Monday, February 22, 2010

Time with Kids, Feb 14 and 21, 2010

Below, I have included two examples of "Theme Conversations" I have used with the children at Knox United. I try to keep these times short. Many people might judge them to be too verbal. They also usually feed directly into the rest of the service . . . church school for the children, and the sermon and prayers for the adults. 

Mountain Views -- Transfiguration Sunday, Feb 14, 2010

 I now invite those kids who would like, to come and join me on the front steps for a few minutes before church school.

So, Happy Valentines Day! I am glad to see you all this morning. This morning in church school we will hear a story about Jesus at the top of mountain. So, I have some questions for you about mountains.

We live in Didsbury in the province of Alberta and the country of Canada. But does anyone know the name of the county where we live? That's right. It is called Mountain View County. And when I heard last spring that I was going to move to Mountain View County, I got really excited, because I love mountains.

I landed in Edmonton last August 27th. But you can't see any mountains in Edmonton, which is sad. On August 29th, I drove down to the house where I am renting a room in Olds, but I still couldn't see any mountains. You know how in the summer there is haze, and dust from the harvest, and soot from B.C. forest fires, so it is sometimes hard to see the mountains. The next day on August 30, I came to Knox Church for the first time, and Nancy Blain was preaching. But I was a little nervous, so I got up early, and I thought -- I am going to drive west just to prove to myself that there are mountains here. So I drove on Hwy 27 towards Sundre. But then it was getting too late, and I still couldn't see the mountains, and I had to turn around to make it to church. So the next day I was determined to see mountains. And on that Monday, I drove down the Cowboy Trail to Banff; and when I was halfway to Cochrane, suddenly there they were -- the Rockies, and I was so happy that I stopped the car to look at them and I phoned a friend back in Toronto. And then I continued on to Banff.

Have any of you been to Banff? I really love it there because the mountains are so beautiful. But it is one thing to drive or walk in the valley between the mountains there, and it is another thing to get to the top of a mountain. Have any of you ever been up high on a mountain and looked down? When you go skiing, a lift takes you to the top of a mountain, and while skiing down is really fun, a lot of the fun also comes from being able to see so far from up high. Things look differently up on a mountain, don't they?

In the Bible story this morning, Jesus takes his friends Peter and James up to a mountain, and some great things happen up there. Jesus becomes all white and bright; and two other people appear. Peter and James realize that they are Moses and Elijah, two heroes from the past. And this wonderful day on the mountain shows them again that Jesus is special; and it also marks the beginning of their final journey with Jesus to Jerusalem.

Things look different from the top of a mountain or a hill. This Tuesday, I drove into Red Deer for a meeting. The fog had lifted, it was sunny, but the frost was still on the trees. And when I was at the top of the Red Deer River Valley, it seemed like I could see 15 million pine needles in one glance. And I thought it was beautiful.

Didsbury has a hill -- you know, the one with the water tower at the golf course. I visited with Gordon Gilson on Thursday, and he called the hill a Butte. Have any of you ever heard the word Butte? It is a funny word, eh? I think it is a French word that means small hill with a flat top.

Well, have any of you gone tobogganing down the Didsbury hill? It looks like fun. And Didsbury looks different up there, don't you think? Our story about Jesus today might be similar. At the top of the mountain, not only did the land below look different to Peter and James. But Jesus looked different to them as well. And so  they knew more about Jesus.

So I hope you enjoy talking more about Jesus on the mountain top in Church School. And I am going to be with you this morning to work with Janice. So, I'm looking forward to that. But before we sing the next hymn and go to church school, I have a brief prayer and then we will say the Lord's Prayer together. OK?

Let us pray . . .

Dear God,

We give thanks for hills, and valleys, and mountains.
We give thanks for the beauty of the land we can see from the mountains and the beauty of the mountains that we can see from the valleys.

When we climb a mountain, we might only see trees and the trail.
But when we get to the top, we can see forever, and everything looks different.

Help us to remember that you are with us when we are living down in the valley; and that you are also with us when we are up on the mountain, and everything looks glorious.

When we struggle to climb a steep hill, you struggle with us.
And when we are at the top see a beautiful view, you show us your glory.

Today as we learn more about Jesus on the mountain, help us to understand and to know more about your love for us.

All this we ask in your name,


And now let us pray again together the prayer that Jesus taught us, saying

Our Father . . .

Difficult journeys -- for Lent 1, Feb 21, 2010
I now invite those kids who would like, to come and join me on the front steps for a few minutes before church school.

Good morning. I am glad to see you all this morning. This morning is the first Sunday of the season of Lent. And Lent is like a journey because during Lent, we remember the journey of Jesus and his friends from their home in Galilee to the big city of Jerusalem. And theirs is a difficult journey because Jesus knows that at the end of it, he will be arrested, hurt and finally killed. And yet, many of us think of this journey as the most important one ever taken.

So, I want us to think a bit today about going on journeys or trips. Take a look at the picture up on the wall behind me. You probably don't recognize the movie it is from, do you? Does anyone know the name of the movie? It was a big hit nine years ago, and it is based on my favourite novel from when I was a teenager. It is a picture from Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring.

I thought of the Fellowship of the Ring and this photo this week because it continues our theme of mountains from last week; because the story we will hear in Church School in a minute has Jesus in the wilderness again, and he is taken up to top of a mountain by the Devil; and because in the Fellowship nine friends fight a terrible evil, just like the evil of the Devil, and they fight this evil in very simple way: they simply go on a very long long and difficult walk right to the centre of that evil person's empire. They just walk, even though it seems likely that they may die on this trip, which some of them do. So their story sometimes reminds me of Jesus and his friends on their difficult walk to Jerusalem.

Have any of you ever gone on a long and difficult journey? You know, all of life can be seen as journey. A year in school is like a journey. Growing up with your parents is like a journey. And you know what? . . . I have found that the most difficult journeys are often the most important, and the ones that I love the most. So as we remember the journey of Jesus and his friends to Jerusalem, and we try to walk with them between now and Easter, I hope we will remember that even when the journey is difficult, it can still be really wonderful.

So I hope that you like learning more about Jesus in the wilderness in Church School. But first I have a brief prayer, and then we will say the Lord's Prayer together. OK?

Let us pray . . .

Dear God,

Thank you for the example of Jesus and his friends.
They show us how to walk together through life.
They love one another, support one other, and teach one another.
And even though their walk is difficult and they sometimes are hurt,
they walk on because they have faith, hope and love to guide them

Help us on our journeys in life.
Help us to remember that you are with us, and that on the most difficult journeys
new life can be found.


And now let us pray again together the prayer that Jesus taught us, saying . . .

Our Father . . .

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Olympian heights and humble paths, Feb 21, 2010

Text: Luke 4:1-13

The church always marks the first Sunday in Lent by reading one of the three accounts of Jesus' temptation in the desert. Now this might seem a little out of place because the story of Jesus in the desert happens at the start of his ministry, immediately after his baptism. In contrast, during Lent we metaphorically travel with Jesus during the last weeks of his ministry. In these last weeks, Jesus journeys with his friends to Jerusalem where he confronts the authorities; where he is arrested; and where he is put to death.

Nevertheless, there are many connections between Jesus in the desert and Lent: Jesus' retreat to the wilderness lasts 40 days; and the church has designed Lent to last 40 days. In the desert, Jesus fasts and meditates on his baptism; and for us, Lent is a time to reflect on the meaning of our own baptism into Christ's death and into a new risen life with Christ. During the 40 days in the desert, Jesus is tempted by the Devil; and for us, Lent is a time to reflect on the temptations we face as individuals and as a community.

But why does the Holy Spirit lead Jesus to be tempted by the Devil in the desert? Jesus has just had one of the key experiences of his life. John has baptized him in the Jordan. God's voice has named him as his beloved Son. The Holy Spirit has descended on him as a dove thus anointing him as the Messiah, Christ, or King of Israel. For Jesus, it is a moment of great power and promise, and yet the Spirit immediately sends him on a 40-day fast and an encounter with the Devil.

The temptations that the Devil presents to Jesus are ones of spiritual power: turning stone into bread; having dominion over all the kingdoms on earth; and relying on his status as God's beloved son to do amazing feats that rely on divine intervention.

These temptations are similar to those facing any of us when we are filled with spiritual enthusiasm. Having been baptized by the power of the Spirit, we might think that we are better than other people. We might try to gain political power or achieve worldly success because we have been anointed as one of God's children. We might think that our life will be an easy one, with angels delivering us from all harm. And we might decide that our religion, our church, or our nation are better than others.

This week in thinking about spiritual temptation, my mind turned to the Olympics. I have a confession to make. I really love the Olympic Games, and sometimes watching the events on TV gets in the way of the rest of my life.

Sports are very spirited endeavors. They are full of idealism, sacrifice, risk, and dedication; and they often result in amazing feats of beauty, power and glory. Then when you add in nationalism as with the Games, you can end up with tempting stew of spiritual dangers!

I look upon the Olympic Games as an interesting snapshot both of what we like and  dislike about the world today. The Games bring all the people of the world together and help us to know one another better. For instance, I love that at the Closing Ceremonies, the athletes pour into the stadium as one group. Unlike in the Opening Ceremonies, they are there purely as comrades and not as representatives of their countries.

But the Games bring athletes together not just to compete against each other, but to compete as representatives of their various nations. The media keep obsessive track of the national results based upon numbers of medals won. Being fourth-best in the world counts for nothing in this calculus. If you come fourth or fifth, you might as well have stayed at home. But consider this: if the three top finishers had come down with food poisoning the night before an event, then the fourth place finisher would instead have won the gold.

Perhaps the Canadian government's expensive "Own the Podium" campaign should spend half of its money not on training facilities, coaching, and money for the athletes but on ensuring that those nasty competitors from other countries who keep getting to the podium instead of the Canadians come down with food poisoning instead!

The Olympic events are full of excitement, beauty and power. A key factor in producing such memorable moments is competition. Without the lure of Olympic gold and glory, it seems unlikely that athletes and countries would spend vast amounts of time, effort and money in raising the bar. It is one thing to enjoy a thrilling run down a ski hill and another to devote thousands of hours of painful and scary training to achieve death-defying speeds on the slopes -- all in the slim hope that this will lead to personal or national glory. It is one thing to spend a fun and exhausting evening playing pick-up hockey at the local rink with one's friends, and another to be watched by 10s of millions of crazed countrymen whose sense of personal and national identity rests on whether your team wins a hockey medal or not.

But I will admit again that I do love watching the exciting events that result.

Competition plays a similar role in our economy. An innovation in steel-making in a company in Asia gives that company an advantage. All the other steel makers in the world must match the innovation or be priced out of the market. Over the last 400 years with the rise of a world market and freer trade, the competitive race has sharpened. This race has resulted in enormous leaps in productivity. The entrepreneurial, scientific and competitive genius unleashed by open market has completely transformed social life and the physical environment. And the wealth that results permeates our daily life.

But as with the Olympics, I worry about other results of this competitive frenzy. When the result of sports competition is excitement, beauty and power, I love it. But when the result is danger, injury, or personal imbalance or humiliation for athletes, I question it. And on the social front, when economic competition leads to growth without regard for human or environmental health, I question that too.

Part of the problem flows, I think, from how we compete. The Olympic Games brings all the best athletes of the world together, and we love the resulting spectacle. The world market brings all the people's of the world together, and we enjoy great benefits because of the resulting innovation. But while we are united in one respect, in other ways we continue to be separated.

Our economies are not regulated at the human or world level. Instead, they are regulated by national states that protect the interests of their own small territory and their own national citizens. As a result, no one is looking out for the interests of the world as a whole.

So what to do? The story of Jesus in the desert reminds us both that baptism is powerful and also that this power can tempt us into misusing it. Jesus after fasting and meditating for 40 days is able to refuse the temptations of the Devil. He does so by relying on his loyalty to God. As with the Transfiguration, Jesus comes down from the mountain top where the Devil tempts him and begins a ministry that is humble and grounded. Jesus' path to Jerusalem is not the usual one of a conquering hero. Instead, it is a path of service, suffering, and death. The surprising paradox is that this tragic yet ordinary path contains the promise and reality of new life. By embracing his full humanity, which includes suffering and death as it does for all of us, Jesus shows us a route out of anxiety and towards new life.

Jesus call his followers -- all of us who have been baptized in his name and in the name of the Father and Holy Spirit -- to take up our own cross and follow him on this difficult path of suffering and sacrifice. The reality is that none of us are going to win the gold medal; and even those who do win a medal still have to eventually confront their own  fragility and death. We might think that death-defying glory can be ours if we only become fanatically dedicated to a worldly path. Jesus, by refusing the temptations of the mountaintops, show us a simpler and better way -- a way that ascribes the glory to God and not our human efforts. On this path, we need no longer worry about getting to the top of the podium and instead embrace life with Christ and our fellow pilgrims in the ordinary wonders of daily life . . .

The Vancouver Olympic Games have been the occasion for another round of the perennial Canadian obsession: who are we, and what kind of country are we? Are we humble and polite, or proud and fierce. Do we just enjoy participating, or do we have the same lust to win that the Americans, Chinese, and Germans display?

Living in Alberta these past six months has given me a new perspective on Canada for Alberta seems a lot less bound by tradition than Eastern Canada. Quebec was originally colonized by the French Empire, which was defeated by the British in 1763. Ontario and the Maritimes were originally colonized by defeated English settlers. They were the United Empire Loyalists who fled the United States after it won its War of Independence against Britain in 1783. But Alberta is different. As the last province to be settled by Europeans, it has been built not on defeat, but by people looking for cheap land, wide open spaces, and lots of freedom.

But you can see the difficulties for Canada as country compared to many others. Both of Canada's founding European peoples have a history of defeat. Canada began with two sometimes warring languages and religions, with the positive paradox that there has been a lot of space for people from other languages, cultures, religions, and continents to come to Canada in the last 50 years. Personally, I like the lack of bravado and solid identity to Canada. What does it take to be a Canadian? Well basically, you just have to be human. And so I see a gracious and democratic kernel to Canada's humility that we can build upon.

But then another Olympic Games comes along, and I want to see the Maple Leaf fly, hear "O Canada" sung, and the other guys defeated. And while I think this temptation of national pride is understandable, I also think it may be a Lenten moment for me to reflect on what is truly important.

Whether Team Canada wins the men's hockey gold medal or not; and whether Canada comes first in the medal count or 15th, Jesus as the Christ still calls to us. He does not call from the mountain top of the Transfiguration where Peter wants to build a shrine. He does not call from the high place where the Devil shows him all the kingdoms of the world. Nor does he call from the height of Mount Olympus where athletic victors reign. Instead, he call to us from the valley, walking humbly with his poor and outcast friends. They are heading to Jerusalem to resist oppression and prejudice with no weapons other than truth and love. Jesus says that this is a path for all of us, both those of us who are strong and swift and those of us who are weak and slow. The Grace available here is that in loving one another on this path, we die to our anxious old way of life and rise to a new life of trusting faith.

Now I'm not planning to give up watching the Olympic Games for Lent. But in this final week of the Games, I hope to tone down some of my national fervor and some of my over-identification with the hopes and fears of individual athletes. In place of that passion, I will try to listen as well to the still small voice of Jesus. As he always does, he will remind us that there is a new life of hope and glory for all -- the gold medal winners, and the last place finishers alike. And with God's help, this hope and glory is found on the humble path to Jerusalem and Good Friday and not in the heights of human accomplishment or national pride.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Prophets on the edge, Jan 31, 2010

Texts: Jeremiah 1: 4–10 (before you were formed in the womb, I set you apart) Psalm 71: 1–6 (God is our fortress and sheltering rock), 1 Corinthians 13: 1–13 (love is patient and kind), Luke 4: 21–30 (Jesus is driven out of Nazareth)

Being a prophet can be a difficult and dangerous job, it seems. This morning Ethel read about the call of the prophet Jeremiah when he was a teenager in Jerusalem 2500 years ago. In Jeremiah's long and colorful career as a prophet, he was beaten and threatened with death more than once as he asked the Hebrew people to repent.

This morning's reading from Luke is about Jesus as a prophet in danger. It continues last week's story of Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. Having identified himself with the prophet Isaiah, Jesus goes on to suggest that the saying "no prophet is accepted in his hometown" will be true for him as well. This prediction soon comes true when the worshipers react with fury at his next comments. They drive Jesus out of town, and try to throw him off a cliff. Mysteriously, Jesus walks through the crowd, escapes, and continues his ministry in other parts of Galilee where people still value his teachings and healing.

Why are the people in Nazareth so angry with Jesus? Their anger follows his mention of two earlier Hebrew prophets, Elijah and Elisha -- how Elijah and Elisha gave help and healing to non-Jews. Do the people of Nazareth want their hometown hero to bring healing and wisdom to his own people and not "waste" it, as did Elijah and Elisha, on foreigners? Are they furious because Jesus is implying that his good news is for all peoples and not just for the Jews?

This story of Jesus being attacked by people in his hometown brought to my mind the story of a prophet in our own United Church, our current Moderator Mardi Tindal. Two weeks ago on January 17th, Mardi read an Open Letter to Canadians on Climate Change in her hometown church, Sydenham St. United, in Brantford, Ontario. Brantford, as all Albertans above the age of 30 probably know, is also the hometown of Wayne Gretzky.

Was Mardi trying to emulate Jesus in the synagogue? Did she expect that the good people at Sydenham St. might react with fury, drive her out of town and try to throw her off a cliff? Perhaps if her hometown church had been in Fort McMurray?

I consider Mardi Tindal a friend, so I was really pleased when she was elected our 40th Moderator last August at the United Church's General Council meeting in Kelowna, B.C. Mardi and I met on a canoe trip in Algonquin Park in 2002. This trip was organized by the Five Oaks retreat centre, where Mardi has worked for the past 15 years. Mardi was the program director on that trip, and for six days and nights, 18 of us canoed and portaged through the beauty of Algonquin while Mardi led us in early morning yoga, worship, and sharing circles. I loved this week and I enjoyed getting to know many people, not least of them Mardi.

Mardi and I bonded on the first portage. We had spent the morning canoeing across a large lake in the face of strong winds and choppy water. On the far shore, we had a one kilometer portage to the next lake. Each portage was done twice -- the first time with a canoe on one's head, the second with an enormous pack of belongings or food.

While resting at some point along the trail, Mardi and I chatted. We both admitted that we had never worked so hard. We both admitted that we were scared that we might not be up to the physical challenge. We both confessed that our chiropractors had urged us not to go on the trip. And we shared together the realization that after crossing that first lake and hauling our belongings to the next one, there was now no going back. Even if we wanted to quit, there was no way out but through. We had to keep going forward one lake and one portage at a time in order to arrive back where we started. This conversation with Mardi really helped me. I was pleased to have a companion with whom to share my worries during the week.

In the event, my back got stronger during the week, and we all seemed to have a wonderful time. I certainly loved the week, and it marked another step forward in my journey back to church and towards faith. I found that I could trust my body, trust my companions, trust our camping leaders, and trust the water, rocks, and trees through which we moved.

During morning yoga, Mardi taught us an ancient Sanskrit saying, which I believe was popular in CGIT groups when she was a girl. It goes like this. "Yesterday is a dream, tomorrow but a vision. But today well-lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day." R

A few minutes ago, Ethel read the famous Scripture passage, 1 Corinthians 13, Paul's Hymn of Love. Paul ends by holding up the virtues of faith hope and love. In Algonquin, I learned to trust more, which is the heart of faith. From Mardi's Sanskrit saying, I learned that hope is grounded in the present -- in today, well-lived. And I was reminded that looking well to this moment requires love. In the canoe trip, we formed an instant community. To play our part, we had to look after ourselves. And to flourish over the week, we relied upon, shared with, and came to love one another. By trying to live and love well in the moment, we turned all our yesterdays into dreams of happiness. And by loving each moment, we turned our fears about tomorrow into a vision of hope. I learned a lot that week.

At the end of the trip, Mardi took me aside to thank me for my participation in the sharing circles and to offer encouragement in my journey in the church. And that too was a key moment for me. I owe Mardi a lot. And so for the remainder of my time, I will use what I learned about faith, hope and love during that week in Algonquin Park to examine Mardi's Open Letter on Climate Change from two weeks ago.

When I read Mardi's letter, I wasn't completely thrilled with it. You can find it on the United Church's website at Mardi begins by saying that she felt heartbroken by the meeting of world leaders in December in Copenhagen -- their failure to agree to decrease the burning of fossil fuels and reverse the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But as always, hers was also a message of hope

It is not that I disagree with Mardi on climate change. The last two centuries of using fossil fuels to power our ever-growing economy -- first coal, then oil and gasoline, and then natural gas -- have been remarkable. Today, humans mine and burn about 85 million barrels of oil each day, which is the equivalent of about 30 million cords of wood, or one massive forest fire. We are quickly burning all the ancient forests of 300 millions ago, and this is radically changing the atmosphere, oceans, and climate. Almost all scientists who have studied it believe that releasing all this long-buried carbon in such a short time means environmental catastrophe.

But even if this is the case, what are we to do? Mardi in her letter suggests that we, quote, "choose hope and action over despair and paralysis, in our homes, offices, places of worship, families and community organizations, as individuals and together. Every day I receive new messages from people who are making dramatic changes in their lives. The answers are already here. Together, let us act by our beliefs."

I am not so sure about this, though. I am not keen on the approach of individual changes, especially if they are done in the hope they will help solve the big problem. At the global level, humanity does not yet have the ability to change course. No one is in charge: not the United Nations, not the International Monetary Fund, not the U.S. President, not the World Council of Churches.

Individuals can change, of course. Take me, for example. When I came to Alberta at the end of August, I could have made other choices. Instead of renting a room in Olds that is about a 20 km-drive away from the church, I could have found a place within walking distance of Knox. And if gasoline was priced closer to $100 per liter instead of $1 per liter, I probably would have done so. But as long as beautiful and well maintained roads, cheap gas, and big-box shopping centers surrounded by acres of parking are the norm, people like me will drive around in our single-occupancy vehicles as we have done for the past few generations.

I actually prefer the ecological way of life to the wasteful one. I would prefer to live in compact towns or cities with four- or five story apartment blocks, where work, school, shopping, and recreation were all within walking distance. I find such a life healthier, easier, and more communal than the one where every house has a big unused lawn, and services are only accessible by car. But since WWII, trillions of dollars have been invested in neighbourhoods that require non-stop use of cars.

It is not that I don't applaud towns and cities that go the opposite direction -- places like Portland Oregon or Madrid Spain. But since the problems are so big, I am a bit put off by letters like Mardi's which urge us to pursue individual solutions. But then, maybe I am like the worshipers in Nazareth, feeling anger towards the preacher/prophet?

Maybe. But continued growth in resource use, including the burning of fossil fuels, is enforced by a competitive world economy. Companies, sectors, nations, and empires either grow or die. An individual farmer might want to run a small, mixed farm like his grandfather's, but it wouldn't survive in the market. A country might want to conserve its natural resources and quit the rat race, but doing so would invite foreign invasion and conquest.

The race is on for the 21st Century: will China overtake the U.S. as the world's dominant power, or will the U.S. find ways, through continued growth in the consumption of natural resources, to maintain its lead? The alternative of all countries getting together, and agreeing to relax, slow down, and find a saner pace of life in which we travel less and waste less often doesn't seem possible to me.

As a church, we uphold the virtues of faith, hope and love. Each week, we come to worship to remind ourselves of these values; but we do so not because these values are obvious, but because they are not. Our world economy cares not a whit for faith, hope or love. The economy is based on competition, profit, and growth; and the future be damned -- which perhaps it is.

Prophets in the church like Mardi point out the problems, and I am glad that she is doing so. As well, we also need the other roles of church leaders: the roles of pastor, priest, and preacher. As pastors, we care for each other in faith communities, especially at times of change: funerals, weddings, job loss, new babies, times of sickness, and so on. As priests, we celebrate holy communion which binds us again to the story of Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection -- the gracious life into which we have been baptized. And as preachers we retell the stories of our tradition and relate them to today so that we remember what makes life worthwhile -- faith, hope, and love.

It may turn out that the Jeremiahs of climate change are wrong and that the oceans won't die and rising sea levels won't drown Vancouver, and Halifax; New York and Los Angeles, or Shanghai and London. But if they are proven right, then we will have work to do -- helping people from the Coast to relocate to Alberta perhaps; or finding new ways to grow food in a destroyed environment. And as things get worse, perhaps people of faith will finally win the battle of peace over violence, and of love over hate. Perhaps then the human race will unite to create a saner way of governing ourselves and creating goods and services? Who knows?

Jesus was rejected in his hometown of Nazareth when he dared to tell the truth. I don't imagine that this truth was only his openness to foreigners. I suspect it was also his message that new life is found by picking up our cross, following him to the centre of imperial power in Jerusalem, and dying for the values of faith hope and love. And we will return to those themes during the Sundays in Lent, beginning Feb 21st.

Mardi is also trying to tell the truth -- that our economy is destroying the environment. And she is probably right.

So what can we do? Well among other things, we can do what Mardi taught me in Algonquin eight summers ago. With God's help, we can look well toward today. We can remember to trust in the moment and not be afraid. And we can touch love within and around us, which is the gracious gift of God to us every moment. This may include making small or large changes in how we live, especially when these changes make our days calmer, healthier, and more loving. And it may also involve raising political awareness of the need for new ways of running the world economy.

In any case we can be sure that no matter what the circumstances, with God's help we will succeed in looking well to today. In doing so and walking humbly with God, all our tomorrows also become visions of hope.

With God's help, we have faith that today is a day of love, and hence also a day of hope. Faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Waiting for the Year of the Lord's Favour, Jan 24, 2010

Texts:  Nehemiah 8: 1-18 excerpts (Ezra reads Scripture), Psalm 19,  (the heavens declare God's glory), 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a (one Body, many parts), Luke 4: 14-21 (Jesus reads from Isaiah)

Well, we have just read a lot of Holy Scripture. Because both the first and last readings this morning focused on the public reading of Scripture, I decided we should hear all four of this week's suggested Lectionary Readings.

But even having done so, it has taken less than 10 minutes to go through all four readings. Contrast this with Ezra reading from the Book of the Law of Moses to the assembled people in Jerusalem in the year 460 B.C.E. He read from dawn until mid-day, and then continued this way for seven days straight. And the people wept with joy! Try to imagine such a scene today!

This story of Ezra reading Scripture marks a turning point in Judaism. It is a change from a religion of ritual and sacrifice in the Temple to a religion of the Book -- a religion focused on reading and interpreting Holy Scripture. And this focus on the reading and interpretation of Scripture continues to characterize Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- the three "religions of the Book" -- to this day. In fact, one can trace its influence right to this moment, right here, right now, in this sermon for instance!

Indeed, the sermon this morning is a little self-conscious, focusing as it does on the reading Scripture and interpreting it in sermons. Perhaps one can say that it is a sermon that eats itself! Well, we will see.

In many ways, Judaism was born in the 50 years of exile of the Hebrew leaders in Babylon, which is modern-day Iraq. In 586 BC, Babylon conquered and destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple. It then deported the Hebrew leaders of Jerusalem to Babylon, where they remained for 50 years. When Babylon in turn was defeated by the Persian Empire in 538 B.C., the Persians allowed the Hebrew elite to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. It was in Babylon during those two generations of exile that the Hebrew leaders turned the scrolls of sacred Hebrew stories they had brought with them into their current form.

Ezra is a priest who does not return with the first exiles to rebuild the city and the Temple. He thinks that Temple rites are inferior to reading, hearing, and obeying the Law of Moses as preserved in the work of scribes of the exile period. When Ezra does return to Jerusalem he revives the religion by putting the focus on Holy Scripture. And so Judaism becomes a religion that focuses on sacred writings and it thrives in synagogues wherever Jews live and not just n Jerusalem around the Temple. With this focus on Scripture, Judaism survived in synagogues scattered throughout the Ancient World. And so in later years both Judaism and Christianity were able to survive the second destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the year 70 AD.

Moving forward now 500 years, we come to Jesus at the start of his ministry on a Saturday morning in the Synagogue of his hometown Nazareth in 30 AD. Here Jesus reads from the ancient Book of Isaiah. Luke writes in Greek when he tells this story 60 years later. And we read it more than 1900 years later in a translation into English. But what language does Jesus use when he reads from the Scroll or when he talks to the assembled Jews in the synagogue? Even at the time of Ezra 500 years earlier, Hebrew was no longer the everyday language of the Jews. They spoke Aramaic, which was also the language spoken by Jesus, his family, and his disciples.

One reason that Scripture requires interpretation is that it is written in ancient and long-dead languages. And this was true even 2500 years ago. It was 460 BC when Ezra read from the Book of Moses to the assembled crowd in Jerusalem. But he would be reading from scrolls that preserved stories and commandments first written down in Hebrew 500 or more years earlier. Many people would no longer understand the Hebrew he read -- hence the need for the Levite priests to interpret the readings and to help people understand their meaning.

500 years later in the year 30 AD when Jesus reads from the Book of Isaiah, he is also reading something ancient. Scholars think that two or three writers wrote Isaiah, one before the Babylonian Exile, and one or two afterward. Jesus in our story this morning reads the first two verses of Isaiah 61, which might have been about 400 or 500 years old at that time. But was Jesus reading from a scroll that copied and preserved the original Hebrew? Or was he reading from a Greek translation that was popular among First Century Jews? Luke doesn't say. First Century Jews in Palestine spoke Aramaic. Those outside Palestine often spoke Greek. Other than Aramaic, it is not clear which languages, if any, Jesus spoke and read. It is all a bit of a jumble. In any case, listening to Hebrew in the year 30 in Nazareth would be sort of like hearing Shakespeare's English read to us today, or perhaps, even more daunting, like hearing Latin read.

Scripture can be hard to understand at the best of times. But when it is read in an dead language, it becomes a lot harder.

Given these difficulties, we might better appreciate Paul's teaching this morning. Paul writes that the church, while one, is made up of many different kinds of people:  apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, helpers, administrators, and those speaking  different languages. There is one Gospel, but there are many languages.

We might then feel relieved by this morning's Psalm. Psalm 19 says that the heavens declare the glory of God, and without speech or language; the voices of the vault of the sky are not heard, and yet their sound goes out to all the lands, and their words to the ends of the earth.

This Psalm reminds us that we don't need Scripture or interpretation to know God. We simply have to listen to the vaults of the sky. Wordlessly, they reveal the Glory of God.

However, that idea doesn't stop bookish people like me from diving into Scripture and wrestling with its obscurities endlessly and happily.

And yet this Tuesday, we are told, may be another historic turning point; a turn away from the book. For months it has been rumored that Tuesday, January 26th will be the day when Apple Computer will unveil its next revolutionary gadget -- the iTablet or iSlate. If the rumours are true, this will be either a shrunken laptop or an expanded iPhone where all the computing will be done on a screen. As with electronic book readers like's Kindle, Apple's Tablet will be a low-power device with which people will read newspapers, websites, and electronic books. It could thereby move us a big step closer to electronic publishing instead of publishing on paper.

Well, we will see. Perhaps Apple's Tablet will be a smash success the way its iPod and iPhone have been, or perhaps it will fizzle in the marketplace. In any case, the days of the printed book are said to numbered. Not that reading is going to disappear. Children today probably read and write more than those of my generation, what with texting, email, website surfing, and building Facebook sites. Nowadays, there is a whole lot of reading and writing going on, which seems like a good thing to me.

However, all of these thoughts so far about languages, reading, listening, and books have been a long prologue to a short message about the story of Jesus reading from Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth at the start of his ministry. He reads Isaiah's words that "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." When Jesus adds to this the statement that, "today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" what does he mean?

Isaiah presumably was referring to himself as God's anointed who had been sent to bring the good news to the poor. Jesus here takes this role for himself; and that is our understanding of Jesus today as well.

But has the good news been fulfilled with the coming of Jesus? That is, does this passage from Luke mean that salvation has already occurred? Or instead does it give the church our mission -- to work for freedom for prisoners and relief for the poor and oppressed? Or perhaps it is saying that salvation is our sure hope for the future?

I would argue that the passage can mean all three. One need only look to Haiti this week -- to the ongoing pain, death, and suffering there after the earthquake 12 days ago -- to see that the poor are still waiting for the fulfillment of the promises of the Year of the Lord's Favour. And yet the huge response of ordinary people and governments all around the world to the suffering in Haiti shows us what the mission of Jesus might look like in action. And the bravery and good spirits of many of the survivors in Haiti shows that in an important way salvation is available to us all right now, even in the midst of devastation. And finally in the face of massive death we look again in hope to lives fulfilled into God's future, even when they are lives cut cruelly short by both natural and social disasters.

Well perhaps the above is not the most profound interpretation of a passage from Holy Scripture that has even been heard! But I hope that the Scripture readings this morning and the discussion of the role of sacred texts in our religions and in our lives have been true to our tradition and meet some of our current needs.

As a church, we have good news to convey and a mission to live out. Whether this good news is conveyed on manuscripts and scrolls painstakingly hand-copied in ancient Hebrew; in English translations sold in mass-produced books; in electronic tablets that provide access to all of humanity's knowledge at any moment; in sermons spoken in a sanctuary; or in stories told around a campfire, the good news lives; and we are moved to tell it again.

As with Ezra and his congregation, today we give thanks for ancient sacred stories and commandments. Like Ezra's people, we need translators and interpreters to bring out the meaning of those ancient stories. As with the people in the synagogue in Nazareth, we give thanks for the presence of God-With-Us in the person of Jesus the Christ, who has been anointed by God's Spirit to bring good news to the poor. With Jesus, we proclaim that this year, right now, is the Year of the Lord's Favor, where we receive the support of God's Grace and Love with every breath. With Jesus, we also work to make the Year of the Lord's Favor a reality by struggling against injustice, and for a world where all have access to basic sustenance and human rights. And with Jesus, we also proclaim that no matter how our lives proceed -- no matter how long or short they are; no matter how materially blessed or difficult they may be -- we live in the sure hope of personal and social fulfillment in the arms of God.

The Year of the Lord's Favour is here. We also strive to make real the Year of the Lord's Favour by working for God's Justice here on earth. And finally, we rest in the sure hope that the Lord's Favour awaits us all as the fulfillment of the life and love that we experience today.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

"Holy living" meets the Holy Spirit: a baptism by fire, Jan 10, 2010

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7 ("You are mine" says the Lord), Acts 8: 14-17 (Peter and John baptize in Samaria), Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (the baptism of Jesus)

This sermon comes with a warning. It is about sex. Sorry about that!

I don't remember many of my father's sermons from when I was a child, but I do remember only too well one that he preached about sex. I was perhaps 11 or 12 years old and it must have been summer because I was not in Sunday School. I was sitting in the pews at Knox United Church in Cornwall Ontario with my older brother and sister, and Dad started preaching about sex, promiscuity and the dangers facing teenagers. I cringed, and I couldn't wait for him to finish.

I got the impression that Dad was preaching right at my older sister, who would be 15 or 16 years old at the time. Perhaps he was trying to warn her about boys. Perhaps he was anxious about being the father of a teenage girl. Or perhaps he was motivated by bumps in his own journey towards sexual maturity. In any case, I didn't like it!

So for any cringe-worthy moments that come this morning courtesy of me, my apologies in advance . . .

This Sunday we think about Baptism as we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. So what does that have to do with sex? Well, perhaps nothing. But when I woke up on Thursday morning, I had the idea for this sermon; and my method so far this year is to follow my intuitions no matter what. Otherwise, I don't think I could get all the work done!

Since this is Year C in the Lectionary, which is the year of Luke, this morning Doreen read the account of the baptism of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.  All four of the Gospels tell the story of Jesus' baptism, but there are differences between them.

The earliest Gospel, Mark, is the most straightforward. Mark simply states that "Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan." When Matthew rewrites this  passage 15 years later, he adds a section where John the Baptist protests that he is not worthy to baptize Jesus. John only agrees to go ahead after Jesus tells him it is OK. In Luke, which is the next Gospel written, it is not clear who baptizes Jesus because before the baptism is mentioned, we hear that John has been arrested by Herod. And in John, the last-written Gospel, Jesus comes to the Jordan and is greeted by John the Baptist. But John's Gospel never explicitly says that Jesus is baptized by John or by anyone else.

In a New Testament class, it was suggested that this progression in the four gospels from a simple story to an obscure one showed that the baptism of Jesus might have been seen as a scandal. Why would Jesus of Nazareth, the beloved Son of God, the  argument goes, to be baptized for the repentance of sin. Didn't Jesus live without sin?

However, I am not convinced by this argument. Surely the real scandal about Jesus is his execution in Jerusalem and not the fact of his baptism. Also, I wonder if the argument reads 21st Century individualism back into the 1st Century Palestine when life was a lot more communal. The repentance of sin marked by Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan might have been the sin of the Jewish community to which Jesus belonged -- its collaboration with the Roman occupiers, for instance.

When we use the word sin today, it usually refers to individual actions. But there is also social sin, for which none of us as individuals are responsible -- economic competition and exploitation, destruction of natural habitats, the drive to war, and so on. Perhaps Jesus went to the Jordan to show by his baptism that he was heading to Jerusalem to confront the social sins of the Romans and those Jewish religious leaders who collaborated with them.

In any case, Baptism is important in the gospels, in our church tradition, and in our individual lives. We celebrate the sacrament of baptism. But we also use the term baptism to refer to any major initiation. A new marriage, the birth of one's children, a new job, moving to a new country -- all can be seen as baptisms -- baptism by fire; baptism by plunging into an unknown situation; baptism that changes you the way that initiation into life in Christ changes us.

It is this wider meaning of baptism that got me to thinking about sex. The curriculum materials for church school this Sunday were all about belonging, acceptance, and being affirmed by family, church, and God. And that led me to think about gay and lesbian youth, and the difficulties they still face finding acceptance in many places in this society.

This then led me to think about the "baptism by fire" that the United Church experienced in the 1980s around the issues of homosexuality. And finally, I noticed from last year's Sunday bulletins that it was one year ago next week that Knox held the first of two discussions around the question of equal marriage, or marriage for two people of the same gender as well as traditional, opposite gender marriage.

These issues are very important to me, though I would hardly claim to have the final word on them. But I want to share both a story and some of my feelings about them this morning. The story is about my Aunt Mary, the wife of my Dad's brother Lloyd. She still lives on the family farm where my Dad grew up, and which is now farmed by her son.

Aunt Mary has always been very active in the church. She served a term as the President of the Bay of Quinte Conference, and she has been prominent in her home church in the hamlet of Welcome Ontario all her adult life.

In 1988, Aunt Mary was an elected Commissioner to the General Council meeting of the United Church in Victoria. This was the notorious meeting that discussed whether the church should let lesbians and gays be ordained as ministers in our church.

And here is what happened. Like many others, Aunt Mary went to that crucial Council meeting with instructions from her church and Presbytery to vote against the resolution; and this was also her own conviction. But like many people in Victoria that week, she had a change of heart during the long and emotional discussions. Much to her surprise, in the end she found herself voting in favour of the resolution; and because of people like my aunt who changed their vote at the urging of the Spirit of that gathering, it passed, and our church was changed forever. As many of you will remember, this was a painful time. Many people and even a few congregations left the United Church because they could not abide the thought of openly gay ministers.

But I am very proud of my aunt for her decision, and very proud of the whole church for taking this stance. I was not active in the church during those years, but I followed the controversies, and I cheered when the Council in 1988 accepted gays and lesbians as equal members of our church. And even though I am straight, I would have been reluctant to return to the church as I did in 2001 if the United Church was still  discriminating against gays and lesbians.

My Aunt was a difficult presence in my life when I was a child. She seemed stricter than my parents, and also more religious, which puzzled me since my Dad was a minister. When I visited the farm, my aunt would argue with me sometimes, usually about the length of my hair; and I didn't enjoy those arguments.

But in school in 2007, I got a new insight into the connections between my strict aunt on the farm and my liberal father, the minister in the city. We were studying the formation of the United Church 85 years ago. One thing that helped bring together the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist denominations was "holy living." For partisans of holy living, how one lived was more important than what one believed. And this emphasis on pure behaviour helped the three denominations unite without too many  arguments about doctrine.

I had thought that holy living only referred to the annoying moralism of my Aunt -- "no cards, no drinking, no dancing" -- and certainly no sex outside of marriage or, heaven forbid, gay sex! But there was more to it than that. Holy living wasn't just moralism. It was connected to the Social Gospel's attempt to reform society and to build the Kingdom of God on earth. Gambling with cards leads to poverty. Alcohol leads to violence in the home. So the "holy living" wing of our church started out with the same motives as the social justice wing of our church. It was an attempt to change behaviour and laws in order to have a more equal, peaceful and just society.

In 1988, when my Aunt Mary -- with her horror of drinking, card-playing, long hair, and sex outside of marriage -- met gay and lesbian people in our church in Victoria, she was moved to vote with her heart and not with the decision she had made beforehand. I see her vote as a moving example of faith, repentance, and rising to a new life by dying to an old one. She and the big majority of the voting commissioners took a leap of faith, which has transformed our church and helped us be more inclusive and loving.

The church's emotional confrontation with homosexuality in the 1980s was a painful baptism by fire. But it was also a moment of the Spirit. The Spirit of Christ was there in Victoria, I believe. My aunt felt it, and, thanks be to God, she responded to it.

Today more than 20 years later, when other denominations continue to struggle with gays and lesbians in the pews and among their clergy, the United Church has largely moved on. Because of this, we are perhaps better placed to speak to new generations than our Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Pentecostal brothers and sisters.

Yes it is true that there are several passages in Scripture that denounce homosexuality. But there are many passages in Scripture that support racism, slavery, war and the oppression of women. And we as a church have long ago moved away from those passages. Instead, we interpret all of Scripture from the standpoint of the love, radical inclusion, and path of self-sacrifice of Jesus as the Christ.

When I return to Ontario in May to finish my studies, I will look forward to hearing news from Knox United and the many wonderful friends I have made in this gracious community. And nothing will please me more than when I hear the news that this congregation has joined with hundreds and soon thousands of other United Church congregations in performing marriage ceremonies for any two loving people regardless of their gender.

The Spirit moves where it will, and its power knows no end. I experience this Spirit every Sunday here in the pulpit and in the wider work of this community and congregation. As with my aunt in 1988, the Spirit will surely surprise this congregation  again and again, and take you down paths of love, acceptance and belonging that you had never dreamt possible. For with God, all things are possible.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

For the New Year, a broken or a holy hallelujah

Text: John 1:1-18 (In the beginning was the Word)

"Another year over, and a new one just begun." And as John Lennon's song "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" continues, "Let's hope its a good one, without any fear."

For the first Sunday of this New Year, the Lectionary directs us to the Introduction to the Gospel of John, which Phyllis just read. It is an influential and difficult passage: "In the beginning was the Word . . . " John is here echoing the first chapter of Genesis: "In the beginning when God was creating the heavens and the earth . . . "

John's Gospel has quite a different flavour from Luke's. Luke is the Gospel from which we have been reading so far this Advent and Christmas. Luke paints a very humble picture of Jesus' birth. A poor man, Joseph, and his wife Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census. Their trip is followed by a lowly birth in a stable attended by poor shepherds.

John's Gospel, on the other hand, doesn't include any stories about the birth or childhood of Jesus. Instead, John writes his cosmic poem. "In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." John identifies Jesus as the Divine Word; the force that created the universe; the force that is the source of light in our life; and the force that means the coming of grace and truth to the world.

To further complicate things, this Wednesday, the church marks Epiphany. As I mentioned to the children a few minutes ago, Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi to Jesus in Bethlehem. Starting next Sunday and continuing until Lent in late February, we mark each Sunday by its number after the Epiphany. The problem -- if it is a problem -- is that the story of the Magi is neither in John nor in Luke. Instead, the Magi story is found only in Matthew -- and Matthew's Gospel has yet another and different story of the birth of Jesus.

Do people know about these differences between the four Gospels? I was not aware of the differences until I went back to school these past two years. In Matthew's Gospel, there is no Roman census, no journey from Nazareth, no birth in a stable, no manger. Matthew says that Joseph and Mary's hometown is Bethlehem, not Nazareth, and that Jesus is born in his parent's bed in their own house. Matthew also has no angels or shepherds. Instead, he has the Magi, or wise men, guided from Persia by a Star. Matthew also says that after the visit of the Magi, Joseph has a dream which directs him to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt where they live for several years until the death of King Herod. It is only years after Jesus' birth, Matthew says, that the Holy Family return to Israel, but not back to their supposed hometown of Bethlehem in Judea. Instead, they relocate to Nazareth in Galilee. Luke, on the other hand, has the newborn Jesus and his parents making a leisurely trip from Bethlehem not to Egypt, but back to the other supposed hometown of Nazareth via Jerusalem.

Now if one looks to the Bible for literal history, these differences might be disturbing. But for those of us who look for things much more important than history in the Gospels, it is perhaps not a problem.

In any case, John avoids the birth issues by not writing anything about Jesus' birth. Instead, he gives us a portrait of a Cosmic Christ, the second person of the Trinity, working to create the universe long before he takes human form and comes to dwell among us as Jesus of Nazareth. John's version sounds important.

There is a lot one could talk about in John's introductory poem. But I will focus on the line that says that all humans can become children of God. "To all who received him (that is, Jesus the Christ), to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God -- children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God."

John says that with the coming of the Christ, we have gained the right to become children of God. But aren't we told over and over again in the Bible and in church that Jesus is the only Son of God? So why does John here, and St. Paul in his letters to the churches in Rome and in Philippi, and the author of the letter First John write that all of us are children of God? Does God have one child, or many? The Bible itself doesn't provide a solution. It was left to the ancient church in the creeds from the Fourth Century to come up with an answer -- Jesus was the only begotten Son of God, while we, the other children, are adopted in baptism. Hmmm.

I do love the idea that we can all become children of God. The sticking point in John's text is a requirement: in order to become children of God. we have to believe in the Holy Name. Now this leads me to wonder what it means to believe in the Holy Name. Further, what happens if you don't believe in the name? Like the rest of John's Introductory poem, it seems a bit unclear to me.

For instance, does it matter if we don't believe in the historical accuracy of Matthew's stories of Jesus birth and childhood? Do we need to believe instead in Luke's different stories? Or perhaps we have to do mental gymnastics to make the two sets of stories somehow line up? 

When Christmas carols and Christmas pageants merge the two different set of stories from Matthew and Luke into one --- and almost all of them do -- this isn't done so that we can believe something that is not really believable. They are merged together because one is not required to believe in their literal accuracy in order to love these stories. The stories have magic, mystery, power, and life in them. On their own or together, they say the same thing: God is with us. This is also what John tells us in his own way. God is with us. In fact, John goes further than Luke and Matthew in his poem when he says that God is the light inside each of us. John reminds us that we are all children of God -- well, if we believe, that is.

What is missing in John's requirement, I think, is Grace. Grace is the love of God freely given to all. It is by Grace, and not by belief, that we are all God's children. This fact should be true whether or not we believe in a particular story or doctrine. After all, one doesn't have to do anything to receive Grace. God simply offers us Grace. So why does John give us this requirement that we have to believe?

Well let's take a look at the word "believe" for a moment. In its current meaning, I am not sure that "believe" is the best word to use when translating from John's original Greek. Think, instead, of the root of our word believe. The word used to mean love, or be-love. In this sense, our beliefs show where we have put our hearts. They show the values and the people that we be-love. And to be-love the Holy Name and to receive Jesus as the Saving Christ is to love what Jesus as the Christ has brought into the world.

Christ brought many things into the world. John's introduction notes that the key things he brought were Light, Grace, and Truth. Therefore it is Light, Grace and Truth that we are required to be-love in order to remember again that we are children of God. This means that when we are drawn to the Light; when we are aware that we are supported and saved by Grace alone; and when we search for Truth using the light of Love that our stories, traditions, families, and inner divine sense tell us to use -- then we have be-loved the Holy name of Jesus and received him again into our hearts. When we do these things -- and we do them every day with our family at home, and at work, and in church, --  we exercise our right to become children of God. We join with God's only begotten son, Jesus: the Jesus who was born in Bethlehem; the Jesus who grew up in Nazareth, and the Jesus who was revealed to his friends as the Christ on the road to Jerusalem. When we love the light, grace and truth that Jesus loves, we become part of what Jesus is, the Divine Word. This is the light that shines inside our hearts and minds -- beloved children of God all.

I began this sermon with John Lennon. I will now end with the Canadian poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen. In Cohen's 1984 song "Hallelujah," which became so wildly popular this past decade, he has a verse about the Holy Name and how we are told to treat it. That verse from Hallelujah goes like this:

"You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah"

So on this first week of the New Year as we celebrate again the light of Epiphany and the revelation of God as a child, know that with God's Grace we will also remember that there is a blaze of light in every word and in every heart. When we remember this, we might be moved to shout out a holy or a broken Hallelujah. It doesn't matter which. Both will work. For we are all the beloved children of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Love and spiritual growth, Dec 27, 2009

Texst: 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 (Samuel in the Temple at age 12), Luke 2:41-52 (Jesus in the Temple at age 12)

"I want to know what love is. I want you to show me." Do you remember those lines? They are from the chorus of a 1984 monster hit by the rock band Foreigner. In the fall of 2007, when I decided to go back to school to get a Masters of Divinity Degree, I wrote an email to my friends telling them of my decision. In that email, I said that since the New Testament letter 1 John reminds us that "God is Love," I imagined that my theme song in seminary might be, "I want to know what love is." In the event, however, I don't seem to have learned all that much about love in two years of school. But as I said to the children a minute ago, love is not necessarily an easy subject!

Our Gospel reading this morning is unusual because it shows Jesus as a student. It is Passover, and Jesus at age 12 is in the Temple listening to the rabbis and asking them questions. Most other stories from the Gospels show Jesus in the role of teacher, not in the role of student. Indeed, "teacher" is one of the main titles by which Jesus' disciples address him. But since Jesus was a human being like us -- born a helpless baby on the First Christmas and growing slowly into adulthood -- he needed to learn things too. He needed to listen to his teachers and to ask questions of his elders. And I like that image.

But when Jesus listened to his teachers, what did they tell him? And when he asked questions of the rabbis in the Temple, what were those questions? Unfortunately, Luke doesn't tell us . . .

Over the years, I have puzzled a lot about love, as many of us do during the ups and downs of life. Mostly we learn through experience -- by loving our parents and siblings; our friends; and later our spouses and children.

But in terms of what exactly we mean by that all-important but somewhat fuzzy word "love," the best attempt at a definition I have come across so far is from the best-selling 1978 self-help book "The Road Less Travelled" by M. Scott Peck.

Peck writes that "Love is the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth" . . . the will to extend one's self to nurture spiritual growth. I would like to unpack this definition a little. First, love is an act of will. It is not just a feeling. Instead, love involves action. To use two other popular slogans: "Love is a verb and not a noun." And, "Love is as love does!" It is about what we do, and having the will to undertake loving actions.

Second, love, for Peck is about spiritual growth -- one's own spiritual growth or that of another. But this part of his definition leads to the question of what we mean by spiritual growth. So Peck gives us an outline of some of the stages of spiritual growth: from egotism, to blind faith, to skepticism, and finally to a mystical awareness of God that is beyond ego. However, I won't go much further into that. For one, my copy of his book is in storage in Toronto!

But I appreciate Peck's definition. I agree with him that love, if it is to mean anything, is about what we do rather than what we feel. And I am sure that spiritual growth is at the centre of loving action. But surely there is more to love than this.  Our loving actions can also involve taking care of the physical and emotional needs of our loved ones as well as their spiritual needs.

Peck is on to a important point, though. Not all our physical, emotional or social problems can be solved on their own terms. Nevertheless, we trust that there is always  a spiritual response to such problems. For instance, we can't always prevent our loved ones from feeling pain, but we can be present with them through tough times and offer them assurances of our love now and God's love always. We can't always succeed in righting a social injustice. But we can worship together to provide the spiritual sustenance we need to continue to fight the good fight even in dark times.

This morning, I offer Peck's definition as a starting point in trying to know more about what love is; though perhaps there are better definitions out there.

And it could be that the second line of the chorus from Foreigner's Power Ballad "I want to know what love is" offers us a good next step. The second line is, "I want you to show me." If love is as love does, then we can learn a lot by spending time with loving people and letting them show us. So to learn more about love, perhaps I had to put school on hold for a year and come as an intern to Knox United where I can see love in action. In a faith community like this, people come together to worship, study, raise money for good causes, and be present to each other in life's key moments of pain and joy. Communities like Didsbury and churches like Knox United bring love to life and model for new generations what the Lord requires of us: to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

Jesus in his adult ministry talks a lot about love: he tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves; to love each other as he has loved us; even to love our enemies. But more powerful than his words are his actions. Jesus shows us what love is by his willingness to take up his cross in a fallen world and to die for what he values. He models for us this gracious but difficult path, not just by words, but by actions.

I will end by mentioning something that I did learn in one of my courses about Jesus and love. Our teacher talked about the famous hymn-like passage from Paul's letter to Philippians, a passage which I preached about on Reign of Christ Sunday on Nov 22nd, and which is also captured in the hymn we learned that morning, "At the Name of Jesus." One line from that famous hymn is usually translated into English like this: "Christ Jesus, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness." Our teacher told us that at a wedding ceremony he had attended, Paul's hymn was read, but with a different translation. The line "emptied himself, taking the form of a servant" was translated as "emptied himself, taking the form of a listener." The Greek word often translated as servant was instead translated as listener.

This alternate translation shows us that one way to serve or love another person is by listening to them. Jesus listened to his teachers when he was a boy. He listened to the heartbroken, the sick, the outcasts and the sinners in his adult ministry. And he listened to His Father in the call to the cross. In these acts of listening, Jesus models for us this key aspect of love.

Many of us want to know what love is. Jesus as the Christ shows us the way.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

O Little Town of . . . ?, Dec 24, 2009

Text: Luke 2:1–20 (the birth of Jesus)

Christmas Eve on a calm, crisp night in a snow-covered and beautiful little town nestled in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. What could be better than this?

A few times over the past few weeks as I have driven down into Didsbury on an wintry evening and seen the lights of the town from Hwy 2A, a slightly modified Christmas Carol has run through my mind, and it goes like this:

"O Little Town of Didsbury, how still we see thee rise!" I hope people don't mind me thinking this or mentioning it! And to continue: "Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by; yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fear of all the years are met in thee tonight."

Could this be true? Bethlehem is where the hopes and fears of all the years are supposed to be met on Christmas Eve. But perhaps the same is just as true of Didsbury tonight as it was of Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago?

In Bethlehem that first Christmas, something unique and yet also very ordinary happened -- the birth of a first child to a poor young couple. Tonight we celebrate this event more than 2,000 years later. And yet I am struck that Luke's story, written almost 100 years after the event, did not reach what is now Mountain View County until about 1800 years after it had occurred. Luke's Christmas story of a stable, mother, child, angels, and shepherds -- a story so filled with mystery, beauty and power -- means the world to us. But for the people, known and unknown, who called this beautiful land home for the 1800 years between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the news of that first Christmas, what does it mean that they did not know this story during those long ages?

I am also aware that it took hundreds of years -- though not as long as with Canada's First Nations -- for the stories of Jesus to reach my forefathers and fore-mothers. I assume that my ancient ancestors were Celts or Druids in the British Isles. And they encountered Christianity in the same way that Canada's First Nations encountered it: with the invasion of hostile armies. My Celtic ancestors were given a choice by the Roman invaders:  to forget the sacred stories that had sustained their communities for generations and replace them with the Christian ones, or to be killed. Not surprisingly, my ancestors chose to become Christians, otherwise I wouldn't be here today! Over the centuries, each generation came to love the Hebrew and Greek stories of what had once been a foreign tradition. We made this tradition our own and used those stories to inform our character and help us walk the path of faith hope and love. Indeed, these stories have saved us. But what about the sacred stories that my ancestors were forced to forget? And what about the sacred stories that the First Peoples who once lived in these foothills were forced to forget?

One of the many things that I love about the United Church of Canada is the membership and involvement of many First Nations people in the church. I got a better appreciation of this involvement in a course I took in the summer of 2008.. It was called "Encountering Aboriginal Spirituality," and it was an intensive two-week course, with the second week involving five days and nights in residence at the church's Five Oaks retreat centre, which is about a 90-minute drive west of Toronto on the Grand River. Five Oaks, until this past August, was led by Mardi Tindal. Mardi is now on leave from the centre for three years after being elected the 40th Moderator of the United Church of Canada this past summer in Kelowna.

Five Oaks also houses what is perhaps the most interesting theological school in our church, the Francis Sandy Theological Centre. The Francis Sandy Centre trains people who want to become ministers in our church's many First Nations congregations. Our class of 13 from Toronto spent that week in a learning circle with six students from Francis Sandy as well as with 10 First Nations elders who are active in our church. I loved the experience and felt blessed and healed by that week.

The most prominent of the elders in our circle was the Very Reverend Stan McKay, who in 1992 became the first native person to be elected as Moderator of the United Church. Stan is retired now, but he still does a lot of work for the church. I am so happy that he helped lead our course that week. Others who have heard Stan speak will probably agree with the following advice: if you get a chance to hear Stan McKay speak, take it!

As the class learned about some of the abuses suffered by First Nations people both at the hands of the Canadian state and our churches, it became easier to understand why many Native People have left the church to return to native traditions. It also became harder to understand why people like Stan and so many other native people are still active in the United Church, though I am very glad that many remain.

One of the reasons people like Stan still remain members of our church must surely be the work the church has done over several decades to repent of some our past practices, and to work for right relations. One of the key steps came in 1986 at the United Church's General Council meeting. At that event, the Moderator, the Very Rev. Robert Smith, composed an Apology, which was presented to native leaders in Sudbury.

Here is what Rev. Smith wrote to the First Nations church members: Quote, "long before my people journeyed to this land, your people were here, and you received from your Elders an understanding of creation and of the Mystery that surrounds us all that was deep, and rich, and to be treasured.

We did not hear you when you shared your vision. In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ, we were closed to the value of your spirituality.

We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ.

We imposed our civilization as a condition for accepting the gospel.

We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted and blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be.

We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the Spirit of Christ so that our peoples may be blessed and God's creation healed." End quote.

Much work has been done and many words written and spoken since 1986, but I think the Moderator's apology was a turning point. It showed the leader of our church in an act of repentance. In repenting, Rev. Smith discovered a new depth in his own understanding of the Gospel. And like all such moments it opened him and our church up to new life. And that, I think is what Advent and Christmas are all about.

As I reflect tonight about my wonderful first four months here in Didsbury and how joining this community and working with you has seemed like a Sacred Gift, his evocative words came to me again. His words remind us how the Christ event and child are found in many traditions and places. They remind us of how we can find the Christ event and child even here in Didsbury, just as shepherds found him Bethlehem all those long years ago.

This week marks the end of my first half of my eight month student internship here. But if you want to hear the rest of this sermon about how the saving event of Christ is found not only in the baby Jesus but in all the babies born in love in our troubled and wondrous world, you will have to come to my final service here at Knox United on April 25, 2010. At that time, I hope to return to the Christmas story and relate my experience with Knox, with Didsbury, with the Foothills, wit the United Church, and with our entire faith tradition to the next 20 verses in the second chapter of the Gospel Luke, which follow our Scripture reading from tonight.

For now, I will simply leave it at this. Tonight in Didsbury AB, as Christmas 2009 arrives, let us sense again how silently, how silently a wondrous gift is given. It is the gift of salvation, and it is born in us today. I am sure that this gift is available down in the valley at Zion, up town at the Anglican church, and across town at the Lutheran church. It is also available in dining room tables filled with people who no longer attend church or who follow other faith traditions. It is a gift that has crept silently and graciously into the life of First Nations people for as long as people have known this beautiful land. The gift is the birth of the Christ child in hearts turned towards love on this night and any night. It is the coming of God as a child, a child who is both a helpless infant and a saving King. It is the mystery, beauty and power of our precious Christmas story. And it is available to each and every one of us tonight in this little town.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Songs of love and justice, Dec 20, 2009

Texts Micah 5:2-5a (Bethlehem, birthplace of rulers), Luke 1:26-55 (Mary's song of love)

From the fall of 2005 until the spring of 2007, I sang in a choir in Toronto called the Bell'Arte Singers. We weren't a professional choir. In fact as with many community choirs, each of us had to pay an annual fee for the privilege of being a member. But I didn't begrudge the money because I just loved singing in this choir.

Bell'Arte had a Christmas concert the first year I was a member. One of the many things I liked about Bell'Arte was the program booklet produced for each concert. The notes seemed quite extensive and interesting to me. For that 2005 concert, the booklet commented on the meaning of Christmas including our hopes for a world of greater peace, joy and love. And that section on Christmas ended with the sentence, "Another World is Possible." I was struck by this, since "Another World is Possible" is a key  slogan of the youthful anti-globalization movement of the last 15 years. You know -- the activists who show up for World Trade Organization talks like the big one in Seattle in 1999 and who protest against corporate greed.

Just before the concert began, I pointed this sentence out to the conductor and asked if he had written it. He told me "no," but said that he agreed with the idea. In fact, he said that our concert that evening would prove the slogan right. Our Christmas Program that evening, he said, would nudge the world maybe a millimeter closer to its salvation. And while that might seem like an odd idea, I found myself agreeing with him! That night as a choir we were doing our small bit to help change the world one joyous song at a time.

When I returned to school full time in the fall of 2007, I had to leave Bell'Arte because I was also still working full time, and something had to give. But I loved the Bell'Arte choir and it made me a better singer.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Mary, upon learning that she is to give birth to Jesus, sings a song. It is a song of joy, love, and hope for a better world. In her song, she rejoices in the mercy and justice of God and predicts that the hungry will be filled and that the rich and powerful will be brought down from their thrones.

This passage from Luke is one of the most famous of the entire Bible, and it is especially liked by musicians. Many different composers have set Mary's song to music, and such musical settings often have the title Magnificat because in the Latin translation of Luke's original Greek text, the first word of the song is Magnificat -- "My soul magnifies the Lord." The English translation is evocative as well.

And the anthem that the choir will sing after the sermon is inspired by Mary's Love Song, though today's anthem goes well beyond the text from this morning.

But though Mary sang this song over 2,000 years ago, the world still has too many hungry people. And it also has too many rich and powerful people whom we would like to see thrown down off their thrones. So is there any point in singing such songs of joy, love and justice?

You may have noticed this fall, that singing is really important to me. I love to sing, and  the most important part of worship for me is often the hymns and the anthems.

When I returned to attending church services regularly in 2001, singing in the choir was a key part of it. By joining the choir at my local church, Kingston Road United in east Toronto, I found a wonderful new group of friends. I found a place to sit each Sunday. I found a role in worship. And I found that worshiping each Sunday, and trying to express our faith in song, was starting to affect me quite deeply.

Perhaps the choir wasn't changing the world; but it was certainly helping to change me. And perhaps that was enough?

In worship in general, and in sacred songs in particular, we come together to remind ourselves of what we most value in life. This Advent, as always, we have used our Sunday services to remind ourselves of God's Grace under the headings of Hope in times of despair, of Peace in times of violence, of Joy in times of difficulties of all kinds, and of Love in the face of injustice.

When worship works to transform us as individuals and as a community, it can have many effects. It might mean that we work to feed people who are hungry and to comfort people who are feeling sad. It might mean that we protest unjust rulers as young anti-globalization activists do.

But even when worship doesn't have these clear or immediate effects in terms of actions, it can help restore our sense of priorities and our balance. When we come together to sing songs of God's love and God's justice, we both remind ourselves of the importance of beauty, and often create some of that beauty; we both remind ourselves that God's grace is always available to us and we sometimes experience an opening to that Grace in the moment; we both remind ourselves that God's reign will be one of equality and freedom for all; and we sometimes live out that equality in the sacred space and time of the worship service; and we both remind ourselves that our greatest desire and need in life is for love of God and neighbour and we often experience God's loving touch right here and now.

Worship doesn't just involve singing, of course. It also involves spoken prayer and times of sacred silence. It can also involve dance, meditation, drumming, sharing circles, and  drama. And it often involves wordy sermons, in which we sometimes lose the thread that connects us to the Divine instead of grasping that thread more firmly!

But it usually involves at least some singing. And even for those of us who don't like to sing or don't feel confident about our voices, I imagine that the impulse to burst into song still sometimes happens. Singing involves the movement of the spirit in our bodies until it unites word with breath, bone and muscle to express ideas and emotions that are difficult to express in other ways.

And so when Mary accepted the difficult and amazing news of the Angel Gabriel, it makes sense to me that she sang a song to her relative Elizabeth. And it makes sense to me that it was not only a song of Joy and of thanksgiving, but also a song that called for food for the hungry and for the rich to be thrown off their thrones.

But simply by singing her song, Mary didn't make God's reign appear right then and there. Nor did Luke, by writing it down many years later, make the world right just by that fact. Even the coming of Jesus, which Mary's song is about, didn't end all problems, or end all pain, or bring the reign of God to earth.

Or did it? In some ways, singing song's again like Mary's remind us both that we have a lot of work to do as individuals and as a church to make the world right; and that in that moment of singing, in that act of worship, in that reminder of what we value and want, the reign of God is right here -- Jesus is right here, in this moment, this breath, this sacred act of worship and remembrance. Another world is not only possible. Another world, God's world, the world we want -- it is right here, right now.

So this week, as Advent ends and Christmas comes again, and as we sing those familiar, wonder-filled and joy-filled carols, let us do so aware that we are joining with Mary in her song of love and justice.

On Christmas Eve and for the rest of the season, we will sing carols. In those carols, we will remember again the hope that we feel even in dark times; the peace that we experience even in the face of conflict and violence; the joy that we feel even in the midst of life's ups and downs; and the love of God that we experience in this song, this breath, this moment, both now and always.

Advent is almost over. Christmas is almost here.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.


Peace, love, and the refiner's fire, Dec 6, 2009

Texts: Malachi 3:1-4 (refiner's fire),  Luke 1: 5-25; 57-80 (birth of John the Baptist foretold), Luke 3:1:18 (John prepares the way)

As individuals and communities, we long for peace. Nevertheless, the world is filled with war and conflict. And in our personal lives, we are often troubled by inner conflict and by nasty arguments in our families and communities.

During the season of Advent we await the coming of the Prince of Peace. Perhaps another Christmas celebration will provide us with the inner peace we long for? Perhaps another Christmas will bring the reconciliation between nations we so desperately need? And yet the readings this morning suggest that the coming of the Day of the Lord will not necessarily be a quiet or pain-free affair.

Malachi wonders: "who can endure the day of his coming" for "he will be like a refiner's fire." And John predicts that Jesus as the Christ will "burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." Good news, we are told. Hmmm.

I'm afraid that our readings today again sound the apocalyptic note that has been struck for the last three Sundays. When will we finally get to the quiet and peace of Christmas night?

And yet I think we can see value in the harsh notes of these readings. Repentance in my experience can sear like a refiner's fire. And sometimes peace can be found on the other side of an unquenchable fire.

What struck me first about the story of John in the wilderness was how he greeted the crowds. These were ordinary people, Jews and non-Jews, who had come to the banks of the River of Jordan so that John could baptize them for the repentance of their sins. "You brood of vipers" he hisses at them. He insults the crowd that has come to be blessed by him in the sharpest possible way. Is Luke holding up John as a role model in this passage? I hope not.

Luke's story of John in the wilderness is based upon the original version in Mark. But Luke adds the insult, which is not found in Mark, just as Luke adds the warnings about unquenchable fires and about axes being laid to the roots of trees. He also adds the commands to share our wealth and to not cheat or rob others. That Luke . . .  always adding difficult things to the story!

Luke also adds in the tidbit that John is the cousin of Jesus and that John has a miraculous conception and birth, just like Jesus -- none of which is in Mark. But then Mark doesn't tell us of the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus either.

But back to insults and repentance . . . I am sure that John had good reasons to be angry with the good folks who had come down to the river to be baptized. John's time, just like today, was filled with unethical people: soldiers who robbed civilians, tax collectors who took more than their fair share, and well-to-do people who didn't share their good fortune with the poor. Perhaps John relished the idea that when the real Christ, his cousin Jesus, came, then the chaff would all be burned away in an unquenchable fire.

Except a key lesson about anger that we try to teach our children is not to use anger as an excuse to insult or attack people. One can simply say you are angry or disappointed and connect those feelings to what you think is wrong. One can express anger cleanly without insulting people or calling them bad names. Didn't John know this?

Maybe not. The traditional image of John is of a wild man living in a state of nature out by the Jordan where he rants and raves. And don't we often need ranters and ravers? People who scream that the family/town/country/world is going to heck in a handcart, and we better watch out because Jesus is coming to town, and he is ticked off!

Luckily for us, when Jesus does appear in the gospels, he is the friend of all sinners, both those who repent and those who don't. He loves these broken people -- people just like us. He walks with them and suffers with them. And it is in stories like this that we usually locate the good news of Jesus as the Christ.

As for John, should Jesus have told him to chill? Perhaps, but I think we can find part of the puzzle of the life of peace we long for in John's images of repentance and fires.

To repent means to make a turn, 180 degrees right around -- to turn from a life of sin towards a life of love and service. As in Jesus' story of the prodigal son, this may involve turning back home to the father with our tails figuratively between our legs. But how do we do this, how do we repent? John suggests baptism.

In baptism, Paul says that we are baptized into the death of the Christ and into a new life in Christ. While this sign of dying and rising might have been given to us when we were babies, the process of baptism continues all through life. In fact, the various baptisms we undergo can be key moments of God's grace in our life. They can also feel like trials by fire.

In my life, a key moment of repentance was accompanied by the sharpest pain I have yet felt. I had a girlfriend at the time who had three pre-teen children, and unfortunately there was an awful lot of fighting in the family. Perhaps foolishly, I agreed to go on vacation with them. Everyone seemed to be in a lot of pain. I certainly didn't enjoy myself. And both my girlfriend and me felt powerless to make things less hurtful.

It was at that moment, which seemed like a humiliating low point, that I realized that I loved those children. Despite their fighting and their pain, I loved them. These feelings puzzled me. But fairly quickly, I saw a missing piece. By feeling love for these unhappy kids, I had found a new way to also love myself. In those pain-filled children, I saw some of my own unhappy and aggressive times as a child, and I realized that if I could love them, perhaps I could love myself too, broken as I was.

Good news, you say? Yes, definitely. But the pain I felt was sharp. With this costly gift of a new way to love myself -- through spending time with these children -- I was also able to feel some of the long-buried pain of my own childhood. And I wouldn't trade this moment for anything, despite the pain and grief.

The central message of Jesus as the Christ is love: to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. But to love oneself, you have to face your own reality -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. For me, as for many of us, the process of embracing what is real comes with pain -- pain that can feel like a searing, almost unquenchable fire.

I didn't stay with my girlfriend or her wonderful children Despite doing a lot of work, we couldn't agree on how to make life in her family less difficult. I still love those kids, though I no longer have many ways to make this love real. But I owe them everything. I owe them myself -- especially a greater ability to know and care for myself. It seemed to me that in those kids and at that moment, I met the Grace of God's Love, which could transform and turn me around; and which felt . . . painful.

Similar things apply, perhaps, to the world. In Copenhagen this week, all of the world's political leaders will hear the cries of the earth to stop the destruction of our environment. But to effectively respond to these cries, the ways in which they run the planet would have to change -- and those changes would be painful. Perhaps out of dying to an old way of life, a new way might arise: a way of human solidarity and unity, a way of restoring the environment, and a way in which our days would be filled with less busyness and with more peace and love. But though we can pray for such an outcome, many of us are skeptical that our leaders know this path. Perhaps the pain of climate change and the effects of habitat destruction have to become much sharper before the world's baptism by fire succeeds.

Usually we don't need to go looking for this pain. Hitting bottom just seems to be a part of most lives. The good news is that a path to peace can open up on the other side. Out of my own grief, I felt less burdened by denial of my own reality. There was peace on this path, which had been made straight towards a life with more joy and love. In a similar fashion, if the world could confront the painful reality of the destruction of the environment, a new era of peace might arise where our social energies would be spent in cooperation and not competition.

This Christmas as we search for peace and love at home and in the world, perhaps we might also remember the stark words of Malachi and John the Baptist. The coming of God's Love into the world is good news -- the best news that has ever been. AND it is news that comes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. God as Love means new life for us and for our society, and it comes with a cost. 

Finally, as we celebrate communion this morning and remember the painful baptism of Jesus --  not his first baptism by John in the River Jordan, but his second baptism on the cross --  may we also find a new life of love and service. This new life is here for us when, with God's Grace, we receive strength to repent of our old ways, and so rise to a new ways of peace, joy and love.

Thanks be to God, Amen.