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.

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.
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

200510 – Facepalm Jesus

Yr A ~ Easter 5 ~ John 14:1-14

Today’s scripture reading is one of those that’s chock full of great lines that have moved far beyond churches and are part of the public consciousness.

Do not let your hearts be troubled.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
I am in the Father and the Father is in me.
If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

Unfortunately, some of these have been so twisted and misused that they’ve acquired unimaginable amounts of baggage – almost to the point of being spoiled.
In fact, I bet that if Jesus was here today and heard what we’ve done with these teachings of his that he’d do the most massive facepalm that has ever been.
If you’re unfamiliar with that phrase, a facepalm is when you cradle your face in your hand as a sign of supreme exasperation and disappointment because someone utterly doesn’t ‘get it’.
It kind of goes: eye roll, head shake, facepalm.

Happily, one of my favourite things is to take such facepalm-able passages and try my best to have us reconsider and reimagine them – and maybe even to redeem them and resurrect them into something wonderful and new. So let’s get to it!

Some of them don’t need much saving.
Do not let your hearts be troubled.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.

The many dwelling places line causes some angst when some Christians argue it as a being exclusive and others interpret the ‘many places’ idea as being universal.
Ideas clash, Christians argue, Jesus facepalms.

And if you really want to hear Christians clash just listen to debates about John 14:6 – possibly the most incendiary verse in the bible:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

For me, the tragic exclusivist interpretation of John 14:6 is a perfect example of what would make Jesus do a massive facepalm.

The squeamishness we feel about it is well founded.
It’s been used as a clobber-verse for a long, long time. We get so distracted by the problematic second part that we miss the importance of the first part.

It’s a teaching about what Jesus called “the way”, and how this ‘way’ that Jesus is on about isn’t found in a book, or on a map, or in a set of instructions, or even beliefs. It’s a way of being, a way of living, a way of loving.

There’s a story about a missionary who lost his way in a wilderness. He could find no landmarks and the trail vanished. Eventually, stumbling on a small dwelling, he asked the person living there if they could lead him out. Rising to their feet, the local walked directly into the bush. The missionary followed on their heels. For more than an hour they hacked their way through a dense wall of vines and grasses. The missionary became worried: “Are you sure this is the way? I don’t see any path.” The local chuckled and said over their shoulder, “In this place there is no path. I am the path.”

Jesus is the path.
Jesus is the Way, and the truth, and the life.
So, what was Jesus’ Way, why was it so different, and why is it so good?
In a word, hesed – a Hebrew word meaning “loving-kindness”.
Jesus oozed hesed! read on

200503 – The Rolling Stones

Yr A ~ Easter 4 ~ 1 Peter 2:1-10

Even though it’s true that these days I can’t always get what I want, and sometimes no satisfaction, and really just wanna pray that God might gimmie shelter, this sermon is not about what you think it is.
(And if you didn’t get that opening sentence, don’t worry, I was just using that to start me up.)
If you’re still not with me, those are a bunch of song references for a group called the Rolling Stones.

This sermon isn’t about those Rolling Stones – it’s about us – the Rolling Stones!
Well, Peter called them living stones, but it’s pretty much the same.

1 Peter 2:4 says that Jesus is a living stone. On the surface that’s an oxymoron, but I don’t think the metaphor is actually all that difficult to understand. Picture the giant stones of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. They were fixed, thought to be permanent.
But they crumbled!
Jesus taught his disciples that the temple is not the seat of God’s presence in the world – your heart is. It’s about a paradigm shift from a physical reliance on an external spiritual home to being personally built into an internal spiritual home.
Jesus didn’t start a church; he started a movement.
A movement!
Movements move, they’re alive, they ‘roll’.

For those of us who have significant experience in bricks and mortar churches the idea of church being built on fixed stones is pretty (ahem) solid.
But look where we are right now.
This pandemic, and the resultant physical distancing, and the fact that you’re at home right now and not here with me in this physical, bricks and mortar, fixed stone church, is driving home Jesus’ teaching in jarringly vivid ways.
Whether we like it or not we’re rolling!

