February 18, 2018

Some of you are aware that I served a congregation in the eastern part of Toronto and worked primarily with the church’s outreach programs. The signature ministry then was the Out of the Cold Program, our church hosted all of the homeless persons in the east end of the city every Friday night. My role was to recruit volunteers to cook and serve the meal that night, to be present overnight as the women and men slept on the gym floor and to be available for pastoral care from 5 pm when guests started arriving until 11 pm when most of the guests were sound asleep. Fridays were a long, often sad and heartbreaking and yet strangely satisfying. I had spent a considerable portion of the week recruiting volunteers from the local church, other local churches and the broader community. Watching the volunteers, the guests and the security women and men hired by the city (all of whom were formerly street people themselves) forming a weekly community was the focal point of my week, everything I did led up to these moments.

Kim, Lucy and I lived about a 45 minute walk away, due east from the church I would walk from the Chester subway station to the Woodbine station, where we lived. I walked home at 11 pm every Friday night along the Danforth. Kim was worried, a strange new city, a big city, late at night, her husband all alone. But I knew I was safe. My practice then, and now, was to walk briskly in the cold air talking to Jesus. All of the work through the week, all that I struggled with and was challenged by, the conversations that night, what I have learned and what brought me sadness and joy, I shared with my companion Jesus. And I shared this loudly. No one came anywhere near me.

It was a practice that carried over from my childhood and youth. Every walk to school, every walk to a sports game, to a friend’s home, to an event, to watch a movie or when I was umpiring on the Commons, I would walk and talk with Jesus, out loud, sharing anything and everything. I would talk, loudly, and knew Jesus was listening and then I would hear the quiet voice of Jesus, that certain and resolute wisdom that I could either accept or reject but not ignore. Jesus never promised to take away the struggle, the challenge, only to share a pathway forward and to be with me. The wisdom was not a magic potion to make all of the heartache end, rather it was a humble, courageous and just way to do the right thing, for me, for the other, for others. But to get this wisdom I needed to walk and talk, with Jesus.

Later, I learned what I used to think all of us knew, that the just often suffered, that the unjust often did not suffer. Getting older, learning and absorbing what was going on around me I knew Jesus was not connected to Santa-God. You know, the belief in a God whom sits you on “His” knee as He asks whether you’ve been naughty or nice and then either rewards you or gives you coal in your stocking. Santa-God died in my imagination a long time ago. For a spell there was little room for Jesus to walk beside me, I was intent on figuring it all out on my own. I succumbed to the temptation to believe it was all on me, no God, no Jesus, no Spirit, just me and my wits.

But in time I came to see and hear Jesus as “me and my shadow” again and thus came this discernment process, this walk with Jesus, where I would share my heart and let Jesus share his wisdom. And I still do.

The temptation every Lent, every day, is not so much the small stuff we fuss over, do we shade the truth, do we take only what is due, do we work hard and play by the rules, but the bigger questions we try to ignore or pretend don’t exist; why do I live as I do when so many others have so little, why do I do so little with so much, and what exactly am I making of my life? And as I navigate these waters I am tempted to do it alone, to believe that while there is a pious God who sits in the clouds, a stained glass Jesus who looks like me but in purer form, a Holy Spirit that sanctions what the church likes, not what the Gospels preaches, when it comes to discernment and action, I am alone.

Lutheran scholar Karoline Lewis writes, “It seems that no resistance of temptation is successful without the presence of God. And therein lies our promise. Not necessarily that we have the power to defend and deflect temptation. Not that we are capable of taking on temptation in the wilderness, or at least, I know I am not. Not so much that baptism or ritual or piety is our guarantee that will shore up the walls to keep out that which seeks to threaten our belief, our trust, our relationship with God…We are not asked to do this out on our own, which can be one major misinterpretation of giving up things for Lent. God tears away our every attempt to say, While I appreciate your help, God, I’ve got this. I can figure it out. We don’t want help. We don’t want to ask for help. Help is a sign of insecurity, exposes weakness, but more so, when it comes to issues of faith we are tempted to believe that God is absent. God has given up. Withdrawn. Why? Well, you name it. A whole host of reasons. Need any prompts here? Our parishioners sure don’t. They are fully aware that they are not worthy of God’s love which we tend to perpetuate during Lent. They are fully aware, as are we if we are honest, of those excruciating times when God is silent.”

