Worship for July 11, 2021 “All My Relations”

The first year I was at seminary we had a visit from a local representative of the Canadian Bible Society- their logo is a line drawing of a sower of seeds. I still have the Greek New Testament given to me by the Bible Society. Sharing the Word is sowing the seed.

Over the centuries, the parable of the sower has offered us a job description, and a comforting way to think about the fact that not everyone wants to join us.

Built into the parable are the images of rocky soil, of shallow soil, of soil over-ridden with weeds. Not every place the seed lands, will result in growth, new life. There is room for the preacher to say, some people are like that- some are shallow, or rock hard, or shadowed by weeds that won’t allow the gospel to take root.

The story gives us the tools, not just to encourage persistent sowing, but also to congratulate ourselves for being good soil, and to be judgmental of others. If not everybody who hears our message becomes converted, transformed, it may be because somehow their soil is not ready. This story can be misused, manipulated, to give us a sense of superiority.

It’s often easier, and tempting to think of the world in simple terms. Good soil or bad. Jesus follower or not. Sowers of seed, and tracts of dirt. Saved or not saved.

Stories are powerful, and can be used as weapons. When white people first came to this continent, the story they brought home was they had discovered a vast empty land, a Terra Nullius, with just a few ignorant savages on it.

Another story, called the “Doctrine of Discovery” was told, that said that the relatively few people on this vast empty land had no claim of ownership, because they weren’t civilized, and they weren’t Christians. They needed colonizers to come in and show them how to live.

The recent stories about unmarked graves of hundreds of children, on sites of former residential schools make it more difficult to ignore what has been known for seven generations, in indigenous communities, that terrible things were done to children, and very few perpetrators have been held accountable for their actions. 

This is a time for soul searching, for our country, and for each of us as citizens, who have the privilege of life in this beautiful land, that had a rich history before it was claimed and colonized.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission tried to tell us, 6 years ago, when they produced their final report, that included a lengthy list of recommendations, most of which have gone largely ignored. They also told us, way back in 2015, about more than 4,100 children who died of disease or accident while attending a residential school. The Commission recorded first-hand stories from survivors, about the treatment of children, and the efforts to hide their deaths.

Justice Murray Sinclair believes a large number of children who were very ill, were sent home to die. He fears the total number of deaths may be over 6000, of the 150,000 children who attended the schools. That’s a mortality rate of 4%, significantly higher than that of adults serving in the Canadian Forces. It would have been less dangerous to draft these children into the army.

We have made our lives, and our living, on the land, and with the benefit of the rich resources of this country, which was not ours, until representatives of the British Crown took it.  They often used the argument that white people could manage it better than the original residents, to mask the real intention, which was to create profit for investors.  Corporations like the North West Company and the Hudson Bay Company were granted Royal Charters, and protected by Acts of the British Parliament, which gave them the right exploit the land and residents of what would become Canada.

For over 100 years our country had a program with the goal of eliminating First Nations culture, identity, language, spirituality, and political power. The Indian Act, which gives tremendous power to the federal government, paid lip service to the idea of helping people find their way to becoming “productive citizens” in the mainstream of Canada, but the underlying motivation was the assumption that being white is better than being indigenous.

I wish this wasn’t our history, but it is. Not every white Canadian is a racist. But these racist things have been done, by every single elected government, over the course the history of Canada.

Something else I wish was not true- that the United Church of Canada, as well as other major Christian denominations, were willing, active partners in this sickening enterprise. Churches entered into contracts to run residential schools across this country. I knew people who worked in them, and I know people who survived them, but not without physical and emotional wounds and scars.

The largest Christian denominations in Canada failed, not only in their treatment of the children. They failed to ensure the people they hired to work in these schools were decent and kind. They gave pedophiles and sociopaths unhindered access to innocent, vulnerable victims. They actively covered up the crimes of their employees, and made excuses for the high mortality rates.

The churches failed to be prophetic, to challenge the lie that white people are inherently better than people of colour.

I get weary of thinking of these sad things, but feel a responsibility to grapple with them, and glean some of the truth they contain. That feels more faithful than to avoid talking about it.

As a preacher, and teacher of the Jesus Way, there are questions that weigh heavy on me.

How could leaders, and members of Christian churches fail to see the white superiority inherent in the system as a problem? How could they look the other way at the treatment of vulnerable children, families, and communities? Why weren’t more of my brother and sister preachers over the last century calling out the sin of racism? How could they claim to be Christian, and do what they did, in the name of the brown-skinned, dark-eyed teacher, prophet, saviour Jesus?

How can our churches have any credibility, with indigenous people, or anybody else? Can we really claim to passing on the Gospel of Love, when by our actions and inactions we condoned racism, and contributed to the deaths of thousands of children?

