Monday, September 9, 2019

World Religions Conference

This coming Saturday is the Annual World Religions Conference hosted by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.  Each year they have a theme for the even and this year's theme is Universal Compassion: The Core Human Value.

Each year the organizers ask people from a variety of faith traditions to speak. This year I have been asked to speak on the topic from a Christian perspective.

Many times when we read the healing stories in the Gospels we hear that Jesus is moved. Jesus has compassion for the people he meets and so he responds out of that compassion.

I would suggest that compassion is one of the basic building blocks for living in community, which is why it is described as a core human value. Compassion is what allows us to share each others lives, to support each other. It is a big part of how we live out the commandment that lies at the core of Christian Ethics and Morality -- Love Each Other/Love Your Neighbour.

I think we live in a world that tends to limit the power of compassion. To live out compassion in its full form would be to have compassion for all we meet, not just those who are close to us. That is far more radical than most of  us are ready for. More and more, in fact I see stories encouraging us NOT to have compassion for specific groups in our society (homeless, addicts, refugees...). I think that as people of faith we need to call for a far more radical understanding of what it means to be compassionate. After all, as Christians we follow the one who said:
“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)

Some years ago Karen Armstrong launched the Charter of Compassion. Initially it was a charter for people to sign and commit themselves to. Then it begot a book Twelve Steps To a Compassionate Life. And there is also a website affiliated with the project. I like what Anderson has started. Because, as I said; compassion, radical and far-reaching compassion, is a key building block for living together in community.

Hope to see you on Saturday.

Looking Ahead to September 15, 2019

This Sunday we are inviting students to bring their Backpacks (or other carrying cases) for a Blessing of the Backpacks during worship.

Also this week during our service we will be formalizing our covenant relationship with the Northern Spirit Regional Council as the United Church continues to live into its new national structure.

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • Deuteronomy 30:15-20
  • Luke 14:25-33
The Sermon title is Choices and Plans

Early Thoughts: Choices matter. Priorities shape our lives. Plans are important.

Can I stop there?

If we are going to live as people of faith we need to keep those three precepts in our minds.

Choices matter! What does it mean to "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live"? What does it mean to recognize that our choices could bring blessing or curses? Many a parent has said to their children "make good choices". After all one of our tasks as a community is to help people know/learn how to make good choices. We want to consider where our choices lead us, what the consequences (good and bad, expected and unexpected [I am a firm believer in the law of unintended consequences]) might be. We are challenged to ask "what would Jesus have us do?" as we make those choices.

Priorities shape our lives! This Gospel reading has some hard words. Jesus says that following his way is more important than the "normal" rules of life. It may lead you to voluntary poverty. It may lead you to choose between following him and your family. What priority do we set on the various parts of our lives? Those things that we make top priority will automatically get more resources and attention. In a Scriptural worldview where there are constant warning of idolatry and/or following other gods our priorities can lead us to make something into an idol -- at a personal or a family or a community or a national level. Where would Jesus have us focus our attention and resources?

Plans are important! Some of us are not great at planning. Some are.  Some make detailed plans for every project -- sometime to the extent that they are unwilling/unable to alter course when the plan does not work exactly. Some simply drift along and play life by ear. I suggest that neither extreme is unhelpful. But planning is important. It gives us a direction to head. It pushes us to calculate the costs and benefits. Jesus challenges us to do the same in living our out faith. I wonder what criteria he would have us use in those calculations?

Choices and plans. They shape our lives at every level. Our hope as followers of Christ is that our choices and our plans resonate with where God would have us go.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Looking Ahead to September 8, 2019

This Sunday marks the beginning of our Sunday School year.

Also this Sunday we will be celebrating the sacrament of Baptism.

The Scripture Reading this week is Psalm 139

The Sermon title is Wonderfully Made, Wonderfully Known

Early Thoughts: First a confession. Psalm 139 is one of my favourite pieces of Scripture.

This piece of ancient poetry reminds us of many things. That we are children of God. That God knows us deeply, "more deeply than we know ourselves" as I have sometimes said in prayer". That God is always with us, wherever we go. In fact God is with us even when we might prefer that God is NOT with us. God sees our hearts and continues to lead us in The Way.

Many of these things are all warm and fuzzy, At least on the surface. But what does it mean to acknowledge that we are fully and deeply known? Why does the poet talk about wanting to flee from God's presence? And what about those verses near the end about destroying the wicked? In the  end it is a much more complex poem than we might think if we picked and chose our favoured verses.

In our baptism liturgy we proclaim:
The sacrament of baptism proclaims and celebrates the grace of God.
By water and the Spirit, we are called, claimed, and commissioned:
we are named as God’s children,
claimed by Christ,
and united with the whole Christian community of every time and place.
Strengthened by the Holy Spirit,
we live out our commission;
to spread the love we have been given throughout the world.
Which, to my mind is why this Psalm is such a good match for a Baptism Sunday. Because we are indeed "called, claimed, and commissioned".

