“Wait for the Lord”

Text: John 18 and 19 (the trials of Jesus and his crucifixion)

Good Friday and Easter Sunday reveal the shape of our lives. On Good Friday we experience death, and on Easter Sunday we experience rebirth. These two poles define the path of the Spirit — from death to resurrection; from disillusionment to enlightenment; and from loss to recovery.

But what about the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? On the afternoon of Good Friday, Jesus dies and is buried in a tomb. At dawn on Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene comes to his tomb and finds it empty. But what about Holy Saturday? What happens on that day?

The four gospels don’t tell us. They skip from the burial on Friday to the visit of Mary to the tomb on Sunday. In between is Saturday, the Jewish day of rest. On the Sabbath after the first Good Friday, the friends of Jesus have a day in which they can start to deal with the trauma of his arrest, trial, and execution. But exactly what they do, we are not told.

The entrance of Jesus’ friends into Jerusalem just six days earlier had been euphoric — huge crowds, shouts of ‘Hosanna,’ and hope that Jesus would be a new King David who would free Jerusalem from its Roman occupiers and restore it as the capital of a Jewish empire.

On Good Friday, these hopes are crushed when their friend and leader is crucified. Trauma doesn’t come much worse than this, so we can only imagine how grief-filled that first Holy Saturday must have been for Jesus’ friends.

This morning, we have experienced a bit of that trauma with readings and songs about the crucifixion. Soon, we will leave this sanctuary to enter our own time of resting and waiting. Soon it will be Holy Saturday. What should we do in this time of waiting?

I don’t think this as an unimportant question. While Good Friday and Easter Sunday define the poles of the spiritual path, much of life is spent between them. Much of life is like a long Holy Saturday. Moments of painful loss are dramatic. Moments of rebirth are joyous. But for much of the time, we are neither experiencing great loss nor joyous rebirth. Instead, for much of our lives we are grieving loss, searching for ways to cope, and waiting in hope for new life.

Think of the time between divorce and finding new love; between the death of a loved one and finding stable ground upon which to keep on living; between hitting rock bottom and completing the many steps of recovery from addiction.

It is similar with communities and nations. They also spend much of their existence between defeat in war or diplomacy and the establishment of a new regime; between waking up to huge social problems like climate change and finding new ways to live that don’t threaten our health; and so on.

Because much of life is neither Good Friday nor Easter Sunday, today I focus on Holy Saturday. In the long Holy Saturdays of our lives, I believe we find space in which to grieve, to recover, and to prepare.

The stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection assures us that new life follows death. But they also reveal that new life is not what we expect; and because of the unexpected nature of Easter, we may need many Holy Saturdays to prepare for its strangeness.

On the first Easter, Jesus’ friends find his tomb empty. This shows them that God’s Love overcomes death. But the mysterious new life his friends experience in the Risen Christ is not what they had hoped for on Palm Sunday. The Romans remain in charge. Innocent people continue to be arrested, tried and executed. The troubles of life remain.

Many of us can probably relate. When we suffer a loss, with grace we grieve the loss and eventually awake to new life. But this new life is different than our old one. In accepting new life, we may realize that our past attachment to things like nation, power, or security reflected the small self. After grief, sometimes we wake up to the joy of the Big Self of Love that unites all people. Sometimes, we wake up to God.

The latter is Easter, a reminder of the Love from which we have come to which we all return.

Palm Sunday is a day of illusions, I believe. Good Friday is day of the traumatic death of those illusions. Holy Saturday is a day in which we grieve our loss. Easter Sunday is a day in which we experience a joy that is radically different than Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday’s joy is built on a shaky foundation of nationalism and militarism. Easter Sunday’s joy is built on the sure foundation of universal love and unity . . .

On a Friday, many years ago, darkness came over the land, Jesus breathed his last, and he died.

And now we wait. We wait with our fallen brother and Saviour who lived and died in solidarity with us. We wait in sadness but also in the sure hope for new life.

Today as we leave this sanctuary to enter a Saturday of waiting, may we do so knowing that while the path of grief does not always lead to what we want, it always leads us to God’s eternal love.

In the silence and mystery of our Holy Saturday, may an ancient expression of hope form on our lips.

“Come, Lord Jesus, come.”


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Grief on the road to new life

Text: John 11;1-45 (Jesus raises Lazarus)

Why does Jesus weep as he approaches the tomb of Lazarus? As John tells the story, Jesus is going to bring Lazarus back to life. So why weep?

Perhaps Jesus weeps in sympathy with Mary and Martha, the sisters of his dead friend Lazarus. Perhaps he weeps for the many losses that are not miraculously reversed in the way Jesus will reverse his friend’s death.

The story of Lazarus has many details. But today I focus on the grief of his family, the grief expressed by Jesus, and the grief that is a part of Holy Week, which this year begins one week from today on Palm Sunday.

Easter is a holy day of joy: a celebration of springtime and sunshine; a festival of new life after death; and a time in which we sing Hallelujah. So why is the season of Lent, which leads to Easter, such a dark one? Why does it involve so much weeping and grief, particularly on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday?

