The talking cure

Text: Luke 4:14-22 (Jesus preaches at Nazareth)

Do you ever say magic words? Perhaps as a kid you said “abracadabra” or “open sesame” when trying to impress your friends with a trick.

Words matter. They have power. But does this power ever rise to the level of magic?

The sacraments of the church can seem magical. In preparing for today’s service, I had the Catholic sacrament of confession at the back of my mind. In the confession booth, one bares one’s soul to a priest who, after assigning a penance of prayer, offers assurance that God forgives you. The power of confession makes part of me wish that Protestants hadn’t dropped it as a sacrament along with four of the other seven Catholic sacraments 500 years ago.

This morning, we will celebrate communion, which is one of the two sacraments that Protestants retained in the 1500’s during the Reformation. Communion also has moments of magic.

In communion prayers, Roman Catholics believe that the words said by the priest over the bread and wine turn them into the actual body and blood of Christ. The moment of transubstantiation occurs when the priest says “hoc est enim corpus meum,” which is Latin, for “this is my body.”

[Until the 1960s, Catholic priests said communion in Latin and not in modern languages]

The magic phrase “hocus pocus” is a corruption of “hoc est enim corpus meum;” and while Protestants retained the sacraments of communion and baptism when they broke from Catholicism, many Protestants view the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation as so much hocus pocus. While we trust that communion helps us remember our connection to God, we don’t believe that a magical change occurs in the bread and wine just because of the words said by a priest or minister.

But I wonder if we Protestants should be more open to the magic of words. Words matter. They have power. And they way that Jesus uses words often seems magical.

In today’s Bible passage, Jesus reads from the ancient book of Isaiah. He makes a short statement about the reading. And he impresses the people of his hometown Nazareth who have come to hear him.

“God’s Spirit is upon me,” Jesus says as he reads from Isaiah. “He has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to free those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the year of God’s favour.”

After reading this, Jesus adds, “Today, in your hearing, this scripture is fulfilled!” These are bold words. One might even say they are magic.

Unfortunately, Jesus’ statement that Isaiah’s words are fulfilled doesn’t by itself heal the broken-hearted. It doesn’t give deliverance to captives. It doesn’t restore sight to the blind; and it doesn’t free all who are oppressed. This didn’t happen in Nazareth when Jesus made his statement nearly 2,000 years ago; and it still hasn’t happened today.

So why were Jesus’ words so warmly received, and in what sense might they be true today?

Words are a preacher’s main tools. We are always saying comforting things — “God forgives us.” “All is well, and all will be well.” “Death has lost its sting.” “Love wins.” “The Holy Spirit is with us now and always.”

But just because we say such things doesn’t make everything better. Or does it?

While Jesus’ announcement that this is the Year of God’s favour doesn’t solve practical problems, it points to a deeper awareness of Love. It also directs us toward healing and freedom despite the harsh conditions of life.

When we share brokenness with someone who listens with an open heart, a large measure of healing can happen. When we preach liberty to those who are oppressed, we strengthen the community’s intention to work for justice. When we proclaim recovery of sight to those who are blind, we uphold the value of enlightenment. Blind people might not regain physical sight, but the words remind us to stay awake.

Words spoken from the heart can stir us; they can change us; and they can heal us. In this sense, words can work magic.

Unfortunately, words can also obscure and hurt. Too often we are surrounded by the clanging words of advertisers, politicians and pundits. Insults get hurled and outrageous claims are made.

I try to weed out harmful words by checking if the speaker has a hidden agenda. Are their words full of judgements instead of feelings and personal perspectives? Do their words unite or do they divide based on race, religion, or nation?

In a culture filled with the noise of insults and judgements, it can be difficult to tune into our feelings and to express our deepest values. Perhaps this is why we come to church. In church, we separate words of wheat from those of chaff. We remember our sacred values. And in church, we stop, pray, and reflect. Then, after listening, we allow words to arise in our hearts and come to our lips in the hope that they will reflect love and not hate; hospitality and not exclusion; humility and not pride.

Sometimes, when we do this, magic happens. A moment of prayer helps us cope with loss. A kind word lifts some of our loneliness. An honest exchange of feelings helps understanding to blossom.

The phrase “the talking cure,” which is the title of this sermon, refers to the work of psychologists. By talking with a sympathetic therapist, past traumas and current hurts become clearer. Combined with an ability to name and express feelings, this greater understanding can turn a person’s life around. The same thing can happen when friends listen to each other with love.

