Sunday, August 25, 2013

Matha, Mary and Martin Luther King: a meditation on listening and serving

Texts: Amos 8 1-12 (a famine of God's Word); Luke 10 38-42 (Jesus visits Martha and Mary)

Have you ever lived through a famine like the one described by the prophet Amos -- a famine not of physical hunger, but of not hearing the Word of God? Have you ever "wandered from sea to sea seeking the word of the LORD and not found it?"

In our Gospel text, Mary experiences a feast of God's Word. She sits at Jesus' feet and listens to him. Mary has chosen the better part, Jesus says to her sister Martha, and perhaps Amos would agree with that statement.

But in today's reading, Amos also demands social justice. He tells rich people in Israel to stop cheating the poor. He says that listening to God leads us to act justly. Listening and acting. Is one of these really the better part?

A sacred moment from recent times that connected listening with action was Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech. This Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of this speech. It was delivered by King at the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963.

In front of 250,000 people, King called for economic justice, racial equality, and an end to police violence.  Then, near the end of his speech, the singer Mahalia Jackson called out to him, saying, "tell them about the dream, Martin." King left his prepared text at that point and let his rhetoric soar.

As a Baptist minister, King was able to draw on images and phrases from Isaiah to the U.S. Constitution, and from the hymn "My Country Tis of Thee," to the spiritual "Free at Last." He linked the American Dream with God's dream for a world of justice, peace, and equality, a world in which freedom would ring.

His speech was influenced by the long struggle to reverse the effects of slavery in the United States, by his previous sermons and speeches, and by the scores of marches and acts of civil disobedience that King had taken part in before 1963.

Martin Luther King's speech made a difference in the struggle for civil rights. His words were heard by the crowd gathered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, by a large TV audience, and by people who read about the speech afterwards.

People not only listened to him. Many were also inspired to act. After the March, more people began to resist racist laws and police in the U.S. South. The U.S. government passed civil rights legislation. Some people examined old prejudices and opened their hearts to those of different racial backgrounds.

Unfortunately, other people who heard his speech 50 years ago did not change their opposition to racial equality and social justice. The FBI was alarmed by King and worked to disrupt the Civil Rights Movement. One FBI leader wrote after the speech, "we must now mark [King] as the most dangerous Negro in this nation from the standpoint of communism and national security."

King was assassinated five years later in 1968. Given the violence of the opposition to civil rights, few were surprised. 50 years later, racism has still not been eliminated.

This week, I watched the season finale of "Mad Men," which was set in November 1968. In this episode, the lead character of this TV series, Don Draper, is sinking deeper into alcoholism under the pressure of career, marriage, and the turmoil of the times. In a bar in Manhattan, a street preacher approaches him. Draper challenges the preacher by asking where Jesus was in that year when the War in Vietnam escalated, Richard Nixon was elected President, and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. When the preacher says that King was not a true believer, Draper lashes out in anger. He punches the preacher, and spends the night in jail.

King advocated non-violence, but I can understand why Draper attacked this narrow-minded preacher. Draper had been inspired by King; he was frustrated at the continuing racism and violence in America five years after King's most famous speech; and he felt despair after King's assassination.

So it was during the time of Jesus. Jesus spoke, and many people were moved to follow him. Others, unfortunately, were alarmed by what he said, and they conspired to kill him.

In our Gospel reading today, we are not told what Jesus said to Mary nor what effect his words had on her. We are not even sure who Mary was. Most people assume that Mary and Martha are the sisters of Lazarus. But Lazarus only appears in the Gospel of John, and the story we heard today only appears in Luke.

In John, Lazarus' sister Mary is the woman who anoints Jesus with oil. But in Luke, the woman who anoints Jesus is an unnamed sinner. Mark and Mathew's versions of that story are different yet again. As is often the case with the Bible, the details are not clear.

Perhaps the Mary in our story today is Mary Magdalene, whom John says is the first person to see Jesus on Easter morning. If we assume this, then perhaps Mary is moved by what Jesus says to follow him to the Cross and beyond.

