Family memories

Texts: two paraphrases of the 23rd Psalm by James Taylor

Click here to watch a video of the complete service

On Mother’s Day we focus on family. We give thanks for our mothers and remember with gratitude the ancestors who made our lives possible. But today is a Mother’s Day like no other. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many cannot physically gather with their mothers or other family members.

On the other hand, Alberta has begun lifting regulations around physical distance; and as it does so, we may feel torn between anticipation of being with family and friends again and fear that the coronavirus will resume its spread.

I pray that lifting social isolation will be accompanied by measures like continued hand washing, the use of masks, quarantine for those who develop symptoms, and the tracing and isolation of contacts of those who test positive for COVID-19. May this allow social and economic life to resume without a renewed spread of illness.

A community of faith like Mill Woods United is a kind of chosen family; and as in our families of origin, we have been dealing with physical distancing for several months. While I am heartened by the electronic contacts between our members and my own conversations with you, this period without in-person gatherings has been difficult for a lot of us.

As an example, on every Mother’s Day weekend since 2013, Mill Woods United has hosted a Spring Craft Market. But because of the pandemic, there was no craft fair yesterday. Not only does this mean a loss of revenue for the church. It means we didn’t get to enjoy this annual tradition.

Many traditions will be broken this weekend, which might engender sadness even as we continue to be grateful for what our mothers — and our families of faith — have given to us.

I chose to focus on the 23rd Psalm this Mother’s Day for two reasons. First, it was the assigned Psalm for last Sunday. And while I didn’t choose to read it last week, when I was considering it, I looked up James Taylor’s versions of this Psalm from his 1994 book “Everyday Psalms: The Power of the Psalms in Language and Images for Today.” Taylor provides three paraphrases of it.

The first one leapt off the page for me because it changes the metaphor of the original — of God as a shepherd — into God as a mother-figure. What better day to hear this re-imagining of this beloved Psalm than on Mother’s Day, I thought?

The metaphor of God as a shepherd can challenge the translator. The Bible has been translated into every language on earth; and some of them don’t have a word for sheep. One such set of languages is found on the Asian island of Borneo. When European missionaries first reached this Island, its various peoples had no domesticated animals whatsoever.

The lack of sheep on Borneo meant that translating the Hebrew and Greek words for lamb, sheep, and shepherd, which occur many times in the books of the Bible, posed a choice. The translators could teach the people of Borneo about sheep, or they could use different metaphors. At the time of translation, colonists had introduced domesticated pigs into Borneo. So, some translators substituted the Bornean words for piglet for lamb and pig for sheep. John’s metaphor for Jesus that is usually translated into English as “the Lamb of God” became “the Piglet of God,” and the translation of the 23rd Psalm phrase usually rendered into English as “The Lord is my shepherd” became “The Lord is my swine-herder!”

I don’t completely love Taylor’s use of the metaphor of mother in place of shepherd, which is why I also had Barb read the second of his three paraphrases of Psalm 23. In this one, he imagines the Psalm as though it were written by an old person looking back on a long and fulfilling life.

The second reason why I chose Psalm 23 for Mother’s Day is a memory from 2002. In that year, my family gathered with my parents for their 50th wedding anniversary; and at the celebration, my eldest niece and nephew sang a musical setting of the 23rd Psalm. It was a lovely moment, and remembering it brings back a flood of other memories about my mother.

Not all memories about our mothers will be cherished ones, of course. Everyone has an ambivalent relationship with their parents. Like all of us, parents struggle with the twin challenges of the human condition and of the conflicted society in which we are fated to live. Because of these challenges, no family is without at least some dysfunction and no parent can be considered “perfect.”

Nevertheless, we celebrate Mother’s Day every year, even in the unusual conditions of spring 2020.

As we honour mothers today, my prayer is that it will be with compassion so that any sadness we feel in this year’s challenging circumstances, and any afflictive emotions we feel because of the inevitable wounds of family life, will be accompanied by endless gratitude for the life and love given to us by our mothers, by our fathers, and by all of our blessed ancestors.

May it be so. Amen.

 

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Coins and fools

Texts: an excerpt from Charles Eisenstein’s “A Sacred Economy” (2011) * Mark 12:13-37 (“a question about taxes) * Video of complete service * Order of service

What do we want out of life? What is most important to us? And what things might we be able to live without?

From time to time, such questions pop into our hearts and minds, and the answers will change at different stages of our lives.

Today I look at how our answers are affected when, with Grace, we shift from the worship of a false idol to the worship of the God who is Love.

Today’s Gospel reading is set during Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem. Religious teachers who accept the Roman occupation try to trick Jesus into saying something scandalous. They ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes to the Roman Empire.

Seeing the question as a trick, Jesus takes a Roman coin and notes that it has an image of Caesar on it. He then says “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.”

The cutting nature of Jesus’ response hinges on the status of Caesar. Caesar is the family name of the first Roman Emperor, Julius Caesar, and of his successors. By the time of the gospel stories, Julius’ grandson Tiberius is the Emperor.

Tiberius’ title Caesar not only acknowledges him as the ruler of the Empire but also as a god. The state religion of Rome involved worship of the gods of Olympus, which the Romans had adopted from Greece, along with the worship of Caesar.

Jesus’ response exposes this cult. He makes a distinction between the supposed god Caesar and the true god, which for his Jewish listeners would have been YHWH, the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. By hinting at Caesar’s divine status, Jesus exposes his critics as idolaters.

But the cutting nature of Jesus’ response goes deeper than this, I think. When Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he is hailed as a Christ or King by his followers. By giving Jesus this title, his followers express hope that Jesus would overthrow Caesar. They also think of Jesus as a new incarnation of the god YHWH.

Good Friday reveals that worship of Jesus as a new tribal king and god is also a form of idolatry. His crucifixion makes it clear there will never be a new Jewish warrior king like David. Nor will there ever be another tribal god like YHWH.

But on Easter when, with Grace, his followers recognize the Risen Christ alive in their hearts, they leave tribe behind to enter a universal sovereignty and divinity. They enter a Love that is beyond ego, tribe, or nation.

None of us can avoid idolatry; and any of our enthusiasms can develop into it – as when a young hockey player idolizes Connor McDavid; or a young musician idolizes Billie Eilish; or a young citizen idolizes his nation.

But the ups and downs of life always lead to disillusionment; and sometimes, with Grace, we arise from the pain and humiliation of disillusionment closer to our Source, which is Love.

Today’s pandemic crisis confronts us with the question of what we value. Are some of the things we used to value idols, and if so, how we might live more in line with sacred values?

Idolatry is based in the small desires and fears of our egos. In contrast, Love reveals our unity with humanity, life, and the entire cosmos. Assigning ultimate value to Love doesn’t mean we renounce all material wealth. As Charles Eisenstein say in the short passage we heard today, in a sacred economy we might have fewer material goods, but enjoy a life with more beauty, community, and fulfillment.

A model for an individual who shifts away from idolatry is an addict who embraces sobriety. What form might such a shift take in us this spring?

Today’s crises also reveal serious problems in our society – as in how food is produced, in how frail elders are treated, and in how government leaders struggle to respond quickly and wisely to prevent the spread of disease.

A model for an empire that shifts away from idolatry is when it offers former colonies independence. What form might such a shift take in Canada or elsewhere this spring?

Two days after Jesus replied to his critics with his quip about Roman coins, the movement he led faced an ultimate crisis when he was killed. But a few days after the crucifixion, Jesus’ friends found a path beyond idolatry with the appearance of the Risen Christ in their hearts.

May the revelations of today’s crises help us to accept the Grace to become the people of Love we desire, out of both our deepest hurts and our highest joys.

May it be so. Amen.

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Community values

Texts: “Love is stronger than death” by Richard Rohr * Luke 24:13-33 (the road to Emmaus)

Video of complete service

Have you ever viewed spirituality from the standpoint of economics?

