In the bulb there is a flower…

On Easter morning I enlisted the help of the children at church in planting sunflowers in a number of small and large pots. They each had the opportunity to push little black hard-shelled seeds into the loose brown potting mix soil. We planted small pots so that each child could bring one home, and three large pots, with numerous plantings have stayed at the church. My job in the weeks that have followed has been to watch over the pots. I transfer them outside, to a sunny spot near the main doors during the days that I am at the office. Each Sunday I have help moving the pots from the main entrance into the sanctuary.

 

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I have been enjoying watching the new life emerge. The plan is to transplant the sunflower plants outside the church building. We have a number of flower beds that were lovingly developed by devoted members of this congregation, and they are a legacy that deserves to be honoured, cared for, and renewed.

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I am excited at the prospect of these sunflowers thriving in the churchyard, a symbol of new life, of resurrection, of the absolute wonder of God’s creation.

I had coffee this morning with Richard and Nancy, senior members of the congregation, who now live in a retirement home. They each invested a great deal of passion and effort, and were leaders in the initial development of the church gardens. I told them about the sunflowers. Richard’s eyes shone as he talked about what he sees in a flower. He spoke of the arrangements that are on the dining room table each day in their retirement home, and about the delight he takes in their colour and form. ” To think that all this beauty emerges from a minor seed, puts one in mind of the wonder of God’s creation. It is life, and there is life in so many forms.. the animals, the plants, and in all the people… ”

Richard’s words touched my heart, and reminded me to open my eyes. When I returned to the church this afternoon I checked in on the sunflowers, and walked the church grounds. There is work to do, to nurture and care for all the flower beds, to clear away the detritus of last fall and winter, and help life thrive.

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Hallelujah! Thank God for KD Lang!

The highlight of watching the Juno awards last week was when KD Lang was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, as a recognition for her lifetime achievement. She has a terrific presence, and voice, and used her acceptance speech to say important things. Rather than focus on herself, she showed gratitude for her family, and friends, and collaborators and supporters. She also showed gratitude for Canada, as a place where, in her words, a “freak” like her could have the career and success that she has had. She went on to encourage every person to be themselves.

I was so happy to be watching this with my 11 and 14 year old children!

Who is in and who is out?

I watched the Juno awards last week with my family. A way to measure my age is to watch with my 11 year old and 14 year old, and see which artists and bands they recognize, and which ones I do.

Many genres were represented in this annual celebration of Canadian music: Country and Pop, and World, Hip Hop and Rap, and R and B, and Jazz, and Classical, and Roots music, but most performers I saw on the show seemed to share a basic feature.  In their eager efforts to look unique, to be themselves, they all kind of looked the same. Whether they were wearing fancy dress formal wear, or tight leather pants, or a torn t-shirt and baggy jeans, for the most part, they looked “designed”, put together to make a statement. The statement seemed to be ” I am here, look at me! “

The only exception I saw to that sameness was a band from Saskatchewan called The Sheepdogs, who looked like they had just woke up, rolled out of their tour bus bunks, and rushed in to the theatre without taking time to wash up. Does this sound like I am getting old? I am not even talking yet about the music. My kids were interested, so I refrained from saying “Is this really what people listen to these days?”

A singer-song writer from “back in my day”, Paul Simon, sang in his song “Boy in the Bubble” “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts”. I hear that as a reminder that I don’t have to like my kids music. Actually, I am probably not supposed to like it. (I do like some, but not all!)

Popular music, and clothing styles, and hair-cuts, and the way people talk to each other are all symbols, markings and tools that generations and groups within a society use to identify themselves, and show themselves as distinct, different, from someone else. Part of this is natural, I think. We want to stand out a bit, and we also want to be able to look in a crowd and see who is like us. Kind of a modern tribal thing. We express personal preference, and group ourselves accordingly.

So what tribe or tribes do you identify with? Liberal or Conservative, or Green or NDP? Timmy’s or Starbucks? Jays or Yankees? Leafs or Canadiens? Globe and Mail or The Star? Whole Foods or Food Basics? Chevy or Ford? Or Chrysler? Domestic or Foreign? Catholic or Protestant? Christian or Muslim, or Sikh, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or Rastafarian? Believer or non-believer? Atheist, Agnostic, on the fence, or just confused? Glass half full or half empty?

Other distinctions can be more defining, and more inclusive, or exclusive, depending upon where you stand: Male or female. Married or single. Old or young. Gay or straight, or Bisexual, or transgendered. Canadian or foreigner. Rich or poor. Working or unemployed.

The Bible story we heard this morning hinges upon the question of tribal differences. Peter, one of the first disciples, was a leader, and missionary in the early church. Some of his powerful sermons are recorded in the Book of Acts, which also notes that many people responded to his preaching, and wanted to learn more about Jesus, and the message of God’s love. Soon many were becoming converts, leaving behind their former religion to join the group becoming known as the people of the Way, or the Christians.

The first members of this new movement were raised in the Jewish faith. That makes sense, since Jesus was born and raised a Jew, and lived his earthly life within a hundred miles of Jerusalem. The questions Jesus asked about organized religion were pointed at Judaism. Jesus’ efforts to help people understand God’s love, often in spite of religion, happened in a mostly Jewish context.

The Jews were descended from people who were held captive as slaves in Egypt. The Old Testament tells the story of the liberation of these former slaves, and their movement into a land they called their own, where they built a new nation. Their society was defined by adherence to religious rules that marked the Jews as different from their neighbours. One rule said all males must be circumcised 8 days after their birth. An adult male wishing to become a Jew had to be circumcised.

