Sunday, May 09, 2010

Sermon for May 2nd 2010 - Pulpit Supply for Easter 5

In our modern world the experience of Paul and vision around food found in this morning's reading is quaint and little more – we live in a world that is full of literally hundreds of thousands of food choices. Even here in Brandon the world has arrived with curries, sushi, and spices and flavours that ten years ago we could only imagine … but now it's here.

When we arrived in Mantioba from BC we were shocked and surprised to find the only place you could get ethnic foods was in Superstore in Brandon – but even then, the Foreign Foods aisle had a selection of Old El Paso Mexican food and China Lilly and VH asian foods and little else … if we wanted curries, chutneys or the fixings for any number of traditional ethnic foods we enjoyed living in the Lower Mainland we had to make a trip to Winnipeg where we MIGHT be able to find them … since then Brandon has had no less than four sushi restaurants open, two mexican, two east asian, one korean and other restaurants and cafes are expanding their menus to include an ever increasing variety of foods and flavours …

So to stand (or rather – sit) and hear a story about certain foods being forbidden, and Paul experiencing a vision that suggests that no foods were to be considered unclean is bordering on the incoceivable in our modern world. Afterall, we live in a world where the breakfast cereal aisle has dozens upon dozens of choices alone … for most of us today, the very idea of kosher and non-kosher foods is completely alien to our understanding and experience – yet the abandonment of the Kosher system and the inclusion of the non-Jew was radical for the early Church – it marked a complete and total departure from what had been and moved the Church in to a whole new area of evangelism and outreach …

The communion table – the central place in the life of the Church became a place that welcomed ALL people, not just some … before Paul's vision though, communion – the most inclusive liturgy we have today, was a divisive moment that seperated people rather then drew them together.

In the early days of the Church, communion was not about just a tiny pinch of bread and a sip of juice – it was a liturgy that revolved around a meal – the sharing of the community both figuratively and literally.

The service would be about sharing a meal which cluminated in the breaking of the bread and the pouring out of the cup much in the same way Jesus and the disciples shared their last meal together in the upper room. The table would be set with food to be shared for all gathered, and like the Last Supper, it would end with the act of remembrance of that final night of jesus' earthly life.

The problem was the food. For the adherent Jews the food HAD to be kosher – and it could only be shared with others who are observing Kosher … a Jew and a Gentile couldn't sit down and share the meal together - so in that moment – in the holiest moment we have as Christians - the table became restrictive and exclusionary …

Paul's vision then is about building community – tearing down walls and reaching out across the boundaries and borders that seperate people and saying - “at this table ALL are welcome … and when we are AT THIS TABLE we will eat TOGETHER ...”

The idea that ALL food was now regarded as clean is radical … but it's also consistent with the teaching of Jesus who foresaw the in gathering of the nations through the messianic banquet that would mark the arrival of the Kingdom of God. The Messiah sets the table and ALL people are invited to share in the feast and the Kingdom of God begins …

SO – today in the Church the communion table and food is SO CENTRAL to our culture and our understanding of ourselves and our mission that we simply overlook the significance of opening up the table and saying - “ALL ARE WELCOME!!” … We make an assumption when we stand at the table. We are so steeped in the notion that we are open and inclusive and welcoming, that we have a hard time when it comes to readings that challenge that experience and understanding and cause us to pause and reflect critically on what we're doing and whether or not we can do it better …

A question I have long raised in Church circles, and that has often been met with hostility, anger and judgment of me as a person and a pastor, has been the question - “are we really as welcoming as we think we are?” … when we hang the words “all welcome” on the door or the sign of our Church building, do we really mean it? Or are we citing an expected statement that becomes meaningless when that unwashed “all” arrives?

In the United Church we have long struggled with the idea of being an open, welcoming and inclusive church, but we often failed miserably at living those values … we stumble … we struggle … we screw up … but we continue to try. Unfortunately, along the way we also exile and shun those who don't fit in and who dare to speak, and act in uncomfortable ways.

In the 1980's, as part of a United Church sponsored consultation on evangelism and outreach the late Gordon Turner studied the experiences of those who have been left outside looking in, and published his findings in a book entitled that - “outside looking in” … it makes a heartbreaking read … the stories of people for whom church was important and central to their lives, only to find themselves driven out by politics, by power struggles and by any number of factors that pushed them out the doors are hard to read … but they are much harder when you or your family members live them …

Turner built much of his study on the work of … Russell Hale who in the early 70's studied the experiences of those outside of the Church, and what their impressions of the church are … the “unchurched” as he called them, are outside of faith communities for a reason, and though they may be invited to consider attending or even joining, remain on the periphery as the church itself continues to shrink in size and influence … the Unchurched are those outside who will tell us clearly we are not what we think we are …

The very notion that the United Church is a welcome and inclusive community often runs hard against a reality that has voices speaking up and speaking out and saying - “sometimes that just it ain't true ...”

So what are we to do when the table is not what we have come to believe it is ? What do we do when we hear the voices of those who have been shut out and cast out and yearn to come home? What do we do about the challenge of living our faith and confronting the comfort of the status quo that keeps us happy but alienates others?

I can say from personal experience that those who are vested in maintaining the status quo WILL respond with anger and often open hostility … but fortunately there are others who respond quietly …

Palestinian Catholic Priest Elias Chacour writes of his experience as a young student who was about to be ordained into the priest hood when his mentor and teacher came and addressed the class Father Chacour was in.

Father Chacour's mentor sat before the class of eager young priests and said – "If there is a problem somewhere this is what happens. Three people will try to do something concrete to settle the issue. Ten people will give a lecture analyzing what the three are doing. One hundred people will commend or condemn the ten for their lecture. One thousand people will argue about he problem. AND one person – only ONE – will involve himself so deeply in the true solution that he is simply too busy to listen to any of it …"
"Now," the kindly mentor looked each of the young priests in the eyes as he asked the question: "which person are YOU??"
Father Chacour writes - “I reflect on this story often ... and I repeated ask myself the question: which person am I??”

