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A series of 4 sermons on the 4 elements by the Rev Wendy Evans

Far from the Shallows

Tree of life

The Divine Spark

Wind of Change

September 8, 2019

‘Far from the Shallow’

Pentecost 13, Common Lectionary Year

Matthew 3: 13-17

©2019 Rev. Wendy Evans

Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth
and the meditations upon all our hearts
be acceptable in thy sight,
O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Something that I am deeply grateful for
is that in every place I have ever lived,
I have been close to a body of water.
To be able to go look out at the water,
to walk or run beside the water,
and if the option presented itself,
to immerse myself in the water.
My mom still remembers
when I was a toddler
and had barely learned to walk
and had not yet learned to swim,
if she was alongside me at the beach,
I would joyfully spread out my arms and legs
and plunge myself face first into the water,
resting completely peaceful for a moment
until she scooped me up again.

A couple thousand years ago, give or take a few,
a young man comes strolling along the river one day.
When the young man spots his cousin,
He makes his way into the crowd forming along the banks
and steps into the waters.
His cousin hesitates
but Jesus assures him that it is the right thing to do.
Held by cousin John, Jesus goes all the way under those cool waters.
And as he breaks through the surface again,
the voice could be heard from the sky.
Something new began down by the river that day.

In this day and age, baptism –
which literally means ‘to dip in the water’.,
at the start of life or the fresh start of life
still happens down by the water…
in some traditions and countries
the whole congregation still literally gathers at the river.
You can imagine it is quite a sight.
They’ve even preserved a small section of the River Jordan
for people to wade in to renew their baptismal vows.

In my grandfather’s church,
the baptisms took place within a large basin at the front of the sanctuary.
He would wade in wearing big boots up to his waist to baptize his congregants.
Right here, in our own churches we have the waters poured into the font,
and then liberally poured upon the head of both young and old,
representing God’s abundant love and grace washing over us.

Regardless of the method,
the essential common element is water.
A sacred communal gift of God
to welcome, to cleanse, to heal, to renew.
Baptism is a sacrament that transforms us
far beyond the surface.

When I was serving in ministry in the Eastern Townships
the weekend arrived when I would be presiding
over my first baptisms in the community.
As I was preparing for that Sunday,
I found myself reflecting on my own baptism
and kind of wishing that it could have been
one of those full dramatic river immersions.

Well, be careful what you wish for!

On the Saturday afternoon of that weekend,
my husband Sam and I decided to do one of our favourite activities,
take our kayaks down the Massawippi river.
I was grieving a lot of personal loss at the time
and trying to keep a tight control on every little detail of my life
in order to feel like I could ‘stay afloat’
so a gentle boat ride down the river sounded just right.
We put in the kayaks upstream a ways to give us a good couple hours of paddling
before arriving at our yard that backed on to the river.
It was the beginning of September
and the water level turned out to be a little higher than normal
and colder too.
About half way through,
we rounded the bend and discovered
a small set of rapids ahead.
Sam went first and then told me to stay at the top
so he could get a video of me going down.
Sounded like a fun idea and so I waited leisurely.
Getting a little distracted as I looked around,
I was unaware that I was slowly drifting to the side
into the edge of the current.
Suddenly, with surprising force
the rapids shot my kayak forward towards the bank
knocking and twisting forcefully into some branches
hanging over the water
and before I even had a moment to react,
my kayak flipped completely upside down
and I found myself plunging fully under the water.
What felt like a long moment later,
I came up gasping for breath.
I can tell you I was no longer distracted.
Completely present to the moment.
And I was okay.
Shivering in my drenched clothes,
my shoes and paddle half way down the river,
and all my other items soaked through.
I stood there waist deep in the water
that I had barely ever even dipped a toe in before,
and I began to laugh and cry at the same time.
It was like this huge release and renewal in my heart.
I felt like I got my river baptism after all.

‘Remember your baptism!’
is one of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s favourite sayings.

United Church author, William Kervin,
goes on to point out that Desmond Tutu
inspires us to remember our baptismal vows include
a prophetic witness to a transformed life –
to be deeply passionate about justice for all creation,
not just because we may be liberal or left-wing,
but because it is in our baptismal gene pool! [1]

The current water crisis of our world is
both a physical and a spiritual one.
When our societies get stuck in the shallow
in the way we relate to one another and the rest of creation,
fooling ourselves into thinking that is the safest location,
the health status of water reflects this
and the extremes arise.

