Friday, July 13, 2018

It's not my future fate that scares me, as much as my present choices that capture me (second in a series of sermons on "Psalms of My Life" -- July 15, 2018)

Reading:  Psalm 1

 They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, the prosper.

Do you ever wonder what people will say about you at your funeral?  How people will think of you when you’re gone?

Okay, okay!  I know it’s not a normal thing to worry about!  And I don’t.  Usually.

But at a number of funerals lately I’ve used Psalm 1 as the main reading for the service – the scriptural focus for remembering and celebrating the life and spirit of the person who has died.

Happy are those …
whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

Given how the person who died, lived, and how their family and friends remembered them, the psalm seemed only fitting.  And as we have gone through the service, at some point I have found myself thinking: how different from that my life sometimes seems.  I start thinking of the unfinished projects and dead ends, the broken promises and relationships, the withered hopes and dreams, the disease and rot I feel from within, the isolation I create and emptiness I carry with me.  Ever have days and thoughts like that?

Scholars note that Psalm 1 is a simple, finely crafted introduction to the rest of the Book of Psalms – a nice little precis of two ways of living that the rest of the 149 psalms that follow then explore bit by bit in both ecstatic and agonizing detail, in real-life experiences of contentment, joy and deep peace on one hand, and turmoil, anguish and even rage on the anger.

On one hand, there is the good life – the true life – the life that lasts.  “Happy are those … whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.”  The original readers of the psalm would have known that “the law of the Lord” is three things – the three parts of their Scriptures that we call the Old Testament.  First, it is the Torah – the law of God revealed through Moses in the first five books of the Bible.  Second, the books of history and prophecy, that tell the stories of what happens when God’s way is followed and when it’s not.  And third, the Wisdom books – including the Psalms, that work at bringing life, in all its different sides, into line with God and God’s Word and Spirit in the world.

And to meditate on this means to spend time with it.  To let the law, the history and the hard-won wisdom of God’s people – whatever parts of it catch our attention, sink into our consciousness and our understanding of life   to let it draw us into the larger picture of how God has made the world and made us to work well … and let ourselves be drawn by it to a life beyond self-interest and greed, beyond anxiety and fear, beyond illusions of control and of saving ourselves, to simply, honestly and gratefully love God in all we do and with all we have, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.   And thereby find our place among the truly good people of the world.

Unlike those whom the psalm calls “the wicked” – which in the Bible means those who live for themselves by themselves, just by the world’s common sense and by their own rules, for their own security and comfort, status and reputation, superiority and separateness – many of the things our culture teaches us to value and strive after.  “The wicked” in both Old and New Testaments is most often a term applied to people who instead of trusting their lives to God and using what they have to serve the well-being of all, try to save their own lives by isolating from others, getting more and more control of more and more things, and effectively cutting themselves off from humanity – from the rest of humankind around them, and from their own humanity inside. 

And really, the Psalm says, can such a life stand in the end?  When God is the God of all the world and all people, can those who cut themselves off really have any future?  How can their lives and their work not help but wither and die, and be blown away life chaff when the wind blows, as it will?

And so the question comes:  on which side of the great divide in Psalm 1 do I stand?  Or fall?  When I’m gone and people remember me, which side of Psalm 1 will be true of me? 

Or … is that even the point of it?  Is the purpose of Psalm 1 that we start to draw lines between those who are righteous and those who are wicked?  Make judgements now about people’s – or even our own, eternal spiritual state?

Or is the purpose of the Psalm to point out that there are different ways of living, that they can be boiled down to two – one wicked and the other righteous, and that every day we live, in every situation we find ourselves, in every relationship that makes up our life, we have a choice about which way we will live at that moment.  That over our lifetime we all choose a variety of ways, that our choices tend to add up in one direction or the other, but that in each moment that comes we have a chance to choose anew, and we can choose best when we know what the options really are.

I’m intrigued by two different translations of the psalm.

One is the translation by Scott Mitchell:

Blessed are the man and the woman
who have grown beyond their greed
and have put an end to their hatred
and no longer nourish illusions.

But they delight in the way things are
and keep their hearts open, day and night.

They are like trees planted near flowing rivers,
which bear fruit when they are ready.
Their leaves will not fall or wither.
Everything they do will succeed.

