Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Called By Name

Preached at Alma United Church on November 3, 2013
Text: Luke 19:1-9

I was delighted to meet Marion at presbytery in September and to be asked to take the service today. I have to admit, at first I tried to pass it off to David, not because I don't want to preach here any more, but because I'm trying to step back a bit and let the kids take over. When Marion said that at least one person had asked specifically for me, I had a niggling suspicion that y'all just wanted Allison and her cello (A side note here: she drives now and if you ask her nicely, she may occasionally show up on her own!), but I really was pleased that you folks here at Alma (or at least one of you) wanted ME!

On thinking about this, I recognized how important it really is for me, and every other person alive, to feel valuable. To feel like we belong. Like we contribute something to our group, to our country, to our world.

Our New Testament reading today is one of many readings that could have been used to make this point--it just happened to be today's lectionary reading.

Zaccheus is a tax collector. Not one of those Revenue Canada types that goes by the book and acts within the laws of a democratic country, but the official of a military government who had little oversight and less pay. Not anyone's idea of a good friend, at least not anyone who was poor and trying to make a living.

But underneath the skin of the hardened cheat beats the heart of a human being, and Zaccheus wants what every human who has ever lived wants: love, recognition of his personhood, a chance to grow and change, an opportunity to contribute to society.

Jesus looks up into the tree where Zaccheus has perched, and sees not the cheating bastard, but the human being underneath the mask.

And Jesus calls Zaccheus by name, and tells him that he is to have the honour of hosting dinner for thirteen.

Zaccheus is so grateful for this recognition that he converts on the spot.

Now, I'll have to say that I'd be the first to be a little leery of an on-the-spot conversion, but Jesus does something here that modern pop psychologists are only now beginning to recognize as a valuable strategy for winning an enemy to your cause.

He asks for a favour. Not a huge one, but one that is within the means of Zaccheus.

The psychologists say that asking someone who dislikes you if they can do a small favour for you actually makes them like you more! Why could that be?

Well, it seems that human beings have a built in drive to contribute. If I don't like Heather, and I block her out and never let her do anything the least bit helpful for me, she's not going to say, "Oh, Ruth never bothers me--she's great!" Instead she'll think, "Ruth doesn't like me. She has no use for me!"

We see this in the bible time and time again. God in the Old Testament and God through Jesus in the gospels, asks for the strangest favours from the strangest people.

"Hey there Big Noah! Could you build a boat for me?"

"Hey there, Abraham! Could you do me a favour--take your wife and cattle and go for a bit of a walk?"

"Come on, Moses! Just go up to Pharaoh and ask him! The worst he can say is no, right?"

And Jesus: "Follow me! Andrew, Simon, James, John! Put those nets down--we're going on a tour of the area!"

When you ask them for favours that are within their capabilities, most people don't feel put out, they feel valued.

But we, like the humans of Jesus' time, often lump people into categories, and two of our categories could be described as "People You Can Ask For Help," and "People You Don't Ask For Help."

And our second category often includes folks like Zaccheus, who have done harm to us or to others. Folks like the woman at the well, whose lifestyle is in opposition to our deeply held values. Folks like the illiterate fishermen who work with their hands, not with their minds. Folks like David, the adulterer. Folks like Samuel, who are "just children." Folks like the Good Samaritan, who are not of our ethnic or religious background. Folks like Saul, who actively persecute Folks like us.

We put limits around who we ask for favours, and likewise put limits around who we can or will become friends with. When we do this as Christians or as a church, we also put limits around who we will allow to experience God's saving grace. And we put limits on who we allow to experience their full potential as human beings.

I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday who belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. She told me that her church has no paid clergy. Rather, every week, three members of the congregation are assigned a topic to speak on. My friend has social anxiety disorder, and her first question when she was checking out the congregation was, "Would I have to do this? Because I don't think I can..."

The answer was, "Yes. Everyone has to do this."

She was given coaching and encouragement, and has spoken to the congregation on a number of occasions. She said that when she talks, everyone goes silent. You can hear a pin drop.

