17 February 2019

"Rooted in God" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge (Westfield United Church)
Sunday February 17, 2019
Scripture:  Jeremiah 17:5-10

As we were talking about in our Story for All Ages, plants need water to live.  Houseplants, shrubs, trees, they all need water.  Even cacti, that seem to live in the desert with no water, even they need a bit of water once in a while in order to live.  And we can expand this beyond plants to all living creatures need water in order to live.

Our reading from Jeremiah uses a very striking image of a plant in the desert compared with a plant by the river. Now here in New Brunswick, where we don’t have any deserts and too much water is often a bigger problem than not enough, this imagery might not be as relevant, but I pulled this picture up to demonstrate the importance of water for life. 

Nile River Delta
© NASA – Public Domain

This is a satellite picture of the Nile River running through the Sahara desert.  Wherever the river runs, plants and trees are able to grow; and wherever the river isn’t is seemingly lifeless desert.  Water is life.  Even if no rain falls, the trees growing by the river will still have access to water and will still be able to live.  The river sustains life.

This would be the sort of image that Jeremiah had in mind as he was prophesying.  “Anyone who turns away from God, who puts their full trust in other humans, they will be like a shrub planted in the desert.  But anyone who puts their trust in God will be like a tree planted by a river; you don’t need to be afraid or anxious because even when the times of drought come, the river will sustain your life.”

I think that it’s important to note what Jeremiah isn’t saying.  He isn’t saying that if you trust in God, the drought isn’t going to come, that bad things aren’t going to happen.  No – he’s saying that if you trust in God, when the bad things happen, God will be there, sustaining you through those tough times.

And the people that Jeremiah was talking to, they knew what that was all about.  They were a people living in a small country surrounded by large empires.  The Assyrian army had already invaded and destroyed the northern part of their land, and now the Babylonians were pressing in.  Jeremiah was speaking to people who were on the very verge of being overcome and taken into exile.

And Jeremiah doesn’t come and give them nice, comforting words.  Jeremiah doesn’t tell them that the Babylonian army was going to disappear and everything would be OK.  Jeremiah doesn’t tell them that God is going to zap the Babylonians with a lightning bolt.  Jeremiah doesn’t give the people this kind of false comfort.  In fact, if you were to read through all of Jeremiah, you would find false prophets who did say this sort of thing – that since God was with them, nothing bad could happen to them – but these false prophets generally met a bad ending.

Instead, Jeremiah speaks the truth.  Bad things are going to happen in your life, even when you trust in God.  The Babylonians are going to invade.  People are going to die.  Others are going to be exiled.  The temple is going to be destroyed.

But into all of this truth-speaking, Jeremiah offers a word of hope.  Jeremiah tells the people that if they trust in God, God will sustain them, even when these bad things happen.  God will be with them, even when they are in exile from their country.  God will be with them, even when the city and temple are destroyed.  God will be with them, and they will flourish, even when the situation seems hopeless.

And I think that this message can still resonate with us today, even if the Babylonian army isn’t breathing down our necks.  But we still face the same questions and concerns as Jeremiah’s audience does.  Why do bad things happen?  If we are good people, if we go to church and believe in God, shouldn’t life become all rainbows and unicorns and sunshine?

I will be honest and say that I don’t have a good answer as to why bad things happen.  But I can affirm what Jeremiah says, that if we trust in God, then God will sustain us through these difficult times when they inevitably come.

Speaking from my own personal experience, I don’t know how I would have been able to get through those awful weeks and months after my mother died without God; without being able to dump all of my grief and anger on God.

Droughts will come, but if you are planted by the river, you will be able to get through the droughts.

We don’t need to be afraid; we don’t need to be anxious, because we know that God is always with us.  Sometimes it seems as if our world is designed to inspire fear.  How many commercials on television or radio use fear as their motivator?  And then how many politicians of all parties have a 2-step campaign strategy:  step 1 is to make us afraid of something; and step 2 is to then promise that only they can protect us from that thing.

