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.

Amen.

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Love and resistance

Text: Matthew 5:38-48 (love your enemies)

Do you get the impression that the number of people seeing each other as enemies has grown lately? There seems to be a lot of fighting going on these days between opposing viewpoints — in the media, in the church, and on the streets.

One of the news stories that upset me last week was about a debate in Parliament. On Thursday, members of Parliament debated a motion by MP Iqra Khalid that calls on the government to “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.” During the debate, Khalid read out some of the 50,000 hate-filled responses she has received so far about her motion.

Perhaps many of those 50,000 messages come from a small group of damaged people with too much time on their hands. It could be that many of them are the work of Twitter bots that have been programmed by racists to generate insults and threaten violence. But 50,000 still seems like an awful lot of hate-filled messages sent to oppose a motion about tolerance and inclusion.

Last Wednesday evening, more than 1,000 people met at Canada Christian College in Toronto to denounce Khalid’s motion, including four candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party. At the meeting, the president of this evangelical college, Charles McVety, said “Jesus Christ teaches us to love everyone including Muslims, but we do not have to love Islam.”

Today we heard the section from the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus urges us to love our enemies. As a follower of Jesus, I suppose this means that I should try to love Charles McVety despite his efforts for the last 25 years to oppose same-sex marriage and the teaching of Darwinism in schools and his role today as a leader of the anti-Muslim movement.

I consider McVety to be an enemy of truth and compassion regardless of his Christian credentials. For this reason, it is not easy for me to love him.

To help reflect on Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies, I now turn to a movie that is nominated for eight Academy awards and that has already won the Golden Globe award for the best dramatic picture of 2016 — Moonlight.

Moonlight is about the struggles of Chiron, a Black boy growing up in a poor part of Miami. In the first third of the film, Chiron is nine years old. He is small, slight and different. One day while fleeing bullies, Chiron is rescued by a drug dealer named Juan. Despite Juan’s life of crime, he and his girlfriend provide crucial support for Chiron, including their reassurance that it is OK to be gay despite the hatred of gays voiced by bullies in the schoolyard.

In the middle section of the film, Chiron is 17 years old. He is still slight and still the victim of bullies. But despite his mother Paula’s addiction to crack, and despite a lack of awareness about sex, sexuality, and how to communicate, Chiron takes his first tentative steps towards romantic love with another boy.

In the final section of the film, Chiron is 27 years old and active in the criminal drug trade. He has become large, strong and imposing, but he is still searching for identity, tenderness and love.

I recommend the movie. Although the life of a young, poor, drug-involved person in Miami is far from my own, I was moved by the insights it offered on the things that encourage or discourage learning, growth, and the ability to give and receive love.

Many people in the United States would consider Chiron, his mother Paula, and his mentor Juan to be the enemy. Poor black people involved in the criminal drug trade are low on the social order of modern America.

For this reason, I was pleased how Moonlight made it easy for me to identify with and admire characters whom I might instead have seen as enemies. They are struggling with conditions they did not choose and doing the best they can.

A major context of their lives is the War on Drugs. Since President Richard Nixon started the War on Drugs in 1971, tens of millions of mostly Black men have been incarcerated, billions of dollars have been spent, and criminal violence has spread throughout Latin America and the US. In an article in Harpers magazine published last April, author Dan Baum noted that one in eight Black men in the United States can no longer vote because of felony convictions, mostly for drugs. Since 1971, the US incarceration rate has soared until it is now five times higher than Canada’s.

In 1994, Baum interviewed John Ehrlichman, who was President Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser and a chief architect of the War on Drugs. Ehrlichman said, “The Nixon White House had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be against the war or to be black. But by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then penalizing both drugs heavily, we could disrupt both communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”

In the context of today’s growing racism, I find it helpful to remember that the prohibition of recreational drugs other than alcohol is not only destructive, expensive and ineffective. It has also been central in perpetuating racial oppression.

Unfortunately, the government often seems to be more concerned with controlling racialized communities than it is in helping them.

I like how South African comic Trevor Noah, who is the host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, describes it. Last year, Noah published a memoir of growing up with his mother in the 1980’s and 1990’s in Apartheid South Africa. He called the memoir Born a Crime, because his mother was Black, his father was White, and sex between Blacks and Whites was illegal in South Africa until 1994.

