Oct 18: The Gift of a Child

1 Samuel 1:9-20; 2:1-10; Luke 1:46-55

From time to time mothers and fathers post this Bible verse in their child’s nursery. 1 Samuel 1:27 ~ “For this child I prayed; and the LORD has granted my petition.”

I’m sure those words resonate with many Christian parents who waited long for their child, or whose child faced dangerous health threats, in the womb or in the first year. Such as our grand-daughter, Amelia. Born three months early, she then spent her first 118 days in the IWK children’s hospital. 

It was a woman, Hannah, who spoke those words, about her long-awaited son, Samuel, a few thousand years ago. “For this child I prayed.” 

Here is a bit of Bible genealogy: father son, father son, wife wife. It answers the age old, Nova Scotian question: “Who’s your father?” 

1 There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children

It ends with the sometimes hard question, “Who’s your child?” Not every one of us has a child. Hannah suffered for having no children, for years, it seems.

So begins this section of the Bible we call First Samuel. It is clearly from a different culture, long ago and far away. When did this happen? Take a look at the timeline on the bulletin cover: can you find this moment?

And what are some of the cultural differences we notice about these people? 

Polygamy – men with more than one wife. It was Elkanah’s other wife, Peninah, who’d borne children, who goaded and provoked Hannah. Many OT men were polygamous, such as Abraham, Jacob, Esau, and Kings David and Solomon. 

Childbearing expectation – and of a male child. It was not a day and age when couples would choose not to have children, like some of my friends have done, and my sister and her husband. In most cultures through the ages, couples have children. That’s it. Not to have any was a problem, maybe even a curse.

Making decisions for an unborn child – in the case of Samuel (even before he is conceived) he is promised to be given up to service for God in a shrine, with the Jewish priests. Hannah and Elkanah go through with this promise when he is born.

The promise about the child is a specific cultural thing: the Nazarite vow – set apart for God. Another famous character who was a nazarite was the judge Samson. This was sometimes a short term pledge, not life-long.

One other little thing we may notice in this story is that everyone would pray out loud, not silently. When Hannah, in desperate, private prayer, moves her lips but does not make a sound, priest Eli thinks she must be drunk. It was also normal that those who read something would read aloud to themselves.

Out of this very different time and place we have these amazing, holy stories: sacred history that speaks to us even now. How things have changed, the little things and the big. 

One thing that can remain the same, through the ages: life is a gift. The birth of a child is the receiving of a gift. People of faith look to God as the giver of life, of every life. Some of you know this attitude: that last breath you took? It was not promised to you: it was a gift, a wonderful gift. Each breath you take. (See Psalm 104:27-30.)

Family connections are counted a blessing; bearing children is counted a blessing. What do we do without this blessing? This is the painful question at the beginning of this story. Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. It was the annual time to offer special worship to the LORD God. The family – Hannah and her husband, and his other wife, and their children – had gone up to Shiloh to offer sacrifices. Hannah is provoked to tears by Peninnah. She offers her desperate prayers.

There is a lot of pain and tears associated with not having children. Or losing a child. Or all the things of this nature. Annually, October 15th is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day, in Canada and many other nations. So it is a fitting time to go to God with our prayers and questions about children.

All those centuries ago, Hannah’s conversation with God was remarkable. We are told: 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

Hannah pleads for the gift of a child, yet promises to give him over to a special kind of life. She asks for him, to give him away. 

The desperation this woman felt must have been so deep. So many people have experiences like this. I think of people in my own family, and circle of friends, who wanted a child, but never got to raise one. And the many people who lost a child early in life, or even later. That loss stays with a person. It stays in the conversations with God we call prayer. 

Other losses are just as challenging, or more. Abortion surely has its personal impact, as the years go by. This affects so many. The World Health Organization estimates that there are between 40 and 50 million abortions each year, across the world!

Then there is not the loss of a child, but the loss of the relationship when there is estrangement, and one gets cut off. And, of course, many people say goodbye to a child by giving him or her up for adoption – some never see that child again.

In these circumstances, and others, the cry goes up: ‘O God of power, if only You would look on the misery of Your servant, and remember me.’ Then the prayer continues. We ask many different things:

Give the gift of a child!

or, Protect and heal this child!

or, reunite me with my child!

or, answer me, why did this happen to my child?

A child is a gift, but when that gift is not given, or seems taken away, we cry out. It hits hard. It stays with us a long time.

In today’s lesson from history, Hannah is blessed with the answer she wants. The priest, Eli, says, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And God does. A boy is conceived, and born, named Samuel, and dedicated to God. 

This is not what is promised in most troubled times for men and women. This is not the happy ending everyone gets. It is the story of a key transition figure in Israelite history, Samuel, who anoints the first two Kings of Israel. It is the story of his origin, of his mother of deep faith. It just happens to be a story of infertility and fertility. Of cruelty within a family and rising above it. Of sacred promises made & kept.

One thing illustrated here, for me, is the readiness of a person of faith to go deep, with God, in prayer. Hannah’s terrible circumstance drives her to desperation. But she knew to pray. She poured out her heart to God. She knew about religious commitments, and she made one. 

One way we see that Hannah knew her faith and her God, is the way she waxed poetic after Samuel was born. From the second chapter, Margo read Hannah’s prayer, which is remarkable Hebrew poetry. You may have noticed she does not even praise about her son, the answer to her prayers. She simply praises the God who blesses the whole world. A God who speaks well and holds knowledge. A God who raises up the desperate poor, and squashes down the privileged rich. Hannah’s words get repeated in Psalm 113. And her sentiments are copied a thousand years later by Mary, when she is promised to have a child, the Messiah. Hannah knows very well the One she is praising and thanking.

There are no atheists in foxholes, it is said, and anyone may pray when trouble demands it. But how much better when you or I are already a person of prayer. Then, when life is unfair, when disaster strikes, when our own child is in peril, whatever, we know very well the One with whom we speak. When we already are on friendly speaking terms with Creator, then we are ready for prayer in time of crisis. After all our days of smalltalk with the Spirit, we can have a real heart-to-heart.

And our prayers, like Hannah’s, will be about a lot more than our little problems and praises. Our praise will be about the Big things Jesus is up to in our whole world. 

So, in the end, maybe we do best by noticing the gift of one particular Child in all of history. One human life that changes everything is the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, Son of God. How God changes everything: this is what Hannah speaks in her prayer. This is what Mary knows when Jesus is to be born. God changes the world. 

There is an interesting Christmas song that includes these lyrics:

A silent wish sails the seven seas
The winds of change whisper in the trees
And the walls of doubt crumble, tossed and torn
This comes to pass when a child is born

And all of this happens because the world is waiting,
Waiting for one child
Black, white, yellow, no one knows
But a child that will grow up and turn tears to laughter,
Hate to love, war to peace
and everyone to everyone’s neighbor
And misery and suffering will be words to be forgotten, forever

(Fred Jacobson)

This child is Jesus. And it is for each child of ours that He came among us, lived and died, and lives again. ‘Let the children come to me,’ Jesus said, from His daily teaching. Does He not also say it from His cross? And from His risen glory. ‘Come to me.’

Allow me to end by quoting this word picture of Jesus from a 1926 sermon by James A. Francis, often called ‘One Solitary Life.’

He was born in an obscure village,
the child of a peasant woman.
He grew up in still another village
where he worked until he was thirty.
Then for three years
he was an itinerant preacher.

He never wrote a book.
He never held an office.
He never had a family or owned a home.
He didn’t go to college.
He never traveled more than 200 miles
from the place he was born.

He did none of the things
one usually associates with greatness.
He had no credentials but himself;
he was only thirty-three
when public opinion turned against him.

His friends ran away.
He was turned over to his enemies
and went through the mockery of a trial.
He was nailed to the cross
between two thieves.
While he was dying
his executioners gambled for his clothing,
the only property he had on earth.

When he was dead
he was laid in a borrowed grave
through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen centuries have come and gone
and today he is the central figure
of the human race,
the leader of mankind’s progress.

All the armies that ever marched,
all the navies that ever sailed,
all the parliaments that ever sat,
all the kings that ever reigned,
put together,
have not affected
the life of man on earth
as much as that One Solitary Life.

James Allan Francis, The Real Jesus and Other Sermons (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1926).

PRAYERS ~ Let us   pray.

Mighty God, You became a child for us. You welcome us as Your children. You send us out into our world to reach children with hope. Forgive us for the ways we forget Jesus, from day to day. Forgive us for the ways we do not welcome others who are Your children. Forgive us for the ways we lash out instead of reach out. In the name of Jesus, renew us.

We pray, in response to Your word and Your world around us. Let there be grace and strength for those who have lost a child in pregnancy or infancy. Let there be hope and peace for those who did not get to raise the child they hoped for. Let there be comfort and serenity for those who aborted during pregnancy. Let there be care and love for those who gave up a child for adoption. Let there be purpose and joy for those who never had a child. Let there be compassion and grace for those who are not on speaking terms with a child of theirs.

And, loving Father, let there be encouragement and wisdom for all parents, at every age, caring for each child. We feel surrounded by a world of wickedness and danger and injustice, at times. Master, amid the elections, send wisdom – from our own town to our United States brothers and sisters. Amid the workers in our fishing industry, give a sense of responsibility and understanding for one another. Amid the flooding in India and fires in Africa and America, we pray for help on a grand scale. 

We, Your praying children, look with You, Spirit of God, upon all our world, and ask for small blessings at home also. We look for a healing touch for many people we know. We look for strength and encouragement in times of trouble or pain. We look for wisdom and guidance in moments of decision and our opportunities for action. You’ve got the whole world in Your hands, or, as one prophet said, You have inscribed our names on the palm of Your hands, and You shall not forget us. Thank You, praise You, we love You, God. AMEN.

Oct 11: Mind Change

Thanksgiving Sunday, October 11, 2020 – Digby Baptist Church

Exodus 32:1-14; Luke 23:33-34

Amid all the stories of the Ten Commandments, from the middle of the book of Exodus, is this amazing moment: And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. [NRSV] It also gets translated:  Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. [NIV] And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people. [KJV] And GOD did think twice. [MSG]

How striking that, a few times in the Old Testament, we read of God making a turnaround, repenting, changing God’s own mind. Here it is today, after Moses prays and pleads and argues the case of the Hebrew people, who so quickly gave up on their leader and the guidelines God had given them. Perhaps we can offer thanksgiving that our Maker does not make up his mind against people forever!

