“Stay Salty” Learning Time for Harrow United Church, Feb 5, 2023

I saw familiar faces when I went to the Portuguese Club this week to donate blood. My least favourite part is when they insert the needle into my vein. My most favourite is going to the snack table afterwards, to grab my crunchy salty snack. 

The body uses salt to help it manage and retain fluid. Apparently the average person loses about 3 grams of salt with every blood donation.

I learned some things about salt, which is an electrolyte, when I trained for and ran marathons, and half-marathons. At every race there were people who were not careful enough with their intake of water and electrolytes, and had to be helped off the course, oftentimes carried off the course. My running partner for my second marathon beat me to the finish line, but ended up in the medical tent, and then in a hospital emergency ward.

Salt can be a matter of life or death. It is no exaggeration to say wars have been fought over access to salt. 

Salt has also been used as part of non-violent efforts to make change.

When the Indian National Congress asked Mohandas Gandhi to organize non-violent civil disobedience to launch their campaign to end colonial rule in India, he chose to protest the Salt Laws, which the British created to give themselves exclusive right to produce, sell and impose tax on salt.

Even people who lived near the ocean were prohibited by law from doing what Gandhi proposed, which was to make salt by evaporating sea water. It’s the same kind of colonial control that was exercised here in Canada, which banned First Nations people from hunting, fishing, farming, leaving the reserve without permission of the Indian agent, and even speaking their own language. 

Gandhi chose salt because it is basic to human life. It is needed by every person, rich and poor, Hindu or Muslim, Christian or Jew, or Sikh or Budddhist. Gandhi said,

“Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life.”

This common staple of life has been used for thousands of years to flavour and preserve food. Before the world became connected by ocean freighters and transport trucks, proximity to salt  determined where people could live.

Some scholars think the word “salary” derives from the latin word salarium, which was an allowance paid to Roman soldiers to buy the basics, like food and salt, to live. It’s where we get that phrase about a person being “worth their salt”- are they doing enough to justify what they are paid, or is the salt wasted on them?

Salt is serious stuff. In the ancient world, they may not have had a scientific grasp of it’s nature and properties, but they knew that it was powerful, necessary, and almost magical in its powers.

That may help us understand why the reading from Leviticus made mention of including salt when a person places an offering on the altar for sacrifice. Salt was a gift from God, given back to God. Giving back something valuable was a way of expressing the magnitude of your gratitude.

We often encounter salt as tiny little crystals, but when Jesus told his disciples to be like salt, it was no small thing. He was telling them to remember that they had important, life and death work to do, that would change the world.

I mentioned Gandhi earlier. On March 12, 1930, Gandhi and about 80 others from his community set out, on foot, for the coastal village of Dandi. They walked a little over 10 miles a day, and reached the sea in 23 days. The route was planned to pass through many villages, towns and cities. They gathered more followers everywhere they went, and more attention was gained for their cause.

They did simple, basic human things. They walked, and talked to people. They slept when tired, and ate when they could. 

When they reached the coast on April 6th Gandhi picked up a lump of mud and salt and boiled it in seawater to make the commodity which no Indian could legally produce — salt. 

Gandhi and his followers did the simple human things they could do. They lived out their commitment and courage, and passion for the well-being of others.  They were arrested for the crime of making salt. Many were attacked and beaten by soldiers under the command of the Viceroy, who acted to uphold not only the salt law, but the authority the British had claimed to rule, and control every aspect of the lives of their subjects, who were not granted the same dignity, respect, or rights as British citizens.

Gandhi’s followers were trained in non-violent protest. They did not resist when arrested, and did not retaliate when attacked. Their non-violent response underlined the brutality and injustice of British rule, and shone a bright light on the poor treatment of the people of India, and ultimately, on the legitimacy of the cause of independence. People around the world paid attention. 

It is no small thing, to answer the call to be faithful, to do what is right, to do what you can, to make a difference in the world. To take a risk, to make a sacrifice, to go out of your way to help others. To give of yourself. 

We aren’t all leaders and prophets, and profound teachers like Gandhi, and Jesus. But without followers, no matter how amazing, wise and divine the messenger is, not much happens.

For us, the question is not so much can we be amazing, and do something huge. For us, the question is, what can we do, that we probably already know how to do, that will help another person, help our church, help our community.

It might be making a valentine for a lonely person. It might be telling me you’d be willing to make a few phone calls every week, to check in on folks from the congregation we have not seen for a while. It might be making an extra donation to the church, because it’s been a hard few years, and now we have to fix the broken water line going into the building, and we need help. It might be giving blood next time they set up at the Portuguese Club. It might be something else. 

Look around in your life, in your family, in this community. There is something that needs doing. You’ll find it, if you open your heart, your mind, your eyes, and take a look around. Anyone worth their salt, can find a way to help someone else. 

Jesus’ call to be the salt of the earth comes from a collection of his teachings about what it means to be blessed, and to be a blessing to others. In some translations, the word “happy” is used instead of the word. “blessed”. 

“Happy are those who are humble;  they will receive what God has promised!

“Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully!

“Happy are those who are merciful to others; God will be merciful to them!

In my message for the annual report I offered a quote from Frederick Buechner,  a Presbyterian minister and author who lived to be about 96. He wrote about calling, and how we can get a sense of what God is asking of us. He said, 

“By and large a good rule for finding out is this: the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. … The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”.

It’s good to be reminded of the great joy, and purpose, meaning and actual happiness that comes, when we set ourselves aside, and do for others.

What does God require of us? Learning Time for Jan 29, 2023 Harrow United Church

It’s that special time of the year again.  We received our first record of donations by mail the other day. Soon we will receive our T4 slips, and other statements of income. 

Tax season is upon us. I use a tax program to sort out and file our returns. It is so much easier than doing it all by hand. But whether I work at it with a calculator and a sharp pencil, or the software, the object of the exercise is to calculate what is owing. 

I am happy to pay my fair share. I am grateful for my life in Canada, in Ontario, in Essex County. I recognize that much of what it takes to live comfortably, to trust the water and food supply, and to feel safe when I venture outside my home, costs money.

I have the sense that not everyone sees things that way. There is an undercurrent in our society, a murmuring that encourages us to pay the least possible amount for anything, and do even that grudgingly. Some of our friends, family members and neighbours look upon earning and having money not as a gift or privilege, but as an undeniable right. I sometimes get the sense that some people would like all the rights, but without the responsibilities that are part of the package.

We are, in so many ways, consumers. We purchase products, and consume, or use them, mostly for ourselves, and those closest to us. It’s the same with services and experiences. If we have paid for it, we expect things to be done for us.

The consumer mindset has seeped into many of our relationships. Our posture in the world too easily becomes one of entitlement, and expectation, and demand. “What do I get?”  is a more common question than “what can I contribute, what can I do to help?”

If we are sick, we go to the doctor for a prescription, a literal magic pill to make us better. If the doctor says, hey, what you really need is to go for a walk every day, and cut back on snacks and desserts, we might ask, isn’t there an easier way? Can I see a specialist?

