spiritual

Dani Fry Faith Story March 17th

Before discovering the United Church a little over 3 years ago, I grew up in the Anglican Church and attended with my family every sunday. My father was anglican, and my mother was roman catholic. I dutifully went to Sunday School, and when the time came, I was confirmed. I believed in God but I had very little interest in Church. I found the hymns boring, half the time I was daydreaming, and as I got older I noticed there really weren’t many people my age attending. In order to truly share my faith story with you, I have to tell you a fact about myself. I am a transgender person, which means that I identify as a gender other than what I was assigned at birth.

I never questioned my beliefs until I started questioning my sexuality in grade 9. While I thought God was an all loving being, the internet and people in my community made it clear that Gods love didn’t include the LGBTQ community. All these hateful comments I was hearing, were all made in the name of God. So I lost my faith. I wasn’t going to spend my time trying to please people who preached about love for God and others on Sunday, but were full of hate and judgement for anyone who was different every other day of the week. So my dad kept asking me to go to Church with him, and I always gave the same answer. No.

Fast forward a few years and I’m attending college. By this time I’m proudly out of the closet, identifying as a lesbian and overall happy. One day I’m in class, and I overhear a comment. “Why would someone live in sin and go against God?” Although this wasn’t said to me, it was very obvious that it was directed at me. I held my tongue, sat back, and carried on with my day.

It was at this point however, that I wasn’t just a non-believer anymore. I was the one who became hateful and intolerant of any mention of Christianity and organized religion.

But most things in life eventually come full circle, and now my eyes have been opened to how God truly works in mysterious ways. A little over 3 years ago I met my partner Katie. You know her as the Sunday School teacher here at Cochrane, and she is also attending university with the goal of becoming an Ordained Minister. When we first met I was shocked and couldn’t understand how a member of the LGBTQ community could be so passionate about Jesus and the Church.

A couple of months into our relationship Katie asked me to go to Church with her. Hesitantly I agreed, and that first Sunday I walked into St. James United Church, was the start of the happiest years if my life. There were pride flags on the doors, and I was greeted warmly by everyone I was introduced to. They even tried to get me to participate in a play that was happening during the service.

I attended church more and more, and slowly I began to regain my faith. I started to believe that God could love me. I opened myself up to the United Church community because if I wanted to support my partner in her life goals as a leader within the United Church I had to stop letting hate poison my life.

I gradually began to to help out and take on a more active role myself. I helped out with fundraisers, and with the Youth Group, and Sunday School as well. I began to enjoy the community around me.

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About 2 years ago I became an official member of the United Church. I attended my first national event in Montreal called Rendezvous, where people from all over the country come together to attend workshops and celebrate their faith. I met other members of the LGBTQ community, some of which are ministers, and heard their stories of how they accepted and define their relationship with God. I also had the opportunity to walk in the Montreal Pride Parade with the Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell, who is the previous Moderator of the United Church, and her partner. Which was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity.

I have also begun to take on more leadership roles within the Church. Last winter I was a homegroup leader for a handful of youth during the Winter Gathering Youth Forum that took place in Paris, Ontario, which helped to prepare them for General Council 43 in Oshawa this previous summer. It was a challenging experience. To put your needs aside and provide youth with a safe space to share about their day, to talk through their feelings and their struggles. But it was so rewarding to provide them with that mental and emotional support, to know that while they are miles away from their families, they are looking to you to provide them with comfort and stability.

It was through these events that I met some of the most inspirational people. People from all over the country that I can now call my friends. It was with their help that when I came out as transgender, I received unconditional support and love from them, than I have from even some members of my family. And for a while, it was the Church community that provided me with comfort and stability, while I endured hardship with some of my closest relatives. These people are the ones who truly opened my eyes,

with their help I was able to stop listening to hateful comments, made by so-called Christians, and my heart was opened to the Holy Spirit. I truly believe that by placing Katie in my path, which led me to the United Church, that God was trying to tell me that I was loved unconditionally, and I too had a spot at his table.

While you know how I came to be part of a Christian community, it doesn’t explain what having faith means to me. Although the United Church is open and accepting on a national level, not everyone is going to be as welcoming, there are still going to be homophobic and transphobic people. People are still going to think I’m an abomination because I’m trans, and they’re still going to think that I’m not living my life the way God wanted me to.

So how did I learn to block out those voices while exploring my faith? The easiest way to explain is from something I read online. Jesus said follow me, he didn’t say follow Christians. People have a way of inserting their own feelings and prejudices into things, and if they want to hate you, they’ll find a quote from the Bible that can be loosely translated to fit their needs. Just remember that the Bible has been translated into hundreds of different languages, and interpreted time and time again. Meanings were bound to be lost. At the end of the day when we all leave this earth, we are going to face the same judgement, and I refuse to believe that living authentically means that I’m any less devoted to God.

People also say that because we are all made in Gods image, I’m doing him an injustice by changing my voice and my body. Yes we are all made in Gods image, but we are all different. There are billions of people on this earth and each one of us is

unique. I think that as long as we try to do good and spread positivity to others and our communities then our souls are pure, and we truly live in God’s image and likeness.

Faith can be found in many different ways, it doesn’t have to mean going to church every Sunday. It doesn’t even mean having to believe in God, you can have faith in the goodness of people. My journey of faith has been rocky at best, I went from being a non-believer to finding acceptance in a community that I am proud to be a part of.

When Rev. Miriam asked me to share my faith story with you today, she also told me to pick a hymn that I would like for us to sing. I chose Spirit, Open my heart from more voices. I first heard this hymn while attending Rendez-Vous in Montreal in 2017, I feel as though this hymn is a good reflection of my faith journey and how my heart has been opened to the United Church and its amazing community.

Holy Moments

It is hard for me believe that this is roughly my fifth time going through the 3 year lectionary cycle of readings and probably my 15th time preaching on the Transfiguration. As I was getting ready for today, I took some time to read over what I’ve written before and I found a pattern. Just about every year I’ve preached on this holy and mysterious moment, I say that I don’t know what to say and then spending ten minutes telling you something. I think it reflects my struggle to explain something that at is heart is mystery. I both love and dread preaching on this passage. I love it because it is a mystery and I can’t explain what happens in those holy shining moments and I dread it because I can’t explain what happens in those holy shining moments. 

There is a beauty in mystery, in what we know to be true but can’t explain. We know these holy moments happen. Both back them and today. We don’t talk about those special times very often. But I now many people have encounters with God that leaves them changed. They are moments leave their mark on their lives. It is perhaps those stories of faith we share only with those closest to us for fear of being ridiculed or told it just couldn’t haven’t happened. The same was true for the disciples in our gospel reading, they didn’t tell anyone what happened on the mountain with Jesus. Whether it was fear of telling others or just wanting to keep that moment special. 

 For the disciples, it started out as an ordinary day. Jesus invites the disciples to come with him to pray. This was nothing new. Jesus often took time away from the crowds to pray to recharge his batteries. Peter, James and John went with him up the mountain to pray. While Jesus is praying something amazing happens. Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white and the appearance of his face changes. In that moment, Jesus comes face to face with the eternal and living God. Jesus face was changed in front of the disciples’ eyes. It says in our scripture reading that Jesus stood on the mountain top praying and as he prayed not only did his face and clothes change . Then Moses and Elijah appear. 

 Luke says that as Jesus was talking with Moses and Elijah they “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:31) Luke is pointing us to Jerusalem and reminding us that without Jesus’ death and resurrection none of this means anything. The miraculous event on the mountain top marks the beginning of Jesus journey to Jerusalem. The focus of Jesus ministry is now on what he knows he must do. As he heads to Jerusalem Jesus carries with him the wisdom of the prophets and God’s deep and abiding love.

And the disciples nearly miss it all because they almost fall asleep! Somehow, they managed to keep their eyes open to see Moses and Elijah and Jesus turn dazzling white. Then Peter has an idea. Luke writes, “Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"” (Luke 9:33) Then they are overshadowed and surrounded by the clouds and they hear these words, “This is my son, my chosen. Listen to him.” (Luke 9:35) A blessing for the road that lies ahead. 

We know there is deep truth in the story because when God comes so close we are changed – we are transfigured. Frederick Buchner writes, “It is as strange a scene as there is in the Gospels. Even without the voice from the cloud to explain it, they had no doubt what they were witnessing. It was Jesus of Nazareth all right, the man they'd tramped many a dusty mile with, whose mother and brothers they knew, the one they'd seen as hungry, tired, footsore as the rest of them. But it was also the Messiah, the Christ, in his glory. It was the holiness of the man shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it they were almost blinded. Even with us something like that happens once in a while. The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it's almost beyond bearing.” http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2017/8/7/transfiguration?rq=transfiguration

            God’s healing, helping, grace filled, loving, abiding presence comes at the most unexpected time and yet somehow exactly the right time. They are brief moments of wonder. Sometimes it is a dream that brings peace. Sometimes it is the feeling of not being alone. Sometimes it being surround by a warms light. Sometimes it beauty. Whatever and however it happens there’s a sense that God has come close and life is changed.

Just like Jesus and the disciples, we need those holy moments of mystery so we can continue our journey. We can say that God has somehow come to us, to help us as we do the difficult work of living our faith daily. That holy moment on the mountain is just as much for the disciples as it was for Jesus. The moment on the mountain confirms for Peter, James and John that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. It equips them for the road that lies ahead.

            Surrounded by the glory of this holy moment, we too begin the inward journey to Jerusalem. Lent is our time of reflection and going deeper in our own faith. Nourished by gifts of bread and wine we head on this journey. Roddy Hamilton in his poem “Eyes to See Blessing” offers this blessing for the road ahead. 

Not all is as it seems:
there is a glory hidden in everything
waiting to be revealed
to the eyes of those who believe
beyond what seems inevitable
who do not want to live in the status quo
but in the promises of God.

