Sunday, December 9, 2018
A Time to Prepare

Luke 3:1-6: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

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May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be always acceptable O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.

Wow, that gospel was quite a mouthful, and I’m very glad I wasn’t the one reading it; but I would like to just reread a piece that I think is really important:

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

” Now, I really love John the Baptist, I love that he’s this wild prophet out in the wilderness, with his revolutionary proclamations: Prepare the way of the Lord! I love that, I mean I’m not ready to go out to the street corner with a sandwich board, but I love it.

And what I find so interesting about this passage today is that it is this foretelling of something great and life-changing. Which might seem like it’s just another weird text about the end times, but I think it can say a lot to us about where we are right now.

And where we are right now is Advent. Now, it’s a kinda funny thing that doesn’t get talked about a lot that we have so many apocalyptic and prophetic passages during Advent; and I think this goes to what Keith has been preaching on in his last two sermons about how we explain and understand Advent. There is a lot here that we tend to gloss over, not just when we scramble to get to Christmas, but also when we focus too much on the aesthetics of the liturgical season. Either way, we’re missing the opportunity to discuss something really important, something that has huge bearing on our future as the church and how we engage with contemporary society.

Now, you might be asking yourselves, how am I drawing that conclusion? I mean, come on, this is crazy prophetic talk from an ancient people, written down in the early centuries of history. What the heck does this have to do with us today?

It seems like such a strange way to begin the season of Advent.

Because Advent is, let’s face it, usually lumped into the Christmas season which is all about presents and food and decorations, it’s a light season, a happy season. Even if people are not sucked into the commercial Christmas season, it’s still about a sweet story of a baby in manger with cute little sheep and cows standing around.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I already have my Santa mugs out and my tree up and I have been blasting Christmas music in my car on the way to work every morning since November 12th, so this is not a disparaging remark aimed at anyone, but it is something to think about.

Because we lose something of the power of the story when we forget what this really means.

We are in the season of preparing our hearts, waiting for God-with-us, God made flesh, and in the midst of a season of hope and peace and joy and love being born into the world, we are confronted with these passages about the coming of something that disrupts the great power structures and pulls down the temple and society and everything. Just as in the midst of great tyrannical power God sends His Son, born a baby to humble parents, a humble birth of a king.

And as odd as it might seem, this is exactly why we need Advent. Because these two images don’t make sense together, and as we prepare for God to move among humans, we are preparing for the reverse ordering of the status quo, we are preparing for an overturning of culture and tradition, power and privilege. Jesus’ coming is not just spiritual, it is social. He is not just preparing his followers for a different kingdom after death, but calls upon them to be different in the present.

It is not just about what happens in the fullness of time or in the ancient of days, but what is happening right now.

When we get to this season, there’s always competing visions of the right way to do this or that. Keith talked about it last week with the Advent traditions. Blue or purple, how we use the wreath, can you sing Christmas carols. We become so ensconced in our own ideas about the best way to celebrate, and sometimes in doing so, we forget what we’re celebrating.

There is always a lot of talk at this time about the War on Christmas, and keeping Christ in Christmas, or talking about how the church needs to be countercultural because society is just so far from the Gospel right now; and I think that this time with Advent invites us into this conversation if we let it.

Because here is the Gospel: that God so loved the world that He sent His only Son to be born into it, not a great king, not a mighty warrior, but a helpless baby. Gifted to two humble, faithful people, born in the lowliest of places, surrounded by animals and shepherds. That God so loved this world that when He thought of what could best show His love, He didn’t go to the high priests or the politicians, He didn’t go to the wealthy or the powerful. When His Son built His ministry, He chose tax collectors and fishermen; when He gave examples of great faith and love He spoke about Samaritans and lepers and impoverished women; when He brought messages of trust and hope, He walked among the crowds on the side of the sea.

I don’t think this Gospel is lost, I think we have forgotten how to recognize it. But this is our opportunity to wrestle with it.

As we prepare ourselves for His coming in this Advent season, we can be reminded that we are tasked with not only waiting with joyful anticipation, but with passionate and hopeful action. We are not called to be countercultural or to pull away from the world, we are called into loving relationship with the world that God created.

I know that it’s a lot to ask in this already busy season. I get it, I’m swamped. And I want to just enjoy the Christmas lights and cookies and those Hallmark made-for-tv movies too. But Advent is an opportunity as followers of Christ to delve into something more, something deeper.

So my brothers and sisters, as we move forward, as we journey towards the coming of Christ, let us remember that this is not just the birth of a baby we are celebrating, but the birth of a Saviour. Who came to change the world, and who calls us into that mission. This season is a time to prepare, to move closer, a time to think about our relationship to Christ and what our mission is, a time to remember just how much God loves us, and how He shows that love to the world. A time to think about the Gospel story, not just as a cute crèche scene, but as an overturning of the world.

And it is a time to remember the powerful gifts we have been given to prepare the way for the Lord: hope, peace, joy, and love.

Hana Scorrar

Sunday, December 2, 2018
Advent. Reaching Out to Others

Luke 21:25-36:   Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

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So, once again we begin Advent. So what is Advent? Who started it? Has it always been like this?

Surprisingly, there aren’t waves of information, but what there is points in very similar directions. Advent can be first found in the Christian Calendar somewhere around the sixth century. Previous to that there is tradition of what was called St. Martin’s Lent, which was a 40 day fast before Christmas. Advent then, as now, generally speaking, was a duel theme of preparation. Preparing to mark Christ’s entry into this world and preparation for Christ’s return. In its original understanding, Advent was very similar to Lent in that fasting, meditation, introspection and repentance were among the main themes. As time has gone on, Advent has been somewhat distanced from the Lenten disciplines, although it remains a time of deep introspection.

The Advent wreath has become an intricate part of the Advent liturgy, with it’s four or five candles (not all Advent wreaths had a white Christ Candle.) Three purple and one pink candle became staples. In moving from the Diocese of Calgary to the Diocese of Huron 16 years ago, I discovered there was and is some difference in traditions around which order the candles should be lit.

