Noticings – April 21, 2021

NOTICINGS…

April 21,  2021

Well of course it is. Snowing. In late April. Like we didn’t have enough disheartening stuff swirling around in our lives lately. We wake up on what should be a beautiful, warm, sunny spring day and discover that it’s none of those things. It’s cold and snowy and very un-spring-like. But maybe it can still be beautiful? Maybe we might celebrate the uniqueness of it? Maybe we can be glad that it’s given us something fresh to talk (complain) about?

Maybe I can find a way to theologize about it – like how the unexpected can break through at any moment and profoundly impact your life – like how nothing is impossible just because it’s improbable – like how as this present trouble recedes we’ll feel that much more grateful for the returning warmth. Nah. I’d rather gripe! Crappy cold weather, in a crappy never-ending pandemic, with crappy restrictions, and crappy prospects for getting back to something like normal. Harrumph!

That felt good! It’s good to let your feelings out and not push them down and try to squelch them. It’s good to release all that disappointment and frustration – as long as you do it in a safe and healthy way and not at the expense of another person. Go ahead. Shake your fist at the snow. Let it be a symbol of how it feels like everything is working against us these days. Let it represent your frustration or anger with our current state of affairs.

And after you’ve had a good, long, loud, cathartic release – take a deep breath – and look again. It’s falling very gently. The trees are gleaming and shining. It’s all fluffy and pure and clean. We’re not supposed to be out and about anyway, so we can just enjoy the natural loveliness of it all from the warmth of our homes. And yes, it will be gone in a little while, and things will get back to a kind of normal, and the weird April snowstorm of ’21 will become part of our lore.

I suppose I should invite you to go out and make a snowperson, or lay down and make snow angels, or go for a walk and try to catch snowflakes on your tongue. Those sound like fun. As for me, I’m going to pour another cup of coffee, sit by my fireplace fire, and think warm thoughts. And I’m going to be grateful – mostly because I know it’ll warm up soon so I don’t have to shovel! Strange days indeed.

 Shalom,
Rev. Larry

 

210418 – Unlovingness

Yr B ~ Easter 3 ~ 1 John 3:1-7

We’re going to be spending the season of Easter going through the love letter called 1st John. It’s actually more of a sermon – now turned into a bunch of sermons! It’s meant to be an encouragement to a church that’s having a rough go and needs some love. I thought that resonated pretty strongly in this seemingly never-ending season of Covid-tide. Our reading today begins with a heartwarming affirmation.

1 John 3:1 “What marvellous love the Father has extended to us!”
Let’s just sit with that for a second. God has extended love to us. Extended here carries the sense of a gift. God has gifted us with love. We have love because God gives it. God’s gift is love. You can say it all sorts of different ways and each one sounds better than the previous one as it washes over us in wave after wave of blessing.

Richard Rohr says, “Clearly, you are participating in a Love that’s being given to you. You are not creating this. You are not generating this. It is being generated through you and in you and for you. You are participating in something larger than yourself, and you are just allowing it and trusting it for the pure gift that it is.”

The next words in the translation we’re using today are “Just look at it…”
It’s about awareness. God gives love – look at it – see it – notice it. Not sure how? Close your eyes and breathe deeply and feel it! (deep breath) Drink God’s love in. Let it fill you up. It really is marvellous! “What marvellous love God has given to us!” In fact, we’ve been extended so much love by the Holy Mystery that we name God that we get to be called children of God. We are children of God like a hippie is a child of the 60’s – utterly and completely infused by the source that shapes our being.

1 John 3:1-2 We’re called children of God! That’s who we really are. (all of us!)
But that’s also why the world doesn’t recognize us or take us seriously, because it has no idea who God is or what God’s up to.
But friends, that’s exactly who we are: children of God. And that’s only the beginning.

‘Children of God’ is such a rich image. We’re all children, we may not all be parents but we have all been children – at least once! The problem is that not all of us had warm, loving parents. Some people’s childhoods are horrific, or at least unhappy.

But unlike our imperfect human parents God’s parenthood is pure holiness – and all those qualities of a beautiful childhood that one hopes and wishes for are present in God’s parenthood. There is nurture, there is guidance, there is the requirement of obedience, there is comfort, and most of all there is unlimited, overflowing, unconditional love. (Well, I guess there is one condition – you have to accept it and embrace it. I can give you a winning lottery ticket but I can’t force you to cash it in. That’s how God’s love works too – you’ve gotta claim it!)

And here’s the awesome part – the scripture says that all that’s just the beginning. I mean, that’s pretty much enough – that we are unconditionally loved and nurtured by the Source of all Being is pretty spectacular – but verse 2 continues saying “And that’s just the beginning. Who knows how we’ll end up!”

I love that the idea that we’re children of God is not the end point of our spiritual journey, but the beginning. Being God’s child is not our goal, it’s our birthright – our starting point – our foundation. And with that as our launching pad who knows where we’ll end up! The future is unwritten – your future is unwritten, it’s not predestined and pre-decided. God hasn’t planned your life out for you. God has planted Godself at the centre of your being, and is inviting you to embrace that and run with it – together – you and God – God in you.

