The Road to Faith

Preached at Ripley-Bervie/Kinloss Pastoral Charge, April 30, 2017

Luke 24:13-35

Little Timmy went with his parents to church, but instead of putting his toonie in the offering plate as he usually did, he held on to it tightly. Nothing his parents said or did could dissuade him, so his mother let it be, figuring she’d give him a lesson on tithing when she got home.

After the service, the family went to shake hands with the minister, and to his parents’ surprise, Timmy gave his toonie to the minister, saying, “Here, Reverend Jones. I want you to have this.”

When the surprised minister asked why, Timmy smiled and said, “Daddy said you’re the poorest preacher we’ve ever had, so I thought you could use the money!”

Would you pray with me and for me please…

Now two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem…

We know that one of the disciples on that road was named Cleopas. Scholars believe that this is the same as the Clopas mentioned in the Gospel of John, and we might therefore assume that the unnamed disciple by his side was his wife Mary, who is mentioned as being one of the women who waited at the foot of the cross when Jesus was crucified. Luke mentions a Mary, mother of James, who might have been this same Mary, unless there were somehow four or more Marys in the group!

In other words, these two disciples were not just ordinary onlookers, but part of Jesus’ inner circle, and they had followed him from Galilee. They knew him well. They had seen him die, and they had heard about and possibly even seen the empty tomb.

And we note two things.

One, that they are going to Emmaus, probably to their home and they are sad, not joyful, and two, Jesus walks beside them on the road, and they don’t even recognize him!

And two thousand years later, we ask ourselves, “How can this be?” If it had been us, Lord, we would have believed! If it had been us, Lord, we would have greeted you with joy!

Luke says that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Some might conclude with this that Jesus or God kept their eyes shut so that Jesus could open the scriptures to them, but why? Hadn’t he been doing that all along?

My own take on this is that they didn’t recognize him because they didn’t expect to see him. He was out of place, and he did not look as they expected him to look.

For one thing, he wasn’t dead. The last time they’d seen him, he’d been hanging from the cross, naked and bleeding. They’d at least have expected some blood, some scars.

And he wasn’t in Jerusalem, amidst all the hating and adoring and needy throng. He was there on the road with them, just the three of them.

Have you ever had the experience of meeting someone you obviously have met, perhaps many times previously, in a place where you didn’t expect to meet them, and not be able to recall not only their name, but where you know them from?

It’s happened to me. I do a lot of supply preaching, but until recently it was only at a few churches, so I’ve come to know the congregation members somewhat. One day my friend Heather and I were traveling to Kincardine, and we stopped in a restaurant in Mildmay. And a woman came up to us and said, “So Ruth, are you a minister yet?”

I gave her some kind of generic reply, all the while thinking, “Who is she, and where is she from?” My best guess is that she’s from Alma, but I could be wrong…

Anyhow, I think it’s a common experience. We see someone we don’t expect, where we don’t expect to see them, and it takes a while to place them.

And they weren’t expecting Jesus, not really. Being told someone has been raised from the dead is, well, just a little bit unbelievable. Even when he finally comes to all the disciples in person, they’re terrified, believing him to be a ghost.

But they’d been told. They’d even seen, and they still didn’t believe. Why ever not?

Well, I think when it comes down to it, they didn’t actually know what to believe anymore. Because Jesus hadn’t turned out to be who they thought he was.

They thought that he was a messiah who would redeem Israel, and by that, they meant that he would somehow free them from Roman oppression.

Instead, he let the Romans murder him.

And so Jesus starts at square one, patiently interpreting scripture to him until they come to understand what redemption truly is, and who the Messiah really is.

And then he breaks bread. He does the actions and says the words that jog their memory and they recognize him.

They aren’t immediately filled with joy. Instead, they say, “Were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke?”

They were having what I call “Aha!” moments—the moments when you realize you’ve gotten something wrong, and why, and more importantly, the moment when you get it right.

The Messiah has not come to free Israel from the Romans, but to free human beings from bondage to sin. It’s a personal redemption, not a public one.

It’s rather like the difference between winning the lottery and learning to budget and control your spending and earning and saving.

Yes, winning the lottery will solve your money problems. Immediately.

For a while.

I’ve researched what happens to lottery winners, and it really isn’t pretty. On average, it takes them seven years or less to get back to where they started from. In many cases, they end up worse off than when they started.

Because a big infusion of cash doesn’t really change anything inside of us. Lottery winners seldom inherit money management skills with the cash, and there are a lot of vultures, just waiting to pounce on the naïve newly-rich.

Just as there are vultures waiting to pounce on the naïve newly-free. Moses led the Israelites to freedom from the Egyptians, and they ended up subjugated to the Babylonians. Then the Romans. Later came the Spanish Inquisition. Later came the Nazis…

Corporate, public redemption doesn’t last. Not for the Jews. Not for any of us.

But there’s the other type of redemption. The hard, scary kind.

It’s hard and scary because faith in a Messiah who redeems us from sin requires a response.

It requires us to admit that we were, in fact, living in sin.

It requires us to admit that we weren’t doing so well on our own, that maybe we were, well…

Wrong.

It requires us to change.

That’s what the letter from Peter is trying to tell us. You have been redeemed. Now live into that reality!

Trust in God, not in things or money or military powers or border walls.

Worship God, not just in the church of your mothers and fathers, but in the synagogues and the mosques and the city square and the forest and the back alleys of the city and in the fields and in the home.

Accept as brothers and sisters in Christ not only people like you, but people you formerly thought of as beyond redemption—people whose political viewpoints differ from yours, criminals, murderers, people who have co-operated with your oppressors, women, uncircumcised Gentiles, eunuchs from far countries whose skin colour was much darker than yours, slaves, and slave owners. Why, Paul even converted his jailers!

And above all, act in love, not fear.

But when we choose to accept the kind of redemption that Jesus offers, when we open our eyes to who the Messiah really is, something funny happens.

Our spirits slowly awaken and realize that the bondage against which we fret is…

Not real.

We finally realize that the debt has been paid, once and for all, and we are free, and always will be.

We realize that winning the lottery, that getting rid of the Romans, that escaping from a physical prison—those are all unnecessary. We are loved and can love wherever we are, whoever we are, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

We are truly free, with the kind of freedom that can never be taken away from us.

Amen.

 

 

Holy Shift

[Preached at Alma United Church & Melville United Church, May 28, 2017. Luke 24:44-53]

And so we come at last to the end of the Easter Season. Next Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, when we will celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church.

This Sunday, we observe Ascension Sunday, and so our Gospel reading is that story at the very end of Luke where Jesus finally says, “Goodbye” to the disciples. Although we in our time have taken a few weeks to get from Easter to the Ascension, in the disciples’ time, it was only the evening of Easter Sunday.

This long Easter weekend has been a trying one for the disciples. First they had to endure the trial and crucifixion, then the long dark Saturday when they stayed hidden behind doors instead of going to the temple or the synagogue as they ought to have done according to their own religion. Finally on Sunday, a few of the women went to visit the tomb…

And the body isn’t there!

