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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first mystery novel, The Book of Answers, made the short-list for The Unhanged Arthur Ellis, an award for unpublished crime fiction.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The winning manuscript in my category, the Unhanged Arthur Award for best unpublished crime novel, was The Scarlet Cross, by Liv McFarlane.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

Worship Video for May 16, 2021

“Grasping at Straws?” Learning Time for May 16, 2021

The CBC tv series “Pure” was a fictional drama centred on a religious community with a darker side, a criminal element involved in drug smuggling and other dangerous activities. It was loosely based on things that actually happened, but I don’t know how close they stuck to the truth. I didn’t watch the whole series, but I was fascinated by the opening scene of the first episode, which we just watched.  It showed a congregation using a form of drawing lots to choose their new pastor. An elder placed a special slip of paper in one of the hymnals, shuffled all the books, and each candidate chose one at random.

The congregation seemed to operate from the premise that God guides the process, and that the one who opens the book that holds the slip of paper, is the person God has already chosen to serve. It was pretty clear they could only imagine a man being picked to be their pastor. Clearly the congregation’s biases and traditions have already been applied in the pre-sort of eligible candidates.

I wonder how many congregations would be open to choosing their pastor this way.

The hymn book method was likely inspired by the story we heard read from Acts, with the drawing of straws.

Jesus’ inner circle decided they needed to choose someone to take the place of Judas Iscariot, their former treasurer. We remember Judas as the one who accepted a bribe of thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus to the chief priests. After Jesus was arrested and killed, Judas is said to have attempted to return the bribe, and then to have died, possibly by suicide.

That would be quite a legacy for anyone to follow. I can understand why the disciples might have preferred to leave it to God to choose the person who would take Judas’ place at the table.

The drawing of straws, or lots, to choose the successor raises some interesting questions about free will. So does the story of Judas.

There are some people who say that nothing happens by accident, that God is always active, pulling the strings on all of us puppets, and directing the course of history, and our individual lives. Some say that everything happens for a reason, as part of God’s plan.

I am frankly not sure that even the people who say this actually believe it. Some preachers would also say that Jesus had to die on the cross, that his crucifixion was part of the plan.

I am playing a bit of a devil’s advocate here- if the crucifixion was part of God’s pre-arranged plan, then Judas, who is called the Betrayer, is getting a bad rap. In this way of thinking, he had no choice, and was actually doing what God wanted. How could that be a bad thing? Why would he need to feel remorse, if he was simply following orders, reading his lines as the script laid them out?

I don’t actually believe God wanted Jesus to die that horrible, humiliating, painful death. But it happened anyway. All kinds of painful, terrible things happen, all the time. We are keenly aware of that these days.

Would we say that Covid-19 is part of God’s plan? I find that an even more horrible suggestion than the idea that it’s all a hoax. But it seems to be part of human nature, to gain some sense of control, or at least the illusion of control, and safety that comes, when we think we can say why the bad things happens, or we can find a conspiracy theory that fits the moment.

The early followers of Jesus wrestled with the sad and terrible fact that Jesus had been taken from them. For some, it seems, the only way they could reconcile that sad reality with their belief in the loving God Jesus had taught them about, was to say that what happened to Jesus, and to Judas, was fate, a fulfillment of God’s plan.

Do you know the term “magical thinking”? It’s often used to describe what happens in the mind of a child when something terrible happens, like a parent dying, or their parents separating and divorcing. Sometimes the child becomes convinced the terrible thing was their fault, that somehow something they did, or said, or thought had the power to cause terrible things to happen, because they, the child, did or said, or thought the wrong thing. Magical thinking is the idea that the outcome of specific events is determined by an unrelated action.

Maybe, maybe, once back somewhere in history, a child came home to find their mother had mysteriously broken their back, on the same day the child stepped on a crack. That doesn’t mean that one thing caused the other.

I think those kind of theories are our simplistic human attempts to grasp at straws, to make some strange sense of things that ultimately make no sense. There was no good reason for Jesus, or anybody to die the way they did, on a Roman cross. It served no purpose except to warn others of the cruelty of those who do such things, and to frighten them into submission.

Out of fear, or to protect our families from repercussions, we might bow to a human emperor who ran things that way, but can we actually imagine God as being that sadistic. Could we pray to, and place our trust in that kind of God?

I don’t think God makes bad things happen, for any reason. I don’t think God flooded the world in Noah’s time to wash away all the sinners, and I don’t think it was God’s plan that Judas betray Jesus, so he could be arrested, and killed. 

When I say this, that I don’t believe that God causes bad things to happen, to fix things, or as payment for debts owed, or to teach us a lesson- I mean that as good news. I think it’s important to to say a loving God would not mess with us that way.

But that still leaves the question: If God doesn’t cause these things to happen, why doesn’t God stop them? When we pray for a cure for someone we love who is sick, or for a whole world that is struggling with Covid-19, why doesn’t God snap her or his divine fingers, and make it all better?

The closest thing I have to an answer, after thinking about it for decades, is to observe that the universe, for the most part, does not seem to work that way.

It’s possible God can’t interfere, or intervene, or do the snapping fingers thing to undo human problems, because it would undermine human free will. I think that either we are puppets, and God pulls the strings, and everything is predetermined, or we aren’t puppets, and God has to let us sort a lot of things out ourselves.

I don’t think that means God doesn’t care what happens to us. It’s more like God sees all that happens, and wishes it was better- and often, wishes we would do better. God is there to cheer us on, give us strength, and courage, and inspiration, as we make choices, to make better what we can make better.

For me, the basic problem with saying that everything that happens is controlled by God, and part of the big plan, is that it would also mean I don’t really have choices, and that ultimately, I am not responsible for anything I do. That’s the Judas problem, as I see it.

I think a life without actual choices would be less meaningful. It would let us off the hook, in those moments when we need to rise to the occasion, and be smarter, braver, more honest, more faithful than we realized we could be.

I am thinking back to that opening scene in Pure. The congregation had pre-selected the candidates they already believed could serve as their pastor. These were people they knew, had watched grow up, and who had been nurtured in their community of faith. Each would bring their own set of strengths as well as their own compliment of weaknesses to the role. None would be perfect, but if they were faithful to their calling, would at least do the best they could, with God’s help.

Just like us. Amen

Worship Video for Mother’s Day Weekend May 9, 2021

Our worship video for this weekend contains a lot of “bonus” material- including Mother’s Day greetings from some of the folks I met with online this week.

Here is the script of the learning time:

That video gets a lot of views on Youtube. I’m sure some watch it ironically, and get a kick out of the late 70’s- early 80’s fashion. Some of us who actually dressed like that, back in the day, may not laugh so much. I can remember attending at least one wedding wearing an open-collared shirt and vest very much like the bass player. I probably didn’t leave quite as many buttons open as he did.

Sonseed was a pop group formed at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Brooklyn, New York. They were not being ironic. They were clearly having fun, but were also sincere about their message.

One of the backup vocalists was a monk, Brother John Weiners of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a religious order involved in mission work all over the world, often amongst the poorest of the poor.

The members of Sonseed sang to praise God, and encourage all who would listen, to think of Jesus as their friend. Their message was really not all that different from what we hear in the traditional hymn “What A Friend We Have in Jesus”.

Today’s Learning Time is part of an occasional series I am working on, to look at different ways people have thought about Jesus over the last two thousand years.  How do we answer the question Jesus reportedly asked his friends, “Who do you say I am?”

Some of us might answer by saying we like to think of Jesus as our friend. Friend is one of those words, like love, whose meaning may be watered down, by over-use.

My online friend, Dictionary.com offers four definitions. Imagine you’ve just tossed a stone in a pond, and you are watching the ripples circle out, getting further from where the stone went in.

The closest rippling circle is like the most intimate definition:

A friend is a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.

The next is a little further out from the centre, and slightly less personal:

A friend is a person who gives assistance; a patron; a supporter. The example given is “friends of the Boston Symphony”. In that case “friend” is a euphemism for those who make donations. I am a friend of a Jazz radio station in New Orleans, but they’d never help me move furniture, or come see me in the hospital.

The next ring out is even less intimate: “A friend is a person who is on good terms with another; a person who is not hostile.” Who goes there? Friend or foe? This is in the spirit of the old proverb that says the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

It has a distinct “them and us” flavour to it. It reinforces the idea the world is divided into those on my side, and those who are not.

