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April 14, 2019

Trinity United Church, Beamsville

Colt, Cloak, Crowd … Cstones

Luke 19:28-40

Scott Beckett

In the entirety of this scripture passage we read today, there are a total of four words that begin with the letter “c.” Cstones is not one of them. When I am looking at a piece of scripture, these are sometimes the kind of things I notice. It is in part because I write poetry. I pay attention to how something is written because I know that sometimes, the way that something is told is just as important as the things being told. I don’t think the letter “c” starting a word four times means anything significant to the translators who produced the New Revised Standard Version.

But perhaps you could say that these four words (“When he had ‘come’ near Bethphage” being the other one) point to necessary components in the text: the arrival of Jesus, his “coming,” the colt upon which Jesus moved and fulfilled a prophecy, and the crowd that places emphasis on the event. One of the things that I love about poetry, about reading in general, and about reading Scripture is the multiplicity of ways that we make meaning from the text. Not all meaning is what the author intended, but builds on top of it. Because when you release a story, or a poem, or any artwork to the world, you relinquish control over its meaning.

Well, usually. I did a minor in creative writing when I was doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Western Ontario (Western, as it is more colloquially known). For a lot of creative writing classes there is a workshop component. You have to provide copies of your poem, or short story, or whatever to the class. They have a chance to read it and then will give you feedback. You are not allowed to speak, you simply have to accept the critique and not attempt to defend or explain your work. Except in one of my classes. It was called “The Naked Writer: Fundamentals of Creative Writing” which was in essence a class where we had to write a bit of everything. But workshops were anonymous. You submitted your work to the class same as before but without your name on it. This opens the door if you maybe want to slip in a nice compassionate note about your own story, or try to say “Oh well maybe the authour meant that tree to be a symbol, but what do I know.” Of course it gets pretty obvious when Steve over here, who rips all of the drafts to shreds, starts praising one all of a sudden.

Now, where this gets tricky is when you have friends in the class. Now, I’m a fairly honest person. But the kind of critique I’m going to give to a friend is going to be different—there are alliances to consider when you’re going up against an army of overly-critical young adults. There are about thirty people in a given creative writing class, and I should mention that most of the classes were set up in a long rectangle of tables, so that ideally we could all see each other but that wasn’t always the case. We had gone through five days of workshops and had just a few left to go on the last day. Two of my friends, Eric and Hillary, had not had their stories yet so I knew that their stories were coming up on that day. So we opened with a short story about a guy who is trying to get into art school and coming up against people who are doubting him. It’s got these quirky details and I knew immediately that this was Eric’s story. I did my duty: I said that I found the stakes too weak but liked the details (“they really help you to stand out as a writer 🙂 🙂 :)”). And then we got to the last story, and it fit Hillary pretty well: lots of pining after a life not well-enough lived at twenty-one (but I didn’t call it out, and neither did anyone else—young people solidarity). So I did the same. The class winds up, we get told to get working on out revised draft due to the professor next week and go on our way. Eric immediately catches me in the hallway. “Hey, why were you so mean to my story? It was the one about the whales.”

Now, it’s here that I made my mistake. I assumed that I knew Eric well enough that I would be able to pick out his story a mile away. And yet, I was so sure the art school story fit in with the angsty/quirky guy in front of me that I didn’t even consider the story about the little kid who gets lost at the aquarium and stares at some whales for a page and a half before his parents find him and buy him a unicorn backpack to make amends. Of course, Hilliary arrives soon after to tell me she wrote the art school one, and to this day I still am not quite sure how I messed that one up.

Suffice it to say, humans are not telepathic. And reading is hard. The English language is worse. So when we are trying to understand something at face value we can make mistakes, much less when I’m trying to play Nancy Drew on a Wednesday afternoon trying not to let Steve ranting about how my story about reconnecting with old friends wasn’t edgy enough or whatever he was saying. Steve is the worst.

I think when I think of the events of the Palm Sunday scripture, I feel a little bit confused and conflicted. Because this is meant to be a happy celebration. Everyone is happy, everything goes well, and though we know it’s not a happy few days he is going to be spending in Jerusalem, we feel like for a moment that maybe things won’t turn out all that bad. There’s hope, here. And yet, there is something that doesn’t quite sit right. Some people refer to this story as the “triumphant entry,” pointing to the fact that Jesus is treated like a king. Despite riding in on a colt and not a horse, the way that cloaks and palms are laid down before them and placed upon the animal are indicators that Jesus is not entering as a humble servant, but as a king. Which is an image that are familiar with: if you look at the Palm Sunday hymns in Voices United, that’s the language that we see.

And yet: it seems really out of place. Thinking of the entire story of Jesus up to this point, we don’t see Jesus riding into cities with grandeur and crowds. Usually he’s trying to get away from the city and just go about his work of teaching and healing. Usually he has this incredible humility and secrecy about him and doesn’t want to draw this kind of attention to his activities. Jesus doesn’t try to draw crowds, and actively resists them. So this image of Jesus attracting attention and taking on this king-like position, even tempered by the humble symbols of the colt and the cloaks, it doesn’t fit. If you heard only this Palm Sunday story, you might miss a lot of who we understand Jesus to be and how he proceeded in his ministry. He seems like a prophetic horse-thief, which isn’t the worst thing you could be, but isn’t Jesus.

So who is Jesus? Well, we have to base that off of what we know he did. We know who Jesus is or was because of the accounts that were written about the things he did and the things he said. It is through the words that people said of him that form nearly the whole of what we know about Jesus, along with assumptions we can make knowing the time and place where he lived. There was a joke online that I saw circulating that noted that there is no physical description of Jesus, which someone pointed out wasn’t quite true since he grew up from a baby and was also to fit inside the temple in Jerusalem, so we know he was larger than a baby but smaller than a temple which gives us an upper and lower bound on his size. A little flippant, obviously Jesus was probably pretty average sized for his day. But it points out an important point about how language works. Words and actions are part of the language we use to define Jesus. Words and actions is how our identity is formed too.

What about sports teams? McGill University has eliminated the name Redmen for their male varsity sports teams. This seems like a pretty obvious move: it is a team name with a history of being a negative term for indigenous peoples. In this time, it is no longer a name that is acceptable. Of course, it isn’t all that simple. Most people are aware than the name was not originally in reference to anyone indigenous, but rather just because the players were earring red. But the question becomes whether that matters. Words are a gift, but they are also not totally in our control. What one person says is not what another person hears. Principal Suzanne Fortier said this to that question: ”Intention, however benign, does not negate prejudicial effect. Inclusion and respect are at the core of our University’s principles and values; pejoratives run contrary to who we are as a community.” We are being asked to be intentional with what we do and say, because we are defined by our words and actions. Words are a gift, but they are not totally in our control. We have to be aware when our words cause harm and, even if we did not intend to do so, change our behaviour to do better.

As we in this province go through a time of wondering where money is directed, we have to think about what is says about us. Does it matter that the words “beer” and “alcahol” are mentioned twice as much as the words “teacher” and “teachers?” Does it matter if legal aid funding is being cut, and specifically directed away from helping immigrants and refugees? What do these actions say about Ontario, and what do they say about us?

We define others by the actions they take and the words they say, because if that is all that we leave behind, that is all we can use to tell our story. Just as Jesus is defined by the accounts we have from the gospel, history and memory will look back on us by what we leave behind, the world and the community we build. We help to write the story. Poetry relies on us describing the world as we see it, but we our limited in our perspective—we have to take every opportunity to talk about our own perspective and speak up for ourselves, otherwise we leave ourselves open to misinterpretation. And even then, we need to be clear enough that the reader can know what we mean, and we leave as little room for our meaning to be misconstrued.

Palm Sunday is a time of celebration, but it is complicated. Jesus may not have wanted to come into Jerusalem in the way that he did. His participation in the event feels quite passive—insofar as he does not endorse what is happening. His only wish is to ride in on a colt, to fulfill a prophecy from the Hebrew scripture. He did not ask the disciples to say what they did, and did not ask the crowd together. (Jesus tended not to ask for crowds at any point, but tended to draw them anywhere he went). We have to understand that this does not decontextualize what we know about Jesus, but rather we have to interpret this event through the context of his ministry on the whole, and it does not seem as though Jesus thought of himself as important enough to have cloaks and palms laid before him. It may be that we sometimes we have to go against the grain and play the role we have to play in order to achieve the goals that will truly set our legacy. Which is counterintuitive, but often true. It opens the door to misinterpretation, but a single step out of turn does not define us. It is what we do before and after that puts it into perspective. We don’t need to see Jesus as self-important or king-like. He played that role when he had to, and went back to working for justice as he had before.

We have to endeavour not to judge or identify Jesus on one action. We take Palm Sunday as an opportunity to celebrate the coming of Jesus to Jerusalem, arriving to continue his work in this city and in the temple there. We celebrate that Jesus is continuing to flout authority and work for justice. All things we know of Jesus to be true.

I think the part of the story I forget about most often is the line about the stones. The Pharisees was Jesus to get the crows of people under control, and Jesus says that the stones will speak out even if the people are silent—this situation demands rejoicing, the closest Jesus comes to condoning or encouraging the events taking place around him. This implies a lot of things to me. One implication is that stating our truth is necessary, even if it is uncomfortable, and especially if we feel we may be misunderstood. Another is that words and testimony are a constant part of life. We are always writing our own stories. And that is important to remember. So we need tools to tell our stories accurately and fully, and we don’t have the luxury of four people writing versions of our words and deeds. So we have to live our truth everyday, be clear about who we are and what we believe. The legacy we carry is important, important enough that stones ought to speak of it; stories coded into the land upon which we work and live, land with a complex history that we  are living out in our time

It is through the Word that we come to know the love of God, and it is through words that it was made known to us. Language is not perfect. It can be used for harm as easily as for healing. But it is necessary, and we have to make the best use of it we can. Left to their own devices, words will not save us. They aren’t exactly ethically neutral, but they have no life of their own. It is through how you weave a poem, a story, a life, that they start to take on a character. It is through the telling of a journey to Jerusalem that we begin to understand the here and now of you. The beautiful you that has endured syllables and misspellings and all kinds of run-ins with sentence fragments and commas splices. Jesus used words to speak wisdom, hope, and love among those who needed them most. May your words do likewise, and help to continue this legacy and intimacy with God in Christ.

So ring out with Hosannas to celebrate the arrival of Christ. And if you do not have a voice may the stones of around your feet testify to the same. May our words speak of love, echoing the words of Jesus. May the gifts of the words you hear and the words you say spread what lies in the inmost part of your heart, and may it continue to reveal your worth and your beauty every day of your life, and beyond.

April 7, 2019

Trinity United Church, Beamsville

Four Ships

Psalm 126

Scott Beckett

This sermon is coming at you in four parts. But first: a preface.

A number of weeks ago Jean Roland approached me with the task of writing a poem that she might use in her calligraphy workshop. At that point Rev. Heather and I had just picked all of the scriptures for the weeks of Lent, each corresponding to the workshop from the week before. And so, I wrote a poem for the calligraphy workshop, using Psalm 126 as my “inspiration text,” so to speak. Though it is certainly not a one-to-one comparison in terms of their meaning, I think they both arrive at this theme of connection with ourselves in spite of darkness. In it I talk about four ships, which I named in number for a particular memory I have of sitting on the lakeshore in Mississauga and watching the water and feeling the same kind of warmth and security that I got from this psalm.

But then, of course, you wonder about how accurate memory happens to be. I couldn’t say whether they were six ships or three instead of four. Four may have been inserted by my brain, standing in for something like my grandparents, or for my two parents or two siblings, or some other account of things or events I’ve kept track of in my subconscious.

But instead, I bring you four ships. Well, watercraft: this isn’t the seventeenth century and I’m no sailor. In fact I do not feel much affiliation for boats of any kind, and yet it was quite easy for me to make an exhaustive list of moments I have been on the water in some kind of vessel. And, as luck would have it, I think these moments lend themselves to exploring how I think about compassion, and showing how God, present in this world, brings compassion to us.

Compassion is a tricky thing. The word itself refers to “sympathetic pity for the sufferings and misfortune of others,” but I always thought of it as beyond just that. It is a kind of deep kindness that feels like there is meeting at a soul-level deepness. When we look at the life of Jesus, there were many instances of what I would call compassion that serve as examples of how we could be. But how you have encountered whatever it is you understand as compassion will be unique, and you will have your own vessels that have brought meaning to your shores. The people that have arrived upon them and what they brought will shape your perspectives. Just as my stories have shaped mine.

Let us begin.

Part One: The St Louis, 1938

Okay, so I was not alive in 1938 and did not ever step foot on this particular ship. This was a passenger vessel that during the Second World War attempted to bring European Jews to Canada, but they were turned away and had to go back across the Atlantic. Evidence says that they would later be killed in the Holocaust. This is in an age where country clubs’ RESTRICTED signs were a nod to casual Canadian anti-Semitism, and it was a Canadian official when asked about Jewish refugees who said “None is too many.”

History is not a single story. I did my undergraduate degree in history in part because story is so important to me. How we live our lives today is based upon our actions in the past, and we act and make decisions based on the foundations laid by ourselves and others. But to look back on the past brings up things that I find confusing and upsetting. Somehow, dealing with refugees continues to be an issue. And it seems to stem from a lack of compassion for those we deem “outsiders” and a fear of their unknown variable they would bring to upset a delicate balance in this place. All fears I do not hold, and have difficulty empathizing with.

History is not a single story. You would have difficulty separating out the stories in which there is compassion and where there is not. Compassion is so absent from this story that it causes a level of shock in me. It seems impossible to believe, and we want to forget about it. Yet when I remember the passengers of The St Louis, victims of war on slave ships, of prisoners rowing below decks in antiquity, I know that they are important. The events of the past help us to define our sense of morality, and it is that ethical code that helps us to understand the value of human life. And it is that understanding that I use to understand compassion—the visceral response I get to its absence implores me to do better and change the tide of history. Disrupt the sense of dividing groups of people, and instead understand the value of human life as of the upmost importance, and know that offering help in the circumstance of danger, regardless of who is asking, is an expression of compassion. It is to those in exile that this psalm responds, people who were displaced. It is in this context that they move towards celebration as they receive their home back. God sees them, and God offers compassion. So may we do the same.

“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed” is what the psalm says. For the hopeless, a hand needs to be extended to start the journey out. Compassion is a choice we must make; God shows what it means to choose compassion through God’s love for us.

Part Two: A ferry between Vancouver and Vancouver Island

I was fairly young when my family decided to vacation to British Colombia. It was a vacation with purpose: one of my uncles had been living on Vancouver Island for as long as I could remember and we basically touristed from Vancouver to Victoria, up to Tofino and back again. But part of that was a ferry to the island. And I had been on a ferry before but not one that you drove your car on and to my small boy brain it was kinda neat. We pulled up into our little parking spot after what felt like a really long time waiting in line. Then we had to go up to the upper deck so we all got out of the car. And the cars are really densely packed, moreso than a parking lot would be, and there wasn’t much light. Then my anxious child brain got very worried we wouldn’t be able to find the car. Because it was just so big and there weren’t any markers anywhere. I was with two parents and I was like eight but I still worried about it. But I did get over it, we got to watch the water and before long we were waiting forever to pull our car (not lost after all) off the ferry and continue on.

Compassion is not an easy thing, because our troubles can seem overwhelming. But time passes and things pass and part of the journey into compassion is letting those things go, those things that hold us back from living into the joy. This psalm is adamant about joy arriving to us via God. The word “filled” is used twice, which suggests to me an image of a jug of water or maybe a ferry full of cars, if you prefer. When something is full there is no room for anything else. The world is a little more complicated than that, and it may sound difficult or impossible to let go of all the bad things and just be completely joy. But if you are getting bogged down in the anxiety of the world, consider letting it go. Let compassion in, to displace your fear and your insecurity, even if it only is for a while. Let compassion bridge a gap for you and prepare you to move on with your journey. Compassion displaces fear by filling us with joy; God wants joy for us, especially when it is hard to come by.

Part Three: The Garraway Sailboat

I think if we are talking about a boat with a sail, I immediately think about my grandparent’s sailboat. They still live in Barrie and had Kempenfelt bay right at their doorstep so to speak. I went on it a number of times growing up, and it is not something I did a lot of outside of it. So though sailing never defined my image of my grandparents, it is inextricably linked. Especially since the next two sailboats after that one I can think of were owned by my uncle and great uncle respectively.

