The First Epistle to the Harrovians

I’d almost forgotten this piece I wrote over a year ago, near the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. It appeared in The Harrow News in May, 2020. I also made this video back then, in my make-shift basement office. (Which has undergone a lot of renovation, and become far more comfortable!)

Pastoral Message from Rev. Darrow Woods of Harrow United Church: “First Epistle to the Harrovians”

Early Christian missionaries wrote to faith communities they’d helped to establish. Some letters are preserved in the New Testament. Imagine if one of those early Jesus followers wrote to us, in our current situation.

To the people of Harrow, and surrounding communities, and all others created, loved, and blessed by God: Grace and peace to you. It seems such a long time since we have seen each other face to face!

I give thanks for the multitude of ways you are blessed, and in turn, offer numerous blessings to others, especially those in need.

We face many challenges. Much we take for granted has been disrupted. Your sadness over your losses is real, but do not allow your grief, your frustration to justify abandoning the efforts to keep the most vulnerable among us safe.

As Paul, our brother in faith once wrote, “I have the right to do anything,” you say- but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”- but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.”

I appeal to you to live out of a spirit of hope, and generosity, even in these trying times. Resist the temptation to follow the counsel of the loudest, the most extreme, those who care ultimately only for themselves. Resist also the temptation to grasp on to quick and simple solutions to complex problems. Avoid the trap of the “blame game”.

Place your real faith, your confidence in God, the Creator of the Universe, as revealed to us in love. Let “Jesus-like” love, that places the well-being of others before our own, guide and inspire us. This love is it’s own reward, and is most pleasing to God.

I continue to pray for those who have suffered the loss of loved ones, and were denied, by current circumstances, the consolation of the community gathered around them for a funeral. Our hearts are with them.

Pray for your elected officials, and those appointed to preserve the common good. We may not all be called to serve in positions of power and authority, but each of us, each day, can be kind. We can be unselfish. Let us not squander these opportunities, but instead, actively seek ways to be of help, and to show support to those who place themselves at risk on our behalf.

Some of you have asked, “How do we continue in the life of faith, when we no longer gather on the Lord’s Day? Are we not instructed to worship and pray together? Are we not to be devoted to  breaking the bread and sharing the cup?”

The way of faith, revealed to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, is often difficult, but only becomes impossible when we attempt it without God.  God is always prepared to help us. God is always with us, even, and especially in these times when we cannot be with each other.

The people of the Way, followers of Jesus, grew as a movement long before we had the resources to build meeting places, which became our places of worship. In the earliest days, the homes of believers were the places in which faith was shared, taught, and lived.

You are not alone in your struggles, your questions, your anxieties for the present, and the future. We are all joined, united by God’s Spirit, who prays with and for us, often in sighs too deep for words, and with the wisdom of the One who truly knows us, for they were present as all things were created.

Do not abandon the ways of God, for God has surely not abandoned us. We share in the promise of God’s love, which is deeper, wider, higher, more encompassing than any of the things which frighten or threaten us. There is more to us than our fear, and there is more to our existence than the present situation.

You are God’s beloved. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. Amen

Worship for Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2021

Our worship video for this week involves a lot of hearts, hands and voices, which is fitting for Pentecost, the day on the church calendar that recalls, and celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit on a small group from Jesus’ inner circle, who as a result, find the energy to get out into their neighbourhood and share the Good News of God’s love with all who would listen. On that day, thousands did listen, and somehow heard the disciples’ message in their own languages.

We are working together, adapting to this new time, and to the use of technology, to share our message as we can. This week we have a Harrow Zoom Theatre production of a play for Pentecost written by the Rev. Chris Hancock, who serves St. Andrew’s Church, Box Hill in Tadworth, England. We also have a Pentecost poem read by Gillian Lamoure, that was written by Malcolm Guite, a gifted poet who is also an Anglican priest, and chaplain at a college in Cambridge, England.

Here is the text of our scripture reading, the play, and the learning time:

Introduction to the Scripture Reading:

Our Scripture reading for today is from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, which offers stories from the time immediately following the earthly life of Jesus, that show the Holy Spirit active amongst the early followers of the Jesus Way.

Eleanor:

When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.

Gillian:

There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were blown away. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, “Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?

Darrow:

Parthians, Medes, and Elamites;
Visitors from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia,
    Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
    Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene;
Immigrants from Rome, both Jews and proselytes;
Even Cretans and Arabs!

Patricia:

“They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!”

Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: “What’s going on here?”

 Others joked, “They’re drunk on cheap wine.”

That’s when Peter stood up and, backed by the other eleven, spoke out with bold urgency: “Fellow Jews, all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren’t drunk as some of you suspect. They haven’t had time to get drunk—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning. This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen:

Cary:

“In the Last Days,” God says,
“I will pour out my Spirit
    on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy,
    also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions,
    your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes,
    I’ll pour out my Spirit
On those who serve me, men and women both,
    and they’ll prophesy.
I’ll set wonders in the sky above
    and signs on the earth below,
Blood and fire and billowing smoke,
    the sun turning black and the moon blood-red,
Before the Day of the Lord arrives,
    the Day tremendous and marvelous;
And whoever calls out for help
    to me, God, will be saved.”

  • That’s the Spirit”

Cast   Simon Peter: Patricia

 a Roman Centurion: Cary

 a Roman Soldier: Eleanor

Scene – Jerusalem – The two guards are sitting behind a table.

Centurion: Interview with one Simon known as “The Rock”, at the headquarters of the Jerusalem Garrison, 6pm on the Day of Pentecost, in the seventh year of the Prefecture of Pontius Pilate. (To Peter) You are Simon, known as “the Rock”?

Peter: Yes

Roman Soldier:  Why “the Rock” – are you a wrestler or something?

Peter: It’s a long story – Jesus called me that.

Centurion You are from Galilee?

Peter Correct.

Centurion Occupation?

Peter:  Fisherman – well ex-fisherman – put “fisher of men”. (Smiles at the Soldier who is still scowling.)

Roman Soldier  What do you mean fisher of men? You sailors are all the same …

Centurion Look, let’s get on with it shall we? I’ll just put Fisherman

Roman Soldier:  Aren’t you one of those followers of that crazy preacher – Jesus of Nazareth – the one we crucified for calling himself King of the Jews?

Peter:  Yes.

Roman Soldier:   Because we heard that you were denying it – three times in fact.

Peter:  Well yes that’s true I did deny it – I was frightened and confused.

Centurion:   But you don’t deny it now?

Peter:  No.

Roman Soldier:  Because now you are not frightened and confused?

Peter:  No.

Roman Soldier:  (to the Centurion Doesn’t sound much like a Rock to me

Centurion:   OK. So where is his body then? Because we have had a report that it has been stolen.

Peter:  It’s not been stolen – he rose from the dead.

Roman Soldier:    (Mockingly) Rose from the dead?

Peter:  Yes we have all seen him since he was crucified – he is not dead!

Roman Soldier:  So you are saying that he is still alive – that we, the Roman Army, botched the job?

Peter:  No he was dead, but now he is alive – as much as he ever was – in fact even more so – he seems to be everywhere (Pause, then conspiratorially to the Centurion) – we have even seen him eat, shared bread and wine with him.

Roman Soldier:   Quite a lot of wine by the sound of it

Centurion:   Yes – we’ll get to that in a minute. You see, sir, we’ve had a few complaints about disturbances in the city this morning. I should explain, you’re not under arrest or anything.

Roman Soldier:   (Threateningly) Not yet.

Centurion:   We just wanted to check up on what’s going on. We have had some important foreign visitors in here – good, God-fearing people: Parthians, er – who else was it?.

Roman Soldier:  It’s quite a list (Checking his notes, then reading) Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and converts, Cretans and Arabs, Sir.

Centurion:   I’ve never seen so many foreign visitors in the city! It’s like the Olympics are being held here in Jerusalem not in Britannia.

Peter:  Today of all days! It’s brilliant timing, isn’t it?

Centurion:   Is it? Annoying I call it – anyway they seem to be a little bit confused and …

Roman Soldier:   Upset.

Centurion:   Perplexed.

Roman Soldier:    Upset.

Centurion:   (reading notes) “Stunned, excited, amazed, challenged, thrilled”

Roman Soldier:   Upset.

