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September 20, 2020.

Exodus 16:1-15

          I know that I have shared this little story with you before but I am doing so again simply because it is one of my favourites.

Once upon a time there was a man who could not be pleased no matter what and finally his long-suffering wife decided that she had had enough; for one day at least, he wouldn’t be able to find anything to complain about.  That morning then she asked him, “And what would you like for breakfast dear?”

“Five slices of bacon and two slices of toast with marmalade”, he replied.  “I also want two eggs; one scrambled and the other one fried.”  His wife swiftly prepared the meal and put it down in front of him.  She stood back and waited for the compliments; after all it was exactly what he had asked for!  But what did he say?  “Doggone it woman, you went and scrambled the wrong egg!”

We may smile at this if only because it captures a truth; that there are some people in life who can never seemingly be pleased no matter what.  Indeed I wonder if God himself felt that way at the time of today’s scripture passage.

The Hebrews were on their way to the Promised Land and so far it had been a tremendous experience.  First of all there had been the Passover when the Angel of Death had passed over their blood-stained doorways but had struck down all the first-born males of Egypt.  Overwhelmed by this disaster, the pharaoh had set the Hebrews free.  After that came their tremendous experience by the shores of the Reed Sea.  With the water in front of them and the pursuing Egyptian army behind them, it seemed as if there was no escape but then God sent the wind to drive the water back enabling the Hebrews to cross over to safety.  Then when the Egyptians tried to follow them, the water had come crashing down and they had all perished.  So far the exodus had proved to be a most uplifting experience but now?  There was trouble.  They were out in the wilderness and their food supplies were running low.  Not surprisingly perhaps, the people forgot all about the great things that God had already done for them and started to complain.

“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt!  There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death!”

Now this of course simply wasn’t true.  They had not lived lives of ease and luxury in Egypt just sitting around eating as much as they wanted!  They had been mistreated and oppressed slaves.  Talk about a selective memory!  How quickly they had forgotten about all of the wonderful things that God had done for them.  Indeed who would have blamed God if he had just washed his hands of these ingrates altogether and found himself another chosen people?  He didn’t though; instead he provided for them.  In the evening quails covered the camp and in the morning the ground was covered with a heavy dew.  When the dew evaporated, a white, flaky and rather gooey substance was left behind.  And what was the people’s reaction to it?

They kept asking one another ‘manhu, manhu?’ which is Hebrew for ‘what is this stuff?’  Nobody wanted to touch it never mind taste it but finally one person, braver or perhaps hungrier than all of the rest did.  Much to that person’s surprise, he or she realized that this strange stuff actually tasted pretty good!  Day after day then, this mysterious substance was collected and even baked into loaves of bread.  Over time in fact the question became a noun; ‘manhu’ became ‘manna’.  There is an irony in all of this though.  All the while when the people were complaining about being hungry and asking ‘manhu, manhu?’ the food was right there in front of them; it was the bread from heaven and the visible presence of God himself.  But I have to wonder, are we ever like those people of long ago?

One of the great messages and promises of the Bible is that the One who created us, loves us and forgives us is also always with us.  We can think of what God did for the Hebrews in today’s lesson and we can also think of the words of this psalm, which is one of my favourites:

“Where could I go to escape thy spirit?

Where could I flee from thy presence?

If I climb the heavens, thou art there!

There too if I lie in Sheol.”

 

We can also remember the last earthly words of Jesus himself as recorded in Matthew’s gospel.  “And I will be with you always, to the end of time.”

The Bible tells us over and over again that as we journey through life and make our way to our own Promised Land, we are not alone.  But how often do we, like those Hebrews in today’s scripture passage, wonder where on earth God is?  Living in the trying times that we do with all of its uncertainty, how often do we ask the same question that they did?  The truth however is that the signs of God, his love, presence and working in our lives are all around us.  Indeed I wonder; how often are we like the subjects of the famous scientific experiment, “The Invisible Gorilla”?

This experiment was conducted by a researcher named Daniel Simon at the University of Illinois.  In it, the participants were asked to watch a film clip of a group of people walking around in a circle while passing a basketball around; half of them were wearing white shirts and the others black ones.  Those watching the clip were asked to count the number of times that those dressed in the white shirts touched the ball.  Part way through the clip though, a man dressed in a gorilla suit joined those passing the ball around.  He danced, pranced and jumped all around; there was seemingly no way that anyone could fail to notice him.  In reality though, only fifty percent of those watching the clip noticed him.  Before the start of the experiment ninety percent of those watching were confident that they would see what was going on right before their very eyes yet only fifty percent of them did.  And then when they were told that they had missed the man prancing around in a gorilla suit, some of the experiment’s participants got very angry insisting that there had never been a gorilla present;  why if there had been, then of course they would have seen him!

Now the point of this experiment is obvious.  The participants in the experiment were so focused on counting the people in white shirts who touched the ball that they quite literally did not see the man in the gorilla suit right up front and centre.  Many of the participants only saw what they expected to see but this of course isn’t just true of those in that science experiment, this can be true of all of us.  If we are not looking for God or if we are too focused on other things, then we will never see him; we will be oblivious to him and all the signs of his presence, even when they are there right there in front of us.  And this is one of the challenges laid out for us in today’s scripture passage; to be more perceptive of the presence and the working of God in the world around us.

