Saturday, November 26, 2016

Looking Forward to December 4, 2016 -- Advent 2, the Promise of Jubilee



This being the first Sunday of the month we will be celebrating the Sacrament of Communion.

The Scripture Reading this week is Isaiah 61:1-11

The Sermon title is Jubilee!

Early Thoughts: Free the slaves! Cancel the debts! Liberate the oppressed!

Scripture shows us that God has some strange ideas. Particularly where economics is concerned. Scripture [specifically Deuteronomy 15] shows us that God advocates for Sabbath years, a time where debts are cancelled and slaves are freed. And in Leviticus 25:8-55 God commands a Jubilee year on the fiftieth year (after a sabbath of sabbaths) when not only is the land left fallow (which hopefully has happened at other occasions as part of good land management) but all land is returned to the families to whom it originally belonged [Jewish families that is, not the Canaanites from who it was wrested to be distributed amongst the people of Israel]. Read about these rules for yourself here. Together the Sabbath year and the Jubilee year make a statement about freedom, about economics, about how we build a caring society.

As far as I have ever heard, there is little evidence for the Jubilee year happening on a regular (or even ever) basis.  I suspect the rules of the Sabbath year were at best unevenly followed as well.

But what if they were? Would that be a sign of God's Kingdom breaking into the world?

I think Isaiah has Jubilee-plus in his mind in chapter 61. The year of the Lord's favour will certainly be a Jubilee year. The time when all will be set right is certainly a sign of (and a call for) Jubilee. It will be more than that though. Not only will land be returned (land is life in many cultures) and economics made level again but there will be healing and rejoicing and freedom. This is what it means to look for the Kingdom of God. We look for Jubilee.

I invite you to read Luke 4:14-31. The beginning of the public ministry of one Jesus of Nazareth. How does he begin his ministry? With Isaiah 61 and the year of Jubilee-plus. When God breaks into the world Jubilee comes. To Christian eyes Isaiah 61 is a foreboding of Jesus, a foretelling of what is going to happen in the life of the man from Nazareth.

Where do you see signs of Jubilee in the world? Do you see any?
What would it mean for Jubilee to become a reality here and now?
Is that the path to actual peace in the world? Is justice a pre-condition for peace?
Christmas is coming, are we ready for the world to be changed?
Are we ready for the possibility of Jubilee?
--Gord

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

December Newsletter #2

What If...?

A month ago I was talking to someone who told me that if he ever won the lottery he would show up in my office with a cheque for a few million dollars for us to use for a specific project (and this person had a very specific project that he would ask us to take on – I am not telling you what that was).

That discussion has been sitting with me ever since. Not surprising since I often think about what we as a congregation could do if a windfall of money came our way. Actually, the way the thought process usually happens for me is “gee if only we had the money we could...”

I tend to have a lot of dreams. Expensive dreams.

But I am also sure I am not the only dreamer in this congregation. And so I am going to ask you the same question I asked at our November Council meeting.

If someone walked in the door tomorrow and said “here is $2 000 000, use it to do ministry in Grande Prairie” what project(s) would you have us take on?

And now I will tell you why I ask.

One of the challenges of life in a faith community is that we get used to doing what we always do. And sometimes we forget to ask ourselves what holes there are that we could possibly help fill in. It is my belief that to be faithful to the God who calls us to take part in God’s Kingdom we have to be ready to try out new things from time to time. As the community changes so does our activity.

Where are the holes in Grande Prairie? Which ones might we be able to fill (and are some of those things we could help make happen even without the imaginary benefactor)?

I am not expecting the $2 000 000 to arrive any day soon. But still I wonder, what might we do with that money? What might we do even in its absence?
Gord

December Newsletter

Be Afraid?

Watching the news for, well my whole adult life, I have come to realize that apparently selling people on fear is a very potent way to motivate them. And so...

And the angel appeared in the midst of the congregation and said:
“BE afraid, be very afraid! For unto you is born this day a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And he will cause you to rethink your entire lives!”

