Honouring our fathers and mothers

Texts: 2 Corinthians 6:1-3 (“the day of salvation), Mark 4:35-41 (Jesus calms a storm)

“Honour your father and your mother.” This is the fifth of the Ten Commandments; and today I use it for the title of a Father’s Day Reflection.

When I was a child, my family didn’t celebrate Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Perhaps my parents dismissed these Sundays as creations of the greeting card industry. Perhaps they wanted every day, and not just one in May and another in June, to be a celebration of love and respect between parents and children.

Because Mother’s and Father’s days were not part of my childhood, I have rarely marked them during Sunday morning gatherings.

Today I deviate from this pattern. With the death of my mother last Christmas, this is the first spring in which I no longer have a living parent to honour. So, today I talk about honouring our parents even when they are no longer with us.

Parents don’t disappear from our lives when they die. Each of us carry a construct of them in our psyches. Sigmund Freud called it the superego, the part of our mind that watches over us and attempts to keep our thoughts and actions in check. Freud sometimes called it the great “Thou Shalt Not!”

The superego is more than an internalized parent. It represents the controlling words of church, school, and state. But its greatest influence is our parents.

The superego has a bad reputation. It is the source of our feelings of shame. Its messages can be painful and crippling. Too often, I believe, it tells us not just that it disagrees with an action or decision, but that we are flawed or bad.

All parents are unique, of course, which means that each of us has a unique superego. Some are lucky to have relatively assertive ones. Others are burdened with internal parental voices that can be punishing. Most of us have a mixture.

I am grateful to all my ancestors, and especially to my mother and father. Without them, I would not exist. From them flows much of what I love about life and about myself. But our ancestors did not live in ideal circumstances. Like us, they were born into a world of blessings and burdens, of woes and joys. For all that we love about our family, church, and country, there is much that we don’t like, including violence and dysfunctions of all kinds.

Our superego contains both what we like and don’t like about our parents. For this reason, I try to honour my parents by paying attention to unconscious parental messages, by thanking them for caring, and by trying to tame and mature them.

As much as I loved my parents and miss them, there is a lot about them that disappointed me. I wish they had taught me and my siblings more about emotions and clear communication. I wish they had modelled how to maintain strong boundaries when dealing with aggression. But they were who they were, and we will never have anything other than the childhood we had.

To honour my parents and to improve my life, I work to develop a superego or conscience that speaks love without violence.

For me, a key part of this work is against judgments. When people, places, and things are labelled, communication is defensive and unrevealing.

As an example, no movie can truthfully be judged as good or bad. A movies is liked by some and disliked by others; and these likes and dislikes reveal truths about the people who hold them. But judgements obscure the speaker’s values and tell us nothing objectively true about the movie. For this reason, I try to never say that a movie is good or bad, but rather why I like or dislike it.

When judgments are personal, they hurt. None of us like to be told by colleagues or loved ones that we are inadequate, evil, or incompetent. And even positive judgments place the person doing the judging in the role of god – a position that our tradition wisely tells us to avoid. Judgements, whether positive or negative, obscure the feelings, perspectives and values of the speaker.

To help tame my inner critic, I try to avoid judgement in all aspects of life. I try to know what I am feeling, own my perspectives, and connect these to a stated set of values. I don’t find this goal an easy one to achieve – far from it. But I keep trying.

Unfortunately, judgments are everywhere in our culture.

The past week in world politics has given us examples. The President of the United States criticized Canada’s Prime Minister as dishonest and weak, and he praised the leader of North Korea as strong, smart, and trustworthy. Such judgements are free of content, of course. But unfortunately they have effects.

Living in a culture awash in such judgements makes the task of taming our superegos more difficult, I believe. Nevertheless, I think the effort is worthwhile.

When I pay attention to the voice of my superego, I reconnect with my parents. Their values and perspectives will never perfectly match my own. But when I help that inner voice speak with less judgement, I can hear it more clearly.

When I notice that my superego is saying that I am bad or inadequate, I work to transform this into a statement in which its feelings and motives are attached to its values; and I try to remember that my superego wouldn’t stir itself unless it cared.

To the extent that I can teach this inner voice to speak without judgement, the easier it becomes for me to hear my parents’ values and perspectives. In touch with my superego, but freed from its attacks, I can develop my own perspectives and try to express them through feelings and articulated values.

Today’s Gospel reading is about fear and faith. Jesus tells his friends they have nothing to fear. By this, he does not mean that the storms of life won’t swamp them. After all, he is about to lead them to Jerusalem to confront religious and imperial power and to die because of that.

I think Jesus means that at the deepest level we are already healed and saved.

In the reading from Corinthians, Paul says something similar. He says that now is the acceptable time. Now is day of salvation, which in our tradition is also the day of judgement.

For me, judgement becomes salvation when Love is revealed not in the words of the punishing tribal god YHWH who gave Moses the Ten Commandments but by Jesus who, in dying and rising, leads us from moralism to the universal love that is our source and our destiny.

To honour our parents, we can thank them for gifting us with life. We can listen to their perspectives and values. We can remember that they care deeply regardless of how they express themselves. And we can try to help their voice as expressed by conscience and superego move from judgement to healing.

Today’s is Father’s Day. Today is an acceptable time to transform judgement into healing. Today is the Day of Salvation.

May it be so.

Amen.

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First (and last?) communion

Text: John 6 (selections — The Bread of Life)

For some people, their first communion is also their last. This was the case for many of Jesus’ followers in today’s reading from John. After a miraculous meal that Jesus had prepared for them from a few loaves and fish, they broke away from Jesus because of his words about eating and drinking his flesh and blood. I think I can relate because following my first communion, I also turned my back on church.

