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Immanuel United Church
Sermon: Im-Manna-uel, What is it?! Exodus 16:2-15
Rev. Ha Na Park
Hunger. It is real, physical hunger – extreme hunger. This slave community – “the whole assembly”, adult women and men and children, freshly escaped from Egypt – has been walking, running away, and wandering without eating for days – they are tired. Starving. Cranky. Complaining. Crying out. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt! Moses, “You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger!” They have made a grand departure from Egypt – the “exodus” at the sea of reeds – to seek freedom, to seek liberation, to seek hope to reach the “promised land”, only to find themselves in the middle of nowhere, and hungry – very hungry.
Sermon: Enter the Sea Exodus 14:19-31
Rev. Ha Na Park
It’s not the warm, baptismal water we pour into the font, with care and love for a child’s baptism. It’s cold, dark water, a sea edged with reeds, at early nightfall. You could see people running, running breathlessly, without a glance backward; running towards the sea. And there they come to an abrupt halt, on the edge of the world they have known, in truth, the only world they have known – the Empire of Egypt where, from generation to generation, they have spent hundreds of years in slavery. The exodus is happening, under the charismatic leadership of Moses, and yet, here, on the edge of the world they have known, is the water. And it is the deep, dark water of the sea of reeds. Is it the end? Is it death, waiting? Where’s the divine promise of God’s salvation, deliverance and liberation? People have to think quickly. The Pharaoh’s chariots and horsemen are fast following!
Sermon: Passionate Friendship Romans 13:8-14
Rev. Ha Na Park
Three months ago, when I decided to seek a community where my gifts and passion could join with those of others, I found myself in a time that was very challenging, yet spiritually very deep and rich. I kept revisiting the process of examining my sense of purpose and reconnecting to God. I was periodically discouraged and overwhelmed with a sense of failure, yet strangely, I sensed that I was also empowered by discerning God’s fresh calling; I was deeply grateful. Applying for Immanuel was a leap of faith at that difficult time, but it was worth it, absolutely was worth leaping to this amazing, faithful community, Immanuel. After the interview in June, and even after being called, the last comment Ian, the chair of the search committee, made at the end of the interview made me smile, and I owe deep thanks to him because that comment really helped me understand what my true, authentic strength may be – “Deep and challenging.” (So, here’s a heads-up for you: I am deep and challenging.) When I was called to schedule the second interview, I had a stark sense of realization about who I was going to meet, with the possibility of being called here. I shared, presented, and showed my “challenging” strength as honestly as I could at the interview, and I was accepted! This was an unbelievable gift I received before I barely knew Immanuel. I thought, in this community, I can be me, and I will not need to change myself because it is ministry. And in its true meaning, if I am called to authentic leadership, I shouldn’t change myself. My personal vision statement I shared during the interview process was:
as Opportunities to Innovate
through Creating a Positive Core and
extending Radical Welcome,
therefore, Making a Future, together,
inspired by the holy stories of God and God’s people.
Another gift I received from Immanuel was quick in coming. Ian advised me that Immanuel might get busy more slowly than Meadowood (my last congregation) and I might not see many people when I started in September. To my surprise and joy, I was again amazed to see so many loving people take time to come out to meet me and offer me an exceptional welcome with hugging, kissing, notes, emails, gifts, shared stories and a birthday cake. After last Thursday’s Council meet-up, following Richard’s favourite habit, I counted how many Immanuel folks I met within my first week: twenty! Can you believe that? I am still truly amazed and will do my best to really see and appreciate what kind of unique, strong, welcoming and inclusive community of people I have joined. You are one of a kind!
In this sense of the gift of blessings, I invite us to hear the first line from the Romans text that Lynn Strome read for us. Verse 8. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
How will we understand this message? I am inspired to share that the friendship that crosses borders, the friendship that transgresses restrictive societal norms, the friendship that is nurtured at the margins is a true, liberating, hard-won expression of love. I was amazed by your welcome, not because I felt, “Oh, I’m feeling like people treat me like a lovable princess here!”, but because through your welcome I could see your deeply nurtured sense of friendship – passionate friendship toward one another -.
From my experience, I see why and how such genuine, loving, passionate friendship is a hard-won privilege, how it is transforming people’s lives, and therefore how it becomes a true gift that grows community.
