Sunday, September 30, 2012

Persia and Judaism then and now

Text: Esther: 7: 1-6, 9-10; 9: 20-22 (Esther saves the Jews in Persia)

Six years ago, I was working at a community information agency in Toronto when it hired a new Information Technology manager; and there was a lot about this new colleague which intrigued me. She had an unusual name -- Reema. She had just immigrated from San Francisco but had a British accent; and she looked Middle Eastern despite her red hair.

Reema and I had lunch one day, and I asked her about her background. It turned out that she had been born in Baghdad in Iraq and had lived there till she was five years old. But when she was five, her family had fled the regime of Saddam Hussein, and she had grown up in London.

I then asked her about her family's religious background. To my surprise, she told me that she was Jewish. Like many of Iraq Jews, her family had fled Iraq in the early 1970s when the government of Saddam Hussein began to discriminate again Jews as part of its opposition to Israel.

Reema's story reminded me of something that I had forgotten-- that the Middle East is not an exclusively Muslim territory. Although Islam has been the main religion there since the time of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th Century, the region continues to have big communities of Christians and Jews as well.

Our reading today from Esther also reminds us of the presence of Jewish communities throughout the Middle East. It tells the story of a Jewish community 2500 years ago in Persia.

What was called Persia then is today called Iran. And unfortunately, there is great tension today between Iran and the Jewish state of Israel. Once again this week at the United Nations in New York, we heard predictions of attacks, of nuclear weapons -- the ones Israel already possesses and the ones that many fear Iran is trying to develop -- and of the coming again of war.

Our reading reminds us that the tension between the different peoples in the Middle East goes back a long way. It also tells us of a time when those tensions were diffused and Jews were able to live within Iran and its empire in freedom. Esther intervened for her people. The King of Persia listened, and they were spared a genocide . . .

One of the most hated people in the world today-- at least in the West -- is Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He threatens Israel with elimination, and sometimes has seemed to deny the historical reality of the Nazi Holocaust of World War II. But Ahmadinejad, when interviewed this week in New York City, talked about the continuing existence of a Jewish community in Iran. He also said that he would be OK if one of his children married a Jewish person.

The Prophet Mohammad who founded Islam 1400 years ago decreed that the so-called People of the Book -- the Jews and the Christians -- be tolerated under Islam. The policy exists with good reason since much of Islam is based on the stories of the Hebrew and Christian Bible. The Islamic holy book, the Koran, upholds Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as prophets of Islam.

Until recently, most governments in Muslim majority countries have followed Mohammad's lead and tolerated Jewish and Christian communities.

Unfortunately, much of this toleration has withered away in the the last 60 years. With the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, with its expansion into Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria in the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973, and with the massive military support for Israel by the United States -- despite Israel's defiance of 45 years of United Nations' resolutions on illegal occupation of Palestinian land -- tensions between Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities have grown.

There used to be large Jewish communities in countries like Iraq and Iran. But over the last 60 years, they have become much smaller. The same thing, to a lesser extent, is true of the region's Christians. It is a sad tale told in many parts of the world in the 20th and 21st centuries -- ethnic cleansing.

Thank God, then, for countries like Canada where people like Reema can come and build a new life after years spent in Iraq, England, and the U.S. . . .

The book of Esther, from which today's reading is taken, is an unusual one. It is one of only two books in the Bible named after a woman. (The other one is Ruth). And it is the only book in the entire Bible that doesn't mention God, not even once.

For both these reasons, many religious leaders in the ancient past, both Jewish and Christians, argued that Esther should not be included in the Bible. But due to popular pressure, a Jewish council in the 3rd Century finally agreed to include Esther in the Hebrew Bible. By the end of the fourth century, Roman Catholic councils in the West accepted that decision by the rabbis. And at the end of the eight century, Eastern Orthodox councils in Constantinople (now the city of Istanbul in Turkey) also agreed to include Esther in their Hebrew Bible.

The popular pressure to include Esther in the Bible came from ordinary Jewish people. Esther is a short, skilfully written drama about how Esther and her cousin Mordecai foil a plot to kill all the Jews in the Persian empire.

Esther was the Queen of Persia. Unknown to her husband, King Xerxes, who married her for her great beauty, she was also Jewish. The story told in Esther is the basis for the joyous Jewish holiday of Purim, which usually falls in February or March. Purim is the only Jewish holiday that doesn't link back to Moses.

There is a shadow side to the story of Esther, though. When the Jews received the support of King Xerxes 2500 years ago, they went on a rampage against their enemies. Not only was the evil adviser Haman hanged. According to the biblical text, another 75,000 people were also killed. Unfortunately, this sort of tale -- where one injustice leads to a reaction that is also unjust -- is not unusual.

After World War II, one of the main reactions to the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust was the establishment of the state of Israel, which seems just and understandable. But Israel's development, in turn, has led to the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands, many wars, much loss of life, and ongoing problems.

While violent reactions and counter-reactions might be understandable, they are hardly the way forward for either Israeli Jews or Palestinian Muslims or Christians. And as news reports this fall again highlight, conflicts in the Middle East continue to unfold in very scary ways.

The United Church of Canada got a lot of negative attention in the media for the focus given to the Israel-Palestine conflict at its General Council meeting in August. But I think that there are good reasons for our church's focus on Israel and Palestine: our long-standing relationships with Palestinian Christian churches, the fact that Jesus was Jewish and carried out his ministry in what is now Israel and Palestine, and our desire to stand up to racism against both Jews and Muslims in Canada and elsewhere.

Another good reason to spend time and attention on the conflicts in Israel-Palestine is the danger those conflicts pose for further war, even nuclear war. Israel-Palestine is not the only place where Western diplomatic and military might confront the resentment and anger of people who are victims of Western power. But it is probably the most volatile one and the most dangerous for world peace.

This past Wednesday was the most important Jewish holiday of the Year, Yom Kipuur, or the Day of Atonement. This is a day when religious Jews confess their sins and seek repentance and forgiveness. All of us -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or none of the above -- have much in our history or lives for which we feel regret. We have much for which to seek forgiveness from God.

Each religion worships God in its own distinct way. But all who trace their roots back to the God of Abraham and the Hebrew Bible are reminded by their traditions that all people are children of God and worthy of respect and love. With the Psalmist, we can say "Our help is in the name of the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth."

So as rumours of war swirl around us today, let us remember that all the diverse people here in Canada and in the volatile regions like the Middle East -- Jews, Muslims, Christians, and people of no religion -- have lived together in harmony in the past. And with God's help, we can live in harmony together again.

