Category Archives: Reflections

Entreat, Pray, Love

Let us pray: The mystery of faith is one that both encourages active searching and prompts us to question. May these words be encouraging words, O God. And may our questions be ones which lead us to new depths in our souls. Amen.

Three different approaches to community development. That’s what we heard in our readings this morning. Concerned perhaps by the possibility of a revolt among the leaderless people, Aaron acquiesces to a misdirected spiritual yearning. The people were calmed, but God was not – as the story tells us. It’s a pretty remarkable story, especially if we are of the common view that God is unchanging, immutable, God only wise – as we sing in one of the well-loved hymns. This story draws into question the whole idea that God is all knowing and all loving. The story breathes a between the lines sigh of relief as Moses pulls the community and their common faith out of both the figurative and literal fire. Is this a blip in a story of constancy, and faithfulness, or should it inform our faith to a much greater degree. If God’s mind can be changed then how earnestly should we try to do the same? And if we try, then what moral characteristic guides us in that exercise of divine mind altering? If God and faith in God is the source of our moral authority, our understanding of right and wrong, then what does it mean if God can be convinced to change a plan of action. Where did the goodness that propels that change of mind come from? Does this mean that there is some greater sense of right and good that is even greater than God?

I don’t know about you, but it is reassuring to know that God’s mind can be changed. It softens the harshness of the vengeful God that is often depicted in scripture. It enlivens God – distinguishing the Holy One from the lifeless object of reverence that the people built during Moses’ absence. A living God, capable of reason, capable of persuasion, even if that introduces an element of mystery and doubt, is a concept that enlivens faith as well. This is an idea that introduces the possibility of deeper discernment. And in my experience deeper discernment leads to deeper relationship. A God that can be persuaded is a God that is more nuanced, a God that has personality, a God that invites deeper consideration.

Moses’ status as a leader in community development is certainly enhanced in this story – both by virtue of what happened when he was gone, and by virtue of what happened when he returned.

Perhaps there is no better term to apply to Paul than that of community developer. A case could be made that his whole purpose in life was to develop the various communities with which he was in touch. Corinth. Ephesus. Rome. And in today’s reading, Philippi.

His approach to community development this week is typified by the advice he gives to the Philippians. You are good people he says, preparing them for what comes next. Prayer is his answer. Prayer can lead to the settling of differences. Prayer can lead people to expression of gratitude. Prayer can remind people that God is good and that God wants goodness to flow out of community. Paul might be paraphrased in this: The community that prays together, stays together.

Apparently the same spirit that inhabited the community of people waiting at the bottom of the mountain in our story from Exodus this morning has come to rest in the community (although I use that word reluctantly) that is described by Jesus. Who knows why the community was so scattered that they did not want to attend the wedding feast for the royal prince? It’s a story without that kind of detail. Typically Jesus leaves the detail out and in so doing invites a richness that comes from our own speculations, filling in of blanks and ascribing of motives.

Regardless of the reasons, the invited ones in Jesus’ story don’t come. And so how does community come together in this story of the wedding feast? By drawing a wider circle. Again Jesus doesn’t go into detail about the ensuing wedding feast. We don’t know whether the original invitees were upset? We just know that in keeping with Jesus’ message in other places – the last became first.

Three takes on community development. I’ve characterized them in this way. Entreat: That’s what Moses did with God – changing the mind of God and thus restoring the faith and the community of the Exodus people. Pray: that was the way that Paul invited the Philippian Christians to strengthen their community and to strengthen their commitment to the way of God. Love: It was shown widely in Jesus’ story of the wedding feast. When one community is too scattered go and bring others, and in so doing you demonstrate the inclusive love of God. Amen.

Leaning in to Thanksgiving

Let us pray: Creating – may these words tell of you and may they tell of our thanks. Amen.

One of the remarkable things about giving thanks as described in scripture is that is often called for from times of desperation and hardship. People in exile – driven from their land and with that land made desolate and unproductive with salt, called to give thanks. Paul writing from prison tells the people in Philippi to rejoice in God every day. Martin Rinckart – the writer of our final hymn this morning – in the midst of a Thirty Year War – a destructive and dangerous time for the people with whom he ministered, writes this: Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices.

Given that and the things that have happened over the past weeks: mass violence; not one, but three and possibly more destructive hurricanes; and two earthquakes with many aftershocks; we might expect this to be a particularly ripe time for calls of thanksgiving.

It’s difficult, especially when some of these tragedies reach out and touch us more deeply than we could ever have imagined. It doesn’t seem like a time for thanksgiving, yet that is where scripture draws us.

How can we give thanks in the midst of such tragedy, such horror, such feelings of helplessness?

Yet that is where we are called. You heard about the Grumpy Man a few minutes ago – who went from grump to happy in the course of naming his blessings.

And so as difficult as it might be, I want to invite us lean into thanksgiving.

This follows on from the things I wrote and spoke a couple of weeks ago and the way we often try to balance things out in a zero sum world.

A couple of years ago, Ray McGinnis, a workshop leader who helps people write sacred texts, was with us. Ray helped us with techniques for mindfulness to get us in a mind set and heart set on creative sacred writing. Some of his ideas are outlined in a book he wrote called Writing the Sacred. In a chapter in which he guides us in the writing Psalms of Thanksgiving and Praise he quotes Mary Jo Leddy, a Roman Catholic writer, editor. speaker, theologian and social activist, well known for many books, one of which is titled Radical Gratitude. In writing about gratitude, Leddy writes:

In a culture of money, we tend to have a ledger view of life. We add up the pluses and minuses and tro to account for our lives. In the process, we miss the amazing fact that we even have a life to add up. We take being alive for granted and move into a cost-benefit analysis. Lost in the process is the incalculable mystery of simply being alive. The liberation of gratitude begins when we stop taking life for granted.”

I remember from the workshop a piece of writing from a very young girl. It was a remarkable litany of thanks giving and it sparked some delightful similar creations from the people in attendance at the workshop.

The title of this piece was something like this: When you praise a word it turns into a poem.

Praise and thanksgiving are closely linked. Here is a version that I wrote:

Praise to darkness,

for leading me to dreams of insight.

