Our Purpose and Mission Statement

Working to build God's dream. Help wanted!

We the people of Glen Rhodes United Church, are determined that our life together will be fully inclusive for people of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, differing abilities, ethnic origins and economic circumstances. Therefore, we hope that God will work in us so that we will be a sensitive congregation, willing to share our faith and gifts in language and worship, in the life and work of our church and wherever God calls us to do justice in the wider community, with compassion, fun and laughter

Recent Sermons

“The patient dead”  Robin Wardlaw  November 12, 2017

Pentecost 23, Year A
Readings: (Joshua 24:1–3a, 14–25); Psalm 78:1–7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Matthew 25:1–13

“God will descend…, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” What? “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet God in the air; and so we will be with God for ever.” Oh? “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17-18) I get that the Christians in Thessalonika needed encouragement. The little community of followers of Jesus started in the local synagogue, but then broke away from there, taking some Greek converts to Judaism with them. Tense. Now they were getting push back, so Paul writes to them: to reassure, to answer questions, to help morale.
One of the questions they had was about dying. What if a believer dies before Jesus returns? That blessed event was going to happen any time now. Maybe it already had. It had been over twenty years now since Jesus was killed, so people may have been counting in years, not days. But he was coming, no question, to gather up the faithful. And—this is big—some of the faithful were dying, ahead of time. Oh-oh.
Don’t fret about that, Paul tells them. If they had oil in their lamps when they died, so to speak, if they had been faithful up to death, no worries. Then he lays out how it will all go down, the passage we heard earlier. Pretty spectacular: a cry of command, a call from the archangel, a trumpet blast, people flying up to the clouds to meet God, and hang with God forever. Very vivid stuff. You can see it playing out.
At some point in the last twenty centuries Christians more or less stopped expecting Christ to return with all the cool sound effects and visuals. There are a few holdouts who insist these early interpreters got it all exactly right. Every few years some group is selling everything, ready for the big moment. What are the rest of us to do with passages such as this? Ditch them? Just turn the page and get on to something that doesn’t ask so much of us, so much that goes against how we understand things now? Let’s not turn the page too fast.
Paul’s letter does get us thinking about the dead. The day after Remembrance Day that’s a good thing. Who are they to us? How do they fit into the big scheme of things? Are they gone gone? Opinions certainly vary on that last one. “I’ll see my dear pet again some day, my mom, my dad, whomever.” “No, dead is dead. This life is what we have.” The Spiritualists a hundred and twenty years were convinced, convinced many others that the spirits of the dead persisted, could be contacted, summoned up. Some of that still goes on.
What we’re left with is, What is the nature of Love? You don’t need me to tell you how you still love people who are gone, some of them long gone. Love connects us with them over the years, over the generations. And that’s just the people we knew personally. What about the soldiers who died, the war dead of all kinds, shot, starved, gassed, burned up, crushed, drowned, buried in explosions, and on and on? Is our relation different with those who died fighting and those who were rounded up and exterminated?
We do things because of them, the dead. We go to visit cemeteries and cenotaphs, wear poppies, watch documentaries, do pilgrimages. We keep old photographs and medals, and souvenirs of all kinds. We work for peace, we give to causes, we sometimes vote in response to the patient dead. The dead have all the time in the world. Is their goal to eliminate war, end crimes against humanity, stop the drug trade, stop the slave trade, create equality between the sexes, between national or religious groups, between classes? Is it to right the wrongs of a racist past, for a nation to be reconciled? Or is it more intimate, more personal, more about family dynamics?
Perhaps the dead want us simply to understand them, to forgive them, to let them rest in peace. They hurt somebody, maybe even us in their time. They made a bad decision or two, or at least ones we don’t understand. They loved too little, or loved too much. We are in constant dialogue with them. Growing older helps us relate to them, but it also makes us ache to be able to talk to them again, one more time, as adults now, as people who have lived as long as they did.
Sometimes we admire the wisdom of those who went before. Sometimes we wonder if they had any. “What came over you?” “What were you thinking?” “Did you stop to consider the consequences?” Wise up, Jesus used to tell people. You’re like people who let their lamp oil run low. And this is the challenge of faith, isn’t it? To stay alert, to stay poised, ready to respond in love. Aggravation tends to come out of the blue. Disappointment, loss, offense—suddenly they are in our face. No time to run to the hardware store for lamp oil for our spirits. We need to have our supply of—what would you call it: grace, compassion, understanding?—right there, on hand, in our hearts.
But back to the patient dead. Martin Luther didn’t live to see a reform of the church, the whole church, the way he hoped. Meanwhile the Roman Catholic Church has been responding to the criticisms of the Reformation for the last five hundred years, gradually addressing things that upset him, and those like him. Still such a long way to go on gender justice and sexuality. How patient do the Reformers have to be? What about us? We won’t live forever, either. Will people know what we lived for, what we didn’t get to see in our lifetimes, what we hope will happen?
Think of all those Residential School survivors who are already dead. We have a pretty good idea what they wanted. And to their credit, and that of all the survivors still living, and working for change, it seems like the reconciliation train is now rolling, as if something has begun that will continue. Chanie Wenjack died fifty years ago, at age twelve, running away from a Residential School in Thunder Bay. Now, thanks to the songs and leadership of Gord Downie, Chanie is speaking to us, helping us to care.
The victims of atomic bombs in Japan slowly got their towns and cities, their wits and lives back together, then they began a a charm offensive to make sure no one else had to go through what they did. School children all over the world learned the old legend of the thousand paper cranes, and the wish of a twelve-year old girl named Sadako Sasaki, her wish to live, despite the leukemia she got from radiation. Other children began to make paper cranes, this time as a kind of prayer for peace, that other children could live.
What about the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, the Shoah, as Jews call it? it was the diary of another girl who went into hiding in Amsterdam at age twelve, that gave all those millions of dead a human face, and helped raise consciousness about racism in general, and anti-Semitism in particular. Every time a genocide looms, we say never again, and then they often happen anyway. How patient should the dead be before we have figured out other ways to resolve conflicts in the human family?
Do you keep a diary, or write songs or poetry? Are you part way through folding a thousand little origami birds? How will the rest of the world know what was important to you after you’re gone? Churches are good that way, where a group that shares values helps keep memory, and goals, and dreams alive. But perhaps there is something else you want to do? Do you have a will? You can spell out donations to charities in a will, leave written wishes or requests, include a testimony of what has been central to your life. Jack Layton dictated a powerful letter just before he died, full of beautiful values, and encouragement.
I noticed a full page ad in the paper yesterday announcing Canadian Soldiers Live Forever. What happened to fading away, I thought to myself? No, this group wants to plant trees, two million of them, up and down the Highway of Heroes on the 401 to commemorate all the Canadians who have died in war. Will that work to keep their memories alive compared to, say, a monument, or medals, or a museum? We used to live in a Hamilton neighbourhood where silver maple trees had been planted to commemorate those who died in the First World War. Three generations later the trees were gigantic, and beautiful, and a lovely part of the streetscape. I don’t know how many other people knew why they had been planted though. So were the trees doing their job of memorializing those fallen? Maybe it doesn’t matter.
Jesus would be impressed to discover that we where gathered here, in his name, all this time later, even if our thoughts about the afterlife have changed. It is pretty clear from scripture that he imagined a sudden change for the better, the kin-dom arriving to pick up the dusty, the humble, the scarred, the sad-eyed, fit them with new clothes and bring them to a big banquet of love and justice. We’re doing what we can, brother, and running into much of the same opposition you did. Can you be patient? Can we?

“Life beyond death” Robin Wardlaw April 2, 2017
Lent 5, Year A
Readings: Ezekiel 37:1–14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6–11; John 11:1–45
We’ve been exploring life transformed all through Lent: deep spiritual connections honoured, eyes opened, ministry enhanced. This week we go beyond life entirely into what Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country,” life beyond death. This is the big transformation, the one that raises fears sometimes, certainly raises big questions for us.
The Ezekiel reading imagines a mass bringing-back-to-life of a whole nation’s worth of bones, different from the Jesus story of a single individual. Ezekiel spent a few years warning the nation that it was headed down the wrong path. No use. Then after the attack by Babylon, he is taken into exile with other leaders of Israel. Once he’s there, his role changes. Now he hears the voice of God reassuring the people that life will come back, to the bones, to the mountains and hills, to the empty cities. Have faith, in other words—God’s big experiment that you will be a light to the nations is not over. It’s as  if he was a modern-day Syrian, going with other refugees to Europe to tell them that their home country will rise again. Ezekiel dies in Babylon about half way through the sixty year exile, gone but not forgotten.
The miracle of Lazarus’ comeback from the tomb is to help people see that God is at work in Jesus of Nazareth. The focus has shifted. “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Human One may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4) “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) The bringing-back-to-life in the gospel story is still to inspire faith in God, but this faith is now placed in a messenger, a representative of God, this God-in-person.
What about now? We don’t usually hear our leaders talking about death much in public. We sometimes joke about it, though. Woody Allen: “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Steve Wright, another American comedian said, “When I die I’m going to donate my body to science fiction.” The jokes involving getting to heaven are endless. Life and death and life beyond death is more complicated these days, because we can see and hear the dead all the time, in their movies, TV shows, recordings, photo albums.
In this place, in church, we might joke from time to time, but we also get to talk out loud about death, take it seriously. We carve into our furnishings the saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.” We remember fallen soldiers and members of the church and ministers who have died. This is a place where we can remember and mourn, celebrate and wonder, together.
Our science knowledge, knowledge we’ve been accumulating as humankind for hundreds of years, has helped us know so much more about life and death—restarting hearts, brain activity, cell death. We are learning more all the time about how climate change is causing massive die offs. So far, science hasn’t helped us understand life beyond death. Some of us have our own experiences of the holy. We keep hearing stories from others that point to spirit, to connections among living things that amaze us, stories of healings that shouldn’t be, enough to make us wonder very hard about what we really know, what we fully know about life. What can’t science tell us?
We know what rich bonds we form with people in our lives, how it’s as if the dearly departed are still with us. We know how powerful our friendships can be, here at church and elsewhere, so that the group seems to have a life of its own that goes beyond the death of any one member. We know how we can feel kinship with people who come from far away and share our values, our scripture, our tradition, as if there is a life that transcends culture and distance. Our faith helps us to understand why some rich and powerful people behave the way they do about climate science, too, even when the life of the planet is at stake: it’s called sin. What we don’t know, what we’ll never know is exactly what happens in death, in our own death. The great mystery. The undiscovered country.
We struggle to have faith, to look at death without freaking out, and some days we can. Death comes to us all, we remind ourselves. We just don’t want to be there when it happens. We tend not to fear a judgmental God so much these days, waiting to go over our every action with a fine tooth comb, ready to pronounce an unwelcome sentence. Instead, we ask ourselves, mindful that our days will end, what will we do with the days we have? And then perhaps we get a little mad at ourselves when the days seem to slip by without any big achievements. Or even little ones. But the people you admire didn’t do something awesome each and every day. You admire them because of their values, their commitments.
So that’s another good thing about church: we can make our contribution toward building God’s dream, say, knowing that even if we don’t see much of that dream made real now, we are part of something bigger, more long lasting, so we can rest a little easier. It doesn’t all depend on us. Or even on our generation. Ezekiel is remembered as a prophet not because he helped build morale when the gang all got back to Israel. He was long gone by then, but not forgotten. His huge contribution was to give hope to people in a very bleak time.
Are we in a bleak time? The church is dying, isn’t it? Who will take up the torch when we go to pass it on? We have no idea what the Spirit will do, is doing, to keep the torch lit. We don’t know the timetable of the Holy, either. Not our job: not our job to ensure there is something, some community that bears the gospel story, not our job to finish God’s dream in the next five or ten. Our job is to have a little faith now. To hear stories like Ezekiel’s and the one about Lazarus and trust that the Spirit can breath life into dry bones, free what seems dead and buried from its tomb, and find those who will pick up the torch.
There is so much, as Christianity, as a church, we have to let go. We have strayed from our mission over the last many generations, just like the nation of Israel so long ago, backed the wrong side, lost the thread when we let ourselves be dazzled by empire’s shiny garments and baubles. Turns out they weren’t fancy clothes, they were grave cloths for the church. We listen for a voice, a loving voice tinged with grief saying, “Unbind them, and let them go.”  

“Humanity 101: a recommitment to anti-racism”
Robin Wardlaw February 19, 2017
Epiphany 7, Year A
Readings: Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18; Psalm 119:33–40; 1 Corinthians 3:10–11, 16–23); Matthew 5:38–48
I served the United Church in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, for a time in the 1990s. It was a wonderful community, surrounded by lakes and woods, and that was a very interesting time to be there. Traditionally, it was non-Indigenous, a railway, forestry and tourism centre. But things were changing. More and more Oji-cree people were moving to town to take professional positions relating to all the northern, fly-in reserves, living in lovely homes, piling up frequent flyer points with their business trips all over the continent, all over the world. This was a big change for dominant society people, and some were having trouble adjusting.
Leaders in town, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, were working hard at good race relations. The Indian Friendship Centre went way back, and it was a place downtown where people could mingle, and support one another. There was a Race Relations Committee trying to figure out how to promote right relations. Then Garnet Angeconeb became the Chair of the Committee and asked that it be renamed the Anti-Racism Committee. Shockwaves rippled out through the community. Anti-racism? Isn’t that a little severe, a little provocative? Doesn’t it imply that there is racism here?
Those of us trying to encourage harmony and respect had our heads in the sand. I wasn’t on the Committee, but I was involved with an effort to bring two hospitals together, one traditionally serving the town and the other the northern reserves, and that’s when my eyes were opened. Everyone wanted a bigger, better, newer hospital by replacing two old ones. What’s not to like? Then, as the project began to take shape, racism appeared. On both sides. They outnumber us so Indians will run the place. Whites control everything, so they’ll run the place. We’ll feel out of place, said both sides. It will smell like them, said people in both groups.
Racism was alive and well, it seemed. Suspicion, disrespect, ignorance, dislike. Chiefs had to work with their communities to persuade them their family members would be well looked after. The town hospital board and town council did the same in Sioux Lookout. The hospital finally got built, by the way, and as far as I know people’s fears have been allayed. There’s a separate kitchen for traditional food—moose, beaver, goose—that hasn’t been federally inspected, so the elders and the province are both happy. I got my civics lesson: racism is alive and well in many places. Or let’s be honest, all places. Part of our humanity, it seems.
When courses are numbered, it’s often the case that the most basic course on a subject is called one-o-one. It is the introduction that everybody had to take. So the sermon today may not be titled very well, because the lessons we get on being human in today’s readings are not the most basic. In fact if you can do what Leviticus and Jesus are talking about, you should probably get not a basic diploma, but a Ph.D. in humanity. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice if these were lessons everybody got—sharing, honestly, fairness, loving your neighbour?
People, many people, are getting very different lessons, it seems: We don’t all belong together; we’re not all equal; we have no responsibility for our neighbours. Too free with their anger, their contempt, even violence against their neighbour. We reject their message, and we reject their methods.
We are a global village now, so we need to learn to get along with neighbours who may be quite different from us. We need to expand our idea of family so that no one is outside it, there is no “us” and “them,” just us. This is Jesus’ genius. He picks up the lessons of Deuteronomy, Leviticus and the prophets and lives them, shows others how powerful, how beautiful this is, starts a movement. He teaches political theatre—the business with the slap on the cheek, the cloak, the burden bearing—and this non-violent approach is what suffragettes, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other visionaries picked up in the twentieth century, to make it awkward and embarrassing for the exploiter and the bully, to help get change.
Maybe the last person in the world to be preaching on the topic of getting social justice is a straight, white male. The most privileged group in the whole world currently. But this is church, and we are all invited, including the preacher, to check our privilege here, just as we are all invited to believe that we are beings of infinite worth, beings made in the image of God. God is not straight, or white, or male, despite all the pictures and cartoons you have seen.
Today, in the middle of African Heritage Month, we recommit to anti-racism. This is one of the harder parts of our spiritual lives, celebrating our full humanity while celebrating the full humanity of him, or her, or them. When times are tough, or tense, someone always seems to pop up to encourage people to retreat into smaller and smaller definitions of family. When sticking together and working cooperatively on tough problems would be better, somehow it becomes appealing to lash out at others, bomb them, ban them, divide into competing factions.
We hear the bible giving a different message: “Speak to all the people and say to them: You shall be holy, for I your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:1) What a great way to put it. Be holy. Short, easy to remember, not complicated. “Be perfect, therefore, as the heavenly One is perfect,” says Jesus. Same thing. Maybe a little intimidating. This is a theme we’ve been on for several weeks—taking a God’s eye view of life, including oneself. Getting past the predictable behaviour of loving those who love you—too easy, says Jesus—to do the God-like thing of loving enemies. “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law,” says the poet of Psalm 119. “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple,” says Paul to the congregation at Corinth. (1 Corinthians 3:17)
Later on our prayers include a recommitment to anti-racism from Anthony Bailey, a United Church minister of African heritage. And in Lent we are going to do some serious prayer work on right relations. Is that enough, a little prayer time on Sunday morning? What does it take to get to this stubborn heart, with its old, unexamined ways of thinking and relating? How does transformation come? That’s the big question around here, isn’t it? How can I change? Or really, how can I keep changing, not kid myself that I have somehow reached the peak, achieved holiness, perfection?
“Do not deceive yourselves,” says Paul in his letter. “If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.” Humility, deep humility is required. In October, as we approach the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous declaration, it will be all grace all the time. That was Luther’s big insight, that if repentance means anything, it is only when the penitent person accepts grace, that he, or she, is declared holy not by anything they can do or give or earn, but as a gift.
Theillard de Chardin was a French priest and theologian, and also an paleontologist. He spent a good deal of his time in China digging up and analyzing dinosaur bones. De Chardin was a firm believer in evolution, and helped develop something called process theology, which says God is not a being. God is in process, affected by events, evolving. De Chardin had many provocative quotes, for instance, “The feminine is the most formidable of the forces of matter.” The reason I mention him today is something attributed to him, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” 
If that’s true, that we are spiritual beings having a human experience, we want it to be the most beautiful experience, the least harmful, the most authentic, the least distracted. I just heard about Project Someone, based at Concordia University in Montreal. Its vision is to build awareness and resilience, create space for dialogue, and combat online hate. Lots of people are working at this dream of a humanity in touch with its own weaknesses and brokenness, but not all bound up by them. Their thinking would have been helpful all those years ago in Sioux Lookout. My instinct was to try to stop racist speech. The Project wants to hear it, to go deep into it, to listen to people’s fears and biases.
Maybe we can learn from what they’re doing in our work to resist hate and grow love. We have so many good quotes to offer: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” (Matthew 5:38) “You have heard it said,” he tells them. An eye for an eye was a big improvement on, say, a life for an eye, or a village for an eye, but we aren’t done with simple, equal justice, revenge, whatever it is, a tooth for a tooth. We can do even better than that.
Let’s take the word church off our building and put up something else: centre for growth, incubator for human beings, school for peace and justice. I’m not sure what. This is a sanctuary for those fleeing the battering life can hand out, but it is so much more. Humanity 101 is just for starters.

“Lights. Action?” Robin Wardlaw January 22, 2017


Epiphany, Year A

Readings: Isaiah 9:1–4; Psalm 27:1, 4–9; (1 Corinthians 1:10–18); Matthew 4:12–23


You hold your hand up on a bright, sunny day, and see the outline of the bones right through your skin. Not x-rays, just ordinary light. Photons. Little bundles of energy racing out from the sun, from the light bulb, the candle, from every source of light at great speed. Not through your arm, though, or even your wrist. But neutrinos come sailing from the sun and go right through you, me, the whole planet, most of them, as if there were nothing here. Indescribably small.

The people of Galilee have seen a great light, says the prophet. Poor, old Galilee. There had been anguish, contempt there, as Isaiah put it. Heaven knows what that is shorthand for. Think of all the places, all the groups who have had anguish in recent years, recent decades. People walking in shadow, shadow that feels like yokes, bars across their shoulders, heavy, heavy burdens of loss, shame, grief, horror. We want to know, Isaiah: This light that comes for anguished people, how does it help? How does it go from light to action? I came up with three ways. There might be others. It could illuminate everything, all the surroundings, help them to see that being physically or sexually assaulted in a residential school, let’s say, wasn’t their fault. It was part of complicated plan to injure them in the hopes of changing them to sort of white.  So with light they now see the big picture.

Or maybe the light the prophet is talking about can pierce through things, to reveal inner structures: It’s not an accident you and your African-Canadian friends are being stopped more often by police on the sidewalk or behind the wheel, there is racism, white superiority built right into our structures of thinking. Or maybe the light is like those bright screens people use in the depths of winter to help with their sadness, their depression: the light brings comfort, raises spirits because it feels like justice or peace for people who have been without them. More likely, the light is all those things—context, critical analysis and comfort. Or maybe something else altogether.

Women have been feeling the yoke of anguish and contempt for…well, basically, forever it seems. There have been some traditional societies where there was gender justice, but these seem to be few and far between. Yesterday millions of women, children and men marched all over the continent, all over the world in response to the rise to power of a man who has said despicable things about women, and is accused by many women of sexual assault. There was even a march in Antarctica. Many women have seen light shine for the female half of humanity over the past several generations, in some parts of the world. Most women, though, are still waiting in the shadows for their rights. Still waiting for security, for equality, for the same chances to share, to grow, to succeed, to contribute as men have been getting.

The crowd at the Toronto march as in high spirits. It’s hard to be gloomy when there are fifty or sixty thousand allies all around. The signs people made were funny, they were furious, they were sad, they were determined.

How did the all marching get started? It was a five-word post on social media from a sixty year-old retired lawyer and grandmother living in Hawaii. After the American election last fall Teresa Shook typed, "I think we should march." When she woke up the next morning, she found more than ten thousand responses agreeing with her. She didn’t know that she would start a global movement. Light, then action. Shook flew to Washington to be part of it. Miki Wallace, a mother with mixed Mexican and Japanese heritage stayed in Hawaii for the sister march there. She's troubled by language used by the new president that could contribute to the persecution of minorities and the objectification of women. This was a first for her. "Silence is consent," she says. "And I'm marching because I can't sit back and be silent." Dorothy Soellë, a German theologian, has worked her whole career to understand the times we’re in. Soellë says we can’t expect to overturn a brutal capitalism that is chewing up the poor and the planet, but we can resist it.

In Matthew’s gospel we hear that Jesus stops to regroup after the arrest of John the Baptist. He heads over to Capernaum, at the north end of the Sea of Galilee. For his own safety? Because there were friends there and a chance to reflect theologically? We don’t know. After a bit, he can’t stay silent. He has heard the call, he has meditated long and hard about the world around him, seen what people had to go through, and acquired a passion for the light. We even say that he was the light. He didn’t know when he started off preaching repentance that he would create a global movement. I wonder what audience those sermons were for, the people who sat in the region and shadow of death, or those who put them there? He talked a lot, but he was an action person, too.

This is a big year for us, for all Christians. It’s been five hundred years since Martin Luther called for changes in the church. He was a monk in Wittenberg, in what we call Germany in 1517. He sent a letter to his bishop in the fall of that year. The legend is that he nailed his ninety-five points to the church doors, but apparently that’s not exactly what happened. What he said was that you can’t buy your way into heaven. This huge fund raising drive that was fleecing poor people with the promise that their pfennig, their penny, would get a loved ones’ soul out of purgatory was a big lie, a theological outrage to Luther. He didn’t realize that he would start a global movement. He had come to realize the power of God’s grace, that could redeem even a sinner such as himself. How dare a church offer to sell the Holy Love that is offered to us all!

This is a challenge for you, as a church. It’s not enough to simply fling your arms open to other people who call themselves Christian and announce that we’re all buddies. There is still plenty of room for repentance—certainly on our part, and on the part of most other communions, too. There are still churches discriminating against women and homosexual people and albinos and ethnic or racial groups in the name of Jesus Christ. There are still churches going along with vicious economic systems that put yokes on the backs of ordinary people. Repent, for the kin-dom of heaven has come near. Perhaps we should have a meeting of churches around here, and ask Luther and Jesus and Mary Magdalene and Dorothy Soellë to be there too, to confess to each other the ways we have spread shadows here and there, instead of light, to repent.

The other big deal for this congregation this year is the chance to grow and deepen a relationship with three other nearby congregations, to work at being sources of light around here, or at the very least mirrors, for the light of Christ. The materials prepared for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity point the way for us in East End United, as the new regional ministry is called. It has two accents, and we hear them both in the prayers coming up. On the one hand, we will celebrate God’s love and grace, the main concern of Martin Luther’s Reformation. And, we will also recognize the pain of the subsequent deep divisions still afflicting the Church. We are offered an opportunity to take steps toward reconciliation, especially given the churches’ historic contributions to creating shadows.

The love of Christ compels us to pray, but also to move beyond our prayers for unity among Christians. Congregations and churches need the gift of God´s reconciliation as a wellspring of life. Above all, we need it for our common witness to the world, so that many people may find peace, and bridges may be built. Reconciled people and reconciled churches will embrace the love of Christ to live reconciled lives, help break down the walls that divide, and resist new walls, new shadow-makers, from going up.

This feels like light. And as for action? We start, or I should say, we continue right now by turning to our feast. This bread and juice is made from light. Plants somehow snag the energy of light in their leaves to produce flowers, seeds, fruit—food for the whole world. This is light turned into love, a sign of grace. It’s for me, it’s for you, it’s for friends, and enemies. We break the loaf, pour out the cup and groan at all of life’s breakage and divisions. We eat the bread and share the cup to rejoice at the way the light gives us life, won’t let us stay silent, calls us to action.

“Gravy with that?” Robin Wardlaw December 24, 2016

 Christmas Eve, Year A

Readings: Isaiah 9:2–7; (Psalm 96; Titus 2:11–14); Luke 2:1–20       

You would probably settle for the basics: clean water, enough food, somewhere secure and warm to live. Many people have to settle for much less these days, of course. Our hearts go out to all the people on the street, or boiling their water, or stuck in a refugee camp somewhere, waiting, waiting. When we have the basics, life is possible, but we want more, a bit more. The potatoes are nice, thank you, but some gravy on top…

The gravy, it’s probably a little different for all of us. Some of would like a friend or two. Others might go further and say, love—I would like to have some love in my life. Others might talk about getting past some grudge to restore a relationship. And all of would say we want to help build a better world—less crime, more safety, less hate, more togetherness, less suspicion, more dinner parties.

Or if gravy is not your thing, you could say roses. A hundred years ago women textile workers in New York took up the cry that they wanted bread, and roses, too—that is, not just a wage increase, but respect and dignity in the workplace. At this time of year we tend to focus on the sentimental things—family, home, the feast—the gravy, the roses, in other words. All good things. Unless you don’t have them. Here at church we can talk about other things, too, like peace, fairness, equality. We can even have some anger at a time such as this, anger that world is not more fair.

This kind of thinking, this impatience with the way things are goes way back. The child the prophet Isaiah expected was going to be a liberator: painful yokes of oppression broken, the blood-soaked military gear burned up, not needed anymore. Instead of cruel kings and emperors, peace and justice and righteousness would reign. This is who God is. How can we make liberation a part of our Christmas celebrations? Partly through our donations—make sure you support an organization that is working to bring light to the people who walk in deep darkness. Mainly through our everyday living: being people who shine lights into shadowy places, who stand up with and for the vulnerable.

These days we’re thinking about the people who have been recent victims of violence—in war zones, in bus lines, in schools and nightclubs—many unlikely places. In a Christmas market in Berlin, where someone wanted to soak some more garments in blood. Can Berliners get safety in their public places? Can we, can anyone, can everyone? Possibly. More barriers, more soldiers standing around, more checkpoints. Is it just safety we’re after, or something more?

What if safety is the potatoes? The gravy would be actually trusting one another, actually feeling like we mattered to each other. No second or third class citizens. Here’s another thing that’s happening in Berlin: the House of One. It will be a worshiping place for Muslims, Jews and Christians. The idea came from the Christian side of the triangle. It’s roots go way, way back in history.  

Pastor Gregor Hohberg, a Protestant minister, says the House of One will be built where the first church in Berlin, St. Petri's Church, dating back to the 12th Century, was once situated. The church was badly damaged at the end of World War Two as the Red Army liberated Berlin. What remained was destroyed in the period after the war by the East German authorities, and the site turned into a parking lot. Then, six years ago, archaeologists uncovered remains from an ancient graveyard and it was decided that something should be done to resurrect a community and its place of worship.

Berlin gave the land back to the church. Now what? Rebuild St. Petri’s? The project expanded and somehow changed from a church to the present three-faith plan. They are in the fund raising stage. The dreamers say they want to show that religions are not fortifications and people of faith are not driven by hatred. They could have gone basic, but instead, this daring, gracious plan emerged.

Now take yourself to Bethlehem, where the illegal separation wall cuts through town, and things are often tense. A project called Wi’am, supported by your Mission and Service givings, works at building trust there. They work with everyone in the Palestinian community there, old and young, men and women, Christian and Muslim. Together they address living under occupation, economic empowerment, domestic violence. They arrange meetings with Israeli students, often the first Israelis people may have met who weren’t soldiers. Co-existence is a basic. Learning to appreciate each other, that’s the cherry on top.

Closer to home, your Mission and Service givings also support a chaplaincy in Kingston that brings different faith groups together to help restorative justice between victims and offenders and helps support people when they get out. In Campbell River, British Columbia, the Healing Fund supports the Liqwiltach Elders’ and Youth Culture Group, working at restoring traditional culture that was very nearly lost, and helping a whole community heal from the Residential School experience. Not just surviving, thriving. This is you, your faith, your gifts at work across the city, the country, the world. Making smiles, building Houses of One all over the place, giving life.

What about us, here, this evening? Bread would be enough to celebrate as a gift from God. The sustaining of our lives. But our sacrament is bread and wine (our version of wine: no alcohol). When we sit back to take in the big picture and count our blessings, we are especially delighted that God’s idea for humankind, for the planet, is not just potatoes, but gravy, not just bread, but roses. We are, everyone is to have security and dancing, work and respect, food and beauty.

Our privilege now is to soak in the stillness, the peace, the warmth of this place, this feast, this season, and carry it with us like a sacred bundle all year. We are all freedom fighters and artists. We are all activists and partiers.

I hope the season brings you some very good sustaining food, and some gravy, too. 

“The crocus” Robin Wardlaw December 11, 2016
Advent 3, Year A
Readings:  Isaiah 35:1–10; Luke 1:47–55; (James 5:7–10); Matthew 11:2–11

 Like the crocus the desert shall rejoice with joy and singing. The crocus? Rejoicing with joy and singing. Leave it to a poet. We don’t care about the logic of it, though. We get what those old prophets were on about. The desert is insecure people, fearful people, people with disabilities. The bible, coming back to this theme running all through it, of looking out for the less powerful.

I’ve never been super rich. I have never mingled with them. I don’t know what that life is like. I hear the odd story, though, and the theme of those stories is that some of the rich are not like the crocus, rejoicing with joy and singing. In fact, some of them are very unhappy despite their wealth. The poor, now, the dry land, so to speak, wait with such hope. Sometimes their prayers come true and then the joy. Think families finding a refuge from conflict in their own land, arriving somewhere safe.

I had the good fortune to go on a study trip to Africa ten years ago. It was set up by a wise woman, a professor, who went from Canada to teach at the United Church of Zambia theological school in the copper-mining district of the country. She wanted strong connections between church people in Canada and those involved in theological education there. Her long time goal was for some of her students to get their doctorates so that the next professor of diaconal ministry was from Africa, not Canada.

So she invited people to come and experience Africa and its churches for themselves. What an experience. The huge market, the copper mine, the hospital, the graveyard, the memorial to Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary General of the United Nations, who died in a plane crash in Zambia trying to negotiate peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A lecture on African theology, worship with the students in the chapel each morning, meeting with unemployed workers. And then the little school not far from the theological college at an informal settlement called Racetrack.

Education in Zambia is free, technically, as in most African countries. But there are uniforms to buy and fees for this and that. Not huge expenses, but more than enough to exclude the very poor. Some teachers and retirees decided to do something about the hundreds of children of Racetrack, who needed to learn to read and write. They set up a free school, and volunteered their time. It worked. Of course it worked. Parents want education for their children. They do not want to see the desert grow, the dry land spread. Parents want to see the next generation blossom.

