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When Is A Wall Not A Wall?

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You will probably hear a fair amount of information on Israel in my sermons over the next few weeks, because I found my study leave there so thought provoking and inspiring. This is a picture I took in Jerusalem of the Western wall, or the Wailing wall.

Margaret and I went to visit the wall twice during our stay there. It’s the only part of Herod’s huge temple complex that still stands since the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 AD.

They partition the wall today, men pray on the left side, women pray separately on the right. In the picture you also can see a wooden structure, which is another type of barrier.  It forms a covered bridge to the Dome of the Rock, which you see behind the wall. Muslims have controlled access to the Dome of the Rock since 1187, when Saladin expelled the Crusaders from Jerusalem.  The rock underneath the dome is the reputed place where God created Adam, and where Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac.  It is also the original site of Solomon’s temple. A holy site. There are strict rules about going the Dome of the Rock. Visitors, especially Jews may not pray there, because it would be a territorial claim on a Muslim holy site.  The day we went to the Dome of the Rock, someone asked me to cover the tattoos on my arms because they were religious symbols.

There were crowds of people at the Western Wall that day,  as you see in the picture. This was because it was still the week of Passover.  I couldn’t get anywhere near the wall as there were rows upon rows of people ten deep praying there. I felt that day I didn’t really belong there. And it wasn’t due to anyone making me feel unwelcome.  But I knew I looked different from all the other men there.  Over 90 percent of them were Orthodox or Hasidic Jews, wearing their fur hats and long coats or their Tallit’s (prayer shawls.)  Non-Jews are welcomed to pray at the wall, never-the-less I felt some uncertainty about being there. I realized later that it wasn’t just these physical barriers, the wall, the boundaries of gender, of tradition, of culture,  or how people dressed,  There was also barrier in me something I was holding in my mind.  It prevented me from experiencing what this holy site meant and  from sensing God’s presence there.

Our text from Acts is also about barriers and walls.  The story begins where Peter is criticized by the church in Jerusalem for recent interactions he had with Gentiles, described as “the uncircumcised.” The church in Jerusalem hears and accepts that these gentiles in Caesarea had received and believed the Gospel, and they were fine with that. Their problem was that Peter, a practicing Jew had sat down in the home of Cornelius the Roman Centurion and eaten with Gentiles.  This was breaking Jewish dietary laws which was something their community could not accept.  It gravely concerned them that Peter had crossed a line. Maybe they were thinking “look if we as a community sit down and share non-kosher food with gentiles what happens to our identity as People of Faith?” Purity rules about food were critical to Jews of that day. In fact, it is those dietary laws among other practices that have enabled Jews to maintain a sense of who they are even until today.

So Peter is in this awkward position where he has to explain to his community why he has departed from one of the major landmarks of the faith.  It tells us in the text that Peter explains “step by step” what transpired while he was in Jaffa and receives this vision of the four cornered sheet, and then when he was in Caesarea at the house of Cornelius. The tension between Peter and his community revolves around “identity.”  Identity is an important part of who we are and we use boundaries and barriers to protect it. When something threatens our identity, we react with resistance sometimes with anger and/or confusion.

This week on the 17th was the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Bi-phobia. And it reminded me of when in 1988 I attended the Maritime Conference meeting where we were considering a proposal to allow the ordination of self declared and practicing homosexuals and lesbians. Those who were bringing the proposal to conference for discussion were in a similar position to that of Peter.  They had experienced a new reality where they could see the work of God and the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who had a different sexual orientation.  And they were bringing that new knowledge into the wider church.  But by doing so, they were challenging the boundaries of many people who were there, including mine I might add!  . . . At least then. I remember the tension at that meeting. I remember flying home to Bermuda afterwards with three thoughts going round in my head, which I could not reconcile.  One was the realization that a person has no choice over their sexual orientation,  Second, as I believed then, it was OK to ordain someone who was gay as long as they did not practice their lifestyle.  I felt at the time it was a moral issue. It wasn’t at all; it was about me guarding my own heterosexual identity.   Third, how I wondered was I going to explain all of this to my church when I got home?

Something I have realized since that time,  is that is not possible to convince someone to change their position or opinion or open themselves to others just based on a theological argument or words from the scriptures. Christians have been using texts from the Bible to support or to question other people’s beliefs since the bible was first written. But that has more to do with using the scripture or using theology to ratify what we already believe or what we already think we know.

The eloquent preacher Tom Long tells the story 2 of a small church-related college that held an annual event called Christian Emphasis Week.  It was the task of the Christian club on campus to invite a speaker who would come and lead a college revival.  This year they invited a preacher who had come highly recommended.  They had heard of his dynamism and his unique way of communicating the gospel. The first night of the revival the chapel was filled with the faithful.  The speaker began the service the way most preachers would: he read a passage of scripture.  But when he finished reading, he did something which shocked the audience.  He closed the Bible, threw it across the stage and out an open window and said,  “There goes your God.” Then he proceeded to preach a sermon on the difference between worshiping the Bible and worshiping the God of the Bible. I am sure the “circumcised believers” were no less surprised when Peter threw their understanding of the Law out the window. Peter’s adversaries stated that the Law was the only way to be saved. Peter responded, “I used to believe that way too until God got a hold of me and showed me that his love was not limited to a set of rules or laws.” Then Peter gives compelling testimony of how God had stretched his boundaries and threw out his understanding of what was clean and not clean, dissolving his pre-conceived notions about who could be saved. Peter’s mind and heart were not changed because of a scripture or a theological argument. In fact, he resists, eating with Gentiles but he is compelled by a vision and through the power of the Holy Spirit.  He sees a sheet being lowered by its four corners. It contained the animals that Jews were allowed to eat, and those they were not.  The sheet and its corners declares the breadth, the completeness and the radical inclusiveness of God, which reaches out to all people regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. A change of heart comes about for Peter, through this vision And he fully realizes the truth when he sees the Spirit at work in the stories of these strangers and recognizes in them the same Sprit was at work in his own life.  He also remembers the words of Jesus, when he said “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” The theological reflection is still there for Peter, but it comes afterwards to bring this new reality which God has revealed into coherence with past thinking. 3

This event is pivotal in the life of the early church.  Just like the issue of the inclusion of LGBTQ people our in church today, it takes years before gentiles are fully accepted in the early church. Paul will continue to argue for a more open inclusive vision of the church.  That battle continues right into our time. Even with our good intentions to be inclusive we still carry within us the barriers and boundaries which exclude others, or barriers which exclude ourselves.  Those boundaries are only dissolved when through repentance we submit to the grace of God through the work of the Spirit.

I mentioned at the beginning that Margaret and I visited the Western wall on two occasions.  The second time we went it was a very different experience.  There were fewer people there. I was able find a place at the wall next to where some Jews were praying. I placed both my hands on those ancient stones.  And I tell you it was not my imagination, but I could feel this . . . energy there.  There was a deep sense of peace, of silence and of the sheer holiness of that place which faces the rock of ages where God held back Abraham’s hand from sacrificing his son. And I knew in that moment that I belonged there just as much as anyone else.

I prayed the Shema. “Shema Israel Adonai Eluhenu.” “Hear O Israel the Lord our God.”  I love that prayer, because it says Hear! the voice of our God. It doesn’t say think; it doesn’t say judge; it doesn’t say defend or exclude It says listen to God, who is not only my God but our God. The God of the four corners of creation. The Alpha and the Omega, the radically inclusive God who calls us into an ever widening realization of what a new heaven and a new earth is all about.

As Peter said to the church If God gives others the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, Who are we that we should hinder God?”

Who are we that we should hinder God?”

Amen

  1. Source: David Silverman/Getty Images Europe)
  2. Sermon by Charley Reeb
  3. Feasting on The Word Year C  Vol 2 pp 452

The Prism of Belief

I couldn’t resist preaching on this text today because Margaret and I were at the place where this event happened only a week and a half ago! Today, Joppa the town in our story from Acts is called Jaffa. It adjoins the modern city of Tel Aviv. We visited the church there dedicated to St Peter and the memory of the healing of Tabitha. Right round the corner from the church is Simon the Tanner’s house where Peter stayed, it’s still standing today.

And believe me, Jaffa really is a place where miracles can can happen!

Our text from the book of Acts tells the story of a woman who was a faithful member of the christian community in Jaffa.  She is the only woman in the New Testament who is named as a “disciple.”  Though women played a huge role in the early church and there were many women disciples. That this woman has two names, Tabitha, her Aramaic name, and Dorcas her Greek name shows she was probably someone who bridged the cultural divide between Greeks and Jews.

Tabitha’s life is characterized by good works of charity and the care of others,  particularly the widows in her community who gather in the upper room of her house to mourn her loss and remember her life of faithfulness.  Some women there are probably wearing the clothes which Tabitha had made for them.  Her death, devastates her friends leaving a big hole in their faith community.  So in their distress and grief they send for Peter. We don’t know whether there was any expectation that Peter would bring her back to life, or whether he is there to provide pastoral support and to offer prayers for Tabitha’s family and the community.

On arriving, Peter sends the women out of the room. He kneels by Tabitha’s bed, he prays, and then he says to the body of this dead woman. “Tabitha Cumi” “Rise Tabitha,”  The words echo words once spoken by Jesus’ (only differing in one letter)  If you remember Jesus spoke to a young girl who died, the daughter of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue in Capernaum, who he raised from the dead.  “Talitha Cumi” he said that day, “rise little girl.” It tell us at the end of the story of how Tabitha’s return to life became known throughout Jaffa, and because of it many “believed” in the Lord.” This text confronts us as 21st century people with the whole issue of miracles, and whether we believe this happened or not.  I mean seriously, can someone really raise someone from the dead? We know scientifically it is not possible. Don’t we? Many of the conversations, between people with a conservative and a more progressive theology center on this whole issue of “belief.”  There have been generations of ministers in the church trained in theological schools to question the factual truth of biblical accounts, including the story of Jesus’ resurrection.  Some argue  that these miracles and healings are mostly mythological,  that we are more sophisticated now in our time, so it is unnecessary to believe in them, and we deceive ourselves if we do.Then on the other side there are the conservative believers where it is critical to believe in such stories as “facts.”  Great effort is put into defending these accounts of miracles. So a lot of the conversations about these biblical accounts between conservatives and liberals or progressives are around “facts” and whether they are correct of not.  If you’re a conservative christian or a fundamentalist, the tendency is to build a protective wall around the scriptures to guard traditional beliefs, and to emphasize that these stories really happened. If you’re more on the progressive side, in contrast, there is a tendency to chip away at that wall to get to the “truth” of what really happened.

The only problem is that between these two positions, “belief” itself ends up being all about the wall, either protecting it or knocking it down!  Maybe what we should ask ourselves, is what do we mean or believe about “belief” itself? It tells us at the end of our story that when Tabitha is brought back  to life “many believed in the Lord.” The word used in Greek is “pisteuō”  It means, “the conviction and trust to which a person is impelled by a certain inner and higher prerogative and law of the soul.” It suggests that belief is grounded in something within ourselves but also something beyond ourselves. Not exactly a focus on whether or not things are factually true or not.

It’s important to look at this story in terms of its whole context, not just this account of Tabitha.  You see as we have journeyed through the Gospel stories to Acts there has been a huge change going on, in the followers of Jesus and particularly in Peter.  It was only recently when Peter was in the courtyard where Jesus was being tried,and Donna was reading his words to us. “I tell you, I do not know the man!” But now a few weeks later Peter is compelled by his belief in the risen Jesus to kneel and pray in an upper room in Jaffa and say “Tabitha Cumi” “Rise.” He has come a long way in a few weeks. Not only in what he believes about Jesus but also in his relationships with others especially those outside of his own culture. The text tells us that Peter stays at Simon the Tanner’s house.  This would have been unthinkable for a Jew to enter the home of someone who was a tanner, because of the smell caused by the tanning process. It was definitely not kosher.  But it is on the roof of Simon’s house where Peter later receives a vision of that sheet which comes down from above containing all the varieties of food including those foods Jews are not allowed to eat.  That’s the vision that opens Peter up to preach to the Gentiles who are our spiritual ancestors. In the next chapter he declares to Cornelius a Roman Centurion who becomes a Christian  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.  Peter has been on a journey from darkness to light.

This isn’t a “wall” of belief that Peter has, but a “prism” that opens him up to possibility, and into relationships he would have never have dreamt of entering before.

You see “belief” or “faith” is not about bringing God into our context but about us entering in God’s context which is much wider than we can ever imagine. And belief is also about a journey. The other week I was standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. I was collecting a bottle of water from the place where Jesus called his disciples. And I thought “I’m standing here gathering this water from this important place in our faith, and will be  journeying eight thousand miles from here back to PEI with this water for Elias’s baptism.  And he will be connected through this water to the origins of our faith and our calling as disciples in Galilee

“pisteuō” I believed! “pisteuō” I believe!

“Pisteuō” we believe!

Faith is a journey, lived in community and sometimes it is a dark journey.  Ilana, my Hebrew teacher and I were looking at the 23rd Psalm the other day. And she was telling me about how Jews at Auchwitz as they entered the gas chambers would recite this Psalm.  “Yea though I walk though the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.“ Margaret and I went to Yad Vashem the Holocaust Memorial when we were in Jerusalem.  A Canadian-Israeli, architect Moshe Safdie designed it. He shaped it in the form of a prism which burrows into the mountainside.

Inside it records the memories of countless people lost in the Holocaust and also it honors those who worked to save as many Jews as they could. We saw the original Shindler’s list there. But as you exit the Memorial, the prism leaves the past and opens up to the present and to the future, a beautiful view of the Modern city of Jerusalem.

And outside the memorial after being there in the dark there were some young Israeli school kids laughing and joking with each other.  A person on our tour said “that was a meaningful  moment in going to Yan Vashem, seeing those kids laughing with each other and being able to live a free life in their own country.”  The Holocaust is a terrible and tragic fact of history immense in its significance, but it is eclipsed by the faith and belief of a community that built this memorial to remember the past but also to look with hope in the future. We live our lives of faith together like that of Tabitha through a belief grounded in hope.  There are times of darkness yes, but there is always that light of the resurrection which God beckons us towards.  You see, we are all joined together through one umbilical cord. James Joyce writes in his book Ulysses, “The cords of all link back, “stranden-twining cable of all flesh.”  Those cords link us back to God our Mother, through his Son Jesus through the apostles, through the countless faith communities which have lived since then to right here now today where we celebrate with Travis and Sasha and their family and their friends as their son Elias now joins that same community of faith.

