Oct 13, 2013: Gratitude in Abundance by Rev Beth Hayward

Luke 17:11-19   Oct 13-13  

This past Thursday morning Canada woke up and took notice as one of our own was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.  Whether you count yourself as an appreciator of Alice Munroe’s short stories or not the buzz was hard to miss.   A columnist in the Globe and Mail wrote yesterday:  “The Nobel Prize for literature is known for refusing to bow to the most popular genres or national literatures… In venerating short stories…, it is taking a stance, defiantly promoting the obscure, the regional and the specialized.”

The obscure, regional and specialized is a rather accurate way to describe the work of Munroe.  Her stories are predominantly located in the small towns around Lake Huron:  places, even for those who live in godforsaken Ontario, of little significance.  Munro herself has no sense of self importance.  She once wrote:

I did not “choose” to write short stories.  I hoped to write novels.  When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children, particularly in the days before disposable diapers or ubiquitous automatic washing machines, it’s hard to arrange for large chunks of time….you’re better to stick with something you can keep in mind and hope to do in a few weeks, or a couple of months at most.  I know that there are lots of women who have written novels in the midst of domestic challenges… That’s why I thought I could do it too, but I couldn’t.  I took to writing in frantic spurts, juggling my life around until I could get a story done, then catching up on other responsibilities.

That’s the woman who rose this week to be honoured by Nobel: arguably the epitome of academic establishment. The irony is intriguing.

I like to think that Jesus had a tendency to promote the obscure, regional and specialised.  Luke tells us that Jesus was travelling to Jerusalem by way of ‘the region between Samaria and Galilee:’ a claim that pretty much defies geography. You can’t get there from there.  Talk about obscure.  The setting is not meant to be accurate but symbolic: it’s meant to describe a route through a land of outsiders, a place where the disenfranchised ones lived.  This is where Jesus encounters the lepers, people who were ostracized from the main stream. Lepers were both physically and ritually unclean, their disfiguring disease making them people easily set aside. They had to live in groups for their own safety and they had to beg but in such a way as to not come in contact with ‘clean people’.   So it is these ‘forgotten’ and ‘marginalized’ people, in this symbolic ‘foreign’ territory that Jesus encounters.

He enters a village and is approached by the lepers, respectfully keeping their distance. It’s a village – there are people around: people who will see; people who will hear. The lepers call out to Jesus: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”  People who are not welcome, in a land beyond the boundaries of acceptable community, call to Jesus to heal them. This is the gospel in microcosm. Jesus does what he is well-known to do; what people in authority criticize him for. He heals them. Well, not exactly. He tells them to “Go” – “Go show yourselves to the priests”. The irony is unmistakable: Jesus healing these outcasts – against the status quo of orthodoxy – and in so doing instructing them to go the priests. Go and get healed, you outcasts, by the people of the dominant institution.

In this moment of irony, something most astonishing happens. One of the ten comes back to Jesus and throws himself at Jesus’ feet in thankfulness. Only one. That makes some sense in the context. It was a risky moment: the nine got right out of town, not wanting to be seen in the company of the radical healer. The one, the Samaritan, the outsider, maybe he didn’t really understand the risk. All he had within him was healing – he needed to say something, to act, to express what must have been so deep, deep within him. He overflows in gratitude at the feet of the healer. And this is the crux of the story, as far as I can see:  the tenth leper, the only leper to come back and say thanks: noticed that he was healed.  He noticed and from his noticing the gratitude poured out.

There’s something that happens when we notice, something that shifts our focus and enables us to see that which was hidden before.  In Margaret Visser’s book The Gift of Thanks she writes about how the word give implies the potential of a response, explaining that you “don’t give a pot to the kitchen counter. One merely sets it down there.” Giving, only becomes meaningful through active receiving.  “It is the receiver’s acceptance-his response-that converts a mere thing, however generously handed over, into a gift.  Merely saying yes to a gift is already to enter into the action, where the giver, gift and receiver are parts of one performance-which could be the first in a series of such events.”   So when Jesus exclaims:  “But the other nine, where are they?” he is not chastising the fleeing lepers for not minding their manners.  He is crying out at the lost potential, the lost opportunity for the mutual dance of relationship that is always born from taking notice of what has been gifted.

This orientation to noticing has room to hold our brokenness and our very real struggles.  It is not about saying thank you because you ought to.  It’s about noticing what is.  Any one of us who has found ourselves in the most challenging places of our lives knows that even there, especially there we can notice gift.  I would argue that it is almost easier to be open to gift when we know our diagnosis or that of our loved one is terminal, easier to be open to gift when our hearts are broken and our defenses down.  Those are the times, when there is nothing to lose, that we run back to the giver and say thank you and our hearts are broken open to the powerful transformation of grace.

