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In the Hands of a Witless Halfling

Here’s a fun fact that you might not have known about me—every year, starting sometime near the beginning of the year, I re-read Lord of the Rings. I’ve been doing this since I first read the books at age 17, which I did during math class. I had to repeat the course the following year for some reason…

I’m not the only Lord of the Rings fanatic in the world. Following the release of the third movie, my daughter wouldn’t speak to me for about five years. I’d been sent to buy five tickets for the triple showing of all three movies on release night, but when I got there, there was only one ticket left. I wasn’t going to just leave it there, and at that time she didn’t have a driver’s licence and the movies went on until one in the morning, so I’d have had to go and pick her up, and, well, you get the picture. I got the ticket, and she had to wait…

So why do I read the books at least once every single year?

It’s hobbit forming, that’s why!

Seriously, Tolkien’s entire world is steeped in Christian tradition. Although Tolkien didn’t write allegory, as his good friend C.S. Lewis did, the story of our faith is woven into the fabric of Middle Earth. You cannot read the books and not receive the message of the Gospel.

This is the third in a series of sermons I’ve been doing on Lord of the Rings themes. To spare any single congregation, I preached the first at Melville and the second at Trinity, but if you want to read them all, they’re up on my website.

At the heart of the story is The One Ring—an all-powerful artefact that allows the wearer to control the hearts and minds and bodies of others, if that wearer is strong enough.

This incredibly powerful ring, by a series of rather unusual circumstances, comes to be in the possession of Frodo Baggins, a simple hobbit from the Shire, who has no idea what he’s got. He knows it’s a beautiful gold ring that makes him invisible when he puts it on. He uses it infrequently to escape unwanted visitors, like relatives who have come to beg from him.

But there are others who want this ring for themselves.

Boromir, son and heir of the Steward of Gondor, wants it so that he will have the power to command great armies and destroy Sauron, who made the ring, and thus rid Middle Earth of its greatest evil.

Saruman the White, a great wizard, wants the ring so that he can overthrow Sauron and replace him, ruling the world himself.

Denethor, Steward of Gondor, wants it to keep it safe in the vaults in the depth of the city of Minas Tirith, to keep it safe and not use it, save in the greatest need.

Gollum, who possessed this thing for over five hundred years before he lost it and Frodo’s uncle Bilbo found it, wants it back. Now that he knows what it is, he has fantasies of becoming The Gollum, Lord Smeagol. Eat fish three times a day, fresh from the sea. Make hobbitses, nasty mean hobbitses, crawl, yesss he will, Preciousss…

And all Frodo wants to do is get rid of this thing.

“I wish the ring had never come to me,” he says.

He tries. He offers it to the wizard Gandalf, his mentor and companion. He offers it to the Elf Queen Galadriel.

They both refuse, though tempted by its power that will enable them to do much good in the world. They understand what Boromir and Denethor do not—that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that in the end, they will simply become copies of Sauron, and not the loving and kind rulers that Frodo would expect them to be.

And so, together with the Half-Elven Lord Elrond, they decide to send the ring back to Mordor, there to destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged. And Frodo, the unlucky hobbit, together with his gardener and friend, Samwise, are the ones tasked to do the job.

It’s utter foolishness!

Wouldn’t Gandalf or Elrond or Galadriel had a better chance of doing the job?

Denethor puts it this way: “…there are two follies to avoid. To use this thing is perilous. At this hour, to send it in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself, as you have done… that is madness.”

Madness.

I’m sure that’s what the crowds thought on Good Friday, too. Earlier that week they had greeted Jesus, crying, “Hosanna! Save us!”

They wanted him to be their Messiah. They believed he was their Messiah. They KNEW he was their Messiah.

But he wasn’t doing things the way they thought he should be doing them. They wanted him to fight the Romans, to cast them out, and to assume the kingship.

Instead, he went to the cross.

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, Paul says.

God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.

Human wisdom would have us believe that in order to be considered important, you need to do something important. You need to have money and power and possessions.

Jesus says, “The last shall be first. It is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”

Human wisdom says, “You have to save up for a rainy day. You need car insurance and life insurance and house insurance and a top-notch home security system.”

Jesus says, “Do not store up treasures for yourself on earth. Do not worry about tomorrow.”

Human wisdom says, “Adults are wise. Adults are important.”

Jesus says, “Let the little children come unto me. Unless you are like a child, you cannot receive the kingdom.”

Human wisdom says, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. If someone kills another person, they deserve to die. If someone beats you up, get your buddies together and give it back to them. If someone has a gun, you need a bigger gun.”

Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek. Don’t judge. Don’t seek revenge.”

Conventional wisdom says, “Death is the end. Game over.”

Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Absolute idiocy!

Except that two thousand years after Jesus walked the earth as a human being, we can see the results of human wisdom.

Our desire for security, for more stuff and better stuff, has led us to the brink of environmental disaster.

In Jesus’ day, military powers played chicken with swords and men. Now they play chicken with nuclear weapons that can destroy entire cities or even countries with a single push of a button.

In Jesus’ day, revenge of one neighbour against another might have involved a fist fight, maybe one or two deaths. Now any teenager with a grudge can pick up an automatic weapon and take out dozens of people in a single shooting spree.

