November 28, 2023

Haven’t I seen you somewhere?

Ever have one of those moments when you see someone that you think you know from somewhere but you’re not quite sure how you know them?  And you say something like “Excuse me, you look familiar” in hopes that you can figure it out.

It doesn’t take much for me to struggle with faces and remembering who people are.  I was surprised to learn that there’s a condition called face blindness where some people have such a poor memory for faces that they don’t even recognize themselves in the mirror.  I’m not that bad, but when a young man snuck up on me at a concert last March, it took me a whole 3 seconds to recognize him as my own son!  It causes awkwardness when people remember me better than I remember them..  It’s one of those skills people take for granted but it doesn’t come easily, any more than making eye contact is for many neurodivergent people.

So the sheep and the goats in Matthew’s parable didn’t recognize the King when he showed up unexpectedly to sort things out.  Not surprisingly, they were confused and bewildered when the King thanked them or scolded them for his treatment.  They all had face blindness when it came to the ruler of all!

They were surprised to be judged in such a way.  Regardless of whether they were sheep or goats, the shock was great for everyone.  They didn’t expect to be herded into groups, they didn’t expect to be called to account for their behavior, and they certainly didn’t expect the rewards or the punishment they were given. 

Judgement is not a topic we feel comfortable talking about in the United Church.  We preach a more loving God who forgives everything and loves everyone.  And when we define God as infinite love, that’s an easy conclusion to make.  Who can resist infinite love?  But the gospel of Matthew is sprinkled throughout with stories like this.  Stories of bringing down the powerful people who bullied Matthew’s community.

Stories of God making things right, like the words from Ezekiel: “I am stepping in and making things right between the plump sheep and the skinny sheep. Because you forced your way with shoulder and rump and butted at all the weaker animals with your horns till you scattered them all over the hills, I’ll come in and save my dear flock, no longer let them be pushed around. I’ll step in and set things right between one sheep and another.”

We all know what it’s like to be butted by a stronger person.  It leaves us feeling vulnerable, anxious and frustrated.  We struggle to figure out how to respond.  Should we butt back?  Should we run away?  Sometimes we turn around and butt someone else instead.  We may not intend to become the one who butts others, but it happens.  Some of us don’t even realize that we are butting people.  God is not impressed.

At a workshop on Tuesday for clergy in Norther Spirit Region, there was a guest speaker who talked about his community’s project to reduce butting.  It was called “Voices Against Bullying” and it was started after a 14-year-old boy was killed on the grounds of his high school.  Research and resources were developed to help families, teachers and children learn about ways to reduce bullying in schools.  They consulted specialists and made presentations.  They found a simple way to teach kids about bullying using the picture of a seesaw.  Sometimes people seek power over others, what we call bullying behavior.  Sometimes people seek power under others, what we could call victim behavior.  We can also call it win lose and lose win.  What we really want, and what God wants, is power with, or win win, a balanced seesaw.  God calls us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves which means to not let someone bully us, nor let ourselves bully others.  When we are in an uncomfortable situation, we can ask ourselves about who is getting the power and who needs the power. That can help us get to a win win or balance.  Easier said than done. 

For those who feel powerless, and we probably all feel that from time to time, it is a great comfort to know that God will come and sort out those bullying sheep, those arrogant goats.  But as one wise theologian said, as soon as we sort people into those bullies and us victims, we are causing problems too.  He said that we shouldn’t assume we are the innocent heroes and they are the bad guys as it keeps us feeling self-righteous and smug and does nothing to rebalance the see saw.  It is a form of bullying in itself.  We strive to have power over the other people and their hurtful behavior, and we refuse to see that they might be hurting too.  We pretend that they are bad goats, not good sheep and can feel complacent or satisfied that God will get them.

