Inviting Generosity

Scripture Lessons: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11, and Matthew 20:1-16

Why do we give? I’m not asking what we give- in time or talent, or treasure; or how we give – with money, pennies, cheques, par, seeing where there is a need and offering our time, knowing we have a gift to share; I’m not asking how much we give. I’m asking why we give; why do we contribute to the work of the church in whatever way we contribute.

The scripture from Deuteronomy legislates thanksgiving. By the grace of God, the Israelites had escaped slavery, eventually found their way through the desert, and were about to enter into the new land, displacing the people who had lived there for generations. This was going to be their homeland, but God wanted them to remember their history, and to give thanks for the dwelling they were about to have. From that act of giving thanks the priests, the people who were not Israelite but who lived among them, the orphans, and the widows were provided for. The thank offering was ritualized within worship, so that it was tied to God, what God had done, and what God continued to do for them.

In a lot of ways it is not unlike our ritualized thanksgiving when we take time to collect and pray for our offering. The big differences are that in our denomination, we do not mandate what to give, how much to give, or why we give. We might offer suggestions, we absolutely teach that it is important to give, but the what, how much, how, and why are up to each one of us.

Let’s stick with the why. Why do I give? I give because it was the church that invested in me. At a time when I felt particularly vulnerable and worthless, the faith communities I was part of helped me to see that I had gifts to share. Not only did they help me to see that I had value, they took the time to teach me, they invested their time and talent to encourage me in my development as a person and as a leader. As this leadership grew into a call to ministry, that investment grew beyond time and talent and I got some monetary support too. What’s more – I regularly see the difference that the church makes in people’s lives. I see how we as church help to feed a hunger, be it physical or spiritual. I see how we support each other and those who are outside of our community, but may still come to us seeking support. I see that without the church, our community and our world would be a very different place, and so I give, because giving allows me the chance to create a space where someone else might be able to find that they are valued and loved, when they feel unloveable and worthless; it creates the space for someone to develop a new part of their lives surrounded by grace; it creates the space to gently surround people with faith and hope when they might feel like all they have are doubts.

That for me, is what living my faith is all about. After all, Jesus helped people to find a place in their communities when they had been shoved to the side, Jesus taught people about the grace of God, and Christ shows us that there is hope even in the bleakest of moments.

We see some of that in the gospel today, where the generous landowner hires workers to work in his vineyard. He goes to the marketplace, looking for some workers, finds some and they agree on a wage. Later, he goes back and finds more, and again, and again, and again – each time agreeing on a fair wage. That last time he finally asks, “why are you standing here idle all day?” They reply, “because no one has hired us.” Often we look at this gospel and point to these ones saying that they must have dallied on their way to the marketplace. They must have done something wrong to not get hired. These were not the ones who were lazing about all day only to just show up near day’s end to find a bit of money to get some food. These were the ones that no one would hire. The ones who, in our own culture, have their resumes ready, who are looking for jobs, but whether they do not have the right look, or whether they are differently abled, whether they do not have the right connections, whatever the reason or reasons they cannot find a job. So the wealthy landowner invites them to come and contribute what they are able to the work he needs done.

This last group didn’t agree on a wage. The first group agreed on the usual daily wage, the next ones agreed on a wage that was right, but that was up to the landowner’s discretion, this last group didn’t agree on a wage. There is something about being able to participate in community that goes deeper than the compensation that might be given. At the end of the day, all of the workers got the same pay.

It really doesn’t seem like justice at all – considering all that the workers who had been there from the beginning gave. But then, we have to wonder, is grace just? It certainly isn’t equal, because we need differing amounts of grace – each of us. Some days, we need more than others. However, at the end of the day, we are each given a measure of grace from God – and it is up to God to determine what that measure is.

What gets me with this parable, is that even nearing the end of the day, the generous landowner made space for everyone to contribute. The landowner made space for each person to find value in themselves because they were able to contribute that day.

God is like that landowner, inviting us to participate in whatever way we can. We are like the workers, some of us give more, some of us give less, but we all give in the ways that we are able. Our abilities change over time, sometimes growing, sometimes diminishing. Our wages change, and so do our expenses. Nevertheless, we are, each of us, valuable and valued. We are each of us God’s children, and each of us blessed.