The school was an abandoned building with dirt floors, no glass in the windows, and old burlap bags hanging from overhead poles to separate one tiny classroom from the next. The teacher had a blackboard at the front, a small one. The children had small slates and pieces of chalk to learn their letters and numbers. No text books, no posters on the walls, no classroom pet or plants to look after. Very rough lumber for desks and seats. A bit like the first school you might imagine settlers in this country providing for their children three hundred years ago. Over seven hundred children taking turns squeezing into this building to learn. Three shifts a day. The volunteer teachers were so tired.

Why am I telling you this? It’s all leading up to joy, the unbelievable joy of those children in the school yard. We brought our blank books, our pens and pencils to donate, our erasers and rulers to donate, a few dollars’ worth. Not a big deal for North Americans who can afford to travel to another continent. The teachers were pleased. The children, though: about half of them had on shoes or sandals that day, by my estimate. And I suspect many of them were wearing the only clothes they owned. In the school yard, though, pull out a digital camera and you have never seen bigger smiles than when children saw tiny pictures of themselves, perhaps for the first time, utter delight at being in the picture.

And everywhere we went, groups of people burst into song, including the children at Racetrack school. Beautiful song, with harmony and intricate rhythms. Joy to the world. Even in the centre for people living with HIV and AIDS, there were smiles. Not as joyous as the children’s smiles, but there all the same. In those days, AIDS still meant being shunned by one’s family. They had each other and the staff at the centre for company instead, a kitchen to cook for one another, and donated knitting machines to turn out sweaters and hats to keep warm in their illness. They were so gracious as we sat around their outdoor pavilion hearing their stories.

Joy came up a couple of times this week in the news. A Sioux nation in North Dakota has been protesting a pipeline across their territory, and right through some of their sacred sites. Most of it is built, but the last piece was to be a tunnel under a reservoir on the Missouri River. So the Standing Rock Sioux were concerned for many reasons—cultural, political, environmental. Many others came to stand with them, including Indigenous people from all over the continent, environmentalists, faith communities and leaders, even veterans. Last weekend, as you likely heard, the Army Corps of Engineers decided not to issue the permit for the tunnel. “I feel such joy,” said one of the protesters when she heard the news.

Then the other day I heard a long interview with Kevin and Julia Garratt. They are the couple who ran a bookstore in China right across the river from North Korea who were arrested and charged with spying two years ago because China needed some bargaining chips with Canada. They spent most of the time since then until this fall in captivity. Julia lived in a room where a couple of female prison guards stayed with her, lights on, all the time. When someone from the Canadian consulate brought a magazine, she used pieces of it to make a paper Christmas tree and little wreaths for the people in her life. The interviewer was amazed. “You set up a little home for yourself there.” “Yes,” said Julia, “unless you have joy in your life, you can’t live.”

We have this promise that we review and celebrate at Christmas, the promise of joy. The desert will bloom. There is a highway coming, says the prophet, a highway for God’s people. It’s how the captives will get back home. More than that, they shall return with singing. “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35:10) Piling on the images of redemption, surprising grace, in touch with a deep, deep well of holy love and working hard to share it with the world.

John’s disciples come to see Jesus. John sends them, actually. John wants to know if Jesus is the One, the expected One. John is in prison, not sure how it will turn out for him. He needs some joy in his life. “Are you the one, cousin?” Jesus seems to be unwilling to make claims for himself. The message he sends back with John’s disciples is to tell John what they see: the prophecy from Isaiah, the one Matthew gives to Mary when she conceived Jesus, the one about the poor and vulnerable, coming true. What did that news do for John when his disciples got back to him? Did he experience joy when he heard it? Do we?

That’s the question, isn’t it? All that stuff from long ago, is, well… long ago. What good news are the poor getting these days? Any signs of new life growing for them? What about people who are stigmatized or disadvantaged by a disability of some kind? Any accessible highways being built for them? It’s not as if we’ve put that issue behind us. Will that ever happen? Can we get past the names, the judgements, the harassment, the abuse of one another as humankind?

Our joy comes from this old, old vision that seems so up to date. When we let it touch us, when we let it inspire us, something happens. It’s not satisfaction, because we are not satisfied, yet. It’s not happiness, exactly, because we know how much pain and suffering still goes on all around. It’s joy. It’s a sense that another world is possible, and not just possible, but coming into being this Christmas, and the next and the next. It’s spiritual energy.

We have our own griefs, too, our own struggles in what is supposed to be a cheery time of year. This is where we let the bible stories wash over us and through us like a favourite song, or the smell of a wonderful meal when we enter a home, or a church. The good news is for us in our poverty, our captivity, the gift of sight is for us in our not seeing, the promise of rising from death is for us in the places where we have died.

The crocus works it little miracle when the snow is still on the ground. The ground is not even all thawed yet, and here they come, poking up when the world is still fairly bleak, tiny dots of beauty, assuring us that winter is ending, life is coming back. They give life to those first insects hovering around. Giving life. If only all our human contributions, our projects could do that, instead of carrying deadly poisons, or wrecking the atmosphere and the planet, or dividing people into us and them. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” (Isaiah 35:1-2)

“The Finals” Robin Wardlaw November 13, 2016


Pentecost 26, Year C

Readings: Isaiah 65:17–25; Isaiah 12; (2 Thessalonians 3:6–13); Luke 21:5–19


How will we know the end times are here? The Chicago Cubs will win the World Series. A rude, mean, self-absorbed person will somehow get the most powerful position in the world. The seas will rise and the land will burn up. Of course not. The Leafs will make it to the finals. So the end times are not that close. Sorry, Leaf fans.

It’s our anniversary, and here we are thinking about the end. Surely not. Yes, and it will be good. We don’t spend much time in the United Church thinking about the end times. We tend to concentrate more on Jesus’ message about how to live one’s life, and the love of God, things like that. But the apocalyptic stuff is in the bible, both the Old Testament and the New.

How much did Jesus dwell on it? The people who study this have figured out not that much. But the gospels have parts like today’s reading from the end of Luke that make it seem as if he was really intense about it. How can that be? The gospels come long after Jesus. They are a blend of what he said and did, and what was happening to the early Christian communities. And what was happening to them was not good.

They were being treated as enemies of the state in some parts of the Roman empire, traitors, scape goats. They claimed their guy was god. Rome said, No, our guy, the emperor, is god. You know that’s not going to end well. So when people sit down thirty, forty year after his death to write the story of Jesus and the faith, this later stuff creeps in. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom;… But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you…” (Luke 21:10, 12) This isn’t Jesus predicting what will happen, this is the gospel writer describing what’s going on day by day in his or her time. For those people, it’s the finals. Make or break, no second chances, “go for it” time.

So what? How does that affect us? End times thinking comes from people with no power. After you have been pushed down by the big kid in the school yard, humiliated, unable to retaliate, you’re left with your pain and outrage, shouting things like, “I’ll get you,” and ridiculous suggestions about the bully’s parents, or home, or future. Religiously this sounds like, “We may be suffering now, but that’s what we expected. And furthermore, God is going pick us up and dust us off, and God is going to get you. Believe it, you powerful people!”

Look for more end times talk and preaching as ocean levels rise, storms get bigger and nastier, crops bake and people have to move countries to live. Some people will keep covering their eyes and ears and claiming there’s nothing to it, but in terms of actual end times, the planet is going to feel closer to an apocalypse in coming centuries before things begin to cool down again.

And what about us? Times, they are a-changin’ around here. The churches in the east end have seen ups and downs since they were founded a hundred, a hundred and thirty years ago. There has been so much ministry in those generations, so many lives touched, so many friendships made. What will things look like in ten years, five years, one year?

It’s easy to get a little panicky. Change is never easy. At times such as this we turn to another beautiful rabbi with a huge following, Leonard Cohen, the voice of doom. Leonard put his faith in words, the power of images and lyrics to reach deep within us and help us prepare for and cope with change. He summed up his world view with an interviewer the other year, three things: “The emergency never ends. Everyone’s heart gets broken. Everyone gets creamed.” Is he right? Don’t be surprised when things crack, that’s how the light gets in?

Our bible, our faith, not only give us the glass half empty scenario—wars, insurrections, earthquakes, plagues, persecution, imprisonment—but the glass half full: new heavens, new earth, joy, delight, long life, security, blessings, even predators changed, serpents defanged. This powerful poetry in Isaiah is sort of anti-Leonard. It’s hope mounts and mounts. Not even the sky is the limit. And it comes after a long, long time of suffering for the little nation of Israel.

Who are you supposed to believe? Is a good future inevitable? Nothing can stop it from coming? Or is it impossible? Things get worse and worse until God steps in to end it all? Catastrophe or bliss? The cartoon in the paper yesterday had a couple of prophets in white robes out on the sidewalk. One has the familiar sign, “The end is near.” The other one’s sign says, “The end will never come,” and that guy is saying to the first one, “Your optimism disgusts me.”

What we think about the end has something to do with what’s out there, in the world, and a good deal to do with us, what’s in each of us. Some of us are inclined to see glasses half full, and others side more with Mr. Cohen. It turns out Cohen struggled with depression much of his life. That’s true for many of us. It’s a painful condition, but in a way it’s important for us as a species. Depressed people see things the way they are, warts and all, when other people might ignore real challenges. When we can only focus on the warts, though, that makes days long and weary. But if we imagine we’re going to find the wolf and the lamb feeding together just around the next corner, well, we’re kidding ourselves. There is change for the better, but it’s not quick, or straightforward. One of the huge contributions of a poet who is able to look straight at suffering and despair is to say to those of a similar mindset, you’re not alone, you’re not the only one who is affected by things this way.

Who is God? Is God in the middle, the happy medium between noisemakers and doom, between fear and joy? Is God leading the parade toward a shiny future or glowering somewhere with a big club, waiting till it’s time to wield it? You can find people in both camps. And for us? We have taken the harder path, and that path shows up on the front of our bulletin each week, and in our presence in the world.

When the world shows up at our door, we see needs, deep needs. People on the edge of despair, anxious about food and health and their children’s future. When the world shows up at our door, we see gifts, great gifts. People eager to help others, with skills, passion, faith and hope. We understand our mission as work, working to build the dream of Isaiah, and we understand it as fun, the joy of being together here. We are all generations and races and orientations together. We are a living example of the gospel, a beautiful addition to the city and the world.

The new reality, though, is that almost no one cares about churches. And this is a great gift. We are free at last. We don’t need to live up to other people’s expectations. We are free to figure out where the Spirit is in the world, and be there. At the moment, it seems to be all about food insecurity around here, so a building is pretty important for our ministry. But we don’t imagine that we will be handing out groceries and letting our society avoid its responsibilities to lower income people till kin-dom comes, do we? What can we do about that?

We are the inheritors of so much in this year. Earlier generations, the ones that saw their sons and brothers march off to fight the Kaiser built up Methodist and Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches here in the east end. They imagined churches as central to a mature society. They encouraged a certain nobility of character along with their unquestioning devotion to empire. We inherit a mix of things of things from them, some more true to the gospel, some of them less so.

To pick up on the question I posed for us last week, what torch will we throw to future generations? What parts of our witness will make them gasp in wonder, and what parts make them shake their heads in disbelief? We’re here for a short time. And life swirls around us, so hard to interpret in the moment. Are we being faithful to the way of love and peace and justice? Leonard Cohen told the CBC in one interview years ago that he didn’t want to be a poet for the ages. He didn’t care about that. He wanted his words to have an impact in the now, for his own generation. That’s us, isn’t it? We’re not too worried about torches to throw, but about being faithful now.

We don’t want to give ourselves swelled heads on our anniversary. No doubt there are many things we could be doing better. But neither do we want to ignore the ways the Spirit is channeled here. Of course we disappoint others and ourselves. Of course we annoy others and get annoyed, make others impatient and get impatient. That’s what happens when humans clump together into groups. The sooner we get past the fantasy of the church as some kind of perfect place, the better. Then we can live and love more authentically.

There will be wars and insurrection, natural catastrophes and oppression of those who challenge the powerful as there have been ever since the time of Jesus. We don’t live in reaction to them. Churches and ministers and poets come and go. We don’t attach our hopes to any of them. Our gaze is higher. We have a vision, and a conviction that love is stronger than fear. We can life as if our team were in the finals. Okay, never mind that: live as if we were in the finals, with joy, with satisfaction, with peace.

“There is still room” Robin Wardlaw October 2, 2016

World Communion Sunday, Creation Time 4, Pentecost 20, Year C
Readings: Isaiah 25: 6-10; Psalm 1; Luke 14: 15-24
 It’s tempting to say: Welcome to our place for lunch, we’ve got the table all set but I can’t. You are very, very welcome, that’s not it. And the table is set, with bread from each congregation, so that’s not it. It’s not our place. This table is not our table. Yes, the Glen Rhodes congregation hangs out here, and gathers around this table all the time, but we are guests here, too. Let’s talk about the table, and the gathering, and the reason we’re here.
Today is so special: World Communion and we’re all gathered in one place to share it. What do communion, and the table, and the ministry of sharing food mean to us? Jesus made such a big deal out of food, and sharing food, and so they are our reason for being, our core thing. Jesus ate with people in their homes. He was the guest. He presided at huge gatherings where food was shared. He was the host. A couple of weeks ago, you may have heard about the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling because the tax-collectors and sinners were drawn to his message, his presence. ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ (Luke 15:1-2)
Jesus used food as a symbol over and over, right up to his last meal, a Passover meal in Jerusalem, and left us this food ritual. Passover is the Jewish ritual that got the Roman authorities nervous every year. It was a symbol of liberation, the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. It reminded Jews every year that they were now ruled by another empire. After that particular Passover Jesus comes up with his own take on the slaves’ getaway meal. In his version it’s just bread and wine. No lamb, so no blood is shed, no creature dies so that others may be free. He hated violence. He loved freedom. We know from all these gospel stories. Here’s the thing: Jesus figured out that we’re at our best when we’re dining together. That it’s a sacred activity.
And here we are, getting ready to do just that. Thank goodness Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them, because it means we can all be here, broken and imperfect people that we are. And what is happening here, and all the other communion tables around the world when we break bread and share the cup? Do the authorities get nervous? Sadly, no, at least not around here. If they think of us at all, they smile as they think of the charity that happens in churches, or frown slightly as they consider the property taxes they don’t collect from us. Over the centuries, the millennia, Christians have drained the cup of its politics, made the sharing of the loaf into some kind of antidote to sin: “Swallow this to get back in God’s good books.” And if you are feeling like you need to get back in
God’s good books, then I pray that communion helps you today. This is not all that’s happening, though, when Christ breaks bread with us.
No. We have tamed the wild, domesticated the rebellious, toned down Jesus’ fury at injustice. When we get together to break bread like this, it is supposed to get us riled up. Why isn’t the world like communion, where everyone eats and no one gets the lion’s share? Why do some get so much out there at the tables of the world while others get so little? Why is it legal to be obscenely rich? Why do we make people ashamed of having a low income, make them come to ask for groceries in church basements? Is this the plan, that the few wallow in luxury while the many toil for them for next to nothing or watch their fields dry up and blow away?
Glen Rhodes church is home to a musical theatre company, Curtain Call Players. They rehearse all fall and all spring. It’s wonderful. We were sitting in a meeting the other night when this season’s music drifted up from down below, the famous music of Oliver. That got me thinking about food, glorious food from the point of view of an orphan in London a hundred and fifty years ago. Well, alright, from the point of view of a song writer fifty years ago. The boys in the orphanage get gruel day after day, and not enough of it. They fantasize about having plenty, having excess, and after several courses they ask,
What next is the question?
Rich gentlemen have it, boys --
Food, glorious food!
We're anxious to try it.
Three banquets a day --
Our favourite diet!
Lionel Bart, the composer, was actually Lionel Begleiter, the youngest child of a couple who escaped Cossack pogroms against the Jews of Ukraine. His father did his tailoring in a garden shed out behind the house. So he and his family knew a few things about racism and poverty. Underneath those very singable songs, there is Dickens’ rage at social injustice, and Bart’s family history of suffering.
Just thinking of growing fat --
Our senses go reeling
One moment of knowing that
Full-up feeling!
Food, glorious food!
Dickens and Bart are updating these images from the bible of how things are supposed to be: a feast for all peoples on the holy mountain. Grief and fear wiped away, the disgrace of God’s people removed by the great eats, the orchestra and the dancing, the places of honour set for the vulnerable. The host of the banquet growing impatient with the higher-ups who make their polite excuses, and going out to find the others to fill up the banqueting hall. We have these stories, and the symbol of equality and sharing here when we come to the table, and we’re hiding it under a blue bin.
We are busy making decisions about our future as congregations, and all five churches have made brave and hopeful choices. You have listened to the Spirit, and are trying hard to keep up to its leading. Never easy. As we do this, we need to figure out not how to save churches, but how, as the church, to hurry after Jesus and the Holy Spirit to the scene of the party. The slave tells the master about the big banquet: we have found new guests, and “There is still room.” There is still room for other people at the table, especially the very poorest in the world. There is still room for the visionaries, for the species we are robbing of their habitat, for the fish in the sea, for forests and reefs. There is room for us. The old saying about the church is that it is one beggar telling another where to find bread.
When you take bread here in company with all these other sisters and brothers in the Spirit, let it give you joy and anger. When you dip it into the cup and put it to your mouth, let it fill you with solidarity and wonder. It’s sacred because it’s dangerous. You are saying no to inequality and yes to justice. You are saying no to violence and yes to a fierce and tender peace. You are saying no to a notion of ourselves as entitled and yes to a recognition that we are the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame, the refugee, the precarious, the doubters. That’s us. Our good fortune that we have been dragged in to eat together.
And the plan, the vision, the dream is to get us to taste and see God’s goodness in here, and then go spread our radical love in the world. As we go forward as congregations, think of the people around here waiting to taste grace and inclusion and joy—newcomers, maybe, or young people in an epidemic of anxiety, people caught in the web of substance abuse and unable to liberate themselves. We are not here for us. Okay, change that: we are here for us, but not only us.
Did you happen to hear Bryan Stevenson on the radio the other day? He’s a human rights lawyer, an African-American activist, a co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit American organization providing legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners denied fair and just treatment in the American legal system. He wants his country, and ours, to make race and racism part of the dinner table conversation. He had beautiful words about activism and change: “Every time someone who has been told to be quiet speaks up, the world is changed. Every time someone who has been told to sit down stands up, the world is changed.” (CBC radio, Sept 22) Or, these days, if everyone else is standing, for a flag, say, and you decide to sit or kneel instead, the world is changed.
This bread you are about to eat is an energy bar, to fire you up. The cup you are about to share is a wake up drink. Speak up. Stand up. The world is not the way it is supposed to be. Our communion with the world is not a brief, formal ritual. It is an exhilarating dance. It is a protest movement. It is playground where kids of all ages, all abilities, all head coverings can get in the game. It is motivating. It is joy. It is grace.

Pentecost 6, Year C   Pride Sunday

Readings: (2 Kings 2:1–2, 6–14); Psalm 77:1–2, 11–20; Galatians 5:1, 13–25; Luke 9:51–62  

“In my time of distress I have turned to God,” says the poet of Psalm 77. When have you been afraid? There’s the little stuff—did I remember my phone/wallet/keys/fill in the blank?, will I be on time? Then there are the medium fears—did I pass, will he/she call back, come back? Then there are big fears—what if they find out who I really am?, will we get our papers to leave here and go somewhere safe?, will I have enough money in my old age, or any age?, will I survive this?

Fear is so debilitating. It doesn’t have to be a fire or flood, or a gunman opening fire in a crowd to freeze you up. What if you’re gay or lesbian or bisexual or trans or queer in so many parts of the world where that can mean job loss, humiliation, imprisonment or worse, or even here where it can still mean gay-bashing or family rejection? What if you’re Muslim in this part of the world, where that can mean random abuse on the street, or watch lists, or discrimination? What if you’re homosexual or trans and Muslim?

We decided after the Second World War that human rights were important. Humanity passed a charter of rights at the new United Nations in the late ’forties. We’ve been working away on those rights ever since. This slow movement gives people hope, bit by bit, and brings new human rights issues into the open: rights for returning soldiers who have nowhere to turn in their distress, say, for children, for people with intellectual disabilities.

And fighting for rights seems to bring out the fight in other people—those who don’t want to share human rights. Think of all the leaders, religious and political, who are terrified of people getting rights. Think of all the domestic partners, the employers, the street criminals, the fanatics who want others to live in fear.

Here in Toronto, there is a mosque now for people who are LGBTQ and Muslim. Their group is called Salaam, meaning peace. Their mosque is called the Unity Mosque. And thanks to the slaughter in Florida, they suddenly have a much higher profile. Like Stonewall in New York or the bathhouse raids in Toronto, an act of oppression sometimes builds solidarity and resistance from a group. People just get fed up being afraid. “How dare they?” “It’s time to fight back!” “Let’s meet.” “Let’s march.” Rights mean so much more to people because they have to struggle for them.

At first Rahim Thawer, born and raised in Toronto, found safety in the gay village, he told a reporter the other day. Then the Islamophobia started to creep into the LGBTQ community, and he and others started Salaam for people who are both gay and Muslim. They met together for Friday prayers.

Times can change. Rights can be gained. Fear can go down. Our readings today contrast two approaches to fear and freedom. Jesus and his followers are out of their comfort zone, in Samaritan country. Not much love lost between Jews and Samaritans. They had parted ways hundreds of years earlier, and you know how it is with old grudges. The people of this particular Samaritan village tell the strangers to keep moving.

The disciples seem shocked that anyone would treat their rabbi, their hero this way. They are prepared to go all drone strike on the village. “Leave it alone,” says Jesus. “Come on.” Then he teaches, of course. A perfect time for learning, when his associates have revealed their hearts, their inner feelings—such anger at ordinary people like themselves. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Human One has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:56) Here’s the deal, people, he tells them, in effect: if you go around teaching and preaching love, and grace, and justice, you can’t just smoke a village if they don’t accept it. That’s a bit of a mixed message.

There happened to be a quote from the Dalai Lama in the paper yesterday to the same effect. He was speaking to the California legislature about gun control. The work to restrict weapons must come from “a sense of respect for others’ life,” he said. How sensible is that? And then the saying I really like: “Inner disarmament is very essential.” It’s not enough that I don’t happen to have a deadly weapon in my hands just now, when I become furious at somebody or something, I have to do something about my fury. Britons let their fury about the loss of status and empire pour out of them the other day in the referendum. In Britain, nobody goes to church regularly anymore—something like five percent of people. So where do they get any encouragement for inner disarmament these days? I wonder if there is any connection.

In Denver the other day, the Dalai Lama said the goal of the twenty-first century should be “a more compassionate humanity.”  A more compassionate humanity. If that were to happen, when that happens, fear will go ’way down. Freedom will grow, a certain kind of freedom, anyway.

We’ve gotten a little confused in our part of the world in the last couple of generations. Some of us have come to think of freedom as the ability to do whatever I want, whenever I want it. We are slowly, painfully, learning the limits of that kind of life. That’s not really freedom, it’s selfishness. True freedom is somewhat different, isn’t it? It’s about that compassionate humanity the Dalai Lama was talking about.

And that brings us back to our Pride Sunday theme, and the other reading we heard this morning. Paul is still talking to the churches in Galatia, in Turkey. He has been arguing that Christians don’t need to follow all the laws of the Old Testament about diet and clothing and circumcision. No, he says, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) A beautiful affirmation of what Christ means to us.

And right away, Paul has to add, not, like, total freedom. Not, for instance, the desires of the flesh. Desires of the flesh, you think to yourself. I’m pretty sure I know what those are. No, you don’t, at least not like Paul. Paul proceeds to give an extensive list. He could just say, Christ gives you freedom to “disarm your hearts,” but instead we get this collection of all-to-human behaviours: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” (Gal. 5:19) And things like these. Just in case he’s missed some bad behaviour, he leaves it open-ended. It’s a pretty good list of things not to do, actually. Unless it leads some Christians to judging, to thinking like the disciples being booted out of that Samaritan village—should we call down fire on the heads of people who, in our opinion, have been impure, licentious, sorcerers, carousers? Or things like those.

To be fair, Paul starts out putting our freedom in positive terms: “…the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” And he ends up in a positive way, too, with another list, this one full of the most appealing human behaviour: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”

On Aboriginal Sunday, last week, we heard from Alita Sauvé, a Cree elder, a powerful offer of grace from a community that was savagely oppressed by the settler culture. We can help you heal, too, she told us. This week, on Pride Sunday, we are reminded of another such offer. The LGBTQ have been made to suffer by the rest of us, yet do not lash out in hatred against us. What is the goal of Affirm, the national organization for LGBTQ people in the United Church? Not revenge, not even compensation. No, Affirm wants churches to be accepting of all people, not just people such as them. How gracious is that?

We have to decide about human nature, about who we are, and what we’re capable of. Is having true freedom, being compassionate humans, a decision we can make moment by moment, day by day, or are we hapless slaves of our fleshly desires? What does Christ mean to us? How can we live love of neighbour in a sustained way? The power of faith is that it helps us calm our fears. It gives us a different, gentler way of being in the world. Be guided by the Spirit. Or perhaps I should say, keep being guided by the Spirit. On the one hand, the fear mongers are everywhere. On the other, Christ keeps saying, “Follow me.” You have a decision to make. 

“Wisdom raises her voice” Robin Wardlaw May 22, 2016

Trinity Sunday, Year C

Readings: Proverbs 8:1–4, 22–31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1–5; John 16:12–15

When the subject is the wise, or wisdom, what comes to mind? Eastern sages? The Magi? The elderly? The Book of Proverbs is evidence of one people’s search for wisdom, one people’s celebration of wisdom as something to be desired. Parts of the bible are action-adventure, others are law books, or tender poetry, but Proverbs goes into day-to-day life, dos and don’ts for personal and family and work life.

These days we’re supposed to be many things, encouraged by advertizers to be this or that, but wise is not usually one of them. Although the good folk at public health keep on us to be more careful about eating and drinking and smoking habits. After the excitement of Pentecost last week, we’re moving on to one of the gifts of the Spirit, today: wisdom. More than a gift of the Spirit, actually. Proverbs talks about Wisdom as a person.

Wisdom only gets her introduction in today’s reading, her walk on, her brief feature in People magazine. “Hello, my name is… I’ve been around, since, well, longer than I want to talk about. I’m pals with what’s his name, you know—God. Truly.” What today’s reading doesn’t give us is her pitch, her job description, or her warnings. No, we have to read all of Proverbs chapter eight and the first part of nine for that. When wisdom is personified, she’s a female who has been around since the beginning of creation. A female being with attitude, with sass.

She’s trying to get our attention, it turns out. She hangs out on the path, she’s always at the town gate. Hard to miss her, really. But it sounds like she’s having trouble getting peoples’ attention. “Hey, everybody, over here! Yoo-hoo! Pay attention, listen. You, yes, you, doofus! Here’s the deal.” Not enough. Just raising her voice doesn’t quite do it. So a bit later, we find her throwing a big party to attract a crowd, a feast—fancy food, wine as an incentive, and the invitation is to the whole world. To be precise, it’s a dual invitation, starting out with name-calling. I’m not sure if  that helps, but we’ll let it go. Here’s the quote from Chapter 9:

‘You that are simple, turn in here!’

   To those without sense she says,

‘Come, eat of my bread

   and drink of the wine I have mixed.

Lay aside immaturity, and live,

   and walk in the way of insight.’ (Prov. 9:4-6)

Eat and drink the bread and wine, that’s the first invitation. “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” That’s the other one. And if we don’t go to that party wisdom is throwing, if we are determined to hang onto our immaturity? Not great, says Wisdom. “Happy is the one who listens to me,… but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death.” (Prov. 8:34, 36)

Love death? That’s the choice? Listen to wisdom or love death, injure ourselves? Seems extreme. But when we look around at the choices people have made and are making, it sounds about right. Unwise choices on the part of clever tobacco executives kept the industry going long after the danger was known. We’re making big money here; let’s keep doing that. And where did their decisions lead thousands, millions of smokers? Now we’re learning the same kind of clever tactics were been adopted by fossil fuel companies to downplay the threat of climate change. And where is that leading us? So maybe the bible has the “get wise or get hurt” outcome just about right.

But most of aren’t executives of large corporations. We don’t make those kinds of big picture decisions. If we hate wisdom, does death follow? Never mind the physical risks involving swimming pools or ladders or driving. What if we are unwise in our own lives? On the personal level, this might lead to the death of relationships. Or, I suppose, to keeping a relationship going when it really should have ended, leading to a different kind of death or injury.

On Wednesday at the Blanket Exercise, we heard repeatedly about people, First Nations, indigenous people, who had done their “work.” “That was before I did my work. He’s done his work.” Listening to our leader, Liz Stone, a social worker from a Native women’s agency in Peterborough, I got the sense that the “work” is all about wisdom. It involves a person working through their anger, perhaps, or their self-centredness, their hurts and resentments. Coming out the other side calmer, more available to others, more whole because they are more aware of their brokenness. Not so different from all spiritual growth, actually. But all summed up in that little phrase, “their work.”

Proverbs and the other readings for today certainly imagine people doing their work. Becoming mature. Paul is writing about the connection between faith and suffering and wisdom, for instance. Paul himself has suffered for taking up the cause, and he’s writing to people who likely have suffered, too. This is in Romans, chapter five:

…since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Sovereign Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Maybe character and wisdom are not exactly the same, but they’re pretty close. Suffering leads to endurance, then character, then hope. And we go this way, toward character and hope because God’s love has gotten into us through the Holy Spirit. And in the gospel reading today we hear Jesus teaching the disciples about the Spirit of truth that guides us into “all the truth.” (John 16:12)

The Spirit weaves her way through all our readings today. And into our lives, too? That’s the lively question for someone who has set out on this path. Are you seeking maturity, are you growing in hope and faith? Just so we’re clear, this is not an inward path, or to put it more accurately, a path of inwardness. My faith life is not all about me. Far from it.

The call is to be Christ in the world, to be that bundle of concern for others, anger about injustice, tenderness toward the vulnerable. We’re aren’t calling for Jesus to improve our lives, but to change them. Sure, some people seem to have a kind of instant change. We have called that, “being saved,” although that phrase has suffered greatly in recent years. But it’s more usual for the change we want to take time, to involve spiritual work. It’s intense. People who have done the Twelve Steps of the recovery movement know about this, how hard it it.

This is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost. Today we celebrate the three aspects of holiness: the holiness all around, in the world, in the universe, the Creator, the holiness, the Christ within, and the holiness that connects us with each other and with all creation—the Holy Spirit. There is so much in our world, and in our lives, that is unholy that followers of Christ are needed desperately. And none of us can do our ministry alone. It’s just not wise to even try.

There may be suffering. There will be suffering if we’re going about our ministry the way Jesus did. That’s where community is so helpful. But that’s not going to stop us. As Paul points out, suffering leads to character, and to hope. We all have our own work to do. So much ego to handle, so many hurts to acknowledge and heal. I don’t know if you find Wisdom calling out at the mall, or riding transit the way Proverbs says. If you’re talking about this morning, though, tell people you heard her raising her voice at one of your regular hangouts. And then go on to tell them you’re doing your work.

Earth, be glad” Robin Wardlaw May 8, 2016

Easter 7, Year C     Mother’s Day, Sensuous Sunday, Communion 

Readings: (Acts 16:16–34); Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12–14, 16–17, 20–21; John 17:20–26

 You reign, O God! Let earth be glad! So begins Psalm 97. It goes from the natural world, and how it reveals God and God’s righteousness to a contrast between the upright in heart and other people, the saints and the wicked. The photographs of Edward Burtynsky have a similar message. Burtynsky takes pictures of the earth, landscapes, and then presents them in very big copies, like, the size of a wall big. Many of his pictures are beautiful, but he also goes to giant industrial sites, to reveal human wickedness at work, ruining countrysides and rivers, cities and lakes. Looking at his pictures, the viewer realizes that earth is not glad. What’s the opposite of glad: downhearted?, despondent?, depressed? What kind of visit from God would restore it gladness?

On Sensuous Sunday, we are imagining lovely aromas, gentle touches, pleasant sounds, delicious tastes. And beautiful images. On Mother’s Day, we go back to the beginnings of the day and cheer for women who struggled for peace, who oppose war because they don’t want their children or any woman’s child to take up arms as a way to solve problems. And most of us have warm thoughts toward our own mothers. At a communion service, we hope and expect that there will be enough bread for everyone, that the sharing will be fair, that no one will be kept away from the sacrament.