The theme of friendship is very important to me. To me, friendship is a theological question. It is a question about how we let God in us “dissolve” restrictive boundaries of Self and the Other through the action of love, genuine curiosity and compassion. In ministry, it is an expression of faithful intention of how we become interested in somebody’s life for the benefit of the well-being of the Other, beyond self. For a long time, since I moved to Canada, I have struggled a lot to know how I can become somebody’s friend. If it is a friendship, I thought, it should start and be nurtured on an equal basis of mutual interest, and with the sharing of natural fondness.
Some friendships seem more “natural” to start and nurture joy – especially, if they are between people with the same ethnicity, culture, gender, language. I personally observed that “Non-whites” or POC (“persons of color”) can form friendships more quickly because they may feel “safe” with each other. Other friendships can be harder – when two people or the group is composed of White and POC. There are many factors which contribute to making such friendships harder to start and nurture. “White privilege” may play a powerful role among many other factors. Yet through the last decade, living in Canada, I developed some fear that others may see me through stereotypes rather than trying to see past the surface.
For example, I may not receive overtures of friendship from some people, because of their lack of interest in an Asian, immigrant woman, speaking English as their second language. I projected that fear onto myself until very recently, something which may have grown from my lived experience, but which has also become poison to nurturing positive self-recognition. Even though I am a visual minority, very ironically, the painful part of this experience of racism and sexism comes from “invisibility”. To illustrate, let’s imagine that you sit with your small group at class for a discussion. You are one of the three in the group, and the other two begin to talk with each other, shutting you out – even though you were the first one who said “hi” to them. They make no eye contact, or the eye contact is made late. They don’t ask your opinion or do it at the end.
To those for whom life’s hurt comes from “invisibility”: their cultural identity invisibility, their poverty invisibility, their sexual identity invisibility, when you have “wild space” (the part of you that does not fit the conventions of society), and you feel it is risky and not safe to share your struggle – your invisibility hurts. If you can’t share the truly beautiful complexity of who you are, your sense of identity, your questions about life and faith, isolation can be very hard for you, and for anyone. In this sense, friendship is a theological question, a ministry action, a life-long journey to find power to connect to each other, to connect to the world, and more importantly, connect to yourself.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul tells us, in verse 12, “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” How does the imagery of “darkness” and the “armor of light” make sense to us? Traditionally, black/dark has a negative association with evil, the regrettable past, the “colonized”, while white/light represents goodness, triumph, the power to “colonize”. We need to challenge these interpretations because this unfair polarity only supports the fundamental hegemony of white supremacy. Therefore, I would like to invite you to see that our concern may be more about the state of “apathy”, not darkness: apathy as a sense of unrelatedness to the Other or the other’s lives, especially those who are systematically cast out. Marginalized. Not fully included, within church or in our society. Apathy is, in my understanding, the attitude or sense of being privileged, oblivious, to think that we have the right to not know about the other’s struggles and pains.
In contrast, we can understand putting on the “armour of light” as undergoing a process of “self-emptying.” Imagine, only when emptying ourselves of our selves, can we let the light in, let it dwell in our heart, in the mirror of ourselves: reflecting others truly in their complexity of hopes, dreams, fears and passion.
We embrace the ultimate reality of interdependence, interconnectedness with the Other, as it is beautifully described, “I am because you are, and you are because I am.”
I have a dream for Immanuel. I hope that we can nurture a passion for the Impossible: passion for an unconditional love. Passion for absolute justice. Passion for an unconditional welcome. Passion for unconditional hospitality. These are passions for the Impossible, because they seem impossible in our ordinary lives. Passion for the Impossible may seem an act of dreaming, not setting a SMART goal: Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely.
Our contemporary, corporate world tells us to set a goal first, dreaming later only when you have time to do it. But I would say, we can set up a SMART goal only when we have a dream; but dreaming – we must do it now. I have a desire to invite us to the act of dreaming, because dreaming is unsettling. The act of dreaming is, ultimately, God’s unsettling work through us.
To dream, we need to know our passion, to know our strength, and to have the confidence to know that, though many things may seem impossible to us now, we can still endeavour to accomplish them. The vision I have for Immanuel is that we will embrace diversity in our midst and in the world, not as barriers but as positive and transformative opportunities to innovate. Passionate friendship, that you have been so beautifully nurturing, in the community of Immanuel, may not be the solution, but can be the essential context for this vision. I hope you know that the culture of passionate friendship you have already beautifully deepened at Immanuel, if we intend to reach out, can save peoples lives and change the world.
Friendship is Passionate, because it is, essentially, love.
When I tried to pronounce Eileen’s name, she warmly told me to remember,
“I lean on you.”
