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Message for September 11, 2011

Sermon – September 11, 2011
Exodus 14: 19 – 31; Matthew 18: 21 – 35

A great deal has happened since we last visited the Exodus story. Two weeks ago, Moses was an infant floating in a papyrus boat into the presence of the Princess of Egypt. She adopted him, and he was actually raised by his own mother and sister. You will recall that the lives of the Hebrew people had changed drastically since the time of Joseph, the young man who was sold into slavery only to become the Governor of Egypt and the saviour of the family of Jacob during the drought. The family moved from Canaan to Egypt – from scarcity to abundance – and, eventually from freedom into slavery. We heard two weeks ago about the sadistic and ruthless efforts of the Pharaoh to eliminate the baby boys and to enslave the men and women who were Hebrews.
Today, we hear about them walking into freedom…but that comes after a long time of struggle. Moses has reluctantly returned to Egypt to begin the long process of freedom fighting…one that includes devastating plagues leading up to the final plague – which includes the death of every firstborn including that of the Pharaoh himself – all attributed to the God of Abraham and Jacob – the God who calls the Hebrews from slavery to freedom…and to the journey out of Egypt to find a home.
This journey from slavery to freedom is one of the foundational stories of the Hebrew people. It is steeped in an understanding that God not only brought this about, but also led them by a pillar of fire and cloud – a very real presence in their midst.
Today, this epic story is celebrated every year in the feast of the Passover… when the Hebrew people escaped the dreaded final plague of death by painting their door lintels with lamb’s blood so that the cloud of death would “pass over” their houses without effect.
Once again, we must remember that this is an ancient story – a sacred story – about how God has worked to save the people – and that the particulars of the story are ones that rang true to the people of the time, regardless of the supernatural aspect that is included in the story. The overall meaning remains that God is working through Moses to bring about freedom, wholeness and meaning within them. Remember: the scribes who are writing down these stories are doing this 700 or so years after these events, and that the purpose of these writings are to assist the Hebrew faith to endure beyond the time when they are, yet again, slaves in Babylon – far away from the land where they had finally settled – around Jerusalem and the Temple there in Judah. Remembering that these stories have not only a purpose but also have a wisdom that rings true even today is important. Without that realization, it is hard to give any real credence to the stories themselves… when we say they cannot be factually true, therefore they can all be dismissed. Understanding the wisdom behind the stories allows us to search for the truth we can find there.
The larger truth is the constancy of God’s presence in the midst of trouble – a constancy that survives the actions of the people – their reluctance, their resistance to change, their fear, their loss of faith….even their treachery.
Here we are, today – a day of remembrance of devastation in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania – a day that has become known by an icon of sorts – “9/11”. Here we are in place where the Hebrew people found themselves: an army of terror behind us and a wall of the unknown ahead of us in the form of the Reed Sea – a huge barrier for people who cannot swim. We too are acquainted with fear, and loss, and resistance, and reluctance, and treachery. We too wonder “where is God in all of this mess?”
It would be so wonderful to have a Moses character in our story…someone to raise his arms in the air and bring forward supernatural miracles. But we live in a different age…the realities of life are the same, but we have little in the way of language and thought to describe our hope. Unlike those scribes, our writers have more difficulty arousing hope amongst us with stories of mysterious miracles to answer our prayers. We do, however, have our own stories of reality – lived by us, or part of our history.
When I was a child, only the wealthy families went to see a doctor on a regular basis. The doctor’s office and hospital were only for those at “death’s door”. Then Medicare became a reality and my health problems were finally diagnosed and treated.
As a 20-something, I can recall gazing into the sky one July evening and watching – at the same time – the TV broadcast of the lunar landing module – on the actual moon where no one had even thought of going before.
Since that time, the Berlin wall that separated Western Germany from the Eastern Soviet Germany was knocked down by ordinary people on both sides of the wall….and no shots were fired.
We have discovered that many mental illnesses have a biological basis – so we can no longer treat the depressed and the anxious among us like second-class citizens who are willfully different – as lazy and crazy.
The Reed Seas of our own times have been crossed and they keep beckoning us to scale barriers in our lives and in our cultures. The aftermath of September 11, 2001 continues to roll out before us.
The scripture story puts all the power in the hands of God – this God who works to bring justice and mercy to those oppressed and needing his help. It is God’s power and God’s power only that divides the Sea…and God’s power that obliterated the Egyptian army – the story puts it this way, “I’ll …put my glory on display so that the Egyptians will realize that I am GOD.”
In today’s understanding of the Divine Spirit – or God – is different in many ways. The supernatural element of an omnipotent power outside of the known world is acknowledged now as an ancient understanding based on a culture that lived on an earth that was flat, where the earth was the centre of the universe, and the earth was controlled by various supernatural forces outside of anyone’s perception. Today we recognize these influences in the scripture stories – and the way of thinking that was at work in that.
However, our current understanding – that the Divine Spirit is at work within and through us as well as throughout the world, not in a supernatural way – is more helpful in many ways…we ourselves are co-creators of our world – we are required to take responsibility for all of our actions – we can no longer blame “God” for what happens to us or through our actions.
And so, as we prepare ourselves for the challenges of our times, we need to dig deep within us – and the Divine Spirit we find there – to do the work that needs to be done – the Divine work of bringing freedom, wholeness and meaning in our own lives and the lives of those around us.
Our United Church Creed states it this way: “We are not alone…We believe in God, who works in us and others by the Spirit.”
This past week the “Terry Fox” runs and walks took place again. That young man from British Columbia – the young man with one leg claimed by cancer – the young man whose passion and dedication for raising funds to find a cure for this disease – the young man who was forced to stop his quest just outside Thunder Bay – some 5,373 km from the town in Newfoundland on Atlantic Ocean where he began… had an impact beyond his own profound success in his own run. His impact is incalculable, until you start to calculate it: 32 streets, one mountain, 1,164 cancer research grants and awards, $553 million invested in cancer research...as of 2009…and more to come.
We all have, within us, passions and dedication for making the world a better place. These passions are Divine Spirit calling us, nudging us, drawing us into the work that we must do. The Reed Sea needs to be crossed so that we might be free. The economy must be balanced so that the wealthy are not the only ones with opportunities and benefits. The Earth’s environment needs it voice to be heard and heeded so that we as a species might continue to exist.
There are so many challenges ahead of us…but we are not alone. Whether we look deep within us or up to the clouds for God’s presence, it is our call to meet the needs of our neighbours as well as ourselves in ways that are compassionate and life-giving.
We are on that journey together. Prayer for the Journey VU# 648

Message for January 17, 2010

Sermon – January 17, 2010 1 Cor 12: 1 - 11; John 2: 1 - 11
With thanks to Brian Donst/Midrash