We’re learning something right now that we’ve never really had to contend with before.
We’re learning how to be the church without the church.
We’re realizing that even though we’re not here together, we’re still here together!
I keep saying this every Sunday – we are still the church, but different. (Thank God?)

Our paradigm for generation upon generation has been about bricks and mortar – about building a physical space for worship, prayer, mutuality, and outreach. Our fixed stones matter. This is a good place. Church buildings aren’t bad – they’re vital. God’s people need a place to gather, and to serve as a launching pad for loving one another and loving the world.

The challenge is that over time our buildings have, not always but far too often, become the point. Too often all our resources – human and financial – get used up just keeping the stones from rolling. (Yes, I mean that on multiple levels.)

I’m not going to sugar coat it – this pandemic is going to result in a great number of church buildings closing. All those places just hanging on will likely be pushed over the edge. It’s sad, and it’s hard.
We keep saying that the church isn’t about the building, it’s about the people. Well, we’re going to find out if we really mean it.
And I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, or that it doesn’t sound too harsh or flippant, but all in all, I’m ok with this.
If this pandemic breaks the stranglehold that fixed stones have on our communities of faith and compels us to reimagine ourselves as living stones, as rolling stones, then, well, I’d call that a blessing.

Church is a people, not a place.
Church is the refuelling station along The Way, not the destination.
Church is who you are, not where you go.

Through this challenging season we’ve discovered that we can do and be church in all kinds of new and creative ‘non-bricks-and-mortar’ ways.
Here we are live-streaming right now and you’re attending church at home, on your couch, in your jammies.
Tomorrow morning we’ll use a platform called Zoom to do our online bible discussion (we call it The Porch).
Wednesday evening I’ll offer praise music and prayer on YouTube.
Thursday morning we’ll have coffee together online.
Our choir can’t sing together, but they still gather for connection on Thursday evenings.
Last Wednesday our Church Work in Durham group started to share ideas for how we can participate in offering compassionate care and love in our community in this season. Our social media accounts – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, plus our website – have all kinds of posts and links to materials and ideas and inspirations.

These are all ways to access religious, spiritual, faith-formative resources. It used to be you had to physically step inside a church to do all that stuff – now you have access to it on your phone 24/7 wherever you are – because, wherever you are the church is.

Our ancestors imagined that God needed a home on earth, so they built a temple for God.
But obviously, God cannot be contained in a structure. read on

200426 – Character Revealed

Yr A ~ Easter 3 ~ 1 Peter 1:3-9

The scripture passage we’re looking at today is one of those readings that’s filled with all sorts of familiar churchy-sounding words – words that if we’re not careful we can rush right by them and miss not only their profound depth, but also possibly take a very unhelpful message away with us. There are wonderfully uplifting concepts in this passage, and also a couple of land mines. So we will tread carefully!

We begin by saying that God has (verse 3) given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus.
God has given us a new birth, a rebirth, to be born again, to be born anew. Literally it means to be re-begotten, or in more familiar language, regenerated. That sounds fantastic.
But, of course, we have to remember that before one can be born anew one has to ‘die’ to what was. We talk about this all the time. In order to open your hand and receive God’s new thing we have to first release our grip on what was and let go of the old thing.
The obvious question arises – is the new thing better? Is letting the old thing go (letting it die) worth it?

New life in Christ isn’t just my old life with a new paint job.
It’s a new life, a new worldview, a reordering of my understanding of the values and priorities of the world – and that has real consequences for my choices and my actions.
We toss out words like renewed life, and born anew, and resurrection (especially about Jesus) but we sometimes forget that the key feature that led to that resurrection was a cross.
We aren’t playing around here. This regeneration-new birth stuff is serious business.
God has given us a new birth (sounds great) into a living hope (I like that) through the resurrection of Jesus – the death and resurrection of Jesus. (Gulp!)
Like I said, we can’t fly through this stuff too quickly or we’ll miss the weight of it.

Perhaps you’re thinking:
“Ok, so I get that I have to let go of what was, die to what was, in order to be born anew into what will be. But, um, what exactly am I being born anew into? I mean, what does this new life look like?”

I’m so glad you asked!

