Thursday, December 21, 2017

Pointing to Jesus - Giving way to God

The 3rd and 4th Sundays in Advent
Year B
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Luke 1:26-38

The fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve.  And like December birthdays it so easily gets lost in the mix, and so I’d like to combine the two Sundays, the 3rd Sunday of Advent last week and the 4th upcoming.   In particular I’d like you to hold the two principal characters of the Gospels (from John and Luke, respectively) from these two Sundays in your mind:  St John the Baptist and Mary, the mother of our Lord - significant characters – both of them remembered, preached about, enshrined in stained glass in churches around the world, but whose significance is not so much based on what they do as on what they allow.  Their bodies and their beings are not so much hammers and javelins as they are doors and passageways.  I probably need to explain.

Many of you wonder how much significance you have in the world around you.  It’s clear you have some ambition at work.  It’s clear from the contribution you would like to make to your church or the associations you belong to.  You want to say your bit.  It’s even evident from your family life.  Ask your children whether mum or dad still wants to hold some of the reins. 

It’s a thing – personal power.  You know it and the people around you know it.  Alfred Adler parted company with Sigmund Freud over Freud’s belief that sex was as much a fulcrum for the motivation of human beings.  Adler looked at it differently – no, he said, it is the quest for significance which motivates us.

Some of you have been beaten down in that.  You have the look of loss about you – what Adler meant when he coined the phrase “the inferiority complex”.  Some of you project an air of humility but behind all that you have a plan.   Other folks can hear the wheels turning.

Who are you then?  You might be on the younger end of life:  The sort of person who is battling in your salad days for a place on the ladder at work, for recognition among your social circle, for a listening ear in your family who haven’t cottoned on to the fact that you’re your own person now.  You’re somebody who would like to nail that funding, write that great Canadian novel, throw off the watching eye of the matriarchs and patriarchs – create your own footprint. 

Or flip it around:  Perhaps your bus pass is not far down the road:  You worry that you will be superseded by people who are younger and stronger than you and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  The children are grown, your spouse is already answering questions with that Mmmm yes tone of voice indicating that he or she has not fully listened to you.   You may simply be trying simply to hold on to the gains you have made.

If someone were to say to you – younger or older - that the key to life is learning to step aside and that great power is involved in giving way in the days of your strength you might find that a hard argument to accept – quite counterintuitive, really.

The record of John is this:  that when he was questioned by the envoys of the Scribes and Pharisees about himself, at what must have seemed like the height of his career, with his preaching attracting not only people from the suburbs of Jerusalem out to his desert pulpit but residents of Jerusalem itself in considerable numbers – when he was questioned sharply about who he was he declared openly and clearly that he was not the expected Messiah.  Asked further whether he was some heavenly adjutant like Isaiah or Elijah returned from the dead he answered plainly:  I am not the Christ, nor am I Isaiah or Elijah.  I am just a voice and the one I announce is somebody other than me.  This success I take off and lay to the side.  I announce another.  Jump ahead a couple of chapters and he puts it even more succinctly:

"He must increase and I must decrease."

Mary hears the news from the angel Gabriel that her youth is being asked of God as a gift.  On the cusp of her adult life, God asks her for what must be the substance of her near future.  She will be overshadowed by the Most High  She must risk the marriage which is about to begin – her status in her community – the stability of the ordinary family life she had every right to and for which her community, her upbringing and even her own piety had prepared for her.  Her imagined future happiness, says the angel, must now include a sword which will pierce her soul also. 

Biblical writers - describing conversations between God and a human agent be it Moses, or a prophet or such like – often leave out the silences.  God proposes and the human responds.  What gets missed in the narrative is that moment of silence which we must read in to the text – that necessary interlude, brief or not – where both Yes and No are possible answers.  Mary’s response to the angel, when it occurs, is her considered promise to be useful in the birth of something wonderful which is beyond herself. 

"I am the handmaid of the Lord.  
Be it unto me according to his word."

