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Grateful

(Preached at Alma United Church, October 8, 2017)

(A short note to my non-Canadian readers: Thanksgiving for Canadians is the second Monday in October, and we celebrate today as Thanksgiving Sunday)

This is the point in the sermon where I generally put a joke, but I’ve been reading the news lately, and I’m just not up to it.

Yesterday’s news headlines:

Hurricane Nate death toll rises, Florida asks Trump to declare state of emergency pre-landfall.

Ontario teens killed in crash during police chase in Hamilton.

Missing head and legs of Swedish journalist have been found, police say.

Trump says “only one thing will work” with nuclear-armed North Korea.

2 BC seniors live in a van and struggle to make ends meet.

There may be a ticking climate bomb right under your feet.

Friday 13 Apocalypse warning: Asteroid flyby will “mark the return of Mother Mary.”

And perhaps worst of all, at least for red-blooded Canadian males:

Watching hockey could affect fans with cardiovascular disease.

Would you pray with me and for me, please…

It’s so easy to get caught up in the bad news, isn’t it. It’s so prevalent these days, and it’s hard not to believe that the world is worse off than it was fifty or even ten years ago.

What we used to find once a day, in print on our doorstep is now constantly streamed to our phones. All I had to do to find depressing headlines from around the globe was to open up Google, and there they are, just below the search bar.

New ones every hour, from all over Canada and the world.

Those headlines, though, often cause more harm than good. We actually don’t need to know most of the stuff they tell us, and knowing all of that bad news detracts us from something really, really important.

And that is that life is much, much, much, much better than it was fifty years ago.

How many people here believe that?

I may be in the minority this morning, but before you make your final decision, let me give you some other headlines I read, along with some startling and not-so-startling facts.

First, the headlines and news stories:

Thanks to an online campaign created by comedian and talk show host Stephen Colbert, social media was flooded with awkward photos of celebrities in their teen years – and the pictures managed to raise $1 million.

Lost pet found years later, thanks to Hurricane Irma.

4 US states show decline in obesity for the first time in ten years

Ohio State to make college tuition-free for low and moderate income students

Fierce competition to be the kindest woman inside a women’s prison

Obama invites civic leaders to a summit for solving the world’s most common problems

Underage and binge drinking in the US is drying up

At 111, oldest surviving WWII veteran still enjoys whiskey and cigars

Cancer survivor becomes nurse at hospital that treated her

Danni Schultz might be legally blind, but she doesn’t let that stop her from playing golf, cheerleading, and being in the marching band.

Former MMA fighter befriends teen with Downs Syndrome

For micro-preemie quads, reaching kindergarten is a major achievement

Physicians have told the family that the children are going to be pretty normal, though there isn’t much data on such quads. Just 10 to 15 years ago, micro-preemies rarely survived, and it was extremely unusual for all four to live.

Cops took $60 from a hot dog vendor, so the internet gave him $87,000 back

When Beto Matias headed onto the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, earlier this month with a cart full of hot dogs and fixings, he just hoped to make a little money off hungry college football fans. Instead, his day ended in a now viral confrontation with university police, in which he received a ticket for operating without a license. The officer took $60 from Matias’ wallet and said a judge would decide whether he got the money back.

Campus officials confirmed that other vendors were warned, but Matias was the only vendor fined.

In the two weeks since the Sept. 9 incident, strangers on the internet have helped to turn Matias’ loss into an opportunity, donating more than $87,000 to a GoFundMe campaign launched by Martin Flores, the bystander who recorded the incident. Flores hopes to eventually raise enough money to buy Matias a fully-licensed hot dog cart.

“What was important on Saturday was to show the public the support that was there,” said Flores, a Berkeley alumnus who works in the Los Angeles County Superior Court system. “The community came together not knowing this man, and the majority of these donations were humble donations of five, ten dollars. It’s almost like they bought an online hot dog that they’re never going to eat just to show solidarity.”

Strangers give teen with special needs a birthday to remember:

Aubree Rosenblum has already received what she wanted for her 16th birthday on Sept. 23: keychains — more 200 of them, in fact, with some arriving from as far away as Bali, Germany and Venezuela.

Aubree’s mother, Marla, put out the call on social media because she knew that her daughter, who has special needs, wouldn’t be getting a driver’s license or any of the other typical presents that come with that big birthday. So she asked for people to send her daughter her favorite obsession: a keychain.

The world responded.

In one day, she received 107 keychains. One person sent his entire collection of 38 keychains.

Cambridge, Ontario groom jumps into river to save drowning boy

Guelph, Ontario man buys all-terrain vehicle and goes to Houston, rescues dozens from flood waters

The last one was interesting to me because I know members of the man’s extended family. This particular man is so self-effacing that his brother and sister-in-law found out about it by reading the news. And it was the buddy that went with him, not the man himself, who told the papers.

I think we would all agree that these stories spotlight the best of human nature. But human nature has always been good, hasn’t it?

I deeply believe that most human beings, in most circumstances, are good at heart. We are social beings, and social animals of all types find it more advantageous to help one another than to harm one another.

So why aren’t these good news stories more prominent?

I think one reason they’re not more prominent is that they’re so ordinary. I encounter dozens of people on an average day, and most of them are pleasant to me. Many times in my life I’ve been the recipient of generous acts of kindness from acquaintances and strangers.

Little and big acts of heroism happen every single day, in every country of the world in which human beings reside. It’s how we are.

In other good news, scientific advances have made what was extraordinary only a few decades ago commonplace.

In 1935, the year before my mother was born, the life expectancy at birth for men was 59.9, for women 63.9.  In 1960, the year I was born, the life expectancy at birth for men was 66.6 years, for women 73.1. How many of you here have exceeded those expectations? How many of you expect to exceed those expectations?

In 2010, the life expectancy at birth for men was 76.2, for women 81.1. How many of you have exceeded those expectations?

Death rates from infectious disease, heart attack and stroke, and many types of cancer have fallen.

It isn’t just death rates that have fallen. Life expectancy is closely tied to income, and the rate of extreme poverty in the world has fallen, both in total numbers of people and in the percentage of the world’s population. In 1990, the percentage of the global population living in extreme poverty, which as of 2015 is defined as living on $1.90 per day or less, was 43%. In 2011 that percentage was 21%.

