24 March 2019

"Shifting the Story" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
March 24, 2019
Scripture:  Luke 13:1-9

I don’t know about you, but there have been times in the past couple of weeks when it has seemed like the world has been falling to pieces.  Airplanes falling from the sky with hundreds of people on board.  A person armed with guns entering into a place of worship and killing 50 people who had gathered there.  Cyclones and floodwaters that have left vast swathes of countries under water, killing hundreds and leaving thousands stranded and waiting for rescue.  Climate change that is such an imminent threat that children are walking out of schools to try and get us adults to pay attention.

Closer to home, I know that we have families in our communities who are dealing with serious medical conditions, with the loss of loved ones, with family challenges.

I don’t know about you, but I get upset at the senseless randomness of things.  Why did that gunman walk in and start shooting?  Why was it my loved one who got sick?  Why is it the most vulnerable people on our planet who are the most impacted by climate change?  I get upset; I get angry; I get sad.

Bad theology sometimes tries to give us answers.  Bad theology might tell us that everything happens for a reason.  Bad theology might tell us that what goes around comes around, and everyone gets what they deserve.  Bad theology might tell us that if you are good, then blessings will shower down upon you; and that bad things happen because you didn’t pray hard enough.

But none of this fits with my understanding of a God who is, by God’s very nature, love.  I can’t imagine a God who is love wanting bad things to happen so that we can learn from them.  I can’t imagine a God who is love zapping people on a whim.  I can’t imagine a God who is love doling out violence and cancer and grief as a punishment.

And Jesus says pretty much the same thing in today’s passage, when people came to him with questions two tragedies that had just happened; tragedies that still resonate with us today.  Some people were worshipping at the temple when Pilate had them killed.  A tower in Jerusalem collapsed, crushing 18 people under the debris.

It is our human instinct to try and make sense of the world, and so I can imagine people coming to Jesus trying to make meaning out of these two tragedies.  Why did this happen to them?  Why were they killed?  They must have done something to deserve it!

But Jesus is clear in his response to these questions.  Did the worshippers do something wrong that they deserved to be killed?  Jesus says, “No, I tell you.”  Those people crushed by the tower, were they sinners, and was this God’s retribution?  Jesus says,  “No, I tell you.”

It is our human instinct to try and make sense of tragedies.  We long to find some explanation for these events, so that we can feel safe knowing that it can never happen to us.

In today’s reading, I can hear echoes of the people in John’s gospel who brought a man who was born blind to Jesus and asked, “Who is the sinner in this situation?  Was it this man’s or his parents’ sins that led to him being born blind?”  But to those questioners, Jesus gives the same answer as he gives in our Luke reading from today.  Neither.  You’re asking the wrong question.  Bad things don’t happen as a punishment for sin.

Bad things just happen.  Bad things happen to good people.  Our world doesn’t make sense.  That was true in Jesus’ time, and it’s true today.  2000 years later, people are still being killed when they gather to worship.  This is part of the tragedy of our broken world.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He goes on to point out that what matters is how we respond to these tragedies that we face.  We can’t stop bad things from happening to us by being good people.  We can’t control the evil in the world.  But what we can control is how we respond to them.

When tragedy touches our lives – whether it’s tragedy on the other side of the world or tragedy in our family, how do we respond?  Because we have a choice here.

We can choose to respond with retaliation, with fear, with hatred, with violence, with shutting ourselves off from the rest of the world.

Or we can choose to respond by doing what we can to spread God’s love in the world by being peacemakers, by offering our support to the vulnerable, by building relationships with our neighbours, by allowing the peace of God which surpasses all understanding to overwhelm our hearts and our minds.

Jesus uses the word “repent” when he is talking to his listeners, and “repent” is one of the churchiest church words out there.  One of my professors at AST, Dr. Alyda Faber, likes to talk about “theological F-words” – those words that are part of our theological vocabulary, but that make us uncomfortable to hear or that we aren’t comfortable saying.  I think that “repent” might be one of these “theological F-words” for many of us.