We know there is a shadow side, though, the way the psalmist knew it, the way Burtynsky’s camera captures it, the way our lives are. Many smells are bad—the toast burning, or the forest and town burning. Many kinds of touch are unwelcome. Many sounds are deafening. Mothers often do good things, wise things, loving things, but not always. The bread of life is sometimes hoarded or too expensive. All some people have is the smell coming from the bakery. Our world does not take communion as an example of the holy way to share food. The shadow side. We get that. What to do?

Once upon a time, when cities didn’t have effective sewer systems and most people didn’t bathe, those who could afford it wore little bunches of flowers on their clothing where they could easily smell them, to counteract the stench of the streets, and wherever crowds gathered. These tiny bouquets were called ‘nosegays.’ Covering up the problem of hygiene instead of dealing with it. As humankind, we still do this, in large ways and in small—put band-aids on things instead of working for real healing.

So if we focus on the good things, the wise things, the pleasant and beautiful things at church today, it’s not with little flowers under our noses, our eyes closed and our fingers in our ears. No, our eyes and ears are open. We are hearing old words of Jesus about love that still sound new. We are rejoicing in a Spirit that is wafting the scent of a new world into being thanks to prophet people in our midst. We are devoted to a Holy Love that calls us forward, into light, not shadow, into hope, not despair.

The bible calls you God’s ambassadors, and says God is making her appeal through you. So, you sensuous people, you children of many mothers and one Mother, you people of the loaf and cup shared for all, go out there and be beautiful. Be loving, be caring, be gentle with yourselves. Earth, be glad, people of earth, be glad: you have friends and allies here.

“A new thing”  Robin Wardlaw  April 24, 2016

 Easter, Year C,   Earth Day       

Readings: Acts 11:1–18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1–6;      John 13:31–35

 A new thing. We’ve all done new things, sometimes proactively, sometimes reacting. We’re no longer getting good marks in school, so we start really studying, a new thing for us, perhaps. Reactive. We decide to volunteer our time somewhere, help out. Proactive. We have to react to catastrophe and flee our city or our county, and suddenly all of life is a new thing. New things can be fun or not. They can be hard or easy. They can add a little to our lives, or change them completely.

You have been pleased with some new things you’ve done, I’m sure, and not so happy with others. Happy to start getting a bit more exercise, perhaps; not so happy with that black velvet wallpaper with the metallic highlights that was all the rage.  We get in ruts, bored with the same old same old. Then after a bit of a flyer, sometimes we’re pleased to get back to our old life.

Here at church we’re ambivalent about new things. Or maybe I should say we have categories. That should change, or he should change, but this and this and this should never change. It’s true, religion does connect us to former generations in powerful ways. We sing their hymns—twenty years old, two hundred years, a thousand. We hear the old stories. But we know that religion is always changing. My cousin is walking the Camino from France all across northern Spain. She just entered the territory associated with the Templars, about half way. Some of the churches there are eight and nine hundred years old. They look a bit like fortresses: the few windows are very high up, and they have arrow slits near the top of the walls.

We kept building churches since then, that hasn’t changed, but our architecture has changed to respond to changed surroundings—more windows, for one. Our theology, same thing: it changes with time, with new insights. We have added ramps and power doors and lifts and better washrooms to our buildings so that stairs and doors and narrow spaces are not barriers to people with mobility challenges. We have worked hard to get rid of sexism, and more recently heterosexism from our theology.

I love this story in Acts about Peter and the net full of animals. When we find Peter in Joppa on the Mediterranean coast, now called Jaffa, the Jesus movement has been spreading out into non-Jewish circles. Many people are intrigued by this rabbi who had such radical things to say. The question comes up, then, for Gentiles: do I have to become Jewish to follow Jesus? That might involve circumcision for men, obeying all the laws, a different diet for everybody, along with other changes. The movement has to pause and consider the question.

The story we have about Peter’s vision is a good one. “God spoke to me in a dream, so we should change our practice and let people eat whatever they want.” Sometimes change comes that way. Maybe that’s the only way it comes. We can hear Martin Luther King, Jr. in our heads making his famous dream speech. And we thank God that more racial justice has come because of that dream.

But a new thing is usually messier than this story in Acts—one person dreams a dream and a community just…changes. And sure enough, it wasn’t neat and tidy. When you read on a few chapters you get to the debate back in Jerusalem where the missionaries had to persuade the group in Jerusalem that this was valid, this was necessary, this was of God. It took some doing. In the end they came up with a very short little list of dos and don’ts about food and being a faithful partner, and sent Peter and Paul and Barnabas back out to tell people, This is how you should behave.

When the United Church was considering whether it had been sinning against homosexual people by keeping them out of ordered ministry, it was not neat. In fact it was very, very messy—shouting, signs, petitions, threats, tears, fears. I was at one of the General Councils when opponents got very loud, very fierce. Changing was the right thing to do, but it was a big, emotional hurdle to jump. There were a few prophets at first, of course, there always are prophets, then others slowly coming around. There were also a good number of people who couldn’t accept that this change was from God, and left the United Church.

Now we see laws changing, other churches making the same changes, one by one, society calming down bit by bit and getting used to a new normal, thank God. And thank the dreamers. These changes are not coming fast enough, we know. Just ask a teenager trying to decide whether or not to come out at high school as gay or lesbian or bi or trans. Or come out at home. Or at church. We’re still not there, but until someone has a dream, things just stay the same.

On Earth Day, we’re all wondering if we can do a new thing in time. Ice sheets melt faster, seasonal rains come later, or not at all. The leader of Chad, a very dry place in northwestern Africa, said on Friday that, “Climate change is adding poverty to poverty in Chad.” Earth is groaning, in other words, not so much in childbirth, as the apostle Paul put it once, but with fever. The symbolism of leaders of the world getting together to sign the Paris Agreement on Friday at the United Nations in New York is good. And there are a couple of things left to do across the planet to calm the fever back down. Better targets for carbon reduction, real plans to get there, for instance.

John’s gospel has Jesus on about a new thing, too, a new commandment that takes the place of so many other rules: “Love each other,” he tells his companions. Love them how much? As much as he loved them. Because? It’s not because we’re supposed to be all lovey in here. No, says Jesus, it’s so people will know that the disciples are his followers. Love spreading out and out. We pray for this. We work at it. The arms dealers and drug dealers and sex slavers and giant corporations who exploit workers and the environment drive us slightly crazy. The opposite of love. Fear spreading, cruelty spreading, damage to the planet spreading.

What are you going to do? Stop loving? Walk away? Give up? Apparently not. Here you are at worship, sitting on hard pews, waiting for something in the service to speak to you. Could we do more, do better? Probably we could. Definitely we could.

We get in church-y ruts. The old joke based on the seven things Jesus said on the way to the cross and his death is that the seven last words of the church will be, “We never did it that way before.” We sometimes cling to tradition too hard. One of the keys to getting out of ruts is to think about the difference between tradition and convention. We have a tradition of worship over the centuries, but the way we’re worshipping these days is only a convention, a couple of hundred years old. We have a tradition of loving and serving our neighbours, but that has taken many different forms over the years. We can keep the traditions even while we change the conventions.

To go back to the health of the earth, think about getting around. We humans have a tradition of getting where we’re going more quickly by riding in things with wheels. A long tradition. Pharaoh’s troops chased after the Hebrew slaves in chariots. Then we figured out how to replace horses with horsepower, and gasoline. No one goes looking to buy an internal combustion producer of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. We just want wheels, to get where we’re going. If you can get there with less carbon emitted, do you really care what makes it go? The tradition: transportation. The convention: gas guzzlers, fossil fuels, big harm to us all, and all creation.

A new thing, though. What am I prepared to change, or give up, to live with respect in creation better? It’s the same with any change we want to make, in our own lives, in our church, in our world. First we have to accept that we need to change. Like the light bulb in the old joke: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but it has to really want to change.

Just a quick word about workers, if you can handle one more new thing. It was three years ago today that the clothing factory collapsed in Bangladesh. Eleven hundred garment workers died that day. Retailers all over the world were embarrassed into agreeing to a new thing, a commitment not to buy from suppliers who put workers in danger. All better now? Sadly, no. Dying at work is not confined to poor countries. Just over nine hundred people are killed on the job every year in this country, thirty thousand injured. The number doesn’t change. Almost three a day. April 28 is the day every year to remember injured and killed workers. Love for others is not a big business principle. What if it were.

We’re the light bulb in that joke about change. What new insight, what scripture passage, what vision or dream, what cry from the other side of the planet would get you there, to the “I have to, we have to change” revelation and commitment?

Love one another. Years ago Dr. Helen Caldicott, a doctor from Australia, put out a film about nuclear weapons the way Al Gore did with climate change. Over thirty years ago, in fact. She called it “If You Love This Planet.” To my ear, she is channeling Jesus. He didn’t know anything about climate change, or environmentalism, or nukes. But Helen Caldicott had the same dream as Jesus about loving so much that change was not just a nuisance, a dreary assignment, but something we do willingly, with love, love for God, for those we love, for this spinning blueplanet.

“Location, location, location” Robin WardlawApril 17, 2016

Easter 4, Year C      

Readings: Acts 9:36–43; Psalm 23; (Revelation 7:9–17); John 10:22–30

Real estate people say the three most important things when buying a house are location, location and location. That’s only one thing, of course, but the point is clear. Today’s readings have a little bit to do with real estate, spiritual real estate. Psalm 23 is well loved partly because of its real estate, of the images we can generate in our minds when we hear about still waters, green pastures, banqueting tables and the house of God as our home away from home.

All these images of safety and peace: it doesn’t seem to matter how well things are going, a little part of us always feels beleaguered. We love a psalm that offers us a spa weekend, in effect, a refuge from the slings and arrows of daily life, someone else to do the cooking for a change, a lovely home with no housework.

And that’s just the real estate of the psalm. Then there’s the picture in Revelations, chapter 7,  of where the saints dwell. Very nice location for them, even if we didn’t hear the passage today: the saints hang out in white robes, singing and worshipping around God on the throne. This is much better than where they were before, namely, going through an ordeal.

Revelations is another part of scripture written to people who are up against it, suffering, surrounded by enemies. The vision of John of Patmos is part revenge fantasy and part what-it-will-be-like-when-we-win-the-lottery fantasy. Bad people are going to get theirs after the big show down, just you wait. Good people are going to have it so good: no hot sun, tears wiped away… Fantastic! The place to be.

The other two scenes from our scripture, in Acts and the gospel of John, are far from laid back, far from spa-like. The death of Tabitha, or Dorcas, in Joppa, shows how much divine power has sprung up in Jesus’ followers, in this case Peter. You thought the nasty men in Jerusalem killed the dream? Not so. Here is the same intensity of love as Jesus had. Grief changes to rejoicing. Intense. Meanwhile we hear John’s gospel telling another anti-Jewish story. Yes, it has sheep imagery, but the tone is all different from nice pastures and spring water. “You do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice.” No one will snatch my sheep from my hand. Et cetera. Jesus sounding pretty testy.

This is the trouble with having someone who is tense, and intense doing the story telling. By the time of John’s gospel, the last of the four gospels, late in the first century, Jesus people had become a bit of a threat, a nuisance, easy scapegoats. They had been tolerated at first when there were just a few, but then their numbers grew, like migrants fleeing a war zone, or poor people sneaking across borders to find work. Crackdowns, accusations, imprisonment, beatings, death—the usual array of reactions from fearful people. So when someone goes to tell the Jesus story at that stage in Christian history, there is lots of anger, bitterness. Jews don’t come off well in John’s gospel.

Back to our real estate topic. Where do we locate ourselves? Are we feeling burdened, surrounded, bitter? Do we need a shepherd to just take over and look after us, get us somehow through the valley of the shadow to a place of peace? Or are we already completely gone, like poor Tabitha, needing revival, resurrection? Or are we feeling picked on and misunderstood, like the Jesus John shows us at the temple, being mocked and taunted?

Self pity is one way to go. And oh, so tempting. If people only knew what I had to put up with, what I do, what is expected of me! Who doesn’t enjoy some sympathy? A lot of sympathy? That’s why prayers of thanksgiving are so important in our worship. We certainly have our aches and pains, our losses and our insults, no question. But we are part of the most privileged population the world has ever seen.

We don’t need to go some pond, clean water flows from our taps. We don’t have to gather fodder from a pasture, it comes to us from all over the planet. We have a banqueting table every day. In Jesus’ time the uber rich had snow brought to Rome in hot weather, all the way from the mountains, to cool their drinks. Now anyone can buy ice cream or a cold drink any time of year. Our heads anointed with oil? We have oil flowing in pipelines under our feet, made into plastics for every kind of gadget and toy, heating our homes and making our chariots go without a horse or donkey to pull them.

And the list of wonders goes on and on: medicine, travel, literature, arts, education. So much for which to give thanks. Even if there are earthquakes, or outbreaks of disease, or criminals setting off bombs in public places. It’s true, all these blessings are not distributed evenly. Many billions would be so grateful for a half, a tenth, a smidge of what we take for granted. There’s that location thing again. Depends where in the world you were born. When we offer prayers of thanksgiving, we remember all these things, and go past self pity to humble gratitude.

While we’re on real estate, a word about actual real estate, and this reconciliation thing we’re emphasizing here at church. Most of us on Turtle Island, as we sometimes call North America, have only been around the neighbourhood for a generation or two or ten. Our ancestors pushed the original people aside and made room for themselves and their descendants. Nice place you’ve got here. We’ll just take the keys, thank you. And you can have the garden shed just for you! But should really work on it. It’s looking a little… tatty. We should not be at all surprised when indigenous people get down in the mouth, or angry about their situation. A reconciled Canada will be a very different place.

Where were we? Oh, yes, blessings, self pity and spirituality. Interesting how these old writings can still go right to core of our lives all these generations later, eh? If I’m a victim, or if I see myself as a victim, I get a pass from adult type responses. Don’t look to me for any kind of help with reconciling or loving and serving others, whatever you’re doing: I’m over here suffering. Someone tell the nice shepherd to lead me somewhere nice.

When we are more grounded, we are conscious of how much we have, how much goes right every day so we can live lives of such peace and affluence. When we are not, we act as if we deserve it all. When we are grounded, we can acknowledge other people, other nations who came before us, and were made victims by newcomers over the generations. When we are not, we make fun of those with less, or get mad at them, or pick on them.

Where are you located, then? My guess would be it depends on the year, or the day, or even the moment. We go from feeling incredibly humble, blessed, grateful to feeling like Tabitha in a flash. We would love for our worshipping mood to last and last. If only. Where is that ground when we need it?

We’re always trying to hear the voice of the Shepherd. Not easy, especially in the moment. Over the millennia some Christians have spent their whole lives trying to get in tune with the spirit of Christ. They have set up special communities to try to focus just on faith and faithfulness. We can them nuns and monks, monastics and hermits. Not us. No high walls to separate us from everyone else. We are trying to grow in faith in the midst of the busy world, with all its aggravations, temptations and demands. As a minister, I’m always impressed with how seriously people take this challenge, how hard they try to let the gospel shape both their short term and long term decisions.

The good news is that you don’t have to think of your spiritual self as real estate. The better news is that you are always being called to a good place, a place where you can let the love you have for others bloom, let your eagerness for a different kind of world take root, let still waters and good pasture give you the energy you need to help turn grieving into rejoicing, and to join your voice with that neat chorus around the throne of Love.

“Making the turn” Robin Wardlaw April 10, 2016


Easter 3, Year C      

Readings: (Acts 9:1–20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11–14; John 21:1–19

What is religion for? Is it kind of like a bed time story, to make us all feel warm and cuddly? Partly. Last week we talked about the joy that comes from the Spirit, and that really is a good feeling, grounding us, connecting us, reassuring us.

Religion, at least the Christian religion, is also about repentance. And we need to repent when we’re headed down the wrong path. We need to make some kind of turn, a turn away, a turn toward, a transformation. Who is “we”? Well, each of us separately, and all humankind together. In your life, you know what I’m talking about. You know some of the things that are getting in the way of accepting Christ’s call to follow the path of of joy, of peace-making and justice-seeking. And you have done some repenting and turning in your time. If you feel like you need to make a turn, like there is something to repent, I encourage you to pray about it, and find someone you trust in whom to confide. It takes spiritual energy and usually support to stop doing something hurtful, or start doing the loving thing.

As humankind, we sort of know what we’re doing wrong, but so often we deny and avoid recognizing our collective sin, so getting change at that bigger level is pretty hard. We’ve set up our world so you can get rich doing the wrong thing, or doing a good thing in the wrong way. That lure, that love, is irresistible to some. And for the rest of us, the lure of shiny new things is strong, too. Do you know the Greek myth of Tantalus? He angered Zeus. His punishment, forever, was to stand up to his waist in a pool of water under the branches of a fruit tree. Hungry, he would reach up for the fruit, but the branch would lift the fruit just out of his reach. Thirsty, he would bend down to sip the water, but the water would always fall below his open mouth. That’s where we get the word tantalizing, of course.

Take electronics as one of those things we reach for, for instance. Many of us have cell phones, or cars, or computers and hunger for the newer model. We all get some of our energy from wind turbines and nuclear reactors. Those things need a wide variety of metals and materials to make them work. Such as a mineral called coltan. The name coltan is the short version of columbium-tantalum. Tantalum. Guess where it gets its name. Coltan is great. It doesn’t corrode, and it conducts electricity very well. So mix a little coltan in with other stuff and you get wires and parts for electronics that make them work very, very well. So far, so good. Arms makers use it in missiles. Not so good.

Where does coltan come from? That question gets us closer to the sin part, the worst part of this particular metal. Father Vincent Machozi, an Assumptionist Catholic priest, was assassinated three weeks ago today at a village in Beni in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Fr. Machozi, who was he? He led the fight against brutal, illegal mining in Congo, especially the mining of, you guessed it, coltan. Coltan is found in several countries around the world, but the cheap place to mine it is in the Congo, because you can do it in the woods, on the sly. Then you smuggle the ore to Rwanda, and pretend it came from there when you ship it elsewhere to be refined.

Who would do that, exploiting local people, polluting the ground and rivers and bumping off critics? We’ll get around to the actual killers, but the more complicated answer is that we all do it. Sure, it is mining executives who set up the mines, militias who protect them, for a fee, politicians who look the other way, for a bribe, and all of us who want the stuff at the electronics store for cheap without wondering how much blood and suffering might be involved in getting it to us. Then it turns out we have set up the world’s financial system so that the profits from nasty mining operations can go to anonymous corporations set up in tax havens, as we know from last week’s big spill of secret documents. The people getting rich from blood metals can still mingle in society without the shame that might come if people knew what they were really up to.

Father Machozi was fifty-one. He operated a website, Beni Lubero, documenting human rights abuses. Recently he seemed to have poked the hornet’s nest with a post denouncing the involvement of the Congolese and Rwandan presidents in the massacres of innocent civilians. According to one commentator, “Machozi used the site to denounce what he saw as collusion among political elites, armed factions, and commercial interests in what he termed the ‘Balkanization’ of the region in order to exploit its natural resources, especially its rich Coltan deposits.”

Father Vincent was at a peacemaking retreat, of all things, on Palm Sunday, when gunmen — reportedly members of the Congolese military—disrupted it. It seems they were looking for him, because he got a hail of bullets. According to reports, onlookers said Fr. Machozi’s last words were: “Why are you killing me?” But he knew why.

His boss in Rome, the Rev. Emmanuel Kahindo, the vicar general of the Assumptionist order and a fellow Congolese, said Machozi what was coming. Machozi told Kahindo last October: “My days are numbered. I will be murdered, I feel it … but like Christ, for the sake of our people, I will not be silent. I will continue my fight to the end and continue to condemn all those who sow division and hatred between ethnic groups in the region to rule and continue to exploit the riches.” And six months later, he was proved right. Another glaring example of humankind’s need to repent.[i]

Of course, one congregation getting alarmed one Sunday morning about the deadly shadow side of mining won’t change things. Or will it? How does change come? A few Christians got mad about the slave trade two hundred years ago, and started a campaign in London. It took a few decades, but they got change. We are in the midst of changes to the way men and women relate to each other thanks to what women began over a hundred years ago. It’s not fast enough, but change does keep happening. We have done some things with tobacco, cutting down usage. In the global North, anyway. We’re working, as a species, on fossil fuels, labour rights, income inequality, preventable diseases, habitat preservation.

In other words, we can repent, we can change as a species, we can turn from our sin. It is so slow. Maybe too slow. Can you handle another example of where we need to repent collectively? This one starts with another catastrophe on a First Nations’ reserve, a fire this time. The house that burned down in Pikangikum First Nation killing a couple, their adult children and grandchildren is a horrifying event in a close knit community, and it’s a smack in the face to the rest of us about the need to repent from colonial thinking, racism, discrimination. It happens that I spent a summer as a student minister in Pikangikum almost forty years. I may have met the grandparents who died last week.

The interesting thing about Pikangikum, at least back in the 1970s, was how much repentance was preached. After the so-called mainline churches—Anglican, Catholic, United—had begun to repent of their racist theology and pull back from the most destructive parts of the missionary enterprise, other churches—Pentecostal and old order Mennonite—showed up to pick up where we left off. The services of some of these newer churches were long and loud, and the evangelists who led them invited people to feel very bad about themselves and repent. It worked. People there did feel badly about themselves. They were a continuous disappointment to an angry God.

What those churches did was focus on how worshippers were sinners. They didn’t seem to mention how indigenous people in Canada are sinned against. They didn’t acknowledge that First Nations have powerful healing traditions of their own. I was told that an evangelist and his praise band might fly out after a weekend of intense worship with thousands of dollars in offerings that the local people could not afford to give, let alone send out of the community. Who should really have been repenting, and how do people fed this kind of thinking for generations ever make a turn toward something healthier? I have a strong feeling this still goes on.

The United Church has repented, officially. We have apologized, first in 1986 for our racist theology in general, and then more specifically in 1998 for our role in those Residential Schools that wrecked several generations of some families and communities and are still doing their insidious damage. United Church people and many other Christians are still learning about the damage the Church did over the centuries, still getting our heads around the need for repentance. I’ll come back to the Doctrine of Discovery and its role in helping create racism.

So: repenting, turning, transformation. One of our readings for today is the famous story of Paul turning from his former ways on the road to Damascus. (It’s in Acts 9 if you want to hear the whole thing.) A bolt of lightening or something knocks him off his horse as he is on his way there with a kind of letters from the high priest, his own little doctrine of discovery allowing him to persecute more Christians in Syria. When the flash of light comes, he can’t see. He hears a voice saying, “What’s up? Knock it off, Paul. Turn.” A Christian comes out from the city, terrified, to bring Paul to his own house and look after him. Paul does turn. Many argue that the Christian faith we have is because of his organizing energy and genius, and his way with words.

Instead, we heard part of the vision of a different early follower, John of Patmos. It sings the song of those who are fully turned toward the big dream of justice and peace. Angels surround a throne, and every creature in heaven, on earth and under the earth and sea join in to sing blessing and honour and glory and might to the Lamb. Big, big worship by all creation.

How to get there, from the bolt of lightening that says, “Turn,” to that picture in Revelation? You’re pretty busy. Life seems to be full of concerns. Who has time to work on their own issues, never mind changing the world? Then you step back and wonder, what am I really here for? What’s my life about? Sure, you have to be concerned about the basics—food in the fridge, a bit of money in the sock under the mattress, friendship, maybe even some love.

We get this scene, then, in John, of the disciples making the turn. As John tells it, they go back to work, some of them, the ones who used to fish in the sea of Galilee. Jesus somehow gets some fish cooking on a fire, and the guys are glad about that after a discouraging night out on the lake. They get their breakfast but they also get their marching orders: go take up the torch.

Yesterday, the gang from Glen Rhodes who went off to the workshop on the Doctrine of Discovery heard some tips about how to feed those lambs. If the lambs are originally from Europe, keep telling them about the founding of our nations and our systems of justice was so racist and colonialist. If they are non-European immigrants to Turtle Island, listen to their stories of colonialism. If they are indigenous, or allies of indigenous people, listen to them, too, “without an agenda,” as the presenter put it, and walk in their moccasins for a while.

The famous symbol of the non-racist, non-colonialist life we want to have here, a big, big transformation for settler nations, is the two row wampum: two rows of blue beads on a white strip of beads representing the paths of two canoes. The rows of blue beads never cross, or even touch—the two peoples paddle along side by side, with respect by each for each. Sounds like something Jesus would say, doesn’t it?

This congregation is being called to be a witness to this kind of future. The old Quaker song had it right:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,

‘tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,

and when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

to bow and bend we shan’t be ashamed;

to turn, turn will be our delight

‘til by turning, turning, we come round right.

See more on Father Vincent Machozi at: https://sojo.net/articles/congolese-priest-fighting-coltan-mining-assassinated#sthash.u1Qofsp0.dpuf

“Joy spreads” Robin Wardlaw April 3, 2016

 Easter 2, Year C      

Readings: Acts 5:27–32; (Psalm 118:14–29); Psalm 150; (Revelation 1:4–8); John 20:19–31

 Your little cell of, what shall we call you, “alternative thinkers,” is broken up. Go with me for a bit in your imagination. Your leader is gone, dead. The authorities are on to you, and who knows what could happen to his known associates, fellow travellers. So, of course, you lock yourself in a room or head for the hills, get out of town. And that seems to be what Jesus’ friends did after his death.

Today’s readings tell some of their fear reaction, and also what happened next, so they are a beautiful model for us all this time later. Because we’ve had Good Friday experiences ourselves. You could be living one right now: a time when fear grows to take over your judgement, your good humour, your sense of calm or peace. An anxious time, an unpleasant, unhappy, unwelcome time.

Our scriptures tell about this rebound, this recovery from fear. Ok, so perhaps the people who put the gospels together are painting a bit of a rosy picture about how fast it happened, or how articulate everyone is in the days and weeks following Easter. But something amazing happened in the weeks and months afterwards, or we wouldn’t be gathered here. There would be no Jesus movement, not even a memory of who he was.

People somehow got it together. Got themselves back together, stopped the flight to safety. If you’ve ever been in a traumatic event, you know how hard it can be to keep your head. We go into shock, we shut down, we give in to the “fight or flight” response that is so instinctual. But instead, there was some kind of love hanging around after that first Good Friday, that first Easter. It brought them back together.

Then they started talking, sharing the story. “The Spirit was upon them,” as the bible would put it. We do the same thing—talking and sharing, I mean. If we discover a diet that actually works, or someone we know experiences an unlikely cure, or if we stumble onto a new restaurant, or movie, or book. We want everybody to know. What we’re trying to avoid is being one of those people who drive us slightly crazy with their non-stop talking. If they have just glommed onto a new way to make money. If you just sign up for groceries from them, or knives, or timeshares, then sign up other people who sign up other people, money flows into the bank account like Niagara Falls. They’re passionate, they won’t take no for an answer. They’re converts.

They’re like those first disciples. Bursting with the story of a love that rose from the grave, a vision of society that fierce authorities could not kill. Joy spread. And spread and spread.

Now it’s down to us. There are really only two questions: do we have the joy, and are we spreading it? No guilt, though, please. Having the joy is the work of the Spirit, not your job. And the work of the Spirit is mysterious. Joy comes in so many ways—from nature, from the people in your life, from solitude, from your reading, your prayer life. It can come to people at church, in worship, but there are many ways to be touched by the Spirit.

All we can do is be open to it. Well, there’s a bit more than that. We work on ourselves: are there habits we have carried from younger years that get in the way of compassion, of Christ-like living? Can we do better on our speaking and listening? Can we get our temper under control? Can we deal with our appetites so they don’t run our lives. That sort of thing.

We are, all of us, perfect channels for peace, and justice-seeking, and love, and joy. Or that’s the design, anyway. We don’t feel like that some days, some weeks, some decades. But if you are living you have the capacity. It doesn’t depend on health or wealth or age or anything. There’s something about expectation involved. You have to be expecting the joy. There’s something about gratitude. A lot about gratitude, actually, cultivating that habit of counting one’s blessings.

Then what, when you feel it? We get more information about the people in the world who are having Good Friday experiences. Perhaps we even meet them or get to know them. We’re like Thomas, we have to see a person’s wounds to believe. We make ourselves aware of where the woundedness is, where the great vision of peace and justice is still missing, where the Christ is likely to be, and wait for the Spirit to move us. And we respond as we are able, like Thomas. With our prayers, our letters, our time, our commitment.

Some people go off around the world to build houses with Habitat for Humanity, for instance, or to assist some ministry far away. But we don’t have to go very far to find the Spirit hovering, to feel the joy. The basement of the church. The neighbour’s house, the mail box or the keyboard with our letter of concern.

There are something like two billion Christians in the world, almost one third of the world, so you might think we would have all the world’s problems wrapped, or well on the way. And yet… there is plenty to be concerned about. The folks who believe that a hammer and some big, long nails are the best way to take care of critics are all over, and many of them seem to be in charge. We’ll talk about some of them next week.

The world needs the joy. Not a head-in-the-sand approach, not mere cheerfulness, but something deeper. Not just positive thinking, but a confidence that Jesus was on to something, and that our mission takes its lead from that vision. It’s hard to have faith like this. The news we get day by day tends to be on grim side. What’s the expression in the newsroom, “If it bleeds, it leads”? We seem to be drawn to the sad and the horrific. What’s important to remember as people of faith is all the stories not making onto the front page, or into the news at all—stories of peace and justice-making from all over the world.

When a community works and works to avert catastrophe, or look after people before they get into dire straits, that’s the Spirit, but it seems to be rare to see it on the screen. What we need, as a community, is the long view. There will be setbacks, reversals, disappointments, guaranteed. Our societies will make wrong turns into dead ends over and over. You just know it.

I’ve said this before, that faith is the right combination of patience and impatience. We feel the urgency for those families and neighbourhood cowering in fear. They need help today, yesterday. And sometimes we can do that. We can rush groceries to people in famine, put pressure on a head of state to release someone tossed in jail for criticizing, or help a village drill a well or get solar power or something, but long term problems need long term solutions.

And long term solutions are different. They take organizing. That’s how the joy spreads. We have room to improve on that score. It is tempting to go about looking after the most urgent needs. But urgent and important are sometimes two different things. Those disciples coping with Jesus’ death had the same challenge, sorting out the one from the other. I’m sure they made some wrong turns as slowly realized what had happened, what was going on in their midst. They had to go from that anger we hear about in Acts back to the way it had been when Jesus was with them. We’re missing many of the details of how that happened, but it worked. The joy spread: out of Jerusalem and into the rest of the world.

So, we expect it, we wait for it, we enjoy it, we share it. The joy keeps spreading.

“Good times” and “Those other times”  Robin Wardlaw   March 20, 2016

Palm/Passion Sunday, Year C      

Readings: Liturgy of Palms Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29; Luke 19:28–40

Liturgy of the Passion (Isaiah 50:4–9a; Psalm 31:9–16); Philippians 2:5–11; Luke 23:1–49

“Good times”

(Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem)

After a long wait, the band you’ve been dying to see finally takes the stage. You somehow get tickets to the big game, and after all the opening hoopla, there they are: your team, in the flesh. It’s the wedding of your niece, perhaps, or the daughter of a good friend, and the service gets started. At last, after the bridesmaids, and perhaps children in the ceremony, here she comes, looking radiant.

I’m reaching for those times of anticipation to compare to Jesus’ entry into . Word has spread that the liberator is entering the city, today. Some rabbi from the boonies with a big following and a wonderful message. And how you would love to get some different government. This Roman empire is brutal, unfeeling, enriching a tiny elite through the efforts of the ninety-nine percent, not what God had in mind for the people of the covenant.

Good times, though! Help is here at last. What’s the comparison in your life? Have you waited to hear about a job, or the doctor’s report, or whether you would graduate and have a chance at the future you wanted? What’s the comparison in the world? Who is waiting for a change of government? Who is waiting for freedom these days? Who is biting back bitter tears these days, cries of despair? Who needs a champion to come riding up, even if turns out to be a bicycle they’re on instead of a chariot?

Someone to take on the bullies. Someone to talk sense about what the world is really for instead of making a tiny elite even richer. Someone to calm and organize the people to get change? And in your life, someone who sees past your hurts, your fiascos, your bluster to the you who cares so deeply, yearns so strongly, waits so eagerly. For good times for all.

“Those other times”

(Jesus’ passion)

How many actual triumphs have you had? How many have you seen happen? People used to put up arches to celebrate them. Napoleon ordered the one in Paris to celebrate conquering all of Europe. It cost a fortune and was finished many years after his death. Saddam had one built. The Romans were always building them.

