Woke or not woke?

Text: Matthew 9:35-10:8 (Jesus calls the twelve)

“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure leprosy, expel demons.” These are the instructions that Jesus gives his first followers in the passage we just heard from Matthew.

But these twelve men are fishers and not doctors. How, then, are they supposed to heal the sick and cure leprosy? Even harder for me to understand is Jesus’ instruction that they expel demons. I don’t know what a demon is let alone know how to expel one. Nor, finally, do I know how to raise the dead. From this passage, it sounds to me as though Jesus wants his followers to perform magic.

As I confronted my puzzlement about it this week, I wondered if it was an issue of translation. So, I looked at several different ones, and the most recent translation I found made the meanings of the passage clearer for me.

In 2016, Thomas Moore — who is best known for the bestseller “Care of the Soul” — published a new translation of Matthew. In it, Moore translates the instructions that Jesus gives to his followers as follows: “Care for those who are suffering, wake up those who are unconscious, restore the rejected, and reject the demonic.”

In Moore’s translation, leprosy refers to all people who are rejected by society and whom the followers of Jesus can accept into their community. Healing the sick becomes caring for those who suffer. Expelling demons becomes rejecting the demonic, which brings to my mind standing against ideologies like racism or sexism. Finally, Moore translates “raising the dead” as helping those mired in illusions to wake up to reality.

I don’t know Greek, so I don’t know if Moore’s translation is “the best.” I do know that unlike others, his translation gives me something I can work with.

While not all of us can heal physical illness, we can be there for those who suffer, and we can listen to one another with open hearts. We may never meet a person with leprosy, but we can invite people rejected by mainstream society into the church. We might not believe in demons, but we can stand against ideologies that support violence and war. We may not be able to raise the dead, but we can invite our neighbours to walk with us on a spiritual path that leads to enlightenment.

The last point — of waking the unconscious — is the one I focus on today. In lives filled with worries and troubles, many forces can lull us to sleep. The world is filled with distractions and addictions; and being distracted or addicted can help us avoid unpleasant realities. They can help us not think about our individual mortality and be in denial of social ills like pollution, poverty, and war.

But being asleep also cuts us off from the beauty and joy that is available in any moment. Many people prefer to sleep, which I understand. But in the church, we work to wake ourselves and others from our slumbers so that we can joyously confront life without illusions.

The title of this sermon, “Woke or not woke?” is taken from a Netflix TV series that was released in April. “Dear White People” is a comic soap opera set among a group of Black students in a mostly White college in the United States. “Woke” is a slang term for “being conscious and not asleep,” and “being aware of what is going on in terms of social justice.”

In an episode called “Woke or not woke” one of the activists makes an app that rates the black students as either woke — aware of the devastation caused by racism — or not woke. The episode includes a fight at a house party that starts when someone uses the “N” word. The campus police are called, and the episode ends with a Black student shaking in fear as he stares into the barrel of a police officer’s gun.

It seemed sadly appropriate that Kim and I watched “Woke or not woke” this week when news broke of yet another police officer in the United States being acquitted of manslaughter after having shot and killed a Black man. The officer who killed Philando Castile in Minnesota was found not guilty despite a video that showed his point-blank shooting as seemingly unprovoked and unnecessary.

The endless litany of police killings in the United States — just like the stories of racist attacks in Canada against Indigenous people and Muslims — can discourage us. Perhaps it is better to be asleep to this reality to avoid feeling crushed.

Jesus tells his followers to stay conscious and to wake up their neighbours, even though this means taking up our cross and following him to his fate in Jerusalem. The cost of being awake on the journey is high, but we are confident that the reward of being in touch with grace, truth, and love makes the cost well worth it.

Lately, though, I have felt some new burdens to the work of staying awake to social injustices. I am not just speaking of our ongoing concerns about pollution, disease, and war, but about the rise of immorality as a successful brand.

I don’t often speak about immorality because I fear being moralistic. Morality refers to the values we hold sacred. Moralism is trying to impose a set of beliefs on others.

But this summer, I have decided to talk more about morality because of a shift in world culture. With the election of the 45th President of the United States last November, immorality has found new wings. The U.S. President not only acts in immoral ways — repeatedly lying; insulting people because of their race, religion, nationality, or ability; closing the borders to people fleeing war; cutting support to the poor while giving to the rich; and promoting military force over dialogue and cooperation. He has based his political success on his immoral words and actions.

It used to be that being caught in a lie, admitting to repeated sexual assault, or defaming whole nationalities and religions would end one’s political career. For the 45th President, however, they have been his ticket to success. His lack of shame in the face of his ignorance and immorality seems to be at the core of his appeal to the substantial minority that voted for him and who largely still support him.

I got the idea of immorality being the President’s brand from Naomi Klein’s new book, “No is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.” Klein knows a lot about branding having written “No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies” in 1999.

The idea of racism and dishonesty as a successful brand disturbs me. How, I wonder, can we continue to grow spirituality, help our children become moral in their words and actions, and promote honesty, kindness, and peace when the most powerful person in the world succeeds with a brand that promotes ignorance, insults, white supremacy, and violence?

