The Great Thanksgiving

Text: Matthew 26:20-30 (The Last Supper)

“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!” These words of Paul from his letter to the church in Philippi seem like a good opening to a Thanksgiving sermon. Every Sunday we give thanks. But on Thanksgiving, we are supposed to give thanks with extra enthusiasm. On Thanksgiving, we are called to rejoice in life’s gifts even more than we normally do.

But can we always rejoice in God and in life’s many gifts? What about times when we are sick; when we are mourning; or when worries about the world threaten to overwhelm us? Can we still rejoice and give thanks then?

Examining the communion prayers, which are often called The Great Thanksgiving, might help with this question. They begin with thanks for the healing power of God’s Love and go on to refer to the life and ministry of Jesus. In the story of Jesus’ Last Supper — which we just heard and which we repeat every time we come to the Table — Jesus give thanks as he breaks bread and pours wine.

The Communion Table symbolizes all the family meals that nurture us, for which we are grateful. Finally, in communion, we give thanks for the path of death and resurrection shown to us by Jesus

The sticking point might be death. The Last Supper is the end of Jesus’ journey with his friends. Immediately following supper, Jesus is betrayed by Judas, arrested by the religious authorities, and handed over to the Romans for execution. So, why should we give thanks for this tale of suffering and death?

There is no consensus in the church on this. Many churches teach that by dying on the cross, Jesus cleanses us of our sins. All we need do is believe in this idea to be saved; and I can understand why this theory came to be popular and how some biblical texts lend it weight.

In contrast to it, I emphasize Jesus’ statement that we must take up our own cross (Mark 8:34). In this focus, Jesus’ death and resurrection doesn’t do the work of healing for us. It merely shows us the way.

I am drawn to this perspective because it fits with my experience. Life, despite all that we love about it, contains many moments of crisis, pain, and grief. Happily, such moments can become ones of Grace in which old ways die, and in which a new life closer to Love arises; and at the end of earthly life, our attachments dissolve as we return to the Source of Love from which we have come.

For me, this is the path. Jesus doesn’t do the work for us. Nor can we avoid death and resurrection even if want to avoid them. Grace, healing and love are here for us even when we aren’t looking for them.

It is true that we often miss the grace available to us. But sometimes, we wake up on the other side of grief to find ourselves in a resurrected moment of eternity. Such joyous moments show us that the path of death and resurrection, for all its pain, is worthy of endless thanks and praise.

I glimpsed some moments like this at a Conference last week at the Providence Renewal Centre. Called “An Awkward Conversation in the Church,” it focused on racism in church and society. Many of the leaders of our denomination participated, including the Moderator, the Right Rev. Jordan Cantwell, several staff from General Council, and others from across the country.

One theme running through the Conference was the decline of the church. The keynote speaker was a black theologian from England, Anthony Reddie. Born in England in 1964 to Jamaican immigrants, Reddie has seen his denomination, the Methodist Church of Britain, wither away to almost nothing.

Reddie warned us not to use the current restructuring of the United Church, which is designed to help us cope with more than 50 years of decline, as an attempt to resuscitate the church. Instead, he urged us to welcome resurrection. Resuscitation restores a dying body to continued life. Resurrection only occurs after death. Resuscitation is about more of the same while resurrection is about something new and unexpected.

Because both the Methodists in Britain and the United Church of Canada are so weak compared to where we were 50 years ago, Reddie said that we now have a chance at death and resurrection.

To my delight, his theme was taken up by our Moderator, Jordan Cantwell, when she spoke on Thursday evening. Much of her presentation was about the challenge she has experienced as Moderator the past two years, particularly on issues of First Nations, refugees, and racism. She spoke personally and emotionally, which I appreciated.

She then picked up on Reddie’s thoughts about resurrection versus resuscitation. Cantwell talked about re-founding the church on values of equity and mutual respect, values that were not present when the United Church was created in 1925, just as they were not present at Canadian Confederation in 1867.

She hoped that our death and resurrection as a church would allow us to turn our backs on the white supremacy that was central to the founding of both the Canadian state and to the United Church. She prayed that a resurrected church would be humbler, better able to listen to outsiders, and be fully committed to anti-racism.

When Cantwell was elected in 2015, I was critical of the pride she expressed in the church and her inability to accept its decline. This week, more than two years later, she sounded quite different.

