Surprised by joy

Text: Luke 1:57-80 (the birth of John the Baptist)

The joys of Christmas come easily to my mind – things like family meals, expressions of love and affection, child-like delight in trees and candles, gift-giving, music, chocolates. But Advent joy can seem more elusive.

Kim and I experienced an afternoon filled with what I call Advent joy last Saturday when we participated in the Sing-Along Messiah of Edmonton’s BALM Society at Robertson-Wesley United Church. About 300 of us were on hand to sing the choruses of this beloved work by George Frederick Handel.

This is not Edmonton’s first Sing-Along Messiah. A Google search indicated that one used to be held at St. Andrew’s United Church about 10 years ago, and I am sure there have been others. But this was the first Sing-Along Messiah I have participated in since moving out West in 2011, and I loved it.

Throughout the 1990s and the 2,000s I sang in most of the Sing-Along Messiah’s offered by Toronto’s Tafelmusik Orchestra and Choir at Massey Hall. I loved being one of 2,000 people who gathered every December to listen to the solos and to sing the choruses of this two-hour long oratorio.

But last Saturday’s gathering at Robertson-Wesley topped all of them. The spirit seemed bright, perhaps because this was the first offering by the new BALM Society; and perhaps because the Society has a laudable mandate to support the musical leadership and creativity of women and gender minorities. But mostly, I loved the afternoon because the singing was so good.

In Toronto, I came to view the Sing-Along Messiah as an annual rehearsal by a huge group of amateurs. We were enthusiastic, but not very good. We did improve each year, but only marginally. Every year, my brother Andrew and I would scan the bass section to guess who among the men looked like they could sing and then tried to sit close to them. But we often misjudged, and instead of being elevated by the excellence of others, our singing was sometimes dragged down by non-singers around us.

Happily, last Saturday the singers around me were wonderful, and the quality of the choruses, although far from perfection, seemed heavenly to me.

Handel’s Messiah is closely associated with Christmas. But it was first performed at Easter in 1742 in Dublin, and the texts of the solos and choruses, which are all taken from the Bible, span the entire church year from Advent to the Day of Judgement. Only a brief section of the First Part uses texts that are true Christmas ones, from the second chapter of Luke when he writes about angels appearing to shepherds in fields around Bethlehem.

The opening Advent section uses passages from the Hebrew prophets. Words that many of us associate with John the Baptist are not taken from the gospels but from Isaiah. Even the Hallelujah Chorus, which is the best-known chorus from The Messiah, uses words from the book of Revelation and not the gospels.

Since Handel’s oratorio covers the entire church year, it also covers the whole range of emotion from hope to pain, grief, regret, and never-ending joy. When things flow well in a performance, singers lose themselves in the challenge and beauty of the music and in the communal spirit of being part of a chorus.

Singing the Messiah is both a spiritual and a soulful experience; and the soulful elements are not just the comfort and joy for which we yearn at Christmas. They also include hurt at rejection, fear of death, and hope for new life.

I have loved the Messiah ever since I first heard it performed when I was 15; and so I looked forward to last Saturday’s Sing-Along. But I was surprised by the joy I experienced with 300 other people at Robertson-Wesley. Because we tackled this difficult music well and because we were breathing and singing as one, it connected us to Source.

The biblical texts used in The Messiah both charm and annoy me. In the Advent section, I love the image of a refiner’s fire from Malachi and the poetry about darkness and light from Isaiah. But it strikes me as silly to imagine that words written 2500 years ago accurately predict the life of Jesus 500 years later.

I love the Lent and Easter sections of the Messiah, but the texts support a theology to which I do not subscribe.

So, I wondered why I found joy in singing words that are both evocative and sometimes misleading. Thinking of this question brought to my mind a concert that Kim and I sang in as members of Edmonton Metropolitan Chorus on November 18. Called “For All the Saints: Hymns for the Soul,” it included hymns with words that many of us here would not be happy to use on a Sunday morning. But on the day, the concert at First Presbyterian Church was a joy for those of us who sang in it.

Our Music Director, David Garber, set the context. He told the large gathering on November 18 that it was not a Worship service, not a hymn sing, and not a hymn festival. Instead, it was an event.

I think last Saturday’s Sing-Along Messiah was similar. I assume that most of us there were either active in church or had been raised in the church. I also assume that many of us no longer subscribed to ideas about the cosmos and about sin and salvation that were conveyed in the words of the music. Nevertheless, we loved singing it because of the vibrations it created and the connections it strengthened. The fact that the words were from some of the strangest and most poetic sections of the Bible helped to build the spirit of the event and not detract from it.

In this crazy world of woes and blessings, events like this one are sorely needed, I believe. When we gather in the pursuit of beauty, power, and connection, we are fed. When we celebrate and mourn together, we are healed. When we bring masterpieces like the Messiah to life, we are reminded of the pain, passion, and power of the human experience and how this connects us to the Divine.

In talking about the afternoon at Robertson-Wesley with Kim, the phrase Harmonic Convergence came to my mind. Wikipedia reminded me that this was a mass global meditation event organized by New Age thinkers in August 1987 and one based upon dubious astrological thinking. Then as now, I think it was kooky. But there is a part of me that is attracted to the idea of getting millions of people to engage in a simultaneous spiritual practice.

In a way, this is what we do each Sunday when we gather to sing and pray. It is what millions do each December when they congregate in thousands of concert halls all around the world to participate in Sing-Along Messiahs. And it is what we are sometimes moved to do when an awesome event of pain or joy occurs.

When Zechariah regains his voice after 40 weeks of enforced silence he doesn’t complain about his punishment or express anxiety about how he and his wife will be able to raise their miracle child John in their old age. Instead, he joyfully predicts the strange life his son will lead. John’s life is not an easy one; and according to Luke, it ends in his execution. Nevertheless, at John’s birth Zechariah sings words of praise, thanksgiving and joy.