Praise to fabric shopping bags,

that make the ocean a bit cleaner.

Praise to wolverines,

for reminding me that everything isn’t cute and cuddly

Praise to food

that helps me to live, and enlivens my help

Praise to computers

that get smaller and bigger each day

Praise to light

for reminding me of glory

Praise to smart phones,

for letting me be more of who I really am.

Amen.

Here’s another slightly modified prayer of thanks that I found in my archives:

From all things that breathe may we learn the wonders of God's love
Ravens - surprise
Belugas - greatness and cleverness
Ptarmigan - hidden secrets
Foxes - cunning God uses to show love
Bison - steadfastness
Muskrats - perseverance
Badgers - fierceness
Polar bears - power
Family: sisters, brothers, grandparents, children, aunties and uncles - the closeness of God's love.
I want to give you a few moments now to do your own leaning into thanksgiving. Maybe it will be the ten-finger blessing. Or perhaps you will write some poetry that begins with praise. Or your own list in this season of creation of the wonders of God’s love that we discover in creation. My list consisted of things that breathe, but it could just as easily be a list of things that grow,or just sit there, or are created in other ways.
Lean into thanksgiving. Praise be to Creating. Amen.

Nothing Zero Sum About It!

Let us pray: May these words tell a story of abundance, O God. Guide them and use them. Amen.

There is a common understanding in life that you can’t have one without the other. By this I mean that we often think that life and circumstances are based on a Zero Sum equation. Radio Two host Tom Allan mentioned this in an introduction last Monday to music written by Johannes Brahms. You see Brahms was under the understanding that there some kind of great balance in life, and so if Brahms wrote a piece of happy music, he would quickly write a requiem or something like it – sad, or blue, or meditative to appease the sentiment that everything should be in balance. We do the same thing with weather. If we get a particularly beautiful week or two of good weather, we often think that we are going to pay for it somewhere down the road with an especially cold spell, or lots of rain, or something less appealing. Perhaps Canada’s most well known weather person – chief climatologist David Phillips disavowed me of that notion a few years ago when he was asked on radio to give a long term reflection on some bout of weather just passed and a prognostication, as good as it can be at such a distance of what might be coming. I remember him clearly saying that just because we’ve had it good does not mean that we are going to get it bad at some point in the future and equally just because we are having it bad right now does not mean that we are paying for something because it just might keep on being bad. In other words, at least with the weather it is not necessarily a zero sum game. I say that with a certain amount of hesitation – because I happen to believe what the climate scientists and the earth scientists are telling us – that it is getting worse – the storms, the melting and the temperature, even though rising temperatures might sound like something getting better in the short term.

The point is that in many things there is no such thing as a zero sum. There is no inherent dependency. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news – if that is something you’ve kind of wagered your life on.

Well I’m not completely sorry because I actually think this is good news. It is good news that we don’t live in a Zero Sum world.

A number of years ago I was chairing the board for a couple of theological colleges – St. Andrew’s College, the one from which I graduated in Saskatoon and St. Stephen’s College in Edmonton. There was a time in the early 2000s when they were amalgamated into one body. During that time it made sense for us to do some work on the Mission statement for this amalgamated institution. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever been part of a process for creating a Mission Statement, but it can be energizing and frustrating at the same time. It’s difficult to get a group of people – usually with some pretty strongly held ideas – to come to some kind of consensus on what values and principles are important to name in a Mission Statement which is by necessity required to be quite terse. Energizing because there are often great insights and frustrating because it seems like everyone has a different idea about how to express these insights and in what order.

Part of the reasoning for the amalgamation in the first place was to find ways to efficiently use resources. Funding for theological colleges, like many things connected with church in these post-modern western times was dwindling. What that meant for people around that table during this Mission Statement exercise was that they were quite sad and despairing about the situation faced by educational institutions in general and theological colleges in particular. The mood was one that revolved around the down side of scarcity. When you’ve cut funding for programmes and the staff people to implement and manage them as much as you can without thinking that the next step is dissolution, it is easy to see how that mood can permeate the air. It all changed when some wise voice around the table said that the ability to deal creatively with scarcity was a resource rather than a problem. You could feel the spirits lift. A great weight seemed to lift and quietly people came around to the idea that we had a gift to share rather than a burden to bear.

I think that might have been what it was like for the Hebrew people in today’s story from Exodus. The euphoria of their escape from the oppression of the Egyptian Pharaoh was pretty much over and the downward pressure of scarcity was much more clearly affecting their lives. If only they could go back they thought – they would have enough to eat. Moses was like that wise speaker around our Board Table. I’m not sure of the explanation of how Manna and Quail became the daily diet of the Hebrew people during that time. I’ve heard various rational explanations of how and why the sky was suddenly raining down sustenance for them. I also know this is a story to tell a story without it being a recounting of things that actually happened. Or was it a change of perspective – did Moses succeed in reframing things for the Hebrew people such that they were able to find abundance when they had previously only sensed scarcity. Whatever happened we have a story that describes transformation.

As you heard, issues of scarcity and abundance are also part of the story we heard from the gospels this morning.

How did the story upset your sense of justice? Do you think it is fair for someone to be paid the same amount of money for an hour’s work as someone who worked the whole day? Is this a case of “make sure you read the fine print in a contract before you sign on the line”. Perhaps. Or is it a case of “fair living wage”. There is an interesting turn of phrase in the version of this story that I read. The all day workers complained by saying “You have made the ones who only started work at 5:00 equal to us.”

So for those tired workers it was an issue of justice and equality. Is equality tied to the idea of an hourly wage? Arguably we could say that this is a principle which continues to this day, that we value people in part by the amount they are paid or the amount they can charge.

Once again the great disrupter has disrupted. Like that board member who flipped the coin and said that scarcity wasn’t a problem. No, the ability to deal creatively with scarcity is a resource. And almost instantly we felt good about who we are and what we can do.

Things change when we gain the ability to see things differently. We all know that, but then we often get stuck in continuing to follow the old ways of seeing and doing.

How often do we fall into the Zero Sum game – the game that says when there is a gain there must be a loss as well?

One of the great blessings of Creation Time as an addition to the Christian Church year is to mindfully, reflectively engage in an experience of abundance. To recognize with gratitude what we have been given. To commit with intention to preserve what we’ve been given.