PISTEOU WE BELIEVE

THANKS BE TO GOD

AMEN

80th Anniversary of Finnegans Wake

Today is the eightieth anniversary of the publishing of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In this recording we hear the origin of the astro-physicist term “quark” from “three quarks for Muster Mark!

Today is the eightieth anniversary of the publishing of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In this recording (click picture) we hear the origin of the astro-physicist term “quark” from “three quarks for Muster Mark! (Illustration by John Vernon Lord)

Israel Trip Day 7

Today we visited Haifa, the site of the Baha’i temple, an impressive building with beautiful surrounding gardens.

Bahai temple in Haifa
Bahai temple in Haifa

We also went to Akko or Acre, once the site of the Crusader presence in this region after they were pushed out of Jerusalem by Salah Al-Din in 1187. The architecture of the buildings was magnificent.

Crusader Fortress at Acre
Crusader Fortress at Acre

Then we travelled up the coast to Caesarea to view the ruins of Herod’s Palace and surrounding streets and buildings and the impressive Hippodrone where chariot races were held and Christian and Jewish prisoners fought to the death with Gladiators.

Ruins at Ceasarea
Ruins at Ceasarea
View of the Hippodrome
View of the Hippodrome

In my sermon on Palm Sunday I mentioned that Pontus Pilate only came with his troops to Jerusalem when he had to in order to quell potential insurrection. It was much more pleasant for the Roman legions to be stationed in this sea coast town than in the heat of the holy city. I can certainly understand that having now experienced the difference in heat and weather in both locations. In 1961 archaeologists discovered in Ceaserea a limestone block which for the first time made historical reference to Pontus Pilate outside of the Bible.

Archeological reference to Pontius Pilate
Archeological reference to Pontius Pilate
Archeological reference to Pontius Pilate
Archeological reference to Pontius Pilate

In mid afternoon we arrived in Tel Aviv, where tomorrow we will discover some of this modern city. This has been a great trip and a good way of spending my study leave. If you have been reading this blog I hope you were able to capture some of the excitement which Margaret and I have felt and the profound experiences we had through visiting the places in the Holy Land which are so closely connected to our faith.

Israel Day 6

Margaret and David In Safed
Margaret and David In Safed

Today we visited the town of Safed. In the 16th century it became the center of Jewish Kabbalist philosophy. We strolled through the narrow streets shopping for souvenirs and visited a Synagogue.

Safed Synagogue
Safed Synagogue
Street in Safed
Street in Safed

After Safed it was time for some political history, We drove up to the Golan heights and heard an account of the Yom Kippur war. The Golan heights were recently recognized by the US administration as part of the State of Israel. I came away reminded of how difficult it is for Christians to view the story of this region with any sense of objectivity. Note to self – read further on the events of the 1967 and Yom Kippur War.

Golan Heights
Golan Heights

Next it was off to Capernaum, where we visited an incredible church built by tradition over the ruins of the house of St Peter. From inside the church we could look down through the glass at the ruins of Peter’s house below where Jesus healed Peter’s Mother in Law.

Capernaum Synagogue
Capernaum Synagogue

Nearby there were the remains of a 1st century Synagogue which Jesus would have preached in while in Capernaum.

Capernaum Synagogue
Capernaum Synagogue

From the House of Peter we traveled a short distance to the Church of the Multiplication. This is reputed to be near where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. Local traditional and reports that Jesus performed the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 and rested the bread and fish on the rock seen under the altar. Later archeological work uncovered this beautiful Byzantium mosaic floor with the loaves and fish picture. (The second picure is a copy of the one under the altar). I have always loved this image. Notice there are only four loaves in the mosaic, the fifth loaf is the eucharist, the body of Christ.

I was both honored and humbled while at this church when the Tour Guide asked if I would read the Beatittudes to our tour group.

reading the Beattitudes

Israel Trip Day 5

A very busy 5th day. We began with a visit to see the Knesset, building, which houses Israel’s Parliament. On the same grounds was a magnificent model of Jerusalem as it would have looked in 70AD. The second picture shows the Golden Gate through which Jesus entered the city.

Immediately after this we went to see Israel’s most important national treasure, the Dead Sea Scrolls. A very special moment for me was when (with my smattering of Hebrew) I could read some of the ancient words from the text!

Later that morning we visited the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem. The museum is vast, but our guide wisely asked us to remember the name of one family or person who lost their lives in the Holocaust. The second part of the museum pictured below was dedicated to the million and more Jewish children who were murdered by the Nazi death machine.

Then it was off to Nazareth. As we approached the town, I could see a steep hill to the right. I immediately thought of the hill in Luke 4 from which the members of the synagogue were going to throw Jesus after his sermon upset them. I couldn’t remember the name of the hill, but was able to access one of my sermons on this text on my iPhone. “Is that hill called Kedumin?” I asked the Tour guide “Yes it is she said!” I love it when the landscape and the language of the scriptures come together!

While in Nazareth we visited the basilica of the Assumption a beautiful church, by tradition built on the site of the house of Joseph and Mary.

Then we were off to an Archaeological site, Megiddo the location of Armageddon in John’s Book of Revelation and of countless battles over the ages. Again story and landscape came together.

Israel Day 4

On day four of our trip we drove into the territory of the Palestinian Authority in order to visit the town of Bethlehem. There is a certain sense of tension as you cross into this area, though it felt quite safe. The boundary constructed by Israel zig-zags creating a walled corridor so that Rachel’s tomb is included in Israeli territory.

Image by Holidaygolightly.com

The Palestinian side of the wall is covered in graffiti by Banksy. We passed a building adjacent to the wall called the “Walled Off Hotel!”

Our first stop was the “Shepherds in the Fields” the church in that area stands over some ancient caves which would have been used by Shepherds in the 1st century to shelter from the cold.

it was very moving to stand in these cave chapels where the ceilings were blackened with the smoke from ancient fires.

Then we proceeded to the Church of the Nativity where there was a Greek Orthodox Service in progress.

After the end of the service we were able to proceed to the underground grotto where Jesus was born according to long standing tradition. A very moving experience.

Israel Day 2

Our day started with a trip out to the Mount of Olives. There is an amazing panorama from there across the Kidron valley to the city and the Temple Mount. It’s the same view Jesus and his disciples would have seen before Jesus descended the Mount of Olives and entered the city on Palm Sunday.

He went into Jerusalem through the Golden Gate, where many believe the Messiah will enter again at the last day.

Before returning to the city we visited the Garden of Gethsemane. Some of the Olive Trees there are over 1500 years old and possibly go back to the time of Jesus.

Video: Following Pilgrims along the Via Dolorosa

After visiting the Upper Room and the Tomb of King David we proceeded to the Via Dolorosa, the Way Of The Cross. This is the route which Jesus took to Calvary. As this coming Sunday is the Easter celebration for the Orthodox Church, there were hundreds of pilgrims there from many different countries from all around the world. We followed a group of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians as they made their way through the Stations of the Cross into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

In the Orthodox and Roman catholic denominations this church is the site of both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. It was crowded with pilgrims anticipating the ceremony of the Holy Fire, but was quite an amazing place to visit.

Many of the walls were covered in graffiti from the crusaders.

From there we walked through the Muslim and Jewish Quarter to the Western (Wailing) Wall, a very special place as it faces the temple destroyed in 70AD which today under the Muslim Dome of the Rock houses the “Foundation Stone” where Abraham was poised to sacrifice his son Isaac. It’s A

A very special place because it marks the beginning of the three Abrahamlic faiths. Just as we were leaving the Western Wall we heard the Muezzin at the Al Aqsa mosque calling the faithful to prayer. A great ending to a great day!

Video the call to prayer

Israel Day 1

Margaret and I spent our first day exploring the city on foot.

We visited the western wall, the Arab Market and the Dome of the Rock, a magnificent building.

The Arab market was very extensive and when I came across a spice merchant’s booth it reminded me of the story I told just the other week in my sermon about Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus with Nard.

It feels very safe here, though we could feel the tension when we went through a checkpoint to the Islamic Dome of the Rock. This is the site where Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac. No religious symbols are allowed there. I had to cover the Trinitarian tattoo on my arm and Jews are not allowed to pray there as it constitutes a potential claim of ownership.

The Coming of The Son

Luke 24:1-12

I remember I woke up that morning, with the sound of the hammering of nails still ringing in my ears. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! I was not on the hill of Golgotha, but in my room and the sound was the noise of the wind on an open shutter repeatedly striking it against an outside wall. I remember thinking would I ever be able to forget the sights and sounds of that terrible day, the day they crucified my Lord, the day he died in agony, or would they live with me forever, haunting me into my old age. Despair filled my heart like a long cold and lonely winter. What are you going to do now? Mary I asked myself. I couldn’t stay here in Jerusalem, there were too many memories. The fellowship of followers had run away. Some had already fled the city. Peter and the disciples were hiding from the Romans. I will go home to Magdala by the sea I thought. My father disowned me when I left him to follow Jesus, but maybe if I begged him he might take me in again. Yes, I would leave Jerusalem that day and go home. It would be good to be near the sea again. Maybe there I can forget. But first I had a commitment to keep. I had promised Joanna and Mary I would help them anoint his body. Because of the coming of the Sabbath there had been no time on the day of his death. I didn’t want to look again upon his broken form and those terrible wounds, but it was the last and final loving service I could perform for my Lord. I took the jar of spices and made my way towards the Damascus gate. It was still dark outside. Joanna and Mary were waiting for me in the shadows. We greeted each other quietly and then walked together to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, near to the city wall. “When we came the other day” Joanna said, “the stone looked heavy, will we be able to move it?” May the Lord grant us the strength to enter said Mary his mother. “Baruch Hashem Adonai” I said, blessed be the name of the Lord. “Amen” said the other two. 

The gloom was lifting a little as we neared the tomb. Mary look! Joanna cried out, someone has opened it! The stone had indeed been rolled away. The square blackness of the entrance stood out starkly against the whitewashed surrounding walls. “What should we do I asked?” fearful of entering that dark place. “Let us go unto him” his mother said. “I want to touch my son one last time.” We peered into the tomb, I tried to pick out the form of his body in the gloom. There was a low stone limestone shelf. The bloodstained linens in which they had wrapped him were still there. There was nothing else at all. They have taken him cried Joanna, why would they do such a thing and disturb his rest? As we entered, the gloom seemed to lift even further. Mary look! Joanna cried out. I don’t know whether my eyes were playing tricks on me, or whether it was the interplay of early morning sun and the shadow of our bodies. But there were two pillars of light in front of us one at the head and one at the foot of the place where he had lain. We sank to our knees, “surely God is here in this place” said Joanna. “Yes God is here, God is with us” Mary said.”  

“God is here.” “God is with us.” Those were the same words he used only one week ago when I had walked with Yeshu up to the temple mount after he entered the city. “God is here!” “God is with us!” I had asked the Lord, why was God especially in this place, in this temple. Why was God only in the Holy of Holies, a place where I could never enter I had asked? As a woman I could get no closer to God than the walls of the temple court of the women. Even you Lord may not enter the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant had been, ” I said.  “Mary” he said “the Ark reminds us that God is here and God is always with us.” Before this temple and before they built then first temple, the Ark always travelled with our people, wherever we were in the wilderness. But Mary the Spirit of God was never in the Ark but always above the ark and between the wings of the two Cherubim which adorned it. Mary remember this one thing in the coming days, he said. When you are alone sitting in the darkness, when it seems like there is nothing else left to hope for. God is here, God is with us, you are not alone! The Ark of the Covenant is always with you and before you and between the wings of angels I am with you even unto the ends of the earth. I am the Resurrection and the Life.”

And then I knew, and I remembered his words to us that, the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day to rise again. I remember crying out to the other two “We are looking for the living among the dead! Our Lord has risen and goes before us.  ”Yes, Praise God, Mary replied, he is risen indeed!” Tell the Peter and the others I said. I’ll sit here and wait for them. As I sat in that tomb alone, I was no longer afraid and I knew I would never be afraid again. A deep sense of joy and indescribable hope filled my soul. I sat there in the peace of that tomb knowing that in life or in death God in Jesus is with us we are not alone.

Presently, Peter arrived and entered the tomb. “He’s gone” he said. No Peter,  he is risen! How do you know that Mary? I know Peter, don’t you remember he told us that God would raise him from death?  “Yes” said Peter, “but I denied him three times I denied I even knew him”. “We all have gone astray Peter each in our own way.” 

As Peter and I sat together in that place the sun rose even further into the sky, its rays now breaking through the clouds and filling the place where we sat with light. “Look Peter” the Sun has come out. The Lord is here, the Lord is with us, Let us tell the others!

Here Comes the Sun

The Two Processions

Luke 19: 28-40

Our New testament reading from Luke for this morning had me thinking about parades and processions and the role they serve.  Parades have been around for thousands of years and they play an important part in all societies in all times. They are expressions sometimes of power, of tradition, of culture and history. And parades carry a message don’t they?

The meaning of this one in North Korea is obvious., a clear portrayal of coordinated power and strength. A message to other countries “Don’t mess with US!”

Heres another parade held in France on Bastille Day each year.  Last year the president of the United States has called for a similar  event in Washington. The generals initially said OK but no tanks! Then in the end they decided the whole thing was just too expensive. 

This procession is one that resonates with me it was an act of civil disobedience led by Moh-an-das Gandhi to protest British rule in India.  During the march, thousands of Indians followed Gandhi from his religious retreat to the Arabian Sea coast, a distance of some 240 miles. Gandhi took a substance, salt, a substance vital to our lives, but which came to represent oppression and he turned it into a symbol of freedom. There by the simple act of making salt and breaking the established British law which controlled the production of that important commodity they defied their colonial status

And here is the pride parade in Halifax which is also about a people declaring their human rights and autonomy. Like salt, the word queer has been turned around from being something that represented exclusion into a celebration of human life in all its diversity So parades carry meaning: about important events in history, about military might, and about a people striving for autonomy and inclusion. Today we remember the parade of palms. The day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. In this story Jesus not unlike Gandhi is very deliberate about how he enters the city. 

Luke’s selection of the origin of the procession “near the Mount of Olives” is significant, it is a place associated in the early apocalyptic tradition with the final battle waged against the enemies of Israel. And palm branches were a sign of Jewish independence from the time of the Maccabean revolt 150 years earlier.

