Sermon for a Service where we bless animals

I am trying to catch up on a back-log of unblogged material-– this is from September 29, 2013

My wife and I were out for a walk this week, and met a neighbor out training his English bulldog puppy. He’s 6 months old, and already about as wide and heavy as a lawn mower. Our neighbor was trying to get him to walk with him. Morris is quite cute, but either very bright, or not very bright. No amount of talking seems to get him going. He just looks up with those sad puppy eyes, and waits for his next training treat, and doesn’t take a step. When we met our neighbor on the sidewalk, Morris, the dog, not the neighbor, turned toward us. We petted him and fussed over him, but when he realized we had no treats, he turned his pleading eyes to his owner, and plopped his rear-end back on the sidewalk.

I say Morris realized we had no treats. I have no idea what was going on in his puppy mind. I spoke a couple of weeks ago about the tendency to attach human qualities to non-human creatures. I think we do that because we are trying to understand- we are trying in our own way to make connection with another creature. There is built in to all, or most of us, the desire to connect. When those puppy eyes look up at you, it is easier to believe such a connection is possible, that the love that lives in us, and flows through us, can also flow through all of God’s creatures.

We began our service with words from a sermon preached to birds, by Francesco Bernardone.

“My brother and sister birds, you should greatly praise your Creator and love God always. God gave you feathers to wear, and wings to fly, and whatever you need.  God made you noble among the creatures and gave you a home in the purity of the air, so that, though you do not sow nor reap, God nevertheless protects and governs you without your least care.”

Bernardone is better known as Saint Francis of Asissi. He lived in Italy during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The new Pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina chose his new name in honour of the saint. He is the first pope to be called Francis. There is a famous photo taken of the Pope in May, in St. Peter’s Square, looking joyful as a dove lights on his hand.

The story of Saint Francis preaching to the birds is often linked to the Gospel lesson we heard this morning. Jesus said,

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

Jesus pointed to the birds of the air, including doves, as creatures who receive what they need from the bounty of God’s world. They are not trying to get ahead, or put away wealth for the future- their present, and their future are in God’s hands.

Perhaps part of the reason no previous Pope picked the name Francis is that Saint Francis represents a Christ-like reliance, and trust in, God’s providence, rather than on the human tendency to gather and hoard wealth and power. Saint Francis believed it was best to live in total dependence upon God. For Saint Francis, and the members of the religious order he founded, that meant embracing poverty. If he and his religious brothers had no wealth, no possessions to rely upon, or to protect, there would be nothing to distract them from sense of loving connection to God.

In a 14th century account of his life called “The little flowers of St. Francis”, it says when he finished his sermon to the birds, the Saint made the sign of the cross as a signal it was okay for them to fly away. The legend says the birds divided themselves into four companies, that flew off in the four directions, so the message of Jesus could be carried to the four corners of the earth, and so that the “humble friars, like little birds, should possess nothing in this world, but should cast all the care of their lives on the providence of God.”

Saint Francis seemed to understand that in his utter dependence upon God for all things, he was also deeply connected to all the other creatures who share that dependence. In our reliance upon God, and the whole of creation for what we need to live, we are humbled to realize and embrace our poverty, and also to change the way we think about our relationship with the world.

I read some good words from a rabbi named Arthur Green, who was commenting on how Jews in today’s “modern” world read the story of Creation as found in Genesis. He said,

“The most urgent item on our collective human agenda in this century is changing the way we relate to the natural world of which we are a part. Unless we transform our rapacious patterns of interacting with the environment, we humans will simply not survive.“

We are not separate from, or free to use or misuse, or abuse at will, the gifts of life that are all around us. Today, as we have made prayers asking God to bless the animals closest to us in our lives, we can also give thanks for the blessing they offer us. Like the birds that gathered around Saint Francis, the animals in our lives are living reminders of our deep connection and dependence upon God’s creation. Amen


The Music of the Spheres-from Cosmos Sunday in the Season of Creation September 22, 2013

We sang one of my favourite hymns today. When I was growing up it was “This is My Father’s World”. The hymn book editors updated the language, but they did not change my favourite line, which is “All nature sings and round me rings, the music of the spheres.” It is an ancient idea, which we can see traces of in the Book of Psalms. All parts of God’s creation, the animals, the winds and the waters, the land itself, sing out their own songs of praise to God.

For the last few weeks we have been celebrating the season of Creation, which encourages us to look deeply at our relationship with the world in which we live. A recurring theme has been joining our voices to the great chorus of praise.

Another theme has been that we can gain a deeper understanding of God by paying attention to Creation- in the way that we gain a deeper appreciation for, and connection to an artist, by spending time experiencing their work. When we look upon God’s artistry, we get a glimpse of the love that inspires and energizes it all.

That is the spirit of the hymn I was talking about. It was actually written not far from here, by a Presbyterian minister named Maltbie Davenport Babcock. He served a congregation in Lockport, New York.

Babcock wrote a sixteen stanza poem called “My Father’s World”. The poem was included in a collection of his writing called “Thoughts for Every Day Living”, which his wife had published, after his early death, at age 42, in 1901. In 1916, Babcock’s friend, a man named Franklin L. Sheppard set three of the sixteen stanzas to music, using a traditional English melody he learned from his mother as a child. The tune as he used it is called “Terra Beata”, latin for “Blessed Earth”.

When Maltbie Davenport Babcock lived in Lockport, he took frequent walks along the Niagara Escarpment.  That terrain is very similar to what we have north and west of here. He enjoyed the hills, the rocks, the water, and the trees. As he headed out the door he would tell his wife he was “going out to see the Father’s world”.

My favourite line, about “the music of the spheres” has always felt to me to be a poetic way of saying not just that the moons and planets, and stars are singing their praises, but that maybe there is a kind of underlying pattern or meaning in how the heavenly bodies have been arrayed- like they are notes in a musical score.


Alex Parker, the astrophysicist who created the “Starry Night” mosaic from deep space images of stars and galaxies, also has musical projects. I want to play a clip from a piece he created called “Supernova Sonata”. A supernova is a star that has exploded, and the explosion results in tremendous amounts of energy and light being released outward.

Parker used sound from a grand piano and an upright bass to make music in which the volume and pitch are based on information gathered about these bright, dying stars. The volume of each note is determined by the distance of the supernova from Earth. The pitch of each note is determined by the supernova’s stretch, a measurement of how the start brightens and fades over time. If the galaxy where the star is located is larger than the Milky Way the note is played by the upright bass and if the galaxy is smaller than the Milky Way it’s played by a grand piano.