You were obliged in school to run at least one relay race.  You ran your portion of the track and then handed on the baton.  You’ve doubtless walked around graveyards filled with people who had their day.  It’s no mystery that we eventually give way in our generation.   If you are the sixth president of your Kiwanis club it is no Greek tragedy that there will be a seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth president.    Giving way is the most normal thing in the world in the long run and unless you are Chaucer or King Tut the memory of you will cease in all the land.

As you approach the end of the civic year and think about the new one looming up perhaps you feel a certain dis-ease.  Of what are you resolved as the new year begins?  What did you accomplish in the last?  Do you resolve to be more of a hammer this year?  Would you chuck your javelin a little further along the track this year, conquer a little more territory, build up your walls a little stronger – dominate the resources around you a little more effectively, do that thing, write those words, settle that challenge?

Take stock, won't you, of what has the greatest value.  The angels gathering around the birth, unlike Gabriel, have no names.  The names we attribute to the Wise Men are mere legend.  Nobody knows who the shepherds were.  They gathered to witness the arrival of what they could not give themselves, what no end of human ability will ever supply and what you, at your best, will never be.  Resolve at least, this Christmas, to place your trust in what you do not have yourself – to point, as John did to what shows itself to be stronger, better and more beautiful than you.   Allow yourself, as Mary did, to be a channel for something you can never own yourself.  Allow wonder to replace confidence.  Truth and beauty are given to us from elswhere.  Unwrap then, with this newfound attitude of wonder, the gift 

Which has been prepared for you.  
And for the people you love.  
And for people you have never even met.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Showing up for good news or bad

The Second Sunday of Advent
Year B
Mark 1:1-8

Mark’s Gospel says that that John “appears” in the wilderness.  What an odd verb in English.  It’s like he pops up out of the sand. 

In any case - he’s there, anyway, ahead of the action, like a “roadie” setting up the microphones before the concert.  Or somebody laying the table for a meal before the guests arrive.  

Mark is the earliest Gospel - the Gospel which Luke and Matthew had in their hands when they wrote their own and, as an introduction to Jesus and his public ministry, it is awfully abrupt.   Where are the shepherds?   Where’s King Herod or the hasty flight to Egypt?    No, just a man - in the desert - setting the stage.  John doesn’t even get the first word in after the title phrase - that job is given to the prophet Isaiah.

2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

In fact it’s a mix of Isaiah’s “voice in the wilderness” with something which Malachi said about a “messenger” or maybe even something taken from the Book of Exodus about an “angel” leading the way.  If you follow these source readings back, you will find the recurring theme of things not being allowed to continue as they were.  In the Book of Exodus, God says the Terror and Pestilence will precede his leading angel.  Isaiah has the revolutionary idea that the mountains will tumble, and valleys be lifted up.  Malachi promises not only the cleanliness following the liberal use of a “fullers soap” but the purity which only a refiner’s hot fire will be able to deliver.  The process of change is not going to be easy.  The world will be scrubbed, burnt and turned on its backside.  John says more or less the same thing in his preaching:  

"The axe is laid to the root of the tree."

A day of reckoning is at hand.

When the registered letter was delivered to you by the postie, she had a smile on her face.   You passed the time of day over the fence but you knew (and she knew) that good news never arrives by registered mail.  

A little man from the Prefecture showed up with a measuring tape to check that your doors were the regulation height. 

The inspector from Weights and Measures had a measure of volume to see if you were selling full litres of gasoline for the announced price.  

Someone demanded to see your underwear drawer.  

"We’ll need a character reference from your last love interest", said the person with the clipboard.   

"A performance evaluation has been scheduled for you at work next week.  We thought you should know."  

You get my drift.  It’s that sort of day.  You remember that it was late afternoon when you got the news. The sun was shining.  You can even remember what you were wearing when word came to you.

Not everyone is broken hearted, mind.  Someone, somewhere, is rejoicing.  Remember that John’s words to the Pharisees:

“You brood of vipers!”

is only one end of the spectrum of readings this Sunday.  The earlier reading is from Isaiah 40:

“Comfort ye, my people!”