As an antidote, this summer I plan to revisit some of the work Kim and I did last year as we prepared for our wedding. Each week, I will reflect on a different church sacrament as a way of tracing the stages of spiritual growth and of how we might promote spiritual growth in a time of public immorality.

On July 9, when I return after a week of vacation, I will look at baptism as an initiation not only into our status as children of God, but as people burdened and blessed by our ancestry. The challenge will be to find a path from fear to faith.

In subsequent weeks, I will look at confirmation as a path from shame to humility; at communion as a path from egotism to charity; at marriage as a path from grief to love; at confession as a path from lies to honesty; at ordination as a path from illusion to reality; and at last rites as a path from greed to union with God.

In the series, I will reflect on stories from the life of King David in the Hebrew Bible and those from the life of Jesus in the Gospels.

I undertake this series not to figure out how we can remove immoral leaders from power. I undertake it to help us to stay awake to God’s hope, joy, and love despite the success of immoral politicians and the ongoing predations of violent ideas and movements.

I pray that it will help us to stay “woke” not just to what we don’t like about the world, but also to the grace, truth and love that is always here for us.

We may not always be able to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cure leprosy, or expel demons.” But with God’s grace, we can often “care for those who are suffering, wake up those who are unconscious, restore the rejected, and reject the demonic.”

On the path with Jesus this summer, may we remain awake to each blessed moment both with its burdens and with its unutterable beauty, awe, and joy.

May it be so. Amen.

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A language that everyone can understand

Text: Acts 2:1-21 (the day of Pentecost) * Context: part of a joint service between Mill Woods United and Zimbabwe United Methodist – Edmonton

The dream of Pentecost is a sweet one. When tongues of flame alight on the heads of the first followers of Jesus, they are astonished to find they can preach in foreign languages. With the power of the Holy Spirit, people from different countries understand each other. The curse of the Tower of Babel is overcome and unity between different nations seems possible again.

Today, since we are worshipping in both English and Shona, I believe the story of Pentecost is a fitting one.

Even when people speak the same language, communication can be a challenge, and church is no exception. At church, we are blessed by ancient texts and traditions. But because they are ancient, they also present difficulties.

On Tuesday when I met with Rev. Tazi to organize this service, we compared our worship practices. Some of what we do in worship is the same and some is different. One difference is in the use of creeds. Every Sunday, the Zimbabwean congregation recites the ancient Apostles Creed, which in its English translation begins: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Tens of thousands of congregations around the world use it in worship every week. But few United Church of Canada congregations remain among that group.

At Mill Woods United when we recite a creed, it is the United Church Creed. We use it in baptism, and it forms the shape of our confirmation classes. So today in the place where the Zimbabweans would normally recite the Apostles Creed, we recited The United Church Creed.

Many people in the United Church are fond of the New Creed. Still, it has had its own controversies. When it was adopted in 1968, it began like this: “Man is not alone. Man lives in God’s world.” In the years that followed, a wave of feminism swept through the United Church. One of its aims was to make the language of worship more inclusive. This movement objected to referring to God only as Father and to humanity only as man. So, in 1980, the Creed was revised. It now begins: “We are not alone. We live in God’s world.”

I like the change. Not only does it not use the word “man” to refer to all humans, it turns the creed from a statement of personal belief into a communal profession.

At Mill Woods United, we also change the English translation of the Lord’s Prayer from “Our Father” to “Our Father, Our Mother.” I am OK when people use the more traditional translation. But I support the move over the last 50 years to make our language more inclusive.

Of course, these are small difficulties compared to the existence of different languages like Shona and English.

In the story of the first Pentecost, the barrier of language is removed for one day. But after this taste of unity, the church returns to the work of studying other languages and listening to people from far-off lands, work that continues to this day.

On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave the power to understand regardless of language for one day. But the enduring power of the Holy Spirit is Love. And, while love can be expressed in words, its most powerful expression is in action.

We know we are loved when a family member holds us when we are grieving. We know we are loved when a friend helps us when we are sick. We know we are loved when our neighbours join with us to fight for justice and equality. We know we are loved when others open their hearts to our reality in body, mind and soul.

Last Thursday, baby boomers marked the 50th anniversary of the release of the record “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band’ by the Beatles. For many of us, this album provided a soundtrack to 1967’s Summer of Love.

Happily, the power of Pentecost means that any season can become one of Love. When, with Grace, we act with love, the promise of Pentecost becomes real. The wounds of a fractured humanity are addressed, and the dream of creating God’s realm on earth as it is in heaven moves closer to reality.

This is the Holy Spirit, the power of God’s Love that is with us now and always.

“We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”

Amen.

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A humble path to unity

Text: John 17:1, 2, 17-21 (“that all may be one”)

The Anglican Church of Canada first floated the idea of uniting Canada’s Protestant churches in in 1885. In the decades that followed, five denominations discussed the idea, leading to the birth of the United Church of Canada. In 1925, Canada’s Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches merged to create a church that was second in size only to the Roman Catholics.

Today, I believe that union with other churches might again be on the horizon. But today, the path to unity looks different than it did 100 years ago.

A moment ago, we heard a prayer for unity offered by Jesus on the night of his betrayal. A phrase from that prayer — “that all may be one” — was adopted by the United Church as its motto 92 years ago. And today as we prepare for our Annual General Meeting, I reflect on how we might pursue unity in changed times.