Jesus says that listening is the better part. And listening often leads to action. It can move us to change our opinions and to act differently.

In 1963, many people in the United States longed to hear the Word of God and believed that they had found it in Martin Luther King. Listening to him changed them and moved them to action. But others said that King was on the side of the devil. They heard him and decided to disrupt his movement and kill him.

In the time of Jesus, many longed to hear the Word of God and believed that they found it in Jesus. Listening to him changed them and moved them to action. But others said that Jesus was on the side of the devil. They heard him and decided to disrupt his movement and kill him.

Today, we also long for the Word of God. But when we find it, how can we be certain that it truly is of God if others label the same thing as the work of the devil?

The stories of Jesus and the history of the civil rights movement remind us that there is not just one opinion about the way forward in our crazy world. Amid competing voices, all we can do is pray and listen to our hearts in community as we try to live into God's dream for a just world.

Then when we are confident that we have heard God's Word, what next? Are we just to listen or are we also to act for justice? Well, consider that Amos, Jesus and Martin Luther King, although all preachers, were also men of action.

Jesus tells Martha that her sister Mary has chosen the better part. I don't see his statement as drawing a line between listening and serving. Jesus chides Martha not for her work, but because she is worried and distracted. Jesus reminds Martha that it is easy to miss what is sacred in any moment.

Mary may have done nothing after she listened to Jesus, or she may have joined Jesus' movement. We are not sure. But in either case, we know that the God's Word contains the good news that we are healed no matter what we do.

Jesus urges us not be worried or distracted. But if we do succumb to worries, God will still love us. If we miss what Jesus is trying to say to us, he will still love us. If we don't immediately act after listening to Jesus, he will still love us.

We might be discouraged that although Jesus spoke 2,000 years ago of God's dream for a just world, injustice still abounds. We might be discouraged that although Martin Luther King spoke 50 years ago of God's dream for a world of equality, he was killed and inequality still abounds.

Personally, I am encouraged that so many people are inspired by King and his dream all these years later. I am thankful that so many of us still listen to Jesus all these centuries later. The struggle goes on, and with joy, we find God's Word within it. The struggle is its own reward even though the road can seem long and hard.

Christ shared our human frailty and travelled the Way to the Cross. He lights our way down this path and assures us that at its end, we are all welcomed back into God's Love from which we have all come

On the path, we try to listen to Jesus' voice and serve God and neighbour. But there will be moments when worries overwhelm us. God's Grace supports us regardless. We don't have to be anything, believe anything or do anything to receive the free gift of this Grace.

The struggle continues. In the midst of it, we hear the Word again: Christ is with us.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Egypt and the narrow path

Text: Luke 12 49-56 (division, not peace)

Politics and religion don't mix, we are told.

I agree with this statement in some ways even though it is often said as a criticism of liberal churches like the United Church. My perception is that the religious right violates this rule more than the left. When a religious movement seeks to use the power of the state to enforce morality it often seems to be a right-wing one, whether of the Christian Right or the Islamic, Jewish, or Hindu Right.

Today, I focus on the current deadly crisis in Egypt, which illustrates the damage that occurs when religious extremists use the power of the state.

By Friday of this week, I had a sermon written for today, which I liked OK. It connected today's Gospel reading about family divisions to memories of childhood vacations and went on to discuss conflict within families and the church. But yesterday, I scrapped that sermon in favour of this one about Egypt. Not only am I upset about the unfolding conflict in Egypt; I also see a link between the news there and today's Gospel reading on divisions.

Preaching about current events has pluses and minuses. Far-off events might not feel relevant to our life here in Borderlands; and if the news is still unfolding, one could easily misread the situation. On the other hand, current events such as those this week in Egypt can effect on our life as a church even if they are occurring on the other side of the world.