1 Peter 1:3-4 says that we are given a new birth INTO a living hope…and INTO an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.

New life in Christ apparently has the character of being a living hope.
A living hope.
What the heck does that mean?
Well, remember that hope as a spiritual concept doesn’t mean wishful thinking but rather a confident expectation and assurance of something God has promised and we trust we’ll receive. And it’s not just a hope, it’s a living hope – like when Jesus described the living water. Living in this sense means to be filled with spiritual awareness and presence, to know spiritual abundance. So we are born anew into this state of having a spirit-infused awareness of and confidence in God’s blessing and God’s kingdom – even if we look around and see that it isn’t fully realized in the world yet.

And that helps make the next part make better sense.
We’re not just born anew into that character of living hope but also into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.
What kind of things do we usually inherit? Money, possessions, material things. Things that are perishable, things that fade.
And what kind of things do we inherit upon rebirth into God’s living hope? Things that are imperishable, incorruptible, indestructible, unfading, enduring, perpetual.
Spiritual things. Things of God. Things like love, and blessing, and compassion, and kindness, and selflessness, and shalom.
These are the types of things we inherit. Inherit – as in after a death.

But again, as we look around our world, we see that even though we as followers of the Way of Jesus are born anew and into this glorious living hope that we cannot yet fully enjoy our inheritance because the world hasn’t generally embraced God’s kingdom.
In other words, we’re different but the world ain’t.
And that’s going to cause some problems.

The first problem is that in the beginning of Christianity there was a very real sense that Jesus would be returning in a very tangible way and in the very near future. read on

200419 – Shalom, Peace Be With You

Yr A – Easter 2 – John 20:19-31

Later that same day! (That’s how our reading from John 20 began today.)
It’s evening on the first Easter Sunday – and “the disciples” – maybe 10, probably more, maybe all of Jesus’ followers – are hiding in a locked room for fear of the authorities.
They’re afraid about what they should do, where should they go, how should they live.
They’d put all they had into following Jesus and now they’re afraid that it was all for nothing.
They’re broken, disheartened, miserable, defeated, scared, defensive, and their dream is dead.

Put yourself in the story as John’s gospel tells it. They must be an absolute mess.
On Thursday they were having dinner together, by the next night their friend and leader – whom they’d given up everything for – was captured, tried, convicted, and was executed in the most brutal manner imaginable – crucifixion.
And on Saturday, the Sabbath, God’s day, yesterday, all they could do was sit in sadness and grief – hurt, lost, defeated.
And then that very morning – just 12 hours before – Peter and John stood in the empty tomb and Mary says she actually talked to Jesus.

How does your brain wrap itself around all that?
Can you imagine how they spent that Sunday? 12 hours of wondering what happened to his body? “Is Mary crazy? Might he actually be alive? But we watched him die?!”

And then, right there in the middle of that locked room, Jesus – their dead friend – suddenly appears out of nowhere – right before their eyes.
Was there a sound? Angels singing? The Hallelujah Chorus ringing out?
A huge whoosh and flash of lightning and smoke like in the movies?
A bright light maybe?
Whatever it was, picture the disciples in that room – one’s screaming his head off – another’s eyes are bulging out of their sockets – 2 over there start babbling like fools – that one’s legs have just given out – and very likely, more than a few fainted.
And Jesus says “Shalom – Peace be with you”.
Shyeah right.
A dead guy appears in the middle of a locked room – peace is the last thing I’m thinking of.

But it’s not some dead guy – it’s not a ghost – it’s the Risen Christ!
And peace he does bring – and they stop screaming and babbling, they wake up, stand up, put their eyes back in and they ARE at peace.
Then he shows them his wounds, just so they’ll know it’s really Jesus – and they are overjoyed.
“Jesus isn’t dead! He’s alive. He’s been raised up. But how? I don’t even care, I just know that he’s standing right here in front of us. This is wondrous!”

(John 20:21-23) Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

It’s sad that we can’t hear that “breathed on them” part today and not cringe! Nobody oughtta be breathing on anybody these days! But let’s set that aside and hear it for what it really means.