For anyone who has organized a wedding recently, it’s sort of comforting to read that weddings in the time of Jesus were also fraught with worry. In those days, weddings went on for as long as seven days! People came and went, but the obligation of the groom’s family was to have a continuous flow of food and wine available for the guests. Otherwise it meant a great dishonour to their name – and a terrible blow to the prestige of the family. To run out of wine!! You can imagine how the bride and groom would feel in today’s society if the catering provided only enough to feed half of the reception guests! We’d like to think that people would be gracious, but many would be tempted to think the hosts had been too cheap to pay for enough food.
In the gospel text this morning, Mary, the mother of Jesus, Jesus and his disciples are guests at a wedding in Cana. There are lots of unanswered questions about this piece of scripture. For example, we are never told whose wedding it is. One can only think that it must have been someone of close relation to Mary...perhaps a brother or a cousin, because Mary is quite alarmed that the wine is about to run out. What exactly does Mary think Jesus will do about the wine shortage – go off to the wine merchant and buy some more? Whatever she thinks, Jesus sounds quite reluctant to get involved...in fact, he seems rather rude – “what concern is that to you and to me?” he asks. But Mary is not so easily put off. She instructs the servants to follow Jesus’ instructions and trusts that Jesus will take care of the problem. And that's how it happens - this thing John calls a “sign”, the turning of water into wine. By faithfulness and grace ordinary human lives and the things we offer are transformed into something holy and life-giving for the world. It happens when we do whatever he tells us.
It's what we see at work in Haiti right now. Haiti has suffered a long, long time and earlier this week it seems the wine finally ran out completely. After generations of misrule and disorder, decades of oppressive government, and two years of stuttering recovery from hurricane damage, whatever fragile hope remained of rebuilding their nation was crushed in the rubbing together of giant tectonic plates just below the surface of their land. This was not a judgement of God, but the result of a world still in the making, upon which the ground beneath all our feet is never as solid as we imagine.
And in the wake of disaster, as a first impulse of God's Spirit at work within all humanity, and before any other considerations can arise to stifle or qualify the response, relief and aid has flowed from all parts of the globe. The Chinese, I understand, who themselves suffered a tragic earthquake last year, were the first to reach the island-nation with first-aid teams and dogs trained to find survivors in the rubble. Our own Governor-General, an immigrant from Haiti, within hours, offered a tearful call for help even while she did what she could to trace the whereabouts of her own friends and family. The Salvation Army opened a special text application that allows a cell phone user to donate $5 to their Haitian relief fund just by texting the word Haiti to a special number and having the $5 added to their phone bill for the month. There was a search-and-rescue team from Iceland featured on CNN, and who knows how many teams from how many other countries, military personnel from Canada, Red Cross, World Vision, and more international and religious medical teams and relief agencies with more names than we can remember all at work together to help bring something good out of the horrible thing that happened.
Six twenty-plus-gallon jars full to overflowing with ordinary human work and commitment, given as soon as the word was heard. Water upon water of charitable and humanitarian work poured into the gaping need. Each dollar and each act just a drop in the bucket, to be sure. But added together enough to keep hope alive, enough to maintain or restore faith in a living God, enough to give reason for thanks in the midst of an intolerable situation.
And isn't that what life is? Isn't that what the wedding feast called the earth is like? Disaster is not uncommon, things change and give way, the ground we stand on is never quite solid, but when we do what Jesus tells us, and we offer what we can in faith, in hope and in love, the kingdom of God is glimpsed in the midst of everything else.
What we give becomes more than we think it can be. It may be just five dollars, or maybe ten or twenty. It may be just a prayer for someone's survival. It may be the recovery of just one person still alive among a dozen others dead in a pile of rubble.
But in the world as in our worship, and in our worship as in the world, each drop in the bucket is important, each obedient act paves the way, for how else shall the jars be made full - as full as God desires and needs for the story of the kingdom to continue?
Water into wine; and from ordinary water, good wine flowing. It sounds miraculous. But we see it more often than we realize, and we need to realize the commonality of the miracle more than we tend to.
On those Sundays when we celebrate Communion, we believe that, by the grace of God we meet Christ by remembering him, and we ourselves become the bread of life for the world. Every day the Holy Spirit of God is alive and moving within us, and our every action and gesture has the power to be holy and life-giving for the world around us.
And why come to worship if not to be seeking out the holy depth and height of our life? Why else be alive in the world if not for the divine possibility of our being part of something greater and more gracious than just ourselves?

Let us pray: Gracious God, whose signs surround us day by day and whose revelation in Jesus awakens our wonder: work within us, among us, and through us, we pray, that believing minds may blossom into trusting hearts and helping hands, fully committed to service. Keep us open to further learning and inspiration that we may accept your gifts as we find them within us, and then offer light and hope to others. We pray this in the name of Jesus, the greatest gift of all. Amen.

Message for January 10, 2010

Sermon – January 10, 2010 Yr. C.
The Baptism of Jesus (Luke 3: 21-22; Matt. 3:13-17; Mark 1: 9 – 11)
As it often happens with the preparation of the message for each Sunday, I began on one road – developing one theme, and then veered off onto another. For my preparation, I read the three different accounts of the baptism of Jesus – the Luke account that we heard today, the Matthew scripture from Matt. 3, and the account in Mark, chapter 1. I noted how similar they are, and I jotted down the differences – in Theological school, they tell us to pay attention to the differences, because it is in the differences that we can make some discoveries about why the gospel writers wrote their accounts ... in the way they wrote them. For example, in Matthew’s version of this story, John the Baptist at first objects when Jesus asks him to do the baptism...he says “I need to be baptized by YOU, and do you come to ME?” Matthew, it seems, wanted to make sure his account emphasized the superiority of Jesus over John the Baptist.
In Mark, the account is very similar to the story in Luke. The difference between both Mark and Matthew in comparison to Luke – in Luke, the story of the baptism of Jesus comes after John had actually been shut up in prison by Herod...so, if we only read Luke’s version we might ask... “who actually baptized Jesus?”
At that point, I got hung up on where to go next with this text. But there was value in contemplating the texts over a period of time. And then one sentence finally drew my attention...and I began another type of thinking....
"You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life" [Luke 3:22-The Message]. That sentence appears in all three accounts almost word for word. We know the writers of the gospel were not there at the baptism...we know that the story about the baptism came to be written down many decades later. We know that before it was written down it was told to people – around campfires, at meetings and in the course of meals...wherever there was talk about Jesus, and who he was, the story would have been told. And, it seems, this phrase was taken as so important – so unique – that it did not change “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased (NRSA).”
There is nothing, not a single thing, any child wants to hear more than this. I wonder how many of us have ever heard this type of phrase from a parent? Just imagine it: your father reaches out, puts a hand on your shoulder, looks you straight in the eye and says: "You're my child: I love you. I am pleased with you…you are the pride of my life.”
Over the years, I've seen so many lives tangled in knots that began when a parent couldn't say this - or said it with conditions attached – conditions that twisted the child's life into knots. The deepest center of this story of Jesus’ baptism is the ultimate embrace of Jesus by the Spirit of God. What makes this center hard to find is our determination to discuss the details.
In theological discussions about baptism, we want to talk about the water: how much, what type, what temperature. We want to talk about the person being baptized: how old, do they know what they are doing? We want to talk about theological categories: clean, unclean, saved, sanctified. We want to talk about boundaries: was it just men or could women also be baptized? What about slaves? While we are talking – talking - talking, God is saying: "You are my child, I love you." While we are talking, God is busy embracing.
The readings today represent a collection of what some might call “love letters from God”. Let’s take a look at the first one, from Isaiah. It's written for the dispirited, defeated remnant of Judah. In the background is the memory that a century before, the Assyrians had defeated the northern kingdom of Israel and the whole community was lost. Now the Babylonians have defeated the last of the Hebrew people: will they also be lost? They are taken into exile; their sanctuary is destroyed. What's worse, they really think they deserve it. The whole lead up to this portion of Isaiah is a recitation of the good reasons God might have for destroying them. They have violated the covenant that gave them a claim on blessing in so many ways, they are unrecognizable as God's children. They have refused over and over again to repent and return. What should God do with these unruly children? This is what God says: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine." [Isaiah 43:1b] The scripture goes on to list the terrors of their passage into exile: rivers and fires and the lurking dread that no one remembers. And God says about it all, “I will be there”. The real terror of being lost is that there is no way back. God says, “There is going to be a way back, dear ones, there is going to be a way back.”
Over and over again, what comes through scripture is the amazing, miraculous fact that God remembers all of us all the time. We think of people as gone; God never does. "I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. I will say to the north, 'Give them up!' and to the south, 'Do not hold them back." [Isaiah 43:5f] The Divine Spirit never forgets any of us. Isaiah was writing to the people of his time. Little did he know that he was also – very much – writing for us – here in the Annapolis Valley in the first week of the year 2010. God does not forget any of us.
When I first imagined this sermon, I thought of it as a time to talk about the details of baptism. I assumed I would be talking about the reasons we do what we do, what the water means, perhaps a discussion of the reasons why we baptize babies and so on. But I wasn’t able to get beyond this stunning declaration: “you're my child, I love you.”
Maybe it's just me. I grew up in a family where we didn't say such things out loud. It isn't that my family wasn't loving; we just didn't talk about it. We talked about household things mostly: about who had to do what. After I became an adult, things didn’t change much.
My parents and I rarely hugged. We knew we should hug but we just couldn't do it naturally. Now I have learned differently. Even my son-in-law hugs me. I don't mean one of those “for the record hugs”, I mean the "Wow I’m really glad to see you!" hugs.
Baptism could also be called a love letter straight from God. When we treat baptism with respect, and not just as a cultural tradition or a ceremony without real meaning, we know that it is a sign from God that we are loved.
And so, I have water and stones here...the water of baptism and stones that could easily have come from the bottom of a river where baptisms took place centuries ago. First I am going to offer you a tradition – an aspersion – a “sprinkling of water” from the baptismal font. The tradition says that I should use a cedar bough ... And, as you feel the sprinkles of water, remember that God says, “You are my child...I love you...with you I am well pleased.”
And secondly, I will offer each of you a stone to hold, and to take with you. It can become a reminder of God’s eternal love – put it in a pocket, or in your purse, or somewhere that you can discover it when you need to...and hold onto it when you need to. These ancient rocks offer us a token of things eternal....
Aspersion and offering of stones takes place....
Amen.

