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


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!

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

Noticings – February 17, 2021


February 17, 2021

Today is Ash Wednesday. It’s the day that begins the liturgical Season of Lent. Lent is a time of introspection, prayer, and preparation for Holy Week and Easter. Ash Wednesday launches the season with a day of confession, repentance, and commitment. If we were in-person we would light candles, sing hymns, pray prayers, and receive the “imposition of ashes” on our foreheads (or wrists). The ashes are a deeply spiritual symbol of letting go of what was, and remembering that we are not alone in our journeys. We are loved. We are held by God’s Presence. The traditional Ash Wednesday language uses the word “dust” to symbolize the precariousness of our existence, and it emphasizes the “rending” of garments which in Jewish culture is a sign of great sadness and mourning. Yes, it’s pretty heavy spiritual lifting!

I prefer emphasizing renewal on Ash Wednesday – and a commitment to journey through the Season of Lent with intentionality and prayerfulness. As I impose ashes on a person’s forehead I always say these words: “An ending and a beginning. You are marked in love.” The ending is what was. The beginning is what will be. There is much possibility in what will be. And there is mystery, and the unknown, and probably some angst about venturing forth into it. That’s where the second part comes in. “You are marked in love.” The ashes are a visible sign of the ever-present love of God. A visible sign of an invisible grace – that’s the definition of a sacrament!

While we can’t be physically together for Ash Wednesday this year I will offer you two ways to mark the day.
1. Join Moderator Richard Bott and the General Council staff for “A Litany of the Masks for Ash Wednesday.” This recorded video of the General Council chapel service offers a time for prayer, scripture, and will help us prepare for our Lenten spiritual practice. You’re invited to attend with a short piece of string or yarn (20 cm), or some Lego, or a string with seven beads, or a ribbon and seven buttons…and some glue! And please bring your mask. (You don’t need to wear it, but please bring it.)
It is available anytime on YouTube by clicking this link.

2. Join me tonight at 7:15 pm for a special Ash Wednesday edition of “Songs Along the Way.” It’s not a full Ash Wednesday service, but the song is very introspective, and the prayers are expanded to include the Ash Wednesday themes and imagery. (Still just 10 minutes long.) It is pre-recorded, but I’ve enabled the “live chat” feature for anyone who would like to be online together with me and others at 7:15 tonight.
You can access it at our Faith United YouTube channel anytime afterward as well.

One: May the blessing of God go with us
All: as we journey together in wonder.
One: May we trust in the Way of Christ
All: and walk in his peace.
One: Surely, God is in this place and every place!
All: On my Lenten journey, help me notice!

Rev. Larry

210214 – Shine On

Yr B ~ Transfiguration ~ 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

It’s Transfiguration Sunday, but that’s not the story we’ll be focusing on today – well, not directly anyway. Jesus’ transfiguration is about how Jesus goes off to a secluded, quiet place in order to pray, and while he’s in the midst of his prayer-time God’s Presence becomes palpable and really real to him, and God’s light shines in and through Jesus in a spectacular way. Jesus is transfigured, transformed, changed. Why? Because God’s light shone in and through him.

That’s the usual reading for this week – but instead we’ll be focusing on the accompanying scripture from 2 Corinthians 4:3-6. The 2nd Corinthians reading is all about how that very same light shines in and through us. You and me.
That’s not a bad sermon right there – that the same light (the same Love) that lit up Jesus lights up us.
But I’ve got another 18 minutes to fill so I have to keep talking!

The Corinthians reading has lots of juicy stuff for just 4 verses of scripture. It starts by talking about things being veiled, then it talks about how what it calls the ‘gods of this world’ are preventing people from experiencing God’s Presence, and hardening people’s hearts. And then it asks a couple of uncomfortable questions of us.

What are we going to do about lifting that veil and softening those hearts? Both for ourselves and others?
And just what is it we’re preaching anyway? (And it doesn’t just mean me – it means all of us!)

Listen to the first two verses of today’s reading again: 2 Corinthians 4:3-4
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

The Greek word that usually gets translated as ‘blinded’ here can also be translated as ‘hardened.’ I like that way better!
So, instead of saying ‘the god of this world has blinded the minds of some people’ the phrase could easily be translated as ‘the god of this world has hardened the minds of some people’.