Some sources say the women, or perhaps only Mary Magdalene alone, saw Jesus. Others say that they saw only an angel who told them that Jesus wasn’t there, that he had risen.

Either way, the rest of the disciples were incredulous and more than a little disturbed. Two of them left and started walking home to Emmaus. Peter left and went to the tomb to find out the truth for himself.

The two going to Emmaus meet Jesus on the road, and immediately return to tell the others, who are themselves buzzing with news—the Lord has appeared to Simon!

Then Jesus appears among them. There is no indication in Luke’s retelling that he entered by the door, and he certainly didn’t knock. The disciples were “startled and terrified,” and Jesus invites them to touch his wounds, and finally eats with them, in order to convince them that he is not a ghost.

Then he says something really odd. “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you…”

Wait! What?

Aren’t you with us now, Jesus? I mean, we just touched you! We just saw you eat fish!

What do you mean when you say, “These are my words I spoke to you while I was still with you?”

But Jesus isn’t with the disciples, or indeed the living, the way he was before.

He has died and has risen.

He has not somehow mysteriously survived the crucifixion. He was not buried alive, to somehow wake up in the tomb and remove his linen wrappings.

He died.

And now he is not dead. He is very much alive, as the fish and the touching indicate, but he is no longer alive as a human being.

Jesus once more opens their minds to understanding the scriptures. He tells them that they are to proclaim the repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations. Then finally he tells them that he is going to send what God has promised—holy power from on high will cloak the disciples so that they may continue what Jesus has begun.

He then leads them out of the city, blesses them, and is carried up to heaven.

Next week, we celebrate Pentecost. We often call it the birth of the church.

But the last sentence of Luke’s gospel contains a short, very important statement that to me indicates that today we celebrate another “birthday,” one which is often seen as equated to the church, but in reality is quite different.

“And they worshiped him…”

The disciples have followed Jesus from his humble beginnings as an itinerant preacher. They’ve heard countless sermons and parables, they’ve been instructed on how to live a better life as Jews faithful to the promise of Abraham. They’ve watched him heal the sick, and restore the outcast into community.

They’ve even had a couple of trial runs, where they did these things for themselves.

They followed Jesus to the foot of the cross, to the tomb, and now finally to the resurrection.

But all this time, to them he’s been a human Messiah, a human Lord. They just didn’t understand the big picture.

Now, finally, they do. And they worship him, not as a human worships another human, but as a human worships God.

There has been a shift in how the disciples see Jesus.

Today, we celebrate the birth of Christianity itself.

This week is the week that delegates from all over Hamilton Conference meet to discuss business, to learn and work and grow together. It’s our time to move beyond our little churches and our presbyteries, and realize that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

The title of today’s sermon is the theme Gord Dunbar, our outgoing president, chose for his time in office.

He, and many others who have been involved in the church for years, has seen over the past ten or so years evidence that the church is shifting and changing as it has not for many years past. Theologian Phyllis Tickle points out that this sort of transformation happens approximately every five hundred years or so.

That’s not an exact measure—the first “Holy Shift” was in 325 CE when the First Ecumenical Council developed the Nicene Creed, and Christianity developed into a more coherent faith.  The second occurred in 1054, when the Church split into Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches. About five hundred years after that, Martin Luther nailed his bits of paper to a cathedral door, and the Pope refused to annul the marriage of King Henry VIII, and we had the beginnings of the Reformation and of the Church of England.

Those “Holy Shifts” didn’t occur in a vacuum.

Christianity originated at a time of incredible instability. The Roman Republic had ended with the declaration of Caesar Augustus as the first Emperor.

285 years later, the Emperor Diocletian divided the Empire into two, and from 324 to 337, the Emperor Constantine worked to put it back together. Part of how he did this was to convert to Christianity, to declare it legal, and to make it the official religion of the Empire. He called the First Ecumenical Council in order to solidify Christian Doctrine, a necessary step if it was to provide the underpinnings of a stable Empire.

The stability didn’t last long—in 450, Attila led the Huns into Gaul, and in 455, the Vandals sacked Rome.

In the 7th and 8th centuries, the rapid expansion of Islam and the Arab world led Christian leaders to attempt to reclaim formerly Christian lands. This reached its height in the 11th century, with Toledo and Sicily being recaptured in the west, and the Byzantine Empire regaining territory in the East.

The struggles over whether the Roman Catholic church or the Orthodox Church held supremacy was tied up in these attempts, and led to a surge in piety and interest in Christianity. Participation in the Crusades was touted as a way to do penance for forgiveness for sins.

In the 15th century, we of course had the invention of the printing press, which made literacy much more common than it had been. It is hard to imagine Protestantism, with its emphasis on solo scriptura, as being possible without this advance.

But the world was changing in other ways as well. Europeans had, for centuries, been exploring the world, but now they began to settle it. And among the first of the settlers to North America and elsewhere were religious dissidents who had been persecuted in their home countries by the established churches of the day. German dissidents fled from the Lutherans, French dissidents fled from the Catholics, English dissidents fled from the Anglicans, and North America became populated by the most unlikely variety of Christians the world has ever seen.

No wonder separation of church and state, unknown in Europe since the time of Constantine, was such an important principle in the founding of Canada and the United States!

During all of these Holy Shifts, God has moved among us, helping us to understand and interpret the scriptures in light of the world in which we find ourselves living, in light of new understandings of how the world works, and in light of who Jesus is, not only as a human, but also as God.

We once again find ourselves in a place of Holy Shift, in this new millennium. The internet and global mobility has broken down barriers that formerly seemed impossible to break. When one can live in one country, earn money from another, and put that money in the bank in a third, the concept of nationhood seems to be just a little obsolete. When most of the world’s population has free or almost free access to almost the entire collective knowledge of humankind, elitism becomes almost impossible. Now that many of us have moved beyond the stage where sharing cute cat pictures is the sum of our computer knowledge, well…

The world is out there.

And we are finding new understandings of what it is that God wants us to be and do.

It’s been rough for some of us. The church we grew up in no longer exists. Christianity is more ecumenical today than it has ever been, but there is also a new understanding that the Spirit of God, while being within the church, is not confined to the Church, and that all human religion is a response to the divine.

We have been, over the past few years, like the disciples hiding in the house, fearful of what is outside, and not really understanding.

But in the past few weeks, I’ve seen something happening. I’ve read about a church that has over three hundred kids enrolled in what we sometimes call Sunday School, but which they call “Graceland.” That church isn’t an evangelical church, and it’s not in another country. It’s Wellington Square United in Burlington, Ontario.

I’ve read about a church that is reinventing itself spiritually, focusing on prayer and study of scriptures and leading a Christian life in all ways, even financially. The church has grown tremendously as a result. That church isn’t an evangelical church in a foreign country—it’s North Bramalea United Church in Brampton, Ontario.

