30 June 2019

"The 'Goodness' of Creation" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
June 30, 2019
Scripture Reading:  Genesis 1:1-2:4a

(Note:  this is the first week of a Summer Sermon Series where we will be taking a second look at some beloved stories we remember from Sunday School.  This week and next, we are beginning at the beginning with the two creation stories found in Genesis.)

Did you know that there are two different and complete stories of God’s initial creation in scripture?  We read one of them this morning, and we’ll be reading the other one next week.

Was there anything that stood out for you in this morning’s reading?  Any words or phrases that caught your eye or your ear?  Anything about the style of the reading?

(Wait for answers)

Now some background to this story.  This story about creation was written down when the Ancient Israelite people were living in exile in Babylon.  The Babylonian army had surrounded the place where they were living, had ransacked the city of Jerusalem, and had destroyed the temple, the home of God, literally the place where they believed that God lived.  Leaders, along with much of the population were carried away from the devastated city, and they were kept in Babylon for 70-some-odd years.

Can you imagine what they must have been feeling?  Cut off from the land that they love; cut off from their families and their communities; cut off from their religious structures and practices; abandoned by God.  And God had spoken to them through the prophets, especially the prophet Jeremiah, telling them to get comfortable in Babylon because they were going to be there for a while.  Generations passed while they waited for the time when they could return home.

And yes, there was despair.  Psalms of lament, like Psalm 137, were written:
“By the rivers of Babylon –
there we sat down and there we wept
            when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
            we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
            asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
            “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
            in a foreign land?”

And yet, rising out of the ashes of lament came a new direction, a new promise.  There, when the whole world had seemed to crumble around them, the Ancient Israelite people began to redefine themselves, began to consider afresh who they were and how they related to God.  A renewed sense of identity was developing.

The story of creation that we read together this morning was developed partly in response to the world around them.  The style and structure of mythical epics was retained, but where the Babylonian creation story had the world arising out of violence and battle; the creation story of the Ancient Israelites had God speaking creation in to being.  Where the Babylonian creation story had a multitude of gods working together to create; the creation story of the Israelite people had a singular God, the God who had been with their ancestors, responsible for creation.  The Babylonian creation story has humans created as slaves of the gods; the Israelite creation story has humans created to act on God’s behalf within the rest of creation.  The Babylonian creation story has all of creation arising out of the bloody corpse of one of the goddesses; the Israelite creation story has God looking at creation and naming it as “good.”

It is as if the people in exile were trying to say, “This is who we are.  This is the sort of God that we follow – a God who doesn’t need to resort to violence but who can speak creation in to being; a God who desires a creation that is intrinsically good.

Did you also catch on to some of the rhythm or repetition in the reading?  This was also intentional.  It was likely written so that it could be recited when the people gathered together to worship this Creator God.  The repetition and rhythm give the reading the possibility to be read as we did this morning, with responses and participation.  The repetition and rhythm make the reading easier to learn by heart, to take in to your heart, and once it is in your heart, it becomes part of your identity.  This is who we are, and this is the sort of God that we follow.

Finally, did you notice the culmination, the pinnacle of God’s creation?  Some people would say that it is the creation of humans, since that was the last act of creation on the sixth day.  But what about the seventh day?  I would suggest that the seventh day, the day when God rested, is actually the high point of creation.  The practice of Sabbath might have been a practice that those Ancient Israelite people used to define themselves against their neighbours.  We follow a God who wants us to rest for one day out of seven.  We follow a God who is more focused on relationship and on being than on productivity and doing.  This is who we are, and this is the sort of God that we follow.

So can you see how a creation story like the one that we read this morning, might have evolved out of this developing identity for a people in exile?

Which is all very well if you are looking for a history lesson, but what good is the story to us today, living millennia away from the Babylonian empire?