A couple of notes around colours. For many centuries both Lent and Advent hangings and vestments were purple, marking the theme of repentance. It is only in the last few decades that a strong push is making it’s way through the church to make the Advent colour blue, to show that it is very different that the Lenten season and thus having it’s own colour. So of course, being me, I always want to ask if we would make the purple candles blue? There is also the Gaudete Sunday tradition on the third Sunday of Advent. Gaudete means rejoice. Rose or pink coloured vestments can be used instead of blue or purple and the pink candle in lit in the Advent wreath. There is also a tradition to call the pink candle the Mary candle and it is then lit on the 4th Sunday of Advent, and usually includes Mary’s song from Luke.

So, there is a bit of history of Advent. But still the question remains. What is Advent? How will the next 20 odd days be different for you than normal? As I have suggested in a couple of ways, I think Advent is worthwhile, but it is completely lost in the all out mad commercial rush to Christmas. The temptation is for the church to join in that wild fray and make everything from November 1st about the birth of Jesus. Well, that’s not accurate. It’s all about Christmas but we try not to mention Jesus unless we have to.

So, I’m going to suggest that the understanding of Advent as preparing our hearts for Jesus first and second coming is lost. How do we bring it back?

I think there is great value in contemplating a twofold question. Why did Jesus come in the first place? What was it about the development of the world, the evolution of civilization, the actions of human beings that made that the critical and therefore perfect time for Jesus to come dwell among us. That leads to part two of the question. When is He coming back? Same thought process. What will be the historical, sociological, theological and human behavioral understandings that will bring Jesus again?

As I nuanced last week, there is a dramatic shift going on in Christian writing about this dynamic. Instead of seeing God as this distant task master who will return to call us to account; there are questions being asked about how interconnected are earth and heaven?

We can make the case from today’s readings. What both Jeremiah and Luke are doing is pointing to a set of circumstances that will bring God into a closer relationship with humanity. We would automatically suggest first coming in Jeremiah and second coming in Luke.

But what if it is all the same message? What if the prophet Jeremiah and the gospel writer Luke are asking the same thing? When are we going to understand the God of love? When are we going to understand God’s desire to interact intimately with those God created to love? When are we going to start to understand that heaven and earth are, in some sense, supposed to be coming closer together, not being drawn further apart?

When do we begin to understand that the call to love is the central message of God and that heaven becomes much clearer to us when we as human beings begin to come closer to what all the authors in the Bible are describing – a world in which all are included and none are excluded. A world where it’s more important to understand how to love each other, than it is to create rules to keep some people out and give power to those who are in.

Maybe, just maybe, that is where we should start with Advent? Over the next four weeks can we focus on asking what it takes to bring heaven and earth together? What does God truly want? Should these four weeks be about blowing our credit limits, exclusive parties, and all out pursuit of the non-existent perfect Christmas? Or can we spend the next four weeks reaching out to others? Can we spend the time in spiritual contemplation of what it means that Jesus came and will come again? Can we really try and figure out what God thinks the heaven and earth combination is? I think we might find it in compassion, respect, inclusion, sharing, loving, encouraging and many other positive experiences. What say you – should we try to change the world? Or should be let the self-centered, profit seeking, power demanding, ultra-controlling leadership continue to define who we are?

Rev. Keith Nethery

Sunday, November 25, 2018
Advent is NOT Christmas

John 18:33-3: Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

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For those reading this from the Monday newsletter, I am preaching this from the pulpit on Sunday morning. This is only the third time in nearly 25 years that I have preached from a pulpit, and the reason is a confluence of a variety of things. When I arrived at St. James just over a year ago, I spent some time talking about some of the nuances that I follow in ministry. Given that I have had half a dozen or more questions about why I don’t preach from the pulpit in recent days, I thought I would again share my understanding of preaching, so that we are all on the same page. When I then looked at the readings for today and added in a couple of books that I have been reading for an article I plan to write for the Huron Church News, there was an interesting symmetry emerging that intrigued me.

What follows about preaching and pulpit is no comment on anyone else, but exclusively my understanding of the craft. I believe that pulpits originally had more to do with site lines and sound projection than anything else. Given modern technology, those concerns no longer exist. I see preaching as a conversation. In fact, in a very clear way, it is a conversation with myself, because I need to hear and learn. You have the opportunity to eavesdrop on that conversation. I also believe that being ordained priest does not change who I am, it does not elevate my position, but rather is a call to ministry with, rather than to, a community. That means I should never preach as if I am above, or looking down at anyone – I should preach from within the community. Which is why I also like to wander around a bit while I preach, because that is who I am naturally. If left to my own desires, I would probably be half way down the center aisle by the end of this sermon, but that would be taking things a bit too far.

The two books I have been reading are Zealot by Reza Aslan and Simply Jesus by N.T. “Tom” Wright. Aslan is a scholar and his book is about Jesus from a strictly historical, cultural and academic position. While he references the Scriptures when it suits his purpose, most of the time it’s “just the facts.” I was most intrigued by his comments on Pontius Pilate who is referenced in today’s Gospel. From an historical/cultural model, Pilate was a tyrant. Aslan talks of dozens of people at a time paraded before Pilate, who condemned them to death without even looking up from his desk. Aslan says there is no way the Gospel accounts of Pilate interacting with Jesus can be true.

Wright, on the other hand, is investigating Jesus from a deep faith perspective. When he arrives at the point of Jesus and Pilate, he paints a picture of Pilate as a man who was intrigued by Jesus, who wanted to know how this quiet, unassuming man was creating such a fuss and endangering the lock down control that Pilate wished to keep in Jerusalem to preserve Roman control. Pilate, a man of power, recognizes that Jesus is also a person of power, but of a different manner. Aslan paints Pilate from an heirarchical point of view while Wright represents the relationship view.

It is John’s Gospel, that we read today that gives us the most fulsome view of the conversation between Jesus and Pilate and provides that understanding of an intriguing respect between the two, given that they were most different in their nature. I am somewhat disappointed that the Lectionary ends today’s reading at verse 37 rather than adding the most intriguing question from Pilate to Jesus in verse 38 “What is truth.”. Do any of us have the courage to engage in that discussion?

So today we conclude the Christian year – with the Gospel reading from John and the passage from the beginning of Revelation, we have a glimpse into the themes of Advent which begins next Sunday. John points us to the end of Jesus’s earthly life as Pilate sends Jesus to the cross, while the beginning of Revelation points us to an understanding that Jesus will come again.

So, a bit tongue in cheek, here is my question. Will you mark an Aslan style Advent or a Wright infused Advent. Aslan wants the facts, what we know, the same old same old, no interpretation, just the way it is. Wright is about relationship. In fact his book Simply Jesus goes on to express a recurring theme in Wright’s works that heaven and earth are closer and more interconnected than we think.

So, will Advent again be a necessary precursor to Christmas? Will we grumble about all that apocalyptic stuff that makes us uncomfortable and instead hide with Christmas Trees and Santa Claus. Will we make Advent just what it always was, is and will be. No exceptions?

Or can we take the challenge of Tom Wright? Can we, will we, risk to think anew about what it means that Jesus was born, died, resurrected, ascended and will come again? Dare we think about heaven and earth, about life and death, about what our faith calls us to in Advent? How do we understand the connection between heaven and earth. When Jesus returns will the two be more separate, or less as Wright would suggest. He in fact says the second coming is to unite heaven and earth into one. Or do we skip merrily along to the Baby in the manger.

Advent is NOT Christmas. It is a necessary, thought provoking, faith inspiring, journey with Jesus. Before we once again revisit the cycle of Jesus birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension; we have the chance to seriously and fearlessly dive into a new, fresh and exciting look at one of the most overlooked seasons in the Christian year. I look forward to the preaching journey with you through this season.

Rev. Keith Nethery

Sunday, November 18, 2018
Apocalypse

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs1966.”              Mark 13:1-8

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May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, o Lord, our rock and our redeemer…

This week while I was thinking about the Gospel passage that I am speaking to you about this morning, I had the opportunity to lead a blanket exercise for a couple of churches in Windsor, as part of the Diocesan committee, Bridge Builders, that I belong to.  And, at the time, I just thought that this was a break from thinking about my message this morning, but as I got back to writing, I realized that it was making me think about this Gospel passage.

Primarily because this is an apocalyptic text, and let’s be honest, apocalyptic passages like this are more than a little weird, a little off-putting, and unfailingly difficult to preach and interpret for those of us living in a context that isn’t fraught with upheaval and panic, terror and suffering.

We as relatively rich Westerners may have a hard time with such proclamations, and often it’s thought that we should perhaps stay silent in the face of such things.  For what could we remotely understand about the trauma of living through exile and oppression, the destruction of Jerusalem or the horrors of a Herod?  How can we interpret these teachings of Jesus when our worldview is one of freedom and choice, comfort and power, one of privilege?  What became blatantly obvious to me at the blanket exercise this week is that I have to stand up here and preach from a place of understanding my own privilege.

We are not the oppressed.  We are the empire, which these apocalyptic texts are opposing.

And the way that we deal with passages like this are often to be dismissive.  And who wouldn’t, when they’re usually thrown at us from street corner preachers shouting about hellfire and the end times.  When presented like this, is it no wonder we want to avoid them.  And while we get distracted with small facts or ridiculous details about the signs, or coming up with concrete timelines for Jesus’ return, we are missing the bigger picture.  That these challenges faced by Mark’s community can speak to something more than just a cosmic clash.

Now, Mark’s community they were facing the disappointment of Jesus’ delayed return, the immense social and religious upheaval caused by the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, persecution by both secular and religious forces, confusion among Jesus’ followers and conflict between rival leaders.  In short, life was something of a mess.  And the most interesting, and important part of this, is that Mark is not writing in the middle of all this.  He is writing in the aftermath, and wondering what will happen to them, how they will survive.

Now, we are not the ancient Jews suffering persecution and exile, our story is different, our context is different, but we are experiencing our own birth pangs.  Our place in society is gone, our churches are in decline, our buildings are in trouble.  We are crumbling as an empire.

And if we are listening to the apocalyptic passage through a lens that cannot see anything beyond itself, we will be scared and frightened to lose control, to lose our power.

But that is only one half of this message from Christ.  Because this message is not one of doom and gloom, it is one of resurrection.  That is always the promise of Jesus, the promise of the Gospel.

When Jesus’ followers are admiring the temple buildings and the great stones that made them up, what He reminds them is that these things do not last.  They fall, they crumble.  They are not made to last, no matter how well built.

Empires always fall, because they are meant to.  As Christ says, this must take place.

And we can mourn this fact, and hold onto the vestiges of what is left, hoping to maintain our personal power.  We can stay stuck in the certainty of what we know, even though it is coming down around us.  And trust me, I understand the phrase the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t intimately well.  I understand the temptation to look back on what we once had and not want to move on.

This is perhaps the human condition, to worship the gifts of God rather than God the giver.  I think that’s what this tricky little passage is about: that in times of confusion, challenge, and distress, we will not only be overly impressed with the symbols of power around us – like those big stones – but we will also seek to find our security through that power rather than the One who gives us the most counterintuitive answer.

Living with uncertainty and obstacles was hard for the first century followers of Jesus and it’s just as hard for us living today.  But the promise hidden in this text is the promise that runs through the whole of God’s relationship with us.  That working hard enough, praying enough, making ourselves acceptable enough, or powerful enough, is not going to stop the inevitable, and it’s not going to be enough to leave our uncertainties and insecurities behind.

Empires fall, they must.  But we do not have to be an empire.  We are not called to be an empire.  We are here to gather as brothers and sisters, fallible and flawed, forgiven and freed, in the knowledge that it is not our great stone buildings or our money or anything else that protects us.  It is our ability to care for each other, to hold onto community, to live with compassion and grace, to move forward even in times of trouble.

