Tilling, Working, Naming (174)

[Genesis 2:15-20; Psalm 8]

What are people for?

Some of you will recognize that question from the title of a little book by a farmer-poet. That’s the first place I can recall seeing the matter put this way. It’s a good way to ask the question, isn’t it? What are people for? The question upends things.

We have recently welcomed several new babies into our congregation. At the same time a number of us have said a final “goodbye” to someone we love. And some of us are going through the torturous process of wondering if it is our turn for such a goodbye. Birth and death are the bookends. But what about the time in between, where we all are, soaked in the bliss, the pain, the boredom. What is that? What are people for?   Continue reading “Tilling, Working, Naming (174)”

A Meaningful Life, Even if it Doesn’t Make the Forbes List (173)

[Esther 7:1-6, 7-10; 9:20-22]

Every week we are given several possible texts that might anchor our worship service. One of options this week is a passage from the book of Esther. At a point in time when the public conversation keeps looping back to the ways many women have been mistreated by men in positions of power, it would be strange not to take this opportunity to sit with the story of Esther. This is the story of a woman who chose to step off the path her life seemed to be on. She chose to take a risk, and not a selfish risk, not a risk for herself, but a risk for others. There is a lot we can learn from Esther’s story, but one thing is surely how to live a life of significance—even in very difficult circumstances. Continue reading “A Meaningful Life, Even if it Doesn’t Make the Forbes List (173)”

Gifts to Each (172)

[Mark 7:31-37; James 2:1-8]

One of the most significant theologians of the twentieth century described God as “the One who loves in freedom.”[1]

That’s the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, writing sometime around 1939. At that point in his life Barth had been forced to give up his teaching position in Germany and leave the country because he was unwilling to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. This sort of political consciousness wasn’t new for Barth. Earlier in his life, when he was a pastor, he was well-known as an advocate for the rights of factory workers. The vitality of his theology was prompted by a crises of faith he experienced during the First World War when he saw many church leaders and intellectuals support the violence without question. They simply assumed that God backed the nationalistic agenda. Continue reading “Gifts to Each (172)”

Until the Day Breathes (171)

[Song of Solomon 2:8-17] Earlier this summer my family and I spent six days canoe camping. Over the past few years, we’ve been working our way up to spending a whole week in the backcountry. It always takes a few days to adjust to being so exposed to wind, sun and rain. Our six days this year were what I would call “honest.” By that I mean the weather was a mixture of rain and sun (with a few odd thunderstorms); the bugs were not unbearable, but they were present; our food was good, but we had to hang it in a tree at night; our sleeping bags and tent stayed dry, but we had to pack them carefully, carry them over the portage and paddle them across the bay. Continue reading “Until the Day Breathes (171)”

Cleanse Me with Hyssop (170)

In the biblical world hyssop was used for both medical and ceremonial purposes. It’s an aromatic plant, a bit like sage or mint. It was prescribed for sore throats and upset stomachs. The ancient Hebrews used it in purification rituals. That’s what the poet in Psalm 51 has in mind when he asks to be “purged with hyssop.” He has confessed; he’s hoping to be cleansed and forgiven.

The most famous advocate in our own time for the power of confession and forgiveness must be Desmond Tutu. In 1986 Tutu was named the Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa. The job came with an official residence in an area known as Bishopscourt. At the time black folks like Tutu needed special passes just to enter that part of the city. Archbishop Tutu declined to apply for such a pass. He decided he would live in the archbishop’s traditional residence with or without the approval of a racist government. Tutu did not lack for courage. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison he spent his first night as a free man in that residence, hosted by the archbishop. Continue reading “Cleanse Me with Hyssop (170)”

A Terror and a Blessing (169)

Here in II Samuel 6 we have another difficult biblical passage. It is allegedly a simple story of David moving the ark of God to a more prominent location. Earlier in the week, when I sent out the electronic version of our church’s order of service, I mentioned that I was having trouble with this passage. One person wrote back and suggested that I just follow David’s example . . . and dance.

Given the difficulty of this passage, I couldn’t help but take the suggestion seriously. Liturgical dance was a thing when I went to seminary. I didn’t take the class, but I’ve seen it done. However, in giving the idea some thought, it occurred to me (as it may have just occurred to you) that what got David in trouble was the fact that he danced in nothing but a linen ephod. Our denominational code of ethics doesn’t actually deal with this specific situation, but still . . . instead of dancing with this story, I think we are better off wrestling with it. Continue reading “A Terror and a Blessing (169)”

He Saw a Great Commotion (168)

The fourth chapter of Mark ends with the great story of Jesus calming the storm. What we don’t always notice is that when they were caught up in the storm, Jesus and his disciples were heading toward a part of ancient Palestine known as the Decapolis. It was the “other” side. The Decapolis was a group of cities culturally distinct from the area Jesus and most of his disciples called home. This area was so deeply influenced by Greek culture that many devout Jews would have considered it morally suspected, or possibly even depraved. For them it was the kind of place, that if you went at all, left you feeling contaminated.

As soon as they got out of the boat on this side of the lake a naked man with broken shackles and chains rushed at them. This would have confirmed the darkest of the disciples’ suspicions. Yet Jesus met the man, spoke to him, calmed him . . . and healed him. The locals were intimidated. They asked the group to leave. Our reading (Mark 5:21-43) comes right after this. When Mark says that Jesus and his friends “crossed again” it meant they were coming back to their side of the Galilee.      Continue reading “He Saw a Great Commotion (168)”

David, Son of Jesse, Child Soldier (167)

What do we do with some of these Bible stories? If you happen to be at a place in life where you are looking for kid’s toys, you have probably seen about a hundred different versions of Noah’s ark. All the sets are brightly colored. They have fun little boats and all sorts of wonky animals. Yet if you’ve ever actually sat down and played with one of these with a child, you’ve probably found yourself in an awkward situation. Maybe you were pushing the boat across the carpet in the living room and narrating the story in a funny voice . . . and then you suddenly realized what an awful story it is. The narrative involves all of humanity, except for one family, being drowned! Almost all the animals drown. You close the cute little door on the ark with all the animals on board, Noah’s family is peaking out a portal—and the rest of humanity is screaming in terror. Most of us skip that last part. Yet for some reason the story of Noah’s ark persists in being one of the first that we tell to children: “Welcome little one to the beloved community, let me tell you about the time God killed everyone.” And we wonder why some kids hate taking baths. Continue reading “David, Son of Jesse, Child Soldier (167)”

Not Driven to Despair (165)

It is election season here in Ontario. That means it’s hard not think of Sunday’s New Testament reading (II Cor. 4:5-12) in terms of Paul having an image problem. Might that bring to mind one or another of our political leaders? Whether it does or doesn’t, it was true for Paul. He did have an image problem. Commentators tell us that two things dogged Paul’s relationship with his constituents in the city of Corinth and beyond. Continue reading “Not Driven to Despair (165)”

Holy, Holy, Holy or Whatever (164)

In the beginning of Isaiah chapter six we find an account of the prophet’s vision of the heavenly throne: Isaiah sees the Lord, he hears the seraphs, he is cleansed and called. I wonder how you experience reading a biblical passage like this. My guess is that many of us love the majesty and the smoky mystery of the vision. At the same time, we find it hard to take the actual substance of the claim seriously. Isaiah saw God? Isaiah was called by God personally? It may seem more like an excerpt from a fantasy novel than a historical report. Continue reading “Holy, Holy, Holy or Whatever (164)”