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Can These Bones Live?

(Preached at Alma United Church, September 17, 2017) 

Sabbaticals are important for ministers, or for any creative person for that matter. The different pace of life, the exposure to different ideas, the freedom from the pressure to produce daily or weekly material all allow the brain to recharge and become ready for another burst of genius ideas.

Ministerial sabbaticals are important for congregations, too. No matter how good the minister or how faithful the congregation, after a time, minister and church will fall into a routine way of working together. Routines are great—they allow maximum efficiency with minimum thought and effort, but over time, routines can become ruts, and when those ruts are deep enough, they can become very comfortable final resting places.

So…

Marion’s gone for four months, and you have me. <evil grin>

When Marion first approached me about covering for her, I asked myself, what can I do at Alma that will help us grow together.

I could, of course, have chosen to preach from the lectionary. It’s not a bad option, but I’ve been there, done that, for a couple of years, and so have you. So I thought about doing a series.

Then a friend loaned me the book bullseye: Aiming to Follow Jesus, by Jamie Holtom and Debbie Johnson, both ordained United Church ministers. I read it cover to cover in two or three days, and what I read excited me. I wanted to start right away working through it with a congregation.

I wanted to explore with a congregation the wonders of spiritual practices, authentic community, powerful worship, joyful service and giving, and sharing Christ with those in need of hope.

Then I had the brilliant thought that perhaps, just maybe, before I tried it with my helpless guinea pigs at Alma, that I should try it myself.

So I started off reading my bible every day. Well, almost every day. Well, at least two or three times a week, which is, unfortunately, a lot more than I’d been reading it before. And I started listening to Christian music on the radio. And I started allocating the first fruits of my pay to God, instead of the leftovers.

And…

I can honestly say it’s made a difference. I started my reading at the psalms, and quickly had enough really good sermon material for the entire summer. My drives were calmer and more pleasant, and every day I’m reminded of God’s love through beautiful music, some of which I hope to share with you as the months go on.

It’s been good, but has it been worth the extra effort? Why bother, when we’re all happy Christians together? And if we learn about the bullseye over the next four months, will it make a difference at Alma?

I honestly can’t answer that last question, but I can tell you that it has made a difference in my life, and also in the lives of a few of the congregations I have visited over this past summer.

This is how Jamie and Debbie start off the book:

Can you imagine a church that is alive with people who pray every day?

Can you imagine all kinds of people coming to church on a Sunday morning so excited to worship God that you can just feel the energy rise as they enter?

Can you imagine a church where people love one another and share t heir lives together in real and authentic ways?

Can you imagine a church filled with people who so love to give generously that the offering plates overflow each week?

Can you imagine a church where people are so in awe of God and what God is doing in their own lives that they can’t help but share their faith and invite their friends?

Can you imagine a church like this?

Can you imagine?

There was a time in my life, not so very long ago, when I couldn’t imagine a church like this.

Instead, I knew a church that had just begun to admit to the part it had played in the horrors of the residential school system.

I knew of churches whose members seemed to have only one concern—how do we get bums in the pews (and yes, those exact words were used) so that we can pay for the upkeep of our beautiful building?

I’ve been in churches where the worship was worse than mediocre—the music was so painful that I felt like plugging my ears. And this was at a church all of the singers in the choir were trained soloists!

I’ve visited churches whose members have threatened to walk, taking all their money with them, or whose members have actually left in a huff, because the governing body had approved a candidate or intern who was gay or lesbian.

I’ve been in churches where the sale of a surplus building to fund new and vibrant ministry initiatives could only take place over the cold, dead bodies of a couple of key members who were still very much alive.

I’ve known churches where the current members didn’t really care about the future of their faltering congregation—just so long as it lasted long enough to bury them.

I’ve been in churches that were so focused on the “problem” of how to get young families into the building that they ignored the large population of seniors living right in their neighbourhood. Or who went ahead and hired yet another middle-aged white male minister, despite being situated amongst a growing population of Asians who are hungry for the gospel.

I’ve been part of churches that pointed fingers. You’re socially awkward. You dress like a slob. She’s divorced! And from the choir loft, at the back and above the general congregation—oh, look! So-and-so needs to dye her hair again. Her roots are showing.

I kid you not. All of this has really happened, and is  happening, in churches across Canada.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

“O Lord God, you know…

…but if this is all there is to church, I hope not!”