We are all children of the God who watched us grow in our mother's womb, who heard our borning cry, who is a part of every breath we take. God knows us deeply, flaws and all. God knows the parts of our lives we would rather not admit, and yet loves us and leads us in  The Way. God is there when life is terrible. God is there when the skies grow dark. God is even there when we think we would rather be alone.

We are indeed wonderfully and fearfully made, for we are made in God's image. WE are indeed fearfully and wonderfully known, because God knows us to our core. This is a blessing, it may also seem like a curse. It can lift us up or it can be a heavy weight on our soul. Sometimes we need the weight to help us be led in the way everlasting. We always need the blessing.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Reflections (A Newsletter Piece)

When you look in a mirror what do you see?

At some point(s) in our lives many of us have an uneasy relationship with the mirror. We try to avoid them whenever possible, because we are uncomfortable with what we see there. Others may go the other way and spend too much time at the mirror – either because they are very comfortable with what they see or because they are strenuously trying to change the picture.

But what do you see when you look in the mirror?

That is a question about how we understand ourselves. And there are two directions I think we can go from that question.

In the past whenever I have talked about a mirror in a sermon it has been with Michael Jackson’s song Man in the Mirror ringing in my ears. Which seems odd at first sine I am not a terribly big fan of Michael Jackson, and musically the song is not any where near my favourite. But the lyrics....
I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change

In a world where we often see so many things that need to be changed (or that we think need to be changed) and yet at the same time feel powerless to do anything about it Jackson’s song reminds us that we have power. There are many theories about how change happens in a culture. Some change needs to happen at a systemic, government level. Some change starts with us. I tend to believe that any long lasting change starts with us as individuals. Either we change our own way of reacting to life or (maybe and?) we push for changes on a broader scale. Either way, Jackson reminds us that it is not enough to blame everybody else for the problems we see. As many a parent or teacher has reminded a young person “you can not control what Sally does, you can control what you do”. As people who live with privilege and power we need to be able to look in the mirror and admit that maybe we are part both of the problem and the solution.

I still believe all of that. But it is not the only helpful message we can get from a mirror.

One Sunday this summer I was worshiping at my childhood church and the place for the prayer of confession talked about a mirror. I was intrigued and wondered where the worship leader, Rev. Tyler Powell, was heading.

Tyler talked about looking in the mirror. He talked about how many people, when they look in the mirror, are prone to see their flaws. That may mean seeing the scars life has left on our face. Or it may be the anxious and acne-prone teenager seeing all the blemishes. Or it may be the person who carries inside themself some deep shame or guilt and they see a terrible person looking back out of that mirror. I think Tyler was right. Humans can be really good at being judgmental, particularly about themselves. But...

Tyler then reminded us that everyone sitting in that sanctuary that day was a beloved child of God. And he asked what it would mean to look in that mirror and say to yourself, “hey there is a beloved child of God looking back at me”. What do you think God sees when God looks at you? Does God only see the flaws? Or does God see the beloved, if imperfect, child?

If we are honest we know that the person staring back at us from the mirror could possibly do better. We know that there are things we could so but don’t. We know that there are things we probably shouldn’t do but do anyway. But do we remember who we are underneath all of that? We are, each and every one of us, a beloved child of God. Which part will we focus on?

It is my belief that if we start our reflections on that face in the mirror with the second of these two things, trying to see ourselves as the beloved child God sees we start working towards the first, challenging that person to make a change in the world. And even if it doesn’t, then at least we start by reminding ourselves of our true identity. We are flawed. We are imperfect. But first and foremost we are beloved children of God. That is who God sees. And who are we to argue with God?

What do you see when you look in the mirror? What does God want us to see? I believe God wants us to see the beloved child, able to go out and live in God’s Way and make a difference in the world.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Looking Ahead to September 1, 2019

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

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Hebrews 13:1-3
  • Luke 14:1, 7-14
The Sermon title is Radical Hospitality

Early Thoughts: What does it mean to be a good host? To be a good guest? For hospitality to work we need to be both.

Hospitality is one of those things that makes it possible for us to live together.  In some parts of human history the need to be a good and willing host was truly a matter of survival. That may be less true for many of us now but it is still true for us as a community.

And yet there seems to be a lot of rhetoric that goes directly against hospitality. There are those who claim immigration is somehow a bad thing. There are those who think some people are more welcome than others. There are voices who advocate tossing out those who, in their opinion do not add to/take away from the quality of life in our community. (I have got to stop reading posts about the homelessness issues/ tent city and the drug issue in GP because I keep getting enraged at the comments).

I fear that we, as a culture, have become less welcoming, less hospitable as we have also become more suspicious about those we define as "them". Then I read Hebrews 13. Or I remember the story of Abraham and Sarah entertaining three strangers (Genesis 18)  or even the story of Lot in Sodom (Genesis 19 -- Scripture itself tells us the the sin that led to the destruction of Sodom was a lack of hospitality [Ezekiel 16:49, Matthew 10:13-15]). And when I read these stories I am reminded that we are to welcome the stranger.