Finally, let us all pray for a world filled with peace with justice for all no matter how we or our neighbours worship God.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Seven sacraments for the circle of life

What follows are worship materials I prepared for a Newcomer's Event at Calling Lakes Centre near Fort Qu'Appelle SK. This was a four-day event (from 2 pm Mon, Sept 17 to 12 noon, Thu Sept 20) for ministers who were new to Saskatchewan. There were eight minister newcomers this year; three of them came with spouses; so there were usually 12-15 people around the circle for our workshop and worship experiences.

Introduction: Monday afternoon

Before I begin, I have a few words about the design of worship for our four days together. As is often the case in retreat settings, we are in the process of forming an instant and temporary community. Since we are a church group, we could call our gathering a band of pilgrims -- fellow travelers on the road. Although our group will only exist for a few days, the hope is that it might be a crucible in which we can share, grow, and support one another.

As a way of encouraging our growth as a community, I have designed the worship to reflect the whole circle of life. To do so, I refer to the the seven Catholic sacraments, one of which will form the spine for each of our seven worship experiences. I know . . . we are Protestants and most Protestant churches only recognize two of the traditional seven sacraments – baptism and communion. But we are also part of the universal church of the last 2,000 years; and personally, all seven of the sacraments speak to me.

Our three evening worship times will be very brief; just a few sentences to  introduce the theme, a hymn, and a prayer. Our four other worship times, including this one, will be more substantial – 15 to 30 minutes in length. In those times of worship, we will cycle through the seven sacraments in this order: baptism this afternoon, confirmation to close this evening, communion tomorrow morning (although we will not serve communion at that time); marriage tomorrow evening, confession on Wed morning, ordination Wed evening, and last rites on Thursday morning. Last rites will happen just before our farewell lunch on Thursday, and we will celebrate communion at that time.

I have found this concept useful in helping me to prepare; and I hope that all of us are fed by worship and by all our other experiences here together this week. For this first worship experience, we focus on the sacrament of baptism. So let us begin . . .

1. BAPTISM: Monday, 2:30 pm – (material world, support)

Light candle . . . 

Opening – Call to worship

May the peace of Christ be with you . . .

As you know, baptism initiates us into the Body of Christ. It is an act of welcoming, blessing, and belonging. We gather now in worship to welcome each of us into this circle of faith. We gather to celebrate our arrival here, in body and in soul; our physical presence, which is a blessing to ourselves and to all of our fellow pilgrims; and to celebrate the material fact of our new community.

And now, an opening prayer: Let us pray . . .

Gracious God,
we give thanks for this gathering of fellow pilgrims.
We come filled with many feelings:
perhaps excitement, perhaps some anxiety.
May we remain aware of your Spirit within, between and around us
during our brief time together.

We come as people who are similar in many ways:
all children of God,
all ministers of the Way of Jesus,
all broken sinners and holy fools,
all pilgrims on a path of faith hope and love;
all with much to offer each another,
and all with much to learn.

We also come as people with differences:
different backgrounds, different experiences,
different abilities, different personalities,
different ideas, perhaps different hopes and fears.

In this beginning time, we come before you, O God,
to dedicate ourselves anew to you, to the Way of Christ, and to this group.

Today as we remember our baptism,
we pray, O God, that we will always remain
open to the many baptisms of life, big and small;
baptisms of water; baptisms of fire;
baptisms that again and again
reconnect us to Body of Christ.
All the rituals of the church
and all the everyday sacraments of life and love
point towards our participation
in the life of God in Christ.

And all this and much more we pray today in the name of Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Hymn: VU #442, "Wash Us, God, Your Sons and Daughters"

A short reading of Scripture from the Gospel of Mark (1: 9-13)

During the time when John was baptizing people in the desert, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee; and John baptized him in the Jordan River.

As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn asunder and the Holy Spirit coming down on him like a dove. A voice spoke to him from heaven saying, “You are my Son, and I love you. I am very pleased with you."

At once the Holy Spirit sent Jesus out into the desert. He was in the desert 40 days. Satan tempted him; the wild animals didn’t harm him; and angels took care of him.


A now few words of reflection on our theme and our reading, which we be followed by a chance for all of us to share something on beginnings and initiations.

Like Jesus in our Gospel, we have come to the shore of a body of water in a dry land. This afternoon, we are being initiated into a brief group experience, which in all its four days forms part of our start in ministry in Saskatchewan.

We may even feel that, like Jesus, the Holy Spirit has sent us into a desert, either during this time at Calling Lakes, or in Saskatchewan as a whole. But though we may encounter temptations, we are also assured that angels are here to take care of us. We can be confident that four days on a retreat, just like 40 days in the wilderness, can be a time of renewal and a time in which to prepare for ministry.

In the spirit of baptism, of beginnings, and of supporting ourselves in this group, we are now invited to share some words on beginnings. I suggest that we now have two brief go-rounds: the first to describe an initiation you have already experienced here in Saskatchewan; the second to speak to some of your fears and hopes for our short time together at this event:

First – an experience here in Saskatchewan that has felt like part of your initiation into ministry here . . .

Thank you: and now we are all invited to share some of our hopes and/or fears for our short time together . . .

Thank you.

And now to close this worship, let us sing the hymn . . .

VU #563: Jesus, You Have Come to the Lakeshore

And some closing words . . .

As members of the Body of Christ we have come to the lakeshore. We have come to remember our baptisms and to support one another as we deepen our ministry in a new place. In this group of fellow pilgrims we know that we journey together with the support of God our Source, our Saviour and our Sustainer. Amen.

2. CONFIRMATION: Monday, 8:55 pm (ego, desire, sexuality)

And now a very brief worship experience before the end of the evening. The second sacrament, which we will briefly touch upon here, is Confirmation. Confirmation is a ritual in which adults, usually quite young, reaffirm the baptismal vows made at the beginning of our lives on our behalf.

Confirmation is a time to consciously affirm our membership in the Body of Christ; a time of ego, of maturation, and of consciously responding to God's call. The hymn I have chosen to represent some of this is from More Voices. It is a hymn of self-assertion, and so one that reminds me of adolescence, and trying to find my own voice within a community of faith. I hope some of us know it

Hymn: MV #157, "I am a Child of God"

And a prayer to close our day together:

God who is Love,
We give thanks for our first day together, for the people who have gathered here to create this small group of pilgrims, for the United Church of which we are all members, and for your call, which has brought us to this province, and to this event.

We pray tonight for all whom we have left behind: family members, friends, congregations and others.
May they feel the same presence of your Holy Spirit that we feel among us tonight.

As we prepare for sleep we anticipate going deeper along the path together in a new day tomorrow and the others that will follow.

Bless us, we pray, and help us to be present to each other and to you in whatever those days bring to us.
So be it. Amen.

