Learning Time about the Prodigal Child. Harrow United Church, Mar 27, 2022

Audio file of learning time

The video of the worship service:

In Grade 13 we read Fifth Business. It was the first novel that got me thinking deeply about the meaning of life. I was so taken by it that I read the next two in the Deptford Trilogy and went on to devour every novel Robertson Davies wrote.

I re-read the Deptford Trilogy at least once a decade. I am due to dive into them again soon. Probably this summer. I get more and different things from the books as I travel through the seasons of life. It might also be that way with today’s parable. Hopefully, we learn as we go along in life.

Let’s start with the word Prodigal. This story’s given that word a bad name. Prodigal has come to be understood to refer to a problem child, a wastrel. But the word comes from same root as “prodigy”. A child prodigy is one with an extraordinary talent or ability. It may cause them problems in life, but a prodigy is someone given a great gift.

Maybe the youngest son’s gift was absolute candor, even to the point of being offensive. No filters. He petitioned his father to grant his inheritance ahead of schedule.

“Hey Dad, we both know I’ll get my share when you die. Can we skip ahead to the part when you’re already dead, so I get my percentage now?”

Maybe this seemed reasonable to the young man. But it wasn’t as simple as writing a cheque or handing over a few bags of coins. The bulk of the farmer’s wealth is often tied up in assets- land, stock, machinery. In the Ancient World, these holdings would include slaves.

The story as we heard it sanitized the word slave, and spoke instead of servants, but the labour force included captured foreigners, and locals who’d been sold into slavery to work off their debts.

To grant his son’s request, the father would likely have to liquidate some holdings. Sell land, and chattels, meaning livestock, and slaves. Some of the slaves might be moved, separated from their friends or family.

We can imagine the havoc that would cause, the time it would take, and the talk it would inspire among the neighbours. What’s he up to? Why is he selling out? What does he know that we don’t? Is there another drought coming? He’s selling to give his youngest their inheritance? Hunh? What’s wrong with this guy?

The youngest son grew up in an agricultural community. If he didn’t understand the ruckus he’d cause, he’d see it unfold, at least until he hit the road to fun city.

The damage caused to the viability of the farm, and to his father’s reputation would likely outlast his youthful adventure.

On the other hand, having grown up in this environment where everything was everyone’s business, and he had no way to be known, or seen, except as the child of this farmer, or the younger brother- we can see why he might want out.

He’d always be the youngest. There was only one way to could climb the ladder. His older brother would be his father’s successor, unless he died. Then the younger one would be obligated to take care of his brother’s household, and take his wife, or wives as his own. He’d have all the property then, but also all of his brother’s responsibilities added to his own. How to be yourself when your destiny comes pre-packaged?

Do you remember Hermey the misfit elf in the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer cartoon? He’s supposed to go into Santa’s business, and make toys, but all he wants is to be a dentist.

Hermey and the prodigal are poster boys for the human ego. Especially when we’re adolescents, we are driven to individuate, to show we have identity, personality, not defined by the major forces in our lives. Many sort out who they are, partly by naming what they don’t want to be.

In the iconic scene with Marlon Brando in The Wild One, someone asks, “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” He says, “What’ve you got?”

The youngest child, not really a hero, but still a central figure in the drama, ventured out in an ill-conceived effort to discover himself, and got lost. He became caught up in things that drained his strength, diluted his spirit, dissipated his cash, and left him hungry and alone, and longing for home. We can recognize the desire for a safe resting place after suffering a hard time.

Is the oldest child the opposite of their younger sibling? The one who built a sense of themselves from everything the younger one rebelled against? Rules, structure, responsibility, order, common sense? Was he happy with this constructed personality, or did he secretly resent his younger brother’s carefree ways? Did he sympathize with his little brother, or did he use up all his compassion trying to cheer up his father, who gave the young one all he asked, and watched him walk away?

When the oldest son said, “Dad, you never gave me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends,” does it make you wonder how many friends he really had?

The oldest son might have been happy with his life, but he doesn’t come across that way. This could be an interesting comment Jesus was making about the rule-enforcers in his life- the Pharisees who followed him around with their letter of the law objections to his acts of mercy and kindness. He might have been saying, ‘Really, how’s this working out for you?”

In many sermons a lot is made of the father’s generous, gracious welcome of the wayward son- the one who was lost is found, the one who was dead is alive. Have you ever thought, “wait a minute! What kind of parent gives their kid everything they want, just because they asked?”

Is that an illustration of God giving us free will, including the freedom to make a shambles of our lives? Or is it just bad parenting? Or is it both? As my children grow up, I’ve recognize that if I want to keep the communications channels open, and I want them to know they always have a safe place to land, I had to get over thinking of myself as the smartest, wisest source of advice in the room. They will make choices that don’t make sense to me and they may even have good reasons.

Ultimately, saying welcome home has got to be better than I told you so.

The two brother and their father each have roles we recognize in this ancient and universal drama of wandering, getting lost, and finding the way home. But have we forgotten anyone?

The father has come to represent unconditional love, and forgiving grace, and the possibility of a fresh start, a do-over. Would this be a different story with Mom in the picture? Where is she?

It could be the mother was dead. It’s more likely that in this time, in this part of the world, the female characters were just not considered interesting or important. The story, even though we love it, is an artifact from a particular culture. A patriarchal and misogynist culture, in which women were considered lesser beings.

Cultures shift, and human societies can evolve, and we are learning to value all people. But the past leaves deep wounds, and is not, should not be easily dismissed, or forgotten.

This week I listened to news about the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to the Caribbean. Their Royal Tour is intended to commemorate the Queen’s 70th year as the Monarch.

In 1973, when the Queen and Prince Philip came to visit my home town, Thunder Bay, it was a huge deal. It seemed like everyone was glad to see them.

It caught my attention this week that in Jamaica, a lot of people questioned the expense of the royal tour, and don’t actually want the royals to come there unless they are bringing an apology for the family’s involvement in the long and bloody history of human trafficking, and for the fortunes that were built, including those of the royal family, on the backs of people exploited as slaves.

Did you know that when slavery was abolished in 1833, by an act of the British Parliament, reparations were paid to the slave-owners, who had to give up their valuable property? What about the ones who were treated as property?

The news from Jamaica got me wondering how the slaves in the story would have viewed the goings on of the wealthy family they served. The prodigal son asks for his share, and land and slaves are sold to pay him out. He then squanders it all, is welcomed home, and it’s the slaves who clean him up and put nice clothes on him. It’s the slaves who cater the welcome home party, and later, they’ll be the ones to clean up the mess. Will they get to sample any leftovers of the feast served to the guests?

The project of re-reading the story and asking how it might look from the perspective of those who were enslaved, is sometimes called de-colonizing. It’s complicated. Jesus was a Jew, who lived in country that had been conquered, and claimed as a Roman colony. The Jews did not ask the Romans to occupy their land, any more than First Nations people expected Europeans to take over this entire continent. Jesus was likely a poor peasant, speaking mainly to peasants, and to slaves.

You and I have been taught to read his stories, actually the whole Bible, with the mindset of people with far more privilege than they could ever imagine. We have a lot to learn. Amen

What does your God look like? Learning Time for Harrow United Church on March 20, 2022

Audio recording of the learning time

What does God look like? There’s an old story about the little one who decides to draw the picture, and someone says, but nobody knows what God looks like… and the kid says, they will when I’m done!