One of the growing trends in Christianity today is an interest in the spirituality of Celtic Christianity; the spirituality of the Christians in Scotland and Ireland who lived long ago.  There are many reasons for this interest, one of which being the belief that they were much more aware of the presence of God in their lives than what we generally are today.  We can get carried away with this but there is also some truth to it as well.  With this in mind I would like to close this message by sharing the words of an old Gaelic prayer that was recited every morning.

 

“I awake this morning

in the presence of the holy angels of God.

May heaven open wide before me,

above me and around me,

that I may see the Christ of my love

and his sunlit company

in all the things of earth this day.

And so may we all, this day and every day.

 

 

 

 

September 13, 2020.

Message for September 13, 2020

Exodus 14:19-31

Was it one of the greatest archeological discoveries of all time or was it nothing more than a product of wishful thinking?  What I am referring to is the claim that there is actual concrete proof that God parted the waters allowing the Hebrews to escape from the Egyptians.

Almost thirty years ago an amateur archeologist by the name of Ron Wyatt claimed to have discovered the actual site where, during the exodus, the Hebrews had crossed over the sea to escape from the pursuing Egyptians.  He said that the location was just off the coast of the modern day town of Nuweiba in Egypt.  Nuweiba is located on the Gulf of Aqaba which is an extension of the Red Sea.  Wyatt said that his divers had found the remains of chariots as well as human and horse bones scattered across the ocean floor at depths of 60 to 200 feet.  Furthermore Wyatt also claimed that on the Saudi Arabian shoreline opposite Nuweiba, he had found an ancient pillar with an inscription on it.  This pillar was supposedly erected by King Solomon to commemorate the Hebrews crossing over at that exact spot.  Wyatt had no doubt that he had located the site of the event described in today’s scripture passage but not surprisingly he had his critics.

Some people were skeptical because of the long passage of time since the exodus.  Most historians agree that the exodus did take place and that it happened about 1300 BC or about 3300 years ago but, given the time factor along with the water currents and the build-up of silt, what are the odds that these remains would just be lying there on the ocean floor for all to see?  And as for the pillar that Wyatt claimed to have found?  It has disappeared and no one knows where it is.  We can only take Wyatt’s word for its existence and what the inscription said.

In addition many historians doubt Wyatt’s claims because they don’t believe that the route of the exodus went anywhere near Nuweiba.  To be sure Nuweiba is located on the Gulf of Aqaba, an extension of the Red Sea but contrary to what many people think, the Bible does not say that the Hebrews crossed the Red Sea; rather it says that they crossed the Reed Sea.  This being the case, the crossing probably happened at another spot altogether, about 200 miles away.  So where does all of this leave us?

Most reputable historians do not take Wyatt’s claims seriously.  Even so, most historians do believe that the exodus does have a historical basis.  For starters, they do so because it is so rooted in Biblical tradition.  Furthermore the exodus is not the sort of history that people would usually invent for themselves either.  We can think of this parallel for example.

When people work on their family tree, many if not most usually hope to discover that their ancestors were not just ordinary people.  Rather they are hoping to find a link to someone who was rich and famous; even a king or queen perhaps!  And so it is with nations.  Despite the recent tendency to remove or even topple statues of people whose lives and actions are deemed to be wrong by our modern standards, most people still like to think that those who created and built their nation were larger than life individuals; indeed this is why their statues were put up in the first place.  With this in mind, most historians believe that the exodus did in fact take place because people inventing a history for themselves would never willingly claim that they were descendants of runaway slaves.

While there is a general consensus that the exodus did in fact take place, there is no consensus that the actual event described in today’s passage did; that Moses lifted his hands, the wind blew, the waters parted and the people were able to cross over on the seafloor.  There is no consensus about this because while the exodus may be history, the parting of the waters is a miracle, and so a matter of faith.  As the disciples of Jesus and the people of God though, we are a people of faith.  Indeed with the eyes of faith, today’s passage does not just tell us about what God did for his people so long ago; it also reminds us about what God is still doing today.

As I mentioned in a previous message, this past summer I have been reading Andrew Root’s book “The Pastor in a Secular Age”.  One of the many things that Root does is emphasize the importance of the “Age of Enlightenment” and the impact that it has had on how we think of God.  Prior to the Enlightenment people lived in what Root calls, “The Age of Enchantment”.  To most people back then the existence of God was accepted without question.  It was also firmly believed that God was present and active in the world around them.  Everything that happened was understood to be God at work; God sent the storms, droughts and sickness for example.  God was also responsible for such as the good crops and healing as well.  This was the world they lived in but then came the Enlightenment.

During the Enlightenment it was realized that there are scientific explanations for so much of what happens in the world around us and that the world operates according to natural scientific laws.  Events that were formerly attributed to God were now understood “scientifically”.  It was also firmly assumed that God would never break any of these scientific laws either.  By definition, miracles became an impossibility.  Slowly but surely God was pushed to the sidelines as if it were and seemingly became more irrelevant all of the time.  This process has been going on for the past 300 years leading up to where we are today.

While many and perhaps even most people will grant the existence of God, to them he is either just an intellectual concept or else a remote being with no role to play in their lives.  In fact it is said that even most Christians today would be as shocked as the most vehement atheist if God were to clearly answer a prayer or perform a miracle; we may pray but deep down many of us don’t really expect him to do anything.  This is the secular world that we live in today but then we are confronted by the event described in today’s passage.

The message of today’s passage is that God is not just a concept that we can use to explain the origins of the universe.  Nor is God a remote being who created it all and then just stepped back to let the universe and all therein go on its merry way.  The message and the promise of today’s passage is that God is involved in the lives of his people.  This passage though also reminds us of something else too.

