Monday, September 8, 2014

Looking Forward to September 14, 2014 -- The Promise of Land

A reminder that both Sunday School and Youth Group start this Sunday.  So does Junior Choir.

The Scripture Reading this week is Genesis 12:1-9

The Sermon title is Whose Land is It Anyway?

Early Thoughts:  In his novel Exodus Leon Uris describes the area we now call Israel, Palestine, and Jordan the "twice promised land".   And that is just in the era that the British were in charge of the area....

(for more about this video see this post)

God says to Abram, "Get up and Go!".  God promises to lead him to a land where he will have many descendants who will be a blessing to the world.

Great plan.  Only problem is --- there are already people living there.  So it always has been, not only on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, but many other places in the world.  So how do we know whose land it is anyway?

For most of human history the land has been the basis for wealth and power.  That changed a bit with the Industrial Revolution, as many British noble families learned the hard way.   To have land means you can utilize the things the land produced, and sell the surplus for cash to get other stuff.  To have land has often meant you had a population of serfs/villeins/slaves/sharecroppers you could use as either a labour force or a fighting force.

Land is important.  Land is life.  Land is future.

But most often land is also occupied by somebody else.  Then what?

In the Middle East we still have battles over the "twice-promised" land -- just last month there was an uptick in the violence.  Whose land is it?

I would argue that "Whose land is it anyway?" is a question that we as Canadians need to feel pretty sharply as well.  Because it is only when we ask ourselves that question and look at all it means to talk about land that we will seriously start to work on rebuilding our relationship with the descendants of the people who lived on THIS land when our descendants arrived on these shores.

15 years ago we had a lot of talk in the church about the Jubilee year and the forgiveness of national debt.  Part of Jubilee is also returning ancestral land to the "proper" owner (which in Deuteronomy and Leviticus means the Tribe/Clan/Family of Israel that the land was given to after the conquest--not the Canaanites who were there before Joshua led the people over Jordan).  I remember a couple of people in the congregation where I was serving my internship note that we did not talk nearly so much about that aspect of Jubilee in the Canadian church.  I wonder why that was so true.....

Monday, September 1, 2014

Looking Forward to September 7, 2014 -- Noah, the Flood, The Rainbow.

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

This Sunday is also the first Sunday we are following the Narrative Lectionary.

The Scripture Reading this week is Genesis 6:16-22; 9:8-15

The Sermon title is A Promise in Many Colours

Early Thoughts: Technically it is the result of light rays bending through a prism and being scattered into different wavelengths.  But that is hardly romantic....

The Rainbow.

Topic of songs about what is somewhere over them.   Symbol of inclusivity in the Pride Parade.  Scientific experiment.  And sign of the promise.

The story of Noah and the flood is one that many of us learned in early childhood.  And yet how many of us remember the part about the rainbow?  Yes we know about the animals going in 2 by 2.  But I suggest the longer term lesson is the rainbow.

God gives up on the world, God decides to wipe the slate clean and start over.  But then God appears to decide this was the wrong approach.  After the flood and the destruction God says "Never Again" and the rainbow is that sign of that promise.  No matter what happens, no matter how far we wander from God's hope, never again will the world be washed away in a flood.  God will stick with us, not try to replace us.

A promise in many colours, a sign of hope, a constant reminder of God's presence in the world.

And here is my favourite rainbow song:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Newsletter Part B

Who are we?

Many times over the last 4 years I have asked in sermons, in committee and council meetings, in conversations who we think God is calling us to be and where God is calling us to go. Since the last Annual Congregational Meeting your Council has been wrestling with these questions in a much more focused way.

As I sat down to write this piece I pulled up our congregational vision and mission statements. Here they are to refresh your memory:

Our Mission

Putting one foot in front of the other, we will continue to walk on the path Christ has set for us. The people of St. Paul’s will: Belong...Believe...Love...Lead

Our Vision

To be a loving and supportive community of faith where we celebrate the gifts of the spirit we bring, regardless of age, to the service of the Church, the Community, and the World. Our leaders, both Lay and Order of Ministry, will be supported and encouraged through our ongoing discernment of our mission and ministry and by our participation in the life and work of St. Paul’s United Church.
{ASIDE:, I note that these were supposed to be reviewed in January 2012. I am not sure we did that, but I am REALLY sure we probably should talk about what they mean}

Who are we? How do we live out those statements? How COULD we live out those statements?

One of the things I have heard God whispering in my ear for most of my ministry is that it is time to find new ways of being the church. firmly believe that is trying new ways, new ideas, is part of how we will live out those statements. Furthermore, I firmly believe that sometimes we get so tied to the old ways (the church as a whole is notorious for getting caught in the trap/rut of tradition) that we limit our ability to live out those mission and vision statements.