There are many of near and far away who need an extra measure of grace, kindness, mercy, or space today. God has blessed us and equipped us as a congregation to help share God’s generous gift of grace. God has empowered us to be generous, caring, and life-changing, but it is up to us.*

Thanks be to God for this congregation, for one another, and for our ministry together. Amen.

 

*Final paragraph from We Sing Thanksgiving: Called to Be The Church Congregational GIving Program 2017-2018 by The United Church of Canada.

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Living Our Mission Locally

Scripture Lesson: Acts 2:44-47

“First thing we’d climb a tree and maybe then we’d talk

Or sit silently and listen to our thoughts

With illusions of someday casting a golden light

No dress rehearsal this is our life” – Ahead by a Century, by The Tragically Hip

As I was listening to the Tragically Hip this week these lyrics caught my attention. How often do we dwell in the illusions of someday? The idea that when things get better, when we have more money, or when we have more people, or when we completely run out of resources, or when… what? THEN we will get back to doing all the things that a church should do. There are a lot of expectations on what a church community should do, or how it should look, or how it should be.

We can look at this story from Acts and hear it as another list of shoulds and expectations. Here is a community who is newly formed, there is a lot of excitement around their mission and ideology. The community asks its members to sell their resources and pool all they have so that they can care for each person as they have a need. They worship together, eat together, and work together. The community is pointing the way to hope and excitement in the midst of the everyday grind. No wonder they were getting people flocking in. But it wasn’t for everybody – and it sure took a lot of energy and effort to keep it going that way. Group dynamics theories point to the fact that as congregations grow and mature, they inevitably change, there is a lot of excitement at the start, and slowly that excitement settles down into a more mature focused energy that is sustainable. Not to mention what happens when leadership changes. So it’s exciting to read what a Christian community looked like at a certain point in time. It’s inspirational. It can help us catch a vision for our own community. It should not however, be a checklist or a standard of excellence, because that community was continually changing, and we know that it did not stay that way forever.

If we listen to this story from Acts and celebrate with them, the ways that the Holy Spirit moved through their community, seeing to the needs of all, offering a vision of a different way of life, we can also ask in what ways does the Holy Spirit move through our community?

The story from Acts tells a story of a congregation. It’s an inspiration and a vision of what Christian community can be at its best. This is one vision of how a church can be in community, but it is not the only way. We are reading about one particular church community, at one particular point in time. If someone were writing about Dryden, First United Church in the Acts of the Apostles – if the anthology were extended to include communities of faith from every time and place, and ours found its way in, what would be written?

I mentioned last week we were going to explore stewardship this month, and part of being good stewards is knowing what we have – we talked about that last week. Another part of stewardship is celebrating the ministry we do.

This year, because of the generous giving of people in our congregation, we sing thanksgiving and were able to do the following:

Through worship:

This year, we worshipped weekly through reading scripture, praying, praising, singing, responsive reading, meditating, drama, storytelling, crafts, activities and sharing of the sacraments. Our choir practices weekly to be able to offer music ministry weekly, and cantatas or special presentations at certain times throughout the year. Our secretary and occasionally some volunteer spends countless hours putting together the PowerPoint presentation for the worship service. We endeavour to make worship and communication accessible through our bulletin – providing enlarged ones for those who request them with someone taking time every week to fold the bulletins. We have a number of volunteers who are able to run the projectors, and set up the sound equipment for worship. We have incredibly helpful ushers who welcome people to our church for worship, pass out bulletins, help people find their seats, and collect the offering.

We baptized three children this year, and have one more baptism scheduled.

We grieved the death of many.

We celebrated one marriage.

We held a special service to pray for the victims and the families of the shooting at the Islamic Centre in Quebec City.

We had another special worship in honour of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.

Our worship committee meets monthly to talk about different ideas to focus on throughout worship, and how best to explore ideas.

We worked with other denominations to worship and fellowship together with the Lenten lunch series and the world day of prayer.