Our faith does not offer an end to uncertainty or insecurity at all.  Instead, it promises that we can discover who we are in relation to whose we are, that we are beloved children of the God who created and sustains all things and loves us unconditionally.

Mark writes these apocalyptic texts to his community, and we can hear them here and now, not as portents of disaster, but as the strategy for survival.  The antidote for uncertainty is not certainty, it is courage; and the best response to insecurity is confidence in the promise of love from God, and from all those who gather to live out that love in community.  This is our strength, and it is the way we can survive and the only way we resurrect.  Rooted in each other and Christ, we do not need to fear the falling of the great stones or the rumours of wars.  These birth pangs hurt, they hurt appallingly so, but something is struggling to be born.  We may be called to bear witness to the pain, but this will always end in joy.  Thanks be to God.

Hana Scorrar

Sunday, November 11, 2018
Remembrance

1 Peter 1:3-9: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

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A lot of things fall into a short period of time in early November. We mark All Saints on November 1st and All Souls on November 2nd. Also in the mix is a Remembrance Sunday, which is usually the Sunday before Remembrance Day. Tradition is that All Saints is moved to the Sunday after November 1st and usually then ends up being marked on the same day as Remembrance Sunday.

This year however, because Remembrance Day is on the Sunday, we used the readings for All Saints last week, as we lit candles in memory of those gone before and brought a new member in Christ’s Church through baptism.

So that leaves a bit of a conundrum as to which readings to use for Remembrance Sunday. The readings assigned for November 11th, are not connected to a remembrance theme, but the readings for All Souls Day, certainly are. Thus, my choice for this morning.

The Epistle Reading – 1 Peter 1:3-9 is one of my most cherished passages of Scripture. At so many junctures in my life, I have found myself sitting with Peter’s words about what it means to live faith in a life full of difficulties. When all around us seems unsettled, unpredictable and in fact uncontrollable, these words, to me, are reassuring and point me in faith, to the One that I trust beyond all others.

Over the years that I have been in ministry, I have journeyed with many veterans, oft as they approached the end of their lives, with the memories of war disturbing the peace they long to find. I have suggested this reading to veterans and they have told me that it has been helpful.

 

Today, I hope we can use this short portion of a letter that Peter wrote to encourage Christians in a wide geographical area some 30 years after Jesus death, to gain some insight into the horrors faced by many thousands during the two world wars.

Imagine you are a young man, suddenly in a country distant from home, everything is new, the people around you come from various parts of the world, you have been issued uniforms and a gun, you have taken some training and now, you are told you are to go into battle. What runs through your mind? And what do you make of these words of Peter, nearly 2000 years old, to a completely different civilization. As you face, in a very real way, your own personal mortality, are these words enough to bring trust, belief and faith into your heart and mind.  As you close your eyes for a sleepless night before you are called to risk everything, including your very life, can you find peace in the knowledge that God has your mortal soul and your eternal soul in hand?

None of us can answer that question because we have not been in that position. But framing that question, I believe, can give us some insight into the dichotomy of terror and peace that must have coursed through the minds of those who literally, felt they had the future of the world on their shoulders.

The veterans I have been privileged to journey with had an unbreakable core faith; of belief that they did what they had to do. But they also had such immense sadness and pain for the loss of those around them, for the ripping away of their own innocence, and for the burden they would carry until this life came to an end. Put in these terms the words penned in the well-known poem In Flanders Fields by John McRea echo so much more boldly. “If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep.”

We are called to live in the midst of a plethora of emotions today. Sadness at the loss of so many innocent men, women and children; anger that we continue to repeat the hatred that brings us to countenance war; pride in our forebears who gave everything that we might be free; fear that that freedom might be waning and trust; trust that Peter’s message is true; that all those who paid the ultimate price received God’s ultimate grace – the salvation of their souls; trust that we today can hold onto that same faith stemming from taking the same words into our hearts and spirits; and trust that in the future we might still walk with a belief that God is with us, that Jesus’ mission and ministry among us has shown us how to rise out of hatred, anger, struggle and the desire for power and control, to find freedom and peace.

As Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By His great mercy He has given us a new birth into a living hope. . .” That is the torch that needs to be ours to receive and hold high. A flame that illuminates our knowledge that love can conquer all, if we will just listen to the One who gave it to us. Amen.

Rev. Keith Nethery

Sunday, November 4, 2018
Lazarus!

John 11:32-44: When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’

They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me.

I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

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May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer… Well, we have a lot of things going on this Sunday, we have a baptism and we are celebrating All Saints today, and we have this gospel message, which is the story of Lazarus.

And I know, trust me, I’ve been working with these things all week, they seem like they might not fit well together. Certainly they’re hard to work around in a sermon. A celebration of lives well lived and the celebration of new life, but then I realized, they are tied together by the story of the raising of Lazarus. The story of resurrection.

Now, to give some context to this, because the story of Lazarus starts a little before our gospel begins, Jesus is traveling, and he hears that his friend, Lazarus, is sick, and he is told to hurry, to come to heal him.

Now, if this was me, I would drop everything and run. You wouldn’t have to tell me twice, I would just take off. And I’m sure the rest of us would as well. If we heard that our loved one was sick and dying, we would do anything to be at their side, especially if we thought we could do something to help. But Jesus does exactly what you would never do in this situation, he does not hurry up, he does not rush, he does not run to Lazarus’ bedside. Instead, Jesus takes his time, and when Jesus finally comes, Lazarus has died, and his sister Mary kneels at Jesus’ feet and says what we probably all have said at some point in time, Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Lord, if you have been here, this would not have happened.

And I don’t know about you, but at this point in the story I always start sympathizing with Mary and Martha. Because I don’t know about you, but those words have passed my lips many times, Lord, if you had been here, this would not have happened.

Lord, if you have been paying attention, or done what I wanted, if you had listened to me, this would not have happened. We have all been in those places, where the pain and suffering, the grief, the lament cry out. Where it feels like we have been left without help, without hope. We all get those moments when we start to feel like God is very far away.