Easter represents the joy that comes after grief, I believe. Easter does not wipe away life’s losses, nor does it always give us the new life we desire. Instead, Easter gives us the new life we need in the face of those losses. Grief plays a role because it can create an emptiness in which Easter can enter. Sometimes, grief can help us find our own empty tombs into which the light of Easter morning can shine . . .

This Lent, I have spent a fair amount of time with other ministers. Eleven days ago, I hosted a Bible study here with ten ministers. Last Tuesday and Thursday I participated in the first two of four online church webinars, which were mostly attended by ministers. The second webinar was led by one of my heroes, the Rev. Dr. Douglas John Hall of Montreal, who is now 89 years old. The one scheduled for Tuesday will be led by Rev. John Pentland of Hillhurst United in Calgary.

Last Tuesday evening I missed a chance to be with more ministers when I skipped a Presbytery meeting to attend a meeting of our church’s Facing the Future group. But I made up for this the next morning by attending a two-hour prayer circle with nine other ministers in Fort Saskatchewan.

The Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning gatherings both dealt with loss, but in different ways.

I loved the prayer meeting. It was organized and hosted by Alberta Conference President, Paul Walfall, who is also the minister at First United in Fort Saskatchewan. It was attended by eight others of us including Britt Aerhart from Salisbury United in Sherwood Park whom some of you will remember from her years at Beaumont United, Bob Harper, whom more of you will remember from Southwoods United in the 1990s, and Wendy Galloway who worked here as a student minister in 2006, and who is now serving Redwater United.

Like the webinars and the Facing the Future meeting, worries about the future of the church ran through the prayer meeting. Most ministers say their churches are facing financial constraints, aging members, burnt-out leaders, and an absence of children and youth. This is not an easy time to be in ministry, which is one reason we may seek to gather with each other.

On Wednesday morning as we chanted Taize hymns, offered up prayers inspired by readings from the life of Abraham, and sat in silence, I experienced a spirit that had been missing from the meeting here at Mill Woods United the evening before. At the Facing the Future meeting on Tuesday, we didn’t put our discussions about finances, membership, and leadership in the context of Lent as a season of prayer. Laine had asked me to say a few words as we began, and I missed the chance to remind us of the grief-filled journey we are on in Lent, a journey that leads to the joy we celebrate at Easter.

Church is a place to both mourn and celebrate, to feel pain and joy, and to grieve the losses we have suffered in order to look forward in hope to the mystery of Easter. For me, these contrasting pairs describe the paradox of these two seasons.

The story of Lazarus follows the pattern. A beloved friend of Jesus dies. Family and friends mourn. Finally, the presence of God in Christ shows them that life goes on in a way that fulfills hope and restores joy.

Stories of miracles like this are filled with metaphors. When Jesus tells his friends that Lazarus is asleep, they take him literally. But Jesus says that by sleep, he means that Lazarus is physically dead.

This reminds me of the passage we heard two weeks ago about Living Water. In it the woman at the well confuses Jesus’ phrase “Living Water” with actual H2O just as his disciples confuse his words about food with physical sustenance. Jesus explains that when he says “Living Water” he means God’s Grace; and when he says “food” he means the work of doing the will of God. Much of what Jesus says in the gospels is metaphor.

The raising of Lazarus is the last of seven miraculous signs of Jesus’ power found in John, and like Jesus’ words, I take these signs as metaphors. Perhaps for this reason, the moment of today’s story that most grabs me most is not when Lazarus walks out of the tomb, but when Jesus weeps.

Jesus knows that new life follows death — for Lazarus, for him, and for all of us. But this new life does not do away with the loss we grieve when a loved one dies. In fact, the new life of Jesus’ Living Water flows from painful loss, which is what makes Jesus’s tears both real and necessary.

Easter does not wipe out the pain and loss of Good Friday. While Easter is a time of never-ending joy, the joy of Easter is quiet and surprising. It is a joy that takes us beyond our human wishes for stability, pleasure, and worldly success.

In today’s story, Lazarus is resuscitated, and at Easter Jesus is resurrected. But their new life does not do away with all problems. After Jesus’ resurrection, the Romans remain in control, and disease, toil and trouble continue to swarm around us.

What Easter reveals is a life that is wider and deeper than the life we leave behind in Lent. Resurrected life is one of eternal beauty that is not based on ego or pride.

Despite not having the intentions of Lent and the hope of Easter, I appreciated the Facing the Future meeting last Tuesday. After discussing the context in which this congregation operates, we talked about ways to reduce expenses and increase revenue. We celebrated the “Ask” letter that Brian Sampson sent last Monday; we motivated a Stewardship campaign that would run from mid-September to mid-October; and we generated ideas that Randy Round could use to prepare a revised 2017 budget to present for discussion to the church Council in just over a week.

What I missed at Facing the Future, I think, was the opportunity to give thanks for the dark and passionate journey of Lent and to look forward in hope to the strange but joyous light of Easter. And for this lack, I blame myself.

Many of us in the church are in the same boat. On Thursday, Douglas Hall spoke about his sons, who are in their 50s, but who don’t attend church. The ministers who gathered on the webinar to listen to him and to ask questions must have averaged about age 70.

And yet those of us — young or old — who gather at business meetings, webinars, and prayer circles — cherish the Spirit that flows between us. We love its ability to inspire our work of outreach and justice. And I trust that if we keep in prayerful touch with the ground of Love we call God in our gatherings — whether for prayer, administration, or outreach — we will be able to sustain the joyous work of congregations like this one for many more years.