When Noah was in his late teens, he made money by selling bootleg CDs in a crime-ridden neighbourhood in Johannesburg. Here is what he wrote about crime based on that experience.

“One of the first things I learned in the hood is that there is a very fine line between civilian and criminal. We like to believe we live in a world of good guys and bad guys; and in the suburbs, it’s easy to believe this because getting to know a career criminal there is a difficult thing. But then you go to the hood and you see that there are so many shades in between.

In the hood, gangsters were your friends and neighbours. You knew them. You talked to them on the corner, saw them at parties. They were a part of your work. You knew them from before they became gangsters. It wasn’t, ‘Hey, that’s a crack dealer.’ It was, ‘Oh, little Jimmy’s selling crack now.’ . . .

In the hood, even if you’re not a hardcore criminal, crime is in your life in some way or another. It’s everyone from the mom buying some food that ‘fell off the back of a truck’ to feed her family, all the way up to the gangs selling military-grade weapons and hardware.

The hood made me realize that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate” (p. 209).

Just as in Trevor Noah’s neighbourhood in Johannesburg, the schools and police in Chiron’s neighbourhood in Miami didn’t seem to care for him. But “crime” did care for Chiron, especially in the person of the crack dealer Juan.

I loved the portrayal of both Chiron in the movie and Trevor Noah in the memoir of life with his mother even though they are very different than myself.

Here is what Mershala Ali, the actor who portrayed Juan in Moonlight, said about our differences when he accepted a Golden Globe Award for his work in Moonlight on January 29: “Sometimes we get caught up in the minutiae and the details that make us all different. But I think there are two ways of seeing those differences. There’s an opportunity to see the texture of that person, the characteristics that make them unique. There’s also the opportunity to go to war about it — to say that person is different from me, and I don’t like him, so let’s battle.

My mother is an ordained Christian minister. I’m a Muslim. Now, she didn’t do backflips when I called her to tell her I converted. But we have put our differences to the side. I’m able to see her, she’s able to see me, and we love each other. That other stuff is minutiae. It’s not that important.”

Sometimes it might be difficult for descendants of European settlers to love a poor First Nations person in Edmonton, a petty criminal in Johannesburg, or a drug dealer in Miami. But when we pay attention to the texture of the lives of our so-called enemies, we might find ourselves seeing an inner Sacred light in each other.

Further, when we find ourselves loving people who are oppressed, we may also find ourselves called to resist the social systems that make life hard for them: things like Apartheid in South Africa, the legacy of residential schools in Canada, and the War on Drugs in the United States.

The same thing holds true for Muslims in Canada. A growing segment of church leaders and politicians call us to fear and hate Muslims as our enemies. Instead, I believe that Jesus calls us to reach out in love to refugees and racialized communities of immigrants regardless of their faith. They are not our enemies. They are our sacred brothers and sisters.

More difficult for me is loving leaders who spread fear and hatred of Muslims. I pray this might be possible by being open to engagement and mutual understanding while resisting their ideas and actions.

When descendants of European settlers created Apartheid in South Africa in the 1940’s some of their motives might have been worthy even though the results were horrendous. When the War on Drugs began in 1971, President Nixon might have hidden his motives. But many people who have prosecuted the War on Drugs ever since have done so for worthy reasons. The results have been devastating, I believe, but the people who maintain the system are not necessarily evil.

None of us will ever achieve the perfection that Jesus raised up as an ideal in today’s reading. In my case, this means I may find myself unable to love anti-Muslim leaders like Charles McVety.

But as followers of Jesus and as supporters of peace with justice, I pray that we will continue to stand in solidarity with the marginal and the oppressed. May we resist the calls of church and civic leaders who support racism and instead walk together a path of hope and love.

May it be so. Amen.

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“Lovers in a dangerous time”

Context: a “Minister’s Reflection” submitted to the late February issue of “Connections,” the newsletter of Mill Woods United Church

Love is our most sacred value. We worship the God who is Love. Our ministry is centrally about love. And one of the tasks of a minister is to allow themselves to be loved by a congregation.

Kim and I felt very loved when so many of you came to our wedding ceremony in November and by the beautiful gifts of a ceramic bowl and a prayer shawl that you gave us on January 29. Thank you!

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to lead a church in a peaceful and unchanging time. But we do not live in such a time. Instead, I believe we have entered a new era in which ethnic cleansing and fears of the stranger are on the rise. This seems like a dangerous time to me.

