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Holy Humour

(Preached at Alma United Church & Melville United Church on April 23, 2017)

Call to Worship:

A pastor was speaking to a group of second-graders about the resurrection of Jesus. One student asked,

“What did Jesus say right after He came out of the grave?”

The pastor said,

“The Gospels do not tell us what Jesus said.”

The hand of one little girl shot up. “I know what Jesus said: He said,

‘Tah-dah!'”

Meditation:

A preacher’s young daughter asked, “Mommy, every Sunday when you first come out to preach, you sit up on the platform and bow your head. What are you doing?”

The mother replied, “I’m asking God to give me a good sermon?”

The little girl replied, “Then why doesn’t he?”

Would you pray with me and for me please…

The Sunday after Easter in the ancient Greek Orthodox church was traditionally called “Bright Sunday,” or “Holy Humour Sunday.” Recent online efforts have resurrected that tradition, and it’s easy to understand why.

Christianity from time to time has tended towards severity and humourlessness. We’ve undecorated our sanctuaries—taken away the stained glass windows and the carvings and the statues and the icons and the painted ceilings that were once used to instruct the illiterate faithful and direct our consciousness to the glory of God, but which eventually became more about the glory of the church.

Dancing and music were sometimes seen as detractions from worship that led to licentiousness, and were eliminated from worship.

Living was serious business, especially in former times when the work was back-breaking and constant even for the more well-to-do, and premature death from disease or accident was a fact of life.

Especially in Protestant theology, the cross and the sacrifice of Jesus was in the forefront. When faced with that sacrifice, laughter seems somehow inappropriate.

Mark’s gospel was the first gospel written. Both Matthew and Luke based significant portions of their gospels on the gospel of Mark. They also had significant input from other sources, most likely including a collection of sayings that scholars call “Q,” with quite probably some word-of-mouth stories added in.

One or more of those circulating stories must have included the accounts of what happened after the resurrection, because the most ancient manuscripts of Mark’s gospel ends here, with the women running away from the empty tomb, terrified and saying nothing to anyone. Perhaps he died before he wrote the rest of the story, or perhaps that first manuscript was torn and that last bit got lost, that part that tells us about the women spreading the good news to the disciples and about Jesus appearing among them. Or perhaps for Mark, in those early, harsh days after the resurrection and near death of the entire fledgling church, that was the end.

It reminds me of those churches where laughter and music and joy are not invited into worship.

We seem to be stuck on the cross, mindful of and perhaps grateful for the sacrifice of Christ, without really comprehending the entire truth.

We’re afraid of the resurrection.

Because in our world view, when people die, they stay dead, unless they become ghosts or zombies.

In our world view, when the leader of our small group is arrested and publicly executed for bucking the system, our new way of being, our new life, is over, and it’s back to the same old, same old.

In our world view, might makes right. Evil endures. Satan always wins.

Sometimes we forget that we meet as a church on Sunday, and why.

Not Friday, when Jesus was crucified.

Not Saturday, the traditional Sabbath for the Jewish tradition which gave us birth.

Sunday.

The day God played a great big cosmic joke.

“Ta-dah!

Look at me, Satan. Look at me, world! You can’t kill me, for death has no power in my world.”

We know that there was more to the story than Mark recorded. Not because someone later added not one but two endings to Mark’s gospel, and not because Matthew and Luke recorded the women going to the disciples.

We know because two thousand years later, we are here.

That tiny, frightened band of followers grew to over three thousand on the day of Pentecost.

Those three thousand have grown, so that today about 2.2 billion people are Christian. That’s one out of every three human beings alive today.

Sometimes we get stuck in Good Friday. When we look around our shrinking congregations, we are afraid.

I say to you, open up the door to this tomb, go outside, and rejoice in what God has done.

Christ is alive, and at work in the world.

Amen and hallelujah!

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Time Alone With God

(Preached at Alma United Church, September 24, 2017)

So I read a news story on Tuesday that was a classic kind of “good news, bad news” story.

The good news was that I didn’t have to worry about making up a bulletin for today or writing a sermon or practicing my viola for orchestra rehearsal tonight.

The bad news was that someone had read the Book of Revelations, done some calculations, and had predicted that another planet would strike earth yesterday, wiping us all out.

So I guess we can all go home, because apparently, we don’t exist any more…

Would you pray with me and for me please…

Most of  you, maybe even all of you, have heard my daughter Allison play the cello. Hopefully, you’ll be hearing her play again on Thanksgiving Sunday.

She’s good, but it wasn’t always that way. A lot of people have the idea that musical talent is somehow innate, and you either have it or you don’t. I’ve heard reports of people who have said they’ve been told, some as early as kindergarten, that they would be better off in the audience.

