Our Purpose and Mission Statement

Working to build God's dream. Help wanted!

We the people of Glen Rhodes United Church, are determined that our life together will be fully inclusive for people of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, differing abilities, ethnic origins and economic circumstances. Therefore, we hope that God will work in us so that we will be a sensitive congregation, willing to share our faith and gifts in language and worship, in the life and work of our church and wherever God calls us to do justice in the wider community, with compassion, fun and laughter

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

“Now hear this”  January 27, 2013  by Robin Wardlaw

Epiphany , Year C
Readings: (Nehemiah 8:1–3, 5–6, 8–10); Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 2:12–16; Luke 4:14–21

Sermon time. Somebody at the front gets up and says some things. There might be something funny, something topical, some words explaining a bible reading or two. There might be a story, maybe even something that draws a few tears. It could be dry, it could be interesting. Or dry to some and interesting to others. Sermo is Latin for word. Is a sermon the word of God? For you? For anybody? Sometimes? Usually? Ever?
We have a great collection of readings about the word today. Glimpses into other times and places, and how people thought about teachings and sermons. No. Pause that. We have stories about other times and places, how people thought about teachings and sermons. The story tellers have agendas. They are people of deep faith, and they want to paint things in a certain light. A preacher talking about preaching has an agenda. He or she is likely to be a person of faith, and he or she might want you to come to certain conclusions about sermons.
How do you know if you have heard a word from God? Is it always personal, or can communities agree on when the Word is uttered in their midst? This second alternative seems to be trickier, because what might seem like profound insight to you might seem like trite banalities to someone else.
Let’s review these stories from scripture. We didn’t hear the passage from Nehemiah read out this morning. It concerns the re-introduction of the Word to the reunited community in Jerusalem at the end of the sixty year exile in Babylon. One Babyonian emperor ruled by dragging the leadership of his conquered states to his capital and keeping them as hostages. Three generations later, another emperor ruled by showing his mercy, and letting the descendants of the original captives go home.
Back in Judah and Israel is ruin. The walls of the capitol are still broken down from the original invasion, and the once-lively spiritual and social life of the nation is also in tatters. Nehemiah the governor gathers everyone in a public square. They bring the scripture to Ezra, the priest and scribe, and others, and they read, from early morning until midday. Not just read, actually. According to the book of Nehemiah, “they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretationThey gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” The people are tremendously moved. They raised their hands, and said, “Amen, amen.” They bowed down to the ground. They wept at the teaching or preaching they heard that day.
“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ ...Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ (selections from Nehemiah 8:5–6, 8–10)
Quite a scene. Still moving twenty-seven centuries later. A word from God has been heard. We are to take it that the people were weeping with shame or embarrassment, not some other emotion. Hearing about what God wanted and expected from them and realizing how far from that they were. Don’t weep, though. Go home and feast. Make it a community dinner for those who have no food. “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Can you imagine anything similar happening these days? The weeping and falling down, I mean, not the community meal. That part is pretty easy to imagine. What, exactly, happened in that day? In a way, it doesn’t matter. This is the story later writers and editors wanted to tell. A devastated people hear the Word, take it to heart and are sent home to rejoice, party and share.
Seven hundred years after the end of the Exile, another story about the telling of the Word in the midst of the people. This time the foreign empire, Rome, has moved its emissaries in to the lands it controls, including Palestine, to rule them directly. Once again the Temple in Jerusualem was destroyed, but by Jesus’ day not only had it been rebuilt, but the giant reno Herod had begun was coming along nicely. The scene from Luke doesn’t take place anywhere near the Temple, though, not even in the capitol, but out in the boonies, in a synagogue. It doesn’t centre on a governor, or a chief priest, or scribe. Far from it. This guy just appears. No credentials except a powerful conviction about the Spirit of God, and a sense that the reign of God was oh-so-close. And he goes for it, quoting the radical mission for the people of God from late Isaiah–good news to the poor, release for captives, recovery of sight, the end of oppression. You know, heaven on earth. And then interpreting it: this day, Isaiah’s prophecy has come true, right here.
This story ends quite differently than the one in the book of Nehemiah. A word of God is not heard that day by the crowd. People don’t throw themselves on the ground or weep from shame. Kind of the opposite, actually. Someone disses Jesus after he teaches, and he manages to offend pretty well everyone with his comeback. You know what, he tells them, God can find people who do want to hear this if you don’t. This doesn’t win him friends or influence people, at least not in a good way. They want to throw him off a cliff, actually. Or so the story goes in Luke. Mark tells it quite differently. No cliff throwing, for example, just “offense” taken, and Jesus unable to do any “mighty work” there.
The story in Luke comes about fifty or sixty years after Jesus’ life. The story tellers have an agenda, of course. They are interpreting. They are trying to generate in a reader enthusiasm for Jesus like the enthusiasm people who heard him teach had during his life. Well, not these neighbours in Nazareth. Other people. The gospel writers are trying to fend off criticisms of Christianity, too, criticisms that had grown up over those intervening years. Does it still work for you all these generations later? Do the gospel stories evoke a sense of this person, and of the importance, the excitement of the message? Or does it take an interpreter, a preacher to bring it alive for you? It’s complicated, isn’t it?

