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Sermon – Feb 19, 2012

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…

  • What was a “mountaintop” experience for you?  (an experience that profoundly affected your view of reality)
  • When have you been transformed?  (how have you been changed, and what does that mean)
  • Who are the Moses and Elijah in your life? (who are the ones who stand beside you, the companions, the mentors)
  • What is your “chariot of fire”?  (what’s your passion, what lifts you up or gets you moving)
  • When has God spoken to you?  (doesn’t have to be a voice from the cloud, but when have you had a revelation or a sense of presence, a dramatic whirlwind or a still small voice)

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…


1 minute


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.


10 minutes.


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.



Sermon for January 29, 2012


January 22, 2012—Epiphany 3

Mark 1:21-28

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.

Sermon for January 22, 2012


January 22, 2012—Epiphany 3

Mark 1:14-20

It’s a story best left in the past—the story of the call of the disciples, I mean—a story best read as a quaint little tale of events that could have happened only in a world drastically different from our own, and in that tiny window of time that was the public life of Jesus. (What was it? Two or three years, two millennia ago? A tiny window of time.) The challenge that Jesus issues to Simon and Andrew, James and John, there by the Sea of Galilee, to put down their nets, the symbols of all that entangled them in the deadly drudgery of their world, and go with him—to become his disciples, his apprentices, learning the ways of the kingdom of God—is best left frozen in history, an isolated event specific to the personalities involved—or we might start thinking it has something to do with us—something to do with our lives. We might start thinking of ourselves as some kind of current-day disciples, apprenticing in the ways of the realm of God, making Jesus’ vision of that realm central to our lives, constantly paying attention to the places where it might be seeping into our world, allowing it to distract us and take our focus away from the things that matter, like interest rates and mutual funds and pension plans and—my personal favourite—the dream of having a vehicle with heated seats some day very soon. Worse, it might get us going into places that aren’t safe or comfortable for us to be in, hanging around with people we wouldn’t be caught dead with now. It might render us downright unrecognizable to our friends and families, turn us into social pariahs. Bring that one ancient story into the present time, and imagine Jesus’ call coming to us, and, goodness knows, we might have to read further, to find out more about this way of life to which we were convincing ourselves that Jesus was calling us. We might start immersing ourselves in those stories, reading them over and over again, seeing the kingdom he proclaimed shining through each story of a healing or a feeding or the freeing of a person from the terrible captivity of a demon. We might start drawing parallels to our own world, in our own time. We might start picturing our world with such healing and feeding and liberating going on, and with the same kingdom shining through. And that’s a hard picture to get out of the mind’s eye, once it’s been glimpsed. We might start pondering the parables, beginning to think they made a strangely beautiful kind of sense, beginning to hear in their mysterious words a divine logic, beginning to long for the world those parables described, for the realm they promised, beginning to see how that realm was like a mustard seed, tiny and of no account, but then, when it starting growing, able to take over a whole field, not only above the soil, but underground, silent, and tenacious, and pesky, and impossible to uproot; or how it was like a pearl of great price, for which a merchant searched for many years, and which he finally found, and for which he then sold everything he had in order to buy it. And that point—the point at which the cost no longer mattered—the cost of going with Jesus and immersing ourselves in his promised kingdom and learning its ways of goodness and compassion and healing—that would be the point from which there would be no turning back. Even talk of looming crosses would fail to deter us. We would go with him joyfully, pick up our crosses courageously. Like the pearl of great price, the realm of God would be worth any cost to us. Any cost.

You can see why this story of the call of the disciples cannot be allowed to have access to our hearts and minds in any kind of way that would make us believe that it might somehow apply to us, in our world, in these days. Confined to the past, and allowed only to be about those people, in that world, it can’t inconvenience us, much less change us, much less consume our very lives, much less become our reason for being. And we can continue to have our cake and eat it, too. Be Christians without any real cost. But brought into the present, and freed up to issue a call to us, this story can wreak all kinds of havoc in our lives. So good. It’s decided. That was then and this is now. We won’t let the story touch us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