Last Tuesday at our final Doctrine session, we were talking about the world that we live in, our current context in New Brunswick in 2019, and what it was like to live as followers of Jesus Christ in the world in which we find ourselves.  We agreed that the world is changing quickly; we agreed that as followers of Jesus Christ, we have a different way of being in the world, a way that others might see as “strange”; we agreed that it is sometimes difficult to figure out what to do, and that we needed each other for support.

So maybe we do have a bit in common with those ancient people.  Sometimes we need to define ourselves against the rest of the world – this is who we are, and this is the sort of God that we follow.  And maybe there are some lessons from this ancient story that is part of our sacred text that apply today, 2700 years later.

God looked at everything that God had created, and saw that it was good.  What might the world be like if we saw all of creation as good – good because God created it, and good because God says so, not because of what it can do for us humans?  It is easy to look at something like a tree and say that it is good because it gives us shade in the summer, a beautiful display of colour in the autumn, and we can burn it for fuel if we need to.  That is a utilitarian definition of good – the tree is good because of what it can do for us.  But what if we were to look at a tree and say that this tree is good because God created it and God said so.

It is easy to say that creation is good when we are talking about something like a tree or a flower or a bird or a friend.  It is harder to say that creation is good when we are talking about a mosquito or a skunk or a groundhog or a dangerous bacterium.  But this story calls us to turn away from utilitarian thinking.  The mosquito is good, not because it gives food to the songbirds which we like; but the mosquito is good because God created it, and because God said so.

It becomes even more ambiguous if we take things and practices that are beneficial to humans but harmful to the rest of creation.  One example might be mining – the things that we take out of the ground are beneficial to humans and our way of living; but at what cost?  It is not beneficial to the trees that are ripped from the ground to make way for the mine; it’s not beneficial to the bodies of water that are poisoned by arsenic and other chemicals needed for the mining process; it’s not even always beneficial for the miners who risk their health and their life to work in the mines.

Taking a Genesis 1 view of the world calls us to pay attention to the rest of creation.  When humans were created on the 6th day, God gave us a responsibility to rule over the rest of creation on God’s behalf.  I think that this responsibility includes the responsibility to view all of creation in the same way that God views it – as good.  When we abuse the responsibility, and see humans, or some humans, as more important or “more good” than the rest of creation, are we really living in to God’s vision of the world?

Like the Ancient Israelite people, sometimes we struggle to define ourselves against the rest of the world.  As followers of Jesus Christ, this is who we are, and this is the God that we follow.  Even though we aren’t in literal exile, sometimes it might feel that way when our values are at odds with the values of the world around us.  But we can be confident when we say that the God whom we follow sees all of creation, and calls all of creation “good.”  Creation is good, not because of what it can do for us, but because God says so.

And on the seventh day, God rested, and God enjoyed all of the good creation.

May we do likewise!


A part of creation that it is easy to name as "good."
Tall Trees, near Kilvert Lake (between Kenora and Sioux Narrows)

25 June 2019

"LOVE > FEAR" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
June 23, 2019
Scripture:  Luke 8:26-39 (and for our "Story for All Ages" we read Scaredy Squirrel by Mélanie Watt)

Isn’t that a great story from Luke’s gospel that we heard today?  I can almost picture it like a movie.

We start with a wide angle including the lake and the shore.  A boat limps into view – they’ve encountered a storm on the way across, so maybe the sails are torn, but the water is calm now.  The sailors on the deck look as through they’ve been up all night – exhausted and sore from battling the storm.

As the boat approaches the shore, the camera slowly zooms in.  We can now hear the voices of the sailors talking to each other about the storm; we can hear the waves lapping at the shore.  As the boat grinds up on the shore, the action starts.

A man runs down to the shore from the graveyard.  Not just any man though.  This one has long hair, a long, wild beard, a frantic look in his eyes.  He’s naked – or maybe a few strategic scraps of cloth if we want to keep this movie PG.  There are chains dangling from his wrists and dragging from his ankles.  They clang on the stones as he runs down to the shore, shouting at the newly arrived sailors.

