Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Woman! Be Slow to Anger!!

James 1:19-25

Alright, I’m about to say something controversial here. Gird your loins. Are you ready? Ok, here it is. The Bible was written, every single word of it was written by human beings. It was not written word for literal word by God in Hebrew and Greek and then translated into a bazillion different languages. Men wrote the Bible. (And I’m not being gender neutral here cause the fact of the matter is that it was very likely all men who put the actual words to paper.) In this context, here at Symons Valley United Church, that information—not that men wrote the Books of the Bible—but the fact that God’s self did not write the Bible probably does not really shock you. And, if it does, I’m sorry. Come see me after worship and we can chat. Anyway, I wanted to put out in front of us that people, real life people who were birthed into the world, who were loved and cared for by family friends, who experienced loss and pain in the course of their living, people who knew the joy and celebration and the hurt and dismay of living in a world controlled by men who were not their people, by men whose greed and fear motivated ongoing violence and oppression of their fellow men and women, these real life people wrote the entirety of the Bible. The Bible was written by people who were very much like you and me. By people who were living the best they could with the brokenness of that surrounded them—the brokenness of their neighbours and the brokenness of themselves. The Bible is the very real outpouring of folks who were seeking a better way of living and a better way of being.

And because the Bible was composed by everyday sort of people, that means the construction of the Bible was not a flawless process. The remembering and the collating of stories to be included in the canon was dependent upon the sensibilities of many different people, over a long-time frame. And so, there repetitions here and there, there are continuity issues—you know when you are watching a tv show and a character is wearing something in a scene but when the camera angle changes and we see them from a different perspective, they are not wearing it? The Bible has moments like that. We notice it when we align the common stories from each Gospel side-by-side. Who exactly discovered the tomb empty? Was it Mary alone or was it a group of women? Was the woman who poured oil over the feet of Jesus Mary from Bethany or was it an unnamed woman? These discrepancies exist and, because of that, biblical scholars through the ages have bickered over which version is correct and tried to determine if the differences matter. Some of the bigger discrepancies in the Bible concern seemingly contradictory lessons or pieces of wisdom. Today’s reading is central to a big argument that took place in the time of Martin Luther and carries on with us today. You see, when Paul wrote his letters to the emerging Christian communities of faith, he often argued against legalism. Doing precisely this or doing precisely that did not make up the instruction manual for getting good with God. To be a faithful Jew means following a lot of rules concerning one’s behaviour—rituals, eating only permitted food and not eating other foods like seafood, refraining from certain actions. To honour God, one had back in ancient times and still do this day, a daily list of what and what not to do. Paul essentially threw the rule book away and said, the laws don’t matter, only your faith matters. Just believe and have faith and you’re good with God.

But then, along came James. James the Just. James, the brother of Jesus. James who likely witnessed the Risen Christ. Paul argued again legalism, James argued against antinomianism - which is a twenty-five-dollar word meaning to be freed by grace from the necessity of obeying the Mosaic Law. More or less, God loves me so I don’t have to worry about avoiding the steak and lobster special when I go out for supper. James recognized that by giving up the rituals and the laws of Moses—the ones Paul said people did not have to worry about—James noticed folks around him were not really concerned with the world around them. They believed. They were good. God had their back. There was no needed to fret about the state of the world. James said, no, no, no. You can believe all you want but your faith only adds up to a hill of beans if there is no action. This is what we heard today. Have faith and then work towards righteousness. It’s not the make-work rules and legalism that you have to work at, but you need to work at being decent to those around you. It would seem, at this point, the Bible is not clear—is it by faith alone or through works that one finds themselves on the right-hand side of God? Biblical scholars say that while each position seems counter to the other, they, in fact, are undergirded by the same God. As such, to believe in and to have faith in a merciful and compassionate God that loves without end is to be someone who works for the wholeness of the world, not just the wholeness of ones-self. So, two weeks ago you heard loudly and clearly from Stephen that God loves you and will never forsake you and today you will hear, God loves you without end and what now are you going to do about it?

A few verses after what Debra read, James states, loving your neighbour fulfills the law. Two millennia later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German minister and theologian who was imprisoned and executed because of his association with an assassination plot of Hitler, wrote “What is nearest to God is precisely the need of one’s neighbour”. Just as Jesus did not name names when asked who exactly is one’s neighbour but rather described what being a neighbour looked like, James explains what types of actions makes one a good neighbour. He says we are to be quick to listen and slow to speak and be slow to anger. Now I have to admit that when I read the reading this week, I chuckled and then phoned the love of my life, the one who knows me like no other and read it to him. He laughed out loud and said he needed to make into a sign—I think he means to have it somewhere near him at all times so that when my personality dips its toe into the lake of volatility that I seem to live right next to at all times and I start ranting about this or that, particularly when he’s been awake for only a few minutes and I’ve been up for a whole hour already listening to the news or reading about the latest insanity that is politics these days, he can just put up the sign and go about his business of getting a cup of coffee. But I digress.

Be quick to listen. Slow to speak. Slow to anger. Be doers of the word. Don’t only hear but do. Don’t be like someone who looks into the mirror and immediately forgets their collar is askew or their hair is all mussed up. Look into the mirror and see what needs doing and work to get it done. The United Methodist theologian and author Donald Messer who is known for his work to combat world hunger and HIV/AIDS, has written, ‘Faith without works is dead. Hoping without helping is sinful.” I have this quote and Bonhoeffer’s pinned up right up beside my computer monitor in my office. I have learned, not perfectly, but I have learned that listening is as important, if not more so, than speaking. I am still learning what it means to be slow to speak. And I think being slow to anger will always be somewhat of an elusive virtue for me. However hard it is to imagine implementing what James says being a good neighbour is all about, it is important and necessary to keep those encouragements before us as we move through life. Because loving your neighbour is not about assuming you know what their struggles are or what needs they have. You learn their struggles and know their needs by first listening—active listening in which you hear what is said then respond thoughtfully instead of sitting there with something lined up to say, just waiting for the other to be done speaking. Have a comment ready to go, regardless of what their concerns are. Listen and then do. Do with purpose, do with respect, do with intention.