How many triumphal arches would you need to mark high points in your life? Right. Actual triumphs are a bit rare. Christians say that Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem was a triumph, but it sure didn’t look that way at the time. Yes, he challenged the empire, and religious leaders who had lost sight of their real role. He did that right in the places of power. Gutsy. But then out came the whip, the mockery, the hammer and nails. Then silence. Insurrection quelled. Case closed. Move along you people. Nothing to see here.

The vantage point of history means we can celebrate what took time to ripen, to appear, to be recognized for what it was. Think of all the people who struggled and bled for an end to legal slavery and never lived to see it happen. All the women who worked and prayed for women’s rights and didn’t live to see any changes come.

We mostly live in those other times, in the struggle, aware that the world could be different, but seeing so many things go backwards instead of forward. We need to be good at this, living in the in-between. We need to see ourselves as people planting fruit trees or something, that will feed later generations, or people laying the foundation of some arch that we will never see completed.

How horrible that weekend in Jerusalem must have been for those who had such high hopes. A catastrophe. A disaster. No one expected crucifixion. Scary as all get out. He wouldn’t engage in a war of words with Herod or Pilate. Put down your sword, he told Peter. That’s not how peace comes. Now we see it.

We are still trying to learn from him, from the way of Love. We still pick up swords or fighting words when we’re afraid. We still don’t really get the whole resurrection thing. “I do not believe in death without resurrection,” said Oscar Romero, an archbishop in Latin American in a frightening time. “If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador.” And his prediction came true: he was killed. Thirty-five years ago last week.

He didn’t want to die, but he didn’t want to keep quiet, either. Here he is again: “A church that doesn't provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn't unsettle, a word of God that doesn't get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn't touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed​what gospel is that?” His spirit lives on, inspiring others.

We could sit back. We could let others struggle. But we have a gospel to proclaim. It may not get us many victories parades—or any—but we go on. In Christ.

“God laughs, God weeps”   Robin Wardlaw    February 21, 2016

Lent 2, Year C      

Readings: Genesis 15:1–12, 17–18; Psalm 27; (Philippians 3:17—4:1); Luke 13:31–35
We don’t all have the same sense of humour. And the things that make us weep differ, too. Then we project human traits including humor and sadness onto the Holy One, the Holy Mystery. Ok, it seems likely that Jesus cried at some point in his ministry, but you know what I mean. To say, “God laughs, God weeps,” is probably pushing it. Maybe not, though. If we claim God is love, it’s not a stretch to imagine a lover who weeps and laughs.

But where am I going with this, especially the God laughing part? The weeping, in the Luke passage, is pretty obvious. Where’s the laughter? In the Genesis passage, God is looking for partners, sincere, dedicated partners. What for? God is still looking for a way to solve every inventor’s dilemma: what do you do if what you invented, what you created for good, goes wrong, gets put to bad uses?
Remember, it was only a few chapters earlier in Genesis that God invented human beings. It was a plan, company for God, beings to appreciate all the other cool stuff God had made. But there was a flaw. Just ask scientists and other idea people these days about flaws in plans. “I only imagined people would use nuclear energy for peaceful means.” “I thought the internet would help connect people. I didn’t realize people would use it for online bullying and scamming.” And you can think of a dozen other examples.

So God, the creator, looks at the first two people, and goes, “Darn it. What have I done?” They want power that doesn’t belong to them, they lie, they pass the buck. God throws them out of the garden. Go get your own food for a change. Then you’ll be a little humble, a little grateful. Well, again, the best laid plans. The first two parents have two boys and they can’t get along. This may come as a surprise to God, but parents of boys get this. And finally the older one kills his younger brother. What? God steps in again, and tells Cain his punishment is to wander, a marked man, and feel guilty all his life.
Never mind. Somehow humanity spreads, as Genesis tells it, but things are not great. In Noah’s time, God looks around and is glum. Again. “The wickedness of humankind,” as the bible puts it, was everywhere. “The thoughts of their hearts was only evil…” “Continually.” Poor God. How disappointing is this? Now what? Other approaches haven’t worked—expulsion from the garden, shaming. Now, God wants a fresh start. A flood. I’m gonna wash those men right outta my world.

You see the pattern, right? God is determined to make this work, somehow. The Creator is going to stay creative until something works. It’s not a bad plan, it just needs,…adjustment. Noah’s a good guy. The only good one God can find, apparently, so what could go wrong? Keep him and his family. Get rid of the rest. I direct us past the famous part of the story, the watery part, to what comes after. Guess what? Exactly. Up comes evil again, like a bad weed, starting with Noah’s immediate family. Then, a few generations later, we find humans getting together to build a tower to the heavens. Pride. It’s always something. God gives them different languages so they can’t cooperate like that ever again.
And that brings us to Abram and Sarai. New experiment. God is persistent, you have to give her that. What if I nurtured one group, one extended family to see if they would be a model of goodness, and kind of an example for everyone else? Set them up in their own starter country, add water—not too much this time!—stir, and see if we can’t get something to come out the way I hoped ’way back when. God needs Abram and Sarai to commit to this latest effort.

Then comes the Monty Python part, at least if you look back on it from our day and age , and ignore context. What is the most ludicrous thing I can imagine to ask Abram to do to show he and Sarai are in?  I know, cutting a bunch of animals in two and lining up all the body parts from bigger to smaller. Pardon me? Who knows what God rejected as too outlandish—hitting a ball around a field with a stick, for instance, and trying to get it to go in a little hole, or wearing shoes with tall, pointy heels that are painful no matter what you do to show commitment to a covenant?
We are in no position to judge other generations too hard. The things we think are perfectly normal are going to seem ridiculous to people a few generations from now. But I love the idea of God chuckling at this test for the prospective partner. Then Abram has a work dream, and sees someone with a flashlight pushing a barbecue between these cut up animal parts. That seems to seal the deal for him. And maybe that’s the part that really brings a smile to the divine face., the part where humans willingly commit to the plan

How has that worked out for God, nurturing a special people in a land of their own? Well, the jury’s still out. It’s not going too well for Israel and Palestine right at the moment. But it doesn’t all hinge on Jews and Israel anymore. There is this book about it, this manual for liberation called the bible, that means the story of God’s big dream is out there, keeping hopes alive for oppressed people all over the planet.
Can people do this thing God dreams and live beautiful lives without the thoughts of their hearts inclining continually toward evil? To go by the story of Jesus that day, no, at least not in his generation. Jesus has been teaching and healing up a storm. He runs into pushback from people who are upset that he’s been healing in a non-healing zone, meaning the Sabbath day. You people! You’d rescue your animal on the Sabbath if it fell in the well! So this person who needs help, he can’t get it today?

And since Jesus’ day? All sunshine and roses? Or all weeping? You know history. You know what a mixed bag it’s been. We have the same challenge as God: weep that humanity never seems to match the big dream, or laugh, rejoice, that we get to buddy up with such good partners in the struggle?
Let’s be specific about this glass half full, half empty conundrum we face. After church today, for example, we stay around to talk reconciliation. It is to weep thinking about the lives warped, stifled, even lost because of white racism in this country over the centuries. It is to smile that we may have discovered a new way forward, something closer to the deal we made together when Europeans first arrived, something about respecting each other, and collaborating. That’s one.

Next, it is Black History Month. A time for celebrating successes, for smiles, right? Desmond Cole doesn’t want us to skip over the weeping. His column in the paper this week said it should be called Black Liberation Month, that we should remember the horrors, the insults, the suffering, not just the breakthroughs, the Underground Railroad, achievements such as the first Black police chief and so on. Cole is an important voice. He names what’s real. In a culture much more comfortable with success than squirmy stories from the past, he can do what Jesus did, and weep for past and present abuses.
And we haven’t even touched on sex yet. Where is the Women’s History Month, or better yet, the Women’s Liberation Month? We can focus for a while on missing and murdered women, or women lured into sex slavery, the victims, but when do we turn the spotlights on a culture that continues to let this this…”stuff” happen? What messages are we giving boys and young men that says this ongoing abuse of girls and women is ok? Yes, women might form half a cabinet, a woman might run for the office of the most powerful person in the world, there are breakthroughs here and there, but it’s too early to laugh it up.

And in your life, is it to laugh or to cry? Some of us are more predisposed to the one or the other. Some parts of our lives seem to be more lopsided with grins or tears, too. No doubt you have regrets—roads not taken, roads taken too far, painful partings, the sense that “I could have been a contender.” In Lent we often go into the shadow side, to examine what could have been, what shouldn’t have been. It’s good we have a time such this, to seek peace within, to ask for forgiveness, to offer it.
It would be too much to spend the whole year in this kind of reflection, though. God still needs partners. The dream lives, the dream of liberation. And it still needs allies, partners, champions. Partners acquainted with laughter and tears. Partners who are realistic and hopeful. Partners who may have vivid dreams of their own, whether or not they involve barbecues.   
“Meeting the neighbours” Robin Wardlaw January 31, 2016

Epiphany 4, Year C

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4–10; Psalm 71:1–6; 1 Corinthians 13:1–13; Luke 4:21–30

We continue pulling back the curtain in this season of Epiphany on how people knew that Jesus was no ordinary rabbi. Magi came to see him as a baby. When he is baptized by John, there is a voice from heaven declaring him God’s beloved child. He turns water into wine. He reads scripture at worship. Wait a minute! One of these things is not like the others. Many people read scripture at worship. Why does this reveal Jesus to be something exceptional?

The scripture reading was last week. Here’s the answer this week. He doesn’t just read scripture. It’s not just that he picks a social justice text from Isaiah. It’s what happens afterwards. When he finishes the reading, he makes the pronouncement: “All this good news, release, restoring of sight stuff is happening as we speak.” He has them in the palm of his hand. “Wow, awesome,” says everybody there. “Isn’t he a home town boy? Who would have thought it?!” Then Jesus puts his foot in it. He’s not finished. “You’ll want to see miracles, I predict. All this stuff is happening, but not here, not for you. Only for other people, probably foreigners.”

Ouch. Now they don’t think his words are so gracious. Now they get a bit vexed, a bit cantankerous, a bit hostile. Push someone off a cliff hostile. Where does he get off saying what God is or isn’t going to do, that God’s blessing will go to other people? Supposedly. The people who have studied this story very carefully have their doubts about the whole scene.

What makes them doubt? For one, Luke has Jesus saying something about repeating in Nazareth the miracles and signs that happened in Capernaum. Except in chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus hasn’t been to Capernaum yet. Oops. For another, this sounds more like sour grapes from fifty or sixty years after Jesus. Luke gives in to the same feelings as John—resentment, perplexity about people who couldn’t seem to get on board the Jesus train. They knew scripture. They knew a Messiah was coming. How could they not recognize Messiah right under their noses?

We remember that the gospel Luke is produced around the year 85, or 90 CE. Time enough for the Jesus movement to experience growth, and also some major disappointments, set backs, internal divisions. By Luke’s time it’s clear that of the people raised Jewish who accepted Jesus as Christ, some remained in the movement, while others left. And many Jews simply stayed Jews. How to explain this? Luke gives people of his generation an explanation: Jesus himself predicts that the realm of God would appear for others, not the children of Abraham and Sarah. Did it convince people then? Possibly. We know that such stories have done a great deal of harm since.

Luke is responding to first century stuff. We are in the Jesus movement, now, twenty centuries later. We have the task of conveying the love message, the Good News in our time, the same as Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and thousands of others in those days. Our setting seems to have some parallels to the one Luke gives us in this passage. In many places in the world it’s dangerous to be Christian. Some have estimated that more Christians die for their faith than any other group. Not so much around here, though. As I mentioned last week, as we will hear later, we’re speaking to a culture that is into different things.

When we go to the neighbours with our witness, no one is going to threaten us with a walk off the Bluffs. We’re more likely to get blank looks. But not from everybody. There are still people waiting desperately for good news. Because they’re poor, because they are captive, because they have a disability, because they are excluded due to their orientation, identity, race, et cetera. Because they need to hear that they are loved.

Hundreds of people crowd into the lower level of this church every Wednesday because they can’t manage on what they get each month. Others have groceries enough, but other hungers. The Spirit of God was upon us thirty years ago when this congregation responded to the growing poverty of the Reagan-Thatcher years with a meal, then a food bank.

We’re still waiting for “trickle down” economics to be consigned to the ash heap of history. And in the meantime, we’re also waiting for the Spirit of God to visit us again—today, this winter and spring—to help us put the faith, hope and love we have to work in new ways. People want community, but maybe not exactly the way we are used to providing it. People want spiritual growth and nourishment, but maybe at other times of the weeks, looking and feeling different. People want to be involved in putting the world right, building God’s dream, but maybe in ways that are new to us, unfamiliar.

The Spirit is still at work around here, and the Spirit is still awaited by many, many people. We know we need it. Our mission, our privilege as people of the Spirit is to help those connections happen. If we go to meet the neighbour, when we go to meet the neighbours, we are going to need the Spirit upon us, and the vision of Isaiah, of Jesus, of our grandmothers and grandfathers in faith before our eyes. Keep praying for that.
“Better together”  Robin Wardlaw  January 24, 2016

Epiphany 3, Year C      

Readings: Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12–31a; Luke 4:14–21

 Peanut butter and jam. Or is it jelly? Bacon and eggs. Salt and pepper. Skully and Mulder. Things that just seem to go together. The poet of Psalm 19 puts together “the words of my mouth” with “the meditations of my heart,” in one pairing, and then combines, “my rock” and “my redeemer.” Togetherness. Togetherness is what we do in church, what we celebrate, what we work for. Stronger, weaker, older, younger committed to each other. But not everyone agrees with togetherness, not anymore.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the writer Ayn Rand and others put a great deal of energy into convincing people that togetherness is…weak, simple, retro. The individual is the culmination of human development. Aloneness is the real mark of the fulfilled person. Well, not aloneness, but going it alone, looking out for number one, as the saying goes. And in wealthier societies this has a big appeal. In places where money can get you almost everything, this rejection of togetherness can work, too. A person who can pay for everything he wants can get the impression that togetherness is just a drag.
Many of us grew up on comics involving solitary heroes—Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman. Righteous individuals who could zoom in to save the day in the nick of time. As Western societies we rejected socialism and communism violently in the ’fifties. Leading thinkers of the day introduced strong suspicions about people joining together to achieve things. To achieve certain things, I should say, things where there was a profit to be made. Supporting a grieving person, sponsoring a refugee family, looking after low income people? People can join together for those and not be called socialists. Knock yourselves out. Canadians are all proud of our socialized medicine now, but it was an uphill fight to get it fifty years ago.

This is the water we all swim in. This is the air we breathe. The Christian message, and the messages of all the other faiths about togetherness now have to contend with a fierce individualism that is kind of taken for granted. And some people who call themselves Christian add to the challenge by preaching a gospel of individualism and material success, too. What do we do? How do we contend with this worldview, supported as it is by some big money interests?
As if that wasn’t a big enough challenge, yesterday at the East End workshop, our speaker gave us the sobering news about the place of the church in this city. People, especially younger people these days don’t hate the church. They don’t fear it, they don’t question it. They just don’t care about, or even think about it. At all. It is invisible to them, a blank slate. One of things we do in response is revisit the source, the stories that inspire us.

This week, we heard Jesus quoting from Isaiah words that have become the core message of the church: Good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight—the big challenges for those with a gospel of love inside them. Next week we hear what happens to Jesus when he calls people back to those core values of the faith. You may know the story—his declaration about a God who loves the powerless doesn’t go over well. That’s next week. This week we let more of Paul’s message about gifts speak to us. Paul’s on about how Christians are like parts of the body, how we put our different gifts together for the good of the gospel. We don’t all need to be ears, he says, or noses. Better that we aren’t. A body needs many different parts.

You may have heard of the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator. Let me take a little side track for a moment about it. It will make sense and add a little to Paul’s insight in a minute. The Indicator was created by Katharine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Myers, during the ’20’s, ’30s and ’40s. Isabel married Clarence Briggs and the Myers family got a shock. Clarence was nice, they loved him, but he was very, very different from everyone else in the family. What accounted for personality? How many kinds of people were there? They watched as Clarence and many other people volunteered for the armed forces and got bizarre assignments that seemed random, and wildly ineffective. What if you could figure out your personality then go into work more suited to your type? Wouldn’t that make people happier and save everyone a lot of grief?

The two women started sorting people, both real and characters in fiction into groups. Katharine came upon a book by Carl Jung called Psychological Types. They eventually put together a powerful tool for helping people figure out different aspects of their beings, and it’s now widely used around the world.
The whole point of mentioning this is that Myers and Briggs called the book about their findings, Gifts Differing. Isabel Myers saw all personality types as gifts. Not greater, not lesser, just different. She took her cue from Paul. Some of us are idea people, some are into details. Some of us like to start things, others like to finish them. Some of us like parties and lots of interacting. Others like intensive one-on-one conversations that go on for hours. Not better, not worse, just different.

This is part of what makes us better together. The apostle Paul didn’t know all this personality theory, but he had the basic insight about the human family. No one type, no one type of gift is adequate. We need each other. We need a group, a tribe, a congregation in order to be the body of Christ. True, other people drive us crazy. They have irritating habits that seem so different from ours. But the introverts need the extroverts and vice-versa. Rational logic needs to be balanced with emotional logic. The big ideas are not much good without some details.
Getting along together is important when things are going well. It is crucial when things are tense, when the group is facing transformative change. Tension does unfortunate things to us, Jung figured out. The parts of our personality that serve us so well most of the time get pushed aside when we’re anxious. Instead we rely on weaker traits, traits we’re not used to. If we normally take our time to make considered decisions, when we’re under stress we make snap judgements. If the feelings of others are a big consideration for us, tension finds us using cold logic instead. The results are often surprising, and not in a good way.

Can we anticipate this? Can we get some kind of insurance, a buffer against tension and stress? It’s not easy, but yes. We can hang on to these insights about gifts, and stress. We can be good to others and ourselves even when the strong feelings begin to bubble up. We have Paul’s wonderful image of the body. The more recent work of people like Carl Jung, Katharine Briggs, Isabel Myers.
Speaking of personality type indicators, how did the good people of Corinth know their gifts, who was gifted at healing, who at wisdom? Again, that’s where a community is so important. Other people recognize our gifts. Other people tell us we should consider such and such an activity. In First Nations, for instant, this is still true. There is no way to apply to be an elder. People just start approaching others they respect, recognizing their gifts. A person with those gifts seeks out an elder to start training on the teachings, the medicines, the ceremonies. Very informal.

Recognizing gifts. As I believe you will hear from the others next week when we meet after church, we will need our gifts, our gifts differing, for this transformation we’re in. We will need to recognize gifts in one another, and take ownership of our own. No time to be shy or backward about them.
And we’ll need to work together. Maybe not like the body of an Olympic athlete or something, but coordinated enough. Remember the movie Dr. Strangelove? The doctor of the title, played by Peter Sellers, is a former Nazi, now advising the President of the United State. The image of his arm, seeming to act independently, came to mind as I thought about the various parts of the body cooperating in Paul’s image. In the movie, Dr. Strangelove’s arm often rises by itself to give the Nazi salute. Strangelove has to wrestle it back down with his other arm.

Is that a way to describe the concentration of wealth on the planet? What about people picking up a weapon and going after unarmed neighbours, or school mates or family members? A part of the body that is unconnected to the rest  of us, doing its own, harmful, thing? Our jaws clench when we hear that the sixty-two richest people on the planet control as much wealth as the lower half of the human population, three and a half billion people. Our hearts ache every time we hear another one of these shooting incidents. If there was ever a time we needed togetherness… Parts of the body working against each other, that’s something we would like to avoid here in these interesting times, people going off in different directions.
And while there could be tensions in the months ahead, dissension that causes pain, the bigger worry may be that, as a body, we simply stand still, frozen by fear or indecision. The message we have is too important for that, though, too important to be contained inside a building, too important for too many people out there still waiting for good news, or release, or sight. The one we follow is full of power and gentleness, anger and compassion, the ability to lead and the wisdom to encourage the leadership of others, a rock and a redeemer.

We need to be pretty good at both the meditations of our hearts and the words of our mouths. It’s not rocket surgery, as the saying goes in a slightly distorted form. Our scriptures today reassure us that people can do this, together. People such as you and me.

“Gifts of the Spirit”  Robin Wardlaw  January 17, 2016
Epiphany 2, Year C      

Readings: Isaiah 62:1–5; Psalm 36:5–10; 1 Corinthians 12:1–11; John 2:1–11
One of the things they don’t tell you when one is training for ministry is how often people at parties and banquets will turn to an ordained person and, with a smile, suggest that they can just turn water into wine. Occupational hazard. People may not know many stories about Jesus, but this one seems to have lasting appeal.

Water into wine. Skip all those hard steps in between: having land, planting grapes, waiting five years or so for the vines to grow up and bear fruit, picking, crushing, bottling, waiting with fingers crossed. Go straight to the smiles on the faces of pleased guests, the congratulations, the toasting. At a bargain cost!
It turns out no such thing happened back in the day. This is the gospel writer’s way of dissing the first wine, meaning Judaism, the religion of Jesus’ ancestors, and pointing out the superiority of the new, replacement wine, Christianity. That’s a whole other sermon, the big breakup between the followers of Jesus and Judaism. The source of so much pain for so many centuries. What a preacher is more likely to do these days, avoiding the anti-Semitism lurking in the story, is tell how the presence of Jesus changes the ordinary, water, into the extraordinary. That would be good, but for another time.

This sermon is about the Spirit. And spirits. Spirits—that’s what you get when you distill wine. You heat the wine—that’s the body—and something invisible rises up from it—the spirit of the wine. If you’ve set up your still correctly, this invisible substance drips from the cooling tube, and is much, much stronger than the original wine.
We seem to like stronger as a species. And we’re not the only ones. Birds get drunk on berries that cling to the tree all winter and ferment. Cats like a nip. I heard of a dog recently that had discovered the wondrous effects of licking toads, and would keep going until it was frothing at the mouth and falling over.

Along with those other creatures, we like to alter our consciousness. With spirits and other substances, but also with techno, with horror films, with religion, sometimes. We use meditation, twirling, tent meetings to go to a different place, to transcend our regular existence. Next week we hear Jesus reading from Isaiah: “the Spirit of God is upon me.” And apparently, a prophet needs to be in an altered state to come out swinging at the king, and foreign policy and the whole world view of the powerful in those day. With the Spirit of God upon him or her.
And what about these spiritual gifts we hear about in Paul’s letter this week: wisdom, knowledge, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, interpretation of tongues. Do they act on a person like spirits that come in a bottle? Paul lists them as if his readers in Corinth knew all about them. But his list makes us say, What is he talking about? He names them not to teach the Corinthians anything but because there are splits developing in the Christian community. It sounds like people are dividing into camps based on gifts. “All these [gifts],” he tells them, “are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses,” he tells them. No camps, no factions, no feeling superior, not in the name of Jesus.

So what about them, the gifts of the Spirit? I’m not sure how long they lasted, in Corinth or anywhere else, but they dropped off the radar for a long time. Then they made a comeback in the Pentecostal movement a hundred and ten years ago. Various preachers and thinkers in the 19th century talked about the gifts of the Spirit, and lamented what had become of the church. In 1904, something happened in Wales. A revival. It lasted into 1905. The Spirit was back.
ord spread across the Atlantic. This is what so many fervent believers had been awaiting. It was an African-American preacher, William Seymour, who got things going. He had been learning and preaching and praying in Houston. He moved to Los Angeles in 1906 excited by the Welsh Revival, and started a mission. 1906 was the year of the San Francisco earthquake, the year Bloor Street Presbyterian Church started a mission on Rhodes Avenue not far from where we are today.

William Seymour’s mission was on Azusa Street, and eagerness for worship and praise and the Spirit ignited. “Azusa Street,” as the church was known, became a magnet for those wanting to revive their own churches. In some ways it was very conservative. The interpretation of scripture, for instance, was literal. But in other ways it was a leap forward. Azusa Street Mission was multi-racial, a huge breakthrough a hundred years ago. Women and men gave equal leadership, another shock. The movement was completely pacifist—no war. These features all lasted into the 1920s, then old ways re-asserted themselves for the most part. Most Pentecostal churches didn’t become multi-racial again until after the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, and I don’t believe women have regained equality.
The emphasis in Pentecostalism was, and is, on just some of the gifts listed in the New Testament: speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, and healing. Some in the movement have expanded the biblical list, though, sure that all kinds of work to promote the gospel needs a gift of the Spirit.

And what does this have to do with us? Every year in the season of Epiphany we hear this story about the water and the wine, Paul’s list of spiritual gifts. We know a little bit about the Pentecostal church and that strange phenomenon of people making sounds that don’t seem to make any sense, falling backward with a tap on the forehead. Has the Spirit just gone elsewhere? Is it silly even to talk about it in a United Church? And if the Spirit did sweep through here, would we be happy about that? Didn’t all those people at the first Pentecost, in Jerusalem seven weeks after the first Easter get call drunk? Do we really want to be under the influence of the Spirit, so to speak, any more than we want to be tipsy from spirits or drugs?
People spend a great deal of time and energy to get unhooked from substances. Groups abound all over the world of people putting in the weeks, the years to get clean and sober and stay that way. What if the Holy Spirit broke out here and we got addicted? Would we have to start a Worshipers Anonymous to kick the habit?

This is important, especially now when we need to reinvent church. What are we offering to newcomers and seekers? What kind of spirit do we celebrate around here? Well, talk about hiding your light under a bushel. I have always found the Spirit at work strongly in United Churches, but everyone being all modest about it and horrified of spectacle. Ministers in the United Church are supposed to help “keep order” in congregations, along with peace and well being. This sets up a tension: order, or the Spirit?
The spirit we distill and put in bottles is a depressant. It may relax those inhibitions and act like fuel, but eventually it puts users to sleep. The Spirit of  God, the Spirit of Jesus is a stimulant. It gives hope, stamina, creativity, compassion, patience. It wakes us up. And the Spirit has broken out here, although perhaps a little more quietly than in some other places. It is this Spirit that helps you respond to the needs of others, that helps each of us to sort out our needs from wants. The Spirit brings us here and helps us worship and grow a community. These gifts are not as obvious as some of the others, though. We tend to keep our convictions inside us, not on our sleeves.

The other reading for today, one we didn’t hear, is from the latter part of Isaiah, at a time when there was much to celebrate in the life of the Jewish nation. Here’s the prophet channeling the Spirit of God:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
   and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
   and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
   and all the rulers your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
   that the mouth of God will give.

We have much to celebrate, too. We have to let the Spirit grab us, free us up, not keep silent. I mentioned earlier that this is a time of transition—for Christian churches as a whole, and for United Churches in the east end, Glen Rhodes included. How is the Spirit speaking to people these days? Where is there water for the thirsty, and when? Where is there wine? Less and less in places such as this, apparently. Too much baggage here, maybe. Not convenient: church is always on a Sunday morning, people’s one chance to sleep in. So where, and when, and how? We’ll find out some of the answers on Saturday at the workshop at our sister church up the road. If you can’t make it, pray for those who can go, so that the time there is really one for eyes and ears and minds wide open to that elusive…something that stirs and refreshes and inspires.

“Through the waters”   Robin Wardlaw  January 10, 2016 
Baptism of Jesus, Year C      
Readings: Isaiah 43:1–7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14–17; Luke 3:15–17, 21–22
Water. You and I have to have it. Not too much, not too little. Life came from it. Water is beautiful. It is heavy. It is in asteroids circling the sun and the moons of other planets. It can be found in mines many kilometres underground, with microscopic life in it. Two hydrogen atoms clinging fiercely to one oxygen atom. It can shape rocks, wear down mountains, cool you down at the Pride parade, take you or your family’s life when you are trying to get to freedom, to a refuge. It dictated where Abraham and Sarah could pasture the herds they brought from Ur, what we call Iraq. Three generations later lack of water, drought sent the whole extended family to Egypt. Water got them out of Egypt hundreds of years later by taking out Pharaoh’s army. It flowed miraculously from a rock in the desert for the refugees.
First Nations tell a watery story of creation, of how the world was water, with everyone swimming all the time, until Skywoman fell through a hole in the sky and told them how to form land by diving down to the bottom and putting earth on the back of the turtle. One by one they tried, holding their breath as long as the could, but it was too deep even for the best swimmers, including beaver and loon. The others laughed when muskrat said she would try, but muskrat was gone a long time. And then her body floated up to the surface. When they opened her arms, crossed in front of her, there was mud from the bottom. They put it on turtle, and it grew to form Turtle Island, dry land, what we call North America.
Water, water, everywhere. The sailor’s changeable friend, the fisher’s dangerous workplace, the swimmer’s glorious escape. We have our memories of water, our own love, our own fears. And in baptism, we use water as a metaphor. Many cultures, many faiths do. We say we have to pass through the waters, of life, of death, to get somewhere spiritually, to be recognized, to be named, to be born, to be born again. When a baby is baptized, do we imagine that those waters will protect the child from all setbacks, all disappointments ever after? A little water to inoculate a person against big waters? Or does the sacrament symbolize something else?
There is this passage in the later part of Isaiah, reassurance for the people:

But now thus says God,
   he who created you, O Jacob,
   she who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you. (Isaiah 43:1-2)
Then there is the story of people, including Jesus, flocking out to see and hear the Baptist rant about the whole nation going off the rails, everyone needing to repent and go through the waters of the Jordan again as if they were new to the land, be baptized as if they were new to the faith. These first waters were the easy ones for Jesus. It kept getting harder. Did he always have the sense that he had been called by name, that the One who formed him was with him at every point so that the waters of fear, the fires of disdain, of hatred would not overwhelm him? I wonder. I hope so.
You and I know a fair amount about fear. And loss. And maybe disdain and hatred, too. Fear and loss are in the background much of the time for most of us, and very much in the foreground for too many people around the world. True, we have it better than some others around the world,  but too many of us struggle to make ends meet each month. Too many fear someone in their lives—their tone of voice, their words, their fists. Many of us cope with pain or illness or distress, or the pain or illness or distress of someone close to us. Every day feels like going through the waters, the raging waters, the scary, ominous waters.
Is there any dry land during the day for you, any place where you can put your feet down and catch a breath, and say a quick prayer for strength, or courage, or peace? We hope that this place will be a sanctuary, for us, and also for all kinds of people who haven’t come through the door yet. Maybe a dry shore is too much to expect, but a boat then, a boat that doesn’t leak and can brave the waves.
And when we are here, together, for a time each week, we love it when we experience the One who “sits enthroned over the waters,” as the poet of Psalm 29 puts it, “the voice of God over the waters.” Do you have other times in your week when it feels like you are on the shore for a bit instead of pitching around in the flood? A place where the floods and fires recede for a while, to let you reflect, to remember your many blessings, to give thanks for the Love that names you, that falls around you like a gentle rain, that beams on you through a rainbow like the sun after the shower?

If there don’t seem to be any raging torrents of fear or pain or distress in your life, give shouts of thanks inside your happy heart. This is a beautiful thing, a rare thing. Then look around you to figure out if there is someone who needs a flotation device in their life these days, or even some friendly encouragement from the shore. We’re all in this together, as the saying goes.

This is Epiphany. If we were going to give the season a name based on English instead of Greek, we would call it, The Big Reveal. Before he became a franchise player, before he posed for all those paintings and sculptures, before he had his name on churches from one end of the world to the other, how did people know that the God of Love lived in Jesus of Nazareth? That’s what we revisit in the season of Epiphany. Today, a voice from the heavens claiming him as God’s child. Next week, and the week after that, other things. Evidence of the Spirit at work. What about us? What about you? How does Love reveal itself to you, in Jesus, or any other way? What are your epiphanies?

The thing about Jesus is not just that he seemed to live to make people’s lives better. Lots of people do that, and they’ll charge you a fee, usually. Jesus wanted to make people’s lives better, and for people to experience that hand in hand. Together. One for all and all for one, you could say. He didn’t make this stuff up. He didn’t start it. He’s picking up a theme that’s been running through his people’s history like a river for a long, long time. A theme that’s still running, here and there, lot’s of places. A theme about community and inclusion and laughter that still makes us tick around here. That gets us a bit charged up, sometimes even swimming against the current.
So what’s the takeaway for a concerned, loving citizen of a rich country in the twenty-first century? Or for a concerned, loving church in the same situation? You leave, we leave here each week with what exactly? A good feeling about having been together, worshiped together, sung and prayed together. Reassurance about the Spirit keeping you from fear even in a downpour, rapids, a flood, perhaps.
What we do here, I’ll remind us, is called liturgy, from the Greek language: the ergos of the laity, the energy or work of the people. This is your job when you come here. This is energy you bring to our celebrations of the awesome message about love and justice and peace and forgiveness. And this is the energy you receive and take away from here. No one can do it for you. No master communicator can somehow implant inside you a willingness, a joyousness to be like Jesus with other people. You hear scripture, you reflect, you pray, you are commissioned to go be amazing. Your job. Your privilege.
Are you up for it? There will be waters, I guarantee it. And likely not when you expect them. You have us, the rest of us. You likely have others, too, who will lend you a paddle, throw you a line, dive in to be with while the billows flow. And inside you, I pray there is a nugget of faith, a little confidence that big L Love is with you every step— soggy or light, floundering or buoyant —of the way.