The same murmuring that tells us to get the maximum bang for our buck, to pay the least, and get the most possible, will also tell us that this is the power of the consumer. We can make demands, and ask for more, and bargain, and threaten to withhold payment, or even sue, until we get what we want.

That can feel like power. But it is also, if you really look at it, giving responsibility for our own happiness, well-being, satisfaction to someone else. We place someone else in charge of making us happy, because we have paid for it.

I am not suggesting we let people take advantage of us, or not deliver on what they have promised. Accountability is important. 

It’s also important to look carefully at ourselves, and our own priorities for life.

There is danger in the mindset that we can always buy, and demand what we need to be satisfied.  I believe it’s a danger that Jesus warned about.

We heard part of the Beatitudes read out loud today. I appreciate the version we heard today from The Message. Especially where it says,

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.”

It’s good to be reminded that we can’t actually buy happiness, or contentment, or meaning for our lives. That there is so much more to us, and to life than what can be bought or sold. 

That’s not saying life is easy, even though some preachers have tried to sell us faith in a kind of transactional way. If you sign up to follow Jesus, you have done your part, and God will do the rest. You will be blessed in many tangible ways. There is a brand of Christianity called the Prosperity Gospel, popular with the TV preachers, that doesn’t even beat around the bush. They actually say, pray this prayer, sign up with us, and you will have it made.

That may sound good, until it doesn’t. Life inevitably surprises us, and disappoints us, and hurts us. There is sickness and death, change and loss. Things do not always go as we hoped, and being a Jesus follower does not insulate or protect us from hard things happening- ask, well ask anybody in this room. We know that life can be hard. We may also have experience with our faith helping us, even when, maybe especially when life is hard.

I am pretty sure that’s not what Jesus was getting at. I don’t think he was trying to sell anybody on anything. 

The reading says, “When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions.”

The passage is part of a talk he gave, not to a big crowd, but to the inner circle of the group of disciples he was gathering.

I think it was more like Jesus was offering them their job description. Follow me, and this is how it’s going to be. He was telling them about a life that was not passive, but active. He wasn’t reading them a consumer’s bill of rights. He was saying, “here is a way to live that will be hard, and in which you will feel alive, and part of something bigger than yourself.”

Jesus invited his closest friends, and each of us, to a life in which we are blessed, as we bless others. The blessing he was talking about was not just saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, but actually helping people, caring for their physical, emotional, spiritual needs. 

Jesus said:

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.” Amen

“Kings and Cakes and the Promise of a Child” January 22, 2023 in the Season of Epiphany

Do you know who Baby Yoda is? He is a character on a Star Wars related tv series called The Mandalorian. He’s an infant of the same alien race as Yoda, who was a mentor to Luke Skywalker in the early Star Wars movies. The baby on The Mandalorian is actually named Grogu, and he is being chased by the bad guys in the story, who work for the Evil Empire, who are out to capture him, and dissect him, to learn about, and exploit his powers. Little baby Grogu looks helpless, but carries within him the capacity to harness and use the force, the mystical energy of the universe, and do a lot of good.

He is a special child, whose potential power is a threat to those with vested interests, and who is at the same time vulnerable, and will not survive without kindness and help.

The Mandalorian is a bounty hunter assigned the task of capturing the special child. He broke his contract to protect the child. He wears armour, and carries weapons, but was defenseless when it came to the vulnerable child, who opened his heart, and inspired love.

Much of the story takes place on a desert planet that looks like it could be Israel or Egypt.

It’s easy to see parallels between the wondrous child Grogu, and little baby Jesus, whose earthly protectors were forced to escape to Egypt, after Joseph was warned in a dream the evil King Herod was after the newborn. Joseph and Mary fled with the child, and took refuge in Egypt until the evil king died, and was no longer a threat to the child. Matthew’s Gospel says:

When the Magi had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,  where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.”

At Harrow United Church during Advent we heard different stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood that did not make it into the New Testament. (non-canonical gospels) These stories were written for particular communities, and were told with details and images that would speak to people in those places.

Scholars believe Matthew wrote for fairly educated, Greek speaking Jews. He drew on images and themes from the Jewish Scriptures that were available to him, in a Greek translation called the Septuaguint, which was prepared for Jews who did not speak or read Hebrew.

When Matthew quoted a line from the book of the prophet Hosea,  “Out of Egypt I called my son,” he was referring to the Hebrew slaves who escaped from Egypt, and were lead by Moses on a journey to a promised land, where they established a new nation. This is the origin story of the nation of Israel. It’s the story of how God reached helped people who were suffering and oppressed in slavery. God was with them as they found new life, out from under the grip of a cruel empire.

Matthew was quite deliberate in connecting that story of resistance, to the story of baby Jesus. Matthew paints a picture of Jesus as Moses for a new generation, sent by God to free the people of Israel, who lived under the oppressive and exploitative rule of the Roman Empire.

Jesus began life as a vulnerable child, and grew up to offer hope and new life, because he had caring and brave protectors who hid him from those who wanted to kill him.

According to his origin story, Moses was born during a time when the King of Egypt, the Pharaoh had commanded all the male children born of the Hebrew slaves were to be killed. The Pharaoh feared the Hebrews were becoming a threat to his power.

The newborn Moses was hidden by his mother for three months. When she could no longer hide him, she coated a papyrus basket with tar and pitch, and set the child floating in the basket, among the reeds along the bank of the Nile river. His big sister was standing at a distance when the daughter of the Pharaoh came to the water to bathe, and found little baby Moses in the basket. She opened the basket, and found a little crying baby, and felt sorry for him.

(Baby Grogu’s hover-pod looks a lot like a basket.)

The Pharaoh’s daughter knew what was supposed to happen to Hebrew baby boys. But her heart opened, and love won out, and she took the little one home, and he grew up to become part of the royal household. She gave him the name Moses, which meant, “drawn up out of the water”.

It’s interesting to think about how Jesus’ public ministry began after he was drawn up out of the waters of the river where he was baptized.

Moses, Jesus, and little baby Yoda. In each story the special child is hunted by the forces of evil, and is saved, and survived because of protectors bound to them by love. The child of promise survives to fulfill their mission, in a world that can be cruel and scary, and in which there are powerful forces of which you must be wary. That’s the story we celebrate at Epiphany.

In Mexico, and many other places influenced by Latin culture, like New Orleans, the King Cake is a big part of the celebration of Epiphany.

A couple of years ago Lexie and I had friends come to our house with a king cake. They are circular, and often decorated in bright coloured sprinkles and icing to make them look like a crown. 

Show this slide of King Cake when prompted

The king cake gets its name from the story of the three kings who brought gifts to baby Jesus. 

Somewhere inside the cake there is a tiny little baby Jesus, sometimes wearing a tiny little crown. He was hidden in the cake to keep him safe, and if you find him, it’s up to you to carry on the tradition, and at the next Epiphany party, you bring the cake. In some cultures, whoever finds the baby King gets a prize.