I don’t support the choice of those who burn down churches, but I can understand their anger.

Reflecting on these sad truths, that aren’t just history, but a present reality, pushes me to look again at the superiority inherent in thinking of ourselves as the sower of seeds. We still have that responsibility, but we also need to think of ourselves in more humble terms.

The latin root of the word humble is humus, which is also the word for soil, or earth. In the creation story, the first humans are formed of earth, into which God breathes the breath of life.

The soil is sacred. The earth was made by the Creator, and is inherently good. We can think of ourselves as both soil, and the sower of seeds. Our “soil-ness”, or our “dirtness” is a good thing- it connects us to all that God makes. We may be sowers of seed, but we did not create it, and we do not have exclusive rights to the seed- they are not GMO products, patented by some agri-corporation- they are gifts from God, to God’s people, all of God’s people.

In August of 2012, at the 41st General Council, The United Church of Canada acknowledged the presence and spirituality of Aboriginal peoples in the United Church by revising the church’s crest. One of the changes was the addition of a Mohawk phrase which means “All my relations.”

Richard Wagamese was an Ojibwe’ man born in Minaki, Ontario in 1955. He died just a few years ago. He was an award winning journalist and author, who described himself as a second generation survivor of the residential school system. In 2013, he wrote an essay for the newspaper in Kamloops, in which he described spending time on his deck, early in the morning:

To be here as morning breaks is to feel unity. It’s to feel connected to everything around you and to absorb it, bring it into the very fiber your being, like learning to breathe all over again. It’s to come to understand that you are alive because everything else is. It is to comprehend what your people mean when they say “All my relations.”

It means everything. It’s not uttered in a casual way nor is it meant to be. In its solemnity it is meant as a benediction, a blessing and a call to this unity you feel all around you in the depth of morning. This phrase, this articulation of spirit, is a clarion call to consciousness.

It means that you recognize everything as alive and elemental to your being. There is nothing that matters less than anything else. By virtue of its being, all things are vital, necessary and a part of the grand whole, because unity cannot exist where exclusion is allowed to happen. This is the great teaching of this statement.

“All my relations,” means all. When a speaker makes this statement it’s meant as recognition of the principles of harmony, unity and equality. It’s a way of saying that you recognize your place in the universe and that you recognize the place of others and of other things in the realm of the real and the living. In that it is a powerful evocation of truth.

Because when you say those words you mean everything that you are kin to. Not just those people who look like you, talk like you, act like you, sing, dance, celebrate, worship or pray like you. Everyone. You also mean everything that relies on air, water, sunlight and the power of the Earth and the universe itself for sustenance and perpetuation. It’s recognition of the fact that we are all one body moving through time and space together.
Amen

A David and Goliath Story: Worship for July 4, 2021

This portion of the Book of Joel is quoted in the passage from Acts we hear read on Pentecost Sunday. It contains the hopeful reminder that the Spirit of God is active around us, and even within us, guiding us along the way, with signs in nature, with visions, and with dreams.

Joel 2:28-32 (The Message)

“And that’s just the beginning: After that— “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people: Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters. Your old men will dream, your young men will see visions. I’ll even pour out my Spirit on the servants, men and women both. I’ll set wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below: Blood and fire and billowing smoke, the sun turning black and the moon blood-red, Before the Judgment Day of God, the Day tremendous and awesome. Whoever calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help. On Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be a great rescue—just as God said. Included in the survivors are those that God calls.”

Learning Time: “A David and Goliath Story”

The Bible story we are working with today is about David and Goliath. It is one of those stories that almost everybody knows, even if they have never sat down and read it. How many times have we heard it mentioned in a sportscast? It is an instantly recognizable way to talk about the victory of the underdog, when someone says, “It was a David and Goliath story. “ We know immediately what they are talking about.

More than a decade ago I enrolled in a two year program to learn about Christian Spirituality, and to become a spiritual director. Spiritual direction is a specialized ministry that grew out of an ancient tradition of helping people to become more aware of the presence, and the work, and the leading of God in their lives. We begin with the basic idea that God is real, and that God has hopes and dreams for each of us, for what happens in each of our lives, and what choices we make. We can help each other listen for God, and become more aware of who God is calling us to be, and what we are meant to do.

When I read the story of David and Goliath, I see the character of David acting on his belief that God is with him, and that God has work for him to do. I deliberately referred to David as a character, a dramatic figure, because I don’t necessarily read the story as being literally true.

One of the things I learned, in my spiritual direction training, was to pay attention to my own dreams, and to listen carefully when other people want to talk about their dreams. If God can show us things, and guide us, and point us in the right direction in our waking life, perhaps God can also be at work in our dreams.