As we continue preparations for Christmas, may we also raise our voices in passionate joy regardless of our thoughts and feelings about the future.

We love the comfort and joy of Christmas, which we will revel in next weekend with the Christmas Singsong on Friday evening, a Sunday morning service focused on Love, and two Christmas Eve services on Monday the 24th. But we live in an Advent world more than a Christmas one, I believe, and so I give thanks for the strange, surprising, and life-giving joys of Advent.

May we find in the communal creation of beauty the spirit we need to thrive in life’s ups and downs and the soulful warmth we need to comfort us during the long and cold nights of December.

May it be so. Amen.

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Think globally, act locally

Text: Luke 1:26-38 (the birth of Jesus foretold) — Context: a service focusing on reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations

What would you say is the most pressing issue facing Canada’s First Nations? Someone like me who often has his head in the clouds might answer by suggesting things like climate change or the threat of nuclear war.

These answers are ridiculous, of course, although that doesn’t stop abstract thoughts like that from flitting through my mind. I succumb to such abstractions because placing a community into a broad context can remind us that everyone on this beautiful blue planet shares similar blessings and woes.

Every human being alive today, regardless of nationality, social status, or economic circumstance, lives under the shadow of threats like climate change and weapons of mass destruction. And every human being alive today is blessed by global developments in knowledge and culture.

Both in what we fear and in what we love, there is much that unites us in this awesome, conflicted, and diverse world.

But when focusing on a particular family or community, it is usually not helpful to lead with global concerns.

A family might be focused on caring for new children. A community of faith might be focused on maintaining its outreach projects and responding to the spiritual needs of members who are mourning. And people of Canada’s First Nations might be focused on self-government and social and economic development.

We wish every family, church, and community the best in their efforts to tackle their most pressing issues. An injury to one is an injury to all. Likewise the healing of one helps the healing of all.

For these reasons, every Canadian, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, has an interest in the health of Canada’s First Nations. But focusing on Canada’s First Nations can take us much further than this. Working for justice for Canada’s First peoples can also help us grapple with a central part of Canada’s reality, that it is a product of European colonialism.

The European imperial project that saw countries like Spain, France, and England conquer the rest of the world between 1492 and 1914 changed everything. It united humanity through the world market, it drastically increased social productivity, and it saw humanity’s ability to understand and manipulate physical reality soar.

There is no going back to pre-colonial times when people of different continents didn’t know of each other. But at the same time, the dynamism of this unequal world, which is simultaneously united and horribly divided, is behind many of the threats we face and many of the blessings in which we revel.

The post-colonial world is based on never-ending growth. Since the era of colonialism began 500 years ago, human population has risen from 500 million to nearly eight billion. Scientific knowledge and technological expertise have mushroomed; and the physical environment has been transformed.

So, when we pursue peace with justice today, I think it is useful to imagine radically different ways of running the economy and of governing the world.

Today’s Gospel reading is about impossibilities and dreams for a better future. Like last week’s reading, it is about a miraculous pregnancy, this time for Mary, who becomes the mother of Jesus.

Many of us approach this as a poetic story that paints the power of Sacred Love to inspire and transform individuals like Mary, communities like the Jewish people of ancient Palestine, and those of us who walk a path of death and resurrection as revealed in the stories of Jesus as the Christ.

In the context of our hopes for peace with justice in a post-colonial world, it might remind us that our preparations for Christmas include our radical dreams.

Building a world in which Indigenous rights are fully realized, in which environmental destruction has been halted, and in which weapons of mass destruction are a distant memory might seem impossible. But then we remember our sacred stories of a saviour who is conceived in a miracle, who comes to earth as helpless infant, and who is executed as a scorned rebel.

As people formed by this tradition, we minister where we are — perhaps tending to our spiritual health; working to make this congregation as vigorous, welcoming, and exciting a place as it can be; and to alleviating poverty in our neighbourhood.

We also pray that our efforts to heal some of the wounds of ourselves and our neighbourhood open pathways to the global peace that is only way to ensure a common future.

Because the revival of Indigenous Canada and the struggle for Indigenous rights gets to the heart of the origins of the modern world, it has power to inspire our imaginations, to free our thinking, and to motivate our actions to find radically new ways of living.

The spiritual, political, and cultural revival of Canada’s First peoples of the last decades fills me with wonder and hope. Not only do these revivals heal some of the wounds of crimes like Indian Residential Schools, they create space for everyone to heal from their wounds.

The key victims of colonialism are the people who were colonized. But those of us who are descendants of settlers are also twisted and harmed in lesser ways. So, when an oppressed community achieves a measure of liberation, the rest of the community can breathe more deeply and regain more of its health as well.

This Advent, as we strengthen our intentions to work for peace in our hearts and in the neighbourhood, may the courage of Mary 2,000 years ago and of Indigenous activists today help us imagine a world healed of the wounds of colonial violence and in which the limitless blessings of a united humanity are available to all people.

May it be so. Amen.


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The gestation of hope

Text: Luke 1:1-25 (the birth of John the Baptist foretold)

One of the ideas that I’m discussing with the Ministry and Personnel Committee for a sabbatical in 2019 is a silent retreat. I have never experienced one, although I know several people who speak highly of them. I am investigating two Catholic centres, one in Guelph and one in Calgary, that offer such retreats. And there are other retreat centres — Buddhist, Hindu, or secular – that help seekers spend time in silence as a spiritual practice.

Silent retreats come in different configurations and lengths. Some last for a weekend, others for a week, and some for as long as one-month.

