Thursday, 29 September 2022

Stepping Out

Author Douglas Adams always had a unique and quirky way of looking at the world. His work is a source of many pop culture references, including this interesting observation about the ability of human beings to fly: "there is an art to flying, or rather a knack.  Its knack lies in learning to throw yourself at the ground and miss. … Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, that presents the difficulties."

Sure, that probably sounds silly. At first. But think about it for a moment. If it were at all possible to throw yourself at the ground and miss, you would be airborne. It’s true. There’s a couple of things in the way, of course, like the ground itself. It’s big and hard to avoid. And then there’s gravity. But, if you could do it - miss the ground, I mean - you would indeed be flying. It’d be a miracle.

The story of Jesus walking on water is a similar kind of miracle. It defies the laws of physics and ought not to be possible. Not the way magicians or illusionists might do it, of course, I mean the real thing. It just isn’t scientifically possible. It must be a miracle, one that demonstrates Jesus’ power over nature, the power of God. The disciples knew it: “and those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “truly you are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:33). And that’s how we might see the story, too, as a miracle of Jesus. The only one to be able to walk on water.

Except he isn’t. Not, at least, according to Matthew.

While the story appears in Luke and John as well, Matthew adds a twist. The story’s a simple enough miracle. The disciples have gone ahead on the lake in a boat while Jesus takes some personal time. A storm comes up and Jesus sees they’re in trouble so he walks out on the water to save them. 

But Matthew adds that, as Jesus approached them, they didn’t recognize Jesus at first. Peter, realizing it’s Jesus says “if it’s really you, tell me to walk on the water with you.” Jesus says come and join me and Peter steps out of the boat. And walks on the water. Peter is walking on the water, too. At first. But then Peter sees the wind and the sea and the storm and he’s afraid and then he begins to sink. He calls out to Jesus to save him, Jesus does and then - only then - Jesus says “you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14: 31).

Yes, it could be a miracle story displaying Jesus’ divine power of nature. But what if Matthew thought it was something more, something about us? What if Matthew told it as a myth story, one that, like all myths, has a fundamental truth at its core, even if the narrative itself might not have really happened?

What if Jesus comment about faith and doubt wasn’t a criticism or a disappointment, but a compliment and an encouragement? What if Jesus meant “look, Peter, see what you could do with even a little faith? It was only when you began to doubt yourself that you began to sink.” What if Jesus called Peter out of the boat because he knew Peter wasn’t in any danger? What if he knew Peter could do it?

What if the core truth of this story isn’t the miracle of Jesus’ uniqueness, but the miracle of Jesus showing us, once again, what we are capable of: that we too are both human and divine, and we are capable of everything Jesus shows us. The divinity and the humanity, the love and the grace, the justice and the compassion, all these are within us, too. What keeps us from being just like Jesus is our fear.

Thursday, 22 September 2022

A Moment on a Journey

There’s a familiar story told in three of the four gospels about Jesus and a storm at sea. Mark tells it like this. It’s the end of a long day. Jesus wants to cross to the other side of the lake so says to the disciples, let’s go. The head out onto the lake and Jesus falls asleep in the back of the boat. A fierce storm comes up and the boat and its occupants are overwhelmed. They wake up Jesus, feeling like the end is near, and Jesus gets up, commands the storm to cease and it does. He asks them “why are you afraid? Don’t you have any faith?” They’re amazed and wonder who this could be, that nature obeys him.

I can recall many, many sermons and bible studies that suggest two approaches to this story. 

The first is that it’s simply a miracle story that displays the power of God present in Jesus. The story is a real narrative in which Jesus demonstrates his power, even over nature. The answer to the question “who is this?” is clear: Jesus is divine and the power of God is in him, the same power that was present in stories of Hebrew scripture, even back to the very beginning. The spirit of God moved over the waters in the creation story.

I’d be happier if it was less about Jesus power over nature and more about his relationship with nature, but I can see how meaningful this is as a story of the miracle tradition. It demonstrates Jesus divine power saving us when we are in need. It’s one interpretation. 

Another is that the story’s a parable. Whether it really happened this way or not is less important than the metaphor that in the storms of life, we turn to Jesus who is there for us. In those moments in our lives when we are most in need, Jesus is there. It may seem like we are adrift, but Jesus is there. If only we will reach out to him, we will be saved.

A meaningful interpretation, again emphasizing Jesus’ power to save us from the events in our lives that bring fear and trouble. It again offers rescue, this time from the storms that can come up in our daily lives. It’s one interpretation.