The reality is more complicated, of course.  We are all human, and for the most part have all known what it is like to have little power and lots of power.  But as Christians, our role model is Jesus, whom we call divine Prime Minister, Ultimate President, King of kings, who is guiding both sheep and goats alike.  And we remember that Jesus, the king of kings, became a servant and asked us to be servants to each other.  In as much as you have been full of empathy for your neighbor, in as much as you have chosen power with instead of power over or power under, in as much as you have strived to understand others and treated them with respect, you have done this to Jesus.  What a powerful call and powerful message!  May we grow in wisdom, understanding, compassion and healthy servanthood, may we recognize the face of Jesus in everyone we meet.  Amen.

November 21, 2023

Message: Taking Risks

$450,000 dollars!  What would you do if Danielle Smith walked in and handed you $450,000? Or you happened to be in the audience of an Oprah Show and she said, “you get money and you get money and you get money, everybody gets money!”

And the dollar bills start falling from the ceiling and everyone goes nuts!  Wow! Look at it all!  Woo hoo!  Money!

Now you may be saying, hold on a moment, the people in today’s parable didn’t get almost half a million dollars, they got a measly talent.  Why are you blowing this out of proportion? After all, we know what this parable is about.  It’s about wise investing and not just our money but our skills and aptitudes, right?

Well, yes and no.  It’s easy to overlook this particular parable because we’ve heard it so many times.  Same old same old.  But we forget that parables were told by Jesus to shock his listeners.  The stories were like a defibrillator to their souls, to surprise them and help them think of the world in a new light.  Jesus didn’t intend this story to be boring or predictable!

So let’s put it into a bit of context.  First of all, remember that he is talking about a master and his servants in the Roman empire.  Chances are they are not servants, they are slaves.  They don’t have the right to go on strike or switch jobs without permission.  They do what they are told and they don’t need resumes because they have the job for life.  No retirement plan either unless they have a compassionate master.  But they get two square meals a day and a roof over their heads if they are working hard.  And it’s all about pleasing the master because if you don’t, you could be out on your ear and homeless at the snap of a finger without a severance package, a recommendation or anything other than the clothes on your back.

The master decides to leave his slaves in charge as he goes on a long journey.  He hands them some money.  A talent, which in the Greek is talanton which meant weight, probably the equivalent of a ton of gold or as one commentator said, 15 year’s wages for an average citizen.  That’s what the third slave gets, 15 years wages! 

So at $15/hour, 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, over 15 years, a talent is about 450 thousand dollars!  The other two slaves must have been even more astonished.  The first got two and a quarter million dollars, the second got almost a million.  No wonder they invested that money in some kind of interest-bearing project.

The third slave got considerably less, probably because the master knew he wouldn’t be able to wrap his mind around such a huge sum of money.  But still, almost half a million dollars without any instructions is a pretty impressive windfall for anyone.

How many of you would throw half a million dollars into a clay pot and dig a hole in the back yard and bury it there for safe keeping?  Or would you throw it in a checking account?  I think most people would figure out some way to earn interest, it’s a bit of a no brainer.  Back in the time of Jesus, burying a few coins was not unusual, it was similar to putting money into a mattress.  Back then there were no bank machines on every corner and no credit cards.

So, the third slave buried his money to keep it safe.  Then when the master came back, the slave came up with a million excuses as to why he did nothing with the money.  He didn’t want to take a risk with the money.  He didn’t trust the master’s judgement, he didn’t want to disappoint him, and he didn’t want to take a chance.    And he tried to shift the blame to his master.  It’s your fault I don’t take risks.  It’s your fault I want to make sure to please you. 

Except this cautious approach didn’t please the master.  The excuses didn’t land well especially since the other two slaves did invest their windfall.  The third slave could have simply asked the first two for advice on where to invest.  Instead, he chose the easy way, the simple way, the way that didn’t take him out of his comfort zone.  He chose not to risk.

One of the six hallmarks of a thriving church is the willingness to take risks.  In fact one minister described their thriving church as one that had a high risk appetite. He said “we're comfortable with failure and excited to try different things to get different results.”  Sounds like they take this parable to heart!

