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

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Teach us to pray

Lord, teach us to pray…

It almost seems incredulous to me that the disciples have been with Jesus for such a long time, and they still don’t know how to pray? But then, I wonder if sometimes the idea of prayer, especially in prayer in public, or at least in a group setting intimidates us. For some folks this kind of thing is easy, and they have a gift of being able to pray off the cuff. I know it took me some 10 years of conscious work to really become comfortable with praying aloud in a group, and more on top of that to be comfortable leading a prayer in a group. In one youth group I attended, we used to open our meetings with a circle prayer – we would sit around in a circle and say something we wanted to pray for, and then squeeze the person’s hand next to us to pass it on. I was terrified. I would sit there shaking until it was my turn, when I would turn bright red and stutter something. Then it came time to learn to listen to what others needed, and then pray for them, while they prayed for me. Gradually, I learned how to pray aloud without a text in front of me. I honestly can’t fault the disciples for requesting:

Lord, teach us to pray.

I wonder if it didn’t go something a little more like this though: Lord, teach us to pray… like you do. We want our prayers to have power, emphasis. We want our prayers to mean something. You pray and things happen. People find healing, folks are restored to communities, their lives are given meaning again. We get discouraged when we pray and it seems like nothing happens. We get scared because sometimes the words don’t come, our tongues get tied, or our hearts are too heavy. When we don’t know what to say, when our minds are spinning so fast that we can’t even concentrate on one subject, when we feel like what we’re doing is coming up with a shopping list of wants and needs, when we don’t know whether we can trust you, when we don’t know how to listen to you.

O Lord, teach us to pray. 

Anne Lamott writes that our two best prayers are “help me, help me, help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you” and adds a third prayer: Wow! If you look at it like that, our prayers don’t need to be complex flowery bits of poetry. They are so much easier to phrase if they are simple and honest. Prayers filled with allegories, analogies, and metaphors are wonderful, they can help us discover a different image of God, they can reframe our way of seeing the world, but unless we are particularly gifted with language, that kind of thing can get in the way of our prayers, especially if we’re trying to live up to someone else’s contribution.  

Lord teach us to pray. 

 Jesus responds: this is how to pray

 Father, hallowed be your name. 

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. 

And do not bring us to the time of trial. 

 This prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples is deceptively simple. It really doesn’t sound like much, but there is a lot packed into the several sentences he utters.

 It’s shorter than the version found in the gospel of Matthew, or the version we tend to pray these days, but it is essentially the same prayer. It’s a prayer that has been passed down through our ancestors in the faith so much that it transcends Christian denominations of all sorts. It doesn’t matter if we are Christians who tend to pray using a prayer book, or if we are Christians who pray extemporaneously, off the cuff; or if we are Christians who pray silently, this is a prayer that unites us. It is a prayer that, I suspect we’re all taught early on in our faith journeys. It’s a prayer that we say so often, I wonder sometimes if don’t just rush through it, hoping that we don’t mix up the words too much, but not necessarily paying attention to that for which we are praying.

 Through scripture, Jesus calls us back to this prayer, saying: this is how to pray

 Father, holy is your name. Your kingdom come.

 He reminds us to focus. He reminds us we’re praying to God, and for God’s dream to come true in this world. We all have lists of prayers that need God’s attention, but first remember God’s vision. Remember how God has been present in history. Remember the stories from our scriptures of God leading people out of a land of injustice, of God calling for people to take a leadership role in their part of the world. Remember Jesus healing, and restoring people to their communities. Remember the Spirit that blew in on that day of Pentecost and brought people together. Remember the ways and places God has worked in your life. Take the time now to listen for a moment, I won’t ask you to share today, so you don’t need to worry about that. But listen, think, pray: what does God’s dream look like to you?

 [silence]

 Give us each day our daily bread

 We need nourishment as we look forward for tomorrow, as we yearn for God’s dream to play out. We need something to sustain us and keep us going. We need food for the body, food for thought and soul food to keep up the work we do, bringing God’s dream into reality. We need strength, courage and hope to keep going. Note the pronoun: give US each day our daily bread. We’re not just praying for ourselves, we’re praying for our communities, and for people around the world. Take the time now to listen for a moment, and pray for the sustenance you need personally, as well as what we might need as a faith community, and what folks around the world might need to keep going on into tomorrow.

 [silence]

 and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us

 Forgiveness is about relationships, so we’re called to think of everyone and everything with whom we are in relationship: God, other human beings, animals, the earth, the water, ourselves. Intentionally or unintentionally we cross the lines, upset and cause harm, and live beyond our means. Still, we seek to live in right relationship, and so we pray for forgiveness and mercy for ourselves, so that we can continually try to live in a good way, but also extending that mercy and forgiveness to others. Once again, it’s not just a personal thing, but a communal prayer as well. It might just be the most difficult part of this prayer. So take a moment, to sit in the wonder and freedom of God’s forgiveness and grace. Then take a moment to invite God’s forgiveness and grace into a situation where we as a whole need forgiveness, and need to offer forgiveness. 