Today’s annual meeting will be the fourth one at which I have been the minister here. But the run-up to this one has been different than the first three.

In May 2014, we were dealing with a lot of changes. Following a year in which most staff positions had been unfilled, the church had a new minister (me), a new Music Director, a new Child, Youth and Family Worker, and some money in the bank.

In May 2015, we had come through the changes of 2014 with a modest financial deficit and a reasonable amount of energy in leadership and membership.

Last year in May 2016, we were happy that a projected large deficit for 2015 had turned into a surplus. But we were perturbed by difficulties in finding people to take leadership roles.

Today, we are pleased that the financial deficit of 2016 was small even as we are alarmed at financial projections for this year. A congregational meeting in February rejected a budget with a large deficit. Because of this, one of the items at the meeting today will be passing a revised budget. With some cuts and some ideas to generate more energy for the church, Council is now confident that the congregation can survive for much longer than the 104 Sundays our Chairperson, Brian Sampson, projected in a letter sent to all members in April.

More importantly, I believe, the decisions made at today’s meeting will give us time in which to discuss new ways to sustain our ministry. Uniting with other faith communities might form part of those discussions — and not just with United churches, but with other denominations and even non-Christian faith communities.

Mill Woods United has many strengths. Despite our modest size, we carry out a lot of outreach and justice work. The staff provide a spine of administrative, spiritual, musical, and educational leadership. But the efforts of staff are dwarfed by all the hours of dedicated, creative, and joyous work offered every week by you.

The congregation’s strengths were evident at the 40th anniversary celebrations last November. And so, I am confident that we will find the spiritual, financial and human resources to survive and thrive for many years.

The aftermath of our February financial meeting presented some challenges for me. As I finish my sixth year as an ordained minister, I have a new awareness of the role of the minister not only in spiritual leadership on Sunday mornings and in pastoral occasions of celebration and mourning, but also in helping to corral the financial and personal resources of our members.

With a letter on Time and Talents in April and some one-on-one conversations, I have taken a more active role in finding leaders for the Council and new members for committees. Of course, this does not mean I am opposed to others identifying and nurturing talent or to people who volunteer without being asked — things which happen all the time, thankfully.

As for finances, I am grateful to Kathryn Hofley, the Financial Development Officer for the Prairie Region of the United Church. She met with me in March to promote United Church stewardship resources. After talking about this at Council and the Worship Committee, we decided that Nancy Siever and I will lead a five-week stewardship campaign in the Fall, which I am confident will yield good results.

But even if a renewed focus on finances and leadership is successful this year, our longer-term future may lie in uniting with our neighbours.

We are a mainline, liberal congregation, which is not an easy thing. The high-water mark for denominations like ours was in the early 1960’s. Since then, we have all been in steady decline, with the decline among children and youth being almost total.

On Wednesday, I found a history book in the Work Room. Called “Brief Halt at Mile 50,” it was published in 1975 to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Church of Canada.

When it was published, this congregation was gathering on Sundays in Grace Martin School and working towards becoming an official pastoral charge of the United Church, something that occurred the next November.

The book praises the men and women who founded and built the United Church through its first 50 years. It also notes that between 1965 and 1975, membership had declined by five percent and Church School attendance by 60%.

Since 1975, Sunday attendance has declined by two thirds and church school attendance by another 80%.

As members of the United Church, we might feel humiliated by these declines. We love God and neighbour, and we find joy in the work we do as a community. But we grieve the absence of our children and grandchildren in church.

Happily, humiliation has its consolations, as the stories of Jesus remind us. My prayer today is that from our humiliation will flow the virtue of humility.

Many things could follow as we grieve our losses and become humbler. For one, we might lose certainty in our beliefs and traditions and become more open to the practices of our neighbours in this intercultural neighbourhood and city.

Certainty was not lacking in the 1880s when church union was first discussed. In 1889, Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists gathered in Toronto to discuss union, and newspapers reported that “there was absolute agreement on all essential doctrines” (p. 10 of “Brief Halt”).

Today if this same group of churches gathered, there would probably be a lot of disagreement on doctrines. If the circle was widened to include Catholic, Pentecostal, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh communities, the disagreements might look like an unbridgeable gulf.

But from humility might flow a willingness to abandon doctrinal certainty in favour of love for broken and blessed people everywhere.

My prayer is that we and other faith communities will rise from humiliation to humility and so accept the changed conditions in which we work. This may open us to work with other communities who have been similarly humiliated and who like us want to continue serving in love.

For the foreseeable future, I assume we will continue to be Mill Woods United. But 15 years from now, it may be that we will have found ways to pray and work with other faith communities. With Grace, we may have moved closer to the dream of unity for which Jesus prayed.

Over the last 50 years, congregations of many denominations have been shrinking and closing. This is cause for anxiety and grief. But decline can also spark joy and hope that something new is coming, something we can hardly imagine, but which Jesus promises will be glorious.

In the reading we heard this morning, Jesus says that he is about to be glorified. By this, he means he is about to be crucified! He also prays that his glory will be shared by his friends so that they might be one.

