September 9, 2018: Your Neighbor Belongs Here by Rev. Beth Hayward (Romans 13: 9-21)

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they’re thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”

 Maybe it’s just me or maybe it’s human nature, but why is it that with this otherwise beautiful, inspiring piece of scripture, why is it that I jump right to the burning coals on the head? There’s even a part of me, if I’m honest, that takes a little bit of delight in the idea that if I do nice things for people I hate, my kindness is in fact heaping burning coals on their heads! If acts of kindness can satisfy that terrible desire for revenge, I’m in!

I’ve tried to uncover exactly what Paul was getting at here but I’m not fully satisfied with the explanations. He was directly quoting the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. In that context it may have meant that when you share with your enemy you are meeting their basic needs, in a sense you’re providing them with burning coals to cook with. It’s more likely a metaphor for judgment or shame, as in ‘leave the judgment of your enemies to God.’ I don’t know why Paul wrote it but I have a good idea why it avoided the slashing pen of the editor: because we love this stuff. They say that sex and violence sell. In the absence of those I guess burning coals will do.

There’s a book I like to go back to from time to time called What’s the Matter with Preaching Today?[1] (Yeah, I pull it on the weeks when I’m feeling like my well is particularly dry.) One of it’s contributors says that a big problem with preaching today is when the preacher spends most of the sermon telling us all how bad it all is, story after story that paint pictures of doom and gloom. He says it’s really hard to dig ourselves out of that hole in the last few minutes of the sermon and we can end up leaving people feeling worse than when we began! It’s the burning coals that sell, that grab our attention but really my job here is about pointing to the subtle signs of hope, the glimpses of light through the cracks. That’s harder to do, especially because it doesn’t grab our attention.

Ninety five percent of this beautiful scripture implores us to do good, reminds us that we can be so very much for one another and I can’t help but begin with the burning coals.

A documentary about renowned television star Fred Rogers was released earlier this summer. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood had a television run of over thirty years. His presence was like a gentle whisper in a sea of obnoxious noise that was children’s television. He laced long spells of silence together with thoughtful words. In a dumping coals on the head of your enemy sort of world, Rogers’ life reverberated with Paul’s words from Romans: “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another…”

A journalist reviewing the documentary wrote that… “[its] power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.”[2]

Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome and it doesn’t appear that there was anything particular the matter but somehow they needed to be reminded “oh yes, that’s how people can be;” reminded to “let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”

Just maybe, we need to be reminded too: “oh yes, that’s is how people can be.” It’s not a new story, just one that needs to be lifted up more than we realize. Fred Rogers, according to the fella who reviewed the documentary, “was drawing on a long moral tradition, that the last shall be first….Rogers was singing from a song sheet now lost, a song sheet that once joined conservative evangelicals and secular progressives. The song sheet may be stacked somewhere in a drawer in the national attic, ready for reuse once again.”[3]

Oh yes, that’ s how people can be. It’s a song sewn into the hem of the very fabric of our being. “Let love be genuine. Live in harmony with one another. Don’t be haughty.” Pauls’ words resonate because deep down we know the music, we’ve played it before, sung our hearts out, we can sing this song again and for goodness sake tell others when we hear even just an echo of it.

The conversations I’ve been having lately, with you, in the pews, are landing often around questions of what really is the purpose of this place: what does it mean to be a Christian, what’s it look like, what’s the purpose of church, why come, what should I expect to receive her? What’s the core call of being a Christian, of living a Christ like life?  Is it about practicing my way toward oneness with Christ? Is it about radical love for my neighbour? Is it about community? Sometimes I feel like I am fumbling in my answers. It’s all of that and more, it’s complicated, there isn’t one set path into the way of Christ, it’s complicated.

Part of being someone who goes to church is being someone who chooses to place oneself in a community that won’t let you forget the music of love, that keeps pointing out the whispers of “oh yes, that’s how people can be. Part of the journey in Christ is to be people like that. We can be like that to one another; from our encounters with the person in front of us to the way we make purchases in the stores. We can be people like that to one another in the policies we put into practice through the ballot we put in the election box.

Next Sunday we kick off the season, sort of welcome folks back from the rhythm of summer, inviting others to show up here on a bit more regular basis. We’ll be celebrating our decision to become a community affirming of all, especially the LGBTQ2 community. It’s a day when I want you to invite your neighbour, literally. I suppose if I’m going to ask you to invite your neighbour in this oh so secular city, I ought to have a reason. In many ways it comes back to “oh yes, people can be like that.” We tell a different story in this place, it’s an old story, a not very glamorous story; it has a melody that can easily go unheard in the buzz of our lives. Your neighbour belongs here because the more people who can remember how to sing this tune, the closer we come to the kingdom of God.

We tell stories in this place that everyone longs to hear. Stories like the one in the Globe and Mail yesterday that says a recent study has shown that Toronto and Vancouver are the most unhappy cities in Canada. Forget the fact that you can golf and ski in one day, forget the stories we tell ourselves about the beautiful mountains and delicious sushi, we are unhappy. Gary Mason, writing about the study, says it comes down to the fact that this city has lost its soul. It’s not a place, he says, “where important human connections are easily made.”[4] He didn’t say this, but I will: when human connection gets lost, so too does our connection with the divine. We tell stories here of that connection.

