Worship for January 24, 2021

Below is the link to the YouTube video of this week’s worship service.

We are continuing a series about things we can learn from the life of Jesus, that may help us during the lockdown. This week the focus is on the change of perspective that is available when we engage with scripture, and our faith tradition. I talked about in terms of the “big stories” that inform our culture, and our own view of the world.

Learning Time: We need a better story

Before the learning time, we watched a video clip about the time Jesus lost track of time, and stayed in the Temple in Jerusalem, while his parents and the group from their village had already started home. The clip showed us Jesus, safe and happy in the Temple, while his parents were out frantically looking for him.

It was good that the people in the movie did not have blue eyes and blonde hair. They looked like they might actually be from the Middle East, where Jesus was born, and lived. I also appreciated seeing hints about the conditions of daily life. The producers showed us crowds of people travelling and living together, and they were clearly not the rich or powerful elite.

The glimpses the video offered, into what life may actually have been like for people in Jesus’ time, helped me grasp, on a deeper level, why a young boy like Jesus might have wanted to hang out in the Temple, with the preachers and teachers.

I think that Jesus might have enjoyed being away from the busy crowds, and have the chance to ask questions, and talk about the mysteries of life, with people who spent their time thinking about such things. How great it would have been for this young boy, to have his deep thoughts and concerns taken seriously.

Maybe Jesus wanted to know, where did this world come from? Why do people die? Why is it that terrible things sometimes happen to people that you love? What should I do when I get older?

Every culture, every society, probably every family, has a big story people use to make sense of their lives, and their place in the universe. Most cultures have a creation story, like the one we have in the Bible, about how the world came to be. They have other stories, that are used to explain how we are supposed to live, and to point us toward what is important.

An example of this kind of narrative is that before the Europeans came to North America, it was a mostly empty wilderness, and that the only people here were uncivilized savages, who desperately need white people to come and teach them how to live. That was one of the big stories I learned growing up in Thunder Bay. Built into it were all kinds of biases, and half-truths, and out-right lies.

Clearly, not all the big stories are good for us. Adolf Hitler and his cronies used a big story, about a mostly mythical race they called Aryans, who were apparently the best people ever, to inspire national pride in young German men, and hatred of anyone who did not fit their ideal picture of what a strong man be. A loudly told lie can do a lot of harm, especially when it is aimed at confused and desperate people.

Almost three weeks ago, many of us watched in horror as an organized group of armed insurrectionists invaded the US Capitol complex, in a conflict that led to many injuries, and at least 5 deaths. There is a direct link between their behaviour, and the big story they had absorbed, about a conspiracy to steal an election away from their preferred leader. The stories we are told, and the stories we use to justify our behaviour, have a lot of power.

When I went to seminary in the 1980’s, to study to become a United Church minister, we heard a lot about something called Liberation Theology. It was a way of thinking about the message of Jesus, that grew out of the experience of Roman Catholic priests and nuns who at that time were working, and living, and often dying, with the poorest of the poor peasants in Central and South America.

A lot of them had been taught in their religious training that their Christian faith required them to never question the authority of the government. They were told that religion was always to be separate from politics. Following this rule meant that government would leave them alone, as long as they left government alone.

Many of these missionaries had started out believing their job was to save souls- to win converts to the Christian faith, so that when these suffering peasants died, even though their lives in this world had been tragically difficult, they would be rewarded with eternal life in heaven.

I remember our ethics professor, the Rev. Dr. Ben Smillie, a cantankerous old Scot, who served in World War Two, not as a chaplain, but as a regular soldier, called this approach to Christian mission work, “Pie in the sky, when you die.”

Dr. Smillie taught us the importance, when we were doing theology, of keeping the Bible at one hand, and the newspaper at the other. Like I said, this was the 1980’s, before most of us had computers, and well before there was anything like the internet. Now, it’s hard to sit down to write anything without first spending some time looking at social media, and sometimes even actual news.

Versions of Liberation Theology also emerged in the Philippines, and in the rural south of the United States, and in South Africa, where the majority of the population still lived under the oppressive rule of apartheid. In many places around the world, where folks tried to connect what they read in their Bibles with their daily experiences, important questions were being asked.

Is “pie in the sky when you die” all that Christianity was about? Was there anything in the Bible that might bring a word of hope, to people who were still in this world, living and dying under cruel systems that seemed to value certain people more than others?