I asked her if this was normal for all the speakers. She told me, "No. Only when I speak."

At a recent conference, she was asked to be the keynote speaker and give a 45 minute talk. She tried over the two months before the conference to prepare for the talk, and every time she finished a draft, she felt God say in her heart, "It's not quite right." She went into the presentation with fifty pages of notes that stayed in her briefcase. She talked until she was finished, then looked at the clock. Exactly forty-five minutes had elapsed.

This woman is so shy that if she came into a United Church and sat at the back, I'm not certain anyone would know her name until about the third or fourth month of her attendance, if then. And she was asked to speak in front of her church. And she discovered a gift she never knew she had, and she's been affirmed as a valued member and speaker by others who have been touched by her stories.

Needless to say, she's a devoted member of that congregation.

Sometimes we get so caught up in either doing things ourselves, or asking our friends and proven allies to help us that we forget that there's a whole world of people out there, waiting to be asked for help. We don't always need to be the givers. We don't need to lecture Zaccheus, we need to involve him in our ministry. We don't need to stone the adulteress, we need to listen to her story and ask her to spread the news. We don't just need to buy fish from the fishermen, and feel good because its sustainably sourced. We need to ask them to preach, to heal, to follow.

Christianity is under siege. We've been told that, and its true. We're no longer the "state religion." People of other religions and no religion are demanding that their voices be heard.

If this siege knocks us out of our privileged way of doing things, then it's quite possibly the second-best thing ever to happen to Christianity after Easter. If we stop relying on sermons and lectures and biblical texts and residential schools to convert the so-called heathens, and instead use those sermons and texts and education to convert ourselves, if we stop giving "charity" and instead ask for equal partnership and help, we'll begin to actually live the life that Jesus called us to two thousand years ago. And the Christian church will once again begin to thrive.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Postcards from Everywhere Part I: The Project

Sometime late last spring, or perhaps it was early in the summer, I was thinking about my role in the church. I'm not ordained, I'm not going to be ordained.

I don't even really want to be ordained any more.

I'm a writer. I'm also a researcher, with an interest in many things, among them the role of the church and religion in today's society. So I thought that I might do a bit of a project: for one year, on the first Sunday of every month, I would "travel" to a different church, and sometimes even a different denomination or religion, not to critique, nor yet to steal ideas (though I'm hoping that my home church will learn and grow from this project), but simply to witness what is happening in my area an beyond. To absorb and learn from others who, like me, feel the need to pay respect to the holy on a regular basis and in a group setting.

The project quickly gained traction. I mentioned it to a friend who I thought might be interested in accompanying me on my journey -- she enthusiastically agreed, and had her own set of reasons for doing so.

I mentioned it to one of our ministers, who mentioned it to the others, and the word came back to me that it might be nice if I wrote "postcards" from wherever I travelled to, so that others might journey along with us.

Hence the "Postcards from ... " Project.

Those of us who go to church every Sunday almost always fall into a bit of a rut. We go to the same service if our church has more than one. We sit in approximately (or in some cases exactly) the same seats as we always sit in, and talk to the same people every week. There is comfort in routine.

However, there's a danger, too. We become blind to our faults. Things like not realizing just how much of our ritual and language is incomprehensible to outsiders. If a church is looking to grow, especially if it's hoping to reach out to the unchurched, this is a fatal flaw that needs to be noticed and corrected.

Things like how we always talk to the same people, and often don't even see the new person, until one day we do. Then the conversation goes something like this:

"Hi! Are you new here? I haven't seen you before."

"No, I'm not new. I've been coming here for three months!"

Embarrassing and off-putting for the new person.

Things like not telling folks at the beginning of the service simple things, like where they can find the nursery or where they can find the bathrooms.

Yet those are the things that make people feel at home.

So I'm taking one Sunday every month (more or less, as you'll see) to become an outsider.

I've already learned that church folks are eager to have you share their worship experiences. When I mention the project to others, I get the response, "You should come to my church!" That's heartening -- it means that most people who go to church really are happy in their communities.

I've also learned there are many more than a year's worth of churches I want to visit, and so the project is likely to take a couple of years at least. (And that's just those within an hour's drive of home!)

So come join me on my journey! Heather and I are already three months into the project, although one postcard will be from a church I preached at, and another will be from a joint service recently held in Guelph for all the United Churches. But I have some interesting and (I hope) valuable observations for each of these, so I'm going to write them up and post them too.

God bless you all!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Fuck the Disadvantages!

I've come to believe that when it comes to opportunity and advancement, there are only two types of people in the world: those who whine, "Poor me! I have it so hard!" and those who say, "Fuck my disadvantages, I'm going to succeed anyhow."

When reading biographies of successful people, one comes to realize that while the trappings of "success" may vary from person to person, the path never varies. They set a goal, and go for it.

A few examples:

Alan Corey graduated from college with a degree in a subject he didn't really have any feeling for, and with no idea what he really wanted to do with his life, and an email address that had folks thinking he was a sex-happy bisexual woman. Not exactly hugely disadvantaged, but a lot of young men in his situation end up asking customers, "Do you want fries with that?"

He got a job in New York in a call center, and ended up sharing an apartment in the projects of Spanish Harlem. He wasn't making much money, and he wasn't spending much, either. He furnished his room with discards picked off the street.

This is where it gets interesting. Instead of saying, "Poor me! I'm living in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the entire country!" he revelled in the chance to learn a new language and enjoy a different culture. Instead of saying, "Poor me! I'm living in a dump with discarded furniture!" he thought, "Wow! I've got a really cheap apartment here, and I'm saving money by the fistful! I think... I think I'd like to be a millionaire! By the time I'm thirty!" He was twenty-two years old at the time, and by the time he turned thirty (actually by the time he turned twenty-nine), his net worth exceeded one million dollars. And his call center job was the only steady work he had.

You'll have to read his book, A Million Bucks by 30, in order to find out exactly how he did it, but I'm going to move on to another entrepreneur. (I've since found out that the real estate down-turn caused him to lose a lot of that net worth. Nothing loathe, he set out to rebuild his wealth, and succeeded yet again. Fuck the disadvantages indeed!)

Kevin O'Leary, entrepreneur, television star, investor. Dyslexic, alcoholic father, part of a broken family at a time when such a thing was rare and somewhat scandalous. His father died of a heart attack at 37, his grandfather died of the same condition at age 45.

Poor Kevin!

Not really. If you read his book, Cold Hard Truth, or if you're a fan of Dragon's Den or Shark Tank (or even if you know what they are), you'll know that Kevin is far from poor, in any sense of the word. He makes a lot of money doing what he loves, and has (as far as I can tell from his book) a very wonderful, supportive family.

Because he said, "Fuck the disadvantages, I'm going to succeed!"

It isn't just "First World" folks who succeed, either. Kakenya Ntaiya is a Maasai woman from Kenya. She was engaged at age 5. At age 14, she underwent ritual gential mutilation, a rite of passage that in her culture usually leads to marriage and the end of education. She had put it off for as long as she could, and before she agreed to undergo the ritual, she bargained with her father that she would be allowed to finish high school after the ceremony. He agreed, because if he hadn't she would have run away.

She finished high school. She got a scholarship to a college in the US. She got her PhD in education, and went back to her village and opened a school for girls, which, after only four years, ranks among the top in its district. Fathers are starting to realize that daughters can do wonderful things in the world, too. And the girls who go to her school are fed three meals a day, have books, safe housing (they live at the school), and extracirricular activities. Perhaps most important of all, they are free from the terror of female circumcision and early marriage.

Fuck the disadvantages, she's going to succeed anyhow!

When reading about successful people, a single quality comes to the fore: persistance. The chutzpa to say, "Fuck the disadvantages! I'm going to do this, and I'm going to keep working at whatever it is that I need to do in order to succeed at it."