I don’t know if you’ve experienced people with ‘blinded minds’ – but I guarantee you’ve had more than your share of folks with ‘hardened minds’. There is a palpable hardness in the world these days – a meanness that I don’t remember existing before – and it’s not just because we’re all grumpy from Covid-fatigue. It feels like hyper-individualism, greed, intransigence, my-way-or-the-highway thinking, and just plain thoughtlessness has taken over. If you want a prime example just read some online comments on the internet, or watch some of the opinion-based news programs. They are absolutely vicious.

But it certainly isn’t new.
A couple thousand years ago Paul called it ‘the god of this world’. All those examples of meanness and hardness that I just mentioned, and the dozens of examples that you have to deal with every day in your own life, are the product of what happens when the (small g) ‘god of this world’ takes precedence over the (capital G) God that we describe as Holy Mystery.

So what is the ‘god of this world?’
Sadly, not just one thing that we could identify and deal with.
And it’s certainly not some malevolent, red-suited character going around poking people with his pitchfork making them mean and turning them against one another. I suppose if that imagery helps you you should use it, but I don’t see it that way.

The ‘god of this world’ isn’t an external being that is trying to lead you astray.
The ‘god of this world’ is much nastier and much more cunning than that.
The ‘god of this world’…..is you.
The ‘god of this world’ holds sway when we put anything other than the Holy Mystery we call God – Love – at the centre of our lives.
The ‘god of this world’ isn’t Satan/Devil; it’s selfishness – self-interest – ego – that expresses itself through consumerism, and materialism, and ambition, and privilege.

The ‘god of this world,’ as Paul puts it, is certainly not the Holy Mystery that nudges us toward wholeness and abundant life through inner spiritual transformation.
The god of this world – our self-centred ego – is what hardens us, and veils God’s light.

This is why the transfiguration story that we celebrate today is so powerful. This is why the idea of an inner light that Christianity (and other religions) promotes is so enticing.

It’s because real, inner transformation changes everything. read on

Noticings – February 10, 2021


February 10, 2021

We’d invited them to do it, and we’d prepared for it, but it was a little uncomfortable. Ok, at times quite uncomfortable. This spring my wife and I intend to buy a house in the country with trees, and elbow room, and scenery. I’m prepared to make a 30ish minute commute to Faith – although that’s significantly more than my current commute which is about 30 seconds. In order to buy our dreamy retreat we have to sell our current home. And that’s why we had two visits from our realtor and ‘stager.’ Times being what they are the visits were both via video call. To prepare we spent the weekend dutifully cleaning and decluttering our house. Well, the first round anyway. We know we have many more rounds to go. And they weren’t shy to tell us that!

We’re not pack rats, or hoarders, but neither are we neat freaks. Plus we have the overflow of two adult children who have varying amounts of clutter cluttering up our clutter! There is lots to love about our current home (especially if you’d like to buy it in a couple of months!), but I confess that as I was holding the iPad and walking them through the house all I could see was the clutter. As we turned on all the lights the clutter leapt into clear focus. It’s everywhere. The task of getting in there and clearing it away is going to be monumental. But it’ll be worth it. It needs doing. We’ve put it off for too long.

I can’t help but connect all this to my spiritual life. The tie-in with Lent, which starts next week, is blatantly obvious. The season of Lent is all about introspection, and allowing God’s light to shine into the hidden corners of ourselves and reveal the clutter. Friends, we’ve all got spiritual clutter. All of us! Some of our ‘stuff’ is just untidy, or careless, some is pretty messy, and some may well be downright ugly. We could choose to ignore it and keep the lights off. But that’s not very spiritually healthy. So in Lent we do our spiritual spring cleaning. We let down our guard and let God’s light shine. Did I mention how bright that light is? And how it reveals stuff we may not want to see? “We’d invited them to do it, and we’d prepared for it, but it was a little uncomfortable. Ok, at times quite uncomfortable.” The big difference is that God’s light, while incomparably bright, is also warm and loving. And God will work with us on our decluttering. We are not given a list and
marching orders. We are given a hug, and a hand. And then we need to get to work. Something to think about as Lent looms.