Centurion:   Well, yes. Some of them were upset but not all, it seems. Anyway we’ve had reports about a loud noise …

Roman Soldier:   (from his notes) “like the rushing of a mighty wind”

Centurion:   And flames.

Roman Soldier:    “Coming out of people’s heads”

Centurion:   And you speaking to them in foreign languages.

Roman Soldier:   (Menancingly) How exactly do you know Parthian?

Peter:  I don’t or at least I didn’t – that must be the work of the Holy Spirit.

Centurion:   (writing down) “Holy Spirit” Yes we’re coming to that. But first of all do you want to tell us about the wind and the flames and everything?

Peter:  Well it all started before our teacher, Jesus, was crucified. He said this would happen – that he would send the Holy Spirit to help us when he was gone.

Roman Soldier:   Yeah right – “Holy spirit”, methylated spirits is more like it!

Centurion:   We’re coming to that – so he is gone now, this Jesus?

Peter:  Yes – sort of.

Roman Soldier:  Dead again?

Peter:  No, not dead.  Here, but not here.

Centurion:   Now I’m confused.

Roman Soldier:  They were right – he’s drunk.

Peter:  No, no, not at all – I’m just filled with the Holy Spirit.

Roman Soldier:   Exactly.

Peter:  No – it was only 9 o’clock in the morning that it came – I hadn’t touched a drop.

Roman Soldier:  You’re a sad case – out of it by breakfast and can’t admit it – classic case of denial – repeat after me “My name’s Simon Peter and I’m an alcoholic”.

Peter:  (ignoring him) As I was saying this morning – it’s as we were told in the scriptures in the writing of the prophet Joel. Have you got a Bible? It’s Joel 2: 28-32 “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”

Centurion:   (continuing reading from a Bible which he has found)” Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Roman Soldier:  So are you saying these are the last days? The end of time?

Peter:  Well they may well be – strange things are happening – they may well be your last days – the Roman Empire won’t last forever you know.

Roman Soldier:  I wouldn’t bet on that.  I think the Roman Empire will last a lot longer than your Jesus cult!

Centurion:  (ignoring the Soldier) So what do we need to do?

Peter:  Be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Roman Soldier:  Oh yeah – More of this Holy Spirit

Centurion:   Well it is there in the Jewish Bible – foretold!

Roman Soldier:  You don’t believe this nonsense?

Centurion:   I don’t know – there’s something about this guy. Do you know he baptised 3,000 people today?

Roman Soldier:  I’m off– if you ask me you’re wasting your time with this nutter – good luck to you. (the Soldier leaves)

Centurion:   (turning to Peter) I’m interested in this dead but not dead Jesus character – are you saying he has come back from Hades as some sort of spirit – like a ghost?  Tell me more about him.

Peter:  Do you know what it is to feel truly loved? Utterly known, completely understood and still loved?

Centurion:   No, but I think I’d like to.

Peter:  Have you got any bread and wine – there’s something I need to show you.

Centurion:   Come with me. (They leave together)

Poem: Pentecost (Malcolm Guite)

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today  the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire,air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in  every nation.

Learning Time: “A New Spirit”

Our story from Acts captures a mysterious moment at which visitors to Jerusalem from many places in the Ancient World not only heard the story about Jesus, but were deeply touched by it. The story says that these people from distant and foreign lands heard Peter’s preaching in their own languages, and more significantly, understood what they were hearing.

As a preacher and follower of the Jesus way, I would be thrilled to know that such a huge crowd was not only listening, but actually finding the message meaningful, and helpful to their lives. As a parent, I have sometimes had the experience of talking in the general vicinity of my kids, without really knowing that they are tuning in.

How amazing that would be, to be in a huge crowd, and have the sense that everybody in the crowd that was on the same wavelength. The closest thing I can envision would be at the start of a big running race. I have run in 2 marathons, 4 half marathons, and Hamilton’s ” Around the Bay ” road race a couple of times. There is something in the air when six or seven thousand people are behind the start line, eager to get moving, and sharing the confidence, the belief, that they will soon be on their way.

To believe that something is possible is powerful. People who run a lot of races, and people who write about running know, that many people run their best when part of a huge field of runners. You can be swept up in the heat of the moment, and fly.

Jesus came to teach people that they are loved by God. His mission was to help them understand that God’s love is unconditional, without strings, and there for every person.

In Jesus’ time, the prevailing message of the culture, and of many religions was that your status in the world was an accurate indicator of your status with God. Rich and powerful people were obviously on God’s “A list”. The poor, the sick, the homeless, the strangers in town, those of different race or culture were all said to  be less favoured by God.

Jesus brought the message that every person is on an equal footing with God. There are no headstarts in the human race. This scandalized people of power and privilege, surprised those living on the fringes, and energized the disciples. There was something about Jesus as a person that helped people believe that it was true, that God was with them, too. This was not just about words or ideas- but about presence. When Jesus would stop in a village or on a hillside to talk about these things, thousands would gather to hear him- because there was something in the air that hinted of possibility, and power, and new life. They could believe that there was more to life than the world seemed to be telling them. That there is a spiritual dimension, and God is with us, even when lives in this world can be hard and sad.

How amazing and exciting it would have been, to be part of the small group of disciples that travelled with Jesus. They were part of something much bigger than themselves. They could see that big things were beginning to happen.

Jesus’ first followers experienced a serious setback when he died. Their movement was just getting going. The wonderful message that God did not play favourites, and that all people are equally loved, was spreading. Some would say that this is why Jesus was killed, because his message about God’s love had profound political implications in a world in which religion was used to control people, and keep them in their place.

Jesus’ friends were not able to protect him when agents of the state arrested him, subjected him to a mock trial, and sentenced him to death. Jesus’ friends were devastated when he died. They may have felt that part of them was dying as well. All that they had learned from him, and the hopes they had for their future, now seemed impossible.

But then within a few days after Jesus death, the disciples began to hear reports that even though Jesus had died, he was still with them. Some of his friends reported seeing him, hearing him. They felt his presence with them. That sense of possibility that seemed to surround Jesus was still there. The disciples gathered together, to try to make sense of these stories, and to figure out what to do next. At one of these gatherings, they felt that Jesus was telling them to wait, that something was about to happen.

Some of the disciples gathered in a house in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival, which as I mentioned with the children, was a kind of spring thanksgiving holiday. This would likely have been the first holiday gathering for them since the death of Jesus.

It makes me think of how it is for a family facing their first Christmas or other major celebration after the death of a loved one. In my family, the first Mother’s Day after my mother-in-law’s death was like that. We knew we wanted to be together, and mark the occasion- but things had changed, and we had to find a way through it all. This coming Father’s Day will be our first one since my father-in-law’s death, and we will find a way through that.

The amazing thing is that we do find a way through it all. We live, and sometimes before we are ready for it, the life we know changes. We experience loss and death, and wonder if we will be able to go on. This happens for individuals, for families, for churches. It happened for Jesus’s disciples. Maybe they were looking for some sign that things were going to be all right. Not that things would go back to the way they used to be- but that the new way was going to be all right.

And then it happened. The disciples had this experience of hearing a feeling a great rush of wind, like a huge breath of fresh air, that literally blew them away. The story says that something came upon them that was like tongues of fire. They began speaking all at once, in the excitement of the moment.

People gathered around them, and they also got caught up in what was happening. The story says that even though they were from many places, where different languages were spoken, they could all understand what the disciples were saying. There was something bigger than all of them going on there.

This moment has sometimes been called the birthday of the Christian church. The early Jesus movement really got rolling after this. With great fervour and energy they were moving out into the world, venturing on longer journeys, to tell more and more people about God’s love.

We are part of that movement. The refreshing wind that blew through Jerusalem that day can also bring us fresh air, and a new spirit. God is with us here, in this time, in this place. We are experiencing new life in this congregation, and it is great to be part of it. Amen

Worship Video for May 16, 2021

“Grasping at Straws?” Learning Time for May 16, 2021

The CBC tv series “Pure” was a fictional drama centred on a religious community with a darker side, a criminal element involved in drug smuggling and other dangerous activities. It was loosely based on things that actually happened, but I don’t know how close they stuck to the truth. I didn’t watch the whole series, but I was fascinated by the opening scene of the first episode, which we just watched.  It showed a congregation using a form of drawing lots to choose their new pastor. An elder placed a special slip of paper in one of the hymnals, shuffled all the books, and each candidate chose one at random.