. . . But then again, to live our lives as Christians without so much as a glimpse into the realm of God that Jesus came proclaiming seems like a rather deprived way of being, spiritually speaking, heated seats or no heated seats. To live our lives as Christians without a vision of the world transformed by the passion and compassion of our God seems like rather a stark existence, devoid of real hope—an existence lived either on the surface of things or in despair. To live our live as Christians thinking that there’s no connection between the living of our own lives and the ultimate purposes of our God—between the dreams that we dream for ourselves and the dreams that God dreams for the world—well, that seems rather a cynical approach to faith, and, for that matter, to life. So maybe we should let the story of Jesus’ call of the first disciples get at us, just a little bit, after all, and have a chance to make its case that that call is for us, after all, as surely as it was for Simon, and Andrew, and James, and John, as surely as it was for the first readers of the Gospel in which it appears. Maybe we should allow ourselves, even for the briefest of moments, to anticipate the utter relief, the sheer wonder and joy of setting down on this lakeshore here the things that entangle us in the deadly drudgery of our world, and, freed of their burden, of walking in the ways that promise and proclaim the coming of an alternative world, a world transformed. Maybe we should allow ourselves, even for the briefest of moments, to contemplate following Jesus into his version of our world, and apprenticing with him in the compassionate, healing ways of the realm of God. As one contemporary theologian says in reflecting on answering that call, “ . . . as a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God. This is the crucial idea. That means how to live within the range of God’s effective will, [God’s] life flowing through mine.”[1] By choice and by grace we allow the story to have access to our hearts and minds, allow the call to get to us, and put down the nets that weigh us down and ensnare us in the deadly daily grind of our world, and follow Jesus through the Gospels as he shows us what that world will look like when it has been transformed. By choice and by grace, we allow the story to come into the present, and get at us, and make disciples of us. By choice. And by grace. Thanks be to God. Amen. (And this time I mean it.)

sermon for january 15, 2012

January 15, 2012

1 Samuel 3:1-20

By no stretch of the imagination was Eli a model of faithfulness, a shining example of perfect servanthood. Nearing the end of his life, looking back on his life, Eli would have been the first to acknowledge that he was no Abraham, no Moses, nor had he aspired to be. He’d been in middle management, you might say, in his priestly career, and, to be truthful, he’d failed abysmally at it. This was still in pre-temple days, and gradually Eli had risen to the level of his incompetence, becoming the priest in charge of the local sanctuary at Shiloh. It was an important shrine, a regional gathering place, a symbol of the presence of God in the land, but really, Eli’s priesthood was strictly about maintenance—keeping the lamp of God lit, ensuring that the sanctuary was in working order. Never a visionary at the best of times, over the years both his literal and figurative vision had begun to fail, to the point that now he had very little left of either kind. Not even able, on his own, to keep the sanctuary light burning, he’d needed to take on a young apprentice—a child, for goodness’ sake, by the name of Samuel. A good child, eager to learn, and quite a good help, but—you know how it is. Eli had now been reduced to this. If he had wanted to retire at the pinnacle of his career, this was a sad excuse for a pinnacle. Now, by rights, it would have been Eli’s sons keeping the light of God burning, Eli’s sons tending the sanctuary, Eli’s sons providing the leadership—and vision—in the land, Eli’s sons caring for the people. Priesthood, after all, was determined by bloodline rather than by gift or call, and, had all gone according to plan, Eli’s sons would have stepped up, taken on the priestly responsibilities, and led the people through Eli’s waning years, and well beyond. But therein lay the error of Eli’s ways, and also, no doubt, the shame and sorrow of his long life, because his sons had not come through as they ought to have done. No—worse than that—they had failed miserably, looked out after their own interests, abused their power, taken advantage of the vulnerable, cared not at all for their own people, wreaked havoc in Shiloh and throughout the whole land, and brought disaster upon everyone. And what had Eli done to rein in these incorrigible sons of his, and require of them responsible and faithful behavior? Well, that’s just it. Eli had done precisely nothing. He’d spoiled them rotten, allowed them to go their own way, and never once exercised over them the kind of authority he’d needed to exercise, if the way of the God of Israel was to be observed in the land, and the covenant was to be maintained, and the light of God was to continue to burn in a meaningful way. We can see how that could happen. He’d had to make a choice, and who could choose against their own sons? No, Eli had failed in almost every aspect of his priesthood. Thanks largely to his lack of discipline in relation to his scoundrel sons, the word of God was rare in the land, and visions were not widespread.