And why not? Ministry is a tough job, and the role of Moderator is the toughest one in our church. If the inevitable missteps and mistakes that come with the job don’t transform one, then nothing will. So, I was happy to hear Cantwell say she is being transformed by the role. She spoke of confronting white privilege and white supremacy not just as issues of social justice but as matters of her own personal salvation. For these words and for her courage in speaking of death and resurrection, I am grateful.

In his remarks, Reddie referred to the words of Paul that God’s strength lies in our weakness. I am grateful that the United Church’s leaders might finally be coming to grips with our weakness.

Like many other congregations, Mill Woods United is also confronted by weakness. Last Sunday, we said goodbye to Bev Thompson, our Child, Youth and Family worker, and I was pleased to be here for that heartfelt send-off.

But given our lack of children and youth, Council might decide not to fill Bev’s position, at least not until our finances and our numbers change. So, I wonder if this will be an identity crisis for us.

Can we embrace our reality as a small congregation of seniors with a smattering of people below the age of 50? I hope so. Our lack of children, youth and young adults is a weakness. But perhaps we can see God’s strength in it.

Of course, we have strengths as well as weaknesses. Though few of us are under 50, we still love gathering to mourn and celebrate and to reflect on our sacred values. We still love learning together, reaching out to the neighbourhood in love, and standing for justice in a divided world.

Other strengths include the choir, outreach projects like the food and clothing bank and The Bread Run, our commitment to reconciliation with Canada’s first peoples, and our partnership with a Methodist congregation of Zimbabwean immigrants.

So, with love for the energy that flows from our strengths and with confidence that the blessings of the Spirit can also be found in our fragility, I hope we will feel the paradox of God’s strength and our weakness as we come the Table today. In the defeat of Jesus that we remember at Table, may we feel gratitude because we know that beyond defeat lies a new life of love.

Mill Woods United may not be the same in five years as it was 20 years ago. The United Church of Canada may not be the same in 10 years as it was 60 years ago. Neither may even exist. But we could accept this because we know that out of death new life flows.

To end, I offer Paul’s closing words from Philippians. Paul writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice! . . . Don’t be anxious about anything, but in every situation, with prayer and thanksgiving, present your requests to God. For the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Amen.

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The Accidental Tourist

Text: Ecclesiastes 1:1-9 (“there is nothing new under the sun”)

As summer draws to a close, I look back on the season. Already this morning we have talked about the big hit of the summer here in Edmonton — the Accidental Beach.

Another major draw for tourists this summer was the total solar eclipse on August 21, one that carved a path across the United States. Did anyone here travel to Oregon or Idaho to experience the eclipse?

The eclipse came to my mind when I read today’s passage from Ecclesiastes and its famous line, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes fits uneasily in Bible, I believe. As with the first nine verses we just heard, much of it is cynical and world-weary. “Meaningless. Meaningless. All is meaningless” the author begins. There may be wisdom in Ecclesiastes, but it is a wisdom that seems removed from the hope and joy preachers are supposed to proclaim in temple, synagogue, and church.

Unhappily, sometimes we may resonate with the cynicism of Ecclesiastes. As we get older, the ceaseless rounds of the seasons might start to bore us. What is the point, we may ask, if we just die in the end? And hasn’t it all happened before?

Children, of course, provide an antidote to this kind of disenchantment. To children, anything can appear magical — the colours of the leaves in autumn, the first snow of the season, stories told around dining tables at Thanksgiving, the candlelight of Christmas, and so on. To children, everything can seem awesome.

But what about us older folk? In a world filled with news and neuroses that reinforce our inner cynic, we may struggle to keep alive a sense of wonder and enchantment.

It can help to stop and pay attention, I believe. When we put down our phones and just sit and breathe, we might discover again the beauty of family members or the wonder of a night sky.

This is the enchantment of the daily and the ordinary; and this is all that we need. But there is also the extraordinary; and it is in the category of the extraordinary into which solar eclipses fall.

I have yet to experience a total solar eclipse, but after hearing a TED Talk on eclipses two weeks ago, doing so has climbed to the top of my bucket list. In a moment, I am going to play a video of that TED Talk.

I heard this talk at the opening session of the “Ever Wonder” Conference on Friday September 1 at Southminster-Steinhauer United Church. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I apologize for how washed out the video appears on this sunny morning. But happily, I believe that the audio is more important the visuals . . .

