Baptism and World Food Sunday: gratitude and generosity

(There seem to be issues with YouTube, so I removed the link to the video, which was not functioning. I will check it tomorrow to see if things improve.)

A few years ago, I read a beautiful and very simple book called, Sleeping with Bread. It’s by Dennis and Sheila Linn and Dennis’ brother, Matthew Linn. The title of the book came from a story:

During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But, many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”

“Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”

Please indulge me a moment, and say these words with me.

“Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”

“Thanks be to God.”

I do give thanks, each day, that I can say these words. The only reason we might not have food in the house, is that we have neglected to stock the pantry, and I need to go shopping. But even then, it is never that there is no food in our house, perhaps just food we do not care to eat today.

In the series of houses in which my family lived, as I grew up, there were times when there was nothing in the house to eat. My parents worked hard, and I don’t remember a time when either of them stay unemployed for long. But there were definitely times when they were under-employed, or when their earnings simply did not stretch far enough.

I don’t know how aware of this my siblings were, as we grew up. As the eldest, I have clear memories of looking through the cupboards while my parents were at work, searching for something to prepare, to feed my brother and sister.

This was not a daily occurrence, but it happened enough that I remember it. Enough to carve something in my soul, a wound that still opens sometimes when I am at the grocery store. Over the years I’ve done a lot of the food shopping for my family, partly because my wife does not enjoy it, and partly because it brings me great joy to be able to provide for my loved ones.

Over the years I have noticed that the old wound, that had to do with scarcity, and the fear there wasn’t enough, has been transformed to gratitude, because there is. Gratitude also overflows into a feeling of generosity. I have enough, and I can share. There are times when I am just overwhelmed when I think about it. I have enough, and I can share.

690,000,000 people will go to bed hungry tonight. 690,000,000 people aren’t asking, “What will we eat for dinner?” 690,000,000 people are asking, “Will we eat dinner?” And they ask that question night after night.

Hunger is so pervasive you’d think that the whole earth was made of dust. That no crops could grow anywhere. But we know that for the most part, there’s nothing wrong with Mother Nature; the problems lie in the choices humans make.

Poverty, land grabbing, greed, climate change, the commodification of food and water, conflict, political instability. The causes of hunger are so complex, so intertwined, so systemic, it’s natural to wonder how you and I could ever make a difference.

The gospel lesson John read, that included Jesus’ parable of the sower, may seem like a strange choice for World Food Sunday. It’s not exactly a pep-talk.

Some seeds will fall on the path and the birds will eat them. Some will fall on rock and the sun will scorch them. Some will fall on thorns and be choked out. But some will fall on good soil and bear an unbelievable crop.

Jesus was in a boat, offshore, speaking to a large group of his followers. They may have been tired, hungry, discouraged, worn out. They may have been doing the best they could, and felt like it wasn’t enough.

Jesus did not say, go team, get out there and win! His message was more realistic. It was more like, get out there, live your mission, knowing full well that life is hard, the world can be a difficult place, that our fellow humans are not always helpful, and can sometimes behave poorly. But keep sowing seeds, because sometimes they will take root and flourish.

The United Church, through local congregations all over the country, actively supports groups like Harrow’s Community Pantry, and the Food Bank, because we care about people going hungry.

On the national level, the United Church involves itself in conversations about food security. We believe food is a sacred gift from God. Manna from heaven. No one should go hungry.

We also put our money where our words are, and through Mission and Service, we support community kitchens and meal programs, food cupboards, shelters, job training programs, community gardens, and healthy food programs. Internationally, we send food aid in times of crisis. We fund programs that distribute seeds, offer agricultural training  micro-lending, and support projects that help small-scale farmers access equipment they need and, in some places, build infrastructure so they can transport their food to market.

We work with partners like the Canadian Foodgrains Bank to move beyond the charity model, so that people can develop the capacity to grow their own food, and produce crops to sell, to improve their own lives.

We have not solved all the world’s problems, but for some people our support means the world.

There is a man named Emmanuel Baya, a farmer who lives in Magarini, Kenya. Kenya is a beautiful country that has dealt with some incredible tragedies. There ae more than 850,000 children there who have been orphaned due to HIV/AIDS.

Emmanuel lost his parents when he was very young, so when he saw children looking for food under the cashew trees on his property, he felt a tug on his heart strings. He wanted to help.

He opened a children’s centre and school for orphans. But he didn’t want to just nourish their bodies and minds, he also wanted them to be able to one day sustain themselves.

And he knew he needed more skills to help. So he flew to the Asian Rural Institute in Japan, ARI for short. ARI is an agricultural training institute that teaches organic farming techniques and leadership skills.

ARI is supported by many different churches, including the United Church of Canada, through Mission and Service.

When he graduated from the program at ARI, Emmanuel returned home and started an organic demonstration farm next to his school. Today, not only are the 287 children in his care learning how to grow food, but the farm is also serving seven neighbouring communities.

690,000,000 people may be going hungry tonight. But Emmanuel and all the people in his community, and the thousands of people that our Mission & Service partners help aren’t among them. We can give thanks for that, and we can keep planting seeds. Amen

A new parable for Thanksgiving

Three generations of a large, extended family gather in a big old farm house for the holiday weekend. One grandparent has spent the best part of the day in the kitchen. The other runs errands as needed, and goes from room to room, keeping the family supplied with snacks, drinks, games, and the occasional hug.

The grown children and their partners, and most of the grandchildren made it back for Thanksgiving. They all seem happy to see each other, and are doing things together. There is a cribbage tournament happening in the living room, two of the younger grandchildren have taken over the basement television to play Minecraft.  Two of the teen-aged grand-kids are perched on the couch, making a point of ignoring the gamers, and showing each other things on Tik-Tok.

There is a good buzz in the house, and a sense of joy, and anticipation for the impending meal. The scent of roast turkey is a promise of what is soon to come, that can be smelled in every room in the house.  Everyone seems in the holiday spirit, except for the new partner of one of the middle generation. They have spent the day holed up in an upstairs bedroom.

This new partner, who’s at the family farm for the first time, makes their money in day trading. They buy and sell in markets based around the world, in places that don’t celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving. The longest sentence they’ve said to their partner that morning was “Money doesn’t take the day off, so neither do I.”

Their partner is somewhat used to this, but hoped they might take a break at least for a few hours. The compromise they reached, with hard looks at three paces, was the day-trader would join the family for supper.

Since then, the day-trader has invested their time like any other day. Tracking jagged peaks and valleys and little numbers on the screens of twin lap-tops, typing buy and sell and orders on their ipad, and talking on their Bluetooth headset.

They eat mini-pretzels by the jumbo bag they get from Costco, which they wash down with diet cola, also bought in bulk. They brought all their own supplies with them from the city.

The soda makes their stomach feel growly and empty, but they depend on the caffeine to stay alert. More soda leads to more handfuls of salty crunch, which leads to more salt induced thirst, and on and on.

One the Minecraft kids said, “We’re like, in the country. The wi-fi is super slow, and we’re all online.  Won’t that mess them up?”

“The oldest of the Tik-Tokkers looked up from their phone to say, “I checked the available connections in settings. They are running off their own hot spot. I wonder what the password is for Cash4Me2021.”

The other teenager says, “I bet you my piece of pie it’s the same as the license plate on their land rover, but don’t even think about trying it.”

By the time the potatoes are mashed, the gravy is in the boat, and the turkey carved and on the platter, two industrial size bags of mini-pretzels have been washed down with a two litre bottle of the dark bubbles. There have been numerous quick trips to the bathroom down the hall from the bedroom where they’ve hidden all day, but the trader hasn’t been downstairs, or spoken a word to anyone in the family. All three generations were warned to leave them alone while they worked.