On Wednesday in Fort Saskatchewan, Rev. Walfall wondered if our gathering was the first time that ministers in the Alberta Conference of the United Church had gathered simply to pray together. Whether it was or not, I hope it won’t be the last. And I hope to remember the depth of that experience as a guide to our work in this beloved community as we stumble together in grief and hope towards the strange joy of Easter — this spring, next spring, and for many springs after that.

May it be so. Amen.

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Trusting the darkness

Text: John 9:1-41 (Jesus heals a blind man)

Light can lead to enlightenment; and so light is central to healing. In today’s reading, Jesus calls himself “the light of the world” before he heals a blind person.

Like a person born blind, many of us live in darkness. Happily, the ups and downs of life reveal new layers of Love. The hymn “Amazing Grace” puts it this way: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”

But today, I focus on darkness. My inspiration is found at the end of today’s reading in which Jesus says, “I came into this world to make the sightless see and the seeing blind.”

Hmmm. I wonder if “Amazing Grace” could use a new verse that says “I once was found, but now am lost, was sighted, but now I’m blind!”

This year, I am drawn to the image of Jesus blinding the sighted because this year I feel like I’m in the dark. While I don’t enjoy this feeling, perhaps today’s reading implies that my inability to see the way forward means that I am on the path.

Ever since I was 10 years old, I have followed current events with keen interest. One might even say it is an addiction.

Sometimes, I have combined this interest with activism — in student government at university; in solidarity with Nicaragua in the 1980s; as a partisan of peace and environmental efforts; and as an minister who for the last six years has tried to proclaim hope in the face of news at home and abroad.

But this year, news reports dismay me more often than not. Like many, I consider the new U.S. President to be a racist and ignorant bully, a pathological liar, and a violent nationalist. Given that other racist leaders around the world are gaining success, I struggle to locate hope.

I am glad that the Worship Committee has organized another evening on hope on April 6. I don’t imagine that our sharing will lead to concrete decisions. Nevertheless, I appreciated hearing what was on our hearts and minds at a sharing circle in January; and I look forward to hearing what we are perceiving, thinking and feeling in April. For me, listening to one another can be its own reward.

Some recent news stories have heartened me. A far-right party in Holland did worse in elections this month than had been predicted. The first attempt of the new U.S. administration to gut the Affordable Healthcare Act failed last week. And on Thursday, a large majority of Canadian MPs passed a resolution that condemned Islamophobia and other forms of racism.

I am glad this resolution passed, although I am dismayed that 91 MPs voted against it and that opposition to the resolution became an occasion for racist extremists to rally on the streets of Edmonton and other cities over the past few weeks.

Nor do I imagine that eliminating the irrational fear of Muslims will be easy. On Wednesday, a terrorist attack in London England killed five people, and I perceived an irrational fear of Islam in the how the story was covered. It led the news on Wednesday and Thursday, even on Edmonton’s local newscasts.

The murder of five people and the injury of dozens of others in an act inspired by evil political and religious ideas elicits horror. But the London attack occurred in a week in which an equally deadly terror attack occurred in Nigeria; in which 200 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean trying to flee terror in North Africa; and in which hundreds of civilians died in U.S.-led airstrikes in Mosul in northern Iraq.

Death in Iraq is hardly news given that around one million people have died there since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Death of refugees in the Mediterranean is hardly news given that more than 10,000 have drowned there in the past five years. Death in terror attacks in Nigeria is hardly news given that hundreds have been killed there by Boko Haram in the past few years. Nevertheless, I believe the media skews our perspectives with the amount of coverage given to the attack in London compared to these other realities.

Every day, about 150,000 people die. Most die by natural causes, but not all. About 4,000 people die in car crashes every day. Every day, about 1,000 people are murdered. And every day, about 10,000 children die of easily preventable causes like malnutrition, water-borne disease, malaria, and so on.

Of the 150,000 people who died on Wednesday, five died in the terrorist attack in London. Such attacks are designed to spread fear and division. But for this to work, news of terror’s evil deeds must be widely disseminated. Unfortunately, most news media seem hell-bound to provide this dissemination.

At choir practice on Wednesday night, there were several conversations about the murders in London. At a Bible study of ministers held here on Thursday, the London attack was part of our check-in. Today I am discussing it in a reflection on light, darkness and healing. But is this story really the most important one from the past week?

I wish the news media were not so compliant in giving terrorists the coverage they desire. Not only does it help them achieve their ends, it also helps racist and fear-mongering politicians gain a hearing on the other side.

And so this spring, I feel like I am in the dark and I don’t know how to move forward. I wish this were not so. But I pray that this darkness might imply that I have been one of the arrogant “sighted” ones who is now being blinded in the way mentioned by Jesus in today’s reading.

Perhaps in the past when news media covered stories that encouraged me, I became arrogant in thinking that social developments would continue to unfold in ways I liked. But now that several big events have led to results I dislike, perhaps I am being pushed into greater humility.

I don’t see how racist bullies will be removed from power. But I do know that I have fellow pilgrims on the paths of Lent and life and that the Spirit of Jesus walks with us. Like the first friends of Jesus, we may not get what we want when we arrive in Jerusalem. But I trust that like them, we will be offered the new life we need.

