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

Monday, 23 September 2013

“Doctor Dog”   Robin Wardlaw   September 22, 2013 

Creation Time 3, Pentecost 18, Year C
Readings: Jeremiah 8:18—9:1; Psalm 79:1–91; (Timothy 2:1–7); Luke 16:1–13 

Dogs don’t seem to be able to conceal their feelings, their moods. Angry, sad, happy, expectant? It shows, on their face, in their stance, their body, and their tails. Cats, in my experience, aren’t quite as obvious as dogs. Maybe they aren’t having as many feelings. Maybe they’re determined not to show them. Maybe I haven’t met enough cats. We had a couple of dogs when I was growing up, and a cat. Since then our family has had a dog, a cat, a guest cat, a guest bird that got away, a hamster, several gold fish in rapid succession, and a guinea pig. Actually the guinea pig turned into seven guinea pigs not long after we got her. None of those other pets showed much emotion. Or thinking, come to think of it. But we loved them anyway.
Pets can come to play a big role in our lives. It’s a bit rare to find a human companion who thinks you are the most generous, smart, exciting and funny person in the world. At least for more than a little while. Pets just go on loving us, needing us, enjoying us all their years. On the other hand, it’s a bit rare to find a human companion who chews up your footwear, terrifies visitors at the door, covers them with unwanted hair, or goes to the bathroom in spots other than the bathroom. Pets, too, have their faults, in other words.
But how healing pets can be for two-legged creatures such as us. This is the time of year when we pay extra attention to our furry, feathered and finned companions at church. Our bible readings focus on healing and pity and mercy today. And money, as well, but we’re going to mostly ignore that topic for now. The bible talks about money a good deal, so we can pick it up another time.
Jeremiah is asking where the vitamin E oil is, the therapist, the relief for a people who are sick at heart. Gilead was famous for its balsam resin, its balm. So when he asks is there no balm in Gilead, everyone knows the answer is yes. But the people are hurting like crazy, and the doctor seems to be out. The psalm writer wonders if God is just mad at the people, and how long will that go on. “Do not hold the sins of past generations against us; let your compassion come swiftly.” (Ps. 79: 8) I wonder who bad things were when that was written. Jesus is telling a story about mercy. OK, mercy and cunning. I’m not sure I understand this story about the shrewd manager, or why he told it. Is it about forgiveness: in order to be forgiven, forgive others? In order to receive mercy, offer mercy? Or is it really about money somehow? It’s a tough one.
We can all be astute accountants of the hurts we receive. We can judge their severity, remember hurts forever, build up explanations of why a person has done us wrong. The hurts we have caused, though, divide us. Some people seem oblivious to the pain we might be causing others. And others have an exaggerated sense of how wounding their words, looks, silences, tone can be, always double-checking the impact they might be having on those around them.
How to get to that serene place where we can speak our truth clearly without any hidden barbs or blaming, where we can hear others’ pain as their pain, without letting it sink so deep into our souls? Where we can be more like the animals, in other words. This is one of the goals of religion, certainly one of the goals of Christianity. I want to transcend myself. I don’t want to be a slave to my passions, a captive of instinctive responses. I want to think before I speak, pray before I speak back. I want to feel others’ pain, but in a way that allows me to care or give them space as the situation requires, not become paralyzed on the one hand or over-doing it on the other, taking on their pain, or trying too hard to help.
What about the places that are full of pain for various reasons? How will a country such as Syria get peace? The Syrian boys coming to school in refugee camps are full of anger and violence. They can’t concentrate. Aid workers say this is different than other groups they have assisted. The violence has been prolonged, vicious, neighbour against neighbour. How many psychologists, how many dog doctors or other pets will be required in places? How much hurt will traumatized people inflict on others if they don’t get help? “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: ‘Is God not in Zion? Is her Ruler not in her?’” (Jeremiah 18:18-19) Has chaos won they must be asking in Syria, Nairobi, Bagdad and so many other places this morning? Is there no one who can offer safety, sanctuary, some relief from the madness? We are very lucky to live where and when we do. Other places, other times have been, are living hell for the people there.
Our imaginations are our best friends and our worst enemies. We can imagine offering help to people we’ve never met and who aren’t related, and then proceed to set up a hospital, or Meals on Wheels, or an organization like Habitat for Humanity. We can also imagine people not part of our group, tribe, religion as our deadly enemy, and set up camps to kill them all. Or go into a public place, a workplace or shopping mall or place of worship with weapons to kill unarmed civilians. And this makes some sort of sense to the perpetrators. Humans are unlike other animals that way.
Pets are a blessing because they remind of us the basics. Eat, drink, play, sleep. They slow us down. They demand our attention. They depend on us, bring out the caring part of us. In these few weeks of Creation Time, we are reflecting on our place in creation, our relationship with all the creatures, not just the ones we feed and look after. We are trying to get it right—not to be the centre of everything, and not nothing, or worse than nothing, a harmful element in the world. It’s an interesting time to be alive, as we try to figure out how to handle god-like powers over other species, over eco-systems, over the whole biosphere. Do we want power over? Is the planet mainly a source of food and entertainment for humans with status? Are we entitled to do what we want, no matter the consequences for other critters? Or are we a nuisance, a plague on the planet. Neither.
We are being called to account, as if we owed something to one greater than us like that mid-level manager in Jesus’ story. How do we respond? Can we figure out how to cut those with less power some slack so that we can answer for ourselves? What balm will soothe the human tendency to chew things up, to pee and poop everywhere, polluting land, water and air, to kill harmless creatures like an out-of-control. We gather together to remind ourselves of our creation in the image of the holy, our calling, and the source of our peace. And asking for the same blessing on our friends with no words.
Jeremiah asks the question, Is there a balm in Gilead. The spiritual answers the question. There is a balm to cure the sin sick soul. Our call is to consider the question and sing out, live out our own answer.