But Jeremiah reminds us that if we are rooted in God; if we put our trust in God rather than in other humans and other institutions, then we are freed from fear and anxiety.
            “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
                        whose trust is in the Lord.
            They shall be like a tree planted by water,
                        sending out its roots by the stream.
            It shall not fear with heat comes,
                        and its leaves shall stay green;
            in the year of drought it is not anxious,
                        and it does not cease to fruit.”

So how can we ground ourselves in God, like a tree that is planted by a river?  How can we grow our roots into God, so that we can draw on that life when things are tough?

I think that it is through our regular spiritual practices that these roots grow.  By gathering together to worship, by sharing in the sacraments, the bread and the wine, by reading scripture, by prayer, by meditation, by connecting regularly with God in whatever way works for you – these are the practices that strengthen our relationship with God, that grow our roots into the river of life that is God.

And then, even when the world around us seems to be falling to pieces, we will still have our roots firmly grounded in the ever-loving life-giving waters of God.

For God is with us.  We are not alone.  Thanks be to God!

20 January 2019

“Joy-Bringers” (sermon)

San Juan Presbyterian Church, Trinidad
January 20, 2019
Scripture:  John 2:1-11

I have to confess that I’ve never been to a wedding here in Trinidad.  But back home in Canada, a wedding is a BIG DEAL.  The planning for a wedding usually takes a year, expectations are highbudgets are extravagant.  Much thought is given to where to hold the party, what colour the decorations and dresses should be, what type of flowers to have, what style of dress the bride will wear and how her hair will be styled.

Expectations are so high that even before the invitations to the wedding are sent out, the couple will usually send a “Save the Date” card to the guests that will be invited, to make sure that the guests will be able to attend.  If you are invited to a wedding, you will go out of your way to attend, even if it means flying across the country or half-way around the world.

And then at the wedding, there is food, there is music, there is dancing.  Weddings are an opportunity to visit with friends and family members that you haven’t seen in a long time.  Weddingsare a time to celebrate.  Just last week, one of my cousins posted a picture on Facebook from the wedding of my father and stepmother 12 years ago, and that picture triggered a long thread of memories and reminiscing about that day.

And what is a wedding but a joyful celebration of love and family?!

And so I love that Jesus’ first sign, his first miracle in the gospel of John, takes place at a wedding.  Jesus, who is the embodiment of God’s love, gives us a sign of God’s joy and abundance when he transforms water into wine at a wedding, which is a celebration that is full of joy and love.

But I found this week, as I was reading this familiar story once again, that I was drawn especially to the mother of Jesus.  She is there at the wedding, along with her son and his followers.  Maybe it’s the wedding of one of their relatives; maybe it’s the wedding of one of their neighbours.  But she seems to feel some sort of responsibility to make sure that the celebration goes well, to make sure that the correct level of hospitality is extended, and so I like to speculate that this is the wedding of one of her family members.

And the mother of Jesus notices that the wine has run out.  She notices that the expected hospitality will not be extended.  She notices that shame is going to be brought on to the whole extended family.  But she knows that her boy, the son that she raised, this child that she watched grow into a man – she knows that he can do something about this.

And so she tells him, “They have no wine.”  But Jesus, at first he brushes her off.  “What do you want me to do about that?  What does this have to do with me?”  But his mother, she doesn’t give up.  She pushes back.  She persists.  She didn’t take no for an answer.  She tells the servants to do whatever her son tells them to do; and then before anyone else at the party noticed the problem, there was an abundance of excellent wine, more than the party would ever be able to drink.

I wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t persisted?  What if she had accepted Jesus’ first refusal, and just walked away?  Would the wine have run out?  Would the celebration have turned to anger?  Would the joy have turned to despair?  Would shame have been brought to the whole family?

But the mother of Jesus persisted.  She knew that the God that she worshipped was a God of joy.  She would have known and sung the psalms that told her,
“Joy comes with the morning.”
“God has turned my mourning into dancing;
God has taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”
“Taste and see that the Lord is good!”
“All people feast on the abundance of God’s house,
and God gives them drink from the river of God’s delights.”

She knew that the God she worshipped desired joy for all people; and she knew that her son could do something about it.

And so she persisted.  She persevered, and water was turned in to wine.  And the joyful celebration continued.