We haven’t quite finished our review. Let’s check out what Paul is doing here, near the end of his long letter to the church at Corinth. This letter comes in the early 50s, maybe twenty years after Jesus’ life. The gospel of Mark is about twenty years in the future. Different context than the Nehemiah reading, different context than the synagogue in Nazareth. Corinth is not in Palestine, for one thing. It’s in Achaia, what we call southern Greece. Paul first of all gives his greeting. Then he calls on community members to knock off the internal spat about identity–“I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Christ.” “Is Christ divided?,” he asks them. He’s getting ready to deal with matters of doctrine and ethics, helping a very young Christian community figure out how to be Christian. But he opens with a preface about how we know what we know, a passage about the Spirit: the gifts of the Spirit, how the Spirit joins us all together. Important to hear for a congregation that was experiencing division.
How do we know what we know? Not human wisdom, he says. The Spirit of God which understands the thoughts of God. Finally he gets right down to it, “...we have the mind of Christ.” And when he says “we” here, I think he means “I.” “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.” (1 Corinthians 2:12-13)
“Interpreting spiritual things.” There it is again. I was hitch-hiking once, many years ago, when that kind of thing was still common, and I was much younger. I got a lift from a man a little younger than me, towing a trailer full of empty mink cages. I was a student for ministry at the time, and he was a fervent Christian and bible literalist. We were soon sparring over the bible. “It’s the inerrant Word of God. All we have to do is follow it.” “It needs to be interpreted. It was formed in one context, and we live in a different context.” “No.” “Yes.” Finally I pointed out that he had both hands and both eyes. I said, “I can’t believe you haven’t sinned with your eyes or your hands. Doesn’t Jesus say you have to get rid of the part that has sinned.” “Oh, he doesn’t mean actually cut off your hand, or pluck out your eye.” “No,” I said, “I don’t think so. We have to interpret that saying in the bible.” A little light seemed to go on for him. We all interpret, it’s just how we go about it, and whether we do it consciously.
Paul is trying to process the events and stories of Jesus’ life, and give them some kind of narrative, put them in some kind of context. Jesus was full of power, but then he was killed by Roman authorities. That’s not how the Messiah story is supposed to go. What to we make of this if we find the Christ event in Jesus? Paul is claiming authority to do this. It’s hard to get more authority than the mind of Christ. It just doesn’t get any bigger than that.
Wouldn’t we love to have the mind of Christ? Wouldn’t we love to have the capacity to know what others needed, and how to reassure them of their great worth in the world, their capacity to love others. Wouldn’t we love to be able to stand up to the people who are taking advantage of others, exploiting others, violating others and show them how their behaviour is costing everyone, even themselves?
You’ve heard many sermons before, most of you. You know this is the part where the preacher says, you do have the mind of the Christ. And you’re right. That’s what I’m going to say. You do have the mind of Christ. Sorry I couldn’t be more original, but it’s the kind of message that needs repeating and repeating. Where two of three of you are gathered together in my name, there am I also. You remember that saying. That doesn’t mean that when two or three people are gathered together there are actually three or four. No. It means when two or three people are gathered together in Christ’s name, they’re gathered. Together. Responding to the Christ event. They are in relationship, just like the three persons of the Trinity are in relationship. But a sermon about the Trinity will have to be another time.
A modern version of “where two or three are gathered together,” is “none of us is as smart as all of us.” Something new, something better happens when we put our minds together to ask Christ-like questions. Our gifts are added together. Different perspectives emerge. Sure it takes longer. We have trust to build, perspectives to share, differences to work out when we gather together. That all makes for better analysis, better decision making, and teaches patience to boot. This all makes for the mind of Christ. Paul can’t have had the mind of Christ by all himself. He never knew Jesus in person. He got his information about Jesus somewhere. He had teachers, mentors, preachers, colleagues; women and men who showed him a new depth of love that won him over completely.
If Council agrees, and we go to do mission redevelopment as a community this spring, we do it together. With the mind of Christ–the thing that happens when we gather in Christ’s name to listen and look and meditate deeply on, what does Paul call them: spiritual things. Things like fairness and kindness, sharing and creation and the great worth of each person.
And where does that lead us? John Chrysostom was a fourth century theologian and archbishop of Constantinople. Chrysostom is a nickname in Greek. So he was John the Golden Mouthed. Good preacher, apparently, and down on abuse of authority, both clerical and secular. Here’s John on the whole point of the church. “This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good ¼ for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for neighbours.”
Caring for neighbours. You do that. The byproduct is that it makes you imitators of Christ. And that’s meant in a good way. Not imitation Christs. Heaven forbid. Imitators of Christ. Whole different ball of wax.
We started out talking about words and the Word in stories, old stories, from all around the eastern Mediterranean. About sermons and interpretation, and who gets to utter a Word of God. We’ve come around to action, the seeking of the common good, caring for neighbours. Who was it said, “Preach the gospel without ceasing. Use words if you must.” Francis of Assisi. Enough words, then, about not needing words. Follow the path you have been given. Remember to share your path, join your path with your sisters and brothers in the faith, because in the process of this act of intense humility, you will together have the mind you seek, the mind you, your neighbour and the world need today, tomorrow and always.

“New beginnings”  A meditation  by Robin Wardlaw -  Evening Service  January 23, 2013

Epiphany, Year C
Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 98Luke 9:23-25

Renewal is one of our spiritual tasks. And privileges. Much of our life is continuity, but the bible holds out this hope, that a person can begin again. Gym owners know this. They see their attendance zoom up on January 2nd, and then begin to drop off. By the end of the month, or early February, activity is back to its usual level. Getting in shape spiritually is similar to getting in shape physically. It takes a decision, and then commitment. And of course, perseverance.
The prophet somehow understands this about God, that God is a god of second chances, new beginnings. In a moment, we’re going to think and then talk about ourselves–where we want to let something go, start something up. So it’s good to reflect about covenant, and new covenant. Because it’s not as if the people had no covenant with their Maker and Redeemer. Covenants abound in the Old Testament. After the garden, with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob, on the mountain during the Exodus, at the Jordan River before they crossed into Israel. One after another. God is a mother who just can’t turn her back on her children, even if they have been dreadful.
And they were dreadful. There are a few parallels around the world at present with what was going on then, but you have to look for them. Yet there is this slow drumbeat of forgiveness and fresh starts. And we need to hear that, most of us. We love to hear it. Acts that result in suffering or dying–the opposite of the great dream for humankind and the planet–do not condemn us to suffering or death. Unless we let them.
Jesus pegs it with his analysis of us. Sometimes the prospect of gaining the whole world is just too blinding for us. We can’t turn away from our selfishness or our self-centredness. We can’t see anything that looks better. Or the cost of continuing on our path. Tonight is a time to slow down and look around, to listen to our better angels, to hold our ambitions up against the good news of Christ for comparison.
So what do you need to start, or stop, in your life at the moment. How are you experiencing the call of the Spirit right now? What baggage can you put down and leave here, and is there some part of Jesus’ joyous mission of selflessness you long to pick up? Give yourself a full minute to think and pray. Then turn to one other person and listen to what’s on their heart. Get ready to tell what’s on your heart, what new thing the Spirit may be trying to write on your heart in this season of new beginnings.
Deep under the frost, roots are storing up the life that will rise in the trees and bushes in just a few months. Under the ice, there is life, waiting for the lakes and streams to melt. Then little creatures will make it to the surface, spread out wings they have never had before, and take to the air. What is wanting to bud out in your life? What wings are there, ready to spread out for soaring?

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

“A Feast of Unity”  January 20, 2013  by Robin Wardlaw

Epiphany 3, Year C
Readings: Micah 6:6-8; Psalm 133; (1 Corinthians 12:1–11); John 2:1–11

The church in Johannesburg was warm. It was fall there when I visited, but it wasn’t just that. The people were warm. Maybe it was my host, who has worshipped there most of his life, and is well known and respected throughout the city. But I don’t think it was only that. They are just warm people. Their accents were wonderful, and everything felt very familiar in worship even though I was so far from home. I was even asked to say a few words.
A week later, on the way home from Africa, the church in Amsterdam was cold. It was a raw spring day there, true, and I had become used to African temperatures. But it wasn’t just that. First, the ushers weren’t going to let me in. There was an exhibit of photos hanging on the walls of the church, but visitors to the exhibit were not allowed in until after the service. When I got in, I discovered that the building wasn’t heated. The floor consisted of worn stones covering graves six, seven hundred years old. The service was in Dutch. And it seemed very long when I could understand almost nothing. Finally we all moved from the massive body of the church up into the huge choir loft for communion. When I went to walk I discovered my legs were stiff from the cold. The person beside me showed me how it worked as the bread and cup came along the row. No one asked me to speak during the service that day, luckily, because I don’t think I could have managed it through chattering teeth. There was wonderful coffee afterwards. That and some good conversation warmed me up at last.
You have had your own experiences of different kinds of churches, different kinds of Christians. Wouldn’t it be wonderful simply to listen to stories about the places we have worshipped, the many people of faith we have known. Perhaps another year we’ll do that.
What do we have in common, all us Christians? What unity do we have with Orthodox Christians in Russia as the President plays on nostalgia, and uses the church to try to give him legitimacy? What is our bond with Christians on low lying Pacific islands where the waters are gradually rising? They are leaving home and moving to Australia, many of them, as island life becomes more and more risky, and there aren’t enough jobs for their young people.  How can we be in solidarity with Dalit Christians who put together so much of our service today? They struggle with a pervasive, stubborn class structure.
It is pleasant when we get along–“dwell together in unity,” as the psalmist puts it. Real unity is deeper than pleasantries, of course. Unity doesn’t happen because everyone puts on their best smile and works to be polite and agreeable. Christians across the world agree on a few things and disagree on so many. Congregations sometimes struggle for unity. Families. Couples. Unity is not consensus, though. It is not one voice, one opinion, one response to the good news of Jesus Christ to which we must all consent. Unity is a feast, a feast with several courses: justice, first, then kindness, then humility, as the prophet knew so long ago. Our unity with First Nations congregations is strained as long as the hangover from colonialism and oppression persist. Our oneness with very conservative Christians is limited as long cruelty towards others for their sex or orientation goes on. No justice yet. We may be less open to people around us who are different somehow. Not enough kindness. Our solidarity with anyone is at risk as long as we harbour feelings of superiority. Not enough humility. Justice, kindness, humility: they are all needed in their different ways.
Does unity depend on familiarity? There are over two billion of us Christian, so it better not. There are many, many expressions of the faith with which we will never be familiar, many sisters and brothers in the faith we will never meet. I heard a story recently from Reena Singha, a friend of this congregation. She was attending a Christian arts festival in a city in southeastern China. Other participants were local, from a rural part of the province. Apparently they only use their legs to get places, so they walked up and down the endless tall hills in that part of the world all the way to the event and back. At the festival, they sang the Hallelujah chorus. Their ancestors had been taught the whole thing by a missionary generations before, and they had preserved it, this noble, rousing oratorio written in England by a displaced German composer and first performed in Ireland. Now it came to life a world away, sung by people who spoke Mandarin. So many strange and wonderful stories we will never know, stories of heroism, selflessness, determination and goodness inspired by the story of Jesus Christ.
What to do. Remember all those millions you have never met, whose joys and trials we can barely imagine, in your prayers. Pray that they may have both strength and grace for their struggles for respect in a class-based society, say, care for children orphaned by AIDS in societies where sexuality is repressed, or climate justice where rising tides are changing ways of life that go back many millennia. Work for unity with the sisters and brothers God has given closer at hand, where we might be able to live out the words of the prophet. We already have the table and everything else we might need. Now we need to prepare a feast within us. No, scratch that. We need to let the holy mystery of Love prepare a feast within us. Maybe there are some side dishes, but the main courses are the ones Micah laid out so long ago: justice, kindness and humility.
And for the wine? We have this vintage that is always having its best year, always ready to light up faces and turn an ordinary event into a party. There’s even a story about him and wine involving the ordinary and the out of the ordinary. This cup is heady stuff, intoxicating but with no nasty after effects. But it comes with a warning on the label. This feast can get you into trouble with people who don’t go for justice, or kindness, or humility. When you eat and drink here, you are Dalit, you are First Nations, you are finding sea water rising higher and higher into your home, your business, your whole land. You are putting yourself in the place of those with whom you may have clashed, seeking to see the world from their point of view. If you come to feast here anyway, despite the risks, you go away changed, transformed, perhaps with a certain famous chorus running through your head.  