Jesus says for a second time, “Shalom. This is Peace. My peace I give you. Receive the Holy Spirit. I’m sending you like Abba sent me. Teach what I have taught you – live the Way I lived – love the Way I loved – accept people for who they are – let them know that God loves them and that whatever they think stands between them and God is only a barrier for them – it’s already forgiven – invite them to turn back to God and embrace a deeper, fuller, truer love than they have ever known – the only thing that stands between God’s love and them is them. Peace be with you. I am with you! Go and live – Go and love!”

At least that’s how I imagine it went.
I can’t say exactly how it all went down, but somehow in that upper room they experienced Jesus coming back and breathing the Holy Spirit upon his followers – and they were commissioned – given the authority to be Christ for others. They were breathed upon – they were brought back to life – they were resurrected!
Like in the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones where the Holy Spirit of God is breathed into a field full of dead, dry bones – the metaphorical people of Israel – and God’s spirit brings them back to life – to new life.

I wonder – did Jesus just disappear or did he hang around and chat?
If he stayed, what do you think they talked about?
And if he disappeared, what do you think the disciples said next?
Imagine the scene. You’ve just had a supernatural encounter with a guy you saw die 2 days ago, and now he’s commissioning you and breathing new life and the Holy Spirit into you.
How long did they just sit there and stare at each other trying to take it all in?
Peace be with you indeed!

It also doesn’t say what happened in the intervening week. read on

200412 – Nothing and Everything

Yr A ~ Easter Sunday ~ Matthew 28:1-10

Whenever I have a bible study group, after starting with prayer we read the scripture passage out loud. Usually people in the circle have different translations or versions of the bible so there’s always a variety of ways of saying things that may be different from what each person has in front of them.
After the reading, before we dive in and explore each verse, I always ask the same first question: Does anything grab you as you hear this today? Because there’s always something in the reading that leaps off the page and captures your attention. It might be an affirmation, or a question that arises, or a disagreement or challenge you might have with this or that verse – but usually it’s just something that you didn’t notice before, but for some reason in this go-round you noticed it.

That happened for me as I was working on this Easter message.

I know that theologically I’m supposed to notice that it’s women and not Jesus’ 12 named disciples who are there. Of course, the women were disciples too, but they don’t get described that way in scripture. It’s theologically really important though, that Jesus’ resurrection is first witnessed and experienced by women, and not men, or powerful people, or religious authorities. These women also become the first evangelists – the first who share the news of Jesus’ rising.

I’m also supposed to notice that in Matthew’s telling we get to watch the angel roll the stone away right in front of the Roman guards while in the other gospels the opening of the tomb happens in different ways, with different characters present (or not).

And that in Matthew the disciples don’t experience Jesus in a locked upper room, but back in Galilee on a mountainside – presumably the same mountainside where it all started with the Sermon on the Mount. So there’s a lovely ‘full circle’ thing going on.

All of those are great sermon topics for the resurrection story in Matthew – but none of those are what leapt off the page and caught my attention. What grabbed me was the description of the emotions of the 2 Marys as they were processing all this.

Matthew 28:8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Fear and great joy.
Yes, that’s it exactly. That perfectly captures how I’m feeling about Easter this year.
Fear and great joy.

The great joy part is obvious. It’s Easter! Jesus is risen. (He is risen indeed!)
After all the hard work and heavy theological lifting we’ve done through the Season of Lent, our bewildered journey through the wilderness, after all the weightiness of Holy Week – the betrayal story, the arrest, the trial, the beatings, the crucifixion, the agony of the cross, and yes, Jesus’ death and burial – and then the deathly silence of Saturday – after all that, finally we arrive on Easter Sunday and we get to sing “Hallelujahs!” and we rejoice at his resurrection.
That’s joy!

As the women were running from the tomb that first Easter morning they were experiencing joy and fear.
Suddenly, Jesus meets them, and he says, “Greetings!” But it’s much more than just “hello.” The Greek word means to rejoice – to delight in God’s grace.
They have fear and joy, and the first thing Jesus says to them is “Rejoice!” – and as the women fall at his feet, awestruck, the second thing he says is, “Do not be afraid!”
The angel said that to them too, but they needed to hear it again. (And again.)