Message from July 12, 2009

Sermon – July 12, 2009 
Scripture:  2 Samuel 6: 1-5, 12b – 19;  and  Mark 6: 14 - 29

    The message today is intended to follow up on the message of the previous week about learning and taking ownership of what we believe about Jesus and God and the Christian life.  We are travelling back in time...to hear about what people were doing only a few decades after Jesus was alive and walking in and around the villages of Palestine.
    “This week I imagine that I have come across a letter from a person living in the second century of the Common Era – previously known as “AD”... and I bring it to you this morning as a follow-up to the message from last week.”

My name is Joanna and I lived some 1900 years ago – I am now an old woman of 58 years, living in Palestine.  I am named after one of the women who went to the tomb on that first Easter morning – Joanna who gathered spices and cloth to wrap the body of Jesus for proper burial.
    My life is different than yours...much different.  But I am a Christian as you are. My message today is to tell you about what Christianity is like in my day...in the year 106 A.D.  I live east of the Jordan River in a town called Amathus, in the valley north of the River Jabbok.  I’d like to witness to you what my group of Christians believes about Jesus.
    First of all, Jesus was a remarkable man – more righteous in the Jewish Law than any other.  And so he was chosen by God to be God’s son...and his adoption into sonship happened at the baptism in the Jordan River not far from here.  At that time, Jesus saw the heavens open up and the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus as a dove, while God said to him, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.”
    So, Jesus was a fully human person.  He was empowered by God to do remarkable miracles and to teach people the truth of God.  In the end, he was so empowered by God that he died as a willing sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world, and his sacrifice put an end to all sacrifices.  Afterwards, God raised him from the dead and Jesus reigns in heaven today. 
    Jesus was not born of a virgin, he was not God...but was adopted by God to be the saviour of the world.  There is only one God, and Jesus was not God.  This is our belief. We continue to practice our scriptural rites as laid down in the Hebrew books of the law – what you now call the “Old Testament”.  We also follow another Greek text that is very similar to what you now call the “Gospel of Matthew” without the first two chapters. We have never seen or read any of the other books you have in your “New Testament”.
In history, people will call us “Adoptionist” Christians...we believe that Jesus was “adopted” by God.  We remain true to our Jewish roots.  If gentiles want to convert to be followers of Jesus, they must follow the Jewish laws about observing the Sabbath and keeping kosher food laws, and all men must be circumcised.
    A few months ago, we had a number of visitors to our town...they came from Asia Minor – what you now call Turkey – and they called themselves Christians as well. They were followers of Marcion, a scholar and Christian evangelist.  These people had a very different view of Jesus than we have.  They read and follow what they call the “true teachings” which they get through writings of an apostle by the name of Paul.
    Paul was a devout Jew who was converted to a belief in Jesus through a mystical sighting of Jesus himself after he was dead and resurrected and Marcion says that Paul came to understand that Jewish Law should play no part in the divine plan of redemption...only Christ himself was the way of salvation for Paul.  These Christians who follow Marcion were trying to tell us that we should abandon the Jewish Law altogether!  And to top it off, they had the nerve to tell us that Jesus was not human at all – but another God!
    I’d never heard of such a thing!  It all had to do with their dismissal of the Jewish Law – it seems that they also dismissed our Jewish God as well!  It all came from Paul’s writings...for example they said that ‘whereas the Jewish God punishes those who disobey, the God of Jesus extends mercy and forgiveness; whereas the God of the Jews says “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth:, the God of Jesus says to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies”.  These two Gods cannot be followed at the same time, therefore, they follow the God of Jesus.  And they said that Jesus had nothing to do with the God of the Jews, the God of creation....  And not having any part of the Creator God meant that Jesus was not born, and did not have real flesh and blood...he only LOOKED human...and that Jesus was God himself...come to earth to deliver people from the vengeful God of the Jews...they actually had the nerve to say that to us!!!
    So, we turned our backs on them...we say Jesus was totally human, they say he was totally divine.  They say there are two Gods – imagine, two Gods! – the God of the Jews and the God of Jesus.  We know there is only one God – Yahweh.  No wonder they weren’t able to evangelize us....
    After our meeting, I asked them where they got these crazy notions about God...and they told us that they got them from that Paul – and some writings that you now call the gospel of Luke – ... well not the whole of the gospel, because Marcion changed the writings.  He believed that some early heretics had made changes to the writings by inserting positive references to the God of the Jews and to the creation, so he cut out those portions...and kept only the parts that support his own beliefs!  Imagine!  We were happy when those Marcions left this region, I can tell you.
    And then, there are those Gnostics!!  They live in the big cities of Egypt and Syria, and modern-day Turkey and around here in Palestine too.  There’s all sorts of them.  They think they have the ONLY truth – gnosis means truth in Greek- and some of them agree with the total divinity of Jesus, and some of them agree with us that Jesus was human...at least in the beginning.  They say that God entered into Jesus at his baptism and from then on he was two people a human being and a divine being ...and that’s where he got his powers of healing and teaching.  And then, just before he died, the divine part of him departed once again to return to heaven...to live with the REST of the Gods!  They think there are more than one or two Gods ... so you can imagine what we think of them!!!  They don’t think much of this material world...and they can’t wait to escape it and get to heaven...and there they will be able to learn more of the great secrets of God.  Their scriptures include other books that even YOU may not have heard of: the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Truth...you’ve now uncovered some of these books ... and people are writing about them and what they say ... but they don’t make any sense to me.  I know Jesus through the readings WE have and the teachings of our elders.  That’s enough for me.
    So, I guess I need to ask you – are you an adoptionist like me?  Or do you follow Marcion?  .... or perhaps you are a secret-loving Gnostic?  Which kind of Christian are you?  If you had to choose a book of scripture for your own understanding, could you point me to one or two only?  What is it that you actually trust as the truth of Jesus.
Signed:  Yours in Christ,  Joanna.

    There were several different groups who thought of themselves as followers of Jesus, and would be called “Christian” in the 100’s and 200’s (second and third centuries)...you have heard from Johanna of three.  There was one more group that was significant – this group became dominant and eventually they acquired more converts than any of the others. Therefore, because they were dominant, they could label the other believers as “heretics” – or people who rejected the “true belief”.  There continues to be great debates over how they developed and when they became the majority of Christian believers.  Their beliefs shaped our own – they believed Jesus was both human and divine...they agreed with the Gnostics when they said that Jesus taught the way of salvation, but didn’t see Jesus as two beings – the divine Christ inside of the human Jesus.  They used a mixture of scriptures but rejected the Gospels of Thomas, Peter and Philip because they were too Gnostic in nature.  They accepted and used the Gospel of Matthew which was used by the Jewish Christians AND the gospel of John which was well-loved by the Gnostics.  It was this group that eventually began to define and structure the Christian faith that we follow today.  By the early 400’s, certain scriptures were accepted and used, others were rejected and suppressed.  The work of shaping the Christian faith and the Church continued.
    I bring you this summary because it is important for all of us to know that there were many ways to think about Jesus even just a few decades after he was no longer on earth. The struggles to understand who Jesus was and what his work here was to mean for us did not begin in this or in the previous two centuries when many of our books of theology were written, but rather in the very first....and it continues today.  What we undertake when we begin to study and look for answers – as I spoke about last week – is work that began when Jesus was actually walking in the flesh among us...  We, as a group of Christians in 2009 continue to grapple with what we see in the scriptures of the Hebrew Testament – what we understand God to be...does it coincide with the so-called “Jewish” understanding or the “Jesus” understanding...or both?  We continue to have questions about why Jesus died as he did and what significance that death has to us now.
    For us the job is a little easier, because we have so many good writers who support different views...we can read the scholarly works and be fed or challenged by them.  For us, the job is also more difficult for the same reason.  Do we follow Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong or Gretta Vosper – the writers of the Progressive Christianity movement, or do we follow the current Evangelical writers – or perhaps the Cosmologists like Bran Swimme and Thomas Berry, or do we believe in the God we know only through our own experience?
    My last comment today will be about what David Krane calls the “tyranny of the OR” and the freedom of the “AND”.  We as humans like to have things decided – either its THIS or its THAT!  But, sometimes, there are no answers that fit neatly into THIS or THAT.  When it comes to God – and the fact that WE will never in this lifetime work out exactly what, who, or why God is – I would ask that you allow yourself the Freedom of the AND.  We don’t need a neatly packaged faith – what we need is a trust that allows for the differences that we encounter in our readings...and the grace to allow our reading to speak to our experience of God and of the Christ in our lives.  Jesus walked on this earth and left behind a hint of who God is for us.  So, let us begin there...