Spirituality is associated with mystery, belief systems, values. The latter is key for many of us at Mill Woods United. We gather in community to reflect on what we hold most sacred and to discuss how to make values like beauty, truth, and love real in our hearts and in the world.

Value is also an economic category. What should goods and services cost? What makes them valuable? How do they contribute to our wealth?

The value of commodities has been in the news lately. Last Monday, the price of oil futures went negative for the first time in history. On Monday, if you were an oil producer and wanted someone to contract with you to take oil off your hands in May, instead of receiving money from the buyer, you had to pledge to give them $35 for each barrel they ordered!

This situation didn’t last long, but it highlights the unprecedented nature of the economic collapse associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. In the face of a global lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the world economy has fallen off of a cliff. One result is that no one is sure what anything is worth anymore.

Last year, consumers bought on average 100 million barrels of oil per day to power transportation, heating, construction, and industry. But with passenger jet traffic down to near zero and commuting via automobiles drastically curtailed, the world is only consuming 60 million barrels of oil per day this month. Industry can still produce 100 million barrels every day, but there are drastically fewer buyers.

The value of a good or service is connected both to the effort required to produce it, and to consumer demand. It does no good to pour capital, labour power, and technique into producing a good or service if no one wants it. Value cannot be divorced from the needs and wants of consumers.

The ad industry tries to sell us on the value of innumerable things – fashion, travel opportunities, 5,000 square feet homes, 80-inch TV screens, investment instruments, and so on. At church, we promote the value of things like spiritual growth, communal solidarity, and equality and justice for all people.

Often the discussion of values in a spiritual community is pitched to us as individuals. Should we value inebriation or sobriety; the amassing of expensive goods, or charity towards the poor? Should we place our hopes and desires on the prestige of the nation or on the needs of humanity? This focus on personal value systems is more than valid, I believe.

But our focus is also social. For instance, what has this year’s pandemic revealed about our needs and desires for adequate healthcare, shelter, and food for all? For public health preparedness and scientific expertise? For transparent political leadership and a well-funded and evidence-based public service?

In the face of today’s health and economic crises, public debate is raging about how to restart the economy. Should we try to resume burning 100 million barrels of oil a day even though climate science says this is incompatible with human survival? Should we continue to allow homeless people to flood the streets of our cities and put only meagre resources into long-term care, or would doing so highlight both the sinfulness of society and open it to the next infectious pandemic?

Discussing such issues at Mill Woods United won’t make a big difference in how the economy is rebuilt over the next months and years. But given that we are a spiritual community that promotes values like beauty, truth, and love, our discussions can help us stay be awake to what today’s crises have revealed.

In today’s Gospel reading, the value of community is made clear. Two grief-stricken followers of Jesus are walking home on the first Easter Sunday. Their lives are transformed when they engage a stranger in conversation and invite him to share bread. When they do so, their minds are opened to the gracious realization that the Risen Christ now lives within them. Having been thus enlightened, they rush back to Jerusalem to joyously reconnect with their friends.

In the face of today’s unprecedented health and economic crises, Mill Woods United on its own will not be able to create a realm of justice and love. But by discussing our sacred values, by breaking bread together, and by reaching out in love to each other and the neighbourhood, we can reveal the Risen Christ burning within our hearts and rejoin the struggle for a better world with a sense of hope and joy.

May it be so. Amen.

 

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Earth Day at 50

Texts: excerpt from “A Pale Blue Dot” by Carl Sagan * Psalm 24

Click here to see a video of the whole service

The first Earth Day, which happened 50 years ago this week on April 22, 1970, was a big deal for me. This might seem strange since Earth Day wasn’t celebrated by significant groups of Canadians until 1980; and it is far from the most important date on most people’s calendar. In 1970, the first Earth Day was restricted to rallies in some U.S. college campuses and marches in a few of its biggest cities. Nevertheless, it changed my life.

In April 1970, I was 13-years old and living in Cornwall Ontario; and one of my school assignments that spring was to write and deliver a speech. The topic I chose was inspired by Earth Day.

I spent a lot of my childhood eagerly tuned to the goings-on in the United States, which lay just across the St. Lawrence River. Almost all the media we absorbed – TV shows, magazines, and recorded music — were American.

In 1970, I was trying to understand why the wild optimism of the mid-sixties in the States had turned into cultural and political turmoil. The War in Vietnam seemed to have no end in sight; the moon shots had lost their initial luster; and the joy encompassed by the phrase “sex and drugs and rock and roll” had become a foil with which the administration of President Richard Nixon had launched a War on Drugs, with disastrous effects on communities of colour and the youth movement.

I tried to understand these changes through the prism of TV shows like The Smothers Brothers and magazines like Time and Life.

Last week, I was delighted when an Internet search yielded the cover of Life Magazine from April 17, 1970, and which is projected on the screen behind me. The issue was devoted to the first Earth Day, and the words on the cover read “A new student cause: a crusade against too many people.” It was about a campaign called “Zero Population Growth,” and that became the subject of my school speech. After reading this article, I became alarmed by the damage human society was causing to natural habitats; the pollution of air, soil, and water; and a rapid rise in the world’s population.

Life-Magazine-April-17-1970-Cover-Zero-Population-Growth

In 1970, there were about 3.7 billion people in the world and this number was increasing by more than 2% per year. Today there are about 7.7 billion, or more than twice as many as in 1970, although the yearly increase has slowed to 1% per year.

Last week, one of my cousins posted a neat graphic on Facebook. It was a screen capture from one of my favourite websites, worldometers.info. I discovered this website in March as a source of statistics related to COVID-19. But it has been known for more than 15 years as a reliable source of statistics about many things related to the environment including population.

The graphic showed an ever-updated population “clock” that for one instant last week tallied the number of people alive at 7,777,777,777, or ten sevens in a row. As my cousin Glenn stated, “Don’t you love it when the odometer hits a cool number?” When I checked worldometer’s “clock” this morning, it was already approaching 7 billion 779 million; and even with the rate of increase in population slowing, and even with terrible scourges like COVID-19, the next cool milestone of 8,888,888,888 is likely to occur within the next 15 years.

777-populiation

Back in 1970, I wondered if the end was near. Happily, even with more than two times as many people on earth today as then, it is clear now that my fears were overblown. Much has been done in the past 50 years to clean waterways, to curb the pollution caused by automobiles, and to slow the rate of population increase. At the same time, the standard of living has soared in all corners of the world. Human ingenuity in the face of social problems should never be underestimated, which is something that gives me hope in the face of the current pandemic crisis.

This is not to say that environmental alarm is no longer warranted. Climate disaster remains top of mind for many of us; and this is one reason why the current economic crash caused by the coronavirus pandemic could become a moment for governments and industries to factor environmental issues into their attempts to restart our shattered economies.

As I wrote on March 31 in one of the daily reflections that I posted on the church website during the first month of quarantine, 2020 looks like it will be the first year in centuries in which fewer fossil fuels will be burned than the year before. Oil consumption this month has decreased from 100 million barrels a day, which was the daily level in 2019, to 65 million barrels. This huge drop explains the crisis facing Alberta’s oil industry and why air quality has improved so much.

Everyone wants the economy to restart once the current health requirements for physical distancing have lessened. But upon what values should economic renewal be based? Wealth is based upon what people value, and these values can and do change over time.

This spring, the wealthiest countries in the world will be those in which there is both extensive COVID-19 testing and zero evidence of the virus. When a country like New Zealand or Taiwan hits this metric, it will become the envy of the rest of us. This year, wealth will be measured more in the ability to physically gather with family and friends than it will be in money in the bank or consumer goods.