There were also dietary rules, still adhered to by many Jews today. Most of us are familiar with the phrase Kosher, or as Muslim people say, Halal. Certain foods are considered unclean. Animals that do not have cloven hooves, and do not chew their cud are forbidden, which means that cattle, sheep, goats, bison and deer are allowed, but pigs, camels, badgers and rabbits are not. Of creatures from the sea, Jews may eat anything that has fins and scales, but lobsters, oysters, shrimp, clams and crab are all forbidden. Chicken, geese, ducks and turkey are okay. Birds of prey such as hawks and eagles and scavengers such as vultures are not.

In Jesus time, and in Peter’s time, this sense of un-cleanness went beyond food, and extended to those who did not follow the Jewish rules. Faithful Jews were forbidden to eat at the same table as Gentiles- essentially all non-Jewish people. In a desert culture where a high value was placed on hospitality, and kindness to strangers in need, it was a powerful statement to say certain people were not welcome at your table.

Reports had begun to reach the Jesus followers in Jerusalem that Peter was having great success in spreading the message of God’s love to people outside of traditional Jewish territory. Rather than being overjoyed at the growth of the movement, many Jerusalem Christians were furious.

What was Peter doing? Did he somehow forget that those people were unclean? How could he sit down and share food with them? How dare he invite the non-circumcised to join the followers of Jesus? To us, this debate might sound a bit like the arguments about whether women should be allowed to vote, or whether a black athlete could be allowed to play in the major leagues.

My son Joel and I watched “42” last week, the latest movie version of the Jackie Robinson story. Joel is a ball player, and a baseball fan, and I loved watching this story with him. In his life, the idea of a colour barrier in baseball, or in any aspect of life seems ridiculous. We were both moved at the portrayal of Jackie Robinson’s courage, and dignity, as he faced incredible abuse at the hands, and from the mouths of people who saw the presence of a black man in major league baseball as the beginning of the end of their way of life.

When a person, or a group of people have been taught by their culture, by their church, by their families, that some people are better or worse than others, and that “they” must be kept separate from “us”, it can be awfully hard to hear another point of view. The person who calls for change, or represents another way to think can be seen as the enemy.

The story from the Book of Acts, that describes Peter’s vision, shows us that God is at work to break down the human-made barriers between people. Peter described seeing a large sheet being let down by its four corners from heaven. In it he saw all manner of animals including beasts that he had been taught were unclean. He heard a voice telling him, “Get up Peter. Kill and eat.”

Peter replied, “Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” The voice from heaven then said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.“ In Peter’s vision, this happened three times, and then the sheet full of animals was pulled back up into heaven. In the very next scene in the story Peter is brought to a household of people who wished to hear his message about the love of God, and in that house, as he spoke, everyone felt touched by God’s Spirit. Peter said that it happened for these people in the same way as it did for the first followers of Jesus.

God’s love is for everyone. The human-made barriers that separate us from each other, are not barriers to God. Thanks be to God. Amen

 

 

 

 

God’s Love is “Always”

I officiated this week at a funeral for Marie, who died in her early 70’s. I never met her, but loved hearing all the stories about her. She was a person who loved unconditionally, who was open-minded, and who had a young mind. Her son said she managed to think modern thoughts in every decade. Her welcoming spirit made it possible for their family rec room to be the hang out for her children and their friends as they were growing up. One of those family friends spoke briefly in tribute to this woman, and also offered a beautiful acapella version of the 1926 Irving Berlin song “Always”.

I heard this song in a whole new way. Berlin wrote it as a wedding gift for his wife, and it certainly works on that level, as a song of romantic love. “Always”, like many other ballads, can also be heard as God’s love song to us. (Especially the refrain!)

I’ll be loving you, always
With a love that’s true, always

When the things you’ve planned
Need a helping hand
I will understand
Always, always

Days may not be fair, always
That’s when I’ll be there, always

Not for just an hour
Not for just a day
Not for just a year
But always

Each of us needs to find a way to come to peace with the reality that for each of us, there is a time to live, and a time to die.

My beginning place is to remember that love is real, and that love comes from somewhere. My faith tells me that the love we need to live, and the love that brings depth of meaning, and joy to life, flows through us, but did not begin with us. Love comes from God, the source of all good things. Actually, I think that God is that love. The more we pay attention to the love in our lives, and the humbling reality that this love is bigger than us, the more possible it is to trust that love does not end when we die.

Here is what I believe. When we die, we go to be with God. God takes care of us. We go to the source of all the love that has made life possible in the first place. God’s love is “Always”.

The man who sang at the funeral is a Toronto-based musician named Denzal Sinclaire. I looked online for a Youtube of him singing the song.
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Denzal has some gorgeous stuff out there, but not that one! I am including a link to a version sung by Katica Illenyi, a talented Hungarian performer.

Living as Resurrected People

 

The newly elected Pope of the Roman Catholic Church chose the name Francis. I love that, because Francis is one of my favourite saints. Saint Francis of Assisi symbolically rejected the wealth, the power, and the control of his family by stripping off all his expensive clothes, to stand naked in the town square. This was a way of saying he was placing all his hope and trust in God, and would not rely on worldly status, or his family’s influence, to make his way easier in this world.

 

Francis took the life, and teachings, and death, and resurrection of Jesus seriously, and chose to leave behind his old life, and live a new, resurrected life.