When I read this passage from John’s gospel this week, it was the mother of Jesus who stood out to me.  The mother of Jesus who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.  The mother of Jesus who ensured that the party would continue.

And I think that each one of us can learn from the example of the mother of Jesus.  We know that the God that we worship is a God who celebrates love and joy.  We know that later in John’s gospel, Jesus will say that he came so that everyone might have life and have it abundantly.  And we can learn from the example of the mother of Jesus and notice where the joy is missing, notice where the love is missing, notice where the abundance, the fullness of life is missing.  And like the mother of Jesus, we can persist until the world is better aligned with God’s vision for the world.

I am a visitor in your beautiful country, so I don’t know what the specific issues are here.  If I were speaking to my congregation back in Canada, I might point out issues like the poor conditions that Indigenous Canadians are living in.  I might point out issues like the salary difference between women and men.  I might point out issues like discrimination against our LGBTQ community.  I might point out issues like the damage that we are doing to God’s creation by our dependence on oil and gas and other fossil fuels.  These are some of the issues that we are facing in Canada that separate us from the fullness of life that God desires for all people.

I don’t know what specific issues are present here in Trinidad and Tobago, and I’m not going to pretend to know.  But the question that this passage of scripture should raise for all of us is: where can we see joy being denied for all people?  Where can we see the fullness of life being taken away from all people?  And once we have noticed these places, like the mother of Jesus, we can persist.  We can persevere.  We can never give up, until the whole world is living in the abundance that God desires for all of creation.

God’s Word has become flesh.
Water has been turned into wine.
Transformation is possible.
The same God who ensured that the wedding celebration could continue in Cana calls us to be agents of that transformation.  By the Holy Spirit, we are being transformed into the image and likeness of Christ, we are being drawn into the endless dance of God.  The joy that God desires, the abundance that God promises, the fullness of life that Christ gives to us – all of this can bubble up in us and overflow to the world around us.

We are called.
We are gifted.
Let us go and do the work that God has given to us to do.
May it be so.

Let us pray,
God of limitless love,
let your joy bubble up in us
like the finest wine,
and let it overflow to the world around us.
Help us to proclaim your message of abundance –
that there is always enough for all people –
to the world.
And continue to blow your Holy Spirit through our lives,
transforming us more and more into the image of Christ,
so that we might be the hands and feet
and eyes and ears and heart of Christ,
as we continue the work of Christ in our world.
I pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ,
your Word-made-Flesh.

13 January 2019

"Visible Signs" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
January 13, 2019 - Baptism of Jesus
Scripture:  Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I invite you to remember some of the more memorable meals that you’ve had.  Maybe you’re thinking of a holiday meal like Christmas or Thanksgiving with your family gathered around a large table, celebrating together.  Or maybe you’re thinking of a dinner party where the atmosphere and the guests just clicked and the meal became more than it would have been otherwise.  Or maybe you’re thinking about a restaurant meal where the food and the service and the atmosphere were something extra special.

I’m thinking of a dinner at my apartment in Nova Scotia in January, 4 years ago.  I’d just finished my first semester at school and I invited 5 classmates over to share a roast chicken.  We didn’t know each other very well yet, but as the meal progressed, the stories that we shared became deeper and more intimate, and the laughter became louder.  When we finally left the table at midnight, our friendship was cemented, and when I think back to that meal, there is a warm glow that hovers over my dining room.

Now I want you to take a moment and imagine what your special meal would have been like without the food.  No smell of roasting chicken wafting through the house.  Empty glasses raised in a toast.  Empty dishes being passed around the table.  Cutlery clattering on empty plates.  No food changes this memorable meal into something memorable but for very different reasons.  Food is important.  Food changes things.

We are not purely spiritual beings – we have physical bodies as well, and our physical selves need food and water to survive and thrive.  And that’s OK.  God created the physical world, and God saw that it was good.

In the United Church of Canada we recognize two sacraments – baptism and communion.  But what do we mean when we say “sacrament”?  I am drawn to St. Augustine’s definition of a sacrament – even though he wrote 1600 years ago, his definition still resonates with me today.  Augustine wrote that a sacrament is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace.  A visible sign of God’s invisible grace.

