2 May 2021

"Drawing the Circle Wider" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge

Sunday May 2, 2021 – 5th Sunday of Easter

Scripture Reading:  Acts 8:26-40



I love it when a service when we get to celebrate a baptism lines up with a reading that includes a baptism!  In the 3-year cycle of readings that we follow on Sunday mornings, it just happened that the week that T. and T. chose for J.’s baptism – after we had to postpone from January due to the Covid situation – it just happened that the week for J.’s baptism falls on a week where the assigned reading is a baptism story.


The book of Acts is filled with great stories, but I think that the story that we read today is one of my favourites.  The full name for the book in the bible is the Acts of the Apostles, but last year as we read this book as a congregation, I joked that a better title for it might be the Acts of the Holy Spirit, Working through the Apostles.  It is a book about the very earliest church in the years and decades after Jesus’s death and resurrection.  It is a book that tells us how the Holy Spirit was working in that early church, spreading the net of God’s love wider and wider.


And I think that today’s story is a perfect example of this.  Philip, one of the early church leaders, was doing his thing up north in Samaria, when God sends him south, into the desert wilderness between Jerusalem and Gaza.  And along this deserted desert road, he encounters an unnamed Ethiopian Eunuch driving home in his chariot.


Even though he isn’t named, this Ethiopian Eunuch is an interesting person.  He is in a position of power, in charge of the queen’s entire treasury.  He is from northern Africa, so he is a long way from home, but he has been in Jerusalem to worship in the Jewish temple.  He is obviously a devout person, having made such a long pilgrimage for his faith, and he is reading from the prophet Isaiah as he travels.  We are given snippets of information about his background, but there are still so many gaps in his story.  We don’t know how, living so far away from Jerusalem, he came to share in the faith of the God of the Jewish people.  Did he have a Jewish ancestor?  Or maybe he had conversations with Jewish traders and came to faith in that way.  We don’t know how he came to be in such a position of power.  We don’t even know his name.


We also don’t know how he came to be a eunuch.  It is possible that he was castrated at some point in time, which is the meaning of eunuch that usually pops to mind first.  But the term “eunuch” had a much more broad meaning in the past.  It is also possible that he is someone who didn’t participate in sexual relationships in the way that his culture named as normal.  It is possible that he was someone who, if he lived in the 21st Century, might have identified himself as gay or asexual or transgender.


And so at the heart of this story is an encounter between someone in a position of authority within the church and someone who is so far on the margins that he is practically on the outside.  And when a spring of water appears in front of them, there in the middle of the desert, the one on the margins asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  And the one in the centre replies, “Nothing.  There is nothing to prevent you from joining God’s family.  You in your beloved foreignness; you in your beloved Blackness; you in your beloved queerness; you are a beloved member of God’s family.  There is no statement of faith that you need to sign, there are no conditions that you need to agree to.  You don’t need to move into the centre of the circle, instead the circle expands so that you are already in the centre.  God loves you right where you are.”  And there in the middle of the desert Philip and the unnamed Ethiopian went down into the spring, and God’s love was made real and tangible in the water there.


The question that I invite you to ponder is, do you identify more with the Ethiopian Eunuch or with Philip in this story?  Do you feel more like someone who was on the outside who has been invited in to experience God’s love?  Or do you feel more like someone who has been called to always draw the circle of God’s love wider and wider?  Or maybe you identify with both of them, both the recipient of God’s limitless love, and called to share this love with others.


We don’t know what happens after the end of today’s story.  Well, that’s not quite true, we do get more of Philip’s story in other parts of the bible.  But we don’t know what happens to the Ethiopian Eunuch after he goes on his way, rejoicing.  I wonder what happened to him after he got home to Ethiopia.  I wonder if his friends saw a difference in him when he got home – did they notice a stronger joy or a deeper peace in their friend when he got home?  I wonder if he told his friends about what had happened to him there on the road, how he went under the water and felt the full love of God dripping down his forehead and running over his shoulders.  I wonder if his friends also wanted to experience this newfound joy and peace.  I wonder if this unnamed Ethiopian Eunuch went on to baptize others, calling them to travel the Way of Jesus with him, growing and expanding the circle of faith even wider still.


For God’s love is without limits, and reaches to all people and all places and all times.  And ours is the work of making this love known and tangible.  Thanks be to God for this love and for this calling.  Amen.



“What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

(Photo Credit:  Kate Jones)

23 January 2021

English Muffins (recipe)

This isn't a cooking blog, but it is a "whatever I want to write" blog; so when people asked me for my English Muffin recipe, I thought that this would be the easiest way to share it.