You owe it to yourself to experience a total solar eclipse”

David Baron is not a spiritual person. But his words on the impact of seeing a total eclipse, resonate with the path I try to follow.

When experiencing an eclipse, David feels viscerally connected to the universe; his empathy increases; his ego dissolves; time seems to stop; and he feels less afraid.

Baron’s outlook on life was wonderfully changed after experiencing an eclipse, and I am sure others of us might be similarly affected. But as he says, it is not just eclipses that affect such change. For us, it might be parenting, or helping to build a movement for social justice, or singing in a church choir. There are innumerable experiences which can remind us our connection to the universe and the Source of Love we call God.

In the 1980’s novel and movie “The Accidental Tourist” the protagonist writes travel guides for reluctant business travelers on how to avoid unpleasantness and difficulty. But in the face of tragedy and grief, and in a relationship with a passionate and difficult woman, he stops being so protective, and he opens himself more to the mysteries and enchantments of life and love. My prayer is that something similar will happen to us all.

There may be nothing new under the sun. But what there is under, within, and all around the sun is more than enough.

So, may our daily-ness be constantly interrupted by accidental beaches, glorious celestial phenomena, and deep relationships that remind us of our connections to the cosmos and to the eternal moment of God’s Love.

Amen.

 

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New beginnings

Text: Mark 1:14-20 (Jesus calls his first disciples)

Happy New Year!

Does Labour Day still seem like the start of a new year to you? For students, of course, it marks the beginning of a new grade; and speaking personally, I have not yet lost the sense I gained as a child that Labour Day is the real New Year’s Day.

I raised this issue at a service at the Laurel Height’s senior’s residence on Friday. One woman said she hadn’t realized that Monday was Labour Day. Others talked about grandchildren who were entering college this month.

One woman who had grown up in Germany talked about why September 1st is a date of enduring significance to her. She was eight years old on September 1, 1939, the day on which Germany invaded Poland. The unimaginable horror of the world war that followed means that September 1st still resonates fearfully for her, 78 years later . . .

The last time I returned to school after Labour Day was just seven years ago. In September 2010, I started my third and final year of study for a Masters of Divinity degree at the United Church of Canada’s Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto.

But even when not in school, Labour Day still feels to me like a good time to start something new. Over the summer, many activities shut down. Choirs take a break. TV series go into re-runs. Churches and other civic organizations scale back as people enjoy longer and warmer days.

For these reasons, September feels like a moment for new beginnings; and not just for school students.

This is why I chose to hear the call of Jesus to his disciples today on the first Sunday after Labour Day. To what new thing, I wonder, is God calling us today?

I ask this question since the context in which we respond is always changing; and I was struck by some of these changes last weekend at the “Ever Wonder” conference held at Southminster-Steinhauer United Church.

I enjoyed the conference and was pleased at its success. One hundred and fifty people registered. More than 250 attended a public lecture by the Rev. Gretta Vosper on Sunday afternoon that was followed by a discussion on the future of the United Church. I was enlivened by the Spirit that flowed through the weekend.

Conference participants divided into small groups that met four different times over the weekend. The group I was in included a retired minister from near Swift Current whom I knew from Chinook Presbytery in Saskatchewan when I was placed there six years ago, and the minister of McDougall United Church, the Rev. Christina Bellsmith.

Christina’s presence and that of another leader from McDougall, Larry Derkach, prompted me to tell Larry about a worship service that I had led at McDougall United in 2016 at a Presbytery meeting.

My inspiration came from a story about my late father, the Rev. Clare Kellogg, and the time he visited McDougall United. In 1960, my father was a Commissioner to the United Church of Canada’s General Council, which met that year in McDougall United. I had learned of his trip to Edmonton from my mother when she visited my sisters here at Easter 2008 and worshipped at McDougall in his memory.

I looked up a history of General Council on the United Church’s website and discovered that the main item of discussion in 1960 was alcohol. A controversial resolution was debated and passed that said full membership in the United Church of Canada would be available not only to teetotalers, but also to people who chose to drink wine, beer, or other alcoholic drinks!

How times change, eh? In 1960, the United Church was a bulwark of puritanical moralism. But after crossing the Rubicon of booze in 1960, General Council tackled other social issues over the next 30 years. Successively, the church came out in support of artificial birth control, married women as ministers, no-fault divorce, choice on abortion, and equal rights for gays and lesbians in the church.