The more challenging task is to take notice when all is status quo.  When the gift is a burst of humour in hospital room, gratitude is easy. When the gift is the subtle changing of the colour of the leaves, another day of waking to the usual morning routine or found on the same old commute to work, it is harder to recognise.  When our lives are playing out in the ordinary the challenge to open our eyes and recognize gift in our midst becomes more difficult.  Those nine lepers missed an opportunity to offer gratitude and the beautiful blessing that would have come but we all miss the moment sometimes.  Presumably they were healed anyway:  they went to the priests and were declared clean, they weren’t punished for missing a moment.  So too when we forget to notice the utter blessing in our midst:  there is no punishment and a continual open invitation to notice next time.

Visser says:

Refusing to give or to be grateful is not immoral, as being unjust is immoral; it is rather a limitation, a closure against other people and a desire for nothing new, a failure to grow, a resolution against transcendence.  Giving and gratitude on the other hand, are the beginning and the stuff of transcendence: a free response in love to another person, to the group to which one belongs, to all groups in society including one’s own, to humankind as a whole, to the earth, to the universe and-both finally and first- to God.

What do you notice?  In the rhythm of your daily life, what is offered to you as gift that you are called to pay attention to?  What calls out to you offering healing and hope and light and grace? Are there moments in your every day that are gift?  We teach children young and early to say thank you but perhaps the greater life skill is to teach noticing, To take notice of the intricate beauty of the changing seasons, to take notice of the small ways others show us care, to take notice of the moments we are offered a helping hand or an open heart, to take notice of those in our communities you extend compassion:  the simple act of noticing leaves us overflowing with gratitude.

One commentator says:

Gratitude draws us out of ourselves into something larger, bigger, and grander than we could imagine and joins us to the font of blessing itself. Maybe, just maybe, gratitude… frees us from fear, releases us from anxiety, and emboldens us to do more and dare more than we’d ever imagined. Even to return to a Jewish rabbi to pay homage when you are a Samaritan because you’ve realized that you are more than a Samaritan, or a leper, or even a healed leper; you are a child of God, whole and accepted and beautiful just as you are.

I’ve noticed about you that you come to this place of worship not to get something out of it but to be open to what comes.  I’ve noticed you show deep care for one another and for stranger.  I’ve noticed your commitment to help one another evolve spiritually.  I’ve noticed the ways you celebrate the sacred mystery of life.  I’ve noticed.  What do you notice?

Alice Munroe once said:

A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.

The house, the story, the life always contains more than you saw the first time.  Taking notice is not a one-time opportunity, rather an invitation to visit the house again, to continually look with new eyes, observant eyes, eyes that are not looking for anything new but are simply looking:  ready to notice the rich landscape…the abundant gifts that touch us each and every day of our living.  As we nurture the skill of noticing, before long our hearts and our very being will overflow with gratitude.  And that’s the place where the giving will really begin.

Oct 6, 2013: Feasting on Abundance by Rev Beth Hayward

I received in the mail this week a hand written letter from my mother in law.  Her letters are always reminiscent of a time now gone:  where news a week old is greeted with curious anticipation as you find a favourite chair; carefully slit the envelope then settle in to read every last word.  Some claim that the fine art of letter writing has been lost and they may well be right.  I will always hold a rather romantic nostalgia about letter writing.  I keep a collection of my favorites tucked away in my special box: the letter from my favourite great uncle where he tells me what a gift I am to our family, the letters of support and encouragement sent to me when I was off at school or travelling the world.  In my memory these letters were a thread which kept me connected to the people who mattered.

On the rare occasion when I pull out one of these old letters I am surprised to see that in fact their contents are more about the mundane than the profound:  Judy came for tea today, went out to the store to pick up a few things, went to church: the sermon was awful!

The fine art of letter writing has more often served the purpose of conveying information than offering words of profound insight and encouragement to live by.  Yet, the way we remember a letter is far more important than what it actually said.  What we remember from letters is what really counts.  What we remember is the important thread that keeps us connected to our story.

Included in the Christian scriptures are twenty one letters.  They are the first written books of the New Testament and they reveal much about the dynamics and relationships of the early church.  Before us today is an excerpt from Paul’s second letter to Timothy:  A letter which most scholars agree was definitely not authored by Paul.  Instead: a few generations on someone thought it worthwhile to put on paper words that would invoke the spirit of Paul and his passion.  They weren’t so concerned in those days about copyright as they were about drawing forth the common thread.