Listen to all of verse 2 now: read on

Noticings – April 14, 2021

NOTICINGS…

April 14,  2021

Two things happened to me out of the blue on Saturday. One I should have anticipated; the other was pure windfall. Both of them captivated my emotions. The windfall was that as we are packing up our house preparing for our upcoming move (house, not church) we are discovering long-hidden treasures. Out of one such tucked away box I pulled some music gear, including a guitar ‘stomp box’ that I purchased long, long ago, and had kinda sorta thought I still had but hadn’t seen it in over a decade so figured it was gone. There it was – in mint condition. I’ve been playing much more electric guitar lately so I was delighted to rediscover it. I plugged it in and played it – and it sounds absolutely glorious! Out of curiosity I looked up its value on a music site. Let’s just say that ‘vintage’ pedals like that are selling for outrageous amounts of money now. I’m not selling. I’m going to play through it and savour it.

The other thing, the one I should have anticipated, was that it is the anniversary of my parents’ deaths. They died a year less 4 days apart, several years ago. For whatever reason I hadn’t noticed the dates (Sunday and today) approaching. The journey from the elation of rediscovering a lost treasure to the sadness of remembering lost parents was lightning fast, and not very pleasant. Such is life. Sometimes, out of the blue, things bubble up (or leap out) and overwhelm you. Sometimes it’s hard or sad things like grief – and sometimes it’s delightful things like little green guitar gems. It’s life – sometimes bittersweet, sometimes painful, sometimes joyful. These unexpected moments teach us and shape us.

The Easter message is about the eternal rhythm of dying to what was and rising with the new. But that doesn’t mean to close the book and forget what was. It simply means to let it go – to not hold on to what was too tightly because that prevents us from living in the now, and being open what will be. We get to take those memories and happenings with us, but they are only part of our story, not our whole story. Easter says to let go of the hold ‘what was’ has, and embrace ‘what can be’. I’m going to get a twinge of sadness and grief every year at this time. The spiritual learning is to not stay there dwelling on the past for too long. Acknowledge it, embrace it, honour it, learn from it, and then let it go again, and turn toward this glorious new day with new life and new possibilities – and new/old guitar pedals! Dying and rising. Ending and beginning. Losing and finding. Letting go and embracing the new. Happy Easter.

 Shalom,
Rev. Larry

 

Noticings – April 6, 2021

NOTICINGS…

April 6,  2021

I am on study leave this week so there will not be a worship service livestreamed from Faith United this weekend (April 11th). Zeljka and I will return at our usual 10:30 am time on Sunday April 18th.

Rather than try to arrange for a pulpit supply minister to come in and learn our technology in this strange season our Faith United Council decided it would be better to offer our congregation some other online options. One of the positives to emerge from this season of pandemic is that there are now hundreds of United Churches offering online worship. Here are a few options that I would recommend (again):

Parkdale United Church – Ottawa
Rev. Dr. Anthony Bailey is widely regarded as one of our denomination’s best preachers. Their service is at 10:30 am. Click the link to access their website, and then scroll down a bit for the video.

Wall St. United Church – Brockville
Rev. Kimberly Heath is a fine preacher who serves in Brockville. Their service is at 10:00am. Click the link to directly access their live service.

Metropolitan United Church – Toronto
Rev. Karen Bowles is the interim minister at Metropolitan, long one of the “tall steeples” of the United Church. Their service is at 10:40 am. Click the link to directly access their live service.

Or, if you’re the adventurous type, here is a link to the entire catalogue of known United Church online services. You could find something from anywhere across the whole country!
United Church Online Worship Map

Or if you’re the really ‘un-adventurous’ type, here’s a link to Faith United’s ‘the Sunday after Easter’ service (from last year).
Faith United (April 2020)

I hope you enjoy your online worship with our friends and neighbours across this United Church of ours. And I look forward to being with you again on the 18th.

 Shalom,
Rev. Larry

 

210404 – But Wait There’s More

Yr B ~ Easter ~ John 20:1-18

We have just come through Holy Week! The week we church-folk ride an emotional roller coaster. This year we’ve moved through the story in John’s gospel. We went from the dinner party of Maundy Thursday that got ruined by a betrayal – then on Good Friday we went through an arrest – and a trial – and a brutal crucifixion – a state-sponsored execution. 

Then yesterday we had the silence of Saturday – and all seemed quiet, and lost. A hard time for us, to be sure – but imagine what it must’ve been like for those first followers of Jesus that first Holy Saturday. They didn’t have the luxury of knowing what you and I know.
I wish I could travel back in time and tell them, “Yeah, I know. This is the worst. It feels hopeless. But wait! There’s more! Sunday’s coming! Easter’s coming! Hallelujah! Yeah, I know – you don’t know what I mean. But you will. And it’s gonna knock your socks off!”

I have jokingly been saying lately, “Man, we need us some Easter this year!” No kidding.
But imagine how deeply they needed it back then! We’ve journeyed through the ups and downs of this Holy Week – perhaps more stressed and stretched than usual because of Covid, and lockdowns, and all that frustrating and challenging stuff. But we’ve made this journey always knowing that this Sunday’s coming – Easter’s coming! So perhaps it’s hard for us to grasp just how shocking and mind-blowing the events of that first Easter morning were.

Let’s look at the way the gospel of John tells the story.