At least one other time I have quoted the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, who said that “when the missionaries came to Africa the whites had the bible and the blacks had the land.”

Tutu went on to say “The missionaries told the blacks to shut their eyes and they would teach them to pray. But when they opened their eyes, the whites had the land and the blacks had the Bible.”

With a mischievous smile Desmond Tutu ended his story by saying, “Actually, it was us blacks who got the better deal!”

What Desmond Tutu, and other people living under oppression in South Africa discovered when they began to read the Bible through the lens of their own experience, was that it gave them a view of the world, and a view of God, that was very different than what they had been taught by the white European missionaries and pastors.

These South African Christians noticed that much of the Old Testament, the scriptures we inherited from the Jewish faith, tells the story of Moses leading the Hebrew people from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians, and towards a new land of freedom, promised by God. In the parts that are not about the Moses story, there are a lot of words about the fair treatment of widows, and orphans, and refugees.

They read the New Testament, and noticed that in most of the stories about Jesus, he spent his time with the poor and the outcasts, and that Jesus had scathing things to say about the rich and powerful who took advantage of them. They noticed that Jesus did not pay much attention to distinctions his culture thought important, about race, or class, or status.

The Bible, when read with eyes that had poured out tears, and with hearts that were broken open with compassion, provided a vision of the world the way God would like it to be. A word of fairness, equality, justice, and compassion. Rather than supporting the status quo, an honest reading of scripture almost always reminds faithful people that there is more work to be done.

When the prevailing story in our world seem to be about them and us, winners and losers, heroes and villains, the bad people and the good people- those who are worthy, and those are not, we need a better story.

As a popular facebook post says, if your religion teaches you that its okay to hate your neighbour, you need a new religion.  If our big story only seems to polarize us further into opposing camps, we need a better story.

It takes courage, and faith, to question the big stories that seem to be true, and which hold so much power in our daily lives.

I was working on this learning time on Wednesday, inauguration day in the United States. I confess I ended up doing a lot of my writing in the evening, because like a lot of folks, I took time during the day to watch what was going on in Washington. I so wanted things to go well. Our American friends and neighbours need good news right now.

There was plenty of good news, and glimpses of a better big story- expressed by Amanda Gorman, the inaugural poet.

I am no scholar of oratory, but I heard in her words, echoes of the Bible, echoes of Abraham Lincoln, echoes of Martin Luther King, echoes of some very good stories.

I loved it when the 22 year old woman, who described herself as a skinny Black girl

descended from slaves and raised by a single mother who dreamed of becoming president

only to find herself reciting for one,” said:

Scripture tells us to envision

that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree

And no one shall make them afraid

If we’re to live up to our own time

Then victory won’t lie in the blade

But in all the bridges we’ve made.

A good big story has the power to give us reason for hope. Amen

Pastoral Prayer

Dear God of love and author of the best big story. We give thanks for our lives, and for your presence. Help us to be more aware of the ways you are amongst us, offering healing and the possibility of new life, in spite of difficult and challenging circumstances.

We give thanks that our neighbours to the south have made a peaceful transition in their leadership. We pray that the people of the United States can set aside their differences,  and work together to address the life and death issues they face as a nation.

We give thanks for the country in which we live. Be with our leaders, and their advisors. Be with those who sit at the tables where hard decisions are made.

We pray for all who are on the frontlines in the pandemic efforts. We pray for all whose daily work exposes them to risks that many of us would rather avoid.

We pray for those who are struggling with depression, and hopelessness in this hard time. Those who are isolated, those who are lonely, those who feel afraid, and alone.

We pray for families who are looking for ways to meet the needs of all those in their households. We pray for those who miss having time to themselves, and for those who feel overwhelmed.

We give thanks for signs of hope. People working together. Positive changes happening. Stories of those who recover from the virus. Communities that rally to protect and support local businesses. Those who reach out to help others with food security and other basic needs.

We pray for those who are in hospital, and those who care for them. We pray for nurses, and hospital staff, and doctors, and administrators.

We pray for poets, and artists, and musicians, through whom bigger stories are shared.

We pray for our church, and its leaders and volunteers, and for all faith communities, service clubs, and organizations who work to help others. We ask you to bless them, and guide them in their efforts.

We make all of our prayers in Jesus name, who taught his followers to pray.

The Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven, 

hallowed be thy name,

thy kingdom come,

thy will be done, 

on earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil:

For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory 

forever and ever. Amen

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