Taking risks might be as simple as sharing our events on Facebook even though we get push back.  Taking risks might be wearing a rainbow pin.  Taking risks might be challenging people to not gossip about others.  Taking risks might be coming to our Trans day of remembrance potluck tomorrow evening where we will commemorate people who risk their lives just by leaving their homes to shop for groceries.  Taking risks might be trying a new mission idea to help our community become safer for others. Taking risks might be handing out sandwiches to our neighbors.

As Jesus said, a life with zero risk is a terrible way to live because it means that fear drives every choice we make.  And as Paul wrote, we are children of honesty, called to live lives of openness, trustworthiness and compassion.  We are called to live with courage and with encouragement and with risk taking because God has trusted us with abundance and sees us as talented and beloved.  May we see ourselves as God sees us, capable of risk and courage as we live into God’s vision of what the world could be like if we loved and worked as Jesus did.  Let us be grateful risk takers for God’s vision! Amen.

November 14, 2023

Waiting with light

The hardest part of being a Christian is waiting for Jesus.  It’s not an easy topic as we can get mired in the hoopla and hysteria about the ‘second coming’ that has generated a bunch of silly ideas.  The bumper stickers that say “in case of the rapture this car will be driverless” or cartoons describing the way to scare fundamentalist Christians is to get a bunch of human-shaped helium balloons released in the air!  In this scripture, Jesus doesn’t talk about people learning how to defy gravity but about people being prepared. The wise virgins were ready with reserves while the silly ones ran out of what they had and didn’t think to get more until it was too late.

Of course, we want to see ourselves as wise and not silly.  We want to have reserves for when the Bridegroom arrives and the party starts.  And we recognize that the party has been waiting for a very long time.  The party where the Prince of Peace lives among us and the Community of Heaven is fully realized.

How do we keep prepared when it feels like the wait for justice and peace has been going on for as long as humanity has existed?  How do we find the energy and light to keep hoping and praying for peace for all who live on this big, beautiful planet? How do we find resiliency when times are hard, when people are divisive, when empathy seems to be at a new low, when politics are based more on conspiracy than facts, when leaders and scientists don’t speak with consensus or from self-interest rather than from what is best for us all, when global warming is dire, but war takes up more energy than peace?

How do we keep our lamps lit?  How do we wait wisely?

Joshua did it by setting an example of commitment to God.  “As for me and mine, we will serve God” he said, and he reminded people how they were rescued from slavery.  Most of them were the children and grandchildren of slaves, but they remembered their parents and grandparents telling them what slavery had been like and how hard it had been to wander in the wilderness until they accepted the fact that they were fully reliant on God for their survival.  That acceptance was not easy, and the book of Exodus is full of stories of Moses trying to get them to rely on God instead of looking back to the days of slavery where everything was decided for them.  They were told where to work, where to live, when to eat and when to sleep by their overlords. 

In the wilderness, every day was a choice, and every place they stayed had hidden temptations.  Let’s build a golden calf, let’s complain because we’re thirsty, let’s complain because we’re hungry, let’s complain because we got bitten by snakes and so on.  Every time they complained, Moses reminded them who they were, the children of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Leah and Rebecca.  Then Moses reminded them of what they had escaped.  The mindless slavery and petty abuse, the whips, the microaggressions, the racism and the times where they lived in fear that their babies would be killed on the whims of a power-hungry Pharaoh King. 

Joshua did the same to the people.  And in this scripture, he was about to lead the people into a new land where they would build homes, plant crops and live more stable lives than before.  But he warned them not to forget their past.  He warned them that following God had to be more than lip service.  It had to be a total commitment to living in a covenant relationship with God.  It wouldn’t be easy either.  “Our God is a jealous God” he said, a God that wanted more than a promise made one day and forgotten the next.