Mary Magdalene arrives at dawn and finds the stone to Jesus’ tomb has been rolled away. She runs and tells the disciples, They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Her first reaction? Somebody stole Jesus’ body! Their minds must’ve been racing. What?!?! Why? Who?
But wait! There’s more!

Peter and ‘another disciple’ – not sure why they’re not named – maybe it’s because they ran faster than Peter and he didn’t like that (!) – anyway, they start running, and Buddy gets there first and looks in, but doesn’t go in. Peter catches up and enters the empty tomb, and stands there flabbergasted. The other disciple joins him. It says they “saw and believed, but didn’t understand.” Of course, it doesn’t say what they believed. And then they went home.

But wait! There’s more!

That’s not the end of the story. Left there it might still seem like body snatchers got Jesus. Confused and mystified the disciples head for home – thinking the worst, no doubt.
Don’t you wish you could tell them not to leave so quickly?
Don’t you wish they had stuck around, like Mary did?

Weeping, Mary peers into the tomb and sees two angels dressed in white, sitting at either end of the place where Jesus had been lying. You know, ‘cuz the day hadn’t been weird enough! Then the angels spoke to her, and asked her why she was crying. She replies – because what else would you do when you’re chatting up angels – “They’ve taken Jesus and I don’t know where he is.” She’s locked in on this idea that his body has been stolen.
The angels don’t answer her – so she turns to go home. Story over.

But wait! There’s more! read on

Noticings – March 31, 2021

NOTICINGS…

March 31,  2021

Last night I received my first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. I had mixed feelings about getting it. Not for one millisecond about whether I should or shouldn’t be vaccinated. That was easy. A no-brainer as they say. I was, and am, convinced that everyone – EVERYONE – should get vaccinated as soon as they’re eligible. Yes, that means you!

What was holding me back was that I was deemed eligible ahead of many others because I’m a clergy-person, and as such I’m assumed to be in increased contact with many health-vulnerable persons, including conducting funerals. In my particular expression of ministry that is less true than it is for many of my colleagues. At Faith United we are so blessed to have a dedicated and passionate group of pastoral visitors who regularly keep in close contact with many of our Faith United faithful who are not able to keep connected in the easy ways that most of us do. I am so, so grateful to this visiting and care team. Their ministry is vital and essential to Faith United.

But the reality is that I don’t do a lot of that. So when the invite came for clergy in Durham Region to get the vaccine I was hesitant to sign up. I thought I should yield my invitation to those who more urgently need vaccination. What I learned, however, is that there is a lag between supply and demand. The vaccines are available, yet the eligible groups are not signing up as quickly and fully as they could. Simply put, some folks appear to be NOT taking advantage of their opportunity to be vaccinated. So part of the invitation to clergy was to help show that vaccinations are safe and to promote people signing up. That’s good enough for me.

Dear friends in Faith. Please sign up to be vaccinated against Covid-19 as soon as you’re eligible. If you need help navigating the sign-up system please let us know and we’ll get you help. The faster we get the vast majority of our population vaccinated the sooner we can get back to so many of the things that make our lives together wonderful.

I have now been vaccinated, and I would not have done so if I didn’t think it was safe. Trust the science. Trust the wisdom. Trust that we all want the best for one another – and the best way we can all love one another in this current crisis is to all be vaccinated and eliminate the spread of this horrific illness.

I know, it’s Holy Week, and maybe you were expecting a more ‘religious’ Noticings. Here it is! THE most religious thing I can think of. Love one another, as Jesus loved us. Do what is needed to love and protect one another. Sign up. Get vaccinated. In this current moment, I cannot think of any greater love someone could show another than to be vaccinated when the opportunity allows itself for you. All the church services in the world cannot trump the simple act of loving others. Today, love is a shot in the arm.
I got mine. Get yours. Love one another.

 Shalom,
Rev. Larry

 

210328 – Covenant Love – Conviction

Yr B ~ Palm ~ John 12:12-16

If you’re a regular church-attender you’ve heard the story a thousand times. Jesus and his disciples ‘triumphantly’ enter Jerusalem amid waving palms, and cheering crowds, in an attention grabbing parade.
Maybe.
Oh, I’m not doubting the entry, or the donkey, or even the palms (or branches, or coats – depending on the gospel – each witness remembers things in their own way). This year we get the version found in John 12:12-16. But I don’t want to go diving into the details of it this year, and compare and contrast the different versions. That’s interesting and all, but this year I’m more captivated by the context – what’s going on in and around the story.

Sure, Jesus and the gang entered the Jerusalem gates to attend the humongous Jewish festival called Passover…right alongside tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims! That’s the bit the leapt out at me this time. Maybe it’s because we’re so sensitized to the idea of avoiding large crowds in these days of pandemic social distancing. If you watch any of the movies or documentaries that include a Palm Sunday entry you’ll always see it portrayed as Jesus and the disciples strolling into the city – pretty much alone on road. Eventually curious onlookers gather, and some get caught up in the excitement of a parade and either stand and watch or join in. There’s lots of great theology up for grabs in all of that.

The thing is that Passover was such a massive event that the city would have swelled with probably hundreds of thousands of pilgrims attending. That explains why the Romans, and the Jewish religious leaders, viewed it as such a powder keg. I mean, you can’t cram that many religiously fervent people into a hostile situation like a military occupied city and not expect some trouble to bubble up.
Well guess what? All those people had to arrive at the city at just about the same time – so that roadway leading into Jerusalem would’ve been teeming with pilgrims.

Jesus was not alone and making a solo, dramatic entry at the Jerusalem gates. There would’ve been a sea of humanity with him. Yes, there was a donkey, and in John’s version some palm waving – so they would’ve been noticeable, and probably drew some interest – but, well, let’s just say it probably wasn’t like the movies.

It says in John 12:12 that people had heard that Jesus was coming. So, he had a reputation. Word of mouth was the only way to hear about stuff – no internet, no email, no television news – so if folks had heard about him it was because he was making waves. But it also says in verse 16 that in the moment the disciples didn’t really think this day was such a big deal.

His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
I love that! In the moment, they didn’t get it. It was only later, when they looked back and ‘remembered’ that they realized there was something special going on. I take that to mean that that day it wasn’t necessarily all that big of a spectacle in their minds.

So what’s the story here if Jesus wasn’t a spectacle, but was just one small group among thousands and thousands and thousands? Well, you’ve got to read around the edges of the story. There you’ll find a large group of very committed and convicted disciples moving through the throngs of people – sharing the alternative wisdom of Jesus.

This is really surprising. Not that Jesus’ disciples were convicted, but that this whole story is so low key in John’s telling. The gospel of John is known for being all about signs and wonders. John wants to dazzle you and wow you with amazing things from Jesus – and yet tells the story of the Jerusalem entry in a remarkably subdued way. If there’s no sign or wonder what are we supposed to notice? I think we’re supposed to notice what the disciples are doing – moving through the throng – talking to people. Gee, what do you suppose they’re saying to the people? Probably telling them stories of signs and wonders! And, no doubt, sharing their experience of the Way of Jesus – the alternative wisdom of Jesus.

Ok, I’ve used that term a couple of times now. Let’s look at it. read on

210321 – Covenant Love – Known

Yr B ~ Lent 5 ~ Jeremiah 31:31-34

There are only four verses in today’s scripture reading but within those four verses are four distinct movements that describe how our relationship with God works. We have the promise, the problem, the placement, and the payoff.

What’s the promise? Jeremiah 31:31 “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant (a new sacred relationship) with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” The days are coming – which means they may not be here yet – which means that the writer is saying that we’re living in in-between times. I think we feel that way a lot. Especially in this long pandemic season. But while we have to wait for vaccines and whatnot to get through Covid-tide, we don’t have to wait for God’s promise.

What’s the promise? A new covenant – a new sacred relationship.
And what’s the problem? Why do we need a new covenant?
Um, how about because we keep breaking the old ones?!
Jeremiah 31:32 “It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their (spouse), says the LORD.”

That’s a really interesting verse. It references the various covenants that the people of Israel have broken over the years. And the metaphor of God being our spouse is fascinating. It’s like saying that we’re married to God and God stayed faithful to us but we cheated on God by making love to other deities – like the deity called materialism, and the deity called consumerism, and the deity called greed, and the deity called self-interest, and the deity called privilege, and the deity called white supremacy, and, and, and. So God keeps God’s end of these bargains, and we keep screwing up our end of them, and yet God keeps trying. Thank God!

The promise is a new covenant.
The problem is that we keep breaking the old ones.
So what will be different this time? The placement and the payoff!
But before we get to that we need to consider something about God’s character.

One of the things I really love about this scripture passage from Jeremiah is that it helps to put the lie to the idea that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is an angry, vengeful, distant God and the God of the Christian Scriptures is a loving, compassionate, personal God. As you’ve heard me say before, there is only one God. The difference isn’t that God changed but that the people writing about their experience of God evolved.

What we have in passages like this is not an evolution of God. That’s important to get. God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. God is a universal constant, and that constant is love and holiness. What evolved here is how humans understood God. In the beginning God was out there – powerful like nature, and weather, and stars because those things are so far beyond us and mysterious. But as humans grew in knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and experience we evolved, including our spirituality. We began to realize that God isn’t just out there, God is also in here. That’s what this passage in Jeremiah is wrestling with.

Jeremiah 31:33 “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law (my Way) within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

This is why ‘written on our hearts’ is such a great image – why the placement of this covenant love is so crucial. Compare the idea of being ‘written on our hearts’ to where the law was originally written – externally – on tablets of stone, even. What’s the difference?  read on

Noticings – March 24, 2021

NOTICINGS…

March 24,  2021

I guess we were due. In this extraordinary past 12 months where we have not been able to gather in-person for worship (or anything!) we have had to rely on technology – for just about everything. Well, as you probably know, last Sunday that technology failed us. I have dubbed it a tech-tastrophe! (You know how I love making up words!)