In church, we practice the talking cure. We hear the stories of our tradition. We share our personal stories. We listen for the still small voice of God. And when we feel so moved, we speak words of hope into the silence. In doing so, we build community and spread enlightenment in a way that can seem magical.

Words are not everything, of course. Sometimes prayer needs to be accompanied by ritual, as at the communion table. Sometimes nothing can replace actions of outreach and solidarity. But at other times, words are our only option.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus preached liberty and announced a new day of hope for the poor. Today, his words continue to encourage the work of love and justice.

Regardless of any pain or difficulties we may be experiencing, Jesus reminds us that this is the day of God’s favour. Healing is at hand. Understanding is available. Freedom is coming.

And because we trust that this is true, we may feel moved to say again into the silence some magical works of healing — “All is well, and all will be well.”

Thanks be to God.



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“Love Among the Ruins”

Text: John 2:1-11 (the wedding at Cana)

Marriage is the most challenging and rewarding relationship that many of us experience. So, when I meet with a couple to plan their wedding, I recommend that they attend a marriage preparation course.

At the same time, I usually bring up the quote from therapist David Schnarch that is printed in today’s bulletin: “Nobody’s ready for marriage. Marriage makes you ready for marriage.” It is from his 1997 bestseller “Passionate Marriage.”

His statement reminds us that marriage brings unanticipated challenges, which, with grace, lead to spiritual growth. Marriage is a crucible that provides opportunities to confront our strengths and weaknesses, turn our potential into reality, and refine our ability to love and be loved.

At its best, marriage — like any significant loving relationship — is a vessel in which our watery potential is turned into something like a spirited and satisfying wine.

When John wrote the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding feast, I doubt this analogy was in his mind. But I think an analogy between marriage and winemaking works. The people in a couple are like the grapes on a vine in which rain, nutrients, and sunshine have combined to produce fruit. The soil is family, and the nutrients and sunshine are the social matrix in which they have grown.

In marriage, two people who have fallen in love vow to care for each other and live together. This is analogous to the process of pressing and fermenting the grapes. Marriage vows create a crucible that is like an oak cask in which wine is aged and which gives it much of its flavour.

Like winemaking, the spiritual growth that occurs in a marriage is messy. But the love that results give our lives much of their meaning. The vintage produced in a marriage is a love refined by trials and tribulations of all kinds.

Of course, not all marriages yield the hoped-for results. In Canada today, almost half of marriages end in divorce. Living with a spouse and raising children are difficult tasks, and no marriage or family is ever perfect. Sometimes the wine turns sour. Sometimes the end-product does not satisfy.

Nevertheless, we fall in love, get married, raise children, and develop deep relationships with friends because love — despite all that we don’t understand about it — is our source, our deepest calling, and our sure destiny.

Loving other people is predicated on self respect and acceptance of one own’s reality. So today, I focus on some of the barriers to self-acceptance.

So far this summer, we have examined four stages of spiritual growth. Three weeks ago, it was the blessings of our ancestry. Life is a gift, and our families are a huge part of that. But no family exists that hasn’t been scarred by the traumas of the past — things like war, poverty, and oppression; and our bodies are not only the awesome product of 14 billion years of cosmic and 3 billion years of biological evolution. They are also fragile, prone to pain, and mortal.

To accept our physical reality, we are forced to accept that fragility and mortality, which is a difficult step for most of us. To accept our heritage, we are forced to come to grips with the wounds of past traumas as well as past blessings.

Two weeks ago, we looked at emotional identity. Our bodies yield a myriad of sensations that give rise to feelings and which motivate our behaviour. But human feelings include both the ones we like — pleasure, curiosity, and joy; and ones we struggle with — anger, fear, and disgust. Accepting our emotional reality means finding ways to cope with the whole gamut, which is a challenge for most of us.

Last week, we looked at personal identity and power. As we mature into adulthood, we develop our abilities to act and engage with the world. Unfortunately, we are also faced with the many things we can’t do. Especially galling may be our inability to create the world of justice and peace for which we yearn. Accepting our personal power also involves accepting our limitations, which is a challenge for most of us.

Today our focus is on love looked at through the lens of marriage. We yearn to both love and be loved. But to love our spouse and children we need to love ourselves. None of us can do this perfectly, especially during the earlier stages of life, which is one reason why so many of our marriages run into trouble.

