May 19, 2021

A Step nearer to Harmony


It is an amazing thing to be a part of a group that makes music together.  Making harmony and melody means working as a team with a specific focus.  It takes time and practice and skill development to hone both physical and mental activities in ways that work into a beautiful partnership.  Music can be the greatest gift we can give other people, a gift of joy that is not dissimilar to the joy that Jesus hoped his followers would have.  That has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic, losing our ability to make music together.  Singing is a high-risk activity, and choirs, even handbell choirs are not safe when our infection rates are so high.  Masks are needed for any activity that requires breath; even trombones and tubas need masks on them.  This has caused pain for many people.  The loss of harmony is hard to endure.

Our gospel lesson today is about joy and harmony.  The harmony between Jesus and God, the harmony between Jesus and the disciples.  The more harmony there was between them, the more joy there was too.  But Jesus was also acutely aware that when the disciples committed to following Jesus, they committed to being out of harmony with the world.  They they would look at the world through their faith and that would leave a separation that would lead to potential ostracization and disharmony.  They would be feared and hated for their loyalty, and it would not be easy for them.

Such is the world at it’s most disharmonious.  It has led to wars and discrimination, racism, sexism and bullying.  Racism that has increasingly targeted Asian people since Trump started calling Covid by its country of origin.  And that nickname for Covid gave some people permission to act violently in numbers that I don’t remember hearing before.  It is disheartening to see racist flags being flown in our county and know that hatred is here.

Store clerks and health care workers are also being targeted for bullying and abuse.  People are loudly proclaiming that they are doing this because they are Christian and anything that limits their ability to preach the Gospel is an attack on their faith.  The world hates them, they claim, and maybe they are reading this same passage today as a justification for their behavior.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be the target of bullying because of my ethnic background.  To constantly wonder what kind of behavior I will get when I wander into a store.  Will I be snubbed by store employees or by customers?  Will it be because of my gender or my skin tone?  Will people complain that I talk funny or be shocked to hear how Canadian my English sounds when I look like I have come from away?  Such is the daily lived experience of many people.  It’s not something they can turn off or avoid.

I’ll never forget gathering in Edmonton three years ago and hearing the stories of racism that United Church ministers were facing.  Some of them spoke bravely and boldly about the discrimination and bullying they experienced.  Others were more quiet and reluctant to speak out.  One of the participants was MiYeon Kim, the minister who wrote the prayers we are using today.  I first met her when we were student ministers in Alberta North West Conference, and we attended many workshops together with her fiancé Taylor Croissant.  In a sermon she wrote to go along with these prayers, she said that when she moved to Canada, she had to struggle with her own racist assumptions.  Growing up in Korea, she heard many stories about the atrocities her people experienced during the second world war, especially young girls who were forced into becoming ‘comfort women’ for Japanese soldiers.  She tells us:

I recognize that I also have prejudice and hostility toward the Japanese people in my innermost heart. In Korea I had very little exposure to Japanese people, so my prejudices were not challenged. However, my life and ministry in Canada have allowed me to meet and work with Japanese people in the United Church: Dr. Kathy Yamashita and the Rev. Kyoko Miura.

I met Kathy Yamashita at the final meeting of Alberta & Northwest Conference in May 2018. As President of the Conference, she led the meeting with outstanding leadership and wonderful humour. I was so impressed by her.

When Kathy visited our presbytery in her capacity as Conference President, she shared with us her own family’s story during the meeting. I learned that Japanese-Canadians suffered persecution during World War II; they were placed in internment camps and had their property taken from them. It was a story I had never heard before.

I became acquainted with the Rev. Kyoko in a class I took for my continuing education. In the class, she and I were the only Asians among 15 other students. Whether she knew my buried prejudice toward Japanese people or not, she visited with me every breaktime and lunchtime. Ironically, she was the only one who showed me that much kindness. I slowly opened my heart from politeness to friendship…  it became a new challenge for me to overcome my own prejudice... To open my mind and make harmony with Japanese people today, despite the wrong actions of people in the past… and to live out Christ’s commandment to become reconciled with our neighbours. It is not easy. I may need to fight hard against the stereotypes that I grew up with all around me in South Korea.

