Monday, October 16, 2017

Looking Ahead to October 22, 2017 -- The Call of Samuel

The Scripture reading for this Sunday is 1 Samuel 3:1-3:21

The Sermon title is The Word of the Lord

Early Thoughts: When do we hear God whisper in our ear? What do we do next? Do we seek out the wisdom of others, possibly our elders? Do we engage the whisper? Or do we roll over and go back to sleep?

This week's reading tells us of the call of Samuel as a young boy. There is an element of misunderstanding in it as we see Samuel running to old Eli 3 times before anyone figures out what is actually happening.  But finally Samuel makes the response "speak for your servant is listening".

And if we actually stop and listen to the voice, what if we hear something that we don't like, or makes us afraid?

Samuel is given a message to pass on to old Eli. Eli his teacher and mentor, Eli the wise priest. Eli the father of troublesome sons. Samuel is to tell this man that because of the abominable behaviour of his sons the mantle of leadership is passing from Eli's house. No wonder Samuel is reluctant (the text actually says he was afraid) to pass on the message.

To his credit Eli demands that the message be shared even if Eli had reason to think it was not good news. [If you look back at chapter 2 you find out that Eli has already been given the message once but has been unable or unwilling to correct the behaviour of his sons.] More to his credit Eli is willing to accept the word of the Lord.

Often it is tempting to preach about the beginning of this story, about the farce-like scene of Samuel running back and forth to Eli. Then the sermon culminates with Samuel's eventual response "speak for your servant is listening". ANother temptation is to pick up on a single line way back in verse 1 "The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread." and ask if we are currently in such a time as that, to ask if/how God is still speaking today.

But this time round what jumped out at me was Samuel's fear/reluctance to share the word of the Lord.

Sometimes God reveals hard truths. Sometimes as people of faith we are led to share hard words, to say things that are unpopular, to say things we ourselves would rather not hear. What do we do then?

We can pretend we didn't hear properly. We can find some way to express the words in euphemisms or platitudes, if we do that well enough we might even rob them of their offensiveness. We might say "at a better time" and hold off. Avoidance is a common way of dealing with awkward conversations.

That is when we need an Eli. That is when we need someone to say "it will be hard but you MUST share the words" [noting that Eli even threatens Samuel with a curse if he does not share the Word of the Lord].

It ends well for Samuel. He becomes one of the heroes, one of the chief prophets of the story.  He will go on to anoint the first 2 kings of Israel. And he will continue to be called to do things that make him afraid -- such as anointing David while Saul is still king, such as telling Saul that God's favour is no longer with the king.

How will it end for us? When God challenges us with hard truths how will we react? Both as those who hear and those who pass on the truths?
--Gord

PS: it also strikes me that if everything you hear God saying affirms all that you are doing and all that you believe then you might want to ask yourself if you are hearing ALL that God might have to say...

Monday, October 2, 2017

Looking Forward to October 8, 2017 -- Thanksgiving Sunday

Since I was away at a Presbytery meeting on the first Sunday of October, we will be celebrating the Sacrament of Communion this week.

The Scripture reading for this week is Deuteronomy 26:1-11

The Sermon title is Memory and Gratitude

Early Thoughts: Can you be thankful if you don't remember?  Probably not.

This passage from Deuteronomy, a common one for Thanksgiving Sunday, is not really about giving thanks -- at least not at first reading.  It is about remembering. And it is about giving from what you have.

The remembering what God has done is a common theme in the stories of the Israelite people. Does that mean they tended to forget to remember? Remembering is often a conscious act, it is something we choose to do (or choose not to do). BUt if we don't remember what happens?

I am not thinking here of Santayana's dictum that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it (though I tend to find wisdom there). I am thinking of how remembering or forgetting tie in to both our gratitude and our stewardship.

If we forget then are we aware of why we are grateful? I suspect not. If we forget the path that has led us to this point, the gifts shared and given to help us along the way, then it is easy to not express our gratitude.

ANd if we forget the gifts shared and given that helped us along the path it is easier to think that we did it all by ourselves. And then to wonder why others can not do the same for themselves.

Memory is at the base of our gratitude and our stewardship. In the Deuteronomy passage the act of remembering is intrinsically tied to the act of offering the first-fruits to God's service. Practically speaking it appears that this offering goes to feed an support the Levites (religious workers) and Priests as well as those who are in need. AS they remember they are thankful and they give from what they have received.

What memories make you thankful? What gifts do you pass forward as you remember and are grateful?
--GOrd

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