People who analyze dreams often begin with the premise that everything in the dream, all the characters, the mood, the furniture, the weather, the plot, and the dialogue, all come from deep inside of us. It is as if the dream is made up of pieces gathered from our conscious and unconscious memories, from things we are aware of in our day to day life, and things we may not have thought about for some time. These elements are all woven together in a production at least as interesting as any play or movie we might watch, or story we might read. The dream may use all these images from our own depths to get our attention, and tell us something.

Around the world there are certain images, plot-lines, human characters, and even animals that show up repeatedly in folk-stories, fairy tales, and dreams. Thinkers like Carl Jung used the term “archetype” to talk about these seemingly universal figures that carry meaning in many different cultures. Not surprisingly, the Bible is full of these kind of archetypal characters, like wise old men, and angels, and children who must be protected from harm, and kings, and warriors, monsters, giants, and heroes.

If we were to listen to the David and Goliath story as if it were David’s dream, it might tell us a lot, about the character of David, and about the way God works. Here is how the story begins:

 1 Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Socoh in Judah. 3 The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them.

 Even this description seems dream-like and symbolic. Opposing forces staring at each other across a divide- perhaps like warring parts of a personality, weighing the pros and cons of a decision.

 4 A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. He was over nine feet tall. 

Giants are literally larger than life characters. Sometimes in our dreams we are confronted with symbols of the things that we fear, like change, or loss, or death. I would take the presence a nine foot giant as a sign that this story is not meant to be read literally. Maybe Goliath represents some big thing that David feels he must conquer, or some huge fear that he has to face. Everyone of us, if we live long enough, has faced, or will face some challenge or problem that seems gigantic.

8 Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. 9 If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” 10 Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” 11 On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.

This part leaves me feeling that this story was passed down from generation to generation for a long time before it was preserved in writing. The story teller tells us how King Saul and all the Israelites felt. How could anyone really know how the whole army felt? It is a kind of shorthand, that is there to set the stage for David’s entrance into the drama.

I don’t know if there was ever a time in human history when wars were fought the way the story describes, with one champion from each side representing their king, in a winner takes all fight. I find it harder to believe than the 9 foot giant!

But if this was how wars were fought in our time, there might be a lot less bloodshed. What if each time a country wanted to go to war, they sent one champion, perhaps their prime minister, or president, instead of plane loads of 20 year olds?

We better get back to the story, because here comes the hero:

 12 Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah. Jesse had eight sons, and in Saul’s time he was old and well advanced in years. 13 Jesse’s three oldest sons had followed Saul to the war: The firstborn was Eliab; the second, Abinadab; and the third, Shammah. 14 David was the youngest. The three oldest followed Saul, 15 but David went back and forth from Saul to tend his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.

 16 For forty days the Philistine came forward every morning and evening and took his stand.

When we hear about shepherds and Bethlehem we immediately think of Jesus. When we hear the number 40, we remember other uses of that number. Noah and the Ark, and forty days of rain. When Moses takes the Israelites across the desert, it is a 40 year journey. When Jesus goes out into the desert to fast, it is for forty days. The number 40 is a biblical symbol for a long time. This is what it’s like in our dreams- elements from old familiar stories all fall in the pot, and make a strange new soup.

But back to David:

 17 Now Jesse said to his son David, “Take this ephah of roasted grain and these ten loaves of bread for your brothers and hurry to their camp. 18 Take along these ten cheeses to the commander of their unit. See how your brothers are and bring back some assurance from them. 19 They are with Saul and all the men of Israel in the Valley of Elah, fighting against the Philistines.”

David’s Father Jesse is worried for the well-being of his elder sons. He sends basic food for them, and a tribute, almost a bribe, to their commander.

 20 Early in the morning David left the flock with a shepherd, loaded up and set out, as Jesse had directed. He reached the camp as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. 21 Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines facing each other. 22 David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the battle lines and greeted his brothers. 23 As he was talking with them, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it. 24 When the Israelites saw the man, they all ran from him in great fear. 25 Now the Israelites had been saying, “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy Israel. The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his father’s family from taxes in Israel.”

 26 David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

 27 They repeated to him what they had been saying and told him, “This is what will be done for the man who kills him.”

 28 When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the desert? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.”

Even before David can get to the part where he would fight the giant Goliath, he has to deal with the anger of his oldest brother, who clearly has no confidence in him, and is actually angry that David might involve himself in the battle. Does Eliab’s voice represent that part of David that is filled with self-doubt and self-loathing, and that believes that he could never do anything right or good?

David sounds like every little brother or sister everywhere when he begins to stand up for himself:

 29 “Now what have I done?” said David. “Can’t I even speak?” 30 He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before. 31 What David said was overheard and reported to Saul, and Saul sent for him.

 32 David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”

 33 Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth.”

David faced down his big brother, and now he has to argue with the King. In many mythic tales, the hero has to face preliminary challenges and tests, almost like practice or warm-up fights, before the big scene in which they save the day.