It’s an interesting exercise. What would you draw?

We might be better off with the kid’s drawing, or one of yours, than we are with some ideas about God that float around.

In 2010 an earthquake devastated Haiti. At least 100,000 people died, and the country, one of the poorest in our hemisphere, is still in recovery. John Blair could probably tell us more about that, as he was there helping out just weeks after the earthquake, and many families connected to the school he supports lost their homes.

Within days of the disaster the tv evangelist and Southern Baptist preacher Pat Robertson used the platform of his tv show, and his tv network to proclaim the earthquake was God’s punishment on that country. He said that in 1804, people of Haiti made a pact with the devil so they’d be able to defeat the French colonizers who held them in slavery.

I don’t have time to delve into how toxic it is for an old white guy to claim God punished a whole nation because their black ancestors fought to be free from slavery.

This image of God as a harsh judge that lies in wait, scheming ways to punish people is not new. It’s the same image that led people in Jesus’ time to ask him about the people from Galilee who were killed by Pontius Pilate while presenting their offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem. Were their deaths at the hands of Roman soldiers punishment from God, because they were sinners?

There may be some racism, or at least elitism in this question. Jesus was himself a Galilean, and he would have experienced being looked down upon as a backward, country bumpkin because he did not grow up in a larger centre.

It’s also possible that the Galileans died because they were part of the peasant resistance to Roman rule. To say that God allowed their deaths because they were sinners would suggest that to speak out against oppression is a sin, and they deserved what they got.

Either way, Jesus wasn’t having it. He answered by saying no, and that those who asked the question needed to repent, unless they wanted to face judgment. He spoke their own language back to them. I think it must have been as wearying then, as it can be now, to try to be loving and kind with folks infected with such unhelpful ideas.

I read something this week by the modern-day mystic Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who has made it his life’s work to help people re-connect with God. He wrote:

“We have to break through our ideas about God to find out who God really is. Our early and spontaneous images of God are typically a mixture of our experiences with our own mothers and fathers. If our mother was harshly critical, so is our God. If our father was domineering or authoritative, likewise our God. It’s almost tragic to witness how many people are afraid of God, experience God as cold and absent, and even have a sense of God as someone who might hurt and betray them.”

We can extend what Rohr says about parental figures to all the other authority and power figures in our lives, because that’s what humans do, as we try to imagine God, we work from our life experiences, and in our imaginations we assign to God the qualities of those who have been strong influences in our lives.

Many of us humans are stuck in the pattern of anthropomorphizing God- creating or accepting an image of God that looks kind of human, but not always in a good way.

I see Jesus as a mystic, who felt a close, personal link with God as the source of all the love, all the deep connection in the universe. A major part of his mission was to communicate, in his words and actions, his experience of God’s love, that was so uplifting, encouraging, comforting, strengthening, that he was able to carry on, even when faced, day after day, with a religious tradition that taught people to live in fear.  Keeping people cowed by fear often suits the aims and goals of kings, and other power figures.

I believe Jesus was so steeped in, shaped in, empowered by love for all people, that rather than argue with these poor people with their scary picture of God, he worked instead to show them something different. He used things familiar to them, to tell a story with a twist to it, that opened the possibility of seeing God in a new light.

That’s what the parables of Jesus do. They are a bit subversive, sliding under the preconceived notions people had, enough to make them question, wonder, look at things in a new way.

Jesus told them a story about a man who owned a vineyard, in which there was a fig tree that did not produce fruit. These characters and props were typical parts of prophetic preaching that called people, and the nation of Israel to account for what the prophets called faithlessness.

Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist was that kind of fiery preacher. In one of his tirades, found in Matthew’s Gospel, John said, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

When Jesus started his story, about a tree that did not produce fruit, the crowd might have thought they knew where it was headed. They grew up on a steady diet of “Be faithful or else.” But I think he surprised them.

The vineyard owner said to his gardener, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

For the people in the crowd, this may sound like every king, every boss, every landowner, every judge they’ve ever encountered. Life is hard. It’s dog eat dog. The strong survive. Produce or be cut down. If you don’t do well in this world, it’s because there’s something unfixably wrong with you. You were born the wrong race. If only you weren’t a Galilean. Maybe if you were a Roman, you’d be big and strong.

The crowd may have been very surprised to hear what the gardener, the one who’s been literally hands on with all the trees in this vineyard, said.

“Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Someone in the bible study group this week wondered why the gardener hadn’t given the fig tree that kind of TLC up until then. I didn’t have a good answer then, except to say it’s a parable, and we can only stretch it so far.

But I’ve been thinking about it, and maybe the gardener looked upon the tree with compassion. Maybe he could relate to not doing as well as expected and being under pressure to produce. Perhaps he saw a living thing that deserved some care and attention, and a second chance.

The twist here is that the gardener, who might actually have less work to do with one less tree to care for, advocates for saving it.

I think Jesus subtly used his story to ask his audience, “What if the way we are meant to live is about second chances, and helping those who need help, offering care and feeding of souls, rather than condemnation? Wouldn’t that be good? Wouldn’t it be better to love, than to live in fear? What if that’s actually what God wants for us?”

What if what Jesus was doing was pointing not to another image of God as a static image that looked something like a person, but showing us that God is actually the power of love, the energy of compassion, the possibility of connection at work in the universe? Amen

The Mother Hen Heartbeat: Learning Time at Harrow United Church for March 13, 2022 (Lent 2)

Audio File of Learning Time

This past summer, to prepare for our first actual vacation since the pandemic, which had us driving up to Thunder Bay and back, my wife and I bought a “new to us” vehicle. It’s a few years old, but still new enough to have features we’ve never had before- like the proximity sensor that warns us when we are reversing and maybe getting too close to something.

I know the vehicle has this feature, but it still surprises me when the system beeps at me.

Vehicles better equipped than ours can warn you if you veer out of your lane. That could be a very useful thing for a preacher- to know when I’m maybe heading off road into rough territory. That may happen today. If it does, I am sure that someone will let me know, later.

Jesus thought he was right on course, preaching God’s love and helping people, and making his way towards Jerusalem when he was warned by some Pharisees, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

It could be that the Pharisees were warning him to stay in his lane- and not drive head on into trouble. But why would they do that?

In most Gospel stories the Pharisees are not cast in a good light.  They are portrayed as the self-righteous, arrogant, law abiding sticklers who got their tunics in knots because Jesus didn’t following the letter of the religious laws.  It often seems like they are the villains in the story. 

What do we make of them warning Jesus about an even bigger villain, Herod?  I can think of two ways we might explain why the Pharisees would sound the alarm,and try to steer Jesus in a new direction.  

One explanation is they were honestly concerned about Jesus and wanted to help him.  Maybe these Pharisees were not like the others, which is a good reminder for us these days, that we cannot paint everyone with the same brush. Not all truckers, politicians, Russians, Ukrainians, you fill in the blank, are all the same. 

Another possibility is that Herod sent the Pharisees to Jesus on a secret, devious mission.  Maybe Herod didn’t want to show weakness, to give any sign he was worried about the teachings of a lowly, itinerant peasant preacher. He might have thought if he could just scare him off in a quiet way, there would be no public indication he felt his authority had been challenged. 

This might seem a little out there until we remember that in Matthew’s gospel it was Herod who tried to co-opt the Magi into his schemes. He sent the Magi on their way saying, “go and find him so that I may worship him”.