Both those understandings of the story emphasize our calling out to Jesus in the moment, the moment of fear when we should have faith. It would be a good time to remember how often Jesus said “don’t be afraid.” And that he meant, it’s okay to be scared, just remember that you’re not alone. God is with you. But what if we looked at the bigger picture, including asking how we got to this moment in the first place.

Jesus asks the disciples to come with him in the boat. Experienced fishermen agreed to get in a boat at night after a long day. No one wondered if there might be a storm. No one suggested waiting until morning. The same people who left their boats to follow Jesus, now follow him back into a boat when they might well have paused and asked questions. But they didn’t. They trusted and got in and off they went. They took the first step - again - and began a journey with Jesus, trusting in his presence.

Jesus’ eagerness to get to “the other side” might also be about the hope that Jesus offers as we journey. We might not know what’s ahead, but we step out with trust and hope.

And God goes with us, together. The storm is just a moment in a larger journey. What if it wasn’t the storm that was stilled, but our fear so that we may engage the storm and make our way through it? What if the questions about fear and faith were simply a reminder that we are journeying together and that, whatever storms or brief squalls or rain or sun or calm seas, we are not alone, even if it seems someone’s asleep at the wheel? Or rudder? What if the wonder at Jesus was the beginning of getting to know him? What if the question here isn’t about faith in what God will do to save us, but rather what we will do together, with God in our lives?

Thursday, 15 September 2022

Just as we are

When we read the story of Jesus calling the first disciples to follow him, I think we sometimes have this idea that they simply dropped everything and went, without a second thought. It’s Jesus, after all.

But each of the gospels has its own account of what happened. We might want to condense the story into a simple run-on sentence “Jesus went to the lakeshore and told some fishermen to come and follow him and they will fish for people and they dropped everything and went.” But it isn’t that simple.

First of all, John’s story is more complicated and doesn’t involve fish at all, and, second, it’s just not that simple. Luke, in particular, makes that clear. In fact, I don’t think Luke’s story is really about Jesus. It’s about Simon.

In Luke’s story, Jesus has been hanging around for a bit. In fact, in the previous chapter, he already knows Simon and has been staying at his house. He’s even helped Simon’s mother, who was ill. Then, he’s doing some teaching by the lake and he sees that Simon, a fisherman, hasn’t caught anything even though he’s been out all night. Jesus tells him to go out again, into deep water, and this time there are so many fish that he has to get help. Amazed and overwhelmed, Simon tells Jesus to go away. “I’m a sinful man,” he says. But Jesus says “come with me.”

It might seem like all it takes is faith in Jesus to drop everything and go, but I wonder if Luke isn’t reminding us that it takes something else, too: faith in yourself. You have to participate.

To me, it seems like Simon might feel unworthy of Jesus. He’s been getting to know him for a couple of days, he’s seen him work, heard him speak. Luke says everyone around there was pretty impressed with Jesus, I can’t imagine Simon wasn’t, too. It also seems to me that he might be feeling a little embarrassed that he, a professional fisherman, hadn’t caught anything and suddenly, with Jesus’ advice, has caught enough to feed the village. I can see how Simon might have been feeling pretty low.

So I wonder if Jesus said “I believe in you, Simon. You are worthy just as you are. Come with me and see what else you can do.”

Jesus had faith in Simon because Jesus knows what many of us so often seem to forget: we are enough, just as we are. Enough to go forward, enough to try new things, enough to dream and live into those dreams, enough to be fully and wholly who we are.

Simon was certainly not what he - and others - would think is perfect, he’ll prove that repeatedly to Jesus in the days ahead, but he’s the perfect one and only Simon. And he’ll be exactly that. So can we.

Faith in God is just one piece. To live and love like Jesus, we need to believe in ourselves, that we are enough, just as we are, to be the best version of ourselves. And that can change the world.

Thursday, 8 September 2022

They that go down to the sea in ships (Psalm 107:23)

Three of the four gospels tell a similar story of how Jesus called his first disciples. They were fisherman, Jesus saw them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he told them to follow him and, together, they’ll fish for people.

Each telling of the story has its own uniqueness, but Luke’s version is quite a bit more elaborate. Luke tells that Jesus, with a large crowd wanting to hear him, sees that the fishermen are done for the day so he asks to borrow one of their boats. They put out a bit from shore and he teaches the crowd from there. When he’s done, he tells Simon to go out one more time to the deeper water and they find a huge catch of fish. Others come to help and, when they get to shore, Jesus says “don’t be afraid, from now on we’re going to catch people.”

That’s the obvious takeaway here: Jesus calls the first disciples. It’s literally the heading in most translations. I’ll get there next week, but first, I’d like to take a moment and wonder about how this story gets started. Jesus teaches from a boat.

Jesus teaches - and preaches, heals, ministers and socializes - in a lot of places. That he chooses the work vehicle of the very people who will be the first ones invited to follow him resonates with me. I wonder about a few things that prompt me to ask questions.

I wonder, for example, what Jesus was teaching here. “The word of God,” Luke says. Yes, but how did he communicate that? Jesus seems to be able to communicate with people wherever they are. Did he tell some fishing parables? Was there, perhaps, a version of the “mustard seed” story that used a minnow instead or something about the abundance of love that comes with going deeper that segued into that demonstration with Simon?

I wonder about the boat itself. There’s nothing to suggest Jesus knew anything about fish or boats or the sea. And yet, he seems to fearlessly step out into one and speak to people on the shore from it. Was he hoping Simon and the others would see that he wasn’t afraid to step into their lives so that they might not be afraid to join his?

And, again with the boat, I wonder that Jesus sat and taught in a vessel that’s meant to be out on the open water. I presume it was kept stationary so people weren’t running up and down the shore. But then, think about it: he gathers his first “ship mates,” steps off the boat on to dry land, and “sets sail” in his ministry. That’s one powerful boating experience.

Here, at the beginning of a new season, those couple of verses remind me to reflect on some important aspects of ministry. No, more than ministry: how we live our lives.

How are we communicating with each other? Are we finding common ground, respecting each other and building relationships? Are we remembering that, when Jesus says “don’t be afraid” he means “it’s okay to be scared - you’re not alone. I’m here.”

And what kind of boat are we building anyway? The church isn’t meant to be anchored in our buildings, it’s meant to set sail into our communities and into our lives. What Jesus taught didn’t stay in one place, it was blown by the wind and carried by the water out into the world. From the depths of all our hearts, there’s an abundance of love to be carried into our lives and into all the lives we touch, looking for a place to land.

Thursday, 1 September 2022

Are you in shape?

Have you ever worked with clay or played with playdough? I don’t mean to imply anything by saying you work with one and play with the other. I feel confident that there’s a certain amount of play involved in the art of clay, just as there’s some work involved in playdough (there certainly is if you make it at home from scratch). And, by the way, they’re also not for any particular age group. Adults and children alike can enjoy both. If you haven’t, you should try it.

In the Bible, the prophet Jeremiah says that God spoke to him and gave him the metaphor of the potter’s wheel for how God can be in our lives: we are the clay, God is the potter who molds and shapes us.

There can be a negative side to that image, of course, one of manipulation and control, but I don’t believe that’s what Jeremiah means. I think he sees God as the great artisan in creation. He knows that with God in our lives, we are not only created as wonderful things, but are capable of creating wonderful things.

As any good artist knows, the medium has a part to play in the creation. Work some playdough or play with some clay, you’ll see.

So, if, as Jeremiah suggests, we are like the clay, then what kind of clay are we? Hard as a rock, unchanging and unmoveable? Or so fluid and easy going that we never take a single form? Or are we firm enough to stand, but ready to be molded, open to being made into something?

Or, from another perspective, creating something ourselves.  Perhaps, made in the image of God, we might see ourselves, not just as the clay, but the artisan. After all, we live in relationship with each other and we have a responsibility to be creators, teachers and inspirers of others, as much as we need to be open to receiving what other “artists” have to offer us.

I’m particularly mindful of that right now, because it’s back to school time. As the summer winds down, it’s time to head to school, some for the first time, some sophomores, some wily veterans of the elementary grades, and a few grizzled grade twelves, hunkering down for one more year.

There’s the look of excitement and wonder, some anxiety and a little bit of fear. On teachers’ faces, too. And parents’.

What an awesome responsibility to have, the “moulding of young minds.” You have to thank school teachers for that, you really do. But I also hope that we all think it’s an awesome responsibility, because it’s not just school teachers that have it, is it?  We are all teachers, mentors, guides and leaders, each in our own way. It’s part of being community.

Play with some playdough (or real clay, if you can). You don’t have to be a professional artisan to make something. Didn’t you make an “ashtray” or a “bowl” in school when you were young?  Wonder about how often we are like the clay and how often we are like the hands that form it. And wonder about when that clay is our hearts or our minds or our spirits.  And wonder, too, about how often, as the clay, we might not just need to be open to God’s hands, but how often we might seek God’s hands and need God’s hands in our lives, created and creating. How do you think you’re formed?

Thursday, 25 August 2022

What do you see now?

Our church has a rainbow. In fact, it has several - probably more than several - but the most obvious one is the sidewalk to the front door. We repainted it this week. It’s been there awhile, it’s seen a lot of sun and rain, wind and snow, and it needed a little refreshing. Don’t we all, from time to time?

It’s bright and bold and makes a statement. And, like any statement, we know that people will see it how they see it and respond to it how they will.

And that’s okay.

We hope that you’ll know that, for our church, it’s a statement about welcome. We wouldn’t have put it on the way to our front door if it weren’t. We hope that people will see it as a statement about inclusiveness, an eye-catching way of saying anyone and everyone is welcome here. And when we say that, we mean “all the colours of the rainbow” everyone. And, more importantly, it’s not just about welcome, it’s that we mean to affirm and appreciate you for who you are, just as you are. We share these words when we gather: “all are welcome here, affirmed and appreciated just as we are, as we all are as children of God, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, culture, ability, economic or social circumstance —wherever we are on our journeys through life.” We believe in unity, not uniformity, and that means acknowledging, affirming and appreciating each person for who they are. It means loving as Jesus loves.

We hope that people will see the LGBTQ2S+ rainbow and we hope they know they’re welcome and safe here.

We hope that children will laugh and be inspired by it and know that the church is a happy and safe place for them, too.

We hope that people will be reminded of the ancient story of the Great Flood and remember that the rainbow is a sign of God’s covenant of life with us.

We hope that people will see that it’s creative and colourful and so are we.

We hope that people of any age will see it and smile and be reminded of the sense of wonder and beauty that we experience when we see a rainbow in the sky.

The point is, we hope that you will see something that is welcoming, affirming, heart warming, friendly and inspiring that speaks to you. Do you see what we mean?

Thursday, 18 August 2022

Rest in wonder

I’d like to talk about sabbath for just a minute.

If you belong to a faith tradition that has a specific understanding of sabbath - a specific day, perhaps, with certain rituals or with clear rules about what you can and can’t do - I respect that. If you find meaning in that, please continue on, I don’t mean to challenge it. But I do have a couple of thoughts about what’s at the heart of sabbath.

When I think about the creation story in Genesis, I like to imagine God doing all that creating like an artist working in a bunch of different mediums, from the conception to the hands on work to the final touch ups. That all takes “six days” - whatever a day means to God - and then God takes a day and just admires how awesome it all is. God looks around and wonders how there’s a little bit of God in each and every stone and leaf, river and stream, fish and bird, elephant and platypus. And those human beings, well, God wonders, they’re just the coolest thing ever. Created in my own image, God thinks, full of love and promise.

Things happened after that, of course, but in those first moments was a connectedness, an embracing of the bond which is in all life. A moment of wholeness. The seventh day isn’t a day off, it’s the climax and culmination of all that creating, the celebration of the completeness of creation. God rests in wonder.

Then, when Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, there’s an opportunity to reconnect. The people are learning what it means to be free, to be a community and a people on their way to the “promised land,” so God offers them ten sayings to help them. And in there is the day of rest, pretty high up, too, at number four. I imagine God hoping this is an opportunity for the people to understand they need to make time to reconnect with God, to rest in wonder, just like God.

And there’s this story about Jesus in Luke (there’s a few of these in the gospels),  about the leader of the synagogue chastising Jesus for doing work on the sabbath when he heals a woman, bent over by the weight of a broken spirit (Luke 13:10-17). Jesus replies that even on the sabbath, everyone unties their ox and donkey so that they’re free to get water that is essential to life.  How could it be less appropriate to free this woman from the bondage of her illness?

For Jesus, this moment of healing isn’t about physical infirmity, it’s about wholeness. It’s about being free from the bonds that keep this woman from the world, from being fully engaged with life.

Our lives can get very much like that, too. We get bound up by the work we do and the desires we have, the need to acquire things, the need to be always busy with work or play. Our spirits can bend and buckle under the weight of the world. Even a “day off” can be so full that we can’t find a real moment of freedom.

That’s what sabbath is. It’s freedom from the work of the world so that we can reconnect with God, wonder at God’s presence in creation, including us,  and rest in the wonder. It’s a moment of healing for our spiritual health, contentment and well being. It’s a moment of completeness that refreshes and renews us. A moment in which we break free of the things that bind us and reconnect with love, grace and wholeness.