The congregation seemed to operate from the premise that God guides the process, and that the one who opens the book that holds the slip of paper, is the person God has already chosen to serve. It was pretty clear they could only imagine a man being picked to be their pastor. Clearly the congregation’s biases and traditions have already been applied in the pre-sort of eligible candidates.

I wonder how many congregations would be open to choosing their pastor this way.

The hymn book method was likely inspired by the story we heard read from Acts, with the drawing of straws.

Jesus’ inner circle decided they needed to choose someone to take the place of Judas Iscariot, their former treasurer. We remember Judas as the one who accepted a bribe of thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus to the chief priests. After Jesus was arrested and killed, Judas is said to have attempted to return the bribe, and then to have died, possibly by suicide.

That would be quite a legacy for anyone to follow. I can understand why the disciples might have preferred to leave it to God to choose the person who would take Judas’ place at the table.

The drawing of straws, or lots, to choose the successor raises some interesting questions about free will. So does the story of Judas.

There are some people who say that nothing happens by accident, that God is always active, pulling the strings on all of us puppets, and directing the course of history, and our individual lives. Some say that everything happens for a reason, as part of God’s plan.

I am frankly not sure that even the people who say this actually believe it. Some preachers would also say that Jesus had to die on the cross, that his crucifixion was part of the plan.

I am playing a bit of a devil’s advocate here- if the crucifixion was part of God’s pre-arranged plan, then Judas, who is called the Betrayer, is getting a bad rap. In this way of thinking, he had no choice, and was actually doing what God wanted. How could that be a bad thing? Why would he need to feel remorse, if he was simply following orders, reading his lines as the script laid them out?

I don’t actually believe God wanted Jesus to die that horrible, humiliating, painful death. But it happened anyway. All kinds of painful, terrible things happen, all the time. We are keenly aware of that these days.

Would we say that Covid-19 is part of God’s plan? I find that an even more horrible suggestion than the idea that it’s all a hoax. But it seems to be part of human nature, to gain some sense of control, or at least the illusion of control, and safety that comes, when we think we can say why the bad things happens, or we can find a conspiracy theory that fits the moment.

The early followers of Jesus wrestled with the sad and terrible fact that Jesus had been taken from them. For some, it seems, the only way they could reconcile that sad reality with their belief in the loving God Jesus had taught them about, was to say that what happened to Jesus, and to Judas, was fate, a fulfillment of God’s plan.

Do you know the term “magical thinking”? It’s often used to describe what happens in the mind of a child when something terrible happens, like a parent dying, or their parents separating and divorcing. Sometimes the child becomes convinced the terrible thing was their fault, that somehow something they did, or said, or thought had the power to cause terrible things to happen, because they, the child, did or said, or thought the wrong thing. Magical thinking is the idea that the outcome of specific events is determined by an unrelated action.

Maybe, maybe, once back somewhere in history, a child came home to find their mother had mysteriously broken their back, on the same day the child stepped on a crack. That doesn’t mean that one thing caused the other.

I think those kind of theories are our simplistic human attempts to grasp at straws, to make some strange sense of things that ultimately make no sense. There was no good reason for Jesus, or anybody to die the way they did, on a Roman cross. It served no purpose except to warn others of the cruelty of those who do such things, and to frighten them into submission.

Out of fear, or to protect our families from repercussions, we might bow to a human emperor who ran things that way, but can we actually imagine God as being that sadistic. Could we pray to, and place our trust in that kind of God?

I don’t think God makes bad things happen, for any reason. I don’t think God flooded the world in Noah’s time to wash away all the sinners, and I don’t think it was God’s plan that Judas betray Jesus, so he could be arrested, and killed. 

When I say this, that I don’t believe that God causes bad things to happen, to fix things, or as payment for debts owed, or to teach us a lesson- I mean that as good news. I think it’s important to to say a loving God would not mess with us that way.

But that still leaves the question: If God doesn’t cause these things to happen, why doesn’t God stop them? When we pray for a cure for someone we love who is sick, or for a whole world that is struggling with Covid-19, why doesn’t God snap her or his divine fingers, and make it all better?

The closest thing I have to an answer, after thinking about it for decades, is to observe that the universe, for the most part, does not seem to work that way.

It’s possible God can’t interfere, or intervene, or do the snapping fingers thing to undo human problems, because it would undermine human free will. I think that either we are puppets, and God pulls the strings, and everything is predetermined, or we aren’t puppets, and God has to let us sort a lot of things out ourselves.

I don’t think that means God doesn’t care what happens to us. It’s more like God sees all that happens, and wishes it was better- and often, wishes we would do better. God is there to cheer us on, give us strength, and courage, and inspiration, as we make choices, to make better what we can make better.

For me, the basic problem with saying that everything that happens is controlled by God, and part of the big plan, is that it would also mean I don’t really have choices, and that ultimately, I am not responsible for anything I do. That’s the Judas problem, as I see it.

I think a life without actual choices would be less meaningful. It would let us off the hook, in those moments when we need to rise to the occasion, and be smarter, braver, more honest, more faithful than we realized we could be.

I am thinking back to that opening scene in Pure. The congregation had pre-selected the candidates they already believed could serve as their pastor. These were people they knew, had watched grow up, and who had been nurtured in their community of faith. Each would bring their own set of strengths as well as their own compliment of weaknesses to the role. None would be perfect, but if they were faithful to their calling, would at least do the best they could, with God’s help.

Just like us. Amen

Worship Video for Mother’s Day Weekend May 9, 2021

Our worship video for this weekend contains a lot of “bonus” material- including Mother’s Day greetings from some of the folks I met with online this week.

Here is the script of the learning time:

That video gets a lot of views on Youtube. I’m sure some watch it ironically, and get a kick out of the late 70’s- early 80’s fashion. Some of us who actually dressed like that, back in the day, may not laugh so much. I can remember attending at least one wedding wearing an open-collared shirt and vest very much like the bass player. I probably didn’t leave quite as many buttons open as he did.

Sonseed was a pop group formed at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Brooklyn, New York. They were not being ironic. They were clearly having fun, but were also sincere about their message.

One of the backup vocalists was a monk, Brother John Weiners of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a religious order involved in mission work all over the world, often amongst the poorest of the poor.

The members of Sonseed sang to praise God, and encourage all who would listen, to think of Jesus as their friend. Their message was really not all that different from what we hear in the traditional hymn “What A Friend We Have in Jesus”.

Today’s Learning Time is part of an occasional series I am working on, to look at different ways people have thought about Jesus over the last two thousand years.  How do we answer the question Jesus reportedly asked his friends, “Who do you say I am?”

Some of us might answer by saying we like to think of Jesus as our friend. Friend is one of those words, like love, whose meaning may be watered down, by over-use.

My online friend, Dictionary.com offers four definitions. Imagine you’ve just tossed a stone in a pond, and you are watching the ripples circle out, getting further from where the stone went in.

The closest rippling circle is like the most intimate definition:

A friend is a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.

The next is a little further out from the centre, and slightly less personal:

A friend is a person who gives assistance; a patron; a supporter. The example given is “friends of the Boston Symphony”. In that case “friend” is a euphemism for those who make donations. I am a friend of a Jazz radio station in New Orleans, but they’d never help me move furniture, or come see me in the hospital.

The next ring out is even less intimate: “A friend is a person who is on good terms with another; a person who is not hostile.” Who goes there? Friend or foe? This is in the spirit of the old proverb that says the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

It has a distinct “them and us” flavour to it. It reinforces the idea the world is divided into those on my side, and those who are not.

The last definition from dictionary.com continues in that manner:

“A friend is a member of the same nation or political party.”

This last one manages at the same time to be both sectarian, and naïve. Anyone from my country, or political party is my friend. That still suggests that if you are not from my country, or share my politics, we can’t really be friends.

Jesus had a more profound meaning in mind, when he spoke to his inner circle about friendship.

“Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.”

The context for these words was the Last Supper. Jesus had already washed the feet of everyone there, and broke bread and poured wine for them. He told them they would need to wash each other’s feet, serve each other, and serve others. 