For the next few Sundays, I hope to examine how our sacred values might be reflected in recovery from the pandemic. How can things like community, beauty, and compassion best inform social and economic life?

This is the season of Easter, which is a time to celebrate resurrection. This year, some old ways of life are dying. How can our church, country, and world be resurrected in ways that support the values we hold most dear?

How we get from today, with its health and economic crises, to a world more in line with our sacred values is hardly clear to me. But as we work to recover from today’s crisis, I pray this will lead to economic, cultural and spiritual changes that will make this year a true moment of personal and collective resurrection.

May it be so.

Amen.

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Silent spring

Texts: “Keep quieting” by Pablo Neruda * Mark 16:1-8 (the empty tomb)

Click here to see a video of the Easter service

Easter is the quietest moment in the church calendar, or at least this is how I see it; although I would not be surprised if your experience has been otherwise.

Thinking back to previous Easters, you might remember large family meals; breathless Easter egg hunts; The Hallelujah Chorus sung by huge choirs; and colourful parades down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

This year will be different. Choirs have fallen silent. Fifth Avenue is deserted. Families are meeting by Zoom or Skype with each little shard of the family preparing its own Easter supper.

I am sad that this most joyous church festival has been silenced by the pandemic crisis. Bryan and I enjoyed singing “Hey Now, Singing Hallelujah” a few minutes ago but we are no match for the spirit and volume of a full sanctuary. I hope that everyone has family and friends with whom you can connect electronically this holiday weekend. But this is not the same as an extended family all gathered around one big dining room table.

Like so much of social and economic life this spring, Easter 2020 seems to have been cancelled as part of the effort to stop the transmission of the new coronavirus.
But today I uphold a viewpoint from which Easter joy still illuminates this year’s quiet holiday.

Virtually all the events in Jesus’ life are big and noisy affairs. His birth in Bethlehem is accompanied by choirs of angels. His baptism happens among the crowds who throng to the Jordan River. His teaching draws thousands. His entry into Jerusalem is accompanied by loud Hosannas. His execution on Good Friday is before a jeering mob. But when Jesus is raised to new life on Easter Sunday, no one is there to witness it. Later, when a group of women come to his tomb at dawn on the first day of the week and find it empty, they run from the tomb in terror and tell no one.

Everything in Jesus’ life and ministry seems to happen in public except for the most important moment – his resurrection to new life!

Most stages of our spiritual development are noisy. From our borning cry to our tumultuous lives as lovers, parents, and workmates, we follow our desires and avoid our fears with sturm und drang every step of the way. This is the necessary and messy work of life and love, of study and work, and of stress and relaxation. This is the life we cherish despite its ups and downs, its joys and pains, and its loves and losses.

But then, at one point or another, we run into trouble so grievous it can seem like we are dying. For most individuals and communities, crises like this occur many times. These are moments of disillusionment so painful they can feel like death. They are crises like the one that led Paul to write that he had been crucified with Christ. These are the hard moments that we marked on Good Friday.

But then comes an inevitable next step. With Grace, we sometimes accept our humiliations and rise to a new life. It was such a moment that led Paul to write that Christ now lives in him (Galatians 2:19-20)

No one knows what happened after the empty tomb. Matthew, Luke, and John add some fanciful stories to Mark’s account. But Mark’s Gospel contains not one word after the passage Bryan read this morning.

Happily, Paul has experienced the next step. Paul exclaims that the Risen Christ now lives in him. Paul has accepted the Grace to move beyond an ego-based life to an eternal one in Christ.

Mark doesn’t tell us what happens after the tomb is found empty. But Paul lives into the joy of what comes next. The Risen Christ arises in his heart, in mine, and in yours.
Paul’s realization, which is an Easter one, is so joyous that it deserves a thousand performances of the Hallelujah Chorus and as big and noisy an Easter Parade as one can imagine.

Nevertheless, the appearance of the Risen Christ — within Paul, or in me, or in you, and whether at Easter or at any moment — is a silent moment. It is the simple, inevitable, and gracious result of everything that preceded it – the tumult of life, the dysfunctions and wonders of our families, and the pain of humiliations that led us to grief. Once we have shed tears for our Good Friday losses, new life can slip into our hearts as silently and as beautifully as a crocus breaking through newly thawed soil in spring.

This year, we have extra losses and humiliations to absorb. The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the ills of our societies — homelessness, inadequate healthcare, narcissistic leaders. This year, we may be lonely or sick; we may have loved ones who are sick; and all of us are grieved by the toll of death around the world. As rivers run clean and air pollution disappears, the depredations of the world’s economic system are exposed. As hundreds of millions are threatened with destitution in the face of economic collapse, humanity’s need to find new ways to create and distribute wealth becomes more acute.

But no matter how challenged we are this year the light of Easter morning has come. After grief, the Risen Christ arises within us like dawn entering a silent tomb. This leads us to a Love that is infinitely bigger than the fears and desires of our egos. This resurrected life is available in any moment of crisis, as it is at the end of life.

The first Easter was silent, and this Easter may be the quietest one we can remember. But this year is no less filled with Grace, with Light, and with Love than when Paul first noticed the Risen Christ in his heart and when the tomb was first found empty on the first day of a new week that followed the most painful days Jesus’ friends had ever known.

This morning, may we let peace envelop us. In the midst of a silent spring, may we experience God’s Love and its promise of new life, both now and always.

Christ is Risen! Risen indeed!

Hallelujah!

Keeping Quiet

by Pablo Neruda

Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second, and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines,
we would all be together in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors, would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about; I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go.

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Palm/Passion Sunday

In this post, I offer some of the words spoken at the livestreamed service of April 5. Click here for a video of the service.

Good morning; and welcome to each of you. My name is Rev. Ian Kellogg; Bryan LeGrow, our Music Director, is behind the piano; and behind the iPhone is Brian Sampson, who is once again streaming this service through Facebook.

We are glad that you have joined us this Palm Sunday for an online gathering. Today is the first day of Holy Week 2020, and it promises to be one unlike any other. Despite not being together physically, we hope that spending time in this virtual space will bind us together in Spirit.

We carry this hope in our hearts today, Palm Sunday, when we remember the story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. It is a hope that will carry us through Monday when the story is about Jesus overturning the tables of money-changers at the Temple; through Tuesday with its focus on the teachings of Jesus in the City; into Wednesday when hear a story of Jesus anointed with oil as for burial; to Thursday when we remember a Last Supper in an Upper Room; through Friday, when we relive the trial and execution of Jesus; and finally to Holy Saturday when we wait in fear and trembling, and in hope and joy, for Easter.

Then, one week from today, Easter will come with a celebration of new life amid stories of resurrection. I hope you will gather online again in seven days to express joy despite of — and perhaps even because of — our current situation with its fears, with its unknowns, and with its surprising revelations.

Dear friends, welcome to Holy Week 2020!

Mill Woods United is a spiritual community where you can explore your purpose and place. Thank you to everyone for making this vision a reality in changed circumstances.
We welcome everyone regardless of belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, or cultural background. As an Affirming congregation we work to make this a place where all of us feel safe.

We also acknowledge the land on which we gather. The church building where the three of us have gathered is located on the traditional land of Treaty Six First Nations. We are all Treaty people, for which we give thanks.

Today, the whole of the service is a celebration of communion. Through the communion prayers, we will touch upon many of the stories of Holy Week.

I hope some of you have come to this livestream with a glass of juice and a morsel of bread. But even if you don’t have the physical elements for communion, I pray that everyone will feel embraced by the sacrament. Communion is a symbol of our unity. We are members and friends of Mill Woods United Church; we are part of the Body of Christ; and each of us is one precious drop in the great ocean of humanity, each one a child of the God who is Love.

Dear friends, may this brief time of song, story, and sacrament fill our hearts and minds with an awareness of how Love binds us into a beautiful tapestry — diverse, rich, and united.

