Noticings – February 16, 2022

NOTICINGS…

February 16, 2022

“Get out of my face, go back to where you came from,” I was told by one of my grade seven classmates. I was puzzled and wondered what he meant by that. I responded by saying “I am not in your face,” and somehow immediately felt silly with my response.

I was thirteen when I came to Canada from Jamaica in 1968. I arrived in the summertime. My parents thought that it was a good idea because it would allow me some time to get used to my new surroundings, more specifically, the language.

I came from a small village on the west side of the island where, though I wrote and spoke English, I had an accent. My parents tried their best to prepare me for school, by explaining some of the things that I might find differently. We spoke about the pronunciation, eye contact when speaking to the teacher, not having to stand in class when responding to the teacher. And I recall my mom explaining that I will not be wearing uniforms.

So as September rolled around, I felt that I was ready, prepared and excited to start a new school in this new country. I cannot say that my first day was uneventful.

For the first two years of attending school, my sister and I were the only Black students in our classes. The only other Black student was my newfound friend from England. How very strange was that? Some of the students looked at me with strange looks on their faces. Comments were made that I talked funny, about my hair, and I was made fun of because I didn’t know how to play floor hockey.

Being with White people, though, was not new to me. While in Jamaica, White folks would pass through my village from time to time. My maternal grandmother is part Scottish and could easily have passed for White. So, interacting with White people was by no means strange for me. However, to be surrounded by so many White folks everywhere I went was very different. But hearing the comments being made toward me, the stares that were made at me, and the name calling were quite discomforting.

One afternoon, threats were made that traumatized my younger siblings. As we walked back home for lunch, a group of boys told my sisters that they would be hanged on their way back to school. Of course, my sisters were too young to understand what was said and barely mentioned it at home. My older sister, however, heard what was said and decided to walk my sisters back to school. To their surprise, these young boys, had a noose hanging from the tree where my sisters had to walk. This was frightening for all of us. My older sister, of course, chased these boys away. To this day, we wondered what the outcome might had been had our older sister not walked them back.

Eventually, my dad sat us down, and shared his stories about his own experiences of interacting with White people while he was on the farm working program in the United States. These are now familiar stories: they couldn’t eat with the White people; they weren’t allowed to go anywhere with them, to the White folks, the farmworkers were slaves. The stories were not pleasant. It made me wonder why my parents decided to immigrate to Canada. While my dad’s experience happened in the U. S. context, there were many similarities to life in Canada. My mom would chime in to say, “That is why I didn’t want to go to the U.S. or England for that matter.” These stories led me to believe that Canada was different, but in fact, it wasn’t. I went through school, working very hard to achieve good grades, trying not to upset anyone, trying to make friends with anyone who would want to associate themselves with me.

As the years went by, more and more blacks started entering the schools. We eventually formed a high school club called the West Indian Students Association. The club was to support each other and to create a space for learning about who we were as Black students and where we fit in. It was also to help the White students learn about who we were.

As I am reflecting on all these stories, it brings a smirk to my face knowing that we have been struggling with racism and discrimination for such a long time and the struggle continues.

This consciousness of being Black and different followed me right through my schooling years, and later in my place of work and even in my church. I must note, though, that I was pleased that my church was willing to participate in the activities and worship around Black History Month. Guest speakers brought the message and shared their experiences and expertise in the areas of Black history in Canada and racism. For sure, there were some thought-provoking sermons.

A few years ago, I attended the Black Clergy gathering in Edmonton. I was so disappointed by the stories that were being shared about experiences of racism. It felt like not much has changed over the years. Some of the questions that were being asked of me back in the Sixties are still being asked today.

  • Where are you from?
  • Where are you really from?
  • How long does it take to do your hair?
  • You have an accent!

Sometimes I wonder if I am being too sensitive. However, I don’t think so. The work to dismantle racism in all its facets is not easy. We need to be in each other faces. We need to be ready to respond and challenge people when they display racist attitudes and actions. I believe that the more our voices are heard, the more stories are told, the more information that is put forth, the more likely it is that we can all share and live into this Kin-dom of God.
—Yvonne Wright was born in Jamaica but was raised in Canada from a young teen. She has been a member of the United Church most of her life and is very passionate about her faith and church. She is currently a member of Sydenham-Heritage Community of Faith in Brantford, ON.

 

220205 – The Deep

Yr C ~ Epiphany 5 ~ Luke 5:1-11

One of my favourite metaphors for God is the concept of ocean. An ocean is vast, powerful, mysterious, dangerous, deep, has waves and currents, is known yet unknowable, represents a voyage, is the lifeblood of the world. These rich ocean metaphors vividly describe the Holy Mystery we call God, and our journey of faith. And like oceans, the Sacred is largely unexplored! There are depths of Sacred Presence that too few humans have had the courage and conviction to dive into. We are in a profound relationship with The Deep – whether we’re aware of it or not.

You could think of this whole spiritual journey we’re on as being like moving from the shallow water of everyday experience and into the mystery and wonder of the Deep. That movement is our deepening relationship with God – our immersion in the ocean of Presence that surrounds and enfolds us. The bible is filled with stories of people on this same journey. People just like you and me – and Simon Peter.