Being quick to listen and slow to speak are actions but they also give us a sense of timing. Listening takes time. Being slow to speak take more time still. And slowing down the burn of anger takes even more time. Last week Simon and I witnessed a terrible car crash and it easy to know how to be a good neighbour in the instant of that moment but often figuring out what it means to be faithful, compassionate, loving doers of the word, figuring out what would Jesus do, what would God have us do in a difficult scenario, takes time. Helping without hurting, being an ally and not taking over, takes time and leads to having to get organized. Finding a plan that might work. Putting said plan in motion. I have used this example before, but it holds up. Four years ago, just before Christmas, I received a call from someone desperate for help. Her family had experienced a perfect storm of unfortunate incidences and they could not pay their mortgage. Food was hard to come by. Could the church help. Long story short, with one email to the congregation, I had $2500 in 24 hours. And I realized I had put the church in a tough spot. Only then did I slow down. It was way more money than the situation called for. There were legitimate questions around appropriate levels of fundraising outside of our policies. So, we had some conversations. Some praying happened. I reached out for advice. And a plan developed that allowed for the family to receive the money over time that was in line with how we wanted to offer justice and love to all who walk through our doors. It was good. And now we have a plan going forward. My point here is that planning is good. Sure, we can get so caught up in the planning that we can’t see the forest for the trees however a plan means we have structure to work within. And we’ll be aware when we are moving outside that structure which then might cause us to take pause and take the time to make an informed decision as to whether we want to make an exception to the rule. Flying by the seat of your pants can be fun but it doesn’t allow for sustainability. Winging it works now and then but it gets tiring not knowing what’s coming next.

Planning for what’s coming next is what stewardship is all about. You can’t harvest a field without seeding it and tending the crop in the months leading to getting the combine out, you can’t feed the homeless without assembling and preparing the food. You can’t give a quilt to someone recently diagnosed with ALS without cutting the fabric and quilting it once you’ve sewn all the pieces together. You can’t offer space to community programs, to AA, to Girl Guides, to a Muslim prayer group without clearing the snow from the parking lot, without paying the heating bill, without making sure that no one else will be in the space they need. You can’t have a visit over coffee and baking without first making it and putting it out for when the service is over, you can’t serve breakfast at the Drop-In Centre without asking for volunteers, you can’t have Livestream without technology and you can’t make change the lightbulbs in the parking lot or the foyer without hiring a lift to get you up there. Just as you can’t do all these things without planning, we cannot be a blessing to the world, to our community, to ourselves without doing first some planning. Planning takes time. Planning takes into account vision. Planning takes into account hopes and dreams. Planning takes into account what God would have us do. Planning takes into account the Good News that was given to us by Jesus, the man who walked the earth and the Risen Christ who emerged from the tomb. And planning takes into account available resources—the gifts, skills and time of human power and the resource of financial power.

How the Treasurer sleeps
when the mortgage is paid.
A few weeks ago the Outreach Committee showcased the many different opportunities they provide for folks to get involved in issues around hunger, homelessness and caring for those with HIV. Our building hosts community programs and offers a safe and warm alternate for outdoor programs on rainy days through the summer. Our parking lot is used for bottle drives and, if you can believe it, a base for local police operations. We welcome people of the Islamic faith to worship here, in this very space, praying to the same God of our hearts. We offer a loving, affirming and compassionate welcome to all who walk through our doors. We do that. Not just Stephen and, but all of us. We can do this because we have worked together and planned with intention and with love how to do that and how to be that. And part of that planning is knowing the budget we have to work with. We generally work within our budget but between this, that and the other, we found ourselves a bit cash poor before the summer. Michelle, our long-suffering treasurer, put out a call for funds to cover the cash shortage. $35,000 was raised for the faith component. Which is awesome. But can you imagine if the income needed, the general giving’s AND the faith component was given in full through planned monthly donations? No shortage would happen. Mortgage would be paid. Treasurer would sleep nice, peaceful, sleeps. The math is this. Certainly not all of us can give that amount. But lots of us can. And a few of us can give more. I say this only to encourage you to faithfully consider this month how you can help this congregation plan. How you can help this congregation do its best to be a blessing for the world, for our community, for each and every one of us. To be doers of the word. This day and forever more. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Scooby Doo and the Avatar Were the Worst!

Luke 10:25-37

This Sunday was Thanksgiving Sunday AND World Communion. The church calendar is intersecting in a fabulous way with the secular calendar this year. If you're church geeky such as me, it might interest you that the following dates/days have been or will be connected:
  • Christmas Eve 2017 - was a Sunday (we had our usual Sunday morning service and then two evening Christmas Eve services)
  • Ash Wednesday - was Valentines Day in 2018
  • Easter Sunday - was April 1st. I was tempted to set up a tomb-like structure and have a Jesus character jump out and yell 'April Fools!!' at the start of the service. But I didn't. Cause I'm a grown up.
  • Pentecost Sunday - was Victoria Day long weekend. So many people leave town that weekend to get their first weekend of camping in. Various combinations of the staff also try to take that weekend off. Not in 2018. We. Were. All. Here.
  • Canada Day was a Sunday.
  • Thanksgiving Sunday was the same Sunday as World Communion. Giving thanks as we have communion with Christians around the world. Cool.
  • Remembrance Day is a Sunday.
  • Epiphany 2019 falls on a Sunday. Super cool. We'll have to food involved with that service. Have an actual Feast of Epiphany
Anyway - none of this is what the message was about Sunday. I got myself a little distracted. Here's the somewhat organized chaos of what happened...

With some help, I told this story:
A man was going down from Calgary to Okotoks, when he fell into the hands of two pediatric cardiovascular surgeons. They stripped him of all of his vast amount of money, stoned him, and scurried away, leaving him half comatose.  An Avatar happened to be going down the same road, and when she saw the man, she shuffled by on the other side.  So too, a Scooby Doo, when he came to the place and saw him, he skedaddled by on the other side.  But a Muslim, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he felt sorry for him.  He went to him and bandaged his elbow, pouring on water and milk.  Then he put the man on his own cow, took him to an pyramid scheme business and took care of him.  The next day he took out two purple pieces of monopoly money and gave them to the babysitter. “Look after him.” He said, “and when I return, I will pay you for
any extra damages you may have.”
Does this story sound familiar to you? If you're churched at all, it should ring a few bells for you. It's the Mad Libs version of The Good Samaritan. I asked the youth and children to select verbs, nouns, occupations and such at the start of the service and then I told the story.

