Sunday, August 28, 2011

Amazing (and expensive) grace

Text: Matthew 16:21-18 (the cost of discipleship)

When a person decides to become a minister in the United Church of Canada there are many steps in the process. And perhaps the most important of these are a series of formal interviews with members of one's United Church Presbytery and Conference.

In the first of these interviews with me in November 2008, a minister on the panel asked me if I had a favourite gospel text, and I said "yes." It is the text we just heard today, the one where Jesus says that those who want to become his followers must take up their cross and follow him. Jesus' difficult message strikes me as a wake-up call, or as a call to enlightenment . . .

By the way, in the final of those interviews this past January -- the one that approved me for ordination -- I was asked to answer the other side of that question from the first interview. This time, I was asked to name my least favourite passage from the gospels. As before, I chose a text from Matthew. And I will preach on that text from Matthew 25 when it comes up in our assigned readings on the last Sunday of the church year on November 20th. That Sunday, also called Reign of Christ Sunday, is the final one before Advent . . .

This week as I thought about Jesus' statement that we must lose our lives in order to save them I was also led to think about the death of Jack Layton, Federal Opposition Leader last Monday and of his funeral yesterday afternoon.

I have a couple of connections to Jack Layton. When I returned to Toronto last spring from my internship in Alberta, I moved into an apartment in east Toronto that is located in the riding represented by Layton in Parliament. As well, my late father knew Jack Layton's parents. My father, as you might know, was a United Church minister, and his final full-time position was in the town of Hudson Quebec where Jack Layton grew up. When my parents arrived at Wyman Memorial United Church in Hudson in the late 70s, Jack's father was the Superintendent of the Sunday School there. Finally, my older brother was briefly a colleague of Layton's when they both taught Political Science at Ryerson University in the early 1990s. This was after Layton had failed in a bid to become mayor of Toronto.

Over the years, I have followed Layton's political career, and not always with approval. For instance during his run for mayor in 1991, a TV report showed Layton on election day sprinting through a college residence trying to get students to vote. I wondered why he would bother since he must have known that he was going to lose in a landslide!

But then Layton's energy and optimism are some of the qualities that people liked about him, so perhaps I should have been charmed instead of puzzled.

On Monday, one of Layton's parliamentary colleagues said that Jack had given his life for his country. To me, that statement seems like a bit of a stretch. However, the outpouring of emotion following his untimely death is a moment where many of us are confronting mortality, thinking of public service, and reflecting on the values of love, hope and optimism that Jack promoted in his final Open Letter to Canadians published on Monday, the day of his death.

When I watched Layton's funeral on TV yesterday, it felt like an important moment for Baby Boomers. At age 61, Layton was among the first wave of Canada's post-War baby-boom generation. And the funeral in its choice of music, its tone, and the social issues it raised, resonated with me. I really appreciated the funeral, and I hope that the the funeral and the reactions to Jack's death have positive effects -- for Jack's loved ones and friends, and perhaps also for the tenor of politics in our country . . .

Death usually saddens or scares us, and we don't wish it for ourselves or for others. So I imagine that many of us might identify with Peter in our Gospel reading today. Peter reacts with horror to Jesus' prediction that he will suffer and be killed in Jerusalem. "God forbid it, Lord!" Peter says. But Jesus' reply to him is hardly sympathetic: "Get behind me Satan!" he says to Peter.

Even more startling, I believe, is what Jesus says next. Jesus says that to be one of his followers, we too must take up our cross and follow him. We too are called to suffer and die. Jesus does, of course, provide an upside to this stark message, the idea that by losing our life we will gain new life. However, the cost of gaining this new life might strike many of us, and not just Peter, as being high.

I started today by saying that this text is the most important one for me in all the gospels. But despite that, I fear that I won't do it justice today. Not only do the meanings and implications of Jesus' call here confront and challenge me, but I also confess that I have let the other services I have conducted this week -- at the health centres in Rockglen and Coronach, at the Lodge in Rockglen, and at a wedding in Rockglen yesterday -- get in the way of fully preparing for Sunday services.

I am glad then, to realize, that this key text shows up many times in our assigned reading list. The next time will be during Lent next spring when we will hear the original version of it from Mark's gospel, and I hope to go deeper into it then. For now, I will lay out some my reactions to Jesus' call to take up the cross.

When Jesus predicts his own suffering and death, he does not just predict the details of his Passion. Suffering and death are also the human condition. And although Jesus is God in human form, he is also human. Of course, very few of us will die violently at the hands of the state. But we all will die. And unfortunately, many of us will suffer for at least a while before we die.

The Christian message is that death, although it represents the loss of everything, is also the beginning of new life in God. Jesus' message to take up the cross, I believe, shows us the possibility of new life this side of death even as it helps us to know more about our ultimate hope.

