Who Do You Say That I Am?

I love the two questions that Jesus asks of the disciples in our gospel reading. Who do people say that I am? And Who do you say that I am? These are two crucial questions for our life of faith. And Jesus asks them at such a crucial time in our gospel reading. Our reading falls at the midpoint of the Gospel of Mark just before the transfiguration. Up to this point, the focus of Jesus ministry is healing and teaching. The transfiguration, the holy moment on the mountain, which we usually hear about just before Lent, follows right after today’s reading. This is the moment that moves Jesus from his teaching and healing ministry to his journey to Jerusalem. The things that Jesus says and does in our reading for today are laying the foundation for what is to come.

At first it seems like an ordinary moment. Jesus and the disciples are on the way to Caesarea Philippi. While they are walking, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27) It is almost as though Jesus is trying to get the pulse on what is happening in the community. What are people saying about me? The disciples come up with a great list, “John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. It is a pretty good list. But that is not enough. Jesus pushes a little further and says, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29) Peter without hesitation says, “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:30) Jesus tells them not to tell anyone. He goes on to tell them that the son of man must suffer and die. This is too much for Peter. The kind of messiah that Peter is expecting doesn’t suffer and die – the lead rebellions and change the political landscape. So Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke Jesus. Jesus puts a stop to it saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:33)

There is so much that is packed into 6 verses questions of identity and expectations. I’ve been watching some superhero movies lately. They are great teachers when it comes to identity because there are always two – the everyday Peter Parkers and then their secret identity as the superhero. One person and yet two faces are presented to the world. Superheroes help us explore not only the nature of good and evil, but how to live in the world with integrity. We are not all superheroes but we all have multiple identities and roles. I’m a mother, a wife, a friend, a minister, a daughter. Each of those identities come with expectations and we must find a way to hold onto the values that make us who we are no matter what role we find ourselves in.

We can see it so clearly in Peter. Sometimes he gets it so right like he did when he proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah. The problem comes for Peter when his definition and expectations of what it means to be the Messiah get in the way of seeing who Jesus really is. Peter hears words like suffering and death and he thinks that Jesus has it all wrong. That is not what the Messiah does. He did not sign up for this when Jesus invited him to follow. It was a complete clash of expectations. Jesus knows who he is and exactly what he is here for and knows the road that he must travel. But Peter imagined a much different road. But Jesus knows who he is and invites Peter to keep following. The final teaching from Jesus in chapter 8 reminds the disciples that part of what they are called to do.

Too often what Jesus says next is used to keep people living in untenable situations. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) This is an invitation to follow Jesus and help make the kingdom of God a reality. And sometimes that means sacrifice. Peter had to sacrifice his own expectations of Messiah so that he could truly see Jesus and know who Jesus is.

It means answering those crucial questions for ourselves. Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am. If we know who Jesus is, in our community and in our lives, it opens us up to new ways following in Jesus’ way. In the church we have decades of study and history to tell us who Jesus is. We have all sorts of names for him: good shepherd, lamb of God, the Christ, Emmanuel – God with us, Lord, Master, The Word, Son of God, Son of David, Light of the World, Rabbi, teacher, friend, brother, Saviour, bread of life …

The list of the names for Jesus can go on. But that is only the first step. We know what people and the church have been saying over the years, but Jesus asks us all, Who do you say that I am?

I’m going to invite you to take a minute and think deeply about that question. I can’t answer it for you. Maybe todays answer is different from last months or last years. In your bulletin, there is a slip of paper in the bulletin with the question, “Who do you say that I am?” take a minute to answer Jesus question. Maybe you will have so many ideas that they won’t ift on that piece of paper and maybe you won’t know what to write. That’s all okay. This is your time to ponder a little bit about Jesus. You can write it down, close your eyes and think about, talk to a neighbour.

Reflection time with music

Jesus, asks us “Who do you say that I am?” The answer for this question is not fixed. It can change over a lifetime of faith. Knowing who Jesus is for your shapes your faith and guides each of us as we live out our faith as individuals and in this gathered community. It helps us live into that promised kingdom of God. Who do you say that I Am? Amen

God's Infinit Love

Many churches have stained-glass windows just like we do. They are beautiful. Their beauty helps us to remember we are entering a holy place. Many of the windows in churches around the world tell us the gospel stories. Look around us this morning. On my left and you find the Christmas story, baby Jesus at the centre and Shepherds and Magi on either side. After church, come stand in the pulpit or by the rail and you can see the parable of the sower, Jesus healing someone, and the great teaching moment “Knock and the Door Shall be Opened.”  Over to my right, your left we have Jesus as young boy in the Temple, the story of the loaves and fishes and others. Stained glass windows are not only beautiful but they serve a functional purpose. When bibles were few and literacy rates were low, the windows told the stories of our faith. In many ways they acted as cue cards and visual reminds of key gospel messages. There are many different gospel stories told in stained glass windows, but if I were to guess, our gospel reading from this morning would not be one of them. It is challenging. 

On the surface we have two healing stories – the Syrophoenician woman and the man born deaf. Jesus has left his home turf around the sea of Galilee and is traveling in the region of Tyre – a predominately gentile area. We don’t really know why. Marks says that Jesus, entered a house and “did not want anyone to know he was there.” (Mark 7:24) Maybe Jesus was looking for some rest and solitude and hoped to find it in a place surrounded by strangers. Even here, in this place, word about Jesus was spreading. 

One of the women from the community heard about Jesus and came to him to plead her case. Jesus was barely through the door when she arrived. She was desperate. Her daughter was sick. Mark says she has an unclean spirit. She was terrified that her daughter would never recover and was willing to go to any length to ensure her wellbeing. Even taking a chance that the rumours about Jesus are true. Elizabeth Johnson writes, “The woman who approaches Jesus breaks through every traditional barrier that should prevent her from doing so. She is “a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin” (Mark 7:26). In other words, she is implicitly impure, one who lives outside of the land of Israel and outside of the law of Moses, a descendant of the ancient enemies of Israel. She is also a woman, unaccompanied by a husband or male relative, who initiates a conversation with a strange man -- another taboo transgressed. …Any way you look at it, this woman is an outsider.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3761) None of this mattered to the woman. Her daughter’s life was at risk and she knew, she believed that Jesus was the one who could cure her daughter. 

This bold and courageous woman found Jesus, knelt at his feet and begged him to heal her daughter. There is no excuse for what Jesus says next. There is no way to translate the words to soften the harshness of his words. Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27) It is terrible. It is amazing really that there is a record of this event. Somehow it is in two of the four gospels. 

Jesus words are harsh and so different from how Jesus treats people in any other stories throughout the gospels. Not only are Jesus words harsh, but he is dismissing her cry for help simply because she is not one of his people. She is other. In that moment, Jesus believes that God has called him only to bring God’s word to the children of Israel. No one else. He wanted to rest in silence not expand his horizons and share God’s grace with a broader audience. 

But she wouldn’t let him rest. She insisted. She persisted. She pushed back and said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28) Crumbs, those little bits that we brush away, not big enough to be worth keeping. She demands a scrap of the grace and mercy that Jesus came to deliver for her daughter. Jesus says to her, “For saying that, you go – the demon has left your daughter.” (Mark 7:29) When she returns home, she finds her daughter in her bed and the unclean spirit gone. 

There will be no stained glass windows of this story. It is a hard story. Jesus is dismissive and harsh. I find it hard to accept that Jesus dismiss someone just because of where they are from. It is not in keeping with the Jesus I know and love. But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. 

       Part of being human is making mistakes. Judging took quickly. Having blind spots. Holding on to prejudices. Dismissing people who we deem to be different whether it is because of where they are from or because of the colour of their skin or because of their gender or because of their sexual orientation or because of their income level or because of their disability. None of this is okay. Yet, if I’m honest with myself, I’ve done it and I’m angry with myself for it. Yet I’m guessing I’m not alone. The only thing to do when you make a mistake is ask for forgiveness, learn from it and do better next time. 

       I think that is what Jesus did and maybe the person who was really healed in this gospel story is Jesus and that’s why this story lives on. She stood up and said wait a minute, surely God’s grace and God’s mercy are not limited to one small group of people. Surely God’s grace is for all of us no matter where we come from. Her insistence and persistence changes Jesus. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28)

       In that moment Jesus is changed. He is reminded that God’s grace is infinite and for everyone – no exceptions. In her column, “Dear Working Preacher” Karoline Lewis reflects on this moment when Jesus mission is expanded, “It is a rare moment when we glimpse how much beyond our comprehension God really is and how much beyond our imagination God’s love extends. And in that same moment, we perceive how easy it is to give in to this world’s estimations of God, this world’s propensity to limit what God can do. How quickly we retreat from zealous proclamation and settle for lukewarm confession. How often we shrink in fear from the bold belief.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5216) 

       It says in our reading from Isaiah, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. … He will come and save you." Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;” (Isaiah 35:4 – 6)

       So maybe there needs to be new stained glass added to the repitoire telling this story. Jesus learning from the Syrophoenician woman. She helped Jesus remember that God’s grace, God’s love, God’s mercy is without boundaries and limits. It will be our cue card, reminding us, in a time when our political life is making everything us versus them, that we are one people created in God’s image. No us. No them. Just God’s beloved children living into the promise of God’s kingdom. Amen. 

Risking Faith, Daring Hope

The theme for General Council this year is “Risking Faith, Daring Hope.” I think it is a theme we need for the church as we look to the future. For the past decade and maybe more, churches everywhere are stuck in that place of lament – I’ve heard them and so have you. The lament is that longing for that time long since passed. “I remember the church was full every Sunday and there were 200 hundred children in Sunday school.” The place of church in the community has shifted. We are no longer the institution leading the way – advising government leaders or setting the cultural norms. I don’t really notice the change because the church the shaped my path of faith  was a small church with a small Sunday school.  

            We need to move forward. The time to lament is over. Now it is the time for Risking Faith and Daring Hope. It is a time to be bold and have courage to live into a new way of being God’s people in the world. We have excellent examples in our gospel reading. Jairus, the synagogue leader and unnamed woman who dared to touch the hem of Jesus rob. Each in their own way risked their faith and dared to hope. 

            The story begins with Jairus. His daughter is sick and he is desperate to help her. He’s heard about Jesus, how teaches with authority and how he heals the sick. It says in the gospel that Jairus begged Jesus repeatedly, not a polite once but repeatedly saying, “"My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live."(Mark 5:23) Jairus was wealthy and probably could have looked for help elsewhere. He could have turned to the local doctor or healer. Instead he risked everything and came to Jesus begging him to help his daughter.

            Jesus sets out with Jairus but so does the large crowd. They are pressing in on Jesus from every side. In the crowd that day there was a woman who had been bleeding/ hemorrhaging for twelve years. She’d seen every doctor and every healer. She’d tried everything to make the bleeding stop. Nothing worked and she’d spent everything she had in search of a cure. Life was lonely for this woman. In Jesus’ day a woman who was bleeding was unclean. She was alone and isolated form the community. She couldn’t touch anyone for fear of making them unclean. For twelve long, lonely years she searched for hope, for a cure … for anything that would make it possible to be part of the community. 

            She’d heard about Jesus –whispers at first, then amazing stories of new life. She didn’t want much. She knew if she could just touch him her ordeal would be over. She dared, she hoped and without a thought about the taboo she joined the crowds pressing in on Jesus, reached out her hand and brushed the hem of his robe. She said to herself, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” (Mark 5:29) And she was. The minute her hand touched his robe she could feel it stop and so could Jesus. Time stood still as Jesus turned and looked at the crowd and he said, “Who touched my clothes?” (Mark 5:30) No one could believe what Jesus was saying because there were so many people gathered and pressing in on him. The disciples wondered why Jesus didn’t keep going to Jairus’ house. 

