Text: Luke 5:1-11 (“deep waters”) * Video of complete service
I’ve always fancied myself a deep person, so it’s little wonder I like today’s anthem “Deep Waters,” which Pepper Choplin wrote 20 years ago to commemorate the retirement of a Baptist minister, and today’s Gospel reading upon which the anthem is based and which we just heard.
I could be wrong about being deep, of course; but depth has been a touchstone for which I’ve reached during the more than 20 years since I returned to church.
I first stumbled into Kingston Road United Church in Toronto on the Sunday after 9/11, and I was stunned by the message and spirit there that day. I was moved by the anthems the choir sang after I joined it in fall 2001, especially Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” (or “Weeping”) from his Requiem Mass, which we sang at the first Good Friday service I experienced there in 2002. I joined one of that church’s two sharing circles, called “Spiritual Growth Groups,” that spring. In the summer of 2002, I loved the first of six United Church week-long canoe trips to Algonquin Park in which I participated not least because of the sharing time our facilitator, Five Oaks coordinator and future United Church of Canada Moderator, Mardi Tindal led. The next February, I experienced the first of 15 “Male Spirituality Circles” in which I have participated at Five Oaks, and which for most of that time have been nothing but three days and nights of sharing and drumming circles.
Then there have been the 11 years since my ordination in May 2011 by Toronto Conference of the United Church. The first five years occurred during fairly placid times, at least for privileged Canadians; but the last six years have seemed tumultuous to me in so many ways.
With the rise of fascist politicians in places near and dear to us – starting with the election of Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto in 2010; with populist racists like Victor Orban in Hungary, Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil, and the Republican Party in the United States succeeding in attempts to restrict democracy and human rights; and with fascist nightmares like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominating the news for the past few months, the placid years of the past seem to be gone.
We live in an era of climate disaster, pandemics, and weapons of mass destruction; and to cope, I have tried to go deep.
Today I finish both my time of ordained ministry and a sermon series I began in January on the seven Roman Catholic sacraments. Today, the final one of this series is on last rites – a sacrament in which prayers and rituals are performed for a person who is dying.
We, of course, are not dying. But the covenant between me, Mill Woods United Church, and Northern Spirit Regional Council of the United Church of Canada is ending; and so this service can be seen as a last rite for me and for you.
I began this series of reflections on sacraments in early January and then paused for Lent and Easter. On January 9, I focused first on baptism, which is about finding a trusting faith amid both the wounds and blessings bequeathed to us by our families, the culture, and our physical bodies. Next came confirmation, which was about moving to humility from shame in the joys and challenges of knowing our feelings. Communion was about rising to charity from egotism as we moved into community in adolescence. Marriage was about moving to love from grief in the stress of dating, marriage, and parenting. Confession was about rising to honesty from lies using the essential but difficult tool of language. Ordination was about trying to stay in touch with reality despite all the illusions offered to us by this culture and our egos. And today, with last rites, the focus is about attachment to the Love we call God instead of attachment to our earthly desires.
Last rites represent the “pinnacle” of the sacraments, but it is also connected to the depths. For one, being at the depths of the ocean is in many ways similar to being on the top of mountains. For another, after achieving enlightenment, life goes on. We return from a mountain top or from the ocean depths to everyday life where babies are born, loving relationships blossom, creative expression seeks new avenues, and our ministry of faith, hope and love continues. And so the spiral continues.
In times as crazy as the ones we are living within, I plan to continue to try to go deep, and this is also my fond wish for Mill Woods United. Let’s not be shy in trying new things; in confronting old traditions; and in speaking truth to power.
There is much to fear, but we always strive for greater trust. Many things have happened to us for which we might feel humiliation. But we try to stay open to the wondrous virtue of humility. As we grow older, we stumble upon a million reasons to act egotistically; but at deeper levels we remember that loving service and acts of charity are what keep us in synch with Love that is our source, our deepest calling, and our sure destiny. We find innumerable relationships that elicit our love even though they also threaten us with loss and grief. But we know that out of grief, new life can flow, so we embrace parents, children, lovers, and the entire world.
The storms and stresses of life call us to express ourselves in word, and art, and action; but many of these expressions are judgmental and therefore dishonest. Happily, we might also find ourselves pushed towards expressions that are assertive and hence more truthful. And so we continue to try.
In short and troubled lives, a million different illusions might call to us, and so we may find ourselves preaching nonsense. But other currents are present in human culture, ones that are attached to the Divine source we call God; and so we can also find ourselves leaving behind false idols to move closer to the worship of a Ground of Being that is truly worthy of worship. Despite all the fears, shames, egotisms, griefs, and lies that beset us, we might find ourselves offering words to ourselves and our neighbours that are sometimes worthy of God.
Finally, we are graced with innumerable moments in which to know again that our egotistical fears and desires are false and that we are most free when we are attached to the eternal love we call God. And so the spiral continues . . .
To close this sermon, I now end with the eulogy I gave for my father nearly 15 years ago, on July 2, 2007, and in which I first declared a call to ministry.
May these words act in some strange way as a last rite to you and to myself; and may it also complete a circle. And so, on July 2, 2007 in Trinity United Church in Cobourg Ontario, here is what I said:
“When I was in university, I read Sigmund Freud’s book, “The Interpretation of Dreams;” and in the book’s introduction, I was struck by a paragraph where Freud talked about the impact of the death of his father while he was working on the book. He characterized the death of one’s father as ‘the most important event, the most poignant loss in a man’s life.’ This seemed like a strong statement to me. What about mothers, I thought. And surely the statement tells us more about Freud than about anyone else. But his words came back to me last week as we tried to be present with Dad as he died.
So, what impact will Dad’s death have on me, the rest of his family, and his relatives and his friends who have gathered here today? Of course, a related and more upbeat question is, what impact has his life had on us? Perhaps I will speak a bit about both.
I feel shaken by Dad’s death, and part of this comes from how strongly I identified with him. More than my brothers and sisters, I seemed to be like Dad both physically and emotionally. Certain arcs of our lives seemed to have parallels. We both had a lot of trouble dealing with adolescence, dating, and love -– although Dad was lucky, and eventually he found our Mom; and if ever it can be said that Dad was a recipient of grace, I think it would be when he and Mary fell in love.
I also identify with Dad’s call to ministry, although I have been more successful in resisting the call than him. I did so by turning my spiritual enthusiasm into radical politics as a young person, and into other intellectual interests as an adult.
But mostly, I identify with a wavelength of anxiety that ran through Dad’s life and my own. And fortunately for me, I deeply appreciate how Dad learned to handle his anxieties and to live so much of his life in joy, love, and faith.
Dad wrote what is now his final sermon a few weeks ago. It was to have been delivered at his home church in the hamlet of Welcome this August, and it’s about this topic of fear and anxiety. The night before his aneurysm burst and his ordeal in the hospital began, Dad gave Catherine an envelope at the train station that said, “To Catherine, Love Dad.” When she asked what it contained, he simply said, “read it on the train.” So, she did. And since then, we have come to name this remarkable sermon as “Disaster is upon us; but be of good cheer” although in reality, its title is simply “Good Cheer.”
Still, I like our title. After all, Catherine tells us that Dad spoke to her that day of an impending sense of doom – both for himself and for our society; and the sermon talks about our many social and personal disasters and tragedies, and how we might persevere in the face of those.
Like me, Dad was always waiting for disaster. And for him, it occurred the day after he gave that sermon to Catherine as he was rushed to Peterborough in excruciating pain.
And yet, “Good Cheer.” That was his message, based upon a line ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel of John. Speaking to the disciples on the night before his execution, Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.”
Now, Dad notes in his sermon that the world has not been overcome. Our personal and social troubles persist, and we all face the certainty of pain, struggle, and death. But while the world might not be overcome, Dad overcame his fears.
He was afraid to look for love, but nevertheless he found it, got married, helped to raise five kids, and gloried in his grandchildren. He was scared of public speaking, but he got into the pulpit thousands of times and delivered a Word of God. He was beset by all the doubts that any minister who has been through a modern seminary faces as they learn how their childhood beliefs are founded on sand; and how difficult a mature stance is in the light of modern knowledge and the amazing and dreadful moment of history in which we are fated to live. And yet, he carried his ministry through to the end.
We saw Dad triumph over his anxiety again in the hospital last week in Peterborough. Dad, unable to speak because of breathing tubes, often in discomfort, and stripped of almost everything, communicated his joy to us despite all that. On his third day in the hospital, and after a 30-minute family conference where the doctor gave us very little hope that Dad would survive and that the last-ditch therapy would mean deep sedation; we gathered in a circle around Dad. Essentially, we were saying goodbye. Dad was awake. Mary put her hand on his forehead. Paul spoke to him. Dad waved his arms in recognition, he smiled, and he communicated his gratitude and his contentment to us all. It is one of my favourite memories ever of my father and the last time that I saw him conscious.
Despite pain, despite imminent death, despite not being able to talk, Dad trusted in the moment; he focused on his blessings and on love. He focused on his family.
A key insight for me during my surprising return to the church these last six years has been about the word “faith.” It has about five different meanings in English, and my least favourite is to define it as belief in a set of incredible doctrines, while my favourite is to define it as “trust:” trust in the universe despite its cosmic, awful mystery; trust in our bodies despite their pains and their finitude; and trust in love despite our essential aloneness as individuals. In this sense, and in the face of his anxieties, Dad struggled all his life to be a person of faith; and mostly I think he succeeded. In this sense, Dad is my roots, my forerunner, and my role model. I treasure his memory in my heart. And I will miss him until the day of my death. Despite all the ups and downs in his role as one of our parents, I am filled with thanks that he was my father.
But I want to give him the last word in my remarks. So, here now is the closing paragraph of his “Disaster” sermon:
“Trouble in this world, Jesus said – no doubt about it. The world overcome? Hardly. But the word has gone out – “Fear not!” The road opens before us, the future is ours, the world waits, and wonders. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Who indeed? So pick yourself up, dust yourself off, take a deep breath, and go on. And – “Good cheer!!”
Amen, and Amen, and Amen.