For the second Sunday of Advent 2013 “Teaching the Peaceful Way”

After the worship service today there is going to be a congregational meeting. That happens around here only twice a year. At congregational meetings we do things like set the financial budget for the coming year, and choose the members of the church council, who manage the church year round. There is a lot of work, and a lot of decision making that goes in to keeping our congregation thriving. It is important work, and we are very lucky to have the people we have, who work very hard, on behalf of everybody here.

At the last two meetings of the Church Council, as well as at meetings of the Worship Committee, and the Christian Development committee, we have been talking a lot about Sunday School.

Lynda, who has been such an important part of the Sunday School, is no longer able to teach Sunday School. We still have Margaret, and Mary, who do so much with our kids. But we have been talking about getting more people involved.

We love that there are people of all ages that come to this church. We want everyone who comes here to feel loved and cared for. We want this to be a place for learning, and growing, for everyone. That begins in two places- with our worship service, and with our Sunday School.

We have figured out that we need to get some of the people who come here on Sundays for the worship service, to take turns going to Sunday School.  We have people in our congregation who can sing, and play music, who do different arts and crafts, who can cook, who can tell stories, who know how to work with wood to make things, who know how to use cameras to make  pictures, and computers to make powerpoints. We have so many talented, interesting people in our church. It is actually quite amazing!

My job today is to help everybody who came to church today, to discover that helping in Sunday School is something they can do.

My way to do that is to teach today’s Sunday School lesson:

Here are some symbols, or pictures that may help you know what the lesson is about.  Do you recognize them?

Image

Around 700 years before the time of Jesus, the people of the country of Israel were having a very hard time. They were in a war with nearby countries. Many people were getting hurt and killed.

There was a man called Isaiah, who hoped and prayed for better times for his people.  He was a kind of a preacher and teacher who tried to bring God’s way of seeing things to the people.

Isaiah had a vision, which is a lot like a dream, in which God showed him that there could be another way to live. The dream was about the country of Israel getting a new king, who would lead the country in a new way, a peaceful way, rather than the way of fighting and killing.

The new ruler would come from the family of King David, one of the first, and most famous kings of Israel. When the new king comes, things will be different for Israel.

Isaiah said:

God showed me this vision for the world. The wolf and the lamb will live in the same field. The leopard and the young goat will live together too. Even calves and lions will lie down together. But there’s more. A little child will be able to walk among these animals and lead them around like a shepherd leads sheep from place to place.

The cow and the bear will eat from the same field of grass. Yes, imagine that, and the lion will eat straw like an ox. But there is still more. Babies will play on the ground and snakes will not bite them.

Here is a very old, and very famous painting that is based on Isaiah’s dream. It is called the Peaceable Kingdom.

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What can we see in it? A lot of the animals that Isaiah mentioned in his dream. Lions and leopards, and cattle, and a bear, and a lamb, and a wolf, and even little children all together.

Can you imagine this happening? What if we had a lion and a lamb together in this room? Would the lamb feel safe and happy?

Isaiah’s dream is a way of using the imagination to teach the idea of peace. Sometimes we need to create a picture in someone’s head to help them understand what we mean. The person we are talking to knows we don’t actually mean what we are saying, but they get the idea.

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Ever hear someone say “I am so hungry I could eat a horse! “ The probably don’t mean it, but we get what they mean, that they are really, really hungry. They are using humour, and exaggeration, and a picture gets created in our minds, that helps us know what they mean. “Hyperbole is just the best thing ever!”

The picture of the lion and the lamb laying down together is a way of helping people understand the idea of peace. Animals that would normally be afraid of each other all look happy, and safe, and peaceful.

Someone else did a painting of what the Peaceable Kingdom might look like using animals we find in North America.

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What animals do you see in this one? Wouldn’t it be amazing to see all those creatures together like this in real life?

If we were actually in the Sunday School class today, it might be time to make something. Since we are getting ready for Christmas, and this is the Sunday for Peace, we could make Peace ornaments.

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I would give each person in class a paper like this. We could colour the pictures of the lion and lamb, and in the other circle we could draw other animals that we could imagine laying down safely with each other, in a vision of peace.

I would probably have pictures from magazines of different animals, and if you did not want to draw, you could cut out your animals and put them in the second circle.

Then we would cut out the two animal circles, and glue them together, leaving a hole at the top so we could stuff tissue paper in, to make help the ornament expand to become more like something you might hang on your tree.

Everyone would be able to take their Peace Ornament home, to remind them of Isaiah’s dream of Peace.

Dreams and Visions of Peace are important. God gives us the dreams, so that we know what needs to be done to make the world a better place.

This weekend people around the world are sad, because a man with a big dream of Peace has died. His name is Nelson Mandela.

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Nelson Mandela was born in South Africa. In the time he was born and growing up, South Africa was a pretty terrible place to live if your skin was a dark colour. People with lighter coloured skin, like mine, owned all the property, controlled the government, the army, the police, the hospitals, and all the places where people worked, and shopped, and lived.

People with darker colour skin were treated very poorly.

Nelson Mandela was involved with a group that was trying to change things. He was considered a criminal by the people who ran the country, and he was put in a jail in a place called Robben Island. He spent 27 years living in this jail cell.

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He could have come out of jail very angry, and trying to get revenge on the people who put him in jail. But he had inside him a dream of peace. He wanted to help make a world in which people could be like the animals in the Peaceable Kingdom, and get along with each other.

He once said, “Great anger and violence can never build a nation. We are striving to proceed in a manner and towards a result, which will ensure that all our people, both black and white, emerge as victors.”