The last definition from dictionary.com continues in that manner:

“A friend is a member of the same nation or political party.”

This last one manages at the same time to be both sectarian, and naïve. Anyone from my country, or political party is my friend. That still suggests that if you are not from my country, or share my politics, we can’t really be friends.

Jesus had a more profound meaning in mind, when he spoke to his inner circle about friendship.

“Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.”

The context for these words was the Last Supper. Jesus had already washed the feet of everyone there, and broke bread and poured wine for them. He told them they would need to wash each other’s feet, serve each other, and serve others. 

Friendship as Jesus presented it was not about being first in line, or knowing the secret handshake to a private club. He’d had that conversation with the disciples when they argued about who amongst them was the greatest, or who would sit on his left and right sides, when he took his throne in heaven. Jesus dismissed the expectations his friends had of gaining privilege, or status, or authority- he was simply not about that.

I have good friends who are Quakers, a Christian denomination also called the Society of Friends of Jesus Christ. The Quaker movement was born in the 1600’s in England, and it took seriously the notion that we are all, equally, friends of Jesus, and by extension, of each other. Quakers rejected the idea that any person needed an intermediary- a professional pray-er between them and God, because the Spirit is present with, and within each of us.

To the early Quakers, the awareness that we are all connected to God by the Holy Spirit, and we are actually carriers, or vessels of the Spirit, also meant that no person should be considered any more important than any other person. We are all equal before God, and therefore, no more or less deserving of respect than any other person.

Back in the 1600’s the acceptable way to address a person considered to be of higher station was the formal “you”. “Thee and thou” were considered more familiar.

This spring, the American scholar of religion, Diana Butler Bass published an inspiring book called “Freeing Jesus”, in which she seeks to do exactly that- extricate Jesus from the cultural baggage with which he has become weighed down. She wrote:

 “when a Quaker walked down a road in England, crossed paths with the local squire, and addressed his higher-ranking neighbor as “thou” instead of the more formal, expected “you,” it was akin to calling a member of the local nobility “mate” or “buddy,” a greeting to which the Quakers’ lordly superiors did not take kindly. Such practices of friendship—based on the belief that since we are friends of God, we are all friends of one another—were deemed radical, heretical, and a threat to the good order of society. Thus, the Quakers found themselves at odds with authorities, sentenced to prison, and exiled for the crime of being friends. As the movement spread, Friends advocated for all sorts of social justice causes, including abolition and women’s rights. It all seemed pretty obvious to them: friends do not let friends be held in slavery.” (Bass, Diana Butler. Freeing Jesus (p. 30). HarperOne. Kindle Edition)

It’s good, I think, to be reminded that our friendship with Jesus, while very personal, is in no way exclusive. We are not members of an elite, private club. We are friends of Jesus, who spent his time with the outcasts, those on the edge of polite society, or not even close to the edge. He ate and visited with people considered to be unclean, undesirable, unacceptable- and they loved him, and wanted to know more about the God he talked about, whose loving embrace was large enough to include everyone.

Who do you think of, when I mention are outcasts in our world today? Are some of them your neighbours, or family, or people you try to avoid? In those moments, do you ever wonder, what would Jesus do?

This weekend we celebrate Mother’s Day. As was said earlier in the service, Mother’s Day can evoke a mix of memories and emotions, depending on the nature, and health of our relationship with our mothers, and others who have been sources of nurturing love in our lives.

Jesus seems to have had a good relationship with his mother, and was inspired to compare his own love for the people of Jerusalem to that of a mother hen. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus laments the way Jerusalem treats those who would bring the Good News of God’s love, and says, “How often I’ve ached to embrace your children, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”

I love the image of Jesus loving with the tenderness of a mother, and leaving no one out of that warm embrace. We are all, everyone of us, his friends. Amen

The Whispers of Angels- Worship for May 2, 2021

Have you ever been surprised by the urge to do something out of the ordinary? Some might call it a whisper from God, or as in the story from Acts, like an angel is speaking to you. If you have had such a moment, did you follow the urge, and do the strange thing?

 I have a personal story about one of those angel whispers. It was more than thirty years ago.  I was a student minister, in rural Manitoba. It was 9 pm, on a cold January night. I was home alone in the manse, the minister’s house beside the church. I had been out for a supper visit. As a young, single minister in farm country, I rarely ate at home.

I got this odd urge to go out again into the cold dark night, without knowing where. I warmed up my little silver-grey Chevy Chevette, and headed out. The village I lived in was very small, more like a place where two country roads crossed near a grain elevator. There were maybe 60 houses, one church, and a post office. It was only a short drive up the main street before it met the provincial highway. By the time I reached the stop sign, I knew I should turn left. That took me south on highway 59, but I did not stay on the highway long. I turned right on the road towards the ski hill, which led up into rolling hills along the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border. You could stand on a marker at the top of of Thunder Hill and be in two provinces at once.

 The car seemed to know where I was supposed to go. I slowed and turned right, and up the long driveway to Eric’s house. He was a man in his forties who was very involved in the church. His lights were on, so I was hopeful it wasn’t too late to drop in. At harvest time a late night visit would have made more sense, because the odds would be good that Eric would have just been getting in from driving combine. But in the middle of the winter this was all very strange.

 Eric saw me coming up his drive, and light spilled out as he opened his mudroom door. The mudroom is the way you enter if you are not company. Company would use the front porch door. The mudroom is where you knock the mud or snow off your boots, remove your outer wear, and come in the back of the house to the kitchen.

 Eric welcomed me, and had me sit at the kitchen table while he put on the kettle for tea. Seriously, two guys sitting down in a farmhouse kitchen to chat over tea! He ran water into the kettle, but before he could plug it in, the phone on the kitchen wall rang. Eric said hello, and then just held the receiver against his head, and stood, mouth open.

I saw his face, and I knew why I was there, why I had left my house so late at night, in the January cold, to show up unannounced at Eric’s door. There had been a tragic, unexpected death in his family, just around the time I climbed into my car. His brother-in-law was making the calls to let all the family know.

I sat with Eric for a few minutes, and went with him to the next farm over, where his mom and dad had already had their phone call. Eric’s older sister had died. The family, from different parts of the province, would all be coming home.

It happens this way, sometimes. If we are open to being led by God’s spirit, then God’s spirit will lead us. I chose that dramatic example, because I will never forget that night. But little nudges, and good ideas, intuitions, and inspirations happen all the time. We notice a person who seems like they need a little attention. We get the urge to pick up a phone and check in with someone we have not talked with for a while. We do it and discover it was exactly the right time to call.

The subtle whispers of God may nudge us, ask us to go outside our comfort zone.  In the story from the Book of Acts, Philip responds to such a whisper, and sets out down a wilderness road. There was an Ethiopian eunuch on that road, a court official of Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. He was in charge of her entire treasury, and was travelling from Jerusalem back to Ethiopia, in his own chariot.

 Philip heard the Spirit whisper to him again, to go to the chariot. He ran over, and heard the court official reading from the prophet Isaiah, from a scroll of the Hebrew Scriptures.

 This is pretty interesting. Philip followed the Spirit’s urging to approach a total stranger, who turned out to be a foreigner. He was a non-Jew who had been to Jerusalem to worship, and who was apparently well enough educated, and wealthy enough, to have his own scripture scroll.

 The Acts of the Apostles is essentially volume two of the Gospel of Luke. It tells stories of the development of the early church. In the days following the first Easter the small group of Jesus followers, mostly Jewish converts living in or near Jerusalem expanded rapidly. Their movement spread into nearby communities. It also began to cross ethnic, and economic, and cultural lines, and cultural taboos.

In the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, we can see the early Jesus movement was radically inclusive, and incredibly welcoming. Philip heard the person in the chariot reading the Hebrew scriptures, and asked him if he understood what he was reading. The man in the chariot replied, “how can I unless someone guides me?” 

 Philip would have been taught from childhood to keep his distance from anyone outside of his class, and culture, and religion. Even so, he stepped across all those boundaries to share his faith.

