200920 – A God-Shaped Hole

Yr A ~ Philippians 1:21-30

I’m going to do something a bit different this morning. Usually I would read the scripture passage as it appears in the bible, according to whatever translation we were using that day. Then in my sermon I’d go in depth and talk about how the editor’s choice of words when translating from the original Greek or Hebrew can really change the way we hear and understand something. Today, rather than reading it and then reframing it, I’m just going to start with the reframed version. So here is Philippians 1:21-30, with some word substitutions and amplification which I hope can help us hear what I think is Paul’s deeper message without tripping on some of the surface language.

Remember, Paul is a minister talking to a church community that he has planted and is nurturing:

1:21 For to me, living is surrendering and abandoning myself to Christ, and dying to my old way and being reborn in Jesus’ Way is gain.
1:22 If I am to live in the flesh, in the here and now, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer.

1:23 I am hard pressed between the two: my heart’s desire, and passion, and longing is to just dissolve, and melt, and be with Christ, for that is far better;
1:24 but to not go off on a mountain top retreat and instead to remain ‘in the flesh’ (so to speak) is more necessary for you.

1:25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith,
1:26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting, your joyful celebration of how well you’re doing, and how much you’re growing in Christ Jesus, when I come to you again.

1:27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you, or am absent and only get to hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel,
1:28 and that in no way are you intimidated or knocked off the path by anyone or anything that might challenge that. Your steadfastness, and faith, and perseverance shows any obstacle that it is ineffective and powerless to oppose you. And this is God’s doing.

1:29 For God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of experiencing strong feelings and passionate emotions for him as well –
1:30 since you are having the same agonizingly beautiful struggle that you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church! Amen.

Now, all I did there was to expand on the word fields that are in the text. To be fair, editors have to choose. They can’t go on and on like I can! Plus, we’re inheriting an English version that was largely shaped in the 16th and 17th centuries and they had a certain bias or interpretation (as we all surely do), and they chose language that supported their bias. It isn’t wrong language, but their editorial choices do limit how we hear some scripture passages.

My bias is toward transformation, and hearts strangely warmed.
This a very passionate scripture passage.
Sadly, the published versions don’t emphasize that.
I do!

Let’s look at verse 23.
The words speak of Paul’s desire to depart, which when combined with the living or dying language of verse 21 suggests that depart here means to leave, or even to die.
But a better translation for desire to depart is actually desire to dissolve – as in to melt.
It’s poetic love language.
It’s passion language.
It’s Eros language.

Then in verse 29 we get the phrase “For (God) has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…”
Yikes!

You’ve probably heard that phrase ‘suffering for Christ’ before. Well, in the immortal words of Inigo Montoya (from the Princess Bride movie), “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means!”

I think the Christian church has grasped onto the idea of suffering for Christ as being a test of how strong you are, and how much you’re willing to sacrifice for Christ, or how much hardship and pain you can endure to show how dedicated to God you are.
And that’s really sad, because it completely distorts Paul’s meaning here.

The Greek word is pásxō which means to experience strong feelings and strong emotions. Pásxō literally means passion!
Now, to be sure, to ‘suffer’ in pain is to experience a strong emotion. I’m not diminishing that.
But one can also ‘suffer’ positively – as in passionately, longingly, yearningly, desiring, aching, pining away for your true love.

THAT is what it means to ‘suffer for Christ’!
And that completely changes how we hear this whole passage.

Suffering for Christ is more of an expression of how much you love God – how much your heart yearns to feel more of God’s grace and peace – how much your soul aches when God seems distant – how you feel incomplete and empty when your love is not near, and how your heart bursts with joy, and affection, and fullness, and abundance when your love is clearly in focus.

Now, if you’re a long-time United Church person you may very well be squirming in your seat. All this emotional, passionate, love-language – about Jesus! About God! Our tradition has always tended to emphasize the academic, intellectual, head-based aspects of Christianity.
For lots of us that simple 12-inch journey south from your head to your heart is the longest and hardest spiritual journey of all.
But friends, it’s vitally necessary.
We don’t abandon our heads and check our brains at the door. We take our head with us as we descend into our hearts and experience strong emotions and feelings for God.

Preachers love to tell you that the word love in Greek has several different translations that all mean something different.
Agape
is the love word that refers to spiritual love – it’s a holy, sacrificial, righteous, self-giving love. Love for other – love for neighbour. read on

200913 – Chuwl

Yr A ~ Creation 1 ~ Psalm 114

This is the tenth September that we have marked the Season of Creation at Faith United. What do we mean by creation? One aspect is to think about the natural world, the planet we share, and to raise theological issues about sustainability, respect, resources, stewardship, and greed. We can talk about the environment, the physical world, and celebrate the wonders that it holds.

Another aspect is to think about the act of creation, and focus on God. While it makes for a good visual, I don’t for one instant imagine that a humanoid figure with a white beard physically shaped the stars and planets and all that is. So what do we mean by the act of creation? The big bang maybe? Did it just happen? Was it caused? What banged together? These are big scientific questions, but they’re also spiritual questions.

For me creation is about the existence of life that can in many ways be explained scientifically but also holds a mysterious, miraculous sense because the complexity and interrelatedness and interconnectedness of it all inspires awe and wonder, and we sense that more than just being a happy accident we are somehow the product of a loving intention. We give that mysterious intentionality the name God, and we celebrate how we are part of it all.

Perhaps a better name for the way I’m approaching this isn’t the Season of Creation but the Season of the Creator! How can we talk about God as creator without falling into troublesome anthropomorphism? How do we acknowledge the remarkable understandings that science has given us and at the same time acknowledge that there’s more to it than just science? And how do we find language that can speak to the theological side without leaving our brains at the door?

Today we’re going to explore some of that language – and probably the best language to use to talk about God is poetry – and the best poetry in the bible is found in the Book of Psalms, which is more or less a hymn book – which means poetry and music in the service of speaking of spiritual things. Poetry and music have the potential to help us access deep truths and meaning that science can never get to.
Today we’re looking at Psalm 114. It’s a psalm that recalls the exodus and tries to offer a sense of how momentous a thing it was – and how awesome was the God who inspired and guided it.

1 When Israel went out from Egypt [that’s the exodus], the house of Jacob [which is all of Israel, which was his other name] from a people of strange language [a colourful way to say a foreign land],
2 Judah [a territory] became God’s sanctuary, Israel [meaning the people] God’s dominion [or realm].

The Israelites were once under the rule or domain of Pharaoh – now they’re under God’s domain. That’s the story of the exodus. For the Israelites this was an epic, epoch-making event, and they knew deep in their hearts that God was at the centre of it.
Now, how do you tell that story? How do you describe something so ginormously life-changing for you and your people?
You write songs! Because the metaphors in poetry and songs give you the potential to express deep truths in engaging and effective ways.
So, when that momentous action happened how did not just the people but the planet react?

3 The sea looked and fled; [the river] Jordan turned back [on itself and flowed the other way].
4 The mountains skipped [bounded, danced, frolicked!] like rams, the [little] hills like lambs.
5 Why is it, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back?
6 O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs?

Why? Why? Here’s why!

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint [an extremely hard rock that gives sparks when struck] into a spring of water.

How awesome was the exodus?
Well, the way they tell it it rocked their world!
And this psalm was one of the ways they tried to express their overwhelming gratitude and awestruck-ness.

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.
Trembling in awe before God.

Tremble is a very complex Hebrew word (c-h-u-w-l) that’s pronounced ‘cool’. Its field of meaning is really vast. It can mean:
to twist or whirl, to dance, to writhe in pain or fear;
to hope, look, rest, shake, stay, tarry, trust, wait patiently, be wounded.