The music is beautiful and eerie. It reinforces my sense that there is, underlying all that God has made, a structure, a logic. The cosmos, and all that is in it, including our little planet, in our little corner of the solar system, in the Milky Way Galaxy, has been made, and is being made, on purpose.

God is at work. We are part of God’s great work, along with all other things that are made, and being made.

In the last few decades there has emerged a movement called Creation Spirituality, which seeks to help people live in response to the idea that we are all part of this greater, beautiful whole. This not a new idea, maybe more of a re-discovery of what many indigenous cultures have always taught- that we are not separate from the world we live in.

Saint Francis of Asissi, who lived in the 12th century, talked about being a brother to the moon, the sun, to the animals and the trees. We will look more closely at him next Sunday during our Blessing of the Animals Service. The traditional feast day for Saint Francis falls right at the end of the season of Creation, and he is kind of an iconic figure in the developing Creation Spirituality movement.

There are different expressions of Creation Spirituality. Not everyone that uses the term agrees on everything- but there are some common elements:

The universe is basically a blessing, that is, something to be experienced as good. We can think of the Universe, and all life, including ourselves, as part of an Original Blessing. This is a different starting place than the religions that place such emphasis on Original Sin. What God makes is made for Good.

We can relate to the universe, and understand ourselves as part of the whole. This may change how we behave, and how we treat other parts of creation- including the land, water, other living things.

Creation Spirituality begins with a sense of wonder about life and about everything around us- we can recover our child-like enthusiasm for beauty, for the sweetness of living. I think this connects to teachings that encourage us to live from gratitude, to look for reasons to feel grateful each day, for this life we are given.

The deeper sense of connection to cosmos has a mystical element to it. It runs deeper than thought or feeling- it is a different kind of awareness. It is a way of prayer.

This mystical view, this sense of connection to the cosmos can tug and poke at our understanding of ourselves. If we are part of God’s ongoing Original Blessing, then we are certainly much more than what we have, or what power we wield, or who we can tell what to do. This growing awareness may push/encourage us to look more deeply at ourselves.

The journey of self-discovery, of being more true to what God has made us to be, may take us on a new spiritual journey. We may begin with a renewed sense of awe, of wonder at Creation. Think about looking up at a starry night sky.

Awe and wonder at creation, and our place in it, does not insulate us from the pain of life. The joy and beauty we experience sometimes also make us even more aware of the suffering in the world- our own, and that of others. As we age, and learn, and grow, there is also the pain that comes with letting go of former ways, and embracing life in the present. Life is always changing, and all living creatures are going through loss and growth, and letting go, all the time.

 I used an example of this at the Queen’s Senior’s Apartment communion service this week. We can try it here. Look around at the people around you, and give them your best pout, or mean look. While you’re doing that, pay attention to how it feels to be looking that way, and to see that look on the faces around you.

 Now, turn that frown upside down, and try smiling at everyone around you. How does that feel? It feels good to end that out into the universe, and also to receive it.

From our awareness of how it feels, both to receive, and offer those different signals, we can be more in touch with the effect we have on the world around us. We can also be more compassionate, more aware of the hearts of the people in our lives, and what life is like for them.

 From compassion may come the deep desire to offer beauty and love to the world that God is making. When we live that way, we are more like God, and more like God is creating us to be. Amen

God is with us in the storm- from Storm Sunday in the Season of Creation, Sept 15, 2013


 I grew up in Thunder Bay, on the shore of Lake Superior. The city is nestled around a large natural harbour, and ringed in behind by the remnants of a once mighty mountain range, the Cambrian Shield. The mountains are apparently not what they once were, geological ages ago, but they are still high enough to contribute to the creation of amazing weather systems.  The moisture laden air over the lake is pushed towards the mountains, and then upward. Warm air and cold air meet, and clouds are formed, and great energies are gathered. Especially in the heat of summer, the result is spectacular rain storms, with incredible lightning and thunder- hence the name, Thunder Bay.

I think we have some of the same elements at work here in this area, with the air over Lake Ontario pushed up over the edge of the Niagara Escarpment, meeting the colder air, and forming storms. I have seen some pretty amazing lightning around here, and over the lake- but I have to say that these storms still pale in comparison to those of childhood memory. I used to love watching and listening to those summer storms, and feeling them, when the thunder was so loud that it shook our house.

It is no wonder that the First Nations people around Thunder Bay, who are Anishinabe, have many legends about Animiki, the Thunderbird, who formed storm clouds by flapping its great wings, and shot lightning from its eyes.

Is the weather really is more spectacular over Thunder Bay, or is it something about everything looking bigger when you are a child? Wherever we have lived, I have enjoyed watching storms. It has been relatively easy for me to admire nature’s raw power at a safe and comfortable distance. I could talk for quite a while about how awesome it is to see nature at work, and about how there are both psychological and spiritual benefits to being in the presence of forces larger than ourselves, that remind us of our place in the universe, and of just how much about life is beyond our understanding and control.

But storms also represent destructive power. Every year hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning storms wreak havoc. Homes are destroyed, people are injured or killed.

 We also use the idea of storm metaphorically, to represent all the disasters and difficulties, natural and human-made, that can shake up our lives.

You don’t have to live through a tsunami to have questions in your heart and mind about why people have to endure and suffer such hardships. There are many kinds of storms.

Economic upheaval. Political turmoil. Famine. Drought. War. The loss of a job. The end of a relationship. Betrayal. Serious illness. The death of a loved one. These are just a few examples of things that can happen in our lives, that can leave us feeling like things are in chaos. These times can strip away from us any illusion that we are in control, or that we understand any of the mysteries of life.

For some of us, these storms are times of profound challenge to our faith. It is common for people in these times to wonder about God, and God’s purposes and methods.

 I think that the Gospel story for this morning can be read in at least two different ways. The first, most typical way is to read it as a miracle story. It depicts Jesus as a wonder worker who can calm a storm with a verbal command. In the story, Jesus is actually asleep in the boat when it becomes engulfed in a storm. His friends are afraid that they will drown, so they wake him up.

Getting to his feet, he told the wind, “Silence!” and the waves, “Quiet down!” They did it. The lake became smooth as glass.

25 Then he said to his disciples, “Why can’t you trust me?”

They were in absolute awe, staggered and stammering, “Who is this, anyway? He calls out to the winds and sea, and they do what he tells them!”

To my mind, this miracle story raises at least as many questions as it seems to answer. If Jesus can calm this storm, what about all the other ones? What about all the good people who pray and ask for shelter or relief or rescue from their storms?

