Monday, May 18, 2015

Looking Ahead to May 24, 2015 -- Pentecost Sunday

The Scripture Readings for this week are:
  • Acts 2:1-4
  • Romans 8:18-39
The sermon title is How Can We Be the Church?

Early thoughts: We are called to be the church....but sometimes that is easier than others.  When things are hard, how can we be the Spirit-filled body that is the Church?  When things turn against us how can we have the confidence that the Spirit is leading us forward?

Simple.  Because God is with us.  Because no matter what happens God is with us.

That is why the first apostles were able to go out and build the church.

That is why the early church survived through persecution.

That is why the great Reformers were able to challenge the way the church was operating.

That is why a congregation can keep going after a building burns down.

Because God is with us.  Because there is nothing that can separate us from God.  Because the Spirit moves in us, in our prayers which come out as sighs too deep for words.

On Pentecost Day the Spirit lit a fire.  Every day since the fire has been burning, sometimes smoldering slowly, sometimes a blazing inferno.  In the heat of that fire the Kingdom is being born, shaped, brought to life.

It doesn't happen all at once.  But it is happening.  And throughout that process we know that God has been, is, and will be with us.

THAT is how we can be the church.  (How WILL we be the church may be a whole other discussion)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Looking Forward to May 17, 2015

The Scripture Reading this week is Romans 6:1-14

The Sermon title is Dead to What? Alive for What?

Early Thoughts: From ancient times baptism has been understood as a passage through death to life.  That is to say, in our baptism we have died and been resurrected.

But what does that mean?

For Paul, the process is transformative.  For Paul we are a new creation.  For Paul we have been released from bondage.

Paul sees the world in a state of conflict.  On one side is God and life.  On the other is sin and death.  The death and resurrection of Christ, for Paul, defeats the forces of sin and death.  In baptism we share in the death and resurrection of Christ (an image which works really well with baptism by full immersion where the baptized goes under the water and then rises back up).

SO as those who have been baptized we are, in theory, dead to sin.  WE are alive to a transformed life.  We are called to live as transformed persons. Sin and death have no power over us.

How do we live that out????

Monday, May 4, 2015

Looking Forward to May 10, 2015 -- continuing with Romans,

The Scripture Passages for this week are:
  • Romans 5:1-5
  • Matthew 11:28-30
The Sermon title is Suffering-Endurance-Hope...Love

Early Thoughts: What possible good comes from suffering?  And what possible good comes from boasting for that matter?

Normally we discourage boasting.  And in matters of faith we particularly (in theory) discourage boasting.  Boasting would suggest that faith is something we do, that salvation somehow depends on us and our actions.  Christian tradition is clear that salvation has nothing to do with us, but is an act of God's grace.

But here Paul is, encourage us to boast in our sufferings.  What's up with that?

Paul sees the possibility of good coming through suffering.   It is true that at times when we persevere through hard times it builds character, it allows us to find hope.  It is true that sometimes we have to learn through struggle.  And it is true that this happens the most where there is love, where God's love is being made real in our lives.

But there is a big problem looming.  Does this just give us a reason to say "suck it up" to the person who is struggling?  Does this idea of suffering producing endurance producing hope lead us to ignore the reality of suffering?  How would we apply those verses to Nepal? or to the streets of Baltimore? or to the families of murdered/missing indigenous women?

Obviously not all suffering should be lifted up.

Or maybe we only know which suffering produces endurance produces hope in retrospect?

Or maybe the real question is how we respond to our own suffering and the suffering of our neighbours?

WE will struggle in life.  Some struggles will be minor, some will be and feel catastrophic.  But we have hope.  We have hope because there is love.  We have hope because we have the God who offers to give us support and rest.  And in that hope, in that love, with that support we can endure.  And maybe there we will find the hope for next time....

Thursday, April 30, 2015

MAy Newsletter

Diversity. It is something we talk a lot about. It is something we in Canada often claim to prize highly (though sometimes our actions make me wonder how highly). But what does it mean? How do we nourish it?

I am writing this as I reflect on the first day of a conference here in Grande Prairie. The name of the event is Fostering Diverse Communities Conference 2015 (Twitter hashtag #FDCC2015). All day long (and continuing tomorrow) we have been talking about how to be a welcoming community, how to integrate newcomers/immigrants, how to embrace being a diverse community.

After all diversity is sometimes scary. Sometimes we find it difficult to admit that we don't all have to be the same. Sometimes we expect that newcomers will quickly become “just like us”. And we certainly don't like to admit the reality that whenever somebody new joins our community the community is no longer the same. It is now a new community.

We don't like to admit that. We would prefer to claim that we welcome everyone. But the stories we heard today show that our perception (or our preferred reality) is not always the case. In every part of Canada there are times when newcomers are made to feel second-class, to feel unacceptable, to feel that they don't quite belong or fit in.

And here is the most uncomfortable piece. The church is no different. Most churches, if you asked point blank, would say “certainly all are welcome here”. But many people have told stories about how it is hard to break in to a church community. Churches have a reputation of wanting new people – as long as they don't make us change how we are who we are, or as long as they are willing to become like us. Churches tend to be pretty uniform places.

How diverse are we as a church community? When Tymmarah Zehr was working on her Masters thesis around issues of being a welcoming community she called to ask if we had a population of newcomers who might be interested in being a part of her research I had to tell her we were not the best congregation to look at. Because (for a variety of reasons – a big one being that immigrants tend to look for a faith community that they know from home and of course the United Church is very much a Canadian institution) the United Church is not often a place where new Canadians look for a faith community. And so we are not as diverse as perhaps we could, or maybe should, be.

Next time you walk around town take a look at the people you see. Grande Prairie is a very diverse community now. Something like 120 countries are represented in our population (up from 81 in 2006). Now take a look around our sanctuary. Do you see a difference?

Now I am realistic. We will never be as diverse as the community as a whole. But maybe we could ask ourselves how to make connections with those immigrant and newcomer communities. Maybe we could find some way to help people integrate into Canadian society. Not necessarily by having them join us (unless they want to of course) but by supporting them, learning their stories while we share our stories.

Learning those stories, inviting newcomers (either immigrants/new Canadians or multi-generational Canadians) to become part of our circles, will change us. New people in a group, be it a family, a business, a social club, a church – any group – change that group. And until we have experienced it we don't really know how we will be changed. This could be scary. It could also be a blessing.

In Scripture we meet the God who gave Peter a dream telling him to eat animals he was taught to believe were unclean. We meet the God who called Paul to spread the Gospel beyond the walls of the Jewish world. We meet the God who challenges our assumptions about what it means to be a part of the community. It is my belief that this God wants us to welcome diversity, to celebrate it. We are not all the same. And that, as Martha Stewart might say, is a good thing.

How will we celebrate the diversity that is Grande Prairie?

Monday, April 27, 2015

Looking Forward to May 3, 2015 -- Beginning a series on Romans

This Sunday we will celebrate both Sacraments: Baptism and Communion.

The Scripture Reading this week is Romans 1:1-17

The Sermon title is Hi! My Name Is...

Early Thoughts: For the month of May we will be hearing passages from Paul's letter to the Church in Rome.  AS Paul's letters go this one is a bit different.  Most of the letters are examples of Paul writing to a community where he has previously visited, likely to the church(es) he planted while there. And so in many of them he appears to be answering questions from the community, furthering their growth in faith.

But Paul has not yet been to Rome.  Instead of a letter to old friends this is a letter of introduction.  Paul is preparing the ground for his visit to existing Christian communities.  It is also argued that in Romans we have Paul's clearest explication of his own theology.  Unlike, for example, the letter to Corinth, he is not trying to deal with questions and issues that have come back to him.  He is letting people know what to expect from him in terms of teaching and preaching when he arrives.

This week we have the beginning of the letter. Paul introduces himself not just by name but by making clear who he represents.  One commentary notes that those opening verses match the standard form of diplomatic correspondence in the first century.

And then Paul gives a bit of a "teaser" about what he is all about.  Which of the themes he hints at here will we explore further over the next month?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Looking Forward to April 19, 2015

This Sunday we will celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Acts 10:1-17, 34-35
  • Galatians 3:26-29
The Sermon title is Made Clean, Made Equal

Early thoughts:  Why are we so good at drawing lines?  In every culture, we humans seem to like drawing lines  to mark who is a "proper" member of the community.  Sometimes the lines are more "in your face", sometimes they are hidden, sometimes we like to pretend they don't exist.  But if we dig a little deeper we find that they are always there.

Peter and Paul came from a purity culture.  Jewish law was about dividing the pure from the impure, the acceptable from the unacceptable.  This shows up in dietary laws (which forms the basis of Peter's dream) and in regulations about dealing with a corpse, and dealing with outsiders and pretty much any aspect of life.  To be unclean/impure was to put yourself in a place where you could not take part in the life of the community, usually for a period of time or until you performed some ritual that returned you to a state of purity.  Which works great if you want to be part of a closed community.

But the movement which would eventually be called Christianity was growing.  And people's understanding of what Jesus of Nazareth had taught challenged those ideas of a closed community consumed with rules about what made them clean.  In fact one of the remembered stories and sayings of Jesus challenged the whole idea that some foods made one unclean.   And then people from outside the Jewish community wanted to join this new community.  What to do?

This was a cause, it appears, of great dissension in the early decades.  From the beginning of his public ministry Paul seems to have felt called to be the apostle to the Gentiles.  And while he would teach in synagogues much of his evangelism was among the non-Jewish population of the Empire.  Peter and some of the other leaders appear to have had more hesitation.  This passage from Acts is Peter's conversion to a new understanding (and even then it took three times for it to sink in).

As the spiritual descendants of Peter and Paul.  As those who have heard over and over again that God shows no partiality why do we keep drawing lines?  Because whether we admit it or not we do.

MAybe the line is around sexuality.  Or maybe around theology.  Or maybe around gender, or age, or racial origin, or how long one has been around, or any of any number of other criteria.  But we draw lines.  Sometimes we don't even know that we have done it until we are challenged.  Sometimes we have gotten so used to the line that we forget it is even there, and can't understand why folks don't feel welcome.

God calls us to erase the lines (to actually erase them from our minds and souls and actions -- not just from our written rules and structures).  God calls us to be intentionally open to being diverse and different.  When God names us all as clean and equal God is not making us the same (this is a danger we often fall into -- in our wish to be seen as open and welcoming we try to pretend that differences don't exist).  Instead God is calling us to welcome the difference.

Can we erase our lines?  What is stopping us?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

April Newsletter

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain,
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat arising green.
(VU #186 Now the Green Blade Rises verse 1)

This past weekend I was out looking at our front flower beds and found bits of greenery poking through the dirt and leaves. Granted most of it was dandelions and grass that had to be pulled out but still....

Spring has sprung!

Spring brings with it the promise of new life, often very welcome after the cold and snow of winter. I know that theoretically we are supposed to look for signs of new life all the time as an act of faith (and indeed there are often signs of new life 12 months a year) spring is the time when we do it most naturally.

Where are you finding signs of life this year? Are those signs of life surprising you?

With spring comes Easter. Easter is all about surprising life, life that bursts forth where we only expect to find death.
In the grave they laid him, love by hatred slain,
thinking that he would never rise again,
laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen;
love is come again like wheat arising green.
Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,
he that for three days in the grave had lain,
raised from the dead, my living Lord is seen;
love is come again like spring arising green.
(VU #186 Now the Green Blade Rises verses 2 & 3)

Nobody going to a grave expects to find it open (unless there are grave-robbers in town). Many people in the depths of grief wish their loved one was still alive but don't expect to be told that they are. Easter defies our expectations. Sort of like the greenery I saw on the weekend.

Just days before there had been fresh snow on that flower bed. I suspect there is still frost in the ground under the first few inches of mud. And yet life pushes its way through.

Resurrection is not bringing the old back to life. Resurrection is new life. So it is a bit different than my dormant dandelions. But it is similar in that it shows that life wins. No matter what happens life wins. God is rather stubborn that way.

This Easter finds us with “bad” economic news on almost a daily basis – some of which touches us or people we know very directly. This Easter comes just after the Parliament has approved an expanded role for our military in the Middle East. This Easter, as with every Easter, comes at a time when families are mourning loved ones recently gone, or dealing with bad medical news, or any number of other negatives. If we want we can find signs of death and destruction all over the place. We can let that be very depressing. Or we can turn from the darkness of the tomb and look for new life.
When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,
your touch can call us back to life again,
fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been;
love is come again like wheat arising green.
(VU #186 Now the Green Blade Rises verse 4)

This Easter, where will you find new life? What will make your heart burst into songs of joy?

May God be with us, opening our eyes to the reality of resurrection.
Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed!