“Receive Mercy and Find Grace” – June 25, 2017

“Receive Mercy and Find Grace”
June 25, 2017 – 3rd Sunday after Pentecost – Year A

 

After Easter, I spent 2 weeks in beautiful Costa Rica enjoying a fabulous biological and environmental tourism holiday.  I then came home and had a week of study where I explored and dipped into the theology and history behind the hymn “Amazing Grace.”  My reason for delving into this popular hymn was as a result of attending a United Church colleagues group gathering held in the week immediately following Easter.  We took about an hour to discuss the familiar opening line: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”

Hold on – I am not a “wretch” and I have not sung the word “wretch” in relation to that hymn for over 30 years.  Yet many of my colleagues spoke eloquently about the importance of acknowledging that we humans are wretched.  I had neither the words, nor the emotional strength to speak against this position.  I knew I needed to do some research and some spiritual work.  I set up a session with my Spiritual Director and told her I wanted to take the hour time to talk about my feelings and where my spirit was at concerning this troubling first line.

First,  I needed to research the story behind the hymn.  I was introduced to the writer John Newton, born in 1725 in London England.  He was raised by a stern sea captain father, due to his mother’s death when he was nearly 7 years old.  Newton sailed to West Africa and became a slave trader.  During a horrendous storm off the coast of Ireland the ship nearly sank and Newton prayed to God and the cargo miraculously shifted to fill the hole in the ship’s hull and the vessel drifted to safety.  Newton took this as a sign from God and marked it as his conversion to Christianity.  His behaviours changed slowly and after some time he began to view his captives with more sympathy.  In 1764, he was ordained as an Anglican priest and wrote 280 hymns to accompany his services.  He wrote the words for “Amazing Grace” in 1772 and in 1835 William Walker put the words to the popular tune “New Britain.”

It is interesting to note that the abolition of slavery did not occur until 1788, 34 years after Newton left the profession.  He declared that the subject of the slave trade was a humiliating one for him.

The hymn “Amazing Grace” is a biography of Newton’s life.  He wrote with tremendous clarity his life story.  It was grace that saved a slave-trading, womanizing, drunkard.  He was lost in the ways of rowdy, vulgar behaviors and blind to the impact his behaviours had on others.

During the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, this hymn became a message of social redemption.  Reformers like Joan Baez offered this song as a prayer of reformation.

Why have I chosen to take time to reflect on this hymn and particularly the first line?  It goes back to my early awareness of issues of abuse and the devastation to self esteem that goes with abuse.   I hear survivor after survivor saying that they are “sinners,” are to blame for the abuse, are the cause of the abuse – in short are a wretch.  And that is simply a lie.  It is not true.  Abuse survivors hear “that sav’d a wretch like me” and internalize it.  And that is just plain wrong.

Couple this with the number of folk who sing this hymn who struggle with low self esteem and we are setting them up to not hear the whole hymn in context.  It is too easy to miss the “grace” and only hear the “wretch.”  To hear “lost” and not hear “found.”  To hear “blind” and not hear I “see.”

When I sing the hymn Amazing Grace, I substitute the word “soul” for “wretch” or as our hymn book suggests “that saved and strengthened” me.  Perhaps you might want to consider such a change.  Possibly there is no reason to make any change.  But in knowing the back story, grace takes on new loveliness.

I reported to my United Church Colleagues group the process and results of my research, soul searching and conversations with my Spiritual Director.  I was able to thank them for the rich conversation of the previous month, and affirm my commitment to not perpetrate the understanding of oneself as a wretch.  A glorious child of God – yes!  A person of grace – Yes!

Rick Warren, an American writer, states; “What gives me the most hope every day is God’s grace; knowing that his grace is going to give me the strength for whatever I face, knowing that nothing is a surprise to God. Amen.
 

 

 

 

“Mystery Loves Company” – June 11, 2017

“Mystery Loves Company”
June 11, 2017 – Trinity Sunday – Year A

            In the name of Lover, Beloved, and Love” I stand before you to share the Good News on this Trinity Sunday.  Scattered around the sanctuary are pictures and descriptions that reflect the Trinity.  The Trinity triplets are before you to spark your imagination.  God is revealed in so many ways!

And yet, when you are in the midst of treatment for cancer, you are not likely to care that this is Trinity Sunday.  If you are a teenager and are pregnant, you likely don’t care that this is Trinity Sunday.  If your son or daughter has just been laid off work, you likely don’t care that this is Trinity Sunday.