On March 8, 2009 when I was finishing my second year of training to become a minister, I preached a sermon in my field placement site in east-end Toronto. The Fall and Winter of 2008-09 had seen the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, so I decided to preach about that crisis. A year later, I felt a little foolish when I read that March 9, 2009 represented the lowest point in the New York Stock Exchange. The markets have been on a strong upswing pretty much since the day I preached that sermon.

In a similar fashion, it may be that today's terrible events in Egypt  -- mass demonstrations, an army coup, and a bloody crackdown in which hundreds of civilians  have died -- are now behind us. Perhaps civil war in Egypt will not come to pass. Nevertheless, here is my sermon. I begin with our Gospel text.

In today's reading, Jesus notes that he is under great stress. His journey to Jerusalem is nearing its end, and he knows that he will undergo arrest and execution there -- what he calls his baptism by fire.

Then Jesus says something that might surprise us. "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!"

But isn't peace what Jesus is all about? In the first chapter of Luke, Zechariah tells Mary that her son will "guide our feet into the way of peace." On the first Christmas night, angels announce Jesus' birth to shepherds by singing "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!" (Luke 2) In his farewell speech to his disciples on the night of the Last Supper, Jesus says "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you." (John 14)

Why, then, does the Prince of Peace say that he has come not to bring peace, but division? Is it just the stress he is under? Or is he pointing to something more fundamental? Perhaps the road to peace is so rocky that it might sometimes divide "father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother"?

Jesus began his ministry in Galilee by dividing a family. Mark writes, "[Jesus] saw James the son of Zeb'edee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zeb'edee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him." (Mark 1:20-21). Mark does not say how the father Zeb'edee felt at this turn of events.

Jesus' disciples make up a chosen family of friends who love one another in their work of healing and teaching and on the road to Jerusalem. But like any family, the disciples of Jesus experience a lot of conflict, both within and without.

They squabble about who is the greatest among them. They misunderstand almost everything that Jesus is trying to teach or accomplish. In the final crisis of Jesus' arrest and crucifixion, one of the disciples, Judas, betrays Jesus, one of them, Peter, denies him, and all but his women followers flee in fear.

Among the wider Jewish family, Jesus clashes with many of its religious leaders who criticize Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, for not following Kosher rules, and for eating with so-called sinners.

The sharpest clash comes in Jerusalem when Jesus clears the Temple of money-changers. After that, the religious elite work to deliver Jesus over to the Romans. They are trying to preserve religious customs by collaborating with the Roman oppressors.

I see three main groups in the Israel of Jesus' time all of whom are trying to be faithful to God. The first group want to keep peace with Rome by collaborating with it. The second are zealots who want to overthrow Rome by force.  The third group is represented by Jesus. He wants neither to collaborate with Rome nor take up the sword against it. Instead, he confronts the injustice of Rome with non-violent resistance.

Unfortunately, none of these camps succeed in bringing peace or justice.  Despite their best efforts, the collaborators, cannot keep the people quiet and several rebellions break out in that period all of which are crushed. In the Year 70, the Romans win a three-year war against the Jewish people, kills 10s of thousands, and burn the Temple to the ground.

When Jesus enters Jerusalem and confronts religious and political elites with non-violence, he is arrested and executed. The Gospels tell of his resurrection and of the growth of the Jesus' movement afterwards, but a just peace is not achieved.

Egypt today shows some of the same trends. For thousands of years, Egypt was ruled from the outside. Its colonial rulers include ancient Greece, Rome -- both when it was pagan and after it became Christian -- Arabs, Turks, France during the time of Napoleon, and finally Britain during the late 19th and early 20th Century.

Since independence almost 100 years ago, Egypt has struggled to find its footing in a region torn apart by outside interference. In the face of deep problems, many nationalist and Islamic movements have grown. It has endured long periods of military rule. Two and half years ago, a popular revolution brought hope to Egypt.

In free elections in 2012, a conservative religious party, the Muslim Brotherhood, gained power. Once in power, they lost much of their support both because of their heavy-handed religious policies and continuing economic decline.

This June, huge demonstrations opposed the Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohamed Morsi. One was estimated to include more than 15 million people.

Like the protestors, I disliked the Muslim Brotherhood government -- not because it was Islamic, but because of its conservative interpretation of Islam and it use of state power to impose its morality on the nation.

Under popular pressure, the Egyptian military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood and arrested President Morsi in early July. In turn, Muslim Brotherhood supporters staged a six-week long protest, which was met this week with deadly force in which hundreds of civilians have been killed.

The death toll in Egypt is terrible, although it pales next to the death tolls in the civil war in Syria of the last two years (almost 100,000) or in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decades, which number in the millions.

The crisis in Egypt shows how mixing politics and religion can lead to disaster. The Muslim Brotherhood want to regain power to impose conservative social policies on Egypt. More moderate Muslims, along with the 10% of Egyptians who are Christian, prefer the separation between religion and the state that has developed in Western countries over the last 400 years.

In the West, many parts of the church still try to use the state to impose so-called Christian morality. In the 1990s, this current was represented in Canada by The Reform Party. In the United States at present, it exists in the Republican Party. Call them the Christian Brotherhood, if you want.

In the face of such currents, Jesus' words about division come to my mind. By neither collaborating with the Empire nor seeking to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel by force, Jesus shows us a middle way. It is a narrow path that seeks peace with justice, and that promises healing to all.

Jesus stood up to both conservative religious leaders and to Empire, although he did not immediately overcome them. What his stand accomplished was to rescue the faith of his fathers. Most importantly, his stand allowed the God who is Love to live within us after the pain and death of his crucifixion.

Dividing from both collaborators and violent rebels does not bring immediate peace or justice. It means trying to live life in the light of Christ's resurrection. It also helps us to try to restore the dignity of religion in the face of popular disgust with both Christianity and Islam when right-wing groups try to legislate medieval morality.

When Christians, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists seek to use state power to impose conservative morality, we should stand against them even if this means family division within church, mosque or temple. Likewise, when so-called moderates use the power of the military to put down the conservatives, we should stand against them as well.

I pray that tolerant and non-violent currents grow in troubled Christian-majority and Muslim -majority countries and that extremists who want to use the power of the state to impose conservative religious policies become more marginal.

I pray that the deadly attacks by the Egyptian army against the deposed Muslim Brotherhood will stop and that negotiations will head off a civil war.

In the days and weeks ahead, two wings of Egyptian society will continue to struggle for control of the state. May a third current grow, one that pursues the narrow path of non-violent resistance to injustice and upholds the sacred values of life, equality and love.

This narrow path is the Way of Jesus. While it may not lead to immediate peace with justice, it helps us stay awake to God's Love amid all the hatred, prejudice, and violence of this life.

When we risk family divisions in the church or mosque by standing up for our values, we can never be sure that we are right. But we can always be sure that we are in the presence of God in Christ who walks with us on our tough road.

Our earthly families will not always be united. But we know that the whole human family is united in the depths and heights of God's Love.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Fear, faith and worship

Texts: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 (justice, not worship), Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 (faith, hope and sight), Luke 12 (the heart's treasure)

"Do not be afraid, little flock." Jesus says this to his followers near the end of their journey from Galilee to the city of Jerusalem. When they get to Jerusalem, Jesus will confront the Roman oppressors and the religious leaders who collaborate with them. What could go wrong?

"Do not be afraid," Jesus says, and then he urges his followers to be alert because "the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." Does this Second Coming include the signs of wars, earthquakes, and famines that Jesus will soon predict in Jerusalem? Nothing to fear in that, is there?

"Do not be afraid" is a phrase used by Jesus more than any other in his ministry. But its repetition highlights that his followers often are afraid.

Today, we hear Jesus' words "do not be afraid" against the backdrop of more funerals for young people killed in car crashes. Many of us here today continue to mourn the tragic deaths last week of Brandon Gauthier of Gravelbourg and Matthew Foley of Coronach. We also hear Jesus' call to not be afraid against the backdrop of strange weather everywhere and of rumours of new terrorist attacks.