Not trusting Herod, and being warned in a dream, the Magi went home another route.

Herod had a track record of being wily.

When the Pharisees warned, “Stop, go a different way” Jesus didn’t put on the brakes, or turn from the road he was traveling, that led to Jerusalem. 

Jesus responded with a message for Herod.  He said, “Go and tell that fox for me ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” 

It is at places in the text like this that I see the craft of an excellent writer. The phrase “today, and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work” is a powerful and poetic allusion to Good Friday, the day and night in the tomb, and then Easter morning. It is a foreshadowing of a story familiar to us, because we know what lies ahead in Jerusalem. That’s where we are headed through the lenten season.

I see that same poetic genius at work in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees who offer the warning. We hear him say, “Tell that fox that I’ve no time for him right now”.

It’s clearly not a compliment. I wonder if the Pharisees delivered the message as Jesus asked. It would not have made Herod happy.

In ancient writings the fox symbolized sneakiness, cunning, and slyness.  In contrast, the lion symbolized power, authority and regal stature. They were both predators.

Jesus sounds pretty snarky. Does his name calling surprise you? Do you like that he is not simply the meek and mild, get along with everyone guy he is so often portrayed as being? I think there are times when getting along with everyone can get in the way of telling the truth. Nice is not always good.

It’s helpful to imagine Jesus as more complex, with a full range of emotion. We can see him as more like us, and like us, living in a complicated world.

At this point, the tone shifts, and Jesus’ frustration with Herod gives way to his care for the people of Jerusalem.  This part of Luke’s story is a lament, a passionate expression of grief.

As people who have lived through a pandemic and are now seeing countries at war, we know a thing or two about lament.  We have grieved for the ways in which life changed and for opportunities that were lost. Our hearts sink when we hear of hospitals being bombed and thousands of people becoming refugees. 

Jesus was in grief over what was being done to his people. They were subjugated by the Roman Empire, who controlled Herod, their local puppet king, who in turn kept the religious leaders on a leash. Jesus looked at Jerusalem, the political capitol and religious centre of his country, and saw corruption, indifference to the needs of the poor, and religion that went through the motions, but shied away from true faithful living. No one wanted to rock Herod’s boat.

We can imagine Jesus shaking his head as he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”  We do not know what prophets Jesus was speaking of, although I wonder if he was thinking about John the Baptist who was beheaded by Herod, because John had pointed out Herod’s violation of religious laws, and his abuse of power.

Jesus’ lament continues, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  This is a beautiful metaphor for God’s love,, and one of only a few feminine images we can find in the Bible, which was written and edited by men. 

A mother hen will go out of her way to protect her chicks.  And if a fox gets in the hen house, the fox will have to deal with mother hen. 

Jesus knew Herod held the power in Jerusalem. He knew most in Jerusalem would play it safe and side with Herod.  But Jesus did not turn his anger or bitter disappointment on the people. 

He expressed compassion and care for them. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

It’s a wonderful image of community- all the little chicks together, and safe.

If Jesus were to look closely at the communities where we live, would he see us as happily gathered together, helping each other, sharing warmth and shelter?

Would Jesus look upon us and see some good things, but also see things to grieve?

It is of course a rhetorical question, because we are human, and we are works in progress. We can always improve. We can always learn, and find ways to do better.

One of the ways we have come a long way as a church, as a community of faith, is in our increasing openness in the ways we think about God. 

Mother Hen with her chicks is a decidedly feminine image for God, and it is not as shocking or surprising to hear it mentioned in church as it would have been when I was growing up. I know that makes me sound like an old codger. Back in my day…

In the church where I was baptized, and went to Sunday School, and later on became a Sunday School teacher, the images and language for God were always male. always authoritarian, and never to be questioned. I don’t blame those folks. But I do think they missed out. There were limits placed on the ways they were taught to think about God, about Jesus, about life, about everything. They didn’t know what they were missing, and what new possibilities can open up in life, when we open our hearts, and our minds.

If we are on a journey towards acceptance of a wider range of language and ideas about God, we may also be on a journey towards more openness about what it means to be human.

I don’t know how it is in your family, but when I talk to my kids, who are now 19 and 22, I marvel that in their world, in their lives, acceptance of, and friendship with people who have different gender and sexual identities is taken for granted.

They know that in many places, and in many churches, people who do not identify as heterosexual are not safe or truly welcome in their communities. Many people have been taught, keep it to yourself, don’t flaunt it. Don’t rub our noses in it. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t upset people.

Many younger people in my life find discrimination on the basis of where a person is on the continuum, the rainbow of identity, to be sad and confusing, and cause for lament. Some of my friends who want nothing to do with church will put this pretty high on their list of reasons church is not for them.

Shouldn’t there be room for all of us chicks, under the brooding Mother Hen? Shouldn’t this be one of our core values as followers of Jesus- that no matter what pain the world causes you, what labels or discrimination you have had to endure, there is room for you here?

My heart hurt this week as I followed the news about Florida, which is currently on the verge of passing two very disturbing pieces of legislation. One law would prevent discussion of gender and sexuality issues with younger students, and would bar schools from even considering creating or using curriculum that used the words “gay, or lesbian, or trans”.  As if these words in themselves are dangerous. 

Another bill about to be passed will make it illegal for teachers to even suggest that anyone experiences oppression, or privilege on the basis of race or sex. Wow. 

During Bible study this week, someone pointed out that one beautiful aspect of the Mother Hen image for God is that all the chicks are close enough to hear their mother’s heartbeat.

I want that for my kids, and for all their friends. I want that for all the children of God. I want to be able to say to people who feel lost, or sad, or lonely, or hurting, or tossed out of their families for saying certain words, or loving in a certain way, that even if the world is scary and cold, our church could be a place where you can feel warm, and hear God’s heartbeat. Amen

The 5 W’s and 1 H question applied to the Temptation of Jesus. Learning time for March 6 at Harrow United Church

A person and person standing on a rock with mountains in the background

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Learning Time: (audio file)

The tricky thing about the ways Jesus was tempted, is he was offered things that are not in themselves bad, or corrupt, or inherently evil. They are things, or questions about things that any of us can, and do face.

We all have to eat. So if a person had the ability to turn stones into bread, that could be incredibly helpful.

We need leaders to follow and look up to, and there is nothing wrong with aspiring to be well known, and exercise leadership.

There is also nothing inherently wrong with taking risks and trusting God to ultimately take care of us. If we live the opposite way, and never take risks, it is unlikely that we will grow as people, or learn very much, invent anything new, or ever make a difference.

So why does Jesus resist? We need more context, to understand his responses.Looking closely may also inform how we face our own temptations.

I was reading this week about the 5 “W” questions journalists are trained to ask. 

Do you ever watch the CTV News show, W5?

Who, What, Why, Where, When.  There’s also an H question: How?

Let’s take one of the temptations, the one about fame and power, and run it through the W’s, and then the H question:

Who was offering Jesus power? If we read the story literally, the tempter is a devil figure, or a trickster, or Satan, the great deceiver. If we read the story more symbolically, the tempter could be the ego, or that smaller part of ourselves that looks for the easiest way to get by, and tries to rationalize that the easy way is the best way, even if it isn’t.

Whether the voice of the tempter comes from an external source, like a devil, or an internal one- part of his own mind or personality, Jesus is wise enough to know that it’s not the voice of God, or even from the best part of himself. 

