It is a privilege to be back in this pulpit as part of the Summer Series organized by Eric, John, and Mark, working with Allison and Judi to prepare, Michael, Angela and Dee ‘behind the scenes’ and sharing leadership with Scott and Michelle this morning, among others. I look forward to greeting you at the door after the service with an ‘Obama bump’! It is frankly a bit daunting to follow one of my mentors The Rev. Dr. Rob Oliphant, MP, who preached on Mental Health issues here last week. When I was an aspiring Theology Student at ‘St. Timothy and All Eatons’ (as we used to fondly call our ‘sister’ United Church on St Clair Ave. W.) Rob was one of the Ministers, and Eric was the Administrator (and also an aspiring Theology Student). Including with his groundbreaking work as the co-Chair of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Medical Assistance in Dying, Rob is known to ‘call ‘em as he sees them’ with a discerning – and compassionate – eye. Including one of the previous times he preached here (on these steps) at LPCC as the local Member of Parliament. Just before he offered the Benediction he is remembered for observing: “Having preached in more than 60 (!) local congregations, frankly, I’ve heard lots of struggling choirs … but this is not one of them!”
Indeed, the music program here is an inspiring ministry!
Last Fall, I took early retirement after almost twenty five years in a combination of congregational and hospital ministry. And I’m enjoying working part time as a Presider at a Family-owned Funeral Home in Waterloo, helping families without a faith leader, to plan and lead Services. As I was taking leave of the Hospital, I retold the story of ‘giving my notice’ from my first full time role as one of the Ministers at Siloam United Church in London, Ontario. As is the custom in the United Church of Canada, I had asked for a meeting with the Chair of the Ministry and Personnel Committee, who invited me to come to their home.to deliver ‘my letter’. And his five year old daughter Katie – one of triplets! - answered the door. She seemed surprised to see me, looked up and down and said: “John, why are you wearing your Sunday School shoes?”
Like all the wonderful efforts made by the Council and Staff here to lead LPCC through these promising and liminal times, I hope I was putting on my ‘best’ for an important moment in my walk with God. And as I reflect on several congregations – including this one – that have been formative in my faith journey, I look back with appreciation at the privilege of relationship, mentorship, outreach, sacraments and ‘rites of passage’ shared, which have been – at times – simply miraculous! Part of answering Joshua’s question about ‘what these stones mean to us’.
More than 2000 years ago, there was a tower in Jerusalem named Siloam that is remembered for falling down and killing several … as well as killing the faith of several others (a dilemma to which we’ll return). Fear not, in ancient Jerusalem there was also a pool of water named Siloam that inspired our Gospel Lesson this morning, and we can be sure that the thriving Church I served in London is named for the healing pool, not the falling tower! Though, even the meaning of Siloam is not without some dispute. The pool was known to be fed by a hidden stream, which lends the meaning “artificially fed”. But like Lawrence Park, owing to that congregation’s reputation for fellowship and spiritual integrity, that would never do! Besides, the other meaning is ‘sent’; and owing to the reputation for outreach and inclusiveness at both congregations, that does better suit!
To sum up this foundational healing story from the Gospel according to St. John… about a blind beggar, born that way, “that God’s works might be revealed”. Jesus spits on the ground and makes mud with the saliva and spreads the mud on the beggar’s eyes saying “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” And when the beggar does, they are able to see! It is … miraculous.
It has been said that “miracles take and create faith.” (C.H. Dodd). One doesn’t need to tell that to people who have experienced one, or been disappointed by the apparent lack of one. With the privilege to serve in Hospital Ministry, there are many examples of these scenarios, as well as people asking themselves what I consider to be the ‘wrong question’ about illness being some kind of punishment. My own theology of miracles is firmly grounded in the knowledge of a loving God, and not just because of this particular text. But because of fonts like this one!
Clarity about Baptism is important. Not the Minister saying to the infant, child, teen or adult “I baptize you …” as if it was some magical talisman. Rather, “You are baptized … “ A celebration of something that is already true: God’s grace is present in this person’s life, and Baptism commits the person – and the Congregation – to a life of ‘living in the light of that grace’. It is … miraculous!
But not before some questions are asked of the candidate (or their parent, in the case of an infant). About what they believe; and how they plan to follow Jesus. It is no coincidence that these questions are echoed in the conversation after the mud is washed away in the Pool of Siloam: About following Jesus; who sends us out ‘that God’s works might be revealed’. You can read on about the beggar – formerly blind – who is later questioned by dubious religious officials, who try and ‘explain away’ the miracle, but the kernel of truth is in the verses we’ve read this morning. As if to remind us all that people with physical or mental challenges don’t necessarily need healing miracles, I recall the baptism of a child whose parents were both deaf since birth. The little family arrived for the service with an interpreter to do sign language. I was much more nervous than they were, wanting to honour the presence – and pace – of the sign language, when the mother put put up her hand just as I lifted the child over the font. The mother and interpreter exchanged sign language, and then I was gently reminded aloud: “You forgot to ask us their name!”
Naming is an important part of the meaning we make of any life, or situation. Like Joshua’s question of the people who had gathered stones as a memorial to their safe crossing of the Jordan River, “when your children ask in time to come, what do these stones mean to you, what shall you tell them?” These stones. These Lawrence Park ‘stones’… What shall we tell the children about their meaning to us?
Mindful of the name Siloam appearing in association with both a fallen tower and a healing pool, there is insight for us in both stories as we puzzle over the mind of God; hoping to justify things we can’t easily explain or readily accept. Trying to make meaning.
Though Jesus is also remembered in this text for saying “I am the light of the world” – as we will sing after this sermon – I don’t understand that to mean Jesus is the only light, but he is certainly the one Christians follow.
Thorton Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”; a moral fable about an earnest Friar in 18th century Peru, trying to ‘explain’ the death of five people when a bridge collapsed. The author insists that the book doesn’t try to solve the question, rather it emphasizes that “human affection contains a strange unanalyzable consolation, and that is all.” (Repeat; as found in a letter from Wilder to his former student named John!; honestly, you can’t make this stuff up!.). “And that is all …” concludes Wilder’s letter to his student John. And that is a lot!
It must be God’s sense of humour that Wilder refers to a collapsed bridge, because the Latin word for bridge is ‘pont’, which has given us the English word priest. (As in pontiff or Pope). In the best sense of the vocation, friars, priests, ministers or other Religious are hopefully bridges to God. Over the years here at Lawrence Park, there have been many Ministers in leadership here. And like any community of faith, God knows there has been ‘lots of water under the bridges, and perhaps a few bridges under water!’ but, the healing water continues to flow!
Thorton Wilder is perhaps better known for his novel “The Matchmaker” that inspired the Broadway musical “Hello Dolly”. In the marvellous movie version, none other than Louis Armstrong sings the theme song. As Miss Dolly Levi – portrayed by Barbra Streisand - makes a grand entrance at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant, Louis sings (and I won’t!): “Well, Hello Dolly! Yes, Hello Dolly! It’s so good to have you [right] where you belong.” With my privilege to be among a long line of Ministers who have stood in this pulpit, hopefully each of us has been ‘right where we belong’, with a word of insight and encouragement as the Spirit moves through us. Often in ways, ‘more than we can ask or imagine’. (Anglican Prayer Book)
Well, I’m wearing my Sunday School shoes again this morning! And I’ve done my best to shed some perhaps new and hopefully helpful light on the Gospel text about Siloam that has inspired many over the years. As we look ahead to future years here at Lawrence Park Community Church, may it be with the faithfulness of the young acolytes who used to help me light and extinguish the Christ candle each Sunday morning back at Siloam United Church. I had been intrigued how we sometimes had to struggle to find young volunteers to process with the Choir and Ministers and light the Christ candle with the taper, but the kids would literally line up for the chance to extinguish it: usually with a puff rather than the snuffer. Until I asked one of the children. And I will forever remember what they said: “O John, we’re not blowing out the candle. We’re taking the light inside ourselves.” Like you good folks, and countless other followers of Jesus who have found healing at these waters – as ‘bridges’ - “so that God’s works might be revealed”. “And that is all.” And that is a lot!
Pastoral Prayers, followed by The Lord’s Prayer (found at #921 VU). Mindful of Church Camps this summer, and gathering up prayers (and silences in between) recalling the fingers on our left hand:
Loving God, we’re assured that you’ve got the ‘whole world in your hands’, but we are challenged to help build up the Kingdom of Peace with Justice that Jesus came to proclaim, with our hands, which remind us as we pray …
Thumb – we pray for those closest to us, though perhaps at a distance of geography or estrangement … as we pray in the silence of our hearts …
Index – we give thanks for those who point us to “the angels of our better nature” (Abraham Lincoln), despite the violence in our world … Hear out prayer …
Middle (longest) – we pray for those who lead us, here in the Congregation, wider Church, City, Province, Country and World
Ring - needing others and being needed (hence covenant rings wore there, with its tether to pinky and middle) – we pray fro those who struggle in body, mind or spirit; those who care for them, and those who grieve, including …
Pinky - and last but not least, we pray for ourselves … You know our needs O God, before we even give the voice. Hear us now in the silence of our own hearts...
And as Jesus showed us your mothering love O God, we pray in the words he taught his friends saying …
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever and ever. Amen.
(Rev.) John Lougheed