Passion's important, but lots of people have things they really love doing. I have a friend whose son is passionate about music. In fact, I know lots of people who are passionate about music. I know some folks who are not only passionate, but very talented. But unless they're persistant, unless they keep going in spite of difficulties, they usually end up doing something else.

I have a friend with an exceptionally good band. Nominated for a Juno award. A voice compared to Karen Carpenter. Scouted by EMI.

And that's as good as it got. Instead of pushing forward and doing whatever it takes to make it to the top, she's teaching music and directing the church choir, and he's a salesman. Other band members have other careers.

Now that's all good and fine, if their passion is not to be a top selling country band. (And in this case, I think the band members really are just out for fun.)

But if their passion really does lie that way, they'll have to start giving it a higher priority in their lives.

So I'd say to my friend's son, who at eighteen is now on his own and working at a part-time minimum job: You want a career in music? How many hours a day do you practice? How many days a week?

Or in the words of Kevin O'Leary's stepfather, George Kanawaty, "What are you willing to do in order to be?" Are you so passionate about having a net worth of one million dollars that you'll eat ramen noodles for six years solid, have cast-offs for furniture and clothing, spend date nights at home in front of the DVD player instead of out at the movie theatre? Do you want your music career so much that you'll put in an eight hour day at work, then come home and practice for hours, write your own songs even if you and others think they suck, and sell, sell, sell? Do you want to write that novel so badly that you'll give up playing video games every day for a month (November, co-incidentally), and get up a half hour or an hour early to get some words down on paper or on your screen?

Do you want what you want so much that when the inevitable roadblocks come, you'll say, "Fuck the disadvantages!" and bulldoze your way through, or will you sit down and cry, "Poor me!"

Because there are as many types of success as there are people (I wouldn't want Kevin O'Leary's life, and he wouldn't want mine), but there's only one path. You have to figure out what you want, and go out there and get it!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

If You're Unhappy and You Know It, Gnash Your Teeth

Yesterday's paper contained a fascinating article (at least, I found it fascinating) about the new "World Happiness Report" that the UN released for the first time last year, and the second time last week. After analyzing data from 150 countries, the researchers discovered that six factors accounted for 75% of the variation in happiness between nations.

Per capita income, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, having someone to count on in times of trouble, and personal generosity are the six factors that mostly determine whether the residents of one country are happier than their neighbours.

What's interesting is that all six of these factors are in some sense controllable by the individuals in most countries. Sure, we can't necessarily control (at least not directly and immediately) the corruption in our governments, but we can control it in ourselves, and the influence can spread to our nearest and dearest, and then to the wider community. It's all in how we respond. If we refuse to act in a corrupt manner in our own dealings with others, we provide an example of honesty for others to follow. If we name corruption for what it is when confronted by it, others begin to realize that even if they "get away with it" now, honest folks are aware of what's going on, and eventually they'll get caught.

That's where this blog comes in.

Over the years, I've written about everything from cooking to preaching, but what I really wanted to do when I started was help people find resourses within themselves to gain control of their lives and to be happier. I wanted to do this because I was (and still am) myself on the path to building myself an awesome life. Folks have responded positively to this blog. I have three other blogs (two of them still live) and none of them has gotten quite the response that this one has. (And before you point it out, I'll freely admit that I'm not yet in the "big league" as far as blogging is concerned. I'm only saying that this blog appears to be the most relevant to other folks.)

I've learned that there's actually a career path for what I want to do--it's called Life Coaching.

I'd like to use my knowledge, skills and experiences (all of which I have in abundance) to build a business helping people to reach their goals and live happier lives. I know where my strengths lie.

Eventually, I plan to add personal coaching to my repetoire, but I'd like to start with more general media like blog posts, videos, and e-courses because not everyone needs personal coaching, and those who do need or want personal coaching can start with the courses and blog posts, and be more able to get full value out of the personal sessions.

What I don't know is what areas my readers would like me to cover. That's where you come in. If you would be so kind as to respond in the comments below with what you'd like to see me address, I'll start working on blog posts, videos, or even an e-course that will help you.

Monday, September 9, 2013

One Small Step

Our local paper this week published an article about a young University of Waterloo student, Sujay Arora, who has developed an app for women in India who wish to hail a taxi. As recent news stories have disclosed, travel on public transit is not always safe, especially for women in countries where patriarchy and general disorder are more prevelant than rule of law and caring for fellow human beings. The app would allow women to book a cab of their choice--it even has a "W" button for hailing a woman-driven cab--as well as texting the details of the cab ride to a friend or family member, so that someone knows where the traveller is and who she's with in case of trouble.

Arora's dream is to have every cab in Waterloo and New Delhi have his company stickers on them. He knows that his app won't end violence against women. "It is a really small step," he is quoted as saying. But I contend that that small step is really important.

A journey of any kind, whether to the local grocery store or to a world where everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, colour, religion, or socio-economic status can live in peace, is made up not of giant leaps, but of small steps. And the most important step of any journey is the first--the step that commits us to leaving the place where we are and going to a new one.

Arora's app certainly isn't the first step towards ending violence against woman. Although at times it seems like we're going backwards, the freedom women have today, especially in Canada, is huge compared to what we have had in the past. And the rage surrounding the recent rapes in India, as well as the move to make rape committed by soldiers a recognized war crime, indicate that the movement towards freedom for women is much more global than it has been.

Arora's app is important for the safety of women in two cities (as of now), but it's important for another reason. Charitable agencies around the world are spending a tremendous amount of money and effort to educate and empower women and girls, but those efforts will fail if we don't also teach men and boys that being a man does not mean you need to be violent, possesive, or "in charge". Arora's app is important not only becaus of what it does, but because of who developed it.

A young man realized that violence against women is the fault of the perpetrators, and our society, and went beyond vigils and protests to actually do something about it. A small step? Perhaps, but if every man(and woman)who thinks likewise went beyond tears to action, those small steps would add up pretty quickly.

My motto for the past few months has been a quote by tennis great Arthur Ashe: Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can. If, like Sujay Arora, we all lived that quote violence against women (not to mention a host of other social and environmental ills) could very well end in our lifetime.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Be A Blessing

Text: Luke 10:38-42

Preached at Algonquin Provincial Park on July 21, 2013 & at Riverside Glen on July 28, 2013

This familiar story of Jesus visiting the sisters Martha and Mary comes up every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary. Despite coming up in the middle of summer, it's a very familiar story to most of us
here today, I'm sure.

With well-known stories like this, that have many layers, and with limited time to preach a sermon, often the message just stays on the surface. For this particular story, here's the condensed version:

Martha is the "traditional housewife" character. With Jesus here for a visit, she immediately sets out to show her hospitality by cleaning the house and cooking a delicious meal, in short, doing those things that women have done since forever to welcome a guest.

Mary assumes the more traditionally "male" role, sitting at Jesus' feet, listening to him teach.

Martha is upset that she's doing all the work, and she complains to Jesus, asking him to tell Mary to get up off her rear end and help her.

Far from siding with poor, beleaguered Martha, he rebukes her, saying that “Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.”

And preachers before this have said, as I have said before this, that sitting with your guest and paying attention to her is more important than providing a spotless home and an elaborate meal.

We preach that because it’s true. The key component of hospitality is attention to the guest. If you’ve ever been a guest at the home of a Martha, and spent your before dinner and after dinner and even during dinner time wishing that she would just SIT DOWN and stop fussing about things that either don’t matter or could be done later, you’ll know the truth of this.

But the lessons from this short passage go deeper than this, as the Marthas amongst us might suspect.

Do not those of you who naturally tend to show your hospitality by providing food and comfort feel somewhat slighted by Jesus’ words? Perhaps even a bit angry?

Our churches benefit greatly from the efforts of Martha—the men and women who cook, serve and clean up the many meals that are part of church life. The women and men who raise money for missions and local church support, who paint and repair and sometimes even construct our buildings. The number of Marthas in our congregations often exceeds by a large margin those who prefer to attend bible studies and prayer groups, those who are the Marys, learning at the feet of Jesus.