The sight of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem, would not be lost on the people of that day. But there is a double meaning here. On the one hand it told the crowds, in no uncertain terms, that he was a King. Jesus chose this mode of entering the city because it fulfilled a prophecy of Zechariah. “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey”. But on the other hand the donkey is a very small animal. And I’m sure Jesus’ feet would have been almost touching or maybe even being dragged along the ground beside him. The comparative size of rider and steed conveys a sense of the ridiculous, almost a clownish like act which challenges the idea of a mighty king, and it mocks conventional ideas of what leadership means.

In the text from Luke we are told that some Pharisees come along, and try to put a stop to the procession of palms. Some of them are alarmed, and in Luke’s account they say to Jesus. “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” Why would they have an issue with Jesus riding into Jerusalem in this manner? Well, it’s because the Pharisees were worried about “the other procession,” the other parade that was entering Jerusalem from the West. You see that day there were TWO parades not one (1). Jesus entered Jerusalem coming down from the Mount of Olives from the East.

But from the West came Pilate, draped in the glory of imperial power and empire, with horses, chariots, and gleaming armor. He moved in with the Roman army at the beginning of Passover week to make sure nothing got out of hand. Pilate and his legion spent most of the year away from Jerusalem at Caesarea, which was near the sea, It was a much more pleasant place to be quartered than in the heat and tension of Jerusalem. They had limited contact with the Jewish people. Pilate only came to the City when he really had to. And he was here this week because “insurrection” was in the air. During passover, the Jews celebrated the memory of God’s deliverance of their people from slavery in Egypt, and at that time and many times since then they look forward to when they will be free from oppression. So there were two parades which entered Jerusalem coming from opposite directions, they were in opposite directions geographically, philosophically and morally. The Romans are not in relationship with the people of Israel they dominate the Jews and see them as “the other” a commodity, a way of raising revenue to sustain a Roman way of life and a Roman occupation. But I can imagine that some watching Jesus come into Jerusalem might have dropped their palm branches and gone to watch the other parade.

So? What does this have to do with how we live our lives today in our world? Well, those two processions, the one following Jesus and Pilate’s parade are still with us. History repeats itself endlessly. Regardless of the age that we live in, there is always an active force in our world that attempts to embody the values of empire by dividing people and communities. We can see those forces in the images of military parades we were looking at. But we are also confronted by this second parade in more subtle ways. Such as when we divest ourselves of our own responsibility to be be in relationship with others and cede it to hearsay or narratives which are protectionist. When the message we receive is one that paints those who are different from us as the “other” As Rev Debbie Aitken said the other night at our Session meeting. “we are called to have a “curiosity” about others which leads to care and commitment towards expanding our concept of community. It’s only when you come into direct person to person contact with people of a different culture or religion and you discover that you’re assumptions about what other people do or what other people believe is not what you first thought.

Debbie referred to how her church at Rockingham they had been reaching out to other communities. And I was privileged to be part of that effort when I coordinated a Genesis Study series, where we gathered together as Jews Muslims and christians to look at the stories from our common abrahamic roots. One evening I was talking Iman Zia Khan in Halifax and he said when you compare the beliefs of Muslims and Christians, there is a lot more commonality than difference. The Jesus procession of palms always puts us into relationship with God and with others who are outside of our own context.

When we think back to the Palm procession I ask myself what kinds of people were there with Jesus, other than his disciples?

No doubt there are some in the procession who lived in Jerusalem and were joining in for the fun of it. They don’t really have a clear idea of who Jesus is. But they are never-the-less caught up in all the excitement. But then there are others who have followed Jesus into Jerusalem from other places. There are people there who have witnessed and experienced his preaching and his healing. People like Bartemeus, the blind beggar who Jesus healed. I’ll bet Bartemeus followed Jesus into Jerusalem after that day when he received this unexpected blessing.

Or Zaccheus the Tax Collector who came down from his tree when Jesus invited him to dine with him. Or the woman who Jesus saved from being stoned for adultery. I can imagine in her gratitude she may have followed Jesus to Jerusalem. Or the father of the boy who Jesus healed from epilepsy. Or some of those who had gathered with Jesus on the hillside and had been fed physically and spiritually. So there were people in the procession who were in relationship with Jesus, and though they were from different walks of life rich and poor Samaritan and Jew they were now also in relationship with each other. Because Jesus ministry is about bringing people back into community. And after the arrest, suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, which would soon follow this day, these were the same people who established the church, the body of Christ. The community who lived out the truth that Jesus brought into Jerusalem that day A community that very quickly embraced people of other cultures, the community from which we are descended from.

Where do we see the procession of palms today

Ive seen it in a synagogue service when they bring Torah out from the ark where it is kept and brought into the midst of the congregation. and members will reach out and touch the Torah scroll with the fringes of their prayer shawls, with their prayer books, or their fingers. It’s a poignant reminder of relationship. relationship that exists between the Jewish community and the Torah. But also relationship within that community and with the wider world. A Rabbi told me when I was working on my Graduate project at AST entitled prayer in the Abrahamic Faith Communities year “what we are trying to do here at Shar Shalom is to build community And with that there comes certain calls to action.” “Because there is always some local, global or national issue, that needs our attention and that reminds us that that there is a divine will and a sense of divine righteousness. Something that shows and points out that the world is not as divine as it could be.” Likewise here at York Covehead we are in relationship with Jesus the Torah, the Word made flesh. We are in relationship with each other and we seek relationship with others outside of our community. I think we demonstrate that we are people of the palm procession when rather than expecting others to become part of who we are, we engage our sense of curiosity and reach out to others. I think we demonstrate that we are people of the palm procession when we strive to create a place of safety for those who are coming to this country in search of peace and freedom from oppression We are a palm procession people when like Jesus, we are deliberate and intentional about who we are as a people of God. when we take things which have become symbols of empire and like Jesus did, turn them into symbols of God’s kingdom and God’s call to be in relationship with others. There is a cost of course. At the end of that day in Jerusalem I imagine Jesus would have gone up to the temple after his entry into Jerusalem. I can imagine him looking around at the temple buildings and thinking about the events of that day I’m sure that he must have wondered that evening what his actions that day and in the following days on behalf of God’s kingdom would unleash in those who wielded power in Jerusalem. He was about to face the most challenging week of his life but his faith and his trust in God meant that out of the darkness of Good Friday and out of his suffering his passion and his fall there would be a resurrection and the rising of a community of faith of which we are still a part today. As we enter into Easter week may the great themes of passion, suffering death and resurrection remind us that we should be intentional about who we are, about whose we are and those we are called to be in relationship with.

  1. The Last Week: Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan

Whose Party?

I remember reading the book The Lord of the Rings, where it described some traditions and customs of Hobbits. Are you familiar with Hobbits? They’re a cross between humans and elves. hey’re small, they have furry feet and they are traditional in their practices.  In one scene from Lord of the Rings its Bilbo the hobbit’s  eleventy-first birthday. And he celebrates by holding a big party with great quantities of food, magicians, tricks and fireworks.  Hobbit birthdays are the opposite to our practice. We receive gifts on our birthday. But Hobbits on their birthdays give presents to others. According to Tolkien it was an ancient ritual connected with kinship.  It’s a good custom because although you don’t receive presents yourself on your birthday you get a gift every day because it’s somebody else’s birthday. There’s a scene in which Bilbo gives a welcome speech to his guests, and he says “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” (5) The hobbits are left wondering whether Bilbo complimented or insulted them. To understand what Bilbo meant, we have to turn his words inside out and upside down like we will be doing with this parable.  Bilbo is saying he wishes he knew some there even better did, so he could like them even more. It’s a back-handed compliment.

Our reading from Luke has a party or a celebration at the end of the story. A party which is apparently held for the prodigal son who has returned to his father, but is it really the prodigal son’s party? We know this story well. Clearly its about repentance right? Though it doesn’t mention the word repentance even once. This story is part of a trio of parables about lost things found, a lost coin, a lost sheep and now a son. Coins don’t repent, sheep don’t repent and arguably the son doesn’t either!

Here’s the story: A younger son asks for his inheritance even before his father has died. He takes the money; he leaves home; he spends it all irresponsibly, and then due to a famine in the land he’s forced to work for a gentile looking after pigs, which are considered by Jews to be unclean.   That he is feeding pigs shows how far he has drifted from the practices of his Jewish faith.  Finally, hunger brings him to his senses, he realizes that he would be better off working as a servant in his father’s house than in this situation.  Is that repentance? I don’t know; I don’t think it’s clear from the text that he’s sorry for how he has treated his father. I think he’s being practical mind you! His reasoning may be, “this way of life isn’t working for me any more. I’m better off as a servant in Dad’s house! I think I’ll cut my losses and go home.” Not exactly repentant is it? He creates this script, of what he will say to his father and he rehearses it all the way there.  “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” As he gets near home, he sees his Dad already waiting for him on the road. He starts to repeat his rehearsed line. “Father I have sinned against heaven etc.”  Then his Dad surprises the heck out of him when he calls out “bring him a robe and a ring, kill the fatted calf and let’s have a party!” So that’s the younger son.

Then there is the other son, the older brother. He hears the sounds of the party and he’s thinking “what the heck?” A servant tells him the reason for the celebration, and he complains to his Father. Look Dad, I worked like a slave for you all these years and this is how you pay me back? My brother spends all your money on prostitutes and you’re throwing him a party?  The bit about the prostitutes is an exaggeration on his part he’s  being nasty. It doesn’t say in the text (2) that the younger brother consorted with prostitutes. The brothers portray respectively the tax collectors and sinners (younger brother) and the Pharisees and religious leaders (the older brother) The parable is not so much about repentance by the younger brother or the sin of judgement by the older brother.  The real issue in this parable is the wrong assumptions that each brother holds about their father.  The young brother sees his Dad as someone he can sponge off and take advantage of, then he conveniently sees him as an employer.  The older brother sees his father as stingy, he won’t even let him have a goat so he can celebrate with his friends. He even sees him as a kind of slave master. The assumptions both sons have about their father are completely wrong.

One thing I like about the United church is its diversity and its focus on inclusion..  There is an emphasis in our church on breaking boundaries which discriminate against others.  One way the church has broken boundaries is through Voices United. We changed the language in the hymns we sing.  We did this to be more inclusive and to recognize how patriarchal systems and thinking have wounded others, particularly women. We broke with the convention of only referring to God as “Father” and now refer to God with both genders and sometimes in non-gendered language.

There is a hymn in Voices United, “there is a wideness to Gods mercy, like the wideness of the sea there is kindness in his justice that is more than liberty.” But there is one verse of that hymn that’s left out of our hymn book which we would do well to include and reflect on


“but we make his love too narrow
by false limits of our own
and we magnify his strictness
with a zeal he will not own.”

That missing verse serves as a reminder to us, that no matter how open we think we are, our ideas and symbols of inclusion pale when held up to God’s radical inclusive love.  Sometimes we try to incorporate God into our idea of inclusivity rather than living into that greater wider love and grace which is God.  One way we limit our understanding of God is when we draw a thick line between our understanding of Jesus and our understanding of God. Maybe you see what I mean when I say if we imagine we are in a room together with Jesus and God (the Father) we are fine with that, but if Jesus leaves us in the room to take care of something something, and we are left there alone with “God” the “father” … well we are then not sure if we are on safe ground or not are we? We always need to have our concept of God “rattled,” which is what this parable does.

Let’s look at the Father in this parable. He doesn’t fit into the typical role of a middle eastern patriarch at all. There are at least three ways the Father breaks with convention to show his deep love for his sons.  First, he sells off some of his land so he can give his younger son his inheritance. That would have been unheard of in its day even reckless.  I know here in PEI, farmers are reluctant to break up family holdings of land and sell it off to outsiders.   But Palestine land was considered a gift from God, so to sell it to someone outside of the family was breaking with religious practice. Second with the son’s return, there would normally have been a punishment or reprimand involved. What the Father does is against the trend. He hosts a party is to provide the means through which his son can be re-introduced and accepted back into his community. (1)  The community would have felt this man was a bad father because he did not punish his son. Third when the older son refuses to join in the festivities, in order to persuade his son to join in festivities, the Father leaves all the guests at the party, to speak with his older son, which would have been a serious breach of etiquette. But the father doesn’t care he wants both his boys by his side.  

So the “real” story in this parable is not about the sons, so much it is about this father who in his love for both of his children breaks all conventions, barriers, and traditions which his community would have expected him to abide by.  The story is about the radical scandalous extent of God’s grace and inclusivity.

I don’t know how many of you may have read a book called “The Shack” (4) by Paul Young, I recommend it.  It’s a moving story which tells in the form of a fictional novel how through faith the author Paul came to terms with his own childhood trauma and abuse.  Paul wrote the story for his children not even planning to publish it, it has since sold over 15 million copies.  Paul’s experience of abuse as a child affected his whole understanding of who God is, and it left him with a concept of God which is wholly inconsistent with whom Jesus is.  In The Shack, someone abducts the daughter of the primary character Mackenzie while they are on a family vacation.  There is evidence she has been brutally murdered in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. They never find a body. Four years later amid Mackenzie’s “great sadness” he receives a suspicious note, apparently from God inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. When he gets to the shack there is no-one there, only a fading bloodstain on the floor. In anguish he whispers “I’m done God, I can’t do this anymore I’m tired of trying to find you in all of this”.  He finds himself outside in the cold, but suddenly the shack turns into a cosy log cabin cottage surrounded by fragrant flowers and a white picket fence.  Mac lifts his fist to bang on the door ready to tell God how angry he is because he took away his daughter. But before he can knock the door opens and he is looking into the face of a large beaming African American woman.  She rushes towards him engulfs him in her arms, lifting him clear off his feet and spinning him round like a little child, and all the while shouting his name “Mackenzie Allen Phillips” – like someone seeing a long lost deeply loved relative. This portrayal of God the Father or as he calls her “Papa” as an African American woman shook up theologians.   Some argued that to portray God as a woman and a black woman at that was not scripturally correct. And it disturbed them when in the story Papa shows Mack her flour covered hands (because she has been baking) and he sees in her wrists the scars from the nails of the cross. The fictional story of the Shack reveals a truth that there is no other God either in a different room or behind the back of Jesus.It’s a portrayal of God that has caught people’s imagination because it breaks all the boundaries we try to construct around who God is.

Just like the parable of the father of the prodigal Son stories like this shake up our ideas of God. and challenge us to respond to this God who reaches out to us, but who doesn’t fit into the neat little boxes we build.  So when the older brother is reluctant to come to the party. I can imagine the Father saying this is not your younger brother’s party as much as it is my party, the party I throw for many. I am on the lookout for all my loved ones (3) near or far I am working for them and ready to celebrate with them before they even think of responding to me or giving me something back. 