 A eunuch was a man who’d been castrated as a boy. In some ancient cultures this was done to slaves before they reached puberty, with the belief it would make them docile, and trustworthy.  Eunuchs often served female royalty because they were not seen as a sexual threat to the women, or a threat to the men who considered the women to be their exclusive property- but that’s a road we aren’t going down today.

 The man in the chariot had climbed the ladder of respectability and trust, and had been placed in charge of the treasury of the Queen of Ethiopia. He would have a lot of power and influence back home. But to most people in Jerusalem he’d be seen as ritually unclean.

 Some foreigners were allowed to come to Jerusalem to worship, and even to enter the courtyard around the Jewish temple. The man in the chariot would not have been welcome, because he had been castrated. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, no man who had been mutilated in this way could worship in the assembly of God’s people. He was a permanent outcast, made irredeemable by the abuse that had been done to him, without his consent, when he was a child.

 When Philip joined the eunuch in his chariot, he’d been reading the part of Isaiah that said,

 “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

 I can imagine those words would have touched him deeply. He might identify with someone who had been unjustly treated, and humiliated.

 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

 Philip followed a whisper of God, and stepped out of his comfort zone. The result was a man who was once a stranger felt so touched by God’s love he decided to be baptized, and become a follower of Jesus. His life was forever changed. I think it would also have changed Philip, left him more open to what could happen, if he continued to listen to the Spirit’s whispers.

 This is a great story. It may inspire us, challenge us to be a little more like Philip, to listen for God’s promptings, step outside of our own comfort zones, and share God’s love in unexpected ways, in unexpected places. Amen

 Pastoral Prayers

Welcoming, Humbling, Loving, Nurturing, Challenging, Guiding, Overwhelming God;

 We know, somehow, that all you really want for us in this life is everything,

and that all you really want from us in this life is everything.

 You love us totally, and long for us to embrace a life that is about pouring out our lives,

to love and serve, to welcome, to nurture, to challenge and guide those around us,

So that they can do the same for others.

 Your love, and our very selves, come alive, as we pass it along.

But we resist. We hold back.

The smaller part of us, skilled as it is in self-preservation, puts the brakes on.

Wait a minute, the little voice says, what about me? What will happen if I don’t take care of me first, last, and always?

Help each of us to know the worst thing that can happen if we live totally, is that we will be totally alive.

 Give us the courage, the faith, the trust we need, to live a little more like Jesus.

 Help us to dare to ask you to lead us, even if that means taking us outside of our comfort zone. Help us to have the courage, and strength and grace we will need, to do what you may ask of us.

 We pray not only for ourselves, but for all others who need your guidance, your leading, your strength, your comfort, your hope.

 We pray for people we know, who are sick, or in recovery and for those who are caring for them.

 We pray for those who take risk on our behalf each day, working on the front lines of the pandemic. We pray for their well-being, their morale, and their safety.

 We pray for the decision makers, and those who create public policy, and those who have to enforce the laws, and the rules.

 We make all of our prayers as followers of Jesus. Amen

Worship Service for April 25, 2021 “No Doubt about Thomas”

Learning Time: “No doubt about Thomas”

A writer named Carolyn Gratton used a story from the Sufi spiritual tradition in her book, The Art of Spiritual Guidance. It’s about a wise fish.

It seems that there once were some fish who spent their days swimming around in search of water. Anxiously looking for their destination, they shared their worries and confusion with each other as they swam. One day they met a wise fish and asked him the question that had preoccupied them for so long: “Where is the sea?” The wise fish answered: “If you stop swimming so busily and struggling so anxiously, you would discover that you are already in the sea. You need look no further than where you already are.” (p. 5)

Carolyn used the story to talk about the presence of God, and the peace, and hope, and meaning, and sense of purpose and value that people experience, when they have the awareness that God is with them. This is not just an intellectual knowing that God is real, or a philosophical position, or even a statement of faith. It is not really a “head” thing at all. It is a deeper knowing. A knowing in our soul, that God is with us, nurturing, and loving, and helping us live, in the same way that water surrounds the fish, and offers them what they need to live and thrive.

One of the ways we can think about Jesus, is that in his teaching, in his listening to people, in the healing that he offered, Jesus was like the wise fish.  He helped the other fish know that they did not need to swim madly about looking for what they needed, for it was all around them, if they could learn to see it.

Jesus helped people know that God was all around them, and that helped them live with courage, and confidence. Some people were so inspired that they left behind their old lives to follow him, to swim where he swam.

We know the names of some of these daring fish, because they were the first disciples. One of them was Thomas. The Gospel story for today tells us that Thomas was not with the group when they had a shared experience of the Risen Christ. The others told him about this mysterious time when Jesus appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you”, and showed them his hands and his side.

Thomas was not there when the disciples heard Jesus say, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Thomas was not there when Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The next time Thomas was with the group, they told him about what they had seen and heard, but it was not enough. Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas’ friends had received the assurance that all that Jesus had started was not over. There was more work for them to do. They would be carrying on, helping others to know the reality, and the love of God.

But Thomas was not so sure. Because Thomas was so honest and forthright, he has gone down in Christian tradition as the doubter. He has been used as the “poster boy” in many “just have faith” campaigns, that suggest that doubt is a big problem.

I don’t think using the Thomas story this way is fair to him, or to anyone else who has questions, or doubts.  I think that Thomas’ hesitancy is normal, and that his doubts are healthy. As the writer Anne Lamott has said, “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. “

I am suspicious of people who never admit to having any doubts, especially about something as mysterious, and important as God. People who act as if they have it all figured out, often act without compassion, or understanding of the rest of us, who are still struggling along, doing the best we can. 

Jesus was not only the wise fish, who helped other fish slow down enough to know that the sea of God is all around us.  Jesus was also kind , and empathetic, and knew that confusion and doubt are part of what it means to live in this world.  

In a part of the Gospels we call the Beatitudes, or the blessings, Jesus spoke on a hillside to crowds of people who were desperate for encouragement, and said, 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, 

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “(Matthew 5:3-4)

In his wonderful paraphrase of the Bible called “The Message”, the writer Eugene Peterson has Jesus say it this way, in more down to earth language: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. “

That sounds like Thomas, who has lost his teacher and friend. I don’t think Jesus would condemn Thomas for having doubts and questions. 

This story in John’s Gospel, like all the other Jesus stories, was collected, and eventually written down, many years after Jesus’ earthly life. The stories were passed on by people who never actually met Jesus, for the benefit of people like us, who have also never met Jesus in the flesh. 

Let’s consider that for a moment. This is a story about Thomas, who expresses difficulty in believing in what he has not seen. Thomas’ story was written down by people who never actually saw Jesus in the flesh, for people like us, who also never saw the earthly Jesus. The writer, the early editors of the Gospels left us this story, not to make us feel worse, but to encourage us.

Maybe that can help us look a little deeper. 

“A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

That’s the line that hooks me, because it sounds so much like what Jesus said to the people on the hillside: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  “

Jesus understands how hard it is for us in this life. We are the poor in spirit. We have trouble trusting in God, and we have difficulty believing in things that we can’t see with our own eyes. We have doubts. We are all kind of like the fish swimming around frantically looking for the sea.

If we just skim the surface of the story, it is easy to focus on Thomas putting his finger in Jesus’ wounds. But what if this story is not just about Jesus’ wounds, but about the woundedness of Thomas, and me and you, anyone else who finds it hard to be a little fish swimming about, in search of something they fear they won’t find?

Thomas, the one who touched Jesus’ wounds, is also in touch with his own fears, and weaknesses, his own vulnerability. That’s the place where Jesus meets him, and reassures him that what his friends have told him is true. What Jesus started will continue, and he can be part of it.

It may be that it is in recognizing our own woundedness, our own vulnerability, our own fears and doubts that we are able to begin to look beyond ourselves, and see, not with our eyes, but with our heart and souls, that God is always with us. Returning again to that paraphrase called “The Message”:

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. God is food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. 

 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. 

 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. 

Peace be with you. Amen

Worship Service for Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021

When I was a little boy, my family lived in a drafty old house. On winter mornings I’d go to my bedroom window, and most of the single pane glass would be covered in frosty crystals. It took the light of the morning sun to shine through, and make them visible. The frost on the glass was different each time, just as no two snowflakes are identical.

I heard a yoga teacher say every person’s physical body is different, and we can’t expect to move or bend exactly the way someone else does. As my body ages, I find comfort in that.