In English to tremble means:
To shake involuntarily, as from excitement, anger, fear, or anxiety; to quake, vibrate, or quiver.

The point here is not to make us afraid of God but to remind us that God is all around and God is truly awesome and awe-full.
So often we are so casual about how we toss God’s name around, or shrug the whole church or faith or spirit thing off because it feels like no big deal.
When the name of God, or the presence of God, is said or revealed the appropriate response is not a shrug – it’s trembling! read on

200906 – You’re Putting Me On

Yr A ~ Pentecost 14 ~ Romans 13:8-14

Do you know what a fashionista is? It means someone who’s all consumed with having the latest clothes and styles. Do you know what a fashion faux pas is? It means someone who has made an unfortunate clothing choice. Do you know what a fashion victim is? It means a partner who actually answered their partner’s question “How does this look on me?” (j/k)

As the back to school ads fill the airwaves and newspapers at this time of year I always get a feeling that I should freshen up my wardrobe. This year being what it is I’m doing that shopping online. It’s hard to try on clothes online. I keep scrolling through possibilities, imagining what they’ll look like on me, mentally trying them on for size. It makes it really hard to decide. I’m certainly no fashionista.

And I don’t know if the apostle Paul was a fashionista either, but I love his “clothes-line” from Romans 13:11-14 today. He says,

“Besides this, you know what time it is, how it’s now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Do you think he means like I put on 20 outfits online? I don’t think so. Putting on Christ is nothing like slipping on a jacket, even in-person in a store. You can’t put on Christ nearly that quickly. You can’t slip Christ on and spin around in front of the mirror to see how you look all decked out in Christ, then decide that style of Christ doesn’t fit you all that well and so you just slip it off and try on another one. That’s not what we’re talking about.

Maybe Paul means it more like long underwear in the middle of winter! You know, “Put on the Lord like long johns right next to your skin – something that’ll move with you wherever you turn and will keep you warm and cozy in the big bad world.” Nope, I don’t think that’s it either.

Maybe it’s closer to the stories I heard about the Olympic swimmers who take a half hour to squeeze themselves into their high-tech bathing suits. Maybe putting on Christ is like that – times 1000! But even that’s not right yet.

Putting on the armour of light – putting on Christ – putting on Faith – isn’t an outside job – it’s an inside job. (Ever spill some liquid on your pants and go around assuring everyone that it was an outside job?) You don’t pull faith on over top of your life. Faith can never be an add-on. To continue our fashion metaphor, Faith is not an accessory!

I don’t know where this idea started that faith is some external thing you ‘turn to in times of trouble’ – or that faith is something you do at church on Sunday. But whoever started that thinking did us all a grave disservice. So yes, we should put on the Lord Jesus Christ – but we need to put him on the inside where he belongs!

I once heard the idea of dating described as the process of trying on different people until you find one that fits. I like that. But what does that really mean? It certainly doesn’t literally mean you try to wear your prospective partner like a jacket! It means you hang out with them, get to know them as best you can, discuss life with them to see if your values line up ok, introduce them to the things you love and try the things they love. No one’s perfect, but some people ‘fit’ better than others. (And just like my fraught online shopping experience you really need to try people on in person. Things in real life often look ‘different’ from their online picture!)

I think that’s what Paul means ‘putting on Jesus’ is like – not the ‘don’t trust pictures’ part, the first part. Paul wants to remind us to ‘wear’ Jesus (on the inside), because Jesus fits! But now we’re left with the question of how does one wear Jesus? How do we know he fits? Well, in some ways it’s just like trying on dates. The big thing is you hang out with him and get to know him the best you can. You try to align your values with his, and you learn to love the things Jesus loves.

Ok, do I need to stop here and remind us that this is all a metaphor again? read on

200830 – A Crumby Faith

Yr A – Pent 13 – Matthew 15:21-28

I love today’s gospel story.
I love it for lots of reasons, but mostly it’s because Jesus doesn’t come out looking too good in it.
It’s the mark of a great story, and more likely one based on a real incident because it’s kind of embarrassing for our hero.
Why leave it in the gospel if it makes Jesus look bad?

Just look what happens to him.
First, a woman is trying to talk with him – that’s a no-no – and what’s more, she was a Gentile (a non-Jew) which meant he wasn’t supposed to talk to her at all.
So what does our Saviour do?
What does the King of Love, the Great Shepherd, the Compassionate One do for this poor woman?
He ignores her, excludes her, and insults her.
Then, when she has the audacity to challenge him, he’s seemingly ‘bested’ by her in a spiritual question, admits he’s wrong, and learns from her. But to stop there is to miss what I think the story’s really about. Like almost all of Jesus’ stories, it’s really about the grace and mercy of God and how we’re to respond.

Jesus had just finished lecturing the Pharisees about arrogance – about the dangers of relying on the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the law – about how theology is not absolute and how human traditions may have to be rethought in the light of our ongoing relationship with God. He passionately spoke about how it isn’t what goes into your mouth that defiles you (challenging the purity and dietary codes of the Jewish faith) but it’s what comes out of your mouth that defiles you, because that’s what comes from your heart.
Then, what does Jesus do? – He goes out and does exactly what he scolded the Pharisees for!
I love that!
I mean, I don’t, but I do!

I love that the Bible acknowledges that to be faithful is not the same as being perfect.
News flash – Jesus wasn’t perfect. He was human.
Now, don’t get your knickers in a knot. I know the scriptures say that he led a perfect life and all that – but that’s in reference to his communion with God – his perfect oneness with his Abba. It doesn’t mean he never made a single mistake in his life. That wouldn’t be…human – and if Jesus isn’t human we can’t ever hope to live as he lived.

So let’s look at this remarkable interchange. It’s a pretty polite telling of what was probably a really impolite scene.

They’re walking along when out of nowhere a Canaanite woman jumps out and starts shouting at Jesus and the disciples for mercy. But Jesus had places to go so he keeps walking. The disciples are bearing the brunt of her continuous pleas so they ask Jesus to get rid of her for them. But Jesus won’t speak to her.
Maybe the disciples went back and said, “Get lost lady; Jesus only came for Jewish people.”
But she will not be put off so she races around the crowd of disciples, circles in front of Jesus, stops him in his tracks, and kneels down before him in prayer saying “Lord, help me. Have mercy on me!”

So there’s Jesus, rolling his eyes, “God, these Gentiles will be the end of me. Listen, lady, my food is for the children of Israel, not dogs like you.”
Yikes!
Maybe he regretted saying it – sometimes things just come out of your mouth before you know it.
Maybe Jesus has Covid brain like the rest of us and he’s just having a bad day.

Then she interrupts him with a phrase that he wished he’d said – “Yeah, I’m a dog – all of us are really – and even the smallest crumb from the table of God would be a blessing to me.”

And Jesus is schooled!
He looked at the woman and thought how marvelous it was that God’s love knows no bounds – that this foreign woman somehow had experienced the love of God and knew that God was so great that even the smallest morsel of mercy and grace would be sufficient for her need. And Jesus looked into the depths of her heart, and saw faith. “Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.”

See what this woman does here?
She models faith to the disciples: need, passion, persistence, and humility.

She articulates her need, a healing for her daughter; she seeks it passionately and persistently; and now, significantly, see how she does it – she cries out for mercy.
She wants to be treated compassionately, but comes humbly, hoping not demanding.