The unity sought by Canadian Protestants 100 years ago was based on secular notions of glory. The five denominations that discussed union, and the three that eventually united, were all products of Christendom, the long era that ran from the Fourth Century to the 20th. They were churches of Empire, and so they reflected earthly power and glory.

But the glory that Jesus talks about requires death before resurrection. It is a path of ultimate humility, which also means it is a path that leads to a deeper unity than the one achieved by our forefathers and mothers in 1925.

As we follow Jesus on paths of death and resurrection, may we unite with other people of good will so that we can continue to live out the humble truths of Easter — that the crucified One is Risen, that death has been overcome, and that Love is both our Source and our sure destiny.

May it be so. Amen.

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Hymns to an unknown god

Text: Acts 17:22-31 (“an altar to an unknown god”)

Why are there so many different religions? If there is only one God, why are there are so many different paths to the Divine?

In today’s reading, Paul tackles the profusion of gods and goddesses in Athens. In the face of the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods worshipped in that city almost 2,000 years ago, Paul declares that God is One.

Over the next centuries, Christians like Paul convince many people in the Roman world to abandon idol worship in favour of the One God. Then in 380 CE, the Roman Empire adopts Christianity as its only legal religion. This act turns the Empire away from polytheism — where many gods are worshipped — to monotheism where only the Christian God — known as Source, Saviour, and Spirit — is worshipped.

But today only one in three people in the world today are Christian, and the church has divided into many denominations. Other world religions like Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are also divided into different denominations.

There may only be one God — variously known as Creator, Spirit, Abba, Allah, or Brahman. But there are many religious paths to the Holy One.

On Thursday, I attended a meeting of Mill Woods’ pastors. This was the second such meeting organized by The Mustard Seed, a downtown Christian mission. Our group has clergy from Anglican, Baptist, Moravian, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and United churches. We shared information about outreach efforts. But despite the similarities in our work, a lot of our worship and teaching is different.

The issue of religious diversity was addressed by one of the speakers at the “Embrace Festival” that I attended in Portland from May 4 to 7. Reba Riley is the author of “Post Traumatic Church Syndrome: a Memoir of Humor and Healing.” It details how in her 30th year she visited 30 different faith communities. She was trying to heal the spiritual wounds she suffered at age 19 when the fundamentalist church of her childhood in Columbus Ohio rejected her.

In 2011 and 2012, Riley attended services of — among others — Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Pentecostal, Protestant, Quaker, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Mormon, Muslim, Native American, Scientologist, Seventh Day Adventist, Sikh, Unitarian, and Wicca communities in Ohio. Riley also practiced meditation and underwent a 30-day juice fast. She read, talked, and listened. And in the end, she felt a large measure of healing.

In experiencing 30 different paths, Riley regained an appreciation for the Christian foundation given to her by her childhood church without agreeing with its moralistic teachings. She had mystical experiences that revealed a unity at the depths of many paths. And she came up with the following mantra for her meditation: “Jesus-Rama-Krishna-Christo-Abba-Allah-leluia.”

I appreciated her book and the thoughts it inspired. But before touching on those, I have a few observations about monotheism and polytheism.

The purest monotheism I ever experienced is not that of our Jewish and Muslim brothers who sometimes argue that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is polytheistic. The purest monotheism I ever experienced was during the 30 months I lived in Saskatchewan.

In Saskatchewan, the One most people worship is the Riders football team! Given that professional sports teams are key objects of devotion today and given that Saskatchewan has only one pro sports team, the strength of the attachment of people in the province to the Roughriders is a wonder to behold.

I moved to southern Saskatchewan in 2011 after living in Toronto for 35 years. Torontonians are also devoted to sports, but happily they now have more than one team to choose. The Maple Leaf hockey team still holds pride of place. But since the 1970s, the city has added Blue Jays baseball, Raptors basketball, and FC soccer as other teams the locals can cheer. The worship of sports there is now polytheistic.

I used to fear the day that the Maple Leafs might play again in the Stanley Cup Final because of the frenzy that would result. Fifty years of hockey futility have kept that danger at bay. But even if the Maple Leafs do once again ascend to the heights they last achieved in 1967, the fever that would plague Toronto might be lessened by the presence of the other pro sports teams there.

Worship of sports teams is a form of idolatry, of course, although a relatively innocuous one. And when it comes to idol worship, I prefer polytheism to monotheism. Having more than one idol helps to dilute fanaticism, I believe.

For this reason, I hope that Saskatoon lands a soccer franchise so that Rider fundamentalism can be dialed down a little in Saskatchewan.

Of course, the worship of sports teams, just like the worship of gold and silver idols in Athens long ago, is not the path we try to walk at Mill Woods United Church. But like everyone else, we sometimes struggle to rise above idolatry to a practice and mission that is connected to the Source we call Love.

There are many ways to avoid the traps of fundamentalism and fanaticism, I believe. Staying humble in the face of the findings of science is one. Striving for inclusivity in a diverse society is another. Pursuing equality, freedom and abundance in the face of nationalism, war, and greed is another. There are probably many more. These are just ones that come to my mind today

Whenever fundamentalism and fanaticism are evident, idolatry is also present. Happily, life offers us many opportunities to pursue projects like that of Reba Riley that help us to be humble and grateful in the face of a higher power called Love. When love forms the heart of worship and mission, what might seem polytheistic on the surface can be connected to the Holy One at the depths.