Through LEARNING

Tuesday Bible Study – This dedicated group meets every Tuesday morning throughout the school year, taking turns to lead themselves in a study that deepens their faith. This is a group that takes care of each other’s spiritual needs, prays for each other, and is a safe place to explore questions of faith.

Wednesday book study – is a committed group who listen, question, think about and learn from the book they are reading, and each other. They have built up trust with one another so that hey are able to challenge ken another, and work together through disagreement, sometimes re-examining personal ideas about the subject.

Kingdom’s Kids teaches our children about God our Creator, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit; it also teaches them that they are loved unconditionally, and how to live out their faith in the world around them.

Vacation Bible School helps teach our kids, and many more kids Bible stories through crafts, skits, music, and food.

Bible study at Pat Gardens s put on monthly by a couple of folks on our pastoral care team. They delve into faith matters that are meaningful to the folks who attend.

Some of our United Church Women’s units do educational pieces as a part of their meetings, learning about people and issues in our community and beyond.

Through SERVICE

Within the congregation:

Pastoral care committee tries to keep contact with those who are a part of this congregation, but who cannot take part – they do this primarily by sending cards on special occasions, or when a need arises, but also through booklets and love blankets.

Many of us visit those who are sick, grieving, home bound, or in the hospital. We have some people who are commissioned to this work of pastoral care, and others of us who just do it, because that is the kind of compassionate congregation we are.

United Church Women’s units and United Church Men do fundraisers for the work of the church

Potlucks happen throughout the winter months as a way to bring us together

United Church Women host the funeral luncheons when asked, with care and great attention to detail

United Church Men support the youth as they go to camp, Some of us send kids to camp

Some of us volunteer at camp, and at youth events to create and support quality faith development opportunities for our kids

We look after our church building. There are folks who seek to keep up the building by helping to clean, decorate, and/or repair things. We took time to rebuild our kitchen, and we’re still working through insurance pieces

We work ecumenically to develop relationships with members of other faith communities, and to financially support a variety of initiatives.

The Vine is produced on a quarterly as a way of communicating what happens in our congregation. We are also working on keeping our Facebook page up to date, and are working with a student from the high school and a dedicated volunteer from the congregation to get our website back up and running.

Beyond the congregation:

We provide affordable space for community groups: Al-anon, NA, Pathfinders, Brownies, and Guides,

We support the food bank

I can’t remember who it was, perhaps our past moderator Gary Paterson who said United Church people are known for volunteering in the church, and then even more, in their community – and so beyond the work that you do in, for, and on behalf of this congregation, presbytery, and conference, I know there are a great many of you supporting different organizations in this community and beyond, through your time, talent, and treasure.

I’m working with a couple people right now who have a vision of creating monthly community dinners. We are in the vision stage, but these are folks who are dedicated and have the energy to do this work – a new ministry that would offer a simple dinner to folks in the community – folks in need of a meal, or folks in need of some company while they eat. A chance for us to support our own, to do some basic outreach into the community, and hopefully build some relationships with other people and organizations.

The support from the congregation for the ministry of the denomination through Mission & Service. We fundraised for Mission and Service – money which goes to support ministries in our own conference, in our country, and around the world.

As I was talking through the financial situation at a board meeting one night, someone said, “you know Erin, we might have oversold you on this church in the JNAC” my response then, as it is now is no. No one oversold anything. I firmly believe the Holy Spirit called me here, and I believe the Holy Spirit is continuing to work in and through this congregation. We may not be doing the work we once did, we may be struggling in certain ways, our ministry may be changing, but we just took 10 minutes to detail all the work we are doing, and we need to be good stewards of our ministry, and celebrate the ministry ministry that is going on here.

Living Thankfully Day by Day

Scripture lesson: Philippians 4:1-9

It can be easy to focus on the negative – especially since the media is full of it, but beyond that, in our congregation, we’ve had some significant challenges and losses over the last couple of weeks. As we start talking about our budget for the next year, and deciding how to budget faithfully, we are painfully aware of just how little money have. As we look ahead to the New Year and the number of people we need to serve on the board, we wonder where this help might come from. As we look into the ministry profile and and the possibility of sharing ministry time with a nearby pastoral charge, we are anxious about the changes that might be coming.