Rev. Larry

Noticings – February 3, 2021


February 3, 2021
This morning I laid in bed and listened to the wind bluster, blow, and swirl outside. It sounded cold and forbidding. Now, one of the positive developments of our current situation is that I have found my running legs again. I’ve been running in the mornings. So when I heard that nasty wind raging outside I thought to myself, “Thank God I run on a treadmill!” Had I been an outdoors runner I may very well have just rolled over and gone back to sleep. But I didn’t. And I had a lovely (warm) run this morning, sweaty and smelly and watching TV.

Then I thought about church. (No, not because of the sweaty and smelly part!) I thought about how this massive pandemic disruption in our collective rhythm has functioned like that nasty wind this morning. We can’t stop the wind, but we can decide how best to navigate our way through it. Instead of rolling over and going back to sleep – instead of saying, “Oh well, the church building is closed and we can’t gather in-person so I guess I’ll find something else to do on Sundays,” you chose something different. You participate in worship online. I don’t know if you do it from a treadmill but I do know you’re watching. Our view numbers are wonderful, and your continued financial support has been remarkable. And on top of that you are reaching out supportively to one another, connecting (appropriately) socially, and participating in various church food drives, knitting campaigns, landscaping, and more. You didn’t roll over and go back to sleep. That’s awesome.

Winds are always going to blow. Calamities are always going to befall. Such is life. We all have some choices as to how we’ll respond. As far as church goes, I think we’re all pretty fed up with not being able to be together, but we’re not going to let obstacles keep us from being the church together. We have adapted and continue to adapt. We find ways to do things as best we can. We love, love, love. I’m grateful for you and the ways you’ve adapted with us. And I’m really glad you haven’t rolled over and gone back to sleep. The treadmill calls!

Rev. Larry

Noticings – January 27, 2021


January 27, 2021
It took me 30 minutes to shovel it from my driveway. It took my neighbours 10 minutes to scrape it from their cars. And it took my dog Billie 10 seconds to have her entire head covered in it. The difference was me and my neighbours complained; Billie was in heaven! It was a sight to see. She’s always loved the snow, but yesterday when we took her for a walk it was like she had discovered something brand new. And it was the best thing ever! She was so excited by the snow that she was literally running circles around us trying to stick her face in every single snowflake there was. She didn’t want to miss any of them. So much snow. So much fun! When she started diving head first into snowbanks all we could do was laugh.

You could say (and of course I will) that she was utterly present to that present moment. This is one of the great gifts that dogs have, and a great lesson that they can teach us. I remember seeing this wonderful cartoon that showed a person walking their dog. Above their respective heads were thought bubbles. The human’s thought bubble was filled with desks, papers, cars, tools, offices, kids, computers, phones, etc. The dog’s thought bubble contained exactly the same things as the scene around them; trees, flowers, birds, grass, other dogs, sunshine. While the human appeared to be on a walk they were actually still fussing about their life. The human was ruminating about the past, and worrying about the future. Their thoughts were everywhere except being present to that present moment. The dog, however, was fully present, drinking in the sacredness of that gift.

Yeah, I know, dogs are simpler creatures, and humans don’t have the luxury of just letting all that other stuff go. We have to work. We have to make money. We have to solve problems. Dogs just get to go for walks, play with toys, and dive headlong into snowbanks. I can’t live a dog’s life. But my dog and her ridiculous, joyful antics in the snow yesterday shook me out of my overcrowded thought bubbles and focused me on that present moment. I saw her joy, and I felt joy. I saw her revelling in the moment, and I found myself revelling. It was about as sacred as it gets! I don’t know if I can get as excited about shovelling my driveway as Billie gets about playing in the snow, but I’m hoping that next time I pick up my shovel, or go for a walk, or sit at my computer and type up a Noticings, that I’ll try to quiet my swirling thoughts and look for the joy in the moment. If I can get half as much out of this moment as my doggo got out of our walk yesterday I would be blessed beyond measure.