The experience of flooding waters
is still fresh for people around parts of our own island
and now Hurricane Dorian a painful reminder
of the role of climate change
in heating up the atmosphere and oceans
causing water levels to rise
and warm energy to sustain extreme storms.

And on the other extreme,
drought –
also affected by climate change and poor water management.
Watersheds, rivers, streams and wells running dry.
Pollution and toxins filling what is left.
The river Jordan itself
is almost completely dried up and destroyed
except for one small section that has been preserved.

As the theologian Diana Butler Bass points out:
Water holds deep wisdom –
it keeps our ancient memories of origins
and our creaturely dependence.
But we forget.
From time to time,
we need to be reminded that healthy water
is essential to health and happiness for all. [2]

In my first year of ministry studies,
I attended a conference in California
lead by New Testament scholar Ched Myers
on the theme of watershed discipleship
He invited us to re-inhabit the watersheds in which we live.
To map out the places of land again like our ancestors did,
defined by where the common surface water
drains to the same body of water.
And to see those places as the primary location
of caring for the environment
and our neighbour.

A farmer named Harvey Scott, baptized and raised in the United church
and influenced by the traditions of his First Nations friends.
started his own life close by the Athabasca river
The only major undammed river in Alberta,
its level dropped by nearly 30percent over 35 years and continues to decline.
The water quality has also been affected by many different pollutants,
contaminating fish, and resulting in rare forms of cancer,
pulling people apart.

Having always recognized water as sacred,
in 2007 he cofounded a branch of a group known as
The Keepers of the Water.
His local minister called Harvey a modern-day prophet,
describing him as a bit like John the Baptist.
Many people were afraid to speak up but he helped them find a voice,
getting people to stop and look at the issues,
able to start drawing community together down by the river
to share stories and common values,
to hear the traditional knowledge of the elders
and to pray together,
and out of it comes hope and a way of moving forward.
As Rev. Jackson points out,
there are huge challenges
but the keepers of this river are not sitting on the banks
saying ‘woe is us’.
They are bringing a depth of new life to the region
by sharing a common compassion.

Jesus started his ministry by being baptized in the river waters
And ends his earthly mission by kneeling down to wash his disciples’ feet.

Last year on Maundy Thursday
there was no evening service to attend
so after we finished supper
I gathered in a circle with my husband and children.
And for the first time,
around a basin of water
on the floor of our own home,
we took turns washing one another’s feet.
The desire with which my family entered and experienced
that simple and sacred sacrament together,
I will never forget.

In this year’s Oscar winning song,
the longing for change is named –
to find a way out of the modern day malaise,
to crash through the surface
of how we connect with one another
and how we connect with all creation,
to go deeper.

From the first waters of creation
to the great rivers of final revelation,
may it be so.

[1] Kervin, William S. Gathered for Worship: A Sourcebook for Worship Committees, Leaders, and Teams. Toronto: United Church Publishing House, 2010, p.51-52.

[2] Bass, Diana Butler. Grounded: Finding God in the World-A Spiritual Revolution. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015, p.82.

September 15, 2019

‘Tree of Life’

Pentecost 14, Common Lectionary Year

Genesis 2: 7-9

©2019 Rev. Wendy Evans

Several years ago,
when I as feeling unsure about next steps for my life,
I went to visit my aunt and uncle on Whidbey Island
which is just off the coast of Seattle.
They were directors of a spiritual retreat on the island
and brought me to the centre one day for a visit.
After seeing the buildings and chatting with the staff,
I headed out alone for a walk down the path in the woods.
After a few minutes I rounded the bend
and the sight before me caught my breath.
I had arrived at an open field,
at its centre a huge beautiful rock labyrinth had been placed.
And surrounding the field in a full circle,
was a stunning cathedral of towering trees.

It looked so inviting,
this outdoor sanctuary,
so I moved towards the labyrinth entrance
and began to walk its path.
For those of you who have walked labyrinths before,
here at Cedar Park or elsewhere,
you know it can be a very meditative experience,
a grounding way to reflect on life and pray.
It felt so good as I took each further step,
and eventually I turned the last inner curve
and arrived at the centre.
I stood there rooted in place
So quiet, so still.

