“Good and Faithful Servant”? – to whom?

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Phil Pacey – ” A Good and Faithful Servant” of Halifax and Fort Massey United Church. 

Scripture: Matthew 25:14-30 

When I was here last summer, I was inspired to preach sermons based on ten of the windows here in this sanctuary. When I was asked if I would like to come back to Fort Massey again this summer I decided to do another 10-week sermon series. This past year at AST (The Atlantic School of Theology), I fell in love with contemplating the parables. I soon discovered that the parables were not the neat and tidy little morality tales that I once thought they were. No, they were meant to turn the way that we saw the world completely upside down. Jesus told these stories that are provocative, alarming, sometimes insulting, often confusing, and always subversive. These stories are not allegories where each character or object in the story directly represents something else. We have a tendency do that sometimes to try and make them easy to understand like the fairy tales we are used to where the moral is so clear. The problem with this thinking is that the parables weren’t meant to be easy.

Parable telling was a common practice in Jewish teaching. When explaining why the parables are hard to understand, Jesus says that to those to whom the Kingdom of God has been revealed through him the parables will make sense if: “He who has ears to hear let him hear.” This is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah prophesied that the day would come when a king would reign in righteousness and the rulers would rule with justice – “Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. The fearful heart will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear.” We are among those who have ears to hear should we choose to use them, but even though we know about the Kingdom of God, we still live in the world and it is often easier to hear and not listen and see and not perceive what these stories are trying to tell us about ourselves. The books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, Acts, and Romans all tell us about this resistance we have to God’s kingdom. Again and again, we can read about how we (the people) are afraid to see and hear what God is trying to show and tell us… again and again we learn that it is fear that keeps our hearts from turning away from all that the world tells us is good and true, and keeps us from turning to God who has is always waiting to work in our hearts.

Change is scary – but that is what the parables provoke us to do – change… And that is what the parable today does too.

I thought of this parable right away when Phil Pacey was described to me by Rev. Trent as “A Good and Faithful Servant”. I have no doubt that he was, but maybe not in the way that this parable might suggest. You see we have done to this parable exactly what Jesus expected those that weren’t ready to hear the message would do to it. We have allegorized it so that it makes sense to the way we understand OUR world. I’m willing to bet that most of us automatically made the Master in this story a representative for God. If you did, then you are not alone as it has been interpreted this way for centuries by many preachers and scholars. Let’s take a closer look…

If the master in this story is God then the heroes of the story are the first two slaves who take what their master gave them and turn it into profit. In return for their good work they are told that they are good and faithful servants and are rewarded equivalent to their good deeds. The third slave, who took what his master entrusted in him and just gave it back to him in kind, is punished. He speaks up against the master and calls him a scoundrel. The master does not like this (although he doesn’t deny it) and calls it just an excuse for wickedness and laziness. He casts the third slave into the outer darkness – “where men will weep and gnash their teeth!” It seems that he was right to fear this man who punishes him with pain and suffering for simply returning to him what is his (remember – give to Ceaser what is Caeser’s!). In this version, the Master says that wealth would be given to those who already have wealth and everything would be taken from those who had nothing. Please think about that for a moment… does this sound like the God you have come to know?

Do you imagine that in God’s Kingdom the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, financially, spiritually, or otherwise? Do you imagine a God that doles out rewards and punishments based exclusively on our performance? Do you imagine a God that inflicts pain and suffering on his servants? This God is vengeful and unforgiving… That’s not the God I’ve come to know.

The first clue that this story may not be what it appears on the surface comes in the sheer ridiculousness of the giving of talents. Reading the parables has taught me that stories that have extreme examples are clues to the reader to flip the story on its head! Setting aside that this sermon has been misguidedly preached so many times to interpret “talents” as the gifts of the Spirit that God has given each of us (like playing the piano or being good at mathematics). In this case, a talent is an actual unit of measurement for money. Some report that a talent would be five years worth of wages, some say 130lbs of silver coins… so think about that. Slave 1 was given 650 lbs of coin! No Slave Master would give a slave that much money. It just wouldn’t happen. There is another version of this story in the gospel of Luke that gives another clue to what this story is really about. There are scholars that share that there was a well-known story of that time about Archelus, who, after his father King Herod’s death, set out to be crowned king in Rome. As King he would receive all the taxes and literally reap the benefits from what he did not sow. He punished harshly the Jews that tried to fight his rule over them.

Let’s consider for a moment what this story might mean with a different hero. What if this parable is not about the kingdom of God that is to come but a warning against the kingdoms of the world that are already here?

Let’s rewrite the story and see what you think…

The Owner of an Multi-national Manufacturing company was leaving the continent and entrusted all his investments to traders that worked for him. To those that had a reputation for turning the largest profit he gave the most responsibility, and to the rest he gave just enough to keep them in his service. The one that reported the highest earnings became CEO of the company and the one that doubled his investment, but had less to begin with, became Chair of the Board.

While he was away, one of his employees learned that this company used child labour in Asia, polluted rivers, and had a reputation for destroying landmarks in poor neighbourhoods to build office buildings. This employee didn’t want any part of that, but was also deeply afraid of losing her job in this fragile economy so she just kept the investment safe until the owner returned. When she blew the whistle on her boss, he didn’t deny her accusations, but said that if she didn’t want to risk trading she could have at least put the money in the bank to earn interest! Her ethics required that she did no business with those funds and so she returned to the boss what was his. She was fired on the spot and the owner of the company made sure that any future employer knew that she was not a good and faithful employee! The owner of that company is the kind of man that believes that being rich means that you deserve power and he has no problem taking everything from the poor if it means that he becomes wealthier. He knows that this is just the way to be successful in the world.

I don’t think that anyone would identify God as the owner of the company in that story. And the Good and Faithful servant is likely the whistle blower isn’t she? – the one that stood up against an unjust leader, and the one that refused to become a part of the problem. That is the Good and Faithful servant that I want to be.

Good and Faithful servants are the activists among us like Betty and Phil Pacey that fight for what they know is right. These are the people that put their money where their mouth is when they see the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. These are the one that stand up against big business and corrupt governments that make their profit on the backs of others.

The cost of being that kind of Good and Faithful servant means that those whose measure success on the values of the kingdom of earth will see those that seek the kingdom of God as fanatics, troublemakers or maybe even lazy whiners. Sometimes they are seen as real societal threats and lose their jobs, their freedom, and sometimes their lives. I think this parable is about the cost of being a Good and Faithful servant of God, like Jesus, who was willing to die on the cross for what he knew was right. Those that long for power in this world may attain it, but if they do so at the expense of others then they are not seeking the Kingdom of God.

So, for who will you be a Good and Faithful servant?- for the World or for God? It is my hope that each week we will engage in these parables as Jesus called his disciples to do: with our eyes ready to see & perceive, with our ears ready to hear and listen, and with our hearts steadied and readied for change. That is the challenge we will face together over the coming weeks. May it be so. Amen.

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Canada150 – After the Hoopla

PrintI’ve been thinking a lot about Canada150 and all the hoopla that goes with it. I say hoopla because I have never been a fan of parades, concerts, or fireworks. Then again, I’m not a fan of Disney either, so I know that already I am sounding like hippy dippy liberal grouch trying to poo-poo the party. I’ll own that, but I am also a thinker and at least a handful of you are interested in my thoughts, so here you go:

Setting the financial cost of all the hoopla aside for a moment (that is indeed where I usually grumble about this), I want to think about the other cost of celebrating Canada150.  Don’t get me wrong,  I understand the need that some people have to celebrate the milestones of the place where they live. Celebrating that the British Colonies known at that time as the province of Canada (Ontario & Quebec together), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick coming together as the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867 makes sense in that context… Please check out this link for a CBC article that breaks down the “confusion” about how old “Canada” really is. 13000? 19? 150? It really is unclear. As long as you know what you are celebrating, this one particular moment  in time, then I say shake your Pom-poms and eat your strawberry and cool-ship canada flag desserts!

I simply pray that we never forget that what we are celebrating is only possible because we Colonized and then declared Dominion over lands that belonged to people long before we took over. All of us want to celebrate the achievements of those that went before us…and I do too and I am very grateful that I live in this nation and in this province that they built for me. I earnestly think it extremely important that we never forget the cost of those achievements and see it as a call to all of us to continue to work at healing the wounds of the broken promises and relationships that made that which we celebrate possible. The same people that will shout, “don’t hold me accountable for the wrongs of my ancestors” will naively reap the benefits of their ancestors’ work.

When all the hoopla is over and the last firework is cleaned up, let’s keep celebrating Canada by striving to be better neighbours to one another. That includes the neighbours whose ancestors were colonizers, the neighbours whose ancestors were here long before the colonizers arrived, the neighbours whose ancestors came to North America as slaves, the neighbours whose ancestors came to Canada seeking a better and safer life, and the neighbours who are new Canadians seeking the same. We are all Canadians now. 

No matter who we are, if we are Canadian, let us never forget the stories that brought us here to 2017. May we celebrate what is good. May we learn from what went wrong. And, may we strive to write new stories that reflect the kind of Canada we claim to be!

 

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Called to stand up

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Nervous before preaching, but stirred by the Spirit!

I am now entering into my last year of studies at The Atlantic School of Theology. I am about to embark on a 10 week sermon series on the Parables at Fort Massey United Church in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia and it was my intention to start this blog up again then, but the Spirit is funny. As the sermon below will share, my heart has been stirred recently. So, this morning I (nervously) presented a sermon at Crossroads United Church Pastoral Charge at St. James United Church in Goodwood and at Trinity United Church in Timberlea that I was stirred to write. I was the student supply minister here and have only preached there once before a few weeks ago. I would like to thank them for being so open to the Spirit as I shared what may have been a difficult message to hear. I hope you are also stirred by this sermon. May the Peace of Christ be with all of you.

Matthew 10:24-39

SERMON – Faithful Discipleship 

How about that scripture reading? Just a little light reading for a Sunday morning. It would be an understatement to say that today’s gospel reading is “difficult” to process. It was because it was hard that I decided to sit with it this past week, instead of choosing something else that may have been easier to write about. I have come to understand that it is these difficult readings that push me to be a better preacher and, I hope, a better human being.

This past week, I spent some time in Madison, New Jersey at Drew University for the Feminist Studies in Religion (FSR) conference titled “Making Alliances, Breaking Taboos, and Transforming Religion”. I was in the presence of some of the greatest feminist and womanist theologians and activists of our time – five generations of them we were told. Our Keynote speaker was a woman named Ruby Sales. Ms. Ruby Sales or Sister Mama Ruby Sales as she is sometimes called, is a social activist who, among many incredible acts, walked in the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 – marches made famous by the movie Selma about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s involvement in that demonstration. I believe that Ruby Sales is exactly the kind of person that Jesus calls us to be in this morning’s scripture – she is what I would call a faithful disciple.