Rev. Larry

210207 – The Providence of the Present Moment

Yr B ~ Epiphany 5 ~ Psalm 147

Today we’re going to tackle a tricky and tender topic. It’s a theological concept called ‘providence.’ I wish I could tell you what it means. I mean, I can, kinda – but its meaning has changed, and evolved, and devolved, and changed again over the centuries, so there isn’t a single meaning. What we have are some common meanings, some antiquated meanings, and some wild suppositions. I’m gonna try my hand at one of those wild suppositions! Mostly it’s because every other attempt to theologize about the word ‘providence’ leaves me cold.

As is so often the case, how you understand providence will come down to your theology of God. How do you view, understand, comprehend, explain, identify with, and wrap your brain around God?
How do you complete this sentence: “To me, God is…?”

My answer would be: “To me, God is Present, and God is Love.”
And really, this may be what this entire sermon series has been about for these past 5 weeks.
Is God ‘present’ in this present moment? I say yes. Obviously. But here’s the question: HOW? How is God present? In what ways is God’s Presence knowable, discernable? Is God’s Presence active? What does that action look like? Is God’s Presence interventionist? (That’s a problematic one we’ll look at in a minute.)

The basic meaning of the word seems pretty obvious, but it isn’t. It seems like: providence = provide. The whole word ‘provide’ is right in there.
But provide what? Ah, there’s the thing. You’re probably familiar with the great saying: “God will provide!”

Really? Is that really true? Does God provide?

I mean, I was kinda hankering for a pizza the other day but God didn’t deliver one. Why didn’t God provide?
I need to pay my mortgage and I’m a little short – will God provide?
We need to be careful how we talk about God’s providence or we can end up turning God into a holy vending machine. Insert prayer here – make selection!

No, obviously providence is much deeper and more complex than that Hallmark Card kind of thinking. But it’s easy to fall into such thinking. I remember meeting a person who described every aspect of their life as a direct act of God. Their language was peppered with expressions like, “I was going to work and I was running late and God sent me 3 green lights in a row and I got there on time.”
Some of us may scoff at such things, but for this person God’s active interventions were a prominent feature in their life. Everything was attributed to God. Good things were blessings. Bad things were explained away with phrases like, “God is testing me,” or “God won’t give me anything more than I can handle.”
Perhaps you’ve encountered such theology before.

On the one hand it’s beautiful that someone sees God’s Presence made manifest in so many ways.
For me though, such an interventionist approach to the fine details of my life makes God into something that I don’t think God is: controlling.
You’ve heard me say repeatedly that God is Love and that because God is Love God can ONLY love.
Love doesn’t send calamity – for any reason.
And if Love loves me so much that Love will change red lights to green why doesn’t Love love me enough to make an illness or challenge disappear?
So no, I reject the interventionist theology of God.
It simply has no theological integrity for me.

So where does that leave me with explaining the concept of providence? Good question!
For me, and I stress this is ‘for me’ – God cannot intervene into a place where God already resides. My core theological affirmation is: Surely, God is in this place. My theology of God says that God is already here, now, present.
This present moment, this sacred moment, is up for grabs. What I mean is, how this present moment plays out is entirely up to me – not dictated by or controlled by God.
But how I live in and through this present, sacred moment is fundamentally impacted by whether or not I perceive God’s Holy Presence in this moment, and draw on and work with God’s Presence to navigate this present moment.
Some people call this idea co-creating – as in we are co-creators with God in this present moment.

To me, that makes God active right now – but only active insofar as I draw on God’s Love to live.
By analogy, your house is wired for electricity. Electricity is always present, but if you don’t plug in your cord you can’t work with that electricity.
And if the electricity starts acting on its own you’ve got big problems!

So how is this providence? What exactly is God providing, if not green lights when I’m seeing red?

God is providing what God has always provided, in the beginning, and now – God provides God’s Presence.
God provides God’s creative spark and energy.
God provides God’s light and love that inspires and blesses.

Does God ‘move’ in our world? read on

210131 – The Awe of the Present Moment

Yr B ~ Epiphany 4 ~ Psalm 111

It was the spring of 1997. I know that because our daughter Jocelyn was an infant. She was a healthy and happy child, but when she was grumpy she was one of those kids who had to be walked, and walked, and walked – sometimes for hours – always in the middle of the night. Well, it was the morning after one of those carpet-worn-out nights that I was supposed to go and meet Rob. Rob McConnell is one of Canada’s great musicians. He is world famous for writing and arranging for his jazz big band called “Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass.” His numerous Grammy awards were on display as I walked through his house – but I’m getting ahead of myself. Why was I there?