Luke 5:1-11 is one of the places we hear about Peter’s call story (he actually doesn’t get the name Peter for a couple more chapters but I’m going to use it now anyway for clarity). A crowd presses in on Jesus hungering and thirsting for more of the Sacred Reality he’s revealing. Presses in! We could stop right there and just explore that remarkable image, but not today. Jesus asks Peter (it’s unclear how well they know each other here) if he can use his boat to go out a bit and create an impromptu natural amphitheatre – you know how sound travels better over water. After Jesus finishes his teaching he invites Peter to take the boat out into the lake and go fishing.

Peter protests. Why should he listen to this guy? Jesus was a carpenter, not a fisher. Peter had been out all night and caught nothing. Why should he go back out – during the daytime – and fail again? But something in the exchange persuades him and out they go. And lo and behold a miraculous amount of fish are caught and Peter becomes a disciple.

Taken on the surface this story feels kind of like magic. Jesus waves his magic wand and they throw the nets over the side of the boat and receive a massive catch of fish. Is that the right take-away for us here? Does Jesus say, “I’ll do something flashy and wondrous for you and that’ll make you want to follow my way”? Nope. But we can really trip on the miracle part. What if ‘miracle’ didn’t mean supernatural but just something that’s so beyond the ordinary and usual that it feels extraordinary and unusual?

The miracle here isn’t that there were suddenly so many fish. read on

220129 – Mirror, Mirror

Yr C ~ Epiphany 4 ~ 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

It obviously is, but it really isn’t, but in the end it actually is. People who have never attended a Sunday worship service probably still have some resonance with 1 Corinthians 13. If you’ve been to a wedding you’ve probably heard it there. It gets used for weddings all the time because it talks about love so much. So it obviously is a passage about love – but it really isn’t – at least not that kind of love. It’s not about romantic love, it’s about holy, spiritual love. The Greek word is agape.

And when you put it in context, and remember that in the chapter preceding this, which we’ve been looking at for the last two weeks, Paul (the author) has been going into overtime wagging his finger at the people who make up the Corinthian church. Among a host of other problems in that congregation that we didn’t talk about, including class segregation, sexual impropriety, and taking one another to court, here Paul is in the midst of chastising them for privileging the spiritual gift of tongues over other gifts. Then in the next chapter (14) he says why that’s wrong. It’s because tongues are usually only used to build up oneself, whereas other gifts like prophesying, preaching, serving, hospitality, and whatnot are used to build up the body of Christ.

So we’ve got finger wagging on either side of chapter 13 here – but suddenly Paul takes a break and decides to write a wedding sermon? Not likely. Heck, even in the first verse he repeats that there’s a problem with how they’re using the gift of tongues. 1 Corinthians 13:1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

The problem with the Corinthians is that they don’t appear to be doing things out of love. I make a big deal about this every week at offering time. I talk about how God fills us with love and we respond by loving, by sharing that overflow of love. The Corinthians apparently weren’t getting that message. So Paul tells them exactly what love is, by telling them what love isn’t. Again, a curious choice for a wedding text.

He says love is patient and kind – but then we get a laundry list of all the things love isn’t – and apparently it’s a list of how those Corinthians are acting. They are being: impatient, unkind, arrogant, envious, boastful, rude, selfish, irritable, resentful, and celebrating others’ failures. Ouch! In contrast to how they’re doing it, Paul tells them that love – agape love, holy love, spiritual love, God-based love, Christ-centred love, Spirit-filled love – bears all things, trusts all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It’s self-less, not self-obsessed – it’s other-focussed (or better still, one-another-focussed), not self-focussed. And he closes with love never falls down.

God’s love never falls down. Human love? Well, that seems to be hit or miss sometimes. Then Paul surprises us. He says that prophecies, and tongues, and knowledge will all eventually fall down. Church and theology will eventually run their course – but God’s love, and loving in God’s way, never will.

And now we get to the heart of it. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

That’s a tricky concept – the complete. The Greek word means ‘perfect’, which is even trickier. It doesn’t mean perfect as in without ever making a mistake, and it doesn’t mean complete as in finished and done. The best single word to sum the concept up is ‘maturity’. Completeness, Christian ‘perfection’, actually means to be spiritually mature. And if you are spiritually mature you know that you’ll still make mistakes, and that you’ll never be finished growing and deepening. But you will know, and experience, and embody the fullness of God.

Here’s the million-dollar question: When does the complete come? Some folks interpret it as upon death – that only in death can we know the fullness of immersion in God. But I think there’s much more here. I believe with all my being that we can approach that fullness of God in the here and now, that spiritual maturity is possible in the here and now.

And that leads to the billion-dollar question: How? How do I become spiritually mature?
The answer is Jackson, Jason, and Jim! (Oh, and Jesus, of course.)

1 Corinthians 13:12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Now we perceive, or discern, in a mirror, dimly. Then, when we’re mature, we will perceive/discern face to face. Who? God – one another – everything. Our whole perception will be made whole – we’ll see one another and God face to face – in full presence – in completeness.

But we can’t skip to the ‘then’, the perception part, without doing the ‘now’, the mirror part, first. read on

Noticings – February 9, 2022

NOTICINGS…

February 9, 2022

Tonight a friend and I will begin co-facilitating an online ‘retreat’ based on my Presence Project work from my DMin degree. It was that work that produced something that is now familiar to us: Surely God is in this place! Help me notice! Now we get to introduce that affirmation and prayer, and the concepts of God’s constant loving presence, to a whole new group of people. Interestingly, about twice the number of participants than we expected have signed up. Perhaps two years of pandemic upset has stirred more interest in things that speak of spiritual grounding.