3. COMMUNION: Tuesday, 9 am  (union with God and others)

Today in this third time of worship, the focus is on the sacrament of communion. Like confirmation, communion refers back to our baptism, which was an initiation into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Communion symbolizes our union with God in a very material way. By eating the loaf and drinking the wine, we feel in our guts that we are part of the Body of Christ.

Baptism is a ritual that happens to us, often as infants and without our conscious involvement, Confirmation is a ritual that is based upon our assertion as unique and growing individuals. Communion is a ritual that shows our dependence upon God and our interdependence with all the other members of the Body of Christ.

Call to worship and opening prayer

May this brief time of worship this morning, help us remember the Christ within us, God's Spirit between us and God's support, which is a continual unearned gift that makes everything in life possible.

Our opening hymn is . . .

Hymn: VU #402, "We Are One"

Now hear a few selections from Paul's letters to Rome and Galatia

Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." (Romans 6: 3-4) . . . and

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2: 15)

. . . and a few words of reflection.

Baptism marks our arrival in a faith community. Confirmation marks our arrival as conscious and maturing individuals in the community. Communion symbolizes the fact that our egos and our individuality are illusions. It symbolizes that what is most sacred within us is not ours. It is the spark of an inner Christ. Communion also symbolizes that we are dependent upon and incorporated into the wider Body of Christ.

Since baptism often involves infants, it might seem odd to say as Paul does that we are baptized into the death of Christ Jesus. It might also seem odd to continually remind ourselves of the death of self by eating the bread of life and drinking from the cup of blessing. But of course, these symbols point to something quite central.

As we grow into adulthood, we cannot help but build up our egos. At the same time, we are dependent on the world, on human culture and history, on our family and friends, and on God, whom we believe is the source of all the above. Therefore, the new life we symbolically gain in communion is a life beyond ego.

Communion reminds us of our our baptism into Christ Jesus, and so reminds us that our egos continually die or wither away so that Christ might live in us. This is the new creation – a life beyond ourselves and our egos: a new life symbolized by communion.

Communion, then, continually presents us with the central yin and yang of life – growing in maturity as an individuals; and growing in the understanding that what we most value in life – the inner Christ, the Body of Christ, and God, who is the Source of everything – is not about us.

Hymn of Response: MV #194, "Bread of Life"


Friends, as we enter into a second day of our short pilgrimage together, we do so knowing that we are one, united with God and each other through Christ our Lord, Amen.

4. MARRIAGE: Tuesday, 7 pm (union with oneself, self-respect, love, forgiveness)

And now a brief time of worship to end the formal part of our day together. Tonight we touch on the fourth sacrament: marriage.

Marriage, of course, is about love and creating a new family. Marriage is a sing of self-confidence -- that one is capable of loving someone else. But we cannot love well without first loving ourselves. And this latter thought takes me back to our second and third sacraments: confirmation and communion.

Confirmation marks a moment of self-assertion and self-possession, which are required but not sufficient for self-respect. Communion symbolizes our union with God and the death of the ego in favour of new life in Christ Christ. Is there a contradiction here?

Can one be self-respecting, and therefore capable of love, and also be free of ego? Do self-respect and lack of ego contradict one another? I would argue they don't, though I also sense some tension there.

There there are the difficulties we face in achieving self-respect or self-acceptance in a broken world – but I am going to set that question aside until our fifth time of worship, which focuses on the sacrament of confession, tomorrow morning.

For now, let us remember the wonderful news that love is our source, our calling, and our destiny. In communion, as in life, we have accepted God's grace and love. Therefore, we are also confident that we have enough self-respect to love our spouse, our families and our neighbours as ourselves.

And now to celebrate love, let us sing together the great Charles Wesley hymn, "Love Divine." It is number 333 from Voices United.

Hymn: VU #333, "Love Divine"

Closing Prayer

And a closing prayer:

God who is Love,
for the people who loved us into being, for the family members we love, and for our friends and neighbours who help teach us how to love.

We especially give thanks for your love of us, shown to us most clearly in the suffering servant, Jesus the Christ.

Help us, we pray to accept your love; Help us to remember that whatever difficulties we live with and whatever limitations we show, that we are worthy of your love.

Help us, we pray, with both human and divine love.

We give thanks as well, O God, for this gathering of new friends and neighbours. Tonight, we have reached the halfway point of our short journey together as fellow pilgrims. In the days ahead, may we continue to share our hearts and minds and so help one another travel further down your path of faith, hope and love
no matter where it takes us. Amen.

5. CONFESSION: Wed, 9 am – (cleansing of negative acts of will)

This morning as we begin the second half of our journey together, the focus of  worship is on a fifth sacrament: confession. So, in a spirit of repentance and with hope for renewal and transformation, let us now turn our hearts and minds to the worship of God.

Let us pray,

On this beautiful late summer morning,
we come to you, O God,
as thirsty pilgrims seeking living water in a dry land.
May we be aware of your merciful and healing presence
in this brief time of prayer, song, and reflection.

We give thanks for this day and these companions
as we work, play and learn together
on our journey deeper into the life of this province,
this church, and your world.

And all this, and much more we lift to you in prayer this morning, through the strong name of Jesus.


Hymn: MV #79, Spirit Open My Heart"

And now a few words of reflection on confession. I will follow these remarks with a chance for us to briefly share around the circle . . .

The sacrament of confession – along with the seventh and final one, last rites, which we will encounter during our final time of worship together tomorrow – presents challenges for me. I have experienced and participated in baptism, confirmation, communion, and marriage – as well as ordination, which is the sacrament that we will touch on briefly this evening. But confession – at least in the sense of personal penitence in front of a priest who has the power to absolve sins – is not something that I have personally experienced; at least not in a church setting.

Nor did I always include a Prayer of Confession and Words of Assurance in worship services before I started at Borderlands last year.

Then there is the tension between so-called personal sins and so-called corporate or social sins. My bias is towards social sin. Many of the difficulties we face in life seem to stem either from the human condition of fragility and mortality or from social systems in which we are caught like bugs on flypaper.

Here is an obvious example of the latter – for the past sixty years, we have all lived under the shadow of nuclear war. At any moment, the entire human race can now be destroyed with the simple push of a button. None of us are to blame for this ridiculous and terrifying dilemma; nor could any one leading nation, even the USA or Russia, solve this problem without a level of international cooperation that humanity has not yet come close to achieving. So should we confess the sin of the threat of nuclear war? If not us, who? Similar things could be said about climate change and habitat destruction, I think.

The confession of sins also runs the risk of egotism, I believe. It could tend to assign to ourselves more blame, and therefore more power than we actually possess.

For me, the road to repentance and conversion has often taken the road of powerlessness – acknowledging that I am powerless in the face of a personal situation or in the face of social issue.  Conversion can come from accepting God's acceptance of me in a powerless place, which in turn can open a door to self-acceptance despite humiliation. With grace, I sometimes find myself able to move from humiliation to humility, and from self-hatred to self-acceptance.

