Palm Sunday, missing the cross

I don’t remember where the idea came from, but on Palm Sunday I woke up to a donkey on the front lawn of the church.  Turns out it was Presbyterian.  Its handlers part of a congregation, on the outskirts of the city.  But there it was, a donkey on Charlton Ave, Palm Sunday.  With it, there were children.  One child, had been asked, I was told, by a family member to go a special trip that Sunday morning, away from church, to which they responded, “No thank you.  I am going to church this morning.  My church has a donkey.”  So there was excitement.  Children and teens – lots of them – coming over in the hour before worship to touch the donkey.  To stand near it.  To speak to it.

About 10 a.m., someone from the church handed out songs sheets, which people held awkwardly in their mittened hands.  -4C.   We practiced the song for our procession around the block.  Hosanna.  Hosanna.  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  We sang it once, and then, about 50 of us, all ages, left.  Donkey first.

The donkey headed up Caroline, and right on Herkimer.  We sang Hosanna, quite well, I think, as we walked.  The line was long, and the voices became stretched out, so it eventually become a round.  The ‘donkey processional choir’.   A few things happened that surprised me.  I was surprised how the children walked at the front.  They had one hand high, waving their palms, and the other hand, three of children, had on the donkey.  Right there on its back, little hands buried in its dusty hair.  The whole way.  The were very connected to this animal.

As we walked, a minivan came close, slowed down, and stopped in the middle of the road to watch.  After a minute, the windows came down, and out came the arm of a man who almost the oldest member of our church.  We waved back.  Off they went.  A few minutes later, the same van, having circled the block, was back.  Both windows down now, the man, and his wife and his grandson, all waving out the window, right in the middle of Herkimer, as we sang Hosanna.  Other cars slowed down, stared.

Like they had never seen a parade of Presbyterians singing Hosanna in this city.

When the donkey made it to Hess and Charlton, our whole procession stopped to catch up.  We kept singing.  An HSR bus stopped to let passengers off on Charlton.  The bus driver, put his coffee down, looked over, gave us all an ear to ear smile, and a big thumbs up.  Hosanna – as he drove off West in his bus towards Locke St.

Back at the church, we all gathered on the front steps, and sang Hosanna one last time before parading into the service with our palms.  It was chaotic; it was loud; it was energetic; it was joyful.  It was Palm Sunday.  We went into our church, the donkey back to its.

Two weeks later, I led the Prime Time Bible Study, a Wednesday afternoon.  We checked in, talked over our lives, what was happening in the church.  Talked about the donkey.  One senior, never short of words, never short of a good story or a kindness, asked me if we had all seen the cross?  A Ph.D. and ten years of university later, I hadn’t seen the cross.  She asked, “don’t you know, every donkey has one on their back?”  It’s said that ever since the beast carried our Saviour, every donkey had a cross on it, where two lines of dark hair met.

I had missed it.  In the cold, in the singing, in the joy, in the crowds, I had missed the cross.  Immediately I pulled up a picture, and there it was.  The whole time we had been out there that Palm Sunday, up at front of the line, leading the way along the street, leading the singing, leading this public witness to the story of a certain kind of king, was a donkey, on Herkimer Street in Hamilton, with a cross on its back; and three little hands, holding onto it.

A community BBQ, and shoes

For several years now, I have attended a program at Central where, from November to March each year, hot meals are served to those who come.  I walk around, feeling like a maître-d’, saying hello, getting to know the guests; feeling like I should have a violin, and be lighting elegant candles.  At times, we talk about the weather, or sports.  Two years ago, I came with a broken ankle.  Guests still ask how it is doing.  Other times, we talk about the birth of their grand children, the death of friends, pets, loved ones.  We talk about visions some have.  Of angels; of God meeting them.  I hear favourite Bible verses quoted, and the latest books being read, commented on.  If it is someone’s birthday, I will be told, and we will sing before grace.

And that is fine.  We all go our separate ways.

Other times, though, there are cross overs.  Like the wedding I have been asked to perform; or like the spouse, diagnosed with cancer, I was asked to visit over the months she was dying.  And her funeral, hosted by the church.  And like the three times individual guests came and spoke about these meals to the congregation.

I noticed something every year however.  Every year around March, the final month, guests would start asking, “is this going to be over soon”, saying “we’re not going to see each other until next October”.  One March, I batted around the idea of a summer reunion, small talk though, mumbling something about having to find volunteers, find time, budget etc. etc.  Another March, I actually heard myself saying, “well, maybe next year”, hearing acutely how words can be so easy, and empty.

But this March something changed. One of the guests suggested a BBQ. And, I heard myself agreeing, joining in, yes, a community BBQ outside the front of the church.  Yes.  Perfect.  Try it for a month, every Thursday in April.  I said, let me talk to some people and get back to you, wondering if I would.