But the root of this word doesn’t have to do with condemnation, it doesn’t have to do with a threat, it doesn’t have to do with so many of the ways that we often hear it.  The Greek word that Jesus uses here refers to a "metanoia" – literally a change of heart, a change of path, a change of our ways.

With repentance, with a change of heart, a change of actions, we have an opportunity to change the story line, to change the ending.  Tragedy still happens in our world, but the result of tragedy no longer has to be fear and escalating violence – the result of tragedy can be a shift towards love and goodness in the world.

And so when a shooting in a mosque in New Zealand results in people of different faiths coming together to pray and support each other and learn about each others’ faith, we can shift the story just a little bit towards love.

When a health crisis draws a family together, and friends and neighbours offer practical and emotional support, we can shift the story just a little bit towards love.

When an accident leads to people opening their doors to strangers, we can shift the story just a little bit towards love.

And we can believe this because we are an Easter people.  We know that on Good Friday, death tried to have the final say and violence tried to lead the world towards fear and chaos; but we also know that on Easter, the story shifted again towards love and joy and a confidence that resurrection is possible.

On Friday evening, I heard an interview with a woman who was present at St. Joseph’s Basilica in Montreal when a man came in and stabbed the priest.  Reflecting on this, as well as the shooting in two mosques a week before in New Zealand, she said, “There is so much hate in the world.”

There is hate in the world; but I believe that there is also a lot of love.  We can choose to change the story line, we can shift the story towards love and hope and joy; we can choose to live the Easter message every day.

And may it be so.  Amen.

“Unconditional Love – Agape”
© Zerovina, CC BY-SA 4.0

23 March 2019

The Girl He Used to Know - Tracey Garvis Graves (book review)

This is a book that I won in a give-away.  I think that the publisher is trying to create book buzz ahead of the publication date of April 2 - give away thousands of copies in exchange for a review.  Back in the day when I had a book blog, I would periodically receive books from authors, publishers, or publicists; but it has been a few years since a free book showed up in my mailbox.  (And with this book, I didn't get notification that I had won the give-away, and I had forgotten that I had entered - the book just magically appeared in my mailbox one day when I checked it on my way home from work!)

Anyways, it was a good book, but not a great book.  It is a second-chance love story that moves back and forth across a 10-year gap. Annika and Jonathan met in collage; made plans to move to New York City together after graduation; due to "circumstances," Jonathan goes and Annika stays behind; 10-years later they are both in Chicago and run into each other in a grocery store and re-connect.

I found the book pacing a bit uneven.  It was a fast and easy read that tended to pick up speed as it moved along, but in the first 100 pages or so I was tempted to stop reading because nothing was happening.

In terms of the characters, the book is written in first-person, alternating point-of-view, so normally I would expect to get to know both characters well; but I found that I got to know Annika well, but I hardly know Jonathan at all.  I don't know what he is thinking (beyond Annika is hot), or what he is feeling (beyond I don't want to lose Annika).  I also didn't find that there was strong chemistry drawing them together - we are told that they love each other, but aren't shown this.  Annika is neuro-divergant (yay for diverse characters), and Jonathan (for the most part) stands up for her when the world can be cruel to anything perceived as different; but two weeks after reading this book, the characters are shadowy blurs in my brain rather than living characters - I don't think that they are going to stick with me in the long-term.

The plot, on the other hand, picked up speed as it went along and this is the part of the book that is going to stick with me.  There is a massive plot-twist on p. 250 of a 291 page book that completely caught me off-guard and made the book for me.  It is the sort of plot-twist that had no foreshadowing, but is one that I should have anticipated.  And in order to say more, I'm going to put the next bit as a spoiler - if you want to be surprised as I was when I read it, you will want to skip to the bottom of this review.


The two "eras" of the book are 1991 and August/September 2001.  The author even gives dates as the end of the book draws closer - Sept. 10, Sept. 11... but when Jonathan was in the Twin Towers when the airplanes hit, it caught me completely unprepared, and unable to put the book down until I finished it.  Like I said, not foreshadowed or hinted at in the plot, but I should have known.