Like the folks who’ve been bumping their heads on your low doors, like the customers at your gas station who’ve suspected for years that you’ve been giving short measure but you’re the only gas station in the village.  Your spouse has complained bitterly that your ties and your jack-knife don’t belong with your underwear.   And that last love interest of yours?  She thinks you’re a jerk and wouldn't mind at all if the day finally came when you were called for it. 

What about that performance evaluation, anyway?  Maybe it’s just the ticket.  Your co-workers think you get away with blue murder.  They know how bad it is for morale on the floor.  Bad news for you is good news for them.   

But why is it not good news for you too?  

It would be – there are people who love you who believe it could be -  if you’d agree to let the knife carve away what is rotten and hurtful, wasteful and frivolous.  If you’d look beyond your own interests

It is a terribly difficult thing to do but we shouldn’t be dramatic.   People do it all the time.   Choices become clear when light increases and they also become possible. 

You could always run away, 
you could hide, 
or resist 
or pretend 
or just not show up

and so avoid being laid bare by this amalgam of good news and bad but people are, in the main, pretty courageous.   They both tolerate, and sometimes even dig up from within, honest reappraisals of themselves.  Like I said – people do it all the time.

I jotted these words down earlier in the week.  Maybe I get them wrong.  John is not performing the opening act for some process of self-improvement for moderns.  That would be twisting this reading out of its context and I don’t want to do that.  He is, in fact, announcing a dramatic turn in history where God approaches his people and where an unexpected cast of characters open themselves to that approach.  They show up - in droves.  The usual suspects and the unusual.  They permit themselves to be laid bare.  They express acts of repentance and demonstrate their faith.  They are not only witnesses but they become participants as Creation is reformed restated and reinstated in its beauty.

Who will be in attendance?  
Who will show up?  
Who is not allowed to come? 

Subsequent chapters of Mark’s Gospel have Jesus preaching and telling parables.  In village squares, on hillsides, in private homes - to individuals - to groups.  He’s fishing.  

For you?  
For more deserving people than you?  

He’s casting his net into the lake.  He’s chucking out his lure into the sea.  He’s throwing out the option to come out and be present and be part of God’s Kingdom.  And nobody – no matter how compromised – is excluded from the invitation. 

You could be there.  

At long last, it could be good news for you.  If you are hungry enough to be part of that movement in human history, you will be there.  In spite of yourself and in spite of your experience the last time you tried.   You could be so struck by the prospect of life that all your excuses for being a no-show could wither away.

When the scrubbing is done and when the fire has done its work in you, you won’t be missing much.   You will have gained everything.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 9 – Year A
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

I’m quite taken by the family’s blessing of Rebekah from the Genesis reading – the reading which Sheryl read to us this morning.

“May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads

A young person stands at the threshold of a life which is rich and open.  There’s something appealing here – I would like my life to be that rich and that open.  I regret the parts of it which may over time have become stunted or locked up.  Lucky Rebekah.  She was young and she must have been in the right place at the right time.

There’s a moment in the first reading when Rebekah slips down the side of her camel, veils herself and prepares to meet the man she will spend her life with.  In our story, this is the happy result.  Go back a bit though.  It follows from an earlier moment after the servant explained how God had led him to Rebekah at the well when her family turns to the young woman and asks – so what do you think?  Will you go with this man?  I refer to these as “moments” by the way because they are powerful little self-contained units which communicate their contents well.  I can imagine the film scene.  I can imagine the painting which some Flemish artist might have painted.  If Caireen were up here telling you the story she would no doubt tell it with all the different voices – including the camel’s voice.

When we gather again in greater numbers at the beginning of September, someone will ask you at coffee time:  So how was your holiday with your family?  

 It had its moments – might be the reply. 

Ah, you say, let me pour myself a coffee and you can tell me about it

We are not expecting to hear about a holiday that had its minutes, are we?  We don’t care that it lasted exactly one or two or three weeks, we are expecting to hear about a holiday which had its moments – we are more concerned about its contents – either good or bad – eventful – joyful – painful. 