But my grandparents did travel a lot. Usually on planes, you see, but it all seems to go together with the general image. And they would collect stories of the places they went that they would tell to us. It was through them that I knew Bhutan was a country.

What I do remember from the stories was the level of profound respect that they had for the people they encountered in these other countries. The stories really come alive when you would hear the way they might talk about a guide they had or a shop owner they talked with. So much of that is echoed in the way that they treated everyone they met: I see you, you matter, you have my respect. That perspective takes a level of control that we don’t always have. Our response to others is often to rush to judgement and avoid the complexity of dealing with one another. We fail to honour our differences. To an outsider, sailing can seem like a complicated business. You have to deal with the changing wind, everything seems to have weird names, and you have to watch out when the thing comes across the other thing so that you don’t get hit and fall into the water. Complicated. But once you get the hang of it, I’d imagine it comes together quite easily. Anything that you practice gets easier. Though people are hard to understand, we have the capability of moving into relationship with one another with courage. We will have the courage to be compassionate in the face of complexity. Compassion uplifts the human worth of each person; God created us to be capable of loving one another.

Part Four: Canoe, Algonquin Park

When I think of my father, I think of a lot of things. He worked as a high school English teacher which meant a few things. We were reading Lord of the Rings and A Tale of Two Cities fairly early on in our childhoods, but also he had the summers off. We would usually go camping a couple times a month, but when my brother and I were old enough my dad started taking us on canoe trips in Algonquin Park. He used to take students on a year end trip for a leadership course, and he had a lot of experience and familiarity with the routes we could take. For a number of years we would pack up for three or four days of padding through the river systems, complaining about the longer portage routes and getting very greasy after four days without soap. Our first year out, there was a bit of a wind storm. Canoe Lake, the one we always started out on, is quite open so there were pretty impressive waves that we were being tossed around on. It took us a very long time, much longer than it would have normally, to get through that first lake, especially with my brother and I being pretty inexperienced at paddling. But of course that became our baseline: “If we can get through that lake in those conditions at that level of strength, we can get through any lake in way less time.

I obviously valued the time with my dad and my brother, especially now that I don’t see them every day. Sharing responsibility and working as a team was good and helpful in terms of learning as well. But why I think of the canoe in the lens of compassion was time I spent alone. After setting up camp each afternoon, we would usually have a couple hours to ourselves to read or look out at the water. I often wandered into the woods behind wherever we had set up. It always felt like there was no one around at all (and for the most part there wasn’t) but it felt so refreshing to just get away from stuff. I’ve said it before but growing up isn’t always easy, and especially at eleven/twelve/thirteen when we had been going for a couple years I was coming up against a lot of identity issues, a lot of uncertainty about whether I was good enough for people, and what kind of person I was becoming, even though at the time I don’t think I would be able to name those as the problems I was having. As much as time alone in your room or walking home from school was good for me to regroup and decompress, the radical departure from normal life and surroundings was freeing. I would sit under some tree, far from any other living human person and just be able to breathe again freely.

I wonder sometimes if I had more self-awareness in those times what I would have been able to tell myself. Away from the pressures of my peers, my society, my family (for the most part), in which I had the freedom to just be in my body and not feel constrained by what I thought I was supposed to be. I wonder if I had more self-awareness if I could have been able to say to myself, “You matter, you are worthy of respect, you are enough as you are.” Of course, I was young. I did not have the words or the wisdom to understand what was happening. But for five years each summer I took a canoe with my family to escape into my own arms of compassion, even if I did not understand it at the time. I took the sorrow of my own life out into the wilderness, and came back carrying sheaves I planted in my time of solitude. It did not solve all my problems, but it helped me to bear the burdens and to love myself a little bit more when that was the hardest to do. Compassion connects us to our inner selves; God believes that you are worthy of compassion. You only need to make ready to offer it to yourself.

Compassion is not always easy. Sometimes it can seem incredibly far away, like ships on the horizon. And you are a harbour. There may be rocks or reefs along your shoreline, and maybe a ship hasn’t come in for you in a long time. But the winds are always changing. Passengers, new and familiar, will arrive on your shore soon enough, no matter how long the wind howls and the storms blow. Keep the light on in the lighthouse, keep an eye on the horizon, and be open to the new experiences that will arrive on your shore. God will come to you in many forms, in wind and in Spirit, and will pour out compassion just as God has always done. I pray that in the songs they write about your life, they continue to sing of the joy brought by God. And I pray that in the song written on your heart, you know that God loves you more than you can ever understand. Peace be with you, in the name of Jesus Christ, the compassionate one. Amen.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Trinity United Church, Beamsville

4th Sunday in Lent

The Gift of Re-Formation

“Fly while you still have wings.”

(Joyce Rupp)

Scripture    2 Corinthians 5: 16-21 (NRSV)

16 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. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

“(Almost) All Things Consoled”

The Rev. Heather Weaver-Orosz

           I’m going to begin with a last minute story insertion, coming out of a birthday party we attended yesterday afternoon and evening.  One of the guests at our table is a retired theology professor from a relatively small Presbyterian seminary near Philadelphia, and he was describing how the various required courses he used to teach meant that by the time some students finished their Master of Divinity, they knew him fairly well.  He said he fell into a habit of starting a story by saying, “forgive me if you’ve heard this little anecdote before, but I’m going to tell it anyway.”  To all the people I’ve run into through the week and recounted a moment in Toronto on Monday… forgive me if you’ve heard this little anecdote before, but I’m going to tell it anyway.

Throughout this academic year, for four Mondays, I’m taking a continuing education piece at Emmanuel College, called ‘Drawing from a Deeper Well.’  Our professor, Anne Simmonds, brings a wealth of resources to each gathering and this past Monday she brought some audio of Mary Oliver reading some of her poetry.  At the very mention of her name, I reached into my book bag and hauled up my copy of Oliver’s Devotions, holding it like a prize.  For the rest of the day, Anne called it a moment of synchronicity; an unplanned but beautiful alignment of paths.

That’s the story I’ve been telling all week, usually with Devotions in my hand.  However, there’s also a piece that precedes that moment of synchronicity, with another that seemed to take Anne by surprise, and me by extension.

We open our class with an extended time of check-in.  It is guided by reflective questions on some of the pre-class reading, as we’re invited to respond with whatever we need to say about where our hearts are at upon arrival.  My heart got stuck on the opening question, which was about the potentially very private nature of prayer.  I was stuck in a moment in Montreal, where I had been for the 2 days before that, when I sat at a breakfast table with just my parents, as I rarely get to do anymore.  In that quiet, tucked away moment, my parents did what they always do before a meal when it is just them or them and me or them and others who know what they’re up to:  they bowed their heads and prayed silently.  We prayed silently until Mum and I sensed that Dad’s head was raised and eyes were open, and then on we went with our breakfast.  His prayer, his movements are the signaler, per se.  That’s how it always was growing up, for him and then for me.  That’s likely how it always will be for him.  And yet, for the first time in 47 ½ years, I felt the distinct longing to know what it is that my father says when he prays a silent grace.  I suddenly wondered what his heart says, and why, after all that he’s set aside from the unique traditions in which he grew up, why is this one piece that he holds so strongly?  It is a question that seems so simple, but one that I’m still cautious to ask, for fear of intruding on sacred space.  However, as I said to my classmates on Monday, after the last 2 years in our family, I’m far too conscious of my parents’ mortality, and I don’t want to leave stones unturned, if you will.

After that sharing, the rest of the class offered their own, and then it was over to our professor, who said, quite plainly, that what she was about to share was not on her list of plans but after what I said about my dad, she felt compelled to alter plans.  She spoke about her mother, and the one year anniversary of her death, at that point only 2 days away.  She spoke about the ongoing journey of grief, and wrestling with who we are as children who become caregivers for parents.  She spoke of questions she still has, that will never be answered now, and then she directed us all to a book she’s been reading:  a book by Elizabeth Hay, that sits on my bedside table.  This book is called All Things Consoled, and it both calls me and scares me.  For Anne, it was just another moment of synchronicity.

All Things Consoled is a memoir, which does not make it unusual.  What makes it memorable, as a memoir, is the combined tenacity and grace with which Elizabeth Hay recounts her parents as people:  not just as her mother and father, but as people; as human beings with stories that began and unfolded for a long time, entirely apart from her.  Here is how her publisher describes the text:

Jean and Gordon Hay were a colourful, formidable pair. Jean, a late-blooming artist with a marvellous sense of humour, was superlatively frugal; nothing got wasted, not even maggoty soup. Gordon was a proud and ambitious schoolteacher with a terrifying temper, a deep streak of melancholy, and a devotion to flowers, cars, words, and his wife. As old age collides with the tragedy of living too long, these once ferociously independent parents become
increasingly dependent on Lizzie, the so-called difficult child. By looking after them in their final decline, she hopes to prove that she can be a good daughter after all.
In this courageous memoir, written with tough-minded candour, tenderness, and wit, Elizabeth Hay lays bare the exquisite agony of a family’s dynamics–entrenched favouritism, sibling rivalries, grievances that last for decades, genuine admiration, and enduring love. In the end, she reaches a more complete understanding of the most
unforgettable characters she will ever know, the vivid giants in her life who were her parents.

You need not be a writer of any kind to know that we all live with vivid giants in our lives.  Sometimes they are our parents.  Sometimes not.  Always they are complicated relationships that both ground and uproot parts of our humanity.  It is the human form in which we live that can make everything so muddy, as we might seek to prove our goodness.  It is the same human form that calls forth the beautiful courage to seek clarity; to process and maybe even to understand that, in the end, there is nothing to prove.  We are loved.  The author, the holy parent of all creation loves us.  Full stop.

I don’t yet know when that point of full stop settles in, in its entirety.  I trust those who tell me it probably had not yet happened for Paul, when he wrote what we call the Second Letter to the Corinthians.  While he had been a follower of Jesus for longer than the folks to whom he was writing, it was still a proportionately short time of his life.  He had known powerful transformation in the course of his faith journey, but he also wrestled with unexpected turns and the light they shone on all his imperfections.  As N.T. Wright summarizes the letter as a whole, “Paul’s second letter to Corinth is very different from the first one.  Something terrible had happened, and we feel his pain from the very opening lines.  In this letter he goes down deeper into sorrow and hurt, and what to do about it, than he does anywhere else, and he emerges with a deeper, clearer vision of what it meant that Jesus himself suffered for and with us and rose again in triumph.  The letter itself comes through the tragedy and out into the sunlight, and has a lot to teach us as we make that journey from time to time ourselves.”  (Paul for Everyone, 2 Corinthians, viii).

Going even more specifically into reflection on this morning’s verses from chapter 5, Madison Johnson, writing for God Pause, says that they effectively summarize “the entire gospel story in a few short sentences.”  She says this portion of the letter “establishes our foundational Christian confession that Christ’s death and resurrection brought and continue to bring new life into the world.  More than that [she says], these words of confession define ministry, showing us how the relationship between God and Christ translates to the relationship uniting God, Christ, humanity, and all of creation.”

Here is my translation of all of that.  The one we often call St. Paul spent a pile of years being less than so.  He wrote with a human perspective on a human dilemma, called ‘trying to get through life without too many unresolved issues’.  He has lots of questions about where he comes from and the vivid giants who shaped him.  He knows there is plenty to process about them and ourselves in turn.  But his response, in this letter, in this moment, is to write not just about them but about the One who can help him in the midst of this very human world.  He wrote about the One called Jesus, whom he had come to understand as a profoundly human and yet powerfully holy embodiment of God’s unstoppable love.  Jesus was the living, breathing, suffering, dying, and living again expression of God’s resounding phrase:  “You are my beloved.  You.  You are my son!  You are my daughter!  You are the pride of my life.  In you I am well pleased.”  Whatever questions you carry, about yourself or others; whatever you wonder about what you could have done or said, differently or at all; whatever remains in partial form and longs for completion; whatever sits tied up in knots and aches for resolution… you are my beloved.  You are surrounded and you are held.  New life is possible.  New life is a process, but it is possible.  It will require some of the hardest work we can imagine – the work of the heart; but it can also be the easiest.  For there is nothing to prove and nothing to earn.  It is a free gift, from God, to you, handed to us by Jesus with gentle strength and eyes that understand.  And that was and is the turning point for all things new.

So I have one more memoir to name for you today.  This one is by Joyce Rupp, who takes up a fair bit of space on my shelves, but this particular one is also on my bedside table right now:  Fly While You Still Have Wings, and Other Lessons My Resilient Mother Taught Me.  Much like Elizabeth Hay’s, it is a daughter’s reflection on a parent, and is a coping mechanism for her own grief on that parent’s death.  It is also a story of transformation, in the process of coming to terms with one’s humanity, alongside the rest of humanity’s humanity.  The title itself is an echo of her mother’s late-life mantra, reminding herself and her daughter that there are things we ought not wait to do, for we know that God is not finished with us yet, and there is no time like the present to embrace healing, for ourselves and those around us.

If the words and the theme sound repetitive, it is necessarily so.  It cannot be escaped, you might say.  For we are all, and always, a work in progress in this life.  But we are all, and always, welcomed and sustained by God, who moves us ever closer to understanding.  In its beauty and in its pain, it is a process of moving closer to who God longs for us to know ourselves to be:  accepted.  Beloved.  An accepted, beloved, beautiful work in progress, with new life before us, again and again and again.

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Sunday, March 24 2019

Trinity United Church, Beamsville

Baked

Isaiah 55:1-9

Scott Beckett

It’s not often that I talk a lot about the process of writing a sermon but maybe this week it will helpful to pull back the curtain a little bit. I think in constructing the sermon and really the whole service it was a lot about finding things that had to do with bread and then finding the intersection between them. The Ruth Duck quote that was on the screen and in the bulletin is from her book Bread for the Journey, for example. And the scripture from Isaiah we heard this morning mentions bread so that was why we chose that as the scripture for today. And, naturally, since I like to start with a story when I can, it’s going to be bread related. And thinking back through my catalogue of memories, bread isn’t tied to a particular story so much. Because bread is foundational, I think. I grew up pretty bread spoiled: we lived down the street from a bakery (walking distance even once we were old enough to be sent out on our own). It was called an Italian bakery but my dad also had spoken with the owners and learned they were Portuguese. So he we would make a joke about when we got French bread from an Italian bakery run by a Portuguese family.

But we often got really good, fresh bread at a lot of dinners, so that was always my experience. When we had meals with extended family, we were usually assigned bread and wine (so how my parents only raised one minister is beyond me). So, by extension, a lot of meal stories I have are bread stories. So then, I thought, tapping away on my computer, what is a bread story? A story with bread in it, surely. But as I said before, bread is foundational, I think. Not to everyone in every culture in the world but maybe bread is therefore symbolic. Bread in Christianity, in the sacrament of Communion stands in for the body of Christ, and it stands in for basic food in many stories. So when I am thinking of a bread story, I am thinking of a story in which something was shared and relationships were built. Foundational. Surely, whether you frequented a local bakery at some point in your life or not, surely you have bread stories too.  As I say, the Bible has within its pages a number of stories with bread in them. A lot of great stories about sharing food together. The passage we read from Isaiah is one of those stories. An invitation is being issued to “come, buy, and eat” directly from God. “Without cost,” God says, producing forth bread, wine, and milk. “I have all of this for you,” God says, “and by the eating of it you are having the best food on offer.” Of course, I think it is safe to say that God may not be talking about the actual food itself, but that what IS being offered is LIKE food. And that thing, is a covenant.