But back to my childhood frosty bedroom window. I’d gaze with utter fascination at the patterns etched in the layers of ice. They were like glimpses into a secret reality we don’t usually see.  I get the same sense of awe and mystery these days when I’m rock hunting on the beach at Point Pelee, and I find a fossil, or when I’m out after dark and look up at the night sky, laced with bright and distant stars. There is so much to God’s wondrous creation. We can’t explain everything. There is a lot that remains unknown, awesome and mysterious.

There is so much to this life we can experience, see, and feel, and not actually understand.  How does love work? How is it we can look into one person’s eyes, and feel a connection, and suddenly they matter to us? We notice there is nobody else quite like this person. We are joyfully reminded that every person we know, every person we meet is as unique a creation as a snowflake or a frosty window. The light of love shines through them in a way that is different from every other person. How is that possible?

How do our lives work? Do we exist somehow, as a soul before we are born into flesh? When our physical lives are over, where does our spirit, our soul go? What are God’s hopes and dreams for us?

The story of the first Easter morning takes our imagination to a place of awe and mystery, offering eerie and strangely comforting hints there is more to life and to death than we know.

To see the beautiful patterns in my frosty bedroom window, I had to rouse myself out of bed. That old house was not well insulated, and my parents set the thermostat low to save money. Many mornings I would hesitate to get out of bed, knowing if I got out of my blanket cocoon, and crossed the floor to the window, I’d be cold.

My wife and I still keep our thermostat low at night. It is lovely to lie toasty warm under the covers. I can put out an arm to test the air, feel the cold, and quickly pull my arm back in, and warm it up again.

Spring has come to our part of the world, but there are chilling things happening around us. Things are not quite the way we wish they could be. Sometimes we may not feel like getting out of bed.

The first Easter morning was dark and cold.  Jesus’ friends had watched him die on the cross. They saw the Roman soldier pierce his body with a spear and they were there when blood and water gushed out.

Later, they negotiated with the authorities for Jesus’ body to be carried to a borrowed tomb.  They were there when the tomb was sealed. As the sky darkened a huge rock, cut specially for the purpose, was rolled in to block the entrance to the cave, to keep out wild animals and looters, not that there would be anything to scrounge from his grave.

Early, early in the morning, before the sun rose, a few from Jesus’ inner circle got out of bed. They faced the cold and dark of their first day without the one who had lit up their lives, and warmed their hearts from the inside with his presence, and with his teachings about God’s love.

They may not have wanted to brave that dark, cold, scary place, the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid. They overcame their fear, and paralyzing sadness, to be there with the dawn. It was against their faith to do any work on the Sabbath, which ended with the rising of the sun. The new day was the time to wash and anoint Jesus’ body, so it might have a decent burial.

The sun began rose above the curve of the earth, and began to push away the gloom of night- but did not have the power to brighten their spirits, to warm their bewildered, grieving hearts.

The sun claimed the sky, and lit up the world. Morning revealed that somehow, the heavy stone had been rolled away. In one version of the story, a mysterious figure says Jesus was no longer in the dark tomb- he’d been raised from the dead. Another version describes angels at the tomb, and it is a heavenly messenger who rolls away the stone.

Each of the gospel writers tells the story of Easter morning with different details. Maybe the versions are like frosted windows, or snowflakes, beautiful in their own way, hinting to us that there is much about this world we live in that is mysterious, and beyond simple explanation.

I suspect the resurrection news sunk into the hearts of Jesus’ companions before it made sense in their heads. At times our hearts are warmed, and lead us towards the awareness that something important has happened, long before our minds can process it. Matthew’s gospel describes Jesus’ followers as deep in wonder and full of joy. They knew, somehow, they were in the presence of the unique warmth and light of their friend.

This probably did not make sense to them at first- how could it? But over the next few days they heard more stories, and saw things, that warmed their hearts, and helped them to trust what they had been told in that early morning light. Jesus had been raised.

We who seek after Jesus today are like his first followers.  We crave the light and warmth that makes the cold and darkness of this world bearable. We desire spring after a long grey winter. We hunger for hope, and meaning.

The Easter story tells us that God’s love, and God’s hopes and dreams for us could not be buried away in the darkness of a cold stone tomb. God rose Jesus from death, so our hearts would know there is nothing, not even death, that is stronger than God’s love. Love shines through, and brings warmth and hope back into our world. Thanks be to God. Amen

Video of In-Person Worship for Good Friday, 2021

10:30 am, Good Friday April 2, 2021

Harrow United Church

Prelude

Words of Welcome

Call to Worship:

We gather here in the shadow of the cross.

This can be a grey and chilling place.

We do not like to be this close to the mystery of death.

May we have the courage to dwell long enough to see

that God is alive, and at work, even here.

Let us open ourselves to God’s warmth and light.

Lighting the Christ Candle:

We light the Christ candle as a sign of God’s presence.

Our spirits yearn for hope.

The first scripture reading: 1 Corinthians 1:22-25

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Unsung Hymn: VU 144 Were you there?

1         Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

           Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

           Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble,

                     tremble, tremble.

           Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

2         Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

           Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

           Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble,

                     tremble, tremble.

           Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

3         Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

           Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

           Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble,

                     tremble, tremble.

           Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

4         Were you there when they pierced him in the side?

           Were you there when they pierced him in the side?

           Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble,

                     tremble, tremble.

           Were you there when they pierced him in the side?

5         Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

           Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

           Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble,

                     tremble, tremble.

           Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

Introduction to a time of reflection

Time of Silent Reflection

(ringing the prayer bowl marks the beginning and end of a time of silence)

Assurance of God’s Love (responsive)

Here are some words that we all need to hear:

God loves us.

God has always loved us.

God will always love us, no matter what.

We celebrate together that every single one of us is loved by God.

Video: Good Friday Zoom Theatre: A dramatic telling of the story of Jesus’ Passion

Ministry of Music

Video: “Take me instead” (from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)

Learning Time: The Good Friday story

Not long ago I was stopping in every day at a Long Term Care facility, to visit with a woman in palliative care. That meant being screened, signing in, donning a gown, and gloves, a mask, and a PPE visor. It gave me a real insight into how it has been for our front line workers. I only did it for maybe an hour each day- I know that some folks spend their whole day like that.

I went in each day to offer the woman who was actively dying a blessing, because the family let me know that the church had been an important part of her life. I was there for her, but also wanted to check in with this woman’s family, who were doing the very difficult, and important work of sitting with her, as she moved towards the transition from earthly life, through physical death, and on to life in the spirit with God.

The woman’s medical and physical needs were being met, and everything possible was done to make sure she was comfortable, and not in pain, as she lay there dying.

It was only a few months ago that my father-in-law Keith lay dying, in a similar bed, in a similar room, in another long term care facility. He also received excellent care, and his family stepped up, and we took turns sitting with him.

When we love someone, and they are ill, or in terrible pain, or their life is at risk, there is that part of us, that voice within that would like to negotiate with God, the universe, the illness, whoever or whatever holds the power of life and death, and trade our life, our pain and suffering, our health, for that of our loved one.

It’s a bargain we’d be willing to make, if things worked that way. We would trade places, to save them the pain and suffering. It’s a powerful wish, and a clear statement of love. In most cases, in real life, and in real death, it is not something we can actually do. It’s a powerful desire, and a fantasy.

We just saw that scene from the Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast”. It’s also a standard in many action movies, the “no, let those hostages go, you don’t need all of them, you’ve got me…” moment, in which the hero, or heroine is prepared to trade their life, to save the life of the innocent.

It is powerful when the hero makes the offer, in order to save their partner, their spouse, their child, someone that matters to them.

It is even more powerful, when the hero is prepared to take on the pain, the suffering, the death of someone they don’t even know, simply because it’s the right thing, the noble thing, the loving thing to do.

I can understand why people hang on, and find such meaning in the notion that Jesus was doing something positive, by submitting to death on the cross.

We have called it paying the price for our sins, washing us clean with his blood. I understand, on a gut level, that this makes some kind of sense, that Jesus would give up his life as a loving sacrifice, for the good of others. It’s admirable.

Of course, we want to believe that Jesus would do that for us. What more powerful way to demonstrate, once and for all, that God loves us.