God’s grace, God’s love is invisible.  We can’t see it, we can’t reach out and touch it, but it is always there.  But since we are physical beings, made of matter, made of cells and molecules and atoms, God has given us physical, material ways to experience God’s love.  Ways that we can see and touch and taste and smell and hear God’s love.

The water of baptism, and the bread and wine of communion – they don’t replace God’s love, but instead they are signs – they point us towards God’s love.  Just as a stop sign doesn’t directly stop our car, but directs us to stop, the sacraments direct us towards experiencing the always-present, never-ending love of God.

When a person is baptized, either as a baby or as an adult, we don’t baptize just with words, it isn’t just a spiritual baptism where we know that the Holy Spirit has descended on this person.  Instead, there is water as well as words – water that we can hear being poured, water that we can see, water that we can touch.

When we gather at the communion table, we gather with words, but we also gather to share the bread and the juice – bread and juice that we can smell, taste, and see.

God made matter, so matter matters; but God also became matter in the person of Jesus Christ.  We’ve just finished the season of Christmas when we celebrated the time when God didn’t just put on humanity like a coat, but God actually became human.  God loves us so much that God became one of us.  God’s word became flesh.  Matter matters.

And we are given these sacraments so that our material selves – our flesh and blood – have something material to touch and taste so that the love of God can be made real to us.

In our scripture reading this morning, we heard about how Jesus came to the Jordan River and was baptized by John.  Again, this isn’t a purely spiritual baptism – there is physical water present.  Jesus waded into the river, went under the surface of the water, and came back up out of the water again.  And then Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and he saw the Spirit descending like a dove, and a voice from heaven said to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

In that moment of Jesus’ baptism, the whole Trinity is present.  The heavens are torn apart, and God descends like a dove and rests upon God, and the voice of God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved.”  And when we baptize in our church today, we baptize in the name of this same Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Our sacraments then, are this fabulous place where the physical and spiritual meet.  In the physical elements of the water, bread, and wine, we encounter God.  Because Jesus Christ was fully human and fully God, because the heavens were torn apart and the Holy Spirit descended, God is fully present in our world.  One of my favourite theologians, Richard Rohr, writes, “God is always present in the bread.  We just need to bring our hunger.”

In baptism, we make a covenant with God.  God is always present, and God’s love is always with us, but it is formalized in baptism.  We, or our parents, make promises, and we hear that each one of us is a beloved child of God.  The Holy Spirit hovers over the waters of our baptism, just as the Holy Spirit hovered over Jesus at his baptism.  And as a sign of God’s love, and as a sign of the promises that are made, water is sprinkled or poured or we are fully immersed in it.

And in the meal of Holy Communion, we are reminded again of God’s love for us.  We are reminded of God’s faithfulness in all generations, and we are strengthened in our faith.  The Holy Spirit hovers over the bread and the wine, and hovers over all of us when we gather at the table, closer to us than our very breath.  And we eat and we drink together, uniting us in that overwhelming love of God.  This isn’t a meal without food – empty glasses and bare plates.  This is a meal where God is present through the Holy Spirit in real bread and real juice.

God is fully present in the world – nothing can separate us from God and from God’s love.  Our sacraments are physical, tangible signs that point us to that love.  God made physical matter; God became physical matter, and so matter matters.  We are not just spiritual beings, but we are physical beings as well, and through the sacraments, God cares for us, and nourishes us, both physically and spiritually.

Thanks be to God!

The Youth Group and Sunday School helped us to remember our baptism
by flinging water from the baptismal font at the congregation!

6 January 2019

"Following the Star" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
January 6, 2019
Scripture:  Matthew 2:1-12

Today, January 6th, is the Feast of the Epiphany.  It’s the day when we read about the journey and the arrival of the magi, coming from some unspecified country to the east of Palestine, who arrive at Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  We read about how King Herod was afraid of a new power taking over; but how these magi knew Herod’s intent, and so changed their travel plans so that they could avoid telling Herod where the baby was.

But what does that word “epiphany” mean?  It’s a word that we sometimes hear outside of the context of this church holy day, but not one that we hear often.