Not quite how we remember the Christmas story going is it? For years I have reminded people that more often than not an angel’s appearance begins with an exhortation NOT to be afraid. Scripture reminds us that we need to live in hope and trust and not be afraid. Fear does not lead to the Kingdom.

And yet... I wonder. Maybe we should be a little afraid. At least if we take Christmas and Jesus seriously.

Between Christmas and Easter this year the Narrative Lectionary is going to lead us through the Gospel according to Luke. Luke has long been my favourite of the 4 Gospels, in part because it contains classic stories such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son and the Emmaus Road but also because Luke makes plain the social justice that accompanies the Kingdom.

In this Gospel Jesus will begin his ministry by reading a passage from Isaiah that proclaims the beginning of the Jubilee year. In the Jubilee year debts are cancelled, slaves are freed, land is returned to its ancestral owners. The Jubilee year, the coming of the Kingdom, turns our economic order upside down.

In this Gospel we have Mary’s song. Mary sings of the proud being toppled from their thrones and the lowly lifted up. Mary sings this song knowing that the child she carries in her womb is the one who will do these things. The final verse of my favoured musical setting of Mary’s song reads:
Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast:
God’s mercy must deliver us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp
This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which hold us bound
‘til the spear and rod can be crushed by God who is turning the world around
(verse 4 of My Soul Cries Out More Voices #120)

Be not afraid, for there are tidings of great joy for all the people. Soon will be born a Saviour, Christ the Lord. God’s presence will be revealed in a child in a manger.

But at the same time, be a little afraid, because God is at loose in the world. Be a little anxious, because God is making changes in the world. Be watchful, the Jubilee is coming, the time when the economic order will be turned over to ensure that all have what they need for life, and that in abundance.

Christmas is coming! God is breaking into our lives! For that we rejoice. And as we wait for the Baby Jesus we watch for the changes God will bring.

Blessed Christmas!
Gord

Monday, November 21, 2016

Looking Forward to November 27, 2016 -- Daniel in the Lion's Den, Advent 1

The Scripture readings for this week are:
  • Daniel 6:6-27
  • Joel 2:28-29
The Sermon title is God Saves

Early Thoughts: Psalm 121 laments "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help."

It then answers: "My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth."

This week we have a story of jealousy/insecurity. And a story of faithfulness in the face of threat. And a story of God's salvific power. Oh, and a few lions thrown in for good measure.

Living in exile, Daniel has become influential and powerful. And as often happens this makes some of his colleagues jealous and nervous. So they decide to get rid of him.

It is hardly unheard of for a power bloc in a society to manipulate the system and get a law passed that is targeted at a specific individual or group.  In fact it is rather common. Then the person/group have to decide it they will play it safe or if they will continue to be true to who they are, knowing that this puts them in jeopardy.

Daniel chooses the latter. And Darius is caught in the trap. (The fact that Darius is so easily played suggests his strength is not in leadership)

But God intervenes.  And Daniel is not broken and consumed by the lions.  Then Darius has an attack of leadership and destroys those counselors who played him so well (which may be very politically expedient since it also ensures they will not plot against Darius himself in the future) before praising the God Daniel follows.

It is one of those stories many of us heard as children (though those versions might have omitted the wholesale slaughter of verses 23 and 24). But why do we continue to tell it? Specifically this week, as we head in to the season of preparation for the birth of Jesus. What does this passage tell us in 2016?

WE live in a world where jealousy and nervousness and insecurity and fear still drive and shape major policy decisions. We live in a world where it sometimes seems that playing it safe is wiser than wholeheartedly being who God has formed us to be. We live in a world where lion's dens come in a variety of shapes and forms.

We also live in a world of hope.

We live in a world where God is at work, sending visions and dreams. WE live in a world where the Kingdom is growing (slowly, sometimes with a setback or two) to full flower. We live in a world where we trust that, in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich, "all will be well".