Friendship as Jesus presented it was not about being first in line, or knowing the secret handshake to a private club. He’d had that conversation with the disciples when they argued about who amongst them was the greatest, or who would sit on his left and right sides, when he took his throne in heaven. Jesus dismissed the expectations his friends had of gaining privilege, or status, or authority- he was simply not about that.

I have good friends who are Quakers, a Christian denomination also called the Society of Friends of Jesus Christ. The Quaker movement was born in the 1600’s in England, and it took seriously the notion that we are all, equally, friends of Jesus, and by extension, of each other. Quakers rejected the idea that any person needed an intermediary- a professional pray-er between them and God, because the Spirit is present with, and within each of us.

To the early Quakers, the awareness that we are all connected to God by the Holy Spirit, and we are actually carriers, or vessels of the Spirit, also meant that no person should be considered any more important than any other person. We are all equal before God, and therefore, no more or less deserving of respect than any other person.

Back in the 1600’s the acceptable way to address a person considered to be of higher station was the formal “you”. “Thee and thou” were considered more familiar.

This spring, the American scholar of religion, Diana Butler Bass published an inspiring book called “Freeing Jesus”, in which she seeks to do exactly that- extricate Jesus from the cultural baggage with which he has become weighed down. She wrote:

 “when a Quaker walked down a road in England, crossed paths with the local squire, and addressed his higher-ranking neighbor as “thou” instead of the more formal, expected “you,” it was akin to calling a member of the local nobility “mate” or “buddy,” a greeting to which the Quakers’ lordly superiors did not take kindly. Such practices of friendship—based on the belief that since we are friends of God, we are all friends of one another—were deemed radical, heretical, and a threat to the good order of society. Thus, the Quakers found themselves at odds with authorities, sentenced to prison, and exiled for the crime of being friends. As the movement spread, Friends advocated for all sorts of social justice causes, including abolition and women’s rights. It all seemed pretty obvious to them: friends do not let friends be held in slavery.” (Bass, Diana Butler. Freeing Jesus (p. 30). HarperOne. Kindle Edition)

It’s good, I think, to be reminded that our friendship with Jesus, while very personal, is in no way exclusive. We are not members of an elite, private club. We are friends of Jesus, who spent his time with the outcasts, those on the edge of polite society, or not even close to the edge. He ate and visited with people considered to be unclean, undesirable, unacceptable- and they loved him, and wanted to know more about the God he talked about, whose loving embrace was large enough to include everyone.

Who do you think of, when I mention are outcasts in our world today? Are some of them your neighbours, or family, or people you try to avoid? In those moments, do you ever wonder, what would Jesus do?

This weekend we celebrate Mother’s Day. As was said earlier in the service, Mother’s Day can evoke a mix of memories and emotions, depending on the nature, and health of our relationship with our mothers, and others who have been sources of nurturing love in our lives.

Jesus seems to have had a good relationship with his mother, and was inspired to compare his own love for the people of Jerusalem to that of a mother hen. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus laments the way Jerusalem treats those who would bring the Good News of God’s love, and says, “How often I’ve ached to embrace your children, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”

I love the image of Jesus loving with the tenderness of a mother, and leaving no one out of that warm embrace. We are all, everyone of us, his friends. Amen

The Whispers of Angels- Worship for May 2, 2021

Have you ever been surprised by the urge to do something out of the ordinary? Some might call it a whisper from God, or as in the story from Acts, like an angel is speaking to you. If you have had such a moment, did you follow the urge, and do the strange thing?

 I have a personal story about one of those angel whispers. It was more than thirty years ago.  I was a student minister, in rural Manitoba. It was 9 pm, on a cold January night. I was home alone in the manse, the minister’s house beside the church. I had been out for a supper visit. As a young, single minister in farm country, I rarely ate at home.

I got this odd urge to go out again into the cold dark night, without knowing where. I warmed up my little silver-grey Chevy Chevette, and headed out. The village I lived in was very small, more like a place where two country roads crossed near a grain elevator. There were maybe 60 houses, one church, and a post office. It was only a short drive up the main street before it met the provincial highway. By the time I reached the stop sign, I knew I should turn left. That took me south on highway 59, but I did not stay on the highway long. I turned right on the road towards the ski hill, which led up into rolling hills along the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border. You could stand on a marker at the top of of Thunder Hill and be in two provinces at once.

 The car seemed to know where I was supposed to go. I slowed and turned right, and up the long driveway to Eric’s house. He was a man in his forties who was very involved in the church. His lights were on, so I was hopeful it wasn’t too late to drop in. At harvest time a late night visit would have made more sense, because the odds would be good that Eric would have just been getting in from driving combine. But in the middle of the winter this was all very strange.

 Eric saw me coming up his drive, and light spilled out as he opened his mudroom door. The mudroom is the way you enter if you are not company. Company would use the front porch door. The mudroom is where you knock the mud or snow off your boots, remove your outer wear, and come in the back of the house to the kitchen.

 Eric welcomed me, and had me sit at the kitchen table while he put on the kettle for tea. Seriously, two guys sitting down in a farmhouse kitchen to chat over tea! He ran water into the kettle, but before he could plug it in, the phone on the kitchen wall rang. Eric said hello, and then just held the receiver against his head, and stood, mouth open.

I saw his face, and I knew why I was there, why I had left my house so late at night, in the January cold, to show up unannounced at Eric’s door. There had been a tragic, unexpected death in his family, just around the time I climbed into my car. His brother-in-law was making the calls to let all the family know.

I sat with Eric for a few minutes, and went with him to the next farm over, where his mom and dad had already had their phone call. Eric’s older sister had died. The family, from different parts of the province, would all be coming home.

It happens this way, sometimes. If we are open to being led by God’s spirit, then God’s spirit will lead us. I chose that dramatic example, because I will never forget that night. But little nudges, and good ideas, intuitions, and inspirations happen all the time. We notice a person who seems like they need a little attention. We get the urge to pick up a phone and check in with someone we have not talked with for a while. We do it and discover it was exactly the right time to call.

The subtle whispers of God may nudge us, ask us to go outside our comfort zone.  In the story from the Book of Acts, Philip responds to such a whisper, and sets out down a wilderness road. There was an Ethiopian eunuch on that road, a court official of Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. He was in charge of her entire treasury, and was travelling from Jerusalem back to Ethiopia, in his own chariot.

 Philip heard the Spirit whisper to him again, to go to the chariot. He ran over, and heard the court official reading from the prophet Isaiah, from a scroll of the Hebrew Scriptures.

 This is pretty interesting. Philip followed the Spirit’s urging to approach a total stranger, who turned out to be a foreigner. He was a non-Jew who had been to Jerusalem to worship, and who was apparently well enough educated, and wealthy enough, to have his own scripture scroll.

 The Acts of the Apostles is essentially volume two of the Gospel of Luke. It tells stories of the development of the early church. In the days following the first Easter the small group of Jesus followers, mostly Jewish converts living in or near Jerusalem expanded rapidly. Their movement spread into nearby communities. It also began to cross ethnic, and economic, and cultural lines, and cultural taboos.

In the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, we can see the early Jesus movement was radically inclusive, and incredibly welcoming. Philip heard the person in the chariot reading the Hebrew scriptures, and asked him if he understood what he was reading. The man in the chariot replied, “how can I unless someone guides me?” 

 Philip would have been taught from childhood to keep his distance from anyone outside of his class, and culture, and religion. Even so, he stepped across all those boundaries to share his faith.

 A eunuch was a man who’d been castrated as a boy. In some ancient cultures this was done to slaves before they reached puberty, with the belief it would make them docile, and trustworthy.  Eunuchs often served female royalty because they were not seen as a sexual threat to the women, or a threat to the men who considered the women to be their exclusive property- but that’s a road we aren’t going down today.

 The man in the chariot had climbed the ladder of respectability and trust, and had been placed in charge of the treasury of the Queen of Ethiopia. He would have a lot of power and influence back home. But to most people in Jerusalem he’d be seen as ritually unclean.

 Some foreigners were allowed to come to Jerusalem to worship, and even to enter the courtyard around the Jewish temple. The man in the chariot would not have been welcome, because he had been castrated. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, no man who had been mutilated in this way could worship in the assembly of God’s people. He was a permanent outcast, made irredeemable by the abuse that had been done to him, without his consent, when he was a child.