Father Chacour would be ordained and sent to the village of Ibillin in the moutains not far from Nazareth. He found himself in a village that was deeply divided by conflict and differences … not only did the Muslims and the Christians NOT talk to each other, many within the tiny Christian Church didn't talk to each other including two brothers who hadn't spoken in years and yet faithfully attended church each week. For months Father Chacour struggled to bring resolution and healing to his community – then finally one spring morning he chained the back door of the church, secured the chain with an enormous lock, then tucked the key in his cassock and walked up the aisle before turning to address his congregation …

Father Chacour challenged the lack of faithfulness in a community that could be so deeply divided that brothers wouldn't talk to each other … he named the lack of openess and love within the community and boldly said – it was unfaithful and he would NOT give Communion to them until it was resolved … then he added that the doors would be unlocked only if he was killed by those gathered in the Church, or by a resolution being achieved …

In recounting the story, Father Chacour described trembling with fear as one of the brothers rose, his face contorted with anger … then a tear fell from the man's eye and he admitted that he had been a fool and was wrong to be angry at his brother and asked not only for his brother's forgiveness but for the forgiveness of his church and his priest and of God …

That day communion was served … the door was unlocked and the community began a journey that has witnessed it becoming a global leader in the peace movement … the rifts and divides within the church closed and healed and the community healed along with them …

Quietly, ignoring the rabble and the controversy, overlooking the debate and discussion – Father Chacour challenged the status quo and addressed a problem in the world … and he helped fix it …

In the United Church of Canada we ignore the voices of those Outside Looking In, and those that others have called the un-churched, at our peril …

we fail to embrace the potential that comes with asking ourselves the simple question - “which person am I?”

Are we part of the discussions, or are we part of the solution?

Is our table open ? Or is our table closed ?

The radical nature of Paul's teaching – radical as a return to the heart of who we are as a community and what we are about as people of faith – is opening wide the doors of our communties and welcoming in those who are hungry – physically, spiritually, and emotionally …

The quiet welcome – the work at being inclusive and welcoming happens fortunately happens all the time and we may not even see it. It happens when a cup of coffee is poured an neighbours sit and visit … it happens when donations of food and time are made to organizations like the local food bank and the local soup kitchen … it happens when the Church is opened up and our neighbours and community groups and organizations are welcomed in and made to feel at home … it happens when the wounded are welcomed in and tended and healed and prayed for … it happens when we stand at the table ready to break bread and pour out the cup and we know that no one will be turned away …

The quiet work of welcoming ALL, not just a chosen few comes when there is an honest wrestling with what it means to be Church and to live and embody the Resurrection, not just as some high-falooting concept that is remembered as Easter, but is lived every day … Ann Weems sums it up well when she writes:


We in the church are in danger of becoming a tearless people,

unable to rage even in a starless abyss.

We have imitated a smiling society,

glossing over the hurt, the oppression and the peacelessness on earth,

we have become caustic, cynical and despairing,

insisting on looking the other way as our church members crawl to the altar

with the scraps of their lives in their arms …

We were created for covenant keeping, and yet we are in danger

of becoming a blindhearted people, buying into the system,

placing our hopes with kings and corporations …

Have we not seen?

Have we not heard?

We persist in clinging to the way things are,

eagerly placing our faith in the newest fad, the latest how-to book,

the current slogans presented as though they were the Word of God.

We are programming and papering ourselves into perpetuity,

rationalizing and excusing our immortality,

We spend our energy in complaining,

gloomily forcasting our future together.

We panic for positions, vying for first place in the Kingdom.

Perhaps it's time for remembering that Jesus stood in the Jordan

waiting to baptised with the others,

long ago casting his lot not with the good church people, but with the poor,

wherever that poverty might be found …

His name is Emmaunel (God is with us),

and yet individually and corporately we have named him

“GOD-WITH-ME”

Have we not seen?

Have we not heard?

In the light of the cross, the alternative is anything but hopelessness.

On the contrary!

There is every spiritual indication that we are called to change

who we are into the Kingdom of God.
Where change is possible, new resurrections loom!!


We are a resurrection people !

May it be so … thanks be to God … Let us pray !!

Monday, April 05, 2010

Sermon for March 28th (Palm Sunday) 2010


The underlying concept of today's Gospel readings is – Expect the unexpected … Jesus and his disciples spent weeks drawing closer to Jerusalem. Jesus spoke to them in parables and stories to prepare them for what lay ahead … he offered them teachings that would make sense in the fullness of time when they looked back and remembered all those little lessons and tid bits he offered so off handedly as they journeyed through Galilea then along the highways and byways leading to Judea and on to Jerusalem …

We can assume that Jesus understood the stand off that was about to happen. He knew that the enthusiasm and hype of the crowd would eventually give way to the power and harsh response of the authorities who would use whatever means necessary to maintain the status quo … Jesus would know that the Temple authories who ruled Jerusalem under the complete control of the Romans would allow nothing to question the authority of Caesar.

History tells us that the Temple authorities cowed to the Romans in the vain hope that they could continue to rule over The Temple and Jerusalem while appeasing the demands of the Empire … History tells us that this Pax Romana lasted until 70 AD when the Romans laid waste to the temple, the city and every last vestige of the Jewish civilization.

That cataclysmic event is still thirty or so years in the future when Jesus approaches the city … the authors of the texts recording the triumphant entry in Jerusalem likely still have the stench of a burning city in their nostrils as they put pen to parchment … Their minds are reeling at the notion that a city as big and vast as Jerusalem could be laid waste in such a complete and catastrophic way.