I’m not only delighted with the response, but it has been delightful to return to the material that started this journey for me and rework it. I haven’t changed my mind about anything that I wrote, but over the years I have developed different, and hopefully deeper, ways to say it. To my original thoughts about the sacred, and sensing and savouring, I’ve added layers about non-duality, sacramentality, and how all this stuff can (must?) change the way you interact with the world and people. You’ve probably heard all that stuff too because it’s through my preaching that I work it out and figure out how to communicate it.

As I revisited the workshop material I was particularly struck by a video clip that I had used but hadn’t thought about much since. Pity – because it’s really wonderful. It’s a clip from a ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ episode near the end of the series when a character named Wesley (who had grown up on screen during the series) was struggling with launching into adulthood. He encounters an Indigenous North American person (they’d been relocated to a distant planet – it’s Star Trek, just go with it) named Lakanta who challenges Wesley with this question: What is sacred to you? Wesley confesses he’d never thought much about it, and when pressed he thought maybe religious items like jewelry or buildings would be sacred. Lakanta tells him that to him and his people everything is sacred. Everything! And then he hits Wesley between the eyes with this one: “You are sacred, Wesley!” As brilliant as young Wesley is, such a thought had never occurred to him. And he realized that he hadn’t been treating himself as very sacred.

Friends, you are sacred! You! And you deserve to be treated as sacred – by others, and by yourself. You are sacred. Never forget that! Revisiting this project has been a real gift for me. I can’t wait to share this with the group tonight!

(Click here for a video version of Noticings)

PS – Following up from last week, I figured out a way to play the song!

Shalom, Rev. Larry

Noticings – February 2, 2022

NOTICINGS…

February 2, 2022

One of my favourite music groups in the late 70s-early 80s was the Little River Band from Australia. They produced one of my all-time favourite songs, “Reminiscing”. So, so good! I was really starting to find my own way as a musician back then, exploring different genres, especially jazz. So it’s no wonder that I love this song because it’s a pop song but has significant jazz harmonies in it. Well, I decided last night that I was going to learn how to play Reminiscing on the guitar – and let me tell you, it was a disaster! It was way harder than I thought.

First, I downloaded the lyrics and chords from a guitar sharing site. There were several versions offered, so I picked the one with the most complex chords, because I knew the song had such rich harmonies, and if someone could write them down they must know what they’re doing, right? Then I went to YouTube and found a few video tutorials and selected what I thought was the best one. Within 1 bar I was frustrated! I’m a pretty fair guitar player, but I’ve never studied it formally, and I can’t play those fancy, stretched finger, way up the neck chords. Guess what? The whole song is like that! Ack!

So, I thought, I’ve got a music degree, and a pretty good ear – I can just figure it out myself. I know all about music theory and b5 #11 concepts (just not on guitar, apparently). Besides, I wanted to play it in a lower key so I could sing it more easily, so I needed different chords anyway. (By the way, the original singer can’t sing it in the original key anymore either.) So I’m using the chord chart, and I keep getting frustrated because it doesn’t sound right. I go back to the video, and I realize that the chord chart I’m following is incorrect. Lesson learned – just because something is written down one shouldn’t take it as gospel!

I’d like to tell you that I unlocked the piece, it all came together, and I sound awesome. Nope. It kicked my butt, and humbled me. I wanted it to come easy for me, but some things you really have to work hard at, because they’re worth it.

May I suggest we approach scripture the same way? We’ve inherited some awesome ‘chord charts’ that we’ve downloaded, but really they are just the best attempt at relating something by someone playing by ear. The underlying ‘harmonies’ are very complex, and they take much care, patience, study, and practice to get ‘under our fingers’. For me, I’ll keep at it, and I will eventually be able to play Reminiscing – and the journey will shape me along the way.

(Click here for a video version of Noticings)

Noticings – January 26, 2022

NOTICINGS…

January 26, 2022

Right after church on Sunday I had to rush home and log-in to an online meeting. It was a lovely meeting – the second of two days of spiritual reflecting and intentionality. I’m on the leadership team for this gathering so I don’t get to immerse as much as I’d like during the sessions, but they are still prayerful and rejuvenating. I called it my spiritual booster shot! There’s only one problem: I missed my nap – and I’ve been feeling it ever since. Every Sunday after lunch I lay myself down for a nap. I love worship leading, but it does take a lot of energy, so a nap on Sunday afternoons has been a core practice of mine since I began doing ministry.

Here’s my question: can I call that a spiritual practice? Can a nap be spiritual? Yes, I believe it can. And I’m not alone. I recently discovered a ministry called “Nap Ministry”. Honest. It’s a real thing. They’ve got a website and everything, with resources and encouragement, and even coaching. They also offer collective nap experiences where people get together in a curated space with music, poetry meditations, and of course pillows and blankets. They pray together, pause together, and then nap. Together. I know, on one hand it sounds kinda weird. But on the other hand doesn’t it sound awesome?

How wonderful is a really good nap?! We don’t do it often enough. A nap is basically a form of sabbath keeping. It’s an intentional pause from the swirling world and a time set apart to rest. The nap ministry folks have a credo. It goes, “Rest is resistance!” In today’s world pausing, and resting, and unplugging, and even napping are very counter-cultural. Saying no to busyness is an act of resistance. Giving yourself over to a nap is a daring action, because you have to let go of all the other stuff clamouring for your attention. Even Jesus took naps! Remember that time in the boat when the storm blew in?