We don’t always see the future clearly and we may feel disheartened. But how could it be otherwise? We’re only human. And even when the path seems dark, we have each other, and we have the example of Jesus who sacrificed everything for Love.

This spring, I don’t see a path that will lead the world away from racism and war. But I trust that in the darkness, my fellow pilgrims are planting seeds of love that will burst forth in ways I also can’t foresee. Further, we choose to walk together even when it is dark because our deepest joy is to love and be loved.

Sometimes we stumble. But as blind and holy fools, we trust that new life can come to us at any moment and that it will heal us in ways we could never have imagined.

And for this I say again, “Thanks be to God.”


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From here to eternity

Text: John 4:5-42 (Living Water)

Who are we? How do we describe ourselves? And with whom or what do we identify? These are some of the questions that come to my mind after hearing today’s Gospel reading.

In the reading, the author notes that a person who approaches Jesus is a Samaritan; she in turn notes that Jesus is a Jew; and then the author reminds us that these two groups dislike each other.

Gender forms part of the story as well. When Jesus’ friends return, they are shocked that he is talking to a woman he doesn’t know.

Finally, the conversation highlights religious identity. As a Samaritan, the woman worships YHWH on the mountain on which she and Jesus have met. And as a Jew, Jesus worships YHWH at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Today, we might identify ourselves in a similar fashion. When asked to describe myself, I might say that I am a Canadian male Christian.

But there are a thousand other ways to identify ourselves: by our opinions on various issues, by likes and dislikes, by work, by recreational choices, by the place where we live, and so on.

During the last few centuries, nation has grown in prominence as a marker of individual identity. This is especially true right now when populism is on the upswing in countries around the world. So today I look at the struggle between nationalism and internationalism within the church.

In today’s reading, Jesus comes down on the side of the universal over the particular and of the eternal over the temporary. Jesus says, “the hour is coming — indeed, it is already here — when people will worship God in spirit and truth.” He contrasts this with worship at specific locations like the Temple in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim.

Jesus also focuses on eternal life. He says, “those who drink the water I give them will never be thirsty; the living water I give will become fountains within them, springing up to provide eternal life.”

Eternal life is not an easy concept to grasp. Some think it means that our egos will never die. I sympathize with this notion given how strongly attached we are to our egos.

But for me, eternal life is a symbol of a unity that we glimpse in moments when we wake up to Love. In such moments, our egos disappear and we taste the promise of a return to God. In such moments, we may not only not care if our egos survive our own death, we may give thanks that they will not.

I had a few such glimpses yesterday at an event called “Common Ground” at the former Alex Taylor School on Jasper Avenue. Inner City Pastoral Ministry organized this event along with the Anglican Foundation and Edmonton Presbytery of the United Church as the first of four seasonal gatherings. The theme of the first one was prayer, and about 100 of us came.

Most were youth, but the gathering including people aged eight to eighty. From the opening prayers led by elders in Cree and English to the final round dance led by the songs and drums of grade school children, the event help put into motion our prayers for courage, mutual respect, and love.

Sometimes it seemed chaotic. Sometimes I didn’t understand what was going to happen next. But several times yesterday, I glimpsed a bit of the shalom and reconciliation that we seek, and I loved it.

ICPM will hold three other gatherings like this in 2017 at the start of Summer, Fall and Winter. They will focus in turn on Wisdom, Healing, and Thanksgiving. I recommend them, and I thank our Witnesses to Truth and Reconciliation, Mary-Anne and Nancy, for encouraging me to attend the first one yesterday.

Who are we? We are a million different things. Each of us is unique, from our DNA to the quirkiness of our psyches. Our diversity — based on a particular family, time and place — is part of what makes life endlessly fascinating.

But when we drink the Living Water offered by Jesus, sometimes we glimpse our unity with all people. While remaining unique, we feel connected to others, the earth, and the deep Source of Love from which we have come.

To my mind, the union we sometimes taste in communal prayer, in the love exchanged between friends, and in the struggle for social justice is the Living Water that Jesus proclaims in today’s reading.

The opposite of this is so-called Christian nationalism. Today’s most prominent spokesperson for Christian nationalism is Steve Bannon. As the Chief Strategist for the new U.S. President, he is also the second most powerful person in the world. Bannon says that Judeo-Christian values are under attack from Islam, and he is working to ensure that the United States remains a white settler state.

It won’t surprise you that I object to Bannon’s nationalism and his attempts to connect it to Jesus. I appreciate the skits about the bizarre world of today’s Washington on “Saturday Night Live” in which Bannon is always dressed in the robes of the evil character Skeletor from Mattel’s “Masters of the Universe” stories!

Part of me understands the appeal of Christian nationalism. In the face of rapid social change, we struggle to maintain a solid sense of self. The tribe into which we were born into can sometimes seem like the only anchor left.

But when I remember the disastrous results of past attempts to bolster national power at the expense of the rest of the world, I scramble to find other ways.

Last Wednesday, UN Special Envoy and Hollywood celebrity Angelina Jolie confronted the question of nationalism at a speech to a meeting of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Geneva.