In 2021 there was a minor controversy in Mexico. Companies started selling king cakes for the Epiphany season in which they’d hidden, not little baby Jesus, but Grogu, little baby Yoda. Some church officials declared it disrespectful of tradition.

Of course, when that happened, sales of baby Yoda cakes went up. Predictably, some religious conservatives became even more irate. Baby Yoda, who is already quite loveable, found an even bigger place in the hearts of some folks who already felt picked on and looked down on by the same religious conservatives who want to tell you what can be in your party cake. 

Baby Yoda cakes became a playful symbol for the LGBTQ community, which was even more annoying to some of the more conservative religious folks. You can imagine that cycle going around and around, like the circle of a king cake.

What appeals to me about this story, is that in the midst of a clash between people who want to keep the upper hand, and those who just want to live their lives, we find the figure of a tiny, vulnerable baby, who has the power to win hearts, and encourage us to love, just by being there. Amen

Neighbours: Learning Time for Sunday, July 24, 2022


The word “neighbour” often makes me think of Mr. Rogers, and his song about a beautiful day in the neighbourhood. Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, who encouraged whole generations to be neighbourly. That was his ministry.

In 1969, there was tremendous uproar in many American communities after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled swimming pools could no longer be segregated by race. Fred Rogers invited an African American actor named Francois Clemmons to come on his show, in the role of a uniformed police officer. Mr. Clemmons was reluctant, because where he grew up, police were seen as the most dangerous people in the neighbourhood.

Fred Rogers convinced him to do a scene set on a hot summer day. Mr. Rogers had his feet in a wading pool and invited Officer Clemmons to join him. The police officer became a recurring character.

Years later, Francois Clemmons reflected on his first appearance on the show.

Speaking of that moment when Mr. Rogers offered him a seat, a place for his feet in the wading pool,  and a towel, Clemmons said, “My God, those were powerful words. It was transformative to sit there with him, thinking to myself, ‘Oh, something wonderful is happening here. This is not what it looks like. It’s much bigger.'”

He continued: “Many people, as I’ve traveled around the country, share with me what that particular moment meant to them because he was telling them, ‘You cannot be a racist.’ And one guy … I’ll never forget, said to me, ‘When that program came on, we were actually discussing the fact that black people were inferior. And Mister Rogers cut right through it.’ … He said essentially that scene ended that argument.”

Mr. Rogers invited his friend to join him in the pleasurable act of soaking hot and tired feet in a wading pool, and in a very low key, everyday sort of way, put a story out into the world that still gets told today. A story that will need to be told, and re-created, over and over again, until it doesn’t.

The image of the two men with their feet in the pool, and one handing the other a towel reminded me of the time Jesus washed the feet of his friends.

This morning we re-created the story of the Good Samaritan.

Very often, when we hear the words “Good Samaritan”, it is in connection with someone coming to the rescue or doing a good deed. In many jurisdictions there are Good Samaritan laws, that provide legal protection to those who try to help someone- so they can’t be held responsible if they cause harm. The laws are meant to encourage people to be helpful, especially when someone’s well-being or life are at risk.

The name of these laws comes from the story Jesus told. It’s a good story, and it was a really good thing that the Samaritan in the story helped the person who’d been beaten and robbed. But the point of the story is not that we should help others. That’s an excellent moral, and a good teaching, but it’s only tangentially related to the reason Jesus told the story.

Jesus had been challenged, twice, by a teacher of the Jewish religious law. The First Nations Version we heard this morning calls him a scroll keeper, which I love.

“Wisdomkeeper,” he said. “What path must I walk to have the life of the world to come that never fades away, full of beauty and harmony?”

He answered him, “What is written in our tribal law about this? Tell me, how do you see it?”

The scroll keeper spoke from the words of the law, “You must love the Great Spirit from deep within, with the strength of your arms, the thoughts of your mind, and the courage of your heart, and you must love your fellow human beings in the same way you love yourselves.”

“You have answered well,” Creator Sets Free (Jesus) said back to him. “If you walk this path you will live.”

But the scroll keeper, wanting to look good to others, asked him, “Who are my fellow human beings?”

Creator Sets Free (Jesus) answered him with a story.

The first challenge to Jesus by the Scroll-keeper was, “do you know the letter of the law?”

Jesus answered the legal question, by inviting the scroll keeper to quote the law.

The second challenge, “who is my neighbour?”, was about the spirit, or deeper meaning of the law.

It called for a story, a parable. We who’ve listened to, and wrestled with Jesus’ parables know they are sneaky, dangerous, subversive stories, that don’t settle for illustrating a simple moral like be good or help others. The parables make us wonder, make us question, and if we allow them, they upend our worldview.

There are only a few characters in the story.

There is the victim of violence. That’s the person we identify with first, because we meet them first, and our hearts go out to the under-dog.

Then we meet the perpetrators of violence, the anonymous robbers, who prey on vulnerable travellers, and leave them for dead. They represent the overt, or obvious cruelty and evil in the world.

There are two religious figures, who represent the upright, and proper, and virtuous temple folks, who follow the letter of the law. If you draw a circle, they are the insiders, right near the centre, shining under the light of respectability.

The two so-called holy men are symbols of a more subtle, more insidious kind of evil at work in the world. We see it in our own lives, in our own time, when it is possible to be popular, polite, acceptable in society, and still be indifferent to the suffering of others.

The two who walk by without stopping represent the voice of “What can I do, it’s a hard world. There are winners and losers, and I can’t possibly get involved.”

The last character in the story is the Samaritan. The people of Samaria exist far outside the circle of approval and favour. The Samaritans are culturally related to the insiders, but lost their respectability because of issues of race, and language, and ethnicity. The Samaritans were descendants of Jewish ancestors who inter-married with folks from other tribes, other religions.

We call this the story of the Good Samaritan, which is its own kind of irony, because it’s unlikely that anyone in Jesus’ original audience would see anything good about a Samaritan.

I wondered about a contemporary parallel and realized it depends on how you were raised to see the world, and whether or not my biases about people line up with yours. The Jews in Jesus time were taught to hate the Samaritans.

In the time when Mr. Rogers got his feet wet with Officer Clemmons, for a lot of people, a “good Negro” would have fit the bill. That’s the polite version of the word that might have been used. More recently it might be a good Russian if we re-created this story in Ukraine.

Who were you taught to hate, or at least to fear, or be suspicious of? Take a moment and be honest with yourself. I’m not asking you say it out loud. Just think about it. Most all of us have been taught biases against someone, some group, someone other than those in our small circle.

When I was growing up, the categories of people we were taught to fear, or at least not trust, included First Nations people, although we called them Indians, and homosexuals, and we would have used different words for them as well.

Whichever group of people you were taught were furthest outside the circle of respectable neighbours, they are the people that Jesus wants to surprise us with and shine his light of love on. His story tells us the people we despise the most, are right there in the circle with us.