 

Message from July 5, 2009

Message – July 5, 2009
Scripture: 2 Samuel 5: 1-5, 9-10 and Mark 6: 1 - 13

    In my former life, I worked in the general insurance industry – as a broker and manager of a small office.  We had about 12 people working there and I was the one to whom everyone came when there were decisions to be made or problems to be worked out.  What I said carried the weight of some authority – since I had the nameplate on my desk that stated I was the MANAGER.  I recall one day returning home after an exhilarating day, feeling pretty pleased with myself.  I entered the kitchen in triumph and was confronted by a heated argument of some kind going on between my husband and children.  I don’t recall the subject matter – just the high drama and emotion.  I pulled out all my mediation skills – nothing worked.  The argument ended when we all got tired out and gathered finally around the table.  I looked at my family and realized just how little my power and authority at work translated into power and authority at home.  Here around the table I was “MOM”.  And being mom plus 50 cents wouldn’t buy you a cup of coffee anywhere.
    Since that time, I have talked to others about the distinct difference between the authority we carry at our workplaces and that which we can carry at home.  It’s not just me who has realized the difference.  Skilled ER nurses, a pharmacist, other clergy, university professors and scientists, auto mechanics, - each of us felt that we could be listened to with authority outside of our homes, but were simply “Dad or Mom” at home.
    Jesus of Nazareth encountered the same problem, it seems.  The first unit of our reading from Mark chapter 6 is about Jesus of  Nazareth in his hometown, in his home synagogue, where he is identified in a number of ways.  The citizens know him as a carpenter, as Mary’s son, as sibling to four brothers and several sisters.  They know him as a small village knows their children – they’ve seen him growing up.  They simply would not give him the kind of authority that they would give to someone they hadn’t seen in diapers or tagging along holding the skirt of a busy mother at the market.
    Yet they have heard about the wondrous things he had done, they knew he was developing a following outside of Nazareth.  Even so, the teaching that Jesus does falls on deaf ears. Proclamation of the good news by a hometown boy was greeted with suspicion – by those whom we would expect to be the most receptive.
    And so the stage is set for the second unit of this passage...the account of the mission of the Twelve...Mark names them in Chapter 3: “Simon whom Jesus gave the name Peter; James and his brother John (the sons of Zebedee); Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Patriot, and Judas Iscariot.  They have walked away from Nazareth into the villages of the Galilee, and Jesus continues to teach and heal.  In the midst of all this, Jesus calls his disciples to him, he equips them for ministry of healing and teaching, and sends them out to do as he has done: preaching repentance, casting out demons, and healing the sick.
    He sends them out with only what they have learned from him – no money, no books, no props of any kind – just the teachings and the authority he gives them to accomplish their goal.  And when they are rejected (notice that Jesus anticipates that they will be rejected at some places), they are simply to move on.  They are instructed not to pronounce judgement on the inhospitable and unbelieving, but simply to follow the custom of shaking off that dust from the places where they are rejected...and go elsewhere. One thing jumps out at me from this story.... the disciples are told by Jesus that they are not to have judgement about people who do not believe or accept the things that they have to say to them.  Mark has written a story about Jesus’ work that had a special message to his own community and, I would say, to ours today.  The work of Jesus is to continue, and for that purpose the church is called and sent...Mark’s community was called and sent...Trinity/Berwick/Harbourville United Church is called and sent.  We are called to be able to know what it is that we believe, what it is that we trust to be so, what it is that we give our hearts to, what it is that we would give our lives for, and then we are sent out to teach and to heal.  The depth of our knowledge and the depth of our commitment will be strongly identified as our authority. We are to equip ourselves not with money or props or books, but with the teachings as we are able to understand them...and to tell those stories to others. 
    The first thing we need to be sure of is this: what do we trust to be so about God, about the Bible, about the Church, about the Christian life?  In a book called “The Evolution of the Idea of God, and Other Essays:...” Jim Dollar writes about “What makes us think that what we think is so?”  In his essay, he asks us to use the scriptural notion of questioning: ask, seek, knock...he says.  Questioning carries us to the heart of spirituality. We need to be intentional about questioning what we have been told about the Bible, about Jesus and his teachings, about the Church, and about God and God’s presence in our lives.   Jesus asks us to question...to ask, to seek, to knock...
    And this all takes a great deal of effort, commitment and determination...we need to decide if we are simply going to accept all that has been told to us by others...to decide for ourselves if we are going to let others do our knowing for us and side-step the work of spiritual growth.  Or, we can go on our own spiritual journey...walk our own walk...wrestle with the question of what we actually do think, and what makes us think that what we think is so.  Dollar warns us that questioning can go on eternally – through layers and layers of answers.  
    The layers of questions and their answers lead to more questions and answers, which lead eventually to the heart of spiritual truth, if we are willing to ask, all along the way, “What makes us think that what we think is so?” If we are willing to keep walking around what makes sense to us, looking over it, digging around in it, examining it, poking it, prodding it, holding it up to the light, and thinking about what we think after we have thought about it, we will become increasingly aware of inconsistencies, and incompatibilities.  We will find that, at the end, there are some things we need to discard to make room for other ways of thinking...throwing some things out to make room for insights, enlightenment, transformation, and growth.  We have to be able to hold conflicting views in tension...to befriend them...because therein lies the hope and the wisdom – the very source of blessing.  At some point, we will be able to say, “this is what I believe, because it makes sense to me...” knowing that not all of our questions will have answers – and that they don’t need to for the moment.
    To assist you in this journey of questioning, I have brought with me today a number of books that you are encouraged to sign out, take home, and wrestle with over the coming weeks of summer.  They all have something important to say – some I agree with, some I don’t, but I take them all seriously.  I trust that you may find them helpful to begin or to continue your journey of faith discovery.
    And I leave you with a poem written by Marjorie Dobson of the U.K., entitled “God of the Unexpected” (Seeing Christ in Others..page 74-75).

 

Message from June 28, 2009

Sermon – June 28, 2009 
Scripture: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17 - 27 ; Mark 5:  21 – 24;  35 - 43

    A friend of my sisters- I’ll call her Mary – in her late sixties – told me a story that is becoming more common.  She had not heard from a dear, dear friend who was living in another part of the province...she had left messages at her apartment...and after 2 weeks of no response, she called the friend’s daughter.  She was told that her friend had died, that no one had been in the apartment much since, and was thanked for reminding her to disconnect the telephone.  In her shock, Mary asked meekly – when was the funeral.  “Oh, we didn’t have a funeral, we scattered her ashes up at the cottage where mom liked to be...she would have liked that”.  Mary hung up in terrible sorrow...her friend was gone, and she never got a chance to say goodbye.  That was years ago, and she still gets tears in her eyes when she tells the story.
    Reading the story of David’s reaction to the news that Saul and Jonathan are dead points us in the same direction:  we need to lament our losses.  As human beings we need to demonstrate in some way our grief and sorrow over losing someone we love.
    David was a ruthless man...even his days as a shepherd were filled with violence...killing the foxes and wild animals that attacked his heard...prepared him to kill the great giant, Goliath, as we heard last week.  He has grown now into a great warrior, his sword drips with blood, he knows no mercy upon the person who brings him the news of Saul’s death...read the rest of the story in the first and second books of Samuel...this man David is a leader, yes, but he is also a man of conflict...sometimes violent, sometimes loving.
    In today’s reading, David writes a lament for the loss of Saul and Jonathan. Now, remember that Saul had tried to kill him several times...there was a great rift between people who followed Saul and people who had allegiance with David.  It was important at this time...when Saul has just been killed...for David to make the right decision.  He could have taken up arms against the followers of Saul to his advantage, and asserted himself as the king by violence.  Instead he writes a poem of lament...extolling the virtues of his King and his love for the King’s son, Jonathan.  And he gave instructions that the lament not be sung in Philistia – for he doesn’t want the Philistines to be aware of the sorrow of the people.  Rather, he instructs that all of the people of Israel are to sing this song.  They are to lament this loss publicly. 
    In doing this, David lays his grief before the people.  He is vulnerable to being seen as weak.  He rents his clothes in sorrow....he makes public his suffering over the loss.
    In our culture, the western culture, we have lost our hold on ways to grieve.  Tearing our clothes never made it into European culture.  Nor did covering our bodies with ashes from the fire, or uulating as the people of Africa and the Holy Land continue to do...there is no keening in white societies...no people we can hire, as they do in India and Sri Lanka...to mourn loudly and incessantly in the funeral parade.
    In Canada...white people keep a facade of stillness...we apologize if we cry in front of others...we put on our faces...we avoid contact with people...we keep our grief hidden, masked, internal, and quiet.
    And we pay the price.  Internalized grief...unexpressed feelings of guilt...fear...anxiety...shame...anger...all of the feelings of grief turned inside for our souls to deal with..Our Church is a living Church and we want to share with you some of our activities.