I think it is important to keep in mind the context here. This chapter of Isaiah was written in the sixth century BCE, an was written in the context of the Jewish people returning to Jerusalem from Babylon. The temple, destroyed in an invasion, has since been rebuilt. Positive, all around. But this is where we get this exuberant, celebratory language: God is throwing a feast for the people of Israel and Judea, an outpouring of celebration for the special relationship, the covenant, that exists between them. Because God has finally come through for the Jewish people and is writing the wrongs of the past. It is why King David, the great prophcied king of the past is referenced: David was a symbol of God giving what was promised, a strong leader that would lead Israel to prosperity and security. This is a bread story: David is a symbol, a foundational symbol, of God’s love for humanity. It is a love that has existed for all of time.  The re-telling of the history of this relationship allows us to affirm the way that God has related to humanity in the past, and then contrast that to how we feel contact with God now. Specifically Isaiah is responding to a time in history of exile and dislocation, and the recovery from that state. It is in the moments of separation from familiar and a sense of injustice that we need to be shown that God is with us. We can fall back on our bread stories.  Like how about the time we took bread up to my family in Barrie. My grandpartents had four children, and there were, at the time, I think twelve cousins, so there were a lot of us. We were up for a weekend, and we were all going to go to their church on Sunday, and we were going to sing as a family—Voices United 651 Though Ancient Walls. Now, though we all grew up in the same family there was a range of musical ability in my grandparent’s dining room that afternoon. My grandpa was at the paino, of course, and maybe eleven or so of us were gathered around in a ring around the piano. It was all carefully divided out by the man at the piano, playing choir director: men only on verse three, women only on four. My grandma, true to form as church secretary and soprano, enforced the rules. “Why aren’t you singing? Men you have to be louder. You go stand in the back.” A lot of laughter as mistakes were made, affectionate teasing of the delinquent singers. We muddled through, the performance came and went and that was that. This memory is freely offered bread. It is a reminder of the relationship that I have with my family: a gathered-around-the-piano type of bond that embraces music, faith, and goofing off. A family where we have roles to play and we play them as best we can, coming together always in the end. A bread memory. Foundational.

Of course, bread isn’t quite enough. Because the world is not all sustaining power around a friendly table. In order to be marching back to Jerusalem, you first have to spend the time in exile. It would be an easy sermon to just talk about bread and love and leave it at that, and it would be great if that’s all there was. God presents us with a covenant, but how can we believe it when things are not all free wine and milk? How do we contend with our time of exile, and how can we believe that these exiles are going to end?  The bread story I shared about my family is a good one, and a memory I am quite fond of. But of course, it was a fair amount of time ago and things change. My grandfather was diagnosed with early onset Alzhiemers a few years after this memory. Medicine has made great advances and the process was slow, but music stopped being easy for him, and he wasn’t able to be that choir director that he was in my memory. That centralizing force at the piano fades away and suddenly that sense of unity that we had was missing. The bread story turns a little bit and becomes a reminder of something that isn’t going to come together in quite the same way. Another time we brought bread up to Barrie it was Christmas time. My grandpa was able to play a lot of Christmas songs from memory still, but needed some help in getting going. My grandma, true to form as church secretary and soprano, stood beside him and helped him along, playing the first few notes and singing the opening line and Grandpa would pick it up. It is a sad thing, these mental diseases. Though we still had fun around the piano as a family it is a different dynamic, and there is something that was there that is now missing.  Not exactly a true equivalent to being dislocated from one’s home country, but that isn’t something I have directly experienced, fortunately. Of course, that is a reality that still exists. Refugees and political prisoners like figures from the Old Testament are realities today. We still live in a world where people have the place in their country threatened by a hostile power. Syria, Myanmar, Crimea—and those are all in the last few years. We don’t need to go all the way back to Babylon and Assyria to name thousands of aggressors of the modern world, Canada among them. How have bread stories about visiting a mosque been corrupted by Christchurch, or synagogues by Pittsburgh? An overseas trip you once took despite fears of air travel shaken by a plane crash? Starved of the nourishing bread, we hunger for a sense of place and belonging. We lose the foundation we clung to before.

So what have your exiles looked like? Maybe you are still in a wilderness now, or several at once. Just like we can look at life as a series of collectable breadcrumbs of happy, fulfilling stories, so too is there an underbelly of the bad stuff. They aren’t fully separate, and they aren’t both around at the same time. They demand a response that incorporates both. Suffice it to say, I think this scripture from Isaiah can manage it. This chapter, written in the period of the return to home, is optimistic and recalls the past fondly, but also is not unaware of the present.  Isaiah is sure to mention the awe-inspiring scale of God’s being. God’s ways and thoughts are beyond anything that we can understand.  This could mean a few things, depending on what you believe about God.  It could be that God has made it so that there is purpose to everything, that the period of exile was a means of doing something larger for the people of the time: things needed to happen this way and therefore the pain had a larger purpose.  It could be that God can’t/wont’/doesn’t act in a straightforward manner and time, place and people needed to align in order for God to make the proper action through those individuals and therefore pain is a human responsibility.  It could be that that God is trying to teach us something through the story of exile and needed the return to wait in order to communicate it and therefore the pain is a lesson.

You may believe none of those things, and I would support that as well. As the choir sang moments ago, “When you don’t understand the purpose of God’s plan, bow the knee” which means, I assume, leave it up to God, because God’s wisdom is unparalleled and is doing what is right. I think it’s fair to say we don’t know why sin, or death, or evil exist in the world: God tells us right out in this scripture. But this line puts into perspective the opening of the chapter. God wants us to know that there is a lot in the world that we are not going to understand fully, but we are capable of understanding that God has promised to love us unconditionally.  God knows that this isn’t easy to accept. God asks us “why are you buying the food that doesn’t satisfy you, feeding the thoughts and desires that do not set you up for happiness or success, when I am offering you good bread for free?” We are designed to do it. We seek self-preservation and fixate on the issues that threaten us. God is pushing us to acknowledge the nature of those things as real, but also that we are not going through it alone. We are invited to sit and the table and break bread with God. It is no coincidence that this is exactly what Jesus did with people in his own time. He ate with people in wildernesses of their own, people exiled from their community because of disease, their status, or their conduct. It is no coincidence that Isaiah specifically mentions the so-called “unrighteous” and “wicked” and how they will be pardoned by God and perhaps we have to wonder whether it is those society has deemed to be unrighteous or if they are the parts of society who did the deeming. Bread for thought.

Jesus is a continuation of this covenantal relationship, showing how God’s love is extended to all continuously throughout history. Though many still believe today that Jesus sought to replace the old law and the old ways, Jesus was only building and clarifying on what already existed: a strong connection between God and humanity and a desire for success of this creation that they would build together. There is no denial that pain is present in the world, and God admits that there is no way to properly account for it. But the love of God is meant to act as a beacon of hope, that through all of the exile the intention is for a return to a place when you can bake more bread. That is God’s covenant with us, a story woven into the biblical scriptures. God loves you, unconditionally, and invites you to share in it. It was once told to me that United Church theology was “God loves us,” and our code of ethics was “We should love people too,” which is maybe an oversimplification, but that’s foundational. That’s a bread theology.

What nourishes you? What bread memories do you have? But actual bread, maybe, this time. What feelings does the smell of baking bread bring up for you. Maybe like me it’s a bakery you have frequented. Maybe it is a kitchen and you saw the labour of love that went into it. Was that bread shared at a family meal? A communion table? Handed to someone to needed it? Maybe you just had a really good sandwich yesterday. Whatever it is, hold on to that memory. I hope that it brings you joy, in spite of anything that is circling around it in the background. Despite any circumstance, I define the experience of my family by the time we spent around the piano. Though that time cannot be replicated, it still sustains me and my identity. It is still a good memory. We are told that we need bread for the journey, and relationships we have for one another and with God allow us to receive the nourishment we need to move forward. Wherever we are, the love of God is upon us.

Sunday March 17, 2019

Trinity United Church, Beamsville

Good Soil

Luke 13:1-9

Scott Beckett

Let me tell you a story. I think in everyone’s life there are milestones along of the path of “growing up” that you start to pass. Not everyone’s paths are the same, but I think we all have a story of a growth milestone we passed earlier or later than we expected. And now I don’t know most of you, but maybe some of you in your school days skipped a class. Now, I was pretty good. In high school, I only missed half of a math class I was supposed to go to after getting back from a band trip. In university, missing a few lectures or classes was almost expected, but I only missed two classes: one to go to my high school convocation, and the other to go to a talk by Margaret Atwood. Very cool, I know. But the first time I ever skipped a class was grade one. So maybe breaking the rules had lost it’s appeal by the time I was a teenager.

It happened after lunch, and we were in our recess portion of our break. I was out on a soccer field when I heard the bell rang (not playing soccer, probably doing something else that I don’t remember: probably playing by myself and pulling up weeds or something.) In any case, I went running for the doors, as was common practice. In order to get down to the school from where I was there was this large paved hill that I would have to run down. And wouldn’t you know it, this uncoordinated little six year-old fell. Just on to my hands and knees, thankfully, but it did hurt and going down hill at somewhat of a speed didn’t help matters. But I was really embarrassed so I got up quick as I could and ran down to my classroom. To paint a picture: this was a kindergarten classroom they repurposed for grade one, so you would enter into a little cubby area that had a single user washroom connected to it, and then you would go into the classroom proper. My hands were pretty dirty so I immediately went into the bathroom so I could manage them and also get a proper look at my knees underneath my pants. I’ll spare you the details, but it took a few minutes for me to get cleaned up and have a good cry before I was ready to leave the washroom and face my classmates with a brave face like nothing happened. But it was very quiet when I left the washroom. I peeked around the corner. Our teacher was sitting at the classroom computer, and had her back to me and couldn’t see me. It dawned on me that we were supposed to have gym after recess.

I’m a pretty introverted individual. Maybe some would say I’m a little awkward. That was even more so the case when I was younger. So upon realizing that I was missing gym class, I did not go and speak to my teacher and get myself escorted down to class or something. Instead, I quietly went back around the corner, got a book out of my backpack, went back into the washroom and read for the next twenty minutes or so. When I heard the rest of the class start to enter back into the room, coming into the cubby room to put their gym clothes away, I existed the washroom and just pretended I had been there the whole time. And it seemed to work because no one ever mentioned it. I probably should have figured out how to use that better but I think if we are being honest, I was far too nervous to do anything like that.

But hey, some things you grow out of. I’ve gotten better about being the center of attention, obviously. But that’s just what happens over time: new things happen to us or happen through us that continue to shape who we are. In most of those cases it causes us to grow into being better and more accomplished people. If anything, my first grade brush with delinquency was a lesson to me about self-sufficiency and self-care: knowing that going to gym was only going to cause me distress and choosing to do something I enjoyed following an injury. But sometimes I wonder if maybe speaking up in that situation would have allowed me to become more confident using my voice and helped me to grow in a different way earlier. But that’s just it: our choices affect how we grow and in what direction. This element of choice is important, because choosing not to grow can have consequences. Like getting chopped down by a vineyard owner. Well maybe that’s not a problem that we have to deal with, but if you or I were a struggling fig tree it might be.

In the context of growth, Jesus’ fig tree isn’t doing the greatest. It’s a little stalled out, it’s not really living up to expectations. And the owner is pretty well done with it. But, thankfully, we have a gardener who doesn’t see these unmet expectations. He sees untapped potential. “Maybe,” he says, “we just need a little more time and some extra care and something will spring out of here. It will grow into what we all know it will be. Besides, it might not be the tree’s fault anyway. It might have been planted improperly or this soil isn’t all the owner makes it out to be. Or it has always needed a little more watering than it was given.” But we, like the owner of the tree, can’t always tell what the problem is. In many cases, we don’t have the right expertise, which is why we have gardeners.

So what am I trying to say? I’m saying this: growth is challenging, and it is complicated.

When I am talking about growing, I am talking about improvement, or strengthening, the kind of self-change where you are better equipped to handle the world than you were before. Growth is adapting to new situations with grace and learning from them as best we can. It is not easy all the time, but we can control how we orient ourselves toward growth rather than away from it.

Because it is possible for people to resist growth. There are lots of times when we come across a task that we write off as too challenging, or a perspective that we cannot accept.  In these kinds of situations we opt out of growth because it is challenging. It can be challenging when someone seems to imply that you are not enough as you are, but have to change in order to be good or acceptable. It can feel like we have done all the growing we need to do, undergone enough hardship and should just be able to sit back now and have it easy. We shouldn’t have to be challenged forever. Or maybe it feels like we are growing away from our sense of tradition or our foundational beliefs that are important and should be maintained.

What Jesus is trying to communicate is that these concerns are valid. Ultimately, growth is not a command, but an invitation. Growth is something that God wants for every one of us, but is ready to care for us regardless of how far or fast we grow.

Let me explain: first, we can see God as our gardener. As with all the other plants in the garden, the gardener works with them. The plant is the one who takes in the sunlight and the water and fuels it’s own growth, working with what the gardener gives them as partners in their own creation. And this goes for every plant in the garden, the grass, or the shrub, and every kind of tree imaginable. The gardener cares for every one.

Second: sometimes, a plant might not be planted quite right, or the soil is a little troublesome. That plant might not be ready to grow, or bear fruit or whatever. But this is where the gardener changes tactics. God does not throw us away for a mistake or a mindset that holds us back from living our full potential. God wants us not to shy away from the change, but through the transformative power of Christ, and all the kinds of scriptural evidence, shows us that growth is the way of Christianity and the way of humanity. In our own stories we are constantly developing our own characters and advancing down our path hopefully toward joy, and at least toward a place where we can confront the problems we are faced with in this world. Trees, no matter how well they are planted, have to contend with the wind, with temperature, and with sickness. But each has learned to grow in their own way to stay standing.

God invites us to grow, to live up to our full potential. But if we are not ready, God will stand with us and find ways to encourage us in our doubt and our fear.  But we still have to change. This is a scripture passage that opens with a sequence in which Jesus references two groups of people who had died, saying that the manner of the death wasn’t important, it was their state of being repentant to God that would determine their fate. Which is heavy, I’m not going to lie. It brings up a lot of questions about Jesus’ views on the apocalypse and final judgment, which aren’t things we talk a lot about. But I also think that it is an oversimplification of how Jesus taught. Though Jesus often gave his lessons with an eye to divine judgment, they were also practical lessons about how to live a full and fulfilling life. His call for repentance, in the context of the invitation of God to grow, is call for humility. Jesus wants us to understand that God loves humanity unconditionally, but also that in exchange it is good to accept that love with the desire to do good with it. And growth is part of that process. With humility, we accept that our role in the world is not necessarily to do what feels good or easy to us, but to challenge those feelings. With humility, we accept that we do not know everything, and that those with wildly different perspectives should be listened to with respect and intention to learn. With humility, we find that it is necessary to let go of our own concerns for the good of others. Growth is only possible when we understand that we are not perfect, and that there is always room to fulfill the potential that we have as created children of God.

Of course, recent events like the shootings this week in New Zealand put some questions up for us. As individuals, as a society, as a world, in what direction are we growing? Like the people in the parable, I can say that we have not gone far enough. We are still at the falling-down-hills-and-scraping-our-knees stage of development sometimes. And when we clean up the mess and leave our bathroom where we took time to mourn and collect ourselves, we have to confront the emptiness of what is still outside. We have to say that something is wrong, and that there is a problem here that still exists to show that we are not going far enough yet. It was only recently that there was the anniversary of the mosque shooting in Quebec, so we have to ask: what is the problem here? Whatever we are doing, will all of our respect for our Muslim neighbors and a hope for peace in this world, it is not working. As Hasan Minhaj, comedian and activist, wrote, “if we are ever going to defeat this dangerous idea that Muslims are inherently violent or ‘outside invaders,’ it’s not enough to stand with the Muslim community. It’s not enough to be outraged on behalf of the Muslim community. Realize the Muslim community IS your community. Our faith should never matter more than our humanity.” Perhaps our current approach is too passive to bear fruit. Perhaps it is time to cut that approach down, and use the good soil at its base to grow new relationships with our human family. Maybe trying again will help us all to survive together more fully, in a way that God would want for us.

So there are some things that we can do to help this process along. For us, it is about maintaining openness to everything around you. Be willing to see your days as an opportunity to learn from every situation. Try to see when you are feeling challenged by words or ideas of others. Allow yourself to take up a new idea that feels right to you, or be strengthened in your own conviction, which is growth as well.  But a lot of the good work is helping others to grow as well. It isn’t always as straightforward as teaching, though teachers and parents certainly facilitate a lot of growth in others. But, if we can return to the gardening metaphor, maybe you notice that some weeds are choking a tree in the garden, or a flower needs to be relocated to get a better bit of sun. Maybe you can serve as a shovel or gloves for the gardener and facilitate the work that is already being done. We all live in the garden and I believe it matters to us and to God that the plants take care of each other. Because it’s a rough place down here and we need all the help we can get.  But I think one of the best things about growth is that it never has to stop. There will always be new things to learn, strengths we can hone, and weaknesses we can work on. Though we will never reach a level of perfection, nor is that exactly what we are reaching for anyway, we are answering God’s invitation to bear fruit and create joy in this world. In this season of Lent, preparing for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we confront questions about sacrifice and temptation, and what we are going to do about all of the problems in this world. As in Genesis, Jesus wants to tell us that God is in the garden, and through us, there are enough tools to confront anything the world can throw at it.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Trinity United Church, Beamsville

1st Sunday in Lent

 “In the name of Jesus, our brother and friend, who once hungered and thirsted, feared and felt alone, just as many in our world daily feel.  Amen.”

(Greer Anne Wenh-In Ng, Tears & Hallelujahs)

The Rev. Heather Weaver-Orosz

“What the eye can’t see…”

Sitting as we are at the beginning of another season in our worship life, I want to preface my message with two notes:

The first is to say thank you to our creative, collaborative, and wise Worship Planning Team, who have worked alongside Scott, Andrew, and myself to dream up the Lenten liturgies we will share this season.  Believe it or not, some of these ideas have been in the works since last fall, and it is a joy to see them come to fruition.  From the candles to the connection with each of the Lenten workshops, our hope is to infuse this sacred journey to Jerusalem with ways that are life-giving to us, here and experiencing them, but even more importantly, with life-giving implications for those we meet all through our week and our lives.  Today, it’s about the gift of the Spirit, through perspective.

Note number 2 is a thank you to our colleague Anita Spiller of Vineland & Jordan Station United Churches – for sharing leadership with Scott and me in our Ash Wednesday service; and then for sending through a little church humour called A Guide to Ashes, which I’m happy to share with any of you online or in person.  Short summary is that it attaches a name to all the possible variations of designs that might inadvertently appear on your forehead with a wayward thumb.  It’s good for the funny bone, and it’s also a poignant reminder that, not just on Ash Wednesday but all throughout our lives, we can move around rather unaware of what people see in us or on us… and, quite seriously, we can be all too unaware of what people wish we could see.  May these first steps of our Lenten journey be about opening our eyes to more fully see God’s beloved, all around us.

Let’s pray:

God of all seasons, all people, all swirling emotions and questions, thank you for walking this Lenten road with us; before us; all around us.  Thank you for pouring out your Spirit for our ongoing transformation.  Amen.

I have resisted the urge to bring along my annual Lenten quiz – which the Wednesday @ 1 group was able to escape this year.  I will, however, fulfill your longing for a quiz with this quick question… in this week’s edition of This Week, what was the name of the artist I mentioned, as part of my 2019 Lenten disciplines?

Mary Oliver (is correct).  The discipline is the Salt Project’s devotional called ‘The Poetry of Lent’, built on her work in Devotions.  More on that another day.

In even asking you that opening question, I’m making 2 grand presumptions:  1.  That you wait with bated breath to read each week’s edition, and commit to memory all that is said within; and 2. That you even wish to know more about said Lenten discipline.  My presumptions are in and of themselves reflections of how so many of us move through our days… teetering on the edge of myopia in the sense that we can have a hard time looking beyond our own noses to take in the diverse realities of those around us.

With that in mind, I say this with the full awareness that you might not care an ounce for poetry or poets, like the late Mary Oliver, but I hope you will be taken in by her wisdom, found in the opening line of another of her works I’ve been led to:  her Introduction to The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.   According to Oliver, “The distinction and particular value of anything, or any person, inevitably must alter according to the time and place from which we take our view.”  Her specific point in this piece is that, over two hundred years since his birth, Ralph Waldo Emerson becomes “the Emerson of our choice”. Relying on accounts of his existence, from his own words and those who accompanied him, Emerson “is only within the wider, immeasurable world of our thoughts.”  (xi)  She asserts that “he lives nowhere but on the page, and in the attentive mind that leans about that page.” (xi)

For a moment, there is the temporary temptation to compare our access to long-ago authors like Emerson with the long-ago earthly life of Jesus – but I will say that my faith calls that comparison to a quick halt with my belief that Jesus continues to live in a way incomparable to any mere mortals.  We will come back to that thought on Easter Sunday, but for now, I’m grateful for Mary Oliver’s reminder that so much of what we do in this life; so much of whom we study and quote; so much of what we think we know of our neighbour’s life and truth is based on:

what our eyes can access;

what our minds think they know because of what our eyes can access;

what our hearts think they are entitled to feel because of what our eyes can access and our minds think they know.

What is most often the case, however, is that we live and move alongside people with whom we have little more than surface knowledge… and yet that does not abate what our minds and hearts claim to know and dispense in judgment.  In the words of the inimitable Mrs. Patmore of Downton Abbey, ‘What the eye can’t see, the heart won’t grieve over.’  Yes.  That can be precisely the problem, and the source of judgment.

The seat of judgment was precisely where we are told the devil, the tempter, the personification of malevolence, had positioned him/herself in relation to Jesus.  Seizing on Jesus’ vulnerability in a time of weakness and isolation, the questions come in three large groupings of expectation.  There is an expectation or a fervent hope that Jesus will sacrifice his identity; and then his integrity; and ultimately his authenticity.  They were questions seeking to trip up Jesus in his fidelity – his faithfulness to who he knew himself to be; who he believed God trusted him to be; and who this complicated world needed him to be.

Many a writer will tell us that we need to begin our Lenten journey with Jesus – to see him wrestle with the depth of temptation in the face of dire circumstances, so that we, too would know how to resist powers that seek to take us off course.  I don’t disagree.  I just don’t want to look at this passage through binoculars, seeking out in advance the forces that cause harm to us.  I want to see this text with a complex mirror, that identifies threats to our self-worth, but also takes in and shows clearly those places and spaces where our words and actions cause the same in others.

So here’s a self-imposed and community-framed question, for me and for we who sit in the early days of this Lenten wilderness:  What if, during Lent and long, long after, we could commit ourselves more fully to an act of spiritual imagination – which is not to over-imagine or under-imagine the realities of another’s life circumstances or story.  It is, instead, to spiritually imagine what could be if we were to begin and end our interactions with a view to compassionate wondering.  I wonder what has worn her down to a place of such frustration?  I wonder when he last heard that he really matters in this world?  I wonder how my gaze might be pushing her aside right now?  I wonder who his heart grieves?  I wonder what hurt she carries that would move her to say such a horrible thing?

I wonder what this world would be like if we each, in our own way and in our own time, used this Lenten journey as a time and space to reorient ourselves – our whole, seeing, being, and loving selves – to take in this complex society through the eyes of the One who created it, sustains it, and longs to redeem it?  I wonder what would be if we take our view, of ourselves and of those around us, from a place that resists the temptation to judge and focuses instead on the long view of each person’s sacred identity, integrity, and authenticity.  Would this Jesus of the desert, just beginning his winding and transformative way to Jerusalem… would he become so much more than a story on a page, but a living, breathing expression brought to life by we who lean on the page, and then do all that we can to live his story?

May the God who gives us Jesus give us patience to see the answers he pours out, on all this and more; for in his living, may we find grace to let our old ways die, and find fullness of life once more.

To God alone be the glory!  Amen.

Sunday, March 3, 2019 – Trinity United Church Beamsville Annual General Meeting – no Sermon

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Trinity United Church, Beamsville

7th Sunday after Epiphany

The Rev. Heather Weaver-Orosz

 “I think of Aaron and all that his life taught me, and I realize how much I have lost and how much I have gained.  Yesterday seems less painful, and I am not afraid of tomorrow.” (Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, p. 162)

“Reality.  Check.”

I don’t often bring you props on a Sunday morning, but I’m aware that when I do, it’s usually a book.  Today’s exhibit is a little gem that I found in Jory Hall a few weeks ago, and we think it made its way out of the Sunday School room or nursery sometime before that.  I know it’s tiny and you’re not that close, but I’m sure the choir will vouch for me when I tell you it’s a tiny replica of Joseph – complete with a multi-coloured outfit, in keeping with what Genesis 37 describes as a gift from his father Jacob.  As a small aside, I’ve yet to find a translation that calls it technicolour.  Some translations call it ornate (NIV).  Others call it elaborately embroidered (MSG) and others say a long robe with sleeves (NRSV).  The traditional rendering from the Greek says it was a coat of many colours, so no doubt that’s the origin of the musical built around Joseph and his amazing dreams.

Back to what’s in my hand… tucked into this Joseph’s back is a tiny board book, only 12 pages in total, but it still manages to summarize the entire story of Joseph, his father, and his brothers, with particular highlights from Genesis 37 and 45.  In some ways, it’s a great little resource, and definitely an eye-catching introduction to a significant character and story from our Scriptural tradition.  It is a children’s story, and seemingly intended for very young children at that, and so while our adult sensibilities might be inclined to label its summary as reductionist or overly simplistic, I would argue it has been simplified almost necessarily.

My challenge with this little gem, and why I chose not to bring it into my time with our children here this morning, is there’s a closing line that trips me up.  It’s a picture of Joseph, his hand on a brother’s shoulder with 2 others looking on.  The caption above says ‘The rich man was Joseph!  He forgave his brothers’.  The caption below says ‘God had turned a bad thing into good’.  And there’s where things start to go a little sideways for me.

I have no idea about the author’s intention in this (or in any text, to be precise), but I wonder and I worry that the summary statement of God turning a bad thing into good can perpetuate a kind of theology that does more than trip up.  Left without deeper explanation or context or reflection, the declaration that God turns bad things into good can be, and has been quite detrimentally, spun into the suggestion that from a certain perspective, bad things are just good things that we can’t see yet.  Or, put another way:  there’s a harmful theological spin that bad things might feel bad in the moment, but once we get ourselves turned around, we’ll understand that it was okay that they happened, because something good happened at the end of it all.  Or, put another way:  bad things are actually part of God’s plan to get to good.  God’s plan:  not just a Grammy winning song by Drake, but a potentially devastating theology when those two little words are left to hang out on their own.

I want to be clear that I do think God has a plan for our lives – a plan, a vision, a dream, a Love-filled desire to see each and every one of us thrive and grow, share and belong, empower and lead.  I believe we are created and sustained in a Love-bound longing for good – and that is why I cannot accept statements that suggest God is sitting idly by watching and waiting for planned sadness to pop into our lives at precise moments.  There are layers and layers of complications that bring circumstances into being, and more often than not in our humanity we are left with gaping questions that defy satisfactory answers.  Even so, I will consistently push back against any quest for answers that settles for the suggestion that God ordained and catalogued a day for devastation or catastrophe or sinister choices.

I also want to be clear that I have witnessed and been awed by exceedingly good things that can arise, in spite of bad.  Think of any particular news story that has shaken you in the last day or week or year, and I’m sure you can also think of human responses of deep compassion, empathy, and kindness.  Seven children, seven siblings, seven precious lives that had escaped the ravages of Syria’s civil war, died on Tuesday in a horrifying fire that will forever impact their parents and community.  That fire, that loss beyond comprehension, will always be named as bad.  But, still somehow there is good surrounding this young mother and father.  From their own faith community and their neighbourhood and from around the world, there is an extraordinary outpouring of love and a determination to surround and sustain their unspeakably broken hearts.  There is the persistent presence of good, in spite of the bad.  The good does not make the bad disappear, but in time it becomes survivable.  The good does not justify or simplify or put a neat narrative bow to disguise or recolour the bad, but in time it brings strength to face the reality of where life is now, and then move into the unknown reality of what might still be.

Not just because today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, but entirely because of deep and faithful wisdom, when working through texts like this from Genesis, I am often inclined to research the insights of Rabbis.  Perhaps one of the most famous of my bookshelf is Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, and his now classic text, ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’, rooted in his own family’s tragedy in the diagnosis and death of his son Aaron.  It is one of those texts that I trust enough to always keep an extra copy on my shelf, to give away or lend.  It’s that important, that wise.

In addition to what I’ve also learned across the years from former Hamilton Rabbi Bernard Baskin, I’m coming to feel the same way about the writings and teachings of teachers like Rabbi Alan Lurie.  Already almost 7 years ago, he wrote a piece entitled “Is Faith the Rejection of Reality” – and in that piece, where he takes on thought from Nietzsche to Kierkegaard, he wrestles with the notion that a faith perspective which encourages one to seek transformation is not contradictory but entirely in keeping with the acceptance of reality.  He doesn’t explain it through Joseph but through Moses, and he says this:

“The realization that deepening faith leads to a stronger connection to reality and to positive action is a common theme in many religious traditions. From a Judeo/Christian perspective this is demonstrated in the story of Moses and the burning bush. Although the surface of this story is well known, a careful reading of the narrative reveals another level. It is only after Moses stops and looks clearly at this little bush as it really is, that he sees that it — like everything in creation — burns with the life force of creation, but is not consumed. Then his own life’s purpose is revealed, as all the defenses that he created to avoid seeing the real horrors of the world that he ran away from evaporate. Moses responds with the simple words that announce a willingness to be available to whatever arises: “Here I am.”

Rabbi Lurie goes on to say:  “This is the highest level of faith, as you surrender yourself to life as it appears, with the confidence in the inherent goodness of creation and in your own powers to act effectively, the knowledge that your life has a positive purpose, and the assurance that you are eternally cared for and loved. This is an exciting way to live, because every moment is unexpected and filled with possibilities.”

That was a whole lot of words, so this is my attempt to translate them, in the context of Joseph:  standing before his brothers, staring full on at the truth of what they had done to him and brought upon him, with years of separation and devastation, he had the opportunity to stay lost in the what ifs that fuel resentment and disillusionment.  He also had and seized the opportunity to move into the present and future, with the courageous acceptance that, no matter how else he may have been abandoned and hurt, Joseph was never without God’s great spirit and longing for truth and reconciliation.  With time and healing and wisdom, good came in spite of bad.  Joseph’s suffering was not the final sentence of his or his family’s narrative.  Forgiveness and healing came, in and through a naming of truth.  Possibility was restored, through faith… not because faith rejected or denied reality, but because faith gave courage and resilience to hear God in the midst of it all.  “Here I am.  Here you are.  Where shall we go from here?”

In the context of you and me, and where we sit today, there is no attempt here to sugar-coat or simplify whatever reality is before you now.  Far more than this specific moment of sitting in this sacred space and wrestling with this sacred, ancient text, there is a reality of life choices that you have made along your way thus far.  There is the reality of choices that have been made around you, and for you, with consequences that may or may not have made themselves fully known yet.  That is the careful balance of each breath, each step, each word spoken, where we cannot predict or know all that will come to be beyond it.  It’s kind of like that once popular book genre of the 70s and 80s, known as choose your own adventure.  The genre is now somewhat co-opted into present day video games and novels that shall remain nameless, but at the height of their popularity, they were rooted in journeys all over the earth, often written in the second person and always inviting the reader to stop at certain points in the narrative, and consider one of various options before moving forward.   If you (insert option here), then go to page (blahbedeblah).  If you (insert other option here), then go to page (blahbedeblah).

You can see why children and adults could and did easily get lost in the appeal of the text.  In a world and a life where so much seems beyond our control, the ability to be part of something where choice was not only invited but expected, was a way of asserting and claiming space.  More than that though, it gave the ultimate mulligan.  If things didn’t work out as wanted or planned, then you could always start again; or at least go back and pick up where you know you made the fateful choice.  It was the ultimate bottle of white-out, with all sorts of possibilities.

You know that real life doesn’t work so neatly.  We don’t have the re-start option of choose-your-own-adventure.  What we do have, however, is the choose-your-own response to the reality before you.  You have the God-given ability and the Spirit-accompanied invitation to see what and whom is before you, and respond in faith.  It is not an expectation to condone or accept blindly.  In fact, faith often pushes us to do just the opposite; to hear the voice of Jesus calling us to turn over the tables and speak truth at cost.  Above all and through all, the choose-your-own response of faith is a choice to stay with God.  It is a choice of exceeding courage, bound with the humble confidence that tomorrow brings possibilities, whether or not we can see them quite yet.  It is a choice rooted in the promise that God has always and still chooses to stay with us.  “Here you are.  Here I am.  Where shall we go from here?”