Lighting the Christ Candle

And now as we usually do, we light a candle to start. If you happen to have a candle close to hand, please consider lighting it at this time as well.

Livestreaming worship can remind us that the entire world is holy. We call this room at Mill Woods United a sanctuary because it is a place of collective grief and joy, of prayer and song, and of the remembrance of what we hold most sacred.

But our homes contain all these same things. So, perhaps we can extend that awareness to wherever we are this morning. The entire earth is holy ground.

Brothers and sisters, may the flame of our Candle remind us of the light within us, which will guide us through Holy Week to the blinding light of Easter

Gathering Prayer

God of Grace and Love,
In this delayed springtime, we turn our hearts and minds to questions of life and death, of hope and despair, and of painful journeys that lead to rebirth.
This week as we imagine that we are with Jesus in Jerusalem, may we be open to the spiritual highs of Holy Week and to its deep shadows.
And as we sing our way through the prayers of communion, may we be reminded that in the all the journeys of life, a thread of love exists that leads us to healing, to joy, and to new life.
May it be so. Amen.

Holy Communion — Invitation to the Table

Everyone is welcome at this Table — members and non-members, young and old, those who feel sure of their faith, and those filled with doubts. We are confident there is nothing we must do or believe to receive God’s Grace. All of us have come from Love, and to Love we all return; and so, I pray that you feel welcome.

We share this meal in a time of great need and with a Spirit of Love. We share it as a symbol of our own healing. We share it for the good of the world. We share it to nurture us for journeys that lead to justice, peace, and healing for all. We share it this Holy Week with others who are struggling around the world: with the sick and those who care for them; with the homeless and the refugee; with prisoners and the wrongly persecuted. We share it because it symbolizes the unshakeable bond that unites us as members of Mill Woods United and with all of struggling humanity. We share it because every week is a holy week and every place is holy ground. We share it to remind us that, although we are physically separate, we are one in the Spirit. We are One in Love.

Blessing

Brothers and sisters, Holy Week has begun.
May we continue to walk through each day of the week with confidence; knowing that God’s Love is with us every step of the way; that the Grace of Jesus Christ is revealed in painful sacrifices and in joyous outbursts of enlightenment; and that the Holy Spirit is here both now and always to bring peace to every heart. May it be so. Amen.

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Peace in Lent

Below is most of the material said or sung at the morning service on March 29, 2020. I provide it because the livestream on Facebook seemed to have a lot of issues.

Good morning; and welcome to each of you. As was the case last week, three of us are physically here at Mill Woods United Church – behind the podium is myself, Rev. Ian Kellogg; behind the piano is our Music Director, Bryan LeGrow; and behind the iPhone is Brian Sampson, who is streaming this service through Facebook.

We are glad that you can join our second online-only service. If you joined us live last week or watched the video later, you will notice some changes. For one, I hope this time everyone is able find the live feed via FB. Brian is also introducing some technical innovations. Please let us know about your experience.

Mill Woods United is a spiritual community where you can explore your purpose and place; and so many people are working hard to make this vision an ongoing reality despite our physical isolation during the pandemic crisis.

At Mill Woods, we celebrate and mourn together; we care for one another and our neighbours; and we reflect on how to follow the Way of Jesus. I am heartened by how so many of us explored ways, new and old, to do this work last week –Zoom meetings, a congregational phone tree, and an upsurge of caring and connection.

When we are able to gather in person again, I am confident that the connections being made while we are physically apart will make this an even stronger community of faith. With compassion and hope, let us continue down the paths we are walking.

This morning as always, we welcome everyone regardless of belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, or cultural background. As an Affirming congregation we work to make this community a place where all of us feel safe.

We also acknowledge the land on which we gather. The church building where the three of us have gathered this morning is located on the traditional land of Treaty Six First Nations. From wherever you are joining us, I suggest you take time to think about the land you are on, about its history, about the blessings that its original inhabitants have bequeathed to us, and about the wounds they may have suffered along the way. We are all Treaty people, for which we give thanks.

Two weeks ago, our focus was on maintaining hope in Lent. Last Sunday, it was about maintaining faith. Today, the focus is on finding peace in difficult times.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended many things in life, including worship planning at Mill Woods United. But today and next week, we are preserving some of what had been in the minds of the Worship Committee before the pandemic.

The original plan for today was to provide a more meditative experience. Part of that was to involve my wife, Kim, playing a set of Tibetan singing bowls. I am sure that will happen some day, but not this morning.

The other part of the plan was to offer a service inspired by the Taize ecumenical community of France. This intention is still present this morning. Both the closing and opening hymns are Taize songs written by the late French composer Jacques Berthier. Like all Taize hymns, they are simple and repetitive chants. I hope you will feel free to join in at home as Bryan and I sing them.

Next Sunday, I also want to follow part of an original plan. April 5 is Palm Sunday, and as was done over the last two years, the plan was to dedicate the whole of the service to the prayers for communion using songs to guide us through this sacrament. My new hope is that next Sunday we will experience virtual communion. The three of us would lead the sacrament from this sanctuary and the rest of the community could partake of the elements in your homes. We will send out more information about this in What’s the Buzz on Thursday.

As for today’s short gathering, my prayer is that the words, music, and silences might give us some threads we could follow to help us maintain or restore the peace and

equanimity we might need in trying times.

Lighting the Christ Candle

And now as we usually do, we light a candle to begin. If you happen to have a candle close to hand, please consider lighting it at this time as well.

As I mentioned Wednesday in my daily reflection, the process of livestreaming a worship service has the effect of making the entire world into a sanctuary. We call this large gathering room at Mill Woods United a sanctuary because it is a space of collective grief and joy, of prayer and song, and of the remembrance of what our community holds most sacred.

Streaming a service into one’s home via Facebook, Zoom, or YouTube might remind us that our homes contain all these same things. The space in which the three of us are standing is holy ground. I hope you will offer the same consideration to the space where you are this morning. We are all on holy ground.

If you don’t have a candle to light, please cherish what a candle flame represents. It is a symbol of the light that flickers within each of us and which helps to unite us in the peace of Christ . . .

“Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery,” VU #121, verse 1

Tree of Life and awesome mystery, in your death we are reborn, though you die in all of history, still you rise with every morn, still you rise with every morn.
Brothers and sisters, may the flame of this Candle remind us that we are not alone. The Spirit of Jesus is always with us continually offering us healing and peace.

And now, a Gathering Prayer . . .

Instead of offering a prayer that I wrote myself, today I offer a poem written ten days ago by the popular novelist Alexander McCall Smith. Like so many poems, I find it has a prayer-like quality; and I hope you appreciate it. This is McCall Smith’s poem:

“In a Time of Distance”

The unexpected always happens in the way
the unexpected has always occurred:
while we are doing something else,
while we are thinking of altogether
different things — matters that events
then show to be every bit as unimportant
as our human concerns so often are;
And then, with the unexpected upon us,
we look at one another with a sort of surprise;
how could things possibly turn out this way
when we are so competent, so pleased
with the elaborate systems we’ve created —
networks and satellites, intelligent machines,
pills for every eventuality — except this one?
And so, we turn again to face one another
and discover those things
we had almost forgotten
but that, mercifully, are still there:
love and friendship, not just for those
to whom we are closest, but also for those
whom we do not know and of whom
perhaps we have in the past been frightened;
the words brother and sister, powerful still,
are brought out, dusted down,
found to be still capable of expressing
what we feel for others, that precise concern;
joined together in adversity.
We discover things we had put aside:
old board games with obscure rules,
books we had been meaning to read,
letters we had intended to write,
things we had thought we might say
but for which we never found the time;
and from these discoveries of self, of time,
there comes a new realization
that we have been in too much of hurry,
that we have misused our fragile world,
that we have forgotten the claims of others
who have been left behind;
we find that out in our seclusion,
in our silence; we commit ourselves afresh.
We look for a few bars of song
that we used to sing together,
a long time ago; we give what we can,
we wait, knowing that when this is over
a lot of us — not all perhaps — but most,
will be slightly different people,
and our world, though diminished,
will be much bigger, its beauty revealed afresh.