Youth group has begun again, usually meeting every other Sunday at 4 p.m.  Watch for announcements about events and gatherings. All youth from grade 7 and up are welcome.  This is a group open to all - whether Church members or not.  Meet your friends, or bring your friends with you.  Contact Michelle Bull at michelle.bull@ns.sympatico.ca or Linda Winton at lindawinton@gmail.com.

The first Sunday of every month is Food Bank Sunday - we accept all non-perishable goods for the Berwick Food Bank, particularly canned fruit, canned milk, cereal, peanut butter and servings of fruit, puddings, or cheese that can be put into lunch bags for children.  Thank you for your continued support of this much-needed service.

 

.creates deep and lasting results.  Guilt and anger unexpressed and directed inward turn into self-loathing and self-defeating actions.  Anxiety and fear turn into depression and changes in our attitudes toward life...we lose our lustre, we become insecure and hesitant, we can turn into automatons...living but not feeling.
    And, remember my sister’s friend, Mary?  Her grief will remain unresolved until she can find a way to say a real goodbye to her dear friend.  She needs a lament...she needs to express how rotten she feels about the situation...she needs someone to listen to her anger and feelings of loss and betrayal...she needs something to remember in her soul that her friend has died, and that she has grieved that loss. 
    We meet at her home.  Around Mary on the sofa are pictures and cards...mostly Christmas cards with the letters that people send giving the annual news of the family. There is a postcard from Israel, another from China, and a funny one from the CN Tower in Toronto.  There’s a scarf that comes from Damascus, and a candle from Mary’s cupboard – it is purple like the scarf.  Earlier in the day, Mary and I had been to the beach in Oshawa where there are millions of large, smooth grey stones – they fit in your hand and you can feel the silkiness of the rock when they are wet. 
    We light the candle, and Mary puts the stones into a bowl...and as she does so, with each stone Mary tells me a story about her friend and their relationship.  Mostly its high school things, and then stories about them raising their first two children as neighbours, and then their battles with illness and each of them spending time on the telephone with support through the chemo and the surgeries.  And when she has completed that time of remembering, we have a time of silence and prayer together.  And then we take the stones out to Mary’s garden – it is a wonderful vibrant living place in the middle of June...and we place the stones between Mary’s favourite plants, and she weeps for her friend and lets go of that burden of anger and rage at having been forgotten by the family.  Mary pats the rocks and says her friend’s name as we turn to go back into the house and have a cup of tea.
    Mary has written to me recently – an email reminding me of that ritual of lament that we did together.  Her burden has lifted.  She is thinking of contacting her friend’s daughter soon to invite them out to tea and the garden – Mary’s strength of forgiveness and compassion is returning.  She has a new foundling cat that she has named Mugs – a codeword for her friend.  Mary’s life continues now with that phase over, but not forgotten.
    David’s story tells us a great deal about grieving and the human soul.  Deep within us we need to recognize that we are intimately connected with others – with people and with our animals and birds that become our companions on this journey. Within us, we have this yearning to make meaning from our every day experiences, and to remember the connections that keep us whole and alive.  And, I believe, we need to grieve...we need to express our losses...so that we can begin to heal – even to sing in the face of great loss.  Because we don’t deny ourselves that time in the desert, we can embrace the flowers of the gardens in June with greater delight and appreciation.
   
Let’s turn now to Hymn #278 in VU and read together the words...and then we can sing it together quietly.

 

Message for May 3, 2009

Scripture reading: John 10: 11 – 18

      After worship last week, George Brannon handed me a clipping of a column that was printed in the Chronicle Herald...it’s headline is “Vitamin G for Wellness: Add faith to your diet.” ..... (read the column)
There is definitely some truth in that article...but is “wellness” the only reason for participating in a faith community? In his book, “Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief,” Huston Smith champions a society in which religion is once again treasured and authentically practiced as the vital source of human wisdom. 
Today there are many books that hurl caustic criticism at religion – particularly the Christian religion.  In a recent interview, Christopher Hitchens, author of “God is Not Great” said, “The position I take is, that all religion is equally stupid and an expression of contempt for reason and an exaltation of the idea of faith, of believing things without evidence.”
Huston Smith takes exception to the secularists such as Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who base their lives and beliefs on reason and scientific method.  He reserves his harshest condemnation, however, for the basis of much of our current culture, which has stemmed from the misreading of science—the mistake of assuming that "absence of evidence" of a scientific nature is "evidence of absence." These mistakes have all but banished faith in transcendence and the Divine from mainstream culture and pushed it to the margins,” he writes.
    Today we are in that space and time which can be compared to the bottom of an arc traced by a pendulum.  Religious thought and practice of faith seem to be at a stand-off between people who are atheists and people who are committed to a faith - glaring at one another over a chasm of misunderstanding and dismissal.
    At the top of the arc on either side are the fundamentalists: religious on one side, and anti-religious on the other.  Make no mistake, atheism is also a belief – and those who are the most strident and militant are also fundamentalists as are fundamentalist Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus.   I would suggest that the space in between is where we will all find room to honour and understand each other.
    I believe strongly, however, that a belief in something greater than ourselves is, in fact, a major need for healthy and meaningful life.  For those of us who are Christians, the “something greater” is God: Holy One, Love, Spirit Eternal, Creator, Father, ...however you need to name God in order to be on a path that is in sacred relationship with God.  Other religions have other paths.  But ours, as followers of Christ, is to establish in our lives, somehow, a kinship, a relationship, a knowledge of the Sacred  through the knowledge we have received in our Sacred writings: scripture; and through the actions of Jesus in those writings and the closeness we feel through the actions of the Risen Christ in our own lives that we experience from day to day. 
    And so, we now look at our gospel reading for today: Jesus the Good Shepherd, who puts the sheep ahead of himself, sacrifices himself, if necessary for the lives of his sheep, as the scriptures say.  It’s somewhat odd that the scripture writer used this image of Jesus as shepherd, because, in the society of Jesus’ time, Shepherds were not exactly revered people.  They were seen as uneducated, dirty, and a little weird...because they liked being out on the hills alone with their sheep.  But the image of sacrificing ones self for others – THAT is the image the writer needs to put forth...and he does so by using the imagery that Jesus often used...from nature...from the lived experience of his audience.
    Nowadays, shepherds are rare – at least in North America.  Particularly in Canada.  But we know intimately the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem from Palm Sunday.  We know that Jesus stood alone against those who were trying to deny life to his followers and to Jesus himself.  We know that his foes ultimately did kill Jesus leaving his flock of followers vulnerable and afraid.  So we can ponder the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection through this powerful image of the caring shepherd sacrificing himself for his flock.  And so, the powerful image of the Risen Christ as shepherd carries meaning to us as well.  We can imagine his leadership, we can imagine his voice calling us forth onto the paths where we will find abundance to sustain us.  We can imagine him seeking us when we are lost and returning us to safety.  It is rich, evocative, and helpful imagining whether we are hungry for meaning, or lost in a crowd that is wandering aimlessly, or simply needing to hear the voice of caring and concern in our lives.
    Huston Smith tells us that human beings possess a “religious sense” – that this sense is what makes us human.  Signs of this sense include the way we instinctively ask the ultimate questions: What is the meaning of existence?  Why are there pain and death? Why, in the end, is life worth living?  At the very end of his book, Huston Smith tells a story about his own struggles to write about what he calls the “religious sense”...
    “...my mind goes back to a night when I felt it working in me with exceptional force. My wife and I were spending a week in the dead of winter in Death Valley, California, and on the full-moon night that we were there I awoke to a call that seemed to come from the night itself, a call so compelling that it was almost audible.  Hurrying into some clothes, I answered it.  Stepping out of doors, I found that not a breath of air was stirring. The sky held no clouds to conceal the panoply of stars ascending from the circling horizon. It was one of those totally magical nights and moments.  For half an hour or so I walked the road without a thought in my heard. It may have been as close as I have ever come to the empty mind that Buddhists work toward for years.  There my powers of description shut down...but sometime later I can upon a poem by Giacomo Leopardi that gives words to that night.  It is a poem about a nomadic shepherd in Asia – he is posing questions to a moon that seems to dominate the heavens: questions whose horizons are themselves infinite:

    And when I gaze upon you,
    Who mutely stand above the desert plains
    Which heaven with its far circle but confines,
    Or often, when I see you [moon]
    Following step by step my flock and me,
    Or watch the stars that shine there in the sky,
    Musing, I say within me:
    “Wherefore those many lights,
    That boundless atmosphere,
    And infinite calm sky?”  And what the meaning
    Of this vast solitude?  And, what am I?