The grandparent who ran the kitchen today has the other one travel the house announcing “Supper is ready”, and the extended family gathers in the dining room. There are extra chairs crowded in around the big table, that has both leafs in today. There is also a card table added to one end, for those who are last to the table. The family gave up on having a kid’s table years ago, because everyone wanted to be together.

The chairs around the tables fill in. Except for one. The day trader is the last to enter the dining room. They barely look up from the text they are reading. They don’t see the look on their partner’s face until they sit, and shut the phone down. One of the grandparents says, “It’s good to see you! How have you been?”

The day trader says, “Up about 11,000 dollars for the day. Parked it in my U.S. dollar account.”

The grandparent who asked says, “That sounds like work went well. But how are you?”

The day-trader’s partner sinks a little lower in their chair.

The day-trader picks up their phone, rises from the folding chair, and says, “Oh. To tell you the truth, I am a little tired. I really just came down to say hello, and good night.”

“Aren’t you going to join us for the meal?”, asked the grandparent who cooked all day.

“Honestly, I kind of filled up on snacks I brought from home, and don’t really need anything. But thanks for the offer.”

The day trader was up and gone before anyone at the big table could think of what to say.

The grandparent who had entertained the whole crew while the other was in the kitchen said. “We should get to passing food before it gets cold. This all looks great.”

One of the grand-kids looked around the table and said, “Let’s say grace first. We have a lot, so much, to say thanks for.”

Communion with the World- Learning Time from Harrow United Church, Oct 3, 2021

Today is World Communion Sunday. Since the early 1930’s Christian churches of many different denominations have celebrated it as a day to bring churches together in an act of unity. It started at a Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and quickly spread across the US and Canada, and to many other countries.

Even though there may be significant differences amongst the various kinds of churches, there is hope that in the breaking of bread, the pouring of the cup, and the remembering of the message and mission of Jesus, that Christians can celebrate what they share in common.

Common. That’s kind of our word for the day. The English word “common” has its roots in the Latin word “communis”, which is very close to the word communion. Communion means the state of sharing, or exchanging thoughts or ideas, or feeling part of something.

The example offered in one online dictionary was of poets who live in communion with nature. That sounds like connection, feeling like you have something in common with nature.

I have been pondering how we would celebrate World Communion Sunday in this almost post-pandemic, post-election reality, in which there seem to be so many divisive forces at work.

What if in our faith community- another word rooted in communis, or common, we used the occasion of World Communion Sunday to exercise our imaginations, and stretch our hearts and minds a little? In this season of creation we’ve heard some bible stories and some indigenous wisdom, that invites to deeply consider our place in Creation, and our relationship with the land, the air, the water, the sky, and all living creatures.  

Can we be like those poets that commune with nature? That phrase has me imagining people outdoors, perhaps occasionally hugging trees, but also, just taking time to be, to look, touch, smell, pay close attention.

I have been drawing upon the book Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, for inspiration and guidance.  Kimmerer is an indigenous woman, a member of the Potowatomi First Nation. She is also botanist and a professor of environmental and forest biology.

Early in the book she wrote about her first day of undergraduate program. Her academic adviser asked why she wanted to study botany. She wrote:

“How could I answer, how could I tell him that I was born a botanist, that I had shoeboxes of seeds and piles of pressed leaves under my bed, that I’d stop my bike along the road to identify a new species, that plants coloured my dreams, that the plants had chosen me? So I told him the truth. I was proud of my well-planned answer, its freshman sophistication apparent to anyone, the way it showed that I already knew some plants and their habitats, that I had thought deeply about their nature and was clearly well prepared for college work. I told him that I chose botany because I wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.” (p. 97, Braiding Sweetgrass)

The adviser looked at her said, “I must tell you that that is not science. That is not at all the sort of thing with which botanists concern themselves.” He went on to tell her that her question, which was about beauty, was not science, and that “if you want to study beauty, you should go to art school.”

The advisor’s response made her doubt where she came from, what she knew, and felt like he was telling her that his way was the only way to think.

She said, “In moving from a childhood in the woods to the university I had unknowingly shifted between worldviews, from a natural history of experience, in which I knew plants as teachers and companion to whom I was linked with mutual responsibility, into the realm of science.”

Did you notice how she wrote about plants as her companions? The word “companion” is rooted in two latin words. The “com” part derives from communis, or common, or sharing, that I mentioned earlier. The “panis” part is from the latin word for bread. A companion is someone with whom you share bread.

I think in her own, beauty-filled way, Kimmerer grew up communing with nature, like those poets. She found communion, with her companions, in the forest.

Later in the book, Kimmerer quoted another author, a scholar named Greg Cajete who wrote, “in indigenous ways of knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit.”

To me that sounds a bit like what Jesus told the scholars of religion, when he was asked about the Greatest Commandment, in other words, what must we be sure to do, to honour God, and walk in God’s way:

Jesus reminded them of what their faith already taught: “This is the foremost: ‘Hear, O Israel, God, our God, is one. You must love the Most High God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31 (The Inclusive Bible)

To live faithfully, in community, in the world, we are called to love with all parts of ourselves. Our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies. We are to love God, to love our neighbours, to love ourselves.

Kimmerer wrote that the struggle she had, in her early years of university, was that her “natural inclination was to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide. But science is rigorous in separating the observer from the observer, and the observed from the observer.”

Kimmerer learned how to speak the language of science, and did very well. She completed her bachelor’s degree, and was accepted to do graduate work in a great botany program. Her adviser wrote a letter in which he said, “She’s done remarkably well for an Indian girl.”

She completed her Master’s degree, and then her PhD, and was hired as a professor. Then she was invited to a gathering of Native elders, to talk about traditional knowledge of plants. She listened to “a Navajo woman without a day of university botany training in her life” who spoke of the plants in her valley, their names, where they lived, when they bloomed, who they liked to live near, what creatures ate the plants and which ones lined their nests with them, and what kind of medicine each plant offered. She talked about stories of those plants, how they got their names, and what they have to tell us. She spoke of beauty.

Kimmerer said the Navajo woman’s words were like smelling salts waking her up again. It was the beginning of her reclaiming that other way of knowing, of living in relationship with the world. She said, “I felt like a malnourished refugee invited to a feast, the dishes scented with the herbs of home.”

I love that in her return to her indigenous way of connecting with the world, I’d say, being in communion with the world, she felt like she’d been invited to a feast.

When we celebrate the sacrament of communion, we invite people to our table, for bread, and for wine, or juice. These represent not just the body, and the blood of Jesus, but the bounty of the earth. Grain harvested and ground, and baked into nourishing bread. Grapes picked and the sweet juice extracted for the cup. These are simple, worldly things, offered to us in love, that we might grow in our own capacity to see all humans, all creatures, the whole world as one. Amen

Interdependence- Learning Time for Sept 26, 2021 at Harrow United Church

Interdependence

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Potawotami nation, and a botanist, and professor of environmental and forest biology. Her book, Braiding Sweetgrass is an artful weaving of personal history, stories from her indigenous culture, and scientific observation.

In a chapter called the Council of Pecans, she told a story about her grandfather and his brothers, who one fall day in 1895 went fishing in the midst of drought, in an effort to bring some protein home for the family supper table. They caught nothing, but on the way home, walking near a grove of trees, one of them stubbed his toe on something hard and round hidden in the tall grass.

Pecan nut still on the tree

The boy looked down, then picked up a hard green ball from the ground and whipped it through the trees at his brother like a fastball, and yelled “Piganek! Let’s bring ‘em home!”  Pigan is the name in their language for any kind of nut, but was brought into English by the settlers as pecan. The boys could not carry many in their hands, but they took off their pants, tied the legs off with twine, and filled them like we might use a grocery bag. They ran home in their underwear, with their pants over their shoulders like big forked logs, to present their treasure to their mother.

