Reflections on 2 Samuel 11 and 12 for Father’s Day

This week I helped with Fred’s funeral. Fred was in his 100th year when he died. In the last while he had been quite ill, and there was little that could be done to alleviate his discomfort, or to relieve the sense of helplessness felt by his family. This is when it easier to see death as a blessing.

I felt blessed by was seeing how Fred is loved and respected by his family. His daughter and son gave eulogies. Love shone through in what they said. Today is their first Father’s Day without their dad. My prayers are with Kent, and Diane, and all others whose fathers have died. I pray for those who never knew their fathers, and for those whose father-child relationships have been difficult.

I recently helped with a very different feeling funeral for another man who lived into his nineties.  Neither the son or daughter wished to speak. They could not think of anything to say. The daughter told me her last positive memories of her father happened before she was 10 years old. What a sad and powerful statement for a woman in her 60’s.

I wonder how my son and daughter will remember me. You can hear my pride and ego speaking. I hope to live on in good memories. But at a deeper level I recognize we have an obligation to the people in our lives- our children, our partners, our extended family, friends, all those we meet. We have a responsibility to help them believe that love is real. That is our real legacy to our children, to the generations that follow us, to the world.

Every child is born with basic needs for survival and security, affection and approval, power and control.  A child needs to feel safe, and loved, and that world we live is predictable, reliable, and not ruled by chaos.

We are not born into perfect families, and it is not a perfect world. In fact, for many children, for many people, the world is a dangerous and difficult place in which to grow up. There is a connection between how the child’s basic needs are met, and the child’s success at establishing a meaningful relationship with God.

If trust in God is not established and encouraged in a healthy, life-giving way, the child may end up, in the words of the old country song by Johnny Lee, “Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places”. They may seek solace, even meaning, in the misuse of alcohol, tobacco, and other addictive substances. They may confuse the fleeting satisfactions of power, wealth, fame, or sex, for real love.

That may be what happened in the bible story I want to reflect on today. David was one of the first kings of Israel.  There were people in Israel who did not want a monarchy. They feared the abuses of power they had seen in other places. Others wanted a king, so Israel would be more like its neighbours.  Kings provide a central government and a command structure for times of war.

It was during a time of war that David got into trouble. The story in the Bible begins this way:

In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.

One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her….  Then she went back home.

This is not a love story. David, the powerful king was attracted to Bathsheba, and commanded that she be delivered to him, the way we might send flowers, or order a pizza. This is not a respectful way to treat another person, and this is not a consensual relationship between equals.

Bathsheba might have wanted to forget this up close and personal encounter with raw and brute power, but that was not going to happen. She discovered that she was pregnant. David’s choices set in motion a chain of events. Bathsheba sent word to David that she had conceived. Soon there would be living, breathing evidence of his bad behaviour. If it had been any kind of secret, it would not be for long.

So David sent this word to Joab: “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent him to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked him how Joab was, how the soldiers were and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.” So Uriah left the palace, and a gift from the king was sent after him. But Uriah slept at the entrance to the palace with all his master’s servants and did not go down to his house.

10 David was told, “Uriah did not go home.” So he asked Uriah, “Haven’t you just come from a military campaign? Why didn’t you go home?”

11 Uriah said to David, “…My commander Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open country. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and make love to my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!”

12 Then David said to him, “Stay here one more day, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. 13 At David’s invitation, he ate and drank with him, and David made him drunk. But in the evening Uriah went out to sleep on his mat among his master’s servants; he did not go home.

14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. 15 In it he wrote, “Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.”

16 So while Joab had the city under siege, he put Uriah at a place where he knew the strongest defenders were. 17 When the men of the city came out and fought against Joab, some of the men in David’s army fell; moreover, Uriah the Hittite died.

26 When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him. 27 After the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.

When those entrusted to govern and lead, and protect the interests of their country use their position to take what they want, everyone suffers. That was true 3000 years ago, and it is true today.

When our leaders lack integrity, and when people in power seem to be able to make or break the rules at their convenience, it becomes harder to trust. This is true on a national scale, and it is true in our own homes. We may feel little secrets, our quiet selfishness, our cutting of corners are okay. We may feel we deserve a little something, and that if nobody knows about it, it’s not that bad. But our ethical and moral choices have an effect on those around us. Part of how we love each other, is to live in loving, honest, respectful ways, and to call each other to account when necessary.