The route to self-acceptance often involves grief. Even as we rejoice in our ancestors and our physical bodies, we often need to grieve that there is so much dysfunction in our heritage and so much bodily pain associated with injury, sickness, and aging.

Even as we rejoice in our sensations and our feelings, we often need to grieve that so much hurt, fear, and anger is part of the mix.

Even as we rejoice in our personal power, we often need to grieve that there seems to be little that we can do to confront injustice, heal our own wounds and those of others, and create a society of peace and abundance for all.

Grief work is not a one-time thing. Most of us build a circle of friends, date people to whom we are attracted, fall in love, get married, and start to raise a family long before we have done all the work required to accept life in its awesome and contradictory fullness.

When we first fall in love and marry, we do so with much of our grief work undone. We build families while we are still burdened by old defences and with unconscious wounds that lie about us like so many land mines on a field of battle.

And that is OK, because nobody is ready for marriage. It is only marriage that makes you ready for marriage. It is only parenting that makes you ready for parenting. It is only ministry that makes you ready for ministry . . . and so on.

Happily, marriage, parenting, and ministry inevitably confront us with our stuff. Problems arise. Communication breaks down. Disagreements and unhappiness accumulate. And so, we are given opportunities to let the ferment of this pain produce grief and then acceptance. Even as we create families out of love, the vicissitudes of life give us chances to refine love and deepen it.

The stories of Jesus’ disciples help to illustrate the process. Today’s story of the wedding feast occurs right after Jesus has called them. They are simple peasants who minister with him in Galilee and then travel to Jerusalem. They respond to Jesus’ call out of love, but they do so in ignorance. The disciples don’t know their own capabilities. They don’t understand the significance of their teaching and healing. They are dumbfounded when Jesus talks about death and resurrection.

And yet, most of them complete the journey. At the end, they don’t get what they want — whether power or pleasure. Instead, they get what they need, which is a new life closer to the Spirit of Love we call God.

Love is our most sacred value, but it is also hard to define. I like the definition provided by M. Scott Peck almost 40 years ago in his mega-bestseller, “The Road Less Traveled.” In 1978, he wrote that love is work we do to extend ourselves to nurture the spiritual growth of one’s self or another. Love is a conscious act of will directed towards growth. It is difficult but joyous work that takes us beyond the ego space from which we first meet friends and spouses to something closer to Source.

By cultivating compassion towards self and others, we grow in love even as our ego boundaries dissolve a little in the fires of life. As we grieve our losses, joy flares forth. We learn that life is not about us. It is about the Ground of Being, Life and Love — the Source we call God.

Here is what Khalil Gibran wrote about Love in “The Prophet” almost 100 years ago:

When love beckons to you, follow him,
though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you, yield to him,
though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you, believe in him,
though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you, so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth, so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches,
so shall he descend to your roots and shake them
in their clinging to the earth.

At the start of their journey with Jesus, the disciples gather at a wedding feast at which water is turned to wine. At the end of their journey with Jesus, the disciples gather in an Upper Room to receive wine as a symbol of self-sacrificing love.

In between, they stumble down the road together in ignorance and sometimes in distress, but always with love of God and neighbour in their hearts.

May our journeys in family and church lead us, like the disciples, to the wine of arrival. Creating this wine may take years of aging as with grape juice in oaken casks. But the stories of Jesus remind us that the love that results is a joyous new life with friends and lovers on a loamy path of death and resurrection.

May it be so. Amen.


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Rebel with a cause

Text: Luke 2:41-52 (Jesus as a youth in the Temple)

The four gospels tell us little about the childhood of Jesus. Mark, which was written first, starts with Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan and covers just the few months from that event to his crucifixion in Jerusalem at Passover. Matthew, the next one written, is a copy of Mark, although it adds a birth narrative in Bethlehem and a resurrection appearance in Galilee.

The final gospel, John, also begins with Jesus’ baptism and says nothing about his birth or childhood.

This leaves Luke. Like Matthew, Luke is a copy of Mark; and like Matthew, Luke adds a birth narrative in Bethlehem, although one that is different from Matthew’s. Luke also adds one scene from Jesus’ childhood, the story of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, which we just heard. This is the only story about the childhood of Jesus that appears in the Bible.

I chose to hear this story today because our theme is adolescence — that period in which we become more independent from our parents in word and deed.