God the Father runs out to meet us in the person of the Son and invites us into fellowship in the Holy Spirit. (3) And the way in which we see God has a strong bearing on how we treat others, our brothers and sisters. It’s not enough to be inclusive because it’s the right and just thing to do. Our love for others must be grounded in our realization of the scandalous love which God has for us.As Carolyn McDade writes in her hymn “This ancient Love”

Long before the name of God was spoken
Long before a cross was nailed from a tree
Long before she laid her arms of colours ‘cross the sky
there was a love this ancient love was born.

The Hobbits have it right after all, it’s God’s party not ours! (3)

Bibliography

  1. Feasting on The Word Year C Volume 2 p121
  2. Feasting on The Word Year C Volume 2 p120
  3. Feasting on The Word Year C Volume 2 p120
  4. The Shack, by Paul Young
  5. Lord of The Rings: Fellowship of The Ring

From Tent-Walls to Star-View

Last year Steven Hawking the theoretical physicist and cosmologist died at the age of seventy-six.  You may be familiar with his story through the film “The Theory of Everything.”  Struck down by ALS at the young age of twenty-one. The doctors gave Hawking only a few months to live,  but thankfully the disease progressed slowly and Steven completed his doctorate and became arguably the greatest scientist since Einstein. Hawking was imprisoned in his own body and his motorized wheel chair.  He was to unable to communicate other than through his computer and voice synthesizer,  which he operated through twitching the one muscle he could control in his cheek,  Steven’s contribution to theoretical physics and astronomy have been immense. He didn’t do this all on his own though .  Hawking once said “I had a large amount of help which I have received from my wife, my children, colleagues and students at Cambridge.”

I remember reading his book, (at least trying to) “A Brief History of Time” some years ago. I struggled at points to grasp his ideas on gravity, black holes and string theory.I remember thinking “I don’t understand what he is writing about here, but could appreciate it’s depth”

I think what I admired about Hawking most though, is that despite his disabilities, somehow he was able to reach out, see and touch the Cosmos in a whole new way, and then communicate that knowledge to the world. Like theology, the challenge that scientists have is that they can become stuck and limited in their thinking.  Theories that once opened them up to understanding the universe in a whole new way become the very thing that prevents them from seeing deeper into the reality of the cosmos. But then every once in a while an Isaac Newton, or an Einstein or a Hawking comes along.  Men and women with this uncanny ability to break through that theoretical barrier to gain a deeper sense of creation and pass their knowledge to the world.

But even the greatest scientists can become stuck.  Einstein who developed the theory of General Relativity which revolutionized our concepts of time, gravity and light, when he encountered the realm of Quantum physics which looks at creation at a sub particle level,  At that level, nature is totally random, events happen by mere chance; Einstein couldn’t accept this and declared “God does not play dice with the universe”  It was Hawking who had specialized in Quantum physics and black holes who correcting Einstein  when he said “God does indeed play dice with the universe and he throws the dice where they can’t be seen.” Steven Hawking – an amazing man, and scientist with a great mind. He had a faith in something bigger than himself.

Now I understand Hawking was an atheist, so I’m not sure what he would think about me using him as an illustration in a sermon about faith with parallels drawn between himself and Abraham. But one of Stephen’s quotes reminds me of this passage from Genesis, because he once said “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”

Our text from Genesis tells us the story of the relationship between Abraham and God. There is this dialogue happening between God and Abraham. It’s mainly lament on Abraham’s part, and hope and confidence on God’s part. The conversation starts with God sending Abraham a vision of assurance. “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

But Abraham sitting alone inside looking at the walls of his tent is thinking about the reality of the circumstances he and Sarah have got themselves into. The reality is in responding to Gods call to a new life, they have been uprooted from their home and family in Ur. The reality is Abraham and Sarah are too old to have children so Abraham will have no heir to carry on his family name and traditions. The reality is after years of wandering they will probably die somewhere in the wilderness with no one around even to remember them.    There is plenty of reality to be despondent about! To be fair Abraham’s situation doesn’t look promising. The future looks uncertain at this point.  Anyone of us, no doubt would have had reacted in the same way. Even when God assures Abraham that he will have an heir from his bloodline, Abraham questions God.  He is saying “It is unclear O God how you’re going to work all this out. After all there are some big obstacles in my way.” “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” (3)

Sometimes we end up getting walled in by what we understand, even experience as our own reality.  It becomes our primary narrative rather than God’s reality. We are unable to see past the walls of our own tents.  A friend of mine once applied for a job, he told me sometime later that he applied for the position but wasn’t successful. It was by chance that two years later I met the person who interviewed him. We realized at some point that we had both met my friend. I commented that it was a shame that he hadn’t got the position as it would have been a real opportunity for him.  He replied “it was a shame. We felt he was perfect for the position, but just before we were going to offer him the job,  your friend said “I suppose you will give the position to someone else because I don’t really have enough experience.” He said, after we heard that, we felt we couldn’t offer him the position. We could see he had the required skills, but he just didn’t have enough faith in himself.” 

What does Paul say? “Faith is the evidence of things unseen, the assurance of things hoped for”  Sometimes we get fooled by the shadows we project through our own sense of limitation and inadequacy, the shadows which dance on the walls of our tent. But God invites us to go outside of our tents, to look at the stars above us in the sky.

There is a pattern of promise and lament (1) in this text. God promises Abraham protection, and Abraham complains that he has no heir. God says, come out of your tent Abraham. Look up at the stars.  Can you count how many there are?  That’s the number of descendants you will have. And then Abraham realizes, he gets it! He believes the Lord and God counts it as righteousness. God promises Abraham possession of this land , the land Abraham’s descendants inhabit today. But then follows the lament again, “How am I to know that I will possess it?” At this point the reader is thinking “enough already Abraham, What more do you want from God?”

And then God does something extraordinary. He asks Abraham for a sacrifice, a heifer, a goat three years old, a ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abraham cuts each animal in half creating a kind of pathway between them. It sounds gory I know, but remember, we are in Palestine about 1800 BC.  The ritual  in this story was called a Covenant of Grant, it was common in Israel and Mesopotamia at that time in history. The idea behind the Covenant of Grant is the person who walks between the separated animals, is declaring that they will sacrifice their own life as the animal did if they do not fulfill their promise.  The story tells us “when the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passes between these pieces.” But note, it is not Abraham who walks through the path of covenant. (4) The fire pot and the torch are the presence of God.  God is saying to Abraham, I am entering in a solemn covenant with you Abraham, and if I fail in carrying out my promise, I will sacrifice my own life.

We always fail to grasp that deep sense of relationship that exists between ourselves and God, that profound love which God has for us.  It’s a love that goes beyond anything we can ever conceive or imagine. It’s hard to grasp the depth of that love because we always see ourselves as being obligated to God and not the other way around. 

In 1988 the American journalist Bill Moyers sat down with scholar Joseph Campbell (2) to talk about mythology and religion.  In one of the PBS interviews Campbell tells the story of two police officers in Hawaii. They were driving one afternoon near the Pali, a place where the trade winds from the north come rushing through a great ridge of mountains.  Sometimes people go there to take their own lives. There is a guardrail along the road to keep cars from plunging over the edge, Up ahead the police officers saw a young man outside the guard rail …. preparing to jump.  The officer driving sped up and stopped quickly by the man. The other officer jumped out and, just as the man jumped, he caught him.  The problem was, the officer was being pulled over the precipice. The other officer arrived just in time to pull them both back. Later a newspaper reporter asked the policeman, “Why didn’t you let go? You would have been killed.”  The officer said, “I couldn’t let go. If I had let that young man go, I couldn’t have lived another day of my life.” That is like the relationship God has for us, closer and more caring and more committed than we can ever imagine. It is a relationship made known to us through Jesus, through his sacrificial life and death.

I ask you to reflect on this story of Abraham, to remember and realize that you are the stars that Abraham was looking at in the sky that night.  You are the children of the covenant. The incident in New Zealand this week reminds me that our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters are also part of that covenant. We may be in circumstances of great limitation or of worry and suffering.   We may feel like Abraham did that we are living a narrative of lament. But God says to us do not be afraid, for, I am your shield, I am your light and salvation; whom shall you fear? For I will hide you under the shelter of my wings.  And in the day of trouble; I will conceal you under the cover of my tent; and I will set you high on a rock.

Amen

Bibliography

  1. Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 2 pp50
  2. https://billmoyers.com/content/ep-4-joseph-campbell-and-the-power-of-myth-sacrifice-and-bliss-audio/
  3. Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 2 pp50
  4. Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 2 pp55

Temptation or Intentionality?

wilderness.jpg

Reading this passage on the temptation of Jesus by Satan, I couldn’t help recalling the American comedian Flip Wilson. I think his show was on TV during the 1980s. In one particular skit Flip plays the part of Geraldine the wife of a minister.  She is trying to explain to her reverend husband why she bought yet another dress when she purchased three the week before. Geraldine says, “well it wasn’t me, the devil made me do it!”   She explains how she was innocently walking past the dress shop and the devil said to her. “Geraldine check out that dress in the window there.” Geraldine tells the devil “I ain’t looking at no dress, I don’t need a new dress.” The devil says to her. “But it’s on sale, and all you have to do is try it on, you don’t have to buy it. You would look so good in that dress girl.”

At the end of the conversation, Geraldine’s exasperated husband asks why is it every time you do something the devil tells to you’re always the one who benefits, it’s never me? Geraldine says, “well that ain’t true at all, in fact, I asked the devil about that and he said, if it wasn’t for him you wouldn’t even have a job!”

The text from Luke this morning lays out for us a story about temptation, …. or does it? The story of Jesus’  temptation in the desert is another parallel that Luke uses to contrast Jesus with Israel.  The forty days in the desert corresponds to the forty years wandering in the wilderness by the people of Israel.  During that time they, again and again, do not respond to their calling by God.  I talked just the other week in my sermon about how when Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets of the law,  the people of Israel under Aaron’s leadership had turned away from God and made a golden calf and worshipped that instead of God. God is trying to save them and bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey, but they are continually looking back to Egypt. Their past lives constrict, bind, entrap them, affecting how they respond to situations. They are still thinking like slaves even though they are free.  So in this passage, Luke is saying that whereas Israel has turned away from God during their time in the wilderness, Jesus is faithful.  For Luke, Jesus represents Israel as it should be in its relationship to God.

We can look at this passage and determine that the whole thing is about temptation, as the story of Geraldine and her dress. In fact, the first sermon title which I sent to Noreen for the bulletin was “The Devil Made Me Do It” But then invariably as we look more closely at the text more closely the understanding of what it really means develops further.  This passage is not primarily about temptation. That is an aspect, yes, but it’s more complicated than that.  In fact, it may well be that resisting temptation is what Lent means to us rather than its deeper meaning.

In Lent we commonly give something up that we enjoy, chocolate, drinking alcohol, or giving up deserts to eat. Some people say “I will give up being so hard on myself!” – whatever floats your Lenten boat. But when we give these things up are we, in fact, doing putting ourselves in a place where we will be tempted? I don’t think Jesus went into the desert intending to be tempted by the devil.

Theologian Lauri Brandt Hale tells of her four-year-old son (2) who had heard a story based on this text during a children’s service one Sunday.  He asked her afterward “Hey Mom what do you know about the devil?” Lauri wasn’t sure whether to respond from the perspective of progressive theology, conservative doctrine, process theology, or what.  So instead she answered his question with another question. “What do you know about the devil?” Well! he said the devil is “mean.”  Lauri was still trying to wonder what the difference was between “mean” and “evil.”  If you were mean did that also mean that you were evil? Or were they both the same?

Then her son leaned closer and dropping his voice to a loud whisper said “if we were in a store and you and Dad were in one aisle and I was in another aisle” his hushed tones became downright conspiratorial. “And there was candy, the devil would say you should take some.”  His Mom was about to explain to her son that when Jesus was tempted he was still faithful to God, but then she stopped herself, figuring that her little boy who had already taken in so much of the story he had probably figured out the right answer for himself. So she said “Honey if we were in a store and Dad and I were in one aisle and you were in the other and there was candy, and the devil said you should take some. What would you say back to the devil? A sweet grin lit up her son’s face, and without hesitation he replied: “Oh I would say thank you!” Maybe we misunderstand what Lent is really about, it’s easy to do.

For one, Satan tempts Jesus not with bad things but good things! (1) Turning stones into bread would not just feed him it would feed others in his community.  Satan tempts Jesus to take on the power of rulership, but this is an opportunity to rule the world with Justice, what’s wrong with that after all? isn’t that a good thing?

When we look at this passage about Jesus resisting Satan, we may think to ourselves that he could do this because after all he is the Christ, and he is God’s Son. He is without sin. How could he not fail? But this is one of the big mistakes we make in Christian theology and doctrine when we overemphasize Jesus’ divinity and his perfection we lose a deep understanding of his humanity.  And we need to to have a good grasp of Jesus’s of that otherwise he is of no use to us in our daily lives.  A fourth-century Christian theologian Gregory Nazianzen wrote: “the unassumed is the unhealed.” If Jesus does not share our humanity in every sense of the word,  including our struggles with temptation, our tendency to despair, our fear of death, and our fear of rejection, then how can we turn to him in our weakness, when he becomes something other than ourselves? And I think this is one reason this passage isn’t primarily about “temptation” it’s more to do with the intentionality of action.  We can say this story is about how Jesus “reacts” to temptation or we can focus rather on Jesus’ intentionality in living a faithful life. They are not quite the same thing. His ability to remain faithful to God in spite of Satan is not essentially different from ourselves.  What allows Jesus to be faithful as a Jew is his spiritual practices. The practices he learned at Mary’s feet. And in particular, his engagement with the scriptures, the Torah.  You can see this in the way he responds to Satan he always goes to the Torah, which is the core of his faith life as a Jew.

“It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”

“It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”

“It is said, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

These practices were like a rhythm in his life.  You can see it in the text where it says Jesus went into the wilderness filled with the Holy Spirit”  Why was he filled with the power of the Holy Spirit? Because he was one part of the triune God. No! it was because he was engaged in a rhythm of Spiritual practice and prayer. So what I’m saying is that you could take Jesus out of the desert out of this story and put yourself there in his place and if we were living in the rhythm of our spiritual practices.  We could also resist Satan, …… or a dress or some candy!

Jesus ability is not so much grounded in who he is as the incarnate God, but through his faith life, in his rhythmic life of prayer and through that his relationship with God.