For someone as sweet and friendly and kind as MiYeon to admit she needs to fight hard against stereotypes is a real surprise.  But that is part of what Jesus wanted when he prayed that God strengthen and protect the disciples.  To help them resist the teachings of the world that says bullying is a part of life and help them instead find much joy as they follow the way that Jesus taught them.  May we too find much joy as we work to build harmony in our lives with our neighbors through remembering and following the teachings of Jesus, teachings of love, compassion, courage and forgiveness.  And may that building of harmony transform even our inmost hearts until we know abundant joy in all our relations!

May 14, 2021

Pointing to Love

 My in-laws have a sturdy little sundial on the deck made out of black wrought iron.  It’s supposed to tell the time by the way the shadow falls. But it doesn’t work unless it is pointing North.  Last summer when I was staying there, I decided to rearrange the deck chairs and the sundial got shifted around.  Since it no longer pointed north, it no longer told the time.

Some days I feel like a sundial that is not pointed in the right direction.  Maybe something unexpected happens, I sprain my ankle, there’s bad news on the radio, a friend’s house burns down, or a photo of a flag with a swastika is spotted in Boyle.  Instead of feeling like a calm grown-up Christian, I feel like a grumpy grouch that doesn’t know how to love her neighbor, especially one with a penchant for flags that are so horrific.

Enter the scriptures.  Jesus has a penchant for fixating not on the north pole, like a sun dial, but on Love.  Love is the true north that Jesus constantly points to.  Jesus is no sundial, but more like a compass that swings to point to the right direction.  Unlike humans and sundials, Jesus is unwavering in his commitment to be loving.  And not just any kind of loving, but one that is willing to take risks that seem irrational and dangerous.

This is no cheap or over-sentimentalized card or poem, this is a robust, muscular love.  In our society, we use love to describe anything from our enjoyment of flowers and chocolate to our sense of profound deep astonishment when we look into the eyes of a newborn baby.  Talk about sentimentalization!

Sentimentalization is not love.  We think that love is just sweet emotions or gentleness.  But real love leads to action and change.  I heard the story recently of a church who had a new person join it for worship.  One Sunday morning the newcomer had a panic attack because someone wore a red shirt.  It triggered memories of a trauma experience she had at the hands of a bully.  The congregation was concerned.  Should they ban red shirts?  Should they say to the newcomer, “I’m sorry but you don’t belong here if you can’t handle a red shirt or two from time to time”?  How would that help her in her day to day life ?

We have had a similar debate for years that flared up online this week with United Church ministers.  Do we call this service “Mother’s Day Service”, “Christian Family Day Service” or just “Sunday Service”?  For some folks the word ‘Mother’ triggers memories worse than any seen in movies like “Mommy Dearest”.  Others struggle because of fertility issues or because of life circumstances.  Or tragedy strikes when they least expect it, and motherhood becomes a memory rather than a lived reality.

When I was growing up as a child, we didn’t know much about grief.  We didn’t have funeral resources for stillborns, miscarriages and infants.  And we thought that the most loving thing we could do for a person in grief was not to talk about it for fear of upsetting someone.  We pretended the tragedy didn’t happen, or that a pregnancy that didn’t end happily was no big deal as one could always try again.  We didn’t treat single women or couples who didn’t procreate with a lot of respect.  We didn’t make space for the many tiny moments of grief that came into everyone’s life. And we didn’t talk about the ways in which people coped with those stresses, the addictions to cocktails, the risky behaviors, the mental illness, the depression, the abuse or family violence and the anxiety attacks that resulted from trying to live as if pain and grief did not exist.

That was not love.  That was supposed to be love, protecting each other from pain and hurt, but it was not love.  It enabled people to keep stuck, keep the grief suppressed, keep the emotions bottled up, keep the pain at home where it belonged, in private.  It kept people feeling isolated and alone.

Real love says, “I am here with you.  I hear you.  You are not alone.  Your pain may be unique, but others have gotten through what you are going through.”  Real love says, “this is going to hurt but I will hold your hand”.  Real love says, “these are birth pangs and I can’t take them away from you, but I can breathe with you”.  Real love says, “let us weep together a while.  We will one day rejoice together too.”  Real love says, “let us have a memorial service for that stillborn” even if it happened 40 years ago.