Let’s pray:

Holy and ever-faithful God, we pray for eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to feel, and minds to know – to absorb and to accept the fullness of our reality; and above all, the fullness of your mercy and love, in and through all that we face.  Thank you for choosing us, for staying with us, for reviving us, and reclaiming us, for as many times as it takes.

I believe that this is possible and true because of how I know you in Jesus, and so I pray in his name.  Amen.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Trinity United Church, Beamsville

“This Too”

Scott Beckett

Luke 6:17-26

When I was in elementary school, I was scared of the fire alarm. It was a loud, blaring horn that would fill up the school in moments, and the suddenness and loudness of it had made me scared of it. The worst part wasn’t the sound itself (once it starts it’s mostly fine) but it was the anticipation of the sound. It was being upset that this moment was going to come when my heart would stop as the noise started. I had teachers that let me stop doing work and plug my ears. (This would be while loudly telling the rest of the class not plug their ears, but I was allowed because of was scared, which might have been worse). By grade three I was no better. I’d like to say that I matured a little but I was still upset about it.  We were in a pod: two connected classrooms with separate teachers, which I tell you so that you can imagine 60+ third grade kids talking in table groups as they worked on a math assignment. And I was shaking. Over the announcements in the morning they had told us that a fire drill was going to happen, but this time they made the mistake of saying that it was going to happen between 10:50 and 11:00. And we had just learned how to tell time. So I spent close to an hour turning full around in my chair every few minutes to get a look at the clock on the wall by the door. I was clearly not getting work done. My teacher, a dark-haired woman in her early 40s, Mrs. Simon, came over to me. She wasn’t always the nicest, but she got down next to my desk and asked, “do you know the expression ‘a watched pot never boils?’” I was like eight, so no I didn’t. “Well it just means that the time won’t go by as quickly if you keep looking at the clock.” She said this with the most understanding tenderness that I had ever heard from her. I went back to my math assignment. I almost jumped out of my skin when the alarm went off five minutes later.  Comfort is a tricky thing, and I applaud any teacher who is able to say anything meaningful to young people to distract from their pain. Growing up isn’t easy, and teachers and parents are on the front line of negotiating all of the problems and fears that kids have. I think it is easy to say that things will get better, and there are a lot of ways in our culture to say that. Telling a kid to be brave or hold out for when they get older can be helpful: it expresses a real hope that the sense of sadness or fear that a person is feeling is only temporary. On the one hand, I can understand and appreciate the desire to inspire hope. On the other, it stings as not empathetic and untethered to the actual lived experience of the person they are speaking to. It also only inspires hope if it can be believed that things will get better. But when you are at a low place, hope is not always appreciated. Sometimes commiseration is the medicine that is needed. Dealing with pain is complicated, and requires a lot more than a simple response.  I think the It Gets Better campaign spearheaded by political pundit Dan Savage is a good example. It waxes poetic about how LGBTQ youth are often bullied and have a hard time in their lives attempting to live with their identity, but promises a beautiful future in which they will be free from the constraints of childhood to live their full lives as adults. This too will pass; you too could be like me: out in the world being who you are.  I was a young person when the It Gets Better campaign was starting up, and from my vantage point it felt a little self-serving. It was an opportunity for some people to show how their success has allowed them to be “out and proud” and unconstrained by the fears they had when they were younger. It didn’t say anything of the people who had to stay largely “in the closet” because of their job or their family or their sense of safety in their community. It doesn’t talk about the toxic nature of some queer communities, the way that the process of “coming out” never ends, and the fact that trans people’s experiences have often lagged behind the rest of the LGBT in terms of acceptance and comfort. The intentions were clearly good, but no statement is ever going to be the perfect remedy to every situation. To give people a sense of a future that some enjoy, despite the fact that this future will not and cannot be enjoyed by everyone, is something. Unfortunately, that journey is not so simple.  And this is to say nothing of the fact that it is just so patronizing to youth to tell them that they have no agency, and will only get agency when they achieve an age when they are untethered financially from the systems that oppress them. Well, currently oppress them.  I don’t think it is unfair to say that growing up is hard. Certainly it was for me and it may have been for you too. We all had different experiences of childhood and went through different things. In the school I grew up in I was made fun of for being too quiet, being not good at sports, and just generally weird. In some sense it was like I could never shake being afraid of the fire alarm: those kinds of things amount to this image of an insecure kid. Cynically, an easy target. And I don’t think I ever got a good answer as to why things were like this and what could really be done about it. So to be told in some way that it gets better, that things will change, I did not doubt it. In some ways, things did get better. But that isn’t what I needed to hear. I needed to be told that pain is real, that though I am being treated with injustice, I am still human. Even having a higher degree of honestly would have been preferable. In the 1990’s “coming-of-age” film Beautiful Thing, one of the characters says, “One day you’re going to meet people who won’t want to kill you.” I find that reflective of the time and place, but also a lot more honest.  Your experience might be different than this. You may have been brought pain, been made to feel like an outsider—because it happens for a multitude of reasons, and sometimes for no reason at all. You may have been brought pain because of ailment or loss. And I do not wish to make equivalent all of the things that we have been through. It is impossible to describe exactly how you feel to make someone understand your own pain. The way that we tolerate our physical, emotional, spiritual, and existential pain has wide ranges. Some things we can tell people about, others we have to hold within ourselves But we know enough to know what pain is, and to recognize when something has crossed a threshold from being acceptable to unacceptable.  Jesus’s own It Gets Better campaign is spoken to people who are broken. Perhaps they are looking for hope: the kind of hope you can only find by following a stranger and his cult into the wilderness. The text says that they need healing, and are weighted by “unclean spirits” which we could really interpret as anything that didn’t fit the vision of how they were supposed to be. Any anxiety, depression, feeling of instability: these are the people coming to see Jesus in that time. And it is to them that he says, “You all here, you are blessed. This suffering is not eternal. What you feel that you do not have, the joys of this life, you will have them in time.”  Thanks, Dan Savage.

But Jesus then says something interesting. Not only are these people to be lifted up out of pain in some far off distant future, but also: “The people out there who have things, who have the things that you want, they are going to lose those things in time.”  It is as if there are divine scales, and as more if given to the poor and oppressed, so too must things be taken from the privileged to balance the weight. He says this kind of thing to wealthy people all the time: get rid of all of your things, balance out your community, embrace socialism. But the part that I like, that speaks to me in an interesting way, is the final line of the sections. To the oppressed:  people speak poorly of you but “surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets” and for the strong “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” This operates by looking backward rather than looking forward. It recalls the tradition that Jesus in drawing from, in which the people who were righteous, wise, and followers of God are not listened to, rejected, and oppressed. Jesus says, “this pain you are feeling: it is not new. It is ingrained into the social order of humanity, it is a truth of existence that the worth of the worthy will be devalued. That is not reflective of what God knows about you. Though you are in pain, God knows that you suffer and it is not your fault.”  To know that oppression is an unavoidable part of being human is not a good thing. But to lift the guilt of responsibility from the shoulders of the oppressed is an incredible move on the part of Jesus. It creates a connection to his message that fills an otherwise empty claim that things will get better. It is a promise that takes the love and intimate connection of God as granted, that this kind of a God will ensure that the people who feel low will be lifted up. It adds an essential “because” to the end of It Gets Better: It gets better because God sees you and sees that you are a worthy part of this world. It gets better because your pain is real, but God works in a ways beyond what you can understand right now. It will be hard, but hold out for these things that God promises for you.”  What does this mean for you, for me, for us. Well, we live in the same broken world. We still experience pain in ways that are similar, but also different, to those experiences in the time of Jesus and further back. We still live in a society where our worth is always up for speculation, whether it is measured by our wealth, our work, our social media stats, or our collected legacy. We still feel our human frailty in our physical bodies. We still lose one another to death and difference. We still feel pain.  In a lot of ways, we are the ones that Jesus designates to receive “woe”: the rich, the full, the largely content. But these categories are complicated. And perhaps it is important to remember that happiness, too, shall pass. That life is unpredictable. But also that turning away from what is right and the well-being of those who suffer will only lead to heartache, spiritually or otherwise. We move through these categories over time, and can exist amongst them simultaneously. Jesus is prone to describing these impermeable and inflexible categories, then disrupting them with his actions. Pain is valid regardless of who feels it, and Jesus cared for the hurting people he came across regardless of who they were.  When I am a third grade kid, with problems, certainly, but not anything tremendously important, being told to turn around and do my work would not have been enough. But the manner in which my teacher decided to deliver that message to me was comforting. It said that I needed to finish some math, but that she saw my distress and I had her sympathy. It said “there is nothing I can do to get rid of your fear, but you have the power to choose not to let it take over you.”   “This too shall pass” can be a phrase of comfort. “It gets better” can be too. Just as “yours is the kingdom of God” can be too. But whatever is told to you in your times of pain and distress, when you are told that the struggle is not eternal, I hope that you can choose to believe it. Even just a little bit. I hope that you can choose to believe in a God that will be there for you in a way that is comforting, even if it is a God who cannot reach out and give you the healing that you need. Jesus tells us to embrace hope because God loves the world so much, and in present in the good work done by Jesus and done by others. But Jesus will always leave space for pain, honouring that it demands to be felt and that hope isn’t easy. God will be there when you are ready. Because if anything is true, it is that every person in this place and beyond is precious to God, and valid in their existence. This world is not easy, but may God always find a way to inspire peace in our hearts until we are ready to move forward.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Trinity United Church, Beamsville
Celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism
“More than Magic”

The Rev. Heather Weaver-Orosz

Once upon a time, within the last week, I had almost talked myself into a baptism sermon that stayed on the sunny side of life (more on that in a moment). The fleeting reference to Caliban from ‘The Tempest’, in the quote that sat atop the order of service, tells you where I thought this could go: some kind of theological reflection where a curious and misunderstood Shakespearean being is the voice of reassurance against the chorus of life’s fears. It’s from that point in the drama where Caliban is trying to explain what he sees, what he hears, what he perceives in the magical place where others have just joined him. Maybe someday I will finish that text, but in the writing process I decided that Caliban would have taken us out of the boat a little too soon – the boat in the lake, with Jesus. I’d like to stay there for a bit longer today; and I promise not to overwhelm you with images of fish. Let’s pray:
God of every moment, will you give us what we need to hear you in this moment: to hear your wisdom speaking across time and space from the lake of Gennesaret to these shores, here and now. May we hear, and may we respond, as followers of Jesus. Amen.

I’m sure I shouldn’t say this, and certainly not at the start, but it would be a lie of omission not to tell you that for the last few years and more, I tend to struggle with sermons on a Baptism Sunday. It should be easy, right? Look at the baptized. Look at the visible sign of invisible grace. Look at this outpouring of God’s Love. Live in this. Share this. Amen. On to coffee hour. If only… I love baptisms. I love those being baptized and the people who accompany them. I do not like the way it can feel when baptism sermons start to rain on a beautiful parade. I realize that’s within the preacher’s control, but since 2014 there’s a piece of me that inevitably feels compelled to say something akin to that place in a wedding sermon, when the preacher would be remiss if mention was not made of the full reality of married life. It is a gift and a treasure to be reopened across the years, but it is plain old hard work. It requires wisdom to navigate the various impacts of life through many seasons. Likewise, even in the midst of celebrating baptism, it feels somewhat disloyal to avoid dipping the writer’s brush into honest language of harder days than this. Raising a child is plain old hard work; being a child and then an adult is plain old hard work. And so here it must be said that while we all want Charlie to live a carefree life, we must love him enough to say that won’t be possible. I have no doubt that Charlie will grow and thrive because of his abundant cherishing, but we must also humbly presume that Charlie will eventually and then repeatedly encounter the reality of life’s harsher sides, and he will ask good and strong questions about the presence of unfairness and heartache. He will challenge and he will resist, and he will shake his head at the inherent contradictions of our world. He will care and he will be an agent of change and healing… and then he will lament that there is still so much more change to bring to God’s world. As noted, there was a time when I would have glossed over anything other than sunshine on a Baptism Sunday. But I remember the turning point very clearly. It was 5 years ago on the weekend before an infant baptism. I was just out doing my thing, the mom-thing, virtually lost in thought, pulling up the off ramp of the QEW, much farther round the shores of Lake Ontario. Our then early teenage son was being driven from one affluent community into the heart of another even more so, for an extracurricular rehearsal of the musical kind; and primary on my mind was which particular coffee shop I would occupy for the next few hours of waiting. Would I order peppermint tea or a berry blend? And would I have enough time to do what I wanted to do before I had to barrel down the highway the opposite way? I was consumed by the offshoots of privilege; of blessing after blessing. Even with the young man sitting in the passenger seat beside me in the daily unfolding of opportunity, I was fixated on things inconsequential. And then another young man broke my gaze. He broke my heart and seared an image in my mind forever. I don’t know for certain how old he was. I suspect he was much younger than he looked. His look could only be described as weathered and wearied, even if his actions spoke of a young and still tender heart. He had a large and battered duffle with him, propped against a roadside post. We weren’t stopped there long enough or close enough to know for certain why he was there, but we sat there for enough stopped time to watch him make a bed of safety. He unrolled and then draped a sleeping bag over the edge of the duffle – using it like a pillow or a headboard. Then he patted down and gently motioned for his canine companion to come and curl up inside. The dog obliged and no sooner had he or she settled into the warm comfort that the faithful owner rearranged the bedding to drape over and around; ostensibly tucking in a beloved. A moment later, the lights changed and we moved forward, and so we weren’t privy to whatever it was that happened next. All I know is that moment embedded itself. It took my breath away, in truth, to the point that, as we wheeled away, all I could manage to say through my tearfilled eyes was something to the effect of, “If that doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what will.” All these years later, I struggle to say for certain just what it was about that roadside moment that affected me so deeply. Perhaps it was the tenderness in the midst of the suffering; the sharing in the midst of scarcity; the gentleness crashing against the harsh. The juxtapositions were endless, and soon pulled my heart to wonder about this young man’s family. I couldn’t help but think that somebody, somewhere, had once upon a time taken the time to tuck him in to a much warmer and safer place. Surely this is not how he or they dreamed his life would be. Those wonderings haunt me still. They point to the juxtaposition of unresolved pain and injustice, of unnamed circumstances that lead to undeserved isolation. If we know ourselves to be God’s children, then how are we to be at peace with the knowledge of roadside beds? We are not. We cannot, we should not, and we are not. This is the perpetual contradiction of life in this complicated world: a perpetual complication, at least for the time being, and one known with equal consternation by the earliest ones who said yes to following Jesus. The earliest followers of Jesus were bound equally as much, if not more so by the continuing reality of less-than-so. Equally as much and certainly far more so than we who live in this privileged time and space, Jesus’ first followers were daily pressed to explain to those around them that this life with him was not going to be the magic eraser that so many hoped it would be. Jesus was and is a life-changing, breath-taking moment that changed everything, for always. But his Way was not the magic pass to release God’s people from accountability for how life unfolds, day after day, in our own sphere and in spheres far beyond our own. There were then and there are now injustices to stand against. There were then and there are now the outcast who need welcomed, the abused who need sanctuary, the lost to be found, the hungry to be fed, the scared to be reassured. This morning’s text from Luke 5 doesn’t mention explicitly any of that reality; nor does the earlier segment from Mark 10, in which Jesus offers an unconditional welcome for children, but doesn’t delve into why and from whom they might seek shelter. The folks who suggest we read today the story of the fish and the overflowing nets – they don’t know it’s a baptism here. They might even say, read something else; something fuzzier, more fitting perhaps; or just Mark 10, and imagine Jesus’ words like a warm blanket for life. But there’s a verse from Luke 5 that has always seared itself with its imagery, that seems to make it so right for today. It’s verse 8, where Luke tells us: “ when Simon Peter saw it [the overwhelmingly large haul of fish falling into their boats], he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” On the surface, it doesn’t seem to fit with the story – a story of promise and abundance; of trust and call. Shouldn’t Simon Peter have known to say thank you and leave it at that? Didn’t he kind of wreck the moment, with his naming of self-determined unworthiness? Maybe. Or maybe he affirmed so much of what Jesus was working to teach in the moment. Down on his knees, holding his balance in fish so plentiful his boat is set to sink, I wonder if this was the most honest thing Simon Peter might have said. I wonder if this was him, starting to get a handle on the depths of change that would come upon him, were he to say yes to living his life in keeping with the teachings of this fishing magician. My heart says Simon Peter had started to grasp that these teachings were not trying to be a magic eraser or even a magic pass into some idyllic land where nothing unsafe or heartbreaking ever happened to those who said they believed. It would seem, instead, that the opposite was coming sharply into view. Radical things could and would and did and will happen when you hang out with this one called Jesus. Follow him, and there won’t be much of a dull moment, although often not in a glamourous way. Follow him, and your eyes will be opened to things you might otherwise have driven past in haste. Follow him, and your mind will be seared with images that break your heart, because you know they break the heart of God. You will never be the same, and God’s people will bear the goodness of your transformation. I wonder if Simon Peter was trying to tell Jesus that he wasn’t enough for all this; that he wasn’t up for the task and Jesus ought to spend his time persuading more saintly folks. Maybe. Or maybe Simon Peter’s push back was perfect reason for unwavering affirmation that Jesus cherishes and needs us all, in this imperfect but life-changing journey. Come along with me, Jesus says in reply. Come with me, as you are. Set down your fears, whatever they may be of yourself. Come and see this world for all that is, juxtapositions of abundance and heartbreak and all. Come with confidence that you are who I need to name what you see, and work for something different, something better, something safer. God has given you all that you need to do this. Magic wand not needed. Let’s get started. To God alone be the Glory!

