Featured

A home for things I write

20190515_185448My first mystery novel, The Book of Answers, made the short-list for The Unhanged Arthur Ellis, an award for unpublished crime fiction. The annual competition is sponsored by Dundurn Press and CrimeWriters of Canada. On May 23, my wife and I attended a banquet at Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club, where I had the honour of meeting other authors who were nominated, as well as a number of editors, publishers, and authors. It was great fun!

The winning manuscript in my category, the Unhanged Arthur Award for best unpublished crime novel, was The Scarlet Cross, by Liv McFarlane. You can learn more about Liv at her website: https://livmcfarlane.com/

I look forward to reading The Scarlet Cross, and the work of the other nominees:

  • Hypnotizing Lions by Jim Bottomley
  • Omand’s Creek by Don Macdonald
  • One for the Raven by Heather McLeod

 

That the manuscript of my first ever novel was even considered for such an honour, has inspired me to improve my online presence. This site is a re-tooling of my old “Sharing Bread Along The Way” blog, along with old material from “The Fifth Page”, which is where I used to post what didn’t make it into my sermons, which are always a maximum of 4 pages. (I now call them “learning times”, to reflect the truth that I am still learning as I go.)

I am a minister in The United Church of Canada, currently serving the congregation and wider community of Harrow, in beautiful Essex County, Ontario. In the words of Max Marshall, a singer-songwriter from Harrow, it’s a “bread-basket town” in “fruit-stand land”. You should also check out Max, he’s great! 

https://www.maxmarshall.org/about

With great power comes great responsibility: Learning time about Freedom. June 26, 2022

Scripture Reading: Galatians 5:1,13-16, 22-26 (The Inclusive Bible)

When Christ freed us, we were meant to remain free. Stand firm, therefore, and don’t submit to the yoke of slavery a second time!

My sisters and brothers, you were called to freedom; but be careful, or this freedom will provide an opening for self-indulgence. Rather, serve one another in works of love,  since the whole of the Law is summarized in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  If you go on snapping at one another and tearing each other to pieces, be careful, or you may end up destroying the whole community.  Let me put it this way: if you are guided by the Spirit, you will be in no danger of yielding to self-indulgence.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against these sorts of things there is no law!  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their ego, with its passions and desires.  So since we live by the Spirit, let us follow her lead.  We must stop being conceited, contentious and envious.

Learning Time: “Freedom and Limits”

I want to speak briefly today about freedom. There have been enough words about freedom spoken and printed lately to fill whole convoys.

The word came up pretty often during the recent provincial election, and we may hear it again, when the municipal vote happens in the fall.

You might wonder if there is anything left to say.

A lot of what gets said about freedom in popular rhetoric also involves another word we hear a lot, which is rights. Our rights and freedoms.

What worries me is the emphasis on individual rights and freedoms without a corresponding awareness of at least two things.

The first is there are limits, and conditions on our rights, and our freedoms.

My rights, my freedom to do, or not do what I please, ends somewhere before I cause harm to someone else, or deprive them of a necessary good.

The classic example is I may have the right to make a fist, and swing it in your direction. But if you are in range of that fist, or have reason to fear it may hurt you, your right to be safe trumps my right to swing my fist.

We don’t actually have the right to do things that cause harm or represent the threat of harm to others.

The second thing I feel we need to remember is that “rights language” is not all that helpful in communicating our basic human responsibility to be decent with each other.

The rights and freedoms we have here in Canada are considerable. When you also consider the access we have to education, and information, and travel, and the capacity to buy or rent or borrow practically anything, and compared to most people in the world, we are incredibly powerful.

Do you know this phrase? “With great power, come great responsibility.” Do you know what Gospel it’s from?

It’s pretty close to a line from the parable of the faithful servant in Luke: From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

It’s also known as the Parker, or Peter Parker principle, because it’s the moral guide of the Marvel Comics hero Spiderman. He learned the hard way, when someone close to him died when he failed to do the right thing, that our actions, and our inactions, have consequences. We have responsibility.

Our lives are inextricably, and beautifully wound up with each other. God has set things up so that none of us can actually live our lives without each other. That’s a good thing. We need each other, and our human-ness is defined, determined to some degree, by our connectedness.

In the children’s time I used the example of a soccer field with no boundary lines. Without agreed upon limits to where and how you can move on the field, the game becomes un-playable. The lines on the edges of the field are like the outer edge of the arc my fist can travel. It can only go so far, before we have a problem.

I may want to play the game my way, and kick the ball across the line, run with it, and then bop back on the playing field close to the goal, but that’s not playing the game. That’s self-indulgent behaviour.

So we need the rules. Otherwise we’d be just a bunch of aimless individuals on a grassy field, unable to work together, even to play a game.

The rules of soccer developed over many years. They are arbitrary, and also subject to local variation, and change.

I think one of the functions of sport is to teach us how to work within a set of rules that govern behaviour.

It’s also good to know that games are just games, and rules are just rules. They can change over time. The laws that govern a society change over time, and that’s a good thing- because the humans that create them are subject to human frailty, imperfection, and self-interest.

I have thought a lot about the tension between rights and responsibilities as it applies to the gun problem in the United States. It seems like our American neighbours have painted themselves into a corner. The emphasis on the right to bear arms has made it so difficult for them to even talk about scaling back, voluntarily limiting their rights, reining in the arc of their swinging fists, in order to protect the lives of their most vulnerable people.

It’s good we have higher standards, by which to examine and judge our own behaviour, and the agreed upon rules, and laws.

We heard some excellent higher standards in the Galatians passage, where they were called fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

I am especially grateful for the mention of that last one, self-control, as a reminder that for the sake of other people, and for the sake of love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, we place limits on ourselves.

We restrict ourselves, as best we can, to do things that help others. We stop ourselves from doing things that would cause harm to others, and we open our hearts, and eyes, and look for ways to exercise our freedom to do good. Amen

Learning Time for May 29, 2022 at Harrow United Church

How do we see God at work in our own lives?

Audio file of learning time

The link to the video of the service is below.

In some sectors of the job market, the pool of qualified candidates is very small. There are times an applicant knows who else might be in the running. It happened last week to someone I know. They were one of two offered interviews. They received an email from the other candidate, who had a scheduling conflict, and asked if they might trade interview times.

They are competing for a great job. What would you do?

One option would be to politely decline, and tell yourself, “I need to take care of my future. I am within my rights to say no. It’s a tough world, and I need to be tough.”

Another option would be to do what the hero in this ongoing, true story did. They thought about what they hope the other person would do if roles were reversed. They took to heart the teaching of doing unto others as you’d have others do to you. They agreed to trade interview slots.

If this was a movie the payoff would be the potential boss hears about the good heart of the hero and decides that’s the kind of person they want in their company. That hasn’t happened. The interviews are next week. Honestly, the happy ending for me is that this person remembered to think about the other person, and be kind.

There are sad and terrible stories in the world right now. Are there more bad things happening, or do we just hear about them faster and more often, because of all the ways the world is connected?

We have two good stories today from the Book of Acts. The first is about a strange encounter between the Apostle Paul and a woman held as a slave. Her owners made a lot of money exploiting her ability to tell fortunes.

The story says the woman was possessed. It’s hard for us to know what that means, as we look through the lens of the ancient world. Anything not understood could be called magic. It wasn’t a big leap from calling something magic, to naming it as demonic.

The woman had an unusual capacity to read people, and tell truths about them, for which her owners charged big money. The woman herself did not share in the profits, as she was property of the household- she was owned as a slave. We don’t know her name.

This unnamed woman with the strange gift saw something powerful when she looked at Paul, the travelling missionary. She began to follow him, and his companion Silas. She’d call out after them, “These are faithful followers of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation!”

The woman did this for many days, and it annoyed Paul. He lost his temper, turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to leave this woman!”

The spirit left her that moment. That was the end of the profitable business for the slaveowners. The story suggests Paul cast out a demon. The Gospels described Jesus doing similar things. The point may be that Paul did things that Jesus did. God was with him in ways similar to the way God was with Jesus.