 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”
      Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.”

I can remember learning this story in Sunday School with the little flannel graph figures. Even then I found it hard to believe that David would actually have grabbed a lion or a bear by its hair, struck it, and killed it. This sounds to me like a symbolic way of saying that David has faced his fears, and placed his trust in God, and is ready for his big challenge.

I have doubts about God taking sides in any war. Martin Niemoller, a German pastor who was sent to Dachau prison for challenging Hitler’s treatment of the Jews once said, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of his enemies.”

American writer Anne Lamott puts it this way, “ When God hates all the same people that you hate, you can be absolutely certain that you have created him in your own image.”

I interpret David’s story as being about having the courage to be who God calls you to be, even though there will be both internal and external barriers in your way. Each of us face times of test and trial in our lives- times when we have to decide whether we will go along with what the world is telling us, or will we do what we believe to be right and good.

 38 Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. 39 David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.
      “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.

I love the image of David rejecting the armour and weapons of the King, and going back to his shepherd’s tunic and his sling. He faced down the temptation to look and act like somebody he was not. This makes me think about people who have lived their lives I fear of revealing to people who they really are, for fear of rejection or persecution.

I think of all those people who’ve had to pass for white, or pass for straight, in order to survive, and simply live their lives. I think of all the amazing stories of women who were forced to dress and act as men, in order to do the work they were called by God to do.

 41 Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David. 42 He looked David over and saw that he was only a boy, ruddy and handsome, and he despised him. 43 He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!”

 45 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

 48 As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. 49 Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.

 50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.

 51 David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the scabbard. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.
      When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran.

When we were taught this lesson in Sunday School, they left off the part about David cutting off the giant’s head. It is a gruesome image, especially if we read it literally. I was looking this week at a detail from a Caravaggio painting of David holding up the freshly severed head of Goliath, and it was horrifying. We can’t use this story to glorify or justify violence, even for a cause we believe in.

But if we read this as David’s dream, we can share in David’s joy as he has faced down his big fears, stood up for who he really is, and survived, to tell the story. Amen

What do we do on Canada Day?

(My latest column for the Kingsville Observer)

Canada Day a time for sober reflection about the country’s past and its future (kingsvilleobserver.com)

When I lived in a larger urban centre, I was often called on during the Christmas season to help with funerals for families without a church connection. I had a personal rule that I would never say no to helping with a funeral in that season, even if it was on Christmas Eve.

Sometimes families wanted to discuss “what to do about Christmas” in the shadow of a loved one’s death. Some chose to maintain their traditional events and customs. Others felt it improper or disrespectful to celebrate during a time of mourning. I often heard strong cases made on either side, within one family.

As an outsider, I appreciated the privilege of sitting with a family as they listened to their own hearts and to each other. As a pastor, I felt it was my role to acknowledge and honour their grief, but not to tell them how they should mourn.

When the announcement was made at the end of May that the unmarked, undocumented remains of at least 215 children were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School, there were calls to cancel Canada Day celebrations. The City of Victoria in B.C. did exactly that after two local First Nations, the Esquimault and the Songhees, withdrew their participation from previously planned online events.

And on Thursday, June 24, Chief Cadmus Delorme of the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

There are many people, families and communities who carry stories and grief and grievances associated with the federally mandated residential school system and with the larger, underlying realities of colonialism and racism. How could we who have not lived with those wounds have anything to say about how mourning should happen?

A few days after the Kamloops announcement, there was the terrible story of what is now being called an act of terror. A 20-year-old man in London was arrested for what amounted to using his vehicle as a murder weapon. Five members of a beautiful Canadian family were on foot, waiting at a corner for the light to change, when this man allegedly drove his pickup truck over the curb and ran them down.

The driver has been charged with killing a grandmother, her son, his wife and her granddaughter. Police say terror charges will likely be added.

The only survivor of this cruel and brutal attack is a nine-year-old boy named Fayez Afzaal.

I heard a heartbreaking interview with the mother of one of Fayez’s schoolmates. She said her child wanted to know if they could bring Fazel home to live with them so he would not be alone. The child also told their mother they never wanted to go outside again and later said, if I have to go outside, I don’t want to walk on sidewalks because they are not safe for us.

My hope is that whatever we find ourselves doing on the 154th anniversary of the passing of the British North America Act in 1867, we might take a moment for sober reflection about the kind of Canada we want going forward.

We are a relatively young country even though we are building it on land that has been known, cherished and occupied long before Europeans came. I say we are building it because Canada is growing and changing. Our country is a work in progress.

I think it would do us good to take a breath, stand back a little and think, and remember, imagine, and, perhaps, even pray.

I shouldn’t tell you what to pray for when it comes to our country. We do, after all, value freedom of thought and freedom of religion in Canada.