Anxious is a key word in all this. It’s a normal reaction to the massive amounts of change, challenge, and upheaval we’re going through as a congregation. On the one hand, anxiety can clue us into those things that are important to us, and help us to focus our energies. On the other hand, psychology also teaches us that anxiety can take us into a collective knee-jerk reaction that by-passes clear thought, and undermines helpful possibilities. Anxiety is sometimes useful to make sure that we keep what is important, it can also hinder us from living in the present and moving forward in hope.

With all this, we hear Paul’s words: Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. Rejoicing calls us to take a step back from the anxiety. It asks us to ground ourselves in Christ, remembering that there is always hope, new life, and resurrection. It doesn’t ask us to deny reality or the severity of things. It doesn’t ask us to only focus on the positive, but it reminds us to broaden our perspective before reacting.

Paul wasn’t just being a Pollyanna in saying this. Paul was writing from prison – not your typical place to rejoice. Often a place that wasn’t particularly sanitary or concerned for the prisoners needs – it would more likely be a place of despair than one of joy. And yet, Paul’s faith grounded him to the point where he was able to authentically write the advice to this congregation – the first faith community he founded on what is currently European soil, it was a community he held dear to his heart, and of whom he was proud. He encouraged them to keep on in the ways they were succeeding: not to worry, but continuing to practice gratitude and joy. A quick read might have us questioning what was going on between Euodia and Syntyche, but it was custom at the time to encourage people to keep doing what they’ve already been doing, and that’s likely what Paul was doing: encouraging the congregation in Philippi to continue listening to each other, working to be in right relationship with one another, living in joy, giving thanks to God, and having hope in Christ.

It all sounds lovely – but just like any group of people in any time and any space, there were bound to be disagreements, conflicts, times when someone did something unthinkingly and hurt someone else, times when someone dropped the ball and someone else felt unloved, times when things were changing and times the group was growing or diminishing, or leadership was changing and there was anxiety. These are normal for all groups to deal with, and while it doesn’t excuse the hurt that was done: we apologize, we make amends, we change our ways, we work on healing – which sometimes takes a while, and continue on in a measure of grace. Giving thanks and living in joy and in hope helps us to do that.

After all, thanksgiving and joy are spiritual disciplines more than feelings. They are ways of grounding ourselves in Christ, and refocusing on a situation. It’s easier to say than to practice regularly, especially when things are going sideways, that’s why it is a discipline. If we get into the habit of doing it daily or weekly when things are going well, it is easier to do when things go sideways, and get complicated.

In giving thanks and living in joy we take a look around us and notice all the things that are going well, and the abundance that exists in our lives. It is the foundation of good stewardship.

Stewardship is something I’d like us to focus on for the next few weeks. Now – before you close your ears and say something along the lines of “we’re giving all we can, we can’t give any more money, so don’t ask us!”  Let me remind you, that stewardship isn’t just about giving money. It’s about so much more.

Like I mentioned, the foundation of stewardship is in joy and thanksgiving. Not even giving thanks with the goal of giving back, or the idea of being a joyful giver, but celebrating, and giving thanks for what we have. It’s about taking a look around, and naming the gifts, the abilities, the volunteers, the people, the staff, the building, the educational resources, the theological resources, the music resources, the musical instruments, the technology, and so on, that enable us to do the work we do as the church. When these resources and people change, the ministry we offer changes as well.

So let’s take a moment and practice gratitude, because this is something we all need to do together:

What are we thankful for?

Who are we thankful for?

In the last couple weeks, amidst the challenges we’ve faced, I’ve also heard people give thanks for the ministry we do as a church. Now I’m paraphrasing, but I’ve heard people say “I’m so glad the church is here, so I have someplace to go with this.” “I’m thankful there is someone who is checking in on us, because we have no one else.” Whether we realize it or not, the ministry we offer is actually life changing. And so we rejoice.

We rejoice that there are children and youth here who are learning about God’s love, and how to show that love in their everyday lives.

We rejoice that we have women’s groups and men’s groups who fundraise, check in with one another, and care for each other.

We rejoice that we have an excellent pastoral care ministry, that endeavours to keep contact with those who are unable to participate in our community, but who are still a part of it.