Dr. Katharina Manassis, a member of St. Mark’s United Church in Scarborough and both a Child Psychiatrist and University of Toronto Professor Emerita said this about such real love by her congregation:

My introduction to a community of faith didn’t come until middle age, after a traumatic bereavement. The minister on call to the local funeral home listened intently to my distraught, guilt-ridden tale of loss and validated my experience. I was reassured that… my emotional response was not unique… I … became a member of his church. I came to understand that in some circumstances compassionate pastoral care is even more helpful than counseling by a mental health professional, because rather than singling out the person as having a psychological problem, it recognizes suffering as part of the human experience.  Within my faith community, I found supportive friends, inspiring role models, and people who were just good fun. Coffee time, whether in person or over Zoom, is a valuable mental wellness activity for many of us. Knowing there are like-minded people struggling with similar challenges can make a huge difference in well-being, especially when we are feeling alone. 

When we love deeply, compassionately and bravely like this, we transform our world.  Whether it’s getting an ugly flag pulled down in our county, letters written to MLAs about racism in the proposed curriculum, or donating to the Mother’s Day Mission and Service appeal this year, together, when we remember that like sundials we must orient ourselves by the true north of love that Jesus taught, we make a real difference in the world.  May it be so for us all.

May 04, 2021

Rooted in the Divine, Not in the Carpet


When Tim and I first got together, it was quite apparent that our families were similar.  My grandma was so shaped by the Famous Five and the Temperance Union Movement that she soaked her Christmas cake in Welch’s Grape Juice.  Tim’s grandma would offer great hospitality with shortbread and scotch mints but never had any liquor in the house.  Both our grandmothers were active in Edmonton United Churches, mine at St. Paul’s near the university, and Tim’s at Strathearn United near Bonny Doon.  So when he signed up for a wine-tasting tour one summer while I and the kids were taking camp programs at Naramata Centre, I felt a little nervous.  I never expected it to become a life-long interest for him the way it did.  He graduated from Baby Duck to Gewurztraminer, while I stuck to the occasional chocolate ice wine, not a common vintage.

It made our families nervous, but not enough to denounce us or disinherit us.  Then Naramata Centre had a a course on wine and spirituality.  Tim enjoyed visiting Blasted Church, Elephant Island and Township 7, developing a taste for merlots and other reds.  I discovered a passion for chai tea lattes.  Preferably with a subtle dusting of cinnamon.  It could have led to conflict, but we agreed that we still loved each other despite our different tastes in beverages.

Some people were so offended by the course that was offered that letters were written to Naramata and the Observer Magazine that threatened and blustered.  No more donations were going to go their way for supporting such outrageous attitudes and promoting alcoholism.  I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time, being very busy with raising two active children.  But I know it hurt some people to the point that they pruned themselves away from their church.

Congregations can lose people so easily that way.  And if it’s not about attitudes around alcohol, it’s the color of the paint for the office, or the removal of a banner or something else.  One of my classmates found out that their big split was over carpet color and 20 years later, people were still not speaking to each other.  That’s nasty in a small town, and I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus had in mind.  But it may have been exactly what John had in mind when he wrote, “If you say you love God but hate your sister or brother, you are a liar.”

Strong words, John!  How do we love our siblings in Christ especially when they are so not what we expect?  And of course, we’re supposed to practice loving the members of our faith community so we will be able to love our neighbors too.  Love is the fruit of the Spirit that we are supposed to be able to grow. 

This is easier said than done.  We can get caught up in feelings of frustration and concern, even fear when we don’t get the results we hope for.  And we can bend over backwards to be nice Canadians.  But we are not called to be nice!  We are called to be loving.  Sometimes that looks the same, but it is rooted in a different soil.  Being nice can lead to an artificial harmony where everyone talks and acts like we’re a loving family.  We don’t want to say how we feel because it might hurt someone’s feelings, or even worse because we don’t know how to say it in ways that will be kind.  So people turn a blind eye, or pretend they are happy or do their best to ignore the behaviors that are hurtful.  We ignore comments like “people always” or “people never”.  We leave conversations unsettled and unsure why we are feeling uncomfortable.  We say nothing at work when a racist or sexist joke is made. We don’t talk about the family member struggling with mental health issues that is phoning us at all times of night and day that have us feeling overwhelmed or sleep deprived.  Then all of the sudden, the carpet color comes up and boom!

