Preachers’ Thought for Today

Bethany Meadows pulpit, photo by GW-H

“Preaching is effective as long as the preacher expects something to happen-not because of the sermon, not even because of the preacher, but because of God.” -John Hines

Sermon 26 Pentecost Yr C

Read my sermon for November 13, 2016 here: 26-pentecost-yr-c

Brief Book Review: Conquering Fear

Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World        Author: Harold S. Kushner                                                      Publisher: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, A Borzoi Book, 2009      ISBN: 978-0-307-26664-4, 173 pages, Hardcover                              CDN $29.95

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

conqueringfearFears. Every human being, at one time or another, encounters fears. The question is: How does one deal with such fears? Harold Kushner, who served as an active rabbi for many years, offers some of his experiences, knowledge and practical approaches to the subject at hand.

The volume consists of ‘First Words,’ and nine chapters. Each chapter focuses on a particular theme, and begins with at least one pertinent quotation.

There are over eighty references in the Bible instructing human beings not to fear. According to Rabbi Kushner, God does not want fear to dominate our lives; hence he gives us the Eleventh Commandment—“Do not be afraid.” This means, among other things, that: “Our goal should never be the denial of fear but the mastery of fear, the refusal to let fear keep us from living fully and happily.” (p. 24)

If readers are familiar with any of Rabbi Kushner’s previous books, they will recall that he casts the literary net far and wide, drawing on an array of sources, including: the Bible, the Talmud, rabbinic stories, contemporary psychology and literature among them. This volume continues in that vein.

In chapter after chapter, the author counsels his readers not to be paralyzed by their fears. Rather, the best way to handle fears is to face them and try to overcome them.

For example, Viktor Frankl told his patients, “Go out and do what you are afraid of. Expect the worst to happen.” When they did it and the worst did not happen, he would say to them, “There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” (p. 168) Of course there are some exceptions to providing such counsel, especially regarding life-threatening behaviours.

My favourite story in this volume is one of hope inside a Nazi concentration camp, when Jews wanted to celebrate Hanukkah. Holiday celebrations were forbidden in the camp, but one man saved a bit of the bread from his evening meal, dipped it in grease from his dinner bowl, fashioned it into an impromptu candle, said the appropriate prayer and lit the bread. His son said to him, “Father, that was food you burned. We have so little of it. Wouldn’t we have been better off eating it?” The father replied, “My son, people can live for a week without food, but they cannot live for one day without hope.” (pp. 93-94)

This volume is written in accessible prose, and readers who are familiar with Rabbi Kushner’s previous books would most likely benefit from this one.


All creatures great and small



This, I think, Canadian Swallowtail butterfly with part of its wing missing, reminded me of the words of Cecil F. Alexander’s hymn: “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” Especially the words from stanza four: “God gave us eyes to see them, and lips that we might tell how great is God Almighty, who has made all things well.” My wife took this photo with her iphone camera in our front yard. Even though part of the wing is missing, it could still fly.

The Silent Night Project

Last Sunday I was celebrant and doing pulpit supply for my Anglican colleague at St Barnabas Anglican, while we recorded this video for the Silent Night Project to raise funds for Anglican chaplains in the Armed Forces. The Selah Singers were are also singing with the congregation here.

Sermon Trinity Sunday Yr C

The Holy Trinity Sunday Yr C, 30/05/2010

Ps 8 & Jn 16:12-15

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity”

After a major downpour filled all the potholes in the streets and alleys, a young mother watched her two little boys playing in a puddle through her kitchen window. The older of the two, a five-year old, grabbed his younger brother by the back of his head and shoved his face into the water hole. As the boy recovered and stood laughing and dripping, the mother runs to the yard in a panic.

‘Why on earth did you do that to your little brother?!’ she asks as she shook the older boy in anger.

‘We were just playing ‘church’ mommy,’ he said. ‘And I was baptizing him in the name of the Father, the Son, and in the hole he goes.’

Speaking of holes, and water in them, there is a story about one of Christianity’s most famous theologians and bishops, Augustine, who lived in North Africa in the fourth and fifth century. As the story has it, one day Augustine was walking along the beach by the ocean and pondering the deep mystery of God the Holy Trinity. He met a boy there on the beach who had dug a hole in the sand and kept busy running back and forth from the hole to the ocean; collecting water and pouring it into the hole. Augustine was curious about this, so he asked the boy: “What are you doing?” The boy replied: “I’m going to pour the entire ocean into this hole.” Augustine then said: “That is impossible, the whole ocean will not fit into your hole.” And the boy answered Augustine: “Neither can the infinite God the Holy Trinity fit into your finite mind.”