“Jesus of Toronto” Robin Wardlaw December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve, Year C      

Readings: 1 Samuel 2:18–20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12–17; Luke 2:41–52

Mary was excited, too. In her mind it was time for fairness in the world, an end to horrible inequality and suffering. We have this prophecy from her about what it will mean when Love breaks out across the world. Joseph and Mary were both excited as expectant parents—a new baby far away from the comforts of home, dependent on strangers to help them look after a new little life. Herod was excited. Rumor was that a challenger to his throne was arriving. He needed accurate information so he could stop this threat. Herod’s excitement was not the good kind, of course. It was the how-can-I-keep-my-power kind.

We go back and forth on Christmas Eve, from cozy images of a new little family surrounded by quiet and attentive animals in Bethlehem long ago to the reality of our world, and its many challenges. Did you happen to see the cartoon of Mary on a donkey and Joseph beside her, the two of them staring up at the security wall that winds through Israel and Palestine these days? Artisans in Palestine are now carving crèche scenes with the holy family, shepherds, animals and sections of that wall. Not exactly cozy.

This meal we are about to celebrate here at the communion table, same thing. It is a sign of God’s great love and mercy for each waiting soul—that sounds appealing, doesn’t it, and it’s a powerful political statement about food, that God’s dream is food is for everybody, to be shared equally. Either way it’s exciting to take part in communion.

This Jesus whose birth we celebrate, is he stuck in the past, a quaint relic of olden times, or can he be born here, today? Is he always Jesus of Nazareth, or can he be Jesus of Toronto?

The answer to that depends on us. Think about the carol, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,’ for example. Phillips Brooks is the poet who wrote the words a hundred and fifty years ago. “O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray, cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.” Be born in us today. That’s exciting.

What are the chances? Is it like “the force?” It just has to awaken in us? Is it like having a baby: something profound happens to us spiritually and suddenly we are different people? Or is it more like those Russian nesting dolls, getting rid of outer layers of sin or selfishness one by one until finally our God-given core is revealed? Be born in us today.

We certainly need Christ to be born in this town, this country, this world. Radical devotion to each soul, especially vulnerable souls, mixed with big doses of understanding and good humour. And when you hear about all the people responding to the plight of Syrians fleeing their broken country, you realize, Christ is here, all around us. Now and again the media reports on surprising forgiveness from victims of crime, or it gets hold of one of those pay-it-forward incidents at a drive through or somewhere, and we are reminded of that deep impulse in so many people to be kind.

Perhaps this season will be like those old Christmas movies for you, full of perfect moments and memories. But even if someone drops the turkey or starts an argument at when everyone is supposed to be getting along, joy can still come to the world. It can come when scared people land in their new country, grateful to have escaped a modern day Herod. It can come because of you. And the person next to you, and the person next to them. We all have the chance to be the hands and feet, the eyes and ears of Jesus right here. Now that’s exciting. Joy can come to the city, the world because your heart prepares him room.

Let the Word dwell in you” Robin Wardlaw December 27, 2015

 First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C      

Readings: 1 Samuel 2:18–20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12–17; Luke 2:41–52

Thinking back to your childhood, if you are a grown up, and if you can still bring those days to mind, what were your big influences? If you are still young, what do you think of as shaping you? Talk at a family function recently got around to parties for teens. The comment that struck me, was, “Oh, if it’s sixteen year olds, there will be alcohol. And if you’re lucky, nothing harder.” And there are many influences on us. Substances are one. Some of them are bad, and some good. These influences could be teachers, pushers, friends, philosophers, relatives, entertainers, coaches, bullies.

This seems like a serious topic for a few days after Christmas, when we might be still recovering from all the planning and effort, perhaps the over-indulgence we put into the whole season. The bible doesn’t linger much on Jesus’ early years. This is the one time of year we focus on his youth, and the few details there are.

When Jesus was going around the countryside as an adult teaching and healing, people didn’t really care about his early years. They remembered his wisdom, his quips, his gentleness with hurting people and his anger at the powerful who didn’t care. They loved the sense he gave them—of hope, and worth, and well being. The very earliest writings about him contain either his words or his actions. Nothing about his birth, his boyhood, his family.

It’s only much later, as the movement grows, and people join who never knew him, that people want the whole package: where did he come from, what was he like as a young person, how did he get started on his ministry?

There’s not a lot to know, apparently, although some of the wilder stories about his youth are not in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. We have the story of the infant Jesus being presented in the Temple—that’s what the picture on the front of our bulltetin is about, and then this episode a few verses later in Luke, from Jesus’ boyhood. We find him curious about the temple and eager to talk with priests there for three days while his parents frantically look for him. And in the readings for today, this is paired up with a matching story about young Samuel, another spiritual prodigy, knowledgeable before his time both Samuel and Jesus influenced by religious authorities.

So this is why we’re reflecting on our own young lives. It’s possible that you had only good influences, only caring adults who listened and encouraged you to think about the big questions, friends who never said or did anything coarse, classmates who never exposed you to anything ugly, or violent, or exploitive. But if that sounds like you, I would have to ask you what planet or Lucy Maud Montgomery novel you arrived from. There is always a mix of influences.

Another reading for today is the one we heard a moment ago, from Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae and its influences. Paul is writing to the people in this little town in what we now call Turkey around the year 60. It seems there had been other teachers by then, other influences at work, teaching things that seemed to Paul to be wrong about Christian faith. So he writes to encourage people to stay on the right path.

What was wrong with those other teachings? There was something about aestheticism (extreme self-denial), the worship of angels, and new kosher rules about what foods could and could not be handled, and eaten. Paul lists for them practices he believes would help a person continue to celebrate what God was doing in Jesus Christ. That’s what we heard earlier. “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Forgive. Love. Let the peace of Christ rule your heart. Be thankful. Be wise in what you say. Sing! Do everything in the name of Christ. That list.

But before he gets there, he has another list, a list of things to stop doing, or never start. In it, Paul acknowledges the other side, the shadow side of our humanity. Here it is.

“Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:5-10)

Sobering. Valuable. These are behaviours that hurt others. These are behaviours that can be a bad influence on those around you, the young, say. And Paul is not quite done. He was talking about the new self, and being renewed. He goes on to make that a worldwide vision. He says to the people in Colossae, “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Colossians 3:11) All those divisions, gone. Not just an Affirming church, an affirming world.

These lists of Paul’s, are they passé, relics of another age? No, it doesn’t seem that way. Evil desire, greed, anger, slander, compassion, kindness, patience, love? It still sounds like a contemporary list to us.

As for us, we can’t erase the past, our past—those things we heard in our younger years, or said, those things we did or that were done to us. But we can, says Paul, clothe ourselves differently, put on other qualities, other behaviours every day. We can “let the word of Christ dwell in us richly,” to use his phrase. (Colossians 3:16) I don’t know if you’re a person who makes New Year’s resolutions or not. It could be you are more inclined to pray for spiritual gifts rather than resolve to have them. Either way, Paul’s list of areas for spiritual growth is a wonderful place to start as you seek Christ dwelling in you more and more richly. And it’s never too late for that.

“Love, in the flesh”   Robin Wardlaw  December 20, 2015

Advent 4, Year C      

Readings: Micah 5:2–5a; Luke 1:47–55; Hebrews 10:5–10; Luke 1:39–45, (46–55)

We’re close now. Close to stopping carbon emissions and slowing global warming to nothing. Sorry. If only that was true. We’re close to getting peace among the nations. No, actually. Not yet. We’re so close to loving our neighbour whoever they are. I wish.

What are we close to? What is just around the corner this Advent? How is Christ coming into our midst spreading grace and mercy and love? Our part of the world, many parts of the world are going to slow down this week for the feast of Christ, the Christ-mass. As if people and businesses and governments were honouring the Prince of Peace, the Wonderful Counselor. But even if that’s not true, there will be a special spirit in the air next week, I’m sure. A sense of good will that is shared by adults and children, taxi drivers and pedestrians, cops and robbers, perhaps.

Somewhere a woman will look out at the chaos in her street, in her world, and find courage. She will proclaim that true strength is not in mighty weapons or gilded thrones but somewhere else, in a spirit that scatters the proud and lifts up the lowly. She will give birth to this idea, and her neighbours will gain courage, her children will dry their tears and see a different vision of how human life can be, should be, will be. All generations will call her blessed. Or not. They might forget her. We usually do.

But she’s not doing this for her glory. She really cares about her neighbours and her children. And their children, and their children. Mary was one of those women, but they’re all over the place, scattered through the ages. The prophet says that Messiah, a shepherd ruler will come out of Bethlehem, one of the smaller, weaker tribes of Judah. And how will this person get a vision of feeding the flock, protecting the weak? At home, very likely. From his parents, from his mother. And father. Because there are many men such as Joseph, who ally themselves to those visionary women.

Why isn’t change, loving kindness just around the corner, then? There’s this competing energy in the world, isn’t there? People do reach out using social media, sometimes across the world to build bridges of hope and justice. And other people using the same tools to bring others down, sow discord, spread fear. These competing energies always seem to have been in tension through all history, but now it’s all right there in the palm of your hand, on a screen near you. Too much information. Too much melodrama from the media sometimes, trying to turn bad news into a money maker.

As a result, we can feel as if we’re the first generation that has had to figure out how to be faithful, how not to be fearful in the face of all this bad news flying around the web. But we’re in a long line of people of different churches, different faiths who have looked into the face of fear and decided to trust, to pray, to work, to love, to send out a different message. And that message, that conviction is always close, if we open ourselves to the Spirit.

We can catch this Spirit, the Spirit of love and justice. It’s contagious. We can catch it from Micah or Mary. From somebody in the next pew or the next continent. Thinking over your life, you can name the people who had it, and passed it to you. And after we’ve caught it, we can pass it on. Good people have been doing this for a long time. Mary must have been good at it. Where did she get it? We know Jesus was. We call him Love, in the flesh. He somehow got it together, and then kept it together day after day.

We’re like that, like him, like her. Sometimes. On our good days. How much anger, tension, fear, and hate have you absorbed rather than lashing out, hitting back? How many causes have you taken up? How many times have you forgiven? It’s expensive to do this, and you don’t need me to tell you. Costly, in terms of emotional energy.

You have been knocked into the spiritual dust by a fearful person, or an arrogant person, and picked yourself back up. You have been heroic when there was no one there to see it or hear it. You have the inner scars to prove it. This is not the same as masochism. You don’t turn the other cheek because you like pain, like being hit. This is different. This is faith at work. How else can followers of the Prince of Peace behave? Not by lashing out at people who lash out. But there comes a limit.

So now at Christmas, we all take a moment just to breathe. I hope you get a chance to breathe amidst the busyness that often comes with the season. To let that Spirit that was, that is in Christ come to you. It’s close. It’s just waiting for you to have some quiet time, some opening of the soul this season.

We can imagine the hungry being filled with good things, the lowly lifted up. We can resonate with Mary and all the other women who bring that fierce mother bear love to life in their own flesh. We can become pregnant with that same vision again, bear good fruit.

We can do this in our own lives, and we can do this in our public lives. In private it’s sometimes called forebearance, loving those around us despite their warts, despite our impulses to say or do something unloving. In public, it’s called justice. We can’t love four million Syrian refugees. Or the other sixteen million from all over the world. Instead we can put policies and programs into place to make life better for victims of conflict. Or better yet, stop those conflicts before they start by working for justice between nations, and tribes and faith groups.

We can speak out for those who are victims of injustice around the world. That’s what we’re doing after the service, and we’ll hear a little more about the need. There’s a man in prison in Iran for developing software for the internet. There’s a group of women in Columbia who speak out for human rights and have become targets of threats and violence themselves. A Muslim man arrested in China—the list goes on.

Before Amnesty International got started four decades ago, there was almost no help for average people arrested and imprisoned for their thoughts, their ideas. Now there is such an organization, and others like it. What it usually takes to get love in public, in other words, to get justice, is organization.

And that brings us back to…us. We could be following Jesus separately. Many do. But here we can be organized. Like a team, or an arts organization. We can cherish this vision of Mary, and other women and men like her, the vision of her children, and especially her eldest child, and then we can do something about it. We don’t kid ourselves that combatants are all going to lay down their arms because we put up a Christmas tree. We put up the tree, and the lights, and the decorations to celebrate that good things abound, that green things persist, even in the coldest and shortest days, that a little light can brighten up a whole yard, a whole street, even through barbed wire.

And we give ourselves a little respite, a little time off. Giving birth to a different world is hard work. Rest up when you get the chance. Reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going together. But mostly, enjoy good company if you can. Revel in the smiles and laughs, the good will of those around you, the way Jesus did so often. We call him God incarnate: Love, in the flesh. Let that same Love take root and blossom in you.

“Peace, refined”  Robin Wardlaw   December 6, 2015

Advent 2, Year C      

Readings: Malachi 3:1–4; Luke 1:68–79; Philippians 1:3–11; Luke 3:1–6

Purify them. Refine them. The prophet Malachi has a vision:

The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the God of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to God in righteousness. (Malachi 3:2-3)

This is also the vision of John the Baptist, of early Islam, of the Inquisition, of the Protestant reformers, of the Puritans, of ISIS, and many, many others. Purity. “…and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth…” (Luke 3:4) On the face of it, so appealing: respect for all people, no more insolence, no more cheating, no more bullying, no more excess wealth. Most of us have an inner Puritan who thinks “they” should be more pure, more refined, even if it takes a very strong soap, a very hot fire to do it.

Then, with purification…, “the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to God as in the days of old and as in former years.” (Malachi 3:4) Oh, the good old days. We have this tendency to idealize the past. Things seemed simpler, better. The truth is, in days of old we were five, or ten, or fifteen, and didn’t fully appreciate the complexities, the ugliness of those days. Now, looking back, we gloss over the uglier parts, the scarier parts of those “former years.” We make too much out of our parents’ and grandparents’ purity, their nobility.

So the puritanical impulse lives. And look what it gets us: the “pure” ends justify the terrifying means. Is the bible all wrong then? Should we drop this part of it, give up the quest for purity? On the flip side, most of us have experienced that little thrill from breaking some taboo: eating meat on Friday, playing cards on Sunday, crossing the road in the middle of the block. How good it is to get out from under oppressive rules. Let the puritanism go! Stop telling other people how to live.

Then we think about our “Lord of the Flies” moments, when there seemed to be no rules, and no rulers. Mob rule. A party out of control. And for some, more and more people on this sad anniversary of a mass killing, the experience of a shooter on the loose with a weapon and a heart full of pain or a puritanical hate. Who’s in charge here, we suddenly want to know? How bad could things get if no one steps in? Somebody call the cops.

Is there some kind of middle ground? What does peace look like? What is God’s dream, for us?, for the planet? The bible is very interested in this topic. And so are we. A quiet home might feel peaceful, or it might feel like a scary place. Make one noise and you’re in trouble with “fill in the blank here,” an authority figure. Quiet streets might mean all the good citizens are at home having wonderful family lives or it might mean someone has imposed a vicious curfew. What is real peace?

What do we say to Malachi, and John the Baptist, and ISIS, and all the other self-proclaimed purifiers with their fierce visions? The key might be in the pronouns.  “…he will sit as a refiner …, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver…” Them. When I take it in mind to purify “them,” I’m probably not headed to a good place. I can make “them” afraid, if I’m really determined, and persistent. But can fear make their impulse to drink, or gamble, or wear makeup or work in traditionally male jobs, or whatever it is I don’t like, go away? Does it work for you? Does fear of punishment make you more peace-loving? The pronouns we are looking for are the first person: purify me, refine us.

The collapse of the Soviet empire, the civil rights movement, the Arab spring—fear can push down people’s hopes for a time, but humans keep resisting. And finally we push back, push up. Walls, tanks, pepper spray, cameras, batons—they’re not enough. People yearn to be free. And when we have freedom, what do we do with it? Our faith has something to say to people who are in rough places, crooked places. Zechariah’s song is that the tender mercy of God is, “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” (Luke 1:79) How they long for that.

But that’s not all. God’s forgiveness is not only the dawn from on high, a new day, but it will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” Guide our feet into the way of peace. Our inner journey during Advent. Away from revenge attacks, laying down envy or resentment, opening our hearts. And this happens how? We wait for the birth of the Prince of Peace so that he can do the work of peacemaking while we watch and applaud? Or we wait for the birth of the Prince of Peace within ourselves?

It’s not that we stop working for change out there in the world—change of attitudes, change of laws—but we also work on the rough and crooked places within ourselves. Why does that tone come out, the one I don’t like that seems to hurt or puzzle others? Why do I find myself engaging or disengaging in ways that aren’t helpful? What’s going on in here to make me a walking, talking breach of the peace? Why do I sin? How can I become a worker for peace?

We started the service talking about angels. Talking as angels, actually. Angel is the Greek word for messenger. Angelos. The Christmas story in Luke features choirs of messengers, messengers bring good news of great joy. In the midst of a world of sudden violence and seemingly never ending bad news of great sorrow for so many, I could go for a heavenly choir like that. Our own choir will do its bit this afternoon on the church steps to bring some good news, some joy to our corner of the world. And the rest of the week, our faith asks that I be such a messenger, such an angel. That I seek refinement, purification. That I let the Holy touch the hurting places in me so that I may be a voice for healing, a singer of a song of hope, a vision carrier, a bringer of peace.

“Hope and figs”  Robin Wardlaw    November 29, 2015

Advent, Year C   Communion 

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14–16; Psalm 25:1–10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13; Luke 21:25–36

Ok, this is big. How dare the church go around talking about hope? What gives anyone the chutzpah, the moxy, the foolhardiness to talk about hope? Or do we talk about it? Just because the first candle of Advent is named hope, that doesn’t mean we have to go all Pollyanna and advise hopefulness, does it?
Hope does roll off our tongues during Advent. We sing all those hymns and songs about without really thinking too much about the words. What if a recording of an Advent 1 Canadian worship service made it’s way, to, let’s see, a crowded refugee camp in Lebanon, and people there heard all sorts of hope talk? They might be glad to hear it. Or they might be pretty upset. In the face of what they’ve gone through, what they’re going through, all this stuff might seem a little…what would you say, fluffy, weak, irresponsible?

The world is a sobering place these days. There are many, many people on the planet. We’re going through groceries at a good clip. The smoke from all the stuff we burn is getting in our eyes, filling up the only atmosphere we have like your aunts and uncles used to fill up the rec room with smoke at a family get together. There’s a war on women going on. All the stresses and strains of crowding on our little planet lead to people getting testy with each other. As in racist, nationalist, name-calling, bomb-throwing, shooting-people-at-random testy. Work is not what it used to be, and the earnest advice from higher ups is that we all have to get used to uncertainty, dodgy incomes, no savings for retirement. You know the challenges.
Anyone wanting to toss the ‘hope’ word into this strained family conversation may get raised eyebrows. Or shakes of the head. Or ignored as not quite with it. So thank goodness the first candle is called what it is. We need the excuse every year to say the word out loud, to try it out in front of the mirror, to polish it up to see if it has any resonance these days. Peer into scripture to see where the hope idea comes from, and whether it’s shedding any light nowadays.

Our critics are right. Hope is one of those ideas that can be like a child’s blankie. We drag it around with us to comfort ourselves, use it as a crutch instead of doing real faith work, toss it out like a cup of water on a house afire as our little contribution to putting out the blaze.
Paul is hopeful. He has lived and worked with the people in Thessalonika. So he knows their limitations. But he writes, “And may God make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). “Increase and abound in love for one another and for all…” Big expectation from Paul that God could do this. Too hopeful? When’s the last time you knew of someone who’s heart grew two sizes?

The teaching about the future from Jesus in Luke is ominous by comparison. Signs in the heavens, distress among the nations, people fainting from fear. All a lead up to redemption drawing near. Sounds like a war zone: danger over head, danger all around, plenty of foreboding. I was in a place several years ago where things seemed confused, distressed and foreboding. It was in Africa and the HIV epidemic was still in full swing. Only a few people were getting anti-retrovirals in those days, so HIV almost always meant AIDS and AIDS almost always meant shunning, poverty, a lonely death. And yet people sounded hopeful there. How can that be, I wanted to know. And someone told me, “Hope is all we have.”
Maybe that is also true if you are sitting in a refugee camp for the third year, or the third generation. Or some place where the crops have dried up again this year, or the rivers all overflowed and wiped out another season. All you have for you and your children is hope.

But that’s there. Maybe we don’t need hope. Maybe we can let our hearts get weighed down with, what does it say in Luke?, loose living, drinking and the worries of this life. Maybe we can doze, let others stay alert and pray.
Who is the gospel speaking to here? Not us, with our clean tap water, our paved streets and our socialized medicine. We don’t need warnings, or prayers, or alertness. Or do we? “…it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Human One.”

Are the leaves sprouting on the fig tree, so to speak? Early Christians seemed to expect a sudden end to life as we know it. The big cleanse. Or something. The realm of God upon us. It took time—decades, generations—to realize it’s not going to be exactly like that. God was not swooping in as they thought to deal with sin. Life went on. The bad guys frequently won. And gloated about it. Good people frequently resisted, opposed, warned, marched, taught, went to jail, and didn’t win. The seas roared and the waves crashed, but life seemed pretty much the same as the day before.
What thinkers came to realize is that the realm of God is already here. It’s like one of those parallel universes we hear about these days. Except this breaks into the realm of the ordinary. Someone is harassing a Muslim woman on a streetcar because of her head covering here in Toronto the other day. Two guys stand up and tell the other woman to knock it off and leave her alone. The street car driver tells the harasser to get off. It was a kairos moment, as the Greeks would say. A telling time, decision time for those two men. They weren’t expecting it, except maybe in a very general way, since tensions have been stirred up since the election started in the summer. The leaves are growing on the fig tree, so to speak.

We don’t know when our exact moment will come. When all our appreciation of Jesus, our love of God will put us on the spot. When the realm of God depends on us speaking or acting. And those times will come, as scripture puts it, “to all who live on the face of the whole earth.” Times for awareness, for courage, for hope. They are coming for humankind again in the climate talks in Paris this week. Can we do it? Can we overcome narrow self-interest to act for the whole planet, even if there is debate about who should go first? Here in our part of the world, we’ll be hearing the latest news from East End United. Can seven churches in this part of the city find hope enough to plan and work for a ministry of love and justice that reaches out beyond church walls, that finds Christ in these streets? If the problems seem too big, we lose hope. If the problems seem easy, we lose interest.
Back to the problem, or I should say, the problems, of you and me, though. The worries of this life, for instance, that scripture warns about. The ones that can distract us from being present, paying attention in a hope-filled way. What is a person supposed to do so that those worries don’t weigh down our hearts? “Be alert,” says the gospel, “praying…that you may have the strength to escape,…to stand before the Human One.” Good reminder. Our mission is not to come to church. This is not the finish line of our week. Our mission is to come to church so that we will have the alertness, the prayers, the strength when we need them. To step up when fear breeds intolerance, or abundance leads to complacency. This is what we have to offer to the world: what a hope-filled community is like.

It’s Advent. This is the season when we remind ourselves about how close that parallel universe is. It’s a busy time, yes. We want beauty. Can we rejoice and stay alert? Plan for beauty and pay attention to some harsh truths? That’s what Advent is for, to prepare. This is where we claim our kinship to those very early Christians in Thessalonika, and hear Paul’s words as hope for us, too. Let me end with them: “…may God make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may God so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God at the coming of our Sovereign Jesus with all his saints.”                                          

“Loved and free”  Robin Wardlaw  November 22, 2015

Reign of Christ, Year B       Church Anniversary
Readings: (2 Samuel 23:1–7); Revelation 1:4b–8; Psalm 132:1–12; John 18:33–37  
A skill testing question to start. I say some events that all happened in the same year, and you tell me the year. Here they are:

-         trouble in Europe as two power houses struggled over an Arab nation

-         a new weapon (Dreadnought) was introduced by one superpower, and another replies with its own deadly contribution (U-boat)

-         earthquake and tsunami in one part of the world (Ecuador-Columbia), and a huge urban disaster in another (San Francisco earthquake)

-         the pope was making waves

-         there was a mass death (mine disaster) in France, (1,060 killed)

-         a new expression of an old religion caught fire and began spreading (Pentecostalism, in California)

-         there was political trouble in Russia

-         a brave soul (Gandhi) urges non-violence

-         women make gains in a national election (in Sweden, where they had the right to vote for the first time)

-         there is a crisis over a school curriculum and its treatment of a minority group (the Japanese, in a California curriculum)

-         a new form of electronic media (radio) is introduced, offering radically new connectivity for humankind

-         there is a medical breakthrough on a disease that has long afflicted the world (tuberculosis vaccine)

-         a movie about gangsters is released (The Story of the Kelly Gang)

-         a scientist reveals a whole new understanding about the nature of the planet (molten core)

And the year? 1906, the year a church was started up on this site almost a hundred and ten years ago. There’s an expression in French about things changing yet staying the same. So 1906 makes us a hundred and nine years old. At this congregation, we have choices, though. We are made up of four different churches that amalgamated over the years. The first one, a Congregationalist church, started over on Broadview in 1883, so we could say this is our one hundred and thirty-second anniversary. Or if you went with the last merger, we’re only twenty-four. Quite a range.

It happens that our anniversary falls on November 22 this year. Some memorable things have happened on this very day of the year. For instance, Blackbeard was killed in a battle with the British navy (1718), in 1837 on this date in 1837, William Lyon Mackenzie published his essay “To the People of Upper Canada” calling for rebellion. Bolero, the famous piece by Ravel, premiered in Paris (1928), Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and the same C.S. Lewis died. Thanks to many, many people for writing this stuff down over the centuries, and others for making it available to the rest of us.

Back to here, and now. Another year has rolled around. We’re having a double celebration today—our anniversary and the ending of the church year, known as the Reign of Christ. This calls for a certain lightness of the spirit today. We have not arranged for fireworks, however. Or champagne. Or even a sparkler. The lightness can be inside each of us without any of those things. Like it can be any time we worship.

The Reign of Christ, for instance. How wonderful, how amazing that Christ reigns. When John of Patmos was writing the Book of Revelation this was a bold claim. This was treason. Everyone knew who reigned, and it wasn’t some peasant from Galilee. Caesar ruled. Sometimes wisely, sometimes brutally. Sometimes with a clear hold on power, other times challenged by other strongmen of the day. But the senate had passed a law, so now Caesar wasn’t just the ruler, he was a god, to be worshipped. So to call Jesus Christ “the ruler of the sovereigns of the earth” wasn’t just cheeky, it was dangerous. And breathtaking.

Yes, please, you can almost hear the readers of John’s revelation crying, give us a ruler who really looks out for our interests, who really does love us and free us. Caesar may claim to do those things, but heaven help you if you beg to differ. Or want to raise the poor out of the dust. Caesar may call himself the Prince of Peace, but just wait till his legions get there to see what kind of big lie that is.

And when we look around twenty centuries, eighty generations later, what has changed? Many parts of the world have claimed to be Christian for a long, long time, and what evidence is there that they, we, have been very different from Caesar? Violence didn’t end with the fall of the Roman Empire. How much blood has flowed in the name of so-called Christian countries, or empires? New regimes, new movements, too, keep popping up that want people to be afraid, to live in fear of crossing some line, that are quite willing to use violence and the threat of violence, just like old Caesar, to keep power.

So there can be some fireworks in our hearts, some bubbles in our spirits all these years later as we give thanks, as we continue to celebrate a very different reign.

And as for our anniversary, all these years of a community of faith on this corner, break out the special candles, put on the party hats. People have been working hard at living out that reign of Christ here and at different addresses on Broadview, Simpson Avenue, and Upper Gerrard for a long time. Back in 1911, or 1906 or 1899 or 1883 when they were all getting going, people were mostly comfortable about the word kingdom: the kingdom of Christ. He was a king, it says so right there in the bible.

That’s one of the things that has changed. We have fallen out of love with empire, changed our thinking about monarchy. We’ve even changed our language. Kingdom has become kin-dom. Think about that for a bit. A kingdom has…a king. A kin-dom has siblings, cousins, spiritual parents and children. First Nations people would say, “All my relations.” So with our choice of word we get to think about what our spiritual lives, our faith, depends upon. Do I relate mainly to one individual who rules far above me, or to the saints around me, my kin?

We’re determined to be faithful in our time, to carry on the legacy we have been given. Who will pick it up and carry it on? Who knows? We are not given that gift, the one where we can see the future with perfect clarity. We did not feel the need to do exactly what our grandparents in the faith and their grandparents did. We have adapted. And the generations who come after us will do the same. They will adapt. The great thing is the reign of Christ carries on.

How to celebrate? Toward the end of his life, King David started to gather the building materials for a house of God. During his life, his people had constructed a palace for him, for the rulers of Israel, but the word from God was not to build anything for God. “Wasn’t a tent good enough in the wilderness? Why do I need a big mansion now?” That sort of thing. But David’s determined.

David knows he won’t live to build it, so he has a huge fund raiser so that his son Solomon can do the job. David has been taxing people or something to acquire material. At the fund raiser he chips in a vast quantity of precious metal and gems from his own treasury and challenges the heads of households to do likewise. They do. David then prays to God and give thanks, including this line: “O Sovereign God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own” (1 Chronicles 29:16).

Then he turns to everyone gathered there, and says, “Bless the Lord your God.” And all the assembly blessed the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and bowed their heads and prostrated themselves before the Lord and the king. On the next day they offered sacrifices and burnt-offerings to the Lord, a thousand bulls, a thousand rams, and a thousand lambs, with their libations, and sacrifices in abundance for all Israel; and they ate and drank before the Lord on that day with great joy. (1 Chronicles 29:20-22) Now that’s an offering. And a party.

Should we take our inspiration from King David? You’re already doing that. You give like crazy, you throw feasts. Maybe we could recommit to our purpose, to our Sovereign, Christ, to our Maker. We can always find new ways to respond to the joys and needs of our neighbourhood and our world. We’ve been doing that for a long time. Newcomers, low income and vulnerable people, climate refugees: the list is considerable.

And we remember one another and ourselves. It’s not as if we have all figured out living without fear. We don’t all feel loved and free. Sometimes, maybe. Our own hearts need some tending, some calming, some inspiring. The funny thing is, looking after others is one way to do this. On Wednesday the staff of the food bank gathered for a lunch time meeting. I asked if any of them ever get thanked by clients of the food bank. What seems to happen is that someone me, of all people, on their way out, loaded down with groceries. The one person who has lugged no boxes, processed no one, filled no hampers, served no breakfasts or snacks. I wanted the staff to be sure that people were genuinely grateful, like King David. Many of the staff said they do get thanked, too. And then people went on to say how important working at the food bank was in their lives.

That’s true for all of us. We want to feel as if we’re contributing, following in the foot steps of Jesus, and of the people who built this house, and made it such a place of welcome, inclusion and joy. I hope you do feel that. We pause today on our anniversary to remember our many blessings, and where they come from: “O Sovereign God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own.” I think I hear the sound of corks popping inside hearts. Happy anniversary.

“Everything she had”     Robin Wardlaw    November 8, 2015

 Pentecost 24, Year B       Remembrance Sunday

Readings: (Ruth 3:1–5; 4:13–17); Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24–28; Mark 12:38–44

We joke nervously about our memories. A word eludes us and we feel edgy. Someone says “Remember me?,” and we start wracking our brain. How could I just forget a face, a meeting, a history. So we have date books and birthday calendars and diaries. As a society we have memorials, and special days. We put up plaques in churches, and engrave names onto trophies that sit in glass-front cases.

The bible is a big memory project. “Here are things we thought were important, divine, in our time—over to you.” All these stories, poems, sermons, letters, legends, laws—they give us a window into a little slice of human history from long ago and far away: high hopes for a new society, hopes dashed, hopes restored, catastrophe, victory, wisdom, folly, ethics, rituals, suffering, love. It’s all here. A thousand years worth of it.
Thoughts about what is holy can change over time, though. God shows people new things, better understanding. Today in our readings we hear the bible having two separate arguments with itself, both about sacrifice. We have these insights because these two passages, the Letter to the Hebrews, and the Gospel According to Mark, made it into scripture. Think of all the letters written, think of all the other things Jesus did that didn’t make it in. All our memories are selective. We’ll come back to those scripture readings later.

Let’s go back to our memories first. At this time of year we wear poppies, and some of us listen to the war stories of veterans as ways to recognize wars of last century, to remember. But wearing a poppy or reciting a poem is not the same as sending a son or daughter off to combat, getting dreadful news about them, or picking up a weapon to shoot at other human beings. Nothing like being there in the midst of the terror, the noise, or suffering loss quietly on the home front to make November 11th significant.
Some of those who went through war became pacifists, peace makers, war resisters. Others became bitter, or broken. The rest of us, without the personal memories, have only the photos, the news coverage, the cemeteries, and the emotional fallout of those who came back to help persuade us, Never again.

Does Remembrance Day work? Do the services at the cenotaph, the visits from veterans to classroom and school assemblies, the museum displays and the special coins prevent war from happening again? I know, kind of a silly question. There’s a great deal of money to made from weapons and munitions. Often there are political points to be scored with a strong tone, a willingness to send other people to kill, or die. If someone high up decides war is the way to go, it isn’t long before opponents are belittled and brushed aside.
And once a conflict starts, it isn’t long before someone does die. Now the story of war can change. It’s no longer just about whatever we thought war could achieve, no, now we fight to honour the sacrifice of one of our boys. Or girls. Blood has been shed. It must be avenged. We get some of our ideas about sacrifice and blood from the bible. So this is where we go back to the readings from Hebrews and Mark, to remember how we got here.

In Hebrews, the author is working hard to make comparisons between Jewish tradition and what happened to Jesus, arguing against the sacrifice commandments set out in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. He, or she, starts with the obvious: Jesus died. So is there a parallel with the death of an animal in sacrifice at the temple? Yes, Jesus’ death is similar, only better, according to the writer. Animal sacrifice has to happen again and again to show God we are really sorry, and willing to give up something precious, a bull say, to prove it. But Jesus’ sacrifice only needed to happen once points out the writer. This is important, to watch this happening in scripture. Jesus’ death goes from being an outrage, a horror, another example of why empire is toxic to all concerned, to having saving value, a good thing. Instead of being a crime requiring punishment, his murder is turned into a spiritual event, a good thing. So the argument is: the Temple is not needed now. We have Jesus’ death.
That might be OK, except that a thousand years after Jesus Christianity bumps against a Teutonic warrior culture in the middle of what we now call Europe, and suddenly glorious, sacrificial battlefield death on behalf of one’s master, one’s lord, one’s king, becomes a good thing, a Christian thing. A religion of peace morphs into a religion that understands, even promotes war. A religion of life is hijacked by a cult of death. All this time since the Middle Ages and we’re still trying to undo that damage.

What about Jesus, what did he think about sacrifice, giving one’s all? That’s the other internal, bible argument here today. He’s trying to make a point about pompous people at the Temple, and their show of making donations. He draws a contrast with the unnamed women and her two coins, everything she had, according to Jesus. “Look what she’s doing, without the big fuss. She’s putting those puffed up people to shame.” How could he know that two coins was all she had? In those days women wore any coins they had on a headdress, hanging from a string. Handy if you needed them, but a little risky. You might have to sweep your whole house if one went missing. Possibly Jesus watched this woman take off the only two coins on her string to put into the donation box.

So she’s giving everything she had, but not her blood, not her life. She’s not offering herself to the temple priests as a sacrifice. She’s not a garment worker in a rickety factory, prepared to die there for two dollars a day. She’s not a First Nations woman or girl, at risk of murder or disappearance just because of where she happened to be born. Jesus is arguing that this woman’s donation, her two coins are enough. They are heroic. Forget the blood. It was the same at the Last Supper. Presumably there was lamb for supper when he gathered with his disciples in the upper room. But when he goes to make a ritual, Jesus’ ingredients are vegetarian—you can call this bread my body, this wine my blood. No animal is harmed in the making of this new covenant. Jesus is resisting the shedding of blood as something needed to bring atonement, to put things right between the Holy and humans. There are other ways, according to him.

But we resist Jesus’ call for a non-violent atonement. Blood is exciting, compared to a peace conference, stirring: “Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.” Blood is easy to remember, compared to a treaty. Are there any poems about diplomats or treaties? No, it’s violence that gets us going. We go to boxing matches, we yell, “Kill ’im,” at hockey games when a fight breaks out, we stage matches where animals fight each other to the death, we execute humans who go too far. We are addicted to violence.

Can we ever get over it? Can we withdraw from that kind of thrill as a species? Some people wear a white poppy beside their red one to show their commitment to peace. And when they do they can sometimes get heavy criticism for doing it. As if they were somehow dishonouring the fallen. 

And what do the fallen want? For us to take up their quarrel with the foe, as the poet puts it? Or to figure a way to end the madness, dial back the bloodlust, talk our way out of conflicts instead of stabbing, shooting and bombing. Wars start because of very basic needs: land and water, usually. The most basic things. We’re a fairly smart species in many ways. Could we not figure out ways to share land and water better so that people don’t arrive at the conclusion that fighting is the only solution to their problems? As some land dries up due to climate change and other land goes underwater, can we not work together on fixes, sharing, compassion, justice?

Not if we’re into status, like those pompous types in the market place that day in Jerusalem. Or insisting on a firm hand in board rooms and legislatures and other high offices even now, apparently. Eager to keep what we have and get even more, it seems, rather than work together for the sake of all. And we all have our own attention-seeking religious authority within us, it seems. We find it difficult to back down from a good grudge, a righteous indignation. We can all learn from Jesus’ commitment to shedding pride instead of shedding blood.

Today we remember, and we commit ourselves once again to working for peace and non-violence, both as citizens, and as family members and neighbours. Today we wear a blood red poppy and swear off the call for blood to be shed. Today we worship a God of hope, and joy, and deep, deep sharing. And today we look at the example of that woman who shall always be remembered, and we ask ourselves what we are prepared to give in the cause of a more fair, more gentle world.

“Made well”  Robin Wardlaw   October 25, 2015

Pentecost 22, Year B     Peace Sabbath   

Readings: Job 42:1–6, 10–17; Psalm 34:1–8, (19–22); (Hebrews 7:23–28); Mark 10:46–52
Many of us know the story of Job: faithful good guy gets hit with every blow you can imagine—loss after loss—as a test of his faith. Will he curse God and die, as Satan predicts, as his so-called friends urge? In today’s reading we jump ahead forty chapters to get the answer. Job has hung in there. Not only does he get his many blessings back, everything is double. Twice as many camels and sheep and so on. A whole new family. The daughters, beautiful. A long, long life for Job.

Let’s go back and do the Job story a bit differently, bring it up to date. Now, Jo-jo is a First Nations woman from somewhere in Canada. She has a great life, at first. Beautiful surroundings, water you can drink out every stream and river, game in the woods, fish in the river, crops, a strong husband, children, lots of children, music, stories, art and peace. In this version of the story, nothing just dies, all by itself. Strangers arrive. Weird, smelly strangers in giant canoes with sheets of birch bark bigger than you’ve ever seen hanging up above. Strangers who don’t know much but act like they know everything.

Life goes downhill. People get sick, people get drunk. Jo-jo’s husband disappears into the bottle. Her children disappear, too, in various ways: illness, at schools where they were dragged to learn the ways of the strangers, or just plain disappeared. No bodies to clean and dress and bury. Forests go away, tree by tree. Streams silt up, rivers grow dirty and the water makes you sick. The animals flee. The young people lose their language. Almost everyone loses their pride. The strangers, some of them, said to Jo-jo, Why don’t you just die?
But Jo-jo didn’t die. She was strong, very strong. She sat in her cold fire pit sometimes. The tears flowed. Then she got up. She started walking, she started marching, she started dancing again. And this is where our more modern story of Job stops. Will Jo-jo get back her lands, her language, her rights? Will her children, her new children grow up respected, and respecting themselves? Can her husband sober up, the whole fiasco of the strangers’ arrival somehow be made well?

In the bible, our hero has faith, remains steadfast. And is restored. A nice story. In this updated version, we don’t yet know the ending for First Nations people. Murray Sinclair, the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that wound up its work this summer points out that there were seven generations of First Nations children who went through Residential Schools. He suggests it will take many generations of healing, of restoring, before First Nations have peace.
We could tell the Job story several ways, many ways. Job could be a Pacific islander living in paradise who sees the storms flood the land higher and higher each decade till it is impossible to stay on their island. She could be a person in a part of the world wracked by continuous war and killing, watching a whole neighbourhood, a whole city, a whole nation descend into mayhem and rubble. Job could be a guy with chronic pain from an on the job injury who started off taking the strong pills for pain and ended alone, homeless and on the street due to addiction. And you’ve probably thought of another way the story could go.

On Peace Sabbath, we’re thinking about the connection between healing and peace. Everyone, everything, knows about brokenness. It is the way of the world. Words get said, pollution gets dumped, fists or fighter planes or global temperatures get raised… You know how it goes. Everything, everyone needs healing. No surprise there. The surprising news, the good news, is this confidence all through the bible that there is healing, there is restoration. The book of Job is a made up story, but the author is coming from a place of very deep conviction about healing.  Our job, as worshippers, as people of faith, as thinking human beings, is to decide if we agree.
In the bible, even a blind person is healed. Not just a blind man, a blind beggar. No expensive doctors for him, no pricey trips to faraway temples or renowned healing waters. No medicare. Add him to list of all the others—women, children, officials and people with mental illness—who are restored in the gospels.

Can we update this story, too, the one about Bartimaeus? Is there anyone around who does not see? Any person, any industry, any political leader, any congregations who need sight restored? The key to the story in Mark is that the beggar knows he is blind, knows he needs help. And Bartimaeus trusts that he can see again. A rare combination. We are often the last ones to realize we are not ourselves, the last ones to admit we need healing. And then even when we do, we are inclined to give up on ourselves, give up on any hope of regaining health, having peace again.
It’s true, there’s a lot of money to be made in brokenness, illness: pills, devices, weapons, walls, substances—all up there on the list of top earners. When love takes human form and people start to get better because they have faith, where’s the profit in that?

Do we know anyone who is like Job? Do we know anyone who is like Bartimaeus the beggar? Are we, ourselves, more like Job, full of afflictions, or more like Bart, ready to spring up and follow Jesus, but unable to see the vision? What’s the expression—there are none so blind as those who will not see?
The beggar calls Jesus ‘Son of David’, that is Solomon’s equivalent, and for the writer of the gospel Son of David means the anointed one, the coming Messiah. This title is huge, in bible speak. Believing whether or not I can be healed is one thing. Believing that Messiah is among us, that all earth can be restored is another.

Peace. It’s a bit like a drawing on a beach. It can so easily be washed away by a wave of…bigotry, jealousy, greed, fear. It turns out we are always having to struggle for peace again. Conflict is a normal part of life, but when it is allowed to spiral down into violence or hatred, when it is fueled by other ambitions, the profit motive, we see conflict turn sour, turn violent, turn deadly. Our Messiah used some strong words, but he didn’t resort to violence. He wouldn’t let his followers lift the sword, either. So it’s down to us.
Every day is a test of faith, our faith that another world is possible without slaying or even belittling our “enemies”, if that’s what we call people who differ from us. We win some of those tests, we lose some. The bible, the legacy of faith we inherit, says we are made well, and after we are broken, or fail a test of faith, we can be made well. And if you take that to heart, personally, and as part of a congregation such as this, we can part of the healing, part of the solution, agents of peace.

Pentecost , Year B      

Readings: (Joel 2:21–27); Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1–7; Matthew 6:25–33
Shouts of joy are what you hear in the play park and in the school yard, on day time TV shows and at sports stadiums, especially if the home team is doing well. But if you had gone out to sow seeds weeping? How could you come home shouting for joy like the psalmist insists?
Think of a refugee family who had just learned that would be accepted in a safe country. Or a person showing up at the door of a church not sure whether she qualified for help from a food bank and learning that she did. Or a couple learning that finally they would become parents?

The psalmist is not talking about a sudden turn around from weeping to joy, though. God brought Zion’s captives home from Babylon, but it took a bit longer than a day, or even a growing season. It was sixty years, two or three generations before they got their release. The original hostages were long dead. It was their children or grandchildren who got to go “home” to a place they had never seen, only heard about.
How long before millions of Syrians get to go home? Or Palestinians, or Afghanis, or Iraqis? Good things take time, they say. Will it be our children, or their children or some later generation that hears from climate scientists that the world has stopped warming, that disaster has been averted? What generation will hear that the income gap has stopped growing, that people in all parts of the world are getting a living wage, worker protection? How long before girl children and boy children have an equal chance in life? And if you’re in the dumps, how long before things begin to look up?
Church is good. We learn to live in the tension, to shout for joy even as we weep for life’s unfairness. There is so much for which to give thanks even as we wait for real change, the alleviation of widespread suffering.
Then someone in the bible says don’t worry—don’t worry about food or clothing. What is Jesus thinking? Did he ever pay rent or make a mortgage payment, scrounge around for money for a child’s school trip, have a big vet bill or wonder how to look after an aging parent? He was the expert at living as if the kin-dom had already come, as if he had just won the lottery, even if he didn’t know where tonight’s meal was coming from.
But this is traditionally the time of year when everyone can relax and smile a little. The crops are in, the wolf is kept from the door for this winter at least. Wait a minute. What crops? We may have a few vegetables to harvest, but someone else does all the serious farming for us while we go to the store sure that there will be things to eat week after week.
What crops? Agriculture Canada says Canadian farmers will harvest about seventy-seven million tonnes of grains and oilseeds this year, getting about three tonnes per hectare. Meanwhile, across the world, the harvest of grains will be about two billion tonnes, according to the International Grains Council. Enough to meet demand, almost. We’re using a bit more than we’re growing, with demand slowly rising, and this year’s production a little below the five year average. Too much rain here, slow economy there, drought in Haiti and California.
Food waste and loss are topics at big conferences across the planet. People are working to reduce them. Turns out most of the world’s primary producers are smallholders. Even if they get a good crop they can have huge losses after the harvest. They need better storage and better roads to get their crops to market. That’s all stuff you can learn on the web. I was in a rural part of the province recently, and I can reassure people getting ready to decorate for Hallowe’en that the pumpkin crop looks good there. So that’s your global and local farm report for this Thanksgiving.
Prices are up, but I think it’s safe to say there will be groceries on the shelves around here again this winter. Some of us don’t think too much about the grocery budget. And some of us are very, very careful with our spending. At Thanksgiving, then, people might have a little anger mixed in with their gratitude and joy: “Why doesn’t everyone have enough? Why do some people have to worry about food and clothing?”
And many people are concerned. We gave away our one hundred kits aimed at ending poverty in ninety minutes again this year. People on foot took them, people on bikes, students from the nearby school, even the guys way up in the garbage truck—lots of interest and concern.
What about you this weekend? Will there be any shouts of joy? What about quiet expressions of thanks if you’re not the shouting kind of person? Will you do the biblical thing and make a special donation since it’s harvest time: church, charity, food bank? Will you do the twenty-first century thing and tweet out a hash tag to fight poverty. The bible insists that everything we have, everything, is God’s. Not ours. This is a profound insight. Get over that sense of ownership that weighs you down, wrecks your soul. Loosen up. Think on the lily, Jesus told people. Your generous giving is not really giving at all, since none of it belongs to you. Can you do that, loosen up, I mean?
The people whose hearts are overflowing with joy this weekend. Who are they? A journalist or some other political prisoner just released from jail and his family, reunited at last. Someone getting a call from a war zone and hearing that relatives there survived an attack. Patients and families in hospitals getting good news. People affected by floods or fires this summer finding just how good their neighbours are. People all alone who make a friend. Someone becoming a Canadian citizen after a struggle.
My mother, when the conversation lulled a little at a family get together would look around at everyone and say, “Aren’t we lucky?” Heads would nod as others stopped for a moment to consider her words. She worked so hard at feeding and clothing a family, making a living, supporting her church, but she wasn’t taking  credit for it all. She was raised to count her blessings, and she never lost her sense of wonder. Are there traditions at your house, your table? Do you say a blessing? Is there a tradition you’d like to start to take into account the spirit of thanks and giving?
Early settlers arriving from Europe on this continent really struggled. They didn’t have fields and harvests, not at first. They didn’t know what they were doing. Local people, indigenous people helped them. They had long ago figured out what bark to make into tea so that teeth didn’t loosen and old wounds open up, how to get food from the rivers and forests all winter, how to keep the blues away during the dark months. How grateful those colonists must have been. How conflicted, perhaps. They knew, many of them, that they were superior to these savages who wore skins and feathers, didn’t have a bible, couldn’t speak the king’s English. Yet these primitive cultures were fit and happy all winter, could move around with ease in their canoes, their snowshoes, had enough food to offer some to newcomers. Did the colonists shout with joy when the neighbours showed up with meat or fish in the middle of winter, or just quiet tears?
The act of thanksgiving often goes with humility. Maybe it always does. How long before those first settlers looked back at those early years and said, That time of suffering really helped us, really taught something? When we get in touch with the bounty around us and how brief our lives are compared to that of creation, we realize our limits, our dependence and interdependence. What will we eat? What will we wear? Work away at God’s dream and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you as well

“Sing and pray”   Robin Wardlaw    September 27, 2015
Pentecost 18, Year B       3rd in Creation Time, Blessing of the Animals

Readings: (Esther 7:1–6, 9–10; 9:20–22); Psalm 124; James 5:13–20; Mark 9:38–50
Things go off the rails sometimes. Life is not always a bed of roses. Sometimes it feels like a bed of thorns. We’ve all had those days, those weeks, those seasons. Barbara Turnbull had a very bad day in 1983, when she was shot and paralysed during a store robbery here in the city. She was left as a young woman with very limited use of her arms and life in a wheelchair. She went to university, though, and got a job as a reporter at the Toronto Star, figuring out ways to cope with a mouth stick and lots of assistance.
Someone told her years ago when she wondered about a service dog that it would never bond with someone in a wheelchair, so she let the idea go. She had a parrot instead, but that’s not quite the same thing. How wrong that advice about the dog turned out to be. Ms. Turnbull discovered that going out in public made her anxious. Finally she asked herself if she would have accepted an invitation from friends to a football game if she had a dog. And she told herself, yes. You know where this is going. Thanks to a local organization that provides dogs, she met Bella, a yellow lab. They had twelve amazing years together before Barbara gave Bella her retirement. There was another dog after that, but never another Bella. Sadly, Barbara Turnbull died in May.
But for a dozen years, Bella changed her life. Animals can have that effect for people. Bella’s amazing skills and intuition, but also her love and devotion. Those of you who have ever owned a pet know what I’m talking about. And what if you don’t have a pet? Or the death of a pet is the reason you’re having an off season? The bible speaks to us about many things, including the blues, and worse. “Is anyone suffering? Pray. Is anyone cheerful? Sing,” says the book of James. (James 5:13) And the advice goes on: call the church elders, and get them to pray. Anoint the sick with oil. Confess your sin, pray for each other. And that’s just James.
“Sever yourself from the source of your trouble,” says Jesus. (Mark 9:43-47) Get clear of it, as they would say in Newfoundland. What is the source of your trouble? Anger? A substance? Self-pity? Impatience? Jesus goes on to say, “Be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:52)
The poet who wrote today’s psalm goes further. “If God had not been at our side when enemies rose up against us, uh-oh.” (Ps. 124:2-4) Big trouble: their fury would have “swallowed us alive,… the flood would have swept us away.” You get the picture. “But praise be to God.... We have escaped like a bird…we are free.” (Ps. 124:6-7). Close call. And it seems as if the writer is talking about a whole group, possibly the whole nation. Time for a big thank you, a big celebration, some singing, maybe.
We tend to remember times the emotional fire department did not arrive in time, or at all. We tend not to remember all the times help was there, animal or otherwise. The psalm is good that way, reminding us to pay attention to all the times help has been there. And help can come in so many ways, including furry.
What if you are suffering now? Some chronic ailment, a state of mind that is getting you down, a relationship that feels like a millstone? Is there any help, any freedom? Will you ever sing again? Life can be so difficult. Some days it feels like a never ending fountain of tears. Some things are out of our control. We didn’t make this economy, for instance, that seems to punish people if their usefulness at work comes to an end. That insists that people be ready to move for work, go to work in the dark and come home at dawn, take the difficult chores for inadequate pay. But we have to live with it, with the consequences. Sometimes people are mean, or cold, and it feels as if there is little we can do.
What is in our power? Are we helpless bits of debris in the raging current, pushed here and there by the forces of the market? Are we only victims of other people’s moods, their brokenness? The bible asks us, reminds us to take back some control: pray, sing, forgive, be at peace.
As we celebrate our animal companions, and all creation today, we remember that we are all connected, all part of the same vine, all plugged in to the holy. Our prayers for ourselves take us to calm waters, green pastures, healing for us. Our prayers for others—neighbours, family, far away refugees, enemies—make us pay attention to God within us, how we can be a source of healing. We are not helpless victims. God is at our side. And thanks to that, we can be at the side of the people who feel as if they’re being swept away in a flood, swallowed alive.
Pray and sing. Sing and pray. Stick together. Be part of a people who have your back. Have their back in return. This people could be church. For many of us it is. Have an animal friend who loves you no matter what. Accept that there is healing, for you, for others. Pray for it, work for it, welcome it.

“Draw nearer”        Robin Wardlaw            September 20, 2015

 Pentecost 17, Year B, 2nd in Creation Time
Readings: (Proverbs 31:10–31); Psalm 1; James 3:13—4:3, 7–8a; Mark 9:30–37
Many of us know that old campfire song, “Fire’s burning.” It goes, “Fire’s burning, fire’s burning, draw nearer, draw nearer, in the gloaming, in the gloaming, draw near and be merry.” It is wonderful sung as a round. For a good campfire, someone has to bring wood. Someone has to light the fire. Sometimes it takes some breath to get it going. Someone has to have enough music and enough confidence to start the singing. Then the magic happens. The fire is a bit hypnotic. It seems to draw the eye. And in the gloaming, the evening, if the singing is any good at all, the atmosphere is complete: cozy, together, contented. It’s easy to be merry.
One of the things we come to love about church is that it’s like a campfire. We gather, we sing, we enjoy the pattern of being together. Jesus and his friends would have known many, many fires, I’m guessing. Even if they always had roofs over their heads, all the cooking was done over a fire in that time. They likely sang together, too, the bible tells us. There would have been many evenings, especially in the early days, when Jesus’ friends gathered around together were contented, cozy, merry.
Then it becomes apparent to his followers that the word inside Jesus that he had to offer to the world, the word that was so important, so life-giving to friends and followers, was a threat to others. There is opposition now when he speaks in public, anger, finally threats. The nightly fire isn’t as warming, isn’t as cozy perhaps as it used to be. It’s harder to be merry, even though Jesus continues to dazzle them with his insights into humanity and what connects us to the holy. Then Jesus rattles them with his talk about betrayal and death. They debate with each other about who he really is, and then, shockingly, argue about which of them is more important. Did that break Jesus’ heart, or did he smile at their ways?
Whichever it was, he doesn’t give up on them, anyway. Instead of berating them, he tells a story. His lesson about worthiness and humility involves a child, and helping a child to draw nearer to the true warmth. And he does his reversal thing again: “If you welcome a little child, you welcome me. And the one who sent me.” He messes with their, and our perception about God being big and powerful. To hear Jesus tell it, God is vulnerable: a child, a poor person, perhaps, a woman, a prisoner.
We want this fire, the fire he lights in people. We have this fire. A church is a fireplace. I can never figure out if you are the people who know how to light the fires or you are the fuel. Probably both. How does this happen? We tell each other the Jesus stories, is how. We know they’re not all cheery and comfy. But they ignite us. And sometimes we have to figure out answers to questions Jesus didn’t think of, such as our relationship with creation. When we say we are all part of one vine, does that include actual vines, trees, fish, lions, whales?
We also know many people have learned to ignore the glow of the gospel, or found other ways to warm themselves. When they think of the church, it is not a cozy image. Partly because we’re like the disciples sometimes, arguing amongst ourselves, trying to do the status thing. And people ignore the warmth here partly because they focus on the times Christians have used the gospel fire like a flamethrower, like carpet bombing to wound and kill and eradicate. I’m not speaking now of this congregation alone, but Christians as a large group. How misguided and sinful the church has been at times. If only we could take it all back, the sins of history…
But we can’t. We haven’t always followed James’ advice, been wise, been peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of hypocrisy. (James 3:17) In other words, we have not always submitted ourselves to God or resisted evil. We’ve let the fire burn down. Sometimes there’s mostly smoke, irritating, and precious little fire.
Then a little Syrian child washes up on a beach. We didn’t light the fire in his home country, the one that is burning the place down. We didn’t terrorize his neighbourhood, his family, making them decide to flee. But our hearts crack at the sight of him. Here’s one child who didn’t get a welcome, but instead panic in the gloaming, an overturned boat, parents who couldn’t reach him, couldn’t find him in the dark, in the waves. His mother and brother drowning, too.
So we wonder, again, about our world. And we ask questions about ourselves, too. If we have been welcomed here, if we have ever been welcomed, is there something more we could do to offer a welcome to others? If we have enjoyed fires prepared and tended by others, is it our turn to ask others to draw nearer?
“Blessed are those who… delight in the law of God,” says the psalmist. Why? They are like trees beside streams. They yield fruit. The wicked blow away, like grass clippings.
This morning, we’re getting ready to eat together. The bread we will take, the bread we crave was baked over a fire, or the modern equivalent. Heat is needed to change flour from inedible to nutritious. If the bread is Jesus to us, it is nourishment, energy for Jesus-type behaviour.
Unfortunately, in this climate, we need walls for our big fireplace here, our church. People should be able to see bread on the table, a warm welcome to the gospel fire as they go by. Since we don’t have a glass church, our job, our calling as followers of Christ here is a little harder. If we have the fire, the warmth, others should be able to detect it. They will want to draw nearer. It’s hard these days, with so many causes clamoring for people’s attention. But it has never been a piece of cake. You can do this. It’s not rocket science. We don’t need rocket engines, burning all their fuel in a blast and zooming away. A campfire is good, a cooking fire, a burning passion for each little child. And each weary, hungry, lost adult, too.
Fire’s burning. Draw nearer. Come sing and be merry.

“The heavens declare” Robin Wardlaw   September 13, 2015

Pentecost 16, Year B    1st Sunday of Creation Time

Readings: Proverbs 1:20–33; Psalm 19; James 3:1–12; Mark 8:27–38
It’s nighttime and it’s pitch black, the sky clear. You crane your neck and look up. It happens again—that exhilaration, that slight quiver of fear at the sight of stars plastered across the sky, and where your mind goes. Unlike the writers of the bible and every other person who has lived up until the last hundred years or so, you know how old some of them are. You know how vast is the universe, what an amazing thing it is that there is such a thing as this earth. You see close up pictures of Pluto, for heaven’s sake.
All around us is coldness, and darkness. Here there is air and water, warmth and life. Life! The psalm writer does a great job of getting across the sense of awe people get from the night sky: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the vault of the sky reveals God’s handiwork.” (Ps. 19:1)
Nature religions make perfect sense. The sun, the moon, the amazing diversity of landscapes and beings and weather never cease to amaze. We come, we go. We have our little space of time to drink it all in, but the oceans, the earth, the galaxies go on and on and on. We want to make our mark. We want to declare the glory of God somehow in a way that will last, just like all those other things. A song, art, a monument, a hand print on a cave wall—something.
It doesn’t take much to remind us how little we are, how brief. The more we find about the cosmos all around us, the more we grow quiet, the more our spirits soar that we have the privilege of awareness, of senses and intellect and relationships. The psalm writer doesn’t quit with nature, though. He or she moves right on with no connecting phrase to God’s law. “God’s law is perfect,…God’s instruction is sure,…God’s precepts are right…” (Ps. 19:7-8) The images pile up. Maybe it used to be two psalms and they’ve been stapled together.
The point is pretty clear, though. This is not a nature religion. There is this other creation—God’s commandments in addition. And they are better than gold, sweeter than honey. (Ps. 19:10) Not just nature, not just law. Both. How do we get a sense of awe about God’s law? We have to read our bible, or come to Sunday School or church, join a study group to explore that law.
And when you do one or more of those things, and the law of love gradually comes into focus,  we are just as moved as we are by shooting stars, or eclipses, or the unlikely fact of life on earth. Sure, there’s a lot of history to wade through in the bible, and genealogy and inventories of building material for the Temple and so on. So we sift and sort and figure out the story of these people, and what they experienced and what they learned about love and justice, our sense of wonder begins to kick in.
After hundreds of years of law, and prophets, and poems about the Holy, Christians see a thumbnail version of that law in a person, in things Jesus of Nazareth says and does. “If you want to be in that number,” he tells people, “there is self-denial involved. Think carefully about what you really want—things of this world?” He’s always calling us back to the main thing, the goal of it all, the point.
Our mark, when we make it, is less visible than a bit of paint on a board—someone’s day, someone’s life is improved, sweetened, maybe even saved, the world is softened. It unclenches its fists. No music swells, the camera does not linger on that person’s grateful look or our face full of wisdom and kind regard. The credits do not roll, and no audience gets to its feet applauding. But your mark is very real, less visible than a handprint maybe, but longer lasting. Your acts of love and kindness and justice ripple out and out from where they started. In fact, we change the world.
And the need for a people who declare God’s glory, both in the heavens and very much here on earth is very great, perhaps never greater. As the world warms, and populations surge like floodwaters from here to there fleeing disintegration and despair we can have a vicious, dog-eat-dog world, or something else. As the economy fumbles around making the rich richer, with others barely hanging on by their fingernails, we can have a winner-take-all society, or something else. As fearful and sly people stir up fear of the other, fear of the stranger, we can have a world of walls and fences, or something else. As the internet continues to connect us all like never before, we can have a place where the tongue, or the text, is full of bitterness and hate, or something else.
The heavens declare amazing things about… beauty, purpose, kindness?—it’s not clear exactly from Psalm 19. Probably better that way. What do you declare? What is your mark, your message to the world? Is it clear? Thank you for all your faithful, for making your declaration about the glory of God up until today. What mark will you leave tomorrow, and the next day?