Over the course of history, different peoples have found different paths to the Divine. Sometimes we stumble away from Love and towards self-righteousness and violence. But when we accept the Grace to go deep, fundamentalism and fanaticism dissolve. Mystical union with Source appears. And a mission of solidarity, humility, and Love unfolds in our hands and hearts.

May it be so. Amen.

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First communion

Text: Luke 24:13-35 (the Road to Emmaus)

Introductory words to worship service . . . 

Sometimes church involves strange elements. Today’s service includes two of my favourite things that might seem strange to some: communion, and an anthem the choir will sing, “Christ the Apple Tree.”

I first sang “Christ The Apple Tree” at a Christmas Eve service at Kingston Road United Church in Toronto in 2003, and I loved it. The words are evocative but difficult to understand. The first verse goes like this:

The tree of life my soul hath seen / Laden with fruit and always green
The trees of nature fruitless be / compared with Christ the apple tree

This old American carol is associated with Christmas, perhaps because of wassailing, a tradition where people go door-to-door singing carols and offering a drink from a wassail bowl of apple cider.

At a recent choir practice, Wendy Edey asked if there was any connection between the image of Christ the Apple Tree and the Bible. I don’t think there is, although the words bring to my mind the Garden of Eden, the Cross, and resurrection.

When Bryan told us that he had chosen “Christ the Apple Tree” for our anthem this Sunday, I remembered a sermon I had written in 2009 that ends with a reference to this strange carol. Since I believe this sermon fits well with communion, with today’s Gospel reading, and with Mother’s Day, I reprise it today.

My hope is that all the elements of today’s service, including those that may strike us as strange, will combine like the spices in hot cider to remind us of our calling and perhaps even to transform us a little from glory into glory.

Reflection

Do you remember your first communion? Perhaps you were quite young at the time and don’t remember. Perhaps like me your first communion was part of a Confirmation service when you were 13 or 14. For some of us, it may not have seemed important. For others, it may have been life-changing.

In today’s reflection, I look at the stories of three first communions.

The first comes from 2009. On a Thursday evening that summer, I sat beside a 14-year old boy named Mitchell at a worship service, and it was the first time that he took communion. Mitchell lived in London Ontario; and although he seemed like a trouble-maker, I liked him. He was restless and sceptical. He kept up a running stream of critical comments during the sermon. But he took communion.

The were 600 of us, mostly teenagers, in a gym at Brock University in St Catharines Ontario. The service was part of a five-day youth conference of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and I was there as part of a credit course on youth ministry given by Knox College, the Presbyterian seminary at the University of Toronto.

The first thing Mitchell noticed when he sat down beside me in the bleachers of the gym was the table set up on the stage. I told Mitchell that it meant we were probably going to have communion on this, the fourth of five evenings. The stage was beneath huge video screens; and each night of the conference, a worship service of 90 minutes to two hours happened there.

Before the Thursday service, the video screens were devoted to a display of text messages, which people in the gym broadcast from their cell phones to a number displayed on the screen. I watched Mitchell as he texted “I am amazing!” on his cell phone, and then about two minutes later, I pointed out to him when his little quip joined the scroll of messages unfurling on the screen.

When the service got around to communion, Mitchell was sorry to hear that they were serving juice and not real wine. Then when the minister directed us to not dip our fingers into the chalice of grape juice, Mitchell blurted out “Gross!”

Mitchell told me that he didn’t believe in God. He had come to this event simply as another week at summer camp . . . except that, unlike his other camps, this one had a steady drumbeat about Jesus going on in the background.

Most of my ancestors were Presbyterian. Many of the original members of the United Church of Canada in 1925 were Presbyterians. And the church I attended when I was a child in Cornwall ON and where I first took communion had been Knox Presbyterian church before it became Knox United in 1925.

But despite my Presbyterian roots, I sometimes felt like an alien at the Presbyterian youth conference eight years ago in St. Catherine’s.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the week or the course of which it was a part. I learned a lot from our professor who was an expert on youth ministry from Minneapolis. I also got along well with the 13 other students, all but one of whom were Presbyterians. But I didn’t like the tone of the worship services: there was so much emphasis on the triumphal side of Jesus as King and not much on Jesus as a Suffering Servant. I believed that my grandparents might have felt at home there — well, not at home with the praise songs, the video screens, the strobe lighting, and the rock music; but perhaps at home with the theology! Not me, though.

I worried about Mitchell encountering Christian worship for the first time with such an exclusive focus on Jesus as a powerful King. That evening, we sat through a rap video called “That’s my King: do you know him?” A bass voice asked if we knew the King of Kings, the King of Israel, the King of the Jews, the King of Heaven, and the King of Righteousness. Added to this was an endless string of rhythmic superlatives. “He is endlessly merciful. He is enduringly strong. He is entirely sincere. He is immortally graceful” and on and on. I turned to Mitchell and whispered, “Who do you think he is rapping about: Michael Jackson? Harry Potter?”