It began with some video problems. Mysteriously, two of the videos wouldn’t load into the worship program. That’s why we were a few minutes late starting. Frustrated, I resigned myself to having our scripture reading show upside down(!). Little did I know that was just the start. Realizing during announcements that there was no sound (well, apparently there was but it was so very quiet that only fancy speakers could pick it up) we tried to troubleshoot that problem. I would rather have been in on the jokes that were flying in the YouTube chat box. Y’all were having way more fun than me! J

We couldn’t solve the sound problem so we signed off, ready to record the service and upload it later in the day. Guess what? No sound on the recording either. So we set up a cell phone to record through the air – but that needed a power cord, and in the plugging in of the extension cord (the first one not working, of course) I accidentally unplugged the computer and we had to reboot and reconnect. The actual worship part went well – except that my guitar battery died – and we didn’t have that kind in the sound booth (of course), so I used my little guitar that luckily was in my study at the church. After worship I went to transfer the recording from the computer onto my thumb drive. Guess what? The 1.1 GB file was too big for my 1.0 GB thumb drive (of course). “I know,” I said, possessing just enough tech savvy to make me dangerous, “I’ll just edit the ends and make the file a bit smaller.” I did so – but incomprehensibly when I saved the file (waiting, and waiting) it was actually larger than I started. Seriously! So I had to come back later with a bigger thumb drive.

Next came the video editing. It went pretty smoothly (thank God!) – but it took a long time. Then the video ‘rendering’ process took forever, and the YouTube uploading, and in the end our worship – with boomy, echoey sound – was available for viewing – at 10:45 pm. Only missed our worship time by 12 hours! Yup, it was a complete tech-tastrophe!

As I said at the start – I guess we were due. We’ve had over 50 worship broadcasts since Covid torpedoed us and apart from one Sunday when a truck had physically knocked down an outside internet wire we have not lost a single service due to technology problems, until now. That is a great testimony to the faithfulness and passion of our Communications Team! That we all just went with the flow (and I didn’t get any nasty complaint emails) is a great testimony to how we trust that everyone at our church is doing the best they can, and if things go wrong, well, they just do. That’s life.

I don’t have any profound insight or noticing to offer about our tech-tastrophe. I just thought you might enjoy hearing the whole story. It has a happy ending – today I was at the church and tested the software out – and it worked. I heard sound! Now I can sleep tonight!

 Shalom,
Rev. Larry

 

Noticings – March 17, 2021

NOTICINGS…

March 17,  2021

On the weekend I attended an online meeting for a group that focuses on spirituality and spiritual deepening. As we gathered, and fell into our spiritual groove together, we shared how things were for us these days, and we were each asked to offer a word to describe what was stirring for us. The word that came to me was ‘emerging’. Some of that emerging is nature doing its thing – days lengthening, temperatures warming, signs of spring awakening. Some of my sense of emerging was personal too. There’s the emerging anticipation of my family selling/buying real estate this spring, the emerging hope of vaccine acquisition and distribution which will eventually lead to returns to some long unavailable rhythms, and the emerging realization that Lent is just about over and Holy Week and Easter are right in front of us. (See below.)

But the most profound emerging for me has been that I wrote a new song last week! Apart from some kids songs, and a couple of new choruses for old hymns, I haven’t done any ‘serious’ song-writing for a couple of years now. I noticed a couple of months ago that some lyric and music fragments were starting to emerge. And then in preparation for an upcoming awareness and fundraising event (March 27th) for our ministry partners in El Salvador I found myself offering to contribute a song. Except I don’t have any El Salvador songs. Well, at least I didn’t. Now I do! I took a really evocative set of chords that had been ‘emerging’ for me and married them to some poetry I had written while in El Salvador a couple of years ago, and with a bit of massaging the song emerged. Singer-songwriter James Taylor says that for him the songs are already there waiting for him, and he just has to get quiet enough to listen. Then he says he gets to be the first person to hear them into being. This is profoundly true for me. I had to get quiet enough to hear the music. That is easier said than done when the noisiness of one’s brain is swirling like a whirlwind.

You can only do so much to get quiet. Your circumstances sometimes only permit you to go so far. It’s unreasonable to lay on an expectation of peaceful, silent bliss when your life is anything but peaceful and silent. But when it does start to happen – when you can feel something emerging – that nudge, that twinge, that inspiration, that extra bit of noticing – I hope you will try to give it some attention and intention. It comes out as songs for me – it could be something else entirely for you. It’s not the thing that matters – it’s the quiet – and letting God’s Spirit move – and then receiving what emerges.

 Shalom,
Rev. Larry

 

210314 – Covenant Love – Steadfastness

Yr B ~ Lent 4 ~ Numbers 21:4-9

Ok, let’s say it right from the start. The scripture reading this week is horrific! I mean it’s awful. It’s in a book we almost never look at: Numbers 21:4-9 – and it’s all about snakes. Except it isn’t.

It’s a story that never happened – and it’s a story that ALWAYS happens! In fact, it’s happening right now! (No, not the snakes part. Well, kinda.) Once again we’re bitten (pardon the pun) by our tendency to read the bible as some sort of objective, historical record that takes the place of a documentary video camera. So when we come across stories like this – where the people whine and complain about God so God seemingly sends poisonous snakes to punish them, and then when they convince Moses to intervene Moses comes up with a magic trick that miraculously cures them – well, what do you do with it? You say to yourself – “Hey, wait a minute. That doesn’t sound like God at all. God is Love. And faith isn’t magic. The story must mean something other than it appears.”

And you’d be right. Truth is, it’s a great story!
And by the end of my sermon I’m going to make you love it! (I hope.)