When we hear about someone having an epiphany, it usually means that they have had a sudden or striking realization or insight; an “A-ha” moment.  It might mean that they have a new or deeper perspective on something that they have been studying; or that they have an intuitive grasp of a new reality.

If I think about the moments in my life when I have had an epiphany, they are usually pretty memorable.  There is the moment when I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God loved me just the way that I was – that I was a beloved child of God, no matter what I had done or hadn’t done, just because I was me.

Or, in a different kind of holy moment, there is the time when I was studying quantum chemistry in my undergrad.  I just couldn’t wrap my brain around it; but I found that if I didn’t try to think too hard about it or look straight at it, but almost kept what I was studying in the peripheral vision of my mind, all of a sudden I caught a glimpse of great beauty and awe of the universe.

So epiphanies are moments of great transformation or insight – moments when we might catch a glimpse of God or what God has done.  We usually can’t plan for these moments, or hold on to them once they have passed, but they have the power to change our lives moving forward.

So what about these magi?  I’m fascinated by them.  We aren’t told how many of them there are; we aren’t told where they are from; we aren’t told how far they traveled or what means of transportation they used to get from “the East” to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem.  The Greek word “magi” which is often translated as “wise men” is actually related to our English words mage, magic, or magician.  They might have been magicians, they might have been astronomers or astrologers, they might have been learned or wise scholars.

But whatever their profession, or wherever they have come from, they travel a great distance because they have seen a star.

On Christmas Cards, this star is often depicted as being hundreds of times bigger and brighter than a regular star.  But if this were the case, then surely someone would have noticed it other than this group of magi.  If there was a huge and bright star in the sky, why wasn’t the whole world flocking to Bethlehem?  Current-day astronomers have looked for some celestial event 2021 years ago, give-or-take, that might explain the star that the magi were following, but they haven’t found any record of a comet or a supernova appearing in that period of history.

But have you ever looked up at the sky at night?  Millions and billions of little dots of light.  If a new star were to appear there tonight, do you think that you would notice?  So the only thing I can think is that this group of magi was particularly observant.  They studied the stars so carefully that when something new appeared, they noticed it, even when the rest of the world didn’t.

So these magi had an epiphany – a new insight or revelation that led them to Jesus; and their lives were changed by that encounter.  But I don’t think that their epiphany came out of the blue.  They studied the stars, they paid attention to them, and then when they noticed something different appear, they were willing to act on it.  They didn’t just sit back and say “That’s nice” and go back to their stargazing.  Instead they got up and followed the star, no matter how many months it might have taken them to get to Bethlehem.

And then did you notice at the end, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and instead of brushing it off as just a dream, they went home by a different route.  A new epiphany.

I think that if we listen to the Holy Spirit, all of us can experience these epiphanies, these new insights about God and how God is working in the world and in our lives.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit shouts at us, like the army of angels appearing in a field to a bunch of shepherds, proclaiming that Jesus had been born.  But sometimes the Holy Spirit nudges us instead.  A new star in the sky where there was no star before.  A dream or a feeling that you need to do something new or different.

And so I see the magi as offering a challenge to all of us.  How can we look for God working in our every-day lives?  If we are looking for exploding stars and supernovas and extraordinary miracles, then we might need to wait a long time; but if we are observant, if we pay attention, we can see God working in every minute of every day.

Before the end of the service, I’m going to be offering everyone a “Star Word.”  This is an assortment of words, each printed on a paper star.  I will invite you to take one from the basket without looking to see what is written.

Maybe you will like the word that you choose, or maybe it will make you feel uncomfortable.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit offers us comfort in our lives; but sometimes the Holy Spirit pushes us in new directions, to places that we never thought that we would or could go.

And so I invite you to take a word for this year ahead.  Reflect on this word, let it sit in the back of your mind.  You can ask God to show you how this word applies to your life; you can ask God to lead you by this word.  If you really, really don’t like your word, I will have the words with me next week and you can exchange it for a different word, but I encourage you to sit with your word for at least a week before exchanging it.

God is working in the world, and God is working in our lives.  The call of Epiphany is a call to pay attention; to look for the new star appearing in the sky; to listen for the nudges that the Holy Spirit gives us to do something differently.  And when we do so, we can catch glimpses of God.

