Monday, January 20, 2020

Looking Ahead to January 26, 2020

The Scripture Reading this week is Matthew 4:12-23

The Sermon title is Gone Fishing!

Early Thoughts:  What would happen if the Word-Made-Flesh showed up at your workplace? What if someone walked in while you were working and said "I have a better offer, leave this all behind and come with me right now"? What if the word 'better' was missing from that invitation?

This story possibly asks more questions than it answers, which may be why we read a version of it almost every year.
  • why did Jesus choose them?
  • why did they drop everything and go?
  • did they have a clue what was ahead of them?
  • what did their families think?
Answers to none of those are in the text. To a large extent these questions are never answered in the rest of the Gospel either.  For the most part they remain a mystery (other than the 3rd question -- I think it is safe to say they did not have a clue).  Still we have the story. W till we see people respond to a strange invitation with strange haste.

Jesus must have seen something in these fishermen by the sea. They must have seen something in Jesus. And what was seen led to them being called and, in turn, answering the call.

Which does bring us back to the question at the top. If Jesus showed up in the middle of your daily life and said "got something for you to do, come on!" how would you react? I suspect most of us would want more details first. After all it is only prudent to get more information before totally changing our lives. What would make the offer so intriguing that we would jump in without further investigation?

Usually in our culture Gone Fishing (or maybe Gone Fishin') is about leisure. It evokes images of escaping/running away from the trials and tribulations of daily life for a relaxing day on the lake. But if you make your living catching fish it has a very different meaning. Jesus is not inviting an escape from the world. Jesus is inviting hard work as these people will interact with the world in a new way.

I think Jesus offers us the same invitation. Following Jesus is not an escape from the world's troubles, following Jesus means engaging with the world and its troubles.  And we may not get a lot of information about what i coming.  Will we drop our nets and follow? Or will we pretend we don't hear?

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

January Newsletter

Through Faith, we walk on the path that Jesus set for us.
The people of St. Paul’s Belong…Believe…Love… Listen…Lead.

How do you know if you really belong somewhere? Is there a way of measuring it? Or is it more of a feeling?

One way to measure belonging is by membership. If you are a member than you belong. I think that is only true to a point. Certainly that is how structures may define ‘belong’ but it is overly simplistic. I have been places where the organization may have said I was a member, that I belonged and did not always feel like I did. I have also been places where people certainly felt they belonged but had no interest in being members.

Looking at my life I think feeling that I belong somewhere has a number of sides. One is “do I agree with what this organization/group believes or is all about?”. We may be fully welcomed in but if we feel out of step with the values of the group, or the members of the group, we may not feel like we truly belong there. It is hard to be the minority voice in a place. And let us be honest: no place is the right place for everybody.

Another aspect of belonging, in my mind, is “am I actually allowed to be myself here?”. If I am different in some way is that allowed? If I am in a place where the answer is no I will never feel that I belong, even if I am inducted into membership, or given a job, or placed on the Board. I may stay but it will be in a state of tension. An associated point is “do they really want me here for me or just for the skills and energy and labour I bring to the table?”. There was a time when being asked to be on a committee or help with an event was the way a newcomer knew they had truly become welcome in a church community. These days I think there is a bit more skepticism on that account.

A third aspect I want to highlight is “are they really letting me in?”. Are people drawing their circles wider to make room or do I feel like I am crashing the party? Sometimes the circle is kept closed in a very intentional fashion. But I believe that more often than not the people in the circle think that it is wide open when to the outsider it looks very different. Many of us don’t want to be the party-crasher. We may not want effusive, over-the-top welcomes but we want to feel that we are not poking in somebody else’s private space.

What makes you feel like you do (or do not) belong in the St. Paul’s community? How has/does that change over time?

I think it interesting that we begin our list of words with Belong. To me it says that we are first and foremost a community. Starting with Believe might say something different. But Belong says to me that we want to be seen as welcoming, as a place where the circle can always be drawn wider, a place where people can find a home.

And yet I wonder. Does everyone feel that they belong here? Does everyone feel welcome here? And I know that we who are already here can not answer those questions with full accuracy. We would like to believe that the answer is yes but we can’t know for sure. We need to be intentional at connecting with the people who are not represented in our midst to know for sure. There are a couple of ways we can do that. One would be to use the materials and self-study that are prepared by Affirm United for ministries wanting to declare themselves as Affirming.

To be honest I think we are more welcoming than other churches, even other United Churches, I have known. But if we claim that Belonging is a key value, and I think we do, we need to have the courage to explore what that means. And we need the courage to adapt to become more welcoming if that is what our exploration tells us is needed. Having new people join our community will change our community. That may be a good thing.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Looking Ahead to January 19, 2020

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Isaiah 49:1-7
  • John 1:29-42
The Sermon title is Behold! The Lamb Servant

Early Thoughts: What did John see?  When he saw Jesus baptized? When he saw Jesus walking that day? What did John see that lead him to say "Look, here is the Lamb of God"?