This week, I listened to a news report in which a citizen of High River Alberta complained about plans to rebuild homes that were destroyed there in the floods of late June. In a public meeting, he said, "Have you not heard of climate change? These 'once in a hundred events' are the new norm."

But where can one safely build a residence? It is hard to imagine a community that could emerge undamaged from rainstorms that drop 10 inches of rain in one hour, as happened in many parts of Missouri, Tennessee, Kansas, and Georgia this past week.

Still, Jesus says to us, "Do not be afraid." We are supposed to replace fear with faith. We are supposed to trust in God's promises despite the pain and fragility of our lives and despite reports of death and destruction coming at us from all sides.

The author of Hebrews presents Abraham as a model of faith for us. According to the stories in Genesis, Abraham left a city in what is now Iraq about 4,000 years ago and travelled to a far off land simply because God asked him to do so.

I identify a bit with Abraham. Two years ago, I left the city of Toronto for an unknown place called Borderlands, also largely on faith.

Well, it wasn't only faith. When I got the call from the Settlement Committee on May 8th 2011 that I had been placed here, the first thing I did was call Rev. Kevin Johnson, the minster here at the time. In that call, Kevin told me that Chinook Presbytery was going to meet at Wesley United in Rockglen that coming Saturday. So, I decided to come and check the place out -- perhaps with the idea at the back of my mind that I might yet decline Settlement and postpone my ordination!

My four-day trip here that weekend reassured me that Borderlands -- despite being outside of my experience -- would make a good fit for me. I liked the Presbytery meeting, I learned a lot by talking with Kevin, I enjoyed worship in all three points, and I was especially reassured when Arlene showed me the manse after the first service. She told me that the renters were moving out and that I could have it if I wanted, which I did.

Two years ago was the first year that prospective ordinands in the United Church of Canada had a choice to either be placed by the Settlement Committee -- which had always been the practice -- or seek a call on our own. I was one of 10 ordinands out of 50 that chose Settlement. But we did not know that only 12 charges in all of Canada would put themselves forward for Settlement, and that none of them would be close to major centres.

As part of Settlement, we had filled out a form that asked us to rank the regions of Canada by preference of where we would like to be settled. I put Toronto first, then Hamilton, and the region to the east of Toronto third. I put Saskatchewan fourth, mostly because my friend Anne Hines had been settled here the year before -- in Lucky Lake -- and she had told me that she was loving the experience.

In the event, no pastoral charges within 1,000 km of Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver put themselves forward for settlement, and so I was placed here. I could have refused settlement and postponed ordination. Instead, I chose faith over my fears, I came out here, and I have felt blessed ever since.

Abraham had many adventures and troubles on his journey to what is now Israel and Palestine, including the heartbreak of childlessness, and the mystery of becoming a father very late in life.  As the reading from Hebrews also reminds us, Abraham died without most of the promises made to him by God being fulfilled. 4,000 years later, many of these promises are still not fulfilled. Nevertheless, Jesus urges us again and again to "not be afraid."

And so as faithful people, we have come to worship. But then we hear in today's Old Testament reading from Isaiah that God hates our worship; that our sacrifices are an abomination; and that God wants good deeds and justice instead of worship. Further, if we don’t measure up, Isaiah tells us that God will devour us with the sword. So . . . don’t be afraid?

Faith without fulfilment; worship despite God's hatred of our worship; lack of fear despite the idea that the Son of Man could return at any moment and perhaps devour us with the sword. It seems like a lot to take, don't you agree?

These are big topics on which a great deal could be said. But I will conclude with just a few thoughts on each.

For me, life is a journey from fear to faith. Accepting God's Grace to trust life does not mean that the things we fear will not happen. Weather will continue to threaten and sometimes devastate us. Young people will sometimes die in tragic accidents. All of us will eventually sicken and die.