But that is probably more than enough from me. At this time, I would like to open the floor for a brief time of sharing. I don't think we need to confess our sins to each other during this time – certainly not any sins that we fear we may have committed during our brief time together. Instead, I am hoping to hear from others is how you approach confession in worship services that you help to lead. Would anyone like to comment on the role of confession and assurance in worship? . . . .

Thank for you that.

To close, let us turn to More Voices and sing . . .

Hymn: MV #80, "Beyond the Beauty and the Awe"

And dear friends, hear these words of assurance . . .

Scripture, tradition, and the whispers of our secret hearts assure us that God knows all the difficulties as well as the joys of our lives. God in Christ suffers in solidarity with us when we stumble. God is present with us as we try to right wrongs in our families, as well as in our communities. God walks with us and leads us to his full acceptance and love regardless of how winding that road might sometimes seem. Thanks be to God. Amen.

6. ORDINATION: Wed, 7 pm –  (path of service: mind, intuition, insight, wisdom)

And now a brief time of worship to end the formal part of our day. Tonight we touch on the second-to-last sacrament: ordination. I am glad that ordination comes at this point on our short journey together. We came here as ministers seeking to learn and share together; and we are doing this. Tonight is a moment when we can briefly reaffirm our call to serve.

So, let us pray,

Gracious and Loving God,
we hear, see, taste, and touch your call everywhere. We experience it in nature, with friends and loved ones, in congregations; and in the marketplace. We experience it in the struggle for a better world, and by the bedside of a dying friend. Your call goes to everyone and everything, and your world and humanity responds.

Tonight, we give thanks for your call to us. We give thanks that we have been given the grace and courage to accept it.

God, we do not always find ministry easy, but we do not do it alone. Ministers, both lay and ordained, carry out our work of telling, teaching, celebrating, doing, and being the story of salvation, through the power of Your Holy Spirit. We also engage in ministry with colleagues near and far, and for this we also give thanks.

Even in the midst of challenges, we love this work of witness, worship, justice and comfort. May we always remain attentive to your call, and to your compassionate presence when we try to respond to it.

In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

Hymn: MV #161: I Have Called you By Your Name


And a benediction,

Dear friends, as we leave this time of worship, we do so knowing that we go into the world to witness and serve with the Love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, both now and always. Amen.

7. LAST RITES: Thu (11:30 am, closing worship) – (spirituality; unfinished business)

May the Peace of Christ be with you . . .

Dear friends, our journey together is ending. In this worship we both end our formal time together and also end our exploration of the seven Catholic sacraments. Today the focus is on Last Rites. Last rites refers to three separate sacraments administered to a person who is dying. The first is final penance or confession; the second is final anointing of the sick, formerly known as extreme unction; and the third is final communion. Catholics use the Latin word, Viaticum, for the communion service celebrated after extreme unction. Translated into English, viaticum means "supplies for the journey." This final communion is designed to provide the spiritual supplies required for the journey from this world to the next.

We, of course, are not dying. Still, our temporary band of pilgrims is ending its existence. With this ending, we are being sent out, back to our home communities where we will continue our work of preaching, teaching and healing. So now, let us end one journey and begin another in worship. Let us confess our sins and our faith, let us spiritually anoint one other, and let us celebrate the Eucharist and so remind ourselves of our union with God and each other. May this time of worship give us the supplies we need for our journey home and for our continued ministry in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Christ.

And now let us pray,

Gracious and merciful God,
we come to you this morning filled with gratitude for the many gifts we have received on our journeys in life so far; for family and friends, beauty and love, learning and careers.

We also come as broken people seeking love and healing in a broken world. And so an ancient cry may form again on our lips: Lord have mercy on us. Christ have mercy on us.

As if often the case when we end one journey and begin another, we may fear what awaits us next in ministry. We may wonder if we have all we need in order to do the work we are called to do.

We come seeking assurance of your presence, O God, and of the ongoing work of your Holy Spirit within us, between us, and all around us.

Help us, we pray, to remember that we are not alone; that our ministry is the work of your Spirit; that our role is often to get out of the way and let Your Presence be known through us and through the people among whom we serve.

Help us to remember that your gifts are a never-ending stream of grace, which supplies us with more than we could ever ask for.

We pray that this time of song, prayer, reflection and the sharing of bread and wine will remind us of your mercy, your grace, and your all-sufficient love.

All this and much more we lift to you in prayer this morning in the name of Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Our opening hymn is . . .

Opening Hymn: VU# 595, "We Are Pilgrims"

Scripture: James 5: 13-15

Our first reading is from the book of James

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.

Mark 6: 7-13

And our Gospel reading is taken from Mark

Calling the Twelve to him, Jesus began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits. These were his instructions: "Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them."

So they went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church. 
Thanks be to God.

Sharing around the Circle: Final Anointing

We are now invited into a final time of sharing around the circle. I have not provided oil or spices so that we could physically anoint another for the spiritual journeys that lie ahead of us as our we are sent out into the world. But I hope that this time of sharing could become a form of spiritual anointing.

I suggest that this final sharing be open-ended. We could share our fears or hopes for what lies immediately ahead for us in life or ministry. We could speak about blessings we perceive that we have received during our short time together. We could lift up words of learning, or encouragement, words of wisdom, words of foolishness. But please feel free to speak from your hearts into this sacred circle one last time as we prepare for communion, and as we prepare to leave this band of pilgrims behind  . . .

Thank you so much.

Our hymn before communion is

Hymn: VU #480, "Let us Break Bread Together"

Service of Holy Communion

Invitation to the Table

And now a service of Holy Communion. Brother and sisters, Jesus invites everyone to his table. All who seek to know God and live in peace with their neighbours are welcome here.

1. Call to Give Thanks

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

2. Thanksgiving

Blessed are you gracious God . . .
By the light of your promise
you have been our guide through all the seasons of our lives,
even up to this sacred moment.
In the darkness of slavery, you light led our ancestors to freedom.
In the darkness of disobedience and sin, your light shows us the gracious door
that led us to repentance.
In the darkness of an Upper Room, your light leads us to your Table of Salvation.
In the darkness of Gethsemane, even when we slept or fled in terror,
your light shone beyond Golgotha and brought us back to your life and way.
Through the light of your peace
you claim us as your beloved, and joy is our banquet.
We give you thanks that you make manifest your glory:
lighting the way for every pilgrim.
You have guided us through this brief time together and to this table with Jesus to live again his tragedy and his resurrection.
We give thanks for your presence as we re-enact that
troubling, mysterious, beautiful, and death-defying meal of
the first communion with Jesus so long ago.
So it is that we join the song of all creation to proclaim your goodness, saying . . .