In 1964, following a demonstration in Alabama where she had been arrested, she was buying a soda with her friends when threatened with a shot-gun by a man that would try to shoot her dead. A fellow marcher stepped in front of that bullet and it killed him instead. That man’s name was Jonathan Daniels. Jonathan Daniels was also a civil rights activist, but unlike so many marching in that time he was white. He was also practicing what he was learning to preach while studying to be a minister. Jonathan Daniels was literally willing to take up his cross and lay down his life in the face of violence because he fought for what he thought was right in the eyes of God.

Ruby Sales and the rest of the civil rights movement were deeply transformed by Daniels’ death. And, it is no mystery why his death mattered to the national public and politic more than the death of so many black activists that went before him –A white man had been killed because of his fervent belief and stance on the side of goodness and the problem stopped being about “black folk” not getting the vote. Daniels did something that few of us are ever willing to do even if we like to think we would: He used his power as a member of the colonizing culture to lift the voices of those who were fighting to be heard. He became a co-conspirator in the fight for civil rights instead of being a silent allied bystander. He followed Jesus Christ who stirred him from placidness and called him to be a a faithful disciple even unto death.

Ruby Sales said in an interview with Dr. Vincent Harding (best known for his writings for and about his close associate Dr. King) that, “Religion, for me, growing up in Columbus, Georgia, was the ground that I stood on that positioned us to stand against the wind.” My friends, that is the ground on which we too stand this morning. Our religion, this scripture, can help us stand against the wind that wants to keep us moving in the same direction that we have always moved. Not only does it ground us against that wind, but I hope that it will stir us in a new direction! In September of last year she did an interview for onbeing.org that addressed public theology and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In it, she said,

“…there’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning <…> we talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology <…> I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European American. That’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed. And I don’t quite understand that. It must be more sexy to deal with black folk than it is to deal with white folk if you’re a white person. So as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were.”

In addition to hearing Ms. Ruby Sales speak, I had the honour of bearing witness to some very challenging words this last week from other powerful women. The words that touched me in the deepest (and often darkest parts of my soul) came from the mouths of  Dr. Rachel Harding, Dr. Fulata Moyo, Dr. Melanie Harris, Dr. Traci West, and Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman. These women called me out! They called me out of a slumber that I first began to awake from last year when I watched a video of a black man being shot through the window of the passenger seat of his car while still wearing his seatbelt! These women called me out from the comfortable bed of white privilege in which I have been firmly and comfortably nestled my whole life. Yes – I went there. I said, “white privilege” Talk about breaking Taboo!

Let me be very clear: each and every time I hear those words they sting—but they sting for a different reason than they used to. I used to think that the term “white privilege” was  “anti-white” and was meant to shame or hold all people with skin like mine responsible for the atrocities that happen to people of colour. When I would hear or read this term used by black people I would want to scream,  “But, I’m not a racist!” Like many people that look like me, I would think, “isn’t it racist to talk about me and all people like me because of the colour of our skin?” But, I started to listen to what these voices were telling me, I started to learn that this is not an anti-white term or even a form of defensive racism (whatever the hell that is).  These words sting now because my eyes and heart are opened to the reality that having skin this colour means that I automatically experience life in a very different way than people of colour. It also means that I have the responsibility to speak up for those whose voices others have tried to dismiss or silence because it makes them feel bad about themselves. Like Jonathan Daniels, I have a responsibility to use my power to help fight for justice in the name of all that is good and right in the eyes of the God I so believe in.

Because of the colour of my skin, I have the privilege to have the choice to make changes to systems where people with the same skin colour as me hold more political offices and positions of authority than all other skin colours combined. This is true in America and this is true in Canada. The colour of my skin does not make me better than anyone else, I have never believed that, but what it does is give me the choice to decide if I want to get involved in matters of racism. If I decide not to get involved then my life will not be affected either way. Because let me be real honest with you: I have never been denied a job because my name is associated with the community I grew up in that is constantly getting bad press. I have never had anyone make fun of the name my mother gave me because it sounds weird or because they can’t pronounce it. Clerks or security guards have never followed me around in a store. I have never been pulled over by the police except when I was actually speeding. I have never been called a name associated with the colour of my skin or ethnic group that was meant to demean or belittle me. I have never been called a terrorist or a gangster or a thug. I have never been asked what country I’m really from. I have never been asked if I am a “real” woman or to explain how I have sex. I have never been asked what colour my parents are. And, I have never had to prepare my children because any or all of these things might happen to them just because society has shown that, “that is just the way it is”. The truth is that I’m not involved unless I choose to be. That IS one of my privileges as a person that looks like me.

That is not to say that my life is perfect just because I’m white. I have problems just like other people. My whiteness does not mean that I am automatically rich or successful or part of the 1%. My whiteness doesn’t mean that I don’t have to work for what I have. My whiteness doesn’t protect me against the stigma of mental illness. My whiteness didn’t prevent me from being treated differently, and sometimes poorly, because I am female.  At the end of the day though, I am a cis-gendered, white, heterosexual, educated, middle-class woman in a socio-political system that is mostly made up of people that look and sound like me. That doesn’t mean that I automatically have it easy, but studies and countless anecdotes tell me that it does mean that I have it easier than people that start from where I start, but have darker skin than mine. That is not a judgement –That’s just the way it is.

I know that this is not an easy message for you to hear because most of you also look like me. Our scripture today did not call us to make life easy for systems and powers that provoke fear, that damage souls, and destroy whole communities of people. That is the system that we inherited… right here in our province we can’t forget the reality of residential schools, the tragedy of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, or the atrocity of bulldozing Africville. No – our call this morning is to stop injustice going forward even if we can’t make passed wrongs right. It isn’t about blaming ourselves or taking responsibility for the racism of our ancestors, but about finding ways to stop making the same mistakes over and over again. It is about change – The scripture is meant to stir us from placidness and make us angry when we know something isn’t right. That might mean that our opinions and actions are not popular. I know there are people that would like me to just shut up about all this including members of my own family and community. Some of you may wish I would just get this over with already, but this past week I promised that I would stand up from now on instead of just standing by. I have heard the call to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ and fight against injustice, oppression, and fear. And so, I am trying.

This is just the beginning and I’m not even sure sometimes where to start. In my small group at the FSR conference I told them this story:

Last year I watched the video of Philando Castile (the video I alluded to earlier) being murdered by a police officer (A police officer who was acquitted on June 16 of Mr. Castile’s murder despite overwhelming evidence that proved his guilt). I had avoided watching those videos because I knew they would affect me and I wasn’t ready for that. I recognize now that even that is a product of my privilege – that I have the ability to choose whether or not I want to expose myself to such things. I watched that video though and it horrified me. I immediately wanted to talk about it. I wanted to feel better. I wanted to connect with black friends and figure out something – I don’t even know what I wanted…but I quickly realized that I didn’t have any black friends to talk to. I had a few black facebook friends, but they were not from Nova Scotia. I didn’t know right away why this was the case. I certainly don’t hate black people. I grew up in Dartmouth and remember having black friends in high school. It became painfully clear that just because I don’t hate, doesn’t mean that I made an effort to love.

I don’t have a good reason why I have not made this same effort with my black neighbours that I have made with others. This revelation told me that I don’t care enough to be intentional about being friends with people who look different than me. It told me that I might be a silent ally standing by (if I am even that), but I am certainly not a co-conspirator willing to stand up and march beside Black Nova Scotians in matters of social justice in the same way that I am willing to walk beside my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters during Pride Week. My eyes were open and I knew I had work to do. The problem was that I didn’t know where to start and here I am a whole year later I still have no idea! How do I become a friend, an ally, a co-conspirator after all this time?

That’s what I earnestly and naively asked Dr. Traci West, a womanist activist and theologian who was in my small group of 5 women at the conference. And do you know what she told me? —-She told me that my work is not to try and interject myself into the lives of black people to make myself feel better! –Ouch. But, because Dr. West knows how to love people into change she proceeded to tell me what I DID have to to do next. She told me that my work is to stand up before people who look like me, other white people, and tell them this story. My work is to help others open their eyes to their own complacency and to the places where they could and maybe ought to choose to make a difference. My work, my responsibility from my place of white privilege, is to stand up when I see injustice and do something about it! I believe that Christ calls to us in the voices of other people. God had a voice last week and that voice spoke through Dr. West, Ms. Sales, and all those other women at the FSR conference who stirred me from placidness.

Today, I’m telling you that until black lives matter as much as white lives do, until First Nations lives matter as much as much as white lives do, until Syrian lives matter as much as white lives do, and until common actions and systems demonstrate that all lives really do matter instead of just being a pollyanna pipe dream embraced by white people like me to feel better about our place in the world, then we have work to do! The work isn’t easy and it must start inside of you. It starts by correcting people when they use racial or ethnic slurs that are so common that people don’t even know they are slurs anymore until someone like you brings it to their attention. It starts by telling someone that a joke about refugees, gay people, indigenous people, or black people isn’t funny – its no longer good enough to just not laugh. It starts by recognizing the difference between respecting and supporting other cultures and appropriating them. It starts when you start to speak up for what you know in your heart to be right and don’t let things slide because you are afraid of what others will think of you. It is possible to be angry and respectful while you do this work! –I’ve seen it and I’m trying to practice it. But, no matter how respectful or nice you try to be about it, it won’t make you popular, it won’t make you famous, and it certainly won’t make you rich. Standing up like this will go against everything our culture tells you is appropriate and right and it will even hurt sometimes because it will feel lonely.  But know this: standing up will no longer cause harm to others like standing by sometimes can. In following Jesus Christ, who calls you through this scripture to take up his cross and follow him in the ways of justice and compassion, it is possible to find the kind of meaning that you may have been searching for all your life so that your life may give hope and meaning to others.

In his speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: Time to Break the Silence” drafted by Dr. Vincent Harding, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said these things,

“Now let us begin.”  “Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world.”  “Shall we say the odds are too great?”  “Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?”  “The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”

Are you ready to start a journey to faithful discipleship? Don’t worry if you don’t know where to start…. Just sit with it awhile. Let it stir you, let it wake you up from your slumber. That feeling is the work beginning. It will move you if you let it…What is your heart calling you to begin today? Then, may it be so…

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“Like a Child”

likeachildMatthew 18:1-6, 19:13-15

SERMON

The last window of 10 in this 10-week series is inscribed like this:

Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto me for of such is the kingdom of heaven” In memory of Joseph Wood 25 years an elder of this church.

This is only one of two times this summer that I have not been able to find out anything about the person noted in the inscription. So, as we did before, let us pause and give thanks for all those, like Joseph Wood, who have been active in the life and work of this congregation. Thanks to all of them and to all of you for ensuring that God’s work happens through this church.

Today’s reflection is a wee bit shorter than you’ve gotten used to from me. It is shorter because the message didn’t require a lot of research. It didn’t require the exegetical examination to determine the deeper meaning that I had to do for previous sermons. There was no digging apart the meaning of certain words or determining what they would have meant in the original Greek or Aramaic. The message is shared across the gospel. It isn’t a secret. We find it in Matthew, Mark and Luke and  even the book of Thomas. The mystery today is in the simplicity of the message. In God’s Word we will always find that there is something worthy of our reflection and contemplation. Unlike some of our scriptures this one needs little more from us than to just sit with the words as they are, set them in our hearts and be present to how living according to their instruction radically changes our lives….if we let them

So let me ask you this….how did you feel this morning when we sang, “Jesus Loves Me”? Did you wonder why we were singing a children’s song when there are few to no children in church this summer? Did you feel a little silly singing that song? Or maybe you felt sentimental? Did you feel that those words were yours…Jesus loves ME… or were you thinking how nice it is for children to sing that song? Or did you feel like a child?