When the quarantimes hit (the season of Covidtide?) last March, people took on various baking and cooking projects. While I didn't hop on the sourdough bandwagon (even though sourdough has been on my list of things I want to learn), I did take on a couple of projects that I had been wanting to try and now had the time. Croissants. English Muffins.  (Bagels are next on my list.)

A note about this recipe. My favourite English Muffins are sourdough, but they don't seem to be available in the grocery stores here in eastern Canada. As I mentioned above, I don't have a sourdough starter, but this recipe uses a pre-ferment to try and mimic the flavour and texture that I like. If you are used to English Muffins with a mild flavour and crumbly tender texture, this recipe may not be for you.

They take a bit of time (not active time, but waiting time) - if you scroll down to the bottom, I've included my usual timeline for making these.

Yield:  6


Pre-Ferment:     3/8 cup all-purpose flour
                        1/8 tsp active dry yeast
                        1/4 cup warm water

Muffins:             1/2 cup warm water
                        1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
                        1 teaspoon salt
                        1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour


1.  Mix the pre-ferment ingredients and beat until smooth. Cover the bowl and let it sit on the counter for ~12 hours. It will be bubbly and you will smell the fermentation at this time.

2.  Begin to make the Muffins.  In a larger bowl, add the water, sprinkle the yeast over it, and let it soften for 5 minutes. Add the salt and the pre-ferment and stir - you won't be able to get it into a smooth mixture, so don't waste your time trying - it will all come together when you add the flour.

3.  Gradually stir in the flour - this is a fairly soft and wet dough. Knead for 5 minutes until it is smooth. You can add up to 2 tbsp of extra flour as you knead, but resist the urge to add more, as you want a very wet dough at the end. I find that the "slap it on the counter" method of kneading works better for wet doughs than the "flatten and fold" method of kneading. With just a couple of minutes of slapping it on the counter, you can feel the gluten bonds forming and the dough becoming smoother and less sticky without adding any extra flour. (If you aren't sure what I mean, here is a video of this technique - with this recipe, you will have less dough than in the video.)


4. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover, and put in the refrigerator to let it rise slowly for a minimum of 12 hours (I usually leave it for 24 hours). It will have doubled in size. (That is a giant air bubble bulging out of mine!)


5.  Divide the dough in 6 (popping any large air bubbles as necessary) - I usually use a kitchen scale to make sure that the pieces are equal.

6.  Form the dough into tight balls, flatten them, and cover both sides in cornmeal. Place them on a cookie sheet cover with a tea towel, and let them proof on the counter for 2 hours.


7.  Heat a cast iron frying pan over medium-low heat. Place 3 muffins in the pan and cover. Cook for 7 minutes, then flip. They should be lightly browned and a bit puffy - adjust your heat as necessary. Cook for another 7 minutes on the other side.


8.  Cool on a rack, and repeat with the other 3 muffins.


9.  In order to get the craggy look, make sure that you split them with a fork rather than slicing them with a knife. They toast well, and freeze well too. This last picture is from my lunch today - an English Muffin that I made last weekend, taken from the freezer and toasted.


Because these take some time, you need to plan ahead. Here is the schedule I usually follow:
Day 1 (evening) - mix the pre-ferment)
Day 2 (morning) - mix the muffin dough
Day 3 (morning) - shape the muffins
Day 3 (noon) - cook the muffins

Happy baking!

1 January 2021

2020 in Books

I don't normally set myself reading goals, but a year ago I set myself two goals (and even created a spreadsheet to track my reading progress).

1)  Read 52 books (ie a book a week)

2)  Read more diversely.

In terms of the first goal - reading a book a week - well, 2020 was a complicated reading year for me.  I started out well, finishing 6 books in January and 4 books in February.  But then the pandemic hit and my ability to read and to focus on what I was reading ground to a halt.  Even my usual "guaranteed" reading time while exercising didn't happen as I found that I couldn't focus on anything more than YouTube videos while on the Elliptical.

I finished 2 books in March (both in the first half of March), one book in April, 2 in May, 1 in June, and 2 in July.  With my vacation in August, my reading started to pick up again, and I finished the year with a grand total of 33 books read (and for the sake of total transparency, one of those books was a DNF, but I exerted more time and energy on that book than I did on many that I did finish).  I also didn't count picture books in that total even though I read a number of those both for work and when visiting my sisters and their kids.  Even though I didn't reach my goal, I'm quite happy with the number, given the events of the year.