So... if I were to try and give this book a grade, it would probably be a middle-of-the-road grade like C+ or B-.  I didn't find the characters well defined, but the plot (especially that plot twist) have kept me thinking about this book after finishing.

Thank you, St. Martin's Press for the book; and thank you, Smart Bitches for hosting the give-away!

10 March 2019

"Into the Wilderness" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday March 10, 2019
Scripture:  Luke 4:1-13

If you have been following along with the Sunday readings since Christmas, it almost feels like we have been put into a time machine that was then shaken up this week.  After Christmas and the stories about young Jesus, we read about how Jesus came to the Jordan River and was baptized by John.  Then we had all sorts of stories about how Jesus traveled around and was made known by what he did and what he taught.

Then last Sunday, we had the story of the Transfiguration where Jesus and 3 of his disciples went up to the top of a mountain where they encountered God.  That story, the story of the Transfiguration, marks a pivot point in the gospel narrative.  At that point, Jesus’ ministry in his home region of Galilee has ended, and Jesus and his disciples begin their journey to Jerusalem – a journey that will end with our celebration on Palm Sunday, a week before Easter, when Jesus enters the city accompanied by a big parade and loud celebrations.

So… you might think that our reading for today would have Jesus and his disciples coming down from the mountain where they were last Sunday, and beginning their journey to Jerusalem.  But instead, the powers that be who created the 3-year cycle of readings that we use on Sunday mornings have put us into a time machine and sent us back to immediately after Jesus was baptized by John.  He hasn’t done any miracles yet.  He hasn’t preached any sermons yet.  He hasn’t healed anyone yet.  He hasn’t told any of his parables yet.  Jesus has been baptized in the river.  He has heard the voice of God calling him a “Beloved Son.”  But his ministry hasn’t yet started.  Before his ministry can start, he spends 40 days in the wilderness, facing all sorts of temptations.

Now here in Canada, when we hear the word wilderness, we likely think of thick forests.  Maybe hills and rivers.  Far away from any other humans.  A place where bears and moose and mosquitoes live; a place that is striking in its beauty but one that presents challenges to survival.

The wilderness that Jesus went into was very different than our Canadian wilderness – it was a desert wilderness.  Rocky hills, no vegetation or water, blazing hot during the day but frigidly cold at night.  I remember visiting that desert where Jesus spent 40 days.  It was January – the coolest month of the year, but it felt like the middle of the hottest summer day.  There was nowhere to find shade or protection from the sun.  And yet the people who live in that desert say that the cold at night is actually a bigger danger than the heat of the day; and they spread out black tarps and blankets during the day to try and trap as much heat as possible to help them to stay warm at night.

And Jesus goes out into this place of no water, no shelter, no food, no companionship; and there he stays for 40 days.  I can only imagine how he must have felt by the end of that time.  Hungry.  Thirsty.  Tired.  Lonely.

Back at Christmas we read that in Jesus, God’s Word became flesh.  Jesus is fully God, but he is also fully human.  And there in the desert, he must have felt every bit of his vulnerable humanity.

And into the middle of his vulnerability, up pops the devil.  Now before you picture a little creature with a red suit, horns, and a tail popping up to cause mischief or spread evil, the word used in Greek is diaboloV.  It actually means something more like the false accuser, the slanderer, the one who spreads malicious gossip.  The one who tempts us to believe false things about ourselves.  The one who tempts us to doubt ourselves.

And into Jesus’ hunger, thirst, loneliness, and tiredness, he is presented with three specific temptations.

The first temptation says to him, “I know that you must feel hungry and thirsty, after all, your human flesh has been suffering out here for so many days without food and water.  But if you are God, the same God who created the heavens and the earth out of nothingness, why don’t you just turn those stones over there into bread, and then you won’t have to be hungry.”  But Jesus resists.  He knows that being true to where God has called him, and what God has called him to do is more important than his hunger.  His ministry was going to be about feeding others rather than feeding himself.

The second temptation then says to him, “Look at this whole big world that you find yourself in.  Why don’t you worship me, and then I will give you power over all of the world?”  But again Jesus resists.  He knows that God, and trusting in God is more important than personal wealth or power.  His ministry was going to be about pointing people towards God rather than towards himself.

And then finally the third temptation says to him, “OK, we’ve left the desert now, and we’re in Jerusalem standing at the very highest point of the very highest building that anyone has ever imagined.  Why don’t you jump off – after all, God has called you God’s beloved Son, so surely God will catch you.”  But once more Jesus resists the temptation.  Yes God is there, and God could catch him, but what purpose would that serve other than to show off?  His ministry would be about building relationships and trusting God with quiet confidence.

And then after 40 days, Jesus was ready to leave the wilderness and begin his ministry, grown in his confidence about who he was and what he was called to do.

Our season of Lent is another season of 40 days that began last Wednesday.  Between now and Easter, many people are going to imitate Jesus in the desert by embracing their own humanity and vulnerability.  Just as Jesus lived for 40 days without food or water or shelter, many people are going to give something up for the next six weeks – chocolate or potato chips or wine or Facebook tend to be popular options; though in a world that is becoming more environmentally conscious, this year I have also seen people suggesting a fast from meat or a fast from single-use plastic for Lent.  To a smaller degree, people try to imitate Jesus’ experiences in the desert where, in his human flesh, he must have experienced longings and cravings for that which he couldn’t have.

But you’ll notice that Jesus’ desert experience didn’t begin or end with his cravings and temptations.  That isn’t the end of the story.  At the beginning to today’s reading, we heard that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness.  When he was there in the desert, he wasn’t alone – he was with God.  And so I imagine that Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer – time conversing with God, growing in relationship with God – with the other two thirds of the Trinity.  And at the end of his forty days, Jesus was strengthened in his commitment towards the ministry to which God had called him.

And so rather than thinking of your Lenten commitments as something like “church-y New Year’s Resolutions” that you only have to keep for 6 weeks rather than a full year, or a spiritual self-improvement program, I invite you to go deeper with them.  The various things that we might give up for Lent – whether that be chocolate or single-use plastics – this is a form of fasting, but only if you invite God to move into the space that is left by whatever it is that you give up.  Just as Jesus left the wilderness 40 days later, with a deeper relationship with God and strengthened for the ministry that he was called to; we too should leave the 40 days of our Lenten fasting and practices with a deeper relationship with God and a stronger commitment to the mission and ministry that God calls all of us to.

And so my question to you is, how are you going to spend your 40 wilderness days that lie ahead?

May it be so.  Amen.

Negev Desert - Jesus' Wilderness

3 March 2019

"Transfiguration: More Than Just a Class at Hogwarts" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday March 3, 2019
Scripture:  Luke 9:28-36

Today is the Sunday on the church calendar that is known as Transfiguration Sunday.  Now I suspect that the word “transfiguration” is probably better recognized and understood today than it was 20 years ago, due to the popularity of the Harry Potter books and movies.

In the Harry Potter world, Transfiguration is one of the required courses at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  It is taught by Professor McGonagall (who, in my opinion, is one of the most awesome characters in the Harry Potter books), and is “some of the most complex and dangerous magic” that the students learn.  In Professor McGonagall’s classes, the students learn how to turn one thing in to another – how to turn a matchstick into a needle, a hedgehog into a pincushion, beetles into buttons.  They are learning how to change the shape of things – trans, to change; figure, or shape.

So Transfiguration Sunday.  This is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany; the Sunday before Lent begins.  Every year, on the last Sunday before Lent, we read the story about how Jesus and three of his disciples – Peter, James and John – travel up a mountain, and there at the top Jesus is transfigured.  His face is changed and he is glowing, dazzling.  Moses and Elijah, two of the prominent figures from Jewish history in centuries past appear with Jesus, and then they are enveloped in a cloud and the voice of God says, “This is my son, my Chosen, my Beloved One; listen to him!”  And then maybe a second later, maybe hours later – time can play tricks on us in moments like this – Jesus and the disciples are alone, and Jesus has resumed his normal appearance.