I’ve visited a brand new church building in a small, some would say dying community. The building dedication photos, taken in 2014, show the lawn in front of the church filled with hundreds of people—men, women, and lots and lots of children. Inside that beautiful new building, there are rooms for many small groups, and a huge, modern sanctuary.

When I visited it very recently, the preacher was a young French Canadian who had been ordained only two years ago. He held that congregation, which filled the church to overflowing, spellbound, except when we were rolling on the floor in laughter. We sang with gusto, we shouted, “Amen!” spontaneously many times.

That church was not an evangelical church in a foreign country—it was Port Elgin United Church, and the service was the celebration of New Ministries, part of the proceedings of this year’s Hamilton Conference.

There has been a Holy Shift.

Christ has died. AMEN!

Christ has risen. AMEN!

Christ is here among us, not as a ghost or as a spirit, but as a human. AMEN!

Christ has withdrawn, to be with God and be God. AMEN!

And now—now we have the Spirit, with us until the end of all things, and the Spirit is at work among us and within us. The time of fear and waiting is over, and the time of action begins. We are to go out into the world, proclaiming with our words and our deeds the Good News of Christ.

Go in joy, worshiping the Christ, in the church and on the streets.

AMEN!

Am I Being Unfair to You

Preached at a World Day of Prayer Service in Fergus, ON on March 3, 2017

I have a friend in hospice right now, dying of lung cancer.

How many of you automatically thought, even for just a second, “He shouldn’t have smoked!”? We humans tend to want to blame the circumstances of others on actions they have or have not taken.

My friend has never smoked a day in his life. To my knowledge, he didn’t work with asbestos, either. He was just very, very unlucky.

We want to judge, because we want to believe that life is fair, and that everything we have is due to our own stellar efforts, and that everything others lack is due to their own faults, and not unjust systems or random misfortune. We want the world to be fair, because we feel safer that way.

But life is not fair, and I often have to remind myself of that, both when things aren’t going well, and when they are going well.

I used to hate the fact that I’d been born a girl. I wanted to do “boy” things, like play football and go to university and walk on the moon. But I was lucky. I was born in Canada, in 1960, to Caucasian parents who were married, stayed together, and who had steady work from their early twenties right into retirement. By the time I reached my twenties, the attitude of Canadians towards female involvement in society had changed considerably, and I was well-equipped to take advantage of it.

I did nothing to deserve the circumstances of my birth. I didn’t choose my parents, I didn’t choose my nationality, I didn’t choose my year of birth. It just happened, and it didn’t have anything to do with fairness.

Other young women have not been so lucky.

We’ve heard stories today told by women in the Philippines. That these women were born poor, in a populous, poor nation that is subject to natural disasters was none of their doing.

The Philippines is a nation of interesting contrast. They have some of the most progressive laws in the books legislating the equality of women; they have had for decades a specific government agency responsible for the status of women. They have had elected women presidents. And yet inequality remains.

Despite the fact that Filipino women have higher literacy rates than Filipino men, and tend to have a better education, they remain clustered at the bottom of the job market.

One in five Filipino women is subject to domestic violence. Although strides have been made, human trafficking remains a problem. And in 2011, the maternal mortality rate was 221 per 100,000 live births. The comparable rate for Canada is 12.

Is this fair?

In today’s parable, it really isn’t fair that the workers who started at six in the morning and worked for twelve hours in the blistering sun got the same daily wage as the ones who started at five o’clock and worked for one hour.

No wonder they grumbled—I’d grumble too if I’d worked all day and received the same as someone who’d only worked a short time. Why, I might have stayed home and gotten my laundry done! I might have slept in! There are so many things I might have done with that time! And those lollygaggers were just standing around in the square, loafing about, while I worked.

Maybe some of them did sleep in. Maybe some of them were laughing and joking about while I was working.

But maybe some of them were standing there, worried sick because if they didn’t get work today, their kids wouldn’t eat tonight. Maybe they didn’t arrive at the marketplace until nine-thirty because they had to get breakfast for the kids and the husband before they went off to school and work respectively, and sweep the hearth, and help their aging mothers to get dressed and settled in their chairs with some knitting or a good book to keep them happy.

Or maybe they didn’t arrive until after noon because they had a second job cleaning the house of a rich person so that at the end of the month they had enough money in the bank to pay the rent and the hydro bill.

Or maybe they didn’t arrive until almost five o’clock because they were in school, trying to get a nursing degree so that they could get a better, more stable job.

But the landowner knows that whether we are goofing off or working hard trying to better ourselves, we all still need to eat, we all still need to feed and house and clothe our families.

God isn’t about fairness. God isn’t about tallying up what we deserve or don’t deserve and dishing it out to us.

God is about generosity, about giving us all a chance to begin again and again and again no matter how many times we mess up, and about allowing us all an equal share in the abundance of God’s realm.

That’s really good news, because despite the fact that we all want to believe that life is fair and that we got where we are due to our own efforts, we all know that at times we’ve done wrong, and we all have, in the back of our minds the fear, or even the certain knowledge, that we aren’t worthy of the grace we’ve been shown in Christ Jesus.

God grants us that grace anyways.

One day, I sat in my living room and listened to the story of a man who would soon be serving time in jail for operating a grow-op and selling drugs. This tattooed biker, this six-foot-tall, strong man cried when he told me that his Christian father had disowned him and told him that God didn’t love him any more and that he was going to Hell.

I told him that his father had lied. God still loves him, as God loves all creation. God still waits for him to show up to the marketplace so that God can invite him into the vineyard. And when my friend does show up in the vineyard, he’ll receive the same daily wage as those of us who have been there all along.

Friends, let’s stop lying to ourselves and to each other. Let’s stop pretending that God’s grace is something we or others earn. Let’s stop pretending that our riches have been earned solely by our own efforts, and that others are poor because they’re lazy or wasteful or whatever. Let’s stop pretending that God’s love has limits, and that only those who look and behave and believe like we do are invited to God’s party.

When we go from this place, let us instead be models of God’s generosity and love. Let us get to know our neighbours. Let us hear their stories, understand their points of view. And let us always spread the Good News that if they want to be part of the family, all they have to do is show up.

Amen.

Salt of the Earth

Preached at Melville United Church on February 5, 2017

A week or so ago, Reverend Marion and I sat in a coffee shop, and she looked me in the eye and asked, “So why aren’t you ordained?”

Now, there is a whole long litany I could tell you about why I thought ordination wasn’t for me, at least not yet, but the story that Toronto Conference would likely give is this:

At the time of my interview with Toronto Conference, I had not been attending any church regularly for quite some time. They gave me six months to work things out, but six months later I was still not attending church on a regular basis. At that point, my file was closed.

What I couldn’t say then, but can say quite clearly now, is that during the over two years that I didn’t attend church, I wasn’t feeling fed by worship or by the community, and I was questioning not only my need for church, but the whole concept of the church as an institution.

Obviously, things changed. I’m back, and I believe I’m here to stay. In fact, with a lot of prodding from both Rev. Marion and Rev. Robin, I’ve taken the first tentative steps to getting back on the path to ordination.

