Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Looking Forward to April 23, 2017 -- Stephen, Witness and Martyr, 2nd Sunday of Easter

The Scripture reading this week are some portions of the Story of Stephen, the first Christian Martyr. (The whole arc of Stephen's story starts at the beginning of chapter 6 with the decision to appoint deacons and continues through to his death and burial. The majority of chapter 7 is a sermon by Stephen which leads to his stoning.) We are reading Acts 6:8-7:2a; 7:54-8:3

The sermon title is Witness and Reaction

Early Thoughts: Who knows who Stephen is? For much of my life the only reference I knew of to Stephen was in the first line of the carol Good King Wenceslas where we are told that the king looked out "on the feast of Stephen". And then even the first few times I was referred to his story in Acts it was in relation to the end when we see a man named Saul watching Stephen's execution with approval (reading into chapter 9 we find Saul having an experience on the Damascus road which leads him from persecution to proselytizing and , name changed to Paul, becoming the leading spreader of Christianity in the New Testament).

At the beginning of Chapter 6 it is evident that the Jerusalem church is not the utopia described back in Chapter 2.  Earlier we were told that all things were held in common and distributed to each person according to need, now in Chapter 6 we find that there is dissension about this very distribution. And the 12 seem to think that waiting on tables is below them, they have "more important" things to do (which may well be a possible future sermon, remembering the Christ who knelt down and washed their feet). And so they decide to name a group of 7 deacons whose task it will be to serve the community. Stephen is one of those 7. Which brings us to our reading...

Chosen to serve, it becomes obvious that God has other things in mind for Stephen. HE becomes known for being " full of grace and power," and doing "great wonders and signs among the people.". And this attracts attention (how could it not), which leads to Stephen being put on trial [with charges that seem eerily reminiscent of those laid at the feet of Jesus] for his preaching about Jesus and The Way.

Then follows one of the longer sermons in Acts (and there are some long passages of sermon/instruction in these earlier chapters of Acts). Stephen rehearses the entire salvation story from Abraham, through Moses, into the building of the temple,and the work of the prophets into the execution of Jesus (the Righteous One). He further accuses his accusers and those who stand in judgement of being in opposition to the Holy Spirit.

And this is where our reading jumps back in, at the end of the trial. For some reason the trial panel is not feeling warm and fuzzy after being called stiff-necked and labelled as betrayers and murderers. In the face of their fury Stephen remains grounded and trusting in Christ, sharing a vision of Christ standing by the throne of God. ANd then even as he is being stoned he dies in ways that are indeed reminiscent of the death of Jesus on the cross. Stephen becomes the first martyr for the sake of Christ.

Sometimes sharing God's vision for the world causes complicated reactions.

What do we do with a martyrdom story in 21st century North America?

Do we ask what the price is for being part of a counter-cultural movement (as the church is becoming once again)?
Do we remember our brothers and sisters in Egypt whose churches were bombed on Palm Sunday?
Do we ask how willing we are to witness and test the reactions?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Breaking Bread Together

(A column for the local paper on April 21st)

Was there a time in your life, maybe the time is now, when you ate most of your meals alone? I always found it a strange feeling. Meals became more a matter of sustenance than an occasion. There is so much more to a meal that is shared with friends or family.

While looking for lyrics to something different I came upon a Johnny Cash song which contains these lines:
It's not the barley or the wheat It's not the oven or the heat
That makes this bread so good to eat
It's the needing and the sharing that makes the meal complete.
Our English word companion speaks of sharing food. The Latin roots are together (com) and bread (panis). WE use it to talk about someone who shares a portion of life’s journey with us. Because we know that life is almost always better and easier when we share it with one or more others. We mark events and anniversaries by eating together with one special person or a group of special people. It isn’t about the food, we can eat alone if need be. It is about the people.

Yesterday I saw a video (actually a commercial for President’s Choice) where a couple of young women set up a table in the hallway of their apartment building. As the video progresses more and more people gather, each bringing something to share with the table. And as they gather they meet each other (how many of us never get to know our neighbours?) and there is laughter. Community is built when we eat together. As I watched it I saw the sacrament of the neighbourhood potluck.