This man who spent 27 years in jail went on to become the President of South Africa. His efforts to bring about Peace, and reconciliation in his country have been an example to people all over the world.

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We can end our Sunday School Lesson this morning by thinking of situations, places in the world where there is need to keep working on the dream of peace.

Can you think of some places that are in need of peace?

Let’s pray for them now.

Let’s also pray that we can find ways to help make peace in the places where we live. Amen

For the first Sunday of Advent 2013 “Waiting with God”

This Advent we used (under license) a series of video meditations from The Work of the People. The first is called “I Am Present”, and can be viewed if you follow this link:

http://www.worshiphousemedia.com/mini-movies/42191/I-Am-Present

 The Video Meditation we watched draws on beautiful images to express the soulful longings of the season of Advent, this time of on the way, but not quite there yet. A time of waiting for something, someone new to be born.

During Advent we might imagine Joseph and Mary setting out on their journey, and the whole mix of emotions they might have.

 Excitement about the impending birth. 

 Anxiety about their circumstances.

 Love for each other, and the new life they were nurturing.

 An underlying trust that somehow, it was all going to be all right.

 The conviction that Mary’s conversation with a holy messenger about the child she carried was not a delusion, that God really did send an angel to offer her hope.

 The confidence that Joseph’s dream of another messenger carried truth, and that he and Mary, and this unborn child were all important and necessary to God’s hopes and dreams for the world.

 Perhaps we all want to know that we are embraced by God’s love, and that we are part of God’s story.

 I came across a wonderful quote from the author Frederick Buechner that speaks to the part of us that wants to matter, but may hesitate, because life can seem so difficult, and we are afraid to take it on, by ourselves. Buechner writes that grace is the assurance that we do not have to take it on by ourselves, because God is always with us. He said,

 “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”

 The video uses the image of the womb of Eden to talk about a time of innocence when people felt close to God. Before things got complicated with all of our strategies of ego and pride and greed and willfulness. Before we cared about anything except being held, and loved, safe in God’s warm embrace.

 But in the Eden story, Adam and Eve grow up, and out of that simplicity, and their lives become more like ours. They knew the tensions between simple love and kindness, and other ambitions, to know, to do, to be in charge. All the confusions that get between our best selves, and God, who is the source of all love.

 Advent is a time of longing for a new way, which is also an old way of living- closer to God.

 Advent is hopeful, but also frightful. We hope for that new life, and we also hesitate. If the new life comes, will it make a shambles of our old lives? We hope so. We hope not. We don’t exactly what we hope for. But we have hope, nonetheless.

 Let’s watch the video again, with hopeful hearts.

For Remembrance Sunday: “Getting our inside world put right”

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right.

Then you can see God in the outside world.

 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.

I don’t know anyone who is only one thing. Our human hearts are messy places, with both holy and pure, brightly lit bits, and confused and grey and self-centred, broken and dark bits all mixed in. We are all works in progress, and our faith, our God offers us the possibility of growing, learning, transforming- becoming more pure of heart, as we seek to follow God’s ways.

One of the struggles I have with Remembrance Day is that there is always the danger of crossing the line from honouring sacrifices, and moving into the unfortunate territory of glorifying war. I have spent enough time with veterans of war and conflict to understand, if only a little bit, that nothing good comes of glorifying war.

On a basic level, whenever we are reduced to violence, it is because we are in a position in which the option of rising above pettiness to build a loving solution no longer seems viable. This is a tragic place to be. It is good for us to take time on Remembrance Day to reflect on what it costs in human lives, whenever people, and countries act like they have run out of options.

War is a terrible thing for humans to do to each other.

Those words from Matthew’s Gospel that we heard earlier present with us a good challenge, and the only real solution to the problem:

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right.

Then you can see God in the outside world.”

The place where we can do the most to work for peace, is inside of us, and other people. When our hearts and minds are put right, or at least more right, then we are all more likely to see God, and Godly solutions to our issues with other people.

Knowing that we do not, at present, live in a world where most people’s hearts and minds have been put right, tells us that there is still holy work to be done.

In the mean time, we can take inspiration and hope from knowing that there are people who accept responsibility to place themselves in dangerous situations, even as they hope and pray that another way can be found to resolve our problems.

A little over a year ago I had the pleasure of meeting a Canadian naval officer named Emily, on the occasion of her impending marriage to another naval officer, David. Emily is an impressive young woman. She is a talented writer.

Because of a family connection, we were able to ask Emily to write a Remembrance Day reflection for us, which I would now like to read:

Remembrance Day – A reflection from the ranks

Some people go through life having no real connection to the Canadian Forces.  Most are limited to a distant relative who wears the uniform or a great grandfather who died alone in the middle of Germany in WWII.

I had grandparents who served but there was never any pressure to join to continue the tradition.  Growing up in Ontario there is little exposure to the military and I certainly did not dream about being a Naval Officer in the Royal Canadian Navy.  Remembrance Day for me when I was younger was a day when I stood out in the freezing rain with others and listened to names I didn’t recognize being read and watched wreaths being laid by decorated veterans.  There was no real connection for me.  Even when I joined the Canadian Forces and went through basic training I didn’t feel connected.  I made it through the long hard days with an 80lbs ruck sack on my back, a rifle in my hand and a prayer for my next meal and chance to sleep driving me forward –  not a sense of pride or tradition or of following the footsteps of those taken before me.  I felt no real connection until I met Kendra Mellish.

Kendra Mellish was, to keep things simple, a serving mother who was married to a serving husband.  Together they served in the army and the only reason I would have ever met her was because she was taking her commission to become an Officer.  We knew of each other but didn’t know each other.  We worked together, trained together, and struggled together during basic training which creates a bond; therefore I will always have this connection with her. 

At the end of our course there was a graduation parade and reception afterwards.  Kendra sought permission from command to miss graduation in order to spend a few more days with her husband who was going off to Afghanistan shortly after she returned from training.  Since we all understood the gravity of Afghanistan her request was quickly approved and she left for home.  Within the first two months of her husbands tour he was killed by an IED (improvised explosive device). 

I never met her husband – but I knew her, I knew she loved him, and I knew they had kids and a family in Petawawa.  And now he was gone.  Now there was a gap in their lives.  Now she would wake up every morning without her husband and her kids without a father.  I grieved for this man I never knew and for the family without their father, and it finally sunk in. 

A gap—a hole—a pit; a missing piece of your soul.  This is what is left behind when someone is lost.  When you lose someone, part of grieving and moving on is to fill this gap, hole, or pit with something of substance.  Some people fill it with happy memories, others with reaching out to those in need.  Some take up hobbies, live more adventurously, while others finally learn to live a full life. 

What makes remembering those we lost during war and conflict important is that it is a collective loss.   The world not only lost their sons, daughters, fathers, husbands, and brothers – we lost a part of our future.  During the World Wars whole towns and cities gave up their strongest men for war and often they did not return.  Whole communities had to learn to carry on without their working members and together they grieved for those lost forever.  Who could the men and women we’ve lost grown up to be?  Did we lose the doctor who could have cured cancer; did we lose inventors, and scientists and teachers who could have made a significant impact?

Those lost to war and conflict lose their future.  They lose the opportunity to grow as an individual, to fall in love, create a family and grow old.  They lose the opportunities afforded to us which we all too often take for granted.  And they do this willingly.  They make a mental decision to join the military although there is an inherent risk of injury and death because the goals are bigger than the risk.  To defend the civil rights of Canadians, to end conflict, to deter war and inhumane atrocities.  To maintain our freedoms and liberties.  To secure our future. 

Today I ask you to remember those lost, past and presently, by finding a small way to make your life and the life of those around you that much better.  Live a full and happy life and honour the men and women who have given up their lives for serving you and Canada.  Honour their lost opportunity at life by living yours extraordinarily.   Amen

On Peace Sunday at Trinity, members of the congregation read these passages aloud

Scripture Passages on Peace

“if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…” Romans 12:20

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2:4

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward all” Luke 2:14

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Romans 14:17

Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Romans 14:19

There is deceit in the hearts of those who plot evil, but joy for those who promote peace. Proverbs 12:20

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. Colossians 3:15

Mend your ways, heed my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. 2 Corinthians 13:11.

I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O God, make me lie down in safety. Psalm 4:8

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” Matthew 5:9

“I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Ephesians 4:1-3

Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it. Psalm 34:14

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22

Love and fidelity have come together; justice and peace join hands. Psalm 85:10

In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to shine on those who live in darkness, under the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. Luke 1:78-79

For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Isaiah 55:12

“…be at peace with one another.” Mark 9:49

“I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore.” Ezekiel 37:26

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:3

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits… James 3:17

God shall judge between the nations; and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. Isaiah 2:4

What does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

May God give strength to God’s people and bless them with peace! Psalm 29:11

Let me hear what God will speak, for God will speak peace to God’s people, to the faithful, to those who turn to God in their hearts. Psalm 85:8

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. Proverbs 3:13, 17

The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever. Isaiah 32:17

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” Isaiah 52:7

These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath. Zecharaiah 8:16

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. 1 Corinthians 13:11

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in all ways. 2 Thessalonians 3:16

May mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance. Jude 2

For Reformation Sunday 2013: “My Favourite Reformer”

The purpose of good religion is to help people live in ways that bring them closer to God. A life lived closer to God, with awareness that God is mixed in with all the everyday details of life, is not a life that leads to great wealth, or power, or fame. It does not make us invulnerable to pain, or loss, or confusion, or sadness. It does not protect us from sickness or death, no matter how much we may wish it could.

A life lived in partnership with God, with the awareness that God is with us for every breath, every step, every choice we make, is a life that can be lived with meaning, and generally with a sense of peace. It is a life that can be lived in such a way as to have a good effect on people around us.

Good religion can help us to forgive ourselves, and to show grace and kindness to the people in our lives. It can help us make sense of hard things that happen, and can help protect us from the pain we are capable of causing ourselves, and each other, through poor choices, through selfishness and greed, through our pride, and through the futile attempts to satisfy the appetites of our egos.

A life lived in the light that shines through good religion is not a perfect life. We can be faithful and religious in this good way, and still be human, still make mistakes, still need to try again, with the recognition that we are works in progress, and that God is still helping us.

Good religion can offer us hope in hard times, help for living, and show us the way to peace, at least enough peace to help us through the days, and make it possible to sleep at night, and not be haunted by fear or regret, or guilt.

Good religion can be a very powerful force for justice and compassion in people’s lives, and in our world. Unfortunately, bad religion can also be a very powerful force. Bad religion can be used to frighten, and control, and manipulate people. It can be, and is, used to get rich, and to wield power.

Not all religion is good, and that not everything that gets said and done in the name of religion- any religion, is good.

This morning we join with churches all around the world who are celebrating Reformation Sunday. The Reformation was a movement to bring about change in the western European Church that began in the early 1500’s. At that time, most people in western countries that professed the Christian faith were part of the Roman Catholic Church. If you lived in Asia, or Eastern Europe, you were likely part of the Orthodox Church, which still has, its own traditions, history, theology, and hierarchy distinct from the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1517, a Catholic monk named Martin Luther, who was a scholar at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony, nailed what he called 95 Theses to the door of a church. His purpose was to open debate and discussion about what he saw as abuses of power, and religious malpractice, on the part of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.

Luther particularly objected to the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. An indulgence was essentially forgiveness for sin, which could be purchased from an authorized agent of the Pope. The revenue stream from these sales was enormous, and was used to finance church- sponsored armies that fought in the Crusades, and to pay for huge building projects like the Cistine Chapel at the Vatican. Luther did not believe forgiveness could be bought and sold.

Luther is the best known of the Reformers, but he was not the only one. Movements to repair the church began all over western Europe.

Historians view the Reformation as a triumph of literacy, and of the printing press. Moveable type made it possible for relatively inexpensive documents to be printed for mass consumption. Martin Luther fed the revolution of thought by translating the Bible into German. Other scholars began the work of making the Bible available in their own languages. The Bible became an important tool of faith for many more people. In the past, when every book had to be hand-copied, and most people never learned to read, Bible were only the hands of the very wealthy, which included the hierarchy of the church. Even local priests were often illiterate, and relied on stories and teachings they had memorized.

Access to the Bible made it more possible for priests lower down the power structure, and lay people, to get another perspective about their religion, and to ask questions. It was not long before there were breakaway churches, led by preachers who had become alienated from the Roman Catholic Church, and moved from trying reform it, to founding their own “protesting” or Protestant churches. There are now literally thousands of Christian denominations, distinct from each for reasons of theology, of biblical interpretation, or lifestyle.

I want to tell you about my favourite Reformer. George Fox was born in 1624, in a village called Fenny Drayton outside of Leicester in England. He was born into an England whose churches had already broken away from Roman Catholicism. In 1534, Henry the Eighth by royal decree had made himself the Supreme Head of the church in England. This break from Rome helped foster a sense of religious questioning, which was helped by the growing availability of the Bible in English, and by the social unrest and breakdown of institutions that came with the English Civil War.

From a young age, George Fox voraciously devoured the Scriptures, and thrived on conversations about faith. He sought, from about age eleven, to live a simple and pure life. He grew increasingly disillusioned with teachers of religion who seemed to him to be too enamoured of a life of luxury. He was particularly critical of their use of alcohol.

As a young adult, he left his home village, and travelled around England. He spent time with many different religious thinkers and preachers. He formed and tested his own beliefs in conversations, and increasingly, listened to an inner voice, which he experienced as the Spirit of Christ at work within him.

He eventually became a preacher himself, with some pretty radical things to say, for his time, and for ours. He called for a return to what he called a “primitive Christianity”, more like the first followers of Jesus. He had little or no use for the institutions of the church as he saw them.

He taught that outward rituals such as baptism and communion could be safely ignored, as long as a person had experienced a true spiritual conversion, that is, they had become convinced that following the Spirit was the only way for them to live.

Fox taught that the only real qualification to be Christian minister was the work of God’s Spirit within a person and in their life. No amount of academic study could take the place of the Spirit. This also meant that anyone, including women and children could be ministers. This was radical in mid-seventeenth century, and in some circles, is still radical today.
Fox taught that God dwells in the hearts of obedient people, and is not confined to a particular church building. He believed that you could experience God’s presence anywhere, and was content to gather to worship in fields and orchards. He found great value in believers gathering together for worship- he just did not think they needed a special building in which to do it.

Perhaps the most significant impact, and challenge of George Fox has to do with his understanding of authority. How do we know we are following God, and God’s ways?

In Roman Catholic theology, the institution of the church and its hierarchy, and its traditions represent religious authority- the idea is that the correct teaching is preserved and passed along within the church. The visible head of the church, the Pope, is the spokesperson for that authority.

With the Protestant Reformation, thinkers like Martin Luther gave that authority to Scripture, saying that God’s will for our lives is revealed in the Bible. The Reformers used the Bible as their test, and their ammunition, when challenging the teachings of Roman Catholic Church. Many Christians still get caught up in this kind of dialogue, pitting their interpretation of scripture against people who see things differently from them.

Although Fox was an avid reader of the Bible, he taught that believers could follow their own inner guide, the light of the living Christ within. In the beginning, those that followed Fox’s teaching called themselves “Children of the Light”, or “Friends of the Truth”. Eventually they became known as the Society of Friends of Jesus Christ. They are also known as the Quakers- that name began as a kind of a putdown, followers of Fox were mocked because he often preached about trembling at the word of the Lord.

The Quaker teaching that the Spirit is at work in every person continues to be an important message. If God is at work in every person, each person is of immeasurable value, but no one person is more important than another. God can, and does, offer wisdom, and truth, and direction to each of us, if we are able to quiet ourselves, and to direct our lives to listening, and following that direction. Amen

Sermon from Thanksgiving 2013 “Dayenu- It is enough!”

Show the video “Holiday Dinner”.

http://www.worshiphousemedia.com/mini-movies/8327/Holiday-Dinner

For what do we truly give thanks? The father in the video seems to sense that this practice of gratitude should be about more than possessions, but he does not seem able to quite name it.

The daughter seems able to go more to the heart, and to name her gratitude for the life she has. Of everyone at the table, she seems to be the one who recognizes that all that she has in life,  that is worth having, comes from God. I hear in her words, an echo of what Jesus was teaching when he gave his followers the Lord’s Prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread”

The subtle teaching in that prayer is that whether or not we realize it on a daily basis, we are dependent upon God, each day, for all that we need to live.

Part of why giving thanks is such an important spiritual practice, is it is about slowing down, and paying attention in the present. A good word for this is mindfulness, to be aware, in the present.