There is a tone set in the excerpt before us today that is reminiscent of the letters we might cherish in our lives.  Paul, writing from prison, encourages Timothy to remember the roots of his spiritual life.  Remember the faith of your Mom and your Grandma. Don’t forget where you’ve come from, I know things might look overwhelming in this moment but remember your faith is deep rooted, so much larger than you alone.

You won’t be surprised to learn that people have studied the ways the early church was formed.  Asked questions about how those first followers of the Way made their way, shaped their identity?  Drawing on the social sciences at least two understandings are emerging and presented in the work of Hal Taussig.  He suggests the early church was formed through Collective memory and Performance memory:

“Collective memory functions primarily to shape the identity of those remembering rather than to report what happened.” (In the Beginning Was the Meal, Hal Taussig, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2009.  P18)  Second Timothy is a case in point.  Scripture is not a magic telegram from the past.  It has always been edited, added to, shaped for each generation until some fool decided to write it down and bind it up!  And then we began telling ourselves that this was The Word of God fallen from heaven into our laps.  That’s when the movement of God became history instead of living testimony.  And we let go of the thread that connects us to our past and pulls us to our future.

As a living, thriving organism of sorts this community of ours is continually shaping our identity: telling the stories of our distant and recent past.  In the words of a workshop leader some of us heard yesterday:  “the past is always with us fueling our future.”  What does our collective memory tell us right here in this place?  Does it remind us that we are utterly human, that in spite of our best efforts things will get messy sometimes?  Does it remind us that we will by times lose our way and that we are never alone?  Does our collective memory insist that deep listening and honest conversations are a way to build trust in a common purpose?  How do we tell our stories to shape our future?  What is our common thread?

The second way the early church took form is through Performance identity.  The research of John Dominic Crossan and other reputable Biblical scholars suggests that: “Performance…demonstrates how identity is neither static nor universal… each time a parable was performed its meaning shifted depending on its context” (Taussig p.19)

We continue to perform our identity as a living, growing community of faith today: Rituals like communion and baptism retell Biblical stories in ways that move us beyond word and thought and allow us to ritually live who we are.  In performance identity: “when individual discernment becomes impossible we gather in ritual and in that our reality is reshaped.” (Taussig p.20)

We need both of these, the shaping of who we are through retelling our stories and the art of performing our stories.  That could certainly mean acting out the parables and it means gathering around this table.  Six weeks ago it meant smudging this space and nearly every worshiper present:  we were performing ourselves into being.  The rituals of our faith touch us collectively in ways our words cannot.

After worship today we will gather for a congregational meeting and hear stories from this past year. But ultimately we are not reciting history, we are shaping our future.  As we remember where we’ve been we‘ll hear a lot about how things can get messy in community.  Our retelling is not meant to offer history but to remember what has shaped us that we might forge a way forward together.

Today is also World Communion Sunday:  on this day throughout the world Christians are encouraged to celebrate the sacrament of communion:  it’s like one grand act of performance identity.  As a child I remember feeling there was something awesome about this day.  Just imagine people of every age and race throughout the world participating in this ritual that has nurtured communities for 2000 years. Just imagine people engaging in the wonder and mystery of the communion, in one great act of solidarity, one enormous gesture of faith.  So many across the world participating in a ritual that says at once:  you are whole and wholly lovable AND you are partner with God in co-creating the radical kingdom to which Jesus pointed.

Today is the perfect day for us to remember the letters that have shaped us, to lift up the common thread that binds together all of creation.  Today is a day to imagine alternatives to the present state of affairs, whether in our lives, the church, or the world.  Today is a day to move from limitation to possibility, from competition to partnership.

Come to the table today and feast abundantly.  Perform this age old ritual as we live our history and dream our future. Let go of agendas and judgments, especially those you impose on you and lean into a future: not perfect or free of hardship, but real and authentic and infused with the promise of love.

I’ll conclude with a poem: that pulls on the past to move us to the future.  The Way it Is by William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Friends, remember the thread that ties us to the heart of the universe and pulls us to the heart of what will be. Amen.