It isn’t “heal my daughter because I said so” or “heal my daughter because I’m faithful” or “heal my daughter because I go to church online every week.” She’s crying out for forgiveness. Notice her body position – she’s prostrate – she’s begging – on her knees praying – flinging herself on the mercy of the court. And here’s the kicker – the part we don’t like to hear at all – the thing about mercy is that it’s unearned and can’t be ‘deserved’.

That’s hard to hear isn’t it? We think “I live pretty good. I follow the Way of Jesus, pretty much, most of the time. I deserve to be healed/saved/rewarded.” As soon as you start thinking you’ve earned anything you’ve missed the point.

Now, that goes against our 21st Century sense of entitlement. We want instant gratification – buy now, pay later – and then we resent it when the bill comes in. We constantly tell ourselves how great we are, and yet self-esteem books still fly off the shelves? Why is that?
Maybe we don’t suffer from too low self-esteem but from too high self-esteem!
Maybe we identify it as low self-esteem because deep in our hearts we don’t buy into the giant load of manure we try to sell ourselves.
Maybe what we need isn’t more self-esteem but more humility! Humility and grace and mercy are intrinsically linked.

We understand the need for the Word of God. We understand the passion required to keep at it – and we get that persistence is vitally important too, whether we’re any good at it or not.
But the humility bit can really trip us up.

We expect to be seated at the table – like our own personal pew (or chair, or couch as the case may be).
We expect to be served the best food, because we’ve learned that the food offered by Jesus is the very bread of heaven – and the water that gives life. We’ve been given a taste and find ourselves banging our knives and forks on the table like spoiled brats yelling “we want more, we want more”.

Where’s the humility? read on

200823 – Where Feet May Fail

Yr A ~ Pentecost 12 ~ Matthew 14:22-33

Everybody calls this the ‘Jesus walks on water’ story. That’s curious to me, because I think that bit is actually the least important part of the story. Well, the specific thing, not the symbolic metaphor. This is yet another example in the Jesus story of what I characterize as a story that never happened – and always happens! I hope that doesn’t put you off. What I mean is that, for me, whether Jesus actually physically was able to walk on top of the water is utterly irrelevant. If you were to ask me if I think it really happened I’d say no. But not because of why you might think.

What would it accomplish if we said he really walked on the water? Would that make you respect or listen to him more? I don’t know about you but magic tricks and special effects are nice but they don’t contribute much of substance. And if we get sidetracked (like I already have) pondering whether water-walking is plausible we don’t take enough time to talk about a part of the story that’s really important and helpful for us. And isn’t that the point?

I mean, I’m a card carrying member of the Jesus appreciation society but what I need is not to admire him more but to learn something that helps me navigate my life and helps me live more lovingly and abundantly. If we get hung up on the water-walking the story ends up being about how awesome Jesus is (which is true) – but that’s not what this story is really about.
It’s about Peter. It’s about me and you.
So let’s dive more deeply into this story and get beneath the surface (pun intended).

Witness the story through the eyes of Jesus’ disciples. They’ve just watched Jesus go off by himself to pray after getting news about his friend John the Baptizer being beheaded. Then the disciples watched the crowds find Jesus and mob him, so he taught the crowd, and healed them, and fed around 5000 of them. Then the disciples watched Jesus go off and pray again, as he sent them to the other side of the lake in a boat.

Let’s pause.
Jesus’ followers have watched him do some significant things in ministry here.
He’s taught, served, healed, and broke bread with people – and he’s grounded it all in quiet prayer. Now he sends them out on their own.
How will the disciples, the followers of Jesus, us, react?

And more to the point, how will Jesus’ followers react when the storms of life start to batter our boats?
The disciples are in a boat being battered by ‘waves’ – and not just a few waves. The suggestion is that the storm is raging all night long.
Sound familiar?

Pandemics maybe?
Church struggles?
Loneliness and isolation?
Frustration with not connecting?
Always being leery of touching things or being near people?
Battered by waves indeed!

You see, it’s not a story about a stormy night on a lake 2000 years ago.
It’s a story about the storms we encounter every single day!
The stormy season we’re struggling to navigate right now.

So what happens? Are we just left alone to battle the wind and waves and make our own way?
Hardly! But it’s not what we want.
Jesus doesn’t just come riding in on a fine stallion and save the day.
Look at the details in the story.

Matthew 14:25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.

Early in the morning.
Over and over again in scripture we have examples of how deeply spiritual things seem to happen in the wee hours of the morning, just before dawn. The world looks and feels different ‘early in the morning’ – we’re usually quieter then, more apt to notice, and listen.

It says that Jesus came walking toward them on the sea. Don’t be too literal. Perhaps it’s just an engaging way to say that Jesus appears in the midst of our struggle. And as his presence is felt it’s confusing because we can’t quite understand it. We’re up to our eyeballs in our challenges so sensing a holy presence while we’re flailing around is a bit beyond our comprehension in the moment.
The miracle isn’t that Jesus defied gravity and physics and tip-toed across the sea.
The miracle – well, it feels like a miracle to us in the moment – is that ‘Something More’ is present in our storms – that we’re not alone.

Minds blown and brains boggled the disciples – who have just spent days immersed in watching Jesus embody and share the love of God – forget everything and are terrified by the presence of Jesus, and they cry out in fear.
Funny isn’t it?
The very thing we want more than anything else in moments of challenge and struggle is to feel God’s loving presence and yet when we really do encounter the Holy in a deep and significant way it freaks us out.

Matthew 14:27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Here’s where English lets us down a bit but the Greek word can help. read on

200816 – Harmony

Yr A ~ Pentecost 11 ~ Genesis 45:1-15

Ok, I have three jobs to do here this morning.
One is to fill in the rest of the Joseph story to give us some context beyond the short scripture excerpt.
Another is to dismantle a terrible bit of theology that a too simplistic reading of verses 7 and 8 brings – one that has done a lot of damage.
And the third is to expound on a theological idea that may not seem obvious but I think is the heart and soul of this whole story arc.
Here we go!

The story of Joseph and his brothers and father is so epic and sweeping that I can’t relate the whole thing in this limited time. If you weren’t with us last week I will encourage you to go back and either watch the sermon on our YouTube channel or read it on our website. We left the story last week with Jacob mourning what he thought was the death of his favourite son, and Joseph’s brothers feeling guilty about lying to their Dad and breaking his heart. And I filled in the story up to the point where Joseph had found favour with Pharaoh and had been made a powerful ruler in Egypt.

The action picks up with the famine that Joseph predicted in full swing. Luckily for Pharaoh, he listened to Joseph and they’d been stockpiling supplies for 7 years so they were ready for it. Unluckily for Jacob and sons they had not – and now they are starving. So the 10 sons (not young Benjamin) are sent to try to buy supplies from Egypt. While there Joseph recognizes them, but the brothers don’t recognize Joseph. To test them, Joseph questions his brothers and accuses them of being spies, and briefly jails them. Then Joseph demands to see their youngest brother, Benjamin, and keeps one brother in jail while the others go home.

Joseph is testing their integrity. They had confessed their sorrow at their family’s history. They were humble and repentant. Joseph wants to believe them, but he isn’t sure. Maybe they’re just saying what they think he wants to hear to get what they want. People do that all the time.

Joseph takes their money, gives them their food, and then hides their money back in their sacks. When they get home they have all the food and all their money – and Jacob and his sons are mortified that they will be thought to have cheated the Egyptians or stolen anything, and that their brother Simeon (who stayed behind in jail) would be killed, but Jacob cannot bear the thought of losing Benjamin, so he resigns himself to Simeon’s death and mourns some more.

More time passes and they run out of food again. They take double the money, and whatever goods they had to offer, and went back to Egypt – with Benjamin this time. Joseph sees Benjamin, orders a feast to be prepared, sends soldiers to bring the brothers to him, and then they ate at the feast – bewildered, and afraid.

