Saturday, September 23, 2017

October Newsletter

Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda
(The Church Reformed, Always Reforming/Being Reformed)

October 31, 1517. An Augustinian Monk named Martin Luther, incensed at what he saw as abuses within the operations of the church he loved, posted a series of statements (known as the 95 Theses) as an invitation to debate. Generally speaking this act is seen to have launched the Protestant Reformation.

A century later the Western Church, which had believed itself to be wholly unified, was split asunder. Luther and other Reformers such as Calvin and Zwingli and Knox had started something that the hierarchy and structure of the Roman Church could not contain (at the same time the Roman Church itself went through its own reforming). And the division would continue until this day, as new denominations would form and split from others for a variety of reasons and arguments.

Reforming movements in the church, starting with Luther and Calvin and continuing with Wesley and on into General Booth (who founded the Salvation Army) have a commonality. There is always a sense of trying to reclaim something that is lost, even as that reclamation leads to new practices, emphases, and understandings. The reformers of history were not trying to create something new, they were trying to remind the people around them of some of the basics that may have been lost.

The original origin of the Latin motto above is unclear. The original understanding is unclear as well. One suggestion is that it grows out of a comment by Augustine that named that God is constantly at work forming and reforming the church. And that is the reality that it is meant to point us to. One version of the motto I found in my searching actually includes the words “secundum verbum Dei (according to the Word of God)” [it appears this is a later, likely 20th Century addition though I doubt that any major theologian or Church leader of the past would really argue against the concept]. This additional phrase reminds us that the reforming work within the church is not up to the whims of human though but relies on our being open to where God is pushing us to go. It is not, and never has been change for the sake of change. So when I look at the motto now, 500 years after Luther launched the Reformation I have to ask, how is God forming and reforming the church today.

What have we maybe lost that God is pushing us to reclaim?

Have we putting our emphasis on the right things? Or should we shift that emphasis somewhere else?

One of the factors in the popular success of the Reformation was new technology (particularly the development of movable type and the printing press). This, along with a growth in literacy, allowed pamphlets and books sharing the arguments of the reformers to be shared more widely. How is/can the church use new communication techniques to share our understandings of what God is doing in the world today?

I suggest that these are questions that always need to be floating around in our collective consciousness, as God continues to form and reform the church. They need to be the questions that shape how we operate as individuals and as a congregation.

How do you see God shaping the life of St. Paul’s United Church? Are we following God’s lead or are we resisting?
--Gord

Monday, September 18, 2017

Looking Forward to September 24, 2017 -- Stewardship Begins

Over the next three Sundays we will be exploring our Stewardship as a congregation. We will be leaping off from the resource produced by the United Church of Canada We Sing Thanksgiving.

This Sunday after worship all are invited to stay for a potluck lunch in the large/east basement.

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • Exodus 16:1-18
  • Matthew 20:1-16
The Sermon title is What We Need...

Early Thoughts: Years ago the Rolling Stones told us:
You can't always get what you want,
You can't always get what you want,
You can't always get what you want,
But if you try some time, you just might find,
You get what you need.
Turns out Mick Jagger is a theologian! Who woulda thunk it?

Israelites Gathering Manna
The story of manna and quail in the wilderness is a story that reminds us that we just might (will?) get what we need. The people don't really believe it. Indeed some of them try, despite being explicitly told not to, to hoard some of the manna, to save it for the next day. After all what if it doesn't fall tomorrow? But it does. And for the next 40 years the people are fed, God provides what they need.

In the Parable we have a group of day labourers. All of them, those hired in the morning and those hired just before quitting time, get paid the same. And so the people who worked all day are a little bit upset. This doesn't sound fair, in our world where we expect that reward or compensation is somehow linked to effort and labour. Surely any ethical employer would pay those who work longer more...right?

Depends on your ethics.

Like most of Jesus' parables, the story of the day labourers is tying to give a glimpse of what it means to live as people of God's Kingdom. The amount paid to each of those labourers is the amount that is needed to buy food for that day, the amount needed to live another day. In the Kingdom of God people get what they need. That is the ethical guideline. People get what they need.

