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Even a million dollars would not buy God’s love- Teaching Time on Jesus Cleansing the Temple for January 21, 2018

Take a few minutes to listen to these three songs, all performed by great Canadian recording artists:

I heard an interview on Thursday with some members of Bare Naked Ladies. The interviewer Tom Power, offered his own take on the million dollars song. He said despite its upbeat tune, and goofy lyrics about kraft dinner, chesterfields and tree-houses, he hears it as a very sad song.

The song’s narrator talks about extravagant things he could do with a million dollars, but the sad thing is all he really wants is love. The guys from the band congratulated him, and told him he heard it right. It’s a song about unrequited romantic love.

We then hear Michael Buble’s take on the Beatles song, which says it clearly. We already know this, if we think about it. You can’t buy real love.

The video is Canadian jazz singer Sophie Milman doing the old Cole Porter song, ”Love for Sale”, which even though it sounds sultry and compelling, is actually quite cringey, when you think about it- the character in that story song is singing about selling herself.

We will have a special guest speaker joining us at Trinity on Sunday, February 11. The Rev. Jennifer Potter will talk to us about human trafficking, and the sex trade in Oakville, Burlington, Mississauga and beyond. It is a billion dollar industry that uses and abuses people.

There is nothing romantic about prostitution. It preys on the weak and vulnerable, and it appeals to the lowest, worst parts of human nature. It takes the normal, healthy desire for human intimacy, for love, and reduces it to a poor and unwholesome substitute, and a commodity to be bought and sold. The Beatles had it right. You can’t buy love.

You can buy substitutes, but like John Merrick’s elephant bones or Dijon ketchup, they are not what we really need. And they won’t fill the emptiness of a hungry heart.

We are born with the appetite for real love. We don’t all get it in the purest form or quantity we really need. We discover other things that seem almost as good. The culture we live in, and the economy we are surrounded by thrives on selling us the substitutes.

There was a disease sailors used to get on long voyages. It didn’t matter how much they ate while at sea. If they did not get fruits and vegetables, they’d end up suffering with swollen gums, teeth falling out, bulging eyes, dry and scaly skin, and slow-healing wounds and bruises.

Material goods. Money. Fame. Security. Power. Attention. Flattery. Influence. The assurance we are right. Control. These all feed us something. They are not all bad in themselves. But if what we need is Vitamin C, and what we get is cotton candy, eventually we will have scurvy.

I was out with a friend this weekend. His wife was out with their oldest daughter, who I will call Cynthia, shopping for prom dresses. I took him with me to IKEA, to help me buy a sink and vanity, and plumbing fixtures. We had a lot of fun, and I got what I needed for my bathroom.

When we got back to his house Cynthia was practically glowing, she was so excited. She’d found “the dress”. But Cynthia was actually far more excited about the experience at the dress shop. She described donning each prospective prom dress, then stepping into heels, and then up onto a podium, that was lit from above with spotlights, and surrounded on three sides by mirrors.

Cynthia’s mother watched as she modelled the dress, taking direction from the sales assistant about turning, and putting her hands on her hips, and “working it”. I asked if was like being on the cable television show “Say Yes to the Dress”. She was not surprised I know the show, because Cynthia is friends with my daughter Naomi, who loves it.

Cynthia told me that they had not yet bought the dress, because they needed to look at some more options- but if they go back, she will get to put the dress on again, and stand on the lit podium. If she says “yes” to that dress, the sales assistant will press a button to lower a special background behind her, and the salon photographer will come in, and take her glamour shots, modelling the dress. These are the pictures Cynthia would then post on social media, to let her girl-friends know what she will be wearing on prom night. This is so that no one in her circle of friends will say yes to the same dress.

Cynthia is so excited. My guess is that this really is “the dress”, and the buying experience she will end up with. I know her Dad pretty well, and he is a softy. It is actually quite wonderful to see his daughter that happy.

As a relatively objective observer I wonder how much the salon experience adds to the figure charged against my friend’s credit card. How much is steak, and how much is sizzle?

I also want step back from this a bit, and compare it to what Jesus saw going on in the Temple. Pilgrims from all over Israel would come to Jerusalem at the High Holidays, to make their visit to the Temple. Part of a visit to the Temple was to make a ritual sacrifice, to have a pure, unblemished animal killed, and parts of it burned on the altar, to send the aroma, the smoke heavenward, as an offering to God. This was considered part of what it meant to be faithful, and to be in right relationship with God. It was part of religious duty.