Dave read the scripture reading in French and some folks acted out the story. You remember it right? Some religious people ask Jesus what are the basic laws to follow in God's world. Love God with all your heart, mind and soul. And love your neighbour as you would yourself. At which point, the religious know-it-all tried to trick Jesus and asked, 'But, who is my neighbour?' And Jesus, being way clever, answered with parable rather than a straight-forward, easy to work around answer and told the story of the despised Samaritan being the hero of the injured man. The priest and the Levite were not the heroes. THAT Samaritan was very much the hero.

And then I asked some questions...

·       What do you suppose the injured man thought when he saw the priest coming his way? (If you can’t rely on a religious leader to help you, who can you count on?)

·       What about the Levite (lay leader respected in religious circles)? (Disappointed, an outcast, not worthy of being helped…)

·       Why do you suppose neither of them stopped to help? (Ritual cleanliness, being late, maybe they were being tricked…)

·       The injured man was a Jew and Jews HATED Samaritans – they treated them like second class citizens. How do you suppose the injured man felt when the Samaritan walking towards him? (Helpless, vulnerable, expecting to be taunted or harmed further?)

·       What did you notice the Samaritan did in this story? He took IMMEDIATE action. He saw someone in need and got involved. He ignored prejudices. He saw a person in serious need and acted. His concern for the injured man was genuine and long-lasting. He made arrangements with the innkeeper to return later to check on the man’s condition and settle his bill.

·       How do you think the injured man felt when he realized the full extent of how the Samaritan helped him? (THANKFUL) When you live with gratitude, you look at the world with a different outlook – you are more compassionate, forgiving, helpful, kind.

·       What was Jesus trying to say when he made the Samaritan, a hated foreigner, the hero of the story? (Our neighbour can be ANYONE.)

Not very often do we come across such dramatic opportunities to help someone else. My son Simon and I saw a very bad accident last week. We got to be good Samaritans because help was very much needed but there are very few moments in life in which we witness such a dramatic event. I can think of two different ways of loving the world as you would love yourself even when there are no accidents or violent acts to respond to:


Gratitude - Thumbprint Prayer -- Each day look for at least one person, place, or moment that you’re thankful for or that fills you with feelings of thankfulness. When you are with that person, or are in that place, or have had that moment, leave your thumbprint somewhere close by. As you do, say—even under your breath—“Thank you, God!” See how many thumbprint thank yous you can leave in the world.

Helping - Acts of Kindness – write some action you could perform this week on a piece of paper and put it into the offering plate

The youth and the children then collected all the sticky notes with acts of kindness written on them and taped them to the cross. It was awesome.

And that is how our message time went on this Thanksgiving Sunday. You can watch the whole service here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

This That and the Other

Alright. I'm going to confess right here and now - no burying the lead... I have not done what I wanted/said I would do. I had it in my head that I would read a book in a couple of weeks and then I would write up a little blog post about the book. You know - just write up a little something in between the sermons and other such things that I write in my day-to-day to life.

It's a funny thing, but there are folks who still don't know that a minister actually does work four (and sometimes five) days of the week beyond Sunday. We compose - on paper or in our heads - sermons. We write grant applications. We write bible study programs. We write newsletters. We write prayers, worship services and blessings for babies. We help with Committee work. We host programs. We make phone calls and visit those who need a pastoral presence in their lives.

You get it. I know you do. But sometimes I forget. And I think I can write just one more thing before the At-a-Glance gets sent out on Thursday afternoons. Which is a long-winded (I am a preacher after all) way of saying, there's no way I could write a blog post for each book I've read so far this year.

A valuable piece of advice I received as I was contemplating becoming a leader of international study trips was:
When things don't go the way you thought they would and you realize you can't achieve your goal, you change your goal.
Isn't that amazing? Makes life infinitely better most days.

Anyway, this is me changing my goal. I will - I WILL - read all the books I set out to read this year but...the blog posts will happen when they happen. And one is happening today. And, with this post I will be more than doubling my finished book, as my new ministry colleague and most favourite person with the last name Harper says - strap in cause things are about to get a little crazy.

I've consulted my Goodreads account and according to it and this blog, the last book I mentioned here was Reasons to Stay Alive - book 7 of the intended 26 I want to read in 2018. But I have been reading. Slowly but surely. Here are the books I've read since my last post...

#8 - Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A lovely quick read about how to guide your child to respect themselves and others. To treat others as you would like yourself to be treated. To honour each and every being and expect the same in return. I think I knew/had learned most of what was mentioned in this book but there were still some very good realizations in this book.

#9 - Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist by Franchesca Ramsey

I saw an interview with Ramsey about her activism as a result of making the short video Sh*t White Girls Black Girls She was catapulted into the limelight with the video and had a steep learning curve on the ins and outs of being an activist. She writes about what it means to be a black woman in America and how challenging it is for a black woman to navigate in the world. If you read only one chapter of this book, read the one about black women's hair - the politics of hair, the discrimination of hair and the rude behaviour associated with hair. 