 Thankfully, this is not the only way to interpret this story, and not the only way to think about God. I think we can also read this story as a kind of parable. Jesus and his friends set out on calm seas, and Jesus falls asleep. The storm comes up, but it does not seem to bother him. Is it likely that a person laying in the bottom of an open boat in the middle of storm could actually sleep? What is the story-teller suggesting?

 Maybe we are being given an image of another way that God is with us, in the midst of our everyday storms. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, God is not so much the powerful rescuer, but more the calm, the quiet, the peace in the middle of chaos. We can perhaps dwell a little less on the image of Jesus commanding the wind and the waves, and allow ourselves to remember that whatever else happened to the disciples, Jesus was in the boat with them. He was with them.

 My wife told me that when she was a little girl, growing up in a small town not far from Lake Erie, if there was a thunderstorm, her mother would wake up her and her two sisters. They would cuddle together under a blanket on the couch in the front room, and watch the storm, and listen to the thunder. When she was young, Lexie believed that her mom did this for the benefit of the children. Looking back, she realizes that there was more to the story- that her mother was actually afraid of the storms, and needed comfort as much as she wanted to offer it.

 Something about that story made me think about the old country song, “Storms Never Last”. It was written by Jessi Colter, who was married to Waylon Jennings. The most famous version of it is a recording by that couple. It’s a love song, written by a wife to a husband who created his own share of storms, with bad choices and wild outlaw living.

 Love songs, like poetry and parables, can point us in the direction of truth. I heard a preacher say once that almost any romantic song can be turned into a hymn. Songs about love between people can be sung as prayers, or praises. Jessi Colter wrote:

Storms never last do they, baby
Bad times all pass with the winds
Your hand in mine steals the thunder
You make the sun want to shine

I think she was saying that when there is love present, it is more possible to trust that even the worst storm will pass. I love these lines:

Your hand in mine steals the thunder
You make the sun want to shine

My prayer for any of us who lives in the midst of a storm is that we can feel the touch of a hand that steals the thunder. That God’s presence, and God’s love can relieve our hearts of fear and despair, and allow us to live with courage and confidence, knowing that we are not alone, and that somehow, eventually, the storm will pass. Amen

Love is a mystery

My daughter and I recently attended a local production of a broadway musical. It is a special delight to go with her. She is a talented actor and singer in her own right, and a student of the American musical. By student, I mean someone who follows her passion for this art form, and who watches and listens, and reads as much as she can about it. Her deep interest, and growing knowledge fuel our conversations about the plays we see.

During our post-play analysis, we noted the production lacked a certain spark. Sets, costumes, lighting, and musical accompaniment were all top-notch. So what was missing?

The actors were technically competent, and without exception, talented singers. But there was an absence of believable romantic tension between the actors cast as the young couple destined to fall in love, despite their differences. It is a common device in this genre, to have an unlikely romance emerge, that gradually bridges the apparent large gap between two lead characters.  Often this romance, and the efforts to further or hinder it, provide energy that drives much of the larger drama.

We agreed there did not seem to be any “spark” or “chemistry” between the young couple. Our critical dissection led me to thinking, a day or two later, about times when I met someone who seemed a potential new friend, or even a romantic interest, only to notice later that we were comfortable with each other, but not all that drawn to each other.

Have you had the experience of meeting someone and wondering why the acquaintance does not blossom into something more? The “chemistry” between people can be mysterious!

 What is the spark? Why do we grow to love certain people in a deeper, different way, and not others? We can’t make love happen. We don’t have a clinical, scientific way to predict when it will grow into something life-changing. But we can usually see when it does!

Jesus is quoted as saying that you can know a tree by its fruits. The presence of love has an effect on what grows between people. Absence of love also has recognizable results.

The story in Luke 19:1-10 is about an encounter between Jesus and a tax-collector named Zacchaeus. It is not a romance, but it demonstrates what is possible when love is present.

 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.

When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”




Wild and Wonderful (Sept 8, 2013)

bugs bunny Is there anyone here who does not know the name of this “wascally wabbit”? Bugs Bunny! Bugs is just one more in a long line of cartoon characters who bear little resemblance to the real life animals on which they are based. Bugs has a long torso, and arms and legs, and is most often seen standing upright, like a person. He wields his carrot in the way an old time stand-up comedian would handle a cigar, and he talks and acts like a wise guy from Brooklyn. Humans have long practiced what is called Anthropomorphism, or personification. This is attribution of human form or other characteristics to anything other than a human being. Examples include ascribing human emotions or motives to forces of nature. There are echoes of this whenever hear the weather reports describing Hurricane Rhonda, or Tropical Storm Louise. I wonder why we don’t give names to earthquakes and forest fires. Anthropomorphism has ancient roots as a literary device in storytelling, and in art. Most cultures have traditional fables with animals which act, and think, and feel emotions, and talk like humans. Aesop’s fables are well-known, but there are even more ancient examples. Here is an illustration from a Syrian edition of the Panchatantra, printed in 1354.   rabbit fools elephantThe original story is dated at least 3 centuries before the time of Jesus.  Rabbit fools Elephant by showing him the reflection of the moon.

Not long ago I had an experience with a real live, non-talking rabbit. On a quiet spring evening I lay in our backyard hammock, a medieval murder mystery in my lap. The sun’s warmth had lulled me into closing my eyes, just for a moment. I awoke to bear witness to a moment of commonplace wonder.

brown backyard bunny

Just a few feet from where I lay suspended, a rabbit munched peacefully on grass and clover. This rabbit seemed less furtive than some we see skitting about our yard. Its ears were relaxed. Its head only occasionally swivel-scanned the area. I admired the mottled blend of browns- real earth tones- of its fur. Even at rest, I could see the lean outline of muscle and sinew beneath, ready to twitch into untamed speed.

There was nothing cute about this creature. In the light glinting off the dark, round disk of its eye, I glimpsed “otherness”- an intelligence nothing like my own. This was a moment in which I realized that we do not always see what is really there. We see what we have been conditioned to see, and we see what we want to see.

We filter out the wildness, and focus on the cuteness, the fuzzy resemblance to cartoon characters and stuffed animals. Even the cutest, most domesticated rabbit is still a wild animal.

fluffy persons parkes

My friends who have had their lamp cords, tv cable, and stereo wires chewed up every time Fluffy gets loose can attest to the untameable, unteachable nature of their pet rabbit. Fluffy does not like carrots, he does not talk like Bugs, and he definitely does not understand the word “No!”.

