August 18, 2019

Clarence Jordan (1912–1969), a farmer and New Testament Greek scholar, was the founder of Koinonia Farm, a small but influential religious community in southwest Georgia and the author of the Cotton Patch paraphrase of the New Testament. He was also instrumental in the founding of Habitat for Humanity. The farm itself was a demonstration plot for the kingdom of God, persons of colour and Jordan’s Southern Baptist kin worked and lived together. In that period of time such arrangements were highly provocative and the KKK would regularly burn crosses on their farm and local business people in southern Georgia would organize boycotts of the peanuts and pecans Koinonia sold. Koinonia was organized with the Book of Acts in mind, they shared all profits and prayers and worshipped together as family.

The boycotts were very effective and thus Jordan sought to supplement the income for the farm by traveling across the United States raising funds and awareness of what the kingdom of God could do in our midst. Once Clarence was given a tour of an immaculately built church by the senior pastor. As they neared the end of the tour and stepped outside, the pastor looked up at the cross on top of the steeple and said, “Dr. Jordan, even that cross up there cost us $10,000.” Clarence responded, “Well buddy you got cheated. There was a time when Christians could get one of those for free.”

Let me share some of the passage Dana read this morning from the Book of Exodus. I am reading from the paraphrased version The Message, translated into our current vernacular by Eugene Peterson.

When the people realized that Moses was taking forever in coming down off the mountain, they rallied around Aaron and said, “Do something. Make gods for us who will lead us. That Moses, the man who got us out of Egypt—who knows what’s happened to him?” So Aaron told them, “Take off the gold rings and bring them to me.” Aaron took the gold from their hands and cast it in the form of a calf.

Ched Myers, a profound and provocative Biblical scholar, says that the Exodus story of Israel being freed from slavery to new life is one of the central motifs of the Jewish and Christian stories. At heart this story is our story, it is who God is for us, who God is calling us to be and who God promises to be forever. Given our relative prosperity and security in western civilization we tend to overlook the Exodus story and focus on our happiness, long life and the hope we will be rewarded for our pious behavior. But Jesus is called Savior for a reason, he saves us from sin, from idols we are not fitted to serve, and he saves us for the freedom to love and build the kingdom.

God’s people are offered freedom from slavery and not long after they find their footing they are restless for other matters. Our story today reveals that in the absence of Moses the people turn to Aaron and demand something else and he obliges, he melts down their gold and makes for them an idol. The shiny object becomes their new purpose. Forget freedom and new life, we want the shiny object.

Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that this impulse is not unique to Christians, that it has been a human predicament for generations. “Long before there were preachers, churches, or even organized religions, there were essential human experiences of community and alienation, of connection and disconnection to the divine. You can find paintings of those experiences on the walls of prehistoric caves, and hear richly symbolic stories about them that pre-date written language. Different wisdom traditions give different names to those experiences and offer different understandings of them, but the experiences themselves are the realities that give rise to all the theories and definitions.”

Definitions are important and Taylor tries to make clear what sin is by referencing when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek and the word chatah was understood as “missing the mark”. According to Taylor this definition of sin was carried forward into the New Testament. Sin then is this universal alienation, our separateness from whom we truly are, when we miss the mark and connect ourselves to a purpose that is neither life-giving nor sustaining of our human spirit. Taylor believes all of us find ourselves in this space of missing the mark. “Everyone is vulnerable to sickness and very few people avoid being sick at some time in their lives.”

And why would we “miss the park” of Exodus and new life and instead turn to dead idols that shine with a golden finish? Taylor says there is a deep fear in all of us that doing the right thing, being connected to our true selves, this may not be enough. “Do you remember that great line from the old movie Charade, when Audrey Hepburn turns to Cary Grant and asks him, why do people lie? People lie, he says, because they want something and fear that the truth will not get it for them. If he had been a preacher instead of a movie star, he might have said, People sin because they want something and fear that goodness will not get it for them.