But you and I all know that this isn’t all there is to church. I took a rather long sabbatical myself, well over two years, where I did not attend worship regularly. I worked in a secular setting, in factories, fast food restaurants, and movie theatres.

Out in the world, I saw people who were hurting. It’s not just that they needed food cupboards and other services that churches sometimes provide, but that they needed the gospel. They needed to know that they were loved, that their lives had meaning, that they had gifts.

And nobody invited them to come in and sit down.

When I returned to the church, I began to see changes. I talked about some of these in my sermon at the end of May, if  you can remember back that far. How we’re in the middle of a “Holy Shift,” and there are United Churches across Canada that are growing, becoming more vibrant with the Spirit every day, many of them inspired by the book bullseye that I’d like to walk and talk you through this Fall.

About five years ago, I started an irregular practice of visiting other churches to see what they were doing. Not all of those churches were United Churches. Very few of them were big churches. But all of them, including Alma, had at least one area where they were performing at peak, with new ideas and things to share with the rest of the church.

I saw the sinews and the flesh and the skin reforming around the bones. I saw the church coming to life again with the breath of the Spirit of God.

Yes, God! Yes!

I talked with the children earlier about Transformers, about how we, as Christians, can become transformed by our religion, and about how that transformation can be good or it can be evil.

Too often, as in the case of the residential schools, the inquisitions, the crusades, and so on, we have used our religion for evil. It’s no wonder that there are atheists who very strongly believe that all religion is evil, and should be banned!

They fail to notice that some of the most vicious abuses of human rights occur in countries that have done just that, of course. But even worse, they overlook what belief in God can do for good.

To finish with a story from CBC Radio:

Glen Flett had his first contact with police when he was just seven years old, and was in trouble throughout his youth. In 1978, during an attempted robbery, Flett shot and killed Ten Van Sluytman, a Hudson’s Bay store manager.

Flett was given a life sentence for second degree murder.

In prison, his attitude continued to harden. He says, “Life meant very little to me, anybody’s life, including my own.”

Four decades later, Flett is out of prison.

And…

He’s friends with Margot Van Sluytman, the daughter of the man he murdered. He’s an advocate of restorative justice, sometimes speaking in prisons alongside Margo. He founded LINC, and organization that works to support victims and perpetrators of crime. He speaks at schools and universities. He runs Emma’s Acres, a farm in Mission, BC, where victims and perpetrators of crime work side-by-side, growing vegetables. Flett hopes the profit from the vegetables will one day be sufficient to hire an outreach worker to help victims of crime who aren’t getting enough support elsewhere.

What a change from a guy who didn’t give a damn about anything or anyone!

It started when he was put into an experimental program where guards wore civilian clothes, called him by his name and treated him like a person.

He admits that at first, he didn’t like it much. He was content in Milhaven, where the guards were the guards and he was the prisoner and the prisoners and the guards hated each other and that was that.

Slowly, he began to soften.

But the real change, the change that led to his work in restorative justice, only came after he became a Christian.

That is what the power of God can do, that human beings alone cannot. That is why it is so very important that we keep doing what we’re doing, and doing more of it.

I think sometimes we think, “God, we’ve worshiped you all our days. We’ve always been faithful. Isn’t that enough?”

Well, yes, actually. Jesus tells us that whoever believes in him shall have life, and we do believe.

But…

There’s so much more. More work, more change, yes. But so much more joy too.

Think of how wonderful it would be if this gem called Alma United Church could blossom and bear fruit that revitalizes a whole community! A whole county! A whole province, or country, or world!

Or maybe you won’t change all that much, except to have a slightly deeper appreciation of what God has done with you and for you.

That’s okay too.

I only have four months with you, barely time to travel through the six markers of faith outlined in the book. What you do with it after that is up to you and Reverend Marion.

Whatever you choose, and however you do it, God will journey with you.

Amen.

 

 

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Live With Respect

(Preached at Alma United Church, September 10, 2017)

Discussing the state of God’s creation can be somewhat depressing at times, so I’m going to start off with a joke:

Some Canadian scientists recently realized that they could create life, so they challenged God to a life-making contest.

God said, “You’re on. Do your best!”

So the scientists got some glass test tubes and went outside to collect some dirt, and God said, “Oh, no! That dirt’s mine. You go make your own dirt!”

Would you pray with me and for me please…

Thousands of years ago, when ancient Hebrew priests and scholars first started assembling what would become the Torah, they didn’t start with the riveting story of Abraham searching for a new home, or of Moses leading Abraham’s descendants out of slavery and into nationhood. Either one of these stories could have been seen as the proper place to begin, telling as they do the origin story of a people who would be among the first to worship God as a single entity who was greater in character than any human being.

Instead, they chose to begin right back at the beginning, with two stories about the creation of the world, and in the case of the first story, with the creation of the universe.

Now I’m going to tell you right now I don’t think either story is a literal depiction of what actually happened. The ancient peoples who told those stories were trying to explain what they saw and experienced in concepts they could understand. They did not have our advanced scientific knowledge, and scientists even today will tell you that they do not know everything about how the universe works. We simply don’t have the capacity to understand it now, and we probably will never understand it all.

But the creation stories handed down to us do tell us some very important things:

First, God created the universe and everything in it. We might have learned the secrets of DNA and how to engineer and maybe someday even to create a living creature, but it was God who made life possible in the first place.

Second, creation is good. God sees that the light is good, and the dry land and the seas are good, and the vegetation is good, and the sun and the moon and the stars are good, and the living creatures are good, and blessed.

Then God creates humankind, creates us in God’s own image. We again are blessed. And God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

The second creation story, which is the one I read this morning, is quite different, and emphasizes a different aspect of creation. God is much more hands-on in this one. When I read this story, I think about being a little girl, playing in the mud at the side of the house, making mud pies.

The second creation story points out two critical things that we should keep in mind at every moment:

  • We are made from the earth. We are not just observers on this planet for a short time. We are an integral part of it.
  • We are animated by the breath of God, and we have been given the power to name and the responsibility to tend all of creation.

I think we need to keep all of those points in mind when we read today’s news. There is, of course, news about hurricane Harvey. A report I read yesterday, which is probably out of date, says that 50 are feared dead, more than 44,000 homes are destroyed or heavily damaged, and about 325,000 residents have sought federal emergency aid as a result of Hurricane Harvey.

What many articles don’t tell you is that a flood of this magnitude was predicted by environmental scientists as late as last year, and it was dismissed by politicians, who said that scientists “have an agenda” and that “their agenda to protect the environment overrides common sense.”

The scientist who raised the alarm a year ago watched the waters rise and eventually force him out of his own flooded house.

Houston was founded on a swamp in the 1830s. The city is built low and flat along coastal bayous, and has always struggled with flooding.

But there was a natural buffer that kept the worst at bay: Prairie grasslands, which absorbed water in almost supernatural quantities. The problem is Houston has spent decades paving over those grasslands and building strip malls.

Many now describe Houston as an “island of concrete sitting on top of a swamp.”

Of course, we’re now aware that Harvey was only the “tip of the iceberg”, so to speak.

Hurricane Irma has flattened the tiny nation of Barbuda, flattening 95 percent of the houses there. What Irma left behind is likely to be destroyed by Hurricane Jose.

Three major hurricanes in a row with winds that are record breakers and damage costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and politicians continue to stick their heads in the sand and say that global warming is a myth and that environmentalists are fear mongers who don’t care about people’s livelihoods.

In other news, out-of-control forest fires continue to rage in British Columbia, Manitoba, Alberta, Oregon and in other places around the world. About eighty percent were started by lightning, which leaves twenty percent caused by humans. A very few were started deliberately by arsonists, but most human caused wildfires were caused by careless discarding of smoking materials and improperly lit and tended campfires.

One BC man, given a ticket that will cost him $550 for throwing a cigarette butt out the window of his vehicle complained that he should be fined for littering only, not for improper disposal of a flammable or burning substance. Then he said that he had been ticketed before for littering, for the same offence. It isn’t just politicians that don’t get it.

We continue to destroy our natural environment at an alarming rate. A new report by the World Wildlife Fund and the Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development said that over a twenty-four month period in 2014 and 2015, 381 new species were found in the Amazon. The report comes the week after Brazil’s government passed a decree allowing mining in the National Reserve of Copper and Associates (Renca), a huge area the size of Switzerland which encompasses nine protected areas. While the decree has since been revised to clarify that mining will not be allowed in conservation or indigenous areas within the former reserve, following national and global outcry, challenges persist for the world’s largest tropical forest.

Another report closer to home found that human antidepressants are building up in the brains of bass, walleye and several other fish common to the Great Lakes region. Current wastewater treatment practices focus narrowly on killing disease-causing bacteria and on extracting solid matter such as human excrement. Antidepressants, which are found in the urine of people who use the drugs, are largely ignored, along with other common chemicals.

In other news, a baby dolphin died after being passed around and photographed by tourists who found it stranded at a busy Spanish beach. Curious holidaymakers flocked to examine the calf – some of them taking selfies with the creature – after it washed up in Mojácar, Almeira.

A mother runs into a fast food place, reporting a bear in the dumpster. She insists that the workers call the authorities, and escort her and her children to her car. After the workers escorted the woman to her car, they investigated and found that the bear in the dumpster was only a cub. By the time the authorities arrived to deal with the bear, the woman’s children were out of the car and chasing the cub, trying to pet it or get a picture of it.

We live today in a world where much of the population is so separated from the natural world that they have no real understanding of how it works. They leave their houses or apartments in the morning, get into their cars or hop on the bus or subway and travel to work or school, work or study all day in a building, and at the end of the day repeat the morning commute in reverse. You can live what seems to be a full and active life without ever having any meaningful interaction with God’s creation at all.

For much of the population, the main educator about the natural world is Disney, where dolphins can speak and people and animals all manage to escape the wildfire (which generally doesn’t burn for months on end) or the hurricanes (which aren’t followed by yet another hurricane).

People just don’t know that much about creation anymore, and we cannot really respect someone or something that we know nothing about.

If we don’t know how plains and swamps act as natural sponges for rainwater, we won’t see the value in saving this “useless land” from development. If we don’t understand that natural forest fires play a vital role in removing deadwood and renewing the life cycle of the forest, we’ll try to put them all out before they do much “damage,” thus leaving the forest much more vulnerable to the out-of-control conflagration we are seeing with today’s forest fires.

If we don’t understand the carbon cycle and how putting more and more carbon into the atmosphere causes global warming, we won’t make the effort to curb emissions and global warming will continue, melting ice cover and putting the world in more danger of flooding.

If we don’t understand that wantonly chopping down trees will cause forests to turn to desert, and destroy the habitat, perhaps forever, the biodiversity of our planet will continue to decline.

If we don’t understand that what we put into our bodies must eventually come out, and that what goes into our wastewater treatment plants, if not removed by processing, will eventually end up in our water, we will continue to place aquatic life at risk.

If we don’t respect that wild animals are wild, and were not placed there for our amusement, we will continue to kill and be killed for no excusable reason.

Living with respect in creation, as we members of the United Church are called to do by our New Creed, is a huge, overwhelming task. Sometimes we think it’s too big for us, and we give up before we start. If we do decide we want to do something, often we don’t know where to start.

Fortunately, there are a couple of examples we can follow that will help us to make a difference.

The first, of course, is the example of Jesus.

“Do not worry about your life, about what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”

I would say, from my studies, that the number one excuse politicians and business people alike give against environmental sustainability is that it will cost jobs and hurt the economy.

Profits are king.

Until a hurricane or a forest fire comes along and wipes out an entire city, housing, jobs and all. Except in our backwards world, such events are actually a boost to the economy, because all the money spent on recovery efforts are added to, not subtracted from, the GDP.

Until a once lush forested island is turned to a desert which allows its citizens to eke out only the barest of livings.

It’s time we stopped worrying so much about profits and jobs, and started worrying about the actual lives of people and animals and plants, born and as yet unborn.

Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus came that all might have life, and have it abundantly. We have a responsibility, given to us by our creed, by our Lord, and by the very first book of our scriptures, to learn about creation, and about how to live in it and heal it.

The second example I’d like to highlight is that of Jadav Payeng. He didn’t try to solve the environmental problems of the whole world, or of India, or even of his small island. He simply chose one action that was within his capabilities, and he did it, every single day.

Those of us who have land that’s degraded and deforested might want to follow his example and plant a tree or two every day, but for those of us who don’t, there are other actions we can take that will make a difference.

We can drink tap water instead of bottled water or soda. Or use reusable bags when we shop. We can walk some places instead of driving. We should all keep our vehicles properly maintained, and drive within the speed limit.

We don’t always need the newest and best of everything, and if we do want the newest and best, we can donate the older, still useable things to those in need.

There are hundreds of small actions that we can take that will reduce our negative impact on creation. Pick one. Do it every day. Then, when you’re ready, pick another.

I read a book on household management, of all things, that helped me to understand living with respect in creation in a different way. In her book, How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind, Dana White talks about her “project brain.” Projects involve detailed schedules, rehearsing, research. Then you do the project and you’re done.

Projects get finished, and then you move on.  You don’t have to redo them, you just start on another project.

We like projects. Our governments like projects. Results you can see in a short period of time, but without a long-term drain on the budget. Business people like projects, church people like projects, teachers and students like projects.

Projects are great.

But the problem is that cleaning up a house or cleaning up the environment aren’t projects. They have no end.

Instead, they need to be habits, little things we do every day without thinking. Like washing the dishes. Or planting a tree. Or drinking water from a glass or reusable water bottle.

The good news is that because they are habits, because we do do them every day, they have the potential to make a much bigger difference in the long run than any project we take on.

And in this day and age of depressing headlines, that is really good news! Amen!

Why Worship?

(Preached at Alma United Church, September 3, 2017)

The ancient Israelites did it, from the time of Moses onward.

King David did it. He did it in a tent, but he wanted to do it in a building.

His son Solomon was the first to actually erect a building in which to do it.

That building was destroyed, and later Israelites erected an even bigger building in which to do it.

Jesus and the disciples did it in that second building. So did the very first Christians.

When that building was destroyed, a few short decades after Jesus and his disciples graced it, smaller groups continued doing it in homes. Eventually, many buildings were built in which Christians and Jews could continue doing it. Some of those buildings were small, and some were even bigger than that second building in which Jesus did it.

Jews and Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Rastafarians and Unitarians do it. Even atheists do it, though they might deny it.

Africans and Asians and Europeans and South Americans and Australasians and North Americans do it. Even those few souls residing at the South Pole do it.

Ancient humans did it—there is even evidence that pre-humans did it. Modern humans do it, and I expect that as long as the human race exists, we will continue doing it. I also believe that if we were to make contact with an alien species that was as intelligent as ourselves or more so, we would find that they do it as well.

It, of course, is worship.

But what exactly is worship, and why do we do it?

And perhaps even more on our minds might be the question, “Why is it important to do it here in this place, at this time, with these people? Couldn’t I do it just as well someplace else? Like, say, in bed?”

Let’s start with what worship is. The word “worship” comes from the old English “worth-ship” which simply means ascribing worth to something or someone. When we call the mayor of a town “Your Worship,” we are ascribing worth to her based on the position which she occupies. When we “worship the ground someone walks on” we are ascribing worth to that person based on qualities we admire.

That’s why I say that even atheists worship. They may not worship God, but they do worship something or someone.

Some folks I’ve met worship their car. They take more care of it, spend more time with it, than they do with their own spouses and children! Some folks worship nature or animals, even to the extent that they put the welfare of other species above the welfare of their own.

Some folks worship famous actors, rock stars, athletes or politicians. They imagine what these ordinary human beings are like, then ascribe worth to them based on that purely imaginary image.

When you look at worship like that, it becomes something that we do every single day, wherever we happen to be, rather than something we do in church for an hour every Sunday morning.

When I find a human trait that is as universal as the urge to worship, I find myself thinking that there has to be a survival function to it. Sociologists will tell you that the survival value of worship has to do with fostering social cohesion, allowing groups of people to unite around a common belief system. This fosters order in the group, and gives the group, and therefore the individuals who are part of it, a better chance of survival.

I think this is true, but only so long as the worship itself is focused on something bigger and more important than mere humans and petty human desires. If the worship is focused on a thing, whether human-made or natural, in the end we will be let down. The celebrity will turn out to have flaws. The politician will say something we don’t agree with. The idol will fail to deliver the desired miracle. The car will eventually rust and fall apart.

But the worship of God is different, for God is something that is bigger than human imagining or desires, and although many times we try to shrink God to fit our understanding, deep down inside we know that the creator of the universe is always going to have surprises for us, and that there will always be new revelations.

And so we come to why we worship.

We worship in order to learn what God is really like and to ascribe to God “all glory and honour and praise,” as the psalmist puts it. We worship to remind ourselves that we are not in charge of the universe or our little part of it—God is.