Let’s start with some context. Numbers is the fourth book in the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament). It comes right after Leviticus, which follows Exodus. This is the story that shapes the identity of the people of Israel. They escape slavery and servitude under Pharaoh and find themselves wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. Numbers continues to tell that story. I’m not sure exactly when this is supposed to have taken place but it seems to be describing a time near the end of those 40 years of wilderness wandering.

I hope you remember that in the bible the wilderness is usually a metaphor for a time of transformation. That’s certainly the case here – being transformed from Pharaoh’s slaves to God’s children (which, of course, they always were – but they didn’t really understand themselves to be so).
40 years in the desert. A generation is generally said to be 20 years so we’re talking about 2 generations worth of time. Folks back then didn’t live as long lives as we do now – so the harsh reality is that many of the people who escaped from Egypt would die before they reached the Promised Land. And that includes Moses, by the way. The people who arrive in the Promised Land will be a whole new people! That’s a great image – unless you’re one of the old people!

The book of Numbers was written down during the Babylonian Exile – when the people of Israel once again found themselves oppressed and displaced. So this snake story is actually most likely referring to the Exiles and their situation, and calls back to their archetypal identity story for inspiration and guidance. From the beginning this was a teaching story to help people in trouble.

Do you love it yet? Ok, I’ll keep trying.

In the story God’s people are frustrated and complaining about the horrible and seemingly hopeless situation they’re in. They’ve been in the wilderness for generations, and people are dying. The snakes in the story are ‘time’. Time is what’s biting them, and killing them. They take their exasperated grievances to their religious leaders, who do their best to pray about a way forward – a way through the hardship. Moses fashions a symbol to give the people something to focus on – to remind them that if they keep their eyes and hearts on God that they will get through the calamity. It’s not magic – it’s steadfastness. Faithfulness. Trust.

It’s important to notice that the ‘snakes’ don’t actually stop biting them.
You can’t stop time.
But they get through it all because of their great faith and steadfastness.

Whether it’s about the Exodus crew in the wilderness, or the Exile gang in a foreign land, the message is the same. “Yes, things are not great – but God is with you. God loves you.” It never says that God directly sends the snakes, but it does say that the people understand their trouble to be caused by their mistakes, their ‘sin’. So God offers God’s Loving Presence in the midst of their trouble – because God remembers God’s covenant love – that God is their God and they are God’s people – and if the people can stay focused on that truth they will find their way through. In the story Moses makes God’s Presence tangible. Time still marches on, people will still die of old age and illness, but the people KNOW they are not alone. We are not alone.

Do you love it yet? Closer? How about this?

I said at the start that this story never happened but that it always happens, and that it’s happening now. Let me explain.
Consider the North American mainline church in the early 21st century. Us. A couple of generations ago we were flying high – millions of members, new buildings springing up everywhere, full churches with hordes of kids, and a societal expectation that church was a good thing and you really should go. I’m not saying folks were more faithful or more spiritual back then – I’m just saying there were lots more folks!

Fast forward to today. The snakes of time are biting us again. Our denomination went from a few million to a couple hundred thousand. We’re closing about one church every 10 days or so. Churches are for sale everywhere. Empty churches teeter on the edge of survival, with no kids, and no societal expectations. In fact, there’s a general societal prejudice that churches are irrelevant, or at best quaint.

And what is the reaction of God’s people? read on

210307 – Covenant Love – Way

Yr B ~ Lent 3 ~ Exodus 20:1-17

We’re spending the Season of Lent in the Hebrew Scriptures looking at the theological concept called: covenant. Each week I’m exploring God’s covenant love with us, and focussing on a different aspect of how God loves us. First we did Relationship, then we did Identity, and this week my sermon is called “Covenant Love – Way.”

Way. Which way? Whose way? Well, God’s way, obviously. The way of Jesus.
Jesus said his Way was: Love God, Love People, Love One Another. Love, love, love – we talk about it all the time. ALL THE TIME!

But here’s a thought – where did Jesus get his Way from? Yeah, I know he’s quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus – but I want to go back even further. All the way back to Exodus 20. There you’ll find the famous 10 Commandments. Well, one version of them anyway – did you know there’s 3 versions in the bible? (Check out Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 5 for the others.)

But the 10 commandments. Famous, right? Great movie! The original Top 10 list!
One for each finger so they’re easy to remember. But do you? Remember? Can you name all 10? Maybe today will help!

So, let’s explore them. Yes, all 10. Yes, there’s a test after! (And yes, I’ll show you how to cheat!) We’re going to go through them one by one. I just couldn’t decide which ones to leave out! But don’t worry – I won’t spend more than 5 minutes on each one! [do the mental math!] And just for fun I’m going to read them from the old King James Version of the bible. They just sound more…commanding then. Oh, and it would help if you could imagine I was Charlton Heston. Here they are, God’s top ten! (in reverse order)

#10 – ‘Thou shalt not covet.’ Coveting has been an obvious reality in any and every society that has ever been. If there are only two people in town one will probably envy the other for some reason. But it isn’t just the desiring part that’s harmful. Coveting also carries the idea that you might actively plot or scheme how to relieve your neighbour of their car, or spiffy new phone, or hottie spouse. Coveting is all ego – me-centred. And ‘thou shalt nots’ sound negative, so let’s flip it and write all of these in the positive: How about this instead of worrying about coveting? Just ‘Be contented’.

