Four spiritual songs

The following are my remarks from a worship experience I recorded for Sunday morning worship on July 26, 2020. Click here to see a video of this service — Ian

Welcome

Welcome friends to Mill Woods United Church. My name is Rev. Ian Kellogg, and although this video is being released on Sunday July 26, it was recorded on July 5. I am grateful that Bryan LeGrow and Len Penner have joined me to share some music with you; that Brian Sampson is here to videotape us and to load the recording onto the church’s social media feeds and its website; and that you have taken some time to watch it.

When this video is released, I will be on vacation; and in this crazy world, who knows what will be happening in the world or in any of lives three weeks after the four of us record this video. My prayer is that all of you are enjoying a chance to recharge, refresh, and revitalize in this unusual summer of pandemic and social upheaval.

Friends, this experience is organized by Mill Woods United Church, a spiritual community where you can explore your purpose and place. As an affirming congregation, we work to make it one that welcomes people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and cultural backgrounds. We value diversity in our membership and leadership and work to make this a community that feels safe for us all.

We acknowledge the land. The church building is on the traditional land of Treaty Six First Nations. We are all Treaty people, for which we give thanks.

The focus of our time together is singing. Since physical distancing restrictions began in Canada more than four months ago one of the silver linings of this time for me has been singing with Bryan, Len, Jennifer, Elfrieda, and Barb during our Sunday morning livestream offerings.

Singing has always been central to my life. And so, ongoing injunctions against congregational singing when we resume in-person gatherings in September will be tough pills to swallow.

During the next few minutes, I am going to present and then sing four songs that have had significance in my spiritual biography over the past two decades. I hope that by telling the stories behind these songs and then singing them will help make a Spirit of Love shine brighter in your heart and provide some sustenance for your soul.

Lighting the candle

As we always do at the beginning of our spiritual gatherings, I will now light a candle . . . Dear ones, may the light of this candle remind us of the light of love that is a lamp to our feet and a guide to our hearts during this summer of challenge and change.

Fragile — 2004

The first song I will sing is “Fragile.” It was written in 1987 by the English pop star Sting; and it was sung by my sister-in-law Ruth Pentinga on July 18, 2004 as a prelude to the first sermon I ever preached. This was in Kingston Road United Church in the Beaches area of east Toronto.

I had joined Kingston Road United after 9/11 in 2001; and in November of that year I joined my brother and sister-in law as members of the church choir, Joining the choir helped to solidify my decision to rejoin church after 30 years of absence. I became a friend of the minister, the Rev. Rivkah Unland; and it was with Rivkah that I first cooked up the idea of preaching a sermon.

In December of 2003, I had been separated from my wife Fran for six months, and during this difficult period, I attended my first-ever Blue Christmas service at Kingston Road United. One by one, Rivkah served communion to the handful of us who had come on the steps to the chancel and spent some time talking with each of us. In her conversation with me, Rivkah told me that one of her ambitions for 2004 was to have someone else preach one Sunday a month for the entire year.

Upon hearing her ambition, I told her that a dream of mine had been to speak in July 2004 to a large gathering of solidarity activists on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the victory of the Sandinista Revolution, which had occurred on July 19, 1979. But since it had been 15 years since I had been active in Central American solidarity and since the movement in Toronto had slowly withered away in the 1990s as the revolution in Nicaragua was crushed by the United States, I supposed that preaching to a small group of congregants at Kingston Road United would be a good second choice.

So, on July 18, 2004 I ascended into the pulpit for the first time to preach about Nicaragua, revolution, and the connection between social reform and Christian spirituality. But before I did so, Ruth sang “Fragile.”

Sting had been inspired to write Fragile in 1987 upon hearing the news that 27-year-old Ben Linder, an American solidarity activist had been murdered by the Contras that year. From 1980 to 1990, the Contras, who were organized and backed by the United States, waged a devastating counter-insurgency campaign against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. At the time, I was heavily involved in leadership of the Nicaraguan solidarity movement in Toronto, and I had spent two weeks in Nicaragua in 1984 where a group I had joined had travelled to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the revolution.

I was saddened by news of Lindner’s murder and moved by Sting’s lovely song. Unlike the next two songs I will sing, this one is not explicitly Christian or spiritual, but I love its evocation of one of the central dilemmas of our existence, our mortality and our fragility. So, here it is . . .

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the color of the evening sun
Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay
Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime’s argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star
Like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are
How fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star
Like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are
How fragile we are
How fragile we are
How fragile we are

I hope that hearing this song will remind us of some of the connections between solidarity, sacrifice, mortality, and hope.

My sister-in-law sang this as a solo before my first-ever sermon in 2004 — https://mwucsermons.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/nicaragua-25-years-later/  

Deep Waters – 2008

The story behind the next song, “Deep Waters,” occurred four years after that first sermon. This was in September 2008. In that month, I began my second of four years of training to become a minister in the United Church of Canada. In the first week of classes, the whole membership of Emmanuel College in Toronto came to the weekly Wednesday afternoon worship service to hear a sermon preached by the Rev. Anthony Robinson. Tony was a visiting lecturer to Emmanuel that year having come from his native Seattle Washington where he is a minister in the United Church of Christ.

I loved his sermon, which was based on a passage from Luke 5:1-11. In that story, Jesus tells his friends to go out to deep waters to fish. This idea does not make much sense to them since fish are usually caught in shallow waters, but they do as Jesus says, and they catch so many fish that their nets break.

Tony used this text for a reflection on how, when we don’t know which way to turn, going deep is almost always a good idea. As he preached, I realized that the Bible reading and his sermon were related to an anthem that I had learned in the choir of Kingston Road United called “Deep Waters.” I loved this anthem; I knew it well; and I thought it would be cool if, after he finished speaking, I stood up and sang the first verse of this anthem as a solo!

I thought about doing this – how it might seem like a moment of the Holy Spirit, how I might enjoy doing it, and how it might be appreciated by the students and teachers gathered in that school chapel.

But in the event, I chickened out. I had never seen anyone do such a thing. So, I was scared. Still, even to this day, I regret not getting up and singing unannounced.

So, with that background, I now sing an excerpt from the African-American spiritual “Deep Waters”

“Their fishing nets were empty when the first saw the Lord.
All night they had been fishing in the waters by the shore.
The Lord said go to deep waters, cast your nets once more.

And because they obeyed, they would never the same.
Go to deep waters, deep waters, where only love can let you go.
Go out to deep waters, deep waters, harvest of faith will overflow.
Harvest of faith will over flow. Go!”