We are passionate beings, warm beings, human beings. We are beings who know the quality of love, intimacy and belonging. I think, physically, emotionally, spiritually, metaphorically, letting others lean on us, lean on our chest, as the beloved disciple does to Christ, is a breathtakingly beautiful thing.
Passionate friendship is challenging. Passionate friendship crosses borders. Passionate friendship transgresses norms. Passionate friendship nurtures the vulnerable. Passionate friendship can be a life-line, liberation, hard-won self-expression and self-recognition.
Let us treasure it, and foster it with our neighbours, outcasts, ourselves, and with one another. This is both a letter from our future, and promise of the future to come.
Februrary 19, 2012 – Transfiguration
By Scott Douglas
This is a cookie. Like, a big cookie.
When I was a kid going to church in Morden, Manitoba we would have big cookies like this for the gathering time after worship. And probably coffee and tea too, I don’t remember that part. What I remember is big cookies. And lots of them, such that a kid could take a stack of them and go off and find some corner of the church to consume them, and nobody ever said, “Hey that’s too many,” or “I think we’re going to run out,” or “Let’s save some for next week.” (Or they may have been saying that, but not to me.)
My impression was that church was a place of abundance. I didn’t need anyone to spell out the theological implications for me – it was clear from my own experience: God was so generous and expansive that one could dare to ask for a second helping – of spirit or of cookie.
Some of you will know that Immanuel was my church home when I was an even littler kid. It was a place where kids could run without someone saying, “Hey, church is not the place for running.” (This hasn’t changed, I don’t think.) As a kid I could wander anywhere in the building, and everybody knew me and could help me out if I needed a hand. It was a safe place. The only scary thing was the stuffed wolf head in the stairway – and that wasn’t so much scary as fascinating!
Back in those days the congregation would go out camping at Bird’s Hill Park. (Not the whole congregation, of course, but a sizeable number of families.) And I remember being out at the park and occasionally wandering off on my own on those little paths that lead from campsite to campsite. (As a parent, this kind of freaks me out, but as a kid it made perfect sense. There’s a path – go wander.) And you know that when you’re a little kid, you don’t have a developed sense of geography or where things are in relation to other things. You basically have a big “You Are Here” sign hanging over your head, and that’s about all you know. So I’d immediately get lost. But chances were good I’d end up at the campsite of someone else from the congregation, and they’d know me by name, and they’d be able to say, “Go back down this path, turn left, and carry on halfway around the circle, and you’ll find your tent.” … And it created in me a sense of trust, deeper than any kind of rational argument or evaluation. Those early experiences formed the way I view the world – as a place that can be explored, a place with many paths. And there’s not necessarily a right path and a wrong paths, just different paths that will lead you different places. And some paths will leave you feeling lost and disoriented, but God (and God’s emissaries, God’s community) will be there to watch out for you.
Why am I telling you this?
We all take different paths in our lives. We have experiences. And from those experiences we, hopefully, learn something. We learn something about ourselves, about how the world works, about what’s important and real and profound, about what’s holy and meaningful and inspiring and scary. We learn something about the nature of God. And because we all take different paths, we all learn something different.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve been given the gift in this congregation of people sharing their faith during worship. We’ve had Doug McMurtry reflecting on his life, ministry, and the question: What is saving my life today? We’ve had Kerry LaRoque discussing the transforming role of Al-Anon. We’ve had Kathleen Basanta recounting the impact of the missionary movement on her childhood and faith. We’ve had Peter talking about music with a kind of technical precision is unique. We’ve had Jane Nicholls talking about the role of yoga in her spirituality. Different paths, different insights – into what has meaning and how the spirit moves in our lives.
I was reading an article in the newspaper a couple of weekends ago – you may have seen it too. It was comparing the decline of the Liberal party with the decline in mainstream churches in North America. Churches like ours are aging and shrinking. Meanwhile other, more conservative, churches are growing – perhaps because they provide easy answers to desperate people, but that’s not the whole story. One of the qualities of churches that grow is that their members aren’t afraid to share their faith. They’re not afraid to talk about what they think of God, how they feel about Jesus, how the spirit is active in their lives.