Is all that work unnecessary busy work? Should we, as some churches do in this day and age, dispense with the meals and the rituals and the buildings, and just sit together and learn?

My own experience suggests that the Marthas of our churches do some critically important work, and my reading of scripture suggests this. Churches that rely only on study and worship seldom, in my experience, grow beyond the house church stage, nor do they tend to have very long lives. The Marthas who feed and house the church play a vital role in both the temporal and spiritual growth of the church.

Nor does scripture advocate a life of ascetic contemplation and learning. We have the letter from James exhorting us to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Work without faith is often empty busy work, but faith without works is dead.

And there is the story that comes just prior to this one in the Gospel of Luke, the story of the “Good” Samaritan.

The priest and the Levite who passed by on the other side were well versed in the laws and customs and scriptures of the Jewish people. But they are not the heroes of this story. Instead, it is the outcast Samaritan, who puts his faith into action, binding wounds, transporting the injured, providing clothing and food and housing for the man until such time as he should recover by donating his hard-earned money who is the one Jesus holds up as an example of faithfulness to scripture.

So I don’t think Jesus was rebuking Martha for her doing, but for her being “worried and distracted.” For her complaining.

In my own life, I’m somewhat of a Mary by nature. I’d much rather read and study and learn than clean the house or cook a meal, and over a period of about fifteen years, my house and my body had fallen into a somewhat shocking state of chaos. It didn’t help matters that I was brought up by a Martha who constantly complained that he (yes, Martha can be male!) was the only one who did all the work and if he stopped cranking the world would stop turning, whilst simultaneously complaining that any effort we made to help out wasn’t good enough if it wasn’t absolutely perfect. And it was never perfect. I learned to hate the very idea of housework. I couldn’t cook, didn’t clean, and well, you get the picture.

A year and a half ago, a friend referred me to FLYLady dot net.

The FLYLady, Marla Cilley, is a woman whose mission (and being Christian, she does consider it a mission) is to bring peace to homes around the world, one step and fifteen minutes at a time. She has a whole bunch of baby steps that, taken one at a time, will allow anyone who follows them to gradually gain control over their physical environment.

She has two over-riding principles: commandments, if you will, that, if followed, can change your attitude and thereby your life.

The first is: DON’T BE A MARTYR.

You are doing this because YOU signed up, so don’t nag or complain to your husband, wife, kid, roommate, dog, cat, gerbil, or hapless furnace repairperson.

Just do what you need to do, without bitching or complaining.

And the second is like unto the first: BE A BLESSING.

You are not just making a bed or folding laundry or cooking a meal or decluttering the living room. You are blessing your home, your family, your world, and yourself. You are blessing your God.

What difference would it have made if Martha, instead of self-talk that must have included curses for Mary’s “laziness” and lack of action, could have said to herself, “I am blessing Jesus and Mary and myself by preparing this delicious meal. Mary has her time with Jesus now, but when we sit down to eat, he’ll be grateful for this food, I’m sure.”

What difference might it have made if she’d realized that perhaps the sweeping up and washing dishes and making the bed weren’t important enough tasks to take her away from her guest, and she left them for later, instead taking time to sit and listen to Jesus?

We live in a world that can daze and confuse us if we let it. There are, at any given time, so many tasks we could be doing, so many things we could be buying, so many experiences we could be having, and of course, we then need to work longer hours to pay for all this extra amusement.

We are busy and distracted by many things, when there is need of only one thing.

Perhaps that “one thing” may take the form of listening to and learning from another human being, or it may take the form of preparing a meal to nourish the body of oneself or others. Perhaps that one thing might be doing the laundry, so that your child has clean clothes to wear. Or perhaps that one thing is stopping by the road to help a dying or lost stranger.

It’s all summed up by that one phrase, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Be a blessing, and bless the world in your own way. Accept the uniqueness of others, and accept that there is more than one way to show love and hospitality, and that not everyone will do it your way. Realize that you don’t have to do it all, that you can’t do it all, and concentrate on that “one thing” that’s most important to you at this particular moment. Take joy in the fact that whether what you’re doing is noticed or not, that whether others or helping you or you’re going it alone, what you do matters.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Paying Tribute to a Fallen Officer

I've lived in the city of Guelph now for twenty-two years, and in all that time I can count on the thumb of one hand the number of police officers that have died in the line of duty. Two weeks ago was the first (and hopefully the last) time our community has had to mourn a fallen officer. Constable Jennifer Kovach died while en route to a call. Her cruiser went out of control on an icy curve and crashed into a bus. Thousands of police officers, firefighters, EMS personnel and citizens, not only from Guelph and the surrounding area but from across the continent, turned out to honour her last Thursday, at a funeral that saw a parade down one of our main streets, and the local arena filled to overflowing, with those not able to find a seat accommodated at the River Run Centre close by. The funeral was broadcast live on local television. And it had at least one local letter writer asking why the spectacle. In a letter to the Guelph Tribune, David Nash asks: Is not the life of a construction worker, who died "in the line of duty," just as precious? Or the pilot who died in Alberta, or the fishermen who died off the east coast? Why no elaborate, state-funded funerals for them? Was this simply not a display of "statism", and not an honour to the deceased constable at all? Now, Mr. Nash does not come off as someone who denigrates police officers, or does not appreciate what they do. He is, instead, asking a valid question, one which I struggled to answer myself in the days following the funeral. And I believe that no, the death of a police officer is not the same as the death of a construction worker, pilot, miner, or fisherman. No, the funeral was not a display of force by the state, but a fitting tribute to one of those few who are asked to give up much and risk all to keep the rest of us safe. A fisherman, a construction worker, a pilot, a miner--all of these occupations are covered by laws designed to keep them safe. While the death of any of these workers is indeed a tragedy worthy of note, it is not quite the same as the death of a police officer in the line of duty. Because a police officer, a firefighter, an EMS worker or a soldier are all lacking one thing that the rest of us take for granted--the right to refuse unsafe work. A police officer's work is by definition unsafe. Constable Kovach was rushing to the aid of another officer who was confronted by a routine traffic stop turned into a drug bust. She did not have a right to refuse this dangerous assignment--it's a condition of her employment that she engage in potentially life-risking actions. On the other hand, the construction worker and the fishermen and the pilot all had employers who were bound by law to keep them safe, and were themselves responsible for telling those same employers that they would refuse to work if the work was deemed unsafe. In addition, the construction worker, the pilot, the miners, the fishermen, if employed by someone else, all have the right to strike to improve working conditions. Constable Kovach did not have that right, either. Persons working in such an environment necessarily develop an extremely close bond. When your life depends on the actions of your comrades, you draw closer to one another for mutual protection. When one of those co-workers dies in the line of duty, it can be much, much more devastating than the death of a co-worker might be to an ordinary worker. I saw the pictures of lines of officers, firefighters and other uniformed personnel to be not a display of statism, but a display of solidarity for a fallen comrade. Each one of those uniformed personnel was intensely aware at the moment the hearse passed them that they could be the next one so honoured. As for the fact that her funeral was state-funded, I feel that is only appropriate. Our police officers and other emergency personnel give up a great deal in order to keep us safe. They give up the right to strike, the right to refuse unsafe work, and even the right to work sane shifts, as someone must be on duty 24 hours a day, every single day of the year. They give up Christmas and Easter and birthdays and holidays with their families. Constable Kovach gave up her right to be with her family to celebrate the birth of her brother's new daughter in order to work the shift that killed her. They deserve our public honour and recognition.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Nothing Lasts Forever

A note to my readers: I haven't posted in this blog for a while, because I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do with it. I've decided that I will indeed continue posting in this blog, but that it will be for sermons and scholarly reflections, whilst my other blog, Yeshanu's Fabulous Over Fifty, will be home to my reflections on life and living. This sermon was preached on March 14th (the date is important, as you'll soon find :) ), at LaPointe Fisher Nursing Home. The texts used are Isaiah 43:16-21 and Mark 12:38-13:2. Nothing Lasts Forever I opened my fridge today to check what was in it, and found, in the back, a container of sour cream. Best before February 2, 2013. Knowing me, it was probably lucky that the date wasn't February 2, 2012. I then checked my library account on line, and found that I had a whole whack of books due March 13th, and as you may know, today is the 14th. Not good. The big news today, of course, is the papal election. Pope Francis I is the 266th leader of the Roman Catholic church, and has observers asking: Is this a new era for the church, or same old, same old? No one knows--the only thing certain is that Pope Benedict is no longer in charge, and Pope Francis is. In our lifetimes, we have seen many changes. Things we thought or even hoped would last forever have proved to be transient. The Berlin Wall has fallen, the USSR is dissolved, Apartied has ended. The World Trade Center was destroyed, and has been rebuilt. People we thought were good and noble have proved to be, well, just people like us, and sometimes not very good people. Conrad Black, honoured by the queen herself with knighthood, was disgraced and spent time in jail. Martha Steward, that goddess of the household, reputedly decorated her jail cell very nicely. And we won't even talk about the myriad of politicians and Hollywood stars and prominent ministers of God who have been brought low by scandal and corruption. Our gospel reading this afternoon has Jesus teaching in the temple, and he warns against worship of that which is human. Don't desire to be like the so-called holy people, who walk around in fancy robes and have the best seats at the table, he says. Their fame won't last, and they will be condemned for the evil they do. He watched people put money in the temple treasury, and he tells those he is teaching: Do you see those rich people? They put in lots of money, but it's only a little bit to them--they still have lots of money left to live on. But that poor woman, who puts in just two little copper coins? She's given everything she has, and that's really impressive! Then he looks around the temple at the walls. Do you think these walls are strong? he asks. They are, but they won't last forever. In a few short years, every single stone will be thrown down. Isaiah, in our Old Testament passage, was preaching to the people of Israel in exile. The Babylonians had conquered and divided the people, and the people were mightily discouraged. How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? they lamented. And Isaiah tells them that the Lord says: Don't worry about what you've lost. I will do something new. Something better is coming. Nothing lasts forever. Not the Roman Empire, nor the World Trade Center. Not fame, or fortune, or disaster, or slavery. Only God is immortal and eternal, and God's love. As we sit here today, we wonder about the church and its future. Argentina, the land that gave rise to Pope Francis, is a land where more than 90% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, and where fewer than 10% go to church on a regular basis. It's a familiar story in many places in the world today--as education and income increase, people feel that God is no longer relevant, or that God does not even exist, and they put their time and energy into making what they consider to be a better life for themselves and their families. Until the stock market crashes. Or a military dictator takes control. Or floods invade even New York City itself, hallowed ground of capitalist America. Until once again, a beloved or respected leader or financial advisor crash-lands, victim of overwhelming greed or lust or love of fame. Is there any hope, or do we travel towards a cross with no resurrection at the end? I am about to do a new thing, God says to us. I will make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert to give drink to my chosen people. And the temple has fallen, and the Roman Empire as well, but faith in God endures. In Christ, God has done a new thing, and we Christians are the result of that. But the wind of God's change does not stop, and new things keep arising. The Reformation gave rise to new things. The Second Vatican Council gave rise to new things. Liberation Theology gave rise to new things. The United Church of Canada, to which I belong, gave rise to new things. And new things inspired by God are continually arising, often in the most unexpected places, changing what was into what shall be. Nothing of this world endures forever, and God is continually at work, creating new things. So I say to you, do not mourn what is gone, or worship things of human making. Rely on God, and God's love, and you can't go wrong. What has passed is gone forever, for good or for evil. But God's love, God's promise, endures forever. God is making new things, better things for us, in this life, and in the life to come. Amen.