Some of you have been involved in an exercise that I find extremely valuable. I wish it had a better name. It’s called “Asset Mapping”. But despite its’ name it is a tremendously inspiring exercise. It uses abundance as a resource to bring hope to a community. It invites people to name all the assets that are present in this community. Some of them are personal. Some of them are things we own or have access to. Some of them are skills and abilities that we’ve been blessed with, or have nurtured, or gained in the following of our passions. Some of them are community based assets. What do we have as a community. What can we offer within the community and what can we offer to a wider community.

I won’t go into the details of how the exercise can be used to transform a struggling community into one that is focused, energized and full of joy, except to say that is like that magic penny I spoke of when the children were here.

Creation time is an invitation to remember the abundance in which we live. Creation time is a reminder that playing a Zero Sum game is often a downer and one that belies the hopefulness that comes with our life as earthlings – the inhabits of this planet home.

Creation time is a time in which to engage in deep relationship with Creating – my new most often used term for the Holy One. Creating – because it describes a God who is not done yet. Creating because of the action implied by such a name. May it be so. Amen.

Groaning, Quaking, Roaring, Rushing

I began this reflection with an off the cuff connection with Earthquakes, Hurricanes, the news of a Chinese Icebreaker making its way through the Northwest Passage and a reference to the Forest Fires that have ravaged BC, Southern Alberta and Northern Montana over the past months and weeks. These are also Creation and it is important to place them beside the more gentle and placid images we hold of Creation. 

Let us pray: Creating and Creator – guide these words and use them that they may tell a story of you. Amen.

Yesterday, in a completely different context, I told the story of the Apollo astronauts who were the first to circle the moon, heading away from the earth to circle the dark side and then re-emerge on the other side, the first human beings in history to lose sight of our planet home and then to watch earth rise in a way that is similar to the way that all of us, earthlings have watched the moon and sun rise from our vantage point on earth. The astronauts of Apollo 17 took a photo of the earth as they headed towards the moon. That photograph which has been dubbed The Blue Marble has appeared in countless places – an icon of this planet that we call home. Yesterday, as I recalled that image and the occasion of the first earth rise seen by the Apollo 8 crew – I was reminded of a statement by philosopher Buckminster Fuller, who stated upon hearing of the first witness of Earth Rise and perhaps even more after seeing the Blue Marble photograph – that from now on every conflict on earth would have to be considered a civil war.

Well as I just mentioned that image came to mind in a different context, on a different topic, but it came to mind again as I reflected on the theme I was being called to explore this morning.

The particular view that drew me to that imagining here is that those images of the earth from a perspective never seen before and in some ways the photographic proof that we as human beings are encapsulated on a spinning blue planet in a vast, limitless universe. It makes me feel the same way that stopping in a dark sky place on a clear night, as I did some times on night time drives on the Yellowhead highway between Edmonton and Jasper. I would stop in safe places of the highway where there was practically no earthly light and observe the night time sky, the Milky Way clearly visible. I would feel very small and very large at the same time.

It’s a perspective that conveniently isolates us from the kind of power to which we’ve been witness over the past few weeks. That Blue Marble image of the earth is an idyllic, beautiful photograph of our home. And to paraphrase the words of Genesis – it is good, it is very good.

And I think that we often take that distant view of our planet home and superimpose it on our connection with the earth at a much closer elevation – ground level actually.

We see the wilderness outside of our doors in the same kind of idyllic, beautiful way. We’ve had the advantage of living in two very different and beautiful places over the past quarter century. In the middle of the Rocky Mountains, surrounded by the kind of beauty that many people spend large amounts of money to come and see and here in this sub-arctic taiga and classic example of the Canadian Shield which comprises so much of the country which gives its name to this geographic, geologic feature.

And so, when we think about the Season of Creation and imagine our place in Creation, and the ways we treat Creation and enjoy Creation, yes we think about some of the inherent dangers of places like this – that there are lots of things that can happen to us if we spend more time than we mean to in it and if we are not careful about the way we approach it.

What we are less likely to think of, is the way in which Creation can unleash power that is uncontrollable.

But we cannot have a season of creation and all the good thoughts, gratitude and positive vibes that living in a place like this provides, without also being aware of the ways in which, as my title suggests, creation can be Groaning, Quaking, Roaring, and Rushing.

Witness the last few weeks in the history of our earth. Hurricane Harvey, an earthquake in Mexico, and then right on the heels of Harvey came Irma with concern about the other tropical depressions that are to come.

What do we say when the power of Creation overwhelms us? How does it affect our understanding of God as Creator and Creating? In the wake of such destructive natural phenomena could we not just as easily use Destroying as another name for God?

Of course none of us would want to think of God that way, but the questions abound, including the most basic theological question of all: Where is God in all of this?

You’ve already heard some of the answers – I have, and so I can assume that you have too. They inevitably follow the stories of tragedy that accompany the aftermath of a destructive natural disaster. God is not in the destruction, but in the stories of the heroism of professional and amateur search and rescue people, in the stories of selflessness as people risk their own welfare or contribute their own financial resources to assist people who are often much worse off – although not always and perhaps even more selflessly when people who have experienced disaster equal or greater than the ones whom they reach out to help.

God is in the response. God is in the ways that people reach out to help each other. God is in the arms that reach out to support people who feel that they’ve lost everything or who wonder how they will every regroup and rebuild. God is in comforting words to those who are grieving the death of loved ones. God can be found in so many places in the response to disasters like these.

But still we address God as Creator and Creating. Can we come to terms with this in the midst of the power of Category Five Hurricanes and 8.something earthquakes?

I believe so – because in a way similar to the way I felt on those Yellowhead Highway star gazing opportunities – such events make me feel both large and small – small because any power I might have pales in comparison to the awesome power of a Hurricane like Harvey or Irma or the awesome power that is unleashed when the earth shakes even a little bit – which despite the destructiveness of an 8.2 earthquake is really just a little bit of shaking in relative terms. But large because I too am a product of creation. I am a part of this wonderful, complicated, awesome, co-dependent thing that we call creation.