Kimmerer’s people were originally from the Great Lakes region, in Michigan. When settlers wanted their land to farm, they were moved to Oklahoma, which is where those boys were when they brought home pecans for supper. They were moved again, to Kansas, to make room for another wave of white settlers.

Kimmerer has been back to the old family home place in Oklahoma, and there is a pecan tree shading what remains of the house. She wrote, “I imagine Grammy pouring nuts out to prepare them and one rolling away to a welcoming spot at the edge of the dooryard. Or maybe she paid her debt to the trees by planting a handful in her garden right then and there.”

That’s a great image. The woman pausing from her work of preparing food for a hungry family, to plant a few pecans in the garden. The phrase Kimmerer used was to pay a debt. There is a recognition in those words of a relationship between the people and the trees that provided food. There is gratitude, and respect, and responsibility. Another word we could use is interdependence, the recognition that all beings: plant, animal, human, need each other, and have duties to one other.

Kimmerer wrote, “in the summer of 1895, the root cellars throughout Indian Territory were full of pecans, and so were the bellies of boys and squirrels. For people, the pulse of abundance felt like a gift, a profusion of food to be simply picked up from the ground. That is, if you got there before the squirrels. And if you didn’t, at least there would be lots of squirrel stew that winter. The pecan groves give and give again. Such communal generosity might seem incompatible with the process of evolution, which invokes the imperative of individual survival. But we make a grave error if we try to separate individual well-being from the health of the whole. The gift of abundance from pecans is also a gift to themselves. By sating squirrels and people, the trees are ensuring their own survival.”

When the pecan trees have a big production year, and throw off a lot of nuts, the squirrels pack their larders. When they are well-fed, the plump pregnant mamas have more babies in each litter. Increased squirrel population means more food for hawks and foxes, and they flourish. Then predation increases, and the squirrel population decreases. Some of the nuts they’ve buried lay undisturbed, and more pecan trees get their start. There is a rhythm, a pulse to all of this.

Kimmerer sees herself, and her people, not as bystanders to this organic, living drama, but as integral parts of the living web. As I mentioned last week, this way of seeing is very different, and not easily compatible with the worldview of the settlers, the ones who displaced Kimmerer’s people.

When our White Europeans forebears came here, they brought the understanding that land was a commodity to divided up with lines on a surveyor’s map, property to be assigned, bought and sold, and put to work for the benefit of the owner.

Aerial images of Kingsville greenhouses at night.

Living in Kingsville, I hear a lot of discussion about land that was historically designated for agriculture, but is now hidden under acres and acres of plastic sheeting, for greenhouse operations. Are these farms, or factories? What happens to all the other forms of life that were once part of the ecosystem on that land? Where do the deer run, when glowing polyethylene structures cover their old trails?

White tail deer

I don’t know the answers, but I appreciate that Kimmerer’s way of seeing the world brings a different sense of involvement, interdependence, and responsibility.

This week we took time in the service for our annual blessing of the animals. It’s a tradition that goes back almost over 800 years in the Christian faith. There was a man in Italy called Francis of Assisi, who in his own way, pointed to the interdependence of all that lives in God’s creation. He wrote poetry in which he called the sun his brother, and the moon his sister. He considered all the animals to be family. By his words, but most often, with his actions, he encouraged love, and respect for all living creatures.

He was probably what people today would call a nature mystic- he felt a profound spiritual connection to God, when he was out for a walk in the woods. There are stories about him preaching sermons to the birds, encouraging people to feed animals who had been displaced when land was cultivated for farming, and of him praying for the healing of injured animals.

Francis knew and taught in the 13th century what many people today also know, that animals are capable of both receiving, and offering love. They live in relationship with the natural world, and the other creatures around them, and have much to teach us. Amen

Our stories shape, and reflect our worldview. Learning time for Sept 19, 2021 at Harrow United Church

When I tell you a story, whatever it is about, I am telling you about myself, my culture, my beliefs, my politics, my issues. The story may not sound like it is about me- but if I picked it, the fact that I am telling it, says something about me, who I am, and where I come from. The way I tell it may say even more. Have you ever noticed that some people, when they tell a story, what ever it is about, manage to make it mostly about themselves?

Everyone has stories. Stories pass on information, a worldview, a way of living.

You’ve heard the comment that history is told by the winners. The stories that get preserved, tell us something about the dominant culture, and what it values. The stories I learned as history, about the creation of Canada as a nation, were usually about brave and adventurous European discoverers, coming to a vast, untamed, and largely vacant land. The fact that there were communities, civilizations, nations long established here was never the focus of the story.

It reminds me of the way Sir Edmund Hilary is described as the first person to climb Mount Everest. He was the white guy, a beekeeper from New Zealand. How many of us can name the man who made the final ascent with him?

Tenzing Norgay was Hillary’s Sherpa guide. But Hillary and Norgay wouldn’t have got anywhere near the top of Everest by themselves. They were members of an expedition that included a dozen climbers, 35 Sherpa guides, and 350 porters, who carried the 18 tons of food and equipment needed for the climb.

We usually only hear part of the story, and what part gets chosen, tells you something about those who choose, and tell the stories. My favourite part of Edmund Hillary’s story is that 7 years after his famous climb of Mount Everest, he led another Himalayan expedition, sponsored by the World Book Encyclopaedia, in search of the Abominable Snowman. They did not find each other, but that’s a whole other story.

I grew up minutes away from the Fort William First Nation, on the edge of Thunder Bay, and never heard stories from that community, even though its history goes back a lot further than that of the Europeans who settled in Northern Ontario. It was as if the history of Canada, of this whole continent, began when white men arrived on its shores.

When the government of Canada decided to dismantle the culture and traditions of the First Nations people, they took the children, many against their will, and without parental consent, to places where they were not allowed to hear or speak the languages of their people. They were only allowed to hear, and speak English, and their traditional stories were replaced with the stories of the Bible, and with the same primers and textbooks used in white people’s schools.

Take away the language, you take away the stories. Take away the stories, and you take away cultural memory. That’s a very effective way to destroy a people. The goal was to solve the Indian Problem in Canada, by making the children into slightly darker skinned versions of white kids, so that they could be fit in, assimilated into mainstream, meaning white, Canadian society.

The stories we tell, and how we tell them, tell a story about us. The Bible has some kind of creation story in at least five different places. Over the weeks of the season of Creation we are hearing them. Last week we heard Psalm 8. This week our story comes from Genesis chapter 1. It’s the one that describes the Creator making everything over the course of 6 days, and then taking a rest day, to step back and enjoy it. In this story, before the Creator relaxes, they make humans, and then ask the humans to take care of the earth, and all that has been created, including all the creatures.

In our western culture we seem to have taken that part of the story about being caretakers, and upgraded ourselves from land managers, to owners. That was the attitude our forebears brought with them when they colonized and settled here in this part of the world. They used all their powers of persuasion, friendly and otherwise, to get title to the land, to claim it as their own.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a member of the Potowatami First Nation, wrote:

“In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold.”

Did you hear that? Really hear that? The land, the whole world viewed as a sacred gift from the Creator, meant for the good of all, and not to owned, or bought, or sold.

That is such a foreign, weird idea to most of us. It’s not the story we have been told, or that we tell about the world. It’s a story that was not easily compatible with the stories the White Europeans came here with, that shaped their view of the world, and how to live in it.

The Ojibwe’ story we heard about the creation of Turtle Island shows Sky Woman working together with the animals, to make a safe place for them all to live. It is a cooperative vision, not a competitive one. It is a story not about owning and exploiting the gifts of creation for profit and power, but of taking care of what has been given by the Creator, for the good of all.

I read a commentary on this story, that pointed out that the creation of Turtle Island depended upon the bravery and determination of the smallest water creature in the story. Muskrat risked their own life to dive deep, and bring up the bit of soil Sky Woman needed, to begin the making of the new place to live.