We rejoice that we have a competent Ministry and Personnel committee who works hard to make sure the staff are supported and working in the way they should be.

We are blessed with talented people, structurally safe space, we try to create an emotionally safer space,  we try to create space where grace abounds, and so, in Paul’s words, we rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, we choose to rejoice. We give thanks for those people and things we have, and endeavour to care for the things, and more importantly, for each other.

In the midst of challenges, let us ground ourselves in Christ, who assures us that through changes and challenges, there is always hope, new life, and resurrection, and let us rejoice and give thanks, every day. May it be so.

Opening prayer for the Service of Remembrance for pregnancy and infant loss

O God,

We turn to you this evening, remembering those little ones you knit together in our wombs, and in the wombs of the women we love.

We turn to you also remembering the empty wombs of those who yearn to be parents, but for whatever reason, cannot.

We come to you in the many stages of grief: with heavy hearts, with anger, with despair, with bargaining, with hope, with laughter, with memories, with acceptance, with peace, with hope, and with any combination of these feelings.

We come, remembering that Jesus imaged you as attentive as a hen to her chicks, and how you spoke through Isaiah reminding us that you are like a mother will not forget her children.

We come knowing that through Jesus, who named you Father, you know what it is to lose a child, and so we come knowing that we are free to pour out our emotions, to remember our children, to grieve, and to be surrounded by your grace and support.

Be with us this evening, and may your Holy Spirit tend to our hearts, minds and souls, we pray in Christ’s name. Amen

Living our faith in community

This side of Easter there are many stories of communities of faith in our scriptures and beyond. This one that we hear about in Acts is one that regularly inspires me and more often challenges me. This very new community of faith numbered about 5000, were led by the apostles, and faced no small amount of harassment and persecution from the same folks who had killed Jesus. Still, they gathered and as our reading today tells us, “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” Whether it sounds like a perfect community, or a perfect example of communism, I can’t decide. It sounds like a fairy tale anyway, and if we read a little further, we hear of those like Barnabas who sees a need, and truly sells his property, giving it to the apostles to be distributed as any needed. Then we hear of Ananias and Sapphira who did similarly, except… they kept some money back just for themselves. This ideal community had its own problems, just like all faith communities do. Still, it didn’t stop them from trying.

One of the great joys of being on maternity leave was the ability to worship elsewhere, and to experience other forms of Christian community. One such church has discerned that they were called to build a city where nobody journeys alone. As such, the church folk work hard within their city to accompany the most vulnerable. They regularly volunteer at the soup kitchen, do some work with the homeless, with folks who have mental health needs, sing at the local care homes, you get the idea. While I’ve heard their minister describe the congregation as a porch-light within the community: a place of welcome and acceptance, they don’t necessarily expect that the folks to whom they minister will come sit in the pews. It’s a church that struggles, like many churches these days, with finances, and buildings, and dwindling resources. It’s not stopping them.

As an elected commissioner to the General Council, I, along with the other commissioners in our Conference have been learning about the many changes that are being proposed by this new church model. We hear how the future is bleak, we need to cut million dollars from the Church’s budget by 2018. We wrestle with changes, with challenges, with what the lived reality might look like, and we pray. Still, it’s not stopping us, we will continue to be the church.

Here’s the commonality with communities of faith: there are always problems that have the potential to stop us from gathering, from believing, from living out our faith. It could be persecution, apathy, lack of resources, too much wealth, what have you. As an Easter people, we know the Good Fridays of this world; we know the forces of death and destruction, as they threaten to overwhelm us all in different ways.

The miracle of Easter is that even in the midst of death, destruction, and neglect, we can find signs of new life, of hope, of love. The Good Fridays of the world would have us all feeling like we need to go it alone, like we are the only ones facing whatever problems we are facing. This side of Easter, we know the powers of love and community are stronger.

Let me tell you a story…

Story: Stone soup

Once there was a young woman who was traveling around the country, seeing what she could see. She sometimes did odd jobs to help pay for her trip. But there came a day when she ran out of money and food at the same time.