May it be so.

And now Bryan and I will offer an opening hymn. Bryan will play the tune once, he and I will sing it in unison twice, and then we will sing it three times more in harmony. It is from . . .

Opening hymn: “Come and Fill Our Hearts,” MV #16

Come and fill our hearts with your peace. You alone, O God, are holy. Come and fill our hearts with your peace, alleluia!

We listen to two readings –Bryan LeGrow

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds,
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
John 16:25-33 (Jesus on finding peace)
On the night of his betrayal, Jesus said to his friends: “I have often spoken to you in veiled language. But a time is coming when I will tell you about God in plain speech. On that day you will ask in my name.
Now, I am not saying that I’ll petition God for you — God already loves you, because you have loved me and have trusted that I came from God.  I came from God and now I leave the world to return to God.”
His disciples replied, “At last you’re speaking plainly and not using metaphors!  We’re convinced that you know everything. There is no need for anyone to ask you questions. We do indeed trust that you came from God.”
Jesus answered them, “Do you really trust me?  An hour is coming — in fact, it has already come — when you will all be scattered and go your own ways, leaving me alone; yet I can never be alone, for Abba God is with me.
I have told you all this that in me you may find peace. You will suffer in the world. But take courage! I have overcome the world.”

Reflection – The peace of Lent

The Gospel passage we just heard was the inspiration for the final sermon that my father, the Rev. James Clare Kellogg, ever wrote. He composed it the week before his death in June 2007 when he was 84 years old.

Like many ministers, my father continued to work during retirement. When he and my mother retired to Cobourg Ontario, he worked part-time at Trinity United Church. The amount of time he gave to the church slowly declined over the years as he spent more time enjoying his grandchildren, gardening, singing in a community choir, painting landscapes, and corresponding with a wide variety of family members and friends. Nevertheless, his final sermon shows that he never completely left the pulpit.
My father handed a copy of a sermon on this passage to my sister on the day before his death. He was to have delivered it later that summer in the small rural church where he had grown up; but of course, he never got the chance.

Last week, when I searched for a Gospel passage about peace upon which to base today’s Reflection, the passage from John came up, and it seemed to fit with today’s situation.
This passage is set at the end of long speech by Jesus on the night before his death. Jesus tells his friends that he his spoken at length to them so that they might find peace. Despite noting that they will continue to suffer in the world, he urges his friends to have courage because he has overcome the world.

But as my father noted in his 2007 sermon, we have good reasons to be skeptical about Jesus’ statement. In 2007, my father mentioned war, poverty, and pollution as sources of suffering that were still painfully evident nearly 2,000 years after Jesus, which among other things may indicate that in my case the acorn didn’t fall far from the tree. Today, we can add to the list the coronavirus pandemic, which, in the last months, has radically changed life here and most other places in the world.

Despite these sources of suffering, Jesus offers peace to his followers. But how can we know peace in the face of the world’s problems; and in what sense has Jesus overcome the world?

I believe that the Way of Jesus does reveal the world overcome, but not in a common-sense fashion. Trusting in the Way — which is a Way of Lent and Easter, and of death and resurrection — doesn’t by itself end war, poverty, or pollution. Nor does it prevent one from being infected by the new coronavirus or protect a community from the death and devastation that it can cause.

What the Way of Jesus reveals are deeper realities than the everyday plane on which most of our fears and desires play out. The Way doesn’t do away with ordinary suffering. Instead, it shows how a new life of love and joy can be found beyond suffering.
This is not to say that following this Way means we won’t want to reach out in compassion to our neighbours or struggle to end war, poverty, or disease. Instead, I believe it frees us from fear, which can give us more scope to love our neighbours as ourselves and to work for a world without war or disease.

The fear that we feel in the face of COVID-19 is centred in our egos. Such fear is unavoidable and should not be ignored. By paying attention to fear as it manifests in our bodies, hearts, and minds, we gain important information about ourselves and about what is happening around us.

But when we absorb the lessons of Lent — that suffering is unavoidable AND that we are united with Love through our interconnections with each other and all of life –we can better respond to crises and opportunities.

The current pandemic has astonished us. Perhaps for the first time ever, everyone on the planet is engaged in the same conversation. I deeply appreciate a lot of this focus – the courageous work of frontline workers; the energy and skill of researchers and scientists; and the caring of friends and neighbours who are reaching out to one another despite being physically distant. Other parts of this focus I don’t appreciate – things like blind panic, criminal opportunism, and attempts to use the crisis to divide instead of unite.

Trusting that the Way of death and resurrection has overcome the world can help us lay our panic to one side and respond with compassion, reason, and hope.

Wendell Berry’s poem points to our interconnections with the natural world. As individuals, we are all vulnerable and mortal. But as part of the web of life, we are indestructible. Experiencing this connection in his body, Berry rediscovers Grace.

The poem by Alexander McCall Smith that I used as a Gathering Prayer emphasizes our indestructible connections to the rest of humanity.

At the level of the ego, we are vulnerable. But at the cultural, biological and cosmic levels, we are already one. We are already healed.

You may have heard these words before even as they may strike you as too abstract. You might be able to understand the Way of Jesus, but not in a way that dissolves your fears of getting COVID-19 or your grief at the death and destruction it is causing.

This is where meditative practices might help. Singing Taize hymns, which are simple, repetitive, and communal, might do this. Walking mindfully in nature might do it. Sitting in silence to follow the breath or other sensations might do it. Getting “into the zone” while playing sports or performing music might do it. Whatever practices one finds that help settle one’s mind, body, and spirit in the midst of the world’s troubles can be worthwhile.

I appreciate meditative practices when they remind me of how ephemeral and unreal the ego is, and how at the depths we are already saved. When we achieve a measure of peace above or below our fears, we are better able to pursue the joy and beauty that comes from working with others for a better world.

One day, the pandemic will pass, although how long and torturous the path to that day will be, no one seems to yet know. What society will look like and how we will be transformed is hardly clear at present either. But as partisans of the Way of Jesus, we can be confident that, with Grace, we can experience a deep peace even in the darkest hours. We can also have confidence that the eternal realities of faith, hope and love will be just as valid in the “after time” as in the “before time.”

By walking on a Way of death and resurrection, Jesus show us that, despite suffering, the world has been overcome. He invites us to join him on this Way, which among other things is a path of peace; and in response, I can only say, “Thanks be to God.  Amen.”

. . . music for meditation . . .

Friends, this is the part of the morning where normally we would take up an offering. But even though our in-person gatherings are suspended, our ministry is not. So, I offer some ideas about how we can give to Mill Woods United.

If you are on PAR, which is an automatic monthly debit – thank you. This is our main source of income, and we appreciate the intention behind your givings and their reliability.

You can donate online at millwoodsunited.org. Just look for the “How to Give” button, which is on every web page, and follow the links to an online donation facility.

You can mail cheques to the church office.

Randy and his team are also working on setting up an e-transfer system for the church. So, stay tuned for more on that.

Just by joining this livestream or watching the video later you have contributed. We deeply appreciate your support and your willingness to find new ways to reach out, join in, and make a difference in the neighbourhood and world. Thank you!

Sharing concerns: And now before prayer, I share some prayer requests. The Congregational Care Committee set up a phoning tree this week, so if you haven’t already received a phone call from that group look for one this week and in the weeks that follow. It is from these calls that I offer the following prayer requests.