Let’s pray: Patient and persistent God, may we never stop hearing your call on our lives. May we answer with humble confidence, in all that we say and do and think and feel. May we trust that you have given us footsteps to follow, and your Spirit journeys with us, unconditionally. Amen.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Trinity United Church, Beamsville

“Spirit of the Common Good”

Scott Beckett

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Let me tell you a story. This happened quite a few years ago. I was maybe twelve. It was the summer. My sister, Emma, was about seven. She was attending one of those morning camps at the local community center, and my dad took my brother, Colin, our dog (a little thing about this big, maybe only a year old at that point), and myself to play tennis for a few hours while Emma was away. It was one of those hot days in July that you question whether you ought to either stay inside or hit up the pool, but my dad liked taking us out to courts around Mississauga, or hitting balls against the walls of nearby, empty schools.  On that day we had time to kill and gosh darn it we were going to go outside because it’s summer. So we layered up on the sunscreen, tied the leash to the fence, and spent a little over an hour swatting at ground balls my dad would hit over the net for us, making some back over but mostly doing a lot of running back and forth.  So by the time we had to go and grab my sister, my brother and I were pretty tired. Pepper had been mostly lying down in the shade, because she was a true queen.  “Okay” my dad said, “I’ll drive over to the community center, why don’t you two walk the dog over.” Now, I was immediately worried, and I protested. I wasn’t familiar with the area AT ALL. I knew kinda where the community center was, but we were in an unfamiliar subdivision, and I was twelve. And so my dad gave us some directions: “Just go down the hill here, you’ll pass the playground, then go under the bridge and then walk straight and past the little man-made lake and you’ll be right there.”  Easy, right?

These are pretty simple directions, and my brother and I set off as we were told, the dog out in front, very excited to explore this new territory and mark it accordingly. What you need to understand about our dog was that she had a very uneven pace. She would pull you where she wanted to go until she wore herself out and would lie down and refuse to move. Especially when she was a puppy. And so it was that Colin and I were pulled along. We passed the playground, went under the bridge, and that’s where it all went wrong. Because we came to fork in the road. Or, we would have come to a fork in the road. Because I was tired and hot and cranky I told my brother to cut across a soccer field we came across to get to the path that went around it. And we continued to walk, and walk, and walk. And we did not find the community center. We took breaks, dictated by the dog, and we kept following the path in front of us. Until we reached the little man-made lake. Well, a lake. Turns out that we were at the wrong one. Neither of us had watches, because I was twelve, but we had been out for what felt like an hour. So we went back the way that we came, sun beating down, dog pulling ahead, then stopping. And my brother complaining and berating me the whole way. We got back to the soccer field and, behind some trees, we found the straight path we were supposed to take.  And we arrived at the community center. Yay, except that we were there over two hours after when I’m sure my dad expected us to arrive. He had called our neighbours and had them waiting for us, while he had grabbed his bike from home and had been pedaling up and down the path for looking where we might be. Needless to say, our dog got a really good walk in. And our dad thought twice about sending us out on our own. It is now a family historical event. My sister in particular loves to bring up  to my dad: “remember when you lost both of your sons AND your dog all in one afternoon?”  Now I tell this story today because I have always felt that a sense of direction has been one of my gifts. I am good at remembering maps and directions and I can know the right way to turn when you get down on the ground. I have also always felt like the responsible brother who has to look out for my brother and sister and make sure things are taken care of. And though this story is funny and lighthearted in retrospect, I can remember feeling so guilty at the time. Because I had suggested we cut across the field, the mistake that had led to us missing our turn and getting really dehydrated and blistered and cranky that summer day. I think it would have been challenging for my pre-teen self to really understand why that mistake hit me so hard when others wouldn’t even phase me. But with time and introspection, it becomes a lot more clear. It was one of the rare occasions that I felt disconnected from my sense of self because the gifts that I thought I had failed me. My identity as older brother and reliable guide were thrown into question, and I know that it took a while and successful use of those gifts for me to get that sense of self back.  It is a tough world out there, and failure is present in all of our lives. Sometimes in small ways and sometimes in large ones. When I first read this passage from 1 Corinthians, I immediately thought about the way that gifts are tricky. Sometimes you aren’t sure what gifts you have, sometimes it feels like gifts get called into question, and other times it feels like the gifts you used to have are shrinking and new, unfamiliar ones are springing up. And from there I thought about what happens when our gifts are not affirmed. When we start to lose our connection to the sense of self those gifts give to us, like I did.  Because we live in a world where failure is challenging to deal with, especially for young people. I am mindful that extremism is commonplace in society today, in various forms with a wide-range of goals and creeds behind them. And some of the reason for this is the lack of strong identity. In young men, not feeling they are heard or seen is damaging to their sense of their own importance; there is a yearning for acknowledgement that is so strong that even negative attention would be a plus. In these extreme organizations, they get that attention. They are given purpose and meaning to their lives as the extremist group gives them clear guidelines about what to think, do, say to belong to their community. They are part of something, and thereby get the identity that they crave. The way that they use coded language to speak to each other and exclude all others gets at this notion of community. It is like an inside joke or a slang phrase that binds people together. They belong to an in-group in a world in which they feel as though they are not getting what they deserve (acknowledgement and affection). Any group that can accept a person regardless of who they are will be able to access those people who truly feel alienated.  For those who enter into extremist groups, it is not always the case that the group’s creedo that they wear as their persona are how they actually feel. Rather than expressing their own thoughts and gifts, which they did not feel were affirmed, they cling to the words and phrases that get them clear support from their group and acknowledgement from their opponents. The self is rewritten, covered in liquid paper and written over in marker in someone else’s handwriting. These are like idols that Paul writes about: they are a distraction from the truth of your uniqueness. They negate the promise of rebirth and disrupting the self you are becoming every day. They pull you in a direction that promotes division and falls away from the kind of world of peace that would allow us all to move, and grow, and live fully.  In the scripture, we are warned against this covering up. We are told of the sacred way that God has gifted us the things we need to get by in this world. Precious gifts that we should cherish and share. Gifts that make us unique. When you look inside of yourself, do you see those gifts in you? Maybe you are the one who sees people where they are and can reach out a hand to them in love. Maybe you are the one who has the strong inward heart, with passion for causes, the arts, or deep thoughts. Maybe you are the one who can play the piano, figure out a mechanical issue, sell an insurance policy, care for a child. How do you feel when you do something that you’re really good at? How do you feel when you succeed and you are praised for it? You are responding to something that God had placed within you and living into your sense of yourself. You can choose to follow those gifts, sink into them and deepen your experience of them. You can choose to pursue and discover new gifts within yourself that you discover with time. Sometimes someone lifts a gift out of you that you never knew you had and it suddenly makes all the sense in the world.  When we are separated from our gifts, when we feel like we can’t do anything right, when we are not affirmed that what we do and who we are is enough, we falter. For young people, who are constantly bombarded with the successes of others online, miss some of the connections that earlier generations enjoyed, and are fed a media diet that tends toward the extreme, it is no wonder that many milennials and Generation Z-ers are burnt-out and hungry for a sense of self. But the extremist groups that feed upon this discontent are not helping, but furthering the landscape where this lack of assurance is possible. Because these groups are feeding hatred and not love. They are filling a need but in a way that is the furthest from what we actually need. They do not offer something that I could condone, and I doubt Jesus or Paul would either.  But there is always a choice. Sometimes it feels like that choice is made for us, but wonderful people can rise out of adversity each day. Nobody is perfect, but everybody is a beautiful and gifted soul with potential to add something for the common good. The Holy Spirit is active in this world, and is active in us as we live the lives God has granted to humanity. We can choose to accept ourselves for who we are. We can choose to accept that we will fail, that others will undervalue us, and that we may have to question what we know and how we think. But we can cling to the fact that God seems to have a purpose for us. God has given us particular gifts. Not random: particular. We can get lost and confused, but with enough searching and faith in ourselves, we can find out way to the right lake, and home again.

Naheed Khan is a documentary filmmaker from Norway. She has an Afghan mother and a Pakistani father, and in a TedTalk she delivered in the UK a few years ago she tells us: “When I was a child, I knew I had superpowers.” She tells about how she was able to relate to her conservative Muslim grandfather AND her secular parents, and the white people of her country. But this power was thrown into questions when she was threatened by a white man while she was trying to buy candy on her way home from school. She talks about how he spat in her face, and as she looked around for her white people, whom she felt so connected to, hurried by and wouldn’t come to help her. She talks about how, as she tried to start a music career and started getting notoriety, the Muslim community she also felt connected to threatened her with violence and forced her to leave Norway because she was deviating to far from what they thought she should do and be, only to have the threats continue from new sources in the UK. Khan’s superpower, she felt, was damaged. But what Khan has shown, in her work trying to understand extremist groups in her documentaries about white supremacy and jihadist groups shows her ability to connect still runs wide. Her commitment to the health and freedom of women worldwide shows her empathy and belief in the right of every person to choose their own way. Her holding to account of the many facets of society to change the situation that creates violence and exclusion shows her wisdom and commitment to peace. These are her gifts, her superpower, working away despite the things she once saw as failures.  As we move through this world, know that you have a superpower within you. When we are children we have the joy of imagining all of things we could be capable of, and as we grow older we grow our ability to do incredible things. Likely more than just one thing. Because God grants to us many things, and among them are unique gifts that we can share for the common good. But it is your choice how you use them, and whether you use them at all. You get to decide how to deal with failure, reclaim your sense of identity, and move into the future with hope and a desire to be yourself completely and honestly.  You also have a choice to reach out to other people. Use your gifts to do good, and especially where it can help others to do the same. Care for each other, especially the isolated and the downtrodden, wherever you can find them, even when it seems like they don’t need it. It is remarkable what one small thing can mean for a person’s sense of self and can change the course of their life from one path to another. They can so easily cut across a soccer field and miss who they truly are if someone is not there to point out the path behind the trees: “You are kind, you are artistic, you are intelligent, you are skilled.” We walk on parallel paths, doing the best that we can. Choose to follow the light, and choose to accept yourself for who you are. The wonderful gifts to the world, this God-created gift.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Trinity United Church, Beamsville

3rd Sunday after Epiphany

“ And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep .” (Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”)

1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a (The Message)

You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive. I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where God wanted it. But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”? Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”? As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way—the “lower” the part, the more basic, and therefore necessary. You can live without an eye, for instance, but not without a stomach. When it’s a part of your own body you are concerned with it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower. You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons. If anything, you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer good digestion to full-bodied hair? The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance. You are Christ’s body—that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything. You’re familiar with some of the parts that God has formed in God’s church, which is God’s “body”:
apostles

prophets

teachers

miracle workers

healers

helpers

organizers

those who pray in tongues.

But it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that Christ’s church is a complete Body and not a gigantic, unidimensional Part? It’s not all Apostle, not all Prophet, not all Miracle Worker, not all Healer, not all Prayer in Tongues, not all Interpreter of Tongues. And yet some of you keep competing for so-called “important” parts. But now I want to lay out a far better way for you.

“Stopping by Woods, with Robert Frost”

The Rev. Heather Weaver-Orosz
This wintry weather has played a little bit of havoc on the nice plan we had for these Epiphany Sundays. There’s a sermon series of sorts underway… really just a following through on the primary themes of this season of clarifying identity – both the identity of Jesus and our identity/our collective identity as followers of Jesus. This is traditionally a time of seeing more clearly what that means; and for the sake of this series, working to let go of that which prevents the clarity. I hope that makes sense. Last week, our snow day, you were to hear Scott preach on the first half of 1 Corinthians 12; and then today me, on the second half. Consider that plan turned upside down, but in retrospect maybe for the better. Today, we’re going to consider what Paul said to what was then a very divided community; a very human group of unique individuals who were having some trouble living into the Jesus-like way of community in the sense of common-unity. Next week, with Scott at the helm, we’ll explore more of what that means for each individual, especially today. That said, let’s start with this week’s focus. And let’s start with a mental scan of how many times you think you might have heard this text from 1 Corinthians 12. I’m aware that’s not likely something you keep precise stats on in your head, but I suspect that if you have heard these verses expounded upon once before or more, there’s a good chance you heard them used as a preaching springboard into affirmation of each of our uniquely gifted lives. The first half of chapter 12 is often used as a foundation and then the second half as application, but very often the message is the same: God has gifted you. God has gifted the person beside you. Like a beautifully intricate and trusting whole, like the human body itself, Paul says and preachers repeat, all this works together for great and God-honouring things for people far beyond us. That makes for a great sermon – except when it doesn’t; when it doesn’t fit with reality, to be more precise. There’s the wonderful and great possibility of the beautifully intricate and trusting whole body of Christ, aka the church community; and then there’s the complex day to day reality of messy human relationships, drawn and bound together by the dream of sorting it all out into something closer to beautiful. Sometimes we get that very right. Sometimes we are wildly off course. Here’s one of the suggestions about why that is: We can be very hard on each other. There’s no other way to say it. By ‘we’, I mean the broad and diverse global community, and also the much smaller, still diverse, but more tangibly close community known right here in this church family. Please note that my virtual interchange of the words community and church family is intentional, and often rather accurate. This is a chosen family rather than biological, but it functions very much like a household. That includes the squabbles and the bickering siblings. Sometimes the ones who love us the most and defend us most loyally, most fiercely, are also the ones who take us to task most swiftly… and in the process, forgetting most quickly that so often that which we critique in another is:  that which we struggle most to reconcile about ourselves OR that which we long to be true about ourselves OR that which we assume to be true about others.  In the context of the Christians at Corinth, learning to get past assumptions was a huge part of their journey together. The community to whom Paul was writing was not an easy bunch. In that regard, I love Rembrandt’s depiction of Paul, in his piece simply called Saint Paul , in which Paul seems to be nursing a headache. This is how I picture him putting together some of his letters; particularly this one. In terms of what he was writing into, in late December of 2017, Douglas A. Campbell (a New Testament prof at Duke Divinity School) wrote a great summary piece for Christian Century magazine, in which he said: “Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, now lost, in the fall of 50 CE. The Corinthians pushed back quite hard. They wrote a reply to Paul with a number of questions. In the spring of 51 CE he wrote a long letter back, our 1 Corinthians. This is where we start to build up a more detailed picture of the community, and it is not a pretty sight. The church at Corinth was a mess. …Underlying this mess, there were four main difficulties: a basic failure in relating to one another in love; a dramatic failure of the local church leaders to act considerately in the face of their competition for status and influence; arrogant theological reasoning that denied the importance of the body (which we might call “Christian intellectualism”); and tensions arising from the pressures that Paul’s teaching …placed on his converts. Each of these problems would have been bad enough, but when they were all present together, the combination was toxic.” You still with me? Good. Because here’s where Campbell gets to the phrase I’d like you to hang on to. Campbell finishes this intro to Corinth and Paul and says: “When we take a step back from all the ins and outs of the issues in the letter, we can see that Paul is urging something simple on the Corinthians. A great deal of what he says can be summed up in the phrase “appropriate relating”. Appropriate relating. As in, relating in kindness. Relating in trust. Relating with the core understanding that we rely on each other to be kind to one another. Far more than a theologically expounded moment from Mr. Rogers’, Paul sets up mutual trust, mutual reaching out for one another, as a core principle to avoid and/or overcome factionalism; partisanship; competitiveness; cliques, even. And here’s one more piece from Douglas Campbell that I don’t want to overlook: an old theological term for a virtue known as condescension. Yes, condescension, as a virtue. Campbell points out that condescension, the word we now use with freighted connotations of superiority and haughtiness, was once understood and used to describe the belief that our inclusive and gentle God, who values everyone, is especially concerned about and eager to reach those most despised and marginalized; the looked down upon and the overly, eagerly critiqued. This was lifted by Paul all throughout 1 Corinthians, and particularly built upon in his treatise of chapter 12. In God’s community, there is common unity that takes the radically countercultural leadership position of reaching for the sake of lifting; of engaging comparison only and ever for the sake of drawing out our places of parity, of equality, of shared love-ability, even and especially when we are at our least love-able. In the midst of it all, Paul writes with repeated emphasis, may we live with the patient reminder that so often we know so little of the ones around us. Sometimes that becomes overrated praise for the wrong qualities. Sometimes it becomes underestimated dismissal of the right qualities. Always, it is the assumptions that trip us up. Here’s one small example, from the poetic world: If I say to you, Robert Frost, you might say to yourself: aaahhhh, Robert Frost. Famous, renowned master of words. Linguistic genius such that generations of school children have memorized verses of his creation. “Whose words these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods filling up with snow.” …and on it goes until it ends with the oft quoted lines, “and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep”. Those are opening and closing excerpts from ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, from the inimitable Robert Frost; the Robert Frost who was often quoted by John F. Kennedy, completing many of his campaign speeches with the closing lines of the poem; the same Robert Frost who, at JFK’s invitation, began the tradition of a poet reading verse at presidential inaugurations. The whole truth is, however, that this same Robert Frost penned his most widely acclaimed verse in the throes of writer’s block. He did not stand above it. The story goes that Frost was working on something that would not feel right, so he crumpled up everything and walked away. Then, while standing on a porch, staring out across the landscape, seeking inspiration, something simple struck him and in 20 minutes or less, Frost crafted what was soon called a masterpiece, with the assumption that he had crafted it painstakingly. In fact, though, it is heralded most for its simplicity. It was and is heralded for Frost being his most natural self… and, with great vulnerability, letting the world be there with him. No more and no less than anyone else, but simply him alongside each of us. I have no idea if there’s a poetic bone in your body. I don’t care, to be frank. I mean, I do, but I don’t, because I don’t believe that God cares. I believe that God cares that you are you, and that you let the world be there with you, in your truest self. I believe that God cares that you would call me to account if ever I sit in the place of wondering how you ought to measure up to me. Through Jesus, God said and says so clearly that we are not each other’s standard. We are each other’s champions, supporters, friends, confidantes, allies, and partners in the holiest of crimes. Thoroughly ignoring any misplaced social laws that try to drive us to judgmental comparison, we are defy-ers and breakers of harmful ways. For each other, for the sake of all others, we follow in the footsteps of Paul who wanted so badly to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We dip our theological toes back into the truest sense of condescension and comparison, in their fullest, simplest, yet most powerful practices of assisting another to rise and stand at their fullest; of seeking out all the spaces and ways we are alike and akin; of holding our words and actions accountable always to inclusion and equality. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future”. Each of us is both of those. Each of us carries all of that. Thank God that we are not defined by either. We are defined instead by who God knows us to be… with, we pray, miles to go before we sleep. May we be part of saying for certain that same grace is here to pour forth on all whom we encounter on this incredible journey.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Trinity United Church, Beamsville