One etymology of the name Jeshua (Jesus) is God Saves. We await the birth of God Saves.  That is where our hope lies. Even in the face of lions we await the birth of God Saves. Even in the face of threats that would push us to be less than who God has created us to be we have hope and confidence. We can share the visions and the dreams God has sent us because we have hope, because we know that God is in control (sometimes despite the seeming lack of evidence), because God is active in teh world.

Thanks be to God
--Gord

Monday, November 14, 2016

Looking Forward to November 20, 2016 -- Reign of Christ Sunday

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-26
  • Jeremiah 31:31-34
The Sermon title is On Our Hearts?

Early Thoughts: A new covenant, a new way of directing how we live with each other and with God.

The story of Scripture in inextricably bound with the idea of covenant. After the flood God makes a covenant with Noah. Later God makes a covenant with Abram/Abraham. In the Exodus and at Sinai God makes a covenant with the people of Israel. Each covenant involves promises and expectations from both sides.

The life of faith is full of covenant imagery. We not only tell the story of faith and the covenants within that, we make covenants. When we are baptized, and when we re-affirm our baptism, we enter into and renew a covenant. When we dedicate our lives to one special partner we enter into a covenant. When we call a new minister to serve with a faith community we have a service of covenanting to begin that relationship. And again there are promises and expectations between all parties.

God is always faithful to the covenants. God's people on the other hand....

Within Israel and Judah, the work of the prophets was to call people back to living out the covenant. They are less than successful. Near the end of his career Jeremiah takes time to get the words he has spoken on behalf of God written down into a scroll (plausibly showing that the people are starting to transition from a primarily oral culture to a more literate culture). The king listens to the scroll read aloud and then systematically destroys it.

What is a God to do?

Oral reminders have not worked. The written reminder is subject to destruction. What if the covenant is written in the very beings of the people? Will that work?

For many years Christians have looked at those verses in chapter 31 and seen Christ. Jesus is said to have instituted the (or at least a) new covenant, the one that would be written on our hearts. And so we are people of the New Covenant (there are churches that have chosen that as their name).

God is still faithful to the covenants. God's people....well sometimes (often?) we struggle, we miss the mark [sometimes our aim seems 180 degrees off]. Thankfully the God who calls us into the covenant also pledges "for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more".

About 240 years ago John Wesley, the founder of Methodism (and so one of the Spiritual ancestors of the United Church of Canada), developed a service of covenanting. The idea of Wesley's covenanting service is that it is a chance to rededicate ourselves to live as people of the covenant, to live as people who seek to follow the Way of Christ, to live as citizens of God's Kingdom. Over time it became common in Methodism to mark the beginning of the New Year with the Covenanting Service.

Reign of Christ Sunday is a day when we remind ourselves that we are citizens of a different Kingdom, when we remind ourselves that we follow a different law. It is also a time of transition, the end of one liturgical year with Advent 1 (which is next Sunday) marking the beginning of a New Year. And so it seems appropriate that this Sunday when we talk about the covenant that is written on our hearts we will take time to join in the tradition of our Methodist forebears (and current sisters and brothers) and re-affirm our commitment to live as people of the covenant.

Is it really written on our hearts? How can we tell?
--Gord

Monday, November 7, 2016

Looking Forward to November 13, 2016 -- The Call of Isaiah

The Scripture Reading for this week is Isaiah 6:1-8

The Sermon title is God Makes Worthy

Early Thoughts: How many of us have been asked to do something and was sure the WRONG person was being approached? This happens all the time in Scripture.

Amos was merely a vinedresser.
Jeremiah was a child.
Moses (it seems) had a speech impediment.
Peter was a rough and tumble fishermen.
Isaiah was painfully aware of his lack of holiness.

And yet all of them are called to take part in the Mission Dei, God's Mission. All of them are made worthy and able to do what they are called to do.

Isaiah is int the temple at at time of transition. The King is dead. The Assyrians are a clear and present danger to the little kingdom of Judah. The future is far from certain. Or even worse, what appears most certain is a less than positive future.

And then Isiah has a vision. Technically this is best described as a theophany, a manifestation of God. In the midst of this experience Isaiah realizes that he is doomed because he is so unworthy (and from a people who are so unworthy) to be in the presence of and see Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts.

But God has another answer.

God purifies Isaiah's lips (it is the lips that Isaiah specifically mentions in his lament of being unworthy) with a live coal. Fire is a common purifying element, albeit a rather painful one (sometimes God preparing us for service is a difficult, even painful process). [The purifying nature of fire is in fact where the practice of burning heretics at the stake is reputed to have come from] Then when God asks who will step forward Isaiah feels ready to go.

What will it take for you to know that God has made you worthy? What will it take for you to be sure God has chosen the right person for the task?
--Gord


Sunday, October 30, 2016

Looking Forward to November 6, 2016 -- Remembrance Sunday, The Story of Jonah

This being the first Sunday of the month we will be celebrating the sacrament of Communion.

The Scripture reading this week is Jonah 1:1-17; 3:1-10; 4:1-11. But it may be helpful to read the whole book, it is not that long all together -- in fact this reading is only missing the 10 verses of chapter 2.

The Sermon title is Love Your Enemies

Early Thoughts: How do you move past a tribal God? How do we love our enemies and accept that God also loves our enemies?

Jonah is a great story to explore these questions.  Because it is about far more than the big fish (the word whale never actually appears in the text).

Jonah is called to witness to the people of Nineveh. It is only slight hyperbole to say this is akin to a mid-20th century Jew being asked to go witness to the guards at Auschwitz. Nineveh is the seat of the Assyrian empire:
If you visit the British Museum, you can see spectacular wall reliefs depicting Assyrian sieges. The famous siege of Lachish shows multiple images of Judeans being impaled, and stacks of Judeans heads (yes, disembodied heads) that were counted by Assyrian scribes, presumably for a pay per head policy with the soldiers. Archaeologists discovered this relief in Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh (you can read about them more about Sennacherib in 2 Kings 18-21). [SOURCE]

And so Jonah makes an entirely logical decision. Rather than walk to a place where he is likely to be slaughtered (what ARE you thinking of God?) he goes the exact opposite direction. Then there is a storm at sea, Jonah takes the blame, gets thrown overboard and is swallowed (through God's grace and protection) by a large fish.  That is the part of the story we know best.

After three days in the fish belly Jonah relents. And he goes to Nineveh to preach their imminent destruction, something I have always thought Jonah is looking forward to watching.

But there is a problem. The king and people of Nineveh take Jonah seriously. VERY seriously. And so they put on sackcloth and ashes and show that they truly repent of their wickedness. Upon which God takes their repentance as valid and chooses not to destroy the city and slaughter the people.

Poor Jonah. He is most distressed at the very idea that God would show mercy to those horrible Assyrians.

Which brings us to our opening question. How do you move beyond a tribal God?

For most of the Jewish Scriptures God is, essentially, seen as a tribal God -- The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of Israel. This is the God who actively fights for the tribe, as in the story of the Exodus. But over time a new understanding of God erupts. Most often see it in the writings that come during and after the Exile, when the people discover (almost as a surprise) that even though the temple has been destroyed God is still with them.

They re-understand God as much more the a tribal God, they start to see God as, well, God, the God not just of Israel but of the people. And I have to believe that in some ways this forces them to start to wonder how they should see other people.

Then along comes Jesus saying:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:43-47)
Once we see that God is not just the God of our tribe, our people, those who are like us then we are forced to admit that maybe we should love them.  Even if for no other reason than because God loves them. In this month when we pause to remember, when we remind ourselves Never Again, when we recall the horrible cost of hatred and fear of the other, it is good to remind ourselves that we have moved past a tribal God. And that God calls us to a higher way of living:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
--Gord