Today we are celebrating Flora and Fauna Sunday. Flora is represented by the plants at the front of the sanctuary. They are reminders of all that grows out of the soil. It is good to have those signs of life in our midst. It is so easy for us to lead air-conditioned, sanitized lives in which we see more nature on television than we do in person, even though it is all literally outside of our doors.

Fauna is the word we use for all the animals, birds, and water creatures, and insects, that according to the Book of Genesis, emerged from the clay of the earth, and were given life by the creator. In our call to worship we expressed our kinship with the animal world. We are, in fact, a family of fauna—both biologically and spiritually. The creatures of Earth are our kin. We have all emerged from Earth and return to Earth. All living things are animated by the very breath/spirit of God.

Wednesday, at sundown, marked the beginning of the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah, in Hebrew roughly means “beginning, or head of the year”. This is the beginning of the Jewish new year. This religious and cultural tradition has been around for thousands of years, much longer than any of our Christian celebrations. There have been many centuries for meaning and beauty to be added, in the same way a pearl is created layer by layer, over time.

As the beginning of a new year, it is a time to reflect on the past, and look forward to the future, and perhaps make resolutions, or to seek the forgiveness of those who have been wronged. The day is also believed to be the anniversary of the creation of the world, and of Adam and Eve, named in the Genesis stories as the  first man and woman. The story sets them in the midst of, not separate from the rest of creation. The setting for everyday of our lives is within God’s creation. As one commentator has said, it is good to remember the Divine in the soul and honor the sacred water, soil, air and fire, because, “there is no place that God is not.”

Everything is blessed, and God is in all things. Although we in North America are moving into the fall season, in the Middle East it is time for the planting of seeds and the first rain. For people of a farming culture, the soil was central to human life. The Hebrew word for soil is Adamah, which starts with the first Hebrew letter, and is made of the Hebrew words for human being, and blood, or lifeline. The word for soil reminds us of Adam, who in the Genesis story was formed of the soil, after God formed all the animals and birds of the air, and the fishes and all creatures that dwell in the water.

We are not rural, agricultural people anymore, and even that way of life as been infected deeply by the taming, the commodification of the created order. We don’t do well, as a species, with the job of steward of creation that the agricultural people of Israel accepted as their role. We are more like consumers than caretakers.

We seem to value the natural world for what it can give us. This is different from seeing ourselves as part of a wondrous ongoing creation, filled with strangeness and beauty. This is different from remembering that life, all life is a precious gift- a divine and mysterious gift. As mysterious as the creator sculpting creatures from the soil and breathing life into them. Amen  

Diving Deep: Ocean Sunday 2013 Season of Creation (Sept 1)


One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.


When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

My first time in the ocean was at the beach at Panama City, Florida. I remember tasting salt water for the first time, and my amazement at being a bit more buoyant than in the lake water to which I was accustomed. I grew up in Thunder Bay, on the shore of Lake Superior, and spent a lot of time in those cool waters, and in other northern lakes. Those childhood experiences did not prepare me for waves powerful enough that we could body surf. Even in the relative calm of the Gulf of Mexico, the waves could carry us quite far. It was all new for me, being picked up and carried by this fluid force. These days you can experience this in a wave pool at almost any indoor water park, but back in my early twenties, the real waves, in the real ocean, felt miraculous. My body was lifted up and carried by the water, and my soul was at the same time expanded, and safely held, in a primal force, larger, more powerful than I, and definitely not in my control. This was a bodily, visceral experience of life and energy beyond my previous small knowing.

I had just a little, dog-paddling dip into the big sea of all life, perhaps a splash of what real surfers know about- especially the ones who approach riding the waves as a form of meditation, or prayer, of oneness with the universe.

Memories of swimming, and floating, and being moved by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico flooded back when the news began telling us the horrible story, and showing us the ugly pictures of the BP oil spill that began in April of 2010. More than 200,000 gallons of crude oil poured into those waters. By recent reports, even after 3 years of containment, dispersal, use of oil eating microbes and controlled burns, half the oil is still in the water. Some of the methods used have had their own deadly side effects.

The damage to the sea-bed, to the water quality, to the creatures that live in or on or near the water, including humans, to the beaches, and the fisheries, has not been accurately measured or documented. It may never be, because of the legal questions of liability and compensation. Even if there was a true financial accounting- no amount of money can undo what has been done. I don’t say this just to point fingers at big oil companies, because I know I have a role in this, every time I start my car, or fill my tank. We take part in, and enjoy the comforts of an economy that is wreaking havoc on the natural world. Can we confess complicity in these sins against creation?

A more recent memory is of the ocean experience my family enjoyed last summer, at Cavendish Beach on PEI. Does the Gulf of Saint Lawrence count as ocean? The water was definitely salty. I did not venture far enough out to discover if I could body surf. We found the water cold, even though the sun was warm. The red beach sand was the wonder of that day, and the kids and I sculpted a big turtle, including flat sandstone rocks for flippers. Something about the wind, the lapping waves, and the big blue sky encouraged the making of things. Creation seems an active reality in places even only slightly removed from the civility of human-tamed streets. It is good for us to get away from things people have constructed, and anchored to the earth, and go to places where we can see, and hear, and touch, and deeply appreciate what God makes.

In the shelter of our homes, or here in the sanctuary, it is possible to think of creation as a one-time act. Some philosophers imagine God as cosmic clock-maker, who designed and fashioned the big machine, got it all working, but who has now stepped away, to passively observe as it all winds down. I doubt any of these thinkers came to this conclusion while sitting on a beach.

On the beach, between the glories of sunrise and sunset, the constant motion of waves and wind are a wordless song of praise. They witness to the truth that creation, rather than a singular, long ago act of a distant God, is an ongoing, meticulous preoccupation of a hands-on Creator, in passionate love with their works in progress.

My most profound ocean experience was off the shore of Belize, formerly called British Honduras. I was traveling with a student group from a Quaker seminary. We went there to help with, and learn about mission work amongst very poor people in that small Caribbean nation’s capital.

Sadie, our wise and loving host, had been at the mission for many years. She’d had many groups of visitors in her time, and knew that all work and no play was hard on tender middle class North American souls. She arranged an excursion for us at a resort run by friends of the mission. Part of the adventure was cruising over a coral reef aboard a small glass bottom boat. Below us there appeared a fantastic marine world, home to the grown up cousins of sea creatures many of us have seen in aquariums, and these days, in those tropical fish screensavers.