With regards to the second goal - I set this goal last December after some of the racism in the publishing industry was made public.  I decided that I wanted to intentionally read diverse authors and diverse experiences.  When I tally up my 2020 book list, 9/33 (27%) were written by Non-White authors, and 14/33 (42%) featured Non-White main characters.  I feel that these numbers are OK but not great.  I don't have my previous stats to know if this represents "more," but what I can do is to try and do better this year.

Some other fun stats:

7/33 (21%) were Non-Fiction; 26/32 (79%) were Fiction of one genre or another.

10/33 (30%) were by Canadian authors.  This number is lower than in other years.

3/33 (9%) were re-reads; 30/33 (91%) were first-time reads.

5/33 (15%) were by male authors; 28/33 (85%) were by female authors.

19/33 (58%) were paper books; 10/33 (30%) were e-books; 4/33 (12%) were audiobooks

The oldest book I read was first published in 1922; the newest books were published in 2020.


My favourite reads of the year (listed in the order I finished them):

  • Educated (Tara Westover) - a really engaging memoir - an interesting and unique story, well written.
  • The Flatshare (Beth O'Leary) - escapist fiction read at the peak of the spring lockdown
  • Glass Houses (Louise Penny) - I've been reading this series over the past few years and enjoying most of them, but this one left me feeling as shattered as the glass in the cafe window
  • Orange is the New Black (Piper Kerman) - I listened to this as an audiobook on my Ontario road trip, and I looked forward to getting into my car so I could keep listening
  • Brother (David Chariandy) - we read this as a church book study and I was blown away by the writing, the vividness of the setting, and the engaging story. (I read it straight through in an afternoon as I couldn't put it down.)


My most memorable read of the year, but not in a good way:

  • Second Sleep (Robert Harris) - I need to preface this by saying that I don't do scary.  I was really enjoying this book - the world building, and trying to figure it out - but then the ending of it blindsided me with the terror of it.  Even though I finished it in early January, this book haunted me for a good 6 months or more.  Even now when I think of it, it fills me with a sense of dread.'


The one DNF:

  •  The Lost Queen (Signe Pike) - I loved the premise of it, but after slogging through a couple hundred pages, I realized that I didn't really like any of the characters, I didn't care about what happened to them, and the anachronisms were really annoying me.


For 2021:

  • I want to aim for 52 books again this year
  • I want to continue to increase the diversity of my reading.  I think that I am going to adjust my spreadsheet columns this year to have a column that tracks Non-White vs. White authors and a column to track LGBTQ+ authors.
  • This year I am also going to (try to remember to) include picture books on my spreadsheet - not because I want to bulk out my list with "easy" reads, but because I wish that I could remember all of the picture books I read this year (there were some good ones).


 The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!

(In terms of the content - the covers are all quite lovely)

15 September 2020

"Untying the Chains" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge

Sunday September 13, 2020

Scripture:  Matthew 18:21-35



Jesus’s disciples came up to him one day to ask him about this Kingdom of God that he kept talking about.  What is it going to be like?  Who is going to be the greatest person in this kingdom?  And Jesus, rather than proclaiming any one person to be the king in this kingdom, instead he started talking about community.  He talked about living well together.  He talked about being humble, and welcoming the least valuable members of our current society.  He talked about how to resolve disputes in this community when they eventually arise.  And he promised that he would be there at the center of this community, at the center of this kingdom.


Peter, one of the disciples, well, he was listening hard to everything that Jesus had to say.  He recognized that it wasn’t going to be easy, living in this sort of community.  And so he asked Jesus, “When someone does something wrong to me, I can forgive them.  It will be hard, but I can do it.  And if they do something wrong to me again, I can forgive them again.  How many times should I continue to forgive them?  Shall I forgive them seven times?  After all, seven is the number of wholeness, the number of perfection, and so a seven-fold forgiveness is perfect forgiveness.”


But Jesus stopped him there, before he could go any further.  Jesus said to him, “Seven times isn’t enough, because what happens the eighth time that they do something wrong to you.  No – instead of withholding forgiveness after seven times, you must forgive them seventy seven times; even seventy times seven times.  Too many times to keep track of, too high of a number to be able to keep score.  Perfection, multiplied.”


Now I could stand here today, and preach a sermon about the beauty and importance of forgiveness.  I could quote the bible at you, and cite the tradition of the church, and talk about how forgiveness is central to our identity as followers of Jesus Christ.  I could talk about how, each time when we pray the Lord’s Prayer together, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  I could talk about the Old Testament idea of jubilee, where after 7 cycles of 7 years, all debts would be forgiven and everyone in society could have a fresh start on equal footing.  I could read the parable of the Prodigal Son, whose wrongs were forgiven and he was welcomed home.  I could talk about Jesus, on the cross, calling out to the one whom he calls Father asking for forgiveness for those who were torturing and crucifying him.


But I can’t preach that sermon.  I can’t preach it, because forgiveness is hard.  Forgiveness is so hard, that it borders on impossible.  If forgiveness were easy, then it wouldn’t be something that Jesus needs to teach us.  If forgiveness were easy, then there would be no need for Truth and Reconciliation commissions in South Africa, in Rwanda, or here in Canada.  If forgiveness were easy, then philosopher Jacques Derrida wouldn’t have written, “forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable” ("On Forgiveness"), for if something is easily forgivable then it doesn’t require a true act of forgiveness.


Forgiveness is hard.


When I think of the times when I have had to forgive someone, it brings up feelings of discomfort, of stomach churning.  It is a visceral response.  I’m not going to share any details, but I think of a time when someone in my life betrayed a significant trust.  It hurt.  I lost sleep over it.  That betrayal of trust worked its way backwards, and made me lose my love for something that I had previously enjoyed.  I was sad, and I was angry.  I wanted absolutely nothing to do with that person ever again.


Jesus says that we are to forgive someone 77 times, and here I am, struggling to forgive someone just once.


I remember discussing forgiveness in a class at AST, and how difficult forgiveness is, and the ethical dimensions of forgiveness. Our faith gives us an absolute imperative to forgive.  Jesus tells us that we are to forgive – no ifs, ands, or buts. We can’t put conditions on our forgiveness – if only that person would do this or say that, then I could forgive them.  No – Jesus tells us that we are to forgive.  Yet ethically, what does it mean to forgive someone who has done something illegal or harmful, and shows no signs of stopping or wanting to change their behaviour.


I think that, before we look at what forgiveness is, it is important to look at what forgiveness is not.


Forgiveness is not easy.  I think that is pretty easy to understand.


Forgiveness is not forgetting.  If something is so trivial that we could forget it, then does it really need forgiving?


Forgiveness is not allowing ourselves to become doormats.  Too often, these words of Jesus telling us that we are to forgive someone who has done us wrong 77 times, or seventy-times-seven times – too often these words have been interpreted, often by clergy, to encourage people, especially women, to remain in abusive relationships.  But forgiving someone does not mean that you give them permission to do the same harm to you over and over and over again.


Forgiveness is also not the same thing as reconciliation.  Forgiveness is the act of letting go of the hurt.  Reconciliation is rebuilding a relationship.  As followers of Jesus, I do believe that we are called to reconciliation as well as to forgiveness, and I think that forgiveness is the first step towards reconciliation, but they aren’t the same thing.  In order for reconciliation to happen, there has to be a commitment by both parties to rebuild the relationship, and forgiveness is a necessary part of the process so that past wrongs aren’t continually being held against the person.  Forgiveness, the letting go, can happen without reconciliation; but reconciliation can’t happen without forgiveness.  They are related, but they aren’t the same thing.


This is what forgiveness isn't.  So what is forgiveness then?


A wise mentor once told me that forgiveness is about not giving another person permission to take up space in your brain, rent-free.  Or, to flip it around, writer Anne Lamott says that when we don’t forgive, it is like drinking rat poison ourselves and expecting the rat to die (Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts of Faith).  When we hold on to our resentments, our anger, our pain, the person who caused them isn’t affected at all – we are the ones who are harmed when we withhold forgiveness.  We give permission to that other person to occupy space in our brains, and to continually cause us pain.  Forgiveness is the act of letting all of that go.


In the parable that follows the teaching, the person who refuses to forgive another’s debts is sent off to be punished, to be tortured.  And while this may seem to be an extreme reaction, I think that often the torture that we experience when we don’t forgive another person doesn’t come from outside – instead the pain that we continue to experience over and over again is coming from inside ourselves.


Getting back to my own experience of a betrayal of trust, I ended up working through my pain with a spiritual advisor who was able to help me to let go of this pain and anger.  I don’t think that reconciliation is ever going to be possible in this situation, but if the person who betrayed my trust were ever to express a genuine desire for reconciliation, I would be open to it.  For now though, forgiveness is going to have to be enough.


In that conversation at AST about the difficulty of forgiveness, and the ethical implications, my professor, Dr. Alyda Faber, said, “the first step towards forgiveness is a desire to forgive.”  Forgiveness is hard.  If we don’t want to forgive someone, then we aren’t ready to go there yet.  She shared her own story with us, and said that each morning she would wake up and ask herself, do I want to forgive that person yet.  And for the longest time, the answer was no.  She wanted to hold on to her anger and pain.  But then one morning she woke up, and the answer was yes.  She wanted to forgive the person.  She wasn’t able to forgive them yet, but she had taken the first step.