I’d love to know more about the unnamed woman. What happened to her after she was no longer a money-maker for her owners? We don’t get the rest of her story, which is so often the case with women in the Bible.

Her owners were upset with Paul and his friend Silas. They grabbed them, and dragged them before the magistrates, who held court in the marketplace. They said, “These people are Jews and are disturbing the peace by advocating practices which are unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

This feels like an echo of the Good Friday story. The writer, who has already shown Paul doing a Jesus-style exorcism, now has Paul and his friend brought before a Roman authority, accused of religious crimes.

The crowd turned on the accused. Perhaps as much to appease and calm the crowd as to see justice done, the magistrate had Paul and Silas stripped, flogged, whipped and thrown in jail. The magistrate warned the warden to carefully watch the prisoners.

The warden threw them into the innermost cell of the prison and chained their feet to a stake. About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the other prisoners listened.  Suddenly a severe earthquake shook the place, rocking the prison to its foundation. Immediately all the doors flew open, and everyone’s chains were pulled loose. When the jailer woke up and found the doors wide open, he drew a sword and was about to commit suicide, presuming that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all still here.”

What a great story! After the earthquake, which miraculously broke open the prison doors and pulled loose the chains, Paul and Silas could easily have led all the prisoners out of the jail to freedom.

The jailer must have thought that was exactly what happened. They were on the verge of committing suicide, rather than facing the consequences of losing all the prisoners.

This was the ancient world. There were no photo i.d’s or fingerprints. If a prisoner escaped custody, they could literally disappear. Just leave town, go somewhere your face had not been seen.

So why didn’t Paul and Silas take off? They lived in a hard world. They had no reason to expect fair treatment from the Roman legal system. The answer lies in what Paul said to the jailer: “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all still here.”

Paul recognized if he fled the jail, the consequences for the jailer would be terrible. Paul set aside self-concern and thought about the fate of the jailer. Do unto others.

The jailer, who knew Paul and Silas had been arrested, stripped and beaten for their missionary work, was that night converted to their faith, and became a follower of the way of Jesus.

Paul and Silas helped the jailer. They refused the opportunity to escape. The story ends with the jailer doing things to help Paul and Silas. The jailer took them into his home, bathed their wounds- they’d been flogged after all. After another kind of bathing, in which the jailer and his family were baptized, the jailer invited them to his table, and they shared in a feast.

When Paul and Silas were put in jail, they spent their time before the earthquake singing hymns and praying, and talking to fellow prisoners about the Jesus Way. The jailer would have heard all those words, spoken and sung.

But it wasn’t the singing and praying that impressed the jailer and made him want to be a follower of the Jesus Way. This is good for preachers to notice. It wasn’t the preaching, praying, or even the singing- even though the singing probably helped the prisoners keep their spirits up.

What caught the jailer’s attention was that Paul cared about him and helped him. Paul gave up the chance of escaping the jail- he limited his own freedom, out of compassion for the jailer.

We’re hearing more details this week of yet another horrific mass shooting in the United States, this time of children and adults at an elementary school in Texas. There’s a powerful faction of American society that believes so much in their God-given, and constitutional right to bear arms, that they block any efforts to limit that right. Their rights are so very important to them. Freedom as they understand it, is so important to them.

When another mass shooting happens, and it will, we will hear again how many of the people who block efforts to restrict access to deadly weapons, are praying for the victims and their families.

Here is a link to my recent opinion piece for the Kingsville Observer on this issue: https://www.kingsvilleobserver.com/post/compassion-courage-needed-to-end-u-s-gun-violence

In the Paul and Silas story, the jailer was not convinced, or converted, by the prayers he heard. He was impressed by what Paul and Silas did, to protect him from harm.

I believe words are important. I hope they are. I am in the word business. I get paid to stand up and say these words, and to lead prayers. But if words and prayers are in no way connected to our actions, they may not be meaningless, but they will actually, mean less, than they could. Amen

“Heaven’s Above?” Learning Time for May 22, 2022 at Harrow United Church

What do you imagine when I say the word heaven? I’d hazard a guess that many our images of heaven come from things we’ve seen in movies, tv programs, even commercials. Remember the one for Philadelphia cream cheese, with angels eating bagels while they float on clouds?

There was no mention of clouds, or even cream cheese, in our reading from the Book of Revelations. Cream cheese wasn’t invented until 1563, at least 1500 years after the Book of Revelations was written.

In the ancient world, if someone mentioned heaven, people would immediately look up. Heaven had a location, at least in people’s imagination. People back then had an image of earth, and the universe, very different from ours. The world was kind of like the middle portion of a layer cake, and the whole cake was inside something like an enormous snow globe.

As I mentioned, people lived on the middle layer. Below was the underworld. It had different names, depending on the culture. Sheol, Hades, Hell, the other place. The world of the dead.

The underworld was surrounded by rock, but there could be fissures and cracks that opened a way down. Some religions, and some mythologies have stories about heros going down to the world of the dead, and rescuing souls trapped there. In at least one ancient Christian creed, Jesus is described as making that journey.

All of this rock was supported by the pillars of the earth, which themselves sank into a vast ocean- the waters of the deep. The drawings, that look like old maps, don’t show exactly what, if anything, the pillars were anchored in. The drawings make it appear that the layer cake sits on water and there is water above it and on all sides. It’s like an enormous snow globe, or perhaps a cosmic womb. That image appears in some ancient myths and poetry, of the whole world within a huge womb, or a big cosmic egg. A modern take on it might be that it looks a bit like a single-celled creature, or one cell of a larger being.

Above the underworld was the place humans lived, terra firma, Earth. Directly above that was the sky.

We look up and see clouds. In the imagination of the Ancient World, above the clouds were the sun, the moon, the stars and planets, all floating between the clouds, and just below something called the dome of the sky, or the firmament, which separated the sky from the waters above the sky. Beyond the waters of the firmament, was the heaven of heavens, which was the home of the gods, or if you were part of a monotheistic faith, where the one true God lived. The Christian version populated this heaven with angels, but other faiths also had angelic figures.

If you could poke a hole in the dome, and make your way through the waters, you might be able to reach God. That reminds me of John Magee’s poem High Flight, which we often hear at funerals for pilots and air force veterans. It describes the joy of slipping the surly bonds of Earth, to trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, to put out a hand and touch the face of God.

There are a handful of Bible stories about individuals, Jesus being one of them, being bodily lifted into the sky, and carried up to heaven.

We often see in movies or cartoons the idea that people who die, become angels in heaven. That evolution from human to angel is not found in the Bible, or in the mythology of ancient cultures, who described angels as a separate race of beings, above humans, but below God in the hierarchy of beings.

Back to the layer cake. I use the image of a layer cake when I talk about this model, but it might also be a pancake, because Earth needs to be flat and round, so the sun, moon and stars can travel in circles above it. The circular movement allows the light of sun to move to make it day in a certain area for a while, then circle away to let it be night, when the sky is lit by the moon and stars.  

There is a story in the Old Testament Book of Joshua about a battle in which the Israelites needed to defeat the Amorites, and Joshua asked God to make the sun stand still, to prolong the day, to give Israel more time to win. That story reflects the belief that the sun is small compared to the flat earth, and could be stopped in its circular path, to extend the period of daylight over that part of the pancake.

The waters of the deep splash up around all the edges of the pancake. In Hindu mythology, the earth we walk on is supported on the back of a huge turtle- which kind of reminds me of the First Nations name for North America, Turtle Island.

This ancient view of a flat earth surrounded all the way around by water, supported by the pillars of the earth, is the underlying picture of the world as described in the Bible. Re-read the story of Noah and the Ark. It depends totally on this view of the world. The waters of the deep rise to flood the whole world, then recede at the end of the story, to reveal dry land.