Paul says “extend hospitality to strangers.” Oh yes, we can be a people like that: like Gary who lives next door to the church here. I don’t know if Gary has ever stepped foot in this building but when a couple of bold women from the congregation knocked on his door this week asking for some help to drill holes in the bottom of flower pots…. Well I saw it with my own eyes, Gary knee deep in our dirt, using power tools in the rain, because a neighbour asked for help. Of yes, we can be people like that.

Paul says “let love be genuine.” Oh yes, we can be a people like that: like the Sikh cab driver who rushed me here for a wedding yesterday, a wedding I almost missed for reasons I won’t go into! When I entered his cab he looked me in the eye through the rearview mirror and asked “How are doing today?  Not very well,” I explained, I’m late for a wedding; they can’t begin without me! He dropped me at the door, quickly and safely and said “no need to pay, they’re waiting for you.” People can be like that. And when people are like that to you well of course you know I’m going to do everything in my power to return the kindness. When I track him down he’ll be getting a very generous tip. People can be like that.

World famous violinist Yo Yo Ma tells a story about being interviewed by Mr. Rogers. At one point in the interview Fred Rogers paused and looked him in the eye and said with the greatest of intention “It is so nice to see you and to be with you.”  Ma said it scared the living day lights out of him.[5]

Are we seeing one another? Are we relishing in the sheer gift of being with one another? Can we learn in this place to tell the stories of people daring to look one another in the eye with mutual affection? When I say your neighbour belongs here, I mean your neighbour deserves to hear a song of love and grace and forgiveness, your neighbour likely has something to teach us about that song.

It’s a subtle melody and sometimes it feels like the music is tucked away in the dusty attics of our lives but I truth the music is hemmed in the very fabric of our souls. Pauls’ words resonate because deep down we know the music, we’ve played it before, sung our hearts out, we can sing this song again and for goodness sake tell others when we hear even just an echo of it.

[1] “Preaching, an appeal to memory, By Fred B. Craddock in What’s the Matter with Preaching Today, ed Mike Graves, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2004.

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/05/opinion/mister-fred-rogers-wont-you-be-my-neighbor.html

[3] ibid

[4] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-why-are-people-in-vancouver-and-toronto-so-unhappy/

[5] From the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor released 2018

September 2, 2018: You Belong Here by Rev. Beth Hayward (Ephesians 3: 14-21)

Imposter

Do you ever feel like an imposter? Like a Christian imposter? You know, because you don’t pray enough or at all? Or when you do pray you’re pretty convinced it will make utterly no difference? Or maybe you wonder if the person sitting next to you has an unwavering belief in God when you can’t even bring yourself to use that word? Maybe you think after coming to church all this time you ought to be further along, or have the answers, or at least be able to quote a bible verse when the need arises? Do you ever say to yourself: I should know who God is by now? I should know who I am by now? I should have figured this out by now? Why in the world do the same things keep tripping me up? Or maybe this whole church thing is new to you and you don’t even know when to stand or when to sit, when to sing and whether to clap? Sometimes we all feel like imposters.

Back to school time of year gets me thinking about all the ways we compare ourselves to others, measure our successes against some false universal norm. As much as I think about fresh notebooks and new teachers, I can’t help but think of all those times in school you get labelled an imposter, or when you try to be your true self you get shot down and called out for being different. All those times you find yourself confined by the box you’ve been put it. School is one of the first places we learn to look around us and wonder: why everyone else seems to fit in. Who hasn’t felt like the imposter, a fraud or just the silent one in the background trying to not be found out?

 Love

Paul cuts through all this and says, actually, you do belong. Listen to what Paul says. But first, remember who Paul was, an ardent persecutor of the early Christians, until he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Blind for three days, and when he regains sight his life is turned completely around. He becomes the most devout Christian ever. Listen to these words from Paul to one of the very first group of Christians.

I pray that you may be strengthened in your inner being

I pray that Christ may dwell in your hearts, that you may be rooted and grounded in love.

I pray that you will know the breadth, length, height and depth of the love of Christ.

There is a power at work within you able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine …..

Imagine that this prayer is for you. I pray that you might let go of all those stories your ego tells you about you who are and trust that you are love, born of love, grounded in love, one with love, a true reflection of the divine. Imagine? There is so very much in our life that can feel like struggle and Paul just cuts through it all and calls us back to a love that transcends.

I don’t want to get all evangelical on you but you kind of can’t help it with Paul, he wants everyone he meets to know how the love of Christ can completely change your life, but not just your life, your life in community, how you show up in life. He wants us to know how the oneness he experienced with the risen Christ can open your life up in ways you can’t even imagine.

It’s interesting to note that before he gets to this beautiful prayer, before he finds his way to the heart of the matter, the message that he hopes will persuade his readers to give up the facades and land their lives in holy love, before that he spends the first three quarters of his letter talking about a whole lot of  stuff that looks petty next to this big message of love. It sounds like he’s trying to sort out church doctrine, or justify what people should think. Mostly he spends the first bit of the letter trying to reassure the Gentile church in Ephesus that there’s room for them in the household of God, they don’t have to be Jewish to follow Jesus. It is, in many ways like the conversations we have had around here over the past year about who is welcome in this church. We’ve worked hard to say with a deep sense of understanding and honesty, all are welcome here, particularly the LGBTQ2 community who have been told in many other places that they don’t belong.