I hope that hearing this verse will help impress upon our minds how going deep is almost always a wise suggestion – whether in a sharing circle, in an intimate relationship, or on any of our spiritual journeys.

Witness – 2014

The next song from which I will sing an excerpt is an African-American spiritual. Titled “Witness,” I first sang it 14 years ago in a Toronto community choir called “The Bell’Arte Singers.” I like how the words of the verse I will sing feel in the mouth, and I recalled the pleasure I had in singing this spiritual when I read the passage from Gospel of John that inspired this verse at Emmanuel College.

The verse I will sing refers to the thorny concept of being born again, and it is connected to the most often repeated phrase in the entire Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

In the first 16 verses of the third chapter of John, Jesus is approached at night by a leading religious figure called Nicodemus. Jesus tells him that no one can enter the realm of God’s Love unless they are born again. These words puzzle Nicodemus, so he asks Jesus “How can someone be born when they are old? Surely one cannot enter a second time into one’s mother’s womb!”

In reply, Jesus tells Nicodemus that the rebirth of which he speaks is a spiritual one, born of water. It is a kind of baptism. The translations of John that we usually hear emphasis the word “belief.” But as I preached in a sermon on this passage during my first winter here at Mill Woods United in 2014, I think a better translation of the Greek word pistis is “trust.” The Way of Jesus is a path focused on trust and not on outdated beliefs, in my opinion.

That being said, here now is an excerpt from “Witness” about Nicodemus . . .

“Nicodemus was a man who desired to know
how a man can be born when he is old.
Christ told Nicodemus as a friend,
‘Man you must be born again.’
He said, ‘Marvel not, Repent,
Call on the Lord and be baptized.’

“Marvel not, man, if you wanna be wise,
Repent, believe and be baptized.”

I hope that hearing this song might give you a new angle from which to think of that central Christian concept of being born again, or born from above, or born of the Spirit.

Nature Boy – 2019

The final song I will sing is a 1947 jazz standard titled “Nature Boy.” It was written by an early hippie who sometimes lived under the “L” of the “Hollywood” sign in Los Angeles, and who sold his song to Nat King Cole. Cole’s recording of “Nature Boy” helped Cole to become a star.

The song was inspired by a strange vegan community of which the author eden ahbez was a member in the 1940’s and which in turn was inspired by a German movement of nature-lovers from the 1930’s. Nevertheless, I have always heard echoes of Jesus in its two short verses – especially the last line – “The greatest think you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

I first sang “Nature Boy” in public at the Celebration of Life for my late father-in-law John Galanka in March 2019. Thinking back to that day, I am struck that this was the last funeral held at Mill Woods United; and this is the longest stretch I have gone in 10 years in ministry without presiding at a funeral. May the streak continue!

I chose to sing “Nature Boy” that day because it was recorded in the year John graduated from Victoria High School here in Edmonton, and because its gentle vibe reminded me of one of the many things I liked about my father-in-law. So, here it is.

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he

And then one day
One magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

Closing

Well, that is all I have today. I hope you have felt nurtured, or at least entertained, by these four songs. My thanks again to Bryan, Brian, and Len for helping me to sing them. It has been a pleasure.

Friends, the Fourth Century Bishop, Saint Augustine, wrote that singing is like praying twice – once with the words and a second time with spirit conveyed by the music. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, I hope that you are enjoying many songs in your heart this blessed summer of 2020.

Until we meet again via Livestream on August 23 and 30, and perhaps in-person beginning on September 6, I now you leave with this blessing.

May you never lose sight of the Love of God,
the Grace of the Risen Christ who lives within you,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit both now and always.

Amen.

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Summer blessings

Texts: “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver * Matthew 6:25-34 (“do not worry)

Video of the complete service * Order of service

Edmonton is the most northerly city in Canada, and winter sometimes lasts for half the year. So, we relish our short summers with their long days of sunshine and heat.

When I had two months off in summer 2018 – one of vacation and the other of unpaid leave — I appreciated the break. Unfortunately, it was a smoky year as fires burned

across BC and Alberta. Last summer, I enjoyed a three-month sabbatical followed by one month’s vacation. But in what researchers said was the world’s hottest year on record, Edmonton was unseasonably cool and wet. You may recall that Canada Day 2019 saw a high of only 8 degrees.

Today as I start a five-week break, summer is still struggling to establish itself. People in Siberia are sweltering under a record-breaking heat wave, and southern Ontario just ended its longest ever stretch of consecutive days above 30 degrees. Meanwhile, we have yet to crack 30 degrees in Edmonton.

The first time I lived in the West, I loved the weather. I flew to Edmonton in late August 2009 to begin nine months as a student intern and a supply minister at Knox United Church in Didsbury; and for the next month, pretty much every day dawned bright and hot.

I missed the next summer in Alberta since I returned to Toronto in June 2010 to finish my final year of schooling. But in July 2011, I landed in Saskatchewan on the border with Montana as a newly ordained minister. That summer and the next two that I spent in Coronach are my favourite ones so far.

Summer on the 49th parallel comes with endless sun, intense heat and low humidity; and it all struck me like a revelation. This was especially the case in 2012 where there was no rain from mid-July to mid-September.

But summer offers its blessings regardless of the weather. Kim and I live in Lendrum, and on most days, we walk west to a field at the University farm where I am cheered to see the progress of the crops. Even as the latest outrages of world leaders scroll through my mind, the plants, clouds, and sun carry on their dance heedless of that folly. I look at the grain growing in the fields and feel peace.

Jesus directs his friends’ attention to the blessings of fields and sky. Every moment is a gift; and remembering this Grace can help us lay our worries aside, relax, and rest in confidence that love is all and love is everything.

This summer, we may need reminders like this more than usual. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages in failed states like Brazil and the United States; as bankruptcies and job losses mount; and as renewed cries for racial justice are spurned by politicians who base their popularity on racism, there seems to be much to fear.

Mary Oliver puts it this way in her poem “The Summer Day” — everything dies at last and too soon. Nevertheless, she doesn’t worry. Instead, she spends her one wild and precious life paying attention; kneeling in the grass; strolling through the fields; and being aware that she is blessed.

I first wrote a reflection on “The Summer Day” for the 40th anniversary service for Mill Woods United Church in November 2016. I did so because I realized that the first 40 years of Mill Woods United almost exactly mapped with my adulthood — from when I started university in Toronto in 1976 through the ups and downs of a checkered career. That day, I recommended ministry as a blessed way to spend your one wild and precious life, and gave thanks for the ministry of those present and for the generations before us who have reached out in love from this beloved community.