I had never seen anything like it in my life. The glass bottom boat was literally a window into a different world below the surface of the water. Julian, our boat captain surprised us with the opportunity, if we were up for it, to step off the boat and take a dip in the warm water near the coral reef. There was even a kind of a gate cut into the hull. Using a snorkel, I was able to swim closer to the reef, and the mask became my own personal window. That was even more marvelous than looking through the boat’s glass bottom.

Like my soul-expanding experience of being buoyed up by warm salt water in the Gulf of Mexico, seeing the eco-system of the coral reef was a revelation- literally. An aspect of God’s creation whose beauty and complexity I could not have begun to imagine, was revealed. Seeing the way the light touched the reef, and lit up the fish, brightening all those colours and shapes, and all the activity under the water, I learned something about God. I learned about God the way that we learn about an artist when we study a painting and maybe say to ourselves- this is from a person’s heart.

The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donahue wrote that “Beauty is the illumination of your soul.” (Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom). A few years ago in a radio interview he also said that beauty ennobles the heart and reminds us of the infinity that is within us.

The oceans and their beautiful, mysterious depths can leave us in awe. They can also point us toward, and be a sign of the mystery and immensity of God. Even a glimpse of God at work can make a claim on us. We are changed by the experience, and if we open ourselves to the call of God, our lives may never be the same.

That happened to some of Jesus’ friends on the sea of Galilee.  They said yes to his strange request that they put out into deep water, and let down their nets for a catch, even though they had already fished all night, and caught nothing.

They did not know what they were in for, or what would be in their nets. The sea gave up a tremendous catch. It was a moment of surprise, of unexpected and mysterious bounty. For these fishermen, the world was suddenly bigger, and more wondrous than they had known.  Amen

Hungry Hearts and Cracked Bells

Let’s listen to a song performed by the Irish actress and singer Minnie Driver. When it’s over, I will ask if anyone recognizes it, and knows who wrote it.

Got a wife and kids in Baltimore jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back
Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going

Everybodys got a hungry heart
Everybodys got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybodys got a hungry heart

I met her in a kingstown bar
We fell in love I knew it had to end
We took what we had and we ripped it apart
Now here I am down in kingstone again

Everybodys got a hungry heart…

Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don’t make no difference what nobody says
Aint nobody like to be alone

Everybodys got a hungry heart…

(This is Bruce Springsteen)

Bruce Springsteen wrote that song in 1979. He wrote for The Ramones, (can you imagine them singing this?)

(This is The Ramones)

A 1981 portrait of The Ramones

Springsteen ended up keeping it for himself, because his producer and manager advised him to stop giving away his good songs. The title is drawn from a line in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem “Ulysses”: “For always roaming with a hungry heart”.

Because this is a rock and roll song, it may be easy to dismiss it as shallow in its meaning. If the problem of the hungry heart is strictly about romance, the standard solution to the problem is for the hero in the song to just find the right person, fall in love, and then everything will be all better.

But as we grow and mature, and pay attention to life, we may realize the idea that another person can be the solution to our problems, that our hungry heart will be satisfied if we just meet our soul mate- this is an illusion. Each of us is a unique creation of God, and no other person is exactly like us. There is a moment as an infant when we notice that we are a separate being from our mother and father, and the other big people around us. From that moment on, we are always going to feel at least a little bit separate, different, isolated from others. We begin to notice that there is a hunger in our hearts- an empty place.

Some of us would do, and have done, almost anything to avoid feeling that void. Springsteen’s song begins with a verse about a man who walked out the door on his wife and kids in Baltimore. He went out for a ride and never went back.

“Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going”

Life is hard, and we don’t always know what we need in order to feel whole, to not feel empty, to not feel alone. Some of us are able to hide our brokenness, our sadness, our emptiness. For others, it is written all over their face, or even in the way they carry themselves.

In our gospel story this morning, Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of worship and rest. There was a woman there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all.

Even though Luke’s gospel gives a fairly detailed picture of the woman’s ailment, we don’t know the cause of her suffering. She was crippled by a spirit. That phrase hints to us that whatever was afflicting her was not merely physical. With our 21st century awareness we might look for physical, emotional, psychological, social, even spiritual reasons why she had lived the last 18 years bent over.

Because we have each experienced our own suffering, as we imagine this woman and her situation, we can feel compassion for her. When it comes to a hurting human being there rarely simple problems or simple solutions. The origin of her ailment may have been a physical injury or illness, that developed into a habit of walking hunched over. It might be that she had experienced some great sadness that weighed upon her, or some shame that caused her to duck down, to hide herself from the world, from the gaze of onlookers.
Jesus saw the woman, and called her over. He said, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

One of the commentators I read this week pointed out that in the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, there are at least 138 times when Jesus “sees”. This seems like an important distinction. He does not just look, or worse, look down, on the woman. He sees her.

How many people go through life feeling like people look at them without really seeing them? Jesus took the time, and opened his heart to see this woman more deeply. In contrast with the people in the next part of the story, Jesus sees the woman as a person, rather than as a problem. How would our day to day encounters with people be different if we remembered more often to see each person as a unique created gift of God, rather than as problems to be endured or managed.

Because Jesus viewed the woman with compassion, he could see her need for healing. But was that all that he saw? How would our encounters with people be different if we could remember to look not only at the person’s present condition and situation, but to also open our imagination to their potential? Can we see a person not only for what they are now, but for what they can become, as God keeps working with them? We are, all of us, works in progress.

We are all in need of healing. We may not know exactly what we need. We may find it difficult to look as closely into ourselves as Jesus does when he sees the bent over woman. We may prefer not to be face to face with the broken parts. It may be hard for us to maintain the mask that we are strong and self-sufficient, and not in need of help, or change, or growth, or healing, if we look honestly into our own hungry hearts.

One of Canada’s best known poets, Leonard Cohen, in his song “Anthem” encourages us not only to be honest about the healing we need, but to embrace the truth that it is the hunger in our hearts that can lead us towards love. He says:

Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Let’s take a moment now in quiet, to look into our own hearts. Where are the cracks, the holes, that really can only be filled, healed, helped God’s love. This is not a purely self-centred exercise. The healing we need may help us to be better at loving others, at seeing others, and finding ways to be of help to them.

The healing of the cracks in our own lives can become a way for more of God’s light to shine into this world. Amen

Words for David Walker

I bring greetings, and condolences, as well as the heart-felt best wishes of the people of Trinity United in Oakville. They share in your sense of loss, and in the joy of celebrating the life of our friend David Walker. David provided a calming, healing presence, and sensitive pastoral care and worship leadership to Trinity during a difficult transition time, and that has not been forgotten.

