February 17, 2019

I have been very blessed. I have enjoyed good health, good relationships with family and friends, had secure employment for close to 30 years, been supported by a wife and daughter who love me and suffered very few setbacks, failures and losses in my life. Yet in the close to 30 years I have served as an ordained minister I have become known as someone who has skills and experience working with persons who live on the margins of our society. I am honestly not sure how that happened.

The only answer I have been able to discern to this question is my mother’s frequent advice to me, “when you walk into a room always look for the people sitting alone, in the back, people new to the surroundings.” My mother also took me with her when she visited people in hospital, nursing homes, seniors who lived alone and at the funeral home. I feel that advice and those experiences might have led me to this vocation.

But…having grown up with this sense of being blessed, I am particularly sensitive to the many who have never received a vote of confidence or heard an encouraging word or have ever experienced an overriding sense of well-being from their families. I leave conversations heart-broken wherein I am told that parents declared to their own children that they were "abominations to the Lord," or where neglect or physical abuse occurred. While “Church” has not always been a safe place, free from these kinds of words or actions at our best churches offer a grace-filled love where persons are offered unconditional love. A place that was set apart to be redemptive, especially to those of us who were wounded in some way.

The church's original challenge was to be the place where we would not just acknowledge God's imprints on our souls but where we could also celebrate the divine image within. It is the place where spiritual godparents/mentors could step in where earthly parents failed and bridge the gap for healing and restoration of personhood. That’s why in the early church persons associated with house fellowship would call one another sister and brother. It’s why when I offer a funeral for someone who has lived most of their lives on the street those who gather as the “family” are usually not the original kin but rather those who walked beside them, in good times and bad.

In our text for today we find that Jesus has been up on the mountain to pray. He selects his disciples and then comes down to be with the multitudes that have gathered. The audience includes the sick, the troubled and other persons of special concerns. As is usual in Luke's Gospel, Jesus' healing actions and his words are closely interrelated. While Jesus does not know these people intimately, he does recognize their personal condition in life and the deep expectations that they bring with them. The gospel writer informs us, as well, that they come hoping to be touched by Jesus - to receive just a little bit of his power so that they might be healed. They come, it seems to me, looking for a blessing. The crowd waits for Jesus to speak. They wait in anticipation of being told the divine agenda.

So Jesus begins with a short list of ways we can be blessed. It is happiness that is so complete that it cannot be contained. It is an awareness that bubbles up inside of us and overflows so that all notice our sense of elation. Jesus, however, does not include anything within his list that we would normally think of that would bring us such extreme joy. In fact, he completely contradicts the ideas and values of a materialistic, sensual society which equates happiness with house, car, and bank account. It is our introduction to the topsy-turvy world Christ presents as an alternative to the status quo.

He carefully constructs four symmetrical comparisons of blessings and woes, and they are the opposite of what we would anticipate. For he says:

Blessed are the poor…but woe to the rich.

Blessed are the hungry…but woe to those who are full.

Blessed are the weeping…but woe to those that are laughing.

Blessed are the rejected…but woe to those who are accepted.

I recall hearing the expression, “good preaching is comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”. In many ways that is precisely what Jesus did. His stories, his wisdom, his healings and most of all his pronouncements about the Kingdom he came to usher in, all speak to this notion of offering affirmation to those feeling the sting of judgement in our present age and a warning to those like me who enjoy the privileges of the status quo. In short don’t assume what is in front of you is the way it is meant to be, don’t assume what you are living is the Kingdom or even close to it. Don’t assume that how you are living is giving others a foretaste, a witness, to how we are meant to live.

As Jesus presents his thoughts to those gathered, it becomes apparent that he is not interested in keeping things the same. Rather, his purpose was to usher in a world that would literally be reversed. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon say of this: In other words, these blessings and woes announce that God, in Jesus Christ, already sees the world in a strikingly different way than we do. The "real world," for all those who are in Christ, is one in which most of the major status roles in life are utterly reversed.

