The 5 W’s and 1 H question applied to the Temptation of Jesus. Learning time for March 6 at Harrow United Church

A person and person standing on a rock with mountains in the background

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Learning Time: (audio file)

The tricky thing about the ways Jesus was tempted, is he was offered things that are not in themselves bad, or corrupt, or inherently evil. They are things, or questions about things that any of us can, and do face.

We all have to eat. So if a person had the ability to turn stones into bread, that could be incredibly helpful.

We need leaders to follow and look up to, and there is nothing wrong with aspiring to be well known, and exercise leadership.

There is also nothing inherently wrong with taking risks and trusting God to ultimately take care of us. If we live the opposite way, and never take risks, it is unlikely that we will grow as people, or learn very much, invent anything new, or ever make a difference.

So why does Jesus resist? We need more context, to understand his responses.Looking closely may also inform how we face our own temptations.

I was reading this week about the 5 “W” questions journalists are trained to ask. 

Do you ever watch the CTV News show, W5?

Who, What, Why, Where, When.  There’s also an H question: How?

Let’s take one of the temptations, the one about fame and power, and run it through the W’s, and then the H question:

Who was offering Jesus power? If we read the story literally, the tempter is a devil figure, or a trickster, or Satan, the great deceiver. If we read the story more symbolically, the tempter could be the ego, or that smaller part of ourselves that looks for the easiest way to get by, and tries to rationalize that the easy way is the best way, even if it isn’t.

Whether the voice of the tempter comes from an external source, like a devil, or an internal one- part of his own mind or personality, Jesus is wise enough to know that it’s not the voice of God, or even from the best part of himself. 

The tempter said, “If you are God’s Own, command this stone to turn into bread.”  This was a challenge, to get Jesus to prove he was a big deal- it was an appeal to pride and ego. Usually, that tactic is enough to tell us what we need to know, which is to not take the suggestion at face value, or to trust the source.

What exactly was on offer? Jesus was offered the “power and the glory of all the nations”. Power and the glory sounds a lot like the Lord’s Prayer. The tempter offered Jesus a position in which people would look upon him as a very big deal, and all he had to do was bow down to the tempter.  

When someone offers me a job, I need to hear not only about the perks, but also about the actual work involved. 

I turn to the Gospel according to Marvel Comics for wisdom on this one. As Spiderman learned, “With great power comes great responsibility.” 

The tempter says, you can have this great office with an amazing view, and all you have to do is make me first in your life. If the tempter is the Devil, putting the devil first sounds like a bad plan. If the tempter is an aspect of our own character, that could be just as bad. Take the job, accept the perks, and don’t worry about anybody but yourself.

Why? Why would Jesus be tempted in this way? According to the timeline of his life that we get from the Gospels, he was at the very beginning of his public ministry. He was just starting to connect with people, gather a crew of disciples, and move from village to village, sharing his message. It must have been hard work. 

The tempter effectively said, sign on with my way of doing things, make yourself the focus, rather than God, or the people you want to help, and you can very quickly rise to fame and glory.

When we see a tough task ahead of us, or a big problem to solve, it can be tempting to go for a quick and easy option. The reality is that in most cases, there are no quick or easy ways to solve big problems. There are no substitutes for time, hard work, sacrifice, commitment, and integrity.

Where? The tempter in the story took Jesus to a high place, far above the earth where ordinary people live and move and have their being- where life is complicated, and hard, and tragic, and heartbreaking, as well as beautiful, and meaningful, and precious. It’s hard to see the details, from way up in the sky. From high up, happy people and sad people look exactly the same.

The temptation here is to be above it all, and safe from all the hard parts of life- like sickness and sadness and loss and grief. The temptation here is actually to deny our human nature.

When? The tempter offered Jesus this high profile position just as he was on the brink of his public ministry. If the little voice is inside Jesus’ head, rather than an actual devil, it could be speaking for the part of Jesus that was not sure he really wanted to embark on the path of teacher, preacher, healer. 

It was a path  that would inevitably lead him into a head on collision with grief, sickness, the pain and difficulties of the real world. Drawing attention to those things would put him in the sights of the political and economic powers who liked how things were, and would not want Jesus to encourage common people to think better of themselves.

The last question is How? How could the tempter offer Jesus this high-flying position? 

The simple answer is that the tempter is lying and can’t really give Jesus anything. Jesus would still have to do all the work, to get to that high place. He might have to give up his higher ideals, and his original mission, to achieve the imagined place of power. He might have to be manipulative, and controlling, and misuse his power along the way. 

The tempter would win, not by handing Jesus the false prize, but by convincing Jesus to chase the wrong goals, using the wrong methods.

The answer Jesus gave was this:

 “Scripture has it: ‘You will worship the Most High God; God alone will you adore.’ ” 

Jesus told the tempter, and/or the little voice inside himself that might be attracted to the easier, less painful way, that he has to keep his eyes on God, place his trust in the rightness of his mission, and not get too distracted from, or avoid being who he is meant to be. Amen

Learning Time for Transfiguration Sunday, February 27, 2022

The news from Ukraine is disturbing. We pray it isn’t so, but it looks frighteningly like the beginning of an invasion. I’m sure many in our military are wondering how long it will be until they are called upon to represent Canada, and bring aid to the Ukrainian people in a genuine struggle for freedom against an actual tyrant. This life and death situation puts recent, more trivial use of these powerful words into chilling perspective.

In 1990, as a newly ordained minister, I served three villages in rural New Brunswick, where the biggest exports were trees cut for the paper mill, salmon from the Miramichi River, and young people who joined the reg forces. We watched the news with alarm as Iraq invaded Kuwait, and over 30 countries, including Canada, began sending military support, equipment and personnel to the war zone. Many families I knew had someone they worried about, who expected to be deployed.

This was before we had internet, but we did have television. This was the first time I remember an armed conflict being so immediately present. Sometimes the action we saw on the screen was live.

I also remember this as the first time I saw night battle scenes. Not just views from the distance of gun or rocket fire blazing across the night sky, but intense, on the ground scenes in that eerie green night vision monochrome. It was both fascinating and terrifying.

Night vision technology is now widely available and has greatly advanced. It’s often used in tv shows where they hunt ghosts, UFO’s, or shy creatures of the night, like Bigfoot.

With our regular eyes, unaided by special equipment, all the light we take in passes through our pupils, which are less than a millimeter wide in full daylight. When the light around us is dimmer, the pupils dilate a bit wider, but only so far.

Human vision is limited. Only about 10 percent of the light that enters a fully dilated pupil lands on photoreceptors in the back of the eye.  It takes five to ten minutes for our eyes to build up enough sensitivity to just barely perceive objects in dim light. 

The first night-vision equipment relied on large diameter lenses to magnify feeble sources of light. These days the lenses can be tiny because the images are electronically enhanced. There is even technology to allow us to see infrared radiation. We can follow the heat signatures of people or animals moving about at night.

Seeing is believing. We depend so much on what we see with our own eyes. But there is so more to reality than we are physically able to see.

Light and vision are often used as metaphors for spiritual awareness. Mystics speak poetically of God’s presence as light. We hear the phrase “enlightenment” or think of the moment the light bulb comes on, and we can see clearly what had been obscure or murky.

Last week I mentioned Thomas Merton, one of my favourite mystics. He wrote: “The thing that we have to face is that life is as simple as this. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story, it is true.

When I think of people who were born blind, or who’ve lost their sight, or whose vision is failing, I realize the limits of this metaphor. I want to acknowledge that, even as I explore our Gospel for today, which describes a moment when the disciples began to see Jesus in a new way.

Jesus led Peter, James, and John up the side of a mountain for some quiet time. This was early in his public ministry, but Jesus was gaining a following. Wherever he went people crowded in to meet him and hear him speak. People felt closer to God when they were in his presence.

That must have been exhilarating and exhausting for Jesus, and his crew. Is it possible they needed a break? Do you ever get to the point where you’re done with people, at least for a while?

It was near the end of a long day when they started up the mountain. In the twilight, as their eyes adjusted to the falling dark, they may have found the climb hard going.

Jesus was intensely awake, but weariness claimed his friends. They stopped climbing, ready for a rest, away from the throngs of people far below.  Stars and planets were now their blessedly silent companions. 

Jesus knelt to pray. This is was how he restored, after a long day. Who knows how long he prayed, or how long his friends rested? It may have been all night, from dusk to dawn.

Peter, James and John roused from their rest, and looked up to see Jesus, a little higher on the mountain, perhaps even at the top.

Jesus looked different. He seemed to glow bright white. Was it the morning sun just barely breaking over the top of the mountain, lighting him up like the full moon on the horizon?

Let there be light. That’s what it says in one of the Creation stories. The new day, the new world, the new thing, all seem to start with light. Is it actual light? Is it a metaphor for seeing in a new way?

Jesus looked different. Those first three disciples saw more than the charismatic teacher for whom they’d left their boats and nets on the lakeshore. He was leading them towards something altogether new.

On this mountain, where earth seemed to meet sky, and ordinary life reached new heights, they saw Jesus, and themselves in a new light.

The story says Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah, leaders from Israel’s past. Their presence adds weight and power to the story, but I’ve always wondered, how would the disciples have recognized them, so long before photos, and without name tags?

They might have deduced who they were, by their conversation about Israel’s past, and hopes for the future. Exodus, fulfil, and Jerusalem were mentioned.

This was a spooky, ethereal, mystical moment, in a spectacular setting. As high as they could climb, and still have feet on the ground, with eyes looking heavenward, the disciples saw Jesus, and something more.

They saw that whoever, whatever Jesus was, was more than they thought.  They said he glowed the way Moses did, when he came down a different mountain with the ten commandments.

We have left behind the season of Epiphany, with its theme of “see the light”, and be like the Magi who follow a star and find the baby Jesus. Next week it’s Lent, which is all about Jesus’ inevitable journey to Jerusalem, and the words and actions that brought him to another hilltop.

Right now, we are in-between. A good word for being in-between one thing and another is liminal. Liminal spaces are like twilight zones, where we have not finished leaving, and have not yet arrived, where we are somewhere, and kind of nowhere at the same time.

In the strange light of a liminal space, things might look different. Perhaps we see things in a new way, for the first time, or maybe we are seeing things as they really are, but we just aren’t able to perceive all the time.

The disciples, at least Peter, saw something he really liked, couldn’t get enough of. He told Jesus he wanted to capture the moment, build some memorials.

But that’s not what happened.

A radiant cloud enveloped the scene. The disciples felt they were in the presence of something extraordinary. When they later told the story, they described hearing the voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Chosen! Listen to him.”

When the voice faded, and the radiant cloud lifted, Jesus stood alone. They were speechless. Jesus led them back down the mountain, to begin a new day. I wonder how they saw the world, and the people they met.

I mentioned Thomas Merton earlier. If you are ever In Louisville, Kentucky, someone may point out a historical plaque that marks where Merton had an experience that changed how he saw, well everything.

Merton said: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being (hu)man, a member of a race in which God (Himself) became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.” Amen

Learning Time for Sunday, February 20, 2022

Getting along with “them”

How many people here celebrated Valentine’s Day? The holiday is based on stories from the 3rd century A.D. during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius, who was apparently having difficulty recruiting new soldiers for his army. He went as far as discouraging marriage, with the thought that married men were less likely to enlist.

Legend says Valentine, a physician who’d become a Christian, and then a priest, was performing “underground” weddings, in resistance against the Roman Empire.

He was arrested and jailed. While in jail he befriended the jailer, who asked him to tutor his daughter, who was blind, and needed someone to read her lessons. Valentine and the daughter- some stories name her Julia, also became friends.

Emperor Claudius offered to pardon Valentine and set him free if he would renounce his Christian faith and agree to worship the Roman gods. Valentine refused, and encouraged Emperor Claudius to place his trust in Jesus. The emperor sentenced the priest to death.

Before he was killed, on February 14, 270, he wrote a last note to encourage Julia and to thank her for being his friend. The story says he signed the note: “From your Valentine.”

The historicity of this story is questionable. But it’s a good story. I was thinking about it this week because I like the idea that the rebellious priest, and the Emperor’s loyal jailer became friends.

I have visited prisons, all the way from a provincial minimum security correctional farm in Thunder Bay all the way up to the federal Super-Max penitentiary in Renous, New Brunswick, where they keep terrorists and serial killers. I was also a full-time prison chaplain for a summer, while I was in seminary in Saskatchewan.

None of the jails, prisons, remand, or juvenile detention centres I’ve been in are nice places, no matter what the people who think we are soft on crime will tell you.

I remember the feeling of walking through a heavy steel gate, hearing it clank closed behind me before the one in front rolls open, knowing I didn’t have the keys for any of the doors. I remember the orientation sessions I had when I started work at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre. The rules about what I could wear, what I could carry in my pockets, what I could talk about- and I was on staff.

When I hear people describing the public health rules, and social distancing, and requirements for masks and vaccines as imprisonment, I try hard not to roll my eyes. When I hear the claims that these things represent a loss of freedom- well, again, I have to respectfully disagree. We aren’t in jail. I’ve spent time in jails, and I can see the difference.

Valentine, who actually was in jail, found a way to get along with the person who held the keys. How did he do that? Why did he do that?

We heard some very challenging words from Jesus earlier:

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-38)

Really, Jesus? 

I test drove parts of this learning time at a chapel service at Harrowood on Wednesday.  When I said, “Really, Jesus? We have to love our enemies?” The folks in the chapel laughed, and nodded their heads. The longer we live, the more experience we have with how hard it can be, to “love our enemies.”

I don’t think I actually have enemies, but I can think of people who are hard to get along with- and I am sure there are those who think of me that way.

With all that’s been happening in the world, I’ve been talking with some folks lately who say they have friends, neighbours, even family members with whom it’s better to stay away from certain topics, or else the nice conversation will turn into an argument.

Topics that are on the current no-fly list include: COVID-19, masks, vaccines, vaccine mandates, the trucker’s occupation of Parliament Hill, the protest at the Ambassador Bridge, The Prime Minister, the Premier of Ontario.  That’s getting to be a long list.

How do we deal with the uncomfortable, uncomforting reality than in our families, with our neighbours, in our congregation, our community, there can be a wide range of opinions on these hot button topics, and strong feelings, and a tendency to speak from those feelings in dramatic ways?

Not just because it was Valentine’s Day on Monday, I think the answer has a lot to do with love. In the scripture I read, Jesus said there are no prizes for getting along with those we agree with- but that we are called to the far more challenging work of loving our enemies.