Why would I question the need for church in the first place? I’d been part of the church for as long as I remember. And not just part of it, but one of those members who was always in the thick of things. I started sitting in the choir stalls when I was ten years old. It wasn’t until I returned to church after my extended absence that I actually sat in the pews as an ordinary worshiper for more than one or two Sundays at a time. I had always been in some sort of worship leadership. I’d been on committees and boards since I was in my teens, I’d helped run bazaars and dinners and concerts and retreats and bible studies and all sorts of church functions. I’m the last person you would have thought would have a crisis of faith in the church.

I never stopped believing in God. At my lowest point, I could always say with conviction, “God is.” But everything else was up for debate, and the church was at the top of my list for re-evaluation.

Do we really need the church?

I came away from my extended time out convinced that the Christian church, and especially our mainline denominations like the United Church, are not only useful institutions, but vital ones for the health of society. Over the next three sermons, I’ll touch on some of the vital roles I believe that churches can play in society, roles that no other institution or group of people seems to be fulfilling right now.

Today, we talk about salt, because Jesus has told us that we are to be the “salt of the earth.”

I googled salt, and re-learned that the phrase “salt of the earth” has come to mean a “dependable, unpretentious” person. I can understand that being dependable is good, and most of the time, being unpretentious is probably the right way to go. But is that what Jesus means when he says we are to be the salt of the earth?

Salt is a mineral. Sodium chloride. It’s not a rare mineral—it’s in every single drop of sea water, and there are deposits of it underground. But it’s not naturally found in its pure state—there are impurities that must be removed before it’s fit for human use. In our time, pure salt is plentiful and cheap. In ancient times, pure salt was so difficult to come by that it was used as a form of money. It’s where our words “salary” and “soldier” come from. Someone who is “not worth his salt” is a slave or worker who doesn’t do enough work to justify the salt given to pay for him.

Salt is necessary for human and animal life. The messages that run along nerves from our brains to our muscles and back again are transmitted by electrolytes like the sodium in salt. Without enough salt in our diets, our muscles stop working, our brains swell, and we die.

Salt is so necessary to life that it’s one of only five things we can taste on our tongues. We can taste sweet, bitter, sour, unami (which is that earthy taste you get from mushrooms and meat), and salt.

Think about it this way—if I eat a banana, or drink orange juice, I can’t taste the potassium in them, even if that’s the mineral I’m craving. But if I eat a potato chip, or beef fried rice, or a fried egg, I can immediately tell not only if there’s salt in or on it, but approximately how much. Are these regular potato chips, or reduced salt? We can all tell without looking at the package, because we’ve evolved that ability to taste it.

But we’re all aware that salt, in excessive quantities, can be a poison. Too much salt isn’t good for our blood pressure—it can elevate it, or at least keep it elevated when it’s already high. And the salt we put on our roads causes the grass and plants at the verge to die, until only weeds can grow.

And we need to pay attention to that last, because interestingly enough, when Jesus tells us that we are the “salt of the earth,” he might very well have been referring to that quality—that ability of salt to kill things.

In Jesus’ time, salt was used by invading armies to destroy the fields of the enemies so that crops wouldn’t grow. That practice was called “salting the earth.” The interpretation of “salt of the earth” to mean someone who is dependable and unpretentious came later, after generations of Christian clergy who were part of the establishment and not outlaws had the chance to put their stamp on Biblical interpretation.

But in Jesus time, and afterwards when the gospels and the letters of Paul and the other epistles were written, the church was either on the fringes of the established order, as it is today, or entirely outlawed. And I believe Jesus was telling his soon to be outlawed followers that they had a place, and that place wasn’t to prop up the complacency and egos of the middle and upper classes.

You are to be like salt, he tells them. Stand up against the established order, and make their fields bear no grain. Don’t let them get rich by oppressing the workers, don’t let them gain power by trampling on those less powerful, don’t let law and order be your goals if the laws and the order unjustly oppress whole groups of people who have no say in what the laws are and how they were made.

The church has a place in today’s society. We need to salt the earth, now more than ever.

I got a text the other day from my dear friend Rev. Robin. “I need to talk. The sky is falling. The sky is falling!” and “He (Donald Trump, in case you didn’t guess) is dismantling God stuff and building walls.”

I told her, we need to dismantle walls and build God stuff.

We need to salt the fields of the rich and powerful, and destroy the crops of hatred that they have sown.

We need to salt the earth of the terrorists, and destroy the crops of fear that they have sown.

We need to salt the earth of the powerful corporations, and destroy the crops of environmental abuse and obscene profits and worker exploitation that they have sown.

And we do that by finding our voice.

Isaiah tells us, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion!”

We need to be brave, and speak out, and say, “No! This is not an acceptable way to act!”

And we need to be heard amongst and above all the millions screaming in terror. We need to be a voice of authority, not one of hysteria.

On Saturdays, I teach swimming to Special Olympians, young men and women with developmental disabilities. And yesterday one young man didn’t want to get out of the pool at the end of the lesson. He was hanging on to the railing and refusing to move. A few of our younger coaches were with him, trying in vain to get him to let go of the rail and move out of the pool. After a few minutes of this I came up and said, “Move. Out of the pool, now.”

And he moved. He didn’t quite get out of the pool, at least not right then, but he moved, solely in response to my spoken command.

I’m not Harry Potter—I don’t have a magic wand or any superpowers. I simply have years of experience in calmly but firmly saying, “No. This behaviour isn’t acceptable.”

The church needs that voice, the calm, firm, salty voice.

There are millions of voices screaming all sorts of things at our governments and terrorists and corporations. Pleas and entreaties, idle and not-so-idle threats, whines and woe-is-me tales that rend the heart. We need to cut through all the drama with the salty voice of calm.

We need to say to our government:

Mr. Trudeau, you said during the election campaign that you would seek justice for our native peoples. Do it. Now.

To the newly installed president of our neighbours to the south:

Mr. Trump, you are president of a country that says it is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Live up to that, instead of responding with fear and cowardice to terrorism and to the globalization of commerce. Create policies that give voices and hope to the least of Americans—those out-of-work folks in the rust belt who voted for you, all your black and Hispanic and Muslim citizens who now walk the streets in fear. Use the influence of the mighty American military to promote peace and stability in other countries in the world, not to destroy it in order to contribute to the American economic machine.

We need to say to the terrorists:

Your violence breeds only more violence. You will never, ever get what you want by using guns and bombs. We are brave, and we are many. You cannot kill us all, and you cannot silence our voice. Put down your guns and talk, and we will listen.

We need to say to corporations:

You are not a law unto yourselves. You do not have any right to obscene profits while your workers line up at food banks. You do not have the right to take our water and sell it back to us. You do not have the right to foul the water and the air and the land so that no humans or creatures can survive, because it’s more profitable to pollute than to clean up your mess.