Yesterday, I attended the second community BBQ outside the front doors of our church.  The team served 120 sausages, street vendor style, to 75 people.  I noticed a few changes from the winter program.  One the guests from the winter program actually had become one of servers.  She had joined the church team.  Coordinating the lines, handing out bottles of water.  The coffee shop from across the street had joined in.  They had provided two huge containers of hot drinks and coffee.  People driving by the front of the church in their cars, slowed down, hanging their head out the window, and having a long look.  As if they had never seen a BBQ outside the oak doors and tall steeple of a city church.  I noticed how people spoke to each other more loosely, more relaxed, being outside, moving around, laughing, chatting.  The atmosphere was almost fun.  I noticed how easy it was to invite people.  Three children played across the street with their Mom, and I yelled over, would you like a BBQ. Over they ran. We talked summer camps, gym space for after school basketball, and something about each of the kids.  Shortly put, there were more connections with our neighbourhood in 30 minutes, then I might otherwise see in a month.

One interaction stayed with me the most.

Because the BBQ was outside, as the guests arrived, you could see them coming.  One man, a regular during the winter, came by, limping.  After he had his sausage, he explained to me how each step he took, hurt.  His ankle, to his knees, up the leg, into his hip.  (I asked him how far he had walked for the BBQ, and it was about 2.5 km, a mile and half).  I said, “sir, that is no good, how can we help?”

He explained that he had gone to a pedorthist on James Street, was fitted for large orthotics and special shoes to balance out his gait, but not being able to pay for them, opted for the monthly payment plan, which after a month, he could not pay.  So here he was, a large man, walking in pain at each step, with what he needed to walk prepared but on a shelf in a store on James Street.  Nowhere near his feet.  I suggested the church use its benevolent fund to pay off the shoes, and that he pick them up as soon as possible.  His large eyebrows, unshaven, furrowed.  His lips, still yellow from mustard, turned down.  And he said to me, “can you do that?”  I said, this church would be happy to do that.  And so it is in the works.  Set for next week.  Next week, among other things, there will be a man, in our neighbourhood, walking without pain, because of a simple BBQ, the generosity of this congregation, and the grace of a God, who makes the sheer joy of opportunities like these, possible.

Sermon on Governor General’s remarks on faith and science

Sermon delivered on 5 November 2017  (John 1:1-2).
Central Presbyterian Church, Hamilton.
The Rev. Dr. Gregory Davidson, Ph.D.

Good morning Central Presbyterian Church.  This doesn’t happen very often.  In fact, I can’t remember it ever happening.  I had, this week, a sermon prepared on this passage from Genesis, on forgiveness.  Until I read the remarks of our Governor General, our Queen’s, our head of state’s representative in Canada.  And hearing, them this week, I’ve prepared another sermon, on a topic we’ve already touched on this Fall, but one that I cannot help but preach on, given our highest ranking citizen’s words, this week.   And I preach this sermon, without judgement or cherry picking, it is simply a response to that incredibly pervasive view in West – secularism.

Our governor general, captured that view this week, when she said, in a list of other view to be scorned as not sophisticated enough, in a tone of dismissiveness:  “And we are still debating, and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.” That is that surely, the idea that God is God, is so unsophisticated, it need not even be debated.  Passe.

Now a few things, before we even get started this morning.  May I remind us, that God matters in our country?  May I remind us, the number of people in Canada who share Christian, and if not Christian, then another faith, in a Creator.  May I point out, the depth to which the secular movement, the new atheism, is touching our country?  That here the Queen’s representative – and think for a moment of the Queen’s Christmas messages – that the Queen’s representative is, with some irreverence, if I may say, questioning as unsophisticated, a form of scientific colonialism, the view of those who believe in the presence of the divine at the formation of the world.  God’s existence.    May I remind us, on a national note, how our Charter of Rights and freedoms, that we so cherish, begins?  Our Charter begins with God.  It begins recognizing the existence of God.  The new Western play-toy of secularism is not in our Charter.  It begins like this — whereas, it says, Canada is founded upon the principles that recognize the supremacy of God and rule of law…So there’s food for thought, I believe, serious food for thought, in the Queen’s representative speaking in a way that questions the very foundation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada.  May I remind us that God is not dead.  That the reports of God’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

May I remind us that science doesn’t hold all the answers.  Has limits.  To the man in the hospital room, surrounded by doctors and nurses who hold medical reports, that may not give answers, science has limits.  To the engineers and young soldier practioneers steering drones from half a world away that drop bombs, science has limits.  To the parents using PGD, to choose in advance the eye colour and other characteristics of unborn children, deep down, on reflection, science has limits.   It is just this week that Christian Smorra of the CERN lab in Geneva reports in the journal Nature that for the first time the magnetc moments of matter and anti-matter, protons and anti-protons were measured more precisely than ever before, and were found to have the same magnetic moment, a finding that suggests, scientifically that all there should have been at the very beginning of the world was a large flash, one part cancelling out the other.  A finding, which “reveals the vast depths of human ignorance about the cosmos.”

