In the Hands of a Witless Halfling

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

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

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

It’s hobbit forming, that’s why!

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

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

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

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

But there are others who want this ring for themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s utter foolishness!

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

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

Madness.

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

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

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

Instead, he went to the cross.

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

God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolute idiocy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust in the foolishness.

We are not alone.

Amen.

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Say “Friend” and Enter

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

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

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

Okay, so “fanatic” it is…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so it is in life and in the church.

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

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

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

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

That lack of diversity impoverishes us immensely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am a “whosoever.”

You are a “whosoever.”

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

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

Amen!

The Storming of Isengard

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

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

No?

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

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

No water—the pump wasn’t working.

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

No water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.