As human understanding of science improves, things become possible that could not even have been imagined in 1960.

Babies born at 32 weeks gestation, often weighing less than two pounds, are now more likely to survive than not. Specialized wheelchairs and other technology allow for more involvement in daily life than ever before for those with physical impairments. That marvel of modern life, the internet, allows us to connect with people around the world and support them in their struggles, whether they need keychains or money or the recognition that a genocide is happening.

War and peace loom big on our minds right now, and it’s easy to forget that what we’re experiencing now is actually unprecedented in human history. There are fewer total wars going on in the world right now than there have ever been in recorded history, with the number of wars annually falling steadily since about 1700.

Our understanding that our shared humanity is more important than any differences between us has grown by leaps and bounds in the last half century. I remember that when I was growing up children with physical and developmental disabilities were ostracized, with fewer opportunities for education and socialization than their more gifted peers. They were seen as defective, not worthy of full integration. They were called names. People who didn’t happen to be white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants also had a harder time of it in the first half of this century, at least in North America. And what our First Nations people endured was beyond excusable.

The world is far from perfect, because human beings are not and will never be perfect, at least not in this life.

But it’s easy to forget, in the press of daily life and in the barrage of bad news from the media, that life as a human being is better now than it has ever been before in human history.

We are too often like the nine lepers in our gospel story today, hurrying on to see the priests and get on with our lives post-leprosy, than the one who turned back. We are too often like the Israelites, who almost as soon as they escaped from slavery, started complaining about the rations and worshipping a golden idol.

Let us, on this Thanksgiving Sunday, to take the time to be truly grateful for everything we have. Let us, like the Samaritan leper, turn back to our God and give thanks for those gifts. And let us keep in mind the admonishment of our scripture from Deuteronomy. Let us not become so full of ourselves and our things that we forget the God who leads us all out of bondage.

Amen.

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That All May Be One

(Preached at Alma United Church, October 1, 2017)

A couple of jokes to start off our World Wide Communion Sunday Sermon:

Told by Rev. Terrence Toland, S.J., former president of St. Joseph’s University

The Pope convenes the College of Cardinals to make a special announcement.

“I have good news and bad news,” he tells them. “First the good news: Our gracious heavenly father Jesus Christ is returning to Earth for the Second Coming, at which time he will preside over a meeting of all Christian denominations, for the purpose of uniting them into a single Christian church.

“Now for the bad news: He wants to hold the meeting in Salt Lake City.”

Another one that I’ve heard about Baptists, but it could be about many other types of churches as well:

A man was passing through a small southern town, and noted that there were two Baptist churches, one on each side of the main street. So he asked a local, “Why do you have two Baptist churches in this tiny town?”

“Well, sir,” the local said, “it’s like this. That there Baptist church believes there ain’t no hell, and that other Baptist church says the hell there ain’t!”

Would you pray with me and for me please…

The competition began in the womb, so to speak. No, I’m not talking about Jacob and Esau, those twins from the book of Genesis we’ve heard so much about. Nor am I talking about any sibling pair you or I might know personally.

I’m talking about the disciples of Jesus, in the metaphorical womb of their instruction by the Lord himself, and already there’s trouble. The disciples want to know which of them is the greatest. Which of them will hold the keys to the Gates of Heaven. Who will sit beside Jesus on his heavenly throne.

By the time we get to Paul, we have Christians boasting about who it was who baptized them. “I was baptized by Peter himself!” We have Christians doubting whether some other Christians were really Christians, because they didn’t follow the Jewish purity laws.

A few hundred years later, we have Christians debating and fighting about whether the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father, or from the Father and the Son.

Then we get Martin Luther nailing bits of paper to a cathedral door, telling the Catholic priests to go read their bible. We’ve got churches that dedicate their ministry to the poor, and churches that go after the rich. We’ve got churches that preach to primarily LGBTQ folks, and churches that say those particular Christians are going to Hell. And of course, we have Christians who don’t believe a God of Love could ever allow anyone to go to Hell.

Then there’s the fact that Sunday morning, ten am has been called the most racially segregated hour in America, because even today, blacks and whites tend not to attend the same churches, to say nothing of Hispanics, Koreans, Chinese, Egyptian Coptics, and so forth.

How sad Jesus must be! He prays that we may all be one, as Jesus and God are one, so that the world may know that God has sent Jesus and that God loves us, every one.

We’re human, and like the very first disciples, we like to pretend that we can rank people in order of importance, using wealth or intelligence or accomplishments or gender or age or skin colour or sexual orientation or religion or who our parents were to decide who is better and more worthy, but our passage today from Genesis tells us that all human beings were created in the image of God, and that we are all good, all blessed.

We like to believe that our form of Christian worship, our denomination, is not only the best, but the only true one.

But scripture gives a different story. The ancient Israelites were divided into twelve tribes, each with it’s own character and function. In the New Testament, Paul talks about Christians being part of the body of Christ, and how each of us has gifts, and that these gifts are not ranked in order of importance—they’re just different, and each one is necessary to the whole.

On this World Wide Communion Sunday, we have heard Jesus’ prayer that we who have come to believe through the disciples be one. That we might all work together to make God through Christ known to all the world.

But what does that mean?

I personally don’t think it means that we have to go back to the old United Church model where other denominations have to become part of the United Church. I think what Jesus is asking is that we learn to recognize that each Christian is important to the shared mission of the church, and that each denomination brings gifts.

The Anglicans and Catholics, for example, bring the gift of liturgy to the table. The Mormons bring the gift of song, and the recognition that door-to-door evangelism is important. Some Catholic groups highlight the importance of spirituality, the Mennonites teach us about non-violence. The Salvation Army works for the poor and downtrodden, the Presbyterians emphasize preaching, the Methodists communion and temperance, the Baptists, of course, highlight the importance of baptism, the Pentecostals bring unbridled praise, the evangelicals highlight the importance of sharing our faith.

We in the United Church also have our gifts—we are respected for our willingness to be political and share our thoughts with our elected representatives. We also bring an ecumenical faith, that challenges other denominations to work with us rather than along side us.