There comes a point where we put childhood things behind us. Things like our toys, our silly games and our little songs… Songs like “Jesus Loves Me”. When does that happen? It is difficult for us to pinpoint the moment when we were no longer a child… but it does happen. If we are lucky it happens very slowly over time. Our brain is still developing from the brain of child to the brain of an adult well into its mid-twenties. I say “if we are lucky” because some of our children are pushed into adulthood well before they should be thanks to violence, poverty, war and trauma. But, if we are lucky enough in our childhood to avoid being corrupted by things such as these then our minds turn slowly over time from child to man or woman.

Here’s the thing about little children and their parents in relationships untainted by trauma. Little children love their parents unconditionally and believe that their parents will always love them. Little children count on the understanding that their parents will feed them, clothe them and take care of all their needs – they don’t even question it. They also care about what their parents think of them. They don’t want to disappoint them and they do their best to please them. (I’m speaking of little children here – not teenagers or even pre-teens!). They ask for their help when they are in trouble or don’t know how to do something. Little children need their parents to survive. They really need them and they know that they can’t do it without them. Even in healthy homes…but our dependence on our parents changes over time…

I have two young children who are in that time of growing. As I watch them develop I see how their demeanours have shifted over time. When they were very little, they had no shame. They were blessedly unaware of the potential judgment of others. They would kiss me easily in public and hold my hand. They would run around naked if I let them… but, as they grow up, I now catch them watching to see if anyone is around before planting a big kiss on me on the playground. There is less of a tendency to reach out and grab my hand when we are walking together in public. Both are still very loving and wonderful children…but they are becoming aware of what other people think of them. Despite my best efforts, they feel ashamed sometimes to be themselves.

They also wonder about things in the world. They hear reports on the radio in the car and now comprehend that the news is talking about real people being hurt in the world. They ask questions about why bad things happen. They are aware that they may not be safe. Despite my assurances that they are, they sometimes feel afraid.

They notice that some people have more than others and that some have nearly nothing. They see that there is an order to “The way things are”. When they started school they saw that some people were more liked than other people. They realize that there were heroes and there were bad guys. There is good and there is evil. They are trying to figure out who’s who. Despite my assurances that they are great just as they are, they began to wonder where they fit in that order. All of these things are the slow steps of growing up in the world.

The world of adults has always been a different world than the world of children -even at the time of Jesus. And as much as we think we may have evolved as a society, the adult world at the time of Jesus, in essence, wasn’t that different from our world. As far removed as we are from them in culture and time and geography, Jerusalem under the Roman Empire had a very similar definition of success as we do in the west today. Success was judged by how much power you had; by how many people you had defeated in war; by how much money you had. by how much land you owned; and so on. So, when the disciples asked Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” They wanted to know who the top dog was. Who was the man in charge? Who had the most power? Who was the best? Who was the Hero? Jesus answer would have shocked them.

The scripture that my daughter Lillian read this morning says he placed a child among them as the exemplar of who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. A child? But, a child was worth nothing! A child was completely dependent on her parents. A child had no power! How could a child be the greatest?…

…Because to be great in the eyes of God is paradoxical to what it means to be great in the world. God wants us to be humble. God wants us to be innocent. God wants us to love unconditionally. God wants us to be vulnerable to the reality that we can’t do it all alone. God wants us to be like a child again. Jesus is very clear on this teaching. It is time to turn away from being concerned with being great according to the world’s kingdom and start being concerned with what matters to God.

Jesus teaches us that all God wants is for us to want God and to live according to what God wants for our lives. Jesus taught these lessons with his stories and with his life. It’s that simple. Yet, even the disciples didn’t grasp this message any easier than we do! After teaching them this lesson in Chapter 18 of the book of Matthew, we hear in Chapter 19 that the disciples turn around and tell those bringing their little children and infants to Jesus to stop what they are doing. Jesus is not happy about this. Not only was he saying that we should be LIKE children, he was saying that children are welcome in the kingdom of GOD. There is nothing they have to earn. They are a part of God’s kingdom simply because they are. Children and those like children need to be welcomed and when we welcome them we welcome God. Another simple instruction.

I am not gifted as a teacher of children for longer than a children’s time on Sunday morning. I tried to teach a children’s yoga class one time and even Lillian left the room! But, I can tell you this… whenever I have the opportunity to welcome a child into my life by having a conversation with them I take it. In those special moments I have recognized how I am very close to someone still so indefinably connected to God. This is a connection that goes beyond religion and culture. Children don’t care what God is called. They ALL know God. Some have a name for it. Some don’t. But every little person that I have ever taken the time to connect with one-on-one – whether after church, at a funeral, or in the hospital have this thing that we just lose somehow….Jesus says we need to turn back to that way of being to be closer to God.

I want to tell you a story today about my daughter who is here today. I have her permission to tell this story. I have a number of God stories to tell about when Lillian was a very little girl. Let’s just say at one point she had a T-shirt that said “Little Guru” which means teacher. She and her little sister are my favorite teachers when it comes to things about life and God. When she was very little, she used to talk to God all the time. I didn’t know who she was talking to at first and just assumed it was her imaginary friend. One day I decided to ask her who she was talking to and she proceeded to tell me three names that I cannot pronounce. I asked her what she was saying to them. She told me that they were angels and that they just talked about God and stuff and she told them about her day. Then she said something I will never forget. She said, “Mama they said to tell you that they knew you too, before you forgot.” Chills went up my spine because just for a split second I knew that she was telling me the truth. I think that’s what happens to our child-like innocence… Eventually….we just forget.

Thankfully we have Jesus to show us the way to remember what it means to be a child of God…. And we have the children to show us. Jesus showed the disciples that the greatest of those among us are our children… I encourage you to take the time to talk to children who you meet when you meet their parents. Lean down and take the time to ask them an important question. Get beyond the cute and see them as your teachers. Welcome them at church, not just because they are adorable, or because they are the “future” of the church. All that is true, but get to know them because they are the Greatest in the kingdom of God. Look to them to learn how to be with God. You won’t regret it… Pay attention and you will find God in those conversations. God is in our relationships…always. The mystery in the message today is in it’s simplicity.

Be like a child.

Be humble.

Be vulnerable.

Be kind.

Be loving.

Be sweet.

Be trusting.

Be joyful.

Be goodness.

Be God’s.

Amen.

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“Christ is Risen”

christisrisen1 Corinthians 15: 12-20

SERMON

This is the ninth window and it is responsible for all the Easter prayers and hymns we have used in our worship today. It says:

NOW IS CHRIST RISEN FROM THE DEAD

TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND IN LOVING MEMORY OF

HAROLD OXLEY AN ESTEEMED ELDER OF THIS CONGREGATION

Harold Oxley was indeed an esteemed elder of this congregation, but he was also a very well known member of the Halifax business community. Mr. Oxley died 11 days before Easter on April 10, 1935. He was in his 70th Year. Here are some statements from his obituary in the Halifax Daily Star, on April 11, 1935:

“Death claimed a prominent citizen of Halifax last evening when Harold Oxley passed away at his residence 259 Jubilee Road. Mr. Oxley played an active part in many phases of the city life, and his death, climaxing a severe illness, will be keenly felt throughout the city and province. Apart from his association with the business life of Halifax, he was, in his younger years, an athlete of considerable renown and even throughout his declining years maintained his interest in sport. – Born in Halifax. He was president and senior partner in the firm of Grant, Oxley and Company, a member of the board of the Nova Scotia Building Society and was on the board of directors of General Trust and Executor Corporation. Mr. Oxley throughout his life displayed an active interest in church work and was a member of the Session of Fort Massey United Church. He was long identified with the work of the Poor Association and was a member of the board of the Halifax Industrial School. In sport he was a member of the Halifax Curling Club and a life member of the Wanderers Club. Along with other family members, it was noted that he was survived by his widow, the former Miss Janet MacGregor, daughter of the late Lieutenant-Governor MacGregor.”

What a rich and wonderful life he lead in his time here on earth, and it is our hope that he continues to lead in his all the days of his life in the presence of God as is the promise of our faith…

I love watching the sun set. I am aware of the setting of the sun every single day, even if it is simply to pause wherever I am to realize that I am missing its magnificent going down below the horizon. The sun has set every night that you and I have been alive and a million times more before we were ever here. We can count on it and we do. Thanks to science, we know why it appears the way that it does in the sky. We know why it glows its fiery colours and appears to burn brighter just before it is no more. We know why the sky glows pink long after it has disappeared. And because we now understand how the earth is rotating while it moves around the Sun, we are sure that pending any disaster that destroys our planet or our Sun that we will see the sun set again the next day and the day after that. We recognize that the light changes to dark even when there are clouds in the sky.

For thousands of years, human beings have trusted the setting of the sun to count our days even before we understood why and how it happened. “Why” and “how” didn’t matter to us because we didn’t need to know to trust what we had come to know would just be. And another thing we knew…? Night would end, and day would break with a sunrise. Unless we live at one of the far poles of our earth, sentient beings everywhere count on the sun rising every morning. Nobody doubts that this might happen. Most of us take it for granted. We trust that the sun will set and the next day it will rise again. What would ends begins and what begins will eventually end and repeat again and again. This cycle always continues right? — To date….So far, so good.

Like the phenomenon of the rising and setting sun, we look to nature to see the hope of renewal everywhere. It is the ever present promise of light revealing itself through darkness. Earlier we sang, “In the Bulb There is a Flower” So much of creation begins in darkness. Seeds in the ground, babies in the womb, winter turning into spring. Everywhere we look we see it if we look. Life eternal, always beginning, always ending, always beginning again.

Some would argue that human beings have believed in an after-life all the way back to the Neanderthal. We are well aware of people burying their dead with treasures to take with them into the afterlife like the ancient Egyptians for example. The afterlife was the realm of the dead. You died, you went there and that is where you stayed. The story of where the dead would go and how they would get there is presented in many different ways across time and culture.

Christians also believe in life after death. But we believe that death is not the eternal resting state. Because we believe that Jesus lived, died and rose again, we believe that there is new life coming after death for us too. This is what the scripture today is pointing to. Paul was writing to the Christians of Corinth because he was aware that they were denying the resurrection of the dead.

Paul’s crafts this part of his letter as a philosophical argument that is sometimes called “A reasoned proof of the resurrection of the dead.” And, according to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, his argument is modeled after the greek philosophical proof of the immortality of the soul as found in Plato’s work  Phaedrus. The entire argument takes 58 verses.