This event radically and dramatically changed the understanding of the cosmos for Christians and Jews alike … for the follower of Jesus looking back to his life time, every pronouncement, every teaching, every lesson, every step of his journey was made embracing and anticipating the fall of Jerusalem …

Jesus' prophecies about the temple being laid waste where more about the buildings of the Temple mount, then they were about his physical person … The temple was central to the entrie world of the Biblical era Jew – the passing of the seasons, the religious life, the political power, EVERYTHING rested in the temple. The final authority in all aspects of life in Israel as a Jew emanated from the temple … so it's loss left a vacuum that is unfathomable.

Looking back it was hard to re-envision the shift that happened with the loss of the temple … so the story of Jesus confronting the temple authorities with his God given authority and power was comforting and prophetic …

Jesus approaching the temple at the head of a procession being welcomed in by the waving of palm fronds and chanting and laying down their garments and robes was a dramatic moment – a moment of history – a moment that foretold the reign of Christ that Jesus entry into Jerusalem represented …

But then, we pause and we know how it turned out … in less then a week we move from the loud and boisterous Hosannas ringing out in the narrow alleys and streets of the city, to the poisoned chants of “crucify him, crucify him ...” from the SAME crowd who so quickly turned on this Jesus …

The last days of Jesus life are a powerful series of events that challenge us and in the process also remind us that life seldom goes as expected and anticipated, but even in those twists and turns and stumbles, we WILL find holiness, and we will experience a resurrection …

The challenge for us, as people of faith is to NOT jump from the Hosannas of Palm Sunday to the Hallelujahs of Easter Sunday, but to boldly, daringly, and courageously make the journey step by step, moment by moment … if we are to stand in the blinding light of Easter Morning before the empty tomb dancing and celebrating that “He is Risen!” we must first have the courage to journey through the darkness of the week that follows his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

(Holy Week by Ann Weems – page 67 Reaching for Rainbows)

The movie The Last Temptation of Christ has a powerful scene in the moment when Jesus stands in the temple … the crowd quietens itself as the Priests and the temple authorities arrive, bolstered by armed guards … Jesus is questioned - “what do you think you're doing? You're putting all the people at risk … you will cost ALL of us …”

And quietly Jesus confronts them and their cowardly ways … BUT, the status quo is faltering … the way things were is in danger of collapse … a new way is about to unfold …

In the movie, the disciples are standing poised for an armed coup to overturn the rules of the priests and to drive out the Romans … they are EXPECTING Jesus to lay the sword to Temple and the Romans and bring into being the anticipated Eschatological Reign of God that had been dreamed of and hoped for since the return from the Babylonian exile …

The people were sure Jesus was the one to bring this rule into being … they KNEW IT … they were SURE OF IT … but it didn't happen … in the Movie, Jesus collapses and retreats … in the Scriptures, Jesus enters the temple, drives out the money changers and begins to DIRECTLY challenge the authority not only of the temple, but of the priests and scribes and all those who support it … Jesus engaged in active treason … and in the days and hours that followed, the plot to eliminate him so he didn't bring the wrath of the Romans down on the temple, the rulers and the people …

So, where this leaves us – the Church today – is in the unenviable position of having to stand in a world that too often looks more like Holy Week, then East Sunday … a world that begins with shouts of Hosannas, and quickly spirals into cries of horror and pain … and holds us back from experiencing the transformative power of the the Hallelujah that breaks through the darkness … Our job then, is to move forward not only boldly – but with the courage of our faith that tells us that EVERY step of the journey – ever step we take is one made with the strength and protection of God …

Our calling today as a people of faith – as a church is to go into the world facing the fullness of life – and trusting in God.

… and for the journey that lies ahead this week – we have the words of Ann Weems :

(In Search of New Resurrection pg 91 - Reaching for Rainbows)

May it be so – thanks be to God … let us pray …

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sermon for March 21st 2010


The Church is a funny place … you can divide a congregation by mentioning some aspect of human sexuality … issues of the role of gays and lesbians in the life and ministry of the Church, same sex marriage, even the attitudes towards sex, marriage and reproduction have been hot button issues between the pew and the pulpit. I remember as a theology student hearing one of our profs comment that if you want to have a long and successful career in the Church, stay away from issues of sexuality …

Yet, when we really get down to it – the Bible has only a small handful of verses that make any mention of sex and issues sexual – and almost all of those passages are ambiguitous in their meaning, and even more obscure in their intent. I remember hearing a lecture by a Catholic Theologian who would eventually be excommunicated by Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, who said that failing to place the few passages that speak of sex in their proper context opens our interpretation up to wild and wonderful stances, that are not what the author intended.

This theologian went on to wonder why it is that we spend inordinate amounts of time and energy fighting over a small handful or passages that are unclear in their intent, while we completely and utterly ignore the many passages throughout both the Old and New Testament that speak of poverty and justice issues, and that are any thing BUT obscure and unclear.

It is a question that has risen to the fore once again in our modern world. Why do we have such a total and almost complete reluctance to raise much less even address issues of poverty when there are over 2000 seperate references to poverty and the response of God's people throughout the Bible … 2000 references and it is a at best a marginalized conversation in the Church today … versus a couple of dozen (AT MOST) references to sex and it is one of he most divisive and explosive hot button topics the Church has …

Why the dichotomy?

Perhaps it lies in the interpretative stance we take when we approach passages like today's reading from the Gospel. In the midst of Mary's act of extravagence towards Jesus we have the comment by Judas saying - “that oinment should be sold and the money given to the poor ...”

A noble idea, but the author of the Gospel steps in to besmirch Judas by saying - “yeah, but he wasn't interested in the poor – he wanted access to the money himself because he was the one controling the purse for the disciples as they travelled ...”