When Jesus urges us to be ready, he is reminding us of the blessings that surround us despite all that we don't like about life. "Blessed are those servants whom the master finds alert when he comes; he will come and serve them."

When I hear this passage, I don't think of the frightening scenes that are supposed to accompany the Second Coming of Christ like those found in the Book of Revelation. I think of any moment. It could be a beautiful summer morning full of calm and promise. It could be a dire moment on one's deathbed. It could be right now, here in our inadequate worship service.

Any moment can be one in which to encounter the Christ within, the Spirit between us, and the Source of Life that supports us.

Revelation tells us that the Second Coming will be a time of torment and triumph. But I prefer St. Paul when he says that Christ has already returned to live in our hearts and minds. The writer of Revelation has his fearsome vision. We have the assurance that God is right here, right now.

Jesus calls us to pursue treasure that does not fail. He tells us to look to our hearts. For most of us, the thing we treasure above all else is not money, possessions or power. It is family. In our families, despite their flaws and frustrations, we find heavenly treasure. We find each other, and we find God.

And so we come to worship -- to remember this promise, to reflect on where God in Christ can be found in our lives today, and to renew our spirits through times of prayer, song, or sacrament. We come to stay awake to the reality of our blessings.

Isaiah reminds us that worship is not enough. God wants action and justice, which is true enough. But I do not think that Isaiah's warnings negate Jesus phrase, "Do not be afraid." When worship reminds us of our fears and how God overcomes them, it empowers us to fight for justice as well.

We have much to fear in this crazy world and in fragile lives. But we also have infinite reasons to trust. In any moment, God's Grace can help us remember that the Son of Man has been raised to live in our hearts and minds. This is true in Borderlands as well as in the world's biggest cities. It is true in times of calm as well as in times of storm. It is true in the midst of life as well as at the end of life.

And for this reason, we say again, Thanks be to God.


Sunday, August 4, 2013

How should we pray, and why?

Texts: Psalm 85 (love and justice), Luke 11:1-13 (the Lord's Prayer)

How should we pray, and why?

In our reading from Luke this morning, we heard one of the three original sources of what Protestants call "The Lord's Prayer" and what Catholics call the "Our Father."

The one from Luke is the shortest of the three. A longer and more influential version is found in Matthew 6. The third ancient version is from a First Century book called the Didache, or the Teaching of the 12 Apostles. The version in the Didache includes the ending "for thine is the power and the glory forever," which is used by most Protestants but not by Catholics.

[Although it did not end up in the New Testament, the Didache helped the early church establish its sacraments, ethical teachings and organization.]

Despite these three sources and their differences, The Lord's Prayer is the single most unifying element of Christian worship. The prayer is so well-known that it might surprise us when we look at it more closely.

A book about the Lord's Prayer that I read this week begins by saying "it is said by all Christians, but it never mentions Christ. It is prayed in all churches, but it never mentions church . . . It is called 'The Lord's Prayer,' but it never mentions 'Lord.' . . . It is prayed by Christians who split from one another over this or that doctrine, but it never mentions a single one of those doctrines."

The book is by the famous biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan and it is called "The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord's Prayer." I bought it in June in Estevan at the annual meeting of the Saskatchewan Conference of the United Church, and I will return to it later.

Our first Scripture reading, Psalm 85, is also a prayer, and it contains familiar elements. The first is thanksgiving for the actions of God in the past. The second is a request for more help from God, to restore the people again in the face of new defeats. Finally, it comments on the nature of God's love and faithfulness and God's desire for justice and peace.

I like the final section of the Psalm. But the first two parts present difficulties for me. Is the good fortune of the people in Jerusalem really the result of the action of God? Likewise, is their later defeat and misery also the result of the action of God? Many psalms say this. But while I understand why the authors 2500 years ago held such ideas, they don't work for me today.

Last week, I watched a TV documentary on PBS about the role of American churches in the Civil War of 150 years ago. It showed that many American denominations -- Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian -- split into pro-slavery and anti-slavery wings in the years leading up to the Civil War. It showed how both the Union government in the North and the Confederate government of slaveholders in the South claimed that God was on their side in the war.