One of the sailors steps forwards to meet the man.  Before the man can say anything, the sailor commands a demon to come out of the man.  The man cries out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”  OK – so the sailor now has a name – it’s Jesus.

Jesus asks the man, “What is your name?”  The man replies in a tortured voice, “Legion.”  Maybe we would have to change this name to make the movie relevant today since we no longer live with Roman Legions.  Maybe we should have the man say that his name is “Army” or “Invaders” or “Colonizers.”  Whatever his name he gives us though, the man falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him, “Don’t destroy us!”

Now comes the most dramatic point in our movie.  Jesus does something – maybe he raises his arms, maybe he says a word – and thousands of demons rush out of the man.  The demons rush out in a stream that seems to never end, rushing out of the man and into a herd of pigs.  As the demons enter the pigs, they rush to the edge of the cliff, and over the edge, into the lake where they drown.

Our move gradually fades away on this scene, and the next thing that we see is the group of sailors sitting under a tree with the man formerly known as Legion.  Because it’s a movie, we need to show that he has changed, so his hair and beard have been trimmed, the chains are gone, and he is dressed in clothing similar to the others.

Some people from the town approach them, and when they realize that the man has been changed, they are terrified.  What has happened?  How can it be that this man that everyone knows is possessed by demons now seems to be normal?  Are they really gone?  And who is this Jesus who can perform exorcisms?

The townspeople are so scared that they order Jesus and the other sailors to leave them.  As the group makes their way back down to the shore, the man formerly known as Legion runs after them, begging them to give him a place on their boat.  He is afraid of what the townspeople are going to do to him – after all, they were the ones who kept him chained up when he was possessed.  And maybe he is also afraid of his new freedom – after all, that former life of being enslaved to the demons is the only life he has known, so maybe it might be better to be enslaved to Jesus and his crew than to be set full free.  But Jesus tells him no – he is to go back to the town, back to his family, back to his home, and he is to tell everyone that he meets what God has done for him.  He is to tell everyone that God got rid of his demons.

And so our movie ends much the same way as it began – with the boat with ragged sails sailing away from the shore, back across the sea.  Let the credits roll.

What a great movie this would make!  The only problem is, that this is supposed to be a sermon, and not a movie.  I think that the biggest challenge for me in this story is the demons.  How, in our scientifically minded 2019 worldview are we supposed to find good news that is relevant for us in a story about demons?  In the world of the story, it is a story of good news for the man who was freed; but how can we connect with this story today?  But how, in 2019, can I stand up in front of people and talk seriously about demons?  I mean, demons!

But you all are expecting a sermon rather than a movie, so I had to find something to say this morning.  So I spent some time thinking about demons, and what they might represent.

The demons in our story have taken over this man’s life.  They are controlling how he acts, how he presents himself to the world, how others perceive him.  He has lost so much control over his life that he has even lost his name.  Did you notice that he doesn’t have a name in our story?  When Jesus asks him for his name, it is the demons that answer on his behalf.

And if you think about it, don’t we have things in our world today – even if we don’t name them as demons – that control how we act, how we think, how we present ourselves to the world?  Things that take over even our identity?

As I thought more about this story, I wondered if, perhaps, the most subtle demon that controls our life is fear.  If you look around the world and through history, how many wars have been fought, how much violence has been done and is being done because of fear of people who are different?

In our scripture story today, outside of the Legion of demons, we also have a group of people who are possessed by fear.  The people living in the city are afraid of the man who lives with demons.  Their fear causes them to keep him in chains, and away from the places where the rest of society is found.  And then after Jesus releases the man from his demons, they are afraid of Jesus and his power, and this fear causes them to drive Jesus and his disciples away, rather than being receptive to his message of love.

Fear also acts closer to home.  How many opportunities have you missed out on because of fear?  Scaredy Squirrel might be an extreme example, but how much of what life has to offer do we miss out on because we are afraid to try something new, because we are afraid to fail, because we are afraid of how we might be seen by others.  Fear can control what we do.