 When Philip joined the eunuch in his chariot, he’d been reading the part of Isaiah that said,

 “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

 I can imagine those words would have touched him deeply. He might identify with someone who had been unjustly treated, and humiliated.

 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

 Philip followed a whisper of God, and stepped out of his comfort zone. The result was a man who was once a stranger felt so touched by God’s love he decided to be baptized, and become a follower of Jesus. His life was forever changed. I think it would also have changed Philip, left him more open to what could happen, if he continued to listen to the Spirit’s whispers.

 This is a great story. It may inspire us, challenge us to be a little more like Philip, to listen for God’s promptings, step outside of our own comfort zones, and share God’s love in unexpected ways, in unexpected places. Amen

 Pastoral Prayers

Welcoming, Humbling, Loving, Nurturing, Challenging, Guiding, Overwhelming God;

 We know, somehow, that all you really want for us in this life is everything,

and that all you really want from us in this life is everything.

 You love us totally, and long for us to embrace a life that is about pouring out our lives,

to love and serve, to welcome, to nurture, to challenge and guide those around us,

So that they can do the same for others.

 Your love, and our very selves, come alive, as we pass it along.

But we resist. We hold back.

The smaller part of us, skilled as it is in self-preservation, puts the brakes on.

Wait a minute, the little voice says, what about me? What will happen if I don’t take care of me first, last, and always?

Help each of us to know the worst thing that can happen if we live totally, is that we will be totally alive.

 Give us the courage, the faith, the trust we need, to live a little more like Jesus.

 Help us to dare to ask you to lead us, even if that means taking us outside of our comfort zone. Help us to have the courage, and strength and grace we will need, to do what you may ask of us.

 We pray not only for ourselves, but for all others who need your guidance, your leading, your strength, your comfort, your hope.

 We pray for people we know, who are sick, or in recovery and for those who are caring for them.

 We pray for those who take risk on our behalf each day, working on the front lines of the pandemic. We pray for their well-being, their morale, and their safety.

 We pray for the decision makers, and those who create public policy, and those who have to enforce the laws, and the rules.

 We make all of our prayers as followers of Jesus. Amen

Worship Service for April 25, 2021 “No Doubt about Thomas”

Learning Time: “No doubt about Thomas”

A writer named Carolyn Gratton used a story from the Sufi spiritual tradition in her book, The Art of Spiritual Guidance. It’s about a wise fish.

It seems that there once were some fish who spent their days swimming around in search of water. Anxiously looking for their destination, they shared their worries and confusion with each other as they swam. One day they met a wise fish and asked him the question that had preoccupied them for so long: “Where is the sea?” The wise fish answered: “If you stop swimming so busily and struggling so anxiously, you would discover that you are already in the sea. You need look no further than where you already are.” (p. 5)

Carolyn used the story to talk about the presence of God, and the peace, and hope, and meaning, and sense of purpose and value that people experience, when they have the awareness that God is with them. This is not just an intellectual knowing that God is real, or a philosophical position, or even a statement of faith. It is not really a “head” thing at all. It is a deeper knowing. A knowing in our soul, that God is with us, nurturing, and loving, and helping us live, in the same way that water surrounds the fish, and offers them what they need to live and thrive.

One of the ways we can think about Jesus, is that in his teaching, in his listening to people, in the healing that he offered, Jesus was like the wise fish.  He helped the other fish know that they did not need to swim madly about looking for what they needed, for it was all around them, if they could learn to see it.

Jesus helped people know that God was all around them, and that helped them live with courage, and confidence. Some people were so inspired that they left behind their old lives to follow him, to swim where he swam.

We know the names of some of these daring fish, because they were the first disciples. One of them was Thomas. The Gospel story for today tells us that Thomas was not with the group when they had a shared experience of the Risen Christ. The others told him about this mysterious time when Jesus appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you”, and showed them his hands and his side.

Thomas was not there when the disciples heard Jesus say, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Thomas was not there when Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The next time Thomas was with the group, they told him about what they had seen and heard, but it was not enough. Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas’ friends had received the assurance that all that Jesus had started was not over. There was more work for them to do. They would be carrying on, helping others to know the reality, and the love of God.

But Thomas was not so sure. Because Thomas was so honest and forthright, he has gone down in Christian tradition as the doubter. He has been used as the “poster boy” in many “just have faith” campaigns, that suggest that doubt is a big problem.

I don’t think using the Thomas story this way is fair to him, or to anyone else who has questions, or doubts.  I think that Thomas’ hesitancy is normal, and that his doubts are healthy. As the writer Anne Lamott has said, “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. “

I am suspicious of people who never admit to having any doubts, especially about something as mysterious, and important as God. People who act as if they have it all figured out, often act without compassion, or understanding of the rest of us, who are still struggling along, doing the best we can. 

Jesus was not only the wise fish, who helped other fish slow down enough to know that the sea of God is all around us.  Jesus was also kind , and empathetic, and knew that confusion and doubt are part of what it means to live in this world.  

In a part of the Gospels we call the Beatitudes, or the blessings, Jesus spoke on a hillside to crowds of people who were desperate for encouragement, and said, 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, 

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “(Matthew 5:3-4)

In his wonderful paraphrase of the Bible called “The Message”, the writer Eugene Peterson has Jesus say it this way, in more down to earth language: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. “

That sounds like Thomas, who has lost his teacher and friend. I don’t think Jesus would condemn Thomas for having doubts and questions. 

This story in John’s Gospel, like all the other Jesus stories, was collected, and eventually written down, many years after Jesus’ earthly life. The stories were passed on by people who never actually met Jesus, for the benefit of people like us, who have also never met Jesus in the flesh. 

Let’s consider that for a moment. This is a story about Thomas, who expresses difficulty in believing in what he has not seen. Thomas’ story was written down by people who never actually saw Jesus in the flesh, for people like us, who also never saw the earthly Jesus. The writer, the early editors of the Gospels left us this story, not to make us feel worse, but to encourage us.

Maybe that can help us look a little deeper. 

“A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

That’s the line that hooks me, because it sounds so much like what Jesus said to the people on the hillside: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  “

Jesus understands how hard it is for us in this life. We are the poor in spirit. We have trouble trusting in God, and we have difficulty believing in things that we can’t see with our own eyes. We have doubts. We are all kind of like the fish swimming around frantically looking for the sea.

If we just skim the surface of the story, it is easy to focus on Thomas putting his finger in Jesus’ wounds. But what if this story is not just about Jesus’ wounds, but about the woundedness of Thomas, and me and you, anyone else who finds it hard to be a little fish swimming about, in search of something they fear they won’t find?

Thomas, the one who touched Jesus’ wounds, is also in touch with his own fears, and weaknesses, his own vulnerability. That’s the place where Jesus meets him, and reassures him that what his friends have told him is true. What Jesus started will continue, and he can be part of it.

It may be that it is in recognizing our own woundedness, our own vulnerability, our own fears and doubts that we are able to begin to look beyond ourselves, and see, not with our eyes, but with our heart and souls, that God is always with us. Returning again to that paraphrase called “The Message”:

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. God is food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. 

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

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

Peace be with you. Amen

Worship Service for Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021

When I was a little boy, my family lived in a drafty old house. On winter mornings I’d go to my bedroom window, and most of the single pane glass would be covered in frosty crystals. It took the light of the morning sun to shine through, and make them visible. The frost on the glass was different each time, just as no two snowflakes are identical.

I heard a yoga teacher say every person’s physical body is different, and we can’t expect to move or bend exactly the way someone else does. As my body ages, I find comfort in that.

But back to my childhood frosty bedroom window. I’d gaze with utter fascination at the patterns etched in the layers of ice. They were like glimpses into a secret reality we don’t usually see.  I get the same sense of awe and mystery these days when I’m rock hunting on the beach at Point Pelee, and I find a fossil, or when I’m out after dark and look up at the night sky, laced with bright and distant stars. There is so much to God’s wondrous creation. We can’t explain everything. There is a lot that remains unknown, awesome and mysterious.

