labour party, never have been a CCF or NDP, never a Reform Party. None of these parties seemed electable when they were first created. Voting for them seemed like wasting your vote for the first few years, or even the first few decades, of their existence. But in time, they became movements, and those movements grew by presenting their vision to the public in such a way that more and more people were gradually inspired to join them.

I’m proud to say that today I did not vote cynically. I voted for my real beliefs. I don’t for a moment think that the person I voted for will be elected. But I do believe that the movement I believe in will grow. Maybe I won’t see the party I voted for in government in my lifetime. But I hope that one day my children and grandchildren will see it. And if that happens, my vote today will not have been wasted.

A prime example of the hypocrisy of party politics

I work for a registered charity which is authorized to issue receipts for donations so that people can receive a tax deduction for their generosity. The more they give, the more they get back. When the federal and Alberta amounts are combined, the refund on donations over $200 is close to 50%, which is nothing to sneeze at.

However, our charity (which is a church) is, of course, strictly forbidden from engaging in partisan politics. If we were to do that, we would lose our charitable registration and would no longer be able to issue receipts to our members for tax deductions.

Does it bother me that I can’t engage in party politics in my official capacity as pastor of my church? No, not really. On the other hand, if I was working for a charity that was trying to alleviate child poverty in Canada, I might feel a little more constrained by the system. After all, child poverty can’t be solved by donations alone. To use an old illustration, if you start noticing that the river is full of drowning babies, it’s not enough to have an efficient rescue operation; sooner or later, someone needs to go upstream to find out who’s throwing them in. And the answer to that question may well have political implications. But charities aren’t allowed to go near that, or they lose their status and their ability to issue income tax receipts.

And now, behold the hypocrisy of the Canadian political system. Today I gave a donation to a Canadian political party (most of you will be able to figure out which one!). On their website, they promptly informed me that according to Canadian law, when income tax time rolls around, I will receive a tax refund equal to 75% of my donation!

That’s right, folks. Registered charities can’t get involved in party politics or they lose their ability to issue income tax receipts, but if you donate to a Canadian political party (which engages almost exclusively in party politics), you’ll get 75% of it back at income tax time. That’s over half as much again as you’d get for donating to a charity that helps to feed the poor, as long as they don’t get political about it.

You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you?

Time to work harder at fixing a broken planet

I’ve just discovered the excellent blog of the Pembina Institute. On the day after the Alberta election, executive director Ed Wittingham wrote an excellent piece on the opportunity for the new Notley government to make a real change in our province’s environmental policies. Here’s an excerpt:

One of the most pressing issues is Alberta’s approach to regulating (and ultimately, reducing) greenhouse gas pollution. The oilsands industry is Canada’s fastest-growing source of emissions. By 2020, Environment Canada projects Alberta will be responsible for 40 per cent of all greenhouse gas pollution nationally, with much of this growth coming from oilsands expansion. This upward trend is expected to continue until significant changes are made to the amount of emissions the province will allow, and the price charged to emitters who exceed the limit.

This spring, the NDP criticized the previous government for not doing enough on climate change, with Notley stating that Alberta was “way off track” in relation to its 2020 emissions-reduction commitment, and calling the delay in renewing the provincial climate strategy “profoundly irresponsible”.

The challenge of fixing Alberta’s flawed climate policies now falls to Notley’s government to resolve, and quickly — all eyes are on Alberta now that Ontario and B.C. have announced major next steps toward reducing emissions. After years of being named and shamed at the UN climate negotiations, Canada’s credibility at this year’s talks in Paris hinges directly on how it plans to address the runaway growth in greenhouse gas pollution coming from the oilsands sector.

I agree. I think it’s unconscionable how much of the rhetoric since the election has focused around how the new Alberta government is (in the eyes of the right) going to be an economic disaster for our province. First of all, they haven’t even started yet, and since their tax proposals (to give just one example) would still leave corporations better off than they were in 2004 under Ralph Klein, that seems rather far-fetched to me. But secondly, there is no mention at all of the environmental disaster that the PCs were leaving for our grandchildren to clean up (if anyone ever got around to cleaning it up) (see this page on the Pembina Institute website for more details).

The economy is important, of course, but government needs to be about more than the economy. Good stewardship of our natural environment is hugely important if there’s going to be anything left to pass on to future generations. The Klein government used to bang on about not leaving a huge government debt for our descendants to deal with. But what about the morality of leaving them a broken planet?