So what does this have to do with stewardship? Well there are a few ways to come at it.

One is to talk about the difference between wants and needs. A lot of us have trouble with teat from time to time. (And it does NOT help that there is an entire multi-billion dollar industry committed to making us think things we want are in fact things we need.) We need basics. We need the basic stuff for survival in some measure of security and comfort. Everything else is a want, although there are varying priorities in our wants. BUt if we have trouble seeing the difference it skews our impression of whether we can share what we have.

And that is the real connection between these stories and stewardship. If we believe and trust that we have/can get what we need then sharing is easier.  If we are not sure of getting what we need we are more likely to try and save our manna for a second day, we are more likely to get irate when we work harder.longer than those lazy good-for-nothings and don't get any farther ahead.

As people of faith we are asked and challenged and commanded to take the gifts we have been given and pass them on for the betterment of out neighbours. As people of faith we are reminded that  the common good is as much of a priority as our own personal safety. What we do with the gifts we have been given is our stewardship. We might be good stewards, we might be bad stewards. But I firmly believe that our level of trust or anxiety about having what we need is a big help or hindrance in our ability to see what we might have to share.

The STones were right. We can't always get what we want (and of we are honest that is probably a good thing). But the promise of God's Kingdom is that each of us gets what we need. And then we can use our gifts to support each other.

--Gord

ANd to help with the earworm I planted earlier:

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

NEwspaper Column (for September 22 edition)

In the interests of Full disclosure, this is an expansion/adaptation of a column I wrote in Atikokan in 2009)

Who is Welcome?

The brightly lettered sign on the door said “All welcome, come as you are”.

Pete looked at his his wheelchair and asked “even me?” and then he continued down the street. How would he get up the stairs?

Next came Sue and Cathy. They looked at the sign, and the beautiful stained glass windows and for a moment thought about going in. But then they remembered the last time they had been, and the clear message that folks like them were “bad”. They knew they weren't welcome as a couple.

Next down the block was a young family. “Let's go see!” shouted the youngest. But the kids tended to be noisy, they had trouble sitting still. Not wanting to cause trouble the parents quickly walked away, dragging the kids with them.

Even as the children’s shouts could still be heard echoing down the block Jim wandered up. He remembered attending services as a child back home. It might be nice to do that again. He even peeked in the door. Nobody there looked like him. He was different. How would they react to his skin colour, his accent, his colourful traditional clothing and tattoos? And so he went away to find a church full of people more like him.

Finally came Fred and Alice. They thought it would be nice to have a warm place to sit and maybe a cup of coffee. But they looked at their shabby clothes and their unwashed faces and knew that their presence seemed to make others uncomfortable. So they went down the street to try and find a meal.

Meanwhile, oblivious to the people passing by and wishing they could come in, the congregation sat looking around the half-empty sanctuary and asked themselves: “Why aren't there more people here? We are such a friendly group?”

What moves us from saying “All are welcome!” to people actually feeling welcome? Do we show that we really mean all are welcome or are there unwritten rules about who is acceptable? Do we only welcome folk if they agree to be and act and believe like us?

I have noticed that we humans tend to be a terribly cliquish and tribal species. We tend to stick with other people who look, talk, think, and believe like us. We will welcome others but often there is an unspoken (or sometimes loudly spoken) expectation that then newcomers will conform to what is “normal”, that they will behave “properly”. People who stand out too much tend to make us uncomfortable. Behaviours or beliefs or customs that are different from what we do are easily seen as unacceptable. Asking the group to change is seen as a threat.

And when we fall prey to those thoughts we have forgotten the Gospel. We have forgotten that we are meant to be changed, our beliefs and behaviours and customs are meant to be challenged, that for the New Heaven and the New Earth to appear the world has to be transformed.

The Gospel message is clear. The love and grace of God are offered to all of God's people. Not that the people in our faith stories always get it right. Even Jesus has to be taught about God's amazing welcome. It takes a foreign woman challenging his prejudices to show Jesus that, as an old hymn says, “the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind” (see Mark 7:24-30). We all have our own set of blinders to the wideness of God’s mercy.