            With fear and trembling she came forward, fell down at Jesus feet and told him her story, her truth. Jesus could have been outraged that this woman made him unclean. Jesus could have ignored the feel of power draining out of him and kept on walking toward Jairus’ house. Instead he stopped. He drew attention to the woman and her plight. He listened to her whole truth – to her pain and to her fear. At the end of the story Jesus says to her, “"Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." (Mark 5:34)

            The next moment a messenger arrives with bad news for Jairus, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?" (Mark 5:35) But Jesus, whose is the hope giver says to Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe." (Mark 5:36) When Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house, he leaves the crowds behind and goes to the place where the girl is laid. Hetakes her by the hand and says, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" (Mark 5:41) And she does. 

            Three people healed. They took a risk and dared to hope. It is the kind of message we need as a church both locally, regionally and nationally. The world has changed and the church must change along with it. The time we spend longing for the good old glory days of the church and lamenting the loses are keeping us trapped in the fear. There is no future in fear. We can’t move forward when our eyes are focused in the rear-view mirror. The church can’t remain frozen in time. Now is the time of risking and hoping. A friend posted a beautiful picture of mountains with the words, “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear.” 

            There are so many reasons to hope. Jesus message of compassion, caring, justice seeking, world changing love is what our world needs right now. Whether we are big or whether we are small, we are called to share the message of love today. Increasingly, there are people who are suffering from loneliness or isolation and or fear and our church communities cab provide a healing balm. We are called to following in Jesus way of caring and compassion. We are invited to reach out and give hope to the most vulnerable in our community – the people who find themselves lost, or on the margins or hurting. Our churches can be beacons of hope. 

Hope is what made it possible for Jairus to ask Jesus repeatedly to save his daughter. “Come touch my daughter that she might live.”  Hope is what made it possible for the woman in in Gospel reading to reach out and touch the hem of Jesus robe – even though she was taking a huge risk.

            As a church community we could have walked the path of fear. We could have closed our doors or sold our building to a developer. Instead we chose hope and risk. We hoped to help people, we hoped for a future, we hoped to find new ways to follow Jesus and we took risk. We dreamed big and we started something new. Would you believe that it was almost four years since we voted on the new vision to set up Cochrane Centre? Look at what risk and hope have accomplished here. Grounded in our faith, we dared to hope for a new way of being church. 

It hasn’t been easy. The path hasn’t always been clear. There have been set backs. We spent longer than we expected “on the road” and when we came home we needed to get used to new space and new ways of doing church. Every time, I’m tempted to believe that price was too high and the challenges were and are too many, I remind myself – 15 people have homes because dared to hope, and risked living out our faith in a new way.  For us locally the journey continues as we reimagine the ways we can be God’s people at work in our community sharing Jesus’ lifesaving, life giving message of hope. 

As we continue risking faith and daring hope, we don’t do this alone, God is with us. As it says in Lamentations:

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope: 

The steadfast love of the Lordnever ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; (Lamentations 3:21 – 23)
            God is not finished with us yet! Let us risk faith and dare to hope trusting that God is with us each step of the way. Amen. 

 

One Tiny Seed

Jesus tells two parables in our gospel reading for today. Neither of them is very long. Parables are sometimes challenging to understand. Whenever I tell the Godly Play parables, which come in gold boxes, we are reminded that parables are more valuable than gold and presents given to us long before we were born. We also say, “The box has a lid on it. Sometimes it is as if parables have doors that are shut. You can’t go inside even if you are ready. I don’t know why. It just happens, so don’t be discouraged. Keep coming back again and again. One day the parable will open for you.” (Godly Play, Parable of the Good Samaritan) 

            I find these two parables have doors on them that don’t open easily and I need to keep coming back to them again and again. I read the words and I try to imagine what the message is that Jesus has for us, particularly in the parable of the mustard seed, and I struggle to find it. What’s the good news about seed growing or a tiny seed growing into huge shrub or birds nesting in a giant shrub? What does it tell us about how to live in this world? These are kingdom of God parables and Jesus is trying to tell us something important. 

Perhaps the biggest help to me in opening up these parables to me was the weekly blog written by Dr. David Lose called In the Meantime. He reminded me what parables are all about. “Parables are narrative contrasts – Eugene Peterson somewhere calls them, more provocatively, “narrative time bombs” – that are meant to undermine our assumptions of the various “givens” and even “realities” that we accept unquestioningly and offer us a vision of something different. …“parable” comes from two Greek words, para, “beside,” and ballein, “to throw.” A parable is then throwing one thing (a vision of God’s kingdom) beside another (the world as it is) to see what happens. The comparisons are unpredictable” (vhttp://www.davidlose.net/2018/06/pentecost-4-b-quiet-dynamic-confidence/) 

            The second thing he writes is this, “The challenge with that translation is that “kingdom” seems so static, as if describing some fixed place, whereas basileia is far more dynamic, describing the arenas of God’s activity and influence. Some therefore translate it “the reign” or “rule” of God to highlight that more active dimension of the word. …when we see the world as God does, and when we act toward each other as God would have us, we are living in God’s rule. That means that we can experience and enact the kingdom here and now as well as recognize that even our best efforts fall short of God’s vision and so recognize that God’s activity and reign is not yet fully present among us.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/06/pentecost-4-b-quiet-dynamic-confidence/) 

Jesus says, “‘The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then then head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickly, because the harvest has come. “He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’” (Mark 4:26 – 32)

The first parable is about us. Our faith. How does God’s word take root in us and in our daily living. “Dr. Fred Craddock, the eminent retired seminary professor who has influenced so many pastors …once told of the teacher who most influenced him. Her name was, “Miss Emma Sloan.” Miss Sloan was an elderly woman, single. She taught him in the primary department, and since there was nobody to teach his group as juniors, she went right on with them, and taught them for years. She gave him a Bible. She wrote in the front: “May this be a light to your feet, a lamp for your path. Emma Sloan.” She taught the children to memorize the Bible; she never tried to interpret it. …She said, “Just put it in your heart, just put it in your heart.” She used the alphabet, and they’d go around the room saying verses. “A A soft answer turns away wrath. B Be ye kind, one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, as God also in Christ has forgiven you. C Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden. D Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. E Every good and perfect gift . . . F For God so loved the world . . .”

He says he can still remember those verses. Miss Emma didn’t explain what the verses meant. She just sowed those seeds of Scripture from the King James Bible in their hearts. … “I can’t think of anything, anything in all my life that has made such a radical difference as those verses,” says Fred Craddock. “The Spirit of God brings them to my mind appropriately, time and time and time again.” (Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories p. 33-34.)

I’ve noticed the same things about scripture. Sometimes those passages and stories which are written in our hearts, sown likes seeds, come to us at just the right time. They remind us how to live following in Jesus way. It helps us to remember who we are as God’s people. This is especially important in a week when passages of scripture were be used to justify separating migrant children from their parents. Thankfully churches of all denominations have stood up and loudly proclaimed that this is not what the bible says. People remember that God calls us to welcome the stranger to care for others in our midst. Some have used the opportunity to remember that Jesus himself was an immigrant. It is at times like this, when the words of scripture are distorted and used to justify cruelty, it then that we need the second parable … the mustard seed. 

In this one tiny seed we are reminded that God’s kingdom is something unpredictable and can take root in the most amazing places. The mustard seed is really a tenacious weed. It grows whether we want it to or not. One tiny seed reminds us that God’s rule, is something right now and something that by God’s grace we live into. And when God’s word takes root in us our world can indeed be a place where all God’s children are loved and cherished. God’s kingdom of love cannot be stopped. God’s justice that flows in the desert. 

And when God’s word take root in us we live with compassion and mercy. With God’s words ringing in our hearts we live our faith daily by show love to our neighbours and one another. When we plant those seeds amazing things happen in our world.Archbishop Oscar Romeo writes, “This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one-day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. (http://rainandtherhinoceros.wordpress.com/2007/11/05/we-plant-seeds-by-archbishop-romero/)

            Just like the tenacious weed, God’s kingdom cannot be stopped. God will work through us and our brothers and sisters in faith to transform the world bringing healing, hope, justice and peace for all. Let us live into that kingdom. Let us live into that love. Amen.   

 

Sing a New Song to the Lord

My professor of Old Testament at Emmanuel College drilled into our minds that the hymn and prayer book of the Bible is the book of Psalms. It is poetry and music woven together in the most beautiful way. Although the book of Psalms, is credited to David, it is likely that many of the Psalms were passed on from one generation to another. Many scholars believe that some of the Psalms predate David and others follow his death. As the Gospels were being written, they did not need to have a book of prayers, because they had everything they needed in the book of Psalm. 

In this one book you can find prayers for those who find themselves in trouble, payers of celebration of God’s goodness, prayers of lament for when everything seems to be going wrong and even some acrostic poems! Each Psalm is telling its own story of the ways God is at work in our lives. Think of Psalm 139, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.” (Psalm 139:1 -2) Or those familiar words from the 23rdPsalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul” (Psalm 23:1 -3) In the mode of confession you could pray Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; accord to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. …Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:1, 10)

The words of the book of Psalms are on the tip of tongues and imprinted in our hearts. I’m guessing that is why it is one of the most widely read book of the Bible.  It is also why I’m pretty sure that most of you could quote your favourite Psalm. From thanksgiving to lament to confession to praise, the book of Psalms tells the story of our faith. I’m always amazed at how the Psalms that are the most heart wrenching, end with words of praise about God’s abiding presence and mercy.

Psalm 102 starts with these words, “God, listen! Listen to my prayer, listen to the pain in my cries. Don’t turn your back on me just when I need you so desperately. Pay attention! This is a cry for help! And hurry—this can’t wait! I’m wasting away to nothing, I’m burning up with fever. I’m a ghost of my former self, half-consumed already by terminal illness. My jaws ache from gritting my teeth; I’m nothing but skin and bones.” (Psalm 102:1 – 4) The Psalmist is in agony. It seems that everything could go wrong is going wrong. And yet somehow toward the end of this Psalm the writer proclaims, “Write this down for the next generation so people not yet born will praise God: “God looked out from his high holy place; from heaven he surveyed the earth. He listened to the groans of the doomed, he opened the doors of their death cells. Write it so the story can be told in Zion, so God’s praise will be sung in Jerusalem’s streets and wherever people gather together along with their rulers to worship him.” (Psalm 102: 18 – 22)

The Psalm remind us of our longing to be in God’s presence and to worship God. In Psalm 42 we sing, “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you; you alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship you. You alone are my strength my shield, to you alone may my spirit yield, you alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship you.” (Voices United, Psalm 42 page 766). The same theme is found in one of my favourite Psalms, Psalm 16. So many lines stand out for me remind me of my need for God’s presence in my life. “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge, I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have not good apart from you.” (Psalm 16:1 -2), “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. I have a goodly heritage.” (Psalm 16:5 – 6) and my favourite, “You show me the paths of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy.” (Psalm 16:10 – 11) 

Psalm 40 reflects on themes of survival and discipleship. The writer of Psalm has clearly been through a difficult ordeal.  The psalmist says, “You lifted me out of the horrible pit, out of the miry clay and set my fee upon a rock, making my steps secure. You put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” U2 in their song simply called 40 offers this version of the Psalm: 

“I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry.
He brought me right out of the pit,
out of my miry clay.
I will sing, sing a new song” (U2, 40)

 The invitation to sing a new song is woven through the book of Psalms.  It is our calling as a people of faith to keep singing the Lord’s song in new ways so each generation can hear of God’s abiding mercy. The Psalmist teach us to sing the Lord’s song in times of challenge and in times of joys. Because, as the words of Psalm 121 remind us, God is with us no matter what. I want you to imagine for a moment, you are standing in a place where there seems to be danger everywhere you turn. You look to the hills – danger. You look to the valleys – danger. You look left – danger. You look right – danger. So you pray, “I life up my eyes to the hills – from where will come my help?” (Psalm 121:1) A good question. Sometimes it is our questions. The Psalmist knows the answer. “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  … the Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” (Psalm 121:2, 7 -8) In the thousands of years since these words were first written, this truth has not changed. God is with us in going out and our coming in. God is our shelter in the storm and our hope for the future. Let us sing a new song unto the Lord whose love, whose mercy, whose guidance, whose promise will never fail us. Let us sing to the Lord. Amen 

Down to the River to Pray

            When I’m trying to sort things out or I need to go to a place that soothes my soul, I always head to the water. For me it’s the ocean. Mostly because except for a few years in Toronto and one year in Northern Ontario, I’ve always lived by the ocean. For others it might rivers, ponds or lakes. I love the ocean when it is stormy and wild. I love it with the waves wash calmly to the shore. There is something powerful about the sound of water. It doesn’t surprise me at all that significant, life- giving things in the bible happen by the water’s edge. 