Oct 6-13

July 21, 2013: God of the Dark by Rhian Walker

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” When I first read this passage, I had two reactions. One was, “wow, this is not the passage to read on a Monday morning before work”. The second was “wait, is this the Bible, or did I accidently pick up an existential philosophy book, maybe Sartre or Camus?”
But of course today’s passage comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes which appears towards the end of the Old Testament.  Unlike other parts of the Old Testament, it is written quite differently. It doesn’t focus on stories or geologies of a people with an emerging faith, nor does it provide detailed laws on morality or instructions on how to hold rituals. If you read the whole book of Ecclesiastes, you’ll also notice that there is no mention of God as Yahweh, an explicitly Israelite term, or any details or theological streams connected to the kingdom of David or the wisdom of Moses: it is a text that is not bound tightly to a particular time and place, or to a more classic understanding of the Christian voice. Because of this, scholars have categorized Ecclesiastes as a book written in a style called the Wisdom Tradition. It is a tradition that incorporates many of the cultures of the ancient near east and its purpose is to help us explore how to live a good life and how to avoid creating a bad one.
Ecclesiastes has been controversial since ancient times, so controversial that it almost didn’t make it into the Bible. This is because the writer of the book does two remarkable things: one, he takes apart the traditional wisdom of the day and refutes it based on his own experience. For example, later in the book he quotes the cultural wisdom “Wisdom is better than weapons of war” and then goes on to refute that claim based on his observations: “but one bungler destroys much good”. No matter what culture we belong to, when we have someone refuting our cherished traditions and knowledge it makes for an uncomfortable experience. Secondly, he goes after a core idea that is in many other books in the Bible: that there is such a thing as Divine justice. In other words, if you experience injustice here on earth, don’t worry, because God will dole out divine justice eventually.  The author argues that we have no proof that there is any such thing, that we witness here on earth the wicked getting rewarded and the good getting punished and that there is no evidence that God will intervene at all. As for an afterlife where we might hold out hope for receiving Divine Justice, well, he is pretty clear that we shouldn’t put our eggs in that basket. Later in the book he says “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” So not the best idea to put your hopes in Divine Justice in the afterlife. Don’t act in hope of some great reward folks, he appears to say. This. Is. It.
It is for this edgy perspective that the author has been called an existentialist and a nihilist.  Because he refutes of the dominant theology of the Bible, Ecclesiastes has got to be the only book in the Bible that has a disclaimer: at the end we have one of the editors add a prologue that, and I’m paraphrasing here, says “Wow, this stuff is way out there, why don’t all of you reading this just follow all of the laws that came earlier and forget about this whole “the good don’t get a reward any more than the wicked” stuff.” So we have to ask, why is this book in the Bible?
A bit of historical context helps us understand why. The author of the book, usually referred to by a Hebrew term that best translates as “The Preacher”, is supposed to be writing from the perspective of King Solomon, the wisest of the Jewish kings and regarded by the authors of the Old Testament as the most successful king. The time of the book’s authorship however is when the Jewish tribes are in servitude to the kingdom of Babylon. This is no small thing: from the writer’s perspective, the 12 tribes of Israel were on a path to greatness. They has a personal God who was going to make them leaders of the known world. Instead, their temple, which was the very throne of God, had been destroyed, the tribes scattered, and the people broken and enslaved and there was nothing on the horizon to suggest that this was going to change. Some God they have if this is what a chosen people looks like… Everything they put their hopes in and expected for the future has been pulverized. So this helps us understand why there is a need to tackle cherished beliefs, because from the early Jewish community’s perspective, the dominant thinking of the day did not work out as planned. They are in deep questioning mode as they reel from a tragedy.
But I don’t think the context is really the story here. In the Chapter we read today, the Preacher is relentless in tackling our cherished belief that what we do matters. He goes to great lengths to hammer home the fleeting and temporary nature of all our efforts. He uses the powerful images of nature: wind, sea, sun and counters it against anything human beings do. Next to nature, it is clear how little the sum of our lives matter in their impact on the world.  We are incapable of coming up with something novel and when we think we have it is only because we’ve lost touch with our ancestors who likely already made or thought something just like it.
And then it gets worse: at the end of the book he makes it clear that not only does nothing that you do have any lasting value, nothing counts, but you also don’t have any understanding of the purpose of your own existence and by extension even less understanding of God. He says, “What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” By the end of the book you are left reeling because there is no discernable pattern to the world, no clear plan or sense of meaning about your life. You are lifted out the framework of being a participant in a great play, and instead are made into cog in a divine machine whose purpose and function you can’t see.