So what are the new things God is calling us to try? Some of them will work well. Some will fail disastrously. And that is good. There is a proverb that tells us if you never fail it means you are not trying enough new things, you are playing it too safe.

Here is my first option. I want to offer an evening service on a monthly basis (I am open to input on what evening of what week we should choose). But here is the catch. I want this service to look radically different from our regular Sunday morning service. It would be our chance to experiment with different worship styles and themes. I want/plan to start offering these in October. I want/plan to continue offering them until at least next June, even if attendance is poor or spotty. Who's in with me? Is there something you have always wanted to try in worship but were afraid to ask? These services are the time!

God is calling us to try new things. Sometimes I think the hour of worship on Sunday morning has become a straitjacket, maybe even a bit of an idol. I want to cut loose the arms of the straitjacket and maybe put a crack in the idol. It might work great!!!! It might be a fun failure!!! We will only know if we try.

And if you have ideas of new things you want to try out – let me know. God is still speaking to all of us. Sometimes we just have to stop and listen.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Looking Forward to August 31, 2014 -- 12th Sunday After Pentecost

The Scripture Reading this Sunday is Isaiah 51:1-8.

The Sermon title is Listen!

Early Thoughts: One of the more common aspects of my "discussions" with my children is some variation of "Stop what you are doing and listen for a moment".  I wonder if God has the same feeling....

When you think about it what lies behind that word LISTEN.  When you think about it, it is a shorthand way of saying "pay attention! this is important! you need to know/hear/do this!"

In these 8 verses we have the command to listen three times:
  1. "Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug."  God calls us to look to our past, our heritage.  Why is that important?
  2. "4Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. 5I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope."  God calls us to pay attention to the promise, to look to the future, to be people of hope.  Why is that important?
  3. "Listen to me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my teaching in your hearts; do not fear the reproach of others, and do not be dismayed when they revile you."  God calls us to remember who we are, where our strength lies, where we can look for support.  Why is that important?

Past, future, and present.  Listen in all tenses.  Listen and learn.  Listen and move towards God's vision for the world. Listen and remember and be people of hope.

Maybe we should listen a little bit more...preferably BEFORE we start to act.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

September Newsletter...Part A?

I think I will likely write another piece for the newsletter as my "official column".  But here is something I wanted folks to know about:

And Now for Something Completely Different...

Well maybe not completely...
Maybe not even radically...
Maybe some folks won't notice the difference?

So how about “now for something a little bit different”?

For me the starting point (most of the time) in planning our weekly worship experiences is “what are the Scripture passages?” Sometimes I will start with a specific question or theme and search out passages that match that. But most often I take a set of passages from a list of readings called a Lectionary [a lection is “a portion of sacred writing read in a divine service; lesson; pericope” ( so a list of lections is a lectionary]. This pushes me to look at passages I might otherwise avoid or ignore, and so broadens my preaching.

Most United Church folk have gotten used to a Lectionary even if they don't know it, such is the power of the worship planner (at least we are powerful in our own minds). For most of my adult life I have attended churches that used the Revised Common Lectionary in worship. The stated intent of the RCL is to read all of the “important” parts of Scripture over a 3 year period. And so, generally speaking, each week it suggests a reading from the Jewish Scriptures, a Psalm reading, a reading from the Letters, and a reading from the Gospel.

I have struggled with the RCL since I started teaching Sunday School as a teenager. Even then I could see that there were many weeks where the 4 passages did not remotely link with each other, even though the Sunday School Curriculum we used at the time [Whole People of God] went through amazing mental gymnastics to make them appear linked. Over time I have dealt with this issue by simply not reading all the passages on a Sunday – which would tend to defeat the stated purpose of hearing all the “important” [sometimes I wonder how you determine what the important parts are...] parts of Scripture over three years but I dislike reading a passage and then not doing anything else with it in the service.

The other big problem I have had with the RCL is that it tends to make it more difficult to keep a narrative flow. Yes each year the readings mainly come from one Gospel. And each summer the Jewish Scripture readings tend to come from a specific story arc (this summer has been the stories of the Patriarchs leading to the story of Exodus). But the stories get chopped in odd places and sometime we jump around in the Gospel and read passages out of order. As a person who both loves stories and also finds story to be a great teaching/learning/exploration tool this bothers me.

So now for the completely/somewhat/sorta kinda different thing...