Monday, 14 January 2013

“Wading right in" - January 13, 2013 by Robin Wardlaw

Epiphany 2, Year C     Baptism of Jesus
Readings: (Isaiah 43:1–7); Psalm 29; Acts 8:14–17; Luke 3:15–17, 21–22

‘But now,’ thus says God,
    the One who created you, O Jacob,
    the One who formed you, O Israel:
‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers,
     they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’” (Isaiah 43:1-2)

Who needs to hear this? Who is full of fear? Will this passage and others like it ever become unnecessary, relics of a time when people had to pass through waters, so to speak, or walk through fire? This is from Isaiah 43, the passage suggested for today from the Hebrew Testament that we didn’t hear earlier. Somebody was passing through waters, or walking through fire, or felt as if they were. Will we be able to make a museum display some day of human cruelty and oppressive regimes to tell children how things once were, in the dim past, in the bad old days?
That’s what we work and pray for here all the time. We dream great dreams. The closest we can get to a society where no is fearing right now is worship–a little time out from the hurly burly. Everyone has a role to play, we sing–sometimes in unison, sometimes in harmony, we speak and we listen, we move together, as if in a dance. Sometimes there is food, sometimes we welcome a newborn, sometimes we say goodbye to a person who has died as we release them into the river of love. And to be fair, we don’t have to go everywhere with a weapon on the other six days of the week. We don’t live in places with no windows, or bars all over them. Here, that is. Now. Although women are thinking to themselves, that’s easy for you to say. And women elsewhere...well we are hearing a fresh batch of stories these days, and the resistance that is growing up in India to traditional sexism and misogyny.
It’s taken thousands of years, but we have come so far. And there is still such a long way to go. In the meantime, we have to wade in, right in. We have the example of those who have gone before us, fighting for rights, working to change opinions. They had the example of others. Some people back when had the example of Jesus. He had the example of...? His parents? The prophets? John the Baptist? Other contemporaries? He left us no journal, no diary, no autobiography that would help us figure this one out. We love him and these stories about him. We keep telling his story, and finding oceans of meaning in a few pages of gospels.
A person goes out into the wilderness summoned by something. Why? A gutsy guy is there calling his society’s leaders to account, calling for a change of heart, a change of direction. He’s not willing to work his way into the hierarchy, compromise principles to get ahead, hope to make powerful friends who could help him achieve a bigger piece of the pie, make peace with a system that is serving so many so badly and so few so well. And John’s message resonates with Jesus. Jesus has looked around and seen people passing through floods, walking through fires set by others, struggling just to eat, saddled by debt and made to feel like... Well, you’ve probably had that feeling. Maybe it feels like fire and flood right now for you.
Luke tells about a dove, and a voice after Jesus’ baptism. I’m not sure what you would have seen and heard if you had been there. Something happens. Some kind of spirit gets into him, if not that moment, shortly afterwards. Whatever happened in those early days beforehand, and at the time of his baptism Jesus ends up creating a powerful message himself. One that still resonates with us, one that still generates powerful opposition. Like all radical messages, Jesus’ message gets watered down. You can see it through the gospels, the earlier one, Mark, being more blunt, and the later ones getting more and more smooth. The process continues. Not everyone who calls themselves Christian these days shares Jesus’ critique of power and wealth. Not every building with a cross on the outside bears a resemblance to the Crucified One on the inside.