And then there is the fear that presents to us as that little voice in our head, telling us that we’re not good enough, that we’re not pretty enough, that we’re unlovable.  This voice is a liar; the voice of anxiety is a liar; and yet it is like a demon that can control our thoughts and our actions.

So where is the good news in the story for us?  I think that the good news can be found in knowing that love is stronger than fear.  God doesn’t want us to live our lives being driven by fear – God wants us to live our lives in the power of love.  You are God’s beloved child.  You are God’s beloved child.  The first words spoken by angels in scripture, spoken by God’s messengers, is almost always “Don’t be afraid.”  The first part of the message from God is that we don’t have to be afraid.  God’s love is stronger than our fears.

In our scripture story today, after he has been released from the Legion of demons, the man still seems to be controlled by fear.  He doesn’t want to go back to his home; he wants to go with Jesus.  But Jesus says no.  Jesus says to him that he doesn’t have to be afraid of his neighbours, he doesn’t have to be afraid of his new freedom.  As well as being released from the demons, he is released from his fear.  And he goes away, with newfound courage, telling everyone in the city about what Jesus had done for him.

We don’t need to be afraid.  God’s love, made known through Jesus, is stronger than our fears.

Two years ago, when I was living in Halifax, I used to take public transit whenever I could.  At that time, it seemed like the world was falling to pieces.  There had been an election south of the border; people were afraid of what was happening to vulnerable persons; protests and riots were breaking out around the globe.  It was a time of increased global anxiety.

On the day I’m thinking of, there had been a light dusting of snow overnight but it was melting quickly.  At the bus stop where I would wait every day there was a wall, and the top of the wall was angled; and that day, when I got on to the bus and sat down and looked out the window, on the top of the wall that was now facing me at eye level, someone had written with their finger in the snow, “LOVE > FEAR.”

A simple reminder that was only there for a brief moment of time – until the snow melted, or someone came along and brushed it off the wall – that we don’t have to be led by our fears.  Love is stronger.

And so just as the power of Jesus’ love was strong enough to release the man from the demons that were controlling him, and to release him from the fear that threatened to control him, I invite you to consider what it might be like to be freed from the fears in your life.  What might it be like to be fully freed from these forces that control you, so that it is only love that guides everything that you do.

Because God’s love is stronger than fear.  Thanks be to God!

Paka and Lily - sticking together when things get tough,
because LOVE > FEAR

16 June 2019

"On Hope and the Trinity" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
June 16, 2019 (Trinity Sunday)
Scripture:  Romans 5:1-5

What do you hope for?  In the deepest, most hidden corners of your heart, of your soul, what do you hope for?

“Hope” is a funny word.  It’s one that we use frequently, along the lines of “I hope that we get some rain for my garden”; or “I hope that the blackflies disappear before I need to cut the grass.”  This spring, I heard a lot of, “I hope that the river doesn’t rise as much as last year.”

Used in this way, “hope” means something like wishful thinking.  Something that you would like to happen, but that you’re not too terribly optimistic about it because it’s a long shot.  Those blackflies probably aren’t going to disappear before the next time I need to cut my lawn.

But hope has a different meaning, a deeper meaning, a God-centred meaning as well.  We often hear it lumped together along with faith and love as a virtue; but used the way that we normally use it, like wishful thinking, well, where’s the virtue in that?

But like I said, this deeper, God-centred hope is more than wishful thinking.  This God-centred hope is more like confidence that something good is coming; confidence that God’s plan for all of creation is going to come true.

And when I read this week’s passage from Romans, it was that word “hope” that jumped out at me.  Hope does not disappoint us.  Our hopes that are wishful thinking – like the blackflies being gone when I cut the grass – these hopes might be disappointed, they might not come true.  But our hopes that are centred on God – this is the hope that does not disappoint us, because we can have confidence in God.