And that idea has been the focus, the theme of so much blood-soaked poetry, in scripture, and hymns, and sermons. There has been, for centuries, a deep thirst and appetite for this poetry. We so deeply want, need, deserve the assurance that we are loved. Followers of Jesus have also struggled, for centuries to make some sense of his death on the cross.

Some, not all, settled on the “no, take me” scenario, in which the hero offers their life, to pay a price for the lives of the hostages. Some of the story-tellers started putting that spin on things, even before the Gospel stories were written down, in the first 75-100 years after the first Good Friday.

I believe this interpretation has some built-in problems. Think about the action movies, and police television shows in which you have seen this drama acted out.

There is a hostage situation, and law enforcement, the good guys in the story  are called in to help. Who are the characters in this drama?

In the movie set up, there are the innocent hostages- maybe we identify with them. We may feel stuck, trapped, afraid, and in need of rescue. We do have moments when we are keenly aware of being caught up somewhere between life and death, and in need of rescue.

There is the heroic figure, who puts down their gun, takes off their Kevlar body armour, and presents themselves as the substitute hostage. We can easily see Jesus in the hero role- especially since in most of the movies, this is the moment when the hero raises their arms to show they have no weapon, and they often look like they are about to be crucified.

The dramatic scene we are imagine, or remember, requires just one more character- the evil villain that up until now has been holding the hostages at gunpoint, or threatening to blow them up, or whatever dastardly means of death they have in mind.

The villain in the story has the option to accept the hero’s life in trade for the hostages. Who is the villain? Why does the villain need the hostages to die? What is to be gained, in the story, by anyone dying?

In the movies, the hero often says that, “Nobody needs to die here, today.” We can all go home safely, if you just put down the gun, or the trigger device for the nuclear warhead, or the spray can for the poision gas, or whatever the deadly weapon might be.

In the movies, and tv shows, of which I have obviously watched too, too many, there are just 2 possible reasons the villain has captured hostages, for which the hero is willing to trade their life.

The first reason is that villain is cornered, about to be captured themselves, and is using the hostages to bargain for safe passage. They want to trade the lives of the hostages for a city bus to take them to the airport, where they can catch a plane to someplace beyond the legal reach of the good guys.

The second typical reason is the villain is insane, and wants to kill people. They don’t expect to get away. The hero appeals to the last vestige of human decency in them, to let the innocents go, and accept the hero as a substitute. If the hero has been an annoyance to the villain up to this point in the story, a thorn in their side, they might say, “Let these folks go, I’m the one you really want.” And sometimes, in the movies, it works. The villain goes for it, releases the captives, but keeps the hero captive.

Sometimes, in the movies, the hero has one more trick up their sleeve.  They know a  clever way to de-fuse the nuclear warhead, or they’ve secretly swallowed an antidote to the poison gas. Maybe they wrestle free before the bad guy can carve them up with the meat cleaver, or they duck, and only suffer a flesh wound, when the villain shoots at them.

If it’s a movie with a satisfying end, the villain is captured, or dies while trying to escape, and the hero survives, and then the last scene in the story has the hero being yelled at by their spouse, or partner, or boss, “What were you thinking? You could have died in there!”

But in the Good Friday story… if we are the innocent hostages, and Jesus is Bruce Willis, ready to trade his life for ours, who is the villain? Who is one who needs the hostages, or Jesus to die? And why?

The way it has usually been explained is the universe is a moral place, with rules and laws that have to be upheld. If a crime is done, a price has to be paid. If our sins are crimes, offenses against the universe, God the Judge needs for the price to be paid. There aren’t actually any innocent hostages, because we are all guilty. Jesus takes our place, and pays the price.

This has been a powerful, manipulative tool, used in the worst kind of evangelism. It’s kind of like when someone says, “After all I have done for you, the least you can do is…”

I struggle with the idea of a God who would operate this way. It just doesn’t connect for me, with the picture of God that I get from Jesus- the source of all the love in the universe.

This story about a God, who acts like Judge and Executioner rolled into one scary figure, and who would accept the hero as the substitute hostage, does not seem like the God Jesus wanted us to call Abba, the loving parent.

What parent in their right mind, and with a loving heart, would set things up this way? Did the Supreme Lover set up a whole universe in which we are all found guilty without trial, and sentenced to death, and the only escape is to kill the hero?

Why? Why set it up that way? What the actual hell is this all about?

Unless God is not the villain. Maybe the villain in this story is plain ordinary human evil, and Jesus faces it, sacrifices himself to it, and God is not the writer, the director, the creator of this scene at all. Maybe God did not want it to happen this way at all.

When I watch Bruce Willis or some other action hero ready to die to save the innocents, I also get to see the villain as insane, or evil, and I don’t shed any tears when they are defeated, even if they are killed. I can applaud the hero’s willingness to die for the sake of others, and still hope it doesn’t have to happen that way.

So, if Jesus is the hero, I can applaud his willingness to play his part in the drama. I just don’t think it’s the only way the story could have gone. I think that God loves us, and can forgive our sins, if our sins need forgiving, and accept us, without killing the hero. Which means I don’t think God killed the hero.

I don’t think God is the crazy, bloodthirsty villain this story seems to need God to be.

God is actually more like the hero’s best friend, or spouse, or partner, or boss, at the end of the story, who says, “Are you okay? I was so scared. You’re okay? Good!” Then they punch the hero in the arm and say, “What the hell were you thinking? You could have been killed!”

But that’s not the scene we end with today. Good Friday ends with Jesus dying on the cross, with nothing to take away the pain, for him, or for us watching. It’s kind of a terrible movie. I don’t think God wrote, directed, or produced that movie. Amen

Pastoral Prayers

Loving God;  We pray for all those who suffer in our world. We pray for those who are sick, for those who are dying, and for those who are burdened with grief. We pray especially for those who are living in war zones. We pray for those who are victims of racism, or religious hatred.

We pray also for those individuals, and groups that are easily scapegoated: those who are weak, or who bring a challenging message, or seem different or strange to us.

Help us to listen carefully when people in power are offering us quick and easy solutions to complex problems.

Help us to place our lives, and our hopes in your hands God, and to practice patience and perseverance, so the solutions we discover will grow out of love, and not vengeance.

Help us to recognize the parts of our own hearts, our own character, that are still in some way satisfied by violence. Let us not mistake our own darker aspects for God’s will, or God’s plan.

God, help us to remember to look to you, not for justification for our hurtful desires, but for the love and forgiveness, and grace we need to rise above, and move beyond them.

Help us to look at life, and faith in new ways. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen

(video of “We are not alone” from Eastminster United in Toronto)

Unsung Hymn: VU 149 When I survey the wondrous cross

1         When I survey the wondrous cross

           on which the Prince of glory died,

           my richest gain I count but loss,

           and pour contempt on all my pride.

2         Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast

           save in the death of Christ, my God:

           all the vain things that charm me most,

           I sacrifice them to his blood.

3         See from his head, his hands, his feet,

           sorrow and love flow mingled down!

           Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,

           or thorns compose so rich a crown?

4         Were the whole realm of nature mine,

           that were a present far too small:

           love so amazing, so divine,

           demands my soul, my life, my all.

*Blessing

May the God of creation, the God of generous provision, the God of new life be with us.

May the Christ of grace, the Christ of forgiveness, the Christ of reconciliation be our example.

May the Spirit love, the Spirit of peace, the Spirit of hope, go with us. Amen

2021 Good Friday Service

Call to Worship:

We gather here in the shadow of the cross.

This can be a grey and chilling place.

We do not like to be this close to the mystery of death.

May we have the courage to dwell long enough to see

that God is alive, and at work, even here.

Let us open ourselves to God’s warmth and light.

1 Corinthians 1:22-25

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Good Friday Zoom Theatre: A dramatic telling of the story of Jesus’ Passion

Video: “Take me instead” (from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)

Learning Time: The Good Friday story

In the early part of Lent I was stopping in every day at a Long Term Care facility, to visit with a woman in palliative care. That meant being screened, signing in, donning a gown, and gloves, a mask, and a PPE visor. It gave me a real insight into how it has been for our front line workers. I only did it for maybe an hour each day- I know that some folks spend their whole day like that.

