Monday, January 14, 2019

Looking Forward to January 20, 2019

The Scripture Reading this week is Mark 1:14-28

The Sermon title is Why did they do that?

Early Thoughts: To be honest I just don't get it. What leads these men to just get up and follow this stranger? And as a side question what did Zebedee think when his sons just walked away from the family boat?

As Mark is telling the story of Jesus it is logical to think that this is the first interaction that Simon and Andrew and James and John have with Jesus. Given verses 14 and 15 it is possible that they have heard about him through the grapevine,  possibly they were standing in a crowd to hear him speak. But even if they have heard of him, even if they heard him speak once, it seems like a huge leap or faith to drop everything an follow him -- immediately. Maybe they had poor impulse control?

I think a big part of the answer lies in the verses that follow. Twice in the back half of the passage we hear that Jesus teaches with authority, authority unlike the scribes, authority that even unclean spirits obey. That speaks of the Charisma Jesus exudes. And those of us who have heard stories (or who remember directly) the effect that leaders like Pierre Trudeau, and John Kennedy and Barack Obama had on people know the power of Charisma to get people energized and fired up. It is apparent that when people heard and watched Jesus they saw and felt that something extraordinary was happening.

And so some of them made choices that, on the surface, make little to no sense. They dropped everything to follow him.

There is a follow-up question. What would make us do that?

The YouTube video above is the final hymn we will sing on Sunday. It asks Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Well would you?

I believe that Jesus, the Risen Christ, is indeed calling our names. I believe that Jesus is inviting us to a new way of living. I believe that Christian faith is about being willing to be changed, transformed, led in a whole new direction. I also believe that sometimes dropping everything to respond seems unrealistic, or illogical, or unwise, or even dangerous.

What would help us do what Peter, Andrew, James, and John did?

Monday, January 7, 2019

Contagion! Contamination! -- A Newspaper Column

What are you catching? What are you spreading? I have found that much of the important stuff in life (like our beliefs and attitudes about each other, about ourselves, about the world) is caught. We pick it up by osmosis, by contact, sort of like the flu. So what are you catching?

First a story, I like stories. One of the few vegetables we can grow successfully in our house is potatoes. The manse where we lived in Ontario had a cold room under the front steps, so we had a place to store our potato crop, which some years would last us most of the winter. One day I went downstairs and there was a foul odour coming from the cold room. Maybe I had not knocked all the dirt off, maybe it was still wet when I put it in the box, maybe it was just bad luck, but one potato had started to rot. Which in and of itself would be smelly and off-putting but easy to deal with. But of course it was not limited to that one. Each potato that was touching that first on had started to rot. Had I left it long enough the whole box would have turned – imagine the smell in that case.

I think as people of faith we are supposed to be like that potato. Or maybe we should be like the first patient in a flu epidemic. Or maybe that first drop of food colouring in a glass of clear water. We need to be that contagion or contaminant that seems small but can, over time, change the surroundings.

There is a time when Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven that gets mixed into three measures of flour until all is leavened. In the end many traditional leavening agents are contaminants. What is yeast but a fungus with dreams of grandeur? What is sourdough but partly rotting dough? But centuries ago people discovered that some contaminants can be very helpful. Contamination can, sometimes be a very good thing.

Of course the reverse is equally true. Contamination and contagion are words which do not bring up the best of images. They are generally seen as negative things. The Kingdom of God can spread like a flu bug, but so can hatred and violence. Like my rotting potato, the promise and power of love can infect each person it touches but so can fear and distrust. Which are you catching? Which are you spreading?

It strikes me that some things are easier to catch than others. Some forms of contamination spread really quickly and some forms of contamination are kept walled up pretty easily. At the same time a lot more energy goes into spreading some things than others. So if there is something we want people to catch, if there is some thing we want to spread out that will change the world in a positive direction, we need to be find a way to make sure people get in contact with that instead of something less helpful. Unfortunately it appears to me that the beliefs and attitudes and understandings that spread easiest these days are contaminants and contagions in the worst sense of the words.

To be a person of Christian faith means we are called to ensure people are contaminated with love. We are called to ensure people catch hope. We are called to help change the world to align more with our vision of God’s Kingdom. What do I see spreading most easily in the world today? Not those things.

I see fear spreading like an ebola outbreak. I see the politics of division, of wall-building, of “us or them” discolouring the waters of public discourse. I see distrust and possessiveness and prejudice against “the other”. I see things like these all over: in our politics, in our economics, in our approach to immigration, even in our churches. Our world is full of negative contamination and contagion and I think the only way to counter it is by offering an alternative. Love is caught not taught.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened...”. As people who follow The Way of Christ we are called to be infectious, to contaminate the world with Good News. As people who live in this world there are a lot of other things that try to infect and contaminate us. What are you catching? What are you spreading?