Now the book of Romans in the bible is a letter that was written by the apostle Paul to the early church in Rome.  Paul’s writing is famous – or maybe infamous – for being convoluted, full of logic statements that require you to follow along twists and turns to get to the conclusion, filled with therefores and throughs and whereases.

And it is one of these logic chains that leads us to that word “hope”; but when I looked at the logic chain, it disturbed me a bit.  Working backwards from hope, we have hope coming from character or experience.  And that character or experience is coming from patience or endurance.  And that patience or endurance arises out of suffering.  Therefore hope comes from our suffering.  And much as I love thinking about hope, I don’t like thinking about suffering.

But the thing about hope is that when things are good in life, you don’t need hope – you have everything that you need in the here and now.  But it is when things seem absolutely hopeless – that is when you can only cling to hope.  That is the time when you have to trust in something that seems to make absolutely no sense at all.  It is only when things are hopeless, that we can find hope.

Today is Trinity Sunday – the day when we get to celebrate that God is three and God is one; the day when we get to celebrate this mystery of God that is beyond anything that we could wrap our minds around; the day when we get to celebrate this God of all times and all places and all people.

And because God is Trinity, we can be assured that God is present with us when we suffer, because God has been there before.  God, in Jesus, knows what it is to suffer, to be abandoned, to experience grief, and to die.

And because God is Trinity, we can be assured that God is present with us as God’s Word made flesh – God made human.  Jesus Christ, both fully God and fully human has brought our humanity into contact with God, so that we can no more be separated from God.  As Paul writes to the church in Rome, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”

And because God is Trinity, we can be assured that God is present with us always, because the God the Holy Spirit is moving and dancing in all of creation, always pulling us into the dance of God.  As Paul writes to the church in Rome, “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

These verses have sometimes been used to justify suffering or oppression.  “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”  Paul says that suffering leads to hope, and hope is a good thing, therefore suffering must be a good thing.

But I don’t think that is the case.  I don’t think that God (or even Paul) wants us to suffer – I think that Paul is just commenting on a fact of life.  Suffering is present in the world – I don’t think that there is anyone who gets through life without suffering of some sort.  Pain, grief, illness, these are all real things in our world.  But what Paul is saying to the church in Rome and to us is that suffering isn’t the end point.  That there is hope on the other side of our suffering, because God is there.

There are many images or metaphors used to try and describe the Trinity.  You have a three-leaf clover – three parts but one whole.  You have a flame that is shared between three candles – is it one flame or a single flame?  You have a person who is, at the same time, a mother, a lawyer, and a spouse.  All of these metaphors catch a hint of the Trinity, but none of them perfectly describes it.  My favourite metaphor is a dance with three dance partners, swirling and moving as one, so that it is hard to distinguish one from the other.

God is dancing in the world, and we are invited to join the dance.  We are invited to turn away from fear, and trust our dance partners, and embrace the hope that comes from God.  We are invited, especially when shadows lurk all around us and suffering seems to be the only way, that is when we are especially invited to trust in these promises of God, to reach out, and to allow ourselves to claim that hope from God that comes through Christ.

And so I ask you again.  What do you hope for?  In the deepest, most hidden corners of your heart, of your soul, what do you hope for?

A Round Dance - my favourite metaphor for Trinity! 
(Photo from Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

9 June 2019

"Back to God" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
June 9, 2019 - Pentecost
Scripture Reading:  Acts 2:1-21

Have you ever been in the middle of a huge crowd that has gathered to celebrate something?  Maybe a parade, maybe a sports event, maybe a political rally?  A time and place where there is a crush of bodies, and an energy, an emotion that seems to carry the crowd?