However, I have never heard of a voluntary silent retreat that lasts for 40 weeks. This is the length of the time of silence ordered for Zechariah by the Angel Gabriel in today’s Gospel reading.

The fanciful story about Zechariah and the miraculous pregnancy of his wife Elizabeth, which results in the birth of John the Baptist, is found only in Luke.

Scholars have ascertained that when Luke wrote his Gospel, he had a manuscript of Mark in front of him. But the material found in the first two chapters of Luke is unique to him. This Advent, we will hear the entire first chapter of Luke, which tells of the miraculous conceptions of both John the Baptist and of his cousin Jesus. Then on Christmas Eve, we will hear the first 20 verses of the second chapter of Luke, which tells of Jesus’ birth in a manger in Bethlehem.

The first-written Gospel, Mark, contains no stories about Jesus before his baptism as an adult in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Matthew precedes this story with one about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. However, Matthew’s version of the first Christmas has no manger, no shepherds, and no angels singing “peace on earth, good will to all.”

Luke, like Matthew, adds a prelude to Mark, and his contains not only a miraculous conception and birth story for Jesus — although one quite different than Matthew’s – but also a backstory for John. Only Luke contains the ideas that John the Baptist is not just a prophet who baptizes Jesus, but is also a close relative of Jesus, and one whom like Jesus who is conceived in a miraculous fashion.

The story we heard today about Zechariah and Elizabeth is the final one of a long series in the Bible about conceptions involving impossibly old people . It is told just before the story of another miraculous conception, that involving Elizabeth’s young relative Mary who is the mother of Jesus, and which we will hear next week.

Zechariah is frightened when the Angel Gabriel appears to him, perhaps because parenting is the most difficult and risky thing most people undertake; and because the prospect of becoming a parent in old age is not a rosy one.

Gabriel is angry that Zechariah expresses skepticism at his impending fatherhood. So, he strikes him mute until his son John is born, presumably about 40 weeks later. This is the long silent retreat that Zechariah is forced to endure.

As we will hear in two weeks, Zechariah undergoes a spiritual transformation during this enforced silence. He emerges from it with praise, joy, and hope on his lips.

I hope to gain spiritual insight during a time of silence during my sabbatical next spring, although one that will only last for a week and not 40.

The number “40” comes up many times in the books of the Bible. In the story of Noah, God makes it rain for 40 days and 40 nights. The Hebrew people wander the Sinai desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. Moses spends three consecutive periods of 40 days communing with God on Mount Sinai. Jesus spends 40 days in the desert after his baptism.

One hypothesis for the repeated use of the number 40 in these stories is that human gestation lasts about 40 weeks. When a biblical writer states that 40 days, weeks, or years have passed, it may symbolize that something new has gestated in the heart of an individual or community. This also describes the purpose of Advent – to spend time, often in silence, preparing for the winter solstice and our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus and the rebirth of light and hope in our hearts.

However, silence is not appreciated by all of us. For Zechariah it is a punishment.

At our book study of John Spong’s book “Unbelievable” last week, some expressed discomfort with the brief time of silence we observe after my weekly reflection. Would it not be better to use this space to discuss the sermon instead of silently reflecting on what has been said?

Perhaps; and I plan to provide more opportunities for us to share and discuss during our Sunday gatherings next year.

I also can see the utility of having preachers shut up, at least for a week. Those like me who live out our calling by talking might gain more than many from enforced periods of silence.

Silence can also build hope. On Friday morning, an essay about silence and hope arrived in my In-Box from the Centre for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. The Centre, run by one of my heroes, the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, is one of the places I have investigated in the search for ideas for my 2019 sabbatical.

I will now read this essay by one of the faculty members at the Centre, Cynthia Bourgeault. In a reflection called “Mystical Hope,” she writes:

“Must we be whip-lashed incessantly between joy and sorrow, expectation and disappointment? Or is it possible to live from a place of greater equilibrium and find a deeper and steadier current?

The good news is this deeper current exists and that it can be found on a journey to the headwaters of Mystery. This journey to the wellsprings of hope is not something that will change one’s life in the short term. Rather, it will change our innermost way of seeing. From there, the externals will inevitably rearrange.

Meditation is a key spiritual practice that nurtures our ability to perceive and respond to divine hope.

Below our sense of separateness and isolation is another level of awareness. Thomas Keating calls it “spiritual awareness.” He contrasts it with the “ordinary awareness” of ego-centred thinking. While the ego works by noting differences and distinctions, spiritual awareness is an innate perception of kinship and of belonging to the whole.

The only thing blocking the awareness of this whole is ordinary thinking. If we can turn that off for a while, then the other can take shape in us and become a reality we experience. When we experience it, we remember that we belong in the heart of God, that we are a part of this heart forever, and that we cannot possibly fall out of it, no matter what may happen.

In the contemplative journey, as we swim into the deep waters of the springs of hope, we begin to experience what it means to lay down self, to let go of ordinary awareness and to surrender ourselves to the mercy of God. As hope flows out from this center, we discover within ourselves a mysterious plenitude that allows us to act in ways that our ordinary hearts and minds could not possibly sustain.”

Bourgeault is saying that our connection to the Divine gives us a hope that is stronger than any “success” or “failure” we may experience. Further, she says silent meditation is a good way to connect us to this eternal source of hope.

In the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, I imagine that parenting the boy who becomes the wild man known as John the Baptist would not have been easy for them. But the vicissitudes of everyday life don’t do away with the hope that springs from Zechariah’s lips after 40 weeks of silent waiting.

May we experience a similar hope during this blessed Advent of waiting, watching, and praying.


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Judgement and truth

Text: John 18:33-38 (“What is truth?”)

The conversation between Jesus and Pilate in today’s reading has a modern ring to it. Pilate is the Roman governor in Jerusalem, and he is interrogating Jesus on the day we call Good Friday. Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king. But instead of answering the question directly, Jesus tells Pilate that he has come into the world for one purpose – to bear witness to the truth.

Really? Jesus’ one purpose is to bear witness to the truth? Not to heal the sick, wake the sleeping, teach the ignorant, confront the Empire, confound the religious elite, and die for our sins, just to bear witness to the truth? Perhaps all of the above are contained in Jesus’ statement about truth. But this does not strike me as obvious.

Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his friends that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The Way of Jesus is one of self-sacrificial love and of communal solidarity. It is also about truth.

Pilate responds to Jesus with a question that sounds like it was ripped from today’s headlines: “What is Truth?” For as long as humanity has been divided into competing classes, tribes and nations, truth has been a question of power. Society cannot function without a shared understanding of reality. So, people with a particular interest fight to define reality in order to maintain power.

Is a government helping us, or should it be opposed? Should husbands lord it over their wives or should married couples strive for equality? Should we work for peace with justice or should the strong countries conquer the weak ones? Many such questions are posed to us but not always answered.

In today’s reading, Pilate tries to determine if the charges against Jesus by the religious elite are true. They claim that Jesus is masquerading as the King of the Jews, which would be an act of treason in Roman-occupied Jerusalem.

At first, Pilate doesn’t buy the claims of the Temple authorities. But in the face of mob agitation, Pilate accedes to their wishes and orders that Jesus be killed. In a dangerous situation, Pilate decides the only truth he is interested in is what will maintain his unjust status quo.

What is truth? Perhaps it is whatever the powerful decide!

As followers of Jesus, we work to create the realm of God. This realm would have many virtues compared to today’s society; and one of them would be a clearer sense of what is true and false.

We face a never-ending litany of competing truth claims. Are immigrants and refugees a threat to national identity and human rights, or are they an economic and social boon? Do Honduran and Salvadoran refugees walking to the United States bring contagious disease, rampant criminality, and terrorist intentions with them, or are they loving families fleeing violence, poverty, and oppression? Is the burning of fossil fuels destroying the ability of the oceans and atmosphere to sustain human life or should we oppose any attempt to restrain the fossil fuel industry?

At a personal level, we are confronted with competing health claims like whether fatty foods are harmful or healthy. We puzzle over whether social media relieves or increases loneliness. We are asked to consider if legalizing marijuana is a positive step that will lower crime or is a threat to the moral fabric of society.

One of the advantages of joining a faith community is to help us understand reality and adjudicate truth claims. Sometimes this involves discussions. But ascertaining the truth also flows from spiritual gatherings and campaigns of outreach and justice.

When the choir sings an anthem and we join our voices in a hymn, we gain an intuitive sense of what is stirring in the community. When we listen to a eulogy at a Celebration of Life, we increase our sense of the breadth and depth of life. When we spend a moment in silent prayer, we touch a spiritual reality that puts the mundane matters that often occupy our minds into better perspective.

Volunteering in outreach projects like the Clothing Bank and the Bread Run confronts us with neighbourhood realities and generates ideas about public policy.

Protesting inequality and working for peace helps us decide if the claims of the rich and powerful are legitimate. Organizing for environmental sustainability and social health helps us discover opportunities and barriers in current social arrangements.

A church like Mill Woods United is not just about worship but also about learning, mutual support, outreach, and social change. The truths we strive for as followers of Jesus are not just theological but also about relationships, economic structures, and political power.

We may often feel confused in the face of competing truth claims, but joining a community that strives for honesty, mutual respect, and love can help us better connect to personal and communal realities.

It can also increase our ability to withstand the dishonesty, manipulation, and lies that pollute popular culture and politics.

We have limited ability to curb the injuries caused by the racist bullies who now rule countries like Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, but we can help each other keep our hearts pure in times of increasing fear, racism, and violence.

I continue to be upset and amazed that we are living in an era in which ignorance, insult, and dishonesty are successful for so many leaders.

The most famous person in the world — the current President of the United States — speaks almost entirely in judgements and insults; with ignorance of and disregard for commonly accepted facts; and with consistent dishonesty. Even those of us who ignore the latest outrages from his Twitter feed are negatively affected by his ignorance, racism, and sexism, I believe.

Over the last few years, I have witnessed growing fear and racism towards Muslims and refugees not just in the news, but in the words of people in my extended family, in voices within many churches, on the bumper stickers on passing vehicles, and in casual conversations with service providers and neighbours. The immorality of people like President Trump has spread far and wide, I fear.

Judgements like his are inherently questionable. Whether something is great or small, evil or healing, important or trivial are endlessly debatable questions. And when such judgements tar entire races or religions they are not just questionable but toxic.

Happily, if we communicate not with judgements, but with feelings, wishes, and personal experiences, we stop being defensive and reveal truths about ourselves.

Reporting what we sense in our bodies and feel in our hearts is honest. When we can stay in touch with our feelings and articulate them using personal stories, we communicate the truth and connect to our values. A community whose members share their feelings and wishes, likes and dislikes, and hopes and dreams in this way can become a space in which to withstand the manipulative discourse that emanates from so many leaders.

In a community dedicated to honest sharing, we have a better chance to discover what is possible in advancing the dream of God we call the Reign of Christ.

In answer to Pilate’s question, Jesus is a king, but not one who rules from a throne in Jerusalem. Jesus is a Christ who is raised to new life within the hearts of all who follow a Way of death and resurrection. The truths that emanate from the Risen Christ within us are eternal and unshakable, ones that shine following the death of our egos and their easily manipulated fears. They are truths that connects us to the limitless creativity, courage, and joy of the Source we call God.