Hold onto the vision
as we turn towards lent
and walk the more difficult path;
there is yet a greater glory
still to be revealed.
Go in peace,
Go in hope,
Go in love. 

Amen

Learning From Jesus

            Sometimes, I would like to sit down with Jesus and just ask him questions about what he means. Today’s reading for example, we get the second half of the sermon on the plane. And it asks us to do some pretty hard, maybe impossible things. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to help those who hurts us, bless the people who curse us and pray for those who abuse us, turn the other check if someone strikes us, give what you have to everyone, if anyone takes what you have give it to them. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:27 – 31 paraphrase) And all I want to do is ask Jesus how this is possible? How do you love the one who is cruel to you? How do you love your enemies? Do you really want to us to forgive the person who bullied us or give what have to others if they beg? Because I’m not really sure I’m up to the task. 

            I’m pretty sure I’m not alone when it comes to feeling not up to the task. In many ways it is easier to dismiss Jesus’ teaching. Dr. David Lose writes, “It occurred to me when reading this familiar passage how easy it is to dismiss Jesus’ words. We might dismiss it by assuming Jesus is setting up an impossible command, forcing us to admit our need, sin, brokenness (or however you choose to define it) and driving us to the good news of Jesus’ promise of forgiveness and grace. (I’ll admit I think of this as the Lutheran option.) Or we might dismiss it as the naïve instructions of a dreamer, someone who’s head was always in the clouds, someone who clearly didn’t understand how the world really works. (I think of this as the cynical option.) And sometimes we dismiss it by assuming we actually follow it pretty well (which, of course, takes a fair amount of self-delusion) and taking on the responsibility, burden (and, I suspect, secret delight) of making sure others are following it. (I think of this as the pietist – whether liberal or conservative – option.)” (http://www.davidlose.net/2019/02/epiphany-7-c-command-or-promise/)

But then I think about the world we live in today and it seems to me that we need more loving others and treating others as we want to be treated and less focus on divisions. It seems that there are so many ways to divide up people, communities in and indeed the world. Sometimes the dividing lines are in jest – like townie and baymen. But it also represents real tensions between recourses allocated to rural areas and urban areas. We also live in Canada, part of North America but not The United States of America or South America. We even divide our world up between developed countries and developing countries. There are divisions along racial, religious and ethnic lines. We would like to think that Canada is immune to the rising levels of racism and intolerance. But we aren’t. Many Indigenous communities do not have access to basic necessities like clean drinking water and safe housing. Our prison population is disproportionately filled with indigenous and other minorities. Just the other day there was a CBC news article about someone who was flying a flag in their backyard with a swastika on it. (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/pei-nazi-flag-swatiska-jewish-community-upset-1.5030081)

Right here in our own city of St. John’s Hasan Hai, who along others helped raise over 200, 000 with the Merb’ys Calendar talked about how he faces racism on a regular basis. Whether it is being told to go back to the country he came from or being told he looks like a terrorist. Here is some of what he said to CBC news, “But Hai said it doesn't matter how much good he tries to do in his community, he will always live with the knowledge that hatred, bigotry and racism exist. "That's life. No matter what I do, no matter what successes and accomplishments I have in my life, I will be seen by some people as a terrorist and as a hateful being. And it's sad, but it's not a shock for me," Hai said. "It always hurts, but it's never surprising."

 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/hasan-hai-racist-facebook-comments-1.5023426

            It is in the face of these challenges that do so much damage to individuals and communities that we need to find a new way of living because these divisions are causing suffering and pain in our community and world. Dr. Karoline Lewis in her column, Dear Working Preacher, writes, “Last week, this tweet popped up in my Twitter feed:

Jesus didn’t call it “social justice.” He simply called it Love. If we would only Love our neighbors beyond comfort, borders, race, religion and other differences that we’ve allowed to be barriers, “social justice” would be a given. Love makes justice happen. — Be A King (@BerniceKing)

            And isn’t that what Jesus is trying to teach us today. When we love others the wrongs of this world can get righted. Jesus also lived in a time of great divisions. He was part of community that we ruled by the Roman Empire who were oppressive. Many people thought that Jesus was there to save them from tyranny of Roman rule. Many of the people that Jesus was teaching that day suffered because of Roman rule. 

            Jesus’ teaching is really inviting us to live into a whole different kind of world. Dr. David Lose writes, “Jesus isn’t offering a set of simple rules by which to get by or get ahead in this world but is inviting us into a whole other world. A world that is not about measuring and counting and weighing and competing and judging and paying back and hating and all the rest. But instead is about love. Love for those who have loved you. Love for those who haven’t. Love even for those who have hated you. That love gets expressed in all kinds of creative ways, but often come through by caring – extending care and compassion and help and comfort to those in need – and forgiveness – not paying back but instead releasing one’s claim on another and opening up a future where a relationship of – you guessed it! – love is still possible.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2019/02/epiphany-7-c-command-or-promise/

            Now isn’t this the kind of world we want to live in? We may not be able to sit down and ask Jesus questions, but that invitation to love our enemies and treat others as we want to be treated is life and world changing. Fortunately, we don’t have to struggle with following Jesus words on our own – we do it with our brothers and sisters here and around the world. Just as Jesus gathered with the crowds on that level plane so long ago, he gathers with us today, painting a picture of a different kind of world. Jesus invites us to be the artists of this new world. Changing the world is not easy but it begins with acts of love, caring, compassion and forgiveness. And when we lose our way, which we will, Jesus reaches out with grace inviting us to try again. By God’s grace, with God’s help, all things are possible. Love will change the world. Amen. 

Our Mission

I’m taking a bit of a risk this morning – last week we heard Part One of the story of Jesus’ return to his home in Nazareth and this morning Astrid read Part Two. The risk is of course that I know that there are visitors here today who didn’t get to hear part one. But then Jesus risked getting thrown off a cliff as he preached, so I’m taking a chance because this story is too good to miss. First the recap for so we are all ready for what comes next:

After Jesus baptism and 40 days and nights of being tempted in the desert, Jesus begins to teach and heal. The word about Jesus is spreading and his fame is growing. On this particular day, Jesus goes to his hometown. On the Sabbath morning, as he always did when he was home, he went to the synagogue. When he gets there, he is invited to read from the book of the prophet Isaiah what he reads is akin to Jesus mission statement for his ministry. He says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18 – 19) He sits down and adds, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:20)

In part one we reflected about how we too are invited to be part of Jesus’ mission by helping others. Today, in part two we get to hear what the hometown crowd thinks of Jesus’ message. When he was reading everyone’s eyes were on him. They were waiting to hear what he was going to say next. After he finished reading Luke writes, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” (Luke 4:22)

But something shifts. It’s hard to know what happened and Luke doesn’t really tell us. But it seems that in a moment it went from being amazed at his gracious words to the whispers. “Isn’t that guy, the carpenter’s son? Is that Joseph’s boy? Didn’t we watch him grow up?” Before long the whispers are so loud that Jesus catches on to what is happening. It’s the kind of thing we can imagine happening in our own communities today. The one who makes it big and comes home. Everyone is wondering if they will get a chance to see what he or she can do. Or maybe it’s the extended family gathering where the one who’s been away for a while comes to the family reunion. Everyone is whispering about it. As Jesus sits in the synagogue, as the whispering gets loud enough to hear, there is a scene – eyes roll and blood pressures rise.

Jesus says loud enough to be heard above the whispers, “Doubtless you will quote this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ … ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’” (Luke 4:23 – 27)

And that was it. The crowds were furious. They couldn’t believe that Jesus refused to show them what he could really do. There would be not teaching or healing in Nazareth today. They drove him out of town to a cliff and they were ready to throw him off that cliff when somehow Jesus passed through the crowd.

It’s a big change from being amazed at gracious words to nearly throwing Jesus off a cliff. Here’s my best guess at what happened that day. Jesus knows what his mission is. It is about sharing God’s love with everyone. Not just friends and family but everyone – including the people they don’t know or like. At first Jesus’ words sound gracious because who doesn’t want to hear about release for captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed and the year of God’s favour? It all sounds wonderful.

The challenge comes when it’s clear that these are more than words Jesus is saying to sound good. Jesus is living these words. He is telling them that God’s love is for everyone. No exceptions. And that each one of us has a part to play in showing that love. This is scary for people because it means change. It means giving up something of what you have for others. Fear made them wonder what Jesus message would mean for them and what they would lose. I think they were so afraid that it made them angry enough to want to throw Jesus off that cliff.

There were others there that day too. I think they heard what Jesus was saying and didn’t let fear win. These are the people who could imagine a different kind of world. They are the ones that know that Jesus is saying no to fear and to scarcity and yes to making sure that love, the kind of love that Paul talks about that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things is there everyone who needs it. These are the ones that helped Jesus slip out of that angry mob so he could continue to teach and heal.

Sometimes I think we forgot the power of love. We fail to see how offering release or sight or freedom can make a difference to a whole community. One church in the Netherlands never lost sight of this. At the beginning of December, I told you about Bethel Church that started hold a church service on the 28thof October to in order to protect a family from deportation. Bethel Church held a service 24 hours a day for 96 days until the government changed its mind. Pastor Derk Stegeman spoke to As It Happens on Friday night. He said it that many people helped make this possible include a1000 of pastors and 15, 000 visitors. It made it possible for the service to keep going for 96 days. Ten days ago the biggest party changed its mind. Now 700 refugee cases will be reassessed. Pastor Stegeman says, “So that's really a miracle. It's just by singing, and praying and preaching that this happened.” (https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/it-s-a-miracle-dutch-church-ends-24-7-asylum-vigil-as-family-granted-reprieve-1.5002110)

This church knows the mission that started with Jesus – release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed and they lived it in a powerful way. They stood up stood up against racism and by the power of prayer they not changed the minds of members of the community and politicians but they helped the Tamrazyan family and many others.