Another song. There is an African American spiritual that I learned as a child (long before I knew what an African American Spiritual was) which says:
Let us break bread together on our knees;
let us break bread together on our knees;
It is a song often sung at communion services, the time when we gathered at God’s Table to celebrate the meal of faith and hope.

From the beginning of the movement that followed and continues to follow Jesus meals have been crucial. Jesus knew the power of sitting at the same table as others. Indeed on more than one occasion people sneer at and complain about Jesus because he is willing to eat with tax collectors and sinners and people of ill-repute. Jesus knew that to eat with people is a way to let them know that they belong, that they are loved, that they are accepted. Then, just before his death, Jesus told his friends to continue to break bread and share a cup of wine in remembrance of him. The common table, and the fellowship shared there, was a marker of what it meant to follow Jesus.

To this day the church continues to break bread and share wine or juice and remember Jesus. And when we do this together we meet God. We meet God in the bread and the cup and in the neighbours with who we share the meal. It is not about the ritual. It is not about wine vs. juice. It is not about what kind of bread is broken. Or rather it is about more than all those things. It is about the community which gathers to share and to support each other.

One of my favourite Easter stories takes place in Luke 24:13-35. A pair of travellers encounter a stranger on the road. They discuss the life and ministry of Jesus with him for many miles, and then invite him to spend the night with them. He breaks the bread and they recognize that Christ is with them. When we break bread together we enter a holy place, and Christ is revealed in our midst. Christ is in the bread and in the gathered community. In one of his books Bishop John Spong suggests that for some portion of the early Church Easter became revealed and real to them when they continued doing what Jesus had done and gathered people together at the table. Then they knew that Christ was still with them. I would tend to agree. A meal shared is a sign of grace.

Christianity is a faith based on being in community. We are a faith that knows that we are stronger in community. We know that we meet God in community. And so when we invite each other to eat, be that at a ritual Communion meal or at a potluck or at a neighbourhood BBQ we are inviting each other to a holy time, a place where we can meet God.

When we eat together, we are stronger as a community. Thanks be to God. Let us break bread together.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Looking Ahead to April 16, 2017 -- Easter Sunday

The emotional life of Holy Week is a true roller-coaster.
  • We start in triumph on Palm Sunday with the parade into the city.
  • Then we get somber with the Last Supper.
  • Then we go down in to the valley of the shadow of death as we watch the crucifixion and burial.
  • and then...
then there is a BIG SURPRISE!

This year we will be reading the Easter story as it is told by Luke (Luke 24:1-12)

The Sermon title is Risen!

Early Thoughts: The climax of the Christian year has come!Without the Easter story we would not tell any of the other stories. We would not talk about a baby in a manger. We would not talk about a Cross on a hill. Without Easter there is little reason to believe that the other stories of Jesus of Nazareth, that the movement that coalesced around him, would have survived long past his death.

The women go to the grave to weep and mourn. They go to perform that basic act of mourning (anointing of the body) that was not possible before the burial. And when they get there...

A new beginning! New life! New possibilities!

AS Natalie Sleeth says in hymn (VU #175):
“This is the day that God had made!
Rejoice! Rejoice, and be exceeding glad!
This is the day that God has made!
Rejoice! Rejoice! Hallelujah!
Christ has conquered death at last,
Left the tomb that held him fast!
Gone the sorrow, gone the night,
Dawns the morning clear and bright!
Jesus lives who once was dead,
Lives forever, as he said!
Risen now our Saviour, King;
Songs of gladness let us sing!”

The world is changed. Life wins. Can we believe it?

The other disciples couldn't. They dismissed the women's story as an "idle tale" (one commentary suggest a more idiomatic way of saying that might be "a load of...", or more politely "wishful thinking"). Jesus was dead. They all knew it. Only when he went to the tomb himself did Peter believe.

Can we believe it? Can we trust that the end is not the end? Is the Risen Jesus here alive and among us?

More from Natalie Sleeth (VU #703)
In our end is our beginning, in our time infinity
in our doubt there is believing, in our life eternity 
In our death a resurrection; at the last a victory
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Christ is risen! Life wins! Hallelujah!

Looking Ahead to Holy Week-- Maundy Thursday (April 13) and Good Friday (April 14)

Traditionally folks gather on the Thursday before Easter to remember key elements of the Passion story. We remember the stories of what happened the night before Jesus was executed. Here at St. Paul's it is our practice to gather for a potluck supper during which we have our worship service. This year's service will be at 6:00 in the West (or Small) Basement. Please use the Northwest door of the church if you are attending.

From the Gospel of John (which does not have a "Last Supper" story) we remember the story of Jesus kneeling down and washing the disciples feet as a model of servant leadership. Within the Roman Catholic church there is a tradition that the Pope re-enacts this every year, often with a group of prelates [although the current Pope has been known to go to a prison and wash the feet of women or Muslims]. In this same section of John's Gospel Jesus gives his disciples a New Commandment "that you love one another as I have loved you". It is from this that the name Maundy Thursday comes as the Latin for Commandment is maundatum.

From the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- this year we will be reading from Luke) the key piece that we remember is the Last Supper, the Passover meal that Jesus shares with his friends and at which he institutes the Eucharist/Communion meal.

The Scripture Readings we will share this year are:
  • John 13:3-17, 34-35 Luke 22:24-27 (following which we will wash each other's hands)
  • Luke 22:1-23, 1 Corinthians 11:20-26
Early Thoughts: Eat and remember, drink and remember.

From the beginning of the Jesus movement gathering at table has had a special place. On numerous occasions in the Gospels the people mutter how Jesus is acting inappropriately by eating with tax collectors and sinners and people of ill-repute. And after Easter, after they experienced Resurrection, the followers of Jesus continued to put gathering at table at the center of how they worshiped. Paul's words to the Corinthians make it plain how central the Lord's Supper (or Communion or Eucharist) was to the life of Christian faith -- and that the Corinthians weren't quite getting it right.

So it is that we continue to gather at the table to break the bread and share the cup. We continue to find it important to eat together as a fellowship. Because we believe that when we do this, we meet God.

Let us break bread together,  let us drink wine [or some other liquid] together, let us praise God together...

On Friday there is a lot of story. Some places tell the story from arrest to trial to crucifixion to burial. Some only tell the last part of the story. This year we will be in the latter group.

There are other traditional Scripture passages to read on Good Friday. One is Psalm 22, a piece of poetry that the early church appears to have used as a resource as they told the story of Jesus' execution. Another is from Isaiah, one of the "Servant Songs". While there is a great deal of debate as to who the Suffering Servant in Isaiah was originally meant to be (the Messiah? the Israelites?) the Christian church has largely understood (or re-understood) it to refer to Christ.

The readings we will hear this Friday are:
  • Psalm 22: 1-22 (VU p.744)
  • Isaiah 53:1-9
  • Luke 23:33-38, 44-49
This year we are doing something a little bit different for Good Friday. Instead of telling the story and reflecting on why [if?] Jesus needed to be killed the service will take the form of a funeral for Jesus of Nazareth.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Looking Ahead to April 9, 2017 -- Palm Sunday, Stewardship 3

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • Luke 19:29-40 
  • Matthew 5:13-16
The Sermon title is Called to Shine, Called to Season, Called to Praise

Early Thoughts: A parade! Do we stand and watch and wait or do we join in?

Is the Palm Sunday story a stewardship text?  Not usually. But it might be.

As Luke tells the story, Jesus tells those who oppose him, those who want the mob to calm down (either to avoid arousing the ire of the Roman soldiers or simply because they disagree with the mob) that if the crowd were silent the stones themselves would cry out. Sometimes [often?] the presence of God in the world is so overpowering that we simply HAVE to respond.

SO how do we respond?

WE often talk about Palm Sunday as the story of a parade. But I think it is more the story of a carnival (Marcus Borg and John Crossan describe it as carefully orchestrated street theatre). A Parade is often a more passive event for many.  It goes by while the crowd stands and watches. Palm Sunday is a time when everybody is getting involved, indeed it is this level of participation that seems to raise the eyebrows of some of the powerful.

When God is evident in our midst the call is to respond, to get involved, not only to watch in awe and wonder.