    Fundamentalist atheists rage against this quest for meaning beyond what can be explained by science.  The meaning of existence?  There is no meaning just existence.
Why is there pain and death?  Science explains the body and its reaction to injury and disease.  Death comes as a natural result of injury, disease or old age.  There is no “why” – pain and death are just there.  Why is life worth living?  Life offers us a short time of community, learning, and striving for a good life, but life itself does not have meaning other than to be alive, to procreate, and to die...fundamental basics with no frills added.

    To me, imagery, imagination, beauty, the artistry of creation, all work together to provide our lives with meaning.  Our struggles provide meaning.  Our loves provide meaning. Our faith and the relationships it builds provide meaning.  Poetry and story tell us about meaning.  Our minds crave meaning – minds that cannot be explained by science – and our religious sense helps us fulfill our needs for the quest – the answers will likely never be found in our lifetimes – but the search itself is sustenance for our souls.  We hear the call -  and we respond to it. 

Let us pray:
Loving Shepherd, hold us close and care for us each day. Lead us, guide us, challenge us, that we might form a more faithful community that journeys in your way.  Amen.

 

Message for April 26, 2009

Scripture reading:  Ezekiel 37 1- 14

    In 2003, I was plucked out of a Pastoral Charge in Ontario where I had been student minister for almost three years.  The Church required that I fulfill an 8-month internship, and I couldn’t do it where I had been in ministry – I was to learn ministry in a different place.  I was sent to St. Andrew’s U. C. in Truro, and arrived there about 3 weeks before Hurricane Juan.  In December, I was required to report to my Education and Students’ Committee in Ontario about my progress.  This report was also to include a reflection on a scripture passage.  I chose the Ezekiel passage.  Even though I was surrounded by wonderful people and challenging work, I felt adrift in a foreign landscape – I felt somewhat like an exile.
There are changes in our culture and the economy today are shifting the ground that we have walked on for many decades.  Businesses are closing, our churches are losing members to long-term care facilities, or to a culture that no longer relies on organized religion as its moral compass.  Our children are experiencing lives that can be filled with busy-ness and demands that leave them feeling tired and dispirited.  We too feel like exiles in a strange land.
This week I heard from friends in Ontario that a couple – both of them veterinarians – are being forced to sell their house because the bills for their business and their children’s university costs are putting them close to bankruptcy.  And then on Tuesday night at Presbytery I was in discussion with other ministers and lay people and find that the survival of MANY pastoral charges in the Valley are also in doubt...some will close within a year or two, others may limp along for another 5 or 6.  In addition to declining attendance, and members who are aging and limited in their ability to donate more, the investments that are relied upon for helping churches get through the tight spots have diminished greatly in value, leaving the treasurers continually juggling resources to pay the bills.
    During this past week, at our prayer circle, I happened upon, once again, the Ezekiel passage as its basis.  But this time I found the passage about the dry bones was a soothing lotion for me.  The passage from Ezekiel comes from the six centuries before Jesus...the scene is Babylon.  In those days, there were kingdoms rising and falling; as there always are. There were nations that abused power; as there always are. And the skinny little strip of land that was Israel always seemed to be directly in the path of these strong, expanding nations that surrounded it.  First the Assyrians gobbled up the northern kingdom of Israel in one voracious bite, spewing out refugees across the then-known world.  One hundred years later, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, did a power dance on the border of the southern kingdom, called Judah, creating terror and extorting heavy reparation payments in return for security.  Then he invaded anyway.  He and his army forces marched the leaders – religious, political, and cultural – across the barren wastes into Babylon which is modern-day Iraq.  Ezekiel was a young priest who was carried off in the first wave of captives in 587 BCE.  It was while he was in exile that he received his call to be a prophet.  Biblical prophecy is not so much about foretelling the future, but more about reading the signs of the times and speaking God’s truth into the situation.  A year later, Ezekiel heard that Jerusalem had been captured and the temple was in ashes. More exiles from Jerusalem were herded into Babylon.  This news plunged the exiles into deep despair and hopelessness.  Already they were uprooted, strangers in a strange land. Their religious, economic and cultural life was over.  To many, it felt like a reverse exodus from freedom to slavery.
    So the Ezekiel story begins in spiritual death.  The despair is named and honoured, as the exiles cry, “Our bones are dry, our thread of life is snapped, our web is severed from the loom.”  Beneath it lurks the groan: “Is there any hope?”  “Can these bones live?”  This is a hard place to be; and end-of-the rope place to be.
    Friends, the end-of-the-rope place has come to my veterinarian friends in Oshawa, it looms large in Valley Presbytery’s meetings, and it faces many churches throughout Canada...and not just United Churches, you can be sure of that.
    We are in a time of exile. Exile happens when the familiar place where we belonged and knew the rules is no longer possible, but you haven’t yet found a new way to make your way.  Exile is a place where how we identified ourselves and understood ourselves no longer works...and we are forced to reinvent ourselves and figure out who we are in this new world.  Exile is also where we recognize that our own resources, our own abilities to control our situation have reached their limits, and where we are forced to rely on the radical freedom of God’s spirit.  Exile is where the people of God were re-formed, re-created, and where faith and theology take new directions.
    Exile is not something you fix, using problem-solving tools, which we are so good at doing in the church. It is a whole new ball game, where we have to learn new things, new ways to live, and to be open to the Spirit’s leading.  The is the only way we are going to pass through it.
    In the story from Ezekiel, God gives him a vision, and this vision helps Ezekiel capture the essence of the condition of his people; to see them as a valley of dried out, disconnected bones, dislocated, lifeless, with no energy, no power, no capacity to relate or connect.  In the vision Ezekiel sees God bringing new life to the people; life beyond how things are now.  But this re-creation doesn’t happen right away...the bones have to come together, to rattle and struggle up against each other. They make a terrific racket while they are doing this in the story.  And the bones themselves are not enough. There needs to be sinew to bind them together, and muscles. There needs to be some hard, painful work before the breath of life can come upon them “that they may live.”
But the promise is clear that God’s life-making Spirit will take their deadness, their dryness, their brittleness, and bring new life.
    And so we look at today’s gospel message from Luke.  It comes immediately after the story of meeting the stranger on the road to Emmaus...and recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread.  “As they we talking about all this, there he was; standing among them”. (24:36) For myself, I am not in the least concerned about these sightings of the post-resurrection Jesus: whether they were real, imagined, or some kind of ghostly apparition. For me, the disciples simply “recognized” that Jesus was with them still, in spite of his earthly death.  The ancient writers translated that into a bodily resuscitation as seen in today’s reading – Jesus eating fish before their eyes. 
    Can you see the similarity between these two revelations of God’s compassion and caring for people?  The continuity of God’s presence with those in exile is a reassurance that we are not alone...no matter what exile or deprivation or difficult time we are in.  And so, in today’s predicament, “recognizing” Jesus takes the form of having our minds opened and our hearts moved by the presence of the Sacred with us.  As with the disciples, in Emmaus, and in the room in Jerusalem, and sitting here in Waterville or Berwick, we can recognize Jesus in God’s word from scriptures, and in the response of kindness and sharing of the people of God in those first Christian communities, and in the generosity of the people of our own communities when they give of their energies and their resources to keep the Body of Christ – the faith family – the Church going through tough times.
    I think particularly of the small rural churches where 20 or 30 long-time friends and neighbours gather each Sunday for worship knowing that they can no longer reasonably expect hoards of young people to arrive one Sunday and want to belong. One woman said at Presbytery that they were in the middle of a discussion about how to die with dignity. But I want to tell you of their courage and their compassion as they decide to leave their surplus funds to the other congregations with the trust that these resources will seed a new life for the presence of the United Church in the Annapolis Valley.
    I think particularly of the discussions going on in Presbytery and in Cluster groups about organizing more cluster worship events so that we can draw strength and hope from each other while at the same time searching for ways that the United Church presence in the Annapolis Valley can become stronger.  It is difficult work, and one can almost hear the racket of dissention that could result.  But there is also a strong feeling that the Spirit is at work among us...breathing new possibilities for life into the discussions.
    And so I look on these passages as prophecies of the great and generous compassion of the Holy One for us.  The way ahead will call forth from us strength like sinews and a perseverance like teeth and bone.  We will develop agility and insight as we work together to bring about a new way of being.  And the Living Christ – not a figment of our imagination, but a source of love and support in our lives that we recognize in many ways – the Living Christ guides us on these paths – walks with us, breaks bread with us, counsels us, teaches us, and most importantly stays with us while we work all of this out.

I invite you to find #918 – and to stand and repeat our “New Creed” together.  In invite you to draw from it the sense of God’s continuing presence and to take sustenance from the words. 