Before Paul can get to the real heart of his message he needs to address all the stuff that consumes our minds and hearts. I think he knows, that for so many reasons, we find it near impossible to trust this simple, profound, eternal story of love, until we’ve had all the time we need to work through the lies we tell and the games we play. Or to put it more gently, it takes us a while to trust enough to be vulnerable. He can’t get to his message about the depth and breadth of Christ’s love, that resides in our hearts, until he speaks to the ways we humans act out of our egos to push people out and label them imposters. Paul wants people to not just hear but to know and trust the truth that there is room for all in the heart of Love and not one of the excuses we can come up with can actually keep any of us from our true destiny as children of God.

The paradox about this struggle toward belonging is that you already belong, that’s the whole point of the gospel; you already are enough by your very existence. Like pop culture psychologist Brene Brown says “Stop walking through the world looking for evidence that you’re not enough.”[1] Yet as much as you belong in a cosmic and a Christ sort of way, it’s us humans who are trying to reflect to one another what that belonging looks like and we royally mess that up time and again. This is the tension between what Father Richard Rohr calls the small self and the true self[2]: the ego and our very essence.

Following Jesus seems again and again to have at its core this paradox. On the one hand it is a continual commitment, choosing, to go deep, to practice letting go of our small self, letting go of all the things we think define us, (and others), and going deeper and deeper into our core, where we remember that we are in fact beloved, we are love, so that we might choose more often to live out of that place of love, fully present to this moment and able to see that core of love in everyone else.

Community

There are three things that we need to take away from this scripture. The first, as I have just explored, is this idea that our work in Christ, being a Christian is about knowing the breadth and depth of the love within, the love that is eternal, that is not defined or impacted by the external stuff that tells us we don’t belong. The second thing that can’t be ignored is the communal aspect of this work and the third is about prayer.

Community.  This letter was not written to an individual but to a whole community of followers. Every time you read the word “you” in this scripture it is plural. Part of following Jesus involves commitment to others who are trying to do the same. We can’t fully deepen into our true selves in isolation; it actually requires community. This is why we don’t baptize babies in private ceremonies. This is why we spend so much of our time and energy putting this hour together for Sunday morning, to gather the community together. Community is the place we practice learning how to live differently, how to live rooted in our true selves, rooted in love.

Jean Vanier, founder the L’arche community, a place where those with disabilities live with those who help, talks about community as being the place of forgiveness. In his context it is about how on a daily basis people live together when they wound one another, when they clash, let each other town. It translates into every community. He says there are three broad phases of community. In the first everything is perfect, we have found our home, our place of belonging and all is right with the world. After this comes the let down where all you can see are the faults of those around, everyone is a hypocrite. Vanier says if we stick around we can eventually find our way through to the third phase of community, that of realism and true commitment, where you see others for who they are, where you accept. Vanier says that

if we don’t come into community knowing that we are there to “discover the mystery of forgiveness, we’ll be disappointed.”[3] Of course the starting place with forgiveness and acceptance of others is about looking in, what are my blocks, my insecurities, jealousies, prejudices?

Vanier urges:

We shouldn’t seek the ideal community. It is a question of loving those whom God has set beside us today. They are signs from God. We might have chosen different people, people who were more cheerful or intelligent. But these are the ones God has given us, the ones [God] has chosen for us. It is with them that we are called to create unity and live in covenant.[4]

So true, we would have chosen different people. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable but it is very possible that some of you are sitting beside a person you would never have chosen to journey with, given the choice. Heck you may well have chosen a different minister, but here we are, in it together! Being Christian always includes community.

 Prayer

The final take away from this short scripture passage, one you really should go home and read again, the final take away, at least for today is about prayer. Paul doesn’t  tell us explicitly how to touch that love of Christ, how to experience and trust its breadth and depth. But in a sense he does tell us how, he shows us how. He prays. His form reveals the function. There are no shortcuts to being rooted and grounded in love, no shortcuts to knowing the depth, breadth, height and length of the love of Christ. There are no shortcuts to knowing, really knowing, that there is a power at work within you able to accomplish abundantly far more than  we can ask or imagine. We touch these truths through prayer and we practice living them in community.

The thing about prayer is that there has never been just one way to do it. No one can call you an imposter when it comes to prayer. If you pray, it will be good enough. If you pray in silence, or with words, as meditation, or in movement, it counts. You just need to do it! You don’t even need to trust it, at least not in the beginning. It’s about listening with the heart, bringing your mind into your heart. “There we wait and listen, not to the sounds of the outer world, but to the silence that is within our self.”[5] Sometimes it’s been said that in fact the silence becomes the prayer.

I’m going to stop here but before I do, I want you to pray with me, to sit in the silence for a few minutes, to listen for the breadth and depth, length and height of the love of Christ that you might be strengthened in your being for whatever it is this day holds for you.

Before we hold the silence, bringing our minds to our hearts, listening not so much for what we hear our there but what is spoken in here, (placing hand on heart), let me acknowledge that I know you may have tried silence before and it didn’t work or you may have been coming to church for eighty years and you don’t need to start with this new age meditation stuff now or you may be so practiced at holding the silence that you know three or four minutes is not enough. Let me acknowledge that these may not be the people you would ever choose to hold silence with, but here we are! Remember, as Jean Vanier has said that “solitude and community belong together; each requires the other as do the center and circumference of a circle. Solitude without community leads us to loneliness and despair, but community without solitude hurls us into a void of words and feelings.”[6]

Let us pray… (hold silence for several minutes)

 Amen

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gm9JrYhF-Bk

[2] Read more here: https://cac.org/your-true-self-2016-12-15/

[3] https://imagodeicommunity.ca/on-spiritual-issues/on-community-by-jean-vanier/

[4] ibid

[5] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/llewellyn-vaughanlee/mystical-prayer-opening-a-door-to-silence-and-love_b_1533374.html

[6] https://imagodeicommunity.ca/on-spiritual-issues/on-community-by-jean-vanier/

August 19, 2018: Money CAN buy you Happiness (Mark 10: 12-37)

I expect that some of you are feeling relieved that I’ve come today with evidence to disprove the old adage that money can’t buy you happiness. What a relief to know that whether you have it or you’ve been striving for it, you’re on the right track.

I saw this Ted Talk a few of back, by a Harvard Business professor entitled Money Can Buy You Happiness.[1] It was convincing. One small part of his major research project included giving an envelope of money to students at UBC, accompanied by one of two instructions: you were to spend the money that day on yourself or on someone else. Part of the experiment included rating your happiness at the beginning of the day and then after the money had been spent as directed. Turns out those who spent the money on others, universally reported an increase in their feelings of happiness. Those who spent it on themselves reported no change in their feelings. Proving that money can indeed buy you happiness, if you give it away.

Jesus wouldn’t have said that money can buy you happiness but he may have said, if you give it away it will bring you eternal life. As the story goes, a rich man approached Jesus, kneeled at his feet and pleaded “what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He had everything his heart desired. But something wasn’t right something was missing. There was a hunger deep inside of him that all his nice things couldn’t satiate; like that dis-ease you feel when all the signs tell you things are okay but you can’t shake that feeling that something is missing, you can’t quite put your finger on why. It was like what Harry Kushner describes in his book When All You’ve Ever Wanted is Not Enough, “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power,” he writes. “Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through.”[2]

The rich man followed all the rules. The commandments he’s followed since childhood are the ones about how we are to treat one another, the relational commands. Jesus says, that’s all good but there’s more, give all your riches to the poor. He says unequivocally that money gets in the way of living from this place of meaning, gets in the way of staying tuned in and tapped in to the love that connects us. No wonder the man walks away in shock and grief. Here’s someone who’s lived a good upstanding life and it’s not enough. When did good enough become not enough? People have tried to soften the blow of this scripture for our First world affluent ears, saying this man was to give up money but you may need to give up something different. I’d be cautious about silencing Jesus’ directive too quickly. There is a message here about how we use our money and about the hold it has on our lives. It’s as true today as it ever was.

We never hear what becomes of the rich man. He leaves the scene in shock and grief because he had many possessions. But there is a hint. He walked away in grief. If he was in grief he must have experienced a loss. Grief happens when something has been stripped away: someone we love, a dream we held dear. It arises from the void. If the rich man was in grief, I dare say, something died in him that day. Maybe he was already letting go of the power his money had held for so long. Maybe he was letting go of a need to do it all himself, to be utterly self reliant, to cling to things he thought would make him happy and fulfilled, but kept disappointing him. Maybe he walked away taking his first steps on the long journey through grief to resurrection. Maybe he was beginning to let go of the money that was only serving to close off his heart, impeding his ability to rely on others and to see others for they really are. Maybe his grief was a sign of the gift of eternal life he was finally beginning to inherit.

Grief is one thing but eternal life, what is that? It reads like a synonym for heaven, the kind of place where you get to go if you’re good enough and enjoy more of all the good things of life. I like the way Father Richard Rohr defines it. He says that “if life, as we know it, is always change and growth then eternal life must be infinite possibility and growth!” Eternal life is not a destination but a way of living, and you can’t buy it, earn it, barter for it or steal it. You inherit it. It’s is real and gracious and makes hard choices. It is life that asks not how much better off I am but how much better off is my neighbour?

To inherit anything you must, in a sense, belong to someone, to some family. The rich man asked ‘what do I need to do to inherit eternal life?’ You only inherit something when someone has died.[3] Plus you only inherit something if you belong to a family, whether by birth, marriage or choice. Inheriting eternal life must have something to do with the way Peter and the boys left their fishing nets behind to follow Jesus. It must have something to do with being part of a community that orients itself to the common good, to the neighbour, money and all.

Journalist Chris Hedges who spent years imbedded in war torn regions, sleeping on the coaches of families who graciously took him in suggests that it is this sense of belonging that is the core of our human existence. He says that

…the isolated human individual can never be fully human. And for those cut off from others, for those alienated from the world around them, the false covenants of race, nationalism, the glorious cause, class and gender compete, with great seduction, against the covenant of love. These sham covenants — and we see them dangled before us daily — are based on exclusion and hatred rather than universality. These sham covenants do not call us to humility and compassion, to an acknowledgement of our own imperfections, but to a form of self-exaltation disguised as love.”[4]

Hedges insists that “those most able to defy these sham covenants are those who are grounded in love, those who find their meaning and worth in intimate relationships that cut through the loneliness and isolation of the human condition.”

I wonder if maybe Jesus is saying that money as an end in itself is a sham, money when used for any purpose beyond ensuring my neighbour is alright, is a sham covenant. I wonder if Jesus said follow me so that the rich man might be held in the embrace of a community that roots itself in love and stands up to all the sham covenants that bit by bit tear away at the fabric of eternal life. Isn’t that what our hearts long for? None of us expects an easy ride but a bit of honesty would be nice, community in which we can be real.

Please know that I know that money cannot in fact buy any of us happiness and if you don’t have enough it can bring real struggle. Jesus is saying that the hold money has on our lives is a sham. It can’t protect us from the highs and lows of living. Maybe part of the problem is that our world doesn’t just tell us lies about money it tells us lies about life. It tells us that we can protect ourselves from whatever it is we most fear, with money or might or with pulling the wool over our own eyes.

There are moments, sometimes hours, now and then there are even days when I wonder to what end? Why do I dedicate 15 hours of my week to the process of weaving these words together to present to all of you? How in the world can I keep saying that it’s about love and communities that trust in love? How dare I keep saying there is eternal life here and now when not one of us is immune to pain and grief? How can I trust in a different story when the sham covenants appear mostly to have won? When I was first discerning my call to ministry I was asked by a committee interviewing me, why do you want to do this work? I’m not sure how I really answered but I remember thinking “because if I don’t I may lose my connection to the divine, I need the discipline of putting this covenant of love in front of me every single week.

When I’m sure the sham covenants have won, when God seems so powerless that I wonder why bother and my fear starts telling me I should hoard a bit more, I find my way back in places like this. Jesus invited the rich man to follow because he know that we all need community where we can ask again and again to be reminded – how is it I inherit eternal life again? In my experience, when you dare to ask the question the way forward will arise.

This week we’ve been thrown again into a one-day global experience of mourning with the death of Aretha Franklin. It seems odd how we do this now for our celebrity royalty; take a day to mourn, to play the music incessantly. It’s like a global wake but without the tears because let’s be honest, we didn’t know her. In spite of the risk of hollow grief what does come from these times is a digging up and a pulling together of all we might learn from the one who’s passed. Writing about the death of Aretha Franklin one journalist suggests that:

the eternal challenge is to answer grief with something that resembles love. To choose not just to sit around decrying hardship and injustice but instead to uncurl your fists and approach sorrow with grace, power, and, most incredibly, gratitude-not for the hurt itself but for the whole miraculous mess of being alive, this strange endowment of breath and blood.[5]

She goes on to say that, “Most days, I believe that Aretha Franklin did this work better than anyone.”[6]

Another journalist writes that “What we have lost with Aretha Franklin is technical mastery, yes, but also an ancestral instinct. She was in a heady and guttural conversation with the struggle that made her… She knew her God… intensely, almost physically.”[7]

There’s this sham about how life needs to be happy all the time, to avoid conflict and certainly heart break but really eternal life is more about learning to walk through it all, make sense of it all in community oriented to love. Eternal life is more about a promise that the pain won’t consume you. After all, “Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through.”[8]

Amen

[1]https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_norton_how_to_buy_happiness/transcript?language=en

[2] http://day1.org/4207-sticker_shock_for_the_soul

[3]   See more about inheriting eternal life here: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2640

[4] https://www.truthdig.com/articles/acts-of-love/

[5] https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/aretha-franklin-is-as-immortal-as-can-be

[6] ibid

[7] https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-clairvoyance-of-the-fourteen-year-old-aretha-franklin

[8] http://day1.org/4207-sticker_shock_for_the_soul

August 12, 2018: Sermon Series: Living Generously – Week 1 : Overcoming Worry with the Blues by Rev. Beth Hayward (Matthew 6: 19-34)

Jesus says “…don’t worry about tomorrow,

tomorrow will bring worries of its own.

Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

It’s sage advice. But when you hear a line like that it sounds more like a useless truism than words to live by. A gospel of Matthew scholar says that this line “could only have been written by a single guy living a carefree life on the beach in sunny Galilee.” What does Jesus know about the worries of our lives?

Worry: it’s such a pesky thing, the troublesome little cousin of fear. Not as big, not as primal but still extremely persistent. It’s pervasive, it’s pernicious, it eats away at you. Worry is so much a part of our lives that we can carry on as though it doesn’t exist; a low-grade hum in the background of your life, a ringing in your ears, so constant that you mostly forget to hear its beat, not shocking enough to suddenly grab your attention but there nonetheless, the background music of daily life. A quiet little nuisance that you forget to notice until you don’t and then no amount of ear twitching or head shaking can make it stop. It becomes the only thing you hear, and then the guilt sets in for feeling the worry in the first place.

Worry, Jesus says, is a problem because it separates us from God. Which is easier for him to say than for us to fix. If I could shake the things that worry me, I would! Wouldn’t you? I don’t need Jesus to ask me sarcastically if by worrying I can add a single hour to my span of life? The science is in; worry takes a toll. It doesn’t much matter who you are or where you come from or what’s happening in your life, we all worry. I read about a 72 year old multi millionaire who claims he’s constantly overcome with worry about not having enough money to see him through his retirement years.[1]

We’re not even all that discerning. We’ll worry about everything: the state of the world, the state of your bank account, the state of your wardrobe. It’s not some dusty biblical concept; it’s timeless. Worry is a minor chord in the music of our lives.

To say don’t worry about where your next meal will come from, or how you’ll get clothes on your back, to some first century peasants is harsh. In that context, you worried for your very survival and on the off chance you came into a little bit of affluence, of course you’d build some barns to hold your stuff and then start worrying about people stealing your good fortune out from under you.  Those folks had legitimate things to worry about.

All through Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells people to let it go. Drop your nets and follow me, leave your family, your former life, leave your second tunic behind. There are so many instructions on what to leave behind, that it makes you wonder if it’s not so much about what you need to leave behind but why. It’s the worry that separates us from the Holy, not the things in and of themselves. It chokes out our generosity. It takes away the space where possibilities can be born.

“…don’t worry about tomorrow,

tomorrow will bring worries of its own.

Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

If only living in this moment were so easy to accomplish. Jesus seems to suggest that we let go, that we practice letting the worry dissolve, releasing our grip on all the things that leave our tummies in knots and our hearts palpitating. “It is in that choice to dissolve that we[‘re carried] to a state of greater freedom.” Our hearts begin to soften: the tension begins to loosen. Think of what happens when we let go, when we give things away, literally. Think of how it feels to bring a dozen bags to the Salvation Army, to let go of a grudge, to downsize. When we let go, in a real sense we’re set free.

Jesus wants those who seek to follow him to replace worry with striving for the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is code for this alternative way that Jesus kept teaching about and living, where the last are first, and the holy shows up in the most unexpected places, a world where there is enough for all and where losing our lives saves them. In many ways the Kingdom of God is very much about living in this moment, open and ready to engage this time. Worry gets in the way of that, it keeps us looking ahead and not only can we miss being fully present to this moment we cut off the depth of possibilities in this moment. It chokes out our generosity. It blocks us from fully experiencing the active presence of divine love.

When I’m saturated with worry it’s my tendency to just want to steep in it,

When I’m feeling worn down, or downright broken, down in the dumps, so down that the best I can hope for is blindly groping my way toward some semblance of light, I tend to want to pull out the heartbreak music and press replay. Just listen to

Celine Dion’s All by Myself, again and again. Just reinforce how bad it is.

Perhaps there is place between drowning ourselves in the very real worries of life and pretending there is nothing to worry about.  Maybe there is a way to transform the ear ringing worry of our lives into something more beautiful, more practical, more useful, more generous.

There’s an African American preacher who talks about Blue Note Preaching. Otis Moss III who is as impressive in stature and preaching prowess as his name suggests. He says that a preacher is to stare into the darkness and speak to the blues. “The blues, help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you aint alone.”[2]  The blues hold the tension, the very real longing of our hearts to strive for wholeness without completely silencing worries and losses and struggles. They weave those worries right into a richer more complex evolving melody, pulling together all of our lives into this rich fabric.

There’s something in its twelve-bar frame, its predictable 4/4 beat: it’s like a dance beat while lamenting. The blue notes allow for key moments of expression during the cadences, melodies, and embellishments of the blues. By the bass line it creates and reinforce the trancelike rhythm and call-and-response, and they form a repetitive effect called a “groove.” To be in the “groove” is to be released from the things that hold us back. The blues are a call and response, calling us into new ways of being, to live well despite the pain.”[3] “The music itself goes far beyond self-pity. The blues is also about overcoming hard luck, saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down, and simply having fun. The best blues is visceral, cathartic, and starkly emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion.”[4]

It just seems sometimes, and maybe this is what Jesus was pointing to, that we actually think we can sort things out in our lives or the world if we just worry enough. Maybe the letting go that he keeps coming back to is not about burying or denying the very real things that consume our minds with worry. Maybe it’s about weaving them in to a bigger story, like a blues rhythm. Putting that constant ringing into the music and allowing it to be surrounded by a much more complex story of deep and persistent love.

Writer Flannery O’Connor may have captured it best when she said that “Christian writers are burdened by their knowledge of an alternative world…But the world that they look at doesn’t fit the alternative world. They see the ‘grotesque’ who are out of sync with God, as well as characters who demonstrate the grace of God even though they are distanced from God.” This is the reality that the blues lift up, the truth that life is complicated, that worry keeps us from being a people flowing with generosity and openness and yet even with our imperfect offering that holy presence can make something of our messed up offering

“…don’t worry about tomorrow,

tomorrow will bring worries of its own.

Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Otis Moss III  tells a story about the time he was serving as pastor of the church Obama attends when in Chicago. You may remember the former pastor of that church got into some trouble in the media when Obama was first running for president. The media circus that ensued meant that the church was being threatened daily. Bomb threats, death threats. It was hard to sleep at night with the worry of it all. One night when Moss wasn’t sleeping so well anyway, he was awoken by a sound in the house, or more accurately his wife was awoken and pushed him out of bed to go investigate. He went down stairs, looked all around and then heard the sound again, coming from upstairs. In a panic he arrived at the door of his young daughter who was spinning in the dark and saying “Daddy look at me!” Daddy looks at her and says “it’s three in the morning, time to get back into bed.” No daddy she says look at me! As Moss tells the story in his fine tuned African American preaching sort of way he says that as he watched her spinning, pigtails going back and forth, he heard the voice of God in the dark of night saying “Look at your daughter. She’s dancing in the dark. The darkness is all around her but it’s not in her!”[5]

That’s the Blues claims Moss, when the darkness is all around, when it threatens to take you down, when the worry should be more than you can bear but still the light shines.  May each and every one of us know that the light radiates even from our meagre offering.  Amen

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/your-money/wealth-anxiety-money.html

[2] “Dance in the Dark,” by Otis Moss, The Christian Century. November 25, 2015.

[3] http://www.georgehermanson.com/2010/02/you-have-to-sing-the-blues-to-feel-the-joy-year-c-lent-2-sermon.html

[4] https://www.allaboutjazz.com/a-brief-history-of-the-blues-by-ed-kopp.php

[5] Otis Moss III.

July 29, 2018: Can God Be Trusted? by David Ewart (Luke 13: 1-9)

Am I the only one here who talks to themselves?

Isn’t it interesting that our human brain has evolved so that it is constantly talking to itself? Our brain is constantly telling itself a story about what it is experiencing.

A few years ago I read an interesting article on resilience.

Researchers are interested in how different people experience trauma differently from one another. Two people have the same traumatic experience. One then has life-long PTSD. The other changes, learns, grows, recovers. One is traumatized. The other is resilient.

One way of describing this difference is that one person constantly RE-LIVES the experience; while the other person learns how to RE-CALL the experience without reliving it. Their response to a trigger is, “Oh, that reminds me …” They have quite literally RE-MINDED themselves by developing a whole new set of neural pathways in their brains that mute RE-LIVING and switch on RE-CALLING.

When we talk to ourselves, we tell ourselves stories.

What we call “TRAUMA” is when something bad happens that doesn’t fit into any of the stories we have been telling ourselves. Our daily news is full of these events. A child is shot and killed while enjoying a warm summer evening. A truck smashes into a hockey team’s bus. A heat wave kills 70 people.

The Bible is also full of such events. And then, as now, people ask, “WHY?” Why did this happen? This makes no sense. It doesn’t fit any of the stories I tell myself about God; about life’s meaning; life’s purpose. A tyrant kills innocent, unarmed people. A tower unexpectedly collapses and kills bystanders who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. WHY?

Talk to me Jesus. Tell me why this happened. How can I believe in God when senseless bad things happen? Tell me a story, Jesus. Help me to stop feeling so helpless, and hopeless, and tired, and angry, and sad.

I’m guessing I am not the only one here today who has felt this way.

What could Jesus possibly say that would make sense of suffering?

Well, about 150 years ago, Charles Darwin, wrote a book, On the Origin of Species, that offered a new story about why things are the way they are.

You’ll notice that Darwin’s book has an interesting sub-title:
“The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”

That should give everyone pause before uncritically swallowing Darwin’s theory. Just stop and recall how “The Preservation of Favoured Races” is functioning in today’s politics. But that’s another sermon.

Darwin made the observation that just as humans have been selectively breeding new dogs, cats, cows, and corn for centuries; nature has also been creating new species for millions, no billions, of years. The amazing diversity of life forms that we see around us is the result of natural selection, nature’s own breeding program.

Darwin’s theory is pretty much universally accepted today. Even most religious people do not see evolution as contrary to belief in God, or as undermining believing the Bible “as containing the only infallible rule of faith and life.” (As The United Church of Canada’s founding Articles of Faith put it in 1925.)

And here at Canadian Memorial you have even made a point of highlighting evolution: Evolutionary Christian Spirituality

But what is the story that evolution tells us when bad things happen? What could evolution possibly say that would make sense of suffering?

Evolution – and all of Western science – says this about suffering:
            Most things happen according to the laws of nature

My father was killed in an accident when I was three. When I ask science why he was killed, science says, “A train travelling at this speed in this direction, and a car travelling at this speed in this direction will arrive at the same location at the same time.” Laws of gravity and momentum are the reason my father died.

Science also says this about suffering:
            Some things happen randomly

My older sister died of cancer when she was a 23-year-old mother of two. When I ask science why she died, science says, “Cancer is a random mutation of a cell in your sister’s body.” Random mutations are the engine of evolution. Evolution is the reason my sister died.

I’m guessing I’m not the only one here today who agrees with science, but also believes there is more to this story than science can tell.

