Category Archives: Reflections

Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is

Let us pray: Guide these words and use them, O God. Amen.

Some time ago we had a visitor at our worship service. This visitor comes to Yellowknife every so often and during the visits she comes to worship with us. On this particular occasion, when I spoke to her after worship I mentioned the number of congregation members who are from zero to three years of age that are coming to worship with their family. This wise visitor then said, “I hope that is where you are spending your money!”

It seemed like a fitting conversation to share with you on this day when our reading is all about investment and the day on the church calendar is known as Children’s Sunday.

The gospel story that Sophie read for us this morning is a curious one. On one hand, the point is pretty clear: Don’t be cautious. Cautious investors who only protect the initial investment without taking any risk will in the end lose out – (when inflation is added to the equation).

But on the other hand, some people might be surprised that this is a parable of Jesus. For some people it might seem like a Jesus endorsement of the capitalist system, an endorsement that runs counter to some of the other things that Jesus said and did.

The problem might come when we try to interpret the story as prescriptive for the way we should live our lives, rather than a story to make a point.

After all I am sure many of us have had meetings with our financial advisors and planners and had the interview that is required by their accreditation bodies, you know the interview in which they assess our tolerance for risk.

And as I look around this congregation, I’m pretty sure that some of us have had the conversation which surrounds that little exercise, again, you know, the one that says your tolerance for risk should decrease as you approach your retirement years.

So, take risks, Jesus says, but the financial wisdom that surrounds us in this context says that if you value your heart it is best not to expose it to too much risk – because lack of sleep and the stress that comes with worrying about your financial future is not good for your heart.

Of course that’s the heart that keeps on pumping the blood through our veins and arteries. What about the heart that feels? What about the heart that encapsulates our passions, our deepest desires, our vision and hope?

Most of you have heard me describe the particular gift that Hebrew storytellers and reflectors on life have given us, the one that equates body and spirit by attaching feelings and situations to particular organs of the body. In that way of thinking, those two kinds of heart are inseparable. The heart that pumps our blood is the same heart that holds our deep desires, our loves, our passions.

Let me quote some portions of both our congregational vision statement and our congregational mission statement to you:

First of all from the vision statement: We are dedicated to being a community which welcomes and includes everybody, celebrating the diversity of our age, gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, ethnicity, and socio-economic circumstance. Celebrating the diversity of our age…

And even more explicitly from our mission statement: We value the Christian education of our children and adults.

This is not meant to be a reminder to committee chairs that your budget numbers for 2018 were due to our treasurer this week, but I wonder if the mission and vision statements were considered when you talked with your committee about the budget you are looking at for next year’s activities and programs?

That’s really the question that our visitor was asking. I hope that is where you are spending your money.

Jesus said something about investment in another place in the gospels. It reads like this: Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust can destroy, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. For where your treasure there your heart will be also.

I was thinking about that passage this week because it is the inspiration for a wonderful song by Linnea Good. It is called There Is Your Heart. I paraphrased it in the sermon title this morning. I want to close this morning by playing the song for you. Just so you don’t miss it, here is the final verse:

Water and air that are clean,

Space for the children to dream

Each of us cradles a vision

Of how this could be.

Shower your vision with care

Offer to God with your prayer

Your money, your talent, your time

Gratefully.

And then the chorus:

Lay your burdens down, sing your own life’s part, and there where your treasure lies, there is your heart.  

Amen.

As For Us and Our House

Let us pray: Guide my words today, O God, but more importantly guide all our hearts, in this time of reflection. Amen.

I’ve told this story before in different ways and forms, but when this time of year occurs, I am reminded of it. I tell this story because it describes how complicated the way of God can be, and how strong the commitment to the way of God must be.

One of my clearest memories from my early childhood – before I was five – a time when memory is not all that clear is of the cenotaph in Warkworth, Ontario. That’s where we lived until I was six. The cenotaph was at a prominent place in the village. And not too far from where we lived, but then again, nothing was too far from where we lived. I just remember wreaths and poppies and people in uniform.