An image that has come up in my prayer time is that a family, a church, a community, a country, is a kind of container. It’s a container that needs to have room for all the people, but also all our highest values and ideals. It also has to have room for the often unseen, but very real presence of God, who is the source of our highest ideals, and best values.

We take time near the beginning of our worship services to model something I think is very important. We breathe, and quiet ourselves, and try to be open to the presence of something more, that we think of as the ultimate source of our higher ideals, and best values.

Values such as love, and respect, honesty and integrity, selflessness and kindness.

The struggle arises for me is when it seems like I might have to choose between a person, and our highest values.

What do I do, for example, when I hear someone say that all truckers are rednecks, or all politicians are liars? Those are dangerous, unfair, and unhelpful generalizations, that come from the same small part of our brain as statements that puts down everyone of a certain race, or religion, or skin colour.

Do I zip my lip and say nothing?

I might be tempted to keep quiet and wait for the uncomfortable moment to be over. I may be afraid that saying what I think will hurt someone’s feelings or make them upset and drive them away. I may be tempted to set aside my beliefs, my values, for the sake of keeping the person close.

But if I keep doing that, what happens?

The person stays close, but has also received the message, through my silent going along with things, that it’s okay to say things like that, to put down whole groups of people, or make broad sweeping claims that do more to disturb and alarm than to make the world a better place.

I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said we are to love our enemies. How can it be love, if it isn’t based in honesty?

How can it be love, if each time I am with that person, I close myself down, to hide that part of me that worries they are going to say something hurtful and ridiculous, and I’ll have to work hard to zip my lip again?

I have to find a way for the container to be big enough for the person with the narrow attitude, with the bad joke, and for me, and my true feelings, and for the higher value, that all people are to be respected, and should be able to live free of being put down.

It may be up to me, to speak up for love, for respect, for kindness. To shine a little more of God’s light into our container. To remind myself, and everyone else, that God is with us, and that fear, small-mindedness, and scape-goating are never helpful.

So I have to find a way to say to the person- Friend, I care about you, but I am worried, and upset by what you said. I don’t agree with it. There is another way to see things.

That’s risky. They may not want to hear it. They may think they are being put down or rejected.

Jesus says love your enemies. He was able make friends with Roman Soldiers, and tax collectors, and leaders in the Jewish Temple, even though he saw the world, and people in it, differently.

Saint Valentine made friends with his jailer. I wonder how often in conversation with this employee of the Emperor he heard things that hurt or shocked or worried him, and he had to say take a breath. How many times did he have to pause, and think of a way to speak his truth, without being hurtful.  How many times did he lose it, and get drawn into a unwinnable argument, that was probably more about biases and false assumptions than about reality?

Saint Valentine probably didn’t get it right all the time. Like you andI, he was human. I can imagine him feeling tired of actually being locked in, locked down. There may have been times when his own frustration, impatience, worry and fear got the best of him- like it can for each of us.

I remind myself that the love I need, the loving energy, comes from God. God can fill us up again, when our stores of love energy feel depleted.  I also remind myself that God’s love for us is unconditional. God does not love us because we get everything right all the time, and say all the right things, and never make mistakes.

God’s love for us is not dependent on our behaviour, moment by moment. God’s love for us is complete, and permanent, and not interrupted by our bad choices. God also does not love us more, for better behaviour. We can’t earn God’s love, and we don’t need to. But we can live in response to it.

Here is another quote that I love, and which also challenges me deeply:

“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”

 

That was said by Thomas Merton, the famous Catholic monk and writer, and person who made lots of mistakes, big ones and little ones in his life.

I have that quote framed and on display in my office. It reminds me that we don’t have to be perfect, but we do have to be loving. Even when we may not want to be. Amen

The necessary risk of being prophetic. Learning Time for January 30, 2022 at Harrow United Church

Audio File of Learning Time

My sister is married to a trucker. We talked Wednesday night as the Freedom Convoy rolled towards Thunder Bay, on its way to Ottawa.

My brother-in-law hauls big loads of logs out from where they are cut, north and west of Thunder Bay. A look at the map told him the convoy would congest his route.

My brother-in-law works hard, puts in long hours, and is one of the people that literally keep the northern economy rolling. It’s no small irony that a protest about Freedom would interfere with him doing his job.

I’m pretty sure my brother-in-law and I don’t agree on everything. We probably don’t vote the same way, watch the same things on tv, or even have the same favourite foods.

But on important things, we are on the same page. His dad is 90, and my parents are in their 80’s, and we both get nervous when hospitals are clogged with COVID patients, and short-staffed because of illness. We worry about longer wait-times, or there being no available beds, when someone we love needs urgent care.

I hear stories these days about families who are divided, and can’t talk about COVID, or the vaccines, or about lockdowns and mandates.

How do we get along, and work together, despite the reality that as humans with history, and strong opinions, we are bound to have disagreements? There is a temptation to fall back on just being nice, and totally avoid the hard conversations.

For the last little while I have been learning about Autumn Peltier. She’s so young, and so committed to her work as a defender of water. She brings intelligence, perseverance, and composure to discussion of hard questions, such as why successive governments fail to protect the environment, and many First Nations communities have been without clean and safe water for decades.

Our bible readings over the last while remind us that living a faithful life means some times we must take a stand, and call people to account. The biblical name for someone who does that is prophet.

I think Autumn Peltier is a prophet. But is that because I agree with her?

There are probably some who see the Freedom Convoy organizers as prophets.

How do we get along with people with widely varying opinions? Do we have to try? Yes, the Bible even says so!  We heard scriptures read today from The Message. Eugene Peterson did a particularly good job. In his version of Jesus’ words we hear:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the supple moves of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

That’s beautiful and challenging. When someone gives us a hard time, we are to respond with the supple moves of prayer. I wish I could say I always do that, or even that I was that mature.

In my mid-twenties I lived in rural Georgia, as a volunteer on a communal Christian farm. It was founded just after World War 2 by people who resisted the racism of their culture, and has been active ever since in the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

Our house had bullet holes in the kitchen wall, from drive-by shootings. The folks on the farm back then didn’t call the police, because they knew the local sheriff had deputies that were in the KKK. That was decades before I lived there, but the holes were left as a sign the struggle was real and could be dangerous.

I met people who knew the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. When Dr. King used the word “Freedom”, it was in a very different context. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. worked to end discrimination on the basis of skin colour, something none of us have a choice about.

When I worked and lived in the south, I learned that those who took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other historic marches were trained in non-violence, based on the ideas King learned from studying Mohandas Gandhi.

Gandhi was also a prophet, who helped lead the people of India to independence from the colonial powers that had claimed their country.

Gandhi taught that “Nonviolence” is more than promising that you won’t attack your enemy. Gandhi referred to his form of nonviolence as satyagraha,  (Sut-ya- gruh -ha ) meaning “truth-force” or “love-force.” It means a person should seek truth and love while refusing, through nonviolent resistance, to participate in something they believe is wrong. 

The Freedom Convoy organizers promised their protest would be non-violent, but I wonder how many of them have the training, the maturity, or the spiritual strength to live up to that commitment. It takes prayer, and practice, and the support of like-minded people.

I worry about all the fringe groups that have latched on, who bring their own issues and disruptive motives along for the ride, and who have not said whether they are committed to non-violence. Some appear to be aligned with groups that are antagonistic towards people of colour, non-Christians, and people who identify as LGBTQ+.