#10 - Yes We (Still) Can - Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump by Dan Pfeiffer
As many of you know, I'm on a bit of an American politics kick these days. Dan Pfeiffer was very much an insider to the Obama Whitehouse and he continues to offer political commentary on the podcast, Pod Save America. Living through the chaos of the Trump Whitehouse, this book is a fascinating read. And...I want to share this story about my decision to read the book. I had been contemplating ordering it, especially since ordering it within a certain time would mean a certain good charity in the States would get a small cut of the book sales. But I was wavering on whether I would actually read a whole book on politics and forgot about it. At least I thought I did until a box from Amazon arrived at home and this book was in the package. I thought, 'oh, I guess I did order the book - huh.' And I read it. Meanwhile, my eldest son, who follows the same pollical commentaries as I do, asked if I had received a package from him lately. No. No I didn't, I told him. Finally, when he was visiting in August, he tells me that this book was the package that he sent. Oh! That's why I don't remember ordering the book! I thought I was losing it for a little while there. He knew I had it because he and I are connected on Goodreads and he saw that I was reading it despite not realizing the Amazon box had had a gift enclosure note that I had missed. I thanked him and then gave it to him to read.
#11 - More Ready Than You Realize: The Power of Everyday Conversations by Brian McLaren
An interesting read about the power of evangelism, testimony, story-telling and friendships. I really appreciate McLaren's gentle push and pull of going deeper in theological exploration.
#12 - The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs
After reading Jacobs' Year of Living Biblically, I figured he'd be worth reading again. This book is fun but tedious. It's basically a summary of the Encyclopedia Britannica interspersed with vignettes from his life with his wife and extended family - which are the nuggets of hilarity that kept me reading. I do feel a bit smarter having read the book but new bits of information I have are a bit esoteric and likely not very helpful in day to day life.
#13 - Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person - Shonda Rhimes
This book made the pile of books my dear hubby chose to read over the summer. I write that sentence like he chose the books in that pile. How it happened went more like this... 
Him: I think I'm going to read 6 or 7 books this summer.  Me: Oh, can I do that with you?
Him: Sure. Me: Do you need suggestions? 
Him: Sure. Me: Okay, this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one and this one. 
Him: Sure. (He finished all seven books. I finished 4.) 
A friend had recommended Rhimes book so I added it to the pile. I wasn't so sure when I started the book but I found it to be a good read. Rhimes is responsible for all the good TV on Thursdays evenings (Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, etc) but she woke up (metaphorically) one day to the realization that she was not living life to its full potential. She was not having fun. She was not living a full life. And this book is about how she figured it out and started living life the best she could.
#14 - The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller
This book was summer homework for the SVUC Board. A great way to help you get focused on what's important and how to accomplish what you'd like to achieve. Easy to read and worthy considering how it can help you get to where you want to go.
#15 - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by MLK Jr himself
This was a challenging read. Not because of the writing. But because of the terrible and desperate situation African Americans lived in before the Civil Rights Movement. I had no idea how immediately MLK was thrust into state and nation-wide leadership after he was ordained and called to his first congregation. How much his and his family's life was under constant threat. How VERY BADLY white people treated black people during the era of Jim Crow. This book is worth every minute it takes to read it.

So. There you have it. I'm up to 15 books out of the 26 on my reading schedule this year. Of Mess and Moxie by Jen Hatmaker is next. It promises to be good ready - Hatmaker regular gets told by Evangelical Christians that, because she's a woman, she has no business expressing her thoughts about theology, Jesus and God. I'm thinking she's a bit feisty and I like feisty.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Season of Creation - Humanity

Genesis 1.26-28,2.7-8, 15 and Mark 10.42-45

On this third Sunday in the Season of Creation, we are looking at the role and responsibility of humanity in God’s world. We celebrate the diversity of the human race and rejoice that God’s divine nature is revealed in each and every one of us. And we reflect on the task bestowed upon us when the first people were brought to life in the Garden that we know as Eden—the task of caring for God’s Creation. In the first Creation story we hear that humanity was supposed to subdue and have dominion over all the earth, which implies to be dominant and to be bossy, just like your older sibling when you were growing up. Or was that you, being the bossy one of the kids? You remember those times, when you were playing make-believe and your sister told you what role you were to play and what you had to do and what you had to say? Or when your big brother would settle into his spot in front of the TV and look over at you and tell you, not ask you, to get him an apple? You feel me? I’m not just working out something here on my own, am I? Anyway, to have dominion over something calls to mind dominance without consultation. But there’s the second Creation story and we hear that humanity was to till the earth and keep it. When you keep something, it usually means to mind it and care for it, doesn’t it? You have a responsibility to keep whatever it is safe and sound, and in the case of the hermit crabs that came home one year during winter break, keeping them meant keeping them alive—which is a harder task than you might first imagine when you sign the permission form to do such a thing without considering exactly what it is that hermit crabs eat. Or that they don’t like dogs and 2-year-old grabby hands very much. Actually, public service announcement, hermit crabs like neither of those two things at all.

All of humankind, each one of us, are made in the image of God, which, depending on the day, is kind of hard to get your mind around isn’t it, with all the ethnicities, gender identities, shapes, sizes and colours we all are, it’s hard to think of any one image God could possibly be from the world of humans that now populate the earth. But, what if we don’t think of image as being simply visual? What if the word image better means a reflection? As in, humankind reflects who is and what is God? We are to mirror God to the world and to care for the world as God cares for the world. God is not imagined in the staticness an idol or a painting. God in known in the freedom of human persons to be gracious and compassionate as God was gracious and compassionatewith the birthing of the very world in which we now reside. And, just as God invites, evokes and encourages, God bestows this power upon humanity to care for Creation. Power to invite, evoke, encourage does not overpower or demand. This kind of power means in having dominion is to shepherd, to care and feed the animals or to be the steward of the household, to ensure there is food enough for the family and that the home is safe and warm. To have dominion is to secure the well-being of every creature and bring the promise of each to full fruition. Humans were tasked to take up their God-given responsibilities to care for the rest of Creation. We are to treat the world as God would treat the world and help the world along to realize its full potential.

So, Creation comes into being and humanity is charged with its care. Take good care of all that I have made, says God, there’s only one rule. One rule. Do you remember what it is? Don’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That’s it. Care for the world and stay away from that tree over there. But, of course, the illegal fruit is eaten and things fall apart. Humanity is banished from the Garden and all the difficulties of living are imposed upon humanity. Back pain and birth pains forever change how our lives are lived but God does not release humanity from our essential task of caring for the world. Adam and Eve apparently make it all work. They till the soil, they have children, they keep themselves and the world alive and healthy. But then, do you remember what happens next in Genesis? If you ever want to read a fast-paced and compelling story filled with dramatic highs and lows, read Genesis. It is an exciting tale. Anyway, the world is created, not once but twice. Humanity is created, not once but twice. Humanity is told to care for the world. Don’t eat the fruit. They eat the fruit. Adam and Eve are banished. Crops are planted, babies are born. Then we move to chapter 4. Remember what happens next? Cain and Abel.

