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 each of us had very different experiences of gathering around the supper table. In Kim’s family all four of them were present at the appointed time, all four were involved in the preparation and the serving of the meals and everyone sat around the same time, quietly, with grace to start and then the passing of the various dishes. When everyone was served, and only then, would the eating begin, soon followed by the sharing of how your day had been. Each person would take their turn, speak slowly and deliberately, and share every detail of their day. No one left the table until everyone was finished their meal. It was rare for any guest to be at the table, these gatherings were for the immediate family.

In my family the only common experience with the Footes was the Grace before the meal, “God is grace, God is good, thank you for our food, Amen.” Given the busy schedules all five of us had it was common for the meal to begin with two or three people. My mother cooked all the meals, served all the meals, cleaned up after all the meals. Sometimes we began at the table, but most days the table was jammed full of stuff so we took our plates to the living room, watching TV and made observations about what we were watching, If we shared anything about our day it was only details and you had to speak quickly, if there was a pause another family member would finish your sentence. The same was true if you left food on your plate, if you left it there too long beware! Someone might put it on their own plate. So we all ate quickly, we were all going somewhere else, and we were often wearing a sports uniform ready to be driven to a practice or game.

Two major differences between Kim’s family suppers and the Little meal times were the guests who showed up and the quality of the sharing. There were many guests my family would invite, usually without notice. My mother never knew who was going to show up and she herself would invite people who were lonely and going through difficult times. But I will say that these guests, our wild and chaotic family, did not share the quality of information I heard at Kim’s family table. I never had any idea how the day had gone for any member of my family and we never really did hear from our guests. They felt welcome, they were included and they were not alone. But there was little opportunity to share.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” God gives us bread and gives to us daily. But the meals themselves have symbolism and significance far beyond the actual bread. Food nourishes the body, we cannot live without food. But meals are more than food and no one demonstrated the sacred power of meals more than Jesus. Remember that when Jesus tells the story of his encounter with the Confuser he is offered all of the bread in the world and responds with, “One does not live by bread alone.” Moreover Jesus tells his disciples that when he is physically gone from their presence they can always experience him in a deep way by sharing in the bread and wine. The early church, worshipping in people’s homes, went further, not only did they share in a formal ritual that came to be the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper they also ate together as a community, as a family. Refugees and long-standing members of the community, men and women, widows and families, the sick and the healthy, rich and poor, landowners and slaves, they called themselves sisters and brothers. And when they ate their “daily bread” they gave thanks to God and found in their communal meal the presence of the Saviour.

Whether it is the feeding of the five thousand or Jesus revealed as stranger after his crucifixion and resurrection or his numerous instructions to hosts of a feast, Jesus insists that his presence is felt most deeply when everyone is around the table, not just those we know and those who have done for us. The bread is a gift and thus an instrument of grace. We do not receive the bread because we are good, we receive the bread because of an unconditional love. Our response is thanksgiving and what better way to celebrate than to share in a meal. And what better way to remind ourselves that we are at the table because we are loved than to invite those who would not normally be invited by our success/status drive culture (Luke 14:7-14).

N.T. (Tom) Wright, Bishop, scholar and prolific author says that meals, celebrations, are often Holy occasions for coming together, that what was broken has now been put back together. “The banquet, the party, is a sign that God is acting at last, to rescue God’s people and wipe away all tears from all eyes.” The presence of those who have their tears wiped away is a sign of God’s healing presence, eating together as a family reinforces the nature of community, of family.

The story of the Prodigal Son is an example of how a broken relationship, having been healed, is cemented with a meal, in this case with a party. “Jesus is offering all this daily bread…which means in this story, Let the party continue…”

William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas reference the way bread opens us up to the deeper realities of our lives, the spiritual dimension of humankind. Luke records, “Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him (Jesus).” “When we want to meet God, we Christians don’t go up to a high mountain, do not rummage around in our psyches, do not hold hands and sing Kum Ba Yah in the hope of revelation. We gather and break bread in Jesus’ name.” It is fascinating to me how breaking bread often breaks us open to the presence of God, of that mystery and source of love that bring forth our true selves. Isn’t it amazing how often persons in conflict with one another, in deep disagreement, sitting around a table of abundance and sharing, listening, and being bonded together in a new and unexpected way?