The parable of the 10 bridesmaids is also about commitment beyond lip service.  It’s not about just accepting Jesus into our hearts and we all live happily ever after.  The five silly bridesmaids knew the bridegroom, and even called him Lord.  That was not enough to get into the party. 

We don’t know why the silly ones were not more prepared.  Maybe they focused on getting their dresses just right and their hair just so.  Maybe they didn’t want to think about the future.  Maybe they were too busy having a good gossip fest or maybe they were tired and apathetic.  For whatever reason, they ran out of oil for their lamps. They failed in their duty to be light bearers for the bridegroom.

God wants more than lip service.  God wants to invite us to join in a wedding party like no other.  That’s hard to do when we feel caught up by the many gods competing for our attention.  It means remembering that God rescues us again and again from the slavery of addiction, anxiety, pessimism, worry and fear.  God feeds us again and again with our daily bread when we trust that God is with us even when we wander in the wilderness. 

Interestingly, the commitment the bridegroom needed from the bridesmaids, and that commitment Joshua asked from his followers is a big signpost of thriving United Churches in Canada.  Congregations that are thriving consistently talk about the importance of being committed to God.  They practice being positive about the future and trusting that God is leading them.  They are prepared to light the way for others to find the healing that they have experienced in their communities of faith, and they are intentional in choosing God at the core of all they do.

May we find the courage and conviction to turn away from the many false gods that clamor for our allegiance, to the true God who invites us with love.  May we put oil in our lamps as we wait for the bridegroom who will bring us into the great wedding banquet that never ends.  Amen.

November 07, 2023

Lest We Forget

Did you know that a scandal broke on the United Church of Canada that was so divisive that it had some wondering whether or not it would survive?  The year was 1939!

In the short ten years after union, the United Church talked about many things bold and daring. They talked about the shortage of jobs for newly ordained and commissioned clergy, how there were not enough students going to school, and how congregations struggled during the great depression to meet the needs of many desperate people.  The church also debated the importance of Jesus as a peace-maker. The 1936 general council voted on being committed to peace, declaring “it’s determined opposition to war”[1] which sounded good and noble. But then Hitler rose to power. War was declared by Britain and Canada in September of 1939. A month later, 68 United Church ministers signed “A Witness Against the War”, thinking that with the previous declaration, it would be an acceptable witness to the importance of peace.

Instead, it sparked outrage, with newspaper articles across the country condemning them.  They were accused of everything from treason to naivety.  They were seen as unchristian, cowardly, and being in league with Hitler himself.  The backlash was so intense that 4 ministers were fired, including Rev. Robert Edis Fairbairn, the organizer of the petition.  Other ministers kept their pulpits, and one fellow in Toronto found his congregation growing because of his unpopular stand.  Still other clergy, like the one pictured above, the Reverend William Alfred Seaman, signed up to be a chaplain in the Canadian Armed Forces.  Padre Seaman left his congregation in Nova Scotia and arrived in France just after D-Day in 1944.  As a chaplain, he helped stretcher bearers and did first aid on the battle front.  On July 14 while rushing to retrieve wounded soldiers in Normandy, he was hit by an exploding mortar shell. He died of an infection a week later, on his tenth wedding anniversary.  [2]

Rev Seaman didn’t wear fancy outfits, he didn’t go parading around in public showing off how holy he was.  Nor did Rev. Fairbairn his fellow clergy colleague.  They were doing their best to model what they thought God was calling them to.  They put their faith into action.  Some folks might have thought their sacrifices were controversial, or unnecessary or part of their duty as Canadian preachers.  But these leaders witnessed to the best of their abilities to who they thought Jesus was.   And they knew, in a way that I hope none of us here will ever know, the cost of putting their convictions to the test and living up to the gospel. 

Jesus would have approved. He didn’t have respect for hypocrites whose faith didn’t cost them anything.  He didn’t care for religious scholars more interested in appearances than in God.  He disrespected spiritual leaders who were more interested in who they knew, or how much influence they had or what special privileges they got for knowing the right people.  He learned this from prophets like Micah.