And then all of a sudden,
straight ahead of me,
the first tree nodded towards me in greeting
and then stood back up straight
and then the one beside it did the same
and then the next and the next.
Literally one by one
the wave moved around the circle
until the final tree finished the wave
and they were completely still again.

Pure delight I felt as I journeyed
back out of the labyrinth path that day.
Whatever my future was to hold
I knew the trees would help keep me centred.

In the creation story we heard today
humanity’s first home is in the forest garden.
The garden of Eden, the sanctuary of delight.
Out of the sacred soil, God forms Adam,
(whose name shares the common route word for ground).
And out of that same earth come the trees.
Together, human and tree.
Together for life.

So many trees grew in Eden,
every tree imaginable,
filled with beauty and fruits to share.
Two of the trees are named.
First the tree of life at the centre,
symbol of new life, fullness of life, everlasting life.
And a second tree,
the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

For all of us eager apple pickers
in this autumn season
what happens next in the story
is not so easily forgotten 😉

Adam is joined by Eve
and God gives them the responsibility
to serve and care for the garden.
They are invited to eat the fruit from any tree
except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

But one day,
that is the tree they choose
from which to take and eat.

In the hands of God,
the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
was divine wisdom.
But, in the hands of humans,
who deny the creator’s decree
for the natural order of things,
as minister Sharon Moon suggests in her writings,
the tree of knowledge becomes a symbol
of our human tendency to divide life into dualities,
to “either-or” thinking,[1]
such as either humans or earth.

Because after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit,
their relationships –
with one another, with the earth, with God
get a lot more complicated
and they find themselves cut off from the tree of life,
a life of wholeness and unity.

A few weeks ago,
a good friend of ours came for a visit.
He grew up in the forests of Maine
but now lives
in Orange county, California
where there are
a lot of people and a lot of desert
but not so many trees.

As we sat on my front porch together,
looking out over the large maples and cedars
that line our street,
he just stared and stared.
And then said quietly and wistfully,
“I took trees for granted”

he is not the only one.
Every year, people across the globe chop down about 15 billion trees
to make room for agriculture and other forms of industry,
caught up in the demands of our capitalist global market.
In the Amazon rainforest alone
deforestation has shot up by 278 percent.

As most well know,
deforestation on such scale
contributes tremendously
to soil erosion,
biodiversity loss
and water shortage,
as well as an increase in global warming
which in turn causes more deforestation
with the breathtaking increase in
forest fires across our country and world.

Trees are the oldest living organisms on earth
and uphold entire ecosystems.
From an evolutionary perspective,
without trees,
our species would not have come into being at all.

In the book ‘the secret life of trees’ Colin Tudge writes:
“Perhaps this is why we feel so drawn to trees.
Groves of redwoods and beeches are often compared
to the naves of great cathedrals:
The silence, the green, filtered, numinous light.
But the metaphor should be other other way around.
The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees.
The trees are innately holy.” [2]

A few months ago,
I was at home in the morning
getting ready for the day
when suddenly I heard the sound of chainsaws.
I jumped up from my chair and ran to the door.
I was aware it was going to happen sometime
but did not know it would be this day.
My next door neighbour’s
beautiful big old maple tree
needed to be cut down.
With a pang in my heart,
wanting to mark the moment in some way,
I frantically grabbed my phone
to document its final moment
still standing.
And then I had to go downstairs
to teach a two hour webinar
on United Church rituals
for endings and beginnings.
With the students,
we reflected on the many rituals
we have to mark the loss of other humans,
how we are getting better at rituals for marking the loss of animals,
but we are still missing adequate rituals for marking the loss of trees
and other holy elements of creation.

Holy indeed and full of wonder.
The complexity and care
with which trees share their lives,
we are only beginning to comprehend.

Similar to humans,
but just on a much longer time scale,
it turns out that
trees also communicate
through sending electrical impulses
and through sense of smell and taste.
And as scientists have dug down
into the sacrament of soil,
they have discovered
a ‘wood-wide web’ of care
where family members and neighbor trees
mutually support one another
with enormous amounts of information and goods
passed through shared root systems
and giant fungal networks throughout the soil
that connect the tree roots together.