Judas is regarded as a villan in the Gospels and in the Church traditions that followed … afterall, what kind of man could stand before Jesus and then turn him over to the authorities and to death … this take on Judas has dominated and coloured everything we've believed about this mysterious figure since the earliest days of the Church. Modern theologians have begun to seriously wrestle with Judas and our attitudes about him … they ask the thorny questions like – 'are his actions really any worse then that of Peter who ACTIVELY denied knowing Jesus repeatedly?” - or “was Judas any worse then the other disciples who split and ran when the authorities came for Jesus?”

They say history is written by the victors – and in the case of Judas, he was pretty much done before the story was put to parchment … the remaining disciples would have contempt for Judas and his actions, and would make sure that any of those who followed in their newly forming Church would understand that Judas was evil, and his actions contemptous at best. So any reference to Judas would be spun to reflect the badness of the man and his action … So his reference to the poor became an opportunity to make an editorial comment to ensure the reader and listener understood that Judas was a bad bad man …

Yet, if we step back – Judas' comment is consistent with Jesus' ministry and the 2000 plus references throughout the Scriptures that make reference to the poor … Modern scholarship is wrestling to reclaim Judas by asking the simple question - “is Judas perhaps the most faithful of the disciples?”

Taking the lead from the question raised by Kazantzakis in his book The Last Temptation of Christ, they are exploring what it means to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to have one of his trusted companions take the active step of ensuring Jesus' death … we can't have the resurrection without the death … could it be that Judas was part of God's intention and plan, and that as such is more of a saint then a sinner?

It's a tough issue … it's an uncomfortable issue … it demands of us the willingness and the ability to step beyond our strongly held beliefs and understandings and be open to new ideas and interpretations … it requires keeping an open mind and being able to wrestle with the issue and see things from a new perspective.

Whether it is sex and sexuality in our faith, the role and place of Judas in the Bible, or our responses to poverty … there is a lot of work to be done … but too often we entrench our positions, we strengthen our resolve and we become – whether we're even aware of it or not – like a small child plugging our ears, closing our eyes and chanting “la la la la la la – I'm not listening ...” when we encounter new ideas such as caring for the poor …

And, this is NOT a new phenomena … it has been going on for centuries … the opposition that lead to Jesus' death was just such resistance to new ideas and visions … the condemnation people like Galileo, Luther, and even John Calvin experienced is such resistances … and it continues today … names like Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu and countless others who from a faith stance actively opposed the status quo and the way things ARE, to envision and proclaim the way things will be are examples of the active resistance put forth in faith …

Yet, if we step back and look at the incredible vista of Church history and heritage we are left realizing that change is not only inevitable it is unstoppable.

I remember listening enraptured by a presentation made several years ago by Anglican writer and theologian Herbert O'Driscoll who told the tale of Church history beginning with the first stirrings of the house churches seeded by the early disciples and apostles. Then he travelled through the Byzantine Church, the Medieval Church, the Rennaissence and Reform Church all the way through to the modern era … he spoke of the changes in architecture, the changes in language and liturgy, and the changes that were part of the ever evolving church … then he said - “try to take someone and move them 50 years forwards or backwards in the church and see what happens.”

They would be like a fish out of water, he noted dryly. They would find themselves in a place that is unrecognizable … everything – the music, the prayers, the liturgy, the language, the dress, even the architecture would be different … there would be some elements that are similar, and there would be vestiges that are maintained and the same – but the changes would be dramatic … he then went on to describe the changes he had experienced within his own life time …

“Look back on your experience as a person,” he urged his listeners – “and think about the church of your childhood and whether you would still be comfortable with it today …” He then went on to challenge us to reflect on the changes we've witnessed in our life times, and how profound those changes are in a few short decades … then he asked – why do we resist change?

It is inevitable, and it is happens … it is the will of the spirit.

We will always have to poor among us is not then, a call to complacency, but rather it is a reminder that in those moments when we find ourselves comfortable and content, when we are enjoying the good things of life, we must continue to be mindful of the poor and their needs. We are not to ignore them, but to remember them even as we pour out the extravagent oil …

The prophetic all is not about the pageantry and the sacred atmosphere of our worship that is rich in tradition and oppulence – but the prophetic call is about acting on our faith.

Today south of the Border a commentator on fox network is getting inordinate amounts of press coverage for his condemnation of Jim Wallis and Wallis' call to the Church to embrace and embody Social Justice and Economic reform … the commentator has identified the words – Social justice and economic reform as euphemisms of communism and nazism, and has openly said repeatedly that any pulpit that cites these words are pulpits that should be avoided … “if your minister, priest or rabbi uses those words, leave immediately,” he said, “because they are not faithful, and are nothing more than communists and nazis ...” AND, he has focused his mis-informed wrath on Wallis and all that Wallis and the Sojourners' community represents.

The topper for me was the contention by this commentator that social justice and preferential concern for the poor is NOT BIBLICAL.

When I read that, my response was – HUH? … 2000 plus references to poverty and the poor and it is NOT Biblical … now, that's a theological reading that simply defies all logic …

Unfortunately, such a reading and interpretation arises when we stand in that room with Jesus and the others and we take Jesus' own words as a call to complacency … “the poor will always be among us, don't worry about them … God'll look after them ...”

Maybe God will look after them – through us … maybe God wants us not to worry about the poor, but rather by re-orienting our view of the world and faith live the principles of love, justice and righteousness in the way the prophets like Isaiah envisioned.