Baptism of the Lord Sunday

 “On the night you were born, the moon smiled with such wonder that the stars peeked in to see you and the night wind whispered, “Life will never be the same.”

(Nancy Tillman, ‘On the Night You Were Born’)

Scripture    Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22 (NRSV)

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,  22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

“Standing on the Riverbank, with Susan Cottrell”

The Rev. Heather Weaver-Orosz

If you happen to be one who sometimes catches CBC Radio One out of Toronto, you, too might have heard the afternoon commute show taking and playing requests all week – specifically seeking their listeners’ wisdom on which songs will help to keep you motivated to keep your New Year resolutions.

On day 3 of hearing this, I thought I should send a note to say that some of us don’t make resolutions; we set Goals – which is maybe just a snooty way of saying resolutions.

At any rate, Goals for 2019 are what I have before me, divided into 3 primary categories:  Deeper, Wider, Stronger.

The inspiration for the categories is borrowed entirely from David Cain, who has made a name for himself by exploring life ideas in the form of experiment (like washing dishes by hand for a month, just to see what it transforms in him and his life).  While he does these things, he keeps a blog called ‘Getting Better at Being Human’; and that’s where he wrote about dedicating an entire year to “Go Deeper, Not Wider”.  It is to be a year of not acquiring any new ‘stuff’ AND not starting any new hobbies.  It’s a year of completing projects.  It’s a year of going deeper into what is already before you instead of trying something new.  I listened to him talk about all this with Mary Hines of Tapestry, and I started thinking of how wonderful that could be in our house… until he got to the part about not buying any new books; about ensuring you read all the books on your shelf before you take in anything new.  Ouch.  He just wiped out a good chunk of the pretty books I like to look at.

Think a little more, I tell myself.  Well, no, that’s still an excellent idea.  In the spirit of Marie Kondo; and in the wisdom of David Cain…No more new books, I declared to Michael.  Not even library books.  I shall read again or even for the first time all that I already have, I declared to Michael.  And it was incorporated into my 2019 Goals.

And then I stepped into the local bookstore – which is a little bit your fault, as you/the M&P Committee on your behalf gave me a gift card for said local bookstore.  It would be wrong to waste that.  I say honestly that I fully went in with the intention of buying a cookbook to support another of my 2019 goals for clean eating.  However, the self-help section was blocking my way into the store; and I am a sucker for interesting titles.  Before I knew it, I’d read the first 7 pages of Sarah Wilson’s newest work; and then I walked to the cashier with a cookbook and Sarah Wilson’s book, and I shattered that Goal in the first 10 days of 2019.

Let me continue this feeble defense with a little bit about Sarah Wilson’s text.  Better yet, let’s start with the title:  ‘first, we make the beast beautiful’ – which she explains is from a Chinese proverb.  Second, the front graphic:  an almost smiling octopus – which she identifies as a complicated and powerful beast made more beautiful through a deeper understanding of them and their desire to communicate with humans.  And third (the piece that really held me there at the display) is the subtitle:  a new journey through anxiety.  This was and is a ‘self-help’ book for millions of Canadians; and also for me.  Anxiety is a beast that I am learning to make beautiful; or at least not to let its beastly-ness shadow the beauty God intends for and has instilled in me.

We are a culture consumed with self-help; and there can be good in that – except for the part where it is usually and generously fueled by a belief that our frailties are the sum of our existence, rather than an honest part of our existence.  And so we have dozens and dozens of designer plans, with thousands and thousands of books that may carry wisdom, but they may also carry a false justification for whatever we believe is insufficient.  There is a fine but important line between self-awareness that leads to self-improvement to honour the gift of life we’ve been given; and self-critique that leads to self-dislike and punishing the gift of purpose we’ve been given.

That was an extremely long way ‘round, but hopefully not a way around the text, the book with which we began this morning.   To be sure, there are similarities to name – or at least similarities in their treatment in society.  The Bible as a whole, the Gospel according to Luke, and many portions of almost all Scriptural books have been taken apart and put back together on the premise of affirming humanity’s wayward ways.  Text after text have been lifted out across time, to wag a finger and give a lecture on the deficiencies of God’s people.  Sin and sinful have been elevated to almost venomous, certainly beastly stature, hurled by many a preacher far scarier than John the Baptist.  In too many times and too many places, Christian principles for ethical living have been used to not just draw lines but build cement walls in the sand, intent on separating those deemed faithful from those deemed not; all under the guise of protecting the innocent from those who are not.  Who’s in and who’s out?  Well, that depends on which beast is in fashion for dismantling – and it may or may not have anything to do with the Love we were shown in Jesus… wading into the river in humility, kneeling with the most reviled in compassion, holding the most rejected in prayer, expanding the boundaries of God’s mercy to where we ought not to see boundaries at all.

Jesus never came to say we’re perfect.  And yet he did.  He didn’t wade into the Jordan to make a point about all things and all choices being okay.  We are imperfect beings.  We live with circumstances beyond our control.  We live with circumstances well within our control.  And we spend a good deal of our earthly existence trying to sort out the difference between the two.  But all along the way, we are enough.  Maybe not for those who insist on judging, but most certainly for God.

John tries to make the claim that he is not good enough to baptize Jesus; that the roles should be reversed because God knows John has stepped out of line a few times.  And yet Jesus will have none of it.  In choosing John, he chooses to say – to all who witness and all who witness to what they witness – that John is enough.  He has a part to play in God’s ever-unfolding story and self-limiting constructs do not.

Jesus steps into the water for reasons that have been theologically dissected ever since.  But in the words of James Ravenscroft and Barry Peters, maybe we ought to spend less time worrying about why he went into the water than what happened because and after he emerged from it.  In the words of Christine Hallenbeck Ask, Jesus’ baptism was a cosmic event… not just because the heaven was opened to speak his name, but because it began Jesus’ ministry to speak each of our names.  Jesus’ baptism is “a particular promise with a cosmic call” – that cannot be confined or bound by words of not good enough.  It is a moment of naming, of confirming a choosing.  God chooses Jesus.  God chooses you.  You are a particular promise with a cosmic call.

At the edge of each day, we are invited to stand at the edge of this holy river.  Sunrise to sundown, before and beyond, we are invited to stand and make choices about how far we will wade into the sometimes uncomfortable waters of who we are.  For one mother named Susan Cottrell, that daily return came to its painful peak on the day she took a phone call from her daughter.  Susan and her husband were immersed in the evangelical church where they’d raised their 5 children; and now as a young adult away from home, her daughter was wrestling with and learning to say out loud that she was not who her church expected her to be.  ‘Mom’ she said.  ‘I’m attracted to women’.  And so began a journey in which Susan and her husband were told they had to choose – between their church dogma and their child.  They chose their child.  Life would never be the same.

A decade and more later, the Cottrells support thousands of Christians and beyond in their support network called freedhearts.org.  You can hear plenty more of their story in Susan’s TED talk – at which you will find her to be a rather soft-spoken woman; almost a little terrified at standing in such public waters and telling her story.  But tell it she does; live it she does – because she knows this isn’t just for her or her daughter.  It is for all of God’s children, of every age and stage, who wonder not only how to make the beast beautiful, but who are too often told that they themselves are the beast.

Susan claims the love of Jesus that she sees in the Jordan, at Bethany, in Gethsemane, on a hill called Calvary, and at the sea of Tiberias.  She claims a love that claims us first and last, and stays with us for all the length of our journey.  She claims this Love, and then she gives it away.  She accepts the promise and the cosmic call to embrace all God’s people in the same.  She wades into the waters of who her daughter is, who she herself is; she is held in the clasp of One who will not let her go; and then she rises again, perhaps breathless for a moment, but rises she does and then she emerges out into the world, where life will never be the same.

It is the simplest thing she might ever have done.  It is arguably also the hardest.  It is decidedly the most beautiful.

And now, it can be our turn.

To God alone be the glory!

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1 January 6, 2019

Wisdom

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

One of my friends I spent time with over the holiday was bragging about how last New Year’s Eve she was in bed by 10pm. She is a wise woman. I am envious of her. Of course, I have spent a New Year’s Eve in this very same friend’s basement. This was the same New Years Eve that we freaked out her parents when they heard cult-like chanting coming from downstairs, but perhaps that is a story for another time… or maybe never. In completely unrelated circumstances this is also the year in which a number of pictures were posted to Facebook of many of my group of friends on the basement carpet in exorcist-like positions. But that may also be a story for another time. Accidental cultic behavior is but one of the many memories I have of NYE, even if I would prefer to be in bed.

Staying up for the New Year has never been my favourite, but I feel obligated to spend it with friends or family and usually have a good time in spite of myself. Thankfully, being so tired on New Years Day this year actually helped me repair my fractured post-vacation sleep schedule, and that is a true miracle. God did not set the calendar or the clock but is still certainly watching out for me and that’s a Good Thing. So, on this day that has been assigned the start of a new year, in this year we assume is about two thousand and nineteen years since it happened, let us look at a story of another miracle. This miracle features wise men, people who probably stayed up past their bedtime travelling, reading, and sharing ideas, and maybe we can travel with them for a while.

The central characters in this text are Jesus and Mary (we know them: cool), King Herod (trash), and the wise men (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar). It is these wise men whom we follow in this story though. They are figuring out their own journey, driven by a purpose of finding a Messiah they had read about and set out to find. King Herod is on a journey of his own, driven by a desire to protect his own power. And these are the two forces that are attempting to find Jesus with very different intentions. I think I can safely assume that few people think that Herod is the good guy in this story. So, turning to the wise men perhaps there are a few things to take away from how they act to direct us in this New Year.

The wise men are curious. They embrace curiosity about what they read and what they have seen. There is a tradition that the wise men were Zoroastrian, but we have reason to believe that they were not Jewish, but were aware and possessed Jewish prophetic texts. Wherever the kings are from, they have prophecy about another place and choose to both believe and understand its importance not only for the “Jews” but for all people. SO when they see the star and make the connection, they do not just acknowledge its meaning but then choose to journey out to follow it. Wisdom is continually being curious. It is knowing some things but always wishing to learn more. Wisdom does not end with a fact but continually begins anew with another question.

The wise men seek justice. They respect authority when it is reasonable, and confront it when it is not. When they enter the land of Israel they seek out Herod, in part to make their job easier but also because they ought to do so: they are coming into a country and it seems almost polite to make their presence known and to keep the ruler in the land informed of what is happening. This is respect for authority and leadership and decorum. Civility. HOWEVER, once they learn from their dream that Herod has bad intentions, they no longer pay him the favour of returning to relay their information. It is clear that they no longer want Herod to know of where they have gone and where they are going. Herod gives up his authority after these bad actions and the wise men leave Israel when their work is done by another road. Wisdom is knowing and understanding the status quo, why it exists and why it benefits the world. But wisdom also questions and resists the systems that are unjust and dangerous, never understanding something to be good, sure, and certain simply because of its status. Wisdom makes room for grey areas, and the opportunity to change opinion. Wisdom does not end with a fact, but makes room for a new set of facts.

The wise men accept surprises. They accept what they find as right and correct when it is not what they were expecting. The wise men set out on a journey to find a king, and bring the kinds of gifts one might offer to a king. So when they find a child, it is a different kind of king. But they don’t just leave. They do what they set out to do: they’re like “cool, whatever have some gold,” kneel before a child and let it be what it will be. Wisdom does not end with a fact, it starts something that we could never imagine.

But all this curiosity and flexibility has to mean more than that, right? Because if it was that easy, everybody would do it. We would all work hard to be open to the world around us, use what we know to make informed decisions, and have the flexibility to adapt. We try to do that, but maybe we don’t always succeed. Maybe some of us shy away from wisdom because it feels like a lofty description that we are not worthy to accept. Maybe it seems like wisdom exists in a bygone time before everything can be looked up my computers we carry in our pockets. Wisdom is elusive.

[It feels strange as a young person to be talking about wisdom to a community older than I am. Wisdom is a virtue that is said to be related to age and experience. Knowledge only becomes wisdom when there has been time to reflect on past experiences to turn them into useful lessons for the future. But it is something to work towards. It’s personal value to myself and my life was affirmed when a minister I once had praised me for my wisdom. I was filling-in as the church administrator at the time. She had come to me with a situation to do with ordering items in the service and told me about an inter-professional issue she was dealing with. I weighed in on both, offering what I thought was a clear answer. When she thanked me “for my wisdom” it was a weird moment. I felt that initial rejection of the word (“me, wise? couldn’t be) but really appreciated it. Because when we are described as wise, our thoughts and opinions and perspectives are valued. And that feels good. It doesn’t mean we should use it lightly, but I think we need to reintroduce wisdom and wise people back into our culture. Wisdom comes from the people who have taken the time to reflect on what they have learned from past experiences to turn them into useful lessons for the future.