Christians from other countries, other socio-economic position, other races help us to experience a bigger God than the sandy-haired, blue-eyed, clean-robed Jesus so often depicted in our stained-glass windows. A shining example of this is our Native Canadian Christians, who are teaching us to be more respectful of God’s creation, and of other cultures, than we have been in the past.

Becoming one doesn’t mean that we do away with denominations.

Becoming one means that we acknowledge our basic common denominators: that we are all human beings, made in the image of God, and that we are all followers of the risen Christ, working together towards God’s realm of justice and peace.

Becoming one means that we acknowledge that none of us personally has a complete picture of who God is or what God wants, but that when we each put our different pieces together, we have a better understanding of God, and draw closer to the divine.

Amen.

Defense Against the Dark Arts

(Preached at Alma United Church & Melville United Church, July 30, 2017, and Bervie United Church, August 13, 2017)

A few years ago, there was a big stir about a series of books written for young readers about a wizard boy named Harry Potter. Everyone was reading them—children who couldn’t read asked for them to be read as bedtime stories, and parents fought to be the lucky one to do the reading, older children read them at school, probably during math class, and adults read them on the subway trains on the way to work. In the space of a few short years, J.K. Rowling went from an unknown former English teacher living in a run-down flat to one of the richest women in the world, and one of the best-known.

Predictably, some conservative Christians protested. They wanted the book banned—it talked about witches and wizards as if they could be good, and claimed the books promoted the work of the devil. Pope Benedict XVI himself weighed in and said that the books were “subtle seductions” capable of corrupting young Christians.

Now, this sermon’s not really about this, but I’m always a bit bemused by those who protest fantasy novels like the Harry Potter series, or games like Dungeons and Dragons. Most of the folks I know who read such novels and play such games are firmly grounded in reality, are better educated than most, and understand science well enough to know that magic isn’t real. In fact, two of the most famous fantasy writers of all time, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, were very devout Christians, and their work speaks to this.

Joanne Rowling also was writing from a Christian perspective. Although the religious themes are more subtle than those in Lewis’ Narnia series, which are actual allegories of Biblical stories, they are there. From the start, Harry, who is an ordinary 11-year-old boy, is protected from the bad wizard Lord Voldemort, not by his skill, nor by weapons of power, but by the love his mother showed in sacrificing her life for him.

Um…

Perhaps the Christian message in the Harry Potter series isn’t so subtle after all, is it?

In the books, as Harry grows and learns, he becomes more powerful as a wizard, but so does his enemy, who begins the books as a shadow of his former self and gradually, through use of the dark arts, gains in power.

In the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry is now 13 years old, and is beginning to learn those spells that will repel creatures of evil. He gets training to repel two in particular.

Bogarts are creatures that like to haunt enclosed dark places, such as closets and desk drawers and the space under the bed. They have no shape of their own, but take the form of whatever the viewer most fears.

The counter charm is riddikulus, which turns the bogart into something to laugh at.

Harry’s friend Neville fears Professor Snape, the potions master, more than anything else. But when the riddikulus  spell is cast, the Professor Snape-shaped bogart turns into a Professor Snape who is wearing the clothes of Neville’s grandmother—a long, lace-trimmed dress, a towering hat topped with a moth-eaten vulture, and carrying a big red handbag.

The bogart confronts Harry’s friend Ron, who is terrified of spiders. Riddikulus! The spider’s legs vanish, and it rolls over and over.

One by one, the students deal with their worst fears, changing the bogart that impersonates them into something that they can laugh at.

We all have bogarts in our lives—fear of things that we know are imaginary, but which paralyze us nevertheless. Like a young child who fears the monster under the bed, we worry about things that will probably never come to pass.

Jesus tells us not to worry about what we will wear or eat or sleep, but we worry anyhow. A few years back, my daughter was in her first year at Laurier University, living in residence. But residence places are only guaranteed for the first year—in second year and beyond, students are expected to find a place to live in the surrounding community.

Her form of the riddikulus spell went like this—I’ll be living in a box on the street corner. Her friend Audrey eventually joined her in that box. They knew the fear wasn’t real—their homes in Guelph weren’t so far from Laurier that they would ever have been in any danger of not being able to return to school because they didn’t have a place to live. But the box image helped them find the humour in the situation, which gave them courage to continue until they found a couple of other students and a five-bedroom apartment to share for the next three years.

Public speakers are often advised to picture their audience naked, which is another form of the riddikulus spell.

But there are creatures more powerful than bogarts, called dementors. A dementor is a skeleton-like creature wrapped in shadow that sucks the joy and energy out of a person. A dementor’s kiss can suck out a soul.

A dementor cannot be repelled by a riddikulus spell. They don’t have the more concrete form of a bogart, so they can’t be changed into a concrete ridiculous form. Instead, Harry is taught to cast a patronus spell, which creates a non-corporeal animal that protects the wizard from the worst of the dementor’s effects. The dementor is still there, but it can no longer paralyze the wizard with the fear it brings.

Like bogarts, dementors are not real. And yet, of course, they are. Many if not most of us have been through times when life doesn’t seem worth living. Our joy, our energy, our ability to think things through—all gone.

After my sister’s death, I felt very little for quite a while. Every day was a struggle. I wondered if I would be better off dead like her. Those days are thankfully gone, but I still have times when I feel doubt and dread for no reason.

The night before I wrote this sermon, I wrote, “I’m feeling unworthy today. Tired. Doubtful. At the beginning of the summer, I was rarin’ to go. Excited and full of new ideas.”

What happened?

I don’t know. I do know that I see the effects of dementors at work all the time. Folks caught up in addiction to alcohol or drugs or sex or violence or material possessions, who on some level realize that their attempts to scare off the dementors that torment them are actually making the dementors stronger. The alcohol and drugs fuel the depression, they don’t get rid of it. The sex and violence, far from making a person feel more powerful, make a person fear weakness so much that they can never admit that they’re not in charge. The material possessions form walls and barriers, but even the people who own them can see that they can disappear in an instant.

Fortunately, we have, in Christ and in the Bible, been given the most powerful patronus charms ever.

Memorizing comforting scripture verses reminds us of God’s love when times are dark.