In the story, Jesus and his parents have made an annual trek from Nazareth to Jerusalem for Passover, a journey of 150 km. After the Passover Festival, Mary and Joseph join a caravan to begin the long ride home. At the end of the first day, Jesus is missing. So, they return to Jerusalem and spend another few days looking for him. Finally, they find him in the Temple discussing issues with religious teachers.

His parents are upset. Mary says, “Son, why have you done this to us? Can’t you see that your father and I have been so worried, looking for you?” Eugene Petersen’s translation “The Message” puts it this way: “The religious teachers were all quite taken with Jesus, impressed with the sharpness of his answers. But his parents were not impressed; they were upset and hurt.”

Luke says that after this display of independence, Jesus returns to Nazareth and is obedient to his parents. But by the time of his adult ministry, his obedience has disappeared. As an adult, Jesus regularly flouts religious, civic, and familial rules.

He heals on the Sabbath and associates with women and other people whom the elite consider taboo. He allows himself to be called “King of the Jews,” which transgresses not only the authority of Herod and Pilate in Jerusalem but also the Emperor in Rome, and which leads to his execution.

When Jesus is told that his mother and brothers have come to see him, he replies: “Who are my mother and my brothers? . . . Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mark 3). In another story, Jesus says, “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters — yes, even one’s own self — can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow me can’t be my disciple.” (Luke 14).

The story of Jesus in the Temple at age 12 shows a child who realizes that his hometown of Nazareth does not offer enough. It is about a boy who sees that his parents don’t have all the answers and that he has ideas that go beyond what they and even the religious elite in Jerusalem can offer.

In adulthood, Jesus creates a new type of family — a chosen group of pilgrims on a spiritual journey. The disciples support one another and resist religious and state authority in the name of love and justice. They are people like you and me, broken in various ways but also like us empowered by the Spirit to face mortality and find new life beyond moralism and oppression.

We owe our existence to family, church, and nation, which is why they have authority over us as children. But in adolescence, we try to define ourselves in opposition to the rules of family, church and nation. While life is blessed, it is far from perfect; and so, as teens we question established wisdom and struggle against moral rules and social ills like poverty and pollution.

Few of us are as bold in our rebellion as Jesus. Nevertheless, here we are today, nearly 2,000 years later, trying to follow Jesus, a rebel with a cause.

Being true to one’s ideals in a fallen world can lead to trouble. Loved ones may worry about us. Peers may ostracize us. The state may threaten us. And yet, Jesus says that the Way of the Cross is worth the trouble. He shows us that fearlessness is the best way to live a life of Love.

And so, we give thanks for adolescent rebellion and for adult lives that go beyond the rules handed to us by family, church and nation.

But how much power do we have to effect the change we want in the world?

This question reminds me of the Serenity Prayer, which has been made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step recovery movements. It says,

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Most of our ability to effect change is with family and friends. In the personal sphere, we can act with integrity and honesty instead of lying; listen and respond with compassion and kindness instead of being mean; and express our hopes and dreams instead of hiding our feelings and wishes.

However, some of our desire to effect change goes beyond the personal. Climate change is an example. Last week, the National Post reported on a study that criticized Canadian high school textbooks for suggesting students can do their part to stop climate change with personal behaviour — things like using clotheslines instead of automatic dryers and cloth bags instead of plastic ones.

The study pointed out — quite rightly, I believe — that such actions have a negligible effect on climate change. Instead, it suggested bolder actions like not eating meat, having fewer children, and not travelling by airplane. However, I believe that these suggestions also yield results that are negligible.

The study doesn’t come to grip with the facts that humanity grows by 200,000 people every day and that the world economy is predicated upon never-ending growth. In a global population that grows by 75 million each year and by one billion every 15 years, and in which a decline in population would trigger economic collapse, tackling climate change is not something for individuals. If there are solutions, they will be found at a macro level.

I am not opposed to recycling or cutting down on meat consumption; but not if they are undertaken to stop climate change. The latter requires something more comprehensive than the action of mere individuals.

This issue also provides an example of how difficult it can be to find the serenity to accept the things we cannot change and the courage to change the things we can.

In a healthy adolescence, we define ourselves with gratitude for the family, church and nation into which we have been born, and in opposition to parts of the status quo. The result will be attitudes and convictions that mix tradition with innovation.

The process of individuation is most dramatic when we are teenagers. But it continues into old age. At all stages of our lives, we test our abilities, refine our wills, and learn more about our potentials and limits. For this reason, the Serenity Prayer can be a touchstone for us from youth to old age.

