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Lamentations and Celebrations

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

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

Last winter or spring and then again in a repeat this summer I heard a good natured debate between William Davis, a medical doctor who wrote the book Wheat Belly and  Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta. If I were to summarize the thesis of these two food experts it would be this: William Davis contends that the goodness that used to be in wheat flour has been removed genetically for reasons of convenience and other modern day priorities. What we’re left with, he says, is a product that has few redeeming qualities and many negative ones. He advocates the elimination of wheat based products from our diet, citing them as a cause of many bad modern day conditions and ailments. Timothy Caulfield, on the other hand, suggests that Dr. Davis’ thesis is really only one of a number of fad diets that will fade away like all the other fad diets that rise and fall with the passage of time. Again in what is probably a too-simple summary, he advocates an overall approach to diet that does not focus on only one particular ingredient, but a comprehensive consideration of everything we eat.

I mention this debate not because I want to pursue the topic in the same detail that was presented in the debate, but as an example of a modern day phenomenon and as an object lesson in a dilemma presented to us in the passages that we just heard.

I certainly do not intend to give you pause as you step forward during communion and think too hard about what type of bread you will take, at least as far as your thinking extends to the relative health benefits of the bread you choose. I do hope that you take pause for other reasons – reasons suggested by this particular Sunday in the Christian year – and in this particular time in Christian history.

A moment ago I suggested that the debate pointed to a modern day phenomenon – but really I want to suggest that while it may be modern in occurrence it is actually post-modern in form. Post-modernism is characterized by a sceptical perspective on everything, a deconstructionist view of all that was once taken as given. Post-modern thought has I believe had a great influence on present understandings of church and organized religion, and has much to do with the kind of angst and threats we are feeling in the modern Christian church.

There is a part of me that enthusiastically cheers this post-modern perspective – relishing the opportunity to challenge past assumptions and reinvent or reset the ways in which we relate and understand the world.

There is also a part of me that wants to run away to something safe and predictable.

Thus we have the competing themes of lamentation and celebration – coalescing in this day – and by that I mean this twenty-four hour period and this period in which we live.

What I am left with is a big question about what is the faithful response, what is the right way to be as a follower of Jesus in this time. I suspect that you might be living the same questions.

Our gospel passage today has Jesus telling us that there is no such thing as lots or a little bit of faith – you either have it or you don’t. But in a time when structures, organizations, ways of being are all being questioned and often with really penetrating analysis, and persuasive arguments, what does it mean to have faith?

These are the questions that I am left to ponder in this day. What does it mean to celebrate WorldWide Communion – when the Christian church in the western world seems to be spiralling in to non-existence – at least in any kind of familiar form – and even though the Christian church is on the rise in other parts of the world, the ways in which the Christianity is expressed seems foreign in some of its most basic concepts. In case, this seems a bit obscure to you, let me give but one example. The Anglican world which has a very wide reach across most of the continents of our world is locked in a very loud and disagreeable battle over the place of homosexuality in the Christian faith. Many African Christians and the bishops who represent them, hold very conservative views on the issue of homosexuality, a view that I and many others in the Canadian Anglican communion and in many other mainline churches in Canada do not think is consistent with a desire to follow the way of Jesus.

I had the honour of attending seminary with a priest from the Anglican Church of Tanzania. I appreciated Basil Sambano and all that I learned from him and about the church in Tanzania, but I also remember having a conversation with him about the nature of Jesus that left me aghast that such attitudes could be so firmly held. I remember reading a year or two after our time at seminary, that he had been elected as a bishop and so when I also heard about the tenacity of African bishops on the issue of homosexuality, and the ordination of women priests and bishops across the Anglican communion, I was not surprised.

There is much to lament – both within the Christian faith and about the condition of the church in our time and place.

Last week a good number of people from Northern Lights Presbytery – including Cynthia Creed, Lloyd Henderson, and myself, gathered for our fall meeting in Valleyview. Several people have asked me how the meeting went.

It was a really good meeting. In part, my enthusiasm for the meeting stems from a report by two people from our conference that travelled with moderator, Gary Paterson, to the Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, England.

I mentioned this festival a couple of weeks ago because I had met Donalee Williams – another of the 114 United Church clergy that accompanied Gary on this pilgrimage.

As I heard James Ravenscroft and Sharon Foster talk about their experience – their recounting of the many different expressions of faith that were to be found at Greenbelt I found myself sometimes literally vibrating with excitement with some of these fresh expressions of the faith for modern or dare I say post modern times.

To give you but a taste of some of the styles and forms of worship, let me just list a few. James told us about Forest Church – a gathering of people who worship outdoors in the forest – something that is a bit more possible year round in England – with a very strong creation centred approach to their liturgy and practice. Sharon and James both have been aware of the Order of the Black Sheep – a gathering of folks who have felt like Black Sheep in the various communities of which they’ve been a part – black sheep in their families, black sheep in their churches, black sheep in their communities.

We heard about U2charist – a communion liturgy based on the music of Irish Rock Band U2 and a Christian community that connects with aboriginal celtic spirituality and a focus on the seasons, the celtic cross and the linkages between pre-Christian religious practice and the Christian story.

And for some reason it was this one that got me really excited: a group of Christians that use geo-caching as a spiritual discipline – hiding and finding caches with spiritual and religious themes attached to them and leading to a once a month meeting in a different location to explore the experience and the journey that got them there. I don’t even know why it so excited me, but I sense it was a glimpse of the spirit that I was responding to.

Despite all these fresh expressions and the attractions they hold for me, I also find myself wanting to immerse myself more deeply in what we already have. At least some of the time, I just want to not have to worry about where we’ll be in numbers in five or ten years. It sometimes seems better to be smaller and deeper in who and what we are than wider and more appealing to a wider audience of people who have not as much experience of the religious language that is our lingua franca as followers of relatively ancient liturgy and practice.

And I think that’s the way I need to leave it – lamentation and celebration – important elements of the faith story and the spiritual journey – times of pain and separation – times of struggling to discern what God would have us do and even where God is in the midst of it all – and times when the Spirit is clearly present – leading us to new understandings, new expressions of our faith and deeper relationship with each other even if our numbers are smaller than they were before.

What I do know is that we’ve been invited to be in community with each other – small groups of followers gathering around this table – which is part of a larger table set before us this day – and that the process of discernment is just as important as what we will discern. May the bread we eat be the bread of life and the cup we share be the cup of peace. Amen.