When scientists began to question the idea that the earth was flat, they were told to shush, because their theories contradicted the way the church authorities read the Bible. Galileo was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church for promoting the theory the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the sun tracking a circular route above the earth.

Back then, just as in our world today, there were biblical literalists, fundamentalists, who could not tolerate any deviation from how they saw things. Back then, as today, the symptoms of fundamentalism included the absence of humility, a need to be right about basically everything, a need to control the thoughts of others, a lack of any sense of humour, and an inability to cope with metaphor, or analogy, or poetry in general.

When we read one of Jesus’ parables, we’re able to listen for truth in the story, without needing the story to be literally true. We can see that Jesus, who was a person of the Ancient World, was comfortable with symbolism, and spoke fluent metaphor, and poetry.

I think that people in the Ancient World were far more comfortable with poetry and imagination, with dreams and symbols than some folks in our time, or the church officials were in Galileo’s time.

I suspect that for many in the Ancient World, the question, is Hell literally above us, and Heaven literally below us, might have been met with confusion.  They would look at us like we were missing the point of the stories.

In the Ancient World, great truths about life, and death, and the gods, or God of your choice were communicated in story, song and poetry. The Ancients could not send a rocket into orbit, but they knew that the earth, the moon, the sun and the stars were wondrous, and they believed they were lovingly and purposefully created, and that God was in a place where God could see it all and love it all.

The ancients also had the sense that although God could see us, our view of God was often obscured. Our vision could be clouded, and God could seem very far away.

Some of the most detailed, and beautiful descriptions of heaven in the Bible are in the Book of Revelations, which we heard from this morning. Not a lot is actually known about who wrote this book. It was traditionally attributed to John, disciple of Jesus, but the chronology is a bit off.

The names of cities in the Roman Empire and references to what was happening to Jesus followers under Roman Rule suggest a period around 70 years after the time of Jesus. It’s unlikely that a disciple of Jesus could have lived that long.

In the Ancient World there were no copyright concerns. Saying a famous figure wrote a particular work was sometimes a way of paying tribute, to the person, or to the worthiness of the book.

There’s a classic gospel blues song about John the Revelator, so we might call the author the Revelator, because of what they revealed.

Short video of “John the Revelator”

Scholars say the Revelator was a poet, because although the text often refers to Hebrew Scripture, it never quotes it. Instead it uses ideas and images found in earlier writings to inspire new phrases.

Scholars say the Revelator a mystic, because of the dream-like and symbol-laden imagery in the book. Golden bowls and shining white gowns, flying beasts and magical horns, and great flowing rivers, and trees that are trees but not just trees. The writer employs imagery and poetry to share with their audience experiences of things that are actually mysterious and beyond literal description. We do it all the time. Dolly Parton wrote, “Love is like a butterfly.” We get it, and we know that actually, that’s a simile, comparing one thing to another, to tell us something.

Has anyone here read the Book of Revelations? I may have mentioned before that it was one of the last books to be officially included in the New Testament, and to this day, some Christian denominations leave it out. It’s a hard book to work with, especially if you try to read it literally, as some prominent, and scary preachers have. Those who have tried to use it as a map of the future, and claim it’s about the world ending next Tuesday at 3:15 pm have always been wrong, and I think, really missed the point.

I think the Revelator wrote to followers of Jesus in a few cities in the Roman Empire who were having a very bad time of it, under Roman rule, around the year 100 AD. They were being persecuted for their faith, and many feared that life in this world would never get better for them. I think Revelations was the writer’s efforts to share  with those people what they had come to know, trust, rely on, believe about God.

The Revelator had powerful experiences, perhaps a series of visions, like dreams, during which they felt they were in God’s presence. God showed them that all kinds of terrible things can happen in this life, but the terrible things would not be the end of the story. There was more to God’s story. There is more to life, and to all that God has created, and is creating, than we can see on a regular day, with our normal vision.

There is the promise that beyond this life, which can at times be sad and painful, there is a reality where there is no more pain, and no more sadness, only love, and light, and God’s embrace. There is the assurance that those we love, who have died, are held safely with God. There is the reminder that God is with us, and we are with God, at the beginning, all during, and even beyond the end of our earthly lives. We may not be able to pin down where that is, or what it looks like, but it sounds heavenly. Amen

Learning Time for May 1st at Harrow United Church

Learning Time: The possibility of new life

The Man’s Prayer from The Red Green Show
Audio file of learning time

The video of the worship service for May 1:

That clip was from the end of an episode of the Red Green show, which dates me, and anyone else who remembers it. Steve Smith created the show as a parody of home improvementdo-it-yourself, and outdoors shows. I don’t think for a minute that in real life he’s anything like the character he played. Red Green was crafted to poke fun at certain attitudes, not to glorify them.

I don’t buy into the idea that only men have the problem pointed to in the prayer: “I’m a man, I can change, if I have to, I guess.”

It’s actually a basic human problem. We all struggle with changing ourselves, even and perhaps especially when we know it needs to happen. It’s humbling to admit we’ve been off track and need a course correction.

In many churches there has been, and still is, a lot of talk about sin, and sinners. These are words I tend to stay away from, largely because I am not a big fan of name calling. I don’t want to be called a sinner, and I don’t find it helpful to throw that word at anyone else.

When you put a label on someone, whether you mean it as a compliment, a complaint, or a diagnosis, it suggests you have them all figured out, that you know all about them, and are qualified to judge. It also suggests you have special knowledge of their identity, their value, and their potential.

My nephew is a police officer. I think he’s probably a good one. He has a big heart and has always been a helpful kind of guy. He was raised to be careful in the world, but to always look for the best in people. Not long after he graduated, and went to work as a constable, he told me something that stuck with him from his training.

When he interacts with someone on the job, he remembers two things. The first is that usually, when the police are called, the people involved are not having their best day. The second is he tries not to judge a person based on what’s happening for them right then. Can you really understand who a person is based on their worst 15 minutes, or 15 seconds?

We are in the church season of Easter, so we are still hearing stories about resurrection. Today’s story is actually as much about Peter as it is about Jesus.

We may remember Peter from the Good Friday story. He was one of the inner circle with Jesus in the garden where he went to pray.  Judas led a group of Roman soldiers and Temple guards to the garden to arrest Jesus. Peter drew a sword, struck someone, and cut off their right ear. I have always wondered, since when did the disciples carry swords?

Jesus rebuked Peter and told him to sheath his sword.  Then Jesus was arrested and led away. At least one disciple followed Jesus, but Peter separated himself from that group. Three times in the next few paragraphs, Peter was recognized, and asked if he was with Jesus. Peter denied it.

Peter could not have known for sure, that Jesus’ arrest would lead to his death. He could not have known for sure that the last time he saw Jesus alive, he would be acting so poorly, wielding a sword to defend someone who did not want violence done in his name.

How would he have felt when he learned his friend and teacher Jesus was killed on the same day that Peter slipped away from his closest friends, and acted like he did not know him?

It seems to me that he would feel a mixture of guilt and shame, powered by overwhelming grief. How would he live with himself, with the memory of having turned away from what had been so important to him?

We know that Judas, the other disciple who turned away from Jesus that night was not able to go on, could not live with what he’d done, and how it turned out, and he completed suicide.

Peter did not lead the troops to Jesus, but in his own way, in his own heart, Peter betrayed his friend. How did he get past that? How did he make the transformation from the one who heard the cock crow, and realized what he’d done, to becoming a leader in the Jesus movement?

The next time he appears in John’s Gospel, Peter is back with the other disciples. He was there when the women who had been to the tomb ran to them, and reported the tomb was empty. Peter and another disciple then ran to the tomb, to see for themselves.

Peter was also part of the group who went fishing and had the final encounter with the Risen Christ recorded in John’s Gospel.

The writer of John’s Gospel does not tell us how Peter changed from being someone who left the group, and repeatedly denied knowing Jesus, to someone who was back in the inner circle. That seems a huge leap. A major change of heart. Something must have happened.