The Buddhist teacher and writer, Jon Kabat Zinn in his book “Coming to Our Senses” offered an exercise used to each mindfulness. It is now used all over the world, and is popularly known as the “raisin meditation”- although I learned yesterday that my kids learned a version of it at camp this summer called the “muffin meditation”.

RAISIN MEDITATION

Pass out boxes of raisins. Ask everyone to take one out the box, but not to eat it.

Take a few conscious breaths and invite the group to do so with me. Remaining grounded in my breathing, I offer a little explanation, how this is a miniature mindfulness meditation.

When everyone has their raisins, I invite people to hold up one raisin in their fingers. (If people have already eaten one or both of their raisins, I say, “That’s part of the meditation too!”)

I invite the community look deeply at their raisin. Pinching it lightly between our fingers, we can sense its juice. Looking deeper, we can see in that wateriness in the cloud that rained upon it: the raisin even looks like a miniature cloud.

Put it to your nose and see what it tells you. It smells sweet, but also with a musty, earthy smell. Indeed, looking at it again, we can sense the soil from which it grew. Put it in your palm and heft its weight: slight but palpable.

Consider that it was once a grape, now dried by the sun. Indeed, we can see the sun in the raisin, in its wrinkles. And the sun is present in its atoms thanks to the process of photosynthesis that nourished it. So eating a raisin, we are eating the earth and the sun.

By now, we might notice we’re breathing. We can consider how the raisin too has been breathing. Plants inhale our carbon dioxide, and we inhale their oxygen. So we can also see air in the raisin.

Earth, fire, water, air — all four elements of the universe have come together in this one raisin. The entire cosmos is present in the palm of our hand.

Holding the raisin now up to our ear and crinkling it in our fingers, we can hear its seeds rubbing against each other. Once it was a grape, now it’s a raisin, and the seeds can give rise to future grapes : all part of an unbroken, eternal cycle of transformation.

Invite the community to prepare to eat the raisin. Holding it up to our mouth and looking at it without eating, notice our anticipation. This too is part of the raisin, for our minds. So we notice our appetite without actually acting upon it, like noting an itch without scratching it.

When we’re ready, we watch our fingers placing the raisin to our lips. If we like, we might roll it around a little in our lips, before passing it into our mouth. (Still, we aren’t biting into the raisin just yet.)

Inside our mouth, the raisin meets our tongue. Probe the raisin with our tongue. Please notice how sensitive an organ our tongue is.

Move the raisin around in our mouth. Notice how sensitive our mouths can be. Place the raisin at the roof of our mouth, and suck on it for a few breaths, in final preparation.

Now, take a preliminary bite. Notice how it squishes forth a burst of raisin juice in our mouth.

Our job now is to stay with our breath, and slowly chew. Without swallowing. Notice the impulse to swallow before food is fully chewed. Keeping the raisin in our mouth, still chewing, notice how it transforms in taste as it mixes with our saliva. This way, we’re beginning the digestive process in our mouths (and taking a load off our stomach). Our goal is keep chewing until it is completely liquid.

When we’re thoroughly done chewing, we swallow the raisin. Then we enjoy a few breaths as we notice a kind of aftertaste of the raisin comes back to us. If we could enjoy this moment in between each mouthful of meal, we might know better when we’ve had enough.

Later, on your own, you can eat the rest of the raisins. If you give each one the kind of attention you gave this one, you might marvel at how each experience was unique.

No two raisins are alike. No two snowflakes are alike. No two moments are alike. No two people are alike. Yet we all share in the present moment. If we’re present, and aware of the present moment, we can continually appreciate the wonders of just being alive. Indeed, the present moment is a wonder-full moment. The present moment can be enough, and cause to give thanks.

The choir sang some verses from Daiyenu, a traditional Jewish song at the beginning of this morning’s service. It is a song sung at Passover, in gratitude for all that God has done for the Jewish people, as they remember their escape from Egypt, and their journey to a promised land of their own.

Daiyenu  means, “It is enough.”    God has done enough.  When we recognize what God has done, we can be freed from the persistent desire for more, more, more.

If we could slow down, and savour, and really taste each moment of our lives, we might grow in gratitude, and realize that this moment, this now, this is enough.

We might recall the taste of that raisin, and say, Daiyenu, it is enough.

We might think of a moment when we experienced the love and compassion of another human being, and say, Daiyenu, it is enough.

We might see the brilliant colours of the leaves turning, and say, Daiyenu, it is enough.

We might think of a bird or animal we have seen this week, that reminded us of the goodness of creation, and say, Daiyenu, it is enough.

There may be an event you are looking forward to, like a good meal, or the dessert after the meal. You can find pleasure in every bite, every morsel, and when you are done, put down your fork and say, Daiyenu, it is enough.

There may be the memory of a special moment of friendship or relationship, that still lives in your heart, and when you recall it, you may feel moved to say, Daiyenu, it is enough..

It may be that a piece of music, or the words of a poem, or a piece of art has touched you, deep inside, and that the sensations, the emotions, the thoughts that are evoked have brought such richness in that moment that you can say, Daiyenu, it is enough.

There may be a moment today, or this week, when the sheer wonder, and gift of being alive, and able to taste, and see, and smell, and hear, and touch, and feel, and think, and remember, and sing, and pray will seem so amazing and wonderful, that you will quietly say, thank you God, Daiyenu, it is enough. Amen

Sermon for a Service where we bless animals

I am trying to catch up on a back-log of unblogged material-– this is from September 29, 2013

My wife and I were out for a walk this week, and met a neighbor out training his English bulldog puppy. He’s 6 months old, and already about as wide and heavy as a lawn mower. Our neighbor was trying to get him to walk with him. Morris is quite cute, but either very bright, or not very bright. No amount of talking seems to get him going. He just looks up with those sad puppy eyes, and waits for his next training treat, and doesn’t take a step. When we met our neighbor on the sidewalk, Morris, the dog, not the neighbor, turned toward us. We petted him and fussed over him, but when he realized we had no treats, he turned his pleading eyes to his owner, and plopped his rear-end back on the sidewalk.

I say Morris realized we had no treats. I have no idea what was going on in his puppy mind. I spoke a couple of weeks ago about the tendency to attach human qualities to non-human creatures. I think we do that because we are trying to understand- we are trying in our own way to make connection with another creature. There is built in to all, or most of us, the desire to connect. When those puppy eyes look up at you, it is easier to believe such a connection is possible, that the love that lives in us, and flows through us, can also flow through all of God’s creatures.

We began our service with words from a sermon preached to birds, by Francesco Bernardone.

“My brother and sister birds, you should greatly praise your Creator and love God always. God gave you feathers to wear, and wings to fly, and whatever you need.  God made you noble among the creatures and gave you a home in the purity of the air, so that, though you do not sow nor reap, God nevertheless protects and governs you without your least care.”

Bernardone is better known as Saint Francis of Asissi. He lived in Italy during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The new Pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina chose his new name in honour of the saint. He is the first pope to be called Francis. There is a famous photo taken of the Pope in May, in St. Peter’s Square, looking joyful as a dove lights on his hand.

The story of Saint Francis preaching to the birds is often linked to the Gospel lesson we heard this morning. Jesus said,

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

Jesus pointed to the birds of the air, including doves, as creatures who receive what they need from the bounty of God’s world. They are not trying to get ahead, or put away wealth for the future- their present, and their future are in God’s hands.

Perhaps part of the reason no previous Pope picked the name Francis is that Saint Francis represents a Christ-like reliance, and trust in, God’s providence, rather than on the human tendency to gather and hoard wealth and power. Saint Francis believed it was best to live in total dependence upon God. For Saint Francis, and the members of the religious order he founded, that meant embracing poverty. If he and his religious brothers had no wealth, no possessions to rely upon, or to protect, there would be nothing to distract them from sense of loving connection to God.

In a 14th century account of his life called “The little flowers of St. Francis”, it says when he finished his sermon to the birds, the Saint made the sign of the cross as a signal it was okay for them to fly away. The legend says the birds divided themselves into four companies, that flew off in the four directions, so the message of Jesus could be carried to the four corners of the earth, and so that the “humble friars, like little birds, should possess nothing in this world, but should cast all the care of their lives on the providence of God.”

Saint Francis seemed to understand that in his utter dependence upon God for all things, he was also deeply connected to all the other creatures who share that dependence. In our reliance upon God, and the whole of creation for what we need to live, we are humbled to realize and embrace our poverty, and also to change the way we think about our relationship with the world.

I read some good words from a rabbi named Arthur Green, who was commenting on how Jews in today’s “modern” world read the story of Creation as found in Genesis. He said,

“The most urgent item on our collective human agenda in this century is changing the way we relate to the natural world of which we are a part. Unless we transform our rapacious patterns of interacting with the environment, we humans will simply not survive.“

We are not separate from, or free to use or misuse, or abuse at will, the gifts of life that are all around us. Today, as we have made prayers asking God to bless the animals closest to us in our lives, we can also give thanks for the blessing they offer us. Like the birds that gathered around Saint Francis, the animals in our lives are living reminders of our deep connection and dependence upon God’s creation. Amen

 

The Music of the Spheres-from Cosmos Sunday in the Season of Creation September 22, 2013

We sang one of my favourite hymns today. When I was growing up it was “This is My Father’s World”. The hymn book editors updated the language, but they did not change my favourite line, which is “All nature sings and round me rings, the music of the spheres.” It is an ancient idea, which we can see traces of in the Book of Psalms. All parts of God’s creation, the animals, the winds and the waters, the land itself, sing out their own songs of praise to God.

For the last few weeks we have been celebrating the season of Creation, which encourages us to look deeply at our relationship with the world in which we live. A recurring theme has been joining our voices to the great chorus of praise.

Another theme has been that we can gain a deeper understanding of God by paying attention to Creation- in the way that we gain a deeper appreciation for, and connection to an artist, by spending time experiencing their work. When we look upon God’s artistry, we get a glimpse of the love that inspires and energizes it all.

That is the spirit of the hymn I was talking about. It was actually written not far from here, by a Presbyterian minister named Maltbie Davenport Babcock. He served a congregation in Lockport, New York.

Babcock wrote a sixteen stanza poem called “My Father’s World”. The poem was included in a collection of his writing called “Thoughts for Every Day Living”, which his wife had published, after his early death, at age 42, in 1901. In 1916, Babcock’s friend, a man named Franklin L. Sheppard set three of the sixteen stanzas to music, using a traditional English melody he learned from his mother as a child. The tune as he used it is called “Terra Beata”, latin for “Blessed Earth”.

When Maltbie Davenport Babcock lived in Lockport, he took frequent walks along the Niagara Escarpment.  That terrain is very similar to what we have north and west of here. He enjoyed the hills, the rocks, the water, and the trees. As he headed out the door he would tell his wife he was “going out to see the Father’s world”.

My favourite line, about “the music of the spheres” has always felt to me to be a poetic way of saying not just that the moons and planets, and stars are singing their praises, but that maybe there is a kind of underlying pattern or meaning in how the heavenly bodies have been arrayed- like they are notes in a musical score.

 

Alex Parker, the astrophysicist who created the “Starry Night” mosaic from deep space images of stars and galaxies, also has musical projects. I want to play a clip from a piece he created called “Supernova Sonata”. A supernova is a star that has exploded, and the explosion results in tremendous amounts of energy and light being released outward.

Parker used sound from a grand piano and an upright bass to make music in which the volume and pitch are based on information gathered about these bright, dying stars. The volume of each note is determined by the distance of the supernova from Earth. The pitch of each note is determined by the supernova’s stretch, a measurement of how the start brightens and fades over time. If the galaxy where the star is located is larger than the Milky Way the note is played by the upright bass and if the galaxy is smaller than the Milky Way it’s played by a grand piano.

http://vimeo.com/23927216

The music is beautiful and eerie. It reinforces my sense that there is, underlying all that God has made, a structure, a logic. The cosmos, and all that is in it, including our little planet, in our little corner of the solar system, in the Milky Way Galaxy, has been made, and is being made, on purpose.

God is at work. We are part of God’s great work, along with all other things that are made, and being made.

In the last few decades there has emerged a movement called Creation Spirituality, which seeks to help people live in response to the idea that we are all part of this greater, beautiful whole. This not a new idea, maybe more of a re-discovery of what many indigenous cultures have always taught- that we are not separate from the world we live in.

Saint Francis of Asissi, who lived in the 12th century, talked about being a brother to the moon, the sun, to the animals and the trees. We will look more closely at him next Sunday during our Blessing of the Animals Service. The traditional feast day for Saint Francis falls right at the end of the season of Creation, and he is kind of an iconic figure in the developing Creation Spirituality movement.

There are different expressions of Creation Spirituality. Not everyone that uses the term agrees on everything- but there are some common elements:

The universe is basically a blessing, that is, something to be experienced as good. We can think of the Universe, and all life, including ourselves, as part of an Original Blessing. This is a different starting place than the religions that place such emphasis on Original Sin. What God makes is made for Good.

We can relate to the universe, and understand ourselves as part of the whole. This may change how we behave, and how we treat other parts of creation- including the land, water, other living things.

Creation Spirituality begins with a sense of wonder about life and about everything around us- we can recover our child-like enthusiasm for beauty, for the sweetness of living. I think this connects to teachings that encourage us to live from gratitude, to look for reasons to feel grateful each day, for this life we are given.

The deeper sense of connection to cosmos has a mystical element to it. It runs deeper than thought or feeling- it is a different kind of awareness. It is a way of prayer.

This mystical view, this sense of connection to the cosmos can tug and poke at our understanding of ourselves. If we are part of God’s ongoing Original Blessing, then we are certainly much more than what we have, or what power we wield, or who we can tell what to do. This growing awareness may push/encourage us to look more deeply at ourselves.

The journey of self-discovery, of being more true to what God has made us to be, may take us on a new spiritual journey. We may begin with a renewed sense of awe, of wonder at Creation. Think about looking up at a starry night sky.

Awe and wonder at creation, and our place in it, does not insulate us from the pain of life. The joy and beauty we experience sometimes also make us even more aware of the suffering in the world- our own, and that of others. As we age, and learn, and grow, there is also the pain that comes with letting go of former ways, and embracing life in the present. Life is always changing, and all living creatures are going through loss and growth, and letting go, all the time.

 I used an example of this at the Queen’s Senior’s Apartment communion service this week. We can try it here. Look around at the people around you, and give them your best pout, or mean look. While you’re doing that, pay attention to how it feels to be looking that way, and to see that look on the faces around you.

 Now, turn that frown upside down, and try smiling at everyone around you. How does that feel? It feels good to end that out into the universe, and also to receive it.

From our awareness of how it feels, both to receive, and offer those different signals, we can be more in touch with the effect we have on the world around us. We can also be more compassionate, more aware of the hearts of the people in our lives, and what life is like for them.

 From compassion may come the deep desire to offer beauty and love to the world that God is making. When we live that way, we are more like God, and more like God is creating us to be. Amen

God is with us in the storm- from Storm Sunday in the Season of Creation, Sept 15, 2013

 

 I grew up in Thunder Bay, on the shore of Lake Superior. The city is nestled around a large natural harbour, and ringed in behind by the remnants of a once mighty mountain range, the Cambrian Shield. The mountains are apparently not what they once were, geological ages ago, but they are still high enough to contribute to the creation of amazing weather systems.  The moisture laden air over the lake is pushed towards the mountains, and then upward. Warm air and cold air meet, and clouds are formed, and great energies are gathered. Especially in the heat of summer, the result is spectacular rain storms, with incredible lightning and thunder- hence the name, Thunder Bay.

I think we have some of the same elements at work here in this area, with the air over Lake Ontario pushed up over the edge of the Niagara Escarpment, meeting the colder air, and forming storms. I have seen some pretty amazing lightning around here, and over the lake- but I have to say that these storms still pale in comparison to those of childhood memory. I used to love watching and listening to those summer storms, and feeling them, when the thunder was so loud that it shook our house.

It is no wonder that the First Nations people around Thunder Bay, who are Anishinabe, have many legends about Animiki, the Thunderbird, who formed storm clouds by flapping its great wings, and shot lightning from its eyes.

Is the weather really is more spectacular over Thunder Bay, or is it something about everything looking bigger when you are a child? Wherever we have lived, I have enjoyed watching storms. It has been relatively easy for me to admire nature’s raw power at a safe and comfortable distance. I could talk for quite a while about how awesome it is to see nature at work, and about how there are both psychological and spiritual benefits to being in the presence of forces larger than ourselves, that remind us of our place in the universe, and of just how much about life is beyond our understanding and control.