What did Jesus leave behind at the Jordan? What did Jesus get when he went to the river? What insight did he get, what commitment did he make there that hadn’t been sufficiently focussed before his baptism? How fully formed was he when he dried himself off, fastened his robe on again, said goodbye to John, and went back west. Luke goes on to talk about forty days in the wilderness. Jesus needed to take a deep breath. Then he began teaching about the heart of the bible message, the heart of God. The way Luke tells it, it didn’t happen all at once.
The passage we heard from Acts is interesting that way. People in Samaria have been baptized, but that’s not enough. There is a stage two for them, and somehow it didn’t come with the water alone. “As yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 8:16) Only baptized. Quite a visit from Peter and John. They leave the capital, and head north, about 60 kilometres due north to Samaria, in what we call the West Bank. Hands on heads and presto, the Holy Spirit is communicated. Sounds simple. But the story is more complicated, not to mention the process of receiving the Spirit. The story is a warning, actually, involving a man named Simon, a magician, a great self-promoter. Check out Acts, chapter 8. And bear with me: I’ll tell you that story briefly.
Simon has been dazzling the crowds in Samaria, it seems, with his magic and his power. Like many others there, he gets hooked by Philip’s preaching, and gets baptized along with people who used to think of him, Simon, as God’s anointed. Then Peter and John show up to bring the Holy Spirit. Simon says, I’ll give you money for that power, the power to inspire people like that. Oh, oh. Peter is blunt in turning down Simon and his money. This here power ain’t for sale. Or something like that. What Acts actually says Peter tells him is, “You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore of this wickedness of yours,” and pray to be forgiven. Simon finally gets the message, and asks to be spared the fate Peter has foretold for him.
The key phrase in there is “your heart is not right before God.” What does that look like, and who gets to say whether one’s heart is or isn’t right before God? Peter tells Simon, “For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” Ouch. The chains of wickedness, I get that. Simon is trying to buy spiritual power, to grow his product to feather his nest or something. But the gall of bitterness? What’s that about? I sense we’re not getting the whole story in this short story about him in Acts. Peter is sensing something Acts is not telling us about this guy.
Leave Simon aside for now. Back to our main plot. The moral of the story seems to be that bitterness and wickedness get in the way of the Spirit. Now what? What if we fall into that category of people who are baptized but still bogged down by bitterness, say? Who will come to release us from the gall, the wickedness, whatever, and let us get right with God, break through into a Spirit-filled life? Where are John and Peter when you need them.
These stories are full of hope for us. First, the prophet Isaiah doesn’t hear the Ancient of Days saying, “Because I love you, you won’t have to pass through waters or walk through fire.” No, the message is when you pass through water or walk through fire, I will be with you. The waters won’t overwhelm you, the fires won’t consume you. This is so important when it feels like we’re drowning, or being singed by fire. Second, the Acts reading tells us our spiritual growth doesn’t have to happen all at once. There may be stages. So on the one hand, don’t be discouraged with your relationship with the holy at the moment. There’s room for growth. And on the other hand, don’t be satisfied with your relationship with the holy at the moment. There’s room for growth.
And finally the gospel. We don’t know what Jesus was like when he went to the Jordan. But he waded right in. This was the pattern throughout his ministry. People are hungry, thousands of them? Wade right in there. People in a crowd are needy, hurting, possessed by the wrong spirit? Wade right in. Get faith by being faithful. Receive the Spirit by behaving in a spirited way. Trust, even when the waters are rising, or the smell of smoke is getting stronger. Who created you, after all? Who formed you? “You are my beloved Daughter and Son. With you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22, altered)

Thursday, 10 January 2013

“Sunglasses at night” -  January 6, 2013   by Robin Wardlaw

Epiphany, Year C
Readings: Isaiah 60:1–6; Psalm 72:1–7, 10–14Ephesians 3:1–12Matthew 2:1–12