Micah had the same disrespect for people who use their authority to make the lives of less powerful people miserable.  Micah spoke out against injustices done against innocent people.  And yet, while Micah pulled no punches, we have to be more careful and intentional in our words.  Micah was Jewish, we are not.  Micah was able to separate his faith community from the political leaders who claimed they were acting in the best interests of the faith community.  This is not easy in our day.

There have been times when the United Church has been accused of antisemitism by Jewish organizations.  Whenever our church has asked questions about conditions of people in Gaza, we had to be careful. We hosted visits to the Holy Land that included trips to Palestine or Gaza.  Our support of fair-trade initiatives means that many households have bottles of Zatoun Olive Oil from Gaza farmers.  We have Christian and Muslim partners in Gaza who have worked for mutual peace for a long time, as well as Christian and Jewish partners in Israel doing the same.  Somehow, we must not choose sides for one political group or another but choose the side of those who don’t have a voice, the peaceful farmers, the pregnant moms, the kidnapped concert goers, and the many children of both faiths who have died because of this war. If Ireland could end the dreadful warfare nicknamed 'The Troubles', if South Africa could end Apartheid, if the United States could end racial segregation of everything from busses and toilets to restaurants and schools, surely it is time to end the violence in the Middle East.

What can we do to help?  We can go to It will take you to information on United Church partners in Gaza and Israel, where you can make a donation, matched by the Canadian Government, that will send aid to victims of the war.  There are also prayers to read and a form to write a letter to your member of parliament about how you feel about what’s happening.  If you have a phone, call your MP or call the United Church at  1-800-465-3771 to donate..  Remind your friends and neighbors that neither antisemitism or islamophobia, both of which are on the rise this month in Canada, are a healthy response to what is happening in the Middle East.  Two wrongs don’t make a right.

On Remembrance Day, may we be willing to say that violence is not the best solution, and that both sides need to come together to stop this ancient vendetta.  Jesus was Jewish and taught us to love all our neighbors whether they practice our faith or not.  He would want us to act according to our consciences as both Reverends. Fairbairn and Seaman did even though one protested the war and the other died in the war.  May we find their courage to work for peace in our troubled times. Amen.

[1] P 52 The United Church of Canada A History by Don Schweitzer

October 31, 2023

Looking for Answers

There are times when grief is in the air, and even more so as we approach Hallowe’en.  There are videos of partiers in Mexico dressed as Catrins and Catrinas, with skull-like make up.  People try on costumes like the Grim Reaper, or other folk characters from horror stories or scary movies.  Kids wear all kinds of outfits of their favorite fictional characters or super heros.  I keep meaning to make myself a Jedi costume one of these days but never quite get around to pulling it off. 

We don’t go all out with the skull facepaints like they do in Mexico, but it is becoming more prevalent even in Canada.  And that might not be a bad thing.  When we think about death rituals here compared to places like Europe or South America, or even New Orleans, they are very different.  We no longer wash or dressing the body at home.  And we’ve also tried to make it invisible. One time we were in the hospital where a family member had passed away, and the hospital staff came up to us and asked to remove the body before other patients started to wake up.  They didn’t want to upset the other patients.  Fair enough, but if it’s being done to hide the reality of death, is that healthy for our society?

A chaplain who served in Afghanistan with the Canadian Armed Forces came home to Edmonton to find that there was a new trend of roadside shrines.  Suddenly whenever a tragedy happened there would be a mound of teddy bears in front of a store or a street corner where strangers would congregate, overwhelmed with grief for someone they had never met.  It was almost like the news story had cracked open a bubble of unexpressed grief that needed to be poured out in a public way.  Dealing with death is not easy.