I will tell you about my own hopes and prayers, which have to do with the life ahead for that nine-year-old boy in London.

I hope we can do better and work together with all people of goodwill, to build, rebuild and fix Canada so that it can be a place where Fayez, who watched his family die, will someday feel safe. I pray that he and his friends, actually all children of all races, cultures, religions, and backgrounds can feel safe, respected, valued and protected. I pray for a Canada in which Fayez can heal and grow and begin to feel less sad and less afraid.

Worship for June 27, 2021

Introduction to the Scripture Reading:

Our scripture reading for today is the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, in the Old Testament. It is one of those bible stories that many people think they know, and have probably never read. Misinterpretations of the story have been the foundation for some very unfortunate theology, that has reinforced, and encouraged sexism, and misogyny, with a distorted, and negative view of women.

As we hear the story, I invite you to pay attention to what is in the story, and what you expected to hear, that is not actually in the story.

Genesis 3:1-24 (New International Version)

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

“Cursed are you above all livestock
    and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
    and you will eat dust
    all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring[a] and hers;
he will crush[b] your head,
    and you will strike his heel.”

16 To the woman he said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.”

17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”

20 Adam[c] named his wife Eve,[d] because she would become the mother of all the living.

21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[e] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

Video:

Learning Time: What about Good and Evil? A reading of Genesis 3

Life is a gift from a generous God. We live in response to the gifts God gives. There is purpose and meaning in life, and God knows what it is, even when we have trouble seeing it.

One major challenge to this vision for life is what philosophers have named the “problem of evil”. The question usually goes something like this, “Why is there death and pain and cruelty in the world?”

From early in the history of the Christian faith, the answers to that question have usually involved the words sin and evil, and the starting place has tended to be with the 3rd chapter of the Book of Genesis. I don’t find it helpful to read The Garden of Eden story as literal truth.

We may also need to shovel through all the interpretation, and editorial comment that over the centuries has been piled on top of the actual story. First off, there is no mention in the story of a Devil. There is a talking serpent. In our English translation the snake is described as “crafty” but scholars say that in the original Hebrew, the word would be more like “sharp-witted”, or “mentally acute”.

Preachers have often put the serpent in the role of tempter, but is that true to the story? Here is what the serpent actually says to Eve. You will not surely die… For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The serpent tells her the truth. Touching the fruit does not kill her. Somehow, eating the fruit gives her wisdom, and the capacity to know what is good, and what is evil.  How exactly is that a bad thing? As a parent, I hope and pray that my kids will be able to discern good from evil! The world is a far more dangerous place if we walk around without this basic survival skill.

Does knowing that there is evil make us more likely to do bad things? If anything, not being able to tell the difference between good and evil seems like a guarantee of getting hurt, or hurting someone else.  I wish there was some fruit I could feed my kids that would give that wisdom. I’d like some for myself as well!

Often when this story is told, the spin is added that the as yet un-named woman then went on and tricked Adam into taking a bite- a bite of the what? Is it a pomegranate, a boysenberry, or a tomato? We have been programmed to think it is an apple- but the story does not say that. What else did the preachers and teachers add over the years? The story says:

”When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”

The woman did not trick the man into eating the fruit. He was with her, she offered, and he ate it. The suggestion that she led him astray is unfair. According to the Bible, he knew the rules before she did.

If God made the first man, and then made the first woman to be his helper, would it make sense that God would make the helper as a temptress, to lead her partner astray? This makes me wonder if all those story-tellers and preachers over the years forgot the other creation story, in the first chapter of Genesis:

“So God created man in his own image,
       in the image of God he created him”

In that creation story, God made the world, and then made the first people, and then set them in charge of the world. There was no special tree that humans could not touch- it was all made for their use. At the end of the sixth day of all this making, God saw all that was made, and saw that it was very good. God did not make defective or corrupt human beings. Humans were made in the image of God.

Unfortunately, certain male authority figures in the early Christian church preferred the creation story in the second and third chapters of Genesis. They used the story, in ways that I think go beyond the text, to explain the existence of sin and evil in the world. For them, the trouble starts when sexuality is introduced to the human drama. After the first man takes his bite of the mango, or whatever, the story says,

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. “

One author has suggested that they might have eaten a fig, since they sewed fig leaves together. That is the image we remember: Adam and Eve with very carefully placed fig leaves as their only protection.

Being naked has become an issue. They just barely got their fig-suits on, and God entered the scene. But this is a very different God than the one we pray to and sing about. This God has an actual physical body. The story says “ the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

This God does not seem to know all and see all.  “… the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”  (Would the God we think of really have to ask?  Can you hide from God?)

The man answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid. And God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

  The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

The man and woman sense that they have done something wrong. But what?  Was it the eating of the fruit, or is it connected to having noticed each other’s nakedness?