When the service was over, I wished Mitchell a good year and said that my prayer for both of us was that — with or without God — we might live lives filled with love. And then we said goodbye.

So, while I was impressed by the size and ambition of this national Presbyterian youth conference, I fear that this was not a perfect first communion experience for Mitchell. I worried that he might have found it to be phony or forced.

On the other hand, worship involves lots of hard work, and luck; and theology is an ongoing challenge. So who was I to criticize this worship service? It didn’t “work” for me, but maybe it was a moment of grace for Mitchell. I pray that it was . . .

Our Gospel reading this morning tells of another first communion. It is about two followers of Jesus who discover at the dinner table that they are in the presence of the Risen Christ.

The two had gone to Jerusalem with Jesus for Passover, and it is now seven days since they entered the city on Palm Sunday. As they walk back to their village, a stranger joins them to talk with them about the terrible events of the week. When they arrive home, they invite him to dinner. And when the stranger breaks bread, they become aware he is no ordinary companion. He is the Risen Christ.

This story is a reminder of why we celebrate communion. In the breaking of bread, we too hope to catch a glimpse of the Risen Christ, which is a divine spark that lives within us. Sometimes we glimpse this spark around a family dinner table, especially when the family is a community of faith and the table is the Lord’s Table . . .

To finish, I will read an account of another first communion experience, one that was momentous for the author. I am reading from Sara Miles’ 2007 memoir, “Take this Bread: a radical conversion.”

Her book begins like this: “One early, cloudy morning in 1999 when I was forty-six years old, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine. This is a routine Sunday activity for many. But not for me. Up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life. At best, I had been indifferent to religion; more often I was appalled by its fundamentalist crusades.

This was my first communion. And it changed everything. It led me against all expectations to a faith that I’d scorned. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food — indeed, the bread of life . . .

She continues: “Mine is a personal story of an unexpected and inconvenient conversion, told by an unlikely convert: a blue-state, secular intellectual; a lesbian; and a left-wing journalist . . . I stumbled into a radically inclusive faith centered on sacraments and action . . . I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcomed and the despised and outcast are honoured” (pp. xiii-xiv).

That’s how Sara Miles begins her book. All four of her grandparents had been Christian missionaries. But both of Sara’s parents had rebelled at a young age against their parents and become militant atheists. This explains Sara’s surprise and awkwardness when she became a Christian at age 46. I recommend her book.

Here is more of what Sara Miles’ wrote about her first communion.

“When I walked into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco, I’d never heard a Gospel reading and never said the Lord’s Prayer . . . On many walks, I’d passed the beautiful wooden building, and this time I went in . . . A man and a woman in long tie-dyed robes stood and began chanting in harmony. There was no organ, no choir, no pulpit: just the unadorned voices of the people, and long silences, framed by the ringing of deep Tibetan bowls. I sang, too. It crossed my mind that this was ridiculous . . .

‘Jesus invites everyone to his table’ a woman announced . . . and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ,’ and handing me a goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’ . . .

I was in tears and physically unbalanced . . . I wanted that bread again . . . It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger . . . And so, a pattern developed — me going to St. Gregory’s, taking the bread and bursting into tears, drinking the wine and crying some more. I knew I couldn’t say a word about it to my mother: the idea of her scorn filled me with dread. Communion? Jesus? What was I thinking?” (pp 57-62).

But at the end of the book, Sara writes how she at last did confess to her atheist mother. She writes, “it turned out that I had to cook for my mother to do it . . . the table was set with bread and wine and lamb . . . I broke the bread and lifted my glass and said, ‘Mom, I have to tell you something. I’ve become a Christian. I’ve started going to church.’

I can’t remember exactly what the two of us said, but as our conversation spilled out slowly, then in little rushes, I felt fear evaporating — not just mine but hers.

My mother was kinder than I deserved. ‘I guess I’m a bigot,’ she said. ‘It’s just that I had to fight so hard against my parents’ religion. It cost me so much. I can’t believe in it.’

I blurted out the stuff that I loved about Jesus. ‘It’s about food,’ I said. ‘And being with people who aren’t like me.’

She looked at me. ‘I get that,’ she said. I could see the rigid, frightened mother and the rigid, frightened child. ‘But,’ she said, ‘I told my mother when I was ten that I didn’t believe in God, and I haven’t believed ever since.’ She took a bite of her meat. It was dark outside now, the last light gone down over the hills to the west, and I thought of my mother listening, unbelieving, to her missionary parents pray in Baghdad, in Damascus, in Baltimore and New York, until they too were gone, and she was left with her yearning and her refusal.

‘I loved the hymns, though’ she said. ‘I bet I still know all the verses.’

And I remembered my mom singing to me, long ago. ‘Time like an ever-rolling stream’ she’d croon, ‘bears all our cares away.’ And the Handel tune about Zion, and ‘Love Divine,’ with its amazing flourish at the end, proclaiming that we would all be ‘changed from glory into glory.’

‘Do you know this one?’ I asked. It was a clean, odd Shaker tune. I’d learned it at morning prayer, and I loved the minor, shape-note harmonies. I sang, ‘For happiness I long have sought, and pleasure dearly I have bought. I missed of all, but now I see, it’s found in Christ the apple tree.’