I want to spend some time on this reversal. Jesus has come to usher in, to proclaim, to announce, a new world with a new set of standards. This world is not something we wait for until a Second Coming or some distant experience in an afterlife. Nor is this Kingdom something we take as marching orders, a vision we must fulfill to make it so. In short the Kingdom of God is not a distant reward or a political manifesto, it is a statement of reality, God’s reality. Jesus is telling us something new is upon us and this new place posits value where we in our culture see no value and conversely it tells us what we often value is meaningless to the integrity of the Kingdom.

Interesting to my ears is the lack of urgings or exhortations to behave in certain ways so as to earn these blessings and avoid the curses. In fact, there is no call to action at all. Rather, Jesus is just stating fact. He is painting for us a picture of what the Kingdom of God is. He is not making suggestions about how to be happy or giving warnings on how to keep from being miserable. Jesus is making defining statements of the way life is inside and outside the reign of God. It is a reversal of fortunes for the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the full and the empty.

This is a reminder that with Jesus, we are already beginning to experience the Kingdom of God here in our everyday lives. Our task, then, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is "to be what in the reality of God we are already." To me this means that we are to be people who out of recognition of our own blessedness, impart blessing to others. In short when you and I live out this Kingdom reality we are presenting the world to others as we believe it is. We are inviting others to participate in a world they may have never heard of, a world they can’t really absorb immediately, a world that seems foreign and strange. And yet…it is a world, a Kingdom, that I believe the world deep-down yearns to know. It is a Kingdom that our world was created to embrace. When we as church live out our spiritual citizenship we embody not just some ideal or future heaven but we show people who we are, who we were meant to be.

During our study of the Book of Revelations I asked all 25 participants to share what they imagined Heaven to be. In broad strokes there were three themes articulated; 1) a reunion with loved ones, 2) a return to Eden, where we experience Creation with the innocence and sense of belonging as we were born to know and 3) a place of light, warmth, and sounds that bring us deep peace. But our brother Hedley had his own answer. “Heaven is a place of harmony, where no one is hungry, no one is sad to be alone, and no one is poor. We are all together, we are all family, we are all connected.” Hedley’s answer was a blessing. He did not do anything, make anything happen, or satisfy any need for action. Instead Hedley just spoke the truth, he named the Kingdom as it is and reminded us who we really are.

It was a blessing that was not dependent upon anyone else's judgment. It was a blessing that God willingly offers to every one of us; and as the body of Christ, we are to impart it to one another. All we have to do is receive it. So I wonder, are you ready to receive this blessing? Are you ready to begin to experience the blessing of the Kingdom of God?

God, give us the courage to accept your blessing and the wisdom to bless others. Amen.

February 10, 2019

Professor Adam Copeland teaches Pastoral Leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He knows a thing or two about how to motivate people to make a change. February is African History Month and it would appropriate to lift up one of lessons Copeland offers his students when it comes to liberation. I don’t need to tell you that music can affect us deeply. In fact, a song or a hymn can do as much to instill deep faith in a disciple as any sermon. You can all say Amen to that! Copeland says that many African American spirituals were “code songs” or “signal songs” that slaves used to send messages of freedom, messages of hope to one another that their masters didn’t understand. Slaves would sing about getting to heaven, but they were also singing of getting over the Ohio or Mississippi River, or some other large piece of landscape to a place of freedom.

Deep River.png

Like Exodus 14 with its emphasis on Moses and his long march to freedom African Americans envisioned a time and place when freedom would be theirs, when the tight grip of the oppressor would be no more. But they were also aware of the risks. If the slave did escape a plantation, one would be pursued by dogs and bounty hunters and, if caught, would meet a horrible fate. But the slaves sang freedom songs, songs of faith. Their deep Christian faith kept them anchored in the Lord even when they lived in squalor and captivity. Even while enslaved, they sang of their freedom in Christ and their hope that one day they would find their way home.