But never mind all that. When, finally, a divine word was spoken, to the young boy who slept in the sanctuary in order to trim the wick of the light of God and keep it constantly burning—when, finally, a word was spoken, passing harsh judgment on Eli’s sons and chastising Eli for failing to get them under control—when, finally, a word was spoken, taking from Eli’s family line the privilege of leadership, and pointing the entire land in a new direction, with a mere child being called as a prophet, a mere child promised that he would become the wise and trustworthy prophet Eli never had been, a mere child promised that he would guide the people through a period of discernment and decision-making, thus rendering Eli and his family redundant and irrelevant—notice Eli’s graciousness. Notice how he opens his knotted fists and simply lets go of the ages-old tradition of his family, lets go of the hopes and dreams of an entire lifetime, accepting the judgment, embracing the oncoming changes, and granting his blessing to the child who now is surpassing him, doing what he should have been doing, all along, but couldn’t, and hadn’t. Notice Eli’s graciousness: When the boy Samuel, terrified of passing on to the old priest the word of judgment he has been given, is cajoled into doing just that, what does Eli say? Does he say, “How dare you fabricate the word of God? How dare you take authority for yourself? After all I’ve done for you! Get out of this sanctuary!”? No. Eli says, “This truly is God’s word. Let it be done according to God’s will,” and he passes the mantle of leadership over to Samuel. Graciousness. In that moment of graciousness, to my way of thinking, at least, Eli’s life is redeemed, his failure transformed into faithfulness. At great personal cost, he has opened himself to God’s word, and to the change that that word promises and proclaims. With no sign of resentment whatsoever shown toward the child who now will play the role Eli’s children should have played—claiming their birthright—Eli gives Samuel his blessing. Graciousness. And by that gracious handing-over of authority, and leadership, and vision, by that gracious recognition, and hearing, and acceptance of the word of God, the future is secured.

May we be so gracious. May we be so gracious, in this time of rare words and sparse visions. May we be so gracious as to recognize the word of God when it finally is spoken—and perhaps not directly to us, but, surprisingly, to those still young and inexperienced in life, those just learning the ways of a new and complex world—when the word comes to us secondhand, takes from our shoulders the mantle of authority, calls leaders who aren’t our own kin, and speaks of a future we neither recognize nor understand. May we be so gracious, for it is by such graciousness that the tradition carries on—changed though it may be. May we be so gracious, for it is by such graciousness that the future is secured—unfamiliar though that future may be. May we be so gracious, for it is by such graciousness that the past is redeemed.

And so old Eli, risen to the level of his incompetence, his vision gone from him, his sons the source of great heartache, his priesthood no longer effective (if it ever really was), becomes a model for us of an odd sort of faithfulness—a faithfulness that never would equal that of an Abraham or a Moses, but a faithfulness that is faithfulness, nonetheless. In the end, Eli is gracious, and his graciousness makes way for a giant shift in history.

Now, note that that shift in history wasn’t, ultimately, a roaring success, even if it wasn’t ultimately, an abject failure. Samuel’s leadership will allow the people to opt for a monarchy in Israel, and we know how controversial monarchies can be, and how dependent on the goodness, the wisdom, and the integrity of each particular occupant of the royal throne. Samuel, in his turn, will need to act graciously, and against his own better judgment, in establishing the monarchy and finding and anointing Israel’s first king. He’ll need to allow the people to grow up, so to speak, and make their own mistakes, and take responsibility for those mistakes. Eli, the old priest, muddling around in the sanctuary, has one faithful act left in him, and that is to model for the child Samuel the kind of graciousness that can let go of power, and authority, and control over the future, with no guarantee that right decisions will be made, and that faithfulness will continue—no guarantee that the light of God will be kept burning. No guarantee. Just trust in the child he’s been privileged to have had a hand in raising, there in the sanctuary where the sacred light has burned, and reliance on the promises of his good—and gracious–God.