Monday, 16 September 2013

“Looking for a planet”   Robin Wardlaw   September 15, 2013

Creation Time 2, Pentecost 17, Year C
Readings: Jeremiah 4:11–12, 22–28; Psalm 14; (1 Timothy 1:12–17); Luke 15:1–10

Creation time. We’re thinking about our relationship with it all.
In our prayers later, we will remember the people of Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. Romania was in the news the other day. A Canadian company has arranged to go there, take the tops off four mountains and dig a huge open pit mine for gold in Romania. There’s a rumor that bribes were received by highly placed elected officials. They have smoothed the way for the project, but now popular resistance has sprung up. It seems the plan is to use cyanide to extract the gold from the rock. People are frightened about their environment, and angry that their resources are being sold cheaply, with little lasting benefit for their country.
The Canadian mining company may sue Romania for loss of income if the government listens to the protesters and stops the project. The nation may suffer greatly if it goes ahead. And a long ago prophet is forecasting how it will be on the earth when creation is no longer filled with the sacred. And a long ago teacher is talking about things that have gone missing. The bible keeps proving to be relevant, even after all these centuries.
How do we get ourselves into these situations over and over? Oil and spills. Agriculture and disease, soil problems and runoff. Mining, cave-ins and poisonous tailings. Forestry and clear cutting. We can always think of ways to do things more cheaply, on a bigger scale, faster. We start to lick our lips about bigger profits, or beating the competition. We don’t seem to anticipate the down side of our proposals until it’s too late. And even after the problems become apparent, the lure of money is very, very great.
Jeremiah is the prophet. He has things to say about policies of his time. His profound sense is that they are not consistent with the original vision for his people. So, he says, a hot wind is coming. Not a breeze that might be helpful with the harvest, but a whirlwind, a destructive force. He imagines the effect in stages: on the earth and the heavens, the mountains and hills, the birds and crops, the cities full of people. And finally: “The whole land shall be a desolation.” (Jeremiah 4:27) When you think about it, he’s going through the days of creation: earth and heavens, mountains and hills, birds, crops, people. Only the oceans are missing from the list. What happens when people are foolish, doing evil, not knowing how to do good? The earth shall mourn. We sin, and all earth pays.
And if Earth is lost, where will we will find another planet? The teacher is Jesus, and he has these vivid images to make people think. If Earth is lost, where should the creator go looking for it? Should she sweep the whole galaxy in the hopes that a renewed, fresh Earth will turn up? Should he go looking in the craggy parts of the universe for the beautiful little planet that got separated from the sacred?
It’s Creation Time, week 2. Creation Time is a new addition to the church calendar. Christians are thinking we need a very specific time to focus in on a very big issue. We could go on and on about the trouble we are giving to the planet. A mine in Romania is just one example. What if we thought instead about how a church could respond to a challenge such as this?
What is our purpose here? What call do we hear? How do we respond to it? This congregation has provided leadership for a long while. Members here have been willing to buck some conventions, walk the road less travelled over the last few decades. You have built a house of welcome and inclusion, although that project is never finished. You have given citywide leadership on Pride issues, especially making the United Church present in the big, annual parade. Make that nation wide leadership.
Now we are discerning the congregation’s call. What is our sense of what God from us now, in these coming few years? Last week we used hymn choices to get at this task of discerning. This week we’re going to have another Holy Conversation, same general topic, this time using scripture. You may have a sense of the kind of church you are being challenged to be at this point in the history of the planet. How can we make a place on the one hand that feels all warm and cozy for people who are bruised or friendless, let’s say, and on the other hand prophetic about the sins of humankind? Prophets often have to be the opposite of warm and cozy. Whether we’re talking about our life together in here, or our response to the world out there, we want a church that stretches us, asks for our best selves.
We can’t go on long like this, with our energy use, our resource consumption, our treatment of the oceans, the air, the land. The hot wind is already blowing, more on some places than others, of course. Fresh water shortages in the Caribbean, rising sea levels for some low lying Pacific island nations, melting tundra and sea ice in the north. A dangerous level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere already, and we’re not even slowing down the rise, never mind turning it around.
There’s a parable about a village by a river. It’s not in the bible, so I’m afraid you can’t use it after church. A woman goes down to the river to get water one morning and finds a man at the edge, wounded, in a fight, it looks like, barely alive. She calls for help and her neighbours come running. They get him to safety and bind his wounds. He is slowing recovering when someone finds another person in the water, just as badly off. This time they’re a little more organized with the assistance. It happens again, and again. They get really good at hauling people out of the river and patching them up. Little committees, jobs assigned, supplies stock piled in anticipation, that sort of thing. Finally someone looked up the river and said, What are they doing to each other up there? Maybe we should go find out. The why questions can be the tough ones, and they’re usually the ones with the most interesting answers.
Why are the rules seemingly so tilted in favour of people who want to get gold out of the ground and against the people who live there now and the rivers and the animals and the land? Why are we overfishing? Why is it cheaper to spew poison into the air than to make and use cleaner, safer technologies? Why do people need food from a food bank in a wealthy nation such as this? Or any nation? Pulling people in trouble out of the river is important. We do it well and we’re always trying to figure out how to improve. We have hundreds of stories from downstairs to tell about how people end up in the river, and a fair insight into what this costs us as a society. As a congregation, are we supposed to go up any rivers to find out what’s going upstream?
We’re a church. We come at things a little differently than other organizations. We look to scripture for insight into why things are the way they are, and how we should live our lives. That became very clear last week during our hymn discussion, and I suspect it will be just as powerful and provocative again today. Psalm 14, for instance. A poet looking around her fearfully, indignantly, perhaps even lovingly, and probing for reasons about what’s going on upriver.
“The foolish have spoken in their heart, and said, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt; they do abominable things…all have gone astray, all are corrupted.” (Psalm 14:1, 3) Corrupt, astray. They were created for something else, but turned away from it, strayed. This is theology. Judeo-Christian anthropology, actually. A view of people rooted in a very deep hope. “Have they no knowledge, all those who do evil? They devour my people like so much bread, and do not pray to God.” (v. 4) I think the poet means knowledge of God, and therefore faith, humility, compassion, a conscience. “God is on the side of the righteous. Do not mock the hope of the poor, for God is their refuge.” (vv. 5, 6) More theology. A view of God this time. God is not neutral, carefully staying out of human injustice like the Greek gods of the time, but on the side of those poor souls who wash up on river banks needing assistance.
The topic, the issue for us as humans in the 21st century could be anything—environment, the economy, how we do government and make decisions that affect all creation, you name it. And our task at the moment, our task always, is to do theology, to imagine a church that is responding creatively, purposefully, playfully, provocatively. If someone is lost, God is looking for them, Jesus says in this lost and found section of the bible. And we can go farther and ask our world why they keep getting lost, those child labourers, those endangered species, those villagers in the mountains whose world is about to rocked by yet another Canadian mining company moiling for gold.
Our purpose. Will it be easy to talk to those people up the river who keep bashing others, who seem to have lost their sense of the sacred? Will they respond calmly to pleas for calm, for peace? What if the people downstream and the people upstream all turn out to be us?