At this point in the story some preachers would start talking about sin. The sin of lust, as these two are looking at each other being naked. The sin of disobedience, because they broke the rule about not eating the special fruit. Hunger for the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil would be connected to other physical hungers and desires. In the more traditional teaching, the point would be made that in our spiritual lives, it is the body that drags us down into the pits of sin. The woman would especially be blamed, representing as she does the temptations of the flesh.

No surprise here, as the first to teach it this way were men, priests of a church that had begun requiring celibacy in order to serve, and rationalizing it with a theology that said, in spite of our being created in God’s image, the world and our bodies are not good, but the source of corruption and sin.

Out of this interpretation of the Garden of Eden story came the idea of the Fall, the moment at which all human beings were condemned to be tainted by sin and prone to evil, because of the actions of the first man and the first woman, after listening to a very clever talking snake.  Aside from my questions about reading the story this way, I wonder about the God character in the story. Is this a fair and loving, and righteous God?

If eating that fruit was an evil thing to do, how could the first man and woman even know that it was wrong, if they did not have the knowledge of Good and Evil? Some argue that they offended God by disobeying the directive to leave that tree alone. But even in our less than perfect legal system we do not put people on trial if we know that they are incapable of knowing right from wrong. Wise parents do not punish children for making mistakes when they are too young to know the difference.

Wise parents also do not discipline when angry, and they try to match the severity of the offence with appropriate consequences. God in the story loses their temper, and sends enormous punishments flying out all over the place. All serpents are cursed because the woman listened to the one in the Garden. (At least this detail confirms that the serpent was really a serpent, and not a symbol for the Devil.)

This God says that woman’s pain in childbearing will be greatly increased. This is a curious curse, and a clue to us that the account is not be taken literally, since at this point in the story there has yet to be any child-bearing. The first man’s curse is that he will now have to work for a living, and eat by the sweat of his brow. That will be his fate until he dies.

This God makes clothes for the first man and first woman before ushering them out of the Garden of Eden, and into the cold hard world. Then this God says something I find very interesting- perhaps the most revealing thing in the story: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”

Who is the “us” in the phrase “like one of us”? This sounds like a story about a god who knows they are not the only god.

This is one of the places where the Bible reveals itself to be a kind of library for stories and traditions which are much older than Israel, and the religion of the Jews. There is a hint here that some of this story came from a polytheistic religion, that had more than one god.

Most religious traditions have some kind of creation myth that addresses the questions, “Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is it all for?”  As people from different cultures met through trade, or travel, or war, they would exchange stories. Over time, the stories could move into the religious folklore of a people. They would be kept if they seemed to ring true in some way.

The story of how Adam and Eve come to leave the garden is not all that useful in explaining the origins of sin and evil in the world. Interpretations that blame Eve, and by extension, vilify all women, are offensive. But if the story does not explain our lot in life, it does offer a pretty accurate description. The story tells us that

there is pain from the moment of our birth, that we are called upon to make choices between good and evil, that we have to take care of the world, and work to feed ourselves, that none of us will live with forever and that even when we get in trouble, God is with us. Amen

Worship Service for June 6, 2021, and a note about the Kamloops Residential School

The worship service for this week was prepared and recorded 3 weeks ago, long before we heard the terrible news about the hidden, unmarked graves of at least 215 children, buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School, which was one of many facilities funded by the federal government, but operated by Christian denominations, for the purpose of assimilating children taken (often forcibly) from First Nations families and communities. This horrific practice led to many kinds of physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse of children. Conditions at these residential schools were often far below standards that would have been acceptable if the students had come from white families. Tuberculosis was rampant in several of the schools, as was malnutrition. Children in some of the facilities were made subjects of “scientific” experiments, and treated as laboratory specimens. Many children died, and for years, survivors of these schools have told stories about their friends, whose remains were unceremoniously buried, with no markers, no documentation, and no effort made to to inform loved ones.

The board of Harrow United Church met online via ZOOM this week, and we discussed the news from Kamloops, and how to respond.

A motion was passed that going forward, we will begin our meetings, classes, worship services, and other church events with a land acknowledgement. I have accepted the task of finding/creating the wording that we will use.

This is a small step, but one we hope will have a lasting effect on how we look at our relationships with the peoples who lived on, and cared for this country long before colonizers and settlers from Europe and other places arrived.

Acknowledgment (a first draft)

Some First Nations peoples tell stories about Turtle Island, and use that name for what colonizers called North America. We live on Turtle Island, which in some stories is made of soil brought up from the depths of the ocean, and piled on the turtle’s back. It is a beautiful image, that points to the precariousness of life, and the care that must be taken, to protect and honour, and respect, all that lives.