Muskrat had a story about themselves, that said they were not as capable or useful as the larger water animals, the beaver, the fisher, the marten, or the loon. But when all these larger, stronger creatures failed, the muskrat let go of their former, limiting story, and lived into a story that encouraged them to try, to stretch themselves, to risk giving themselves to something beyond themselves.

Wilika Matchweta Asimont, the woman who offered that commentary describes herself as a survivor of Canada’s First Nations boarding school legacy and foster care system. What stories about herself did she have to let go of, in order to make a life beyond all of that? What stories did she discover in new ways, to live into, in order to survive, and thrive, and be of help to others?

As a community of Jesus followers, we have a story that we tell over and over again, and act out, that is meant to tell us something about the world, and about the Creator, our relationship to the Creator, and to each other. It’s a story we hold sacred, sacred enough to call it the sacrament of communion.

When we share the sacrament today, and I say the words, I will also be listening deeply to the story, trying to go as deep into the story as little Muskrat, to get a hold of a little something, that will help build a world.

Being like a Butterfly

This is the “learning time” I wrote for Sunday, September 12, at Harrow United Church. It was our first in-person worship service after the province moved to Step 3 in its re-opening plan. It was great to be with some folks I had not seen in person for quite some time. Our sound guy, Eric, brought some special guests. He knew I would be speaking about Monarchs, and has a friend who raises them. Eric brought a portable enclosure containing five adult butterflies. They were on the communion table for the worship service. Afterwards, we brought them outside and members of the congregation helped release them.

Acknowledgment of the Land:

We live, and make our living on land that was known, and cherished, lived on and travelled long before explorers claimed to discover it, and settlers arrived from other lands. The area we call Essex County is traditional territory of the Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, and Caldwell nations of the Three Fires Confederacy, and the Huron/Wyandot nation. The people who knew this land long before our forebears arrived, had rich history, and culture, and spirituality, and a deep and profound relationship with Creation.

Psalm 8 (The Message)

God, brilliant Lord,
    yours is a household name.

 Nursing infants gurgle choruses about you;
    toddlers shout the songs
That drown out enemy talk,
    and silence atheist babble.

 I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous,
    your handmade sky-jewelry,
Moon and stars mounted in their settings.
    Then I look at my micro-self and wonder,
Why do you bother with us?
    Why take a second look our way?

 Yet we’ve so narrowly missed being gods,
    bright with Eden’s dawn light.
You put us in charge of your handcrafted world,
    repeated to us your Genesis-charge,
Made us stewards of sheep and cattle,
    even animals out in the wild,
Birds flying and fish swimming,
    whales singing in the ocean deeps.

God, brilliant Lord,
    your name echoes around the world.

Caring for the Earth: Some words about Monarch Butterflies

Just the other day Greg Iler was on his ATV, heading from his house to the equipment barn, and he noticed the sound of the ATV roused hundreds of monarch butterflies from the cedar hedge.

Greg told us about it at this week’s meeting of the church board. I offered a devotion that asked people to remember if they’d recently had an “awe” moment- when they saw something surprisingly, wonderfully beautiful. There are moments that we just want to share, and that lift us out of the ordinary, and I think, remind us of the holiness of life, and creation.

The video can’t completely capture the wonder of what he saw, when all those monarchs flew over his head. Maybe it was one of those you had to be there moments.

The Monarch is in peril of becoming an endangered species, which makes the “you had to be there” seem a little more urgent. Monarchs depend on milkweed as their place to land, rest, feed and lay their eggs, if they can find them.

Over the last 20 years, millions of acres of milkweed plants have been plowed under to farming or uprooted by development.  In 1996, the annual monarch count was about 1 billion butterflies. Recent counts are down to around 50 million, a loss of around 95 percent of the monarch population.

We are blessed to live in an area that is on one of their migration routes. This is a great time of year to see them as they gather to head south.

It wasn’t until I watched a video of the Monarch’s development from the laying of an egg to the emergence of a butterfly that I grasped all the stages that must happen. It’s truly amazing, and for me, a reminder of the mystery and wonder of life.

We often use the image of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly to talk about transformation- but seeing all the stages, from egg, to the first larva, or instar stage, to 4 more growth stages where the larva sheds its skin, to pupa building its cocoon, or chrysalis, then to the imago, or adult butterfly, was a powerful reminder that transformation, while it is a natural process, is also a lot of work.

It takes a lot of determination, and energy, and time to become something new. Even if we already have the DNA, the genetic blueprint to guide us, the changes don’t come quick and easy.

Everything in creation is changing, all the time. Everything goes through stages of transformation.

The monarch’s transformation leads them to become something wondrous, and beautiful. If you didn’t know about butterflies, and you saw the little translucent egg perched on a blossom, or the tiny, odd-looking larvae scrunching around, chomping holes in a milkweed leaf, would you ever imagine what it is destined to become? How does the larva know when to stop chewing and swallowing, and spin the little sac that becomes its cocoon? How does it know when one stage of life must give way to the next? What urges it on, to do the next thing?

We can look at the Monarchs, and enjoy them as marvelous creatures, part of God’s amazing creation. We can also learn from them.

As we take steps towards re-opening the church building, and working together, in person again, at our ministries, the leaders of the congregation are beginning to see, and wrestle with the likelihood that some of the changes that happened during COVID are going to lead to other changes, and that we are being kind of urged into a new way of doing things.

We’ve learned a lot about making online worship videos over the last year and a half, and we recognize the need to carry on with them. We will move to live-streaming our services, so folks who can’t be here on Sunday morning can watch and listen, and worship with us, as it happens.

Our families with school age children have been through different stages of how education is delivered, and we hope and pray with them that the return to in-person school goes well. We are still pondering how we can do our ministry with children and young people in this new time. How will Sunday School evolve? How can we best stay connected to these families and children, who are so important to us?

The caterpillar works hard to build the cocoon, and maybe it looks like it gets to rest, but inside the cocoon its body is changing, developing, becoming something new. It’s hard work.

Does the caterpillar ever ask, “Why can’t I just stay a caterpillar?”

Each individual caterpillar is being a caterpillar for the first time, and doesn’t have other caterpillars to watch, examples to follow. Everything they must do; they’ve never done before!

When it’s time for the mature butterfly to emerge, it wrestles itself out of the chrysalis sac, to begin its new life. Change is hard! Adapting to new conditions, to a new stage of life, is challenging.

As a congregation, we may find that things will have to be different, going forward.

We’ve missed the Harrow Fair, but last weekend the ministerial organized a worship service on the fairgrounds, and we had 130 people attend. It was not the same as what had been done before. It was something new, that grew out of the former event, emerging like a new butterfly

We now sell our famous and wonderful Harrow Fair pies through Lee and Maria’s Market Garden in Kingsville. For Thanksgiving we will be taking pre-orders, and folks can pick up their pies here at the church.

Plans are under way for the turkey supper, the first Saturday in November, as always, but for the second year in a row it is all take-out, and you’ll pick up your meals at our drive thru. It’s not the way we used to do it, but it’s the way we are able to do it now. We’ve had to become nimble, creative, and patient with ourselves and others as we find our way.

There are champions of the monarchs in Windsor and Essex County, who promote planting milkweed, to provide places for the butterflies to feed and rest and lay their eggs. I bought milkweed plants at the Fruit Wagon two years in a row. We now have two varieties of milkweed thriving in our backyard, and it sends a little thrill of joy through me whenever we are visited by Monarchs.

My wife and I listened to a book this summer while we travelled up to Thunder Bay, written by a naturalist and adventurer named Sara Dykman. It’s called Bicycling with Butterflies: My 10,201-Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration.

Her story opened with the author climbing a mountain in central Mexico, to visit one of the protected butterfly reserves where tens of millions of monarch butterflies winter in the oyamel fir tree forests.  They fill the sky and cluster so heavily on the trees that the branches bend with their weight and look like they’re covered with orange and black leaves.