I have some biases, which I freely admit. I find it hard to see how people who militate for their own freedom of choice could agree to work with those who want to limit the freedom of others to simply be who they are.

It definitely takes prayer to love those who disagree with us, and who may be hard to like. This kind of prayer is not so much about asking God to give us strength, but opening ourselves to God’s presence, and becoming aware that God is the strength we need, the ultimate source of love. God is the love force that Gandhi taught about, and which empowered the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and others in the civil rights movement, which I see as a spirit-led movement for freedom.

Our reading from First Corinthians, also from The Message, points to what life looks like, when we are steeped in, deeply connected to the source of love:

Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

That’s the way we are called to make our way in the world. Amen

Truth Telling is Dangerous! from the Worship service at Harrow United Church, Sunday, January 23, 2022

Video of the worship service

The first time I was asked to read scripture in my home congregation I was honoured, and afraid, and worried about getting it right. This was different from teaching Sunday School, or giving presentations at school, or even making speeches, which I’d done for school assemblies, many times. I am always grateful to our lay readers on Sunday morning, because I remember how hard it was.

The sanctuary was dark. The lights were down low because it was the Christmas Eve service, and later we’d be passing the flame from candle to candle. The chancel area was lit from above with a tiny spotlight, just enough for me to find my way on the carpeted steps, and not trip up the stairs. It was good the lights were low. I couldn’t really see people’s faces.

I read from Isaiah- not the part that Jesus read from in today’s Gospel story, but an earlier part in chapter 9 that starts off “ The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” and ends up with “ for a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

I’d written the words out on a piece of paper, (this was before I had a computer) so I wouldn’t have to hunt for the right page in the big pulpit bible. I copied the passage from my Good News Bible because it was easier to read than the version the minister used.

Even so, I stumbled over the words, and raced through the passage. I probably read the whole thing without taking a breath. And then it was done. I stood there feeling relieved, but also a little embarrassed, because I felt like I’d done a bad job. I focused on not tripping as I went down the chancel steps and back to my seat. I had to walk all the way to the very back of the church to get to the steps, because my family were all up in the balcony.

Imagine what it was like for Jesus, reading from the scroll of Isaiah, in his home synagogue, in front of people who’d watched him grow up. He’s reading along, and saying, “God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, To set the burdened and battered free…”

Perhaps Jesus realized, not for the first time, that for him, these are more than beautiful words, from an ancient scroll. They light a fire inside him, and he burns with the powerful, perhaps overwhelming awareness that these words are meant for his time, his place, and his life. He’s been given the job of telling people to change their own lives, and change the world, so that things will be better. Jesus knows he’s been called to say to people who watched him grow up, “We need to get busy, the world’s a mess, and the cleanup starts right here, with us!”

How would the hometown crowd take what he had to say? He likely knew it wouldn’t go well, and it didn’t. They got very angry with him and threatened to toss him off a cliff.

I’ve been reading more about Autumn Peltier the young woman we just saw in the video. When she was 12 years old, she was chosen to present a ceremonial gift to the Prime Minister at a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations, in Gatineau, Quebec. She was told ahead of time not to talk to the Prime Minister, just walk up and give him the gift.

She discovered she couldn’t do what the organizers had told her. She found that she just had to speak. Her words came out in a wash of tears as she told the Prime Minister what was on her heart. She challenged his environmental record and told him he was failing the First Nations people who don’t have safe water to drink.

In an interview with Maclean’s Magazine, Peltier said, “That was my opportunity to say something to the literal Prime Minister of Canada. Like, who gets the chance to actually share their thoughts with him? So I took the opportunity. I gave him a piece of my mind.”

She said, “He made a big promise to me, which was: “I will protect the water.” I was 12 at the time, I am 17 years old now, and I’m still holding him accountable to that promise.”

The Macleans interviewer asked Peltier, “Do you believe that he cares about that?”  She said,“I feel like he could care more. I know [his government] did make a commitment to resolve all boil water advisories in Canada by March of 2021, and of course that didn’t happen. To promise to resolve a big issue like that within a certain amount of time and [not do it], and there are still communities that can’t drink their water after over 25 years, how are we supposed to trust the government? How are we supposed to believe him?”

She asks good questions, that aren’t about partisan politics, but about human rights, the environment, and long-standing commitments- promises that have been made. Not everyone appreciates her efforts.

She said, “I get a lot of negative comments, negative feedback. It’s a lot more than I thought I would get, because the work that I do is for a good reason, and you wouldn’t generally think that people would be against this or try to bring me down. Like, “She’s just a kid, what can she do?” Or “Why does what she says matter?”

She’s not the only one saying that the government has failed to do what it promised us, and the people of many First Nations communities. The most recent Auditor General’s report says, “Overall, Indigenous Services Canada did not provide the support necessary to ensure that First Nations communities have ongoing access to safe drinking water. Drinking water advisories remained a constant for many communities, with almost half of the existing advisories in place for more than a decade.”

According to the Government of Canada, as of January 7 there are 37 water advisories in place in 29 First Nations communities. 28 of them are in Ontario, affecting 21 communities.

Can you imagine how quickly the situation would be remedied if it happened where you and I live? As Autumn Peltier said in the Macleans interview, “just think about how fast it would be resolved and fixed if there was to be a drinking water issue in an area like Toronto or Ottawa, how fast they would call that a state of emergency and how fast they would fix that. But a First Nations community of 200, 300, 400 people can go without clean drinking water for over 30 years, where they literally have to bathe their babies in bottled water, cook and clean with bottled water, wash themselves with bottled water.”

We need people like Autumn Peltier, who do what Jesus did. They recognize their calling, to stand up for what is right, and challenge what is wrong, and point out what needs to be fixed. As much as we need the prophets, and whistleblowers, those who remind us the Emperor’s new clothes are usually sewn together with lies and pride and greed- we are, typically, terrible towards them.

We like things to be smooth and polite, and happy. We don’t want our applecarts to be upset, even if deep down, we know that things aren’t as they should be.

When we are pushed by the prophets in our world to look honestly at things, and see the problems, then we are in the difficult position of wanting to do something about it. That often leads to the even more uncomfortable realization, that making change is hard.

The world is complicated, and can make us feel small and powerless. We don’t like that. It’s much easier to silence the prophets. Which is exactly what the people in Jesus’ hometown tried to do when they realized who he’d grown up to be, and what he had to say.

The Good News is Jesus got away from the angry crowd that day. They did not silence him. The Romans, and the religious authorities would try again, when he got to Jerusalem, but God did not let that be the last word.

God shone through the words and actions, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God is on the side of those who say what needs to be said, and who inspire us to work to mend our broken world.

People like Autumn Peltier remind us of what is right. Their witness can also give us courage, and a good example to follow, when we need to speak our own truth, even though it may be difficult. Amen

“J.C.’s Greatest Hits” The Learning Time for Sunday, January 16, 2022 at Harrow United Church

Audio file of Learning Time

I like the way Johnny Cash said it at the beginning of the video we watched. He turned the water into wine, of all things. Johnny was impressed by the Jesus story, and by being in the very place, as the tour guide told him, where Jesus performed his first very public miracle.

In John’s Gospel, that’s the Gospel writer, not Johnny Cash, the first thing Jesus did, after getting baptized, and gathering a few disciples, was turn water into wine while attending a wedding with his mother. Why would that be his first public miracle?

