August 19, 2018

Yesterday we celebrated the life of the late Doris Phillips, many of you knew her. Her husband Bill is here every Sunday and most everyone in Halifax knows Bill! To help me shape the theme and tone of the celebration I met with Bill and his two sons Dave and Peter. What they shared with me were stories about Doris that described someone who witnessed to a love she felt for nature, for friends, for new experiences and for her kin. I was struck by the difference in this conversation as opposed to many I have about someone who has died. No one in the room was trying to convince me or themselves that Doris merited a celebration, that she had earned some honour, or that this celebration would be a litany of her achievements and accomplishments. Rather, the description offered was one of witness, what Doris saw she engaged, she entered into, she came to be part of life.

In Christopher Morse’s book The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News the heaven that is described is less a building where those deemed worthy go and received their eternal reward and more a given way of living that God gives to us as a gift, here on earth, that we are called to witness and live out. Morse says this gift that we receive often comes in the form of parables, a mysterious story about real persons doing real things that don’t always make sense in our “real” world. Morse says it begs the question, what is the “real” world anyway? If heaven calls us to live differently than the “world” or our current culture demands we believers in Jesus are forced to make a decision, to choose between heaven and what is. Thus Jesus’ words, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If the kingdom is coming, if it is real in heaven, then surely our calling as Christians is to witness the reality of this kingdom as it comes to earth as it has in heaven.

Morse writes, “the teachings of Jesus contain the heavenly state of affairs that are at hand not in hand. This is expressed in parables, as Matthew 13:34 explains, Jesus told the crowds all things come in parables, without a parable he told them nothing. Jesus used parables because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” In other words, for us to truly comprehend the message of Jesus one must hear with a new clarity, see with a new vision, understand with a new heart and a new mind.

Morse further points to Paul’s letter to the Galatians chapter 4, verses 4-6 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son…in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” There is also Galatians 1:4 Jesus came to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. “This invasion of God has come to liberate us from the powers of the present evil age…the gospel is not about human movement into blessedness; it’s about God’s liberating invasion of the cosmos.”

And what do these parables of heaven reveal to us about heaven? Morse says that “the imminence of heaven comes in ordinary, earthly realities such as a sower of seed, a grain of mustard seed when it is sowed, leaven in bread, treasure in a hidden field, a merchant seeking pearls, a fishing net, a king seeking to settle accounts, a householders seeking to hire labourers, a royal host inviting guests to a wedding feast, or ten bridesmaids with their lamps going at night to meet the bridegroom.” There is a clear sense in these parables of seeking, of the intent to redeem, of the surprise that comes when it is smallest, the least, the most unlikely, who is being sought and who offers a reflection of the kingdom, of heaven.

Hear these words of scripture:

Matthew 13:16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.

Mark 4:9 And Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Mark 8:18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?

To know this Jesus, to understand this kingdom, to experience this heaven one must see differently, ear differently than the way we have been taught. There is a required adjustment, a realignment, a new lens, a new heart, a new mind. And we are called, with this new vision, to be discerning and open and watchful of the heaven that is at hand, not in hand.

Karl Barth is arguably the great theologian of the 20th century. His works of theology have stood the test of time and he is frequently referenced by the great theologians of our time. Before he was writing dense texts of theology Barth served as a country pastor and Morse was able to find an old sermon when Barth shared with his country parish his understanding of this heaven. “And when heaven comes to us it brings the higher world down to the lower. It is the kingdom in which the kingship means that the forces of what is in principle the unseen and heavenly world assume form and enter the earthly world and become active in it.”

When I was Lucy’s age I was obsessed with coins and treasurers that had been covered with layers of dirt/earth over time. I had this metal detector and would go to Point Pleasant Park, beaches, public places, and place the detector over the surface I was covering on foot. I would spend hours and hours, unfortunately all I ever recovered were a few quarters and some rather worthless rings and watches. To this day I now walk with one eye to those passing by or coming the other way and the other eye on the ground, looking for “treasure” people have dropped or tossed away. I will tell you I have found a lot of money over the years! But I want you to know the most amazing things, people, experiences I have found were heavenly ones, when I witnessed heaven in my midst, when I saw/heard Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. I remain vigilant, aware of what is going on around me, and eager to engage what God is placing in my path, our path. I pray you will feel likewise, that you will know this heaven and want to engage it, witness to it and celebrate it. Heaven is like a buried treasure, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. Indeed, it is. Amen.