3. Song of Creation

Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

4. Remembering Jesus at Table

Mighty and tender God, in Jesus of Nazareth
we recognize the fullness of your grace:
light, life, and love, revealed in words that confront and comfort us,
in teachings that challenge and change us,
in compassion that heals and frees us.
And now we gather at this table to remember
and to be filled with such longing for your realm,
that we may rise together to turn our worship into witness
and to follow in your way.

Let us remember together the vision of God’s reign
shown to us in Jesus at table: in his ministry, he shared food with followers and friends,
with saints and sinners, with crowds of thousands on the hillside,
and a few friends in an upper room.

On the night before he died, he had supper with his companions.
He took a loaf of bread, and after giving thanks,
he broke it, and gave it to them, saying:  “Take, eat. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Then, he took a cup, and after giving thanks, he passed it among them, saying:
“Drink this.  Do this in remembrance of me.”
Through this loaf and cup, Jesus lives within us.
In word and deed, Jesus lives among us.

5. Prayer of Self-Giving

Loving God, we rejoice in the gift of your grace,
remembering Christ’s life and death, proclaiming his resurrection,
waiting in hope for his coming again.
Grant that, in praise and thanksgiving, we may so offer ourselves to you
that our lives will proclaim the mystery of faith, saying . . .

6. Affirmation of Memory and Hope

Christ has died.
Christ has risen.
Christ will come again.

7. Prayer for Transformation

Send, O God, your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts, that all who share in this loaf and cup may be the body of Christ: light, life, and love in the world. In this hope and as your people, we praise you.

8. Remembering the Community -- Intercessions

Gracious God, at this time, we also remember all with whom you would have us share your feast. We pray with faithful pilgrims here and around the world who gather at this table as often as they can. We give thanks for the Body of Christ, of which we are only one small vine.

God of Love, we remember your self-giving love, and your commandments to love one another, to love our neighbours as ourselves, and even to love our enemies.

May this table today remind us of the bonds of love that knit us together as friends, as neighbours, as fellow Christians, as pilgrims on the journey, as part of the whole human family, and as part of the web of life. This table reminds us that love is our source, and our calling. May we also always remember that your Love is our Holy Destiny.

As we strive to live into our calling to love, we search again for your guidance, O God. In the life, example, and love of Christ, may we always find that inspiration and light, which will guide us forward to new life.

We ask tonight for forgiveness for our many failings. In the stories of Jesus' first disciples -- in their lack of understanding, their fear, and even their betrayal -- we sometimes see ourselves. Remind us, O God, of your forgiveness and understanding, which the death of Jesus showed to us so clearly.

O God, may we hear again today your call at this Table so that we can align our will as individuals and as a community to your will and your dream for your realm on earth, as it is heaven.

And at this ending, which is also a new beginning, we pray that we may always know your presence, O God,
a light which leads us on the journey to wholeness, to healing, and to new life.

9. Concluding Praise

Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory is yours, God most holy, now and forever. 10. Amen.

11. Prayer of Jesus

And now let us bring all of our prayers, spoken and unspoken, into one as we together say again the prayer that Jesus taught us, saying

"Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever -- Amen.

12: Distribution of the Elements

Jesus Christ, bread for the journey  . . .
Jesus Christ, the wine of arrival . . .
These are the gifts of God for the people of God. All is ready.

The person to your left will offer you the loaf and then the cup. After you have partaken, please offer the loaf and cup to the person to your right . . .

. . . . Prayer after Communion

and now a Prayer after Communion

Holy One, though we live in a world of need, here we have tasted goodness and hungered for justice.
Though afflicted by brokenness and division, here we have heard your call to be a healing community.
Though daily we touch our limits, here we have received the fullness of your grace.
Send us forth on our journey, O God, in faith, in hope, and in love. Amen.

Our closing hymn, which will also serve as our Benediction is

Closing Hymn: VU #430, "God Be in My Head"

And let all the people say, "Amen."

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Wisdom, Word, Spirit, Christ

Texts: Proverbs 1 20-33 (Wisdom cries in the streets); Mark 8 27-28 ("Who do you say I am?")

"Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asks; and Peter replies, "You are the Messiah."

True enough, we could say. But then Jesus goes on to describe what type of Messiah, Christ or King he is; one who will soon undergo suffering, rejection and execution, and then after three days, rise again.

The confirmation of the first part of this prediction -- the crucifixion -- is often called the great scandal of Christianity. What kind of king gets killed before he even ascends the throne? What kind of God gets executed by an evil empire?

But is crucifixion really such a surprise? It is hardly unusual for earthly leaders to be killed by their rivals. It is also hardly unusual for gods or goddesses to be eliminated by an enemy state.

Most kings fail in their earthly ambitions. Over the course of history, thousands of bands, tribes, chiefdoms and empires have warred against each other. Most of them eventually suffered defeat, and those defeats often led to the death of their kings or other leaders.

Today only 200 states still stand, and there are only two superpowers: the United States and China. So while it is painful when a people is defeated by their rivals and their king is killed, such an occurrence is hardly unusual.

The defeat of a tribe or nation is also often seen as the death of its god. Thousands of different gods or goddesses have been worshipped over the millennia, but only a few are still worshipped today. When a people is defeated and conquered, their god usually dies at the same time.

So it must have been with the people in Jerusalem when the Temple was burned down by the Babylonians more than 2500 years ago. The Jews believed that their God, Yahweh, lived in the Temple. Therefore, many of them also believed that Yahweh had died in the rubble of the Temple. This was a tragedy for the Jews in Jerusalem, but hardly unusual.

80 years later, Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem from Babylonia, rebuilt the Temple, and resumed the worship of Yahweh. 600 years after this, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Once again, Jews must have feared that Yahweh had been killed in this war. Instead, Jewish rabbis found new ways to worship Yahweh without the Temple, just as their Christian brothers and sisters continued in our own way to worship God in Christ without the Temple.

It is this latter development -- worshipping God despite the defeat of his people and the destruction of his Holy City and Temple -- that makes Judaism and Christianity stand out in the history of defeated empires. While it might have looked as though Yahweh had been killed when the Temple was destroyed -- and while it was painfully clear that Jesus had been crucified on the cross -- God's Love lived on, and continues to live on today.

Jesus' prediction that as Messiah he will be killed is a realistic one. What Peter  misses is the final part of Jesus' statement: that "after three days he would rise again." Jesus predicts both death and resurrection.
There is death at the end of each individual life; and as Christians, we approach death confident that our lives will find their fulfilment in God's Spirit. This is the promise of resurrection.

But there are also many small "death's in life," which can sometimes lead to a gracious possibility of resurrection. Sometimes they are an occasion for the death of an illusion or a false messiah. Sometimes they can remind us of the Christ within us. Sometimes they can give us an opportunity to turn from the worship of an idol to the worship of the God who is Love.