The idea of bodily resurrection is an impossible idea. Its impossibility is what makes it a mystery and a core element of faith. Faith is not about believing in something that can be proved. Faith is not belief based on empirical knowledge. Belief based on faith is a belief in the impossible. According to Paul, proclaiming belief in the impossibility of resurrection from the dead for all who believe in the resurrection of Christ is crucial to our faith. Resurrection of the body mean that it was not just the soul separate from the body that lives an eternal life, but that the bodies of the dead, being inherently part of God’s creation would also rise. Until studying bodily resurrection this week I had not given this concept much thought as it is a little talked about piece of our lineage as United Church people. I believe I have accepted this doctrine, not necessarily blindly, but in the way that the philosopher Kierkegaard speaks of faith. It is a paradox he says. When one is greeted with ideas similar to the absurdity of the idea of bodily resurrection, Kierkegaard said that there is an either/or choice to be made. We either believe or we are offended. Paul’s proof contained in chapter 15 is logically unsound if put to the test as it begs the question. It fails because there simply is no proof. We have to accept that we don’t need proof… we need faith. The closest thing we have to proof of bodily resurrection is the testimonies of those who encountered Jesus Christ in bodily form after his death. This is what Paul reminds us of…. the stories of the resurrection of Jesus Christ…the stories of our faith!

Paul’s understanding of the resurrection is firmly rooted in his belief in original sin and atonement. According to Paul, we are all sinners because of the sins of Adam in the Garden of Eden and those sins are atoned for, or debts are paid for, by the death of Jesus. Maybe, like me,  you are not in agreement with Paul’s base theory of salvation by atonement. Maybe another theory for the purpose of the resurrection resonates more deeply with you. But, as Christians, one thing remains true about the statement that Christ is raised from the dead, regardless of why you think it is necessary. The truth is this; if we don’t believe that that statement is true then we must seriously consider what makes us Christian? That was Paul’s question for Corinth.

At that time Christians were being persecuted for professing their belief in Jesus Christ. Paul knew this well because he was guilty of doing the persecuting before he met Jesus on the road and accepted his invitation to follow him. Paul is asking the Corinthians to stop denying the very thing that is the base for the belief that they are willing to die for. By denying that human beings will die and rise again, they are denying that Jesus died and rose again. If we believe that Jesus came to show us how to live out the will of God, but we don’t believe that Jesus rose again, then we only believe that he died.. If we believe that then we believe that he came to show us that God’s will, the way of Jesus, ends at death. Death is the end of the story. Paul is right, surely a belief like this is a position to be pitied. What is it all for then? Where is the hope? Because, my friends, resurrection is about hope! It is about the hope that when we die, we will rise again.

Resurrection teaches us more than simply what happens when the physical body dies. It also teaches us about the hope present in all the little deaths that appear in our lives. It teaches to have strength and to trust enough to let go in times of darkness so that we can make room for new life in our lives. Not only do we have the natural world to show us that all things are made new again, but the story of Jesus is a human example that it is true for us too. It is possible! Because all things are possible with God, even if they are absurd, even if we have no proof. That’s what we call faith.

 

As a resurrection people, we need to spend some time with what it means to say, “He is risen indeed”. Does it mean we have to prove it? I don’t think so. I think it means that we have to be with it. We have to sit with those words. We can do that in the same way that we can sit at the sunrise or the sunset. Just being in the truth of those moments sets them in our hearts. In the same way, letting ourselves be present to the resurrection moments in nature – like the night turning into dawn, like the rotten apple turning into a new tree, like the caterpillar becoming the butterfly, helps set HOPE in our hearts. Then we begin to see HOPE manifested in our lives –  when dark depressions lift, when the grief of loss moves into the joy of remembering, when what once seemed like the worst moments of our lives proved to be a catalyst that created miraculous change. All of these kinds of moments help us have faith that they will happen again and again.

There is a very good reason that Good Friday is just remembered on one day and Easter goes on for weeks. We are not meant to sit in the darkness for very long. It is necessary, but we aren’t meant to stay there. We are a resurrection people. We are an Easter people. We have faith in the impossible and because we do, we have hope for everlasting life. Let me end with the words of a woman that knew of darkness turning into light. Our very own Ms. Rita MacNeil sang it well: “as sure as the sun rise, as sure as the sea, as sure as the wind in the trees…..we rise again”

Thanks be to God.

 

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“I Surrender”

I surrenderPsalm 91: 14-16

Matthew 11: 28-30

SERMON

Our window today reads:

COME UNTO ME ALL YE THAT LABOUR AND ARE HEAVY LADEN AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND IN LOVING MEMORY OF MR. & MRS. C. ALBERT WOOD

For the first time since starting this summer series, I was not able to find anything out about this beautiful window or the people to whom it is dedicated. They must have been an important family to this church and that is all we know for now. Let’s pause and remember all those that went before us. May we honour the cloud of witnesses that surround us in this place and thank them for all they have done to support the ministry and life of Fort Massey Church.

As many of you now know, I am also a yoga teacher. Yoga is more than a physical exercise. Without taking you into a full introduction to the philosophy of yoga, I would like to tell you about one of my favorite core ideas. This particular concept cemented my belief that my yoga practice was not only “ok” to “do” as a Christian, but was one that would actually nurture and support my faith journey with Jesus. Isvara pranidhana is one of 10 moral imperatives that begin the instructions on the yogic way of living. I often jest that these are the 10 commandments of yoga because they match the 10 commandments that I know so well from our Bible. Isvara is a word that means “higher power” and pranidhana means “surrendering”, so it instructs that we must surrender to a higher power. As I studied yoga, I begain to very intentionally incorporate these rules into the central philosophy to my life along with the practices and observances of non-violence, self-study, truthfulness and so on. As I contemplated what surrendering to a higher power meant for me, I kept coming back to the familiar words of my Bible. Psalm 91 and the source of the Bible verse on today’s window from the gospel of Matthew are just two of the many examples where we are encouraged to Trust God. I find it easy to observe practices like non-violence and truthfulness, but surrendering to my higher power, to God, has been difficult for me.

I have a confession to make: I am a control-freak. Surprised? If you don’t know me, don’t be surprised…if you do know me….stop laughing! Let me tell you a story about learning to surrender. I have teased you that I would tell you the story of my call to ministry. I thought I would tell you this next week and when some of you asked me after Marjorie MacLeod’s funeral on Friday when I would tell you that story that’s what I said then too. But when I got home and read over my notes, what I originally wrote for today wasn’t quite right. That’s the one of those taps on the shoulder moments I told you about earlier this summer. One of the things I’ve learned since answering my call is to trust that feeling. So, I started over.

Just over 4 years ago, I decided to upgrade my training as a yoga teacher. By then I had owned a yoga studio for a couple of years. It was going well. But, I felt there was something missing. I knew that a teacher training program was a place where I would not only learn more about teaching yoga, but I was also prepared that it often helps you learn a little something more about yourself. I wasn’t prepared for what it taught me.

One of the practices that we were encouraged to follow was a 40-day practice of mantra meditation. Every day, early in the morning, this meditation practice followed my physical practice. On my mat I whispered the words of The Lord’s Prayer as I moved through the physical motions of yoga sun salutations. Then, I would sit on my cushion with Japa beads in my hands and repeat the words of the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra for three rounds of 108 repetitions….(repeat mantra in sanskit here)..chanting really quickly in my mind following the 108 beads as they moved through my fingers. I began to realize that for the first time since opening my yoga studio a couple of years earlier, on these particular mornings, I was practicing just for me. Getting on my mat wasn’t about practicing so I could plan classes for my students, or just about mastering a physical pose. And, another thing –I was actually making it to the mat instead of putting it off because something else like studio marketing, scheduling or making sure my kids were ready was more important than taking time to take care of myself. I was making it a priority in my life for the first time in a very long time. I was finally practicing what I preached to my students!

I didn’t even know how overwhelmed I had become until I felt the power of personal practice and remembered why I loved Yoga. Yoga had become my JOB. I was so busy just trying to keep it all together. I was successful. People looked up to me. I thought I was so happy. And, I know I was helping a lot of people. The problem was I was tying to do it all on my own and at my personal mental, physical, and even financial expense. By that point in my life, I was running on sheer will-power. I was completely SELF-propelled and forgot where REAL power comes from.

Then… very gradually…each day, I started to feel a shift in my being. I started to feel that there was something more that I was supposed to be doing with my life. I started to feel really unsettled by that realization…slightly disturbed and not just a little bit…angry. When I would sit in silence after meditating, I felt so powerfully in the presence of God and all I just wanted to do was run away! I felt quite indignant actually. I wanted to throw up my hands and shout, “what more do you want from me?!” The worst part was that I didn’t understand where this was all suddenly coming from.

I remembered reading the translation of the Sanskrit mantra before I started the practice, but thought nothing more of it until I began to think, “could the words be the problem?” (yes, I felt it was a problem!). My heart, the Holy Spirit and my sheer curiosity guided me to go read them again. The words loosely translated and interpreted by my understanding are this:

All honour to you, the three-eyed one (who I have always thought of in terms of the trinity), I worship you who is in the sweetness and fullness of life -the good gardener. I am like a cucumber that lies on the ground bound to the vine. Please pick me before I rot into the earth.

And I cried then. Man, I cried because I realized that for the last month I had been asking God to not let me settle for less than God’s will for my life. I had been asking God to pick me up off of the safety of the ground and free me from the fear that kept me from listening to what God wanted from me. You see, I had heard God calling me all my adult life to serve. I had convinced myself that the good work I was doing at the yoga studio was enough. I was wrong. That was only the beginning.

The next weekend at my yoga teacher training program I confessed to a room full of yoga teachers that God wanted me to be a minister in the church. Many of them cried with me. One of them sheepishly said, “It’s about time you figured that out!” It felt like coming clean about what I always knew in my heart but was too afraid to admit…I was made to stand out, never meant to fit in and my life was about to turn upside down so that I could teach others about what it means to let go and let God. Like sitting in the starting gates of a roller coaster, I braced myself for the ride of my life.

One of the things we were asked to do in that program was to create a personal mission statement. Mine is a powerful testament to who I want to be in God. It is said in the now like it is already true. Let me be completely honest with you and confess that it still doesn’t come naturally to me. It goes like this, “I surrender to the will of God and fearlessly trust the Divine to lead me”. My God, I wish that were true. Right now, I guess I’m faking it until I make it. So, that’s the story. I heard my call to ministry in the words of a Hindu mantra repeated in Sanskrit and I finally waved the white flag before God. I surrender! I’ll still resist, but for the most part, I surrender.

I finally understand that it isn’t up to me to decide how this call is supposed to manifest in my life. It means that I need to ask others to help me figure this out. Vulnerability is not my “go-to” method for solving problems or figuring out ideas… I’m a control freak remember? Surrendering for me has always equaled weakness and who wants to admit that? I have learned that vulnerability actually takes great courage and strength and there is nothing weak about it! So, here I am on shakey ground – I don’t completely trust yet and I certainly don’t wholly surrender…but I sure want to. Like Yoga, surrendering is a practice.