So what is this condition of sin like? Taylor says, “In theological language, the choice to remain in wrecked relationship with God and other human beings is called sin. The choice into the process of repair is called repentance, an often bitter medicine with the undisputed power to save lives.” Taylor says our present day language for dealing with painful decisions and outcomes is either the medical or legal framework. Both of these are useful, human and beneficial. But they are not sufficient. Medical frameworks for bad decisions help explain the situation neglect the reality “we still have pockets of God-given freedom” and strictly legal understanding of bad decisions give us a false sense that sin can be simplified to good and bad behaviors to be legislated. Rather, Taylor believes sin is a lack of faith in the outcome of goodness, the lack of hope that when we live like freed slaves we can have confidence that God will provide and what we desire will come to pass.

Taylor concludes this section of her book on sin with this assertion, “the essence of sin is not the violation of laws but the violation of relationships. Punishment is not paramount. Restoration is paramount. Restoration of relationship is paramount, which means that the focus is not on paying debts but on recovering fullness of life.” In short it is not about tit for tat, punishment for sin, guilt for misdeeds but rather finding our way back to the covenant, the understanding that life is a gift and freedom is a gift and returning to our true state is the path to deeper joy.

Christian theology is neither no-fault nor full-fault. We do wrong, but we do not do wrong all alone. We live in a web of creation that binds us to all other living things. If we want to be saved, then we had better figure out how to do it together, since none of can resign from this web of relationships. Meanwhile, sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again.

In our current culture we often know what is good and choose not to follow through for fear being good will not be enough. Sin reminds us that choosing something other than goodness comes at a cost. And being aware of that cost can be like an alarm bell that sounds and calls us to safer ground. We believers can testify and witness to what goodness can do. Goodness is not easy and there are challenges. But deep down we know that we have come to the other side where freedom reigns. This place of goodness is the promised land, it is kingdom-living, it is our best selves. The golden calves are shiny and captivating but they offer no life, no relationship and no hope.

Whatever we do with this building, however shiny it is, it will never compare to how we help each other find new life in goodness. Join me. Together we will get to the promised land. Amen.

August 11, 2019

When I graduated from seminary in 1990 we ordained clergy were told that while we were not certified professionals in matters of counselling, addiction, mental health, abuse, etc…we should be aware of resources in our communities to utilize in the event we encountered persons who disclosed their specific trauma. I recall certified professionals in a variety of fields coming in to our classrooms and sharing some of the wisdom they had accumulated over many years of practice. They did not expect us to absorb it all, one of them told us, “You clergy are not certified professional counselors but you have more training than the average person and you are often on the front lines of those disclosing challenges. The important thing to remember is that you can always refer people to the professionals, your role is spiritual support.”

In my first pastoral charge I remember standing in the post office to get my mail for the first time. I had only arrived in the community a few weeks earlier. I was aware of a tall man, about the age I am now, he was dressed in a white shirt, white pants and white shoes. He overheard my conversation with the post-master and he stepped toward me and introduced himself. He told me he was from town, about a ten-minute drive from the villages I served. He asked me what denomination I represented and when I answered “United Church” he told me that in town he had been baptized, married, and made an Elder in a United Church. At that moment I realized he was holding on to a formal cap and it was then I knew why he was dressed as he was. This man was a Salvation Army Officer.

The Officer waited a moment and then, in a quiet voice, said “I don’t go to the United Church anymore, I belong to the Salvation Army.” There was a pause. Finally, he added, “Do you want to know why?” I responded, “Only if you want to share.” This tall man took a breath and then began, “I had children, a wife and a good job. The church chose me to be an Elder. But over time my drinking became an issue and I lost control of myself and my drinking. I lost my job, then my family and soon people began avoiding me at church. They didn’t know what to say or do. Eventually I stopped going. Over time I joined AA and I knew I needed to find a church where I could be open about my struggles and share my story. I found that in the Salvation Army, their worship services included testimonies and there I heard people sharing stories like mine. It wasn’t that the United Church people didn’t care, they did, but they were embarrassed for me and I know to this day whenever they see me they remember what happened back then. The interesting thing is this, because I was able to be honest about my situation at the Citadel we were able to move forward, they did not get stuck in the past and neither did I.”