That service was also my first one after the presidential election in the United States; and now almost four years later, we watch with both horror and hope as the next one approaches. Whether Trumpism is confirmed or rejected this year will matter a great deal for the world and for us; and viewed from a different angle, I don’t think it will matter much at all.

Regardless of the success or failure of racist politicians, the seasons will continue to turn; the birds of the air will continue to fly; and the flowers of the field will continue to bloom. Regardless of how the pandemic, the economic collapse, and the U.S. elections unfold, this precious summer will inevitably flow into fall, then winter, and then another spring of promise and beauty.

Each time we come to the Table, as we will in a few minutes, we are reminded of the Grace that supports us in the face of injustice, poverty, and violence. Love is stronger than death, and communities of faith can help us stay awake in our one wild and precious life — with humility and respect, with pain and joy, with disappointment and growth, and with a continual return to the Love that never ends, come what may.

May it be so. Amen.

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Think globally, act locally

Video of part of the service * Order of service

The year 2020 is marked by three related crises — a global pandemic, an economic collapse, and a leadership vacuum. Within these crises I see both promise and peril. I believe their resolution could catapult the world towards greater justice and peace or help consolidate the rule of racist fools.

As individuals, as members of Mill Woods United Church, and as citizens of Canada we do our part. We follow public health guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We reach out to our neighbours for support and nurture. We advocate for long-term care residents, agricultural labourers, and others whose dangerous living conditions have been revealed by the pandemic. We support leaders whom we think are sensible.

But there is only so much we can do to ensure that today’s crises lead to the world we want. Since this is true, perhaps we shouldn’t focus too much on the world.

Four years ago, many of us were shocked by the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. He seemed to be an unhinged bully committed to ethnic cleansing and misogyny. Given the dominant role the United States has played since World War II, many feared that having him as “leader of the Free World” would lead to a disaster if there were a world crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has validated these fears. The United States seems to be tearing itself apart, and no other centre of world leadership has yet emerged.

The difficulties the world is experiencing in controlling the pandemic give me little encouragement that it can tackle greater challenges like war or habitat destruction. And yet, last Sunday I suggested that we move from love of self to love of the world. But how can we love the world if it is so troubled?

Love always begins at home. As children we first encounter love in our family of origin. As adolescents, we learn to love our friends. As adults, we learn to love our spouses and children. So, why should we move from these close relationships in which love can be such a joyful blessing to an attempt to love the world when the latter confronts us with so many problems?

This week, a friend asked me why I thought so much about problems like weapons of mass destruction and climate change especially since there are no solutions. I said the point was not to find solutions, as wonderful as those would be. I see the world less as a puzzle to be solved and more as a gracious reality filled with things we love and things we loathe and into which we can expand and grow.

When Jesus commissions his friends to minister to their communities, he asks them to heal the sick, to wake up those who are asleep, and to refresh those who are suffering; and any of these tasks might be familiar to the members of Mill Woods United Church.

But Jesus says their first task is to proclaim the Reign of God. The meanings assigned to the phrase “Reign of God” vary. For many, it connotes a society of greater equality, justice and peace than either the world dominated by the Roman Empire of Jesus’ time or the world dominated by the American Empire today. Proclaiming this Reign of Love and Justice doesn’t mean we know how to overthrow the world’s empires and solve its many thorny social problems. But it gives us a direction to follow in solidarity and hope.

The Reign of God is also a spiritual reality. When we are young, our focus is narrow. But as we grow, our connections widen and our love expands. When we create families of our own, love can become very focused again. But with Grace, the love we show to family and friends lifts us out of our selfish desires and towards a joyous life of sacrifice, community responsibility, and an ever-widening circle of care.

At any given moment, our focus might be on a family member or a friend. But by acting in love towards them, some of our selfishness dissolves and we may glimpse more of our connections to the community. Now, this expansion of love often gets stuck, perhaps at the level of neighbourhood or nation, or with the partisans of a particular sports team or the enthusiasts for one type of music. But the power of Love is such that our boundaries are continually being challenged and our hearts are continually being stretched.

This might involve serving clients at The Clothing Bank while also being aware of some of the social forces that generate poverty. It might mean caring for an elderly parent while feeling gratitude to all the elders who offer their families gifts of wisdom and joy. It might mean acting in love to the person in front of you while also glimpsing a vision of Love and Justice for all.

Rising above the ego towards a Love that is worthy of the name of God takes us deeper into the world. We will find many of things we love there – music, science, religious practice – as well as things that trouble us – poverty, weapons of mass destruction, infectious diseases.

Love embeds us in reality. It is a path of death and resurrection that wakes us up to our individual fragility and mortality and then leads us to a new life of deeper love. It also involves confronting global promise and peril.

If Donald Trump is defeated in the U.S. elections in November, and if he hands over the Presidency to a successor next January, many of us around the world will be filled with joy and relief. We will experience a mighty gust of collective energy that could help us to tackle not only the ravages of COVID-19, but other social challenges.

If Trump does NOT hand over power next January, this will be a tough pill for many of us to swallow. Nevertheless, the world will still remain a gracious gift filled with things we love and things we loathe. It will continue be the backdrop against which we raise our families, love our neighbours, and try to rise above the small desires of the ego to a deeper, more joyous, and eternal love of the world.

Either way, may it be so. Amen.

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Love the world

Texts: “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass” by Mary Oliver * 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 (gifts of the Spirit)

Video of the complete service * Order of service

Saturday is a holiday in the United States. Every July 4th, Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence of 1776.

This year, July 4 might be a painful one for Americans. The US is at the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic and its spread is accelerating. While Canada and the United States had similar rates of per capita infection in the spring, the US now has ten or 15 times more new cases each day than Canada.

The United States went into the pandemic as the only rich country in the world without universal Medicare. Its political system allowed an unpopular racist to be elected President in 2016. And most of its states are run by Republicans who spend more energy upholding white supremacy than on keeping their citizens safe.

The pandemic has caused the American economy to collapse; and with no end in sight to the spread of COVID-19, it is unclear how the economy will recover. At the same time, the US is being roiled by a massive movement against police violence.

Fear, division, and despair are widespread in the USA today. So, what, exactly, do Americans have to celebrate this July 4?