In fact, what Jesus is saying, is forget about the circle.  There is no them and us, no bad and good. We are all capable of amazing goodness, and of every kind of evil. Seen the way Jesus is teasing us to see, with this story, from God’s perspective, there are no in or out, there are only people.

That’s the story Jesus told, and that’s the story we are called to keep telling, to keep re-creating, by our words, by our actions, with our lives, and with all the loving we do in God’s name. Amen

Learning Time about the Golden Rule, July 10, 2022

Gospel Lesson: Luke 6:46-49

“Why do you call out, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi,’ but don’t put into practice what I teach you?  Those who come to me and hear my words and put them into practice—I’ll show you who they’re like:  they are like the person who, in building a house, dug deeply and laid the foundation on a rock. When a flood arose, the torrent rushed against the house, but failed to shake it because of its solid foundation.  On the other hand, anyone who has heard my words, but has not put them into practice, is like the person who built a house on sand, without any foundation. When the torrent rushed upon it, the house immediately collapsed and was completely destroyed.”

Learning Time: “Thoughts about the Golden Rule”

According to the King in the old Wizard of Id comic strip, that would be “Whoever has the gold, makes the rules.” We know how that usually works out.

We also know how much better things are when we work together, and find common ground, and remember to treat others as we would wish to be treated.

In Canada we have rich and diverse spiritual and religious traditions that inform how we live together. I looked up the most recent census data to identify the traditions most represented, and then I found their versions of the Golden Rule. They were read this morning during the Essex Fun Fest Service by Mayor Richard Meloche and some of the town councilors. Because I assigned the readings, I was in the interesting position of putting words into the mouths of some local politicians, and in a municipal election year, no less.

The Golden Rule in Christianity:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

The Golden Rule in Islam:

Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others
what you wish for yourself.

The Golden Rule in Hinduism: 

This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.

The Golden Rule in Buddhism: 

Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

The Golden Rule in Sikhism:

I am a stranger to no one; and no one is a stranger to me.

Indeed, I am a friend to all.

The Golden Rule in Judaism:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.

The Golden Rule Indigenous in Spirituality:

We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive.

Two things I have been thinking about, about the Golden Rule. The first is that many of the expressions of it that are found around the world, appeared before the time Jesus walked the earth. So this teaching has been part of human wisdom for a very long time. This suggests to me that the Spirit of God has been working in humans, well, always.

The other thing that catches my attention is that all these different faiths, around the world, teach kindness to others, and that in most places, we humans do not always remember to be kind to each other, to treat others with the compassion and respect we would like to receive from others.

As a religion, Christianity has not always remembered to be kind to other religions, and show the basic respect we would want. There have been, and still are, groups within Christianity who seem to forget how Jesus teaches us to be with others, and they choose to be mean, judgmental, and disrespectful of other people, other religions, even though Jesus never did that.

Jesus never asked anyone to change religions. He invited them into a closer relationship with God, who he taught us we could call Abba, which in his language was more like Daddy, than Father, with all the intimate, personal, kind tones that come through with that word.

Jesus was interested in each person, how they were doing. He taught his followers to build a life based on their close connection to God. If your sense of who you are is built on the foundation of your relationship to God, there is no need to try to put anyone else down, or prove you are better than anyone else. You don’t have to have the best clothes, house, car, kids, job, education, even religion. All you really need is that God connection, and to be loving and kind- you know, to treat others the way you like to be treated. Amen

Learning Time for July 3, 2022

Audio recording of Scripture reading and Learning Time

Gospel Reading:  Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 (The Inclusive Bible) 

Jesus appointed seventy-two others, and sent them on ahead in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit.  He said to them, “The harvest is rich, but the workers are few; therefore, ask the overseer to send workers to the harvest.

 “Be on your way, and remember: I am sending you as lambs in the midst of wolves.  Don’t carry a walking stick or knapsack; wear no sandals and greet no one along the way.  And whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be upon this house!’  If the people live peaceably there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will come back to you.  Stay in that house, eating and drinking what they give you, for the laborer is worth a wage. Don’t keep moving from house to house.

“And whatever city you enter, after they welcome you, eat what they set before you and heal those who are sick in that town. Say to them, ‘The reign of God has drawn near to you.’  If the people of any town you enter don’t welcome you, go into its streets and say,  ‘We shake the dust of this town from our feet as testimony against you. But know that the reign of God has drawn near.’

“Anyone who listens to you, listens to me. Anyone who rejects you, rejects me; and those who reject me, reject the One who sent me.”  The seventy-two disciples returned with joy, saying, “Rabbi, even the demons obey us in your name!”  Jesus replied, “I watched Satan fall from the sky like lightning.  Look: I’ve given you the power to tread on snakes and scorpions—even all the forces of the enemy—and nothing will ever injure you.  Nevertheless, don’t rejoice in the fact that the spirits obey you so much as that your names are inscribed in heaven.”

Learning Time: “What is our Mission?”

Our daughter Naomi just graduated from her Master’s program in Library and Information Sciences from Western. She was not able to attend the ceremony since she’s moved to Halifax for a job at their new central library.

Our family had a Zoom celebration in her honour. Naomi and her partner Max, and Joel in Waterloo, and his girlfriend in Vaughn, and Lexie and I in Kingsville all ordered sushi, and we ate together, with purple and white decorations all around us.

Lexie reached out to some of Naomi’s friends, relatives, and co-workers, and asked them to send memories, best wishes, and words of advice. Here are some of my favourites:

Take the opportunity to travel (or maybe even live) internationally if you can. That was from a family friend who currently lives in Egypt.

Be sure to find room for joy. Invest in loving relationships. Seek out genuine community.

Know that you are amazing.

Let happiness be the great surprise of your life, rather than a daily goal.

If you ever have leftover cake, try making French toast out of it!

Lexie reminded me of advice I have always given our kids, and almost anyone else who asks, which is “make your world big”. By that I mean stretch beyond convention, push boundaries, take risks, and work to have a wide range of interests and relationships in your life. That way if one area in your life is not going well, you have other sources of confidence, affirmation, meaning for your life.

What we heard in the gospel story was Jesus giving the 72 he sent out, some words of advice before they hit the road.

They were sent out in pairs to every town and place Jesus intended to visit. It’s a good strategy. Send out advance scouts so you know what kind of reception your larger group may expect. They could also cultivate relationships, so when Jesus and his whole group arrived, they would have an idea about what kind of hospitality, and support might be there.

Jesus encouraged his missionaries to embrace the adventure but be smart about how they travelled. He told them he was sending them out as lambs in the midst of wolves. I am grateful no one said that to Naomi!

Jesus told them to travel in pairs, which was safer than going alone. They were to carry nothing of value, like a walking stick or a bag, or even sandals. The roads they walked were hunting grounds for bandits. Remember the situation described in the parable of the Good Samaritan?