But storms also represent destructive power. Every year hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning storms wreak havoc. Homes are destroyed, people are injured or killed.

 We also use the idea of storm metaphorically, to represent all the disasters and difficulties, natural and human-made, that can shake up our lives.

You don’t have to live through a tsunami to have questions in your heart and mind about why people have to endure and suffer such hardships. There are many kinds of storms.

Economic upheaval. Political turmoil. Famine. Drought. War. The loss of a job. The end of a relationship. Betrayal. Serious illness. The death of a loved one. These are just a few examples of things that can happen in our lives, that can leave us feeling like things are in chaos. These times can strip away from us any illusion that we are in control, or that we understand any of the mysteries of life.

For some of us, these storms are times of profound challenge to our faith. It is common for people in these times to wonder about God, and God’s purposes and methods.

 I think that the Gospel story for this morning can be read in at least two different ways. The first, most typical way is to read it as a miracle story. It depicts Jesus as a wonder worker who can calm a storm with a verbal command. In the story, Jesus is actually asleep in the boat when it becomes engulfed in a storm. His friends are afraid that they will drown, so they wake him up.

Getting to his feet, he told the wind, “Silence!” and the waves, “Quiet down!” They did it. The lake became smooth as glass.

25 Then he said to his disciples, “Why can’t you trust me?”

They were in absolute awe, staggered and stammering, “Who is this, anyway? He calls out to the winds and sea, and they do what he tells them!”

To my mind, this miracle story raises at least as many questions as it seems to answer. If Jesus can calm this storm, what about all the other ones? What about all the good people who pray and ask for shelter or relief or rescue from their storms?

 Thankfully, this is not the only way to interpret this story, and not the only way to think about God. I think we can also read this story as a kind of parable. Jesus and his friends set out on calm seas, and Jesus falls asleep. The storm comes up, but it does not seem to bother him. Is it likely that a person laying in the bottom of an open boat in the middle of storm could actually sleep? What is the story-teller suggesting?

 Maybe we are being given an image of another way that God is with us, in the midst of our everyday storms. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, God is not so much the powerful rescuer, but more the calm, the quiet, the peace in the middle of chaos. We can perhaps dwell a little less on the image of Jesus commanding the wind and the waves, and allow ourselves to remember that whatever else happened to the disciples, Jesus was in the boat with them. He was with them.

 My wife told me that when she was a little girl, growing up in a small town not far from Lake Erie, if there was a thunderstorm, her mother would wake up her and her two sisters. They would cuddle together under a blanket on the couch in the front room, and watch the storm, and listen to the thunder. When she was young, Lexie believed that her mom did this for the benefit of the children. Looking back, she realizes that there was more to the story- that her mother was actually afraid of the storms, and needed comfort as much as she wanted to offer it.

 Something about that story made me think about the old country song, “Storms Never Last”. It was written by Jessi Colter, who was married to Waylon Jennings. The most famous version of it is a recording by that couple. It’s a love song, written by a wife to a husband who created his own share of storms, with bad choices and wild outlaw living.

 Love songs, like poetry and parables, can point us in the direction of truth. I heard a preacher say once that almost any romantic song can be turned into a hymn. Songs about love between people can be sung as prayers, or praises. Jessi Colter wrote:

Storms never last do they, baby
Bad times all pass with the winds
Your hand in mine steals the thunder
You make the sun want to shine

I think she was saying that when there is love present, it is more possible to trust that even the worst storm will pass. I love these lines:

Your hand in mine steals the thunder
You make the sun want to shine

My prayer for any of us who lives in the midst of a storm is that we can feel the touch of a hand that steals the thunder. That God’s presence, and God’s love can relieve our hearts of fear and despair, and allow us to live with courage and confidence, knowing that we are not alone, and that somehow, eventually, the storm will pass. Amen

Love is a mystery

My daughter and I recently attended a local production of a broadway musical. It is a special delight to go with her. She is a talented actor and singer in her own right, and a student of the American musical. By student, I mean someone who follows her passion for this art form, and who watches and listens, and reads as much as she can about it. Her deep interest, and growing knowledge fuel our conversations about the plays we see.

During our post-play analysis, we noted the production lacked a certain spark. Sets, costumes, lighting, and musical accompaniment were all top-notch. So what was missing?

The actors were technically competent, and without exception, talented singers. But there was an absence of believable romantic tension between the actors cast as the young couple destined to fall in love, despite their differences. It is a common device in this genre, to have an unlikely romance emerge, that gradually bridges the apparent large gap between two lead characters.  Often this romance, and the efforts to further or hinder it, provide energy that drives much of the larger drama.

We agreed there did not seem to be any “spark” or “chemistry” between the young couple. Our critical dissection led me to thinking, a day or two later, about times when I met someone who seemed a potential new friend, or even a romantic interest, only to notice later that we were comfortable with each other, but not all that drawn to each other.

Have you had the experience of meeting someone and wondering why the acquaintance does not blossom into something more? The “chemistry” between people can be mysterious!

 What is the spark? Why do we grow to love certain people in a deeper, different way, and not others? We can’t make love happen. We don’t have a clinical, scientific way to predict when it will grow into something life-changing. But we can usually see when it does!

Jesus is quoted as saying that you can know a tree by its fruits. The presence of love has an effect on what grows between people. Absence of love also has recognizable results.

The story in Luke 19:1-10 is about an encounter between Jesus and a tax-collector named Zacchaeus. It is not a romance, but it demonstrates what is possible when love is present.

 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.

When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”