John’s Gospel is a bit different from Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those three are often called the Synoptic Gospels, which is a technical way of saying that Matthew, Mark and Luke present a similar view.

The optic part of the word means viewpoint or lens.  The first part of the word, Syn, means the same, as in synonym, a word that means roughly the same as another. So, synoptic means basically the same view.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke cover much of the same material when they tell the Jesus stories. The authors, or compilers of these Gospels seem to present stories of Jesus that were cherished and passed on in their local communities of Jesus followers. Where they diverge, it may be that particular communities remembered another version of the story, or only passed on the stories they liked, in the way that was meaningful for them.

For example, Mark does not say anything about the birth of Jesus.  Mark’s Gospel starts with Jesus all grown up. His community either did not have the nativity story, or did not consider it necessary.

Matthew and Luke each tell stories about Jesus being born, but not they are not the same stories. Luke has shepherds and angels and a baby born in a stable. Matthew has magi and a star and the visit happens in a house.

John takes another approach. John’s Gospel replaces the story of a little baby with “In the beginning there was the Word”. John goes on to say, “And the Word became flesh and stayed for a little while among us; we saw the Word’s glory—the favour and position a parent gives an only child— filled with grace, filled with truth.” Those lines take the place of a nativity story in John. It’s less about what happened, and more about what it means.

 Scholars think John’s Gospel was written at least a generation after the first three. More than Matthew, Mark and Luke, who seem to just tell the particular stories, John’s Gospel does more interpretation of the big story- choosing and arranging which stories about Jesus to preserve, and what to leave out. Thought has also gone into what order to present the events in Jesus’ life. The writer, or compiler of John’s Gospel has been compared to a mural painter, carefully selecting, and arranging the images in a big painting, to build a bigger picture, that guides how they want us to think about Jesus.

There’s a saying from the world of creative writing. Any story told twice is fiction.

The first time someone tells a story, they repeat events back as they remember them. What comes out of their mouth may sounded jumbled, fragmented, disorganized.

The next time, the story-teller is already editing, re-arranging, fixing the story, to make it a better tale told, and to support, consciously, or unconsciously, their own biases. You can learn about a person by observing what kind of stories they like to tell.

When you sit down over a cold drink or warm beverage with an old friend, and they share a story, you can probably also tell if they’ve told it before. There will be a noticeable rhythm, and style, and appropriate dramatic pauses.

Professional interrogators and counselors can recognize when a story has been rehearsed- formed and shaped to have a beginning, middle and end, and a point, or punch line, or moral. That doesn’t necessarily mean the story has been fabricated, but it has at least been distilled.

Usually, by the time a person has told their story a few times, they have also reached their own conclusions about what it means.

When Johnny Cash told the inmates about his visit to Cana, and how it inspired him to write a whole song during a short car ride, it sounded to me like a set-piece, a bit of dramatic monologue he hauled out and used every time he introduced his song. By the time he performed that song at Folsom Prison, he had the story down pat. It came out smooth and set up the song perfectly. That doesn’t mean the story was a fake, but it had definitely been polished, and practiced.

I was also thinking John’s Gospel could be compared to a best of, or greatest hits collection, a retrospective for which the producers carefully select songs that are memorable, and reflect the progress of the singer, and perhaps the messages or themes that mattered most.

The first part presents stories about Jesus’ public ministry, his growing notoriety and following, leading up to his arrival in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Before the clash with the Jewish and Roman officials that results in Jesus being arrested, put on trial, and crucified, there are 7 big moments- Jesus’ greatest hits, so to speak. Scholars call them “signs” that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, sent by God to fulfill ancient promises to the people of Israel.

The seven signs include:

(1) Turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana (2:1–11)

(2) Healing a royal official’s son at Capernaum (4:46–54)

(3) Healing a lame man at the Bethesda gate in Jerusalem(5:1–15)

(4) Feeding a multitude on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (6:1–15)

(5) Walking on the water (6:16–21) as his disciples crossed a stormy sea in a boat.

(6) Giving sight to a man who’d been born blind (chap. 9)

(7) Raising Lazarus from the tomb (chap. 11)

When I mention Johnny Cash, what do you think of as his greatest hit? I would think of “Ring of Fire” or “I Walk the Line”, or even “A Boy named Sue” long before I got around to “He turned the water into wine”.

When I look at the signs in John’s Gospel that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah, turning water into wine seems pretty small, almost ordinary when compared with feeding thousands, healing sick people, or raising Lazarus from the grave.

Even so, there are things about this first sign that capture my imagination. The first is that Jesus did not seem to want to get involved. It was his mother’s idea. She points out the problem and he says something like “What’s that got to do with me?”, and he sounds exactly like a son talking to his mom.

Scholars note John’s Gospel records only two moments when Jesus spoke to his mother. There is this time at the Wedding of Cana, when she seems to nudge him into action, as moms sometimes do. The other is near the end of the Gospel, when he speaks to her from the cross about the beloved disciple and says, “Here is your son,” and to the Beloved Disciple he says, “Here is your mother.”

In the first conversation, Jesus’ quiet private life ends, and he does his first public sign, that kickstarts his career. It’s like mom hands him a microphone and says, get on stage, and sing your heart out. In the last conversation, Jesus commends the Beloved Disciple into his mother’s care, and effectively says goodbye to them both, and hands the mike to the Beloved, often thought to be John, to carry on, keep the song going on.

There is wine in both these scenes. The soldiers soaked a sponge in cheap wine and held it up to Jesus’ lips. That’s a nice artistic touch, to have wine present at the beginning, and at the end. But it’s also not surprising.

Far more than is true for us, in our part of the world, wine was ubiquitous, almost always present, in the time and place in which Jesus lived.  Water could rarely be trusted to be fresh, or clean, or safely drinkable. The relatively low alcohol content would act to preserve and make the drink hygienic, whether it was stored in pottery jugs or sewn animal skins.

The ordinariness of wine in Jesus’ world may go a long way to explain why it was central to the first story, the first sign, the first of Jesus’ greatest hits, on the album according to John.

Scholars point to the magical nature of wine- that it’s the result of a mysterious fermentation process. The ancients had no idea how it worked, and that’s a good working definition of magic- when something happens that we can’t actually understand or control. Parallels are drawn between the spirited drink and the presence of God’s spirit, the spirit of love.

Preachers talk about how the alcohol adds a vibe, a buzz, an element of joy to the wedding celebration. I like that, but I think it takes us away from the daily reality of life in the ancient Middle East, and how clean water was scarce, and wine and beer took its place in many situations, as the only safe things to drink.

The production of wine for the wedding was two things at once- quite magical and also very ordinary. The guests needed something to drink. That it was good wine was an added bonus.

This suggests to me that this first sign, of the coming Messiah, pointed to God being at work, not in big, dramatic, spectacular events, but in ordinary, daily life. This brings me back to a line from the beginning of John’s Gospel, “the Word became flesh and stayed for a little while among us”.

This introduces a way of thinking about the meaning of Jesus’ life and work. Jesus came to show us and teach us that God is with us, in the everyday, here and now, ordinary things of life. If we pay attention, we can see that because of God’s presence, even the most ordinary moments are actually very special, and that love, and spirit, and magic are always mixed in with the ordinary. Amen

Big Read

A Big Read for the United Churches in Essex and Harrow

7:30 pm, Tuesday March 8, 2022

Rev. Lexie Chamberlain and Rev. Darrow Woods will host an online discussion of The Undertaking of Billy Buffone.

