Monday, October 22, 2018

Hallowing the name ... thank you, Gracie Fields

Readings:  Luke 2:1-2a and Philippians 2:1-11

In the Gospel of Luke the disciples see that Jesus brings healing and hope to people around him, and they want to be part of that kind of life.  They also know that he is what he is, and is able to do what he does because of his deep communion with God; so they ask him to teach them to pray, too.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the early church continues to see Jesus as their way of communion with God and of being able to make a difference for good in their own life and the life of the world.  So they write hymns that celebrate Jesus as the one who reveals the way God for us, and Paul quotes one of these hymns in his letter to the Philippians. 

Jesus says (in the Gospel of Mathew), “When you pray, don’t just heap up empty phrases to sound good in front of other people.  Rather, say, ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…’ ”

Hallowed.  It’s a bit of un unusual word these days.

To hallow.  To revere someone.  To consider something holy – innately set apart and above all else.  To put a halo around something, or someone, or some place, or some time and to say this – this before all else is what counts, is worthy of wanting to know and be in communion with.  This, above and before all else is what makes life – my life, and the life of the world, truly good. 

Hallowed be thy name.

Do you remember when worship began Sunday after Sunday with “Holy, Holy, Holy”?
Holy, holy, holy!  Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!
Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;
Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity.

That hymn has such power to lead us in humility and awe into the worship of God that it was Hymn Number 1 in a lot of old hymnals.  And even new versions for modern sensibilities still carry the original “hallowing power,” like this one from the United Methodist Hymnal:
          Holy, holy, holy!  Lord God Almighty!
          Early in the morning, we praise your majesty …
Holy, holy, holy!  Though we know but dimly,
          Though the eye of humankind, your glory may not see,
          You alone are holy, you alone are worthy,
          Perfect in power, in love and purity.

Music like that can be so engaging, and can move us into a holy place, which is why it felt so good when the choir sang The Lord’s Prayer this morning.  So much more moving than just saying it together.  Because music can reach down into some deep place where we really live, and open us up from way down deep to something bigger, more wondrous, more ultimately important for life than a lot of what we normally live for and live by.  Can hallow something.

I remember as a boy listening to our parents’ old 78’s.  It was an interesting collection – songs ranging from “The Doggie in the Window” by Patti Page to “Kiss of Fire” by Georgia Gibbs and “Lady of Spain” by Les Paul, and from “Warm Beer and a Cold, Cold Woman” by The Oklahoma Wranglers to “Bless This House” by Gracie Fields.  And one song I most deeply remember is the Gracie Fields’ version of “The Lord’s Prayer.”  When I put it on – and I did often (I must have been a little strange as a child), there was something about it that touched and transported me in a way that nothing else quite did.  The prayer was something I knew, something that was part of my world; but when she sang it, and when I turned up the volume (when my parents weren’t home), and I let it fill all the house, it was something else.

Years ago when I would visit Bob Pearl – a member of this church who in his later years suffered terribly from Parkinson’s, he would always cue up some music – a short video clip of some performance for me to watch and listen to with him.  Sometimes a song from a Gaithers’ Homecoming concert.  Most often some blues or jazz great, like Deacon Jones, Solomon Burke or Odetta.  And one time it was a clip of a young Aretha Franklin singing “the Lord’s Prayer” at a concert somewhere in the 1960’s, and as Bob and I watched her sing that prayer, and watched the reaction of the people there, he just turned to me and said, “She just turned that concert hall into a church.”  It had that effect.  It hallowed.

I wonder if there is something in us as human beings that not only is capable of hallowing – of making holy, but that actually yearns to be able to do this.  Even needs to do this.

Which means we need to be careful.  Careful about where we do this.  With what.  And in what direction.

We know, for instance, how deeply spiritual and religious were the rallies in pre-war and war-time Germany around Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party and policies.  And that tapping into that inner religious need for something to worship and sacrifice yourself for, was one source of their power.  It’s not surprising that one of the popular leaders and voices of the Rwandan genocide was a preacher.  Nor how often in all our history the wars we fight are in the name of God and heaven.

That’s how some people understand all the passion today in the States around the holy trinity of the military, the national anthem and the flag at the beginning of NFL and other pro sports games, and how jarring it is to a lot of people when some of the athletes they pay to play the game kneel in critique rather than stand in support – essentially do not hallow all that those things represent.