“Faith works”  Robin Wardlaw  September 6, 2015  

 Pentecost 15, Year B
Readings: Proverbs 22:1–2, 8–9, 22–23; Psalm 125; James 2:1–10, (11–13), 14–17; Mark 7:24–37
“Work” is one of the good, short, satisfying Anglo-Saxon words. A four letter word, as it happens. Such a big part of human life. Sometimes a problem if you have work, usually a problem if you don’t. Robert Frost, the poet, had this insight about what we bring to work and what we don’t: “The brain is a wonderful thing. It starts the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get to the office.” Lane Kirkland, the American labour leader of last century took a sarcastic turn: “If all work were such a wonderful thing, surely the rich would have kept it to themselves.”  
These days we have machines to do much of the work we fear or dislike. The key to work, historically was to get someone else to do it for you, to get out of working. Traditionally that has meant slaves, servants or children. Or more recently in human history, employees. And that all brings us to Labour Day. And Labour Day goes back to a strike in Toronto a hundred and forty years ago.
Are you up for some history? Here we go. The type setters wanted a fifty-eight hour week, type setters at the Toronto Globe. Down from what, I don’t know. George Brown, the owner, and politician, wasn’t impressed. He had the strikers arrested and charged. After eight months, two dozen other unions held a demonstration in support of the strikers. Nothing.
A whole year went by. Still no joy for the strikers. This time the unions marched in Ottawa, early September of the following year. Sir John A. Macdonald agreed to repeal the laws against forming a union, and his Conservative government did so in June of 1874. Soon all the unions were fighting for a fifty-four hour week—six nine-hour days. Trailing the Australians, by the way, where stone masons in Melborne got an eight hour day in 1856, and ’way behind New Zealanders, where a carpenter led the way by refusing to work more than eight hours in 1840!
Back in Toronto the Toronto Trades and Labour Council held a celebration of their victory, and turned it into an annual event. An American, a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor came up to speak at a labour festival in Toronto in July, 1882. He went back to the United States with the idea, and the Knights of Labor organised a parade based on the Canadian event on September 5 of that year in New York. In 1894 another Conservative government under John Thompson made Labour Day an official holiday.
The bible has some things to say about work and workers, too, in a serious tone. Mostly about treating workers fairly, making sure they got paid, had time off, and weren’t abused. The bible starts off with God’s work, and there the flavour is not seriousness but awe. Seven days of labour to bring forth everything. The seventh day was a rest day, a sabbath, part of the work week.
This is kind of a heavy topic for Welcome Back Sunday. But work is right there at the heart of our faith, summed up in the famous passage from James that has inspired so much social action, so much social justice:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? … If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, … and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
By the time the letter of James is written three generations or so after Jesus, some problems had crept into the Christian community, obviously. Rich people were getting preferential treatment in some places. Not quite what Jesus envisioned. The writer gets a bit worked up: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kin-dom that she has promised to those who love God? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you?” Calling the community back to its original vision, its real purpose.
That phrase about God choosing the poor in the world as heirs of the kin-dom inspires theologians in Central and South America almost two thousand years later to talk about God’s “preferential option for the poor,” a key feature of what is called Liberation Theology. Liberation theology arose in the midst of wild inequality between rich and poor in that part of the world, where the rich plantation owners hired paramilitaries to make agitators, even nuns and priests disappear if they started to teach the poor what the bible really says. This theology goes on to say the poor are the real teachers, and that the rest of us had to be converted, by them.
We hear the prayer in Psalm 25, “Do good, Holy One, to those who are good, and to those who are upright in heart,” but we know that’s not how it works, that’s not God’s way. The Love at the heart of everything doesn’t confine itself that way.
In the story in Mark, the woman who lived near Tyre ended up being Jesus’ teacher. She hears him hold back love because of ethnicity, and she says that’s not the way faith works. She pointed out to him the full extent of his mission—not just to his own people, but to everyone who is oppressed. He is persuaded. He helps her daughter. And the very next thing Jesus does, according to Mark, is free the ears and tongue of a deaf man with garbled speech. And the man and all his friends wanted to start teaching about Jesus, his beautiful gift of dignity right away.
What about us on the eve of Labour Day? If we are in the work force, we get tomorrow off, as a paid holiday. Most of us. We have an eight hour day. Maybe. A five day week. Possibly. We might have a pension from our work if we’re retired. Perhaps. And whether or not we’re in the paid work force, we still work. Chores around the house, meals, helping out friends or family. For some of us, the word labour means something very different—the effort to get a growing baby from the inside out. Followed by the work on everybody’s part to raise a child to be independent, loving, respectful, honest, responsible.
And then there’s our faith work. This is the hardest, and the best thing we’ll ever do. And there’s no real retirement age. Working to show no partiality, like James insists in his letter, like the Syrophoenician woman taught Jesus: very tough stuff. Forgiving others, forgiving oneself, including, supporting, challenging—faith takes you out of yourself and into the big, wide world. Living with respect in creation? That’s your job. Telling the truth and reconciling the dominant culture with First Nations, loving and serving others, seeking justice and resisting evil, proclaiming Jesus, crucified and risen? Your work, your faith work. And what a wonderful work it is. What agony it is, what satisfaction, what frustration, what reward!
“I can’t do those things,” I can almost hear you thinking. “Don’t look at me.” You’re right. No one can. On the other hand, of course you can. Jesus unstops ears so we can hear. Jesus loosens tongues. Jesus gets the monkey off our back, the demons out. We believe it, and yet… That’s what makes it so hard, the persisting. There’s that old prayer of the father of the boy with epilepsy, “Sovereign, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
Another one of the tricky things about Christianity is figuring out what is our responsibility. It can feel like hauling refugees out of the ocean, getting them safe on dry land, feeling exhausted, only to turn around and see another boatload washing ashore. We don’t have the weight of the world on us, though. All we need to do is accept that we are loved, accept that we don’t have to be perfect to be faithful. Faith is just that: faith. Faith that the Spirit is at work, that the Holy can use anyone, even us, especially us to do marvels. Not to save every refugee, let’s say, but perhaps to save one. And then to ask why they need refuge.
We are freed. We are given new spirits, without oppressive thoughts. That’s how faith works. We have this permission, this encouragement to do Jesus-type things, to work together as a church to change the world. Is this too light, in a world full of heavy topics? Too self-indulgent? Jesus says, that faith offers no heavy yokes, but instead a load off. We’re not much good to the world if we walk around with the weight of the world on us. No, our gift to the world is our willingness to see misery and still wear a smile on our soul, to hear anguish and walk toward it with a story about a table, and room for all, safety for all, food for all.
So welcome back. Not to church, but to yourself. Welcome back to your best self, your truest self, your free-est self. The world is waiting for you.

“Power bar”  by Robin Wardlaw  July 12, 2015

Pentecost 7, Year B
Readings: 2 Samuel 6:1–5, 12b–19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3–14; Mark 6:14–29
“There oughta be a law.” “If I had my way…” “When I’m the king of the world…” We see something we don’t like and imagine ending it, or changing it. If only we had the power. We see something we’d like to change in a person close to us. But how do you do that? We see something in ourselves we’d like to change. And we try. And try, and try.
Then we see what some deranged group or individual is doing somewhere, with guns or bombs or car batteries or machetes, and we wonder how their power can be stopped. In other words, we think about power a fair amount. “Oh, if only I had the energy of my youth.” “Where does she get the nerve?” “Why doesn’t the church, or the government, or the police do something about x, y or z.”
We learned a lot about power in the homes where we grew up. How did adults relate to each other? How did they relate to children? What kind of narrative was there in the kitchen, at the table, when friends of your parents came over, about the authorities—respect, disrespect, scorn, fear? Maybe someone in your home was employed in a position of authority.
Our relationship to power is changing. Neil Nevitte wrote a book twenty years ago called, The Decline of Deference: Canadian Value Change in Cross National Perspective. Increasing levels of education, and a new emphasis on skepticism have meant that people are far less likely to take the word of the doctor, the lawyer, the teacher, the minister at face value than in earlier generations. The power of society’s leaders has gone down. To be replaced by what? Twitter? Facebook? Celebrities? Corporations? Or is there just a power vacuum, with no one to fill it?
It’s not that it was all great when we deferred to the elites. They gave us residential schools, atomic weapons, “trickle down” economics, pointless wars. What about now? Why can’t we get agreement on fossil fuel use and climate policy? Are decision makers in the pocket of big oil? If they were, what would we do about that? How can get our power back?
A couple of stories about power in our scripture today. Contrasting stories—David and the Ark, and Herod and John the Baptist. In both stories there is dancing, but after that not much similarity. Even the dancing is different. David dances with sheer joy. Herodias dances to bewitch her stepfather. The power is different, too. Power in a box—the Ark—versus power on a throne. Let’s take them one at a time, starting with the later story.
John the Baptist is a pain in the…neck for higher ups. He has some general criticisms of his nation and its leaders. He also has some very specific criticisms about King Herod, apparently. Not about his policies or his ability to govern, but about his personal situation. Everybody knew about his marriage, but who is going to take on a king? Only someone with a death wish. Herod has John arrested. That should shut him up. Herodias wants to go farther, but she doesn’t have the power. How to get what she wants? The answer is kind of a cliché. People have been doing this for a long, long time.
Herodias gets her daughter to do the slinky thing after dinner. Everyone at court gets an eyeful. Where’s this going to go? Why is Herodias letting, getting her daughter to do this? Look at the king, unable to take his eyes off her! This is amazing! This is disgusting.
Herodias gets her way. The king makes an open-ended promise to the younger woman. Her request sobers him up pretty fast. Now his power boomerangs on him. He doesn’t want to execute the preacher, apparently, but he can’t go back on his word. He sees the trap he has walked into. How does this little scene affect the marriage? This is power in all its ugliness. Herod has a ridiculous amount of it to begin with, far more than any person should have. And he can be played by someone close to him who has no scruples.
A current version is when corporations or wealthy individuals wave their generous donations around in the face of a politician seeking election, or re-election, then come calling to collect their end of the bargain later. The sick part of this behaviour, first century or twenty-first, is that the interests of the people as a whole play no part in the equation. Elites get what they want, one way or another, and the people watch from the sidelines.
I don’t know if there is a contemporary version of the second story. The Ark of the Covenant is a legendary item to David and the people around him. A scary item, actually. It’s about four hundred years old by then, and at one time it contained the two stone tablets and other souvenirs of God’s mighty power to free the Hebrew slaves from the Pharaoh. In David’s time, the Ark becomes part of the war stories between Israel and the Philistines, mortal enemies. Sometimes its presence helps the armies of Israel, but not always. And sometimes many deaths are attributed to it, on both sides of the war. God’s unpredictable power at work, supposedly.
Once David becomes king after Saul, he decides the only place for such a significant item is in his new capital. But Uzzah dies after reaching out to steady the Ark when it rocks on its ox cart. David gets scared of it, and leaves it nearby for a few months. The lectionary leaves out that part. But good things happen to the family who kept it, so he goes back to get it, and that’s where today’s passage picks up.
David is in high spirits, clearly. And taking off his clothes to dance in the road as the procession got near Jerusalem was a way of showing his exuberance. David is gathering up religious power to go with the military and political power he already has. And if he had appreciated that the Ark was about liberation, people power, things might have been different. But David, the one time shepherd boy, now has a taste for the high life, what is often called entitlement these days. “I’m the king. If a see a woman I want, I can have her, even if she is married to someone else,” for instance. The story of  Bathsheba and Uriah, coming up in two weeks.
We all have power. We can use our efforts, our words, our money for different kinds of things, for ill or for good. We can be cutting, or we can be kind. We take and take, or we can mix our taking and our giving. We can support organizations seeking liberation for oppressed and hurting people, or other kinds of organizations. We can treat power as something to be shared, or something to be hoarded.
I called today’s sermon “Power bar,” because the God of the bible sets limits on power. In a famous sermon, Moses tells the people waiting to cross the Jordan, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving your God, obeying, and holding fast to God…” Choosing life means observing the commandments, all of which set out limits to the power of individuals and the community as a whole.
Jesus is offered unlimited power as a temptation before his ministry begins—food security, power, immortality—but he says no. He sets a limit, a bar on his own power, it seems. Moses and Jesus and many other heroes of the bible are reacting to the limitless power of Pharaoh, a system that concentrates power into the hands of a very few. “We’re not going to behave like that guy. Only God is all powerful.” And the bible tells stories of even God limiting God’s power. After the flood kills everybody in an effort to clean up humankind, for example, God puts a rainbow in the sky and promises, “I’ll never do that again.”
This understanding of love and power and justice in the bible has inspired many, many people in many circumstances to resist the abuse of power. It often ends badly for them. They end up imprisoned, or tied to a stake or dying in some other grisly way. They end as exiles from their own country, unable to return home. They are smeared or silenced by those they criticize. Journalists reporting on Putin’s government in Russia, whistle blowers leaking secrets about state abuse of power, human rights activists standing up for minorities, women fighting for liberation in almost every society, scientists trying to get their discoveries to the public—the list goes on and on.
We love and admire people who use their power to make others feel welcome or safe or loved. If you’re like me, you’re puzzled by people who want to start race wars, or religious wars, or wars between the sexes. Have they missed a welcome or safety or love in childhood? Are they living out deep, deep needs in unhealthy ways?
We follow Jesus. He heard what happened to his cousin, John. But Jesus did not run for the border, retire or go into some other line of work. He did not launch a vendetta against Herod, start a guerilla war. He re-committed himself to his mission of love and justice. And we love this about him. We love God for this reason. We pray to use our power in ways that make the world more like a garden and less like a battlefield, to use our power in a loving way in our personal lives and as global citizens. We raise the bar for ourselves.
Our power here is remembering the story of liberation, and in working together on the dream for the whole world.
 MALCOLM SPENCER Glen Rhodes United Church july 5 2015
Leaders and the Led

As we read from David’s acceptance of the Kingship of Israel he needed to check with the leader of the tribes and the people as to the succession and even though he had been chosen by the prophet when he was a very young man. He was the son of king Saul and he had fought to have the kingdom and beside his first love Johnathon only to see his father’s death and Johnathon’s death which we read last week his grand eloquent tribute to the two men in his life. Now after all that bloodshed can David begin his life as King? The leader of his people begins with consultation and he needed support for others were prepared to fight for the crown and David would see more war.

The gospel reading shows how Jesus could not find support in his home town so he went to other villages to teach and heal and sends out twelve to preach and heal in his name, he trusted that they could extend his mission out further and tells them to accept hospitality but if is not given leave and continue you work among those who are open to you ministry. Jesus let go of day to day supervision of the disciples and helped them understand their role in the community to be teachers and healers in his name.
Jesus saw his disciples as friends who knew what he was about and who could bring people into his caring ministry. He was the kind of leader who could let his friends represent him in the community. David had to depend on his many followers land friends to support his reign and wars that occurred for it come to pass,
A few years ago I took a management class which was mandated by the hospital where I was the chaplain = most of my management was volunteers but I did the scenarios offered in the work book and they seemed to be helpful suggestions for having a more workable and less tense workplace at the end of the workbook was a stark statement that said , We have been doing this work for 30 years and find that the vast majority of people that participate do not follow these ways and fall back on poor managerial style that causes more tension rather than helping it.

So it is pretty clear it not easy to work with others in a positive was all the time but wider consultation can help and does help.

Kings in the past felt the burden of leadership when they did not trust other to be loyal and like David spent long years in war.
And many times it feels like we are called to small wars over situations we encounter but here is Jesus rejected by the people he grew up with and yet he with humility and compassion calls his disciples to  go out with no weapon or no preconceived attitude with scant preparation and he expects them to heal the sick in his name and to experience rejection but keep on going in caring for others and allowing Jesus message to go out to more and more people. This trust suddenly gave the disciples courage to be more than they could ever imagine they could be.

Trust often comes after experience of learning and Jesus knew this was the time for the mission to grow and for them to be able to take his message beyond what he could do himself.

The burden Jesus prescribes is light and can walk away when rejection comes and can stay when interest is expressed.

This is basically our call as Christians to be present in Jesus name to bring hope and love into our own lives and others we meet.

We have this healing and encouraging ministry with plenty of support Jesus sent out his disciples in twos so they would not be alone. Often when we have more support we can do more and we find we are able to do what we were not able to do before.
\\I am sure that those Presbyterian church folk that deliver food and blankets in the middle of the night in New York city did not do that as individuals but as a congregation which saw human suffering in a rich city and meet those needs, and they grew in understating new neighbours, They brought hope top those with various problems poverty brings and they lost fear of these problems but for many years braved the night city as beacons of light.

Leaders and Followers often are the same and can do great things when this happens.

Jesus said I call you my friends and friends know the secret of how to support and care for each other and that is the way we act as healers and encouragers and hope bringers in our community. This is the easy task of summer in the good weather to let the community know we are here and offer hope and insight into the many demands the world imposes. Our workbook will not end with a negative statement that this process did not work – we know the situation most people are in feeling many burdens toxic work places, expectations that stagger the mind but we have the lightness and compassion that Jesus brings and this frees us to be creative and daring and open to new things and set free to be a disciple empowered with others to bring the light of hope and  Joy back into our lives burdened and lives of others who are just getting by day by day./

Two by two Jesus sent his friends to heal and teach, this was the beginning of the church as the light in the community and this is the church today. We do Sunday by Sunday the work of praising God and fueling our engines.  We go out with enthusiasm and hope to a world of problems violence and conflict – we choose compassion and humility and we have the best of leader who trusts us to do the right thing and who offers forgiveness if we fall.
Let this summer be a time of refreshment for your spirits and for you’re seeing Christ right here in our community.

Let us pray
Loving God we thank you for helping us navigate our way in our lives and for showing the ways of humility and peace and courage you show us in Jesus AMEN

“Walk this way”   Robin Wardlaw June 14, 2015

Pentecost 3, Year B

Readings: (1 Samuel 15:34—16:13); Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6–10, (11–13), 14–17; Mark 4:26–34

I’m open to further enlightenment about the Aerosmith song, ‘Walk this way.’ I only knew the title and the somewhat repetitive chorus before. Now I’ve read all the lyrics, but I’m not much further ahead. It seems to be about young people in high school beginning to experiment with their sexuality. The singer claims to be a loser, not able to connect with the opposite sex until the girl next door gives him a kiss, and tells him to “walk this way.” Does that make sense? To anybody? Not to worry. We’ll come back to it—to the title, anyway.

Walking, journeying—these are big images when people are trying to talk about meaningful parts of their lives. An early hit novel in English is called Pilgrim’s Progress. Well, the full title is a bit longer: The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream. John Bunyan, 1678. Nelson Mandela called his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. People are always quoting that Chinese proverb about the journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step. We talk about our journey through life. We go to Spain or somewhere to walk an actual path as a spiritual exercise.

We have to use some metaphor. Life itself is so hard to pin down, so slippery. Days comes and go. We remember lessons and values we were taught, and we’re always learning new ones, too. We try to take in all the sights, sounds, conversations, silences, looks, absences around us to make sense of it. As we age, time seems to speed up. Where did that day go, that month, that year? We experience joy, jealousy, despair, shame, exhilaration, satisfaction, envy—and the list goes on. Sometimes all in the same day.

Our “walk” is not simple. There seem to be detours, wrong turns, idle times when we’re not going anywhere, apparently, busy traffic, lonely paths, the Slough of Despond, to use Bunyan’s expression, unexpected cliffs or canyons. We would love to be centred, grounded, mindful, calm, alert, responsive, faithful. It’s so hard. Old habits resurface, temptations abound, we lose focus, we lose loved ones, we lose the thread.

We need others. We need guidance. We need reassurance. We need honest counsel from time to time. Am I making a mistake with this decision, person, pace, expenditure, perspective? Yes, you are. Don’t go there. Remember your manners. Remember your life goals. Remember your umbrella.

We had a reminder at the annual meeting of Toronto Conference of the United Church last week about a practice of First Nations. When they are finishing a prayer or ritual, they often say, loudly, “All my relations.” The mind, the soul, is directed outwards. A person reminds herself that she is in connection. Relations can be two-legged or four, furry or scaly, a plant or a rock. The person saying, “All my relations,” is putting themselves in relation to every other part of creation, remembering their place in creation.

The Truth and Reconcilation Commission didn’t use the journey image for its report. Instead they went with time: “It’s Time for Reconcilation.” We come back to time as an image next week, when we hear Paul talking about the acceptable time. This week we have his somewhat mysterious language about being at home or away: at home in the body… away from God. “We are always confident,” he tells the church in Corinth, “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:6)

Is that how it is with you? Do you feel you walk by faith? If so, you are lucky, blessed.

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:16-17)

A human point of view. That would be before the eyes of the heart were opened. It seems as if, for Paul, a human point of view is bleak. It puts others in a poor light. If someone is in Christ, he says, “…everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” We tend to look at ourselves from a human point of view. We can be so hard on ourselves. Paul is calling us to see ourselves, and everyone else, as those who have become new.

Back to walking. If you’ve been involved with theatre, you’ve probably been through an exercise on walking—learning a neutral walk, and then trying out different walks in order to portray different characters. Apparently there is now some recognition technology that can tell us all apart by our walks. That’s how distinctive they are.

But the question a person might want to have answered is, Can I change my walk? Can I learn to walk in faith, as Paul puts it? Not with my eyes closed, but seeing differently. Maybe with a distinctive gait of my own, but in the footsteps of the greats, the saints, maybe even the footsteps of Jesus?

Jesus doesn’t use the journey image for a person’s faith life. He uses many others, though. We have two of them today, both from agriculture. The kin-dom may be small, now, like a… seed, for instance, but it can grow. It will grow. How? It’s as mysterious as a seed sprouting from the earth. How does that happen? No one knows. (Well, no in Jesus’ day knew about cell biology.) And how big could it get? Think of a mustard seed. Tiny. But once it gets going, birds can come and make nests in its branches.

There is no walking, no journey. Seeds stay put. Instead of talking about getting somewhere, reaching toward a destination, Jesus is talking expansion, right here in the same potato patch, from small to great.

This stuff doesn’t just happen, though. And it doesn’t happen because we have a goal of getting into heaven, or something. It happens when we forget about ourselves, find another focus, another purpose. If we don’t know where we’re headed, any direction is a good one. You may have set a purpose, an overall goal for your own life. Many of us are not quite that organized. We’re glad to be part of a community that has a purpose, a community such as this one. It’s on the front of your bulletin.

But it’s still not easy, even as part of a community. We have to remember it. We have to own it somehow, consider it a priority in our lives. We have to work on it together. Together—there’s a challenge all in itself. We disagree slightly on the particulars, or how we should go about it. We come at things differently. Some of us are quick to talk, others need more time. Some of us like to get to a decision right away, others are thinking that perhaps if we knew a bit more we could make a better decision. It’s a miracle anything gets achieved.

But it does. Somehow. In two weeks we celebrate twenty years of being an Affirming Church. We’ll remind ourselves of how different the culture was then, and remember what was involved in taking that giant step for humankind together. Now it’s no big deal to be Affirming. Everybody’s doing it. The vision communicates itself to others.

Hundreds of people every month get a life saving assist downstairs at the drop in and food bank. That started thirty years ago. Very few of the volunteers these days are church people, or at least involved with this congregation. The vision, though, communicates itself to others, who pick up the tasks and carry on the work.

So if one of the big tasks, the big challenges, the big privileges of this age is reconciling indigenous and non-indigenous people, what can a church do? Or more specifically, what can this church do? Next week we have an elder coming at 9:30 to smudge us and teach about the four directions. That’s a powerful ritual of First Nations. The smoke from the sage or cedar or sweetgrass or tobacco is a bit like the water of baptism—it cleanses us. The difference is that people smudge more often, sometimes at the start of every day.

Do we want to cleanse our thoughts and feelings? That’s what non-indigenous people have to figure out. No, change that—the dominant culture has to figure out. Those of us whose families have been here for many generations, those of whose faces turn up on the currency, whose ancestors were in the government and the leadership of the churches back then have to figure out how to relate to indigenous people differently. To let go of some terrible images about us and them, images that get in the way of reconciling. How to do that?

The liberation theologians talk about being converted to the poor. Not converted to religion or faith, but the powerful being converted to the powerless. This is the spirit work God is eager to do with us, impatient to do with us, patiently waiting to do with us. It often involves just getting to know the other. The way we did after neighbours in need started coming to us for food. The way we did ten years later when the congregation was getting ready to become Affirming and people had to reach across a divide.

God’s dream is: no divides. Come early next week if you possibly can. Everyone breathes in the same smoke and spreads it over their head, their heart, the rest of their body. Everyone has the same chance to do some spiritual housecleaning. To grow bigger in faith, like a seedling. To start a walk, if you want. We follow the One who lived to bridge divides, the one who smiles and tells us, “Walk this way.

“What a rush” Robin Wardlaw May 24, 2015

Pentecost, Year B
Readings: Acts 2:1–21; Ezekiel 37:1–14; Psalm 104:24–34, 35b; Romans 8:22–27; John 15:26–27; 16:4b–15
 “Like the rush of a violent wind”—that sounds like Acts, chapter 2. “What a rush”: that sounds like a saying from the sixties or the hit by the band Crowbar. A big spiritual high and a big high, maybe. The bible has been banned here and there over the years. The song, ‘Oh, what a feeling,’ was banned in the US. Regulators said it promoted drugs.
The song was co-written by two members of the band. One of them, Kelly Jay Fordham, says no, the song was never about drugs. “It was written in 1969. Man walked on the moon. Woodstock. The summer of love. It was written about the times, about everything that was happening. The song was meant to be celebratory.” It was a hit in Canada and many other parts of the world. The book of Acts was written a long time ago, by the person who wrote the gospel we call Luke. It was written to be celebratory. It has been banned here and there along with the rest of the bible over the years, and it’s been a hit all over the world. All these writers are reaching for some way to describe that feeling, the rush, that comes over a person or a group sometimes.
It seems as if people gathered together in Jerusalem some time after Jesus’ death, to grieve, maybe, to remember, to wonder. Then one day it clicked: God wasn’t gone because Jesus had been killed. The Holy Spirit had not “left for the coast” as Leonard Cohen put it, but was affecting, infecting them with…hope, joy, commitment—what would you say were the feelings rushing through them?
None of us were there for that spiritual high in Jerusalem, and the writer of Acts probably wasn’t either, unless he or she was very young at Pentecost and very old when they put pen to paper half a century later. But many of us were around half a century ago for the “summer of love,” Monterey Pop, Woodstock, the moon landing. The world came to Montreal for Expo 67, and a hundred thousand hippies went to Haight-Ashbury to hang out and do mind-altering drugs.There was a brief time when it felt as if a corner had been turned, as if peace, love and grooviness were here to stay.
It looks as if the Spirit doesn’t like to hang around such happenings, though. Drug users talk about “chasing the high,” trying for the feeling they got the first time they used some drug. The spirit didn’t last in Montreal or San Francisco or Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York. We don’t know exactly what happened back in Jerusalem, whether people wanted the rush of the Holy Spirit again and again, but the Occupy-type gathering couldn’t last. Even if everyone chips in all their savings, eventually the groceries are gone and winter comes. And a rush, no matter how exciting, is not the only thing needed for creative ministry.
But it’s wonderful to remember, to celebrate the coming of the Spirit long ago. Why? Because the Spirit keeps re-appearing, with amazing results. Turns out there no point trying to book it, schedule it. But when the Spirit does turn up, we rejoice. People get inspired. People get restored, connected, fed.
There must have been a spirit at those huge Nazi rallies in the thirties, too, but not a holy spirit. We are always having to discern: where is the life-giving spirit, the life-affirming spirit? What feels like the Risen Christ? Ezekiel says it was like flesh coming to cover dry bones, and then breath re-entering those bodies, to give them life. The poet of the Psalm 104 talks about the same thing: “when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” Paul talks about the whole creation groaning with labour pains “while we wait for adoption,” and the Spirit helping us in our weakness, helping us to pray when we don’t know how. (Romans 8:22-23) Breath coming to give life, or new life. The Spirit as teacher, mentor. Different images. And not exactly a rush of wind, a tongue of fire.
In the gospel of John we find Jesus talking at length with his disciples on the night before he died, the Farewell Discourse as it is called by scholars. “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from God, the Spirit of truth who comes from God, she will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.” (John 15:26-27) The Advocate. The Spirit of truth. Certainly not a rush. Classic John: very thoughtful, detailed, almost lawyerly in its thoroughness.
But if we read down a bit, we get something that is a bit like a rush, hidden in the text:
“And when [the Spirit] comes, she will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to God and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”
Wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement. The world had it wrong about those things, all backward. The world thought Jesus sinned because of what people claimed about him. Wrong about righteousness, because the world will see that the Jesus message continues even though Jesus is gone. The big one is number three. The world thought it had pronounced judgement on Jesus, but it is the ruler of the world who had been condemned. Revolutionary stuff. Seditious stuff.
Which brings us to today, to the events in Ottawa next week and to the meal set out for us today. For a long time, Canadians thought First Nations were judged, condemned. The deputy minister of Indian Affairs said so in 1920. He predicted that within a century, Aboriginal people would cease to exist as an identifiable cultural group. Over a century or so 150,000 children were removed from their families and communities and placed in residential schools. More than 4,100 of them died of disease or by accident while attending a residential school. Imagine if one in forty died in any other school system.
Finally, finally the dominant culture realized it was condemned, it had condemned itself with this so-called educational policy. Apologies were made, money offered, a Commission created, hearings held. Turns out the dominant culture was wrong about judgement this time, too, because it is the ruler of this world who is judged when someone like Jesus or a First Nations kid dies, not the innocent made to pay the price for spiritual blindness.
And that brings us to this bread and cup. The bread of right relations. The cup of reconciliation. What we taste here is grace. Those of us of the dominant culture have not earned the right to eat with God, to eat with the people who have been wounded by a culture that dominates. Yet here we are, together, eating and drinking mercy, grace, new life in the Spirit. Here the undeserving and the innocent meet around a common table. Here we may eat and drink with God. Here we have the privilege of eating together, a community restored. Here we get past language barriers. This is a rush, too. Just as powerful as the famous coming of the Spirit in Jerusalem that day. Let it carry us to Ottawa next week where a huge crowd will gather with many strong feelings, and onwards to the beautiful, the life-giving work of reconciliation that comes after that, for ever and ever.

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“Joy Complete” Robin Wardlaw May 17, 2015

Easter 7, Year B
Readings: Acts 1:15–17, 21–26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9–13; John 17:6–19
 What is God up to in Asia? How is the Spirit at work there? If someone says Asia, what do you think? It’s too big to think about as one thing. East Asia, South Asia, tropics, desert, sea shore, mountains? These days we might think of Nepalis, living, and sometimes dying amidst the tallest mountains in the world, scrabbling in rubble to find loved ones. We think of Rohingyas, an ethnic minority fleeing persecution in the rainforests of Burma/Myanmar, clambering into crowded boats these days to flee to Malaysia, where a chilly reception awaits. We think of the Koreas, China, Japan. Or our neighbours on Gerrard, coming from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh to start new lives here.
What is God up to there? In India women are standing up for their rights in the face of vicious abuse and sexual violence. In Sri Lanka, Tamils continue to insist on justice and respect from the Sinhala majority after the violent repression of their liberation struggle. In South Korea, patient efforts persist to reunite first divided families, and then a divided nation. In China prophetic types blog, protest, launch court actions to protest human rights, labour, environmental and other abuses by different levels of government and business. In Philippines activists continue to draw attention to the effects of American aid to the Philippines military—repression of local people, minorities, and union organizers. In Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam opposition to sex tourism, the exploitation of children and young people, continues to grow. God at work?
Christian history in Asia is mixed, very mixed. South Korea is strongly Christian because of the work of Americans and Canadians, especially Presbyterian missionaries. The Canadians insisted that Koreans could and should become their own ministers and theology teachers. Philippines is predominantly Roman Catholic. China has a small Christian population and on-again, off-again persecution of Christians. Japan is about one percent Christian despite Jesuits going there four hundred years ago. That’s an interesting story. The first missionaries discovered that the Samurai, while a small part of the population, were very influential. They were a bit like the knights of medieval Europe: warriors with a code of honour. The missionaries thought that if the Samurai became followers, it would influence many other people to do the same.
In following this strategy, those missionaries went against the origins, perhaps the DNA of Christianity—namely, it’s outreach to vulnerable people: the poor, people without titles or power. Many Samurai did convert. But the missionaries had miscalculated. Their conversion didn’t have an effect on others after all. Then the foreigners were kicked out and no Christians were allowed back for two centuries. Although Christians are a tiny minority, it seems that fourteen percent of Japanese university professors are Christian. And the small proportion of Christians makes a meaningful contribution towards justice issues in Japanese society. What would have happened if the mission outreach had been to peasants instead of Samurais?
Our reading from Acts talks about how a replacement apostle was named. Judas was dead, and we are led to believe there had to be twelve of them. Matthias won the toss. In our day and age, the Spirit is finding ministers everywhere, and we find leaders coming from Asia to Canada and other parts of the world to preach and teach. This congregation enjoyed the ministry of a minister from Korea for a couple of years, for instance. Congregations of people from Asia dot the city.
Where was I? Asia is not one thing. It is enormously complicated. Yet the views of non-Asian people about it can sometimes be uncomplicated, simple even. Stereotypes abound. People of the dominant Canadian culture can be cruel, ignorant, discriminatory. The rest of us have so much to learn about Asia. I love the story by a comedian of Asian descent. Russell Peters, I believe. His parents came from India to the Toronto area. He and his brother loved that Johnny Winters song, ‘Secret Agent Man.’ For years they thought he was singing “secret Asian man.” Finally, someone on the radio making it cool to be Asian!
Our gospel reading from John today makes us wonder, when will our joy be made complete? Is it enough to follow Jesus, to take Christ as one’s saviour, to use the old language of evangelism? Or is more than that: being sanctified and sent out in Jesus name to make disciples? Or only when everyone has become Christian, as Western Christians thought a hundred years ago? Or something else? When all the garment factories are safe and all the workers paid adequately? When all the buildings everywhere are made safe from earthquakes, or tsunamis, or random bombers? Or all the energy we need is generated in a sustainable way?
“But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” What would Jesus do for the sake of people’s joy? Listen to women, among other things. Where is there pain for people instead of joy? We’re lucky. A couple of women from the United Church, Nan Hudson and Deborah Marshall already did that. They went to Korea, Hong Kong and Philippines in the early nineties to do just that. When they got back they published what they heard from six different Asian women.
Lee Oo Chung, for instance. Hudson and Marshall call her a matriarch of the Christian Church in Korea in 1993. She was also a member of the National Assembly, one of just four women out of three hundred assembly members. Now there are forty-seven women, by the way—sixteen percent. Lee was a teacher at Seoul Women’s College when someone told her that her human rights work made her unsuitable as a teacher. So she left and took up human rights work full time. She realized that evil is systemic, not just personal. Change has to come about through politics and law. So she ran for office and got elected. Now she was told “politics is not decent.” OK, she said, I’m prepared to be indecent. She and the other three female legislators, from three different parties, worked together on a women’s agenda involving prevention of sexual violence, property rights, equal pay and divorce law. Joy complete looks like what?
In Hong Kong, Marshall and Hudson met up with Rose Wu at the Hong Kong Women Christian Council in Kowloon. They heard from a theological student working part time with the Council, Lung Ngan Ling, who was reaching out to gay and lesbian Christians who had been ostracized by their congregations. Rose herself was working among prostitutes, aware that such work might get the women’s Council itself ostracized. Wu spent one full night a week on the streets in order to be with the sex workers and find out their needs. Only Christians at that point were working with these marginalized groups in Hong Kong.
In Philippines the two Canadian women met three different women working among peasant farmers. Rhoda Armachuela was a minister, a ‘pastora,’ working with people who had been relocated from the sweltering slums of Manila, the capital, to Antipolo, a cooler, hilly area east of the city. A cooler, hilly area that would be perfect for a golf course for rich people if those poor people could be moved out of the way. Again.
Armachuela had already had her husband and brother “salvaged,” the Philippines term for disappeared  in Mindanao province where she came from. They were development workers so they came to the attention of the authorities, to someone, at least, who didn’t like seeing poor people get organized. Just a week before this visit by the United Church women two more people, friends of hers, a young doctor and the chairperson of a people’s group had been killed for the same reason. Their crime? They suggested a progressive hymn at a church hymn sing, if you can believe it, and four men with knives were waiting for them as they left.
Rhoda Armachuela confessed her temptation just to work with middle class churches, to “settle in.” But then she realized her place was with the poor, the struggle. She talked about the God who stands with the poor. We prayed her words earlier in the service: “If I do not burn, if you do not burn, if we do not burn, how can we change darkness into light?”
We’re getting ready to talk again after church next week. Perhaps the questions that came to Deborah Marshall and Nan Hudson after meeting with these prophetic women of Asia apply to us. Here are some of them that list for Canadian Christians:
What is the faith that sustains us? For what causes does God call us to burn together as a witness to light instead of darkness? What are some current struggles for you, your community, women in our area? Where in your life experience have you found evil to be “systemic?”
Marshall and Hudson called their book of stories, Crumbs are not Enough. Next week we’ll have communion. Then the following day we’ll serve a community meal. We are determined to feed people, to feed each other here. We’re looking to find Christ in our midst, possibly a newcomer, possibly female, definitely a poor person with whom to share the loaf of God’s loving justice. Not just crumbs. Big pieces, the whole loaf.
Going to Asia, so to speak, even for a short time during worship, helps us to see our own community, our own part of the world with new eyes. And then we have the complete joy of being here with new hands, new feet—the hands, the feet, the eyes of Christ. 

