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, that prayer expressed in a verbal and “back and forth” manner helped me reach God, connect to God’s intent and provide necessary wisdom for my life and my work.

I have shared before that my favorite book on the Psalms is Walter Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms. Brueggemann divides the 150 Psalms into Psalms of Orientation, Disorientation and New Orientation. Orientation Psalms express the state of gratitude we feel when things are well with our soul, personally and collectively. Psalms of Disorientation come when our world falls apart, when the centre no longer holds and what we once believed for certain no longer seems to apply. And the New Orientation Psalms express that transformation from trauma and loss to new understanding, new certainty, and a new way to see God’s presence and thus hope and life is restored.

Brueggemann laments the shift in Christian expressions of prayers and connection with God that has occurred, particularly in more recent times. In parts of the world like ours that are relatively stable, secure and prosperous we tend to see our blessings as a sign of God’s favour and express our relationship in terms of thanksgiving. Forgetting grace is love received unconditionally we make arrangements with God that make a conscious or unconscious bargain that IF we do and say certain things God will bless us. The bargain or covenant seems to have worked well for us so we tend to share positive expressions of thanksgiving for all we have received and will receive.

Brueggemann is concerned with what happens to Christians and Christian communities when tragedy strikes and the bottom falls out from beneath us. If our relationship with God has solely been defined by pious thanksgiving and careful good works how do we make sense of disappointment, failure, abuse, pain, loss and our own shortcomings? When others let us down, when we let ourselves down, when God does not seem to be there for us, what do we say, how do we react, where do we go?

In the Jewish tradition, expressed in texts like the Psalms and Jeremiah, there is a more robust conversational approach to God. The language of the Psalms can be downright confrontational, the Psalmist can get angry with God, blame God, resent God’s action or inaction, and demand answers. I can’t tell you the number of times parishioners have come to me to express guilt and shame because they had been angry with God. When I showed them the Psalms or even Jeremiah they were shocked, they had no idea such faithful people and sacred texts included this kind of rough language. I remember one person looking me in the eye and saying, “How come we have never heard a sermon like that?”

Psalm 86 includes some very straight talk with God. There is petition, words like “incline”, “preserve”, “turn” and “show”. This does not sound like pious talk to me! There is a complaint here. The Message translation reads God, “These bullies have reared their heads! A gang of thugs is after me—and they don’t care a thing about you.” In other words, people are coming after me, God. Where have you been?! Where indeed. Yet in the heated words comes a realization, a sense of presence, a kind of epiphany, “You have helped me and comforted me”. Further, the Psalmist sees God’s hand in the attentiveness to the poor, needy and the desperate, and thus a sense of God’s work in the collective, not just me. There is a sense that my own complaint with God may be informed by the experiences of others, what they have seen and felt, and that sometimes moving out of my own conversation with God and into the conversations of others with God we gain some understanding and wisdom.

Jeremiah the prophet understood this process of conversation as well. As Fred Craddock, the well-known preacher and scripture scholar says of Jeremiah, “like other Israelite faithful, knew that no thought or emotion was forbidden in prayer.” Jeremiah left nothing out in his expression of frustration and discontent with God. He was called to preach in an age when people would not listen. Jeremiah was a very sensitive man. We might say he had a rather thin skin. He loved people and would agonize over their hard hearts. He did not take criticism well. He would frequently express how his heart was torn because those he loved most, turned against him – even laughing at him. When love is great, often grief is also great. Sometimes he is known as the weeping prophet.

What we know of Jeremiah’s prophetic message is that he denounced false worship. Israel was surrounded by powerful nations and thus sought to worship like them. They even sacrificed their children in the fire (Jeremiah 7:31). Jeremiah could not keep silent. He pointed to this place of false worship and called it the Valley of Slaughter. And so Jeremiah is despondent, on the edge of despair. Jeremiah was frustrated and angry, “Deceive me and I am deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed” (Jeremiah 20:7). Jeremiah vents. His emotions erupted as a volcano. “I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long. (20:7b,8).” But eventually, through this conversation Jeremiah could not help but speak of the warmth of the good news. He speaks of a great deliverance. “He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked” (20:13b). He applied this to himself.

