November 12, 2017

When you think back to the rituals and ceremonies of your religious upbringing what experiences come to mind? For me the first thing I think of is The Introit (churchy language), and in particular the singing of the first verse of Holy, Holy, Holy. That is how every service of worship began at my home church and from conversations with many of you that was quite common on the United Church in the 1960’s and 70’s. That memory is relatively benign, neither positive nor negative. The most positive memory I have of church in those years was visiting persons we then called “shut-ins”. It wasn’t really a ritual or ceremony in any formal sense but it was to me a part of worship, leaving church and visiting all of the persons who were unable to attend services and thus appreciated our company and support.

When it comes to a negative memory of religious rituals and ceremonies I think back to how we celebrated Holy Communion. At the end of the service, at the one hour mark, the men in blue suits and my grandmother would make their way to the Elder chairs that surrounded the Minister’s chair behind the pulpit. We would be singing the first three verses of “Here, O My Lord, I See You Face to Face” and roughly half of those present would rise and quietly slip out of the church. The rest of us would move closer to the “front”, ready to receive the bread and grape juice from the Elders. I remember even then wondering how a ritual given by Jesus to those who sought his presence caused half of the community to feel they were not included.

The other negative experience involved our then Minister who had lived through a terrible car accident years before. Because of his balance challenges he could not climb the stairs to the platform where the pulpit, lectern and choir were present. Unsteady on his feet the Minister would stand on the same level as the pews, behind the microphone and occasionally sit when speaking to us. Instead of offering support to this very gentle soul there was widespread criticism, whispers that were very audible to the congregation. One parishioner even scolded him at the door, telling him “worship for me is the Minister standing above me, at the pulpit, and telling me what I need to know about God and the Bible.”

I often think about what our ceremonies and rituals in church reveal about our experience and expectation of God’s presence. The visiting of persons not able to be with us, the forming of community with those who were feeling isolated, seemed to me a perfect way to express God’s love, to create a custom that brought out the best of a worshipping community. Conversely, rituals and ceremonies that divided communities in half and made customs like standing behind a raised pulpit more important than supporting someone who lived with a physical and mental challenge, seemed to me “festivals that would not please our God”.

The prophet Amos strolled into his hometown one day with a powerful and unwelcome message. God had interrupted his life, God had erupted into his life. And so Amos invaded the complacent security of these upwardly mobile citizens of Bethel, the piety of those devout who patted selves on back. And as we discover in 2 Kings, just a decade later, the Assyrian war-machine demolished Bethel, all the money and religiosity left fluttering in the wind like so many burnt leaves. In other words the rituals and the ceremonies of God’s people did not draw the faithful into a covenantal relationship with God, rather it distracted and distorted the people, away from their true identity and toward something other.

Listen to Amos’ harsh words for his people: I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Our religious rituals and ceremonies are given to us to be reminders of whom we are called be, how God remains with us and how we are to live in community. We need to use our faith-filled imaginations to think about songs, litanies, creeds, collective actions, that inspire us, connect us and shape us into our true identity.

Today we have celebrated a Baptism, there is another sister to be found in this community of faith. The early church was clear that in Baptism we inherit another kind of family, that we relate to and care for one another as kin. If you have any doubt about the power of words and rituals we have used today think no further than the funeral we will be attending later on this afternoon for Anne Ihasz. Anne has been a sister in Christ to you and you feel this loss like the death of any family member.

Some time ago I was attending a theological conference in Bangor, Maine. One of the presenters offered an alternative wording for Baptism, one consistent with our understanding that whatever the world may think about the circumstances and expectations for the birth of a child in God’s eyes all of us carry the genes of God’s DNA. We are all born in grace, the offspring of a Creator who wills a relationship and a covenant based on love.

John Irving in his 1985 book The Cider House Rules describes a community of orphans who are cared for by a local doctor. The doctor would end every day with the following ritual, “Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find rituals and ceremonies that conveyed this message every Sunday? If you think of any please tell one of the members of our Session so we can consider your suggestion. God celebrates with us when we find words and actions that reinforce and remind us who and whose we really are. Amen.

November 5, 2017

Over the summer and fall of 2017 I have been reading a series of books written by historian Margaret MacMillan. In particular I have been reading MacMillan’s texts on the First World War, the years leading up to this conflict, the war itself and the year spent coming to terms with the war’s fallout. In case you don’t remember...

October 22, 2017

A popular translation of our text for today reads like this:

You know what kind of people we were when we visited you. We were there for you! And you became just like we are. Just like the Lord is. After all, even in great turmoil, you accepted God's word with the joy only the Holy Spirit can give...

October 15, 2017

The Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians from prison. According to Jesus scholar and Bishop Tom Wright “Paul sat in prison in Ephesus with only a few friends and colleagues looking after him when suddenly a guest appeared bringing news from the church in Philippi...