What can be said to try and make sense of tragedy and suffering? What stories does our Christian faith and tradition offer us?

“God has a plan” is probably the most commonly used story to explain why bad things happen. Personally, I think it is a really bad story. “Plan” means “intended,” and “caused.” It also suggests, “no other possibility.” So. You mean to say that from the beginning of time, God had it PLANNED that my father and sister were going to die, and there was no possibility something different might have happened. If that’s who God is, I’m not sure I want to believe in God.

So let’s stop a bit, and think again about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of suffering.

Let’s start with God. And let’s start by recalling that Christians do not believe in God.

Okay, okay. I know Christians are always going on about “God.” But actually, Christians believe in The Trinity.

“God” is NOT a singularity. God is not a noun that suggests a Someone that exists somewhere in time and space. Christians don’t believe this.

Christians believe that “God” is actually a community, a Holy Three who are One.

And the defining characteristic of this Holy Three is their dynamic relationship. When Christians tell stories about God, we tell about a community, not an isolated individual. We tell about a dynamic relationship, not unchanging identity. We tell about a verb, not a noun. And that verb is “Love-that-is-Justice.” We worship The Holy Trinity who are what Love-that-is-Justice[1] is.

Now before we go on, there is one more thing we must go back and correct. Christians do not believe in The Trinity either.

Well we do, sort of. But the problem is with the word “believe.” The English meaning of this word has changed over the centuries since the Bible was first translated into English. It has come to mean that I have a personal OPINION. That I agree with a certain set of ideas. And so the word, “believe,” no longer accurately translates the original Biblical word which means: TRUST, BOND WITH, BE LOYAL.

Christians don’t “believe” in The Trinity, we TRUST The Trinity.

Well, how does a story of trusting Love-that-is-Justice make sense of suffering?

The love of The Holy Trinity is always consistent. It is not capricious. Is never distracted. Doesn’t fall asleep or forget. Doesn’t love somebody else more.

The love of The Holy Trinity is always all-in. Holds nothing back. Expects nothing in return. There are no conditions. No contracts. No pre-screenings or prior approvals.

The love of The Holy Trinity is always totally for the good of the other. Is never selfish. Is never self-centred.

The love of The Holy Trinity is always for right relations of all things with all things. It seeks for all of creation to embody the dynamic Love-that-is-Justice that it is. It seeks relationships that are always both loving and just.

The love of The Holy Trinity has all the power that love has. It never controls or coerces. It rejoices in the freedom of the other; in the beauty of their autonomy, and integrity, and wholeness. It never uses force or threats. Never over-rules.

I don’t know about you, but I can say, “Amen,” to this story. So far.

But there is a trick here. A catch that you might not like. Notice that I did NOT say, “The Holy Trinity has all the power,” period.

In one way or another, God’s over-arching power is too often used to try and make sense of suffering. But this is NON-sense. If God has all the power, then God also has all the responsibility either for causing or allowing suffering. If that is who God is, then I’m not sure I want to believe in God.

But if God is what Love is, then God cannot have all the power, because love requires freedom. If there is no freedom, there cannot be love.

And here’s the catch. Freedom is another word for randomness. Random things happen, not because there is no love. Rather, random things happen because love requires freedom.

Love cannot be love without freedom, without randomness.

But here is the hard part.

Random things are not just. Are not fair. Are not deserved. Have no purpose. Have no meaning. They happen for no reason.

Our story has arrived at a contradiction; an impossible possibility.
The Holy Trinity is Love-that-is-Justice
    Love requires freedom / randomness that is not just

We trust that The Holy Trinity is Love-that-is-Justice. But love requires freedom. And freedom means that things can happen that are random / undeserved / unfair / unjust.

So how does the story of a God who is a Trinity, a community, a dynamic relationship, a verb that is what Love-that-is-Justice is help us to make sense of suffering? Help us make sense of underserved bad things?

In my experience, it is not possible to make SENSE of suffering, to explain it. It is not possible to make suffering reasonable.

In my experience, all attempts to explain suffering just make me more angry; because the reasons used to explain it just makes it clearer that the suffering is unjustified, unfair, undeserved.

But also in my experience, the story of the Verb that is what Love-that-is-Justice is, HOLDS my suffering.

It lets me experience my suffering without forever re-living the trauma of it. One never gets through it, or over it. But we do learn to hold it. To learn, and grow, and heal, and go on. We learn to be resilient.

And I also trust another truth that will also have to be another sermon.

I trust that the activity of Love-that-is-Justice is NOT constrained to this time and place. The suffering that we experience here and now is real. Is outrageously real. And. But. Our experience here and now is not the end of the story. Because there is more “here and now” than we can experience here and now.

That’s been my experience. I’ve learned that the Love-that-is-Justice of The Trinity can be trusted.

I wonder if I am the only person here today who has learned this trust? I pray that being part of this community is an opportunity to learn and experience this love, this freedom, this justice, and this trust.

May it be so. Amen.

[1] I use the phrase “Love-that-is-Justice” because I want to ensure that we recall that God’s love is always – always – about right relationships; relationships that are always both loving and just.