I was pleased that 14 of us gathered on January 19 to share our feelings about the current social context. Not everyone agreed that this is a new era, of course, and I appreciated hearing the different perspectives.

But even if my intuition about a new era were right, it might not change a lot for the church. For sure, we are called to stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters and against racist speech and action. We will also continue to bless babies when they are born, mourn the loss of loved ones, reach out in compassion to our neighbours, care for one another, raise our families in changing times, and proclaim hope, grace, and love.

This year as we enter the spiritual wilderness of Lent, we do so with a full range of feelings. Lent points towards the new life of Easter. But joy is found not just at Easter. It is also found in the love we share with our fellow pilgrims on the road.

On Easter Sunday, April 16, we will celebrate the good news revealed by Jesus’ empty tomb. During the weeks leading up to this, we will journey together as lovers in a dangerous time.

I appreciate how Bruce Cockburn put it in his 1984 song:

“These fragile bodies of touch and taste / This vibrant skin, this hair like lace / Spirits open to the thrust of Grace / Never a breath you can afford to waste / When you’re lovers in a dangerous time.”

“Sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime / But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight / Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight / When you’re lovers in a dangerous time.”

Ian

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The Rule of Faith

Texts: Micah 6:6-8 (justice, kindness, and humility); Matthew 5:1-20 (the Sermon on the Mount)

What does the Lord require of us? In the first of today’s two readings from the Bible, Micah gives an answer: to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Many of us value his answer for its clarity and brevity. Micah tells us not to worry about sacrificial worship or the many commandments of the Law found in the Hebrew Bible. Instead, he says we should simply act with humility, kindness, and justice.

Today, we also heard the beginning of the ethical teaching of Jesus called the Sermon on the Mount. In this reflection, I contrast these two readings to help us ponder the role that the Bible plays in our lives; and to discuss why Christians come to wildly different conclusions on the issue of refugees today.

In many of the stories in the four gospels, Jesus’ words and actions fit with the ideas of the prophet Micah. Over and over, Jesus ignores tenets of Jewish law. He heals sick people on the Sabbath. He spends time with those whom the Law says are ritually unclean. He befriends non-Jewish people. Jesus always emphasizes kindness, justice, and humility over religious law.

Because of this, I am puzzled by the statement of Jesus we heard today that he has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. This contradicts not only Micah but many of the other things that Jesus says and does.

I like even less the two verses following today’s reading. In them, Jesus says, “It has been said, ‘Anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment; and anyone who treats a brother or sister with contempt will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

I admire the Beatitudes that we heard today — the poetic list of phrases that start with the words “Blessed are. . .” But since I don’t believe in eternal punishment, what can I make of Jesus’ words in the same text about the fires of hell?

The church gives authority to the books of the Bible. Happily, it doesn’t treat all passages equally. Some call today’s passage from Micah the Golden Text of the Old Testament. Most of us prize it far above passages in the Old Testament that support nationalism or violence.

But as much as the church likes Micah, it gives even more weight to the sayings of Jesus. Given this fact, is it OK for me to embrace some parts of the Sermon on the Mount and reject other parts that are about hell?

This past Wednesday, I attended a Bible study group made up of United Church ministers. It was organized by the Rev. YoonOk Shin, who is the Intercultural Minister for Edmonton Presbytery. Ten of us spent most of our first meeting sharing family histories. Two ministers were born in Korea, one in Scotland, one in the United States, one in Congo, one in Zimbabwe, and the rest of us in Canada. Most of us had Presbyterian or Methodist roots and one minister was a former Pentecostal.

In subsequent sessions, we are going to discuss how we use the Bible. To help with this task we are reading a book called “The Authority and Interpretation of Scripture in The United Church of Canada.” It was published last year by two teachers at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon.

This book grapples with some of the challenges of reading the Bible. In the face of the Bible’s contradictions; the violent history behind its transmission; and how the texts of the Bible have been translated and interpreted, the book puts forward the concept of the “Rule of Faith.” This idea has helped Christians over the ages to use the Bible responsibly, the authors write.

The Rule of Faith is a community’s understanding of God, humanity, and the central message of Scripture. When a passage in the Bible contradicts the Rule of Faith — and there are many of these — churches turn to their Rule to avoid using the Bible in unethical ways. When the United Church debated sexuality in the 1980s, it found that different sides of the debate were using different rules of faith. Similar differences were uncovered in the 1800s in church debates over slavery.