 

 

 

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

“Centering, opening, raising” Robin Wardlaw September 8, 2013

 Creation Time 1, Pentecost 16, Year C
Readings: Jeremiah 18:1–11; Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18; (Philemon 1–21); Luke 14:25–33

 Last week, on Labour Day weekend, as we thought about work we heard statistics from the International Labour Organization. The ILO confirms what we have suspected: the share of national income going to working people in developed nations has been going down for forty-five years. Last week I used the analogy of food on a global plate or table—it’s been shifting from the crowded end, where most people live, and work, to the other end, where the smaller number of owners is already well off.


Today is a response from the Christian tradition. Today we have set up a table here in our midst. The meal we share is richly symbolic. Everybody eats at this table, everybody gets the same serving, and no one is left out. That’s a radical symbol when you stop to think about it. This is our vision for the world. No, check that. It’s not our vision. We inherited it from others, and we can no more possess it that a person can possess beauty, or love.

Our tradition is that at the table, love and justice are mingled. They blend together, like bread and juice. It is a loving thing to offer food to others. It is a just thing to ensure that everyone eats, and that everyone has a fair share.

When you look around, you realize we don’t actually do this. We have set our world up differently. Jeremiah points out to the people of his time that they have done the very same thing. You people are the clay, he warns them. Or, rather, he hears God warning them. And God comes off as pretty severe. Repent, or I’m going to repent of the good I want to do for you. In fact, it doesn’t need big threats from God, or the holy. We know now that societies that aren’t fair don’t work and don’t last. It doesn’t take divine wrath to bring them down.

This realization, that change is not dependent on a wrathful god, always fills me with hope. We don’t need superhuman powers of persuasion. We need to keep breaking bread in the midst of a community, and the community needs to keep showing how this sacrament is the model of human life that works. Struggling with a growing income gap? Look here. Sick and tired of discrimination, inequality, injustice? Listen to this. Eager for a way of being that feels whole, real, sustainable? Taste this. It’s beautiful. And simple.

But not easy, Jesus says. The commitment involved is not casual. Can you imagine the reaction when he lets loose with this zinger. Hate your family if you want to be my disciples. What? We all heard it earlier. It’s tempting to let it go in one ear and out the other. The gospel of Matthew gets to this saying and thinks, oh-oh. So Matthew’s version says you have to love Jesus more than your parents or your child. That’s easier. Thank goodness. It would have been hard to be around this person in some ways. Very extreme. Very challenging. Hate my family? Are you serious?


What a potter does with a lump of clay on a wheel, is three things. Centering. The clay needs to be centred on the wheel. Kind of like people. Opening. The potter uses her thumbs in the middle to start to create an opening. Unless it’s opened, it can’t receive anything, hold anything. Raising. The potter starts to draw the clay up, and out, turning it into its final shape, whatever was in the mind of the creator. We need to be malleable, able to be shaped. There’s a design in mind for us: centred, opened, raised, so that we can bear bread to those hungry for change, and wine to those thirsting for peace.

How can a prophet break through to us? A story about a potter? A re-invention of a symbolic meal? This is not just a short walk to the front of the church for a tiny bit of bread and drink we’re about to take. This is a different world we’re talking about, a different world we’re already tasting. This vision needs all of me, all of us. This vision is exciting. Lasting, satisfying, fun.
What am I saying? Maybe you should just eat the bread and not get too excited. We can’t really take on the whole world. We can’t change it. Can we?

 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

“Table Grace”   Rev. Robin Wardlaw    September 1, 2013

Pentecost , Year C
Readings: (Jeremiah 2:4–13); Psalm 81:1, 10–16; Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16; Luke 14:1, 7–14

Field, factory, mine, kitchen, hotel, salon, highway, classroom, office, precinct, daycare, store, hospital, forest. The workplace. What have I left out? Parliament, church, bedroom, table. There must be some people who never work. Who have their decisions made for them, their meals and beds made, who never carry groceries or push a stroller. All the rest of us chop, lift, sort, file, weld, tend, fry, decide, paint, stir, type, stand, talk, read, supervise, drive, watch, preach—we work. We work for pay sometimes, we do much of our day’s work for no pay, we work for pleasure.
Some of us are lucky. We work at what we like. Or we end up our work life with savings, a pension—some security in our later years. Or both. But not all of us. Some of us do work that’s boring, or distressing, or not suited to us. Some of us are hurt at work. Some of us are kicked out of the paying economy for various reasons, and work harder than ever just to get by, on the margins.
We have a good group here. Let’s find out some things about working. You don’t have to answer every question, or any question. When you hold your hand up to answer, keep it up for a bit so others can look around and see our collective experience.
Who has worked for pay?
Who has worked for unequal pay, as a man or a woman?
Who has had amazingly positive experiences at work? Such as?
Amazingly negative? Such as?
Who has had trouble at times separating who they really are from their job, their work?
Who has been fired? Unemployed?
Who has had to fire someone else?
Thank you. I have one more question for you later, but that’s a snap shot of our work experience.