But why bother? Because wisdom helps. Wisdom does not sit back and exist for its own sake, wisdom helps people. It is knowledge mobilized, turned outward, and connected to others—it demands to be shared. Wisdom calls us to create a culture in which ideas are valued so that we can come into a place where we can, as a community, come up great things together. Though great in isolation, there are some things that will come more quickly if we listen to each other and value our unique perspectives.

The wise men of this scripture text are a traditional sort of wisdom, maybe what we think of when we think of wisdom at first. They were scholars, who took the time to read, know, and understand the prophecy and all else they needed to know to make the journey that they did. Though wisdom requires knowledge and reflection which a scholar makes their life’s work, that does not mean that only scholars are wise. To that end, I would like to tell you of two people, two women, who’s wisdom has had an impact on my life and how I approach the world and the search for wisdom myself.

The first is a professor I had during my undergraduate degree. She was a professor of British history, originally from the UK and exceptionally brilliant. She was an older woman, maybe a little small in stature. She always wore these black suits, really well tailored and put together. But when she stood at the front of a room to lecture, she commanded attention. She was in a room with a group of young students, but you could tell that she was the kind of woman who when she entered a room, she was going to be the one with the most knowledge in that place.

But it wasn’t baseless. I had the opportunity to take a seminar class with her on the Tudor and Stuart monarchs of England and I can remember in particular I meeting I had with her in her office. I was explaining to her what I was planning to present for my seminar presentation, and she really let me fully explain what I was trying to get at. She asked me a few clarifying questions, which I realize now were her way of trying to get me to move in the right direction. She wrote down a list of a few books that she thought would be helpful and that was that.

I think why this stuck with me was the way that this professor employed wisdom. She knows the answers, she knows the topics all her students are doing inside out. But she never pushed me in one direction or another, she used all she knew in order to assist me in doing my own learning. It was a demonstration of how wisdom goes beyond knowledge, beyond the facts, to meet the situation at hand. This professor turned curiosity and flexibility into tools for teaching, using wisdom to direct me along my own journey towards greater knowledge.

The second person I want to talk about is someone my own age. She is a friend I have known for more than ten years now. The wisdom that she has is not built upon years of scholarship or life experience. But it is built upon the experience she does have. She has a way of seeing people when they are upset, isolated, and withdrawn. She has a way of reaching out to those people, knowing how to engage with them in a way that lifts them up and connects them back with the world where that connection is lost. She is able to do this because of her own life experience. She has had many moments of feeling this same distress, isolation, and withdrawal. But what she does so well is take those experiences and makes use of them. In talking with her about these things, she does not realize how wise she is. When she looks at her action, she seems them as natural. But when I see them, I see how she has taken the knowledge she has gleaned from her life and formed into the wisdom of how to meet people where they are and be a light for them. When she enters a room, you see her because she is a light, and she is illuminated by the wisdom of her experiences.

Sage, professor, colleague, friend—wisdom springs from all places. It is within me. And it is within you. Wisdom is not clear all the time where it works, it is subtle. But when I think of how wisdom works I think also of God. I think of how God works in ways that are sometimes strange to us, and other times in ways that sit clearly in front of us as the most obvious thing in the world. God can be subtle, and works within us great things for us to provide to the world. God is in wisdom. This is because wisdom comes from God, and is God, as are all things of the world from the Creator and Mother of this universe.

But wisdom is also Jesus.

The wise men of scripture are not the central part of the story. Their presence is not for their glory or benefit. Their place in the narrative is to help us to understand the importance of Jesus. These wise people took a long journey to reach Jesus and honoured him with their praise and their gifts. This story tells us that Christ, even as a child, before he did anything extraordinary himself, should be looked at as important because these wise men, these important figures have demonstrated that it is so.

This story comes from Matthew’s gospel. There are no heavenly host of shepherds to demonstrate the divine impact of this birth. That role is filled by the magi, the wise men. Their coming affirms the message that Mary and Joseph receive before their son is born: that he is a savior for their people and is also the son of God. Wisdom approaches the child Jesus and kneels down before him and offers itself up to Jesus for him to use at the appropriate time.

Other gospels approach this in other ways: Mark shows how the Holy Spirit enters into Jesus at this Baptism, empowering him to begin his teaching. John in the first chapter says that Jesus is the Word, something that was with God at the time of time of creation but was sent to earth in the form of Jesus. Luke details the episode where Jesus, as a child is in the temple and conversing with teachers of the scriptures at an astonishing level.

Christ and wisdom are intertwined. They cannot be separated out. The gospel writers want you, in this time, to know this: the things that Jesus will say over the course of his life are not just new ideas thrown haphazardly to the wind. These are things that have been reflected upon, that are in touch with and bound to divine intention for humanity. They are wise teachings that all who hear them should consider. That is the way to best honor them.

If you take anything away from all of what I have said, I hope that it is these two things. First, I hope that you remember all of the wisdom that you have received over the course of your life and all of the wise people who have passed through you life and left a part of themselves in you. I hope that you feel uplifted and surrounded in those experiences and that you can experience all over again and the care and compassion that came with it. Second, I hope that you hear me when I say that the same root of wisdom that is in the wise men, that is in Christ, is inside of you. You have wisdom to give to world, and I pray that in your journey you come to a place where you can continue to share the precious gift of your light with the world.

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The Winnowing Fork of Christmas?

Scott Beckett

December 16 2018

Luke 3:7-18

 When you think of Joy, what do you think about? Probably not this scripture passage, because in terms of happiness the ratio is pretty low. Armed with a pitchfork and unquenchable fire Jesus is coming to chop us down and burn us up because we are all snakes. So maybe we can start somewhere else. I think growing up, for me the joy of Christmas was in the presents. There are other components: there are decorations and music and family and all of those kinds of things that really defined the season for me: things of beauty and things that called back to a tradition that made me feel like I was part of something larger, whether that be my family unit, my Christian faith, or my place in a greater human community of love and generosity. But the gifts are inexplicably part of those memories. But I won’t be too hard on myself: that is what Christmas was and I was in a position to take those kinds of things for granted.

Christmas tree decorating maybe gives you the best picture of Christmas in my house growing up. The tree was always set up in the room with the piano, in a bay window looking into the backyard. My dad would put on the lights when the tree went in. The colours varied: I can remember a number of years where the lights were multi-coloured and we had to go through the string to find the burnt out bulbs, replacing them with the same colour to maintain the order of them. In later years, in a post LCD world, we had blue lights some years and white lights on others. But there was always a colour pallet to consider. On the evening we decorated the tree, we would gather in the living room, plastic bins of decorations neatly laid out, a set of our standard Christmas albums on the stereo (the Rankin sisters, Jewel, the Cambridge children’s choir, and Rosie O’Donnell’s “Another Rosie Christmas”) and set to work. The first thing to go on was a set of coloured glass Christmas balls that each came on a hook. Some years it was blue and silver, other years it was gold and red. But never a different combination: that was part of the pallet. Then, each of the five of us had a freezer bag of our own ornaments, collected over our lifetime from various places. Many of them were really nice ones we got as gifts and we still had construction paper and macaroni “art” we made as kids in our early school days. The system was laid out, the nicest ornaments went towards the front of the tree, and the… less fortunate looking ornaments would still be hung, but around the back side so they couldn’t be seen so well from inside. When I remember Christmas traditions and joy, I think about this scene. It was a time of beauty and music but it was also a time of organization and administration. Which isn’t joyful on the surface but I think we can agree that growing up can be chaotic and sometimes pretty difficult. These kinds of Christmas traditions, knowing that there was going to be certain things happening and a certain time to celebrate the season was a source of joy for me. It is not the obvious place to find it but I found it.

So what about the brood of vipers? Can there be joy in that? John the Baptist doesn’t play around. People often talk about Jesus as fulfilling the role of the Good Shepherd. But Jesus didn’t tell us about the Bad Shepherd: he goes out and finds the lost lamb and then brings it home and yells at all the sheep and calls them snakes. He’s doing good work, trying to give good guidance to the people, shepherding them along before Christ arrives on the scene, but it isn’t quite what we are used to hearing out of the Gospels. He uses this violent imagery because it is the easiest way to get across what he is trying to say. When he refers to the people listening as a brood of vipers, that’s going to catch you off guard a little bit and maybe put you on the defensive. It may even turn you off, make it difficult to hear anything good that John has to say. But that’s why this is such an interesting strategy: because John’s promise of a powerful savior draws us in. People get caught in this tension where they want to accept what John is saying about the coming Messiah, it is still a message of hope, but are also faced with what John is saying about their own imperfection, their insignificance in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and the promise of divine judgment.

A perfect, lighthearted tone for this Christmas season.

The question is whether these troubling parts are doing anything to help us. In a way it seems like a distraction. We’re trying to talk about joy here, and talk about Christmas. That is, the birth of Christ whose teaching is not disagreeing with things that John in preaching, but has a very different tactic. But looking as John’s message for what it is, there is something there. It’s reality that people are not always kind or good, and it’s reality that people need to be told not to extort money or share with the less fortunate. Because what John is up against is a culture that is being affected by Roman imperial influence, and a Jewish interpretation of the law that favours control of authority rather than the things that Jesus was going to bring forward. In this kind of environment, when you’re preparing the way for an imminent arrival of a Messiah for your people, what is one supposed to do but try to snap them out of their stupor into a new way of seeing the world and imagining their circumstance.

This is a pretty rosy perception of a tactic that is everywhere nowadays. We live in a time where the issue is not introducing a new mindset, as it was for John, but instead we are faced with too many new ideas. So people who are about sharing their message, corporations, political groups, and important people, have gotten good at getting your attention. It takes incredible amounts of trial and error, but in this media environment you’ve got billions of eyes for doing this testing and great technology for keeping track of results. The result is that we get messaging that knows exactly how to access your brain through your emotions: the entryways that work best and the ones to avoid.

John hasn’t reached that level yet. He’s still working out the best way for his message to reach people. But it’s not like he’s going at this with no strategy at all. It just isn’t as honed as what we are used to in this age.

Of course, we all know the unfortunate nature of this optimized clickbait strategy. This past week The United States House Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing to question CEO Sundar Pichai. One thing to come out of that event was a question about how YouTube’s algorithms seem to promote content in a way that becomes increasingly extreme with every video clicked. Because of the nature of the YouTube algorithm, which has the goal of extending the amount of time each user spends on the site, and thereby maximizing ad revenue, the videos it is most likely to show to a particular user are ones that evoke an emotional response that draws one to click and watch. Political conspiracy theories were on the mind of Congress in this case  but it is possible to show how doing an inane search with a person’s name could end up somewhere far removed from that in terms of what is suggested. And it only gets more targeted as Google learns about you more based on your viewing history and your web history in general.

But all this is to say that we live in a John the Baptist world. In some ways that’s a world of discomfort and mixed messages and trying to figure out what can be taken away. It is a world where it becomes hard to trust in what you read because you can’t be sure if it is the truth or if it’s

AND YET, a John the Baptist world is exactly the kind of world that we should be living in. Because John the Baptist makes an impression, makes you uncomfortable, and makes you confront the fact that God has directives for humanity that are going to make it better.

People do not like to feel uncomfortable. It is not the preferred posture, it is easier to avoid the harsh realities that challenge our sense of self and our sense of our own existence. It threatens our physical, mental, and emotional safety to engage with issues that throw us into a new place.

I think it is the most tricky to negotiate for us because we aren’t bad people. I think our Christian identity and context in the United Church attracts people who are open minded, who want to learn from diverse perspectives and work for justice for the marginalized. So then it hurts more when we feel called out for not being perfect. It begins to feel like we are being blamed when it is brought up with ways that we can improve. We can respond with getting defensive. I think one of the more troubling moments for me was when I found this defensive response welling up inside of me. In a paper I wrote in seminary a few years ago I referred to accents as being a communication barrier. The way I phrased it, a professor remarked, sounded like I was saying that other people have accents and that the North American accent is the default.

Maybe you are thinking now “that’s not that big a deal.” And I don’t think my professor was suggesting that it was. But my guard immediately went up. I knew that was not what I was implying, I know that everyone has an accent, I was not trying to play into this Western-centric view of the world that I felt was being put upon me by this outside viewpoint.

It took me a while to really separate myself out from that immediate reaction and see it for what this challenge was. It may not have been what I intended, but phrasing matters. If something that you say or do is misconstrued, that can have consequences and lead to disagreement that was not intended. For someone going into a community-building career in ministry, my professor was clearly trying to point out the ease with which this can happen if something becomes unclear. Suppose I was working with someone with a different accent and made it seem like I though that they were lesser, or less deserving, or less Canadian. What would someone who overheard that think of me, and what doors might be closed or made more complicated in my ministry if that happens? But that wisdom was not clear to me in the moment of first reading that feedback I was given. I was defensive and I was losing the important message that was hidden beneath the hard shell of my own making.

Maybe it is a bit harsh to just cast down my lot as part of the brood of snakes that John calls the people but in a sense it isn’t wrong. We all can get defensive and make mistakes and do things that we are not proud of later. It doesn’t mean that we’re bad people, it just means that we aren’t perfect. When John says that we are not special, that if we are not living by God’s laws that we do not have to be the ones to receive God’s grace, that we can be cut down easily because the axe is readily available by our roots, that perspective has some merit.

My favourite part of this passage, though, is the ending: “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” It calls upon a harvest metaphor that I had to go and look up because I grew up in the city and in a technological age. In the harvest of wheat, the grain itself has to be separated out from the chaff, which is the outer casing. So first the wheat is “threshed” by crushing and then “winnowed” which involved throwing the crushed grain into the air, allowing the lighter chaff to be blown away by the wind and the heavier grain to fall straight down. There are videos online that show the process being done by hand.

The Message translates this passage differently: it talks about the true being separated out from the false and being preserved. And that is what I see being the best interpretation of this passage. On Wednesday in the study group we were talking about the sheep and the goats, a passage in which Jesus implies that there are good people and there are bad people that are going to be separated out and only the good people are going to receive divine salvation. But this passage always strikes me as being different, even though it is also about sorting the unwanted things from the important things. We are wheat people, not grain and chaff. Both of those parts are part of us as a whole. What is done through Jesus is the act of winnowing, separating out the rough and hard parts to reveal the goodness, the truth that is inside. We are products of our environment. We live in a world that causes us to have these shells of falsehood. Even though we are thoughtfully and meaningfully made by God, our society and the world we have made with God is not and still rests in the systems of power that John was reacting to in his day.

Winnowing cannot always be done in a single step. You can’t get all of the chaff in a single pass through. It can take work, and multiple attempts to break out all of the falsehood that hold us back. But Jesus is patient. Jesus isn’t going to stop working on grain that isn’t ready for the granary on the first try. Jesus will toss you up into the air again so that the wind can have another go at you. It’s going to be uncomfortable and distressing and it may not be clear where things are going, but I think we can trust that Jesus is taking care of all of that.

Hidden within the discomfort is the potential for joy. Joy isn’t easy. In a world like this one, joy is hard. It is a grain wrapped in a hard shell that has to be crushed and thrown around to get off. Because joy means more when it is hard-won. It means more when what comes out of your work was not easy. There are many ways to decorate a Christmas tree, but the process that I remember, that brings me the most joy, was involved and resisted simplicity and maybe a bit intense. But it was full of heart and joy and it is one of the most precious things that comes to my memory in this season. John the Baptist resists simplicity and calls us to do the same. Joy still exists in a world that is less than rosy. It can still exist in the regimented justice-making and the calling-to-account of all of humanity. Underneath it is the promise that God through Christ is coming to be with us on Earth, and is never going to give up on us.

John brings to us a challenge: do all you can to live up to the grace that God is giving to you. Be flexible, be willing to shake off all the bad stuff and the lies and the biases to see the good at the heart of it all; we need to be willing to see ourselves as imperfect creatures but that we have the potential to be more than we are and get at the joy that Christ offers to us. It is the winnowing fork of Christmas: the promise that Jesus is working in our hearts in this time and in all time. And that is a precious gift. I’m not planning of sticking a pitchfork on the top of my tree anytime soon, but I appreciate John the Baptist for trying. Maybe next year.

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