Of all those here that respect, and love David Walker, it may be that I have known him for the shortest time. Five years ago, during my first month as the new minister at Trinity, David dropped in to meet me, and offered, in his kind, non-intrusive way, to be of help and support. That was the beginning of our friendship.

One of the first things we did together was lead a 6 week class combining spiritual practices with drawing and painting. This gave us a chance to work on connections between creativity and spirituality, and making art as a way of prayer. David’s open heart, and generous spirit sought, and found, beauty in people, in situations, and in the natural world around us.

It was breath-taking to watch David make a picture appear on sketch paper, with deft strokes of a pencil, or water-colour brush. It was heart-warming to observe as he worked with the students in the class. He encouraged them to be daring, to try something, and not worry so much about the outcome. Under his gentle tutelage, it was okay to not exactly know what you were doing. He helped them move into territory that was both new, and risky for them- to venture into a world of art-making. David knew that every time we do that- push through the fear and discomfort, and risk moving into a new place, there is the holy possibility that we will be transformed.

When we planned the art and the spirit classes, we took inspiration from a woman named Christine Valters Paintner, who is an artist, and a spiritual director. Christine wrote,  “By giving attention to the process of art-making we may begin to notice stirrings within ourselves- resistance, insight, joy, sadness- all of which are food for self-insight and spiritual growth.”

David had a way of listening to people that helped them know it was okay to delve into those deeper places- even the places of confusion, and pain. David listened to me, a lot, and as we grew in our friendship, I was privileged to return the favour.

Not long after we met, David and I began having lunch together once a week, except when I was on vacation, or he and Ann were away. We spent a lot of time at CJ’s Café, at Bronte fish and chips on Lakeshore, at Swiss Chalet. Actually, our most frequent destination for lunch was the food court at Oakville Place- a great place for different food choices, and for people watching.

David was a student of people. His training as a counselor complimented his innate love for, and curiosity about people, how they lived, and how they made sense of their lives.

We had other adventures together. Afternoon movies, and outings at Lowville Park to spend time with the trees and birds. One of my favourite David days was our trip to the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg. It was revelatory to look at paintings with a painter- an artist who knew what he was doing, and more profoundly, what they were doing, when they took up their brushes and paints. He told me stories from the lives of some of the group of seven, that shed light on their work.

Our little day trips, and lunch conversations were a small part of David’s larger journey. It was good to travel, even for a short time, with this spiritual pilgrim. He was on a journey with the Divine, towards greater oneness with the Divine. In recent years, an important part of that journey was coming to terms with what it meant to be a retired minister. He had so much to offer, and was sometimes frustrated about not being able find opportunities to exercise his gifts. He was always game to take part in classes or experiments I was trying at Trinity, and his presence always made those events more meaningful.

We served together on the Worship Team for Halton Presbytery and helped to plan and lead worship for the monthly meetings.

One evening we drove together to a presbytery meeting at Hillcrest United Church, way north of Oakville on Trafalgar Road. It became very foggy on the drive. I missed the turn for the church parking lot, because the fog was so thick. We had to pass the church, get turned around, and find our way back- being more vigilant as the fog seemed to be getting thicker. There was something profound about that shared experience of cautiously proceeding, able to see only a short distance ahead, but going on anyway.

In our last conversation, just 3 days before he died, David and I talked about life being a journey through many foggy places, places in which there is much meaning and joy, but also pain and confusion, fear and doubt, and mystery. David lived his way through so many of these times.

Serving in the Navy. Working in the corporate world as an advertising artist. Entering Knox College as a mature student. Caring for those closest to him in all the ups and downs of family life as a husband and father. Being a pastor during times of great upheaval and change in Canadian culture, and in the church. Migrating from the Presbyterian Church to the United Church. Undertaking further study and training in psychology and therapy to be better equipped to help hurting people. In our last conversation we reflected on the journey of life- and a definition of hope we had often discussed in the last couple years.

Real hope is born of having passed through challenging times, and come out the other side- perhaps not intact, certainly effected by the experience, but nonetheless, present and able to carry on.

We talked about death as a passage into mystery, with the hope of emerging into a new place, having been transformed.

David, my friend the painter pilgrim understood the journey is about being open to what is coming, open to the mystery of it all, even when we feel unsure, and perhaps a bit afraid.

Like many, I am proud to say that I have some of David’s art to remember him by. My favourite is a water colour I purchased as an anniversary gift for my wife. It is one he painted up north, of a road winding through a forest in the fall. There is sunlight illuminating the scene, making brilliant the leaves that have begun to turn colour. What I love about this picture is that the sunlight, IMAG0769the warmth and hope in the scene, comes from further up the road. I now look at David’s painting as a prayerful expression of faith, and hope, and trust in what lies ahead.



Moving from Illusion to Prayer

I officiated at a surprise wedding yesterday. The couple planned a pig roast, combined with a murder mystery role-play, with their wedding ceremony mid-way through. As guests arrived they received special envelopes containing their instructions. They knew ahead what character they would be playing, and most came dressed in costumes to help them live out their part.  Guests were to mix and mingle in character, and work into the conversations their pieces of information, the clues that would lead towards the killer. Before long, there was a horrible scream. The victim, the character of the obnoxious party planner, was found dead, and it was time to start searching for clues.

This was my cue to sneak away with the bride and groom, and set up on the patio, which had been transformed into a “courthouse”. The guests were led by the clues, and by a few very directive characters, to the courthouse, for the next surprise.

Once the guests were all seated, Pachelbel’s Canon began to play over the speakers, and flower girl, bridesmaid, witnesses, and the couple appeared, to the happy surprise of the guests. I welcomed everyone to the wedding, which I felt, even after being part of several hundred weddings over the years, was touching, and poignant, and very beautiful. The couple had both been married before. She was widowed, and he had been divorced after a very difficult first marriage. They each have grown daughters who stood with them as witnesses. Two people who despaired of ever finding another person to share their lives, celebrated with great joy, their decision to marry.

I really like this couple. They are both about my age, and have lived long enough to grow out of some of the pre-occupations and confusions of younger years. They seem to have their focus on the right things. Their wedding day was about love, and commitment, and sharing their joy with the people closest to them, in a creative, and fun way. I felt when I asked the friends and family to join me in asking God to be with them, and bless them, the couple really wanted blessing.

That the setting was a mystery role-play gave me great material to work with for the wedding sermon.  I talked about how the real mystery that gathered us together was not the pretend murder, but the mystery of life. How are we supposed to live? What is true? What is worth giving ourselves to? In terms that fit with what we are about here, “Who are we, and who or what is God?”

I have noticed over the last decade as I have worked with wedding couples choosing their vows, there is a real aversion to using phrases like “as long as we both shall live”, or “til death do us part”. Couples tell me they don’t want to talk about death or dying on their wedding day. They don’t want to bring the mood down, or make anybody who has lost a mate feel sad. Some couples just plain don’t want to think about the fact that they will not be young forever. But as Ecclesiastes said thousands of years ago, “there is a time and purpose for every matter under heaven”, including “ a time to live and a time to die”. We know this is true, but we live in a culture that conspires to deny death, and encourages us to act like we are going to live forever. I think it is part of our consumerist way of living- that depends upon acquiring more and more, and ignoring the truth that there are natural limits.

Presiding at weddings where we are not supposed to talk about death, I see that in the name of keeping a happy mood, we sacrifice the opportunity to go deeper into meaning of the moment, and of our very lives. We have to face, and live with the discomfort of pondering our own death, in order to really grasp what is happening when a person promises themselves to another, for life. We have a limited number of days on earth. What we do with them, and how we spend them, is a big deal. If we choose not to think about it, and cushion ourselves with the illusion that we will always be young, even our biggest commitments and choices have a hollow, disposable tone to them.

This morning is the third and last in our series based on “Reaching Out”, by Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest and author of more than 40 books about Christian spiritual life. His writing was rooted in deep and honest reflection on his own life, in light of his own experience of God as a living, transforming, healing presence. He modeled the insight that we come to know God more profoundly as we are look with loving eyes at the depths of ourselves.

Nouwen invites us to look at our Christian spiritual lives in terms of three movements. The movement from Loneliness to Solitude involves accepting a degree of separateness, aloneness, as a human reality. Each person is unique, and individual, and carries with them a certain mystery- there is no one just like them. If we are uncomfortable, or unwilling to be alone with ourselves, then we may never actually discover who we really are. We may never see ourselves the way God sees us. But if we begin to know, and to trust that we are loved by God, and that our value is rooted in that love, and not in all the other messages we have bought into about ourselves, we can grow to be more appreciative of the gift of ourselves.

The second movement is related to the first. If we are growing in our capacity to love and know ourselves as unique, and precious children of God, whose lives matter, then out of that more sure and secure sense of ourselves, we are free-er and more able to love other people. This is the movement from Hostility to Hospitality. Less afraid of the judgments and opinions of others, we become more secure in the knowledge of God’s love. Our relationships with others can be more generous, and less selfish.

The third movement, the one we are looking at today, is perhaps the hardest to talk about, and is the foundation for the other two. It is about our relationship with God. Nouwen calls it the movement from Illusion to Prayer.

We allow ourselves to live with comforting illusions, like the one about immortality. The illusion that we will never face death, so we don’t need to think about it, provides short term relief from anxiety and fear.  But to the extent that the illusion allows us to escape reality, it also stops us from growing up, from becoming spiritually mature.

When we act like we will live forever, we also buy into the illusion that we are very powerful- we must be, if the laws of nature don’t apply to us. If we buy into the idea that we are powerful, and largely self-made, and self-sufficient, we may live as if we are the centre of our own little universe. We don’t really need anybody else, except to satisfy our appetites. With this exaggerated sense of ourselves, there is very little room in our hearts for other people, or for God. There is nothing like the anxious awareness of mortality, of the raw and painful fact we will die someday, to tune us into our basic human dependence. We depend upon God, and other people, for our very lives.

This seems to be the way it works. The journey to spiritual maturity takes us right into the midst of feelings we might prefer to avoid, in order to get to the God way of seeing things. On the other side of our fear of the unknown reality of death, is the invitation to place our trust in God, and God’s love. Beyond our fear of dependence on others, is realizing they are also dependent upon us, and that we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves.  We need people, and they need us to. We feel the pain of others, because we admit to our own basic neediness. Another word to describe that awareness of mutual need is compassion, or love.

All of these movements are about moving through the pain, and from anxiety about ourselves, and our own existence, towards God, and the love that comes from God.

The third movement, from Illusion to Prayer, is also about our illusions concerning God. Feeling insecure and confused about ourselves, and life, we might long for religion that presents a simple, knowable, manageable God.  As we move through these illusions, and closer to reality, each journey through our own fearfulness brings us to a place of greater love, and real comfort.

As we give up the idea that we can know everything about God, we move towards humility, and can realize, to our great relief, we don’t actually have to have all the answers. That is God’s job. We don’t have to try to be God.

We can let go of the idea that we can totally understand God, and therefore control God. God is not manipulated by our prayers, or our piety. God’s love is not conditional upon us getting the words right, or making all the right choices. We can move towards a deeper trust that the One who is actually in charge is God, and not us. We are not as powerful or as responsible for everything as God. That takes a huge weight off of our shoulders.

All of Nouwen’s insights about Christian spiritual life are about relationships. How we relate to ourselves. How we relate to other people. How we relate to God. In each of these areas, we may begin with our tendency to feel insecure, and unsure, holding on to our easy answers and illusions. We may hesitate, and resist letting go of the easy answers, and resist going deeper, because it means facing and experiencing some pain. But that journey takes us to a profound awareness of the love that is at the heart of all things.

Solitude, our time alone can become looking at ourselves with soft loving eyes, with gratitude for life. Life with others can become richer for the love that flows through each person, love most deeply felt in the face of each other’s vulnerability. Our prayer time, our intentional time with God, becomes less about finding the right words to talk to God, and more about simply resting in God’s loving presence. God’s love is answer enough for all the questions, all the mysteries of life. Amen

Moving from Hostility to Hospitality

Last Sunday I began a three part series based on the book Reaching Out, by Henri Nouwen. Henri Nouwen was a well-known psychologist, teacher, author, and Roman Catholic priest. After a successful career as a teacher and author in the area of Christian Spirituality, that took him many places around the world, Nouwen settled into life as a member of Daybreak, one of the L’Arche communities founded by Jean Vanier. Daybreak is in Richmond Hill, and since his death in 1996, Toronto has become one of the major centres for the study of Nouwen’s writing, which includes over 40 books.

Reaching Out is one of Nouwen’s earlier works, published in 1975, and is still a best seller. Nouwen wrote about three movements in our spiritual lives. Last week I talked about the movement from loneliness to solitude. That movement involves accepting a degree of separateness, aloneness, as a human reality. It also involves the idea that each person is unique, and individual, and carries with them a certain mystery- there is no one just like them. If we are uncomfortable, or unwilling to be alone with ourselves, then we may never actually discover who we really are. We may never see ourselves the way God sees us.