The point of contact is not necessarily that Jesus was tempted yet without sin. That’s not helpful. I can’t be Jesus. No, way, no how. But, I can look at Jesus’ temptation, whatever it is, whatever it turns out to be, and say, God was there. God is present. In other words, what if we focus less on listing all that tempts us, less on some pep talk that we can deny all those so-called things that seek to get us to craft our golden calves, less on giving up the so-called temptations of our lives, and focus on true denial of that which tempts us the most. That we are alone.

You may remember this story from Luke’s Gospel.                                                          He will show you a spacious second-story room, swept and ready. Prepare the meal there. When it was time, Jesus sat down, all the apostles with him, and said, You’ve no idea how much I have looked forward to eating this meal with you before I enter my time of suffering. It’s the last one I’ll eat until we all eat it together in the kingdom of God. Taking the cup, he blessed it, then said, Take this and pass it among you. As for me, I’ll not drink wine again until the kingdom of God arrives. Taking bread, he blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is my body, given for you. Eat it in my memory. He did the same with the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant.

In other words Jesus told his followers that when they needed him, really wanted his presence, when they were desperate for a conversation with Jesus who saves, all they needed to do was sit down, share a meal and “remember him”.

One night at the Out of the Cold in Toronto I was feeling alone, I had a big decision to make and felt I did not know what to do, where to turn. I was used to organizing the meal for these 75 guests, making sure all of the volunteers were ready, that the food was ready, that the guests had everything they needed, including mats, blankets and pillows to sleep on when the meal was over. I remember one of the volunteers from the community, a Jewish man who told me he was the son of John Wayne of Wayne and Shuster, telling me I needed to sit down and share in the meal. I was uncomfortable, I had never sat down to eat with the guests, that wasn’t right, the food and the hospitality was for them, I had my own home, my own table, my own food. But this community volunteer saw something inside me he knew needed healing, needed connection, needed wisdom. And so he asked me to be seated. And I did.

As I sat and ate, passed the bread, the meat, the pitcher of water, I felt a presence. Jesus was there. This challenge I was facing, feeling alone, things began to clarify, I sensed Jesus was present. And there at the table the wisdom I was searching for came. I knew the answer. It would not be easy but the path was now opening and I could see my way out. I was not alone.

My friends Jesus is present. Jesus is here. Jesus walks beside us, Jesus sits at the table beside us, and Jesus and his wisdom are present in those hard wilderness places. Lent is about temptation, the temptation to imagine you are alone. Listen, share and be filled. Amen.

February 11, 2018

As I inch closer to retirement I am keeping only a small fraction of the books I formerly owned. One of those special books I keep on my shelf is Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart. The title is from Alexis de Tocqueville who, writing about us in Democracy in America from 1835 to 1839, discovered “Habits of the Heart”--he named family life, religious convictions and participation in local politics--as helping to form the unique American character. They were habits that would help sustain free institutions, De Tocqueville said. But he also suggested that individualism, a word he was one of the earliest to use and long since a catchword for the American character, could prove dangerous, setting citizens apart from one another, making positive collective action difficult if not impossible, and therefore threatening those same free institutions. In “the churches and synagogues,” the Bellah group wrote, “there are still operating among us…traditions that tell us about the nature of the world, about the nature of society, and about who we are as a people.” The sense of commitment embedded in various spiritual and theological traditions is crucial, Bellah argued, to the maintenance of a healthy civil society.

North of that great experiment in individualism we Canadians embrace a more collective understanding of society but we watch the same television, the same movies, we spend our winters in Florida and participate in a similar capitalist economy. We are not nearly as different as we like to let on. And individualism has its effects on our civil society as well and not all of is problematic. Many Canadians rely on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to protect them from any government or institution that would consider treating some of us differently than others, removing opportunities for those who are vulnerable to the advantage of those with privilege. My Asian daughter, thanks to the Charter, cannot be denied entrance to an institution that historically only opened its door to white Christian straight men like me.

But our ever-growing and rampant libertarianism can make it difficult to remind Canadians that we are “our sister’s and brother’s keeper.” The conversations that unsettle me begin with “we all make our own bed” and “charity begins at home” and “it’s all about opportunity, once you have had the chance to succeed my concern for you is no longer necessary.” I worry deeply about the “ties that bind” us. I worry that we are increasingly becoming focused on ourselves and losing the “Habits of the Heart” that connect us at our deepest level.