 [silence]

 and do not bring us to the time of trial

 At this point in the prayer we usually ask God not to lead us into temptation, but here Jesus is praying more for our preservation from persecution and situations that might test our faith. There are times and places in our lives where we feel particularly vulnerable, and people around whom our courage falters. We also remember that for the most part, we are privileged and coercion isn’t a daily reality for us, where it is for folks in other places, and so we remember them too. It isn’t always easy to do what is right and faithful when we’re being threatened violence and death. So take a moment to pray for courage; for yourself if you need it, but also for those around the world, those in positions of leadership and respect, as well as those who face coercion and manipulation on a daily basis. 

 [silence] 

 Jesus continues: This is how to pray

 Be persistent, or a better translation: be shameless just like a person waking up his neighbour and friend in the middle of the night because of a dire need, don’t stop praying. If you watch The Big Bang Theory, we are being asked to be something like Sheldon, the genius who is woefully inadequate when it comes to social skills, and keep knocking at the door, trusting that the person on the person on other side will open the door. Jesus tells his disciples: keep asking, keep searching, keep thanking, keep praising. We are in a relationship with God, and like all relationships, if it is going to be healthy, we need to keep working on it. Prayer does just that. Prayer opens up the lines of communication, it gives us a chance to speak our piece, and it gives us a chance to listen. In the words of another preacher by the name of Martha Spong, “prayer works on us, it works on others and it works on God.”

 As followers of Christ we are called to pray: for ourselves, for each other, for our world. We are called to continually deepen our relationship with God, to trust, to communicate, to listen, to be present, to keep working at it, and not to give up. No matter how beautiful or how plain, no matter if we express our prayers in words, laughter, tears, gestures or silence, our prayers matter. They have the power to bring about change in us, in others and yes, I truly do believe, even in God. So may we continue to seek God’s dream for this world, for this community, and for our roles in it. May we continue to hold each other in prayer, asking God’s grace, love and goodness to be present in and through our lives. May we continue to bring our needs, our hopes and our fears to the One who loves us deeply, and who listens to our prayers, and listen for a response. May it be so. 

 Sources:

Lammott, Anne. Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (New York: Riverhead Books) 2012.

http://marthaspong.com/2013/07/27/when-you-pray/ 

Making space for silence to speak

Elijah is one of the most important and most powerful prophets of the Hebrew Bible, second only to Moses. But here we have him running away, depressed, and even suicidal. It is seemingly strange behaviour for someone who has just come from defeating the priests of Ba’al, and showing the people of Israel the power of God. You’d think that he’d be celebrating; at the very least, you’d think he’d have faith and trust that God would see him through this next part of his life. After all, God has done so much for Elijah already, providing food for him on various occasions, taking care of him. It would seem sort of obvious wouldn’t it?

 Then again, I think it was Plato who said be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. We often don’t know what can be going on in someone’s life. 

 It’s common for people who have reached a lifelong dream, or a major goal or stepping stone in life to subsequently sink into depression. It happens regularly to olympians who have worked so hard, focused only on themselves and their performances, to reach a certain goal, only to find afterwards, that there’s something lacking. It doesn’t only happen to prophets and olympians though, it can happen to any of us, especially as we come up to major life changes. When we pour a large part of ourselves into achieving a goal, or into doing a certain thing, and all of a sudden we’ve reached it, and that activity or way of being no longer puts a demand on our lives, we need to figure out what to do and where to go next. It means redefining and re-orienting ourselves, and finding what NOW brings meaning to our lives. 

 Elijah didn’t have the chance to do this before Jezebel started in with the death threats. Those threats must have hit home, because his first instinct was to run away. I can’t blame him though, I wouldn’t be inclined to test the will of an angry person with a lot of power and an army to back her up. He ran first to the land of Judah, out of Jezebel and Ahab’s reach. There he sat down under a tree, started questioning his life before God, asking God to end it now, since it didn’t seem to hold any meaning for him anymore, and, as people with depression are wont to do, quickly fell asleep. 

 God didn’t grant his request to die. Rather God sent an angel, a messenger who woke Elijah, provided him with food and told him to get up and eat. A second time an angel came, woke him and told him to eat, but this time the messenger added that he needed strength on his journey, for it wasn’t over yet. It’s funny sometimes, how when we’re at the lowest points of our lives, we need people to remind us to do the most basic of things, to remind us that life goes on, and we have  a part to play in it, to tell us to keep up our strength.

 Elijah’s journey took him to Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai – the same place where Moses communed with God, and received the 10 commandments, a high, holy place. Just like with Moses, God promises Elijah that God will pass by. When Elijah gets there though, we hear a bit more about why he ran. 