Our fear of death has driven us to find cure for many diseases, but the death rate for humans is still 100 percent, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. But many people go on hoping, spending money that might have gone to help the living on cryogenically preserving their bodies, so that in the future they might be brought back to life.

It’s our human wisdom that’s turning out to be utter foolishness, and God’s foolishness has turned out to be wisdom.

We do not conquer death, or anything else, by running away. We conquer by facing our fears, and realizing that life goes on.

We don’t defeat violence by becoming violent, we defeat violence by showing others that there is no need to be violent, and that we can all live in peace.

We do not conquer hate by hating, but by loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.

We don’t find security by buying more insurance or paying off our mortgage or by having the latest and greatest iPhone. We find security in knowing that we don’t need all that stuff, and by having faith that whatever happens, God will provide.

And we don’t change the world by leaving our fate in the hands of seemingly powerful humans or elves or wizards, as Frodo tried to do in the beginning, but by doing the tasks that have been set before us by God, in the best way that we know how.

It’s difficult, in the face of a world that needs to touch and see, as Thomas did, to maintain faith that seems foolish. Sometimes, in the face of fear, it seems nearly impossible. The temptation to backslide, to be like others and put our trust in worldly things and powerful people, is overwhelming.

But in the end, it’s foolish and unnecessary.

Foolish because all mortals and all things that were made by the hands of mortals will eventually pass away.

But God will endure, and God’s wisdom is true.

Trust in the foolishness.

We are not alone.

Amen.

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Get Out of Bed!

(Preached at Melville United Church, Fergus, on January 7, 2018)

This time last year, many of us were very fearful. Donald Trump, who didn’t even think he could ever be elected himself, had just been sworn in as President of the United States of America.

He said he was going to build a multi-billion dollar wall between the United States and Mexico to keep illegal immigrants out.

He was going to dismantle the Environmental Protection Act, destroying the natural world.

He was going to kick out all the Muslims, and stop non-white, non-Christians from emigrating to the States.

Women’s rights would be set back fifty or even a hundred years.

He’d dismantle the new, fragile system set up by the previous government to provide universal health care.

The world as we know it would end, and all of the scenarios in those dystopian novels would come true.

That is, if he didn’t get impeached right away.

Well, here we are, a year later, and there have been some surprising developments.

Yes, he’s done quite a few things that have been cause for grave concern. He’s moved the world almost to the brink of nuclear war by playing chicken with North Korea. He has, as expected, rolled back some of the more progressive environmental laws and laws protecting the reproductive rights of women—such changes are usual in the United States, and the progressive laws will probably be reinstated by the next Democratic government.

In other ways, things haven’t been quite as bad as predicted. The President does not have the power Trump thinks he has. The courts have declared a blanket ban on travel from certain countries to be unconstitutional, and the attempt to repeal “Obamacare” hasn’t yet succeeded, largely because nothing satisfactory has been proposed to replace it. His attempt to ban transgender soldiers from serving in the military likewise was struck down by the courts.

And there have been some rather surprising developments.

The extreme right in the United States and in Canada, emboldened by Trump’s success, thought their time had come, and they started demonstrating.

In Charlottesville, a rally turned deadly when a counter-protester was killed. In response, a later rally in Boston that drew 50 participants drew tens of thousands of counter-protesters.  Further rallies were cancelled or moved on-line.

The Charlottesville and Boston rallies were a wake-up call to the United States. White liberal citizens woke up to what Black citizens had been trying to tell them all along—that despite having elected their first Black president, America is not a beacon of equality, and that there is much more work to do.

Recently, women in the entertainment industry have begun speaking out about deeply-rooted sexism that has resulted in several highly respected men being exposed as abusers of those under their power. While I believe that such deeds would have eventually come to light, the spotlight on Trump’s record with regards to women’s equality likely caused them to be revealed sooner.

In an ironic twist, in many ways, the effects of Trump’s first year in office have often been the exact opposite of those he and his supporters were expecting.

So it was with Herod. The Magi followed the star in the East, but East is only a direction, not a destination. Knowing they searched for a king, they stopped in the most obvious place—the palace.

“Where is this king?” they asked.

The Magi might never have found the infant Jesus if Herod’s scribes hadn’t told them, just as the United States and the world might not have realized that we still have along way to go to reach our goals of “peace on Earth, good will towards all” if the election and the riots and the nuclear posturing hadn’t happened.

Because we were asleep.

North Korea has had its nuclear weapons for a while. Hatred and racism have been endemic in the world for as long as there have been humans of different tribes. Blacks and Muslims in the United States, First Nations peoples in Canada, Aborigines in Australia, Syrian refugees in Europe, Rohingya people in Myanmar—all these and more face life-threatening and soul-destroying incidences of racism every day.

Women still don’t have the same rights as men, queer people still don’t have the same rights as their straight brothers and sisters, poor people still don’t have the same access to justice and the necessities of life as their rich sisters and brothers.

The election of Trump and the resulting riots and media coverage has been, in many ways, like a light shining in dark places. We see into the shadows where our dark secrets were shoved. We see what’s hiding under the bed, what’s been swept under the rug.

We need to wake up.

We need to wake up to the fact that those who would keep out the refugees and set women’s rights back a century and oppress the poor and demonize those who are different are often Christians even as we are, who use scripture to justify the slaughter of innocents.

We need to wake up to the fact that getting access to effective mental health care is difficult, sometimes impossible, even in a progressive place like Southern Ontario.

