1 Kings 17: 8-16
A week ago I attended the annual general meeting of the Montreal & Ottawa Conference, which is the gathering of leaders of United Church congregations from Ottawa/Brockville to the end of the province of Quebec. On that day, there were many reports, one of them being finances. This presentation felt like… a disaster movie when one character suddenly stands up and starts yelling, ‘We’re doomed! We all goona to die!” The chair of finances did not actually say that, but you understand the feeling. Like the wide majority of denominations in North America, our main focus seems to rest on budget, membership and scarcity because young people do not give money to the church as much as their parents did in the past. Even we, ministers, sometimes ask one another how big our deficit will be this year. Are yours bigger than mine? How can we buy a few more years before we have to close the doors of our congregations? Why should we look for new initiatives and programs when the pews of our churches are empty on Sunday mornings? We have nothing left. Let’s have one more pot-luck before shutting down operations.
This sort of attitude makes me think of today’s reading from 1st Book of Kings. Here, we meet the great prophet Elijah in the middle of a longer story. Just to help you, in a nutshell, Elijah went to King Ahab and Queen Jezebel to tell them straightforwardly they were not respecting the god of Israel and the people. For some reason, Ahab and Jezebel did not appreciate the comment. Then the prophet announced there would be no rain for a very long time, unless he, Elijah, says so. Once again, Ahab and Jezebel did not like that. Elijah had to flee to an oasis where he survived for a while. Eventually this place also dried up. As this morning’s reading begins, God sends the prophet to Zarephath and tells him to seek help from a widow. Elijah is commanded to find a nobody who has nothing – because regardless of the safety net that may exist to help widows in that area, the drought would have destroyed the effectiveness of that system. The prophet is told to rely on the kindness and generosity of a stranger, like some sort of antique Blanche DuBois.
So Elijah set off and goes to Zerephath. At the city gate he meets this widow, he calls her and says to her, “Bring me a little water in a vessel so that I may drink.” As she is leaving, he adds, “Bring me also a morsel of bread.” I can only imagine what went on in the head of the poor widow at that point. “Excuse me? You don’t introduce yourself. You don’t give me explanations. You just show up and you ask, I mean you order me to bring you water and bread. Who do you think you are? Are you the one who was around to watch my precious supply of flour and oil dwindle day-by-day and week-by-week? Are you the one who witnessed my beloved son slowly growing thinner and more listless? Are you the one who had to burry family and friends because drought and famine know no pity? No! Bring me water! Feed me! You’d better change your attitude mister or I will tell you where you could shove your morsel of bread.
No, the widow did not say this. Instead, she simply states the fact that she is gathering a couple of sticks, going back home, bake whatever she has, eat a last meal with her son and then die. She has absolutely nothing left to share with anyone. There is simply not enough to survive. She will die and she knows it. She is not panicking. She is not angry. She is not bitter. It is just the way it is. There is no hope. Death is the only possible outcome.
Elijah replies to her, “Don’t be afraid; go and do as you have said.” There will be enough for all. Why did the widow go to cook bread for the prophet? I do not know. I doubt she was really expecting a miracle. Maybe she was someone who was generous before the drought and famine began. Maybe she believed in the virtue of hospitality and sharing. Maybe she wanted her last moments on earth to reflect the values and core beliefs she held dear all her lifelong. We will never know why she did as Elijah asked her, as we will probably never know how her jar of meal never emptied nor did her jug of oil failed until rain came back. It just did. We just know that where was scarcity, sufficiency emerged. We just know that she survived.
Famine, hunger and poverty are terrible realities that contribute to the death of too many in our world. On top of these afflictions, the poor widow was also suffering from despair, hopelessness and emptiness. The scarcity surrounding her led her to believe that nothing was possible anymore. There was no option to consider. These days, many of us feel the same way. Somehow we convinced ourselves we have nothing left. We tried to hold on desperately to so many things, activities and practices that we have come to forget how God can tap into our lives when we expect it the less, how God can show us innovative possibilities in every moment of life, how God who is at the source of subatomic particles as well as distant galaxies can inspire us beyond our imagination. We forget because we allow our current and immediate condition to cloud our judgment. We forget to change our perspectives. We forget to look at our realities from a different point of view.