The tempter said, “If you are God’s Own, command this stone to turn into bread.”  This was a challenge, to get Jesus to prove he was a big deal- it was an appeal to pride and ego. Usually, that tactic is enough to tell us what we need to know, which is to not take the suggestion at face value, or to trust the source.

What exactly was on offer? Jesus was offered the “power and the glory of all the nations”. Power and the glory sounds a lot like the Lord’s Prayer. The tempter offered Jesus a position in which people would look upon him as a very big deal, and all he had to do was bow down to the tempter.  

When someone offers me a job, I need to hear not only about the perks, but also about the actual work involved. 

I turn to the Gospel according to Marvel Comics for wisdom on this one. As Spiderman learned, “With great power comes great responsibility.” 

The tempter says, you can have this great office with an amazing view, and all you have to do is make me first in your life. If the tempter is the Devil, putting the devil first sounds like a bad plan. If the tempter is an aspect of our own character, that could be just as bad. Take the job, accept the perks, and don’t worry about anybody but yourself.

Why? Why would Jesus be tempted in this way? According to the timeline of his life that we get from the Gospels, he was at the very beginning of his public ministry. He was just starting to connect with people, gather a crew of disciples, and move from village to village, sharing his message. It must have been hard work. 

The tempter effectively said, sign on with my way of doing things, make yourself the focus, rather than God, or the people you want to help, and you can very quickly rise to fame and glory.

When we see a tough task ahead of us, or a big problem to solve, it can be tempting to go for a quick and easy option. The reality is that in most cases, there are no quick or easy ways to solve big problems. There are no substitutes for time, hard work, sacrifice, commitment, and integrity.

Where? The tempter in the story took Jesus to a high place, far above the earth where ordinary people live and move and have their being- where life is complicated, and hard, and tragic, and heartbreaking, as well as beautiful, and meaningful, and precious. It’s hard to see the details, from way up in the sky. From high up, happy people and sad people look exactly the same.

The temptation here is to be above it all, and safe from all the hard parts of life- like sickness and sadness and loss and grief. The temptation here is actually to deny our human nature.

When? The tempter offered Jesus this high profile position just as he was on the brink of his public ministry. If the little voice is inside Jesus’ head, rather than an actual devil, it could be speaking for the part of Jesus that was not sure he really wanted to embark on the path of teacher, preacher, healer. 

It was a path  that would inevitably lead him into a head on collision with grief, sickness, the pain and difficulties of the real world. Drawing attention to those things would put him in the sights of the political and economic powers who liked how things were, and would not want Jesus to encourage common people to think better of themselves.

The last question is How? How could the tempter offer Jesus this high-flying position? 

The simple answer is that the tempter is lying and can’t really give Jesus anything. Jesus would still have to do all the work, to get to that high place. He might have to give up his higher ideals, and his original mission, to achieve the imagined place of power. He might have to be manipulative, and controlling, and misuse his power along the way. 

The tempter would win, not by handing Jesus the false prize, but by convincing Jesus to chase the wrong goals, using the wrong methods.

The answer Jesus gave was this:

 “Scripture has it: ‘You will worship the Most High God; God alone will you adore.’ ” 

Jesus told the tempter, and/or the little voice inside himself that might be attracted to the easier, less painful way, that he has to keep his eyes on God, place his trust in the rightness of his mission, and not get too distracted from, or avoid being who he is meant to be. Amen

Learning Time for Transfiguration Sunday, February 27, 2022

The news from Ukraine is disturbing. We pray it isn’t so, but it looks frighteningly like the beginning of an invasion. I’m sure many in our military are wondering how long it will be until they are called upon to represent Canada, and bring aid to the Ukrainian people in a genuine struggle for freedom against an actual tyrant. This life and death situation puts recent, more trivial use of these powerful words into chilling perspective.

In 1990, as a newly ordained minister, I served three villages in rural New Brunswick, where the biggest exports were trees cut for the paper mill, salmon from the Miramichi River, and young people who joined the reg forces. We watched the news with alarm as Iraq invaded Kuwait, and over 30 countries, including Canada, began sending military support, equipment and personnel to the war zone. Many families I knew had someone they worried about, who expected to be deployed.

This was before we had internet, but we did have television. This was the first time I remember an armed conflict being so immediately present. Sometimes the action we saw on the screen was live.

I also remember this as the first time I saw night battle scenes. Not just views from the distance of gun or rocket fire blazing across the night sky, but intense, on the ground scenes in that eerie green night vision monochrome. It was both fascinating and terrifying.

Night vision technology is now widely available and has greatly advanced. It’s often used in tv shows where they hunt ghosts, UFO’s, or shy creatures of the night, like Bigfoot.

With our regular eyes, unaided by special equipment, all the light we take in passes through our pupils, which are less than a millimeter wide in full daylight. When the light around us is dimmer, the pupils dilate a bit wider, but only so far.

Human vision is limited. Only about 10 percent of the light that enters a fully dilated pupil lands on photoreceptors in the back of the eye.  It takes five to ten minutes for our eyes to build up enough sensitivity to just barely perceive objects in dim light. 

The first night-vision equipment relied on large diameter lenses to magnify feeble sources of light. These days the lenses can be tiny because the images are electronically enhanced. There is even technology to allow us to see infrared radiation. We can follow the heat signatures of people or animals moving about at night.

Seeing is believing. We depend so much on what we see with our own eyes. But there is so more to reality than we are physically able to see.

Light and vision are often used as metaphors for spiritual awareness. Mystics speak poetically of God’s presence as light. We hear the phrase “enlightenment” or think of the moment the light bulb comes on, and we can see clearly what had been obscure or murky.

Last week I mentioned Thomas Merton, one of my favourite mystics. He wrote: “The thing that we have to face is that life is as simple as this. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story, it is true.

When I think of people who were born blind, or who’ve lost their sight, or whose vision is failing, I realize the limits of this metaphor. I want to acknowledge that, even as I explore our Gospel for today, which describes a moment when the disciples began to see Jesus in a new way.

Jesus led Peter, James, and John up the side of a mountain for some quiet time. This was early in his public ministry, but Jesus was gaining a following. Wherever he went people crowded in to meet him and hear him speak. People felt closer to God when they were in his presence.

That must have been exhilarating and exhausting for Jesus, and his crew. Is it possible they needed a break? Do you ever get to the point where you’re done with people, at least for a while?

It was near the end of a long day when they started up the mountain. In the twilight, as their eyes adjusted to the falling dark, they may have found the climb hard going.

Jesus was intensely awake, but weariness claimed his friends. They stopped climbing, ready for a rest, away from the throngs of people far below.  Stars and planets were now their blessedly silent companions. 

Jesus knelt to pray. This is was how he restored, after a long day. Who knows how long he prayed, or how long his friends rested? It may have been all night, from dusk to dawn.

Peter, James and John roused from their rest, and looked up to see Jesus, a little higher on the mountain, perhaps even at the top.

Jesus looked different. He seemed to glow bright white. Was it the morning sun just barely breaking over the top of the mountain, lighting him up like the full moon on the horizon?

Let there be light. That’s what it says in one of the Creation stories. The new day, the new world, the new thing, all seem to start with light. Is it actual light? Is it a metaphor for seeing in a new way?

Jesus looked different. Those first three disciples saw more than the charismatic teacher for whom they’d left their boats and nets on the lakeshore. He was leading them towards something altogether new.