Jesus encouraged them to make friends and accept hospitality when they arrived at a village or town. He specifically told them to eat or drink what they were offered. It could be that a host would offer something outside of what was normal for Jesus’ followers. They were to open their minds, their hearts, and their mouths. Set aside scrupulous adherence to the dietary laws of their faith, just be grateful. Set aside their misgivings about new foods, and just dig in.

Right after the first mention of food, Jesus told his missionaries not to keep moving from house to house. I wonder if that was a way of saying- don’t go looking for meals you are used to, just accept what is given. Don’t worry so much about doing things the way you’ve always done them.

Jesus also said to tell the people in each new place the reign of God has drawn near to them, and to heal those who are sick. 

They had real work to do, helping people along the way. They weren’t only advance scouts, they were part of the Jesus movement.

They were to teach people, by word and deed, about God’s love, and how love could change how they connected to God, what they believed about themselves, and how they treated one another.

Did the missionaries ever wonder how they could live up to the role, of representing the love of God? Did they feel up to it? Did they see themselves as part of the reign of God, the Jesus movement spreading from town to town?

Even so, and likely because they were the real deal, Jesus warned them they would face opposition. He said,

“If the people of any town you enter don’t welcome you, go into its streets and say,  ‘We shake the dust of this town from our feet as testimony against you. But know that the reign of God has drawn near.’

It’s beautiful language, that may inspire each of us to remember moments when we have felt drawn near to the reign of God, when God, and God’s love have felt real in our lives, and that has made a difference.

We are all gathered here this morning because in some way, we have heard the call of God’s love, through the message of Jesus. Someone in our life first brought us to this church, or another one, or taught us about the love of God, maybe at their house, or out on a tractor, or beside a lake, or out in a backyard under a blanket of stars. Somehow, we got the message, and we joined the movement.

It matters enough to us that we come here, even on a hot, sunny Sunday on a holiday weekend. Maybe we come out of habit. Maybe we come because we crave community. Maybe we come to get our spiritual batteries recharged. Maybe we come to be reminded that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

We are part of the Jesus movement, that has the job of loving the world in God’s name. Jesus keeps inviting us in, and sending us out again, to spread the word. Amen

With great power comes great responsibility: Learning time about Freedom. June 26, 2022

Scripture Reading: Galatians 5:1,13-16, 22-26 (The Inclusive Bible)

When Christ freed us, we were meant to remain free. Stand firm, therefore, and don’t submit to the yoke of slavery a second time!

My sisters and brothers, you were called to freedom; but be careful, or this freedom will provide an opening for self-indulgence. Rather, serve one another in works of love,  since the whole of the Law is summarized in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  If you go on snapping at one another and tearing each other to pieces, be careful, or you may end up destroying the whole community.  Let me put it this way: if you are guided by the Spirit, you will be in no danger of yielding to self-indulgence.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against these sorts of things there is no law!  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their ego, with its passions and desires.  So since we live by the Spirit, let us follow her lead.  We must stop being conceited, contentious and envious.

Learning Time: “Freedom and Limits”

I want to speak briefly today about freedom. There have been enough words about freedom spoken and printed lately to fill whole convoys.

The word came up pretty often during the recent provincial election, and we may hear it again, when the municipal vote happens in the fall.

You might wonder if there is anything left to say.

A lot of what gets said about freedom in popular rhetoric also involves another word we hear a lot, which is rights. Our rights and freedoms.

What worries me is the emphasis on individual rights and freedoms without a corresponding awareness of at least two things.

The first is there are limits, and conditions on our rights, and our freedoms.

My rights, my freedom to do, or not do what I please, ends somewhere before I cause harm to someone else, or deprive them of a necessary good.

The classic example is I may have the right to make a fist, and swing it in your direction. But if you are in range of that fist, or have reason to fear it may hurt you, your right to be safe trumps my right to swing my fist.

We don’t actually have the right to do things that cause harm or represent the threat of harm to others.

The second thing I feel we need to remember is that “rights language” is not all that helpful in communicating our basic human responsibility to be decent with each other.

The rights and freedoms we have here in Canada are considerable. When you also consider the access we have to education, and information, and travel, and the capacity to buy or rent or borrow practically anything, and compared to most people in the world, we are incredibly powerful.

Do you know this phrase? “With great power, come great responsibility.” Do you know what Gospel it’s from?

It’s pretty close to a line from the parable of the faithful servant in Luke: From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

It’s also known as the Parker, or Peter Parker principle, because it’s the moral guide of the Marvel Comics hero Spiderman. He learned the hard way, when someone close to him died when he failed to do the right thing, that our actions, and our inactions, have consequences. We have responsibility.

Our lives are inextricably, and beautifully wound up with each other. God has set things up so that none of us can actually live our lives without each other. That’s a good thing. We need each other, and our human-ness is defined, determined to some degree, by our connectedness.

In the children’s time I used the example of a soccer field with no boundary lines. Without agreed upon limits to where and how you can move on the field, the game becomes un-playable. The lines on the edges of the field are like the outer edge of the arc my fist can travel. It can only go so far, before we have a problem.

I may want to play the game my way, and kick the ball across the line, run with it, and then bop back on the playing field close to the goal, but that’s not playing the game. That’s self-indulgent behaviour.

So we need the rules. Otherwise we’d be just a bunch of aimless individuals on a grassy field, unable to work together, even to play a game.

The rules of soccer developed over many years. They are arbitrary, and also subject to local variation, and change.

I think one of the functions of sport is to teach us how to work within a set of rules that govern behaviour.

It’s also good to know that games are just games, and rules are just rules. They can change over time. The laws that govern a society change over time, and that’s a good thing- because the humans that create them are subject to human frailty, imperfection, and self-interest.

I have thought a lot about the tension between rights and responsibilities as it applies to the gun problem in the United States. It seems like our American neighbours have painted themselves into a corner. The emphasis on the right to bear arms has made it so difficult for them to even talk about scaling back, voluntarily limiting their rights, reining in the arc of their swinging fists, in order to protect the lives of their most vulnerable people.

It’s good we have higher standards, by which to examine and judge our own behaviour, and the agreed upon rules, and laws.

We heard some excellent higher standards in the Galatians passage, where they were called fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

I am especially grateful for the mention of that last one, self-control, as a reminder that for the sake of other people, and for the sake of love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, we place limits on ourselves.

We restrict ourselves, as best we can, to do things that help others. We stop ourselves from doing things that would cause harm to others, and we open our hearts, and eyes, and look for ways to exercise our freedom to do good. Amen

Learning Time for May 29, 2022 at Harrow United Church

How do we see God at work in our own lives?

Audio file of learning time

The link to the video of the service is below.

In some sectors of the job market, the pool of qualified candidates is very small. There are times an applicant knows who else might be in the running. It happened last week to someone I know. They were one of two offered interviews. They received an email from the other candidate, who had a scheduling conflict, and asked if they might trade interview times.

They are competing for a great job. What would you do?

One option would be to politely decline, and tell yourself, “I need to take care of my future. I am within my rights to say no. It’s a tough world, and I need to be tough.”