I first took communion as a 14-year old at Knox United Church in Cornwall Ontario. My late father, the Rev. James Clare Kellogg, presided at communion in a service that welcomed new members into the congregation from a confirmation class he had led.

I had attended all the classes; I responded affirmatively to the questions in the part of the service called Profession of Faith; and when communion was served, I took the bread and juice. But I did so in bad faith because in the confirmation classes I had decided that religion was bunk. For me, confirmation was not about joining the church. It was about graduating from it.

My decision to leave church after confirmation was hardly unique. In Canada today, there are more than one million people who were confirmed as adolescents in the United Church of Canada but of whom only about 100,000 are still active in church.

Because my father was a minister, I continued to attend Sunday services until I left home for university four years later; and I imagine that I participated in some communion services during those years. But if I took the bread and juice, it was without conviction or enthusiasm.

As a child, I had been interested in religion. I debated with my father. I bugged my friends with questions about their experiences in church or temple. And I often discussed the “big questions” with my older brother as we drifted off to sleep.

The turning point for me in the confirmation class was an exploration of other faiths. Cornwall in the early 70’s didn’t have a lot of religious diversity, but I remember visiting a local synagogue and an Anglican Church. This was near the end of 30 years of discussion between the Anglican and United denominations that failed to result in a merger of the two.

We also discussed Roman Catholicism, which was the biggest denomination in Cornwall. I was negatively impressed to learn of the Catholic belief that the Pope was infallible on matters of doctrine.

In looking at other denominations, they all began to seem ridiculous to me. So, I decided to abandon church and pursue spirituality elsewhere. This felt possible in the counterculture of the 1970’s because there were a lot of spiritual paths to follow that didn’t involve infallible pontiffs, tribal gods, or debates about the flesh and blood of a long-ago human incarnation of God.

And yet, here I am today, an ordained Christian minister preparing to celebrate the sacrament of communion with you again.

As an adolescent, my spiritual journey was all about ideas. I was an intellectual, and if something didn’t seem rational, I dismissed it.

Seventeen years ago when I stumbled back into church, I began to develop aspects of identity other than the mind — things like sensations, emotions, relationships, and mysticism. While sacraments like communion may not seem rational, sometimes with grace they nurture parts of ourselves that are as important as the mind.

The story we heard today from John – about the miracle of the loaves and fish, and Jesus’ teaching on eating his flesh – is not one that is amenable to our minds.

For one, John’s story doesn’t jibe with the other gospels. All four gospels include the feeding of 5,000 people in the wilderness. But only in John does Jesus introduce the metaphor of The Bread of Life and talk about his own flesh and blood.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus doesn’t talk about bread and wine as symbols of his body until The Last Supper on the night of his arrest. In John, there is no supper on the night of Jesus’ arrest and no remarks about a meal of remembrance. Instead, in John’s Gospel, Jesus washes the feet of his friends on that fateful night and gives a long speech about love.

In communion prayers, we follow the story of The Last Supper from Matthew, Mark and Luke and use the metaphor of The Bread of Life from John.

The stories don’t match, which is one reason we can’t be sure what Jesus said after the feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness or on the night of his arrest. Still, I believe that we can experience truths about life in the sacrament of communion.

In communion, we remember the crucifixion of Jesus, which can confront us with our own wounds. Social violence often dashes our hopes for peace and equality. Family dysfunctions often thwart our desire to love one another as we deserve. Personal fragility and mortality always loom over us.

In communion, we also remember the resurrection of Jesus, which reminds us that out of defeat God’s Love can lead us to unexpected victories. Out of dashed hopes and dreams, new life often arises that is more closely aligned with Love. And no matter what happens to us this side of the grave, we trust that in death we are reunited with the Source of Love.

Finally, in communion, we connect with Christians past and present and feel in our bodies that we are part of God’s Love.

My adolescent self was not impressed by communion. But today as someone who has found the Grace to accept more of reality after decades of ups and down and joys and pain, I trust the symbols and traditions found in communion in a way that I couldn’t as a 14-year old.

The part of confirmation class that I enjoyed the most was listening to a recording of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The fact that the opera, like the Gospel of Mark, showed the execution of Jesus but didn’t include any resurrection appearances, helped feed my skepticism.

But now I see things differently. For me, resurrection is not about belief in the contradictory stories in Matthew, Luke and John about the Risen Christ. It is about the Risen Christ that dwells in our hearts. There may be no historical reality behind stories of loaves and fish or the words attributed to Jesus by gospel writers. But I have no doubt that eternal life is real because I have tasted it; and in communion I often experience depth, beauty and mystery.

Given the way our intercultural society is evolving, fifty years from now it might be that our descendants will no longer come to the Table of Jesus. But today, I feel called to it by the Risen Christ that lives in this community. It is a sacrament in which I pray all of us will taste again that God is Good.

Thanks be to the God.

Amen.

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“One for all, and all for one”

Text: John 3:1-17 (being born from above) — a sermon for “Trinity Sunday”

Last week’s Royal Wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle contained many memorable moments. One feature I didn’t love was the frequency with which the Trinitarian phrase “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” was used.

The Church of England, while a product of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s, defines itself as a Catholic denomination. As such, I sometimes find it hard to tell the difference between a service in an Anglican and in a Roman Catholic church. One of the similarities is making the sign of the cross while saying “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Here at Mill Woods United, we refer to God in trinitarian ways at many points, but not with hand gestures, and usually not with the traditional phrase. What follows are some examples from today’s service.

After the final Blessing, we will sing The Closing Prayer by Don Besig, which includes the words, “May the peace of God, Creator, and the love of Christ, the Son, guide us in the days ahead and strengthen us, each one. And may the blessings of the Spirit fill us from within.”