Today, the United Church of Canada is both drastically smaller and much more liberal than it was in 1960; and one of the threads running through the Conference last weekend was how these two trends influence one another. Vosper wondered if the United Church is now trying to return to its conservative roots in an effort to stem its losses.

Before 1960, the United Church spent a lot of energy policing morality. It denounced alcohol, card playing, and sex outside of traditional marriage. Since 1960, our response to God’s call has led us to shed our moralism and to pursue inclusive love and expansive spirituality.

This was the United Church that I rejoined 16 years ago this September. I would not have returned if it had still been a bulwark of puritanism. I would not have rejoined if it had focused on ancient dogmas and doctrines.

I am grateful to Kingston Road United Church in east Toronto, which I joined 16 years ago. It is there that I learned to love singing and praying with others, celebrating and mourning in community, and reaching out to neighbours in love.

By gathering with other people on Sunday mornings, by running programs like food and clothing banks, and by discussing how to align our lives with the dream of Love we call God’s realm, we find meaning and purpose. We also improve our chances to find balance amid all the many changes that swirl around us.

Moralism and out-of-date teachings get in the way of that gracious work, I believe. The church can try going backward, but I am sure it won’t work. More importantly, doing so would dishonour the call of Jesus. The path to which Jesus called his first disciples 2,000 years ago led beyond old doctrines and traditions; and it is to such paths that God’s call guides us today.

The drastic evolution of church in our lifetimes came to my mind this summer when Kim and I watched the first season of the Netflix series, “The Crown.” These 10 episodes tell the social history of Great Britain from 1947 to 1955 through the life of Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Family. I am not a fan of the monarchy, so I was reluctant to watch this highly acclaimed series. But I am so glad that I finally succumbed.

The final episode tells the story of how in 1955 the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret, was not allowed to marry her lover Peter Townsend because he was divorced. The bishops of the Church of England railed against divorce as a sin and so they blocked the marriage.

Happily, such cruel moralism has largely disappeared, as has the Church of England. Like the United Church, Anglicans are a pale shadow of their former selves. In a recent survey of Britons reported on in “The Economist” last week only 15 percent called themselves Anglicans, a rate that drops to three percent among people aged 18-24.

This is another sign that church is moving to the margins even as ancient morality and dogma wither away.

Nevertheless, beloved communities like Mill Woods United continue with energy and hope in changed circumstances; and we do so with our eyes set towards the future and not back to discarded rules and doctrines.

As summer wanes and we head into the Fall, we have heard again an ancient call from Jesus. How we will respond? Will we sing in the choir and try a new role at the Bread Run? Will we join a committee like Property or Worship to help shape the life of this beloved community? Will we participate in a Thursday morning Bible study group, or respond to a Stewardship campaign in late September with an increase in our givings?

The call of God’s Love is always present, I believe. It guides, leads, and heals us. It is a call from the Love from which we have all come and to which we all return. Circumstances may change and churches may move from the centre to the margins. But Love remains at the centre as does our desire to gather with others who value it as sacred.

So, this morning I wish us all a Happy New Year! May this September be the start of something new that — at the same time — feels as familiar as the embrace of an old friend. May this be another season of living in the light of God’s eternal Love.

Amen.

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Back to the future

Text: Mark 16:1-8 (the empty tomb)

Imagine walking on a spiritual path all your life. Then imagine achieving your goal. What happens when you reach a pinnacle of spiritual development?

This summer, we have reflected on the stages of spiritual growth. I started with baptism in early July. Baptism marks our arrival as physical beings within a family and culture. It is a sacrament that blesses each newborn as a child of God and a spiritual being of unlimited potential.

Last week, we reached a crescendo with death and rebirth. We heard St. Paul exclaim that he has been crucified with Christ and that he no longer lives. Instead, it is Christ that lives in him. In this statement, Paul teaches that ego is an illusion and that at the end of life’s journey we reunite with the Divine. Paul has stumbled into a state of enlightenment.

But what happens to people like Paul who become fully awake? When one reaches a state of ecstasy like Paul’s, then what?

I believe that after such moments, we return to where we began and restart the journey; and this idea is one that I see in today’s reading.

In these last eight verses of the Gospel of Mark, a group of women come to the tomb of Jesus on the first Easter Sunday. As in the other gospels, they find his tomb empty. But unlike the others, in Mark’s account there are no resurrection appearances.