We get just four chapters into the story of all of Creation and the first murder happens. There is no mention of violence before this point. Cain gives the bare minimum he thinks he can get away with in his offering to God from his harvest. But Abel, that annoying younger brother, gives generously from his abundance, thanking God for all that God has given. God makes it known that Abel’s abundance is preferred over Cain’s scarcity. Cain gets angry and it shows, cause he gets this thunder face going on and God basically says, why are you angry? You held back, you held back what you had to offer. Cause, you know that God knew exactly the gifts, skill and opportunity Cain had to work with, God knew what Cain had to offer the world. God basically says to Cain, you were not as kind as you had the ability to be, you were not as compassionate, you were not as loving, you were not as generous as you had the ability to be with what you had. Cain, ashamed and embarrassed of having his greed revealed, finds his ego bruised because his brother managed where he could not. Suddenly he sees his relationship with his brother as a competition and he desires what Abel has—to be the favoured one. To have more than what Abel has. To be more than Abel. And so, he kills Abel dead. Which, of course, does not improve, at all, Cain’s relationship with God. And then everything from there pretty much goes to hell in hand basket. Humanity and God begin the seemingly-endless journey of trying to figure out a working relationship in which we can get back to making real the full potential of the world, until we can find our way to the top of God’s peaceful mountain, where all can be well and all can be well and all manner of things shall be well.

God gave us the responsibility to care for our world. To love one another as we would love ourselves. To spread the good news to all of creation. To till the land and keep the world so that it would flourish just as we hope our children will flourish. Being kicked out of the Garden of Eden was not the end of this responsibility. Adam and Eve still bore the responsibility to care for Creation and we bear that same responsibility today. I know that the story of Cain and Abel was not our scripture reading today (fun fact, Cain and Abel didn’t make the Lectionary cut and so, yet another story you very rarely hear from the pulpit) but I think it is an important story for us to remember when we are talking about humanity’s role in God’s Creation. Because, it seems to me, when we are exploring the ills of the world and ask how and why people behave in such ways that so many people and the environment are harmed—like the decision making process around this nonsense of Ticketmaster allowing scalpers to cheat the system to the benefit of Ticketmaster, the decision to deceive people out of their life savings, the decision to cut taxes at the expense funding education and health care, the decision made by Volkswagen to cheat on the environmental tests of their cars, the decision that leads someone to light what becomes a wildfire, the decision to sell fresh water to corporations while whole communities of people, particularly indigenous communities right here in Canada, do not have access to clean, drinking water from their kitchen tap, the decision to deregulate industry so polluting the environment is not discouraged or punished…decisions such as these go back to chapter four of the Book of Genesis.

The disregard that Cain had for the life and the well-being of his younger brother Abel is repeated again and again throughout our history of humanity. Disregard for another’s life, disregard for the health of our ecosystem, disregard for those who are not our family, disregard for those who do not love as we love, disregard for those who do not identify as we identify, disregard for those who do not believe as we believe, disregard for those who do look as we do, disregard for those speak as we speak, disregard for children that are not our children, disregard for people who are not our people. We have forgotten that our place in Creation is not as ruler above all but instead to be engaged with and amongst all that God has created, animals, humanity, the environment. Humanity was made in the image of God. The Divine is revealed through us humans, our actions and our behaviour. The Divine is revealed through our ability to be just, to be loving, to be compassionate with all aspects of God’s creation. And knowing that each one of us—each and every person who walks this earth—is a reflection of the Divine, how can we possibly continue to support those making the decision of Cain when the well-being of one or a very select few is lifted above and over the well-being of another of God’s people, another of God’s reflections? How can we assist in shepherding Creation and the world to its full potential when we allow for an individual’s or a corporation, which let’s face it, is made up of a bunch of individuals, when their greed and egos take priority over that which is best for the community, for those who do not have a voice at the table, for those who are at the margins, for those whose needs are ignored?

This Season of Creation is an opportunity to be reminded that each one of us most definitely have a role in keeping God’s Creation. In shepherding this world that God has created into being a place of peace and joy. Jesus told his disciples this very thing. In the reading from the Book of Mark, Marci read, Jesus says, you know the leaders of those non-Jews, they are leaders who bully and who lord their authority over those they rule. But, he says, this is not how God wanted the world to be. Those who lead must lead from amongst the very people they are leading. In fact, those that lead must be right where the people are—they must drink the same water, they must have the same access to health care, their children must attend the same schools, they must live as close to the city dump as others, they must walk and drive the same streets and see all aspects of the community they are leading. You must serve those you lead. And, then, shockingly, he tells them that he came not be served but to serve. And this is exactly how we, you and I, can continue to keep this world and Creation of God’s. But, we who live right here can help our community and our province. Believe it or not, but it was not planned to hold the Outreach Showcase on Humanity Sunday but I could not help but recognize how fortudious it is that in my conculsion today, I wanted to encourage each one of us to go out and serve the community you live in, serve the needs of this city of ours, serve the environmental needs of our living space and the wider province. If each one of us were to serve in some small way or another, we cannot help but make a difference in our world. And, when we serve together as a community of God’s people, the impact we can make on Creation will be even greater. And, today, you when you leave the sanctuary, the Outreach Committee has very nicely set up a series of displays in which you can see what type of God and Jesus loving ministry they make possible to those in need. And they cannot make it possible without engagement by people from this congregation. Not only will you witness the impact we, as a community of faith, in our surrounding communities, but you will have the opportunity to see where you and your family can participate, where  you can serve the very people and environment that you live with and alongside. And if you have an idea or a plan for further ways we can make a difference in God’s Creation, talk to anyone from the Outreach Committee, I’m sure they would love to hear your idea. We are not alone this world. We live amongst and with God’s Creation and God is with us, God never leaves us. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Season of Creation - Mountain Sunday

Isaiah 65:17-25, Mark 16:14-16

Mount Robson
On this second Sunday in the Season of Creation, we celebrate the beauty and grandeur of the mountains. There are many hills and high places in the world that are referred to as mountains such as Mount Tisdale, the sledding hill in the prairie town my dear spouse grew up in. And I’m told there are mountains under the ocean but since I really do not enjoy being in salt water at all, I’ll just trust that to be true and leave it at that. At the risk of sounding a little snobby here, those of us living in western Canada know what real mountains are. The Rocky Mountains range nearly 5000 kilometers from northern British Columbia south to New Mexico. Mount Robson in BC is nearly 4000 meters at its highest point and Mount Elbert in Colorado reaches just over 4400 meters. However, when compared to the growth chart that God keeps on the doorway to the kitchen in heaven, mountains like Everest and K2 seem to have had growth spurts like no other as they measure over 8000 meters. Nepal, Pakistan, India and China are home to over one hundred mountains that are over 7000 meters. So Robson measures in at 4000 meters and Everest is nearly 9000 meters—to put that into perspective for a minute cause, I know, measuring anything other than distance with metres is still a bit foreign so let me explain that 4000 metres is still very high (13,000 feet)…when I was in Peru a number of years ago, we flew from Lima on the coast to the mountain city of Cusco. In an hour and twenty minutes, we went from being at sea level to being 3400 meters above sea level. One woman in our tour group who was six months pregnant was forbidden to travel to Cusco because that sudden elevation would cause her and her baby distress. Going from 0 to 3400 meters in 80 minutes is no joke. As a very active person, I was sure I would be fine. I. WAS. NOT. FINE. I suffered headaches, lightheadedness and aches and pains. My mind had darkness envelope it if I took stairs of any sort. And I was by far not the worst in my group. It was a bit of a gong show as I would carry another woman’s bag along with mine as she crawled up stairs and I took one. step. at. a. time.
The mountains of God’s Creation are unmatched for strength and their imposing nature. The height and breadth of the mountains demand respect from anyone traveling through their peaks and valleys. As well from those who build and ride the railways, swaying along cliffs and climbing, climbing up and over the passes. And from those whose job it is to clear for roads and bridges. It still boggles my mind when I think of how much dynamite was required to create the break in the peak near Golden, BC. They changed the route of the highway from running along the river to going up and over or rather through the mountaintop. Instead of tunneling, they just blew a whole section of the peak away and then built this MASSIVE bridge that I call the Star Wars bridge because it reminds me of those bridges you see on other worlds in the Star Wars movies. 
Anyway, until humanity gets involved, the mountains are solid, stable and enduring features in our world. The very sight of them calls to mind God’s power and the strength of nature. Because we live right at the foothills of the Rockies, we might be forgiven if we forget once in a while, that not everyone experiences the breath-taking beauty of seeing the mountains on the distant horizon each and every clear sky day. Bella, a member of my youth group at GC in ON in July was a member of the Youth Pilgrimage that was to make its way across Canada through the summer. The journey in Newfoundland, meandered their way to General Council and then continued travelling west, with Victoria being their destination. They were stopping and visiting with United Church folks all along the way. I asked her what she was looking forward to after they left Ontario, which is her home province. She was so excited to see the Rockies. Her face just lit up when she spoke about it.
Mount Nebo
Mount Sinai
Mountains are essential in the telling of the story of God’s People. Moses climbed Mount Sinai more than once so that God could speak directly to him. Moses stood at the top of Mount Nebo overlooking the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the desert. He saw where the former slaves he led from Egypt would reside, but he would not, himself, descend into the valley and cross the River Jordan. Jesus gave his Beatitudes sermon on the side of a mountain, he miraculously fed four thousand people on the side of a mountain. It is said Jesus was on retreat on a high mountain with James, John and Peter when he was transfigured into shining light. Moses and Elijah appeared there alongside him at that moment. In the Bible, mountains are sacred, they are set apart. The wonder of looking up at a mountain still exists today. Climbing a mountain, being on a mountaintop draws us closer to the Divine. Blessings and God are revealed when one can look down upon all of Creation from the top of a mountain. Those things in our lives that are big and overwhelming in our everyday lives are made small, even insignificant when perspective is gained from the mountaintop.
The prophet Isaiah used the sacredness of the mountain to get the attention of his fellow Jews. Remember last week that I told you that Jeremiah was warning the people that God was not pleased with their selfish behaviour and that there would be consequences? Jeremiah was warning that the Babylonians were on the doorstep to Judah, ready to take them into exile, far away from their homes and the Temple. Today’s scripture is from many years later and the people have been released from captivity. The first of the former exiles are returning to the city of Jerusalem and have found it to be a mess. Everything in the city needs to be rebuilt and Isaiah is saying there is no better time than right then to reimagine a new way of living so as not to get themselves into another situation in which God would allow God’s people to be overtaken by another hostile force. Isaiah uses the image of the mountain to call to mind what is sacred and powerful in the history of God’s people and to encourage the people to work towards a peace that is beyond anything they have ever experienced.  No one will die young, the wolf and lamb will eat alongside one another, the lion will dine on straw, snakes will vanish as they did from Ireland and no one will be hurt and no one will destroy anything again. On the mountain, the former things of violence, death, greed, threat and exile are forgotten, and new possibility thrives. The true expansiveness of God’s vision for our world is known. Upon God’s peaceful mountain, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
And then, to fast forward from the time of the ancient Israelites to the time of earliest Christians and Jesus tells his disciples, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” Jesus has been crucified and raised and yet his disciples do not believe. He arrives into their presence, gives them a lecture on their lack of faith and then sends them out into the world to make a difference. To make the change they know God wants for the world. To walk the talk they have been teaching for the past three years. To go and be the hands and feet of the very Christ who stands before them. Go! Go and proclaim the good news for all of creation. Not just good news for humanity but for ALL OF CREATION. Go, be the love of God for people, for animals, for plants, for the watersheds, for the plains, the mountains, for the grain fields and the forests. Proclaim the good news to everyone and everything within God’s great and awesome Creation.