I know that is when the reverence and importance of Remembrance Day was instilled in me. It came not because of a strong military presence in my immediate family. There is only story that I know of in our family of anyone killed during either of the two World Wars. That was an uncle or a cousin of my mother killed in a plane crash far from any front or military engagement. In some ways, probably just an accident – although an accident that would not have happened if there was no war. And a loss – just as significant as all the other losses that occurred in those two conflicts. The unfortunate truth is that there are many ways to die when a war is happening and not all of them come from enemy fire.

I grew up when one of the most important stories about Canada was that our Prime Minister was a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. The contribution of Lester B Pearson to the way of peace was a re-imagining of the way in which the military could be deployed. Not to shoot at other troops, but to stop two groups in conflict from shooting at each other. It was a way that was no less brave than other types of military action, and in some ways required even more courage – because it was often the case that two groups of people were not pleased with your presence in their midst.

One of the times when I was most proud of the Canadian Military was an interview I heard in the 1980’s of two high ranking officers who were serving roles leading our Canadian forces in a peace keeping missions. My heart swelled with pride at the way they described the incredible bravery and commitment to peaceful resolution to conflicts – whether they were small turf protecting squabbles, or the desire of one party to completely overrun another.

Whether I was blindly naive or not, it seemed that we were on a constructive path. Relatively few wars in my childhood and teenage years, and even when there were wars like the one in Vietnam – it seemed like the popular sentiment was an anti-war perspective.

The Berlin War came down in my final year at seminary and the end to Apartheid was in sight with the release of Nelson Mandela that same year.

Hope for peace seemed not only possible, we could almost touch it.

I was ordained in nineteen ninety and even conflict in our church seemed to be on a peaceful course – with decisions made at General Council two years earlier leading to a more gracious living into what it means to be open and inclusive, accepting and just.

Life in ministry was going to be a breeze with so many signs of tolerance and understanding for a new minister to point to.

I was settled in Bonnyville, Alberta and for those of you who are not quite sure where that is, let me describe its location in the same way that I have described it to others.

There is a straight line on the globe that defines the border between Saskatchewan and Alberta. It runs from the 49th parallel to the 60th parallel. Go halfway up that line and then drive half an hour west. That’s where Bonnyville is. Now just on the Alberta side of that border between Saskatchewan and Alberta is a place called Cold Lake. It’s named after the body of water which it sits beside. You might know of it because of the Cold Lake military base. In the summer of 1990 you could often hear sonic booms as the CF 18 Hornets made their way from the airbase to the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range – a large piece of land reserved from habitation because it was used for target practice by the supersonic jets.

In August 1990 war was declared in the Persian Gulf and for the first time in my life, Canadian troops were deployed in a combat role – and yes they came from my neighbourhood – CF 18 Hornets from the Cold Lake military base.

My first Remembrance Day as an ordained minister was in Bonnyville and there were enough military personnel stationed at Cold Lake that they could provide lots of people to attend Remembrance Day ceremonies in communities all around that part of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

I was asked to speak at that Remembrance Day ceremony. What I remember was standing at a podium and looking out on a sea of military uniforms, probably hundreds although it seemed like thousands, along with lots of civilians from the Bonnyville environs, reeling a bit because we were now at war – something that many people in that arena had never experienced before – military or not.

Suddenly this was not about two wars fought in the middle of the century. This was about people engaged in conflict right now, and for many of the people gathered at the ceremony – people they knew by name.

It was a daunting challenge for this peacenik minister.

And to make a long story a bit shorter. Now we have a son in law who served three tours in Afghanistan and that same son in law and a sone who put their lives on the line every day they go to work as members of the Calgary City Police.

If it weren’t so serious I would be tempted to say that God has an ironic sense of humour.

The consequence of all of this is that these kinds of complications serve to make our commitment clear.

I was feeling the same thing as I read the passages for this week’s worship.