And it’s easy to start thinking that maybe God loves us in a wide and abstract way, but not in a way that has any effect on our lives. It’s easy to start thinking like Martha and Mary, that Jesus did not show up to help us. But this is where the story gets interesting.

Now, we all know how this ends. And we can fast forward to the happy part where Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb and he is resurrected. And it would be really easy to stand up here and talk about that this morning, because, really that’s the tie that binds our All Saints celebration and our baptismal celebration to each other today. They are both a celebration of the promise of life in Christ, of new life from the dead.

But here’s the thing. All those great celebrations are the end of the story, and while it’s really easy to see the miracle in the resurrection, its only part of the larger miracle of this story.

Because this is a story about love. This story is about what it means to be in relationship with Jesus, what it means to love him and to be loved by him.

So I think we need to talk about what happens before, because even though it seems like the loving happy ending of resurrection is the most important part of this story, I think that there is something we’re missing here if we skip to the end. We miss Jesus weep. We miss his deep sadness, how greatly disturbed he was in spirit. We miss the relationship.

Because being in relationship, with Christ and with each other, isn’t just about our happy endings, it’s about the journey we take. Love takes work and commitment, it takes sacrifice. Being in relationship with Jesus isn’t about what he can give us as individuals, being in relationship with Jesus means facing death and grief with him and learning that still, in spite of the death, the dark wilderness, the finality of the door at the entrance to the tomb of our hopes, he is still life.

Nothing is ever so dead that it keeps him from bringing something new.

That is the story we gather to celebrate today, we gather to celebrate the lives of saints both known and unknown, those who walked the Christian path, and who lived out that journey, who when the lights when out and the path turned dark, put out their hands and stepped out with faith based not on sight but the knowledge of Christ’s light in their hearts.

And we gather today to celebrate a baptism, the story of new love being born into the community of St James Westminster, the first steps of a new family member, who we commit to walking with, who we commit to having a relationship with.

We have all been Martha and Mary, weeping through the grief of loss. We have all been Lazarus, lifeless and gone. But if we fast forward to the ending of resurrection, we miss that Jesus is right there weeping with us. That through the darkness of change and the unknown, he is with us, part of our joy and happiness, part of our grief and pain.

We have all been called out and given new life. This is what we celebrate today, what binds us together, that we have all been called out by Christ, from the saints and souls we remember today, to the brand new member of our church family. We are called to journey, in love, in relationship, through the unknown, with love and hope.

This is the promise of the story of Lazarus, the promise that Jesus loves us, He weeps for us, He is deeply moved by us. And He brings life to our death, a light to our darkness, even when we think we have been forgotten, even when we think we have lost it all.

The raising of Lazarus isn’t just a miracle that Jesus performed thousands of years ago in a land far, far away. It’s the work of Jesus today. This life is not only a future hope, abundant life is always ever now. And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, as we remember those deceased faithful and the wonderful relationships we had with them, and celebrate and commit ourselves to a new relationship today, let us remind ourselves of our belovedness, and the true miracle of Christ ever present.

Hana Scorrar

Sunday, October 28, 2018
Swamp Witch

Mark 10:46-52: Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.”

And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again. “Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

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Below are the lyrics to a 1970’s Jim Stafford “talking” song, called Swamp Witch. I’m going to act it out for the kids on Sunday morning for a little bit of a spooky Halloween, but as you will see after the lyrics, this song surprisingly has much to say to us today and ever can connect to the Gospel reading.

 

Black water Hattie lived back in the swamp; where the strange green reptiles crawl
Snakes hang thick from the cypress trees; like sausage on a smokehouse wall
Where the swamp is alive with a thousand eyes; an’ all of them watching you
Stay off the track to Hattie’s Shack in the back of the Black Bayou

Way up the road from Hattie’s Shack; lies a sleepy little Okeechobee town
Talk of swamp witch Hattie lock you in when the sun go down
Rumours of what she’d done, rumours of what she’d do
Kept folks off the track of Hattie’s shack; in the back of the Black Bayou

One day brought the rain and the rain stayed on; and the swamp water overflowed
‘skeeters and the fever grabbed the town like a fist; Doc Jackson was the first to go
Some say the plague was brought by Hattie; there was talk of a hang’n too
But the talk got shackled by the howls and the cackles; from the bowels of the Black bayou

Early one morn ‘tween dark and dawn when shadows fill the sky
There came an unseen caller on a town where hope had run dry
In the square there was found a big black round; vat full of gurgling brew
Whispering sounds as the folk gathered round; “It came from the Black Bayou”

 

There ain’t much pride when you’re trapped inside; a slowly sink’n ship
They Scooped up the liquid deep and green; and the whole town took a sip
Fever went away and the very next day the skies again were blue
Let’s thank old Hattie for saving our town; we’ll fetch her from the Black Bayou

Party of ten of the town’s best men headed for Hattie’s shack;
Said Swamp Witch magic was useful and good; and they’re gonna bring Hattie back
Never found Hattie and they never found the shack; never made the trip back in
There was a parchment note they found tacked to a stump; said, “Don’t come look’n again”

While the song has that scary Halloween feel to it, there is also a very strong message. Hattie is different and so the people immediately judge her. She lives alone, a different lifestyle, and so, in the absence of facts, people make up their own cruel understandings and immediately make her into an outsider and someone to be feared.

We can see this in our world all the time. People who are “different” aren’t welcomed quickly, there actions are judged by our standards. It is the stuff that bullying is made of. As the story unfolds, we see what happens to the dominant culture when they are put into an uncomfortable situation. When fear bubbles up, their bravado goes away and when the outcast Hattie comes to help, they are only to eager to say yes to someone who previously they wanted to do harm to.

And suddenly, Hattie is the hero. Do we say thanks? Do we ask her to teach us her ways? No, we try to make her into one of us. Suddenly she is an important person and we want to bring her into our group, where we can give her all the good things we have. But we make no opening for what she might like. She must fit our parameters.

And so, when the town’s best men are frightened out of their skins by a note that says “don’t come lookin’ again.” Hatty suddenly is to be left alone. How long do you think it would be before she was once again made a villain by the dominant culture?