Artificial harmony is like a pot on a stove that has a lid tightly attached and nowhere for the steam to go.  Eventually it explodes and people wonder how it got so hot.  Then we end up with two, three, five, even eight churches where once there was one.  There are towns in Ontario where there are three United Churches in the same block, one that started out Methodist, one that was Presbyterian, a Congregationalist and so on and these happened before 1925.  It happens in modern times too, Southern Baptists are losing prominent leaders, especially women, and the United Methodist Church is splitting for many reasons.

How do we avoid getting caught up in carpet issues and stay rooted and grounded in Christ?  How do we hear the call to bear fruit?  Loving fruit, full-bodied and richly flavored fruit?

We stay connected not to carpet conflicts but to the vine that nourishes us.  We stay connected to God, our Higher Power, Great Architect, Great Spirit, however you want to label the Good Orderly Direction.  We stay connected by being curious about our own emotional reactions when we feel triggered and ask God to care for these tender trigger spots.  We stay connected by confessing to ourselves and to God the times we haven’t stayed connected or even wanted to be connected to the True Vine. We stay connected by caring deeply about the challenges our neighbors are facing and not assuming that they are being deliberately hurtful.  We stay connected by getting coached in that connection.  Coached by this congregation as we practise together how to pray, how to connect to God through song and through ritual, how to be open to hearing God’s word through our scriptures.  When we commit to curiosity, confession, coaching and caring communication with God and one another, the fruits of the spirit are abundant, and we prove ourselves loving disciples of Christ, rooted in the divine.  May it be so for us all!

April 27, 2021

Stuck in our own ditches, Investing in sheep

On this Good Shepherd Sunday, it is helpful to remember the reality of working with sheep.  They can be very smart, especially the bell weathers, and at other times they can be, well, not the cleverest animals you have ever met, and just as prone to mistakes as we humans can be. Here's a video to remind us what sheep can be like: (99) Sheep gets stuck in trench, jumps back in - YouTube. So they can get into ruts and need help getting out, only to fall into bigger and deeper ruts.  Not unlike humans.  We can get caught in emotional ruts and intellectual ditches unintentionally, we can get stuck and not know how to extricate ourselves from the holes we are in.  

Cue the shepherd, and not just any shepherd, the good shepherd as mentioned in our scriptures this morning.  One thing I learned this week was the word for ‘good’ used in the original Greek might be better translated as ‘model’.  So, although the shepherd in our scripture is contrasted with a hired hand who doesn’t have a relationship with the sheep other than their paycheck, it’s not so much that the shepherd is ‘good’ and the hired help is ‘bad’.  It is that a model shepherd, an ideal shepherd, the kind you want to hire to take care of your flock, invests more than time into the flock.  It’s not just about the paycheck, it’s about where the heart is invested.

Both our scriptures talk about Jesus, our model shepherd, as being so invested in the flock that he was ready and willing to sacrifice even his life for those sheep.  To be so into a loving relationship that the gospel writer later wrote, “greater love has no one than this that someone lays down their life for another”.  Our model shepherd loves so deeply that they will risk their body for not just another person but a whole community.

That is quite the model to follow.  That’s quite the inspiration, that’s quite the big shoes to step into.  Jesus said that this love was so big that it encompassed others who were not a part of the inner circle, the disciples and followers that were part of the flock.  Jesus specifically spoke about the other sheep that were also needing a shepherd.  The ones who were lost, the ones who had wandered off, the ones who were isolated, the ones who were in pain or in danger.  Jesus wasn’t there just for the 12, or just for the people of Israel.  Jesus was there for the big picture.  Jesus was deeply, emotionally invested in the wellbeing of each and everyone in the world.  That’s quite the model.