Next week, as this summer series continue, I will move from individuation to social relationships. For now, I close with a variation on the Serenity Prayer that I came across this spring. It says:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change,
The courage to change the one I can,
And the wisdom to know that this one person is me!

Friends, both as a 12-year old in the Temple and as an adult in the shadow of the cross, Jesus models courage and authenticity. The path to which he calls us is not for the faint of heart. Happily, it is for adolescents of all ages who seek more courage and who rely on fellow pilgrims and God’s Grace for both personal and social change.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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The naked truth

Text: Genesis 2 and 3 (Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden)

Do you ever have dreams in which you realize to your horror that you’re walking down the street naked? I do. Dreams like this remind me of my fears of exposure and shame.

Today’s reading from the second and third chapters of Genesis bring such dreams to mind. When Adam and Eve are created, they walk naked in the Garden of Eden with no more shame than that of any other creature. But after they eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they feel shame and try to hide their nakedness with fig leaves.

Feeling shame signals when we have crossed a boundary. It reminds us of cultural norms, like not going naked in public, and ethical norms, like not lying.

The story of the Garden implies that knowing right from wrong is a prerequisite for feeling shame. Morality requires a certain level of intelligence, personal mastery, and social learning. For this reason, morality only applies to those who have reached “the age of reason.”

Of course, many other things besides shame can be found in the story of the Garden of Eden. It is the second of two creation stories told in Genesis. Sixteen hundred years ago, the theologian Augustine based his doctrine of Original Sin on it. It has been used for centuries to enforce rigid sex and gender roles and male supremacy.

I am struck by how different this creation story is from the one in the first chapter of Genesis. In that story, God is denoted by the Hebrew word “Elohim” and not the word YHWH used in Genesis 2 and 3.

Elohim creates the heavens, earth, birds, animals, and humans over six days and in that order. In contrast, YHWH creates Adam first and then stumbles as he tries to make a companion for him. Adam patiently names all the birds and beasts that YHWH makes even as he rejects each one as a life-companion.

This and other parts of the story might seem silly. But I appreciate how — in a dream-like way — they reflect some central dilemmas: the tension between our animal- and our spiritual-sides; the necessity of toil; and connections between intelligence and the moral choices that confront us as we grow up.

Besides shame, the story of the Garden of Eden hinges on other emotions — loneliness when Adam is the only human; compassion when YHWH finally creates a suitable companion for him; desire when Adam and Eve first meet; curiosity when Adam and Eve succumb to the snake’s temptation; and anger when God punishes their disobedience. But shame is the only one of these feelings that is named in the story.

I wish it named the other feelings that motivate the characters. Knowing about emotions and how to express them are central skills in every stage of life.

As a child, I was taught right from wrong, but not much about sensations, the feelings those sensations give rise to, and, and the desires and dislikes that are revealed by the actions that our feelings motivate.

It wasn’t until my 30’s that I got around to learning the vocabulary of emotions. I found helpful the idea that four words — “mad, sad, glad, and afraid” — can remind us of four main groups of emotions.

Of course, there are more emotions than just anger, sadness, joy, and fear. Each of them can be combined with the others and with surprise or disgust to create variants. Shame, for instance, is fear combined with disgust.

As a child, church and school did not help me to learn about feelings. Instead, I was taught to judge. I was told that people, things and events were acceptable or unacceptable; good or bad. Speaking about feelings was discouraged. Many conversations involved judgments.

Today, I believe the opposite. I accept that feelings are not only unavoidable but essential. Feelings reveal our likes and dislikes; and they shed light on our values.

By the same measure, I now try to avoid judgments. Declaring something as good or evil hides one’s feelings and makes it harder to discern the sensations behind them and the values revealed by them. Feelings reveal, I believe, while judgments conceal.

This perspective on emotions and judgments makes it hard for me to work with some parts of the Bible. Genesis One declares Elohim’s creations to be good seven times. Genesis 2 and 3 are about good and evil. The New Testament ends with the Day of Judgement. I could go on.

When we name the emotions at play in the story of the Garden of Eden, I find it more helpful. Fear is felt not just by Adam and Eve after they have eaten the forbidden fruit. YHWH also shows fear when he says “these humans have become like one of us, knowing both good and evil. They must not be allowed to take in their hands the fruit from the Tree of Life as well, or they will eat of it, and live forever.” YHWH curses them and expels them from the Garden because he is both angry and afraid.