Death is an affront not just to our bodies, but to our egos. We are born, we come to consciousness, and we build lives filled with ambition and plans. We develop egos, and we want to live forever. But life gets in the way. We make mistakes. Our plans don't pan out. We become sick. Over time, our limitations become more and obvious. And sometimes, with grace, our egos might dissolve in the face of difficulties or pain, and we might touch life beyond ego. We might touch God in Christ and so experience eternity in this or any moment.

Such grace-filled moments beyond ego do not have to be connected to pain, of course. Sometimes when we are in love, or in moments of ecstasy in nature, worship, art, we also might find our individual egos dissolving. In such moments, we touch the Ground of Being that supports us in every moment. Perhaps spouse with spouse, parent with child, or loving friends celebrating or mourning together -- these can all moments where we sometimes "die" to our ego-filled lives and rise to new life in communion with each other and God.

The tough news is that some of our most frequent confrontations with ego occur in moments of pain or failure. But such moments of crisis can also be filled with a deep joy. Any addict who has admitted his helplessness in the face of his addiction and has offered his will up to God in the midst of despair can remind us of this truth. Sometimes when we hit bottom, we let go of our distractions and our plans and instead know and experience grace.

Such grace does not mean that our addictions won't harm us, or that our ambitions or hopes for this world will be fulfilled. But it does mean that we might gain a new perspective on addiction, ambition, or worldly plans. In this new perspective, we might see, if only for a moment, how God offers us a life beyond ego.

This is a resurrected life that contains a deeper kind of joy. In such grace-filled moments, nothing depends on our efforts. All that we possess and all that we know is a gift from God. The cost of getting to this grace might often include pain and loss. But new life beyond ego is precious beyond that cost and worth our very lives.

This side of the grave, I think it is rare for any of us to sustain such moments of union with God. But when such moments of joy pass, there is always the next moment, or the next, or the next. And at the end of our lives, although we quite understandably fear the end, there is our sure hope of reunion with God's Spirit through Christ. This hope is not for our egos. Instead, it is a promise of the joy and ecstasy of those ego-free moments of union with God that we sometimes and unexpectedly experience in this life.

In his call to take up our cross, Jesus invites us to confront the joy and pain of the human condition. The call reminds us that we are going to die, and so helps free us to let go of our  anxieties. When with grace, these joyous moments appear, we experience the liberation that awaits us at the end of life when our egos will confront their ultimate crisis of death.

In the public mourning for Jack Layton this week, many of us have stared at our own mortality and so at the seeming futility of life. But Layton's message in his Open Letter was the opposite of futility. He promoted the values of love, hope and optimism.

Promoting these values does not meant that we won't die. They don't mean that by living into these values we will be able to solve all of our social problems. But from the point of view of the Gospel, reminding ourselves of love, hope and optimism is also a way to remind ourselves of a life of service, a life beyond ego, and the promise of a life of union with God in Christ through the power of the Spirit.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Love, hope and optimism: reflections for a wedding

Text: 1 John 4:7-12 (God is love) -- delivered at the wedding of Patrick Disney and Sarah Corcoran at Wesley United Church in Rockglen Saskatchewan on August 27, 2011

The reading from 1st John that Karen just read is one of my favourite passages froms the Bible. It clearly states that "God is love," and what better sentiment could we hear on this wedding day?

However, two problems still come to my mind with this statement. One: so many of us have different understandings of who God is; and two: so many of us have trouble understanding what love is.

When I went to school four years ago to study to become a minister, I told my friends that since God is love, I expected my theme song in school would be that old hit by Foreigner: "I want to know what Love is." In the end, while I enjoyed school and learned a lot, I didn't get much help in my quest.

But then school is probably not the best place to learn about love. Patrick and Sarah have found the better path, I think. They have fallen in love, they have decided to get married, they have taken on the joys and  challenges of life on a farm, and they have decided to build a family together.

Clearly, Patrick and Sarah already know a lot about love. And the rest of their lives will continue to teach them much more about it, I am sure.

The life lessons that teach us about love are often not easy ones. No marriage and no family is without struggles and moments of darkness and pain. And the conditions in which we come together as a married couple, as workers, and as parents often challenge us, I believe.

When we get sick, when we make mistakes, when our plans don't pan out, when we have money troubles, or when a social crisis break out our in country, it is often easy, I find, to feel bad about ourselves. And when we have trouble respecting ourselves, we sometimes also have trouble acting in a loving way to those closest to us.

That is one of the key reasons, I believe, to remember our faith. The God who is Love is with us regardless of the circumstances. God comes to us in the form of our friend and brother Jesus. God in Christ has lived our human experience and felt all the wonder and pain that we feel in our humble lives. God in Christ walks with us. And God in Christ loves us, heals us and saves us no matter what we may be thinking about ourselves. So by starting their marriage with the reminder that God is Love, Sarah and Patrick have set their feet on a path on which they can grow for the rest of their lives.