Two summers ago, I was in London for the Pride Parade.  Now downtown London is crowded at the best of times, and this day the streets and sidewalks were packed with people making it almost impossible to move.  I was there with a friend and as we walked along I was terrified that I was going to lose her since my phone didn’t work and I would have no way of finding her if I did get lost.  It was a hot and sunny day – unusual for England! – and I think that the weather probably contributed to the energy of the crowd.  Everywhere you turned, people were dressed in bright colours, waving rainbow flags, and singing and dancing in any little corner of the sidewalk where they found themselves.  So much energy, so much excitement in this crowd that had gathered together to celebrate.

London Pride 2017 - we were standing right by the barrier so you can't get a good sense of the crowds of people right behind us in this picture!

Today is Pentecost – the day when the Holy Spirit appeared in full force to a group that had gathered.  We are now 7 weeks – 50 days – after Jesus’ resurrection.  The resurrected Jesus spent 40 days with his disciples, but then 10 days ago he ascended in to heaven, telling his disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit to come to them.

And so for 10 days they have been waiting, hanging around, seemingly at loose ends, trying to encourage one another to keep their hope up.  And then we come to the day of Pentecost.  Pentecost is a Jewish festival, originally named Shavuot, that celebrates the beginning of the harvest – a time when the first fruits of the harvest were brought to the temple and offered back to God.  It is one of the three major festivals in Judaism, and so people had gathered from all corners of the known world here in Jerusalem to celebrate.

And so the followers of Jesus also gathered to celebrate – not only the inner circle of the 12 named disciples, but a group of about 120 people, women and men, all of whom had been with Jesus during his life, and who were now together after his resurrection, waiting.

And as they gathered to celebrate the festival, all of a sudden chaos broke out.  A wild and deafening wind blew through the house where they had gathered; tongues of fire danced among them and rested on each of their heads; and they were each given the ability to preach the good news of Jesus Christ in languages that they would have had no way of learning or knowing.

Can you imagine the commotion that this would have caused?  Can you imagine the people visiting the city, all crowding in to see the spectacle?  Can you imagine the cacophony of voices, each one proclaiming the good news in a different language?  Can you imagine the wonder and amazement and joy and maybe a bit of fear that would have energized that crowd?

We aren’t told how many people crowded in to that house to witness this event, but we are told that when Peter finished preaching, three thousand people were baptized, joining the group of 120 who had known Jesus in life.

This is the Holy Spirit at work.  The Holy Spirit who is the “doing” part of God.  The Holy Spirit who hovered over the waters of creation.  The Holy Spirit who is the breath of God, breathing life into the first human made of dust.  This life-giving, love-spreading, Holy Spirit who is always drawing people back to God.  And that is what makes the Holy Spirit different than the spirits that energize other crowds – the Holy Spirit is always drawing us back to God, whereas the spirit of nationalism, the spirit of a sports team, the spirit of a political movement – these spirits are drawing us elsewhere.  The Holy Spirit is always drawing us back to God.

And yes, maybe she had to create a spectacle that Pentecost day in Jerusalem in order to get the crowd’s attention, but on that day, God’s message of love and forgiveness and joy was spreading like wildfire, to people from every place and every language.

This is the origin, the beginnings of the church.  From that day, all of these followers of Jesus – those who had known him, and those who had joined the movement later – began carrying the good news to every corner of the world.  Once the Holy Spirit begins, there is nothing that can stop her.

For me, it’s exciting that Pentecost, the beginning of the church, falls on June 9th this year, because today, we are sandwiched between two significant dates in church history.  Tomorrow, June 10th, is the 94th anniversary of the founding of the United Church of Canada.  On June 10, 1925, the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist churches, led by the Holy Spirit, joined together here in Canada so that the God’s mission might be better carried out in our country.  And yesterday, June 8th, was the 21st anniversary of Two Rivers Pastoral Charge.  On June 8, 1998, Bayswater-Summerville, Long Reach, and Westfield United Churches, led by the Holy Spirit, joined together so that God’s mission might be better carried out in our corner of the country.