Today all Christians condemn slavery despite passages in the Bible that support it. In the same way, just because Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus saying many people will face eternal punishment in hell does not mean we must preach this idea.

Over the next year as this group of ministers continue to gather to discuss the Bible, I am sure that we will discover a lot about our various rules of faith.

Like any other part of the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount raises issues of interpretation. Both Matthew and Luke contain the material found in the Sermon, but there are differences between the two. In Luke, the Beatitudes are more concrete. Instead of “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke writes “Blessed are you poor. Instead of “Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness,” Luke writes “Blessed are you hungry.” Nor does Luke have Jesus talking about hell.

Monty Python’s satirical film “The Life of Brian” from 1979 illustrates the problem of knowing what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. In a scene set during it, people in the crowd strain to hear Jesus. After Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers” one man complains that he didn’t hear what was said. His companion tells him he thinks that Jesus said, “Blessed are the cheesemakers!” This makes another person wonder what’s so special about cheesemakers, to which yet another replies that Jesus’ words should not be taken literally. He says that Jesus is probably referring to the manufacturers of any dairy product.

In a humorous way, this scene reminds us that we cannot be sure what Jesus said; nor can we adopt ethical rules simply by reading Scripture. Whenever we read a text, we do so with a Rule of Faith. My Rule of Faith is not perfectly clear to me, but I know it lies in the spiritual power of a gathered community that tries to follow a path of death and resurrection and that values Love and Grace above all.

Because of this Rule of Faith, I do not support slavery just as I do not believe in hell regardless of what Jesus says about it in Matthew. Just as we are not bound by the Law, nor are we bound by Scripture. We live in the light of Grace.

Other church leaders have different rules of faith. Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham and the President of the international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse told a reporter last week that he supports the U.S. government ban on Syrian refugees. According to my Rule of Faith, Christians are called to welcome refugees. As a follower of Jesus, I strongly condemn the ban. I view it as an outrage against justice, compassion, and security. I view it as a hate crime.

Graham seems to have a different Rule of Faith, one that amplifies the passages in the Bible that support xenophobia and racism.

The concept of the Rule of Faith helps us to understand the huge range of perspectives among world Christianity. Different churches share the same Bible, but they read it in radically different ways.

Sometimes I imagine the books of the Bible as a campfire around which we gather. At times, the fire blows toxic smoke in our eyes. At other times, it illuminates a path of faith, hope and love.

The church gives the Bible authority above other texts. For this reason, I am happy to know the concept of The Rule of Faith. I hope that discussing the Rule of Faith will help us to avoid the Bible’s toxic smoke and to find more of its light.

The status given by the church to the Bible does not mean we need only reflect on readings from it in our gatherings. When I return in two weeks after a week of vacation and another of study leave, I hope to offer a reflection on one of the movies nominated for an Academy Award this year. I trust this could fit with our Rule of Faith since the path of death and resurrection is revealed in many places other than the Bible.

In the Season of Epiphany, we have reflected on a different way of learning each week. On January 8, the first Sunday of Epiphany, it was on the resistance of the Magi to Empire. On January 15, it was on how baptism can reveal our divine status. Last Sunday, it was on what we can learn by responding to God’s call. Today, it is on how the Bible can both reveal and obscure God’s Love.

As we continue to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God, may we refine our Rule of Faith so that both ancient Scripture and current realities throw less smoke and more light on the path of Love.

May it be so. Amen.

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Call and response

Text: Matthew 4:12-23 (Jesus begins his ministry)

Call and response is a practice in which a leader interacts with a crowd using familiar phrases.

Most Sundays when I come to the pulpit I say, “May the peace of Christ be with you,” and you respond “and also with you.” That’s call and response.

When I first went to a gathering led by the Rev. Tazvi Nyarota, the minister of the Zimbabwean congregation that worships here on Sunday afternoons — this was at the Intercultural Christmas Choirs Concert at McDougall United in December 2015 — Tazvi began by exclaiming “God is Good!” to which the congregation replied “All the time!” Tazi then echoed “All the time!” back to us, and we responded with “God is Good!” That’s call and response.