I missed my nap on Sunday, and I haven’t made time to take one since. But I think I’m going to this afternoon. You’re welcome to join me in this beautiful spiritual practice. Now I lay me down to nap. Rest is resistance.

(Click here for a video version of Noticings)

220116 – One Body

Yr C ~ Epiphany 3 ~ 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

This scripture passage is famous for the extended metaphor Paul spins about the foot not being a hand, and the ear not being an eye. It’s really memorable, and it lays out a pretty solid point quite colourfully. A body has many parts, and it functions best when the variety and diversity of the parts are able to be themselves, and not try to be someone or something else. An obvious, and solid sermon. And then, like many, many well-meaning preachers who have followed him (present company definitely included), Paul pushes the metaphor a bit too far and in his enthusiasm he blows it, and seemingly undermines his entire message. Except he doesn’t, actually – it just appears that way because we’re only reading part of the story.

There are four sections to this reading. It begins with 1 Corinthians 12:12-13
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free– and we were all (given) to drink of one Spirit.

Beautiful, right? Though many – one. One body, not despite our differences but one body including our differences – strengthened and blessed by our differences and variety.

‘Diversity in oneness’ seems like a paradox. And it is. Faith is built on beautiful paradoxes. I’ll use the word One with a series of nouns, and hopefully you’ll see that every one of them is paradoxical because the noun is never just one thing: One church. One faith. One hope. One body. They’re paradoxes.

There are over 25,000 Christian denominations in the world, but we profess one church. There are as many ideas about faith as there are people watching this livestream – times a kajillion – but we profess one faith. And despite there being such divisions within it, we strongly profess one body of Christ. And the thing that holds this giant pile of paradoxes together? One Spirit – dancing like tongues of fire – blowing through us and animating our lives.

On a very profound level we are one. And yet on an equally profound level we know that we are also different. Can we be one and different at the same time? Absolutely! Can we be united and at odds at the same time? Absolutely. Life doesn’t make sense any other way.

We are one – body, church, faith, denomination – and yet there are decidedly competing visions for how to move forward. Same thing happens in our governmental elections. I may agree with this or that party and profoundly disagree with a couple of the others, but I honestly have no doubt that every national party sees itself as Canadian – as one country – as one people. But from that oneness there springs profoundly different visions.

Political conflicts, church conflicts, family conflicts, they’re all aspects of these competing visions. And I think the reason we get into trouble is that we tend to focus on our differences instead of on our oneness. When someone gets angry about something in the church it’s usually because their sense of how it should be rubs against someone else’s. How different would church life be – not just here, everywhere – if we began our disagreements like this: “I realize you want the best for the church, and so do I, but it seems we see it in different ways. Can we put our heads together (not butting heads) and try to see it together?” Wouldn’t that be awesome?!

After that unity in diversity section Paul does the hand/foot, ear/eye thing and punctuates it with an admonition saying one part of the body can’t say to another part of the body “I have no need of you!” But think about that for a minute. Why did Paul need to say that? It’s because some parts of his church body in Corinth were doing exactly that – they weren’t celebrating the diversity among them – they were privileging some members and disparaging others. I’ll tell you the reason why in a minute. (Oh, the suspense! – All right, I’ll tell you a bit now.) read on

Noticings – January 19, 2022

NOTICINGS…

January 19, 2022

I know, I know. It’s a month early. But I figured I’d beat the rush and go ahead and get the February blahs started now! There’s nothing wrong, per se. Life is actually pretty darn good. My relationships, my work, my health, they’re all strong and nurturing. So why am I feeling blah? It’s not even February yet. A colleague asked me the other day how I was doing. The word that popped out of my mouth wasn’t blah – it was weary. I’ve been pondering that response ever since. Weary. Yup, that’s the word.

As almost always happens in my life, that reminded me of a song. (Yes, there’s a song for everything!) The song is called, sure enough, “Weary”. It’s by a Canadian contemporary Christian group out of St. Catherine’s called Newworldson. They never became super-famous like some groups, but I loved them because they were so unique and musical. One fascinating thing about them is that they released two different versions of this song. But first, here are some lyrics:

Weary, I’ve been weary for the longest time
Weary, living with a worried mind
Can you hear me? I could really use a friend
Weary, and I’m knocking on your door again

So, whose door is the singer knocking on? God’s door? Or maybe your door? Or both? The rest of the lyrics suggest it’s addressed to God, but in practice God works through us, so I think it’s both. That’s interesting, but not fascinating. What’s fascinating to me is that the first version they put out was slow and ponderous. Clearly it was sung by someone with the blahs, whatever month they’re in. But then a couple years later they re-recorded it at a significantly faster tempo and with a groovier groove. Can you sing about weariness without plodding? Yes, you can! And they did.

The tempo makes a huge difference. Yes, we’re still weary, but there’s a hopefulness about it. There’s a sense that there’s light to be rediscovered and felt. It’s almost like the first version they’re in the depths of it, and they’re not really certain that someone will answer the door when they knock. But in the second version they’re knocking with a sense of hopeful confidence that weariness is not the final answer. Maybe that’s one of the gifts of a deep and rich faith life. No promises that weariness will never come again – of course it will! But underneath it all there’s a resonance and a remembrance that there’s Something More too, and all it takes is a knock (or a prayer) to reconnect with that ‘something’.