The next day the brothers are sent on their way – but Joseph has his chalice hidden in Benjamin’s pack. He sends soldiers after them. They’re accused. They deny. Benjamin is taken prisoner. The brothers freak out. They throw themselves at Joseph’s mercy (bowing, just like in Joseph’s youthful dream), offering their lives in exchange. They cannot bear the thought of breaking their father’s heart again.

Joseph is convinced. He weeps and wails and reveals his identity to his brothers, all is forgiven, the family is reunited, and Jacob comes to live with them all in Egypt. It took 20 years (way longer than 22 minutes), but in the end there is a happy-ever-after. Ish. (but that’s another story)

Ok. That was job one – to fill in the story.
Job two is to dismantle Genesis 45 verses 7 and 8. Here they are:

Joseph says, “God sent me (here) before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivours. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”

Yikes!
Can you see how problematic a too simplistic reading of this is? read on

200809 – 22 Minutes

Yr A ~ Pentecost 10 ~ Genesis 37:1-4, 12-36

It’s challenging to tackle a story like this – partly because of the theological content, but mostly because in order to get the message we need to hear the whole story, and in this case that story takes place over many chapters in the book of Genesis. We’re used to looking at a dozen or so verses for a Sunday morning sermon. If I was just to focus on today’s reading it would feel very unsettled. Now, ‘unsettled’ is actually going to be where I circle back to, and where we pause today. But first I think I need to tell the whole story to give us some context.

Happily, it’s such a famous story that most of us are at least somewhat familiar with it. Most of that is thanks to the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Anyway, in case you haven’t seen that musical, the story goes that Jacob – who we’ve been following for a few weeks now – remember last week he wrestled with God – Jacob does face his brother and father, and he is forgiven, and he settles down in that land and has his 12th son, Benjamin. Sadly, his beloved wife Rachel dies during childbirth. You may recall that Rachel was Jacob’s first love, and that she bore him 2 sons: Benjamin, and Joseph. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for our storytelling) Jacob made the classic parenting error of favouring certain children over others. He favoured Benjamin and Joseph – Rachel’s sons. Well, as you can imagine, the other 10 sons did not like that one bit.

Benjamin was so much younger than the others that he hadn’t earned their ire yet – but Joseph, well, let’s just say he didn’t do himself any favours. His Dad gives him a fancy ‘sleeved’ (perhaps multi-coloured) coat – with sleeves, and then to further endear himself to his already jealous brothers Joseph likes to share his dreams with them. And wouldn’t you know it – his dreams always seem to be about how he’ll end up much better than them, and more powerful than them, and how they’ll all bow down and worship him. Not good! It got to be so bad that even Jacob was becoming irritated by his son’s clueless boasting.

Joseph should have known better. It says he was 17 years old at this time. 17 back in ancient times was not like 17 now. We’re not talking about a naïve high school kid who maybe needs to mature a bit. At 17 he should have been a fully functioning member of the family – out doing the work. He might have already been married and starting his own family at that age. That’s how it was back then. But not Joseph. Nope, he’d prefer to flap around in his fancy coat, flaunting his father’s favour in his brothers’ faces, and dreaming of how he’d someday be ‘da man’.

Now, there’s no excuse for what his brothers did to him, but you can kind of understand why they were so miffed. At first they thought about killing Joseph. Yikes! But then the oldest son, Reuben, convinced them to just teach him a lesson by throwing him in a pit. Reuben made the mistake of turning his back and the other brothers sold Joseph into slavery and then they all made up a story of how he’d been attacked by wild animals and killed, shredding his dreamcoat and smearing it with goat’s blood in order to cover their tracks. Then they told their Dad, Jacob.

That’s where our reading stops today. But Joseph’s story goes on and on. He becomes the servant of an Egyptian captain of Pharaoh’s guards named Potiphar, and finds favour until Potiphar’s wife decides that Joseph is dreamy (pun intended) and when Joseph refuses her advances he gets falsely accused and thrown in jail.

In jail he hears and interprets the dreams of other prisoners. One of them remembers this years later when the Pharaoh starts having nightmares, and Joseph is called on to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. He does so, and ends up accurately predicting 7 years of bounty followed by 7 years of coming famine. Pharaoh is so impressed he makes Joseph into a governor and he becomes a very powerful man – just like Joseph dreamt about so long ago.

That’s the general arc of the story. Next week we’ll look at how it ends. But this week we’re going to circle back and look at the aftermath of how this family imploded.

You’ll remember that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. But they knew they had to cover up this terrible thing from their father Jacob, so they chose to just say that Joseph had been killed by animals instead. Jacob receives the news poorly. He is inconsolable. He tears his clothes and sits mourning in sackcloth and ashes. He is utterly devastated.

What have we learned?
We’ve learned that anger, jealousy, pride, lying, arrogance, favouritism – our worst selfish instincts – can lead us to do very unloving things.
We’ve also learned that no one is pristine and guiltless here. Every single character in the story has contributed to this terrible, negative outcome. The brothers sold Joseph and lied to their Dad. Jacob showed blatant favouritism. Joseph rubbed his dreamy future in everyone’s face.
There is one word that encompasses every single character’s contribution to this catastrophe – unloving.
They were all unloving.
And when unloving abounds, people get hurt.

There’s no resolution in this scripture reading. It ends abruptly with everyone miserable – brothers guilty, Jacob desolate, Joseph enslaved. We happen to know the end of the story already, so we want to cheat and jump to the happily-ever-after part.

But I’m not going to let us do that today, and you’re not going to like it.

Not everything in life gets tied up with a pretty little bow after some nice words. read on

200802 – The Sacredly Hip

Yr A ~ Pentecost 9 ~ Genesis 32:22-31
(out of lectionary order)

The scripture reading today is one of those famous scenes where most church people seem to know the reference but I suspect that’s usually as far as it goes. Jacob wrestles with God and comes away with a limp. It’s an iconic, archetypal story – instantly identified – but seldom examined. I mean, I’ve never preached on this passage before, but I’m sure I’ve probably referenced it. It’s a fascinating story – worth digging into. To do so we have to ask the question: What brought Jacob to that night of wrestling? Let’s find out!

The last time we talked about Jacob was when I referred to him a few weeks ago as cheating his brother Esau and deceiving his father Isaac, and him fleeing for his life into the wilderness.
There he had his famous ‘Jacob’s ladder’ dream which is the basis for the affirmation of God’s Presence that we use constantly here at Faith United.
Jacob said, Genesis 28:16 “Surely, the Lord is in this place! And I did not know it!”

We say: Surely God is in this place. Help me notice!

From there Jacob ended up in a far off land where his story gets super-complicated. He sees a beautiful girl named Rachel and will do anything to have her. He pledges himself to her father Laban for 7 years labour in exchange for her. At the end of 7 years Laban tricks Jacob (who, you will recall, was a deceitful trickster himself!) and sends the older sister Leah to Jacob’s bed instead. Jacob apparently didn’t realize it and wakes up in the morning married to the wrong girl! Jacob then works another 7 years and is given his beloved Rachel as a wife. 6 more years pass until we get to today’s story – and in the span of that 20 years 1 daughter and 11 sons are born through Jacob – 6 sons from Leah (plus the daughter), 1 son from Rachel, and 2 each from their maidservants.
(Just in case you were wondering what ‘biblical marriage’ looks like! But I digress!)
There will be a 12th son born later.