It’s a good thing that Allison didn’t have any of those misguided folks in her life, because as a child, she was tone deaf. It took her two years to learn  how to play the first variation of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

But by age eight, she knew she wanted to be a cello teacher. By the time she was in middle school, she knew she was going to go to Wilfrid Laurier University, and that she would be in an orchestra as well as teach.

And now that tone-deaf, slow-starting child teaches cello and is the Assistant Principle Cellist of the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra.

And then there’s me. I don’t think anyone here has ever heard me play my viola. In fact, I’m wondering just how many of you knew that I play viola?

But I do. I started when I was eleven. I’m actually one of three original players in the Cambridge Symphony, seeing as how it was started by Anne Green, who was at that time the music director of Zion/St. Andrew’s Pastoral Charge, where I was the Student Minister.

Yet for all my experience, I sit in the back desk, miss almost as many notes as I play, and hope that the audience doesn’t really hear the notes I do play, as they’re not always the right ones.

I love what I do, but I’m not really all that good at it.

The difference between me and my daughter isn’t inborn talent, it’s discipline.

She practices regularly, and I don’t.

I think sometimes we have that idea about being Christian—that it’s a character trait, rather than a skill, and that some people are just more saintly than others. We see our own sins in sharp relief, our frustration, our anger, our less-than-charitable desires, and we see others who always seem serene and calm and trusting of God, and we think, “That’s just who I am and I can’t change it. I don’t want to change it! I can never be like that, and it’s okay, because God loves me just as I am.”

And we fail to see that being a better Christian, being a better person, isn’t about our personality, it’s about skill, and if it’s a skill, that means it can be improved by deliberate practice.

But how do you “deliberately practice” to be a better Christian?

In their book bullseye, Jamie Holton and Debbie Johnson say that the first marker of a Christian life is using spiritual practices. Some call them “disciplines” a word I like even though some mistake “discipline” with “punishment.”

But discipline isn’t about punishment, it’s about learning self-control, an aim that is actually incompatible with punishment. Which is why, if you choose to try one or more of the disciplines I talk about, I’m going to suggest that you allow yourself to be less than perfect, and less than regular, without beating yourself up about it. And to not be wedded to the idea of doing spiritual practices in the same way as me or anyone else, just because it works for them.

An extrovert isn’t going to get much out of a week of total silence. Trust me on this—I had an extremely extroverted friend who tried it once. They kicked him out of the retreat on the second day, I think. Some of you may prefer to journal, some may prefer to read scripture, some may prefer to pray.

And I find that the time spent is an issue, as well. A personal story in the book by Sue Woollard tells of a daily discipline that involves twenty minutes of meditation on the name of Jesus twice a day, followed by scripture and personal prayer.

Um, not quite the cup of tea for me, but if that’s you, then go for it.

I think what’s important here is not how long you do it for, at least at first, but to develop a regular habit of spending time alone with God.

I like to read scripture in the morning—just a single psalm, maybe two if they’re short ones, and write in my journal a verse or two that grabs me. Maybe look the psalm up in my commentary if there’s something I don’t understand or that seems particularly intriguing.

Some people read daily meditations online or in booklets like My Daily Bread. Some go for walks in nature, some going so far as to hike the 800 kilometer Camino de Santiago in Spain.

What’s important here is not so much the method, though some have proven, over time, to be more fruitful than others, but that we set time aside each day to be with God and with God alone, to allow God to whisper to us in silence.

Because through the ages, from the prophet Elijah onwards, humans have found that God rarely yells. God whispers, and we need quiet, both in our physical surroundings and in our hearts, to hear the still, small voice of God.

The book bullseye lists the four main spiritual practices as prayer, reading of scripture, silence, and meditation. The authors do mention that other activities such as going for a walk, with or without a dog, listening to music, and serving others can absolutely draw us closer to God, but my own feeling is that unless we discipline ourselves to open our hearts and mind to God as we’re doing these activities, they’ll act more like my weekly orchestra rehearsals. While those absolutely make me a better player, they won’t have nearly the effect that regular daily practice on my own would have.

So my own take on the four disciplines that they’ve singled out:

Silence and freedom from distraction is something I’ve found necessary in order for any of the other three to work well. I don’t really consider it a separate discipline.

Meditation, I have understood from reading studies, has all sorts of beneficial health effects, and it’s a great practice, but one must be careful, if one is going to take this up as a specifically Christian discipline, that God and Jesus are incorporated in there somehow. Susan Woollard has as her “sacred word” the name of Jesus, and incorporates that into her daily 20 minute sessions.

However, by far the two most usual, and to my mind the most fruitful, spiritual practices are scripture reading and prayer. In fact, they’re so important, that they’re a universal part of pretty much every Christian worship service. They are THAT important.

I’ll start with scripture reading.