Here are links to each version of the song. I hope you’ll give them a listen.
Slower version ~~~ Faster version
And I hope if you’re feeling some blahs, and some weariness, that you’ll take heart in remembering that you’re not alone, and the door will most certainly be answered when you knock!

(Click here for a video version of Noticings)

220116 – Something To Do

Year C ~ Epiphany 2 ~ 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

“What I want to talk about now is the various ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives.”
That’s how The Message Bible translates the first verse of 1 Corinthians 12, and that’s precisely what I want to talk to you about today.
“What I want to talk about now is the various ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives.”

I hope you notice that it starts with an assumption that I take as a fact. It’s not a maybe, or a hopefully. It’s a truth. A reality. It’s not, “Gee, I wonder if God’s Spirit might actually be part of my life?” It’s, “God’s Spirit absolutely DOES get worked into my life – and in various ways. That’s the fact, Jack!”

It’s not just one way or one aspect of my life (like while I’m tuned-in to a worship livestream) – and it may be decidedly different for the next person – but even though it may look different and manifest differently there is no doubt at all in my mind that that Spirit’s working in each of our lives.

Of course, the Spirit’s got some competition. There are all sorts of things working on you right now. Some of them you may be actively participating in and cooperating with – some of them you might be outright resisting – and some of them you may have never given a second thought to.

Worship is working on your life right now. Relationships are working on your life right now. Democracy is working on our lives right now. The social safety net and universal healthcare are working on us as Canadians, whether we’re accessing them currently or not. Covid and pandemic are surely working on us all right now. To be completely ridiculous, gravity is working on us or we’d be floating away. To be completely serious, Love is working on us, whether we are aware or not.

I really like this translation, the various ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives, because it avoids some of the baggage and interpretive problems of the usual language – “spiritual gifts”. The NRSV translates v.1 as,
Now concerning spiritual gifts, (kindred in Christ), I do not want you to be uninformed.

Spiritual gifts kind of sound like Christmas gifts. Sometimes you get one, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it’s just what you wanted, sometimes it’s not quite the right fit and you wish you could exchange it! Hands up if you had to do that this Christmas.
But that’s not how spiritual giftedness works. At all!

A spiritual gift sounds like it’s a self-contained package of skills, or abilities, or passions that you then take and use to help people or love people. Really, what it’s talking about is our general state of blessedness. We are constantly being blessed by the Spirit. We are in a never-ending, never-interrupted, never-diminishing stream of blessing. The Spirit is working into and through our lives just as assuredly as oxygen is! Spiritual gifts don’t come and go like Christmas – they constantly flow like your bloodstream!

1 Corinthians 12:4-6
Now there are varieties of gifts or blessings, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services or ways to engage in ministry, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities one can faithfully engage in, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

So there’s all this variety but for some reason Paul felt the need to put in bold italics and underline the part about all of it coming from the same Spirit. I suspect that’s because before being Christians these Corinthian folks were likely worshipping many different gods, each of whom had their own thing to offer. With Jesus’ God, our God, there are many, many gifts but only One God! It also helps us to remember that there’s not just one way to serve, or be faithful.

And then we get what is, for me, the most important verse in the reading. read on

220109 – Old Habits

Yr C ~ Epiphany 1 ~ Acts 8:9-24 (MSG)

It’s my first sermon in January 2022 and I’ve called it ‘Old Habits’. I know what you’re thinking – it’s another New Year’s resolutions sermon. That would be ok, but it’s not that (ok, maybe a little, kinda, but not really). It’s really going to be a sermon about discipleship – which is the ultimate good habit!

But right there, right off the bat, there’s an interesting assumption built in. That assumption is that old habits are bad, and need to be changed. I’d like to challenge that assumption – because not all old habits are bad! Some old habits are the very stuff that makes you the wonderful person you are! Beautiful old habits like openness, kindness, thoughtfulness, care and compassion for your loved ones, your friends, and even for ‘others’. Deep and spiritual old habits like being part of a community of faith, worshipping together, praying together, loving one another. These positive old habits are what makes us us.

But then there are the other ones. Those old habits that we wish we could shake but we haven’t found the strength, or the will, or the timing’s been off, or life prevents us from shaking them. (Those are often the stuff of New Year’s resolutions!) But those old habits are the ones we know about – and too often beat ourselves up about. Can God help us with those? Can the Way of Jesus help us navigate our way out of those bad old habits? Of course! If we choose to allow the Spirit to do its thing. But of course that requires us doing something we are extremely reticent to do – to surrender, to unclench our grip on that thing, and to drop our guard, and open our hands and hearts and say, “Ok God – I lay it down. Help me not pick it back up again!”

All that stuff makes for great resolutions, and maybe even a great sermon – trust God, let God, and God will help you make your life better. Ok, but that’s a very modern-western-worldly self-help way to look at religion. I mean, it’s good in that it helps us try to be better versions of ourselves, but that’s not entirely what being a follower of Christ is about, and it’s not what today’s scripture passage is actually about.