The prophets were not proclaiming a message that allows us to sit content and inactive … instead they were proclaiming a message that demands an active response …

Remember your past – says Isaiah – recall ALL the things God has done for you and – to use a modern notion – PAY IT FORWARD … if someone pours out expensive oil for you – you are obligated to pour out expensive oil for another … Such a notion is the very heart of Biblical Blessings … I receive this gift, and I will return it, and you will receive it and return it, and in the process the Blessing strengthens and spreads and soon the transformative power of our faith being lived out, shared and acted upon touches dozens and hundreds and even thousands of lives …

Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul are not calling us to a complacent faith that lets us sit at home and do nothing – they are calling us to an active living faith that takes us into the world to embrace and embody the change and evolution that is part of our faith journey … a living and active faith reminds us daily that the poor are among us, and that we must never forget that …

Our faith is about sharing the Good News …

May it be so – thanks be to God … let us pray …

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sermon for March 14th 2010





Robert Frost once observed that “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in ...” Home is where we belong and are welcomed in unconditionally – where we feel safe and secure. Home is the fundamental relationship in our life. Much of our scripture is ultimately about that longing to come home … home where we belong and where we are in relationship with others.

Ultimately, life is based on entirely on relationships … this weekend I've been busy working on my Master Thesis and exploring the definitions of place, community and a relatively new buzz word idea called Social Capital … Social Capital is an intangible, and ethereal concept first envisioned in the late 1980's by a researcher working in the inner city neighbourhoods of Chicago who wondered what it is that binds communities together and gives them a step up when it comes to addressing issues, challenges and problems within them. He noted that frequently in neighbourhoods that lack any sort of traditional capital like money, property, and what economists look to to define a healthy community, - in those places, there was a lot that contributed to the quality of life by the residents in a positive and beneficial way.
Coleman, the researcher began a conversation that since has involved an enormous number of scholars, researchers and students who are constantly defining and redefining the idea of social capital … but social capital at its most basic level is the relationships between people. It is a form of trust that says “I will do this, and in time as a result of the benefit YOU have received, you will be willing to return the favour ...”

The end result – without getting too technical or too immersed in scholarly talk is that Social capital takes many forms and is difficult to predict or define, but when a society has healthy and mutually beneficial relationships between residents who in turn who form networks and social interaction you have not only an abundance of social capital, you also have a community that is able to address many of its challenges and issues itself. A community with strong social capital is a community that can face and overcome almost ANY thing that it faces …

Social capital is the mark of healthy relationships in society … and relationships are what forms communities and gives rise to societies and the values we hold.

Our New Testament story today ultimately is about relationships, and in a remarkable way, it is an example of what can happen when we are open to the ways in which interaction between people teach and inspire us to experience and live the transformative power that arises in moments of challenge …

We know the story of the prodigal son. It is a familiar story that has been repeated and retold in a myriad of ways. We know the characters, we know the out come, we know the jealousies and the resentments, and we know that ultimately, it is about acceptance, and seeing things from the perspective of God and faith, rather then from our own ego … BUT … there is far more to this story, then just the return of the lost son. It is ultimately a story that challenges us to look inward and to think seriously about which character we might be today, and when we might have been another character in a different time and place … When I was a student in University at McMaster, I had a prof who came to studying the New Testament, and more specifically, the life of Jesus from a Jewish point of view. Doctor Reinhartz, was upfront in saying she was a Jew, and she was studying Jesus as a Jew in a Jewish world. As a result, she illustrated and explained many of the teachings of Jesus that were firmly in the Jewish tradition, and whose subtly was lost because we were removed from that tradition by 19 plus centuries of Christian interpretation.

One of the areas Dr. Reinhartz was working in at the time was the role of anonymity in the Jewish Scriptures. She illustrated this idea by citing the many stories in the Old Testament that had anonymous characters in them. Her theory was that the anonymous character allows us to step into the narrative story and experience the events being told in a first hand way.

In the case of the story of Noah and the flood, she would suggest that the unnamed wife of Noah is there so that we as the listener can step into the story and be that person – hearing, seeing, experiencing first hand the events connected with Noah and the ark.

In the case of this parable, no one is given a name – the two sons, and the father are anonymous. It is not a stretch to see them as a template wherein we can place ourselves and experience the events of this story first hand.

This idea was picked up by the theologian Henri Nouwen, who wrote two amazing reflective books on his encounter with the Rembrandt painting of the Prodigal son and his wrestling with it that began in 1983, and continued for a decade and a half … Nowen in his first book – The Return of the Prodigal Son explores the lessons the various characters have to offer as he reflects on the painting, and the familiarity we have the story AND most importantly, the things we might well overlook because of that familiarity.

Nowen places himself in the story and invites us to follow – to see and experience the tale of the prodigal son from the first person perspective … how does it feel to be the father watching his youngest son leave and squander his wealth – something that took a lifetime to accumulate … how does it feel to be the youngest son – to take the money and wealth and squander it only to end up in a place that is about as low as a Jewish person can get – the youngest son found himself thinking about eating the slop he was giving to the pigs … you can't get much lower then tending pigs when you're a Jews – but to be in the place where you're thinking that the pig's food looks good – that's bad …

It is a lesson that would not have been lost on Jesus' listeners … they would catch their breath in that moment and think about where this young man had so foolishly found himself …

Or, how does it feel to be the eldest son – the loyal one who stayed home, worked the land with his father only to watch his brother run off, take his inheritance, waste it, and return home to a party … How would it feel in that moment?

All of this swirls when we read this story … much of it happens unconsciously – so when Nouwen stood before the Rembrandt story and began to think about the image of the bedraggled prodigal son kneeling before his father while the older brother looks on … he began to think of the profound lessons on relationship and faith that are embodied in this image …

The father, filled with love and forgiveness … the youngest son filled with shame and guilt and a longing to come home … and the eldest son filled with resentment and anger and likely bewilderment at how incredibly na├»ve and stupid his father could be …

All of this lead to a multi-year journey by Nouwen as he repeatedly returned to this image and the multi-layered reflection it offers … so much so, that in the early 1990's he offered a series of reflections on that were made into a book a couple of years ago that continued the reflection on the Prodigal Son and the lessons it offers us …

Nouwen eloquently embraced this process when he wrote in Welcome Home:

This is an invitation then to see yourself right here and right now in the name of many brothers and sisters, believing that as something moves in you, something may also transpire in those in whose name you live.