God is always at work, nudging, whispering, encouraging us to live out of love and compassion rather than out of greed and unrestrained self-interest. There was a man in Israel named Nathan, who the people recognized as a prophet of God. When the previous king had died, and David was chosen to succeed him, it was Nathan who presided at his installation, in the way that the Archbishop of Canterbury crowns the British monarch.  Nathan paid a visit to the king, and told him a story.

 “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!

Nathan goes on to tell David his mistakes, his corruption, his self-centered choices will change the course of Israel’s history, and have profound effect on the lives of the people closest to him. He even tells David that this child Bathsheba conceived while still married to Uriah will die an early death. This fits with the way people saw things back then, that the sins of the fathers truly were visited upon the children, that a child would pay the price for their parent’s offenses.

While we might cringe at this notion of God punishing children this way, there is a message here. Our actions affect the people we love. Our whole lives matter, and it does not work to try to have a secret part of our lives where we make up our own rules.

Thank God for Nathan, and for the voices in our time, who call us to account, and who remind us of how God would have us live, and love each other. Amen

 

God loves each of us works in progress (June 2, 2013)

From 1995 to the year 2000 I served as the minister at a church in Old Walkerville, in Windsor.  Old Walkerville was originally a company town, built and owned by Hiram Walker and his family. They made their fortune in the distillery business, producing whiskey and other spirits. They owned the streets, all the houses, and even the generating station that provided electricity for the homes, and the street lights. They also employed the local garbage collectors, and a private police force that kept the peace.

It may not be a coincidence that the distillery, that is still operating today, was built on the Canadian side of the Detroit River, which forms the border between Ontario and Michigan, between Canada and the U.S. In the days of Prohibition, when the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the United States, that distillery produced a lot more whiskey than was sold on our side of the border.

Old Walkerville has a colourful history. It is no longer a company town. The city of Windsor took over the public services decades ago. The Walker Estate, which included the family mansion, is now a public park, and their home, Willistead Manor, is rented out for art shows, weddings, and other fancy catered events.  There are two churches very close to Willistead Manor.  One is Chalmers United Church, where I worked.

The other nearby church is Saint Mary’s Anglican Church. The Walker family built the church and gave it a lot of financial support. It was originally a Methodist church, but after 2 years it was close, and latered re-opened as an Anglican church. Community lore has it that the Walker family preferred the more lenient attitude of the Anglicans about the use of alcohol.

In my first year at Chalmers, which was a former Presbyterian congregation that became part of the United Church in 1925, I got to know an older man named Jerry. He came to see one day to ask if it would be okay if he came to church on Sunday.  When I assured him he would be absolutely welcome, he told me that years before, he and his family had been active in the church. They were living just down the street in one of the former company houses that Hiram Walker had built, long since sold to private owners, and Jerry worked at the distillery, helping to maintain the huge boilers.

Jerry had grown up in the church, and because he wanted the same upbringing for his family, he had volunteered first to teach Sunday School, and then to be the Sunday School superintendent. But when a new minister arrived on the scene, and learned that Jerry worked for Hiram Walkers, he had decided that Jerry could not be involved with the Sunday School, or any longer be an elder in the church. He was still welcome to attend, and make his weekly offerings, but he could not be seen as a leader.

Jerry and his family left the congregation. They went down the street to St. Mary’s Anglican Church, the one that whiskey built. He and his wife raised their kids in the Anglican church, and that was where Jerry stayed until a year or two after his wife died.  Then he began “keeping company” (Jerry’s way of saying living together) with a woman who was separated from her husband, and the Anglican minister told him that didn’t look right. So Jerry asked if he could come back to the United Church.

He wondered, and worried whether or not he and his new friend would be welcome. She had faced similar disapproving looks in her Roman Catholic parish, partly because her ex was still quite involved in the Knights of Columbus. He would have nothing to do with an annulment of their marriage, and certainly not entertain a divorce. Jerry and Margaret, these two lovely lost souls, cast adrift by their communities of faith, found their way into the church where I served, and were warmly received. Jerry and Margaret never did get married, but a few years later, when Margaret died, we had her funeral at our church, and Jerry sat in the front pew, with his children, and hers.

It is at times like that I am most proud to serve, and be a member of the United Church. It is sometimes said about us that we take anybody. I hope that this is true. Because I think that as far as we are able to be accepting and welcoming, we are being like Jesus.

Our Gospel story this morning is a great illustration of how God’s love can work its way into a situation, and bless and transform people, and relationships, even when from the outside looking in, there are plenty of reasons to write the people off as lost causes.

Jesus was visited a town called Capernaum. He is approached by some local Jewish leaders, who want a favour. They want Jesus to go to home of a Roman centurion, a military official, who was probably in command of the local garrison, and help one of his slaves, who was dying.

The Roman Empire controlled all of its provinces, and conquered lands, with a military presence. The Roman army had the job of keeping the peace, ensuring safe transport routes for trade, and enforcing the collection of taxes. As representatives of a foreign ruling power, they were often hated and feared.

This Centurion seemed to have a different reputation. The Jewish elders appealed to Jesus on behalf of the centurion, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”

At first glance, the centurion reminds me of old Hiram Walker, who built a town and named it after himself, and who built a Methodist church, and then shut it down and turned it into one that better suited his purposes. These Jewish leaders sound like they are impressed with the wealth and power of the centurion.

“Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”

When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.”

It is not the centurion’s power as a Roman military commander that impresses Jesus, or even the esteem in which he is held by the leaders of the local Jewish community. What Jesus looks for, and sees in the man, is his faith. Jesus looks under the surface, to see what is happening in the person’s heart and soul. Jesus looks for what is real.

Jesus’ willingness to look deeper can inspire us to do the same. We can notice that this Roman military officer had genuine compassion and concern for one of his slaves. We can also notice that he sought the help of an itinerant Jewish preacher and healer. Jesus’ reputation must have reached him. Perhaps some of his teaching has also reached him. He had reason to believe that Jesus would be willing to help a Gentile- a non-Jew.

We might also notice that the Roman centurion was able to recognize that as powerful as he was, he did not have authority over everything.  He was open to the possibility that a power greater than him had influence in his life, and in the life of his slave.

These are all ways to say that God was at work in the soul of this Roman centurion. He may have been one of the most unlikely people to be a follower of Jesus.

What does that say to us? I hope it is a reminder to us that our mission, as a community of faithful followers of Jesus, is not only to reach out to people who seem most likely to be hungry and thirsty for the Good News of God’s love. We are here to show God’s love, God’s encouragement, God’s acceptance, even to people who seem unlikely to want it, need it, or believe in it.

Every person is a child of God. Every person is also a work in progress. God finds ways to work within us, to help love grow. Our transformation, our re-creation may be mostly invisible from the outside, but that does not matter. God knows us from the inside, and God knows who we really are, and who we can be. Thanks be to God. Amen

 

 

 

 

 

Beginner’s Wisdom

After our worship service last week, I heard someone comment that we’ve had baptisms two weeks in a row, and that next week, meaning this morning, we would be back to “normal”. I can understand what they might have been feeling- after the joy, the delight, the wonder of new life that we witness when we baptize a little one, things do seem a little quieter today.

A baptism works on our hearts, our souls, our minds in deep ways. We listen as the parents promise to raise their child in faith, and to give prominence to God in their lives, and in the life of the child. We make our own prayers asking for blessings upon the child. There is something about asking God to bless a person- remembering that our lives are in God’s hands that inevitably arouses thoughts of mortality. Hopes and dreams, gratitude and fear, joy and anxiety are all in the room with us. In the beautiful moments of a baptism, we can also have an encounter with mystery- with things bigger than the words we have to talk about them.

Deep things can get stirred up. Deep things like our own, deeply personal questions about life, and death, and the meaning and purpose of our existence, and the reality of God. It’s good for us to come together in this safe, welcoming space and allow those big questions and wonderings float up from our inner depths. It is good to be part of a community where those questions can float around, even if we don’t always talk about them, and don’t claim to have all the answers worked out. We need places in our lives where we are encouraged to encounter mystery.

A few years ago I was out for a walk with our son Joel, and I noticed on the path ahead of us the amazing sky blue of a robin’s egg. I was about to point it out to him, but stopped myself as we got closer, and I saw that within the broken halves of the egg there was the tiny dark form of a partially formed baby bird, shiny and wet, and being devoured by insects. When I realized what I was seeing, I experienced a powerful lesson about the beauty and brutality of creation- the shortness and uncertainty, the potential, and the utter vulnerability of all life, including ours.

In the face of that deep mystery, there is a real temptation to try to pin God down- to define God and how we relate to God, so that we can feel safe and secure.