I have an idea about this. You may have heard me say the four Gospels in the New Testament were each written long after the events described, perhaps as much as 75-100 years after. The writers worked from stories passed down in the local communities of Jesus’ followers.

The only way that I can think that John’s Gospel could include the story of Peter denying Jesus three times, then hearing the cock crow, would be if Peter himself had told the story.

My imagination goes to a scene in which a tearful Peter returns to his friends and tells them whatg he did the night Jesus was arrested.  His regrettable choice to draw a sword, and cut off someone’s ear. His skulking off into the darkness as Jesus was taken away. His being recognized as one of the Galileans who were close to Jesus, and his choice to deny it. His denying it two more times before the night was over. The sound of the cock crowing, that pierced his heart.

So how would the other disciples respond to Peter’s confession? Would it stretch their compassion? How would you and I react?

What do we do, when someone we love tells us about a time when they went off the rails, and maybe forget who they are for a while? Do we judge the whole person based on the worst 15 minutes of their life? Do we find a way to invite the person back into community, back into family, and help them find their way back to themselves?

I think that is the real work of reconciliation, helping a person finding their way back to a loving relationship with themselves, with others, and with God.

Would it be easy for the disciples, still shaken from having seen Jesus die, to welcome Peter bac?  He had turned away from Jesus, and from them, at the worst possible time. Peter broke faith, not just with Jesus, but with the other disciples.

What do we think Jesus would do? Would Jesus believe that Peter had the capacity to change, to get back on track?  The other disciples must have thought so because Peter was back into the fold, and he went with the disciples on their fishing excursion. To me, that is a sign of the difference between forgiveness in theory, and grace lived out in community. Peter was welcomed back.

This is a resurrection story, a story about the possibility of new life. It strikes me the new life was as much for Peter, as it was for Jesus. Peter was given a chance to start again. After cooking a meal for all the disciples, Jesus had a private moment with Peter. Again, I think the only way this could be part of the Gospel record, was for Peter to tell his story to the rest of the community. 

In the conversation with Jesus, Peter has the opportunity to say yes three times. It parallels the Good Friday story, in which he says no three times, when he’s asked if he’s part of the Jesus group.

When they had eaten their meal, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon ben-John, do you love me more than these?”

Peter said, “Yes, Rabbi, you know that I’m your friend.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

A second time Jesus put the question, “Simon ben-John, do you love me?”

Peter said, “Yes, Rabbi, you know that I’m your friend.”

Jesus replied, “Tend my sheep.”

A third time Jesus asked him, “Simon ben-John, do you love me as a friend would?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” a third time. So he said, “You know everything, Rabbi. You know that I am your friend.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

In the Gospels, maybe especially in John’s Gospel, a shared meal is always a symbolic event. Jesus fed people in more than one way. The sharing of food is about meeting a basic human need. Jesus would eat with anyone, even those rejected by the world, and by religious authorities. The meal represents unconditional acceptance, grace, forgiveness, a chance to get back on track, the possibility of new life.

It’s significant that Jesus’ questions for Peter are all about love, the answer Peter gives is always, “Yes, Jesus I love you,” and Jesus always responds, then get out there and live it. Feed the lambs, tend the sheep, feed the sheep.

The new life offered to Peter was one in which he got back out into the world, and fed the souls of others, showed them God’s love, and invited them to the table. The best response to being offered another chance, a fresh start, is to spread the word that this is how it works, for all of us. Amen

Learning time for Easter Sunday, 2022

Audio File for the Learning Time. The video of the whole service, including the baptism, will be posted here as it becomes available.

video of worship service

Matthew 28:1-10

After the Sabbath, as the first light of the new week dawned, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to keep vigil at the tomb. Suddenly the earth reeled and rocked under their feet as God’s angel came down from heaven, came right up to where they were standing. He rolled back the stone and then sat on it. Shafts of lightning blazed from him. His garments shimmered snow-white. The guards at the tomb were scared to death. They were so frightened, they couldn’t move.

The angel spoke to the women: “There is nothing to fear here. I know you’re looking for Jesus, the One they nailed to the cross. He is not here. He was raised, just as he said. Come and look at the place where he was placed.

“Now, get on your way quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He is risen from the dead. He is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ That’s the message.”

 The women, deep in wonder and full of joy, lost no time in leaving the tomb. They ran to tell the disciples. Then Jesus met them, stopping them in their tracks. “Good morning!” he said. They fell to their knees, embraced his feet, and worshiped him. Jesus said, “You’re holding on to me for dear life! Don’t be frightened like that. Go tell my brothers that they are to go to Galilee, and that I’ll meet them there.”

Learning Time: “In the light of day”

Isla is a beautiful, and beloved embodiment of new life, which is what we celebrate here today, on Easter morning. It is good we have blessed her and baptized her and welcomed her into this community of faith. It is good we have promised to continue to be a community of faith, and to offer her mom and dad, and her family our prayerful support.

Emily and Josh have so much ahead of them, and my sense is that they are both wise enough to know that they do not undertake this great loving work, the raising of a child, on their own. They need help, and they have it.

They have promised to raise their daughter in a faithful way, and we have promised to help them as we can.

I am speaking now especially to the members and leaders of this church. We cannot take lightly our promise to be there for this young family. They need us to be here, doing what we do, ready to help them as they do what they need to do.

Our world needs faith communities. Our world needs us to keep the faith alive.

Isla, thank God, doesn’t yet know yet, what we know, that life can be hard. She doesn’t yet know about mean people, or pandemics, or the invasion of Ukraine. She doesn’t yet know how complicated life is, or how it feels to face all the mysteries, all the challenges, all the scary parts.

Isla has good people in her life, to shelter and love her, and insulate her from the perils.

There are children born into this world, who do not have what Isla has. There are children who learn, at far too early an age, to be afraid, and to expect mostly terrible things from life.  There are little ones who do not have reliable, faithful, big people in their lives.

There are children born in situations, and places, where it is hard to have faith that life can be good, and that love is real. It is truly a miracle that children born into these situations survive to grow up. It can be so hard for them to develop faith and trust in life, because of what they have seen, and experienced, and been taught.

For many of these kids, born into difficulty, it may not be until they leave the place of hardship and find a safe and reliable community, that they will learn to trust that life is not all bad.

Isla has so much ahead of her. I hope and pray she falls in love with life, and has many good people in her life, and excessive amounts of joy. I pray this, and I also know that it won’t all be like that. I hope for Isla, as I hope for my own kids, now grown and busy in the world, that life is mostly about joy and happiness, and love.

As Isla connects with people, grows to know and love them, she will experience the hard parts of life. Things will not always go well. People will let her down. People she trusts and adores will die.

Isla will, one day, reach the stage of life at which it registers with her that nothing, not even the best things of this world last forever. She will have to find her way to come to terms with life in all its dimensions, including death.

As a parent, I have felt such a deep desire to shield my kids from having to know about the hard stuff. I have also felt the desire to equip them to navigate the mysteries of life and death.

I have wanted my children to have faith, and I have also recognized there is only so much a parent can do to nurture their kids faith. Kids also have to see it in other people.

The parents in this room know kids get the good lessons in life not only from us, but from other reliable folks.

We’ve heard the phrase “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child”. It’s an Igbo and Yoruba proverb that speaks to the value, the necessity, and the responsibility of community.

I am grateful my daughter and son grew up with access to a community of faith, and have each developed a spiritually based view of life, that serves them in times of joy, and in times of sadness.

This morning we heard Matthew’s version of the story of the first Easter. Another day I will talk about how each Gospel writer puts their own spin on the tale.

Two women, both named Mary went to the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed. They left their dwellings before the sun was up, to keep vigil.

One of these women was Mary Magdalene. The other Mary might be Martha and Lazarus’ sister, the one who anointed Jesus’ feet with precious perfume, after washing his feet with her tears, and drying them with her hair. That tells you about the intimacy, the closeness they felt to Jesus.

These women are often described as having come from the wrong side of town. They were not respectable women. In Jesus’ time, respectable women stayed home and took care of things for their husband, or father, or their brother. They didn’t venture out in the dark, on their own.

Mary and Mary were part of Jesus’ inner circle. They were probably disciples, although the men who wrote down the stories hesitated to spell that out.

We can only imagine the hardships, indignities, discrimination and abuse these women suffered, that made it hard for them to love life. But they met Jesus, and had, when they were with him, experiences of love, of being valued, respected, known.

They found, when they were with Jesus, hearing his words, seeing him in action, just sitting in his presence, that they were part of something bigger. They were aware of the presence, and the source of all the goodness and love in the universe. They felt close to and connected to God.

How devastating it must have been for them to see him die. They were losing, not only such an amazing friend, but their connection to all that is holy and good.

The story says that as the first light of the new week dawned, the Marys kept vigil at the tomb.

“Suddenly the earth reeled and rocked under their feet as God’s angel came down from heaven, came right up to where they were standing. He rolled back the stone and then sat on it. Shafts of lightning blazed from him. His garments shimmered snow-white. The guards at the tomb were scared to death. They were so frightened, they couldn’t move.

The angel spoke to the women: “There is nothing to fear here. I know you’re looking for Jesus, the One they nailed to the cross. He is not here. He was raised, just as he said. Come and look at the place where he was placed.

“Now, get on your way quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He is risen from the dead. He is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ That’s the message.”

 The women, deep in wonder and full of joy, lost no time in leaving the tomb. They ran to tell the disciples. Then Jesus met them, stopping them in their tracks. “Good morning!” he said. They fell to their knees, embraced his feet, and worshiped him. Jesus said, “You’re holding on to me for dear life! Don’t be frightened like that. Go tell my brothers that they are to go to Galilee, and that I’ll meet them there.”

It’s like a scene from a movie, with all the special effects of an earthquake, blazing lightning, and first an angel, then Jesus himself appearing to the women. Matthew is the only gospel writer who gives us all these spectacular details, and his story was written at least a couple of generations, perhaps as late as 75-100 years after the first Easter. It’s hard to know what he may have heard, and what he added for effect.

We know that Matthew wasn’t there. I think he used words and images to try to describe the indescribable. In defiance of cruelty, and violence, and death, and despite the fact that they had been at the cross, and watched Jesus die, these two Marys had an experience that morning, that re-connected them with all the love, and hope, and possibility they had known with Jesus. They were connected to God, and it renewed their courage and strength.

It wasn’t long before Mary and Mary, and the other followers of Jesus were back out in the world, doing what Jesus had done for them. They taught others about God’s love, showed respect and care for suffering people, and they founded and supported communities in which love was lived out, and the connection to God was felt. They went out and kept the faith alive, as we must. Amen

If Only- Learning Time for Sunday, April 3, 2022 at Harrow United Church

“If only”

Audio recording of the Learning Time
Video of the Worship Service for April 3, 2022

The video of this worship service will be added to this post when available.

Two of the saddest words in the English language are “if only”. 

In our daily existence with family and friends, and Facebook, we encounter these words all too often. There are so many stories of regret.

If only we’d known Covid was coming. Maybe we wouldn’t have placed Mom in the nursing home, where she was locked down, and we couldn’t get in to see her.

If only we’d known what was really going on with our niece. We would have tried harder, offered her parents more support. 

If only we’d noticed sooner what was happening with our dog. We might have got him into the vet earlier, and maybe they would have caught it.

If only the guy had known when he was or 35, or 40 what he knows now about work/life balance. There were all those moments he missed with the kids. He looks at the photos now, most of which he’s not in, and for what? To help build the company’s bottom line?

“If only” are the first words in many sad stories, many laments. If only we’d known, done, listened, paid closer attention. We could’ve, should’ve done something different.

We are at the tail end of Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday. The Jesus story as we re-tell it is leading us closer and closer to Jerusalem, and what looks to us like the inevitable clash with both the religious authorities, and the Roman rulers. Rome ran Israel as a colony, bleeding it of all the resources, staple foods, and tax revenue it could get.

The Romans, who’d become experts at exploiting colonies, (because that’s exactly what every Empire has ever done, with every colony ever claimed) appointed their own puppet king, who in turn kept the leaders of the Temple in line. Temple leaders were allowed to run their little local religion so long as they discouraged the rabble from challenging the Roman rulers.

Jesus had become a popular teacher and preacher, and drew large crowds from amongst the poor, the slaves, and even some of the well-off locals who collaborated with Rome. His teaching challenged the hard-line legalism of the temple, and encouraged people at the bottom of the economic and social ladders to dare to think more of themselves than the way their culture and religion defined them.

Of course, Jesus was headed on a collision course with trouble. We can see it, partly because the church has had 2000 years to interpret the Gospel stories and read the clues. But did the people in Jesus’ inner circle see it as clearly as we can?

The old saying is hindsight is 20/20. Things are often easier to understand, after the fact.

The four gospels as we have them were all written long after the events they describe. They were edited and arranged by people who’d heard Jesus stories in their communities. They recorded them to make sure they were passed along, but many who would read what was eventually written already knew the broad strokes. They would have heard local versions of the story in the meetings of Jesus followers in their hometowns.

Scholars of the Bible talk about the “oral tradition”. Stories passed along from teller to hearer, in cultures in which the ability to read and write, and the materials needed would be rare. The individual gospels, letters, and other literature of the church did not circulate in written form until at least 75-100 years after the events they describe. That couldn’t happen until enough people with wealth and education became part of the early Jesus movement.

Until then, stories were kept in local communities, and treasured. Most people in that time, unless they were working for the Empire, or traveling to trade commodities or goods, didn’t venture very far at all from where they were born. Stories well known in one place might sound different 3 villages over.

It’s not surprising that the four gospels tell different versions of the Jesus story. The one we heard today from John’s Gospel, about Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing Jesus, is told differently in the other Gospels.

In Mark, and in Matthew, the story has a different cast of characters. It happens not at the home of Lazarus, but that of someone called Simon the Leper. The woman who anoints Jesus does not get a name- but since it’s not at Lazarus’ s house, it’s not likely to be his sister Mary. Mark and Matthew agree with John’s version that this event happened only a few miles outside of Jerusalem, and just days before Passover.

Luke’s Gospel takes the same story but moves it to a much earlier time in Jesus’ ministry, well before his final entry into Jerusalem. It happened at the home of a Pharisee, one of the religious leaders with whom Jesus would later clash. This Pharisee has the same name as Simon the Leper- but there’s no way someone with leprosy could be a Pharisee. Lepers were, according to the laws the Pharisees taught, considered unclean. 

In Luke’s version the woman who did the anointing and foot-washing still doesn’t have a name, but we learn that because of her actions, her many sins have been forgiven. This detail about “many sins” has often led people to speculate she was a prostitute.

In that culture any woman not attached to a man was suspect and seen as a dangerous temptation. If she had the money to buy the expensive perfume to anoint Jesus, people would wonder where she got it. Women couldn’t hold jobs, own property, or do any kind of legitimate business without the protection of a husband or male relative. In law they were not actually people, but property.

Luke saved the characters of Mary and Martha for a story a couple of chapters later. In Luke’s version there is no mention of a brother named Lazarus- that’s only in John’s Gospel. Luke describes Martha complaining that she’s done all the work to host Jesus, while her sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching.

In each of these stories, the woman at Jesus’ feet gets in trouble, and in each case Jesus defends them. This is very interesting, provocative even, because the act of a woman sitting at the feet of a man is more than a little scandalous. It is suggestive of something more than listening to a story. It is often a euphemism for intimacy. 

In the Book of Ruth, in the Old Testament, Ruth is a widow, who was counseled by her mother-in-law, her dead husband’s mother, to seek the attention and protection of a distant male relative. During the celebration of a successful harvest, Ruth ends up spending the night “at the feet” of this man, called Boaz, who later takes her as his wife. 