Out of town visitors to Jerusalem would find it difficult to bring a live animal on their journey, so they would buy one at one of the many convenient shops within the temple walls. If they brought their own, the animal inspector might find a fault or blemish that would disqualify their goat or lamb, or doves, and they would have brought them all that way for nothing. So much easier to shop on the spot.

But wait, if they wanted to buy the animal at the Temple, they couldn’t use any Roman coins. Roman coins bore the engraved image of Caesar, and were considered unclean. Fortunately, right beside the animal sellers there were money-changers, who would, for a fee, trade your dirty Roman money for nice clean Jewish shekels.

Then you could wait in line to buy your sacrificial animal, have it inspected, then wait in line again to have it presented for slaughter, and ritual burning at the altar. Only certain parts of the animal would be burned. The rest would be available for purchase, at the shops in the temple courtyard.  After all, if you were in town for Passover, you might need to put on a meal, to feed your family and friends.

This all operated with the smoothness and regularity of a well-oiled machine. It could create the impression that management really did know what they were doing, and all the fancy hocus-pocus, flames and smoke and special coins were necessary parts of praying, or connecting to God.

According to one of my favourite authors, Anne Lamott, the basic prayers of humans who are seeking God’s attention, reassurance, peace, and love, boil down to three simple words.  Help! Thanks! Wow!

Do we really need all the sizzle? Can’t we just talk to God, and listen for God? For his second sign in John’s Gospel, Jesus challenges the smoke and flame and shiny money show at the Jerusalem temple, the centre of Jewish ritual and religion. He messes up the spiritual shopping mall, and reminds the Temple officials they do not have an exclusive franchise on the mystery of God.

God is at work in the world. God is in your heart, and my heart, and in the hearts of all of our friends, and our enemies. God is in, and around, and beneath, and above and beside all of us. The notion that we have to pay for God’s love, or purchase access to God so that we can pray, is as ridiculous as Dijon ketchup. Amen




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Saving the best for last: Jesus and Dr. King- teaching time for Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday, January 14, 2018

This July, Lexie and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. (We each needed special permission to be married, since we were 12 years old at the time.)

We were married at one of the churches where Lexie was the minister, in southern Manitoba. Lexie had friends and parishioners in at least 3 or 4 little towns. I lived and worked about 5 hours north and west, and had friends and parishioners in as many communities.

Rather than make a list of who to invite, and who not to invite, and risk hurting the feelings of folks in the churches we served, we took ads out in local newspapers, in which we published the day and time of our wedding service, and the evening party, and made a general invitation.

There was no way we could afford to put on a big dinner for heaven knows how many might turn up.  We held a catered lunch for our family and closest friends, most of whom had travelled from other provinces and countries. After we ate, we posed for photos. Which explains why my suit looks snug in the wedding pictures.

After that, we went to the largest of Lexie’s churches, in the little village of Baldur, Manitoba. One of Lexie’s close friends from seminary was the officiant, and one of my minister friends came back from doctoral studies in Boston to be the preacher. They were both great.

After the ceremony, we were toured around the village in a convertible, and little kids from Lexie’s church took turns riding in the back seat with us as we were driven around. Those little kids are all grown up now! Then we snuck back to Lexie’s manse in the neighbouring town of Belmont, and relaxed for a few hours before the evening party.

We’d rented the community hall in Belmont for the dance, and hired a local country band. We also had my old friends from Swan River, Lloyd and Linda, who are champion square dance callers, teach the crowd, and lead them in square dancing. It was a hoot. Lloyd and Linda’s daughter Jodi, was here last summer, and came to Trinity for worship.

At around 10:30-11:00 pm we followed a prairie tradition, and offered a “night lunch”, of cold cuts, cheese and buns,vegetables and fruit, and baking, catered by a group of Sunday School teachers.

When we booked the hall for the wedding dance, we did not get a liquor license- for two reasons. One was you had to put a number on the form of how many people would be at the party, and we had no idea. The other was we figured if it was a dry wedding, more families would bring their kids. They did, and it was wonderful.

There was no worry about running out of wine, and there was more than enough food and drink for all who came.