This week, love has often been on the front page of our newspapers. So I hope that people don't mind me mentioning a politician and funeral on this joyous wedding day. The politician is Federal Opposition Leader Jack Layton. The funeral is his from earlier today. And the frequent mentions of love are from the Open Letter to Canadians which Layton wrote a week ago today, just two days before he died.

The final paragraph of Layton's letter goes like this: "My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world."

Personally, I am glad that these sentiments of love, hope and optimism are so much in the air as Sarah and Patrick marry today.

The love, hope and optimism shown by Sarah and Patrick today are a key part of what we need to change this world. And in the years ahead, as Sarah and Patrick struggle forward in joy and in hope, we are sure that their love will continue to change them. It will also help reveal to all who know them the God of Love who loves us all completely.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Church, yesterday and today

Texts: Romans 12:1-8 (the Church as the Body of Christ); Matthew 16:13-20 ( the foundation of the Church)

The Gospel passage we just heard is one of the only times in the Bible where Jesus uses the word "church." And Jesus' statement -- "you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" -- is a central one to the Roman Catholic Church in particular.

Church legend has it that Peter, in the decades after Jesus' death and resurrection, eventually makes it from Galilee to Rome where he becomes the first Bishop or Pope of Rome. All Catholic popes since then trace their authority in a direct line from Jesus' encounter with Peter in our Gospel passage today.

Jesus calls Peter blessed, the recipient of divine revelation, and the person to whom he gives the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

And yet this is the same Peter who continually misunderstands Jesus' message; who denies Jesus three times on the night of Jesus' arrest; and who is strongly rebuked by Jesus in the very next passage in Matthew. In that text, which we will hear next Sunday, Jesus goes as far as to say to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!" So while Peter may be the rock on which Jesus founds the church, sometimes he seems more like a rolling stone than a firm foundation!

Given the rare mention of church by Jesus here, I have decided to talk today about the nature of our church -- how it differs from the church of the past, and what this might suggest about our current mission.

Church gatherings these days in Borderlands, as in many parts of Canada, are usually modest in size. And I am quite fine with that. I enjoy our gatherings. I appreciate each and everyone who comes through our doors. And I hope that everyone who does so gains even a little of what I gain from leading worship services here in Coronach, Rockglen and Fife Lake.

But sometimes our services are not small. Twice last week, we had large gatherings. The first was a wedding on August 13th in Coronach between Amanda Vancuren and Jerrod Bartlett. 130 people squeezed into the sanctuary and about 20 more spilled down the steps and onto the sidewalk.

Later in the week, I ran into a woman at the Post Office who had been at the ceremony, and she said that I must have enjoyed having a full church for a change. She added that she herself didn't attend church anymore nor did any of her family or friends.

The second large service was the funeral of Norman Travland on Wednesday. More than 250 people came to the Elks Hall in Coronach. I was impressed by the turnout not least because of the small size of the town.

So, large numbers of us sometimes do still come to worship services, especially when they include a baptism, wedding, or funeral -- the famous trio of "hatching, matching, and dispatching." But where have the days gone when our Sunday schools, choirs, evening classes, and social groups burst at the seams each week and when most respectable people attended Sunday worship at least 40 times a year?

These thoughts sometimes come to my mind as I walk by the bordered-up church building around the corner from the manse in Coronach or drive by an abandoned church in Rockglen. It also feels strange to me to know that I am the only paid minister living in Coronach. In the last few years, both the Lutheran and Alliance church have lost their pastors and have not yet replaced them.

I am glad that there is one other paid clergy person in the region -- Father Andrew, who returned last weekend to Rockglen from Poland. Jane Clark introduced me to Father Andrew when we were all at the Burning Hills restaurant on Thursday and I look forward to getting to know him better and to joint work with the Catholic and other churches in the area.

While we were having lunch, Jane also told me that when she was growing up, there used to be seven active churches in Coronach each with a paid minister. This fact helps to underline that the role of the Christian church has changed a lot within our lifetimes.

Of course, it is not just church that keeps changing. Coronach, Rockglen and Fife Lake have not yet reached 100 years of age, but there have already been several phases in our history. One of the key changes has been the depopulation of the countryside since WWII. There used to be a farm house every quarter. But now farms are huge and the towns that serve the farming communities have shrunk, or perhaps disappeared altogether. The same thing might have happened to our three towns except for the construction of the coal mine and power plant in the 1970s. Without them, would Coronach and Rockglen now be the size of Big Beaver or Killdeer and would Fife Lake have gone the way of Buffalo Gap?

Change in the church has been a constant. In broad outline, I see three phases to church history. The first was the 300 years after Jesus. His first few followers were Jewish. But when the Romans burned Jerusalem to the ground in the year 70, more and more followers of Jesus were Greek-speaking gentiles scattered across the Mediterranean.