It is perhaps too easy to get so caught up in the wonder of the parting of the sea, just think of Charlton Heston in the classic movie “The Ten Commandments” for example, that we lose sight of what the following verse is telling us.

“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.”

Yes, the parting of the waters was God’s miracle but Moses still had an important role to play, and we should remember this.  God may choose to work through events that are seemingly inexplicable, events that we refer to as being miracles.  God however also works through his people and that includes every single one of us.  In the words of a prayer taken from the Iona Community:

“Christ, the Master Carpenter,

who, at the last, through wood and nails,

accomplished our whole salvation,

wield well your tools in the workshop of your world,

so that we who come rough-hewn to your bench

may here be fashioned to a truer beauty of your hand.

We ask it for your own name’s sake.”

As humble, unimportant, weak or even as unsuitable as we may seem to be, individually and collectively we are the tools of God in the workshop of his world.  Too often perhaps we may feel like small cogs in a big machine and that our lives are of little value, purpose or meaning but this simply isn’t true.  We are a part of the Body of Christ here on earth.  We are the light that shines in the darkness.  We are the ones who, each and every day not only proclaim the reality of God but the truth that he is present and involved.  And we dare think that we are unimportant or irrelevant?  We may live in a secular age but living in the uncertain times that we do, our presence and ministry are as needed today as ever before.

 

September 6, 2020.

Message for September 6, 2020

Genesis 18:22-33

Luke 11:5-13

While I took it for granted at the time, the neighbourhood where I grew up in Oakville was a little bit ahead of its time in the sense that it was both multi-lingual and multi-cultural.  The neighbourhood was built in the decade after the Second World War and became the home for many people who emigrated from Europe, especially the Italians and Portuguese.  Indeed two distinct smells marked spring and fall in my neighbourhood.  In the spring it was the smell of manure destined to fertilize the neighbours’ gardens and in the fall it was the smell of grapes, destined to become homemade wine.  As I grew older, immigrants from non-European countries started to arrive and of course they brought their own traditions as well.  Most of these traditions caused little stir but one certainly did.

Many of the new arrivals came from cultures where haggling over the price of an item was taken for granted and they found it inconceivable that a person would just walk into a store and pay the sticker price.  Sometimes it seemed as if people wanted to haggle over the price of everything whether it was a newspaper, a loaf of bread or whatever else.  Some of the attempted bargaining sessions were a wonder to behold but none of them even began to compare with the one described in today’s first scripture passage.

At the time of today’s first scripture passage God had decided to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as a punishment for their wicked ways.  This prospect however filled Abraham with horror, possibly because his nephew Lot lived in Sodom.  In a desperate effort to try and save the city, Abraham asked God:  “What about the good righteous people who live there; must they perish too?”

Much to Abraham’s surprise, God agreed with him.  The city would not be destroyed if fifty righteous people could be found there.  Abraham however wasn’t content to leave it at that.  Just suppose there were only forty-five righteous people living there, would God still destroy the place?  God agreed that he wouldn’t.  Well then said Abraham, suppose there were only forty, or thirty, or perhaps even twenty righteous people?  Each time God agreed with Abraham; the city would be spared.  Finally Abraham asked, “Suppose there are ten there?”  God answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it” and with that the great bargaining session ended.

Down through the ages some people have been disturbed by Abraham’s behaviour that day and it’s certainly not hard to see why.  Abraham wheeled and dealed with God just as he would have with any ordinary person at the local bazaar and this isn’t the way we usually think of relating to God.  Why God is God and under no circumstances should we be bargaining with him in prayer trying to come up with the best deal possible!  And yet this is what Abraham did!  By the same token God shouldn’t have lowered himself by bargaining with Abraham either; and yet he did!  Truly, today’s lesson is an odd one but it is also one that tells us a lot about what our relationship with God can and in fact should be like.

I have often thought that as Christians we are called to try and maintain a very fine balance between two extremes when it comes to how we relate to God.  On the one hand we can become far too familiar with God and forget about just who and what he is. Obviously this is wrong.  While God does indeed love us, he is still God and so is worthy of, and in fact even demands our respect and obedience.  But while we may sometimes forget about God’s holiness, at other times we can become too focused on God’s majesty.  We can forget that God is approachable and that he even wants us to talk to him in prayer.  This in fact is one of the main points of today’s second scripture passage.

One day while teaching the disciples about prayer, Jesus told them that God is more than willing to both listen to and possibly even grant prayers.  Jesus then used two examples to illustrate this.

First of all he said, suppose the disciples had a friend who suddenly had unexpected company arrive.  If that friend came to them and asked for three loaves of bread so that he might feed his guests, would they give it to him?  Of course they would!  Or suppose Jesus said, your son wanted a fish or egg to eat; would they give him a serpent or scorpion instead?  Of course not!  And if we human beings, who are anything but perfect, are approachable and will grant other people’s requests, then how much more approachable is God?

God truly is approachable and may in his wisdom grant our requests too.  But as approachable as God is and as eager as he is to hear our prayers, there are three important things that we have to remember when it comes to prayer.

The first is having the right motives.  Perhaps it’s obvious but when we pray, we should not be greedy or selfish.  Neither should we ask for things that would hurt others or be to their detriment.  Indeed why should God favour us over his other beloved children?  We must also strive to be honest in prayer and under no circumstances should we play games with God as the following little girl did.