I really like the words he uses to convey the meaning of the psalm for today.  It’s this version I usually read when I read it at funerals.  And one reason is the way he focuses on, and includes only the positive.  Did you notice that?  No focus here on the wicked and their fate, as though telling us what happens when we sin and fall short, and scaring us with the fate of the wicked will ever save us from going that way. 

Rather, he speaks of the righteous and what they enjoy, letting the example of their life be the encouragement we need to live our lives as well as they do.  And the only mention of the bad stuff is what they learn to outgrow and leave behind.  In other words they also struggled.  They had their bad days and impulses, their own times of sadness at living a smaller, more self-directed self-focussed life than they were meant too.  But they also found ways to grow up and grow beyond that and to live love more fully and openly – as we can, by meditating on the ways of true and good living.

Which brings me to the second thing – another translation, and one verse in particular.  It’s the Common English Bible translation of verse 3.  In the New Revised Standard, verse 3 reads, “they are like trees planted by streams of water;” in the CEB it’s “they are like a tree replanted by streams of water.”

Re-planted!  Which means no matter how firmly and how long I may have been planted somewhere else, growing in some other direction or not growing at all, bringing forth poor fruit or no fruit at all, there is always – even at this late date in my life, the chance to be re-planted in some better place, to be nourished in some new and good way, to grow some leaves that aren’t going to wither quite so quickly, and start bearing better fruit – appropriate to the season I’m in now,

And you know, I’ve found that to be the case.  Without getting into it right now – that’s really a whole other story for some other time, I’ve found it to be true.  That it’s never too late, because life really is lived one day at a time, one situation at a time, one relationship at a time.  And each time is a time to choose anew, and a time to be fruitful as may be appropriate now.

So maybe the question is not, what will they think of me, and say about me when I’m gone.  But what do they, and I and God think of me now in this moment – and what does the law of God tell me, right now in this moment?  And this moment now?  And this moment now?

Monday, July 02, 2018

'Member when mom used to say, "Say you're sorry ... and mean it." (Sermon from Sunday, July 1, 2018)

(This week begins a summer series of sermons on a variety of Psalms -- not necessarily anyone's favourite Psalms, or Psalms of especial theological or spiritual import, but Psalms that have been significant to me in my life -- either Psalms I have turned to at critical times in my life, or that put into words some spiritual truth or process that has been important for me in my journey.  I call it "Psalms of (my) life;" in worship yesterday someone suggested we call it "the life of Brian.")

Reading:  Psalm 32 

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

In the mid-1800’s a lot of people knew at least one place in the world they could go, to find forgiveness and spiritual cleansing.  Fr. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney was the parish priest in Ars, a little town on the eastern edge of France, and in his confessional from 1818 when he was appointed priest there to 1859 when he died, hundreds of thousands of souls from France and beyond found the freedom and release they were looking for, from guilt and regret that they carried in their lives.

Jean Vianney was not the best-educated or brilliant of priests – maybe one reason he was settled in Ars.  At the time of his arrival, the town’s population was 230 – a size of parish his superiors thought Fr. Jean might be able to handle.  But what he lacked in learning, he more than made up for in piety, in extreme openness to God, and in passionate commitment to lead people back to God and to godly living in a time that was known for its anti-Church sentiment and its increasingly immoral and anti-moral behaviour. 

The way he did this was to encourage people to confess their sins, to know in a deep way God’s forgiveness of their mistakes and waywardness, and then – freed from guilt and regret, to be able to start living happily in more godly ways.  The confessional was the heart of his ministry to his parish, and once his parishioners got past their initial resistance and resentment, the changes that their visits to his confessional began to make in their lives and the life of the parish were noticeable. 

Word spread, and in the early 1820’s a trickle of penitents began coming from neighbouring parishes, asking of Fr. Vianney what their own priests seemed unable to offer.  Then people started coming from farther away, and soon Fr. Vianney was spending up to 11 hours a day in the confessional in the winter, up to 16 in summer, and through the last ten years of his life it’s estimated he heard the confessions of up to 20,000 penitents a year.  He helped thousands and hundreds of thousands of people to find what they were looking for.

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

I wonder where we can go today.  Or have we outgrown the need for forgiveness?  Do we no longer feel burdened by guilt and regret?  Have we found other ways of dealing with stuff like that?  Or in the absence of places to go for deep forgiveness and real freedom from whatever shame or imperfection or guilt we feel, have we simply found new kinds of fig leaves to patch together as best we can to cover ourselves up into feeling okay?