            Moses divides the Red Sea and people walk to freedom. Naaman the great commander is healed in a river. And when it seems that all has been last when the people of Israel are held captive in Babylon, the go to river, face their home in Jerusalem and sing a song of lament. Psalm 137 is a lament. There is no temple to turn to for comfort so they sit on the river banks of this foreign land and wonder how they will find God. “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked of us songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1 – 4) Over time they learned. They learned that God was not only with them in Jerusalem but in this foreign land. 

            But people don’t just weep by the river. When God is about to do a new thing it is like rivers in the desert. Isaiah bold proclaims God’s word, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19) That new thing that God does interrupts the status quo and helps to bring healing and home to our world. Which is what happens when John the Baptist is preaching on the banks of the River Jordan. He is talking of the one who is coming who will change the world. That is when Jesus arrives and is baptized in the River Jordan. As Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

Turn to the book of Acts, the book devoted to telling the story of the early Christian community. We learn in Acts how the good news of Jesus spread from person to person and community to community. For Paul, the way of Jesus changed everything. He went from breathing threats and murder to sharing the good news. Paul’s travels take him to every corner of the Roman world. In our reading for today, Paul is asleep on a boat when he has a vision of man from Macedonia. In Paul’s vision, this man is saying, “Come over the Macedonia and help us.” (Act 16:9) It then says, “When he had seen this vision, we immediately tried to cross over the Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” (Acts 16:10) Without so much as a thought about the logistics or making a plan, or some kind of pros and cons list Paul and Silas head to Macedonia to share the good news of Jesus Christ. They spend a few days learning about the community and then on the Sabbath they leave the city and go down the river to a place of prayer.

It isn’t surprising that they go down to the river to pray. The river is a place where God’s abiding promise echoes in our hearts and our lives. They also went to river to pray because it was too risky to worship within the walls of the city. Being Christian was risky business in that time. Not too long after this account, Paul is arrested and taken to Rome.

At the river, they meet others praising God and that day by the river, lives were changed. At the river, they meet Lydia – a woman who is a dealer in purple cloth. Someone who is a believer in God but it seems that she is new in faith. What Paul said, what Lydia said – we don’t know. Here is what we do know, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” (Acts 16: 15) Amazing things happen with the simple act of going down to the river to pray. Hearts are opened to the stirrings of faith and Lydia and her whole household are baptized. 

            Today, where we live, we aren’t likely to be arrested or persecuted for being a Christian. Although there are places in the world where it is dangerous. It may not be dangerous to be Christian for us today, but we face as followers of Jesus are many. Being Christin is no longer the norm in our community. Probably the new term “Spiritual but not religious” or “nones” or “dons” fits more people than Christian. There is no expectation or social pressure to go to church. It’s a hard change for us in the church. We’ve grew used to having time set aside for church. Now we must make time. 

            An added pressure for the church comes with living in a world that seems to change on a daily basis. It is hard to adapt to these ever-changing realities in our lives and in our church. I am not without hope. Because I know that the people who come each week, don’t come out of obligation. We come because we want to. We come because we need to. We come to be part of the community. We come to hear the stories of Jesus. We come for the music. We come for that moment that will help us get through another week. We come to be surrounded by that community of believers who remind us that we are God’s beloved children. 

We are not without hope. As a people of faith we need to reclaim some ancient skills for new world we find ourselves in. Paul shows us how it is done. Step One: We listen to where the spirit is calling us to be. Step Two: we go to out into the community. Step Three: go to where the people are. Step Four: tell the story of Jesus and how that makes a difference in your life. 

            That’s why Lydia and her entire household were baptized. Paul shared what God had done in his life. Silas shared the joy of being a follower of Christ. It’s an ancient practice but one we haven’t used in recent years. It’s hard to talk about our faith, why we come to church and what we believe or don’t believe. 

It is time as a church for us to go down to the river to pray – to be evangelists. Not like the bible thumpers on street corners. But in the true sense of the word – sharing the good news by offering invitations and sharing our own experience. That is what Paul did in every place he stopped. 

            Brothers, Sisters – let go down to the river to pray. Let those precious words first spoken to Jesus at the river, “you are my beloved” echo in our hearts and lives so that we have the courage to share the stories of Jesus. Let us go down to the river so that our hearts may be touched and lives may be changed. Let us go down to the river to pray and we trust that the good Lord will indeed show us the way. Amen. 

Abundant Life

Jesus says it so clearly, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Now that is a promise. It reminds me of the of the 23rdPsalm which we sang earlier. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” That is abundant life. 

Somehow that abundant life can seem elusive or hard to understand. But it is the heart of Jesus’ promise to us. The reasons chapter 10 talks about both the abundant life and Jesus being the good shepherd, starts in chapter 9. The Pharisees are objecting to Jesus healing a man born blind on the sabbath and they make a big deal about it. Asking everyone how this can possible be. Not only is it contrary to God’s laws to heal on the Sabbath but in Jesus’ time disabilities like blind were seen as a sign of sin. But Jesus says no to all of that. Jesus heals the man and reminds everyone that disability is not a sign of sin. 

The Pharisees put God in a narrow box believing that grace can be confined to certain days of the week and the people they deem to be righteous. Jesus stands for abundant life for all. God’s grace knows no limits. When the Pharisees question the blind man, he proclaims “here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been hear that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30 – 34) By the end of chapter 9, the Pharisees have driven the man born blind out of the temple, the blind man confesses his belief in Jesus, and the Pharisees are being told that they do not see properly. 

It in this context that Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) The man who was born blind not only gained sight but gained faith. We all gained the reminder that God’s grace is everyone. Dr. David Lose in his reflection on this passage shares a wonderful definition of abundant life, “Abundant life is not a quantitative statement – more, even lots more, of what we already have – but rather a qualitative distinction. Life in abundance is life that is no longer dominated by fear, but rather lives in and through the promise of protection and presence.

Think, for a moment, of all the many things we have been afraid of over the years. Or, of what we fear just now. It might be a transition in life, the loss of employment, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, loss of ability or memory, not being included in a friend group, the prospect of being alone. Our fears may change as we age, but the fact and presence of fear in our lives does not.

Nor is this true only of individuals. Think of those fears we are experiencing as a church: declining membership, tight budgets, an aging population, loss of cultural influence and prestige. Or as a culture and country: the end of upward mobility, a lack of cultural cohesion, fear of the stranger or newcomer, loss of status in the world, fear in some cases of anything or anyone who is different. These fears drive our decisions, influence elections, and weigh on us incessantly. These fears, in short, rob us of abundant life.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/04/easter-4-b-resurrection-abundance/)

Indeed, the role of the shepherd is to keep those in the sheepfold safe from those things that cause fear and anxiety. Jesus not only says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) but promises us the he is indeed the good shepherd who lays his life down for his sheep. Jesus says, “the hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me … and I lay my life down for my sheep.” (John 10:13 – 14)

 

A few years ago, I read this story that paints one picture of abundant life “One day a man stopped in a convenience store to get a newspaper. He noticed that the owner of the store had tears in his eyes and kept looking out the window. He asked what was going on.

The store owner said, “Do you see that bus bench over there? There’s a woman who comes there every day around this time. She sits there for about an hour, knitting and waiting. Buses come and go, but she never gets on one and no one ever gets off for her to meet. The other day, I carried her a cup of coffee and sat with her for a while.

“Her only son lives a long way away. She last saw him two years ago, when he boarded one of the buses right there. He is married now, and she has never met her daughter‑in‑law or seen their new child. She told me, ‘It helps to come here and wait. I pray for them as I knit little things for the baby, and I imagine them in their tiny apartment, saving money to come home. I can’t wait to see them.’”

The reason the owner was looking out the window at that particular moment was that the three of them--the son, his wife and their small child--were just getting off the bus. The look on the woman’s face when this small family fell into her arms was one of pure joy. And this joy only increased when she looked into the face of her grandchild for the first time. The store owner commented, “I’ll never forget that look as long as I live.” (www.sermons.com)

Abundant life is different for each one of us. For some it is a long waited for family reunion. For others it release from fears. For others it is the reminder that we are enough just as we are. The Good Shepherd, comes to each one of us offering gifts of abundant life. It is a pure gift of grace. JJ Heller sings in her version of the 23rdPsalm, “Don’t need a thing, My good shepherd brings me all. You are all I need. …  Goodness and mercy are following me/ You're all that I need/ You make a home for me/ Where pastures are green as far as I see/ You are all I need.” 

We are in the great 50 days of Easter. Dr. David Lose writes, “Easter isn’t simply a one-time celebration or holiday, but rather is a way of life, a life guided by the promise that there is something “More” than what we see, buy, collect, or hoard. Life, like love, is one of those things that, in the power of God’s Spirit, only multiplies as it is shared. And as love and life are shared, fear loses its grip on us and we taste, even revel in, not just life, but life in its abundance.” 

It is my hope and prayer, that as each of head into the week, you will remember that life in all its abundance is God’s desire for us. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Amen. 

Stay With Us

            It takes, depending on how fast you walk, around two hours to travel the 7 miles between Jerusalem and Emmaus. Normally this walk would fly by but not today. Not for Cleopas and the other disciple. They’d lost everything. They don’t know what we know. This is still the evening of the first day. It was only a few hours ago that the women came with the perplexing news that Jesus is not in the tomb and they women say, “I have seen the Lord!”  So with heart filled with worry they walk that road to Emmaus. Sometimes in silence, sometimes talking trying desperately to understand. Between the silences they tell stories about Jesus. “Do you remember when healed the blind man... how he fed the crowds with scraps and there were leftovers?” “I can still see his face...” “I remember how it felt in that boat battered by the waves... ”

Choir: 

1          Stay with us through the night.

                        Stay with us through the pain.

                        Stay with us, blessed stranger

                        till the morning breaks again.

As they walk, the two disciples meet a stranger on the road. It is Jesus but, as Luke says, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (Luke 24:16) Jesus asks them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” (Luke 24:17)  And they are amazed. He must be the only one in all of Jerusalem that does not know. They explain about Jesus and the hope that he gave to so many people. They told the stranger about his death and what the women had said about Jesus being alive and how they hadn’t seen him. They said, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  (Luke 24:21) 

“But we had hoped...”  Perhaps some of the most mournful words in scripture. I’m guessing that we can understand that long them comes with them. But we had hoped she would get better. But we had hoped this move would make a difference. But we had hoped he’d get a new job. But we had hoped the cancer wouldn’t come back. But we had hoped the counsellor would help us. But we had hoped for a new start in a new country. But we had hoped to find a home. But we had hoped for peace…But we had hoped...