We need to wake up to the fact that in Ontario in 2018, almost one in five children still live in poverty, and that despite the recent increase in the minimum wage, we still have no universal day care strategy that will allow the mothers of those children to seek employment.

We need to wake up to the fact that right now, as we worship, there are people out on the streets, trying to keep from freezing, because they have no homes. We need to wake up to the fact that our basic income programs don’t provide enough income so that single adults can pay for even the most basic shelter in our larger centres. We need to wake up to the fact that construction of luxury condominiums and huge single family homes is booming, while construction of affordable rental properties has been non-existent in the last twenty years or so.

We need to wake up to the fact that we are called to do more than just be here on Sunday morning, then exit these doors and ignore the work that God has given us to do.

Get out of bed, Fergus! Wake up! Put your face in the sunlight. God’s bright glory has risen for you.

The whole earth is wrapped in darkness, all people sunk in deep darkness.

But God’s glory rises on you, and all will come to your light. The exiles are returning, those who left the church in those days when it seemed like the church was no longer needed—life was just fine without it. The exiles are returning, those who saw the church as outdated, backwards even.

Watch as they gather, watch as they approach you: men coming from great distances, women carrying their children.

They’re searching for God, they’re searching for hope.

They’re following the star. They’ll come in, asking us where they can find God, that same God born in a manger.

When they do come in, will they find Herod, who will tell them where to find the baby, while secretly plotting to destroy any threat to his power?

Or will they find other magi, other seekers who are ahead of them on the road, and who are ready to lay down their gifts before the newborn king?

Will we welcome them with smiles—big smiles? With open arms, open hearts, open minds? Will we learn from them, take a deep look at our own shadows, and give ourselves up to the light?

Wake up, Fergus! It’s morning!

God’s light is shining, and it’s time to get out of bed and get to work!

Amen.

Who Are We Here For?

(Preached at Melville United Church, Fergus, on February 4, 2018)

One of the difficulties with the lectionary is that we tend to read passages in isolation, with little or no context gleaned from the surrounding material. We read this passage from Corinthians today:

For thought I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all… To the Jews, I became as a Jew… To those under the law, I became as one under the law… To those outside the law, I became as one outside the law… To the weak I became weak… I have become all things to all people…

With our twenty-first century eyes, and without the surrounding parts of Paul’s letter, we are at risk of misleading this.

Paul is not a people-pleaser, pandering to the masses, changing his mind a dozen times a day. Nor is this a recipe for clergy burnout, an attempt to do and be the impossible.

Rather it is the message of an astute disciple who understands how his actions appear to unbelievers and newly minted Christians.

Paul starts off this section in his letter to the Corinthians talking about food sacrificed to idols? Is it all right for Christians, who do not believe in the idols, to participate in the community feasts held in their honour? After all, these established Christians know it’s just food, and those feasts are probably rare chances for them to get together with their entire community.

Yet Paul tells them to refrain, not because the food is unclean, nor because they would be actually worshipping idols, but because their participation might confuse new Christians, causing them to believe that they can worship both idols and Jesus. Even worse, it might cause them to see Christians as insincere in their faith and to reject the Gospel altogether.

That problem hasn’t gone away.

A number of years ago, I asked members of my online writing forum who didn’t go to church any more why they had stopped attending. The replies were revealing.

Not a single one of them said that they had stopped going to church because they no longer believed in God, or that they didn’t need either God or the church.

Rather, the replies were like this one, from a member who lives in a developing nation:

I stopped going to church because although I live in a poor community, our priest drove a new car and wore fancy clothes.

As Christians who want to share the gospel, we need to be sensitive to the context in which we minister.

I regularly eat meals with friends and family who are either alcoholics or recovering alcoholics. When I’m with them, I don’t drink. Not because I’m against drinking alcohol, but because I don’t want them to feel that they need to drink in order to be like me. Having learned how alcohol affects the brain, I realize that even just looking at my drink causes neurons in their brains to fire that could cause them to relapse, and I do not want my glass of wine with my meal to be the reason they fall.

In the church, we like to say all are welcome. We even have a song: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

But is that really true? Are we, as Paul says, really all things to all people?

Some churches, especially small rural churches, are having difficulties with new standards for accessibility. But even those churches that have elevators and ramps to get inside almost never have accessible chancels. Everyone is welcome, unless you feel called to be a minister, in which case, you’d better be able to climb a few steps… We have a shortage of ministers right now—how many really good ones might we have turned off ministry because when we renovated our buildings, we failed to see all of the barriers?

There are barriers, too, that we don’t even notice for those with developmental and psychological disabilities. Most of you know that I have a son, David, who is an ordained minister. Most of you know that I have a daughter, Allison, who plays the cello and teaches music. I’m not sure, though, how many times I’ve talked about their younger brother Robin. Robin is severely autistic. As a child, he would often have temper tantrums. Even at his best, he needs one-to-one help to stay focussed on any task. When he was five or six, his father and I were told that in order for him to continue attending Sunday School, one of us would have to be with him.

That might seem like a reasonable request. If we didn’t stay with him, someone else would have to learn how to deal with him. The church might even have to pay someone to be with him.

But we came to church in part for relief. To be, for a single hour, free from the need to be always on the alert.