Hmm. Gives us material to ponder, doesn’t it? More grist for the old spiritual mill. Another challenge to mull over, while we’re shoveling the church sidewalk, or washing the church tea towels, or folding the church bulletins, or practicing the church anthems—while we’re collectively keeping the light of God burning in the sanctuary we know and love so well. Even when we’ve got only one last act left in us, may it be an act of graciousness, an act of trust in our gracious God—an act that secures a future for this tradition of faithfulness, unfamiliar though that future may be to us, and that, in so doing, redeems the past. May our last act be one of graciousness. As indeed old Eli’s was. Thanks be to God. Amen.

sermon for january 8, 2012

January 8, 2012—Baptism of Jesus

Mark 1:1-11

The word “gospel” means good news of the ultimate variety, and the gospel of Jesus Christ, according to Mark, begins with a decisive, intentional one hundred and eighty degree turn away from death, and toward life. The agent of that turn is John, known as the Baptizer, who has located himself in the wilderness, and who, like an old-time prophet, is calling people to repent, which literally means to make that turn, to turn their lives around, to re-orient themselves, to turn back to their Creator, placing God and God’s purposes in the centre of their universe once more. He’s offering a baptism of repentance, a ritual in which the person being baptized symbolically turns away from death to face life, full on, and then endeavours to keep on travelling in that direction. And, according to Mark, but not according only to Mark, a movement has formed around John, and people are flooding from the cities and towns to the Jordan River in order to repent. They’re opting out of the things in their lives and in their world that make for death, and flocking to the Jordan to commit themselves to life. Now such repentance—such reorienting—such turning around—passes judgment on that to which one’s back is now turned, and so, we can be sure, there will be consequences attached to seeking out John’s baptism. The decision to seek it out, then, requires great discernment, and even greater courage.

In those days, says Mark—those dangerous days in the brutal empire of Rome—Jesus comes from Nazareth of Galilee and is baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus comes out of Nazareth, and, intentionally and publicly and symbolically, turns his back on the power of death that’s vying to rule his world, and his face toward the power of life—toward his Creator, his God. And all heaven breaks loose.

So begins the gospel, the good news, according to Mark. With repentance. With a turning, away from death, and toward life. With Jesus’ decision about the purposes his life will serve, and the purposes it will refuse to serve. From here on in, what will unfold will be the living out of that decision, with gentleness, grace, humility, compassion, and great courage. And others will be called to join him along the way in his healing, mending, life-giving work—to turn their backs on the power of death, and their faces toward life. There, at the Jordan River, the gospel begins with a turning.

And now here we are, in another New Year, in the midst of complicated lives in a complex and often threatening world, finding ourselves confronted and challenged by this ancient call to repent—this ancient call to reorient our lives in relation to our Creator—to turn our backs on death and our faces toward life once again. Here we are, longing for the strength, the courage, the initiative, to do just that—to make the turn, once and for all—to walk out of the city and down to the Jordan and plunge into its waters, and free ourselves of all that keeps us from living lives of faithfulness, and compassion, and integrity. And then to rise up new people, our faces permanently turned toward life, toward our God, clear about the purposes our lives will now serve, and the purposes they will refuse to serve, ready to live as we were created to live, afraid of nothing, ready to join Jesus on his journey through Galilee, healing, and feeding, and proclaiming and serving the power of life.

We could almost go. We could almost make the turn, if there weren’t so much to lose, so many who depend on our staying the way we are, and where we are, so many who wouldn’t understand, who don’t think there’s anything at all deathly about the lives we live, or the purposes we serve, so many who would feel judged by our turning. We could almost go. But then we think of the consequences, and grow frightened, and sink back into our lives of comfortable despair.

And yet . . . the gospel begins with a turning from death to life, with a reorienting of lives in relation to the Creator, with a realignment of human purposes according to the purposes of God. And we, and our world, are in desperate need of gospel—of good news. Perhaps if, in one small thing, we made that turn, it would be a beginning. Perhaps, if in one small thing, we chose to ignore the consequences, and intentionally chose life, in one of its many manifestations, over death, in one of its many disguises, and offered that choice up as repentance—as an act of turning back toward the God who made us—it would be a beginning. Perhaps, if we weren’t in it alone, but did it together, if we supported one another, we could make it to the river, and make the turn. Would the skies open, and all heaven break loose? I think it’s quite likely. And then . . . then, even in a tentative, beginning-sort-of-way, we could rise up new people. That would be gospel, wouldn’t it?

That table over there looks like a table. It doesn’t much look like the Jordan River. It can, however, be a place of turning away from death and toward life—a place of re-orientation, re-alignment with the purposes of God. It can be a place of decision, a place where we commit ourselves anew to the power of life. It can be a place where gospel begins. So think about it, between now and communion. Think about turning your back on the things in your life and your world that make for death, and your face toward God, toward life. But be warned, my friends: if you do it, the skies might open. And all heaven just might break loose. And we might rise up new people.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon for December 18, 2011

December 18, 2011—Advent Four


Apparently—and the musicians among us could confirm this for the rest of us—“anticipation” is a technical term in music, describing an instance in which a single note is played prior to the chord to which the note belongs, and “resolves” when the “anticipated” chord finally is reached (Wikipedia, in the article “Non-Chord Tone.”). So, for example, a C chord includes the notes C, E and G, played all at once (because that’s what a chord is). An anticipation would occur when one of those three notes was played alone first, and then followed by the chord itself. Presumably, then, our ears are kind of naturally tuned to expect the anticipated chord after one of its member notes has been played. The note is played, and we wait for its resolution in a chord that makes musical sense to us— that’s pleasing to the ear—that fits, and is like a musical homecoming.

In Advent, we live in that kind of anticipation, in that space between the sounding of the single note, and its resolution in the chord in which the note belongs. We live with the kind of expectation, the kind of trust and the kind of hope that the single note stirs up within us. Isaiah’s promises: “Comfort, O comfort my people; speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and tell her that her warfare is ended . . .,” John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness, “Prepare a way!” Angels, appearing to Joseph, and to Mary, talking about what’s about to transpire in their lives and in their world. Mary, singing her Magnificat, calling for the mighty to be cast down from their thrones, and the meek to be lifted up from the dust. Our own voices, singing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel/that mourns in lowly exile here, until . . ..” Until. All these things sound that first note—that first tone that then leaves us hanging in the winter air, waiting until— waiting for the resolution that surely will come

with the birth of the promised child. In Advent, we live in the space between the note and the chord, trusting that the chord indeed will sound—that there will, ultimately, be resolution, and resolution of the most wondrous kind.

There are various definitions of the musical phenomenon known as anticipation, and some of them suggest that, at least some of the time, the sounding of the initial note creates a momentary dissonance—a sound that’s momentarily jarring, or incongruous—not immediately pleasing to the ear—unharmonious, and even harsh. And the dissonance creates in the listener an even more profound yearning for the resolution that will come with the chord that follows. Whether or not this dissonance rightly is part of the musical definition of anticipation, it may be rightly said to be part of the spiritual experience of anticipation. The sense of things not fitting neatly, not sounding quite the way we would like them to sound, of being slightly askew, or off-centre, quite accurately describes much of our experience in today’s world—and particularly so in the season of Advent, when our awareness of how very far we are from peace on earth and goodwill among the earth’s people is heightened. And so our Advent anticipation takes on a bittersweet feel, and is infused with a stronger and more urgent yearning for resolution.

The thing about our Advent waiting is that we’re shaped, not only by the note that we’ve already heard, but also by the chord that we haven’t heard yet — we’re shaped by the resolution—the homecoming—before it’s made fully manifest in our lives— while it’s still only hinted at. And so our Advent waiting requires trust, and imagination, and a kind of discernment, to notice the places where the resolution is implied—anticipated—the places that seem to be humming the chord before it’s fully sounded. Ironically, mysteriously, and even miraculously, waiting that’s shaped by the One for whom we wait brings the future into the present, and makes that One manifest in the here and now. In other words, waiting for “Immanuel”—God-with-us— waiting for the Incarnation—waiting for the Revelation of The Holy—starts the work of transforming us even before the birth takes place. Or at least, it has the potential to do so. In Advent, then, anticipation becomes a holy occupation. Anticipation actually, physically, in this world, prepares the way of the One who is to come, and reflects the character of that One. It hums the chord before it’s actually sounded.

Clearly, then, Advent anticipation goes far deeper than simply getting ready for Christmas celebrations—laying in the provisions, hanging the decorations, doing the baking, shopping for presents. Advent anticipation involves offering our hearts and lives for reshaping by the One whose birth we await—opening our hearts and lives to transformation. It involves remem-bering promises, pondering meaning, discerning places where the promise is being fulfilled, and actually living in a new way—a way suggested by our longing and our hope—a way that bears witness to the new reality that we’re convinced is coming into the world—a way that hums the chord that the earth longs to hear, thus pointing to a resolution of the earth’s current dissonance and disharmony.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my heart rejoices in God my Saviour, sings the Mary of Luke’s Gospel, taking the angel at his word and anticipating the great re-ordering of all reality that will take place when her child is born. Anticipating. Rejoicing as if that great re-ordering already had begun to take place, which, of course, it had. This was Mary’s holy occupation as she awaited the birth. As it is our holy occupation: to anticipate the great re-ordering, and to rejoice as if, and because, it has begun to take place. Having heard the note, to live lives that hum the chord, until.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon for December 11, 2011

December 11, 2011—Advent Three


At the lighting of the White House Christmas tree in December, 2005, the great writer Maya Angelou delivered a poem that began like this:

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes

And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.

Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow,

falls upon snow to avalanche

Over unprotected villages.

The sky slips low and grey and threatening.[1]

We question ourselves.

What have we done to so affront nature?

We worry God. Are you there? Are you there really?

Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

“Does the covenant you made with us still hold?” the poet asks, and we ask it with her. God, does the covenant you made with us still hold? Are your promises still good? Will you ever make good on those promises? In language lovely and loving, Impassioned and compassionate, Your prophets spoke that promise to us: a garland instead of ashes; the oil of gladness instead of mourning; the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. You promised us these things. But time passed, and still we wait, and thunder rumbles in the mountain passes.

We ponder promises. As Pat so poetically phrased it for us this morning, we think of promises made, promises kept and promises broken. We wonder what it is that makes a divine promise trustworthy—worthy of our trust—deserving of our faith—especially when the fulfillment of those promises seems to be taking so long. Divine promises that are kept, we tend to believe, are kept all at once, in one fell swoop of wonder and glory, and they’re kept in a way that’s unmistakable, with trumpets sounding and angels singing. It doesn’t occur to us that they might be kept incrementally, in a one-step-forward-two-steps-back, two-steps-forward-one-step-back, one-war-started-two-wars-ended kind of a way, or quietly, with the sound of falling snow, the sound of a candle flame, of the breath of a sleeping child,of a hand, gently reaching out to hold a hand, in a hospital room.

Promises, we tend to believe—and especially divine promises—are one-sided things, kept only by the Onewho speaks them, if that One intends to keep them. It doesn’t occur to us that promises might need us in order to be fulfilled. We’re only recipients of those promises, we think. Passive recipients. We don’t think of ourselves as active participants in their unfolding, in their being made manifest in the world, in their coming true.

Promises, we tend to believe, evade us, remain distanced from us, out of sight if not out of mind, unless and until they’re realized among us. We don’t think of them as present with us, carrying us, comforting us, healing us, long before they might be said to have been fulfilled.

And so, we worry God. Are you there? Are you there really? Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Are your promises still good?

Standing beneath the Christmas tree in a place of great power, among people of great power, the aging poet continues:

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,

Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope

And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.

The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,

Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.

Thunder ebbs to silence

and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.

Flood waters recede into memory.

Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us

As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children

It rides on the shoulders of our aged

as they walk into their sunsets.

Hope spreads around the earth.

Brightening all things,

Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corners.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.

At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.

We listen carefully as it gathers strength.

We hear a sweetness. The word is Peace.

It is louder now. It is louder.

Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.

It is what we have hungered for.

Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.

A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.

Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.

A garland instead of ashes; the oil of gladness instead of mourning; the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit: the promise still is spoken, still is trustworthy, still is deserving of our faith, still struggles toward its fulfillment. Quietly, it falls like snow into our midst, making only the difference we’re open to noticing. The promise needs us to welcome it, make a straight path for it, run out to greet it, take its hand and show it where first it must come true, softly, silently, incrementally, like the falling snow. And, as we lead it, the promise carries us, comforts us, heals us. Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner. Flood waters recede to memory. Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us as we make our way to higher ground.

Does the covenant God made with us still hold? Are God’s promises still good? “Yes,” whisper the candles that we’ve lit this day. “Yes,” whisper our hearts, knowing what it is to be healed. “Yes,” whispers our weary world, knowing what it is to be carried from one difficult day to the next. Yes, the covenant still holds. Yes, God’s promises are good, and strong, and true. Yes, peace is making its way into our midst. Yes, Christ will be born. And yes, heaven and nature will sing.