We see plenty of examples where people are not following the model of being invested in the wellbeing of everyone.  Anti maskers who want their businesses reopened and so what if a few old people die here or there.  Racists who think it’s fun to use a microphone with a noose attached to it during a public demonstration in Northern Alberta.  Politicians who don’t support their own party’s stance on health regulations.  A legal system that throws out tickets issued to people flaunting the health regulations. Police officers who think it’s okay to kneel on someone’s neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds.  Plenty of stories of people who are more like hired hands than role models.

We too are called to listen for the Shepherd’s voice and become loving, invested role models for our community.  This is not easy work.  How do I love the person who thinks that I am bad or political when I wear a mask or sign up for a vaccine?  How do I love the person who tells me I am a sheeple, and stupid for believing doctors, scientists, and politicians?  How do I love the neighbor who thinks it’s okay to pollute the world with facemasks?  Or the family member who promotes conspiracy theories every time we call?  Sacrificial love is not easy in these situations.

Where are the role models who care to the point of sacrificial love?  I recently learned about a movement in Minneapolis that started after the George Floyd murder.  One lady courageously donned her clergy collar, e-mailed her colleagues, and went out into the riots to listen and support protestors.  She became part of a growing team who wear bright orange t-shirts with the word ‘chaplain’ on it in bold letters.  They hand out everything from bottled water and pizza, but mostly they listen.  They listen to trauma, fear, anger, frustration, racism, injustice and more.  And day by day, they are modelling what it means to be a caring and loving presence in the world.  It is not easy work, it is not safe work, but it is work that they have felt called to do.  To bring healing in a time where the world feels out of control.

Sacrificial love for ordinary sheep is the model shepherd’s highest intention.  The model shepherd is not me, and not you, but we can become inspired to imitate that model to our best abilities.  Just as Jesus had very clear intentions centered around loving his flock, we need to wrestle with our intentions.  Why do we feel the need to pick up that phone, write that letter, talk to that person?  Is it out of love for our community or is it out of anger or fear?  Can we see that individual as part of our flock that we are called to guide?  There are some sheep that are in a deep hole of anger, distrust and fear because that’s how they are meeting their needs for safety.

And we need to be aware that we can feel more like the hired hand than the shepherd.  Our ability to love that sacrificially might not be there yet.  We may not be as healed as we’d like from our own feelings of fear and anger.  We may not be invested in their welfare as much as our own.  This may be the Model Shepherd’s voice calling us to rest patiently until we gain our own strength and safety before we try to rescue others.  It’s very easy to think we can fix things and people when we are stuck in our own ditches.  And trying to fix other people because we know best is the very definition of colonial oppression which led to residential schools and other racist interventions; because we did not have our intentions grounded in sacrificial love. 

And maybe we need to recognize that we are not the shepherd called to help them out of that hole, or that this is not the right time for us to help. Our most loving action may be to rest and pray that we be pulled out of our own ditches and that they may find someone wise and patient who has the skills to pull our neighbors out of their ditch too.  There are many resources that we can refer people to. But we can choose to invest in the most loving outcome for people who are struggling, just like us, to make sense of the world.

We are not Jesus, the model shepherd who is deeply invested in our welfare.  But we can listen for Jesus and remember to do our best to love others as we have been loved, deeply, unconditionally, and love ourselves as well especially when we feel like we’re caught in a ditch like a silly sheep.  We are loved, even then, and thanks be to God for that sacrificial investment of love!

April 13, 2021

Who Ya Gonna Call? Lock Busters!


People say that it takes a lot of repetition before we remember something.  Well, it took more than a few years of repetition before I realized that we always hear the story of Thomas the first Sunday after Easter.  The early church thought it was so important, that it is right up there with the Luke passage on Christmas Eve.  Even the Road to Emmaus is only once in three years.  It’s a pretty special story, and one that is trying to get the critics and cynics to hear a message they don’t want to hear.

There’s a lot of that around these days.  Locked doors, locked minds, locked up emotions, locked up because we’ve been living with Covid and we humans are not very good with dealing with curtailments of our freedoms and our lives.  We have a difficult time with thinking about short term sacrifices for long term gains.

There’s an old experiment where children were told that they could chose to eat a marshmallow right away or they could wait and eat two marshmallows when the tester came back.  They were left in an empty room. A third of the kids ate the marshmallow as soon as the tester left.  The rest were able to wait, some as long as 15 minutes.  Interestingly, the kids who waited were more successful in school, in work and in their personal lives.  Waiting for the future, giving up things for a benefit down the road, these were all predicted by their ability to hold off eating the marshmallow. 