Too many churches like ours are looking for a saviour, a magic solution, a cool program or a 10 steeps process to remain alive. Too many of us are looking for a glimpse of success somewhere that can be exactly replicate inside our walls. We desperately search for a recipe we could follow so we could have bread long enough to survive this time of scarcity. However, as the widow teaches us, it is not about the quantity of ingredients at our disposal or the various techniques to bake bread. Abundance and life emerge when we open ourselves and when we are true to our values and core beliefs. For the disciples of Jesus the Christ, hospitality and outreach should not be about committees, documentation or money, but the desire to establish right relationships with all our brothers and sisters, connecting with those we cross on our roads, opening ourselves to difference and diversity. Helping one another should not be reduced to a moral obligation or the number of cans of beans we can bring to the church, but to look at the world from someone else’s point of view, opening our hearts again after we have deceived, or taking a risk that can to put ourselves in jeopardy because we truly believe it is the right thing to do. All of this will not magically change the balance in our bank accounts or fill all the vacancies in our structures. However, it may help us to discover we have more time, energy, and resources than we previously imagined.
On their website, First Church in Cambridge, a United Church of Christ congregation, does not present itself according to its budget or programs, but as followed: “Imagine a church that cannot stay put, but takes God’s welcome into the world. Imagine a church in conversation with other lives, other cultures, able to invite and be invited, to sit at other people’s tables, to learn and share the inestimable riches of God, to build relationships outside its walls. Imagine a church where the hands, hearts and feet of every member, young and old, are shaped for service, and a church that does not lack imagination about ways to use them. Imagine a church compelled by the Spirit to travel with Jesus, healing, reconciling and doing justice, a church filled with the daring and delight of the children of God. Imagine a church on the open road, agile and able, willing to follow Jesus into life’s margins, a church that gives itself away and asks nothing in return, a church mobilized for mission.
When we stop feeding our narratives with negative images and vocabulary, when we stop complaining about everything we cannot do, when we stop reminiscing about a Golden Age that probably never existed and will never exist in the future, we free ourselves from hopelessness and even allow ourselves to contemplate how God is still active in our world. When we look at all we actually have today, the various resources at our disposal and the unexpected generosity all around us, we can discover abundance, we can discover life, we can even discover hope. When we change the way we look at our world, our perspectives also change and we remember it is not what we have that makes a difference, but how we live.
Lamenting about the money we do not have or the way things used to be has become a cliché in our churches and institutions. Like the widow in Zarephath we have come to believe we will die because there is not enough. However, God challenges us to change our attitude and to transform our perceived impossibilities into creative new ways to share with others, to connect with those we meet, and to bring a message of hope to the world. We are called to find abundance in living our values, our beliefs and our faith every day of our lives. Amen.
You probably have heard the expression, “When the wise man points at the moon, the fool looks at the finger.” Somehow I experience this reality every day with my dog. We say, ‘Go eat your food’ or ‘Go to your bed’, and our dog does not move. He rather follows our finger. Do not get me wrong. He is a great family dog… far from being the smartest, but still a great dog. I might complain a little about my dog, still on some days most of us are not that smarter. For example, when we first hear that a tragedy just hit our world, our initial reflex is often to turn on the television and to watch CNN, FoxNews or CBC News Network. The tragedy might have been over for 4 or 5 hours, and we keep watching. They may go to a reporter on site who is repeating exactly word for word what has been said 15 minutes previously; they might keep showing the same 2 minutes clip in a loop over and over again, and for some reason we are glued to our screen. Sometimes we are not even sure why we are watching. We know from experience that nothing else will happen anymore and most likely no significant information will come soon, and yet we are still watching.
The beginning of the Acts of the Apostles somehow feels that way. You probably already know that this biblical book was written by the same author as the Gospel according to Luke. In today’s terms, we could call it a sequel or the second instalment of a series. We almost expect hearing a narrator saying, “Last week on the Bachelor”. The Book of Acts opens with a short reminder that the previous book was all about what Jesus did and taught during his life, followed by an account of his passion, death and resurrection. Now it is time for the author to address the episode when Jesus was taken up in heaven, an event also known as his ascension.
In Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, the ascension of Jesus tends to be an important festival highlighting Christ’s glory and power. However, for most mainline Protestants these days, Jesus’ ascension is a problematic story, to say the least. It is a hard sell, or perhaps more precisely, something that pasted its sell-by date. It might have been believable a few centuries ago, but not today. Come on! Resurrection is already difficult to accept for a modern time mind, because we are told that Jesus unequivocally died and came back to life 3 days later. This is not how biology works, and yet, since it is such a central point of our religion, we are ready to go with it. Ascension… Pffff! Are we to believe that Jesus began to fly like a bird? Was he beamed up like in Star Trek? Did he finished his ministry on earth as a rocket rising a few hundred miles above the planet? And where is he supposed to be now? Is Jesus floating in space with satellites? It does not compute. This ascension stuff does not make sense.