Kathy Crawford is holding everyone in prayer during this tough time. She prays that we may we reach out and send ripples of caring to each other.

Dave Elliot asks that we uphold his mother in prayer. She lives in a nursing home in Red Deer where she just celebrated her 103rd birthday, but is no longer allowed any visitors. And so, we pray for her and all seniors living in care. They are even more isolated than usual.

Cathy Dubeau told us that her son Christopher was sent home sick with some symptoms, and is quarantined at home for two weeks. Cathy was in contact with him, and so she is also self-quarantining. And so, we are asked to remember Cathy and Christopher in our prayers.

If you have a prayer request you would like the community to hear next Sunday, please phone me or drop me an email.

Prayers of the People

And now friends, I invite us into a time of deeper prayer. Please pray with me . . .

God who is Love, may we feel your presence every moment of our lives. May we be grateful for this and all blessings.

Today I start by giving thanks for prayer itself. By settling into prayer, whether alone or in a gathered community like this, we can centre our small spirit within the Great Spirit of Love we call God.
In prayer, we create space in which to stop and rest into an awareness of all that surrounds us, both our wounds and our blessings;
we create space in which to remember our interconnections to family, friends, and neighbours and the whole of suffering and beloved humanity . . . and to our connections to all living beings and to the whole cosmos;
we create space in which to thank our Source in Love.
This moment, despite its difficulties, is filled with the radiance of natural and cultural beauty and with the many blessings of spiritual growth.
As we breath together, may we remember our sacred values– compassion, learning, mutual respect, inclusion, love – and why we hold them sacred.
As we breathe in, may we be filled with a spirit of thankfulness. As we breathe out, may we send love to the far corners of the world with boundless generosity.
In breathing, may we be overwhelmed again by the amazing beauty of the world and our deep and eternal gratitude for Love, which is our source and our sure destiny.
And as we rest in silence, may we give thanks for Grace and touch again a peace that passes understanding . . .

God of Hope

May the sick find care; the scared find reassurance; the lonely find community; and the poor find abundance.
Today, we pray for the homeless, for refugees, for First Nations communities, for the immuno-compromised, and for those whom social distancing has brought painful loneliness.
We pray for nurses, doctors and other medical personnel; for researchers and epidemiologists; for scientists of all kinds who are gathering the information that is needed; for manufacturers who are re-tooling to help; and for communities of faith like this one where people gather as they can to pray, sing, reflect, and strengthen our wills to respond.
In the face of a changing world, there is much for which we pray.

God who is Love,

As we reflect on Love, reach out in Love, and uphold Love in all our relationships, may touch again your Great Spirit, which is our eternal Source.

God of Healing,

Today, some of us are hurting. May we know your presence during times of pain, when we feel lost, or when we are mourning.

And now let us take a moment in silence in which we can remember others in prayer. . .

Loving God, these are our concerns and joys, which we lift to you.
And now let us close our prayers as I offer the prayer that Jesus taught us, singing . . .

The Prayer of Jesus (sung, Wendy Edey’s version)

And now friends, we will now close this time of worship with another Taize chant. Bryan will play it through once. Then he and I will sing it in unison twice. And finally we will sing it three more times, but as a round. It is from More Voices, #86 . . .

Closing Hymn – “Give Peace to Every Heart,” MV #86

Give peace to every heart. Give peace to every heart. Give peace. Give peace.

Blessing

Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the gentle night to you
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you
Deep peace of Christ the light of the world to you
Deep peace of Christ to you.
We Sing: “Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery,” VU #121, verse 2
Seed that dies to rise in glory, may we see ourselves in you
if we learn to live your story we may die to rise anew,
we may die to rise anew.

Extinguishing the Christ Candle

Be well friends. Go in peace! And stay in touch.

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Faith in Lent

from the preamble to morning worship, March 22, 2020

Good morning; and welcome to each of you. Three of us are physically here at Mill Woods United Church today – behind the podium is myself, Rev. Ian Kellogg; behind the piano is our Music Director, Bryan LeGrow; and behind the iPhone is Brian Sampson, who is streaming this service through Facebook.

We are so glad that you can join our first online-only service. I will be curious after the service to see how many of you were able to watch live. We will also post a link to the video of this livestream on the church website later today. Please let us know what you think. We know that we must improve many aspects of streaming — from boosting our Internet-strength, to providing ways for you to interact in real time, to adding additional elements like the lyrics of songs, and so on.

Yesterday, I got an email from our friend Linda Paddon, who along with her husband Bill has been living in Burnaby BC since 2016. She said people at their church there, Deer Lake United, had started to talk of online worship as “lovestreaming.” I am cheered by this formulation. In these strange and fearful times, I pray we will continue to find ways of being together in love even as we are physically separate.

Mill Woods United is a spiritual community where you can explore your purpose and place — and in the face of pandemic illness, economic collapse, and social isolation, we need communities of faith like this one more than ever.

At Mill Woods, we celebrate and mourn together; we care for one another and our neighbours; and we reflect on how to follow the Way of Jesus. And starting last Monday, we are learning to do this at a distance – through phone calls, through mailings to those without computers, through our social media feeds, through our website, and through livestreams like this brief spiritual gathering.

Let us continue to do as much as we can to connect with one another and our neighbours. Having talked on the phone last week with all the people in the church we knew or suspected didn’t have a computer, I intend to reach out to everyone one of you. But don’t hesitate to contact me first. We need each other now more than ever.
A Working Group will gather again tomorrow to discuss how to shape our work in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Please hold this group in prayer as it meets to share, discuss, and make more decisions.

This morning as always, we welcome everyone regardless of belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, or cultural background. As an Affirming congregation we work to make this community a place where all of us feel safe.

We also acknowledge the land on which we gather. The church building where the three of us have gathered this morning is located on the traditional land of Treaty Six First Nations. From wherever you are joining us, I suggest you take time to think about the land you are on, about its history, about the blessings that its original inhabitants have bequeathed to us, and about the wounds they may have suffered along the way. We are all Treaty people, for which we give thanks.

Last week, our focus was on maintaining hope in Lent. Today it is about maintaining faith. My prayer is that the words, music, prayers and silences we offer might give us some of the courage and faith we need to cope and perhaps even thrive in the face of rapidly changing times.

Sermon, based on Matthew 17:14-21 (“moving mountains”)

What can we learn from the metaphor we just heard? Jesus tells his students that faith has the power to move mountains. What might this mean? And how does his metaphor speak to us this Lent as we try to maintain faith in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and of social and economic collapse?

Today’s extraordinary efforts to maintain social distance can feel like a community effort to move a mountain. You have undoubtedly seen a graph that projects numbers of infections over time without social distancing versus numbers with it. Without social distancing, infections quickly soar to a point at which hospitals are overwhelmed; and this then leads to a terrifying number of deaths. With social distancing, the curve might be flattened.

These projections explain why governments, businesses, and most individuals are willing to undergo the pain of isolation and the economic destruction caused by closed borders and businesses. We are practicing social distancing as a collective act of caring, generosity, and hope.

I pray that the curve is flattened and that Edmonton, Canada, and the rest of the world don’t undergo the traumatic losses that northern Italy has endured for much of this month.

Different models are being pursued to confront the pandemic around the world. But despite heroic efforts, researchers and public health experts have much more to learn. So, we are left to support their efforts and wait in hope to see how the pandemic unfolds and what might be asked of us in the weeks ahead.

I am shocked by how swiftly so many sectors of society have moved. Leaders in government, business, academia, and other sectors have shown a mobilizing capability in the past few weeks that I cannot remember seeing before.

My prayers this Lent are mostly focused on the sick, those who care for them, and the many billions who are threatened by sickness and by the loss of income, opportunity, and access to bare necessities. May our collective efforts curtail the pandemic and end the social disruption it has triggered.