It’s a question for us as persons, because without getting into old-style moralistic preaching designed to make us feel bad, is it reasonable to think that what people are addicted to today -- and why we are such an addictive society, is because we look for things outside ourselves to help us feel better about what we feel – or don’t feel, inside ourselves?  Am I the only one – even here, who at times is still bothered by guilt and racked by regret about this thing or that – or is that still a pretty general human experience?

And whether it’s real forgiveness or just fig leaves that we live with today, is a question for us also as people – as a country and a nation.  In Canada we’ve been living for some time in the Age of Apology because we’re old enough now to have outgrown our innocence and to see pretty clearly at least some of our sins and shortcomings.  Only the young or the morally bankrupt are unable to see their own sins, and for some time now we’ve been noticing and trying to come to terms with our historical mistreatment and abuse of the First Nations, of Japanese Canadians, and of other groups that we have too easily seen as “other” than us.  Our misuse and destruction of the land, water and air of this country as well.  Canada is a good country, but it has also been a sinful country, and where do we go to find the deep forgiveness we need, and the real freedom we need to start living the kind of life we know we are called to?

It’s not easy, and not quick – on either a personal or a political level, in either our individual or our national life.  Because just saying we’re sorry and then getting on with business as usual – whether it’s in Parliament or in our own home, just doesn’t do it.

It’s like what our moms always told us – that we have to not only say sorry, but say sorry and really mean it. 

It’s like what the elders of the First Nations gathered in Sudbury in 1986 told the United Church after General Council offered our apology for the way our Church mistreated the First Nations for hundreds of years.  The apology was offered to the gathered elders, they thanked the Church for it, took a few days to discuss it among themselves, and then brought back the message that they would wait to see if we really meant it, and were really ready to start living in right relationship with them.  Forty years later, we’re still working on it.  And those who are engaged in the work, say it’s a truly liberating experience.  In the work towards right relations, comes a feeling a deepening forgiveness for what was, and increasing freedom for what is meant to be.

It’s important to have places and ways of finding forgiveness – no matter where it may be, how it may happen, and how long it might take to be real.

Five or six years ago I was part of something called the Jubilee program – a two-year program to help train people to serve as spiritual directors.  And it was during one of the weeks when the whole group of us – about twenty in all, was in residence at Five Oaks for a series of workshops that I had perhaps the most profound experience of God’s forgiveness of me that I’ve had in my life.  It came during a time of personal reading and journaling when I was reading Isaiah 40:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Suddenly it was real for me in a way it never had been before.  God wanting to comfort me, against all I feel bad about.  Telling me I’ve served my term, that the penalty is paid, that I’ve actually made myself suffer at least double what was really needed.  And the point of it all – that now I can start living free of guilt, free of regret, free for the kind of love and life and relationship I am made for, and that I long for.

It was not easy, nor quick in coming.  I was 12 years old when I “gave my life to Jesus as my personal Saviour” at a Baptist evangelistic meeting, and was promised forgiveness of my sins.  Forgiveness is something I’ve believed in, read about, and preached to others all my adult life.  I’ve read Isaiah 40 at least once a year as part of the Advent cycle.  But it took until I was almost 60 years old – and only then after four or five days of intense workshops and exercises to help open me up to my own body, mind and spirit, and to God, that I could finally really receive the good news God has been wanting to give me for years.

Deep forgiveness of sin, thorough-going freedom from regret and guilt, and thorough-going freedom to live as we are called to, are not all that natural to us.  So it’s good to know, whether on a personal or a political level, as individuals or as a country, if there’s somewhere we can go, and something we can do to find what we need – deep forgiveness of the past, and real freedom for the future.

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

I'd rather be sailing? (sermon from Sunday, June 24, 2018)

Reading: Mark 4:35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.  Other boats were with him.  A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!”  Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” 

“A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.”

The disciples probably didn’t even want to be out there.  It was Jesus’ idea, not theirs.  “Let us go across to the other side,” he said. 

Surely some of them could read the signs, and knew they’d probably be sailing into a storm.  So did anyone say, “You know … can we leave this for now, and just wait a bit?  It’s probably gonna be a storm, so can we wait ‘til tomorrow … or maybe do something else entirely just as good and that won’t put us at such a risk?”