We want what we want when we want it and some folks want it now.  Some of us can wait, some of us choose not to wait.  When tragedy hits, we don’t know what to do with our wants.  We don’t know how to deal with the loss of our dreams and expectations.  We go into trauma mode.

That’s where the disciples were.  The anguish of losing their leader to state-sanctioned torture and brutal execution, the fear that they would be the next victims of that violence, the grief of having their dreams and hopes brutally stopped unexpectedly had put them into full-blown trauma reactions.

When we are faced with a stressful situation, we will instinctively respond in one of three ways, fight, flight or freeze.  We see that most clearly in war zones.  Some choose to become refugees and take flight, some pick up weapons to join a side and some hunker down waiting for the war to pass.  All are normal responses to conflict.  We too are likely to respond in one of those three ways.

Given the circumstances that the disciples were living in, an occupied country with extreme poverty amongst the Jewish people and extreme wealth for the upper-class elite especially the Romans and the collaborators, there was already a sense of Fight and Freeze.  The disciples thought they were going to serve Jesus as the king’s advisors and the Zebedee brothers were squabbling over who would get the best seating near Jesus’ throne.  Insurrectionists were a source of constant trouble for the Romans, and the temple authorities didn’t want Jesus to continue to stir the pot.  So, there was already trauma and conflict brewing.

No wonder the disciples, after facing the arrest of Jesus, scattered and ran and denied they knew Jesus.  No wonder after the execution, they gathered in fear and trembling behind locked doors.  They were living with trauma!

So what takes people who are locked down, scared for their lives, denying their faith and afraid to take a stand and transforms them into powerful public preachers?  How do we reconcile the fearful disciples with the man who wrote boldly, “We declare to you what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands…”  That is a strong and passionate statement to start a letter with, don’t you think?  How do we connect the dots between the locked doors and the courageous writer?

It keeps coming back to Jesus.  Not once but twice does he do his magic Houdini act, appearing behind locked doors.  He keeps showing up!  Again and again.  He’s willing to have Thomas touch him in his wounds, a most intimate act.  “See my suffering!  Hear my comforting words! Touch my trauma!  And please, let’s not wag fingers at poor Thomas.  After all, the rest of the disciples saw Jesus first and they still met behind locked doors.  What is striking about Thomas is that one appearance was all it took.  The others needed more, and could not convince Thomas that what they were saying was true.  Not because he was at fault but maybe because they still were not completely sure themselves.  They were teetering on the edge of transformation, from disciples to apostles, from students to teachers, and they were not quite ready.

What pushed them from trauma to new life, new hope, new vision and goals and expectations?  Jesus.  He pushed past the locks they had put in place to keep themselves safe.  He encouraged them to ask questions, comforting them with new challenges and thoughts.  He kept showing up in their lives and they grew to trust him.  He gave them choices and opportunities to touch him.  Thomas didn’t take Jesus up on the offer to touch the bloody cuts, but he appreciated the invitation.

We all are invited to a new holy and loving life.  We are invited to care about ourselves, our neighbors and our God.  We make mistakes and fall short, struggling to be honest even to ourselves about our flaws.  To hear John write that we all make mistakes is to hear that he too struggled with his own mistakes, his own fears and failings.  He too hid in a locked room, afraid to come out and share his truth.  But he testified that Jesus keeps breaking the locks to our own rooms and keeps coming into our own lives with the glorious Easter news that we are not alone, that God loves us with a passion beyond human experience and guides and supports us all in our times of trial.  Truly, blessed are those who have not seen Jesus and yet believe even in their fears and traumas.  Easter comes to us all, Halleluiah!

April 06, 2021

Sunrise moments

I know a friend who starts his day watching sunrises.  He drinks his first coffee watching the sun slowly come up above the horizon and flood the world with warmth and light.  