The prescribed reading in the lectionary here is just Acts 8 verses 14-17. It’s a lovely little pericope that points to the theological difference between being baptized in the name of Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit. It’s a good reading, because it’s a challenge for us as a mainline church. We dutifully do the ‘baptism in the name of Jesus’ part – but we’ve always shied away from the Holy Spirit parts. It’s too unpredictable, and makes one susceptible to outbursts of energy, or joy, or enthusiasm for Jesus, or emotionality, or spiritual giddiness – and we just can’t have that in our staid-stoic-stiff-upper-lip-don’t-let-them-see-you-wobble churches! (Insert eye roll here!)

Those four verses underline that it’s not enough to just say the words, or do the rituals, or go through the motions. It’s suggesting that the fullness and awesomeness of God’s presence, and power, and love are found in an openness to and receiving of the Holy Spirit. So that’s a pretty on-point message for the mainline church. But I could preach that anytime (and I have, as you know). Ironically, the reading being so short kind of does what it warns us not to do – it makes a good point but misses out on a bigger and more personal point.

That’s a frequent critique I have about the common lectionary. It tends to favour broad theological ideas, and concepts aimed at ‘the church’ as a corporate body – as an ‘us’, while tending to downplay or neglect passages that zero-in more on personal spiritual transformation. ‘We’ language is good, but I always think it gives us an out – as in ‘we the church’ can do or be whatever, but ‘me the person’ doesn’t really have to, ‘cuz buddy over there is. As you well know, I tend to favour personal spiritual transformation stuff – so I’ve added in the rest of the story of Acts 8.

The fuller reading introduces us to a fascinating character named Simon (no, not that Simon who became Peter – another Simon). This Simon is something of a con-man.
But before we get into Simon let’s set the context. read on

211226 – Christmas Clothes

Yr C ~ Christmas 1 ~ Colossians 3:12-17

What are you clothing yourself in these days?
Hope, peace, joy, and love? That’s what we said during Advent all through December. Did it work? Were you clothed in those things? Did the annual rhythm of preparation for and anticipation of Christmas capture your spirit? Were you clothed in pre-Christmas cheer?

I wish I could say I was, but I was not. If anything, it was a little threadbare! I mean, it started out well! We were finding our way back into in-person worship in addition to this wonderful online version. I was starting to venture out and make some connections for making more music with people. We had wonderful plans for 2 in-person Christmas Eve services, even with some innovation of having one outdoors! Life was starting to feel like normalcy was slowly re-emerging. It really was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

And then, it turned. A new Covid variant emerged – I ended up getting Covid and having to isolate for 10 lonely December days – and all the in-person restrictions suddenly returned in order to protect people and try to keep us healthy. And in a moment, it seemed, it all went poof. And so did my pre-Christmas spirit.

Now, since then, in the last week, things are turning again. Our son has come home for a visit, I got through the swirl of church Christmas things, and now it’s Boxing Day and we’re on the other side of all the pre-Christmas hubbub. (Yes, I’m actually recording this before that stuff happened – but I’m an optimist by nature!) I know that for many families, Christmas gathering plans had to be tweaked, or simplified (or sadly even cancelled). But I hope that now that the big day is done, and we’re in the aftermath, that we might have the capacity to pause, and take a deep breath, and reflect.

I don’t know what you may have got for Christmas, but I’d wager there was at least one piece of clothing. (Even if it was just socks or underwear in your stocking!) Giving clothes at Christmas is kind of a staple gift. Lately, Christmas sweaters are all the rage. I think my daughter has 10 of them! (And she wore a different one to work every day!) It’s one of the more obvious ways that we can clothe ourselves in Christmas. It’s a little harder to clothe yourself in hope, peace, joy, and love (especially when the swirl of the world feels like it’s against you). But then Christmas finally comes, and we celebrate in the best way we’re able to, and then we collapse! (Ok, maybe that’s just ministers after the December rush, but I doubt it.)

So I go back to my original question: what are you clothing yourself in these post-Christmas days? Maybe it’s rest! That would be good. I’m certainly trying that one on for size! Maybe you’re clothing yourself in Christmas cheer? Or maybe you’re clothing yourself in Christmas baking! Cookies abound!

Would it be too surprising for the preacher guy to suggest that maybe we might clothe ourselves in a bit of scripture? We’ve just come through Christmas Eve worship, especially our ‘Lessons and Carols’ service in which scripture is so central. (If you haven’t watched that yet you can find it on our YouTube channel.) So we’ve been paying more attention to scripture lately than maybe we normally would, because the Christmas story is such a major pillar of our identity as people of faith, and we pay really close attention to it at this time of year.

I’m wondering if we might stay in that spirit and clothe ourselves in scripture a little longer. Interestingly, today’s reading, on the Sunday that’s called Christmas 1, has nothing to do with the birth narrative of the baby Jesus. But I think it has a lot to do with Christmas!

Oh, I don’t mean Christmas way back then. That didn’t exist. The celebration we call Christmas emerged centuries later. But this excerpt from the letter called Colossians sounds like it was written today. It sounds to me like a preacher looked out at their congregation in the aftermath of the modern colossus called Christmas, and wondered what they might offer to their faithful folks to help them through the holidays.

So I invite you to take a deep breath, and close your eyes, and to allow these ancient, yet so current, words to wash over you and speak to your spirit in this post-Christmas denouement.

Colossians 3:12-17
3:12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
3:13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
3:14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
3:15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.
3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
3:17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Parent through him.

Aren’t these the Christmas clothes we need the most?!

Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
Clothe yourselves with mutuality.
Clothe yourselves with forgiveness.
Above all, clothe yourselves with love.
Clothe yourselves with peace.
Clothe yourselves with thanksgiving.
Clothe yourselves with scripture.
Clothe yourselves with songs of praise.
Clothe yourselves with discipleship.
Clothe yourselves with God’s Presence.

And unlike that sweater, these Christmas clothes will fit you perfectly!

Maybe next time we get together in-person we can all show one another our shiny new Christmas clothes! That would make for a very Merry Christmas season indeed!

Amen.

211219 – Xmas-Conceive

Yr C ~ Advent 4 ~ Luke 1:35-45 (MSG)

Some of what you’re about to hear may sound familiar. As you know, I’m dealing with being Covid-positive this week, so I hope I can be forgiven for reworking an old sermon (although, there’s nothing wrong with re-preaching – good tunes deserve multiple hearings). But another reason it will sound familiar is that the themes we’ll talk about today come up every single year on this last Sunday before Christmas. Why is that? Because this, in my oh so humble opinion, is the true meaning of Christmas.

This, Advent 4, is the big day. Theologically, well, as far as preaching and teaching goes anyway, this Sunday is way more important than Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Oh, those are remarkably important for what they are – and what they are are celebrations of the birth of Jesus – a real person, born to real parents, in a real time and place, 2021 years ago (give or take). A baby whose life was so consequential that we number our calendar from him. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are all about then – and how indescribably important ‘then’ was.

But I say that this Sunday’s message is more important because it’s not just a history lesson – it’s all about NOW. And more than that, it’s all about YOU. In a nutshell, the deep and real and true meaning of Christmas is that YOU are Mary, and you are being asked to birth God’s Love and Light into the world. You. Here. Today. Now. We’ll explore that by looking at Mary and Elizabeth, but instead of history, this morning we get her-story – and we realize that it’s my-story, and your-story.

Elizabeth and Mary – two women – one probably too old to be having a baby – the other probably too young to be having a baby. And yet, they can sense that God has blessed them – that the life they bear is incredibly important – and holy. It’s so ordinary. The same scene has probably happened several million times since then. The joyful hope of expectancy, shared between women, relatives.

Two women with suspect pregnancy stories – or at least unconventional ones. Why is such blessing conferred upon such obviously ‘flawed’ women? Neither Mary nor Elizabeth were particularly special. If you were going to choose mothers for a great prophet and the one who would be called the Son of God would you have chosen them?

Elizabeth was “well on in years” – and Mary was barely a teenager. Who among you who are well on in years would want the blessing of a baby now? Or what would we call it if one of our young church teens found herself “blessed”? We wouldn’t shun or shame (like sadly was done so often in the past), but we also wouldn’t choose it. And what about you? How would you react if it was you?

People of Faith – I bring you a message from God. You’re pregnant! (Everybody look at the person beside you and tell them that they’re pregnant. If you’re online, send out a message saying “I’m pregnant!”) Friends, we are all pregnant with the potential of spiritual purpose. We’re just like Mary and Elizabeth. We’re pregnant. In early Christianity to honour Mary she was given the Greek title “Theotokos” which means “God Bearer” – and that’s exactly what we’re supposed to be too. We are pregnant – we are God-Bearers. Bearing God’s Love and God’s Light, and then birthing them into the world. Meister Eckhart said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God.”

Think about it. How does God choose to usher in a new vision for humanity? How does God transform the world? Through kings? Emperors? Armies? No. Through ordinary, everyday people like Mary and Elizabeth who brought forth children and raised them in love and in faith. The spiritual revolution that changed the world didn’t come through the powerful but through the powerless. God chooses to work in unconventional ways through unconventional people – ordinary people – just like you!

We are God-Bearers. We’re pregnant. Pregnancy is such a great metaphor for faith. read on

Noticings – January 12, 2022

NOTICINGS…

January 12, 2022

My arm is sore. It’s because my wife and I got our Covid booster jabs yesterday. We’re both feeling a bit of discomfort, but of course nothing like we’d feel if we were laid out with Covid. And that’s the whole point. It’s mind-boggling to me that some people don’t get it yet. These vaccinations are not the kind that prevent every recipient from contracting the virus. They never were meant to be. They’ve always been about limiting risk. And as of yesterday the risks of my family being devastated by Covid have once again been vastly lowered.

There’s been some confusion about why so many of the people who are in hospital with Covid have been vaccinated. It’s simple math. The last (reliable) numbers I saw said hospitalizations were about 60% unvaxxed and 40% vaxxed. Why so many? Because so many have been vaxxed, and the spread of Omicron has been so widespread, that it would eventually reach more vulnerable people (vaxxed or not) because it’s reaching so many more people! But think about it. If around 85% of us have been vaxxed that means only 15% or so have not been – yet that very small group makes up the vast majority of hospitalizations, ICU beds, and deaths. The math is pretty simple, actually – and it more than makes the case for suffering through a sore arm.

But here’s the thing – and why the thing is a spiritual thing. This is going to keep happening with wave after wave because the virus will continue to mutate as it finds groups of people with no vaccinations to mitigate the spread. Even if we managed to get 100% of Canadians and North Americans double or triple vaccinated it will still continue to mutate. Why? Because large populations of people in economically disadvantaged places/countries remain unvaxxed. In those places the virus can continue to swirl and mutate – and because our world is so interconnected what happens in one corner spreads quickly to all corners. So, like so many things in this life, it comes down to a justice issue of economic inequality. We have the vax – they don’t. So, we must protect ourselves against ‘them’ – right? Hmm.