Morality is connected to how we handle our feelings. When we express our anger, sadness, joy, or fear with violence, we run the risk of violating the values of love, justice, and kindness. Unmasking YHWH’s emotions leads me question his morality at least as much as the morality of Adam and Eve.

I understand why Adam and Eve might feel ashamed of their nakedness. Humans are a conflicted species. We are governed both by physical instincts and by complex understandings that originate in big brains that have bathed in linguistic and social history. The knowledge that arises from personal experience and social learning sometimes cuts against the grain of our physical identities and leaves us feeling unsure, fearful, and ashamed.

Some of the shame we feel — whether about nakedness, desires, or deeds — can dissolve when re-examined in the light of learning. But shame has its purposes; and an inability to feel shame under any circumstances signifies that one has either not yet reached the age of reason or has developed a kind of psychopathy.

Shamelessness has been in the news recently. The 45th President of the United States seems incapable of shame. His immoral actions — some which might reach the level of treason — don’t give him any pause. Supporters of the President revel in his shamelessness, while others are alarmed that the most powerful person in the world seems to be impervious to moral reasoning.

In my own life, I wish I had felt less shame and pursued some plans with greater confidence than my fears allowed. But I appreciate that shame is always a possibility.

Emotional intelligence includes the ability to know and recognize all feelings — whether we feel mad, sad, glad, or afraid — and how to express them in ways that don’t harm others. Naming and knowing shame is part of this.

We live “East of Eden” because we are not unthinking beasts governed only by instinct. We are social animals with minds and spirits created by languages that carry a vast cultural history.

The story of the Garden of Eden names the emotion shame. My hope is that today’s reflection on the other feelings at play in Eden has reminded us of the complexity of the task of knowing and handling our feelings. May we also trust that we are supported in this task by the same Grace that banishes us from “paradise.” Our conflicted lives east of Eden involve toil and pain. But they are also ones filled with an endless capacity for hope, joy and love.

May it be so. Amen.


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Faith of our fathers

Text: Matthew 17:1-19 (the Transfiguration)

Canadians have been in a reflective mood this summer. July 1st was the 150th anniversary of Confederation. So, there have been parades, bigger than normal firework displays, and many essays about the history of Canada before and after 1867. Paul and Lesley Verdin led a worship service here last Sunday commemorating Confederation, for which we are grateful. Most of the commemorations are over, while others continue through the year.

Kim and I were in Toronto for the holiday visiting my mother and brothers, and we participated in a some of the events there. On July 1, we went to Harbourfront to see a six-story rubber duck that drew about 750,000 people who marvelled at its lugubrious presence.

At the end of the day, we crammed into a subway car to return to my brother’s house. As is typical of Toronto, the subway was filled with people from every corner of the world. But one person caught my attention more than others.

He was a stout young man with a bushy red beard. He was wearing a baseball cap and shorts with camouflage patterns, and he sported tattoos of swords, crosses, and maple leaves on both forearms. What alarmed me was his T-shirt. On the front, it said “Warning: Canadian Extremist!” On the back, it read “Welcome to Canada. Now act like a Canadian or go home!”

Nothing untoward happened while he was on the subway. But afterwards, I realized that this was the first time I can recall casually bumping into a racist who proudly displayed his violent ideology.

I took his presence as a sign of the times. When the white supremacist group Proud Boys makes the news for recruiting members of the Canadian Forces in Halifax, some of whom disrupted an Indigenous ceremony on Canada Day; when groups like the Soldiers of Odin rally against Islam outside a mosque in Calgary as they did in June; and when the Alberta Government feels the need for a new anti-racism initiative as it announced last week, I imagine that encounters with open racists may become more common, at least for a while.

The wave of populism and fear that has swept much of the world in the last few years is also evident here in Canada.

When we celebrate Canada, many of us say diversity is one of the reasons. We are so grateful to live in a country that is not only prosperous and filled with beauty, but is also one of peace, the rule of law, and equal opportunity.

But the 2015 federal election largely hinged on fear of Muslims, and the reactionary wish to undo the past 500 years in which the peoples of the world have become interconnected is here in Canada as in many other countries.

I have appreciated the discussions about colonialism and its devastating effects on Canada’s First Peoples that have been part of the Canada 150 anniversary. As we give thanks for all that Canada offers, we also try to be aware of the parts of Canada’s history that violate our sacred values. May these discussions help us in the ongoing work of reconciliation and in building a world that is closer to those values.