“Branching out” Robin Wardlaw May 3, 2015
Easter 5, Year B
Readings: Acts 8:26–40; Psalm 22:25–31; 1 John 4:7–21; John 15:1–8 
Today we’re thinking about how things grow. The University of Toronto took as it’s motto a Latin phrase meaning, “as the tree grows.” Trees grow by adding rings each year. The original sapling is in there, in the middle. The big tree contains all the other earlier trees inside it. I guess that’s a way of saying, nothing is lost, only added to. Presumably the motto is intended to refer to the way knowledge grows.
The gospel of John gives us a slightly different image from nature, the vine. Vines must have rings, too, but we think of them differently. Vines run along the trellis or the fence, or up the wall. They grow by getting longer. And adding branches as they go.
We want to grow our ministry. We have this purpose, ‘Working to build God’s dream. Help wanted!,’ and we’d like to see it happen, like to see it grow. God’s dream matters because we know the needs, the nightmare of life for many people around here—not enough stability for many of our neighbours, not enough opportunity, not enough fairness. “Let the poor eat until they are satisfied,” says Psalm 22. We know the needs in the wider world, too—peace, justice, right relations. We want good things for others, all others. How do we grow this purpose, build this dream?
Scripture helps us. One clue is in the Acts story, where we see the disciples helping the Spirit to grow the vine. The set up for the story is that Jewish authorities began to persecute the early church as it grew, going into homes and arresting people. Saul is recorded as being part of this persecution. It sounds as if some people take off from Jerusalem to spread the good news elsewhere. Philip, for instance goes north of town about sixty or seventy kilometres to Samaria. The Samaritans had split off from mainstream Judaism hundreds of years before. They believed the place of God’s power was not Jerusalem, but in Samaria.
Philip does well evangelizing, to go by the book of Acts, giving people the news about what God has done in Jesus. Even Simon the magician stops whatever he was dispensing, and becomes Christian. Then Philip gets a message, from an angel, that he should head south again, to the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.
There we get today’s episode about the man from Africa. He was already attracted to the faith of Israel, but hadn’t heard the latest. The vine keeps growing, one person at a time. Word of mouth—Samaritans, foreigners: everybody. After hearing about Jesus, the Ethiopian man wants to be baptized. Baptism is like watering in the graft. In this case it’s significant because the story explains how the faith spread to other continents.
We’re a little rusty in the telling department, though, in the United Church. Some of us stay in practice, but many of us let that part of our faith slip. We could talk about why that is. A certain kind of evangelism has poisoned the well, so to speak, made us reluctant to be people who share the good news. That’s one explanation.
I was passing a game of tennis the other day, out for a walk with our granddaughter. The ball rolled over to the fence near us. As the player came to get it I made some comment about her coming back for a game some year in the future. Without missing a beat he quickly explained how even young children can come for tennis camp, how much it cost and how much they liked it. I’m not sure if this will turn into a future of tennis for our granddaughter, but he certainly did his bit for the club. He had a message to share and he shared it.
Maybe we need to pay careful attention to these bible stories about growing the vine. It’s not as if people don’t come to check out what God is up to here. It’s not as if we have nothing to say. We have this powerful aim for our life together, this beautiful purpose. We need to figure out what exactly we love about the message, the messenger, the community and the promise so that it rolls off our lips in a few phrases, a few sentences. Philip had no qualms about approaching someone who was very different than himself—race, sexual identification, nationality, class, so many differences—and neither do we. We could work on our lines.
The Jesus movement, the revelation of the holy in Jesus is a very good vine to be part of. Sure, people have done some strange things to the message over the last five hundred or a thousand years, tried to make the vine of peace and love and justice produce other kinds of fruit, but at heart of it, at the roots, the same appeal, the same power to change lives and bring people into right relations with each other and all creation is still there. “Let us love one another,” says the writer of 1 John, “because love is from God.” The writer goes even further, and says, “God is love.” Not success, you notice, or power, or military might, or the belly, or fear, or any other thing. Love. There seems to be come confusion around about what is most sacred these days, as always. God needs our help, some people who get this, who will share the message, grow this movement.
“Health and Safety”  Robin Wardlaw   April 19, 2015
Easter 3, Year B     Sunday nearest Earth Day

Readings: Acts 3:12–19; Psalm 4; (1 John 3:1–7); Luke 24:36b–48

“Peace be with you,” he says. Yes, please. Nice offer. No objections from me. Right away would be soon enough. I’ll take a double helping. It’s the right thing, the good thing to offer. Peace. We have our peaceful moments, when everything seems to be arranged just so, and we can exhale, then breathe in the moment, give thanks, luxuriate in the feeling. But peace is so fleeting, isn’t it? Here comes another wave of demands, or irritations, or hurts, or pains, or fears. To still the little voices inside that get us worked up, or pressed down. To banish the anxiety, calm the fears, ease the sadness would be most welcome.

Today’s readings point us in the direction of peace. I called the message “Health and Safety,” two words, but they are both features of the one word. You could add other words that help define peace: happiness, satisfaction, well being, feeling valued, feeling loved. You have your own, no doubt.
says this, “Peace be with you,” to disciples, when he’s supposed to be dead. When he is dead. Who knows how those followers were faring in the days and weeks after Jesus’ execution. Some reports say they were fleeing the city. I’m thinking of the story about the road to Emmaus. Other reports seem to suggest they hung around the city. They were terrified, but they hung together. They locked the door, but they were there, talking, trying to make sense of it, the way you do after a shocking death. And when they were together they experienced him. Somewhat the way we do, when we gather in Jesus’ name.
Many of us have been in groups when someone started to make everyone feel panicky, agitated. Anxiety can spread like wildfire, as I’m sure you know. Have you ever been in a group when the opposite occurred, when anxiety started to go down, as if someone had poured oil on troubled waters? That’s what seems to have happened with these early followers. They got their act together, realized they still had a mission even though Jesus was gone. By the time we get to the story about Peter and John in Acts, once terrified disciples are sounding quite confident and calm.
The passage in Acts we heard just now follows the first half of the story. Peter and John enable the healing of a lame man at the Temple. Everyone knew this man because he was there every day begging for alms. People carried him in and left him there at the entrance for the day. Not this day. Now people saw him up, standing, with the help of the Jesus people. Not just standing, jumping, praising God. Amazement, awe, confusion. We hear Peter explaining it all to the crowd. As Luke tells it in Acts it starts out as a kind of “I told you so” speech. Jesus has been filled with God’s power. You remember Jesus, the guy you handed over to be killed? Then a change of tone: You acted in ignorance, as did the Romans. No hard feelings. In fact, it was meant to be this way, that Messiah would suffer. And you know what? You’re all basically like this guy who is dancing around shouting hallelujahs. You too can be healed, except in your cases, it would be not your ankles or legs, but injuries to your souls, your spirits, caused by your sin. Repent, and you can be made new. Like him.
Two stories, two words. Two features of peace. Health: God’s power in Christ can make you better. Safety: God’s power in Christ can protect you from the bad guys. Health and safety. And other good things.
Things have changed quite a bit in two thousand years. In some parts of the world Christians are still a persecuted minority, as we keep hearing, but in many parts of the world, including ours, Christians are the majority. We don’t have to hide for safety in locked rooms to talk about Jesus or our faith. In fact we could talk about it loudly on the sidewalk and people would just walk around us, averting their eyes, likely. In some parts of the world, healing is still a precious commodity, and potions and spells are about all that’s on offer. But around here we have a highly-developed health care system that addresses most, if not all that ails us, from our ankles on up.
Instead, those of us on the planet who enjoy health and safety, for the most part, worry about the planet itself. Earth Day coming up on Wednesday is another excuse to turn our attention to it. Could anybody in the first century imagine humans bringing to the whole planet to its knees, to the point where it had to beg for alms, hoping for charity from passersby? Could they imagine whole species, whole forests, whole ecoystems needing to lock themselves in rooms for protection?
That’s what it’s come to, hasn’t it? The tables have turned. People who take Jesus’ name, who consider themselves followers have, for hundreds of years now treated earth as if there is no tomorrow. We rummage around below ground for minerals and oil, we chop down forests as easily as shaving, we spew our waste into the air, the water, the soil, we vacuum the seas for fish—and on and on.
The planet needs a Health and Safety Committee, somebody to set some limits, to protect it…from us. Our faith enters into this. Or it could. Christianity is still trying to figure out a creation theology. Individuals Christians are still trying to figure out how to integrate our faith and our concern for the whole, wide world, how to put those two things together. How will this happen? Christianity might have to pay attention to different voices, voices from the margins. It was our First Nations sisters and brothers, for instance, who got the rest of the United Church to change the New Creed thirty five years ago. The creed had nothing about the world until they suggested the line about living with respect in creation. What a great way of putting it. Living with repect. In creation. Not respect for creation, as if we were somehow separate from it, but in it.
Christians might have to listen to women, to visible minorities, other parts of the world that still move at walking speed. For centuries we took this concept in Genesis, chapter one about “dominion over” nature to mean we could do what we wanted. Look where that got us. Now that we see the results we’re trying to walk a different path. What about our grandchildren, their grandchildren we wonder? What kind of planet will they live into?
The people who designed the Fukushima nuclear plant apparently said there was no foreseeable force that could destroy it. Radioactivity has now been detected in minute amounts in sea water off the coast of North America four years after the meltdown. What can we foresee? This ship is unsinkable. This war will be over by Christmas. These Olympics will not have a deficit. This chemical poses no risk. This country will be an energy superpower. Our record of anticipating the unexpected is not that good. We’ll get back to the earth in a moment.
But first, this is the part of the sermon where you turn the spotlight on yourself. Is the preacher giving me a mixed message? On the one hand, he’s talking about having peace within. On the other, he’s making me anxious about the planet. What should I believe? What should I do?
What should you do? Jesus isn’t a giant rabbit’s foot—hang on to him and you never have to fret, no harm will come to you. And the Christ is not a worry wart either—be afraid, for my sake. Do you have times when you feel like you could just go into one of those safe rooms and lock the door? Do you have times when you feel as if your woundedness is on display for all to see and all you can do is beg for help?
You don’t want blind faith—swallow this and never have to think again. But you want some faith, enough faith, the right kind of faith. Maybe it’s time to up your game. The lesson for today that we did not hear earlier is from 1 John, chapter three. “See what love God has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” (1 John 3:1) That sounds good. Where is the writer going with this? “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” (1 John 3:5) Okay. Got that. Don’t sin. And then the real point: “Everyone who does what is right is righteous,…” (1 John 3:7a)
Everyone who does what is right is righteous. This is what makes 1 John famous: the connecting of faith and action. We get into this more next week, when the 1 John passage is even more explicit about the connection. It’s good to believe in a God who heals and protects, but it’s better to do something about it would be a way of putting it. In other words, rather than getting anxious about the planet, get going, do something, if you aren’t already. And I don’t just mean compost, or go easier on the accelerator when you think about it.
Our leaders can only go as fast as us. If they don’t hear from us, hear our compassion, our rage, our determination, our impatience to have a serious discussion serious attention to what we are doing to the planet, they will not move…on climate change, or pollution, or sustainable industry. Our ancestors in the faith seemed to get this message. They did not turn into a Jesus Society, holding annual conventions where people could tell their best Jesus stories. They realize from Jesus that God has an agenda, a purpose on earth. Suffering and poverty and oppression aren’t part of that picture. And if humankind is going live into that purpose, squelch its worst tendencies and reach for its best, it’s going to take some oomph, some organization, some hitting the bricks. So they got out there, they organized to meet human needs. And we have the results: public schools for everyone, public health care, the rule of law, other good stuff.
Maybe you’re already there. Maybe you’re routinely spending extra time at the computer signing those online petitions for the environment and other good causes. Maybe you already donate to the Suzuki Foundation or Greenpeace or something. But maybe there is something to do right here. These people all around you here care about the planet. But we’re not set up at church to do much more than sort our garbage and recycling better and bring dead batteries to church in the fall. We could be joining our voice to the others calling for real change, health and safety for the planet. If we found our voice and raised it. We could be doing what is right in the power, in the name, in the footsteps of Christ. Could doing what is right be good for our souls? Could outer activity be a way to inner peace? The bible seems to think so. We could try it and find out.

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“What’s so funny?” Robin Wardlaw April 12, 2015
 Easter 2, Year B

Readings: Acts 4:32–35; Psalm 133; (1 John 1:1—2:2); John 20:19–31

Easter can be so intense, so there is an old tradition that the Sunday after Easter provides a change of pace. In fact, we have some fun. Let’s see what happens.
“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.” (Acts 4:32) Little known fact. When they got together in Jerusalem that week, people had contributed forty-seven crock pots, twenty-one blenders, a bag of flour and a George Forman grill. One of the disciples, Eggplant Ellen, had to say, quite loudly, “everything they owned was held in common.” Then they got a frying pan, blankets, some olives, lentils, wine and some oil. There was some initial reluctance, in other words, before the hearts and souls merged into one. She was called Eggplant Ellen because she had purple hair. No one else has this information, by the way. Only yours truly. So don’t try to google it.
Second little known fact: “How very good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity!,” was written by a parent with many children, many squabbling children. She had tried everything else—threats, cajoling, tears, bribes. Then she put pen to parchment, and voila!, a beautiful psalm about how God is so much happier when sisters and brothers get along. Just so you know, though, it didn’t work either. She had to go back to, “Just you wait till you have children of your own!” Never mind. Hope springs eternal for parents of more than one child that they will somehow, some day, get along.
Third little known fact: the gospel reading today is John trying for humour right at the end of his gospel. So serious, that guy. But then into chapter twenty comes Thomas, the Twin. It helps if you see this scene being done for us by the Monty Python gang. “We have seen the Sovereign.” We are thinking of various responses Tom could make—eye rolling, laughter, sarcasm, asking if his friends feel well. The gospel writer comes up with, “Unless I… see the mark of the nails in his hands, and… put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Not exactly a knee slapper, so you have to use your imagination to see him all serious while the others nudge each other and say, “I told you, I told you he’d say that.”
There’s a line somewhere between irreverence and disrespect. We’re trying to have some fun with our stories today and not veer over into dissing biblical characters or writers. These stories today are beautiful. Imagine the feelings as the Holy Spirit grabs everybody and they start to live communally after that first Easter: the laughter, the joy, the togetherness, the tenderness. Maybe they were all earnest, but I doubt it. We don’t want to miss that post-Easter joy as we let our hair down a little. It is great when people who haven’t personally experienced the Risen Christ have faith anyway, when people live together in unity. We are certainly getting a good look at how it is when we are bitterly divided—behaviour by some police officers toward racialized people, sectarian struggle, civil war. Not funny. A great concern to us as people of faith and conscience.
But we are not doing the world any favours if the sins of the world make us miserable all the time, if our faith leaves us sourpusses. Easter means we have an ace up our sleeve. Our faith is based on this story of amazing grace, wondrous love that is not stopped by fear and death. When we look around us, even at terrible situations, we see beyond present distress. We see people who are loved, cherished, worthy of full, peaceful lives free of suffering and oppression. Do we have to adjust to a world of outrageous behaviour and become gloomy or does the world have to adjust to a gospel of liberation?
You may have heard the one about the battleship. A lookout on this huge ship spots a light far ahead, off the starboard bow. The captain orders a signal be sent: “Advise you change course twenty degrees immediately.” The answer comes back, “Advise you change course twenty degrees immediately.”
The captain is angry. He orders another signal: “I am a captain. We are on a collision course. Alter your course twenty degrees now.” The reply comes back, “I am a seaman second class, and I strongly urge you to alter your course.” Now the captain’s furious. He says, “Send this: ‘I am a battleship!’” Right away comes the answer: “I am a lighthouse.”
We are not a battleship. We are more like a lighthouse. Well, make that seaman second class. We didn’t build the tower, we don’t make the light, and we’re certainly not the rock on which it all stands. We just aim the light, and keep a watch. We can’t make others change their course, only tell them when their course is heading them for danger.
We’re like the guy who calls his friend from the freeway on his brand new cell phone sounding a little stressed. His friend hears where he is and says, “Be careful! They just said on the radio that there’s a nut driving the wrong way on the freeway.” “One nut,” says this guy, “there must be hundreds of them!”
That’s us, driving the wrong way, against the flow. We have a message to share, and it’s a little counter-cultural. And some of us also have considerable life experience. Our ministry, our mission is not to just to share good news about Jesus Christ, but also to pass along to each other tips on how to share. We’ve tried different things. Some of them worked, some of them didn’t. It’s like the wallpaper. I’ll explain.
A young couple moves into a new apartment. Their neighbour across the hall is very sweet and welcomes them to the building. They’re just inside his apartment a few days later, and one of the young people says, “Oh, what lovely wallpaper! Our living room is the very same as yours, and we’re thinking of papering ours, too! Where did you get the paper? How much did it cost?” Their neighbour generously tells them. He warns them that the paper is a bit pricey. The young couple goes away and thinks it over. “Let’s go for it. It will be worth it.” On their way to the store they knock, tell him they’re off to buy paper, and ask him one more question: “How many rolls did you buy?” Answer? “Seven.” They buy the paper and get busy. It goes very well until the end. They have three rolls of paper left over. The next time they see their neighbour, he asks about the living room. They explain that it went well, and then they say, “But we had three rolls left over.” “Oh,” he says, “that happened to you, too!”
No, we share. That’s a story of how not to do it. We share food and meals, we share joys and tears, we share information. We put effort into unity. That can be hard work. Not always, but sometimes. Laughter is such a rich treasure in that department. Easter joy pushing aside heavy stones of fault-finding, superiority, irritability—the many things that can get in the way of unity. Especially if I can laugh at myself and my own foibles.
Here’s the last story. This one’s not from the bible, either. A snail was mugged by two turtles. The police asked the snail for details. “I don’t know,” says the snail, “it all happened so fast.” And just like that our holy hilarity is over. So fast. Well, the hilarious sermon is over. The humour can continue. Over to you now, to have that Easter joy within so you can bring some Easter, some laughter wherever you go. 
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“Lift up your hearts”  Robin Wardlaw  April 5, 2015       

Easter, Year B

Readings: Acts 10:34–43; Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24; (1 Corinthians 15:1–11); Mark 16:1–8

How do you prepare for Easter? I’m not talking about the shopping or the cleaning or the food preparation, important as those are. I know there will have been lots of that kind of preparation, too, and I hope everything goes more or less according to plan at your house. No, I’m talking about the Easter event itself. We take about seven weeks in our lives to get ready for this whole week, this day. A momentous time in Jesus’ life, and that of his friends and followers. And for us?

It’s a bit like Christmas, isn’t it? Easter’s had some additions to the main message—bunnies, candy, hats, parades, eggs: lots of fun stuff. At the heart of Easter, though, is the overturning of the world, the world of fear and oppression. How do you get ready for something such as that?

The first disciples weren’t ready for the first Easter. How could they be? What would prepare them for the resurrection? We don’t know exactly what happened to them. Jesus “appeared” to people according to Paul. According to the gospel writers, he spoke, he ate food, he turned up inside locked rooms. We don’t know exactly what happened, and it doesn’t matter.

The important thing is that his band of followers didn’t just blow away like dry leaves. They got over their initial terror and got back together. A miracle. They found the courage to pick up where Jesus left off, to sing his song, to breathe in this alternative understanding of the world. They turned into a community. “Wherever two or three of you are gathered in my name, I am there.” I appear?

Now his followers had to figure out what kind of community they would be. No Jesus to tell them. There was a big debate among his followers. Who could get into this community? Just Jews, people of the covenant? Or maybe others, people without historic credentials, a new covenant. At first, even with Jesus’ example of reaching out to non-Jews, or making them the heroes of his stories, it still wasn’t obvious to those around him how the movement should look. Peter eventually surfaces as the champion of the “everyone can get in” school of thinking, and after a few years they opened up, thank goodness for us. They turned into a community that could evolve, think hard about God’s ways, God’s wishes, and grow, change.

This means that just walking in the door of a church for the second time means you are preparing for Easter. What do I mean? If you come back, you are starting to make some kind of commitment to a community, even a small commitment. And community, inspired, hopeful, joyous, evolving community is where and how the Christ, the resurrection, still happens.

We may come in feeling battered. We may come here feeling all alone. We may come minus hope. This is a place where cardiac care, even heart surgery happens. How does it happen? For one, are reminded here of the story of Jesus’ life and death, or perhaps we hear it for the first time. It takes time for the story to settle in, to reach our hearts, for us to appreciate what Jesus was up against, and how similar that is to so many stories today. Maybe even our own story.

Then we begin to join with others in a common goal, a common purpose. Bit by bit we experience resurrection. Perhaps for us, perhaps in someone else around us. Or for others, strangers, whose lives are restored, whose hearts are repaired because we are all here together, and the Holy Spirit in our midst makes our ministry in Christ’s name much greater than it could ever be if we were working separately.

Something happened back then that turned followers into leaders, filled them with conviction, changed their hearts. It was the little movement that grew. So much lifting of hearts has taken place over the last two millennia because of this expression of God’s love. Another miracle. Countless miracles. But the record is so mixed. So much suffering also has been caused in Christ’s name. Do they balance out, somehow? Has there been more good, or more bad over the millennia? Only God knows that.

The Jesus movement is in some trouble these days, as usual. In places it has gone off on side tracks where Jesus did not go, pursued goals at odds with his goals. It has been adopted as cover by people or groups or nations not interested in servant ministry, compassion, justice-seeking. And here and there it involved in intense struggles for legitimacy and supremacy with other groups, other faiths, sometimes with tragic, deadly results. We weep this Easter with the families of those who have been injured or killed because of their faith.

At Easter, in the midst of it all, we want to know how we can be faithful followers of this surprising, elusive, gutsy Christ. A hundred and fifty years ago Christianity was called a sleep drug by a man who wanted working people to wake up, Karl Marx. “The opiate of the people,” he said. That criticism is still true of some forms of Christianity, and perhaps other faiths here and there as well. But we’ve moved on, in the west, from Christianity to real opiates. Everybody can get drugs if they want them. And many, many of us do, apparently. The recreational drug business flourishes, including here in our own neighbourhood.

It’s a big business worldwide. Trillions a year, by most estimates, to help millions and millions of us alter reality. As a business it’s up there with arms and oil as the world’s three most valuable commodities. People really want to take a little trip, feel different, feel bliss, leave reality behind. And they’ll pay money, lots of money to criminal organizations to get their drug of choice.

What about those of us who worship? Do we use church like a drug, to keep our hearts happy and our eyes half shut? That would be unfortunate, because the world has a few challenges that need our attention, big and little, including drugs, arms and oil. We know the list, and we keep getting sad and shocking reminders of their cost to the planet each week. We spent some time in Lent looking more closely at one of them, one that sometimes goes under the radar, the growth in illegal settlements on Palestinian land by Israeli settlers. We work very hard on hunger in our neighbourhood here. There are so many others.

We don’t just want to give our hearts a little high here, some spiritual chocolate, so to speak. We want God to truly lift up our hearts. This is Easter, our big day. We keep trying to get our heads around this old story. We want to make sense of the senseless suffering in it, and also get in touch with the deep joy of resurrection.

We’re offered so many other choices of what to put first in our lives. Drugs are just one of them. It takes work, it takes courage, it takes faith to make God the centre of your life, to hold on to Easter as your operating system, your prime directive, your path in a world of distractions.

Marvelous things happen here because of Easter faith. People sacrifice time and money and ego and so much more to make this a place that lifts up hearts. God bless you. We could do more, we know. We are sure we have allies by the dozens in the neighbourhood, people who share our values. We need to find them. And there are people out there who need hearts lifted, who don’t have a community for help.

Here’s how we do it, stick together and get inspired, I mean. Here’s the biggest gift coming up—a table with a simple meal on it. A table with a simple meal on it, and a big heart. A table meant for sharing, a loaf that does not belong to us, a cup that brings gladness to us and many others. A freedom meal. Take this bread seriously. Take this cup joyfully. Take Easter deep within yourself today. It is for you, your deepest self. Nourish it like sourdough or something all the rest of the year, feeding it, growing it, and sharing it whenever you can. Be a singer of hallelujahs and hosannas in all seasons.

Your faith does not make you sleepy. This is not a cozy bedroom. This is a banquet hall, and Christ is here, Christ is our host. This is a workshop, a design studio, a cardiac care unit, an operating room, a hangout for people who love with daring and imagination. Get ready. The challenge to lift up your hearts is coming in a few minutes, at the start of our communion prayer. Check out the words written for you to say, to pray, and when it’s your turn, put your heart into it.

“Faith and grace”   Robin Wardlaw   March 1, 2015
 Lent 2, Year B  (Annual meeting)

Readings: Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16; Psalm 22:23–31; Romans 4:13–25; Mark 8:31–38
Can I be saved if I do good things? Let me rephrase. Is my life acceptable to God, am I living out my highest calling if I help, follow the rules, avoid hurting other people, other creatures, keep my nose clean?
Wouldn’t we love to know? Wouldn’t it make things simpler, more straightforward if it were true? “Here’s a list of do’s. here’s a list of don’ts. Do these, don’t do those. You’re good.”
Instead, the word we get, the wisdom we’re offered is less clear, and more uncertain, like real life. There is faith involved, instead of a recipe, a cross instead of comfort.
In times such as these, do we really need uncertainty? Maybe not, but this is the message from today’s scriptures. If you’ve been around the church for any length of time, you realize, that’s about what we have. Not uncertainty about God’s grace. We trust in that. Uncertainty about this path, this faith journey.
This whole place is a miracle of faith. Before our time, other people trusted. They believed. They gave, they worked, they prayed, they cooperated. And so here we are, inheritors of all that spiritual work, that high wire act, that joy.
The risk involved in the life of faith is a cross. Perseverance may be costly. The reward for hanging on, sticking with it is that awe, that delight, that inner smile that comes from stepping out there, doing your best Jesus imitation. We could all just go home and call it quits. That would be easier. And cheaper. But the fun, the satisfaction, the sense of contributing something meaningful is here, isn’t it? Can this group, this congregation, continue to find it’s inner Sarah and Abraham, open its heart in faith to say, “It’s a deal, Creator of all. We’ll put our hand to it, shake on it. You work your magic on our spirits, you assure us that we are made in the image of all that’s holy, and we’ll run with it, see where it goes.”
Grace. How did old Paul put it? “…it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace…” Cliff Elliott was a minister in this city for many years. He used to try to describe grace by talking about it’s opposite, disgrace. Most of us can relate to that. So what’s the opposite of disgrace?
Jesus has this, intensely. A reliance on grace, I mean. When he shares that the life of faith is not a sure thing, not a bed of roses, his friends try to stifle him, correct him. Well, Peter does. It’s usually Peter who wears this sort of thing. “You don’t get it, Pete. The world isn’t just going to sit still when we go talking about God’s dream. There will be push back. This is going to take backbone. But what would you rather be doing? Put your head in the sand? Smile and grin and pretend things are OK?”
Jesus doesn’t talk about grace. At least not in the words we have from him in the gospels. That’s all Paul. Jesus lived it, depended on it day by day. And as we think ahead to what comes after our service today, we remember he did not put himself in harm’s way so that we could have annual meetings. We have annual meetings so that we can get organized to do the daring stuff, the stuff that matters to us, and especially to others, the stuff that asks us for our all.
People are leaving Canada and other countries these days full of intense commitment. They see, they believe that the world is not right. Their hearts fill up with a desire to make a difference. So much so that they are willing to put their lives on the line. Some of them go to work for Doctors or Engineers without Borders and other such organizations. Some of them go to a war zone to oppose the decadent West with violence.
Jesus lived in a time like this. Many people were trying to figure out how to oppose the evil empire. He would have heard all the theories about how violence would work. According to the gospels he had one of the violent people, the Sicarii, Judas Iscariot, in his circle. Sicarii means assassin, or specifically, daggermen. Jesus must have believed he could show Judas another way. Judas must have believed that Jesus would realize that violent resistance was the only way. We know what happened.
Jesus stands firm, but not with weapons. He encourages ordinary people to resist the empire. He helps put them back together when they get broken by it all. He never gives up and he never gives in. His mission depends on others, on grace. His funding was crowd-sourced. The bible says it was women who provided, actually, out of their purses.
Faith and grace. Big themes. Good ones for a day such as this. How did we do last year trying to keep up with him? How will we plan for that which is so unpredictable about the year to come, the leading of the Spirit? We’ll stick together, even when there’s uncertainty. Especially when there’s uncertainty. We’ll be good to each other. We’ll expect wisdom to come out of any one of us, all of us. We’ll pray like crazy to know how to feel and hear and see and receive the grace, the amazing grace that makes each of us whole and unites us as part of the body of Christ

1 comment:

  1. I am happy to say at the beginning of this year, I have met someone else. Someone that is much more suited for me, meets 99% of the critia on "my list" (in the work, he asked me to create a list of the qualities of a man I would like to have in my life). I recently spoke to Dr. Todd again on the phone to touch base and to see what spirits insight were on my new relationship. 13 days from the time I spoke to him, EVERYTHING he said came to pass regarding my new guy. WHAT IS EVEN MORE AMAZING is that after I spoke to him a few weeks ago, I pulled out my notes from our first phone conversation last year, back then he told me about the man I am currently seeing, practically describing him to a tee as well as the timing of when he would enter my life. For the first time in my life, I feel like I am a whole person, on my own (not needing a man) and am truly happy and grateful for everything life has to offer. I whole heartedly believe that this is because of Dr. Todd and the work we did. He always knows best and I will be a life long client. Thank you Dr. Todd!! e-mail: manifestspellcast@gmail.com