How true that is! Our minds are limited and finite; they cannot possibly know all there is to know about the infinite and unlimited “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” Over the centuries much ink has been spilled out and many books have been written on the deepest mystery of the Christian faith—God the Holy Trinity. Yet, when all is said and done, God the Holy Trinity remains our deepest mystery.

Who is this God that we worship? Well, one way we speak of God is as the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier; or Father (and in recent times also Mother), Son and Holy Spirit. In today’s Psalm, we have a picture of God the Creator, who is “our Sovereign,” our King and Ruler. He is not the same as creation—rather, he is set above the heavens and rules the whole universe, which he created by speaking it into existence through his word. The Creator God we say is all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent), and all-present (omnipresent).

Before this God the Creator of a vast universe, the psalmist is aware that we human beings are small and finite creatures. I think that we too can identify with the psalmist’s feeling of finitude and smallness in comparison with the vastness of the universe. We too feel small beside an ocean; or on a mountain-top; or on the flat prairie looking to the far horizon; or when we are lost inside a forest, standing beside the tall, stately Douglas fir trees in places like Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island; or on a hot summer night when the sky is clear and we stretch out on the grass and gaze up at the stars. All of these experiences of God’s creation give us a sense of smallness and finitude.

Yet, the psalmist doesn’t end there. Rather, the Psalm goes into a hymn of praise to God the Creator for creating human beings as “a little lower than God.” As beings created “a little lower than God,” in God’s image, we are given the privileged and very responsible role as stewards of God’s creation. The psalmist, speaking of our role, states that God has “given them—i.e. human beings—dominion over the works of your—i.e. God’s—hands.” Our connection with God the Creator then is in caring for his creation and all of the various life-forms within the creation. Sad to say, we have, in our sinfulness, interpreted the words “dominion over” as permission to exploit and even abuse God’s creation to such an extent that many species have either become extinct or are in danger of extinction. In short, we have not always been responsible, caring stewards of God’s creation. Our highly technological and urbanized world doesn’t help us in this respect either—since the more urban and technological our lifestyle becomes; the more we seem to lose our connection with God’s creation. That is why some folks today are endeavouring to try to “live more simply that others may simply live.” So there are folks who grow organic foods and try to limit their diet to food products that are native to their geographical region—rather then import mass produced foods from all over the world, which contain harmful additives and preservatives and are produced by workers who are paid very poorly. As responsible stewards of God’s creation, many folks are also trying to rely more on alternative, environmentally-friendly energy sources such as wind and solar. These and other environmentally conscious options seem more in harmony with God’s creation and our role as responsible, caring stewards of creation.

Looking at today’s gospel now, Jesus speaks of God the Holy Trinity in a rather interesting way. Jesus speaks of the unity, the oneness of God in three persons when he says: “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he—i.e. the Holy Spirit—will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Over the centuries there have been different ways of explaining the unity, the oneness of the three persons of the Holy Trinity. However, the more I think about it, the more I think of a marriage relationship. A loving, healthy marriage relationship is a fulfillment of the promise in the book of Genesis that “the two shall become one flesh.” Yes, they are two separate, unique human beings. Yet, when they become husband and wife, they are one flesh. I know from my experiences over the years that to be true. The longer my wife and I live together as husband and wife; the more it seems that we think like each other. I’m amazed sometimes when we witness some sort of event and both of us think the same thing and make some comment about it that the other one agrees with one-hundred percent. In many things, we both think alike and behave in the same way—so yes, the two do become one flesh. So too with God the Holy Trinity—each person is unique, yet they are one God—sharing the same thoughts and qualities.

One of the interesting aspects of Jesus’ words concerning the Holy Spirit is that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth. In this role, the Holy Spirit functions as God’s accurate communications expert.

Many of you may have been involved in a popular communications exercise at some time. The exercise is as follows. There are several persons sitting in a room. One person whispers a specific message in the person’s ear sitting next to them. That person then whispers the message to the person next to them, and so on, until the last person receives the message. Do you know what happens? Is the message that the first person gave the same message that the last person receives? I have been amazed to learn how the message gets distorted, changed, and sometimes to such an extent that the final receiver has the exact opposite message of the original one.

In our gospel, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit is an accurate communications expert. The message the Holy Spirit receives from God the Father and Son is communicated accurately, exactly as the same message as the other two persons of the Trinity. So we can trust the reliability and accuracy of God the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth concerning God the Holy Trinity. In a world full of sin and sinners, the truth often gets distorted beyond recognition. We can trust in our Triune God who, thanks to the Holy Spirit reveals the truth to us through God’s word.