 

Francis is the saint we remember when we have a service to bless the animals. Francis saw God in the world around him, in all people, and in all living creatures.  Pope Francis seems to be starting out on a path of reminding us all to look for God at work in the world- and not only in the traditional holy places like churches and shrines.

 

Francis took the papal tradition of re-enacting Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, and turned it inside out and upside down. Rather than hold this ceremony in Rome’s St. John Lateran Basilica, where his papal predecessors have usually washed the feet of 12 carefully chosen priests, Pope Francis went to a juvenile detention centre called the Casal del Marmo. While there he washed, and kissed the feet of 12 convicted criminals. Two were Muslims, and two were women. No pope has ever done this, and Francis defied canon law when he washed and kissed the feet of a non-Catholic woman.

 

Why would the new Pope do these radical things? As Francis explained to the young inmates, “This is a symbol, it is a sign; washing your feet means I am at your service. Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty, as a priest and bishop I must be at your service.”

 

Before he left them, the pope also said, “I am happy to be with you. Do not let yourselves be robbed of hope.”

 

This was not new behaviour for this man. While archbishop of Bueno Aires, Argentina, he would celebrate the ritual foot-washing in jails, hospitals or hospices – symbolic of his ministry to the poorest and most marginalized of society.

 

I heard about something else he did after he was elected as the head of the world’s largest Christian denomination. (There are 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world.)  He went to the small hotel in Rome where he had been staying while attending the cardinal’s conclave, and checked himself out. He could have sent someone to do that- or had them send an invoice, but he returned to the hotel and thanked them for their hospitality, and personally paid the bill.

 

He also phoned the newspaper vendor near his home in Buenos Aires, to tell him that he would not be walking by to pick up his daily newspaper. He liked to stop by and pick up the paper, and chat with the vendor. Once a week he would bring back the elastic bands he saved, that the vendor uses to secure the rolled up papers.  I love the attention to simple details, and to the people he meets each day, that are revealed in these stories.

 

He has not gone as far as Francis of Assisi did, stripping naked in the town square, but this new Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is shaking things up at the Vatican. He has rejected the tradition of living in the lavish Papal apartments. When Vatican officials showed him the accommodations, he said: “But there is room for 300 people in here.”

 

How wonderful! Wouldn’t it be amazing if other world leaders looked at the places they live with the same compassionate, humble eyes? I know I risk raising a ruckus when I say this- but I remember that the Queen of England is also the official head of the Anglican Church. How many people could live in Buckingham Palace, her official residence, or even one of her spare castles or estates? What is all that extra space for, in world where people go hungry and homeless?

 

I better be careful. Saying things like that can make a minister, or a pope unpopular. In more polarized places, asking questions about how the wealthy and powerful live can get a person killed. We are still close enough to Good Friday to remember that.

 

In our reading this morning from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, we heard about the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem trying to sort out what to do with Peter and the apostles, followers of Jesus, in the days after the first Good Friday, and the first Easter. The Jewish high priests, were still concerned to keep peace with the Romans who controlled their country. They were frustrated that Peter and his friends kept on teaching and preaching Jesus’ message. They had hoped that Jesus’ death on the cross would be the end of all the trouble-making.

 

It was confusing to them that rather than shutting down the followers of Jesus, the events of the first Easter weekend seemed to have charged them up, made them more bold. Those outside the Jesus movement didn’t know what to make of it all.

 

Over the next few weeks we are going to be reading stories from the Book of Acts, to get a deeper sense of what happened in those early times after the first Easter. How did the first followers of Jesus move from fear and confusion, and paralysing grief, to hopeful, daring living out of the Good News of God’s love?

 

Hopefully we will pick up some clues from them about how to live as resurrected people. Amen

 

 

 

 

 

Prayer for Good Friday

Holy Presence.

Holy One.

You are with us.

In the face of pain, confusion, cruelty and death.

You are with us.

In the places we would rather not be.

You are with us.

In the situations we endure.

You are with us.

You bring peace.

You bring love.

You bring hope.

Even in the darkest places there is hope.

There is the flicker of hope.

Because you are there.

Help us to remember to hope, to remember you.

Help us to remember,

trusting that you have not forgotten us.

Amen

Practicing Christian Faith in a Pluralistic World

religion in canada

Based on 2001 Statistics Canada figures, if our country was made up of 100 people, 43 would be Roman Catholic.  2 would be Orthodox. 29 would be Protestant. (Of the Protestants, 9.6 would be United Church.)   2 would be Muslim, 1 Jewish, 1 Buddhist, and 1 would be a Sikh. About half a person would represent all other religions.  16 and a half people would have no identified religion.

We live in an increasingly diverse culture.  My children go to school with, and have friends, whose families came from places I had barely heard of, when I was growing up.  All we need to do is go for a walk in a mall, or turn on the television, or spend time on the internet, and we can clearly see that Canada is no longer the uniformly “Christian” country we used to imagine.

The fact of other religions can be both a challenge, and a blessing to us. The challenge is we may have to re-think our attitudes. The blessing is we may grow in understanding, not only of other religions, but of our own.

Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, sets out to build a bridge between an older paradigm of Christianity, and what he sees as a new paradigm, that is emerging in our time.

In the old paradigm, the approach to other faiths was often what Borg calls absolutist- affirming that Jesus was the only way.  Anyone not a Christian risked going to hell. That provided a powerful incentive to do missionary work, to convert as many people as possible, before it was too late. Figures like Saint Patrick were heroes of the faith for virtually eliminating the pre-existing non-Christian religions in their mission fields.  Borg reports the majority of Christians in North America no longer think this way- even though it is still the party line of some Christian denominations.

I think part of the reason for the decline in the absolutist, “my way or the road to hell” is education. The more we know about other people, and how their cultures have developed, the harder it is to defend the claim that we have all the answers, and everybody else needs to be more like us.

As we relate to people from other faith backgrounds, we are more likely to have our hearts opened. This is what happened in the parable of the Good Samaritan. When the traveller was beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road, he was ignored and avoided by officials from his own religion, but helped by a stranger, from a different land, who practiced a different faith.

Maybe we are more like the traveller in the parable than we realize. I go to a lot of meetings where people sound pretty pessismistic, and I read a lot of material that suggests that Christian churches in our part of the world are done for. The picture is that we have been robbed of vitality, we continue to bleed members, that we are struggling on the side of the road, while other interests zoom past us in the race to capture the attention of Canadians. There may be some truth to this, but I don’t think that other religions are actually the problem.

My own experience is that I often feel I have more in common with kind people of other faiths, than I do with absolutist and arrogant Christians.  I have fond memories of friendship with a man named Kohtaro, a Japanese lay Buddhist monk. We studied together at a Quaker seminary in Indiana called the Earlham School of Religion. Kohtaro was a good friend, and a kind-hearted soul. We prayed together sometimes. He would sit quietly, chanting the words of a sutra, a Buddhist long prayer, and I would sit in silence, saying the Jesus Prayer to myself. He did not know my words, and I did not know his, but we each knew about the other that we were praying.

My memory of those Buddhist/Christian prayer times came back when I read a wonderful piece by the Roman Catholic Benedictine nun, Sr. Joan Chittister, called “Becoming Prayer”.

When we have prayed prayers long enough, all the words drop away and we begin to live in the presence of God. Then prayer is finally real. When we find ourselves sinking into the world around us with a sense of purpose, an inner light and deep and total trust that whatever happens is right for us, then we have become prayer.

When we kneel down, we admit the magnitude of God in the universe and our own smallness in the face of it. When we stand with hands raised, we recognize the presence of God in life and our own inner glory because of it. All life is in the hands of God. Even the desire to pray is the grace to pray. The movement to pray is the movement of God in our souls. (The Monastic Way, In My Own Words)

Marcus Borg suggests that each of the world’s enduring religions can be seen as sacramental, as helping grow closer to the presence of the holy. Just as the bread and cup of Christian communion are human products, that can point us toward God, religions other than Christianity also bring people closer to their conception of the sacred, the divine. The major religions of the world are different in their origins, their scriptures, the particulars of their religious practice, and their theology, but they also have five basic things in common.

1)     They all affirm that there is something “more”, and that the sacred can be known- “not known completely or exhaustively, but known in the sense of being experienced.”

2)     They all affirm a way, a path. “the way of Lao Tzu, the way of the Buddha, the way of Islam, and the way of Judaism all speak of the same path: the path to dying to an old identity and way of being and being born into a new identity and way of being.”

3)     They all offer practical means to travel on the sacred journey of transformation- practices of worship, rituals and prayer.

4)     With examples of saints, and with explicit teachings, they all “extol compassion as the primary ethical virtue of life. (The Good Samaritan could be Confucian, or Buddhist, or Muslim.)

5)     They all have collections of written words used to pass along their faith.

Borg says the fact that Christianity has so much in common with other major religions of the world actually gives our faith more credibility.  The something “more” that we experience at times, and yearn for at other times, is also known, and sought, by most other human beings on the planet. This can be an encouragement for us to grow deeper in our own faith, to become more mature in our relationship with God.

We don’t have to become scholars of all the world’s religions in order to have a life-giving, transforming relationship with God. The Dalai Lama was once asked by a Christian seeker whether she should become a Buddhist.  Borg paraphrased the answer given by the Dalai Lama. “No, become more deeply Christian; live more deeply into your own tradition.”

If we are living more in the way taught by Jesus, we are in a better position to be respectful of, and grateful for the insights and wisdom of other religions. We can also be better neighbours to people of other faiths, and recognize how they are neighbours to us. We begin to see that sincere people of other faiths are not our rivals, or enemies. They are actually our partners in bringing more people into the way of sacred living.

The whole point of religion is to become more centered in the one to whom our particular tradition points to, in whom we live and move and have our being. As followers of Jesus, we say that it is God. A Jew does the same with the framework of their tradition, as does a Muslim, or a Sikh, or a Hindu.  The differences are so much smaller than what we share in common. As Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma once said,

“If a man reaches the heart of his own religion, he has reached the heart of the others too. There is only one God, and there are many paths to him.”

This suggests that the way for us is to dig deeper into our own faith. From the beginning of our exploration of Borg’s book, the Heart of Christianity, we have been hearing him tell us in many ways that the emerging paradigm of our faith is less about having the right ideas in our heads, and agreeing to the correct beliefs, and more about opening our hearts, and living the faith, experiencing it. Borg writes that the practice of faith includes “all the things that Christians do together and individually as a way of paying attention to God. They include being part of a Christian community, a church, and taking part in its life in community. They include worship, Christian formation, collective deeds of hospitality and compassion… devotional disciplines, especially prayer and spending time with the Bible. And they include loving what God loves through the practice of compassion and justice in the world.”