It is a moment of deep and profound holiness.  It is a moment where the veil that separates us from God is lifted, and the disciples catch a glimpse of God, and hear God’s voice.  The disciples don’t quite know what to do with the moment.  Peter seems to feel the need to say something, to say anything to fill the space, and he stumbles over his words offering to put up three tents – one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for the transformed Jesus.  And then when the moment is over, the disciples keep an awed silence, unable to find the words to speak of the holiness that they have encountered.

I always like to ask the question “why?”  Why do the students at Hogwarts have to learn transfiguration?  Why is it important to be able to change a matchstick into a needle?  Why did Jesus only invite 3 of his disciples to come up the mountain with him?  Why were the others left out of this experience?  Why was Jesus transfigured?  Why was the veil lifted; why did those disciples encounter the Holy then and there?

I don’t know if we ever get good answers to these “why” questions – except maybe it is useful to be able to change a matchstick into a needle if you need to mend your clothes – but I don’t know if we ever get a good answer to the God questions, at least while we are on this side of the veil, but we can always speculate.  We can wonder.

A couple of weeks ago at our Wednesday morning bible study, our conversation shifted to those times when we have been able to sense God’s presence more strongly than other times.  Times when we have heard words spoken to us, times when we have felt tactile sensations, times when we have had a compulsion to phone someone, times when we have felt ourselves embraced by God’s love.

And as we shared these stories, we asked the why questions.  Why do some people have these experiences and not others?  Why do they happen when they happen?

And while I can’t know for sure, I wonder if these moments when we have an acute sense of God’s presence are given to us when we need them, at the moment when we need them.  I wonder if God lifts the veil that separates us from the holiness of God when we need it – maybe for reasons known only to God.

I don’t know why it was only three disciples who went with Jesus, and I don’t know why it was those three who were invited; but Peter, James, and John seem to be part of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples.  They were his closest friends, his most trusted disciples, and the disciples that would go on to be leaders in the early church after Jesus’ death.

And so I wonder if these disciples needed this encounter with the overwhelming holiness of God in order to strengthen them and equip them for their ministry in the world.  The road that they are going to travel isn’t going to be easy, and they are going to mess up – remember that in a few short weeks Peter is going to deny knowing Jesus – and yet I still wonder if this encounter on the mountaintop was transformative for them.  I wonder if it allowed them to do the ministry that they would do in the years ahead.

Jesus was transfigured – his physical appearance was changed there on the mountaintop – but I wonder if the disciples were also transformed by the experience.  I don’t think that we can encounter the Holy without being changed.

I don’t have any advice to hand out this morning – no three-step or five-step plan for encountering God face-to-face.  These encounters seem to come when God takes the initiative, not us.

But what I can do is encourage you to be open to the mystery that is God.  Expect that the unexpected is possible.  Be open to the possibility that God really is closer to each one of us than our very breath.  Prepare yourself to experience the overwhelming love and peace and joy that comes from being in the presence of God.

And most of all, prepare yourself to be changed, to be transformed by that encounter; because once you’ve had an experience, you can’t un-experience it.  Prepare yourself to take the gifts of this encounter with you even when you come back off the mountaintop and re-enter every-day life, knowing that life will never be the same again.

Let us pray:
Holy, holy, holy God,
blow through our lives by your Holy Spirit.
Let the veil that separates us from you be lifted,
            if only for a moment,
so that we can hear your voice
            and see your face,
                        and be embraced by your love.
Fill us with the peace that comes
            from being in your presence;
and set our hearts on fire
            with your love.
I pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            the transfigured one,
                        and the one in whom transformation is possible.

JESUS MAFA. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48307 [retrieved March 3, 2019]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr.