“Zechariah hits a home run” The first Sunday of Advent at Harrow United Church

(This monologue in the voice of Zechariah was a joint effort of my partner, the Rev. Lexie Chamberlain and I. It is based on the story in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Her version is a bit different from mine.)

Have you ever seen or heard something, had an experience that was too incredible for words? Ironically, there are lots of words that get used to talk about how it feels.

Gobsmacked!  Tongue tied!   Speechless! 

It was all of those, and more, or less for me, I am still trying to come to terms with what happened to me, to my wife Elizabeth, well… to our family!

Here’s my story. My name is Zechariah.  I am a priest at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  Some of you may have heard the term Rabbi before, but I am not a rabbi.  I’m a priest. 

The people of Israel are descended from the sons of a man named Jacob, whose name was actually changed to, well, Israel, after his encounter with a messenger from God. Our scriptures tell us that he wrestled with an angel. That kind of thing can make you see things differently, believe me.

One of Jacob’s sons was named Levi. Tradition says the priests of our nation come from the tribe of Levi. A priest does not study the laws of our religion like the rabbis do. We are not teachers, or preachers, thank goodness. The priests, and there are a lot of us, a whole tribe, make sure all the rituals of the temple are done properly.

We take care of the daily prayers, the sacrifice of animals, holy offerings, the ritual of purification after a woman gives birth, and circumcision. (That’s cutting edge technology, let me tell you.)

We priests of the tribe of Levi only serve at the Temple in Jerusalem. The rabbis, who teach our stories to the people, are based in our branch offices, the local synagogues.

Here’s the thing. Over the centuries, all the tribes of Israel have grown in number. There are a lot of us priests. So many, there is a roster, a schedule for when we each get a turn to serve. When it’s a high holy day like the Passover there is lots of work to do, but for most of the year, it’s much quieter.

We are divided up into clans or teams, that take turns to go to Jerusalem and stay at the temple when it is our week. It’s like when a rookie gets called up to big leagues. It’s very exciting. We all look forward to our turn at bat, to actually go in the holy of holies, and burn the incense. It’s a real honour, and with so many of us wanting a turn, it could be a once in a life time opportunity.

Actually, so many priests wanted to do it, we had to start drawing lots, like pulling a name out of a hat. This drawing of lots is something we do to leave the choice up to God.

I never expected my name to be drawn.  I wondered if I’d done or said something to upset God, because things never seem to go my way. Some people might say that was just my lot in life.

My wife, Elizabeth and I, had been married a long time and we wanted children, but it didn’t happen. Some suggested God was punishing us for some sin we had committed. People can be cruel, and small-minded.

Some questioned if I should be a priest, or wondered what kind of a priest I could be, because there must be something wrong with me.  On nights when Elizabeth and I would sit in our sorrow, and shame, I tried to remind her we are human, and God is God, and we don’t know the mind of God. God may not answer our prayers in the way, or on the schedule we prefer.

Speaking of schedules, as I was saying, I didn’t expect my name to ever come up on the Temple roster. But there it was! I was going to have my shot at the big leagues, my trip into the holy of holies, the heart of the Temple, to offer incense at the altar.

My fellow priests, some close cousins and some almost strangers, we are a pretty big tribe, had heard of me, and knew the rumours. When my name appeared on the batting order, some were amazed, and some were envious. Why would I be chosen? I admit, I also wondered.

We all grew up hearing about the holy of holies. The grandeur of this room, at the centre of the holiest part of the Temple, at the centre of our faith! In our tradition, there’s that word again, it’s the place on earth closest to the throne of God. A room that shone with gold, and where the only sounds were murmured prayers, and the sizzle of oils ladled on the fire.

Our fathers, and uncles, and their fathers and uncles told us about the smoke, the holy fumes, the sweet smell of the incense that rose up from the flames, taking the prayers of our tribe, of our people, up to God.

It’s a scent that stays with you. I can still smell it today. Do you have scents in your life that  evoke a particular time or place?  Maybe it is the smell of homemade bread, or gingerbread cookies, or a freshly cut pine tree, or the perfume or cologne a loved one used to wear. 

The smell of the incense wafting up to God, and the knowledge I’d fulfilled my duty, this life-time longing to serve, these things would have been enough. But wait, there was more.

I did not just get my turn at bat. In words you might understand from your time, I also hit the ball, and it was out of there! A home run, with the bases loaded!

No, I didn’t actually hit anything. I don’t even play baseball. The robes would get in the way. I didn’t do anything, except stand there, in awe of the moment, and of what happened next.

There was an angel. I did not do as our ancestor Jacob did, and wrestle with God’s messenger, although I am wrestling with trying to understand, to grasp what the angel told me. Gabriel said my dear wife, Elizabeth, after many years of sadness and disappointment, of hope stretched thin to the point of almost breaking, would bear a child.

As if just being in the holy of holies was not enough to have me shaking and shivering in my sandals, and speechless, Gabriel said, “You and Elizabeth will have a baby, and you are to name him John. As a sign that what I say is true, you will not be able to utter a word, until the day of your son’s birth. Every word I’ve spoken to you will come true on time—God’s time.”

After that incredible moment in the batter’s box, running the bases, and facing the scrum of reporters after the game would be a letdown, at least for me.

One of the reporters, named Luke, said that because I’d been in holy of holies room for so long, and hadn’t come out, the congregation was getting restless. When I came out and couldn’t speak, they knew something had happened, that I’d had a vision. At least that’s what Luke said. I didn’t say anything.

When a priest leaves the holy of holies their next stop is the steps of the temple, to offer a blessing to the people gathered there.  I had practiced the blessing, over and over, making sure I could say it without stumbling. 

I went to the top step, raised my arms, and nothing, absolutely nothing came out.  I could not speak.  I was overcome by emotions.  I raised my hands and I looked at the people, people whose prayers I had helped send to God, and I uttered not one word. 

Some people realized something special had happened to me.  Some said the silent benediction was more profound than the traditional old words. 