As we grow into adulthood, we become attached to many things. We love our family and friends, we follow our favourite sports teams, we become patriots of our country, we develop interests and passions, and we devote ourselves to our careers.

All of this is unexceptional, but it can also become a problem, I believe. Here is a simple example from my own life.

For all but three years of my adult life, I have lived in the big city of Toronto. I enjoyed life in Toronto, and I became attached to it. Living as a minister in rural Alberta and now here in rural Saskatchewan challenges my attachment to city life. In this case, grace might involve letting my attachment to big city life drift away; resurrection might involve  embracing the awesome beauty of this land, the people who live here and also love it, and a simpler and quieter life. This is a small example, of course, but one that is important for me.

We cannot help but form attachments. Spiritual growth can involve finding grace in the losses that dissolve those attachments and that open us to a world beyond our small selves. And since life involves so much loss, the opportunities to receive the pain and joy of grace are endless.

Children grow up and move away. Careers blossom and then fade. Loving relationships continually challenge us. Our bodies age and sometimes fail us. Our sports team, our church, or our country disappoint us. Any such challenge in life can sometimes feel so painful that it seems like a death.

If we accept the same grace that Jesus accepts on his road to the cross, then we can find new life beyond the pain of losing our old attachments. By accepting our situation, no matter how difficult, we take up our crosses; and we move a bit beyond our egos into the wider world of God's Spirit . . .

The question of what life after death will be like often comes up in church. Scripture gives us some ideas. But none of us really know.

I believe that all the small deaths and resurrections in the course of life give us the best clues. Each time a painful loss breaks an old attachment, God's Spirit gives us the grace to rise to new life beyond that attachment. In this new life, some of our old ego has been washed away. Such new life is less about us as individuals and more about God's world, God's community, and God's love, which has always supported us whether we knew it or not.

Of course, not every challenge or loss breaks old attachments and opens us up to new life beyond them. But even if we only catch brief glimpses of life beyond ego this side of the grave, the good news is that we are confident that at death, a new life beyond ego will be ours completely.

Taking up our cross does not have to involve tremendous effort. It can be as simple as painfully letting our old attachments drift away and waking up to the fact that there is much more in our family, community,  and world than our small ego and its desires. There is a deeper joy, a deeper connection, a deeper love available for us. It is the love of God in Christ beyond our small self. The Big Self of God lives inside each of us, binds all of us together, and reaches beyond us into God's eternity . . .

In our first reading from Proverbs, we meet God's Wisdom, a mysterious figure who pops up several times in the Old Testament. Some Christians think that Wisdom is the Word of God whom John tells us is born as Jesus. If Jesus is Wisdom, then his is an unconventional wisdom. Jesus' wisdom sees grace in loss, strength in weakness, and resurrection in death.

Who do we say Jesus is? He is God's Wisdom that leads us to death. He is God's Word  come to us as a vulnerable baby. He is God's Spirit that lives within each human heart. He is God's Christ who is rejected and killed, and who is raised to new life on the third day.

Wake up, Jesus calls us. Take up your cross and rise with me to new life. This might not be the life we once thought we wanted. Instead, it is a life that all of us as children of God deserve. It is life of love, now and forever within the heart of God.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Faith and works; grain and straw

Texts: James 2 1-10, 14-17 (faith without works is dead); Mark 7 27-37 (Jesus is challenged)

Three years ago today, I began work as a full-time preacher. That was in Didsbury Alberta where, from September 2009 until June 2010, I was a supply minister and student intern at Knox United Church. Although I had preached about 10 times during the two years leading up to this internship, those months as a student in Alberta marked my first experience as a full-time minister who, among other things, preached a sermon every week.

You may recall that the church follows a three-year reading cycle of Scripture readings called the Lectionary. So as I prepared for worship this Sunday, I realized that I have already written a sermon based upon the assigned reading for this Sunday -- three years ago for my first service in Didsbury.

This fact probably does not mean a lot to others here today, but for me it is a big deal. I am cheered to approach a set of readings for the second time; and indeed, this sermon is based on the one I delivered three years ago in Alberta. But I hasten to add that my plan is not to just recycle sermons from now on. For one, I have only preached through two years of the three year Lectionary cycle.

After I left Didsbury in June 2010, I took a year off from preaching to finish my Masters degree and to complete the other requirements for ordination. When I arrived here in Borderlands 14 months ago, most of the Lectionary readings were new to me; and this will be the case again for the 12 months starting next July when I tackle a third and final year of the Lectionary for the first time.

Then there is the fact that the Lectionary provides four readings for each Sunday, of which we only usually hear two, and only one of which usually provides the inspiration or springboard for a sermon.

More importantly, there is also the reality that each moment is different and that churches and ministers never stop changing. The context of this pastoral charge is different from the one in Didsbury and my understanding of any set of readings is also different. So today's sermon is based upon, but is hardly identical to the one I preached three years ago.

Today, I focus on the reading from James. The letter of James is a sharp call to action. It points out the injustice of empire and exploitation. It calls us to work for social justice and defend the poor. As such, James is probably a favourite book of the Bible for lot of people in the United Church. Our church is often in the thick of struggles to make this broken world a better place, a world where the poor are raised up and the rich are brought to account.

And yet Martin Luther, the great hero of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, called the Letter of James "an epistle of straw." This was in Luther's 1522 preface to his German translation of the Bible. By this phrase, he meant that for him James had little substance -- it was all roughage and no protein.

Luther didn't like the book of James, just like he didn't like the book of Revelation. Luther sometimes argued that both be removed from the Protestant Bible. But although Luther was a radical priest, even he didn't go that far. He kept both James and Revelation in the German Bible, despite his dismissal of them as straw-like . . .

During my year in Alberta and now here Borderlands, I have seen a lot more straw than previously in my life. For the third time this summer, I find myself living in a rural area during harvest. Lots of crops have been combined and then bailed. The landscape has filled up with well-organized straw.

I was given a tutorial on straw as I was preparing to leave Ontario for Alberta three summers ago. I spent a day with my two key mentors in the church on their rural property in southwestern Ontario. They are Rev. Peter Kingsbury, who until this past June worked for the London Conference office of the United Church, and Rev. Rivkah Unland who is the minister at St John's United in the festival city of Stratford.

Peter and Rivkah live in a beautiful stone farmhouse, about a 20-minute drive south of Stratford. The evening I was there, and just as we had finished barbecuing dinner, Rivkah had us rush to the fence at the north end of their property. The beautiful field of wheat that had been growing on the neighbouring farm all spring and summer was about to be combined. So the three of us took our drinks to the fence and saluted their neighbour as he cut the wheat with his enormous combine. It seemed like an odd scene to me, but I guess Rivkah and Peter had become attached to this field of wheat and they wanted to mark its passing. After their neighbour had finished the row, he got out of his combine and came over to chat with us about the harvest, the weather and such things.