What about the other side of hospitality? What about the guest? In this passage from Luke Jesus gives some hints.  And my summation of those hints is "don't think too highly of yourself". This morning as I re-read the Luke reading for this week I am once again given the impression that a great deal of what makes hospitality work is to not think too much of ourselves. Both as guest or host we need to keep ourselves humble.

To live as citizens of the Kingdom means, in part, to practice hospitality. Indeed it is one of the 12 practises cover in the book  Practicing our Faith (need to re-read that chapter this week). It means to recognize that God is present in the act of hosting. It means that we might have to rethink and relearn some of our assumptions about what it means to be a good host and a good guest.

One model would be the communion table. We in the United Church hold an open table, where all are welcome. We do this because we recognize that God is the real host and that God welcomes all to come and eat and drink. Let us eat and drink together, and let us be transformed in the process.  The hope for the future of our culture lies, i part, in how we practice radical hospitality.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Looking Ahead to August 25, 2019

This week we are celebrating the sacrament of Baptism.

The Scripture Readings for this week are:
  • Psalm 103:1-8
  • Psalm 71 (VU p.788)
  • Luke 13:10-17
The Sermon title is Be Free

Early Thoughts: In one of the episodes of Star Trek (TOS) Kirk and company are on a planet captured by what appears to be a tribe of uncivilized folk. Part way through the episode Kirk happens to say Freedom, and one of the tribefolk says "that is a worship word".

Despite the fact that from that point on the episode becomes a rather jingoistic presentation of the US as the great hope for freedom in the face of what appears to be that planet's Asiatic Communists I think that the tribesman was right. Freedom is a worship word.

God's desire for God's people to be free is woven throughout Scripture. We find it most notably in the story of Exodus, which is clearly about freedom from slavery. We find it also in rules around slavery itself and the idea of the Jubilee year. We find it in Paul's letters where he calls people to freedom in Christ (though his rhetoric in Philemon is a bit unsure where he stands on slavery as a social construct). And we find it in this Gospel reading. Jesus does not talk about healing or curing the woman, he talks about setting her free.

In Christ we are set free. Free from what and for what is a matter of debate, one we may touch on this Sunday. But we are free. Free to be who God has created us to be. Free to live out God's Way in our world. Maybe even free to make unhelpful choices.

From what do you need to be freed so you can live out God's call in your life? From what have you been freed? What might freedom look like for you?

Monday, August 12, 2019

Looking Ahead to August 18, 2019

The Scripture Reading this week is: Hebrews 11:1-12:2

The Sermon title is Faith in the Cloud

Early Thoughts: We talk a lot about the cloud these days.  People debate the wisdom of keeping documents in "the cloud" for security reasons.  Almost 2000 years ago the writer of Hebrews also told us of the importance of the cloud.  But I think he meant something different.

There is something important and valuable and, dare I say, holy about remembering those who have gone before. Nothing we have simply sprung out of nothingness. None of us sprung out of nothingness.  We, as individuals, as families, as communities have a history. And that history has shaped who we are. (Sometimes helpfully sometimes less helpfully).

So we need to pause and remember those who have gone before.  What have they taught us through their faith and their example? What foundation have they laid for us to build on? In this chapter the unknown Christian who wrote this text invites us to remember our forebears in the faith (though he spends a lot of time in Genesis and then skips a whole lot of time). We remember and we consider and we give thanks. WE also remember and are reminded that God has been at work long before we showed up on the scene and will be at work when we ourselves are gone.

But as the text before us suggests, there is another side to our remembering. At the beginning of chapter 12 the writer refers to the great cloud of witnesses. Sometimes we call this the communion of saints. Sometimes I refer to it as the fellowship of the faithful. A blessing I use during a committal service reads:
Go peacefully into that abiding place prepared for us.
Go gently into God’s deepest presence.
Go confidently into that communion of all who have gone before and may they hold you precious until we meet again.
When we remember those who have gone before we also remember that we are not alone. We are surrounded by that great cloud of faithful witnesses. That can strengthen us, being reminded that we are not alone tends to have that effect.

There is one caveat. Sometimes we remember those who have gone before and want to repeat their success by doing what they did.  I don't think that is what this passage calls us to do. WE remember that we are part of a tradition, we also remember that in that tradition are many who set out in a whole new way (Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Paul...). We remember their courage and faith to help us gain courage to step out in our own new way.

A few questions come to my mind this week:
  1. Who makes up your great cloud of witnesses? Who are those heroes of faith and life that keep you going?
  2. Who makes up the cloud of witnesses for the community of faith called St. Paul's United Church? Who are those people who are or have been a part of our community that laid a foundation for us to build on?
  3. Remembering that one generations present is another generation's past. What do we hope to pass on to those who will follow us as we become a part of their great cloud of witnesses?
See you on Sunday!