And of course, its more than this – for the discoverers – another name for scientists are telling us that this power is not reserved just for God. We wield some of that power ourselves thanks to Creator and Creating. Our action or inaction, they say is making hurricanes more powerful. The ways in which we are using Creation are burning up resources and filling up the air with carbon dioxide. Heat is getting trapped. Glaciers and ice caps are melting. Islands and coastlines are disappearing. And worst of all, the people most affected are the ones who have the least ability to do something about it.

I fretted about this reflection all week because I knew that Creation events of weeks just past – even though in many ways they could be called Destruction events – were calling me to reflect not just on an idyllic, positive perspective on the wonders and pleasures and beauty of creation. I wondered what I could say, and felt that I needed to say something to sum it all up in a deep and lasting way. To make it all make sense.

But of course, it was a mistake to think that I could do so. It’s a metaphor for the troubles and goodness that describe life. Life is beautiful and very difficult. Life is hard and full of wonder. Life is a challenge often and sometimes it is easy.

And in all of this, the trouble and the goodness, the beauty and the difficulty, the hard times and the times full of wonder, in the challenge and the ease – we have our God – who is with us in all of these – who shows power and peace and compassion and strength and challenge and comfort in infinite measure when we most need any of them and often at times when we feel we want just the opposite.

There is no one answer. The answer can sometimes be found in the questions. The answer can sometimes be found in the questing. The answer comes in trouble and in beauty. And we are meant to embrace it as God’s people. Amen.

A Journey Out Of and In To the Wilderness

A Journey Out Of and In To the Wilderness
Let us pray: May these words be drenched with your wisdom O God, may they be transformed like the leaves of autumn, into a colourful tapestry of the ways in which your presence is made known within and around us. Amen.

Epiphany is one of our words. The Christian story and the Church’s story have contributed lots of words to the lexicons of language and Epiphany is one of them. I was reading in one of my worship resources this week and noticed that some column space had been devoted to the explanation of the word anthem. That’s another word of ours, and if you look at the worship bulletin you might find a few more: hymn, sermon, doxology to name a few. But today I want to focus on the word epiphany.
It’s a word that means “light” but in a certain way – like a flashlight turned on in the middle of a dark night to help you find something on the ground, or like the symbolic lightbulb that goes on over the head of someone who has just experienced some revelatory insight.
Now we have a whole season of epiphany and no we are not in it, but that doesn’t matter because part of the wonder of the word and the experience of epiphany is that it is tied up in the idea of unexpected. So an epiphany in creation time is perfectly acceptable, in fact even expected, if we could ever say that an epiphany is expected given its connection with unexpectedness.
I want to tell you about three epiphany experiences – two of them quite recent and one that is not that ancient either. These three experiences of insight will serve to tie together the two readings from scripture that we heard this morning and the new season that we find ourselves marking this morning in our worship time.
It’s important for me to tie things together this way because I was having trouble relating those scripture readings to the theme of creation that is called for in this relatively new season in the Christian year.
Epiphany #1: Passover. A rational mind like mine has great trouble reconciling the story of a plague that brings devastation to a particular segment of a population as an act of vengeance, retribution, or warning. First of all, a God of love, a God of justice, a God of compassion does not do such as that. It’s not that I can’t see the possibility of illness or disease devastating a population. We don’t have to go back to ancient Egypt for that. The blanket exercise that took place in this space a few months ago reminds us of the intentional transmission of the smallpox virus to indigenous people through the “gift” (and yes I use that term with vicious irony) of infected blankets.
The insight, the epiphany came as I read of another way to think of the Passover event. You heard about it in Lorne’s introduction to the reading this morning. This is not a story of winners and losers. It’s a story about freedom, but freedom that comes at great cost. It’s not about one people pitted against another, or a story of a vengeful God. It’s a story about the ways in which a corrupt and oppressive leader can wield power that effects everyone – Egyptian Hebrew people alike in this story – but of course it is repeated over and over again throughout history.
Maybe you’ve had that epiphany already, but for me it was a helpful and instructive insight. Not earth shaking, but maybe life changing in its own way.
Epiphany #2: Sometimes an epiphany is so close to being revealed for a long time that the wonder of it is not in its coming to light but in the fact that it wasn’t recognized sooner. That describes this second one today. How often have I taken time to explain the context of the gospels in particular? How often have I explained that they were written long after Jesus’ time on earth – decades later? And how often have I then described that much of the reason for their being written was to make a point with the church communities to which the gospel writers belonged. The gospels are not diaries of the life of Jesus, they are stories written to give a particular point of view, to mold the young church in ways that were both faithful to the ways and teachings of Jesus, and suited to the ways that Mark and Luke and Matthew and John thought they should be going.
I’ve devoted lots of time to that aspect of my teaching, and yet not until this week did I have that insight in today’s story from Matthew’s gospel. Matthew’s guide to conflict resolution has been a part of what I’ve referred to in numerous church meetings, mediation sessions, workshops and pastoral oversight visits. And I’ve always taken it at face value – as a pastoral, conflict resolving word from Jesus. Duh!
Of course there was no church in Jesus’ time – hasn’t that been a point I’ve been trying to make for a quarter of a century of ministry! But not until this week when I read it, did it sink in that this tells us something about the community to which Matthew belonged. Does it tell us that some differences of opinion were starting emerge in the church to which Matthew belonged? Well, that could be the point of Matthew writing about it? And doesn’t it had some extra weight to have the words come from Jesus’ mouth? They have the ring of wisdom to them, and so it is certainly possible that they come from Jesus, but it was still an epiphany for me to have this explained to me in this way. Again not earth shaking, but life changing in its own way.
Epiphany #3: This is the one that gives rise to the title of this sermon. This is a much more slowly developing epiphany. It’s been in process for more than a quarter of a century. And there have been hints about it all through that time, but the light did not go on until a couple of years ago. I’ve hinted at this epiphany before. Epiphanies are like that – once revealed they are hard to keep quiet.
This epiphany is closely connected to the season of creation.
I want to describe it in timeline form. Hopefully that will help to see how it developed.
If you’ve been around for a while, you will know that I devoted a good many kilometres and summer weekends in my twenties and thirties to the exploration of the mountain backcountry by embarking on many, many backpacking trips. I look back on those years with pleasure and some regret that I have not been able to keep up the practice. I witnessed some incredible vistas and some places in this country that only a very small percentage of the Canadian population will every see. And as I did that I became aware at a very deep level that this was not only physical exercise for me, it was spiritual exercise as well. I have been prompted to reminisce a bit more deeply about those years in the past few weeks because I heard of a backpacking trip into a place called Skoki – where I’ve also been, and because this past week I heard our niece describe her recent hike on the West Coast trail – a place on my list that did not happen and I have to admit will probably not happen in the years I have left.
A few summers before I headed off to seminary, it occurred to me that church camp did not have to be a standing camp with daily programs of crafts, games and canoe instruction. Nothing wrong with any of that – and church camps of that type have been part of the spiritual formation of countless numbers of young children, myself included. However it occurred to me, that if a moving camp with a daily program of hiking had such spiritual influence on me, that there might be others who were similarly attracted. I had lots of experience and I was willing to apply my knowledge as a leader of a backpacking summer church camp. As fate would have it I found someone else with the same idea and to my good fortune he had already done much of the groundwork required to make the camp happen. I quite readily joined in as a co-leader. The story of that hike will be left for another time – but I will say it was one of the most remarkable times in my life – not so much for the physical ground we covered and explored, but for the people and spirit that was revealed during that week.
That experience and all my other experiences led me in seminary to write a paper on the values for Christian formation of a backpacking trip. It was a paper for a course on Christian Education, and I received the best mark on that paper of anything I ever did in seminary. And I have a feeling that the professor who gave me that mark had her own epiphany when she read my paper. She had never considered a church camp of that type before and she rewarded me accordingly for some of the insights I had in writing it.
Despite all of this, until a few years ago, I had always considered the love and care and wonder of creation as a door to the spiritual life. Many people would come to me and say that they were not religious, but they were spiritual and the place where they most experienced spiritual insight and comfort was in the wilderness, or the countryside, or out on the land, or at the cabin, or on a canoe trip, or a hiking or backpacking trip. That’s great I would think and sometimes even say – and then invite them to consider that experience as a one or two dimensional introduction to the spiritual life and to the extra dimensions that were available through faith community.
And then I was introduced to “Forest Church”. I spurned it a few times before I let myself experience it. My thinking was much like the thinking I’ve just described. Forest Church is poor, young cousin to the real spiritual life and I’ve been there, done that and moved on.
But eventually, quite possibly through the prodding of the Spirit, I let myself experience it. I purchased the book – in hard copy, but so anxious was I to read it, that I bought the digital version as well and then read it in one sitting on line – making the printed copy when I received it a week or two later somewhat redundant.
This was not just epiphany, this was Caps Lock on EPIPHANY. As I thought about my twenty and thirty something years and all the Rocky Mountain wilderness I experienced, and my obvious joy and passion in writing that paper in seminary and all the wonder and joy and spiritual comfort I’ve found in exploring the land, I realized as our Call to Worship stated this morning, that the land and wilderness are not an entrance, but a destination.
And so that is Epiphany #3. I’ll say more in the weeks to come – for there is much to tell – and this, the season of creation, is a time to tell it.
I’ll just finish today with an explanation of how this relates to the title I gave to this reflection today: It describes the journey I just told you about. A journey out of the wilderness is how I thought the spiritual life should be framed – using the wilderness as an entry point – a good one, but still just a door. And it has taken me a while to realize it’s not a door – it’s the place to go. Indigenous people have it right when they talk of going out on the land as a place to renew their spirits. And so over the next three weeks let us take some more steps on the way to that place. Amen.