In God’s house there are many swelling places… I am indeed going to prepare a place for you…

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

…nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, toady or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

Take that, dementors!

Re-reading the stories of the adulterer and murderer who was King David, or the story of that collaborator of persecutors who was Paul, or the sexually promiscuous woman at the well or the cheating tax collector who was Zaccheus or the doubters Thomas and Sarah, or the trickster Jacob or the murderer Cain, we hear over and over and over again that God loves us no matter the sin, that God has a place in God’s New Creation even for us.

Singing songs of faith is also a powerful reminder of God’s love. Like Amazing Grace, written by the former slave trader John Newton, or It Is Well With My Soul, written by Horatio Spafford after his only son died, he lost everything in the great fire in Chicago, and his four daughters were lost when the ship they were on sank. He wrote the poem while sailing to be with his wife, near the spot where his daughters died.

My most recent patronus has taken the form of listening to Sirius XM radio channel 63, The Message, which plays contemporary Christian music. If you don’t have satellite radio, you can go on YouTube and listen to songs like Chainbreaker, EvenIf, Mended, Beloved, and Still.

None of these scriptures, stories or songs tell us that we will live a life of material abundance with no worries or setbacks. As long as we live, we will live a human life with human troubles and the bogarts and the dementors will do their best to suck the joy out of life.

But our patronus is up to all that. It reminds us that God is more powerful than any sin or evil that human hearts and minds can devise.

Our scriptures and our songs and our experience tell us over and over that we are not alone.

That we are loved.

That we are forgiven.

That we are free.

Amen!

Living in Awe

(Preached at St. Andrew’s United Church, Ripley, July 16, 2017)

Very recently, a group of Canadian scientists got together. They realized that with all the advances in genetic science, they could probably create life.

So they challenged God to a life-making contest. God, being a good sport said, “You’re on! Do your best!”

The scientists took their jars and went to the garden outside their laboratory to gather some dirt.

Then God spoke. “Oh, no you don’t! That’s my dirt! Go make some of your own…”

Would you pray with me and for me, please…

There are so many, many hymns I could have chosen for today’s service. I’ve chosen four, but I might just has easily have chosen “This is My Father’s World,” or “All Things Bright and Beautiful” or “Praise My Soul the King of Heaven” or more modern tunes like “Our God is an Awesome God” or “In Awe.”

I could have had my choice of psalms, too. I chose Psalm 19, but I could just have easily preached this sermon on Psalm 8. “When I look to the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you have set in their places, what are we mortals that you should be mindful of us, mere human beings that you should care for us?”

Or Psalm 139. “How deep are your designs, O God! How great is their number!”

Or Psalm 147: “God covers the sky with clouds, God prepares the rain for the earth, God makes the hills green with grass.”

And those are just three that I found without really looking hard.

In times past, human beings lived closer to nature, and they lived in awe. Not just the “Oooh! Look at that!” kind of awe, but the kind of awe that sometimes had them cowering under the bedcovers, fearing for their lives. Or peering anxiously at the skies, searching for the rain that hasn’t come to water the crops. Or shivering in their tents, wondering if the snow was ever going to stop falling, or if they were going to freeze to death this winter?

We’ve become very isolated from nature, so much so that when a human being in the developed world dies in an accidental encounter with nature, it’s headline news. Wildfires threaten homes. Bears maul an unwise hiker. A man drowns in Florida. An airliner disappears into the ocean, and years later we’re still looking for it.

But our daily lives are divorced from God’s natural world. When I was living in Guelph and going to school in Toronto, it was entirely normal for me to leave my front door, get on a bus in front of my house to go downtown, switch to another bus to go to Toronto, get off that bus and walk to the subway station to take the train to Museum station, and get off the subway, walk up the stairs and through the front doors of Emmanuel College, all without ever walking on earth, grass, or indeed any natural substance.

If you are an office worker in downtown Toronto and live in an apartment in Toronto, it is entirely possible that you could go for entire days without even venturing into open air. The heavens telling the glory of God and the sky proclaiming God’s glory in thunderstorms goes unheard.

In the psalmist’s time, nothing could be hidden from the sun’s heat, but with air conditioned buildings, well…

The heat and the snow and the thunderstorms are no longer even minor inconveniences. Unless the power goes out, of course…

I know the folks here in Ripley and Bervie-Kinloss are much more in tune with the natural world than the average Torontonian. Some of you garden, some of you farm, and there are no vast expanses of high rise buildings to block out the sun or the thunderstorms.

But even so, the effect of nature here is muted. We all (I hope) live in solid housing that keeps out the rain and the wind and even the heat for the most part. We’ve developed irrigation and pest control methods that alleviate some of the worst of natures depredations on our crops and animals, and we have greenhouses to give us year-round produce, even here in snowy Canada. We no longer live in the world of the psalmist, and I think we’ve lost a lot of that sense of awe and wonder that humans felt in times past when they witnessed the absolutely untameable forces of God’s nature.

We think that we are like the scientists in my joke, able to tame what God has created and improve upon it. Until we’re reminded in rather spectacular ways that we are really NOT in control.

The wildfires raging in British Columbia are particularly bad this year. It’s not just the hot, dry weather that may or may not be caused by global warming that has been caused by human activity on the planet.

It’s also the result, ironically enough, of increasingly effective methods of supressing wildfires. Wildfires are actually necessary for the regeneration of forests. In a natural situation, they burn over an area about every ten years, consuming dead wood and leaving the healthiest trees a little scarred, but alive. The ashes return to the soil, providing the living trees with nutrients. Some species of trees are renewed as the fire provides the heat necessary for their cones to open and release their seeds.

The bare patches left by the fire become filled with sun-loving plants such as blueberries that in turn provide food for animals.

But we humans are, rightly, terrified of fire. We jump on those wildfires, most of which are naturally started by lightning, and put them out as quickly as possible. The result is a build up of dead wood in the forest, and in a hot dry year such as the one currently happening in the interior of British Columbia, the forest can become one big furnace. Instead of simply burning off the old wood, the fire becomes hot enough to kill large, healthy trees. Instead of renewing the soil, the fire can actually sterilize it. The pine cones will open, but the seeds will be consumed.