Here’s a thought – let’s love them instead. We say we’re about loving our neighbours – and treating everyone as sacred. Maybe it’s actually in our own best interest to reach out and actually treat every life as sacred – to help everyone get vaccinated – to not only save their lives but save our own. This is the Season of Epiphany, so let me lay one on you! We are in a pandemic – that means it’s everywhere – and that means until it’s addressed everywhere it will stay everywhere. I know, I’m supposed to be the silver lining guy. Well, today I’m the stark reality guy. Even without the spiritually idealistic ‘we should love everybody’ thing, how about even this? I’d like to get back to living my life in more open and interactive ways. I can’t do that until vaccinations happen everywhere. So I guess the question is…how big is our table really?

(If you would like to donate to a United Church vaccination program with matching government funding and a partnership with Unicef, click this Pay It Forward link.)

(Click here for a video version of Noticings)

Noticings – January 5, 2022

NOTICINGS…

January 5, 2022

It surprised me when I heard myself say it. Or maybe it was the feeling that accompanied it that surprised me. ‘It’ was my reaction to the latest round of safety restrictions imposed due to the pandemic. The previous round cancelled our in-person Christmas worship – again, for the second year in a row. Deja- vu. This latest round, announced a few days ago, tightened things even more. What was this reaction I’m on about? I said, out loud, “Oh, back to normal then.” And, I must confess that I felt a little relieved.

Don’t get me wrong – it was wonderful to begin to venture back out into the world, and especially to start worshipping in-person again back in November and December. Seeing the (masked) faces of folks we hadn’t seen in so long, knowing that the majority of folks who were there were folks who don’t easily access the online offerings we have, so for some gathered that was their first worship experience in a year and a half – that was very special to be part of.

Oh, and as a preacher to actually hear people chuckle at your attempts at humour is amazing! Or to see someone nod their head in agreement or resonance with your brilliantly insightful observation is very encouraging. Without that you can start to think all your observations are brilliant – or none!

And yet, those in-person worship times were also very, very stressful. Knowing that we might have to turn people away if they didn’t have proof of vax to enter, worrying about people getting lost in the moment and forgetting the rules, adapting to the different sanctuary layout and worrying that I may not communicate well with both the online and in-house congregations – and the big one, knowing that the people who were present were likely among the most vulnerable to Covid, and dreading the thought that our church service might be a source of contagion for anything other than the Spirit – these were all stressing me out.

So perhaps it’s not surprising after all that my reaction to returning to our small, self-contained, controlled, safe worship studio setup was relief, and that after functioning in that groove for 20 months it felt like going back to ‘normal’. So if this is going to continue to be our ‘normal’ for the foreseeable future then let’s make the best of it. Let’s continue to innovate with creative ways to nurture community, to compassionately care for one another, to engage in our collective ministries, to do fund raising, to be church! We’ve kinda got the worship thing covered. It’s back to ‘normal’ there. I don’t know where 2022 will take us, but I do know that the more time, energy, and resources we invest in creative ways to be ‘together while not together’ will strengthen us as a community of faith both now and in the times to come – whatever they may look like. Happy New Year. As Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s deja-vu all over again!”

(Click here for a video version of Noticings)

Shalom,
Rev. Larry

Noticings – December 22, 2021

NOTICINGS…

December 22, 2021

I made it! This is my last bit of creative writing or sermonizing that is on my to-do list before Christmas. I couldn’t leave it to the last minute on Christmas Eve (not that I would anyway) because Christmas Eve is today! No, not really, but we are pre-recording Christmas Eve today. Oh, and it’s Boxing Day today too, just in case you were wondering. Why so early? Sadly, we all know the answer. Due to massive increases in the number of Covid cases spreading like wildfire we had to change our plans and shift to all online worship again. Bizarrely, we’re back to ‘normal’ again. After almost 2 years of this it really does feel normal in a way. How odd that is!

The other part of this is that I always take a week of holidays after Christmas Eve. Well, if that’s today, then my holidays start early! Bonus. Ok, not that early – there’s still pre-recorded video to edit together tomorrow. Nonetheless, the feeling that “I made it” is palpable. Christmas hubbub is always tiring, and Covid complications only make it worse. So the theme through my Christmas week messages is about keeping or finding the Christmas spirit in the midst of all this. Writing them has been helpful for me. I hope hearing them helps you too.

Here are a couple of changes to tell you about, and things to look for. If you hadn’t heard yet this Noticings has told you that all our in-person Christmas gathering, both indoors and outdoors, has been cancelled. Here’s the schedule for when things will be available online:
Christmas Eve 1 – 4:00 pm – a short Family/Kids based video with a message from me
Christmas Eve 2 – 6:00 pm – our ‘Lessons & Carols’ service (with communion)
Boxing Day – 10:30 am – a shortened Sunday worship

You can find all these on our YouTube channel.
(You don’t have to tune in at those times – they’ll be available anytime from then on.)

Once again, this Christmas season hasn’t gone as expected. Nobody wanted another Covid Christmas. But anytime we pause and remember the nativity, and sing carols of praise, and pray prayers of hope, peace, joy, and love, however we happen to be together to do so, whether online or in-person, is a good day.
I pray you’ll have a joyful, sacred, and safe Christmas! Be well, and be blessed! You made it too.

Shalom,
Rev. Larry


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