His father’s decision was that neither he nor Robin would attend church any more. That decision cost the church two regular attendees, one of whom was not quite a believer, and yet who had taught Sunday School because that is where his gifts are, and because he felt that if his children were going to attend church, that they should at least know their Bible stories! He might have, in time, come to see the church and the Gospel as something valuable. Instead, he stays at home with our son to this day.

In 1988, the United Church as a whole declared that gays and lesbians were welcome as full ministers, and all members were eligible to be considered for ordained ministry.

Thirty years later, it’s still a struggle for some. Churches are still reluctant to declare themselves affirming because of protests from one or two members.

And some recent stories indicate that those who do go through the process invariably lose a couple of die-hard opponents of inclusion. Those same congregations often find that despite those losses, a few years after their designation as affirming congregations, attendance at worship has doubled, or tripled, or…

Because more than 80 percent of those outside the church are affirming of equal rights for LGBTQQ2+ folks, and the insistence of some churches, which is not backed up by any of Christ’s actions or words, that only heterosexuals are loved by God has turned them off church and off God.

Even more recently, I’ve been reading books about the different ways people learn. We all have a primary learning style, and researchers have named the three primary styles. There is auditory, which means we learn by hearing, visual, which means we learn by seeing, and kinesthetic, which means we learn by doing.

Protestant churches are a huge fan of auditory learning. Sit still, keep quiet except during the hymns, and focus on what is being said. Church decorations are to be modest, if present at all, and dancing is right out! Don’t clap, either during hymns or after the anthem. Just sit there and listen, preferably with your arms crossed and a slight frown on your face that indicates you’re concentrating on what’s being said or sung. Could it be, perhaps, that one reason churches don’t thrive is because up to two-thirds of the population finds our traditional style of worship inaccessible and boring?

To be honest, traditional worship is my preferred style of service, except maybe for the “no clapping” part. I’m an auditory learner, and traditional ways of instruction suit me to a “t”. But many others, if not most others, are not like me. They need pictures, they need hangings and stained glass windows, they need movement and action. One of my learning goals around worship is to get better at integrating visual and kinesthetic components into worship. In order to make worship meaningful for all and not just some, I need to become a visual learner for the visual learners, I need to become a kinesthetic learner for the kinesthetic learners.

Becoming all things to all people does not mean disowning who we are. We do not have to change into ultra-conservatives just because we are amongst ultra-conservatives. We do not going to change into native persons because we are amongst natives. We do not suddenly have to lose our faith because we’re amongst unbelievers.

Rather, we need to mute those parts of us that might end up being barriers to others and keep them from seeing Christ in us. We should take the time to learn about the life experiences of those who differ from us, whether those differences be cultural or racial, developmental, psychological, age-related or gender-related, or related to sexual orientation or learning style or physical ability.

Because as Paul says often, the Gospel and the love of God shown to us in Christ are not just for us and people like us, but for all of humanity, in all of its wonderful diversity.

Amen!

Say “Friend” and Enter

(Preached at Trinity United Church, Guelph on March 11, 2018)

The word “fan” that we use so lightly to describe someone who likes something or someone has its root in the word “fanatic,” which is often used in a much less complimentary way to describe someone who is obsessed with something or someone.

I’ll leave it to you to decide which of those two descriptions describes someone who has read a particular thousand-page novel at least once every year for the last forty years, and who sat through the three films made from the novel a total of fifty-seven times in the theatre, not to mention uncounted times at home. This person (who shall not be named in order to spare her family the embarrassment) has gone through about six copies of the books in total, owns Lego, light-up plastic wine tankards with the characters on it, has a couple of super-sized plastic drink cups with figurines on top from the theatre, has a lovely knitted character doll that her extremely talented daughter made for her, and has more than a couple of posters, calendars, Valentine’s card sets, planners and notebooks, all based around the book and movies. Oh, and a couple of pieces of jewelry that she may or may not be wearing at the moment. Somewhere in her house, she has the One Ring, but Sauron will never find it under all that other junk, or so we can hope.

Okay, so “fanatic” it is…

It takes all types to make a world, or so the saying goes. Even Lord of the Rings fanatics have their place in this world.

One of the things that many of Tolkien’s 10 million and more fanatical readers may not know or may choose to ignore is the fact that Tolkien, though not writing straight allegory as his friend C.S. Lewis chose to do, did write from a distinctly Christian viewpoint. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and one of his sons became a priest. The world of Middle Earth comes complete with an entirely Catholic cosmology, including angels, demons, heaven, hell and purgatory.

The stories Tolkien tells of Middle Earth are rich in Christian symbolism and messages. Tolkien gives it to us straight about the dangers of absolute power, power that should belong to God alone. He tells stories of fall and redemption, death and resurrection, and hope amidst unbearable loss and the dark shadows of almost certain defeat.

The facet of the stories that I want to highlight this morning are about friendship, and the value and strength in diversity.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a world bedeviled with separatist attitudes. The doors and the trees that you see pictured on the screen were at one time a symbol of friendship between dwarves and elves, two very different races with very different gifts and values.

The friendship as so strong that the password was simply the Elvish word for friend. Not only was it a simple word, but it was actually written on the doors!

It would be, in today’s world, like leaving the password to your phone taped to the back of it, or leaving the door to your home wide open so anyone passing by could enter.

Can you imagine a world like that? That’s how deep the trust was between those two very different races.