There is another option. A Lutheran Seminary in the US has developed what they call the Narrative Lectionary. Each winter/spring it follows through one Gospel from beginning to end (though it still does not read every verse) and then uses other stories for the rest of the year. The hope is that we will get a better picture of the narrative flow of Scripture, as a different way of sparking our exploration. Starting with the beginning of September this year I will be using the Narrative Lectionary as the basis of my worship planning. Which means that from Advent until Easter we will be exploring Matthew's Gospel.

The big question is.....will anybody noticed a difference???????

Monday, August 18, 2014

Looking Ahead to August 24, 2014 -- 11th Sunday After Pentecost

The Scripture Reading this week is Romans 12:1-21

The Sermon title is The Renewing of Minds and Souls

Early Thoughts: What difference does faith make?  How have you been changed, transformed, by God's presence and activity in you life?  Or to put it another would your life be different if you were not a person of faith?

Christian faith is about being transformed.  Living in faith is about striving to align our daily lives with God's hope for us as persons and the world as a whole -- or possibly not "striving" but rather letting go of our own need for control so God can move in and through us.  Living in faith is about listening for God's voice and discerning God's will -- then going ahead and following the path laid out.  To live in faith means, as Paul points out here, to be a living sacrifice.

A sacrifice?!?  What do we have to give up?????  Potentially lots.  But that is not what a sacrifice is.

When you look at its Latin roots you find that the word sacrifice means to make sacred (see here).  To live in faith is to make your life sacred, set apart for God's purposes.  So yeah it means giving up stuff, ideas, plans.  But the important part is not so much the giving up, the important part is the purpose thereof.

When we allow ourselves to be transformed by faith, to be renewed in mind and spirit by God's Word alive in our midst, we move to make our lives sacred, to set ourselves apart for God's purposes.

The mark of deep faith, of a transformed being is not in how loudly we pray.  It is not in how stridently we argue that the world must follow our interpretation of God's law.  It is not in how openly devout and religious we are.  The mark of deep faith is in how well we live out the last half of this passage.  I would suggest the only way we can live in that way is if we have been renewed, transformed, changed.  I also suggest that this renewal is not a one-time thing but rather an ongoing process as we grow and learn and experience life.

May God continue to work within us as individuals and as a community, renewing our minds, our souls, our selves, so that we would be a living sacrifice, set apart for God.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Looking Forward to July 13, 2014 -- 5th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 10A

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • Genesis 25:19–34
  • Genesis 27:1-41
The sermon title is Sibling Rivalry

Early Thoughts:  Twin brothers, at odds since the womb.  And it doesn't help that the younger twin appears to have a faulty moral compass.

Jacob (whose name means he takes by the heel or he supplants according to the footnote in the NRSV) is an interesting character to say the least.  As the story progresses he will be renamed Israel (one who strives with God), he will have 12 sons (by 4 different women) and will become the father of a nation -- the people of Israel.  But he gets there by trickery, deceit, and (almost) outright theft.  He is, at best, a flawed hero.  Or maybe he is a chance to reveal that God chooses to use the oddest people.

First he extorts the birthright, the inheritance of the firstborn, from his brother Esau.  Yes maybe Esau shows signs of poor decision making in trading his birthright for a bowl of stew, but who does that to a hungry brother?  Then with the support and urging of his mother (apparently Rebekah has a favourite son) he deceives his blind aging father to steal the blessing that was supposed to go to Esau.  Is it any wonder that Esau threatens to kill Jacob?

Not that Jacob seems to learn from his fear.  His relationship with his father-in-law is one of mutual distrust and deception.  So much so that when Jacob leaves that household many years later (stealing the family idols at the time) his father-in-law's parting words are a threat/curse/warning [though it sounds like a blessing] "May God watch between me and thee, while we are absent one from another".

The strange thing is, for all the talk in Judaism and Christianity about loving your neighbour, about brotherhood, about family, there is no family in Genesis that actually seems to get along.  Brothers are constantly at odds with each other, wives are jealous of each other.  Yes later Jacob and Esau reconcile, but before that happens, as Jacob is returning home, he is terrified about what his brother will do when they are once again together.

So what is there in here for us?  Well we all have times when we have trouble getting along with our brothers and sisters (both the blood relatives and the metaphorical relatives).  If we are honest there are times when we have not dealt properly with our siblings.  There are times we have acted like rivals instead of family members.  And sometimes we reconcile like Jacob and Esau do.  Sometimes we don't and the family or the community is split.

How will we deal with our petty, and our not so petty, disagreements and rivalries?  If we are all family (blood or metaphorical) ho will we grow the family stronger despite the times one of us acts like a jerk?