What Jesus started that day in his hometown is now our mission to live each day. Let that love that brings release, sit to the blind, freedom to the oppressed be our way every hour of every day because with God, all things are possible. Amen.

Today It is Fulfilled in your Hearing

            Let me set the scene for our gospel reading today. It wasn’t that long ago that Jesus was standing at the river Jordan as John Baptised him. The heaven’s opened up and a voice from heaven says, “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) Then filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus heads to the desert for forty days where he is tempted by the devil. Then Luke writes, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4: 13) 

            After his forty days in the desert, Jesus returns to Galilee. We don’t know much about what Jesus was doing. But the first line of our reading says, “a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” (Luke 4:14 – 15) The next stop on Jesus’ teaching tour is his hometown. He arrives at the synagogues on the sabbath day as he always did. The attendant hands Jesus the scroll from the book of Isaiah. Jesus unrolls the scroll and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18 – 19) With these powerful words, Jesus rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant and with the eyes of everyone in the room looking at him, Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearting.” (Luke 4:21)

            In many ways these are the first words we have from Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. The word about him had been spreading him around the community but we don’t really know what Jesus is teaching or saying to the crowds. Our reading today gives a glimpse as to why the word about Jesus is spreading. Jesus is telling people that there is hope. 

As I was reading from Luke, I started thinking that the passage Jesus quotes from Isaiah is much like his personal mission statement. Jesus says it so clearly as he looks at the crowd, “Today these words are coming true in your hearing.” That takes a deep sense of calling. The spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus and he knows what he is supposed to do: bring good news to the poor, release to captives, freedom to the oppressed, recovery of the sight to the blind and lastly to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. It’s a pretty big mission but we don’t get the sense that Jesus is worried about that. Indeed, as we read through the gospel we will find examples of Jesus living out this mission. 

            Here are some highlights 

·     He cures a man of leprosy which meant he could rejoin the community – no longer a captive (Luke 5) Indeed throughout the gospels Jesus heals people and restores them to community whether it is a hemorrhaging woman or someone who is deaf. 

·     Reminds us that best way to treat one another is to “Do to others as you would have them do to you." (Luke 6:31) or reminds us with the parable of the good Samaritan that we are to love our God with all that we have and our neighbour as ourselves (Luke 10)

·     He calms the storm on the sea (Luke 8)

·     He casts out demons bringing (Luke 8)

·     With five loaves and two fish he feeds a crowd that is hungry both for spiritual food and real food (Luke 9) 

·     Like the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus reminds us that he is the good shepherd who will always seek us out (Luke 15)

·     Jesus says, “Sell all that own and distribute it the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.” (Luke 18:22) He reminds us several times to give what we have to others – because where our treasure is there also is our heart

 

Woven through all these stories is that mission: good news for the poor, sight for the blind, release of captives and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. 

When I googled mission statements and what makes a good mission statement, I found this: “The best nonprofit mission statements are easy to read and inspirational, and they let people know why the organization exists, whom it serves and how it serves them.” (https://www.thebalancesmb.com/how-to-write-the-ultimate-nonprofit-mission-statement-2502262) The article also gave some tips for developing the mission statement none of which Jesus followed! He didn’t narrow his focus, or get feedback from many perspectives, hire a professional writer or take his time in formulating his mission statement. Jesus started doing. He has clarity of purpose that never changes. Jesus knows it’s going to take more people to complete this mission. So he passes it on first to the disciples who’ve passed it on to us. 

            The heart of our faith is an invitation to take up Jesus mission. Sometimes it seems daunting to me. Like we’ll never get to the place where everyone has what they need and all are welcomed into the community and surrounded with love. There are so many people in our community who are in need of better housing, of food, of healing, of hope, of love that sometimes I worry that I’m not sure where to start following or what part of Jesus’ mission to take up. 

            Then Will got sick, and to pass the time we watched the Harry Potter Movies – starting with the first one. As I watched the progression of Harry Potters life and thought about our scripture reading, I was reminded that we don’t have to do everything at once. First, we must choose a path. That’s what Harry did on his first day at Hogwarts. A little background for those of you who aren’t Harry Potter fans. Harry, has newly discovered that his is a wizard, that his parents died trying to protect him and now he is off of Hogwarts school for witchcraft and wizardry. For Harry, everything he is seeing and doing is new and unlike the life he lived with his Aunt and Uncle on Private Drive. Then he arrives at Hogwarts.

            Each student that attends Hogwarts is sorted into their school houses – there are four: Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin. Harry’s heard that every evil wizard that ever was came out of Slytherin house including the one that killed his parents. When the sorting hat is dropped on Harry’s head, the magical hat has a hard time determining what house he should be in. “Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought, “Not Slytherin, not Slytherin.” (Harry Potter and the Phillospher’s Stonepage 90 – 91) As Harry waits for the hat’s decision he is silently begging not to go into Slytherin. In that moment he was choosing a path which overtime became his mission. He was choosing to follow that path of good. 

            The life of faith starts with choosing that path of following Jesus. Once we are on the path it sets us on the course for completing Jesus’ mission. Here is the heart of the good news – the mission is daunting but we go there in the good company of all those who’ve chosen to follow in Jesus’ way. The mission is not only in our hands but in the collective hands of all those who follow Jesus and that my friends is millions of people! We go out into the world with our brothers and sisters in this community and communities around the world making a difference in the lives of others. Collectively we bring good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom to the oppressed and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. So as we go about our work and our week, together let us find ways help others.  Amen.

Water into Wine

            Before we dive into our readings for today, I want pause and appreciate the fact that the bible contains a story where water becomes wine. It’s pretty amazing really. Then you add to it the fact that Jesus is the one who turns the water into wine – mostly because his mother, like mothers of every time and place, says to. Then, perhaps my favourite part of the whole reading, not only does Jesus turn water into wine but it is the best wine of the night. This is a story of the abundance of grace. What could have been a disaster become isn’t. It is generous. It is overwhelming. It is more and better than we could ever have imagined and isn’t that what God’s grace is like. 

            It stands in stark contrast to the world we live in where fear and sacristy seem to be taking hold in every corner of the world. We have school aged children and youth with anxiety and mood disorders – 1 out of 12 are on medication of some form.  (https://www.cihi.ca/en/child-and-youth-mental-health-in-canada-infographic) Turn on the news and we hear about increasing rates of racism, sexism, and homophobia and not just in the United States here in Canada too. People are worried about where their next meal will come from or how they are going to cope from day to day or what bad news a phone call will bring or about their family or having enough money or how their relationship is going to survive or about a loved one who is sick. There seems to be a never-ending list a of reasons to be afraid.  

That’s why we need to lean on that abundance of grace that Jesus offers – when it seems like every possible door is closed and there is no way to move – that’s when we need grace. It seems to me, that all too often in my life, I forget what grace and mercy are like. Our reading today helps us to remember what God’s grace looks like and feels like. 

This reading from John is the first act of Jesus public minister. The wedding at Canna is the first of the “signs” or miracles in John’s gospel. Our reading for today follows Jesus’ baptism and the calling the disciples with the invitation “come and see.” Wedding in Jesus’ day were not like the weddings of today which are a day long affair. A wedding in Jesus’ day lasted a week and was a community celebration. Jesus was there with his whole family, disciples and the entire gathered community. 

Over the course of the celebrations, the hosts ran out of wine. Now this may not sound like a big problem to our modern ears. Today we’d probably think nothing of it. If the wine runs out, we pop up to the store and buy another bottle. Not a big deal. But it was major social faux pas in Jesus’ day. Wine was considered a sign of God’s abundance. If the wine runs out what does that say about God’s love? What does it say about this particular couples future? 

 Upon hearing the news about the wine, Jesus’ mother turns to him, with an expectant look in her eyes. I think it’s the look only a mother can give and says, “They have run out of wine.” Can’t you just hear Jesus saying back to her as he rolls his eyes, “Oh Mother, why are you worried about that. Besides which, this not my time, it is not the hour.”  Do you notice how Mary pays no attention to Jesus’ objection about it not being his hour? Son of God or not, she knows best. She is the one whose watched him learn and grow. She simply turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you to do.”  

            Jesus has no choice and he somewhat reluctantly tells the servants to fill six huge containers – each holding 20 to 30 gallons of water and to take them to the wine steward. The wine steward tastes the wine and is amazed. He calls the bridegroom and compliments him for saving the best wine for the last days of the celebration. 

Letts but the this amazing sign into context. In ways that make sense for us today. Today wine can be mass produced and shipped easily from one place to another. Not so in Jesus day. In today’s measurements it would be like Jesus gave them about 900 bottles of wine. But not just any wine – the good stuff. This surely never happened on the 3rdday of a week long party. That is just like God’s abundant grace. It is unexpected. It is good wine when you are expecting the cheap stuff and it is more wine than we can imagine! Dr. Karoline Lews writes, “The details of abundance cannot be overlooked in this text -- six water jars, each 20-30 gallons, filled to the brim, of the best wine. The amount in and of itself is extraordinary. But the best wine? At this point in a wedding celebration? Unheard of. Back in the day, weddings typically lasted a week, where the host would serve the better wine when the guests could actually taste what they were drinking, a nice Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Chardonnay, perhaps. Only after a few days of drinking and determined levels of inebriation would the guests be served the Franzia box Merlot or Gallo jug Chablis. Where have you experienced this kind of grace?” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1556

In the words of the psalmist, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” (Psalm 36: 7 – 9) 

I think it makes all the difference in the world when the starting place each of us is that abundance of unexpected grace. Grace doesn’t insulate us from life’s tragedies or cure us from disease or give us jobs or banish depression or give us money. Grace gives a starting place that reminds us that we are deeply loved. 