On this mountain, where earth seemed to meet sky, and ordinary life reached new heights, they saw Jesus, and themselves in a new light.

The story says Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah, leaders from Israel’s past. Their presence adds weight and power to the story, but I’ve always wondered, how would the disciples have recognized them, so long before photos, and without name tags?

They might have deduced who they were, by their conversation about Israel’s past, and hopes for the future. Exodus, fulfil, and Jerusalem were mentioned.

This was a spooky, ethereal, mystical moment, in a spectacular setting. As high as they could climb, and still have feet on the ground, with eyes looking heavenward, the disciples saw Jesus, and something more.

They saw that whoever, whatever Jesus was, was more than they thought.  They said he glowed the way Moses did, when he came down a different mountain with the ten commandments.

We have left behind the season of Epiphany, with its theme of “see the light”, and be like the Magi who follow a star and find the baby Jesus. Next week it’s Lent, which is all about Jesus’ inevitable journey to Jerusalem, and the words and actions that brought him to another hilltop.

Right now, we are in-between. A good word for being in-between one thing and another is liminal. Liminal spaces are like twilight zones, where we have not finished leaving, and have not yet arrived, where we are somewhere, and kind of nowhere at the same time.

In the strange light of a liminal space, things might look different. Perhaps we see things in a new way, for the first time, or maybe we are seeing things as they really are, but we just aren’t able to perceive all the time.

The disciples, at least Peter, saw something he really liked, couldn’t get enough of. He told Jesus he wanted to capture the moment, build some memorials.

But that’s not what happened.

A radiant cloud enveloped the scene. The disciples felt they were in the presence of something extraordinary. When they later told the story, they described hearing the voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Chosen! Listen to him.”

When the voice faded, and the radiant cloud lifted, Jesus stood alone. They were speechless. Jesus led them back down the mountain, to begin a new day. I wonder how they saw the world, and the people they met.

I mentioned Thomas Merton earlier. If you are ever In Louisville, Kentucky, someone may point out a historical plaque that marks where Merton had an experience that changed how he saw, well everything.

Merton said: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being (hu)man, a member of a race in which God (Himself) became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.” Amen

Learning Time for Sunday, February 20, 2022

Getting along with “them”

How many people here celebrated Valentine’s Day? The holiday is based on stories from the 3rd century A.D. during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius, who was apparently having difficulty recruiting new soldiers for his army. He went as far as discouraging marriage, with the thought that married men were less likely to enlist.

Legend says Valentine, a physician who’d become a Christian, and then a priest, was performing “underground” weddings, in resistance against the Roman Empire.

He was arrested and jailed. While in jail he befriended the jailer, who asked him to tutor his daughter, who was blind, and needed someone to read her lessons. Valentine and the daughter- some stories name her Julia, also became friends.

Emperor Claudius offered to pardon Valentine and set him free if he would renounce his Christian faith and agree to worship the Roman gods. Valentine refused, and encouraged Emperor Claudius to place his trust in Jesus. The emperor sentenced the priest to death.

Before he was killed, on February 14, 270, he wrote a last note to encourage Julia and to thank her for being his friend. The story says he signed the note: “From your Valentine.”

The historicity of this story is questionable. But it’s a good story. I was thinking about it this week because I like the idea that the rebellious priest, and the Emperor’s loyal jailer became friends.

I have visited prisons, all the way from a provincial minimum security correctional farm in Thunder Bay all the way up to the federal Super-Max penitentiary in Renous, New Brunswick, where they keep terrorists and serial killers. I was also a full-time prison chaplain for a summer, while I was in seminary in Saskatchewan.

None of the jails, prisons, remand, or juvenile detention centres I’ve been in are nice places, no matter what the people who think we are soft on crime will tell you.

I remember the feeling of walking through a heavy steel gate, hearing it clank closed behind me before the one in front rolls open, knowing I didn’t have the keys for any of the doors. I remember the orientation sessions I had when I started work at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre. The rules about what I could wear, what I could carry in my pockets, what I could talk about- and I was on staff.

When I hear people describing the public health rules, and social distancing, and requirements for masks and vaccines as imprisonment, I try hard not to roll my eyes. When I hear the claims that these things represent a loss of freedom- well, again, I have to respectfully disagree. We aren’t in jail. I’ve spent time in jails, and I can see the difference.

Valentine, who actually was in jail, found a way to get along with the person who held the keys. How did he do that? Why did he do that?

We heard some very challenging words from Jesus earlier:

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-38)

Really, Jesus? 

I test drove parts of this learning time at a chapel service at Harrowood on Wednesday.  When I said, “Really, Jesus? We have to love our enemies?” The folks in the chapel laughed, and nodded their heads. The longer we live, the more experience we have with how hard it can be, to “love our enemies.”

I don’t think I actually have enemies, but I can think of people who are hard to get along with- and I am sure there are those who think of me that way.

With all that’s been happening in the world, I’ve been talking with some folks lately who say they have friends, neighbours, even family members with whom it’s better to stay away from certain topics, or else the nice conversation will turn into an argument.

Topics that are on the current no-fly list include: COVID-19, masks, vaccines, vaccine mandates, the trucker’s occupation of Parliament Hill, the protest at the Ambassador Bridge, The Prime Minister, the Premier of Ontario.  That’s getting to be a long list.

How do we deal with the uncomfortable, uncomforting reality than in our families, with our neighbours, in our congregation, our community, there can be a wide range of opinions on these hot button topics, and strong feelings, and a tendency to speak from those feelings in dramatic ways?

Not just because it was Valentine’s Day on Monday, I think the answer has a lot to do with love. In the scripture I read, Jesus said there are no prizes for getting along with those we agree with- but that we are called to the far more challenging work of loving our enemies.

An image that has come up in my prayer time is that a family, a church, a community, a country, is a kind of container. It’s a container that needs to have room for all the people, but also all our highest values and ideals. It also has to have room for the often unseen, but very real presence of God, who is the source of our highest ideals, and best values.

We take time near the beginning of our worship services to model something I think is very important. We breathe, and quiet ourselves, and try to be open to the presence of something more, that we think of as the ultimate source of our higher ideals, and best values.

Values such as love, and respect, honesty and integrity, selflessness and kindness.

The struggle arises for me is when it seems like I might have to choose between a person, and our highest values.

What do I do, for example, when I hear someone say that all truckers are rednecks, or all politicians are liars? Those are dangerous, unfair, and unhelpful generalizations, that come from the same small part of our brain as statements that puts down everyone of a certain race, or religion, or skin colour.

Do I zip my lip and say nothing?

I might be tempted to keep quiet and wait for the uncomfortable moment to be over. I may be afraid that saying what I think will hurt someone’s feelings or make them upset and drive them away. I may be tempted to set aside my beliefs, my values, for the sake of keeping the person close.

But if I keep doing that, what happens?

The person stays close, but has also received the message, through my silent going along with things, that it’s okay to say things like that, to put down whole groups of people, or make broad sweeping claims that do more to disturb and alarm than to make the world a better place.

I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said we are to love our enemies. How can it be love, if it isn’t based in honesty?

How can it be love, if each time I am with that person, I close myself down, to hide that part of me that worries they are going to say something hurtful and ridiculous, and I’ll have to work hard to zip my lip again?

I have to find a way for the container to be big enough for the person with the narrow attitude, with the bad joke, and for me, and my true feelings, and for the higher value, that all people are to be respected, and should be able to live free of being put down.

It may be up to me, to speak up for love, for respect, for kindness. To shine a little more of God’s light into our container. To remind myself, and everyone else, that God is with us, and that fear, small-mindedness, and scape-goating are never helpful.

So I have to find a way to say to the person- Friend, I care about you, but I am worried, and upset by what you said. I don’t agree with it. There is another way to see things.

That’s risky. They may not want to hear it. They may think they are being put down or rejected.

Jesus says love your enemies. He was able make friends with Roman Soldiers, and tax collectors, and leaders in the Jewish Temple, even though he saw the world, and people in it, differently.

Saint Valentine made friends with his jailer. I wonder how often in conversation with this employee of the Emperor he heard things that hurt or shocked or worried him, and he had to say take a breath. How many times did he have to pause, and think of a way to speak his truth, without being hurtful.  How many times did he lose it, and get drawn into a unwinnable argument, that was probably more about biases and false assumptions than about reality?

Saint Valentine probably didn’t get it right all the time. Like you andI, he was human. I can imagine him feeling tired of actually being locked in, locked down. There may have been times when his own frustration, impatience, worry and fear got the best of him- like it can for each of us.

I remind myself that the love I need, the loving energy, comes from God. God can fill us up again, when our stores of love energy feel depleted.  I also remind myself that God’s love for us is unconditional. God does not love us because we get everything right all the time, and say all the right things, and never make mistakes.

God’s love for us is not dependent on our behaviour, moment by moment. God’s love for us is complete, and permanent, and not interrupted by our bad choices. God also does not love us more, for better behaviour. We can’t earn God’s love, and we don’t need to. But we can live in response to it.

Here is another quote that I love, and which also challenges me deeply:

“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”

 

That was said by Thomas Merton, the famous Catholic monk and writer, and person who made lots of mistakes, big ones and little ones in his life.

I have that quote framed and on display in my office. It reminds me that we don’t have to be perfect, but we do have to be loving. Even when we may not want to be. Amen

The necessary risk of being prophetic. Learning Time for January 30, 2022 at Harrow United Church

Audio File of Learning Time

My sister is married to a trucker. We talked Wednesday night as the Freedom Convoy rolled towards Thunder Bay, on its way to Ottawa.

My brother-in-law hauls big loads of logs out from where they are cut, north and west of Thunder Bay. A look at the map told him the convoy would congest his route.

My brother-in-law works hard, puts in long hours, and is one of the people that literally keep the northern economy rolling. It’s no small irony that a protest about Freedom would interfere with him doing his job.

I’m pretty sure my brother-in-law and I don’t agree on everything. We probably don’t vote the same way, watch the same things on tv, or even have the same favourite foods.

But on important things, we are on the same page. His dad is 90, and my parents are in their 80’s, and we both get nervous when hospitals are clogged with COVID patients, and short-staffed because of illness. We worry about longer wait-times, or there being no available beds, when someone we love needs urgent care.

I hear stories these days about families who are divided, and can’t talk about COVID, or the vaccines, or about lockdowns and mandates.

How do we get along, and work together, despite the reality that as humans with history, and strong opinions, we are bound to have disagreements? There is a temptation to fall back on just being nice, and totally avoid the hard conversations.

For the last little while I have been learning about Autumn Peltier. She’s so young, and so committed to her work as a defender of water. She brings intelligence, perseverance, and composure to discussion of hard questions, such as why successive governments fail to protect the environment, and many First Nations communities have been without clean and safe water for decades.

Our bible readings over the last while remind us that living a faithful life means some times we must take a stand, and call people to account. The biblical name for someone who does that is prophet.

I think Autumn Peltier is a prophet. But is that because I agree with her?

There are probably some who see the Freedom Convoy organizers as prophets.

How do we get along with people with widely varying opinions? Do we have to try? Yes, the Bible even says so!  We heard scriptures read today from The Message. Eugene Peterson did a particularly good job. In his version of Jesus’ words we hear:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the supple moves of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

That’s beautiful and challenging. When someone gives us a hard time, we are to respond with the supple moves of prayer. I wish I could say I always do that, or even that I was that mature.

In my mid-twenties I lived in rural Georgia, as a volunteer on a communal Christian farm. It was founded just after World War 2 by people who resisted the racism of their culture, and has been active ever since in the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

Our house had bullet holes in the kitchen wall, from drive-by shootings. The folks on the farm back then didn’t call the police, because they knew the local sheriff had deputies that were in the KKK. That was decades before I lived there, but the holes were left as a sign the struggle was real and could be dangerous.

I met people who knew the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. When Dr. King used the word “Freedom”, it was in a very different context. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. worked to end discrimination on the basis of skin colour, something none of us have a choice about.

When I worked and lived in the south, I learned that those who took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other historic marches were trained in non-violence, based on the ideas King learned from studying Mohandas Gandhi.

Gandhi was also a prophet, who helped lead the people of India to independence from the colonial powers that had claimed their country.

Gandhi taught that “Nonviolence” is more than promising that you won’t attack your enemy. Gandhi referred to his form of nonviolence as satyagraha,  (Sut-ya- gruh -ha ) meaning “truth-force” or “love-force.” It means a person should seek truth and love while refusing, through nonviolent resistance, to participate in something they believe is wrong. 

The Freedom Convoy organizers promised their protest would be non-violent, but I wonder how many of them have the training, the maturity, or the spiritual strength to live up to that commitment. It takes prayer, and practice, and the support of like-minded people.

I worry about all the fringe groups that have latched on, who bring their own issues and disruptive motives along for the ride, and who have not said whether they are committed to non-violence. Some appear to be aligned with groups that are antagonistic towards people of colour, non-Christians, and people who identify as LGBTQ+.

I have some biases, which I freely admit. I find it hard to see how people who militate for their own freedom of choice could agree to work with those who want to limit the freedom of others to simply be who they are.

It definitely takes prayer to love those who disagree with us, and who may be hard to like. This kind of prayer is not so much about asking God to give us strength, but opening ourselves to God’s presence, and becoming aware that God is the strength we need, the ultimate source of love. God is the love force that Gandhi taught about, and which empowered the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and others in the civil rights movement, which I see as a spirit-led movement for freedom.

Our reading from First Corinthians, also from The Message, points to what life looks like, when we are steeped in, deeply connected to the source of love:

Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

That’s the way we are called to make our way in the world. Amen

Truth Telling is Dangerous! from the Worship service at Harrow United Church, Sunday, January 23, 2022

Video of the worship service

The first time I was asked to read scripture in my home congregation I was honoured, and afraid, and worried about getting it right. This was different from teaching Sunday School, or giving presentations at school, or even making speeches, which I’d done for school assemblies, many times. I am always grateful to our lay readers on Sunday morning, because I remember how hard it was.

The sanctuary was dark. The lights were down low because it was the Christmas Eve service, and later we’d be passing the flame from candle to candle. The chancel area was lit from above with a tiny spotlight, just enough for me to find my way on the carpeted steps, and not trip up the stairs. It was good the lights were low. I couldn’t really see people’s faces.

I read from Isaiah- not the part that Jesus read from in today’s Gospel story, but an earlier part in chapter 9 that starts off “ The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” and ends up with “ for a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

I’d written the words out on a piece of paper, (this was before I had a computer) so I wouldn’t have to hunt for the right page in the big pulpit bible. I copied the passage from my Good News Bible because it was easier to read than the version the minister used.