Praying Twice

Praying Twice

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase attributed to St Augustine that says that the person who sings prays twice – once with the words and once with the music.

I mentioned in the introduction to worship this morning the important place that music plays in our religious or spiritual lives. A good deal of the mystery of faith is connected with music. How many of us would tell our faith stories through a connection with important pieces of music. We have a tradition at Yellowknife United Church which takes place on the Sunday following Christmas when people are invited to tell stories of hymns and carols before they are sung. It often happens when I’m away, but I have been fortunate to be present for a few them and the stories are always touching and reinforce the idea that music connects us with God and the place that the Holy Spirit plays in our lives. Because of the importance of music in today’s worship I don’t want to SAY too much today, except to point to some connections. The first connection I want to make is clearly made in the words and music of number MV 88 Over My Head. I’m going to ask Sharon to play it for us, and then invite us to sing it with special note of these words. Over my head I hear music in the air – there must be a God somewhere.

The second piece of music is one that has a deep connection to my own spiritual life. I heard this music setting for Psalm 113 – probably not too long after it was written and this piece is the beginning of a story that tells a whole lot of my spiritual story. I had the honour of coming to know the composer, even having the honour of being the person who presented him with an honourary doctorate. I started to take piano lessons again as an adult in order to be able to play this piece of music and so I would invite us to sing it today as an example and reminder of whatever music plays that role in your life. VU 835 Praise to the Lord

And finally, in much the same way that Over My Head tells a story of the connection between God and music, so does this final hymn we will sing during this sermon time. It tells a story that connects music and worship and faith community and gospel in a way that can only happen when music and words are connected. We will be singing this to an ancient tune – appropriately with a Latin name: Sine Nomine. I’m pretty sure you will recognize it. VU 533 When In Our Music

Amen.

Reconciliation

Let us pray: Guide these words O God and use them that they may help us to know you more fully. Amen.

The message from today’s readings can be summed up in three sentences. Reconciliation is difficult. Reconciliation benefits everyone. It’s what God wants.

I will expand on this somewhat, but it is important to remember those three statements.

Some of the best stories show up in the summer time. As you heard, the passages from the Hebrew bible this summer have focused on the stories within a larger story. The larger story is a family saga – starting with Abram and Sarai, progressing through their name change to Sarah and Abraham and then on to the births of Ishmael and Isaac, and the generations that followed them. Perhaps you can consider the drama and intrigue, the twists and turns as your bonus for hanging in there throughout the summer, but in case you’ve only been here off and on, you can still take heart from the fact that the stories within the stories are full enough to occupy our interest and analysis for a lifetime.