Instead, a mysterious man dressed in white tells the women that Jesus has been raised and that they will find him back where they began, in Galilee.

This is what happens after resurrection, I believe. We return to the place where we began, and we resume life as family members, friends, and partisans of Love. But we do so with the insights gained in previous journeys toward enlightenment.

The path to enlightenment passes through many stages. First, we confront our physical reality in a specific family, time and place and with all the blessings and wounds of our body and our ancestry.

Then, we learn to handle the various sensations and emotions that arise within us and which give us the energy and motivation to act.

We establish our individuality as we try to effect change in family and wider world. We start new relationships that reflect our origins, but which move beyond them.

We create conversations, communities, and cultural products of a thousand kinds that reflect our desires. We grow in knowledge and seek new ways to live out our sacred values of love.

Finally, sometimes we glimpse the Source of Love from which we have come and to which we return. In such moments, we may feel both humble and free.

But then what? Then, I think we start over again. As born-again followers of Jesus, we still struggle with questions of physical, emotional and intellectual identity. But we do so with gifts of spiritual growth.

Our struggles to balance body, mind and soul in complex conditions remain. But having climbed a spiritual path, we have a greater capacity to live with compassion, kindness, and respect. We have a greater ability to act as the hands and feet of Christ in the fight for God’s realm of Love on earth as it is in heaven.

When I introduced this series on June 25, I said that my aim was to reflect on practices that might help us move from fear to faith; from shame to humility; from egotism to charity; from grief to love; from judgement to honesty; from illusion to reality; and from greed to union with God.

I was motivated to undertake the series because of how unsettled I have been by the sharp increase in racism in our world. I don’t know how useful the series has been either for myself or this community. But I am glad I undertook it.

Last November, when a person who panders to racism was elected to the most powerful position in the world, I set Labour Day 2017 as a deadline. Until that date, I vowed to try and not worry too much about this development. But if by Labour Day the U.S. President was still secure in the White House — including his command over 10,000 nuclear weapons — I imagined that I might want to re-evaluate pretty much everything about life, love, and work.

As you know, Labour Day is one week from tomorrow. And despite breaking every rule in the book and exposing his racism at every turn, it seems highly likely that the 45th President will still be in the Oval Office next Monday.

And then, the day after, I will return to work after a week’s study leave. Life will continue and our joint ministry will go on.

This summer, I have touched on the stages of spiritual growth that can lead to repentance and enlightenment.

I hope that some of this has been useful. Unhappily, it hasn’t changed the social context in which we live, a context that continues to stun me. But it has reminded me that with greater enlightenment, we can continue our journey with courage.

After the women run from the empty tomb, I imagine that they return to Galilee. There they resume their lives as humble peasants and followers of Jesus.

Their journey with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem has transformed them. Although their dreams of a new King David have been dashed, they find themselves closer to Love. Although unable to continue the journey with Jesus of Nazareth, they carry the Risen Christ in their hearts; and so, they build beloved communities filled with hope and joy.

Two thousand years later in this beloved community, we continue our work as followers of Jesus. So, as we enjoy the last days of summer and prepare to resume life’s many activities after Labour Day, I pray that the peace of the Risen Christ will rest in our hearts. May it encourage us to continue our struggle for Love and against racism and violence in this sacred world of woes and wonders.

May it be so. Amen.

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“The greatness of Christianity”

Text: Galatians 2:15-21 (“Christ lives in me”)

Questions of identity often confront us. This summer, with the sacraments of the church in the background, we have reflected on physical, emotional, and intellectual identity.

Do we base our identity on ancestral heritage? On feelings and desires? On how we articulate perspectives and ideas?

For Paul, the answer is “none of the above.” In the passage we just heard, Paul writes: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Having encountered the Risen Christ in a moment of crisis, Paul’s ego has dissolved and his identity merges with the universe.

Paul’s words describe a state in which normal concerns about aches and pains, feelings and relationships, or ideas and values have faded into the background. In their place, rises the Source of Love known to him as Christ.

In such an ecstatic union with the Divine, it does not matter if one is Black or White, gay or straight, young or old. When we are grasped — if only for a moment — by an awareness that ego is an illusion, we are freed from concerns about family and nation, pain and pleasure, or right and wrong. We have entered the eternal now in which we know that our Source is in Love and it is to Love that we return.