She said: “Today we see a rising tide of nationalism, masquerading as patriotism . . .
But I consider myself to be a proud American and an internationalist. I believe anyone committed to human rights is an internationalist.

Internationalism means seeing the world with a sense of fairness and humility, and recognizing our own humanity in the struggles of others. It stems from love of one’s country, but not at the expense of others. It stems from patriotism, but not from narrow nationalism.

Internationalism includes the view that success isn’t being better or greater than others, but finding your place in a world where others succeed too; and that a strong nation, like a strong person, helps others to rise up and be independent.”

To my mind, Jolie’s internationalism is far closer to the Way of Jesus than so-called Christian nationalism.

This year as Canadians mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation, my prayer is that we will find space to both love our country and remain humble; that we might rejoice in the success of all peoples; and that we might support the efforts of all nations to be strong, independent, and inter-connected.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus confronted divisions between men and women, between tribes, and between religious traditions. In the face of these divisions, he offered God’s Living Water, which could unite men and women of any tribe and tradition who worship in Spirit and Truth.

This Living Water leads us from the particular to the universal, from the nation to the world, and from here to eternity.

Who are we? We are all unique, and at the deepest levels, we also one in the Spirit.

And for this I say again, “Thanks be to God.”


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Belonging, behaving, and believing

Text: John 3:1-17 (born from above)

“Who’ll walk me down to church when I’m sixty years of age / When the ragged dog they gave me has been ten years in the grave / And senorita play guitar, play it just for you / My rosary has broken and my beads have all slipped through.”

This verse from Elton John’s song Sixty Years On ran through my head last week as I celebrated my 60th birthday. John wrote it in 1970 when he was just 23 years old. This means that he arrived at age 60 ahead of me. He will turn 70 later this month.

Here is another verse from Sixty Years On: “You’ve hung up your great coat and you’ve laid down your gun / You know the war you fought in wasn’t too much fun / As for me, I’ve no wish to be living sixty years on.”

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I might have agreed with these lyrics. But having now passed my 60th birthday, I feel happy to be living “sixty years on” even if this means I am considered a Senior in some circumstances.

But despite being a Senior, I have only been a minister for six years. And of the approximately 300 sermons I have written, today’s is only the second one that reflects on the third chapter of the Gospel of John. This chapter contains John 3:16, which is the most quoted verse from the entire Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

The first time I preached on this passage was on March 16, 2014. This was a significant day for me and the congregation. That evening, Edmonton Presbytery held a service here to celebrate a covenant between the Presbytery, me, and Mill Woods United Church as its called minister.

I liked both the morning service during which I reflected on John 3:16 and the evening service where Rev. Catherine McLean of St. Paul’s United Church preached. I was impressed that her sermon referred to mine from that morning. When Catherine and I had met in the week leading up the covenanting service, I told her that if she wanted to get a sense of me as a minister, she could check out my sermon blog; and it was clear that she had read my morning sermon as she prepared her remarks for the evening!

I called that 2014 sermon “Born again: into belief or faith?” It has been the most viewed sermon on my blog, probably because I linked to it several times in social media discussions about the thorny issue of what ministers are supposed to believe.

As I said three years ago, turning infidels into believers is not part of my ministry. Instead, I am drawn to churches that engage us in practices to help us live out our highest values, care for one another, and struggle for a world closer to the dream of heaven on earth.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from someone asking me why Christianity is true. My response is that I don’t judge great faith traditions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism as either true or false. Instead, I am thankful when they allow us to pursue virtues like honesty, humility, and kindness. At their best, any of these traditions can help us to love, which is humanity’s most sacred value.

For me, a key Christian practice is walking a path of death and resurrection. This explains why I appreciate Lent. Walking this path strips us of false certainties, including ancient traditions and beliefs. In the journey of Jesus’ friends to Jerusalem, their illusions in national glory and a violent god are laid bare. After the painful death of these illusions on Good Friday, they discover the rebirth of a more universal Love at Easter.

It is impossible to live without beliefs. And in the 21st Century, our faith leads many of us beyond ancient dogma. Following Jesus helps us to be grasped by a faith that allows us to be skeptical of ancient beliefs even as it facilitates our work of mutual care, spiritual practice, and justice-seeking.

In 2012, Diana Butler-Bass published a book called “Christianity After Religion.” In it, she said the church has traditionally focused on belief first, which is then supposed to change how we behave, and which finally might lead us to join the church — believing, behaving, and belonging in that order.

Bass reverses this. She urges seekers to first join a community of faith in which they can engage in practices of prayer, outreach, and justice. It is only after spending time on these practices that one’s beliefs might be transformed. In place of the old order of believing, behaving, and belonging, Bass recommends its opposite: belonging, behaving, and believing.

I like her suggestion, and it provides today’s sermon title. A first step is accepting Jesus’ call to start the journey. In walking with Jesus and joining him at Table, we discover again that we are beloved children of God. All of us have come from Love, and to Love we all return. On the path, we remember that we are healed at deep levels and freed from the fears of our egos. Then after engaging in spiritual practice, outreach, and justice-work, we might stumble upon new beliefs.

In the 21st Century, these new beliefs are often opposed to ancient ones such as the idea that God condemns everyone to hell except those who accept Jesus as their personal saviour; or those who belong to the Roman Catholic Church; or those who believe in the Shia or Sunni doctrines of Islam.