All our efforts to make our lives into something that counts turns to dust. What if this is the nature of reality: that all our efforts to have a great career, to provide for our families, to make something of ourselves, what if they don’t really matter?  I don’t live this way. I have an invisible ladder that I am climbing, where my actions are leading to something solid and tangible and have lasting weight. Yet when I actually look at my life I can see the opposite is true. A small example: many of the clients that I worked with when I was at a PR firm have been sold, retired, or lost their funding. And the work I did for them has simply evaporated, as if it never happened at all. I think too of my ancestors. I want to say that when I die that I will be remembered by future generations of my family, but I know so little about my own grandparents and next to nothing about the generation before them. Why would I imagine it would be different in my case? And in here I start to see where the God of Ecclesiastes might be present. The God of Ecclesiastes matters when the world ceases to make sense or have a purpose, when your efforts amount to little, and even more so when tragedy hits, when death approaches. At that point do you feel like you are part of a plan, that things will work out, that you are held in god or do you feel abandoned, angry, frightened?
I had the bittersweet experience of supporting a friend as her sister went through the slow and very painful experience of losing her infant daughter, Maya. These parents were quintessential “good people.” They had done everything “right”, they were in good health, they were kind and giving to their community, hard-working and loving parents. But their daughter’s heart had serious problems and the surgery that was supposed to fix it went terribly wrong. What followed was intervention after intervention, hopes of a heart transplant slowly dashed with every painful day and then the decision no parent should have to make: do we let her go? In that moment, I could feel into the God of Ecclesiastes: the challenge of making sense of this, the realization that there is no reward or solution here, that there is no promise of it getting better that you can believe in. In those moments you can feel alone, you can feel bereft of any God holding you.
Living through that experience can go many ways. It can destroy you. It can freeze you in time. It can make you reject or build a false God. Or, it can draw you into a new way of living that is striped free of illusion.  In the National Film Board of Canada film Griefwalker, Stephen Jenkins, a palliative counsellor, talks about living daily with the sense of your own death. To him it is of the upmost importance, not only for finding true happiness but also for facing your own death without fear, so you can be present in your life all the way till the end. We see this idea in Buddhism more commonly, this notion that life is temporary and that we should be living not from the place of I or the ego, but from a more cosmic identity that includes all life. This idea is active and alive in Christianity too, particularly in the story of Jesus that one could see as the answer to Ecclesiastes: this sense that you need to experience losing your life in order to gain it, gain it stripped free from illusion and fear.
The genius in Ecclesiastes is that it doesn’t shy away from both our darkest moments, but also from trying to orient us to what will really invigorate our lives. This is a face of God that can bear witness to the grief and anger and yes, even the futility of life. This is the face of God that does not offer false promises but sits in the silence of our questions and in the wreckage after our plans fail. And in it, there births a resurrected life, whether it is Jesus’ or yours or mine. When we stop looking for ultimate meaning only in our own accomplishments, when we stop acting like we have all the time in the world and that that time is only for us, then our ego gives out and new life springs forth. You’ll notice that the Preacher does not say the world has no meaning, what he critiques is where we place our search for meaning.
As always, I find the artists get this better than philosophers, so I’ll share with you a poem by Mary Oliver:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Part of what makes our faith tradition so radical is that the story of Jesus that Ecclesiastes is pointing the way towards is that we are being asked to lose our life in order to gain it. We are being asked not to see our individual lives and accomplishments as our sole purpose for life. We are being asked to give our lives to something larger than us, to all of Creation, to live lives full of love and wisdom instead of comfort and a false sense of security. Jesus eschews security and even the notion of family and expands the meaning of what it is to love thy neighbour until it has no boundaries at all. His knowledge of his own death allows him to live with an expansive idea of self, a self that is connected to all of Creation and to which the actions in the present moment are the focus, not the hopes and fears of an upcoming future. When I live from the place of both the Jesus story and this chapter of Ecclesiastes, I find new reserves of love. I can give freely and from a place of abundance, not because I have nothing to lose, but because I am clear on what I do have to lose: this chance to live a life that is for more than just me, more than just my family and loved ones, that is a life lived in support of all of Creation. The old small hurts that crop up in relationships, the sense of having something to prove and the need to protect yourself dissipates and ideally disappears when you live this way. Life lived this way is not “comfortable” and it’s not “safe”, which is why you’ll see me fail at it every single day. But when we do try to live it this way, it is real freedom and real connection.
No one picture of God that the Bible or even our own experience gives us is ever going to suffice, is ever going to be the complete treatise on God. That this book was even included in the Bible instead of being edited out shows our faith ancestors deep commitment to that difficult and challenging fact.  Ecclesiastes is no more the last word on the face and nature of God then Genesis is. But it is a face of God that we have to integrate into our lives to help us confront the fears and temporary nature of our life. God’s grace involved living our lives in truth and wisdom, however difficult that may be, however counter-cultural that may be.  So, I ask us today, what are we all going to do with this one wild and precious life? Amen.