Rob had recently moved to Peterborough, where I taught high school music at the time (and had my own jazz band – not quite as good as his). A few doors down from Rob lived one of my trombone players, and Rob had hired him to cut his grass and do yard work. As they chatted Rob learned that this teen played trombone (which was Rob’s instrument), and played in the school jazz band. Now, Rob was just learning about computer music software at the time and was getting frustrated, so he asked the student if his music teacher (me) knew anything about it and might help him.

And that’s why I was knocking on jazz legend Rob McConnell’s door that morning – bleary eyed and sleep-deprived from the night before. He opened the door and I said, and I quote: “Hi Larry, I’m Rob!”
Thankfully, he laughed and didn’t just shut the door in my face! And eventually, he came into my school and worked with my band and even gave us one of his original jazz charts to play.
It was all just awesome.
And I was awestruck!
Here was a giant in the field of jazz music, the most famous person I’d ever met, wanting my help, and on the day I met him the best I could manage was an embarrassing, “Hi Larry, I’m Rob!”

I don’t know if you’ve ever been awestruck meeting someone. Hopefully you did better than me. To be awestruck, to be in awe of someone, is to feel positively overwhelmed and reverent at the same time. Impressed and intimidated. I think this is exactly what the psalmist was trying to convey in Psalm 111. At first glance you won’t see the word ‘awe’ in the psalm but it’s actually all over it. And specifically it’s used in verses 5 and 10, but it doesn’t look that way.

Psalm 111:5 God provides food for those who fear him.
Verse 10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Did you catch it? The ‘awe’?
It’s hiding in the word ‘fear’.
This one of the great lines in all of scripture (The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom), but our modern ears usually misinterpret the meaning of it, because we hear the word ‘fear’ and our minds think ‘afraid’.
The Hebrew word is yar’ and it doesn’t mean to be afraid – it means to be awestruck!
The fear of the Lord doesn’t mean we’re supposed to cower in the corner afraid that God is going to do something terrible if we’re not good little children.
It’s not fear like that – it’s awe.
It’s about being reverent – with a tinge of feeling overwhelmed – and, yes a bit scared at God’s awesomeness – a holiness so wondrous and all-encompassing that it makes our knees go weak, and our heads feel light, and we find ourselves babbling like fools. [lip flicking – bbbbbbb]

It’s a crying shame that this concept has been so terribly misused by religious leaders over the centuries.
If I threaten you with the ‘fear of God’ as a punisher then you are pretty likely to fall into line and do what I say – or else.
That’s good crowd control – and it’s horrific theology!
And I have to say my line again and again – God is not a punisher.
God is love – and as Love God can only love!
God cannot act against God’s very being, which is love. Hellfire and damnation are not love. So I reject them.
Cowering is a very sad and misguided response to God’s awesome, holy Presence.
Being awestruck, dumbfounded, blown away, reverently overwhelmed, and agog – these are what it means to ‘fear’ or be in ‘awe’ of God.
And that, my friends, that feeling, that openness, that surrender, that awestruck-ness, truly is the beginning and the foundation of wisdom.

And awe is the foundation of this psalm too. It’s just gushing out of the psalmist, literally from the first word of the psalm, which is Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.

And then the psalmist gushes about the awesomeness of God and how thankful all of us in the congregation are. Listen to the descriptors of God in this psalm. God is: honourable, majestic, wonderful, mindful, powerful, giving, faithful, just, trustworthy, upright, redeeming. How awesome is that! read on

210124 – The Wisdom of the Present Moment

Yr B ~ Epiphany 3 ~ Psalm 62

Ak, hesed! Selah!

What? I just preached the whole sermon. And it’s a great one!
I mean, it kinda has to be with such great material to work with.
Would you like to hear my sermon again? Ok.

Ak, hesed! Selah! Amen!
Did you get it that time?
Ok, I’ll explain more. But in the end, I think you’ll agree that the entire sermon really is Ak, hesed. Selah!