There is so much to this life we can experience, see, and feel, and not actually understand.  How does love work? How is it we can look into one person’s eyes, and feel a connection, and suddenly they matter to us? We notice there is nobody else quite like this person. We are joyfully reminded that every person we know, every person we meet is as unique a creation as a snowflake or a frosty window. The light of love shines through them in a way that is different from every other person. How is that possible?

How do our lives work? Do we exist somehow, as a soul before we are born into flesh? When our physical lives are over, where does our spirit, our soul go? What are God’s hopes and dreams for us?

The story of the first Easter morning takes our imagination to a place of awe and mystery, offering eerie and strangely comforting hints there is more to life and to death than we know.

To see the beautiful patterns in my frosty bedroom window, I had to rouse myself out of bed. That old house was not well insulated, and my parents set the thermostat low to save money. Many mornings I would hesitate to get out of bed, knowing if I got out of my blanket cocoon, and crossed the floor to the window, I’d be cold.

My wife and I still keep our thermostat low at night. It is lovely to lie toasty warm under the covers. I can put out an arm to test the air, feel the cold, and quickly pull my arm back in, and warm it up again.

Spring has come to our part of the world, but there are chilling things happening around us. Things are not quite the way we wish they could be. Sometimes we may not feel like getting out of bed.

The first Easter morning was dark and cold.  Jesus’ friends had watched him die on the cross. They saw the Roman soldier pierce his body with a spear and they were there when blood and water gushed out.

Later, they negotiated with the authorities for Jesus’ body to be carried to a borrowed tomb.  They were there when the tomb was sealed. As the sky darkened a huge rock, cut specially for the purpose, was rolled in to block the entrance to the cave, to keep out wild animals and looters, not that there would be anything to scrounge from his grave.

Early, early in the morning, before the sun rose, a few from Jesus’ inner circle got out of bed. They faced the cold and dark of their first day without the one who had lit up their lives, and warmed their hearts from the inside with his presence, and with his teachings about God’s love.

They may not have wanted to brave that dark, cold, scary place, the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid. They overcame their fear, and paralyzing sadness, to be there with the dawn. It was against their faith to do any work on the Sabbath, which ended with the rising of the sun. The new day was the time to wash and anoint Jesus’ body, so it might have a decent burial.

The sun began rose above the curve of the earth, and began to push away the gloom of night- but did not have the power to brighten their spirits, to warm their bewildered, grieving hearts.

The sun claimed the sky, and lit up the world. Morning revealed that somehow, the heavy stone had been rolled away. In one version of the story, a mysterious figure says Jesus was no longer in the dark tomb- he’d been raised from the dead. Another version describes angels at the tomb, and it is a heavenly messenger who rolls away the stone.

Each of the gospel writers tells the story of Easter morning with different details. Maybe the versions are like frosted windows, or snowflakes, beautiful in their own way, hinting to us that there is much about this world we live in that is mysterious, and beyond simple explanation.

I suspect the resurrection news sunk into the hearts of Jesus’ companions before it made sense in their heads. At times our hearts are warmed, and lead us towards the awareness that something important has happened, long before our minds can process it. Matthew’s gospel describes Jesus’ followers as deep in wonder and full of joy. They knew, somehow, they were in the presence of the unique warmth and light of their friend.

This probably did not make sense to them at first- how could it? But over the next few days they heard more stories, and saw things, that warmed their hearts, and helped them to trust what they had been told in that early morning light. Jesus had been raised.

We who seek after Jesus today are like his first followers.  We crave the light and warmth that makes the cold and darkness of this world bearable. We desire spring after a long grey winter. We hunger for hope, and meaning.

The Easter story tells us that God’s love, and God’s hopes and dreams for us could not be buried away in the darkness of a cold stone tomb. God rose Jesus from death, so our hearts would know there is nothing, not even death, that is stronger than God’s love. Love shines through, and brings warmth and hope back into our world. Thanks be to God. Amen

Video of In-Person Worship for Good Friday, 2021

10:30 am, Good Friday April 2, 2021

Harrow United Church

Prelude

Words of Welcome

Call to Worship:

We gather here in the shadow of the cross.

This can be a grey and chilling place.

We do not like to be this close to the mystery of death.

May we have the courage to dwell long enough to see

that God is alive, and at work, even here.

Let us open ourselves to God’s warmth and light.

Lighting the Christ Candle:

We light the Christ candle as a sign of God’s presence.

Our spirits yearn for hope.

The first scripture reading: 1 Corinthians 1:22-25

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Unsung Hymn: VU 144 Were you there?

1         Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

           Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

           Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble,

                     tremble, tremble.

           Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

2         Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

           Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

           Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble,

                     tremble, tremble.

           Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

3         Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

           Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

           Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble,

                     tremble, tremble.

           Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

4         Were you there when they pierced him in the side?

           Were you there when they pierced him in the side?

           Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble,

                     tremble, tremble.

           Were you there when they pierced him in the side?

5         Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

           Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

           Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble,

                     tremble, tremble.

           Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

Introduction to a time of reflection

Time of Silent Reflection

(ringing the prayer bowl marks the beginning and end of a time of silence)

Assurance of God’s Love (responsive)

Here are some words that we all need to hear:

God loves us.

God has always loved us.

God will always love us, no matter what.

We celebrate together that every single one of us is loved by God.

Video: Good Friday Zoom Theatre: A dramatic telling of the story of Jesus’ Passion

Ministry of Music

Video: “Take me instead” (from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)

Learning Time: The Good Friday story

Not long ago I was stopping in every day at a Long Term Care facility, to visit with a woman in palliative care. That meant being screened, signing in, donning a gown, and gloves, a mask, and a PPE visor. It gave me a real insight into how it has been for our front line workers. I only did it for maybe an hour each day- I know that some folks spend their whole day like that.

I went in each day to offer the woman who was actively dying a blessing, because the family let me know that the church had been an important part of her life. I was there for her, but also wanted to check in with this woman’s family, who were doing the very difficult, and important work of sitting with her, as she moved towards the transition from earthly life, through physical death, and on to life in the spirit with God.

The woman’s medical and physical needs were being met, and everything possible was done to make sure she was comfortable, and not in pain, as she lay there dying.

It was only a few months ago that my father-in-law Keith lay dying, in a similar bed, in a similar room, in another long term care facility. He also received excellent care, and his family stepped up, and we took turns sitting with him.

When we love someone, and they are ill, or in terrible pain, or their life is at risk, there is that part of us, that voice within that would like to negotiate with God, the universe, the illness, whoever or whatever holds the power of life and death, and trade our life, our pain and suffering, our health, for that of our loved one.

It’s a bargain we’d be willing to make, if things worked that way. We would trade places, to save them the pain and suffering. It’s a powerful wish, and a clear statement of love. In most cases, in real life, and in real death, it is not something we can actually do. It’s a powerful desire, and a fantasy.

We just saw that scene from the Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast”. It’s also a standard in many action movies, the “no, let those hostages go, you don’t need all of them, you’ve got me…” moment, in which the hero, or heroine is prepared to trade their life, to save the life of the innocent.

It is powerful when the hero makes the offer, in order to save their partner, their spouse, their child, someone that matters to them.

It is even more powerful, when the hero is prepared to take on the pain, the suffering, the death of someone they don’t even know, simply because it’s the right thing, the noble thing, the loving thing to do.

I can understand why people hang on, and find such meaning in the notion that Jesus was doing something positive, by submitting to death on the cross.

We have called it paying the price for our sins, washing us clean with his blood. I understand, on a gut level, that this makes some kind of sense, that Jesus would give up his life as a loving sacrifice, for the good of others. It’s admirable.

Of course, we want to believe that Jesus would do that for us. What more powerful way to demonstrate, once and for all, that God loves us.

And that idea has been the focus, the theme of so much blood-soaked poetry, in scripture, and hymns, and sermons. There has been, for centuries, a deep thirst and appetite for this poetry. We so deeply want, need, deserve the assurance that we are loved. Followers of Jesus have also struggled, for centuries to make some sense of his death on the cross.

Some, not all, settled on the “no, take me” scenario, in which the hero offers their life, to pay a price for the lives of the hostages. Some of the story-tellers started putting that spin on things, even before the Gospel stories were written down, in the first 75-100 years after the first Good Friday.