We need to say to the totalitarian governments of the world:

We are watching. It is not okay that you imprison those citizens who disagree with your rule. It is not okay that you use military might to suppress peaceful gatherings. It is not okay that you tell your citizens that they cannot worship God in certain ways. It is not okay that you deny your citizens their democratic voice.

And, perhaps most of all, we need to say to the church, to ourselves and to those others of us who call themselves Christian:

We are not here to preach or listen to a gospel of prosperity. God does not shower earthly riches on us just because we’re Christian, and the poor are not poor because they don’t go to the right church.

We are not here to preach a gospel of hatred and exclusionism. Jesus tells us that judgement belongs to God, and if we say that someone is going to Hell, we are the ones condemned.

We are not here to disseminate Western Culture to all the “heathens” of the world, and to say, “Our way of life is best and leads to the purest form of Christianity.”

We are not here to say, “We are the only true path to God, and everyone else is an idol worshipper.”

We are not here solely to pay for our buildings and have bible studies and programs and worship services on Sunday mornings. Those things are valuable only so long as they contribute to our actions outside this building during the rest of the week.

We are not here to preach a gospel of pop psychology. “God loves you as you are” and “everything will be all right” are fine and true sentiments, but the real, gutsy life that Jesus calls us to is much more than that. Jesus tells us to look and go beyond ourselves, into the big, scary world of people who are not like us. Jesus calls us to touch them and feed them and heal them and love them.

I realized, during my two and a half years in the desert, that I was feeling alienated in part because the church seemed to have lost its way. The church, through many centuries of being the religion of the elite, began to identify with the lifestyle of the elite, which was the very sin against which Jesus seemed to set himself.

Listen to his words:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

Because he has anointed me

To bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind.

Let’s change that a little, because we claim for ourselves the title of “Body of Christ”:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon US,

Because he has anointed US

To bring good news to the poor.

He has sent US to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind.

In a physical sense, there is too much salt in the world today. We have to read labels and watch what we put in our soup. We’ve cut down on the road salt where we can, but it still kills the grass.

But in the world of the church, we’ve come dangerously close to being thrown out for not being salty enough.

And I feel it would be very, very bad for the world not to have the church in it. Although we are akin to Judaism and Islam, although there are other valid expressions of worship to the God who made the heavens and the earth, I have come to see that the Christian Church is unique, that we have a piece of this “God puzzle” that no-one else has, and that piece is the part where we realize that God does not belong solely to us, and that other ways of worshipping God are valid. After all, the historical, earthly Jesus wasn’t even a Christian—he was Jewish!

And that piece is the one that we must keep in mind when we speak to the governments and the terrorists and the corporations and the protesters and most especially to each other.

God is not just OUR God, and God doesn’t especially favour us over all other people. And when our Christian brothers and sisters, or our governments, or our corporations, or our protesters or our terrorists forget it, we need to be that still, calm voice of reason that says:

God is God of all peoples. God is over all the Muslims, and the Christians, and the Jews and the Hindus and the Buddhists and the Atheists. God is God over all nations: the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Syrians and the Americans, the Canadians and the Mexicans. God is God over all individuals: Ruth Cooke and Pierre Trudeau and Donald Trump and Alexandre Bissonnette and of all his victims.

We are all of us made in the image of God, and when we oppress one another, we oppress God. When we deny one another justice, we deny Jesus. When we hurt one another, we crucify Our Lord. Again.

We need to have the courage to stand up and speak for those who cannot speak. That is our salt.

If we, the church, lose our salt, we have no purpose in society, and society will throw us out and trample us underfoot.

If, however, we find our voice, I believe that even those who disagree with us will begin to respect us again, and we will find our place in the soup of the world.

Amen.

The Opposite of Love

(Preached by Ruth Cooke at Melville United Church on November 6, 2016)

If we are to understand Jesus and the message that he brings, I think it is important to understand a little of the world into which he was born and in which he lived his earthly life.

Jesus lived and preached in Palestine at a time that was near the beginnings of the Roman Empire. In 27 BC, Caesar Augustus ascended the throne of Rome and became the first Emperor. During his lifetime, Rome saw an unprecedented forty years of peace, where Rome saw a steady increase in prosperity and peace. The frontiers of the empire were slightly extended, borders became stable, and were properly defended. Improved roads provided better communications channels between outlying provinces and Rome, and new cities in strategic places provided centres for administration.

Augustus died in 14 AD, and his stepson Tiberius succeeded him.

At first, Tiberius continued the policies of Augustus. But in 26 AD, just three years before Luke tells us of John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness, Tiberius for some reason retired to the island of Capri, and ruled from there. Those who opposed this change were put to death, and he came to be known as something of a tyrant.

At that time, the Romans endorsed local rulers from amongst the populace, and these rulers reported to Rome while administering local law. At the time of the birth of Jesus, that ruler was King Herod the Great. Herod was a half-Jew, son of a Greek mother, and distrusted by the people. Not only that, he was a brutal ruler. He imposed very high taxes, and used some of that money to install a golden eagle (which was the symbol of Rome) over the temple in Jerusalem.

Jews considered this to be idolatry, and when Herod fell ill, two popular Jewish teachers and their students removed the eagle. Herod ordered them all to be burned alive.

Herod died in 4 BC, and three of his sons inherited a divided kingdom.

Of the three, Phillip, tetrarch of the Golan heights, proved to be the most able. He was fairly popular with the people, who included mostly Romans, Greeks, Syrians and Arabians and not many Jews. He was the only one to keep his rule until death.

His half-brothers Archalaeus and Herod Antipas were different.

Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, was criticized by John the Baptist for marrying his sister-in-law Herodias, who was also his niece, and had him beheaded for it.

Herodias wanted her husband to be a king, and started plotting. As a result, Herod was exiled to Lyon in the province of Gaul.

Archalaeus was ethnrarch of Samaria and Judea, which included both Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Archalaeus inherited the mess in Jerusalem. An angry crowd demanded that those responsible for the deaths of the two Jewish leaders and their students be punished. In answer, Archalaeus sent soldiers into the temple during Passover and slaughtered some three thousand worshippers.

Then he went to Rome to be crowned. Fresh riots broke out while he was away. In response, he crucified another two thousand people.

Archalaeus ruled so badly that he too was banished, to Vienne in Gaul.

It was in this conflicted and hostile world that Jesus began his ministry.

In the Jewish community, there were four different groups, each with a different way of dealing with the brutality of Roman rule.

There were the Zealots, who were revolutionaries advocating armed resistance and rebellion.

There were the Sadduccees, wealthy lay persons who took a pragmatic approach and advocated accommodation. As those at the top of the pecking order, they were more concerned with present day comforts than with what would happen after death.

There were the Pharisees, idealists who sought to live a life of spiritual purity by following the laws of Moses in every respect.

And there were the Essenes, who withdrew from society, often to a monastic like setting. John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness and ate locusts and wild honey, was a type of Essene.

Fast forward to 2016:

Right now, the world is polarized. The US election has all of our attention these days, but the conflicts and problems that are at the centre of the debates are not of Hillary or Donald’s making.

