March 31, 2019 Doug Norris
Before I begin to preach, let me say a bit about how it has been to be a preacher here. In this 20 square feet of floorspace. This is all self-serving nostalgia, but I do thank you for the moments here to ponder it a bit.
First of all it has endlessly astonished me, and does still, that one person should have the ear, the attention, the curiosity, week by week, of so many. At one level it is daunting and I have to say I will appreciate the release of not approaching each week through this challenge of bringing something meaningful to a group of intelligent and profound people. But what a privilege it has been, and I thank you for your trust. For showing up. We sing a song, pass the plate, ante up, and settle in.
I’ve not been, I don’t think, a preacher in the classical sense, deeply immersed in books and reaching for the arcane ancient languages to present an intellectually stirring look back into the past centuries, even though there is much there that is fascinating. I have, I think preferred the interplay of all the stories here. The boundaries between Bible and you and me increasingly porous so that after a time when we are in the presence of a delight or a grief or a mystery I am not quite sure where it started, with the Book or with one of us, but it’s just there, and we see where it will go that day.
Suffice it to say that by this time it is your stories that percolate out of me, anything I have to give here has sprung from what I have first received here, so that it is your wisdom your searching your love of God, I just get to give it some voice, arrange it a bit, making some kind of hand out of all the cards we have been dealt.
“Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love…” (Reinhold Niebhur)
Let me jump into a sermon now. One more time.
It is 1986, I’m on my first posting after ordination, a very rainy fall day, and after my opening service at 9am in the village where I live I need to head quickly to my next church in Harrington, for the 11am service, about 20km away. Here’s the gamble – the quick route is the river road, 15 km of mud and gravel, might be washed out in places. The longer route is 30 km, but it’s almost all paved highway. I consider the odds, and head down the river road. Sure enough about halfway there the road is completely washed out. No getting through. Now the chips are down. If I try to backtrack, to go back up to the paved road, I will be far too late.
But here’s a young guy on an ATV, and he has a spare helmet. I need to get to church in Harrington I tell him, can you get me there? He grins – sure thing, there’s a shortcut! – I hop on, and he heads out like a bat out of hell, as if some international treaty, as if world peace and an end to hunger depend on getting me to Harrington in the next ten minutes. Taking corners on two wheels, leaping over dead trees, my arms clutching my briefcase and my robes. Mud flying. We pull up right at my usual time and he is beaming, actually looks a bit flush, and I say thanks. But then I say, you know, I was a bit frightened a few times. He said, Oh, that was quite a ride ! I was frightened too. But I figured since I had a man of God on the back we’d be OK so I just went all in. Pretty good eh?
Here’s the thing, that day – I could not contemplate the prospect that maybe I just wouldn’t make it to Harrington Church to preach. That if I didn’t get there it would still all be ok. Didn’t occur to me that they may be just a few people, maybe a full house, but they would sing a few hymns, somebody would read from the Bible, they’d have coffee and go home. Later on someone would call me to be sure I wasn’t upside down in the Rouge River. But I had something to say and they needed it ! I knew some stuff and they were waiting to know it. I held some knowledge, I had to get there. I can’t for the life of me remember what the sermon was about that day. I very much doubt they do. By dinner time that day probably none of us could remember… I can’t even remember how i got back upriver to get my car… But it seemed so urgent.
I had been given knowledge and understanding in my years at the College. This is a high virtue in our religious tradition. It’s why the gown we clergy often wear is a Geneva gown, it’s a symbol of learning, the robe of a scholar. It’s why there are 6 or 8 years of university to get to ordination, it’s why Kristin is doing a degree in Chicago… In the passage we read just now, Jesus as a child is on a road trip with his parents and they can’t find him and it turns out he stopped off at the University where he gathered the professors and gave a TED talk on the law and wisdom and they were amazed at how much he knew.
That’s not precisely how the gospel puts it but the point was, for Luke, the Jesus movement was about to compete in the Greek/Roman culture, no longer in the rural hill country of Galilee, and so Jesus needed to be presented as the one who knows stuff. Knowledge was valued above all else and if you see the picture on the bulletin cover it is Jesus lecturing, in a kind of library. This guy knows important things. (hold that thought)
Introduce confirmation class. Stella, Tyler, Gillian, Dylan, Samantha, David, Heath, Celeste, Nicholas, Emma, Tyler, Trevor, Liam, Tatiana, Felicity.
When I was 16 I was in confirmation class at our home church in Port Credit. And I recall walking to school one day – Port Credit Secondary – and pondering, do I think there is a God? I knew I would shortly be asked this in the ceremony – asked – Do you believe in God? – and while in the ceremony it is phrased as a question, the only available answer is printed right in the bulletin – in caps – I DO. Just in case on the way to the front I forget, it’s written in. I DO. I KNOW THIS. YES.
So knowing that was coming I was walking up Hurontario Street with my backpack and pondering three great deep questions. Will Michelle go out with me if I ask her? Do I really have to go to my job after school? Is there a God? Michelle did not agree to go out with me. I went to my job because I had told them I would. And I decided that I did not and could not know for sure if there was a God. But I could live in that direction.
I could not say no when they asked me because I’m sure didn’t know that there wasn’t a God, so I would say yes when they asked, and take some time to figure it out, and meantime carry on watching for signs of this mystery, this Presence, this, what? This being.… And I’m still working on that. So you need to know, you who are just starting this class, it goes on for 45 years. If we’re doing it right. It is foolish to look for a yes or no for this non-binary question. Better to watch for signs that tilt us toward walking as though it is true.
It would be ten years later in theology class that I would understand that what I had come up with was the classical version of faith – to live as though we understand something we cannot know. Learning to not know, learning to live-as-though it is the most real thing. To never be able to prove that God is, that Jesus rose, that compassion is the way that leads to life, but understanding that these are the truest things I’ll ever find.
A brief intermission – sing with me –
The years are rolling by me, they are knocky-kneed and lean, I am older than I once was, but younger than I’ll be, that’s not unusual. Nor is it strange, that after change upon change, we are more or less the same, after changes we are more or less the same.
After changes we are more or less the same. I am, as I leave this work, in the same place I was when preparing to be confirmed. Really sure that not much of this business we are in can be known, as in proven, debated, but that the path forward is to lean in the direction of all of it
being real and powerful and the one thing on which to build a life. God is present and Jesus is alive and a Spirit moves through us like voltage in a wire.
I have looked far and wide, inside and outside of my own head and heart, and I have found nothing other than this man and his words…which can offer any answer to the questions of our troubled and tragic times… If his light is gone there is no light… (Malcolm Muggeridge)
So on we go, you in your small corner and I in mine, on we go into what some will always see as a foolishness.
I beg you to forgive me for beginning a story I cannot end. The ending is not yet on my lips, it is still a love song on the wind… (Kahlil Gibran)
But what a song ! What a wind ! What a delight ! It will be enough !
Amen, and thank you.