On that same day that she ran out of both money and food, she happened upon a small village. She thought that in this village she was sure to find someone who would give her a bit of food.

She knocked at the door of a friendly looking house. The woman of the house opened the door slightly. The young woman asked if the woman had a bit of food to spare for a weary traveler. Sadly, the woman answered that she did not have any food in the house at all.

The same thing happened at all the other houses the young woman visited. Not a single person in the whole village had so much as a crumb of bread in the house. The young woman did not get discouraged, however. Instead she came up with a plan.

The young woman went up to what appeared to be a wealthy house in the centre of the village and asked the old man who answered the door if he had a large kettle of water he could spare. The old man asked the young woman why she wanted the kettle of water. She told him that she was so sad about the lack of food in the village that she was going to make the entire village a big pot of soup from the special stone she had found on her travels.

Very curious, the old man got the kettle of water and a large stirring spoon and helped the young woman build a good fire in the barbecue pit he had along the side of his house. The young woman took a smooth stone out of her pocket and put it in the pot of water.

As she stirred the water in the kettle the young woman mentioned to the old man that the stone soup is always very good, but it would be even better with a little onion and cabbage to add some extra flavour. The old man thought he just might have a little bit of onion and cabbage that could be added to the soup. He went inside his house and returned with a handful of onions and a large head of cabbage and added these things to the water in the kettle.

A neighbour nearby stepped out of her house to put some laundry on her line. She smelled the onions and cabbage cooking and became curious about the good smell. She went next door to the old man’s house where she was told about the special soup made from a stone.

The young woman stirred the pot some more and mentioned to the neighbour that the soup is always very good, but it would be even better with a little bit of meat to add some extra flavour. The neighbour thought she must might have a bit of meat at home. She went to get it and returned shortly with a large chunk of meat and added this to the kettle of soup.

A young man came down the road walking his dog. He smelled the onions and cabbage and meat cooking and became curious about the good smell. He came to the old man’s house and was told about the special soup made from a stone.

The young woman stirred the pot some more and mentioned to the young man that the stone soup is always very good, but it would be even better with a little bit of carrot and potato to add some flavour. The young man hurried home and returned with a bunch of carrots and a handful of potatoes and added these to the kettle of soup.

A little girl down the street came outside to play and smelled the onions, cabbage, meat, carrots and potatoes, and became curious about the smell. She went over to the old man’s house and was told about the special soup made from a stone.

The young woman stirred the pot some more and mentioned to the little girl that the stone soup is always very good, but it would be even better with a few beans and a pinch of salt and pepper to add some flavour. The little girl hurried home and returned with her mother and a bowl of beans and some salt and pepper, and added these to the kettle of soup.

The woman from the very first house where the young woman had asked for some food came outside with her basket to collect some herbs and mushrooms from her garden, and smelled the onions, cabbage, meat, carrots, potatoes, beans, and salt and pepper, and became curious about the smell. She walked down the lane to the old man’s house and was told about the special soup made from a stone. The young woman stirred the pot some more and mentioned that the soup is always very good, but it would be even better with a few mushrooms and some of the sage the woman had in her basket to add some flavour. The woman from the first house took another look at the soup and gladly added her mushrooms and sage to the kettle of soup.

In a little while the soup was done and everyone had a big bowl of the delicious soup. Everyone marveled at how such a wonderful soup could be made from only a stone. The young woman spooned a second helping of the stone soup into her bowl and smiled to herself. **

We live in a world that would have us believe that we are better on our own, that we are safer if we hang onto everything we own with a closed fist, that we should make sure we’re only putting in as much as we get out – or maybe even less. This is a reality that keeps us looking hopelessly at the reality of Good Fridays.

This side of Easter, our focus is on the resurrected Christ: the one who does not let the powers of death and destruction have the final say. The resurrected Christ meets us in places of fear and doubt, and offers us what we need to move beyond them, so that we can both proclaim and embody the Good News of life abundant. The truth is when we all come together, when we all bring a little something, we can create something amazing. Christ is the one who sees our needs and our gifts, our challenges and our joys. Christ is the one who knows all that we have to offer, and who calls us to offer those things so that we might embody our hope, and find God’s great grace in our life. May we be a community of faith who seeks to live our faith boldly, offering God’s great grace to all whom we meet. May it be so.

**story taken from : http://www.bry-backmanor.org/actpag70.html

Walking in the darkness

She rose on the first day of the week and went to the tomb when it was yet dark.

Barbara Brown Taylor talks about walking in the dark – how it’s a practice we, as Christians, have lost. Speaking about her new book based entirely on this concept, she discusses how our vocabulary often paints darkness as a bad thing, but she says, if we look at the stories in the Bible, and not just the words, darkness is a place of mystery, of wonder and of God’s presence.

When asked what her working definition of darkness was, she answered, “Darkness is everything I do not know, cannot control, and am often afraid of. But that’s just the beginner’s definition. If I am a believer in God, then darkness is also where God dwells. God may also be frightening and uncontrollable and largely unknown to me, yet I decide to trust God anyway.”

Mary walked in the darkness that first Easter morning. Very possibly it was one of those mornings where the fact that the sun would rise felt traitorous – one of those mornings when she thought how could the sun continue to rise, even after such a dear friend was put to death, after everything they had worked towards had come to a complete and grinding halt. How could life continue after something like that?

Still, she chose to go to the tomb, to that dark, mysterious, unknowable place, alone, and I’m reminded of a quote from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, where Dumbledore tells Harry: “There is nothing to be feared from a body, Harry, any more than there is anything to be feared from the darkness. Lord Voldemort, who of course secretly fears both, disagrees. But once again he reveals his own lack of wisdom. It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.”

Death is an unknowable, uncontrollable, mysterious place, and Mary was still walking in its shadow that first Easter morning when she visited Jesus’ tomb.

Having lived beside a graveyard, it’s something I’ve seen a lot of people do – visit the place where their loved one is buried. Most often shortly after the person is buried, and then less, and less gradually. I imagine there are any number of reasons for this – coming to terms with the death, still wanting a connection with the deceased, but I think also, looking for hope.

Some might say a graveyard is a strange place to look for hope, but resurrection begins in the dark.  It’s only when we come to terms with death that we can truly find hope. It’s in those dark places that God finds us, and surprises us with grace. Whether we’re there because we’ve gone willingly or were forced, God’s grace dwells in those dark places. God’s grace surprises us in those dark places. We are not alone, and the unexpected can happen.  The requirement of us? To be present with our minds, bodies and souls.

Mary was willing to be present, and alone – at least until she realized something was different: the stone of the tomb had been removed. No one person could have done that by themselves, it was too heavy. So she went to find Peter and the beloved disciple, they all ran back to try to ascertain what was going on. Could someone really have stooped so low as to remove Jesus’ body? And over Passover? They’d make themselves ritually unclean. The men stooped and walked in, only to find the body really and truly missing, and the grave clothes set aside. John’s gospel tells us that they believed, but didn’t understand that Jesus had risen. They believed then that God was still at work in the darkness of the tomb, and in the mystery of life and death, but they had no clue what that might look like. With that knowledge, and the early dawn, they went back to their homes.

Mary however, stayed. The only possibility she could fathom was that someone took Jesus’ body. She stayed by the tomb and sobbed, but as she grieved in that early dawn, she was greeted by two strangers in brilliant clothing, mysteriously sitting where Jesus’ body had been – two who had not been present a moment before, asking her why she was weeping. Then a voice from behind, someone calling her name. A gardener? It had to be, no one else would be present, but no – not a gardener, Jesus. She was the first to see him alive. In a world where women were undervalued, this woman was the first to see and know that Jesus had risen from the dead, not a ghost, not a zombie, but a real person. She was the first to share the news with her fellow disciples. And this, because she was willing to walk in the darkness, to tend to it as it stayed within her, to question and persevere in her understanding of events. And there, in the darkness, she saw encountered grace and the message of Easter.

 Resurrection living means refusing to remain bound by the grave clothes – those things that would keep us in death; it means refusing to let the tombstone seal our fate, and it means refusing the idea that death has the last word.

 Resurrection living is trusting that God dwells in the darkness, and there, is willing to meet us in our vulnerability, our uncertainty and our vulnerability, so that death does not have the last word.