PAUSE

We’re Christians, or on a journey, where one day we might call ourselves such.  So let’s think through the new atheism that is so strong, very strong, in the West at this moment in history.  And you’ll remember some of these points from September and the work of Timothy Keller.  There are problems with atheism, thinking points, that turn us towards the existence of God.

One, If we say there is no God, and in fact we are the product of randomness.  Or in the words of our GG, oh my goodness, a random process, if that is true, and there is no God involved, then you say to your friend around the table — well, if life came into the world randomly, if our life and therefore our bodies and brains are the result of a random, unordered process, then how can it make sense that this very thought you’re having is rationale, sensible, to be trusted, if just random.  It’s a very good question.  If we think we have ordered, rationale thoughts that we can trust, how could they come from randomness.

Two, If we say there is no God, what do we do with meaning.  Our purpose.  We are left to create our own identities.  And in creating our own identities we need to be wary they are differentiated from the identity of others.  We need recognition.  And creating our own personal purpose with no reference to being a creature of a Creator, can actually enslave us.

Three, If we say there is no God, what do we do with moral feelings and with human rights.  Why do we as humans think that one way of treating another person is better than another.  Why is your opinion of what is fair or correct more important than mine.  The only way is if there is some higher law.  God’s law.  The divine law.  From which comes our morals and the rights, as in our Charter, we believe belong to each human.

Four, If we say there is no God, how do cope with suffering.  What resources to do have.   When we are broken, is there a God to whom we can turn, who promises always to be near us, even in pain and suffering.  The apostle Paul puts it this way — Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.

Five, If we say we have no God, we will take something, and we will turn something else in our lives into a god.  It is how we are made.  To worship and serve a God.  St. Augustine, Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.   David Foster Wallace, who has an atheist much of his life, wrote these words, when he was near death.  “ln the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. .. pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”  We are made to worship God;  and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.

The fool, says the Psalmist, says in his heart, there is no God.

PAUSE

The good news brothers and sisters here at Central, is that we are part of an ancient, historic, yet future looking body, called the church.  And as part of the church, we confess that God is God.  Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.  Father, Son, Holy Spirit.  The one for whom the early Christians literally gave their lives to believe in.   The one who is known to us in the crucified young man Jesus.

And it is in Jesus, that the story of our lives, make sense.  Because God continues to work in the world and in our lives.  And there is a future in God, that God is planning and working, in this world.  Our calling, our task, our journey is to keep Christ before us in all we do.  To have his life infuse our lives.  To have his peace infuse our peace.  To have his mercy infuse our mercy.  One theologian puts the Christian life, under Christ, under God, in the power of the Spirit, like this:

The Christian Gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time. It undermines both swaggering and sniveling. I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone. I do not think more of myself nor less of myself. Instead, I think of myself less.”   Keller.

In the name of the F, S, and HS.  Amen.

Wednesday’s Word – 1 November

“For truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God…'”  Genesis 33:10

Jacob meets this brother after years of running, lies and fear.  And he find in his brother the sweetest of responses.

Forgiveness.

It is something Jacob seeks.  It is something Esau gives.  It is a gift.

Nothing in the story tells us if Esau second-guessed, thought it over or regretted it afterward.  He simply gave it.

It’s a gift that points us to Christ, in whom we are forgiven, free and right with God.

 

Let us pray:  In you, O Lord, I put my trust.  Amen.

 

 

 

  • Greg

 

 

Wednesday’s Word – 18 October

“Abraham built an altar there….and called that place, ‘The Lord will provide.'”  Genesis 22: 9,14.

 

Abraham builds an altar.  Stone upon stone that becomes a place he will never forget.

It is a moment for him where God interrupts his imagination and startles him with possibility and provision.

I remember reading in an unpublished journal, a phrase someone had sketched in the margins:  Sometimes the darkest roads lead to the brightest places.

It was that way for Abraham.  With Christ, it is that day, everyday, with us.  Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will not fear.

Let us pray:  Thank you God, thank you that you fill my life with hope, even when in the world and in my heart there seems to be little.   I look to you, provider, life-giver, God of hope.  In Jesus name.  Amen.

 

 

 

  • Greg

 

 

Wednesday’s Word – 4 October

“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go…'”  Genesis 12:1.

God calls Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12:1 and this marks a turning point.  Before chapter 12, death seems to reign.  After, it is call, promise and life.

But the call, for Abram, is something to answer.  One way or the other.  It is a moment for him and Sarai that we all have.  How they respond defines their life.  Go into the unknown, with faith.  Or stay where they are and make it on their own.

Jesus said, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.”  We have been given much, and out of God’s abundance to us, we respond.

Lord God, grant that we may say ‘yes’ to your call to follow, in faith and in trust.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

  • Greg

P.S. Prayer for Thanksgiving Meals