I believe this interpretation has some built-in problems. Think about the action movies, and police television shows in which you have seen this drama acted out.

There is a hostage situation, and law enforcement, the good guys in the story  are called in to help. Who are the characters in this drama?

In the movie set up, there are the innocent hostages- maybe we identify with them. We may feel stuck, trapped, afraid, and in need of rescue. We do have moments when we are keenly aware of being caught up somewhere between life and death, and in need of rescue.

There is the heroic figure, who puts down their gun, takes off their Kevlar body armour, and presents themselves as the substitute hostage. We can easily see Jesus in the hero role- especially since in most of the movies, this is the moment when the hero raises their arms to show they have no weapon, and they often look like they are about to be crucified.

The dramatic scene we are imagine, or remember, requires just one more character- the evil villain that up until now has been holding the hostages at gunpoint, or threatening to blow them up, or whatever dastardly means of death they have in mind.

The villain in the story has the option to accept the hero’s life in trade for the hostages. Who is the villain? Why does the villain need the hostages to die? What is to be gained, in the story, by anyone dying?

In the movies, the hero often says that, “Nobody needs to die here, today.” We can all go home safely, if you just put down the gun, or the trigger device for the nuclear warhead, or the spray can for the poision gas, or whatever the deadly weapon might be.

In the movies, and tv shows, of which I have obviously watched too, too many, there are just 2 possible reasons the villain has captured hostages, for which the hero is willing to trade their life.

The first reason is that villain is cornered, about to be captured themselves, and is using the hostages to bargain for safe passage. They want to trade the lives of the hostages for a city bus to take them to the airport, where they can catch a plane to someplace beyond the legal reach of the good guys.

The second typical reason is the villain is insane, and wants to kill people. They don’t expect to get away. The hero appeals to the last vestige of human decency in them, to let the innocents go, and accept the hero as a substitute. If the hero has been an annoyance to the villain up to this point in the story, a thorn in their side, they might say, “Let these folks go, I’m the one you really want.” And sometimes, in the movies, it works. The villain goes for it, releases the captives, but keeps the hero captive.

Sometimes, in the movies, the hero has one more trick up their sleeve.  They know a  clever way to de-fuse the nuclear warhead, or they’ve secretly swallowed an antidote to the poison gas. Maybe they wrestle free before the bad guy can carve them up with the meat cleaver, or they duck, and only suffer a flesh wound, when the villain shoots at them.

If it’s a movie with a satisfying end, the villain is captured, or dies while trying to escape, and the hero survives, and then the last scene in the story has the hero being yelled at by their spouse, or partner, or boss, “What were you thinking? You could have died in there!”

But in the Good Friday story… if we are the innocent hostages, and Jesus is Bruce Willis, ready to trade his life for ours, who is the villain? Who is one who needs the hostages, or Jesus to die? And why?

The way it has usually been explained is the universe is a moral place, with rules and laws that have to be upheld. If a crime is done, a price has to be paid. If our sins are crimes, offenses against the universe, God the Judge needs for the price to be paid. There aren’t actually any innocent hostages, because we are all guilty. Jesus takes our place, and pays the price.

This has been a powerful, manipulative tool, used in the worst kind of evangelism. It’s kind of like when someone says, “After all I have done for you, the least you can do is…”

I struggle with the idea of a God who would operate this way. It just doesn’t connect for me, with the picture of God that I get from Jesus- the source of all the love in the universe.

This story about a God, who acts like Judge and Executioner rolled into one scary figure, and who would accept the hero as the substitute hostage, does not seem like the God Jesus wanted us to call Abba, the loving parent.

What parent in their right mind, and with a loving heart, would set things up this way? Did the Supreme Lover set up a whole universe in which we are all found guilty without trial, and sentenced to death, and the only escape is to kill the hero?

Why? Why set it up that way? What the actual hell is this all about?

Unless God is not the villain. Maybe the villain in this story is plain ordinary human evil, and Jesus faces it, sacrifices himself to it, and God is not the writer, the director, the creator of this scene at all. Maybe God did not want it to happen this way at all.

When I watch Bruce Willis or some other action hero ready to die to save the innocents, I also get to see the villain as insane, or evil, and I don’t shed any tears when they are defeated, even if they are killed. I can applaud the hero’s willingness to die for the sake of others, and still hope it doesn’t have to happen that way.

So, if Jesus is the hero, I can applaud his willingness to play his part in the drama. I just don’t think it’s the only way the story could have gone. I think that God loves us, and can forgive our sins, if our sins need forgiving, and accept us, without killing the hero. Which means I don’t think God killed the hero.

I don’t think God is the crazy, bloodthirsty villain this story seems to need God to be.

God is actually more like the hero’s best friend, or spouse, or partner, or boss, at the end of the story, who says, “Are you okay? I was so scared. You’re okay? Good!” Then they punch the hero in the arm and say, “What the hell were you thinking? You could have been killed!”

But that’s not the scene we end with today. Good Friday ends with Jesus dying on the cross, with nothing to take away the pain, for him, or for us watching. It’s kind of a terrible movie. I don’t think God wrote, directed, or produced that movie. Amen

Pastoral Prayers

Loving God;  We pray for all those who suffer in our world. We pray for those who are sick, for those who are dying, and for those who are burdened with grief. We pray especially for those who are living in war zones. We pray for those who are victims of racism, or religious hatred.

We pray also for those individuals, and groups that are easily scapegoated: those who are weak, or who bring a challenging message, or seem different or strange to us.

Help us to listen carefully when people in power are offering us quick and easy solutions to complex problems.

Help us to place our lives, and our hopes in your hands God, and to practice patience and perseverance, so the solutions we discover will grow out of love, and not vengeance.

Help us to recognize the parts of our own hearts, our own character, that are still in some way satisfied by violence. Let us not mistake our own darker aspects for God’s will, or God’s plan.

God, help us to remember to look to you, not for justification for our hurtful desires, but for the love and forgiveness, and grace we need to rise above, and move beyond them.

Help us to look at life, and faith in new ways. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen

(video of “We are not alone” from Eastminster United in Toronto)

Unsung Hymn: VU 149 When I survey the wondrous cross

1         When I survey the wondrous cross

           on which the Prince of glory died,

           my richest gain I count but loss,

           and pour contempt on all my pride.

2         Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast

           save in the death of Christ, my God:

           all the vain things that charm me most,

           I sacrifice them to his blood.

3         See from his head, his hands, his feet,

           sorrow and love flow mingled down!

           Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,

           or thorns compose so rich a crown?

4         Were the whole realm of nature mine,

           that were a present far too small:

           love so amazing, so divine,

           demands my soul, my life, my all.

*Blessing

May the God of creation, the God of generous provision, the God of new life be with us.

May the Christ of grace, the Christ of forgiveness, the Christ of reconciliation be our example.

May the Spirit love, the Spirit of peace, the Spirit of hope, go with us. Amen

2021 Good Friday Service

Call to Worship:

We gather here in the shadow of the cross.

This can be a grey and chilling place.

We do not like to be this close to the mystery of death.

May we have the courage to dwell long enough to see

that God is alive, and at work, even here.

Let us open ourselves to God’s warmth and light.

1 Corinthians 1:22-25

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Good Friday Zoom Theatre: A dramatic telling of the story of Jesus’ Passion

Video: “Take me instead” (from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)

Learning Time: The Good Friday story

In the early part of Lent I was stopping in every day at a Long Term Care facility, to visit with a woman in palliative care. That meant being screened, signing in, donning a gown, and gloves, a mask, and a PPE visor. It gave me a real insight into how it has been for our front line workers. I only did it for maybe an hour each day- I know that some folks spend their whole day like that.

I went in each day to offer the woman who was actively dying a blessing, because the family let me know that the church had been an important part of her life. I was there for her, but also wanted to check in with this woman’s family, who were doing the very difficult, and important work of sitting with her, as she moved towards the transition from earthly life, through physical death, and on to life in the spirit with God.

The woman’s medical and physical needs were being met, and everything possible was done to make sure she was comfortable, and not in pain, as she lay there dying.

It was only a few months ago that my father-in-law Keith lay dying, in a similar bed, in a similar room, in another long term care facility. He also received excellent care, and his family stepped up, and we took turns sitting with him.