Here are the words used by the Greater Essex County DIstrict School Board in its acknowledgement:

We acknowledge that we are on land and surrounded by water, originally inhabited by Indigenous Peoples who have travelled this area since time immemorial.  This territory is within the lands honoured by the Wampum Treaties; agreements between the Anishinaabe , Haudenosaunee , Lenni , Lenape  and allied Nations to peacefully share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes.  Specifically, we would like to acknowledge the presence of the Three Fires Confederacy (Ojibwe , Odawa , Potawatomi  and Huron/Wendat) Peoples.  We are dedicated to honouring Indigenous history and culture while remaining committed to moving forward respectfully with all First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

“God loves each of us works in progress”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worship for Sunday, May 30, 2021

Learning Time: “The God Formula”

The big excitement in Kingsville these days is that we now have a Dairy Queen. I have cycled by it a few times, and there is always a long line of vehicles making its way through the drive-thru line.

Can you remember life before McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s, and Dairy Queen, and all the other franchises? I can’t, but I have heard stories about a time when all restaurants and coffee shops were not the same! Can you imagine?

Years ago I worked at a church in a neighbourhood called Applewood Acres, in Mississauga. One of their claims to fame was that a man named Harlan Sanders lived in the neighbourhood, at least in the spring and summer time, and when he was in town, came to their church. There are pictures of him, in his distinctive white cotton suit, sitting in his favourite pew, with his wife. They were active and committed Christians, having been baptized in the Jordan River in Israel. They were also friends with Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.  

I wonder what he brought to their church potluck suppers. Harlan Sanders was the founder of Fried Chicken. When he came up with the secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices that made his chicken special, he was also breaking ground in the business world. The genius of what he did was to take a food item that was already popular, and common in the Southern U.S. States, and attach his name and flavour to it. If you wanted to sell the Kentucky Fried Chicken, you had to buy the essential ingredients from him. The person with the secret formula held a lot of power.

As Americans after World War 2 became increasingly mobile, and their interstate highways made travel that much easier, it was not long before it was possible to taste the same fried chicken wherever you went. Was this a good thing? People seemed to think so. It was certainly good for the Colonel, who had a piece of every bucket of chicken. He may not have invented the fast food franchise, but he certainly did well by it.

In the 4th Century after the time of Jesus, the head of the Holy Roman Empire, Constantine, was establishing a different kind of franchise. He made Christianity the official religion. He built churches and cathedrals all over the empire, and formalized a hierarchy of priests, bishops, archbishops based on the command structure of his armies.

The Romans had used religion as a unifying force in their expanding territories for hundreds of years. Whenever they conquered a new land, they would allow the people to keep their local religions and customs, as long as they agreed to worship the Emperor as a god, and make room in their towns, and in their temples, for statues of the Roman gods.

What Constantine did was to take the fastest growing religion in his empire, Christianity, and make it the officially sanctioned faith. To control it, he had to get his hands on the secret formula that made Christianity work- the religious version of the herbs and spices.

Constantine sponsored what later became known as the Council of Nicaea, which brought together the bishops and archbishops, and other key figures in the church. Their job was to sort out the official formula about God.

In the first few hundred years after Jesus’ earthly life, there were a number of competing ways to think about Jesus, and God. Some Christians believed that Jesus did not die on the cross, that he was rescued by his disciples, and went on to live a long life.

Some Christians believed that Jesus was as human as you or I, and that his significance was not in being divine, but in being a person who was so connected to God that he helped others trust that God was real.

Some Christians believed that Jesus really was God made Flesh in the world, but that he could not have died on the cross, because God is eternal and immortal, and nothing humans could do should be able to change that.

Some Christians believed that Jesus existed before the world was made, and was there when all things came into being. In this view, Jesus really is God, but not the Creator. So did that mean that we have two Gods: God the Creator, and Jesus who came to be our Saviour?

It sounds odd to our ears, that Christians in the Ancient World were talking about having more than one god. But they lived in an environment where there were lots of other religions, and most of these religions had more than one god.

This was the problem that Constantine and his religious leaders faced. They needed to find a way to talk about God and Jesus that made Christianity palatable to the people of the Empire, who were used to whole teams of gods, but they also needed to maintain the basic belief that came from Christianity’s Jewish roots, that there actually is only one God, and all others are false idols.

The church leaders bought into this agenda for their own reasons, but Constantine’s agenda was also obvious. He wanted to use Christianity,with its message of only one God, to unify the whole Roman Empire. Religion was then, and remains, a powerful force with which to exert political control.

Trinity Sunday is the church’s occasion to celebrate the work of the Council of Nicaea, and subsequent councils, at which the official description of God was hammered out. The idea is that there is only one God, and God has what the theologians called three “persona”, which we translate as “persons”. I think we might understand the term “identities” easier. The three identities of God are God the Father, or Creator, God the Son, or Saviour, and God the Holy Spirit, who is also called the Comforter.