Those are 3 Hebrew words that carry really deep meanings. Let’s look at each one.

Ak is the first word of Psalm 62. It’s actually the first word of 6 of the first 9 verses (vv.1,2,4,5,6,9). All that’s lost when it gets translated into English, but in the original Hebrew hearing that word – ak – repeatedly spoken as the first word over and over again really drives the point home.
So what does ak mean?
It means: truly, surely, only, alone, indeed.

Truly my soul waits in silence.
Only God is my rock.
Surely their plan is to bring me down.
Indeed my soul waits in silence.
Truly God is my rock.
Surely we’re but a breath.

Ak, ak, ak, ak, ak. (Ak.)
It’s so emphatic.
Emphat-ak!     [/groan]

The psalmist is clearly trying to make a point about how important this message is.
It helps to remember that psalms are really music.
They’re like our hymns – meant to be sung. And because it’s music the idea of repeating certain sounds over and over again makes perfect sense. We hear that in music all the time.

Speaking of repeating, you may have noticed that the first 2 verses are repeated almost word for word as verses 5 and 6. Again, we do that in music all the time. It adds importance to the words, and it gives us something to focus on.
Curiously, our lectionary recommendation leaves the first 4 verses out and starts at verse 5. I think they really missed the point on this one.
Sometimes you might leave verses out because they’re really problematic, or confuse the meaning of the rest of the passage, but that’s not the case here.
And leaving them out actually undermines the entire point of the psalm which is to repeatedly emphasize how important and awesome God is.

The third word of my 3-word sermon is Selah. (I’ll circle back and get the second word – don’t worry!)
Selah is a complex word that’s really hard to translate, and usually gets translated narrowly and weakly.
Apart from the 3 Selah’s in Habakkuk, the word is exclusively, found in the psalms, and that’s why it usually gets translated as ‘interlude.’
Remember, psalms are music, so there are times when the words stop and the music takes over.
That’s a good part of the meaning of selah, but not the whole thing.
Why is there an interlude at that moment?
It’s because what was just said was really significant and it deserves to be pondered for a moment longer.

So Selah indicates something like a pregnant pause along with a sense of saying, “Dude, that’s deep!”
It basically means to stop and think hard about what you’ve just heard.
It’s like punctuating your speech with:
“Really!” or “You can say that again” or “Word!” or “True dat!” or “Damn straight!”

It’s used twice in Psalm 62 – in verse 4 when it says that people keep trying to put us down and can be two-faced. Selah!
And in verse 8 – Trust in God at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.

Pour out your heart to God! God is our shelter, our rest.
Selah! “True dat!”

Then we get the specific ‘wisdom’ portion of the psalm. Wisdom writing is a special genre in the Hebrew Scriptures (what we’d often call the Old Testament). It’s literally a form of writing that is designed to pass on deep knowledge, often from one generation to the next.
Many cultures have this idea.
For example, Indigenous people share the wisdom or teachings of the ‘grandfathers’ and ‘grandmothers’.
In the bible you’ll find wisdom teaching in the book of Ecclesiastes, in Job, in the Song of Songs, and especially in the book of Proverbs.
Psalms, too, are a type of wisdom writing, and Psalm 62:9-10 is a perfect example. Verse 9 – read on

210117 – The Nakedness of the Present Moment

Yr B ~ Epiphany 2 ~ Psalm 139

Last week I preached a sermon called The Sacrament of the Present Moment. I am captivated by this beautiful theological idea – that every single moment, and by extension every single place, is sacred and bursting with the Presence of God yearning for us to notice it, and embrace it, and become immersed in it, and yearning that we respond to that gift of fullness, and grace, and love by in turn loving others. Well, if every single moment is sacred, and every single place is sacred, what about every single person? (And I do mean EVERY single person – even the ones who give you…pause.) Is every single person sacred – filled with Godstuff at the centre of their being? I vote a resounding Yes! And as we dive into Psalm 139 I hope you’ll feel it too.

It begins…“O Lord you have searched me and known me.”

How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel good – because there’s safety there, and there’s a warmth and a depth to the connection being described. God knows when we rise up and sit down, knows our thoughts, knows our path, and is acquainted with all our ways. Heck, even before we put a word on our tongue God knows it completely.
How does God do that?
How can God know all that about me, about you, about all of us at the same time?
Well, it’s just too wonderful for us to understand.