 What are you doing here Elijah? God asks. He replies: “I have worked hard for you God, but I’m the only one left. I don’t know what to do.” He says it twice – and we’re reminded of the one-track mind that tends to accompany depression – the same thoughts that circle round and round the mind, pulling the depressed person further down, so that it’s incredibly difficult to escape. The long climb up out of those thoughts started when God passed by, but God was not seen in God’s usual ways. Elijah was already broken and bent, so of course he wouldn’t feel God’s power in the wind. He was already shaken, so God’s presence in an earthquake couldn’t shake him up any more. He was already burnt, Jezebel’s threats seared into his mind, so no, God wouldn’t be found in the fire either. But it was in the sheer silence that God could be found, offering him the stillness that he didn’t have. In the silence came the knowledge that there were others like him, who worshipped God, but whose voices had silenced. In the silence he was reminded of the work that he needed to do for those who had been rendered silent. 

 Carrie Mitchell says: “Simon and Garfunkel had it right – we need to listen to those sounds of silence (e.g., the plight of the oppressed, the vacant faces of the homeless, the inarticulate cries of undernourished children), because in them God is encouraging us to persevere.” 

 I have a poster in my office that talks about building a global community. At the very bottom it says: Know that no one is silent, though many are not heard. The sounds of our society are sometimes so loud and so deafening that we can’t even think of where to begin listening for those voices that have been silenced. So I ask… Whose voices are part of the community, but aren’t part of the church? For that matter, whose voices are not even part of the community, even if the owners of such voices are physically present in it? Whose voices have been silenced? Whose voices are we missing?

 One thing that is currently going on in our country is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s creating a space for Residential School survivors to tell their story. Just this week, space was made at the U of M to keep the photo history of residential schools, so that we don’t forget what  happened. It’s not always easy to listen to those stories. Like anything there was the good and there was the bad. Some people will say that they have become more than they ever dreamed of becoming because of the skills they learned there. Others, or maybe even the same ones have horrendous stories of abuse, and how that has affected their relationships with others, including their own families and their own children. We don’t like to hear these stories, they don’t paint us in a good light, and we don’t know what to do with the feelings they produce. It’s something so much larger than ourselves that we don’t know how to make it better. Yet, it is good to listen to these stories, to make space to hear them, and not to forget them, so that we can heal, and work to heal the relationships with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. 

 In his depression, Elijah forgot there were others like him. We too need to know that we exist as part of something that is larger than ourselves. God reminds us that we are a part of something larger than ourselves. God reminds us that there are those who need a voice. 

  Listening to the silence is not just about hearing the difficult stories, so I will leave you with an uplifting one. There’s a highschool graduate from London, Ontario who made the news this week. His name is Josh Yandt. His family had only just moved to London a year ago, and for this young man, it was a chance to make a new start. In his former highschool he had been bullied and rendered invisible. He doesn’t speak much about it, except to say it was a very difficult time in his life. In this new place he decided that he didn’t want to be invisible anymore. He wanted to be someone. So he tried something new: he held the door open for other students. People noticed. No one knew his name, so they started calling him the Doorman. They got to know him better. In the interview at his school, all kinds of students were saying hello, giving him a pat on the back as they walked by. Other students mentioned it was the start of something new at their highschool. No one had been this nice before; students started paying it forward, doing nice things for other individuals. Oh ya, and Doorman was voted prom king. 

 When we come out from hiding, good things can happen. When we give people a chance to become visible and give them a space to speak, we see and hear all kinds of things that we never knew existed. 

 We as a church exist to help bring meaning to people’s lives, our own lives included. We exist to help folks sift through the cacophony of sound that surrounds us to find the still small voice/the sound of sheer silence that speaks life to us. We exist to hear those who have been silenced, and to help these ones to have a voice and find their voice (although we need to be careful here, that we do not overpower their voices with our own in an attempt to have them be heard). We are called to make a space so that others can speak. We exist so that future generations can continue to find God’s voice and God’s dream for the world. 

 God will meet us in the silence, and we never quite know what it is going to be like

 Sources:

Bartlett, David and Barbara Brown Taylor (eds) Feasting on the Word Year C Season after Pentecost Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2013/06/17/video-doorman-graduates.html

A Community in times of change

Have you ever had anyone special make you a piece of clothing?  My mom has made any number of things for me, but one of my greatest treasures is a blanket. It’s not particularly beautiful, and due to the wide variety of fibres in it, it has shrunk in parts and expanded in others – but it is made up of the scraps of yarn leftover from knitting and crochet projects between the 70s and the year 2000. While some of the projects that were made with that yarn are long gone, I can still pick out colours from any number of sweaters that she has knit, or afghans she has crocheted. Needless to say, there is a lot more meaning in this blanket for me than for most people. Perhaps making clothing for someone we love – or receiving handmade clothing from someone we love isn’t something that happens all that much anymore. All the same, when it does happen, it’s pretty special to know that that piece of clothing was made just for you, and that whomever made it likely made it with love. 

 The circle of widows in Joppa all had some piece of clothing that was made for them by Tabitha, or Dorcas – depending if you know her through Hebrew or Greek associations. Now widows in that time and place, as you likely know, were undervalued and generally seen as a burden on society. They would not have had a lot of money or resources, and more often than not lived in poverty and were malnourished.  Rarely would they live to be over 40. [1] I imagine Tabitha wasn’t able to ensure the circle of widows was fed, since it sounds like she herself was a widow. However, it sounds like she had a gift in clothing fabrication, and used it to support the community in her own way. 

 In mainstream North America, clothes are pretty well disposable. There is an abundance of clothing to be had, and generally speaking, many of us have multiple outfits to wear. In Tabitha’s time, most folks would have only had one or two outfits, especially those who were in the lower classes of society. Her contribution of clothes was no small thing. It was even more valuable considering that clothing production at that time was about 20 times more work intensive than food production [2] since it involved spinning the flax, wool or hair fibres into yarn, weaving cloth, waulking or fulling the cloth, as well as cutting out the pattern and sewing it together. None of the above are necessarily quick undertakings. 

 So we get a sense of Tabitha’s generosity, and her importance in this community of faith that happens to be a community of widows. My sense is that her work is not just confined to a needle and thread, however. Tabitha is the only woman named as a disciple mathetria in the entire New Testament. She was likely an integral part of weaving that faith community together. But we only hear Tabitha’s story because, surrounded with the harsh realities of poverty and malnutrition, she died, and left a gaping hole in the community that she worked so hard to sustain. 

 The women lovingly washed her and laid her out on the bed, and sent two men to go find Peter in Lydda. I can’t help but wonder what they were expecting Peter to do. Was it that they were calling for the itinerant clergy person to come preside at the funeral, were they looking for guidance in how to continue as a faith community without their main leader, or had they heard of his healing capabilities, and had hopes for Tabitha’s resurrection? Robert Wall suggests that their omission of burial salts indicates that they hadn’t completed all the funerary preparations, so they may have hoped for resurrection, but we really don’t know. [3]

 As they gathered to grieve Tabitha’s death, the widows all brought at least one of the pieces of clothing Tabitha made for them – a fashion show of sorts. Each piece is something of Tabitha, there is nothing like it anywhere else. In a sense they are re-membering Tabitha, attempting to put her, and their community, back together again in their own limited capacity. The widows came together in grief and vulnerability. They knew very well the realities of poverty, and that this too could be how their end would come. But they were not ready for it to be the end. They were not ready for their community of faith to be disbanded now that Tabitha was no longer with them. They could have drawn inward and apart, but instead they opened up to each other, and to God. 

 In speaking of putting broken lives back together Frederick Buechner writes, 

“When it comes to putting broken lives back together – when it comes, in religious terms, to the saving of souls – the human best tends to be at odds with the holy best. To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do – to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst – is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from.” [4]

 This week in the news, we have all kinds of examples of communities experiencing crisis: whether we’re talking about the bombings and subsequent lockdown and manhunt in Boston; an explosion in West, Texas; the earthquake in China; or continued discussion about bullying and teens who have died by suicide, citing bullying as the cause. Each and every one of these are examples of communities and people that have been broken – both literally and metaphorically. 

 All who have been affected by these and other tragedies will need to go through their own grieving and healing – both individually and as a community. Usually when these things happen, we see at least two different ways of dealing with that grief. Some of it will be folks steeling themselves against threats: blaming the ones who contributed to the problems, keeping people out, and not want to work on healing at all. Other people will explore more creative and community-based options of healing that open doors to new possibilities. While it is incredibly easy, when faced with change, hurt, threats and grief, to turn inwards, to go into lockdown mode so risk is minimized, and, as Buechner says, to steel ourselves for whatever else might come, Buechner suggests that perhaps vulnerability and openness to change might be a better policy. Now don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for this kind of reaction, and it can save lives, but I question whether it is ALWAYS the best policy, especially once imminent danger has past.

 While these tragedies have been in the news throughout this past week, there are other communities at risk of being made vulnerable in different ways; in ways which will never make the news broadcasts, except for maybe the local paper. Here, I’m thinking specifically of the way we continue to be church. 

 All over the country the ways of being church are changing. We’ve talked about it in the Lectionary Bible Study that some of the clergy attend on Tuesday mornings. It gets discussed at church gatherings. Even the massive changes to our church’s polity through The Manual are indicative of this. The result is diversity. Some churches are becoming more technology based, others are seeking to partner more with community organizations and to intentionally live out their faith in community rather than in a church building, others still are gathering for worship and Bible study in each others’ homes. Church as we’ve known it will likely change radically over the next decade, let alone several decades from now. As our congregations age and fewer and fewer young people come in, and step up to take on church leadership roles we are quickly going to find ourselves in a community not unlike Tabitha’s, where the pillars of the church quite simply can no longer do the work. 

 We all know that it takes a great deal of work to run a church. Perhaps Tabitha’s generosity was more commonplace than we give her credit for, considering the work that we put in to keeping our church alive and well. As our reality changes before our very eyes, we are called to give thanks and treasure the good work that has been done in our communities, but not make an idol of it, and worship it. I think we know that – and I think we’re good about doing loving it for what it was but embracing the present. But we also need to do the hard work of visioning for the future; and I’m not talking about 20 years down the line, but maybe something closer to five or ten. I know some of this has happened with United Valley Wide, and the JNAC before I got here. I have looked at various records of it, but it is not the same as hearing it from you. So I invite you, if you are so interested, to join in a conversation about the church – not necessarily this very minute, but in the next several weeks. Now I know we’re coming up to a very busy time in the farming year, and so I’m not meaning this to take any kind of formal process. When it comes to this topic, what I’m interested in is hearing us continue to tell our faith story. I know it’s not always easy to talk about our faith, so I invite you to take a moment to be like that gathering of widows: let us chat with each other about what this faith community means to us, what we cherish about this community, and why we put the work into it that we do. Let us open up to each other in vulnerability, and talk about what we’re scared of, and how we might feel threatened, when it comes to the future of this faith community. Let’s explore which dreams and ideals we might need to let go of, and which ones we absolutely need to hold on to. Let’s discuss where we might be willing to take a risk and to trust in each other and in the Spirit. Some of us might be like the widows in Joppa, grieving what has come to be. Some of us might be in a different place: looking forward to change, or maybe just wondering what will come.

The faith community in Joppa was a community of resurrection hope.

 They had reason to believe in a God who transcends the categories of birth, life and death, a God who is uniquely present – not absent – in the midst of frustration, difficulty, tragedy, illness, unbearable pain, and loss. [5] In this case, God worked through the community to bring about a resurrection of a remarkable woman who worked hard to live a Godly life and to bring her community together. We cannot all call upon an apostle to raise the dead in our midst, but then again we need to remember that Dorcas did not live forever. Peter could not return to her time and again to revive her. For that matter, Peter himself did not live forever. The beauty and wonder of Tabitha’s story isn’t so much in the fact that she was raised from the dead, but that the community bonded together in the midst of their brokenness. They yearned to be whole, they trusted in God’s promise of new life, they opened themselves up to the movement of the Spirit. The beauty and wonder of this story is that God doesn’t let that community down. In another place, in another time, the healing of the community would come about in a very different manner. 

Whether we are speaking of our own faith community, or communities of different types, may we truly be an Easter people, trusting in a God who can transcend the categories of birth, life, and death. May we open ourselves up to the movement of the Spirit whether it blows through the community like a strong gust of wind, or gently caresses us as it slips on by. May we continue to open ourselves up to one another, sharing the gifts, talents and time that we each have, and accepting those gifts, talents and time that others have to give.  

1 http://www.odysseynetworks.org/news/onscripture-the-bible-why-i-pray-that-april-tragedies-bring-may-justice-acts-9-36-43

2 www.workingpreacher.org  Sermon Brainwave

3 Robert Wall in Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 2, page 431.

4 Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982), 46.

5 Stephen D Jones in Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 2, page 429.

Turning things upside down

In traditional Ojibway teaching there is a spirit or being called the Windegocon, or the English translation: the sacred clown. It’s a being that brings healing through laughter. Folks who carry this spirit truly are clowns of a sort; they generally tend to do things backwards, or the hard way. They’ll cause others to shake their heads in bemusement and sometimes in frustration. Metaphorically speaking, the windegocon will turn things upside down. They look at things from a different perspective and question things regularly.

Today we’re tapping into this spirit a little, in turning the order of worship upside down. Depending on how we look at it, we might find it somewhere on a spectrum between a little playful, or downright uncomfortable. But it can also teach us something, or help us to see things we never did before. Perhaps hearing the sermon before the scriptures will help us to hear parts of the story more clearly when we read them afterwards. Maybe it will be the opposite, maybe we won’t pay any attention whatsoever to the story. Does the blessing work as a call to worship or the call to worship as a blessing? Or is it all just so crazy, and we feel so uncomfortable with it that we are just hoping and praying that things come to an end quickly so we can say “please don’t ever do THAT again!”

Whatever response we have, it is legitimate. With change in general, we have a wide variety of feelings and responses: from disbelief, to overwhelming fatigue, from disappointment to joy, from curiosity to fear, and many many more.

The resurrection of Jesus turned everything upside down. It completely and totally changed the frames of reference for living life. If, as I mentioned last week, the resurrection is about God’s great resounding “YES!” for Jesus and his work, and a resounding “NO!” about the forces of death and destruction, then how are we expected to live?

I hunch we’re given a clue in the story from John. The disciples have locked themselves in the house. They were scared. Mary had already told them that Jesus had risen. Peter and the beloved disciple had seen the empty tomb as well. Questions must have abounded, but among them, it seems that the main question was “NOW what do we do?” The horror of the crucifixion was still fresh in their minds. I don’t imagine that witnessing the traumatic death of a beloved friend and teacher is one that a person gets over very quickly. The forces of death and destruction may have been conquered by God, but they were still near at hand for the followers of Jesus.