Many of us live our lives in relative abundance. As a society, we have more stuff than any could ever need. But how is our faith? I recall a preacher one challenged us in the congregation to ask upon our pastoral visits, “How are you with God?” Perhaps a little intense for our sensitive ears, too direct for our typical conversations. But I ask you this morning, where is God pushing you? How is God challenging your faith in a way that is uncomfortable or scary, but ultimately helpful and holy? Where is God calling you to journey, to be set free from that which enslaves you, that which is holding you back from exercising your God-given spiritual gifts? Perhaps it has come time to “push out from these shallow waters, into the deep end, into the places of deeper conversation, where we talk about what really matters.

Let’s take this story from Luke in particular. We pick up with Jesus standing by lake Gennesaret and the crowds pressing in on him to hear the Word. Imagine, if Jesus had been preaching in a church, the congregation would be filling the front pews and pressing in at him in the space between the pews at the pulpit. So Jesus gets a bit claustrophobic, and gets in the boat of a fisherfolk and puts out a little-ways in the lake to get some elbow room. And Jesus preaches sitting in the boat. Now those fisherfolk had just returned from a long night of fishing, and they hadn’t caught a thing. Jesus met them when they were failures. As usual, Jesus had something up his sleeve and he tells them to put the boats out a little-ways in the deeper water and try again. We know the result, nets filled with fish. And, once they got to shore, the text says, “they left everything and followed him.”

I have heard this text preached many times. Often the preacher uses it to focus on how we can bring people to faith, whether in an evangelical context with more converts or a mainline church, drawing people to our cause of justice and peace. But what if this text this morning is not about the manipulation of numbers, the numerical growth of the movement, but rather the pursuit of deeper connections with others, a deeper connection with Jesus? Pushing out to deeper waters would then be less a place of “capture” and more a place of removing fear (Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid”) and transformation (they left everything and followed him).

And what does Luke tell us about Jesus after he has pushed his followers to deeper waters? What does he do next?

Jesus Cleanses a Leper. Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “Be made clean.” Jesus Heals a Paralytic. Jesus said, “I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home. Jesus Calls Levi. After this Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed him. But then things get very interesting. Luke goes so far as to say, “Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen strange things today.”

Things get stranger. Then Levi gave a great banquet for Jesus 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... What I love about this transition in Luke 5 is how a text that began with fisherfolk being pushed to go to deeper waters, to find what they are looking for in that scary and mysterious place in the deep, ends with a banquet meal that includes persons around the table others label sinners and outcasts.

Deeper conversations that include the question, how are you with God and where is God pushing you, will inevitably take place in deeper waters, around tables that include people you might not necessarily invite to your dinner table. The focus is not ease or familiarity, it is deep and diverse. Maybe the time for us to push ourselves in the deeper water, around table with people not like us. Maybe the time has come to ask where God is with you or where God is pushing you?

I am eager to have those conversations, those connections, with you. Whether it is at the church, at a coffee shop or at a banquet table. And most importantly I hope you will have these deep conversations with each other, at coffee hour, at a coffee shop or restaurant, at one of our community meals. We need not be too intense, people don’t react well to a conversation that begins with “so how are you with God?” If I spoke like that with everyone I met on the bus it would be one lonely ride! Even sitting next to Jesus on a boat need not start like that. Surely we would begin by talking about the weather, after all this is Nova Scotia. Then perhaps we might ask Jesus “who’s your father?” “So what do you do?” “You come here often?” But at some point all conversation get to a place where we need to talk about what matters, “what makes you happy?” “Where is a place you feel deeply connected?” “When do you feel truly alive?” Listen as well as talk. God gave us two ears and one mouth. And listen to where, in these deep conversations, you feel God is pushing you.

Like our sisters and brothers from African heritage there is a song in our heart that is reminding us of our freedom, freedom not only from something but for something. We are free from the chains that hold us down, free to connect with others, free to be “fishers of people”, not as converts, but as fellow travelers with Jesus; cleansing, healing, calling. In Jesus we are free, we are healed and we are called to leave behind what enslaves us and follow. Thanks be to God, Amen.

February 3, 2019

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing...