Our gospel story today describes Jesus and his mother at a wedding where the host ran out of wine. The celebration of a wedding in Jesus’ time would go on for about a week, and involve many gatherings, and meals. The social customs of the time required the host to invite not only the family and friends, but the whole community- all the neighbours. Rich and poor, well dressed and those in rags, popular and unpopular, all would receive hospitality.

That does not mean they would all receive the same hospitality. Favoured guests got the best seats at the banquets, were served the finest food and drink, and were served first. The hangers on, the neighbours and distant relations and common folk would be served last, in many cases literally being served the dregs, and leftovers from the good tables.

Some of the “guests” would not even be in the building, but would gather around the back door of the kitchen. It was an accepted form of charity to feed the poor the crumbs from the tables of the rich. An early expression of trickle-down economics. Make sure the wealthy are well fed, so there can be good leftovers. Makes me wonder if the kitchen staff and servers were paid minimum wage! Could they support their families on what they earned, or would they be waiting for a handout at the end of their shift, of some crusts to bring home for the kids?

The story in John’s Gospel reads like a parable, except the parable is about Jesus, instead of being told by him. It doesn’t give a lot of details. We can’t tell where Jesus, his disciples and his mother were seated, or if they were even at a table. Since they were essentially homeless wanderers, I doubt they were sitting with the bigwigs.

We hear that Jesus’ mother, who is not named in this story, told Jesus there was a problem with the wine. The problem was it was running out. My guess is this would not be a problem if they were sitting in first class.

Jesus said, “Is that any of our business, Mother—yours or mine? This isn’t my time. Don’t push me.”

She went ahead anyway, telling the servants, “Whatever he tells you, do it.”

The story then describes Jesus asking the servants to fill 6 big stoneware water pots with water, and then to fill the wine pitchers. When the pitchers are brought to the host of the party, he calls out to the bridegroom,

“Everybody I know begins with their finest wines and after the guests have had their fill brings in the cheap stuff. But you’ve saved the best till now!”

The editor/author of John’s Gospel includes this story as the first of what are called “signs”, that point to the identity and character of Jesus. This suggests the miracle, the wondrous turning of water into wine is not the focus of the story.

John begins his chronicle with this story, that involved Jesus, and his mother, and water and wine. The original audience would already know another story about Jesus and his mother, and water and wine. They would hear the wedding story, but remember the story of the crucifixion. Jesus was hung on a Roman cross. His side was pierced with a sword, and water poured out. A sponge was raised to his mouth that had been soaked in cheap, bitter wine. And his mother was there watching.

Once this is pointed out, it’s hard to read about the wedding, without thinking of Good Friday.

I feel that way when I watch videos of Martin Luther King Jr. Especially the famous “I have a dream” speech. When I hear King’s powerful voice say, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”, I cannot help but imagine the sound of a single gunshot, ringing out five years later.

King was not “whining” about the state of things in his country, and to be honest, in ours as well. He was holding up a vision of something better. A vision of how things are meant to be.

King’s speech at the march on Washington solidified for many the message, the promise, and depending on your perspective, the threat represented by the faith-based, non-violent civil rights movement. People were marching for a better, different world. They were crashing the party, and in a calm and dignified manner, asking, to borrow an image from the Jesus story “Where’s our wine?”

When Jesus acts to provide wine for the guests, the good news for the host is that there is more wine. Was it also good news for the bridegroom, and his special guests, that the last to be served were now getting the best wine? How would that news be received by the big-wigs?

When Jesus took over the catering, and did a better job than the host, he was not so subtly pointing out that things were not the way they should be. Should certain people get the best seats, the freshest food, the best wine, while others wait outside the back door?

This is not just a story about wine at a wedding. It is a story about a world in which every person, every child of God, is treated with respect, and dignity, and kindness, and no one has to beg.

In 1960, at a conference hosted by then vice president Richard Nixon, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was invited to speak on the role religion should have in correcting discrimination and injustice in hiring and employment practices. He spoke powerfully about the nature and purpose of religion:

“Religion operates not only on the vertical plane but also on the horizontal. It seeks not only to integrate men with God, but to integrate men with men and each man with himself. This means, at bottom, that true religion is a two-way road. On the one hand it seeks to change the souls of men, and thereby unite them with God; on the other hand it seeks to change the environmental conditions of men so that the soul will have a chance after it is changed. Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund religion in need of new blood.”  Amen

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Jesus, Woody the Cowboy, and John Wesley- teaching time for January 7, 2018

Have you seen the old Pixar movie, “Toy Story 2”?

woody the cowboyWoody, the Cowboy, is toy-napped by a collector, who plans to sell him to a museum. The collector locked Woody into a room which contained other valuable toys. As soon as the collector left, Woody sprang into action, looking for a way to escape. Woody met some new friends: Bullseye the horse, Jesse the cowgirl, and the old prospector, Stinky Pete.

View clip:


 Stinky Pete is my favourite. He showed Woody great compassion when he states, “He doesn’t know who he is!”stinky pete

Most stories are built around a lead character, a hero or heroine. We watch as they face challenges, have adventures, and grow into an understanding of who they are, and what they are about.

Woody’s journey to learn who he is, and what he is about, is helped along by his new friends, who reveal things he did not know about himself.

Woody the Cowboy was a famous television star. He finds himself in a room filled with Woody memorabilia- that give him clues to just how big a star he was, and give the movie audience the background we need to understand why Woody would have been toy-napped in the first place.

Toy Story 2 is a sequel. Successful sequels remind the viewers of what they liked about the first movie, but also go beyond the familiar. Sometimes the writers do this by offering the next episode in the hero’s life. Another way is to provide back-story- to show things that happened to the characters before we met them in the first place. This seems to work best if we actually like the characters, or are at least curious about them.

For a story to be compelling, the hero has to do more than simply have an adventure. They also need to solve a problem, to learn something, and to be in some way transformed, changed by the experience.

The learning and transforming happens as the hero interacts with other characters. They offer clues to the mystery.  Jesse and Stinky Pete are there to let Woody know that his story is much bigger than he ever imagined.

This morning we heard part of the story from Luke of the day that Jesus went to the Jordan River, to the place where people were being baptized by John the Baptizer.

People were lined up to hear John as he preached about the Kingdom of God. He invited his listeners to see that beyond their individual lives, they are each part of a much bigger story- the story of God’s plan for the people of Israel, and God’s plan for the whole world. John also called people to repent- to turn away from their selfishness, to live faithfully, according to the teachings of the Jewish religion.

Jesus was interested in the story John told about God’s Kingdom. He watched John invite people to begin a new chapter in their lives. When it was Jesus’ turn to stand in the river water, and be baptised, John did for Jesus what Jesse and Stinky Pete did for Woody. John showed Jesus that he is part of a much bigger story.

When we gather as a community of faith, we become reminders to each other that we are part of a bigger story- the ongoing story of God at work in the world, loving us, and calling us to turn our lives around. Each of us has a part to play in this big story about God’s love.

john wesleyThis morning we will use parts of a re-covenanting service that originates with John Wesley. Wesley was a priest in the Church of England who saw that people needed help to be able to bring faith out of the sanctuary, and into the everyday. He did not limit his preaching to the pulpit, but took it to the streets, and spoke to thousands of people who would never set foot in a church. He organized new believers into societies, small groups that met regularly so that the members could encourage each other, and challenge each other, and help each other live out their faith. They helped each other stay on track, and make changes in direction as needed.

The leader of the group would ask each member in turn, “How is it with your soul?” and the whole group would listen to each member. They studied scripture together, prayed together, and worked together on projects to help others. They talked about how their faith changed and shaped their lives.

The movement Wesley started was called Methodism. At first the name was a put down, by those who made fun of the strict, methodical program Wesley and his followers taught. Over time, the movement grew into a new branch of the Christian Church. The Methodist Church was one of the three denominations that joined together to form the United Church of Canada in 1925.

Wesley taught that our baptism, and later our confirmation as members of a church are outward signs of the covenant between each of us and God. God has promised to be our God, and love us, and strengthen and guide us, and help us. In return, our covenant calls us to learn and grow in our faith, and to live it in all parts of our lives.

Wesley thought it was helpful to offer people the opportunity to re-new their covenant relationship with God, and with their fellow believers. Wesley tended to have these covenant services around New Year’s- it seemed like a good time to make a fresh start.

This morning we will all have the opportunity to renew our faith commitments.  After we make the prayers, you will all be invited to come forward to receive communion. Once you have done that, you are also invited to go to the baptismal font, dip your fingers into the water, and make the sign of the cross on your forehead. This is not a baptism- but a symbol of your faith, or at least your desire to believe. This is a chance to say to ourselves, to God, and to each other, that we are continuing on our journey of faith. Amen


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Being Good News (for Dec. 31, 2017)

Every year Mrs. Cynthia Valleau, an 8th grade teacher at Hurricane Middle School in West Virginia puts up a Christmas tree in her classroom, and decorates it with angels. Each angel represents a child in need. Early this December, her homeroom class took an angel from the tree that represented a little girl who asked for a bike and clothes. The kids in the class decided to bring in $2 each to buy clothes, having agreed the bicycle was more than they could do.

A day or two later one of her students came in when no one else was around, and anonymously left a brand new bike for the little girl. This little story appeared on Yahoo Online early in December, was picked up by several other websites, to be viewed and shared by millions of people.


You may have seen this news story, about something that happened on Christmas Day, on the Canadian prairie. As someone who lived and worked for years in rural Manitoba, not far from this small Saskatchewan town. I can imagine the scene, and the willingness of folks to be of help.


These are good news stories, and it does our heart good to hear them.

The Gospel story for today describes the day the infant Jesus was brought to the Jerusalem temple by Mary and Joseph. They followed the religious law and custom of the time, and made a sacrifice of a pair of doves or pigeons, and had the child blessed.

Simeon, a faithful and prayerful man was in the Temple that day. The story says the Holy Spirit had shown him he would see the Messiah of God before he died. When he saw Jesus, he took him in his arms, and said,

 “God, you can now release your servant;     release me in peace as you promised. With my own eyes I’ve seen your salvation;     it’s now out in the open for everyone to see: A God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations,     and of glory for your people Israel.”

The story goes on: “Anna the prophetess was also there, a daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher. She was by now a very old woman. She had been married seven years and a widow for eighty-four. She never left the Temple area, worshiping night and day with her fastings and prayers. At the very time Simeon was praying, she showed up, broke into an anthem of praise to God, and talked about the child to all who were waiting expectantly for the freeing of Jerusalem.”

Anna and Simeon each had a hunger, a thirst, a craving for Good News, of tangible reasons for hope. A newborn child often has that effect.

We were at the annual Chamberlain Christmas this week. It’s a gathering of my wife’s sisters, their father, and their families. The star of the show was our niece’s son Evan, who is about 3, and full of energy, and smiles, and enthusiasm for tearing wrapping paper, running in circles, cheesies, and climbing.

Anna and Simeon, when they encounter Good News, in the living form of the newborn Jesus, see cause for hope, and want to share it. Passing it along may be even more important than hearing it in the first place.

When we share Good News, it gives an opportunity to bring light and love and hope to another person. This can be incredibly healing and inspiring to the giver, as well as to the receiver.

st-nicholasjpgOur saint for today is Nicholas of Myra. He was born in the 3rd century in a village in what is now the southern coast of Turkey. He was born into wealth and privilege, but sadness struck when his parents died in an epidemic while he was still young. They had raised him as a devout Christian, and their influence lived on in him, in a powerful way.

Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man.

Perhaps the most famous story about Nicholas is about a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry.

This poor man’s daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry.

This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas.

Anybody get an orange in their stocking this Christmas?

Through the centuries St. Nicholas has continued to be venerated by Catholics and Orthodox and honored by Protestants. By his example of generosity to those in need, especially children, St. Nicholas continues to be a model for the compassionate life.

howard thurmanOur next hymn, “I am the light of the world”, has its origins in a poem by Howard Thurman, an American philosopher, theologian, teacher, and civil rights activist. Thurman taught a theology of radical nonviolence that influenced and shaped a generation of civil rights activists, and he was a key mentor to leaders within the movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Thurman was also one of the founders of the first intentionally inter-racial church in the United States, called The Church for The Fellowship of All Peoples, which had its inaugural service on October 8, 1944.

Here is the original poem by Howard Thurman:

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and the princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among brothers,

To make music in the heart.

 At this time of year people put energy into creating resolutions for the New Year. Eat better, quit smoking, get to the gym more often. Resolutions are often about self-improvement. I would like to suggest a different kind of commitment for the coming year.

What if in the coming year we made a concerted effort to not only pass on Good News, but to make Good News happen in people’s lives? This needn’t be about giving them material things or money. You can pass on Good News with a kind word, or lifting a hand to help, or inviting a lonely person for a meal, or taking the risk to speak to someone who looks like they need a listening ear.

Take some today to think about what you might do. Howard Thurman, whose poem I read earlier offered some good advice. He said,

Don’t ask what the world needs.

Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.

Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.  Amen

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Advent Alphabet: Z is for Zoroastrian

adoration-of-the-magiZ is for Zoroastrian. Do know this word? Some scholars suggest the Magi who appear in Matthew’s Gospel as visitors to Jesus were Zoroastrian priests. The word Magi derives from an Old Persian word “magus”, an occupational title for members of the priestly caste of the Zoroastrian religion. The Zoroastrians were interested in the stars, and had a highly developed “science” of astrology. Their reputation as astrologers led to the term Magi being used in connection with the occult, and this led to the development of the English word “magic”.

The Zoroastrian religion survives to this day. While it was once the dominant religious force in Iran, now it survives there only in an underground fashion, because of the radical Islamic fundamentalism that considers it to be a heretical religion.

The largest number of Zoroastrians are found in India and Pakistan. In India they are called “Parsis”.

Historians of religion credit Zoroastrianism as one of the oldest to have a credal basis- meaning that it has written statements of belief. The religion was founded by the prophet Zoroaster, also called Zarathustra, who codified religious ideas and practices that already existed, and added to them his own world-view. Zoroastrianism is one of the earliest “monotheistic” faiths, meaning they recognize only one God. Zoroaster is typically depicted as dressed in white, in garb that is very much like what modern Zoroastrian priests wear. His poetic writings form the basis of the religion, and its liturgy (prayer and ritual for worship).zoroaster

Zoroastrianism had a powerful influence on the development of the world’s major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (often called the Abrahamic faiths because they all trace their histories back to Abraham).

Some basic Zoroastrian beliefs:

-there is one God, called Ahura Mazda, the one Uncreated Creator

-there is a conflict in the universe between order and chaos, and humanity has a role to play

-Zoroastrianism’s moral code  is summed up as: “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds

-the religion teaches the equality of all, regardless of race, sex or social position

-Zoroastrians are urged to preserve and protect the environment

-Zoroastrian religion teaches that fire and water are to be used for ceremonies in which a person is made ritually clean. Prayer takes place in the presence of some form of fire, which is considered to be evident in any source of light.

There are active Zoroastrian faith communities in Canada, the largest being in Toronto and Vancouver. The Zoroastrian Society of Ontario is based at its community centre on Bayview Avenue, and is an active participant in Mosaic Interfaith, which is a group that promotes peace and religious tolerance.

The Advent Alphabet has  been a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods of Trinity United Church, Oakville.

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Advent Alphabet: Y is for Yeshua

blonde-jesus-versus-galilean-aramaic-yeshua-bar-yosef-by-rod-borghese-279x279Y is for Yeshua. Yeshua ben Joseph is the “reason for the season”! (The “ben” means “son of”) When I was growing up, I thought that his first name was Jesus, and his last name was Christ. It was actually not until I was studying the philosophy of religion in my under-grad years that I learned that “Jesus” is our translation of a Hebrew name which can also be expressed as “Joshua”. I say “expressed as Joshua” because in the original Hebrew writing there were only consonants, and the reader would have to fill in the vowel sounds. There is a whole group of variant ways to pronounce words that have the “J or Y” sound followed by the “S or Sh” sound, depending upon which vowel sounds we plug in. So we say his name is Jesus, but that is not a name that anyone who lived in his time would recognize.

Does it matter? Most people know who we mean when we talk about Jesus. What this minor revelation about names taught me is that it does not hurt to practice a little more humility when it comes to what we think we know, with certainty, about the founder of our faith.

The “Christ” part is not actually a name at all, but more of a description, or a title. Our English word “Christ” is derived from the Greek Χριστός “Khristos”, which means “the anointed”. When the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament was translated into Greek, this was the word chosen to translate the Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ which means “one who is anointed”. This Hebrew word is also translated as “Messiah”. Words are important!

The word “Christ” has taken on a meaning in Christian theology very different from what “Messiah” means in Jewish religious thinking. (The word Christ, in much of our theology, is used to refer to the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity, who in creeds is described as being both fully human and fully divine. The word Messiah in much of the Jewish literature, refers to a person who is fully human. In Jewish theology, only the one God is divine.)

When early Christian theologians began poring over their Greek translations of the Old Testament, they were not necessarily aware of what had been lost (or added, depending upon your view of things) in translation. So Old Testament passages about an anointed king or leader of Israel took on an air of prophecy, of appearing to foreshadow or predict the coming of Jesus, who later came to be called the Christ.

Scholars of religion, and particularly of Christian theology, have been debating for centuries whether or not there is a connection between the “messianic hopes” of the Jewish people, who were looking for a human leader to “save” their nation, and the earthly ministry of Jesus (or Yeshua)

Does this confusion over names, and the questions about the meaning of those names take anything away from our anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus? Not for me. I think God is a mystery. It is not surprising our human languages, and our translation efforts, have not fully captured the truth.

When even our best efforts at using words to define or describe God fall short, there is always prayer. When we don’t know exactly what to say, it is good for us to listen.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, minister at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario.

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Advent Alphabet: X-rated?

alphabet-x-abc-letter-alphabetic-character-1Xis for Xmas. As in Merry Xmas. How do you react when you see that in print? Over the years there have been emotion-laden campaigns to “do something” about the use of this abbreviation. There seems to be something about this letter that gets people x-cited. As if it is x-rated or something! I found some x-cellent pieces on the subject on-line. I thought I would offer you an x-cerpt from what I think is the best x-ample, written by Dennis Bratcher. He provides a lot of good content on a website called The Voice, which represents a Methodist perspective in the tradition of John Wesley.

“ I have no doubt that some people write “Xmas” because they are too busy or too lazy to write out the whole word. And no doubt some secular people, who are just as uninformed as Christians, see “Xmas” as a way to avoid writing “Christ.” And certainly there are secular and commercial motives in the fact that “XMAS” appears in ads and signs because it can be larger and more attention getting in the same amount of space (more bang for the buck). But those factors do not take away the thoroughly Christian origin of the word “Xmas.”  In this instance, all of the hype and hysteria over supposedly taking Christ out of Christmas by writing “Xmas” instead of spelling out “Christmas” is both uninformed and misdirected.

Abbreviations used as Christian symbols have a long history in the church. The letters of the word “Christ” in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, or various titles http://www.crivoice.org/images/symbols/chirho.bmpfor Jesus early became symbols of Christ and Christianity. For example, the first two letters of the word Christ (cristoV, or as it would be written in older manuscripts, CRISTOS) are the Greek letters chi (c or C) and rho (r or R). These letters were used in the early church to create the chi-rho monogram, a symbol that by the fourth century became part of the official battle standard of the emperor Constantine.

Another example is the symbol of the fish, one of the earliest symbols of Christians that has been found scratched on the walls of the catacombs of Rome. It likely originated from using the first letter of several titles of Jesus (Jesus Christ Son of God Savior). When combined these initial letters together spelled the Greek word for fish (icquV, ichthus).

The exact origin of the single letter X for Christ cannot be pinpointed with certainty. Some claim that it began in the first century AD along with the other symbols, but evidence is lacking. Others think that it came into widespread use by the thirteenth century along with many other abbreviations and symbols for Christianity and various Christian ideas that were popular in the Middle Ages. However, again, the evidence is sparse.

In any case, by the fifteenth century Xmas emerged as a widely used symbol for Christmas. In 1436 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with moveable type. In the early days of printing typesetting was done by hand and was very tedious and expensive. As a result, abbreviations were common. In religious publications, the church began to use the abbreviation C for the word “Christ” to cut down on the cost of the books and pamphlets. From there, the abbreviation moved into general use in newspapers and other publications, and “Xmas” became an accepted way of printing “Christmas” (along with the abbreviations Xian and Xianity). Even Webster’s dictionary acknowledges that the abbreviation Xmas was in common use by the middle of the sixteenth century.

So there is no grand scheme to dilute Christianity by promoting the use of Xmas instead of Christmas. It is not a modern invention to try to convert Christmas into a secular day, nor is it a device to promote the commercialism of the holiday season.  Its origin is thoroughly rooted in the heritage of the Church.  It is simply another way to say Christmas, drawing on a long history of symbolic abbreviations used in the church. In fact, as with other abbreviations used in common speech or writing (such as Mr. or etc.), the abbreviation “Xmas” should be pronounced “Christmas” just as if the word were written out in full, rather than saying “exmas.” Understanding this use of Christian symbolism might help us modern day Xians focus on more important issues of the Faith during Advent, and bring a little more Peace to the Xmas Season. “

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering of Rev. Darrow Woods, minister of Trinity United Church, Oakville.