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?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

July Newsletter

It must be getting close to vacation time. As I sat down to write this I heard a voice saying “write something about Sabbath” over and over again.

And since I have, sort of, learned that I should sometimes listen to the voices in my head, and because I have no other ideas, and because sabbath time is such an important thing....

How are you taking Sabbath Time this summer?

Note that I assume you are. Which might well be a big assumption – and assumptions are always dangerous – but it is an assumption I am making intentionally. For many of us, particularly those of us with school-aged children, summer is a bit of a slower season. Many programs have gone on hiatus, we have more free time, and so we find it a season of “taking it easy”, or at least of being busy in a different way.

So how are you taking Sabbath Time this summer?

There is another assumption behind the question. The assumption that sabbath time is a good thing, that it is something we should be doing. In fact my assumption is that sabbath time is mandatory for our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

Why else would it be a commandment?

Because look at the 10 Commandments. There it is in black and white, chizelled on the stones that Charlton Heston carries down the mountain. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Take time off. Don't work all the time.

Scripture gives us two reasons for keeping sabbath. One is that we rest because God rested. God rested on the seventh day and so should we. Later in the Scripture story we find the Jesus also takes sabbath time. He also disappears to rest and pray and rejuvenate himself. The other reason we are told to rest, to take sabbath, is because we are no longer slaves. Slaves don't get to choose if or when they get to rest. People who are not slaves DO get that choice [and Scripture then enjoins salve-owners to also ensure their slaves do not have to work all the time].

I think in modern culture we understand the need for rest. We understand the bit about it being good for us. I think we have trouble with the slave/freedom part.

One of the (bitter?) ironies of life is that all these “labour-saving” improvements we were promised have in fact made us work harder. One of the (bitter?) ironies of life is that the more easily we can be connected to the world the harder it is to intentionally dis-connect from the world. And in my experience, if we can't disconnect we don't really do a good job of taking time to rest, time to just “be” with each other. Think of the last time you went somewhere and forgot your phone, or were in a place where there was no phone coverage. How did that feel? Anxiety-producing, or freeing, or a bit of both? It is my contention that we have become enslaved by the devices that were meant to make life easier. It is my contention that it has become too easy to keep working even when we are not “at work”. And it is my contention that we suffer as a result.

So how are you taking Sabbath Time this summer?

I freely admit I am not good at this. In the past I have spent time during my vacation doing things like watching the live feed from the General Council meeting, or getting a start on worship planning for September, or checking my work e-mail, or getting into church (often church-geek) conversations with colleagues on social media, or attending Presbytery Executive meetings by phone, or even stopping by the office “to do a couple of things”. It is my plan/hope/dream that this year between July 18 and August 17 I will do none of those things. I am going to try harder to cast off the slavery of needing to feel that I have to remain connected. How successful will I be? Time will tell. But I am trying because I believe true sabbath time is important. I want to do it because I think I will be healthier and happier when I get back.

What about you? How will you make time for sabbath this summer?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Looking Ahead to July 6, 2014 -- 4th Sunday After Pentecost

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Genesis 16:1-16
  • Genesis 21:1-21
  • Genesis 25:7-18
The sermon title is Call Him Ishmael

Early Thoughts:  Abraham as a model of faithfulness?  Maybe.  Abraham as a model of "traditional family values"?  Probably not.

Abram and Sarai had been promised a son, a son who would the first of descendants who would be more numerous than the stars in the sky.  But years passed and still no son.  So they come up with a solution of their own.  And Abram gets Hagar, the slave-girl belonging to Sarai, pregnant -- apparently with the idea that since Hagar belonged to Sarai, Hagar's child would also belong to Sarai.  Strike ONE against "traditional" family values.

Then Sarai gets jealous (although the text tells us that Hagar gets uppity, the knife obviously cuts both ways) and drives Hagar, pregnant with Abram's child out into the wilderness -- with the blessing of the child's father.  But God intervenes.  This child is a child of Abram and will share in the promise--although God also promises/foretells that his relationship with the family and neighbours will be rather difficult.

So the child Ishmael is born.  And in due course Sarai (now Sarah) becomes pregnant with the promised son of Abram (now Abraham) and Isaac is born.  Half-brother of Ishmael, son of Hagar and Abram is now (depending on how one pieces together the timeline, which is not always clear in Genesis) 12 or 13.  And in later Jewish tradition a boy has his Bar Mitzvah and becomes a man under Torah at age 13.  So just as Ishmael reaches maturity Sarah once again gets jealous.  And Abraham (with God's blessing and God's promise that Ishmael WILL share in the promise--where Sarah is trying to eliminate the sharing of the inheritance) agrees to drive Hagar and her son away again.  I believe this would be strike 3 in the family values count (with strike 4 due in the next chapter with the story of the binding of Isaac)?

But God is still not bound by Sarah's jealousy or by Abraham's meekness.  So God intervenes again to ensure the life of Hagar and Ishmael.  And the child grows up and his descendants become a nation.  Then we see Ishmael again at the death of his father.  You sort of get this picture of the brothers reluctantly/uncomfortably being in each other's presence.  But years ago they played together...

Tradition holds that the descendants of Ishmael become the Arabs.  And the descendants of Isaac become the Jews.

I think we need to talk about Ishmael more.  I think we need to remind ourselves that there is a different side to the story, that God is acting in many ways and along many paths.  Not just the one we choose to follow.  Even if we are part of a truly dysfunctional family.

PS: just wait till next week when we look at another episode of dysfunction in Abraham's family--Jacob and Esau.