A writer who has helped me think about St. Paul’s startling words is another theologian named Paul. Paul Tillich wrote the following in 1955. “The greatness of Christianity is that it can see how unimportant it is.” This quote, which inspired the title of this reflection, is from a book of sermons by Tillich called, “The New Being.”

Tillich is not only my favourite theologian. He was also my father’s teacher when he studied in New York in 1949 at Union Theological Seminary.

Tillich had moved to New York from Germany in 1933 after being fired by the Nazi government from his position as a theology professor in Frankfurt. As a Lutheran minister, Tillich was the first non-Jewish professor to be removed by the Nazis after their election victory that year. They did so because Tillich had disciplined some Nazi students who had beaten up anti-racist students.

Nazism has been in the news lately because of a rally by neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and other white supremacists in Charlottesville Virginia last weekend. One of the racists drove a car into the counter protestors injuring 20 and killing one.

When this fascist murdered Heather Heyer with a tactic borrowed from ISIS, most of us reacted with unequivocal sorrow and anger. But in his response, the U.S. President, blamed last weekend’s terrorism not just on the Nazis who had gathered to spread hatred with torches, swastikas, and Confederate flags, but also on people like Heather Heyer who rallied against hatred and fear. The President then joined the call of the far-right to preserve monuments to the pro-slavery revolt of the Confederacy in the 1860s . . .

Some people have complained about the frequency with which I mention the U.S. President, and I think I understand. Not everyone feels about the President the way I do; and even some who do feel the same might want Sunday to be a sanctuary from the rancour that has characterized North American politics for so long.

Nevertheless, I speak again about the U.S. President today. The fact that 63 million Americans last November voted for a candidate who panders to racism highlights the difficulties we face in knowing who we are today.

The success of racism as a political brand in the U.S and elsewhere is what motivated this summer sermon series on the stages of spiritual growth and identity formation.

I also speak about the President today because of the support his immoral and racist brand has received from the white church. That support was crucial to his election victory and it helps explain why one third of Americans still support the President despite what looks to me like a uniquely disastrous seven first months in office.

Last week amid a flurry of resignations by key advisors to the President, Rev. A.R. Bernard, a pastor of a New York megachurch, became the first member of the President’s Evangelical Advisory Council to resign. I applaud Rev. Bernard for doing so and urge the others who remain to follow suit.

Racism has gained new traction, many believe, because of globalization, post-colonial wars, and the spread of digital technology. Amid ever-increasing social change, many of us are confused about who we are. And so, politicians who appeal to a pre-modern culture when people on different continents had no connection with one another find resonance.

In times of fear, the colour of our skin, the nation in which were born, and the religion of our grandparents can become key markers of identity. Racism asks us to retreat to our tribe and to fear the stranger.

I can understand the appeal of racism. Those of us who are not of Native descent may feel uncomfortable to realize that we live on stolen land. Those of us who are not Black may feel awkward to realize that much of today’s wealth is founded on 350 years of the cross-Atlantic slave trade.

In the face of relentless social change that erases pre-modern markers of identity like skin-colour, religion, and gender roles, we may feel relief when racist politicians urge us to turn our backs on these changes.

Take, for instance, the question “who am I?” A racist politician might urge me to identify myself as a white, Christian, Canadian, heterosexual, cis-gendered male. All these adjectives are true, but is this the best way to define myself?

At times, my heritage can seem terribly important. But at other times, these markers fade into the background.

It is true that eight generations ago my ancestors came to Canada from Ireland and Scotland. But thousands of generations before that everyone’s ancestors lived in Africa. And millions of generations before that, our ancestors were non-human. All human are kin; all branches of life are kin.

With effort, any of us can identify with the lives of all people. Through shared work, conversation, and cultural encounters we can learn from people of all languages, sexualities, and nationalities. As humans, we can seek and find unity through shared values like beauty, truth, and love.

Racism seeks to divide us. But spiritual growth, at its best, helps to dissolve differences in the struggle for justice and in the work of healing and compassion.

The two Paul’s help direct us away from division and towards universal love. St. Paul finds ecstasy when his ego dissolves and the Risen Christ takes its place. I don’t imagine that such a state can be sustained for longer than a moment. But they point us to our connection to all of life and to the Source of Love we call God. They also remind us that no matter the joys or pains of our individual lives, we have nothing to fear in death.