 

Sermon March 15, 2009

    We are continuing our journey through Lent.  We began with the signposts of the Rainbow that points to the Cross.  Last week I talked about losing ourselves in the Story.  This week we will hear about rules and relationships.  
    This morning we are hearing from two well-know pieces of our scripture. They have been traditionally titled: the Ten Commandments, OR the Decalogue, and the Cleansing of the Temple. Did I choose these texts? No I did not. They are the readings assigned for today by our three year lectionary cycle.
These two readings are about ways of being in community, rules for living together. One reading is basically a list of things that God-loving communities do and don't do. The other reading is a dramatic and powerful expression of outrage at a community that has been corrupted by the rules  - rules that have placed barriers between the people and God.
How does a God–loving community live?
1. We remember that it is God and God alone whom we worship.
2. In our worship of God we do not worship things, or people, or money or
success. We don’t make idols of God, but rather worship God in all places, at
all times, and recognize that God is in all things, all people and all places.
3.  We use God's name with respect and reverence, not as the means for hurting or
abusing the ears and souls of others.
4. We hold Sabbath. We keep Sabbath. We keep holy at least one day in the
week for nurturing our relationship with God.
5. We honour the ones who gave us life. That does not mean we have to like them, if they have been abusive or cruel, be we honour the fact that without them we would not be.
6. We respect life. We do not murder. Note that the word here is not kill, but murder. Those of us who grew up reading, and memorizing, the Ten Commandments via the King James translation would have learned "Thou Shalt not Kill". But newer translations, including the New King James translation, have changed kill to murder, recognizing it as a more accurate translation from the original Hebrew. Those of us who love God, respect life and do not engage in murderous acts.
7. We are loyal to the ones we love and stand by the covenants and commitments, vows and pledges we have made. We do not commit adultery. That does not mean that relationships never fail, because we all know they sometimes do. But while we are in convent with one another, we honour the fidelity of that relationship.
8. We honour the possessions, the property, the ownership of others. How much or how little one may have does not dismiss the responsibility for respect and honesty. We do not steal.
9. We tell the truth, even when that truth is hard to tell, knowing that the pain of the truth can heal cleanly, but that lies leave scars.
10. We are benevolent and compassionate to our neighbours. We do not covet, or yearn after the things that they have. We do not let our desires rule our relationships, or command our need for belonging.
The Ten Commandments were not just rules for living for the people of Israel, they presented a vision for a future when lion and lamb will lay down together. This past week, Melissa Meers from the Christian Church of Illiopolis, wrote the following on our Midrash internet discussion:  "From my meagre understanding of Hebrew, and from study so far this week, I believe it is credible to translate the Commandments in a future tense. God not only gave the Israelites a way to be in relationship with God and with each other, but also a future vision. So, someday . . .
There will be only one God. Whatever path may lead us to that understanding, be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc.  We will not need idols nor graven images, because we will know and love the LORD our God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We will know fully God's desire, and will not misuse God's name.
We will rest. We will set aside time to honour the sacred in our lives. We will all have parents who model God's love for us. We will honour them, because we will see God in them. We will live in shalom with one another. All will have the bread they need. All will dwell in the house of the Lord. There will be no need to murder, to commit adultery, to steal, to bear false witness, or to covet. These are the rules for God’s community - rules to live and thrive by.
But, as we see in our other reading, rules can also lead us into temptation. Rules can be used dishonestly by those who let their desire for power and control corrupt their thinking. Poet Harry Guest wrote "The Cleansing" for a BBC television broadcast on Palm Sunday, 1995. This poem imagines the startled reaction of a bystander when Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers.
The Cleansing
A pallid spring sun shone on the forecourt.
Inside the building it was dim and stuffy
and people came and went about their business.
Suddenly we saw light gather to itself.
A human shape, fused from another April,
entered our temple like a shaft of fire.
The shadows burned away. Stark radiance
pushing from floor to rafters dazzled the traders.
The man made all of light
hurled trestles down so the money rolled glittering,
smashed wicker cages so the captive doves
flew whirring through blue clouds of incense.
He swept like a meteor with scourge and flame

condemning us who'd turned the place for prayer
into a space for robbery and bargaining.
He left, and it was as though the day had been withdrawn.
We stared at the wreckage in the new noon dusk
the shattered furniture, the litter of tarnished coins.
Someone said, 'Who was that?'
There was a frightened pause.
Another answered. 'He's called the Prince of Peace.'

 
Jesus - angry - the Prince of Peace turning tables and wielding a whip. It isn't a picture we want to see. It isn't the Jesus, meek and mild, that we grew up with. But Jesus did get angry. He was angry because the rules of the temple were keeping the people from God. Jesus got angry because the money changers and temple staff were making money off the ones who could not afford to pay. These merchants and traders had brought their tables right into the temple, the house of prayer. Jesus got angry in the temple, just like he got angry with the disciples when they tried to push the children away. Jesus got angry in the temple, just as he got angry at Peter, saying, "Get behind me Satan". Jesus got angry at injustice.
Jesus got angry. And we can be angry too. Angry that world economy now plays a greater role in political decisions than the needs of people for fresh water, for a clean environment, and for access to proper medications to treat terminal diseases – particularly for the poor.  We live in a culture in which commerce, consumption and commodities – govern what we count as important. The economic worldview is so much a part of our daily lives that we are barely aware of its impact on our relationships, our values, our identities, even on our understanding of church.  We find ourselves filled with spiritual hunger and the economy tries to fill it with a culture of consumption of material goods.  We find our world made up of objects...we find ourselves feeling impoverished in a society of affluence, leaving us indifferent to real poverty.  We live in a world that has been increasingly dedicated to unrestrained competition, where ALL social interaction, values, and goals come well down the list in importance when compared to economic growth and accumulation of wealth.  We can be angry about that.
We can also be angry, that our world keeps choosing war over peace. It doesn't matter the reasons, the justifications, and rationalizations.  We can be angry that human life is being lost because we couldn't live together in peace. We can be angry that innocent civilian and military lives are being lost; that children are losing their parents and parents their children. We can be angry that our world leaders have led us to this place in history once again. We can be angry, as Gene Thiemann suggests Jesus was, at religion without justice, worship without reverence and rituals without relevance. We can be angry that, despite Canada's decision not to participate in Iraq , we are, none the less, at war. We can be angry because we are not living as God community.
Arthur Gans, a retired Anglican Priest, is guest preaching a service today in British Columbia. In his sermon he is including this story about Mahatma Gandhi, a story shared in our Midrash group by Fred Kane. "In 1947, a year before he was assassinated, Mahatma Gandhi gave his grandson, Arun, a piece of paper. On that piece of paper, Gandhi had written what he called the seven sins of the world. On that paper were the words:
wealth without work,   science without humanity,   commerce without morality,   education without character,    pleasure without conscience,   politics without principles,   and worship without sacrifice
These are seven forms of passive violence in which we are prone to participate if we are not careful and intentional about our lives. Seven forms of living which are not rules for a God community.
In the midst of our anger, and I believe, God's anger, there is hope.  There are people in the world who are actively working to bring about peace.  One is Dr. Robert Muller, a former vice-president of the United Nations.  He is now age 83, and continues to write and speak about peace and non-violence.  There are writers like ................. who continues in Muller’s path writing and speaking about non-violence and training those who want to bring peace to the world.  On  April 26th Tatamagouche Centre is offering a 5-day workshop: Dialogue for Peaceful Change – Facilitation Training:  Dialogue for Peaceful Change (DPC): a methodology based on work in Northern Ireland, that is applicable to conflicts and disputes in communities, families and organizations. It moves beyond traditional mediative methods, focusing on conflict content, culture and spirituality.  The experiential nature of this program allows you to practice the stages of conflict mediation and apply the tools in a realistic context. See www.dialogueforpeacefulchange.net.  The leadership will be from two people trained in DPC:
Leadership: Ishbel Munro is Executive Director of the Coastal Communities Network of NS; a Certified Mediator through Henson College; and trained in DPC methodology in Northern Ireland. Stephen Law trained in DPC methodology in Turku, Finland and has been a DPC trainer in Northern Ireland, India and North America. If you want further details, ask me.
And our hope is also US.   We, - you and I, - we are part of the people of the world. Our prayers, the ones spoken here and beyond, are part of the surging voice that decries violence – particularly when it is for the purpose of gain. As Christians, as a God community, as followers of the Prince of Peace, we are called to speak out against rules that are used to limit people’s access to peace. It is a hard, and at times, an unpopular task. But it is our task. God asks of us to love our neighbours, to forgive our enemies, to seek justice, resist evil and walk humbly with God and with each other. That is the hope upon which our very lives depend.
Poet Judy Chicago, expresses that hope in this poem:
And then all what has divided us will merge.
And then compassion will be wedded to power.
And then softness will come to a world that is often harsh and unkind.
And then both women and men will be gentle.
And then both men and women will be strong.
And then no other person will be subject to another's will.
And then all will be rich and varied.
And then all will share equally in the earth's abundance.
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old.
And then all will nourish the young.
And then all will cherish life's creatures.
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth.
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again. Amen.