It was then that Peter gave me his tutorial on straw. I hadn't really understood that combining the grain and bailing the straw were sometimes two separate processes; that gathering the grain and laying down the straw could come first, and that bailing could come later. He also explained that while the grain is obviously useful, the straw is also useful -- for things like animal bedding and feed.

I should have known this since both my parents grew up on farms on the north shore of Lake Ontario. But I had always lived in cities, either in eastern Ontario as a boy, or in Toronto as an adult. And unlike all of my male cousins, my older brother Paul and I were the two teenage rebels who refused to spend one or more summers on my grandfather and uncle's dairy farm. I now regret not spending at least one summer on the family farm. My younger brother Andrew did spend a summer on the farm when he was a teenager, and Andrew has always seemed steadier and more grounded than me and Paul. Perhaps it was that brief farming experience?

Anyway, I thought of my previous ignorance of straw as I pondered Luther's insult: "an epistle of straw." Didn't Luther know that straw, just like the seed or grain, has wonderful uses? Maybe his statement wasn't such an insult after all.

I know why Luther didn't like James. The key turning point in Luther's life -- his conversion from an existence of tortured guilt to one of grace and freedom -- involved reading the letters of Paul. Luther loved Paul's message of grace -- that God accepts us regardless of our sins or our actions. With a trusting faith, we are assured that God loves and saves all of us. Despite the impossibility of fulfilling all the requirements of religious rules, grace is available at every moment of our lives. This is St. Paul's wonderful message -- we are saved by grace through faith.

James, however, writes that faith without deeds is dead. Does this statement contradict Paul? I don't think so. I believe that James is looking at faith more from the side of belief. He is saying that what we do is more important that what we believe. Paul on the other hand is looking at faith more from the side of trust. He is saying that despite our inevitable shortcomings, we can trust God. Grace and healing are always available to us. James and Paul don't say the same things. Instead, they complement each other; and I am glad that both their voices are in the Bible. We have much to learn from both of them.

And now a few word son today's reading from Mark -- If anything in the Bible illustrates Luther's point that it is not possible to be free of sin at all times, it might be the story of Jesus' encounter with a woman and her sick child.

In this Gospel story, Jesus is tired and has withdrawn from the crowds. But a Gentile woman finds him and begs him to save her daughter. The shocking thing is that Jesus insults her. He implies that Gentiles are dogs and therefore do not deserve the healing that Jesus offers to his fellow Jews. Nevertheless she persists and reminds Jesus that even dogs are given crumbs from the family table. Jesus accepts her rebuke and announces that her daughter is healed.

It is a story that shows that Jesus could be tired, irritable -- perhaps even racist. And yet the grace in the story is that Jesus accepts the rebuke of the Gentile mother. He learns from his confrontation with her. He remembers that God's love is not just for the Jews but for everyone.

There are many ways to interpret this striking story. I take it as a clear example that Jesus, while fully divine, was also fully human. As a human being like us, Jesus could be tired and in pain. Like us, he could sometimes express common prejudices. But graciously, just like us, he could grow into his full divinity and exhibit the fruits of the Spirit, which for both James and Paul would include inclusion, love, and the struggle for a better world.

Perhaps we might wish that Mark, and Matthew after him, hadn't included this story of Jesus and the foreign mother in his Gospel. But I am glad the story is there. I believe that it gives us a more rounded view of Jesus.
The Bible is an amazing collection of books, and an endlessly rich resource for our work. It includes four contrasting Gospel narratives; it includes letters from Paul, James, John, and Peter, each with their own flavor. It has love poems and songs; stories of violence and calls for non-violence; laments and shouts of praise. It is ancient, mysterious, and sometimes impossible to translate or understand. But it is our heritage and we return to it week after week.

We come to the Bible as thirsty pilgrims. We come searching for living water, and for an ancient mirror into our modern dilemmas. I love our joint explorations of the stories in the Bible and the light they shed on our lives today.

As with Luther, some books of the Bible might seem like straw to us: useful in some ways, but not essential. Other parts, such as Paul's message that we are saved by grace through faith, might seem more like grain to us: essential nutrition, a pearl of great price, the best news that we have ever heard.

In looking at the tug of war between James and Paul, I side with Luther. Although I love James' call for social justice, I could not bear to live without the knowledge that God's grace saves us despite our sins. This grace is revealed to us most clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ.

Faith in God's grace gives me strength and hope to go on. It is the foundation of any acts I might undertake to try to make this a better community or world.

Straw and grain grow together, and go together. We don't have to choose between them. But if I had to choose, I'd choose the grain, which for me is the good news of grace; the good news that we are all safe in the hands of Jesus.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Seeking integrity in an unbalanced world

Texts: James 1: 17-27 (quick to listen; slow to speak); Mark 7 1-8, 14-15, 21-23 (actions not rituals)

None of us like being called a hypocrite. As people of integrity, we want to honour our word. We want to act on our values. The Pharisees, whom Jesus attacks as hypocrites in today's Gospel reading, would be no different, I am sure.

But is it ever possible to live up to one's ideals? Can any of us escape the pitfall of hypocrisy? These are questions that come to my mind after hearing our two Scripture readings today.

Jesus calls a group of Pharisees hypocrites because they follow the rituals of religion – for instance, washing their hands before eating – while ignoring it's spirit. He does not say how they ignore it. But our other reading from the Letter of James give us a clue. James tells us that the spirit of real religion is found by reaching out to the homeless and loveless.

We are urged to turn our worship into good deeds. Perhaps, then, Jesus does not see these Pharisees expressing their love of God in service to their community.

Our Scripture readings remind us to not stop at the words and rituals. Real religion is more about what we do than what we say.

Still, we cannot avoid words. Spouses pledge undying love and care for each other at weddings. Countries say they stand for peace, order and good government -- as in the case of Canada -- or life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- as in the case of the United States. Retailers tell us that "the lowest price is the law." Churches tell us that they have a mission to be welcoming and to serve the community.

But having made these statements, we do not always live up to them. Spouses sometimes treat each with disrespect instead of care. Countries sometimes go to war instead of keeping the peace. Retailers sometimes sell us shoddy merchandise at high prices. Churches sometimes focus more on the needs of their buildings than on the needs of their neighbours.

None of these failures necessarily reflect bad intentions. They might just result from our reach exceeding our grasp. After all, the higher a standard we set for ourselves, the more likely we are to fail.