What I like so much about this text, this conversation between Jeremiah and God, is that in words, the back and forth, Jeremiah begins to understand something very profound. Life is fragile, short, and often filled with struggle. The joy we receive is not status or wealth or reprieve from challenges. Everyone is faced with these, sinner and saint, all of us die and all of us hurt. Period. But those of us who find our purpose, our voice, our path with God, we have the joy of being part of God’s work, God’s covenant, God’s peace. Often in our frustration and anger with God we are led to this epiphany. “Why God do I suffer despite all my good works?” “Why God do I not succeed more despite all my faith in you?” “Why God are things not working out as I want, why are people not listening, why is the world still a mess?” And in this honest and open conversation comes wisdom, that being with God, in God and of God, is what bring us joy, what makes the vocation, even with its hardships, worthwhile and life-giving.

But we don’t get there without the grievance, without the honesty, without the real conversation. Piety works when all is well. But when things go south we need to follow a different path, one as described in the Psalms and practiced by Jeremiah. Thanks be to God for this Holy Conversation, this Holy Path and this sacred life. Amen.

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.

But the joke is on us. It turns out we lacked imagination, we lacked faith, or rather we placed too much faith in the status quo, common sense and what everyone says. And when what had been predicted does in fact come to pass the laugh is on us. We laugh again, but this time it is a laugh of thanksgiving and joy, how could we have been so foolish as to underestimate what God is doing in our lives?

Ten years ago I was serving a different church in the Halifax Presbytery and was asked to join a committee that was very short-staffed, the Pastoral Oversight Committee. This committee visits every church in HRM on a triannual basis, they do this for several reasons, to evaluate the good health of the congregation, to hear the joys of their ministry and to see what assistance the congregation needs to further improve its ministry. Often the Presbytery will set up meetings between churches doing well in one aspect of ministry with a church that is struggling in that same ministry. The Presbytery sends out teams of two, one clergy and one lay person. And guess what? Ten years ago I was the clergy person assigned to visit with Bethany.

I did all of the proper research to prepare for that meeting, I read all of the Annual Reports, the Newsletter, and the latest bulletins. We met with the clergy and the Ministry and Personnel Committee. And finally, we met with the large Executive Board. The questions were all standard, asking about how things were going, asking for a Bible story that would describe the current life of the church, what were the joys and what were the challenges of the congregation. At the end of the meeting I explained that there was one part of Bethany’s Ministry that really impressed me and I wondered whether this could be shared with other churches doing outreach. In particular I asked about the youth work and the work with seniors going on at Bethany. “Oh that’s what Ann does”, said one member of the Executive Board. “No”, I replied, it is the work of the whole church because “you support your staff in many ways so they can work with you to carry out your mission in the community.” The Board Member repeated, “You didn’t hear me. That is what Ann does.” I finished this topic with “I think Bethany is becoming a real outreach congregation.” The Board member laughed.

Fast forward five years and Bethany was looking for a new Minister and my friend Jamie Baillie, a member of this church, called me. He wanted me to know his church had just appointed a Search Committee and, “you would be an excellent Minister for us.” I was taken aback, I was/am quite liberal in theological matters and Bethany had a reputation for being quite traditional. I laughed. “There is no way Bethany would ever choose me to be their Minister. Guess who is laughing now?

Isn’t it interesting that despite the fact that we worship a dynamic and life-giving God who sends the Holy Spirit to change our lives we expect no surprises from God, no novelty, no violations of the world we have grown accustomed to living in. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once preached a brilliant sermon on humour and faith. He described humour as a “prelude to faith,” meaning that we need to be shaken free from our certainty to trust God’s new gift for us. The same human instinct that leads us to laugh at an arrogant person slipping on a banana peel is what can open us up to faith. That kind of humour can serve us very well in the everyday occurrences of our lives. It can help us avoid pretense and sham. It can be a guard against taking ourselves too seriously. If you have ever had a day in which everything was going wrong, and you were able, finally, to laugh at it all—at what you want and what you are actually getting—then you know what I mean.