One night as her parents listened, a little girl said her usual memorized prayer but before she ended she added a new line:  “And dear Lord, please send the lovely snow to keep the flowers warm all winter.”  Her parents stood there beaming with pride because of her apparent thoughtfulness but her next statement set them straight; “I guess I sure fooled God this time!  I really want the snow to come so I can play with my brand new sled!”

What are our motives when we pray?  While we should consider our motives before we pray though, we should also do something else when we pray; we should try and be specific.

So often our personal prayers may consist of little more than vague generalities; generalities that while sounding good really don’t mean that much.  We may for example pray, “Lord help me to be a better Christian” and that certainly sounds nice; indeed I’m sure that all of us would like to be better Christians but just what are we asking of God?  Rather than just ask God to help us to be better Christians, it is better to be specific, perhaps asking God to help us to be more patient with others for example.  Or to use another example; it’s fine to thank God for all the good things we have and experience but just what good things do we have in mind?  The more specific we are in prayer then, the better and more meaningful our prayer will be.  But while we ought to have the right motives and be as specific as possible when we pray, there is one last thing that we should do.

One day while driving through a small village in Pennsylvania, a minister saw the following sign:  “Pray for a good harvest, but keep on hoeing”.  When we think about it, this is good advice.  It would be foolish for a farmer to ask God for a good crop if he or she wasn’t prepared to do their part to make it happen.  So it is with all prayers.  We may for example ask God to comfort the lonely and the shut-ins but what are we prepared to do to help?  Or we may pray to God to bless our congregation but what are we prepared to contribute to its life and welfare?  We may pray that the hungry of our community be fed but will we support the local food bank if we can do so?  Of what real value are our prayers if we can do something to make them a reality but won’t?  Work and prayer go together hand in hand.

In today’s first scripture passage Abraham got into a long and drawn out bargaining session with God.  While I don’t think anyone should try and imitate Abraham’s behaviour, what he did does remind us about something very important; that God is approachable and in fact even wants to hear our prayers.  Yet while we can and should take everything to God in prayer, there are three things that we ought to remember when praying.  First of all, what are our motives?  Secondly, is our prayer specific?  Third and last, what if anything can we do to help God make our prayer a reality?  Do these things take time and effort?  Of course they do but then again, don’t all worthwhile relationships?

August 30, 2020.

Message for August 30, 2020

Exodus 3:1-15

          In one of my messages this past May I made reference to Alastair McIntosh’s book, “Poacher’s Pilgrimage:  An Island Journey”.  As I said in that message, this book is about the author’s nine-day hike from the southern tip of Harris to the northern tip of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.  The book is a glorious mixture of travel, history, nature and theology but there is a common theme to it all; where is the sacred to be found?  What is it that makes a place sacred?  McIntosh includes an episode from the life of the late, very well respected BBC journalist, Finlay MacDonald.

MacDonald grew up in Harris and about two miles from where he lived there was a small loch or lake with an island in it:  Eilean na Caillach or in English, the island of the old woman.  The woman referred to in the place name was a nun who lived there hundreds of years ago and was thought to be a ‘holy woman’.  When growing up, MacDonald, like all of the other kids in the area, was warned to never go there but what often happens when you tell a young, high-spirited boy not to do something?  The odds are good that he will go right ahead and do it!

One morning MacDonald told his parents that he was going fishing and off he went with his rod and faithful dog beside him.  Of course he had absolutely no intention of fishing; he was off to explore the forbidden island.  The only way for him to get to the island was by walking along a partially submerged causeway and this he did, using his fishing pole as a staff to keep him upright.  Part way across though his dog, who had refused to follow him, started to howl like the Hound of the Baskervilles.  When he looked back he saw that the dog was staring at the island and that his fur was standing up on end.  Even so, Finlay was undeterred and kept picking his way across.

Once on the island he started poking around and had no trouble finding the stone ruins of the holy woman’s hut but then it happened.  In Finlay’s own words:

“And then I heard a voice.  Or rather, I felt the voice.  It came from my ears but at the same time it came from within my head.  It said ‘Put off thy shoes from thy feet for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’”

Well, that did it; he dropped the fishing pole and fled.  He frantically splashed his way back across the causeway and then raced back home across the moors as fast as he could with his dog right at his heels.  Finlay later discovered though that his experience was not unique and that many of the locals had had similar experiences on the island; indeed few of them ever went back to it.  Finlay himself certainly didn’t.  To quote him once again:

“Why I wouldn’t go back – it was that one sentence that was common to all of the stories.  Put off thy shoes from thy feet for the place whereon you stand is holy ground.”

The big question of course is what happened to Finlay and all of the other people who claimed to have had similar experiences.  Was it all just the product of over active imaginations or was there something else going on?  In the end we have to decide for ourselves but as for Finlay himself, the well-respected man of the world that he was, he firmly believed that something out of the ordinary had happened that day.  He was absolutely convinced that that island out in the middle of nowhere was and is a sacred place.

Now I am sure that all of us can see the parallel between this episode and this morning’s scripture passage.  That passage of course relates the well-known story of Moses and the burning bush.  Moses was out in the middle of nowhere herding sheep and he saw a bush that seemed to be on fire and yet was not consumed.  He went closer to have a better look and when he did so he heard a voice saying much the same words that Finlay MacDonald claimed to have heard thousands of years later:  “Do not come any closer.  Take off your sandals for the place you are standing is holy ground.”  Moses though, far from running away in terror did as he was told and went on to have his famed encounter with God himself.