The lists of life’s disappointments are many. I’m guessing that most of us could complete the phrase “But I had hoped....” with our own lost hopes and disappointments. Life does not always work out as we expect it will. Life throws us curve balls and sometimes, just like the disciples, we need to find a way to gain some perspective. 

 

Choir

2          Stay with us through the night.

            Stay with us through the grief.

                        Stay with us, blessed stranger

                        till the morning brings relief.

 

In an interview with the poet, writer, activist Maya Angelou speaks eloquently winning the Presidential Medal of Honour. She said that she accepted this honour on behalf of the African Americans who travelled in terrible conditions on slave ships, of those who suffer the indignity of poverty, of native Americans, of immigrants and all who came to the America as she said, “Traveling on a nightmare, praying for a dream.” (CBC Radio, Q)

Doesn’t that sound familiar? “Traveling on a nightmare, praying for a dream.” That’s where the disciples found themselves. Since Friday they’d been traveling on a nightmare. They had lost sight of hope and couldn’t find a dream to pray for. They had given up everything to follow Jesus and now he was dead and along with that all their hopes. They were living in constant fear of persecution. They killed Jesus would they be next? But they were also praying for a dream. They knew the tomb was empty – the women had told them all about it. Could it be true? 

            “But we had hoped...” they said to Jesus who meets them in their pain and confusion. He walks with them. He listens to their story. Then Jesus interprets scripture for them beginning with Moses. That seven miles flies by – their hearts burning within them. Not wanting to part with this stranger, they plead with him saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is nearly over.” (Luke 24:29) The two found something in this stranger and that want more of it. They urge him to stay.               

Choir:

Stay with us through the night.           

 Stay with us through the dread.

                        Stay with us, blessed stranger

                        till the morning breaks new bread.

            Jesus sits at the table with them surrounded by the food of everyday life bread and wine. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it and breaks it, and gives it to them. In that moment, their eyes are opened, and they see Jesus for the first time since their journey began. He is risen! All the pain that came with confessing “But we had hoped he was he one...” Luke 24:21) gone. With the sorrow and confusion lifted, the two fly back to Jerusalem to share the good news with the disciples. 

            The same is true for us. When we find ourselves lost and confused, when we’re “traveling on a nightmare,” when the words “but I had hoped” are continually on lips, Jesus meets us on the road, Jesus finds us where we are and stays with us. That is the promise of faith. Faith does not provide us with miracle cures or instant fixes to life’s problems. The promise of faith is that we won’t be alone as we do. The promise of faith is that there is always reason to hope. The promise of faith is that new life always has the final word. God meets us where we are and never leaves us. We are never alone. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Today we’ve come full circle in Lent which began on Ash Wednesday. There is a beautiful hymn in our hymn book called, “Sunday’s Palms are Wednesday’s Ashes.” It sums up so well this day of contradictions. The palms that we wave as we sing our hosannas become that ashes that remind us of our human frailty.

            “Sunday's palms are Wednesday's ashes

                        as another Lent begins;

            thus we kneel before our Maker

                        in contrition for our sins.

            We have marred baptismal pledges,

                        in rebellion gone astray;

            now, returning, seek forgiveness;

                        grant us pardon, God, this day!” (Voices United #107)

It is like the Palm branches that turn so easily into crosses. Today is a day of contradictions. A day of joyful music. But we also know what this week holds – we are on the road to crucifixion and death. Even Jesus knew what was coming. In Luke’s Gospel it says that Jesus, “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51) That particular phrase isn’t in Mark’s gospel but it is woven in the story. In the days and weeks leading up to Palm Sunday, Jesus talked openly about what was to come next. He says to the disciples, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”  (Mark 10:33 - 34)

            Now they are finally near Jerusalem. Jesus sends out two of his disciples saying, “Go into the village ahead of you and immediately as you enter it, you will there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it to me. If anyone says to you ‘Why are you doing this just say this ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately’” (Mark 11:2 – 3)

            I’m guessing that the disciples were used to following directions that seem a bit strange because they did just what Jesus asked. They put their cloaks on the colt. Large crowds gathered, spread their cloaks on the ground, cut branches from trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds began to shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark)

            It’s not a scene I imagine happening today. People lining streets because a prophet is coming to town. Perhaps now it would be more like filling stadiums with crowds crying out “Hosanna” which means “save us.” The expectation rings out in every word and with every wave of the palm branch or leafy branches as Mark says. The crowds believe that Jesus is the one who will save them from the cruel Roman rulers.

The disciples hoped? Knew? that Jesus was the one to save their people from the heavy hand of the Romans who ruled the land. They hoped Jesus was the one who would end their misery. The same is true for us today. Scott Black Johnson writes: “When we wave our palms and boldly cry out, "Hosanna," do we dare imagine what we really want God to save us from? Save me from anger. Save me from cancer. Save me from depression. Save me from debt. Save me from the strife in my family. Save me from boredom... Save me from the endless cycle of violence. Save me from humiliation. Save me from staring at the ceiling at three a.m. wondering why I exist. Save me from bitterness. Save me from arrogance. Save me from loneliness. Save me, God, save me from my fears. Please God take the broken places that will tear us apart and make them whole. We beseech you, God, jump into the water and drag our almost-drowned selves to shore. "Save us." "Hosanna." (www.sermons.com)

            Palm Sunday is more than the sweet band of children waving palm branches. It is an invitation to let Jesus come into the broken places in our lives. As I think about Palm Sunday and the story that unfolds during holy week. I can’t help but think about hands. The hands that waived palm branches while singing “hosanna”. The hands that became fists with angry shouts of “crucify.” We use our hands in so many ways. Hands create beautiful works art or music. We can use our hands to comfort, to pray, to care. With our hands we craft weapons of destruction, with our hands we can hurt, with our hands we can destroy. That is the contradiction of Palm Sunday and Holy Week – beauty and destruction, life and death, hosanna and crucify.

            The good news for us all is the hands that matter most are God’s hands. In this somber week, as we stand in the shadow of the cross we offer into God’s hands all our broken and hurting places, hoping, trusting that on Easter Sunday the tomb is empty and there is new life. Amen. 

Sunday School Faith Story

Today we are sharing our faith stories.  We have worked hard over the past few weeks to write down what we believe about God.  We have put together out responses to create one faith story to share with you.  We hope that in sharing our faith story with you that it will help you to think about your own faith.  

To help us think about our faith, the first question that was asked was, “Who is God for you?”  For us God is, loving because he loves people and doesn’t hate people.  God is Lord, Helper, Creator of the world, someone who watches us and helps us.  God is also holy and loving and sometimes feels faraway.  We know that God cares for people

We have bible stories that we love that speak to our faith.  Here is a variety of stories that we like and why. The story of Jonah and the whale because God teaches Jonah a lesson to never disobey God and that when God asks us to do something difficult that God never leaves us and will always journey with us. This is also a favorite bible story because it simply makes no sense.

Noah and the Ark: God tells Noah to build an ark and to bring animals on board.  It basically tells us that if you believe in God he will protect you and “I like rainbows”. 

A couple of other stories that were favorites were the story where Jesus was born because it is our favorite holiday and the creation story because of our love of Animals. 

Jesus teaches us many things, he teaches us to be a good person and not to do bad things.  Jesus helps us to be nice and helpful, to forgive and how to follow God.  Jesus also teaches us how to pray. 

God and our church are very important to us.  God is important because without God there would be no church.  That would be really sad because there are many things that we love about our church; it is the place that we come to learn about God and Jesus.  The place where we pray and sing to God and learn that God is loving.  We also love the food.  We have some good cooks in this church.  Meeting our friends are also important things about our church

For us there are many places that we feel close to God.  We feel close to God when we sleep.  Maybe we could have good dreams about God as we sleep.  We also feel close to God when we are at church.  The church is one of the places where we share and hear the stories for our faith. 

Thank you for listening to our Faith story today.  Please join us as we sing Lord Prepare Me to Be a Sanctuary printed in your bulletin.  We will sing it 3 times.  

Faith Story: Judy Kay

Thank-you Rev Miriam for creating this opportunity for the sharing of our faith stories again this year.

The beautiful contributions of the 3 story tellers before me, have been so thought provoking; thank-you all for inspiring us through this Lenten season.

Patent leather shoes, inner calm, heart break, snowballs - what could they possibly have in common? They all represent some stages of my faith journey.

I was born in Botwood and lived there until I was in grade 4. Our house was just across the street from the United Church. My first memories surrounding the whole experience of church was that it was a place that required you to dress in your Sunday best !-  little white gloves then, dresses and those lovely patent leather shoes. Unlike Oliver who seemed to have a deep understanding of faith at a very early age- I afraid mine was a much more concrete view; a child’s perspective looking in on an adult world that seemed somewhat mysterious- with words everyone knew, small drinks and small pieces of bread, though not every week for some reason, and then also this lovely sense of a special quiet that I couldn’t quite identify then, but certainly recall enjoying.

There was also though an early opportunity to experience the tolerance of an adult group for a child’s mistake that is also an important memory. In other venues of adults, children’s outbursts were not always dealt with so patiently as this next situation.  For those in the congregation who are old enough to remember a certain jingle that went with a beer ad back then,… you will have an even greater appreciation for this story. All 5 of us Antle kids were sitting between mom and dad in the pews one Sunday- when my younger sister Bev was suddenly struck by the thought that she knew one of those bigger adult words- she was  probably 5 years old at the time. She called down the row as soon as she heard the minister say it – “ Dad, he said Dominion, chug a lug a mug of Dominion”!! Goodness you could certainly hear a pin drop for a moment as the minister paused for a second during the prayer before continuing on. I realize now there were a lot of suppressed smiles- but I wasn’t sure at the time if that outburst, not necessarily the words as I was only 7, but the outburst would cause the adults to be upset. Yet all that happened was the feeling that that beautiful “church quiet” was a little more noticeable for a moment. And without missing a beat, Dad just had a small smile and picked her up, quietly managing both her excitement and the need for continued head down position for prayer.

The association of calm presence and church impact continued on for me as we came to St John’s. We became members of Cochrane Street United Church. It was a welcoming place with beautiful music and Sunday school. For those who didn’t know me then –it might be hard to believe I was shy and quiet, yes quiet, in the presence of others! This is true! A little bit of a paradox for someone who at the same time like to push the limits and try new things- just nervous when doing so. So as a teenager my faith expression was very much an introspective experience. I was more apt to not reference the church, God or their impact on my life in any way- that was just a “Sunday thing”, those feeling were private and they were definitely not cool. It was embarrassing to be one of those how framed their lives with reference to Jesus. Ultimately, this extended to something I never spoke about with my friends then for many years.

Yet as I left home and went to University in Kingston ON at the age of 17, to start my degree in Physiotherapy, there was a silent pull that drew me one early Sunday morning when I was feeling a little out of place there. I went for a walk to the edge of the campus which was bordered by Lake Ontario- just a short walk from my residence. I could find no solace in the quiet lap of the water. It was just not the satisfaction of the sound of waves from the North Atlantic that I loved whenever I needed to sort things out.

Continuing on I found myself in front of a small United Church and went in. There was a lovely couple who introduced themselves after the service and when they found out that I was from NL with no one I knew in the area, well I was invited back to their house for what became my home away from home for the 4 years I was there. Again the common experience was that wonderful sense of physical calm that would come each time I sat in that lovely church with that congregation- I could block out the noise of the stress of my very busy student life.

Back in the province and working in a job I loved I thought I would feel very satisfied, yet something felt incomplete. So I reconnected with Cochrane Street Church and found the congregation was invited to help with a social action project. Interestingly enough it turned out to be a housing project for those with some disabilities that was being started elsewhere in the city- so I offered to be on the Board of Directors….maybe a little foreshadowing of things to come??

Then sudden heartache as I received a call from my husband, while working on Remembrance Day– he met me at the hospital to tell me my younger sister had been killed in a car accident in Toronto. It is the first time in my life that I felt the energy just drain out and began that inward struggle of dealing with the sadness while also trying to make sense of it all. How could it be that someone so young, so giving to others could be taken so suddenly? I had lost one of my beautiful solemates. There was a period of time that those very usual questions and feelings surfaced- I still don’t have answers as to why but somewhere along the way the focus shifted from questioning why, to seeing the good she did while here, the impact she continues to have through awards in her name and memories she created, that have caused others to aim high/do their best in their field. I don’t know exactly when this happened- it was gradual. But the most important part of this transition was letting go having to have all the answers. That somewhere, somehow I felt I was learning to let go of my usual need to make sense of all things, to have a clear understanding of purpose and facts. This shift opened me up to listening more acutely to the world around and to be receptive to different opportunities daily. It was such a relief and soul satisfying to know I didn’t have to have all the answers but instead leave myself open to being present with people, with everyday life events and to experience god’s purpose each day.

At the evening Lenten reflection session last week, I was referencing an example of how I just no longer think of some things as a coincidence – just accept there was probably an element of divine intervention. I was coming down from the ICU with the intention to pick up a piece of equipment and head right back up. Instead I over shot my floor by 1 level when walking down the stairs and instead ended up in the lobby of the hospital just as an old colleague of mine was coming out of the elevator. Her husband was back in for evaluation of a lower leg problem that has surfaced again and was causing them great upset- partly due to not fully understanding what was happening. He was visibly upset and angry. He was disappointed that something that had taken a long time to settle enough for him to start getting back to things he enjoyed doing, was now a problem again. Taking a moment with them to explain a few things, answer a few of their questions- gave them some greater understanding and perspective they both indicated was very relieving. They then headed out the door, indicating they felt so much better. This is not an isolated incident- in terms of timing and moments. I’ve come to accept I don’t have to know why but that it feels right sometimes that I don’t need to question the purpose.

The fellowship I’ve found in the church, the restoring of energy from Rev Miriams reflections,  the choir and their awesome musical contribution to the service and the beautiful moments around tea buns and snowballs in the after service tea time continue to fuel me for the week ahead. I always feel no matter what surprizes we encounter, we will find a way to reframe the moment and move forward… though the path may have a number of speed bumps and potholes on the way!

From patent leather shoes, to questioning the meaning of a sad loss, to opening up/shifting from a need to make sense of everything to just accepting being ready to see the world differently…. My faith journey has reached a point that I see many events that occur as opportunities to live out God’s grace in helping others.

It has been and continues to be an awe -inspiring, at times frustrating – yet always a rewarding beautiful journey. I am so glad to be here with all of you to be a part of this

…. So many interesting and surprising opportunities await- I hope I will always be ready to see them.    

Faith Story: Karen Critch-Chaytor

First I would like thank Rev Bowlby in allowing me to share my story of what faith means to me. I will take you back four years ago on my trip to Universal Studios on my honeymoon. It was the first day in Florida and we decided to start with Universal Studios and of all rides first we rode Dudley Doo Right a water ride. Now I did not know anything about the right but Charles insisted that it was a fun and easy ride and I went with it. We were on the ride and going around the track and every now and then we would go down a slope and that was fun but as we kept going the drops were getting bigger and bigger. I looked at Charles not that’s not so but until we started climbing more and as a looked around because we were outside I saw that we were pretty high up and the words were not out of my mouth “My were are high..” swoosh I never saw it coming but it was like we were shot out of a cannon and down what seemed like a 90 degree angle. Wow what a rush,  I have never felt so alive and pumped to ride another one and we rode many more that day. This is how I feel about faith both the highs and lows and that big swoosh at the end, now let me take you through my experiences of what faith means to me.

It first began when I was about 5 or 6 when I was asked to take part in the service, Rev Hiller was the minister here at the time. I was asked to lead in the Prayer of Approach, I was so excited to do this. I can remember being so little (not much has changed) that I needed to stand on a stool to read from the pulpit. This was the first time I read in church but would not be my last because as years went by I became much more involved in the church. Still in my younger years I became part of what was called “Explorers”, here we would meet after church was  finished and have a little bible study, make crafts and I will always remember singing  “This is my Father’s World, Mrs. Bradbury would always sing this hymn at our meetings. I still have some of the decorations we made and I hang them on our tree because it reminds me of the times we had making them. Later on I would graduate from Explores and would join CGIT know as Canadian Girls in Training in my teen years. The CGIT purpose is: As a Canadian Girl in Training, under the leadership of Jesus, it is my purpose to Cherish Health, Seek Truth, Know God, Serve Others and thus, with His help, become the girl God would have me be.

Here I would meet two lovely women whom became such an influence in my life, Elizabeth Purchase and Joan Soulier. As our leaders and mentors they showed us how to lead a service, help out in the church for example we would help with the turkey teas, I looked forward every year in working on the assembly line bright and early of course because we would have so many to do. It felt great to help with fundraisers whether big or small because I knew it helped the church. Our group also went on many road trips together,  one in particular I remember a time when we travelled to Musgravetown and met up with their youth group, we had a lot of fun that weekend shared stories, singing familiar hymns, and we made poster with all of our hands on it sympolizing our friendship bewttween the two groups. There are many more stories but these women gave me the guidance and support to continue my journey in faith.

Now, these were some of the better times that I can remember there were times when I thought my time was wasted or I did not feel like doing events. There was a time in my life that I did not want to do anything at all. I just wanted to be alone. At 17, last year in high school doing it all, school council, student council, editor of the year book, volunteer with church functions and road block. I had reached my limit of helping everyone but now someone had to help me. I had spent three months in hospital, but a familiar face would show up from time to time and it would be my minister Rev Edgar now Bursey. We would have lovely chats about life and how I felt and slowly I started to feel better and slowly introduced back into reality again. I was diagnosed as Bi Polar something I will have to live with but did not know how to come to terms with but Rev Edgar believed in me and my faith in God was mending. I finished school that year and continued to volunteer at the church but for the next 10 years it is a bit rocky. There were times I would not go at all, while other times I would be there with bells on. During these 10 years I served on the church council as the East District Representative when I learned a lot about how our church works a. I met so many people now and I even got the opportunity to go to British Colombia and representative Newfoundland as the Youth Representative I thought my faith back road block my sister passes suddenly away, I felt like shouting WHY, I was doing everything right so I thought I was helping out again. Gone again my hope was gone again. A year after that, my father passed away. I was done. Whatever spiritual feeling I had was gone. Six months after dad passed I found myself in quite a situation I was in hospital myself with a blood clot, luckily they had found it because I would have been the third person in the family in two years not my time. I had a visitor from the church while I was in hospital this was Rev Bowlby. She had made some first impression on me that day and I wanted to hear more from her. Once I got better and went on that following Christmas I knew I wanted to come back and that I had missed my church family. I then got involved on the Church Council but this time as the Treasurer, that was scary at first just like the roller coaster not knowing what was coming next. I made the best of what I knew and helped out to the best of my knowledge for 2.5 years until my work life was more challenging and my time needed there became much greater than for church and I had to make a decision to resign. I never lost my faith but I put it on hold, I did not want a repeat of 17 all over again.

 

I came back on Easter Sunday when the church reopened their doors since the renovations from the new Cochrane Centre. Wow to see all the people there it felt amazing and to hear the choir and how they sounded so good,  I missed being a part of this family ,definitely one of my swoosh moments, I wanted back so I approached the choir and asked when was practice, found out and been back ever since.  So I am back on the roller coaster feeling great road block mom passes away suddenly same day as my sisters passing. This time the feeling is different for I was there when she passed and was holding her hand as she rode on to the next life, I felt something that day that I can’t explain that her strength entered into me, and even a little birdie told me that you have your mom in you I can see it. This time I was prepared I trusted in God that this was meant to be, I was upset and angry but I felt assured that this was God’s will. This moment for sure was a test of my faith but swoosh like the roller coaster out of the cannon here I am Lord. Coming every Sunday singing in the choir and seeing & talking with everyone helps me keep my faith strong and I have hope for the future for you are as my church community have always been there and has built my faith from a very early age and will continue to do so. Faith is like a roller coaster, a ride where you do not know the outcome, where there are stops along the way, and the highs and lows of that ride; whatever the next ride brings here I am Lord.

Amen

Faith Story: Francis McNiven

I was born unwanted. The fourth child of an already too big family with an illness that stacked the odds against me. There were ten babies born with the same illness that I had, five died, four was developmentally delayed and then there was me, the only one who was passed for school. So I guess I was blessed from the very beginning. My father's mother took me in and became my Mom.

My church life was a bit different than most. We lived too far away from the church that my very religious mom was raised in but she did not know what church she wanted us to go to so we went to them all. It was the Anglican church on Sunday morning and United Church in the evening to sing in the children's choir. So it was pretty much a normal childhood until I turned 12.

Then everything changed. Mom wanted to move closer to her church. So we packed up and moved to Bay Roberts. Then slowly I began to lose everything I loved. First it was the TV and the radio. We weren't allowed to be in the girl guides or sing in the church choir anymore. Then we were not allowed to wear pants or cut our bangs any more. We were not allowed to give out candy for Halloween, or celebrate Easter. The last thing we lost was Christmas. I will never forget the sadness in my mom's eyes when they told her that their church do not celebrate Christmas. It had always been a joyous occasion for us but no more.

Turns out that my Mothers church did not celebrate anything. Their only message and goal was to prepare for death. At the tender age of 12 I was told that we are all going to die and the only way to get into heaven was to give up everything I loved, and I might not even make it in then. 

It was a heavy message for a 12 year old to take in. So as you can imagine I became very bitter resentful and angry. 

My teenage years were very difficult. I was an outcast on every side. At school I was too different and teased relentlessly and at home and at church I was not different enough and had trouble following the rules without question. It seemed that I was always fighting for what I wanted and the whole world was against me.

I was not a pleasant child. It was not until, after many years of fighting with guilt and a mental illness that lead me down many a dark road. I rejected my mom’s religion and that’s when things started to get better for me. But for a while it meant I rejected God as well. It left a hole in my life that I needed filled.

I don't know what made me come to church for the first time I think it was the sign out front. I used to walk past it and say 11 o'clock service . Gosh that isn't too late I could sleep in and still go to church. Ironically now I have to get up at 8 in the morning and take two buses. I spent years walking past the church saying to Gerard I should go to church, and him saying no you shouldn’t. He was afraid. He knew that religion and my mental Illness did not go well together.

Now he is the one who reminds me you should go to sleep you have got to go to church in the morning. He now sees the change the church has made in my life and knows it is good for me. It was the first Sunday after Christmas when I came here for the first time. I remember two things. 1. and this was to my great surprise, Christmas was not over. And 2 I was terrified. I did not know if I was allowed to be there. Was church a private club you had to sign up for to be a member?  The last time I went to a church was a long time ago.

I kept expecting someone to see me and kick me out. I sat in the last row closest to the door in case I had to make a quick escape. I was way off not only was I not kicked out I was invited to coffee time after.

That New Year’s Eve, I made the best new year’s resolution I have ever made. I was going to go to church every Sunday. Although I still will sit in the seat nearest to the door, a quick escape may still be needed. I love words. I understand them and know how powerful they can be. The words you use are very important. I was hearing words I never heard before like love and acceptance. I began to learn about peace and forgiveness. It replaces all I learned about fear and hate. It has brought me joy. I am always grateful for what I receive from this church and am glad to call it my home.

Faith Story by Oliver Dingwell

It may be a surprise to you, but when Miriam found out that I would be in St. John’s this weekend and asked me if would share my faith story, I responded with a very adamant no.

            Our wonderful tradition here at Cochrane Street of sharing our faith stories during lent was an idea that Miriam and I decided to implement during Lent 2016 and it has been a wonderful blessing to us all. The stories that have been shared here over the past two years have given us inspiration and insight, challenge and wisdom. I, too, was inspired by the words of various members of our church family and it made me think deeper about my own faith, especially as I began writing applications and lengthy essays for ordination and seminary. However, I have never felt the need, or the desire to publicly share my own story of faith. I think that probably stems from a fear of what some have described as the dirtiest and most taboo word in The United Church of Canada: evangelism.

            However, evangelism does not have to present itself in the same harmful way that we see in The United States of America, where there is an attitude of Christian supremacy, where the need and desire to convert heathens is still at the heart of many evangelical churches. Instead, evangelism can be a public witness to the power of faith in our lives, it can be a testimony to the power of love working in and through us. Evangelism can be an active living out of our faith, speaking out against the injustices of our world that prevent love from being fully realized. Evangelism doesn’t have to be a dirty word.

            I hemmed and hawed over Miriam’s proposal until I eventually decided yes. I hope that my own personal story of my experiences within the church and with my faith are of some interest to you all.

            For as long as I can remember, I have been involved in the church. I have always felt a call to ordained ministry. I legitimately cannot remember a time when the church was not a central part of life – to this day I can count on one hand all the times I missed worship on Sunday morning.

            This relationship with the church, faith, and spirituality, was not the overwhelming trend for the rest of my family. Although my maternal grandparents were faithful church goers and very active members of our home congregation, serving on session, stewards and were members of the men’s club and UCW; they were certainly the exception to the rule.

My parents and my paternal grandparents were not regular churchgoers. Although my paternal grandfather attended church most Sundays he was not heavily involved in the life and work of the church. On the other hand, my paternal grandmother’s faith can be best described as “staunch” atheist. A quick aside, the famous family story is that in her last months, Rev. Clayton Parsons (who some of you may know) came to visit her. My grandmother was not well, and as Clayton went to leave, he told her, “Joyce, if I don’t see you later, I’ll see you on the other side.”

 “Yeah, don’t count on it” was my grandmothers reply. It may have been the only time that Rev. Parsons was ever left speechless.

My parents attended church casually, probably two Sundays a month at best. They did not serve on committees or anything like that. This all changed around the time I turned two. The “terrible twos” I believe they’re called. For whatever reason, I would wake up on Sunday morning and insist that we would be going to church that day. If the answer was no, I would throw wild and now, legendary, temper tantrums. Needless to say, my parents became regular churchgoers pretty quickly – and the rest is now history, Mom now serves as the Clerk of Session and Dad as the Church Treasurer in our home congregation of Humber United in Corner Brook.

            My talent for singing was quickly becoming apparent around this time as well. The story goes that I would be walking around the house, singing (or screaming – it’s not quite clear), at the absolute top of my lungs – “O LORD MY GOD, O LORD MY GOD” over and over and over. My parents had absolutely no idea what to make of this, but it was eventually discovered that I was trying to sing the first line of the introit that my congregation used every Sunday, “How Great Thou Art.”

One year later, at the age of three, I had taken to singing solos of “How Great Thou Art” after church. The organist would gently accompany me and a small, but faithful crowd of grey-haired ladies would sit and listen to me sing the same solo week after week. Soon after this became a regular performance, I decided that I had enough experience – so at the tender age of three, I decided that it was time to join the Senior Choir. And so I did. One of the old Junior Choir gowns was altered and I proudly took my place in the choir loft along with the other members of the choir as I belted out the introit, “How Great Thou Art” each and every Sunday.

There are too many good stories from my childhood regarding church to tell you here – we would be here well into the evening if I had to regale you with all of them. The highlights include: forcing my entire family, including my atheist grandmother, to participate as I played church on Sunday evenings after family supper (complete with actual bulletins and miniature hymn boards that my father had made for me for Christmas) or instead of playing with a dollhouse or actions figures like other children, my Beanie Babies would take part in General Councils and Congregational Meetings – because that seemed perfectly normal to me. 

It was around this time that I also grew deeply suspicious of Sunday School – “why did I have to go downstairs when everyone else got to stay up there? What were they doing up there? What was I missing?” So around age six or seven I stopped going to Sunday School and stayed upstairs for the entire service – which, I think, seemed perfectly normal to the rest of the congregation, I think the only ones who were displeased may have been my parents, not because they objected to me being upstairs, but because they were the Sunday School Superintendents at the time of my revolt.

As I grew older, I was of course, confirmed and began to take on a more active leadership role in the church. At the age of twelve, I chaired my first church committee “The 50th Anniversary Committee for Humber United Church” – looking back on this, I now realize that my mother actually did most of the work, but I was immensely proud to be the chair of a committee. At the age of twelve I was also given the opportunity to lead worship and preach one Sunday when our minister was away – I was so excited for this opportunity. I can still remember that the Old Testament reading for that day was Noah and the Flood, and I compared it to the American reality show Survivor, which was at the peak of its popularity. I called Noah, “the ultimate survivor.” Looking back on the manuscript and knowing what I know now, it was a pretty terrible sermon, but… not bad for a twelve year old.

Throughout high school I took on a greater role within the church: becoming a member of session and becoming the youngest Chair of the Official Board in the history of the United Church of Canada. Also around this time, I began exploring what was happening beyond the walls of my own congregation: I took an interest in the United Church’s commitment to social justice and to living out our faith at all times, just not on Sundays, echoing the words of the Letter of James: “let us be doers of the word and not hearers only.” I started to attend district and conference meetings and sit on those committees as well, and in 2012, I served as a Commissioner to General Council in Ottawa.

When I came to University, I was misled by attending another United Church here in St. John’s (which shall remain nameless), but I eventually came to find this wonderful community here at Cochrane Street. Here I was able to grow and be supported by this congregation of wonderful people and receive mentorship, support, and lots of understanding from Miriam. It broke my heart to leave here in 2016, but I have been lucky enough to find another rich community of faith in Toronto where I can feel supported and encouraged as well, although, it will never replace Cochrane Street.

Now all of this is not to say that my experiences with the church have always been positive. I have often, especially in my earlier years, left committee meetings and church events with tears streaming down my face. There were those who discouraged and even sought to prohibit me from participating in certain aspects of church life when I was in junior high, there were those who thought that I was too involved in the church for a young person, and there were those who discredited my ideas. I have served as a verbal punching bag for clergy and laity alike, and often when I doubt myself, those screams of anger and belittlement still ring in my ears. Being this young and being this active in church means that although I have experienced the best of the church from a very young age, I have also experienced it at its worst.

It may surprise you, that more than once I have thought about leaving the church, about throwing in the towel and doing something else in life entirely. However, in my experience, the call to ministry, the call to a life of faith is like a bungee cord – each time you try and run away from that calling, you get flung back to it. Despite all the negative aspects I have experienced in the church, I have always known that God’s love is so ridiculously wide that I can never escape from that embrace.

I still have no idea what drew me to the church at such a young age or what keeps me here. Perhaps it was the fellowship, perhaps it was the music, or perhaps it was the community friendly and supportive people. Perhaps it is the unending love of God that keeps calling me back, giving me no other choice but to live my life in response to wonderful gift of unconditional love. Whatever it was, it stuck, and it continues to stick.

As I go forward in life, in ministry; my greatest hope is that I can help the church continue to operate at its best and not at its worst. To enable the church to be a place of love, compassion and caring – a place of family and belonging, for people like me, and for people like you. That is my story of faith – a story where God’s love, support, and encouragement is lived out through ordinary people doing extraordinary things. May we all know God’s love in this way. Amen.

Beloved

            I love the story of the transfiguration. It is full of mystery. There is no way to explain it or make sense of it so I’m not going to try. It is simply one of those glorious holy moments when God comes close and something amazing happens. It seems to me that it happens at just the right moment.

The disciples have been with Jesus for quite a while. They’ve heard him teach. They’ve seen him heal. They’ve watched him change the world around him. But lately Jesus has started talking about things that the disciples don’t quite understand.  And not only do they not understand it, they don’t like it. Jesus is talking about dying and being rejected and rising in three days. It was confusing for the disciples. It sounds like the end of something that has given them so much life. The disciples want to press rewind and go back to the days when Jesus was healing and teaching. It was easier. There was no shadow hanging over them. No end in sight.

            Our gospel reading begins with an invitation. Jesus invites Peter and James and John on a bit of road trip up the mountain. I imagine the disciples walking up the winding path to the top of the mountain heavy hearts because they don’t what is going on. But then Jesus was always surprising them so this was nothing new. When they finally reach the top of the mountain something extraordinary happens. It says in our reading that Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” (Mark 9:2 – 3) But it doesn’t stop there. Elijah and Moses appear. They are to Jesus. About what? The gospel doesn’t say. And Peter, well Peter just doesn’t know what to do or what to say. He, along with James and John are terrified. Not knowing what to say or do, Peter calls out, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here, let us make three dwelling places, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Mark 9:6)   The words are barely out of Peter’s mouth when a cloud overshadows them, and a voice says, “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him!” (Mark 9:7)

            These words echo the words from Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of Marks’ Gospel. It is a promise of love. Dr. Matt Skinner writes, “Because the Transfiguration is so bizarre and unusual, it can be easy to assume that we’re supposed to approach it with sober reverence and awe. But that isn’t how God views it. For God, the Transfiguration presents an opportunity to declare love for the one called “Son.” If God is capable of smiling, this would be the occasion in which that happens. I don’t see how anyone can talk of one’s “beloved” without breaking into a pleased grin.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2341)

            For one shinning holy moment Jesus stood in the glory of God basking in that love. Peter, James and John are reminded that Jesus is God’s beloved. It somehow puts all those things Jesus has been talking about death, rejection and rising into perspective. They are insignificant when they are reminded Jesus is God’s beloved. Peter fill with both terror and awe wants to hold onto this holy moment. The challenge of those holy times when God comes near to us, is that they come so quickly and are over so quickly. It says in verse 8, “Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.” (Mark 2:8) As they walk down the mountain, they are no longer worried about what comes next. They know what they must do. Listen to Jesus.

            I think that we all need those holy moments that remind us what we are about as a people of faith. It can be hard – especially when it seems like everything is going wrong. We don’t know when those holy moments are going to come. God’s love, as we will sing later, colours outside the lines and is always full of surprises. Here is what we know. God is love. God is with us in our doubt, in our sorrow and in our joy. When God calls Jesus beloved, God is reminding Jesus who he is and what he is about – love at work in the world. Jesus and the disciples, leave the holy place, God’s words echoing are echoing in their hearts. “This is son, the beloved. Listen to him.”

It’s a message for us today. For those moments when we get discouraged or when we forget that God loves us. We can remember God’s words to Jesus because they are for us too. And if we listen to Jesus and follow in his ways, then our world will be filled with loving community. Because when we love our neighbours as ourselves and we do unto others as you would have them do unto you, our world is a better place for everyone. It means safe places to live and food on the table and abundant life for all. And when the task seems daunting, we remember that each day God whispers in our ears, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased. Amen

Unclean Spirits?

The reading from Mark is one of those ones that doesn’t easily translate into our modern context. We don’t often talk about unclean spirits or demon let alone someone command that unclean spirit to leave. We see it maybe in sci-fi movies or maybe alien moves.