Why did Sarah laugh? Sarah and Abraham have long since left the safety and security of home, and have been traveling on nothing but the promise of God for some time. Many adventures have taken place, and it has not been an easy journey either. They had packed up and set out, leaving the familiarity of home, and land, and family behind, with little more than a vague promise of blessing. There was a famine in Canaan, for example, so Abraham went down into Egypt for food. Abraham bargained with his nephew, Lot, for land. He went to war with four eastern kings. While Abraham fought, Sarah schemed. As her biological time clock ticked forward with no child, Sarah gave her maid Hagar to her husband that he might father a child by her, and Ishmael was born to Hagar. Again and again, God gives the promise, but again and again Sarah and Abraham try to make the promise happen for themselves, because God’s blessing just dangles unfulfilled, opening upon an uncertain future. And when she finally Abraham and Sarah had a child together they named him Isaac so that generations to come would remember her laughter in response to God’s unbelievable promise.

Many social scientists believe that the first human laughter, far back in antiquity, may have begun as a gesture of shared relief at the passing of some danger. Do you remember how Mother Teresa lived her faith among the poorest of the poor and the terminally ill? We now also know that she suffered long and terrible bouts of depression and doubt in the promises of God. Once she was being interviewed by a newspaper reporter who was finishing up his interview when it occurred to him to ask her a most practical question. “Given your ministry,” the reporter inquired, “what do you think the rest of us can do to live out a good life?” Fully expecting her to say something impossibly hard like, “Sell what you have and give it all to the poor,” Mother Teresa surprised him saying simply, “Smile at the people you live with and laugh.” The reporter was taken aback and pressed the issue. “That’s easy for you to say. You don’t face family pressures, or spend your days in common work places like others.” “Oh,” said Mother Teresa, “I live with Jesus. Believe me, he’s a hard person to live with.” To live with God is to smile at the people around us, to laugh at God’s impossible promises, because ultimately the joke’s on us. God’s promises are coming true. The gift of new life in the midst of death.

I wonder how many of us hear sacred words of blessing from others, people we know and people we have never met, and we laugh. We simply can’t believe something new is possible, that the certainty of today could lead to the new and surprising life of tomorrow. The same holds true for churches. Can Bethany find new life here or there, if someone told us we were becoming an outreach church would we laugh or would we pray about how that could be possible? And as a Minister am I willing to take seriously a promise, a suggestion, of new beginnings and new gifts in the Spirit? Will I laugh that such a promise is foolish and impossible or laugh when I see that God knows more than I do?

This is Father’s Day. Allow me to indulge in a little bit of thanksgiving and ask you to do likewise. Who in your life offers promises and possibilities we might have never considered part of reality? As many of you know I love to talk about my mother’s god works, her generous heart, and her passion for mission. She was the one who told me, “Whenever you see someone who is alone go there first.” My mother was a saint. But my mom was not a dreamer and certainly not one to think outside the box. My brothers and I learned never to laugh at a strange idea from our father who took us to the ditches of Nova Scotia to find our garden flowers. Our father walked and bused to work when no working person in Halifax I knew would do either. Our father never took the present as the future or the current certainty as Gospel. He taught us to keep open minds and expectant hearts, not to laugh at the odd but to embrace it as a possibility.

May the seeds God is planting in your imagination come to fruition, may some new promise of new life come to you from an unexpected voice, and may our laughter over God’s work in our lives be such that we marvel at what God can do, not dismiss out of hand the blessing of our life-giving Creator. This laugh is truly on us. Amen.

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...