In the weeks following Easter we will begin another series of teaching Sundays, called “Acting Out for Jesus”. They will be based on the lectionary readings from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, that describe events in the life of the earliest Christian movement after the earthly life of Jesus.  We will look at some of the practices that formed and sustained these early followers, and which can make a difference in our own faith lives today. Amen

 

Sin and Salvation: Transforming the Heart

Years ago I was part of a continuing education course at the University of Toronto. The teacher was a Presbyterian minister named John Bryan, and the topic was appropriate and effective use of power. I learned important things in that class, and still occasionally look back at my notes. But as sometimes happens, the biggest insight I gained was not part of the formal presentation. In one of the last classes, Dr. Bryan reflected on what he looks for when he attends a church. He said the most important thing was the reminder that God loves him, and there is nothing in all the mistakes, and mis-steps, and confusion of life that can change that.

While I rode home on the GO train that evening, I looked around at my fellow commuters, and wondered, “Do they know how much God loves them? How would their lives be different if they did?”

While on that train I wrote the first draft of the assurance of God’s love we have often said in worship. I have been using it for almost 12 years. Some of you seem to know it by heart. I start with, “Let us say these words that each of us need to hear”, and you join in with the response:

God loves me.
God has always loved me.
God will always love me, no matter what.
My sins are forgiven, and I am loved by God.

I have not included it in the service lately. I very much agree we all need reminders of God’s love. I have not been using because it is there is so much more to our relationship with God, and so much more to say about God’s love, than can be expressed in terms of sin and forgiveness. As Marcus Borg says in this week’s chapter of The Heart of Christianity, “When sin becomes the one-size-fits-all designator of the human condition, then forgiveness becomes the one-size-fits-all remedy.”

Borg offers a good illustration. Visiting a church, he had “just preached a sermon on the “closed heart” and our need for an “open heart”. In the pastoral prayer following the sermon, one of the clergy prayed, ‘We ask you, O Lord, to forgive us our closed hearts.” Borg thought to himself, “Well, okay, but it misses the point. If we have closed hearts, we don’t need forgiveness as much as we need to have our hearts opened.”

Abraham Kaplan was a Ukrainian born son of a rabbi, who became a teacher and philosopher. He formulated the law of the instrument, which he expressed this way: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”

I can definitely relate. Two summers ago I borrowed a compressor and an air-powered hammer from a friend, to use while installing baseboard and coving in our house. There are places where I can still see the damage I did, in my enthusiasm to use the “big gun”, where what was needed was something more gentle, more subtle.

The sin and forgiveness talk that dominates many churches can be like using a hammer, when perhaps another tool would be better.

Of course we need to be reminded that forgiveness is part of how God loves us. But there is a lot more to be said. Imagine it this way. What if every time I want to tell my son, or daughter, or my wife that I love them, I say, “I forgive you!”? My guess is that this would fit less than 1 percent of the time. In those times when it is needed, there may be nothing more important than to say and hear the words, “I am sorry,” and “I forgive you.”

But for all the other times I want to show my love, it is about appreciating them, encouraging them, blessing them, cherishing them, praying and hoping for good things for them, comforting them, helping them, letting them know how much they mean to me, and how much better my life is, because they are in it. Often my expressions of love go beyond words, beyond the action of forgiving. My expressions of love include providing shelter, and sustenance, and good and interesting things to do, and life lessons, and laughter, and smiles, and hugs, and tears. Forgiveness only comes into it if a wrong has occurred, or pain has been caused, and we need to get past the hard feelings.

If I said, “I forgive you” every time I wanted to say I love you- people I love might end up feeling they were always in the wrong, always being judged, and they could never do or be anything except in need of forgiveness. There is so much more to relationships than this! After a while, the words “I forgive you” would cease to communicate my love. Those well intentioned words would end up feeling like hammer blows, pounding down the human spirit, and leaving the person broken, bruised, and miserable.

There are churches, past and present, and preachers, well acquainted with the wielding of this heavy duty hammer. There is a particular way of being Christian that seems to be mostly about sin and forgiveness- getting saved. As Borg says, in this kind of Christianity,

“Sin is the problem from which we need deliverance. It is commonly understood as the reason for Jesus’ death: he died for our sins. Indeed, in many forms of Christianity, we could not be forgiven if it were not for Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Sin is thus the reason for the incarnation. If we had not sinned, Jesus’ life and death would not have been necessary.”

When we hear the word sin we may think about actions or thoughts that show us to be breaking the rules, being bad. Another nuance is something called “original sin”- the idea that because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, we are all somehow tainted, and need to be washed clean. These notions of sin fit with the judgement/forgiveness model of our relationship with God. The problem of sin fits with the tool available, the hammer of forgiveness.

But do these ideas of sin, either that we broke a rule, or that we are tainted with original sin really address all the situations humans find themselves in?

Our Old Testament reading this morning is part of the story of the Hebrew people on their long journey away from Egypt, and towards the Promised Land. God sent Moses to lead the people to a new life. The solution to their problem of being slaves in bondage was not forgiveness, but the hope of liberation.

In the kind of Christianity that places almost total emphasis on our sinfulness, and our need to be cleansed, the word salvation is used in a fairly limited sense, to mean whether or not we are personally “saved”- whether or we have accepted Jesus as our personal saviour, and have confidence that we will go to heaven when we die.

As Borg says, “Ancient Israel’s story is a story of the creation of a new people, a nation, a community. Salvation is about life together. Salvation is about peace and justice within community and beyond community. It is about shalom, a word connoting not simply peace as the absence of war, but peace as the wholeness of a community living together in peace and justice. Salvation is never only an individual affair in the Hebrew Bible.”