Here’s the plan:

1)Promote the Big Read.

2)Give folks time to get and read the book.

3)Host a meeting to talk about our responses to reading the novel.

4)Host a second meeting to talk with the author, David Giuliano. (Date to be determined)

David Giuliano is a retired minister who also served as the Moderator of the United Church of Canada.

David is an award-winning writer of articles, essays, and poems. The Undertaking of Billy Buffone is his first novel. He lives in Marathon, Ontario with his wife Pearl.

The novel is a fictional take on actual events that happened in Marathon. From the publisher’s website: The Undertaking of Billy Buffone is a story about the trauma – immediate and ongoing, personal and collateral – inflicted by Rupert Churley, who preyed on boys in Twenty-Six Mile House, an isolated town in northern Ontario.

Here are some notes from a reviewer:

Every once in a while, a book comes along that captivates you, all of you. This is one such book. The title reveals itself to the reader in gradation, the character development captures your attention as each page divulges a bit more. Teachings from the indigenous culture combined with teachings from Christianity allow the reader to grow spiritually. The narrator speaks honestly about some pretty tough topics that can wake in the reader the trials and tribulations of people who walk on our streets now. Just maybe reading this book will build empathy and compassion resources. -Anna Maria Barsanti

The book is unfortunately not in the collection of the Essex County Public Library, but is available in print and digital versions from bookstores and online.

Please let us know if you want to take part in the Big Read by emailing us at: revdww@gmail.com or relexie4@gmail.com and we will send you a Zoom link.

Baptism of Jesus/Renewal of Baptismal Vows at Harrow United Church Jan. 9, 2022

Audio of Learning Time for Jan 9, 2022
Video of the Worship Service for Jan 9, 2022

When was the last time you felt really, really thirsty? Remember that feeling, and imagine you are thirsty now. When was the last time you felt really lonely, or alone, or lost, or confused about who you are, and what you should do? Can you remember that feeling?

Thirst is a powerful metaphor for that kind of spiritual need, that we may not have an exact word for, that is about this thing we need, in order to be who we really are, to know the peace that comes with doing what we are meant to do.

Jesus lived in a hot, dry climate, in a part of the world where people understood that water was precious. It makes sense that when they made themselves ready for a new life, when they re-dedicated themselves to living as faithful followers of God, they would use water.

Jesus’ older cousin, Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist was at the Jordan River, preaching, and calling people to begin their lives anew, with a commitment to follow God, to be who God knew they could be. As a symbol of that commitment, they would enter the waters of the Jordan, and be ritually washed, baptized. It was as if they were rinsing off the residue of their old ways, and starting fresh and clean.

Jesus came out to hear what John had to say. He was part of the crowd who heard John call people to repent, to turn away from lives of selfishness and narrowness, and to turn towards God, and God’s ways. If they felt ready to do that, they could be baptized.

Immediately after Jesus had been baptized and was coming up out of the water, the sky suddenly opened up and Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and hovering over him. 

With that, a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Own, my Beloved, on whom my favor rests.”

In that powerful moment the thirst in Jesus’ soul was quenched. He was filled with love, surrounded by grace, and knew exactly who he was, and what his living would be for. He knew himself to be a beloved child of God. 

That is a good way to talk about what we deeply desire for ourselves, and others. We want them to know that God loves them, they are beloved children of God, they matter to God. We want to know that we matter to God. It can be so easy to wander away from that knowing, to forget who we are meant to be, as beloved children of God.

In Christian churches, baptism is usually just done once. We use the ritual to welcome, and to bless, and as an outward action that represents an inner desire, to follow God.  For John and his followers, baptism was a ritual that could be repeated, as needed.

Do you remember the instructions they used to have on shampoo bottles? Wash, rinse, repeat. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s a great marketing strategy.

If you took it literally, and to a ridiculous extreme, you could be caught in a never-ending loop of washing, rinsing, and repeating. But there is some truth in it. I don’t just wash my hair, or any part of my body once, and be done with it. Pretty much every day, I need to clean up.

This is true of all the things we do to be a healthy, fruitful people. We do them over and over again. Wash, rinse, repeat. Get enough sleep, eat things that sustain our body, breathe deeply, drink enough water, exercise. Smile, and say hello, and please and thank you. Follow through on things you said would do. Give other people the benefit of the doubt and pause a moment before judging them. Ask people how they are, and listen for their answers. Look for ways to be helpful. Give generously from what you have. Leave things better than you found them.

Most things that are important for us to do, to live well, need to be done over and over again, and have to be taught. We need to be trained, shown, encouraged, guided, supervised, held accountable. We need each other in order to be healthy human beings. This is true in our faith lives as well. We need each other’s help, and encouragement, and guidance, and teaching. These are some of the benefits of a faith community.

An vital part of what we do when we gather as a congregation, is remind each other of what we need to do, to keep ourselves healthy, and whole, and faithful. An old-fashioned word for it is “discipleship”. We are meant to encourage each other in our lives of faith. We are to comfort each other when needed, but we are also to challenge each other to keep going, keep moving, keep growing, and learning, and deepening in our understanding of God.

This morning we are picking up on a tradition started by a man named John Wesley. Wesley began his career as a priest in the Church of England. He came to see that people needed help to bring faith out of the sanctuary, and into the everyday. He did not limit his preaching to the pulpit, but took it to the streets, and spoke to thousands of people who would never set foot in a church. He organized new believers into societies, small groups that met regularly so that the members could encourage each other, and challenge each other, and help each other live out their faith.

The group leader would ask each member in turn, “How is it with your soul?” and the whole group would listen to each member. They studied scripture together, prayed together, and for each other. They worked together on projects to help others. They talked about how their faith changed and shaped their lives, and was the basis for the choices they made. Faith became personal, and real, not just something you heard about at church once a week.

The movement Wesley started was called Methodism. At first the name was a put down, coined by those who made fun of Wesley’s strict, methodical program. Over time, the movement grew into a new branch of Christianity. The Methodist Church was one of the three denominations that joined together to form the United Church of Canada in 1925.

Wesley taught that baptism, and confirmation as members of a church are outward signs of the covenant between each of us and God. God has promised to be our God, and love us, and strengthen and guide us, and help us overcome sin and weakness in our lives. In return, our covenant calls us to learn and grow in our faith, and to live out our faith in every part of our lives.

Wesley believed it helpful to offer believers opportunities to re-new their covenant relationship with God, and with their fellow believers. Wesley tended to have these covenant services around New Year’s- it seemed like a good time to make a fresh start. Wash, rinse, repeat.

When I’ve done this service in pre-Covid times I would invite people to come up to the baptismal font and dip their fingers in the water, and make the sign of the cross on their forehead.  We can’t do that right now.

Instead, I am going to ask you the same questions we often ask when parents present their child to be baptized, or when we baptize an adult. It won’t be a test, because we’ll have the questions and answers up on the screen. 

After the questions and answers we can each take a moment to trace the cross on our own forehead, as an outward sign of our inward desire to renew our faith commitment.

If you have not been baptized, and want to be, let me know, and we can plan a time to do that. What we are doing today doesn’t take the place of a baptism.