And I think that this might be why Jesus tells us that we may have to forgive someone 77 times, or 490 times.  Because it’s a process – it’s not like we can chose to forgive someone once and it’s over.


Even in the process of writing this sermon, I dug up my old pain thinking about how I had been betrayed.  And I had to make a conscious decision once again to forgive that person – to not let myself dwell on the pain that had been inflicted.


To move from a betrayal of trust to a much more traumatic event, I want to finish with a powerful song by Canadian rapper Shad called "I'll Never Understand."  He wrote this song with his mother, Bernadette Kabango.  She is Rwandan, and several of her family members were killed in the genocide in 1994 – her father, her brother, her sister.  She wrote a poem about the process of forgiveness, and her words and voice are interwoven with her son’s voice.  She talks about the process of forgiveness being like untying the chains that were keeping her bound to the people who killed her family.  Her final words in the poem are:

            “I untied the chains,

            Painfully, purposefully

            Knowing the one who said to do it seventy times seven

            Totally understands the depth of my pain.”


(If you want to listen to the song, you can find it by clicking here.  Content warning: the song talks about the events that inspired it.) 


And I think that’s maybe the key to all of this.  Jesus tells us to forgive again and again, but he isn’t telling us this in any superficial sort of way.  Jesus knows what it is like to forgive the people who were torturing and killing him.  The one whom Jesus calls “Father” knows what it is to forgive the ones who killed their child.


Forgiveness is hard.  But we are called to untie the chains that keep us bound to the past, bound to our pain, bound to the one who caused us the pain.  We are called to untie those chains and move on towards healing and freedom.  And may God be with us as we go, and may the Holy Spirit give us the strength to do so.  Amen.



Image:  “chained” by Jamie Bradway



8 March 2020

"Chaos and Clarity" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday March 8, 2020
Scripture:  John 3:1-17

Have you ever traveled to a place where you don’t speak or understand the language that is spoken?  It is a disconcerting experience to be surrounded by words and language and not to be able to understand a single thing that is being said, and to not be able to make yourself understood.

I remember when I first moved to Tanzania, where the national language is Swahili, we as volunteers were given two weeks of language training before being sent out to our placements – mostly to make sure that we wouldn’t starve or insult our neighbours too badly.  And two weeks later, there I was in rural Tanzania equipped with my introductory Swahili lessons, immersed in a rural community where I was surrounded not only by Swahili but also by the local tribal language of LuHaya.  I still remember those first few weeks – surrounded by words that I couldn’t make any sense of.  After a bit, I came to realize that if I was able to pick out an occasional word, the person was probably speaking Swahili, whereas if I couldn’t catch any words at all, the person was probably speaking LuHaya.

As the weeks and months passed, and I used the language more and more, my vocabulary and understanding started to improve.  There was a long stretch of time where I described my fluency as having pockets of language – I had my pocket of hospital and physiotherapy vocabulary; I had my pocket of church vocabulary; I had my pocket of shopping and market vocabulary.  As long as I was in one of these contexts I could manage, but as soon as someone started talking about something else I was lost.

Six months in, we were offered two more weeks of intermediate language training where we learned the rest of the grammar; and it was probably somewhere between the year and a half and two year point that I really started to feel comfortable understanding and using the language.

But I still remember the chaos and confusion of those first few weeks and months.  I remember the frustration of the neighbourhood children when I just couldn’t understand what they were asking.  I remember the fear that I felt when I had to make a phone call to make a reservation at the guest house in town.  Are they going to understand what I am asking?  Will I actually have a room when I get to town?  I remember sitting in church with the sermon and the prayers washing over me, not able to understand a single thing.

And if I had left at that point in time, if I had succumbed to the confusion and walked away, if I had stopped engaging with people and insisted on speaking only English, then I still wouldn’t understand or speak Swahili.  It was only by plunging in to the confusion, living with the lack of understanding, embracing the chaos, that I was eventually able to understand.

Nicodemus, in this week’s scripture story, is also confused – he just doesn’t understand.  He is one of the Pharisees, a leader of the Jewish people.  This story takes place in Jerusalem.  Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover at the temple there; but while they are at the temple, Jesus has caused a bit of a commotion when he made a whip out of some cords, overturned the tables of the money changers, and drove the animals that were intended for sacrifice out of the temple.

