Blog

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.

Backwards Christianity

(Preached at Melville United Church and Alma United Church, November 20, 2016)

In the gymnasium of a real but nameless church in a real but nameless city there hangs a banner, doubtless made by the women of the church. It’s bright blue, with the picture of a world on it, and in large letters, the phrase “The World for Christ.”

The first time I looked at that banner, I thought to myself, “It’s backwards.”

Then I realized that perhaps, at many times in the past and present, we in the Christian Church have gotten this whole Christianity thing backwards.

Because to my way of thinking, the phrase should more properly read, “Christ for the World.”

Today is what is called, “Reign of Christ” Sunday, or sometimes “Christ the King” Sunday. And the words and the imagery that often go along with this particular Sunday are difficult for me to reconcile with the faith that I’ve developed.

Like many of you here, I grew up with the old blue “Hymnary.” It’s got some wonderful hymns in it—some we still sing today, some, because of space considerations or because of outdated language, have been left out of our newer hymn books.

But there are some that have been left out because, quite frankly, they make some people cringe.

“Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the Cross of Jesus, going on before!”

I know without asking that there are probably some of you here who miss that hymn. It’s rousing, uplifting, and truly wonderful—as long as we don’t think about the words we’re actually singing.

Or this one:

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, Ye soldiers of the cross!
Lift high his royal banner, it must not suffer loss.
From victory unto victory, His army He shall lead,
‘till every foe is vanquished and Christ is Lord indeed!

If you take the words metaphorically, and see the foes as incorporeal things like injustice, greed, lust, hatred, prejudice, poverty, etc., then those hymns, and others like them, can still be meaningful.

The problem is that words have power, and the words we use define our thoughts.

We all know what an army is. We’ve seen war documentaries on television, or videos on the news, or a few among us may have the unwelcome experience of actually being in an army and marching off to war.

Armies are made up of human beings who are armed with weapons that are designed to kill other human beings. Foes are other human beings who have been designated, for one reason or another, as being the “enemy,” and they are to be fought and conquered.

And a victory is when we have beaten the other guy.

These are the images our minds tend to supply when we sing these hymns.

From the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, when Christianity was officially declared the religion of the state, to the present time, Christians have all too often seen non-Christians, or even other Christians, as foes to be vanquished, more often than not by force.

Christ is the King, therefore all on earth should bow down to Him, and if they do not do so willingly, they will do so by force, or perish. Not only that, but they shall profess whatever form of Christianity is currently in vogue or at the top of the pyramid, or perish.

I grew up in the sixties and seventies, when bombings in Ireland were in the daily news. And both sides called themselves “Christian,” and justified the killings in the name of the “One True Faith.”

Before that and after that, there were the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Residential Schools, the rape and subjugation of the entire continent of Africa… I could go on here, but I’m sure you get the point.

Our insistence that the world is not just for Christ but for our version of Christ has led to a lot of misery on earth.

And that vision of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth is not borne out by scripture, least of all the one that we read today.

Jesus the King, hung up on a cross to die. He’s not the only one up there—Luke tells us that he was hung between two other common criminals, one on his right, one on his left. What Luke doesn’t tell us is what archaeologists have discovered—there was not one cross, not three crosses, but hundreds and hundreds of crosses.

Jesus was one of a multitude who perished in agony on a cross. He wasn’t unusual. He wasn’t special. He was one of many victims of an empire that chose to assert it’s power ruthlessly.

What kind of a king is that?

He was never rich. He never wore fine robes. While we’re told he sometimes dined with the rich and famous, his closest friends were common labourers, most likely illiterate, certainly poor.

What kind of a king is that?

And his preaching—let me tell you what he said.

“Blessed are you poor! Woe to you who are rich!”

“If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other towards him so he can hit you again. If someone asks you to carry his pack for a mile, carry it for two. If someone asks you for your coat, give her your cloak also.”

“Put away your sword, Peter!”

This really doesn’t sound like someone who’s going to lead an army of followers to conquer and convert or subjugate or kill all who stand against Him!

What kind of a king is that?

And more to the point, since those are the words and actions and life history of the one we confess as Christ, our King and God, how do we follow such a king?

What I read in scripture is a call to humility and service.

As Christ humbled himself, first as a baby born to a homeless mother who soon was forced to flee the country due to persecution, then as a healer and preacher who was both lauded and reviled, and finally as an outcast who was condemned to death, so we are called to humility, before both God and our fellow human beings.

Christ served, healing whoever asked it of him, feeding the multitudes even when his disciples thought there wasn’t enough food to go around, comforting those in distress and mourning, and so we are called to serve, without counting the cost, without stinting.

That is the image of Christ the King I believe we should keep in mind. The humble servant, giving comfort to those who ask it of him, even in his agony as he hangs on a cross in the hot desert sun.

This is not a Christ who demands that the world be for Him.

This is a Christ who has given himself for the world. As the Body of Christ, we too, should be for the world, giving, healing, feeding, comforting.

Because the Reign of Christ is not about golden thrones and waving banners and marching bands and shouting crowds. The Reign of Christ is Shalom—peace and wholeness and justice for all.

Amen.

Backwards Christianity

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

In the gymnasium of a real but nameless church in a real but nameless city there hangs a banner, doubtless made by the women of the church. It’s bright blue, with the picture of a world on it, and in large letters, the phrase “The World for Christ.”

The first time I looked at that banner, I thought to myself, “It’s backwards.”