I went in each day to offer the woman who was actively dying a blessing, because the family let me know that the church had been an important part of her life. I was there for her, but also wanted to check in with this woman’s family, who were doing the very difficult, and important work of sitting with her, as she moved towards the transition from earthly life, through physical death, and on to life in the spirit with God.

The woman’s medical and physical needs were being met, and everything possible was done to make sure she was comfortable, and not in pain, as she lay there dying.

It was only a few months ago that my father-in-law Keith lay dying, in a similar bed, in a similar room, in another long term care facility. He also received excellent care, and his family stepped up, and we took turns sitting with him.

When we love someone, and they are ill, or in terrible pain, or their life is at risk, there is that part of us, that voice within that would like to negotiate with God, the universe, the illness, whoever or whatever holds the power of life and death, and trade our life, our pain and suffering, our health, for that of our loved one.

It’s a bargain we’d be willing to make, if things worked that way. We would trade places, to save them the pain and suffering. It’s a powerful wish, and a clear statement of love. In most cases, in real life, and in real death, it is not something we can actually do. It’s a powerful desire, and a fantasy.

We just saw that scene from the Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast”. It’s also a standard in many action movies, the “no, let those hostages go, you don’t need all of them, you’ve got me…” moment, in which the hero, or heroine is prepared to trade their life, to save the life of the innocent.

It is powerful when the hero makes the offer, in order to save their partner, their spouse, their child, someone that matters to them.

It is even more powerful, when the hero is prepared to take on the pain, the suffering, the death of someone they don’t even know, simply because it’s the right thing, the noble thing, the loving thing to do.

I can understand why people hang on, and find such meaning in the notion that Jesus was doing something positive, by submitting to death on the cross.

We have called it paying the price for our sins, washing us clean with his blood. I understand, on a gut level, that this makes some kind of sense, that Jesus would give up his life as a loving sacrifice, for the good of others. It’s admirable.

Of course, we want to believe that Jesus would do that for us. What more powerful way to demonstrate, once and for all, that God loves us.

And that idea has been the focus, the theme of so much blood-soaked poetry, in scripture, and hymns, and sermons. There has been, for centuries, a deep thirst and appetite for this poetry. We so deeply want, need, deserve the assurance that we are loved. Followers of Jesus have also struggled, for centuries to make some sense of his death on the cross.

Some, not all, settled on the “no, take me” scenario, in which the hero offers their life, to pay a price for the lives of the hostages. Some of the story-tellers started putting that spin on things, even before the Gospel stories were written down, in the first 75-100 years after the first Good Friday.

I believe this interpretation has some built-in problems. Think about the action movies, and police television shows in which you have seen this drama acted out.

There is a hostage situation, and law enforcement, the good guys in the story  are called in to help. Who are the characters in this drama?

In the movie set up, there are the innocent hostages- maybe we identify with them. We may feel stuck, trapped, afraid, and in need of rescue. We do have moments when we are keenly aware of being caught up somewhere between life and death, and in need of rescue.

There is the heroic figure, who puts down their gun, takes off their Kevlar body armour, and presents themselves as the substitute hostage. We can easily see Jesus in the hero role- especially since in most of the movies, this is the moment when the hero raises their arms to show they have no weapon, and they often look like they are about to be crucified.

The dramatic scene we are imagine, or remember, requires just one more character- the evil villain that up until now has been holding the hostages at gunpoint, or threatening to blow them up, or whatever dastardly means of death they have in mind.

The villain in the story has the option to accept the hero’s life in trade for the hostages. Who is the villain? Why does the villain need the hostages to die? What is to be gained, in the story, by anyone dying?

In the movies, the hero often says that, “Nobody needs to die here, today.” We can all go home safely, if you just put down the gun, or the trigger device for the nuclear warhead, or the spray can for the poision gas, or whatever the deadly weapon might be.

In the movies, and tv shows, of which I have obviously watched too, too many, there are just 2 possible reasons the villain has captured hostages, for which the hero is willing to trade their life.

The first reason is that villain is cornered, about to be captured themselves, and is using the hostages to bargain for safe passage. They want to trade the lives of the hostages for a city bus to take them to the airport, where they can catch a plane to someplace beyond the legal reach of the good guys.

The second typical reason is the villain is insane, and wants to kill people. They don’t expect to get away. The hero appeals to the last vestige of human decency in them, to let the innocents go, and accept the hero as a substitute. If the hero has been an annoyance to the villain up to this point in the story, a thorn in their side, they might say, “Let these folks go, I’m the one you really want.” And sometimes, in the movies, it works. The villain goes for it, releases the captives, but keeps the hero captive.

Sometimes, in the movies, the hero has one more trick up their sleeve.  They know a  clever way to de-fuse the nuclear warhead, or they’ve secretly swallowed an antidote to the poison gas. Maybe they wrestle free before the bad guy can carve them up with the meat cleaver, or they duck, and only suffer a flesh wound, when the villain shoots at them.

If it’s a movie with a satisfying end, the villain is captured, or dies while trying to escape, and the hero survives, and then the last scene in the story has the hero being yelled at by their spouse, or partner, or boss, “What were you thinking? You could have died in there!”

But in the Good Friday story… if we are the innocent hostages, and Jesus is Bruce Willis, ready to trade his life for ours, who is the villain? Who is one who needs the hostages, or Jesus to die? And why?

The way it has usually been explained is the universe is a moral place, with rules and laws that have to be upheld. If a crime is done, a price has to be paid. If our sins are crimes, offenses against the universe, God the Judge needs for the price to be paid. There aren’t actually any innocent hostages, because we are all guilty. Jesus takes our place, and pays the price.

This has been a powerful, manipulative tool, used in the worst kind of evangelism. It’s kind of like when someone says, “After all I have done for you, the least you can do is…”

I struggle with the idea of a God who would operate this way. It just doesn’t connect for me, with the picture of God that I get from Jesus- the source of all the love in the universe.

This story about a God, who acts like Judge and Executioner rolled into one scary figure, and who would accept the hero as the substitute hostage, does not seem like the God Jesus wanted us to call Abba, the loving parent.

What parent in their right mind, and with a loving heart, would set things up this way? Did the Supreme Lover set up a whole universe in which we are all found guilty without trial, and sentenced to death, and the only escape is to kill the hero?

Why? Why set it up that way? What the actual hell is this all about?

Unless God is not the villain. Maybe the villain in this story is plain ordinary human evil, and Jesus faces it, sacrifices himself to it, and God is not the writer, the director, the creator of this scene at all. Maybe God did not want it to happen this way at all.

When I watch Bruce Willis or some other action hero ready to die to save the innocents, I also get to see the villain as insane, or evil, and I don’t shed any tears when they are defeated, even if they are killed. I can applaud the hero’s willingness to die for the sake of others, and still hope it doesn’t have to happen that way.

So, if Jesus is the hero, I can applaud his willingness to play his part in the drama. I just don’t think it’s the only way the story could have gone. I think that God loves us, and can forgive our sins, if our sins need forgiving, and accept us, without killing the hero. Which means I don’t think God killed the hero.

I don’t think God is the crazy, bloodthirsty villain this story seems to need God to be.

God is actually more like the hero’s best friend, or spouse, or partner, or boss, at the end of the story, who says, “Are you okay? I was so scared. You’re okay? Good!” Then they punch the hero in the arm and say, “What the hell were you thinking? You could have been killed!”

But that’s not the scene we end with today. Good Friday ends with Jesus dying on the cross, with nothing to take away the pain, for him, or for us watching. It’s kind of a terrible movie. I don’t think God wrote, directed, or produced that movie. Amen

Video: The United Church Creed

Pastoral Prayers

Loving God;  We pray for all those who suffer in our world. We pray for those who are sick, for those who are dying, and for those who are burdened with grief. We pray especially for those who are living in war zones. We pray for those who are victims of racism, or religious hatred.

We pray also for those individuals, and groups that are easily scapegoated: those who are weak, or who bring a challenging message, or seem different or strange to us.

Help us to listen carefully when people in power are offering us quick and easy solutions to complex problems.

Help us to place our lives, and our hopes in your hands God, and to practice patience and perseverance, so the solutions we discover will grow out of love, and not vengeance.

Help us to recognize the parts of our own hearts, our own character, that are still in some way satisfied by violence. Let us not mistake our own darker aspects for God’s will, or God’s plan.

