West Point Grey United Church
Oct 01, 2023


Philippians 2:1–13

A friend of mine recently invited me for coffee, asking me to bring my “priestly” self. I  wasn’t sure what that meant. This friend had recently suffered a heart attack followed  by triple by-pass surgery. He was recovering well but had certainly been through  several anxious weeks, causing him to wonder what was ahead for him. Since the age  of 12 the church had not been part of his life. He wanted me to help him understand  the faith that he had ignored for so long. 

My friend’s question “Who is God?” caused me to review the various answers I would  have made through my lifetime. I realised that my early answers would have been  describing a God whose love was directed to a very narrow portion of the world: to  people like our family and our protestant congregation in a small community.  Occasionally the focus was a bit wider when my grandmother would see our Roman  Catholic neighbour passing by and say “Mrs. Coburn is always so nice and thoughtful,  yet she is Catholic.” 

The next time my understanding of God was stretched happened when I was 8 years  old. A Japanese-Canadian man from Steveston BC was married to an English woman,  and forced to leave BC during the war. For 10 months, living in Toronto, he had walked the streets 6 days a week looking for work. No one would hire him. In January 1943 he  stumbled into the lunch room where my father was the Superintendent of a small  construction crew. After hearing Johnny’s story, my Dad hired him as a carpenter,  promising to teach him on the job and perhaps on Saturdays when the rest of the  crew were not there. Two of my dad’s brothers were carpenters in that crew, and  they took me aside one day and told me what a terrible thing my father had done  hiring Johnny. When I reported this to my Dad, he took me to my room, closed the  door and said how sorry he was that his brothers had done this. He then told me that  as far as he knew God created all people equal, and he said “Don’t ever forget that!”

After 7 years of university studies and summer student-minister experiences, my  understanding of God’s love for all people had grown, but not that much. I was a  minister on the BC Coast travelling on the mission boat to isolated folks in logging  camps, lightstations and First Nations communities. I had never met a First Nations  person before. In the village of Hartley Bay there was an active congregation where  church services were well-attended each week. On the monthly visit of our mission  boat I visited Saturday evening with the organist and choir leader. After we discussed  the hymns for the next day Lewis would tell me stories from their traditional history. I  didn’t understand them very well, but knew that the Creator was very important in his  stories. A few months later I conducted my first funeral in a small village in Rivers Inlet.  After concluding what I thought was an appropriate funeral service, my friend William,  whose sister had died, whispered to me to remain silent. His mother would take over  now. After much wailing and singing, a fire was lit and food, including several pounds of bacon, were thrown unto the fire. William whispered to me that this was to provide  nourishment and energy to his sister for her journey to the next life.

Many years later I was able to have a brief visit in Bella Bella with an elder whose  husband recently drowned in a boating accident. After our tea and visit seemed over,  Margaret brought out a tray of items that were used in their traditional spiritual  experiences, which had brought much comfort to her in her days filled with grief and  sorrow.

In the past year my understanding of just how wide God’s love is has been pushed  even further by the intercultural ministry of this church. I believe it was the 3rd Sunday  in September, a year ago, that the scripture lesson was read in Mandarin, (available on  the screen in English). It wasn’t read aloud in English. 

I realized in that moment that this was one congregation, one family.

This past week we have been reminded frequently of the importance of the  Indigenous people in Canada. We continue to be shocked by the emerging stories of  children sent to the residential schools who never returned home. God’s love reaches out to the families of these children, and we pray that God’s  forgiveness comes to all of us who were part of the communities and culture that  allowed this to happen. 

So I say to my friend “Who is God?”…… God is our Creator whose love reaches out to  embrace all people, regardless of their language, culture, religion, regardless of who  they love or what they have done or not done. God’s arms open wide to all people.  There is no room for racism. Thanks be to God. Amen.