Lexie and I were cycling at Pelee on Thursday evening and saw a cluster of monarchs on one branch high above our heads. Maybe you’ve seen similar sights. Imagine what it would be to see millions of monarchs in one place.

When things begin to warm up in March, it’s time for the Monarchs to migrate north, through the U.S. and up here into Canada. Each butterfly can travel 25-30 miles a day. It was the author’s plan to go along with them, making the journey on her bicycle.

The book includes valuable observations about the butterflies, and other creatures, their habitats, and the threats to their survival. She described her visits to schools, parks, and community groups, during which she shared her conservation message, and her reverence for nature with all who would listen. Everywhere she went, she encouraged ordinary people to do their part, by planting and protecting milkweed.

Sarah Dykman made her amazing journey in 2017, including stops at Point Pelee, and a school in Windsor. It would have been great to hear her speak, and see her pictures, and her bicycle, which she called her ButterBike. I bet it was a great experience for the students in the schools she visited.

Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention when I was in grade school, and we learned about Monarch Migration. I knew they fly north from Mexico in the spring, and back south in the fall, kind of like the migratory birds.

I didn’t realize that except for the adult butterflies that make it to Mexico and go dormant in the cold air of the mountains, each butterfly lives only for 2 to 6 weeks. They fly along, breed, stop and rest and feed and lay their eggs on milkweed plants. The butterflies die not long after breeding, and it’s the next generation that continues the journey. It takes 4 generations to complete the long journey from Mexico to Canada and back.

Scientists have different theories about how each new generation knows where to fly. They may be navigating by the stars, or by the angle of the sun in the sky, or perhaps by the earth’s magnetic fields.

Scientists put tiny bands on butterflies at various places on the known migration corridors and can tell that generations of butterflies descended from the same ancestors follow the same routes every year. Butterflies with different genetic profiles follow different routes.

As I pondered it taking four generations for the monarch to travel from their winter homes to where we live, and back again, I thought about the Seventh Generation Principle, which comes from the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois people, that says decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.

As we have been finding out these last two years, the present and the future do not always turn out the way we expected, and we face new decision points. As we make plans for our families, our businesses, our communities, our church, perhaps the Monarchs can be good teachers for us. Each Monarch has their part in something so much larger than themselves. Their efforts are part of the ongoing survival of their species.

Do we think that way? Do we consider that choices we make, for good or for bad, have implications for our families, communities, species, that will last for generations?  How do we calculate how much effort we are willing to make and what level of inconvenience we will tolerate, for the benefit of those who will come after us, generations, and decades, and centuries down the line?

I was cycling with some friends the other day, our own little migration from Kingsville to Harrow, and back. One of the guys, who is in his 70’s talked about spending a day near Peterborough, with a group of volunteers who were planting trees. He observed that most of the tree-planters were older than him, and many would not live to see their saplings grow big and tall. He thought that was a good example of optimism.

I think’s it’s more than optimism. It’s a sign of spiritual transformation, when a person grows to a stage in life at which they find meaning and purpose in doing things for the benefit of future generations- and act more like Monarch Butterflies. Amen

Service for July 25, 2021

Learning Time: “Have Mercy” 

Take a moment in silence, to remember a time when you said or did something that upset or hurt another person.  I will do this with you, knowing full well that it is not pleasant to remember when we have wronged another person. 

Before we go further, let’s remember that God loves us, and through Jesus we know that there are no barriers to God’s love, and God’s forgiveness. If you feel a need to, offer a prayer asking God to forgive the thing you just remembered, about hurting someone else. If you have not already done so, and need to, you may want to make a plan for how to reconcile with that person.

Now, take a moment and remember a time in which you were the one on the receiving end- when something that was said or done caused you upset or hurt. 

Have you been able to be reconcile with the person who hurt you- or their memory? Some of our hurts may go back so far that the person who caused them may no longer be around. Have you forgiven the person? Are you still working on forgiving them?

Forgiveness is not always easy.  It’s important to recognize that we may have to work at it, and that it may come in stages, or in layers, depending upon how deeply we were hurt, and how far back the memory goes.  Reaching the point at which we feel that we have forgiven someone may actually come long after we have made the choice, the decision to forgive.

Like most things that are worth doing, forgiveness takes work, and practice. It may take a while before we get good at it. There are times, though, when it comes miraculously quickly, as if we have been given a tremendous gift.

I want to tell you about a man named Gilbert Tuhabonye. Gilbert was the third of four children born into a farming family that was part of the Tutsi tribe in the southern county of Songa, in Burundi.  From an early age, it was clear that Gilbert was born to run. Whether he was chasing his family’s cows, fetching water, or making the five mile trek to school, he loved to run everywhere. 

After 6th grade, Gilbert had to leave home to attend a boarding school 150 miles from the family farm. At the Kibimba school he began running competitively. In his first year he won an 8k race while running barefoot. In his second year he caught the eye of a coach who taught him proper running technique, and encouraged him to train hard, and aim for the Olympics.

As an 11th grader, Gilbert became a national champion in the 400 and 800 metre races. By his senior year Gilbert was on track and headed towards a scholarship to a US school, with the goal of getting an education, and returning to his home in Burundi.

One terrible afternoon in October 1993 life changed dramatically for Gilbert, and many others in Burundi. The historic tribal conflict between the Tutsis and the Hutus erupted into horrific violence, and overtook the school. The Hutu students at the school, with their parents, some teachers, and other tribe members forced the Tutsi students and their teachers into a room in which they were beaten, and left to be burned to death.

Gilbert was badly hurt, but somehow survived. He spent 9 hours in the smouldering room, working his way out of the piled bodies, and managing to break through a window with a charred bone. He jumped free of the burning building and ran into the night, with 3rd degree burns on much of his body, machete wounds, and a twisted leg. He survived, while 249 others died.

Gilbert recovered from his injuries, returned to running, and received a full athletic scholarship to Abilene Christian University. He won several national titles as an NCAA runner, and is now a teacher and coach in Austin, Texas. He runs a program called Gilbert’s Gazelles, and has started the Gazelle Foundation, which raises money for development work back in his home country of Burundi. He focuses on creating supplies of clean water where Hutu and Tutsi people alike can meet, and talk, and get the water they need to live.

I heard an interview with Gilbert. He described being discharged from the hospital, and realizing that the people who killed so many of his friends, and tried to kill him, were still walking the streets.  One day he actually encountered the man who had organized the attack on the school. This man had thought Gilbert was dead, and was shocked and frightened to see him. He collapsed at Gilbert’s feet begging for forgiveness.

Gilbert said, “I let him go. Forgiveness is a powerful tool for me. I struggled a lot, and when I let that person go and live free, it was the beginning of everything. And then, I used running to clear my mind. Instead of every day dreaming to get revenge on the people who tried to kill me, instead, I am dreaming to be the best that I can be. “

He went on to say, “Exercise and running is something that has helped me, and I want to teach everybody to enjoy it.” Gilbert gives his students t-shirts that have his motto on the back, “Run with Joy”. I have seen videos of Gilbert training classes of young runners, and even though he is working hard, and working them very hard, they are laughing, and smiling, and finding the joy in life.

I recently celebrated my 60th birthday, and I marked the day by riding my bicycle for 26 miles. That’s the same distance as a marathon. I used to run marathons, but these days I limit my running to 3 or 4 miles at a time. Over the years I have had some good running partners and teachers, and have helped others learn how to run.  Running has taught me a lot about how to be a human being. 

When I took up running in my late 30’s, I couldn’t go for more than 2 or 3 minutes without having to stop. I had to learn to start slow, and stay slow, and focus on building up a habit, and building up some endurance. It took months before I could run a mile and not think I was going to collapse. It felt miraculous when I reached the level where I could run 3, 4 or 5 miles, and not really be out of breath. 

Two weeks ago I ran in a race in Leamington, a fundraiser for the Hospice, and my pace and time were about the same as the first race I ran in Windsor, more than 20 years ago. So maybe I am really fast 60 year old, or I was just slow when I was younger! What I have learned is that if I want to keep being able to do something, whether it’s running, or writing sermons, or praying, or asking forgiveness, or offering it, I have to keep working at it, even when I might feel like giving up, or sleeping, or watching tv, or maybe eating a donut.

God creates us with the basic tools we need, but we may need to learn how to use them. We may need coaching, and encouragement, and practice, lots of practice, before we do it well. Even when we are growing in our spiritual fitness, there will be times when we would rather not do what is good for us. There are times when we would rather wallow in bitterness or self pity.

Think again about Gilbert, on the street, meeting the man who organized the attack that killed everyone at the school except Gilbert.

I don’t know if the forgiveness Gilbert extended came easy to him. Whether or not that forgiveness came through Gilbert all at once as a miraculous gift, or whether it came after long hard struggle- the point is that it came. Gilbert says that it was faith that made it possible for him to carry on, to run from danger, to build a new life, and to forgive those who had killed all his friends.

Forgiveness can happen. We can forgive, and we can be forgiven. And when forgiveness comes, as it did for Gilbert, and for the man he forgave, it offers the hope and possibility of a brand new life. Thanks be to God. Amen

Worship for July 18, 2021 “Take Me Out to the Ball Game!”

Mark 12:28-34 New International Version

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but God. To love God with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

Learning Time:

I thought it would be interesting to re-imagine that conversation between the teacher of Jewish law, and Jesus, as if it were a baseball game. So let’s play ball!

It is the biggest game of the season in the Jerusalem baseball league. The home team, the Temple Pharisees, are hosting the Galilee Disciples. It is one of the last regular season games. Tension has been building between these two teams. The big city Pharisees don’t want to be beat by these small town players, some of whom look more like fishermen and farmers than they do ball players.

Jesus is up to bat. The bases are loaded. Simon is on first, James is on second, and John is on third. The other disciples are on the bench, all eyes on the batter. They are 3 runs behind, it is the last out, and they really want Jesus to bring their team-mates home.

The infield and outfield positions are staffed with Pharisees ready to pounce on the ball, and make the play. They just need an out, and this game will be theirs.

There is a home field advantage in this game, because the Pharisees have also supplied their own umpire. The umpire pays close attention to how Jesus addresses the ball, and what happens when he hits. Will it be fair or foul?

I once knew a Toronto Bay Street lawyer who volunteered in the summer time as a little league baseball umpire. He also encouraged his daughters to be umpires, because he believed that it was good training. To be an effective umpire, he said, you have to know the rules inside out. You have to watch carefully, and very quickly make your call, and be decisive when you make it.

The Jewish religion in Jesus’ time was very much about following a list of 613 rules from the first five books of the Bible, so the teachers of religion were a bit like lawyers, or umpires who expected people to follow their calls.

My son Joel, who will turn 20 in a few weeks, said just the other day how much he misses playing ball. I can remember being at one of his games when a very excitable assistant coach was almost ejected from the game, because he kept challenging the umpire’s calls. His behaviour was such a contrast with the kids on the team, who were there, most of them, because they love the game, and wanted to play, and weren’t all that caught up in winning or losing.

The Jewish teachers of the law saw Jesus as a threat to their ability to run the religion game. They may have just been itching to call him out on strikes, or even throw him out of the game altogether. But back to our game, between the Temple Pharisees and the Galilee Disciples.

The pitcher sends one flying towards Jesus. “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

Jesus might have seen that one coming. He looks relaxed and ready. He takes his swing, and makes a good connection. He says:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

It’s a hit!

The pitcher nods and smiles. He respects a good hitter. After all he loves the game, and wants to see it played well.

Jesus is quoting the Shema, a verse from the Book of Deuteronomy recited twice a day by pious Jews. It is foundational to their faith that there is only one God. This is a way of saying that all other gods are false gods- distractions from the true faith. We are to love God with all our heart, and soul, and mind and strength.

Even the umpire looks happy. “Fair ball!” The crowd is waiting for Jesus to run the bases. Even a good hitter has to touch all the bags, to score. But Jesus isn’t ready to move. He watches the ball arc into the sky, and says, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The crowd are going crazy! They can see why Jesus was in no hurry to run, because this ball is out of there. He has literally hit it out of the park.

Jesus sets down his bat, and makes a leisurely circuit of the bases. When he gets back to home plate, Simon and James and John have all made it in. They are so excited. They embrace Jesus. The pitcher runs to the plate to congratulate Jesus, and even the umpire is uncharacteristically enthusiastic. Something important has just happened.

The pitcher says, “Well said, teacher!” The crowd is going wild. Both benches are cleared, and all the players are jumping up and down. But it is not a brawl, it is a celebration. The pitcher calls for quiet. The umpire nods his head in agreement. He wants to hear what else the pitcher has to say.

“You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but God. To love God with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Now the crowd is very still, as the pitcher’s words sink in. They can’t believe their ears. The star pitcher of the Pharisees had just agreed that it is more important to love God, and to love your neighbour as yourself, than it is to make sacrifices at the temple.

That ball really was hit out of the park. And out of the temple. Because a Pharisee has just realized that following God is more important than simply following the rule book, and going through the motions.

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

What did Jesus mean when he said the Pharisee was not far from the kingdom of God?

In Luke’s Gospel there is another story of Jesus facing the hard pitches. One of the Pharisees asked him when the kingdom of God would come.  “He answered them, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.”  (Luke 17:20-22)

To love God, and to love your neighbour as yourself. This is all about being in relationship. How we are connected to God, and to others, and to our true self. These connections make our lives bigger, and truth to tell, much more worth living.

This is a movement beyond a religion of rules, where we always need external guidelines, and umpires to tell us if we are safe or out. This is a movement towards learning, or remembering who we are, and what life is actually all about. It is as if the Pharisee, who has been going through the motions of religion his whole life, is starting to wake up, and see it all in a deeper way.

When I watch baseball, at any level, from little league to the big leagues, I love watching the players for whom the game has become natural. They are so into it, they don’t really have to think hard before they make a play. It is as if their deeper self just knows what to do, and they do it. They are really in the game. I also love watching the ones who just seem to be having a great time- playing as much for the joy of the games as anything else. Ever watch the Jays star first baseman, Vladimir Guerrero Junior? He’s like that.

When Jesus told the Pharisee he was not far from the kingdom of God, what he was saying is that the Pharisee was beginning to get it- he was moving from following an external religion, to living an internal faith- one that he knows from the inside out. The Pharisee is beginning to see that the point is not just to follow rules, to stay out of trouble with the religious umpires.

The point is to love, because it is in loving that we actually have the experience of knowing that we are close to God, because God is all around us. Love is not just a feeling, or an idea. Love is actually a powerful force, at work in the universe.

In the first letter of John, it says, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

The letter goes on to say, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

When we open ourselves to consciously loving God, and other people, and ourselves, we can experience God’s love as a powerful energy that flows into us, and through us. When we live, and love in this way, it is a whole new ball game. Amen

Worship for July 11, 2021 “All My Relations”

The first year I was at seminary we had a visit from a local representative of the Canadian Bible Society- their logo is a line drawing of a sower of seeds. I still have the Greek New Testament given to me by the Bible Society. Sharing the Word is sowing the seed.

Over the centuries, the parable of the sower has offered us a job description, and a comforting way to think about the fact that not everyone wants to join us.

Built into the parable are the images of rocky soil, of shallow soil, of soil over-ridden with weeds. Not every place the seed lands, will result in growth, new life. There is room for the preacher to say, some people are like that- some are shallow, or rock hard, or shadowed by weeds that won’t allow the gospel to take root.