But is it wonderful? That all depends on your theology of God. (Did you even know you had a theology of God?) You do!
If you imagine God as all-loving and supportive then you’ll love this psalm.
If you imagine God as judgmental and accusing then the idea of God searching and knowing you inside and out might be…upsetting!

I mean, what’s so wonderful about having someone know everything there is to know about us? What’s so wonderful about someone knowing your every movement and action? Isn’t that called stalking? [j/k] Maybe that can seem a little too close for comfort. Think right now about the things you keep the most hidden – you know, the things that you don’t show anybody or tell anybody about. The things that even your partner doesn’t get to see because you guard it. Maybe it’s too personal, maybe it’s too shameful, maybe it’s too embarrassing. Are you feeling uneasy yet? Anybody wanna type their secrets into the chat box? (Didn’t think so!)
So, if your theology of God sees a finger-pointing accuser trying to ‘get you’ when you trip up, then this psalm will have you squirming.

Guess what my theology of God says? Yup – all-loving, all the time!
God is love, and the only thing God can do is love.
Finger pointing, judging, accusing, and score-keeping are all human things – not God things.
My theology of God says that God is an all-encompassing, loving Presence.
And my theology of scripture says that when you’re reading a psalm – which is poetry, or more precisely they’re hymns, so they’re music lyrics – you need to remember that metaphors are powerful and suggestive but NOT literal or factual. How boring would our hymns be if they were only facts and not insights, and inspirations of wonder? So when scripture personifies God – making God seem like a humanoid individual – just like us, except way holier – we must remember that it’s just a metaphor – a way of describing in relatable terms something beyond our ability to grasp.

Now consider this about all those embarrassing things in your life that you’d rather no one ever knew about. God can see it. God knows about it, and has known about it always. And God loves you anyway! That’s how fully known we are – that’s how close our God is to our lives – imprinted in the centre of our being – absolute intimacy. It’s both wonderful and disquieting at the same time.

There’s no getting around that Psalm 139 speaks of an intimacy and vulnerability that can make us feel exposed and naked before God.
I think that’s a good thing! I hope I can describe that in helpful ways.

Psalm 139:1-6 says how God is all-knowing, always aware. The theological word for that is omniscient.
And then verses 7-10 say the same phrase we say all the time: Surely God is in this place! That’s God’s omnipresence.

7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol
(means the depths, as in far from where we think God may be), you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

The poetry is breathtaking. God is everywhere! North, south, east, west, up, down, near, far – everywhere.
Did you hear how v.10 ended though? God’s omnipresence isn’t oppressive, it’s comforting! Wherever I may go even there (God’s) hand shall lead me, and (God’s) right hand shall hold me fast. That warms my heart!

When I feel like my world’s been turned upside down and inside out, and everything is going wrong, and everyone’s out to get me – can you relate? – what’s God’s gift in such moments?
Verse 12 Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
The one who is leading us, and holding us fast, is one who is light in our darkness. Thank God!

Our thoughts are naked before God.
Our actions are naked before God.
Our moments and feelings are naked before God.
It’s utterly overwhelming – and now it goes deeper still. Verses 13-16: read on

210110 – The Sacrament of the Present Moment

Yr B ~ Epiphany 1 ~ Mark 1:4-11

We know the story of Jesus’ baptism very well. It’s recorded pretty much the same way in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and it comes up in the lectionary for us every year – and right at this time every year. It’s a pretty obvious tie in. I mean you don’t have to work very hard as a preacher to make a connection between the beginning of a new calendar year and how that represents a fresh, clean slate for us all, and the idea of Jesus rising up from under the water, fresh and ready to enter a whole new phase of his life.

Jesus’ baptism takes place somewhere around the time he’s 30 years old. It has perplexed Christians for centuries what Jesus may have been up to in those first 3 decades of his life. We have some stories of his birth, his dedication as an infant, and one story of him as a young lad who was drawn to the Temple and got separated from his parents. And that’s it. Oh, there’s been rampant speculation about what Jesus’ youth was like – there’s even some gospels written about it that didn’t make the bible. But it’s all pure speculation. We just don’t know.