Canada will mark its founding three days earlier. On July 1, 1867, Britain created Canada out of its four remaining North American colonies. Because the pandemic has slowed so dramatically here, I imagine it will be easier for Canadians to celebrate this July 1st than it will be for Americans on the 4th. But like the US, Canada has a lot of tough news to digest this summer — about the pandemic, about racist police violence, and about economic crisis.

I was cheered by the announcement last week that the four Atlantic provinces are creating a travel union. The “Atlantic Bubble” is possible because there are no longer any COVID-19 cases in NFLD-L, PEI, NS, and NB. I hope these four provinces will institute border controls that are strict enough to allow the more than 2 million people who live there to resume normal life. I also hope their COVID-free status will inspire Canada’s six other provinces to eliminate the virus.

Among the more than 10 million people who live in the four western provinces, there are now just 800 cases of active COVID-19, down from a high figure of several thousand. If these provinces could also stumble into zero status, they could link up with Canada’s three northern territories — which like the Atlantic provinces have no COVID-19 cases — and create a second bubble. That would leave Ontario and Quebec as the only parts of Canada still dealing with spread of COVID-19. But if the six provinces with active cases are to achieve elimination, they need to make big improvements in their ability to test, trace, and isolate the sick.

I understand why the United States with its incoherent leadership cannot contain the virus. But why is it so difficult for Canadian governments to do so? The incentive to eliminate the virus is enormous; and the cost of not doing so is even greater. So why has adequate testing, tracing, and isolation not yet been put in place?

Despite terrible gaps in Canada’s quarantine period – with meatpacking plants, long-term care homes, and homeless populations — public health measures have reduced the incidence of disease in Canada; and Canada has enough expertise, people, and money to massively ramp up its COVID-19 response. So, I suspect the struggles of Canada’s governments reflect a disease of the spirit.

Many of the problems we face are global in scope – weapons of mass destruction, climate change . . .  and infectious diseases.  My hunch is that the spirits of government leaders and bureaucrats are sapped by the scope of these issues. Viewed from a national perspective, these problems can seem unsolvable.

Nevertheless, eliminating COVID-19 in a country is a straightforward task, albeit one that takes clarity of thinking, steady and empathetic leadership, and massive resources. The fact that so few countries have managed to eliminate it illustrates the wide spread of spiritual malaise.

In today’s Bible reading, St. Paul writes about various gifts of the Spirit. The one that caught my eye is the ability to distinguish between different spirits. Many activities – from sports, to politics, to war – are highly spirited, but few of them are holy. For a spirit to be holy it must be connected to universal love. It must be a spirit that focuses on the whole of the earth, all of humanity, and the entire web of life.

When a community centres its work on a love that is universal, its energy can soar without limits. But if it is focused on something narrower, its efforts will not be as sustainable or as effective.

National days like July 1st and July 4th direct our spirits away from a universal level.
While we all begin at a local level, long-term sustainability requires moving beyond one’s family or nation.

I appreciate how Mary Oliver’s poem “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass” articulates this. It notes the need to start with self-love, and also how elusive self-love can be in the face of neglect or oppression.

But if we do learn to love ourselves, the poem suggests we then forget about ourselves and love the world. It is only when our love embraces the world that we become children of the clouds and of hope.

So, this Canada Day my pledge will be to distinguish between the limited spirits of nationalism and a universal Spirit of Love.

Love’s universal spirit can help us to achieve anything — to eliminate COVID-19, to restore social and economic life, and to build a world free of the other global problems that bedevil us.

May it be so. Amen.

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Reserves we live within

Text: Matthew 15:21-28 (Jesus and a Canaanite woman)

Video of complete service* Order of service

During the past month of world-wide uprisings against racist police violence, personal realities have presented a challenge for me to understand the feelings being expressed, perhaps because of the positions of privilege I embody.

I am a white, male, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied, well-educated, employed, pensioned, housed, espoused, and debt-free Canadian born during the Baby Boom. Other than not being a member of the 1% of the world’s wealthiest, I check off most of the boxes of personal advantage. Because of my privilege, I have never experienced discrimination based upon who I am; and I have never had anything but positive interactions with the police.

Given this, how can I relate to Indigenous and Black people as they detail stories of discrimination, harassment, and violence, including murder by the police? How can I imagine what it is like to leave one’s house with fear that doing so in and of itself might invite danger? For many Indigenous and Black people, just the fact of being out in public – driving while Black, shopping while Indigenous, jogging while Brown – raises fears of violence and even death.

But the current pandemic may have given people of privilege like me a glimpse of this reality. Since March, most of us have lived with fear of leaving home. We have stopped gathering in churches, sports arenas, and concert halls. We have worn masks in grocery stores and kept a wide berth from other pedestrians on neighbourhood walks. We have been reluctant to leave our homes for fear of illness or even death.

Fear of the coronavirus is quite different from fear of racial discrimination or violence. Pandemic restrictions flow from a natural phenomenon – the new coronavirus – and not from a social socially-generated ideology like racism with its roots in the last 500 years of colonial history. Government health measures and community compliance with physical distancing have allowed countries like Canada to avoid the worst effects of a terrible pandemic; and both our fears and government restrictions are lifting as the worst of a first wave of disease has passed.

But I see some parallels between the response to the pandemic and to racism.

Every government in the world has moved to slow or stop the spread of the virus, but they have not done so in the same way or with the same results. The five countries with the largest number of infections — the USA, Brazil, Russia, India, and the UK — are all led by populist racists. I am sure that none of these rulers want COVID-19 to spread widely through their countries not least because this is a disaster for the economy. But neither have they shown the ability to deal with the pandemic. Perhaps harboring ideologies of racism and sexism — not to speak of pathologies like narcissism — makes it difficult to think clearly about infectious disease control.

But many countries committed to eradicating racism and sexism have also struggled with COVID-19, with Canada being one example. By Labour Day, it looks likely that Canada’s rates of infections and deaths will be less than half the same rates in the United States, for which I am grateful. But of the world’s 215 countries, 195 of them have a lower mortality rate from COVID-19 than Canada.

The big majority of the 9,000 deaths so far in Canada are connected to injustice. For decades, advocates for seniors have protested terrible conditions in Canada’s long-term care facilities. But it has taken thousands of deaths this spring to finally bring this reality to the forefront of public policy. The same is true with the conditions endured by temporary migrant farm labourers, meatpacking employees, prisoners, homeless people, and those living on First Nations reserves. If Canadian governments had ensured that all long-term care facilities had no more than one person in a room; if they had improved the lives of migrant farm labourers; if they had ended the racist “War on Drugs” and its resulting mass incarceration; and if they had eradicated the scourge of homelessness, Canada’s success against COVID-19 would have been much greater.