The last few days, I have been doing the same, going out with Tim’s camera and using it to capture the moment the sky slowly lightened up.  It was a time of stillness, but the squirrel started to scamper along the branches, the birds began to chirp, the geese flew overhead, and the clouds went from dark grey to soft warm pinks and golds.  They varied from one morning to the next, and they happen so slowly and gradually that it seemed like nothing had changed until there it was, the sun, and the day had begun.

Sometimes we feel caught in a perpetual nighttime of the soul, or a dull greyness of the pre-dawn cold morning.  When do we get to wake up, go outside and really know that the light has dawned, a new day has arrived, and new hopes and possibilities are just around the corner?

When the two Marys and Salome went out to the tomb, they had everything planned out.  They had traditions to follow, they had expectations of what they would do and what they would bring, they had a list. They had no idea what their day was going to bring.  

They needed the traditions that gave them clear direction on what to do.  They were dealing with the trauma of having seen their beloved leader tortured and executed.  Maybe they came as a group because one of them would train the others on what to do.  Maybe they came as a group because they needed each other’s support.  Whatever the reason, they didn’t get what they expected.  They didn’t have a decomposing body or the ripe stench of the tomb.  They didn’t have to wash the corpse of their leader and smear myrrh over him as they wept at the marks of torture.  Instead, they were bewildered and confused by what they found, terrified even, by this unexpected turn of events.  They had no idea of what the empty tomb meant.  They had no wise theologians or biblical scholars to explain what happened.  So, they ran.  

We might wish we could run from what we are experiencing now.  We are in the midst of terrible times, where we don’t know where to turn for trustworthy and safe news.  Where we long for the ‘good old days.’ Where all we can imagine is going back to the way life was over a year ago.  Where we wish the gloom of this not-quite sunrise, this not-quite easter would become a full, glorious turning back the clock and getting back to normal.

We’re tired of keeping on.  We’re tired of waiting for good news, we’re tired of isolation.  And we’re wondering when this will all end.  We are in a difficult place.

One of my favorite stories of ordinary people in difficult places is from the Lord of the Rings By J R R Tolkien.  Sam Gamgee, a gardener and cook, is half-way up a mountain with his friend Frodo, and it feels like they will never see the sun again.  Into that time of despair, he tells Frodo: 

It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo.

The ones that really mattered.

Full of darkness and danger they were,

and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end.

Because how could the end be happy?

How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened.

But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.

Even darkness must pass.

A new day will come.

And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer.

Those were the stories that stayed with you.

Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t.

Because they were holding on to something. 

That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

What are we holding onto?  What good will we find if we go to our Galilee? Will we watch the sunrise and see things in a new light?  Will we find our trauma and grief transformed into an energy and enthusiasm that would not stop for any reason, the way it did for Mary and Peter and the rest?

We know the rest of their great story.  We know that many of Jesus’ followers had an experience beyond words, beyond understanding, that pulled them from despair and grief into action and joy.  They found themselves living in new hope, in new ways of being.  They could not go back to the old ways, the old traditions.  They went forward with courage and resilience and love into an unimaginable future.

Even in the midst of Mordor, Sam knew that the sun would rise.  In the midst of the first Easter, faced with the empty tomb, the women knew that something had changed beyond description or understanding, that the sun would rise over Lake Galilee.  In the midst of our own challenging times, we know that things will be different one day.  We know that God has been with us when we least expected it, in the call of a friend, in an unexpected postcard or phone call, in the geese flying overhead, in the sunrises that flood our lives with new vision and new hope.  Our lives will be changed, just like the women at the tomb, and they will be changed in ways we least expect it.  Let us stay ready and open for God to flood our lives with the light of new faith, and new lives of unexpected beauty and joy.  Let us remember that God can plant sunrises of hope and faith in our lives.  In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, we are not alone.  Halleluiah!

(sunrise photos M. Rosborough, March 2021 from the church steps)

March 30, 2021

Don’t be Political!

Trajan's Column, Rome
photo by M. Rosborough
 One thing we hear often as criticism of clergy is that we are too political.  They will say.  “Politics and Religion should be separate”, and for the most part United Church ministers avoid preaching about how to vote and who to vote for.  But that is not what our critics mean.  It’s not about keeping our views about conservatives and liberals and other parties a secret from our congregations, it’s about not disturbing the apple cart, not questioning the system, not pushing people to think about poverty or the environment or racism or reconciliation.  One person said that I was being political in my support of masks and public health restrictions, caring more about seniors and so-called fear mongering fake news than I cared about the economy and jobs.