Resurrection living starts in the darkness, it requires the darkness and cannot be separated from it. Like a seed, it requires the darkness to germinate, and to grow into something more. It needs the mystery and unknown of the darkness in which to root itself so that it can grow into something strong.

Resurrection living happens slowly – just as the disciples were scared, still filled with grief, didn’t believe, couldn’t recognize, mistook Jesus for a gardener, a stranger, a ghost, it takes us a while to find Christ in our midst. Just as seeds don’t germinate the instant they are put in the ground, and caterpillars don’t turn into butterflies the moment they create a cocoon, it may take us more than one trip to the tomb, more than one good cry in the dark, more than one glance at the people in our lives to recognize that Christ is indeed risen.

 So whether we shout alleluia with our hearts, minds, souls and voices; say it with uncertainty; or whisper it with hope, may we be assured that Easter is within us, working in the mysterious darkness to bring about hope, grace and new life. Alleluia, Christ is risen.

 **with grateful nods to Barbara Brown Taylor and sicutlocutusest on

http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/04/14/barbara-brown-taylor-encourages-christians-embrace-darkness/

http://revgalblogpals.org/2014/04/18/11th-hour-preacher-party-jesus-is-back-edition/

Palm/Passion Sunday Prayer

Palm Cross

Jesus,

We give you thanks for the hope your grand entry into Jerusalem inspired. With joy and thanks we remember all who inspire our mundane lives with hope and joy. God remind us of those who need inspiration in their own lives, may we be blessed to be a blessing.

We remember how after the parade, you went into the temple, and in your righteous anger, drove out all who sought to exploit the poor, the vulnerable and the sick. May we all be reminded that we have such a protector in you, and may we follow your example in protecting the vulnerable around us.

We remember how at that same time, you welcomed the blind and lame into the temple, offering them healing and wholeness. We give you great thanks for those times and places where we find ourselves welcomed, where once we were forbidden. More, we give you thanks and praise for those times when we have found healing and wholeness in you. May your healing Spirit continue to work in, through and amongst us, bringing us healing from hurt, grief, and illness. May you help us to mend the divides we have created, and bring reconciliation into our midst so that we may all live fully.

The parade has ended, and the shouts of joy and triumph have died away. We hold in our hands crosses made of the palms that waved so joyously not long ago, and we take time to think about the days that led up to your time on a cross.

We remember Judas, tempted by 30 silver coins who betrayed you, and helped turned you over to the authorities. Help us to discover those things which tempt beyond living in right relationship with you and with our neighbours around the world. Keep us from temptation, O God. Surround those who have suffered betrayal of friendship and betrayal of justice with your love and your grace. Bind up their wounds, and help them to find your peace that passes all understanding.

We remember you making yourself vulnerable to your friends and washing their feet, before sitting down to share your last meal with them. We give you thanks for the friendship you offer us, and for those moments of grace in our lives where vulnerability and honesty lead to a more trusting relationship. We pray for those who never know such love and grace, for those who live in constant fear, and for those who are constantly exploited.

We also give you thanks for the nourishment we receive: whether it is nourishment for our bodies, food for thought or soul food, we cannot live without any of it. Bless those sources of nourishment in our lives, that we may not abuse them, or take more than our share, but always have enough. We pray for those who hunger: hunger for food, hunger for justice, hunger for a life worth living. Enable them to reach the sources of nourishment they so badly need.

We remember you praying in Gethsemane, with heart wrenching emotion, and friends who couldn’t stay awake to bear witness to your pain. We pray alongside all who are experiencing those dark nights of the soul, and those for whom terror doesn’t end with the sunrise, but continues as a constant in their lives. May we not fall asleep and neglect their pain or their need.

Finally, we remember your arrest and trial. We pray for all who are involved in the justice system: for those who make the laws, those who embody them, those who carry out justice, and those who find themselves on the opposite side of justice. May the laws we make enable us to live in right relationship with each other. May we seek change when they oppress rather than liberate, and may the consequences that are given help all to live more fully.

In times of trial and fear, may you always guide us with your wisdom and hope, and may we always pray with you saying: Our Father…