I wish our governments had moved with greater speed and boldness against the social ills that help to spread disease, and had set up better systems for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and isolation for the sick. A lot of this is now happening or is pledged to happen, and I pray this will allow COVID-19 to be progressively eliminated from the country.

One area where Canada’s governments did move with speed and boldness was in providing monetary support to businesses, families and individuals. During the pandemic, fear of deficits and debts have been replaced by a consensus that unprecedented levels of both are required to get through the pandemic.

Something similar happened during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. The latter was precipitated by reckless financial institutions; and in response, the world’s central banks pumped trillions of new dollars into the economy. But almost all of this money was used to bail out negligent financial institutions; and very little went to families. So, it was the latter who suffered with massive job losses and foreclosures. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the ability of central banks to magically create trillions of dollars of money out of thin air.

This year, much of a new wave of newly-created trillions are going directly to households; and this raises in my mind the ability of governments to expand social welfare programs if they so decide. Programs like universal basic income, pharmacare, dentacare, universal childcare, and housing for everyone seem much more possible to me now than they did before the pandemic.

What is lacking, I believe, is the will and spirit to implement them. Countries like Denmark and Norway enjoy many of the programs I listed above, and as a result they are wealthier and healthier than Canada. They have also had a far better record in containing COVID-19 than Canada.

Better social conditions also help fight racism. Racist ideas and practices can be tackled through education and consciousness-raising, which is why I chose today’s Gospel passage in which Jesus compares a Canaanite woman to a dog. Happily, her persistence transforms Jesus’ heart; and he expands his compassion beyond his own tribe. This is an example of how encounters between people of different backgrounds can expand our horizons and stretch our hearts and spirits.

But beyond meeting people from different backgrounds, much of the work of eradicating racism can be accomplished through improved social welfare. If Canada finally ensured clean water for every First Nations reserve, if it housed all its homeless people, and if all Canadians had access to the health and educational resources they need, some of the wounds of colonialism would heal more quickly, I believe.

Such changes would not do away with the tendency of many police officers to target and assault Indigenous and Black people. But they would help to alleviate racial inequalities. Unfortunately, our governments still lack the will and spirit to make these changes. Why this will and spirit are lacking is a subject to which I will return next Sunday.

The first priority of a government is to keep its people safe. Canada’s First Nations and other racialized minorities have not experienced the same level of safety as people of privilege like myself; and now, during the pandemic, I have caught a glimpse of what it is like to live in a country that struggles to keep its citizens safe. I hope that over time Canada’s governments will improve their ability to eliminate the virus. This will require tackling some long-standing social wounds and involve vast resources. But not tackling these wounds will make restoring safety for all of us more difficult.

Today it has become clearer to me that it is not possible for any of us to cope and thrive unless all of us — Indigenous and non-Indigenous, Black and White, men and women, gay and straight – are safe.

The pandemic has underlined the old saying that an injury to one is an injury to all. So, on this Indigenous Day of Prayer, may we reach out in love to our all our relations with a renewed commitment to social solidarity.

May it be so. Amen.

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From recovery to Jubilee

Texts: “Pandemic as portal” by Arundhati Roy * Luke 4:14-19 (Jesus proclaims Jubilee)

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Today I begin with three of the most challenging questions I can imagine. Could the world rid itself of nuclear weapons? Is there a way to find new homes for the worlds 70 million+ refugees? And can racism be eradicated?

Ever since I was a teenager, I have asked such questions. And much to my dismay, the answer always seems to be “no.” While no one wants these social ills to persist, no plausible plan to solve them has appeared.

So, we are forced to live under the shadow of nuclear annihilation; to ache for refugees who live in wretched camps; and to watch in despair as Indigenous, Black, and Brown people continue to live in fear of police violence.

So, how is that for the beginning of a Sunday reflection? Kind of a downer, eh?

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus proclaims the Year of God’s Favour. This is the ancient Hebrew idea of Jubilee. It was first upheld as a sacred mandate in the book of Leviticus and it is supposed to occur every 50 years. In a Jubilee year, prisoners are freed, those with debts are forgiven, and the poor are lifted out of poverty.

But 3,000 years after Leviticus and 2,000 years after the gospels, a Jubilee year has never arrived. The passage by Arundhati Roy that Elfrieda read expresses the hope that after today’s pandemic, the world might be rebuilt to finally reflect the hopes expressed by Jesus so long ago. But before we can create a post-pandemic society of justice and freedom, we have to first stop the pandemic.

So, today I gingerly approach the big questions with which I began by asking a smaller but related question: can we eliminate COVID-19 and lift the extraordinary restrictions we have been observing for the past three months?

To my delight, a few countries have now achieved this goal. Both Vietnam and Taiwan have recorded no new cases this month and between them have only 16 active cases remaining. And on Monday, New Zealand announced that the last person of the 1500 who had contracted COVID-19 there had recovered. On the same day, New Zealand’s government lifted all restrictions among its 5 million residents other than strict border controls.

Perhaps you saw the scenes yesterday of 20,000 screaming rugby fans in an arena in Dunedin who enjoyed the first public sporting event in New Zealand since March. Today, 43,000 fans packed an arena in Auckland (see photo below). Worship services in New Zealand took place today with no restrictions. Choirs sang, congregations raised their voices in thanksgiving; and friends hugged one another without fear.

3600

But New Zealand is an isolated group of islands; so, we can’t replicate its victory over COVID-19 here, can we?

Well, at the risk of sounding like a heretic, I don’t see why not. Yes, eliminating the virus is a terribly challenging task, but it is also a straightforward one. To eliminate the virus, a country has to test everyone with symptoms; quickly trace all the people with whom those who test positive have recently been in contact; quarantine and test all these contacts; and isolate and support those who are sick. Test, trace, isolate, and repeat. Test, trace, and isolate, over and over again. If this is done properly, the virus will be eliminated. A preliminary step of quarantine may also be necessary if the virus has become widespread before a regime of test, trace, and isolate is in place.

It also helps if none of a country’s residents live or work in unhealthy places like slums, poorly-run long-term care homes, or prisons.

Canada and New Zealand implemented emergency measures to tackle COVID-19 in March, and in both countries they have worked. The numbers of deaths, new cases, and active cases in Canada have all been dropping of late, which is good news.