Let’s all go out and try to infect the world with the Love of the God who has created and is creating. Maybe the infection we carry will kill off the bugs of fear and distrust and division.

Looking Forward to January 13, 2018 -- Baptism of Christ Sunday

One of the Sermon suggestions received last summer was a series on Sacraments. This is actually morphing into a series called "practices of the Church" which will mainly be during Lent. But this week we have a precursor to that series, because it seems very natural to talk about Baptism on the Sunday of the Church year designated "Baptism of Christ".

The Scripture readings for this week are:
  • Mark 1:1-11
  • Matthew 28:18-20
The Sermon title is Why do we do this?

Early Thoughts: At one level the answer is easy. We baptize people because a) Jesus was baptized, and b) the Risen Christ tells us to go out and baptize people.

Wow, that would be a short sermon! There must be something more to it...

And of course there is.  Why do we baptize children over adults? What do we think Baptism means? What does is accomplish or signify?

These are the big questions.

One of my seminary profs wrote a book called Eager for Worship about United Church of Canada worship practices.  While I intend to re-read her comments about Baptism this week (because I first read the book 17 years ago) I do remember that Charlotte suggests that a number of understandings of Baptism exist in the United Church. I think to know "why we do this" we need to look at those understandings and ask which ones mean the most to us as individuals and as a congregation.

Oh and for the record the liturgy for Baptism is one of the very few places where we are required to use specific language in worship in the United Church of Canada. Come on Sunday to find out what that language is and why it is required.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Looking Forward to January 6, 2019 -- Epiphany Sunday

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

For the "Time with the Young at Heart" this week we will be reading the short story The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

The Scripture Reading for this week is Matthew 2:1-11.

The Sermon title is How to Choose the Perfect Gift...

Early Thoughts: What makes something a good gift? The Epiphany story has many things to talk about. But one of the aspects of the story is those gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Are they good gifts? Why? Why not?

2000 years of tradition have ascribed a lot of meaning to the gifts of the Magi (Gold for a king, Frankincense for Deity, Myrrh as a sign of death to come). And it is plausible that Matthew had that meaning in mind when he wrote the story down. But on the face of it they do not appear to be practical gifts.  There are many jokes out there about what the wise women brought to the infant Christ -- all much more practical. Wisdom comes in many guises.

Then there is O. Henry and his Magi. I first read this story about 35 years ago and it has stuck with me every since. I have also seen a variety of interpretations of it in Christmas TV shows. Two that stick with me are Bert & Ernie and Mickey & Minnie. Stories where each character places such a high importance on getting the "right" gift for their beloved that they are willing to part with their most valuable possession. [As I recall, Bert sells his pigeons and Ernie sells his rubber duck].

What makes something the right gift?

I think part of what makes a good gift is that it has meaning in the life of the recipient. The combs for Della's hair, the chain for Jim's watch, they have direct ties to the lives of the recipients, they highlight something valuable in their lives. From a literary and theological viewpoint does that make the gifts of the Biblical Magi good?

Another piece of the puzzle is the sacrifice. That is in fact the major point of the O. Henry story. To make a really big gift means giving something of ourselves. That is a traditional part of Christology (Doctrine about who Christ was and is), that God was giving of Godself in the Christ event. That is part of my theology of Stewardship, we are not asked to give of our excess but are asked to make some level of sacrifice as we join in the work God is doing in our world.

We all have times through the year when we give gifts. How do you choose what makes a good gift to give?

Monday, December 17, 2018

Looking Forward to Christmas Eve

Our Christmas Eve Service this year will be at 8:00.

I'll tell you right now it will be different from past years. We are trying something other than ending with candles and Silent Night (we are still singing Silent Night on this its 200th anniversary just not to end the service)!

The Scripture Readings that will be a part of the service are:
  • John 1:1-5
  • Luke 1:46-55
  • Luke 2:1-20
There will also be 2 poems read:
  • There Is No Silent Night by Rt. Rev. Dr. Richard Bott (current Moderator of the United Church of Canada
  • No Longer Alone by Miriam Therese Winter (off an old Medical Mission Sisters Christmas album)

And of course there will be carols sung and choir singing and handbells played.

The Christmas Reflection is called The Revolution Starts Tonight....Again

Early Thoughts: The World is about to turn. But then that is true every Christmas.

Beyond the cute pageants and the familiar carols and the TV specials (many of us learned the King James Version of the Christmas story by watching Linus recite it in answer to Charlie Brown's question -- some of us still sing Hark the Herald Angels with faces turned up just like the Peanuts gang) lies a deeper side of this night. The child born this night will change, and is still changing the world.

Before Jesus is born Mary sings (or says, which is actually the verb in the Biblical text) one of the passages we will hear this Christmas Eve. It talks about filling up the poor and hungry while sending the rich away empty, about lifting up the lowly and sending the proud and mighty tumbling. When Jesus is grown he will say things like "Blessed are the meek" and "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because God has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor". Christmas marks the turning of the world.