When the Offering is brought forward we will sing “Praise God, creation’s source and dream. Praise God, the Way in Jesus seen. Praise God, whose Spirit sets us free; eternal, loving trinity.”

Today’s second hymn, “Love Is the Touch,” includes the line “Love is the Maker and Spirit and Son.”

Our closing hymn, “All Creatures of our God and King,” ends with the phrase “Praise God eternal, praise the Son, and praise the Spirit, three in one.”

Finally, the hymn of response after this sermon — “God the Spirit, Guide and Guardian” — is explicitly Trinitarian; but like many of the prayers and responses used in the United Church, it doesn’t include the phrase, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It uses other metaphors with which to imagine the Divine.

Baptism is one place where United Church ministers are mandated to use the formula “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” In the 1970s, the United, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican, and Roman Catholic denominations in Canada agreed that use of “Father, Son, and Holly Spirit” was a pre-requisite for acknowledging each other’s baptisms. But I am not keen on agreements like this. They strike me as anxious instead of faithful.

Sometimes, I baptize “in the name of God, which is Love’s Source, of the Christ, which is an incarnation of Love, and of the Holy Spirit, which is Love’s power.” I trust this fits ecumenical requirements, just as I trust that baptism is a sign of Love and not a magical invocation. As we note on the Mill Woods United website, “in the United Church, we believe all infants are blessed and known by God. We do not believe that baptism is necessary to remove the stain of ‘original sin’ or to protect a child from evil. In baptism we celebrate the love that God already has for us.”

Since the Fourth Century, the Church of Imperial Rome and its descendants, of which the United Church is one, have described God as One in Three. But, does this difficult and puzzling teaching mandate that we must use the masculine terms “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”?

God has been described in other ways for many years within the United Church. In congregations like Mill Woods, we talk of God as “Mother” as well as “Father,” and as “Holy Mystery,” “Holy Presence,” “Source of Life and Love,” “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer,” “Eternal One,” “Holy One,” among others.

This spring, Regina Presbytery of the United Church passed a resolution calling on General Council to change the ordination vows for United Church ministers. The current ones begin with the question “Do you believe in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and do you commit yourself anew to God?” Regina Presbytery wants this to be replaced by the question “Do you believe in God who is Holy Mystery, and do you commit yourself to God anew?”

Saskatchewan Conference is debating the resolution this weekend, and if passed, it will be discussed by the General Council at its meeting in Oshawa in July.

Ordination vows have been a source of contention in the United Church over the past few years because of the heresy trials of the Rev. Gretta Vosper of Toronto. In 2016, she was found unsuitable to continue in ministry by 19 of 23 members of a committee of her peers because of how she answered the ordination question “Do you believe in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Although the final steps to fire Vosper have been on hold since last Fall, she continues to work with a dagger over her head.

On May 29, 2011, I was ordained by Toronto Conference; and like the other ordinands, I said “I do,” when asked the question “Do you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But the question was pro-forma. Long before the ordination service, we had undergone a thorough process of discernment, training, and interviews that led to us being accepted as candidates for ordination. The words at the official service were icing on this rather complex cake.

I will be pleased if Regina Presbytery’s proposal is adopted. The language of our ordination vows reflects the creeds of the Fourth and Fifth centuries, which are the products of imperial violence that silenced many other voices within and without the church.

Formulaic words don’t do away with the tough reality that everyone worships idols, at least some of the time. Idolatry is not just a phenomenon for so-called heathens. It is also a reality for me, you, and most leaders of the world’s churches.

Our idolatry is evident more in our actions than in our words. The way we conduct our lives shows what we value more than how we verbalize our hazy understandings of the Sacred.

Our actions betray that we often worship things like a nation, power, sports teams, and other addictions of the ego. Our actions show that we often worship ourselves more than we worship the Source of Love.

When a church claims that it has captured the Holy Mystery we call God in some linguistic formula, it is wise to be skeptical, especially when churches so often support empire, patriarchy, and tribal morality.

This is one of the reasons that I value the Way of the Cross. Walking a path of death and resurrection helps to reveal and burn away the idols of our egos.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury offered a Blessing on the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19, he finished by saying “we ask this through Jesus Christ Your Son Our Lord who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever.”

I am OK with his prayer, although I don’t often speak this way. In the face of all that we cannot grasp about the Source of Life and Love, and in face of how often our actions as individuals and churches reveal that we value things other than Love, such words strike me as being over-confident.

But I don’t condemn those who pray this way. It is part of our heritage, and for many people it is comforting.

I appreciate the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual discipline of trying to imagine the God who is Love in triune form: as Source of Life, Living Word, and Bond of Love; or Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; or Mother, Friend, and Comforter; and so on.

What I hope flows from such work is the strengthening of relationships and actions that exhibit love compassion, kindness, humility, and respect.

When love and respect flourish and when wounds are tended, we know that the Divine Spark of Christ within us is leading us towards rebirth.

Like Nicodemus, those who walk the Way of Jesus can be born again. How we articulate this rebirth and healing will vary. The Love to which they point will not.

Thanks be to the God who is Love.

Amen.

 

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Jerusalem then and now

Text: Acts 2:1-21 (the day of Pentecost)

Yesterday’s Royal Wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle felt a bit like Pentecost to me. A Gospel choir sang “Stand By Me” in St. George’s Chapel of Windsor Castle. The Most Rev. Michael Curry — the first African-American to be the presiding Bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church — delivered a rousing sermon on love. And Markle became the first person of African descent to become a British Royal.