This flippant, scary and fun song, has much to say to our children and to us as well. Inclusion, acceptance, being different, letting people be who they are. All things that we perhaps aren’t nearly as good at as we think we are.

Oh, and the connection to the Gospel. Being blind, Bartimaeus was immediately an outcast. Being less than perfect, in that society, meant that you couldn’t hold an office, or a position of authority. It was suggested that it was either your sin or the sin of your family that resulted in the punishment of God, making a person disabled. It’s got Hatty written all over it.

So the reason for the song today, is that Halloween comes up this week. Like much in our world, it isn’t nearly as straight forward as you might think. Halloween comes from the celebration of All Hallows Eve. That won’t make much sense to you until I share that what we celebrate as All Saints, now on November 1st (or the Sunday closest) originally was known as All Hallows.  All Saints/Hallows is the celebration of those whose faith and indeed miracles have helped to build our faith, to motivate us to belief. On November 2nd, we mark All Souls Day, a remembrance of all who have gone before us and are treasured in our memories.

Given that we are dealing with two days or marking the lives of people who are dead, and given that means grave yards and cemeteries and the like, and taking into account that evil spirits and ghosts and superstition was much greater in our earlier history: it shouldn’t be much of a shock that it found its way into All Hallows Eve.

Now, how the traditions of today’s Halloween have come about, isn’t nearly as clear in our history. However, it is worth noting that at its root, Halloween is about giving something, and a free gift is a good thing to base a tradition on. As long as we remember that everyone should receive a similar gift and all should say a proper thank you.

A Halloween that revolves around who can get the most candy, who can frighten people and who can pull the most dastardly and damaging tricks, doesn’t bear any semblance to the eve of a day to celebrate the lives of people who have made a tremendous difference in our world. A Halloween full of treats, sharing, having some good, yet controlled fun with being a bit spooky, would seem to me a good place to start a true celebration.  It’s trying to keep our “human” side out of it that seems to cause the problems.

Rev. Keith Nethery

Sunday, October 21, 2018
Pray Intently & Risk Greatly

Mark 10:35-45: James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.

But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

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As we continue our jaunt through the Gospel of Mark, we should be shocked today to hear James and John have the audacity to firmly ask Jesus if they could be placed front and centre. We should also be at least a little miffed that the rest of the disciples played the “outrage” card, given that there are strong indications that first, the disciples really didn’t understand who Jesus was and second, they felt this was their trip into the spotlight.

We compare this with Hana’s discussion last week of the Rich Young Man, who was quite happy to obey all the easy peasy laws, but was less than happy when Jesus suggested he give up all his wealth because that was the block that kept him from truly getting the message. Now lets be honest, we all squirmed in our seats when we heard that call, hoping beyond hope that nobody would make that impossible request of each of us.

Go back two weeks and Ken shared with us a quote from Andrew Carnegie which went something to the effect, “he who dies rich dies disgraced.”

All this comes as today we talk about the future of St. James Westminster, complete with dizzying price tags of two or three or more million to fix the building, troubling suggestions of a 50 per cent drop in attendance over the past decade and brashly uncomfortable suggestions that we need to look at wholesale change.

Early in his book “Simply Jesus”, NT Wright suggests that we today are as mystified about who Jesus is and what Jesus asks of us, as were the rag tag band of followers in the first century who were happy to be in the spotlight, but scurried for cover when the going got tough. After suggesting that today’s church has become in some corporate sense, a practitioner of personal piety, he adds the following.

“Perhaps even his own people – this time not the Jewish people of the first century, but the would-be Christian people of the Western world – have not been ready to recognize Jesus himself. We want a religious leader, not a King. We want someone to save our souls, not rule our world. Or, if we want a king, someone to take charge of our world, what we want is someone to implement the policies we already embrace, just as Jesus contemporaries did. But if Christians don’t get Jesus right, what chance is there that other people will bother much with him?”

In a very clear sense this is what Ken Anderson said two weeks back, what Hana Scorrar preached last week, what is pointed to directly in both the Mission and Ministry report and the Rector’s report to Vestry and what I would ask you to give ultimate consideration in this homily.

So who is this N.T. Wright guy and why should be pay attention to him. How many of you know his work? Or the work of Nadia Bolz Weber or Walter Bruggeman, or Henri Nowen, or Brian McLaren, or William Barclay or a long and varied list of other Christian writers who have much to say. If Wright was in the hockey world, we would compare him with everyone from Scotty Bowman to Steve Yzerman to Roger Neilson to Brian Burke. If we were talking Canadian music it would be like asking, “Do you know Gordon Lightfoot, Celine Dion, Anne Murray, Neil Young or Bruce Cockburn.”

N.T. “Tom” Wright is a former Bishop of Durham in England who is now scholar and writer in residence at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. If I were to list the books and articles he has written, we’d be here for an hour or so. He is neither traditional nor cutting edge, yet sometimes both; always solid in scholarship and well respected by most in the field of theological writing. Some of the books he has written are quite easy reads; others such as “Justification”, provide many tension headaches and a scattering of dictionaries – theological and ordinary – to get through. He has visited our Diocese and the clergy spent an interesting morning with him at St. Jude’s a couple of years back.

What I’m getting at here is that faith is never easy. There are no spectators in the understanding of faith! As Ken and Hana’s homilies showed us very clearly, we need to be challenged and respond each time we encounter and interact with the Gospel. There is not right, complete or constant understanding, but rather faith is a living, breathing, growing, shrinking, exhilarating, frustrating thing. We can’t walk in, sit down, nod our heads in agreement and go home filled with faith, any more than I could dare stand up and try to sing alongside Michael Buble or Garth Brooks, or Pavarotti or the Rolling Stones just because I listened to their recordings every once now and again.

What is before us is a challenge – the same one that faced the disciples after Jesus death – the same one that has confronted Christians for 2000 years – what do we do when what used to work, doesn’t work anymore? How do we go forward when we’d rather hunker down in the safe place of the past?