The Butler is a film about serving, honour, dignity, change, anger, love, power, powerlessness. And work. Work might be in a cotton field, where the boss has a temper, a ruthless lack of conscience and a gun. Between the rows, the crop is fear. Work might be serving: serving drinks and meals in a hotel, serving time in a local jail for civil rights work, serving in the very centre of contemporary power, the White House. The film asks, How does change come? Slowly, with baby steps, through example, persuasion, patience, persistence. Or quickly, through violence or the threat of violence. Black people need change in 1950s, 60s, 70s America. Cecil Gaines is the butler of the title. His son, Louis, goes off to university, in the south, and falls under the spell of Martin Luther King, Jr. Soon he’s marching, occupying a lunch counter stool at Woolworths, getting arrested and jailed. Is the preacher right that black people working as butlers challenge racial stereotypes with their care, their hard work, their attention to detail, their self control? Later, Louis tries out the Black Panthers as they get going. Is the militant leader right, that Black people who don’t resist are hapless dupes, exploited, tamed, propping up the oppressor? Father and son take are estranged for twenty year because of their opposing views
The butler bring cups of tea and coffee to the Oval Office. He overhears policy about race relations from one administration after another, but cannot comment on anything. The film goer gets a two hour review of the coming of civil rights to the United States—the non-violent actions, the violent responses, the slow growth of opportunities for people of colour. What the viewer does not get, we realized after, is analysis of the economy of empire. Owners, of farms or factories, want the cheapest labour they can find. As one of us pointed out afterwards, skin colour just makes it easy to identify who is in the low-paid group. So the movie appears to be about race, but the issue is also class. And in many societies, still, those two things are deeply entwined.
On Labour Day, what does a Christian do? How do we relate to work, owners, workers, the paid economy? The story in Luke today is about the table, where social standing is sometimes displayed. Not everyone can sit right beside the host, the rich or powerful person who is throwing the banquet. A pecking order is revealed. How can a person of faith show grace at table? Through humility, says Luke. In the movie, all the butlers and housekeeping staff at the White House are black. They are paid less than white staff, and can never advance to more responsible positions. Cecil Gaines humbly goes to the head of operations every ten years or so to point this out. Nothing doing. If you don’t like it, quit. Finally, he is so trusted, so well-respected, that he can raise it with the President. Change comes.
And after thirty years of service, Cecil and Gloria Gaines even get invited to sit at the table during a formal, White House dinner. Gloria is thrilled. Cecil is nervous and uncomfortable to be a guest at last. He doesn’t really fit in, and he wonders and we wonder if it’s just tokenism. How much changed for the better after the legislation of the sixties? Another story from our discussion afterwards. One of us worked in Detroit in the mid-eighties. The staff was from all over, and multi-cultural. That’s the good news. As American Thanksgiving drew near at the end of November, people began to reflect about how busy it was, what pressure there was to go see family, then do the same thing all over a month later at Christmas. Yes, said a younger Black woman, whose family lived south of Michigan, and packing a picnic basket for the trip, because of all the places along the way that won’t serve Blacks. That’s the reality check.
What does the global table look like this Labour Day weekend? The International Labour Organization toils away in Geneva gathering statistics on the big picture. Their figures confirm what you suspected: the food at the table is migrating toward the end where the rich people are sitting. Workers are getting a smaller share of Gross Domestic Product, and a bigger slice is going to owners as capital income. The ILO’s Global Wage Report for 2012/2013 says that in sixteen developed economies, the average labour share of the food on the platter dropped from 75% of national income to 65% in the forty years from the mid-1970s in the years to just before the current economic crisis. Women’s share of those declining wages will have gone up, but you can be sure that many are still getting less for equal work. One of those in the Tuesday evening group taught at the University of Toronto in the sixties, and remembers that female professors got 20 to 40% less than males, just like the Black butlers at the White House. The University recently settled a class action law suit to make up some of that disparity for those still alive to claim justice. Another finally got equal pay with men when she moved to a unionized workplace.
The ILO reports there are 215 million child labourers across the planet. People migrate from poorer places to wealthier ones to get work. Both these facts present the opportunity for employers to exploit them. People leave rural areas of China and go to the city. Nicaraugans go next door to Costa Rica. Philipinas come to North America as nannies. Mexicans and Jamaicans come here to work in the fields and orchards.
Final question: How many of us have moved for work?
“Let mutual love continue,” writes the author of Hebrews. The Tuesday night movie group zeroed in on that line. I threw out the provocative question: does our Christian faith make us into door mats, weaklings, softies, as some critics have charged? No!, said the group, it makes us stronger. You can have dignity, even in a service job. It takes strength to resist non-violently. They also pointed out that Canada has issues of its own. We are in no position to point the finger at anybody when it comes to issues of race, class, sex and justice in workplace.
Mutual love. That’s what the Tolpuddle Martyrs had all the years ago. The law in England against forming a combination, meaning a labour organization or union had been repealed in 1824. So the Tolpuddle farm workers, led by a Methodist preacher, formed a few years later in South West England. All might have been well, but they swore an oath to each other as part of their new organization. Some farm owner knew of an old law that forbade oaths. Perfect! Try ’em, convict ’em, pack ’em off to Van Diemen’s land. Suppression of workers’ rights has a long history. In the case of this group, popular feeling was on their side. They came back from Australia, but ended up moving to southwestern Ontario in the 1830s.
I was at the founding yesterday of a new union. Two large industrial unions merged to create something called Unifor. It was very moving to be there as the two groups voted separately to join together. The vote was almost unanimous. The new president gave an impassioned speech. He committed Unifor to the struggle for justice: justice for women, for the LGBT community, racialized workers, the environment, First Nations, young people. It was inspiring.
Meanwhile, far from all the shouting, you may wonder about your work—the stuff you find rewarding, the stuff you don’t. Are you appreciated enough, recognized enough for it? And how much appreciation and recognition is the right amount? Your volunteer work, your church work, are they making a difference? Is your faith calling you to serve quietly and say nothing, or to put yourself firmly, gently, stubbornly, in the way of the exploiter, the oppressor. Are we martyrs? Or all those things? We are butlers, living lives of simple service so that others may simply live. And we are activists, resisting a world table that puts so many of the good things on the plates of the few while so many go hungry. Martyr doesn’t mean dying. It is just the Greek word for witness, and so we are that, too. Whatever we are called to do, we are seekers after holiness, the sacred. May we find it in our rest, in our work, in our companions, our opponents and ourselves. May we find grace at the great banqueting table of life, and may we offer it to others.
“Enough"   August 4, 2013   by Robin Wardlaw

Pentecost 11, Year C
Readings: (Hosea 11:1–11); Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Colossians 3:1–11; Luke 12:13–21

What’s enough? When asked, we tell pollsters about twenty to thirty percent more than we’re making right now. Not double, not ten times, just a little more. It doesn’t matter how much we’re making, twenty thousand, a hundred and twenty, it’s not quite enough.