Jesus in his time knew the same struggle.  The Roman Emperor, the Roman Empire and its army, the Roman economy and its benefits for many – but not all, were revered and literally worshipped and counted on as the most important things in life by those many.  Which makes it an act of defiance, really – an act of alternate loyalty and of counter-community when Jesus says, “Hallowed be thy name.” 

Thy name.  Not the name of Ceasar, or the gods of the Empire.  But thy name, O God.

It’s good to think about this – these two little words, “thy name.”  Because it’s easy, sometimes, to talk about God as though “God” were God’s proper name.  But it’s not.  “God” is more along the lines of a title, or a job description – to be God.  And if we just leave it at that, it’s far too easy for us or others to just fill in the blank with some definition of God that suits us or suits them.  To fill the role of God with some candidate of our own choosing.

But God self-identifies.  Helps us know just who really is God.  What God does.  How on Earth God is, and calls us to be as well – living in God’s image as we are created to be.
For Jesus, God’s name was one or all of the 16 names of God spelled out in the Jewish Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament.  Names like (in rough English translation):
God-Creator of all that is,
God-Lord of all nations,
God who is and will be and causes to be as God wills,
God-who-lifts-up-the-oppressed, and so on. 
It’s this God – God whose name is known in and through the stories of the people of Israel, whom Jesus prays to as the ultimate god of his life, whose will and whose way he says are more to be held up and held on to than any other, and to whom and whom alone he gives himself unreservedly.  And it’s this – this kind of praying, and communion with this particular God that insulates him from the idolatries of his time, sets him apart in his loyalties and vision of how the world is made good, and gives him the freedom and power he has to do God’s work.

And what about us?  Is there a name of God that insulates us from the idoloatries of our time?  A way of knowing and being in communion with God that gives us the freedom and power to be doing God’s work?  A name we can hallow that sets us apart in our ultimate loyalties and vision of how the world is made good?

Are we to learn the 16 names of God in the Old Testament?  And be thankful it’s not the 99 names of God identified in Islam, that we need to learn?  Or the myriad of divinities identified in Hinduism that we need to honour?

We do, actually, learn some of these many names and faces of God – as we read the Old Testament, learn about other spiritual traditions, and simply befriend our Islam and Hindu and other-religioned neighbours and talk with them about things that matter.  And that’s all for the good.

But is there some name of God distinctive to us, some name given particularly to us to hallow and to add to the world’s treasure of holy names to save us?  A name that can insulate us from todays’ idolatries, and give us the freedom and power we want to be doing God’s work and not the devil’s in the world?

The answer, of course – like the answer to every children’s story in worship and every question in Sunday school, the answer that as little kids we learn to venture when we’re really not sure, because it can’t be far wrong, is Jesus.  Jesus the Christ.

This is the name we are given, the way God self-identifies to us, the name God puts on the job application for the role of God in our life.

The earliest Christians knew this, and like us they wrote songs to help hallow this name, and be drawn into communion with the God revealed in it – hymns like the one Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians – a hymn he quotes as freely as he does precisely because he knoes everyone knows it/  It’s a hymn about Jesus, the messiah of God who chose to come down from heaven to Earth; willingly gave up power and privilege over others to become a servant of the needy instead; let himself be humbled – even radically humiliated, in order to be able to lift others up to where they needed and longed to be.

God-who-chooses-the-downward-path (rather than the path of upward mobility)

This is a pretty engaging image of God.  A pretty distinctive and particular name of God.
And when you think about it, when you let this name into your heart and then flow into all your being, it really does help insulate us from the idolatries of our time.  It really does give us power and freedom to be doing God’s work in the world like we want to.
And it’s ours.  It is the name of God given to us, to add to the world’s conversation about what is ultimately good and life-giving.  It’s ours to add to the world’s understanding of what really will save us.  It’s ours – our particular name of God to listen to, to turn up the volume on, and to let fill all the house.

Lord, teach us to pray – as you do, and as others do.

Okay, Jesus says.

If you’re serious about it, pray this: "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…hallowed be the name by which God has come to you…"

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Hallowed be thy name ... is anything holy anymore? (towards Sun, Oct 21)

Once we get past addressing God and reminding ourselves it's God we are praying to, the first thing Jesus says to pray for is that the Name of God be hallowed.

What an unusual word "hallowed" seems these days.  

To hallow something means to give it especial respect and reverence, to set it apart as having unique and even fearfully unapproachable meaning, to consider it holy.

Is anything holy these days?  Anything hallowed?

I'm old enough -- probably you are too, to be able to name things that used to be regarded as holy in our society, that are not any more -- like the sabbath, the Bible, using the name of God in public, the church sanctuary, family devotional time, attendance in worship, priests.  What can you name that used to be hallowed, and is not now -- at least not the same way, and not as universally?  How do you feel about the changes that have come?