When we were in South Africa in 2012, we spent a week on Safari in Kruger Park.  I would say one of the best experiences of being there was meeting the people of South Africa.  Alfred Rhulani was one of them He was our guide while we were on Safari.  We always felt safe when he was around, one reason was that he always had this a big hunting rifle with him.  I remember one evening we had a bar-q-q out in the veld, we were all enjoying our dinner outdoors when we suddenly heard a hyena snarling near the kitchen area quite close to us. Let me tell you I always thought Hyenas were quite small, sort of like big dogs. They’re not they are huge, particularly the females who dominate the males.

Alfred calmly said, “everyone-stay-perfectly still.”   He didn’t even have to say that! My fork full of barb-q-d ostrich was frozen, suspended halfway between my plate and my mouth.  Alfred picked up his rifle and went to investigate the situation and he and the other guides scared the hyenas away And I think it was later on that Alfred was telling us about the traditions of his tribe. When young boys come of age around twelve or thirteen, their fathers train them throughout their lives on how to live and how to survive in the wild.  When they come of age at twelve or thirteen, the boys are tested, not tempted and sent out into the wilderness individually on their own for six weeks.  They have already learned much from their tribe and this transition period in their lives becomes a time of practicing what they have already known and an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a part of their community.  They come back as men! It reminded me of the whole idea behind the 4-H program you have here that Donna and Lorna have told us about. Not as intense maybe but similar principles

I pledge My head to clearer thinking, My heart to greater loyalty, My hands to larger service, My health to better living, For my club, my community, and my country.

Lent is an opportunity not so much to resist temptation but to take what we already know about who we are as Christians and to practice those things with intention linking ourselves into the rhythm of each day. If you lack consistency in your spiritual practices, in your prayer life, reflecting on the scriptures, regular worship. This is a good time to practice those skills. They are important and they bring us into a closer relationship with God.

Gretta Vosper wrote a book called “With or without God: why the Way we Live is more important than what we believe.” I like her phrase “the Way we live.” The first Christians described their life as “the Way.” But I would disagree with the other part of her premise. I would suggest that what we believe is dependent not only on what we think but on our relationship with God. Our theology doesn’t just come from up here in the head, it is deeply connected to our spiritual practices, our worship, and our prayer life.  I encourage you to take this opportunity during Lent to practice what you already know as a community of faith. Try to slow down, and to rest try to see if you can enter a rhythm of spiritual life as we move towards Easter.

  1. Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 2, page 47
  2. Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 2, page 46

The Other Side of The Mountain

 

mountain.jpeg

Luke 9:28-43

Have you ever had that experience where you look at a person and you see something about them, something that shows they are really are made in God’s image and in God’s glory? When we were on the Pott’s sleigh ride the other week little Lea was sitting across from Margaret and I. She looked like a Christmas present all wrapped up, she had a wooly hat on her head and a scarf around her mouth and neck. The only thing you could see of her were her two bright little eyes peering out in wonder at the trees covered in the snow going past us, not just any little girl, but Lea, the one and only (as each of us are) uniquely created and loved by God. Sometimes we glimpse, but at other times we miss the glory of God present in those around us don’t we?

We are looking today at the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. It’s a very special Sunday because it marks the shift from the end of epiphany into Lent. There is a mountain right in the middle of Luke’s Gospel! We have been going up the mountain of epiphany to the transfiguration, and today we are at the top of the mountain and we will go down into the plain. Then, we climb another mountain towards Easter, towards Jerusalem, towards the mount of Olives and Gethsemane. In fact, the disciples fall asleep here on Mount Tabor just like they did on the Mount of Olives when Jesus was in prayer with God. Today, Jesus in the presence of Peter James and John, is finally and fully revealed, his clothes bright, intensely white,  One commentary I read said Jesus on the mountain was lit up like Vegas!

The gospel stories on the epiphany side of the mountain are illustrated with themes of light. The Magi, the calling of the disciples, Jesus’ baptism, Jesus reading from Isaiah in the Synagogue. But the stories on the other side of the mountain, the Lent side, feature ambiguity, failure and conflict,  They are darker in tone. In fact, before Jesus leads Peter James and John up the mountain of transfiguration, he warns them that the elders, chief priests, and scribes will reject him and kill him and then he will be raised.  The disciples are not comfortable about that.  Up to this point their experience in following Jesus has been relatively easy, but on the other side of the mountain, this will all change. But the transfiguration on the summit of the mountain amazes them, so much so that Peter wants to capture the moment by building three huts or tents, one each for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses, who represent the law and the prophets.  It’s as if Peter is saying, “let’s stay here Jesus, we don’t have to leave this place, why don’t we rest here and enjoy the scenery”. Peter knows instinctively there are challenges on the other side of the mountain. For Peter, going down to the plain means change.  And he realizes now Jesus is transfigured, he will also have to change, which is why he wants to pitch the tents and stay where they are.  A tent keeps out the cold wind and the rain of the outside world, it creates for us a safe and a snug place where we can protect ourselves from the elements.  When we feel we are at a place in our faith which everything finally makes sense, we want to bang those tent pegs into the ground and stay where we are. The problem is, banging tent pegs into the ground and staying put is not the way of growth or transformation.  And Lent is all about growth. The ashes we will use on Ash Wednesday remind us of that.  Loss reminds us of growth. That’s why we give things up for Lent. Lent is about change, and change can come to us suddenly, just as the transfiguration happened suddenly to the disciples.

Junot Diaz once said, “It’s never the changes we want that change everything, but the changes we don’t want and expect”. So when James, Peter, and John come down the mountain from that wonderful spiritual experience where they see the glory of God reflected in Jesus they immediately encounter the problems of the real world.

On the plain at the foot of the mountain, there is a father in desperation seeking help for his son who is thrashing around on the ground possessed by a demon.  Where is the glory of the mountain now? Where is that feeling of “Ah! we have finally arrived The disciples have failed to heal this boy.  Jesus says “you faithless and perverse generation how much longer must I be with you here?” That sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But what Luke is doing here is drawing a parallel between Jesus and Moses. If you read the section before our Exodus reading, Moses comes down the mountain, his face shining from his experience of being in the presence of God.  But while he has been away, the people have not trusted in God but have built a big bright shiny object, the golden calf. And Moses loses it with them.    But his anger comes from a deep love and concern that God has for his people expressed through Moses, and in Luke expressed through Jesus’s rebuke.  After all, they have missed the Glory of God and replaced it with something else.  We don’t know why the disciples couldn’t heal this boy at the foot of the mountain. But maybe they mistook the authority Jesus had given them to heal as their own authority. Maybe they thought, “Jesus taught us what he knows so we can heal this boy,” but then they fail miserably!  I wonder if it might be because they looked at the boy as if he were a patient, an object which could be used to show the power and confidence they have received through Jesus.  Maybe they didn’t see the Glory of God reflected through the boys suffering face or in the look of desperation in the father’s eyes. Many have been commenting on Facebook over the last week on the recent decision by the United Methodist Church (UMC) in the US. The UMC has selected what they call the “traditional plan” for their church. It retains the established theological standards of the church. It rejects same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. I would suggest it represents a “banging in of the tent pegs.”  “This is what we believe.  Here we stand!”

It reminds me of a time when I was in my late twenties and early thirties. I was so sure then about what I believed in theologically, and what Christian life should look like and I think could be opinionated about it as well. I was working for the Government as a project leader. I had just designed a new payroll tax system. It had to receive and process the second largest income stream for the government.  I had a programmer working for me called Robert. He was writing the programs, the code for the most important, complicated part of that system.  Robert and I got along like a house on fire. We would often have these great theological discussions up in our office. I admired him for his intelligence his humor and his wit, and he introduced me to authors and writers that continue to influence me today. One of them was Thomas Merton who wrote the spiritual autobiography, “The Seven-Story-Mountain.” (1)

But Robert was not getting his work done, and not just because we had these theological discussions, he was struggling to write this program and we were falling behind schedule. And the day came when I had to talk to him about it. I could see that he was upset,  so I suggested we leave the office and go down to the park nearby.  We sat on a bench together and he poured his heart out.  He told me he had been in a relationship with another man, that it had recently broken up,  that he didn’t know what to do, and that it devastated him, and obviously it was affecting his concentration at work. Like those disciples on the plain, I didn’t know what to do or to say. His lifestyle completely challenged my own assumptions about Christian life and morality, at least at that time. In the end, all I could do was to offer him my friendship.  Today I date my friendship with Robert who has since passed away, not from those mountain top discussions we had up in the office, but from that day when we sat together on a bench in Par-la-Ville Park.  Where I came to know the pain and the struggle in his life, the pain that did not fit the pattern I was so comfortable within my own beliefs. But Thomas Merton writes, “the beginning of love is the will to let those we love to be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” (2) We can become so wrapped in where we are and in what we believe, that we become consumed with our glory rather than the Glory of God which shines through others.

The Hebrew word “glory” כָּבוֹד (Kavod) comes up again this week. Last week in the story of Joseph and his brothers, Joseph is saying “tell my father of my glory you have seen in Egypt.”  But Moses coming down from the mountain with his face shining and Jesus shining on the Mount of Transfiguration that is not their glory That is the glory of God shining through them.  Moses is oblivious to the fact that his face is shining, and Jesus is unaware of the glory that shines through him.   We are too often unaware of the glory of God that shines in others,  The disciples were unaware of the glory of God in that suffering boy and his distraught father.  I was for a time unaware of the glory of God which shone in Robert. But again Thomas Merton writes Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. he notes, this is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true. ” (3)

The word lent comes from the Old Saxon word Lentin; it means the lengthening of the days. The days become longer as we approach spring and Easter. And so God invites us to enter Lent by lengthening, by stretching, by slowing down, and by listening, and seeing the Glory of God in those around us as we move towards Easter. A glory not always framed through the bright light of the epiphany, but one found in the darker Lenten places of our lives and in the struggles and in the suffering of others.  Let us strive to see that glory in each other and in those we encounter.

Amen

In fond memory of Robert

Bibliography

  1. Thomas Merton: Seven Storey Mountain
  2. Thomas Merton: No Man is an Island
  3. From Merton’s final address as novice master; recorded at the Abbey of Gethsemani on August 20th, 1965:

Mending Broken Branches

Genesis 45:3-15

When our children Daniel and Deborah were young, I think around eight and ten. We sent them during the school holidays in the summer for a month and a half to visit their aunts, uncles, cousins and Margaret’s Mum in England.  It was a great idea because it gave them an opportunity to develop relationships with Margaret’s family, independently of Margaret and I being there. I was a little reluctant at first because we wouldn’t see them for a long time and they were two young children traveling on their own. But the airline staff looked after them well on the flight to Gatwick.

We gave them some spending money to take with them. And before they left Margaret advised them.  “When you get to England give your money to whoever you are staying with, and they will look after it for you. And that way you won’t lose it.”  So Daniel asked, but what if they lose our money? Margaret said well if they lose it I’m sure they will replace it for you, but if you lose it then you are on your own. So when we arrived in England, weeks later for our vacation and joined the children. Margaret’s sister wanted to know what we had told the children about this money. Margaret explained! Oh! her sister said and then she laughed. Apparently, when Deb and Dan got to England, they handed over their money to their aunt as instructed. But Daniel said “here’s our money, but Mummy said if you take it from us, you have to give it back again! It devastated ” Margaret’s Mum to think we imagined she would take her own grandchildren’s money. It might have caused a family incident. It’s interesting how mixed messages and personalities can play into family relationships, isn’t it?

Our reading from Genesis is all about family relationships and mix-ups and secrets, lies, deceit, and family conflict all around.  The verses we read today are just the end of the tale, so I must fill you in on the backstory which I’m sure you’re familiar with. Joseph is the second youngest son of Jacob and Rachel. His youngest brother is Benjamin also by Rachel. His other ten siblings were half brothers, by various other wives of Jacob. In the bigger story as a young boy, Joseph thinks he is a cut above everyone else in his family. You might remember the dream Joseph had where eleven sheaves of wheat (his brothers) bowed down to his one sheaf.  Joseph is also Jacob’s favorite son, and his father makes him a multi-colored coat to wear as a sign of that favor.  Not a very smart thing for Jacob to do if you ask me! But  Joseph’s relationship with his siblings grieves Jacob, so he tries to engineer a reconciliation.  He sends Joseph to his brothers in Shechem where they are herding sheep. We all want our kids to get along with each other don’t we? But it’s best as parents not to interfere, but to encourage our children to work on their own issues together. It all goes wrong! Jacob doesn’t realize that Joseph’s siblings have had it up to here with their brother.  So much so that Joseph arrives in his fancy coat, they strip him of his clothes and throw him into a dry water hole, which in that region was certain death. But then they recant a little, and instead of leaving him to die they sell him to a slave caravan. They tell Jacob wild animals killed and ate him.  Lies and deceit! And Jacob isn’t stupid! He probably suspected the brothers were not being totally honest with him.

Through a whole series of misadventures, suffering and sexual temptations (we won’t get into that this week) Joseph ends up in Egypt as a slave but, eventually becomes the Pharoah’s right-hand man, in charge of all the grain and food stores during a time of famine and drought in the region. It is this that draws the brothers to Egypt years later. When their crops fail, they go to find food. It’s the opposite of the Exodus! When they arrive they don’t recognize Joseph. He knows them, but he doesn’t tell them who he is. If you remember the story, there is a lot of back and forth, where Joseph wants them to bring their brother Benjamin to meet him. He sends them home with grain supplies but has some palace gold hidden in their saddlebags just so he can accuse them of theft and bring them back to Egypt again. The brothers return with Benjamin to see Joseph despite their father’s protests. Eventually, Joseph reveals who he is and there is a reconciliation. It’s a very moving text! Joseph says “don’t be angry with yourselves, you sold me into slavery but God brought me here to preserve life.”

The story underlines once again that all the families we hear about in the bible are dysfunctional.  Even Jesus’ family roots are problematic. David has an affair with Bathsheba, Solomon has hundreds of concubines.  Judah Joseph’s brother, who is also Jesus’ ancestor sleeps with and impregnates his daughter-in-law Tamar. (2) And then there is Mary’s situation having what we call at home an “outside child.” Who knows, maybe Jesus even said to Joseph Mary’s husband, you’re not really my father! Stories from the bible are so helpful because they mirror our own broken lives and the broken branches in our families. And our broken lives mirror and affect our broken communities. Our family tensions and conflicts can play out and complicate things at work or in our faith community.