#9 – ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.’ Be careful here: ‘Thou shalt not lie’….is not a commandment. That doesn’t mean thou shalt lie either, but it’s not what the 9th commandment is about. Basically it’s about honesty in court – but there’s another level. (There’s always another level!)

What about gossip? Or propaganda? In politics they used to call it spin! Now everyone calls it ‘fake news’. I guarantee fake news would have been on Moses’ tablets if TV had been invented back then!
What if we framed the 9th commandment like this: Speak genuinely.

#8 – ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ Before you think to yourself that you don’t generally put on a balaclava and go sneaking through windows to pilfer the belongings of someone therefore you don’t steal, you might ask yourself what stealing really means.

Is it too far a stretch to say that our quality of life is based on systematic stealing from people all over the world? Aren’t we stealing quality of life from those who work in sweatshops to produce our cheap sneakers and electronics? Aren’t we currently thriving upon land that was acquired by treaties that have rarely been honoured? God said “Thou shalt not steal!” Just because we’re not donning a mask and a gun doesn’t let us off this barb. Taken narrowly it’s an easy commandment to keep – taken broadly, well, let’s just say it starts to get murky. Maybe we can just agree that we’re commanded to acquire whatever we have honourably. Acquire honourably.

#7 – ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ (No, it’s not ‘thou shalt not admit adultery!’) read on

Noticings – March 10, 2021

NOTICINGS…

March 10,  2021

Did you know we’ve been at this for a year now? I’ll be saying more about it on Sunday, but this weekend marks the one-year anniversary of our last in-person worship before we had to make our shift to online. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Faith United had been offering online, live-streamed worship for a few years before Covid. You could be forgiven if you didn’t realize that. First, most of us didn’t really need it because we could worship in-person. Second, well, to be honest, it wasn’t very good. I mean, it was ok, and it was something, but we didn’t really put a lot of energy into it because we were so focused on our usual in-person worship. We had a camera at the back of the church – to give the feeling of being in a chair in the sanctuary – and from time to time we’d zoom in on the preacher, or the choir, or the screens.

But then when Covid forced us ALL online we quickly realized that our online experience, such as it was, wasn’t nearly good enough. So we adapted. And over the months (year!) we’ve continued to adapt. Now (at the risk of sounding immodest), when you tune in on YouTube for Sunday worship with Faith United you get a pretty good online experience. We’ve rearranged the sanctuary and created a ‘set’ to broadcast from. Zeljka (our music facilitator) and I are both quite close to the camera. We have variety through video scripture and music ministry. We are not on the cutting edge of innovation, but we’ve created what I think is a very engaging and intimate connective space. Even though we’re not together, we still feel togetherness.

Here’s the thing. Happily, thankfully, finally, in a few months (maybe September or October?) we should be able to safely return to in-person gatherings. Awesome! Fantastic! But what of our online presence? What about the community of worshippers we have who don’t live close enough to Faith to drive in? Or those who were previously unable to participate in-person but who now can because the online experience is rich enough? What might worship look like when we return? If we put the camera at the back again we’ll lose all our online intimacy. If we put a camera right in front of me and I focus on that then those gathered in-person may feel disconnected even though they’re right there. Clearly, some sort of ‘hybrid’ worship design is needed. Indeed! But what? How?

So we’ve begun a conversation. I posted these questions in our Facebook group, and I’m hoping anyone who reads this Noticings will feel free to offer their wisdom, and insight, and experience into our discussion too. You could send me a note anytime!
Please give these questions some prayerful thought:
What are the aspects of online worship that you would like to see continued even though we’ll be back in-person? (eventually)
Should online worship be an ‘add-on’ extra, or equal with our in-person, or should in-person be the ‘add-on’ to our online church?
Would you consider worshipping from home as a regular thing or an exceptional thing (come fall)?

I haven’t worked this all out yet, but I’m thinking I’ll put together a diverse group of Faith United folks who can help me guide and frame this conversation. I think it may be one of the most important conversations a church can have at this time – and those who choose not to have it, or choose to just “go back to how it was” are going to face very hard times in the future. The reality is that lots of folks really like their online couch-church experience. Not to say online should be the only thing – but for some it’s their preferred thing. This will be our big question as we navigate 2021: How will we be church together in the season ‘after’ Covid?
I’m looking forward to your creativity and passion as we go!

Shalom,
Rev. Larry

210228 – Covenant Love – Identity

Yr B ~ Lent 2 ~ Genesis 17:1-8, 15-17 (MSG)

“Go forth, knowing who you are and whose you are.”
No, worship is not over – even though you hear me say that every week at the end of worship. I say it every week because it’s so fundamental. Knowing who you are and whose you are – that’s kinda the spiritual journey in a nutshell.
Who you are – and whose you are!

Well? Who are you?
Whose are you?

Those are deep and complicated questions!
And they take a lifetime to ponder and give shape to.