Even so, I stumbled over the words, and raced through the passage. I probably read the whole thing without taking a breath. And then it was done. I stood there feeling relieved, but also a little embarrassed, because I felt like I’d done a bad job. I focused on not tripping as I went down the chancel steps and back to my seat. I had to walk all the way to the very back of the church to get to the steps, because my family were all up in the balcony.

Imagine what it was like for Jesus, reading from the scroll of Isaiah, in his home synagogue, in front of people who’d watched him grow up. He’s reading along, and saying, “God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, To set the burdened and battered free…”

Perhaps Jesus realized, not for the first time, that for him, these are more than beautiful words, from an ancient scroll. They light a fire inside him, and he burns with the powerful, perhaps overwhelming awareness that these words are meant for his time, his place, and his life. He’s been given the job of telling people to change their own lives, and change the world, so that things will be better. Jesus knows he’s been called to say to people who watched him grow up, “We need to get busy, the world’s a mess, and the cleanup starts right here, with us!”

How would the hometown crowd take what he had to say? He likely knew it wouldn’t go well, and it didn’t. They got very angry with him and threatened to toss him off a cliff.

I’ve been reading more about Autumn Peltier the young woman we just saw in the video. When she was 12 years old, she was chosen to present a ceremonial gift to the Prime Minister at a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations, in Gatineau, Quebec. She was told ahead of time not to talk to the Prime Minister, just walk up and give him the gift.

She discovered she couldn’t do what the organizers had told her. She found that she just had to speak. Her words came out in a wash of tears as she told the Prime Minister what was on her heart. She challenged his environmental record and told him he was failing the First Nations people who don’t have safe water to drink.

In an interview with Maclean’s Magazine, Peltier said, “That was my opportunity to say something to the literal Prime Minister of Canada. Like, who gets the chance to actually share their thoughts with him? So I took the opportunity. I gave him a piece of my mind.”

She said, “He made a big promise to me, which was: “I will protect the water.” I was 12 at the time, I am 17 years old now, and I’m still holding him accountable to that promise.”

The Macleans interviewer asked Peltier, “Do you believe that he cares about that?”  She said,“I feel like he could care more. I know [his government] did make a commitment to resolve all boil water advisories in Canada by March of 2021, and of course that didn’t happen. To promise to resolve a big issue like that within a certain amount of time and [not do it], and there are still communities that can’t drink their water after over 25 years, how are we supposed to trust the government? How are we supposed to believe him?”

She asks good questions, that aren’t about partisan politics, but about human rights, the environment, and long-standing commitments- promises that have been made. Not everyone appreciates her efforts.

She said, “I get a lot of negative comments, negative feedback. It’s a lot more than I thought I would get, because the work that I do is for a good reason, and you wouldn’t generally think that people would be against this or try to bring me down. Like, “She’s just a kid, what can she do?” Or “Why does what she says matter?”

She’s not the only one saying that the government has failed to do what it promised us, and the people of many First Nations communities. The most recent Auditor General’s report says, “Overall, Indigenous Services Canada did not provide the support necessary to ensure that First Nations communities have ongoing access to safe drinking water. Drinking water advisories remained a constant for many communities, with almost half of the existing advisories in place for more than a decade.”

According to the Government of Canada, as of January 7 there are 37 water advisories in place in 29 First Nations communities. 28 of them are in Ontario, affecting 21 communities.

Can you imagine how quickly the situation would be remedied if it happened where you and I live? As Autumn Peltier said in the Macleans interview, “just think about how fast it would be resolved and fixed if there was to be a drinking water issue in an area like Toronto or Ottawa, how fast they would call that a state of emergency and how fast they would fix that. But a First Nations community of 200, 300, 400 people can go without clean drinking water for over 30 years, where they literally have to bathe their babies in bottled water, cook and clean with bottled water, wash themselves with bottled water.”

We need people like Autumn Peltier, who do what Jesus did. They recognize their calling, to stand up for what is right, and challenge what is wrong, and point out what needs to be fixed. As much as we need the prophets, and whistleblowers, those who remind us the Emperor’s new clothes are usually sewn together with lies and pride and greed- we are, typically, terrible towards them.

We like things to be smooth and polite, and happy. We don’t want our applecarts to be upset, even if deep down, we know that things aren’t as they should be.

When we are pushed by the prophets in our world to look honestly at things, and see the problems, then we are in the difficult position of wanting to do something about it. That often leads to the even more uncomfortable realization, that making change is hard.

The world is complicated, and can make us feel small and powerless. We don’t like that. It’s much easier to silence the prophets. Which is exactly what the people in Jesus’ hometown tried to do when they realized who he’d grown up to be, and what he had to say.

The Good News is Jesus got away from the angry crowd that day. They did not silence him. The Romans, and the religious authorities would try again, when he got to Jerusalem, but God did not let that be the last word.

God shone through the words and actions, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God is on the side of those who say what needs to be said, and who inspire us to work to mend our broken world.

People like Autumn Peltier remind us of what is right. Their witness can also give us courage, and a good example to follow, when we need to speak our own truth, even though it may be difficult. Amen

“J.C.’s Greatest Hits” The Learning Time for Sunday, January 16, 2022 at Harrow United Church

Audio file of Learning Time

I like the way Johnny Cash said it at the beginning of the video we watched. He turned the water into wine, of all things. Johnny was impressed by the Jesus story, and by being in the very place, as the tour guide told him, where Jesus performed his first very public miracle.

In John’s Gospel, that’s the Gospel writer, not Johnny Cash, the first thing Jesus did, after getting baptized, and gathering a few disciples, was turn water into wine while attending a wedding with his mother. Why would that be his first public miracle?

John’s Gospel is a bit different from Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those three are often called the Synoptic Gospels, which is a technical way of saying that Matthew, Mark and Luke present a similar view.

The optic part of the word means viewpoint or lens.  The first part of the word, Syn, means the same, as in synonym, a word that means roughly the same as another. So, synoptic means basically the same view.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke cover much of the same material when they tell the Jesus stories. The authors, or compilers of these Gospels seem to present stories of Jesus that were cherished and passed on in their local communities of Jesus followers. Where they diverge, it may be that particular communities remembered another version of the story, or only passed on the stories they liked, in the way that was meaningful for them.

For example, Mark does not say anything about the birth of Jesus.  Mark’s Gospel starts with Jesus all grown up. His community either did not have the nativity story, or did not consider it necessary.

Matthew and Luke each tell stories about Jesus being born, but not they are not the same stories. Luke has shepherds and angels and a baby born in a stable. Matthew has magi and a star and the visit happens in a house.

John takes another approach. John’s Gospel replaces the story of a little baby with “In the beginning there was the Word”. John goes on to say, “And the Word became flesh and stayed for a little while among us; we saw the Word’s glory—the favour and position a parent gives an only child— filled with grace, filled with truth.” Those lines take the place of a nativity story in John. It’s less about what happened, and more about what it means.

 Scholars think John’s Gospel was written at least a generation after the first three. More than Matthew, Mark and Luke, who seem to just tell the particular stories, John’s Gospel does more interpretation of the big story- choosing and arranging which stories about Jesus to preserve, and what to leave out. Thought has also gone into what order to present the events in Jesus’ life. The writer, or compiler of John’s Gospel has been compared to a mural painter, carefully selecting, and arranging the images in a big painting, to build a bigger picture, that guides how they want us to think about Jesus.