When I was the master of my lodge at home. Someone approached me who was interested in becoming a mason.  There are several steps involved in joining a lodge. You are proposed, seconded, interviewed and we vote on your application in open lodge.  In the early stage of the process of considering his application, someone pointed out that his brother was a Mason in one of our sister lodges and the family was conflicted with each other. Sadly, we couldn’t proceed with his application because it might bring those family tensions between these two brothers into the wider fraternity.  I had to tell him you must try to reconcile with your brother first and then, by all means, come back to us. Coincidentally, I was thinking about him just the other day as I was writing this sermon. I was looking for the email he sent me over a year ago and I couldn’t find it. Three hours after giving up on finding that email, completely out of the blue, Tuesday evening he emailed me to say he was still interested in joining the lodge. We talked on the phone this week and apparently, he has since spoken to his brother. I’m not sure where things will go for him now but I hope they work out.

What is remarkable about this story about Joseph, is we assume he’s the hero in the story.  It’s what all the Christian commentaries say. in fact we consider Joseph a representation of Jesus. His family turn against him, they strip him of his clothes; he descends into the pit; he overcomes his suffering and challenges, and he gains greatness. Joseph becomes the means of reconciliation and he forgives his brothers. And, reconciliation happens because Judah, Joseph’s brother can’t bear to go back to his father without his youngest brother Benjamin who Joseph wants to remain with him in Egypt.  Judah says “my fathers life is bound up in the life of his son Benjamin, when he sees the boy is not with us he will die!” And Joseph loves his father as well, it breaks his heart that by holding on to Benjamin he would cause Jacob such grief in his old age. And that’s the emotional moment when he finally reveals who he is to his brethren.

But in my Hebrew lesson the other day my teacher pointed out to me, something I had never noticed before. We were looking at a word כָּבוֹד in verse 13 (Kavod) Glory. Joseph says “You must tell my father of my glory in Egypt and all you have seen.” Verse 13 is conveniently skipped from the lectionary! I wonder why it is? Is it because it makes Joesph look less like a hero? It makes the story messier doesn’t it? Do you ever find yourself “skipping” over inconvenient verses in your life story? Certain areas and times of your life you don’t want to face? I do! You see there is a reconciliation, yes! And Joseph has certainly learned a lot through his trials and sufferings. Yes! But in the many respects, Joseph has not changed! I can imagine his brothers riding together on the way back to Israel Judea say “Well guys, I know we were really mean to Joseph all those years ago, I mean we nearly killed him didn’t we? But God love him he’s still the same ol Joseph isn’t he?”

Joseph is still to some extent that sixteen-year-old boy who thinks he is smarter and more gifted than his brothers. In fact, he has continued the deceit started by his brethren when they lied to Jacob about what happened to Joseph. He is returning the favor by not telling his brothers who he really is! He puts them through this staged drama and rigmarole, so he can once again show how much better he is than them.

But you know what? that’s OK because reconciliation has happened anyway! And it is dependent not so much on Joseph or his brothers and their flawed personalities but on God working through those flawed relationships and personalities. It’s the Grace of God that brings people back into relationship, despite the broken people we are.

In the movie Legends of the Fall, (1) starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins and Aidan Quinn which I highly recommend you see.  Two brothers Tristan who is a hunter and Alfred a successful politician are as different as chalk and cheese! Throughout their lives, they are in conflict with each other. At one point Tristan even has an affair with his brother’s wife.  After she takes her own life, Alfred says to Tristan as they stand by her grave, “I have followed all the rules of men and God, you followed none of them, and they all loved you more, Samuel, (their brother) Father, even my own wife.” But in the final scene like the story of Joseph and Judah and his brothers, Tristan and Aiden unite. And they come together despite their differences to defend their family and especially their father.  And when Tristan has to run from the law because of these actions, the childless Alfred agrees to watch out for Tristan’s children.

Final Scene: Legends of the Fall

That’s the Grace of God, bringing us back into relationship with each other despite our conflicted histories, despite our flawed personalities!  As I emphasized last week, as families, as communities we cannot rise above ourselves until we connect to that community which is God. We are like broken branches until we are grafted into God.

And the world sees us as damaged goods destined to repeat the same mistakes which are deeply rooted in our flawed relationships and in each of our family trees. But God sees us as new branches ready to stretch and grow and to provide shade for the weary. (2) As people of faith, God calls us to be the instruments of reconciliation with anyone, family friend or colleague whom we may be estranged from. We are asked as we do that challenging and difficult work to put our trust in God, the real mender of broken branches.

AMEN

Bibliography

  1. Legends of the Fall, Movie
  2. From Book: “Mending Broken branches: When God Reclaims Your Dysfunctional Family Tree” from a book title written by Elizabeth Oates.
  3. Image used with permission

Rooted or Root Bound?

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Jeremiah 17:5-10

At home in Bermuda we have a tree common to the island called the Indian Laurel. The Indian Laurel is not endemic to Bermuda. It was brought in many years ago as an ornamental tree for gardens and they were quite popular. But the, in the 1980s there was a red wasp unintentionally introduced into the environment. It happened to be the  wasp that pollinates the Indian Laurel. This tree started spreading rapidly around the island. Today it has become a real problem and a pest. So if anyone says to you would you like an Indian Laurel Tree, run for the hills! The tree has a very invasive root structure. The birds eat the figs that the tree produces and drop the seeds into cracks in walls, which then become saplings. They are difficult to remove, and eventually they destroy anything they come into contact with. And this tree knows where to find water, and how! We used to have a large Indian Laurel in our front yard. During the long summer, it gets very hot and the island goes through a period of drought. Houses at home get their water supply from a large tank underneath the foundations. Our tank was at least thirty to forty thousand gallons in volume and we have two of them. In the summer we conserve water. No long showers. We wet ourselves down, turn off the water, soap up and then turn the water back on to rinse off again.

This summer we were doing our best to conserve, but we were still running out and having to spend $50 for each load from the water truck to replenish the tank. I thought how on earth are we using all this water? Well, we weren’t! When I had a closer look inside the tank, there were hundreds of roots coming into it under the house foundations even right through the cement walls of the tank. It reminds me of the verse in this morning in the reading from Jeremiah which talks about the tree by the stream in the year of drought. “It is not anxious. and it does not cease to bear fruit.” Amen! Our Indian Laurel was not anxious in the summer either, but we sure were! We had to have the tree cut down and because the roots in the tank wall died, the cracks left behind had to be repaired patched up and re-cemented.

I was reflecting on this passage from Jeremiah, how roots can provide a means of nourishment. They are able miraculously to sense, find and reach out to sources of water even when hidden behind the concrete the walls of a tank. But roots can be a problem, they have a mind of their own, and they can destroy walls and water tanks and other trees.  In our reading from Jeremiah the prophet is writing to the exiled people of Israel. They always seem to be in exile don’t they? But it is in exile, after all that we learn important lessons. And for this people exile was their new normal. (1) Jeremiah is asking them how are they going to respond to this situation? Will they respond as if they lived in the desert, or will  they be planted in this strange new world like trees rooted next to a flowing river? (1) And only one answer shows faithfulness and trust.

Jeremiah also talks about the heart, that it is devious above all else, perverse, who can understand it? The Hebrew text describes the heart as עָקֹב pronounced (asiv) it means crooked, twisted, stubborn. It reminds me of a thin Indian Laurel sapling growing out of a wall. You can tug and pull on it all you want but you ain’t going to budge it! These people who are now in exile have lost their temple, they have lost their city of Jerusalem, and Jeremiah is telling them all this happened because of the stubbornness of their hearts which had turned away from God.  Now they are in exile, but their hearts and their lives are still rooted in old habits and old thinking. They are rooted, but they are also root bound!

I have come to appreciate how important family and community history is in in PEI. I have been on pastoral visits and seen pictures, portraying generations of those who have gone before us. Islanders proudly show treasured paintings of the wooden masted ships which carried their ancestors to PEI from England, Scotland and other places.  Roots in a family and community give us a sense of identity, a sense of purpose, and an understanding of where we come from. But they can also be constrictive, especially when – change – happens. Especially when we find ourselves in exile. I would suggest that as a church we are rooted in our past, in who we used to be.

The book club are currently reading “Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times.” (3) The book describes the church in Britain in the 1950’s. It was the center of social life then. Every church had a series of youth clubs and activities going on every night of the week.  All Saints Church in London had hundreds of youth in its youth clubs run by the Rector and seven staff. Here in Canada it was the period of church history called the Social Gospel. The United Church of Canada was literally feeding and clothing the hungry. And basically, the church’s raison d’être, its purpose for being at that time, through it’s social conscience and its programs was the provision of goods and services. But now there are other institutions that do that, and we can’t compete under that old model anymore, and maybe that model wasn’t the right one in the first place. But I think that’s the model sometimes that our hearts are still turned towards, goods and services! It wasn’t the model used by the early Methodist church when it experienced so much growth and revival in the eighteenth century. They weren’t trying to get people to come to their church. People came because of what they experienced through the sense of care and community when they gathered for the class meetings which took place during the week. When you ask someone after worship how are you? The standard answer is “fine!” But in a more intimate closer setting when we are together, we are more likely to share our struggles and our burdens with each other.

Alcoholics Anonymous is a community that is NOT in the goods and services industry. One of their motto’s is “attraction not promotion.” And it’s one of the reasons why they experience growth.  When you go to an AA or an al-Anon meeting, there is a sense of caring, and understanding and people come together and share their day-to-day struggles with each other.  And they are not concerned about growth or survival of the organization at all. I’m sure not everything is perfect all the time but mostly when you go there you feel included, welcomed and accepted, as who you are.

Now as a church we should always do that reality check and ask ourselves the question “Are we a welcoming church” do we readily receive people into our community. Do we accept them in who they are and as they are? I believe it is the case here, and there is a strong sense of caring for each other in this community.  When I go to the hospital to visit a member of our pastoral charge, there are often two or three other people from our church who have already been to visit them that day. So I think we are in many ways living into what Paul calls in the Greek “koinonia “Christian fellowship or communion, with each other, in God. But there is a real irony here. We are shrinking as a church but when we say to ourselves we have to attract people into the church because we have something to offer, and of course we need to survive as well. When we think like that, we are living into the old “goods and services” model. We are competing with other institutions which are offering similar goods and services. And we will never win that competition.

The answer to our dilemma in exile is back to the question, what are we really rooted in? Jeremiah is calling his people to be like a tree planted by water sending out its roots by the stream.   He is not asking them to be rooted in who they were, but in who God calls them to be. He is asking them to root themselves in a radical trust and a reverence for God who is the fountain of every good. (2) And when we look at this from the perspective of our Christian faith, ironically Jeremiah is asking them to be rooted in community. But not the community constricted by old thinking and habits but a community of love, grounded in God. A community which is God. God is a community, it is why we use the trinitarian formula during baptism. When I baptized Isabel and Phoebe last year, I baptized them with water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I baptized them into our community yes, but that community is rooted in the loving relationship which is God. God is not one God. God is one in three and being the church is about participating in that triune community.

I think we can learn something from the Indian Laurel Tree and that is in its uncanny persistent ability to sense, find and taste the living water which is the triune God. We need to remind ourselves where that stream of living water is. And second, I think we can learn something from another tree, the avocado pear tree also common in Bermuda. There was a single tree in my parents garden, but it never produced fruit because to be fruitful it has to cross-pollinate with another tree. Pollination occurs when the pollen released from one set of flowers on one tree is received by the flowers from another tree. In some climates, avocados may self pollinate from the wind, but it’s far more effective when there are two or more trees. We have four trees in our pastoral charge. We don’t have to put them all into one small garden but they do need to cross-pollinate to produce a greater yield of fruit. We are trying to accomplish that through some of our annual goals, where we are having a honest look at our history where we come from and where we are called to be, creating a Pastoral Charge visitation team, looking for opportunities to build community across our four churches, (I call it cross-stitching) or you can call it cross pollination if you like. And cross-pollination is not an action or a decision that is taken by the Session or the Official Board, it is a realization, a turning of the heart and an action we can take as individuals. So I would encourage you to look for opportunities to be a source of cross-pollination at York Covehead.

Recently the two choirs at Central and York have been practicing together on thursdays, and it’s really great when we have these two choirs singing together. And it’s obvious that people enjoy the experience. There is singing but quite a bit of laughter going on as well. And whatever that feeling is, I can tell you its more than just the music, and it’s more that just two church choirs practicing together. It’s the experience of koinonia, living and worshipping together through the grace of our Lord Jesus, through the love of God and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Let us then turn our hearts and minds to the river which runs close to where we are planted and let us join into that triune community as one people called by God

Amen

Bibliography

  1. Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 1 p338
  2. Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 1 p338
  3. Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times Jennifer Worth.

Baruch’s Blessing

Scripture: Jesus Rejected at Nazareth

I would like you to take a trip of the imagination with me this morning to Nazareth during the time of Jesus’ ministry, in fact the beginning of his ministry the evening after he preached his first sermon. We are in the home of a Jewish man called Baruch. The Hebrew word Baruch means blessing, and Baruch is a Chazzan (an assistant to the Rabbi) at the synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus spoke that day. In this role of Chazzan Baruch has several duties. It was his job to take out the Torah from its special cupboard called the Aron haKodesh and unroll the sacred scrolls to prepare for reading; he also had to keep the synagogue clean; he had to announce the coming of the Sabbath with three blasts of the silver trumpet from the synagogue roof;

Baruch was a well-respected man in the community and it was on his recommendation to the Rabbi that Yeshua (Jesus) came and read and taught at their Synagogue that day.But tonight, after Jesus had been in Nazareth Baruch felt angry, worried and betrayed; At the same time he was wrestling with the words he had heard spoken by Yeshua and their implications, for his community and for him personally. because they were words that challenged the way Baruch had always looked at the world.

Worship did not go well at the Synagogue today, he couldn’t remember a time when the service had been that chaotic. Baruch was sure that the Rabbi was now angry and would be speaking to him about what happened tomorrow. The Rabbi had agreed with, Baruch, that it would be good to have Yeshua come and speak to them. He was, a local boy who the people of Nazareth were proud of, especially when they heard of all the good things he had accomplished in Capernaum with his teaching and with his healing.

Baruch’s first clue that this synagogue service would differ from all the others, was when Yeshua came to up to the front to the “bimah”, the table where the torah scrolls were opened. Baruch had opened the scroll for Yeshua to the assigned reading from the prophets for that day, the synagogue always correctly followed the lectionary. But instead of going to the reading that Baruch was pointing to, Yeshua rolled the parchment further to another section of Isaiah and he read….