 

Sermon - February 1, 2009

     This morning I’m going to take you with me on a little journey.  We’re not going to actually leave our seats, but rather we’re going to picture a scene far away from here in time and space.  Close your eyes --- and think of a very hot land of sand and stone buildings...of palm trees and camels.  Think of a small city there and streets filled with market stalls, donkeys, and people dressed in flowing tunics and sandals...people from the time of Jesus of Nazareth.  Smell the hot air, and feel the sand on your feet.  Hear the hustle and bustle of the market.  It’s after sundown on a Saturday  - the Sabbath has ended.  And off to our left is a synagogue where people are gathered.  Let’s go into the shaded area and sit down to hear what’s going on.  In front of us is a slightly raised platform, and seated there is a man called Jesus.  He is explaining the scriptures and, as we listen to him, we understand for the first time some of the complexities of our own lives and of our relationships in a way we never have before.  He speaks of our creator, God – Yahweh – and of the laws of Moses with such understanding and wisdom that we are sure he knows God firsthand.  What a change this is for us! Usually there is one of the scribes up there – droning on about the law and how he interprets the law – and how we are not living up to the law – and what terrible things will happen to us as a result.  We are normally scolded and reviled for not keeping every single requirement of the law to the letter.  We often sit on our benches and feel angry and helpless at such an attitude from our leaders.
    Yet this man, this young man from a northern town where nothing ever happens that is good – this young man speaks with wisdom, and love, and authority.  We sit in the heat and drink in his words...we want to hear more because it sounds so new. 
    There was a song that was popular in the 70’s – “Killing me Softly” (sung by Roberta Flack).  It told the story of a young woman who dropped into a coffee house and was listening to a man singing and playing the guitar.  Suddenly she felt that the singer knew her life and her thoughts in some way.  She says she felt he had found her letters and read each one out loud...he was ‘killing her softly with his song’. 
    I think this scripture text points to that same kind of feeling...somehow the people listening to Jesus explaining the scriptures that day felt that he knew them intimately in some way...that he could speak to their fears and their confusion...that what he was saying was so meaningful that the stories they had been hearing for years suddenly became “new” again.
    When someone reaches into your thoughts so forcefully, it can be a very unsettling experience.  How often have you been chatting with a person and realize that they have had the same experience as you...or they were thinking thoughts that you had not yet dared to express?  This recognition often brings with it excitement – and sometimes, even fear.  In the text this morning, the unclean spirit in the man can’t help crying out – “what have YOU to do with us?”  In other words, what right – what authority do YOU have to say these things?  At which point Jesus simply relieves him of his evil spirit and frees him of his burdens and fears.  The man does not speak again, but we hear from the crowd.  “What is this?” they ask.  “A NEW teaching – with authority even to command unclean spirits?”
    If we had been there, how would WE have reacted to this mysterious young man who spoke to our own lives with such wisdom?  I suggest that we too would have excitedly questioned, and been somewhat fearful at his power to see into us and command even our evil spirits to leave! 
    Today, however, I wonder if we are willing to give Jesus such authority over us. Life in the 21st century is both the same and very different from the time when Jesus spoke to the crowd in the synagogue.  We still yearn for the same things: love, peace, meaningful relationships with our families - and with our community, some sense of worth – that life has a purpose.
    We are different as well.  In the days of Jesus the emphasis was on the group or the tribe.  Decisions were made on the basis of what was best for the survival of that group.  Property was maintained in the ‘family or tribal name’.  The people as a whole had a covenant with God – for example, the Hebrew people were often called “Zion” as though they were simply one entity rather than several hundreds or thousands of individuals.  A threat to one person became a threat to the whole society of people.  The fate of one became the fate of the tribe.
    Today, rightly or wrongly, the independent rights of the individual to decide for her/himself take precedence in our society.  Decisions are made by people based on what’s good for them individually – their career, their abilities, their future happiness. As a result, it is less often that people today will accept authority simply because “it’s always been that way.”  The power of God has been diminished in people’s estimation because, as individuals, we now feel we know better how the world works – we have science and technology to explain the world to us.  The authority of Jesus and his teachings is overtaken by the authority of the people who tell us when and how to work, how to secure our financial futures, how to dress for success, how to make our children “rounded” individuals through sports.
And so, if Jesus were here in this sanctuary – sitting here and explaining how God is a God of love who needs you to know that forgiveness of your brother, for example, is required before you come to worship because that will make you both whole and well, would you give Jesus the same reaction?  Or would you be thinking to yourselves...”what does HE know – my brother is a total loser and I don’t want anything to do with him.”
    If Jesus were here and told us to pray for Osama Bin Laden – because he too is a child of God – what would we think of him then?  Is it simply too unbelievable that we should pray that Bin Laden would have the courage to turn away from evil and injustice – that Bin Laden hear the promptings of God and God’s insistence that we love God and also love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
     Doing things differently – placing forgiveness ahead of pride; praying for our enemies; walking the extra mile without being asked – sets people apart from the society in which they live.  People who live the gospel of Jesus Christ are different – and being different is an uncomfortable place to be.
    And that is the problem that the gospel writer, Mark, is trying to address.  Because Mark is writing AFTER the Easter event.  He is writing to a community that continues to struggle with WHO and WHAT Jesus was – and struggling with the life he called them to.  This community around Mark is needing to hear that Jesus bears listening to – that we are to pay attention to him: because Jesus has the AUTHORITY of God.  What does the spirit call him? “The Holy One of God!” 
Writing to explain the person and divinity of Jesus after the Easter event was done to convince those who were followers – the earliest Christians – that they were placing their trust in a figure who had the authority to forgive and to save – MAKE WHOLE – through a power that is God’s power.  The gospel writer needs to affirm for his community that, although they were suffering some persecution because they were being different from their neighbours, friends, and sometimes even their families – that they could be secure in turning over their lives to the God they had come to know through Jesus.  Being different was OK.
    In our world of the “rights of the individual” – in our world where science and technology seem to have all the answers – in our world of various material gods competing for our loyalty, it is time to sit up and take notice in the same way that those people in the synagogue did so long ago.  “What is this?” they asked.  “A NEW teaching – one with authority!”
In our world where the rich and powerful have been given authority in financial matters and have run roughshod over both the practical and the moral guidelines – advertising, selling houses and mortgages to people who simply couldn’t afford them – and then offloading those mortgages for huge profits to bankers around the world – how are we to reign in this arrogant attitude of “me first” and the rest are losers.
In our world where the spiritual needs of people and families is smirked at and dismissed as outdated and irrelevant so much so that we who put a premium on the need for meaning and purpose that is spiritual in our lives feel reluctant to talk about Jesus and Church in our own families – how are we to provide a place that is safe for discussion and learning that embraces difference and dissention?
In my reading this week, I came across the suggestion that people in mainline churches feel despair and doubt about the future of the church, but hide it under a thin veneer of hopefulness.  What a dreadful situation we have ourselves in...sitting on the sidelines of society in our churches on Sunday morning and hoping that people will somehow stumble upon us and start attending our worship services.
Last week we heard the phrase “come and see” in our scripture readings.  We also read about the call and response of two people – James and John – and the plight of their parents when they followed Jesus without a second thought.  Today we hear about other people hearing – likely for the first time – that they were loved by God and invited to become their best selves by following God’s purposes for the world...purposes that included freedom for those who were captive to their own hurtful habits, or their own attitudes that held others in bondage.  Jesus’ teachings about inclusiveness, compassion and service are teachings that everyone needs to hear in our world today. And the only way people will hear these teachings is through us – you and me – the hands and feet of Christ in this world.  It won’t happen any other way.  And when we realize that – accept that it is up to US – then we too are called to follow...we too are called to use the phrase to others “come and see!”
Tell people in your family and among your friends if you are being nourished by your Church family in any way...let them know that this is a safe place to discuss and debate and learn about ourselves and how we can relate to the Sacred Spirit in life and in this world.  Tell people and then issue the invitation...”come and see”.  And let’s see if we can help turn this world of misplaced hopes and dreams around ... let’s see if can make a difference in the lives of people we know and love.              Amen.

 

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