Then in the fourth century, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its state religion. This marks the beginning of the second phase of church history. With imperial power, the church spread far and wide. This spread was especially dramatic between 1500 and the 1900 as the European empires conquered most of the rest of the world. All of these empires, which succeeded the Roman one,  had a Christian church as the official religion of their state.

The third phase of church history is the period from World War One until now. In this period, the church is once again no longer bound hand and foot to the state.

When Canada become independent from Britain in 1867, it decided not to have an official state church. But during our country's first 100 years, the Protestant churches in English Canada and the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec continued to play the unofficial role of state religion. And now over the last 50 years, this status has quickly withered away. So while Christian churches are growing rapidly in poor countries in the Global South, in rich countries like Canada, the church has moved to the sidelines.

Anyone who grew up in the church in Canada before 1965 lived in the afterglow of 1500 years of the church's imperial power. But for the last 50 years, the shift in our culture away from church has been unmistakeable.

Now this shift might be unsettling for many of us, but I also see it as a positive development. Church is now a choice instead of an obligation. Churches no longer have to bow down to state authority. And since churches are no longer at the centre of culture, we can more easily follow the advice found in our reading from St. Paul today.

Paul writes, "do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds." Because the church no longer has to support King and Empire (whether that empire is centered in London, Paris, Rome, St Petersburg, or Berlin) it no longer has to be conformist. I believe that this gives us greater space in which to receive the grace of God in worship and mission and so renew our minds and be transformed.

Today the situation of our church is more like the small and fledgling church when Matthew wrote his gospel than during those centuries when church leaders stood at the right hand of power. Now that church is on the sidelines, I believe we can better hear the strange, joyous and liberating good news of God in Christ.

Our churches are smaller than they were 50 years ago, but that doesn't mean we don't still value church. For me, worship is a passion and a joy. I come to worship because it feeds me and connects me to God through the power of the Spirit, not because it is the expected thing to do or because it is a way of getting ahead in this crazy world.

When large numbers come through the church doors, as they probably will next Saturday afternoon in Rockglen at the wedding of Patrick Disney and Sarah Corcoran, I am happy. But when smaller numbers come to a regular Sunday service, I can be just as happy. Celebrating the good news works just as well for me with a few faithful friends and neighbours as it does in a crowd of hundreds or thousands.

Those of us in the church today are similar to Peter in many ways, I believe. We are blessed by Jesus who gives us the keys to the kingdom. But like Peter, we sometimes misunderstand the will of God. Like Peter, we sometimes react with fear instead of faith. And like Peter in his disputes with St. Paul, we sometimes realize that we have been on the wrong side of a church discussion.

But despite our inevitable shortcomings, we can relish our role as members of the Body of Christ. We support each other in moments of crisis and loss like a funeral. We celebrate with each other in joyous moments like a wedding or baptism. And if we feel so moved, we also come together each week to remember life's sacred values, to reflect on our utter dependence on God, and to renew our spirits and souls through Word and Sacrament.

We are no longer burdened by obligations to the state or mainstream culture. So we can joyously stumble along God's path of faith, hope and love. As we do so, let us give thanks for the small or large number of our fellow pilgrims who help remind us that God's grace is freely given to us in each and every moment.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians"

Text: Matthew 15:21-28 (A mother pleads with Jesus)

"Lord have mercy . . . Christ have mercy!" In our Gospel reading today, in the cries of a mother with a sick child, we hear again these central pleas of our faith. And they are pleas which, among others, have been immortalized in thousands of choral masses.

Most choral masses begin with a "Kyrie" movement. Kyrie is the Greek word for "Lord," and Greek was the language in which the gospels were first written. So in today's reading when a desperate Canaanite woman with a sick daughter approaches Jesus and says, "Lord, have mercy on me," the original Greek phrase would be "Kyrie eleison."

Last year, I sang Mozart's Mass in C Minor as a member of a choir at the University of Toronto; and it begins with a Kyrie movement. For a full seven minutes, we sang two simple phrases over and over again -- Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison. Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy. For me, the music is some of the most beautiful ever written. The music is as full of pathos and pleading as the two phrases themselves. And, of course, the mass contains the full genius of Mozart.

So when I hear a text like the one from Matthew today, in my mind I sometimes translate the mother's plea -- first repeated, and then shouted -- into the original Greek: Kyrie eleison . . .

Except, in this case, as in nowhere else in the Gospels, Jesus does not respond to her cry for help. At first, he simply ignores the mother. Then when the disciples complain about her shouting, he explains that he was "only sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." He is not responding to her pleas because she is Canaanite and not Jewish.

When the mother persists and kneels before Jesus saying "Lord, help me," Jesus goes further. He insults her: Jesus says, "it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she responds to the insult with a quick quip: "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Jesus seems delighted with her reply and so replies in turn, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And the story concludes with the news that her daughter is instantly healed.

So all is well? A woman asks Jesus for help, and with a bit of a delay and a bit of an insult, she receives that help? Her daughter is healed.

I don't know . . . If I were asked to choose the most shocking thing that Jesus says in all the gospel stories, this is the one I might choose. Jesus uses a slur to dismiss a foreign, Canaanite woman. He calls her a dog . . .

The Bible is not kind to Canaanites. While the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph grew to become a great nation during 400 years of slavery in Egypt, they were far from the land of milk and honey promised to Abraham by God. During those centuries, this Promised Land had become home to the Canaanites. So when Moses led the Hebrew slaves through the desert to the Promised Land, it was not an empty paradise waiting for them to enter. The land was called Canaan then, not Israel, and it was filled with a people more powerful than the people of Moses. The Bible then shows God leading his chosen people into Canaan where they slaughter and conquer the Canaanites. Finally, God forbids intermarriage or religious exchanges with them.

However, not all of the Canaanites must have been killed during this brutal invasion and conquest because our story today has a Canaanite woman more than 1,000 years afterward pleading with Jesus to have mercy on her and her sick daughter.

It would not surprise me if one of the disciples called this woman a dog and dismissed her. But Jesus is not just a man. He is also our Saviour. And one of the central messages of Jesus is that God's healing is not just for the Jews, but for all people everywhere. So where does this insult come from?

In thinking of the Canaanite woman, I thought of parallels between her status as a conquered and rejected outsider and the plight of the indigenous native people here in North America. When European settlers first arrived in America 500 years ago, many of them called it their Promised Land. They said that they wanted to establish a New Israel in America. And the native people already living here were cast in the negative role of the Canaanites of the Old Testament . . .

Three summers ago, I took a course called "Engaging Aboriginal Spirituality." One of the articles we read had the same title as this sermon, "Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians" The author, Robert Warrior, was a native American who had rejected the Christianity of his childhood because of the Bible's accounts of the conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews and because Christians had sometimes used these stories to justify invading, conquering, and subduing native Americans.

And the problem, Warrior wrote, lay not just in the Old Testament. There was also the story of Jesus and the Canaanite mother, which we heard today.

Warrior's article stuck in my mind, but I also wonder about it. There are so many ways to interpret any given story in the Bible, and our passage today is no different. Jesus' insult could be a sly way for him to illustrate the parable he had just told his friends about caring more about what we say than about religious dietary rules. Further, the story ends well. Jesus acknowledges the Canaanite woman's faith and heals her daughter. And overall in the Bible, Jesus is clear that his mission is not just to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel," but to all of us. So the question of how to interpret our passage today is an open one . . .

I have been thinking about first nations people a lot since I came to Borderlands six weeks ago. Saskatchewan has a greater percentage of first nations people than any other province, so I was surprised to learn that there are very few native people living here near the border. There are some French towns nearby, such as Willow Bunch, Lisieux, and Bengough, and perhaps they have a Metis background; although I don't know that.

On Monday, I made my first trip west to Wood Mountain. I went to the museum and I was interested to learn about the coming of the Lakota people to Wood Mountain under the leadership of Sitting Bull following the battle of Little Big Horn in 1877. And as you know, a small native reservation exists there to this day. The displays in the museum also gave a taste of the complexity of the settlement of this area in the early 20th century. There were Seventh Day Adventist immigrants from the Ukraine, Orthodox Christians from Serbia and Romania, Lutherans from Germany, and many, many others.

Another thing that surprises me about this area is how late it was settled. Many farms are only having their centennial celebrations this year or last. The towns were only created in the 1920s. In fact, I now wonder if the border region of Saskatchewan might be the very last part of Canada south of the Canadian Shield to be settled . . .

When I was a child, there was a lot about the history and context of my area that I didn't understand. From the age of three until I was 15, my family lived in Cornwall Ontario, which is a small industrial city on the St. Lawrence River near Montreal. Although I knew there was an Indian Reservation on Cornwall Island, which straddled the Ontario-New York border in the river, I didn't know any native people. Although I understood that the east end of the city was French-speaking and Catholic, I never paid it much attention nor had any French-Canadian friends.

Later, after we had moved from Cornwall, the French and native-facts of that city came to national prominence. First there was a successful fight by the French-speaking east-enders of the city, who made up more than 30% of the population, to have one of the three high-schools as a French school. Second there were a series of clashes between natives on the Cornwall Island Reserve and the police over cigarette smuggling in the 1990s. From those experiences, I know how easy it is for me to live in a place and not really know its history or context.

Now that I live in Borderlands, I hope to not be as oblivious as I was then to the history of how we all got here and the many different realities of our neighbours.

Most of us, I think, have a very complex ancestry. Like the people of Israel, we may have ancestors who were conquered people, and we may also have ancestors who were part of a conquering people. This will be true whether our background is mostly European, First Nations, or a mixture from many places.

For these reasons, we might identify with the Canaanite woman who relies on help from a group of foreign men who look down on her. And we might also identify with the disciples, and in this case, even Jesus, who at first turn their back on the foreigner.

Given our complex backgrounds, we are all Canaanites, I believe; and we are Israelites. We are all indigenous or native; and we are all settlers in a foreign land. These truths stress how wonderful the core message of the Gospel -- that God's love and grace is available to all of us in every time and place . . .

The course on Aboriginal Spirituality that I took in the summer of 2008 had a big impact on me. Much of the impact came from the First Nations' elders who joined us in a learning circle for five days and nights at a United Church retreat centre near the Six Nations reserves in southwestern Ontario. In particular, we were lucky to have in that circle the Very Rev. Stan McKay from the Fisher River First Nation in Manitoba. Stan is a former Moderator the United Church, and he led our Bible study that week. Of all the people I have met in our church so far, no one has impressed me more.

I could say a lot more about that week in the learning circle. For now, I will leave it at this: It helped show me how much we can learn from people of backgrounds different from our own. And that is one of the great privileges of ministry, I believe. We get to learn from all the many diverse members of a congregation; and from our neighbours.

To close the sermon, I offer a saying from another Lakota warrior, Black Elk, who fought alongside Sitting Bull at Little Big Horn, and who, like Sitting Bull, eventually was baptized into the Roman Catholic church. In one of Black Elk's many visions, he wrote:

"I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about me was the whole hoop of the world.  And while I stood there, I saw more than I can tell, and I understood more than I saw: for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together.  And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as the daylight and wide as the starlight. And in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of the earth  And I saw that that it was holy.  But anywhere is the center of the world."

So in the spirit of Black Elk, we can affirm that south-central Saskatchewan -- though new and full of wonders and surprises to me -- is the center of the world. It is also a place where we know that our pleas of "Lord, have mercy" and "Christ have mercy" are heard and where healing is freely offered to us all.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

First Communion

Text: Mathew 14:22-33 (loves and fish)

Do you remember your first communion? Perhaps you were just a young child at the time and you don't remember. Perhaps you're like me and your first communion was part of a Confirmation Service when you were 13 or 14. For some of us, it might not have seemed like an important event. For others, it may have been life-changing.

Two summers ago on a Thursday evening, I sat beside a 14-year old boy named Mitchell in a worship service, and it was the first time that he ever took communion. Mitchell lives in London  Ontario; and though he seemed like a real live wire, I quite liked him. He was restless and sceptical. He kept up a running stream of critical comments all throughout the sermon. But he took communion.

The service was with 600 people, mostly teenagers, in a gym at Brock University in St Catharines Ontario. It was part of a 5-day youth conference of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and I was there as part of a credit course on youth ministry given by the Presbyterian college of the University of Toronto -- Knox College.

The first thing Mitchell noticed when he sat down beside me in the bleachers of the gym was the table set up on the stage. I told Mitchell that the table meant we were probably going to have communion on this, the fourth of five evenings. The stage was beneath huge video screens; and each night of the conference, an evening worship service of 90 minutes to two hours happened there.

Overall, I thought the worship setup was pretty cool. Before the Thursday service, the video screens were devoted to a display of text messages, which people in the gym broadcast from their cell phones to a number displayed on the screen. I watched Mitchell as he text-ed "I am amazing!" on his cell, and then about two minutes later, I pointed out to him when his little quip finally joined the huge scroll of messages unfurling on the screen.

When the service got round to communion Mitchell was sorry to hear that they were serving juice and not real wine. And when the minister directed us to to not dip our fingers into the chalice of grape juice, he blurted out "Gross!"

Mitchell told me that he didn't believe in God. He had come to this event simply as another week at summer camp . . .  except that this Presbyterian camp had a steady drumbeat about Jesus going on in the background.

Most of my ancestors were Presbyterian. Many of the original members of the United Church of Canada in 1925 were Presbyterians. And the church I attended for most of my childhood and where I first took communion was a Presbyterian church that became United.

But despite my Presbyterian roots, two summers ago at the Presbyterian youth conference at Brock, I sometimes felt like I was in an alien land.

Not that I didn't enjoy the conference or the course of which it was a part. I learned a lot from our two teachers -- one a young Lutheran professor from Minneapolis who is married to a Presbyterian minister, the other a former Presbyterian who now worships in the United Church of Christ in California. I also got along well with the 13 other students, all but one of whom were Presbyterians from Knox College. But I was a little turned off by the tone of the raucous worship services: there was so much emphasis on the triumphal side of Jesus as King and not as much on Jesus as the Suffering Servant or on the Way of the Cross. I thought that my grandparents might have felt at home there (well, not at home with the praise band, the huge video projectors, the strobe lighting, and the rock music, but perhaps at home with the theology!) Not me, though.