There are many days that we can look to the west and take joy in witnessing God’s great and awesome Creation in the distant ribbon of mountains that create the very horizon that receives the setting of the sun each and every evening. And we do not worry too much about what Creation needs from us. But then there are days, days and days of such smoke making its way over those very mountains and hanging low over our province that we cannot even see those rock steady, forever standing there mountains, the mountains of which we reside at their very feet. We could not see them this August. Do you remember Bella, the pilgrim who was so excited to finally see the Rocky Mountains? Well, she didn’t have the chance. There was too much smoke. In fact, once the Pilgrims arrived in Calgary, the leaders decided to cancel the final portion of the Pilgrimage due to health concerns. They didn’t make it to BC at all. Our climate is changing. It was forest fires in August and now it’s hurricanes this month. While there are many reasons for more aggressive wild fires and hurricanes in recent years, there is an overwhelming understanding that humanity has not respected the natural world and we are now paying the price. We are living the consequences of paving over the earth that absorbs rainfall, for taking down forest to plant corn, to feed cows, the cows that add crazy amounts of methane into our air, we build expensive places near flood plains and then expect the water to be contained. It’s hard to imagine God’s peaceful mountain when we cannot even see the mountain to begin with. 

The Bible is our foundational text. We read the Bible despite it being an ancient document. We read it and learn from it because it is not a dead set of books. It is a living document. The wisdom given to God’s people over two thousand years ago has truth for us today. There are any number of prophets walking this earth today but the words Isaiah spoke to his fellow citizens ring as true today as they did then. We live with war, with cancer, with ALS and MS, we live with suicide, we live with poverty, hunger, with bigotry and racism, with past hurts that are deep and painful, we live with ancestors whose bad behaviour impacts us yet today, we live with greed that has no regard for other people’s well-being, for the environment, for world peace. Where Jeremiah gave words of dire warning last week, Isaiah reminds us that it is up to us to reimagine, to reorganize ourselves so that violence, hatred, disregard will become former things and God’s vision for reality, for heaven to exist on earth, is a living possibility. Isaiah tells us that in God, there is always hope. There is hope because we are not done living, we are done having faith, we are not done working, done striving for a better world. If not for us but our children.

Martin Luther King Jr. used the image of the mountain as a call for hope. King calls for unity, economic actions, boycotts, and nonviolent protest, while challenging the United States to live up to its ideals. (Memphis TN, April 3, 1968).
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man.
As Moses and Martin Luther King Jr understood, we may only have the opportunity to look into the Promised Land of a healthy environment and a world without war and hate, we may not make it there ourselves, we know very well it is for our children, our community’s children and grandchildren that we must continue to heed the demand to work towards healing for all of Creation. The United Church of Canada’s A Song of Faith, our most recent statement of faith that was written in 2006, says:
In grateful response to God’s abundant love,
             we bear in mind our integral connection
             to the earth and one another;
we participate in God’s work of healing and mending creation.

Divine creation does not cease
             until all things have found wholeness, union, and integration
             with the common ground of all being.

Upon God’s peaceful mountain, All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. It can be a hard and arduous journey up to the top of that peaceful mountain but God promises us that the view will be amazing once we get there.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Season of Creation: Sky Sunday

Jeremiah 4.23-28, Mark 15.33-39­­­

In and around the year 2007, the wider ecumenical church agreed to set aside a portion of the church calendar to recognize the amazing gift God has given us in the form of all aspects of the environment—our diverse ecological systems, the waters of the oceans, lakes and rivers and all of God’s flora and fauna—even, I reluctantly add, spiders. This time set aside is named the Season of Creation. The colour for this Season is orange and when the United Church of Canada introduced Creation Time into the liturgical year in 2010, this symbol was designed for the occasion. There is the tree of knowledge, the circle of wholeness, the four colours of the elements of creation: earth-brown, air-white, fire-orange, and water-blue. In this year of the three-year rotation of themes, we are celebrating the beauty and magnificence of the sky, of the mountains and of humanity. And the fourth Sunday of this Season, September 30th, we will be celebrating animals and we invite you to bring in a photo of your pet or pets so that they may be blessed during the service. We will be celebrating all these things but we will also be exploring the many ecological issues and concerns that exist for each of these aspects of God’s great Creation. Knowing that humanity was given dominion over the earth and all of inhabitants, that we are to be stewards for all that God has created, we ask ourselves, how have we been holding up our responsibilities? If God were to speak to us as God spoke to the first male and female, and if God were to ask, so…what have you got to say for yourselves in how you’ve managed this Earth of mine, how is it that we would explain our actions? The actions of our ancestors, the actions of our leaders, the actions of ourselves?

Taj Mahal, 2007
This Sunday is Sky Sunday, which I think is a lovely way to begin Creation Time because, wherever you are in the world, whether you are in Zambia, or Peru, or Palestine, or Ireland or India or in the Northwest Territories of Canada, each and every one of us has the experience of looking up to expansiveness of the sky. Of course if you are in Zambia or Peru, the night stars are different from what is seen from the northern hemisphere. And, depending where you are in India, you may not see the actual sky in very populated places for the abundance of smog and smoke. What Calgary had for smoke blotting out the sun this summer, is how many Indians live, day in and day out. The sky is one of the few aspects of nature that all the earth has in common—we are connected to one another across the world in that each of us experience day and night, the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. For many Christians, it is to the sky that we glance when we speak of Jesus ascending after his resurrection, and when we wonder about heaven and speculate where God might possibly reside, should God be such that God needs a resting a place.

It is in this connection to one another through our sky that makes our responsibility to care for the sky and the atmosphere all that more great. Albertans well know that what happens to the sky in some other location has the potential to severely impact our living here at home. The smoke from forest fires make it easy for us to see and feel how missteps in care for the environment can reach far and wide around the globe. There was more than once that we woke up in the morning and decided to restrict our outdoor activities last month due to the smoke. In fact, when I stepped outside and smelled the smoke, I was instantly transported back to the UCZ’s Theological University, where we stayed last year on the youth trip. Instantly I could feel the grass beneath my feet and feel the cool morning air on my arms. You see, for lack of centralized garbage removal, the Zambians burn their garbage at night and the smoke lingers until the morning. There are many concerns about wildfires these days that did not seem to exist a few decades ago. Humanity is spreading further and further from town and city centres which restricts allowing natural forest fires to burn. We know that forests need fire now and then for its life cycle but we are disrupting those cycles. As well, there have been an increase in droughts over time which means the forests are drier now and more susceptible when someone throws a cigarette butt out of a car window or when a campfire is not properly extinguished or when an ATV’s hot exhaust ignites dry brush. 