The result is a dead zone which will take years to recover. All because we thought we were doing the natural world a favour by putting out fires…

Sometimes the word “awe” is translated as “wonder,” but it’s also translated as “fear.” But awe is both of these things at once, and more besides. Awe isn’t just about feeling wonder at God’s creation and God’s word, and it isn’t just about feeling fear of creation or God. Awe denotes respect—not the polite respect we demand of our children, but the cautious, deeply-felt respect we should feel if, for example, we meet a moose or a bear unawares on a hiking trail. Being awe-filled means enjoying what we see, but keeping our distance.

Many folks, I am sorry to say, no longer feel a sense of awe. Watching nature documentaries on television has replaced viewing nature in the raw, but not even a sixty-five inch high definition 3-D television can replicate the awe felt standing on the top of a cliff in Algonquin Park, viewing the Baron Canyon or the Lake of Two Rivers or a glorious sunset. For one thing, there is no weather—no wind to ruffle your hair, no sun to warm your face, no rain to cool it off. For another, and perhaps more importantly, there’s no fear. The danger of falling out of your easy chair is far less than the danger of falling off the cliff on the Lookout Trail in Algonquin.

Some become so afraid of the danger or so averse to the discomforts that they never leave the couch. My parents and brother and sister-in-law were nature documentary addicts at one time, and yet living as they did in the Kawartha Lakes district, all they ever had to do to view nature in all its glory was step outside the house!

Some, especially those who have seen too many tame cartoon animals dancing around befriending humans on their televisions, lose the element of respect. Some are so used to the comforts of the city—temperature-controlled swimming pools, tame animals, air conditioned buildings—that they have no idea of the dangers posed by the natural world.

When they meet nature in the raw, these are the folks who are most likely to be hurt. They want the closeup of the moose or the bear, they stray too close to the edge of the cliff, they forget, if they ever knew, that the lake is not a tame swimming pool and that currents can be deadly. Even for those of us who are educated and have been part of the natural world since birth, God’s creation demands caution and respect. For the uninitiated, it can be a deadly lesson.

And then there are those who have embraced the awesomeness of God’s creation, but are blind in quite a different way.

A couple of weeks ago, I took a trip with my mother and my youngest son to see a world-famous, UNESCO Heritage Site. We had a wonderful day, on a boat with the wind in our faces and sparkling blue waters reflected in our eyes. We met tourists from around the world—I heard smatterings of conversation in German, French, Japanese and Chinese. Some of those folks had spent tens of thousands of dollars and all of their vacation time just to see this beautiful natural wonder of the world.

I took lots of pictures, and when we got back to Guelph, I showed them to some friends from church. I had more than one person ask, “Where is that?”

“That” was Flowerpot Island. (You do all know where that is, right? I hope that you’ve all been on the boat trip around the islands at least once. Maybe even walked the trails?)

A day trip from my home in Guelph, costing us perhaps $250, gas, meals and boat trip for three included. And yet some would say, “It’s too far,” or “It’s too expensive,” all the while booking trips to Iceland to see volcanoes or Scotland to see old castles or Ireland to kiss the Blarney Stone or Jerusalem to walk in the places that Jesus walked.

Too far??? Too expensive???

I think that sometimes we become blind to the awesomeness of God’s creation in our own country, desiring the wonders of other countries. We look at other people’s grass and say it’s greener, while failing to see the wonders that are right on our doorstep.

We’re kind of like the nine lepers in Luke’s story. They’ve been healed by Jesus, and I’m sure they’re properly grateful. But at this point, Jesus has been around for a while, and perhaps his wonderful power has lost it’s novelty. Only the foreigner returns, praising God for the miracle. Local wonders just don’t seem as wonderful, somehow, as those in far countries.

Last week, I gave you a sheet with some reflections so that you could perhaps find God in scripture. This week, I’m going to give you a different type of assignment.

Put down your Bibles and go out into the natural world. Not in Australia or Egypt or even the United States. Go here, in Ontario. Just for a day, if that’s all the time you can take.

If you can get out into the middle of Georgian Bay or Lake Huron, far from the sight or sound of other humans, do it! If you can find a trail that leads to a cliff top with an awesome view, do it! If you can get close but not to close to a moose or a bear or another wild animal, do it! If you can get to a place where the lights from the cities and towns of humans no longer hide the incredible wealth of stars in the night sky, do it!

Take your cameras and your life jackets and your bug spray. Stay a respectful distance from cliff edges and wild animals. Watch out for poison ivy. But do, please go out into the awesome wildness of God’s creation and meet God face to face.

Amen.

Wrestling With God

Near the beginning of June, I started reading through the Psalms. One psalm every morning, along with the corresponding commentary from the New International Commentary on the psalms by Craig C. Broyles.

So:

Psalm 1: the Lord watches over the righteous. Good stuff, Lord!

Psalm 2: You are my child, today I have begotten you! Yes, Lord!

Psalm 3: You, O Lord are a shield around me. Thank you, God!

Psalm 4: The Lord hears when I call. Thanks again, God.

Psalm 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12: Thank you. Help me. Be gracious to me. I’m here, God, and I’m doing my best to follow in Your way. In you I take refuge. Protect me.

Psalm 13, my translation:

Where are you, God? Have you forgotten all about me?
You’re not answering my phone calls.
You’re ignoring my texts and emails.
I’ve even knocked on your door, and you’re not answering.
Are we through, God? Have you given up?
Everyone’s laughing at me, calling me a fool for believing in you!

Call me back RIGHT AWAY, God.
Show me you’re there, or my life won’t be worth living any more.
The scoffers will say, “Ha, ha! Your so dumb, believing in a God who isn’t there!”

Woah!

Did the psalmist really say that to God?

Broyles says, “Were we to hear someone praying in this fashion today, most of us would take offense at such irreverence against the holy and faultless God.”

And yet…

How many of us have prayed like that in the silence of our hearts? How many of us have wanted to pray like that, but we’re too nice? We’ve been taught not to rebel against authority, especially not against God’s authority! If we do, we’re sure to be struck by lightning!

I’d guess that we’ve all lived through times that have tested us and our faith to the utmost. We’ve all wanted to scream, “I’ve had enough, God!”

I’ve spent years building those churches, and now that horrible giant comes along and rips out all the church bells!

Those snakes and elves were my friends, and that wicked St. Patrick chased them all away!

God, I can’t take it anymore! All my friends have gone away, all my enemies are laughing at me. Make it stop!

What kind of a prayer is that?

We’re good people. Obedient to God. We’re not supposed to get angry at God.

Even when our son is diagnosed with a disability that is lifelong. Even when our sister kills herself. Even when our father lives out his last years unable to speak, the victim of dementia which has shut down a once highly intelligent mind. Even when our mother is told that the pain in her jaw is angina, and that even after losing seventy pounds and exercising and eating right, she’s going to have to undergo open heart surgery. Even when our friend, who never smoked a day in his life nor lived with anyone who did, is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer that will kill him within a year.

We’re not supposed to get angry at God when forest fires consume our cities, or floods and earthquakes devastate whole countries, or when droughts or poverty cause parents to choose which of their children will eat today, and which ones don’t.

We’re not supposed to get angry at God.

But anger is an appropriate response to the scenarios above, and to many others in life.

But who are we supposed to get angry at?

Should we get angry at ourselves?

Anger directed at ourselves is extremely harmful. Alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse, suicide, eating disorders, broken relationships—all of these are the result of internalized anger. All of these do nothing to solve the problem. They don’t even make us feel better.

Should we get angry at others?

We can blame others, or humanity in general, for a lot of the world’s ills, but again, it doesn’t solve any problems. Getting angry at my sister for killing herself won’t bring my sister back, and it won’t help me live my life in such a way that no one else in my family feels so cut off that they want to die.

Getting angry at the weather or natural events is even more useless. And getting angry at those who visit violence on others, while it may seem justified, only perpetuates the violence, which is maybe why Jesus told us not to do that.

So that leaves God.

And as we read through scripture, we discover a curious thing.

When people get angry with God, or question the fairness of God’s actions, or wrestle with God instead of other people or themselves, God answers.

We read only a part of Jacob’s story this morning. Here’s some of the rest of it:

With his mother’s help, Jacob has managed to trick his father into giving him the blessing and birthright meant for his elder brother.

Esau gets angry, and plots to kill Jacob. Jacob runs away. Jacob marries, and works for his father-in-law Laban for many years, and choses as his wages the black sheep and the spotted and speckled goats. He then selectively breeds the flocks so that that stronger animals produce coloured offspring, and the weaker ones produce white offspring. He grew rich, and his brothers-in-law got angry.

So Jacob gathers up what is his and runs away again.

Laban catches up to him, and after a heated discussion, Jacob makes peace with his father-in-law and makes a covenant with him.

He travels on, and desiring to make peace with Esau, he sends his servants ahead to speak with him. The servants return telling him that Esau is coming to meet him—with a force of four hundred men.

Jacob is terrified. His flocks, his wives, his children—all are at risk. He divides them into two groups, thinking that if they’re attacked, at least one group will get away. He picks out from among his flocks and herds a huge number of goats and sheep and camels and cows and donkeys, and sends them with his servants as a gift to Esau, and sends them ahead of him, hoping that Esau will accept the gift and become reconciled with him. He sends his wives and maids and all his children across the ford, and he’s left alone in the camp.

Where he wrestles all night with a man who won’t name himself.

Jacob won’t give in, won’t give up, even when he’s struck on the hip and it’s put out of joint.

The man says, “Let me go! It’s getting light now,” and Jacob says, “No, not until you bless me.”

I think at this point, Jacob understands that he’s not really wrestling with another human being, but with God.

And God does not strike Jacob down, punishing him for his insolence. Instead, God blesses him. Gives him a new name, and a new destiny. He has become Israel, the father of both a new nation and a new faith.

That’s some blessing!

Our Gospel reading is no less curious. A Canaanite woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter and Jesus replies to her plea by calling her a dog!

Does she slink away in embarrassment? Does she try to correct Jesus?

No, she gets angry. “Even the dogs get scraps! Don’t I deserve at least a scrap?”

And Jesus blesses her, calls her faithful, and heals her daughter. Whenever I read this story, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus said what he said deliberately, trying to get a response from the woman beyond resignation at her fate.

Time after time in scripture, it’s not the quiet, obedient, “good” people who are blessed, but very often the angry, the questioning.

Even Jesus prays to God to have the cup of suffering taken away. Even he cries out, “Why have you forsaken me?”

Even Jesus feels the need to rail against God at his fate, even at a fate freely chosen. Life is hard, and sometimes, the only thing you can do is scream out to God in pain.

In my own life I’ve found this to be true. When I’ve reached my limit, when I can take no more, I find it helpful to yell at God.

“I can’t take any more, God! This is it! Make things better now!”

And oddly enough, without fail, I find that one of two things will happen. Either the situation will resolve itself, or I will find new strength, often in the form of angels disguised as friends.

I’ve found that it’s okay to scream out to God. To pound my fists against the divine. To say, “If you care about me, show it!” To challenge God. To wrestle with God.

And when I’m exhausted from the struggle, I am finally empty enough to hear the whisper that was there all along.

“I love you. I’m with you. I bless you.”

Our psalmist discovers this, too. Psalm 13 ends with this: “I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

At the end of our struggle with God is not blame, but blessing.

Amen.

Reflecting on the Message

 Has there ever been a time in your life when you have hurt so badly that you wanted to lash out at everyone and everything?

What did you do? Did your actions and thoughts make the situation go away, or make it worse?

Have your trials helped you to understand how blessed you are? How?

Read Jacob’s story in full. (Genesis 25:19-32:32)

It’s obvious that Jacob’s problems were in a large part due to his own actions. Has there ever been a time in your life when you’ve done something of which you aren’t proud?

Did getting angry at yourself help the situation at all, or did it make things worse?

When Jacob wrestled with God, was he also perhaps wrestling with his own conscience? Have you ever done likewise?

Finding the Unknown God

(Preached at Ripley-Bervie/Kinloss Pastoral Charge, May 21, 2017)

The 17th chapter of Acts starts with Paul in the city of Thessalonica. For three sabbath days in a row, he goes to the synagogue to argue with the Jews and explain the scriptures in light of Jesus the Messiah.

Some of those who heard were receptive, and became believers.

Some of them became incensed. They went to the house where Paul and Silas were staying. When they didn’t find the two men, they dragged their host Jason and some other believers before the city officials, accusing them of “turning the world upside down” and of proclaiming a king other than the Emperor.

Paul went on to Beroea, where more Jews and devout Greeks listened and receive the Word, but the jealous Jews followed them and incited the crowds against them.

Paul fled again, this time to Athens. He was deeply disturbed to find a city full of idols, and spent his time arguing with anyone who would listen—in the synagogues, in the marketplace, wherever he happened to be.

Athens at that time was noted as a cosmopolitan city where the inhabitants were entranced by the new and improved, but Paul seemed to confuse them. Was he proclaiming a new religion or a new god? Was he drunk? What on earth was he trying to say?

So they grabbed him and brought him to the Areopagus, which could have been either the council of the Areopagus, or the hill itself. Either way, they asked him to explain himself.

He starts off by complimenting his audience. Those idols which so distressed him are evidence of a deeply religious people who are searching. But the altar with an inscription reading “To an unknown god” indicates to him that they’re not really certain what they’re searching for.

Paul then goes on to explain to the Athenians that the God they were searching for was God who created the universe. He explains that the Creator is separate from the creation, and does not need to be served by it. God is not made of gold or silver, God does not live in a temple. All human beings are from one ancestor, and are one people, created in God’s own image and that we are born searching for God.

And Jesus, in the Gospel of John, tells us that God, through the Spirit, is with us always, and simply waits to be recognized.

What a powerful pair of readings for today’s world!

It seems that the entire world has become one big Athens—everything has to be new and improved.

Line up at midnight to get the latest iPhone before everyone else does, because the one you bought six months ago is already obsolete!

Listen to the talk show doctors, who advocate a different weight loss strategy every week.

Throw out last year’s clothes and buy new ones—styles have changed since last Spring, don’t you know?

And of course we’re all waiting anxiously for the next season of America’s Got Talent, because who knows what crazy thing the contestants will do to get noticed?

And yet our society is more religious than ever.

We can pick and choose not only which God to worship, but how to worship that God. Sacrifice or incense? Meditation or dance? Traditional worship service or snake handling and speaking in tongues? Do we throw coloured pigments, or smear foreheads with ashes?

Even the atheists have a form of religious expression, sermonizing against the evils of religious expression.

And many of us are babblers, which my bible helpfully describes as someone who pick up scraps of learning here and there and welds them together into a less-than-coherent whole.

Everywhere, there are the lost, searching for the God they do not know.

I believe the desperate search for the novel, the addiction to the “new and improved” is a symptom of an illness that can have tragic results. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for well-thought-out and -researched change. I enjoy new products, new activities, learning new things.

But I do that all from a base of knowing who and what I am, and knowing in whose image I am made.

When the base isn’t there, that deep down knowledge that we are loved, that we are created in the image of God, that we are only a part of a whole that is much larger than our own selves, the pain and suffering can be deadly.

Today’s world is not the world in which our ancestors lived. In times past, children grew up knowing to which class they belonged, what their employment and income would likely be, what kind of person they would marry. Most people lived and died within a very short radius of where they were born. They followed the religion and traditions of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.

Mobility did happen, but not quickly, and not to many people.

Athens in Paul’s time was more like a modern city than like a village of its own time. People came from everywhere, and they didn’t necessarily follow the paths laid out at their birth. To paraphrase the musical Hamilton, “In Athens you can be a new man,” or woman. Choice was possible, but with choice comes a severing from the roots.

And with the severing from the roots comes a time of fear and dislocation. You wonder how you’re going to survive. You wonder if maybe you should go back to what you were, and when you find that isn’t possible, fear takes hold.

Sometimes the fear wins.

Suicide rates are high amongst those who face changes that they can’t navigate. Seniors faced with the end of their productive years, and unsure of what is to follow, but sure they won’t like it. Queer young people who come out to friends and family, only to find themselves abandoned to a world that views difference with loathing. College students, away from home for the first time in their young lives, caught between the pressure not to waste all that money partying, and the need to kick up their heels and let loose. Aboriginal peoples, longing for a way of life that was stolen from them, and unable to find a place for themselves in a country that still views them as alcoholic, uncouth savages.

There are people everywhere searching for they don’t know what.

So they worship idols. They give thanks to “whoever might be up there,” for the things that go well, and cry for deliverance to whoever is handy when trouble arises.

We live in interesting times.

On the one hand, when the whole order of creation seems to be in flux, some people, like the Jews in Thessalonica and the terrorists and hate-mongers of today, react with jealousy and anger.

But when everything is shifting, then too, we have a chance. Into the cracks of certainty, we can insert the message: There is a God, who is bigger than any evil that can happen. We are all one family, haters and lovers alike, and we are all made in the image of that God. As God loves us, so we are called to love one another. We are not alone.

Like Paul, we will find, if we take that message to the streets, that many will not listen. Some will hate us and persecute us. And some…

Some will listen. Some will find Jesus. Some will come home.

So go, and tell the Good News that God is out there, waiting to be found.

Do not be afraid, for two thousand years have shown us that the message is true and will endure.

You are not alone. You are never alone.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

The Nuts on the Family Tree

(Preached at Ripley-Bervie/Kinloss Pastoral Charge, Christian Family Sunday, May 14, 2017)

I was born in 1960 into what was then a very typical family: I had a mother and a father who were married to each other, and within a couple more years, I would have, in addition to my parents, a brother and a sister. We lived in a nice suburban semi-detached house, amidst lots of other families who were, at least on the outside, just like us.

Everybody went to church on Sunday. The fathers worked and the mothers stayed home, and there were no couples without children, or gay couples, or single parents, except maybe in the subsidized housing down the street and around the corner. Everybody was white, until the woman down the street married a black man.

Even as a child I knew that this 20th century ideal wasn’t universal, though. I knew it because for a few years, my parents were foster parents to babies who weren’t so lucky—infants who had been born to single mothers, or to parents otherwise unable to care for them. In 1969, we adopted one of those children—my brother Bill had been featured in the “Today’s Child” section of the Toronto Star. He’d been difficult to place because of his mixed Asian and Caucasian heritage.