This week the Pulizer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver died at 83. Her poetry delves into the heart of faith. She writes, “You can have the other words – chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it.” Like Mary Oliver, we may know what exactly what grace is, but every now and then we catch a glimpse of what it’s like – an abundance of the best wine when we least expect it. With grace as our starting place anything and everything becomes possible. Whether we know what it means or not grace is ours. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

School Of Love

“School of Love”

Laura Hunter and Lauren King

Scripture References:   

Deuteronomy 6:1-5

Mark 12:28-31

Intro to Scripture readings:

·     Indigenous elders, teachers have repeatedly said, “Our people were given our original instructions by Creator.  We are to protect the lands and the waters, and work for the good of all. We still remember our original instructions.  You settlers have forgotten yours.”

·     Nagged at me for years.  Came up again this summer at a gathering and so afterwards I decided to “take into prayer”, really sit with the question.

·     “As white, North American, Jesus followers, what are our original instructions, or “sacred instructions”, as one Indigenous writer calls them.  

·     Allowed a generous block of time for contemplating this question, but an answer came to me within minutes. A well known passage from our sacred stories.

·     So obvious I laughed out loud, I cried, then laughed some more.  The answer was hidden in plain sight.  Certainly some of you can guess it right now.  

·     Somehow, I felt reassured to be reminded that I was not the first one to miss what was in plain sight all along.  

·     Let’s hear what two of most “woke”, attuned teachers of their times had to say when pressed about “instructions”.  First, an account of what Moses said around 1400 years or so before Jesus was born. And then what Jesus himself answered when he was asked a little less than 2000 years ago, as told in the book of Mark.

 

Scriptures are read.

·     See what I mean! So obvious,  I probably have quoted these very passages as the central message of the entire Christian and Jewish traditions.  But that day I heard and felt it differently. 

·     LOVE    GOD   HEART        MIND   STRENGTH NEIGHBOUR           AS       SELF   

·     EVERY SINGLE WORD had new depth, new implications for me on a personal level, but also for our mission as church in the world.  We could explore each of those words alone for weeks at a time, for years, in fact.  

·     It illuminated for me a notion I had been carrying around for several months about the potential of the Church as a “School of Love”.  ( Introduced by Brian MacLaren in his book, A New Kind of Christianity)

·     Not talking romantic love.  But that gritty, tenacious, love that you DO, when it is not easy.   

o  The kind of love that gets you through the turmoil of a family member living with dementia, or another type mental health crisis.  

o  The kind of love that causes your heart to break at the stories of families torn apart as try to find safety and hope by seeking asylum in another country – strangers to whom you have no explicable connection, but yet you care. 

o   That counter-cultural love that pulls us together to help each other in a disaster, despite the dominant messages that would tell us to be suspicious and afraid of our neighbour. 

o  The kind of love that keeps a community working together on a huge project like renovating their church to include affordable housing, and new kinds of gathering spaces, overcoming differences and obstacles. 

·     Everything that Jesus was teaching was about increasing our capacity to love one another, love our neighbours.  

·     And thus, everything we do as church, should also be about increasing our capacity to love!

·     For Jesus, that played out as healing the sick, as reaching out to the lonely, the hated, the shunned, AND in a military occupied territory it sometimes looked like challenging the powers that were keeping the people down.  That’s what the curriculum included at Jesus’ School of Love. 

·     What should a School of Love look like here and now?  In this time of political chaos, of growing divides between rich and poor, of wrestling with the uncomfortable realities of racism and white privilege – what should OUR curriculum look like? What skills, and values, and practices do we need to equip ourselves?

·     What should it look like here in St. John’s, at Cochrane St. United Church?  

·     What does it look like for Youth and Young Adult ministries? – Lauren

 

Lauren

Church at its best allows young people to show up as their whole selves – questioning, messy, wrestling through the muck of it all. Church at its best allows all of us to show up fully, which helps us to feel brave in the world. We are able to take risks, knowing we have a safe home base to come back to. A kind of touchstone. The only way we can be our best as the church is by grounding ourselves in love – deep love that stands up to injustice, embraces the stranger into our midst, and doesn’t shy away from pain. 

Young people are hungry for this kind of place – a place that acknowledges the chaos of our world and hears the despair. Youth and young adults are navigating coming into themselves in a world with a looming climate crisis, witnessing the largest mass migration of refugees and asylum seekers in history, coming up against a struggling economy, and feeling the effects of hateful attitudes just across the boarder. In the face of extreme uncertainty, it’s tempting to want things to be clear so that we can maintain illusions of safety. Young people see right through the smugness of certainty. The youth I have the privilege of working with know that we all possess a deeper level of being, one that loves paradox. One that knows God is found in the places where opposing ideas are held side-by-side. A place deep in our bones that knows that when we sit in silence, we hear the roar of existence. That healing is found in the deepest places of pain. Knows that our hope as Christians is found in the death and resurrection. Young people are drawn to places that drop concrete answers in favour of asking better questions, and offer experiences to grasp hold of. It is experiences that tap us into deep love, bringing faith from our heads into our hearts. Some of the most powerful youth programs in our church are those that offer experiences in community with others, stepping beyond the walls of the church and beyond faith as something that we think. There’s a beauty to working side by side with new & old friends, then sitting down together at the end of the day to reflect and debrief, wrestling with big questions of injustice, dreaming up the world we want to live into. We are called to action in a world that longs for healing – the young people I work with are keenly aware of the heartbreak and love that is required to transform our world. 

A few years ago I travelled to an international Christian festival with a group from the United Church. One of the evenings, a number of us attended a service called Queer Communion. We were a rowdy cohort of United Church folks – bringing joy and laughter into the space, dancing to the songs and celebrating with the joy of belonging to a church that affirms and celebrates gender + sexual diversity. It didn’t take us long to recognize our energy was very different from the rest of the room -  it was a sombre mood, with a number of folks in tears, and we realised that what we took for granted was a deeply moving experience for others, as they came from traditions that didn’t affirm their identity, and for some even barred them from the communion table. We received communion at the rail that evening, and the last to go up was a woman carrying a young child in her arms. The child was clutching a bunny tight to her chest, it was a stuffed animal that you could tell was well-loved and cherished, the white fuzz fading to grey. The woman drank from the cup offered to her, and then raised it to her child’s lips. After drinking, the child confidently and without hesitation dunked her beloved bunny straight into the cup. This child knew that the table was open to all. 

As a church, let us draw community into our love story, a place where whole selves are celebrated and love grounds all. 

 

Laura, again:

·      What role can Justice and Mission play in this “School of Love”?

·      I have become convinced that these instructions to love God, our neighbours (humans and all beings), and further… love our enemies,  help the poor, feed the hungry, be with the prisoner – these instructions were not so much for the benefit of the neighbour, or the prisoner, but rather these actions are important because of the ways they change us. The ways they open us, soften our overly simple judgements of good and bad.  The ways they fuel us with courage to stand for what is right not just what will be popular. 

·       Over and over through the years I have had the experience, and other people have told me the same thing, of thinking we were going to help others in some way, but instead we were helped, and humbled in the process.

·      It also goes back to the very first part of our “original instructions” that we heard in the scripture reading.  Love God.  In order to love anything you must have an experience of it.  You must know it.  Surveys report that the most common times that people report experiencing a sense of a Divine presence, or a profound connection to something beyond themselves, whether or not they would call God, are in nature, in times of deep despair, AND in times of serving others or a meaningful cause.

·      So here’s the thing.  You don’t need to be a Christian or go to church ever, to care about the Earth or want to make a difference in people’s lives.  Millions of people with no connection to this spiritual tradition work for positive change in the world day in and day out, year after year, and always have.  So why do it? Why give attention to what this guy, Jesus, had to say?  Why come to church?

·      Because if we, together, as church are doing our job well, if we are practicing our tradition as Jesus taught, you should be able to confidently tell your friends,“I go to church because it makes me a better lover!”

·      Seriously, everything we do, from chairing a meeting, to protecting rights to clean drinking water, to holding the hand of a grieving friend, should be growing our skills, knowledge, and opportunities to practice increasing our capacity to love and to receive love.  Even every little thing we do here on a Sunday morning from sing together, tell a story to the children, hear one another’s stories of love and change –all of these things should be opening us to love -  and if that’s not the case we should be asking ourselves how to make sure it does. 

·      So let’s review:

o  What are our original instructions? (Scripture)

o  As a church what will we aspire to be? (school of love)

o  And why come to church? (better lovers!)May it be so. 

Misfit Magic

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany, it really is that same word, as in, “I heard myself say that and had an epiphany—I am becoming my father.” Epiphany—a realization, a revelation, a moment of insight, when what was previously muddy or confusing, becomes crystal clear. On this Epiphany Sunday and the beginning of another calendar year, you and I receive a lot of invitations to seek—seek to be better, to improve ourselves, to finally make that change we’ve been meaning to make in our lives.

Today is the first Sunday in January, the first Sunday of the New Year. And while those of us following the liturgical calendar said, “Happy New Year” six weeks ago, on the First Sunday of Advent, we still have plenty of reminders that the rest of the world operates on this other calendar. Vitamins and dental floss are on sale at Shopper’s Drug Mart. Co-workers, friends, and extended family will ask you about your New Year’s resolutions. And for the next few weeks, you’ll have to wait in line to get on the exercise bike at the gym. 

It should also not surprise us that the first Sunday of the New Year gives us a text about a few worn-out travelers. I wonder how wise they are. I wonder how wise we are when it comes to our mental and physical health this time of year. It seems that everyone travels over the holidays, everyone goes on some sort of journey. Samantha and I are no strangers to this – by the end of our Christmas “holiday” on Tuesday, Sam and I will have spent time in four cities spanning three provinces. Despite two full weeks of that holiday being spent here in Newfoundland it seems like there still was not enough time to be spent with friends and family.