Every church I have attended has described themselves as warm and friendly. Every church wants to believe that all are welcome in their midst. Most municipalities tell themselves that anybody is welcome to move in there and make a life. But the reality people experience is far different. The story told earlier plays itself out over and over across this country. Still, God is calling us to a new way.

God is calling the global community to be a place where all are welcome. All. Regardless of age, or physical/emotional/mental ability, or gender, or race, or social background, or economic status, or marital status, or sexual orientation, or any of the multitude of other ways we have of dividing people; despite all of that you are welcome in the Family of God.

This is the challenge for the world, to live out God's amazingly broad and open welcome. We will sometimes fall short. Sometimes we fall short intentionally, sometimes we don't even know it. If we are going to do better we need to be challenged. Otherwise we are as oblivious as the congregation in the story. What barricades do we put up that keep others out of our clubs, our businesses, our communities? How do we go about breaking them down?

Looking Ahead to September 17, 2017 -- Jacob the Blessed? Jacob the Jerk?

The Scripture reading this week is Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17

The Sermon title is God Blesses HIM?!?!

Early Thoughts: Sometimes (often?) in our faith stories the hero is heavily flawed. Jacob fits right in with that description.

Jacob and Esau are twins. And as the story is told they were striving with each other in utero. Esau emerges first and so is the firstborn and in the family structure portrayed in Genesis Esau therefore is to be the next patriarch of the family.

Except there are issues.

One issue is certainly that Rebekah and Isaac each have a favored son. In any family that rarely goes well.

The other issue is that Jacob is kind of a jerk. Earlier in their story he extorts the family birthright from his brother in exchange for a boil of porridge (Admittedly Esau does not come off as the brightest bulb in that story). Then we have this story. Feeling his death approaching, Isaac sends Esau the hunter (and apparently Isaac's preferred son) out to get some meat and in exchange Esau will get the fatherly blessing. Rebekah hears this and decides that her preferred son Jacob should get the blessing instead. So she helps Jacob fool/deceive his father and steal the blessing from Esau. {I am still wondering why Isaac insists that he can not bless both his sons}

Esau is not happy. He promises that when Isaac dies Esau will kill Jacob. Which, understandably, worries Rebekah. And so she arranges that Jacob needs to go away to find a wife from among Rebekah's people instead of the people amongst whom they are living (who apparently are fine for Esau but not good enough for Jacob). And Jacob essentially flees for his life.

Later in his story Jacob will continue to use deception and trickery to his own benefit. At no point in his story does Jacob come across as a shining example of human potential. And yet God chooses Jacob to become the father of a nation, Jacob will be renamed Israel and from his 12 sons will come 12 tribes.

As a precursor to those events Jacob has a dream. While fleeing the wrath of Esau Jacob has a dream. ANd in that dream He is told that God is with him, that God's favor lies upon him, and that through him the world will be blessed.

Seriously? This lying, deceptive trickster is the one that God is going to bless? Through him will come the nation that will bless the earth? The actions of Jacob and his mother have broken up the family of Isaac and yet he is getting this blessing????

What is God thinking?

But God does this. Throughout Scripture God takes flawed people and raises them up. God takes the person others barely notice (or in some cases the person trying valiantly to escape notice) and makes them key in the story of faith. GOd does not seem to look for the most qualified, or the most virtuous, or the most likeable. God chooses based on some other criteria, criteria that are not always shared.

As readers that may confuse us. As people of faith that should give us hope. If God can choose flawed, even violent people like Jacob and David and Peter and Saul/Paul and work through their flaws. Then God can and will work through and bless us.

Or the neighbour we think is not worth thinking about.

Or the political candidate we find abhorrent.