But this doesn't mean nothing is holy or hallowed in our time.  Doesn't it seem there's something about being human (like, our soul) that inclines us naturally to need something to be holy, and held as being of absolute importance -- something we can give ourselves to, over and above any other consideration?  And if we don't turn to God for that, we naturally -- and probably unconsciously, elevate something else to that status.

In our day, in the absence or devaluation of things traditionally holy, does it seem thatr we have hallowed (given halos to) things (created goods) like celebrities and celebrity culture, "the economy," "national interest" and even more personally engaging things like leisure, recreation and the sports and entertainment industries. 

What do you think seems "hallowed" -- given special and unquestionable worth, in our time?  In your own life?

I wonder if part of our problem is that even when we hallowed religious and churchy things, we were actually substituting created good things for God.  Just religious and churchy things.  And when the limitations of these things showed through the veneer of holiness we put on them, we had nothing left to lead us beyond earthly substitutes.

So ... pray for the name of God to be hallowed, Jesus says.

And what does that mean?  In biblical parlance, the "name" of God is really just shorthand for what God most deeply and eternally reveals about God's self -- how God is, what God wants, what God does in the world.  

So what on Earth (and for heaven's sake) is God's name?  And how today can we hallow it? Circle all our life around it, like a halo?

That is probably the question at the heart of our worship this Sunday.  Certainly not a bad question to make the hallowed centre of our lives as well.



Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Lord, teach us to pray ... (sermon from Sun, Oct 14)

Readings:  Luke 11:1-4 and Matthew 6:1, 5-13

The Lord's Prayer appears in two Gospels, in two different settings.  

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus and his disciples are traveling around Galilee -- healing, teaching, casting out demons, and helping people be opened to live the kingdom of God where and as they are.  He also begins sharing the mission with his followers, sending them out in pairs to different towns to do what he would, if he were there.  One day his disciples see him coming back from a time of solitary prayer, and they ask him if he can teach them to pray as well -- to enter into the same kind of relationship with God that he has. 

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus has just begun his ministry in Galilee.  He is just back from his baptism by John and his time of testing by the devil in the wilderness, and he has begun to call people to the kingdom of God and to gather a small community of disciples.  Then he goes up a mountain and in the Sermon on the Mount outlines for his disciples and the crowd around them what the kingdom of God is, how it works, and the kind of life it calls us to.  Part of what he says, is about how we pray.

“Lord, teach us to pray.”

The disciples ask this of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. 

Not that they don’t know how to say prayers.  They’ve been saying prayers all their life – of all kinds – of thanksgiving, confession, repentance, intercession, supplication and praise. 

But walking with Jesus they see a kind of deeply centred peace and inner divine authority that’s somehow connected with his going off alone from time to time to pray, and they ask him to teach them, to0, to pray as he does.    

And something in my head whispers, be careful what you ask for.

Since childhood I’ve known how to say prayers.  Kneeling at my bedside, elbows on the bed, hands clasped together, head resting on my hands, eyes closed, and my mouth and my mind speaking the words:

          Now I lay me down to sleep
          I pray the Lord my soul to keep
          If I should die before I wake
          I pray the Lord my soul to take
And then the litany of requests:  God bless mommy and daddy, Carol and Valerie, grandma and grandpa Rutting, grandma and grandpa Donst … and so on, beyond those obligatory requests into an always somewhat-changing list of other family and friends.

As I grew up, I also grew into other, more grown-up, less childlike ways of saying prayers.  Both routine and spontaneous.  Grateful and scared.  Selfish and selfless.  If prayers were papers with the words all somehow written down, my path through the world might well be littered meters deep with scribbled scraps that I’d be loathe for anyone to read for all they might reveal about me.

But beyond saying prayers, have I prayed?  As Jesus does when he goes off alone?  As his disciples ask him to teach them to do?

I assume it has something to do with the openness to God that is offered.  Both the quality and quantity of opened-ness because the one time we overhear Jesus praying in one of those away-to-pray times, we hear him saying, “Not my will, but thine be done.”  And it’s not the gentle, routine response we offer here in our Sunday morning liturgy to our prayers of intercession.  It’s an anguished cry.  A deep and reckless ripping open of his soul.  A grateful, unflinching offering of heart and soul and life, for God to do with as God will.  An honest and unqualified willingness to be lifted into the presence of God, and carried by God to whatever new place or way of being God, in God’s goodness, desires.

I think I have at times, come near to that – on retreat, with the help of others, in moments of unexpected joy, or surprise, or trust, or need.  And you’d think that having known praying like that sometimes, I’d be open to it all the time.

But I don’t know.  You see, I also remember how as I child I dreaded the visits of my Uncle Ike.  Even at times tried to hide from him.  He was a big, physical man.  The kindest and softest heart in the world wrapped in a body that loved to express its best desires in hard work, outdoor activity and games, hugs and exuberant displays of affection.  Which meant when I heard him come in our front door, his voice booming out deep and genuine hello to all in the house, strong hugs and handshakes all around, I knew that all too soon he’d come to find me – young, little Brian.  And when he found me he’d bend down just a touch – just enough to wrap his arms around me, lift me into his warm and wild embrace, then whirl around in a circle or two with me, all the time saying how happy he was to see me and how was I doing.

I hated it.  I tried some times to hide from it.  Pretend I wasn’t there.  Or was busy with something else more important.

Because it scared me.  I felt afraid.  I just wanted my feet to stay on the ground.  Every time he picked me up and whirled me around in his bear-hug of love, I held my breath and closed my eyes until I could feel my feet back on the ground.  And I could know I wasn’t going to die.

And I wonder, is prayer – praying as Jesus prays, kind of like that?  Does it lift us up off the ground of ordinary life, of what we are used to, of how we normally do things and think about things, and into the embrace of the presence of God?  God in heaven?  God beyond the limits and limitations of what we know?  God the Higher Power?  God greater and higher than we can ever imagine, understand, or try to control?  God like my Uncle Ike to young, little Brian?

And just how do we understand this?  Describe it?  Experience it?

Paul Tillich is famous for having come through his own theological and spiritual quest to describe God as the “Ground of all being.”  And although there is more in that simple, little phrase than we can ever hope to unpack in something as little and limited as a sermon, there is something here worth looking at, and hanging on to as much as we can.

The Ground of all being as a name for God seems to root God more deeply in Earth and the life of all Earth than I’ve sometimes thought to be the case.  As a child when I said my prayers I imagined myself praying to some being up there – meaning really “way up there”, in a place above and apart from the Earth, a place called heaven that I would only get to – if I were good, after I died and would be able to leave this Earth.  And even as I grew older this image remained, which meant that when I prayed – really prayed, I imagined myself being somehow lifted up and being removed from the burdens and concerns of life here, of being invited at least momentarily into a welcome break and escape from life on Earth. 

But the Ground of all being.

I wonder if this means that instead of being lifted up from the ground I know to a totally other realm – separate and disconnected from this world, being lifted into the arms of God means being whirled around and carried beyond the ground I know and feel in control of, into a bigger realm – into being connected with more of this world, this world right here, than I normally am, and normally feel comfortable with.  Not lifted up and out of the world for a while, but lifted up and carried beyond the boundaries of the world as I’ve known it, maybe for good.

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”  It raises the question of just where heaven is.  Is it up there?  Separate from Earth?  Somewhere and sometime after physical death?

Or is it here?  Among us in fits and starts?  Under the surface of what we see, or just beyond the horizon of our limited vision?  Somewhere and sometime as we become willing to die to our self-imposed limitations?

Shortly before he died, Japhia’s father was contacted by a stranger who asked if he was a son of James Alexander Newell.  Bill said yes, he was.  The stranger asked a few more questions about Bill’s dad, about where and when he lived, a bit about his character and life story.  And after hearing Bill’s replies, he said, “I think I may be your half-brother.”  He asked Bill if he would meet him for coffee, and bring along a picture of his father.

When they met, got past the opening awkwardness and each brought out their picture of their father, the pictures were exactly the same.  It turns out Bill’s father somehow managed to have more than one life, more than one family simultaneously.  Their fathers were one and the same.

It makes me wonder how many lives, how many families, how many other children God our Father may have – is having right now, has always had, and will always have, besides us.  How letting ourselves be opened to them, and to the corners of the world they know, may actually help us know our father all the better.  And how coming to know and love our Father makes us want to know them better than we do.

Just who do we have in mind, when we say “our” father?  Just how big is our “our”?  And what does it do to us, where does it take us when in praying we open ourselves to God who is a Father that big? 

Lord, teach us to pray. 

I don’t know.  Should we be careful what we ask for? 

Or are we ready
to let God come in the front door with hugs and hellos and handshakes all round,
and then to find us out,
bend down to where we are, to wrap us in a bearhug of love,
then lift us and whirl us around beyond the little patch of ground we know,
to be connected with something bigger –
with all life on Earth, really,
and with the Father’s loving embrace of it all?

Lord, teach us to pray!

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Being on purpose how the flora and fauna just are

Reading:  Matthew 6:25-33

In the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus describes for his disciples and for the crowd around them, what truly human life is like.  And the more he describes it, the more it becomes clear how different it is from what some religious people think it is, and how different it is from the kind of life the world tells us to aspire to.  It’s harder than both, but also more easy and simple.  It’s unusual and distinctive, but also the most natural way of being when we are open to the real, living presence and purpose of God.

Thank you, Linda – and Winona Gardens, for the wonderful fall and Thanksgiving display.   What a welcome addition and point of focus in our worship space!

Every year we look forward to it, and we are not disappointed.  It fits in so well with where we are.  Fruits, vegetables and flowering plants really are Winona, and they help us remember how blessed and thankful we are to be here.  To be able to call Winona home – or at least one of our homes.

Noteworthy, I think, that it’s actual pumpkins – or at least representations of them, that we have here, and not canned pumpkin puree.  Even though it’s from the can, not the field that most of us get what we need for our pumpkin pies and tarts and bread.  This one was for the pies I made Friday for our Thanksgiving dinner with my sister and brother-in-law yesterday.  Using the Women of Fifty recipe for pastry, of course.  And thank you for that.

But it’s the actual fruit of the field that we celebrate.  It’s our rootedness in Earth as God has created it to be – good and bountiful, that we remember.  It’s not just specific gifts and particular blessings that are the object of our gratitude, but the whole gracious matrix of God, Earth, nature and neighbour that we live within.  And depend upon.  And are part of.  Come rain or shine, in good times and bad, no matter if at the moment we seem blessed or cursed. 

And I wonder if this is a difference between thanksgiving and gratitude.  We offer thanks for particular gifts and blessings; but we live in gratitude for the goodness of everything.  And the more we open ourselves to the goodness, the divine beauty and the bounty of all Earth and life and people around us, the more we become aware that all is gift – not earned, deserved or self-created, but given, the more we grow into grateful and gracious members of the whole.

Diana Butler Bass, in her recent book called Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, writes that gratitude is a matter “of gift and response...  The universe is a gift.  Life is a gift.  Air, light, soil, and water are gifts.  Friendship, love, sex, and family are gifts.  We live on a gifted planet.  Everything we need is here, with us.  We freely respond to these gifts by choosing a life of mutual care.”

Think of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field that Jesus points to, and tells us to emulate in our attitude about life and how we get through it.  They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, they neither toil nor spin, yet they are cared for and loved, fed and clothed by their Father who loves them.  And how?  Why?  What do they do to be so well loved?

What they do is take their part in the matrix of life on Earth as God has made it to be.  They receive – from soil, from water, from sun, from other parts of creation, what they need.  And they give – beauty, song, creation and transport of seeds in the world’s ecosystem, and in the end give their own life, for the good and well-being of the whole.   They just are part of the matrix of good life for all that God has made Earth and all its creatures to be.  And the only difference between them and us is that we get to be – in fact, we have to be, conscious and intentional about being and doing what they are and do unconsciously and by nature.

It makes perfects sense that we have both communion and the beginning of our collection for the food bank as part of our Thanksgiving display. 

Because this is the good news – the gospel of mature human living that Jesus lives and points us towards.  God gives, he says.  We are given to, he reminds us.  And we, called from among all creatures to live intentionally in the image of God, also give – also share, as we have been given.  Because this is the way God has made the Earth to be, and be well.

And, you know, it also makes sense that in our Minute for Mission this week we were able to highlight the certificate of recognition we received this summer from The Town of Grimsby, for our part in helping the A. family find a safe, new home here among us, as part of United to Help Syrians.  Because this too is part of a life of gratitude – of spiritual thanksgiving.

I think it was Cindy S. at the mission-statement workshop last Sunday who mentioned how deeply moving it was to be able to do this as a church.  How we so easily forget that not everyone in the world enjoys the kind of security, comfort and affluence that we do.  That there are ways we can give and share what we have, and help others to have a good life too.  And how good it feels when we do that.  How holy and divine, how truly human and meaningful our own life becomes when we do that. 

When like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field we take our place as we are able in the gracious matrix of God, Earth, nature and neighbour working together for the good and well-being of all.  What Jesus calls the kingdom of God and its righteousness.