We use the word moment and the word minute quite interchangeably.  Take a minute to think before you answer we say to people who are about to take an exam or testify in a court case.  We could have said take a moment to think because we never meant that they should count to sixty.    The first use of the word had nothing to do with time at all – it described a unit of force.  Archimedes used the term to describe the action of levers of various lengths upon their fulcrums.  We might use the word “torque” in its place.  That alternate current meaning of the word moment should have something to do with forces of various kinds – the force necessary to overcome inertia, electrical energy or somesuch.   And even if you’re not an engineer we still use the word Momentum and the adjective Momentous which give us some sense of the difference between a minute and a moment.

And because I’m old and boring I’m going to further illustrate by relating to you a minute of my childhood.

I am ten years old and walking to school.  I walk down the path from our house and turn right on Transit Road.  I carry on to the first stop sign where I intend to turn left.  If I’m walking at my normal rate it takes me just more than a minute to reach that stop sign.    

Let me tell you about a moment from my childhood.

I am ten years old and going to school in Victoria B.C. from my house which is 200 yards from the Pacific Ocean.   I walk out the front door and down the path to the street into fog as thick as pea soup.  The foghorn on Trial Island – just off shore - is sounding its deep two-note blast.  Somebody on our street is burning oak leaves and the air is rich with the smell.  It’s also low tide and mingled in with the smell of the burning leaves is the smell of the seaweed rotting on the beach. The short trip to the first stop sign takes a little longer than a minute because I keep stopping to listen to the sounds and smell the air.  That’s a moment.   You could write a poem about it, it has a shape, it has substance.  Three unrelated worlds weave together into a fabric.  The burning leaves and the smelly beach have nothing to do with the fog or with each other, the foghorn has nothing to do with a small boy’s trip to school but the reason small boys are so often late for school and don’t get the gold star on the chart is that they stop to look at stuff along the way – at the way worlds which are them and worlds which are not them weave together at their intersection into a moment.

Being small one tends to be hit by moments – they happen to you – small people and adults who retain their sense of wonder even in their riper years – are struck by their moments.  They have little authorship over them.  They are lucky to have them. 

Let’s nail this down.  Are you one of those who would like to be fruitful and are not – to be myriads and are not – who would love to rediscover the openness, the beauty and the complexity of life and are not there today.   Doesn’t it seem a little bit cruel simply to say you should stand around until you are struck by something.    That’s no gift.  It would be a bit like saying that on behalf of the Anglican tradition we sincerely hope your lucky number comes up. 

I am compelled tell you another story.

There is a bit of family tradition handed down, from somebody on my mother’s side, that when my great grandfather was studying for the Presbyterian ministry at Queen’s College in Kingston Ontario at the end of the 19th Century, one of the College’s previous graduates wrote back to his friends that the work he was doing in China (on the eve of the Boxer Rebellion) was proving impossible without a wife and could somebody please help him out.  The story has it that a small group paid a visit to the missionary and deaconess’ training home in Toronto and enquired of the young women enrolled there whether any amongst them felt the vocation to marry a missionary in the field. 

I cannot imagine the story without a bit of embarrassed silence.  There must, surely, have been a bit of a pause - an awkward moment.   

As it happened, the query was met with agreement by one young woman in Toronto.  Yes, she felt so inclined.  Letters presumably were exchanged and the young woman packed her trunks and sailed to China at the beginning of a hazardous decade for foreigners (and especially missionaries) living in that country.  One man’s history weaves into the history of one woman – not as an accident or a happy exception or blind luck - but as the fruit of risks taken by the one who asks and the one who answers.

In our first reading this Sunday, Abraham’s servant is given the task of finding a wife for Isaac from amongst his kinsfolk in Mesopotamia.  The servant prays to God for direction, establishes the criteria by which he will know God is so directing him and is subsequently led to the young woman Rebekah who is drawing water at the local well.  Later, when the servant has spoken with her family, they turn to the girl. 

“Will you go with this man?” they ask.   “I will” she says. 