Rolf Gates, a yoga teacher who along with Katrina Kenison wrote a terrific book called, “Meditations from the Mat, Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga” says that surrendering to God is a process. In his book (that I encourage you to read if you are interested in this topic of spirituality and yoga) he shares a story about how his first religion was the religion of sports where the winner was worshipped and the loser, was, well the loser. When he found himself a loser after being defeated by alcoholism he recognized that he had nothing to lose and expected he had might have something to gain. So, he turned to the God he didn’t believe in and he prayed. At the time of the book he had been sober for 11 years and has dedicated his life to helping others. He says prayer made the difference. Surrendering to God is a process.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “here let me take all your burdens off you, I got this”. Instead he says, “let me show you how to carry them so they aren’t so heavy”. Here’s the thing about a yoke: it is meant to go between two beasts of burden. It is not carried upon the back of just one Ox. Jesus says to us, “here, hitch onto the other side of my yoke, and I’ll help you carry your load. You don’t have to do it all by yourself anymore. Let’s do it together, so that we can get through this and you can rest”. Remember, Jesus was a teacher who came to show us how to live in a way that follows God’s will. (Interestingly, the root word in Sanskrit for Yoga is Yuj which means “Yoke”).

In the Psalm today, we heard that when we call on God, God is with us in times of trouble. Trouble is going to come, but when it does how often do we call on God to help? And even if we do, how often do we actually trust God to provide the help we asked for? Remember we are taught that we are God’s hands, feet and heart in this world. That is not a one-way street. Other’s hands are God’s hands, other’s feet are God’s feet, and other’s ears are Gods ears…

Think about the last time you refused help from someone, or neglected to ask for assistance, or kept your troubles to yourself because you thought you should or could do it on your own only to find yourself still overwhelmed and even more exhausted. God is waiting to help you! This is what Jesus wants to teach us. He knows that the help he needs comes from God and the only tool he needs is prayer. Pray, then trust, then see the help that is there for you. It’s that simple, but it isn’t always easy.

As much as we don’t want to suffer, there is a certain pride that comes from the no-pain/no-gain model on which we were all raised. Our culture teaches us the value of self-reliance and glorifies those that don’t seem to need anybody. Surrender is for the weak! Fight until the end! Just look at the sheer size of the SELF-HELP section of any bookstore and that should tell us that we are supposed to be able to do this on our own. “Help yourself”, “Stand on your own two feet”! “You got this”. Autonomy and independence are badges of honour. Where is the book that tells us where to turn when we don’t “got this” or we can’t “do it” anymore?

<holding up bible> A Hindu mantra reminded me that my Bible teaches us what it means to surrender to a higher power. This is the Book that teaches us how to surrender to the will of God and fearlessly trust the Divine to lead us. As people of the Book, with God being our helper, we learn that we can meet each other along the way of life with gentle and humble hearts. We are meant to work together to help bear our burdens, lighten the loads and find rest for weary souls. We must be willing to raise that white flag and say, “I surrender”. When we do that we are ready to seek God through prayer, ask for help and then see where God shows up in our lives. God is waiting on us. Be brave.

Pray……God, help me…..

…..Amen.

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“Who is Jesus?”

WhoisJesusJohn 1:1-18
SERMON

The seventh window in this series is inscribed with these words: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. To the Glory of God in memory of father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. James Lamb and brother Charles. The gift of Herbert and Jean Lamb.” Richard and Carol Robinson, our sexton and his wife, shared that the Lambs first came to Halifax from New Brunswick in the early 1900s. James was involved in Real Estate and Commerce here in Halifax and bought and developed Wright Avenue around the corner from here off Morris Street. Herbert and Charles both attended Dalhousie University. Herbert worked for the same Commerce firm until he retired in 1974. His brother Charles was a lawyer who died at just 54 years old. James and his wife Cora Louise are buried along with Charles, Herbert and Jean in the Camp Hill Cemetery. Richard’s Aunt Jean lived to 103 years old! They were all active members in this community and called Fort Massey their church home. There was a charitable foundation funded in Herbert and Jean’s name upon Jean’s death in 2009.This charity has dedicated significant yearly contributions to Dalhousie University, The IWK, Fort Massey United Church, The United Way of Halifax-Dartmouth, the Halifax YMCA, the Nova Scotia Division of the Canadian Cancer Society, the Salvation Army, the Good-fellows Club and to Rainbow Haven. Their legacy continues not just in this window, but in their generous funding of these organization that provide a benefit to the community that they loved so much…

As a child, in church and at home, I heard the stories about Jesus. I learned about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus was part of this otherworldly Trinity that somehow reigned down over me. God granted wishes, punished sins, and if I was lucky, I might get to meet Him someday up above the clouds in a place called Heaven. But, I had to die first and I better be real good before that happens. This man named Jesus was born in a manger and was the Son of God. Other times I was taught that Jesus was God. From my worldview, God, as Jesus, was like Superman. He was this great powerful man who came to earth from a far away land. God came down from Heaven in the form of Jesus to rule the world. He started out as a poor carpenter, but triumphed over evil and became a great king on the throne of Heaven. He used his superpowers to perform miracles and prove how powerful he was.I learned that people hated Jesus so much that they wanted to kill him. As a kid, it was never completely clear to me why anyone would want to do such a thing. I was reassured that it was okay for them to murder Jesus because it was all part of God’s plan — God sent Jesus to save the world by dying. I was told Jesus died for my sins. Makes sense right? Not to me. It was a very confusing message. Was Jesus the Son of God or was Jesus God? Who was God anyway? If he is was so powerful and mighty, why would he let anyone kill him? How could this guy save me from my sins just by dying on a cross? And, what did I need to be saved from anyway? Hmph…

I’ve titled this sermon, “Who is Jesus?” The verse inscribed on the window this morning comes from the prologue of the Gospel of John. It seems to me that if the whole gospel is John’s long answer to this question of who is Jesus, then his prologue is the condensed version. In 18 verses the storyteller expertly sets the tone for our hearts and minds and prepares us for what is to come in the rest of the gospel. Verse 14 says, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” For John, Jesus Christ is the word of God manifested on earth for all to see. But what that means depends on how it is interpreted. For as long as he was and is, scholars and non-academic believers alike have been arguing about who Jesus Christ is. Is he divine? Is he human? Is he somehow both? These questions are the roots of the study aptly called “Christology”. The study of, or the problem of Christology (as J.N.D. Kelly claims), is to “define the relation of the divine and the human in Christ.” I love that Kelly calls this a “problem”.

For the first three to four hundred years of Christianity, and arguably still today, the church was divided into many groups – each group with a different idea about the essential nature of Jesus Christ. There were those that solved the problem by denying that Jesus was divine at all. For example, Ignatius of Antioch concluded that, “If Jesus was not fully human like us, then he could not have saved us.” For others, Jesus was something of a favorite son to God. He was adopted by God, not born of Him. He was God’s greatest creation.On the other side of the debate were those groups insisting that Jesus was wholly divine and never human. This view held that Christ existed as a divine essence before ever embodying the human that we recognize as Jesus. For this school of thought, the incarnated Jesus, “pre-existed as God, and was made flesh of the Virgin, being born as a man.” God assumed the body of a man, yet still remained God as Word. In the second century, the Catholic Saint Irenaeus insisted that if Jesus was not God, then he could not save us because only God has the power to save.

Who Jesus is tells us how Jesus saves. If your worldview tells you that only God can save, then Jesus must be God. If your lens shows you that in order to atone for the sins of all humanity Jesus must suffer and die as a complete human being, then you ought to accept that he was fully human. By the year 325 of the common era both views were persuasive enough to convince the men of the Orthodox centre of Christianity at the council of Nicea to create, articulate, and defend a statement of faith for Christians. Views that seemed to threaten how they interpreted the Oneness of God were rejected and declared heretical by the Church.

The Nicene Creed proclaims Jesus Christ as one Lord who is, “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.” The Council of Nicea declared Jesus as wholly divine. For them, Jesus was born of a heavenly Father God who became a man by the Holy Spirit. It is unclear what they meant when they said, “he suffered, died and was buried…he rose again.” Did they mean God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or all three? The ambiguity of what it means for God to be a man, or like a man, may be confusing and difficult to understand. I am so grateful that I was raised in a faith community that welcomes my confusion, encourages my questions, and gives me space to consider my faith.

Now, even though I stand up here, and you sit down there, I don’t think it’s my job or my right to tell you who you should think Jesus is, or who God is for that matter. But I do think that it is my responsibility to encourage you to ask yourself the big questions. Let me share with you a little bit about who I think Jesus is as one example of what happens when you ask these kinds of questions. The way that adults talked about God and Jesus confused me as a child because they did not match how I felt. And I think that happens all too often to other young people and adults alike. Someone in authority tells them what they should believe and if that doesn’t match what’s in their heart, then in a society where we have more autonomy and choice than ever –we can just walk away, and so we do. And then, if nobody has taught us how to ask the questions, then it’s like never learning to ask for directions. We might walk away, but we are more likely to get lost if we have no idea where we are going or what we are looking for.

I was a contemplative little girl who talked to God as soon as I had the words (and perhaps before). I prayed to God without ceasing, much to the distress of my younger brother, especially at dinnertime. I remember feeling like I was constantly in the presence of God. And as much as I try to run away at times, I still feel that presence. Unfortunately (of maybe fortunately), the image of God as a man didn’t make sense to me when I was told about “Him” because I couldn’t picture “His” face in my head. My God didn’t have a face. My God was in my heart. My God was in my mother’s embrace and my father’s voice. My God was in the wind and in the sunlight. My God was in the thunder and in the rain. My God didn’t live in a land far away from me. My God didn’t live anywhere, because my God was everywhere.

Because the God that others told me about didn’t connect to me, I couldn’t connect to their Jesus. The Jesus I was told about was nothing like me. The words “Son of God” made no sense to me at all. How could God be a Father of anyone if God had no body? As a child, I knew God and God was real for me, but Jesus was someone else’s story. As a teenager, I finally had the words and the courage to ask the questions I always wanted to know. Even then, I was a lover of science and as I’ve said before, I am an admitted and proud sceptic of all I cannot experience directly with my senses. I’ve always needed to know more than “what” and “who”? I needed to know “why” and “how”? I started to ask big questions that, until then, I reserved for other things like concerns about how babies were made, why the sky was blue or how I could become the Prime Minister of Canada. I started asking questions about religion.

I instinctually knew God. Like they say about love, when you know…you just know – there’s no way to explain it. Therefore, it was easy for me to dismiss who and what the outside world told me God was because I had a natural faith. But, I didn’t know Jesus like that. I had to get to know Jesus by asking some serious questions about who other people told me he was. This is what I call “a questioning faith.” It’s not a wavering faith. What it means is that there is a confidence about the Truth of God that makes it possible to relentlessly ask questions about faith and religion without fear. I ask questions about who God is, about who Jesus is, about their relationship to one another, about the Holy Trinity, about my relationship to all of it, and I’m really interested in hearing about how other people see all of these things. I ask questions about the science of miracles, about the virgin birth and the star in the sky, about walking on water, and about turning water into wine. I ask questions about the Bible, about the history, about the writers, about the metaphors, and about the truth. I am rarely satisfied with earthly answers, but each question –each question feels like coming a little bit closer to God. As an adult, I keep questioning. I look to faith traditions and rituals outside the familiar. I study both eastern and western philosophy. I’m interested in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sufism and Judaism and other religions. I look to the stars, the mystics, the gurus, and the earth. I meditate, I practice yoga, I chant, and I pray. And each thing, each lesson leads me nearer to God.