In the years since then many people have tried to figure out where this happened.  Most people believe that it happened on Mount Sinai which is the same place where Moses would later receive the Ten Commandments but where was it?  There is one mountain in the Sinai peninsula that is often said to be ‘The Site’; indeed a friend of mine brought me back a rock from there years ago but is it really the place that the Bible calls ‘The Mountain of the Lord’?  The truth of course is that no one really knows but suppose that we did know the exact spot where Moses saw the burning bush, would it be a sacred place or would it seem rather ordinary and perhaps even disappointing?  To return to the theme of McIntosh’s book, what is it that makes a place sacred?  This is certainly something that I have reflected upon during these long months while we have not been able to worship in what many of us consider our own sacred place.

In the end though, I don’t think that any place whether it is the island of the old woman, Mount Sinai or anywhere else is in itself necessarily sacred.  Rather, what makes a place sacred is the realized presence of God.  We can for example sit in a church but as old, historical or as beautiful as it may be, it is still just a building.  If however we sense the divine presence of God then it becomes a special place, a sacred place.  Or we can stand on a beach and watch the setting sun.  It is just a sunset like millions before and millions yet to come but then … we sense the reality of God.  At that moment that beach becomes a sacred place.  Of course what is sacred one day may be totally ordinary on another; indeed what is sacred to one person can be totally ordinary to another, even at the very same time.  This was brought home to me a few years ago.

While on holidays  Susan and I along with two of our children visited Ottawa.  We had a wonderful time but a high point for me was touring the Parliament buildings.  We saw the old historic East Block and that really appealed to the historian in me, seeing such as Sir John A. MacDonald’s office and the one used by all of the other Prime Ministers up to 1976.  The Centre Block was so impressive as well, seeing such as the House of Commons and Senate Chambers.  Of everything that we saw in the Parliament Buildings though, the one place that had the most impact on me was the Memorial Chamber.

Located in the Peace Tower, the Memorial Chamber is dedicated to honoring our nation’s war dead.  The room is full of symbolism ranging from the stained glass windows to the sculptures.  In the centre of the room is a glass case that contains the Books of Remembrance which lists the names of all those who died in World War One and Two.  There are also other books in glass cases in the room that list the names of those killed in other conflicts.  Every morning at 11:00 the pages of the books are turned over so that every person’s name will be displayed at least once a year.  The room is very small, only 24 by 24 feet and so only a few people were allowed in at a time.  I noticed though that some people just breezed through giving everything a quick glance but for others? Although no one was permitted to linger for long it was obviously a special place, a place full of Christian symbolism and imagery where they sensed and even experienced a higher greater reality than themselves; in short it was a sacred place.

Sacred places is the theme of a “Poacher’s Pilgrimage” and this morning’s scripture passage as well.  But what is a sacred place and what makes a place sacred?  Is it what happened there or who lived there a long time ago?  Is the Memorial Chamber in the Peace Tower a sacred place?  Is a mountain in the Sinai Peninsula one?  Is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem or the church over top what is said to be Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem sacred places?  Is an island in a loch on the isle of Harris one?  Is a church or even our church a sacred place?

All of these places can be sacred but in the end what makes a place sacred is not whether it is ‘religious’ or associated with Jesus or a holy person.  What makes a place sacred is the realized presence of God.  A sacred place is one where, figuratively at least, we realize that we are standing on holy ground, a place where we are “called to be still, and know that I am God.”

August 9, 2020.

| Message for August 9, 2020

Proverbs 1:1-7

          As the story goes, a long time ago three friends were traveling across the desert when they had the bad luck to be captured by a band of robbers.  They were relieved of all of their possessions and told that they would be executed by a firing squad.  During the night before their execution the three men discussed their predicament and how they might escape.  “I’ve heard” said the first man, “that these people are terrified of natural disasters.  That might save us; let me go first”.

Early the next morning as he was led out to be shot his two friends looked on from the window of their prison cell.  He was placed against the wall and the firing squad got ready.  Then, just as the robber chief prepared to give the order to fire, the condemned man looked over their heads and then shouted, “A sandstorm!”  In the ensuing confusion he managed to escape.

Early the next morning the second man was led out while his friend sadly watched from the window.  Remembering what had happened the day before, he too shouted right before the order to fire was given.  Looking to the right, he bellowed, “A flood!”  In the ensuing confusion he too managed to escape.

The next morning it was the third man’s turn.  He remembered how his two friends had managed to escape and so he carefully made his plans.  He was brought before the firing squad and then, right before the order to shoot was given, he looked to the left and then shouted as loud as he could, “Fire!”

So goes an old tale; the last man was not what we would say particularly smart or wise.  According to the Bible though, we, the people of God are to be a wise people but what is wisdom and where is it to be found?  Perhaps it is best to start with what wisdom is not.

Contrary to what people sometimes think, wisdom and being smart are not the same thing.  All the intelligence and all the education in the world does not necessarily make a person wise.  As a person once said, tongue in cheek:  “It is smart to know that a tomato is a fruit but it is wise not to put it in a fruit salad!”  All the intelligence and education in the world does not confer wisdom so what is it and where is it to be found?

According to today’s scripture passage which has traditionally been attributed to King Solomon, a man whose wisdom was legendary:  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  Fear, or as it may more properly be translated, respect, is the starting point for gaining wisdom.  In other words wisdom begins, not with intelligence or education but rather with an attitude, an attitude towards God and ultimately life itself.