Bill and Karen Butt used to be Overseas Personnel for the United Church of Canada. They served in Malawi and Mozambique for many years. Every month or so they sent a beautifully crafted theological reflection based on their work with churches and villages. One trip took them to a very small village where they got a chance to speak to local people. Such a great question they asked. “What does it take to be rich, and how many people around here are rich?” Villagers explained that there was a list of luxuries—a donkey, a radio, chickens, a bicycle, things like that. If a person or family had two of those, they were rich. If they had only one, they were middle class. If they had none of those things, well…

They thought about a third of the people in the village were rich, a third were in the middle, and about a third were poor. What if we asked the same questions here? What does it take to be rich? What is poor, around here? How many fall into the various categories?
The picture on the front of the bulletin is from the web site of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. You probably know about the Foodgrains Bank. A congregation here plants a crop and puts in the bank, so to speak, but people far away get the food. The way it works is that a congregation, usually a rural congregation, finds a farmer willing to assist. The congregation pays for the inputs—seed, fuel, fertilizer—and the farmer does the work. Often the whole congregation shows up to watch the harvest. Sometimes it’s a bee: nearby farmers come over to do a speed harvest. The crop is sold, and the money goes to the Foodgrains Bank. Somewhere else in the world, the money is used to buy grain in a time of drought or famine, to help people out, and in many other creative ways.

The Foodgrains Bank is excited about an idea from the G20, announced last year in Mexico. It’s called AgResults. A problem for many farmers is spoilage of their grain from insects, rodents and mold. The losses can be high. They lack effective on-farm storage for their crops.

To avoid that, many farmers sell their grain at harvest time, when prices are low. They then have to buy it back for food or seeding later in the year when prices are higher. With good storage, farmers could save their grain for family consumption, or make more money by selling it later in the year. 

In this new program, companies are being encouraged to develop good storage technology for maize (corn) in Kenya, and sell it to smallholder farmers. The winning companies will be determined by the farmers themselves, and the G20 will pay rewards to companies based on how much market share they have captured. So these bins made of sticks and grass might become a thing of the past. They may hold grain, but it doesn’t look as if they can keep insects, mice or mold out.

If it works, this could lead to…what? Food security at last. But could have unintended consequences, such as greed? My crops are good this year. I will get even more of these nifty new bins. I am rich, rich! Farmers all over the world losing their souls?

Did I tell you the story about the stingy box? This one takes place on a First Nations community. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux tells it. She’s from Georgina Island First Nation, and teaches at the University of Toronto. Time was, a person who brought back birds, or deer or moose from the hunt shared it with everybody. Delicious food, great for community. Then came electricity, and soon after, freezers. Why share? I can put everything in there, and it keeps. For me and my family. This great new technology, electricity, has turned me from generous to stingy. That’s progress.

We’re not sure where Jay Gatsby got his millions. Bootlegging? Ponzi schemes? Rumours abound. But he’s spending it hard—big house, fast car, huge parties. All to impress his sweetie from several years ago, who went ahead and married a rich guy after Jay said he’d marry her as soon as he had money. The summer of 1923 is a wild one on Long Island, with lavish entertainment at the Gatsby mansion. A band, champagne, a pool, fireworks, food. How is this going to end?

It turns out exactly like the story in Luke. Rich guy dies, suddenly. Let that be a lesson to us all. It makes for a good story, anyway, even if, in real life, the rich sometimes live long lives. When does abundance, the abundance God promises to the refugees in the psalm, become greed? How much is enough?

Once again, we talked about the movie afterwards. One of us told of feeling rich in her neighbourhood, where her father had a secure job. But then, when she went to the house of a school friend in another part of the city and a butler opened the door, she felt poor. The friend was sent over very early in the morning to measure the neighbour’s in-ground pool. Her parents were going to have one installed, and they wanted to make sure it was bigger, even six inches bigger. None of had personal contact with the uber-wealthy, but we agreed you don’t get rich by being nice. We had a feeling we wouldn’t be comfortable around the very rich.

The alternative to that, says Jesus, the fearfulness, the envy, the competitiveness, is to be rich towards God. Hmmm. That’s one of those great expressions that is so open-ended. Rich towards God. What does it mean to you? Giving away your cheque, when it comes, as if it were a deer carcass that would spoil otherwise? Being more into singing, dancing and stories than storing up your harvest in mouse-proof barns? Giving such and such a percent of your time to charity? All of the above?

Daisy and Tom Buchanan, the rich couple in the movie, were jerks, we decided, although no one used that exact word. Not rich towards God. They ran through people, used them, cast them aside. They had trouble having real feelings for others. They were both unfaithful to their vows, and not truly happy anywhere. Big barns, little soul. Some of us at the Tuesday discussion had lived and worked in Africa. How different North America looks from there. How opulent, how wasteful, how decadent. Every light in the Gatsby mansion burning, even when it housed only one resident. Enough light for a village. How overwhelming it is to come back to this part of the world after time in a much more basic culture—shelves in stores all full, money flowing, machines for everything.