The refugee crisis brought about by the instability of the Arab world and the extreme poverty in Africa.

Unemployment and low wages in North America that are coupled with crippling shelter costs.

And of course, the rapid changes that started in the sixties with desegregation and women’s rights continue with technological breakthroughs that have made global communication instant and personal privacy non-existent.

And we are responding in the same ways as the Jews of Jesus’ time.

The Zealots still advocate armed rebellion. Recently, police officers have been shot while simply sitting in their squad cars. Citizens with guns commit mass murders against groups of people perceived as “the enemy.”

Sadducees still advocate cooperation and accommodation. Life isn’t perfect, but with a little elbow grease, anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If you’re not wealthy, it’s your fault, because if the son of a Kenyan goat-herder can become president of the United States, than anyone can!

Pharisees still seek spiritual purity by following laws written down thousands of years ago for people who led a long-extinct way of life. Oh, they’ve been adapted, and some have been discarded, most notably those that the Pharisees don’t want to follow. Can’t have your eggs without your bacon, can you?

And of course, the world will always have its Essenes. Turn off the television, don’t read the paper, and hide your head under a pillow. Or read Lord of the Rings for the fiftieth time, or play Minecraft on your computer until your fingers fall off. Buy twenty acres in the country and grow your own organic vegetables and raise your own free-range chickens and home-school your children. Hide in your basement and hope that the world will go away while you’re down there.

And if you haven’t guessed, I have a more than slight tendency to be an Essene. Unless I’m really upset, and my inner Zealot goes on a rampage.

We react in these predictable range because change causes fear. We can’t plan ahead, we can’t predict what will happen.

Terry Pratchett, a writer of humorous fantasy, says in his novel Feet of Clay that what people want, more than prosperity or fortune or health or anything else, is stability. We want to wake up in the morning fairly confident that today will be pretty much like yesterday. Because then we feel in charge. We know what to do and how to act.

And when we are confronted by change, when we don’t know which way is up anymore, we start to feel afraid.

And fear casts out love. It becomes every person for herself.

And things get worse. People respond to the change by rioting, or by building walls between themselves and the world. And those on the other side respond, not by changing the rules or their behaviour to make things better, but with violence of their own, because they now feel fear, and seek to maintain their own position.

And along comes Jesus, who tells us, “Do not fear.”

To the Zealots amongst us he says, “Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you.”

To the Sadducees he says, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. Give to everyone who begs from you. Lend, expecting nothing in return.”

To the Pharisees he says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

To the Essenes he says, “You cannot make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?”

Jesus advocates humility, courage, engagement with the world, and radical, self-giving love to counter the fear that comes with change.

It’s not beyond our capacity as human beings to do what Jesus asks.

During the time when slavery was legal in the United States, many loving and courageous people helped slaves to escape. Some gave up their freedom, and some even lost their lives to aid in the cause of freedom.

During World War II, Schindler and many untold others risked everything to help Jews escape the death camps.

In the face of increasing hostility towards refugees, especially Muslim refugees, some people have responded by taking a leadership role in welcoming them to Canada.

Down through the years, many have spoken up to change unjust laws and customs. Women can now vote, gay men and women can now marry, children with disabilities are now given an education and flourish within their families, rather than being hidden away in institutions.

Truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa and Canada have helped oppressors and oppressed heal.

Many, many people give freely of their abundance to the Mission and Service Fund, food banks, and many other fine organizations that seek to aid the disadvantaged in their struggle to improve their nutrition, health, education and overall quality of life.

Fear can, if we let it, overwhelm our being and cause us to act in ways that are hurtful to ourselves, to fellow human beings, and to the universe itself.

Love can cast out that fear, and help us create new paths that lead to healing and joy for all.

Amen.

Zero To One: A New Wineskin

(Preached at Melville United Church, August 28, 2016)

I was born in August of 1960.

The world was changing. The United States elected its first Catholic president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Smoking was linked to heart disease in middle-aged men. Xerox introduced the first commercial document reproduction machine. And despite their astronomical price of $219.95 for a 23-inch black and white television, there were over one hundred million sets in use world wide. The FDA approved “The Pill.”

In other ways, the year 1960 was much like the years and decades before it.

65 out of 100 children lived in a family with their biological, married parents, where mom stayed home and dad worked. Only one child in 350 lived with a single, never-married mother.

80 percent of Americans thought that people who wanted to be single were “sick” or “neurotic” or even “immoral.” Only 28 percent of the adult population was single—divorced, widowed or never-married. Gay men and lesbians were not only sick and neurotic and definitely immoral, but criminals as well, according to the laws of the time.

Almost everyone went to church on Sunday, and stores and entertainment venues were closed.

The FDA may have approved the pill, but it wasn’t legal or available to single women.

The average cost of a new house in 1960 was $12,700. A man in manufacturing in Canada could expect to earn $1.98 per hour. A salaried worker on average earned $116.41 per week. Given a forty-hour work week for that manufacturing worker, the average house cost just over three years’ worth of wages. A worker would earn the equivalent of about ten loaves of bread per hour, and it would take him over one hundred hours to earn the cost of that television set.

Back then, a moderately-priced computer cost about one million dollars and took up several rooms. Those are 1960 dollars, unadjusted for inflation by the way. Only government agencies, universities, and large corporations could afford a computer, and they rented out time on it to smaller entities by the hour, charging thousands of dollars a day.

It’s now 2016, of course, and the world has changed.

The average wage of someone working in manufacturing is now $21.06 per hour, according to Statistics Canada. Interestingly enough, if that worker buys the store brand of bread, he or she is still earning approximately ten loaves of bread per hour. Despite moaning and groaning to the contrary, food and wages seem to have kept pace with one another.

As for technology: that 23” black and white television has become a quite modest Insignia 32” 720 pixel High Definition LED Smart TV, only two hundred and nineteen dollars and ninety-nine cents, on sale this week, only at Best Buy! Instead of over one hundred hours, it now takes the worker a little shy of ten hours to earn wages equivalent to the price of a decent television. And my Moto G cell phone, which I got for free when I signed up with Wind Mobile, has more computing power than that one million dollar gigantosaurus from 1960.

It’s not all good news, though. This week I looked up the average price of a house in Guelph. A modest house is now selling for about four hundred thousand dollars.

In wage terms, that’s about ten times a full-time manufacturing salary. But it’s obvious from the Stats Can data that a lot of workers are not working at full time permanent jobs, even in manufacturing. The average yearly salary is just over 30 thousand dollars, which is about 75% of a full time salary. Which makes a house worth more than thirteen times the yearly salary of a manufacturing worker.

In 2016, only 22 percent of children are living in homes with a mom and a dad where mom stays home and dad works. Another 22 percent live with single moms, and half of those moms have never been married.

Single adults are no longer seen as sick or immoral, and comprise about 44 percent of the adult population. It’s no longer illegal to be homosexual, and transgendered people are slowly making headway with respect to human rights.