Let me assure you that God is greater than we can imagine and God somehow knows who you are, where you are, what you are doing, and what you need.  God, who is mystery, cares so deeply about each of us, that care and compassion was lived out in Jesus.  Hungry were fed, crippled healed, lonely befriended, and followers were taught.  God blows into our lives like wind.  The creative rustling of God’s breath is such a life-giving force!  We are bathed in the glory of God breathing hope into creation.

St. Patrick, a 5th century missionary, was teaching and leaned down and plucked a shamrock from the grass.  “How many leaves does the shamrock have:  one or three?” he asked.  Some said one and some said three, and in the end, all agreed that the plant had both one leaf and three leaves.  “So it is with God,” Patrick explained.  “There is one God, but three persons, all equal, all bound together.

As we heard in the Gospel text from Matthew, Jesus’ final appearance to his disciples after his resurrection is described.  Jesus came to the disciples once more and they worshiped him even though some doubted.  Apparently, such an immediate experience of the resurrection as they had, didn’t answer all their questions with absolute certainty.  In spite of what appears to be a lack of readiness on the part of the disciples, Jesus commands them to go, to baptize, and to teach, promising that he will be with them until the end of time.  Through these actions God’s presence and way will be experienced and made known.  The church in Matthew’s day had begun to use the “threefold” name of God in Baptism.  A new convert would be baptized in the name of Creating God, simplified by the term Father – Liberator, the Son – and Wisdom, the Holy Spirit.

We experience God in many ways and no words are ever adequate to describe those awesome, yet intimate encounters.  God is not contained in creeds or Trinitarian formulas.  However, we still attempt to name our experiences and understandings of God at work in our lives and our world and throughout all time.  Trinity Sunday is one of those times when we struggle to do that while also acknowledging that we can really only stand in wonder and praise.  From creation to the end of the age – God is with us.  And so we herald thanks to God!

An African monk in the fourth century named Augustine let his imagination go a bit wild and thought of the Trinity as a love triangle, although not exactly as you might be thinking of that term today!  For Augustine, God is the Lover, The Son is the Beloved.  And the Holy Spirit is Love itself, the invisible, powerful bond between them.

Jesus’ parting words to his disciples of 2000 years ago as well as to us today is to go, to baptize, and to teach.  Jesus promises that he will be with his followers until the end of time.  All of this we are to do in the name of God who is Provider, Redeemer, and Joy Giver.

The task to which the disciples are sent, according to theologian Tom Long, is not “hit and run evangelism.  What the disciples are sent to do is not to hurl gospel leaflets into the wind or hold a rally in a stadium.  They are called to the harder, less glamorous, more patient task of making disciples, of building Christian communities.”  It is while in community that we truly experience the fullness of God’s grace.

We gather each week as Christian community, knowing the value of being together as a family of God.  We bring diverse experiences of encounters with the Holy One.  In this year’s Lenten study group, each week we shared our “God moments” from the week past.  They were experiences or encounters with the Divine.  Sometimes we would respond, “the Holy Spirit was at work.”  Other times we would acknowledge that Jesus was walking with us.  Each God moment was a happenstance event with Shepherd, Emmanuel, and Breath of God.

Marjorie Suchocki, a feminist theologian of the 20th century, saw in the Trinity 3 basic characteristics of God.  God is power, the power by which all the world is created and governed.  Christ is presence, that is God with us in the world.  The Holy Spirit is wisdom, who gives us the ability to discern and relate to one another.  Though these are not personal images, they do serve to tell us what God does and how God acts as the Trinity.

Our God is essentially a God of communion and embrace.  We are a blessed people who have been touched by Creator, Son and Holy Spirit.  Does this matter to the person with cancer?  Is this insight going to have an impact on the pregnant teenager?  Will the grandparent feel any less concerned for their unemployed son or daughter?  I hope that one short phrase or an image of God expressed in this message may help you to feel the comforting arms of God envelop you.  For our God is tender hearted.  Rest in the assurance that the One God who is Our Rock, Christ, and Dove will give you strength and comfort.

I wrap this message up with a blessing from today’s scripture readings: “Go and teach disciples the Good News, confident that Jesus the Christ is with you always, to the end of the age. The grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”  Amen.

 

 

“Sing out Empathy – June 4, 2017

“Sing out Empathy – Sing out Compassion!”