Today we’ll be exploring one of the stories about Abram and Sarai – or perhaps you might know them better as Abraham and Sarah.
Why are there names different here? Well, God changed their names!
Why? Well, because something deep in their identity and relationship with God changed.
Something about ‘who they are’, and ‘whose they are’, was transformed.

Identity is a deep and powerful thing. Our names are a big part of it.

Most of us don’t choose our own name – but some people do! Think about times in someone’s life when their name might be changed for some reason. We’ll talk about it in a few minutes, but I want to get you pondering that right away.
Has your name ever changed? Who changed it? Why? What was different after?
Hold onto that thought!

Let’s look at our scripture for today. It’s from Genesis 17.

God appears to Abram (he’ll become Abraham in a couple of minutes) and restates the promises that God had made 25 years before – that Abram will have plenty of land, and he’ll be the ancestor of multitudes.
Umm, a couple of problems here.
They’re nomads, camping out on contested land. And the big one…Abram has no kids. (Well, that’s not exactly true – he’s got one with his wife’s slave girl, Hagar, but none with his wife, Sarai). So, no kids, but a promise to be the father of multitudes? Now, I should probably add this quirky little gem – Abram is supposedly 99 years old at this point and his wife is 90. Riiiight!

Obviously there are some difficulties with taking the scripture straight up.
But why even tell this story? Why’s it in the Bible? What can it say to us today?
Let’s backtrack a bit. Scholars believe this text was written down during the Babylonian Exile. That’s important, because the story is about reflecting on a promise of everlasting blessing – land and legacy – but exiled from their land and facing the potential end of their people they certainly weren’t feeling very blessed – and neither were Abram and Sarai.

25 years earlier (the story goes) Abram and Sarai left their homeland, followed God’s call, and journeyed to a land of promise. But the promises weren’t being fulfilled as they expected. (Sound familiar?!) In other words, they said Yes to God all the way along – not perfectly, not without major goof-ups, but they consistently held firm to God’s call. And God had promised children to them – but none came.

So Abraham can be forgiven for reacting the way he did to God’s announcement that they were about to trade the retirement home for the maternity ward. Do you know what he did upon hearing that he’d be a new dad at his advanced age? He fell on the floor and laughed. No kidding! And later in the story when Sarah learns the news she also busts a gut laughing at the sheer absurdity of it. And God, not to be shown up, tells them to name this forthcoming bundle of joy Isaac – which means… Laughter.

Ok, that’s the story – so what does it say to us?
On the surface the story seems to say, ‘Believe in God and you’ll get your deepest wish fulfilled.’
But I don’t think it means that. In fact, I think that’s a dangerous message to take from this.
I think it actually means, read on

210221 – Covenant Love – Relationship

Yr B ~ Lent 1 ~ Genesis 9:8-17

Let’s start with some really basic stuff. Today we begin the liturgical season called Lent. There are a couple of interesting ways to think about where the word comes from. One is that it refers to the ‘lengthening of days’ that happens through this time of year for us. The closer we get to Easter the more and more light we get each day. I like that.
Being a musician I like even better how the word is derived from the same source as the musical term lento, which means slowly – at a slow pace. That’s a perfect way to think about Lent. Slowing down. Pondering. Reflecting. Praying.
Lent is a time of introspection, prayer, and preparation for Holy Week and Easter.
It’s also a time of repentance, and self-understanding.

What Lent isn’t – or shouldn’t be – is a New Year’s resolution do-over. It’s popular in our culture (interestingly, even among those who’d never darken the door of a church) to mark this liturgical season by ‘giving something up’. But unless you also ‘replace’ the time and energy you gain by giving the thing up by investing it in prayer-time then you’re really just doing another resolution.

But I don’t really want to talk about all that. I prefer emphasizing contemplation and reflection – and a commitment to journey through the Season of Lent with intentionality and prayerfulness. I’d rather focus on the pace – lento – slowly – prayerfully – pondering our relationship with the Holy Mystery we call God.

This year I’m going to be taking us on a Lenten exploration through the Hebrew Scriptures (what many call the Old Testament), and to look deeply at the theological concept called: covenant. I’m not sure if you noticed, but in today’s scripture reading of Genesis 9, in 10 verses 7 of them featured the word ‘covenant.’
So what does covenant mean?

Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean: contract.
This is a fundamentally critical distinction.
If we don’t get this right we can misread and misinterpret the bible in profoundly problematic ways.

We understand contracts really well. We each enter into all sorts of contracts all the time. In fact, in order to watch this worship service you had to enter into a contract with the YouTube people.
A contract is a formal, legal agreement between two parties that clearly outlines the rights and responsibilities of each party – and clearly defines what each party gives to and gets from each other. Our economy depends upon contracts.
Sometimes contracts are sealed with a handshake – sometimes with lawyers and multipage documents – sometimes by scrolling and clicking the “I accept these terms” button. Sometimes there’s ‘fine print’ at the bottom outlining very minute and specific details in the agreement.

Contracts, we understand.
This for that, we understand.
Delineating expectations and responsibilities, we understand.
Contracts are transactional.
I do this – you do that.
Got it!

And what happens when one of the parties to a contract fails to do this or that – fails to hold up their end? There may be penalties, or fines, or loss of privileges, or endings of partnerships. Break a contract – pay the consequences.
These things we understand.

Covenants are on another level. read on

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