When we baptise, and often when we offer a blessing, the words used will include reference to God the Creator, Jesus the Saviour, and the Spirit as Guide or Comforter. In my training for ministry I was taught that in order for a baptism to be “official”, and so that it would be recognized as such by other Christian churches, we have to make sure to use what is called the “Trinitarian Formula”. God described as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.

This uniquely Christian teaching, that there is only one God, but that God is known to us in these three ways, is the called the doctrine of the Trinity. This congregation is called Trinity United Church in deference to this historic idea about God.

Today is Trinity Sunday- the only special Sunday in the church calendar that is devoted to a theological teaching about God. It’s a teaching that gained official status in the Christian Church back in 325 A.D. at a meeting called by Constantine, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. He was in the process of making Christianity the official religion of the empire. With his military background, it seemed to make sense to him that all Christians be taught to believe the same things- similar to the Standard Operating Procedures military units follow. He called all the bishops and prominent leaders and teachers of the faith together for the Council of Nicea, and tasked them with writing the manual for Christian faith.

While I understand, and appreciate the importance of being on the same page with people, it also seems to me that it is problematic to define God, and then become totally invested in a particular set of words, or names, or ideas about God. It does not leave a lot of room for mystery, and for humility- the awareness that we are human and mortal, and limited, and that God, and God’s ways, are actually quite beyond our understanding. Once the words and names for God were set down in the Nicene Creed, other ways of imagining God, of talking about God were frowned upon.

Some important things were lost, or at least set aside, for a long time. The Old Testament reading we heard from the Book of Proverbs describes God the Creator as enjoying the company of a feminine figure, that is sometimes called “Lady Wisdom”, or “Sophia”, which is the Greek word for wisdom. She is the voice in Proverbs who says:

” The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth– when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.

When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race. “

So who, or what is this Wisdom figure? She seems to be something not quite God-like, because she was created by God. But she is not human either. This ancient poem preserved in the Book of Proverbs speaks of wisdom as a playful, creative, feminine figure, made by God before anything else was made, and leaving her mark on everything God made, like an apprentice in a Renaissance master’s studio, trusted to fill in details on a painting after the artist laid out the plan.

I am glad we had a chance to look at the Creation of Adam, a detail from Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Art scholars say that the Pope who commissioned Michelangelo was so keen to have him do this massive work, he pretty much allowed the artist to paint whatever he wanted. Scholars also believe that the artist read and re-read the Old Testament as he planned the project, and drew his own conclusions, rather than relying on the official theology of the church to guide his designs.

creation of adam

As we heard in the introduction to the reading from Proverbs, when Michelangelo designed the scene of the Creation Adam, he included the amongst the little babyish cherub angels floating around the figure of God, a very mature female figure. God’s right arm is outstretched towards Adam, and God’s left arm literally embraces Lady Wisdom.

I wonder how the history of the Christian church would have been different if the human leaders of the faith had embraced Lady Wisdom, and held her as close as God does in the painting. If the church had taught it’s people, and its priests, bishops, cardinals and popes to hold her in high regard, maybe the role of women in the church could have been different over the centuries. It remains a harsh reality that in many churches, women are stilled looked upon, and treated as second-class, not qualified, simply because of their gender, to serve as leaders.

Michelangelo’s painting seems to take its inspiration from the passage we heard from the Book of Proverbs. He offers us a picture of God that may surprise us. God has a friend, and delights in her company. This gives us a different way to think about God.

I don’t take Michelangelo’s picture of God literally. When I pray, I don’t imagine God looking like a half-naked bearded man floating in the sky, with a beautiful woman under his arm. But I am drawn to the image of Wisdom leaving her mark on all things that God creates. I think we can learn about God, and our relationship with God, as we pray about, and ponder deeply what we see, and experience here in the created world. There is wisdom present, even and especially in moments of mystery, which cannot be easily talked about or explained. Amen

More of the past, present and future

This Sunday I ended the sermon halfway through my prepared script. I suspect that only the people who follow along with their printed copies of the sermon would have known the difference. This edition of the fifth page follows this weeks sermon blog entry, which can be found at: http://wp.me/2WJ8e

Our choices are important. In Lord of the Rings, not even Galadriel’s magical mirror can show exactly what will happen in the future, because events are shaped by choices people make.

We heard another tale this morning from the Book of Acts. These adventure stories were preserved feature some of the heroic figures of the early Christian movement. These early followers of Jesus were on a quest to spread the word about Jesus to all who would listen. The stories were passed on to remind people that God’s work did not stop when Jesus was no longer seen walking the earth.

Paul, one of the first Christian missionaries, travelled the Roman trade routes all the way to Europe. In a town in ancient Greece called Phillipi he taught about God’s love, and offered baptism, and many people chose a new path for their lives.

One day Paul was walking with companions to a place of prayer. They were met by a female slave who earned money for her owners as a fortune teller. She began following Paul and the others, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.

The fact that Paul commands the spirit of prophecy to leave the young woman reflects the belief that such a gift was evidence of demonic possession. Paul did an exorcism. He commanded the spirit in the name of Jesus to come out of her.

We don’t know what happened to the young woman, except that she no longer seemed to have fortune-telling ability. Her owners were not very happy about that! Paul’s act of exorcism sets off a whole chain of events that perhaps not even the fortune-telling slave girl could have predicted. The story says,

19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.

I wonder if those who were baptized that day, more than two thousand years ago, could have imagined that in our time, we would still be doing what they were doing. Looking for God’s presence, and God’s light, to help us as we move from our present towards the future. Amen

Past, Present and Future

Are there any Lord of the Rings fans here this morning? I want to show a brief scene from the first movie in the series, “The Fellowship of the Ring”.

The regal looking woman in white is Galadriel, the elf queen. It is interesting how her mirror ritual resembles baptism. She fills her silver pitcher from a living stream of water, and pours into a basin that looks very much like a baptismal font.

This is not totally surprising. J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of the Lord of the Rings was a committed Christian. He was also a close friend of C.S. Lewis, whose Chronicles of Narnia use themes and elements drawn from Christian faith. In Lord of the Rings, and in Narnia, we are presented with fantasy worlds, and stories that deeply touch the human heart, because they are about loyalty and love, about life and death, about hope and despair, and about the conflict between good and evil. They are about falsehood and truth, and the importance of being able to discern the difference. They are about the importance of knowing who you are, and who you are meant to be.

Galadriel invites Frodo to look into the mirror, which will show him, “Things that were, things that are, and some things that have not yet come to pass.”

Our baptismal font is not Galadriel’s mirror- but it does give a glimpse into the past. For over two thousand years Christians have been baptizing and blessing, and welcoming people into our own travelling fellowship- our community of those who seek to follow the ways of Jesus. Gathering, and praying, and hoping and blessing are ancient practices of faithful people.

Our actions at the font also offer us a glimpse into each other’s hearts in the present time, as we join with the child and her family in a moment of blessing. We pray for this young life, and for those who are responsible for her. We offer support, and encouragement, and we make promises. We promise to continue to be here as a church- to keep being a community that takes seriously the message of Jesus, the love of God, and the ongoing guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit.

Gathered at the baptismal font, we may also get a glimpse of ourselves as God sees us- beloved members of God’s family. God sees our worth, our purpose, our identity, differently than we do ourselves, and differently than the world does.

In the midst of a world that seems ruled by darker forces- by economics and politics, by selfishness, and lust for power, and by insecurity and mistrust- we promise to represent another path- a way of life rooted in light, and love and hope, in compassion and fairness, in openness and gentleness.

As we gathered at the font, our attention was also on the future. Maeve is at the beginning of her earthly life. She has so much ahead of her.

As a parent, I can remember standing at the font with our babies. Filled with hope and pride, and desire to do the right things, to help direct and shape a young life. A bit fearful that I did not really know what I was doing. Grateful to have a community of faith around me, and loving and wise friends and family standing with me.

Our font does not work exactly like the mirror in Galadriel’s cave. We don’t get to see how Maeve will grow up, or exactly what her life will be like, or who she will love, or what she will see and do. We can’t see what journeys she will go on, and what battles she will fight. We may crave those details, but they are not forthcoming. What we are offered instead is a glimpse of the promise that wherever her life’s journey, her quest takes her, God will be with her.

God’s promise to always be with us can offer us hope and comfort, even, and probably especially in times of uncertainty. When we don’t know exactly how things are going to turn out, it is important to know who we are, and who is with us. God’s presence with us can help us make the right choices.
Amen

In the bulb there is a flower…

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Hallelujah! Thank God for KD Lang!

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

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

Who is in and who is out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

God’s Love is “Always”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living as Resurrected People

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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