All we know is that at about age 30 Jesus felt drawn to the river Jordan where his cousin John was flourishing with a very counter-cultural baptism and life-renewal ministry. The bible says that people from all over the place were coming to John – that the whole of Jerusalem was coming to him. Hyperbole, obviously – but it clearly establishes that John’s baptism thing was a big deal.

Enter Jesus.

Mark 1:9-11 – In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

In true gospel of Mark fashion the story is both short and abrupt and profoundly spiritual at the same time. It’s the spiritual experience part I’d like to focus on. No surprise there! I want us to think about what it felt like for Jesus.

Imagine, being immersed in that water – a bunch of strangers watching – your cousin trying to decide if he should pay you back for that time at the family picnic a few years ago (just kidding) – and as you emerge from under the water you have such a profound spiritual experience that you witness the sky being torn wide open, and you visualize the Holy Spirit, and you hear the voice of God calling you beloved!

Now THAT’s a sacred moment.
A sacrament, to be sure.

In our United Church of Canada tradition we celebrate 2 sacraments: baptism and communion.
If you were a Roman Catholic you’d have 7.
There are also Christian denominations that mark no sacraments at all.
I note that only to say that what someone names as a sacrament is a choice. It isn’t directly prescribed by the bible.

So what is a sacrament anyway?
One definition describes them as specific religious rites or ceremonies that are presided over by an official ‘ordered’ church leader – like me.
But I believe sacraments are so much more than that.
I’m not the arbiter of what’s sacred. My sharing baptism or communion with you isn’t made holy because I’ve got a collar. Yes, it’s appropriate that in public worship within a denomination that there’s some gatekeeping around our religious rituals – but for me that’s as far as I like to take it.

I’m actually much more interested in the idea of sacraments that go far beyond the 2, or 7, or none that churches mark.
For me, I believe there about a billion sacraments available to us!
Ok, that’s not realistic. Maybe several billion!

The most basic definition of sacrament is a moment or event or activity in which God’s usually hidden or veiled presence is made known, and in that making known what was invisible becomes visible, or knowable, and God’s blessing, and favour, and grace are conveyed and experienced.
A short definition would be: a visible sign of an invisible grace.
We have that in the water of baptism, and in the bread and wine of communion.
Somehow, in the midst of our interacting with those basic things of life – water, wine, bread – God’s Presence is revealed and internalized in an experiential way.

After my sermon we’re going to have communion. read on

210103 – The Word Became Flesh

Yr B ~ Christmas 2 ~ John 1:1-14

The world has moved on, and it probably feels a bit odd to us, but we’re still in the season of Christmas in church. And today we hear the opening of John’s gospel – and we get a completely different kind of birth narrative – not of a little baby, but of the cosmic Christ.

The first three words we hear should instantly trigger something for us – “In the beginning…” – and we’re transported back to the book of Genesis and the story of the creation of the universe. This is the canvass that John’s gospel chooses to paint upon – and the subject of his painting is “the Word” of God. And it’s an important painting because it lifts our gaze from the stable and the manger and all that good stuff, and fixes our attention on God. Somehow, someway, the very stuff of God – God-ness – expressed as God’s Word – not all of God but definitely “of” God – became flesh.

It’s both beautiful and bizarre at the same time. It’s like we know what the Word of God is, but we can’t really put it into language that makes sense. Neither could John – so he chose metaphors and poetry. But instead of getting bogged down in trying to figure it all out, just step back and look at what John is suggesting. It’s the same thing that Matthew and Luke are suggesting in their own unique ways.

There was a guy named Jesus.
And Jesus walked around Judea teaching about God and helping people. And when people encountered Jesus they came away sensing that they had somehow, uniquely and acutely, felt the presence of God in him.
He moved people.
Lives changed.
And when he was killed as a criminal, and then later somehow appeared as a present reality to his friends and followers, they knew that Jesus was more than just an ordinary guy.
So they wrote about their experiences of him, and their experiences of God that Jesus revealed to them.

Now, when you encounter something that powerful, that miraculous, you gotta wonder how it all began – how’d he get that way – what made him special? read on

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