Many people became disillusioned with church in the face of the horrible slaughter of the war, in which 600,000 people were killed. But there was also a revival of church fortunes after the war in the defeated South, which surprised me.

This documentary highlighted several things about church history that disturb me. There was the fact that pro-slavery Christians had an easier time finding passages in support of slavery in the Bible than their opponents had in finding ones to oppose it. Second is the role churches play supporting most wars, often for both sides, as was the case in the U.S. Civil War.

A few years ago, I aruged with my Old Testament professor about the U.S. Civil War. One of our textbooks favourably quoted U.S. President Abraham Lincoln when he said that the defeat of the South reflected God's Judgment on slavery. While this idea is certainly in line with many Bible passages, it does not fit with the God to whom I pray.

I told the professor that I resented having to buy and read an expensive textbook written by an author who accepted the idea that God's Judgement is expressed through human wars.

Personally, I don't believe that God acts in major events such as war -- or small ones like illness. But if God doesn't act in such events, why, then, should we pray?

For me, prayer reminds us of the most crucial things that we face at any given moment. It helps us remember what we hold sacred. And it allows us to give thanks for what we have already been given, namely the Grace of God's Love.

When I pray for the victims of war, I am not asking God to stop war. I pray because I hate war and seek inspiration to struggle against it. When I pray for people who are sick and in pain, I am not asking God to effect a miraculous cure. I pray that those of us who are sick will be aware of God's presence. When I pray for people who have lost loved ones, I am not praying that God will restore the dead to life. I pray that those of us who mourn will find some healing in the face of terrible pain.

Finally, I pray to give thanks for the presence of God's Spirit in both good times and bad. I pray to remember the Gift of Grace revealed in our lives.

This week, we pray again for the families and friends of six young people killed last weekend in Lloydminster. We pray because, in the face of such grief, we have nothing other than prayer. We also pray because the pain of their loss reminds us of how sacred life is, and also how short it can be.

There is much in our lives that does not reflect our sacred values, but life is still a pure gift; and for that fact, we give thanks and praise. Our world contains too much violence and pain, but we also give thanks that ultimate salvation is available to us all.

The Lord's Prayer expresses much of this, I think. It names God as Father -- a loving parent. It looks forward in hope to God's reign of peace and justice. It takes note of our need for bread and for forgiveness, even as it also gives thanks for bread and forgiveness. Finally, it reminds us of the temptations we face.

In his book, John Crossan argues that a key temptation against which the Lord's Prayer stands is the temptation to act with violence in the name of God.

On the night of his death, Crossan suggests, Jesus prays a short version of the Our Father prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he cries out: "Abba, Father. Take this cup away from me. But not my will, but your will be done." Jesus completes the prayer, Crossan says, a little later when he tells his followers to avoid the temptation to attack the Roman soldiers when they arrest him.

Churches, unfortunately, often fall victim to that temptation. The U.S. Civil War is just one example among many. In supporting wars on whatever side, churches try to follow Christ in his work for God's reign of justice. But they fail, I believe, because they do not also follow Christ on his path of non-violence and love.

New life is given to us as disciples of Christ, but this new life can be obscured by violence and war. That is the overall message I take from Scripture despite what some biblical passages say in support of war, or what leaders like those in the Union North or the Confederate South of the U.S. claimed 150 years ago.

At the end of our Gospel reading today, Jesus reminds us that the Father sends the Holy Spirit to those who ask. As St. Paul wrote in Romans, "the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." We do not always know how to pray. But the Spirit knows.

Life in the Spirit does not mean that wars won't happen. It doesn’t mean that young people won't die needlessly. It doesn't mean that we won't experience sharp pain or loss.

What life in the Spirit does mean is that God will intervene in our prayers and help remind us in good times and bad that God is with us, and that our salvation is secure.

So as always, let our prayer today be, Thanks be to God.