Paul Tillich makes the startling claim that the greatness of Christianity is found in how unimportant it is. By this he means that Christianity points beyond itself to God as Source. Jesus of Nazareth helped his friends find a path beyond their religious heritage towards something closer to Love. In a similar way, the Christian church at its best is always about what is coming next. This is the Protestant principle of a reformed church that is always reforming.

When we remember our connection to the Cosmic Christ, the markers of identity upheld by racists fall away. In Christ, we are neither Jew or Greek, American or Mexican, Christian or Muslim, male or female. We are human beings who follow a spiritual path that, with Grace, unites us with our cosmic past and points to our cosmic destiny.

Any of the stages of identity formation can trip us up and throw us away from faith and towards fear. If we can’t accept our physical fragility; if we are not grounded enough in our ancestry to be able to move beyond it; if we struggle to handle our emotions; and if we can’t build families marked by respect; we are more apt to listen the siren songs of racism and hatred.

Happily, there are beloved communities like this one in which to confront the challenges of identity and to help us stay on a path of compassion, justice and unity. So, as we struggle with social change and with difficult social problems, may we help each other to focus on the Crucified Christ who lives within us and who leads us towards a universal love that trumps even the strongest hate.

May it be so. Amen.

 

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“Too much heaven on their minds”

Text: Mark 14:1-9 (Jesus is anointed at Bethany)

“Jesus Christ Superstar”, the 1970 rock album, which was produced as a musical on Broadway in 1971 and a film in 1973, was a big deal for me and my friends. The confirmation class I studied with in 1971 discussed the album; and we probably learned more about Holy Week — that last week of Jesus’ life in and around Jerusalem — from listening to “Superstar” than we ever did in Sunday School.

The title of today’s sermon is taken from the opening song on the album. “Heaven on their minds” contrasts the worldly wisdom of Judas, who warns about imperial violence, and the star-struck followers of Jesus who have come to believe that all the talk of God is true.

Judas sings: “Listen, Jesus, do you care for your race? / Don’t you see we must keep in our place? / We are occupied / have you forgotten how put down we are? / I am frightened by the crowd / For we are getting much too loud. / And they’ll crush us if we go too far / . . . Listen, Jesus, to the warning I give / Please remember that I want us to live / . . . But all your followers are blind / Too much heaven on their minds / It was beautiful, but now it’s sour / Yes, it’s all gone sour.”

Judas understands the violence of the Empire, and he looks for a way forward that won’t get everyone killed.

In contrast, the crowds who hail Jesus on Palm Sunday are oblivious to the danger. They assume that as the Messiah, Jesus will defeat the Romans, install himself as King of the Jews, and inaugurate a reign of healing, peace, and justice.

What neither the crowds nor Judas grasp is the so-called “foolish” wisdom of Jesus, which is a vision that combines both sets of insights. Jesus knows the movement will be crushed. He knows he will be killed; and so, he welcomes the expensive perfume that an unnamed woman pours on his head. He tells the naysayers that she has anointed his body for burial. This is a reminder to them that their journey to Jerusalem is a journey to the cross.

Jesus doesn’t flinch from danger or death because he sees beyond them to new life, a life that is closer to Love than the old ways.

Those of us who follow Jesus today continue to struggle with this vision. Like Judas, we may find it easy to see the difficulties of life — how fleeting it is and how prone to pain we all are. We may find it easy to see the violence that mars social life.

We may also identify with the crowds who follow Jesus. They love his charisma, his ability to teach and heal, and his promise of a new kingdom in which the rich will be overthrown and the poor will have their rewards.

The Way of Jesus combines the visions of both Judas and the crowds. Jesus calls us to follow him to new life despite personal fragility and state violence. It is a path on which we rise to love regardless of danger and despite the inevitability of death.

Jesus had a difficult time getting his followers to appreciate the beauty of this path 2,000 years ago. Those inspired by Jesus today continue to grapple with this task. How can we be fearless in a time when the “toddlers” who rule the world foul the news media with blithe boasts of nuclear war? How can we give thanks for the many gifts of life in the face of illness, loss and pain?

Paul named the dilemma in his letter to the church in Corinth. Paul writes: “To those who are perishing, the message of the cross is foolishness. But to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise’ . . . God has made foolish the wisdom of the world . . . We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called, both Jew and Gentile, Christ is the power and wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians: 1)

Paul’s words seem strange and bold, but what can we make of them? Do we simply proclaim, “we’re all going to die” and then shout “Hallelujah!”?

News from the United Church of Canada might offer an illustration. In July, General Council announced the results of the church-wide votes on restructuring our denomination. They flow from a Comprehensive Review process that began in 2012 and which formed the centrepiece of the discussions at the General Council meeting in 2015 in Newfoundland.

All four votes were passed by a large majority of presbyteries and congregations. Mill Woods United Council was one of the those that voted in favour of them.

Last week, General Council released a proposal on to how to implement these changes. If approved by its meeting in Oshawa next August, the structural changes that flow from these votes will be in place by January 2019. They include a new funding formula, changes to Mission and Service, and the elimination of one level of church governance.

At present, there are 88 presbyteries and 13 conferences in the United Church for a total of 101 regional bodies. Mill Woods United is a member of Edmonton Presbytery within Alberta and Northwest Conference. By January 2019, these 101 bodies will be amalgamated into regional councils numbering no more than 15. I am glad that this change is coming even as I imagine it will be a challenge for our us to learn how to work together in this leaner environment.

But unfortunately, I don’t see the restructuring as relevant. The decline of the United Church in numbers and the aging of its members, which inspired the Comprehensive Review, is stark. We have shrunk every year since 1965. The latest figures released in June show that Sunday morning attendance declined by 4% between 2014 and 2015 and the number of confirmation students by 15% in that same year. Today, the United Church has less than 10% of the weight it had in Canadian society sixty years ago. Further, no one argues that the decline in numbers or the aging of our membership will stop.

It is tempting to deny this decline and avoid the grief that accepting it would occasion. But the stories of Jesus remind us that acceptance of mortality is not the end. Instead, it can be the beginning of the most important part of life.

Happily, this congregation seems to be doing relatively well. Local offerings were up in the first half of the year. We are hopeful about a stewardship campaign that will run in this Fall. Bev has exciting plans for church school and a youth group starting in September. The new Council has had two productive meetings. Our three co-chairs have some interesting ideas to engage people in the many facets of our work. Finally, new faces keep showing up on Sunday mornings and at outreach programs like The Bread Run. I am excited about all that is happening here.

But at the denominational level, the United Church is not doing well; and I feel discouraged by our leaders’ inability to face this fact. Yes, by 2019, some changes will be in place. But the ongoing decline of the United Church — as with many other denominations from Anglican to Presbyterian — requires something bolder, I believe.

Perhaps it would help to imagine the demise of our denominations as a cross. No one asked for this decline. Most of our leaders struggle to accept it. But if they did, they would learn what Jesus teaches — that in accepting inevitable demise, we gain new energy for outreach, mission, and spiritual growth. We open ourselves to the joy of the unexpected. We enter God’s eternity and move closer to God’s Love.

Something new is brewing in Canada, which will probably result in communities of faith that will no longer be United or Catholic, Mennonite or Lutheran, Sunni or Shia, Sikh or Hindu. We can’t know what these new faith communities will look like, and getting there won’t be without grief or pain. But by taking up the cross of the end of denominations, we embrace the moment instead of fighting it.

I understand the fears of Judas. He sees the violence of the state, and so he sings, “My mind is clearer now. / At last all too well / I can see where we all soon will be / If you strip away the myth from the man, / You will see where we all soon will be / Jesus! / You’ve started to believe / The things they say of you / You really do believe / This talk of God is true / And all the good you’ve done / Will soon get swept away. / You’ve begun to matter more / Than the things you say.”

I also understand the adoring crowds. The see Jesus as healer, king, and saviour. He is all those things, of course, just not in the way they expect.

Jesus’s vision reaches farther than that of either Judas or the adoring crowds. Jesus looks to the cross and beyond to something brighter, stranger, and closer to love. He accepts the inevitable, and then moves with it to a resurrection that fulfills our hopes and dreams in a way not previously imagined.

In my opinion, the United Church has been denying its cross for years. But this is hardly unusual. The crosses that Jesus teaches us to carry can appear many times before we find the courage to accept them.

Happily, we know with unshakeable confidence that at a certain point of loss and grief, we will embrace our cross and stumble down the road to Jerusalem with Jesus. When we do so, we will taste again the eternal joy of God’s love, which is always available to us whether we feel ready for it or not.

May it be so. Amen.

 

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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.

Amen.

 

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