Through her mother, Markle is a descendant of African slaves. Now she is a member of a monarchy that presided over the British Empire of the 17th and 18th centuries, which was one of the largest slave empires in history.

So, I was struck by yesterday’s wedding.

When Britain conquered much of North America and Africa after 1600, it brought its churches along with it. But these churches were far from holy because they preached white supremacy and endorsed the enslavement and exploitation of Black and Indigenous people.

The imperial spread of the Church was not powered by a Spirit of Love, but by a spirit similar to that of the Roman Empire, which had executed Jesus and later burned Jerusalem to the ground.

What occurred yesterday at St. George’s Chapel felt to me like a zephyr of Love’s Spirit returning to the centre of the Imperial Church. Queen Elizabeth, who is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the clerical head of the Church and who officiated at the marriage, listened to a sermon from the leader of a denomination that had separated from the Church of England after the American Revolution in 1783. Bishop Curry is a descendant of slaves who were brought in chains from Africa by Britain. He prominently featured the words and cadences of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in his sermon, and he quoted a slave hymn of healing, “There is A Balm in Gilead.”

This moment of interculturalism doesn’t mean that all the wounds of Britain’s colonial past are healed. But it shows that the Spirit of Love can survive war, conquest, and colonialism. It shows that the Holy Spirit blows where it wills, even into imperial chapels built on the backs of slaves.

On Pentecost Sunday, we hear a story from Acts about how the Holy Spirit descends on the friends of Jesus in Jerusalem 50 days after the first Easter. This allows them to preach the good news of death and resurrection in the languages of the pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem from around the Mediterranean for a Jewish Festival. It shows how the friends of Jesus from the backwater of Galilee begin to build communities outside of Palestine in other languages.

Pentecost is about a moment when the vision of Jesus, which developed within Judaism, begins to spread. Death and resurrection are not just good news for Jews. They form a path that can help anyone walk away from tribal prejudices and towards a universal love.

The author of Acts sets Pentecost in Jerusalem in the year 30. But given that Acts was written 60 years after that date, and given that Jerusalem had been burned to the ground in the year 70 and its Temple destroyed, the necessity for the first Jewish Christians to leave Jerusalem becomes clear. After Rome rebuilt Jerusalem, they allowed no Jews to live there. This was the case until Islamic invaders conquered it in 638. During the centuries that various Islamic kingdoms ruled Jerusalem from 638 to 1918, it was home to a mix of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities.

Seventy years ago last week, the United Nations created a Jewish state in the western part of Palestine, and the fate of Jerusalem has been in flux ever since. Since Israel conquered the eastern part of Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, it has become more and more Jewish. Today it is two thirds Jewish and one third Arab.

Last week on the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel, the United States moved its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv — where most countries have their embassies in accordance with international law — to Jerusalem.

I was struck by the ceremony at the Embassy last Monday and not just because hundreds of Palestinian protestors were being injured and killed 80 km to the west on the border with Gaza, but also because of the so-called Christian presence at it.

The closing prayer was given by an evangelical pastor whose Christian credentials are as suspect as those of the Church of England when it supported the cross-Atlantic slave trade. Pastor John Hagee is the founder of a right-wing group “Christians United for Israel,” and he has preached that Hitler’s Holocaust reflected the will of God because it pushed Jews to leave Europe for Israel. People like Hagee see the return of Jews to Israel as a prerequisite to the nuclear war that will herald the Second Coming of Jesus and the end of the world as we know it.

The fact that John Hagee has moved from the lunatic fringe of Christian evangelicals to the centre of American power and is now welcomed by Israel’s leaders is a sign that Jerusalem is not having a Pentecost moment.

Pentecost was about moving beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem and its tribal worship to a wider world in which Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would create communities in a Spirit of Love and Truth far beyond the Holy City.

In contrast, today’s Israeli leaders promote an Israel in which Jews have rights that are denied to Arabs and who cultivate support from a U.S. administration that wants to make America white again. Like yesterday’s Atlantic slave-traders, today’s tribalists are supported by religious misleaders. They include Orthodox Patriarchs in Russia who are Vladimir Putin’s best friends, Catholic priests in Hungary who back its authoritarian and racist leader Viktor Orban, and Islamic leaders who support despotic governments in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Pentecost showed the power of Love to lead beyond a tribal past and towards universal love. On a much smaller scale, yesterday’s wedding ceremony in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor shows something similar. Even in times of increasing fear and racism, the power of Love to expand our hearts and widen our compassion can lead us to the future we want.

Yesterday’s wedding brought to mind my own wedding to Kim Boyes in November 2016. So with your indulgence, I end this reflection with a Pentecost moment from three years ago. Kim and I first met three years ago today on May 20, 2015 at Southminster-Steinhauer United Church.

We had come to participate in a meeting of the Edmonton Progressive Christian Network. At one point, Rev. Nancy Steeves, who was leading the discussion, asked us to share with a neighbour, and Kim and I chose each other. For about five minutes, we talked about grief; and at the end of this time, we were both hooked.

When I got home that evening, I called my sister and said, “I think I met someone.” It would be a month before Kim and I went on a first date; but even after that first encounter, I would not have been surprised to learn that 18 months later, we would be married.

This was “love at first sight,” an experience I highly recommend. But that moment was predicated on our separate lifetimes of pain and joy, loss and grief, and struggle and transcendence. Neither Cupid’s arrows nor Pentecost’s tongues of flames could have pierced our hearts or touched our foreheads if we hadn’t brought to that moment three years ago the wounds and blessings of our pasts.

Similarly, Pentecost was predicated on the history of Judaism; the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and the grief and joy of Peter and the other disciples. They would not have been able to receive the Spirit’s flame without all the cultural and personal history they brought to that moment.

