Introduction- Trevor Malkinson
Isaiah 43:19 “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
The following is a sermon that Rhian Walker preached at Canadian Memorial United Church in Vancouver, BC, on April 10th, 2011. The regular minister Rev. Bruce Sanguin was away on sabbatical, and both Rhian and myself- who have just entered seminary at the Vancouver School of Theology- were asked to preach (the first time for both of us!) in the guest series while he was away. My sermon was previously published on Beams under the title It's Time to Go Home- A Sermon on Exile and Return.
I just wanted to offer a few words of context for the following piece, which I feel is a solid representation of an emerging post-postmodern Christian voice. Rhian and I met at the University of Victoria while doing our undergraduate degrees in philosophy, and we were both impacted by the work of the great Canadian philosopher Jan Zwicky (my hero and mentor). Zwicky was a formidable thinker and a powerful defender of the environment, something Rhian and I were also passionate about. We both left to do graduate degrees in philosophy, and I lost touch with Rhian for many years. Then one day I was sitting in a church (not something I'd done before) listening to this 'progressive' minister I'd heard about, Bruce Sanguin. I looked over and there was Rhian. In some ways this is not entirely surprising as Bruce is a leader in the field of ecological Christianity, and it makes sense that we'd be mutually attracted to his work (if I recall Rhian had heard an interview with him on CBC radio).
Bruce Sanguin is also a leader in the field of evolutionary Christianity, an emergent movement that's on the rise. It was in the rich field of Bruce's church that Rhian and I both contacted the call to go into ministry. And it's an interesting time for us to be going into the United Church of Canada; a recent National Post article wrote that the United Church "is undergoing one of the most precipitous slides in modern religious history". So going into ministry right now in the United Church is either madness, or the perfect opportunity for rebirth, renewal and resurrection. Only time will tell I guess. But if what's arising amidst the ashes of decline is the kind of evolutionary, action-oriented preaching found in Rhian's sermon below, Spirit just might indeed be up to something new. I look forward to more of her work and to future synergies between us in the future.
Sermon- Rhian Walker
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1: 1-5
May the Spirit who dwells in all living things quiet our minds now and open us, so we may listen to what the Universe is telling us.
John 1: 1-5 is probably one of the most recognizable passages from the Bible, even to those who have never read a single page of it. It’s so familiar, that it's easy to skim over it and not register its complexity.
Here in our community and in other United Churches, this passage is not interpreted literally. We are blessed to live in a time where science and rational thought enriches our understanding of how our world came into being and how it operates on a biological, chemical or physical level. We don’t look for those answers in the Bible.
But the scholar Marcus Borg reminds us that looking beyond the literal interpretation of the Bible does not mean we get rid of the whole text. Freed from the literal, we can explore the metaphorical meaning of this passage. So what could this metaphor be telling us? This morning I invite us to meditate on what the spiritual use of language, or using our Word, might be.
If you have sat through a first year philosophy class, you’ve likely had a discussion on “what is consciousness?” Why do we seem to be aware of not only our surroundings and our bodies, but also our perceptions about the world, of others, and of ourselves? Why can we think and reflect on ourselves? Or more simply: why are we aware of what we know, instead of just, well, knowing it.
Those of you who have not had your morning coffee will be relieved to know that I won’t be walking us through a rousing lecture on the nature of consciousness. While there are many aspects that define human consciousness, one of the areas that that is unique to humans is our tremendous capacity for language. It has evolved in our species to such a degree that we have created somewhere between 3,000-8,000 different languages.
The emergence of language marks a critical turning point in our evolutionary journey, both as a species and as individuals. Wired for language as infants, we develop this faculty over time through interacting with our environment and the relationships we form with others within it. These perceptions about our world, ourselves and other people don’t spring from a vacuum but from our very bodies interacting with the soil, the air, the water, and all life.
We then create a view of the world, one that is coloured by our own experiences and perceptions, which we then express through language. But what we are expressing are not factual statements about objects. We are in fact using language to create the very reality we are experiencing.
Let me give you an example. When you call someone “your true love”, or “your rival”, when you talk about “your challenging work”, or “your beautiful home” you are engaged in an act of creating and putting meaning onto objects and the world. Or, for those of you who have children, think back on what happens when a child starts to name the world around them. It’s a really radical shift, when they start to call something “mine”, my blanket, my teddy, that object, once named, becomes unique and part of their world in a whole new way. It you want to test that, just try taking it away from them and substituting it with another. It doesn’t work so well.
Now, this all may seem really obvious, that we are creating a world everyday, but think of what an amazing phenomena this is. Every moment of every day, we have within us the power to shape the world around us with our words, our language. What the passage from John could mean is that very act of speaking, of using the Word, is in and of itself a Divine act of creation, one that is creating the lives that we are leading.