Do you ever change your mind? 

Does your mind change?

Do you mind change?

I am going to share my personal thoughts today, take you on a bit of a personal journey. I want to speak my mind, of how it has changed, or at least grown in some different directions. For a few reasons, today seemed to be the day for me to do this.

So, I will tell you half a dozen things ‘I believe.’ This is testimony, confession, witness, sharing.

I believe in the Age of the Earth and Evolution. This planet is only about four and a half billion years old, in a universe almost fourteen billion years old. This is a beautiful thing! Thanks be to God!

I suppose this all started in childhood, for me. I loved dinosaurs. And volcanoes. And fossils in sedimentary rocks. And tectonic plates slowly moving across the globe. I loved astronomy. About the time I turned ten years old, Carl Sagan’s TV series Cosmos: A Personal Journey was broadcast. I loved it. 

 At the same time, I was getting other ways to describe creation. I have the memory of a poster in a Sunday School classroom, making fun of a whole series of slimy and silly animals lined up that supposedly led to the evolution of primates, and finally, humans. Looking back, I think I never did reject the beautiful story of biological evolution. As a ten-year-old, millions of years of evolution seemed a beautiful thing to me. 

Plenty of Christians devoted to Jesus have come to terms with creation, God using the hidden processes of millions of years, to build all we see today. I’m grateful that, about the time I turned eighteen, I found a few Christian mentors to open these doors for me, and help me integrate Creation with evolution and the immense age of the earth.

So I am thankful to our Creator for this incredible universe – gigantic, microscopic, ancient & beautiful.

I believe in other Churches, and even other Religions. As a kid growing up the Church was my social centre. Not Jr. High or High School: the Baptist Church. In my teen years I was there for Sunday School and then the Worship Service. I was at the weekly Youth Group, and a Youth Choir, and a Youth Handbell Choir. And the boys group called the Christian Service Brigade. I still have my three ‘Camper of the Year’ awards to commemorate those wonderful days.

I don’t remember once setting foot inside another church in town. I barely knew if any of my school mates went to other churches, not to mention which ones. I knew nothing outside my Baptist Church. 

So it was once I left home I got to know other types of Christians as believers, and started to find out how they did things. I went to the ecumenical Chapel at university, which was, of course, a mix of students and older people of all denominations. I was overwhelmed and completely impressed by the services with lots of responsive readings, hymns I had never heard before, classical organ music, candle-lighting, and robed worship leaders.

Among the new Christian mentors who surrounded me then, I realized a full respect for Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Uniteds, and others I’d never heard of. Like Lutherans and Moravians. I don’t think I had ever, in my life, been taught any of them were not believers; I just had never learned one thing at all about them! So my introduction to them was as amazing brothers and sisters in Christ. I have embraced them ever since. 

Now, the broader issue of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and so on… I suppose this was a bit challenging to me. I found Christian pastors and professors having very friendly relationships with those of other world religions, and acting with great respect toward their traditions. 

We might contrast this with Bible scenes like that of  Moses and the Israelites at Sinai. They are to be pure and holy, and not get mixed up at all with the other religions of the other peoples who surround them. Their fiasco with the golden calf to represent YHWH God is a big example. It seems they almost get destroyed over it. 

Let me just end this part, not really giving an answer, but saying that I have felt for many years the need to respect people of other faith than me, or of no faith. My own conversation with God about who gets into heaven, and how, is an ongoing conversation.

So I give thanks to God for the many spiritual paths people take, in so much of which God shines.

I believe in LGBTQ+ people. Again, I guess it was not until I went out on my own and was at college that I first knew I’d met people, my own age, or older, who did not seem to be heterosexuals. It took just a little while to get used to ‘these people’ being in the world. I’ll never forget this time a younger friend who was still in High School was visiting me: we were sitting in the Student Union Building one evening. Among the people milling about, Andrew saw this guy walk by and wink at him. “OK, let’s get out of here,” he said as he led the way out.

Then, one starts to see how difficult this life can be for so many. Alongside our scriptural prohibitions against various sexual behaviours, are the examples of Jesus, and others, who treat minority people well, and do things that include those who are ritually unclean, known as sinners, or socially unacceptable. 

Although I remain somewhat traditional and conservative about sexual moral behaviour, I have been, for many years, quietly welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ people. I believe they are people too, they can fully be Christians, they should get married, they can be pastors, and so forth. Our own Baptist denomination does not officially see it that way. For instance, I am certainly not permitted even to assist at a same-sex wedding ceremony. I think this is too bad, but I am not in the business of fighting this kind of policy. I have not felt called to do so, yet.

Somehow, October 11th got named ‘Coming Out Day,’ for those who make public their sexality. I am heterosexual, so I don’t really get to ‘come out,’ like that. But I come out of the closet as a Christian who likes biological evolution, who likes other kinds of religious people, and who likes queer people.

I do thank the Spirit of God for the diverse people of various sexualities, and give thanks that I can discover how truly to respect them. To respect you.

I believe in the Holy Bible, but not mainly as a historic record. These issues I have so far shared about all have ties to the scriptures, of course, and how we work with the Bible. Some of this text is not history, in the strict sense of the word, or in terms of how we do history in our modern era. So, the six days of creation in Genesis 1 I do not think of as some kind of history, or science. It is greater than that. It is poetry. It is mythos, which is a technical term I’m just throwing out there. It is Truth in an artistic form. It is the Word.

Somehow, by 1988 I was ready to hear some new ways of understanding the Bible. I tried to figure out how that happened, who influenced me and taught me. It would not have been the Youth Pastor, as influential and supportive as he truly was for me. He was quite traditional and conservative in his Bible teaching of us. I must have been prepared for new approaches to the Bible by some of the lay leaders of the youth groups and Sunday School. And perhaps the preaching style of the other Minister, the Senior Pastor, Don Robertson, set the tone well for me. I like to think so.

On other issues other ways of hearing from God in God’s word must arise. About other kinds of Christians, and other kinds of Religions, the chapters here must be in conversation. Jesus saying “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me.” (Jn 14:6) Jesus saying, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also…” (Jn 10:16) And “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mk 9:40) 

I believe that when the Bible is not used as only a historical book, or simply as a human ‘owner’s manual,’ it’s influence can be greater and better. It is more. God’s influence will be greater and better. 

I am so thankful for the holy gift of the Scriptures.

So, I could confess many other little things. Let me finish with one that has come clearer for me in recent years. I believe in Non-Violence, in the face of violent scripture and violent Church history.  

We just observed orange shirt day. Well, many people did. I guess I did not. I need to get myself an orange shirt! I need to remember the harm and death of so many indigenous children in Canada. And we face the facts that the residential schools were religious schools, Christian schools. 

And the violence is so blatant in the Bible stories. We peek into Exodus 32, but we don’t dare read the bit here about Moses calling upon the Levite tribe to take swords for the LORD and kill the partying people. “Each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbour.” (Ex 32:27) About three thousand people fell that day, we are told. Cecil B. DeMille didn’t put that scene in his film, The Ten Commandments!

There is serious Bible work to be done to face these stories. It is not a matter of glossing over and forgetting about them. Remember always the many voices in the centuries of literature collected here. Many inspired perspectives preserved in the pages for us, many viewpoints. As Acadia professor, Spencer Boersma, said in a lecture he gave last weekend, “The Bible has multiple lines of reasoning in it.”

I am now working my way through the violence of our faith story. I am looking for Jesus the Prince of Peace in the centre of it all. To me, words like these keep ringing in my ears: 

Exodus 34:6 The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…

Luke 6:27-28 Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Luke 23:34 Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.

I rejoice in the hopes of peace – with non-violence of every kind – which comes from the Prince of Peace.

I will surely change my mind in the years ahead. I have more to learn about life. May you, and may I, have a teachable spirit, always. We will still have moments when we realize we have replaced the real truth with some shiny image that ain’t the real thing. We always get tempted to build our own god to worship, and celebrate the way we want, and make our own rules. We need our mind changed, and heart.

Then, may we have an intercessor. May we have someone like Moses, to pray for us when we get in trouble, and save our necks. 

You know, I think we do have someone to do that! It is Christ. Jesus prays for you and me. He still does.

PRAYERS Let us   pray.

God of all good gifts, as we count our blessings, one by one, we admit the ways we have been unthankful, greedy, not generous, and even ungodly. Some of our privileges have come to us on the backs of others who have suffered. Some of our power we have used to harm others and help only ourselves. Some of our failures we have blamed on others or on our circumstances. You, Master, touch our souls with Your perfect vision, Your perfect remedy, Your perfect blessing. We praise You, Jesus. 

We long for Your touch, and we look for it, in the lives of those in our prayers. Goodness we want for Dwight O, Marilyn H, Jack W & Jack W, Mary W, John B, Dottie M, Bobby S, Faye V, Peter D…

Facing the many illnesses that threaten millions in our world, we pray. We cry out to You, God, for them, and calm ourselves, and even find ways to reach out and help. In the midst of conflict in our local fisheries we look to You, wondering what Jesus would say to fishermen today, by the sea. Speak, Lord, into the challenges. Remembering that many people are hungry today, this weekend when we feast, we turn our eyes with Christ to them. We see Jesus wanting to feed them, to sit down with them, to celebrate with them. May it be so. 

For the fruit of all creation, thanks be to God.

All this in His name. AMEN.

Oct 4: Eagerly Desiring this Feast

[Exodus 12:1-13; 13:1-8; Luke 22:14-20]

I was looking forward to the party! About three years ago an old friend from High School invited me to a surprise 50th Anniversary Party for his parents. His parents had been my friends too, through the years, starting with his father being my grade 7 Industrial Arts teacher, and a youth leader in the Baptist Church, and his mother getting me started in a big way growing perennials in flowerbeds.

So, the date was set, a little community hall in Paradise would be prepared, and the surprise Anniversary party would be a very fun time! But it wasn’t. It did not happen. My friend’s parents got wind of what was happening, and put an end to it. They did not want a party. There was no gathering.