We worship all the time, in all places. We find God revealed to us in nature, though God is bigger than nature. We find God revealed to us in our daily interactions with others, though they are not God. We find God tucked away in the books we read—not only the Bible, but other books as well. We even find God waiting for us as we drink our morning coffee and listen to or read the news. And we are awed by how great God is, and we worship.

So why are we here? If we can worship God anywhere, why do we get up at an inconvenient time on a Sunday morning, and come to this inconvenient place, to hear words we’ve heard many times before, a preacher we may or may not agree with, and sing hymns we may or may not like or even know?

If we look back at those early Jews and Christians, worshiping in the temple together marked them as part of a counter-cultural movement that said, “Caesar is only a man. We’ll pay our taxes to him, but we worship God alone.” Doing this together gave them a little more credibility. The Romans didn’t like it, they didn’t understand it, but they allowed it.

Today, we stand against our culture of self-worship and worship of manufactured things and money. We need regular contact with a supportive group of fellow rebels who will encourage us and support us as we travel the road less traveled, and likewise those fellow rebels need our encouragement and support. Being here on Sunday morning lets us know that we are not alone, that we are part of a global family that does the same thing as us at approximately the same time and on the same day.

The support and encouragement we receive comes not just from being in a group, but from being in a group where we feel we belong. Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose Driven Church, says that as Christians, we are called not just to believe, but to belong. We are not lone rangers, but part of a family and members of Christ’s body.

Worship in community nourishes us in a way that worship on our own out in the world does not always do.

First, we encounter others who are on the same journey as ourselves, but perhaps are in different places. When we share our testimonies of what God has done and is doing in our lives with them, and they share theirs with us, we can learn to be more attentive to the actions of God in our lives.

Second, we are held to account, both by the example of other Christians in our community, and by the words read and spoken and sung in worship. We may not agree with everything we hear or read or sing, but we should always allow those words to challenge and even change our perception of others and of God. We each have only a piece of the “God puzzle,” and it is by sharing our differing perceptions that we come to a more complete and accurate knowledge of who God is.

Christians need relationships with other Christians in order to grow. The writer of Hebrews says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.”

Thirdly, worship reminds us that the growth of faith is a journey that lasts our entire lives and beyond, not a destination that can be reached by shortcuts. If our worship is true and our learning is in earnest, week by week we will grow spiritually.

This stands against our culture of instant gratification, where we expect one-week makeovers to change our entire lives without any further learning.

There’s a story I first hear some time ago about this:

A Church goer wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper and complained that it made no sense to go to church every Sunday. ‘I’ve gone for 30 years now,’ he wrote, ‘and in that time I have heard something like 3,000 sermons. But for the life of me, I can’t remember a single one of them. So, I think I’m wasting my time and the priests are wasting theirs by giving sermons at all.’

This started a real controversy in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ column. Much to the delight of the editor, it went on for weeks until someone wrote this clincher: ‘I’ve been married for 30 years now. In that time my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals. But, for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals.

But I do know this… They all nourished me and gave me the strength I needed to do my work. If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today. Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead today!’

Worship is our spiritual nourishment, giving us energy for the work we are called to do for God’s world. Let us not, as many in our world have done, give up on the habit of meeting together weekly to sing and pray and listen, but let us encourage one another.

Amen.

The Road to Faith

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

Luke 24:13-35

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

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

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

Would you pray with me and for me please…

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

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

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

And we note two things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, he let the Romans murder him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong.

It requires us to change.

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

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

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

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

And above all, act in love, not fear.

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

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

Not real.

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

Holy Shift

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

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

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

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

And the body isn’t there!

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

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

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

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

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

Wait! What?

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

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

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

He has died and has risen.

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

He died.

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

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

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

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

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

“And they worshiped him…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, we celebrate the birth of Christianity itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world is out there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There has been a Holy Shift.

Christ has died. AMEN!

Christ has risen. AMEN!

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

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

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

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

AMEN!

Am I Being Unfair to You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other young women have not been so lucky.

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

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

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

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

Is this fair?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God grants us that grace anyways.

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Salt of the Earth

Preached at Melville United Church on February 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do we really need the church?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we do that by finding our voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need to say to our government:

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

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

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

We need to say to the terrorists:

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

We need to say to corporations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to his words:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

Because he has anointed me

To bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind.

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

The Spirit of the Lord is upon US,

Because he has anointed US

To bring good news to the poor.

He has sent US to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.