The words I wanted to say that day, are these:

May life bless you with moments of wonder and awe that leave you speechless.

May hope sing deep in your soul.

May God bless you and keep you.

When my scheduled time in Jerusalem was finished, I went home to Elizabeth. A few months later, she confirmed that she was pregnant. I didn’t know what to say then, either. Amen

Reign of Christ Sunday: Jeff Bezos, Jesus, and other Kings

My wife and I used to go every year to a fundraising dinner at a Presbyterian Church where our friend was the pastor. It was an all you can eat lobster dinner, followed by a silent auction. A local funeral home bought our meals, so we knew for sure we had to buy something.

Our friend is an amazing baker. Her contribution to the auction was a gift certificate good for a pie a month, for a year. Your choice of filling. I bought it every year.

There was a charity gala in Hollywood last weekend, for a nonprofit called Baby2Baby, which provides essentials to children living in poverty.

It was a ballroom full of A-list celebrities. Pretty much the same guys I see at the Legion. Hollywood executives, screen stars, models, recording artists, gazillionaires, and people famous for well, being famous. Celebrities who can’t sing, dance, act, write, make or do anything, and probably have a personal assistant to tie their designer shoes.

One of the guests was Jeff Bezos, the second wealthiest human on the planet. His wealth is estimated at over 190 billion dollars, and it increases by $147,000 per minute. That’s a lot of pie.

The big news was not how much money this gala was raised. They brought in 8.5 million American dollars. Which is lovely, I think.

I often have mixed feelings about charity fundraising. I’ll walk on the Coldest Night of the Year to support Windsor’s Downtown Mission, because I hate the idea of people going hungry, or sleeping outside. But I feel I should be doing more. Rather than just collect money to help those who’ve been cast to the waste heap, we need to change our society, so we throw less people away in the first place.

So anyway, at this gala where they raised a huge amount of money to help children living in poverty a very uncharitable thing happened.

Jeff Bezos donated a half million dollars, and there were audible groans from the crowd. Not exactly booing, but groans that meant, “Is that all Jeff? Couldn’t you do a little better?”

Seriously. The guy donated enough cash to buy 14 thousand boxes of Pampers, and people in the crowd grumbled like he’s Ebenezer Scrooge.

The appropriate response when someone makes a donation is thank you. Period. Regardless of the size of gift, the response is the same. Thank you.

There were hundreds of people there, and this man gave a huge proportion of the 8.5 million raised.  What I find interesting is the expectation that just because Mr. Bezos is exceedingly wealthy, he’d be more generous. They expected more from him than from themselves.

Celebrities are our contemporary equivalent of royalty. They are kings and queens of the internet with huge followings. People live vicariously through them, know all about them, and talk about them like they just had a beer with them at the Legion.

There is a fantasy element to this. Most of us will never own a company that builds space rockets, but we can follow their exploits, in the same way we follow the right-hander who’ll get 14 million a year to pitch in the major leagues. We can live vicariously through their stories.

We look up to celebrities, and attach all kinds of qualities to them, that aren’t real. We want them to be nicer, better looking, richer versions of us. We buy into the dangerous, ridiculous lie that there are different classes of people, and that some are better than others.

We all have nobility, and pride, and goodness in us. We all have greed, and ego, and depravity in us. We are all saints and sinners, and no-one is better, no matter the number of digits in their bank account, or the history of the blood that runs through their veins.

Think about how Jeff Bezos makes his money. Amazon uses mostly minimum wage employees to buy, sell, and ship consumer goods made by other people, mostly in China for even lower wages. He’s a ruthless businessman. Thousands of people got COVID working in his warehouses. Why would we expect him to be a nice guy?

Over the centuries, we have done the same thing with actual royalty. We pray for their well-being, call them things like “gracious”, and try to get them to visit our town. We expect them to be kind, friendly, and to really care. Some are wonderful, but even if they aren’t, we want them to be.

Back in the day, if the monarch wasn’t kind and caring, it could be very, very bad for the rest of us. In some places in the world, this is still true. The only practical difference between a king and a tyrant is their behaviour.

Trace the family tree of many royal dynasties back far enough, and you don’t find a genteel tea-drinker who cuts ribbons to open bridges and hospitals. You find a ruthless, bloodthirsty warrior chief who smashed heads, burned villages, and slaughtered rivals. 

The fortunes of the European royal houses were made by investing, largely in shipping and trade. As their agents claimed and conquered India, Africa, North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, they needed to control the price of what was produced, and brought to Europe to sell. They needed cheap labour. Around the world, representatives of European kings and queens bought and sold enslaved humans as property.

They exploited local populations for whatever they could get, ultimately taking the very land they lived on.

This is not ancient history. There are people living today, whose grandparents were bought and sold. The last African American survivors of enslavement died in the early 1970’s.

Around that time, our residential schools were going full tilt, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were scooping First Nations children from their families, and doing it all in the name of Queen and country, to try to re-make them into “better” people.

The Bible warns us about the abuse of power. Early in the history of Israel, the people approached their prophet, their religious leader, and said, choose us a king. We need a strong warrior to lead us and protect us from our neighbours. They have kings and we worry they’re coming for us.

The prophet said, basically, be careful what you wish for.

A king in those days was a warlord who ruled not by wisdom or compassion, but with fear, force, and the willingness to inflict violence on others.

The people said, not quite in these words, yeah, we know, we can see what the kings next door are like. But we need one, or they’re going to get us. So please, pick us a good one.

Over time, this developed into the idea that God raises up and support the dynasties of certain families, who the church taught had the God-given right to rule over us commoners.

Our Gospel story described an encounter between Pontius Pilate, and Jesus. Pilate was the Roman Governor, who represented and wielded the power and might of the Emperor of Rome.

Pilate was posted on the edge of the Roman Empire, with battalions of soldiers under his command, to protect the trade routes from Palestine back to Rome, maintain the flow of goods and money, and keep the commoners under control.

Pilate had to sort out what to do with this peasant Jesus who had a following and was raising a ruckus. His message was innately challenging to the good order of the Empire.