I also reserve some of my prayers for social learning. May the pandemic response show society how to confront other crises like war and climate disaster. I suspect the world that will emerge from the ravages of the pandemic will be different from the one we have just left behind. I hope these differences will be ones that move us closer to a sacred realm of love and compassion.

In the face of inaction on chronic problems like pollution, homelessness, and racism, some of us become cynical about humanity’s ability to effect positive social change.

Perhaps the pandemic response will challenge this cynicism. Almost overnight, the virus was identified as a threat by masses of people. In the face of changed perceptions, government and business moved quickly to make drastic changes.

We hope social distancing doesn’t last for too long. But if best practices are identified and shared; if researchers can find treatments; and if a vaccine can be developed sooner rather than later, we could then re-establish social and economic connections.

When we do emerge from isolation, I pray it will be in a society that has both proven it can respond rapidly to a deadly threat, and one that will then tackle other threats. Could we not find a way to maintain order without mass incarceration? Could we not have a booming economy that wasn’t dependent on fossil fuels? Could we not forge global interconnections that eroded the disparities between racial and national groups? Could we not create a society with adequate healthcare and material abundance for everyone, and in which there was scope for the creative and spiritual flourishing of all people and not just for a few?

The rapidity and deep nature of the pandemic response strengthens my faith that many other such potential transformations lie dormant within the world community.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus heals a mentally and emotionally distressed boy. I don’t see this healing as an illustration of the unique power of Jesus. The simple reason for this is that individual healing is bound up with the health of the community. To me, the boy’s healing signifies how an awareness of a Christ light in each person can transform a community into a healthy and healing one.

We live in a world with too much violence, too much pollution, and too many irrationalities. For this reason, all of us live in a precarious state. Creating a society that was better able to tackle war, pollution, and irrational prejudice would be one that would allow all of us to better heal our inner demons and to build more loving relationships.

I have faith in the sacred values that we uphold every day at Mill Woods United Church. Values like respect, humility, solidarity, hope and love create the platform that we need as individuals to flourish in community and that society needs to confront existential threats like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leadership is key, I believe. I wish there were more world leaders that I trusted. I also wish the world had better mechanisms for global cooperation. But I have faith in the power of a struggling humanity when it unites from below on the basis of shared values.

When billions of us come together in fierceness and joy, we can move any mountain and overcome any obstacle, in my opinion.

At the local level, I trust in our ability to stay in touch with one another during the pandemic; to reach out in compassion to those who are sick, afraid, or in mourning; and by doing so to make a loving difference in our own hearts and within the neighbourhood.

I have faith that Love is our source and destiny. We all carry wounds caused by family dysfunction and social irrationalities. But we also carry a sacred light within. This light helps us to see the divine in others, and it reminds us that even in the face of pandemics that can’t be easily overcome and social evils that can’t be easily defeated, we are already united with our fellow pilgrims and with the God who is Love. We are already one.

At the global level, I pray that more leaders — political, corporate, scientific, and religious — will rise to the challenge of the pandemic. Together, may we care for the sick, stop the spread of the virus, and create a model for how a uniting and compassionate humanity could move the other mountains that lie between us and the Promised Land.

May it be so. Amen.

video of the spiritual gathering 

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Hope in Lent

Dear friends, We are a family of faith formed by hope and love. But this morning, we gather under a cloud cast by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like me, I imagine you are shocked by how quickly things shifted last week. First, it was the decline in the price of oil; then a stock market crash; then attempts to try to “flatten the curve” of infections by the COVID-19 coronavirus so that our healthcare system wouldn’t be overwhelmed; then the news that sports events, schools, and other activities were being suspended so that social distancing could slow the virus. You could probably add to this list.

Thank you, Carol, for your words a few minutes ago about how Mill Woods United is responding. Please stay tuned for more after a working group meeting tomorrow.

So much of the power of a community like Mill Woods United flows from the spirit generated by our in-person gatherings. But as we heard in a passage from John last week, the Spirit blows where it will, and so I pray that we will keep our hearts and minds open to whatever changes the working group suggests.

Until yesterday, I was planning on making this service an Affirm United celebration called PIE Day. Every March 14, this justice network within the United Church of Canada encourages us to focus on how our churches can become more welcoming and inclusive of sexual and gender minorities. But as we start a new week, celebration no longer seems appropriate to me. We will return to the materials distributed by Affirm United and to a reflection on the blessings of diversity at another time. But this morning I want to focus on how we can stay in touch with faith and hope in the face our fears about COVID-19.

Today is the third of six Sundays in Lent, a time in which we imaginatively travel with Jesus and his friends to their fate, and ours, in Jerusalem. This year, the challenges we face in Lent might seem bigger than in others. But as always, we journey with confidence that it is one from darkness to light, from ignorance to enlightenment, and from death to rebirth.

We don’t know what the next days, weeks, or months will bring us as political, medical, scientific, and faith leaders grapple with the pandemic. But we do know we are being asked to pause in our busyness as students, workers, sports fans, and perhaps as congregational members. This call for social distancing reminds me of the Jewish concept of sabbath.

And so, as we prepare to begin worship, I now offer a poem written four days ago, and which Ethel Ray brought to my attention on Friday. Called Pandemic, it was written by Lynn Unger

What if you thought of it as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
a sacred time?
Cease from travel
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those to whom you commit your life.
Center down.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils of compassion
that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love —
for better or for worse, in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live. Amen.

Reflection

Text: John 4:5-28 (Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman)

Every crisis can also be an opportunity.  A family crisis can become an opportunity to learn how to name our feelings and to communicate them non-violently. Climate disaster can become an opportunity to rebuild our cities so that they are walkable again. Economic crisis can become an opportunity to imagine ways of producing goods and services that don’t destroy natural habitats. A church crisis can become an opportunity to revisit sacred values and see how we might better live into them.

No one looks forward to such crises. But one of the lessons of Lent is that crises inevitably come to us. This is just the nature of the human and social condition. Given the inevitable problems of life, the key becomes what we do in the face of them. How do we stay on a path of faith, hope and love even when a loss or crisis has left us feeling scared, despairing, or angry? Responding to this question is a yoga that we practice every Lent. It is the dark but gracious background that highlights the joy of every Easter celebration.

This morning I wonder what opportunities might lie within the COVID-19 pandemic? This virus has led to more than 5,000 deaths and threatens so many more people. Trying to slow its spread has upended much of life here and all around the world.

When I last spoke about COVID-19 on February 2, it was still mostly confined to Asia, and I hoped that it might not become a pandemic. But that hope lies in the past as Europe has become the locus of the spread of disease and as numbers tick up every day here in Canada and in many other places.

Armies of researchers are amassing mountains of new evidence about the disease and compiling best practices for containing it. I hope and pray that political, medical, and community leaders will learn from what has worked in places like South Korea or Hong Kong and from what has not worked in places like Italy and the United States.

Leadership is key in times of crisis, and so I am so grateful for the leadership of our Church Council. I trust that the COVID-19 Working Group, which will meet tomorrow afternoon, will help us to manage how we operate as a church in the midst of all the other stresses facing us as families and individuals.

Some of us will probably get COVID-19. Most of us who do, it seems, will recover well. A few, unfortunately, may not. In the midst of it, we will work to slow its spread. We will care for the sick and advocate for a distribution of resources that will give everyone a chance for a healthy and happy life even in the face of infectious diseases like COVID-19 and so many others.

Last month, if you had asked an average person in Edmonton if the world should devote more resources to cruise ships or intensive care units who knows what the answer would have be. This week, the answer will have changed.

If you had asked an average person last month if they preferred to spend their money on an All-Terrain Vehicle or on more emergency medical personnel and equipment, who knows what the answer would have been. This week, the answer will have changed.