One valuable takeaway from our smoky summer (I understand that the smoke from the wildfires in BC even reached PEI and Ireland) is a physical reminder that what we do to the environment has an impact that is far more reaching than just the immediate area, whether we can see it in the moment or not. I am not sure if the ancient Hebrew people had concerns for their environment, but there are many metaphors used in the Bible that use various aspects of creation to make a point about the behaviour of humanity and the nature of God. The prophet Jeremiah lived in a time that rife with instability and discord. Impending doom and destruction was about to befall Judah—it can be confusing, but after King Solomon’s death, the twelve tribes of Israel divided their lands into two kingdoms, Israel to the north and Judah to the south—which included the city of Jerusalem. As the Bible tells it, people of Israel were not behaving well and God allowed them to be taken into captivity by the Assyrians. Fast forward a hundred and fifty or so years later and Jeremiah is watching the world around him fall apart. Remember, a prophet is someone who can anticipate or predict a certain future outcome based on current and past actions. Prophets anticipate what the future might hold if current attitudes and behaviours are maintained. One simply needs to imagine what the trajectory of such decisions might have beyond their immediate impact and what unintended consequences might rise up as a result of those decisions.

And so, the prophet Jeremiah, living in Judah, is witnessing the society around him crumbling. 2 Kings, chapter 17 tell us, Judah also did not keep the commandments of their God but walked in the customs that Israel had introduced. The people of Judah have forgotten to know and to find ways of living with hearts of justice, community-mindedness and compassion. Jeremiah, knowing full well his history, knew that those very customs of Israel had resulted in Israel’s captivity. It did not require a Magic Eight Ball to understand that the seize of Judah, this time by the Babylonians, was close at hand. In our scripture reading today, Jeremiah is telling these people they have become vulnerable to powers and principles other than the one true God and their actions and behaviour have consequences for all of Creation. Creation suffers and bears witness to the consequences of humankind living only for self and forgetting their hope in God. Jeremiah reminds everyone that God sees what’s happening and God is not pleased. In the verses right before Daniel began reading, God likens humanity to stupid children who have no understanding. Says the people are skilled in doing evil but do not know how to do good. Don’t hear that in the sanctuary every day do you? This is one of those instances that the Lectionary conveniently skips over. Jeremiah goes on, with the piece that Daniel read, and tells the people that God is watching the very Creation that was gifted to humanity, the very Creation that was given to humanity to have dominion over, for them to be stewards of, that Creation is being undone because they have forgotten God and allowed themselves to ruled by self-interest and desire rather than the virtues that arise from relationship with God. Because of their selfishness and greed, fear and cowardice, the earth was waste and void. All the birds of the air had fled. The heavens above grow black. The sky became black just as it did the moment Jesus died upon the cross that was used to torture and execute him hundreds and hundreds of years later. Our behaviour has consequences that reaches far beyond that which a simple apology or monetary fine or bucket of water or a Band-Aid can fix.

Me standing at the top of
Mount Sinai at sunrise
It is often said that even if one experiences the presence of God at church, one can always find God out in nature. The feeling of being in the mountains or surrounded by grain fields, at night, far away from the lights of city so that the magnitude of milky way can be seen, near the ocean, along a stream, with the elegance of a hawk or falcon soaring high overhead, the magnificence of a huge flock of birds flying together across the sky, the sun rising and setting, the moon, full and enormous, right at our doorstep. I love to travel. I love to go see other countries and cultures. But when I am away, I miss being at home. I miss my people. I miss them a lot. And sometimes, when wifi and the phone are not available, I can sometimes feel untethered from the family and friends that I wrap around myself and my life, giving me a sense of comfort and stability. And, in these moments of feeling unmoored from my particular place in the world, no matter where I am, what continent I’m on or what nation I am in, I go outside and I look up. I look for the sun and know that yesterday that very sun rose upon my people at home and I feel their love traveling with it. I look up and see the moon and know that very moon will soon be making its way through the sky to put those I love to bed and I send my love with it. The sky is important. The sky protects us from cold of space. The sky holds for us the very oxygen we need for life. And it is up to us to keep that source of oxygen healthy. Because, believe it or not, on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, air is more fundamental to our well-being than free wi-fi.

I was fretting about what to say here because it seems so difficult for an individual or those who are not involved at a high level in corporations or government to make a difference over how our air quality is maintained. So much of the damage to our air and sky that has resulted in climate change has been because of industry and manufacturing. It can seem too big of an issue for us to manage as simply being citizens of the world. But then I had this funny experience this week. I am invited, now and then, to be filmed preaching sermons from the recent past so that those congregations without a minister can put together a worship service and have a preacher give a message. On Thursday, I pulled out and adapted a sermon for this coming Advent—from the Book of Luke, where John the Baptist is saying we need to make the roads straight, bring the mountains low and raise up the valleys in preparation for the Messiah’s arrival. It was weird to be preaching Advent in September but the long and the short of it was, I was hearing myself say that this specific piece of scripture tells us that we are to be co-creators with God for the coming of peace in this world. Only by our participation and involvement in the bettering of our world, can true peace be known. And, as it turns out, I was preaching to myself because in that moment, I remembered that we cannot abdicate our responsibility for a healthy sky and for clean air, we cannot abdicate our stewardship of the very sky that God breathed into the world at its beginning. We cannot. So, even though we may not be decision makers in industry or with the government, we must still do our best to affect change.

And. So. God gave us to the responsibility to be stewards for the Creation given to all of us. God can see, just as clearly as Jeremiah could, just as clearly scientists across the world, just as clearly—or not so clearly—as those who live in cities besieged by smog, just as clearly as us living under a haze of smoke from wildfires hundreds and hundreds kilometers away, we are not fulfilling our responsibilities to our very best ability. We cannot leave the impetus to be better, to steward better, to care better for our environment just up to the powerful and those with authority. We can affect change as individuals and as members of a wider community and as citizens united together. On a large, global level there the United Nations. Goal 13 of the Sustainable Development Goals concerns the climate. The Canadian government approach is listed on the website for Canada’s Action on Climate. Locally there's the City of Calgary initiatives. What can we do - individually and together as citizens of this city, of this country and of this world?