We might think about a continuum or line with polar opposites on either end. At different times of our lives, we are more or less comfortable with ourselves, and then it is more possible to be alone, to be in solitude, without being overwhelmed with loneliness. If we are able to get to know ourselves, and value ourselves as beloved, unique children of God, then as Nouwen wrote, “our changing relationship to ourself can be brought to fruition in an ever-changing relationship to our fellow human beings”.

This makes sense to me. As I am more able to accept and love myself, and be comfortable in my own skin, and with my own inner life, I am less encumbered with anxiety, and fear of judgement. I feel less compelled to compare myself to others. If I am looking at myself with softer eyes, with something closer to the way God sees me, I am freed to look at others more for who they really are, and less as strangers who may pose a threat to my well-being, or self-image.

I am on call this week at the hospital while the staff chaplain is on vacation. On Friday afternoon I was called in to visit with a woman who is dying. Two things happened on that trip to the hospital that for me, seem to be about how I am learning about the second movement in Nouwen’s book, from Hostility to Hospitality.

The first thing I noticed was that when I came on to the hospital ward that had asked for a chaplain to come and visit a patient, the staff basically ignored me for 5 minutes while I stood at the nurse’s station. Twenty minutes before this, I had been at home, lounging in a t-shirt and shorts when the call came, and had quickly cleaned up, dressed up, and rushed to the hospital. Part of me felt like I was doing them a favour, and I was feeling a little annoyed. When I did get someone’s attention, and they were bringing me to meet the patient, I started to look around and see how many very ill people were being cared for by a small staff, and realized I might not be the first priority. I needed a little humbling, to get over myself, in order to see how things were for these people.

The second learning moment was that when I did get to the room to see the patient, she was not all that interested in conversation. She seemed happy to hold my hand, and nodded her head when talked with her, and when I made a prayer- but did not seem to want to speak. But her room-mate really wanted to talk! Each time I asked the one lady a question, the room-mate would call out the answer from the other side of the curtain dividing the room. At first I just wanted her to be quiet, so I could connect with the person I had been asked to see. And then I figured it out. I told the room-mate that I would like to come over and visit with her next, and she said that would be lovely, and she stopped interrupting. I sat in silence for a few minutes holding the first lady’s hand, and then left a note for her family to say that I’d been there. Then I went to the other side of the room to have a visit with the other lady, who was quite lovely to chat with, and who was also very ill, and feeling lonely and afraid. So rather than having one frustrating, interrupted visit, I had opportunities to meet two people where they were, just the way they are.

Those experiences reminded me of the video I want to show you this morning, which was made a couple of years ago by an American hospital called the Cleveland Clinic. It is moving and beautiful piece, that gives a glimpse inside people’s hearts.

The Cleveland Clinic video

Our first Bible reading this morning, from the Book of Hebrews, contained the advice that we should “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. “ This advice is also a reference to the high value peoples of the ancient world placed on opening your home, and offering hospitality to travellers. The Jewish people’s ancestors were nomadic, and lived by a code that insisted that you must always offer care to strangers, bearing in mind that there could be a time when you would depend upon the same generosity of spirit. There is a story about Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people, in which they offer the hospitality of their home to three strangers, who turn out to be messengers from God, who bring them the news that Sarah will become pregnant and bear a son who will be the first in a long line of descendants, who eventually become the nation of Israel.

Our second reading was about two followers of Jesus in the hours after the first Good Friday. They were witness to Jesus’ dying on the cross, but have now left Jerusalem, and are travelling on the road to Emmaus. They meet a mysterious stranger, who engages them in conversation about what they have experienced in Jerusalem. At the end of the day’s journey, they invite the stranger to join them for a meal.

“Stay and have supper with us. It’s nearly evening; the day is done.” So he went in with them. And here is what happened: He sat down at the table with them. Taking the bread, he blessed and broke and gave it to them. At that moment, open-eyed, wide-eyed, they recognized him. And then he disappeared.”

This story of an appearance of the resurrected Jesus can also be a parable for us of the possibility that when we open up a hospitable space in our hearts, in our lives, that transforming things can happen. The risk, and the promise of hospitality is important for us not only as individuals, but as a faith community- can we imagine being open to people who are very different from us- without harbouring a quiet hope that they will learn our ways- and how to fit in with “us”?

I am not picking on Trinity in particular– most congregations are just not very good at going beyond friendly to being truly hospitable. We are at our best with people who are most like us. The irony, the problem is that most people are not like us, in the sense that they do not value being here in church the way we do. If our mission is to reach people with the message of God’s love, we need other strategies than to wait for them to appear here on Sunday morning.

For a couple of months now I have been involved in discussion about a new experimental form or ministry, that Trinity has been invited to host. Trinity United Church is part of Halton Presbytery, which includes 36 congregations in Burlington, Oakville, Mississauga, Milton, and the area around those communities. The Mission Development Officer of the Presbytery has gathered grant money together, that can be used to pay the costs of a half time minister, who would have an office at Trinity, but whose focus would not be on our congregation, but on people moving into the new housing developments north of Dundas Road.

The North Oakville Satellite Ministry will also be looking for ways to meet, and build relationships with people who do not, and maybe never have, gone to church. Jim Greer and Liz McLean are with me on the support committee for this new ministry, and we are also actively seeking to have representatives from the Munns and Palermo, and Glen Abbey congregations, whose churches are actually closer to the focus area than Trinity. (We could also use a couple more people from Trinity to be on this committee. You will hear more about this in coming months.)

Jim and Liz have both been great members of the support committee, and have contributed good thoughts as we develop a sense of our mission. One of the tasks we have been working on is something like a job description for this new ministry position. That’s hard to do, because this is a new experiment.

At one of our meetings, we began to talk about what qualities we would like to see in the person who takes on this challenge. Liz wrote an amazing list, which we have adopted, because it so wonderfully captures the spirit of what we feel God is calling for. I want to read some of the qualities to you now, because they fit so well with the topic of moving from hostility to hospitality.

We are looking for a person with these kind of qualities:

1)Ability to listen and honour others life stories and experiences, even if they contradict their own experience and ways of knowing.

2)Ability to see the inherent worth and dignity in people of different genders, sexual orientations and lifestyles, and help guide them to greater peace, joy and knowledge of God’s work in their lives.

3)Someone who is more interested in conversation than conversion.

4)Someone who wants to serve the needs of the community using Christ’s example of radical welcome and generosity, who wants to genuinely be a part of the community and not above it.

5)Someone who encourages safe space, openness and support among church members regardless of topic.

Liz listed 5 more, but I think you can get the idea. Amen