It was into this melee that the resurrected one appeared. “Peace be with you,” he said. He showed them his hands and his side, and there was rejoicing. “Peace be with you,” he said again, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

With those few words, Christ turned the situation around, yet again. It was starting to be the time to leave that space, the time for fear was passing. Christ breathes new life into the disciples. The NRSV does not do the translation of the greek justice here. It says that Christ breathes on them – and the first thought that pops into my mind is that I sure hope he brushed his teeth that day! Really though, the rendering of the Greek is much more like in Genesis when God breathes life into the first earthling. Christ breathed life anew into the disciples. It was a breath of fresh air, or an inspiration. There’s a sense that we have another chance at creation, at life. With that, Christ commissioned the disciples to do the work he did while he was alive: to go and share the forgiveness of God; to go and find the peace and freedom that comes with forgiveness.

Living into forgiveness is taking a different path from the ways of the world. It turns the ways of the world on its head by offering freedom and grace instead of revenge. By far, this does not mean that we should live in a world where anything goes. Rather, it means refusing to be victimized, freeing our own soul from the hurt that was done. Apologies, amends, reparation, restitution, restorative justice – any and all of these things are appropriate and should still be done, but we also know that they don’t always happen, or can never make up for what has happened. That is exactly where forgiveness comes in. Forgiveness is a breath of fresh air that gives us another chance at truly living. It releases us from bonds that would otherwise hold us captive. Perhaps Ray Buckley puts it best in this story entitled Christmas Moccasins.

read: Christmas Moccasins

In forgiveness is the promise of new life. Perhaps it is the resurrection of a relationship, or an invitation to repent, or turn away from the way of life that caused the hurt in the first place. Maybe forgiveness is simply letting go so we don’t weight our own soul down.

One particular child learning the Lord’s Prayer prayed: “And forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.”

It’s a light-hearted look at something that can take a lot of faith and courage to do. We all have trash baskets and we all have people putting trash in our baskets. It’s part of life. Forgiving isn’t always easy. There’s a story of one minister who was preaching about forgiveness on a Sunday morning, and he asked the congregation who there had forgiven their enemies. All the hands went up. Well… almost all the hands. All save one. One elderly lady kept her hand down. Not one to miss this, the pastor remarked, “Mrs. Jones, you haven’t forgiven your enemies?” Mrs. Jones smiled sweetly and replied “I have no enemies.” Thinking this was a particularly saintly woman, the pastor asked, “Can you tell us how you managed to live your life without any enemies?” She replied, “I outlived them all!” Needless to say, it wasn’t quite the response the pastor was hoping for.

No, forgiveness is not always easy. Sometimes it is more of a process than an event – where we need to very consciously say every day “I choose to forgive _____, and I will not let ____ have control of my life.” In very weighted terms it means putting something to death to give life to something else. In popular culture there’s a lot of focus on “letting things go” or releasing something that we’ve been holding onto. It’s the same idea, only the idea of putting something to death is a lot stronger – we can’t pick it up again because it’s gone. It might be something that we can only do with God’s help. Forgiveness means we need to move out of those locked rooms, we need to let go of the fears we harbour, and go embraced by the peace of God. We need to quit looking for the living among the dead.

The resurrection brings about a new reality, one that turns the world on its head, one that doesn’t make sense, and causes us to shake our heads in bemusement sometimes. This new reality helps us to laugh and to heal. This new reality makes room for God to come in and to bring about new life in our lives. One of the marks of this new reality, of the resurrection of Christ is forgiveness.

May God help us to be an Easter people, and to live into the hope of resurrection through forgiveness. Amen.

Easter Sunday Sermon

Maybe you know this story already, but I heard it for the first time this year. In Eastern Orthodox tradition, there’s a story about Mary Magdalene who was speaking with the Roman Emperor. She tells him the story of Jesus, especially the bit about his death and resurrection. Tiberius Caesar, the emperor, points to an egg and replies that Christ can no more rise again than this egg can turn red. At that point, the egg in the emperor pointed at turned blood red. For some, that is where the tradition of sharing Easter eggs begins, where others say it is an old tradition adopted from other religions, but that’s a different story all together.

The emperor’s reaction is important. He thinks that Mary is full of it. After all, how can someone rise from the dead? It doesn’t make sense.

The disciples who didn’t go to the tomb that morning have the same reaction: the women are telling a bunch of idle tales; they are talking nonsense, their stories are garbage, or as theologian Anna Carter Florence puts it: the women’s stories are utter B.S.[1] There was no chance that Jesus could have survived the crucifixion. The dead can’t rise again. This had to be some kind of sadistic joke that they were playing.

Of course the rest of the disciples don’t believe Joanna, the two Maries and the other women who had gone to the tomb in those early hours, filled with grief, but prepared to do the sacred job of preparing Jesus’ body for burial. For that matter, it took a few moments for the women to believe what the messengers in dazzling clothes had told them. What do you mean the tomb is empty and that Jesus can be found among the living? Do YOU remember Jesus saying that he would be betrayed, be crucified and rise again on the third day?

If we hear the story of the resurrection and don’t wonder a little bit at its incredulity, then chances are we’re not taking it seriously enough. This is a difficult story to listen to and believe. Peter needs to go check things out, and sees that the tomb is how the women described it. As we hear later, Jesus appears to Peter. Also later, Cleopas and another disciple encountered Jesus as they were walking the road to Emmaus. When they run back to tell the others what they had experienced, Jesus appears to the rest of the disciples, eats some fish and encourages them to touch his skin, to prove that he is not a spectral vision. My point is that the resurrection story is one that we each need to experience for ourselves; otherwise, it truly does seem like balderdash. We cannot experience it through other people’s stories, we cannot live it vicariously – it is something we need to experience for ourselves, and know deep in our bones if we are truly going to believe it.

As Anna Carter Florence puts it: If the dead don’t even stay dead, what is there to count on? After all, as we say there are two things we can count on in this life: death and taxes. The truth is that the empty tomb, and the resurrection changes everything. Our moderator, the Right Reverend Gary Paterson likens the resurrection to those things labeled 3-D pictures and we stare at these blobs of colour and patterns, and all of a sudden there’s a shift in dimension, and we can see the picture hidden beneath. The foundations of the world shift, because it’s not only that the dead rise again, but that God comes into the human story, God walks with us, suffers with us, and rejoices with us. God sounds a resounding YES to Jesus, and a resounding NO to the forces of death and destruction.

For Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, death and resurrection need to be held together with crucifixion and vindication. In their words, “without an emphasis on Easter as God’s decisive reversal of the authorities’ verdict on Jesus, the cross is simply pain, agony and horror. It leads to a horrific belief that God’s judgment means that we all deserve to suffer like this but Jesus died in our place. […] without God’s reversal at Easter, Good Friday also leads to cynical politics. This is the way the world is, the powers are and always will be in control, and those who think it can be otherwise are utopian dreamers. Christianity is about the next world, not this one. […] Easter without Good Friday risks sentimentality and emptiness. It becomes an affirmation that spring follows winter, life follows death. But Easter as the reversal of Good Friday means God’s vindication of Jesus’ passion for the kingdom of God, for God’s justice, and God’s “no” to the powers who killed him, powers still very much active in our world. Easter is about God even as it is about Jesus. Easter discloses the character of God. Easter means God’s Great Cleanup of the world has begun – but it will not happen without us.”[2]

The stories of Jesus tell of a different way, they tell us of God’s dream and vision of what this world could look like. Easter is an affirmation of a different reality. Easter is an invitation to hear those stories again and live out that dream. Brian McLaren puts it like this:

For death is not the last word.
Violence is not the last word.
Hate is not the last word.
Money is not the last word.
Intimidation is not the last word.
Political power is not the last word.
Condemnation is not the last word.
Betrayal and failure are not the last word.
No: each of them are left like rags in a tomb,
And from that tomb,
Arises Christ,
Alive.[3]

The fullness of God’s love prevails. What is our response?


[2] Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (New York: HaperCollins Publisers, 2006), 209-210

[3] Brian McLaren “A prayer for pastors on Easter” https://www.facebook.com/eric.folkerth/posts/10201007404211649

Extravagant Love

William Carter tells a story of how a presenter at a stewardship conference shocked the group of pastors who had gathered to discuss generosity. This presenter in particular had begun talking about giving directly to God, and as the clergy started to yawn and settle in for something they thought would be deja vu, this presenter pulled a $100 bill out of his wallet and set it on fire in an ashtray, praying aloud: “Lord, I offer this gift to you, and you alone.” That brought people back to the topic at hand. People were buzzing as they watched that money go up in smoke. Whispers were heard about it being illegal to burn currency, and, well if he has money to burn, perhaps he has some more he would like to give away.

The presenter spoke into this crowd and said: “Do you not understand? I am offering it to God, and that means it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.”[1]

How do you feel when you hear that story?

[response]

I had a visceral reaction the first time I read that – something like when you feel your stomach drop on a roller coaster.

I’m not sure I completely agree with his action, but the presenter does raise a good question: How do we give in response to God’s love and grace?

Mary knew something about giving; this one who lavishly poured a pound of costly perfume on Jesus’ feet. Like the story of the presenter burning that hundred dollars, this story leaves me filled with wonder.