Anyway, our story today picks up with Jacob taking his two wives, two servant wives, 12 children, and all his flocks and servants away from that far country and he’s heading home to his father Isaac and his brother Esau.
He’s going home to face the music! It’s been 20 years. Remember, he left on the worst of terms.
What kind of reception will he receive?
What kind of reception does he deserve?
Will he have the courage of his convictions to stand before his dad and brother?

This is what Jacob is wrestling with.
The wrestling in our scripture reading becomes a physical manifestation of his inner struggle. But who is he actually wrestling with?

In Hebrew it reads straightforwardly as Jacob wrestling with a man until morning.
Genesis 32:24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

It doesn’t initially say where this man came from, why he was there, or who he was. In the end we interpret the man as an angel of God, but it’s ambiguous.
But it’s weird, right?
I mean, where’d this dude come from?
Did they talk first, or just start wrestling?
Was there an effort to come to a non-violent resolution?
What was at issue?
What caused the ‘fight’?

And it says they are wrestling – literally. We may be tempted to interpret this as Jacob wrestling with his conscience. And maybe that’s exactly the right interpretation; but that’s not how it reads. Although, to read it literally suggests that the two men physically wrestled for hours through the night and unto daybreak. That seems unlikely.

If it’s an angel, well, I guess it must be a junior angel because Jacob appears to be the better wrestler. In verse 25 the man/angel sees that he’s losing and strikes Jacob on the hip and knocks it out of joint. I read that as Jacob’s hip is dislocated. Ouch!

Still Jacob won’t let his opponent go. read on

200712 – Multiple Choice

Yr A ~ Pentecost 6 ~ Genesis 25:27-34

I was a big fan of the sitcom called “How I Met Your Mother.” In one of the final episodes the lead character, a hopeless romantic named Ted, was at a friend’s wedding weekend. During the episode Ted was faced with decision after decision – usually about whether he should pursue this beautiful woman or that one. The voice-over of his inner dialogue showed him weighing his options. Unfortunately for Ted, but fortunately for comedy, over and over again he chooses based on a perceived immediate, pleasurable benefit instead of a more thoughtful reason. Upon each disastrous choice a ghostly apparition of the ‘Lord of the Manor’ where they were staying appears and says, “You have chosen…poorly!” In the end Ted finally makes a smart choice and the ghost says, “You have chosen…wisely!”

So today we’re going to think about choosing, and hopefully the ‘Lord of the Manor’ will approve. I thought to start maybe we could use some practice!
Friends, it’s multiple choice time.

It’s breakfast time. You look in your fridge to select one of the following:
a) A piece of chocolate cake.
b) A jar of pickles.
c) Yogurt and fruit.

All of these have their place (unless they’re dill pickles – yuck!), but if you chose letter ‘c’ – you have chosen…wisely!

It’s Sunday morning at 10:30 and you’re trying to decide how to spend your day.
You should:
a) Go back to bed.
b) Go for a long walk.
c) Tune into the Faith United worship livestream on YouTube.

No real bad choices in that lot, but if you chose letter ‘c’ – you have chosen…wisely!

Those were easy. What if the choice is harder?

You see the latest, greatest gadget, device, technology, guitar (!) (whatever your passions might see as desirous – that item that you’ve just gotta have) but you don’t have the money to buy it.
Do you:
a) Talk yourself out of wanting it.
b) Save your money until you can buy it.
c) Put it on your credit card and deal with it later.

A friend or relative on Facebook posts that they think the new mandate to wear a mask in public places is wrong, and many comments and ‘likes’ are in agreement.
Do you:
a) Scroll by and ignore it.
b) Unfriend them as a matter of principle.
c) Offer a comment with an opposing view.

Like my TV friend Ted, I think the difference between choosing poorly and choosing wisely often comes down to what is guiding your decision making. I’m no sociologist, but it seems to me that often our prime motivation is seeking out what is most immediately pleasurable or easiest rather than choosing something that may involve work, or pain, or hardship, even if it’s the better choice in the long run.
Our society seems to suffer from a gigantic case of ‘instant gratification’.

This isn’t something we invented though. It’s kind of human nature.
Look at the scripture story for today.
Esau and Jacob were brothers – sons to Isaac (the one who wasn’t sacrificed by Abraham a couple of weeks ago) and Rebekah.
Esau was the rugged, outdoors type. Jacob was ‘indoors-y’.
Esau was older (by minutes – they were twins, not identical) but Jacob was more savvy. Jacob was something of a trickster, and early in his life he was not a good or ethical person.

Anyway, the story goes that Esau came in from his work and was famished. Jacob had a stew cooking. Esau asked for some stew. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”
Essentially he’s asking Esau to give up his claim to being first-born, which would also mean to be the one who inherited everything and took over the family upon the death of their father.

Esau, focused only on his immediate ‘felt’ need said, “I am about to die (of hunger); of what use is a birthright to me?” And thus he traded away his birthright, and his eventual inheritance, and his power as head of the household, because he was really hungry.

And the ghost appeared and said, “You have chosen…poorly!”

And consider Jacob’s choice here.
He freely chose to deceive his brother and cheat him. Jacob chose the immediate satisfaction and gratification of acquiring potential wealth and power and apparently didn’t give a second thought to the consequences – that he would disappoint his father, that he would infuriate his brother, that he would so alienate his family that eventually he’d have to flee for his life to escape the wrath of those he’d wronged at the expense of his personal gain.
There is no doubt that Jacob chose…poorly.

You’re probably thinking this is a ridiculous story. I mean, who gives away so much just because they’re hungry?
You’re probably thinking, “I’d never make such a foolish choice!”

Oh really? Are you sure? read on

200705 – Resterday

Yr A ~ Pentecost 5 ~ Matthew 11:28-30

I’m going to do something today that I usually don’t do. I’m going to ignore the context of the suggested scripture reading, refrain from diving inside it and drawing out the beautiful message that’s hiding in the confusing words, and just focus on three, short, powerful verses. I’m in good company. I mean, the gospel reading for today is Matthew 11:16-19 then 25-30. See, even the revered lectionary itself skips over a bunch of inconvenient or hard to interpret verses. So I’m doing that too! I’m zeroing in on the three verses that really spoke to me in my planning time. Three verses that as I read them I had to pause and catch my breath because these beautiful, pastoral, transformational words from Jesus hit me so hard.

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Truth is, I’m weary, and I’m carrying a heavy burden, and I need rest.

I can’t imagine there’s anyone whose calling is leadership in the church who isn’t weary by now.
Exhausted even.
Church work is always challenging on some levels (as is any work, of course) but in this season of coronavirus, and self-isolation, and fear of infection, and facemasks, working from makeshift home offices, and preaching to a camera in an empty sanctuary – well, weary doesn’t begin to describe it. Pick a synonym: tired, beat, fatigued, drained, worn-out, pooped, overwhelmed, spent. I’ve had one Sunday off since Christmas.
We’ve had to reinvent and adapt the way we do church together – worship, pastoral care, learning, connecting and supporting one another, helping in our community.
And together we’ve done wondrously good things! It’s not ideal, but it’s working, and working well. We’re making our way through this. Trying to find ways not just to survive, but to thrive.
And we’re doing it!
But it’s exhausting.

And it doesn’t help to know that it doesn’t look like it’s going to let up any time soon.
Virus infection rates are diminishing around here, but one only need watch the news to see how devastating it can be when if we were to stop being cautious, ease up on our precautions, and go ‘back to normal’ too soon.
So yeah, I’m weary. I imagine you’re weary too.
Maybe you’re weary of me whining because I’m weary!
There have been so many losses and disappointments. So many hardships. Sure, there are lots of good news stories too – thank God! Three weeks of a pickup truck at the church full of donated food for the food bank is just one such story. I absolutely don’t want to suggest that it’s all been doom and gloom without hope or joy along the way. I just need to say that doing ministry in these roller-coaster four months has made me…weary.

And everything I just lamented about has contributed to the second thing – that we’re carrying a heavy burden, a heavy load. A minute ago I tossed off the phrase ‘back to normal’.
Here’s my burden: I know we will not be going back to normal any time soon.
And I wonder if we will ever be back to normal.
That’s hard to fathom, but it’s reality.

In some ways, we don’t want to go back to normal.
In the midst of this season of pandemic (this interminable season of pandemic) we have witnessed and experienced the emergence of a deeper and more palpable awareness of issues of racial injustice in our world.
If normal means we return to living obliviously to the soul cry of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the insights into how deeply the concepts of privilege and racism and colonialism are embedded in our culture then I hope we never go ‘back to normal’.

As far as church life goes, can you really see us just flipping a switch and returning to how we used to do things?
How long will it take before people will be comfortable enough to sing together in church again?
Or to shake hands and hug at ‘shalom’ time?
Or to have the sign of the cross placed on your forehead with oil or ashes and have hands laid on for prayer?
Or to take a cube of bread from a plate and dip the edge of it into a common cup?

So I’m carrying the heavy burden of wondering “how do I transform the way we celebrate God’s Presence together when just about every aspect of ‘how we’ve always done it’ is suddenly fraught with infectious peril.”
I know it’s not up to me alone – but I’m the resident theologian here, I’m the called minister, I’m the one whose leadership is counted on for such things. Ministry leadership has always been a blessed burden. But in this season it’s feeling more burden than blessing, and I’m not alone.

Think about all those churches who aren’t nearly as fortunate as we are as this community of faith.
What about those places who are afraid that if they don’t get back together in-person, and soon, that they won’t have a church to get back to?
How heavy a burden must it be to feel helpless on the sideline while the church crumbles around you?
Yes, that’s overstating things.
Yes, there are all sorts of things one can do while being sidelined by Covid-19.
But the terrible, heavy burden of feeling responsible for the ongoing viability of a church when the circumstances of the world all seem to be plotting against you – that’s a real, deep feeling. Doesn’t matter if it’s entirely true or not. It’s how it feels.

With all this stuff swirling in my brain, for some weird reason this week I kept hearing the lyrics to the Beatles’ song Yesterday.
I know, it’s a love song and not at all about this topic really, but bear with me.
Here’s the first verse: read on

200621 – Cat’s in the Cradle

Yr A ~ Pentecost 3 ~ Genesis 22:1-14

What a great text for Father’s Day! I mean, it’s got everything, right? A dad and his son going on a three day camping trip, they’ll do some bonding (I mean binding), there’ll be a fire, and some outdoor cooking (too far?). It’s a beautiful Father’s Day story. Well, except for the child sacrifice part.

Ok, it’s not a beautiful story. It’s a horrific and repugnant story.
Many people wonder why it’s even in the bible – it’s so awful.
Why would God test Abraham in such a vile way – to ask him to sacrifice his son and then let him off the hook at the last second?
Why would God ever do such a thing?

Well, the answer, of course, is that God never would do such a thing. In my view, this is not a literal/historical story.
And even if it was, then it would be a story about how a man could so catastrophically misunderstand and misinterpret God’s will.
We know something very important about God.
We know that God’s nature is love – God’s very being is love.
God loves because God IS love, and love can only love.
Full stop.
So any interpretation of scripture which tries to suggest that God required or incited repugnant things is a blatant misinterpretation.
No, what we have is a group of humans (ok, usually men) who do terrible things and then try to cover their butts with “Oh, God made me do it!” Look, if it’s not love, it’s not God. End of story.

So, what are we left with here?
It could be a story about how Abraham got it all wrong and God intervened at the last second to save the day. We’ll have a poke at that.
But I think the story’s actually about something much deeper, and scarier – and here’s the part that’ll make you squirm: It’s a story where we are supposed to identify with Abraham, because we do what he did all the time. I’ll come back to that.

First, this story does work as an allegory about discernment. Abraham begins the story by receiving a message from God. But if you know much about Abraham you’d know that he’s an arguer. When God told Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed Abraham argued and bartered with God to reduce the requirement of finding 50 good people in the city and it would be spared down to just 10. (Spoiler alert – even that was too high!) So it strains credulity that Abraham, upon hearing that he’s supposed to go and kill his own son, that he and his wife Sarah yearned for for decades, as a burnt offering, would proceed without a word of argument or complaint.

No, in this interpretation Abraham is being set up here as an example, an archetype, a stand-in who represents all those people who get an inkling about God’s will and run off and do it (or don’t do it) without a thought about discernment. Obviously I’m talking about big, life-changing things here – not just a feeling that you should give someone a call or whatever. To thoughtlessly just follow (or ignore) something great big (like, oh I don’t know, killing your kid!) that you think might be the will of God, is utter foolishness.
We’re supposed to ask God questions, and wonder, and wrestle.
We’re supposed to have to pray about it, and ponder it, and talk about it with our loved ones before we run off in God’s name – especially when what we think we’re perceiving as God’s will is directly and categorically antithetical to God’s nature and being (like, oh I don’t know, killing your kid!).

Another reason you know this story is just a story and not history is that Isaac, who is likely 13 or 14 years old at this point, seems to just obediently and silently let himself get tied up and then hops up onto the altar.
Genesis 22:9 Abraham bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.
Really? Not a peep of complaint from this teenager? Not a chance!

And then, we get the big lesson. Just as Abraham is about to do the deed (in the story, not real life) the voice of God breaks in – right on cue, just like in Hollywood – and stops him in the nick of time. And there, in the bushes, they see a ram that can be sacrificed instead.
Well, God is not Houdini, and magic tricks are not God’s shtick.
I think we’re supposed to understand that the ram was there the whole time but Abraham just couldn’t see it. He was so committed to his misperception of God’s will that he couldn’t see God’s presence and providence.
He should have been able to see it – and he should have known better from the start – but his discernment was flawed – with almost tragic consequences.

So, that’s a pretty decent theological lens through which we can look at this story. But I don’t actually think that’s the best lens.
Instead, I want us to ponder that in all likelihood we are actually Abraham in this story.
Child sacrifice has always been an abomination. (Yet another reason not to take this story literally.)
But I’ve got some troubling news for us.
I think, in a manner of speaking, we actually practice child sacrifice all the time.
No, not on a stone altar with fire and a knife.
We tend to sacrifice our children on the altar of busyness, or interests, or ambition – sometimes our own ambition, sometimes our ambitions for them to be the next Gretzky or whoever.

It makes me think of that hauntingly and disturbingly beautiful song by Harry Chapin called “Cat’s In the Cradle.”

read on

200614 – Gracefull

Yr A ~ Pentecost 2 ~ Romans 5:1-8

Here we go again. Yet another biblical text filled with really fantastic and heavy theological concepts that have, in my oh so humble opinion, have not been interpreted in the most helpful ways. (Did I manage to say I think they’re wrong without saying they’re wrong?)

I’m going to spend some time today dealing with reinterpreting a tiny little, innocuous looking three-letter word that may turn this passage upside down for some. That word is ‘for’.
I know. How can ‘for’ cause so much trouble? You’ll see!

But really this sermon isn’t about that – it’s about a five-letter word that we use all the time but might not realize just how powerful and paradigm-changing a word it is – not only way back in bible times but still today.
That word is ‘grace’.

Last Monday at The Porch (that’s our weekly bible discussion group on zoom – although tomorrow’s the last one until September) – anyway, I told the group that this passage is simply about grace.
Grace, grace, grace, grace, grace, grace, grace, grace!
In fact, I told them to avoid all the confusion and take a black sharpie and just write the word ‘grace’ in giant letters right down the page because that’s all you really need from this passage.
Grace.

So. What is grace?
The curious thing is that the biblical definition of the word is different than all the other ways we use the word.
We say grace at meals.
We say that a person who has impeccable manners has grace.
When someone gets extra time for something we call it a grace period. That’s actually the closest to the biblical meaning.
And when a person moves with elegance and flair we say they’re graceful.

And no, it wasn’t a typo in the sermon title, the bible says we’re all grace-full! F-U-L-L!

Ok, so that’s nice but it still doesn’t tell us exactly what we’re full of (so to speak).

My favourite way to explain grace is to say it’s a blessing given that you didn’t earn.
Grace is about experiencing God’s favour, but not having to do a single thing to merit it.
It’s just given.
Lavishly. Unfailingly. Overflowingly.
Until we’re grace-full.

A classic way to describe grace is to say that ‘grace keeps giving me things I don’t deserve’.
That’s close, but not great.
The problem is the word ‘deserve’. You deserve all kinds of things. Not material things, but important things – like honour, respect, to be valued for the sacred person you are.
Your innate sacredness deserves to be honoured.
But that’s just supposed to be proper human interaction. That’s on us, not God.
Every one of us deserves that sacred honour and respect from every one of us.

Grace, on the other hand, keeps giving me things I haven’t earned!

The distinction is vitally important.
And it’s a challenge for us, because it flat out goes directly against how we humans tend to operate in the world.
We think we have to earn everything.
We’re wrong.

God’s grace has been a freely bestowed gift from ‘the beginning’ and always. Grace didn’t start with Jesus – but he did preach about it all the time, even if he didn’t use that exact word all the time.
Grace is the gift of God’s loving Presence enfolding us and enlivening us – bringing peace, and wholeness, and healing, and light, and hope, and belonging, and acceptance, and all those great things that we count as the blessings of God’s love.

How did we get all those things?
Jesus said God just gives them – because God is love, so God loves.
In reality then, ‘gift’ is the wrong word: God doesn’t ‘give’ these things because they’re already all around you and within you – if you care to notice.
It’s grace.
And Paul is trying to pick up that ball and run with it here in Romans 5.

He’s trying to teach the concept of ‘grace’ to an audience that is convinced they have to ‘earn’ access to God’s love – by keeping all the laws (either Jewish laws or Roman civic laws), or by philosophical knowledge (wisdom).

Grace isn’t something you can earn – because grace is a state of being.

Romans 5:1-2 (NRSV)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith (not by anything we’ve done, but by simply trusting in the life and way of Jesus and trying to align our lives with that Way) – through faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to (obtained awareness of) this grace in which we stand; and we [revel] in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

This grace in which we stand!
We’re standing in it.
We’re up to our ears in it.
We’re utterly immersed in it – in God’s grace.
Paul’s saying that we don’t have to strive to reach God – God is striving to reach us!
We spend so much energy trying to be good little girls and boys and persons to earn something that we’re already completely enfolded in.
We are now, and always have been, grounded in grace. Freely given, because God can be no other way. Amazing grace, indeed!

Grace embarrasses us, because we think we need to earn everything. read on

200607 – The Rhythm, the Melody, and the Holy Groove

Yr A ~ Trinity ~ Matthew 28:16-20, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

I’m not really going to preach about the Biblical texts this week – instead, I’m going to focus on a concept – the concept of the Trinity. It’s been said that the Trinity is one of those things that every Christian knows and understands intuitively but can’t really put into words. So instead of putting it into words I’m going to put it into music – with the warning in mind that, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”

How do you explain the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a way that gets beyond both the literal and the purely abstract? Often we talk about the Trinity as being our experience of God as ‘beyond, around and within’ us – as an effort to express the totality and fullness of God. But how can anything be beyond me and beside or within me at the same time? It doesn’t seem to make sense. But this kind of multiple expression of a single idea or concept or reality can be much more easily understood if we apply it to music.

Music – like God – exists and is experienced as an entity beyond any singular definition or expression or categorization. Even though no one can adequately come close to defining it there’s also no one who could rationally deny the existence and myriad manifestations of music. So, music is clearly beyond us and our linguistic abilities – and yet, at the same time music exists and is experienced all around us in a number of different forms.

Music exists in printed form – as a symbolic language that represents the notes and rhythms that the composer intends to have sounded. But is that music? Certainly we can identify the symbols as pointing to music but it arguably isn’t music until it’s brought to life. And yet, a person who has the basic skills in reading music notation can actually ‘hear’ the music as they look at the printed page. When I open a hymn book and look at the page I can hear the hymn, without hearing the hymn.

Music also exists in audible form that has to be actively experienced. This is by far the most common way that music exists. Music that’s heard. We can hear music that’s pre-recorded and played through some media device, broadcasted via radio, television or internet, or performed by musicians in our immediate presence.

But beyond these usual forms is another expression of music that seems to exist within the very centre of our being – an inner music that we can just ‘hear’ within our minds and hearts even though the person standing beside us would hear nothing (except, of course, their own internal music playing).

If you doubt this phenomenon I need only point you to the incredibly annoying reality of the “ear worm” – a piece of music (invariably one that you find irritating and inane) that for whatever reason finds its way into your consciousness and starts playing over and over non-stop until it drives you insane. (I thought about giving you an example, but I don’t want to lose any viewers!)

Another proof of music existing within us is the truth that in our heads we can hear a favourite song running around inside us – or maybe music that we’ve never heard before. Everyone has music in them. (!)

Music is.
Music exists as a general overarching concept that everyone can attest to but no one can pin down, and it also exists in tangible forms that everyone can see and touch and experience, and it also exists innately in our brains and hearts in ways that only we can personally hear even though we can attest to a commonality of experience.

Well, isn’t that the essence of the Trinity?
Transcendent music, tangible music, and immanent music – music beyond us, music around us, and music within us – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Ok – so far so good – but now what? What do we do with that? We need to dig deeper.
Knowing and feeling that Music is – that God is – is not enough. We need to understand it more.
And so we attempt to put it into words – and we fail miserably.

Well, I’m going to try anyway! But instead of using words I’m going to use music!
In order to work out the complexities of the dynamic relationship between and among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit I’m going to talk about the Rhythm, the Melody, and the Holy Groove! read on

200531 – A Broad Reach

Pentecost ~ Acts 2:1-18

I blame Andrew!  It’s all his fault – well, his dad’s actually.
You see, Andrew is one of my very best friends. We were the best man at each other’s wedding – and when we were in high school he and his dad invited me to be crew on their sailboat for the local weekly races. I think they had a 28 or 30 footer.
That’s when it started – my absolute infatuation with sailboats and sailing.

When I sit and dream of what I’d do if I had a million dollars (anyone else singing the song in their heads?) I dream of owning a sailboat. My wife keeps telling me that I really chose the wrong profession if I wanted a sailboat – but I figure some preachers seem to get private jets, and a sailboat is puny by comparison, and after all I’m a man of prayer so I’ve at least got a shot! Right?

Man, when I’m on a sailboat and I’m riding the wind I feel like I’m on top of the world!
I am the man. It’s my ship! I am the captain!
Ok, someone who really knows what they’re doing is letting me play captain for a little while, but I feel like the captain! There’s nothing like it.

And even though I have very, very little experience as a sailor, sailing has taught me a lot – especially a lot about faith.
Let me share 3 of my sailing stories with you.

One day Andrew and I and some friends were out for a sail – not a race – and the wind started to come up a bit stronger. I’m a little bit fuzzy about the day and I may have some details wrong (you’ll see why in a second) but I’m pretty sure I was the one holding the tiller (just in case you happen to know even less about sailing than I do, a tiller is the stick that attaches to the rudder that allows you to steer the boat) – well, I was holding it when it broke off.

As I recall we were riding the crest of a giant, 10 foot Lake Ontario wave (!) and having a great time as I kept pulling on the tiller to maintain our angle and speed, and the force was too great, and it snapped.
So there I am – standing there with a tiller in my hand.
“Um, Andrew – what do we do now?”
Andrew leapt into action – barking out orders. We had to get the sail down in a hurry because we couldn’t steer.
In the midst of the confusion, while undoing the sheets (the side ropes – see, I know stuff!) undoing the sheets that would release the tension on the sail – while I was doing that the boom (that’s the long, heavy, horizontal part of the main sail – did I mention heavy?) well, the boom came flying across and bonked me on the head and knocked me semi-unconscious. (Did I mention these are all true stories?)

A few years after that Cynthia and I were married and we had our honeymoon in Jamaica. We were at one of those all-inclusive resorts where your food and fun were part of the package – which meant we had access to all their sporting equipment at the beach – which meant I was finally able to try my hand at windsurfing. I went down to the sail shack and signed up.

[Jamaican accent] “’Ave you ever done the windsurfing before, mon?”
“No, but I have a little experience sailing boats!” (It wasn’t really a lie.)

So I got up on the training board on the shore and learned how to manipulate the sail, and scoot around to the other side when you wanted to turn, and all that stuff. When the guy thought I was ready he set me up with a board and lifejacket and I headed for the ocean. In the little bay where we were it wasn’t that windy so I was able to begin to maneuver the windsurfer a little and make a couple of little turns.

And then, full of confidence, I moved out a little further – and the wind got a little stronger – and I was still making good little turns.
But then I noticed that as I was concentrating so hard on my turns and my sail that I had kept turning back and forth in one general direction.
Downwind.
I was moving further and further down the beach. So I tried to tack back. And I ended up even further down the beach – and beyond the area of the resort.
Thankfully, the guy from the sail shack took pity on me (or he wanted his windsurfer back, I’m not sure which) and he came out in a boat and brought me home. Cynthia managed not to tease me too much about that one. I guess she thought we were only a few weeks in and she didn’t want to scare me off!

Then when we lived in Ottawa we made friends with a couple of families who had sailboats. (You see – God keeps hooking me up with sailboat people – it’s a sign!) One day our family was invited out with our friend Mark for a sail on the Ottawa River. There we were – 5 of us in a little 16 foot sailboat – setting out on the river. But there was a problem. As luck would have it, we were out on one of the only dead calm weather days of the year – which meant we spent most of our time not sailing the boat but paddling it!

So – how does any of that teach me about faith?
Well, what it teaches me is that the power of the “wind” is awesome. (And yes, you’re supposed to hear this as a metaphor for the Holy Spirit.)
In the first story I fought too hard against the wind and paid the price with a bonk on the head.
In the second story I let the wind blow me around too much and didn’t do enough to work with it.
And in the third story I learned that without the wind travelling is very slow and exhausting.

The mighty wind in today’s reading from the book of Acts is the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:1-4 When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

In Hebrew the word is ruach – in Greek the word is pneuma – and we translate that as Spirit – as breath.
The Spirit that moved across the waters of creation in Genesis was the ruach of God – the breath of God – the Spirit of God. And that very same Spirit – that pneuma – is what Jesus promised would be given to his followers – to those who were anxiously, hopefully, faithfully waiting for God’s gift.
It came in a dramatic way at Pentecost; on the day that the Jewish people were celebrating their ‘Festival of Weeks’ – the remembrance of the time that Moses received the law from God – the 10 Commandments.

But this time – for the followers of Jesus – what God gave was not the law but God’s own Spirit, that seemed to them like a mighty, powerful, wind. God’s Spirit – God’s breath – revived, renewed, and animated the disciples who had been in hiding since Jesus’ death and resurrection, and it literally propelled them into the streets where they began to share the message of God’s presence, forgiveness, and love that they had learned through Jesus.

God’s Spirit – breath – the holy wind – brought them new life and new passion for ministry.
It was strong – it was powerful – it was awe-some.

Now think back to my sailing stories. read on

200517 – Playing Shy

Yr A ~ Easter 6 ~ John 14:15-21

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

That’s Genesis 1:1-2.
Right there, in the second verse of our Holy Bible, the Holy Spirit is present. In the beginning God created. That’s the first movement of God in the universe, through the eyes of spirituality.
First, God created. Second? What happened second?
A wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Swept. The Hebrew word means to hover, to gently flow. And what is this wind? The Hebrew word is ruach. It means wind, but it’s also the word for spirit, and a word for breath. I’ll come back to that!

We’re not talking science here. Science is not the point of the book of Genesis (or any book of the bible, for that matter). We’re talking theology. Spirituality. And spiritually speaking, in the midst of God’s creative flow the thing we have come to know as the Holy Spirit was moving. Hovering. Flowing quietly in the darkness.
Why mention that? I mean, it doesn’t say that the Spirit accomplished anything. It just says that the Spirit was present, and moving. For me, that gives the impression that God’s vision, God’s dream, God’s desire for the world is somehow put into motion and animated by this wind, this breath, this Holy Spirit.

I’m fascinated by the character of the Holy Spirit.
Wind has the capacity to be characterized in all kinds of ways. This wind of God, this Spirit could easily have been introduced as a powerful gale force wind capable of splitting rocks and uprooting trees – and indeed, those characteristics of the power of the Spirit may well emerge through the story of God’s people.
But here at the start, in the beginning, when the main players are being first introduced (and we all know that first impressions are quickly formed and deeply lasting) – in the beginning the Spirit we meet is a gentle, flowing, hovering (as a mother bird over her chicks), calming, yet animating movement of the heart of the Creator.
Instantly, and forever, the association, the connection, is made. Wherever God is (and we affirm that God is everywhere!), the Holy Spirit is present and gently moving as God’s desire and life-force.

Another brilliant thing about this initial description of the Holy Spirit is that by describing it as ‘wind’ it not only encapsulates movement but also mystery.
You can’t see wind, but you can feel it.
Wind kind of emerges from somewhere, and then blows through where you are, and then kind of blows on through – but it doesn’t really start or stop.
I can see the effects of the wind, and see and feel that it’s present and impacting me, but beyond that it’s all pretty mysterious.

I can’t grab it, hold it, or control it. But I can definitely work with it for my benefit.
I can adjust my sails and have the wind power my boat.
I can build vanes that can rotate in the wind and produce energy.
I can hang my wet clothes in its path and they’ll become fresh and dry.
In warm weather I can open my windows in my house and allow the wind to blow through bringing clean air and comfort.
And I can just place myself in the flow of the breeze and have it blow through my hair (and God knows there’s a bit more of it these days than usual!) and bring calmness and comfort, and I can breathe it in deeply and it brings peace to my…spirit.

Why am I waxing poetic about the wind?
Why am I going on and on about the Holy Spirit?
Why am I starting with Genesis 1 when today’s reading is from John 14?

Well, frankly it’s because I think that we as good mainline United Church people tend to have an underdeveloped theology of and appreciation for the Holy Spirit in general, and the mystical, spiritual aspects of Christianity in specific. read on

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