And we need to hear it again and again too. Do not be afraid.
Because we are afraid. read on

200410 – Good Friday Reflection – Look At It

Look at it.

It’s such a simple device, one shorter horizontal beam fastened at a right angle to a longer vertical beam.

It’s made of wood so the materials are plentiful.

It was effective both as a tool and a symbol.

As a tool it was used to execute people who had crossed the Roman occupiers.

As a symbol it stood menacingly along the roadside reminding all of the awful power of the oppressor.

It’s a device of torture and suffering designed to kill agonizingly slowly.

Its purpose was to degrade and humiliate a person utterly, to reduce them to a non-person.


Look at it.

The cross we see is empty, clean, idealized.

It has been transformed from a symbol of death to a symbol of new life.

It has been glorified and mythologized and sanitized.


A word we’re hearing and understanding far more deeply these days.

These days, where every day feels a bit like Good Friday in some ways.

But that draws our focus away from the cross.

And the cross deserves, demands our focus today.


We casually wear it as jewellery and embrace it as a promise of renewal.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

It is absolutely that.

The empty cross and the empty tomb are our ultimate symbols of life.


But they are only symbols of life because they became empty.

They didn’t start that way.

The tomb had a body in it.

The cross held a man aloft.

There is no symbol of new life without the harsh reality of a death that preceded it.


That’s why we gather today – to pause, and reflect, and to never allow ourselves to forget that this is really real.

Jesus really was nailed to that thing.

Jesus really did die an agonizingly slow death.

It wasn’t pretty.

It wasn’t clean.

And it wasn’t good.

There was nothing good about that Friday.


Good Friday is a terrible name for today.

It almost feels insultingly sarcastic.

The only way we can see it as good is to look back upon it in the full light of Sunday and know that something very good came from it.

But that day itself?

Not good.


We are an Easter people, but we couldn’t become that without Friday – without the cross.

No, we didn’t put Jesus on the cross.

No, you are not responsible for his death.

No, God didn’t punish him in your place.


That is hateful theology.

That is not God.


Did Jesus choose this death?

That’s a complicated question.

Did he plot and scheme a way to draw attention to himself and make himself a martyr for God?


But did he know that a cross was waiting for him should he continue on the path he was blazing?



Look at it.

See Jesus on it.

Did it hurt him to die that way?

Of course it did!

But his death would have been much longer, and slower, and more painful if he sold out, if he turned his back on God’s way, if he took the path of less resistance and traded what was right for what was easy.

That is a much worse death.

That, is hell.


Jesus was nailed to that cross because his unflinching commitment to loving God, loving people, and loving his disciples ran him afoul of both the religious and political authorities of his day.

Jesus was killed because society values power over communion, control over compassion, and individuality over connectedness.

If we don’t engage the world differently maybe we are responsible for his death.


Look at it.

It’s such a simple device, one shorter horizontal beam fastened at a right angle to a longer vertical beam.

The vertical grounded in the earth and reaching for the heavens.

The horizontal stretching out like two arms embracing the world.


How can such a simple device have such depth of meaning?

How can it evoke such a powerful response in us?

How can it be both death and life at the same time?


Perhaps it’s those questions and the thousand other questions that race through our minds about God and God’s Way that are the real power of the cross.

Perhaps the point is the deep breath and the pang in our gut when we contemplate it.

Perhaps it’s the stark reminder that new life must be preceded by some kind of dying.

Perhaps it reminds us to trust God’s light in the face of abject darkness.


Perhaps that’s why we call this day “Good”.

200409 – Maundy Thursday Reflection – Just Like Them

Just Like Them

I think maybe this year more than any other we can actually understand the depth of the feelings that were swirling around that upper room dinner table so long ago.

Just like them, we’ve gathered tonight for a spiritual purpose, to re-enact a foundational religious ceremony, to connect ourselves with our faith tradition in a tangible way, and yet we find ourselves distracted and overwhelmed by circumstances beyond our control – just like them.

Just like the disciples must have felt that night during the Passover festival with the occupying and oppressing Romans everywhere, and the people fearful for their lives.

Gee, can anyone relate to that?


