21 August 2016

"Remember Me" - A Story-telling Sermon

Preached at Windsor United Church (Windsor, NS)
August 21, 2016 (Proper 16)
Scripture:  Luke 13:10-17

"Oh, hello there.

You don't know my name.  In fact, before today you probably didn't think about me very much.  And you've never seen me before.

I used to be even more bent over than this.  I don't know how it happened.  I don't know why it happened.  But 18 years ago, my back started to ache like you wouldn't believe.  The pain got worse and worse, and as the pain got worse, I wasn't able to straighten up any more.

Eventually it got so bad that I couldn't see people's faces any more.  I couldn't look up to see the sky.  I couldn't cook for myself, and even eating was difficult.  I couldn't wash myself.  I could barely hobble around with my stick.

Some people offered to heal me.  There are so many people out there, peddling miracles, willing to take my money in exchange for the promise of a cure.  At first, I went to them.  Some of them gave me ointments to rub on my back.  Some of them gave me special prayers to pray, three times a day.  Some of them told me to travel to far-away lands to bathe in the holy waters there.  Really, the only thing that they had in common was their willingness to take my money in exchange for a cure that never worked.

People told me that I had evil spirits.  Evil spirits were making my spine bend like that.  People told me that I was unclean.  They were afraid to touch me in case they became unclean too.

For 18 years, nobody touched me.  Do you know what it's like, not to be touched for 18 years?

Most days, I would take my stick and my begging bowl and go to sit by the gates to the town, hoping for a few coins.  Some days I would sit beside the door to the synagogue.  I usually got more money sitting by the gates.  Holy people on their way to pray are in too much of a rush to take notice of someone like me.

Sitting there by the gates, people would sometimes drop a coin or two into my bowl, but then they would rush on past.  Nobody stopped to look at me.  Nobody stopped to talk to me.  18 years without being touched.  18 years without speaking to anyone.  18 years without being seen.  18 years with no name.

Sometimes on a Sabbath, I would go to the synagogue to listen to the prayers and the teachings.  I would sit in the back corner by myself.  I thought, maybe, just maybe, even though the people around me couldn't see me, maybe God could see me.

Really, this wasn't living.  I was only existing.  I couldn't understand how God could let so much of my life be taken from me, without taking the rest of my life too.  Maybe God couldn't see me either.  I was angry at a God that would let me suffer so much.

On Sabbath, when I got to the synagogue, there was a crowd of people around - more people than I'd ever seen in our small town.  The whispers said that there was a new teacher today; the son of a carpenter from upcountry in Galilee.  He was on his way to Jerusalem, and oh, what a crowd he had following him.  The whispers said that not only was he a great teacher, but he had also been doing miracles and healing people along the way.

Well, I'd had it about up to here with these so-called miracles.  So far, the only miracle that I'd seen was the miracle of making my money disappear.  So when I got into the synagogue, I didn't seek out this teacher, I just went to my usual back corner and sat down and prayed that today might be the day that God would finally hear my prayers.

But no sooner had I sat down then the teacher glanced at me.  And then he paused and looked right at me.  And he spoke to me and called me over to where he was sitting.  I struggled to get up from the floor.  I have to confess that I grumbled a bit to myself - couldn't he see how difficult it was for me to get up.  Why couldn't he come over to me instead?  But because he had looked at me and spoken to me, I went over to where he was sitting.

And when I finally stood in front of him, he reached out his arm and he touched me.  He told me that I was released from my bondage.

And there, with his hand on my shoulder, slowly, slowly, I was able to straighten out my back.  I could see his face.  And when I looked into his eyes, it felt like I was looking into the eyes of God.

I turned around, and then I could see the faces of all of the people in the synagogue.  I went over to the door and outside and I looked up.  For the first time in 18 years, I could see the blue sky overhead and the sun shining down on me.

I threw my arms up in the air, and started to sing praises to God.  For God had seen me in my suffering, and had healed me.  How could I keep from singing?

Now the religious people, they weren't too happy with what this teacher had done.  They told him that he shouldn't have done the work of healing on the Sabbath day.  He should have waited until the next day before healing me.  And then they scolded me.  They told me that I should't have asked for healing on the Sabbath.  They told me that I should have come to them any other day to be healed.

What hypocrites!  I've lived in this town my whole life.  I've known these religious people since they were babies.  For 18 years, I had been bent over, and not one of them had bothered to look at me, let alone offer to heal me.