--Gord

Monday, September 4, 2017

Looking Ahead to September 10, 2017 -- The Beginning

This Sunday marks the beginning of a new program year.  Sunday School begins on the 10th, CGIT and Explorers begin on Tuesday the 12th at 7:00, and the Youth Group will start meeting on Sunday the 17th. Also the Adult Choir will begin this Thursday the 14th at 7:30, the Junior Choir will begin after church on the 17th. Beginner Handbells will start after church on the 24th with the Handbell choir starting Monday the 25th at 7:00.

The Scripture readings for this week are:
  • Genesis 1:1-2:4a
  • Psalm 104:24-34
The Sermon title is Who Has Created and Is Creating...

Early Thoughts: This Sunday marks the beginning of Year 4 in the Narrative Lectionary cycle.  Since the goal of the Narrative Lectionary is to carry the church through the scope of the Biblical Narrative between now and Pentecost Sunday it only makes sense that we (to quote a would-be nun named Maria) "start at the very beginning, a very good place to start".

To begin with, let us be clear. This passage is a hymn. It is a song of praise. It is not a historic account or a scientific explanation. It is a theological statement about creation.

It is also the beginning of the story. It is not the end. Nowhere in the text (nor in the 66 books that follow in our Scripture library) does it say that when God gets to the 7th day and rests that Creation is complete. Creation is an ongoing process, one that continues to this day. Maybe when the eschaton comes Creation will be complete. Maybe. (Personally I suspect that even then, in the fullness of the Kingdom, when the New Heaven and the New Earth have arrived, newness will continue to be created.) And so we turn to the phrase from the United Church Creed that describes God as the One "who has created and is creating". Indeed one phrase I have often used in benedictions speaks of the God who creates and re-creates us.

What is being created within, around, among, beside us today? How are we leaving room for God's creative energy to work? (Which does assume we are doing that, are we in fact leaving that room?)
Genesis 1, the Priestly hymn to creation, introduces us to the God who actively works with the creation to make more creation. It introduces us to the God who sees creation as a process, as something that takes time (maybe even 14 billion years and counting?) rather than some sort of fait accompli that happens in an instant. And perhaps most importantly, it introduces us to the God who cares about what is being created, who looks at it and says it is good.

So what? What is our response to reading this piece of poetry? What does it mean for us to profess that God is still in the work of creating? What does it mean for us to recognize that even in the beginning of our story God is working with that which is to create something new?

Surely we don't read this just to argue about Creation vs. Intelligent Design vs. Evolution?

It is my belief that one reason we read this song to give us hope. It is hopeful that creation is not yet complete, that God is still at work creating and re-creating (because if we are honest we all know things and people -even us-that need a bit of re-creating now and then). It is hopeful to be reminded that God looks at the creation and says it is very good.

It is also my belief that we read this song to give us a reminder. We are not in charge of creation.  We did not create anything all on our own. There have been partners (present and past), there will yet be partners, and one of those partners is, was, and will be God. God starts the ball rolling, invites participation from the rest of creation and keeps pushing. When we read this song we are reminded that we need to work with the Source. Neither standing back and letting things just happen nor stepping in with a heavy hand to control the final outcome are desirable. This is God's party. How will we be partners with God in the ongoing work?
--Gord


Monday, August 28, 2017

Looking Ahead to September 3, 2017

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

The Scripture Reading for this Sunday is John 6:1-14.

The Sermon title is The Bread of Life

Early Thoughts: A simple meal. A cube of bread and a taste of juice. And yet we believe it to be as filling as a loaf of bread and a jug of wine. Because God is present in the meal. It is the center of our faith.

The feeding of the multitude is one of the rare things in the Gospels. It is a memory that shows up in all four of the Gospel accounts (even the Last Supper where Jesus breaks the bread and passes the cup, the institution of our communion meal, does not have that status). Which says something. It tells us is that this event struck close to the heart of what those first generation followers of Jesus felt to be important in telling his story. There was something about this event that said something vital about what the Kingdom of God would be like. It is no accident that from the earliest of days Christians gathered in worship shared a meal together.

As John tells the story a crowd gathers and eventually Jesus asks his friends where they plan to buy food for them. Sensibly the disciples point out that the cost to do so is beyond their means. They have a little bit of food, but not nearly enough for such a crowd. In the end all eat their fill with basketfuls of bread and fish left over. Where there was a very real sense of not enough there was an abundance and then some.When the Kingdom is made real in our presence we have more than we think.