May it be so.

My "Star Word" has found a home on my bulletin board

If anyone would like a Star Word, let me know in the comments
and I will pull one from the basket for you

16 December 2018

"Preparing" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday December 16, 2018
Scripture:  Luke 3:7-18

In this month and season of traditions that are followed from year to year and from generation to generation, one tradition that many people still keep is that of sending Christmas cards.

Several years ago, one of my friends wondered through, since we usually send these cards in the month of December, we are actually sending them in the season of Advent, so wouldn’t it be better to send Advent cards instead.  And so I made an Advent card to send to her, based on today’s Advent gospel reading from Luke.  I found an ikon of John the Baptist, and captioned it, “You Brood of Vipers!  Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”  This is maybe why we don’t send Advent cards!

(The Advent Card I sent to my friend!)

It is a harsh message that John is proclaiming to the people who have followed him out into the wilderness.  We have the image of an axe lying at the base of a tree, ready to cut it down if it doesn’t bear good fruit, and throw it into the brush fire.  We hear a teaching that we must not have any more than is absolutely necessary for life.  We have the image of a winnowing fork separating the wheat from the chaff, and throwing the chaff into the fire.

And this is the reading that the lectionary gives us on the third Sunday of Advent when we light the candle for joy.  On first read, this seems like a reading chosen to inspire fear rather than joy.

When I tried to look at this reading through the lens of joy, at first I came up short.  But then I realized that the joy depends on what perspective that you are reading it from.  I am reading it from a middle-class perspective where I do have more than one coat, and if you were to look in my fridge or my pantry I have more than enough food for today.  So when I read this passage, I am being told that I have too much and I need to give it away.  But if I were to read this passage from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have a coat in these cold December days and nights, or from someone who doesn’t have food in the fridge or cupboard to eat today, then this is a very joyful passage indeed.  For those without clothing or food or money are to be given what they need by those of us who have them.

Both John and Jesus preach a message of repentance.  It’s a funny word, repentance, and one that often isn’t well understood.  Repentance is different than remorse.  It means more than feeling very, very sorry for something.  The Greek word that we translate at “repentance” is metanoia and it means something more like changing our hearts and changing our actions; turning back to God; aligning our ways to God’s ways.  It’s more than just being sorry – it’s about repairing any relationships that have been broken, and changing how we live so that whatever went wrong doesn’t happen again.  Repentance is an action rather than a feeling.

Last week, I talked about canoeing in northern Ontario.  Part of canoe trips are portages – carrying your canoe and gear around waterfalls or other hazards that can’t be navigated by water.  I remember one canoe trip that my friend and I did where we had to portage around a series of rapids that were too big for us to run.  So we pulled up to the shore at the place marked with trail tape and unloaded our canoe and set off into the woods.  We went a ways along, but then slowly came to the realization that we had left the path at some point, and we were no longer on the marked portage trail.

The decision at that point was pretty easy.  As soon as we realized that we were going the wrong way, we turned ourselves around to make our way to the main path.  If we’d stubbornly kept going forward the way we were going, we would have become more and more lost in the northern forest.  We turned ourselves around, and soon found the main path, and made our way safely back to the water on the other side of the rapids.

Repentance works the same way as this literal turning back.  When we realize that we are doing something wrong, rather than feeling sorry for it and carrying on in the same way, we are called to turn around, to change our ways, to make our way back to God’s ways.  When we have failed to love God with our whole hearts and have failed to love our neighbours as ourselves, God calls us to return to love and return to relationship.  When we have more than what we need while others go without, God calls us to share.  And the good news is that we can never go so far as to be beyond God’s call of love.  We are always able to return, no matter how far we have strayed.

Two weeks ago, we talked about the Advent practice of waiting.  Last week, our reading pointed us to the wilderness and the lessons that we can learn in the wilderness times of our lives.  This week, I see our reading pointing us towards the Advent theme of preparing.