The big story made a bit of an appearance in today’s reading, but as you heard, it was primarily concerned with the story of the reconnection of Joseph with his brothers – a reconnection that could have turReconciliationned out much differently than it did.

Just to remind us of how we got to the events outlined in today’s reading, you will hopefully recall that Joseph was kidnapped by his brothers out of jealousy because of perceived or real favouritism on the part of their father. Joseph was saved from imminent death by the appearance of estranged cousins in the form of Ishmaelites, who took him as a slave to Egypt.

It’s a story of operatic drama. And if you know your musical history, you will recognize it as the basis for the rock opera – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Fast forward to today’s story where we find Joseph having made a name for himself as an accurate interpreter of dreams and as a result, a high ranking official in the court of the pharaoh.

In an operatic twist, Joseph’s betraying brothers end up in Egypt looking for relief from the famine that had come upon their land, and the encounter detailed in today’s reading ensues.

You could expect that Joseph with the power of authority behind him as VIP in the pharaoh’s court might have taken the opportunity for revenge. But as we heard, Joseph instead chooses to make up with his brothers and seizes the opportunity to see his father again.

Reconciliation.

It’s perhaps described a little too easily in the story. It’s much more difficult in action. Don’t we know it – with reconciliation a huge part of our conversation in these days when relationships among indigenous people and colonial descendants are brought to focus. Rather than have the story of Joseph act as an example of what is possible – although that perspective is important, I wonder if our current situation and the struggle for reconciliation can be used as a guide for how difficult things must have been for Joseph in the restoration of relationship with his family.

Let’s look at those three summary sentences I used to begin this reflection, but in reverse order.

It’s what God wants. Would any of us argue with this? Reconciliation is an echo of what is in God’s heart of hearts. Given that, it is important for us to strive towards it, no matter how difficult.

Reconciliation benefits everyone. Strange as it may seem I think that this is a restatement of the previous insight. Here’s what I mean: We are all equal in God’s eyes. And so when we live and relate in reconciled relationships God is pleased. And God wants to be pleased. It’s the greatest desire of God – to be pleased and God takes pleasure when equality is lived out among God’s people. How pleasant and harmonious when God’s people are together. Recognize it? Psalm 133, which we sang a few moments ago.

Reconciliation is difficult.

Some indigenous spiritual leaders have suggested that it can take seven generations. Seven generations! That’s hard to imagine in a culture which demands that everything be done in time measured by milli, nano and pico rather than kilo, mega, tera and peta. We want things done now, or sooner.

But reconciliation cannot be rushed and it always depends on the party with whom reconciliation is desired. We may want reconciliation to happen quickly, but if we are the source of the hurt, then it is not for us to set the timeline. It always depends on those who’ve been harmed.

And that’s what makes it difficult. God’s desire, benefits everyone, but depends on the one who is hurting. And depends on the source of hurt being stopped. How can reconciliation happen if the source of conflict keeps on happening?

That point is made quite clearly in the reading from the gospel that we heard this morning.

It is my favourite reading from the gospel record. One of the characteristics of the Christian faith revolves around the idea that Jesus lived a perfect life. That tenet is both the source of great insight and great debate. But if we hold to that point of view then it is instructive to consider the story told in the gospel reading today. Apparently the perfect life includes the possibility of being wrong. For wrong is what Jesus was in this remarkable encounter. Jesus shows a certain narrow mindedness when it comes to who are the recipients of his care and consideration. It takes the persistence of the Canaanite woman along with her quick rejoinder to remind him of the wideness of God’s mercy, that leads Jesus to a change of heart, mind and word.

If you are like me, you hope for reconciliation and faithful insight to occur just as rapidly in all your relationships, conflicts and interactions.

Three words: Prayer, patience, perseverance.

And remember this: Reconciliation is difficult. Reconciliation benefits everyone. Reconciliation is what God wants.

Amen.

Why Tell Stories?

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God. Amen.

In the baptism liturgy, which we were all a part of a few moments ago, you may recall these words: Do you covenant to bring your child into the life of the Christian community to worship, to hear the story of the roots of our faith, to be called into response to the Gospel, and to be in relationship with other believers as your child grows into their own choice of faith in God? To hear the story of the roots of our faith.

Our lives and our faith are told in story.

I know that you all have stories. I expect you tell them, perhaps without even realizing that you are telling them. They are stories of faith and adventure, stories of connection and mystery, stories of heartbreak and joy, stories of insight and faith.

Today in our readings from scripture we heard two different kinds of story The first story from the book of Genesis is part of a much larger story that extends through many chapters of Genesis. The whole story might best be described as a saga – a generation by generation account of the lives of some of the offspring of Sarah and Abraham and then the offspring of their offspring and so on and so on down through the decades. The story can be read as a whole – as an arc that extends from the journey of Sarai and Abram – through their name change to Sarah and Abraham and then through the generation. Or it can be read a section at a time or even a portion of a section at a time. That’s what we did this morning.

When you read this story and these stories you will find some repeated themes – and also some aspects that are unique to each generation.

One of the repeated themes is trouble with bearing children. We first hear this theme in the story of the life of Abraham and Sarah – who was very elderly when she gave birth to Isaac.

Another repeated theme is rivalry. We first encountered this a couple of weeks ago in the lectionary when we heard about Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael – the son of Abraham and Hagar – born because Sarah suggested it so that Abraham would have a descendant and then retracted when Sarah miraculously gave birth to Isaac – named Laughter – because it seemed so ridiculously impossible that she could bear a child at such an advanced age.

Today the rivalry comes about in a different way – not through children with different mothers, but through twins. Esau and Jacob.

Well we heard a bit of that portion of the saga, and there is enough there to last for many layers of interpretation. The story makes it clear that the storyteller is on the side of Jacob – but as literary criticism allows – we can make our own choices as to what role is played by the characters in this story and what there is to learn from what happened.

The other kind of story we heard this morning is the form that is called a parable. Jesus used parables to teach moral lessons, and to connect people with different perspectives on a relationship with God.