To set those standards, we come together to explore our values and the commitments that flow from them. This is one reason we come to church. In responding to God's love, we hope to discern and clarify what our deepest values are, and then discuss how those values might influence our actions as individuals, as a church, or perhaps as a country.

When our actions line up with these values, we exhibit integrity. This means that our will and capabilities follow our commitments.

So why do the Pharisees, and so many of us as well, not always have the courage of our convictions. Why are we sometimes hypocritical? Part of the reason, I believe, is that we are not always of one mind. We all have inner voices and desires that pull in different directions. When we suffer from inner disunity we may find ourselves doing things that run counter to our values or stated commitments.

It is not only individuals, of course, who suffer from disunity. Countries do as well. To illustrate this, I now look at Canada. Like most people anywhere, we in Canada like to think of our country as virtuous, capable, and influential; as a doer of great deeds; and as a great place in which to grow up, do business, and enjoy life. And in many respects, this description often fits our experience.

But like all countries, Canada has internal divisions that sometimes compromise its integrity and prevent it from achieving all of its stated ideals and goals. Divisions exist between rich and poor; between those that own and manage the big companies, and those who work for them; between those who live in regions with resources, and those who live in regions that are resource poor; etc.

One persistent division in Canada, of course, is that between French and English. The French fact in Canada has always been a source of vitality. But it has also spawned conflicts and bad feelings. The percentage of those speaking French has declined in many parts of Canada, including here in southern Saskatchewan. So now this divide is largely between Quebec and the Rest of Canada.

This Tuesday, the voters in Quebec go to the polls to elect a new provincial government. For the fifth time since 1976, it looks like the nationalist Parti Quebecois may form the next government. If so, many commentators fear another round of constitutional arguments between Quebec and Canada and new anger and misunderstanding between French Quebeckers and English Canadians.

In a country of diverse regions, Quebec is distinct in a way that goes beyond the other provinces. The people of Quebec share a language, a territory, and sense of being a people. In this way, Quebec fits the definition of a nation. Our federal government acknowledged this fact in 2006; the legislature in Quebec City is called the National Assembly; one could go on.

Canada was set up as confederation and not as a unitary nation state. Canada contains French Quebec, the First Nations, and that less well-defined group: English-speaking people like me in the Rest of Canada. While this diversity is one of Canada's strengths, it also present challenges.

I am pleased that Quebec survives as a French-speaking nation 250 years after the conquest of New France by Britain in 1763. Contrast this with the fate of New Holland. In the 1600s, Holland established a colony of Dutch settlers on the eastern edge of North America. In 1667, Britain conquered it. The major settlement of that colony was on the island of Manhattan and was called New Amsterdam. The British renamed it New York, and soon after that, English became the main language. Today virtually no one speaks Dutch in New York.

A similar process was underway in New France following its conquest by Britain in 1763. But then the American Revolution approached. When the British became aware that revolution was imminent, they tried to drive a wedge between their English-speaking colonies of the south and their new French-speaking colony of Quebec by accommodating Quebec.

In 1774, Britain passed the Quebec Act, which gave privileges to the Roman Catholic Church and preserved French Civil Law there. This ploy worked. When the Revolution broke out the next year in what is now the United States, the French settlers in Quebec did not join it. With the defeat of Britain by the U.S. eight years later, Quebec was the last remaining bit of British North America. The survival of Quebec as a French-speaking British colony was a key factor that allowed Canada to become a separate country from the U.S. 80 years later.

Without those long-ago British concessions to French in Quebec, Canada would not exist. These concessions also explain why Montreal today remains the second largest French-speaking city in the world instead of being the world's 50th or so largest English-speaking city.

But despite the fact that French Quebec made Canada possible, the existence of a French nation within confederation has also made Canadian unity difficult to achieve from time to time.

No political party has yet been able to find a way for Canada to work as a confederation without periods of friction and bad feeling. French people have suffered repression at various points in Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, and now French is hardly spoken anywhere outside of Quebec. Many Quebeckers yearn for more autonomy within Canada or outright independence even as many English Canadians resent the wishes of Quebeckers and sometimes use hurtful and insulting language to describe them.

When bad feelings flare up, Canada's integrity suffers. Canada says that is supports the rights of small nations. But in the two Quebec referendums on sovereignty in 1980 and 1995, English Canada tried to blackmail Quebeckers with all manner of threats. We say we are a people who value human rights and respect diversity, but then find ourselves saying terrible things about French or about Quebec.

Canada is hardly unique in its struggles to achieve unity amid diversity. Many countries have tribal, linguistic, religious, and national divisions, which sometimes lead to civil strife or worse. But given this week's Quebec election, I wanted to highlight our own difficulties in achieving integrity amid diversity.

Just as a country has many forces that can tear it apart, so each of us can be torn apart by competing inner voices. We have fragile and mortal bodies and conflicting desires. We are forced to fit into a society that does not always allow space for kindness or the other virtues we want to live by. Nor are we always sure what values we hold.

Do we believe that alcohol is always a sin, or are we OK with moderate drinking? Do we believe that all sex outside of marriage is against God's will or not? Do we think that patriotism is a sin or the highest virtue? Do we think that individual consumer behaviour is responsible for pollution and climate change, or do we believe there is nothing we can do? This list could go on and on.

I certainly do not have easy answers to the how to best define our values and how to find the integrity to live by them. But I close with a few thoughts.

Amid social divisions and competing personal desires, God calls to us from the depths. While many things divide humans one from another, at the deepest level we are all broken sinners and children of God.

In a few minutes, we will celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion. Perhaps it sometimes might feel like an empty ritual. Or perhaps celebrating communion might sometime make us feel like hypocrites.

But the ritual is also a way to point to our unity as members of the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ spans all human divisions -- men and women, young and old, rich and poor, French and English, Canadian and non-Canadian. In our hearts and minds, we may be divided against our self. At the level of a company or country, we may be torn apart by competition. But at the deepest level, we are fellow pilgrims on the journey and broken fools. We all need God's grace to support us and save us.

No matter how we worship, none of us have the ability to always act according to our values. But communion can symbolize our wish for unity in the midst of diversity. It can symbolize our wish for a world that is fit to be called the Kingdom of God. It can express our prayers for the inner unity and will to work for this kingdom in and through Christ, even though our abilities are limited.

Understanding the competing forces that fight within our hearts can seem difficult. Understanding the forces that contend within a country can seem difficult. There are so many factors that work to disintegrate or confuse us as individuals or as a country.

God's Grace helps us find healing and unity despite the forces of disintegration. God's love call us to unite in the work of trying to mend our hearts and our world. God calls us to be the Body of Christ, broken though we may be.

My prayer is that our worship will help us remember God's sacred values. May it strengthen our will to pursue those values as best we can. And may it help us give thanks for God's grace, which is always available to us to help restore our integrity in word and deed.