The young woman’s agreement leads to the family’s blessing

“May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” 

The faith of Abraham’s bonded servant intersects with a young woman’s freedom to say “yes” or “no” and the story culminates in blessing.   Our story weaves together those things which simply are or which “must be” (either by God’s command or by Abraham’s will) with what “could or could not be” due to family politics and individual choice.  Energy – you see - goes into the equation from two sides.  

The question is asked.  The answer is “yes”.  The door to a world opens. 

I hope you’ll give some thought to where you are right now.  Maybe I’m preaching to the choir but you may have some sadness at the thought that you will never see an open door in front of you, or a new horizon, or be better and bigger than you are now.  Is any of this remotely important to you?  Does it hit a nerve with anyone?  Are you disappointed that you may never see the moment when you slip down the side of your camel into blessing or get from where you are now to that fruitful and hopeful place? 

Our key story this morning concerns much more than lucky cards or lucky stars.  Her moment is as much about the word “yes” issuing from Rebekah’s lips as it was about Abraham’s servant having discerned that she was the one.   Our engagement allows and even creates moments.  The weaving together of worlds happens because we want it and because we do it.  By our affirmation, by way of our curiosity and because of our willingness - by the word “yes” which we utter.  Few of us stand on ground so sloped in the right downward direction that entry and discovery are something that we merely fall into by the power of gravity or the weight of events.  Nor are our decisions ever so distilled in pure forms, apart from the ordinary particularity of our lives and families, that the choice is merely obvious. 

Secret gardens, hidden doors, the way in and the way out of labyrinths, pearls of great price discovered amongst lesser gems, all the treasures ever found in fields by nameless characters in Jesus’ parables, and - yes - the very thing which you – men and women, boys and girls - want or need - these are to be found by seekers.  

Will you go with this man?  Will you engage with this community?  There is something you can do.  You’ll do it if you want it enough.  It requires engagement and risk - undertaking tasks which extend beyond your pay-grade and beyond the bounds of what is proven to be safe. For that matter, even beyond the bounds of what is generally considered polite conversation. 

Friday, March 17, 2017


Safe to say that for the time being this blog is "resting" and will be reenergised in the near future.  Regular postings continue on the Prospect blog which is linked to our parish website

see you again soon when i get a new idea

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

A Liberal Application of Ashes III

The language used by the celebrant at an Ash Wednesday service for the “imposition of ashes” is nothing if not sharp:

Remember (your name here) that you are dust.
To dust you shall return.

Don't blurt out something like this to the stranger in the aisles of a grocery store. You might find yourself answering questions like:

Why did you say such an aggressive and unsettling thing to a stranger?
What gave you the right to intrude on somebody else's sense of well-being?

Tonight you are volunteers. And the words in question are part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy and not a personal blurt on my part. But are they even news? Who needs to be reminded that life is short and human nature is flawed? Isn't it the comic book caricature of the clergyman that he's the old guy up at the front of the church who looks at people in good health and enjoying their lives rather a lot, so that he can shake his finger at them and say – “it won’t last, you know!” 

He tells the beautiful that they will soon be old and ugly.
He tells the strong that they will weaken and fade.
He tells those proud of the recent past that their achievements are really just so much dry grass.

Why would anyone want to be such a professional wet blanket? No let this old clergyman at the front of the church rejoice with you about what everything which is good and lively and on the ascendant in your daily life.

And, frankly, like most pastors I can conjure up in my mind the faces of people who I know to be currently struggling with the deathward stance their lives have taken. They are ill and their bodies will not get better. A treasured relationship has died and will never be restored. They were sidelined in their employment or vocation. They are caught up by their own deep moral flaw or are the victims of that same flaw in somebody else. The bloom is off their rose. They’ve been around the block. They've seen too much. What more could their parish priest possibly add as he advances upon them this evening at the beginning of an Ash Wednesday service with a black and dripping thumb:

V. Remember, Roger, that you are dust. To dust you shall return.
R. Thank you, Father, I knew that.

We might hypothesize somebody who is "not in the know" about the fragility of life or the limits of their own natural goodness. They are in the darlings of everybody at work, they are regulars at the gym, they have perfect children with good teeth and an immaculate house – but in order for them to be that ignorant about life they would also have to be people who didn’t read or who had no vicarious experience of other people’s grief and contingency. I’m not sure that such people - devoid of questions, doubts or depth – even exist. If they did, then I suppose that a liberal application of ashes accompanied by aggressive words reminding them of the shortness and uncertainty of human life meant to assault their self-reliance would be perfectly in order. We might be doing them a favor although, frankly, I’m not sure you'd find them here at an evening Ash Wednesday service or our service at noon today at the office unless it were completely out of habit or unless they’d walked into the wrong doorway by mistake and were too embarrassed to get up and leave.

So why are we here? And what is this sharp language and this small plate of ashes about? What are we beating ourselves up about? It’s precisely this, I believe: If the language is sharp it is not meant to say that your lives or your activities are bad or without value. In fact, it’s a message that heads in quite the opposite direction: the sharp language underscores the tremendous value to be found in our lives, our pursuits and our allegiances by reminding us of the frame within which these events take place and that we must honour the time we have been given.

The American poet Carl Sandburg wrote a poem called Limited in his 1916 collection entitled Chicago Poems. It goes like this:

I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains of the nation.​
Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air go fifteen all-steel coaches 
   holding a thousand people.​
(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men and women laughing in the  
   diners and sleepers shall pass to ashes.)​
I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he answers: “Omaha.”

What is a limitation if not the edge of something. Quite neutral really - it defines where the thing stops and something else begins. Or where the thing stops and mere space begins.

Think of it this way: You are at the bottom of Puy de Dome and you have your easel set up and your paints out on the tray. You are painting a picture of the Puy de Dome with all the paragliders swirling around its top and the funicular train heading up the slope and the communications tower on the top. There’s a lot you might dream about painting but you do not have the liberty of including everything to the infinite right or left, to the utter east or west. You’re not painting Issoire or Vichy.

Your canvas has an edge.  When the painting is finished it will have a frame and the frame defines what the subject is and ensures that it is not some other thing. Let your mind drift to Issoire or Vichy or Le Puy-en-Velay. Today, in this time and place you are painting Puy-de-Dome.

Without its frame life is, at best, undefined. If you come to one of our soup suppers down at 42 you will be dished out a bowl of soup. You will be dished out a certain amount depending on the ratio of soup to hungry humans. Look into the bottom of your bowl.  There is your meat and veg. . That is your portion. And your portion, generous or slender, is not infinite.

These ashes are not the church's attack on youth, beauty, strength, innocence, the pride in one’s achievements or healthy egos. They remind us pointedly that our time on earth is finite and the beautiful things of life and the noble things and the worthy things must be chased down and worked towards.

Or think of it this way: It is my experience that people, in the wake of a funeral, or a great and troubling event, feel disturbed. Beyond feelings of sympathy or empathy for the family of the deceased and beyond even the immediate loss of somebody loved and valued, they are disturbed about what this means for them. There is a nagging recognition of life's ticking clock. The question posed by the death of a friend or by a disasterous event are these:

Have the requisite colours been added to my painting - here in this 30th year of my life or the 40th or even the 58th? What about my broken relationships which have never been mended and which are unmended for want of a conversation or a letter? What about my youthful vow to “straighten up and fly right?” - to be courageous and self-giving? What about the midlife promise to recover that early vow?

Having thrown our handful of earth into the grave after the funeral we brush the dust from our hand as we walk back to the car and hope that the unsettled feeling passes and that life returns to normal. We wipe the smudge off our forehead with a soapy washcloth at the end of the Ash Wednesday service and with it perhaps the healthful but troubling question will disappears.

Which would be a shame, really, because that's exactly the question that this service wants to pose. It’s not an accusation that we are shallow and stupid people of whom little good can be said.

We are the living.
We are the mostly healthy.
And we have years left to us.

To become aware that we must make the most of our days, to seek out love and to take risks, to discover the enduring value of relationships and commitments would be the gift of a lifetime.

*the "III" in this indicates that this is the third iteration of a sermon which I have been slowly cobbling together over the years.  This is the third version.  By the time I retire it'll be a corker.

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