I am not opposed to religious traditions when they provide a set of practices that help us to grow in love. Happily, many evangelical, Catholic, Shia and Sunni communities offer such practices. Joining any of them could facilitate the death of old beliefs and the rebirth of the virtues we call Love.

However, I am disappointed in the number of religious leaders who still focus on turning infidels into believers. Some evangelical, Catholic, Shia and Sunni leaders still loudly proclaim the necessity of adopting their belief system to avoid the flames of hell even though in today’s intercultural society many of us have concluded these various systems are as much illusions as were the dreams of national glory and divine violence of Jesus’ first followers.

Last weekend in Vancouver, the news media reported on conflict between Christians who focus on belief and those who focus on belonging.

Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of legendary evangelist Billy Graham, spoke at the Festival of Hope in Rogers Arena in Vancouver. In February, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and a coalition of church leaders asked Graham not to come to the Festival because of his stance towards LGBTQ people and Muslims. The anti-Graham coalition included leaders of the Roman Catholic, United, Anglican, Lutheran, Mennonite, and Baptist churches. Their open letter criticized Graham for saying that Muslims should be banned from the United States because “Islam is an evil and wicked religion;” that LGBTQ persons are agents of Satan who should not be allowed to enter churches; and that the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election reflected “the hand of God.”

Despite the protest, Graham came to Vancouver and preached on his understanding of biblical passages like John 3:16, John 14:6 in which Jesus says “no one comes to the Father except through me” and others that suggest belief in Jesus is the only way to avoid hell. Despite the protest, thousands of people flocked to Roger’s Arena to participate in Graham’s services of praise, music and worship.

I am glad that the Mayor and church leaders in Vancouver spoke out against Graham. His focus on belief and his attempts to get the state to enforce his hateful ideas about Muslims and LGBTQ people violates the values of hospitality and love.

Graham thinks that he is following the teachings about love found in John 3:16. But I think he has wandered from the path of death and resurrection. I hope that Graham will repent of his hatred of gays and Muslims and find his way back to a path on which false certainties die and Love is reborn.

As for Mill Woods United, I pray that by singing, praying, and serving together we will remember that God so loved the world that God gifted us with everything we need for a joyous life of service. It is a life that leads inevitably to the source of Love from which we have all come.

Sixty years on, this is a message that I am thrilled to be able to continue to preach.

Thanks be to God.


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Joy in the wilderness

Texts: Genesis 3 (“the Fall”); Matthew 4:1-11 (Jesus tempted in the desert)

Last week, we marked the start of Lent in a couple of ways here at Mill Woods United Church. Yesterday after the Bread Run, a group of volunteers changed the tall banners at the front of the sanctuary from Epiphany Gold to Lenten purple. On Tuesday after a Pancake supper, twenty of us participated in a ritual of ashes on the eve of Lent, which officially started on March 1, Ash Wednesday.

But I believe that for some of us, Lent started a week ago with the annual financial meeting! While productive in terms of information exchanged and ideas expressed, the meeting had a Lenten feel to it. Following a small budgetary surplus in 2015 and a small deficit in 2016, last week Randy Round presented a 2017 budget that projected a deficit of $30K. With only $70K in the bank and without other assets, such a deficit would see the congregation facing bankruptcy in about two years!

Listening to Randy’s reports made me wonder if the church was entering a Lenten wilderness. Last Sunday’s meeting might have felt to some of us like the start of a journey to Jerusalem and the fate that awaits us there.

Randy presented some tough facts. Despite having had a full staff complement for almost a year, the numbers at our Sunday morning gatherings and the number of identifiable givers continue to shrink. Despite a lot of effort, we still have few children and youth. And despite the fact that a lot of us participate in outreach projects, there is not much turnover in Council positions.

Smaller numbers; lack of children; and burnout among leaders. Yikes!

Today I discuss these facts against two Bible readings — one about Adam and Eve expelled from Eden and one about Jesus tempted in the desert. And since today’s theme is questioning, I start by wondering why we are active in Mill Woods United Church.

Lots of answers come to mind. Many like the opportunity the church gives us to volunteer for programs like The Bread Run and The Clothing Bank. Others love gathering with Heavenly Hospitality to cater events or with Stitching Connection to knit prayer shawls and sew banners. Others want to grow in faith by discussing ideas with other seekers. Some look forward to socializing at events like Next Adventure or coffee-time after worship. Many appreciate gathering for prayer, song, and reflection on Sunday mornings. Most want to support a progressive and Affirming church in a neighbourhood that has many faith communities but not a lot that provide safe places for questioning and justice-seeking. In all these activities, we appreciate having a church in which we can mourn, celebrate, and grow in spirit together with others who seek to follow Jesus.

I am confident that the discussion of our financial and leadership deficits that began last Sunday and which will continue at a meeting of Church Council on March 14, a meeting of the Facing the Future group on March 28, and at the Annual General Meeting on May 28 will lead to ideas that will allow worship and outreach to continue here for many more years than just the next two!

This week, Brian Sampson drafted an appeal letter to send to the large group that gathered here last November to celebrate the congregation’s 40th anniversary. Cathy Bayly inspired this idea when, after that happy day, she noted that she had already pencilled in the date for our 50th anniversary in November of 2026! Thank you to Cathy and Brian for your inspiration and efforts.