I worried about Mitchell encountering Christian worship for the first time with such an exclusive focus on Jesus as a powerful King. We sat through a rap video called "That's my King: do you know him?" A bass voice asked if we knew the King of Kings, the King of Israel, the King of the Jews, the King of Heaven, and the King of Righteousness. Added to this was an endless string of rhythmic superlatives. "He is endlessly merciful. He is enduringly strong. He is entirely sincere. He is immortally graceful" and on and on. Perhaps shamefully, I turned to Mitchell and said, "Who is he rapping about: Michael Jackson? Harry Potter?"

When the service was over, I told Mitchell that I was glad to have met him. I wished  him a good year in London and said that my hope for both of us was that -- with or without God -- we might live lives filled with lots of love. And then we said goodbye.

So while I was impressed by the size and ambition of this national Presbyterian youth conference, and I learned a lot, I fear that this was not a perfect first communion experience for Mitchell. My fear is that he may have found it to be phony or forced.

On the other hand, worship involves lots of hard work and luck; and theology is an ongoing challenge for many of us. So who am I to criticize this worship service? I know that it didn't really "work" for me, but maybe it was a moment of grace for young Mitchell. I pray that it was . . .

Our Gospel reading this morning echoes the Last Supper that Jesus had with this friends, which is where the sacrament of communion began. The miracle of the loaves and fishes is the only one that is found in all four of the Gospel narratives in our Bibles.

Both at the Last Supper and in today's wonderful story Jesus takes bread into his hands, looks up to heaven, blesses it, and breaks the loaves.

In today's story, the miracle of Jesus gives physical food to his many followers. And in the Last Supper, Jesus in the gift of the bread and wine, gives spiritual food to his friends, and to his millions of followers for almost 2,000 years hence.

The passage can remind us that we often come to worship hungry. We are searching for the bread that always satisfies, the bread of eternity, the bread that is God/Christ/Spirit -- the bread and the wine of communion. In churches like ours, we satisfy this hunger in many ways: in hymns, prayers, and sermons. And I get all of that: but I also like it when worship is accompanied by a real meal of food; when communion is part of the service.

When communion is a part of worship, our hunger is made plain as is God's ability to satisfy it  -- and this happens regardless of the quality of the singing, the beauty of the prayers, or the power of the sermon.

Can communion make a difference? I imagine that most of us here today would say yes. In that frame, I will now read an account of another first communion experience, which was momentous for the author, and which occurred when she was middle-aged. I am reading from Sara Miles' 2007 memoir, Take this Bread: a radical conversion.

Her book begins like this: "One early, cloudy morning in 1999 when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for many -- except that up until that moment I'd led a thoroughly secular life. At best I had been indifferent to religion; more often I was appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. And it changed everything.
Eating Jesus, as I did that day, led me against all expectations to a faith I'd scorned. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food -- indeed, the bread of life . . .

She continues: "Mine is a personal story of an unexpected and inconvenient conversion, told by an unlikely convert: a blue-state, secular intellectual; a lesbian; a left-wing journalist  . . .  I stumbled into a radically inclusive faith centered on sacraments and action . . . I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and outcasts are honoured." (pp. xiii-xiv)

That's how Sara Miles begins her book. All four of her grandparents had been devout Christian missionaries, and early-on both of Sara's parents had rebelled against their parents and become militant atheists. This explains Sara's surprise and awkwardness when she became a Christian at age 46. And today she is a paid minister in the radical San Francisco church that she first stumbled into 10 years ago. I recommend her book. I don't know if my friend Mitchell would get much from it, but I think that many people here today might enjoy it.

Here is some more that Sara Miles' wrote about her first communion.

Quote: "When I walked into St. Gregory's Episcopal Church, I'd never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord's Prayer . . . On many walks, I'd passed the beautiful wooden building, and this time I went in . . . A man and a woman in long tie-dyed robes stood and began chanting in harmony. There was no organ, no choir, no pulpit: just the unadorned voices of the people, and long silences, framed by the ringing of deep Tibetan bowls. I sang, too. It crossed my mind that this was ridiculous . . .

'Jesus invites everyone to his table' a woman announced . . . and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying 'the body of Christ,' and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying 'the blood of Christ,' . . .

I was in tears and physically unbalanced . . . I wanted that bread again . . . It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger . . . the pattern went on for a while -- me going to St. Gregory's, taking the bread and bursting into tears, drinking the wine and crying some more. I knew I couldn't say a word about it to my mother: the very idea of her scorn filled me with dread. Communion? Jesus? What was I thinking?" (pp 57-62)

Finally near the end of the book, Sara tells how at last, she confessed to her atheist mother that she had become a Christian. She writes, quote, "it turned out that I had to cook for my mother to do it . . . the table was set with bread and wine and lamb . . . I broke the bread and lifted my glass and said, 'Ma, I have to tell you something. I'm a Christian. I've started going to church.'