Many of you will have heard my reflections on the entry of the Hebrew people into the so-called Promised Land and how that entry might be a bit suspect when considered against our own circumstances and how we came to be resident on this land that has been occupied by people for thousands of years compared to the decades lived here by others. Does a re-consideration of that whole story and how the people under the leadership of Joshua came to be there make the whole story suspect? And what does it have to say about the story today when Joshua encourages (although that may not be strong enough a word) the people to swear allegiance to the one and only God. This is the same God whom they claimed had led them to this land on which they now stood and the same God that promised this land despite the fact that it was already occupied.

Does re-considering the whole story of how they got here, put into question or invalidate the things we learn as the story proceeds? Surely it would not be wrong for Joshua to encourage the people to examine their priorities and put faith in God at the top of the list.

I said it last week, and I will say it again. Things are much more complicated than they might appear. But complicated is not a reason to not engage.

It means depth, engaged discernment, consideration of consequences and outcomes.

What does it mean to be ready and faithful? Those are the questions posed by our readings today. What are the consequences of a promise to say: As for me and my house, we will serve God. As for us and our house – broadly described as this place in which we worship, but perhaps more accurately described as the circle of community gathered here: We will serve God.

We’ve said it before, and we discovered that it wasn’t working out quite as we imagined. But that doesn’t mean we should stop saying it and stop trying to make our words count.

No, it means that it is a lifelong commitment. Not a once and for all situation, but a commitment that keeps calling us to ways of living more justly and responding more faithfully.

The way to peace will always be ahead of us. The way to reconciliation will always be before us. It may seem like an impossible road to travel if we always see the goal just ahead. But each step we take along that road is one to be celebrated. And even if we take some steps backwards on the road, a result of missteps or poor chart reading, we keep on moving.

That’s one of the reasons I’m referring to the Holy One so often these days, not as Creator, but as Creating – because it gives the notion of ongoing, of work not yet completed, of change happening right now and just ahead.

As for me and my house, we will serve the God of Peace. In all the twists and turns, ironies and coincidences, depth of discernment and course corrections in thinking and feeling that are required.

That is a word and a commitment for a re-membering community. May it be so.

This Land is…

Let us pray: Great Spirit God, we know that you are deeper than we can imagine, that the exploration of you and your creation can always lead us to places where we have never been before, to insights that we’ve never had before and to new understandings of how you are involved in this creation that we’ve never understood before. May these words I speak be a path for some of this to happen. Guide what I say that these words may describe a portion of this journey.

I’m sure it has happened to you, in the same way that it has happened for me. What I am speaking of is a moment of insight or a sudden understanding of a change in perspective, that kind of shakes a whole framework of understanding. Things are falling into place – you think you understand the way the world or at least a part of it, the way that it works and then suddenly something gets said, a different understanding is expressed, a new way of looking at things gets explained, and the framework is broken.

It can leave you feeling a bit panicked, or even stupid for not having thought of it before, or it can make you angry, but more likely just reeling because of the way that it changes things and completely upsets a set of understandings and even a structure to our faith.

When I was first ordained, I received a free subscription to the Christian Century – a magazine that was well respected in the ecumenical community, with lots of interesting articles and tips for engaging effectively in ministry. I remember a series of articles that the Christian Century ran during those first years when I was subscribed. The premise for each article was an invitation to a well known and well respected leader – whether it was a minister, or a theology professor or someone else who had achieved a certain recognition. The invitation was to write an article with the title : How my mind was changed. IN each case, these well known people described something that had happened to change the way they thought about some particular piece of doctrine or practice or understanding. I don’t remember any of the particular issues this series of articles addressed, but I remember being impressed by the idea.

It took a certain amount of courage for these people to write the articles. After all they were renowned for their ideas and it might lead people to question the trust they had in people who were expressing that they once thought and acted differently.

It had the opposite effect on me, though. I was taken by the premise behind the publishing of these articles because it offered a tangible example of the fact that transformation can happen. After all if these well spoken and well respected authors could tell a story of what they used to think and say and what happened to change that for the better, then it made it seem more likely or possible for others.

I think that editorial decision by the The Christian Century more than a quarter of a century ago had a lasting effect on me. I am impressed by people who are willing to tell a story of how things changed. It can be a very compelling and persuasive story.