God, help us to remember to look to you, not for justification for our hurtful desires, but for the love and forgiveness, and grace we need to rise above, and move beyond them.

Help us to look at life, and faith in new ways. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen

Video of “We are not alone” from Eastminster United in Toronto

Blessing

May the God of creation, the God of generous provision, the God of new life be with us.

May the Christ of grace, the Christ of forgiveness, the Christ of reconciliation be our example.

May the Spirit love, the Spirit of peace, the Spirit of hope, go with us. Amen

Worship Service for Palm Sunday, March 28, 2021 “King Me?”

Matthew 21:1-17 (The Message)

When they neared Jerusalem, having arrived at Bethphage on Mount Olives, Jesus sent two disciples with these instructions: “Go over to the village across from you. You’ll find a donkey tethered there, her colt with her. Untie her and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you’re doing, say, ‘The Master needs them!’ He will send them with you.”

This is the full story of what was sketched earlier by the prophet:

Tell Zion’s daughter,
“Look, your king’s on his way,
    poised and ready, mounted
On a donkey, on a colt,
    foal of a pack animal.”

The disciples went and did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They led the donkey and colt out, laid some of their clothes on them, and Jesus mounted. Nearly all the people in the crowd threw their garments down on the road, giving him a royal welcome. Others cut branches from the trees and threw them down as a welcome mat. Crowds went ahead and crowds followed, all of them calling out, “Hosanna to David’s son!” “Blessed is he who comes in God’s name!” “Hosanna in highest heaven!”

As he made his entrance into Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. Unnerved, people were asking, “What’s going on here? Who is this?”

The parade crowd answered, “This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Jesus went straight to the Temple and threw out everyone who had set up shop, buying and selling. He kicked over the tables of loan sharks and the stalls of dove merchants. He quoted this text:

My house was designated a house of prayer;
You have made it a hangout for thieves.

Now there was room for the blind and crippled to get in. They came to Jesus and he healed them.

When the religious leaders saw the outrageous things he was doing, and heard all the children running and shouting through the Temple, “Hosanna to David’s Son!” they were up in arms and took him to task. “Do you hear what these children are saying?”

Jesus said, “Yes, I hear them. And haven’t you read in God’s Word, ‘From the mouths of children and babies I’ll furnish a place of praise’?”

Fed up, Jesus spun around and left the city for Bethany, where he spent the night.

From the Song of Faith:

We find God made known in Jesus of Nazareth,

and so we sing of God the Christ, the Holy One embodied.

We sing of Jesus,

           a Jew,

           born to a woman in poverty

           in a time of social upheaval

           and political oppression.

He knew human joy and sorrow.

So filled with the Holy Spirit was he

that in him people experienced the presence of God among them.

We sing praise to God incarnate.

Jesus announced the coming of God’s reign—

           a commonwealth not of domination

           but of peace, justice, and reconciliation.

He healed the sick and fed the hungry.

He forgave sins and freed those held captive

           by all manner of demonic powers.

He crossed barriers of race, class, culture, and gender.

He preached and practised unconditional love—

           love of God, love of neighbour,

           love of friend, love of enemy—

and he commanded his followers to love one another

           as he had loved them.

Because his witness to love was threatening,

           those exercising power sought to silence Jesus.

He suffered abandonment and betrayal,

           state-sanctioned torture and execution.

He was crucified.

But death was not the last word.

God raised Jesus from death,

           turning sorrow into joy,

           despair into hope.

We sing of Jesus raised from the dead.

We sing hallelujah.

By becoming flesh in Jesus,

           God makes all things new.

InJesus’ life, teaching, and self-offering,

           God empowers us to live in love.

In Jesus’ crucifixion,

           God bears the sin, grief, and suffering of the world.

In Jesus’ resurrection,

           God overcomes death.

Nothing separates us from the love of God.

Learning Time: “King Me?” 

Over 30 years ago I lived in Southern Georgia, in a Christian community called Koinonia Farm. I had amazing experiences there, including meeting Jimmy and Rosalind Carter, and their Secret Service detail, the men and women with the ear buds, and the coiled wire running down under their collars. I can’t imagine what it would be like to need 24/7 protection.

The former U.S. President lives about 10 miles away from Koinonia, in Plains, Georgia. I have mentioned before what a kind, humble, and thoughtful man I found him to be. I have thought about Mr. Carter a lot over the past four years.

The president is the closest thing the Americans have to royalty. They fought a revolution to be free of the tyranny of a king, but still have a love affair with the idea of a powerful elite. Their president, more than just a person doing a big job, is a symbol of the power of the nation.

To a lesser extent, I think, we in Canada do this to our politicians. When things are going well, we praise them. When things are not as we would like them to be, or if they fail to satisfy our wishes on our pet issues, we vilify them. Either way, we kind of forget our elected leaders are actually just humans.

While living at Koinonia I played a lot of checkers with the father and two adult sons of the Renderos family. They were undocumented migrant workers from El Salvador, who lived at Koinonia while we worked with the Canadian government on their applications for refugee status. Mr. Renderos had been mayor of his town in El Salvador, and fled for his life, and the lives of his wife and two sons, when guerillas took over his town, and forcibly drafted all the teenage boys to be part of their army. They left behind their home, their business, family and friends, and survived picking vegetables in the American south, moving from place to place with the harvest.

I was their volunteer English tutor. We’d drive into town and walk around in the Piggly Wiggly and look at the groceries, and I taught them English words for the fruit and vegetables they used to pick.

Mr. Renderos, who had even less English than I did Spanish, loved to play checkers, which he called “damas”. Whether you play in English or Spanish, the rules are the same. You have to advance your pieces towards your opponent. If you have an opportunity to jump, or take an opponent’s piece, and you don’t do it, you lose yours. Before long, there are fewer and fewer pieces on the board. 

If you get a piece all the way to the other side of the board, you say “king me”, and your opponent crowns it with one of your lost checkers. Now you have a king, that can move in all directions, which you use to chase your opponent’s pieces. The little pieces get eaten, to make kings.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem at the beginning of the Passover Festival, he came in riding on a humble donkey. There were some in his country, in that time, who hoped God would send a Holy King, a Messiah, to lead an uprising against the Roman-sponsored King of Israel, take over the throne, force out the Romans, and begin a new kind of rule.

Jesus had developed a following, and was loved by the poorest of the poor, the dispossessed, those with nothing left to lose. The Romans, and their puppet government in Judea had reason to pay attention to him.

A love/hate relationship with kings was part of the history of Jesus’ people. Kings were typically warrior chiefs, who commanded armies, and took control of territory and people by force. They took what they wanted, when they wanted it. The story of King David claiming the wife of one of his generals, and then sending him off to war, to be killed, is a cautionary tale of the danger of kings.

Most people, especially the poor, those who did not own their own land, and who depended upon others for work, and places to live, had no say about who their king would be. No more say than the people of India, or Africa, or North or South America had, when white men with armies landed on their shore, and claimed their countries in the name of kings, or queens they’d never heard of before.

For the peasants of Israel, and for the local populations of all the lands claimed by kings with big armies, the most they could hope for is the new king would have some human decency.

One powerful theme in the Hebrew Scriptures from well before the time of Jesus, was that if Israel could only have a righteous king, then the land would flourish, the people prosper, and the country would be the envy of its neighbours, and strong enough to fend off attack from other nations.

People would pray “God bless the King,” partly because even if the current king was greedy, and self-serving, and abused their power, it was still thought to be better to have a bad king, than have no one in charge, and allow chaos to reign.

One function of religion in European feudal societies was to bless the monarch. The head of the church would crown them, to make their rule official, and to remind them to behave more like a holy servant than an armed bully.

Over time, this idea of blessing, and praying for the ruler, and hoping they behave, turned into an official church doctrine called the “Divine Right of Kings”. Like the changing of the seasons, the life cycle of plants, and the endless progress of day into night and back again, God placed Kings and Queens in charge- as part of the order of the universe.

This very civilized, Christianized idea is like a new coat of wallpaper in a beat up old shack. It’s an effort to clean up a mess, patch some holes, make things look better. It sets aside, or covers over the atrocities that happened when the army of one warrior chief attacked another army, to become the ruler in the first place.