In a similar way, Harry and Meghan would not have been able to fall in love if they hadn’t come to grips with their separate histories before they met. Prince Harry was born into a crazy system of monarchy and celebrity, and he has struggled since childhood to cope with it. Meghan Markle found herself born as a bi-racial person in a country still suffering from the wounds of slavery and colonialism.

Out of their separate pasts and their struggles with them, Harry and Meghan fell in love; and now they will try to grow themselves and their relationship in the hothouse of the world’s most prominent monarchy.

In our marriage, Kim and I have used an initial spark from three years ago to build a relationship to help us weather the storms of life in times of great wounds and blessings.

On Pentecost, the disciples of Jesus accepted the Grace of the Spirit to create beloved communities that began in Jerusalem, but soon moved far beyond it. Today, we continue to reverberate with the Power of that Love.

We may feel discouraged by the success of tribalists who fan the flames of fear to achieve power. But with joy, we can also listen for the still small voice of Love and fan its flames into a Pentecostal bonfire that burns away old prejudices and refines our families and churches into beloved communities of inclusion, compassion and Love.

On this Pentecost Sunday, I pray that it may it be so.

Amen.

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Getting out of your own way

Text: Acts 9:1-31 (the conversion of Saul)

When I first came to Mill Woods United Church on Monday, September 16, 2013, I was encouraged by a plaque on the wall near the main entrance. It notes that this building was dedicated 25 years ago this past Wednesday, on May 2, 1993, by the then Moderator of the United Church of Canada, the Right Rev. Stan McKay.

I was here for a job interview. In August, I had applied for the position of minister and had had an initial interview via Skype in early September. At the time, I was living in southern Saskatchewan as the minister of three churches in a pastoral charge called Borderlands.

For this second interview, I had driven north to Regina following my three Sunday services, flown to Edmonton, and stayed the night with my sister who lives in Oliver. I arrived at the church about 30 minutes before the interview to walk around the neighbourhood and get a feel for it. When I approached the building, I saw and read the plaque.

I was heartened to see that Stan McKay had helped to dedicate this building because Stan McKay is the most inspiring leader I have ever met.

I had encountered Stan five years earlier in July 2008 in a class called “Aboriginal Spirituality.” Twenty of us spent five days and nights at the United Church’s Five Oaks Centre, which is on the Grand River outside of Brantford Ontario. There we formed a learning circle with native elders from the nearby Six Nations Reserve, and we were led in Bible Study and theological reflection by Stan, who was not only the first Indigenous Moderator of the United Church of Canada, but also a survivor of a Manitoba Indian residential school.

I loved the week. It wasn’t just an opportunity to learn about Aboriginal Spirituality and to earn a school credit. It was also a time of healing. All of us, Native and non-Native, shared our hurts and our dreams as we confronted together the blessings of our tradition and the deep wounds of colonialism in which our tradition is so deeply embedded.

Much of what I loved about that week was due to the leadership of Stan McKay. Ten years ago, Stan was already retired, although then as now he continued to serve the church in many ways, including as an elder at the Sandy Saulteaux theological school in Manitoba. His presence radiated both authority and humility. He listened intently and shared his personal story and his spiritual knowledge. Under his leadership, passages of Scripture came to life in new ways.

At the end of the week, Stan gifted me with a grandfather stone from his home reserve of Fisher Creek Manitoba; and to me that gesture had a bigger impact than ordination did three years later. After that week, I had new confidence that I might survive the rigours of ministry.

Stan McKay, I believe, exhibits the type of servant leadership we see in St. Paul. The passage we heard from Acts this morning is about the conversion of Saul, who is later known by his Greek name Paul, and who will write the letters to various churches that comprise much of the New Testament.

Saul was already a powerful leader when he was struck blind on the Road to Damascus. In Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, he says the following about who he had been before his encounter with Jesus. Paul writes that he was one “of the people of Israel, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, one who persecuted the church; and as for righteousness in the law, faultless” (Philippians 3). Saul was respected by the Jewish authorities and feared by those Jews who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah.

Today, we criticize Saul’s leadership as wrong-headed, violent, and destructive. He was effective, but for the wrong cause.

His conversion involves humiliation and pain. The encounter with Jesus leaves him blind. He fasts for three days; and then, as promised, his sight is restored by Ananias who baptizes him into a path of death and resurrection.

In his encounter with Christ, Saul loses his old way of life. But as he says in Philippians, “whatever were gains to me, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ . . . I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.”

Paul goes on to suffer illness, imprisonment, and beatings. Nevertheless, he lives fearlessly and in joy because he has left the attachments of his ego behind and is living in the light of God’s eternal Love.

Here is how Paul describes the effect of his conversion in his letter to the church in Galatia. Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is not longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Paul is describing a mystical state of egolessness.

Before his conversion, Saul was a power-hungry leader of the religious elite. After his conversion, Paul is a selfless leader of the joyful bands of Jewish and Greek followers of Jesus. They own little, but they share everything. They lack political power, but they have Good News of death and resurrection. Though few in number, they are filled with joy because they have gotten out their own way to allow God’s Spirit of Love to flow through them.

In this spring’s series of five Sunday services and Monday evening discussions, we have touched on purpose, community, communication, hospitality and leadership. These five weeks have reminded me how all five facets rely on each other. For instance, a church can have effective leadership, welcoming habits, channels of communication, and a tight community; but if its vision is twisted, these positive qualities will be for naught.

Before his conversion, Saul’s purpose was guarding the Jewish hierarchy and its cozy relationship with the occupying Romans. When Saul becomes Paul, his purpose becomes proclaiming the cross and its power to free individuals and communities from their idols. It is this purpose that helps the early churches create egalitarian communities with a message of Love that transcends both tribalism and empire.