Some time ago I read a book in which the author insisted that when it comes to our day to day lives, we are confronted by a very basic choice; we can primarily live for ourselves or we can try and live for God and others.  Now the great temptation of course is to live first and foremost for ourselves and this is certainly what the conventional wisdom of the world teaches us.  Over and over again we are told that our true joy, peace and happiness are to be found in doing what we want, as we want and when we want.  In connection with this we often think that our true joy, peace and happiness are to be found in having this or that and this is certainly the promise of so many of the commercials we see and listen to; if we will only buy this product  then our lives will be complete and we will be happy!  This is the conventional wisdom of the world but this simply isn’t true.

Suppose for example that we won the latest multi-million dollar lottery jackpot.  Of course we would be absolutely thrilled and life would be so much easier if money were no object.  And yet, would having all the money and possessions in the world truly make us happy or content?  The wisdom of the world says ‘yes’ but that is not what the Bible teaches.  The Bible insists that our happiness, joy, peace and contentment are to be found elsewhere; more specifically they are to be found in having the right relationship with both God and the people around us.  Jesus knew this which is why, when he was asked what religion and by implication what life itself is all about, he responded with the words of what we call “The Great Commandment.”

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart,                          soul, mind and strength.  And you shall love your neighbour             as yourself.”

Truly wisdom as the Bible understands it, teaches us that our relationship   with God and others is the most valuable and important in life; indeed this has been brought home by what we have experienced during the past five months.

When I look back to the first two and a half months of this year, I am struck by how oblivious most of us were as to what was coming.  To be sure we knew about the emergence of a new virus in China and then we saw what was happening in Europe but…  That was over there and far away from us.  Then in the space of a few days our world was turned inside out and upside down.  Indeed the last time we gathered for worship I was aware that it might be a while before we would be able to do so again but even so… If anyone had told me that March morning that we would still be closed five months later?  I would have never believed it!  And even now in Stage Three as things become more ‘normal’, they really aren’t and this is true in the church as well.

At the present time the Session is working on the process of reopening the church.  We are not quite sure of what things will be like when we reopen but we do know that things will be different.  And of course what goes for the church goes for everything else as well; businesses, schools, recreational centres and so on.  Truly as I have said more than once, few of us really appreciated how good normal life was before the pandemic struck.  One thing that the present upheaval has done however is challenge us to think about life, our values and priorities and what is most important to us.

Wisdom teaches us that it is our relationship with both God and others that is the true source of our joy, peace, happiness and contentment.  Indeed it is our relationships that help give our lives value, purpose and meaning.  This is one of the great lessons of the present time but the crucial thing is that we do not just agree with this in theory but that we also try and live this in our daily lives.  Anyone can say that we treasure our relationships but it is what we actually do that matters.  That is the point of this old joke.

Once upon a time there was a man who lived next door to a psychology professor.  The man had a young boy:  he wasn’t a bad kid but he did get into mischief.  Sometimes when he did, his father would give him a gentle swat on the behind.  The professor, who strongly disapproved of any corporal punishment no matter how gentle, would lean over the fence and say, “Remember, you must love the child, not punish him”.

Well, one Saturday the professor decided to replace his walkway.  He dug up the old one, levelled the ground, poured in the concrete and then smoothed it over.  It was a hot sticky day and he spent hours working on it.  At long last though he was finished and went inside, congratulating himself on a job well done.  As he stood at his kitchen window enjoying a cold glass of water, he looked out and what did he see?  His neighbour’s son, quite happily walking right up the middle of his new walkway!  Trembling with anger he ran outside and picked up the child.  As he did so, the boy’s father leaned over the fence and said “Now remember; you must love the child and not punish him”, to which the professor replied, “I do love him but I love him in the abstract, not in the concrete!”

This of course is the challenge of life:  to be wise, to value and treasure our relationships, not just in theory but in practice, this day and every day.

July 5, 2020.

| Message for July 5, 2020

Acts 17:16-34

As I have said before, we are now living in what I hope and pray is a once in a lifetime experience:  the Covid-19 pandemic.  Slowly but surely life is, for many of us, returning to some small sense of normalcy even though life certainly isn’t normal.  Elsewhere in the world however the situation is getting worse; all we have to do is look at the United States for example.  Contrary to what we may like to think though, there is nothing unusual about experiencing a pandemic.

Largely overshadowed by the horror of the First World War, the world experienced what is commonly referred to as the Spanish Flu a hundred years ago and its statistics make for grim reading.  It has been estimated that in the span of two years about 500 million people or one third of the entire world’s population was infected, and of them anywhere from 17 million to 50 million died.  Another infamous pandemic was the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages.  In the span of four years it killed about 100 million people or about half of Europe’s population.  And these are just the two most infamous pandemics in history; there has been a host of other ones as well.  In fact it is believed that a deadly pandemic contributed to the fall of the seemingly invincible Roman Empire.  Truly history is littered with these tragic disasters and in fact a pandemic 2600 years ago set the stage for today’s scripture passage.

About 600 years before the birth of Christ, a terrible plague broke out in the city of Athens.  Believing that the plague had been sent by the gods as a punishment, the people tried all sorts of remedies to appease them but nothing seemed to work.  Then it was suggested that a flock of sheep be turned loose in the city.  Wherever a sheep lay down it was to be sacrificed to the god whose shrine was nearest that particular animal.  And if a sheep happened to lie down where there was no nearby shrine then it was to be sacrificed to the ‘unknown god’ and a shrine built in his or her honour.  It was hoped that by doing this they would get rid of the plague and as a result for hundreds of years afterwards, the people worshiped this unknown god, the Agnosto Theo as they called him.