In this season when we are preparing our houses for Christmas by decorating them, when we are preparing for the Christmas gift giving by buying and wrapping presents, when we are preparing our Christmas dinner by baking and cooking up a storm, John calls us to prepare our inner lives for Christmas by examining our hearts to see where they align with God and where we are out of alignment.  And once we have examined our hearts, John calls us to repent – to re-align our hearts with God.  And by doing so, we will be prepared for the Christmas joy.

Please pray with me:

God of our Advent waiting
            and God of our Christmas joy,
move through our hearts by your Holy Spirit
            so that we can repent
            and re-align our hearts with you.
Fill us with the joy that comes
            from knowing that you are with us
            and that we journey with you.
We pray this in the name of Jesus,
            the one for whom we wait.

9 December 2018

"Wilderness" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
December 9, 2018
Scripture:  Luke 3:1-6

I feel as though I need to begin by apologizing to our scripture readers this morning for the great long list of names of people and places in the reading from Luke’s gospel.  I considered cutting the first verse from the reading to save our readers from needing to read most of the names; but that list of names ended up being the first thing that really caught my attention when I looked at the reading earlier in the week.

We begin with a long list of names of who held the power and where.  If we were to translate this list into 2018, it might read something like, “In the second year of the reign of President Trump, when The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau was the Prime Minister of Canada and The Honourable Blaine Higgs was the Premier of New Brunswick, when Elizabeth II was the Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth…”  You see where this is going!

So our reading begins with a list of who held the power and where; but the Word of God doesn’t come to those who were in power.  The Word of God doesn’t come to the emperor or the governor or the rulers or the high priests.  Instead, the Word of God comes to John, an ordinary guy from Judea who didn’t live in a palace but instead made his home in the wilderness.

I don’t know about you, but I carry within me many memories of wilderness times.  Back in northwestern Ontario, one of my favourite things to do is a back-country canoe trip – the longer the better.  One of my friends and I like to go out for a week or two at a time.  We carry our food and our tent and our sleeping bags in our backpacks and we paddle from lake to lake and down rivers, sometimes carrying our canoe around rapids and waterfalls, or sometimes choosing to run the rapids.

It’s not an easy or a comfortable place to be.  Our canoe has capsized a couple of times.  It’s hard work, paddling and portaging all day; and then at night we sleep on the hard ground since there isn’t room for fancy air mattresses in our backpacks.  And depending on the time of year, the mosquitoes and blackflies can be something fierce!

And yet despite all of this, or maybe because of it, there’s something about being in the wilderness – away from telephones, away from the internet, away from Facebook, away from regular commitments.  There’s something about the repetitive action of paddle… paddle… repeat.  There’s something about portaging along a rough trail, canoe overhead and a heavy pack on your back, one foot in front of the other.  There’s something about being in tune with the cycle of the day from sunrise to sunset with no watch or phone to track the hours.  It seems as though each time we go out into the wilderness, either my friend or I is struggling to discern something; and by the time we get back to so-called civilization, an important decision has been reached.  There’s something special about the wilderness.

In the wilderness, we need to choose what is essential, and what we are going to leave behind.  We need to trust our companions, because it is only by working together that we will make it to the other side.  We need to be fully present in the moment, alert to both the beauty and the dangers.

All of us go through periods of time in our lives that feel like wilderness times.  Times when everything that has seemed to be safe and predictable drops away from us; times that feel uncomfortable or downright scary; times that feel like it is just such hard work to get from one day to the next.

I wonder if maybe the lessons from the literal wilderness might help us to get through these wilderness times in our lives?  We need to decide what is essential, and what burdens can be left behind.  We need to choose our companions, and then work together and trust them in order to arrive safely on the other side.  We need to be fully present in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

The word of God came to John in the wilderness; and God comes to us too in the wilderness times in our lives.  I wonder if maybe these wilderness times that we face in our lives open our hearts to God’s presence?  Maybe they draw us closer together, and to draw us closer to God?  The wilderness is not an easy place to be, or a comfortable place to be; but there is something about being in the wilderness.

The voice in the wilderness cries out:  “The path will be made easy since the valleys will be raised up and the hills will be lowered and the twists and turns will be straightened out!  The path of God will be prepared, and all of humanity will see and know God’s salvation!”

May it be so.