The story gives us the tools, not just to encourage persistent sowing, but also to congratulate ourselves for being good soil, and to be judgmental of others. If not everybody who hears our message becomes converted, transformed, it may be because somehow their soil is not ready. This story can be misused, manipulated, to give us a sense of superiority.

It’s often easier, and tempting to think of the world in simple terms. Good soil or bad. Jesus follower or not. Sowers of seed, and tracts of dirt. Saved or not saved.

Stories are powerful, and can be used as weapons. When white people first came to this continent, the story they brought home was they had discovered a vast empty land, a Terra Nullius, with just a few ignorant savages on it.

Another story, called the “Doctrine of Discovery” was told, that said that the relatively few people on this vast empty land had no claim of ownership, because they weren’t civilized, and they weren’t Christians. They needed colonizers to come in and show them how to live.

The recent stories about unmarked graves of hundreds of children, on sites of former residential schools make it more difficult to ignore what has been known for seven generations, in indigenous communities, that terrible things were done to children, and very few perpetrators have been held accountable for their actions. 

This is a time for soul searching, for our country, and for each of us as citizens, who have the privilege of life in this beautiful land, that had a rich history before it was claimed and colonized.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission tried to tell us, 6 years ago, when they produced their final report, that included a lengthy list of recommendations, most of which have gone largely ignored. They also told us, way back in 2015, about more than 4,100 children who died of disease or accident while attending a residential school. The Commission recorded first-hand stories from survivors, about the treatment of children, and the efforts to hide their deaths.

Justice Murray Sinclair believes a large number of children who were very ill, were sent home to die. He fears the total number of deaths may be over 6000, of the 150,000 children who attended the schools. That’s a mortality rate of 4%, significantly higher than that of adults serving in the Canadian Forces. It would have been less dangerous to draft these children into the army.

We have made our lives, and our living, on the land, and with the benefit of the rich resources of this country, which was not ours, until representatives of the British Crown took it.  They often used the argument that white people could manage it better than the original residents, to mask the real intention, which was to create profit for investors.  Corporations like the North West Company and the Hudson Bay Company were granted Royal Charters, and protected by Acts of the British Parliament, which gave them the right exploit the land and residents of what would become Canada.

For over 100 years our country had a program with the goal of eliminating First Nations culture, identity, language, spirituality, and political power. The Indian Act, which gives tremendous power to the federal government, paid lip service to the idea of helping people find their way to becoming “productive citizens” in the mainstream of Canada, but the underlying motivation was the assumption that being white is better than being indigenous.

I wish this wasn’t our history, but it is. Not every white Canadian is a racist. But these racist things have been done, by every single elected government, over the course the history of Canada.

Something else I wish was not true- that the United Church of Canada, as well as other major Christian denominations, were willing, active partners in this sickening enterprise. Churches entered into contracts to run residential schools across this country. I knew people who worked in them, and I know people who survived them, but not without physical and emotional wounds and scars.

The largest Christian denominations in Canada failed, not only in their treatment of the children. They failed to ensure the people they hired to work in these schools were decent and kind. They gave pedophiles and sociopaths unhindered access to innocent, vulnerable victims. They actively covered up the crimes of their employees, and made excuses for the high mortality rates.

The churches failed to be prophetic, to challenge the lie that white people are inherently better than people of colour.

I get weary of thinking of these sad things, but feel a responsibility to grapple with them, and glean some of the truth they contain. That feels more faithful than to avoid talking about it.

As a preacher, and teacher of the Jesus Way, there are questions that weigh heavy on me.

How could leaders, and members of Christian churches fail to see the white superiority inherent in the system as a problem? How could they look the other way at the treatment of vulnerable children, families, and communities? Why weren’t more of my brother and sister preachers over the last century calling out the sin of racism? How could they claim to be Christian, and do what they did, in the name of the brown-skinned, dark-eyed teacher, prophet, saviour Jesus?

How can our churches have any credibility, with indigenous people, or anybody else? Can we really claim to passing on the Gospel of Love, when by our actions and inactions we condoned racism, and contributed to the deaths of thousands of children?

I don’t support the choice of those who burn down churches, but I can understand their anger.

Reflecting on these sad truths, that aren’t just history, but a present reality, pushes me to look again at the superiority inherent in thinking of ourselves as the sower of seeds. We still have that responsibility, but we also need to think of ourselves in more humble terms.

The latin root of the word humble is humus, which is also the word for soil, or earth. In the creation story, the first humans are formed of earth, into which God breathes the breath of life.

The soil is sacred. The earth was made by the Creator, and is inherently good. We can think of ourselves as both soil, and the sower of seeds. Our “soil-ness”, or our “dirtness” is a good thing- it connects us to all that God makes. We may be sowers of seed, but we did not create it, and we do not have exclusive rights to the seed- they are not GMO products, patented by some agri-corporation- they are gifts from God, to God’s people, all of God’s people.

In August of 2012, at the 41st General Council, The United Church of Canada acknowledged the presence and spirituality of Aboriginal peoples in the United Church by revising the church’s crest. One of the changes was the addition of a Mohawk phrase which means “All my relations.”

Richard Wagamese was an Ojibwe’ man born in Minaki, Ontario in 1955. He died just a few years ago. He was an award winning journalist and author, who described himself as a second generation survivor of the residential school system. In 2013, he wrote an essay for the newspaper in Kamloops, in which he described spending time on his deck, early in the morning:

To be here as morning breaks is to feel unity. It’s to feel connected to everything around you and to absorb it, bring it into the very fiber your being, like learning to breathe all over again. It’s to come to understand that you are alive because everything else is. It is to comprehend what your people mean when they say “All my relations.”

It means everything. It’s not uttered in a casual way nor is it meant to be. In its solemnity it is meant as a benediction, a blessing and a call to this unity you feel all around you in the depth of morning. This phrase, this articulation of spirit, is a clarion call to consciousness.

It means that you recognize everything as alive and elemental to your being. There is nothing that matters less than anything else. By virtue of its being, all things are vital, necessary and a part of the grand whole, because unity cannot exist where exclusion is allowed to happen. This is the great teaching of this statement.

“All my relations,” means all. When a speaker makes this statement it’s meant as recognition of the principles of harmony, unity and equality. It’s a way of saying that you recognize your place in the universe and that you recognize the place of others and of other things in the realm of the real and the living. In that it is a powerful evocation of truth.

Because when you say those words you mean everything that you are kin to. Not just those people who look like you, talk like you, act like you, sing, dance, celebrate, worship or pray like you. Everyone. You also mean everything that relies on air, water, sunlight and the power of the Earth and the universe itself for sustenance and perpetuation. It’s recognition of the fact that we are all one body moving through time and space together.
Amen

A David and Goliath Story: Worship for July 4, 2021

This portion of the Book of Joel is quoted in the passage from Acts we hear read on Pentecost Sunday. It contains the hopeful reminder that the Spirit of God is active around us, and even within us, guiding us along the way, with signs in nature, with visions, and with dreams.

Joel 2:28-32 (The Message)

“And that’s just the beginning: After that— “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people: Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters. Your old men will dream, your young men will see visions. I’ll even pour out my Spirit on the servants, men and women both. I’ll set wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below: Blood and fire and billowing smoke, the sun turning black and the moon blood-red, Before the Judgment Day of God, the Day tremendous and awesome. Whoever calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help. On Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be a great rescue—just as God said. Included in the survivors are those that God calls.”

Learning Time: “A David and Goliath Story”

The Bible story we are working with today is about David and Goliath. It is one of those stories that almost everybody knows, even if they have never sat down and read it. How many times have we heard it mentioned in a sportscast? It is an instantly recognizable way to talk about the victory of the underdog, when someone says, “It was a David and Goliath story. “ We know immediately what they are talking about.