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Yeshua then took the scroll and handed it back to Baruch.Baruch would never forget when Yeshua looked right into his eyes. He felt that he was looking straight into the depths of his own soul.Yeshua, returned and took his seat in the Synagogue to teach them, as was the custom for visiting Rabbi’s. Then he said: “today this scripture has come true in your hearing.” It delighted the congregation at how well this son of Joseph had read that morning and they were even more amazed when he said these words. But, the Rabbi and Baruch suddenly felt uneasy. Then Yeshua spoke – and it seemed it was with the deliberate intention of provoking and inflaming the congregation, as if the synagogue was already rejecting him. He said “I suppose you’re going to say “you need to fix yourself before you fix us.”

“What does he mean?” Baruch and the others thought? And then Jesus pushed their buttons because he reminded them of how in Elijah’s day God had preferred the widow who was a non-believer over all the others widows in Israel, and how in Elisha’s time God had healed Naman of leprosy, Naman who was a Syrian and an enemy of Israel.  Well, this was too hard for the congregation to bear. People grumbled and soon they were shouting. After all, they were God’s privileged chosen people.  And this thing about Naman the Syrian was not appreciated at all. It reminded them that Nazareth already had a problem with Syrians who had recently moved into their town. Before Baruch could do anything, the angry people now shouting, grabbed hold of Jesus and dragged him out of the Synagogue.“Let’s throw this imposter from the top of the cliff at Kedumin, several of them cried.” Keeping some distance from the crowd, Baruch followed the procession.  He was confused and was angry at Yeshua for his words which had disrupted the peace of his beloved Synagogue. He was angry at the congregation for their uncivilized behavior, He was angry at himself for inviting Yeshua to speak to them in the first place. Baruch was relieved when they reached the Kedumin hill and Yeshua somehow got away safely, but as he turned back towards home, he prayed that this Yeshua would in future stay well away from Nazareth and his synagogue, and he hoped this would be the last time that he would ever have to set eyes on Yeshua the Son of Joseph.

It’s remarkable how this story is a like a miniature Gospel inside the Gospel, like one of those Russian dolls.where one doll fits inside another. Instead of City of Jerusalem it is the town Nazareth, instead of the temple it is the synagogue. Instead of the hill of Golgotha we have the hill of Kedumin. Even the words of Jesus “physician heal thyself” remind us of that scene of Jesus on the cross “he said he could save others, but he cannot save himself” In both stories Jesus comes, he speaks the word of God, he is rejected, but ultimately he passes through and rises above those who have rejected him. I guess one lesson we can take from this story is to be careful about who you invite to preach at your church! Maybe if the Synagogue in Nazareth had a Pulpit Supply committee like we do at York Covehead, who knows, Baruch might not have got into so much trouble. or at least he could have shared the blame around,

Baruch’s dilemma, is our dilemma as well, You see God has spoken the truth and then places that truth into our hands as the sacred word. Like Baruch and the Synagogue he was a part of, we have a received truth, the Word of God, the Torah and Gospel, which when we live by it, our lives are better, more grounded in God, more peaceful. But inevitably somewhere along the way we take Gods word and we put it back in the box, like the Aron haKodesh scroll box in the synagogue. And that box has an inside and an outside. We put our faith and our church community in the same box with two sides, in and out, and we are always on the inside and there is always someone else who is on the outside. When we put the narrative of God into a box, it becomes an “old” narrative, but when we take it out of the box and read and understand it for us as through the mind and the eyes of Jesus’ it becomes a new narrative. In this conversation between the old and the new. Are we closed in or are we being opened up? The narrative of God in the bible, and the Torah is not the one that wraps us up where we already are but one that opens us up to where we are called to be.

The reading from Jeremiah (Before you were formed in the womb, I set you apart.) Reminds me of a series I have been watching on Netflix called Shtisel. It’s about an ultra-orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem in the modern day. The father in the series Schuman is a Rabbi and is trying to live according the Torah and to be true to the traditions of his faith. His son Akive is an artist and a brilliant one at that. but  the orthodox community frowns on the profession. But deep down inside Akive knows God has set him apart from his mother’s womb to be an artist, His father wants Akiva to give up his art and go into a profession that is more in line with the traditions of their community. But Alive knows that he is not being true to himself and his calling if he abandons his art.

This is not a simple as it sounds, It’s about the tension between what we want and need as individuals and our call, and the expectations of the community we are a part of. In any community there are lines and boundaries around about how people should behave and what they should say especially when they have grown up in that community. In many respects it’s easier to be yourself when you are away from your own community. This is why Jesus gets into trouble. The congregation all know him. In such a small community not unlike PEI, probably half of them are Jesus’ cousins, aunts and uncles. He’s the home boy who has done well and they are proud of him, as long as he stays within the boundaries of expectation of his community.

So there is this tension between what the community says it needs and who God is calling us to be. It’s also a tension between the “old” and the “new.” The old narrative is a narrative of privilege, a narrative of entitlement, even a narrative of “fear.” When it comes down to it I think we have to decide are we reminiscing about the “old Narrative” Or are we following the “new narrative” the open vision that the Word of God brings to us? The new narrative of is definitely not a stroll in the park, and it’s not for the faint of heart. By following Jesus and the words of the prophets like Jeremiah who came before him, we take a risk, we might also be in danger of being thrown off the top of some hill.

Let’s return to Nazareth: The next morning Baruch went back to the Synagogue, he needed to tidy up the benches that had been overturned in the scuffle and he had to roll up the scroll and put it back in its proper place. He hadn’t slept well that night. He had tossed and turned as he tried in vain to bring together his love for the ancient traditions of his people and this new way of looking at things which Jesus had spoken to them about. As he went to roll up the scroll his eyes fell again on the very words Yeshua had read the day before. He remembered that thrill in the depths of his heart when Jesus read…

“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed”

Baruch then recalled how Jesus had looked at him when he handed him back the scroll, and he remembered the love he saw in Jesus’ eyes reaching out to him. He suddenly realized that Jesus was talking about him and the others. That he had become too comfortable in his faith, that he was a captive of his own rigid traditions, that though each week, he took out the scrolls to be read he had become blind to what they were really saying. Suddenly, Baruch realized in the depths of his heart though he could not explain it, that Yeshua was speaking the same truth that Isaiah spoke about, that God’s living spirit rested upon him and spoke through him. Baruch wept! They were tears of sorrow; they were tears of joy! Then he decided that this very day he would go to the poorer area of Nazareth where the immigrants and the Syrians had settled and he would offer them his help.

Theologian T.F Torrance writes about the importance of “repentance” which leads to openness both in religious faith and in the field of science, he writes …. “The refusal to be bound by the rigid framework of our previous attainments, the capacity to wonder and be open for the radically new, the courage to adapt ourselves to the frightengly novel, are all involved in the forward leap of scientific research, but in the heart of it lies the readiness to revise the canons of our enquiry, to renounce cherished ideas, to change our mind, to be wide open to question, to Repent.”

Each day individually and as a faith community we have to make a decision, are we following the old narrative, or are we following Jesus and living in his new narrative which calls for a faith which always has an open edge to it. A faith that is lived through the faith that Jesus had in his Abba, his Father and in the love that Jesus has for God and for others and for us. If we live in the new narrative, then we will live in and through the Word the Word made flesh, the Word who dwells with us and among us today

Amen

Bibliography

Bannoks, David George. 1994. “Epistemology and Authority in the Theology of T.F.Torrance.” Durham, UK: Durham University.

Barclay, William. 2001. The Gospel of Luke. Rev. and updated ed. The New Daily Study Bible. Louisville, Ky: Westminister John Knox Press.

Bartlett, David Lyon, and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. 2008. Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. 1st ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Ellis, David. 2015. Rabbi David Ellis – Atlantic Jewish Council – who gave me some insight into what the role of a Synagogue Assistant was during the 1st century.

Gifts: The Music We Give Back to God

I was looking at a picture of our daughter Deborah the other day. I think she was two or three years old.  She was digging in the flower bed on our back patio. She was wearing the boots and the hat from Margarets Paddington bear. I might have guessed back then that her future career would be as an archaeologist.  She is still digging up stuff, but now she gets paid for it. And I don’t think she still wears the Paddington Boots and hat any more! In our children’s activities and interests we can sometimes detect their future destiny.  Hopefully the gifts and innate skills that we have as children are nurtured, and as adults we are able as Joseph Campbell coins it  to follow our bliss.” But most times we only find our bliss after following many winding roads.  Unfortunately, sometimes people are not able to practice their God-given abilities and skills, through no fault of their own.  In the north of England my Mum grew up in a mill town, when you were old enough to leave school you worked at the paper mill usually for the rest of your life.  If Mum hadn’t met my Dad when he was on shore leave from the merchant navy, she never would have settled in Bermuda and I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you today.

Paul wrote the first letter of Corinthians to a multi-cultural church of Jews, Gentiles and several other ethnic groups.  It was Paul who started the community there originally. And he hadn’t been back to Corinth for at least two years, but he had heard in the meantime that the congregation had become very divided.  The whole thrust of his letter was to encourage a greater spirit of unity in the church.  One of the divisive issues in Corinth was spiritual gifts. They considered some gifts in the church to have more prestige and importance than others. Speaking in tongues was a case in point. It was the former pagans there who used to speak in tongues before they even became Christians.  Tongues or what we now call glossolalia (not a practice you are likely to find in most United Church congregations) was common across a wide range of religious sects.  So some of these former pagans who converted and practiced glossolalia were more wealthy and elite than the Jewish Christians. Paul didn’t have any problem with that, but its interesting that he places it at the very end of the list of spiritual gifts.  I think he may have been making a point. Not to say that speaking in tongues was any less important than other gifts such as wisdom and knowledge, or healing or prophecy, but Paul suggested that this gift was certainly no MORE important that the other gifts of the Spirit. 

This text from Corinthians is a good one to focus on as we enter a new year as a pastoral charge.  One question we ask ourselves through our annual congregational meetings is: what are the goals for the coming year and how are we going collaborate together as a Community of Faith to achieve them? And it’s not an easy thing to do, especially in a changing environment with shifting priorities.  In a church struggling to maintain its membership, trying to find those willing to carry out tasks like setting up the sanctuary for worship, cleaning the building, organizing the World Day of Prayer.  These are not always easy to accomplish for people who already have busy lives,  or for those who have been carrying the weight of responsibility in the church for many years with no-one stepping in to take over.  So the question is how do we as one body under one Lord and in one Spirit become the church God calls us to be?  How do we use our gifts for the common good of all? It’s not an easy thing to do and sometimes in a faith community like the church in Corinth, some spiritual gifts come into tension with other gifts or wrongly take greater precedence over them. 

I remember a time in my home church when we were struggling with was the ministry of music.  The Official Board was trying to find ways of attracting younger people into the church. We had a competent choir and music director but felt that we would really benefit by having a band with a guitar, drums bass, electric organ, etc. So We started a jazz and blues band, in fact I was the drummer.  We would take hymns from Voices United and More Voices and put them in a different musical settings jazzing them up with an afro-Cuban, blues or swing rythmn.  Sure enough, we attracted new people to the church. But there was a tension developing between the band and the choir.  Without either party intending to, we found ourselves in competition for the attention of the congregation. And members of the church took sides.Some older people of the congregation said they didnt like the music with the faster tempos and amplified sound. Younger people were saying that the music of the choir was boring and too slow.

 It all came to a head one Sunday during Black History month where we joined with the choir under the leadership of the choir director.  We agreed to have as one of our worship songs Jesus Came Bringing Us Hope. from More Voices. In the practice session our band felt that because it was Black History month in a congregation that was 60% to 70% from the black community,  that it was important to honor black music by using an Afro Cuban rythmn for this hymn. But the choir director who was classically trained and hierarchically the one in charge disagreed. She said no we will play it in the straight 4/4 time at a slower tempo.  We could never satisfactorily resolve the question before worship began on that next Sunday.  Like I said, I was the drummer. When the opening stanza started for Jesus came bringing us hope it was up to me as a drummer set the tempo. I played the Cha-Cha! The worship went well, but the music director resigned at the end of the service, and then over several weeks some choir members followed her out the door. (never underestimate the power of a cha-cha). But collectively we failed as a faith community because our spiritual gifts and skills were not in unity. We were playing Jesus Came Bringing Us Hope, bringing us peace joy and love, etc but collectively as a church thats not what we demonstrated.  The other day I was chatting on Facebook with my good friend Amoti who was our bass player and bandleader at that time, and I asked him what he thought about it. He said 

The gift of music is our gift from God, what we do with it is our gift back to God. 

But isnt that the case with all the gifts and skills we have? God gives them to us, and what we do with them collectively, not just individually is our gift back to God. Thats what Paul means when he writes.Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;  and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  And when you look at where Paul places this text you can really see what hes is driving at. Because right before this passage on spiritual gifts Paul is writing to the Corinthians about the institution of the Lord’s supper. That Jesus is bread for us as one community and through him though the gifts of many diverse members we are one bread and one body.  The gifts we are blessed with when used in a community for the benefit of all can take on a life of their own and have a much greater impact.  

In October of last year we went along to the auction held at Central United.  The amount of money they made from that event was remarkable! There were loads of items that brought funds in from the auction.  But the one that really sticks in my mind was Edith Clows bread.  There was a lot of money going down to buy Ediths bread! I think the bread together with the quilts she made was the biggest selling item for the whole evening.  Now, if Edith had given me her recipe, and I had made bread and put it in the auction, even if it tastes the same there is NO way people would have bid on it in like they did for Ediths bread Why? because making bread is one of Ediths gifts, and it was a gift that was being offered to God in community. 

We have all been given gifts to be used through this community to the glory of God.

– the gift of healing

– the gift of insight

– The gift of preparing the sanctuary

– the gift of walking with people in their pain

– the gift of organization and administration

– the gift of song and music

– the gift of teaching 

– the gift of making bread

– Who knows, maybe there are even those among us who speak in tongues. (Let me know if you do, and preferably before worship!)

Each of us has gifts given to us by God and given back to God through one Spirit as one body. So dont hide them away! Let us discover, celebrate, and use the gifts that God has given to us for the common good and for the building up of Gods kingdom.

Amen

The Wonderful Thing About Joy

Margaret and I went to see the movie “Christopher Robin” two months ago. The film features Ewan MacGregor playing a grown-up Christopher, who revisits the One hundred-acre wood and meets his childhood friends again; Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet, and Owl. And you may or may not know this, but the stories about Winnie the Pooh, indirectly come from the experiences of the first World War.  The original bear, Winnie, was a black bear rescued at White River, Ontario. A soldier named Lieutenant Harry Colebourn adopted the bear after a trapper shot and killed Winnie’s mother.  Winnie ended up in the London Zoo while Harry was serving on the front lines in Europe with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. And after the war, he decided to leave her in the zoo when he returned to Canada. This was because of the great love and affection that the British public had developed for Winnie.  AA Milne later wrote the Winnie the Pooh stories based on the attraction which his son Christopher had for Winnie when he went to see her at the London Zoo.  The other characters, Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet and Owl came from Christopher’s stuffed toys.