At the end of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus tells us exactly what we must do. And as Carnegie’s quote scared us, and the rich young man’s self centredness caused his to think deeply, the simple words of Jesus are at once comforting and terrifying.

“but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The Christian Church, and that includes St. James Westminster, is at a point were our relevance is waning, people are leaving, the social custom is changing, and we really don’t know how to respond. As we gather today in a Special Vestry to chart our way forward, I can only ask that you pray intently and risk greatly. It’s what Jesus asks of us each and every day in this life of faith

Amen.

Rev. Keith Nethery

Sunday, October 14, 2018
Through the Eye of a Needle

Mark 10:17-31 – Sermon for Special Vestry

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight O Lord, our rock and our redeemer…

Well, what a gospel reading to have on the day I’m preaching about our special vestry. Sell what you own and give the money to the poor and come and follow me. This sermon should write itself. But unfortunately for me, and maybe you, it didn’t, and that’s not where we’re going to leave this.

This piece of text is quite an interesting one, because it’s one of the oft-quoted texts of the Bible, with the camel going through the eye of the needle; and there have been lots of ways people have interpreted this text. From pseudo-historical tales of the eye of the needle being a small door in a larger gate into Jerusalem where the camels would have to be unpacked before entering in, a testament to the idea that we must divest ourselves of material goods before entering the kingdom of heaven. To a completely metaphorical approach that states Jesus didn’t really mean what he said at all. This wasn’t about wealth, but about the inability of the human person to merit salvation and our dependence on God’s mercy alone. Now both the more tangible and the more philosophical approaches have appeal, and not least for some people because they are easily manipulated.

But I think the problem with taking such a narrow view is that we miss a lot of what Jesus is trying to say. This is not about parsing our strictures against material goods, nor is it an exercise in metaphor. Mark, and Jesus, are telling a story. And a story is so much more than those interpretations. Because this story is, yes, metaphorical, but it is also very real and tangible. Jesus is never speaking only in parable and imagery because he wants to make it interesting for us thousands of years later to find the symbolism. He’s speaking this way because a story has the power to explain real theological and socio-political issues in ways that are easier to understand and memorable enough to pass on.

Because what Jesus is talking about here isn’t this one individual man, he’s talking about how we build the kingdom.

See, it’s very easy to interpret this passage as about us as individuals. This is exactly what the rich man himself is doing. Good teacher, he says, what must I do to inherit eternal life? But what he’s really asking is what am I owed? And I say that because I know this rich man very well. I am him a lot of the time. There have been many prayers I’ve sent up to God saying, okay, I’ve done all this work, now how do we make this happen? Give me these things I want because I’ve been good. I want God to acknowledge me and give me a gold star and maybe speed up the Bishop on her decision and make more people like me and whatever else I’m feeling insecure about.

But that’s all about me. I, like the rich man, am following these commandments in the hopes that I’ll win some sort of bargaining match with God. And what does Jesus do when presented with the rich man’s assertion that he has followed all the commandments since his youth? He tells him, but that’s not enough. You must give up everything you own, and come and follow me, and the man walks away, lamenting his possessions.

Our individual wealth, our individual salvation, that’s the message we often get from this. But I don’t think that is what is going on here. I think that this text fits into a much larger story that

Jesus is telling about the kingdom. And that kingdom is not about me, it’s about us. This passage isn’t about individuals, it’s about community. It’s about what we think we’re owed versus what we are willing to give.

We’re going into special vestry in a couple of weeks, and we’re going to be asked to have a conversation about the future of St James Westminster. And that conversation is going to be hard, because there is a lot at stake here. But this is the question we must ask ourselves before we have that conversation: are we owed this community? Or is it our gift to the building of the kingdom?

We can be the rich man and we can talk about the wonderful, storied history of this church and this faith community. We can speak about all the ways in which we have enriched and developed Wortley Village and the London area. We can talk about the decline in membership and the deepening chasm between faithful Sunday worshippers and the spiritual but not religious, the old guard and the new generations. And we can ask ourselves, what does this neighbourhood, what does this community owe us? What do the future generations of Anglicans owe us? How can we get them to give us what we need to support this beautiful church and this faithful community in continuing to worship the way we always have?

And that’s the way a lot of churches will have this conversation. How can we get new people to buy into our way of life? How can we get them to appreciate our hard work, our long-standing traditions?

And, please, hear what I am saying, I am a cradle Anglican, the third generation of Anglicans in my family. I love our church, our prayer books, our hymns, our theology, our way of being church with all my heart. So I understand the need for it to be appreciated, to be passed along. I want this church to be here for my own future children.

But my children, your children and grandchildren, they aren’t shaped by the same narratives as we are. They are made for their own time. They are the gift of the future, not the property of the past.

Society is changing, yes that is true. And the church can no longer hold back the tides. But this is not a shift of preferences. This isn’t about changing up the instrumentation to guitars and drums or creating more contemporary aesthetics. The changes of society are ideological, and they are important to how we engage with new seekers, young families, and our youth.

The ways in which younger generations participate in community, how they shape their identities, how they interact with tradition and knowledge and wisdom, these are all changing. Technology is one way this is happening, and it’s not just that we’re all on our phones ignoring each other. Our phones are changing the way we think of connection and relationship, the ways in which we gather and interpret information, and how we find and relate to mentors and teachers. And that’s just one example among many of the differences we have to recognize.

What Jesus is asking of the rich man, what he’s asking of us, is what can we give to the building of the kingdom? What are we willing to let go, not for the sake of letting go, but for others to pick up? What are we willing to gift to the future generations? How can we love this church so much that we can hold it lightly, gently, and joyfully pass it on to new stewards who will find new ways of expressing the gospel, new interpretations of liturgy, and new ways of connecting to God and each other.

Hana Socorra

 

Thanksgiving Sunday, October 7, 2018
Priceless Gifts

I speak to you with a thankful heart, in the name of God!

There was a time this summer when we thought we might lose everything. At our cottage in northern Ontario dozens of forest fires were burning out of control.