But times changed. The beginning of the story that is Lord of the Rings, the free races are all ensconced in their little countries, defending their borders not only against the evil that is the Dark Lord Sauron, but against each other as well.

The fellowship of the Ring seeks to enter Lothlorien, a stronghold of the elves. The elves are willing to allow the fellowship to enter, but only if the dwarf Gimli is blindfolded, so he doesn’t spy out their secret ways.

Gimli, of course, doesn’t take this lying down. He refuses to go forward until he is joined in his blindness by the elf Legolas. The leader of the company, the human Aragorn, states that all the company shall fare alike, and that if one is to be blindfolded, so they all should be.

The elf Haldir, one of the elves of Lothlorien, justifies his actions by saying, “Folly it may seem. Indeed, in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly seen than in the estrangement that divides all who still oppose him. Yet so little trust do we find now in the world beyond Lothlorien, unless maybe in Rivendell, that we dare not by our own trust endanger our own land.”

It’s kind of like they wanted to build a wall between themselves and the world, isn’t it?

The separation of the races hurts more than it helps, though. Dwarves and elves and humans and hobbits spend valuable time and resources keeping one another at bay, time and resources that should have gone into destroying the enemy that threatened them all.

Fortunately for Middle Earth, Elrond, the half-elven Lord of Rivendell, is charged with creating a force to oppose Sauron by destroying the One Ring, and he commissions a fellowship consisting of representatives of four different race—elves, dwarves, humans and hobbits, as well as the wizard Gandalf. Each of the nine companions has their own gifts—Aragorn is wise and experienced, Boromir is strong and good with both sword and bow, Legolas the elf can see far off, and has an understanding of the natural world, and Gimli the dwarf keeps his head in underground spaces and has exceptional endurance. Even the hobbits, as small and as rustic as they are have their gifts—the appreciation of things as simple as good food, a warm bath, and a comfortable bed remind those who live under the shadow that there is something still worth fighting for, and their friendliness and trust and ability to make friends in a world where distrust and suspicion are the norm win them powerful and unlikely allies.

The diversity of the fellowship, seen by some as foolish or even dangerous, turns out to be their greatest strength, and the key to overcoming the dark power of Sauron.

And so it is in life and in the church.

There are all too many examples in our world of what happens when fear destroys our ability to interact with others who differ from us. Walls, shootings, immigration bans, hate graffiti, riots—these are only the most visible effects of xenophobia. We pat ourselves on the back when we realize that these things rarely happen in “our” city or country or church.

Yet there are more subtle signs that things are wrong in Canada as in Middle Earth.

Look around at who’s here. Do we see many different kinds of people, or do we see a lot of people who look and probably think just like us?

The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King once said that the most racially segregated hour of Christian America was 11 o’clock on Sunday morning. Things haven’t changed all that much in most churches, and in some ways it’s gotten worse. Churches are not only mostly monolithic as far as race is concerned, but also as far as political affiliation, age, sexual orientation, educational level, occupational status, and income. And churches, once leaders of inclusion, are now lagging behind society with regards to those whose physical, psychological, emotional and intellectual abilities are different from the norm.

That lack of diversity impoverishes us immensely.

Paul tells us that each of us has specific gifts—how are we to function as a church if some of those gifts are missing?

Jesus tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves—how can we do that if we don’t know anything about our neighbours beyond what the papers report?

The early church, before the establishment of an establishment, seems to me to have been incredibly inclusive. Jesus ministered to Nicodemus, a leader amongst the Jewish elite, in the dead of night. In the glaring light of the noonday sun he ministers to the village whore, one of the most marginalized people in the community.

His followers were also diverse—although we think of his followers simply in terms of the twelve (who were themselves a pretty diverse bunch), his regulars seem to have numbered about 120 people, including women of means who supported him, a well-to-do Jewish man who offered up his own burial site after the crucifixion, and his own mother and brothers and sisters, who may have thought he was crazy at times, but apparently followed him and loved him anyways.

After the resurrection, in the early days of the church, the diversity continued. In Acts we hear about the crowd at Pentecost being from every nation under heaven.

The individual baptisms mentioned in Acts highlight that diversity—from the baptism of an Ethiopian eunuch, a black man who would have been excluded from full participation in temple rites for a number of reasons, to a magician who seemed to be more interested in the disciples seemingly magical ability to heal than in the message of Jesus, to a Roman military commander, to a jailer and all of his family.

The early church debated whether or not non-Jews could become Christians without following Jewish dietary laws or having the males circumcised, and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t necessary for Gentile Christians to act like Jews in order to be part of the growing community.

As the church grew in numbers and power, and as bureaucracy settled in, the human urge to build walls reared its ugly head. Being Christian wasn’t good enough any more—in order to get into heaven, one had to subscribe to a particular form of Christianity. Still later, one had to also subscribe to European values and culture in order to be considered fully Christian. We lost trust in the world outside us, and the evil that stalks our world rejoices, knowing that as a divided people, our power and influence weakens.

Those walls we built are the source of our greatest sin—the shutting out of the Spirit of God present in those whose gifts and thought processes differed from ours. I would venture to say that those walls we build were also the cause of the near-extinction that mainline denominations have been threatened with in North America over the past few decades.

When our churches are so divided, when new people and new gifts and new ideas find it hard to find a way into our sanctuaries, it is inevitable that with the passing of time we will diminish.

A few weeks ago, Reverend Gaylyn gave a riveting sermon with the tagline, “Trinity—Agents of Transformation!” I think it was during that sermon that she mentioned that everyone is for transformation, as long as it doesn’t require us to change!

I’ve been around Trinity now for twenty seven and a half years, and I can honestly say that I’m incredibly hopeful. Things really are changing, and they’re changing for the better.

Today, we welcomed eiight new adults into fellowship with us here at Trinity. Whereas two decades ago most of our new members would have been either teens who grew up at Trinity being confirmed, or members of some other United Church who were transferring, today only three of our new members are transfers. I don’t know the church backgrounds of those who are reaffirming their faith or being baptized, but I find the trend a hopeful one. We are, for the first time in a very long time, receiving new members who may not share church backgrounds that are similar to ours, who may have different understandings of the bible, of faith, and of culture.

Another change I’ve seen, especially over the past two or three years, is a change in our worship. I know it’s uncomfortable for some, and encouraging for others. I also know that the most valuable thing that’s come out of it is the conversations about what is really important in worship. Why do we do what we do, and why do we do it in the way that we do it? How do we honour every person’s need to feel closer to God? How do we honour the need of every person to share their particular gifts with the rest of the congregation?

I personally don’t know the answers to any of these questions, though I’ve been asking them and trying to find the answers for years. I do know that inclusiveness is a journey, not a destination. As soon as we find answers to our questions, the both the answers and the questions become obsolete.

What I do know is that inclusiveness isn’t just something we ought to try because “it would be nice” if everyone felt welcome. It’s quite literally a matter of life and death for the church and for society.

We need to throw open the doors, make the passwords understandable not just for those inside and those who are like those who are inside, but for those who don’t know what we’re about, who don’t even know we’re here.

We’ll have squabbles, and disagreements. We’ll mourn and wish that the church stayed forever the way it was in our memory of the “glory days.” We’ll be incensed that traditions that we find meaningful and spirit-filled are discarded because the newcomers don’t feel the same way. We’ll grumble when we have to learn new hymns, when the drums are too loud, when the children too rambunctious, when someone sits in “our” pew.

That’s okay. Really. We’re allowed to be human.

But we should never, ever, let our complaints and disagreements blind us to the truth of the gospel, so well put in John 3, verse 16.

For God so loved the world that God gave the one and only Son, that whosoever believes should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world.

I am a “whosoever.”

You are a “whosoever.”

And the person in this church who is least like you, or least like me, and who may annoy the heck out of you or me, is also a “whosoever.”

We are all friends here. We all belong. We all have gifts to share.

Amen!

Play Catch-Up (Again…)

To those of you reading on a regular basis, I’m sorry I haven’t posted since the beginning of the year. I haven’t been preaching weekly, and what little routine I have has gone out the window.

So today I “bit the bullet” so to speak, and all of the sermons I’ve preached since January have been scheduled to appear over the next week.

Happy reading, and remember, God loves you!

Ruth

The Storming of Isengard

(Preached at Melville United Church, Fergus, on March 4, 2018)

How many of you can remember what you were doing late in the afternoon of Thursday, August 14, 2003?

No?

I can. I was camping with my family at Sandbanks Provincial Park. We were on our way to Kingston, where we’d be picking up David, who had been, for the previous six weeks, at a Sea Cadet Camp.

On that particular day, we had just finished supper, and I went to get some water from the pump.

No water—the pump wasn’t working.

Odd, I thought, so I went to another pump.

No water.

At some point, we realized that there was no electricity to run the pumps, that we were in the midst of a power outage. It was only when we went for a drive to get ice that we realized the truth—we were in the midst of the great blackout of 2003, which, at the time it happened, was the second largest in history.

We were rather lucky. For most of the blackout, we were safely camped at Sandbanks, where our needs for electricity were minimal. We’d mostly emptied our fridge and freezer into our cooler, so food losses were also not a huge problem.

And we sat that evening on the beach, and stared at stars that hadn’t been seen in this part of North America for decades, maybe even a century, and I couldn’t help but think of Psalm 19.

The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.

It’s sad that it takes a disaster nowadays for us to see the full glory of nature.

We begin the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday, the reminder that we are all part of the earth, and to the earth we shall return. We need that yearly reminder, because we all too often forget that truth, that we are part of nature and not separate from it, and that what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves, and that respecting creation means more than just recycling.

I’ve said before that I can go from my house, to the bus stop in front of it, to downtown Guelph, where I can get on a GO train and go to downtown Toronto, spend the whole day there and come back, without once walking on soil. In fact, most of my day could be spend without even going outside and seeing the sky.

So many people live like that, having such minimal daily contact with nature that it’s little more than an intellectual construct, and they’re truly shocked when nature intrudes upon their consciousness—when wind and ice together manage to bring down a huge tree right across their driveway, or when dense fog and swirling waters wash out a road and carry away a car, or when coyotes in the city are responsible for the disappearance of wandering cats and dogs.

Normally here I’d talk about how folks in the bible experienced something similar to us, but the truth is, this is a new experience for human beings. It’s only in the past couple of hundred years that we’ve managed to lose touch with the reality of God’s creation and make our own.