I was thinking about the characters from Winnie the Pooh. And wondering which one best represents this week’s Advent focus on Joy.  I suppose some would argue it could be Tigger, the eternal optimist. After all, Tigger’s is bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun, fun, fun. That’s one description of Joy I suppose. And as Tigger often says, “the most wonderful thing about tiggers is: I’m the only one!”  Eeyore is the eternal pessimist.  When Christopher Robin ties a bright red balloon onto Eeyore’s tail, Eyeore comments, “Sure is a cheerful color. Guess I’ll have to get used to it.”  Eeyore responds to Tigger at one point that, “the most wonderful thing about Tiggers is: you ARE the only one!” Eeyore’s character is not one that could represent Joy is it?  But I also question whether Tigger is an accurate representation. Tigger comes across having a mindless optimism. Eeyore is more of a realist. But overall in AA Milne’s books, when we see the interaction of ALL THE characters in the community in the one-hundred- acre wood, we do have a sense of Joy in these stories. Stories written out of an experience of wartime suffering death and loss.

In our epistle reading, Paul speaks about Joy. With a real intensity. Rejoice in the Lord always, and I say again rejoice.  He is writing to the Philippians, and saying to them do not be anxious about anything.  Paul, in this passage, is coming across as almost Tigger like in his enthusiasm.  But the Philippians have some real problems in their community.  They are being opposed by non-Christian forces in their society, possibly they are also facing physical threats. False teachers are influencing them and proposing ideas and ways of living that are not consistent with what Paul has taught them about the Gospel. Paul in one part of the letter describes these false teachers as “dogs.” There is also a conflict going on between two prominent female leaders in the Philippian congregation, Euodia and Syntyche. So, there are both internal and external threats, things aren’t looking so good for this faith community. The Philippians are happy to have this note from Paul and they have a very good warm relationship with him. However, when Paul encourages them to rejoice and rejoice always, they are probably thinking that they should hold off on rejoicing for now until happier times come around.

What is it really that robs us of our joy? When Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.” = That’s all very good. But it’s not easy to rejoice when things aren’t going well in our lives. 

When there are threats looming on the horizon, it’s hard to forget the challenges that we face and be joyful. And the Christmas season sometimes makes those challenges seem even worse.  One of my friends on Facebook posted recently. “My daughter came into my room this morning and asked me why I was down, I had to tell her that daddy couldn’t afford to buy her a gift this Christmas, and that I had no money for food, because my job hasn’t had me on the work schedule for two weeks,” the daughter left and came back with money she had saved up and told me to buy food with her money. I hate @#$#$%%^%#  Christmas!”

Where can we find the Joy of Advent when we are living in scarcity or when we have had a recent loss or when we are facing health or economic threats in our future? I think it comes through getting a better grasp and understanding of what real joy is.  That it’s not some “Tigger” like Christmas Joy, all wrapped up in bright paper and bows.  But something much deeper than that, something that isn’t just there to enjoy in the Christmas period, but will sustain us through the ups and downs of life as we move into the future. And I think it comes also through recognizing the truth of what Paul says when he declares, “The Lord is near!”

We need to consider the whole context of Paul’s letter to understand the depth of what he is saying about rejoicing.  You see, Paul is in a worse position than the Philippians are.  Paul is writing this letter while in chains in prison and he is expecting to be executed by the Roman authorities at any time, which eventually does happen. So, he does have the experiential authority to call Christian communities to rejoice regardless of their circumstances. And when he speaks about Joy, it’s not something shallow or flippant or “tigger-like” in any way but an understanding of Joy that recognizes the reality of human suffering and the fear we often have of the future. And Paul is not talking about a Joy that we can pursue. (1) It’s not the same as the “pursuit of happiness,” which our society tends to emphasize and says we have a right to pursue that happiness. It is rather a Joy that seeks us wherever we are and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. 

Joy is NOT the same thing as happiness. C.S. Lewis describes Joy as the best translation of the German word Sehnsucht which means “longing,” – a deep longing. Barbara Holmes calls it a joy that defies expression, an unspeakable Joy. Lewis, in his earlier writings, had a much simpler view of Joy and suffering. He wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” But that was before Lewis really experienced the depths of suffering himself, when in his later years he met and fell in love with his wife Joy and then, too soon afterward, lost her to a  long drawn out and painful illness.  After he lost the love of his life, Joy, he could write more experientially as Paul did about a Joy which finds us. The other thing that Paul emphasizes is the Joy that in longing realizes God’s nearness to us. The Lord is near; he proclaims.

And I think we often experience the nearness of God in community. I feel it whenever Margaret and I go to choir practice on Wednesdays. There is this coming together of a little community, where we sing in preparation for Sunday worship.  And that’s where I sometimes get inspiration for preaching. I’ll hear a word or phrase hidden in a hymn verse.  This week when we gathered at the homestead we were singing about the “Good News of Great Joy.”

The Good news of Great Joy is that longing for God’s kingdom and the realization of God’s nearness which we discover in community as the body of Christ.

After, my friend wrote on Facebook about his financial challenges, his anguish about not being able to buy a present for his daughters.  There must have been twenty or thirty replies to his post offering him encouragement, help, offers of gifts for his children and also congratulating him for the way in which he had brought up his daughters to be generous to others. When I went back to look at his post on Facebook he had corrected what he had written from “I hate @#$$#@% Christmas” to “I love my daughters.” I don’t know if this is the case or not, but I suspect that Joy found him that (Zeenzuct) type of Joy, that longing that is satisfied when we experience God in community. And maybe through his community of friends he experienced the nearness of God. 

At home, there used to an elderly gentleman called Johnny Barnes. He was in his late eighties and he used to stand on the roundabout at the foot of the lane which was the main thoroughfare for the City of Hamilton. And as all the traffic flowed by him, he would wave and shout out to those driving into the city.  “I LOVE YOU, GOD LOVES YOU” He had been doing this from 1986 until just before he died, at the age of 93 in 2016.  When the Queen came to visit Bermuda, he told her the same simple message; she said, “I love you too.”  When Johnny died another person, Dennis Bean, took up his position on the roundabout.  For the people in Bermuda, Johnny was an epitome of Joy, not the “tigger-like” Joy, but a Joy which is known in the longing for God’s Kingdom, and a Joy that makes us realize the nearness of God realized through who we are as a community.  Now I’m not suggesting that you go and stand on the corner of St Peter’s Road and Route 25 and do likewise, shouting Joy to all the people driving out of Charlottetown, but maybe in our own way we can know and realize the Good News of Great Joy and find ways to tell that to each other and those we meet each day. Thanks be to God for the nearness of God’s presence and the longing God places in us for a relationship which causes us to seek to be a part of the Kingdom in our corner of the hundred-acre wood!

1- Feasting on the Word Year C Vol. 1 p64.)

Copyright Kikuo Johnson

Advent Imagination

One thing I have always admired about our son Daniel is his imagination. His ability to see something in his minds eye in all its detail. I remember when he was about six or seven years old he would often design things, either by drawing them on paper or modeling them in lego. On one occasion he was interested in building a go-cart. we had old wood in the cellar and some spare wheels from an old bike and lawnmower. and so Daniel put together a plan for this project.  He was trying to engage me in the design process. I was half listening to what he was saying while reading a book.  He kept asking me questions about what components would work on the go-cart, and what might not work. His ideas were tumbling out of his head and mouth faster than I could keep up with them.  And as he did then, he would say “and you know what Daddy?” And you know what, we could paint it red couldn’t we? And you know what? we can build it out of wood, and how big should the wheels be? Should the front wheels be smaller than the back wheels etc?

And you know what Daddy it needs to go really fast! One problem was propulsion. Dan wanted the Go-Kart to be super fast and pedal power just was’t going to do the trick as far as he is concerned.  At one point he said “and you know what Daddy? if we put rocket engines on each side it would go fast wouldn’t it?”  Yes it would Dan, with rocket engines it would go like a bat out of hell, that’s for sure! I offered my advice as best I could as he planned out the design. Later on he presented the picture of the designed go-cart to me and said. Here you go Dad, now can you build it for me? Dan’s imagination tended to outstrip my ability to deliver, but that memory reminded me of how important the imagination is, how we can sometimes conceive a future and it will come into being.

All of the great achievements of humankind begin in the imagination, move to the drawing board and then become reality. I was watching the news about the Mars insight lander the other day. An amazing achievement. There were hundreds of individual steps that all had to be performed perfectly as Insight entered the Martian atmosphere. I had to decelerate from 12,300 mph to 5 mph in 6 and a half minutes landing gently in the Elysium Planitia. They may be different in scale and execution, but I think there is something similar in the imaginative process of designing a rocket powered go-cart and the Nasa insight spacecraft, or a musical composition.

Our reading from Jeremiah is a call to use the imagination.  Jeremiah is asking the people of Israel to use their “theological imagination,” in their current circumstances. What do I mean by theological imagination? I mean an imagined future which is centered in God, (“Theos”) more than it is in ourselves.]Jeremiah is writing at a time which is the worst period of history for the people of Israel, other than the holocaust.  At the time Jeremiah writes this passage, Jerusalem is surrounded by the Babylonian army. There are siege ramps placed against the city walls. There is famine in the land, people are dying of starvation and the city is burning. Jeremiah himself is writing from prison, The king of Judah, Zedekiah had placed him under guard because he had prophesied that the Babylonians would destroy the city and the people would be sent into exile, which is what happened. Many of them would die in exile it would be their descendants who return to Jerusalem to rebuild it. Scholars call this particular section of Jeremiah the little book of comfort, because it focussed on hope for the future unlike the earlier chapters which look at the root causes for the situation the people find themselves in, the sins of Israel  and especially those of the leaders who did not adhere to God’s call to live faithfully and justly. The verses we are reading today look from out of the darkness  into the future.

The imagination plays a big part of the preparations for Christmas doesn’t it? There is a deliberate building of a sense of anticipation particularly in the commercial world. Christmas starts in November, as soon as the Halloween items are cleared away, the Christmas decorations and Christmas sales are on. Sometimes even before Halloween is over. But Advent and the preparation for the Christ child doesn’t start until the beginning of December.

Its interesting when we compare the season of Christmas with that of Advent. I’m not sure if you have the same experience as me but I have often found myself looking forward with real anticipation to the Christmas season, but I have difficulty looking past the month of December. December is the end of the year, and I always have had to make an effort to visualize January and what it holds for me. In fact January sometimes seems a let down, the festivities are over the tree has to come down by the twelfth night after Christmas. And for many people Christmas itself is not a time of hope but of sadness and regret. Some remember loved ones from previous Christmases who have since passed away. Or painful holidays in the past which did not live up to expectations.  Where the festive season brings to mind family arguments and tensions or even physical abuse.  For others Christmas can be be so much in the present they live into it in excess, even going into debt to grasp some brief experience of joy from the season. Others enter Christmas in fear and uncertainty about the future, because they feel they are under siege because of health or economic concerns.

But Advent is all about using the theological imagination. where we are not constrained by the limitations of how we view our own lives but how we can see the bigger picture.  How we lean into a future that God imagines for us.

This year I read a book called “Symphony for the City of the Dead” by M.T. Anderson. It is a tale of unimaginable war and privation and the role that hope plays in enabling people to rise above their suffering. The book is the story of the siege of Leningrad and how the composer Shostakovich and his 7th Symphony saved the city. During the Second World War the Germans had placed a ring of steel around Leningrad.  A siege which lasted from September 1941 until January 1944, a total of 872 days.  While the Nazi germans attacked the city, and forced the people of Leningrad to live with meager food supplies without heat in sub-zero temperatures.

The book is too dark and graphic to share much of the details. but needless to say, people in the winter died in the thousands. The rest of the population were too weak with hunger to even bury them. The soviet government realized that if they couldn’t create a sense of hope in the people of Leningrad, the Nazi forces would soon overrun them. Dmitri Shostakovich had just written his seventh symphony and he dedicated it to the city of Leningrad.   The government ordered the Leningrad Radio orchestra to stage a production of the 7th symphony for the public.  There was no copy of the music score so they smuggled one into the city. It was an impossible task. Most of the musicians had already died, those who were left, hardly had the strength to blow into their instruments. The 7th was designed for an orchestra of a hundred musicians, but only fifteen showed up for the first rehearsal.  Over the next few weeks three more musicians died while the orchestra tried to master the full symphony.  The conductor Elias Berg went around the city from house to house and found additional musicians and they pulled some from the soviet troops on the front lines,  Over a series of rehearsals they increased the size of the orchestra and mastered the complex musical score.

On the evening of the performance to ensure the nazi’s wouldn’t bomb the lit up concert hall, the Soviet army staged a diversionary attack against the Germans in another part of the city. The performance was broadcast through loud speakers around Leningrad it could be heard over the canals and the sandbagged palaces and across the front line defenses. Despite suffering from starvation and exhaustion hundreds of people attended and discovered hope in the music of the 7th.  Even the musicians as they read and played the score said later felt they were living through a music  about themselves. A German soldier on the front lines said years later when we heard the music of the 7th symphony that night we began to realize that we would never take Leningrad.

Advent is our symphony.  Through our worship, the kindling of the candles the burning city becomes a light of hope and a sense of peace about the future.  In our singing of carols, we are living into a story that is about ourselves, but much bigger than ourselves. For it is not only about this week, this month or this year.

Through Advent we are living into God’s time and the larger story of the relationship between God and ourselves as the People of God. Christmas may bring with it, the regrets of the past.  It can bring sorrow for those loved ones we have lost. It can bring scarcity and limitation. But You know what? God calls us to live into Advent with imagination! Because you know what? in Advent we can see how our lives fit into a much large story! Because You know what? in the coming of the Christ child, the righteous branch of David, we know that God loves us.

In the words of a blessing once offered by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “Dear Child of God, you are loved with a love that nothing can shake, a love that loved you long before you were created, a love that will be there long after everything has disappeared. You are precious, with a preciousness that is totally quite immeasurable. And God wants you to be like God. Filled with life and goodness and laughter—and hope and joy. As we enter the Season of Advent, let us carry the light of hope and peace, and let us share it with all who we meet. The light of the Christ Child coming into the world!

Thanks Be to God

Amen