I am sure this man hurt a lot of people; his employer, his family, his friends. He told me he offered confession and apology and most of all, he offered to change, to repent. My good friend, a colleague in ministry, tells me that those who are hurt by the sins of others are under no obligation to accept, only to hear. I do not walk in the shoes of those whom have been hurt in these ways. As my friend tells me, “God hears, God knows the contrite heart, God knows what it true repentance. For the one who must offer words of contrition it is important to say them. For those who hear them there may be forgiveness or there may not be. But the one who has taken responsibility then gets to move forward, because whether the apology is accepted or not, it allows the one who needs to be freed from guilt the opportunity to move forward, to repent, and be free. Hopefully the words of apology are freeing for the one who has been hurt, but for the one who has need for repentance, the act itself, the honesty and transparency, this is life-giving.”

New Testament scholar, prolific author and former Bishop Tom Wright says of our Gospel text this morning (Luke 5:27-32) “Tax collectors are never popular, but in Jesus’ day it was worse. They were extortionists. And, more than that: they were working for the Romans, or for Herod, and their necessary contact with Gentiles put them under political suspicion (collaborating with the enemy) and ritual exclusion (they might be unclean). It’s significant when Levi throws a party, most of the others present are, like him, tax collectors. They had to befriend each other, since most ordinary folks wouldn’t have anything to do with them. Jesus broke into that world, as he broke into the leper’s sealed-off universe with a single touch, summoning Levi to leave his world and follow him…Jesus’ job is to call sinners to repentance. No longer are people to be placed in two categories, with no movement possible between them. The new age is breaking in and this new age is the time of repentance…This is a party—the first of many in Luke’s Gospel—and like all Jesus’ parties it is a sign of the new age. It is, for those with eyes to see, a miniature messianic banquet.”

Barbara Brown Taylor, the author of the text that informs this summer preaching series, believes what the church can offer our broken world is a model of repentance. The world we live in has made wonderful strides in the legal and medical treatment of brokenness; the means of addressing the harm we cause one another has been furthered by innovations like the Mental Health courts, restorative justice and skilled mediators, not to mention the medical advances in drug therapies, counselling techniques and meditation. We have come a long way! But while Taylor supports all of that she suggests deep down people who have harmed others and been harmed by others need a ritual, a spiritual outlet, a means of confession and forgiveness. In short people need repentance.

She writes, “What people can do, is to describe the experience of sin and its aftermath so vividly that others can identify its presence in their own lives, not as a chronic source of guilt, nor as sure proof that they are inherently bad, but as part of their individual and collective lives that is crying out for change.” Further she adds, “We seem to have abandoned our own language for dealing with human failure in favor of the medical and legal frameworks…And our own language needs to be clarified, lest we fall back into bad habits like treating human failure like Sabbath breaking and image-making, both once punishable by death. That is not the deeper healing power of repentance, not in the Old or the New Testaments.”

I can personally testify to the truth of these words. In my 29 years of ordered ministry only once have I found myself apologizing from the pulpit and it was both right and appropriate I did so. I had only recently arrived at a previous church and was arrogant enough to think I knew who they were, and thus without a Christ-like Spirit I had listed the various challenges facing that congregation. My description was unflattering and without much first-hand experience. People were understandably upset. Without hesitation I apologized, both to those directly affected and to the church as a whole. Some accepted my words, some did not. The apology allowed me and them the chance to move forward. Repentance was a gift. In the years that followed my tone of humility remained and the church grew, both numerically and spiritually. Still there was something missing, at least for me. I remember a conversation with a counsellor some time later, we discussed the situation and she knew the affection the church had grown to have for me. She was confused why I was not quite settled. I once again shared the story, and left out none of my sins, the ways I had acted arrogantly. Finally, she smiled and responded, “You are waiting for an apology yourself, for some of the very mean things that were said to you. I am afraid the chances of that happening now, several years later, are slim. I suggest you consider moving on.”

I remember that conversation like it was yesterday. Years later I attend workshops on repentance and whenever colleagues share the terrible things churches have said or done to them I am the first to confess that my conflict was entirely of my own creation. I was at fault 100%. Whenever I do this the room gets very quiet. And usually as the gathering moves on others will begin to share their own shortcomings. Humility is a gift. Repentance is a gift. Confession is a gift. Sharing these gifts may not result in forgiveness and that is no judgement on those who choose not to forgive. But these gifts do free our souls for the work of redemption, for the work of salvation, for the freedom to experience new life.

Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

This is very, very good news. A banquet table where we can be real, be flawed, be humble and be contrite. And where we can share in heavenly food and divine company and know we are loved. Thanks be to God. Amen.

August 4, 2019

My August preaching series will focus on Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation. "Sin," according to Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and noted preacher, "is our only hope, the fire alarm that wakes us up to the possibility of true repentance." Many would argue with this proposition. Mainline Protestants all across the country are tired of hearing about sin and salvation...

June 30, 2019

Lucy often asks me about what it was like when I was her age. She specifically wanted to know about my part-time jobs when I was in school. Like most young people of that era I worked as a paperboy. My last “paperboy” job was standing on the corner of Oxford/Liverpool Streets selling newspapers to drivers on their way to work. I remember the first time I laid eyes on the New Hampshire license plate...

June 23, 2019

“What is the world coming to?” Have you heard this question before? It won’t surprise you that I hear this in many visits where nostalgia is a common theme. It might surprise you to know this comment comes from all age groups, both genders, long-standing members of the community and recent arrivals. The comment is rooted in an assumption that things used to be “normal” or at least closer to how they “should” be...

June 16, 2019

When we experience true suffering, the kind that results in the dark nights of the soul, our most burning question is almost always: “Why?” “Why is this happening to me? To someone I love? Why is this happening right now? Why did this have to happen this way?” Another question that arises from suffering is, “how can I find healing in this challenging time?”...

June 9, 2019

John 13

During supper Jesus…got up from the table took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him...

May 19, 2019

Revelation 21:1-6 The Message

I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband...

May 12, 2019

Recently we have hosted a few weddings and funerals at Bethany. If you happened to be walking through this building you may have heard someone read Psalm 23. At weddings the most popular scripture story is 1 Corinthians 13 and at funerals it is John 14. But coming a close second for both rituals is Psalm 23. I think people love this reading because it brings an element of constant and abiding peace...

May 5, 2019

Many of you know “our Ann” is well versed in all matters related to food and nutrition. We like to tease Ann about that. Correction, I like to tease Ann about that. You might hear me asking her if there is anything she eats without kale as an ingredient. But all teasing aside what we eat has to have an impact on how we feel inside and outside our bodies. It has to...

April 28, 2019

As many of you know I am not a participant in the facebook experience. You will not find me there. Still I know that world can bring many good things to life. Recently I attended an event on mental health that had no conventional advertising, no posters, no ads, no notices in the paper. I was worried no one would be there, I was ready to console the organizer...

April 14, 2019

Two weeks ago we said goodbye to our friends Grace and Les. This week I was referred to two families, one grieving the loss of a mother, the other living through the loss of a father. The referrals came as a result of family members being present at a funeral where I offered some leadership. Sometimes you just show up at the right time to walk on rocky ground with people who are hurting...

April 7, 2019

Many of you remember a golden time for the church. Many of you remember a time when everyone you knew went to church. The church then was the centre of a community’s life; young people accessed recreation programs, older people put on plays and sang in musical groups, Sunday Schools were huge, they had to be managed like a School Board...

March 31, 2019

My all-time favorite Bible study method is one I learned in Washington DC from a very intense Biblical scholar. Ched had a room full of clergy and roles for all of us, each one of us was to be a character in a Gospel story. As Ched read the text we would act out our part, the emotions on our faces, our body movements, how we interacted with each other, this is how we brought the story to life...

March 17, 2019

Mohandas Gandhi once remarked, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Even within the church some of us may find ourselves agreeing with this statement because human beings so often disappoint us. When someone points to the mishaps of a professed Christian as a reason not to embrace the faith...

March 10, 2019

Jesus ate nothing during those days, and when the time was up he was hungry. The Devil, playing on his hunger, gave him a test: “Since you’re God’s Son, command this stone to turn into a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered by quoting scripture: “It takes more than bread to really live...

March 3, 2019

Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of this mountaintop encounter, what we commonly call “the Transfiguration Sunday”. Over the years most of the sermons I have read, heard or preached on the Transfiguration have taken one of two tacks. One has been a focus on the glorification of Jesus as he becomes dazzlingly radiant before Peter, James and John...