Just because it doesn’t easily translate to our modern world, doesn’t mean that we don’t know about unclean spirits or long for someone to command those demons to be gone. We know demons – we call them things like low self-esteem, self-doubt, anxiety, depression, perfectionism, anger, addiction to any number of things drugs, food, shopping alcohol, money. We know demons in our world, we just call them by different names. Maybe your unclean spirit is the voice inside your head that keeps telling you that you aren’t good enough as you are or maybe fear isolates you from community. Nadia Bolz-Webber Pastor, preacher and author writes, “I’ve confessed this before but I don’t always know what to do when it comes to talk about demons in the Bible.  Especially when the demons talk and have names and stuff like that. I’m never sure if back then they had the exact same things going on that we do, but they didn’t know about things like epilepsy or mental illness so they just called it all demon possession.  …But I do know that many of you, like myself, have suffered from addictions and compulsions and depression – things that have gotten ahold of us, making us do things we don’t want to. Or making you think you love things, or substances or people that are really destructive. So maybe if that, in part, is what having a demon is, maybe if it’s being taken over by something destructive, then possession is less of an anachronism, and more of an epidemic.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2013/06/demon-possession-and-why-i-named-my-depression-francis/)

Uncleans spirits or demons in our world today are those things that take us on a self-destructive path. I wonder how many of us hear wrestle with our own personal demons. I call my worry and anger and self-doubt.  What names do you call your demons?

And there are days when I wish I could tell that demon to leave me alone as Jesus did in our reading today. In our reading from Mark this morning is Jesus first public act of ministry. So far in chapter 1 we have John preparing the way, Jesus’ baptism, and forty days being tempted in the desert Satan. Jesus called his first disciples and together the go to Capernaum which is where we start today.

Jesus is in the temple and he begins to teach and everyone who hears him is amazed. They say he teaches like one with authority. He wasn’t anything like the scribes. The words of scripture came to life in new ways. As Jesus is teaching, a man enters the temple and he is filled with “an unclean spirit” (Mark 1:23) We don’t really know what that unclean spirit ways. The minute the man enters, he cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazraeth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mark 1:24) But Jesus has no part of these unclean spirits and say, “Be silent, and come out of him.” (Mark 1:25) And the unclean spirit leaves the man. And now the crowd is even more amazed.

David Lose in his commentary on this text writes, “Notice that the very first thing Jesus does in Mark’s Gospel is cast out an unclean spirit. We don’t always know exactly how to process “unclean spirit” in modern terms (and certainly want to avoid the way it has been conflated with mental illness over the centuries!), but from other passages in Mark we can easily imagine its impact and effects on the life of the man this spirit holds captive. He has likely become a danger to himself and others. If he hasn’t already, he will likely soon be socially ostracized. And we can imagine the distress of those who love him. Anguish over his plight, fear about his future. (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/01/epiphany-4-b-against-the-robbers/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28...In+the+Meantime%29)

Sound familiar? Jesus wasn’t just at work then but at work today. And Jesus stands with us and for us just as he did for that man so long ago in Capernaum. Jesus not only invites us to follow by stands up and says, “Be silent, and come out” to all those unclean spirits that hold us captive.  Our God as David Lose so eloquently puts it, is “God is opposed to anything and everything that robs [us] of abundant life” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/01/epiphany-4-b-against-the-robbers/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28...In+the+Meantime%29) Jesus, the Holy One of God, comes to bring us abundant life. It is a gift beyond measure. It is a promise that when the unclean spirits come we are not left on our own. It is not a matter of if it is a matter of when. We all face challenges – some big and some small. In all these challenges Jesus stands with us silencing those demons that do us most harm. Nadia Bolz-Webber, “I think our demons totally recognize Jesus right out of the boat and our demons are afraid of him.  Which is why they try to get us to stay away from people who may remind us how loved we are. Our demons want nothing to do with the love of God in Christ Jesus and so they try to isolate us and tell us that we are not worthy to be called children of God. And these lies are simply things that Jesus does not abide.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2013/06/demon-possession-and-why-i-named-my-depression-francis/)

Love has a way of making us whole. The love that Jesus showed to the man with an unclean spirit is the love that he shows to each one of us. As we head into this week, carry that promise in your heart and help be that face of love for friends, for family, for neighbours and strangers. Love changes us and it changes the world. It is much like the reminder I had from an article called “The radical but gentle faith of Mister Rogers” How many of you remember Mr. Roger’s neighbourhood? I grew up with his song, “Won’t you be my neighbour?” and the closing benediction, ““You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/01/30/the-radical-but-gentle-faith-of-mister-rogers/?utm_term=.d889e0f741a6) Fred Rogers was also a Presbyterian Minister. He lived his faith by reminding each of us of the importance of caring for one another. It says in the article, “ Rogers thought of the act of loving and accepting someone as your neighbor as holy business, as he said in a 2001 commencement address at Middlebury College: “When we look for what’s best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does; so in appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something truly sacred.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/01/30/the-radical-but-gentle-faith-of-mister-rogers/?utm_term=.d889e0f741a6)

Sundays we gather for that reminder that we are God’s beloved children and we can participate in the sacred act of sharing that love with others. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. That is a both gift and promise. Amen.

Fishers of People

I begin with thanks to the people who put together the lectionary. Today we have two great stories about how God calls. First, we hear about Jonah – who really doesn’t want to have anything to do with what God’s call to help the people of Nineveh. Doing exactly what God asked of him! It only took being thrown overboard and sometime in the belly of a whale. In our next reading we have the first disciples who hear nothing but, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (Mark 1:17) It seems that Simon, Andrew, James and John leap at the chance to follow Jesus. They drop everything to follow him. It is two completely different ways to respond to God’s call and God’s grace. I for one am thankful that God works with us no matter where we find ourselves.

            Today we start with Jonah. A story of God’s grace and the winner of the bible’s prize for most reluctant prophet. God says, “Go” and Jonah runs away. In his attempt to flee from God’s call he gets thrown overboard and spends “three days and three nights” in the belly of a whale. During that time Jonah prayed until finally the whale spit Jonah out on dry land.  Again, God says to Jonah, “Get u, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2) Jonah drags his feet but he goes to Nineveh. When Jonah finally arrives, you can hardly say he spoke a prophetic word with any kind of conviction. Oh yes he said the word that God asked him to speak. But I don’t think he did not put his heart into it. You might say his preaching lacked a certain amount of punch.

I imagine Jonah delivering his prophesy in the most monotone voice he could muster “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” No mention of who was doing the overthrowing. No mention that God had sent him on this mission. No talk of hope or of God’s abundant grace. Just, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” In spite of all that or perhaps because of all that the people of Nineveh listened but Jonah sulks. He is angry because he knows too much about God’s grace. Jonah plain and simple does not like the people of Nineveh. They are his sworn enemies and for him the idea that they would be saved is horrifying. On this front you cannot blame Jonah. The Syrian army was cruel. The King never relented. Some biblical scholars say that the people of Nineveh repented is more unbelievable than Jonah spending three days in the whale.

You can understand why Jonah did not want God’s grace to extend to the people of Nineveh. You can understand why Jonah said no to God and fled. The story of Jonah and Nineveh tells us everything we need to know about God’s grace. Jonah says it best in chapter four, “O Lord! Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abound in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”” (Jonah 4:2) God’s love reaches beyond our imagining and invites us to follow in our own ways.

This story is a gentle reminder that in spite of our no’s, God’s answer is always yes. God finds ways to work through us even when we are reluctant to follow or have closed our hearts to the abundant nature of God’s grace.  Jonah did not want to do as God asked, yet God still works through him to change the hearts of the people of Nineveh.

            The story of Jonah stands in stark contrast to our Gospel reading for today. Instead of running the in the other direction – Simon, Andrew, James and John drop everything and follow Jesus. It seems to me that the people of Nineveh and the story of the first disciples have more in common with one another than God’s chosen prophet Jonah and the disciples. When the people of Nineveh hear God’s word proclaimed they stop all that they are doing and repent – and not just a select few. Everyone from the King to the barn animals change their hearts and their ways as they sit in sackcloth and ashes repenting. In the same way, the disciples drop their nets, leave behind family and friends and go to pursue a new calling as fishers of people.

            As usual with the Gospel of Mark, the details are scarce. Here’s what we know. Jesus has just returned from forty days in the desert and John the Baptist has been arrested. Jesus now begins his teaching ministry “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News.” That’s all Jesus says before he walks up to Simon and Andrew and says, “Follow Me and I will make you fish for people.”  Simon and Andrew drop their nets and follow. We don’t know if they’d grown tired of fishing or if they’d known Jesus for a while. You might think that this kind of major life altering decision would take some time to make. You might think that Simon and Andrew would walk just outside of Jesus’ earshot and have a little conversation about what they should do. But that didn’t happen. They dropped everything to follow Jesus – no questions asked.

            Then the same thing happens again with James and John. Again, Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Once again, no questions asked, they drop the nets they are mending and follow Jesus. James and John even leave their father in the boat – confused by what is happening. There is something special about this story. The bible is full of people who respond in some way to God’s call.  But this story is different from the rest. The disciples just go. Jesus didn’t have to do anything to persuade them – they follow.

Often we talk about the courage it must have taken for them to go and leave everything behind not knowing what was in store for them. For me, miracle is the word that comes to mind. It is like some of the miracle stories in which Jesus says the word and they are healed. In this case Jesus says the word and they follow. Given, all the frailties and failings that come with our human natures, it really is miraculous.

            The contrast between the miraculous call of Simon, Andrew, James and John and the reluctance of Jonah gives us some balance in perspective as we all struggle to respond in faith to God’s call in Jesus Christ day by day. God still calls us today. We might be reluctant like Jonah or filled with excitement like Simon, Andrew James and John. The contrast shows that there are many ways of being faithful to God’s call but in all things God finds a way to use us and the gifts we bring. Can you hear that voice calling, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Amen

Come and See

To really understand our gospel reading from John, you need to press rewind and go back a few verses. It really begins the day after Jesus’ baptism. John is standing there with two of his disciples. Maybe John’s disciples are wondering what John was getting on with saying that there, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! …And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1: 29, 34) Maybe they are preparing for the day’s work. Maybe they are just waiting for something to happen. As they are standing there Jesus walks by and John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:37)

            John’s two disciples follow Jesus so they can figure out what John is talking about. When Jesus notices them following him, he says, “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38) The two answered by asking, “where are you staying?” [Jesus] said to them, “Come and see.” (John 1:38 – 39) They did just that. I’m not sure what they saw or what they did during that day. We only know that one of the two was Andrew and Andrew’s brother is Simon Peter. Inspired by what he saw that day, Andrew boldly tells his brother, “We have found the Messiah.” (John 1:41) Then Andrew brings his brother to see Jesus. Jesus takes one look at Simon and says, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).” (John 1:42)

            It is almost miraculous how Jesus calls the first disciples – it begins with looking for something and an invitation to come and see. And when they see what Jesus is about they drop everything and him. It is only after the calling of Andrew and Simon Peter that we arrive at our reading for today.