Do congregations like Mill Woods United always live up to the ideals of honest, emotional, and value-based communication? Of course not. But in a culture awash in fear-mongering, ignorance, and insults, our attempts to speak the truth in love to one another and to our neighbours can become a ministry of beauty and joy.

So today, as one church year ends and another one begins, let us join our hearts and voices to proclaim the Risen Christ who reigns in billions of hearts. It is reign centred on beauty and truth, which is all we ever really need to know.

May it be so. Amen.

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Poetry and history

Text: Mark 13:1-8 (the destruction of the Temple)

“When the Bible is historically accurate, it is so only by accident.” So said Northrop Frye, the famous literary critic and United Church of Canada minister. He continued: “reporting was not of the slightest interest to the writers of the Bible. The writers of the Bible had a story to tell which could only be told by myth and metaphor.” (John Aitken, “Northrop Frye: an Appreciation” in Northrop Frye, The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991, p xii).

Is that what you were taught in Sunday School – that “when the Bible is historically accurate, it is so only by accident?” Me neither. So, today as we reflect on a text in which Jesus predicts an historical fact — the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem — I discuss why Frye might have said this.

Do people know of Northrop Frye? After being ordained by the United Church of Canada in 1936, Frye taught in the Department of English at the University of Toronto until his death in 1991.

Frye has been dead for more than 25 years, so I can understand why not many of us know of him. But when I was a child, he loomed large. Despite being a professor most of his career, he was one of Canada’s best known United Church ministers. His books occupied a prominent place in my father’s library, including “The Great Code” on the Bible and his final work, “The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion” of 1991 and from which I took the quote above.

I read Frye when I was studying to become a minister at Victoria University’s Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto from 2007 to 2011. This is where Frye had studied from 1929 to 1936; and I was particularly intrigued to read the following biographical highlight in “The Double Vision.”

Frye writes: “When I arrived at Victoria College as a freshman in September 1929, North America was not only prosperous, but in a nearly hysterical state of self-congratulation . . . next month came the stock market crash, and there was no more talk of a Capitalist Utopia” (p 4-5). I read this in the Fall of 2008 as the Great Recession was unfolding with terrible effect across the world.

The quote from Frye about the lack of historical information in the Bible comes from a course on the Bible and literature that he taught for decades. Frye knew pretty much everything there is to know about the books of the Bible, so why did he say they weren’t history books?

The books of the Old Testament and the four Gospels look like history books. They tell about the kings of Israel and Judah and their wars, and of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If this isn’t history, then what is?

Frye says the books of the Bible have a story to tell that can only be told by metaphor and myth. By saying the biblical stories aren’t historically accurate, Frye is not dismissing them. He is saying these stories are more important than mere historical reports.

I got some of this in Sunday School. When we learned about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we were taught that this was a Hebrew creation myth, similar to the myths of other ancient tribes. It was important, but not because it actually happened. It was about important because it helped us think about issues like consciousness, the necessity of toil, and the inevitability of death.

When I was a teenager, I became skeptical of all of the books of the Bible and I left the church. So, when I returned 17 years ago, I was pleased to learn about biblical scholarship by literary critics like Frye and by groups like The Jesus Seminar.

This Fall, sixteen of us are participating in a book study by one of the leaders of the Jesus Seminar, the Episcopalian Bishop John Spong. I am enjoying our Thursday discussions about this book, which is Spong’s latest and probably his last.

Spong has been important to me. As a modern skeptic, I had felt foolish when I returned to church. Wasn’t the church blind to science?

I stumbled upon Spong’s book in a bookstore near where I worked in Toronto and read most of them. I was fascinated to learn about scientific research into the books of the Bible, which has been ongoing for 200 years now.

In November 2004, I heard Bishop Spong speak at Dublin Street United Church in Guelph Ontario. His subject that afternoon was the four gospels. One fact in particular stunned me. Spong highlighted the scientific consensus of biblical scholars that Mark was the first of the four gospels to have been written, and that it was not written until at least 40 years after the death of Jesus!

Forty years! That is two generations. For this reason alone, I can see why many do not believe the gospels give accurate details of what Jesus said or did.

Scholars date the Gospel of Mark to 40 years after the life of Jesus because of today’s passage in which Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Historians know that the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 when the Romans smashed a rebellion in Jerusalem. After a long siege, they breached the walls of the city, burned it to the ground, killed tens of thousands of people, and took the Temple apart stone by stone.

This traumatic event took place 40 years after the time that the gospel writers place Jesus. Jesus’ prediction of its destruction has led biblical scholars to conclude that Mark was motivated to write his Gospel because of the Temple’s destruction.

Since I am not a scientist, I accept their conclusions in the same way that I accept the ideas of physicists, chemists, and biologists.

So, a lot of time passed between the life of Jesus and writing of the gospels – 40 years for Mark, 55 for Matthew, 65 for Luke, and 70 years for John. But does this distance in time invalidate our choice to be followers of Jesus? Frye for one would say “no,” and so do I.

The words and actions of Jesus found in the gospels provide us with endless inspiration for reflection, discussion, and spiritual growth. But more important than their contradictory details, is the path of death and resurrection they reveal. For me, this is the Way that disciples of Jesus try to follow.

Death and resurrection describe the most crucial, painful, and joyful moments of our lives as individuals and as communities. But Jesus is not just another individual. He is a representation of God in human form, which raises the power of the gospel stories. Mark, I believe, wrote his gospel to help his suffering community imagine how it could continue after YHWH’s Temple had been destroyed and their Holy City burned to the ground.

This is Good News with a capital G and a capital N, particularly for those like us who live in a world in turmoil. Today, many of the “temples” at which we worship are being destroyed. In these times of rapid change, the stories of Jesus can help us to cope and rise to a new life closer to God’s Love.

Some people might hear Frye’s words about myth and metaphor and dismiss the Bible. I hear the opposite. I am not interested in learning historically reliable facts about the wars and rulers of a small tribe in the ancient world. Instead, I am grateful to find poetic and evocative stories about what is most sacred to us.

Not all parts of the Bible are sacred poetry. But there is enough there to make these texts a touchstone for me. They have helped lead me to a spiritual path of beauty, truth and healing.

This doesn’t mean we must only listen to passages from the Bible every Sunday. Our worship life can have limitless sources of inspiration. I plan to offer some of these other sources in December on the Sundays of Advent. Over these four Sundays, we will hear all of the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke as well as other writings that relate to the Advent themes of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

Our hymn of response is one such source, I believe. “This Ancient Love” by Carolyn McDade doesn’t use religious language. But in just a few lines, it conveys a lot about the Ground of Love we call God.

We will sing the hymn in a minute, and I suggest the following as a guide. The first verse brings to my mind the formation of the stars and the earth; the second of the evolution of life; the third of the origins of slavery in early civilizations; the fourth of the origins of religion; and the final verse of the work of healing and enlightenment in which communities of faith like this one engage.

Despite how it evokes for me the history of the cosmos, life, civilization, and religion, “This Ancient Love” is not an historical hymn. It is much better than that. It is sacred love song.

Grateful for all that has been given to us, may we respond with wonder and joy.


This Ancient Love” by Carolyn McDade

Long before the night was born from darkness
Long before the dawn rolled unsteady from fire
Long before she wrapped her scarlet arms around the hills
there was a love this ancient love was born.

Long before the grass spotted green the bare hillside
Long before a wing unfolded to wind
Long before she wrapped her long blue arms around the sea
there was a love this ancient love was born.

Long before a chain was forged from the hillside
Long before a voice uttered freedom’s cry
Long before she wrapped her bleeding arms around a child
there was a love this ancient love was born.

Long before the name of God was spoken
Long before a cross was nailed from a tree
Long before she laid her arms of colours ‘cross the sky
there was a love this ancient love was born.

Wakeful are our nights and slumbers our morning
Stubborn is the grass sowing green wounded hills
As we wrap our healing arms to hold what her arms held
this ancient love this aching love rolls on.

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Remembering forward

Text: Mark 12:28-34 (the greatest commandment)

The Greatest Commandment, Jesus says, is to love God and neighbour. Today, on the centennial of the end of World War One, I remember how some of our ancestors were able to obey this commandment even in the terrible circumstance of war.

Loving one’s neighbours is never more challenging than in war. The neighbours of soldiers are the soldiers on the other side. They are not commanded to love these neighbours but to try and kill them. So, in war the commandment to love one’s neighbour seems impossible.

Nevertheless, the story of how the Great War came to end 100 years ago today can remind us of that some were able to love their so-called enemies in war, which also brought themselves and the world closer to salvation.

The scale of the First World War is staggering. More than 70 million men were mobilized and 10 million soldiers and seven million civilians were killed.

The Canadian young men who enlisted did so for the best of motives. Their King and Emperor, George V, told them it was the right thing to do. Their Prime Minister and elected government said the same. Their churches told them it was a sacred duty to kill Germans, Hungarians, and Turks. It was supposed to be over quickly. It was a chance to see Europe. Why wouldn’t they go?

The same is true for the soldiers of the Central Powers. Their various emperors and governments had declared war on Britain, France and Russia. All churches blessed the slaughter: Lutherans in Germany, Catholics in Austro-Hungary, and Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria and Serbia for the Central Powers; Anglicans in England, Methodists in Canada, Orthodox Christians in Russia, and Catholics in France and Italy for the Allies. One hundred years ago, almost all churches were state establishments. Church and empire were often one.

Millions went to the trenches to slaughter their neighbours with the blessings of priests and ministers ringing in their ears. It was supposed to be a sacred cause. And the soldiers did make it sacred by sacrificing their youth, their health and often their lives for the cause of church and empire.

The words sacrifice and sacred share the same root in the Latin word “sacer,” which means holy. And so, for the past 100 years, the celebration of the end of the First World War each November 11th has been a sacred moment. Each year, with great feeling, we say, “Lest we forget.” Except some things we have forgotten, I think.

Remembrance is key to spiritual growth. We try to be mindful of, and thankful for, the sacrifices of our ancestors. In faith communities like this one, we gather each week to remember our sacred values and to discuss how to live into them. Remembrance also has the connotation of stitching up broken hearts, bodies, and minds, which is part of our healing ministry.

Each November 11th for the past 100 years, Canadians have gathered to remember the sacrifice of those who died in the Great War and, since 1945, in wars that followed it. We remember the dead for many reasons. One is to give thanks for the freedom we enjoy as a result of their sacrifices.

Unfortunately, most wars don’t bring freedom. For one, war always involves two sides, and both of them can’t be on the side of the angels. Often, neither side can be considered a force for freedom.

Today, 45 years after the end of the Vietnam War, many people believe that the Americans intervention there was unjust. How difficult, then, must it be today for veterans who fought in Vietnam?

Other wars seem black and white. Almost everyone sees World War II as a fight between good and evil because the Nazi regime in Germany was so egregious.

World War One particularly interests me because of how it ended. Why, for instance, did the Armistice that ended World War I come into effect at the 11th hour of the 11th month of the 11th day one hundred years ago on November 11, 1918?