This is a chance to say to ourselves, to God, and to each other, that we choose to live as beloved children of God. Amen

Learning Time for Epiphany at Harrow United Church

Video of the Worship Service for January 2, 2022

Acknowledgment of the Land

In the teachings of many indigenous peoples, the year is comprised of a cycle of 13 moons. Each moon reflects changes in the environment, and traditional teachings provide ongoing guidance on how to establish the good life. In the Anishinaabe calendar, it is the time of the Great Spirit Moon, when we are encouraged to sit in silence and reflect on our place in creation.

Nothing does that for me more than looking up at the stars on a cold clear night. Where I grew up, we could sometimes see the Northern Lights. The night sky has stories.

On the church calendar, we are entering the season of Epiphany. It’s a time to celebrate the showing of a great light. We listen again to the story of the Magi, sometimes described as astrologers, observers of the night sky. They travelled from distant lands, following a star, to visit the newborn Christ child. The Magi were not Jewish, and their presence in Matthew’s Nativity story has come to represent the promise that the message of the Christ child is for all people.

In the many centuries since the Magi made their pilgrimage across land, and cultures and traditions, many followers of Jesus have travelled to bring their faith to new lands. Too often, the wondrous gift of the message of God’s love came wrapped in a package that included the assumption that non-European cultures and peoples were inferior, or even unwholesome.

We only need to think about Canada’s Indian Residential School System to see how disastrous it is when a religion’s missionary efforts are uncritically aligned with our biases and worst impulses.

We acknowledge that this place where we gather, to seek and share the light, and hear the stories of faith, is on landhonoured by the Wampum Treaties; agreements between the Anishinaabe , Haudenosaunee , Lenni, Lenape and allied Nations to peacefully share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. We acknowledge the presence of the Three Fires Confederacy (Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi and Huron/Wendat) Peoples and the Caldwell First Nation. We share history and desire a better future with all First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.

Video: https://youtu.be/ynBRP9z02Ds

Hawaiian-born Shawn Ishimoto, does his version of the James Taylor song “Home by Another Way”.

Scripture Readings

Reader: Isaiah 60 :1-6 (The Inclusive Bible)

 “Arise, shine, for your light has come!

the glory of YHWH is rising upon you!

Though darkness still covers the earth and dense clouds enshroud the peoples,

upon you YHWH now dawns, and God’s glory will be seen among you!

The nations will come to your light and the leaders to your bright dawn!

Lift up your eyes, and look around:

they’re all gathering and coming to you—your daughters and your sons

journey from afar, escorted in safety;

you’ll see them and beam with joy, your heart will swell with pride.

The riches of the sea will flow to you, and the wealth of the nations will come to you—

camel caravans will cover your roads, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah;

everyone in Sheba will come, bringing gold and incense and singing the praise of YHWH.

Reader: Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12 (The Inclusive Bible)

After Jesus’ birth—which happened in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of Herod—astrologers from the East arrived in Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay homage.”

At this news Herod became greatly disturbed, as did all of Jerusalem. Summoning all the chief priests and religious scholars of the people, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 

“In Bethlehem of Judea,” they informed him. “Here is what the prophet has written:

‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,

are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,

since from you will come a ruler

who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

Herod called the astrologers aside and found out from them the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, after having instructed them, “Go and get detailed information about the child. When you have found him, report back to me—so that I may go and offer homage, too.”

After their audience with the ruler, they set out.  The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at seeing the star and, upon entering the house, found the child with Mary, his mother.

They prostrated themselves and paid homage. Then they opened their coffers and presented the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went back to their own country by another route.

Learning Time: “Kings? Magi? Wise Men?”

Link to Audio File of this learning time:

This may be a trick question. Who invented the light bulb?

I used to think it was Thomas Edison. The truth is many other scientists and inventors experimented with different models of light bulbs for at least 50 years before Edison. Edison’s laboratory hired a Princeton physicist named Frances Upton to study the earlier efforts so the lab could perfect a commercially viable version. Edison bought one of the earlier patents and used much of that design for his own light bulb.

Most inventions are collaborations, based on earlier work. Which is a less dramatic story than that of Edison slaving away, all alone in the lab, burning the midnight oil, (because there is no electric light) trying thousands of variations until he finds the design that will do the job. 

I’ve heard motivational speakers and preachers use Edison as an example of what you can do if you just keep trying. They use his famous quote, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” It’s a great message about persistence, that also perpetuates the myth that Edison invented the light bulb all by himself.

It’s one of those cases where unfortunately, the truth can get in the way of a great story. It really does make such a great story.  And such a great image! Often in comic strips or tv shows they show a light bulb shining over someone’s head when they get an idea, or when everything suddenly makes sense. We talk about the moment the light comes on, or we say something has dawned on us, or we have seen the light.

If you look at icons, religious paintings, even stained glass windows, there are often halos, or glowing light around the faces- this is an artistic convention that says- this was a holy, or special person- who seemed to radiate God’s love.

For the last few weeks in church we’ve heard about the Magi. We have the idea that because there are 3 gifts, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, there must be three people delivering them. We even have names for them: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, but those names were added to the story hundreds of years after Matthew’s Gospel was written.

Syrian Christians call them Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. In Ethiopia, the Magi are called Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater.  Many Chinese Christians believe that one of the magi came from China. In some traditions they talk about there being as many as 12 travelers. 

The word Magi derives from an Old Persian word “magus”, the name for priests of the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrians were very interested in the stars. Their reputation as astrologers led to the term Magi being connected with the occult, and this led to the development of the English word “magic”.

The Zoroastrian faith predates Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and is still around. It was the first monotheistic religion- featuring the worship of just one God, that they call Ahura Mazda.

They believe humanity has a role to play in the universal conflict between order and chaos. They have a moral code summed up in the words “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds. They teach the equality of all, regardless of race, sex or social position.

Zoroastrian worship and prayers always take place in the presence of some form of fire, which is considered to evident in any source of light. We kind of do that, with our Advent and Christ candles, and passing the flame from candle to candle on Christmas Eve.

When the Magi leave Mary and Joseph and the baby, they are warned in a dream to avoid King Herod, and they head home another way, and are never mentioned in the Bible again.

Traditions built up over time to continue their story. One story is the Magi continued to travel for many years, and they met up with the Apostle Thomas while he was on his way to India, after the first Easter. That legend says Thomas baptized them, and they later became bishops.

Another story says Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine found their buried remains, had them dug up, and brought to Constantinople. Later the bones were moved to the Shrine of the Three Kings at the Cologne Cathedral. One story said the remains of each Magi were carried on a different boat, which is reflected in the old carol “I saw three ships come sailing in”. 

Another tradition is the visitors from the East were Kings. The gifts they carried were all very expensive, the kind of things Kings might have laying around the palace. There is also a line in Psalm 72 that talks about kings from foreign lands bringing tribute gifts to Israel’s king.

Epiphany, the name for the day when we tell the story of the Magi, is an English word that comes from ancient Greek words “Epi-phanos”, which translate roughly as “manifestation” or “appearance” or “making known”. It means that something previously hidden has been revealed. A sunrise is a kind of epiphany, a moment when darkness is sliced open by light. 

That sounds a lot like the prologue to John’s Gospel, which has no nativity story, but instead says:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

No baby. No stable. No Magi. Not even Mary and Joseph. Just the Word, and life, and light.