Our biblical authors did not have access to
this latest scientific research
but were well attuned to the land
and sensed that trees deserved
to be a symbol throughout our scriptures
of a life well lived.

For example, the psalmist writes
“I am like a thriving olive tree in God’s house”. [3]
On my trip to the middle east in 2009,
It was the first time I saw an actual olive tree.
Planted in orchards along the valleys and hillsides,
it is short and squat with a gnarled and twisted trunk.

On first impression, I had to wonder why biblical authors
gave the olive tree such importance
(why not a tree more grand, more majestic, more beautiful?)

Well it turns out the olive tree is incredibly resilient.
Individual trees can live for centuries,
some over 3000 years old in the most difficult of landscapes.
The trees send their roots together
deep, deep down into the earth
to find springs of fresh water.
So deep and strong do these roots become
that even if the tree is cut down or burned,
the roots will survive and send forth new shoots
to create new generations of trees.

It is thought that the eight olive trees that grow today
on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem
come from the same root system
that existed when Jesus prayed there on his last night
two thousand years ago.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry,
as he walked the earth
he used images of soil and seed,
of treasure and trees
to describe the dream of God,
to remind us of our original vocation
to serve and care for the garden of all
from which we ourselves have been formed.
And to be rooted in
and to spread the good news
that the Tree of Life
is, in fact,
not some far off,
unreachable place
but here
to be discovered
in the midst of our every day.

A tree that bears fruit for each season
and whose leaves
are for the healing of the nations. [4]

Thanks be to God
For the trees of life
that unite us all.

[1] Sharon Moon, Returning to the Healing Oasis: Guided Meditations for Mind, Body, and Spirit. Toronto: United Church Publishing House, 2006.
[2] Colin Tudge, The Secret Life of Trees: How They Live and Why They Matter, London: Penguin, 2006.
[3] Psalm 52:8
[4] Revelation 22:2

September 22, 2019

The Divine Spark

Pentecost 15, Common Lectionary Year

Exodus 3:1-5

©2019 Rev. Wendy Evans

Ever since I was a young child,
one of my favourite moments
in the whole church year
has always been that moment
year after year
during the holy hush
when the electric lights are dimmed
and the final carol chord begins to play
and one by one
the candles
in each hand are lit
until the faces of the
entire sanctuary
are fully aglow
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright.

Somehow, each year
God has caught our attention.
Everyone present
has stepped aside
from the crazy consumer
Christmas chaos
to go and see,
to find our light,
to encounter healing.

A few thousand years ago,
we hear about a man named Moses
who was caught up in his own crazy chaos.
Hiding out for years in a foreign land,
not feeling like he belonged anywhere,
So God decides to GO BIG on the attempt
to catch Moses’ attention:
Slightly off the well-trodden path,
God appears in a blazing bush.

Moses takes notice.
And then he makes the decision
to turn aside,
to go and see,
to spend time watching this flame,
this flame that glows but does not consume.

This flame that speaks to him,
that calls him twice by name,
that reminds him
to take off his sandals
because that is what is done
when one is in the presence of home.
This flame that declares
that Moses is on holy ground
and he belongs.

Choosing to spend this time with God
re-grounds and re-centers Moses.
It is a healing encounter.
It is transformative.
No longer consumed
by a loss of identity,
his own spark
begins to glow bright.
Moses goes back to his roots
to help re-write the story,
a call to freedom
for himself
and for all people.

The spiritual director
Christine Paitner
often gets asked,
“How does a person know
when he or she is having
an authentic experience of God?”

Her response is simple:
“True prayer increases
our capacity for love,
so that the circle
of who is included
in our love is widened
and the depth of our love
is made more profound” [1]

And as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin says,
we then discover fire for the second time. [2]

The divine spark
within each of us
that glows
but does not consume.

Jesus showed the way,
how to mend the world
in love’s pure light
as he too would
choose to
go and see
to be held in the warmth
of God’s presence
and then reach out
to touch,
to listen,
to share,
to care.

Radiant beams from Thy holy face
with the dawn of redeeming grace [3]

Thanks be to God
for always finding a way to get our attention,
for illuminating us all with love
so together we discover
our healing way home.