The Holy Spirit is here, the Holy Spirit is moving, the Holy Spirit is dancing in our midst.  She is always leading us on new adventures, she is always comforting us when we need embracing, she is always drawing us to God, and inviting us to join the dance of the Trinity.

And so my question for you today is, how can we live, knowing that the Holy Spirit is always with us?  How can we worship, knowing that the Holy Spirit is present in the waters of baptism, in the bread and the cup of communion, in the singing, in the prayers?  How can we wake up each and every morning and breathe deeply of the Holy Spirit, knowing that she is closer to us than our very breath?  How can we embrace the Holy Spirit in each and every thing that we do, because we know that she is always there?

Come, Holy Spirit!
Come, breath of life!
Come, fiery energy!
Come, embrace of God!
Come, Holy Spirit!

2 June 2019

"Liberation" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
June 2, 2019
Scriptures:  Acts 16:16-34 and Luke 4:16-21

I’m going to begin with a story, and it’s probably going to seem like this story has absolutely nothing to do with the scripture readings that we just heard, but I ask you to have patience with me!

Many of you probably know that I am a bit of a bookworm.  I like to read.  I like to read novels – novels of many many different genres.  And one of the series of books I have enjoyed are the Inspector Lynley books by Elizabeth George – British mystery novels written by an American author.  I have read this series in order because the main characters – the police detectives and their families and neighbours – carry over from one book to the next, and you get to see them grow and change over the series.

But part-way through the series, one of the books felt very out of place.  Not a single character was familiar.  I had to keep checking the book to make sure that it was actually part of the series, and not just a stand-alone book by the same author.

It is the story of Joel, the middle child in a family in inner city London.  Their father has been murdered and their mother is in a psychiatric hospital, and the children, ages 15, 12, and 8 end up literally dumped on their aunt’s doorstep since their grandmother has moved home to Jamaica.  Joel spends the whole book trying to do the right thing – protecting his older sister from violence, and protecting his younger brother from a world who doesn’t understand his social and learning difficulties.  Joel, in trying to decide how to do the right thing aligns himself with one of the street gangs in his neighbourhood since that seems to be the only way to keep his family safe.

It is a book that deals with the reality of inner-city London life – there is racism, there is violence against women, there are gangs, there is poverty, there are education and social security systems that are not equipped to deal with the challenges that are presented to them every day.

As I was reading the book, my heart was breaking for Joel as he tries to do the right thing in a world that seemed to be so broken.  But as I read the book – I was probably about half-way through – a realization gradually dawned on me that filled me with horror.  At the very end of the previous book in the series, one of the key secondary characters – a much beloved character – had been shot, seemingly out of the blue, and had died shortly thereafter in hospital.  And I realized, part way through this book (which is titled What Came Before He Shot Her), that I was reading the story of the shooter from the previous book.  That 12-year-old Joel, trying to do the right thing for his family but caught up in a world of violence and racism and gangs, was the one who had killed the beloved character.  I was reading about the series of events that had led to the heartbreaking moment in the previous book.  And even though I knew how this book was going to end, I kept trying to figure out a way for it to end differently, for the shooting not to happen.  But I couldn’t.  It was an inevitable and heartbreaking chain of events involving forces outside of any one person’s control that led to a moment of tragedy.

So that is the story I wanted to share – a story of tragedy and heartbreak and forces of violence.  I invite you to hold on to this story as we turn to our scriptures for this week.

In our story from Acts, we have a story of multiple layers of release, of liberation.  We have a young girl who is possessed by a “Spirit of Divination,” a spirit that allowed her to predict the future.  And she is able to see that Paul and Silas were apostles, disciples, followers of the Most High God.  And while it might have been good that she was proclaiming this fact to the world, Paul became annoyed with the constant disturbance and ordered this spirit of divination to leave the girl.  She was liberated from the spirit that possessed her.

And because they cast out the spirit, Paul and Silas are thrown into prison; but in the middle of the night, an earthquake shakes the foundations of the building, breaking the locks on the doors and the chains of all of the prisoners.  They were released or liberated from their literal captivity in prison.