“One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And are my possessions, however abundant or meager they are, getting in the way of my life? Is Canada just the right size, the Goldilocks level of prosperity: not too rich, not too poor, but just right? Or are we kidding ourselves about our nation because we happen to live right beside the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of the planet? By comparison with them, we look modest. But perhaps that’s not the real comparator. We are far from the most generous people, and far from the most generous nation.

It turns out we have these vast national storage bins of things, metals, oil, gas, trees that we didn’t plant or grow or do anything to deserve. We’re rich. In things, anyway. Let’s dig them up or cut them down and get them to market as soon as possible. Let’s make a few people, owners, incredibly wealthy, and then spend a couple of generations cleaning up the mess they leave behind. Does this sound like a nation being rich toward God?

Greed is corrosive, and it gets carried away with success, like a runaway train. We could take cues from Mennonites. They think and talk about money as congregations. They encourage thrift, saving, modesty, a sense of enough. They don’t want their young people to get in over their heads, to become slaves of the bank, or the dollar. They teach financial literacy and encourage budgeting. We tend to think of the whole topic as off limits. They have realized that in this day and age, a person has to pay attention, not because the mould or the mice have eaten up the winter supply of wheat, but because we can fool ourselves about what’s enough for a long time, spend as if there’s no tomorrow. Suddenly everything changes because we’re maxxed out.

Well, enough already. Here’s a quote from Stanley Weiser, an American screenwriter, “A fool and his money are lucky enough to get together in the first place.” Spike Milligan, the comedian, said, “All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” And finally this, Woody Allen: “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.” There are no easy answers. What we pray for is enough—enough money, enough generosity, and enough faith, hope and love to be rich towards God.

“The Kiss”    July 28, 2013    by Robin Wardlaw



Pentecost 10, Year C
Readings: Hosea 1:2–10; Psalm 85; (Colossians 2:6–19); Luke 11:1–13

“Leave me in peace,” shouts the old man in an empty church. He’s upset at an old woman who has followed him in. Reg has been living in a retirement home for musicians. Now the only woman he ever loved has turned up to live there, too, as if to torment him. Jean is aware she hurt him all those years ago, but she wants to at least be on speaking terms. “Leave me in peace!,” he bellows again. But, of course, even if she walks out, even if they can somehow co-exist at Beecham House, he won’t have peace. She has tried to apologize, but she has misjudged the depth of his heartache, and how long he has kept it going. Her effort comes off as too little, too late, especially when she repeats it, and admits she has practiced what to say. He’s holding on to his hurt, letting it shape his life. He’s turned down singing jobs, for instance, where he would have to appear with her. He has never remarried, all these years. A scene in the movie, Quartet.

Forgiveness. The heart of the famous prayer: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Really? That’s a pretty low bar. Forgive us our sins as we would like to be forgiven, as we imagine we might forgive others when we are taking a rosy view of ourselves. Why forgive? Why seek forgiveness? Shame and guilt won’t let us be in peace. If we have a conscience. If we are capable of imaging the effect we have on others. Holding a grudge is just the same—disruptive of inner peace.

The crowd who went to see Quartet discussed forgiveness. There are some things that are unforgivable, we agreed. And you can probably think of some of the same examples. Horrendous crimes against humanity that are so evil they hurt just to think about. Shy of those, however, where is the line, we wondered. How to know what’s forgivable? What’s the right timing?

Forgiveness is supposed to go along with a change of heart. A person isn’t supposed to be forgiven then go right back to their same old tricks. It’s an issue for everyone. We all sin, and we’re all sinned against. We want to be forgiven our sins. We want to have some kind of spiritual peace. But do we seek to change our ways, do differently?

Hosea the prophet is hunting bigger game. He wants a whole nation to repent. The discussion group struggled with this passage. They didn’t like it. Like Amos, like the other prophets, Hosea measures Israel against a high bar. You were meant for better than this. You were plucked out of Egypt and given a chance here to live differently than the others. Now look at you: sending your oil, your wool, your figs and dates off to your lovers, Assyria, and, of all places, Egypt. Trying to make nice with the big boys, the bullies, in the hopes that they might smile on you, be your sugar daddy. And selling out your soul along the way.

So Hosea does a kind of performance art thing with his life. I will marry a prostitute. Get it, Israel. I am like God and you are the prostitute. You have forgotten about faithfulness. Along comes a child, a boy. Who’s the daddy? I have not. Then a girl, then another girl, more evidence of unfaithfulness. I could be furious. I am furious. I could strike you in my fury, do you serious harm. But I won’t. I want you to change your ways. Take the offer of forgiveness, and come back to me, to God.

