Fools, feasts, and games of thrones

Text: Luke 1:26-56 (the miraculous conception of Jesus)

“You have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places.” Every December, we hear these words of Mary as she prepares to give birth to Jesus. Her words connect Christmas not just to birth and light, but also to hopes that justice might be visited upon the rich and good things might come to the poor.

When Luke wrote the story of Mary’s pregnancy, the world had about 200 million people. Most of them lived in extreme poverty and were ruled by despotic kings. The most powerful of the latter was the Roman Emperor, who ruled over Palestine and the rest of the Mediterranean. But scattered over the world were hundreds of other kings with realms large and small and who lorded it over 99% of the population.

Today, most countries are republics. But today’s seven and half billion people are still divided into rich elites — the so-called one percent — and the 99% of us who have much less wealth and power.

For this reason, we may identify with Mary’s wish that the mighty be deposed from their thrones and the lowly raised to high places. We may also feel discouraged that oppression continues 2,000 years later even as we may be inspired by her words to continue our struggles for justice.

Sometimes, it seems rulers will never be deposed from their thrones. Then there are times when it becomes commonplace. One hundred years ago as World War One moved to its close, many monarchies in Europe fell. In 1917, a revolution in Russia deposed the Czar. In 1918, defeat deposed the emperors of Austro-Hungary and Turkey and revolution deposed the Kaiser in Germany.

The British monarchy survived the devastation of World War I, but today it has little power.

Two weeks ago, Netflix released the second season of “The Crown,” a soap opera about the life of Queen Elizabeth II and the rest of the British Royal Family. Season Two covers the years 1956 to 1963; and as with Season One, I loved it.

Besides family drama, “The Crown” highlights issues like the independence struggles of British colonies in Africa; the decline in the authority of the Church of England; and the dissolution of old moral rules in the face of social development.

But despite the persistence of constitutional monarchy in Canada and Britain, those who struggle to depose the mighty from their “thrones” today usually target the authoritarian leaders of republics like Russia, China, and the United States. Unhappily, they can be just as hard to depose as old-styled monarchs.

So, it was with relief that many of us got news on Tuesday that the U.S. President’s preferred candidate for a Senate seat in Alabama, Roy Moore, had been defeated. Not only is he credibly accused of sexual misconduct and assault of teenagers, he opposes the rights of Muslims, LGTBQ people, and women. Still, despite his lamentable character and bigoted views, Moore lost just by 1.5% of the vote.

Moore got virtually no votes from Black people, but a big majority of the white vote. The latter reflects the support Moore received from the U.S. President and the white evangelical church.

I am glad that Moore narrowly lost the race even as I am disheartened by the willingness of many church leaders in the U.S. to support people like him.

Their hypocrisy may lead to a crisis in the church. The magazine “Christianity Today” is one of the evangelical voices that has come out against support for the U.S. President, Moore and others like them.

“Christianity Today” was founded by televangelist Billy Graham in 1956. Today, Billy Graham’s ministry is led by his son, Franklin Graham, who is one of the leading cheerleaders for the current U.S. Administration and its anti-Muslim policies. This makes me even more grateful that the editors of “Christianity Today” have taken a principled stand against leaders like the U.S. President and Roy Moore.

Billy Graham showed up in an episode of this season’s “The Crown.” During a televised crusade in Britain in the late 1950s, Graham caught the eye of the Queen, who then invited him to preach at a Royal Chapel. This episode highlighted the loneliness of the Queen in her role as Head of the Church of England.

After the Reformation of the 1500s, British monarchs took on the role played by the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church.

In Medieval Europe, the Pope was the most powerful monarch in Europe. In those years, the retelling of Mary’s story and her song of love and justice inspired an Advent celebration called the Feast of Fools. In this Feast, ordinary people play-acted as the Pope and his archbishops. When Mary’s words “You have brought down the powerful from their thrones” were read, the crowd threw these mock leaders off their thrones.

Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” has a scene in which Quasimodo plays the Pope in a “Feast of Fools” celebration in Paris, including in the 1996 Disney animated film version.

These staged rebellions illustrate the desire of common people to see Mary’s prediction of the humiliation of the rich come true; and the sad reality that Mary’s hoped-for social revolution has yet to happen.

Today some of us still foolishly listen to Mary’s words and seek love and justice on the path of Christ the King.

Christ’s path has always been a foolish one, I believe. Christ comes to us as the helpless baby who as an adult is killed by the Roman Empire after a brief ministry of healing and teaching.

Happily, this path helps idols like nationalism and racism die within us. This frees us to rise to a new life closer to the God who is Love. God’s Love calls to us from the manger at Christmas and from the cross at Easter. It inspires us to be holy fools who seek justice in a world of misleaders.

Next Sunday, we will celebrate Christ’s birth with great joy in a Feast of Fools. But it won’t be play-acting. It will reflect the reality that sovereignty doesn’t rest with monarchs, popes, or authoritarian despots. It rests with God and the inner Christ that flickers within each of us.

Our Prince of Peace might be a helpless newborn and our King might have been killed on a cross. But Christ is a King who is reborn in our hearts, at Christmas as at any time. Not only does new life in Christ give us the courage to struggle for peace with justice. It gives us the victory right here, right now.

Advent is nearly over. Christmas is almost here. So as holy fools, let us now finish our journey to Bethlehem in joy.


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Advent without ceasing?

Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:5-11, 16-18 (“Pray without ceasing”)

Every Advent, the following debate surfaces: is Christmas secular or religious?

Today, we are in the middle of Advent, a season that includes the four Sundays before Christmas. And while the retail and entertainment industries try to conflate Advent and Christmas, they are two distinct seasons. Advent is a month of prayer and repentance before December 25 while Christmas is the 12 days from December 25 to January 6 in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus.

The differences between the two seasons are evident in carols. Christmas carols celebrate the nativity of Jesus while Advent carols focus on preparation for the coming of Christ. Some Advent carols like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” are beloved while those that focus on judgement and the prophecies of John the Baptist like “There’s a Voice in the Wilderness” are not as well-known or liked.

This Advent, the debate about the place of secular and religious elements in Christmas has been joined by a new movie about Charles Dickens. I haven’t yet seen “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” but I look forward to it.

The movie is based on the notion that Dickens’ popular 1843 book “A Christmas Carol” helped to establish many of today’s Christmas traditions — things like turkey, Christmas trees, and family gatherings on the secular side and a turn from greed to selfless charity on the spiritual side.

“A Christmas Carol” also illustrates the connection between Advent and Christmas, I believe. While all the action takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, the bulk of the story has an Advent feel.

It begins as the protagonist Ebeneezer Scrooge eats a lonely and meager Christmas Eve meal where he is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner Jacob Marley. Marley says that Scrooge will see three more Spirits during the night.

The Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge of his childhood with his late sister Fran and of his failed engagement to a woman named Belle.

The Ghost of Christmas Present presents Scrooge with scenes of happy family meals and of the terrible suffering of the poor.

The Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge the funerals of two people: one friendless and unloved — Scrooge himself — and one beloved –Tiny Tim, who is the crippled child of Scrooge’s employee, Bob Cratchit.

Only when Scrooge wakes on Christmas morning does the mood change. When Scrooge realizes that he has time to turn his life around, he joyously repents of his selfish and ungenerous ways.

Because most of the action is with four ghosts, one could rename Dickens’ book “An Advent Carol.” The ghosts lead Scrooge on a painful spiritual journey that begins with prophecy and that is heavy with the threat of judgement and death.

As a child, I loved watching the 1951 version of “A Christmas Carol” every year even if it frightened me. It gave me a sense that Christmas was not all tinsel and parties. It was also a time to confront life’s shadows and an opportunity for spiritual growth.

I was also glad how the story knit together the secular and the religious aspects of Christmas, the soulful and the spiritual.

The reading we heard this morning from St. Paul leans more to the spiritual than the soulful. He writes about light, wakefulness, and prayer.

Paul’s words about praying without ceasing connect to the concept of mindfulness, which is about being aware of one’s feelings, thoughts, and perceptions from moment to moment. As followers of Christ, we can use such awareness to give thanks for God’s Grace and to pray for healing, peace and justice.

Achieving a high level of mindfulness can lead to a kind of ecstasy — what Paul calls rejoicing always. But as anyone who has tried to develop a meditation practice can attest, it is a challenge to be awake to the flow of every moment. Much of the time, we drift into unconsciousness, and every night we fall asleep. Prayer without ceasing is a wonderful goal, I believe, but few of us can achieve it.

The good news is that seasons of prayer like Advent have both a beginning and end. We began Advent two weeks ago with a service focused on Hope. We will end the season next Sunday with a service focused on Love. Then Christmas will follow, an annual celebration of birth and light that weaves together the spiritual and the secular in the most wondrous ways.

Personally, I don’t see a great need to draw a line between the secular side of Advent, which includes gift-shopping, tree decorating, and stringing lights, and the religious side, which is about repentance and prayer. Both sides can yield joy, although the secular joys are more oriented to soul and the religious joys are more oriented to spirit.

Nor do I see a great need to draw a sharp line between the secular side of Christmas, which includes parties with family and friends, and its spiritual side, which is about the birth of Jesus and the coming of salvation. Both sides of Christmas feed us, with the secular side leaning more to comfort and the spiritual side leaning more to joy.

Nor do I see a great need to separate the seasons of Advent and Christmas. Advent is a time of discovery in which we journey in a prayerful spirit of repentance. Christmas is a time of celebration as we arrive both at Bethlehem and at family dinner tables to relax, feast, and revel in love. Both seasons influence the other, and I find it understandable that each year they bleed into each other.

Finally, I don’t see a great need to “put the Christ back in Christmas” anymore than I see a great need to “Keep Christmas out of Advent.” However we prepare for the rebirth of Christ in our hearts this year, and however we celebrate the coming of the solstice, we will inevitably blend the soulful with the spiritual and combine elements from our pagan and Christian roots with popular traditions of the last 150 years.

Advent doesn’t last forever anymore than our prayers do, regardless of what St. Paul suggests. In the yin and yang of Advent and Christmas, I am glad that the soulful and the spiritual sides weave together to make communities that are both human and divine and that provide both comfort and joy.

For all of us this Advent and Christmas, I pray it may be so.


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“Keep calm and carry on”

Text: Mark 13 (“the Little Apocalypse”)

One of our highest spiritual goals is to wake up. This is a theme found in today’s apocalyptic reading. Jesus tells his friends to stay awake to the possibility of disaster, judgement, and salvation.

Keep watch! Stay alert! Stay awake! says Jesus.

OK. But what will help us accomplish this goal?

One way to stay awake is through fear. If we can generate enough terror in our hearts, we are unlikely to fall asleep.

This past year, I have sometimes been kept awake by fear. With the success of racism as a political brand, I have found it easy to be freaked out about what is happening in our world and what might happen next.

But you may be glad to know that I don’t support this as a tactic for staying awake. Not only is terror unsustainable in the longer term, I am confident it is not what Jesus is talking about in this passage.

Jesus invites his friends to stay awake not out of fear, but out of faith. He knows that some of their fears will come to pass, things like war, earthquake, and famine, which he mentions earlier in this chapter. But he also tells his friends not to be alarmed, because at the deepest level all is well and all will be well.

Instead of being freaked out by all the incredible changes in our lives and in the broader culture, Jesus recommends that we relax into alertness — to “Keep Calm and Carry On,” as a British wartime slogan urged.

Today on the first Sunday of Advent, our focus is on hope, which is usually directed to the future. For example, I hope for gifts at Christmas; for encouraging lab test results; and for fewer wars.

But there is another aspect to hope. Hope is also a blessed state that floods over us when we are focused on the present and not on our regrets about the past or our anxieties about the future.

None of us have had the past we wanted in all respects. Nor will any of us get the future we want in all respects. All of us have suffered at least some neglect, loss, and pain. All of us are fragile and mortal.

But when we look to the depths, we remember that we have come from Love, and it is to Love that we all return. This faith can help us stay awake to the present moment, to keep watch for the beauty and truth in front of us now, and to be alert to all the sensations and feelings of today.

This vision of hope reminds me of an ancient Hindu saying that I first heard from United Church Moderator Mardi Tindal on a canoe trip in 2002. Called “Salutation to the Dawn,” it goes like this:

Look to this day
for it is life,
the very life of life.
In today’s brief course lie all the verities and realities of existence —
the bliss of growth and the splendour of beauty.
For yesterday is but a dream and tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well-spent makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
and every tomorrow a vision of hope . . .
Look well, therefore, to this day.

I love this poem. Regardless of what we regret about the past and fear about the future, we only have now to give and receive love. We only have now to communicate and grow. We only have now to experience beauty and healing.

We don’t know what will happen in 2018 anymore than we knew what would happen in 2017. But whatever happens next year, each day we are granted will grace us with the opportunity to look well to its eternal moments.

So, this Advent, I pray that we will keep calm and carry on. May we look well to each day and so turn all our yesterdays into dreams of happiness and all our tomorrows into visions of hope.

May it be so. Amen.

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“Everything is holy now”

Text: Exodus 3:1-5 (Moses and the burning bush)

Have you ever encountered something so startling that it makes you stop in your tracks? When Moses passes by a burning bush that is not consumed, he stops, looks, and listens; and he hears a voice telling him that he is on holy ground.

I imagine we have all had moments that are at least a bit like this, ones that take us out of our everyday busyness and remind us that we are in God’s presence.

I thought of Moses’ burning bush this year as the leaves changed. People say that the colours of autumn are more impressive in Eastern Canada than in the West, and they have a point. But this year, the colours in Edmonton enchanted me.

In Lendrum where Kim and I live, there are a lot of bushes whose leaves turned fiery red, orange, and yellow in October. I don’t know what they are called, but firebush strikes me as an appropriate name; and their beauty sometimes stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t label the laneways where these bushes are found as holy ground, but it would have been OK to do so, I believe.

Moses comes across a bush that is not only beautiful but that burns without being consumed. God speaks to him from the bush and tells him to take off his shoes because he is on holy ground. God then gives Moses an assignment to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and to back to Promised Land of their ancient ancestor Abraham.

This story reminds us of moments that astonish; of sights that make us pay attention; and of events that transform our lives. Such moments might include ones of “love at first sight;” or when you first hold a newborn in your arms; or when you get to the top of a climb in the mountains. Sacred moments like this can occur an unlimited number of times in our lives.

We may miss some of them. After decades of “the same old, same old,” we might become blasé at the wonders of life and at the beauty of every moment.

But then we glimpse a sunrise through a kitchen window; or are moved by a story we hear; or see a moment of kindness between two neighbours: and we remember that life is sacred; that we are all connected to each other; and that God’s Spirit can shine out of any moment.

I like the idea that any piece of ground can be considered holy and any moment can be sacred. At the end of this reflection, I am going to play a music video by Peter Mayer. Called “Holy Now,” it poetically suggests that everything is a miracle and all places are holy. I first saw it at the United Church Men’s Conference in Banff in 2012 and then again at the Ever Wonder Conference at Southminster-Steinhauer United this past Labour Day weekend. I hope you enjoy it.

Unhappily, it is also true that the sacred can be profaned. Holy scripture is sometimes used to exclude and condemn people. Loving families are sometimes scarred by fear or misunderstandings. Holy ground can become subject to conquest and war.

Last Thursday there were two news items about holy ground. One was a Supreme Court of Canada decision on a dispute in the Kootenays region of British Columbia between leaders of the Ktunaxa Nation and a property developer over a proposed ski resort. The second was the commemoration of the centennial of a British decision to support the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

Debbie Hubbard and Dean Reidt led a public discussion about the centennial of the 1917 Balfour Declaration at the University of Alberta on Thursday evening. Many of you will remember Debbie and Dean from their work at Trinity United on food security, First Nations reconciliation, and other justice issues before they moved to Kelowna last year. They have also represented the United Church as human rights workers in several trips to Israel and Palestine. I am sorry that I missed their presentation.

Palestine is called The Holy Land because it is sacred to all three Abrahamic religions. The capital of Israel/Palestine, Jerusalem, is sacred to Jews as the site of YHWH’s Temple. For Christians, it is sacred as the site of the death and resurrection of Jesus. For Muslims, it is sacred as the destination of the Prophet Mohammad’s Night Journey that he took on a flying horse with the Angel Gabriel from Mecca, and which then took them from Jerusalem to heaven and back.

At various times, all three religions have occupied the Holy Land. Christian Crusaders killed or expelled all the Jews and Muslims of Jerusalem when they created the Kingdom of Jerusalem between 1000 and 1250. When Muslims retook Jerusalem in 1250, they allowed Jews to return, and then held the city until Britain took possession of Palestine 100 years ago near the end of the First World War. Today, Jerusalem continues to be a mixed city. But since the Balfour Declaration of 100 years ago, Jerusalem has become more Jewish. In 1917, 90% of Jerusalem was Muslim and Christian. Today it is 70% Jewish.

The Holy Land is sacred, but like most of the earth, its fate is decided by military power. In the story from Exodus, YHWH tells Moses that he has heard the cries of the Israelite slaves in Egypt and has decided to lead them to the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.

But even as we applaud the rescue of the Israelites from slavery, we might sympathize with the tribes who then lived in The Holy Land. We may also wonder if the sacred promises of one people must always be at the expense of others.

Today in Canada, land disputes like the one ruled on by the Supreme Court on Thursday have a similar dynamic. I sympathize both with the spiritual practices of First Nation people in the Kootenays and with the desires of developers to expand the ski industry there.

The entire world is fragile, beautiful, and miraculous. But in an economy in which companies either grow without limit or succumb to their competitors, there are few restraints on the destruction of sacred habitat. And so, the oceans fill with plastic, the atmosphere with carbon, and the land with ever-larger cities.

Humanity has not yet found ways to tame the dynamics that drive population growth and unlimited development. One step is to spread the notion that all of life is sacred and that all land is holy ground. This is only a beginning, of course, but it could be an important one.

With that said, I will now play the video “Holy Now.

Friends, there is not just one burning bush. There are millions of them, and at any time they can bring us back to our senses, and to our connection to the sacred.

May they remind us that anything can be holy. And may this awareness inspire us to find ways to preserve life here and throughout The Holy Land we know as Planet Earth.

May it be so. Amen.

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Trick or Treat

Text: Romans 1:1-17 (“made right by faith”)

Last week as I followed the news, I wondered if Alberta’s Council of Catholic School Superintendents was playing a Halloween trick on the province.

Halloween is just two days away, and this year it has an extra significance. This year hundreds of millions of people around the world will not only wear costumes and go trick or treating on October 31. They will also mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation.

Legend has it that on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed a document filled with criticisms of the leadership of the Church to a cathedral door in the German city of Wittenberg. Like almost everyone else in Western Europe, Luther was a member of the Roman Catholic Church.

There are other events that could be used to mark the start of the European rebellion against Church authority. But most historians mark the beginning of the Reformation — a movement that split the Church into Catholic and Protestant wings — with Luther’s action 500 years ago this Tuesday.

Luther and other Reformers ended a Catholic monopoly in Europe and helped to create Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and other denominations, like the United Church of Canada.

Luther’s dispute with the Catholic leadership was sparked by the church practice of selling salvation. To finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Church sold indulgences throughout Europe. These were tokens whose purchase, the church claimed, could rescue one’s dead loved ones from the horror of purgatory and expedite their entrance into heaven.

In contrast to this, Luther argued that salvation came from faith through the power of Grace. In his reading of the Bible, there was nothing one could do to earn salvation. Instead, salvation was a gift of God, and this wonderful news was the heart of a trusting life. It was the core of Christian faith.

In the years that followed, Luther’s moves away from Catholic teaching went further. Along with other Reformers, he rejected Papal authority, used German in worship instead of Latin, and created churches that were more open to social change than the Roman Church.

For the next 100 years, Europe was racked by religious conflicts that resulted in millions of deaths. Happily, when peace treaties were signed in 1648, toleration slowly spread across Europe. Today, Christian-majority countries often contain scores of different denominations; and they usually compete by peaceful means.

The Protestant Reformation challenged hierarchical authority and opened the way to new learnings. This is not to say that Luther was a liberal. His writings included some that were viciously anti-Semitic, and he held other ideas that today we might label as misguided or intolerant. Still, the Reformation accelerated many of the changes that moved Europe into the modern era.

But the Reformation did not do away with the Roman Church. Five hundred years after Luther, the Catholic Church is still the largest religious denomination in the world, including here in Alberta. And although the Catholic Church is different today than it was in 1517, it is still an institution that many would like to see reformed.

This morning in talking about the Reformation, I also talk about the Alberta Council of Catholic School Superintendents because of a controversy last week over sex education between the Council and the provincial government.

Catholic leaders are worried about a rewrite of Alberta’s school curriculum. Despite being funded by the province, Catholic leaders don’t want their schools to teach about safe sex, consent in marriage, contraception, and human rights for sexual and gender minorities. They claim that such ideas violate “the Catholic faith.”

All the doctrines of the Catholic Church used to be pre-modern. But over the last 150 years, Catholicism has accommodated science. So, there is no clash between the government and Catholic leaders on subjects like physics or geology. But sex education is different. The Catholic church still clings to pre-modern moral codes. It doesn’t allow women to become priests and it denounces birth control and homosexuality. While Catholic leaders no longer use Latin in worship and no longer teach that the sun revolves around the earth, they proclaim a morality that would not have been out of place five hundred or 3,000 years ago.

Everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but to call such beliefs “faith-based” misses the mark. In common speech, faith often refers to belief. But in the sense that Paul uses the word in our reading this morning, faith is about the basis for our beliefs. Faith equals trust, and it is unavoidable. We hold most of our beliefs on faith because no one has the time or ability to verify all the facts presented to us by authority figures. So, a key question for faith is whether we have good reasons to respect our authorities.

I’ll use a trivial example. Twice in the books of the Hebrew Bible, the authors include a list of birds they consider unfit to eat. But the lists in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy include bats even though bats are not birds.

Like most birds, bats fly. But bats are mammals because they have hair and not feathers, they produce milk for their babies, and so on. I know this not because I have studied bats, but because I was taught this in school. Like almost all the other things I believe, my beliefs about bats flow not from personal examination but from faith. Further, I consider my trust in the findings of scientists about bats to be reasonable.

When Leviticus and Deuteronomy were written 2500 years ago, there were no scientists who systematically examined and classified life forms; and so, I can understand why the biblical authors would consider bats to be birds.

Back then, it was reasonable to put one’s faith in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. If you wanted to know about bats, there were no better sources. But to trust in the them today for knowledge of bats today is no longer reasonable.

The same thing applies to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on morality. In Europe one thousand years ago, the church was the only source of wisdom available. But today we live in pluralistic and science-based society. Today, it is no longer reasonable to put one’s faith solely on the teachings of an institution like the Catholic Church especially given its history of corruption and war. To do so is not faith. It is anxiety, and as such it is no longer reasonable.

In the face of the Reformation, the Catholic Church carried out its own reforms. Since then it has continued to change. But the Catholic Church has not changed much on issues relating to family, gender, and sex.

I pray that compassionate and wise leaders like Pope Francis will lead the Catholic Church towards science- and rights-based teachings in this area. I hope it will put aside the patriarchal mores of the pre-modern world. Catholic leaders, of course, have the right to hold patriarchal beliefs. And I understand why many of us cling to ancient morality in the face of radical social change. But these same leaders do not have the right to use public money to teach ideas many of us consider to be outmoded and harmful. The issue hinges not on faith but on its opposite, anxiety. It is about not using public money to foist anxious doctrines on vulnerable children.

I don’t believe the Catholic superintendents are consciously using the 500th anniversary of the Reformation to pull a Halloween trick on Alberta. But by seeking public support to teach against safe sex, contraception, and human rights for sexual minorities they remind us how churches sometimes get stuck in idolatry and of why churches are called to a continuous process of reformation.

I close with a letter written by the Rev. Brian Kiely of the Unitarian Church of Edmonton that was published by the Edmonton Journal this Friday. He wrote:

“A broad and open sex education program is about countering the bullying of those who are different by giving good and accurate information. It is about protecting people from forced sexual activities. It is about teaching children to have pride in their bodies and their sexuality. It is about erasing the shame so many religions have heaped on this most fundamental human dimension. And it is about compassion.”

To his words, I will only add, “Long live the Reformation!”


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“Secret Path”

Text: selections from Isaiah (“make straight in the desert a highway)

The music album and graphic novel “Secret Path” by Gord Downie are about a 12-year-old boy, Chanie Wenjack, who tried to find a way home in 1966. Chanie attempted to walk from his Indian Residential School in Kenora Ontario to Ogoki Post, where his family lived.

Chanie had been forced to leave his family in northern Ontario when he was nine years old. The government sent him to a church-run school where he was miserable. So, we can understand why he escaped from his school and tried to walk home.

But even those of us who are content with life sometimes lose sight of our sacred values and yearn to find a way home.

Today I reflect on the life of Gord Downie and his work “Secret Path” and how they might inspire us to find our way back home to Love.

Downie was known for his rootedness in Canadian history and culture. Whether singing about hockey, the painter Tom Thomson, or miscarriages of justice like that involving David Milgaard in Saskatchewan, Downie introduced his fans to aspects of Canada they might not have learned in school.

While music is a universal language, Downie and The Tragically Hip sang in a Canadian key. But even as Downie was rooted in time and place, he was far from uncritical. He honoured his roots but also raised awareness of the social problems that flow from them.

Downie was loved for his ability to express a full range of emotions. This was one of the main impressions I got from The Tragically Hip’s farewell concert last August in Kingston Ontario — which, incidentally, is not only Downie’s hometown but also my own. Downie moved effortlessly from ecstasy to rage, from sadness to hope, and from despair to heartfelt desire. In his own awkward way, he danced and sang with a heart that was hard to ignore.

In exploring his roots and expressing his emotions, Downie grew to be his own unique self. His voice, movements, and spirit were unmistakeable. Along with his band-mates, he showed his fans how to remain present to life’s joys and sorrows. Downie was a singular performer, which is why so many will miss him.

Like all good artists, Downie collaborated with others. First and foremost were the other members of The Tragically Hip. I was touched by the love and support they showed one another in their final televised concert last August.

Beyond the Hip, were all the people from whom Downie drew inspiration. Included in this large group, is Chanie Wenjack whose tragic story inspired “Secret Path.”

Then there are the non-musical people with whom the Hip collaborated. Kim and I watched a documentary on The Tragically Hip’s 2016 final concert tour on Friday, and it laid bare the large network that creates a tour — managers, sound and light technicians, costume designers, and workers and artists of many kinds.

Downie pursued a music career out of love, and it was fueled by loving relationships with other musicians, writers and activists. Creating music, books, and meaningful events requires community, and in this is another way in which Downie’s life provides a model.

Downie also used his career to speak truth to power. By loving Canada in all its specificity, Downie became more aware of the shadow side of its colonial past. His graphic novel and album “Secret Path,” have made a significant dent in Canadians’ ignorance of the Indian Residential schools that blighted the country from the mid-19th Century until 1996.

Downie’s love for Canada meant that he worked to understand it, warts and all. This shows how love need not blind us to reality. Instead, at its best, loves takes us more deeply into reality in all its messiness.

Downie spent his 53 years learning about the world and trying to make a difference. When he was told in December 2015 that he had fatal brain cancer, he didn’t diminish his efforts. He become more involved. He stepped up his support for First Nations communities and their struggles for respect and reconciliation.

Downie also continued to grow spiritually. He wrote the 10 poems that became the songs on his album “Secret Path” in the year before his cancer diagnosis; and I think this work shows a lot of spiritual wisdom.

After the second-to-last track, which we heard earlier this morning — “The Only Place to Be,” and during which Chanie Wenjack dies — Downie finishes the album with a simple song called “Here, Here and Here.” It presents a vision of resurrection. Like a wise elder, Downie suggests that death is not the end. Instead, it is a reunion with the Love from which we have come. The track suggests that even when our Secret Path doesn’t take us to the place for which we yearn, we all eventually return to the one Home that truly matters .

Downie modelled spiritual growth for us. He honoured his roots. He learned to know and express his feelings. He became his own person. He relied on collaborators and a host of inspirations to express and receive love. He spoke out against injustice, and worked to make a positive difference. He never stopped learning and changing. He created work that can help us be present to the moment. In all these ways, Downie showed us a Secret Path home.

In the famous reading from Isaiah that we hear today, the prophet talks about making straight a path in the desert, a way through the wilderness that will return us to God.

In these tumultuous days of increased fear and racism, many of us are searching for this path; and like Chanie Wenjack, we may struggle to find it.

But Downie’s life and work reminds us that we have fellow pilgrims on the road, and role models who can help us find the broader way.

And so, I pray that we will continue to walk a path of faith hope and love. May we love the path and share news of it with family, friends, and neighbours so that it does not remain a secret. It is a path home to the Love from which have come and to which Chanie Wenjak, Gord Downie, and all of us eventually return.

Thanks be to God.



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Is resistance futile?

Text: Exodus 1:8-17 (Midwives disobey the King of Egypt)

As you may have noticed, I got my hair cut last week; and as always, I enjoyed chatting with my barber. Earlier this year, one of our monthly chats turned to the politics of racism. But that conversation didn’t get too far.

My barber used the occasion to tell me that he now tries to ignore current events. After the terror attacks in the United States in 2001, he stopped reading newspapers and watching TV news. The horror of it had become too much for him.

Today he gives the space he once reserved for current events over to news from the sporting world.

As with politics, sports news is never-ending. Following sport provides plenty of fodder for barber shop conversations. And sport offers competition, drama and an ongoing cascade of astonishing moments.

On the downside, sport sometimes can lead to idol worship. Many of us become fanatical about our teams.

On the upside, sport fandom seems like a mild form of idolatry to me. It is preferable to other forms like addiction, worship of one’s nation, or devotion to an ancient set of social codes and their supporting texts.

So, I can empathize with my barber’s aversion to current events, and I am OK that he keeps his focus mostly on sports news.

Many in the church wish we could also keep Sunday mornings free of political topics like racism. But this can be difficult, as last week with my barber showed. Because this fall, racial politics has invaded the worlds of both sports and church.

Last month, the U.S. President attacked Black athletes who protest racism by kneeling during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The President calls such protestors SOBs and wants them to be fired. He says it is more important to show respect for the anthem and flag than to protest racism.

Politics first became entangled with sports when the Star-Spangled Banner began to be sung before games. In the United States, this first happened during baseball games in World War I; it was renewed during World War II; and it was codified as a practice in leagues like the NFL during the Cold War.

The Star-Spangled Banner, which has been the U.S. National Anthem since 1930, uses lyrics from a poem composed by a slave owner during the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain. The third verse of Francis Scott Key’s poem, which is rarely sung in public, includes the following lines:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.

“Hireling and slave” refers to the British practice of freeing American slaves who joined the side of Britain and its Canadian colonies. These Black recruits were viewed as traitors by supporters of slavery like Francis Scott Key.

The U.S. anthem upholds a flag that from its creation in the 1770s until the Civil War of the 1860s represented slavery. Since then, it has been the flag of a country marked by segregation in the South from the 1870’s until the 1960s, the mass incarceration of 10’s of millions of Blacks during the cynical “War on Drugs” of the last 50 years, and of today’s regime which has pledged to expel millions of irregular migrants from Latin America and to pursue other policies to ensure that the U.S. remains a majority White nation.

I don’t support the practice of playing national anthems before sports events. This doesn’t happen at most other public gatherings. Why, I wonder, should we mix the enjoyment of sports with pride in one’s nation, especially when so many nations are founded on colonialism, war, and genocide?

I am angry that the U.S. President is attacking the peaceful protest of Black athletes in order to bolster his support among those Whites who fear social change.

Almost as upsetting to me is the support the President gets from Christians.

On Friday, the President spoke at a summit hosted by a Christian group that was designated as a hate group in 2010 by Southern Poverty Law Center. The Family Research Council is an anti-gay Christian lobbying organization tied to James Dobson and Focus on the Family. Its mission is “to advance faith, family and freedom in public policy from a Christian worldview.”

The President received a rapturous welcome from this hate group. He used the occasion to tie his political brand firmly to God despite his racist words and actions, despite his vow to totally destroy North Korea, which would mean not just millions of deaths there but millions more in South Korea and Japan, despite his boasts of sexual assault, and despite his repeated attacks on freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

If ever there was a church in need of Reformation, it is one that supports White nationalism and nuclear war; and so, I wonder if we should follow the example of Martin Luther from 500 years ago. To preserve our spiritual health, we could stand against Christians who worship idols of race and nation and who support leaders whose very brand is immorality.

This is not about supporting one type of public policy over another or one party over another. It is about resisting today’s Pharaohs, leaders who have made fear of the stranger and oppression of so-called inferior peoples into a brand.

The story we heard today from Exodus is one of resistance. The Pharaoh, who is the divine king of Egypt, is afraid of the descendants of Joseph; and so he enslaves them and instructs the Hebrew mid-wives to kill male babies born among the Israelites. The midwives refuse because they fear God more than they fear Pharaoh.

The Egyptian King claims to be a god. But it is clear he is a false idol because he preaches fear instead of faith; and he practices slavery instead of love and compassion.

In resisting the Pharaoh’s demands, the midwives not only make possible the birth of Moses and the tale of liberation that is associated with him. They also preserve their moral integrity.

Today, in the face of political and church leaders who promote fear and racism, we too are called to resist. While our resistance might not always end oppression, it always helps to preserve our souls.

Resistance moves us away from fear of the stranger and back towards faith. It helps us to turn our backs on myths of racial superiority and on leaders who make immorality their brand.

In church, we uphold values of love and compassion not because this is always easy, but because it is often difficult. Nor is resistance always easy. The good news is that resistance can keep us connected to the Love that is our source and destiny.

In a world of rapid change, it can be easy to listen to leaders who say, “fear the stranger” and who urge us to retreat behind national, tribal or racial walls.

But when we do so, we damage our hearts and lose our connection to Love, for Love is founded in faith, not fear, and in hospitality, not exclusion.

In this time of increased racism, our resistance might not always win the battle. But when we resist racism, we strengthen our commitment to sacred values. In an era when so many church leaders are choosing to worship idols of race and nation, our resistance to them keeps us open to the Grace of the God who is Love.

Resistance to racism is not futile. It is a sure path away from fear and towards a Promised Land of faith, hope and love.

May it be so. Amen.


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