Something there is in many of us that loves a party. We have the need to gather, to do traditional things, or create our own little traditions. We also need to gather when bad things happen, and to remember the troubles of the past and find healing.

We are so limited in our usual ceremonies now. Our three scriptures stories today each describe the formation of new ceremonies for the people of Faith. Passover is a ritual meal, at home, for the Jews to celebrate their freedom from slavery. The associated Festival of Unleavened Bread also celebrates the gift of their freedom from Egypt. Thousands of years later, Jesus sets up a new ceremony while taking part in the Passover with His friends. We call it Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.

The Need for Ceremony

Even before all our pandemic precautions, there was a need for ceremony and ritual in our lives. A need for people to have ways to gather and share an activity that meant something, that expressed the suffering or the success of human life. In a time when so many people are not religious, at least, not practicing any religion, there can be a longing to do something together, at special moments in life. 

There is a birth. There is a death. Two people join together. A family moves to a new town. A person retires from work. A special anniversary is achieved. A tragic event shocks a community. What does one do? We have some traditions, some ceremonies, some gatherings. But today, anything goes. And sometimes, everything goes out the window: nothing is done, there is no event to mark the occasion. No way to get together. No ritual to observe.

I remember hearing author, artist and activist, Jan Phillips, talk about the need for rituals in our day and age, and the need for us to become ritual-makers in our society. As a minister who crafts liturgy almost every week of my life, this made sense to me. Phillips wrote a book called ‘No Ordinary Time,’ and in her intro she says, “It is a book for people conscious of their power and ready to co-create new sacraments and ceremonies that celebrate the Divine dwelling within us.” (2011, p. 1)

There is still enough experience of tradition out there that people look for some familiar rituals. We often want to recreate them. A look at the history of any one ritual will show how it has changed. Like a wedding, or funeral. Or Holy Communion. Baptists did not always have many individual cups, you know. How did they serve their wine? And, yes, Baptists used to serve real wine, before the Temperance Movement was embraced.

A month or so ago, a young woman from Hants Co. sent me a note, asking if, perhaps, I could baptize her youngest child. I had ‘dedicated’ her other child, years ago, when I lived and served in Windsor. My answer was ‘no,’ because I never ever go back where I used to be to officiate. No dedications, baptisms, weddings or funerals where I used to live. This is simply one of my personal professional rules. I consider those things the ministry of the pastors there now, not mine to do. The woman’s request shows the need for a ceremony that blesses.

Over the past month, we here got a request for baptism from a person who lives out west, and will be home to visit in December. She wants her baptism (and her boyfriend, and her child) here because of a connection with family, especially her grandfather. It does not make sense to me to be baptized into Christ not where one lives, but it makes sense to her. 

In recent months, the loss of our usual ceremonies has been keenly felt. We finally had a memorial service, last Sunday, outdoors, for Jean Brittain. On Tuesday I ‘attended’ the funeral for Rev. Dr. George Allen by watching all 97 minutes of it on my computer. Yet a great deal is lost. Here, on a Sunday morning, we cannot touch and greet each other in familiar ways. We cannot make all the music we used to do. Attendance is down because many people feel too limited and unable to come in under the present restrictions and risks. 

The Creation of Ceremony

Last week our CBAC staff hosted another online Leadership Forum, mainly for pastors, to share about  how to do church now. To compare ‘how has it been going?’ Lennett Anderson is Lead Pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church: the Meeting Place, in Hammonds Plains. Here he is, speaking with Kevin Vincent, and the rest of us…

It was our 175th church anniversary. I had plans, we were going to have a party, like, the best on this side of heaven! And, anyway, COVID happened! Ruined all my plans. I was devastated, I did not know how we were going to celebrate as a congregation our witness in the community. 

And, one of our deacons said, “Why don’t we have a drive by BBQ?” 

So, you know, I said, ‘Speak, Lord, your servants are listening.’ This is the best we can come up with?? Ha. A drive by BBQ for our 175th anniversary!? 

I could not believe the people in attendance. We had tents in the parking lot, we had the entrance, we had the exit, we had the music, the balloons, and I thought the people in Upper Hammonds Plains… people from Chester drove in, Lunenburg, Dartmouth Musquodoboit! We had food for 200, we ran out, I told them ‘I’m not Jesus, I can’t multiply it.’ First come first served.

It was just… The energy! People were speeding into the parking lot. They weren’t paying attention because they were, like, “Hey! We’re Here!” 

And I was saying “HEY!” I didn’t know who they were, they were masked. Some had new hair, no hair, I don’t know, it’s been six months since I’d seen them; but it was just incredible. I didn’t realize how emotional I would be seeing the congregation, just seeing the saints. Um, some did the drive by and then parked on the side of the road or in the back of the parking lot, just because they wanted to have a holy huddle, they got out, they were still masked, but they were just: ‘How you doin, how are you?’ It was a real connection. I think it was one of the best anniversary events we’ve ever had.

The time for creating new ceremonies is now! Necessity is the mother of invention; a pandemic is the mother of new forms of ministry by us, Church. At this past week’s little Ministerial meeting, we look ahead to this year’s Journey to Bethlehem, and we can see how it can still happen. A little differently, but it will happen. We need it, and God will help us do it.

The scriptures tell us how the ritual of Passover was given to the Children of Israel, long ago, and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. And we know, know so well, the little story of Jesus taking the wine of passover, and the unleavened bread, and creating a new ceremony. There are times to birth new rituals. And for them to take hold is inspiring, when we sense that God actually planned them, the Spirit truly gave a new ceremony for us to use.

The Power of Ceremony

There can be such power in ceremonies and rituals. What do I mean by power? Simply that rituals change things for us. It is said of spiritual practices – like prayer and fasting, or confession or scripture study or meditation – doing these things puts us in a place where the Spirit can transform us. So, laying your hand upon someone when praying for healing can show that person God’s touch for their body. Actions speak louder than words. A Sunday morning service together can open our hearts to be cleansed by God. Sharing pieces of bread and sips of juice can help us know, for sure, that the real body and blood of Jesus were broken and spilled.

Thanks be to God that a number of ceremonies and spiritual practices have been given to us. We heard Jesus’ familiar words today: “Do this in remembrance of me,” and, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” 

We Baptists are in the Church tradition that talks about there being just two ‘ordinances,’ sometimes called ‘sacraments.’ There are not seven, there are just two rituals Jesus Himself, in the Bible, said to do. Baptize people, and eat the bread and wine to remember Him. Yet we have many other ceremonies in which we know God and the power of God’s blessings. Worship together; worship alone. A wedding ceremony. The ordination of a person to special Christian ministry. Fasting. Going on a spiritual retreat. Examples of these, and others, fill the pages of the scriptures. Our many uses of the Bible itself are little rituals, of a sort, that God uses to recreate each of us. 

I wonder about the simple act of reading through the Bible, all the time. Each day I have my own little ceremony. A prayer from a certain book of prayers, a devotional reading from Tabletalk, then the reading of my daily portion of scripture: OT, Psalm, NT, Proverb. Then more praying. I happen to be reading through Isaiah right now, among other things. What powerful things can be happening, in me, because I have just worked my way through Isaiah again

I am a believer in the power of us sharing the same ceremony – doing the same thing with Christ. To me, this is ‘religion,’ in the best sense of the word. When people share some ways of being with God. Sharing rituals, sharing words, sharing time, sharing beliefs. To have your own individual beliefs and spiritual practices is fine, but if you don’t share the same things with anyone else in the whole world, there is something missing, something sad about that.

I heard on a classical music station on the radio something about the French composer Erik Satie. An amazing musician, he was a weird man. Satie founded a religion called “The Metropolitan Church of Jesus Art.” He was the only member.

To me, religion is shared spirituality. You and I share a spiritual path, if we are willing. I’m glad you are willing to be Christians with me. To be Baptists with me. To be Digby Baptists with me. Next Sunday I will offer a special sermon – different, very personal – and I think you deserve to hear it from me.

I take Jesus to be the creator of our fellowship here, though He gives us a lot of freedom to make this what it is. Consider what Christ does with us, and our community, because this Church exists. And take seriously the actions we do together: may the power and love of God be active in us!

So many of us, these past seven months, have been limited in participating. In ‘doing church.’ We can handle the present challenges, that seem to put a stop to so much, because Jesus can handle these challenges. There is still power in the Spirit, power in God’s Church, power in worship and service in the name of Jesus. Our how-to may get changed; the Holy Three-in-One remain steadfast! So we still hunger for getting together, like we used to, because this is not the same. We eagerly desire to share feasts and festivals, music and mourning. May the Spirit of Jesus quench our deep desires for the ceremonies that matter. And May we join our Creator in creating more.

Sept 27: Forgive the Crime: or, Dolly Parton and a Coat of Many Colours

Welcome to this post that includes part of Sunday morning worship from Digby Baptist Church. This weekend not only is the worship Bulletin available, but also our Fall Newsletter. Videos from the service are posted Sunday afternoon.

SERMON: Forgive the Crime: or Dolly Parton and a Coat of Many Colours. Genesis 37:2-8, 17b-22, 26-34; Luke 6:32-36.

When Myra read Jesus’ words about doing good to enemies and loving those who hate you, I wondered again about Joseph. Joseph and his coat of many colours. And how, after he had been kidnapped and sold into slavery by his brothers, he could and would forgiven them, all those years later. Later, when Joseph had real power, in Egypt, and his starving brothers needed help. 

I had Rob read excerpts from the saga of Joseph and his brothers. Starting with the dreaming boy and his coat of long sleeves, or coat of many colours, as it is sometimes translated.

But I want to begin with another coat of many colours. At least, with the woman who wrote the song and sang the song. Dolly Parton. Because this sermon is about forgiveness. 

Stay with me, for a minute.

A few weeks ago I happened to hear a bit of a podcast called, of all things, Dolly Parton’s America. Yes, there is a podcast series – nine episodes – all about Dolly Parton, and her place in American pop culture. Parton is, I find, quite a highly esteemed figure in the world, and for good reason. She has a special, gracious way of being good to most everyone, and welcoming all sorts. She’s a great unifier, as the podcaster, Jad Abumrad, puts it. 