Another option would be to do what the hero in this ongoing, true story did. They thought about what they hope the other person would do if roles were reversed. They took to heart the teaching of doing unto others as you’d have others do to you. They agreed to trade interview slots.

If this was a movie the payoff would be the potential boss hears about the good heart of the hero and decides that’s the kind of person they want in their company. That hasn’t happened. The interviews are next week. Honestly, the happy ending for me is that this person remembered to think about the other person, and be kind.

There are sad and terrible stories in the world right now. Are there more bad things happening, or do we just hear about them faster and more often, because of all the ways the world is connected?

We have two good stories today from the Book of Acts. The first is about a strange encounter between the Apostle Paul and a woman held as a slave. Her owners made a lot of money exploiting her ability to tell fortunes.

The story says the woman was possessed. It’s hard for us to know what that means, as we look through the lens of the ancient world. Anything not understood could be called magic. It wasn’t a big leap from calling something magic, to naming it as demonic.

The woman had an unusual capacity to read people, and tell truths about them, for which her owners charged big money. The woman herself did not share in the profits, as she was property of the household- she was owned as a slave. We don’t know her name.

This unnamed woman with the strange gift saw something powerful when she looked at Paul, the travelling missionary. She began to follow him, and his companion Silas. She’d call out after them, “These are faithful followers of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation!”

The woman did this for many days, and it annoyed Paul. He lost his temper, turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to leave this woman!”

The spirit left her that moment. That was the end of the profitable business for the slaveowners. The story suggests Paul cast out a demon. The Gospels described Jesus doing similar things. The point may be that Paul did things that Jesus did. God was with him in ways similar to the way God was with Jesus.

I’d love to know more about the unnamed woman. What happened to her after she was no longer a money-maker for her owners? We don’t get the rest of her story, which is so often the case with women in the Bible.

Her owners were upset with Paul and his friend Silas. They grabbed them, and dragged them before the magistrates, who held court in the marketplace. They said, “These people are Jews and are disturbing the peace by advocating practices which are unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

This feels like an echo of the Good Friday story. The writer, who has already shown Paul doing a Jesus-style exorcism, now has Paul and his friend brought before a Roman authority, accused of religious crimes.

The crowd turned on the accused. Perhaps as much to appease and calm the crowd as to see justice done, the magistrate had Paul and Silas stripped, flogged, whipped and thrown in jail. The magistrate warned the warden to carefully watch the prisoners.

The warden threw them into the innermost cell of the prison and chained their feet to a stake. About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the other prisoners listened.  Suddenly a severe earthquake shook the place, rocking the prison to its foundation. Immediately all the doors flew open, and everyone’s chains were pulled loose. When the jailer woke up and found the doors wide open, he drew a sword and was about to commit suicide, presuming that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all still here.”

What a great story! After the earthquake, which miraculously broke open the prison doors and pulled loose the chains, Paul and Silas could easily have led all the prisoners out of the jail to freedom.

The jailer must have thought that was exactly what happened. They were on the verge of committing suicide, rather than facing the consequences of losing all the prisoners.

This was the ancient world. There were no photo i.d’s or fingerprints. If a prisoner escaped custody, they could literally disappear. Just leave town, go somewhere your face had not been seen.

So why didn’t Paul and Silas take off? They lived in a hard world. They had no reason to expect fair treatment from the Roman legal system. The answer lies in what Paul said to the jailer: “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all still here.”

Paul recognized if he fled the jail, the consequences for the jailer would be terrible. Paul set aside self-concern and thought about the fate of the jailer. Do unto others.

The jailer, who knew Paul and Silas had been arrested, stripped and beaten for their missionary work, was that night converted to their faith, and became a follower of the way of Jesus.

Paul and Silas helped the jailer. They refused the opportunity to escape. The story ends with the jailer doing things to help Paul and Silas. The jailer took them into his home, bathed their wounds- they’d been flogged after all. After another kind of bathing, in which the jailer and his family were baptized, the jailer invited them to his table, and they shared in a feast.

When Paul and Silas were put in jail, they spent their time before the earthquake singing hymns and praying, and talking to fellow prisoners about the Jesus Way. The jailer would have heard all those words, spoken and sung.

But it wasn’t the singing and praying that impressed the jailer and made him want to be a follower of the Jesus Way. This is good for preachers to notice. It wasn’t the preaching, praying, or even the singing- even though the singing probably helped the prisoners keep their spirits up.

What caught the jailer’s attention was that Paul cared about him and helped him. Paul gave up the chance of escaping the jail- he limited his own freedom, out of compassion for the jailer.

We’re hearing more details this week of yet another horrific mass shooting in the United States, this time of children and adults at an elementary school in Texas. There’s a powerful faction of American society that believes so much in their God-given, and constitutional right to bear arms, that they block any efforts to limit that right. Their rights are so very important to them. Freedom as they understand it, is so important to them.

When another mass shooting happens, and it will, we will hear again how many of the people who block efforts to restrict access to deadly weapons, are praying for the victims and their families.

Here is a link to my recent opinion piece for the Kingsville Observer on this issue: https://www.kingsvilleobserver.com/post/compassion-courage-needed-to-end-u-s-gun-violence

In the Paul and Silas story, the jailer was not convinced, or converted, by the prayers he heard. He was impressed by what Paul and Silas did, to protect him from harm.

I believe words are important. I hope they are. I am in the word business. I get paid to stand up and say these words, and to lead prayers. But if words and prayers are in no way connected to our actions, they may not be meaningless, but they will actually, mean less, than they could. Amen

“Heaven’s Above?” Learning Time for May 22, 2022 at Harrow United Church

What do you imagine when I say the word heaven? I’d hazard a guess that many our images of heaven come from things we’ve seen in movies, tv programs, even commercials. Remember the one for Philadelphia cream cheese, with angels eating bagels while they float on clouds?

There was no mention of clouds, or even cream cheese, in our reading from the Book of Revelations. Cream cheese wasn’t invented until 1563, at least 1500 years after the Book of Revelations was written.

In the ancient world, if someone mentioned heaven, people would immediately look up. Heaven had a location, at least in people’s imagination. People back then had an image of earth, and the universe, very different from ours. The world was kind of like the middle portion of a layer cake, and the whole cake was inside something like an enormous snow globe.

As I mentioned, people lived on the middle layer. Below was the underworld. It had different names, depending on the culture. Sheol, Hades, Hell, the other place. The world of the dead.

The underworld was surrounded by rock, but there could be fissures and cracks that opened a way down. Some religions, and some mythologies have stories about heros going down to the world of the dead, and rescuing souls trapped there. In at least one ancient Christian creed, Jesus is described as making that journey.

All of this rock was supported by the pillars of the earth, which themselves sank into a vast ocean- the waters of the deep. The drawings, that look like old maps, don’t show exactly what, if anything, the pillars were anchored in. The drawings make it appear that the layer cake sits on water and there is water above it and on all sides. It’s like an enormous snow globe, or perhaps a cosmic womb. That image appears in some ancient myths and poetry, of the whole world within a huge womb, or a big cosmic egg. A modern take on it might be that it looks a bit like a single-celled creature, or one cell of a larger being.

Above the underworld was the place humans lived, terra firma, Earth. Directly above that was the sky.

We look up and see clouds. In the imagination of the Ancient World, above the clouds were the sun, the moon, the stars and planets, all floating between the clouds, and just below something called the dome of the sky, or the firmament, which separated the sky from the waters above the sky. Beyond the waters of the firmament, was the heaven of heavens, which was the home of the gods, or if you were part of a monotheistic faith, where the one true God lived. The Christian version populated this heaven with angels, but other faiths also had angelic figures.

If you could poke a hole in the dome, and make your way through the waters, you might be able to reach God. That reminds me of John Magee’s poem High Flight, which we often hear at funerals for pilots and air force veterans. It describes the joy of slipping the surly bonds of Earth, to trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, to put out a hand and touch the face of God.

There are a handful of Bible stories about individuals, Jesus being one of them, being bodily lifted into the sky, and carried up to heaven.

We often see in movies or cartoons the idea that people who die, become angels in heaven. That evolution from human to angel is not found in the Bible, or in the mythology of ancient cultures, who described angels as a separate race of beings, above humans, but below God in the hierarchy of beings.

Back to the layer cake. I use the image of a layer cake when I talk about this model, but it might also be a pancake, because Earth needs to be flat and round, so the sun, moon and stars can travel in circles above it. The circular movement allows the light of sun to move to make it day in a certain area for a while, then circle away to let it be night, when the sky is lit by the moon and stars.  

There is a story in the Old Testament Book of Joshua about a battle in which the Israelites needed to defeat the Amorites, and Joshua asked God to make the sun stand still, to prolong the day, to give Israel more time to win. That story reflects the belief that the sun is small compared to the flat earth, and could be stopped in its circular path, to extend the period of daylight over that part of the pancake.

The waters of the deep splash up around all the edges of the pancake. In Hindu mythology, the earth we walk on is supported on the back of a huge turtle- which kind of reminds me of the First Nations name for North America, Turtle Island.

This ancient view of a flat earth surrounded all the way around by water, supported by the pillars of the earth, is the underlying picture of the world as described in the Bible. Re-read the story of Noah and the Ark. It depends totally on this view of the world. The waters of the deep rise to flood the whole world, then recede at the end of the story, to reveal dry land.

When scientists began to question the idea that the earth was flat, they were told to shush, because their theories contradicted the way the church authorities read the Bible. Galileo was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church for promoting the theory the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the sun tracking a circular route above the earth.

Back then, just as in our world today, there were biblical literalists, fundamentalists, who could not tolerate any deviation from how they saw things. Back then, as today, the symptoms of fundamentalism included the absence of humility, a need to be right about basically everything, a need to control the thoughts of others, a lack of any sense of humour, and an inability to cope with metaphor, or analogy, or poetry in general.

When we read one of Jesus’ parables, we’re able to listen for truth in the story, without needing the story to be literally true. We can see that Jesus, who was a person of the Ancient World, was comfortable with symbolism, and spoke fluent metaphor, and poetry.

I think that people in the Ancient World were far more comfortable with poetry and imagination, with dreams and symbols than some folks in our time, or the church officials were in Galileo’s time.

I suspect that for many in the Ancient World, the question, is Hell literally above us, and Heaven literally below us, might have been met with confusion.  They would look at us like we were missing the point of the stories.

In the Ancient World, great truths about life, and death, and the gods, or God of your choice were communicated in story, song and poetry. The Ancients could not send a rocket into orbit, but they knew that the earth, the moon, the sun and the stars were wondrous, and they believed they were lovingly and purposefully created, and that God was in a place where God could see it all and love it all.

The ancients also had the sense that although God could see us, our view of God was often obscured. Our vision could be clouded, and God could seem very far away.

Some of the most detailed, and beautiful descriptions of heaven in the Bible are in the Book of Revelations, which we heard from this morning. Not a lot is actually known about who wrote this book. It was traditionally attributed to John, disciple of Jesus, but the chronology is a bit off.

The names of cities in the Roman Empire and references to what was happening to Jesus followers under Roman Rule suggest a period around 70 years after the time of Jesus. It’s unlikely that a disciple of Jesus could have lived that long.

In the Ancient World there were no copyright concerns. Saying a famous figure wrote a particular work was sometimes a way of paying tribute, to the person, or to the worthiness of the book.

There’s a classic gospel blues song about John the Revelator, so we might call the author the Revelator, because of what they revealed.

Short video of “John the Revelator”

Scholars say the Revelator was a poet, because although the text often refers to Hebrew Scripture, it never quotes it. Instead it uses ideas and images found in earlier writings to inspire new phrases.

Scholars say the Revelator a mystic, because of the dream-like and symbol-laden imagery in the book. Golden bowls and shining white gowns, flying beasts and magical horns, and great flowing rivers, and trees that are trees but not just trees. The writer employs imagery and poetry to share with their audience experiences of things that are actually mysterious and beyond literal description. We do it all the time. Dolly Parton wrote, “Love is like a butterfly.” We get it, and we know that actually, that’s a simile, comparing one thing to another, to tell us something.

Has anyone here read the Book of Revelations? I may have mentioned before that it was one of the last books to be officially included in the New Testament, and to this day, some Christian denominations leave it out. It’s a hard book to work with, especially if you try to read it literally, as some prominent, and scary preachers have. Those who have tried to use it as a map of the future, and claim it’s about the world ending next Tuesday at 3:15 pm have always been wrong, and I think, really missed the point.

I think the Revelator wrote to followers of Jesus in a few cities in the Roman Empire who were having a very bad time of it, under Roman rule, around the year 100 AD. They were being persecuted for their faith, and many feared that life in this world would never get better for them. I think Revelations was the writer’s efforts to share  with those people what they had come to know, trust, rely on, believe about God.

The Revelator had powerful experiences, perhaps a series of visions, like dreams, during which they felt they were in God’s presence. God showed them that all kinds of terrible things can happen in this life, but the terrible things would not be the end of the story. There was more to God’s story. There is more to life, and to all that God has created, and is creating, than we can see on a regular day, with our normal vision.

There is the promise that beyond this life, which can at times be sad and painful, there is a reality where there is no more pain, and no more sadness, only love, and light, and God’s embrace. There is the assurance that those we love, who have died, are held safely with God. There is the reminder that God is with us, and we are with God, at the beginning, all during, and even beyond the end of our earthly lives. We may not be able to pin down where that is, or what it looks like, but it sounds heavenly. Amen

Learning Time for May 1st at Harrow United Church

Learning Time: The possibility of new life

The Man’s Prayer from The Red Green Show
Audio file of learning time

The video of the worship service for May 1:

That clip was from the end of an episode of the Red Green show, which dates me, and anyone else who remembers it. Steve Smith created the show as a parody of home improvementdo-it-yourself, and outdoors shows. I don’t think for a minute that in real life he’s anything like the character he played. Red Green was crafted to poke fun at certain attitudes, not to glorify them.