Borg looks carefully at the word salvation. “The root of the English word is helpful. It comes from a Latin word that means “wholeness” and “healing” (the same root from which we get the word “salve,” a healing agent). In its broadest sense, salvation thus means becoming whole and being healed.”

Salvation is about God’s dream that we embrace the love we are offered, and live transformed lives. Borg points to some beautiful metaphors for salvation that appear in the New Testament, in which Jesus shows us that God’s love is about far more than judging and forgiving us.

For those who feel caught in darkness, Jesus is the light of the world.

For those who are spiritually hungry, Jesus is the bread of life.

For those who are thirsty, Jesus is living water.

For those who feel lost, Jesus is the way.

For those who feel estranged, or cut off from life, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches.

For those seeking re-birth, Jesus is the path of dying to the old life, and rising to the new.

For those seeking healing, Jesus is the one who makes us whole.

For those longing to live in God’s presence, Jesus is the new temple.

The parable we heard this morning about the Prodigal Son contains many of these aspects of salvation. It is a story about a person who tries to make their own way in life, and gets confused and lost. He wanders into darkness, and ends up feeling alone, and afraid, and ashamed. He is physically and spiritually hungry, and longs for re-connection to his family and community. He tries to plan out what actions and words might end up restoring his life, bring him back from the living death which he can no longer endure. Ultimately salvation is found in the love of his father, who does offers him forgiveness, but far more than that.

The prodigal is embraced in the arms of love. He is kissed and shown compassion. His old clothing is stripped away, and he is dressed in clean garments. There is a great celebration, with food and drink, singing and dancing. The community gathers to welcome him home. At the end of the story the father explains that the prodigal “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Thanks be to God. Amen

Thin Places: Opening the Heart

There is more to life than what we can normally see. In our heart of hearts, we know this to be so, or we at least hope this is true. When our hearts are heavy with sadness or grief, or buzz with confusion, or when we feel the need to cry out our pain, our anxiety, our desire for relief- we cry it out to that greater reality. In times of great elation, when our hearts jump for joy and sing with gratitude- we are singing and dancing towards that greater reality.

Thomas Merton said:  “Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows (God’s) self everywhere, in everything- in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without (God). It’s impossible….” (Merton quoted in “The Heart of Christianity”, by Marcus Borg)

This week’s chapter of The Heart of Christianity is called “Thin Places: Opening the Heart”. As  Carl Petter Opsahl, the Norwegian jazz clarinetist and ordained minister noted in the video, Celtic Christianity speaks of places where the line between divinity and humanity is very thin. Opsahl deliberately looks for thin places in his urban setting.

Sylvia Maddox, a retreat leader from Texas says, “There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.“

There is more to life than what we can normally see. We rely on poets and prophets, artists and mystics to point us toward the “something more”. In an article written in 1928, Mohandas Gandhi, also called Mahatma, or Great Soul wrote:

There is an indefinable mysterious Power that pervades everything.
I feel It, though I do not see It.

It is this unseen Power which makes Itself felt and yet defies all proof,
because It is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses.
It transcends the senses….

That informing Power or Spirit is God….
For I can see that in the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth, truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists.


Hence I gather that God is Life, Truth, Light. He is love.
He is supreme good.
But he is no God who merely satisfies the intellect
If He ever does.

God, to be God must rule the heart and transform it. (Young India, October 11, 1928)

A travel writer named Eric Weiner, asked a good question in a New York Times article about thin places, and then began to answer it for himself: (http://travel.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html?pagewanted=all)

If God (however defined) is everywhere and “everywhen,” as the Australian aboriginals put it so wonderfully, then why are some places thin and others not? Why isn’t the whole world thin?

Maybe it is but we’re too thick to recognize it. Maybe thin places offer glimpses not of heaven but of earth as it really is, unencumbered. Unmasked. “

Is it the world that needs to be unmasked, or is it something about us? As Borg discusses in this chapter, a lot depends upon the condition of our heart. “The heart, the self at its deepest level, can be turned toward God or away from God, open to God or closed to God”.

We do not see clearly when our hearts are closed. In our own world, we miss a lot. A closed heart lacks gratitude. If successful in life, a person with a closed heart often feels self-made and entitled. If life has gone badly, they feel bitter and cheated. A closed heart is insensitive to wonder and awe. The world looks ordinary.

The closed heart is an image for our human condition. Borg describes the closed heart as a natural result of growing up. As we develop self-awareness there also comes an increasing sense of being a separated self. It is as if we live within a transparent, but tough shell that separates us from others. For those who knew a chaotic childhood or radical instability the shell may be even harder.

A closed heart forgets God. It loses track of the Mystery always around us. A closed heart lacks compassion. Compassion is the ability to feel the feelings of another at a level lower than the head and then to act accordingly. A closed heart can be charitable but does not feel the suffering of others. A closed heart is also insensitive to justice.

We need our hearts opened. In the Bible the open heart is a symbol of renewed life with God. Psalm 51 says, “ Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

In Ezekiel, God speaks these words through the prophet, “ A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

In a thin place, something happens to us. The presence, the power, the love, the mystery of God breaks through, not only into our world, but through the hard shell we may have around our hearts. The something that happens is a touch of God’s grace. A writer I mentioned earlier, Sylvia Maddox described a moment in which she found herself at a thin place.