Ministers, even in the United Church, get called to do exorcisms and house purifications.  That’s not a part of our theology.  But it can be a way of giving voice to grief that doesn’t have any other way out.  We are not comfortable with that kind of ‘woo woo’.  Going to the other extreme is not healthy either.  That’s materialism, when people only believe in what they can touch. That mindset can lead to people competing for the most stuff, the most money, the most of whatever they can control.  It is not what we are called to as a people wanting to be Jesus followers.

Jesus was struggling to communicate a middle way.  He talked to the Sadducees about their beliefs of the afterlife and used scripture to defend his belief.  God is the God of the present, of the living, and still the God of past leaders of the Hebrew people.  He also challenged them to think outside their stereotyped assumptions that the dead live in identical ways to the living, with the same interests, concerns, entanglements and struggles.  Nothing further could be what Jesus thought life after death was.  It wasn’t a continuation of life on earth, but a transformation that was beyond description or definition or perfect knowledge.  And certainly, life after death could not be understood through a materialist viewpoint.

But rather than going into further detail, he then turned to the question that the Pharisees posed.  What is more important than whether the dead are gone forever or live on in eternity?  What is important is not the woo woo, or the stories of things that go bump in the night.  No, for Jesus, the debate on the afterlife is worth only a passing comment.  He recited the ancient prayer that all devout Jews are to recite, “Hear Oh Israel” and that the laws of their faith could be summed up in love.  This was not new knowledge for anyone.  There are over 600 commandments that observant Jews needed to follow, and there were many debates on how to do that.  If we hold the sabbath to be holy and that we are not to do any work or travel, we still need to milk our cows or they will suffer.  Love is the over-arching principle that governs how those commandments are put into practice.

It all comes down to relationship with the Holy, and with each other.  That can be hard, or seem like the ultimate in woo woo, and in our world where bombs are falling and people’s birth certificates are used as weapons against them, when shooters walk into bowling alleys, it is hard to remember to hold onto a relationship with something we can’t see, hear or touch.  Whether we believe like the Sadducees that we end when our lives end, or like the Pharisees that we continue on, Jesus wants us to focus on building a relationship with God.  That relationship is to be centered on love.  When we love God so deeply, it spills out onto our relationships with each other.

Some people are not ready for that.  Their grief is real and raw and all-consuming.  Their relationship with God, if they have one at all, may be one of resentment, of anger, of fear or even rage.  God can handle that anguish and negativity.  In fact many people find that expressing their anger to God is an important part of their grief journey.  It is still a relationship with the divine.  Like our psalm this morning, the scriptures are full of people pouring out their anger and suffering, their pain and fear to God. When we remember that even Jesus suffered and died, God must have grieved too.  But God pulled hope and love out of that tragic time, and we hear so many stories in this place of how God still pulls hope and love out of tragedy.  Grief is hard, but the good news is that God is with us, in life, in death and in life beyond death.  We are not alone, God is with us.  Thanks be to God!

October 24, 2023

Bear Traps

Ever hear these words coming out of your mouth, “honey, do these pants make me look fat?" Or maybe you've heard them said to you. This little phrase has been known as a bear trap. No matter what the other partner says, they are going to get in trouble!

Often the question is asked in all sincerity. There's a delightful scene in the Disney movie "The Incredibles" where Helen Parr, known as the superhero Elastigirl, tries to look at herself in the mirror and can't tell if motherhood has expanded certain portions of her anatomy. How is a loving partner supposed to respond? "Actually sweetheart, you have added some weight, but you are still gorgeous in my opinion" is truthful but not likely helpful.  The answer that’s right may not have anything to do with pants or weight gain, because the question may also have nothing to do with pants or weight gain.

Jesus was facing a similar bear trap. The Pharisees teamed up with the Herod supporters and figured out a game plan. The two groups didn't like each other much but had a shared interest in embarrassing Jesus in front of his followers. It was worth working together to put this rabble rouser in his place. What better way to do it than challenging him on the question of separation of church and state?