The early Christians didn’t do Christmas. For the first 3 centuries of Christianity, there was no celebration of Jesus’ birth.

The Easter story was celebrated every Sunday. Epiphany was the big holiday, celebrated early in the new year. It marked not the birth of Jesus, but the visit of the Magi, or Wise Men to the infant Jesus. This was considered vitally important, because the Magi were not Jewish.

The Good News about God’s love is not just for one people in one place, but for all people in every place. The light shines for everyone.

I have another trick question. Who discovered God? Who has the right story to tell about God?

Some Christians give the rest of us a bad name, by claiming to have exclusive rights, to the only right story about God. It reminds me of the myth that Edison invented the light bulb. Christians didn’t invent God, and do not hold the patent or franchise on seeing the light of God.

Because Matthew’s Gospel includes the story, and the early church kept the story- we have a clue that the earliest Jesus followers gave respect to people of other faiths and backgrounds.

They recognized that the Magi, and other people from the foreign lands they represent, could know and follow after God, even though they were not Jews. They were also not Christians, because being Christian hadn’t yet been invented. The Magi were people of another faith, who were remembered because they honoured the founder of our faith.

Perhaps one of the best ways we can let our light shine in our time, is to offer friendship and respect to sincere people of all faiths, even people from cultures that seem very foreign to us. Jesus has shined God’s loving light on us. We are free to see God’s light shining in a whole sky of stars- not just one light.

Shepherd School: 4th Week of Advent at Harrow United Church

Audio file of the Learning Time
Video of the whole service

Welcome to Shepherd School.

Congratulations on taking your first step towards a rewarding career in the field of well, being in a field.

My name is David ben David, which means, David, son of David. My father was David ben David, and his dad’s name was, well, you get the idea. Taking care of sheep has been our family’s work for many generations.

You may wonder, since we’re in Bethlehem, famous for David, the shepherd boy who became the king of Israel, is my family descended from royalty?

I don’t want to pull the wool over your eyes, spin you a yarn that isn’t true. The further you go back in history the fuzzier things get.

My grandfather David used to say, do you think if I was a prince I’d be out here in the cold, watching these flocks by night? He had a point, my old granddad, he was as sharp as a needle, and great at knitting things together.

As soon as David was crowned, he left the fields and sheep behind, and moved into the biggest tent in the village. He spent time with soldiers, generals, and the general’s wives- but that’s another story. David sometimes acted more like a wolf than a shepherd!

Shepherding is good hard, honest work. It doesn’t pay much, has no retirement plan, and won’t make you famous. Can you name the shepherds who visited Jesus on the night he was born? See!

We are anonymous. But the whole economy depends upon us. Can you think of any other jobs that pay poorly, have long hours, get little respect, and if nobody did them, the country would starve? Can you imagine royalty doing any of those jobs?

There’s no getting around the fact that King David was a well-known shepherd. But between ewe and me, he wasn’t much of a shepherd. He abandoned his flock to follow his brothers into war. He’s the one who picked up smooth five stones, and his sling, and took down Goliath. I guess you could say he was a real rock star!

There’s a whole album of King David’s greatest hits- not the ones he inflicted on the giant Goliath, but poems he wrote that were set to music and became psalms.

His most famous one, interestingly, goes back to his roots. You’ve probably heard it. It starts with, “ The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.”

I’ve always liked that one. Old King David offered a picture of God, not as a mighty king, but as a humble shepherd, who guides the flocks to good grazing places and stays with them in the scary times. The Good Shepherd is there to guide, protect, and comfort the flock.

Which is pretty much our job description.  Makes you wish more Kings were like shepherds.

But should more shepherds be like Kings?  Would it be a good thing if we lived in biggest tents, or castles, and had servants to do everything for us that was hard or messy? I don’t think that’s the life I was made for.

My family claimed the name David, only because we are shepherds from David’s city. The difference between us, and that other family, is we still do the work.

Like my old grand-dad used to say, there are shepherds, and there are crooks. Not everybody understood his sense of humour.

A crook is another name for the long staff we carry, with the hook on the end. We use the pointy end to fight off wild animals, and curved end to hook under a sheep’s leg, or around their neck, when we need to pull them to safety. They fall, or get stuck, and we have to rescue them.

I have to warn you, the work can be dangerous. We go places no one really wants to go, to rescue the little lambs. There are risks, and the hours are long.

I mentioned earlier those anonymous shepherds who visited the baby Jesus on the night he was born. I’ve always loved that they were welcomed in, by Mary and Joseph, to see the special baby. The world usually looks down on us, but not on that night, in that place.

My guess is the shepherds had to take turns, because there’d be too many sheep to bring along for the visit. Someone would have to stay back with the sheep. You don’t abandon the flocks. That’s like one of our big rules in shepherding.

When Jesus grew up, he told a story about sheep, and a shepherd. Maybe you remember.

Jesus was talking to a crowd that included some disreputable people- tax collectors, who collaborated with the Romans, and other folks the religious types called “sinners”. Sinner is kind of an all-purpose word applied to anyone the religious bullies didn’t like, or who didn’t look, or act, or smell like them. Most shepherds fall into that category, let me warn you!

The authorities weren’t happy about the company Jesus kept. I guess it didn’t give them warm fuzzies. It was not a compliment when they said, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Personally, I take it as a good sign when a person is interested in me, not for my job, or what the neighbours whisper about me, but for who I am, what I care about, dream about, hope for in life.

Shepherds have a lot of time to think about these things, on those long nights out under the blanket of stars. Spend a few nights out in the fields near Bethlehem, watching the flocks, and looking out for wolves and jackals, and you sort out who your friends are, and who are the real predators.

Those clean-handed, well-dressed religious authorities wouldn’t know what to do if one of the lambs was in danger. They’d need help.

Jesus said, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

I am not sure what to make of all that bleeting about repentance. I’ve heard too many preachers try to tell me that God will only love me if I walk, talk, and look like them. But I do know how good it feels to find a vulnerable lamb you thought was lost and bring it home to the flock.

As a professional shepherd, there’s a part of Jesus’ story I wish he’d been more clear about. When the shepherd noticed one of flock was missing, did he abandon the 99 to go look for the 1?

Here’s the thing! Shepherding is lonely work, but it’s not solitary work. If I am taking care of a flock in these fields, I don’t do it alone. If I was on my own, and a wolf attacked on one side of the flock, and I run with my pointy shepherd’s crook to deal with him, I need my partners to watch all the other edges of the flock. Otherwise, the wolf’s buddies could pick off the tasty sheep on the north end, while I’m dealt with the threat at the south end.

Taking care of sheep is a big job, and it requires teamwork. If I had to do a solo job, I’d guide my sheep to a field where there was another flock, watched over by some of my shepherd friends. If something happened, we’d have each other’s backs.

After your classroom training, when you start your apprenticeship, you’ll be going out as part of a squad.

I think when the Good Shepherd in Jesus’ story chased after the one who was lost, he left the other 99 in good hands. When he found the one who’d wandered off, and brought him back on his shoulders, the other shepherds were there, waiting with the rest of the sheep.

The other shepherds would understand what David had gone through, looking for the lost one, and rescuing the furry, smelly silly little thing. They would have been worried about him, out on his own, seeking the lost sheep, and they would be filled with relief and joy on his return.

We shepherds need to stick together.