August 5, 2018

About ten years ago I was asked to attend a gathering in Toronto of United Church congregations that were experiencing significant numerical growth. I was out in the suburbs at that time and our church had begun to focus its considerable gifts and enthusiasm around the mission of outreach...

June 17, 2018

A colleague of mine spent his sabbatical time looking at Jesus’ agricultural metaphors and finding more urban appropriate examples. Let’s face it most people today either live in an urban area or are moving there. Understanding the parables, the stories, the deeper truths of Jesus can be complicated by this shift of context...

June 10, 2018

A good friend of mine recently conducted a survey of churches in his small city. He called all of the churches, big and small, all denominations, and he called late at night so no one would be in the office. My friend wanted to hear all of the voicemails, and he did...

June 3, 2018

In our lesson from Samuel, we hear about a boy called to fill the vacuum left by priests who had so thoroughly abandoned their calling that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (1 Sam. 3:1). The sons of Eli were blaspheming God by using their position to fleece people who were just trying to worship God...

May 13, 2018

Presbyterian pastor and writer Mark Davis offers us a menu of possibilities when it comes to the definition of “world” in John’s Gospel. We’ve all heard references to “the world” in the Gospels, moreover we’ve heard these references in sermons and everyday conversation...

April 29, 2018

Some time ago at one of the first Faith Studies I led I asked each of the small groups that gathered in a different section of the church, “What are the different denominations you have experienced in a worship service?” The responses were mostly ones you might expect...

April 22, 2018

When I was a QEH high-school student I used to travel on the bus with this student from the west end. As our senior year was drawing to a close I asked him what his plans were for the coming academic year, would he go to a Community College, go to university, join the workforce or travel...

April 15, 2018

You are witnesses of these things. Luke 24:48

I was standing by the bus stop at Scotia Square waiting for my ride back to Tantallon. I was approached by a former parishioner and we talked for some time. When the bus pulled up I was surprised he wanted the conversation to continue...

April 8, 2018

If I were to ask you to identify someone you previously knew, someone whose very presence made others “better”, who brought out the best in everyone, who embodied an energy so good you wanted to be with her/him every opportunity you could, who would that be? Let me hasten to add this...

April 1, 2018

Resurrection is a complex, mysterious, and head-scratching word. What does it mean? When ministers like me stand up in the church and proclaim that we believe in Jesus’ resurrection from the grave, that Good Friday was not the final word, that Jesus has “returned” to God and together they form a partnership that knows no end, what exactly are we getting at...

March 25, 2018

I have referenced in previous sermons that my late mother was leader of the Halifax Civic Majorettes. For anyone under the age of 50 that fact will mean nothing, the term “majorette” is about as common as shoveling coal into your home or separate schools and hospitals for different church denominations...

March 18, 2018

This Lenten season I feel like every sermon has begun with a story about a visit I shared with someone at a coffee shop. So not to disappoint you…here we go again. In another city, at another time, I met a man who had attended the church I served for some time...

March 11, 2018

Some years ago I met a man who identified himself as a born again Christian, someone saved by Jesus, born from above to a new life. He was a friend of a parishioner and accepted her invitation to worship with her at a place and with people who gave her a sense of mission, community and compassion...

March 4, 2018

Some of you know that Lucy has started her first job, working at Lawton’s in the Professional Centre. She is really enjoying it. I would like to think Kim and I have each enhanced her skill-set with our own unique personality. Lucy doesn’t take everything personally, a good asset when working in custom service...

February 18, 2018

Some of you are aware that I served a congregation in the eastern part of Toronto and worked primarily with the church’s outreach programs. The signature ministry then was the Out of the Cold Program, our church hosted all of the homeless persons in the east end of the city every Friday night...

February 11, 2018

As I inch closer to retirement I am keeping only a small fraction of the books I formerly owned. One of those special books I keep on my shelf is Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart. The title is from Alexis de Tocqueville who, writing about us in Democracy in America from 1835 to 1839...