“As I set out on a solitary journey for Columba’s Beach (on the Island of Iona), I could feel the presence of all those who had gone before me in their quest for a greater vision of God. Wandering over the mountains and the valleys, I suddenly realized I was lost and a long way from my destination. The mystery of the thin place was already revealing itself to me. The outward journey was mirroring my inner journey. I was lost but not afraid. There was a peaceful presence in the eternal rocks that seemed to offer me shelter and guidance. As I stood on the pebbled beach, the waves of the ocean seemed to whisper Jesus’ words,” I am with you.” (http://www.explorefaith.org/mystery/mysteryThinPlaces.html)

In the gospel story we heard today, the disciples who climbed the mountain with Jesus experienced him, or the situation, perhaps both, as a thin place. They felt and saw the glory of God. The way they later told the story involved his clothes glowing white, and important figures from the religious history of Israel appearing. Whatever we make of all of that, we get the message that the disciples, experienced in there time with Jesus a powerful, life-changing encounter with the power and mystery of God.

The thin place does not actually have to be a place. A person, like Jesus, or Gandhi, or you or me, can be a thin place, for others, if God is shining through. Poetry, visual art, especially photography, literature, dance, music, drama, movies can all be thin places, “in which the boundary between one’s self and the world momentarily disappears.”

Many people experience worship as a thin place, especially the music, and often the sung hymns. In our church we name both baptism and communion as sacraments- things that we do with the belief that these actions are a way to be in touch with the grace of God. The things we say in a service, such as the creed, or the Lord’s Prayer, “can become a thin place as we join ourselves in the sound of the community saying these words together.”

Our exposure to thin places may help us lower our inner defenses, and allow God’s love to work within our deepest selves. I have been learning some Christian practices, that are about making space for God in our lives. I have felt renewed in my own life, and in my work as a minister, to see what centering prayer, journaling, spiritual direction, group bible study, silent retreats, and other practices can do, to help the shell around the heart crack, to allow the light of God to shine.

When our hearts are more open, we can see God, in our own lives, and in the world around us. An open heart is more alive to wonder. An open heart knows radical amazement. An open heart and gratitude go together. We can feel this in our bodies. Borg says, “In the moments in my life when I have been most grateful, I have felt a swelling, almost a bursting, in my chest.” I recognize what he is talking about.

An open heart also feels the suffering and pain of the world and responds to it. Jesus said, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” As Borg says, “the Christian life is about the ‘hatching of the heart,’ the opening of the self to the Spirit of God”.

This chapter about thin places and opening the heart ends with a beautiful prayer from the journal of Dag Hammarskjold, a Swedish diplomat and Secretary General of the United Nations:

Give us pure hearts, that we may see you;

Humble hearts, that we may hear you;

Hearts of love, that we may serve you;

Hearts of faith, that we may abide in you. Amen

The Heart of Justice

The Kingdom of God; The Heart of Justice

On our Florida vacation we visited one of the big theme parks. It was a great place for people watching. When you spend a half hour, or forty five minutes, or longer, waiting in a line for a theme park attraction, there is little else to do, but observe the interesting variety, shapes and sizes and ways we have, of being human.

I noticed something happening inside myself while waiting in line. Confronted with people from different places, and ethnic backgrounds, and to some extent, social and economic standing, the first thing I tend to notice is the differences. I might tell myself I am seeing how people are different from each other, but on a deeper level, I also pay attention to how people are not like me. I also look to see if there is anyone around who is like me. I play a bit of “them and us”.

Maybe it is a leftover trait from earlier times. Our ancestors banded together into extended families or tribes for protection from other groups that might covet the food or water or shelter they claimed for their own use. Members might dress alike, or do their hair in similar ways, or wear markings that identified them as part of one group, and not part of the other. That’s why sports teams, and armies wear uniforms.

When I was relaxed and patient, and feeling okay about waiting in line, the differences amongst people were interesting, actually kind of entertaining. At times when I was losing my patience with waiting, or when my feet hurt, or I was hungry or thirsty, I was less entertained. Then I might begin to notice how some people’s behaviours were annoying. Maybe they were speaking loudly, or to my mind, rudely. Maybe they were being unkind to their kids, or people nearby. Maybe they were eating loudly, or drinking, or smoking, and subjecting others to second hand smoke. Maybe they just looked not merely different, but weird to me.

My attitude about people’s differences changed depending upon on how I was feeling, and whether or not I felt like my needs were being met. Like my need to get to the head of the line!

I also noticed that if a child became upset, or someone needed help, another shift happened inside me. I began to be able to care about these folks I did not know. Once I saw a child escape from the attention of its mother, and begin to wander, and my “dad” instincts kicked in. I broke out of my invisible cocoon to talk to the mom, and point to the child. That led to a little conversation about who was from where. Compassion overcame the barriers that separated us, and we became something other than strangers, we became fellow travellers.

In this week’s chapter of The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg says that the United States is the most individualistic culture in human history. I don’t think we are much different in Canada. Emphasis on individual responsibility, and the belief that we are masters of our own lives, the product of our own efforts leads us to ignore the web of relationships and circumstances that shape our lives, and make them possible. We buy into the idea that we are self-made, self-sufficient, and tend to live in self-serving ways.