So, that said, I’m putting you to work. I’m going to give you some questions, and I want you to talk to each other. I want you to find another person, and spend just a few minutes talking about things that matter. And I know some of you will hate this. You don’t come to church to talk, you come to listen, to be inspired, to grab a little piece of wisdom to get you through the week. You’re still going to get that. You’re just going to get it from the person sitting next to you. And they may not know that that’s what their giving, so you might have to listen extra hard. And you have to give them something back in return. I’m not talking about a sermon or a theological treatise, just a little bit of a story or a few thoughts to give each other a glimpse of what’s real and true. Don’t worry that your thoughts and experiences aren’t fancy, or well-organized, or in theological language, or, or, or whatever. Different paths, different insights. It’s about diversity.
So here are some questions. I’m going to give you five of them. Don’t try to answer five. Listen for the one that sparks something for you: that’s your question. I’ll give you the questions, I’ll give you a minute just to think to yourself, and then ten minutes to find someone else and divide the time between you to talk and listen as you share an aspect of your faith life. – And don’t get freaked out when I say “Faith”. Everyone frames their story differently. Some people tell stories of how they were lost and then they were found. Other people have passion burning in them, or a worry niggling them, or a fear oppressing them – and they don’t really know what it means but they know it means something important. However you frame you experience…
Here are some questions that may spark a discussion for you…
Pick one that speaks to you – or make up your own question. Don’t feel like you have to have it all worked out – just explore. You may feel awkward or impolite. That’s why I’m asking. So you don’t have to be “that person” who inflicts their spiritual opinions on others; you’re just being accommodating by doing what the nice man at the front asked you to.
Take a moment to collect your thoughts…
Find someone to talk to. You’re choice. Try to make sure everyone who wants to has someone to talk to. Bonus points if you seek out someone you don’t know so well. Extra bonus points if you’re a visitor today. I’m not giving you a lot of time, so you may just scratch the surface. So bonus points if you carry on the conversation some time later in the week. And bonus points if you go deep in your conversation. I’m not sure what the bonus points can be redeemed for, but I’m sure we can work something out.
You’ve been given a gift. And you’ve given a gift. Each of us has something to share. And like cookies, there’s never a shortage.
Let us pray:
God, we all have different paths. They’re not all pleasant. Mine have had their share of doubt and struggle. But we learn. And we share what we learn. May we continue to find meaning on the paths we walk, and trust that when we feel lost, we will run into you, God, whatever path we take, and that you will know us by name, and will show us the direct to get back to where we belong.
January 22, 2012—Epiphany 3
Don’t think of it as an exorcism, think of it as an eviction. The body, the mind, the heart, and, in fact, the very being of the man whom Jesus confronts in the synagogue in Capernaum has been occupied by an uninvited guest—an evil spirit has settled down upon his life and is refusing to vacate the premises. Like the people we heard about in recent news reports, who moved into the Texas vacation home of a Manitoba couple, created complete havoc inside the house, sold all the furniture, kept the proceeds, claimed squatters’ rights and refused to move out, a malevolent spirit has moved into the mind and body of the man in Capernaum, made itself at home, created utter chaos, claimed squatters’ rights, and refused to move out, thus rendering the man desperately confused and completely powerless over his own life. And now this negative spirit has got its foot into the synagogue, which wasn’t necessarily a building, but, literally, the assembly of the people, the place where people are led together, their gathering place for worship, but not just for worship—also for discussing and making decisions about the public affairs of the whole community. The evil spirit does not stand on ceremony, or wait to be asked in. It simply stows away in the man’s body—the man’s being—and comes into the synagogue, one Sabbath day, and sits quietly, at least at first, taking it all in, looking for its chance to claim power in more lives, and thus to widen its sphere of influence, and impose its havoc on more people than this one unfortunate man—on a whole community, in fact—the whole poor, struggling community of simple fisherfolk that was Capernaum. The evil spirit is feeling smug. It’s making progress. Setting up shop. And it has no intention of moving out any time soon.
The individuals in the Gospel stories are never just individuals. They’re symbols of the collective experience of the people. The symbolism of the man’s possession, or, more accurately, occupation, would not have been lost on them, because their homeland, too, had been possessed and occupied by uninvited guests—malevolent strangers who had marched in with tremendous force, helped themselves to what they found there, made themselves at home, created complete havoc, claimed squatters’ rights, and refused to move out.
Like the man in the story, the common experience of the people of Galilee was of a loss of control over the things that had been theirs—and in fact, over their own lives—and a terrible inability to do anything whatsoever about it.