What is it about this time of year? As we furiously prepare for Christmas, it finally comes to us, those of us who are already exhausted, we come back a few days later ready to tackle a fresh New Year and rather than being rested by our “Vacationing” we are more worn out than ever from our “time away,” battling as some might be coughs, sniffles, and sore throats. Perhaps next year for Christmas I’ll get what I really want – and I’m guessing what some of you – really want, not presents or more shopping or a Rock em’ Sock em’ New Year’s Eve, but just a few more hours of relaxing by the fire and some sleep.

But perhaps that’s just not the way that the Christmas season is supposed to be. I’d like to tell you that the Bible gives us the rest we need, but it doesn’t. The Christ-child is born in Bethlehem and before you can say seven swans a swimming and six geese a laying, we are on to the next scene in this cosmic drama, and we see precisely what Karl Barth meant when he says Christmas begins an uprising against the powers of the world. Matthew throws us into an eternal story of epic heroism, a politically charged religious battle of life and death. Brutal King Herod rightly sensing that another one, a little baby, has been born who will challenge his strong-fisted government, sends these odd wise men, probably astrologers of some kind, on a quest to find the Christ-child. I’m always amazed at how differently the Bible depicts Christmas than how we see it in our homes, or in the world around us.

I saw an image on Facebook this past week. It was a beautiful scene of a desert, in the lower right hand corner were the three wise men on camelback, their eyes fixed on the upper left hand corner of the picture where the Star of Bethlehem is shining brightly. But in the middle of the image, right between the wise men and the star for which they had traveled so far, is a 30 foot wall, a wall that is snaking its ways along a border. On each side of the picture is a flag. One American. One Mexican.

So much for the notion that religion and politics don’t mix. You turn on the news, check Facebook, or go on Twitter this week and all you hear about is the US government shut-down and the border wall. All the Canadian networks have panellists discussing what this could mean for our country if this continues to go on south of the border for much longer. So much for finding some quiet hours in the New Year. So much for catching up on rest in the New Year, for King Herod’s New Year’s resolution is to slaughter Mary’s infant boy whose tender new-born hands pose a threat to the rule of the government. 

And so it is that this epic tale of life and death, of good and evil, of light and dark come these minor characters, the magi, who are about to play a major role. Now we do not know much about these travellers from scripture. We often call them kings, though they were far from royalty. In fact the bible does not even say how many of them there were. We assume three because of the three gifts that they brought. We do not know their names. We do not know where they are from, all we know is “from the East” and nothing more. 

And yet, the life of the Christ-Child rests on the unknowing shoulders of these mystery men, these Magi, not religious people at all, but rather these weird, misfit, out of the mainstream astrologers, with little to no knowledge of scripture or religious conviction. They just happen to walk across history’s stage at the right moment and find their feet scripted into a journey of darkness – a journey illumined by the bright light of God’s grace shining in the Eastern sky, shining into their misfit lives.

They are often portrayed as bumbling fools of sorts. They get lost. They are depicted in Christmas pageants wearing funny hats and bathrobes. They just don’t fit in and one has to ask the question why in the world would God allow the life of God’s own son to rest on the journey of these mis-fit men? And yet the Bible tells story after story about how God uses the misfits of the world to accomplish God’s purposes in the world, even non-religious astrologers like these can help bring about God’s good work in the world. Ironically, it is these mis-fits who have gifts they bring to the Christ-child.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit Frodo is the most unlikely candidate to carry the ring to its destruction, and yet he is given the task. “I wish I had never seen the Ring,” said Frodo. “Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?” “Such questions cannot be answered,” said Gandalf. “You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess; not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and wits as you have.” 

Like Frodo, all of us, in our own unique and misfit way have been chosen, we have been created to offer our gifts to God and God’s work in the world. Contrary to much mainstream thinking, when we try to follow Christ in our lives we do not begin to mirror the values around us, but rather we discover that our lives are increasingly at odds with the surrounding culture. Sometimes these moments of mis-fitness are easy to spot and sometimes they are not. 

I’m sure we all have felt that way as well, even though we try to live good lives, there may still be times when we feel like we do not belong, like somehow we don’t fit it. Whether we’re single or married (or somewhere in-between), whether we’re retired, working, or a student – every one of us, in some way or another can feel like a misfit at sometime, like we do not belong, like we do not feel at home in the world. Our lives can feel off-balance, maybe just be a few degrees, but enough to make us pause. And in that pause we might ask with Frodo, “Why me? I didn’t choose this quest, this script that I find myself in.” It is easy in that moment of pause for us to respond by saying, “Oh I want to fit in so badly, I’m just looking for normal.”

But the hope of the gospel is that God is not very interested in the normal and the mundane. God reveals time and time again that God can and will use anyone, even mis-fit magi, that God can and does love everyone, even you and I. There is no one that can escape that embrace. There is no one “too mis-fit” to be excluded by God.

This Epiphany story, is an improbable and ridiculous one. It is a story about wise magicians from a foreign land travelling to some far off country to bring a boy born in a back-water town gifts that are fit for a King. This story is absurd. But it only becomes more absurd from here – the poor will be blessed, the first will be last and the last will be first, and the son of God will be nailed to a cross. But this absurd story is an epic tale. A tale where we are all part of God’s work in the world.

In this New Year, in 2019, you and I – we can declutter our houses, eat better, and establish healthy habits this year. But we have an invitation from God and that is to travel with the misfit magi – it’s an invitation to seek something different, something besides self-improvement or goal achievement – it’s an invitation to be in relationship with God, revealed to us in the most ordinary and inconvenient moments of our lives, with forgotten, imperfect, misfit people in improbable and ridiculous circumstances. This invitation is one that says that “you are worthy” even when you feel that you are not. For in God’s story, you are valuable, not because of what you do or who you are or what you say or what circumstances exist in your live, but in God’s story you are valuable simply because you are a beloved child of God. You are worth knowing. You are worth loving. For that epiphany, thanks be to God. Amen.

Hope

Today the countdown to Christmas begins. It is busy season in so many ways for people. We come to the place ready for some quiet and renewal for our souls and for the first Sunday of Advent we have two challenging readings. At first glance it seems that our readings are have completely different messages. Our reading from Luke sounds ominous and scary.“‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:25 -28)

It doesn’t sound anything like Christmas. It doesn’t sound like hope and it is certainly different than our reading from Jeremiah which says, “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lordis our righteousness” (Jeremiah 33:15 – 16)The reading from Jeremiah, known as the weeping prophet, was written during the Babylonian captivity. Jeremiah is being held hostage. What reason does he have to hope? And yet, he knows that they will be saved by that righteous branch that will rise up and execute justice.

It seems to me that we need both of these messages today. Things our world can sometimes seem like the passage from Luke – a bit scary.  Whether it is ever increase levels of carbon monoxide which is destroying habitat and changing our weather or the divisive rhetoric that is makes up our political landscape or the fact that hate crimes are on the rise. 

Dr. David Lose says that the root of all our troubles is fear. “Think about it. From Pharaoh in the first chapter of Exodus (v. 8-10) to today’s despots, fear is the means by which we turn those who are in some fashion different from us into an enemy, a people against whom we should war. Fear causes us to horde, assuming we will never have enough and seeing those around us as competitors for scarce resources. Fear drives wedges of distrust into our communities that fracture solidarity and compassion. Fear causes us to define ourselves and those around us not by what we share but by what makes us different. …Fear, in short, drives us inward, hardens our hearts, darkens our vision, and stunts our imagination.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/11/advent-1-c-courage/)

So how do we live? How do we set that fear aside and live in hope? The bible shows us the way – angels and prophets alike tell us, “Do not be afraid.”  Jesus invites to live in hope. After the people faint from tear and foreboding of what is coming, Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up, and raise your heads, because your redemption is downing.” (Luke 21:28) 

There are signs of people standing up and raising their heads. On October 26that 1:30pm the service started at Bethel Church in The Hague and hasn’t stopped – not for one minute. All to protect an Armenian family whose asylum claim was denied. “The Tamrazyan family, including three children Hayarpi, Warduhi and Seyran, fled Armenia and have been living in the Netherlands since April 2010 while their claim for political asylum was being decided. But their case was rejected, and they've now been told to leave the country.” https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/29/europe/netherlands-church-service-deportation-intl/index.htmlThe congregation offered sanctuary to the family of five in order to protect the well-being of the children. Dutch law says that as long as the worship service is going on the police cannot not disrupt the service. “Theo Hettema, chairman of the General Council of Protestant Ministers in the Netherlands, told CNN the service will continue "as long as it's necessary.""We want to love God and our neighbor. And we thought that this was a clear opportunity to put the love for our neighbor into reality," he said. https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/29/europe/netherlands-church-service-deportation-intl/index.html

            Volunteers and clergy step in to lead the continuous service around the clock. Groups, choirs, and clergy from all across the Netherlands come to take their turn leading the service. One of the children, Hayarpi Tamrazyan who is 21 writes this of her faith and her experience of living in sanctuary: 

In these difficult times
Of darkness and grief
I lift up my head
And feel Your love in my heart.

In these difficult times
Of desperation, of anger
I lift up my hands
And praise You in my heart

In these difficult times
While I seem to be paralysed
I feel Your peace in my soul
And open my eyes to see Your grace…

No power and no devil
No grief and fear
Can separate You from me

I surrender myself
Let Your will be done
Your work is unimaginable
Your ways are in the light
How happily I walk with You
The Light of the world
The world… doomed and dead
But risen and renewed with You

My words fail
No words, no sentences
Can describe Your love
How thankful am I
How jubilant am I
While I am so tired
Hallelujah    Amen

Hayarpi

https://gedichtenvanhayarpi.wordpress.com/2018/11/29/in-these-difficult-times/

 And here we find hope and the promise of a world made in God’s image. For now, we live in the in between times. Between that which was – the angels proclaiming the joyful birth of the one called “Emmanuel – God with us” and for that which will be – God’s coming reign of peace. In this in between time, we take courage from those stories of hope, stories of people who refuse to give into fear as we work for a better world. How shall we live? We live with God’s promise in one hand and hope in the other and that makes all the difference. Amen

The Ties that Bind

The course I did a couple of weeks ago was in Hamilton, Ontario. For me it was a bit like a homecoming. I grew up in Halifax but I was born in Hamilton. I spent almost all my summers as a child making the long drive from Halifax to Hamilton to visit my paternal grandparents. As I sat on the bus from Toronto to Hamilton, I was transported back in time. I felt like I was sitting in the back seat of the blue Dodge Aspen beside my brother watching for the Dundurn Castle, the Royal Botanical Gardens and the Hamilton Spectator building. These were the signs that we had almost arrived at my grandparents’ house. I still remember their address on St. Clare Avenue. We loved it there, even though the attic where we slept has stifling hot and my grandmother jumped every time the screen door slammed shut. There was always something special about these visits.

My first morning in Hamilton, I called a cab to take me to see my grandparents’ house. I took pictures and remembered my grandparents and those childhood summers and gave thanks. Somehow, we are bound together over time and those connections don’t fade away with the passage of time or death. Those who’ve gone before, like my grandparents and people I don’t even know, all leave a mark on us. We are bound in ways that I can’t explain to the previous generations and the generations that will follow us. This is the beauty of the great cloud of witnesses – those saints who’ve travelled the path of faith before us. Paul writes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1 – 2)

Those connections, those ties that bind are woven through scripture. That is certainly true of our gospel reading. Jesus wasn’t telling the scribe anything he did not know or hadn’t heard before. Jesus was quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding your today in your heart.” (Deuteronomy 6:4 – 6) Jesus learned these words as an infant. He touched them every day on the way in and out of his house. … hear O Israel: The Lord is our God… Jesus had these words written on his heart in the same way we have the words of the Lord’s prayer or the 23rdPsalm written on ours. They were passed down to him from generations of the faithful just like Jesus commandment has been handed down to us.

Normally when scribes, Sadducees and Pharisees are introduced into a gospel story we think that they are out to set a trap for Jesus. That is what happened moments before today’s gospel. It says, “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked, “Which commandment is first of all?” (Mark 12:28) Jesus tells him that the greatest commandment is to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength and that the second is just like it, love your neighbour as yourself. Then the scribe agrees with Jesus and then adds “this is much more important than all whole burn offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33) Then Mark writes, “When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:34)

It’s not often in the gospels that we have Jesus commending a scribe. But here you have it. This scribe understands the heart of God’s message to us. Love God with all that we have and love our neighbour as ourselves. When we carry this message in our hearts and live this message each day we are doing what all the faithful who’ve gone before have done. It is binds us together as one people.

Today as we gather for gifts are bread and wine, we are connected with so many who like us gather at God’s table. A friend of mine shared this quote with me about the communion rail, "Some church structures have a communion rail inside that completes a circle with the graves of the saints awaiting resurrection on the outside of the building. I love the imagery that we commune with that great cloud of witnesses. This meal is both for the strengthening of those living and for the sure and certain hope of the blessed dead."

https://www.luthersem.edu/godpause/?devo_date=8/17/2018

It is when our souls nourished by gifts and bread and wine that we can do the challenging work of loving our neighbours as ourselves. Because, when we love our neighbours as ourselves the things that are often seen barriers come tumbling down. When we love our neighbour as ourselves race, social status, sexual orientation, wealth, poverty, position can no longer divide us. We are bound together as one people loved by God. The suffering of others becomes our suffering and we must help. Paul says it best in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer salve or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

We are one. Bound together from one generation to the next following in that way of love. Together we can transform our world as we live into the promise of loving our neighbours as ourselves. By God’s grace all things are possible. Amen.

Mandy Penney and Miriam Bowlby talking Jesus, Healing and Disabilities

Miriam:

I am thankful that Mandy agreed to help out today. A few months ago the text set for the day was one the healing stories. I started wondering what it was like to hear those healing stories and have an illness or disability. Whether it is the promises in the old testament that on the day that God comes the blind will see and the lame will walk or Jesus healing the man born blind or healing Lazarus after being dead or the hemorrhaging woman – there are many stories. But I know that in our daily lived experience miracles don’t always happen. There are people who born with or develop illnesses that don’t go away. I asked Mandy to help me out and to share her thoughts. I sent her a list of miracles stories from the gospel of Mark and she picked the one we heard today. My job today is to ask questions and share the biblical context. Mandy is going to share her insights and impressions of the story from Mark and her lived experience.

Before we begin talking about Jesus, healing and disabilities, I thought it might be helpful to learn a little bit about Mandy.

MandyShares her background.

· Bachelor of Arts (Hons.) in Psychology and Sociology

· Bachelor of Social Work

· Training Support Facilitator/Inclusion Crew Coordinator with Inclusion NL, which is a program within Empower, the Disability Resource Centre. We work with businesses/employers on becoming more accessible, inclusive and comfortable working with persons with disabilities.

· Enjoys volunteering at long term care, events within Cochrane Centre, Raise Up Fundraising, learning American Sign Language class, working out at the gym, and rock climbing, among other things.

Miriam:Can you help us out with some context. Can you give us a definition of disability and maybe the difference between disability and barrier free?

Mandy

It might be best if we tell the difference between disability and accessibility. Disability focuses on healing the individual, whereas accessibility is about removing barriers in our communities that limit peoples’ participation. Accessibility is for everyone because as we age we will experience barriers within our daily lives. Additionally, if the world was fully accessible “disability” would not exist. For example, if each book had a line of large print, braille, and an audio CD in the back the world alternate format would not exist. Some groups we might assume as having disabilities do not see themselves as having a disability but as belonging to a culture. Those who use ASL see themselves as knowing another language. In fact, there is a movement to make ASL/LSQ Canada’s third official language.

Miriam:Give me some sense of how many people experience barriers?

· It is 14% of the population and 75,000 in NL

· Who experiences barrier in their daily living?

· Who wears:

o Glasses?

o Contacts?

o Hearing aids?

o Dentures?

o Orthidic footwear?

o Canes?

o Arthritis?

o Colour-blindness?

· Did you know that the onset of disability is age 40 – 45?

Some of you who are at that age or beyond might agree with me.

o As we age we develop conditions that create barriers to our life

§ When we are younger we might be able to run up three flights of stairs but we might always be able to do so.

· Who has ever used the accessibility features at Cochrane Street United Church?

o The lift

o Elevator

o Automatic buttons

· This highlights the accessibility movement, where we focus less on the individual and more on removing all barriers so that everyone can be included

· Which is why I picked this story because it focuses on fixing the barrier not the person.

Miriam:

This story happens very early in Jesus ministry. Jesus has just called the first disciples and has started teaching and healing. The word about the amazing ways that Jesus changes peoples’ lives is spreading from community to community. By the time chapter two starts there are so many people surrounding the door where Jesus is teaching that no one could get close to Jesus.

Four many brought a paralyzed man to Jesus but when they arrived they could not even get close to the door. So they removed the roof above Jesus was teaching, dug through the sod and lowered the paralyzed man so he was right in front of Jesus. When Jesus sees his faith, he says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:5) The scribes started muttering and complaining among themselves. “Why does this fellow speak in this way? Its blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7)

Jesus doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. He says to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgive,’ or to says, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ – he said to the paralytic – “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” (Mark 2:8 – 11) The man does just as Jesus says.

Mandy, can you share a little about what stands out for you in this story?

Mandy:

· They did not quit when they could not get their friend through the front door

· They worked to make it possible for him to access Jesus because they valued their friend

· Friends really must have cared about them so the individual must be valuable and have strengths

· Did not complain about having to do that, they did not blame the man for needing their help. Sometimes, we see accessibility as being too much work or too expensive. However, it is too expensive not too.

o If is right to become more accessible

o If members can continue in their faith as they age then the church community can continue

o The spending capital of individuals with disabilities and their families is 55.4 billion dollars annually

Miriam:What does it mean to hear in this story that sin and disability are considered the same thing?

Mandy:I do not understand the connection between disability and sinning because this has always been my lived experience. However, as we age, we often experience health concerns that limit our daily lives even if we believe we are good then how does that relate to sinning? I think that was used a way to cope with the fear of developing an illness. “Oh, that person must have sinned to become like that! That won’t happen to me because I am a good person!”

The thing about faith is that not everything has to be understood and our understanding is always changing. My faith may be strong one moment and weak the next.

Miriam

The connection between sin and disability was different in Jesus’ time. Two thousand year ago, any type of disability whether it is being born blind, leprosy, a hemorrhaging woman, or being paralyzed meant that either the person or someone in the family must have sinned. In order to get forgiveness and healing you had to go and present yourself to the priest at the temple. I’m guessing this would not have been easy. The temple probably wasn’t accessible.

In many ways Jesus defied expectations by offering healing on the spot. That’s what made the scribes so mad. Throughout the gospels, Jesus spends his time with are the sinners and tax collectors. These are all people who are on the margin of society. Jesus tells the scribes it does not make a difference whether he says “get up and walk” or “your sins are forgiven”. For Jesus what matters most is restoring people to their community. I think that the kingdom of God that Jesus speaks of is barrier free because everyone has a place in the kingdom. Healing can take on many forms. Maybe it is being able to walk again or sight being restored or maybe it is having a community or the resources you need to live a full life.

What does healing mean for you?

Mandy:

We all wish for healing, not just persons with disabilities. We ask “why me?” Why is this unfortunate event happening to me? I do not ever remember wishing to be healed, but I do remember wishing for a pony then looking all over my house the next morning, so I am curious as to when my pony is going to appear.

Healing to me is healing or fixing society’s barriers and not the person. Removing barriers so that everyone can participate in the community and church. Making churches accessible so we can stay connected as our life situations change.

Miriam: How is your lived experience helped you to grow person:

Disability as teacher

Problem-solving

Empathy

Resiliency

Makes you motivated because it takes more effort

Good at planning

Friendships

Miriam: Where do you find hope?

Mandy:Hope in actions! Seeing people work towards creating an accessible work, where people with disabilities can find work and live in safe, affordable and comfortable homes like the ones at Cochrane Centre!

When I graduated university for the second time and could not find an affordable home and I could not find a job because I could not find a home I became hopeless. This cycle was extremely frustrating. I do not like to sit and wait for things to work out, I like to take action. My hope was restored when I found an apartment and started coming to CSUC. Now when I experience frustrating situations I loo back on that situation and remember that things will work out.

For God All Things Are Possible

Even though it is a challenging reading, even Jesus is blunt and even though what Jesus asks seems impossible. I really like this reading from Marks gospel. It begins with someone looking to go deeper into his faith and looking to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has, give it to the poor and follow him. It’s a hard request – especially when we have so much in this part of the world. But even though it hard, there is something special about the it.  Woven through the challenging parts is good news for us. We hear the same story in Matthew with one important difference. It happens in verse 21. “Jesus, looked at him, loved him...” The starting place for Jesus’ challenge is love. That’s what makes the good news good. Jesus looks at him … looks at us and loves us. Everything after that is somehow manageable even it is hard, even if it seems impossible. 

            In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus is leaving – likely at this point a reference for Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and crucifixion. When a man comes up and kneels before Jesus and says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17) Jesus reminds him that only God is good and then says, “‘You know the commandments: You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’” (Mark 10:19) I imagine the man in our reading creating a check list in his mind, going – do that, do that, do that. Then he tells Jesus, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” (Mark 10:20)

            It is then that we have the all important verse 21. “Jesus, looked at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) I’m guessing that Jesus knows before the words are out of his mouth, that the man is not going to be able to follow through. I’m guessing that Jesus knows his big ask is going to diminish this man’s desire to take the next step in his quest for faith. What Jesus asks is counter cultural and demanding. And it doesn’t even matter the time period – then or now it is hard.

            Then and now wealth and prosperity are viewed as blessings from God above. If you have a lot then somehow God is smiling down upon you. You don’t need to look very hard today for signs this understanding of God. I’m sure you’ve heard it. “If you work hard enough, if you pray hard enough, then God will grant you the gifts of success and wealth.” In the world of the spiritual but not religious you hear the same kind of messages, people say things like, “You just need to visualize success and it will come to you because you’ve focused your positive energy on success and wealth.” 

            It’s a nice theory. But we’ve all met people whose faith is deep and abiding whose lives aren’t filled with success and wealth. We’ve met people who’ve visualized a better life and it never happens. So there is a problem with seeing wealth and success as a sign of God’s blessing. God’s love is for everyone not just a select few.

            What Jesus does in this reading is turn the idea of wealth as blessing upside down. Instead of being a blessing, wealth is what is keeping you from taking the next step in faith. I’m not sure that Jesus’ problem was necessarily with young man’s wealth so much as with what happens to people who choose wealth as their master. When something like wealth becomes your master then the priority becomes accumulating more, instead of looking inward at faith and looking outward to the people who need help. Jesus’ teaching in the previous chapters have focused on storing treasure in heaven and reminding people that you cannot serve two masters.

            When the rich man walks away shocked and grieving, because he has many possessions, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “How hard will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23) And the disciples can’t understand what Jesus is saying. Perhaps they are thinking if the wealthy – in their mind the blessed ones—can’t get into heaven then what chance do we have? Jesus, notices their confusion says, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:26) You can imagine what the disciples’ reaction is going to be. “What are you talking about Jesus?” Especailly when you remember that many of the disciples left everything behind to follow Jesus. So they ask “Then who can be saved?” 

            Jesus then gets to the heart of the story. Jesus looks at the disciples and says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” (Mark 10: 27) Jesus is pointing us to something bigger. It is God who makes the impossible possible. When Jesus looked at the rich man and loves him before he tells him what he must do, changes the story. Jesus doesn’t tell the rich man to go and sell everything because he is testing him or because he is trying to make a point about wealth or set an impossible task for him. Jesus loves him right then and there as he is. Jesus knows that grace will be offered and that even though he walks away grieving, God is still at work. And if this man is willing to keep asking deep questions of faith, who knows what will be possible in the future. 

            Jesus then offers one last teaching. He says, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive hundredfold now in this age houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecution and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:29 – 30) Sometimes I’ve heard the news of the first being last and the last being first as challenging or unfair. When I was listening to the Pulpit Fiction podcast this week,  I heard something I’d never heard or thought about before. Even if you are last in the kingdom of God, you are still in the kingdom of God. It opened my eyes to the amazing good news that is offered to each one of us. Jesus says to the disciples, whether you are first or last everyone has the gift of eternal life in God’s kingdom. It is not about who is getting left out because everyone has a place in God’s kingdom. 

            There are no exceptions to this. It doesn’t matter if we walk away grieving because we can’t seem to go the next step in our faith. It doesn’t matter that we can’t quit seem to give up everything to follow Jesus. The most important thing is that we strive to follow Jesus by caring for the world and helping others. As we travel the road of faith, we have the promise of grace which makes all the difference. The good news is for us all – the first, the last, for you and for me. God’s grace makes the impossible possible. And it is by God’s grace means we all find our place in God’s kingdom. What remains is to give thanks for this grace each day. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Don't Worry... Consider the Lilies of the Field

            All week, from the moment I read our gospel reading for today, well really from the moment I read the title to our reading, “Do not Worry” I’ve had ear worm. I’ve been humming Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry. Be happy” either out loud in mind since Monday. The tune is catchy and makes you want to dance. “Here's a little song I wrote. You might want to sing it note for note. Don't worry, be happy. In every life we have some trouble. But when you worry you make it double. Don't worry, be happy.” 

            I’m not sure that Jesus message is as simple as don’t worry be happy. But there is no mistaking Jesus point. He says, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” I hear the words Jesus words, “Don’t worry” and I smile to myself because I know that even though Jesus told me not to. I’m going to worry. I’m a professional multi-generational worrier. Jesus saying, “Don’t worry” has had little impact on my ability to cease worrying. 

When it comes to worry, I know I’m not alone. I talk to people who worry about everything from the state of the world to their children to their parents to how they are going to make it through the day. This got me wondering about what Jesus was trying to teach us if at some point all of have spent time worrying. Maybe Jesus teaching is not so much about not worrying ever period. Maybe it is more about the power we give to those worries. This morning’s reading from Matthew follows some of Jesus most powerful and memorable teachings. Chapter 5 opens with the beatitudes… “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:3 -4) and closes with the imperative to love our enemies. Chapter 6 offers teaching on prayer, in particular the prayer that is written in our hearts – the Lord’s Prayer. 

            It is in this context that Jesus tells us not to worry about what we will eat or what we will wear. Instead of worrying, Jesus invites us to “Consider the lilies of the field. How they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:28 – 29) “So do not worry,” says Jesus, “instead strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:33 – 34)

            I think, and it is only my best guess, that Jesus also lived in a time when people worried. Then it was about being free from oppressive Roman rule and likely for many who followed Jesus having enough food to eat. Then, like now, there are a lot of things competing for people’s attention and people’s hearts. Jesus is not trying to say food is not important, Jesus is inviting us to put things into perspective. We can’t spend every minute of the day worrying because if we do, there is no time for the work of the kingdom. There is no time to comfort the grieving or care for others. 

            “So consider the lilies who neither toil nor spin” says Jesus. Jesus isn’t talking about the regal white lilies we often see in flower shops. Jesus is talking about beautiful red flowers that are much like our dandelions. They are weeds. They grow in cracks in the concrete. They fill fields with their vibrant colour. They grow everywhere and like dandelions even in places they aren’t supposed to. As we consider these lilies we are reminded that God’s love is tenacious and grows everywhere. 

            Jesus invites us to consider those lilies so that we can open our eyes and see past the worry to the beauty that is around us in the world and give thanks. Each day is a gift. Each day is filled with unexpected moments of grace. And if we spend all our time worrying we miss what God is doing in the world. 

I’m not likely to give up worrying completely. It’s not really in my DNA. But I can lay those worries aside to take time to give thanks for the world and people around me. I can pause to give God thanks for the abundance of gifts that are ours. God’s gifts are given to us freely with no expectation of return. Diana Butler Bass in her book Gratefulwrites, “…far more often, Jesus speaks of a wildly untargeted God – one who lavishes drunken wedding guests with even more and finer wine, who throws seed around with abandon, who issues invitations to the unnamed poor to dine, who throws a party for a profligate son, and who multiplies fish and bread so that thousands might eat not once but twice. On a massive crowd relentlessly pursuing him, he showers blessings, “Blessed are the poor! Blessed are those who hunger! (Matt. 5:3, 6) Standing up on an ancient hill, Jesus yells out; “Presents for everyone!” These gifts are not targeted. They simply are.” (Grateful. Diana Butler Bass page 26 – 27)

Jesus tells us, “Do not worry… consider the lilies” because God’s gift of grace to us means we can lay aside those worries that consume our time for a moment to give thanks for the gifts given to us each day. Gifts like bread and wine to nourish our souls. Gifts like grace and mercy. Gifts like beauty and wonder. Gifts like community and friendship. 

Take a minute today and every day to consider the lilies – those parables of God’s grace that help us know that God’s love is a gift that is always with us. Amen. 

Esther's Courage

The Book of Esther remarkable in so many ways. First and foremost, it tells the story of a woman in a time when women’s voices were not considered important. It is one of the few standalone books of the bible. God is not mentioned once in the entire book and yet ever present as this tale unfolds. It is a tale of intrigue and social politics. In order to understand our readings for today, we need a little background to understand how Esther becomes the Queen Esther. The book of Esther takes place in Persia under the reign of King Ahasuerus.