So, there was this moment at the Emmy Awards just three years ago. Dolly was reunited with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda to present an award. (They were in the movie 9 to 5.) And, as all guests do, these three get to banter at the mic for a few minutes before the official opening of a letter and giving an award.

That whole awards show that night had been a lot of bashing of the current US President, with Tomlin and Fonda carrying right on with the attack. 

Dolly Parton does not like this. She never likes this. She just refuses to play the politics game. 

In the podcast interview she says: that whole night everything was just bashing Donald Trump. It doesn’t make any difference how I feel about him. I just thought… why does it all have to be about politics? 

“Well, you could have upheld him, you should have said somethin.” I thougth, ‘No, I shouldn’t have said nothin,’ cause if I’d said anthing about Trump, anything good or bad, or if I hada said anything, say this or that, I’d a got booed outa that house, I’d a probably been up there on my own. I wasn’t interested in that; I wasn’t going to say something good or bad ,  what I thought or felt. I just knew I wasn’t playing that game. Anyway, it’s just scary. No matter what you say – is wrong. 

Another interviewer ask Dolly: When you’re in a room and everyone’s attacking this man – Trump – because of your story of forgiveness, does it almost make you feel like you want to protect him?

Yes

What was your feeling?

I wanted to say, “Let’s pray for the president. Why don’t we pray for the President, if we’re havin all these problems.” But I thought… that won’t work either.”

Those words of Dolly’s really make the podcaster think. They struck Jad Abumrad like a ton of bricks. 

He concluded, Oh I get it. Her stake in the sand is that she will not cast anyone out.

Yes, while there is a business logic here, Abumrad concludes, this is also a spiritual stance, this is an ethos she has chosen. And it is undeniably one of the reasons she can have the fan base that she has; because everyone feels safe at a Dolly Parton concert.

https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/dolly-partons-america/episodes/dollitics

Here is a famous musical artist, interviewed and studied for months, surely. And these interviewers find her to be a person whose story is forgiveness, and who takes a spiritual stance not to pick on anyone or kick anyone out. 

Ever felt that safe with someone? I hope you have. Let’s get back to the Bible. How safe did Joseph’s brothers feel, with him, just after their beloved father had died and been mourned and embalmed?

In the final chapter – of Genesis, not to mention in the saga of Jacob’s twelve sons – Joseph’s eleven brothers come to him beg for mercy and forgiveness from their brother, the prime minister of Egypt. Thinking he would still have revenge upon them for what they’d done, even their dying father, Jacob, had advised them to plead for mercy now.

I find the little steps in this final drama are not only poignant, but powerful and instructive. It is a lesson in forgiveness. Watch how Joseph deals with the plea to forgive them.

Recorded in verse 17, Joseph wept. He “wept when they spoke to him.” What were his feelings, do you suppose? Yes, he’d really put his brothers to the test when they’d appeared, during the famine, in Egypt. But now he had welcomed them, had them move to Goshen in Egypt, lock stock and barrel. They were settled and even privileged immigrants in the land. Thanks to the high standing of their young brother, Joseph. 

How sad! Joseph must have thought, that they still feared his power and his retribution. How sad! he must have felt, that they still sensed they were unforgiven. How sad! he must have felt, that his brothers may have thought they were favoured only because their father was still alive, and now he was dead, they might be in trouble. How sad! he must have felt, that even his father feared he would still pay back his brothers for what they’d done to Joseph.

When someone seeks our forgiveness for something, we will have emotional reactions. Just as our Holy, loving God does. Like the heart of God, Joseph weeps when his brothers plead for mercy. Of course he will have mercy!

Joseph said, ‘do not be afraid!’ There are those famous Bible code words again. Do not fear. There is good news. In a sense, that says it at. All will be well. The answer is ‘yes,’ even before it was asked. 

I think of New Testament words of forgiveness, about Jesus. From Romans 5: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Before we knew what we were doing wrong, before you and I were even born in history, Jesus did things for us. Forgiveness for real wrong and crime and faults and nastiness. Today the Spirit of Jesus keeps saying, ‘Do not fear! I am already forgiving you.’ It’s continuous action: cosmic.

Back to Joseph and his eleven brothers. Basically, Joseph said, ‘I’m not God.’ “Am I in the place of God?”  Joseph sees what was done with the disaster his brothers brought upon him, how God took that where the brothers never intended. God is in charge of this whole family project, Joseph believed. The Almighty can make mighty good things happen out of personal disasters and nastiness and jealousy. ‘I’m not God, and I’m not going to punish you for what you did, all those years ago.’

Think about it: our need to punish others, for them to get their due, might be smaller than God’s need to bless those people, and use the things that happened for God’s own new project. What the Master can do with the disasters around us, and inside us, can be beyond our best expectations. 

But notice, Joseph acknowledged his brothers had intended harm. “Even though you intended to do harm to me…” he says. He does not minimize what they had done or not sweep the wrong under the carpet. Does not say, ‘Aww, it wasn’t that bad, really. You didn’t mean to. It’s so long ago, after all.’ It was wrong. It was bad. It was intentional. It did hurt. 

It did harm. It is remembered. Yet it can be forgiven. Or, maybe better to say, they can be forgiven. 

Paying attention to ‘the crime’ is important if real, true forgiveness is to happen. And it is needed in those places where we need to forgive ourselves. One of the steps needed is to see it for what it is. We can’t say, well, ‘I wasn’t that bad.’ Then, the only forgiveness we might get could be just as shallow. And incomplete. No wonder we have those beautiful words in James 5, ‘confess your sins to one another, and forgive one another, so that you may be healed.’

Then, Joseph saw God’s good activity amid this. The evil his brothers had done, back when they were young, the Creator took and molded into something better, years down the road. “God intended it for good, to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today,” said Joseph, in his one way of explaining it out loud. 

You and I have our own ways of explaining how our Saviour does good things amid the bad. Some of our phrases are not that great. 

Someone dies, and we say, “God needed another angel to watch over us.”

Some friend gets seriously ill, and we say, “But things could always be worse.”

Some young person rejects Christianity and leaves the Church, and we say, “Oh, trust and pray for them, and they will return to the Lord.”

We can see the good work of God amid the trouble, the saving amid the sinning. Let us work at better and more gracious ways to say it. To give God the glory. To explain the hope we have that the Spirit is working all things together for good. 

Back to Genesis. Notice, Joseph made a commitment to care for his brothers and family. ‘So have no fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Joseph responds with action; he does something when his brothers plead for forgiveness.

Notice that Joseph never says, ‘I forgive you.’ Perhaps he should have, but perhaps he did not have to say that. He renews his personal and professional commitment to take care of his large family. They have a generous place to call home, in Egypt. 

I think we see from meaningful experience how true forgiveness comes with action, not just words. We apologize for something rude we said in public to a loved one. We get forgiven, but that loved one still brings up our rude failure, from time to time. We don’t feel forgiven yet, do we? Or, the person who is pardoned for shoplifting, but always still sees in the shopkeepers eye that lingering suspicion. It is not full forgiveness yet, is it?

Deep, healing forgiveness gives a generous freedom to the one who had offended. It is grace. And the feeling is profound. 

One of Charles Wesley’s hymns sings, joyfully,

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

Consider how to give someone freedom when it’s time for you to forgive that person. Christ will help you, Christ who said, ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Love your enemies.’

Finally, the Genesis 50 conversation is summed up when we read that Joseph spoke reasonably and kindly to them. Verse 21 ends, “In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”

Some of us think we speak kindly. ‘Other people are rude, but never me!’ Well, I know this is not true of Jeff White. There is more for my heart and soul to learn, so I can speak more reasonably and kindly, when someone has hurt me, or others. 

A crime is a crime, a sin is a sin. The time comes to speak from the heart of Jesus, words of forgiving kindness. With many things Joseph used that day, with his brothers, we can speak with one another. We engage emotionally. We dispel fear. We keep God in God’s place. We take the offense seriously. With the Spirit we see the big picture. We take action to show forgiveness. We speak kindly. 

Amid this, our Redeemer will truly set us all free.

September 20: Count the Stars

Welcome to this post with parts of our worship service. More details can be found in the bulletin, here on another page of our website.

Children’s Time ‘Father Abraham, and birthdays!

Sermon “Count the Stars” Scriptures: Genesis 15:1-6; Luke 3:7-9

Some of us, during the past months of crisis and precautions, have had time to ponder our purpose. “Why am I here?” No, I don’t mean when you go upstairs and can’t recall why you went up there. I mean, “Am I living a life that is making a difference to other people, to the world?” Today, you might like the answer. Or, you may be discouraged about yourself. And I dare say there are many people around us who are not happy about where their life is at the moment.

Today, let’s look up, and count the stars, as it were. With Abram and Sarai, of old. Let us try to see what they saw, and have hope. 

This little scene, read for us today by Bev, is but one moment in the saga of Abram and Sarai in these chapters of Genesis. There have already been promises from God, and there will be more. And what actually happens to these old folks is a bit of a soap opera. At this moment, though, Abram gets inspired by the promise that he will have descendants – by the million – and a place for them to call home. Even though he was still an old man with no children.

1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 

‘Do not fear.’ A common Bible phrase, it starts a few special speeches. In other words: it’s good news! Instead of “Hear the word of the LORD,” or “Woe unto you…,” it’s “Do not fear.” So, relax; something good is going to happen!

When we study the Christian ‘Good News,’ in the broadest sense, we see it is ‘good news’ for many individual people. And personal good news is something many people sure could use. 

2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 

Abram and Sarai are gettin up there, so how on earth will they have a family and a huge number of descendants in the future? Read the next chapters and you will find out! 

We can’t read ahead into the next chapters of our lives, or those we care about, can we? So our present, and our past, have a big influence on how we feel today about life. What we are accomplishing. What’s next for us. What’s good. 

What if we don’t see signs of good news? What will my legacy be? What is the purpose of life? Most of us have moments like Abram did, moments of not much hope. Just can’t believe certain good things are ever going to happen. 

I think about my own sense of purpose. You might think I am happy-go-lucky and quite positive about my work here, what I am accomplishing, how I am helping, making a difference. Well, no, not really. For the most part I am ‘ho hum’ about my ministry here now. I do really enjoy life here, with you, and our community. But what difference am I making? 