Is God in our midst? How will we respond?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Looking Forward to April 2, 2017 -- Stewardship #2, More Salt and Light

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • Luke 11:33-36
  • Luke 14:34-35
The Sermon title is Called to be True

Early Thoughts: What does it mean to let our light shine (or let God's light shine through us)? How do we know if we have lost our saltiness?

A couple of weeks ago I asked the sermonic question "why do you give?"  One answer I suggested that day was that we give in response to knowing that we have been blessed.

But there are other reasons why we give. There are other way we encourage each other to give.

One way the church used to get people to give was to foster a sense of obligation or duty (or possibly guilt). And for some generations this was effective. Many people suggest that this is not a strong incentive anymore.

In our world these days people want to know that their gifts make a difference. Think of how many stories get published each fall (in what I tend to refer to as "please give to our charity" season) discussing which organizations have the best record in terms of administrative spending.

Which brings us to letting light shine through us, and remaining salty and zesty.

Centuries ago a theologian said that we are now the hands and feet of Christ:

AS a community of faith we want people to join in the work God has laid before us. One way to have that happen is to invite them, to ask them to share their gifts. An equally important part of getting people to join in the work is to show that it matters.

When we let God's light shine through us, when we intentionally set out to be salt to the world we make a difference. We show that change is possible. We show that we are committed to the ministry to which God has called us. And that makes it more likely that others will see something worth sharing in.

We are called to be light and salt. We are called to make a difference in the world. That take commitment. We often wish others would join us in the work. Showing that we believe it makes a difference, showing that it accomplishes something, showing that this is a good use of gifts (be they time or talent or treasure) is one of the best ways to grow the community of faith-filled workers.

Let us not hide the light. Let us not lose our saltiness. Let's remain bright and zesty.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

April Newsletter

The heart of the year is approaching. The reason we gather is soon to be celebrated. The holiest week of the Christian year, a time when we move from triumph to betrayal to death. And then, as a surprise, LIFE. Life wins!

God sent his son They called him Jesus
He came to love, heal and forgive
He bled and died To buy my pardon
An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives
(verse 1 of Because He Lives by Bill Gaither)
Our hope lies in a story that defies description. Our hope for the future lies in the story of an empty tomb, a crucified and raised Chosen One of God. In some ways it makes no sense. In many ways it makes no sense. Jesus proclaims the coming of the Kingdom and our hope is in an empty cave in a garden outside Jerusalem?

Because he lives I can face tomorrow
Because he lives All fear is gone
Because I know he holds the future
My life is worth the living just because he lives
(chorus of Because He Lives by Bill Gaither)
Every year as we approach Easter it is easy to believe in the power of those who crucify. The power of the powers and the principalities to defy the promise of the Kingdom seems unquestioned. This year is no different.

This evening, less than a month before Easter, as I sit and type this out, the news has stories of the FBI investigating possible Russian involvement in the 2016 US election. There is still a civil war devastating Syria, one that has caused the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. Last week a US court once again accused the White House of trying to ban people from entering the country based on their religion. And that is just a start.

The powers of death, the powers of oppression, the powers of despair, the breeders of fear seem in control. How can we be so naive to think that the Kingdom of Love, Life, Freedom, and Hope could possibly win.

As Bill Gaither says: Because He Lives.

Because God doesn’t give up. Because God looks at the worst the world can do and then says “My turn”. Because God is active in the world the cross is overturned, Jesus is raised, and Life Wins. And that means we have hope.

How sweet to hold A new born baby
And feel the pride And joy he gives
But better still The calm assurance
That child can face uncertain days because he lives
(verse 2 of Because He Lives by Bill Gaither)
In many eras of human existence people have wondered if it makes sense to bring children into the world. As a race we have wondered if the world is a safe place to raise children. But as people of faith the answer is that while parenthood may be a terrifying concept at times we trust that all will be well in the end. Because God has raised Jesus, because life wins, we can all face the uncertainty of life.

Because he lives I can face tomorrow
Because he lives All fear is gone
Because I know he holds the future
My life is worth the living just because he lives
(chorus of Because He Lives by Bill Gaither)
We are people of hope, we are people who trust that Love and Life conquer fear and death. Easter is coming. God is still active in the world. Resurrection brings hope and promise. Jesus lives. And so we keep on living, walking with God into the future.

Blessed Easter.