Many churches struggle to bring the five facets into alignment with Love because they have visions that are as twisted as the one of Saul. These include churches that manipulate people with the fear of hell, that preach a repressive morality, or that support militarism and nationalism. Unfortunately, many churches offer a path of fear instead of faith.

An alternative is to emulate Saul and accept Grace to use the humiliations of life to become humbler. When we do so, we get out of our own way. We are freed to rise above the idols of childhood and towards Love. We can better reach out to our neighbours with compassion. We can proclaim a vision that is ever-new and grounded in justice. We can embrace newcomers in their uniqueness because they are individuals who are as blessed and broken as ourselves.

Saul was humiliated on the Road to Damascus. Happily, he used the Grace of Christ to be baptized into a new life that was opposite of his previous one. Stan McKay found a way to rise from the ashes of the five years he suffered in a United Church-run residential school in Manitoba to pursue a ministry that resisted the church’s colonial history.

Humiliation comes to every individual and institution. Grace helps us to accept these humiliations as an opening to greater humility and to the growth of wisdom.

In 2008 when I was part of the class led by Stan McKay, I was struggling to accept the humiliation of a life that I had largely wasted. By being with Native elders who had somehow survived the pain of residential school and who had emerged with a stronger vision of Love for God and neighbour, I felt better able to accept my own humiliations and to imagine going forward despite or because of them.

Did St. Paul always get this right? Does Stan McKay. Do any of us? Of course not. None of us every fully arise from egotism and let the Spirit of Love to flow through our words and actions without distortion. But with Grace, we can pick ourselves up from our own conversion experiences, our own Road to Damascus moments, and our own crucifixions, and rise from them closer to Love.

In this new life, we can become leaders who are humbler and who try to channel Love, which is the strongest force in the cosmos. We can become leaders who have at least partly entered the kingdom of God.

My prayer for Mill Woods United Church is that it will continue to rise out of its inevitable stumbles to a humbler faith that allows its members to share their hurts and dreams, and to become leaders who carry the Risen Christ in their hearts.

With our egos at least partly out of our way and with Christ front and centre, may we continue to offer hospitality to all, reach out in care to the neighbourhood, and communicate in word and deed the justice and love that is our message as holy fools who are also children of God.

May it be so. Amen.

2018-05-06-MWUC

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All are welcome

Text: Acts 8:26-40 (Philip baptizes an Ethiopian Eunuch)

Hospitality is risky. The act of welcoming guests, visitors, and newcomers into our homes can get us in trouble. When we open our hearts to somebody new, we risk being changed by their perspectives. We risk altering the path of our life.

The University of Alberta is experiencing the risks of hospitality this spring. As it does every year, the University is giving honourary doctorates to esteemed Canadians at its convocation services.

This year, the hospitality it has extended to of one of its honourees, David Suzuki, has landed the university in hot water. At age 82, Suzuki is a famous scientist, public educator, human rights activist, and environmentalist. Because the University is honouring him, corporations and rich individuals have withdrawn funding. Professors have fired off angry tweets. Writers of letters to the editor have asked how this critic of the oil industry could be honoured by Alberta’s largest university and be given a platform to share his views with its graduates.

Perhaps the University thought it would be applauded for honouring one of its own – Suzuki briefly worked at the University in 1962 after earning a PhD in Zoology from the University of Chicago. Perhaps it thought it would be applauded for honouring an elder who turned his childhood experience as a victim of Canadian state racism – Suzuki and his Japanese-Canadian family were interned in the interior of British Columbia in 1942 when Suzuki was six-years old — into a lifetime of advocating for human rights.

Perhaps it thought it would be applauded for honouring Canada’s best-known science educator; for honouring someone who was voted the Fifth Greatest Canadian of All Time in a CBC television series in 2004; for honouring a voice who has argued for the needs of the environment and humanity’s sustainable place within it for decades; for honouring someone who 29 times before has been gifted with a doctorate by universities, including The University of Calgary.

Instead, the honour has led to a flood of abuse directed toward a Canadian icon. The doctorate has turned into an occasion to vent rage against Suzuki and the environmental movement of which he is a leader.

I think I understand some of the anger unleashed by the University’s act of hospitality to Suzuki. Edmonton’s post-War growth was kick-started by the discovery of oil in Leduc in 1947. Since then, hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in oil, first in conventional wells and then, starting in 1967, in the Athabaska oil sands.

Before hydraulic fracking revolutionized the oil industry in the United States, all seemed upbeat. But with the drop in the price of oil, investment in the oil patch has slowed. And with continued difficulties in approving new pipelines, many Albertans fear that the oil sands may no longer drive economic growth here.

Now, if the Trans Mountain Pipeline had already been built; if oil were selling for $150 per barrel; if Alberta had recovered from the downturn of 2014-16; and if ten’s of billions of new dollars were pouring into Fort McMurray, then the anger directed to Suzuki might be muted. If oil were still king, perhaps more people would be willing to ponder the words of environmentalists like Suzuki who focus on the effect that the burning of several hundred billion barrels of oil over the past 150 years and the continued daily consumption of 95 million barrels more has had on the world’s atmosphere, oceans, and climate.

But the pipeline is mired in political wrangling; oil is closer to $70 per barrel than $150; Alberta has not yet fully recovered from the last recession; and new oil sands investments are not being announced. So today, many Albertans feel fragile and worried. This is the wrong time, they argue, to honour someone who argues against the extraction of heavy oil and the building of pipelines to transport bitumen to tidewater. This is not the time to be hospitable to a leader such as Suzuki.