Christmas reminds us how much God loves the world. Christmas reminds us that God is still active in the world. Christmas reminds us that God has a hope for the world. For God's hope to become reality the world will need to be transformed. The world will need to be redeemed, set free from old habits and chains. The coming of the Kingdom of the Prince of Peace, Love incarnate, the Word-Made-Flesh comes with a revolutionsary amount of change. And it starts tonight.

Jut like it started last Christmas Eve. And the one before that, and all the others.  The Revolution seems slow to take effect. But when God breaks into the world, when Christ is born, when once again we hear the angel say "For unto you is born this day in the City of David" we know that God is still there and that the revolution starts tonight...again.

Birth means change. Are we ready for it?

Looking Forward to December 23, 2018 -- Advent 4 -- The Hope of Christmas Future

This week we come to the end of the Advent Season, and so to the end of our Advent worship series and the visit of the Ghost of Christmas-Yet-To-Come.

The Scripture Readings for this week are:
  • Isaiah 2:2-5
  • Isaiah 7:10-16
The Sermon title is Shadows that Can Be Changed

Early Thoughts: Are we locked into an unchangeable system? Are we such a product of our past and our present that our future is already preordained? That is Scrooge's fear. Having had a change of heart already he is terrified that the shadows he is shown by this last specter are things that must be rather than shadows of things that may be.

But we find out, as Scrooge does, that they are not set in stone. The future may well follow along a course set by our past and present but it is not immutable. Scandalous as it may seem sometimes people can change and in so doing change the punishment we may think they so richly deserve. One word for that is Grace. Another word is repentance. Or maybe redemption.

The life of faith is a life where all three tenses come together. In the life of faith we meet God in the past and the present and the future and recognize that God is active in all those places. This is why we speak of God as the one who is, and was, and is to come.  And because God was and is and will be active we rejoice in the knowledge that the future is changeable and changing.

God has a hope for the future. Isaiah shares one version of that hope in the passage from chapter 2 we are reading this week. There is a lot of evidence in the past and present of humanity that the hope is in vain. There is also evidence that the hope is slowly coming to fruition (although it does not get nearly as much press). As God leads (or drags or goads) God's beloved creation towards that hope God is active in the here and now. God continues to speak to us, sending us messengers to push us to look carefully and clearly at who we are.

For to US a child is born. To US a son is given. The angel message of Good News of Great Joy for all people continues to resound.  Because God loves the world God sends Christ's love and message. Because God loves the world the shadows of the future can be changed. But only if we, like Scrooge, are willing to take the hard look at who we were and are and ask who we want to be. Only if we are willing to let God lead (or drag or goad) us in a new direction.

Redemption and liberation and transformation ARE possible, are in fact happening all the time. Glory to God in the Highest. And on Earth Peace, Goodwill toward all.

And as Tiny Tim said:

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Looking Forward to December 9, 2018 -- Advent 3 -- Joy -- The Life of Christmas Present

This week our worship series takes us to the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Present

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Deuteronomy 15:7-11
  • Luke 1:46-55
The Sermon title is See The World Today

Early Thoughts: Sometimes it is hard to trust in the Advent promises of Joy and Peace and Hope and Love. But that has always been the truth.

In Palestine at the time of Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great life was hard. Shepherds were often seen as lowest of the low (after all they probably stank of sheep). And to them angels appeared saying "behold I bring you tidings of great joy".

In the world of Victorian England, where Dickens writes A Christmas Carol, poverty and suffering were widespread, the gap between the haves and the have-nots was wide. Logically speaking the Crachits could see nothing to celebrate. Even Scrooge's nephew Fred, while better off than the Crachits had little reason to celebrate (at least according to his uncle). But on his journey with the Spirit Scrooge sees that they find deep joy in the season.

This week we sing one of my favourite Advent Hymns, Tomorrow Christ is Coming.One of the reasons it is a favourite is because it pushes us to acknowledge that the world is still full of darkness. But then it reminds us of where the Joy and hope of the season really lie: "but Jesus Christ is risen and comes again in bread. To still our deepest hunger and raise us from the dead."

It is sometimes tempting, in the midst of Christmas decor and music, to turn a blind eye to the hardships of the world, even if only for a couple of weeks. Christ calls to do the opposite. Christ calls us to see the world clearly. This means seeing the darkness but also seeing the glow coming from the manger. Christmas hope and peace and joy are not based on what fills the front pages of our newspapers. They are based in Love taking human form. They are based in the God who invites shepherds to the manger, who invites a miserly curmudgeon to be redeemed, who is made incarnate so that we too can be transformed.

Yes we need to see the world clearly. And that is not always pleasant. But we also need to see clearly the source of our hope and joy. Christmas, God coming into the world to offer redemption and transformation, is not only part of our past. It is also a part of our present. SO we can sing the words of Isaiah :