There’s a saying from the world of creative writing. Any story told twice is fiction.

The first time someone tells a story, they repeat events back as they remember them. What comes out of their mouth may sounded jumbled, fragmented, disorganized.

The next time, the story-teller is already editing, re-arranging, fixing the story, to make it a better tale told, and to support, consciously, or unconsciously, their own biases. You can learn about a person by observing what kind of stories they like to tell.

When you sit down over a cold drink or warm beverage with an old friend, and they share a story, you can probably also tell if they’ve told it before. There will be a noticeable rhythm, and style, and appropriate dramatic pauses.

Professional interrogators and counselors can recognize when a story has been rehearsed- formed and shaped to have a beginning, middle and end, and a point, or punch line, or moral. That doesn’t necessarily mean the story has been fabricated, but it has at least been distilled.

Usually, by the time a person has told their story a few times, they have also reached their own conclusions about what it means.

When Johnny Cash told the inmates about his visit to Cana, and how it inspired him to write a whole song during a short car ride, it sounded to me like a set-piece, a bit of dramatic monologue he hauled out and used every time he introduced his song. By the time he performed that song at Folsom Prison, he had the story down pat. It came out smooth and set up the song perfectly. That doesn’t mean the story was a fake, but it had definitely been polished, and practiced.

I was also thinking John’s Gospel could be compared to a best of, or greatest hits collection, a retrospective for which the producers carefully select songs that are memorable, and reflect the progress of the singer, and perhaps the messages or themes that mattered most.

The first part presents stories about Jesus’ public ministry, his growing notoriety and following, leading up to his arrival in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Before the clash with the Jewish and Roman officials that results in Jesus being arrested, put on trial, and crucified, there are 7 big moments- Jesus’ greatest hits, so to speak. Scholars call them “signs” that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, sent by God to fulfill ancient promises to the people of Israel.

The seven signs include:

(1) Turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana (2:1–11)

(2) Healing a royal official’s son at Capernaum (4:46–54)

(3) Healing a lame man at the Bethesda gate in Jerusalem(5:1–15)

(4) Feeding a multitude on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (6:1–15)

(5) Walking on the water (6:16–21) as his disciples crossed a stormy sea in a boat.

(6) Giving sight to a man who’d been born blind (chap. 9)

(7) Raising Lazarus from the tomb (chap. 11)

When I mention Johnny Cash, what do you think of as his greatest hit? I would think of “Ring of Fire” or “I Walk the Line”, or even “A Boy named Sue” long before I got around to “He turned the water into wine”.

When I look at the signs in John’s Gospel that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah, turning water into wine seems pretty small, almost ordinary when compared with feeding thousands, healing sick people, or raising Lazarus from the grave.

Even so, there are things about this first sign that capture my imagination. The first is that Jesus did not seem to want to get involved. It was his mother’s idea. She points out the problem and he says something like “What’s that got to do with me?”, and he sounds exactly like a son talking to his mom.

Scholars note John’s Gospel records only two moments when Jesus spoke to his mother. There is this time at the Wedding of Cana, when she seems to nudge him into action, as moms sometimes do. The other is near the end of the Gospel, when he speaks to her from the cross about the beloved disciple and says, “Here is your son,” and to the Beloved Disciple he says, “Here is your mother.”

In the first conversation, Jesus’ quiet private life ends, and he does his first public sign, that kickstarts his career. It’s like mom hands him a microphone and says, get on stage, and sing your heart out. In the last conversation, Jesus commends the Beloved Disciple into his mother’s care, and effectively says goodbye to them both, and hands the mike to the Beloved, often thought to be John, to carry on, keep the song going on.

There is wine in both these scenes. The soldiers soaked a sponge in cheap wine and held it up to Jesus’ lips. That’s a nice artistic touch, to have wine present at the beginning, and at the end. But it’s also not surprising.

Far more than is true for us, in our part of the world, wine was ubiquitous, almost always present, in the time and place in which Jesus lived.  Water could rarely be trusted to be fresh, or clean, or safely drinkable. The relatively low alcohol content would act to preserve and make the drink hygienic, whether it was stored in pottery jugs or sewn animal skins.

The ordinariness of wine in Jesus’ world may go a long way to explain why it was central to the first story, the first sign, the first of Jesus’ greatest hits, on the album according to John.

Scholars point to the magical nature of wine- that it’s the result of a mysterious fermentation process. The ancients had no idea how it worked, and that’s a good working definition of magic- when something happens that we can’t actually understand or control. Parallels are drawn between the spirited drink and the presence of God’s spirit, the spirit of love.

Preachers talk about how the alcohol adds a vibe, a buzz, an element of joy to the wedding celebration. I like that, but I think it takes us away from the daily reality of life in the ancient Middle East, and how clean water was scarce, and wine and beer took its place in many situations, as the only safe things to drink.

The production of wine for the wedding was two things at once- quite magical and also very ordinary. The guests needed something to drink. That it was good wine was an added bonus.

This suggests to me that this first sign, of the coming Messiah, pointed to God being at work, not in big, dramatic, spectacular events, but in ordinary, daily life. This brings me back to a line from the beginning of John’s Gospel, “the Word became flesh and stayed for a little while among us”.

This introduces a way of thinking about the meaning of Jesus’ life and work. Jesus came to show us and teach us that God is with us, in the everyday, here and now, ordinary things of life. If we pay attention, we can see that because of God’s presence, even the most ordinary moments are actually very special, and that love, and spirit, and magic are always mixed in with the ordinary. Amen

Big Read

A Big Read for the United Churches in Essex and Harrow

7:30 pm, Tuesday March 8, 2022

Rev. Lexie Chamberlain and Rev. Darrow Woods will host an online discussion of The Undertaking of Billy Buffone.

Here’s the plan:

1)Promote the Big Read.

2)Give folks time to get and read the book.

3)Host a meeting to talk about our responses to reading the novel.

4)Host a second meeting to talk with the author, David Giuliano. (Date to be determined)

David Giuliano is a retired minister who also served as the Moderator of the United Church of Canada.

David is an award-winning writer of articles, essays, and poems. The Undertaking of Billy Buffone is his first novel. He lives in Marathon, Ontario with his wife Pearl.

The novel is a fictional take on actual events that happened in Marathon. From the publisher’s website: The Undertaking of Billy Buffone is a story about the trauma – immediate and ongoing, personal and collateral – inflicted by Rupert Churley, who preyed on boys in Twenty-Six Mile House, an isolated town in northern Ontario.

Here are some notes from a reviewer:

Every once in a while, a book comes along that captivates you, all of you. This is one such book. The title reveals itself to the reader in gradation, the character development captures your attention as each page divulges a bit more. Teachings from the indigenous culture combined with teachings from Christianity allow the reader to grow spiritually. The narrator speaks honestly about some pretty tough topics that can wake in the reader the trials and tribulations of people who walk on our streets now. Just maybe reading this book will build empathy and compassion resources. -Anna Maria Barsanti

The book is unfortunately not in the collection of the Essex County Public Library, but is available in print and digital versions from bookstores and online.

Please let us know if you want to take part in the Big Read by emailing us at: revdww@gmail.com or relexie4@gmail.com and we will send you a Zoom link.