The simple answer is that after four years of slaughter, the Allies had finally defeated the Central Powers. The war had been a stalemate until the United States — encouraged by the overthrow of the Czar in Russia in March 1917, which led to a liberal government that the Americans found acceptable as an ally in a way that the Czar’s regime was not — entered the war on the side of the Allies in April 1917.

By the summer of 1918, 10,000 American soldiers a day were landing in Europe, and the tide had turned. In September and October of 1918, the Serbians, the Bulgarians, and finally the Turks surrendered to the Allies.

Throughout October, the German High Command telegraphed U.S. President Woodrow Wilson seeking honourable terms for an armistice. But Wilson was an idealist. Unlike the European powers, Wilson published the aims of the U.S. upon its entry into the war: freedom for colonies, the creation of a League of Nations, demilitarization, and the establishment of democracy.

Wilson also insisted that the Kaiser — who was both the King of Prussia, the Emperor of Germany, and bizarrely the beloved first cousin of both King George V of the British Empire and Czarina Alexandra of Russia — abdicate as a condition for peace. Abdication was not acceptable to the German military, so on October 30, 1918, they ordered their navy to launch a final attack against the Allies in the Baltic Sea. Except this time, the sailors of the German fleet said, “No! We refuse to kill any more British, Canadian, or American sailors. We won’t go.”

Their rebellion on October 30 quickly spread throughout Germany. By the first week of November, Berlin and other cities were in revolution. The military told the Kaiser that he had to abdicate to save his life, which he did on November 7th. The conservative government that had prosecuted the war resigned in the face of the revolution and handed power to the Socialist Party. The Socialist government then signed the Armistice with the Allies in France on November 11th, 1918.


Without the revolution that swept the Kaiser and his government from power, World War One would still have ended. But without it, many more thousands would have died, and the war might have limped on until December or January, in which case the 11th hour of the 11th month of each year would not have the sacred significance it has held for us these past 100 years.

After years of obedience to church and empire and after more than one million German deaths, the German sailors had said, “Enough! We refuse your commands to kill. More than that, we are willing to die to stop the war.” They had realized that British, French and American soldiers were not their enemies. Instead they were their neighbours who deserved their love. The true enemy of the German sailors was their emperor, the Kaiser, who along with his government and church, had led them into the nightmare of war. In that moment of rebellion, these German rebels received their own salvation. By expanding their definition of neighbour, they led the world a huge step toward its salvation as well . . .

The Great War changed everything; and out of its horror, greater freedom did arise. On the Allied side, the War led to the overthrow of the Czarist monarchy and the end of the Russian Empire. On the Central side, it lead to the overthrow of monarchies in the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman empires and to independence for many of the nations formerly imprisoned by them.

After the war, women won greater equality; the authority of corrupt governments and their religious apologists was lessened; colonies strove for independence; and democracy sank deeper roots in many countries.

None of this freedom is worth the death of 17 million people, of course; but it is still something for which we give thanks. This is one of the reasons why we acknowledge the 600,000 Canadian young men who fought between 1914 and 1918 and the 60,000 who perished.

Rebelling against one’s empire and its military can get you killed just as surely as battle. But as the useless slaughter of the Great War dragged on, more and more soldiers rebelled – in France in 1915, in Russia in 1917, which led to the overthrow of the Czar and his police state, and in Germany in 1918, which led to the overthrow of the Kaiser and the signing of the Armistice 100 years ago today.

These rebels fulfilled the greatest commandment even in the middle of an unjust war. At great risk, they refused to kill for empire even as they were willing to die for their neighbours.

Today on the centennial of the Armistice, I remember my grandfather who was wounded in France in 1915; the 60,000 Canadians who died in the Great War and the 40,000 who have died in other wars since; the 17 million dead on all sides in WWI; and the more than 100 hundred million who died in WWII and in subsequent wars. I also remember the German soldiers who in 1918 stood up to their imperial, clerical, and military rulers and said “No! We won’t kill anymore.”

May our poppies remind us that all nations are our neighbours, and that all the blood shed in World War One – whether Canadian, German, British, Austrian, or Russian — was precious. The sacrifices on all sides are what make our commemoration of that war sacred.

I also pray that we can remember forward to a time in which we no longer blindly follow king and pastor, kaiser and priest, or czar and patriarch to kill and be killed. May we instead love God and neighbour in the daring but peaceful pursuit of a world transformed.

May it be so. Amen.

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Wealth management

Text: Mark 12:38-44 (a poor widow’s offering)

Last year when I turned 60, I started thinking more seriously about retirement. I calculated the savings Kim and I have; thought about the best time to apply for CPP; estimated the value of our house; and wondered how long we might live in it.

But as those who are retired know, there is more to retirement than just finances. There are also questions of physical health, of where family and friends are located, of what might occupy one’s time, and of finding a new identity after career.

Nevertheless, finances play a significant role for many of us.

When I was growing up, my family was poor. My mother had worked as a teacher before marrying. But after that, she had five children in eight years; and raising them consumed most of her time and energy.

My father was a United Church minister, so his salary was modest. We lived in nice houses – usually a church-supplied manse; and my father’s status as a minister meant that we considered ourselves to be middle-class. But my parents often struggled to stay within their budget.

I remember that when I was entering Grade 7, I got a new pair of pants and a matching shirt; and I wore them to school every single day between Labour Day and Christmas. Some memories just don’t fade . . .

Happily, when it came to retirement, my parents were fine. In one of the six congregations that my father served, there was no manse. So, in 1972 my mother and father bought a small suburban home. This was difficult for them financially. But four years later, they sold it at double the price. It was on the basis of this real estate windfall that my father and mother were able to live comfortably in retirement for 20 and 30 years respectively . . .

In thinking about today’s Gospel reading, the question “How do we measure wealth?” came to my mind.