‘Christ as an apple tree?’ my mother said. ‘Huh.’

She poured me some more wine.

It wasn’t official Eucharist. It was real communion . . . made by human hands out of meat and hope. It was what the Russian mystics called ‘a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, where none are left behind'” (277-8).

This morning, my prayer is that our celebration of communion will remind us that God’s Love lives within, between and all around us.

May it be so. Amen.

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“The Word and the Way”

Text: John 14:1-14 (“I am the way, the truth, and the life”)

“Behold, behold, I make all things new, my promise is true, for I am Christ the way.” Each Sunday this spring, we sing these words as the offering is brought forward. The last line, “I am Christ the Way” is inspired by today’s reading in which Jesus tells his friends that he is the way, the truth, and the life.

But what is the Way of Jesus? The four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — paint different pictures. While many things about Jesus are the same in all four — his focus on love of God and neighbour, for instance — the differences might imply different paths.

Matthew emphasizes behaviour; Mark emphasizes death and resurrection; Luke emphasizes justice; and John emphasizes belief.

As people of the Way, we combine these emphases. We take up our cross while teaching ethics and doctrine and working for justice.

Right behaviour, right belief, and right action on the Way of the Cross — for many of us, this is the formula of the Way.

And there is a lot to recommend this approach. But today I pause to look at the differences in the gospels and what they might imply about the Way of Jesus.

First Matthew. Only in Matthew does Jesus say that unless we feed the hungry and clothe the naked, we will not enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 25).

In church, ethics are central. We operate The Bread Run; teach our children to act with kindness; and preach the Golden Rule. And so, the picture of Jesus painted in Matthew plays a big role in the imagination of those of us who gather in church to hear God’s Word and to live out Jesus’ teachings as people of the Way.

Second Mark. In Mark, Jesus teaches and heals. But the heart of Mark is Jesus’ call to his friends to take up their cross and follow him to death and new life (Mark 8). Mark is the oldest gospel. It shows Jesus and his friends living free from religious rules and walking towards the cross.

Third Luke. In Luke, Jesus offers the list of blessings we call the Beatitudes and which are also found in Matthew. But in Luke, Jesus does not bless “the poor in spirit” but simply “the poor.” In Luke, Jesus does not bless “those who hunger for righteousness” but simply “the hungry.” Only in Luke does Jesus say, “woe to the rich” (Luke 12). Jesus seems more focused on equality and justice in Luke than in the other three.

Luke’s picture of Jesus plays a big role in the imagination of those of us who gather in church to hear God’s Word and to live out Jesus’ teachings. As followers of the Way, we work for a society in which war is no more and everyone has the basics of life. On the path towards death and new life, we act not only with charity and kindness. We also struggle for peace with justice.

Finally, John. In John, Jesus talks about himself and not the Kingdom of God. He says we must believe in him to be saved.

Jesus uses several metaphors to describe himself in the Gospel of John. Besides the Way, the Truth and the Life, in other passages Jesus says that he is the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Good Shepherd, Living Water, the Resurrection and the Life, and the True Vine.

John adds “The Word” as another metaphor for Jesus. He starts his gospel by writing, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him.”

I titled this sermon “The Word and the Way” based upon a book of the same title by the Rev. Donald Mathers. It was published by the United Church of Canada in 1962. “The Word and the Way” was the first book in the “New Curriculum” series that transformed adult education and Sunday school in the 1960s. Mathers took two of the metaphors for Jesus found in John — the Word and the Way — to name his book, which introduced the series.

The New Curriculum was based on biblical scholarship of the last 200 years. Sadly, many people in the church were upset by it because it treated the stories in the Bible as metaphor and not history. It is one thing to believe in historical facts. But what, many people wondered, does it mean to believe in a metaphor?

Personally, I appreciate a metaphorical approach. Christ the Way is not about the words in our heads. It is a movement of friends and pilgrims who care for each other and the world and who struggle to create a society in which love flourishes.

Christ the Way is about death and rebirth. On the Way, God’s Grace shines in both the pains and the joys of life even as it challenges our notions about right behaviour, right actions, and right beliefs.

What looked like the height of social justice 500 years ago can seem like rank prejudice today. What looked like true doctrine 1000 years ago can seem like blind nonsense today. What the accepted rules of behaviour were 2000 years ago can seem like tribal nonsense today.

Happily, walking with Jesus on the Way leads to death and rebirth in which all things are made new.

Jesus is a Word of Love that challenges and changes us. Every day we try to discern what is ethical; what justice demands of us; and what we should believe in the light of new knowledge. But like everything else, our ethical standards, social norms, and religious beliefs wither away and die. In their place, new standards, norms, and beliefs graciously arise that are closer to God’s Love.

I appreciate all four gospels and the help they give us in knowing right behaviour, right action, and right belief. But far above all texts, I rejoice in the Grace of Christ the Way.

As mortal humans, we will never get our actions and beliefs right. But on the Way, we have fellow pilgrims who follow the Holy One to the cross and beyond into the eternal light of Easter. There we discover a new life that rises above our flawed behaviours, actions, and beliefs.

And for this Easter truth, I say, “Thanks be to God in Christ, the Holy One who is both Word and Way.”

Amen.

