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. With family members and close friends these conversations are highly personal and highly emotional. With persons like Ministers, Doctors, social workers, the conversation is more philosophical, more big-picture, more existential. When people ask me about these conversations they tend to assume the topic is either “Why me?” or “Why did I spend so much time at work when I could have been deepening my relationships with loved ones?”

I can only speak for my experiences with dying people but the most common thread I experience in these intense moments is a variant of “Why is life so unfair?” Here people are not just thinking of themselves, thus it is not the same as “Why me?” It’s the man who wonders about the fairness of a son dying in his 30’s or the woman who travels and is haunted by the beggars she sees when she leaves the resorts. Part of it, talking to a Minister, is about where God is in these matters, why is a good God so absent when bad things happen to good people? But part of it is also the ache of discontent that life has not been fair, that everything we were told since birth, that if we “worked hard and played by the rules we would be happy and content” turned out to be a falsehood. Good people sometimes die young, good people are often forced to live through hard challenges, and people indifferent to the rules of fairness seem to live long and prosper. The dying person, with some time on their hands to reflect about the totality of their life, all life, wants to know why life is so unfair.

There are a variety of answers and responses to this question. Some who sit with the dying can’t wait to share “their” answer to that question. This kind of approach can be helpful but only when the dying person asks. I only share my own answer if asked, otherwise I share the variety of answers I have heard in my lifetime and invite the dying person to explore each one. Telling someone what to think is rarely as productive as you might imagine. Dying people are usually looking for a conversation, not a lecture.

Since humanity emerged from the Earth we have been drawn to the frequency of fairness. The Bible and most of the other great sacred texts of religious people have been grounded in the concept of fairness. But we in the western world have a particular passion for fairness. Our democratic institutions and our capitalist system require an attention to fairness. So you and I have been told since our memories began to hold information that the most important things in life revolve around fairness. And for most of us that fairness translates into what I would call “reciprocity”. You do X and you expect X in return. We are fixated on this, and we can measure all of our efforts and know what we have received in return, whether that be wages, affirmation or honours.

The early church was keenly aware of fairness. And for them the Divine needed to be fair, landowners should be fair, households should be fair. But Jesus had other ideas. When discussing invitations to parties Jesus explicitly states that the host ought specifically to invite people who had done nothing for you. Why? Because if it is understood that the only reason you have a seat at the table is that you invited the host to the table life becomes an entirely transactional experiences. How cold! Our God has other ideas. The book of Genesis is less a science text and more an existential text. The narrative of our God is not “you get what you deserve” but rather “all of life belongs to God and God shares life with us as a gift.”

Professor Karoline Lewis at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minn offers some most interesting insight to this text. “What is at the heart of God? What will you see looking into God’s very soul? Well, at least according to this parable, you will see generousity. Sheer generosity. And, according to this parable, we may not like what we see. Unexplainable, unfathomable, generousity? For no reason at all? No way we can get our heads around that. Why? What’s so hard? I think we have a fundamental discomfort with, even a suspicion of, generousity. Here’s the rub of this parable. That generousity is not something to be understood. And that we have an inherent resistance in receiving generosity. Because our human nature is then to anticipate a quid pro quo situation; to assume that we did something to deserve this generousity. We don’t even know how to respond to true generousity. Really? Me? Why? For no reason? Are you sure? What did I do? What can I do? So we relegate generousity to fairness.”

To return to my conversations with the dying the one common thread those who have found peace of mind share with me is “Life is a gift”. Standing somewhat apart from fairness they ponder the richness that is life and the beauty they have seen and felt. The pain, the ugliness, the suffering, that is there too. But when life is a gift you don’t need to sit with pen and paper and make two columns of good and bad and try to make them balance. When we understand that God gives us life as a gift we understand that it is not for what we did, said or accomplished. When life is given for no reason other than love it can release us from the expectation that we deserve more or less.