Six hundred years later Paul visited Athens during the course of one of his missionary journeys.  While there he got into a theological dispute with a group of philosophers.  Paul aroused their interest and they wanted to hear more and he wasn’t one to let such an opportunity slip by.

Paul preached a sermon and began by praising the Athenians and telling them how very religious they were.  Why everywhere he looked there were altars dedicated to the various gods!  The Athenians in fact even had an altar dedicated to the Unknown God!  But now said Paul, this god would no longer be the great unknown because he was going  to tell them all about him.

Paul told them that this unknown god is the creator of all there is and is the lord of both heaven and earth.  Since he is so great and mighty he is everywhere and certainly doesn’t confine his presence to shrines made by human beings!   Being as great as he is, God doesn’t need the little gifts of food left in the shrines either.  Paul also said that this god hasn’t just created everyone he has even instilled within every person a desire to know and experience him.  For his own mysterious reasons though, in the past God had concealed his identity from everybody except the people of Israel; they and they alone had known God, but now?

Everyone could know God if they wanted to!  They could simply because he had graciously revealed himself through the person of Jesus Christ, his one and only son!  Now there was no excuse for anyone to plead ignorance of God.  Indeed there was no more need for such as the altars to the unknown god either since he is now known!  But added Paul, with knowledge comes responsibility.  Since the Athenians now knew the identity of the unknown god, God expected them to forsake their old religious practices and turn to him.

This, briefly, is Paul’s sermon to the Athenians and it is widely considered to be the best sermon that he ever preached.  This sermon in fact is considered to be so good that for the past 2000 years it has been the model that preachers everywhere are encouraged to follow.  There is however one slight problem with this and that quite simply was that the sermon was a failure.  We know this because Athens was the one place where Paul failed to establish a congregation.  Now to be sure the sermon wasn’t a total failure since Paul did gain some followers in Athens.  One such follower was Dionysus who was a member of the council that governed religious matters in the city.  Another was a prominent woman named Damaris, but overall?  Athens represents Paul’s greatest failure rather than his customary success.

I sometimes wonder how Paul must have felt in the days after preaching that sermon.  It was the best sermon that he had ever preached and yet, relatively speaking, it got him nowhere.  Paul must have been disappointed and perhaps even discouraged but his response to this setback is instructive.  He didn’t moan and groan or give in to discouragement.  Instead he kept faith and quite literally moved on.  He went on to Corinth where he founded one of the greatest congregations in the early church, and surely there is a message in this for us.

A long distance runner was once asked what the hardest part of a race was.  With no hesitation he replied that it was the middle of a race.  He noted that at the start of a race there is such a sense of excitement and anticipation with the crowd cheering the runners off.  There is also a wonderful sense of anticipation when approaching the finish line too with the crowds urging the runners on to the end, but as for the middle?  That, he said, is the hardest and most challenging part of all, to just hang in and keep on going.  As I thought about this during the past week it occurred to me; in a sense this describes our lives right now.

Back in March when the pandemic first struck here there was a strong sense of crisis and a feeling that we were all in this together.  We can think of the outpouring of support for the front line workers, the first responders and others.  While it was anything but joyous or exciting, the beginning of the pandemic was in some ways like the start of a marathon.  And like a marathon, we dream of a happy and triumphant ending too.  When the day comes that we have a vaccine and life can get back to normal?  What joy there will be!  Now though we are so to speak in the middle of the race and it is easy to feel so discouraged and tired of it all.  These are not easy times and in many ways things seem to be so ‘wrong’.  Indeed did we ever think that we’d see the day when we couldn’t gather together for worship?  And even when we once again gather together to worship there will be changes to what we do and how we do it.  Perhaps one of my neighbour’s feelings about all of this is typical of how many of us may feel.

One day this past week when taking our dog for an early morning walk, I met an older neighbour.  He told me that he had got up that morning, turned on his TV and watched the news.  Then, as he said, he just sat there and cried.  As he put it; “Nothing is normal any more.  Everything is so wrong.”

Quite understandably a sense of fatigue is now setting in for many of us.  If and or when we feel this way though, we ought to remember Paul’s example.  Despite the disappointment and discouragement that he felt in Athens, he carried on; he did so because of his absolute conviction that God loved him, was with him, and would see him through.  And so it is with us and God as well.  This is what sets us free to live our lives without being hopelessly weighed down by fear, dread and trepidation.  To quote one of my favourite hymns, “O God Beyond all Praising”:

And whether our tomorrows

be filled with good or ill,

We’ll triumph through our sorrows,

and rise to bless you still.

And so we shall.

June 28, 2020.

| Message for June 28, 2020

Matthew 11:25-30

The Bible tells us that before Jesus began his public ministry he was a carpenter in the village of Nazareth.  Carpenters back then were jacks-of- all-trades and made all sorts of things including furniture, household items and even farm equipment such as the yokes for the oxen.  All of the yokes had to be custom made since the animals were of all different shapes and sizes.  First of all the animal would be taken to the workshop where it would be carefully measured.  The yoke was made and the ox would be brought back a second time to try it on.  Then the yoke was very carefully adjusted so that it would fit well; after all if the yoke rubbed the ox’s neck raw then the animal would be rendered useless.

According to an old story, Jesus was the best yoke-maker in all of Galilee and back then, just like now, most shops hung advertising signs outside to attract the attention of the passersby.  It is said that the sign outside of Jesus’ shop read “My yokes rest easy”.  Later on then when Jesus was a preacher, it was only natural that he referred to his former advertising slogan when he called upon the people to come to him.