The OPP had closed roads, rivers and campgrounds, warning many to evacuate. A friend of ours, in the epi-centre of one of the largest fires, this one on the French River, wasn’t allowed to be on her boat in daylight hours. In those hours, water bombers needed to swoop down on the river, fill up, and head to the nearest raging front of the fire.

So it only made sense for all of us in that area to have an evacuation plan. If we smelled smoke and had only a few minutes to evacuate … what things would we bring with us!

I chose five things and had them set out by the front door.
– A child’s paddle that I has carved years ago for our daughter Hilary when she was one year old.

– My book “Paddle to the Sea” which was my first Christmas gift after emigrating to Canada.

– A honey pail that we had used for decades while foraging for wild blueberries in the bush.

– A tiny loon which had been carved for me by a young boy as a gift on leaving a Chatham parish to come to St. James.

– The earliest photo I had, of my mother and me, when I was but two weeks old.
Five things.

Marylou, ever practical, added  her recipe file. Many recipies hand-written by her mother and grandmother.

We surprised ourselves. It wasn’t the expensive items we chose. Many of them, if put in a garage sale, would have no buyers. But to us they were priceless. They could not be replicated; they could not be replaced.

Each one of these items brought to mind a person, a memory a relationship And it was THESE things that were priceless.

A daughter learning to ply a paddle in Georgian Bay. A child’s wood carving. A young boy, Simon, representing the many hundreds of parishioners who so generously touched my heart over the years. A photo. Adoring eyes. My mother’s eyes. Priceless.

Remember the old adage? “The best things in life are not things!” I keep revisiting that.

I remember reading about the great American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, who, decades ago, amassed a fortune of over $400 million. Carnegie ended up giving 99.5% of it away  to world peace projects and especially to libraries . 111 in Ontario alone. He once said, “The one who dies rich, dies disgraced.” That was a very powerful line until I got out my calculator. If he gave away 99.5% of $400 million that would still leave him a tidy sum of $2 million. Not bad for the year 1919 when he died! At an annual rate of 2.77% inflation that’s $30 million today. I will back far away from cynicism, however, for I still love his thought, harsh as it first may sound. If we’re to take it literally, it’s a scary thought though, when practically all of us sitting here today could be considered rich by the standards of impoverished parts of the world. “The one who dies rich, dies disgraced.”

Indeed, Carnegie was saying that abundance and blessings come from above. He knew, we know, that these are gifts loaned to us from a most gracious and generous God and that, in God’s world, blessings should not be hoarded but celebrated and shared with those in need.

The best things in life are not things, not material wealth, not fame, not bricks and mortar …. though they all have a legitimate place. It is our memories, our relationships, the people who have touched our lives in a loving way. And our God who is so generous.

I think it would be a fair criticism, though, for some of you to whisper “That’s well and good for you.” You have a cottage. Carnegie had untold wealth. You whisper, “Most of my friends have great health but look at me.” “Your life is gilded but I’m just hanging on by a thread.” “God is not so munificent in my world.”

Well, those things need to be said; those heartbreaking realities shared. So I want to tell you a story. A story for those abundantly blessed, maybe even more a story for those in the shadows.

I think that was never more the case than with Martin Rinckart. Martin was a minister in the little town of Eilenburg, Germany some 400 years ago. He was the son of a poor coppersmith but somehow managed to work his way through an education. He was ordained a Lutheran minister. Finally, he was offered the post of pastor in his home parish.

A year later, 1618, what has come to be known as the Thirty Year War broke out and this little town was caught right in the middle of the fighting. Thousands upon thousands were killed across the land.

In 1637, the massive plague that swept the continent of Europe hit Eilenburg. People died in the town at the rate of fifty a day and the man called to bury most of them was Martin Rinckart. In all, over 8,000 died, including Martin’s own wife. The pestilence was followed by a famine so extreme that dozens of people might be seen in the streets for the food that a dead cat might provide. Martin mortgaged his future salary for years to come to provide what little food there was for his people. (He would not die rich!)

His labours came to an end about 11 years later just one year after the conclusion of the war. His ministry spanned 32 years, and all but the first and the last were overwhelmed by the great conflicts and tragedies which engulfed the continent and his town.

I didn’t tell you, though, that Martin was a hymn-writer. Towards the end of his life he put his faith to words and song, and this is what he wrote (most of you will recognize the words):

Now thank we all our God With heart and hands and voices; Who wondrous things hath done, In whom his world rejoices. Who from our mother’s arms Hath blessed us on our way With countless gifts of love And still is ours today.
It’s probably the greatest Thanksgiving hymn ever written. You see how little Martin’s spirit was broken! It takes a magnificent spirit to come through such hardship and still express gratitude.

Martin knew what all people of deep faith know (though I say this much humility) it is our relationship with God, in Jesus Christ, that colours and shapes our whole understanding of life. God blesses us in good times with countless gifts of love. And though it may be harder to spot, God blesses us in difficult times. Goodness and thanksgiving and eternal life come from above and our Lord’s goodness is to be found even in the midst of hurt and despair.

Oprah Winfrey once said, and we echo that in this service of Thanksgiving: “Be thankful for what you have, and you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” How true!

As I wind down, there are three things I’d like you to do. The first is very difficult; the next two relatively easy, even enjoyable. First, recall Andrew Carnegie’s profound and disturbing challenge. “The one who dies rich, dies disgraced.” He was inviting us to think of others in need (not coincidentally, this being Jesus’ message, too). Let us use our gifts and our wealth, wisely and charitably.

Next, sometime today or this week, either alone or with your family, look around your house, your apartment, your attic, your basement select four or five items that you hold dear … things that evoke wonderful memories, relationships, and swell your hearts with joy and gratitude.

And lastly, know that very soon in our service, as our Offertory, we will sing the hymn “Nun Danket” which is German for “Now Thank We All Our God”. I invite you to look at the bottom of the page, and see the name Martin Rinckart and maybe run your finger gently over it in thanksgiving.

Remember his story, your story, and sing your hearts out with gratitude.

 

Kenneth Anderson