Monday, February 19, 2018

Looking Ahead to February 25, 2018 -- Lent 2, the Raising of Lazarus

This week we have the third (and final) long passage from John. This time it is John 11:1-44 which tells the story of the death and not-so death of Lazarus.

The Sermon title this week is His Friend Died...Can You Guess What Happened Next?

Early Thoughts: Sorrow turns to amazement, despair to wonderment, weeping into shouts of praise.

I suspect this is a story that we are too familiar with. Like many stories of faith it is hard to read the beginning without knowing the ending. But does knowing the ending before we get there rob the story of its power?

What would it be like to read it for the first time? What would it be like to live it?
Mary and Martha are heartbroken. Their brother has died. They are sure that had Jesus been there he could have kept Lazarus from dying.  But Jesus was not there and Lazarus has died (depending how far away Jesus was it is possible Lazarus was dead by the time Jesus got the message that he was ill).

Has Jesus come back for a funeral for the friend he loved? Or is there something else in play?

Jesus weeps in this story. Jesus feels the grief of a friend's death. But he is not willing to accept the finality.  In this story death is real. Early in the Jesus tries to slide over its reality by using the euphemism of sleep but his disciples miss the point so he has to be blunt (personal note, we need to be more blunt about the reality of death in the world, euphemism's only bring the appearance of comfort). Death is real. Lazarus is really truly dead. In fact we are told he has been dead for four days. In a hot climate sealed in a tomb imagine what an un-embalmed body would smell like (think of the chicken you forgot to put in the fridge for a day or two...). Death is real.

But death is not final in this story, or in the larger story of faith. Death does not have the last word. Life speaks last. The word of Life, the invitation to abundant life unbinds us and sets us free.

In John's Gospel this is the last of 7 signs that reveal who Jesus is. Here we hear that he is the Resurrection and the Life, and then we see it in action. Here we see that maybe the "last days" are closer than we think -- and also less of a sudden turning that a growing edge. It is notable that in John's account this is the last straw for the rulers.  This is where the decision is made that this Jesus must die.

What part of this story speaks to you the most?  What signs of hope do you draw from it? And have you ever wondered what Lazarus thinks of the whole deal?????

Monday, February 12, 2018

Looking Forward to February 18, 2018 -- First Sunday of Lent

The Scripture Reading this week is John 9:1-41

The Sermon title is He Spat on the Ground...What Happened Next will Amaze You

Early Thoughts:  Why didn’t someone tell me decades ago that spit and dirt make such a great healing tool?  I could have been a millionaire before starting kindergarten!!!!

Who is blind? How and Why? How is that blindness to be removed?  SOme of the questions that come up for me this week.

In the passage this week we have a healing story, though to be honest it really appears that the healing is not the point of the pericope. The healing is a launching point for some theological (and possibly political) discussion leading to a statement of faith. Then we end with some shade being thrown at those who are unwilling to see (there are none so blind…).

Another problematic piece is the political overtones of the dialogue with the parents. The text claims that the parents choose not to answer because of fear of “the Jews”. [To me it makes perfect sense that parents would say of their adult child–go ask him, he can speak for himself.] Traditionally I have been taught that this, and other references in the Gospel, refers to a time when Christians were being turfed from the synagogues, which would still make it anachronistic within the narrative as it stands. In the Jewish Annotated New Testament they suggest that even this is something that is hard to find historical references for. As with any time John says “the Jews” I see a potential for anti-Semitic interpretation. It makes it possible to read the rest of the passage as saying “those silly sinful, willfully blind Jews. why will they not see?”

Finally, there is a whole issue of how do we talk about the need to be healed from blindness, or the question of being willfully blind, without verging into a form of ableism?

A man is healed and becomes a witness.  With a whole lot of other stuff surrounding it.  I wonder what the sermon will have to say about it?

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Annual Report Time again......

“For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27)
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Two verses (one we will hear on the Sunday of the Annual Congregational Meeting, the other one contains the sermon title for that morning) that speak to the task of following Christ. To be a follower of Christ is to be one who serves and loves your neighbours. As the “New Creed says: “We are called to be the love and serve others.”

The document you are holding is a snapshot of how this congregation has lived out this task over the past year. It does not tell the whole story – it would need to be much longer to do that – but it gives a taste. The picture painted by these reports makes one thing clear. To love and serve others is something that takes many hands. And so I need to say thank you.

Thank you to all of you for all you have done over the past year. Some have signed up on the Worship clipboard for those tasks that are part of our weekly gatherings. Some have served on various Ministry Teams. Some have planned special events. Some have been ready to help wherever needed, often with short notice. Most, if not all, of you have contributed money to meet our local expenses, money to our Local Outreach, money to Mission & Service. The financial portion of this report will tell you the number of dollars behind this work but it won’t tell you the full value behind all these gifts. Collectively you have contributed 1000’s of hours of time and labour to love and serve others. Thank You Thank You Thank You.

And now we are on the edge (well it is already February so I guess we are over the edge) of a new year. What will it hold? What are some of my hopes?

As with last year my hope is to get out of the office more. To be honest I did not get this done nearly as well as I hoped in 2017 and so I have to admit that I need help with this. I need invitations or requests and maybe even appointments for coffee. Give me a call and we can set something up.

Another hope is that we take time to explore what the needs of the community around us are, so that we can decide how (or if) we can respond to those needs. When I posted on Facebook about not knowing what to say in this year’s report Eunice Friesen (jokingly?) suggested “Let your congregation know that you are becoming a go-to pastor for the city! “. I really don’t think that is true, but it speaks to my hope that St. Paul’s continues to b a church known for responding to the community, there to serve the community.

And the last hope I share for this year is the hope I have every year. That as a community we we continue to grow deeper in our understanding of discipleship. I hope that we will ask what it means to follow Jesus, to live in God’s Way, to open ourselves to the holiness that surrounds and enfolds us. May God be with us all as we learn and grow, as we continue to love and serve.


Monday, January 29, 2018

Looking Ahead to February 4, 2018

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

The Scripture Reading this week is John 4:1-42

The Sermon title is He Asked For a Drink...You Won’t Believe What She Said

Early Thoughts: A strange encounter, possibly a chance encounter, is the story for this week. A conversation about a cup of water takes on a whole new dimension.

It is a story about boundary crossing:  male-female, Jew-Samaritan.

It is a story about needs being met. What are people in the story thirsting for?

It is a story about God being revealed, and about a witness sharing the news.

It is a story full of questions.

This woman at the well is pretty amazing. Her life has not been easy.  She has either been cast-out/abandoned/divorced by multiple men or she has been widowed multiple times. It seems she is now relying on a relative (possibly the brother of a dead husband following levirate law) for shelter. And yet she has the gumption to engage in a theological discussion with this strange man from another place. Then she has the courage to go and tell everyone she knows "you gotta come see/hear this guy".

What strange things can happen when one person asks for a drink of water.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Remember That You Are Dust (A Newspaper piece)

(in the interests of full disclosure, this borrows heavily from this and this that I wrote over a decade ago)

This year you may see people with some, shall we say interesting, facial decorations on Valentine’s Day. A black smudge in the shape of a cross. Or maybe someone will be inventive and it will be a black smudge in the shape of a heart.

This year Valentine’s Day, a holiday dedicated to expressions of love and affection is also Ash Wednesday, a much more sombre occasion.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent, a time where church tradition encourages us to reflect on our lives and our world, to reflect on how we have missed the mark in our attempts to be who God created us to be. In some churches the day is marked by a worship service where the forehead of attendees is marked with ashes along with the phrase “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. Ash Wednesday also calls us to remember that we are mortal, that we will one day die, which can help give us a sense of perspective.

As we approach Ash Wednesday this year I want to share a reflection I used at a meeting a decade ago:

Ashes. Pale, grey, nondescript. Ashes. That is how our Lenten journey begins. We take the remnants of last years triumphant palms and turn them from signs of joy into pale grey nondescript ashes.
As we look at the ashes we remember to confess those times we have slipped in our attempts to be the people God would have us be. To quote an Ash Wednesday hymn, we "mark our failure and our falling" as we rub the grey powder between our fingers. We remember and we recommit ourselves to try again.

As we look at the ashes we are reminded of the old words "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return". Some of the ashes in our life are signs of bitterness, signs of mortality and destruction. And so we remember this year our brothers and sisters in British Colombia and California, who have just lived through a record wildfire season. We remember all who have placed caskets and urns into the ground to the refrain of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust". Ashes mix with tears to become a pasty mess, ready to mark our lives.

And yet ashes are also a sign of hope. The ashes of the forest fire provide a rich bed for the new forest to start growing. The legendary phoenix is only able to be refreshed after the fire, then to rise again from the ashes. From the fire of destruction can come hope.

The world around us is full of ashes. The ashes of burnt out souls. The ashes of burned up dreams and hopes. The ashes of regret and repentance. But amidst all the ashes and fear and depression lies a promise. "From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring". The Lenten journey takes us to Jerusalem and destruction. But beyond that lies the hope of resurrection and new life.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. These words remind us of our mortality. They call us to remember that we are not the center of the universe. They call us to remember that there was before us and there will be after us, that none of us are indispensable.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. These words prepare us for what comes next. Only when we take seriously the reality of death can we experience fully the glory of resurrection. The Lenten journey takes us to Good Friday but the day after Lent ends is Easter Sunday. The graveside gathering is a time of sorrow but the word of hope we share is that the grave is not the end. Individuals may come and go but we share in a larger work, the whole of which we may never know. No matter what may come there is hope, and promise, and possibility.

This year I encourage all of us to look at what changes can or need to be made in our lives and in the corporate life of this community as we live into the Kingdom of God. What needs to die so that God’s Kingdom can live? It is said that only by passing through death that we have life. In fact we do that many times throughout our lives – we pass through the death of what was into the life of what will be.

This year on the holiday dedicated to love we pause to remember the God who is love. As the ashes are smeared on the forehead what death do you fear, what resurrection do you await?

ANd as an online bonus, some music:

And another

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

February Newsletter

Many years ago the Whole People of God Sunday School Curriculum had a song called Who Is a Disciple? (JimStrathdee ©1991). The opening lines said:
Who is a disciple? Look and you will see
Those who follow Jesus, learning what to be.
And the chorus was:
Jesus, Jesus, teach me how to be
a disciple of your love for all the world to see.
The verses told of various folk from the Christian Scriptures who had chosen to follow the Way of Jesus, who became disciples.

Almost 200 years after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus a (or maybe the) primary task of the church is to grow and nurture disciples. Our task is not to offer spectacular worship, or to have grand theological discussions, though both of those can be key pieces of growing and nurturing disciples. The primary task of the church is not even to support those in need, though both Jewish and Christian Scripture name that as an important part of what it means to be a community of faith. The task is to recruit and train new followers, with the expectation that people whose lives have been transformed by encountering God will then do things like help to support those in need.

What does it mean to be a disciple? A disciple is a follower, a learner. A disciple is one who follows the teachings and philosophy of a teacher. In Christian terms a disciple is one who follows the teachings of Christ, who opens themself to be transformed by an encounter with the Living God and the Resurrected Christ. A disciple is someone whose life has been changed, whose priorities have been altered to put God’s plan ahead of their own. A disciple is someone who tries constantly to answer the question “what would Jesus have me do?” before acting. A disciple is one who keeps learning and exploring, going deeper in faith as time goes by.

In my experience, I am not sure how good a job the church, particularly the United Church, is at creating and nurturing disciples. Sometimes what we do works really well. Sometimes it doesn’t.

The practice for a few generations has been that discipleship was a function of Sunday School and Youth Group, culminating in Confirmation. Those things, it was thought/hoped would give the foundation for a life of faith. In fact, for a few decades now, Confirmation seemed to have become seen as graduation from Sunday School (and often from the church) instead of a step along a continuing life of faith. At the same time, we are now in a Canada where there are whole generations of folk with no church background. When these folk find themselves drawn to the church we have a duty to find a way to bring them into the path of discipleship.

What to do?

There are likely many answers – all of which are elusive. If I had a way to keep young people interested and engaged in church life I could probably retire from the book proceeds. However I think that we have a duty, if we think being part of a faith community is an important thing, to work on that. There are plans afoot for a teen confirmation program this spring, and I hope we can talk about the “what happens after confirmation” piece.

But discipleship is an ongoing thing. And to provide a place where we can continue to explore what it means to be a disciple I am offering a study group called Immersion: Investing in God’s World. This is an 8-sesssion study developed by a couple of United Church ministers in BC. It leads us through some basics of Christian theology in the first few sessions and then Part 2 leads in discussions of what discipleship could look like in the 21st century church. This study will be on Wednesday evenings at 7:00 starting mid February. Please let me know if you are interested so I know how many copies of the resource book to order.


Monday, January 22, 2018

Looking Forward to January 28, 2018

The Scripture Reading for this week is John 3:1-21

The Sermon title is God Loves the World

Early Thoughts: God loves the world. God loves the world and all that is in it. Do we believe that?

This week's reading includes one of (if not THE) the best known verses in Christian Scripture. "For God so loved the world..." But I think that we miss the point of that verse when we forget to read the next verse.  Verse 17 reads "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.".  The point of the Christ event is that the world be saved, because God loves the world.

So why do so many people talk about what God hates? Why do so many people talk about what God condemns? (conveniently it seems that often God condemns and hates the same sorts of things that the speaker condemns and hates...)

In the beginning of the faith story we have a hymn to creation. And the refrain to that hymn tells us over and over again that God looks at what is created and says it is good. Because God calls the world good, because God created the world, God loves the world and desires the best for it.

This is the reason God becomes flesh. To show love for the world, to teach the people that they are loved, to redeem and save the world from itself.

JEsus loves us, this we know...