Call and response is often found in African-American worship and pop music. It helps a gathering to take ownership of what is being said or sung.

This morning we heard a story from Matthew about a different type of call and response. In it, Jesus calls his first disciples — Peter, Andrew, James and John — at the Sea of Galilee.

As soon as Jesus calls these four by name, they drop their nets, leave their families, and head out to surrounding towns to teach, preach and heal.

This is the start of Jesus’ ministry. He takes leadership, issues a call, and recruits some followers to serve the people.

Not all calls are as clear cut as this. Nor are all responses as dramatic as dropping everything to leave home, family and career. But if we think back on our lives, we may remember stories that contain at least an echo of today’s Gospel reading.

I have one from the spring of 2002. At the time, I was struggling with a failing marriage. So I met with the Rev. Rivkah Unland, the minister of the church in east-end Toronto that I had joined six months earlier. After hearing what I had to say, she suggested some things I might consider.

The one that struck the strongest chord in me was to go on a wilderness canoe trip. The idea scared me. But I knew immediately that it would be good for me and that I would do it.

So that July, I went on a week-long camping trip in Ontario’s Algonquin Park with 18 other people. It was organized by the United Church’s Five Oaks Centre.

I was nervous about my bad back because canoeing and portaging can be so demanding. I also worried about digestion, bugs, storms, and being with 18 strangers for seven days and nights.

But in the event — despite rain, exhaustion, mosquitoes, and snoring companions — I loved the week. In the face of fear, this trip helped to solidify my understanding of faith. Faith is not about believing incredible things. It is about trust — trust in our bodies despite their fragility; trust in the earth despite its indifference to us; trust in community despite the brokenness and pain we all bring to relationships; and trust in the God who is the Ground of Being, Life, and Love.

When Rivkah suggested the canoe trip, I heard it as a call to confront fear. By going on the trip, I re-learned that we can feel the fear and do it anyway. If we are lucky, our fears prove to be illusory, and sometimes, our fears come true.

I liked the first trip in 2002 so much that I went back to Algonquin over the next five summers. And on the third summer, one of my fears came true. About halfway through the week, my back gave out. I was still able to paddle, but I could no longer carry a canoe on the portages. I had to rely on others to take up the slack, which made me feel bad.

Happily, this reminded me that some of the things we fear are not as bad as we imagine, and that life in community involves a constant swing between giving and receiving.

Another feature of those canoe trips was sharing. Every few days, we gathered in a circle for an hour or so. We passed a talking stone and shared what was on our heart and mind. Even more than the beauty of the lakes and forests, I loved these times of sharing. Although each of us was different, we learned how much we had in common. All us of were broken and blessed pilgrims. Hearing from one another allowed spirit and love to flow freely between us.

This past Thursday evening at the church, 14 of us participated in a sharing circle. Given that it was promoted as a chance to share our reactions to shifts in the culture and how they might affect the work of the church, I was not surprised that both hope and fear emerged as themes.

Fear is on an upswing. Many of us are afraid of growing diversity and so want to retreat behind protective walls. Others of us are afraid of the damage that might come from building such walls.

Amid these fears, I pray that we might listen for the call of God’s Spirit and respond in ways that confront and dissolve some of our fears.

Yesterday, thousands of people in Edmonton and millions around the world took to the streets in response of a call to rally for women’s rights. In a time of increased fear, a call went out, millions responded, and they widely shared a message of courage, defiance and love. That’s call and response.

I will end this reflection with a short video that offers another call and response story. It is an animation of a speech given by someone I consider to be a brilliant preacher. Although he has just moved off the centre of the world’s stage, I trust that his voice will be continued to be heard for years to come.

I came across the video on Facebook. A colleague of mine, the Rev. Alexa Gilmour of Toronto, posted it on Friday to inspire courage. I loved it; and I’d be happy to know after the service how it strikes you.

“Fired up!” by Barack Obama

May it be so.

 

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Running deep and free

Text: Matthew 3:13-17 (John baptizes Jesus)

“Remember your baptism!” preachers often exclaim. And having just heard about the baptism of Jesus, this might seem like an appropriate day to do so. But what if you were baptized as an infant?

I have precious few memories from before the age of five and none from before the age of three. So, I don’t remember being baptized just a few months after I was born.