The central truth about “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” is that the Holy Spirit gives us the faith to believe the words of Jesus who says that he is God come down from heaven to be a human being—that is our clearest picture of God. In human communication, we are most likely to trust and believe someone who is like us and can understand and accept us; someone with whom we have a lot in common; speaks our language and shares in our experiences. God loved you and me and the human race so much that God became like one of us in the human flesh and blood person whom we call Jesus of Nazareth. All that we need to know and believe about God the Holy Trinity has been revealed to us through Jesus who shared in our humanness in every way, except that he was without sin. For that, thanks be to God!



Sermon 7 Easter Yr C

7 Easter Yr C, 16/05/2010

Jn 17:20-26

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Praying for Christian unity”

Once a man had a dream in which his hands and feet and mouth and brain all began to rebel against his stomach. “You good-for-nothing sluggard!” the hands said. “We work all day long, sawing and hammering and lifting and carrying. By evening we’re covered with blisters and scratches, and our joints ache, and we’re covered with dirt. And meanwhile you just sit there, hogging all the food.”

“We agree!” cried the feet. “Think how sore we get, walking back and forth all day long. And you just stuff yourself full, you greedy pig, so that you’re that much heavier to carry about.”

“That’s right!” whined the mouth. “Where do you think all the food you love comes from? I’m the one who has to chew it all up, and as soon as I’m finished you suck it all down for yourself. Do you call that fair?”

“And what about me?” called the brain. “Do you think it’s easy being up here, having to think about where your next meal is going to come from? And yet I get nothing at all for my pains.”

And one by one the parts of the body joined the complaint against the stomach, which didn’t say anything at all.

“I have an idea,” the brain finally announced. “Let’s all rebel against the lazy belly, and stop working for it.”

“Superb idea!” all the other members and organs agreed. “We’ll teach you how important we are, you pig. Then maybe you’ll do a little work of your own.”

So they all stopped working. The hands refused to do lifting and carrying. The feet refused to walk. The mouth promised not to chew or swallow a single bite. And the brain swore it wouldn’t come up with any more bright ideas. At first the stomach growled a bit, as it always did when it was hungry. But after a while it was quiet. Then, to the dreaming man’s surprise, he found he could not walk. He could not grasp anything in his hand. He could not even open his mouth. And he suddenly began to feel rather ill.

The dream seemed to go on for several days. As each day passed, the man felt worse and worse. “This rebellion had better not last much longer,” he thought to himself, “or I’ll starve.”

Meanwhile, the hands and feet and mouth and brain just lay there, getting weaker and weaker. At first they roused themselves just enough to taunt the stomach every once in a while, but before long they didn’t even have the energy for that.

Finally the man heard a faint voice coming from the direction of his feet.

“It could be that we were wrong,” they were saying. “We suppose the stomach might have been working in his own way all along.”

“I was just thinking the same thing,” murmured the brain. “It’s true that he’s been getting all the food. But it seems he’s been sending most of it right back to us.”

“We might as well admit our error,” the mouth said. “The stomach has just as much work to do as the hands and feet and brain and teeth.”

“Then let’s get back to work,” they cried together. And at that the man woke up.

To his relief, he discovered his feet could walk again. His hands could grasp, his mouth could chew, and his brain could now think clearly. He began to feel much better. “Well, there’s a lesson for me,” he thought as he filled his stomach at breakfast. “Either we all work together, or nothing works at all.”1

This moral tale also rings true for us Christians. Today, in our gospel, which is the closing portion of Jesus’ high priestly prayer; Jesus prays for his disciples and all future followers of Jesus—including you and I. In this prayer, Jesus prays for Christian unity. He asks “that they may all be one.” The unity of Christians, Jesus asks for is a oneness of Christians that reflects the unity, the oneness of God the Father and Jesus himself. Jesus prays that just as the Father is in him, so he is in his followers, and his followers reflect that unity and oneness to the world. So urgent is Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity that he prays: “that they may become completely one.” Yet, tragically, our Lord’s high priestly prayer has not become a reality—at least not in a complete way. Sad to say, there are still plenty of divisions within Christendom—not only are Roman Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Churches divided from one another; each denomination is often deeply divided from within. Even on a local, congregational level, there can be some very serious divisions and conflicts.

Adding to the scandal of divisions among Christians are at least two factors occurring right now. The televangelists continue to misrepresent genuine Christianity with their distorted preaching of a selfish, prosperity gospel. Several of these televangelists manipulate their supporters—constantly asking for money and then, once they receive the money, it is not spent to help the needy, but to purchase mansions, private planes, and other expensive items for the televangelists. This unethical and unchristian behaviour is not only a scandal and stumbling block for many Christians, but also for the world. People outside the Christian faith say, “If that’s what Christianity is about, then I want nothing to do with it.”

Moreover, the recent stories about the cover-up of child abuse by the clergy in the Roman Catholic Church, with the Vatican’s protection of abusive clergy and failure to report abuses to the civil authorities; certainly is a scandal and stumbling block to the whole of Christendom as well as the world. Such factors do not fit into the holy purposes of Christ’s prayer for Christian unity! In fact, they further divide Christians and turn those outside the Christian faith even further away from Christianity.

So what is the meaning of Christ’s high priestly prayer? In what way do Christians fulfill Christ’s prayer for the unity of Christians? I think that when Jesus speaks of a unity between himself and the Father; when he says that the Father is in him and he is in the Father and we are in him; that he is employing relational language. The unity and oneness is an intimate relationship of love. Taking a practical example, in real life, we often notice similarities between parents and their children. We hear comments like: “He is his father’s son,” or “she is her mother’s daughter.” Of course the relationship between parents and their children is, ideally, one of love, as well as one of genetics and biology. In terms of Christian faith; we become like God our Father and Jesus our Brother who created us in his image and made us members of his family through the sacrament of Baptism. Furthermore, we also become like those who we look to as mentors, models of faith. Of course our Perfect Exemplar is Jesus. So it is Christ and his Spirit working within us that unites us with him and makes us one in him and with one another as we think his thoughts, speak his words, and do his deeds in loving service and obedience to his will.

Some Christians would say that what Christ referred to in this prayer for Christian unity was an ecclesiastical structural unity—that we merge into one denomination. Other Christians are sceptical about that. Some Christians would say that our quest for unity involves everyone believing the same doctrines in exactly the same way. Again other Christians are sceptical about that. Some Christians would say that unity is in worship. However that too causes some degree of scepticism as some Christians prefer the formality of ancient liturgies and traditional hymnody, while others prefer more informal worship with contemporary rock-and-roll and jazzed-up or bleus songs and choruses. Yet other Christians say that the best opportunity for unity is in the service of humankind through social justice and peace projects. Again other Christians are sceptical about that because of the variety of political ideologies and the desired goals and means to reach them.

Historically, during the last century and now into the twenty-first century; two of the signs of Christian unity are through the reading, study and preaching of the Word and in prayer. Members from a variety of denominations meet together more frequently today for the reading and study of the Bible. Ordained clergy from many different denominations also meet to read and study the Bible to prepare for preaching the Word on Sundays. In many denominations around the globe, Christians now follow a Revised Common Lectionary so that the biblical readings each Sunday are the same in all of the churches. Christians from a wide variety of denominations also meet together for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and World Day of Prayer Worship Services.

I think that many Christians are beginning to realise—some have realised it long ago—that if we are going to reflect the oneness and unity that Christ prayed for; then we too are called into deep prayer for and with one another. We too are called to pray Christ’s high priestly prayer that it may become more of a reality for us today. That reminds me of the following inspirational story on the power of prayer to unite brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe.

After World War II, Martin Niemöller once spoke of how, when he was finally arrested by the Gestapo and taken to prison, his old father had said to him: “Be of good cheer, my son. Remember that there will be Christians praying for you from Greenland to the Pacific Islands,” and of how that knowledge, in the next eight years, many of them in solitary confinement, had kept him not only sane but even joyful. Bishop Eivind Berggrav, the splendid Primate of Norway, who for his part in leading the church resistance had been kept under house-arrest in the forest. He told of how the man who brought the rations to the cottage whispered through the window: “My old woman and I were listening to the BBC last night and we heard the Archbishop of Canterbury pray for you by name.” And Berggrav concluded: “God has been saying to us, during these war years, ‘My Christians, you are one. Now behave as if that were true.’”2

Never underestimate the power of prayer and the power of God’s Word—they can both work wonders beyond our wildest imaginings. So with that in mind, we pray: “that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” In Jesus’ name. Amen!

1 Cited from: William J. Bennett, Editor, The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories (New York, Toronto, London, et. al.: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1993), pp. 386-387.

2 Cited from: Oliver Tompkins, “A Personal Retrospect and Assessment” in: The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 40, No. 3-4, July-October 1988 (Geneva: World Council of Churches), p. 319.