After recounting the story John goes further. Most of Chapter 6 is further discussion about the Bread of Life, the Bread that Jesus offers for eating. It is in this chapter that John's Jesus makes the statement "I am the Bread of Life" (verse 36). To share in the Bread of Life is to be nourished in a different way than to sit down at a full turkey dinner. To share in the feast of faith (whether that be bread and fish on a lakeside hill, crackers and water beside a hospital bed, or bread and wine/juice in the midst of a worship service) is to be renewed in our souls.

As a faith community we greet each other at the table to be renewed. As a faith community we welcome all comers, all those who seek to follow The Way of Christ to share in the meal. We pass the Bread of Life to each other, we share Christ's real presence in our midst, we allow the meal to change us as we continue to strive to live as residents of the Kingdom.

Such a simple meal....right?
--Gord

Friday, August 25, 2017

September Newsletter

Cast Your Nets...

At the end of August I started reading Fishing Tips by the Rev Dr. John Pentland. In this book John shares some of his learnings from the transformation that has taken place at Hillhurst United Church in Calgary since 2004. John is clear that he is not trying to right a “this is how to become a great church” manual. He is sharing what happened for them, with the hope that there may be some wisdom other congregations can use to explore what kind of a church God is calling them to be.

The Scripture passage John says sparked the structure of the book comes from the Gospel of John. It is an Easter story. Peter and the others have returned to Galilee and their lives as fishermen. They fish all night and catch nothing. Then a stranger on the shore tells them to try casting their nets on the other side of the boat. Why should they listen? They know how to fish! But sometimes anything is worth a try – and they catch so many fish they can hardly bring in the net.

In the Church this story has been used to remind ourselves (or to teach ourselves) that sometimes we intentionally have to do things differently to allow for renewal or growth or rebirth. It is a challenge, because often our corporate reaction is “don’t tell us what to do! We know what we are doing!”. But the reality is that some of what we do is timeless and some of it it universal, and much of it is limited to a certain context and time.

Earlier this year I asked folks to consider what the “big rocks” are in our life as a faith community. I want us to know what we understand to be the most important things to do as a faith community as we set priorities over the next year. A related question is “what do we do well?”, what do we do that is different, what do/can we do better than other parts of our community. Once we sort out those things we can look at what resources we need and what resources we have to make those things happen.

But I want us to be open to the voice on the shore that says “try the other side!”. In the Gospel story, once the net is full of fish the disciples eyes are opened and they see that it is Jesus on the shore. What does he know about fishing? He was a carpenter after all? Some scholars have suggested that from the shore maybe he could see a shadow in the water that showed where the school was swimming. Possibly so. But I think that throughout his ministry Jesus is trying to make people see differently. Jesus continuously tries to make people understand that it is time to do life differently, that in the difference is where God can break in. I suggest that this is still just as true.

Maybe we need the voice of those on the edges, or even outside the community who see the things we can’t see. Maybe we need the voice that reminds us that just because one approach or activity or style has been meaningful in the past it may have had its day.

But at the same time we need the voices that remind us why something had meaning, why something worked before. Because there might still be wisdom there to live by.

When I started seminary 25 years ago a recurring theme in my theology class (at least one I heard) was that tradition was problematic. A recurring theme I hear in many organizations is that tradition is the guidepost by which we need to live. I think neither statement is true (especially given my mother’s definition of a tradition as “something we tried once and it worked”). I think tradition can be problematic, it can also be helpful. When we plan we need to talk through and see which side it falls on in each instance.

And so I ask you. Where do you hear God challenging us to throw the nets on the other side? Where do you hear God calling us to keep on keeping on? (I suspect that some of your answers will contradict each other.) Where are our traditions moving us forward? Where are they holding us back in a changed community? And along those lines, if there was one big piece of ministry you would love to see the congregation take on or expand or revive in 2017-2018 what would it look like?
GORD