But imagine if the outraged voices in Edmonton decided to join with the university to extend hospitality to Suzuki? What if those who disagree with his statement that the hard-to-extract oil in Athabaska must stay in the ground decided nevertheless to listen to him? What if they pondered if any of his ideas resonate with them? What if the economists who say there is no better way to organize society than expansion without limit spent time with Suzuki wondering how goods, services and social innovations might be produced and distributed in other ways?

Listening to his ideas might make us uncomfortable. It might make us feel bad about how the world is organized. It might make us fear for the future of our children and grandchildren in a world of destroyed habitats, mass extinctions, and climate chaos. And who wants that?

Suzuki will receive his honour in June. At that time, he may well speak about the consequences of burning fossil fuels. He may repeat his desire that humanity find a new sacred balance between economic activity and the health of the biosphere of which we are a part. But his words by themselves won’t shut down the oil industry. They won’t be the final nail in the coffin of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. They won’t bring about a new economic order in which competition is replaced by planetary cooperation and in which growth without limits is replaced by an accounting system that focuses on love, spiritual growth, and generational sustainability. Suzuki will speak, and the burning of fossil fuels will continue.

But I hope that the hospitality extended to Suzuki by the University of Alberta and the discussions it has sparked will expand our thinking and inspire our search for ways to live with abundance without also destroying the oceans and atmosphere.

Listening to contrary voices can be uncomfortable; and rage sometimes feels like a satisfying response. But rage doesn’t change the reality revealed by climate scientists nor does it do away with the environmental damage against which activists protest.

Instead of rage, I pray for hospitality. At home, at school, and at church, I hope that we will welcome new voices, listen to them, engage with each other respectfully, and give thanks when all parties are changed by the encounter.

In today’s reading from Acts, two very different people meet and extend hospitality to each other. Philip is an early follower of Christ who is spreading the good news of death and resurrection to other Jews. At the time, millions of Jews worshipped in synagogues around the Mediterranean.

When God’s Spirit sends Philip to meet an Ethiopian eunuch on a road leading away from Jerusalem, it has been several months since the death of Jesus. The apostles have fled persecution in Jerusalem. They are now preaching and healing outside of the city, and their numbers are growing.

The Ethiopian eunuch is in charge of the treasury of Queen Candace. He has come to Jerusalem to worship YHWH at the Temple, which suggests that he is a devout Jew. He is wealthy enough to travel by chariot and educated enough to be reading aloud from Isaiah.

But despite being educated and devout, the Ethiopian asks Philip to help him understand Scripture. Phillip uses the passage from Isaiah to talk about Jesus. He probably shows the Ethiopian how the portrait of a Suffering Servant in Isaiah could relate to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Having heard this, the Ethiopian asks Philip to baptize him. Philip does so, at which point the Spirit of God snatches Philip away and the Ethiopian goes on his way rejoicing.

For me, the most striking feature of the story is that this convert to Christ is a eunuch. Though rich, powerful, and educated, he is also a man who was emasculated at a young age so that he would be incapable of fathering children and would be seen as less of a threat to the African Queen whom he serves.

The first readers of the book of Acts might have been shocked that God’s Spirit would send Philip to baptize a eunuch. Eunuchs were never part of the royal court of Jerusalem, and most Jews considered men who had been emasculated as unfit for worship. The biblical books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus call for discrimination against eunuchs.

However, this African eunuch is not reading from Deuteronomy or Leviticus. He is reading from Isaiah; and in Isaiah 56, we find the following:

“This is what YHWH says: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant — to them I will give within my Temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.”

The fact that Acts contains this story about a eunuch shows that the early church came down on the side of Isaiah instead of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in regard to sexual minorities. Just as Jesus shared meals with sinners and tax collectors and embraced every despised minority whom he encountered, so too the early church extended hospitality to everyone, including eunuchs whom others might shun.

This background adds poignancy to the question the eunuch asks Philip: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Perhaps he fears that his black skin or his difficulties in understanding Scripture might be a barrier. But above all, he may fear that his despised status as an emasculated man might be a barrier to his baptism. Happily, Philip sees none of this. He baptizes the Ethiopian who becomes the first person to bring the good news of Christ to Africa.

This story implies that Grace is available to everyone regardless of nationality, race, or sexual status. Although sexual minorities, then and now, encounter disgust and hatred from many people, God’s Love accepts us all.

The hospitality that Philip and the eunuch extend to each other is risky. The eunuch could have preserved his old understanding of God and rejected the news of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Philip could have clung to the prejudices of his childhood and refused to speak to a person many of his peers would despise.

But this is not what happened. Philip and the Ethiopian engaged respectfully with each other and were changed. The eunuch became the first Christian in Africa, and Philip learned that those whom ancient tradition says he should despise are instead children of God.

The story shows that any one — even a despised environmentalist, I would say — can become a fellow pilgrim on the Way of Jesus.

Hospitality is risky. It can expand our souls and enlarge our spirits in ways that lead us away from old certainties and closer to God’s realm of Love.

May it be so. Amen.

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The perils of preaching

Text: Acts 2:14-41 (Peter preaches in Jerusalem)

If someone says you’re being preachy, that’s not a complement. If they say you tend to sermonize, that’s a complaint.

Preaching used to be held in high esteem. Preachers were wise elders to whom the community turned for guidance.

Now, we are often put in the same category as used car salespeople. Preachers are criticized for being moralistic, judgmental, and meddlesome. We may claim that we preach Good News, but many people say that we peddle ideas that are either nonsensical, toxic, or both!

As a preacher, I find these attitudes daunting. When I meet someone new, I hesitate to let them know my profession.