The work of the church is to care for each other and our neighbours near and far. The health of one is utterly dependent on the health of all. When Tom Hanks and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau get a dangerous infection that started in poverty-stricken food markets on the other side of the world, our interdependence becomes clear.

But beyond providing food and clothing to the needy and working for a saner distribution of social resources, we also give thanks for the Living Water that Jesus mentions to a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in today’s reading. He describes a Water that refreshes our souls with a love that is eternal.

In the face of COVID-19, we don’t offer Living Water as a fake cure for the disease. Instead, we can use it to bolster our outreach and advocacy work. We can proclaim the good news that there is more to life than just survival. There is also a deep core of well-being that no disease or social disorder can disturb.

Living Water is not an excuse to withdraw from the daily life of work and family or from the effort to respond to a threat like COVID-19. Instead, I see it as liberation from our fears. Focusing on the Living Water of Love can provide the calm we need in the face of chaos. It can provide the gracious space from which we can reorder our thoughts and organize our efforts to make a better world. It can become the empty tomb out of which a new life of love arises.

Sometimes churches advocate for a retreat from life into spiritual fantasy. But this is not how I see Living Water. It doesn’t do away with our need for clean H2O, for adequate food and health resources, or for leaders who work from a global and human context instead of a national and anti-human one. Living Water can give us the courage, equanimity, and strength to persist in compassion and love in the face of this crisis and to work for a world in which such crises don’t only expose the foolishness of our economic and political structures but help us create better ones.

In the face of COVID-19, may we find new ways to be a spiritual community in which we can find our purpose and place. May we continue to reach out in care, to join in to mourn and celebrate, and to make a difference within ourselves and in the neighbourhood. May we advocate for a world that takes seriously our interdependence.

This Lent as we walk with Jesus towards our fate amidst the gloom of viruses, social imbalance, and national obsessions, let us look forward in hope to an empty tomb at Easter out which will flow an endless fountain of God’s Living Water.

May it be so. Amen

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Notes from the underground

Texts: John 3:1-19 (being born from above) * Matthew 17:1-9 (the Transfiguration) * “Parasite,” 2019 movie

How many people here today have seen the South Korean movie Parasite? Last month, it became the first non-English language movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It has won other awards and has earned $300 million at the box office.

Parasite tells the story of a poor South Korean family – two twenty-something children and their parents — who use deception and radical ingenuity to become the employees of a rich family. I thought the movie was funny, over-the-top, and intense. It is a broad social satire that uses an implausible plot to reveal some of the craziness and violence of our class-divided and rapidly changing world.

In offering this reflection, my hope is not to spoil the movie for those of you who have not seen it, but to examine how its themes might relate to the those of the two Gospel readings we just heard.

But before I say more, let us now watch the trailer from the movie . . .

Both of today’s Gospel readings, have themes of up and down, and light and dark. The reading from Matthew is set at the beginning of the journey of Jesus and his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. Jesus and three of his friends climb a high mountain where Jesus is transfigured into a figure of shining light; and where they encounter two prominent figures from the stories of their distant ancestors: Moses and Elijah.

But Lent and Easter don’t take place in the heights. Jesus, Peter, James and John descend the mountain and walk the valley roads that lead them to Jerusalem.

Why the gospels include this mountain-top experience at the beginning of the journey to Jerusalem is a matter for debate. To me, it underlines the idea that Lent is not about spiritual highs. Instead it is about the toil, pain, and troubles of life, which can end in what looks like tragedy, but which Easter shows us can also lead to the birth of the Risen Christ within us.

In today’s other Gospel reading from John, Nicodemus, an important Jewish leader in Jerusalem, comes to Jesus at night to question him. Jesus offers Nicodemus the puzzling metaphor that if he wants to enter God’s realm, he must be born from above, or born of the Spirit. Like the story of the Transfiguration, this story has contrasts spirit from above with the hunger and need of Nicodemus that comes to Jesus in the night. Both short passages refer to height and depth, and light and dark.

In the movie Parasite, the mansion of the rich family is a vision of light to which the family members ascend. In contrast, the basement apartment of the poor family is reached by a ludicrously long descent. At a key moment of the movie, the city of Seoul is inundated by a great flood and the poor family’s apartment is destroyed.

The movie suggests that reality is better grasped by those who live in the depths. The light-filled mansion includes a hidden bunker, which the original owner had built in case of an attack by North Korea, but which he didn’t reveal to the rich family who bought his house. Knowledge of the bunker is reserved for the poor servants.

The bunker could symbolize both fear of war and of the repression of such fears. The rich family’s ignorance of the bunker reminds me of how so much of our lives are driven by foolish fears, which we often shunt into our unconscious.

At various moments, some of the servants who live in the depths of poverty and oppression emerge from either the bunker or their lower-class neighbourhood to disturb the dreams of the rich family.

The title of the movie is a puzzle. Who is a parasite? It could be the poor family which fraudulently worms its way into the paid service of the rich family. Or it could be the rich family whose life of wealth is founded on the exploitation of the poor.

Conflict between rich and poor is another point of connection between the movie and the stories in the gospels. Jesus and his friends are poor peasants. The Jewish religious leaders with whom they clash after they arrive in Jerusalem and the Roman rulers who arrest and execute Jesus are a wealthy elite who could be seen as parasites on the peasantry.

Lent describes a journey from the low-lying area around the Sea of Galilee to the heights of Jerusalem. When their ascent is completed, Jesus and his friends meet violent resistance, which culminates in the execution of Jesus. But from the darkness of his tomb, the light of Easter morning arises.

So, Lent is a story of dark and light, down and up, and death and rebirth; and in many ways, so is the movie Parasite. But so what?

Parasite is not a realistic drama. It is a dark tragicomedy filled with broad metaphors. I chose to reflect on it today because of the awards it has received and because it seems to have captured some of today’s zeitgeist. But does discussion of a movie like this have relevance to our spiritual growth and to the life of the church during the Holy season of Lent? Perhaps not.

On the other hand, one could also ask if the stories of Jesus still have relevance. The gospels are not realistic dramas. They too can be seen as dark tragicomedies filled with broad metaphors. I choose to reflect on them during Lent, as during the rest of the year, because of the arc of spiritual struggle, growth, and rebirth that they sketch and because they are foundational to Christianity.

This is not to say that I believe salvation comes only from Jesus. Nor do I think the books of the Bible are the only sources of spiritual truth. Nevertheless, in the stories of the life, ministry, death, and rebirth of Jesus I find endless inspiration for life in a community of faith like this one. I am glad we have these stories, just as I am glad there are other sources of inspiration.

When a movie like Parasite obtains prominence in the culture, I believe it can be useful to see if its themes can help us reflect on our path. I am glad to have seen Parasite and that its striking images remind me of our buried fears; of the painful contrast between the lives of poor people and the unconscious lives of the rich; and of the violence that sometimes breaks out in the tension between rich and poor.

In church, we gather to reflect on our concerns and those of the neighbourhood in the light of tradition. We can also find inspiration in movies, books, and other cultural works. As with the gospels, the latter provide fodder for our thinking, our faith formation, and our questions about how to live up to our sacred values as followers of Jesus.

The journey of Lent reminds me of the yin and yang between spiritual heights and soulful depths; of birth from above that can flow from tragic defeat; and of the vicissitudes and joys of life together as we try to grow as individuals and a community in circumstances not of our own choosing.

In a world filled with parasites and in lives lived shaped by the realities of poverty and wealth, we spend time in Lent imagining that we are walking with Jesus to Jerusalem. Along this way, we join with others who, like us, have been shaped by life in bunkers and basements and by repressed fears.

As we stumble in joy along the paths of Lent, may we do so with confidence that out of bunkers and tombs can arise not just incomprehension or conflict, but a rebirth of spirit that brings us and this weary world a little closer to the Love that is our source.

May it be so.

Amen.

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