In our faith tradition there is one specific document that helped bring me closer to Jesus. Originally written in 1968, a revised version of A New Creed became available for use by members of the United Church of Canada in 1994. This is the creed that we read following the sermon each week. Like many young people, I stopped going to church regularly in my late teens and early twenties. I chose a social life (aka staying out late and going to the bar after working in another bar), work, and sleeping in over going to Sunday morning worship. But, when I eventually returned to church, I remember reading these words aloud and thinking, “Yes! This makes sense!” Finally, a statement of faith that reflected what I knew in my heart about the Jesus I was coming to know. This creed gently echoes the Nicene by declaring that God “has come in Jesus,” but with a subtle difference. This difference in wording makes all the difference to my personal understanding of who Jesus is. In A New Creed, God came in Jesus, God did not come as Jesus. A New Creed concedes that Jesus is the Word made flesh, but it also tells us why. It says that the Word was made flesh, “to reconcile and make new.” What Jesus reconciles and makes new is left for us to question. This short creed ends by telling us how we are called to be the church, “to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.” This statement recognizes that Jesus was a man killed by political power and raised by God. It recognizes Jesus’ authority to judge and it tells us of his promise of resurrection. A New Creed removes the patriarchal elements of The Nicene Creed and invites scrutiny where past ambiguity seemed to demand a sort of blind-faith. A New Creed offers clear answers to questions of “what” and “who” while leaving many of the “whys” and “hows” up to us to ponder. This is an ideal formula to encourage a questioning faith!

For me of questioning faith, Jesus is the one who challenges us to follow His way. Jesus was born human and then he became the Son of God. I accept Jesus as the Son of God because I am a child born of one and adopted by another. Belonging fully to another in this way makes sense to me.

  • Jesus was completely and perfectly aware of the presence of God in his life and he chose to bravely live the will of God wherever it took him. Jesus’ life challenges us to surrender to the will of God and to trust God enough to follow wherever that leads.
  • Jesus loved all people without conditions. Jesus teaches us that unconditional love needs to be the cornerstone of our faith in practice.
  • Jesus trusted the will of God all the way to the cross. Jesus’ death prepares us to let suffering awaken us.
  • With God’s help Jesus defeated the grave. He lives on. Jesus’ resurrection gives us hope for life beyond death.
  • To follow Jesus means to be obedient to God. Conveniently for me, I don’t believe that obedient equals quiet. Like the parent of a three-year old with a million “whys”, I have absolute faith that God still loves us when we ask questions!

John 1:1-18 tells us so much about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. What it tells us depends on the questions we ask ourselves. I love that we belong to a church that encourages us to do this work! About 100 sermons raced through my mind about darkness and light, about John and Genesis, about the Trinity, about Words and the Word….there was so much to explore and consider in just 18 verses. When I finally sat down to write, I realized that I came up with more questions than answers. We all know how it goes, “In the beginning was the Word…” but this past week I had the wonderful opportunity to dig into those words that I think I was taking for granted. Honestly, I thought that this would be an easy one and I was surprised at how much these 18 verses stirred my heart. When I asked the question, “Who is Jesus?” I never expect to be able to articulate a precise answer and I don’t think these kinds of answers are as important as the questions. Taking the time to think about what you don’t know, leads you to contemplating the things that you really do know deep inside your own heart. I think that is what it means to move closer to God. And I believe that God is waiting and wanting all of us to come a little bit closer.

But don’t take my word for it. Take a deep breath. Now, see what happens when you ask yourself….”Who is Jesus?” …………………….. Amen.

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“Thank You”

2016-06-26 12.20.34August 7, 2016
Psalm 100

Isaiah 6:1-8

SERMON

This week we are using what I have learned is called “The Ritcey” window as our theme point. The Ritcey window was placed in memory of Harris Douglas Ritcey. Doug Ritcey, as he was better known was a bass soloist and choir member at Fort Massey for 62 years. Doug wanted to leave a stained glass window to the church as a legacy gift and it was designed around his favorite hymn, “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky” or what is often known as “Here I am Lord.” The window was designed by Sue Obata and she masterfully captured the essence of that hymn in the details that decorate the central image that is meant to portray King David and Psalm 100. You can learn more about the window on our website (http://www.fortmasseychurch.com/News.html). Doug lived to be 96 years old and many of you spoke to me about him and reported that it was a blessing to have known him. He died on June 10, 2014 at the grand age of 96 years old. I am grateful that the window he commissioned to be designed has inspired today’s service and it’s sermon theme.

When my girls and I sit down to eat we always pray together. And we pray the same prayer each time, “Thank you for the food we eat, thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the birds that sing, thank you God for everything.” It doesn’t matter where we are, at home, in a restaurant, and even with friends. If our friends don’t pray, we quietly pause and bow our heads and say our prayer with each other in silence. This is so much a part of our daily practice that my kids will remind me on those days that I forget because we are rushed, or I am starving…. “Mama, don’t forget to say, ‘thank you,’ first,” they will say. Thank you. It is a powerful and simple statement that can change your life.

Meister Eckhart once said, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” The window today depicts King David and his harp. King David is surrounded by angels singing and praising God. The inscription on the window says this, “Serve the LORD with gladness, come before him singing.” This appears to be a combination of translations of the first two verses of Psalm 100. Today we sang it like this, “Make a joyful noise all the earth, worship your God with Gladness!” This is a Psalm of Thanksgiving and when you look carefully it is the only one that you need if you want to know how to show gratitude to God.

Eckhart might have said that saying it is enough, but I’m not convinced that prayer is only about saying the words. I think prayer means that you remain open to the Holy Spirit putting your words into action and Psalm 100 tells us how to practice thanksgiving to God. Listen to what it says:

MAKE a joyful NOISE: be kind, use beautiful words, make incredible sounds. Celebrate with music and noise. There was a point at Berwick Camp this week when some wee ones were marching in front of their mum and they were blowing the most horrific sounding children’s horns, but I’ve rarely seen such joy! Their delight was infectious and suddenly that sound that under different circumstances may have been migraine inducing, became that joyful noise I heard in my heart. Mind you Psalm 100 was well planted in my heart by that point and I’m sure my ears were very thankful for it!

This verse also says, all the earth. It is not just us that are called to celebrate, but all creation celebrates with us. Do you know that there is no such thing as silence unless you are in a vacuum and even then you would hear the sound of your own thoughts. When was the last time that you stopped and really listened to the sounds of the earth. Just like you can see beauty in the everyday, you can hear joy in her sounds too… Psalm 100 calls us to train our ear for that sound!

WORSHIP the lord with gladness. Does the Psalm call us to worship the Lord by putting others down? Does it ask us to worship with sternness? Does it tell us to be seen and not heard? NO! We are to worship God with gladness – with delight. When we worship we should do so with a feeling of joy and pleasure! I have to tell you that I know that this isn’t always easy. We come to worship sometimes with very heavy hearts. But, when we come to worship, God wants us to lay our burdens down and lift our voices and hearts to find a moment of joy. This might feel inauthentic at times. It might even feel like faking it until you make it, but if we are aware that that is what we are doing, then I think that it is not so much faking it as it is practicing it! And isn’t that what we want gratitude to be? – A daily practice?

Come into his presence singing – When we feel the presence of God we should sing, whether that means coming into his presence here on earth or if music should be a part of our passing from this place into the next. I also think that this verse can be read as “Come into God’s presence BY singing” – I encourage you all to sing. Like the children’s horn to my ears, your voice is beautiful to God. And when you sing and make music you lift your spirits. Don’t take my word for it. Scientific research has shown that singing is good for you. In researching for this sermon, I read a number of articles about this phenomenon.

This “TOP-Ten reasons for singing” sums up the research findings well:

  1. Releases endorphins and increases levels of oxytocin – the “feel good” hormone.
  2. Improves posture, breathing and blood-flow
  3. Saves money: our voice is our free human instrument
  4. Creates new neural pathways and improve brain meta-plasticity
  5. Wards off age-related decline by continuously ‘exercising’ your brain
  6. Shown to heal injuries from stroke and improves speech abnormalities
  7. Promotes social bonding and cohesion; and can help you rediscover your own identity
  8. Relieves mental health issues; like depression and anxiety by making you feel happier, better connected and supported
  9. You can connect with other diverse voices and your community by singing
  10. Studies show that people who sing test smarter, healthier, happier and more creative than those that don’t.

Sounds like some great reasons to sing to me!

The verse then says this: KNOW that the Lord is God. – Don’t you love that it doesn’t say Know who or what God is. It says instead that KNOW that the one that made you is the one that you belong to and that one is GOD. Call that “God” the Psalmist says. This is an instruction for the present age. We are all God’s people. A few weeks ago we spent some time thinking about what it means to be a sheep, and Psalm 100 reminds us again that we are the protected, guided, nurtured and fed people of God. Know that you are special to God.

ENTER his gates thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Whether the imagery is the familiar pastoral image of the sheep and his shepherds of the analogy of the King in his court, we have the choice to enter into the kin-dom of God thanks to free-will. If the the Holy Spirit leads us to that place and we enter in, we are commanded here to enter giving thanks and blessing the name of God. But where is this place? Like the being in the presence of God, I think that this realm is both earthly and divine. Jesus would later teach us that the Kingdom of God is here and now. We are called to walk here and now with an attitude of gratitude that allows us to see the abundance already in front of us. There is nothing more we need. We have enough. We are enough. There is nothing to strive for or stress over when we foster this kind of thanksgiving.

When we reach the courts and the gates we can stop running because we have arrived exactly where we are meant to be. Now we are called to GIVE thanks to God, and BLESS God’s name. But how do we do that? What do you give someone who has everything? What do you give God? Let’s come back to that in a minute.

The Psalm concludes with the reason why we should MAKE NOISE JOYFULLY, WORSHIP GLADLY, KNOW GOD, ENTER IN, GIVE THANKS AND BLESS. We should do all of these things because, the LORD is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, and God’s faithfulness is to all generations. God is Good, God’s love never falters, it remains forever and across all time. Sounds like a good reason to me! In five short verses, the Psalmist tells us how to practice thanksgiving. MAKE NOISE JOYFULLY, WORSHIP GLADLY, KNOW GOD, ENTER IN, GIVE THANKS AND BLESS. Sounds easy right? But it’s not easy. That’s why it is a practice. That’s why we come together as a community of faith to worship, too sing, to learn. So that we can practice our gratitude to God.

Now what about giving thanks. How can we do that? How can we GIVE anything to God to say thank you for everything that God has done in our lives? We find an answer in Isaiah 6. Here, Isaiah learned how to praise God with a grateful heart.