And if that is so, then I can’t help but wonder that if we make room for it, perhaps we can transform our current reality, the one that is full of wars and conflict, by making way for Spirit or the Divine to come through our words.
But let’s actually try to feel the creative power of language in shaping our reality for a moment. Please join me in a meditation. I’m going to give us two words to reflect on. I’d like us to shut our eyes and see what the world feels like when we reflect on these words. Pay attention to what you see, think about and how your body feels. The first word is “Violent”. Now empty your mind, you may want to gently give your shoulders a shake and try this word, “Peaceful”.
We can now open our eyes. Thank you. Did you notice how your mood and perception of the world shifted or changed when you reflected on the two words? How your reality of the world was different in those two spaces?
So what has this got to do with us? One of the aspects of Christianity that really drew me was that in this tradition, our spiritual call requires action. It's not enough as a Christian or, I believe, as any spiritual person, to just reflect and listen. Part of our calling as human beings is to care for and to take action in the world. So reading the passage from John with an evolutionary lens gives us a hint of what we might be called to do as spiritual actors in the world.
If language holds the possibility of letting the Divine creative force to come through and transform our world and ourselves, then how do we let that Spirit out? How do we make sure that our own ego gets out of the way and we speak instead from a place of Spirit? Because without this speaking up, without this type of action, there is no new life or new way of being coming for us, and I know many of us here don’t want to keep living in a world full of violence, hatred, and environmental destruction.
I’ll share with you an example of how I was recently transformed by someone speaking their Word.
CBC’s the Current ran a documentary on Muslim Albanians who sheltered Jews during the Second World War. The Albanians took Jews into their homes and hid them by passing them off as part of their family, telling the Nazis that they were their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and so forth when they came to their homes. In one home, a doctor with one son took in a young Jewish man and passed him off as his second child. One day the Nazis came to his home, looking for the Jewish man. They accused the father of harbouring a Jew and demanded that the young man step forward and identify himself immediately. The father turned to his biological son and said in a quiet voice “Now is our time to show who we are.” His own son stepped forward. I wish I could say that it ended well for him but it did not.
When I heard this story I was driving and had to pull over. It is not only the immense sense of loss I felt as a fellow parent, or the incredible bravery of that family, but also a deep sense that they had responded to a greater calling.
What the family did through their words and actions was bring another reality into being. They did not do what most of us likely would have done. I doubt very much I could have done it. They did not try to protect what they loved most of all, their child or their lives, but instead stood up to a greater evil, a violence that was being committed to all of humankind through the war. They must have believed in the possibility of a world without that kind of violence, where human life was valued regardless of race or religion, and were willing to speak and embody the truth of that belief. In this way they brought light out of the darkness, they opened up the possibility of saying no to violence, even in the face of impossible odds. And while their loss was terrible, their story has the power to change us and perhaps bring about a different world, one where we truly understand the cost of our own violence.
I don’t share this story this morning to depress us. I share it to let us all potentially transform too, to hear the call of the Spirit in both these words and the brave actions that followed. Maybe if we do, we can avoid anyone having to make such a sacrifice again.
Friends, this morning, I am asking us to Be our Word. To live our Word in the world. If we believe in the possibility of peace, then it is important that we not be silent now. That we match our actions and our words seamlessly and transform the world we are living in today. That we do the work we each need to do to end the violence within us, and then around us.
This is a huge challenge for most of us. When I speak, I hide from the Word, telling white lies and half truths, hiding behind my fear, all this without any real threat at my back except for my image of myself, of how I want to be seen or not seen. I am often blind or unwilling to admit to my own violence that I bring about on others everyday.
So how can we live our Word? What can we do as our spiritual practice to live our Word and let the Divine creative force of Spirit out into the world through us? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this but here are some practices that may be helpful:
1) Take time to sit in silence every day. If we don’t make time to listen to that still small voice within us, we cannot speak from the place of Spirit.
2) Think before we speak. I know my own ego is like a yappy dog, just waiting to get the first word out before I have had time to reflect on it. Can we take a moment to rein that in a bit and instead choose our words more carefully, to see if we are speaking from a place of compassion, a place that encourages the life and blossoming of others?
3) Overcome the fear to speak up about the change we want to see in the world. I don’t necessarily mean go out and protest, but using Christ as an example, let’s not lack the energy to try to bring about change in the world.
4) Speak up for those who cannot do so themselves. We are so fortunate to live in this place and time, so let’s try to help others find their voice amid their challenges.
In this life, there are many obstacles, and it can seem overwhelming to change any of it. But our words and actions truly can shift the world. Our life can be a testament to creation.
Friends, may your light shine in the darkness, and may the darkness not overcome it. Amen.