But unlike New Zealand, Canada has not yet eliminated the virus. Three months in, there are still more than 30,000 Canadians who are sick. And so, Canadians have begun a fourth month of distancing restrictions, and we fear many more months of infection and death.

New Zealand eliminated the virus in three months when Canada did not for several reasons. To start, New Zealand adopted a goal of elimination instead of containment. Second, its quarantine period was more effective than Canada’s. New Zealand housed almost all of its homeless people. It closed more types of workplaces, including meatpacking plants and construction sites. It supervised returning residents during the 14-day quarantine period instead of relying on the honour system. And finally, it used the quarantine period to develop an effective regime of testing, tracing, and supported isolation. This regime will remain in place to catch new cases that will appear as travel restrictions are loosened in the months ahead.

In Canada, I pray that the number of cases and deaths will continue to trend downward even as restrictions are lifted. But I find it easy to be pessimistic because testing, tracing, and isolation are still inadequate in places like Ontario and Quebec. Despite three months and hundreds of billions of dollars spent to fight the pandemic, some jurisdictions have not yet recruited enough staff and resources to test, trace, and isolate the sick.

I finish with an example that illustrates the challenge. For the past two weeks, Ontario has reported hundreds of new COVID-19 infections among the 8,000 migrant workers whom farmers recruit each spring. These infections were not imported. They result from the terrible conditions endured by temporary migrants from Mexico and the Caribbean.

Oppressive conditions for migrant farm workers have been an open secret in Ontario for the past fifty years. But in a pandemic year, I had hoped the provincial government would act quickly upon learning of these COVID-19 outbreaks. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Ontario has not bulldozed the dormitories that house these workers; it has not hired hundreds of construction workers to build improved ones; and it has not demanded that farm companies improve wages, benefits, and working conditions. This inaction shows both that the Ontario government does not care about migrant workers and that it has not yet found the will, passion, and competence to eliminate the COVID-19 pandemic.

Properly housing migrant farm workers is expensive. But it is not only the ethical thing to do. It is essential to the recovery of Canada’s public health and its economy.

In a similar way, housing homeless people, supporting long-term care facilities, and improving conditions for meatpacking employees are difficult and expensive tasks. But during a pandemic it is far more costly to neglect them.

I pray that Canada’s governments will yet find the spirit and will to use some of the hundreds of billions of dollars of its pandemic subsidies to fix the social ills that have prevented Canada from following New Zealand’s lead in eliminating the virus.

If Canada’s governments do follow New Zealand’s lead – that is, if they begin to test smartly, trace quickly, and effectively support all those who need isolation; and if they heal some of the social wounds that have been exposed by the pandemic — not only will this help eliminate the virus. It will also create hope that Jubilee goals of freedom and compassion could also be achieved.

When a government lacks willpower and spirit, a pandemic can cripple its people for years. But when a Spirit of Jubilee informs our communities, we can not only dream of a world free of COVID-19, but even of one without weapons of mass destruction, without refugees, and without racism.

May we work with others to finally make Jubilee our post-pandemic reality.

Amen.

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Pride and prejudice

Text: 1 Corinthians 12:4-14 (one body, one spirit)

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One of the highlights of my first year at Mill Woods United was the Pride Parade on June 7, 2014. When I lived in Toronto, I had gone to the Pride Parade a few times over the years as it evolved to become the city’s biggest and most colourful annual celebration. But I had only ever watched from the sidelines.

In Edmonton in 2014, I marched in a Pride Parade for the first time, as part of the Mill Woods United Church contingent; and I found participating even more inspiring than simply watching the parade. So, I pledged to never miss another one.

The next year, Edmonton’s Pride Parade was memorable not just for the summery weather, the presence of Justin Trudeau, and the switch of route from 102nd Ave to 82nd, but because it marked the third time that spring I had run into Kim Boyes. On that beautiful June day in 2015, Kim was marching with Southminster-Steinhauer United, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw her. I was hoping to deepen a connection that had sparked when we had first met in May. This seemed to work since by the end of the month we had gone on our first date; and the rest, as they say, is history!

I don’t remember much about the next Parade in 2016, but the one in June 2017 stands out as the time I met Adebayo Katiti. Adebayo is a transgender athlete and refugee from Uganda; and that year, he marched and danced with the St. Paul’s United contingent.

The next Pride Parade in 2018 was marked by a protest that stopped the march for 20 minutes. A group of queer people of colour, including Adebayo, was protesting the presence of police in the parade because of how frequently queer people of colour are the victims of police harassment and violence.

Later that month, Kim and I went to a meeting at McDougall United Church at which those in favour of continued police participation in Pride and those against gathered to talk. I loved what Adebayo said that evening, especially when he shared the terror he had experienced in Uganda at the hands of the police.

Unfortunately, no consensus emerged then or later about how to deal with racism in Edmonton’s queer community; and so, to everyone’s dismay, there was no Pride Parade in Edmonton last year.

2020 was supposed to be another year without a Pride Parade in Edmonton not the least because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But this past Friday evening, it felt to me as though Pride had magically returned. On Friday, Kim and I were on the lawn behind the Legislature as part of a 10,000 person-strong Black Lives Matter rally against police brutality and anti-black racism.

Friday’s huge gathering allowed Edmontonians to join a massive world-wide chorus of rage against the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. It also stood against police violence towards Black, Brown, and Indigenous Canadians. And because this is Pride month, and because the talented and youthful organizers of the rally understand the connections between different kinds of oppression, there was a large queer presence in the crowd.

We wore masks and stayed near the back of the demonstration in order to maintain social distance. But despite my concerns about the coronavirus, and despite the presence of some white-supremacist provocateurs, I loved being at the rally. It was loud but peaceful; and it strengthened my hope.

Today’s uprising against racism is massive in scope and deep in its implications. In Canada, it challenges every institution and each person’s attitudes. In the United States it also asks the question, “can this become a movement that will prevent President Trump’s transformation of the United States into an explicitly racist, anti-democratic, and authoritarian state?”

The U.S. President has recruited the church in his crusade against the rule of law. On Monday, he used military force to clear peaceful protestors in front of the White House so that he could stage a photo op in front of a church while brandishing a Bible. Evangelical leaders who support this action stand exposed as partisans of nation, power, and white supremacy instead of love, peace, and justice.

For decades, the United Church of Canada has worked to shift away from its roots in patriarchy and empire and towards the poor and oppressed. This evolution has not been easy although many of us have found great joy in this work.

And now, today’s uprising against racism demands that we take a stand.