Now that does not mean we ought to stop working for a world that has more fairness and more justice. Everyone should have the opportunity to experience life as a gift, to celebrate their gift with joy and meaning. But when life is coming to an end we need to release ourselves from the time-consuming and soul-crushing impulse to measure fairness like it is the definition of our lives.

Please look no further than our own Glen and Carol Knapp. Both live with disabilities, when I visited with them they shared that their respective challenges are dealt with by “leaning on each other”, Glen with his polio and Carol in her walker. Neither is focused on the fairness of their setbacks, rather they see life as a gift and delight in all the relationships, work and mission that come to their day. Not all days are good ones for either of them and they are honest about that. But the satisfaction of their day, or their lives, does not come with a tally of fairness, it comes with the acceptance of receiving a gift and making the most of it.

My friends this gift of life is ours. It is fragile, often painful and never easy to sort out, but this life is a gift. Let’s help others to enjoy their gift but let’s also take the time to rejoice in the unconditional love we have been given by our God. Thank you God for this amazing, free and unearned gift. Amen.

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. I assume everyone in this church has experienced that moment when you realize you are not necessarily in lock step with a decision the community, any community you happen to belong to, has made. There is that side of you that wants to flee in a righteous rage, like Jesus you dust the sand off your sandals and stomp away. Then there is that other side of you that worries that difference of opinion is essential to every community, you need to accept that things are not always going to go your way.

The Epistle text we are given in the lectionary this morning deals with a community of faith sorting out what differences are essential to their identity and integrity and which ones are not, what differences can be lived with as the normal consequence of diversity.

Let me share with you two stories that drive home the choice of difference in community. In my first experience in church leadership I was to learn an important ecumenical lesson. When you are presiding at a funeral you should speak last. A man had died and I was his Minister but his widow belonged to another church. The widow asked if her pastor could participate in the funeral. I gladly consented. The pastor did not come to the church for the funeral but he did show up at the cemetery for the Committal. He wanted to speak last. After the sacred words of burial and a few prayers I turned to him to offer the Benediction. Instead the pastor looked everyone in the eye and said, “For this man it is too late but for each of you standing above ground it is not, so please accept Jesus into your hearts today so that you will inherit eternal life, go to Heaven and not be lost forever.” At that he stopped.

Needless to say I was not happy about any of this. So I was very surprised to hear from this same pastor the next week. Our church had retired a keyboard the choir used for practice. With the donation of new electric piano the old keyboard was placed in a closet. Somehow this pastor found out about the keyboard and on the phone he was asking if he could have it. Later I found out the pastor had left his church, taken half the congregation with him, all over the issue of female Deacons. They were now worshipping in an abandoned church just outside town.

On the other end of the spectrum I share the story of the descendent of Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederacy army in the US Civil War. Many of you will know that there is a movement afoot in the United States to remove all statues of Confederate politicians and military personnel. The 28 year old United Church of Christ pastor Robert Lee made an appearance on national television to disavow his racist ancestor. Lee’s remarks apparently upet some members of his church, so much so that he felt compelled to resign in principle. Lee felt that if his community did not more universally share his views on the removal of the confederate statues he needed to leave.

Now most of us in Christian community work through our disagreements in a more satisfying and less dramatic way. We feel a kinship with those who gather here each week and we understand that on some matters we will stand with the majority and on others we will be in the minority. And we know there are times when our collective mind on issues will change and suddenly our status in the majority now rests in the minority, and vice versa.

Recently I heard a sermon by a Lutheran pastor on this very text that highlighted what I believe are some very helpful insights from Paul in his letter to the Romans. Mary Hinkle Shore makes three central points about today’s Gospel.

  1. Paul is speaking to Christians whom have been divided by important matters to the Jewish Christians who are following Jesus. These disagreements with gentiles, who now follow Jesus, focused on the observance of food and festivals. Paul suggests that in the midst of this disagreement the important focus is what we are doing "in honour of Jesus" (14:6). Even though their practice may seem silly or just plain wrong to others of the same faith, when people eat or abstain, when they observe a day or ignore it, they are nonetheless seeking by their actions to honour Jesus. In other words for the church Jesus is the focus of the community itself. It is Jesus and his ministry that attracts followers and followers can learn a lot from each other in how different disciples interpret Jesus and his impact on their lives.

  2. Paul's second reason is related to the first. Christians bear with one another not only because all are trying by their actions to honour Jesus but also because Jesus has come with affection and love for all. Even if Romans 14:1-6 seems to be discussing trivial things, Romans 14:7-9 cannot be. "If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living" (verses 8-9). There is a sense that the Trinity, God-Jesus-Spirit, has a universal affection for humanity and therefore each and every one of us needs to be respected and listened to as the person you are with is also a child of God. As you disagree in community it is imperative to be aware that within the community is the wisdom of God, and many parts will reveal different aspects of the Divine.

  3. Paul's third reason for bearing with those whose practice differs from ours is that God is the ultimate arbiter of our lives and therefore the final evaluation of these conflicts rests with God, not us. That ought to take some of the sting out of our need to judge the other with despair. It is not that our conscience can’t speak to the injustice of another’s action in community. Rather, the sense that God is the one decides leaves us with some humility. We act with conviction but we act with humility. Too often in our culture there is a tendency for us to associate with those who share our opinions, dismissing those who do not believe like us, or vote like us, or live like us. They are fools, we think, and we see no contradiction between our being Christian and our despising of them.

My friends living in community is not easy but it is a gift. I learn so much from those who think differently, live differently and worship differently than me. I am delighted to sit with you and share our respective theologies, how we experience God differently. You will not find me like the pastor who disagrees with a vote here or there and moves half the church to an abandoned church building. But like Robert Lee I have certain convictions that are central to my life and faith.

I am grateful for the good news of this Epistle, that in disagreement we seek to honour Jesus, to listen to all of God’s children and the humility of knowing that in the end it is God who knows the truth and all I can do is discern the truth to the best of my ability, however imperfect that effort is.

Thanks be to God is diverse, faith-filled and generous community. Amen.

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...

May 7, 2017

I have never taken any formal courses in Marriage Counseling, though I have read several books and attended a few workshops on the subject. One thing I do recall from both text and lecture is that in the early stages of the couple’s work it is important to ask what it was that originally kindled their romance, what it was that brought them together, how did they fall in love...

April 30, 2017

Some of you know I help facilitate the faith sharing and worship time at Brunswick Street United every Sunday night, 6-8 pm. We gather in a circle, everyone participates and I offer up a brief overview of the theme for the night, a little background on the scripture, and a question designed to promote conversation and stimulate deeper thinking on what God is doing in our lives...

April 23, 2017

When we think about faith and the Earth the thinker and poet we most often go to for inspiration and ideas is Wendell Berry. He is after all the author of that beautiful piece of writing The Peace of Wild Things:

When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

April 16, 2017

I like how the Rev’d David Sellery describes our Easter text this morning. “They weren’t looking for the Risen Jesus. They were sure he was lost forever. And then he was there with them…walking and talking, explaining scripture, opening doors to spirituality. He moved with them so easily, so unobtrusively that they did not recognize the risen Savior until he revealed himself in the breaking of the bread..."

April 9, 2017

Our text is about a parade. Have you attended a parade? Have you marched in a parade? For me the answers are yes and yes. But all of these parade experiences come from my childhood. You see my mother once presided over all of the majorette groups in Halifax. Some of you likely have never heard of majorettes but at one time almost ever girl and young woman would have participated...

April 2, 2017

Writer Sarah Dylan Breuer believes the core of our lectionary text this morning can be found in John 11:44 “Unbind him, and let him go.” Or in her words, “Open every dark place to light and air; this is the time to uncover and unbind!” Breuer’s analysis of this text is this, Jesus has come to heal and mend that which is broken. And Jesus heals these wounds, our wounds, and the world’s wounds, by unbinding those in pain and letting them go...