January 27, 2019

Around this time of year my mind usually wanders to Bangor Maine. Why? In the mid and late 1990’s I came to know two retired United Church Ministers, one lived in the valley and the other lived in New Brunswick. I discovered that every late January they would drive from Saint John to Bangor and attend a series of lectures by distinguished preachers and scholars in the United States...

January 20, 2019

An old friend of mine is a lifelong Episcopalian, active in his church, faithful to God, eager to share his gifts for the common good. My friend is a university professor, has written several books and has had the ear of a few Presidents. My friend has, what we sometimes refer to as “influence”. My friend’s academic research focuses on evaluating government programs designed to assist the poorest of the poor...

January 13, 2019

I want to share a story with you, you may have heard it before. A family is riding home from church on Sunday. Their four-year-old son in the back seat of the car was baptized that morning. Suddenly, midway home, he bursts into tears. When his parents ask what on earth is wrong, he sniffles out the answer...

January 6, 2019

I’ve mentioned this comparison before but I want to repeat it, given the Epiphany Sunday we celebrate today. A wise friend of mine once compared how people from the eastern part of our world think/imagine and how people on the western part of our globe think/imagine. Most of us here today are creatures of western thought...

December 30, 2018

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey...

December 24, 2018

Of course this is a very beautiful and cherished reading. It is the story of the birth of Jesus filled with joy and hope. But sometimes the impact of its message is lost on us because it is too familiar. Thus I think we often overlook that the opening of the story is designed to set up a comparison between Jesus, who too would become a King, and Caesar...

December 16, 2018

Placing the focus in Advent on joy in the middle of December is an interesting move by lectionary planners. In the beginning of Advent we remind Christians that we are to wait, anticipate, expect, this Advent of hope and peace into our lives. To get there we have to discipline ourselves that something is in fact going to come...

December 9, 2018

Luke 3:2-6

During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region of Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah...

December 2, 2018

What difference does Advent make to you? Be honest, every year we decorate this church, we place these candles up front by the Communion table and we plan ahead for events like Old Fashion Christmas, the Living Nativity and of course the Christmas Eve celebrations. And then…it all comes down. I am no cynic, I know there are moments of grace...

November 25, 2018

When I was in Seminary our professors would ask us to refrain from a preaching technique they called “dualism”. You will have heard preachers and other public speakers use this technique, to suggest all important issues can be distilled to a choice between two opposites. It will not surprise you to know the preacher would weight...

November 11, 2018

A few years ago a colleague of mine, a Canadian Forces Padre, asked me to fill in as a Reserve Unit Padre. I enjoyed the work and meeting young women and men committed to serving others. One of the tasks associated with this role was to meet with soldiers who had been asked to serve overseas, deployed to a mission where troops would be “in harm’s way”...

November 4, 2018

When Kim and I sold our home in Toronto the realtor sent a “stager” to visit us and offer suggestions on how to make our house more attractive to potential buyers. Among the suggestions was to remove all family pictures and replace them with mirrors. I asked why. The stager explained that buyers want to imagine themselves living in the house...

October 21, 2018

October is Volunteer Appreciation Month at Bethany and thus I ask each of you this morning to consider the reasons you volunteer, at Bethany, elsewhere, wherever you offer your labour without cost. I have spent a lifetime being around non-profits, churches, minor sports, and talking to people who offer their best selves for the organization and its mission…

October 14, 2018

One question I am asked repeatedly will not surprise you, “Kevin, why is it that more conservative churches seem to be growing, or at the very least maintaining their relative size and enthusiasm, while more progressive or liberal churches seem to be in decline?” Have you heard this question? My hunch is that you have...

October 7, 2018

As you have heard me say many times I always read Luke’s story about a host and his guests at weddings where I am the presider. I do this for rather predicable reasons, I want the couple to make room in their lives for others, that in a bond of love the openness to others is a profound and added blessing to any spirit-filled life...

September 30, 2018

In our Gospel story this morning Jesus is confronting his disciples on the question of a “stumbling block”. That is Jesus tells his followers they must run a race and that race leads to a prize and the prize is salvation. Now some of you will hear that word, salvation and feel like you know exactly what Jesus means…