But that teacher, he knows the law so well that he could out-argue any lawyer.  He knew that the Sabbath is more than just a rest from work.  He knew that the book of Deuteronomy says that the Sabbath is also a remembrance of our people's deliverance from slavery in Egypt.  And if the Sabbath honours our deliverance from the bondage of slavery, then it is right that I should also be delivered from the bondage of my illness.

And he also knew that the law allows people to untie their animals on the Sabbath in order to lead them to life-giving water.  And since I was more valuable than a farm animal, it was right that I should be untied from my illness in order to be led to life-giving healing.

Can you believe it?  He was saying that I was valuable!  He was affirming that I am a daughter of Abraham and Sarah.  He was affirming that I am a beloved child of God.  For so many years, I was a nobody.  Unseen, untouched, unacknowledged.  And yet here I was, in the front of the synagogue, valuable in the eyes of all of the people, and valuable in the eyes of God.

All of the people there that day began rejoicing.  Rejoicing that I had been healed.  Rejoicing in the wisdom of this teacher.  Rejoicing that God was more powerful than they had ever imagined.

I think that something has changed in me since that day - something more than being healed.  I think that before I got sick, I was probably just like the rest of the people in our town.  If I had passed by someone who was bent over, I probably wouldn't have seen them.  I probably wouldn't have stopped.  I would have brushed right on past them.

But now that I have been there in their shoes, my eyes have been opened.  Now, when I pass through the town, I see all sorts of people that the rest of the world doesn't see.  People who are bent over with illness.  People with no home to go to.  People sitting with their begging bowls by the gate.  People who have been abandoned by their families to live alone in empty houses.  People who have moved here from other lands and who don't speak our language yet.  Nobody else sees them.  But I do.

When you leave here this morning, I want you to remember me.  When you go about your busy lives, think about me.  And when you remember me, open your eyes to the unseen people in your world.  This teacher that you follow, this Jesus, he had his eyes open to the world, and he saw me, even when nobody else did.  And when you see the unseen people, do the same as this teacher that you follow, and help to restore their humanity.  Remind them, through what you do, that they are beloved children of God.  Remind them that they are precious not only in God's sight, but in your eyes too.

Remember me.  Remember me and open your eyes.  Remember me and open your eyes and see the people like me who are unseen.  Remember me."

8 August 2016

Geeking Out over Textbooks

The fall term textbook list came out last month, and all of my books seemed to arrive relatively quickly this time around.  Here is what I will be reading between September and December:

NT3120 Meeting Jesus in the Fourth Gospel


NT3118 The Parables of Jesus


ST/CH3100 The Holy Spirit: The Theology of the Transforming God


ST3120 Jesus in Text and Image


GS3000 Graduate Project and Seminar

30 July 2016

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl - Mona Awad

This is going to be a brief review.

This is a collection of 13 short stories about Elizabeth / Lizzy / Beth, a girl growing up in Mississauga Ontario who struggles with her weight.  She is overweight as a teenager as well as seemingly struggling with depression.  She grows up, gets skinny, gets married, gets divorced, gains some of the weight back.  The end.

Most of the stories are told from Elizabeth's perspective, though a few are told from the perspective of people who know her.  But there is no external narrator to the stories to give a seemingly-objective version of the events.  I think that this technique worked well up to a point, showing that there is no such thing as an objective viewpoint to anything - we are always influenced by our background and experiences, whether we are judging ourselves or others.  But I did get frustrated in that I felt like I never really got to know Elizabeth.

I was also frustrated by the fact that Elizabeth was only ever defined by her weight.  Aside from her weight, as a reader I felt like I knew nothing else about her.  As someone who weighs more than I would like to, I don't let this be the defining factor of who I am.  I kept hoping to get to know Elizabeth outside of her weight, but finished the book without getting to that point.

It was a fast read for me, but it is not a book that I will be re-reading.

Question:  I was reading this book around my family last weekend and they were scandalized by the title.  I don't see anything scandalous about it.  Can anyone enlighten me about what offended them?

(Book 4 of 13 in The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set)

28 July 2016

The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl - Sue Goyette

I find it challenging to review poetry.  Partly because I normally read books that are character-driven or plot-driven, while poetry tends to be neither; and partly because while I can tell you if I like a certain work of poetry or not, I don't know enough about it to tell you why.

That being said, this is a collection of poems that does include both characters and plot, while employing poetic techniques such as metaphor and word-play and imagery.  (The blurb on the back of the book calls this, "a mythopoetic, sideways use of image and language.")

The book is based on the 2006 death of Rebecca Riley and the court case that followed.  She was a 4-year old girl who died of an overdose of drugs prescribed to treat bipolar disorder and ADHD.  Yes, a 4-year old was diagnosed with bipolar disorder based on the reports of her mother.  Her psychiatrist was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for testifying at the trials of Rebecca's parents, and Rebecca's mother was found guilty of second-degree murder while her father was found guilty of first-degree murder.

By giving the trial of Rebecca's mother a poetic treatment rather than writing it as straight-forward prose, I found that the story became more poignant.  None of the characters are named - they are the doctor, the girl, the mother - that is until the mother is found guilty and the guilty verdict strips her of her title of "the mother" and she becomes simply Carla.

I found the personification of "poverty" to be heartbreaking.  When the doctor is telling the court about how the girl used to assume the identity of different things - from a caterpillar to a witch to a bear, the reader is told that,
"Poverty could have told the courtroom the girl
had been a butterfly until it had plucked off her wings"
And then when the lawyer and the doctor talk about a special relationship that the girl had with her bear (the bear replaced the mother in giving love),
"two of the jurors had to leave the courtroom to catch
their breath, which poverty had feasted on without being noticed."

This book is short, it is heartbreaking, it is beautifully written, and I am glad to have read it.

(As an aside, last winter I was talking with one of my professors about books that are visually and tactilely appealing, and she asked if I was familiar with Gaspereau Press as they are known for producing beautiful books.  So I wasn't surprised to discover that this book is published by Gaspereau.  The cover and the pages of this book are lovely to look at and even more lovely to touch and hold and turn.)

(Book 3 of 13 in the Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set)

17 July 2016

The Illegal - Lawrence Hill

What a timely read this was, given what is going on in our world over the past couple of decades, and especially in the past year.  Reading this book, I heard echoes of Rwanda, of Iraq, of Syria, of the refugee crisis and rickety boats making a dangerous crossing.  I've even heard echoes of the Donald Trump presidential campaign, which is amazing considering that this book was published almost a year ago.

The plot centres around Keita Ali, the son of a journalist who is executed for stirring the political pot in his (fictional) home country of Zantoroland.  In order to avoid execution, Keita flees to neighbouring Freedom State, a country notorious for turning back the boats crossing the ocean from Zantoroland and for deporting illegal immigrants.  Meanwhile, Keita's sister, Charity, who had been studying at Harvard, has been arrested and is in prison, awaiting a $15,000 bribe from Keita.  As an undocumented resident of Freedom State who is unable to work, Keita's only option is to enter marathons, half-marathons, and road races in attempt to raise the ransom money.

At times, this book felt heavy-handed in driving home the political and social message; but in the end it was the story of people.  The characters were what made the story come alive.  I read Hill's previous book, Book of Negroes, back in 2008, and loved it mostly for the characters that seemed to jump off the page at me.  This book did the same.

If I had one complaint about The Illegal, it would be about the pacing.  The first 2/3 of the book seemed to drag - I remember being past the half-way point, wondering when the set-up would be done and the actual plot begin.  Then all of the various plot lines seemed to resolve neatly in the last couple of chapters.  Despite the uneven pacing, I was never tempted to stop reading.  I was too invested in the characters and what would happen to them.


(Book 2 of 13 in the Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set)

3 July 2016

The Heart Goes Last - Margaret Atwood

In the days when I used to write a book blog, I participated a couple of times in the Canadian Book Challenge hosted by The Book Mine Set, and I have decided to participate again this year.  The challenge is to read and review 13 Canadian books between July 1 (Canada Day) and June 30.  Given the reality of my schedule, I am going to try to get a head-start over the next couple of months before my final year of my M.Div. begins in September.  Why have I decided to participate again?  I am a bookworm; I love to read; and yet I've found that with full-time studies, I haven't made enough time to read "fun" books, and I need some more CanLit in my life!

I finished The Heart Goes Last this afternoon.  It's Margaret Atwood - what more can I say!  She does a fabulous job of world-building in her books, and that was what grabbed me most in this one.  It is set in a dystopian future, but not a post-apocalyptic world.  Like in her MaddAdam trilogy, the future situation creeps up gradually and there are many connections between the world that Atwood paints and our current world situation.  An Atwood Dystopian Future tends to be creepier than others in the genre, as I can see her world coming to pass.

The plot in this book is a twist on the usual dystopian plot.  The main characters, Charmaine and Stan, are living in a near-future America that has been decimated by market collapse, homelessness, and violence.  They have lost their home and are living in a car, trying to survive from one day to the next (not a spoiler - this is revealed in the first chapter).  They are offered a utopian alternative to their dystopian present and jump at the opportunity; but the so-called utopia gradually reveals itself to be even more dystopian than the dystopia that they had escaped.

As far as the characters go, I'm not yet sure how I feel.  Charmaine and Stan both felt very flat to me as a reader - they had no depth of character and tended to live their lives reactively.  The chapters alternate between their perspectives, and I did get a bit bored by the shallowness of their views.  I was much more taken by the secondary characters - I would love to get into Connor's head (Stan's brother), or especially Jocelyn's head (one of the leaders in the so-called utopia).  I suspect that this was a deliberate device - allowing the reader to to experience the plot unfolding from the perspective of a pair of very passive characters.  While I did enjoy the opportunity to try and guess what was going on ahead of Stan and Charmaine, I did get tired of their passivity.

Overall, it was a good book - I don't think that Margaret Atwood has ever written a book that I didn't enjoy.  It's not my favourite of her books, but that is like saying that Beethoven's 7th Symphony isn't my favourite of his symphonies.  The lesser work of a genius is genius nonetheless!  Will I re-read it at some point?  Maybe - I'm not giving away my copy of this book yet.

(Book 1 of 13 in the Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set)

14 June 2016

Thinking about Ecumenism

In the past couple of weeks, I've been thinking a lot about Ecumenism.  From the Greek, oikoumene (sorry - I can't figure out how to get Greek letters on Blogger), meaning the whole inhabited world.  (I struggled through New Testament Greek this year - I am determined to bring it up whenever possible!) Ecumenism today generally refers to the the whole body of Christ - all of the churches together, across denominational boundaries - and that which unites them and allows them to work together.

When I was applying to seminary two years ago, my primary consideration when I was choosing which school I wanted to attend was that I wanted an ecumenical school.  Within my denomination (the United Church of Canada), I had five schools to choose from - two are ecumenical and three are denomination-specific.  The school that I attend (the Atlantic School of Theology) was founded by the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Roman Catholic Church and is open to students of any denomination (or no denomination).  I've had classes with Lutheran students, Baptist students, Metropolitan Community Church students, Pentecostal students.

My reason for choosing an ecumenical school was that I feel that discussion is enriched by bringing multiple perspectives to the table.  We can learn from each others' perspectives.  All of the mission projects that I have been a part of, and most of the bible studies that I have participated in have been ecumenical - this is the milieu that I am most comfortable in.

Here at school, while we do have denomination specific classes (I have now completed my four UCCan requirements - Worship, Doctrine, History, and Polity& Ethics) as well as denominational Formation every Wednesday afternoon for all three years, most of our classes are ecumenical.  And it has lived up to my expectations.  Not only have I learned from the other denominations about what they believe, but it has also strengthened my commitment to my own denomination.

One thing that I wasn't expecting - call it the added bonus - is learning about some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the different denominations.  In our Field Education Class, we spend time talking about our weeks at our placements - in first year, our placements included United Churches, Anglican Churches, a Baptist Church and a Roman Catholic church; in second year we were a mix of United and Anglican churches.  This is where we could hear about a lot of the practical and logistical issues at the different churches we were placed at.  "So that's what it's called!"  "That's why Anglicans do it that way!"

I've also had the opportunity to participate in different experiences outside of my own denomination.  In the past couple of weeks, I've attended an Anglican eucharist in a small rural church (with no electricity or running water); United Church worship services; and the first profession of her vows of one of my friends who is the newest nun in the Society of the Sacred Heart.  An interesting observation - the homily at Uche's profession given by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of the Diocese of Halifax and Yarmouth, and the sermon that I heard two days later given by a United Church minister had the same core message - all about drawing closer to the heart of Jesus.

If you had asked me about ecumenism ten years ago (or even 3 years ago), I probably would have presented a vision of a world without denominational barriers - one universal church of Christ.  This vision has changed.  I now envision ecumenism like a jigsaw puzzle.  Each denomination around the world is one piece of the puzzle (and to take it a step further, each congregation within a denomination is like a sub-piece coming together to make that denomination's piece), and the puzzle pieces fit together to form the whole.  The big picture (i.e. God's vision for the church) can only be seen when all of the puzzle pieces come together.  Each denomination is needed for the whole.  Some pieces are closer together, some are on opposite corners.  Each piece of the puzzle has a role to play, and when we can talk to each other, communicate deeply, we can figure out how we can fit together.  Rather than equating ecumenism with homogeneity, I now see it as more of a beautiful mosaic.


(Selfie with the newest Sister in the Society of the Sacred Heart - Halifax)