What did John's disciples see? What did they see (or hear) that made them take John's words seriously and follow Jesus? What did they see or hear that lead them to go find others and say "We have found the Messiah"? What was in their voices that prompted those others to seek out this man?

From such questions a movement is started.

As I mentioned about the so-called 'Servant Songs' last week, there is a strong tendency in Christian history to read this Isaiah passage as if it is talking about Jesus. On the surface it is not clear who it is talking about, but I doubt it was meant to be about one who would not be born for several centuries when the words were written. But for those who had seen and known Jesus, those who were trying to understand how God had been revealed in this man, reading the old words would have rung a bell.  2nd Isaiah was not talking about Jesus, but maybe we can use the words of the prophet to help us understand who Jesus was and is. Maybe we can use those words to try and clarify what God is up to in the world today.

We proclaim Jesus as the Light of the World.  A few verses earlier John talked about the Word as being the true light (which shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it). Later in John's Gospel Jesus will say "I am the Light of the world". Isaiah proclaims that the servant of God will be a light, not only to Israel but to the nations.

We read that Jesus chooses to live and serve God. We read that because of who  Jesus is people choose to seek him out, to learn more, to ask questions. And some of them choose to follow him (I assume there are other who choose not to follow).

Two men heard John talk about Jesus and they got curious. One of them went to find his brother, who also got curious.  There is an attractiveness about the one who serves. It draws attention.

Almost 2000 years later we still have questions. We are still drawn to the one known as the Lamb of God, the Servant.  Will we be willing to ask our questions? Will we listen and watch for the answers? Will we share our curiosity with others?

Monday, January 6, 2020

Looking Ahead to January 12, 2020 -- Baptism of Christ Sunday

On the first Sunday after Epiphany we are invited to reflect on Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. And to reflect on our own Baptism.

During Children's Time this week we will be invited to choose a "Spirit Word" to carry with us for the year. The idea is that we draw a word and are "asked to reflect on that word for the coming year. The people are invited to ponder what significance this word might have in their lives, and how God might be speaking to them through that simple message" (source and more on the idea here). Often this is done with Stars on Epiphany Sunday but we will use Doves, an ancient symbol of the Holy Spirit. and link it to the dove in the Baptism of Jesus story.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Isaiah 42:1-9
  • Matthew 3:13-17
The Sermon title is Beloved Servant

Early Thoughts: Baptism. In Baptism we acknowledge the Baptisee as a child of God. In Baptism we are, as our Baptism liturgy says:
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.
 When Jesus is baptized, over John's objections, Jesus is named as God's Beloved Child, with whom God is "well-pleased". As Matthew tells his story of Jesus' ministry this is the beginning. Yes we have a Christmas story with visitors from the East before now but this moment is the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, the beginning of Jesus starting to live out who he is called and formed to be.

Whoever that is...

In the writings of and stories about Isaiah we have these odd passages we tend to call the "servant songs". They talk about God's servant and what that servant will do.  We read one of those this week. There has been much debate about who the servant in these songs is meant to be. Is it the nation? Is it the "prophet like Moses" that tradition says will come? Is it the Messiah? Many Christian writers have read these passages and assumed that the servant is Christ. I think this is a reading backward, reading Christ into a passage that was not about him in the first place, an interpretive choice. Which does not make it automatically invalid, I just think we need to be honest about what we are doing.

If we read the servant songs of Isaiah and we see Christ then what to they have to say about Christ?

If we combine the "job description" from the servant song and the baptismal blessing then where do we end up? We end up with a Beloved Child and Servant. We end up with a vision for what Christ is all about. And since it has long been understood that to be Christian is to strive to be Christ-like we have a glimpse of who we might be called to be.

Are we ready to be Beloved Servants as well?

Monday, December 30, 2019

Looking Ahead to January 5, 2020 -- Epiphany Sunday (and the 12th Day of Christmas)

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

Adoration of the Magi
In the seasons of the Church Year the 12 Days of Christmas begin on December 25th and go until January 5th, the day before Epiphany. Epiphany is a feast where we remember the story told by Matthew about the Magi visiting Bethlehem. It is common in some churches to celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday preceding it, which we are doing this week.

The Scripture Reading will be the story of the Magi and what happens after they visit. You can read it in Matthew 2:1-23

Flight into Egypt
The Sermon title is Adoration, Murder, Refugees

Early Thoughts:  Such a warm story, uplifting, joyous -- until it isn't. Where there is light there is a shadow.  Maybe that is why we need to find another road.

The birth of Christ, of the Word made Flesh, means that nothing will ever be the same again. In some way the Herods of the world know this to be true and so they strike out. Which means we may have to return home by another road. It also might mean we need to weep and wail for a time.