Some days I feel the things I want to accomplish get no response. The ways I want to teach and guide don’t get a following. I look back at more than six years and see one baptism. One. And that of a young person who was moving away – far away – and did go. I find myself enjoying hiking and doing plant research more than working on prayer, and how we care, and the music we share. 

“O Lord God, what will you give me?” Like Abram, I ask what are the fruits of my labours? Or how to work differently in this corner of the vineyard.

Perhaps you are like me and compare yourself with others. Rev. Dr. George Allen died the other day. 107 ½ years of life, and to the end, an inspiring pastor. He was your interim pastor here once upon a time. I have heard so much about him. How could I compare myself to such a beloved man of God? Oh, to be such a storyteller. Oh, to be such a caring man with an amazing memory. Oh, to be able to speak off the cuff, without a note, so effectively!

Let’s take a break, and pay tribute to this man. Here is a recording of him when he was only 105 years of age, telling a joke… (starting at about 1:00)

You know where Mabou is? Well, in Mabou there was a fellow by the name of Joshua, Joshua MacPherson. And you know that was back in the days when they had stills, and they go in the woods and produce a little whiskey? Well, sir, Joshu had a still out in the woods, back of Mabou. Someone called up one of the Constables, and told him about it. So he went up and he caught them, he caught them right at their work. So he said, “I have to give you a summons, to go into Mabou to Court, on a certain day.” 

So they went to court on a certain day. And the judge looked at old Joshua and thought he’d have some fun. So he said, “I see your name is Joshua.”  

“Yes.” 

“Are you that Joshua, in the Bible, that made the sun stand still?” 

The old fellow says, “No, Judge, I’m not that Joshua that made the sun stand still. I’m the Joshua from Mabou who made the moonshine.”

Last year, I paid George Allen a visit. I had never met him before. We chatted about a few things; he asked about a number of you, here at Digby Baptist. And… I didn’t remember, but he remembered, that we had met. A decade ago, at a funeral at Windsor Baptist Church. His memory, at 106, was better than mine!

When it is all said and done, the great ones among us are here to inspire and lead and encourage us, not to make us feel inferior. That was one of the gifts of George Allen: the positive push to help us along. 

And so, old Abram was encouraged and inspired, in his vision that day. 5 [God] brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 

Friday, you may remember, was a cloudy, windy day, half-filled with blowing drizzle. Saturday morning I got up at ten to six, and looked out the windows at the clear black sky and all the stars. Out one window I think there was a bright planet among them. Out another window was the constellation Orion, and then, for just a half second, a shooting star!

We too must listen for the inspiring promises, the visions of hope and purpose, the long-view of things. This is what broke through to Abram that day. It was one of a succession of special moments for him and Sarai, over the course of many years. Yes, their legacy would be great. 

To be blessed and be the people of blessing was what they had been promised a few years before. Yet – think about it – the great blessing of their lives would be mostly after, and long after, they were dead.

The good things for us and from us may be here beyond our lifetimes! Our legacy, the good we have done in the world, just may happen to make a bigger difference in people’s lives after we too are dead. Sometimes this is the plan. But that is no reason to despair or be disappointed. It may be our calling to be a good ancestor. Ever get joy from the thoughts of being a good ancestor? Leaving this world better than it was before your life?

Notice what ole Abram did. 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Believing the impossible. More than once, Abram dreamed the impossible dream. Today, there are millions of ‘children of Father Abraham’ and mother Sarah. So, John the Baptizer was right when he said that God could make a child of Abraham out of a rock. Most of us are not of Jewish ancestry, or out of the Hebrew Faith. Yet, from Sarai and Abram came a Faith, and then a Messiah who is for us also. We all get grafted in, adopted, healed deeply into the family of God.

Now, I must make one more point. Just because Abram and Sarai got this promise does not mean you and I, and tons of people today, get the same message. “Look up and count the stars: YOUR legacy will be INCREDIBLE!’ No, not necessarily. Yet we can all be stars that were counted; stars that count for something. ‘Look up and count the stars…” We are each one of those stars that count for something.

I end by switching from stars to starfish and this well-known tale. https://www.thestarfishchange.org/starfish-tale

IT ALL STARTED WHEN… A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied,

“Well, I made a difference for that one!”

You do not need to leave a huge legacy, or accomplish an impossible mission to make a difference. You do not need to be a Sara or an Abraham. You do need to listen to the call of God upon your life. Do you hear the call to make a difference – in your own way – and be one of those shining stars Abram saw? It is the call of Christ, saying, “Come, follow me. Take up your cross. I will give you rest. Make disciples.”

Go, make a difference to someone!

PRAYERS Let us pray with these themes.

D – Disease & Disasters: help!

I – Intervention: do something!

G – Guidance: help people find the way.

B – Born Again: we need new beginnings.

Y – You: let us simply rest in You.

Amen.

Sept 13: Good and Evil

Welcome to this post with Children’s Time, Sermon, and Prayers for Sunday, September 13, 2020.

What do you see at first glance? 

What do you see when you first glance at the world? Good, or evil? At humanity? And at yourself, deep inside? GOOD or EVIL? How much of both?

We start the whole story of the Bible today with some fundamental stories, including some of the primary stories of good and evil. There is so much we could explore and talk about in Genesis two and three! Let’s wade right into what is right and what is wrong. 

On Labour Day I was talking with my parents, and Mom got into the terrible news from her hometown, Oshawa, ON. A man shot his sister and most of her family members, at home, killing four of them, and them himself. One of mom’s brothers still lives in Oshawa, and – this is typical of Uncle Don – he drove up to the neighbourhood to check things out. He saw a Global TV news crew, went right up to talk to them, and get ‘the scoop’ on what they knew. My mother’s side of the family are quite the news hounds.

So, Mom talked about what she and Don had talked about on the phone, and the whole thing. “How could someone do such a thing!” she said, as we all say, when such events happen. It is so terrible, it does not make sense to us.

The good in people and the evil in people are things we have our own perspective on, and try to figure out. So it has always been, of course. And thus, we have in our spiritual tradition the stories of God and Adam and Eve. The creation, and ‘the fall,’ as they are called, we tell in our sacred scriptures. The ongoing battle of good and evil is always with us, and these formative Bible stories are a touchstone for us. They ground us. They influence us – as they should. They reveal what is real to us, in us, and about us.

You know, the problem in Eden was not the apple on the tree. No. It was the pair on the ground!

Adam and Eve, in Genesis 3, get something that is trouble, from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is not just a story about two people, long, long ago. It is a story about all of us, about each one of us. We know, from our own experience, what good and evil are. We are surrounded by them, we have them inside ourselves. 

I think of a friend and former deacon of one of my past churches. He is a brilliant man, with deep, even charismatic Christian experience. He was a strategist. He was involved in children’s ministry with puppets and clowning. He studied the scriptures, alone and in small groups. He and his wife share the gift of hospitality. 

Then, one day, he inappropriately touches his own granddaughter. He immediately reports himself. He does time in prison. His relationship with his children and grandchildren gets wrecked and cut off. But life goes on. The redemptive work of Christ goes on, in his life, even though some bridges are now burned and he can never cross again.

Alongside our questions about how good and how evil we people are, is the issue of creation, of nature. How good and how bad is nature? How good or bad are we treating it, we also ask.

More than a week ago I happened to find the dead body of a large animal on an isolated stretch of rocky beach. Perhaps you have seen dead seals, or even at some time, a dead whale, washed up on shore, starting to decay. I have.

From a distance, I saw this, and with my binoculars, I figured it was a small whale. As I got closer, I realized it was not. It was a sea turtle! A large, Leatherback Sea Turtle. Dead, with front flippers totally wrapped and entangled in fishing rope. 

It can be an amazing thing to find such a creature, in such a state. It is fascinating. It is rare. It is frightening. It is sad. It is amazing. 

The next day, I got in touch with the Canadian Sea Turtle Network, gave them all the information I could tell them, and sent my photos. They sent some fisheries officers there to collect the fishing gear, take measurements, and a DNA sample of the animal. 

The day after that, I hiked there again, at low tide, with a friend, to see if we could see it. No. It was gone. Washed farther up or down the shore. Free of all that rope, the body was free to move.

Of course, every Leatherback Sea Turtle dies. Every Right Whale dies. Every Herring Gull and every Sparrow dies, eventually. But when we, people, cause it, it seems wrong. Is it wrong? Is it not good? Is it evil?

I happened to talk on the phone to a pastor friend about this last week. “What is evil?” I wondered out loud, with him. ‘A shark attacks a giant turtle and kills it: is that wrong? Is that evil? But if we kill one off with our fishing gear, is that bad?’ My pastor friend, who came from South Carolina, loves Digby scallops. I asked him, ‘What if we scrape up live scallops from the Fundy floor, shuck them in half while still alive, and cut out the big muscle, the meat? It is so delicious. But is that wrong? Evil?’ 

“No,” he said, of course; and he still expects me to bring a pound of fresh scallops when I come up the Valley, next trip. 🙂

My anecdote takes us, as a segue, to nature, ‘Nature red in tooth and claw,” as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, put it. Coyotes eat deer, and snowshoe hare, and other animals. Coyotes are carnivores. Or, we see a beautiful little butterfly. It lands in a big spider’s web, gets wrapped up, paralized, and eaten up by the spider. What’s good or bad about these happenings? They are natural, we might say. 

Some folks who study scripture would wonder – and then suppose – that in Eden, before ‘the Fall,’ the animals did not eat one another. That violence did not happen until Adam and Eve sinned, just as thorns did not grow until after, and so forth.

Well, I am not going to wade into the turbulent waters of that sort of debate, today. I simply want us to look at this scripture saga, which helps us come face to face with the fact that there is harm and violence and wrong and deception and lying and death in our world. And in us. Our God needs us to know this, so that we may then remain in God’s care and keeping.

Genesis two and three have many important words we could consider, for a long time. We could spend a whole sermon on the word ‘adam/Adam’ or ‘YHWH/ the LORD,’ or ‘adamah/dust’ or ‘selah/rib/side.’ The one word I kept being drawn back to, this past week, was ‘shamar/keep/guard/take care/watch over.’ 