So today I’m going to speak about Saruman, the wizard in J.R.R. Tokien’s Lord of the Rings, and his encounter with the Ents, guardians of the trees in an ancient forest.

Saruman was once a force for good. He’s actually not a human—he’s the equivalent of an angel in Tolkien’s world. But the lust for power corrupted him.

Treebeard, oldest of the Ents and their leader, explained that Saruman “has a mind of metal and wheels; he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment…

“He and his foul folk are making havoc now. Down on the borders they are felling trees—good trees. Some of the trees they just cut down and leave to rot—orc-mischief that; but most are hewn up and carried off to feed the fires of Orthanc. There is always a smoke rising from Isengard these days.”

Saruman has made the mistake that many human beings have made in the past and continue to make—they have begun to believe that nature was created to serve us. They’ve forgotten that passage from Genesis that says that we earth-creatures were put in the garden to serve, and not to be served. We have dominion, it is true, but only as caretakers, not as owners.

And we have forgotten that God’s creation has a mind of its own, and its own will to praise the Creator.

The doom of Saruman, when it comes, is swift. The Ents and the trees they guard rise up against him and destroy what he has made. The hobbit Merriadoc describes it this way: “The Forest had felt as tense as if a thunderstorm was brewing inside it: then all at once it exploded…

“They pushed, pulled, tore, shook, and hammered and… in five minutes they had these huge gates just lying in ruins.”

It’s just a story, isn’t it? Just a novel. True, Tolkien was a Christian, and was writing from his Christian convictions. Every part of Tokien’s world is a reflection of his Roman Catholic theology and Christian values. But it’s just a story.

Or is it?

In California, they’re having severe water woes. They’ve made the desert to bloom, but at a very high price. Groundwater pumped out from under the soil might seem free, but in some places, the ground (and the roads on it) has sunk ten or even twenty feet because the clay and dirt over the water has collapsed into the empty space created from pumping out the water.

Water rationing has contributed to the sight of corpses of almond trees lying in rows on the desert soil on which they once grew and wetlands much used by migratory birds drying up, all so we can have fruit in winter and Californians can have swimming pools.

In Houston, paved-over swampland made Hurricane Harvey the costliest tropical cyclone on record so far—125 billion dollars in damage and 107 American lives.

In Ontario, just recently, rain and ice dams and fog caused a road to flood and a van to be swept away, claiming the life of a three-year-old boy.

We can ignore nature. We can use it and abuse it—for a time. But eventually, it will end up storming our gates and tearing them down.

Saruman is destroyed because he doesn’t understand that treating the natural world with respect and caution isn’t just a nice thing to do—it’s a survival skill.

And we can’t treat anything with the respect and caution it deserves if we have no understanding of how it functions. We need to get out of the house and reconnect with the world from which we are made.

Touch a tree, and feel the life within, and realize that it’s not just lumber waiting to be harvested, but a unique community that supports countless living things—birds and insects and animals small and large and fungi and bacteria. And yes, even us, for trees are the lungs of the planet, converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Look at the stars and wonder that there is beauty beyond our reach, forever safe from the greed of humans.

Watch the birds flock with growing concern—their numbers are nowhere near what they were even when I was a child.

Look upon a crow or an elm tree, and understand with joy that calamities such as West Nile virus or Dutch Elm disease will eventually run their course, and indeed, that such setbacks are part of the natural cycle.

Instead of bundling up, hunching over, and racing from front door to car and back again during a rainstorm, turn your face up to the sky and feel the rain and the wind on your skin and know that you, too, are part of God’s creation, and like the heavens, you were made to proclaim God’s glory.

Amen.

 

Fishing From the Other Side of the Boat

(Preached at Alma United Church & Melville United Church on December 31, 2017)

Once upon a time, I had a cat. I think I must have been a teenager, old enough at any rate to take some responsibility for the cat. At that time, we had outdoor cats, and on one particular day, my cat wanted to go out. So he mewed at the front door, which I dutifully opened. The cat took one look outside and decided that he was NOT going out that door—it was raining. Hard.

So the cat turned tail, and walked towards the back door. When he got there, he mewed, asking to be let out. I told him he was a silly cat, but I opened the door anyhow. “You’ll see, cat! It’ll be raining out this door too!”

Except that it wasn’t. Out the back door, there was lovely blue sky and sunshine. The cat happily went on his way, leaving me scratching my head.

Peter and the other disciples must have felt the same way. “Fish from the other side of the boat? Are you nuts! We’ve been fishing all night, and there are NO fish out there. You’ll see!”

So they cast their nets off the right side of the boat instead of the left, and, well… Somebody was surprised, but it wasn’t the One who’d told them to throw their nets over the other side of the boat!

One definition of insanity is “doing the same thing you’ve always done, and expecting different results.”

I think we’re all a little insane at times. We get stuck.

Stuck in our church life. “We’ve always done it this way! I like the old hymns! What we’re doing now worked when I was a kid—if it doesn’t work now, then young people nowadays must be less religious than when I was growing up, because back then, our Sunday Schools were full and we had huge youth groups, and we were doing the same things then that we’re doing now!”

We get stuck in our personal and work lives, too.

We don’t understand that a large part of what happens to us on a day-to-day basis can be changed, if only we change how we relate to the world. Instead, it’s always someone else’s fault, someone else’s problem. Someone else needs to change.