Conversations are happening among several people about what role they could play as leaders. If you feel inspired to step forward or know of someone who might make a good candidate for Chair-Elect, Stewardship, or another role, please speak to me, Brian, or Kathy Poechman. With some prodding, I believe that the Nominations Committee could put together a good slate of nominees at our AGM in May.

Most important to me is the spirit that I see in the congregation. When the choir rehearses on Wednesday evenings, when Food Bank volunteers arrive on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and when we sing and pray our faith in God’s Love on Sunday mornings, I feel the strong bonds that exist between us and which call us to work together for compassion, care, and justice.

The 2017 projections and proposed budget showed weaknesses. But the reality of this congregation is one of both brokenness and blessing, of needs and nurture, and of weakness and of strength. And is this not always the case?

This is the first of six Sundays in Lent — a season of journey, repentance, and reflection. We usually say that the payoff for Lent is Easter Sunday, our annual festival of new life. But I think resurrection and joy are found in Lent as well.

Life is as a series of Lenten journeys after which Love is always reborn in a new way. No relationship or congregation lasts forever. Nevertheless, we make friends, get married, and commit to the work and joy of life together. We create communities of faith that help our souls to grow, and we do the work of worship, outreach and justice to express our highest values.

The conditions in which we work are not easy. Today’s reading from Genesis reminds us of this. We are all fated to live somewhere East of Eden. But the pain of childbirth, the sweat of toil, and the burdens of consciousness do not do away the joys of parenting, the pleasure of work well done, and the love that flows from waking up to our sacred nature.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is tempted by the Devil. Luckily, the Devil’s promises ring hollow. It is true that daily bread requires work, but so what? Work has its own deep rewards. Our bodies are fragile and prone to injury. But we trust that at the end of all our striving, we return to the source of Love from which we have come. In the face of injustice, we sometimes seem powerless. But we still love reaching out in care and working for justice. This work fulfills our values of equality and fairness and makes life meaningful regardless of success or failure.

Last week in conversation with someone who is sick, I talked about surfing as a metaphor for life. Surfers didn’t create the ocean. They can’t command the waves. Nevertheless, they surf them in joy as best they can. Sometimes they fall off their boards. But even if they do, they are still supported by the ocean and trust that they can give and receive love in all the storms of life.

This year at Mill Woods United, it may seem like we have hit some heavy surf. But we still experience joy with fellow pilgrims. As people called by the God who is Love, we build families, work for the church, and follow in God’s Way as best we can.

Even when we falter, we trust in the power of God’s Grace. And at the end of every Lenten journey in life, we are confident there will be a renewal of Love in ways that will surprise and delight us.

My prayer is that we will enjoy Lent this year and surrender to the difficulties and joys of the journey. May we trust in each other and in the Love within and between us. May we be confident that we will get to the end of the journey together and experience there a renewal of heart, mind and soul that will prepare us for the next Lenten journey.

After all, this is about all that this one wild and precious life guarantees to us: one joyous Lenten journey after another.

May it be so. Amen.

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“Music that rocks your world”

Text: Matthew 17:1-9 (The Transfiguration)

I was pleased when Bryan told me that he had chosen “And the Glory of the Lord” as the anthem for Transfiguration Sunday. It is the opening chorus of a well-loved piece of baroque music: “The Messiah” by George Frederick Handel. While it is from the Advent and Christmas section of “The Messiah,” it works equally well for Transfiguration Sunday since it is about the revelation of divine glory.

The words of this chorus are from the Old Testament book Isaiah, as are the words of the two solos that precede it. Here is the text for these two opening solos and chorus as taken from the King James translation of the Bible of 1611.

“Comfort ye my people, says your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.

“A voice of him that cries in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.”

“And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (Isaiah 40:1-4)

Almost 2,000 years ago, the Gospel writer Mark connected these mysterious words of Isaiah, which were already 700 years old by then, to Jesus. Mark used them when writing about John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus. In 1742, Handel cemented this connection between Isaiah and Jesus by using Isaiah’s words to portray the advent of Jesus in his choral masterpiece “The Messiah.”

When I was 15, I heard “The Messiah” performed live for the first time, and no concert has ever affected me as much. CBC’s classical music morning program Tempo used to have a feature called “Music That Rocked Your World.” It let listeners tell about a piece of music that made a big impact on their lives.

I often thought of submitting a story to Tempo about “And the Glory of the Lord” but never got around to writing it — until now. So here is that story of when I first heard “The Messiah” as a 15-year old and how it rocked my world.

My family had moved that year from Cornwall ON to Belleville ON, and we were all unhappy. My father didn’t like his new church. My siblings and I didn’t like our new schools. We all considered Belleville to be too dull. But one bright spot for my father was the community choir, which he had joined and which was performing “The Messiah” that first winter we lived in Belleville.

My older brother Paul and I went to the concert with a lot of skepticism. We knew “The Messiah” from an old mono recording that my parents often played. We also heard it performed every Christmas Day on CBC radio. Although we liked some baroque music, we expected to be bored by this long piece since it is filled with repetitive vocal solos and starchy old choruses.