So, let us stand. In the face of racism, let us shout “Black Lives Matter.” In the face of police brutality, let us support transferring money from police budgets to tackle homelessness and addiction. In the face of church leaders who support white supremacy, let us uphold a commonwealth of all peoples. In the face of church leaders who support male supremacy and traditional sexual norms, let us deepen our calls for equal rights and freedom for all sexual and gender minorities.

In the face of the blasphemy of “white Christian nationalism,” let us spread the Good News that love is love, that imperialism is a dead-end, and that together we can work for the triumph of justice/love, both in our hearts and throughout this amazing world of woe and wonder.

May it be so. Amen.

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Bursting the bubble

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Have you expanded your bubble since May 14 when Alberta relaxed physical distancing restrictions? Ten days ago, I had a chiropractic appointment. Last week, I got my hair cut. More and more, I am working from the church office.

Since mid-March, most of us have been sheltering in place. Despite outbreaks of COVID-19 in meatpacking plants and the tragic spread of the disease in long-term care homes, physical distancing has slowed the spread of the infection. I am grateful that among Canada’s big cities, Edmonton has the smallest incidence of COVID-19.

Our move into social isolation this spring and the more recent one of resuming some community life remind me of the biblical stories of Easter and Pentecost.

When Jesus is executed on Good Friday, his friends go into hiding. Even after the Risen Christ appears to them on Easter Sunday, they remain fearful. Then, 50 days later during the Jewish festival of Pentecost, they receive the Holy Spirit, which descends on them like tongues of fire. Immediately, they emerge from hiding and begin preaching in all the languages of the Mediterranean world.

Time spent in hiding can be soulful, while moments like Pentecost are spirited. Unfortunately, not all times spent sheltering are healing; and not all spirits are holy. Today, I look at how our experience during the pandemic has included both healthy and unhealthy sheltering and both holy and unholy spirits.

Everyone needs both soul and spirit. Our souls crave family, tradition, and safety while our spirits crave adventure, innovation, and risk. Without soul, we burn out. Without spirit, we stagnate.

We sheltered at home this spring for the health of community; and I hope that for many of us it was also good for our souls. But this was not the case in households scarred by domestic violence; ones without adequate space, money, or basic resources; and ones in which isolation led to damaging loneliness.

Re-emerging into community is necessary for our spirits, the economy, and our sanity. I hope that Alberta can continue to relax restrictions without a resurgence of COVID-19. And I hope that the lockdown will not lead to too many bankruptcies or permanent job losses. I pray that we can reconnect with one another in ways that are loving and enlivening.

The United States illustrates how not to deal with a pandemic. Its federal leadership has been erratic and devoid of empathy; and its lockdown period saw several public demonstrations of armed and angry white men.

Now that public life is resuming in the US, several new incidents of racist violence have occurred, including the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis last Monday. As the weather gets warmer, as the bite of economic collapse sharpens, and as the health disparities between poor people of colour and white people are revealed, civil unrest grows.

As in Canada, the pandemic in the U.S. has been the occasion for innumerable acts of ingenuity, care, and compassion. But too many souls were not healed by the time of isolation. And spirits are now running high. Unfortunately, they include spirits of racism and entitlement, and ones of rage and despair. The USA is writing a textbook on how not to tackle a pandemic, and I fear for it.

Leading a community into and out of a time of isolation requires the best of both spirt and soul. At Mill Woods United, I am grateful for the quick, innovative, and steady leadership that has shepherded us through this period of isolation and is now discussing plans for how we might open up in the fall; and I am heartened by all the ways we are connecting and supporting one another, including the work done by the wonderful crew that is here in the sanctuary again this morning.

During the pandemic, Canadian governments have acted quickly in difficult circumstances, and much has been revealed. In the wake of the pandemic, I pray that Canada will increase its support to its frail elderly; improve conditions for workers in places like meatpacking plants; and provide more support for homeless people if there is ever another shelter in place order.

At Pentecost almost 2,000 years ago, a dispirited group of friends who were mourning the loss of Jesus found new energy. They shed their fears, left their hiding places, and built communities of love and justice.

Jesus’ friends had found the rivers of Living Water he had promised them. They drank deep and discovered new ways to love one another and their neighbours.

This Pentecost, may we joyfully follow in their footsteps — in this community of faith, in this country, and throughout this troubled but wondrous world.

May it be so. Amen.

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“You’re not the boss of me!”

Text: 1 Samuel 8 (Israel demands a king)

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In September 1962 when I entered kindergarten, I did so as a subject of the British Empire. In the staunchly United Empire Loyalist city of Cornwall Ontario, my elementary school seemed entirely British. Every classroom contained a world map on which the British colonies were colored in pink. The Queen’s portrait was everywhere. And each day, we started school by singing “God Save the Queen.”

I had a vague notion that the eastern part of Cornwall was French-speaking and that the First Nations reserve on Cornwall Island was, through some kind of magic, part Canadian and part American. But we, the students of Central Public School, were British through and through.

But in September 1970 when I started high school, I did so not as a subject of the British Empire, but as a citizen of the nation state of Canada. During the cultural turmoil of the 1960’s, Canadian identity had shifted. In 1965, Canada had adopted the Maple Leaf flag, one with no royal symbols. The Centennial year of 1967 had quickened a desire among many Canadians to define themselves as something other than British, French, or American. And more and more, fireworks displays were reserved for Canada Day on July 1 and not for Victoria Day.

Today is May 24, the date in 1819 on which Queen Victoria was born. But 201 years later, and almost 50 years after I started high school in Cornwall, the celebration of her birthday is not a big deal. Everyone likes the May long weekend. But its connection to Victoria and the British Empire continues to wane.

Monarchy forms a big part of the biblical tradition. Much of the Old Testament is about a mythical history of the kings of Israel and Judah. In the gospels, Jesus is hailed as a king or Christ by his followers. And many of the books of the New Testament envision Jesus sitting as King on a throne beside his Father in heaven.

But unlike my elementary school self, I no longer support monarchy as a form of government. I also don’t appreciate how often the church has acted as the handmaiden of empire, beginning when the Roman Empire co-opted it in the Fourth Century. So, I am glad that the first mention of monarchy in the Bible is so negative.

In First Samuel chapter 8, Samuel is horrified when the people of Israel ask for a king. He warns them that monarchy will lead to exploitation, war, and slavery. But despite his warning, the people clamor to be a nation like others. So, Samuel appoints Saul as the first king of Israel.

Samuel’s warnings are confirmed in the subsequent books of the Hebrew Bible. They recount the foolish deeds of one terrible king after another until the time when the Israeli empire is finally conquered by the Babylonians.

Like Samuel, I don’t support the idea of empires or kings; and so I am cheered when followers of Jesus turn our backs on empires and focus instead on the radical and democratic sovereignty proclaimed by St. Paul.

According to Paul, Christ does not rule from a distant throne. Paul writes that an inner Christ or king flickers in the heart of each person who follows a Way of Love. In contrast to 1600 years of church support for empire, I am drawn to Paul’s idea of inner sovereignty. Christ has died and then arisen within each one of us. This spiritual reality runs counter to emperors who try to lord over their subjects.

The question of sovereignty is much in the news this spring. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, nation states have exercised extraordinary emergency powers. They have quarantined citizens, restricted physical movement, and poured vast sums into financial subsidies.

To the extent these efforts have flattened the curve of the spread of infection and saved millions from destitution, most people support these efforts.

But what happens when a sovereign state — whether a monarchy, a dictatorship, or a democracy – adopts emergency powers, but the curve of infection isn’t flattened and the economy crashes despite massive spending programs? In the latter case, public support can wane, and state sovereignty can be questioned.

I am grateful that the rate of infection has slowed in Canada and that thousands of job losses haven’t yet led to drastic increases in poverty or bankruptcies. I am also aware that much has been revealed by each government’s response to the pandemic.

The countries where discontent with the pandemic response is greatest include the United States, Russia, and Brazil. They are all ruled by authoritarian nationalists who focus more on power than the well-being of their citizens. Other dictatorships have seen better results, including China, which is the most populous nation on earth and the place where the new coronavirus first spread.

I am particularly impressed by democratic countries that acted with greater speed, transparency, and social support than Canada. This list includes New Zealand, Taiwan and South Korea. They have been more adept at testing, contact tracing, and supportive isolation than Canada. Some of them have now eradicated the coronavirus.

For most of human history, sovereignty meant rule by a distant king. But in conditions of crisis, more people might be inclined to listen to Paul when he says the sacred power of the king does not have to reside in a far-off capital city. Instead, sovereignty can be as close as our breath and as dear as our sacred values.

In the tradition of Samuel and Paul, I pray that in the face of the pandemic crisis partisans of Love will unite to exercise our sacred sovereignty in the struggle to keep everyone safe regardless of how well or how poorly governments are responding to the pandemic.

May it be so. Amen.

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Realities we struggle to understand

Text: John 14:15-21 (the Spirit of Truth)

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In today’s Gospel story, Jesus tells his friends that the world will not accept the Spirit of Truth God will send to them. But isn’t truth a universal value; and doesn’t everyone want to understand reality? So, why does Jesus say “the world” does not accept the Spirit of Truth?

Trying to agree on what is true or real is often difficult. Does a child’s troubling behaviour reflect parenting or social conditions? Is Darwin’s theory of evolution the bedrock of biology or is it a lie designed to undermine faith in a Creator God? Can both economic and environmental well-being be successfully fostered by governments? Questions like these often do not lead to a consensus understanding.

In today’s global pandemic, vast armies of researchers are struggling to understand the new coronavirus. They are racing to learn ways to mitigate its spread, to find treatments for the COVID-19 disease it causes, and to develop a safe vaccine that might eventually control it. The rest of us can follow news reports about their quest; and we hope the science-based guidelines of public health officials will help keep ourselves and the community safe.

Because of the pandemic, the spring of 2020 feels like a red-letter moment for science. Medical officers of health like Dr. Deena Hinshaw in Alberta are celebrities, and many newscasts contains clips of scientists working in labs around the world.

There is much that researchers have not yet learned about the coronavirus, and there is heated discussion on the best way to fight it. How well have months of lockdown suppressed its spread? Will the virus surge back as physical distancing lifts? Can the economy be restarted without increased disease, or are the economy and public health opposed to each other?

Finally, in a cultural moment when many people distrust authority, the pandemic has become a breeding ground for questionable ideas. Was the virus concocted as a weapon in an American or Chinese military lab? Can drinking poison cure a sick person? (Just to be clear, the answer is no!) Are death totals being manipulated? Does the new virus even exist? One could go on.

When Jesus tells his friends that God’s Spirit of Truth will not be accepted by the world, he is speaking to them in occupied Palestine in the First Century. I believe he is reminding his friends that what is considered the truth by the Roman Emperor will be different than the realities his poor friends need to discover.

The Emperor demands that his subjects worship him as a god and support his rule even though it is based on conquest and exploitation. In an empire with a tiny class of rich landowners and a huge class of peasants, the question of truth is a political one. Confronting the Peace of Rome with the Peace of Christ can get one executed.

Jesus knows that the Emperor and his elite will not accept the truths of justice and compassion promoted by those who follow Jesus’ way of universal love.

Things may seem different today. Unlike Roman emperors, Canada’s leaders are elected, and Canada’s laws apply to both the wealthy and the poor. Nevertheless, Canada contains many competing agendas; and this is one reason why Jesus’ words may still have relevance for us.

In searching for the truth, we might want to look at who gets to ask the questions? What methods are used to answer them? And whose perspectives are valued?

I am pleased that science is the watchword for most of us in the midst of the pandemic. I am also aware that in a world scarred by divisions between nations, classes, and companies, science is sometimes compromised.

The task of trying to understand reality can be helped by the company we keep. In the First Century, Jesus led his followers away from a focus on just one tribe. His Way was open anyone who valued Love regardless of tribe or nation.

Today, I give thanks for this community of faith. We try to be led by love and are relatively impervious to the siren calls of nationalism and superstition. We value science and the public production of knowledge even as we also try to discern hidden agendas or biases.

I am glad that nations are sharing best practices on the pandemic and that a network of scientific researchers are cooperating across the globe. The extent to which these efforts are focused on the needs of humanity as a whole and not just one slice of it is the extent to which I trust the realities they uncover.

The coronavirus has exposed a lot. Nations with greater inequalities seem to struggle more. Those with greater social solidarity and stronger social safety nets seem to be doing better.

In Canada, the curve of infection has been flattened even as painful conditions in nursing homes, meat packing plants, First Nations communities, and homeless populations have been revealed.

May the quest to understand the virus continue in a spirit of internationalism and compassion. And may countries like Canada heal the weaknesses that have been exposed so that the pandemic can be brought to an end and a society that is closer to a Spirit of Truth and Love be created.

May it be so. Amen.

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