The story in John’s Gospel hints at the discomfort of the male disciples around the incredibly intimate act that appears in these stories, of a woman bathing a man’s feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and then anointing his feet with perfumed oil. 

Judas condemned Mary’s actions as inappropriate. The reason he gave had to do with the cost of the perfume, which could have gone to help the poor. 

The writer of John’s Gospel steps in here with the editorial comment that Judas was lying, and actually wanted the money for himself. That takes the listener, the reader off in the direction of thinking about Judas the villain. It also distracts from the beauty and the emotional power of the moment.

Mary was in tears, lavishing her attention and an expensive gift on Jesus. We can look back now and see how the anointing is a bit like the preparation done in those days before a dead body was buried. It was washed, and anointed with expensive, aromatic oils, if the family had the means.

Maybe it was easier for the male followers of Jesus to focus on Judas as the bad guy in the story, than to think about how they might all may have acted differently, had they realized how close they all were, to the end of Jesus’ earthly life.

They couldn’t know what we know, reading the story told later, that in less than a week, Jesus would ride into Jerusalem on the donkey, and end up arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to a painful death.

If only these guys had just let Mary do her thing, and not let Judas put her down for showing her love for Jesus.

Judas acted poorly, but Jesus was the only one who called him on it. The rest of just let it happen. 

Since the Oscars, the internet has been full of speculation and judgment about Will Smith running up on stage, and attacking the comedian Chris Rock, because he didn’t appreciate a joke he told. There has been lots of talk about whether Will Smith was justified, or whether he should have let it go. No talk at all about the hundreds of people in the room who acted like nothing was going on, and watched, or took videos, or selfies, while one man beat up on another. 

If only someone had the good sense to intervene, or at least point out it’s not okay to hit someone because they told a bad joke. It’s much easier to pick out the villain in the story, and ignore the inaction, the complicity of everyone else in the room. Interesting that he wasn’t removed from the scene of his assault. Common sense would suggest he be escorted out of the building.

If only someone had stopped Will Smith. If only someone had told Judas to chill out, and let Mary do this very tender thing for her friend Jesus.

If only. There are different morals, or lessons we can draw from the story of Mary, and Jesus, and Judas. One for today is to not shy away from the things in our lives that are hard to deal with, hard to talk about, hard to admit, hard to forgive, hard to get over. If only Jesus’ other friends had been as honest and demonstrative of their feelings as Mary was. It may not have changed the outcome, but it would have mattered.

I think of stories I’ve heard over the years, of people who missed the chance, on the last time they saw someone before they died, to tell them they loved them. 

I mentioned earlier the people who realized only after the time had passed, the moments they’d missed with their kids as they grew up.

 I know of people who go on vacation to a really beautiful, distant locale, and spend their time in front of the tv in their hotel room, or in the bar, and don’t take the opportunity to see or experience anything different or new. You might wonder why they have traveled and realize that in their soul they haven’t. They’ve remained stuck somewhere else in time.

Instead of being where they are, they look back and miss where they were, or gaze ahead to some place they’d rather be. There’s no “here” for them, even when they could be right “here”.

Mary, who was looked down upon, and left undefended, unsupported by everyone in the room except Jesus, was being exactly where she was, and offering a gift of love, with the whole of her body, mind and soul. If only we can be more like her. Amen

Learning Time about the Prodigal Child. Harrow United Church, Mar 27, 2022

Audio file of learning time

The video of the worship service:

In Grade 13 we read Fifth Business. It was the first novel that got me thinking deeply about the meaning of life. I was so taken by it that I read the next two in the Deptford Trilogy and went on to devour every novel Robertson Davies wrote.

I re-read the Deptford Trilogy at least once a decade. I am due to dive into them again soon. Probably this summer. I get more and different things from the books as I travel through the seasons of life. It might also be that way with today’s parable. Hopefully, we learn as we go along in life.

Let’s start with the word Prodigal. This story’s given that word a bad name. Prodigal has come to be understood to refer to a problem child, a wastrel. But the word comes from same root as “prodigy”. A child prodigy is one with an extraordinary talent or ability. It may cause them problems in life, but a prodigy is someone given a great gift.

Maybe the youngest son’s gift was absolute candor, even to the point of being offensive. No filters. He petitioned his father to grant his inheritance ahead of schedule.

“Hey Dad, we both know I’ll get my share when you die. Can we skip ahead to the part when you’re already dead, so I get my percentage now?”

Maybe this seemed reasonable to the young man. But it wasn’t as simple as writing a cheque or handing over a few bags of coins. The bulk of the farmer’s wealth is often tied up in assets- land, stock, machinery. In the Ancient World, these holdings would include slaves.

The story as we heard it sanitized the word slave, and spoke instead of servants, but the labour force included captured foreigners, and locals who’d been sold into slavery to work off their debts.

To grant his son’s request, the father would likely have to liquidate some holdings. Sell land, and chattels, meaning livestock, and slaves. Some of the slaves might be moved, separated from their friends or family.

We can imagine the havoc that would cause, the time it would take, and the talk it would inspire among the neighbours. What’s he up to? Why is he selling out? What does he know that we don’t? Is there another drought coming? He’s selling to give his youngest their inheritance? Hunh? What’s wrong with this guy?

The youngest son grew up in an agricultural community. If he didn’t understand the ruckus he’d cause, he’d see it unfold, at least until he hit the road to fun city.

The damage caused to the viability of the farm, and to his father’s reputation would likely outlast his youthful adventure.

On the other hand, having grown up in this environment where everything was everyone’s business, and he had no way to be known, or seen, except as the child of this farmer, or the younger brother- we can see why he might want out.

He’d always be the youngest. There was only one way to could climb the ladder. His older brother would be his father’s successor, unless he died. Then the younger one would be obligated to take care of his brother’s household, and take his wife, or wives as his own. He’d have all the property then, but also all of his brother’s responsibilities added to his own. How to be yourself when your destiny comes pre-packaged?

Do you remember Hermey the misfit elf in the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer cartoon? He’s supposed to go into Santa’s business, and make toys, but all he wants is to be a dentist.

Hermey and the prodigal are poster boys for the human ego. Especially when we’re adolescents, we are driven to individuate, to show we have identity, personality, not defined by the major forces in our lives. Many sort out who they are, partly by naming what they don’t want to be.

In the iconic scene with Marlon Brando in The Wild One, someone asks, “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” He says, “What’ve you got?”

The youngest child, not really a hero, but still a central figure in the drama, ventured out in an ill-conceived effort to discover himself, and got lost. He became caught up in things that drained his strength, diluted his spirit, dissipated his cash, and left him hungry and alone, and longing for home. We can recognize the desire for a safe resting place after suffering a hard time.

Is the oldest child the opposite of their younger sibling? The one who built a sense of themselves from everything the younger one rebelled against? Rules, structure, responsibility, order, common sense? Was he happy with this constructed personality, or did he secretly resent his younger brother’s carefree ways? Did he sympathize with his little brother, or did he use up all his compassion trying to cheer up his father, who gave the young one all he asked, and watched him walk away?

When the oldest son said, “Dad, you never gave me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends,” does it make you wonder how many friends he really had?

The oldest son might have been happy with his life, but he doesn’t come across that way. This could be an interesting comment Jesus was making about the rule-enforcers in his life- the Pharisees who followed him around with their letter of the law objections to his acts of mercy and kindness. He might have been saying, ‘Really, how’s this working out for you?”

In many sermons a lot is made of the father’s generous, gracious welcome of the wayward son- the one who was lost is found, the one who was dead is alive. Have you ever thought, “wait a minute! What kind of parent gives their kid everything they want, just because they asked?”

Is that an illustration of God giving us free will, including the freedom to make a shambles of our lives? Or is it just bad parenting? Or is it both? As my children grow up, I’ve recognize that if I want to keep the communications channels open, and I want them to know they always have a safe place to land, I had to get over thinking of myself as the smartest, wisest source of advice in the room. They will make choices that don’t make sense to me and they may even have good reasons.