This self-centered way of being is encouraged by a certain kind of Christianity, that focuses on personal salvation. When the emphasis is on what each person must do to ensure their place in heaven, there is little attention given to how things are going on earth. In this paradigm of Christianity, God’s justice is seen as only being about how we are judged by God for our sins, and God’s mercy is only about God’s forgiveness. This narrow, and distorted conception of God’s passion for justice does not encourage us to go beyond our individual concerns. It discourages faithful people from talking about politics, or trying to fix our broken system. It skips over the words of Old Testament prophet Micah, who when asked what God requires of us, answered, “to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8)

Another author, an evangelical Christian named Ron Sider, in a book called “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”, told the “Parable of the Ambulance Drivers and the Tunnel Builders.”

A group of devout Christians once lived in a small village at the foot of a mountain. A winding, slippery road with hairpin curves and steep precipices without guard rails wound its way up one
side of the mountain and down the other. There were frequent fatal accidents. Deeply saddened by the injured people who were pulled from the wrecked cars, the Christians in the village’s three churches decided to act.

They pooled their resources and purchased an ambulance. Over the years, they saved many lives although some victims remained crippled for life. Then one day a visitor came to town, Puzzled, he asked why they did not close the road over the mountain and build a tunnel instead. (Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger Word Publishing, 1997, pp. 223-224).

“Ambulance drivers” try to respond to the needs that they see. “Tunnel builders” try to address what causes those needs to arise in the first place. The picture Marcus Borg paints of Jesus is that he was as much a tunnel builder as an ambulance driver.

Central to Jesus’ teaching were the words “Kingdom of God”. We use that metaphor every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. ”Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” Kingdom is a political word. Jesus could have spoken about the community of God or the family of God. Those images would express how we are all connected. But Jesus used the word “kingdom”, in a time and place in which kingdom meant very specific things.

Jesus was a Jew born into poverty in Palestine, a state controlled by the Roman Empire, which ruled through military might, and with their puppet Jewish King, Herod. Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God in ways that were at odds with life in the kingdoms of Herod and Caesar. Under Caesar, ordinary people had no voice in the way things worked. They were ruled by the monarchy and a powerful aristocracy.

Ordinary people were exploited for their labour in a system in which 90 percent of the people were poor. 1/2 to 2/3 of the wealth produced ended up in the hands of the wealthiest 1 to 5 percent of the population. Poor people had much harder and shorter lives than the wealthy elite.

The religion of the Roman Empire proclaimed Caesar was a god on Earth, who ruled by divine right. In places like Palestine, the Roman occupiers kept the local religion in place, and used the figurehead king, who already had the blessing of the local religion, to run things for them. This perpetuated the idea that the way things were, was the way the gods had created them to be. To question the authority of Herod, or his Roman bosses was not just treason, it was also heresy.

When the Jesus movement began to grow and thrive, it became common for people to declare “Jesus is Lord”. To our ears this sounds like an expression of piety. In places under Roman control, this was also a political statement, because “”Lord” was one of the titles of the Roman emperor. To say that Jesus is Lord was to say that Caesar is not Lord.
On coins, and on the inscriptions on statues and public buildings, Caesar was also referred to as the “son of god”, as “savior”, as “king of kings” and “lord of lords”. Caesar was also credited for having brought peace to the earth.

When the writer of Luke’s Gospel told the story of the birth of Jesus, they included a declaration of the angel to shepherds, amongst the poorest of the poor, that contained direct challenges to Caesar. “To you is born this day a Saviour, who is the Christ, the Lord… who will bring peace on earth.”

For a follower of Jesus to say in Roman times that Jesus is Lord, is like Christians in Nazi Germany saying, Jesus is mein Fuhrer, and therefore Hitler is not. Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of God were a radical critique of Caesar’s earthly kingdom.

With the exception of Jerusalem, Jesus avoided cities, which were home to the wealthy and their servants, and the small middle class of merchants and traders. Jesus spent his time in the villages and towns of the rural countryside, where he lived with, and spoke with, and shared meals with peasants. Many of them lived hand to mouth. They sought work each day to earn the money to feed their families.

We don’t have to look any further in Jesus’ teachings than the Lord’s Prayer, to see the passion for justice. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. “In other words, “Heaven’s in great shape; earth is where the problems are.” The way things are under Roman rule is not how God wants them to be.

“Give us this day our daily bread” reminds us of our daily dependence upon God, but it also comes out of the peasant’s daily experience, their struggle to find enough to eat each day.

The next part of the prayer, depending upon which version we read, is about the forgiveness of sin, or the forgiveness of debt. There is spiritual value is praying for forgiveness of sin, and it is important to connect that to our capacity to forgive others.

To pray the other version, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” speaks to the situation of the peasants, many of whom had lost or were losing their homes, or the small parcels of land their families had held. When they had nothing left that could be foreclosed on, many ended up being sold into indentured labour, virtual slavery.

The Lord’s Prayer we say so often, without really considering its justice dimension, can be heard as a rallying cry for social change. A call for a more just system, in which there would be fair access to food for all who are hungry, and a way out from under the crippling burden of debt. It is no wonder that in places like Guatemala and Nicaragua, priests and ministers, missionaries and nuns who taught ordinary people to pray this prayer, and to study the words of Jesus were called dangerous revolutionaries.

For those of us who are to some degree removed from those daily survival issues, the political, justice seeking aspect of Jesus’ message may seem less relevant. But for Jesus, the two halves of the message; the need for each of us to be transformed, to become a new person, and God’s desire that the kingdoms of this world reflect real love and real mercy, are inseparably linked. Our spiritual well-being depends upon the well-being of others. The work for justice in our world needs to be rooted in our awareness of God’s love for us, and for every other person. We really are all members of God’s family, fellow citizens of God’s kingdom. Amen