To be frank, I share some of the popular disdain for preaching. This may be one reason I became a minister. I wanted to craft worship experiences that would feed me. I don’t always succeed in this ambition, of course. But if I don’t like a Sunday gathering, a funeral, or a wedding, I only have myself to blame!

Last Thursday evening, a group of us talked about the perils of preaching at the “Hot Topics” group. We were discussing an article from the March 31 issue of the Globe and Mail. Titled “Cross Purposes: the battle for Christianity in Canada” and written by well-known Christian commentator Michael Coren, it focused on the efforts of right-wing Catholics and Evangelicals in Canada to reverse legislative progress on issues like reproductive rights and gay marriage.

Coren mentioned a recent worship service in a huge mega-church in Toronto at which the pastor introduced Ontario Conservative leader Doug Ford and praised him as God’s instrument that would bring Ontario back to holiness. The support for Ford by this pastor is reminiscent of Christians in the United States who enthusiastically support the current President despite of – or is it because of?– his sexism, racism, and disordered personal life.

In the last 50 years, the United Church has largely discarded the use of the word evangelism. We have ceded the word — which means spreading Good News — to the right-wing churches that dominate public discussion on moral matters.

The United Church used to be the pre-eminent evangelical voice in Canada. We were the largest Protestant church, and our Board of Evangelism and Social Service was a leading opponent of alcohol, gambling and other so-called symptoms of moral decay. From 1938 until 1962 it was led by the Rev. James Mutchmor, who was then elected Moderator. If Canada had a leader equivalent to the U.S. evangelist Billy Graham in those years it was Muthcmor.

The evangelism that informed the United Church at its founding in 1925 had two sides. One focused on personal holiness. The other focused on social reforms. People like Muthcmor opposed drinking not just because it was considered to be a moral failing, but because it led to poverty and violence towards women.

Since 1960, the United Church has abandoned much of its moralism and put greater emphasis on social reform. We were founded to support The British Empire and to uphold holiness. Since 1960, we have evolved to become a denomination that is critical of imperialism, that works to heal the wounds caused by colonialism, and that fights for justice and equality regardless of sex, gender, or race.

We are also much smaller than we were 50 years ago; and some say this decline is because of our social liberalism. But a similar or greater decline has effected all mainline denominations in Canada – Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and so on – even though many of them remain quite conservative.

Given how upset many of us are by so-called Christian leaders who preach hellfire for those who don’t adopt ancient belief systems and behavioural norms, perhaps we should abandon not just the word “evangelical,” but also the word “Christian.” One person suggested this idea on Thursday.

I imagine that Michael Coren would not agree. Coren was a prominent conservative evangelical who converted to what he calls Christian socialism in 2015 because of a change of heart on the issue of homosexuality. Today, Coren criticizes right-wing Christians for ignoring Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and marginal. He says the Good News is much closer to a United Church view than to those churches who don’t support equality for women, who condemn gay people, and who support Western military power.

But as radical as moving beyond both the words evangelism and Christianity sounds, I can see how it might fit with the Way of Jesus. This Way of the Cross is inherently radical. For the first followers of Jesus, such as those who gathered around Peter in today’s reading, this Way led beyond worship of YHWH in the Temple to more inclusive communities centered on love.

Now, almost 2,000 years after Jews in Jerusalem struggled to cope with the destruction of YHWH’s Temple, we too have difficulty in worshipping in old ways. This is true for all religious denominations – whether Anglican, Catholic, or United; Sunni, Shia, or Sufi; Hindu, Sikh, or Buddhist. All denominations find themselves in an intercultural world that puts its faith in science, humanism, and the social production of knowledge.

Fundamentalists in all these denominations call for a return to ancient morality and tribal loyalties. But doing so leads to discrimination against women and to violent clashes between competing tribal priorities.

Instead of fundamentalist reaction, I prefer following the Way of the Cross beyond our tribal roots.

In the United Church, our message is always going to involve the stories of Jesus and his Jewish tradition. But because Jesus leads us a path of death and resurrection, our communities are also called to evolve.

When Kim and I drove to Calgary on Easter Sunday, we passed a church whose lawn sign read that it was a church based in the Moravian tradition. I took this as an attempt by this congregation to break free of its tribal roots.

For centuries, it made sense for Czech Protestants who first organized in the province of Moravia to identify themselves as Moravian. But in Canada today, such an identity seems irrelevant. The same is probably true for the rest of us as well.

Reactionary religious leaders preach that the answers to personal and public questions are found in the traditions of their tribal heritage, whether that is Fourth Century Rome, Eighth Century Arabia, or Eleventh Century India.

I disagree. The Way of the Cross comes to us from the ancient past, but it leads us beyond that past to create communities that are relevant and loving in today’s intercultural world.

When I returned to church in 2001, it made sense that it was to my childhood roots in the United Church of Canada. However, I would not have been willing to return if the United Church hadn’t abandoned much of what leaders like Mutchmor preached back then.

Today as we sustain a community of faith, hope and love in Mill Woods, I pray that we will be freed by the Way of the Cross to continue to leave more of the past behind and to move towards new expressions of justice and love. May we do so as a United Church reaching for the future even if that future is post-denominational.

The Good News is that faith, hope and love still preach, especially when they are un-linked from those parts of our tribal past that are harmful or hateful.

As evangelists of the Way of the Cross, we have a powerful messages of sacrificial love, of sober realism, and of ecstatic mystery. Preaching these messages and following the radical path of Jesus has already taken us well beyond our Jewish, Catholic, and Presbyterian roots.

Many voices in conservative churches, mosques, and temples preach against new revelations of Love. My prayer is that the United Church will continue to be open to social change and not get stuck in tribal orthodoxies that prevent us from growing in Love.

May it be so. Amen.

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