Now the jailor is terrified at these events.  The prison doors are going to be opened and he’s going to be out of a job as soon as anyone finds out.  But again this becomes a story of liberation – a liberation from fear and a liberation from his dependency on empire.  He and his household are baptized, and they join Paul and Silas and the others as slaves of the Most High God.

But as I read this story this week, as a powerful story of liberation, of multiple layers of liberation, I noticed one liberation opportunity that was missed.  The unnamed girl who was liberated from the Spirit of Divination was a slave.  When the story ends, she is still a slave, held captive by her owners as just a piece of property.  And not only is she still enslaved, but because she can no longer earn money for her owners through her gift for fortune-telling, she is a much less valuable piece of property than she was the day before.  Not only is she still enslaved, but she is likely in a much more vulnerable position than she was before.

Jesus, the one whom Paul and Silas followed, the one whom we who are gathered here today follow, this Jesus proclaimed a message of release, of liberation, of freedom for everyone who is held captive.  Those of you who were at our study session last Tuesday might have recognized our reading from Luke as one of the places where Jesus talks directly about who he is and what he is called to do:  “to proclaim release to the captives… [and] to let the oppressed go free.”

And so while the story from Acts is a powerful example of those held captive being liberated, the unnamed slave girl who opened the story has not yet been liberated, has not yet been fully freed.  She is held captive by the systems at work in her world that couldn’t fathom a world without slavery.

And if you think about it, we too are held captive by systems in our world that we have no control over.  Turning back to the story that I began with – the story of Joel in the book What Came Before He Shot Her – that is the tragedy of this book.  All of the forces at work in Joel’s world – racism, poverty, violence – these forces lead to the heartbreaking conclusion.

The United Church of Canada has named the first Sunday in June as Pride Sunday – a day in which we can celebrate the diversity of God’s creation, a day in which we can celebrate that all people, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, all people are created in the image of God, a day in which we can proclaim loudly that all people are God’s beloved children.

And yet we don’t have to look much further than the statistics to know that homophobia and trans-phobia and bi-phobia, and the fear of anything that is different are forces that still hold so many people captive.  These are systems that oppress some people, while holding others captive to fear.

And there are other systems in our world that we are captive to.  Patriarchy is still a real thing in our world, forcing people of every gender or gender identity into specific roles, and causing violence.  Patriarchy affects and controls all of us, whether we realize it or not, and holds us captive to its systems.

Another force in our world holding us captive is our fossil fuel dependency.  In a world that is warming with climates and weather patterns that are changing rapidly, most of us acknowledge that things need to change.  We know that we need to stop burning fossil fuels.  And yet the systems of our world that currently depend on fossil fuels for heating and transportation hold us captive, and make change or liberation from this way of being impossible.

I could go on… racism and white supremacy hold us captive to that system where those of us with white skin are treated differently than our siblings with darker skin.  Able-ism and a world that is set up for those with able bodies and minds means that the world often loses out on the contribution of those who are differently abled.

All of these systems in the world holding us captive.

And yet Jesus Christ continues to proclaim liberty and freedom and release to all who are captive.  And we, the church, the Body of Christ continue to proclaim liberty and freedom and release to all who are captive.  We continue to proclaim that a time is coming when the world will be released from all of these systems of domination that hold us captive.  We continue to proclaim that a time is coming when God’s vision of love and justice will rule; that a time is coming when there will be no more homophobia, no more trans-phobia, no more bi-phobia, no more patriarchy, no more destruction of the earth, no more racism, no more able-ism, no more of any of the other –isms that separate and control us.  We continue to proclaim that a time is coming when all of God’s children will live in harmony with one another, and with the rest of creation.

And as we wait for this day, and as we proclaim that it is coming, we can live as if it is already here, in harmony with all of God’s children, and in harmony with all of God’s creation.

A time is coming.

May it come soon.