So, as you can imagine, the temple leaders, including Nicodemus, probably weren’t very happy with Jesus at this point in time.  But Nicodemus seems to be curious about Jesus – curious enough that he comes to Jesus to ask some questions.   But he comes to the place where Jesus is staying at night-time, under the cover of darkness.  Maybe he doesn’t want his companions at the temple to see where he is going; or maybe the literal darkness outside represents the fact that Nicodemus is figuratively “in the dark” about who Jesus is.

He is curious though, and he opens the dialogue by praising Jesus – “Rabbi, Teacher, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Jesus replies with a statement that seems designed to confuse rather than clarify – “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew.”  And so Nicodemus, confused, asks Jesus to explain.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”

And Jesus again seems to confuse Nicodemus even more, instead of offering clarity – talking about being born of water and Spirit, and the wind or Spirit blowing where she chooses.  Finally, in verse 9 we hear Nicodemus for the last time, still confused, asking Jesus “How can these things be?”  And then our dialogue turns to a monologue with Jesus teaching about eternal life.  It is almost as if they are speaking two different languages, neither one being able to understand what the other is saying.

Nicodemus just fades out of the scene.  We don’t hear any more from him, we aren’t told whether or not he has left the room, we don’t know if he starts to understand what Jesus is saying or whether he is still confused – it almost feels like he slipped out the door while Jesus was still talking.

Now the primary focus of John’s gospel is discipleship.  If you flip ahead to the end of John’s gospel, you will read, “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  And so as you read the stories that the narrator is telling, it is always interesting to ask, “What does this story tell me about being a follower of Jesus?”

And on the surface, if I were to read this story of Nicodemus, I would probably have to say that he isn’t a follower of Jesus.  He comes to Jesus in secrecy, at night; he asks questions of Jesus; and then he just seems to slip away, back into the night, still in the dark.

But fortunately, this isn’t the last that we hear from Nicodemus in John’s gospel.  His story doesn’t end here.

If we were to flip ahead from Chapter 3 to the end of Chapter 7, Nicodemus makes another appearance.  The authorities are trying to figure out to do with Jesus, who keeps on kicking up a commotion and challenging the authority of those in charge.  They talk of arresting Jesus, but our friend Nick stands up for Jesus.  Nicodemus says, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing.”  Hmmm… Maybe what Jesus has been saying has had an influence on Nicodemus after all.

And we get to see Nicodemus one more time.  At the end of Chapter 19 of John’s gospel, after Jesus has been tortured, after Jesus has been crucified, after Jesus has died; Joseph of Arimathea asks permission to take his body away to be buried.  And when he does so, he is joined by another person – Nicodemus.  Nick shows up for Jesus in the end, bringing a hundred pounds of burial spices – myrrh and aloe – to help prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  Together, Joseph and Nicodemus wrap Jesus’ body along with the spices in linen cloths, and place it in a tomb in a garden.  There, at the very end, Nicodemus serves Jesus with love.

And so, in the end, it seems as though Nicodemus was able to wade through the chaos and confusion in order to become a follower of Jesus.  He was willing to take that first step into the shadowy chaos; he was willing to become even more confused, in order to reach clarity on the other side.

And so this week, I encourage you to be like Nicodemus.  Is there a faith step that you’ve been considering taking, but have been too afraid?  Do you feel yourself called by God to do something new or different, but that something seems too overwhelming and chaotic and scary?  I encourage you to take a page from Nicodemus’ book and step into the chaos.  Ask Jesus your questions.  Don’t be afraid of the confusion.

And trust that Jesus is there somewhere in the chaos, that Jesus hears your questions; and trust that the shadowy confusion will eventually clear until you find the clarity you’re looking for.

For God is everywhere, yes, in the places we expect, but especially in the surprising places, the unexpected places, the chaotic places.  And God is just waiting to welcome us home to love.

Thanks be to God.

Some of the kids who struggled to make themselves understood
when I moved to Tanzania;
but a smile is a universal language!

1 March 2020

"Turning Out the Light" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday March 1, 2020
Scripture:  Matthew 4:1-11

I lived in Montreal for 4 years while I was doing my undergraduate degree; and during those years I was a Girl Guide leader with a group that met on the edges of downtown Montreal.  Several times a year, we would take the girls camping – usually once in the fall, once in the mid-winter, and again in the spring.  There were a couple of Girl Guide camps north of Montreal in the Laurentians, and that is usually where we would go, heading up on a school bus on Friday afternoon, and returning to the city on Sunday afternoon.

I remember, several times at one of these camps, coming across one of the girls at night, absolutely entranced by the night sky; standing there staring up at the expanse of stars – the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia – too many stars to be able to name or count.  And what really struck me was that some of these girls had never seen the night sky before.  Since I grew up in the country, in a part of the country that isn’t too different than this corner of the world, the stars had always been part of my life.  I couldn’t imagine reaching 9, 10, 11 years old without seeing the night sky.  But to these girls, growing up in the city with glowing streetlights blocking out any other light source, this sort of night sky was completely new to them.

This year, as we move through the season of Lent, we are going to be exploring the idea that sometimes we need to turn out the light in order to be able to see clearly.  This can be a literal turning out of the lights, like moving away from the city in order to be able to see the night sky; but it can also be a spiritual turning out of the lights.

The light is such a powerful metaphor in our faith.  We talk about the light of Christ; Jesus called himself the Light of the World; scripture tells us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never overcome it; we like to sing,
            This little light of mine,
            I’m going to let it shine…

But what might we be missing if we only focus on the light?  What might be missing in our lives if we are afraid to go in to the shadowy areas, and instead remain in what author Barbara Brown Taylor refers to as “full solar Christianity”?[1]  Are we missing the awe-inspiring expanse of the night sky?

In today’s scripture story, Jesus ventures into those shadowy places.  He is led into the wilderness, and he fasts there for 40 days.  Now Jesus’ wilderness isn’t the same sort of wilderness that we have here in New Brunswick.  The wilderness that Jesus went in to was a desert wilderness – a brown stony landscape with not much by way of vegetation aside from the occasional oasis; hot and dry during the day with no trees to take shelter under, and so cold at night that the nights are actually more dangerous than the days.

Jesus has left behind him the comforts of a bed to sleep on and a roof over his head.  He has left behind him the very human need for the companionship of other humans.  He has left behind him the pleasure of a meal, getting only just enough food and water to keep his body alive.  He has moved in to the shadowy places.

And as he stays there in the wilderness, he begins to see himself clearly, and he begins to see God more clearly.  Today’s story falls immediately after Jesus has been baptized – immediately after he has seen the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove, and heard the voice of the one whom he calls “Father” call him beloved.  And at the end of the forty days, he is able to articulate his relationship with God when the tempter tries to draw him away, and he is strengthened to begin his ministry in Galilee and beyond.

We, as humans, are very good at distracting ourselves from our spiritual lives.  Or perhaps I should speak only for myself and say that I, as a human, am very good at distracting myself from my spiritual life.  I carry a phone with me everywhere that lets me play games or scroll through Facebook any time I might have the opportunity to just sit and be.  I watch TV on my iPad as I do the dishes, rather than simply being present to myself as I do the dishes.  I listen to the radio or to podcasts as I drive, rather than being alone with my thoughts.

I wonder why we have this tendency to distract ourselves?  What are we afraid that we might find if we were to go into those shadowy places?

And so as we move in to the next 6 weeks of Lent, I encourage you to consider leaving some of these shiny, sparkly distractions behind.  Like Jesus did, venture into the shadowy unknown.  And as you do, ask God to meet you there in the shadows.  Ask God to show you the things that the bright lights might hide.  And prepare yourself to be surprised at the things that you will be able to see; prepare yourself to be overwhelmed by the night sky, once you turn out the lights.

Thanks be to the God who created both light and darkness.  Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014).

The Center of the Milky Way

23 February 2020

"On the Mountaintop" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday February 23, 2020
Scripture:  Matthew 17:1-9 (with a brief reference to Exodus 24:12-18)

I love the story of the Transfiguration – the story that we read each year on the Sunday before the beginning of Lent – this story that is told in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke where Jesus and three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, ascend a mountain and Jesus’ physical body is transformed, is transfigured into a body that shines as brightly as the sun, and then is joined by Moses and Elijah, leaders of the Israelite people from many many centuries earlier, and there they hear the voice of God speaking from a shining cloud.

I love this story, but I have to confess that it is almost impossible to preach about this story, because how can I put human words to the holiness of God?  God is so very obviously and overwhelmingly present with and in Jesus at this moment in time – beyond anything that I can describe with human words, and beyond anything that I can even imagine.

This isn’t the only time in the gospel story when we encounter God a bit more directly, but most of the other times we seem to have tamed or domesticated so that maybe they begin to lose their impact.

At Christmas, we encounter the mystery of God who created the heavens and the earth choosing to be born as a vulnerable human baby; and yet we domesticate this mystery by cooing over a cute baby lying in a manger and focusing on feasting and gift-giving.

At Easter, we also encounter the mystery of God who shows us that God has power over everything in the world, even death itself; and yet again we domesticate this story with Easter Eggs and Easter bonnets.

At the Baptism of Jesus and at Pentecost, again we encounter the visible, audible presence of God; and again we celebrate with water and with fire and by wearing red clothing.