Pentecost – Year A – June 4, 2017

What more wonderful way could we celebrate Pentecost Sunday than by hearing this fabulous gospel choir!   Marcus, Darlene and Bill have transformed this beautiful sanctuary into an old fashioned gospel hall where you can feel the Holy Spirit fill every nook and cranny.  In the midst of the melodic sound, dreams and visions become real!  The words of prophets and followers of Jesus ring out with clarity and conviction.  It makes us all want to stand up and join the chorus!

In the midst of beautiful music we heard the prophet Micah uttering a challenging directive.  Do justice – love kindness – walk humbly with your God.  One of these alone would be a test, but all three is surely a directive of enormous proportions. However, I am convinced that if each one of us show empathy and compassion towards those we encounter, we have taken a big step towards justice, kindness and humility.

What does the prophet mean by justice?  It is healthy, life-giving relationship between members of the community.  It is also the equitable distribution of goods, benefits and burdens.  Let me explain:  A friend approached John and told him that his neighbour, Mr. Smith was stealing wood from him.  John said, “Thank you for telling me.”  Then John went to his neighbour and said, “Mr. Smith, it has been a very cold winter.  If you run short of wood, just help yourself from my woodpile.  Then John went back to his friend and said, “I just cured Mr. Smith from stealing.” 

What is kindness, we ask?  It involves both affection and ethical love of neighbour.  As we hear of the thousands of drug overdoses and deaths by fentanyl in our country and in this community, there is no doubt that kindness is sorely lacking.  We have let down our high school students, our college students, our street people, our children and grandchildren when we fail to talk openly about the drug scene here in Penticton.  We fail to show kindness when we leave the problem to the health officials, police, and the schools.  We have failed to be good neighbours when we fail to act in solidarity with MADD, Grandmothers for Africa, 12 step recovery groups, and many other justice and kindness seeking groups. 

Paul Tillich, one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians, said in an interview that “Justice is the backbone of love.” We cannot say we love someone unless we act in justice and kindness towards them. This is often very challenging, especially if you are a passionate kind of person. Relationships are not easy.  They call for humbleness.

Humbleness involves reverence and openness, integrity and honesty.  That is a tall order, isn’t it?  A Minister was asked by his personnel committee to evaluate his ministry in comparison to the ministry of Jesus.  His response included:  Jesus walks on water, I slip on ice.  Jesus changes water into wine, I change water into coffee.  Jesus welcomes the children, I have the children’s conversation during worship, often off topic.  Jesus raises the dead, I wake the street people.  And Jesus cleanses lepers, I change dirty diapers.

            My friends, God asks us to “do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  I can’t imagine anything more challenging, nor more important.   This week 90 people were killed in a bombing in Kabul and another 400 people were wounded.  This 16 year long war has hit the Afghan heart.  Our brother and sister Afghani neighbours are crying out to be loved.  Can we do anything less?  God needs you to sing out empathy!  Sing out compassion!
             This takes us straight to the first letter of John in chapter 4, where 14 verses explain that God is love.  How do we know this to be true?  Just look around!  Earlier this spring one of our high school student’s senselessly died.  He was given a substance that he was allergic to and help came too late.  In the midst of this tragedy the teen’s friends, their parents and teachers, and community supports have pulled together and are living out God’s love.  With incredible empathy and compassion there is a very clear sense that God is reaching out and embracing this community of grieving people.

On this Pentecost Sunday we expect the wind of mystery and awe to blow through this place and reveal to us the transformative power of love.  Just as we heard the announcement that the Green Party and the NDP will team up and form a minority government – might we see the supporters for a new National Park and The Fraser Institute form a new coalition based on principals of love and compassion?  Because God is love, will we see tongues of fire dance but not consume?  We see our 2 Syrian Refugee families that we are supporting continue to learn English, enjoy driving, and become more and more integrated into our community.  Being with the families, you see God’s love radiating from each person.  And a new Canadian child is due to be born any day now.  God truly is love.

The dove of peace is a beloved symbol of Pentecost.  If ever our world need peace, it is now.  We cannot afford to lose one more precious person.  We are all God’s beloved.  Whether we be Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, or no faith tradition – God loves you!  And equally as important – God needs you to sing out empathy!  Sing out compassion!

We have been blessed this weekend with experiencing some fabulous Gospel Music.  Marcus and The Sojourners have taken us on a powerful journey filled with justice, kindness, humility, and love.   They challenge us to hear the message of the music.  They invite us to listen for God’s voice.  Perhaps most of all, won’t you sing out empathy!  Sing out compassion!  Amen.