People often ask me how we at Bethany can live out our mission in 2017. Isaiah 43:19 says, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” My conviction is that church mission comes from the talents and gifts God has given to the church members. Ministers don’t impose mission, even gifted church consultants can’t do that. What Ministers and consultants can do is listen and observe what gifts God has given to the local church and articulate that back to the congregation and hope that this inspires further and deeper efforts. I have observed that Bethany people like Bethany people. It is a sight to behold. There is bread, there is community and there is deep sharing. As new people come to our community my prayer, my hope, is that we make room for them as you have made room for me. That we will see the newcomer as we might welcome Elijah or Jesus or a Fraser or a MacLean. Let’s have more parties, more gatherings where we come together and get to know each other with broken bread, sharing what is on our broken hearts. As sure I am standing here in this black gown the healing and life-giving Jesus is here when we come together and receive our daily bread.

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him (Psalm 34:8). Amen.

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.

This was NOT the image I carried of the Lord’s Prayer when I was a child, an adolescent or an adult. Throughout most of my life when I heard the expression, “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven” I was aware of two different interpretations. On one hand there were those I called the “escapists” who believed that one day, in the sweet by and by, all injustices would be made right. Thy Kingdom would come, but not until the next life, Heaven, and we could only wait with eager anticipation for that utopia to come true. To those living through slavery, drudgery, a painful life, such a conception of Thy Kingdom come must have felt like a Divine escape, to leave behind the wretchedness of the now for the beauty and truth of tomorrow.

But the more familiar and attractive interpretation of Thy Kingdom come was summed up in Tommy Douglas’ familiar speech, “To build a New Jerusalem”, that is naming our task as the building of this New Jerusalem, God’s Kingdom, brick by brick, until one day the world we know with all its warts will be that shining city on a hill imagined by Jesus himself. That is what I thought of when I repeated the Lord’s Prayer, reciting the line “Thy Kingdom come”, that one day we will get there. Martin Luther King Jr. would often say that “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward Justice.”

When I was in seminary studying to become a Minister the dominant theology of the time for mainline churches was Liberation Theology. To sum up Liberation Theology believes that God is not neutral in the world, God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. If you want to understand where God is in the world you need only look for the poor and oppressed and find God on their side. And this theology fit well with my notion of Thy Kingdom come being built, one brick at a time, one social change at a time, one economic change at a time, until one day, perhaps quite some time in the future, our great, great, great grandchildren would live to see the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God, become a reality.

I asked a former colleague of mine who once worked in a very economically challenged country, a place known as a hotbed of Liberation Theology in the 1980’s, why churches there were turning their backs on Liberation Theology and instead focusing on that uniquely American theology called the Prosperity Gospel. His answer surprised me, he said that if you were a very poor family and one group of Christians came along and told you that one day God would liberate you and all of the poor of this land but not for many generations and another group of Christians came along and said if you believe in the literal truth of the Bible, if you believe God has a plan for you to be wealthy, if you work hard, be loyal to your family, you can escape poverty now, which group of Christians do you think the poor family will join? The truth is whatever you think of a theology that suggests God wants everyone to be wealthy by asking the people to work hard and be loyal to their families this group of Christians is suggesting a small change in behavior that can make some difference in a family’s livelihood, wealth or no wealth. People crave the presence of the Kingdom now, in their lifetime.

It was about that time I came to read Tom Wright’s and William Willimon/Stanley Hauerwas’ books on The Lord’s Prayer and the way they interpreted the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God was not as escape from the ugliness of present times or the long wait for the coming New Jerusalem. Rather it was an event, an experience that occurred when Jesus was alive, when the presence of Jesus came among us and we celebrated together as God’s people. Jesus had told us that he would be present in the sacred meal, in the people as we shared in a gathering that turned the wisdom of our present world on its head.

Wright points out that the people in Jesus’ time were searching for a King and for a Kingdom. “Jesus contemporaries were longing for God to become King. They were fed up with the other kings they’d had for long enough. As far as they were concerned the Roman Emperors were a curse, and the Herodian dynasty was a joke. It was time for the true God, the true King, to step into history, to take the power and the glory, and claim the Kingdom in God’s holy name.” And this anticipation of a King and a Kingdom had long been foretold, hear Isaiah, “There will be a highway in the wilderness; the valleys and mountains will be flattened out; the glory of God shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Jesus took Isaiah’s kingdom-message and set about implementing it. Somehow Jesus seemed to be saying, through his strange work the kingdom was appearing, even though it didn’t look like people had imagined.

And how do we know that Jesus and his Kingdom is present in our world?  William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas write, “When we see Jesus healing people, casting out demons, we are to know that the kingdom of God has come upon you. Mark 1:14-15 says Now after John was arrested Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news. Faith in Jesus is not simply an idea or emotion, it is a concrete reality that we are joining forces with.” In times of inclusive celebration, in times of healing, in times of unexpected good news, we experience the Kingdom.

Hauerwas and Willimon suggest that how we practice our citizenship in this kingdom is as important as the oath we take to join it. “To say Your Kingdom come, is to be willing to become part of the rather weird gathering of strange people, often people whom the world regards as outsiders, who are now in the inside with Jesus. One of the most persistent criticisms of Jesus was the charge that he hung out with disreputable people. Hear Matthew 9:10-13 (The Message) Later when Jesus was eating supper at Matthew’s house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. When the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus’ followers. “What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riffraff?” Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.”

You know that Jesus wants us to build this kingdom now. You know from every chapter in the Gospels, from the Book of Acts, that Jesus wants us a Christians to be participants in the cause of justice, to be on the side of the poor and the oppressed, to set the captives free. But as we work for the Kingdom to be real to more and more people surely we can take the time to experience Thy Kingdom come now, on earth as it is in Heaven.

My friends I have seen this Kingdom alive here at Bethany. Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven has come to this little piece of earth and you and I have seen it with our own eyes. Perhaps you have something else in mind, perhaps you’ve been looking for what our world calls Thy Kingdom come and thus you are missing the Kingdom as it has come alive here and now. Perhaps you’re looking for a full church, full of the right people, with a full choir and shiny well-kept building, where everything matches and everything is just so. But I imagine Thy Kingdom come right here on earth as it is in Heaven when someone loses a loved one and the church is there to offer unconditional, sustaining and unrelenting love. I’ve seen this Kingdom come when someone who did not look like or talk like most of our church community walked into a Christmas service and you treated him like a brother. I’ve seen this Kingdom come when a group of 40+ amateurs came together to be in a play, filling all of us with a sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves. And I’ve seen this Kingdom come at the early Christmas Eve service when the most amazing readers in church you’ve ever heard bring the story of Mary and Joseph to life.

I leave you with the words of Willimon and Hauerwas, “The Christian faith is kingdom based, always leaning into the future, standing on tiptoes, eager to see what God is bringing to birth among us.” Amen.

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 that would eventually become a large scale Hydro-electric dam. I was paid well for that work but Frontier College placed me there to provide free tutoring on basic literacy for the largely immigrant work force. When that intense experience came to an end I did not know what to do, I had saved all of my income and I could reply on UIC to continue a steady flow of revenue but I had no purpose, no place to go. That’s when my old friend Matt wrote to invite me to live with him and three other Mennonites in downtown Winnipeg.

Matt invited me into his Mennonite world which included Friday night gatherings of young couples, most who had met at the Mennonite Bible College. These persons, all my age, held similar views on matters of faith but their upbringing as Mennonites were all very different than my own in the mainline church. My own experience of faith was largely individual in orientation, I went to a church but the members were not “family”, they were akin to fellow members of a club. I knew them and they knew me and based on what I did and they did we related to each other in doing “the Lord’s work”.

But these Mennonites had grown up a minority in Canada, indeed their feelings about Canada was somewhat mixed. Canada had given them freedom and security but we had not always respected their pacifism. Mennonites saw themselves less as good Canadians and more as Christians, loyal to Jesus above all. Further, their connection to each other was less about a club and more about a world-wide movement. Thus these young people, unlike me, had all given a year or two of service in a global context, not to converting people but to witnessing to their faith by offering their skills in agriculture and public education. These Friday night gatherings were opportunities for these believers to share what they were learning, living out their faith, and putting their gifts into practice in the community, around the world.