Can you imagine the scene? If we were to have read through the Gospel of John in its entirety, we’d have realized that this is at least the second or third time we find ourselves in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. In fact, it’s not been that long since Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Perhaps the smell of death still lingers in the house, mingling with the more tantalizing smells of the delicious meal that Martha would have prepared. Folks are seated around the room, and right in the middle of it all, comes Mary, with a pound of perfume. She gets down on her hands and knees, loosens her hair, and starts to rub the perfume into Jesus’ feet with her hair. This is weird behaviour even by our standards; by Jewish standards it is completely scandalous. For one, Mary’s behaviour is downright erotic – Mary is letting her hair down, literally, in the presence of men, not to mention that she is rubbing her hair on Jesus’ feet along with costly ointment. She was not acting the part of a proper Jewish woman. For that matter, Mary was not shown to be the proper Jewish woman in John’s gospel – sitting down and talking with Jesus, and running up to him instead of going to weep at her brother’s tomb – still, this act is extraordinary, even for her. That perfume cost a year’s wages – not a year’s wages after taxes, or a year’s wages after paying the bills, but the amount that one person would make in a year: in today’s time an place, think of blowing about 30 000 or 40 000$ in one shot. In my mind, Judas’ response of incredulity is completely and totally understandable. It sounds like Mary is crazy. In fact, this story would be easier to take if she were crazy. The problem is, she isn’t, and we can’t simply dismiss this act of extravagant love, or else we risk dismissing the power of this story.

I’m sure the scent of the nard wasn’t easily dismissed either. We’ve all had run ins with folks who use too much perfume and know what that is like. One preacher wrote about attempting to get into the mood of writing her sermon by dabbing a bit of oil scented with nard on her wrists, just a tiny bit – she said the smell of it was so overwhelming that she couldn’t focus on her sermon. Mary used a pound of the stuff, and as the story says, the fragrance filled the house. The extravagance of her act extends beyond the price of it, but also in the amount used.

No matter how you look at it, this is a story about extravagance. Christ’s love and action is extravagant when he raises Lazarus from the dead. After all, what bigger gift can you give a person but a chance to live again?  More than that: he gave Mary and Martha a chance to live again as well, as it seems they are dependant on Lazarus to provide for them. Jesus offered new life to the whole family, and he did it at risk of his own life. The act of raising Lazarus from the dead seemed to have been the decision maker in the chief priest and Pharisees’ decision to do away with Jesus. There’s no denial of the possibility of Jesus’ death in this gospel. His disciples are trying to dissuade him from going to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover so that his life might be saved. The smell of death still lingers here, but it has transferred now from Lazarus to Jesus.

How could Lazarus, Martha and Mary ever thank Jesus for such a gift? Hosting a meal in his honour would likely have meant much to Jesus. He always seemed to me to be the kind of man who liked to spend quality time with his friends. Mary kicks it up a notch with her action: With her touch, she grounds him in the present, keeping the fears of the future at bay. In this intensely human moment, she chases out the smell of death with the scent of nard, the scent of love. I can’t help but wonder how long it took for Jesus to wash off the scent. It’s not one that could have easily been escaped, and I’m sure that scent stayed with everyone in the house until the end of their lives. After all, memories that are connected by scent are some that linger as long as any of our memories.

There’s just one thing: this gift isn’t about the money, this gift is about a response to grace, and giving Jesus the best death she was able to give him. That is precisely what Jesus tries to convey to Judas: there is no way to respond to God’s life giving grace but with extravagance.

In our denomination, my sense is that we don’t often speak of God as saving our lives. It seems to me that we would prefer a God who is a little more tame and orderly, but I could be wrong. If you had a peak at the March edition of the United Church Observer, you’d have likely seen one of the feature article called “Living a Miracle”. It talks about about God’s life-giving grace. A now 29-year old woman, Kristin Millar, was on the verge of death – in fact, for over two years, she had no pulse because her blood was being pumped through her body thanks to a battery powered ventricular pump. After multiple surgeries, multi-organ failure, seven strokes, the hard work of physio, occupational, speech and language therapy, and finally a transplant, (oh, and did I mention countless prayers?) Kristin is alive and doing well, and without irony, calls that experience one of the greatest gift she could ever imagine, saying there are no words to adequately capture her gratitude. This experiance has taught her how to be grateful, how to trust, and how to live for more than just herself.[2]

The problem with these stories is that they don’t answer the question of why some people live and some people die. Kristin mentions that herself in this article – saying that she wrestles with the fact that she is alive because someone else died. There never is an adequate answer for that question. The thing to realize is that God is always working through our lives bringing about “new life out of death; hope out of despair; joy out of pain.” It can be a physical thing, like surviving a critical illness or condition, but isn’t always a physical thing, it can be something like waking up sober when drugs and/or alcohol had taken over your life; or learning how to love again after your heart has been shattered into a million pieces. It can be about developing trust after being hurt, or learning that life is not all about being selfish. God loves us extravagantly, and is always breathing new life into our midst.

What is our response to this gift of life renewed? There is no way to repay such a gift, for me, the only possible answer is to respond with extravagance: extravagant joy, extravagant hope, and extravagant gratitude, however that might appear to each one of us.


[1] William Carter, “John 12:1-8 Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 2 (David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor eds.), 142.