[1] Chrsistine Valters Paintner, Water, wind, earth & fire. The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements. Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2010.
[2] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu, New York: Harper & Row, 1960.
[3] Lyrics in italics are from the Christmas Carol, ‘Silent Night’

September 27, 2019

Wind of Change

Pentecost 16, Common Lectionary Year

Proverbs 8:22-35

©2019 Rev. Wendy Evans

I woke up on Friday morning
before anyone else in my house.
I put on some jogging clothes
and opened the front door.
I needed to feel
the fresh air filling me
as I started down the street alone.

The sun was just beginning to rise
over the water
and the trees branches were swaying gently.
I could feel myself becoming grounded
as I took each further step.

It had been a restless night.
I was nervous about the day ahead.
So many unknowns.
Would we get the train on time?
Would our meet-up place with friends work out?
Would we find bathrooms when we needed them?
Would the metro lines be overcrowded?
Would the kids get overwhelmed?

But as I went back into the house
to wake up the rest of my family,
I felt a sense of knowing
breathing into me
that it was the right choice
for us that day.

A short while later,
with 3 generations accounted for,
we piled into our neighbour’s car together
and headed for the station.
After a smooth train ride into the city
we easily found our friends at the meet up spot,
had the chance for a bathroom break,
and then got on the still quiet metro line
with the kids content and excited.

We arrived early at Mt Royal,
a chance to sit and catch our breath,
soak up the beautiful sunshine,
and feel the gentle breeze.

As time passed,
more and more people began to gather.
The energy began to grow… and grow.
Drums started beating, voices chanting.
Youth climbing high into the sky for a better view.
Now people were
converging from all directions
until we eventually found ourselves
swept up into
the vibrant centre of the crowd
ready to begin the march
500,000 together (give or take a few)
…and many more in spirit.

And then Wisdom comes out
into the street
to call us:

On the heights, beside the way,
At the crossroads she takes her stand. [1]

Side by side with God,
Wisdom is both master worker and young child,
her sense of truth and justice strong.

She calls to us
from the beginning of creation,
Wisdom’s inspiration woven
into all being for all time.

Understanding how to live well
in right relations
as the Creator intended.

Relationships that bring joy.

If we find Wisdom,
our Holy Wind,
we find Life.

The search has perhaps
never been more urgent.

Our experience of God
cannot be separated from
our need for air. [2]

The quality of the air
we breathe today
Is both a scientific
and spiritual reality.

As most of us are well aware
over the last 200 years
humanity has thrown off
the atmosphere’s balance,
especially with the burning of fossil fuels,
releasing far too much CO2 into the air,
decisively reshaping the entire planet
in countless ways and
with deadly consequences.

As environmentalist Bill McKibben wonders
“are we running Genesis backward,
de-creating the world?” [3]

But wisdom has never stopped calling:
And more and more people are listening.

Happy are those who keep my ways
Hear instruction and be wise and do not neglect it. [4]

16 year old climate activist
Greta Thunberg got up on that stage
at the end of the march Friday afternoon
in front of ½ million people
to remind us all:

The science is clear.
It is our moral duty to act immediately
for the planet to have any chance to heal.
And policy makers need to join in.

“We are the change,
and change is coming.” [5]

And even in the midst
of the daunting challenges that lie ahead,
there was a feeling of joy
In that collective fresh energy
blowing through the crowd,
uniting with millions
around the world.
With a big smile, Greta said,
“It just feels great, doesn’t it”?

‘Blessed Unrest’
is how the author
Paul Hawkens
the worldwide
for climate justice
In these recent years.

And each one of us
to remember
can be found
In every deep breath
that fills us
and changes us
as we listen and feel and follow.

Thanks be to God
for the element of air
In which we find Wisdom,
In which we find Life.

[1] Proverbs 8: 2 (NRSV)

[2] Bass, Diana Butler. Grounded: Finding God in the World-A Spiritual Revolution. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.
[3] Diana Butler. Grounded: Finding God in the World-A Spiritual Revolution. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.
[4] Proverbs 8: 32-33 (NRSV)

[5] Final Words in Greta Thunberg’s speech at Montreal Climate March on September 27, 2019

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