Jesus treated everyone as an equal, deserving of dignity and respect. Regardless of their station, their rank, their nobility or lack thereof, Jesus taught, with words and actions, that each person is a beloved child of God. Decades after Jesus’ earthly life, the apostle Paul would put it this way: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

If Jesus was a king, he’d be a different kind of king. He’d be fair and just, moral and ethical. His methods would be love, compassion, empathy, and patience. He’d be trustworthy, kind, and good.

Pilate might be interested in these ideas in a philosophical way. What is truth? But Pilate was in the empire business, and needed to know if Jesus was a problem.  If Jesus had the backing of a political movement, he represented a threat that had to be dealt with the way kings deal with threats. Send in the troops, or the RCMP. We can’t have the commoners getting uppity, expecting fair treatment. We need cheap labour and order in society. Everyone must stay in their place. Get back to the fields. Black Friday is coming, we need you to work overtime at the warehouse.

Reign of Christ, or Christ the King Sunday was added to the Christian calendar by a Roman Catholic Pope. His motivation was complicated, but we can take the opportunity to ask some good questions.

Do we really believe in different classes, that some people are better than others?

Are Kings put in place by God, or by human maneuvering?

What kind of King would Jesus have been, given the opportunity?

Who or what is actually in charge of our lives? Who or what do we bow down to?

Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year. Next week we are in Advent, the time of preparation for Christmas.

In our part of the world, as we head into the colder months, and worry and pray for folks who are homeless, and those folks in BC whose lives have been devastated by floods, we remember that we are not waiting for a warrior king to born.

The one who is coming is not about power and might. The one who is coming will be born anew for us as a vulnerable, needy, helpless little child, who teaches from the start, about love. Amen

Children of God Sunday at Harrow United Church

Darrow: Learning Time: “Childlike”

We are all children of God. What was Jesus talking about, when he told his friends that the only way onto the Creator’s good road, the way of faithful, fulfilled living, is to become as trusting as a little child?

This week in our morning devotions, my wife and I have been learning about connections between Buddhism and following the way of Jesus. One morning I heard these words by the Franciscan Friar, Richard Rohr, and I have been chewing on them since:

The presence of God is infinite, everywhere, always, and forever. You cannot not be in the presence of God. There’s no other place to be. The only change is always on our side—God is present, but we’re not present to Presence. We’ll make any excuse to be somewhere other than right here. Right here, right now never seem enough.

But here’s the problem—we’re almost always somewhere else. We are either reprocessing the past or worrying about the future. If we watch our mind, it doesn’t think many original thoughts. We just keep thinking in the same problematic ways that our minds love to operate.

We can say that all spiritual teaching—and I believe this is not an oversimplification—is teaching us how to be present to the moment. When we’re present, we will experience the Presence.

I was thinking that perhaps part of what Jesus was getting at, about trusting as a little child, is being where we are, in the moment, trusting that God is with us, and that we are with God, and that there is something good, and beautiful about being right here.

Life can be hard, and there is so much sadness, and hardship, and suffering in our world. There is conflict, and cruelty, and pain, and illness, and people we care about get injured, or sick, and they die.

If we allow all the hard things to stop us from seeing anything good, we may miss a lot.

One of the gifts of having children in our lives, is that very often, all they really want and need from us, is to be right here, with them.

I wonder if that’s actually what God is hoping for, for us, as well, that we just be who we are, right where we are, and know that God is with us, and loves us. Amen

Remembrance Day column for The Kingsville Observer

This is my latest column for The Kingsville Observer

It came as a great honour when the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 338 in Harrow asked me to take on the role of chaplain. It seemed appropriate that I join the legion.

As the new members were led through the oath of allegiance to the sovereign, I realized I hadn’t been asked to make such a commitment since I was a Cub scout. Here’s how I remember it:

“Akela! I promise to do my best, to do my duty to God and the Queen.”

This is essentially what we ask of those who serve on our behalf. That they do their best, act honourably and represent our highest values.

In the short history of our country, our young, and not so young, our bravest, our most willing to serve, have been asked to fulfil difficult missions and go into terrible situations where they witness, and sometimes do, awful things.

Thanksgiving weekend a year ago, a young man named Kevin, who served in Afghanistan, took his own life. I don’t know what he witnessed or was required to do while he was in-country. I know from talking with his first ex-wife, who is my cousin, that things happened while he was in Afghanistan that broke him and he never healed.

Kevin gave his life not in one bloody awful moment but over time. Kevin needed help but did not receive the support he needed and deserved. His living, and his slow dying, became unbearable and he chose to end it. Before he did there was hurt and pain enough to go around, touching every person in his life. He leaves behind two ex-wives and a young child who is too young to have memories of their father.

The pain and sacrifice ended for Kevin but continues for many others.

When we ask members of our military to give their lives, all at once or a chunk at a time, we had better be sure of what we are asking. Will the mission truly serve the common good and make the world even a little better than it was?

Those who wear the uniform and serve their country are called upon to do incredibly difficult things. I have great respect and admiration for those who serve and for their families and loved ones. They all make sacrifices.

There is brokenness and evil in the world. People commit atrocities. Governments, corporations, and power-hungry individuals are capable of manipulations that turn ordinary folks against each other. Some conflicts seem to be about religious differences, or ethnic rivalries. Many are really about territory, money or power. People are whipped into frenzies by those with something to gain.

In many conflicts around the world, opposing forces use weapons and ammunition from the same factories, sold and delivered by the same arms dealers.

Different weapons, weapons of manipulation, are used to create division and stir things up to the point when the military becomes involved. We see these weapons at work every day, on the international level, but also in our own communities and even among our families and friends.

You can usually see and hear these attempts at manipulation in appeals to our self-centredness, our sense of entitlement, our fear of change and our preference for quick and simple solutions to complicated problems.

In earlier times, this was called idolatry. The false gods have many names. Here are a few:

Blind Patriotism: Our country is the best, and it’s only for us.

Selfish Consumerism: I want more stuff and don’t care what it takes to get it to me.

Xenophobia: I don’t like or trust people who are different from me.

Racism: People who are not like me are not as good as me and they scare me.

Sexism and Homophobia: Your sexual identity defines you and your value.

Elitism: What I want and need always takes priority.

Radical Individualism: You can’t tell me what to do. My rights trump the needs of others.

These manipulations appeal to our greed, pride, fears, worries, impatience and our lack of good information. They work on everybody. They work on me and you and the people we elect.

Those in uniform are trained to rely upon each other, to have each other’s backs and look out for each other. We have to make sure that while those who serve in uniform are out there, keeping watch for us, that we have their backs.

We also have to keep an eye on those with the authority to send out the troops, to make sure that only happens for valid reasons aligned with our highest ideals.

We also have to make sure that while they serve and after they come home, members of the military know we still have their backs and we will help them in meaningful ways.

Hallowe’en/All Saints Sunday at Harrow United Church

Audio recording of the Oct 31 Learning Time at Harrow United Church
YouTube Video of the worship service

One of my favourite authors is a man who died in 2008, but who continues to have an influence in my life, and in the lives of people around the world. His name is John O’Donohue. He was a poet, and a mystic deeply rooted in Celtic culture and spirituality. He often spoke about the thin places between our earthly lives and the life beyond.

The ancient Celts believed that certain places, and certain times of year were like that. The change of seasons, passage through a cave, or a doorway. The top of a hill, where rising warm air hits the cold, and mist, or fog may result. The place where a stream or river enters a lake. Energetic places where transformation happens, where things are changed from condition to another.

We can hear this as a spooky idea, that the spirits or souls of those who have died can cross that thin veil, and come back, if only as sound, or feeling, or in a dream, or in a certain smell. That’s the stuff of campfire tales and horror movies. It’s also the stuff of quiet conversations that usually begin with- something happened the other night, that I don’t know what to make of…

These persistent stories remind us that we don’t know everything, and that our lives are surrounded by mystery. The Lazarus story from John’s Gospel is like that. Mysterious.

When I was growing up, the emphasis at Hallowe’en was always on the dressing up in costumes, and collecting candy. We didn’t really dwell on the spooky bits- the tombstones, graves, skeletons, and ghosts.

In some cultures, particularly in Mexico, families gather in cemeteries, and celebrate the day of the dead. They may have a meal at the grave of loved ones, and take time to remember them, pray for them, talk with them, and give thanks for them.

That may seem a little spooky for us, but one positive effect is that children in those families literally grow up around death. It is not hidden from them, and the fact of human mortality is embraced, normalized. I think that can be a good thing.

When I was growing up, children were often kept home when there was a funeral in the family. I encountered that in my earlier years as a pastor. Families would often say they didn’t want the children to be frightened by what they would see at a funeral home. I think there was truth to that, but that folks were also projecting upon their children, their own anxieties about death.

Death is something we still seem to find difficult to talk about in our society. The culture around is sometimes described as death-denying, and age-defying. Whole industries make billions of dollars helping us look young, as if there is something wrong, unnatural about aging.

About twenty years ago I was in a class at the Queens School of Theology, and the teacher made a statement that has stuck with me, which usually means I am still trying to understand it, and sort out how it is true in my own life.

She said that for many people, the dread and fear they feel when they think about dying, is not totally about being afraid of death. She believes that some of it is actually fear of dying without having truly lived, or having discovered the part of themselves they were meant to contribute to the world.

Have you seen the movie Soul? If you haven’t, I recommend it, if only for the music. Jon Batiste, one of my favourite jazz musicians won an Oscar for his work on the soundtrack.

clip from “Soul”

In the movie, there is a place beyond the earth, where souls come from, and where they go back to, when their earthly life is complete. It is a good place, and the beings in charge want each soul to discover their spark, their passion, the thing they will bring to their earthly life that will make a difference.

Our hope, as people of faith, is that each soul, that has its origin with God, returns to God. In the movie, those souls that have returned to the place beyond Earth are recruited to help nurture the souls who are just starting out, to help them discover their spark.

It’s a lovely idea, that beyond this life we would have opportunity to use what we have learned, to help others.

Most of us, I hope, can think of people they have known who have nurtured them, encouraged them, helped them be better at being themselves.

Every person we’ve ever known adds something to our lives, for good or for bad.

When we hear the word saint we may think of certain special people that through history have been recognized as especially holy.

Earlier in the fall I talked about Saint Francis. People who knew him felt better for being around him. His presence was a blessing, and he inspired others to be better versions of themselves.

That’s not a bad measure of success in this life. A different way to counting our blessings:

How have we been blessed, by the presence of people who helped us to be better humans?

How have we been a blessing to others, by helping them find their own spark, their way to be faithful, loving, helpful to others?

One of the lessons I think we are meant to learn in this life is about paying it forward.

As we grow and mature through the stages of life that we are invited to take the opportunities that come up, to nurture the spark of life in others.

One of the best things about a faith community is that those of us who are in the later stages of our earthly journey can now use our experience, gifts, talents, wisdom, to help others.

The word for this is generativity. It’s related to the word for generation. Those of us who live into this generative stage of life, have a lot to share with the generations who are younger than us- and when they get older, and wiser, they in turn will have much to pass on to those who come after them.

On All Saints Day we take time to remember those we’ve known, and loved, and whose earthly journey is complete, but who have made a difference in our lives. We hope that when the time comes, those who follow us, will remember us.

Baptism and World Food Sunday: gratitude and generosity

(There seem to be issues with YouTube, so I removed the link to the video, which was not functioning. I will check it tomorrow to see if things improve.)

A few years ago, I read a beautiful and very simple book called, Sleeping with Bread. It’s by Dennis and Sheila Linn and Dennis’ brother, Matthew Linn. The title of the book came from a story:

During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But, many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”

“Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”

Please indulge me a moment, and say these words with me.

“Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”

“Thanks be to God.”