October 8, 2017

When a challenge presents itself in your life how do you respond? I am a problem-solver, who likes to look at creative solutions to complex problems, I usually take a deep breath and start thinking about all the possible things I can do or say to bring about a better tomorrow. Do I pray about it? Yes I do. But the prayer is often when I walk...

October 1, 2017

It is human nature to tell stories! Why else would thousands and thousands of people crowd into an auditorium to hear the late Stuart MacLean share his Vinyl Café stories? Frankly any of us can hear such stories on the internet, watch them from the comfort of our own homes on Netflix or listen to a podcast on satellite radio in our car. There is something about the live human voice sharing a reflection...

September 24, 2017

One of the hardest parts of my work, one of the greatest privileges I am afforded, are the conversations I have with persons who are aware that their death immanent. Facing one’s own death with that kind of clarity can lead to some very powerful insights and revelations. If you watch movies or television you have likely heard some of these conversations...

September 17, 2017

How we live with disagreement in community is never an easy thing to navigate. If you are like me there is that tension between wanting to feel a sense of integrity, that the community you belong to shares your values and on the other hand the worry that you an extra get a dose of “self-righteous purity” imagining that everyone must think just like you...

September 10, 2017

Five years ago I was invited to participate on a national United Church committee that looked ahead to equipping churches for the 21st century. One model we looked at closely was the house church, specifically house churches across Canada where faith-filled people with interest in United Church theology and practice were actually living together under one roof...

September 3, 2017

We didn’t talk much about evil when I was growing up. Throughout my upbringing in the 1960’s and 1970’s there was enormous faith in progress, technology and education to eradicate all forms of ignorance. And the consensus view in that time was this; there is no such thing as evil (a mere superstition). Terrible atrocities, like genocides, were the fault of a lack of education, knowledge, and eventually could be removed from the face of the earth with the right strategy...

August 27, 2017

Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon point out that this section of the Lord’s Prayer is the “most difficult to pray, the longest and most involved petition in the prayer itself.” Author NT (Tom) Wright suggests the reason forgiveness is such a potent topic in the Christian faith is because for many believers knowing how and when to forgive another can be the most difficult part of one’s faith journey...

August 20, 2017

When couples come together under one roof there is always some negotiation and flexibility required to find a way to live into new rituals. Eating meals together, and usually in our culture households gather at supper time, is one of those rituals that each partner in the relationship bring their own experience. When Kim and I were first married... 

August 13, 2017

Last Sunday night we were discussing the Lord’s Prayer at Brunswick Street United Church and the person sitting next to me leaned in and said, “When we live out the justice and love God intended us to embody as a community, as a world, we find the Lord’s Prayer alive and real.” He looked me in the eyes and repeated, “Thy Kingdom Come.” Indeed...

August 6, 2017

One of the crossroads in my life was a period in the late 1980’s when I had just completed six months of work as a Labourer-Teacher in the Canadian north with Frontier College. My work there was to fetch resources for carpenters and iron workers who were building forms for concrete to be poured...

June 25, 2017

In recent years I have come to lean more on the Psalms than any other part of the Bible. In my early years of ministry I read the Gospels for inspiration and direction, in particular Luke’s Gospel with its message of liberation and solidarity with the most vulnerable in our midst. But over time I found I needed to be in a more conversational mode with God...

June 18, 2017

As you know there are many different kinds of laughter. The type of laugh I want to talk about this morning is distinctive, it is the reaction to being told that you are about to do or be something you never imagined possible. All of us have been there, someone we know tells us to be prepared to assume a certain responsibility, an unexpected role, and we simply can’t believe our ears. And we laugh...

June 11, 2017

92 years ago yesterday the United Church of Canada came into being at a hockey rink in Toronto. Among the challenges that the founding denominational partners had to grapple with were the Articles of Faith, 20 statements that defined the United of Canada. These founding statements of faith shaped our identity, even today. Reviewing those 20 Articles of Faith you will find some rather dated language, words we don’t use any longer and the questions about God we still wrestle with today...

June 4, 2017

Author, Minister and President of Princeton Theological Seminary Craig Barnes says of our text today, “When the promising young Hebrews were dragged into exile in Babylon, they were not kept in prisons or even camps. They were free to marry, build homes, plant crops and exchange goods. Some became quite wealthy. They were also free to assemble, elect leaders and worship...

May 21, 2017

In a sermon by The Rev’d Alisdair Smith of Christ Cathedral in Vancouver on this very text we hear about General Romeo Dallaire and his impossible mission in Rwanda. “While he did all he could to save lives, he was forced by inactive governments and the UN to face this genocide with a small band of lightly armed soldiers...

May 14, 2017

I wish all of our mothers a happy Mother’s Day. I also want to wish all of our families a meaningful Christian Family Sunday. Family is a word that is being defined in a more open and fluid way these days. I am not speaking specifically here about marriage, though that obviously is part of that evolution. Here I am making reference to the way we define who is and who is not our kin. Let me share two recent examples...