(An aerial shot of one of the rapids that tipped our canoe over in the wilderness)

"Waiting..." (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
December 2, 2018
Scripture:  Jeremiah 33:14-16

So who here has ever had to wait for anything?  Waiting to get an appointment with a specialist.  Waiting for the results of medical tests.  Waiting for a much-anticipated baby or grandbaby to be born.  Waiting for a flight to land bringing a loved one home.  Waiting with someone as they pass from this life into the next.  Waiting in line at Sobey’s.

I think that all of us have waited on more than one occasion!

Next question:  who here enjoys waiting?  It’s not always a comfortable place to be.  Often we’d rather skip over the waiting and go straight to the ending!

I have two sisters, and when we were growing up, the rule was that on Christmas morning we weren’t allowed into the living room where the stockings had been hung by the chimney with care until 7am.  Being kids though, we were usually awake at 6am (or earlier).  We would go downstairs to wait.  Usually our auntie would wait with us – making us hot chocolate and trying to entertain us until the magic hour.

That hour between waking up and being allowed at our stockings felt like the longest hour of the year.  It felt like it took at least 6 hours for the clock to move from 6 to 7.  Waiting was not fun – if given the choice, we would have much rather gone straight to the ending and opened up our presents as soon as we were awake!

Advent is a season of waiting.  We too are waiting for Christmas.  When the world around us is in full-blown Christmas by now, here in the church we are in a season of not-yet-Christmas.  We are in a season of waiting and preparing and longing for Christmas.

The people that Jeremiah was addressing were also in a season of waiting.  The ancient Israelite people lived in a small country surrounded by superpowers, and as usually happens to small countries surrounded by superpowers, they were invaded by their more powerful neighbours.  First of all, the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian army and the people fled south for safety; and then just over a hundred years later, the southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonian army, Jerusalem and the first temple were destroyed, and most of the key leaders were sent into exile to Babylon.

And this is the moment that Jeremiah is prophesying in.  He is speaking to a people on the brink of exile.  It’s pretty much a given that things aren’t going to go well for the people.  With the perspective of history, we know that they are going to be exiled to Babylon for 70 years – the people who went into exile were not the same generation that would return.  It is going to be a 70-year waiting period before their descendants would be allowed to return.  Maybe next time you are waiting in line at the grocery story and it feels as though the line is moving at a snail’s pace, you can re-assure yourself by thinking, “at least it isn’t going to be a 70-year wait!”

And Jeremiah promises the people that God is with them, and God has not forgotten about them, no matter how long the wait may be.  God promises that they will return from exile, and that Jerusalem will be re-built.  “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise.”  God doesn’t say how long it will take, but the time is coming!

And so Advent is a season of waiting; but if God is with us, then waiting can be a holy time.  We are on the threshold of something new – there is something new unfolding in front of us, and God is with us as we wait and as we watch the unfolding and as we long for that which is new to be revealed.

Our Advent theme this week is hope; and our hope grows in the waiting.  Theological hope is so much more than wishful thinking – our hope is our confidence that God is with us, our confidence that God loves us, our confidence that God’s promises for all of creation will come true.

And so while our waiting feels long, our times of waiting are times that we can set aside to look for God’s presence in our lives.  Our times of waiting are times that we can set aside to see how God is working in the world.  Our times of waiting are times that we can examine our own hearts to see how they are lined up with God’s plan for the world, but also how they might be out of alignment.  This can be uncomfortable, but waiting is uncomfortable.  But it is in our discomfort that God can work on our hearts.

So rather than rushing to the ending, rather than skipping ahead to Christmas Day, I would invite you to embrace this time of holy waiting.  And whatever it is that you are waiting for in your life, whether it’s the result of medical tests, the birth of a new baby, the opportunity to see a loved one, or opening your stocking on Christmas morning, I invite you to embrace the waiting.  Sit with the discomfort.  Avoid the temptation to distract yourself from the waiting, whether the distraction be in the form of a cell phone or a whirlwind of social engagements.  Embrace the waiting, be still, and simply BE with God.  Embrace the waiting and see how God is wanting to use you and change you and prepare you for the new thing that is coming.

May we all have a holy Advent.


(Waiting for the Sunrise)