Most people don’t go to church on Sunday. Stores and entertainment venues are open not only on Sunday, but sometimes 24/7. Even most banks are now open Saturdays.

Not that anyone uses a teller anymore. A worker is often paid electronically, pays the bills electronically, and pays for purchases electronically. In today’s world, you can be broke and get rich and go broke again, all without ever handling a single piece of cash money!

The world has changed. The reality that my children inhabit is vastly different from the one that I encountered as a young adult, and even more different from the one that many of you encountered when you were their age.

They meet their mates online, even if they’re old high-school friends. They play games online, get their news and weather and sports information online, they shop online and very often work online (and from home).

Most of our young women now attend college or university, and over 50 percent of university graduates are now women. A high school diploma is a necessity if you want to work at Linamar, or even get promoted to a junior management position at McDonald’s.

With student debt skyrocketing, and house prices soaring, fewer young people are able even to dream of owning their own home. Not that it’s always practical anyway—our society is much more mobile that it was, with the average person moving about every five years.

Everything seems to have changed…

Or has it?

Growing up in the 1960s and 70s in the United Church, I remember a little bit about the services. There was an opening call to worship, and some prayers, and three or four hymns, and two or three scripture readings, and a sermon, and the offering, and an anthem, and a prelude and a postlude. Sunday morning, ten-thirty to eleven-thirty, in the same building. Everyone sat in the same pew they sat in the Sunday before. Kids went off to Sunday School.

The hymns have changed, and we’ve changed the words to the prayers, and our theology has evolved. Most churches now don’t have the children go off to Sunday School right at the start of the service, but have them stay for a short while. We’ve added a children’s time.

But we still gather every Sunday morning, often in the same buildings we were meeting in then. We still have prayers, sing hymns, listen to the sermon, put money on the plate. And in most mainline churches, the people in the pews are the ones who were there ten and twenty and thirty and even forty or more years ago. We’re just older.

And we wonder why, with “all these changes,” our children and grandchildren aren’t coming to church. Where are all the young adults? We need them—to fill our pews and help us feel less alone, to bring their kids to our Sunday Schools, to put their money in the offering plate, to learn and perpetuate the values and traditions we hold so dear.

I was introduced a couple of weeks ago to the concept of “zero to one.” It’s a way of talking about innovation. Ordinary innovations are most often of the form “one to n,” which in commercial terms means it’s “new and improved.” We add features, or tweak existing features slightly in order to improve a current product.

Think of your basic kitchen stove. When I was a kid, our stove had four burners on top, and an oven on the bottom with two elements. If we wanted to broil, only the top element came on, and if we wanted to bake, they both came on.

Today’s kitchen stoves are substantially the same, with a few tweaks. They’ve got digital clocks and timers so that dinner will start cooking when you want it to start cooking. You no longer have to guess whether or not the oven is up to temperature—the sensor beeps when it’s finished preheating. Some stoves have flat glass cooktops instead of those spiral electric burners most of us are used to.

That’s the “one to n” concept—adding to and improving a current product.

Zero to one happened for cooking with the advent of the microwave oven. The only thing my microwave has in common with my stove is a clock, a timer, and an electric plug. It uses the electricity to heat the food directly, instead of heating up the whole oven beforehand and cooking indirectly. As a result, it’s much faster.

It’s not a replacement for my stove. There are things my stove does well that my microwave doesn’t (like produce a luscious roast of beef or a wonderful peach pie), but there are things that my microwave does much better than my stove. For example, I can cook oatmeal, NOT the quick kind but the large flake, yummy kind in large batches in ten or more minutes on my stove, or I can put 1/3 of a cup of oats and 2/3 of a cup of water in a bowl and microwave it for three minutes, and it never burns.

In the church, we’ve been concentrating for nearly forty years on changing our services to hopefully bring in more young people. We’ve changed the music, we’ve changed the theology, we’ve experimented with different Sunday School curricula. What we haven’t done is changed the basic structure. We’re trying to appeal to millennials with a wineskin that appeals to their grandparents. And they’re mostly not buying it. The new wine, the spirit that is contained in our young people, is pouring out of and away from our old wineskins.

We need to ask ourselves why, in an era where the average working family is in debt up to their eyeballs and may never be able to afford a house, why are we asking those folks to contribute to the upkeep of buildings that are locked up most of the week? Why are we asking them to commit an hour or two of their precious spare time every single Sunday morning when many of them are working two or more jobs, often with irregular and unpredictable schedules?

Don’t get me wrong. We do need the church as it is. We need it because the fastest growing age group in Canada is the over-80 age group, and those who have tasted old wine prefer it to new, and are better fed by it. We need it because some of our young people have tasted the old wine and find they prefer it.

But I believe we need a new expression of church as well, one that can hold the new wine that is the spirit bubbling through our 20- and 30-year olds.

How will it look, this new wineskin?

I don’t know, but I have some ideas. With real estate currently priced at record high levels, and with it trending steeply upwards rather than down (I just read that in the first six months of 2016, the house prices in Guelph are up ten percent over last year), more church congregations will be landless. Many may not even meet physically more than three or four times a year. An active internet presence, with blogs, Facebook, Twitter and whatever comes next will be a big part of their ministry.

And I believe they will teach that personal spiritual practices, personal scripture reading, and personal reflection are more important than weekly bible studies and participation in church-run programs.

This last was brought home to me when I was reading an article about Willow Creek Church yesterday. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the mega-church to end all mega-churches, with eight different locations. It’s basically a denomination in its own right. The mega-church model is one that requires intense participation—in addition to the “celebration services” every Sunday, each member belongs to one or more small groups that meets weekly.

The leadership team of Willow Creek conducted a qualitative study, which means they were asking not about how many people were participating, but about whether the activities in which they were participating were helping them grow spiritually.

And they found, to their surprise and dismay, that participating in lots of church-run programs did not predict whether someone was progressing spiritually, or whether they were becoming more of a disciple of Christ, or whether they loved God or people more.

Bill Hybels, Willow Creek’s founding pastor, summarized the findings this way:

Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back, it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.

Hybels confesses:

We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.

In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships. And, ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities and hundreds of staff to manage.

That’s actually really good news. I know a fair number of young people, and one thing that stands out to me about that generation is their passion for self-development, and having seen how computer technology has been used to transform education and gaming and shopping and banking and just about every other aspect of life, I can see how it might be used to help our young people develop as Christians.

When Jesus talked about new wine and new wineskins two thousand years ago, the Jewish culture was transitioning from temple to synagogue. Jesus preached on hillsides and plains, and asked no-one to sacrifice any animals. He did not follow all of the strict Jewish traditions around what one ate and when and where and with whom. He reached out to outcasts who would be turned away from even the most progressive synagogue. He was pouring new wine, one that was for everyone and not just a chosen people, and it needed a new wineskin. And so the Christian church was born.

A few hundred years later, Constantine wanted to unite an empire of disparate peoples, and he did that by embracing a faith that was for everyone, and not just a chosen few. The church transitioned once again, from being on the fringes of society to being the glue that held society together. The Roman Catholic church was born.

When the printing press was invented, and literacy rates in Europe soared, the church changed yet again to accommodate those who could and did read scripture for themselves. The Protestant Reformation was born.

And now, we find ourselves in the digital age, with a world that is beyond the imagination of the dreamers of the past. The church as we know it will transform yet again, but the faith of our ancestors, transmitted to us through the ages, is as alive and vibrant and new as ever. Amen.

A Cure for the Christmas Hangover

(Preached at Alma United Church & Melville United Church on January 8, 2017)

I was in a store that shall remain nameless this past week, and I noticed that all of the Christmas stuff had been taken down, and the Valentine’s Day stuff had been hung prominently on the wall behind the cash. That is all to be expected, I suppose.

What wasn’t expected were the Easter decorations and eggs which were being placed on the shelves beside the Valentine’s things.

Christmas is finally over.

The shepherds have gone back to their sheep, and they’re trying to find the ones that strayed away while they were oohing and aahhing over the baby Jesus.

The three wise men have gone home by another way, hoping that when they get back no wars have broken out, no one close to them has died, and their houses are still standing. After all, by the calculation of some scholars, they’d been following that star for nearly two years and it only makes sense that it would take them as long again to return home. Maybe they were hoping that they’d actually get home, because they didn’t have a guiding star on the return journey, and the route was not familiar.

One wonders what happened next. Did the angels and the star and the dreams and the baby really cause any lasting change in their lives? After all, it was just a baby. It would be years before the grown man began to preach and heal and challenge the existing order.

Christmas is finally over.

The guests have gone home, or if we were a guest, we’re back home. The kids are contemplating the fact that today is their last day of freedom before another term at school begins.

The leftover turkey is (hopefully) gone, the chocolates have migrated from the boxes to our waistline. The chairs at Weight Watchers are full of people determined to lose those extra few (or not so few) pounds that have accumulated over this past holiday and countless like it before. The gyms are full of sweaty bodies trying to get in shape after a few weeks spent exercising only the finger that operates the TV remote.

If we haven’t already undecorated the house, we’re contemplating that chore, some of us with dread. After all, people like helping us decorate. But how happy are they to come back and remove all that tinsel they so gleefully put all over our tree?

The presents have all been opened, and in many cases, have been returned for something better, or for cash or a gift card. I’ll admit that I took advantage of some Boxing Week sales (notice how it’s become a week, when a few decades ago it was only a day?), and the line ups at the cash were long—not with folks buying, but with folks returning. If you don’t like what you get, take it back! It’s not the thought that counts, it’s the gift! And of course, if you didn’t get what you really want for Christmas, just go out and buy it for yourself! After all, it’s on sale.

And those sales—notice how they’re all timed to be just before you get your credit card statement? You’ve bought all those Christmas gifts, and you haven’t yet seen the final total, so the stores have one last go at your pocketbook before your eyes are opened to your peril.

Christmas is finally over, and some of us are probably feeling a little down. All the excitement, all the disruption and now…

Now we’re back to normal.

Or are we?

We are back to normal, only with bigger waistlines and emptier bank accounts, if we see Christmas as a once a year event that makes no real change in our lives, just as the magi and the shepherds would have been back to normal if they viewed the baby Jesus as just another baby.

But we Christians know that the baby Jesus was not just another baby, and that Christmas can last forever, if we let it.

Because Christmas isn’t about presents and big feasts. It’s not even about getting together with family and friends and singing lots of wonderful carols.

Christmas is about recognizing that God is here, among us, and that that coming means something, and that it should change our lives.

Last week, I took the congregation on a journey that started with naming what was broken in our lives and in our world to figuring out what actions we could take, to finally choosing one single action or habit that we could adopt in the New Year that would change how we react to our situations.

There was some good discussion about what to do about the big issues over which we have little, if any, influence—terrorism, environmental disasters and Donald Trump among them. One person wisely suggested prayer, and I responded that prayer connects us to others, and we will change, even if the situation remains the same.

But the best response came the next day. A woman phoned and told me that she was going to work on changing her attitude.

She was talking about developing patience when the person turning right at the red light was taking a little too long to do it, and I responded that I’d also be working on attitude, trying not to get upset at the person behind me who was honking at me to turn right when I didn’t feel safe!

And I realized that this woman had gotten the point of Christmas.

God chose to come, not as a great warrior who led his people to victory, nor as a prophet or priest who called down fire from the sky, but as a tiny baby who started out life as a child of poor parents, and who, with his parents, became a refugee, fleeing for his life.

He grew into an ordinary, curious boy, and finally became a homeless, itinerant preacher who got tired and hungry and thirsty and angry and sad and happy. He loved, not with the abstract love of an unseen God, but with the passion of a human being. And finally, he suffered the indignity and agony of a tortured death on a cross.

God became a real human being, someone we can relate to. Someone who, when we look into those infant eyes, reflects in our own frail human form the image of God.

Seeing the image of God, not just in ourselves and in others like us, but in every single human being who ever lived, is ultimately what God is asking us to do. And if we do that, we need to change our attitudes.

Allow me to explain.

My mother watches crime shows. Some are dramas like NCIS, and some are true crime cases like Forensic Files. And on more than a few of those shows, convicted criminals are described as losers, scum, and once, when a Christian was talking about an unrepentant murderer, the speaker said, “I hope he’s ready for what follows life in prison. It’s hot down there.”

And this bothers me, because that baby in a manger grew up to be a man who told us, “Do not condemn anyone to the fires of Hell, for the measure you give will be the measure you get.”

That baby in a manger grew up to say to the criminal hanging beside him on another cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

That baby in a manger grew up to choose, after his death, a man who had watched Christians being stoned as the bearer of light to the Gentiles, including us.

That baby in a manger came to both dirty, lonely shepherds at the fringes of their society, and rich, well-dressed sages who were right at the centre of power. That baby in a manger came to remind us that the breath of God animates every single human being, and that we all reflect the image of God.

Christmas is finally over. Except that it’s not.

Yes, the turkey and the decorations and the presents and the visitors and the shopping are done with. (Well, not really—only 351 shopping days left until Christmas, folks! Run out and get your presents now, then hide them so you forget where you put them and have to buy more! Gotta keep the economy running!)

But Christmas isn’t about turkey and decorations and presents and visitors. Well, maybe a little about the visitors, if you have the right attitude.

Christmas is about God-With-Us. Christmas reminds us to see the image of God in everyone we meet—the person ahead of us or behind us at the red light, the convicted criminals in jail, the homeless youth on the street, the refugees clamouring to be taken in, the business moguls who don’t care about their employees or customers or the environment as long as they’re making big bonuses, and yes, even Donald Trump.

When Christmas stops being about the once-a-year orgy of food and family and shopping, and starts being about Jesus, then we begin to understand that the giving has just begun and that the gifts are all around us.

Christmas will never be over.

Amen.