As we filed into the balcony of the packed downtown United Church where the concert was held, I was intrigued to see one of my teachers in the chorus. I had a big crush on her, so I thought her presence might brighten my evening!

Then the amateur orchestra played the Overture. My heart sank at the screeching of the string instruments. The Overture was followed by the first two solos, which seemed to go on for ever.

Finally, the big amateur choir — around 100 people — got to their feet for the opening chorus — “And the Glory of the Lord.” And as soon as they started to sing, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. It had been one thing to hear a mono recording of this music. It was another thing to hear an enthusiastic group of amateurs sing it live. Paul and I loved it. For the rest of the evening, we hungrily scanned the program to see when the next chorus would appear. It would be years before I would come to appreciate the solos. But I loved all the choruses.

That evening began my love for large-scale choral works. To my pleasure, I have had a chance to sing choruses from “The Messiah” myself many times since then. Beginning in the mid-1980s, I often participated in the annual sing-a-long version of “The Messiah” put on by the Tafelmusik choir and orchestra at Toronto’s Massey Hall. Kingston Road United Choir, which I joined in 2001, performed the Christmas section of “The Messiah” several times. Most thrilling for me was a chance to perform the entire “Messiah” — all three hours of it — as a member of an amateur choir alongside a semi-professional orchestra in Oshawa just east of Toronto in 2006. This is the closest I have ever felt to being a real musician, standing on stage before 700 people in a big Pentecostal church with a wonderful choir, conductor, and orchestra who were all filled with unbridled enthusiasm for this glorious music.

This last November, the Edmonton Metropolitan Chorus, of which Kim and I are members, performed an all-Handel concert, which included four choruses from “The Messiah,” including “And the Glory of the Lord.” Finally, I will get to sing this chorus with the choir following this sermon!

When I love a piece of music, I rarely tire of it. Despite having performed “And the Glory” more than 50 times, I still look forward to it.

But while I don’t tire of old chestnuts like “The Messiah,” many others yearn for music that is more modern. The Worship Survey here last spring made this plain. Finding the right mix of music for congregations with a variety of tastes and backgrounds is an ongoing challenge.

This past week, Jennifer McPhee and I held several meetings at St. Andrew’s United Church. We are conducting a Pastoral Oversight Visit there on behalf of Edmonton Presbytery. One of the things that intrigued us about St. Andrew’s was their music program. In the last few years, they have downsized from a choir, to a six-person chorale, to a few volunteer cantors. The cantors are individuals who sing with a mike from the front of the sanctuary each Sunday. In the absence of a choir, they help the congregation sing through the service.

At first glance, the downsizing from choir, to chorale to cantors looked negative to Jennifer and me. But many people at St. Andrew’s say they love it. The number of songs sung each Sunday has increased and the range of styles has grown. St. Andrew’s uses not only Voices United and More Voices, but also song books from New Zealand, Australia and the Iona community in Scotland.

About ten years ago, St. Andrew’s experimented with a Saturday evening service called “One World.” It focused on music from places like Brazil, southern Africa, and Asia. While that service is no longer offered, their Sunday morning service now has a world-music feel to it. I wish St. Andrew’s offered video podcasts of their Sunday gatherings so I could get a better sense of how this works. Perhaps I will suggest a pulpit exchange there one day so I can get a first-hand look.

The first time I heard “The Messiah” live was an epiphany. It brought me closer to my father, to the music, and to the glory of God to which “The Messiah” is dedicated. But glory can also obscure as well as reveal. The Old Testament words used in “The Messiah” don’t mean much to me. I love the music, but I don’t always find it to be a complete spiritual experience.

I have a similar problem with the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. Peter, James and John have a dazzling vision of Jesus clothed in white and visited by the ancient Hebrew heroes of Moses and Elijah.

But I don’t find its meaning clear. Is it about Jesus being the fulfillment of the Law of Moses and the Prophecies of Elijah as Matthew suggests in his version of the Sermon on the Mount? Or does the fact that Jesus descends from the mountain after the Transfiguration to walk to Jerusalem mean that his ministry is a break from the Law and the Prophets? I suspect the latter, but the story of dazzling light on the mountainside doesn’t help me to decide.

On Thursday evening, Kim and I watched the 2016 Academy Award-nominated movie “Manchester by the Sea.” It is a tale of the harm caused by unexpressed grief and how a family slowly comes to grips with loss. And guess what? It uses music from Handel’s Messiah.

In a scene where the lead character drives to his hometown to get some devastating news, the Pastoral Symphony from “The Messiah” plays. In a later scene at a funeral, two solos from The Messiah are used to convey heartbreak. The first one, sung by an alto, uses a passage from Isaiah that is often linked by the church to Jesus: “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

As the funeral scene reaches a climax of reconciliation, the soprano sings the same tune in a higher key with words of Jesus from Matthew: “Come unto him, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and he shall give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, and learn from him for he is meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”

The movie uses other music as well: Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, heavy metal. But I was struck that “The Messiah” plays a key role in this new work of art. The words might be 2000 or more years old and the music might be close to 300 years old, but its impact can still feel as close as a loved one’s embrace.

As we craft worship experiences that try to reveal the glory of God’s Love here at Mill Woods, may we continue to find inspiration in ancient scripture, contemporary art, and music both ancient and modern.


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