March 26, 2017

Last Sunday in an excellent sermon by retired Minister Brian Brown we heard again the surprising ending to the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan. But before that ending there was a question from a lawyer. “What must we do to inherit eternal life?” Then came the story. And remember that the crucial part of the story was the surprise ending. It was not the lawyer or the Minister who stopped to help the Jewish man in the ditch. It was the hated Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans loathed each other. Although the lawyer who asked the question, as well as you and I here today, may prefer simple questions with simple answers that is not how God reveals truth...

March 12, 2017

Some time ago I attended a large United Church gathering that showcased the various Christian communities throughout the Maritimes. I went to the L’Arche presentation. The assistant who spoke to our group described the community as a place where women and men of different abilities live together as sisters and brothers. The assistants tend to be able-bodied and the residents live with some form of physical or mental challenge. But their way of relating to one another is the same as any family...

March 5, 2017

Clarence Jordan was a very clever man. He earned two Doctorate degrees, one in Agriculture and the other in Greek. As a white man living in the deep-south during the more tense days of segregation Jordan did something almost no Christian was doing, he lived in community with Christians of African-American background. As a result Jordan was threatened, the Christian community that he founded based on the Book of Acts (that included persons of difference races) was fire bombed and boycotted and had a Cross burned on their property. Jordan could certainly identify with the early disciples of Jesus...

February 26, 2017

My dear mother had a “calling” from God that began at an early age. She shared this with me, that throughout her life she felt God’s hand on her to be a missionary in a far off land doing Christ’s work. That is until she met my Dad. But even then she attempted to live this call by focusing her work as a teacher on special needs children. And then I came along. But even then she regrouped and lived out her call by parenting my brothers and I in a way that made us aware and connected to children living at Bonny Lea Farm and Rainbow Haven Camp. Every birthday party or summer project that she supervised included we three boys raising funds and awareness about children with special needs. And when we got older she would take us after church to visit those seniors who we isolated and lacking in friends and family...

February 19, 2017

In the movie Field of Dreams the central character Ray played by Kevin Costner is trying to decide whether he should sell his farm or turn it into a baseball field. As he discerns this crucial decision, central to his life, he is visited by persons who share what appear to be divine messages. One of these angelic messages comes from Terence Mann who is played by James Earl Jones. He says, “Ray. People will come, Ray. They'll come…for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children. They'll pass over money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers on a perfect afternoon…And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.”...

February 12, 2017

It all started with a PBS documentary on the life of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Then on a trip to Chicago with an old friend we walked the streets of the windy city with the aid of an architecture student, telling us about the various architects who had participated in rebuilding the downtown after the city’s great fire. I’ve since watched extensive interviews with famous architects and two films about architects; Sketches of Frank Gehry where Gehry credits his long time therapist with his creative work and My Architect that shares the search by a son for the presence of his famous father Louis Kahn in the buildings Kahn’s designed. I have become an avid fan of architecture, how buildings are designed, most importantly how the architect imprints a sense of purpose into the structure s/he creates...

February 5, 2017

On one cold winter evening in 2014 I was in a hurry to get to the bus that would take me home to Tantallon. I was then serving the good people of St. Andrew’s United Church in Halifax and thus I was running down Coburg Road, across South Park Street, to Spring Garden Road. As I passed the Lord Nelson hotel I saw a group of 7-10 young men, likely of Middle-Eastern background, handing out roses to persons along the sidewalk. This sight stopped me in my tracks and I had to find out what was going on. As I came to a halt one man looked me in the eye, smiled, handed me a rose and said, “please give this to your wife.” I was stunned, how did this man know I was married? But then I noticed he was starring at my wedding ring. I thanked him for the rose...

January 29, 2017

Randy and I met years ago when we planned a funeral together for a man from Advocate Harbour. I had more and darker hair then and he looked exactly like he does now, save for the fact that he no longer has a “perm”. Randy is ageless and I am convinced this has to do with a lingering sense of wonder he brings to life. When we sat down to figure out how we would work as colleagues in team ministry we first had to sort out our expectations. I like working with people who are not “dramatic” and Randy assured me I would not find him so. Randy had heard I was some kind of workaholic and wanted to know if I would expect the same of him. I assured him I would not...