“I, the Lord of Sea and Sky” was Doug Ritcey’s favorite hymn and s mentioned parts of it are represented by various elements of the design so artistically woven by Sue Obata. The hymn itself was written by Daniel Schutte in 1981. Dan is a Roman Catholic composer and liturgist originally from Wisconsin. He is aware that this window stands here and was grateful to hear from Ruth that his song inspired both Doug’s life and this piece of Art. The hymn was uniquely written as a call and response with the verses being God’s call and the chorus being our anticipated response. It echoes the words of Isaiah 6:8 when the Lord calls and Isaiah answers and is thus commissioned to his life as a great prophet. God calls all of us to do God’s work in the world.

God calls us in many ways. Some of us are called to care for the sick, some of us are called to feed the hungry, some of us are called to educate our children, some are called to deliver the word, some of us are called to touch and to heal. Some of us are called to lead the rest of us to make a joyful noise! There are so many different ways that God calls us into ministry. And we are all ministers. When we attend to the needs of the other, when we look after one another, when we help each other in the name of God then we are ministering to the people of God.

And if you don’t believe me, don’t worry Isaiah didn’t believe God either. He said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.” He felt unworthy to serve God. He knew God, but he wasn’t sure. So God sent angels to cleanse his lips and assure him that he was ready. This is the same for us. I heard the call to ministry for a long time, and sometime I might tell you my call story, but for now know this: It took a LONG time before I was even willing to discern the call and it took many ANGELS coming to assure me that I was worthy before I considered taking on this work. God will be patient and God will send helpers because God needs us!

You are each made for something special. There are no small works and to each person is allotted a unique gift that God wants you to share in the world. I love that Dan Schutte includes the doubt in his chorus. We don’t see it in Isaiah 6:8 because by then the angels have come and Isaiah is feeling a little more confident than maybe you or are may be when we hear God calling. But in the hymn we hear, “Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord?” My friends, let me assure you, it is you. The Psalm tells us what we should do and Isaiah’s commissioning story teaches us how to do it.

It isn’t easy to stand before God and feel worthy unless we have done the work of practicing gratitude. Without gratitude we run the risk of living in scarcity where nothing is ever enough. Taking the time to say “Thank you” every day for what we have, for what has happened and for who we are can be as powerful as the angel bringing the hot coal to Isaiah’s lips.

It can burn away the fear, loosen the doubt and steady our hearts to be brave enough to say “yes” to God.

So, start looking for the blessings in your life. They are all around you. They are in your struggles as much as in your joys. They are sometimes even found in the things you didn’t get that you thought you really wanted. If you don’t know where to start with this then it is time to make it intentional. Keep some paper by your bed and each day, morning and or night while sitting in your bed, write down the three things you are grateful for that day. Before you know it you will have a book full of blessings. Our sense of real worthiness can be found in recognizing those blessings, big and small. Then we will be ready to listen, to see and to respond when God calls us. We will understand what it means to MAKE a joyful NOISE, we will find the way to WORSHIP GLADLY, our hearts will KNOW GOD, we will have the courage to ENTER IN, and will we finally know what it is to GIVE THANKS AND BLESS GOD’s holy name.

This is how we can give thanks to God that has everything. I believe that God is waiting for us to truly know that we are worthy, so that when we hear the call, we can stand before the Lord of song and confidently respond. “Here, I am Lord, Send me”.

Are you ready?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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“Obedient Child”

July 31, 2016

2016-06-26 12.20.10LUKE 2: 40-52

SERMON

Here we are at week 5 of 10 in this sermon series on our stained glass windows. Last week’s window was dedicated to the memory of the organizer of this congregation, Dr. John D. Currie. The one right beside it, and the one responsible for this week’s theme was presented by the family to the glory of God and in the memory of the Honorable Charles J. Burchill and his wife E. Gertrude Burchill who was Dr. Currie’s daughter. As we take a look at the scripture that inspired this beautiful window, we remember them and are thankful for their contributions to this church and this community.

As we heard earlier, the scripture reading is from Luke 2. From part of a longer story, verse 47 says this, “And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” I have spoken to a few of you about how I decided the order to preach your windows in and how that has so wonderfully lined up with something special week after week. For a couple of weeks it lined up with the lectionary and somehow with what was happening in the world. This week it lines up with something happening in my world.

After the service today, I am heading to Berwick United Church camp in the Valley. I have been going to this camp for over thirty years. I started attending when I was 8 or 9 years old. Before I tell you how this is relevant, let’s take a look at the passage I chose to share with you today. This passage begins at chapter 2, verse 40. In Luke 1, we have just heard the story of the conception of Jesus, and of the birth of John the Baptist. That chapter ends when he goes into the wilderness. Luke 2 begins with story of the birth of Jesus. Then we are privy to few stories about Jesus as a baby, a boy and a young man. There we are told of his birth, of the visit to the shepherds by angels, of his circumcision and naming, of his purification at the temple in the presence of a man named Simeon. A man who was moved by the Spirit to visit the child at the purification, proclaim his destiny in salvation, and bless his family in the name of God. And then there was the story of the prophet Anna who at 84 years old recognized who Jesus was and spoke to anyone who would listen of Jesus as the redemption of Israel. After this, Mary and Joseph and their child left Jerusalem and returned to their home in Galilee.

Then the story skips ahead and Luke uses these beautiful words, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favour of God was upon him.” The writer of Luke was the most eloquent writers of the synoptic gospels. He used words so carefully and his descriptions of events and moments were often framed by poetic language such as this. Listen to that. The child – Jesus Christ – he grew, he was becoming a man, he was filled with wisdom and knowledge and Gods favour was on him. Luke reveals the humanity of Jesus Christ in this story, he reminds us that Jesus was born like us, he was a child like us, and he had to learn like us. He was a human being, like us. And yet so often we forget that he was a child once, just like you and me. A child that needed to be nurtured as he grew.

There is no doubt that he was a special child, but even his parents were surprised about what others had to say about him and he was their child! Even though angels come to Mary and to the shepherds and declared that he was the Messiah, the one sent to redeem Israel, and even though those shepherds delivered this message to his parents after his birth and all were amazed… to his mother and father he was still their child. Even though at his purification, the scripture says that “the child’s mother and father were amazed” at what Simeon was saying about him. – he was still their child. Our story today begins when Jesus is 12 years old.

Sometimes the pictures and stained glass windows depict Jesus as a much younger child almost infant-like, but 12 years old in the time of Jesus was a young man directly bordering on adulthood. He was becoming a man and it would have been expected that he would be studying the law of his religion and would be familiar with the scriptures. It was also expected that Jesus could take care of himself and was responsible enough to be where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be there. So his family travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover, as was their tradition and the tradition of all the Jews in Israel. And when the festival was over his family, which would have included all his cousins and aunts and in-laws etc. etc. This was not a family trip of just 3 people. This was a large community of people travelling together and Jesus’ mother and father assumed that he was with them because obedience was expected of him and all Jewish children, as is the case with most cultures. If the parent says it is time to go home then it is time to go home. I don’t know about you, but, for the most part, what I say goes. If I say it is time to go home, my kids say, “yes, m’aam”.

This is how I expect that Jesus’ parents were used to him behaving. So, when they stopped after one day of travelling home and looked for their son among the travellers and didn’t find him they must freaked out. The story tells us that they headed back to Jerusalem to find their lost son. He was lost for three days to them –Imagine! His parents finally found him sitting calmly among the rabbis, the teachers in the temple. You can imagine their relief and their exasperation.

I remember visiting Victoria. BC when I was about 12 years old and my little brother would have been 10. He went missing while my family was in the wax museum. I remember at one point, about an hour in when my mother said, “when I find him I’m going to kill him.” She was terrified. And then I remember when he came wandering out of the underwater aquarium houseboat next door the museum behind another family as if he didn’t have a care in the world and my mother grabbing him with all her might sighing with tears of joy streaming down her face. She didn’t want to kill him at all, at least not until he said, “I wasn’t lost at all I knew where I was the whole time!” – This story makes me think of that moment. It puts the faces of people I know on these characters. Can you picture it? It is such a universally human moment.

The story tells us that all who heard Jesus were amazed at how well he understood the teaching and how adept he was at answering the questions that the teachers posed to him. But not his parents – for he was still their child. They were shocked to find him there – they may have even been angry enough to kill him in the metaphorical sense of the phrase. His mother doesn’t understand how he could have done something like this to them. He has disobeyed his mother and father and caused them great stress and anxiety – he was still their child – and they thought they had lost him. But just like my little brother – Jesus responds that he wasn’t lost at all. In fact, it is he that is surprised that they wouldn’t know that he was at the temple. This is the first time that Jesus refers to God as Father.

In Luke 1 we are told that Mary’s baby will be called the Son of God, but still the scripture here says that his parents didn’t understand what he meant because Jesus was still their child. This is the first time that Jesus shifts his obedience from his earthly family to his heavenly one. Imagine the fear in his mother’s heart to be reminded again and again that the child she has carried and raised is not her child alone. The scripture says she doesn’t understand what he is saying.

But, I don’t think this meant that they were ignorant to what he had said, but I do think they didn’t understand the magnitude of his declaration. How could they? For 12 years he was their child and he was still. So, Jesus, the obedient son, went home with his parents – his mother knowing more in her heart than she was ready to admit to herself maybe because she knew it meant letting him go – but he was still her child.

The story ends like this: “And Jesus increased in wisdom, and in years, and in divine AND human favour”. This is Luke’s poetry creating a frame with the beginning of this story, Jesus grew up, he got wiser and he gained more favour, but this time his favour was both divine and Human. Jesus had begun to attract people to him as a young man in that temple. He was beginning to become the hope that maybe the things that were said about him as an infant were coming true. Was this young man really going to redeem Israel? Was he really the Son of God, the messiah sent to save them? The people sure hoped so.

We don’t hear anymore about Jesus for another 18 years when he returns to be baptized by his cousin John. We do not know how his life proceeded in that time, but it is likely that he was obedient to his earthly mother and father –

That he continued to be a good son to the people that raised him and nurtured him until he was ready to do God’s work. Luke says that this work began at 30. I think Jesus’ work actually began at 12. At only 12 years old he was showing the people who he was going to become. He was already feeding their hearts with hope.

I remember being a child at Berwick Camp. At Berwick camp I was welcomed and invited to be a part of a community. I wasn’t treated different because I was a child. There were people there that were genuinely interested in what I had to say, who I was and what I thought about important things. On one porch or another someone older than I would inevitably ask about the year that had passed and ask really interesting questions like “what was the most important thing that happened to you this year” and then they would lean in and wait because they really cared about the answer. I knew those people care about me because they were amazed at my understanding and at my answers to their questions. I also know that as much as they inspired me by caring about me, I inspired them to have confidence in the future of the church by my openness to be with them. And they made that easy because the saw me as child of God, just like them. Our ages didn’t matter there.

At Berwick Camp I have always felt like I was in God’s house and it has always felt like home. I’m lucky to say that I also found this in my church home, but so many of my friends felt very differently about their church environments than they did about camp.

Often at church there is a sense of us and them. There are children and there are adults and the line between who is who is VERY wide. For example, I work with 18-45 year olds in another church and in my research for a needs assessment I performed when I asked the question “what is the church doing for this age group of people” one minister responded to me sadly, “waiting for them to come back”. I think this story in Luke is a lesson for our us all — as a faith community and as parents we need to pay more attention to what our young people have to contribute to the conversation. Jesus’ mother may have been so mad that he seemed to disobey her, but she also treasured all the things she was learning about him in her heart.

As I head off to Berwick Camp this afternoon, I am prepared to step into my week as a member of the leadership team. I am tasked with the great responsibility to nurture and lead the youth there. I am looking forward to leading them, but more than anything I am looking forward to learning from them.

We have a lot to learn from those younger than us. And we teach our young people a lot about themselves when we listen to them like the people listened to Jesus in the temple. When you listen to a young person, when you include them in the conversation, when you are genuinely interested in what they have to contribute, you are teaching them the most important thing that they will ever learn. You are teaching them that they matter. When Jesus’ parents were angry with him for wandering away, they still went looking for their lost son because he was their child. They taught him how to go look for those who were lost. His parents and his community taught Jesus about LOVE by showing him that they loved him. And when Jesus became a man, he knew how to love because of what he was taught when he was young – that what he said mattered, that he was important and that he was unconditionally loved.

As a representative of God’s house, as an obedient servant of Christ, can you think of a young person that might need you to listen to them? If you don’t know any personally can you think of a way that you could become involved with young people in your community? This week, I’m going to give you some homework. Don’t worry, there is not book report due and you never have to tell me what you came up with, but I would like you to really think about how you could make a difference in a young person’s life. How could you give them the confidence and the courage to live God’s will for their lives. Not what you think that might be, but rather to help them discover this on their own. This is about more that giving money for someone else to do that work, although that is important too, especially if you are helping to feed and clothe and shelter young people at risk. But, I wonder if, instead of practicing that children should be seen and not heard in church, or simply sitting back and waiting for young people to “come back” to fill the pews, if we, as a church could go to them like Jesus and Mary went looking for their lost son? Maybe it is your own children and grandchildren that need you to do this for them? Could you find the time and the desire to listen and learn from them wherever they are?

As church, as representatives for God here on earth, we are not only God’s hands and feet but it is our job to express the very heart of Christ. I think that when we are willing to share our community with everyone regardless of their age and actually practice what we preach that we are doing our part to nurture and raise our children to become faithful and obedient witnesses for God.

Showing young people that God cares about them, about who they are and what they have to say through our actions makes them care about who God is in their lives and who the people are that taught them about this kind of love. Show me a church doing this kind of work in the world and I will show you a church increasing in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favour.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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“Who is Your Shepherd?”

2016-06-26 12.19.11July 24, 2016

John 10:11-18

SERMON

The theme for today’s sermon is drawn from our fourth window in this series. The “I AM the good shepherd window” was erected in the memory of Rev. John. D. Currie, D.D. According to the Fort Massey United Church history titled A Century of Witness, Dr. Currie served as minister in Maitland, Nova Scotia before becoming the professor of Hebrew here in the city at the Presbyterian School. He was a founding member of Fort Massey Church and, in fact, was responsible for organizing the congregation here in the South End in 1871. He served as elder in this church of 38 years. He died in 1909 at the age of 82. He once reported that he had preached 70 times in the 12 months of 1875! “He was unceasing in his industry, gentle in all his ways, and much beloved by members of the Halifax Churches.”

The story of the good shepherd begins in the old testament. Today I want to start my looking at it from the perspective of the 23rd Psalm that we sang this morning. This is likely familiar to most of you. I memorized this Psalm in Sunday School when I was 8 or 9 years old along with the Lord’s Prayer, the names of the disciples, the books of the Bible, the Beatitudes, the Apostle’s creed and the Ten Commandments. Psalm 23 was part of my formation as a young Christian. Many argue that learning through memorization isn’t really learning, but for me it was really important. The Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm had a big impact on me as I repeated the words. As I did, I remember really thinking about what those words meant. I repeated them over and over, trying to make them stick so that I could earn a star sticker for the poster in the church hall and the little laminated certificate of completion that I still have in my Bible at home. But, over time, as happens with things memorized, the words became more like a habitual chant than an inspiring mantra. The meaning behind the words became lost. This happens…

In churches all over the world Psalm 23 is the gold standard for funeral readings. We may find ourselves reciting these familiar words there while not taking the to absorb the richness of their meaning. It’s like driving to work or another familiar place – after years of driving to the same place, you kind of hit auto-pilot and you get where you are going, you even get there safely, yet you don’t really remember the drive. That’s what the elements of worship sometimes become don’t they? – just another box to tick off…just another star sticker on the wall. Being a sheep is about SO MUCH MORE than just going through the motions.

Sheep and shepherds are mentioned in the Bible over 200 times. At the very beginning, Adam and Eve’s son Abel was a shepherd, then so was Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jacob’s sons, Rachel, David, Moses….the list is long. When we say today that someone is a sheep we are usually insulting them, but in ancient times sheep were extremely valuable. The were used as currency, for sacrifice, for food, milk shelter, wool, clothing…

The Psalmist was able to use the shepherd as a metaphor for God so effectively because the people really understood the important role of a shepherd. The shepherd was the one that tended the treasured sheep, protected them, fed them, guided them and so on. This imagery is used so poetically in Psalm 23 that we sometimes miss the power of the meaning of each line when we simply recite it by rote.

When God was referred to elsewhere in the Hebrw Bible God is the Shepherd over the whole community, but here in Psalm 23 the words are deeply individual and personal speaking to the Psalmists personal relationship with God in that very moment. I’d like us to take a closer look at the Psalm this morning while we think about this question that I read while researching for this sermon,

“So, what are you and God up to these days?” (repeat)

Psalm 23 speaks to a relationship that is possible with God when we recognize ourselves as valuable sheep that God longs to shepherd. Let’s have a look…

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

When we are in relationship with God as our shepherd, we literally want for nothing. Our eyes are open to how God is working in our lives and we are grateful for the abundance already present there. When we trust the God provides for our every need there is no experience of scarcity. We may not have everything we ever wanted, but this relationship has revealed to us that we have everything that we truly need.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

God provides us with guidance to paths of peace and serenity in the midst of our busy lives. When we honour God as the leader of our life, we learn what it means to rest. And if we don’t take this rest on our own, God will find a way to make us rest. God will help us see those moments in our lives that are our green pastures and still waters. Then, we will want to take time to enjoy them and feel restored. God wants us to do this so that we are ready to do God’s work in the world.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff –they comfort me.

God as our shepherd is with us even in the darkest times of our lives. Notice it doesn’t say that God will keep us out of those times, but it says that even there, in the darkness….even in the shadow of death, God is with us and we need not be afraid because we are not alone. God will lead us through, even if it means we need a little poking and prodding! We sometimes need those poking prodding lessons and challenges to keep us on the right path. Be grateful that God is there to help us in this way!

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

God isn’t going to let us do our work in the comfort of our friends and family alone. We have to receive the gifts of God in front of those that might make fun of us or even hate us for fulfilling God’s will with our lives. God will make sure that we are prepared…with God’s blessing and with cups full of life, we can do this so that all can see that what we do, we do in the name of the God who loves and protects us.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

This last part is the most taken for granted I think. The message is so subtle that it might be lost when read as simply a closing statement. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life….the end”. This speaks to the unending mercy and goodnss of God that follows US…God chooses to follow ALL of us with these gifts…ALL of the days of our live. Not just some of us some of the time. But ALL of us ALL of the time. Not just when we choose to follow God…but like the sheep that wander away and even like the ones that don’t ever notice the shepherd watching out for them, the shepherd still follows longing to keep them safe because they belong to him. God CHOOSES to follow us with goodness and mercy. Because of this truth, the Psalmist is confident that he will Live with God all the days of his life.

So let me ask you, “Is this what you and God are up to these days?” Not quite? Then have you considered why not. Who IS your shepherd…really? Have you tried to be maybe money has become your shepherd? …or maybe it’s concern over status or reputation?…Or maybe it is the fear of not every having enough that is guiding your life?

Jesus’ life shows us what it means to truly say, “the LORD is my shepherd” and mean it. Jesus embraced this belief with all of his heart, with all of his mind and with all of his strength. Our gospel reading from John today helps us begin to understand this lesson.

As a Jew, Jesus studied the Psalms and the rest of the Hebrew Bible. He regularly referred to these scriptures when teaching because many of his followers were also Jewish. Jesus could use these familiar metaphors to teach the people about God. If you read the Old Testament with an eye on what it has to say about Jesus, you are not alone. The people of Jesus’ time were also wondering if it was written about him…

In the reading today, Jesus says that he IS the good shepherd who would lay down his life for his sheep. There are two sets of ears listening for the answer from Jesus about whether or not he is the Messiah. To one set of ears he is saying that he is LIKE God who is the greatest of all shepherds. He shares so fully in God’s work that his character reveals the loving nature of God. When he says that he and the Father are one, he is revealing that He and God are united in one common purpose. His sheep recognize his good works and follow him because they know him and he is not a stranger. He will love them as God loves them. The other ears? – they hear only that he saying that he IS God. The hear only that he is breaking the law. Some of the people cannot hear what he says because the don’t follow him and so not know him to be their shepherd.

We can recognize human beings today in these groups. There are those of us that need proof that God is real. We point to words in the Bible as proof of who and what God is. These same words are then used by others to prove that God does not exist. And sometimes the very same words are used to prove that if God exists then He is a God of wrath and vengeance and therefore the root of all evil in the world! What Jesus asks us to do is look for truth beyond what we read in the words or in what anyone tells us. He wants us to follow him because we have experienced his good work in our lives. Jesus wants us to know him by being like him so that others can see who he is when we work in his name.

When we follow the voice of the shepherd that is familiar, we are like the sheep. We follow because we know that we can trust the one that loves us and go so far as lay his life down for us as any good parent would for their child. That is faith.

And Grace? —that goodness and mercy that follows you all the days of your life??? – that is the fruit born of faith. When we follow we see the abundant gift of grace in our lives and it is then that we pour out that gift to others.

There is an old hymn that goes, “And they will know we are Christians, by our love, by our love…” This is how Jesus says you will know him. By his LOVE. Because God chose us we can choose to follow Jesus. And when we do, Jesus will not let us go. He tells us that explicitly throughout the gospel of John.

Jesus acts as though his hands are God’s hands. When we follow Jesus, his hands become our hands. As yourself, “How can other come to know Jesus and God’s love through our work in the world?”, “How can we lead others beside the still waters?”, “How can we walk with them through the valleys of the shadow of death?” Where is Jesus as YOU to follow him?

I want to leave you with this true story. I was preaching at another church and the lesson was Paul meeting Jesus on the road. I was with the children and I asked them, “So if some strange man met YOU on the road and asked you to follow him would you go?” at this point in the service the children knew the “right” answer and so they were all nodding. I challenged them, “But haven’t you been taught not to follow strangers?” (I thought I was so smart!) and with that a small but clear voice spoke up, “But HE is not a stwangerh, The voice is Jesus and we all know him!” There was stillness in that moment and maybe a few tears.

Tell me, would you say so confidently that you would recognize the voice of your shepherd when he called you to follow him? Who is YOUR shepherd? Really?

Amen.

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