It's an age-old conundrum that humans have struggled with for a long time.  St. Augustine in North Africa wrote a massive book called “On the City of God Against the Pagans” that is over 400 pages long. He wrote it after Rome was destroyed by Visigoths.  It shocked everyone that hordes of barbarians waltzed in under the noses of the Roman Army right to the centre of Rome, pillaging and stealing as they went.  Many blamed Christians for this terrible event.  They were being punished for forsaking the Gods of their ancestors.  Praying to the false God Christos instead of Jupiter, Mars and Minerva was what had caused it.  Augustine, busy setting up the first refugee camp ever built by Christians, found time to sit down and write his massive book to counter that.

Being a Christian in a non-Christian world is still not easy.  Today, consumption is the most important God and Amazon makes so much money that its owner can build his own floating city to be emperor over. How do we live in this world? We imitate Jesus.

Jesus knew the Herodians and Pharisees were up to something as soon as he saw them.  The question of taxes was also a question of which side he would choose?  Herod’s political side or the Pharisees’ spiritual side?

In it’s extreme form, do we go and live in the wilderness, being completely self-sufficient, or do live in community with all its rules and regulations?  Do we become so heavenly focussed that we’re no earthly good?  Augustine suggested that there are times when Christians were to co-operate with the state, and times when Christians were to resist the state.  He was the first one to come up with the phrase “Just war” to make it okay for Christians to become soldiers and even to kill other humans despite their allegiance to Jesus.  Augustine challenged Christian pacifism for the sustainability of civilization through war.

Jesus was the Prince of Peace, not the prince of hair-splitting or populism.  He didn’t prevaricate or pander.  He didn’t try saying, “now dear, those pants are ugly and they don’t flatter your gorgeous derriere”, nor did he say, “why don’t you go to the gym and work out?”

The only way out of the bear trap Jesus took was to go to the highest principle.  What is God’s priority in the situation?  Jesus was the master of the “Yes And”.  YES it’s important to live according to societal expectations around things like taxes and laws, AND it’s important to live according the values and principles that a follower of God is called to put into action.  When they clash, we are called to act with steel in our convictions, to live by example with faith and expectation.

Jesus taught us that it was all about God’s priorities.    Paul saw the Thessalonian community putting these priorities into action.  They did it so well that Paul thanked God for that powerful witness and told them it was inspiring others to do the same.

We live in a world where empathy is the last thing on many people’s minds.  On Thursday a teenager told me that many of her classmates were self-absorbed and only cared about what was in it for them.  This was frustrating to witness and no one was inspired and thankful for their lives.  Kids are not the only ones.  We all know of adults who don’t know or don’t care that some people don’t have cars and getting to doctors appointments is a real struggle.  We know of people who have so much mental illness that they can’t hold down a job.  We know of people who have so much fear and anger that they have become addicted to conspiracy theories.

Jesus called the Pharisees and Heriodians to live bigger than bear traps.  He called them to live according to God’s priorities first and foremost even in things as mundane as taxes.  He calls us to do the same.  When we imitate Jesus in all that we do, putting God first, we will inspire others to do the same.  What would it look like if people wrote how grateful they were for our presence, for our example?  What would it look like if we could find ways to be thankful in our lives that inspired others to do the same?  What would it look like to be so courageous and bold in our faith that we made a real difference, and a positive one to everyone who knew us?  May we find the courage of Jesus, the thanksgiving of Paul and the example of the Thessalonians to be a light of hope to all the world.  Amen.

October 20, 2023

Wedding Invite

 Trigger warning: the scripture includes references to violence, and there are comments about the current Middle East Crisis. 

When was the last time you got a wedding invitation?  Did you get it in the mail?  Did you get it on Facebook, or even through an e-mail?  Now the world is so different that people don’t even have to attend a ceremony in person anymore, they can watch it from the comfort of their own homes.  Things have changed a lot, even in the past five years.

And how did you decide whether or not you were going to accept that invitation? Did you make the decision based on how well you liked the couple, or how well you knew the family?  How did you feel if you heard that a wedding was happening to a family member yet you weren’t invited?