I do give thanks, each day, that I can say these words. The only reason we might not have food in the house, is that we have neglected to stock the pantry, and I need to go shopping. But even then, it is never that there is no food in our house, perhaps just food we do not care to eat today.

In the series of houses in which my family lived, as I grew up, there were times when there was nothing in the house to eat. My parents worked hard, and I don’t remember a time when either of them stay unemployed for long. But there were definitely times when they were under-employed, or when their earnings simply did not stretch far enough.

I don’t know how aware of this my siblings were, as we grew up. As the eldest, I have clear memories of looking through the cupboards while my parents were at work, searching for something to prepare, to feed my brother and sister.

This was not a daily occurrence, but it happened enough that I remember it. Enough to carve something in my soul, a wound that still opens sometimes when I am at the grocery store. Over the years I’ve done a lot of the food shopping for my family, partly because my wife does not enjoy it, and partly because it brings me great joy to be able to provide for my loved ones.

Over the years I have noticed that the old wound, that had to do with scarcity, and the fear there wasn’t enough, has been transformed to gratitude, because there is. Gratitude also overflows into a feeling of generosity. I have enough, and I can share. There are times when I am just overwhelmed when I think about it. I have enough, and I can share.

690,000,000 people will go to bed hungry tonight. 690,000,000 people aren’t asking, “What will we eat for dinner?” 690,000,000 people are asking, “Will we eat dinner?” And they ask that question night after night.

Hunger is so pervasive you’d think that the whole earth was made of dust. That no crops could grow anywhere. But we know that for the most part, there’s nothing wrong with Mother Nature; the problems lie in the choices humans make.

Poverty, land grabbing, greed, climate change, the commodification of food and water, conflict, political instability. The causes of hunger are so complex, so intertwined, so systemic, it’s natural to wonder how you and I could ever make a difference.

The gospel lesson John read, that included Jesus’ parable of the sower, may seem like a strange choice for World Food Sunday. It’s not exactly a pep-talk.

Some seeds will fall on the path and the birds will eat them. Some will fall on rock and the sun will scorch them. Some will fall on thorns and be choked out. But some will fall on good soil and bear an unbelievable crop.

Jesus was in a boat, offshore, speaking to a large group of his followers. They may have been tired, hungry, discouraged, worn out. They may have been doing the best they could, and felt like it wasn’t enough.

Jesus did not say, go team, get out there and win! His message was more realistic. It was more like, get out there, live your mission, knowing full well that life is hard, the world can be a difficult place, that our fellow humans are not always helpful, and can sometimes behave poorly. But keep sowing seeds, because sometimes they will take root and flourish.

The United Church, through local congregations all over the country, actively supports groups like Harrow’s Community Pantry, and the Food Bank, because we care about people going hungry.

On the national level, the United Church involves itself in conversations about food security. We believe food is a sacred gift from God. Manna from heaven. No one should go hungry.

We also put our money where our words are, and through Mission and Service, we support community kitchens and meal programs, food cupboards, shelters, job training programs, community gardens, and healthy food programs. Internationally, we send food aid in times of crisis. We fund programs that distribute seeds, offer agricultural training  micro-lending, and support projects that help small-scale farmers access equipment they need and, in some places, build infrastructure so they can transport their food to market.

We work with partners like the Canadian Foodgrains Bank to move beyond the charity model, so that people can develop the capacity to grow their own food, and produce crops to sell, to improve their own lives.

We have not solved all the world’s problems, but for some people our support means the world.

There is a man named Emmanuel Baya, a farmer who lives in Magarini, Kenya. Kenya is a beautiful country that has dealt with some incredible tragedies. There ae more than 850,000 children there who have been orphaned due to HIV/AIDS.

Emmanuel lost his parents when he was very young, so when he saw children looking for food under the cashew trees on his property, he felt a tug on his heart strings. He wanted to help.

He opened a children’s centre and school for orphans. But he didn’t want to just nourish their bodies and minds, he also wanted them to be able to one day sustain themselves.

And he knew he needed more skills to help. So he flew to the Asian Rural Institute in Japan, ARI for short. ARI is an agricultural training institute that teaches organic farming techniques and leadership skills.

ARI is supported by many different churches, including the United Church of Canada, through Mission and Service.

When he graduated from the program at ARI, Emmanuel returned home and started an organic demonstration farm next to his school. Today, not only are the 287 children in his care learning how to grow food, but the farm is also serving seven neighbouring communities.

690,000,000 people may be going hungry tonight. But Emmanuel and all the people in his community, and the thousands of people that our Mission & Service partners help aren’t among them. We can give thanks for that, and we can keep planting seeds. Amen

A new parable for Thanksgiving

Three generations of a large, extended family gather in a big old farm house for the holiday weekend. One grandparent has spent the best part of the day in the kitchen. The other runs errands as needed, and goes from room to room, keeping the family supplied with snacks, drinks, games, and the occasional hug.

The grown children and their partners, and most of the grandchildren made it back for Thanksgiving. They all seem happy to see each other, and are doing things together. There is a cribbage tournament happening in the living room, two of the younger grandchildren have taken over the basement television to play Minecraft.  Two of the teen-aged grand-kids are perched on the couch, making a point of ignoring the gamers, and showing each other things on Tik-Tok.

There is a good buzz in the house, and a sense of joy, and anticipation for the impending meal. The scent of roast turkey is a promise of what is soon to come, that can be smelled in every room in the house.  Everyone seems in the holiday spirit, except for the new partner of one of the middle generation. They have spent the day holed up in an upstairs bedroom.

This new partner, who’s at the family farm for the first time, makes their money in day trading. They buy and sell in markets based around the world, in places that don’t celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving. The longest sentence they’ve said to their partner that morning was “Money doesn’t take the day off, so neither do I.”

Their partner is somewhat used to this, but hoped they might take a break at least for a few hours. The compromise they reached, with hard looks at three paces, was the day-trader would join the family for supper.

Since then, the day-trader has invested their time like any other day. Tracking jagged peaks and valleys and little numbers on the screens of twin lap-tops, typing buy and sell and orders on their ipad, and talking on their Bluetooth headset.

They eat mini-pretzels by the jumbo bag they get from Costco, which they wash down with diet cola, also bought in bulk. They brought all their own supplies with them from the city.

The soda makes their stomach feel growly and empty, but they depend on the caffeine to stay alert. More soda leads to more handfuls of salty crunch, which leads to more salt induced thirst, and on and on.

One the Minecraft kids said, “We’re like, in the country. The wi-fi is super slow, and we’re all online.  Won’t that mess them up?”

“The oldest of the Tik-Tokkers looked up from their phone to say, “I checked the available connections in settings. They are running off their own hot spot. I wonder what the password is for Cash4Me2021.”

The other teenager says, “I bet you my piece of pie it’s the same as the license plate on their land rover, but don’t even think about trying it.”

By the time the potatoes are mashed, the gravy is in the boat, and the turkey carved and on the platter, two industrial size bags of mini-pretzels have been washed down with a two litre bottle of the dark bubbles. There have been numerous quick trips to the bathroom down the hall from the bedroom where they’ve hidden all day, but the trader hasn’t been downstairs, or spoken a word to anyone in the family. All three generations were warned to leave them alone while they worked.

The grandparent who ran the kitchen today has the other one travel the house announcing “Supper is ready”, and the extended family gathers in the dining room. There are extra chairs crowded in around the big table, that has both leafs in today. There is also a card table added to one end, for those who are last to the table. The family gave up on having a kid’s table years ago, because everyone wanted to be together.

The chairs around the tables fill in. Except for one. The day trader is the last to enter the dining room. They barely look up from the text they are reading. They don’t see the look on their partner’s face until they sit, and shut the phone down. One of the grandparents says, “It’s good to see you! How have you been?”

The day trader says, “Up about 11,000 dollars for the day. Parked it in my U.S. dollar account.”

The grandparent who asked says, “That sounds like work went well. But how are you?”

The day-trader’s partner sinks a little lower in their chair.

The day-trader picks up their phone, rises from the folding chair, and says, “Oh. To tell you the truth, I am a little tired. I really just came down to say hello, and good night.”

“Aren’t you going to join us for the meal?”, asked the grandparent who cooked all day.

“Honestly, I kind of filled up on snacks I brought from home, and don’t really need anything. But thanks for the offer.”

The day trader was up and gone before anyone at the big table could think of what to say.

The grandparent who had entertained the whole crew while the other was in the kitchen said. “We should get to passing food before it gets cold. This all looks great.”

One of the grand-kids looked around the table and said, “Let’s say grace first. We have a lot, so much, to say thanks for.”

Communion with the World- Learning Time from Harrow United Church, Oct 3, 2021

Today is World Communion Sunday. Since the early 1930’s Christian churches of many different denominations have celebrated it as a day to bring churches together in an act of unity. It started at a Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and quickly spread across the US and Canada, and to many other countries.

Even though there may be significant differences amongst the various kinds of churches, there is hope that in the breaking of bread, the pouring of the cup, and the remembering of the message and mission of Jesus, that Christians can celebrate what they share in common.

Common. That’s kind of our word for the day. The English word “common” has its roots in the Latin word “communis”, which is very close to the word communion. Communion means the state of sharing, or exchanging thoughts or ideas, or feeling part of something.

The example offered in one online dictionary was of poets who live in communion with nature. That sounds like connection, feeling like you have something in common with nature.

I have been pondering how we would celebrate World Communion Sunday in this almost post-pandemic, post-election reality, in which there seem to be so many divisive forces at work.

What if in our faith community- another word rooted in communis, or common, we used the occasion of World Communion Sunday to exercise our imaginations, and stretch our hearts and minds a little? In this season of creation we’ve heard some bible stories and some indigenous wisdom, that invites to deeply consider our place in Creation, and our relationship with the land, the air, the water, the sky, and all living creatures.  

Can we be like those poets that commune with nature? That phrase has me imagining people outdoors, perhaps occasionally hugging trees, but also, just taking time to be, to look, touch, smell, pay close attention.

I have been drawing upon the book Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, for inspiration and guidance.  Kimmerer is an indigenous woman, a member of the Potowatomi First Nation. She is also botanist and a professor of environmental and forest biology.

Early in the book she wrote about her first day of undergraduate program. Her academic adviser asked why she wanted to study botany. She wrote:

“How could I answer, how could I tell him that I was born a botanist, that I had shoeboxes of seeds and piles of pressed leaves under my bed, that I’d stop my bike along the road to identify a new species, that plants coloured my dreams, that the plants had chosen me? So I told him the truth. I was proud of my well-planned answer, its freshman sophistication apparent to anyone, the way it showed that I already knew some plants and their habitats, that I had thought deeply about their nature and was clearly well prepared for college work. I told him that I chose botany because I wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.” (p. 97, Braiding Sweetgrass)

The adviser looked at her said, “I must tell you that that is not science. That is not at all the sort of thing with which botanists concern themselves.” He went on to tell her that her question, which was about beauty, was not science, and that “if you want to study beauty, you should go to art school.”

The advisor’s response made her doubt where she came from, what she knew, and felt like he was telling her that his way was the only way to think.

She said, “In moving from a childhood in the woods to the university I had unknowingly shifted between worldviews, from a natural history of experience, in which I knew plants as teachers and companion to whom I was linked with mutual responsibility, into the realm of science.”

Did you notice how she wrote about plants as her companions? The word “companion” is rooted in two latin words. The “com” part derives from communis, or common, or sharing, that I mentioned earlier. The “panis” part is from the latin word for bread. A companion is someone with whom you share bread.

I think in her own, beauty-filled way, Kimmerer grew up communing with nature, like those poets. She found communion, with her companions, in the forest.

Later in the book, Kimmerer quoted another author, a scholar named Greg Cajete who wrote, “in indigenous ways of knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit.”

To me that sounds a bit like what Jesus told the scholars of religion, when he was asked about the Greatest Commandment, in other words, what must we be sure to do, to honour God, and walk in God’s way:

Jesus reminded them of what their faith already taught: “This is the foremost: ‘Hear, O Israel, God, our God, is one. You must love the Most High God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31 (The Inclusive Bible)

To live faithfully, in community, in the world, we are called to love with all parts of ourselves. Our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies. We are to love God, to love our neighbours, to love ourselves.

Kimmerer wrote that the struggle she had, in her early years of university, was that her “natural inclination was to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide. But science is rigorous in separating the observer from the observer, and the observed from the observer.”

Kimmerer learned how to speak the language of science, and did very well. She completed her bachelor’s degree, and was accepted to do graduate work in a great botany program. Her adviser wrote a letter in which he said, “She’s done remarkably well for an Indian girl.”

She completed her Master’s degree, and then her PhD, and was hired as a professor. Then she was invited to a gathering of Native elders, to talk about traditional knowledge of plants. She listened to “a Navajo woman without a day of university botany training in her life” who spoke of the plants in her valley, their names, where they lived, when they bloomed, who they liked to live near, what creatures ate the plants and which ones lined their nests with them, and what kind of medicine each plant offered. She talked about stories of those plants, how they got their names, and what they have to tell us. She spoke of beauty.

Kimmerer said the Navajo woman’s words were like smelling salts waking her up again. It was the beginning of her reclaiming that other way of knowing, of living in relationship with the world. She said, “I felt like a malnourished refugee invited to a feast, the dishes scented with the herbs of home.”

I love that in her return to her indigenous way of connecting with the world, I’d say, being in communion with the world, she felt like she’d been invited to a feast.

When we celebrate the sacrament of communion, we invite people to our table, for bread, and for wine, or juice. These represent not just the body, and the blood of Jesus, but the bounty of the earth. Grain harvested and ground, and baked into nourishing bread. Grapes picked and the sweet juice extracted for the cup. These are simple, worldly things, offered to us in love, that we might grow in our own capacity to see all humans, all creatures, the whole world as one. Amen

Interdependence- Learning Time for Sept 26, 2021 at Harrow United Church


Robin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Potawotami nation, and a botanist, and professor of environmental and forest biology. Her book, Braiding Sweetgrass is an artful weaving of personal history, stories from her indigenous culture, and scientific observation.

In a chapter called the Council of Pecans, she told a story about her grandfather and his brothers, who one fall day in 1895 went fishing in the midst of drought, in an effort to bring some protein home for the family supper table. They caught nothing, but on the way home, walking near a grove of trees, one of them stubbed his toe on something hard and round hidden in the tall grass.

Pecan nut still on the tree

The boy looked down, then picked up a hard green ball from the ground and whipped it through the trees at his brother like a fastball, and yelled “Piganek! Let’s bring ‘em home!”  Pigan is the name in their language for any kind of nut, but was brought into English by the settlers as pecan. The boys could not carry many in their hands, but they took off their pants, tied the legs off with twine, and filled them like we might use a grocery bag. They ran home in their underwear, with their pants over their shoulders like big forked logs, to present their treasure to their mother.

Kimmerer’s people were originally from the Great Lakes region, in Michigan. When settlers wanted their land to farm, they were moved to Oklahoma, which is where those boys were when they brought home pecans for supper. They were moved again, to Kansas, to make room for another wave of white settlers.

Kimmerer has been back to the old family home place in Oklahoma, and there is a pecan tree shading what remains of the house. She wrote, “I imagine Grammy pouring nuts out to prepare them and one rolling away to a welcoming spot at the edge of the dooryard. Or maybe she paid her debt to the trees by planting a handful in her garden right then and there.”

That’s a great image. The woman pausing from her work of preparing food for a hungry family, to plant a few pecans in the garden. The phrase Kimmerer used was to pay a debt. There is a recognition in those words of a relationship between the people and the trees that provided food. There is gratitude, and respect, and responsibility. Another word we could use is interdependence, the recognition that all beings: plant, animal, human, need each other, and have duties to one other.

Kimmerer wrote, “in the summer of 1895, the root cellars throughout Indian Territory were full of pecans, and so were the bellies of boys and squirrels. For people, the pulse of abundance felt like a gift, a profusion of food to be simply picked up from the ground. That is, if you got there before the squirrels. And if you didn’t, at least there would be lots of squirrel stew that winter. The pecan groves give and give again. Such communal generosity might seem incompatible with the process of evolution, which invokes the imperative of individual survival. But we make a grave error if we try to separate individual well-being from the health of the whole. The gift of abundance from pecans is also a gift to themselves. By sating squirrels and people, the trees are ensuring their own survival.”

When the pecan trees have a big production year, and throw off a lot of nuts, the squirrels pack their larders. When they are well-fed, the plump pregnant mamas have more babies in each litter. Increased squirrel population means more food for hawks and foxes, and they flourish. Then predation increases, and the squirrel population decreases. Some of the nuts they’ve buried lay undisturbed, and more pecan trees get their start. There is a rhythm, a pulse to all of this.

Kimmerer sees herself, and her people, not as bystanders to this organic, living drama, but as integral parts of the living web. As I mentioned last week, this way of seeing is very different, and not easily compatible with the worldview of the settlers, the ones who displaced Kimmerer’s people.

When our White Europeans forebears came here, they brought the understanding that land was a commodity to divided up with lines on a surveyor’s map, property to be assigned, bought and sold, and put to work for the benefit of the owner.

Aerial images of Kingsville greenhouses at night.

Living in Kingsville, I hear a lot of discussion about land that was historically designated for agriculture, but is now hidden under acres and acres of plastic sheeting, for greenhouse operations. Are these farms, or factories? What happens to all the other forms of life that were once part of the ecosystem on that land? Where do the deer run, when glowing polyethylene structures cover their old trails?

White tail deer

I don’t know the answers, but I appreciate that Kimmerer’s way of seeing the world brings a different sense of involvement, interdependence, and responsibility.

This week we took time in the service for our annual blessing of the animals. It’s a tradition that goes back almost over 800 years in the Christian faith. There was a man in Italy called Francis of Assisi, who in his own way, pointed to the interdependence of all that lives in God’s creation. He wrote poetry in which he called the sun his brother, and the moon his sister. He considered all the animals to be family. By his words, but most often, with his actions, he encouraged love, and respect for all living creatures.

He was probably what people today would call a nature mystic- he felt a profound spiritual connection to God, when he was out for a walk in the woods. There are stories about him preaching sermons to the birds, encouraging people to feed animals who had been displaced when land was cultivated for farming, and of him praying for the healing of injured animals.

Francis knew and taught in the 13th century what many people today also know, that animals are capable of both receiving, and offering love. They live in relationship with the natural world, and the other creatures around them, and have much to teach us. Amen

Our stories shape, and reflect our worldview. Learning time for Sept 19, 2021 at Harrow United Church

When I tell you a story, whatever it is about, I am telling you about myself, my culture, my beliefs, my politics, my issues. The story may not sound like it is about me- but if I picked it, the fact that I am telling it, says something about me, who I am, and where I come from. The way I tell it may say even more. Have you ever noticed that some people, when they tell a story, what ever it is about, manage to make it mostly about themselves?

Everyone has stories. Stories pass on information, a worldview, a way of living.

You’ve heard the comment that history is told by the winners. The stories that get preserved, tell us something about the dominant culture, and what it values. The stories I learned as history, about the creation of Canada as a nation, were usually about brave and adventurous European discoverers, coming to a vast, untamed, and largely vacant land. The fact that there were communities, civilizations, nations long established here was never the focus of the story.

It reminds me of the way Sir Edmund Hilary is described as the first person to climb Mount Everest. He was the white guy, a beekeeper from New Zealand. How many of us can name the man who made the final ascent with him?

Tenzing Norgay was Hillary’s Sherpa guide. But Hillary and Norgay wouldn’t have got anywhere near the top of Everest by themselves. They were members of an expedition that included a dozen climbers, 35 Sherpa guides, and 350 porters, who carried the 18 tons of food and equipment needed for the climb.

We usually only hear part of the story, and what part gets chosen, tells you something about those who choose, and tell the stories. My favourite part of Edmund Hillary’s story is that 7 years after his famous climb of Mount Everest, he led another Himalayan expedition, sponsored by the World Book Encyclopaedia, in search of the Abominable Snowman. They did not find each other, but that’s a whole other story.

I grew up minutes away from the Fort William First Nation, on the edge of Thunder Bay, and never heard stories from that community, even though its history goes back a lot further than that of the Europeans who settled in Northern Ontario. It was as if the history of Canada, of this whole continent, began when white men arrived on its shores.

When the government of Canada decided to dismantle the culture and traditions of the First Nations people, they took the children, many against their will, and without parental consent, to places where they were not allowed to hear or speak the languages of their people. They were only allowed to hear, and speak English, and their traditional stories were replaced with the stories of the Bible, and with the same primers and textbooks used in white people’s schools.

Take away the language, you take away the stories. Take away the stories, and you take away cultural memory. That’s a very effective way to destroy a people. The goal was to solve the Indian Problem in Canada, by making the children into slightly darker skinned versions of white kids, so that they could be fit in, assimilated into mainstream, meaning white, Canadian society.

The stories we tell, and how we tell them, tell a story about us. The Bible has some kind of creation story in at least five different places. Over the weeks of the season of Creation we are hearing them. Last week we heard Psalm 8. This week our story comes from Genesis chapter 1. It’s the one that describes the Creator making everything over the course of 6 days, and then taking a rest day, to step back and enjoy it. In this story, before the Creator relaxes, they make humans, and then ask the humans to take care of the earth, and all that has been created, including all the creatures.

In our western culture we seem to have taken that part of the story about being caretakers, and upgraded ourselves from land managers, to owners. That was the attitude our forebears brought with them when they colonized and settled here in this part of the world. They used all their powers of persuasion, friendly and otherwise, to get title to the land, to claim it as their own.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a member of the Potowatami First Nation, wrote:

“In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold.”

Did you hear that? Really hear that? The land, the whole world viewed as a sacred gift from the Creator, meant for the good of all, and not to owned, or bought, or sold.

That is such a foreign, weird idea to most of us. It’s not the story we have been told, or that we tell about the world. It’s a story that was not easily compatible with the stories the White Europeans came here with, that shaped their view of the world, and how to live in it.

The Ojibwe’ story we heard about the creation of Turtle Island shows Sky Woman working together with the animals, to make a safe place for them all to live. It is a cooperative vision, not a competitive one. It is a story not about owning and exploiting the gifts of creation for profit and power, but of taking care of what has been given by the Creator, for the good of all.

I read a commentary on this story, that pointed out that the creation of Turtle Island depended upon the bravery and determination of the smallest water creature in the story. Muskrat risked their own life to dive deep, and bring up the bit of soil Sky Woman needed, to begin the making of the new place to live.

Muskrat had a story about themselves, that said they were not as capable or useful as the larger water animals, the beaver, the fisher, the marten, or the loon. But when all these larger, stronger creatures failed, the muskrat let go of their former, limiting story, and lived into a story that encouraged them to try, to stretch themselves, to risk giving themselves to something beyond themselves.

Wilika Matchweta Asimont, the woman who offered that commentary describes herself as a survivor of Canada’s First Nations boarding school legacy and foster care system. What stories about herself did she have to let go of, in order to make a life beyond all of that? What stories did she discover in new ways, to live into, in order to survive, and thrive, and be of help to others?

As a community of Jesus followers, we have a story that we tell over and over again, and act out, that is meant to tell us something about the world, and about the Creator, our relationship to the Creator, and to each other. It’s a story we hold sacred, sacred enough to call it the sacrament of communion.

When we share the sacrament today, and I say the words, I will also be listening deeply to the story, trying to go as deep into the story as little Muskrat, to get a hold of a little something, that will help build a world.