And even apart from the storm, I wonder if anyone questioned the plan itself to go “to the other side.”  Because the other side was the country of the Gerasenes – the land on the east shore of the Sea of Galilee, a land populated mostly by Greeks and other Gentiles, relatively few Jews, and full of pagan religion and practices.  They kept pigs, for goodness sake!  So did anyone say, “Um, Jesus … why do you want us to go there?  Aren’t things going well enough right where we are – here in Galilee, here among our own people and our own kind?  Do we really need to go out there and open ourselves to the risks?”

But that’s Jesus’ way, and Jesus’ will, isn’t it?  To bring the good news of God’s love to all people, and share the life of God’s kingdom with all the world.  So because of what they had received from him, and the way he had made them whole, how could they not go out and across to the other side when he asked them to?

And I wonder: when have we done that?  And when have we not? 

And the times we have, and have sailed right into a storm that has tossed us about and almost swamped our boat, do we look back on those times with regret?  Maybe just try to forget them?  Resolve never to do that – or put ourselves in that position, again? 

Or do we, like the Jesus-followers of the Bible, tell the story openly and gladly – even proudly, as a time when we at least tried as best we could to follow Jesus, to leave the safe harbour of where things always go predictably well, to venture out to some other side to share the love of God with people we haven’t up to that time really associated with, regardless of the risk and whether we even really succeeded or not?

Because storms don’t bother Jesus.  He doesn’t see them as problems to be solved, or things necessarily to be avoided.  He doesn’t even bother waking up in the midst of it, until the disciples shake him to, and ask him to please do something about it if he cares about them at all.

And how could they not?  Because often this is what we think God’s power is – the power to control things and make them turn out well.  At least for us, if he loves us.

But it’s not Jesus’ idea to still the storm.  That kind of power over the realities of life in this world is exactly the kind of power Jesus came to renounce in the desert when he went there on retreat after his baptism to grow into the true ways of God.  He learned not to turn stones into bread just because he feels hungry and he can.  Not to leap from the top of the temple and expect God to keep him from falling and being hurt.  Not to feel free to do whatever it takes – even use some of Satan’s ways, to try to make the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of God. 

That’s often what his followers want him to do.  They want him to control things, because we imagine that’s what God’s power is – the power to bend the rules and control everything that happens.  And how can we not imagine that and want it to be true?  We’re human.  We’re creatures of our culture, and that’s one of the things our culture is mostly about.

But we are also creatures of God – not just with a worldly spirit, but also a holy Spirit breathed into us.  And it’s this – the holiness of living in God’s way within the limits and realities of life on Earth that Jesus appeals to, and seeks to nurture in his disciples.

I wonder: is the point of the story – and the real miracle of it, that Jesus is able to control the weather?  Or might the real miracle of the story be that Jesus – and in Jesus, God, is right with the disciples in their water-logged boat, experiencing with the storm, the waves, and the terrible danger with them?  And is the point of the story that that should have been enough?

Because God’s power is not found in the control of creation or of people, but in the willingness to be in covenant relationship – meaning vulnerable relationship, with them.  Not in being able to impose a divine will and insist that things turn out “right,” but in walking and living and sailing with us as we are and as we fumble around, make our way, and even sail into storms as we answer the call to go out to some other side in pursuit of living out God’s love for all the world.  God’s power is not seen in God’s imposing a kingdom on the world, but in God’s working together with us to make connections of compassion in the midst of hurt and sorrow, to gather communities of justice and peace in the midst of whatever darkness and coldness may have gripped the world in our day, to live out wellness and courage even in the midst of disease and brokenness, and to offer ourselves and call forth from others self-giving love even in the most selfish and scary of times.

Jan Richardson, an artist and theologian, has written a poem titled “Blessing in the Storm.”  I wonder if maybe it’s something Jesus wishes he could have said to the disciples, and that he’s happy to see us able to understand about God, and to live out in our love for others – both here where we are, and out there where and when he calls us to go:

I cannot claim
to still the storm
that has seized you,
cannot calm
the waves that wash
through your soul,
that break against
your fierce and
aching heart.

But I will wade
into these waters,
will stand with you
in this storm,
will say peace to you
in the waves,
peace to you
in the winds,
peace to you
in every moment
that finds you still
within the storm.