The basics of this story are well known.  Matthew tells of visitors, wise men from the east, who come searching for a new king. They visit the current king in search of information. They end up in Bethlehem in a house with a young child (up to 2 years old to judge from the later events in the story). They produce rich gifts and then go home by a different path, choosing not to inform the current king where the child is.

Then it gets less cheery. The child's parents are warned to run for their lives, and so they head to Egypt. They seek refuge in a strange land, fleeing from certain death, never to return. Sadly the king is not worried about finding the right child. So he orders the death of any possible pretenders to the throne. Later the child and his family, wary of the king's son, return to a different place where the child will grow up, to emerge into public life some decades later.

Merry Christmas! Happy Epiphany!

God breaking into the world means nothing can be the same again. God breaking into the world and declaring that it is time to lift up the lowly, to cast down the mighty, to live by a whole different set of priorities threatens the comfort of the way we are used to living. And the world continues to strike back in various ways.

The Epiphany story, in full, pushes us to ask hard questions. It is nice to think of "what a wonderful event this must have been that people came form far away to give this young child such rich gifts". But, as we have shown, that is only half the story. I think we need to focus on the rest of the story.

Massacre of the Innocents
Herod felt threatened. Herod struck back in a murderous fashion. And the Holy Family became refugees, never to return home (in Matthew's story we have no reason to believe that Mary and Joseph were not originally from Bethlehem). The world was changing and Herod wanted to keep that from happening.

What does Christmas threaten in our world? Who are the Herods of our day? How are they reacting to changes that threaten their comfort or their worldview or their position? Where are we in that equation? Who is forced to seek refuge because they are part of the change that is happening?

I find these to be hard questions. Partly because I suspect sometimes we are striking out against the change that God is bringing forth in the world.  Partly because change is challenging. Largely because I am not convinced there are clear-cut easy answers.

But there is one line that echos in my soul in this story. It comes from the middle, as we transition form joy and worship into fear and murder and flight: " they left for their own country by another road". The Magi make this choice out of fear for the child (and possibly themselves). Why might we need to find another road? Maybe we do it out of fear. Maybe out of desperation. Maybe because we have changed where we think we are going?

What road will we take into the post-Christmas world this year?

Monday, December 16, 2019

Looking Ahead to December 24, 2019 -- Christmas Eve (service is at 7:00 pm)

This evening's service will conclude our "Stories of the Season" series. We will be hearing a number of stories from the book Listen, Said the Donkey. 

There is a legend that on Christmas Eve the animals can talk using human speech. The Carol The Friendly Beasts grows out of this legend, as (it seems) does this book.

We will hear the Christmas story (including the visit of the Magi so the Epiphany story as well) from the point of view of a Donkey, a Lamb,  a Cat and a Dog.

Then we will hear how Scripture tells those stories as we read:
  • Luke 2:1-20
  • Matthew 2:1-14
Interspersed with all these stories we will sing carols, we will hear special music -- choir and solo and handbells, we will pray. At the end of the service we will take part in spreading the Light of Christmas with our candles.

Please join us to hear the old story in a new way!

Looking Ahead to December 22, 2019 -- Advent 4 -- Love

This week in our "Stories of the Season" series we will be reading Why Christmas Trees Aren't Perfect, which is a story about self-sacrificing love.

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • 1 John 4:16-21
  • John 15:4-14
The Sermon title is Evergreen Love.

Early Thoughts: I think love is a verb, not a feeling. For those of us who follow Christ it is also a commandment, a way of living, a Rule of Life. It is part of being Christ-like.

More specifically we are called to love our neighbours both the ones we like and the ones we don't like (I would point out Jesus never commands us to like anybody) which, if love is a verb, means to act lovingly towards them. We are called to give of ourselves for the benefit of others.

We are able to do this, however imperfectly, for one reason. We are able to love and give of ourselves because we have been loved in this way. Giving of ourselves, in whatever way we are able to do so, puts arms and legs on the rhetoric of love. It means we have pushed aside the fear of loss and giving up in the service of our neighbour.

Isn't this what Jesus models? Isn't this what the Incarnation accomplishes? Jesus comes to live out love, and in the end Jesus' commitment to living out of love and proclaiming the power of the Kingdom will lead him to the cross.

Our story this week is about a pine tree who gives up on looking perfect to be closer to perfect in a different way. I believe we have many voices telling us what we ought to be in the world. Christ may challenge us to set aside some of those ideals in the service of a higher cause.

With the birth of a child the world is changed. With Christmas the world is changed. When we hear again the angels saying "For unto you is born this day..." will we be changed?

Love. It makes all things possible.

PS: when I chose the sermon title I was thinking of the love theme from the movie A Star is Born (the Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand version) which is called Evergreen. Really it is a classic romantic love song but some of the lines fit with this week's service:
Like a rose under the April snow
I was always certain love would grow
Love ageless and evergreen...
Morning glory and midnight sun
Time we've learned to sail above
Time won't change the meaning of one love
Ageless and ever evergreen