Has anyone heard of the Doctrine of Discovery?

I remember when I first heard of it. It was probably close to twenty years ago and was mentioned in a report from the United Church General Council Executive which had recently concluded one of their few times a year meetings.

The Doctrine of Discovery in my opinion is a nasty piece of theological manipulation that purports to bring the power of God and divine blessing on the practise of colonization.

At that meeting of the General Council Executive the members of the Executive had renounced the Doctrine of Discovery.

And as I read about it, I realized just how much the misguided principles of that piece of theological rationalization had informed and invaded my understanding of how things are.

Why am I talking about this today? Why have I proposed it amid this whole idea of how our minds have changed?

Well let’s take a closer look at our reading from the book of Joshua today. At face value it is a story of triumph. Our heroes – the Hebrew people are about to complete the mission of Exodus from Egypt. Under the leadership of Moses they left the oppressive rule of the pharaoh and in a long wandering journey in the wilderness they learned a lot about who they were and a lot about their faith. The story certainly has its ups and downs for the Hebrew people, but it is ultimately a story of triumph. Despite all that happened they survived and eventually ended up on the border of the land they had been promised. And it was all done with divine blessing. This is the land promised by God.

But you see that’s where it kind of falls apart – at least for me anyway. Did you catch the reference in the story we heard this morning about the people who were already living in this the promised land?

Here is how my version put it:

This is how you’ll know that God is alive among you—he will completely dispossess before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites.

That’s the Doctrine of Discovery. Those people already living on the land don’t count for anything, because your occupation of this land is the fulfilment of a promise from God.

In the old way of thinking, we might just have let it go – almost a cast away verse (pardon the pun!). Of course all those people who were already there don’t count because this was land promised by God to others.

But we can no longer let it go. It has to be exposed for what it is. It’s a story that is written time and time again.

It’s way more complicated than just a simple occupation.

And of course it is not just a story from long ago – it’s a story that keeps getting written. I could make the case that a good portion of practically every newscast has an element of the same situation in it.

Here’s a sample few from this week:

Protests in the Middle East because of the Balfour Declaration – which expressed post World War I support for a Jewish homeland in the area occupied by Palestine.

A Supreme Court Ruling in favour of the development of a ski area in land that is a spiritual place for the Tkunaxa (Tune-aha) people.

A Red Alert sounded by Premier Bob McLeod.

And those of us who were in attendance at the African Dinner last evening when Ian Gilchrist reminded us of the parallel history of colonization of Africa and North America.

And so I can no longer read the story of Joshua and see it in the way that it is meant.

I was introduced in theological college to the hermeneutic of suspicion – a methodology which invites us to use the question “who benefits” in our analysis of scripture and any other writings – especially those which claim to inform the faith story and the faith story. It is a reminder that history is most often a story told by the the so-called winners and so is the winner perspective that gets expounded with little thought about how it affected the losers or the dispossessed.

I don’t think it is faithful or honest to just accept the story of the entry of the Hebrew people into the “Promised Land” without asking the questions. Whose land was it? What’s behind a claim that this is land promised by God?

The story of faith is one which calls us to continually keep exploring the depth of God’s presence in creation – to be open to new perspectives, to not take everything as the writers of history would have us accept it. To ask the question of “who benefits?”

We speak of the faith journey as one of transformation – where we expect to be challenged and where we expect to have our minds and our hearts changed by the story we encounter and the way we are drawn to interpret it.

May we be guided with faith on this journey of discovery – not as a guiding doctrine for occupation of already occupied land, but as a journey inward in our reflection on the holy presence in our hearts and minds and souls. Amen.

We Wanted To Give You Our Hearts

Let us pray: Take the words on this screen, O God, and make them vibrate with the power of your word. May they ring through this place with power of your presence: stirring us, reminding us, calling us, encouraging us, comforting us. Amen.

I’m fired up. All it took was a little preaching. Well okay, it depends on how you define “a little”. If a little means one sermon, then it was a little. But when you discover that one sermon was an hour long, perhaps you would reconsider describing it that way.