One of the good things about humankind, is the keeping or tending of the garden, described in Genesis 2. After things go wrong, there is still caring and working the land, but it is outside Eden, and is harder work. Chapter 2: YHWH God took the man and put him in the garden of eden to till and keep it. Chapter 3: cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life… 

This is but the beginning of our story. We have this whole book to tell the story. All the way through, there are moments when God breaks in to keep and guard, to protect and nurture humans. 

As in Psalm 121, today. We read parts, which said:

God guards you from every evil,

he guards your very life.

He guards you when you leave and when you return,

he guards you now,

he guards you always.

We sang it translated with these phrases:

No careless slumber shall his eyelids close,

who keepth thee.

Jehovah is Himself thy keeper true…

He whom we adore

Shall keep thee henceforth, yeah, forevermore.

This God, from whom we get separated, with whom we have a falling out, is One who comes to us, to keep us, to guard us, to protect and nurture us. There are many stories of this, culminating with that of Jesus, Godself, as one of us. 

It is because we are broken that we rejoice in God the Fixer. It is because we are separated and isolated that we rejoice in God the Reuniter. It is because we are hurting that we rejoice in God the Healer. It is because we have nastiness inside that we rejoice in God the Lover of our souls. And, as in the prayer Jesus taught, we can forgive others as we have been forgiven by God our Saviour.

As one of our good things, in the image of God, is to keep and take care of creation; so we see our Beautiful Master is good in the care and keeping of us, and all things. Though the world falls apart, our Saviour works to bring all things and all good together. In the name of Jesus, we even get welcomed back into that work, back onto the team of God. 

The terrible fall, seen in the story of Adam and Eve, is finally picked up and repaired by the Second Adam. The Apostle Paul called Jesus the Second Adam. And so He is. What got wrecked, and what we wreck today, gets repaired by Him. 

So, when God looks in your direction: do you feel ‘He’ sees good or evil first? 

The One we worship looks upon us and says: ‘I want to keep you, guard you, nurture you, bless you.’ I even sacrifice Myself – My Son – for you.

Hallelujah! Amen.

PRAYERS We have done this before, let’s do it again: look at our stained-glass windows to guide our conversation with God. With eyes open, let us pray.

We look up, God we worship, to the picture of a musical instrument, like King David played. Help us do this well, when we gather here. Despite the limitations of our gathings, let our spirits soar, and see You with awe and wonder. Bless other congregations that are just starting, now, to gather in person, such at Trinity Anglican: may they not be discouraged.

We look up, God of Rescue, to the Ark that Noah and family, and the whole family of animals, rode in on the waters, many days. Among all the living things of creation we can see and think and understand the wonders of earth. We see our ability and responsibility to tend and keep creation. O give us humble perspective on being co-creators with You.

We also pray for your rescuing help for friends in trouble – their health fails, their circumstances are troubled, or their sins try to defeat them. Today we intercede for Mary Warner, and all who must receive extra oxygen to keep them breathing well: bless every breath they take.

We look up, God of Sacrifice, to an altar with a burning sacrifice upon it. You call us to be living sacrifices, in the name of Jesus. May we give our attention, our resources, our skills, & our hearts, to the help of others in this world, in Jesus’ name.

The fire on the altar reminds us also of the actual fires that burn with destruction, on the west coast of the USA, and other places. Have mercy, we pray!

We look over, God of Christ crucified, to the cup of wine, that Jesus shared before His death. A glass of wine is so attractive to so many people, and they lift their glasses high to celebrate and be joyful. May we drink deeply in our souls from Jesus, and be extremely happy when He is at hand! For those who are ill, may there be real joy in knowing You are near. We pray for John, Dottie, Bobby, Faye, Jack, Mary, Terry, Marilyn, and others…

We look over, God of rule and kingdom, to the Crown of Jesus. We pray, as scripture teaches, for all those who govern us, around our world. There are elections coming up, here, and in the USA, and other places. We call out for justice to be done, for freedom to grow, for common sense and a sense of responsibility to prevail, in these troubled days. And let there be healing among the nations, and for the suffering people of the globe.

We look back, God of life, and see an image of the Ten Commandments. We are reminded of so many rules and guidelines, and of how we keep or break them. But on the other side we see a picture of the Holy Bible, and we give thanks that You continue to speak to us, guiding our way, and giving a forgiving word to our souls.

So we look back, God our Good Shepherd, to our glass image of Jesus carrying a sheep. We end, confessing that we know all we like sheep have gone astray. There is still wrong going on inside us; there is still wrong being done to us. 

Be our Redeeming Shepherd again, this day, and always. By You love and power, Triune God: Father, Son & Spirit. AMEN.

Worship, Sept 6

Children’s Time: Beachcombing

SERMON: The Big Story (Psalm 136; Acts 13:15-33) – Jeff White

One week ago, at this moment, Sharon and I worshipped with another church in our area. They met indoors, inside their building, like we do. Here, we use only one in three pews, in order to be physically distanced. The church we visited used every second pew. I guess two metres is shorter in their building. It was made clear to us we must sit in a pew without a cushion on it. Here, we leave the cushions on the only seats to be sat upon. Also, we entered wearing masks, but were told we could take them off once we sat down in a pew. Here, unless we are the one person speaking, or singing, we keep them on. 

It is clear that local groups of Christians are understanding the provincial guidelines for this state of emergency differently – sometimes with the fair opposite interpretation!

Christians following the Bible can be like local Churches following pandemic recommendations. One church says ‘drink no alcohol, ever,’ another actually serves alcohol, at least at their communion service. One church baptizes with water only people grown up enough to agree to follow Jesus, another gives baptism to infants before they can speak one word. One church puts women in leadership at every level, just like men; another church allows only men to lead and preach; and another allows only single, celebate men to be in those roles.

And we all claim to be following God and the Holy Bible. So, surely, all we, believers, have got some things wrong, and only God’s got it all right.

Thus, we keep meeting, keep studying, keep praying, to know better. To know how to do this better. To know God better personally. We keep reading scripture, and work on it together; we never stop.

I have been convinced, for years, that one key to knowing the Bible is to see the Big Picture. Get to know the big story – the ‘metanarrative’ – and then see how the smaller parts fit within it: the books, the chapters, the verses.

My Old Testament professor, Dr. Timm Ashley, would tell us: ‘The three most important things for understanding a Biblical text are these: 1. the context. 2. the context. 3. the context! 

The context is the big picture. You read one Bible verse and ask, ‘who said this, who wrote it? When? And why? What happened before and after? Where does this fit in the whole scheme of things?’ There is a ‘whole scheme of things’ here.

One verse or story, even a whole chapter, can be misused when quoted. Remember what Satan does with a scripture verse when tempting Jesus in the wilderness? He suggests the wrong thing to do – using the Bible. Jesus knows the whole thing, the big pic.

There are times, in the scripture story, when the big picture gets summarized, and remembered, and celebrated. Such as in the historical Psalms: 78; 105, 106 & 107; 114; 135 & 136, which we recited today. We see summaries in the preaching of the New Testament apostles. As in what Paul said in Pisidian Antioch, that Heather read today. In this case, Paul is preaching about Jesus, and uses the whole story of the Hebrews and their God to lead to Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah. 

What a preacher like Paul gives is a summary; he selects certain things from the whole story to mention. Of course, what’s recorded here in Acts 13 of Paul’s sermon is but a short synopsis; surely his actual sermon that day was more than three minutes long!

The story is told of a special Church meeting and dinner that was being held, and near the end of the meeting, the pastor stood up to offer a few closing remarks, which became quite long-winded. As he rambled on, he lost his place in his notes for the third time. “Now where was I?” he asked, scratching his beard.  To the delight of the audience, one person spoke up and said, “In conclusion!”

When you see the bigger picture, and understand the context of a piece of the Bible you are reading, you can know how the idea you see fits into the whole thing. You can discover if it is part of one of the big themes, the main ideas. Or, if it is a smaller point to ponder. A minority report. A dissenting voice among the majority. All these things are here in these pages. 

For instance, it can be easy, and comforting, to quote verses that speak of how protected and safe we shall be. ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I will not lack anything.’ Yet there is a right time and a wrong time for such words. 

Just look at that scene from Matthew 4 of Jesus tempted in the wilderness. At one point, Satan quotes Psalm 91:11. ‘For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.’ Now, there is nothing wrong with Psalm 91. Peter and I have even sung a version of it as a duet. But, that moment, in a Palestenian wilderness, Jesus rejects what Satan is suggesting, using Psalm 91. Jesus answers with another verse, this one from Deuteronomy 6. ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ How a Bible verse gets used matters. 

We see how so many Christians can end up disagreeing with one another about so many things. Using the Bible. But we do not give up! We must not give up on using the scriptures to hear from God. Just because it can become confusing, or upsetting, or mysterious, or challenging, the Holy Bible is still holy and still powerful for us. The work we put into it is worth it. It is a life-long conversation we have with our Master in this amazing text. There is always more to talk about – to pray – in the Spirit.

So, in my preaching plans for the next eight or ten months I intend to use something called the narrative lectionary. Each Sunday, we follow the flow of the whole story in the Bible. We will start with Creation, and by December we will get to the promises of a Messiah. After Christmas, we will follow the story of Jesus, and of the apostles taking the Church to the world. I hope and pray this will give us a good perspective on holy scripture, refresh our sense of holy history, and ‘the big picture.’

And many times we will end up as Paul did in Pisidian Antioch. With Christ: crucified, buried, risen, and visible! Paul concludes his message saying:

Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this [Jesus] everyone who believes is set free from all [those sins] from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. (A13:38-39)

On the bulletin cover today we have a copy of a Victorian painting that is framed, in black and white, in our Parlour: ‘The Soul’s Awakening,’ by James Sant. The portrait in the Parlour was donated by the family of Marie Woolaver, I believe, years ago. The girl in the picture is, apparently, awakening to faith in Jesus, with a small Bible in her hands. The Big Story of holy scripture, and many Bible moments of which we read in the verses, can still have a deep influence upon the human soul. 

We now gather at the Lord’s Table for communion – for fellowship – with Jesus. Here we tell, with bread and juice, the story of Christ. For us Christians, His story puts the Big Picture of the Bible in perspective.

PRAYERS: Omniscient God: seeing and knowing all – we quiet ourselves under Your gaze, in the light of Your countenance. We have praised You for the great story of Faith You have shared with us, and now we focus upon the centre of the story, the Saviour, Jesus, and His saving actions. 

As we look toward the table of our Lord, we pray from here for ourselves and the whole world. We ask for those who are not asking. We seek You for those who are not even seeking. We hope and have faith for the sake of many who are without hope or confidence in Christ. 

Life is changing, God. It always does. For some life has gotten harder: there have been losses, hurts, troubles, fears. Be the strength of the weak, the wisdom of the confused, the way for the lost. In this ‘state of emergency’ getting sick is harder, for the help and the treatments are more arduous. Have mercy.

Spirit – working in our midst – on this Labour Day weekend we pray for all who work, especially those whose work has become more challenging this year. Today we pray in particular for teachers and workers in schools and colleges, and for all the students – those in classrooms and those at home. From day to day, may You remind us that education is not easy for anyone right now. So make us into encouragers and supporters, not critics and fearmongers.

God: Perfect Parent of all peoples: the civil unrest, the calls for justice, the acting out in anger over evil continues from day to day. To You, all lives matter. May we be like You, and see all others through the eyes of Christ. We Protestant Christians are rooted in protests of the past. May we be guided to stand up for others, stand up for what is right and better, and stand up with peacefulness and power in the Spirit. 

O God, how long! How long shall pestilence, & ignorance, and violence, and greed, and disasters crash in upon the world? Oh draw us closer to You, and to one another, for the sake of the beauty You want on this planet. And help us pray. Our Father… AMEN.

New Old Parables: The Lion & Her Cubs

WELCOME to this post for worship on Sunday, August 9, 2020, at Digby Baptist Church. Other information is available in the Bulletin for this Sunday, posted on our Bulletins page here.

Children’s Time: Outhouses / Latrines

SERMON

https://vimeo.com/446234975

So many of these Old Testament ‘parables,’ so called, have been about the rulers in Israel and Judah, and how they done wrong! The King of the Trees, the Thistle and the Cedar, The Two Eagles and the Vine, they criticize or warn or foretell the end of rulers of the people, and sometimes, the end of the people as a people! The late Canadian comedy persona, Charlie Farquaharson, summed it up well when he wrote:

A profit is sumbuddy gets up on a high place, looks down on everybuddy elts. No matter what ther name is, everyone of them profits seems to tell the people the same thing: YER DOIN’ IT ALL RONG!!

(Don Harron, Olde Charlie Farquharson’s Testament, 1978)

Today, Ezekiel is telling about some leaders who were doin’ it all wrong. The last kings of Judah and Israel, more than five hundred years before Jesus’ day. They are the whelps of the mother lion.

Once again, a prophet of God speaks with creative imagery the people can/may/will understand. Once again, the poor rulers of the people are called out for their failure, and the demise of the nation is foretold. Young lion one gets taken away to Egypt. Young lion two gets hauled off to Babylonia, his voice never to be heard again on the mountains of Israel. Sure enough, the holy people of a holy land will be conquered, taken away from their land for a season, and the end of their kings will come. 

In fact, the next time they get a king, they will mostly reject him, and kill him off. Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, we believe, He is their long-awaited Messiah, Christ, Anointed One. And our Saviour too.

What I chose for us to hear from Jesus today were more harsh words for those in leadership in His own day and age. ‘The blind leading the blind,’ as we know the phrase. His parable here really is about what comes out of the mouth showing the problem in a person, not what they put in. As Jesus speaks with His disciples, he tells them to let the Pharisees be, “they are blind guides of the blind.” 

Whether we compare Christ with the royal leaders of His past, or with the religious experts of His own religion, we look to see how and why Jesus’ way is better. Better than the political and military kings of Israel and Judah. Better than the Jewish Priests and Scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees – all so religious and so expert and so holy in their own eyes.

We read of the experience of those who got to know Jesus best. Back in the Bible, and in the centuries after. So many people – millions and millions, actually – can tell how convinced they have been about Jesus. What Jesus accomplished for them was the best thing. Where Jesus leads them is the best way in this life. 

As we speak of Jesus as the Prince of Peace, the final and best Messiah, our ‘Prophet, Priest and King,’ our ‘Saviour, Teacher, Lord and Friend,’ we speak using titles for leaders of the past. We speak Biblical names for God. 

One of those titles is Lion, the Lion of Judah. Ezekiel’s tale of the two young lions brings this to mind immediately. Those lions of old were failures, and were captured. The greater Lion of Judah is mentioned in Revelation 5. Jesus, the Lion. 

Take a look with me, for two minutes, at Rev. 5, and what happens in the scenes dreamed here. John visions a scroll sealed with 7 seals, but oh no!, there is no one worthy to open this scroll. John weeps. 

Then, verse 5, one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

So what does John see next in his vision? The Lion! Right? No, wrong. He does not see a Lion. Vs. 6. Then I saw… a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes… 

The Lamb took the scroll. The Elders and other creatures bow down in worship, singing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation…

Christ Jesus is the Lion and the Lamb. The image of Him as the sacrificed Lamb takes over the rest of Revelation. Jesus wins, not by violence, not by battle, but by sacrifice, by dying. And from this comes Life!

A number of hymns, ancient and modern, speak of Christ this biblical way. Such as…

And age to age He stands
And time is in His hands
Beginning and the End
Beginning and the End
The Godhead three in one
Father Spirit Son
The Lion and the Lamb
The Lion and the Lamb

(Chris Tomlin | Ed Cash | Jesse Reeves © 2004 sixsteps Music)

How great is our God! How great is our Jesus. In Him was life! And that life is the light of us all. (Jn 1:4) Christ outshines all others. 

All the parables, all the stories and visions that point to Jesus, use so many images. A Lion, a Lamb, a Grape Vine, a Farmer, Bread, Flowing Water, Light, a Shepherd, a Door. And many other stories can be told of this One who dispenses with evil and death, for us.

I want to tell a story. I love these stories, stories by a preacher named Michael Lindvall. This is from one chapter of his novel about a preacher, David, and his family, a novel called ‘Leaving North Haven.’ 

In this chapter, Pastor David is out and about on a cold, Easter Sunday morning…

The wet snow crunched under my boots. It was everywhere untrodden, virgin. This preacher, like Mary Magdalene, was the first one up. Light was just cracking the horizon, deep dawn an inch before sunrise. Lifting my coffee cup to my lips, I looked down at the snow in front of me and saw tracks, perfection had been disturbed by light feet, wandering, paying no heed to where the sidewalk might lie under the snow. They led away toward the church, going on before me. Sometime in the night, perhaps just a moment ago, another deer had wandered into town. By the look of the prints, it was a good-sized animal, probably a buck. I was not the first one up on Easter morning after all.

I followed the tracks for a while — they were leading me where I was going anyway— until they turned aside into Bud Jennerson’s driveway. 

As I mused, the buck stepped out in front of me from behind an overgrown yew at the far corner of the next house… I gasped and dropped my half-full coffee mug, which landed quietly on the snow- covered grass next to the sidewalk. For two, maybe three seconds, an eternity to be sure, he stood in my path and looked at me. His brown-black eyes held mine defiantly… I looked between and above the eyes, and there in the hair that covered the hard cartilage at the base of his antlers was a scar. It was an ugly bald crater less than an inch across. No blood now; but it was just where it would be. 

He snorted as he raised his head and turned away, quite casually. Then he didn’t so much as bolt as he leaped three times with early morning grace, turned to me again, and walked delicately so as to say, “I do not fear you.” I stood stock still as I watched him retreat, away from town now, north. I bent over to retrieve the empty Dunkin’ Donuts mug at my feet. Coffee stained the snow around it like old dried blood. 

So when I climbed into the pulpit three hours later, I began not where I had planned, but where I had been led. 

As best as words allowed, I described [the buck’s] defiant eyes, and then I noted the scar at the base of his rack. “It was a ten-point rack,” I said.” I didn’t count this morning. I didn’t need to. I had counted them before.”

[The congregation] knew that the minister went hunting with the Wilcox boys last fall. They also knew that he had lost Jimmy’s Winchester out in woods north of town, the very gun his father had given him for his eighteenth birthday. But just how I came to lose it in the woods they did not know. 

“You know that the Wilcox boys and I went deer hunting last fall,” I went on. “Right here in the county. Just for a day. We went out just before dawn the Saturday after opening day. We had our coffee by the truck. Lamont and I went off to the east over a cornfield toward some low-lying sumac and popple next to a stand of maples just beyond the old Goerke farm. ”

As I told the tale I did not mention that, though I had never before hunted game bigger than snipe, I was in fact a rather good shot. Thirty-some years ago my father, grasping for some father and son activity I would deign to share with him, had hit upon skeet shooting. My father said I was a natural. 

I continued: “Well, Larry drove a big buck out of the wood. Lamont and I were still crossing the corn stubble. The deer pushed his way through the underbrush to the edge of the sumac and stood there, not fifty yards from us. Lamont said to me, ‘David, he’s yours.’ I aimed between the eyes, a clear shot and a clean kill. He bowed to me ever so slightly as I pulled the trigger. He dropped right there. Lamont and I ran across the corn stubble. He lifted the animal’s head by the rack and counted the points on his antlers. ‘Ten-point Pastor. Not bad, not bad at all. And lookie here, almost hit him between the eyes. Just a little high. must be a natural!’ Larry arrived a moment later, with his camera, of course… Larry said a photo was a must and that there was only one way to do it. He told me to kneel down and hold up the buck’s head by his rack. Then he told Lamont to lay my rifle, actually Jimmy Wilcox’s 94 Winchester 30-30, horizontally across the antlers. 

I knelt beside the animal, warm and still. His head was heavier than I had imagined. It was awkward to lift and hold still. Lamont laid the rifle across the rack and moved back beside his brother who was focusing and deciding whether or not to use the flash. He held up his hand, took a step back, and said, ‘Hold it right there.’ The flash went off… and with a start, the buck shook his antlers free of my hands. He struggled powerfully to his feet as I fell back on my rear. He snorted and jerked his head back. Then he turned and leapt three times toward the tangle of sumac. But before he went back into the woods beyond, he turned and looked at me. His dark, glass-like eyes held nothing so much as defiance. His antlers held nothing but Jimmy’s Winchester 30-30. He went into the woods carrying the very instrument of his death high and proud.”