This may be new for you, but I encourage you to imagine yourself surrounded first by family and then by loved ones, relatives, friends, acquaintances, business associates, those in your neighbourhood, church, culture, continents, and world. Perhaps some of the circles nearest you aren't easy for you. There are family struggles with spouses, parents, children, brothers and sisters. There are many painful memories and feelings about breakage, losses, and communication struggles. Also, many other people near and far are in your consciousness; some doing well while others languish in poverty, sickness, abuse, violence, loneliness, famine, refugee camps and despair. Bring them all around you, claim your humanity with them, never thinking or growing or speaking or acting just for yourself.

As you progressively become opened to others, allow all you choose in the most hidden places of your heart to be lived for all those who are alive and for those who have died. Gather them and keep them around you. You belong to every other person and to every particle of the universe.

Like a stone thrown into the water, your life has ever-widening circles of relationship surrounding it. Enter the parable with all people in your heart. Call them around you, identify yourself with them, and let your thinking be deeply one with them as you journey into the story.”

The power of the parable is found in it opening doors to the many connections and relationships we have with others … as we wrestle for ourselves with the issues of anger, resentment, guilt, shame, acceptance and all the other emotions that are contained within this brief story about a father and his sons, and the relationships between the brothers – we are connecting ourselves with our own feelings and with the relationships we have with the many circles we are part of … These relationships are the heart of social capital – the heart of our communities – the heart of how and where we connect in the world …

The power of this parable is found in the ability for us to step into the various roles occupied by the characters and to feel for ourselves the emotions and the challenges they are experiencing … we can feel the heart break of the father watching his son leave … we can feel the disdain of the elder son thinking his brother a fool … we can feel the hopelessness of the younger son feeding pigs and being SO hungry that he contemplates sharing in their feast … we can feel the wonder and joy of the father watching his lost son return … we can feel the anger and resentment of the eldest son bitterly watching the festivities and wondering why he had never been accorded such extravagance … we can feel the humility of the youngest son welcomed home … if we pause to listen to this story, it can teach us much …

The heart of our Biblical stories today – all of them – is about being welcomed home – finding a place of belonging where we are loved, cared for and given security … in the story of the Prodigal son, that gift comes to ALL three men … the sons, and the father … it comes in the restoration of relationships among them and between them … and these relationships are the foundation on which EVERYTHING else is build … these relationships are the social capital that under girds and contributes to our families, our churches, our neighbourhoods, our communities and our societies …

And it all begins by seeing our connectedness that comes from our relationships and the transformative power those relationships can bring us … all thanks to the living out of the welcome that bring us home …

May it be so – thanks be to God … let us pray …



Monday, March 01, 2010

Sermon for February 28th 2010


There is a short quotation on memory that embodies the task of remembering and the two edged sword that it represents …

Everybody loves to be remembered, but if we want to be remembered, we have a duty to remember.

Memory can be a powerful thing, wrongly used it can bring death rather than life, rightly used it is a form of immortality. It keeps the past alive …

Memory is a gift – remembering and holding on to the past, while looking forward … rightly used it informs and strengthens us for the path ahead … used wrongly, it will hold us to the past and hinders our ability to move forward.

Our readings this morning are readings that embody and celebrate the collective memory of the people … the old testament reading recalls the covenant between the God Yahweh and the patriarch Abraham – the foundational promises that defined not only the religious faith, but every aspect of being a Jew in the ancient world … The words we revisted last week - “a wandering Aramean is my ancestor” were but the beginning … the promises offered to God as Abram was called to a journey from obscurity to greatness are the heart of what it means to be part of the family begun by Abram …

Yesterday I had a realization as I considered our reading – the story of the people – the Jewish people, and the Christian faith that followed – is a story of brothers in constant tension and conflict … the story begins with Abram being promised a huge family as numerous as the stars … in time he exiled his first son Ishmael, then in time he was willing to sacrifice his second son Isaac … we'll leave the obvious issues that arise from Abraham's parenting skills or lack thereof aside for the moment, and focus on the tension that arose from the relationship between the two sons … Isaac and Ishmael are looked to as the fathers who gave rise to the Arab and Israeli nations – a tension and conflict that remains present and real in our world today …

Then from Isaac, we continue forward with the stories of Jacob and Esau and the brotherly rivalry the twin sons of Isaac had … a rivalry that lead to deceptions, lies and deceit between them … then comes the twelve sons of Jacob, who becomes Israel following his reconciliation with his brother … we mainly remember one brother – Joseph and his dazzling coat of many colours.

Yet if we pause to consider the family dynamic that give rise to the story of Joseph and his amazing technicolour dream coat, we have a less then stellar example of a good family.
To recap – the story of Abram begins with hthe exile of his first sone Ishmael, the willingness to sacrifice his second son Isaac, the cheating of Esau out of his rightful birthright by his brother Jacob, the vow to kill Jacob by Esau when that deception is found out … Jacob's path eventually leads him back home, but he is the father of twelve sons who have a fierce rivalry that parallels the battles between their father and uncle … the brothers grow jealous of the obvious favourtism their father shows to young Joseph and in time hatch the plot to kill him, but then just before they can do the nasty deed, they lift him from the well, and sell him in to slavery – telling their father he was killed by a wild animal … Joseph survives and later ecks out his revenge by tricking his brothers before revealing his identity ..