Our reading starts the next day when Jesus decides to go to Galilee. This is where Jesus finds Philip and says him, “Follow me” and Philip does without hesitation. Philip finds Nathaniel and tells him the amazing news about Jesus being the Messiah. Now we hit the first road block. Nathaniel is skeptical. Oh he hears Philip telling him about Jesus and how they have found the Messiah in Jesus, son Joseph of Nazareth. All Nathaniel says is “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

            It’s a bit rude – playing on stereotypes and preconceived notions about people from a particular place. It’s sarcastic. It implies that there is no way Philip is telling the truth. Nathaniel is a sceptic. Philip doesn’t get mad. He simply repeats the invitation he received from Jesus, “Come and See”

            It’s a powerful invitation – especially since it seems that so many people are looking for something more. I’ve found often wondering or looking for something that gives more meaning. Perhaps you’ve been there too.  I think most of us can identify with that search for deeper meaning can’t we? As a society it seems that we are all searching for something whether it is meaning, or hope, or a new way of living, or that “thing” that will help everything else make sense. It reminds me of one of U2’s great hits “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”


I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was one empty night
I was cold as a stone
But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for
But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for

I believe when the Kingdom comes
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
But yes I'm still running.
You broke the bonds
You loosened the chains
You carried the cross
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I believed it
But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for

We are looking for “that something” that puts everything in perspective. I read an article in Christianity Today this week about the “new monasticism.” It is Christian monastic communities where people become “monks” but the target age is 20 – 35 and you commit to a year instead of a lifetime. In these communities they learn the ancient practices of prayer that have stood the test of time. The new monastic communities are attracting the people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Perhaps if Nathaniel were living today he would be spiritual but not religious. In the article it says “'There is a deep spiritual yearning for substance and depth,' says Rev Ian Mobsby of St Luke's Camberwell in Peckham, London. 'But people immediately assume the church has nothing to offer to that. That is why people call themselves spiritual and not religious.'  'People are asking, "What are the anchors to life? What is life about?"' he says. 'New monasticism is trying to say to a world increasingly interested in spirituality that Christianity has a lot to say.'” (https://www.christiantoday.com/article/new-monasticism-why-are-so-many-young-people-choosing-to-become-temporary-monksupdate1/123897.htm)

            I think that the heart of Jesus’ invitation. It is like Jesus says to us, “Come as you are with your questions and your doubts and concerns and see what I am about.” Jesus didn’t really answer Nathaniel’s questions but Jesus somehow sees him as he is. Philip asks Nathaniel to come and see. When Jesus sees Nathaniel coming he says, “Here is truly and Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47) The Message translates this phrase, “There’s a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body.” (John 1:47) Nathaniel couldn’t hide his questions or doubts or that he did not believe Philip’s proclamation that Jesus was indeed the One, the Messiah that they had been waiting for.

            You can imagine that Nathaniel’s reaction to statement about his was just as direct. “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (John 1:48) I’m not sure what happened for Nathaniel in that moment but something big happened. The next words out of his mouth are, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49) It is amazing.

Jan Schnell Rippentrop writes, “Nathaniel is not one of those folks whose faith developed gradually. He is one who was also himself startled when the reality of Jesus snapped unexpectedly into focus. There is something about that fig tree remark that made who Jesus is clear for Nathaniel. The reader does not get to be privy to what exactly transformed Nathaniel’s view of Jesus. What is clear is that epiphanies of the Christ come to different people in such drastically different ways that it can even be incomprehensible.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3529)

We come to faith in a variety of ways. For some it is just like it was for Nathaniel one-minute doubting and asking questions and then next minute full of conviction. For others it is a lifetime of questions and answers and gradually coming to believe. A friend of mine once describe the different ways of as faith as deep fryer faith and slow cooker faith –both create something beautiful.

Jesus invites us all to come and see. It is not an invitation rooted in the past but one that is given each day. With that invitation comes the promise that Jesus sees us just as we are and invites us to be about God’s work in the world. We come as we are with all our questions, fears, beliefs, doubts, joys and see what Jesus is about in our lives, community and world. Jesus to us today, “Come and see.” Amen. 

Baptism of Jesus

            I’ve been a minister for almost 17 years now. There are many things I love about the work I do but there is one thing that is always a joy for me – baptism. I enjoy meeting with the families and hearing about their little miracle and hearing about the challenges and blessings of being parents. But perhaps the part that I love the most is standing with person being baptised, placing water on their heads and reminding them that they are God’s beloved child. Every time I do baptism, I have the privilege of offering blessing in God’s name. It is a reminder to us that each one of us is special in God’s circle of love. We all are beloved children of God. The beautiful thing about baptism whether it is a baby, an older child, a teenager or a senior – is that it pure gift. You don’t have to earn the promise of God’s love. It is yours. It is mine. It is ours. No need to strive, or earn or be a certain way. God’s love is pure gift. And in our world where there is a price attached to everything or people have do or be a certain way to be accepted this is priceless.

            I think this is why Mark in his gospel gets straight to what is important. In Mark’s gospel there is no Christmas story. There are no angels or shepherds or dreams or genealogies because none of that matters to Mark. He says it in the first line of the gospel. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Then we meet John, clothed in camel hair and eating nothing but locusts and honey. He is a teacher and prophet called to prepare the way for Jesus. In this morning’s reading John is preaching about a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4)

            It sounds daunting doesn’t it? Repentance and sins are words with baggage. But repentance is about turning in a new direction and living in a new way. Sins are all those things that separate us from the love of God. Different perhaps for each one of us. They are the things that prevent us from remembering that we are God’s beloved. John is teaching and preaching to all who will listen about a new way living and a new of drawing closer to God. One day as the crowds are gathered, John says “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptised you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”(Mark 1:7 – 8)

            The very next words of the gospel are, “In those days Jesus of Nazareth of Galilee was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from haven, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9 – 11) With that, Jesus begins his public ministry of teaching and healing.

            That is the starting place for all of us to. We are God’s beloved children and God is well pleased with us. This past year, we started hearing the hopes and prayers of parents as they bring their children for baptism. Each family offers something different but they are all grounded in a deep love for their children. One family wrote, “Our hopes and prayers for our daughter are that she is healthy in mind, body and spirit. We hope to raise her in a supportive community of family, friends and neighbors - where she feels protected and supported, encouraged and challenged, and treated with respect. We pray that she learns and reflects Christian values in her everyday life: that she has optimistic faith, patience and peace; that she is thoughtful, confident and brave; lives with intention and purpose; gives thanks and finds happiness from within and shares that happiness with the world.”

            David Lose writes, “In Holy Baptism God just chooses us. …God says that we are enough. Already. That we are pleasing to God and deserve to be loved. And that identity of being God’s beloved child – precisely because it is established by God – cannot be taken away from us or, for that matter, lost by us. Rather, God continues to come into our lives to call us beloved and blessed and promise once again to be always both with us and for us. That promise and blessing, in turn, helps us face all the challenges we mentioned earlier. Problems at home or in the community, concerns about the world or our personal lives. We can face whatever might be plaguing us with greater confidence knowing that God is on our side.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/01/epiphany-1-b-powerful-words-for-a-new-year/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28...In+the+Meantime%29)

            As each one of us meets the challenges of this day, this week, this month we are reminded that faith is not a magical cure all but the constant reminder that God is with us lightening the burden and providing hope. Any challenges we face we do so with God’s help and the support with support from our community of faith. With the words beloved ringing in our ears each and every new day, we are called to be about God’s work in the world. And there are so many ways to respond but they are all grounded in a new way of living that is rooted in God’s grace. This makes all things possible. Rooted God’s love, Jesus showed us what that new way of living looked like. It was the face of compassion. It was mercy. It was grace. It was life giving. It was healing. It was hope.

We are invited to be about that work of compassion, mercy, grace, living-giving, healing, and hope. When we feed those who are hungry we proclaim the good news that God is with us. When we walk in the shadows with those who are lost and hurting we offer the light of new life. When we support our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our lives proclaim the good news that we are all God’s beloved children. It is the promise that comes with baptism and that has called us and claimed us as Christ’s own everyday since. 

            Baptism is a new way of living. Mark knew that. He knew that there could be no better way to start the story of Jesus’ life than on the day of his baptism. Today, we are God’s beloved and with us God is well pleased. Amen 

Home by Another Road

            Depending on where you live in the world, it depends on what yesterday gets called. Here we call it Old Christmas Day – one last chance to celebrate the joy of the Christmas Season. For Orthodox and Eastern Christians, yesterday was Christmas Eve and today is Christmas Day. It was also the Feast of the Epiphany – the day the Magi from the east arrive bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. I always love this day – maybe because it is like one last chance to delve into the Christmas Story but I think mostly because I admire those travelers from the east. They came not knowing what would happen or who they would meet along the way.

            Think about what they did. These wise ones who study the stars noticed something in the sky that made them curious. They’d never seen this particular star before. It wasn’t in any of their charts. Their curiosity led to follow a star to parts of the world perhaps they’d only imagined. As they travelled following that star, perhaps they talked among themselves about the meaning of the star. What is the universe saying to us? They landed on royalty.

So much so that they when they arrive in Jerusalem they start asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:2) In the palace King Herod hears about the visitors from the East looking for the one born to be king of the Jews and Herod and all Jerusalem are frightened.

King Herod was not someone to be trifled with. He was about power and he was politically savvy. He built an empire and somehow, he kept the peace with religious establishment and the engagement of those who were not Jewish. Herod was shrewd and cunning. In her commentary on this passage Jan Schnell Rippentrop writes, “This man, who had spent his whole life climbing to the political height he had achieved, is unlikely to favorably receive news that a baby is to be born with a right to Herod’s rule. Furthermore, Herod is used to getting rid of people who don’t serve his ambition. He:

had ten wives,

ordered multiple assassinations, including assassinations of some of his own sons, and,

changed succession plans multiple times as he decided who would take his throne when he died.

When Herod heard that a baby could get in the way of his plans, he defaulted to his regular pattern of figuring out how to execute the problem child.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3523)

So you can understand why all Jerusalem was frightened by the news that the Magi were bringing. For Herod this was a threat to his power and when Herod felt threatened so did everyone. What is important to note is the difference between Herod’s kingship which brings terror and God’s kingship which comes as a baby filled with love. When the chief priest and the scribes quote form the book of Micah telling Herod that the king is born in Bethlehem, he says to the Magi, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:8)

The Magi, undaunted by their search to find the ones whose star they say at its rising, go to Bethlehem. There they find Jesus with his mother. The kneel and pay him homage and offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Magi, attuned to every sign, are warned in a dream not to return to Herod so, as it says in Matthew, “They left for their own country by another road.” (Matthew 2:12) And they were right to do so. What happens next is what happens when those in power feel threatened. He searched out all those who might supplant him as king and killed them. Joseph was also warned in dreamed not to return to his home. He took Mary and Jesus and they flee to Egypt.

            It scary and terrifying part of the Christmas story in Matthew. One we don’t often tell or read about. We talk about the arrival of the Magi, but we don’t often talk about the courage that it took for the to defy Herod and take that unknown road back to their home. Like most endings, it is also a beginning. The beginning of journey for the Magi as they travel home by that new road. Herod did not have the last word. The Magi, trusting their dreams, head home by different road and just maybe they got the courage to defy Herod because they met Jesus who changes everything.

As we contemplate how we live in light of the good news of Jesus’ birth, we too can take a page out of the Magi’s book, and travel home by a different road. It is the road that calls us to be bold in caring, to stand up against injustice and to be a voice for those who need it. It is an uncertain road, but it is the one that will take us home.

Jan Richard writes this poem called Blessing of the Magi

 

There is no reversing
this road.
The path that bore you here
goes in one direction only,
every step drawing you
down a way
by which you will not
return.

 

You thought arrival
was everything,
that your entire journey
ended with kneeling
in the place
you had spent all
to find.

 

When you laid down
your gift,
release came with such ease,
your treasure tumbling
from your hands
in awe and
benediction.

 

Now the knowledge
of your leaving
comes like a stone laid
over your heart,
the familiar path closed
and not even the solace
of a star
to guide your way.

 

You will set out in fear
you will set out in dream

but you will set out

by that other road
that lies in shadow
and in dark.

We cannot show you
the route that will
take you home;
that way is yours
and will be found
in the walking.

But we tell you
you will wonder
at how the light you thought
you had left behind
goes with you,
spilling from
your empty hands,
shimmering beneath
your homeward feet,
illuminating the road
with every step
you take.

            The Magi come from East, from the direction of the rising sun, bearing gifts for the one who is the light of the world. At the dawn of this new year, let us remember, that no matter the challenges we face, that Jesus who brings light and life to this world, is strength and courage and grace for all the roads we travel. May the light that shines from the stable illuminate every path your travel. Amen.