I don’t buy into the idea that only men have the problem pointed to in the prayer: “I’m a man, I can change, if I have to, I guess.”

It’s actually a basic human problem. We all struggle with changing ourselves, even and perhaps especially when we know it needs to happen. It’s humbling to admit we’ve been off track and need a course correction.

In many churches there has been, and still is, a lot of talk about sin, and sinners. These are words I tend to stay away from, largely because I am not a big fan of name calling. I don’t want to be called a sinner, and I don’t find it helpful to throw that word at anyone else.

When you put a label on someone, whether you mean it as a compliment, a complaint, or a diagnosis, it suggests you have them all figured out, that you know all about them, and are qualified to judge. It also suggests you have special knowledge of their identity, their value, and their potential.

My nephew is a police officer. I think he’s probably a good one. He has a big heart and has always been a helpful kind of guy. He was raised to be careful in the world, but to always look for the best in people. Not long after he graduated, and went to work as a constable, he told me something that stuck with him from his training.

When he interacts with someone on the job, he remembers two things. The first is that usually, when the police are called, the people involved are not having their best day. The second is he tries not to judge a person based on what’s happening for them right then. Can you really understand who a person is based on their worst 15 minutes, or 15 seconds?

We are in the church season of Easter, so we are still hearing stories about resurrection. Today’s story is actually as much about Peter as it is about Jesus.

We may remember Peter from the Good Friday story. He was one of the inner circle with Jesus in the garden where he went to pray.  Judas led a group of Roman soldiers and Temple guards to the garden to arrest Jesus. Peter drew a sword, struck someone, and cut off their right ear. I have always wondered, since when did the disciples carry swords?

Jesus rebuked Peter and told him to sheath his sword.  Then Jesus was arrested and led away. At least one disciple followed Jesus, but Peter separated himself from that group. Three times in the next few paragraphs, Peter was recognized, and asked if he was with Jesus. Peter denied it.

Peter could not have known for sure, that Jesus’ arrest would lead to his death. He could not have known for sure that the last time he saw Jesus alive, he would be acting so poorly, wielding a sword to defend someone who did not want violence done in his name.

How would he have felt when he learned his friend and teacher Jesus was killed on the same day that Peter slipped away from his closest friends, and acted like he did not know him?

It seems to me that he would feel a mixture of guilt and shame, powered by overwhelming grief. How would he live with himself, with the memory of having turned away from what had been so important to him?

We know that Judas, the other disciple who turned away from Jesus that night was not able to go on, could not live with what he’d done, and how it turned out, and he completed suicide.

Peter did not lead the troops to Jesus, but in his own way, in his own heart, Peter betrayed his friend. How did he get past that? How did he make the transformation from the one who heard the cock crow, and realized what he’d done, to becoming a leader in the Jesus movement?

The next time he appears in John’s Gospel, Peter is back with the other disciples. He was there when the women who had been to the tomb ran to them, and reported the tomb was empty. Peter and another disciple then ran to the tomb, to see for themselves.

Peter was also part of the group who went fishing and had the final encounter with the Risen Christ recorded in John’s Gospel.

The writer of John’s Gospel does not tell us how Peter changed from being someone who left the group, and repeatedly denied knowing Jesus, to someone who was back in the inner circle. That seems a huge leap. A major change of heart. Something must have happened.

I have an idea about this. You may have heard me say the four Gospels in the New Testament were each written long after the events described, perhaps as much as 75-100 years after. The writers worked from stories passed down in the local communities of Jesus’ followers.

The only way that I can think that John’s Gospel could include the story of Peter denying Jesus three times, then hearing the cock crow, would be if Peter himself had told the story.

My imagination goes to a scene in which a tearful Peter returns to his friends and tells them whatg he did the night Jesus was arrested.  His regrettable choice to draw a sword, and cut off someone’s ear. His skulking off into the darkness as Jesus was taken away. His being recognized as one of the Galileans who were close to Jesus, and his choice to deny it. His denying it two more times before the night was over. The sound of the cock crowing, that pierced his heart.

So how would the other disciples respond to Peter’s confession? Would it stretch their compassion? How would you and I react?

What do we do, when someone we love tells us about a time when they went off the rails, and maybe forget who they are for a while? Do we judge the whole person based on the worst 15 minutes of their life? Do we find a way to invite the person back into community, back into family, and help them find their way back to themselves?

I think that is the real work of reconciliation, helping a person finding their way back to a loving relationship with themselves, with others, and with God.

Would it be easy for the disciples, still shaken from having seen Jesus die, to welcome Peter bac?  He had turned away from Jesus, and from them, at the worst possible time. Peter broke faith, not just with Jesus, but with the other disciples.

What do we think Jesus would do? Would Jesus believe that Peter had the capacity to change, to get back on track?  The other disciples must have thought so because Peter was back into the fold, and he went with the disciples on their fishing excursion. To me, that is a sign of the difference between forgiveness in theory, and grace lived out in community. Peter was welcomed back.

This is a resurrection story, a story about the possibility of new life. It strikes me the new life was as much for Peter, as it was for Jesus. Peter was given a chance to start again. After cooking a meal for all the disciples, Jesus had a private moment with Peter. Again, I think the only way this could be part of the Gospel record, was for Peter to tell his story to the rest of the community. 

In the conversation with Jesus, Peter has the opportunity to say yes three times. It parallels the Good Friday story, in which he says no three times, when he’s asked if he’s part of the Jesus group.

When they had eaten their meal, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon ben-John, do you love me more than these?”

Peter said, “Yes, Rabbi, you know that I’m your friend.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

A second time Jesus put the question, “Simon ben-John, do you love me?”

Peter said, “Yes, Rabbi, you know that I’m your friend.”

Jesus replied, “Tend my sheep.”

A third time Jesus asked him, “Simon ben-John, do you love me as a friend would?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” a third time. So he said, “You know everything, Rabbi. You know that I am your friend.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

In the Gospels, maybe especially in John’s Gospel, a shared meal is always a symbolic event. Jesus fed people in more than one way. The sharing of food is about meeting a basic human need. Jesus would eat with anyone, even those rejected by the world, and by religious authorities. The meal represents unconditional acceptance, grace, forgiveness, a chance to get back on track, the possibility of new life.

It’s significant that Jesus’ questions for Peter are all about love, the answer Peter gives is always, “Yes, Jesus I love you,” and Jesus always responds, then get out there and live it. Feed the lambs, tend the sheep, feed the sheep.

The new life offered to Peter was one in which he got back out into the world, and fed the souls of others, showed them God’s love, and invited them to the table. The best response to being offered another chance, a fresh start, is to spread the word that this is how it works, for all of us. Amen