Did it work? Apparently not. What’s so bad about having rich, powerful friends? Or trying to have them? It seems as if the effort to curry favour with nearby empires means that values at home have to be ditched. In the winter, Evans Rubara came to speak to us about Tanzania and gold and values. Evans and people like him are modern day Hoseas. They say to their country, Pandering to the multi-nationals who want your gold is a lose-lose proposition. You will lose the gold, for almost no return, and you will lose your soul, your values, your environment along the way. Then when the gold is all gone, you will have nothing. Less than nothing: no gold, environmental ruin left behind, corruption in government, rural communities scattered, decent society savaged. All very predictable. But we don’t have to look as far as Africa to find evidence of what happens when we sneak out on ethical behavior when we think no one’s looking, and go for a little fling with some other partner—big oil, big returns, big name for ourselves.

In Israel’s case, those friends it was trying to curry came and took over anyway, and not nicely. So much for trying to make nice. But the book of Hosea remains, and this sense that God is eager to forgive, longing to redeem. Long after those predator societies became dust this image of God persists. God the patient lover. God who is jealous, but not vengeful. God who waits for us, for humankind to wake up to the error of its ways, and come back, and change our ways.

How important is it to have forgiveness offered from some external source, some God? What are shame and guilt, really? What do we do with them, and how to we work through them, or get over them? Where do acceptance, forgiveness, redemption come from?
If a nation apologizes after the fact for the way it has treated some person or group, how does that help? What changes? Canada has apologized to First Nations, Ukrainians, Japanese, Maher Arar and others. The United Church of Canada has apologized to First Nations and to the family of Jim Endicott for de-frocking him in the fifties when he spoke up for the Chinese revolution. Mediators often work with offenders these days in our justice system to have them meet with their victims if the victims are willing, so that reconciliation can take place. It matters to us that the person (or government) who did us harm now feels sorry about it. That does something for our souls.

Even better if the offender really does see the error of their ways and pledge to behave better. When the church apologized to the survivors of Residential Schools, I was there, at General Council in Sudbury. It was a deeply moving experience to gather in the dusk around a big fire, dance in a slow circle, hear the Moderator utter the heartfelt apology and see him go into a big teepee with the elders to present it to them in person. Then a spokesperson emerged from the tent. Alberta Billy, I think it was. The woman who had spontaneously asked for the apology in the first place, when she was sitting at the General Council Executive.

We don’t really do forgiveness, she said. We can’t tell you it’s all better now. We’ll get back to you at the next Council with our response. Two years later in Victoria the elders said, it still hurts. What we want from you is change. Show us you mean it. Words are not enough. You may remember the bitter, racist letters to the editor of The Observer around the time of the apology. Clearly we weren’t all on side in 1986. Are we now? Have dominant culture members of the church gotten over our cultural superiority, grown into solidarity with the people we marginalized and tried to eradicate? Will we ever?

Forgiveness. Such a big topic. Listen to the psalm for a bit:
You forgave the people back in the day, there, God. How about now? Are you gonna stay mad, or maybe give us a break now? And then the answer.
Let me hear what you will say, O God,
for you will speak peace to your people,
to the faithful who turn their hearts to you.
Surely salvation is near those who fear you,
and your glory will dwell in our land.
Mercy and faithfulness will meet,
justice and peace will embrace.
Faithfulness will spring up from the earth,
and righteousness look down from heaven.
You, O God, will give what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
Righteousness will go before you,
and the paths of your feet will be peace.

Peace is all tied up with salvation, and salvation is all tied up with mercy, faithfulness and justice. Mercy and faithfulness will meet. Nice image. Justice and peace will embrace. Or kiss, actually, in the Hebrew text. Very intimate.

But the implication is clear: no justice, no peace, as the demonstration chant goes. They go together. Peace isn’t just a big lovey bandage stuck on a grievance. When justice shows up at the site of the offence, then peace is possible. And then comes healing for the crops, too, all earth.

You don’t need a preacher to tell you about the insults we have been giving the earth recently. It doesn’t take deep insight or special knowledge to be aware of the way people treat each other, individually and collectively. But we’re in the love and forgiveness biz. We’re the people who think hard about this kind of stuff. We have faith that insults and hurt are not the end of the story.

The call today is to pray and reflect individually and collectively. Every week we say a prayer of confession. The challenge is to truly enter into confession, to make it a time for soul searching. Then to truly hear the words of assurance. To feel assurance that you are forgivable, that you are forgiven, that you can forgive.

Fran├žois de la Rochefoucauld, French writer, three hundred and fifty years ago: “Almost all of our faults are more pardonable than the methods we resort to to hide them.” Thomas Carlyle, Scottish writer and historian, one hundred and fifty years ago: “The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none.”

Can I tell you how the movie ends? I don’t want to wreck it for you if you haven’t seen it, so start humming for a few moments. Reg is softens toward Jean. He and the others persuade her to star in the fund raising gala, to do a reprise with them of the famous quartet from Rigoletto, Verdi’s opera all about seduction, betrayal and revenge. Then backstage, he overhears Jean telling a mutual friend that she felt she had to be honest with her brand new husband about her slip, her affair just before their wedding, that she had always loved him, that she felt terrible about it. Just as they are about to go onstage to sing, he proposes again. When they get onstage, and just before they start to sing, she accepts. Final shot, not a kiss: their two hands touching, then fingers interlocking. Cue the gorgeous music.