In the parable of the wedding a lot of people were invited but made excuses to avoid the party.  What a curious thing.  How could someone turn down such an invitation?  But the story was about just that.  The ruler got panicky and started bringing in everyone he could find.  Rather like the recent installation of the new president of Athabasca University, the invitation to the community reception was thrown wide to anyone within earshot.  “Fill that Hall”, the king demanded and the servants scurried around to do their best to do just that.

There’s an uncomfortable theme of violence in this story when the King orders servants to retaliate against the city who killed his employees.  Massacres like these are on our news feeds and TVs this week and they horrify us anew.  Jesus throwing this little detail into the story is disturbing to say the least. 

The massacre part of the story would probably not have shocked his listeners though.  Kings were a part of the honor code of the middle east culture of the time.  They had to protect their reputations and show strength at all times.  If someone insulted another person, the insult had to be addressed immediately and aggressively to prevent appearing weak.  If a king was insulted, it would be justification to him for starting a war.  People knew that a war could start at any time and that innocent lives would be sacrificed for the honor of a king they never knew.  An example of this was Herod the Great, in power before Jesus, who had a reputation of being so tough on his enemies, he even executed his wife and sons for treacherous plots based on manufactured evidence.  He was known as a brutal leader who assassinated anyone who threatened his power.  This was normal politics back then.

The shock of the story for the listeners would not have been the violence, but the king’s insistence on inviting everyone else for the wedding banquet.  He may have started with inviting other royalty, people who were the same status of him, but then he got creative.  He thought outside of the box and invited people who didn’t measure up, who didn’t have the appropriate status, who shouldn’t be in a royal dining room bumping elbows with their betters.  It would be like Elon Musk being turned down by Bill Gates, going out to the local Walmart and insisting that everyone in the store come to his gala party.  This is the surprise twist, the punch line that would have surprised the followers of Jesus.  This is the shock that they would have remembered when they shared the story with family and friends.

That picture of royalty eating with commoners predates the Magna Carta by about 1200 years.  It predates the U.S. Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal by more than 1700 years.  It predates the Canadian Act of Union’s call for Peace, Order and Good Government by 1800 years.  And it planted the seed for all those documents, as well as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in the 1940’s.

Equality was a founding principle of Christianity.  Everyone was to be able to sit and break bread together.  The feeding of the 5000 was a scandal because it erased patriarchal hierarchy at meals.  The early church as described in Acts and other scriptures was a community where all ate together as equals.  Paul’s letter reminds people that God doesn’t want us to hold grudges, God wants us to stay on track, focusing on what is truly important, a community that celebrates and rejoices in fellowship with God.

In Canada, we have been living without murderous kings for a very long time.  We have lived with democracy.  We have universal human rights, we kno that war crimes will be prosecuted, that torture is no longer acceptable, that discrimination is not the hallmark of a healthy society.  We take for granted that the worst of oppressive, bullying behavior can be addressed appropriately in a court of law.  Or I should say, we can take this for granted if we are English or French-speaking people with pink skin.  Even in Canada, not everyone can take these rights for granted.  We need to remember that all are invited to the banquet without regard of their age, race, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, family structure or any other factors.

How do we respond to the violence and mayhem in our world?  As Dr. Alex Clarke said during his inaugural speech at AU, we need to hold fast to our own North Star, the values we hold near and dear. As Paul said, Stay on track, steady in God.  In United Church words, deepen your spirituality, be bolder in your discipleship and practice acts of daring justice with joy and thanksgiving.  Let other people see your joy and ask how you find it in these challenging times.  Join the Barrhead bible study online.  Take the prayer practices we do here and incorporate them into your days.  Think deeply about what your values are.  And join our faith community in making a difference in the lives of those who need to hear good news.  Draw our circle of love and hope and joy wider with every day.  May it be so with us all. Amen