More than a decade ago I enrolled in a two year program to learn about Christian Spirituality, and to become a spiritual director. Spiritual direction is a specialized ministry that grew out of an ancient tradition of helping people to become more aware of the presence, and the work, and the leading of God in their lives. We begin with the basic idea that God is real, and that God has hopes and dreams for each of us, for what happens in each of our lives, and what choices we make. We can help each other listen for God, and become more aware of who God is calling us to be, and what we are meant to do.

When I read the story of David and Goliath, I see the character of David acting on his belief that God is with him, and that God has work for him to do. I deliberately referred to David as a character, a dramatic figure, because I don’t necessarily read the story as being literally true.

One of the things I learned, in my spiritual direction training, was to pay attention to my own dreams, and to listen carefully when other people want to talk about their dreams. If God can show us things, and guide us, and point us in the right direction in our waking life, perhaps God can also be at work in our dreams.

People who analyze dreams often begin with the premise that everything in the dream, all the characters, the mood, the furniture, the weather, the plot, and the dialogue, all come from deep inside of us. It is as if the dream is made up of pieces gathered from our conscious and unconscious memories, from things we are aware of in our day to day life, and things we may not have thought about for some time. These elements are all woven together in a production at least as interesting as any play or movie we might watch, or story we might read. The dream may use all these images from our own depths to get our attention, and tell us something.

Around the world there are certain images, plot-lines, human characters, and even animals that show up repeatedly in folk-stories, fairy tales, and dreams. Thinkers like Carl Jung used the term “archetype” to talk about these seemingly universal figures that carry meaning in many different cultures. Not surprisingly, the Bible is full of these kind of archetypal characters, like wise old men, and angels, and children who must be protected from harm, and kings, and warriors, monsters, giants, and heroes.

If we were to listen to the David and Goliath story as if it were David’s dream, it might tell us a lot, about the character of David, and about the way God works. Here is how the story begins:

 1 Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Socoh in Judah. 3 The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them.

 Even this description seems dream-like and symbolic. Opposing forces staring at each other across a divide- perhaps like warring parts of a personality, weighing the pros and cons of a decision.

 4 A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. He was over nine feet tall. 

Giants are literally larger than life characters. Sometimes in our dreams we are confronted with symbols of the things that we fear, like change, or loss, or death. I would take the presence a nine foot giant as a sign that this story is not meant to be read literally. Maybe Goliath represents some big thing that David feels he must conquer, or some huge fear that he has to face. Everyone of us, if we live long enough, has faced, or will face some challenge or problem that seems gigantic.

8 Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. 9 If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” 10 Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” 11 On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.

This part leaves me feeling that this story was passed down from generation to generation for a long time before it was preserved in writing. The story teller tells us how King Saul and all the Israelites felt. How could anyone really know how the whole army felt? It is a kind of shorthand, that is there to set the stage for David’s entrance into the drama.

I don’t know if there was ever a time in human history when wars were fought the way the story describes, with one champion from each side representing their king, in a winner takes all fight. I find it harder to believe than the 9 foot giant!

But if this was how wars were fought in our time, there might be a lot less bloodshed. What if each time a country wanted to go to war, they sent one champion, perhaps their prime minister, or president, instead of plane loads of 20 year olds?

We better get back to the story, because here comes the hero:

 12 Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah. Jesse had eight sons, and in Saul’s time he was old and well advanced in years. 13 Jesse’s three oldest sons had followed Saul to the war: The firstborn was Eliab; the second, Abinadab; and the third, Shammah. 14 David was the youngest. The three oldest followed Saul, 15 but David went back and forth from Saul to tend his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.

 16 For forty days the Philistine came forward every morning and evening and took his stand.

When we hear about shepherds and Bethlehem we immediately think of Jesus. When we hear the number 40, we remember other uses of that number. Noah and the Ark, and forty days of rain. When Moses takes the Israelites across the desert, it is a 40 year journey. When Jesus goes out into the desert to fast, it is for forty days. The number 40 is a biblical symbol for a long time. This is what it’s like in our dreams- elements from old familiar stories all fall in the pot, and make a strange new soup.

But back to David:

 17 Now Jesse said to his son David, “Take this ephah of roasted grain and these ten loaves of bread for your brothers and hurry to their camp. 18 Take along these ten cheeses to the commander of their unit. See how your brothers are and bring back some assurance from them. 19 They are with Saul and all the men of Israel in the Valley of Elah, fighting against the Philistines.”

David’s Father Jesse is worried for the well-being of his elder sons. He sends basic food for them, and a tribute, almost a bribe, to their commander.

 20 Early in the morning David left the flock with a shepherd, loaded up and set out, as Jesse had directed. He reached the camp as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. 21 Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines facing each other. 22 David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the battle lines and greeted his brothers. 23 As he was talking with them, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it. 24 When the Israelites saw the man, they all ran from him in great fear. 25 Now the Israelites had been saying, “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy Israel. The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his father’s family from taxes in Israel.”

 26 David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

 27 They repeated to him what they had been saying and told him, “This is what will be done for the man who kills him.”

 28 When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the desert? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.”

Even before David can get to the part where he would fight the giant Goliath, he has to deal with the anger of his oldest brother, who clearly has no confidence in him, and is actually angry that David might involve himself in the battle. Does Eliab’s voice represent that part of David that is filled with self-doubt and self-loathing, and that believes that he could never do anything right or good?

David sounds like every little brother or sister everywhere when he begins to stand up for himself:

 29 “Now what have I done?” said David. “Can’t I even speak?” 30 He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before. 31 What David said was overheard and reported to Saul, and Saul sent for him.

 32 David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”

 33 Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth.”

David faced down his big brother, and now he has to argue with the King. In many mythic tales, the hero has to face preliminary challenges and tests, almost like practice or warm-up fights, before the big scene in which they save the day.

 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”
      Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.”

I can remember learning this story in Sunday School with the little flannel graph figures. Even then I found it hard to believe that David would actually have grabbed a lion or a bear by its hair, struck it, and killed it. This sounds to me like a symbolic way of saying that David has faced his fears, and placed his trust in God, and is ready for his big challenge.

I have doubts about God taking sides in any war. Martin Niemoller, a German pastor who was sent to Dachau prison for challenging Hitler’s treatment of the Jews once said, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of his enemies.”

American writer Anne Lamott puts it this way, “ When God hates all the same people that you hate, you can be absolutely certain that you have created him in your own image.”

I interpret David’s story as being about having the courage to be who God calls you to be, even though there will be both internal and external barriers in your way. Each of us face times of test and trial in our lives- times when we have to decide whether we will go along with what the world is telling us, or will we do what we believe to be right and good.

 38 Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. 39 David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.
      “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.

I love the image of David rejecting the armour and weapons of the King, and going back to his shepherd’s tunic and his sling. He faced down the temptation to look and act like somebody he was not. This makes me think about people who have lived their lives I fear of revealing to people who they really are, for fear of rejection or persecution.

I think of all those people who’ve had to pass for white, or pass for straight, in order to survive, and simply live their lives. I think of all the amazing stories of women who were forced to dress and act as men, in order to do the work they were called by God to do.

 41 Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David. 42 He looked David over and saw that he was only a boy, ruddy and handsome, and he despised him. 43 He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!”

 45 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

 48 As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. 49 Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.

 50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.

 51 David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the scabbard. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.
      When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran.

When we were taught this lesson in Sunday School, they left off the part about David cutting off the giant’s head. It is a gruesome image, especially if we read it literally. I was looking this week at a detail from a Caravaggio painting of David holding up the freshly severed head of Goliath, and it was horrifying. We can’t use this story to glorify or justify violence, even for a cause we believe in.

But if we read this as David’s dream, we can share in David’s joy as he has faced down his big fears, stood up for who he really is, and survived, to tell the story. Amen