My father had been an only child but I had, on my mother’s side, numerous aunts and uncles and first cousins. On Sunday afternoons, we, along with many of those aunts and uncles and cousins would converge on my grandparents’ house to talk and play and have roast chicken for dinner. All of my cousins’ families were just like us, except for my Aunt Shirley and Uncle Ronnie and their kids, who were Catholic. I thought that was a little odd—exotic even!

This was the family I grew up in.

Actually, this was the family I thought I grew up in.

It was only later on in life that I learned that there were many secrets. There are, in my immediate and extended family, adopted family members, divorced and remarried family members, family members who have become pregnant before marriage, adult family members who have never married, gay and lesbian family members.

In 2015, I had the joy of attending my brother’s wedding in St. Lucia. His wife Lisa is a lovely person. We met her family before the wedding. Her mother, and her sister, and her mother’s current husband. We also met Lisa’s biological father, and the biological father of her sister, who had adopted Lisa when she was an infant. At the wedding, all three men—Lisa’s biological father, her adoptive father, and her stepfather, stood side-by-side wearing identical outfits, and when the officiant asked, “Who gives this woman to be married?” they answered in unison, “We do!” Who walked Lisa down the aisle? My brother’s son Patrick, now her stepson.

My family tree is like some kind of exotic hybrid that bears apples and pears and peaches and walnuts and beechnuts all on branches that come from the same trunk!

And the truth is, I think this exotic, beautiful, exciting tree is more “normal” than the “Leave it to Beaver” family with two parents, one male, one female, and the two-point-one children that television would have us believe is the ideal to strive for.

I was taught as a child that that “ideal” family was not only a cultural ideal, but one ordained by God. God created them male and female, and children should grow up to fall in love with and marry one and only one person of the opposite sex, who is not closely related to them by blood, and have children. This nuclear family should live in their own suburban castle, and be self-supporting, but they should definitely visit the grandparents on a regular basis.

But a close study of the Biblical witness refutes this interpretation of what a family should be. Abraham married his half-sister Sarah, and had a child by his wife’s slave girl. Sarah didn’t have a child until she was well into old age. Isaac grew up, got married, and had twins who were rivals from the moment they were conceived. Jacob grew up and had two wives and many children, some of whom sold their brother into slavery.

David married Saul’s daughter Michel, and Abigail, and Ahinoam, and Maacah, and Haggith, and Eglah. He committed adultery with Bathsheba and got her pregnant, then sent her husband to his death in battle and married her.

As one of my classmates said in a seminar on marriage, the biblical standard for marriage is polygamy!

By the time of the New Testament, this practice is dying out. By the time 1 Timothy was written, it was obviously becoming viewed with disfavour, as according to this letter, a bishop was to be above reproach, the husband of only one wife.

The Biblical witness and a study of different cultures and times serve to show us that what I grew up thinking was a “normal” family structure isn’t universal, or normal, or ordained by God. It is simply one of the many ways human beings can covenant with one another to support each other and nurture the young.

And that’s essentially what a family is—a group of human beings brought together by covenant to support and nurture one another.

The two readings this morning were chosen to highlight not the form the family takes, but the function.

Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. They were going to kill him, but decided that selling him was the better option. Maybe they felt bad about committing murder, or perhaps the chance to make a little profit appealed to them. However it came to be, Joseph endured years of servitude, and unjust accusations leading to time in prison, and finally found himself as a top advisor to Pharaoh.

You’d think that after such a life, he would cut his brothers off, forget that he even had a family. But when his family is threatened with starvation, he’s there. He plays a few games with them, it’s true, but he acknowledges the kinship and steps up to the plate to do his part when it’s needed.

In the gospel reading, Jesus is dying on the cross, and his mother, presumably widowed by this time, is weeping below. Jesus turns to one of his disciples and says, “This woman is now your mother. Take care of her as you would your own.” And that disciple stepped up to the plate and did his part, taking her into his own house.

That’s what families are for—mutual support and caring that is given freely, and not bought or bartered for. Faithfulness, not to the form of the covenant—to the marriage or to who lives with you or to who is related to you by birth—but to the function, to loving and nurturing and caring for one another.

The church, at it’s best, is a family.

The last time I was here, I went after the service at St. Andrew’s with my friend Heather, who is as much my sister as anyone born to my mother could be, to have lunch at Boston Pizza. By now, some of you know that her husband is from Kincardine, and that she knows some folks who live around here, so I expected that if anyone knew either one of us, it would be her.

But as we were going out to my car, someone said my name. “Ruth!” she called, and I turned around.

I didn’t recognize her or her husband, but I thought maybe someone from here or [the other church] had come to lunch.

“It’s Shirley Marie and Ron ******,” she said.

My jaw dropped.

Shirley Marie and Ron were members of Rexdale United Church when I was growing up. Rexdale is the first church family which truly nurtured and loved me. I was confirmed there, married there, and my first child was baptized there.

Ron and Shirley Marie hadn’t seen me in almost thirty years when they hailed me in that parking lot, yet they knew me and were delighted to see me.

Because they’re part of the family.

I went back to Rexdale once, to celebrate the 80th birthday of a long-time friend. Since I left 30 years ago, it’s amalgamated with another church and become Martingrove United, yet as long as there are folks there who were part of Rexdale when I was growing up, I know I will have a welcome.

Since I’ve moved to Guelph, Trinity United has been my home. I’m not always there on a Sunday, but I manage to attend regularly enough to check in with my church family, and they can check in with me.

We support, care for and nurture one another in Christ.

When I have gone through difficult times, they’ve been there with the prayer shawls and prayers, casseroles and food, and even money.

When others in the church are facing difficult times, I join with the congregation in providing the same care and support that I’ve received.

We sometimes get to choose who is part of our family—we choose our spouses, we choose to have children, we choose those dear friends who are as close as kin to us. We can choose which church we attend. Other family members we get stuck with—our parents, our grandparents, our siblings.

But whether we choose them or are simply gifted them by God, we are called as Christians to love them and care for them to the best of our ability. Even if sometimes they are a little nuts.

Amen.