Imagine their astonishment, then, and their joy, to hear the story of Jesus of Nazareth—one of their own—a poor, simple person like them, struggling, as they did, to live in an occupied land—striding into the midst of the people in the Capernaum synagogue one Sabbath day, and teaching, with a kind of authority and integrity that they haven’t seen in a long while, if they’ve ever seen it—teaching about a sphere of influence that he calls “the kingdom of God”—a sphere of influence that will bring goodness, and justice, upon the land, that will lift the people up from under the weight of all that oppresses them, raise them up in dignity, and give them power in their own lives again.
Of course, in the story, as in their own lives, this new sphere of influence, this kingdom of God, is not welcomed by the uninvited guests, because it signals their eviction, their expulsion. Jesus’ teaching, and, even more so, the authority with which he teaches, raises the hackles of the demon, who then cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Now this phrase, “What have you to do with us,” when it appears in the Bible, is not just a request that the person addressed state his or her business. It’s a phrase uttered only, ever, by those who perceive their very lives to be under threat, a phrase uttered directly to challenge the one who is threatening them. There, in the Capernaum synagogue, Jesus suddenly is in a life and death conflict with the squatter, the occupier, the demon who has taken control of an innocent man’s life, and is threatening to take control of the whole community. “What have you to do with us, O you who claim the power to evict us?” the demon asks Jesus, and then he says, “Have you come to destroy us?” Us. in the plural. Not me, in the singular. Us. There’s more where I came from. Have you come to destroy me and all the forces that work the power of death in this world? The demon goes on, makes his move: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” To know another’s name, in ancient cultures, is to have power over that other, is to claim for oneself the very essence of who that other is. This is an attempt to take Jesus over—to own him—possess him—occupy him. But Jesus rebukes him—the Greek word that’s translated here as rebuke is better translated destroy, blot out, vanquish, trample, stun, make perish. “Be silent,” he says, taking away the demon’s voice (and thus his only real power, given that he can’t be seen.) “Be silent. Come out of him.” And then Mark tells us that the demon, violently convulsing the poor possessed man—in other words, not leaving without a fight—obeys, and is no more. Don’t think of it as an exorcism, think of it an eviction. In the presence of Jesus and the sphere of influence he calls the kingdom of God, the insidious unwelcome guest has no choice but to pack up his bags and leave, kicking and screaming all the way. And thus the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel has stated God’s intentions for the man, and for the community, and soon—immediately, in fact, in Mark’s phraseology—he will state those intentionsthroughout all of Galilee. The squatters will be ousted, and the people will have their lives back.
Don’t think of it as possession, by a demon or unclean spirit, think of it as occupation, by the things that counter the power of life. Think of it as being occupied by pain, and illness, and grief, and fear, and by death itself. Think of those things moving in to the bodies, minds, hearts and spirits of individuals in a community, settling down on the community itself, making themselves at home, creating utter chaos, claiming squatters’ rights, and refusing to move out, thus rendering the individuals, and the community, desperately confused and powerless over their own lives. Think of it, not as possession, but as occupation, and ask yourself if it doesn’t seem, from time to time, and hasn’t seemed in recent days, that our own reality has been taken over by pain, and illness, and fear, and grief, and death, that these uninvited and unwanted guests have moved into our gathering place, our community, here at Immanuel, put their feet up and made themselves at home, wreaking havoc in our sanctuary, throwing our lives topsy turvy, taking some of our best people, claiming squatters’ rights, and refusing to leave. We don’t need to subscribe to a worldview that includes demons in order to know what it is to have our sense of well-being taken from us, our trust in the power of goodness shaken to its core, our world thrown out of whack, our control over our own lives taken over by forces we neither can see nor understand. The worldview may be strange, the story may be ancient, but the good news is for us, here in this community that has, in recent days, been taken over and occupied by grief. And the good news comes in the form of an eviction notice for our unwanted guests that go by the names of illness and pain and fear, and grief and death. God’s kingdom is seeping into our world, widening its sphere of influence, asserting its power, evicting the occupiers, restoring to us our hope, and our dignity, and our well-being. The squatters, of course, will not go without a fight. They have a fearsome sense of entitlement, and they think they have a right to be here. But the message of Jesus was that they don’t have that right. And we are people who trust that message. So we may have to tousle, for a while, with those uninvited guests. They’ll stick around as long as they possibly can. But they will go. Ultimately, they will go. They won’t be given a choice. They don’t own us, and this is not their home.
The good news is for us. The eviction notice has been served. God’s sphere of influence is widening, and will continue to widen, until all the unwanted, uninvited guests that occupy our world and confuse and diminish our lives have been sent packing. The good news is for us. The occupiers will go. And we will have our lives back. Thanks be to God. Amen.