It was defiance that I preached, for Easter is just that. This one bold creature of God had mocked death once and mocked me twice. Resurrection, I preached, is the forever mocking of the last enemy. Until this morning, I had always imagined the Risen Christ with compassion in his eyes; now I imagine raw defiance.

(Michael Lindvall, Leaving North Haven: The further Adventures of a Small-Town Pastor, 2002, pp. 120-129)

In 609 BCE, King Jehoash of Judah could not defy Egypt: he was taken captive. In 586 BCE, King Zedekiah of Judah could not defy Babylon: he was taken captive, and the Jewish nation finally fell. 

In 2020 CE, Bolsonaro, Kovind, Trump and others cannot defy a virus. Where the pandemic story ends is yet to be written, from our viewpoint.

But back about 30 CE (30 AD), Jesus of Nazareth defied evil and defied death. He looked them right in the face. He came through it all, and did what He did to bring us through it all too. 

He is the Lion and the Lamb. Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12)

New Old Parables: The Love Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard

Welcome to this post of parts of our August 2nd worship service. Video will be included on Sunday afternoon, after the 11 am service in our church building. Welcome! This is our first Sunday with masks mandated, though, thankfully, those speaking can remove them to offer their ministry.

SERMON Perhaps you could say it was ‘bait and switch’ when young Isaiah declared he would share a love song, but used the ballad to speak a severe warning from Almighty God to the people of power. ‘The Love Song of the Fruitless Vineyard.’ Let’s hear it. Isaiah 5:1-10

Too many stories can be told of people given a certain responsibility, yet then they abuse their power. The national and provincial news is filled with this. 

Isaiah’s early message to the people is this song of his dear friend’s vineyard. His beloved friend is God. In the ballad, the well-tended grape vines surprisingly produce a nasty crop – sour, wild grapes. 

As I look at a social media page about gardening, I see people all the time asking “what is this plant?” One person says: “Found some old seed in a drawer  planted it  anybody have any idea what this is    thanks”. It looks to me like ragweed! Another wrote:

Anyone know what these giant plants are amongst my beans? A friend gave me the seeds so not 100% sure other vegetables might have been mixed in. She is very knowlesge I have a feeling the seeds and possible flower that appears to be forming on top is a sign of a weed.  The plant looks like pigweed to me!

So in the fruitless vineyard. The only grapes were inedible. What we are calling the Parable of the Fruitless Vineyard speaks to the failures of the people of God in every age. The best response to such a word, such a warning, is to rise up in forgiveness and make right the wrongs.

Let me tell you a story from our history. It may not sound like ‘our’ story, but it is. The story of Huatajata, a rural place in Bolivia, South America.

When I am at my little cottage, I think of Bolivia, because of a painting on the wall. The painting of a sunset – or is it a sunrise? No matter. It was painted by Rev. Earl C. Merrick, who served as a missionary in Bolivia. He showed amazing leadership in Bolivia, in the farmland of Huatajata, in the 1930s.

Canadian Baptist work in Bolivia goes back more than 120 years, now. In the north west, on the shores of the grand lake Titicaca, some visionary people of faith invested their lives in a mission there, among peasant farmers. I’ve been there; visited ten years ago. 

Just over a hundred years ago, a thousand acre farm was bought, and named Peniel Hall: Peniel meaning ‘the face of God,’ from Genesis 32. On this land, about fifty heads of households and 275 serfs lived and worked. The Baptists believed in helping the people be educated, and be introduced to the protestant Christian faith. 

After some ups and downs in the work there, by 1920 the full administration of the farm came under Canadian Baptist leadership. The first administrator there, and one of the teachers, was a Miss Lavinia Wilson, who was from where? Digby, NS!

Other Canadian Baptists went to serve there, and to lead that work, high in the thin air of the Andes Altiplano. Modernization of the farm and education of children developed. Preaching in other communities was extended. It was in 1935 that Earl Merrick was sent to Huatajata, to be administrator. Arturo Nacho writes, in his brief history:

This illustrious missionary perceived ethical problems in the project because, on one hand, the missionaries were preaching about the love of God, and on the other hand, the tenants continued as slaves. In the Annual Reports of the Mission, 1929-1930, this situation was referred to as “a conspiracy against the gospel.”

…Merrick proposed a five-year plan for the liberation of the serfs. 

  • wage pay to the laborers, and no free labor
  • construction of decent housing
  • planting of eucalyptus trees
  • adherence to behavioural morals

The project began in 1937, and the day came when the laborers received their property title-deeds. One after another, they walked by in line to receive the property documents, and they heard the significant words, “I declare you the legitimate owner of this property.” It was the year 1942…

One old gentleman, Martin Chura, said through his tears, “Thirty years ago, when I was crossing the top of the mountain, I begged God for liberty. Today, God has answered by prayer.”

This work had universal consequences. It was the first agrarian reform in Bolivia, which the Bolivian government subsequently took as a model for the 1953 Decree of Agrarian Reform in Bolivia.

(Atruro Nacho L., ‘Agrarian Reform in Huatajata, in Bridging Culture and Hemispheres, William H. Brackney, Ed., 1997, pp. 61-62)

Appreciation and accolades for Earl Merrick, and this Baptist work, came from around the world. This is our story. A story of the reversal of the rich ones who ‘join house to house and field to field,’ as Isaiah put it. And it is the story of growing Faith in people. The vineyard of Bolivia has borne fruit for Christ.

When you read the rest of Isaiah chapter 5, you discover it is not just the greedy land grabbers who are warned. There are six woes upon those who have done wrong: the land-grabbers, the heavy drinkers, the God-mocking sinners, those who’ve lost their moral discretion, those wise in their own eyes, and the drinkers again (wine-drinking heroes, they’re called). 

As it was, almost three thousand years ago, so it is today. God expects justice from those walking with God; God expects right-living, not bloodshed and loud cries for justice!

This takes us to Jesus, and his words from Matthew 21 today. Another parable. Another vineyard. More bloodshed! Another warning. And another hope for those who will receive the Kingdom. 

To modern Christians, Jesus’ story of the Vineyard and the Wicked Tenants clearly seems to foreshadow His own rejection and violent death. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 

As if that would allow them to get the property! And yet, when Jesus dies his own death, and comes back to life, it is those whose sin He bears that do inherit the Kingdom! Think of all the evangelical Christian music that points out how Christ is crucified by all of us, and yet the heavenly inheritance is for us. Amazing, gracious, powerful, humbling, loving, incomprehensible! One modern worship song says:

Behold the man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

(Stuart Townend, 1995)

And there are many songs that speak of how “I drove the nails” when Jesus was executed. This personal expression of piety is a form of confession, I’d say. Confession that the harm and hurt inside us is what separates us from God, and is what led to Jesus’ death, and also is what is healed and cleared away by His sacrifice. 

We heard the classic rock song, “Spirit in the Sky,” composed by a secular Jew, using basic Christian teaching. For fifty years one line has caught the attention of church folk, and upset them. 

Never been a sinner I never sinned
I got a friend in Jesus
So you know that when I die
He’s gonna set me up with
The spirit in the sky

(Norman Greenbaum)

Whether Norman Greenbaum knows it or not, I think he did catch the spirit of 2 Corinthians 5. For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2C5:21) I think the key to making the claim of the song is ‘I got a friend in Jesus.’ It all depends upon the Saviour. 

We hear the common teaching that what Christ does for us cleanses us, makes us to be counted as ‘not guilty,’ and sets us free from the power of sin. We become ‘right with God,’ and as if we are not sinners and had never sinned. Jesus’ righteousness gets put upon us. 

I think the tension remains. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) To sing ‘Never been a sinner; I never sinned,’ is saying something about Jesus more than about me. I rely upon God for forgiveness and freedom of spirit. It is saying something about my status now, thanks to Jesus, not about my past. 

For, as Isaiah and Jesus both preached, my story and yours is filled with the problems we heard about today. Greed. Treating other people like lesser beings. Moral failures. Paying no attention to God. Being overly confident in our own smidgen of wisdom. 

We fail, but with Jesus Christ we are not counted as failures. We are successes! And the success is shown when we bear the good fruit of the Kindom. The Bible’s story of God tells us, over and over, God will accomplish the mission – with or without us! Others will be found to join in, if we do not.

 You may remember, in other pages of the Bible, Jesus speaking of being the great vine, and we are the branches. It is we, the little branches, who bear the beautiful fruit. It is not wild, sour grapes that we bear, when we are grafted into Christ. 

And, turning our lives over, we, little twigs, get grafted in, and are part of the beautiful vineyard, for eternity. Praise God! This is worth celebrating. This is worth sharing. This is why we worship, in pew and at home. This is why we remember Jesus with bits of bread and sips of grape juice. Amen!

PRAYERS Let us   pray.

At the table of the Saviour – Christ crucified and risen – we lift our hearts in prayer. As the wheat covered the hills, and was gathered to become one bread for us today, so let Your church be gathered, no matter how separated we are for safety’s sake. As the grapes came to harvest and make one drink for us all, so let goodness flow from all your people, in the name of Jesus.

Let there be goodness for our own fellowship, especially those we are asked to pray for today… (in the bulletin)

Let there be goodness for those who do research to combat COVID-19. Do healing work through them, O God.

Let there be goodness for those who are oppressed or disrespected, abused or alone. Strengthen them, and those who support them.

Let there be goodness for people seeking guidance right now, or wisdom in the face of decisions. Come, Holy Spirit.

Let there be goodness for our province and our nation in a time of crisis, when leadership is hard and imperfect, and people working and struggling to do well are worn out.

And let there be goodness in the day-to-day things we do, the words we share, the attention we give to other people. Through the masks, may our eyes and our voices tell the story, the story of Your love and Your way, and Your purpose.

‘God of grace, you invite the despised,
you touch the unclean,
you lift the head
of those who are brought low:
give us that hope against all hope
for a world transformed
by your healing touch;
through Jesus Christ,
the mercy of God. Amen.’
(Steven Shakespeare, Prayers for an Inclusive Church)