But Canada is not unique in having a history marked by war, conquest, and discrimination, as I hope my comments today about ancient Israel will show.

This summer, our Sunday services form a series that move through the seven sacraments of the church. Today, I focus on baptism. Baptism is a ritual that not only affirms our connection to God in Christ. It also marks our entry into a family, church, and nation. Baptism connects us to our ancestors even as it looks forward in hope to a future of peace, justice, and love.

Our reading today is about the Transfiguration of Jesus. The Transfiguration is like a second baptism because, just as with his baptism by John in the Jordan River a few months earlier, the voice of God is heard saying, “This is my own, my beloved, on whom my favor rests.” The Transfiguration also highlights the ancestry of Jesus.

As Jesus is transfigured, he and his friends are joined by two key figures from Israel’s past: Moses, the leader of the Exodus out of Egypt 1300 years earlier, and Elijah, a prophet from 900 years earlier who led a fight against the idolatry of King Ahab and his Canaanite bride, Queen Jezebel.

Both Moses and Elijah are considered heroes by the church. Unfortunately, their stories are filled with violence.

The Exodus story includes the killing of thousands of Egyptians by YHWH when the Pharaoh refuses to let the Hebrew slaves go, and of thousands of the ex-slaves when they worship an idol in the desert. The Exodus is followed by a genocide in Canaan as Moses’ successor Joshua conquers the Promised Land.

The prophet Elijah not only bests the priests of the Canaanite god Baal in various feats of magic, he also kills all 400 of them on behalf of YHWH. The presence of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration reminds us that Jesus’ nation, Israel, has a history of violence.

Jesus encounters his famous ancestors Moses and Elijah on a mountaintop as he begins his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. But unlike them, he does not kill anyone. Instead, Jesus is crucified by the Roman Empire and is raised by God as a representative of a Love that embraces all tribes and nations.

Moses and Elijah remind me of Canadian heroes like Samuel de Champlain, General Wolf, and Sir John A. Macdonald. They too were leaders who carried out racist campaigns of war and discrimination, which continue to scar our society today.

Jesus is different. He models a path of non-violence and universal inclusion. His path leads us away from the violence of the past and towards a future that is less about land and more about love. Jesus is hailed as the King of Jews. But in resurrection, he is revealed as a prince of peace for all people, one who reigns not from a distant throne, but from the hearts of everyone of good will.

Jesus could have tried to be another violent warrior like King David. But despite being born into a nation that glorifies Moses, Elijah, and David, Jesus kills no one and preaches a message of peace and love.

Like Jesus, we too have been baptized into families, faith communities, and nations that are scarred by violence. No family is unaffected by the traumas of past wars. No faith community is free of the stain of its past support for racist policies. No nation can claim that it rests on a history without war and conquest.

Because of these legacies, it might seem easy to be fearful. The scars of past violence are still evident in our hearts and minds and in discriminatory practices. How can we overcome this legacy and heal these wounds?

Then there are people like the young racist I saw on the subway car in Toronto. Like him, many of us are prone to look at the challenges of this rapidly changing society and turn to old prejudices as a way forward. As more racists gather, organize, and gain strength, it can seem easy to fear them.

Jesus models for us a path from fear to faith. Jesus doesn’t ask that we deny our fragility or the legacy of our violent past. He understands that both are part of reality and calls us to walk with him regardless. He calls us to move forward with him as holy fools on a path of non-violence, justice, and love.

Jesus does not repudiate Moses or Elijah. He simply leaves them behind to walk to Jerusalem to meet his fate; and he calls his friends and us to join him.

When we are baptized, we become a member of the community. Despite the scars of our community, we are confident that we can move toward love with the power of God’s Spirit towards a future with less violence, racism, and hatred.

In the weeks ahead, as we reflect on other stages of spiritual growth represented by the sacraments that follow baptism, I hope to expand on how a move from fear to faith might occur. For now, I simply assert what I see as a gracious truth. Even though we are baptized into families, churches, and nations scarred by violence, we are blessed by our past. We are also called by God’s Spirit to transcend our heritage and to reach for a future that is closer to Love.

Today, amid growing calls for ethnic cleansing in Canada, we stand against racism and for reconciliation and inclusion.

We welcome newcomers to Canada as fellow children of God; people who are as broken and blessed as us; and people who have been born into the great family of all humanity that is graciously filled with holy fools who struggle to build the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.

May it be so. Amen.

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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.”


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