Whenever I hear that, I think about Palm Sunday.  Jesus rode in on a donkey to crowds of cheering people desperate for signs of hope.  This year, I was struck by how he was living according to the anacronym we have been exploring: PIE – public, intentional and explicit.

Riding down the street while crowds cry out for help, that’s pretty public.  Hosanna means ‘save us’ and it is the cry of a desperate people that have felt oppressed for far too long.  “Save us from our feelings of helplessness, save us from our fears of financial ruin and starvation, save us from our anxieties around whether or not we will be able to put food on the table, save us from being bullied and pushed around by roman soldiers and tax collectors.”  Both Jesus and the people are being very public.

Then there’s the intentional part of what Jesus did.  As Robbie pointed out, people didn’t just go around grabbing each other’s donkeys, especially young ones that had never been ridden before.  This doesn’t sound like a snatch and grab, but possibly something Jesus had arranged ahead of time.  It sounds like he knew where the colt was and instructed his disciples in the appropriate response once they were questioned.  Then he rode it down the street where he knew he would be seen and heard by everyone.  He was intentional about when, too, as people had gathered for a festival and had cut branches before they had come.  He knew they would be there, and timed it accordingly.

Lastly, the explicit part.  Jesus was reminding people of all the royal parades and references to scripture and history of other times kings of Jerusalem had ridden into the city for holy events.  In Rome, there would be a parade at the end of every war, with slaves captured and booty raided.  This was something that an authority figure did to remind the citizens of where the power lay.  But Jesus didn’t parade in with soldiers or treasure chests.  He came simply, accompanied by his friends and followers.  He didn’t head to the palace of Herod, king of Israel, to topple his government.  He didn’t storm Pilate’s castle either.  He went straight to the Temple.  He was only interested in challenging that institution and confronting the legalistic attitudes of the people in charge.  I found the last verse especially striking, “he looked around at everything, and then returned back to Bethany”.  It sounds like he was inspecting the place, acting as if he was the principal wandering into a classroom to see how the students and teachers were doing.  Preparing to overturn tables, to teach, and to challenge the Pharisees and Sadducees to theological debates.  

Public, Intentional and Explicit.  Bravo Jesus, for doing all this, but pardon me for saying the obvious, but so what?  I don’t think we’ll be leading parades down main street any time soon, and I’m not planning to ride a colt bareback when I don’t know how to hang on without a rein or saddle, especially one that hasn’t been trained yet!  What’s that got to do with us in today’s culture?

Now more than ever, there is a need for calm, sane Christians to speak up with voices of reason.  All too often stories about pastors and preachers are about the scandals, the arrests for non-compliance, and the grab for headlines.  People with no connection to church may very well think we are a bunch of fringe cultists.  Public voices of reason are vital to getting through our current crisis.  We modern folk can relate to the cries to save us, we too feel oppressed by the current need to do what we can to stay calm in the midst of turbulent times.  We too feel anxious about the variety of opinions about what is the right thing to do to stay healthy.  We hear angry voices calling us names when we try to have a respectful conversation.  We feel sorrow when we hear of tragedy both far away in Rohingya and in our own community like Kelsea Thunder in Cornwall.  We need saving just as much as those first-century folks lining the road and throwing down their coats in front of Jesus to make a pathway fit for a king.  But our faith is helping so many of us stay calm and level-headed.  We need to speak up and let people know when our strength and resilience comes from our faith.

Then there’s intentions, and I remember the old saying, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions”, but one of the spiritual practices in our Lenten study this week is called the Examen, where we are asked to spend some time each day thoughtfully reflecting on our actions and conversations and whether they were loving towards ourselves or our neighbors.

And being explicit means for us being very clear and articulate that what we do is to the best of our ability in the service of God and neighbor.  A tall order, but we have God’s grace to guide us, empower us and encourage us as we too shout Hosanna, save us.  And God hears us, supports us, and loves us so much that even Good Friday cannot stop God’s love.  Thanks be to God for this very political way of life we are called to be on.  Amen.