In the reading, Jesus is impressed by a tiny offering given at the Temple in Jerusalem by a poor widow. The small amount she gives, he says, represents everything she has. He compares her offering favourably to the offerings of rich people.

It is easy to see how this text could be used to try and guilt people to give more money to the church.

But that is not the angle I pursue today. Instead, I reflect on poverty and abundance and how they encompass much more than just annual income and savings.

Poverty plays a key role in many spiritual paths. Catholic nuns and priests take vows of poverty and they are expected to live simply and humbly until death. Buddhist monks who spend much of their time praying or meditating spend much of the rest of it begging to sustain their lives.

The material poverty of religious people is thought to highlight the spiritual riches that are available to us regardless of the size of our bank accounts. All people are dependent on the Source of Life and Love we call God. All of life is a gift from the past – from our ancestors, from the web of life of which are part, and from the history of the earth. The gifts of human culture come to us unbidden. Whether rich or poor, all of us are blessed by the collective knowledge of humanity and the wonders of the human and natural worlds.

Both rich and the poor enjoy blue skies and brilliant sunsets. Both give and receive love. Both are children of God.

When we remember the Grace upon which life rests, we may be able to experience infinite riches even in deprived conditions and know eternal love in any fleeting moment.

Perhaps the poor widow gives everything she has because she realizes how blessed life is and how eternally grateful she is for the presence of God’s Spirit at any moment of need or joy.

Perhaps the rich people whom Jesus sees at the Temple have a more difficult time counting these same blessings. Perhaps people who worry too much about savings and the financial needs of retirement become blind to the beauty, love, and support available to us right here and now.

Most of us here today cannot number ourselves among the world’s poor. Baby Boomers like me have seen astonishing increases in wealth. The Canadian population has more than doubled since I was born, and since the number of hours worked is a key measure in the crazy calculus of the market, Canada’s economy has boomed. Then there is the ever-expanding knowledge and technical expertise applied to the production of goods and services.

When I was a child, our black and white TV offered two stations and poor reception. Today, our TV has millions of colours, crystal-clear reception, hundreds of broadcast channels, and access to much of the world’s film and TV library via Internet-based services like Netflix and iTunes. How does one measure such an increase in wealth?

When I was a child, I didn’t know anybody who traveled by plane. Today, it is rare for me and my peers to not fly thousands of kilometers a year.

When I was a child, the average Canadian had about 30% of the living space that we enjoy today. And so on.

Most of us enjoy more health and wealth than the Sun Kings of 18th Century France.

Unfortunately, there are still a lot of poor people, both here in Edmonton and around the world. The poorest of these are probably the world’s 70 million refugees. Increases in the number of refugees since 2011 have resulted from war in North Africa and the Middle East and violence and corruption in places like Central America. Many of the causes can be linked to the military actions of the United States and its allies.

Since the beginning of October, a group of 5,000 have become the most infamous of the world’s 70 million refugees. They are a caravan of asylum seekers who have fled the violence and poverty of Honduras and Guatemala and who are now walking 2,500 KM through Mexico from their devastated homelands to the United States.

The U.S President has demonized this group as dangerous criminals who bring disease and evil with them. But other observers see them as desperate people who are trying to protect their children from rape and murder.

Central America has been a victim of U.S. military and diplomatic interference for more than 150 years now. U.S. invasions, occupations, and support for dictatorships have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and in governments that are either implicated in organized crime or are powerless to control it. Murder rates are often shockingly high. Economic development is a small fraction of what it would have been if these countries had been free to evolve without U.S. interference.

Because of the violence and corruption in much of Central America, I can understand why a family there might want to flee north to a country with the rule of law and greater opportunities.

I am saddened by the ability of the U.S. President to stir up fear of these desperate people especially given how dependent countries like the U.S. and Canada are on immigration. There is no doubt in my mind that the people in the caravan would be a blessing to any country that took them in. Instead, the President demonizes them as terrorists and criminals.

But can we consider these poor refugees as wealthy despite their economic privation, the rigors of their long walk through Mexico, and the uncertainty of their future in the face of official hostility?

I would not be surprised if many of them saw themselves as wealthy even in this terrible moment. They have demonstrated courage and initiative by fleeing their homeland. They are living in community for safety and to provide mutual aid. They are receiving help from churches and other charitable organizations along the route. Many of them have a deep faith in God and in the goodness of most people.

Like the poor widow in today’s reading, these Central American refugees have given everything they own in an attempt to provide safety for their children. I pray that they find asylum in a place with greater safety than the countries they have left behind. I also pray that they realize that life, despite its difficulties, is a precious gift. As long they have each other and are aware of the presence of a Spirit of Love among them, they can trust that all is well and that all will be well.

Many of these refugees probably understand that moments of loss and sickness come to billionaire racists as much as they do to impoverished refugees. In such moments, the billionaire and the refugee are equal. Many of them probably know that moments of love and learning come more easily to them than to billionaire racists, in which case they are the wealthy ones.

Those in the U.S. who succumb to fear because of the President’s racist lies are spiritually and morally impoverished as a result. But those who perceive the President’s lies for the poison they are increase their ability to mine the treasure available to us. This treasure is built of trust as opposed to fear; charity as opposed to hostility; solidarity as opposed to division; and love as opposed to violence.

From the vantage point of spirit, wealth is faith and faith is wealth. A powerful billionaire is a spiritual pauper when he gains power through bigotry and fear; while poor refugees are wealthy when they remember that any of us can see the divine in the people we meet. All we need do is look at one another with compassion, curiosity, and wonder.

As for those of us who are neither billionaires nor refugees, I pray that we never lose sight of our true wealth. May our anxieties about finances recede as we face the glory of this eternal moment of love.

May it be so. Amen.

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