Don’t worry I’m smart enough to know that an hour long sermon in this space might fire people up too – but not in the way I might have intended.

I’m fired up. And it’s a bit of a story about how that happened, so let me tell you.

As is usually the case these days it started with a web search.

I was looking for some information to add to my knowledge of Martin Luther for this Reformation Sunday and when I typed his name for Google to search it out for me, I was presented with a list of so called hits. But one of them struck me because it had used “Martin Luther” and added a much more modern theme to my search term. I was presented with the invitation to click on a video about a present day reincarnation of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign started by Martin Luther King – you can see how Google might have been confused!

The bait was set and I took it. The movement as pretty much anything does these days has a set of hashtags. One of them is HashTag MLKLives – as in Martin Luther King lives.

The torch has been taken up by a preacher called William Barber, although most references will spell his name out more lengthily as the Rev Dr William J Barber II.

Has anyone heard of him?

I would respectfully suggest that if you haven’t yet, you will.

A few YouTube clicks and I was hooked. It started with a ten minute speech at the Democratic Party Convention in the summer of 2016. An electrifying speech. Why had I not heard of this before?

That led to a sermon preached on April 2, 2017 at Riverside Church. I’ve talked about Riverside Church before. I firmly stake my territory as a church geek when I have claimed that the best part of a wonderful and memorable visit to New York City in 2004 was attending worship at Riverside Church.

Here’s a piece I copy and pasted from their church website: We are an interdenominational, interracial, international, open, welcoming, and affirming church and congregation. Whoever you are: You are safe here. You are loved here. You are invited into full participation in our life together.

The Rev Dr William J. Barber II was preaching at Riverside Church last April. You can find it on Youtube. I recommend that you look it up. A warning though – it is an hour long sermon. And it won’t seem like it, and I just bet that it will fire you up as well.

William Barber is a fiery and powerful preacher. It didn’t seem like an hour, and the sermon was punctuated by several standing ovations and William Barber did not leave much out as he explored the topic of his sermon “When Silence is No Longer an Option”.

Well of course I had to find out more. Why had I not heard of this fellow before? What else could I find out about him. That’s when I learned that he was pastor at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Street view shows that Greenleaf Church is much less imposing than Riverside Church. The parking lot I might say is more imposing than the church. Goldsboro had a population of just over 36,000 people in 2010.

William Barber was also on the executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People – perhaps better known as the NAACP.

And most recently he left that position because he has started an across the US revival of the Poor People’s Campaign and the Poor People’s March – as I mentioned, a movement first started by Martin Luther King Junior.

In William Barber’s speech at the American Democratic Convention he spoke about AED machines that can be used to shock a heart back to life and he suggested that the Heart of America needed a defibrillator to shock its heart back to life.

What you discover in learning more about William J Barber is that as good a preacher as he is – standing in the tradition of black preachers with their fiery and inspiring rhetoric – like Martin Luther King, like James Forbes whom we heard preach at Riverside in 2004 and like many others, and I might say a tradition that was brought to the White House with the election of Barack Obama, William Barber is just as much or more of a community organizer. He puts in action the words that he speaks. You can read about his accomplishments, the establishment of Moral Monday Civil Rights Protests and in 2014, he founded Repairers of the Breach, a non-profit organization “formed to educate and train religious and other leaders of faith who will pursue policies and organizational strategies for the good of the whole and to educate the public about connections between shared religious faith.”

In case you haven’t noticed, the word Heart appears regularly and often in today’s worship service. I used it to select today’s hymns.

I was so taken by Barber’s connection between defibrillators that shock the hearts of people back to life and the need for a defibrillator to bring back the heart of America that it needed to be a theme for our worship today.

Conveniently, Paul gave me just the connection that was needed. In his heart warming letter to the Christian community in Thessalonica he writes these words: We wanted to give you our hearts.

As progressive Christians we give great importance to being thinking people. We want rational backing to our faith. We delight in science and facts to support our positions, and we are willing to adjust what we believe based on discovery that is ongoing in creation.