It was decided that Jesus was, and is, at the same time, completely human, and also completely God. Whatever you think of these ideas, they had a powerful effect on Christians of that time, and for centuries after. Once there was an official formula for talking about God, this formula became the measure by which all religious ideas were judged.

The hierarchy of the church developed a central authority- like the generals in an army. They had the backing of the Emperor, and they used the power of the Empire to wipe out any competition. Any priest, or bishop, or local church that had different ways of talking about God, or Jesus, were declared to be heretics. They were removed from the church, and could be jailed or killed unless they agreed to follow the official teachings. Whole libraries of books were burned, and lost forever, because they did not conform.

It is often said that history is written by the winners. That was also true for theology- for the official ideas about God. Constantine had the winning team, and the losers were called heretics.

The local congregations, and priests, and bishops that survived, were those that used the secret recipe from headquarters. Local variations on the recipe were not allowed. Before long, the same religious food was being cooked up all over the empire.

Was this a good thing? There are arguments to be made either way. The argument in favour is that Christianity needed a unified voice in order to be heard above the voices of the competition- all the other religions of the ancient world. The argument against is that a lot was lost when the local traditions and ideas and ways of expression were wiped out. Perhaps the greatest loss was a loss of confidence, that ordinary people in their own home towns and villages could have something to contribute to an ongoing conversation about the God we are all seeking. There is nothing so powerful as claiming to have all the answers, if you want to stop people from looking at the questions in their own way.

My personal view is that everything we say about God is poetry, not an exact science. Poetry thrives on mystery, and science is frustrated when it can’t answer all the questions. It is shameful that people were persecuted and sometimes killed because their words for God were different. I am convinced that living a faithful life, and building a connection to God, and being able to pray do not depend upon getting the words right. I also suspect that the effort to get the words right was basically a head exercise, and that in its reliance on the intellect, missed out on other ways of knowing God.

God gave us our minds, and our hearts, and our souls, and our full range of senses, and we can use these to become more aware of the ways of God.

Our experience of, and the impact of God, of the holy on our lives, is not easily boxed in by words. Once, when our youngest, Joel and I were out for a walk- Joel might have been 5 at the time, I noticed on the path ahead of us the amazing sky blue of a robin’s egg. I was about to point it out, but stopped myself as we got closer, and I saw that within the broken halves of the egg there was the tiny dark form of a partially formed bird, shiny and wet, and being devoured by insects.

In that moment when I realized what I was seeing, I experienced a powerful lesson about the beauty and brutality of creation- a lesson that I am still not able to put into words. There was life and death, beginnings, and endings, and new beginnings all painted into the scene.

What I saw spoke to my mind, certainly, but also to my heart, and in ways that touched my soul, that I can return to, just by remembering, and re-imagining the scene. I learned, and am learning, something deeper about God, and creation, that does not easily distill down to a few words.

Here is what I think about knowing God: Don’t let anyone’s words about God get in the way. Let the ideas about God be clues in your search, but don’t let anyone convince you that the ideas themselves are perfect, and should be worshipped. Save that for God. Amen

The First Epistle to the Harrovians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worship for Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2021

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

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

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

Introduction to the Scripture Reading:

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

Eleanor:

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

Gillian:

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

Darrow:

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

Patricia:

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

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

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

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

Cary:

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

  • That’s the Spirit”

Cast   Simon Peter: Patricia

 a Roman Centurion: Cary

 a Roman Soldier: Eleanor

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

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

Peter: Yes

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

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

Centurion You are from Galilee?

Peter Correct.

Centurion Occupation?

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

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

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

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

Peter:  Yes.

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

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

Centurion:   But you don’t deny it now?

Peter:  No.

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

Peter:  No.

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

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

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

Roman Soldier:    (Mockingly) Rose from the dead?

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

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

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

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

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

Roman Soldier:   (Threateningly) Not yet.

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

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

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

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

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

Roman Soldier:   Upset.

Centurion:   Perplexed.

Roman Soldier:    Upset.

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

Roman Soldier:   Upset.

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

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

Centurion:   And flames.

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

Centurion:   And you speaking to them in foreign languages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter:  Yes – sort of.

Roman Soldier:  Dead again?

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

Centurion:   Now I’m confused.

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

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

Roman Soldier:   Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman Soldier:  Oh yeah – More of this Holy Spirit

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

Roman Soldier:  You don’t believe this nonsense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Centurion:   Come with me. (They leave together)

Poem: Pentecost (Malcolm Guite)

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

Learning Time: “A New Spirit”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worship Video for May 16, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like us. Amen

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

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

Here is the script of the learning time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The closest rippling circle is like the most intimate definition:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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