So what do we do? Turn to Jesus, obviously.

He’s our leader, our teacher, our inspiration, our friend.

Surely Jesus will guide us through this!

And what does Jesus do? He washes their feet.


We lose some of the meaning of this because foot washing is alien to us. We don’t automatically have our feet washed by a host when we enter their home. They did. It was common and expected.

(Now we don’t go to anyone’s house, and we wouldn’t wash our feet we’d wash our hands – but I digress.)

The thing is, a servant, a ‘lower class’ worker (so to speak) would do the foot washing. Not the host. Not the leader. Not the…king.


Instead of calming their frayed nerves Jesus flips their understanding upside down (again) and challenges them to go and do likewise. Be as one who serves. Even if you’re…important.


And the disciples must’ve been thinking, “So now I’m fearful about what’s happening out there and confused by what’s happening in here. But that’s ok. Jesus is here. He won’t let us down.”


In the midst of the meal Jesus pauses and asks us to consider the food before us. As we look at it he tells us that this food, this every day, three times a day, regular, ordinary, homey kind of stuff is actually infused with Spirit, and meaning – if we choose to notice. He says to take that food and while you eat, while you’re savouring the flavor, while you’re doing what keeps you alive – remember.

Remember Jesus and his teaching.

Remember Jesus and his world-inverting kingdom values.

Remember Jesus and his servant heart.

Remember that it’s all about love – loving God, loving neighbour, loving one another. Remember that that food, all food, can represent Jesus’ body, the body of Christ, the physical enacting of his Way.


And so we ate – just like them – and remembered.


And then he has us look at our drink – his was probably wine, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s just what was on the table. So look at what’s on your table, in your glass – and remember.

Remember Jesus and his spirituality.

Remember Jesus and his passion.

Remember Jesus and his unrelenting commitment to his vision of loving-kindness.

Remember that that drink, all drink, can represent Jesus’ life-blood, the spirit of Christ, the spiritual immersion in his Way.

And so we drank – just like them – and remembered.


And then, just as we were starting to feel a little relaxed, and we’d forgotten some of the clamour of that oppressive world outside our doors while we huddle inside in safety – just then he said it.

One of you will betray me.

How would you react? Just like them, probably.

“Who me? You couldn’t mean me! I would never…”


But the truth is, while we’d all like to just point to Judas and say, “No, it’s just him! That Judas!” – the truth is, if we didn’t think it might just be us too, we wouldn’t have been defensive and objected so loudly. Just like them.


I don’t think Jesus was trying to shame Judas, or any of the disciples – and not us either.

I think he was just naming a hard spiritual truth.

Following his Way, living God’s kingdom values, without compromise, is very, very hard to do. It demands so much. And at some point, some sooner, some later, some maybe never, all probably at some point – fall short, compromise, turn away, deny – just like them.

Not that we want to.

Not that we’re bad disciples.

Not that we don’t have faith. We do.

It’s just that we’re, well, learning.

So much to learn. Just like them.


After dinner that night things went from uncomfortable to terrible.

Jesus is betrayed and arrested – for calling out injustice, for daring to offer an alternative worldview that wasn’t based on individualistic greed and power, for loving too much.

Apparently the most subversive and dangerous thing a person can do is to wash someone’s feet and invite people to infuse every aspect of their lives with remembrance of God’s Presence and God’s Way.

Apparently seeing the sacredness in every person and every place, and demanding we actually treat ALL people and places as sacred cuts too deeply into the bottom line.

And, apparently, staying true to that kind of worldview demands our all.


And we can’t wrap our brains around why that’s so.
Just like them.


So we’re left with only Jesus’ challenging commandment – to love one another.

How wonderful that we have so simple a way to remember this – just by eating and drinking – not just in a fancy church ritual – but in every bite, and every sip, every day.


Sustenance like that will help us as we rise from the table and go out and face the oppression and struggle outside our doors – as Jesus lives out the consequences of loving so deeply and fully.

And we’ll do so, despite our discomfort, and despite how hard it is, just relying on our faith in Jesus and his Way, no matter what.

Even through the horrors that await tomorrow.

Because we’re disciples.

Just like them.


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