We also know that the more we learn, the more there is to learn, that the greater we know the ways of creation, the greater the mystery of how it all works together.

This position we occupy in the great continuum of what we know as the Christian faith is an important one, and in my understanding it follows clearly in the tradition of Reformation. One of the great legacies of Martin Luther is the notion of the priesthood of all believers. It is the idea which backs the statement we make each week on our worship bulletin where it makes the claim that we are all the ministers of this congregation.

We know however that faith is not just head work. One of the things we talk about in baptism preparation is the movement from head to heart when we think and talk about baptism and when we want children to be baptised. Baptism is heart work.

A tradition that we inherit from the Hebrew faith is the sense of connection between body and spirit. Emotions are connected with internal organs. We feel things in our bones, in our kidneys, in our hearts.

In our hearts – this muscular set of valves which keeps beating to keep us alive – and in our hearts – the seat of emotion and feeling and compassion and love.

When Jesus spoke of the greatest commandment he said: Love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind. And love your neighbour as yourself.

With all your heart!

Our hearts were likely heavy when we heard that reading from Deuteronomy this morning. Poor Moses. He led the people all that way and for all that time and just when the triumphant moment was at hand, the moment when they would move from their wilderness existence to a promised land, Moses dies.

The message of course is that change is a fact of life. Moses led the people to this point, but now it is time for a different leader. The passage is full of tenderness towards Moses. God’s heart is exposed in the way Moses is shown a glimpse of the Promised Land.

Is another change coming?

Moses. Miriam. Martin Luther. Martin Luther King. William Barber?

Love God with all your heart! Love your neighbour as yourself.

Love God with all your heart. All your soul. All your mind. Love your neighbour as yourself.

Is the heart of our nations, is the heart of our faith, is the heart in our nations, is the heart in our faith about to be shocked into life?

Will we be able to say: We gave our hearts to you? Amen.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Let us pray: Creating One we seek you. Like Moses we desire to know you in ways that solve the mystery of who and what you are. We know that you extend beyond the limits of our knowing, the edges of our feeling, the borders of our spiritual selves. May these words lead us on a path of discovery – even as we know that you will continue to be an unfathomable energy, a spirit beyond our complete discernment, a vision that is anything but complete. Amen.

I think we can easily put ourselves in Moses shoes, or maybe better stated, his sandals. How many of us wouldn’t want to get the complete understanding – words and pictures and everything else that helps us to know all that we can know – a complete understanding of God.

If you had that opportunity how quickly would you take it?

Buoyed up by the power Moses has experienced in being able to convince God to a change of mind, we can imagine Moses taking the opportunity to keep on bargaining.

Is it vaguely reminiscent of a high stakes bargaining session – perhaps to negotiate a free trade agreement, or a labour agreement. Sensing a willingness to negotiate in one area, why wouldn’t a skilled negotiator try to work that into further concessions.

And to work with that analogy a little longer, is there some kind of advantage gained when the relationship among negotiators is friendly and casual? My intuition says there is.

So Moses is buddy, buddy with God and Moses works that change in relationship to try and negotiate something more.

Let me just see what you look like, God.

We can think of a number of different reasons why Moses might have been interested in such a thing. Having experienced a feeling of power already – I mean who wouldn’t feel powerful after successfully changing God’s mind, Moses might think it is an opportune moment to feel even more powerful. I mean if the people weren’t impressed already, how much more impressive would it be to tell them that he had met God face to face.

Perhaps that is the most cynical of reasons for Moses to try and work that meeting out.

A more friendly reason could be that Moses was seeking a deeper relationship with God. How spiritually satisfying would it be to know God in such an intimate way? How much would that solidify his resolve to lead these people to a good place?

Well as we heard in the reading the negotiation ends with a compromise.

God gives Moses the opportunity for a really close encounter, that’s the concession offered by God, but the part of the hand that is held close to God’s chest is that this close encounter will only visible from the past.

Consider that Moses only had the opportunity to see God’s back. What does that say about the encounter? It is a forward looking encounter. Moses can only see where God has been – where God is heading. That tells us something about the kind of relationship that God is interested in.