            King Ahasuerus is in the mood for serious celebration, we don’t know why. He declares that there will be a seven day celebration for all the people in the palace. And the king knows how to throw a party. It says in the first chapter of Esther “Drinks were served in golden goblets, goblets of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished in accordance with the bounty of the king. Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired.” (Esther 1:7 – 8) Queen Vashti did the same for the women.

            Queen Vashti was very beautiful and the King on the seventh day of merrymaking decided he wanted to show her off his beautiful wife. And by show off, the King meant show up at the party wearing nothing but her crown. In anytime this was a terrible and crude request. The Queen may have hosted a celebration but she still had a sense of dignity and refused the Kings command. 

            This was a big problem for the King. This was a time when women were considered property and they had to do what is asked of them. You could not refuse a command even if it was crude. The king was both annoyed because she refused and not sure what to do next because he was so used to getting his own.  He consulted with his royal advisors who were also terrified that their wives would follow Queen Vashti’s lead and stop listening to them. Then the country would be in a real mess. They advised the king to depose Vashti and choose a new, more obedient Queen. 

            The king ordered that the most beautiful virgins in the country are paraded in front of the king as though it were a beauty pageant. One of those young women was Esther. Esther was a Jewish girl and an orphan. She was raised by her cousin Mordecai who adopted her and raised her as his own daughter. The Jewish people living in Persia at this time were part of the diaspora who were captured by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Esther quickly won the kings favour and he gave her special cosmetic treatments, her share of food and seven servants. Esther did not tell the King that she was Jewish because Mordecai advised her not too.

            After a period of testing, the King decided that he loved Esther best of all the virgins and made her Queen. During this time the King promoted Haman and gave him more responsibility. Haman did not like Mordecai because he refused to bow down to him. Mordecai followed the ten commandments. You shall not worship other gods. Mordecai was faithful to God alone. Haman decided he wanted all the Jews in the land killed. He persuaded the King that this was a good idea. When Mordecai heard about the devastation that was to befall his people he begged Esther to do something about it. 

            At first Esther refused. She knew that if she went to the king without being called she would die unless he raised his royal sceptre. Mordecai replied to Esther saying ‘Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’ Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, ‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.’” (Esther 4:12 – 16)

            Esther was wise and courageous. After the fast she went to the king and he raised his sceptre. The king asked what she wanted. He would give her anything, even it was half of his kingdom. Esther invited the King and Haman to a banquet she was preparing. The King enjoyed the banquet and asked Esther what she would like. Again, Esther invited Haman and the King to another banquet. 

            On the second night the King offered to grant Esther any request even it if it half of his kingdom. Esther said, “‘If I have won your favour, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.’” (Esther 7:3 – 4) The king rose and demanded who would do such a thing and Esther pointed to Haman. 

            And with that Esther saved her life and the lives of all the people of Israel living in Persia. One act of courage changed the course of history. Courage takes on many forms. Esther was raised as a person of faith. She knew the stories of God’s deliverance and through her courage she helped her people. Esther’s faith and courage are celebrated every year at the feast of Purim. We can learn from Esther’s courage. We too can stand up for what is right. We can speak out when we see injustice. It is particularly important to stand up today as All of this takes courage. 

Think of the people who’ve lived with courage down through the ages. Scott and watched the movie Selma this week about Martin Luther King Jr. march from Selma to Montgomery. It took courage demonstrate in peace for the right to vote. It wasn’t just one person – it was thousands upon thousands who stood up for what was right. Think of the courage it for Christian Blassey Ford testifying about her own terrifying experience of sexual violence. Think of Phyllis (Jack) Webstat who shared her experience of residential schools so that we can all remember those who suffered at residential schools and those who died while in residential schools and intergenerational survivors of residential schools. 

Courage takes on so many forms. A while ago I read this story of courage that has its roots in a meal.

“During the Everest climbing season last May, just 1000 feet from the top of the world, 24-year-old Israeli law student Nadav Ben-Yehuda noticed a 64-year-old Turkish man, Aydin Irmak, lying in the snow with no gloves, no oxygen, no shelter as other climbers streamed past him in their quest for the summit. 

Climbers know instantly 26,000 feet is the infamous 'death zone' where the lack of oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life for any length of time. Exposure in that zone quickly leads to acute mountain sickness, hypothermia and, most often, death.

In the death zone of Everest, there is no time for inaction. In an instant, Nadav relinquished his summit bid and put all efforts into Aydin's rescue. Nine hours later, Nadav arrived at base camp having saved the life of Aydin. 

What makes this story remarkable is that Turkey and Israel have long been nations with relations icier than the slopes of Everest. Nadav's act not only saved a life, but also bridged a distance between inimical countries. When asked why he relinquished his dream of conquest and instead stopped to help, Nadav answered, "Because we had shared a meal together." (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-hickman/eating-with-the-enemy-est_b_1916776.html?utm_hp_ref=religion)

            Sometimes courage has its roots is a simple meal. Courage is something countless numbers of people have shown over the generations as they stand for what is right and just. As we live our lives of faith, let us to have the courage to stand up for what is right for our community, for the earth and for our world. God is with us as we proclaim our faith and seek to live justly in our community and world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Kingdom of God

            One of my favourite things about Mark’s gospel is the disciples. They never seem to understand what Jesus is doing or saying. Sometimes they half get it but then do the totally wrong thing in response. They make me feel so much better about the number of times I get things wrong – especially when it comes to following Jesus. If the disciples, the people Jesus chose to follow him, can mess up, fail to understand what Jesus is saying, well that gives me a lot of hope for my own faith journey.

            Our reading for today follows just after the transfiguration – that holy moment on the where God blesses Jesus say, “This is my son the beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7) Most of the disciples may not know what happened up on the top of the mountain, but they do know things are different with Jesus. The way he teaches about God is different than any other teacher and Jesus can heal people in amazing ways. 

            Our reading this morning picks up as they are returning home to the area around the Galilee. Jesus wants time to teach his disciples and that was impossible if there are crowds around. When they finally get to that quiet place, Jesus says for the second time to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mark 9:31) The very next line says it all. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask.” (Mark 9:32)

            I’ve been there – maybe you’ve been there. Too afraid to ask the question that was on your mind. There are a hundred reasons why we do this. Sometimes we are worried about how it will look to others in the room if we ask or sometimes we imagine that everyone else understands and we don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t. Sometimes we just assume that it is a stupid question. In this case it seems like a strange response because Jesus clearly wants them to understand what he is saying to them. It’s the second time he’s told them. The first time, we heard about last week when Peter gets mad at Jesus for saying he must suffer and die. Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but human things” (Mark 8:33) This week everyone is pretending to know what’s going on because they are too afraid to ask what this all means. They miss a great opportunity to understand more about Jesus ministry and mission. 

            See what I mean about the disciples. They don’t always get it right. And it doesn’t really get better for them as the reading goes on. After the teaching Jesus and the disciples head to Capernaum. When they finally get in the house, Jesus asks the disciples, “What were you arguing about on the way?” (Mark 9:33) No one answers him. Jesus asks and the room gets that nervous kind of quiet and not because they didn’t know the answer. They know but they also know that somehow Jesus knows and they’ve been caught. The Message translates it this ways, “The silence was deafening – they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest.” (Mark 9:34) Yup these are the disciples – the ones Jesus himself picked to follow and to carry on his message. 

            Somehow, I find their missteps as disciples comforting. Who among us hasn’t found themselves in the middle of a foolish argument that totally misses the point of what’s important. Fortunately for us Jesus doesn’t roll his eyes or do shake his head in embarrassment or do what one of my children when I say something foolish – hand to forehead shaking their heads in disbelief. Jesus sits down and then invites the twelve to sit and listen. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:36). Then Jesus takes a child, and holds that child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37)

            This is what the kingdom of God is like. To our modern ears and even to the disciples ears what Jesus says makes no sense. We all want to come first, win the race, be the best, earn the most, gain the prize in short be the greatest. But Jesus is the one who turns the world upside down. The logic of the kingdom of God and the logic of our world are completely different things. It’s what Jesus told Peter last week, “you are setting your mind not on divine things but human things” (Mark 8:33) Every day, we are bombarded by reminders that the greatest in our world are those who win, those who make the most money, those who are famous. Jesus says no to all of that. Jesus reminds that greatness is found in putting others first. Jesus puts one of the most vulnerable in society in the midst, a child, and reminds them to welcome those who need our care and attention. 

It’s not very often we have someone say to us in order to be the greatest you must not only come last but serve others. If we could all follow the example of serving others, our world would be transformed. Dr. David Lose writes, “In the first-century world, as you know, children were of no account. Oh, of course, their parents loved them, but they had no rights, no influence, no standing. They were utterly dependent, utterly vulnerable, utterly powerless. So how could caring for a child count as greatness? It’s crazy. Or is it? Think about it for a minute: What if Jesus is right? I mean, what if we imagined that greatness wasn’t about power and wealth and fame and all the rest, but instead we measured greatness by how much we share with others, how much we take care of others, how much we love others, how much we serve others. What kind of world would we live in? Can you imagine if people were regularly trying to out-do each other in their deeds of kindness and service? If there were nationally broadcast competitions to see who was willing to be last so that others could go first? If there were reality TV shows that followed people around as they tried to help as many people as possible?” (https://www.davidlose.net/2018/09/pentecost-18-b-a-different-kind-of-greatness/)

            That, my friends, is the life Jesus invites us all to. It is not easy follow live into the promise of God’s kingdom. We won’t always get it right – just like the disciples. But like them we will keep trying. There is something so amazing about the logic of the Kingdom of God where signs of greatness are marked by helping others. Jesus tells how to make it happen. Put others first. Help others. Serve those who are suffering. Care for the earth. It is only when greatness equals caring for the most vulnerable in our midst will God’s kingdom be fully realized. Until that great day we must strive to care for those who need our help in particular those who are most vulnerable. Let us go into the world with our mind fixed on divine things so that together, we can follow in Jesus’ way of greatness. Amen 

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. 

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