Such is the legacy of faith that comes with proclaiming our heritage and history as sons of Abraham …

The next reading has Jesus standing before the city of Jerusalem and lamenting over the city and his own future … As we read this text and hear Jesus' words we stand in a place where we know what lies ahead – his words are not spoken as a prediction of what might be, but a foreshadowing of what has been … Jesus is setting his face for Jerusalem, and preparing himself, his disciples, and ultimately us, for what lies ahead … there will be the darkness of suffering, the blackness of death, and in time the resurrection – the place of restoration and transformation where things are set straight and healing and wholeness flow forth in abundance …

Our Old Testament readings that remind us of Abraham and the generation that followed him may seem to clash with this theme of the resurrection to come – but in many respects these two stories fit together as a vivid reminder of the power that the resurrection embodies and promises … Abraham and his children are not a stellar example of familial relationships … yet in time things are set straight and the covenant promises made to Abraham come to pass DESPITE the mis-steps, errors, mistakes and screw ups of his children, and subsequent generations.

That is the power of the resurrection … that is the power of God present in our world … God's ways are not our ways … God's thoughts are not our thoughts … and in time things work out …

This proclamation of trust is not about some airy fairy ideal – the writer of Luke knows as he puts to parchment the words of Jesus standing before Jerusalem that the majestic and beautiful city is a shadow of her former self … he is writing after the Romans managed to do the unthinkable – they destroyed the city.

The destruction of Israel in 70 AD was so complete and so thorough that if you look in modern Jerusalem you can still see the scorch marks from the malestrom the Roman Legions unleashed as they burned the city to the ground … not only did Jerusalem treat its prophets with dishonour, in time it shared their fate.

So in this moment the prophecy is not only about the fate of the figure of Jesus – it is about the fate of the city and the people and the promises to Abraham … it's hard to see a Covenant when the city in which your social, religious, politicial, and cultural life centres is nothing more then a smoldering ruin … yet, that is precisely the point here … the covenant still stands … despite the best efforts of Abraham and his family to mess it up by their foolishness … despite the best efforts of outside forces to oppress and destroy the people – the promise stands …

In a time and place where nothing seems to be making sense any more … when the world has obviously slipped off its axis and horrendous events are overtaking everyone … in that moment when there is no solid place on which to rest one's feet … in that moment the promises of God break through and remind us that all this other stuff is simply what it is …

The challenge is to face this moment and know – trust – and believe that life will go on, and move us from where we are to where we're meant to be. There is no room here for rose coloured nostalgia that paints everything in a glowing rosy hue, but rather it is about standing firmly in our faith and trusting God.

When we read the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and the rest and we begin to reflect on the lessons they offer us, we are struck with the power of their lives … the stories of these characters are preserved in our memories not because they are exemplary examples of faithful living, but because they are expemplary examples of just living … Jewish writer Jonathan Hirsch has carved a niche for himself by penning a variety of books that look at the stories in the Bible that we tend to over look.

He realized as a young father sitting down and reading his son stories from the Old Testament that he tended to skip over many chunks of text because the happenings were not appropriate for the tender ears of his child … he started thinking about how a book so many regarded as Holy could have stories of lying, deception, murder, sexual misconduct and numerous others mis-deeds that we could never condone in good society – yet, here they were in the very pages of our Holy Scriptures …

He began to explore the tales of these men, and a few women who made mistakes, who got messy, who wandered from the straight and narrow, and yet for some reason were still held up as extraordinary figures of faithful living … at the end of the day the realization came, that it is not the saints who teach us our strongest lessons – it is the sinners who are like us and who live lives remarkably like our own … ordinary people who make mistakes, who lose their way, and who God continues to love because of the promises offered millenia ago …

Robert Frost acknowledged that home is where, when you come back - they have to take you in … Abraham and the patriarchs, Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem, and the journey of faith celebrated by Paul and countless others since, teach us about home … home – the place that welcomes us back no matter what we might have done along the way … home – the place where we find love, acceptance and grace unconditionally … home – the place where we are able to be fully ourselves.

Remembering and living the Covenant with Abraham is remembering that this promise envelopes all of humanity and offers EVERYONE the promise of always having a place to call home in the very presence of God … Remembering Abraham and the journey that has lead from his life reminds us that no matter what we do – God's love is there to reclaim us and welcome us home …

May it be so – thanks be to God … let us pray …

Sermon for February 21st 2010



(The Holy in the Ordinary – Ann Weems)

Holy is the time … Holy is this place, and Holy are the words we are to share as we begin our Lenten Journey … a journey that is familiar – we know the events and happenings, we've been this way before – some of us a few times, others many times … it is a journey that in its own familiarity insists that we need to pause and consider more fully the impact these events and happenings have on our faith … it is often said – Familiarity breeds contempt – but often familiarity closes our eyes to the profound and powerful impact things may have.

We know the destination. We've been to the events in Jerusalem before. We know about the controversy, the arrest, the trial, the torture, the suffering and the darkness of death … we've stood in the pre-dawn before the empty tomb … AND that is part of the problem – we know the ending, so the events have lost their impact on us. The 40 days of preparation stretch before us as more of an invconvenience, then anything else. Rather then embracing the spirit of “giving something up” for Lent, we tend to give up things that are superficial and unimportant … rather than commiting to a life of discipleship, we tend to marginalize even the action of a lenten fast by giving up something we can do with out like chocolate, extra sugar, salt, or one of my favourites was the proclamation by a former church member that he was giving up paprika for lent … “do you use paprika?” I asked - “no … it makes Lent much easier that way ...” he replied with a smile …

To be fair, he did observe Lenten fasts by giving up something significant …

For the vast majority of Christian lent tends to be something we clean out from under our beds and furniture, or our belly buttons, rather than something we observe in the 40 days before Easter …

Yet, Lent is central to our experience and understanding of being Church – even in the 21st Century.