I can't remember exactly what the two of us said, but as our conversation spilled out slowly, then in little rushes, I felt fear evaporating -- not just mine but hers.

My mother was kinder than I deserved. 'I guess I'm a bigot,' she said. 'It's just that I had to fight so hard against my parents' religion. It cost me so much. I can't believe in it.'
I blurted out the stuff that I loved about Jesus. 'It's about food,' I said. 'And being with people who aren't like me.'

She looked at me. 'I get that,' she said slowly. I could see the rigid, frightened mother and the rigid, frightened child. 'But,' she said, 'I told my mother when I was ten that I didn't believe in God, and I haven't believed ever since.' She took a bite of her meat. It was dark outside now, the last light gone down over the hills to the west, and I thought of my mother listening, unbelieving, to her missionary parents pray in Baghdad, in Damascus, in Baltimore and New York, until they too were gone, and she was left with her yearning and her refusal.

'I loved the hymns, though' she said. 'I bet I still know all the verses.'

And I remembered my mom singing to me, long ago. 'Time like an ever-rolling stream' she'd croon, 'bears all our cares away.' And the Handel tune about Zion, and 'Love Divine,' with its amazing flourish at the end, proclaiming that we would be 'changed from glory into glory.'

'Do you know this one?' I asked. It was a clean, odd Shaker tune. I'd learned it at morning prayer, and I loved the minor, shape-note harmonies. I sang, 'For happiness I long have sought, and pleasure dearly I have bought. I missed of all, but now I see, it's found in Christ the apple tree.'

'Christ as an apple tree?' my mother said. 'Huh.'

She poured me some more wine.

It wasn't official Eucharist. It was real communion, with the incomplete, stupid and aching parts still there. Made by human hands, out of meat and hope, incarnate: what the Russian mystics called 'a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, where none are left behind.'" (277-8)

As the Psalm says, Taste and see that God is good.


Friday, August 5, 2011

Four weeks in Saskatchewan

Email sent on August 3rd . . .
Dear friends,

Yesterday marked four weeks to the day since I crossed over the Montana-Saskatchewan border and began life here in Coronach. I am using the excuse of that marker and the fact that a profile and picture of me from the local newspaper are now available online to send you all this update. I also want to give people my new coordinates. While email remains the easiest way to get in touch with me, my phone number is now 306-267-4410 and my mailing address is PO Box 522, Coronach, SK, S0H 0Z0.

I am mostly settled in and I have enjoyed the experience so far. The first four Sunday services went well, I think, though the gatherings are small and I have yet to fully adjust to three services per Sunday. I've learned how to clean the air filter on the lawn mower and use the built-in lawn sprinklers; I'm enjoying the central vacuum and air conditioning systems; AMC is re-running Seasons 1-4 of Mad Men on Sunday mornings, so I'm going to have to learn how to use my PVR; the countryside continues to be lush and ever-changing; and I have adopted a 25-minute circular walk that takes me out into the prairie and then back into town, which I try to take twice a day. And just like Lake Ontario in the Beach, the prairie seems ever-changing and beautiful.

My chiropractor -- just a hop, skip and jump away in Assiniboia; well, one hour's drive by car, but who's counting? -- thought that the pain that I had developed in my shoulder blade was a pinched nerve in my neck. But since the pain has now disappeared, I am going to say it was just the stress of all the changes of the past few months.

I have glanced through 35 years of annual reports of the charge (!), and they chart the decline of the church pretty clearly. It is not just the UCC, of course; I am now the only paid minister in Coronach, which feels a little funny to me. There are other churches (Lutheran, Missionary Alliance, Catholic, and Anglican), but they all now persevere with lay leadership, or are closed (Anglican), or have a visiting leader (a Catholic priest, from Rockglen). Lucky for me, the people who worship at the three points I serve have welcomed me, and I am enjoying getting to know them.

As an incentive to visit my sermon/notes blog, I just posted there a picture of an awesome thundercloud that I passed yesterday while returning from Weyburn. The photo was taken about a 20 minute-drive north of here. 

Yesterday, I visited my colleague and fellow Kingston Road United alumni, Rev. Cordelia Karpenko, in Weyburn, which is just under two-hours drive from Coronach. She has been co-minister at Grace United there for two years now. She seemed very well and I enjoyed catching up with her. I envy Cordelia her city (11,000 people! A Walmart and Canadian Tire!) and her mere 60-minute drive to Regina. But I prefer the spectacular rolling hills of Borderlands to the pancake flatness of Weyburn and area.

I hope this note finds everyone well.

Cheers, Ian