Most likely, this whole story also did not make much sense for Jesus’ disciples. After the resurrection of their master, after appearing to many for 40 days, after giving them numerous convincing proofs that it was really him, they surely taught this was finally the time when Jesus would restore the kingdom of Israel, when the realm of God would lastly arrive. But no. Once again, Jesus is leaving them. It certainly felt like one disciple showed up and said to another, I have a good news and a bad news for you. Well, begin with the bad news. Jesus is gone. He is not among us anymore. Ok, what is the good news? There is no good news. He has gone over there. He is gone. Yes. Over there. Did he say something? He said he will come back. Did he say when? No, we do not have a clue. So he is gone… over there… like gone gone… Maybe if we look up long enough, something will happen. Maybe we will see him… or the kingdom or… oh… never mind, it’s just a bid… So he is gone... over there… like gone gone…
The disciples would probably be still standing and gazing up toward heaven as I speak if two men in white robes, most likely angels, stood by them and wondered, ‘Why are you looking up?’ It’s Jesus… he is gone… over there… like gone gone… Ok, we are not doing this again! The angels asked, My friends from Galilee, don’t you have something else to do? We do not know, probably replied the disciples. Jesus used to tell us what we should do. Now he is gone. Did you not pay attention to what he said just a few moments ago? He said, ‘Go to Jerusalem and wait over there’, and you are standing at the same place. Stop looking at the sky and just go.
This apparently simple moment most has been the biggest transition in the lives of the disciples, probably more important than the day of Pentecost itself. Up to this point, everything revolved around Jesus. He was the one who healed the sick, fed the people, forgave sins and preached about the promise of a new world based on new values and principles. During all these years, the disciples progressively understood who Jesus was and some even discovered who they truly were. But Christ’s ascension definitely marks the beginning of a new era in the history of the nascent church. Jesus of Nazareth is no longer the main character of the story, because he is gone, over there. Now it is up to the disciples to make sure their movement, the revolution they began, continues, not up there but over here.
Historically Christianity has spent a great amount of time and energy on topics like systematic theology, the concept of the Trinity, or describing what might be the afterlife. This is not necessarily wrong in itself, if we do not not forget to connect this with the reality of the world surrounding us. The promises of a beautiful heavenly and everlasting life might be more attractive than the daily realities of our ugly, imperfect, and challenging society. Still, this is where we live. This is where our brothers and sisters struggle. This is where the poor who are oppressed need our help. This is where the outcast search for compassion and acceptance. This is where those who are afraid long for our presence. This is where our ministries have to be done.
Today, we are the successors of the first disciples. Since Christ has not come back in full glory, it is up to us to do something and to be active in our world. The kingdom of God, the new realm Jesus came to announce is now our mission. It is up to us to make it happen. This means we are called to be involved, to use the numerous gifts we received, to be brave and courageous, to act even if it is scary at first, even if not sure we do it right, even if we never done it before. We are called to stop standing and looking up for something and to go where we are needed.
It is far safer and far less demanding to be a spectator than someone involved in our world. As disciples of Jesus the Christ, we are not called to stare at the same reality over and over again, but to act, to try, to undertake new projects, and to dare to be the church. Instead of passively waiting for Jesus to come and fix everything for us, we can all actively participate in the work than need to be done. It is up to us to make a difference not over there, but down here, right now. Amen.
In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful. Quran, Chapter 67:
"Glorious is the One in whose hand is the Kingdom (of the whole universe), and He is powerful over every thing, (1) The One who created death and life, so that He may test you as to which of you is better in his deeds. And He is the All-Mighty, the Most-Forgiving, (2) Who has created seven heavens, one over the other. You will see nothing out of proportion in the creation of the All-Merciful God. So, cast your eye again. Do you see any flaws? (3) Then cast your eye again and again, and the eye will come back to you abased, in a state of weariness. (4)"
Good Morning Ladies & Gentlemen, It's a great pleasure to be here with you on this fine morning.
I would like to begin by thanking you, your church and the United Church of Canada for the friendship and care you have shown to members of the Muslim community over the years. Your kindness and generosity mean a lot to us, so from the bottom of our hearts, thank you.
After a long winter that was much a like a guest who arrives late and then is in no hurry to leave, we have finally had some April Showers, which means May flowers are just around the corner.
Our lawns and gardens are coming back to life - birds chirping, flowers blooming, garden centres sprouting up.
We are incredibly blessed to have to have this beautiful earth as our home. Imagine if the entire earth was dry and red like Mars or grey and rocky like the moon. Life would be so dull and boring, if it were to be possible at all.
Instead, God has blessed us with this beautiful earth, on which we find blue waters of the Caribbean, the glaciers of the Arctic, the deserts of
Africa, the towering mountains of the Himalayas and the Canadian Rockies, the thunderous falls of Niagara, just to name a few.
If we look above, we find a super high-resolution canvas on which God displays His artwork during the day, often in the early morning and late evening. He also displays jewels in the dark sky at night. As the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has told us, "God is beautiful and He loves beauty.”
God Almighty has created His creation perfectly and has made it available for our use. That too is an incredible blessing.
The earth, and the universe it resides in, are still beautiful - even after all the damage we humans have caused.
Let us go back in time for a moment. The Prophet Adam (peace be upon him) was the first human on earth. Imagine his first day on earth.
How great would it have been to walk on a pure earth, to breathe its pure air, to eat its pure and organic fruits. No cities, no factories, no cars, no pollution, no smog, no genetically modified foods, no pipelines, no landfills, no islands of trash in the oceans, no space junk.
We have come a long way since Adam's first day on earth, but sadly, it appears we've made a few wrong turns along the way. Air quality is suffering, Arctic ice is melting, temperatures are increasing, water security is becoming an issue and we're seeing more severe weather, just to name a few.
The Quran states:
“Spoilage has appeared on land and sea as a result of people’s actions and He (God) will make them taste the consequences of some of their own actions so that they may turn back.” (Qur’an 30: 41)
It is a wonderful to see concern for the well-being of our planet. One hundred seventy-one countries have come together to sign the historic UN Framework Convention on Climate Change otherwise known as the Paris climate agreement. It's also great to see the federal government and provinces come to an agreement on carbon pricing.
These are some of the ways to deal with the problem. But are these real solutions? Or is there something deeper at play here? Are the root causes being addressed?
In a June 2010 address, Prince Charles raised a very interesting point. He said:
“I would like you to consider very seriously today whether a big part of the solution to all of our worldwide “crises” does not lie simply in more and better technology, but in the recovery of the soul to the mainstream of our thinking. Our science and technology cannot do this. Only sacred traditions have the capacity to help this happen.”
What he was suggesting was that look to spirituality for solutions, not just in addressing the environmental crisis we are facing, but many of the other crises we find ourselves immersed in today.
One commonly missing trait - which is found in practically all faith traditions and is particularly emphasized in Aboriginal teachings regarding the human's relationship with nature - is humility. The Quran tells us that God despises arrogance and loves for His creation to be humble - in their relationship with Him and with other fellow creatures.
It appears the absence of humility and the presence of arrogance have led humans to believe that they are the masters of the universe, instead of the Almighty. This mistaken belief appears to have given humans a licence to be reckless and heedless - with fellow human beings, with nature and in their relationship with God Almighty Himself.
God has made His creation available for our use, not abuse.
The roots of arrogance can be traced back to before Adam's arrival on this beautiful earth. In the Islamic tradition, it was Iblees the Satan who first displayed arrogance.
He was a jinn — a creature made of fire who, like humans, has free will. However, he was so knowledgeable and pious that he was upgraded to the company of angels, who constantly glorify God and cannot disobey Him.
God honoured Adam and commanded the angels to prostrate to him. They all did, but Iblees the Satan refused. Despite his knowledge and piety, arrogance got the best of him. Instead of repenting, he challenged God further and promised to lead Adam and his children astray through different avenues.
Thus, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) described blameworthy arrogance as that which leads a person to deny the truth and look down upon others.
In another report, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) also told us that a person with even an iota of this type of arrogance cannot enter paradise.
Iblees's incident also teaches us that it is just as important to follow God's commands as it is to have a pure heart that is free from diseases such as arrogance.
Ignoring God's guidance while possessing a good heart can still land one in trouble.
Every single one of us is on a journey that began somewhere, long before we were born, and is taking us elsewhere. Our time on earth is but a short stopover that will decide our destination.
There is much to learn during this stopover, physically, mentally and spiritually. God has created lots for us to discover and appreciate on earth, which we do through travel, study and research.
There is also another dimension - the world of the unseen, that has to do with our soul and our spiritual heart. This dimension is lesser known but also has much to offer - perhaps even more than the physical dimension of the world.
In order to be found, this spiritual dimension requires a deep and truly sincere yearning for the truth. It often comes after much seeking and pleading.
Our life, our relationships, the Earth that we live in and everything it contains are great blessings of God.
Let us cherish life, and explore and appreciate the blessings of God with humility and sincerity.
Thank you for this opportunity - it has been a great pleasure and privilege. Thank you for all the good that you do.
May God bless our journey and may He grant us all that which is best.