When Jesus issued this great invitation he was in the middle of a dispute with his religious opponents, the Pharisees.  The Pharisees insisted that the religious laws and traditions were all important as it was only by obeying them that God could be both known and pleased.  The intent was good but by Jesus’ day the Pharisees had come up with hundreds of rules and regulations that governed virtually every aspect of daily behaviour including such as what food could be eaten, how far you could travel on the Sabbath and how a person was supposed to wash his or her hands.  Truly by Jesus’ day the law had become a heavy yoke around the necks of many people, a burden that was weighing them down and rubbing them raw.

This was the situation when Jesus issued his great invitation:  “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.”  In other words, “Come to me, all you who find the law and its demands such a burden.  Put your trust in me and you will find peace for your souls.”  Now this of course was pretty revolutionary and it’s certainly no wonder that by saying this Jesus got into trouble with the religious authorities.  Jesus’ invitation however was very popular back then and it hasn’t lost any of its appeal since; turn to Jesus and put your faith and trust in him.  If you do so you will be at peace with both yourself and the world around you.  Behind this deceptively simple invitation though lies three things; an assumption, a command and a promise.  The assumption of course is that we are in fact burdened or heavy laden.  Is this a valid assumption?

For many if not all of us, the answer is surely ‘yes’.  To be sure, we are not overburdened by the yoke of the religious law with its heavy if not impossible demands but how many other yokes do we have to carry?  The yoke of problems at work?  The yoke of problems at home?  The yoke of our own less than perfect health or that of someone close to us?  There is certainly the yoke of the times that we are now living through.  Even as things begin to return to some sense of normalcy, things aren’t really normal.  The pandemic with all of its upsets, impositions and the resulting implications may well feel like a heavy burden to be endured. Truly there are so many different kinds of yokes and they come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes too.  Whatever form they take though, they leave us feeling weary, overburdened and sometimes even overwhelmed.  Whenever we may feel this way though, we are commanded to do something.  We are commanded to turn our burdens over to Jesus but while this may sound easy enough, this is sometimes far easier said than done.

To turn to Christ means that we have faith in him and that we believe that he can and will help us.  Turning to Jesus also means that we are willing to commit everything to him without fear or reservation; all our hopes and fears.  Instead of worrying and clutching onto our burdens, we are to share our burdens with Jesus and then simply let them go.  In effect we say, “Here, I have done my best, I’m tired of worrying about it and now it’s all up to you.”

This can sound so easy and appealing but in practice it can be so hard to do.  Too often perhaps we hang onto our burdens, worries and fretting, thinking that we must or ought to be saying or doing something!  Nevertheless if we’ve done all that we can, want peace and to be relieved, then this is what we are commanded to do; to simply pass it over.  We are certainly not to act as Douglas Corrigan did.

Back in 1938 a pilot by the name of Douglas Corrigan took off from Brooklyn, New York with his destination being Long Beach, California.  A little over twenty-three hours later he touched down in Dublin Ireland and asked the officials:  “Is this Long Beach?”  His exploit earned him the nickname ‘Wrong-way Corrigan’ and this became his claim to fame.  Corrigan in fact became a celebrity of sorts; imagine leaving for California and ending up in Ireland!  How could anyone fly across the Atlantic Ocean instead of the United States and not realize it?  The answer was obvious; that his trip across the Atlantic had been carefully planned all along, that he had made the flight ‘by accident, but on purpose’.

By accident, but on purpose.  There are times in life when we too go the wrong way on purpose and then wonder why we are in such a predicament.  We say that we are turning everything over to Christ but we don’t and then wonder why we don’t experience his promised peace and relief.  If we want his promised rest and peace then we have to turn to Christ with no holding back.  Only then will the promise be fulfilled; not that he may give us rest, not that he might give us rest but rather that he will give us rest.  And how does Jesus fulfill this wonderful promise?

In many different ways.  He may for example simply rid us of our problem.  That troubling ailment or unresolved issue may simply disappear or take care of itself.  But while God can and indeed does sometimes make our troubles go away, I believe that more often than not he does something else; he gives us the strength to cope and persevere.  Many of us can look back at our lives and remember those times when we had to do something or undergo something that we thought we never could.  We felt that we weren’t strong enough or brave enough but then, with God’s help and that of our families, friends or perhaps even complete strangers, we did it.  God was helping us, even if we didn’t realize it.  So often in life we want the obvious and the spectacular but, as I have said many times before, this generally isn’t how God works.  More often than not God works so quietly that we only realize his presence and working in our lives years later.  Only when we look back do we realize that what seemed to be incredibly good luck or a marvelous coincidence was really something else altogether.  And this is how Christ more often than not answers those who accept his great invitation.  Perhaps this may help illustrate this.

Many years ago a contest was held in which artists were invited to paint a picture that depicted perfect peace.  Two paintings made it to the finals.  The first depicted a quiet mountain scene; it looked so peaceful and tranquil.  The second painting depicted a thundering waterfall with the branches of a birch tree bent over in the foam.  On the fork of one limb however sat a robin on its nest, all unperturbed.  The first painting certainly spoke of tranquility but the second painting won the prize because it showed the peace that may be found in the most turbulent of surroundings.  And as it was in that painting, so it is in life with Christ.

Most of the time Christ doesn’t grant us his peace by making the turbulence disappear.  Instead he gives us his peace and rest by giving us the strength to cope amidst all the turbulence and he does this by working through the events and the people around us.  This is how he, more often than not, fulfills his great invitation and promise:  “Come to me all you who labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”  And so he does.