Ultimately, saying welcome home has got to be better than I told you so.

The two brother and their father each have roles we recognize in this ancient and universal drama of wandering, getting lost, and finding the way home. But have we forgotten anyone?

The father has come to represent unconditional love, and forgiving grace, and the possibility of a fresh start, a do-over. Would this be a different story with Mom in the picture? Where is she?

It could be the mother was dead. It’s more likely that in this time, in this part of the world, the female characters were just not considered interesting or important. The story, even though we love it, is an artifact from a particular culture. A patriarchal and misogynist culture, in which women were considered lesser beings.

Cultures shift, and human societies can evolve, and we are learning to value all people. But the past leaves deep wounds, and is not, should not be easily dismissed, or forgotten.

This week I listened to news about the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to the Caribbean. Their Royal Tour is intended to commemorate the Queen’s 70th year as the Monarch.

In 1973, when the Queen and Prince Philip came to visit my home town, Thunder Bay, it was a huge deal. It seemed like everyone was glad to see them.

It caught my attention this week that in Jamaica, a lot of people questioned the expense of the royal tour, and don’t actually want the royals to come there unless they are bringing an apology for the family’s involvement in the long and bloody history of human trafficking, and for the fortunes that were built, including those of the royal family, on the backs of people exploited as slaves.

Did you know that when slavery was abolished in 1833, by an act of the British Parliament, reparations were paid to the slave-owners, who had to give up their valuable property? What about the ones who were treated as property?

The news from Jamaica got me wondering how the slaves in the story would have viewed the goings on of the wealthy family they served. The prodigal son asks for his share, and land and slaves are sold to pay him out. He then squanders it all, is welcomed home, and it’s the slaves who clean him up and put nice clothes on him. It’s the slaves who cater the welcome home party, and later, they’ll be the ones to clean up the mess. Will they get to sample any leftovers of the feast served to the guests?

The project of re-reading the story and asking how it might look from the perspective of those who were enslaved, is sometimes called de-colonizing. It’s complicated. Jesus was a Jew, who lived in country that had been conquered, and claimed as a Roman colony. The Jews did not ask the Romans to occupy their land, any more than First Nations people expected Europeans to take over this entire continent. Jesus was likely a poor peasant, speaking mainly to peasants, and to slaves.

You and I have been taught to read his stories, actually the whole Bible, with the mindset of people with far more privilege than they could ever imagine. We have a lot to learn. Amen

What does your God look like? Learning Time for Harrow United Church on March 20, 2022

Audio recording of the learning time

What does God look like? There’s an old story about the little one who decides to draw the picture, and someone says, but nobody knows what God looks like… and the kid says, they will when I’m done!

It’s an interesting exercise. What would you draw?

We might be better off with the kid’s drawing, or one of yours, than we are with some ideas about God that float around.

In 2010 an earthquake devastated Haiti. At least 100,000 people died, and the country, one of the poorest in our hemisphere, is still in recovery. John Blair could probably tell us more about that, as he was there helping out just weeks after the earthquake, and many families connected to the school he supports lost their homes.

Within days of the disaster the tv evangelist and Southern Baptist preacher Pat Robertson used the platform of his tv show, and his tv network to proclaim the earthquake was God’s punishment on that country. He said that in 1804, people of Haiti made a pact with the devil so they’d be able to defeat the French colonizers who held them in slavery.

I don’t have time to delve into how toxic it is for an old white guy to claim God punished a whole nation because their black ancestors fought to be free from slavery.

This image of God as a harsh judge that lies in wait, scheming ways to punish people is not new. It’s the same image that led people in Jesus’ time to ask him about the people from Galilee who were killed by Pontius Pilate while presenting their offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem. Were their deaths at the hands of Roman soldiers punishment from God, because they were sinners?

There may be some racism, or at least elitism in this question. Jesus was himself a Galilean, and he would have experienced being looked down upon as a backward, country bumpkin because he did not grow up in a larger centre.

It’s also possible that the Galileans died because they were part of the peasant resistance to Roman rule. To say that God allowed their deaths because they were sinners would suggest that to speak out against oppression is a sin, and they deserved what they got.

Either way, Jesus wasn’t having it. He answered by saying no, and that those who asked the question needed to repent, unless they wanted to face judgment. He spoke their own language back to them. I think it must have been as wearying then, as it can be now, to try to be loving and kind with folks infected with such unhelpful ideas.

I read something this week by the modern-day mystic Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who has made it his life’s work to help people re-connect with God. He wrote:

“We have to break through our ideas about God to find out who God really is. Our early and spontaneous images of God are typically a mixture of our experiences with our own mothers and fathers. If our mother was harshly critical, so is our God. If our father was domineering or authoritative, likewise our God. It’s almost tragic to witness how many people are afraid of God, experience God as cold and absent, and even have a sense of God as someone who might hurt and betray them.”

We can extend what Rohr says about parental figures to all the other authority and power figures in our lives, because that’s what humans do, as we try to imagine God, we work from our life experiences, and in our imaginations we assign to God the qualities of those who have been strong influences in our lives.

Many of us humans are stuck in the pattern of anthropomorphizing God- creating or accepting an image of God that looks kind of human, but not always in a good way.

I see Jesus as a mystic, who felt a close, personal link with God as the source of all the love, all the deep connection in the universe. A major part of his mission was to communicate, in his words and actions, his experience of God’s love, that was so uplifting, encouraging, comforting, strengthening, that he was able to carry on, even when faced, day after day, with a religious tradition that taught people to live in fear.  Keeping people cowed by fear often suits the aims and goals of kings, and other power figures.

I believe Jesus was so steeped in, shaped in, empowered by love for all people, that rather than argue with these poor people with their scary picture of God, he worked instead to show them something different. He used things familiar to them, to tell a story with a twist to it, that opened the possibility of seeing God in a new light.

That’s what the parables of Jesus do. They are a bit subversive, sliding under the preconceived notions people had, enough to make them question, wonder, look at things in a new way.

Jesus told them a story about a man who owned a vineyard, in which there was a fig tree that did not produce fruit. These characters and props were typical parts of prophetic preaching that called people, and the nation of Israel to account for what the prophets called faithlessness.

Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist was that kind of fiery preacher. In one of his tirades, found in Matthew’s Gospel, John said, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

When Jesus started his story, about a tree that did not produce fruit, the crowd might have thought they knew where it was headed. They grew up on a steady diet of “Be faithful or else.” But I think he surprised them.

The vineyard owner said to his gardener, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

For the people in the crowd, this may sound like every king, every boss, every landowner, every judge they’ve ever encountered. Life is hard. It’s dog eat dog. The strong survive. Produce or be cut down. If you don’t do well in this world, it’s because there’s something unfixably wrong with you. You were born the wrong race. If only you weren’t a Galilean. Maybe if you were a Roman, you’d be big and strong.

The crowd may have been very surprised to hear what the gardener, the one who’s been literally hands on with all the trees in this vineyard, said.

“Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Someone in the bible study group this week wondered why the gardener hadn’t given the fig tree that kind of TLC up until then. I didn’t have a good answer then, except to say it’s a parable, and we can only stretch it so far.

But I’ve been thinking about it, and maybe the gardener looked upon the tree with compassion. Maybe he could relate to not doing as well as expected and being under pressure to produce. Perhaps he saw a living thing that deserved some care and attention, and a second chance.

The twist here is that the gardener, who might actually have less work to do with one less tree to care for, advocates for saving it.

I think Jesus subtly used his story to ask his audience, “What if the way we are meant to live is about second chances, and helping those who need help, offering care and feeding of souls, rather than condemnation? Wouldn’t that be good? Wouldn’t it be better to love, than to live in fear? What if that’s actually what God wants for us?”