I have read two excellent books to try and understand The Lord’s Prayer, one by two of my favorite authors Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon Lord, Teach Us, The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life and the other by Bishop NT (Tom) Wright The Lord & His Prayer. Hauerwas and Willimon spend a lot of their first chapter on the word “Our”, specifically writing about what we mean when we say that word in the prayer. In our mainline churches we often focus on our own individual walk with Jesus and when we think of “us” or “our” we are thinking less of sisters and brothers in Christ and more of those we know, those who are our kin, those in the church we like. They write, “Think of Christianity, not primarily as a set of doctrines, a volunteer organization, or a list of appropriate behaviours. Think of Christianity as naming a journey of a people.”

In other words “Our” is a state of mind, a collective understanding that we are in this together, that we seek to live out, to witness to, our faith. “Our Father, who art in Heaven” is a way of saying that we set out on this journey together, and together we will live out this prayer, this faith, in our community, in our world. Another insight from Hauerwas and Willimon is that the early church used this prayer to instruct new believers in how to live out their faith. Again, these new followers of Jesus would be instructed that they are organically connected to a global, world-wide movement, all of us related by a common parentage in God whom some call Father and some Mother. It is simply not enough to call God my personal Father or Mother, this Holy Parent has many children, myself being only one of them. We are in this together. “Salvation, Christian salvation, is not some individual relationship between me and God. Rather, salvation is being drafted into an adventure, having our lives commandeered by God to go on a journey called the Christian faith. This prayer, this Our Father, is the naming of, and the participation in, the means whereby we are saved.” Regarding other faiths Hauerwas and Willimon are clear, “What God does for Buddhists and Hindus is God’s business. All we can do in the Lord’s Prayer is to testify to God, and anyone else who will listen, how God has dealt with us.”

In short Hauerwas and Willimon want us to understand that when we say “Our” we are not being possessive. The danger in taking the “Our” into our hearts as “Our friends” and “Our country” and “Our family” is that it domesticates our dynamic and transformational God. It is God who has befriended all of us, not we who have chosen God. “It is comforting to know that even though you don’t always feel like a Christian, though you don’t always act like a Christian, much less believe like a Christian, your relationship as a friend of God is not based on what you have felt, done or believed. Rather, you are a friend of God because of God’s choice of you in Jesus through the church…The journey with God is not a test to see if we can make the grade with God and be good enough to be friends with God. The journey with God begins with God in Christ calling us friends, inviting us to go because God wants us to be part of the journey. Friendship with God is the name of the journey rather than the destination.”

Finally, Hauerwas and Willimon suggest that the term “Heaven” with reference to the location of God has an important part to play in how we see Our Mother/Father God as not only our own. “Most of the time it is difficult for us to see much beyond ourselves. God tends to take a larger view. Looking at the world, God’s view is not limited to our national boundaries. Heaven provides a good vantage point for the whole picture.”

Bishop NT (Tom) Wright focuses his attention on this first portion of The Lord’s Prayer on the word “Father”. Wright’s attention to this word has less to do with gender and more to do with what a parent would want for her/his child. Specifically Wright grounds his analysis of this word in the Old Testament, the roots of our faith. “The first occurrence in the Hebrew Bible of the idea of God as Father comes when Moses marches in boldly to stand before the Pharaoh, and says: Thus says Yahweh: Israel is my son, my firstborn, let my people go, that they may serve me (Exodus 4:21-22).” As Wright points out, those the world saw as slaves were in God’s eyes daughters and sons”. If we are all truly children of a living God then no one can hold us down, thwart our freedom to be whom we are called to be, to categorize us in any way that makes us appear less than any other son or daughter of God. “The very first words of the Lord’s Prayer therefore contain within them not just intimacy, but revolution. Not just familiarity; hope.”

As Wright points out, “The word Father, then, concentrates our attention on the doubly revolutionary message and mission of Jesus…we are called to step out; as apprentice children, into a world of pain and darkness.”

My friends our call in this familiar prayer is not to become piously holy or even kinder and gentler or even to find comfort. Our call in this most formative of prayers is to let the words transform us, change us, make us new. This is our prayer, this prayer is for us to say together, in community, in our family of faith. We say this prayer to remind us who and whose we are. This prayer is our passport, it is our identity, and it is our mission, to set the captives free, to be free to serve this God who calls us friend, who calls us son or daughter, who calls us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. “Our Faither/Mother, who art in Heaven”. “We are not alone…we live in God’s world.” Amen.

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.”...