In the times of the Apostle Paul the challenges to the church were different. When Paul writes to the church in Corinth, he addresses a group who feels that their rights and privileges as believers stand over and above the spiritual welfare of their brothers and sisters in Christ. Let me paint you a picture. The churches are booming, gentiles are joining in huge numbers. Some gentiles are following the example of the Jewish Christians, namely they are adhering to the law in a very intense fashion. Other gentiles have decided that God does not require them to follow the law, only Jesus. This creates challenges when new converts have different paths to the same vision. In Corinth there are some converts who believe they can do and say anything they want because Christ’s resurrection has afforded them total freedom. Meanwhile other gentiles who embrace the church are trying hard to follow the law and find their sisters and brothers who flaunt their “lawlessness” to be distractions and temptations. Think of alcoholics who now abstain from alcohol being confronted by a friend drinking in front of them. This “freedom” is abusive to the one who is trying to follow a different and harder behavior, not only is this approach insensitive, it also holds the potential of undermining best efforts and causing others to stray. Our journey of faith requires discipline, not indulgence.

Paul as a leader of churches is all about the sensitivity and consideration some churches ought to have for one another and some believers should have for one another. Paul writes pastoral letters extolling the virtues of churches and their witness and in particular will applaud a wealthy church that supports a poorer one. Similarly, Paul affirms individual Christians who show respect and consideration for those new converts who are vulnerable, easily tempted and set astray.

To achieve this witness, to be an example for others, Paul uses the example of the Greek Games, of the runner who strives to win the prize. Be like a runner who is intent on winning the prize, says Paul; run with that same intent. The point of the illustration is not so much the application of effort in the Christian life, or of competing to win the eternal crown, but rather a focused intent - a self-disciplined dedication to the cause of the gospel. A runner, training for a race, aims to win a wreath that soon falls apart, while the believer trains for an incorruptible wreath. At first glance, it seems that Paul is speaking about the prize of eternity, but he is actually referring to the work of the gospel, of the business of gathering the lost into the community that embodies the kin-dom/Kingdom of Jesus.

To return to the “Habits of the Heart” how do we in this faith community reinforce the “Ties that Bind”? One concern I hear from lay leaders and clergy alike is that coming together as a community to take on common goals is increasingly difficult in a society at large that values personal pursuits and private interests over shared values and principled compromises. Many today expect things to go their way and are less apt to go along with a majority opinion they do not share. This makes working together, in diversity of opinion and gifts, very challenging.

Practicing “Habits of the Heart” are akin to Paul’s call for the early church to be disciplined in their consideration of others. The discipline of following the path God has given you and at the same time being considerate of the one struggling beside you seems to me another form of “Habits of the Heart”. I may not be training for a race but I am training my mind and heart to follow God’s covenant and be thoughtful of my sisters and brothers in community.

I had a visit this week with one of our newest additions, Janice Olsen. She shared with me that when she attended the Salvation Army community of faith they celebrated the birthday of Jesus by taking time on the Sunday following Christmas to do something special in Jesus’ name. Janice would have a meal and give thanks for the blessings of her life. At another mealtime on the same day she would take out the ingredients for a meal and read where they came from. She would then name each country in her prayers of thanksgiving and petition. At the third and final mealtime she would take food around to various people she knew and share with them the meal and the story behind it. At the Walk and Talk last Wednesday many shared they strengthen their “Habits of the Heart” by explicitly thanking people for whatever was offered to our community that day. Betty Migel writes letters to governments that imprison persons of conscience through Amnesty International as her “Habit of the Heart”. How do you discipline yourself to be considerate of others in community by exercising “Habits of the Heart”?

It’s worth noting that this struggle will continue, there was no time when everyone did it freely nor will there be a time when it will suddenly become a reality. This takes work. We need to exercise our “Habits of the Heart” every bit as much as we exercise our bodies. Paul understood this. So must we. I so look forward to learning from you more “Habits of the Heart” here at Bethany. Together we can run this race together. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself. Amen.

February 4, 2018

This week my mind went back several years ago when I travelled to Cape Breton to attend, and participate in, a funeral. I took a bus to get there and two things stand out as memories of the trip. 1) the duct tape that covered the bathroom door thus making detours to various gas stations a necessity and 2) the man who sat beside me for the entire seven plus hours of travel. This travelling companion was older than I, a resident of Halifax who was coming “home” to inspect the house he and his siblings had grown up in, the place he intended to move when he retired. I asked him what compelled this move, why not stay in Halifax where he had lived for 35+ years, where he had worked, where his friends lived, where his children lived. I shall not soon forget his response, “anyone can build a house, it takes love and work to build a home.” In short, this man told me his heart belonged to Cape Breton, “home” for him was this small village, a particular physical structure, the sights, smells and feelings that can only come from one very specific place.

As a typical Haligonian I quizzed this man about his hometown, this village that once had been a bustling community filled with young families and now was a fraction of its former self, a population one fifth of what it was, mainly seniors, no one currently employed. He looked me in the eye and said, “It breaks my heart to see our old ball field grown over with weeds, the fences all rusted and twisted, but in mind’s eye this is still my home, and I can still picture everything that matters to me.” His intention was clear, he would retire, sell his house and move back “home” and begin to invest in a dream that would bring back to life what he imagined life was all about. This man was divorced and under no illusions that his siblings or his adult children would follow, he knew this dream to become a reality would require a partnership with those currently in living in his hometown. He was ready for that.

Some of you may call this man daring, some may call him foolish, some may even call him a dreamer. But I found it inspiring and the conversation caused me to reflect on those things I hold dear, the kind of place I want to build, the place I want to live, that place I want to be available for others looking for what I have been looking for my entire life. A few weeks previous I referenced a Biblical concept known as “the kingdom of God” or “the kin-dom” of God. I suggested all of us dream of a family, of a place, or a community, that we can call “home”. I believe all of us are looking for “home”, that place where we belong, where we thrive and where others know us as we really are. The early church responded to that deep need by offering homes of worship, healing and intimate relationships and we know from the Book of Acts that people responded in huge numbers. That hunger has not changed and the church of today has every opportunity to help create similar spaces for those who are searching.

You are no doubt aware of the famous Biblical quote from Proverbs “without a vision the people will perish.” It has almost become a bit of a cliché. But make no mistake the truth of those words is enduring. This morning young Hillary read some other well know words from the Bible, “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” What we know about Jesus’ teaching is that he used word-pictures to create a vision inside us that might move us closer to the kingdom/kin-dom of God. Reading scripture, prayer, doing acts of mercy and justice, loving our neighbor, all of these draw us closer to the kingdom/kin-dom but never let us underestimate the power of a dream, of a vision, of a memory, that bring out the best of who God made us to be.

Isaiah 40, our text for today, comes in the wake of the Babylonian exile, perhaps around 530s BCE. It may be that different groups experienced exile differently. Some, like those who were with the former king Jehoiachin in Babylon itself, seem to have received rations from the royal court and may have eventually been treated reasonably well (2 Kings 25:27-30). Others, however, may have been located in what were essentially labor camps. Even in the best case, the homecoming and restoration in Judah would have been a very difficult matter, however. The land had been devastated and not rebuilt. Thus, although the return from exile is often imagined as joyous (e.g., Psalm 137:6), Nehemiah 11:1-2 reports that there was no crush of people begging to live in the destroyed city of Jerusalem. It was without a temple or effective walls; the comforts and protections that a city would normally have afforded in the ancient world were missing. In fact, the people had to cast lots to see who would live there, and they “blessed all those who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem.” After fifty or more years in exile, most of those returning would have hardly known the place. Exile was hard, but returning was difficult, too.

What this tells me is that those exiled, separated, from their “home” found themselves in different places as they awaited their return. Further, it tells me that the return to one’s “home” is never simple, never easy and takes hard work to make the dream become a reality. Jesus said likewise, that building the kingdom/kin-dom would require a vision, focus (prayer), discipline (discipleship), community (neighbors) and hard work. That this “home” might well offer to us the inspiration to “renew our strength, that we might mount up with wings like eagles, that we might run and not be weary, that we might walk and not faint.”

This morning I want you to imagine what your “home” looks like and think on how you might live out your life, not someone else’s life, so that this “home” becomes a reality. John 14 says “In my Father’s house there are many rooms”. That reference is not to a celestial mansion in the sky for the “good people” it is rather an inspiring vision of a home where all of God’s people find their place, find their rest, find their strength. Believe me when I say this, when I wake up in the morning my strength is renewed, I mount up like eagles, I run and do not grow weary, I walk and do not grow faint because I have a vision of “home”, a place where all of God’s people belong, are affirmed and are set free to be everything God has gifted them to be. I pray you might feel likewise. I pray that when I lose that vision you might inspire me to regain it, that together we live as if this home was real, is real, now and always. Amen.

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January 28, 2018

Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?

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October 22, 2017

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October 15, 2017

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September 24, 2017

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