When we love someone, and they are ill, or in terrible pain, or their life is at risk, there is that part of us, that voice within that would like to negotiate with God, the universe, the illness, whoever or whatever holds the power of life and death, and trade our life, our pain and suffering, our health, for that of our loved one.

It’s a bargain we’d be willing to make, if things worked that way. We would trade places, to save them the pain and suffering. It’s a powerful wish, and a clear statement of love. In most cases, in real life, and in real death, it is not something we can actually do. It’s a powerful desire, and a fantasy.

We just saw that scene from the Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast”. It’s also a standard in many action movies, the “no, let those hostages go, you don’t need all of them, you’ve got me…” moment, in which the hero, or heroine is prepared to trade their life, to save the life of the innocent.

It is powerful when the hero makes the offer, in order to save their partner, their spouse, their child, someone that matters to them.

It is even more powerful, when the hero is prepared to take on the pain, the suffering, the death of someone they don’t even know, simply because it’s the right thing, the noble thing, the loving thing to do.

I can understand why people hang on, and find such meaning in the notion that Jesus was doing something positive, by submitting to death on the cross.

We have called it paying the price for our sins, washing us clean with his blood. I understand, on a gut level, that this makes some kind of sense, that Jesus would give up his life as a loving sacrifice, for the good of others. It’s admirable.

Of course, we want to believe that Jesus would do that for us. What more powerful way to demonstrate, once and for all, that God loves us.

And that idea has been the focus, the theme of so much blood-soaked poetry, in scripture, and hymns, and sermons. There has been, for centuries, a deep thirst and appetite for this poetry. We so deeply want, need, deserve the assurance that we are loved. Followers of Jesus have also struggled, for centuries to make some sense of his death on the cross.

Some, not all, settled on the “no, take me” scenario, in which the hero offers their life, to pay a price for the lives of the hostages. Some of the story-tellers started putting that spin on things, even before the Gospel stories were written down, in the first 75-100 years after the first Good Friday.

I believe this interpretation has some built-in problems. Think about the action movies, and police television shows in which you have seen this drama acted out.

There is a hostage situation, and law enforcement, the good guys in the story  are called in to help. Who are the characters in this drama?

In the movie set up, there are the innocent hostages- maybe we identify with them. We may feel stuck, trapped, afraid, and in need of rescue. We do have moments when we are keenly aware of being caught up somewhere between life and death, and in need of rescue.

There is the heroic figure, who puts down their gun, takes off their Kevlar body armour, and presents themselves as the substitute hostage. We can easily see Jesus in the hero role- especially since in most of the movies, this is the moment when the hero raises their arms to show they have no weapon, and they often look like they are about to be crucified.

The dramatic scene we are imagine, or remember, requires just one more character- the evil villain that up until now has been holding the hostages at gunpoint, or threatening to blow them up, or whatever dastardly means of death they have in mind.

The villain in the story has the option to accept the hero’s life in trade for the hostages. Who is the villain? Why does the villain need the hostages to die? What is to be gained, in the story, by anyone dying?

In the movies, the hero often says that, “Nobody needs to die here, today.” We can all go home safely, if you just put down the gun, or the trigger device for the nuclear warhead, or the spray can for the poision gas, or whatever the deadly weapon might be.

In the movies, and tv shows, of which I have obviously watched too, too many, there are just 2 possible reasons the villain has captured hostages, for which the hero is willing to trade their life.

The first reason is that villain is cornered, about to be captured themselves, and is using the hostages to bargain for safe passage. They want to trade the lives of the hostages for a city bus to take them to the airport, where they can catch a plane to someplace beyond the legal reach of the good guys.

The second typical reason is the villain is insane, and wants to kill people. They don’t expect to get away. The hero appeals to the last vestige of human decency in them, to let the innocents go, and accept the hero as a substitute. If the hero has been an annoyance to the villain up to this point in the story, a thorn in their side, they might say, “Let these folks go, I’m the one you really want.” And sometimes, in the movies, it works. The villain goes for it, releases the captives, but keeps the hero captive.

Sometimes, in the movies, the hero has one more trick up their sleeve.  They know a  clever way to de-fuse the nuclear warhead, or they’ve secretly swallowed an antidote to the poison gas. Maybe they wrestle free before the bad guy can carve them up with the meat cleaver, or they duck, and only suffer a flesh wound, when the villain shoots at them.

If it’s a movie with a satisfying end, the villain is captured, or dies while trying to escape, and the hero survives, and then the last scene in the story has the hero being yelled at by their spouse, or partner, or boss, “What were you thinking? You could have died in there!”

But in the Good Friday story… if we are the innocent hostages, and Jesus is Bruce Willis, ready to trade his life for ours, who is the villain? Who is one who needs the hostages, or Jesus to die? And why?

The way it has usually been explained is the universe is a moral place, with rules and laws that have to be upheld. If a crime is done, a price has to be paid. If our sins are crimes, offenses against the universe, God the Judge needs for the price to be paid. There aren’t actually any innocent hostages, because we are all guilty. Jesus takes our place, and pays the price.

This has been a powerful, manipulative tool, used in the worst kind of evangelism. It’s kind of like when someone says, “After all I have done for you, the least you can do is…”

I struggle with the idea of a God who would operate this way. It just doesn’t connect for me, with the picture of God that I get from Jesus- the source of all the love in the universe.

This story about a God, who acts like Judge and Executioner rolled into one scary figure, and who would accept the hero as the substitute hostage, does not seem like the God Jesus wanted us to call Abba, the loving parent.

What parent in their right mind, and with a loving heart, would set things up this way? Did the Supreme Lover set up a whole universe in which we are all found guilty without trial, and sentenced to death, and the only escape is to kill the hero?

Why? Why set it up that way? What the actual hell is this all about?

Unless God is not the villain. Maybe the villain in this story is plain ordinary human evil, and Jesus faces it, sacrifices himself to it, and God is not the writer, the director, the creator of this scene at all. Maybe God did not want it to happen this way at all.

When I watch Bruce Willis or some other action hero ready to die to save the innocents, I also get to see the villain as insane, or evil, and I don’t shed any tears when they are defeated, even if they are killed. I can applaud the hero’s willingness to die for the sake of others, and still hope it doesn’t have to happen that way.

So, if Jesus is the hero, I can applaud his willingness to play his part in the drama. I just don’t think it’s the only way the story could have gone. I think that God loves us, and can forgive our sins, if our sins need forgiving, and accept us, without killing the hero. Which means I don’t think God killed the hero.

I don’t think God is the crazy, bloodthirsty villain this story seems to need God to be.

God is actually more like the hero’s best friend, or spouse, or partner, or boss, at the end of the story, who says, “Are you okay? I was so scared. You’re okay? Good!” Then they punch the hero in the arm and say, “What the hell were you thinking? You could have been killed!”

But that’s not the scene we end with today. Good Friday ends with Jesus dying on the cross, with nothing to take away the pain, for him, or for us watching. It’s kind of a terrible movie. I don’t think God wrote, directed, or produced that movie. Amen

Video: The United Church Creed

Pastoral Prayers

Loving God;  We pray for all those who suffer in our world. We pray for those who are sick, for those who are dying, and for those who are burdened with grief. We pray especially for those who are living in war zones. We pray for those who are victims of racism, or religious hatred.

We pray also for those individuals, and groups that are easily scapegoated: those who are weak, or who bring a challenging message, or seem different or strange to us.

Help us to listen carefully when people in power are offering us quick and easy solutions to complex problems.

Help us to place our lives, and our hopes in your hands God, and to practice patience and perseverance, so the solutions we discover will grow out of love, and not vengeance.

Help us to recognize the parts of our own hearts, our own character, that are still in some way satisfied by violence. Let us not mistake our own darker aspects for God’s will, or God’s plan.

God, help us to remember to look to you, not for justification for our hurtful desires, but for the love and forgiveness, and grace we need to rise above, and move beyond them.

Help us to look at life, and faith in new ways. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen

Video of “We are not alone” from Eastminster United in Toronto

Blessing

May the God of creation, the God of generous provision, the God of new life be with us.

May the Christ of grace, the Christ of forgiveness, the Christ of reconciliation be our example.

May the Spirit love, the Spirit of peace, the Spirit of hope, go with us. Amen