As we heard, the reading this morning varies somewhat from the more typical use of parable in the gospel record. Mostly, parables go unanalyzed. They are simply told – and the reader and listener are left to ascribe different understandings to the story. That’s one of the beauties of the parable form – because there is usually a large variety of ways that the story can be understood – as we place ourselves in the story as the different characters. We can read the story with the theological question: Where is God in this story? In mind, and find ourselves coming upon different glimpses of the way that God is shown to be present in our lives and in the world.

For some reason, today’s parable is different. Jesus takes the time to give an explanation of the story. As is often the case, the parable has an agricultural theme and while it is often described as the parable of the good seed, we discover that it is not about the seed – the seed is all sourced from the same place, but rather a parable about soil – gravelly soil, hard soil, no soil and good soil – with the result that the seeds grow or don’t grow as the soil allows.

It would seem that this parable is one that doesn’t need much interpretation – the point seems clear: mind where you plant yourself that you will bear fruit in abundance.

Is your story part of a saga? Do you tell of the generations of loved ones who preceeded you? Is there a story in your family about a leap of faith, or an adventure that resulted in something unexpected or which completely changed the course of your life? Is there a story of a wilderness time, or a time of deep insight? Do you tell the story of your past differently than you would have told it looking forward? Is there a divine light in the stories you tell – a sense of the Spirit being present – directing you in ways that may not have seemed discernible when you were living it?

What stories do you tell of the liminal moments in your lives? We all know that time marches in perfectly delineated seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and years, but we also know that there are moments in time that take on much greater significance – that are etched in our hearts and minds as moments of transformation – moments of insight – moments when our lives were changed forever.

We are people of story. We are people whose faith is shaped by story – the stories we read from scripture, the stories we tell of who we are and how we got here. The stories of the ways in which God has shaped our lives and the ways in which we have leaned into God’s care and compassion when the going was tough.

When you tell your story – where is God in it? Do you discern God’s presence and God’s guidance in the way you tell your story?

Marina and Scott and Cara and Michael will tell Phoenix and Mason the story of the day they were baptised. But not just them. All the people that surround them today and will surround them in their lives have a story to tell – and of course that means all of us here today. We are part of the story and our lives are forever linked to theirs in a cord of connection that extends out in ways that are beyond our knowing to connect with God.

Thanks be to God for stories. They tell us of who we are and whose we are. We tell them in words and in the way we live our lives. May our stories be true – whether they tell of happenings or not – and may we recognise the story that includes the presence of God. Amen.

Something Good

Let us pray: Guide my words today that they may tell a story of you and your love, you and your compassion, you and your faithfulness, O God. Amen.

Are you familiar with the Robert Munsch story Something Good? In typical Munsch fashion it tells of a grocery shopping trip by a father and daughter. The father is earnestly collecting the bread, eggs, milk, cheese and spinach on the shopping list and placing them in the grocery cart. Taia, his daughter wants to keep putting something “good” in the grocery cart – where something good is defined as “ice cream, cookies, chocolate bars and ginger ale”. This difference of opinion eventually leads Taia to go her own way in the grocery story – filling her own cart with cartons and cartons of ice cream, and cookies, hundreds of chocolate bars and litres and litres of ginger ale. Well, you can imagine the tussle that ensues between father and daughter as this little difference of opinion and action is played out several times. Finally Dad asks Taia to stand still and quiet. She does such a good job of it that a store clerk thinks she is a doll, so Taia is priced, tagged and shelved, ready for someone to buy her.

Long story short, Dad finds her, puts her in the grocery cart and then unsuccessfully tries to convince the cashier that this is his daughter and not a $29.95 doll that he is unwilling to pay for.

The story concludes with Taia pleading with her father that she is worth the $29.95 that he seems unwilling to pay,

I thought of this story as a much kinder and gentler version of the story we heard from Genesis this morning.

No lives were threatened, and humour replaces horror.

Horror is the only way to describe the feeling I have when I read the story we heard today from Genesis.

Of course in my early years I remember it as an example of the unquestioning faithfulness of God, but as I began to recognize that I had permission to question the biblical narrative, that the hermeneutic of suspicion was a valid method of interpretation, along with other methods that led to deeper questions about faith and the way faith is defined and described, I learned that acceptance of the bible story was not required, that we could preach against the narrative instead of always for it. In case you haven’t heard of the hermeneutic of suspicion it as a way of interpreting and analyzing that begins with the question: Who benefits?

A long time ago I gave up any notion that I could preach for this passage we heard from Genesis this morning. There is nothing in the story to redeem it for me. If it describes God, then this is a God that I cannot condone. I don’t believe in God who would test a parent like this. I can’t preach for this passage of Genesis I am called to preach against it. I am called to invite us into a different understanding of God, to reject the understanding that is demonstrated by this horror story from the life and times of Abraham.

Can you just imagine what it would have been like to be Isaac? Could you ever trust your father again? PTSD is not really described in the biblical story, but surely our understanding of the effects of trauma on the mental health and psyche of people would surely lead us to expect that Isaac was a sufferer.

My God would not ask a parent to do something like that. My God would not put faith to the test in that way. My God is a God of compassion and love and both of those qualities far, far outweigh the quality of requirement of obedience.

There has to be Something Good. We all know from Taia and her Dad that “goodness” can be defined wildly differently. Good for you and good to eat are two different equations.

Some of you may remember from the recent Ptarmigan Ptheatrics production of The Sound of Music, or the popular film that one of the musical numbers had the same title. In the song, Maria, the precocious and fun loving nun turned nanny, having found love, recflects on her life and even though in her mind it was not particularly praiseworthy, she even expresses it as a “wicked childhood” she imagines that she must have done something good to deserve the love she has found.

It’s not outwardly a song of faith, there is no praise of God expressly stated in the lyrics, but we all know that this is a religious singing it – a religious who perhaps became a postulant as way of setting her life straight – as a way of reigning in the precociousness and highly spirited personality – described as a will of the wisp, a cloud that defies catching, and a perennially late and uncontainable flibbertyjibbet and clown. No, there is no outright praise of God – but implied is the balance of justice – which says that something good must come from having done something to deserve it. Nothing equals nothing, nothing ever could, is how the lyric describes it.

But we know that this is not the case. This presumes that we are the only architects of a good life. This does not account for grace. Grace is the unconditional love of God. Grace is the missing ingredient that can make something good out of nothing.