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Meeting the Risen Christ

Text: John 20:19-31 (Thomas doubts the resurrection)

What do we know, and how do we know it? These questions arise from today’s Gospel reading.

Mary Magdalene had come to know Jesus had been raised from the dead when he appeared to her outside an empty tomb on the first Easter morning. A handful of his other friends come to know he has been raised from the dead that same evening after Jesus suddenly appears to them in a locked room.

But Thomas isn’t with them, and he doesn’t believe what the others say. It is only when Jesus appears to Thomas in the same locked room a week later that he comes to believe in the resurrection.

John ends his gospel by saying that he has written it so that we might believe in resurrection not by seeing and touching as with Thomas, but on faith.

Many people think that faith is reserved for stories like Easter. But in fact, we hold nearly all beliefs on faith.

There are a few things of which we have direct knowledge such as the sensations in our bodies and the external evidence of our senses. We also have direct knowledge of family members and friends.

But except in areas where we are specialists, our knowledge of things outside of we can see and hear around us is based on faith. This knowledge is stored in textbooks and encyclopedias, shared in tools like maps and directories, and spread by news media and conversation.

I have never attended a meeting on the new Valley Line LRT, but I trust that it is being built down 66 Street because I have read about in the paper. I have never been to San Jose, but I trust that the Oilers  won a hockey game there last night because I watched it on TV.

At a more abstract level, I trust historical facts like the age of the universe — 13.8 billion years — the name of the person who invaded England in 1066 — William the Conqueror — and the disability that afflicted the composer Beethoven — deafness — because they are public knowledge.

Knowledge is a river of words in which we graciously swim. It is the source of most of what we know, and we take most of it on faith.

This is not to say our faith is irrational. We trust the people close to us based on experience over time. We trust much of what is given to us by school, the media, and books because of the practical power it gives us.

Before the modern era, most social knowledge was disseminated by religion. For thousands of years, the world’s temples, churches, and mosques transmitted the wisdom of the ages.

Before 1600 or so, it was reasonable to accept on faith the teachings and traditions of one’s religious tradition. It was the only source people had.

But in the last few centuries, science has emerged as a leading source of knowledge. Scientists use objective methods shared by people of all backgrounds. Their observations, predictions, and discussions help them to take ordinary words and concepts and refine them into reliable theories.

After centuries of investigation, humanity now knows that the sun does not circle the earth. On faith, we accept the conclusion that the sun is a huge ball of hydrogen about 150 million kilometers from the earth and that the earth circles around it. We use the ancient words sun and earth given to us by our ancestors, but science has changed their meanings and our understandings of them.

In this scientific age, our faith in the reports of Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospel of John might feel as shaky as our faith in ancient stories that the sun circles the earth.

Happily, we don’t have to accept John’s gospel account on faith to know the truth of death and resurrection. We too can have personal experience of it — although our personal experiences will be more like those of St. Paul than of Thomas.

According to biblical scholars, Paul wrote his letters before the four gospels were written. This might explain why Paul’s biblical letters say little about the life of Jesus. For instance, he never mentions Bethlehem, Nazareth, or Galilee. He never writes about any of the parables or teachings of Jesus.

The only detail about Jesus that Paul’s letters share with the four gospels is death and resurrection. In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul writes “I have been crucified with Christ, and it’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20).

Here, Paul is referring not to the crucifixion on Good Friday but to his own conversion experience on the road to Damascus years later. While painful, Paul’s conversion has allowed him to rise above egotism and to enter a gracious space in touch with God’s Spirit of Love.

The accounts of Jesus’ death in the four gospels contradict each other. Nevertheless, they resonate with moments of disillusionment in our lives. In a similar way, the stories of resurrection in the four gospels contradict each other. Nevertheless, they resonate with the joy we experience when our ego dissolves and is replaced by a connection with God in Christ.

Like Thomas, we may not believe in resurrection until we experience it personally. But even though we don’t have a chance to see and touch the body of Jesus, we can still know the Risen Christ. The Risen Christ sometimes graciously appears when our egos dissolve. Sometimes, we also see Christ in the face of friends and neighbours with whom we struggle for justice and love.

Viewing crucifixion and resurrection in this way allows me to keep faith in today’s scientific knowledge while also remaining within the tradition of the church.

Today, scientists say they feel under threat. Yesterday, more than 500 Marches for Science were held around the world. They protested cuts to research, the denial of facts like climate change, and the rise of leaders who reject evidence-based policy. In a time with rising fear of social change, racist leaders are successfully undermining faith in science and in policies that focus on the needs of humanity.

Protests like those that happened yesterday expose agendas that don’t align with our sacred values. They increase our knowledge of what is possible. And even if they don’t achieve success, they help us express our love in joy.

Like Thomas, sometimes we are skeptical of things we hear. Unlike him, we don’t have a chance to confirm the various gospel accounts of resurrection. But like Paul, sometimes we experience painful moments of crucifixion followed by a joyous rebirth of love. These crucifixions and resurrections can create in us an unshakeable faith in God’s Love.

This Easter as we try to maintain our faith against those who spread irrational fear, I pray that we will meet the Risen Christ again in our hearts and in the struggle for love with justice.

May it be so. Amen.

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