Total darkness is hard to find around here most of the time. The chance to appreciate the Milky Way over head on a clear night, for instance. You probably know the stories from one of the great blackouts of recent years–how some  city kids looked up at the night sky and asked, What are those? Seeing the stars for the first time in their lives. Light pollution is worrisome. It’s devastating for birds that migrate at night, but it’s hard on all of us. The sleep people tell us that light affects our rest. What we need is total darkness.
How much light is there at night? I had the experience again the other night of watching a car merge onto the highway with no lights on. Eventually the driver figured out the signals from other cars and turned on the lights, but was getting on fine without headlights. Sometimes I have been the one getting the highbeams flashed at me. We have solved the problem of the darkness, and then some. Not everywhere, of course. Not for everyone.
Because we haven’t solved the challenge of the light. Or I should say, lights. Other things that appear to illuminate reality, other things that seem to show us the way. I’m not talking just about present company, but the larger human family. “Arise, shine,” says the prophet, “for your light has come.” Oh, really?, we say, as we reach for dark glasses against the glare. Life can be a bit like centre field on one of those professional football fields or baseball diamonds, with blazing light coming at us from every angle. Some of us even wear  sunglasses at night. My title is a shameless attempt to borrow coolness from Corey Hart’s 1983 song. What about the guy in the song, anyway? Why is he shading his eyes? He’s in love, and trying to protect himself from his beloved’s power over him. I think. The meaning of the lyrics is not completely clear to me.
This light, the one the prophet is talking about, the one the psalmist sings, is different. This light is not as bright as some of the other, louder lights, maybe. This light may flicker. It may only move at walking speed. The prophet was talking to people who had been beaten up, dragged away in chains for three generations, a people who had been sitting in darkness for a long time. They are going to be a destination for the world. Others will flock to their society because of God’s glory beaming upon them. And what glory is this?
That’s were the psalmist picks up on the theme and fills in the details. It won’t be for their beaches or their sports teams or their architecture or the soundness of their banks that notables will come from far off places to pay homage. No, it will be because of the caring relationship between the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor. The king, an idealized king, sets the tone:
For he delivers the needy when they call,
   the poor and those who have no helper.

He has pity on the weak and the needy,
   and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
   and precious is their blood in his sight.
How many days would you travel to visit such a place? How many travel points would you cash in? The image of a land of great caring is still appealing, even after all these years. Appealing to many. Not all, it seems, judging by our willingness in Western societies to rebuild the class system.
King Herod wasn’t so worried about the radiance of the society over which he presided. His plan was to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem on a grand scale so that people would come to his land as tourists, to be dazzled by a structure even bigger than the temple to Diana at Ephesus. And then the story tells us he heard about the birth of a rival. Not just any rival, and certainly not one approved by Rome, but appointed by God. Sedition, in other words.
How do we do this? The modern day equivalent might be a casino. Something to get the local economy going by getting people to come and leave their shekels behind. How could that be a bad thing? We may get some say in the decision in our day, unlike those long ago residents of Jerusalem whose houses were knocked down to clear the way for a huge new structure. But wait, some will say, the income from a big new tourist attraction will fund pity on the weak and needy, save lives. And the billionaires who are pushing the idea of a casino are blinded by the glare off all the profits to come for generations to come. It turns out casinos are neighbourhood wreckers. Money goes into them instead of going into smaller businesses in their vicinity, and new casualties of capitalism are created.
We can’t paper over the way we set ourselves up. We can’t use bandaids made of money to cover the deep wounds of inequality. We can’t let ourselves be blinded by spotlights that only illuminate part of our world, or shed a rosy light on something that is not in our long term interests. But we do. We do the same thing with ourselves and those around us. So many distractions and excuses for not having a good look at our own lives and relationships.
It’s never-ending, this search for spiritual authenticity, what the bible calls righteousness. If only it ended with the discovery of some infant in an unlikely bassinette. The newborn is in there, inside us, and out there, everywhere. We need the right eye wear. Sunglasses? Maybe not. Microscope? Telescope? Night vision goggles? Northrup Frye used to talk about the double vision of the bible. It saw the way things really were even while it sees the way they can be and will be, all at the same time. So perhaps we need bifocals.
The search continues. Sometimes we are pursuing it with more energy, sometimes less. But it won’t leave us alone. We can’t just turn our camel around, flick on the headlights, and head back where we came from. Thank goodness. We’re destined to be dissatisfied year after year, because we won’t settle for anything until neighbours and nations come to the light, and seekers come to the brightness of our dawn, to paraphrase the prophet. Last word goes to Corey Hart: “I wear my sunglasses at night / So I can, so I can / See the light that's right before my eyes.” Not sure how that works, exactly, but you get what he means.