What if what Jesus was doing was pointing not to another image of God as a static image that looked something like a person, but showing us that God is actually the power of love, the energy of compassion, the possibility of connection at work in the universe? Amen

The Mother Hen Heartbeat: Learning Time at Harrow United Church for March 13, 2022 (Lent 2)

Audio File of Learning Time

This past summer, to prepare for our first actual vacation since the pandemic, which had us driving up to Thunder Bay and back, my wife and I bought a “new to us” vehicle. It’s a few years old, but still new enough to have features we’ve never had before- like the proximity sensor that warns us when we are reversing and maybe getting too close to something.

I know the vehicle has this feature, but it still surprises me when the system beeps at me.

Vehicles better equipped than ours can warn you if you veer out of your lane. That could be a very useful thing for a preacher- to know when I’m maybe heading off road into rough territory. That may happen today. If it does, I am sure that someone will let me know, later.

Jesus thought he was right on course, preaching God’s love and helping people, and making his way towards Jerusalem when he was warned by some Pharisees, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

It could be that the Pharisees were warning him to stay in his lane- and not drive head on into trouble. But why would they do that?

In most Gospel stories the Pharisees are not cast in a good light.  They are portrayed as the self-righteous, arrogant, law abiding sticklers who got their tunics in knots because Jesus didn’t following the letter of the religious laws.  It often seems like they are the villains in the story. 

What do we make of them warning Jesus about an even bigger villain, Herod?  I can think of two ways we might explain why the Pharisees would sound the alarm,and try to steer Jesus in a new direction.  

One explanation is they were honestly concerned about Jesus and wanted to help him.  Maybe these Pharisees were not like the others, which is a good reminder for us these days, that we cannot paint everyone with the same brush. Not all truckers, politicians, Russians, Ukrainians, you fill in the blank, are all the same. 

Another possibility is that Herod sent the Pharisees to Jesus on a secret, devious mission.  Maybe Herod didn’t want to show weakness, to give any sign he was worried about the teachings of a lowly, itinerant peasant preacher. He might have thought if he could just scare him off in a quiet way, there would be no public indication he felt his authority had been challenged. 

This might seem a little out there until we remember that in Matthew’s gospel it was Herod who tried to co-opt the Magi into his schemes. He sent the Magi on their way saying, “go and find him so that I may worship him”.

Not trusting Herod, and being warned in a dream, the Magi went home another route.

Herod had a track record of being wily.

When the Pharisees warned, “Stop, go a different way” Jesus didn’t put on the brakes, or turn from the road he was traveling, that led to Jerusalem. 

Jesus responded with a message for Herod.  He said, “Go and tell that fox for me ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” 

It is at places in the text like this that I see the craft of an excellent writer. The phrase “today, and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work” is a powerful and poetic allusion to Good Friday, the day and night in the tomb, and then Easter morning. It is a foreshadowing of a story familiar to us, because we know what lies ahead in Jerusalem. That’s where we are headed through the lenten season.

I see that same poetic genius at work in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees who offer the warning. We hear him say, “Tell that fox that I’ve no time for him right now”.

It’s clearly not a compliment. I wonder if the Pharisees delivered the message as Jesus asked. It would not have made Herod happy.

In ancient writings the fox symbolized sneakiness, cunning, and slyness.  In contrast, the lion symbolized power, authority and regal stature. They were both predators.

Jesus sounds pretty snarky. Does his name calling surprise you? Do you like that he is not simply the meek and mild, get along with everyone guy he is so often portrayed as being? I think there are times when getting along with everyone can get in the way of telling the truth. Nice is not always good.

It’s helpful to imagine Jesus as more complex, with a full range of emotion. We can see him as more like us, and like us, living in a complicated world.

At this point, the tone shifts, and Jesus’ frustration with Herod gives way to his care for the people of Jerusalem.  This part of Luke’s story is a lament, a passionate expression of grief.

As people who have lived through a pandemic and are now seeing countries at war, we know a thing or two about lament.  We have grieved for the ways in which life changed and for opportunities that were lost. Our hearts sink when we hear of hospitals being bombed and thousands of people becoming refugees. 

Jesus was in grief over what was being done to his people. They were subjugated by the Roman Empire, who controlled Herod, their local puppet king, who in turn kept the religious leaders on a leash. Jesus looked at Jerusalem, the political capitol and religious centre of his country, and saw corruption, indifference to the needs of the poor, and religion that went through the motions, but shied away from true faithful living. No one wanted to rock Herod’s boat.

We can imagine Jesus shaking his head as he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”  We do not know what prophets Jesus was speaking of, although I wonder if he was thinking about John the Baptist who was beheaded by Herod, because John had pointed out Herod’s violation of religious laws, and his abuse of power.

Jesus’ lament continues, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  This is a beautiful metaphor for God’s love,, and one of only a few feminine images we can find in the Bible, which was written and edited by men. 

A mother hen will go out of her way to protect her chicks.  And if a fox gets in the hen house, the fox will have to deal with mother hen. 

Jesus knew Herod held the power in Jerusalem. He knew most in Jerusalem would play it safe and side with Herod.  But Jesus did not turn his anger or bitter disappointment on the people. 

He expressed compassion and care for them. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

It’s a wonderful image of community- all the little chicks together, and safe.

If Jesus were to look closely at the communities where we live, would he see us as happily gathered together, helping each other, sharing warmth and shelter?

Would Jesus look upon us and see some good things, but also see things to grieve?

It is of course a rhetorical question, because we are human, and we are works in progress. We can always improve. We can always learn, and find ways to do better.

One of the ways we have come a long way as a church, as a community of faith, is in our increasing openness in the ways we think about God. 

Mother Hen with her chicks is a decidedly feminine image for God, and it is not as shocking or surprising to hear it mentioned in church as it would have been when I was growing up. I know that makes me sound like an old codger. Back in my day…

In the church where I was baptized, and went to Sunday School, and later on became a Sunday School teacher, the images and language for God were always male. always authoritarian, and never to be questioned. I don’t blame those folks. But I do think they missed out. There were limits placed on the ways they were taught to think about God, about Jesus, about life, about everything. They didn’t know what they were missing, and what new possibilities can open up in life, when we open our hearts, and our minds.

If we are on a journey towards acceptance of a wider range of language and ideas about God, we may also be on a journey towards more openness about what it means to be human.

I don’t know how it is in your family, but when I talk to my kids, who are now 19 and 22, I marvel that in their world, in their lives, acceptance of, and friendship with people who have different gender and sexual identities is taken for granted.

They know that in many places, and in many churches, people who do not identify as heterosexual are not safe or truly welcome in their communities. Many people have been taught, keep it to yourself, don’t flaunt it. Don’t rub our noses in it. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t upset people.

Many younger people in my life find discrimination on the basis of where a person is on the continuum, the rainbow of identity, to be sad and confusing, and cause for lament. Some of my friends who want nothing to do with church will put this pretty high on their list of reasons church is not for them.

Shouldn’t there be room for all of us chicks, under the brooding Mother Hen? Shouldn’t this be one of our core values as followers of Jesus- that no matter what pain the world causes you, what labels or discrimination you have had to endure, there is room for you here?

My heart hurt this week as I followed the news about Florida, which is currently on the verge of passing two very disturbing pieces of legislation. One law would prevent discussion of gender and sexuality issues with younger students, and would bar schools from even considering creating or using curriculum that used the words “gay, or lesbian, or trans”.  As if these words in themselves are dangerous. 

Another bill about to be passed will make it illegal for teachers to even suggest that anyone experiences oppression, or privilege on the basis of race or sex. Wow. 

During Bible study this week, someone pointed out that one beautiful aspect of the Mother Hen image for God is that all the chicks are close enough to hear their mother’s heartbeat.

I want that for my kids, and for all their friends. I want that for all the children of God. I want to be able to say to people who feel lost, or sad, or lonely, or hurting, or tossed out of their families for saying certain words, or loving in a certain way, that even if the world is scary and cold, our church could be a place where you can feel warm, and hear God’s heartbeat. Amen