But today, on Transfiguration Sunday, we have another encounter with the Holy, annother encounter with Mystery that we can’t explain away or solve.  And we don’t exchange Transfiguration cards today, and we don’t have a Transfiguration feast later on today – or I should say that I have never heard of a Transfiguration feast, but if anyone is hosting one, please let me know! There are no special foods or sweets associated with the Transfiguration, and we don’t decorate our homes for the Transfiguration.

And so the only thing that we are left with is the story.  This peculiar story where Jesus and three of his disciples climbed the mountain and the veil that separates us from God was lifted.

We are left with this story, and we are left with our imaginations.  With our imaginations we can climb that mountain along with Jesus, and imagine what it must have been like to witness his transfiguration.

Can you imagine what it would have been like?  You have started your life fishing on the great lake known as the Sea of Galilee.  One day, this itinerant preacher and teacher and healer came through your village and called you to follow him.  You must have seen something special in him, because you drop your fishing nets and you leave your family and your home, and you join him on his journey from place to place.  You have heard his preaching as he taught people about God’s kingdom of peace and love.  You have witnessed him heal people.  You have even seen him perform miracles, like walking on water and feeding a crowd of thousands with only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.

And today he has invited you and two others from the inner circle of disciples to accompany him up a mountain.  I wonder why these three were chosen?  And when you get to the top, you witness this transformation – Jesus shining as brightly as the sun, so brightly that your eyes are dazzled and you need to either close your eyes or turn away.  And then standing with Jesus are Moses and Elijah.  Moses who led your ancestors to freedom and who also encountered God on top of a mountain.  Elijah who was one of the great prophets who never died but was carried up to heaven.  And then you are engulfed in a bright cloud and you hear the voice of the Creator of the universe saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

How do you feel in this moment?  Are you afraid?  Are you overwhelmed?  Are you filled with joy?  Do you feel loved?  Does the peace of God fill your heart?

We get a hint of how Peter was feeling, based on his reaction.  Peter seems to have been overwhelmed by the encounter – so overwhelmed that he needs to fill the holy silence with babbling words.  Peter says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  Peter doesn’t know what to do with the moment and so he fills it with words.  But at the same time he seems to want to prolong the moment by putting up tents there on the mountaintop.

And in a twinkling of an eye – in one of those moments that seems to last forever but is over before you know it – Jesus has returned to his normal appearance, and he is placing his hand on your shoulder, telling you to get up and to not be afraid.

No matter how hard we try, it is impossible to put language to encounters like these; and when we do, our language often contradicts itself.  When the disciples hear God speaking, it comes from a “bright cloud” – instead of casting shadows like a regular cloud, this cloud seems to cast light.  In our reading from Exodus when Moses encounters God, we get a similar contradiction in the description of the glory of God which is both hidden by a dark cloud but burning brightly like a fire that devours everything around it.

Language fails us in moments like these, and we have to fall back on being and feeling.

If we are lucky, once or twice in our lifetimes we might have a mountaintop experience where the veil that separates us from God is briefly lifted; a moment when we are overwhelmed by God’s mystery and holiness.  We can’t make these moments happen, and if we seek after them, they become ever more elusive.

But when they happen, they transform us.

It wasn’t only Jesus who was transformed there on the mountaintop – the disciples who went up with him were also changed by the experience.  They didn’t become perfect after that – remember that Peter is going to deny knowing Jesus when Jesus is put on trial and tortured – but they were surely changed and would go on to be leaders in the earliest church after Jesus’ resurrection.  These fishermen from the backwater of Galilee would go on to lead a church that would eventually encircle the world.  This moment on the mountaintop changed them.

And so we too are changed by our encounters with God.  If you have been fortunate enough to have a mountaintop experience, a moment when the veil that separates us was lifted and God was overwhelmingly present; once you’ve experienced it, you can’t un-experience it.  That moment, that experience stays with you forever.

And yet God is also present in the valleys of our every day lives as well.  God is present in our lives even when we can’t hear God’s voice or see God’s face.  God is present with us when we are sitting here in church, when we are driving, when we are washing the dishes, when we are drifting off to sleep.  These mountaintop experiences – they come and go; and as Peter experienced, trying to hold on to them makes them slip away.  But even when the veil is lowered again, God is still there.

And so my prayer today is that each one of us might have a mountaintop experience at some point in our lifetime, in whatever form it might take – a moment when we come face-to-face with God; a moment when we are overwhelmed by God’s presence.  And may that experience stay with us and change us, even as we return to the valley of everyday life.  Amen.

View From the Top of Mount Sinai 
Photo Credit:  Kate Jones