Stuck in your job? Just complain, like you always do. Your boss or coworkers or the government needs to step in and change things.

Stuck in your relationships? So-and-so doesn’t like me, doesn’t listen, doesn’t care. It’s not really my problem—THEY have to change. THEN I’ll think about changing how I feel about them.

Stuck in your finances? Blame Loblaws Corporation and all the others involved in price fixing—after all, if bread is more expensive than it should be, it follows that most everything is overpriced. The retailers and suppliers and the governments should keep a closer watch on that sort of thing!

Or instead of complaining, you can just give up. Nothing’s going to change—might as well get used to it.

We can take the last words of our Ecclesiastes reading to heart: Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

We can muddle along in our rut, never quite happy, but too afraid or lazy to pull ourselves over the brink into a brave new world.

We can pay too much, eat too much, exercise too little, come to church and sit in our pews and forget the readings and the sermon five minutes after we hear them, and in general continue on the same road that we’ve been travelling for most of our lives, until it’s time to go meet our god face to face.

Or we can heed Jesus, and throw our nets over the side just this once more, on the other side of the boat.

Note that the change wasn’t really all that big. The disciples didn’t invent a completely new type of net, or a fish-finder, or a more powerful boat. They didn’t bring on a whole other crew of burly fishermen, or even a consultant who would tell them what to catch and how to catch it.

The only change they made was to cast their nets over the other side of the boat.

I’ve always liked New Year’s Eve. A chance for a fresh start. A chance to set goals and maybe finally do something important with my life.

I learned about “SMART” goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely.

I set SMART goals. I set goals for losing weight, exercising more, getting my debt under control, writing a book, getting my cluttered, dirty house under control, and so on.

These are goals I care deeply about. Goals that excite me. Goals that I set year after year after year…

I didn’t achieve them. Not one of them. And it left me feeling bereft.

Then a few years ago, a friend introduced me to the FlyLady. The FlyLady is Marla Cilley, a “family executive officer” who found herself struggling to keep her house clean amidst dogs and children and a husband and a personality that did NOT like to clean the house.

And one day her husband asked her to throw her net over the other side of the boat.

“I don’t care about the rest of the house. I only ask that you keep one side of the sink clear of dishes so that in the morning, I can make my coffee.”

One simple, actionable item she could do to make things better.

She threw her net over the right side of the boat instead of the left, and caught…

A new career as a personal organizing guru. She’s even been on television, helping out an “Extreme Hoarder.” Wildly improved finances. Lost weight and better exercise routines. And a happier husband, who could now make his morning coffee without having to contend with last night’s supper dishes.

Because what we find, when we choose to take simple actions on our own behalf, is that God gets excited and fills our net full of fish. And that one action, once it becomes routine, will probably inspire us to do something else just a little differently, and once again, we’ll experience unexpected dividends out of line with our simple action.

It’s actually not magic, but basic science.

Consider an airplane. It takes off from Pearson International Airport, heading west.

A very small deviation in course, hardly noticeable at first, will make for a very different final destination. If you head straight west, you’ll end up in Minneapolis or Milwaukee. Keep going, and you’ll end up going out to sea.

But veer just a little to the south, and you’ll end up landing in Sacramento or Los Angeles. A little to the north, and you’ll end up in Seattle or Vancouver.

The longer the trip, the less of a deviation you have to make. For example, Vancouver’s pretty much due west of Winnipeg, but if you’re going to Winnipeg, you need to start off flying in a more northerly direction, because being closer to Toronto, it calls for a different flight path.

Or consider a savings account. If you need to accumulate twelve thousand dollars by the end of next year, you’re going to have to save one thousand dollars a month. If you need to do it over ten years, you only need to put one hundred dollars a month into the bank, or even less if its properly invested.

To put it simply, the more time you maintain a small change, the greater the end result will be.

I’ve learned, over the past few years, that for most folks including myself, SMART goals aren’t really all that smart. They sound intelligent and official-like, but as presented, they don’t lead to change.

The thing I’ve found that leads to change—the ONLY thing I’ve found that leads to change—is doing things differently.

Casting my net over the other side of the boat.

And because little changes are easier to make than big changes, they’re more sustainable and thus are more effective over time.

A vow to clean out one side of the sink every night, or to make my bed every morning, is more likely to happen than a vow to thoroughly clean the kitchen or bedroom top-to-bottom every week.

Little changes lead naturally to big ones.

I make my bed or shine my sink, and I notice that there’s some dirty laundry that didn’t make it into the hamper, or some clean dishes that need putting away, and hey! It’s only a second or two to do, so I do it. And before long, order has spread throughout the house. It’s not perfect, but it’s a whole lot better than it was.

I take the time to plan a breakfast menu and shop for food, and it becomes a lot easier and faster to eat a healthy breakfast at home than hit the drive-thru. And before long, the pounds start to fall off and the bank account stabilizes. Who’da thunk it?

To change what’s going on in our lives and to get ourselves to a better place, we don’t need a long list of New Year’s resolutions, most of which will be forgotten by February.

We don’t need SMART goals, or Big Hairy Audacious Goals, though I like the sound of those a lot more than I like the idea of SMART goals. We don’t need to change our entire life in a moment, hoping that something will stick.

We just need to change one little thing at a time. Throw our nets over the other side of the boat, and get ready to haul in the fish.

Amen.