Moses was told to stand in a crack in the rock as God passed by. That got me thinking about the expression: Between a rock and a hard place.

While in Moses’ case that was a pretty good place to be – although it also signalled a point of compromise, we know that the expression is one which we use to describe a situation when we find ourselves in a place of difficult decision making.

Circumstances this week had me thinking about that phrase from that perspective. And thinking about it in connection with the insight we gain from the story of Moses and his bargaining session with God.

It also describes the situation in which Jesus found himself in our gospel reading this morning.

At least the Pharisees think they have Jesus between a rock and a hard place when they try to trick him with a question about where and how taxes should be paid.

Having heard Jesus make the case for primary allegiance to God, they confront him with the dilemma of being required to pay taxes. We heard how the story played out, and there was a hint of the sub-text that is not stated in the story.

In Jesus’ time the Hebrew people had two different sets of currency – currency that was approved by the temple – and the traditional currency of the Hebrew people and currency that was in circulation as a result of the Roman empire. This second set of coins bore the head of Caesar. A reminder of who was in power and to whom honour was due. This currency was forbidden in the temple.

As you heard, when the Pharisees come to the temple to confront Jesus with the question that they expected to put him between and rock and a hard place – what to do with the Roman coins, they discovered that instead they were the ones who were tricked and fooled. Not only did Jesus disarm them with a clever answer – that put the Roman empire in its place, but which also exposed the Pharisees for hypocrites – given that they had produced a Roman coin inside the temple – a situation which clearly contravened the Hebraic law.

One of the resources I consulted this week put it this way: Jesus rejected a path of armed resistance against the Roman authorities and sent the hypocritical Pharisees away. He defused a situation which might have resulted in conflict by suggesting a different more peaceful way.

The fact is that we find ourselves between rocks and hard places very often. Let me name a few from just this past week:

A cabinet minister in the government of the Northwest Territories found himself between a rock – also known as a mid-term review and a hard place – also known as a motion of non-confidence.

A cabinet minister in the federal government found himself between a rock – also known as advice from the ethics commissioner and a hard place – also known as the ire of the loyal opposition and by extension the general public.

A United Church minister found himself between a rock – also known as an outside banner advertising a church event to take place in Northern United Place – and a hard place also known as content in that event which was not in keeping with the ethos and spirit of our particular community of faith and faith tradition.

When we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place we want to turn to God – something like the way that Moses turned to God – and say to God – reveal yourself O God. Tell me what is the correct thing to do. Just answer my question. Just let me speak with you face to face. Perhaps we can even do it as buddies, as friends.

And what do we discover? Like Moses we discover that God is present – but not in a way that is facile. God does not step in and just make things better, taking the decision making away from us.

That’s not how it works, as Moses found out.

Sometimes God is present for us in the form of courage. Providing us with the resolve to make a difficult decision despite our fear of making it wrong, or making enemies.

Sometimes God is present for us in the form of inspiration. Showing us a different way, an otherwise unconsidered third way, or a way that dissolves conflict and leads to peace.

Sometimes God is present for us in the form of comfort. Providing us with a sense of peace in the midst of the turmoil of difficult decisions and difficult situations.

Sometimes God is present only from the vantage point of the future. We can only look back and discern ways that God was present even when all about us it seemed that there were no answers or right ways of doing things when we were in the midst of it.

Moses wanted to resolve all of this by just getting to know God face to face for once and for all. We might wish for the same, thinking that it might just help us with all the pain of living and existing between rocks and hard places.

But the fact is that God will always be leading us. It’s part of the characteristic of the divine that if we could ever meet God face to face, if we could ever state conclusively that we have discerned the totality of God’s being – then it would not be God.

God will always be Holy Mystery. It’s part of who and what God is. We will always only see God from behind as it were – because God is leading.

But if you can get your head around it – God is also behind, above, below, and within. That’s also part of who and what God is.

Thanks be to God for stories like the story of the relationship between God and Moses and like the story of the quick witted Jesus who so often seemed to just know how to diffuse things. Amen.

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.