In the early Church these forty days were most importantly a time of preparation for those who wished to join the Church. For Lent those seeking Baptism would observe the Fast, and spend their time actively preparing to become members of the Church. Today we as a few questions, we might hold a class or two, but we would never think of asking those wanting to join the Church to observe a forty day fast, or spend that time taking classes, engaging in prayer and meditation AND studying the Bible …

Yet, that sense of awe and wonder about being a member of this place lingers … Lent remains, even as marginalized as it is today, it remains a reminder of who we SHOULD be …
“A wandering aramean is my ancestor”, the ancient Jew would proclaim as he brought forward his offering of thanksgiving, in response to the year that has been, and in appreciation of the year that might be. With that proclamation came an understanding of who this Abraham guy was, and what he meant not only the faith of the people, but to the understanding that each member of that people had …

Abraham – once named Abram, the father of the Jews … began his life in what is today Iraq, and was called by this God Yahweh, to leave everything he knew behind and FOLLOW God – follow God into the unknown – trusting in a promise … along the way, Abraham faced many challenges and set backs, offered up his own son – a son he had waited a life time for – as a sacrifice … he watched his nephew's family flee the judgement of God … and he faced the sword and peril in very real ways … yet through it all Abraham maintained his faith …

To stand and say “a wandering Aramean is my ancestor” was a reminder of the journey that lead to this moment – to this place … to recall the history and heritage and to understand our place in it, and in the present moment … claiming a wandering Aramean as our ancestor was – and in some ways remains a way of positing and understanding ourselves in the cosmos …

To know who we are and where we fit in, allows us to let go and see where the spirit will lead us … There is a wonderful quotation that I have tried to follow over the last two years as my life has been taking what at times seems like an endless series of turns and spins … the quotation is from French novelist and nobel laureate, Andre Gide who said “one does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time ...”

The security of knowing who you are and where you come from allows you to let go and to lose sight of the shore … Abraham let go and consented to lose sight of the shore and it turned out well …

We are children of Abraham … but more over, we are followers of Jesus who in his forty day journey into the wilderness wrestled with his demons and found himself in a real and tangible way.

The first temptation was hunger … Jesus was famished and the temptation was to turn bread into stone and satiate his hunger … but in that moment of deep hunger came the teaching - “one does not live by bread alone ...”

The next temptation is to abandon one's faith … that of power and wealth and prestige … fall down and worship me and ALL of this will be yours is the offer … it is tempting when life is good and everything is wonderful – when we have the bells and whistles of a good life – the toys and the stuff – to forget about God - but Jesus reminds us of what is important … our faith …

Then comes the last temptation – to test God … when we are being tossed by life's storms and trials, the temptation is to curse God (that was the very advice offered to Job sitting in the ash heap) … yet Jesus will not bite. He hold to his faith – he keeps his attention focused on God … he will not step off the pinnacle of the temple – God will not be tested …

In his three temptations Jesus offers us the template – the example for the journey into the unknown …

We let go of the shore – we drift and soon lose sight of the shore and what we know and are comfortable with … the temptation is to give into our fear and live the poster offered by despair.com that says “until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore, you will never know the terror of being lost forever at sea ...”

Too often we give in to our fear – we let our fear stop us from continuing the journey, we let our fear hold us back … we let our fear interfere.

Writer David Deida observes our fear of fear in this way:
“Fear of fear may lead you to hang back, living a lesser life that you are capable. Fear of fear may lead you to push ahead, living a false life, off-center, tense and missing the moment. But the capacity to feel this moment, including your fear, without trying to escape it, creates a state of alive and humble spontaneity. You are ready for the unknown as it unfolds, since you are not pulled back or pushed forward from the horizon of the moment. You are hanging right over the edge ... By leaning just beyond your fear, you challenge your limits compassionately, without trying to escape the feeling of fear itself. You step beyond the solid ground of security with an open heart. You stand in the space of unknowingness, raw and awake. Here, the gravity of deep being will attend you to the only place where fear is obsolete: the eternal free fall of home. Where you always are.”.


Lent is about letting go and trusting in our faith and in our God … Lent is about preparing for the approaching darkness, and not leaping from the suffering and sorrow of Good Friday right to the glory of Easter Sunday – it is about having the courage and the boldness AND the faith to journey step by step into the darkness and know that every step is made firmly in the hands of God. Our faith is about having the ability to journey into the unknown KNOWING that we are a Child of God – a wandering aramean is our ancestor … we've faced the storms and turns in life and we've survived and become stronger for it … we've leaned into our fears and we've grown from the experience … we've LIVED as a child of God.

That's no small statement.

Being able to face life in ALL it's fullness – the good AND the bad – is seldom easy. It's down right challenging – yet, that's what we are called to do …

People will speak of those who have endured hardship in tones and words that suggest they found almost super-human strength to face and overcome the challenges they have encountered. Yet, if they have found the reserves and abilities that exist within ALL of us – they have found their security and strength within … they have lived life knowing who they are...

A wandering Aramean is our ancestor is a proclamation of FAITH that posits us in a secure place where our fears become gifts of the Spirit guiding us forward keeping us secure and guiding us forward to a place of safety.

Mark Twain once observed, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor.Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

I've found it fascinating that we will encourage our children to live life like that – with boldness and courage and taking chances. The childrens' programme The Magic School Bus even had the teacher Ms Frizzle saying over and over - “ Take chances! Make Mistakes! Get Messy!”

We tell our children to take chances … make mistakes … get messy … but we want our faith – life as a Church to be secure, and safe and predicitable. We let our fears – even our little insignificant fears take over and we sit …

Lent is the time when we recount the stories of our faith and our tradition. Lent is when for the next forty days we seek AND FIND the Holy in our lives …

Lent is when we let go and trust in God to guide us through … by faith we can journey into whatever lies ahead … we can let go of the shore – lose sight of the horizon and we WILL find new lands ...

(The Disciples – Ann Weems)

May it be so – thanks be to God … let us pray …