When armed representatives of European kings landed on the shores of what they saw as undiscovered countries all over the world, they did not just claim the land. They claimed the people, as subjects, the property of their kings. They were not above using violence to back up their claims.

How many millions of people were captured, put in chains, thrown into the cargo holds of ships, and transported from Africa, to white owned plantations, farms, factories, mines, households in the Americas, in the Caribbean? How many castles, palaces, cathedrals, morning suits, fancy gowns, and crown jewels were bought and paid for with the sweat and blood of enslaved people?

One by one, nations are leaving the Commonwealth, and repudiating the very idea of the monarchy. In some Caribbean countries, there is talk about seeking reparations for the horrible treatment of their ancestors, by trading companies run by Sir Somebody, and Lord Whosits, in the name of their kings and queens, who gave them royal charters.

Built into the notion that one family is better, because of its bloodline, is the idea that other families, other whole populations are not as good, and are worthy only of being the property, or servants of the people descended from conquerors.

Kings. War Lords. Powerful figures on big horses, or mighty chariots. Pomp and circumstance. They roll into town with a big entourage- a show of force that is impressive but also meant to intimidate. My army is bigger, stronger, more fierce than yours. Show the peasants, this is the strong man who will keep you safe from the other strong man.

Don’t worry, our ruler won’t be like the others. Ours will be holy, be good, and take care of us.

We can trust our ruler. They’re on our side, and God is on their side, so we should pay our taxes, and support them, and their kids, and grand-kids, for every generation.  They are special people. Chosen by God to rule.

Even today, in countries where folks try to distance themselves from actual royal families, we like dynasties. We follow the antics of celebrities as if they have been anointed to rule, and entertain us. Sports heros. Movie stars. Internet influencers. Successful business people. Families of politicians. We buy into the idea that certain people are destined to be famous, rich, powerful. So many people are famous, well, for being famous.

They are different. Somehow above and beyond the rabble. They are people to look up to, and their lives are the stuff of dreams and fantasy.

Fantasy is the operative word. Because in reality, no person is actually better than others. We are all humans. We all have nobility, and pride, and goodness in us. We all have greed, and ego, and depravity in us. We are all saints and sinners, and none is actually better than anyone else. God loves us all, equally, and does not recognize the assumed privilege we try to claim over others.

Jesus did not come to Jerusalem to say “King me”. He did not come to reform, or to prop up the corrupt, broken system that caused so much pain and distress for the poor, the sick, the landless, the widows, orphans, the enslaved of his time.

Jesus was, I think, performing a bit of street theatre. He entered the capital city on the back of a donkey, on the same day that Pilate, the Roman Governor was coming into Jerusalem, with his entourage of troops and chariots and weapons of war.

Pilate came into town as a representative of the might and power, and threat of the Roman Empire. Mess with him, and you are in trouble.

Jesus came into town as the humble, vulnerable servant of God. Join with him, and place your faith, not in a figurehead, or a system, or an army- but in God, the source of love, and real meaning, and real hope. Amen

Worship for Sunday, March 21, 2021

Learning Time: Giving Thanks for Food, and for Life, even, especially now

Video:  The Carrie Newcomer song “Room at the Table”, with some poignant pictures.

We’ve used this song other times as we’ve prepared to celebrate the sacrament of communion. I really like the basic message, because here at Harrow United Church we keep an open table, at which we make room for everyone. The song is by a folk singer and song-writer name Carrie Newcomer. 

The official music video her record company issued was filled with joyful images of people of many different backgrounds, ages, shapes and sizes, dancing, eating, enjoying their time together. 

I’ve since discovered a few variations, including one by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, which shows images of hungry people around the world being fed. I think Carrie Newcomer would approve.

I found this version we just viewed a few days ago. It struck me as powerful in different ways. Some of the images make me feel incredibly sad, because the people look like they are suffering, and others leave feeling a bit envious, because the people are enjoying themselves in large, joyous gatherings.

Can you remember when we could get together in a big room full of people, and eat, and drink, and visit, and listen to several conversations all at once?  The simple fun of hearing and seeing a room full of people happy to be together without masks, and without the need to keep the length of a hockey stick apart.

We have been living with the pandemic, officially, for just over a year. It was on Saint Patrick’s Day last year that my wife and daughter drove to Waterloo to pick up our son, because his university residence was being locked down. 

It’s been a tough year, for many. The virus has taken millions of lives, and disrupted the lives, and the livelihood of billions of people. I am hard pressed to think of a place in the world, or an aspect of life that has not been touched. 

When I watched this “room at the table” video, I thought about those who are struggling with food security these days.  It was touching to see the images in which hungry people were being offered love and care, and food.

I am grateful, that my family has what we need, and we have the means to help others. I remember times when the family I grew up in did not have what we needed. I also remember what it is like to be on the receiving end. I remember times when what was given came freely, and other times, when I could see the strings of expectation and obligation, and judgment.

There is a powerful spiritual connection between gratitude and generosity. Being thankful makes me more inclined to give, which in turn leaves me feeling even more grateful, because I am able to give. It’s a good cycle to be caught up in!

I am also very grateful to be part of a faith community that places a high value on helping make sure that people do not go hungry, especially in these tough times. 

If you want to help others with donations of food, or money, let us know, and we will make sure your generous gifts are put to good use. If you or your family are in need, let us know, and we will do what we can to help you directly, or to connect you with others who can help. Harrow United Church supports the Harrow Food Bank, the Windsor Downtown Mission, and we have a good relationship with the Harrow Community Pantry, which also helps make sure families do not fall through the cracks.

Food is such a basic part of our human experience. Our bodies need fuel to function, and we literally are what we eat- our bodies are built from the nutrients we take in. More than that, we use food to show hospitality and welcome, to celebrate, to commiserate, to console, to reward. 

Most of us have been so used to gathering around a table, and sharing a meal. It has been a strange year, in which opportunities for such gatherings are limited, and have changed. Have you had a Zoom or Facetime meal yet? Opening a lap-top or a propping up a phone so that the person on the other end can see through your camera lens, who is with you at your table, and what you are having?

Our son Joel, who has returned to university in Waterloo, lives in the residence run by the historically Mennonite college, Conrad Grebel. One of many things we like about Grebel is an ongoing practice they have in their cafeteria, called “fill the table”. The understanding when you come down for a meal, is that when you have your food, and you go to sit down, you do not go to a new, empty table, if there is a spot open at another table. If it works out that everyone has been seated, and one person is going to be on their own, diners will pick up their tray, to form a new group. No one is left out. 

They have had to adapt their practices for COVID, with plastic shields in place, and less diners at each table, but the community building rule is still in place.

I think Jesus would like that. Jesus lived his earthly life that way. He sought out the company of people that no-one else wanted to be with. I use the word company on purpose. It is made of two words. “Com”, which is also one of the roots of the word community means “with”, and the “panion” part is from the word for “bread”, which is panis. A companion is literally someone with whom you share bread.

It’s hard to think of a more tangible way to show basic concern, acceptance, support, hospitality and love for a person, than to be willing to break bread with them- even if it is not bread. One of my favourite books from seminary was a book of theology from Asia called “God is Rice”.

As we are reminded in today’s Gospel story, Jesus broke bread and shared it, with crowds of people, many of whom were hungry, lonely, frightened, discouraged, weighed down with sadness, or guilt, or shame. The physical hunger they felt at meal time may only have been a part of the need they felt. To be welcomed to a meal, with a host who was genuinely happy to see them! How wonderful!

In this year of changes, and losses, I have talked with many people about grief. I have been reminded that so often grief is the flip-side of love. We miss who, and what we have loved.

We can’t really grieve losing a person that we didn’t know and love, and every time we risk knowing and loving someone, we take the risk that at some point later on, we will grieve losing them. Grief, and gratitude are intimately connected. 

Often, I think, when our hearts are hungry, for the way things once were, for time with our loved ones, our hunger is also flavoured with gratitude, for what we have once tasted. So I have this idea that to some degree, we can be grateful, even for our hunger, because it reminds us of what we have had.

When we share from the blessed bread and cup today, whether in person, or virtually, it gives us just a taste, perhaps enough to help us remember, to long for, to be grateful for, all the ways we are fed by God. Amen