The question of adult versus infant baptism is one of several issues surrounding this sacrament. Others include whether baptism can be repeated or not; whether it is an entry into the worldwide church or just something specific to one church; whether it should include full immersion under water or only use a few drops; whether the patriarchal formula “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” is required or not; and whether baptism is necessary for salvation or is just a symbol of welcome.

But today I don’t focus on those controversies. Today as we move deeper into the Season of Epiphany, I reflect upon baptism as a symbol of emerging into the light. Baptism can remind us that we are sacred individuals blessed both with conscious awareness and with the ability to relax back into the river of life when we need to recharge.

Water is they key element for life on earth, and so it makes sense that baptism as the primary ritual of the Christian tradition involves water.

Life first began in the ocean more than three billion years ago; and it was not until about 500 million years ago that some species migrated to dry land. Because of their watery origins, terrestrial plants and animals are largely made of water, including humans, who are about 70% water by weight.

Plunging into a body of water takes us back to life’s source. Emerging from it into the light is like being reborn.

John offered a baptism for the forgiveness of sins in the Jordan River. It was a ritual of cleansing and a symbol of forgiveness. Perhaps because of its connection to sin, John says he does not feel worthy to baptize Jesus. Nevertheless, he baptizes him, which provides another example of Jesus standing in solidarity with the sinners who came to the Jordan long ago and with those who seek forgiveness today.

The Jordan forms one of the borders of the Promised Land, which gave it significance to ancient Jews. According to the book of Joshua, the descendants of Hebrew slaves from Egypt ended their 40-year Exodus in the desert when they crossed the Jordan. So, emerging from the waters of the Jordan must have carried an extra connotation of deliverance for those baptized in it by John.

Water carries other meanings. The ocean is a symbol of the unconscious mind, the part of our psyche where most of our motivations and thoughts lie outside of awareness.

Viewed from this perspective, emerging from the waters of baptism is a symbol of waking up and a symbol of Epiphany.

After Jesus and his friends are baptized by John in the Jordan, they begin their ministry of healing, teaching, and community-building. To remember our baptism is to remember our status as loving friends who gather in community to reflect, to reach out in compassion, and to struggle for social change.

As a baptized and baptizing people, we are called to be awake to our situation, our purpose, and our path.

But we can’t always stay awake. Humans continually switch between consciousness and unconsciousness. When we wake up in the morning, we gain the opportunity to live another day, to talk with friends, to work in the community, and to experience anew this world of wonders. If we are lucky, most mornings we are excited to know what is going on and how we can fit in.

But at the end of the day, we are also grateful for sleep. Sinking into sleep each night is like re-entering the unconscious waters from which we have come.

Unfortunately, many things can challenge our ability to stay awake. Most of us struggle to come to grips with human sickness and mortality. Most of us are challenged by social realities like war and pollution.

Do we really want to know that the human population has more than tripled in the last century? Do we really want to learn about all the pollution caused by economic activity? Do we really want to hear about the latest outrage of our political leaders?

Sometimes the answer is no. So, we turn off the news and stop thinking about life’s problems. And I think it can be OK to “turn off your mind, relax and float down stream” as a Beatles song recommends.

The hymn that frames this service — “River Running in You and Me,” provides images that I like when thinking about the swing between wakefulness and sleep.

It pictures life as a river that flows through each of us, a river that carries us all down to the holy sea. Life started in the sea and eventually we empty back into it. Sometimes we surface into the air, as with baptism, which gives us space to remember our sacred nature. But much of the time we are swept below the surface of the river, unaware of what is happening, but still supported by the sacred cycle of life.

Moments of enlightenment are blessings. They allow us to learn and do our work as a baptized and baptizing people. But not every moment can be an epiphany; and times when we are swept along unconsciously can also be blessed.

Church controversies about baptism abound. But instead of worrying about them, today I pray that we simply give thanks for the sacrament and for the forgiveness and the enlightenment it symbolizes.

Even though I don’t remember the day of my baptism, I am glad that I was baptized, and I feel privileged to be part of a community that baptizes newcomers whether babies or adults. Participating in baptism helps us to remember how each person is immersed in the sacred river of life.

At various moments, we surface and experience the joy of new learning. At other times, we will sink below the surface and trust in the sacred power of the river of life to bear us graciously back to the sea.

So, may we remember with joy that everyone and everything flows back into God’s ocean of Love.

Remember your baptism! You will be glad you did.

Amen.

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