I think that reading scripture, getting to know not just the few verses read in worship every Sunday, or the single verses used in meditation booklets. Not that there’s anything wrong with going to worship or reading those booklets, but they’re not enough.

I’ve found through my own reading that taking in an entire book of the Bible in a chapter-by-chapter sequential reading has opened my eyes to what we don’t hear in church. Some of the psalms I’ve read in the last few months aren’t in Voices United, and some of them have parts cut out. There are parts of the Bible we often don’t want to deal with in corporate worship, but that need examining nevertheless.

If you’re fairly new to reading the Bible, or you haven’t read through it in a while, I’d suggest starting with Mark, followed by Matthew and Luke. A good Old Testament start would be Genesis and Exodus, the stories of the beginning of the faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. If your attention span is short, try reading Jonah, Ruth, or Paul’s letter to the Philippians. If you have a reluctant teenager in the house, try tempting them with the Song of Solomon, which was the first book of the Bible I ever read straight through…

The Bible contains the stories of humanity’s search for God. There’s a lot in there that’s contradictory, and a lot that we modern folks find difficult to understand. There are verses in there that most civilized folks would agree are just plain wrong. If you don’t trust me on this, read Psalm 137, the whole thing, and not just the well-known first few verses.

It’s a very human book, perhaps the most human of all books ever written, because it’s really a library that contains a huge collection of human experiences of God. And because it contains a huge collection of human experiences of God, parts of it will almost certainly speak to each one of us, drawing us closer to the divine.

The second important spiritual practice is prayer.

Our scripture reading from Matthew today, Jesus talks about prayer. He gives us specific instructions on how and what to pray. The Message translation says this:

“Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense God’s grace.”

Jesus tells us that it’s important to open our hearts, our minds, our souls to God. God doesn’t want perfect, God wants us. Our repentant, broken, selves.

Prayer isn’t a “wish list,” where we name what’s broken in the world or our lives and ask God to fix it according to our plans. Prayer is a letting-go, where we name what’s broken in the world or in our lives and give up the need to dictate the terms. “YOUR will be done,” NOT “MY will be done”…

Prayer is important, too to linking what we do to what God does. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us…´

I don’t know about you, but praying that particular line always makes me just a teeny bit uncomfortable. I think that’s the way it should be.

Even in a corporate setting like worship, prayer is a private thing. A conversation, if you like, between one person and God. And if you have trouble with prayer, that’s a good way to frame it—as a conversation.

God, I’ve been really worried about…

God, thank you so much for…

God, help me, please! I’m in over my head on this one!

God, I’m so very sorry! Please forgive me for what I’ve done wrong.

I’ve found it more difficult in my own life to say regular bedtime prayers than to do daily morning scripture reading, but that doesn’t mean I don’t pray. At times when emotions overwhelm me, whether sad or glad, I’ll often take just a few seconds to say, “Thank you!”, “Sorry!”, or “Please…

There are, of course, more ways to incorporate deliberate Christian practice into our daily lives, practice that will help us to be more able to sense God at work in our lives and in the world, practice that will help us to be more fit to do the healing work that God sends our way. I enjoy listening to contemporary Christian music, which I do every day when driving. Others enjoy weeks of guided prayer, or silent retreats, or prayer vigils. Reverend John Benham at Trinity United in Guelph came back from a trip out west enthused about a 7 o’clock in the morning service held at a Calgary church every Wednesday, that has about forty regular attendees.

What’s important is that you choose something and try it. If it doesn’t work, try something else.

Holton and Johnson compare living the Christian life to going to a gym. They ask, what if you went to the gym and the following happened:

  • You sat around and watched the instructor work out.
  • You were given a handout on how to exercise.
  • Someone came and talked with you about what it is like to work out.
  • You watched a video about a whole group of people working out.
  • The leader or the instructor then said thanks for coming and welcomed you back to do the same thing next week.

Would you call that a workout?

Yet that’s what many Christians do about their faith. They see their sole responsibility discharged in weekly (or less than weekly) attendance at worship services and from Monday to Saturday they forget they have to practice their faith.

Even those who come to worship and fully participate don’t get the full benefit. Again, comparing Christian living to exercise, if you do go to the gym and work out, then spend the next six days sitting on the couch watching television, it’s not going to do much good. If you spend the next six days just going about regular activities, like gardening and housework and walking, you might get a bit more benefit, but you’ll only get into your best shape if you work out daily or almost daily with the specific aim of getting more fit.

Holton and Johnson tell us that the Christian life was never meant to be a spectator sport. Jesus’ invitation to follow him leads to a way of life that involves us participating.

So this week, you have an assignment. Pick one daily practice that you think you can do for seven days in a row. Pick a time of day you think you can do it. Then give it a try!

If it doesn’t work, all monies paid will be cheerfully refunded!

Amen.

 

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.

 

 

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.