Small things count not because they add to a ledger of goodness on some divine check list. Small things count because they are an act of grace. They are the actions of God within us – offering grace to others because grace has been given to us.

Taia was worth $29.95. A child is priceless. Her Dad just needed to reorganize his priorities.

Can Something Good come from the story of Abraham and Isaac? If we speak against it, if we use it to say – this is not the way we understand God. Our God would not ask a parent to make that choice. Our God is a God of compassion and grace. Grace is something good – something that tips the balance in a good way, in a way that blesses us, despite the feeling that we don’t deserve it.

Thanks be to God for many ways to walk toward understanding. Amen.

Erasing the Stars

Let us pray: Connect these words O God, that they may form a story that breathes your life into our lives, that the words and phrases spoken here may open a glimpse into your presence, your grace and your love. May good news be spoken here. Amen.

As you heard, the passage from the Hebrew Bible this morning can be described by the word Trouble. There’s a famous memorable chorus from the Musical – The Music Man. The song is Ya Got Trouble and it is a diatribe against the evils of billiards and pool – and the suggestion that the pool table is the first step on a downward slippery slope spiral of drinking, gambling, smoking, and slothfulness. Do you remember the chorus:

Trouble, oh we got trouble,

Right here in River City!

With a capital “T”

That rhymes with “P”

And that stands for Pool,

That stands for pool.

We’ve surely got trouble!

Right here in River City,

Right here!

Gotta figure out a way

To keep the young ones moral after school!

Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble…

It’s a catchy song with an upbeat tune and clever rhyme and repetition that belies the much darker theme that only becomes apparent when the lyrics are considered without the music and captivating acting.

Well that’s only one popular song that came to mind as I considered the passage we just heard from the book of Genesis.

Another one, in fact the first one I considered this week has a more local source. It’s a song written, sung and recorded by a group with the very northern name of Erebus and Terror. The band name comes from the ships used by the ill-fated Franklin expedition, and which until the past few summers were one of the great mysteries of the north, as many theories about their whereabouts and searches for their resting place had come up empty. I was thinking about Erebus and Terror, the band, because of their song:

Erasing the Stars.

As so often happens with song lyrics, the real meaning of a song is lost in a fog of poor diction and quickly sung verses, as well as instrumental layering to further obscure the words. And so, and this is a common situation, the meaning of a song gets reduced to one that is reflected in the title.

That’s what happened for me this week. Thinking about the trouble heaped on trouble in that passage that we heard and then thinking about the promise made with Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.

It’s a plot worthy of a soap opera. Abraham and Sarah are childless in a society where children are vitally important. And childless in the years well past Sarah’s childbearing years. But then that promise comes to them. Descendants on a par with the numerous nighttime stars. And so because the promise made to Sarah is so laughable it is Sarah that suggests that Abraham should have a child with her servant Hagar. What were they thinking you could rightfully ask!

And of course jealousy rears its ugly head. It might have sounded okay at the beginning, but when it actually came to pass that Hagar bore a son with Abraham, the relationship between Sarah and Hagar could not survive. We heard the outcome of that brokenness in the reading this morning.

And that’s when the phrase Erasing the Stars came to mind.

Ishmael was one of those promised stars – Abraham’s son. But as we heard, the star represented by Ishmael was effectively banished, turned off, snuffed out, sent away, erased.

I looked up the song the title of which was running through my mind – just to see if it actually fit, to see how the words of the song matched the title and to see if I could glean something from it to connect with this idea of the snuffing out of Ishmael’s star.

What I found was a song lyric that clearly reflected a northern context and one that is particularly appropriate at this point in our yearly journey around our own star, the sun. Here’s a verse from the song:

its a pretty hard thing to explain

mid summer in this place

erase the stars from outer space

everyone gathers by the lake

summer time gets me wide awake

is it night or is it day

I can feel it, believe, believe

Fitting enough I guess.

But what about this tale, this saga from the life and times of Abraham and Sarah, and the troubling aspects of it.

Are we not supposed to celebrate good news when we gather each Sunday. Isn’t that the meaning of gospel?

There’s not a lot of good news in this story. More like trouble, as you’ve heard.

The good news comes later, but if you think it comes without more trouble stay tuned to the passage assigned to next week in the lectionary cycle. That’s next week’s trouble and we have enough of our own to consider this week.

And so what good news can we find in this story of banishment, in this story of Menage a Trois – Bible Style.

When things are tough, when turmoil happens, when we feel alone, or lost, or isolated – good news can often be found in just knowing that others have walked this path before, that our situation is not unique, that it is not the first time that it has happened. The biblical record is so often a record of strife. It consists of stories of broken relationship, of complicated family dynamics, of poor choices and misdirected reactions.

Underlying all this trouble, however, is a much deeper theme. It is a theme of grace, acceptance and promise. It is the message: God is with you. God will care for you. God understands the difficulty you are facing.

This is not, however, an airy, simplistic promise. It’s not a don’t worry be happy kind of promise. Sometimes people try to describe it that way. But it is not that kind of promise. It is a promise of steadfast love and grace, not a promise that everything will be better in a moment.

As you heard in the introduction to today’s reading – this story reflects the ageless and troubling relationship between Jew and Arab that continues to defy resolution to this day.

The cynic might say that this ageless conflict is proof of no God, that hope is futile, and that some relationships can never be healed, but I choose to believe that because of God – there is always hope. God continues to call us to work for healing. God embodies hope – creating hope even in situations that would otherwise seem hopeless.

The good news of this week is a nuanced good news. It’s a trouble and beauty kind of good news. Things won’t just magically be better, in fact they may never be better in our lifetime, but the struggle is worth it because if we don’t struggle it signals a loss of hope – and God calls us to always hope. God promises to be with us as we hope – as we work as God’s hopeful people.

The trouble in River City was not the presence of a pool table, it was the newly arrived con man – the very one that tried to convince an unsuspecting citizenry to put their trust in him – but (spoiler alert) the con man is talked and loved out of a life of fraud.

Erasing the Stars is a temporary condition – they are still there – we just can’t see them.

Does any of that sound like good news? Amen.