Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Looking Forward to April 23, 2017 -- Stephen, Witness and Martyr, 2nd Sunday of Easter

The Scripture reading this week are some portions of the Story of Stephen, the first Christian Martyr. (The whole arc of Stephen's story starts at the beginning of chapter 6 with the decision to appoint deacons and continues through to his death and burial. The majority of chapter 7 is a sermon by Stephen which leads to his stoning.) We are reading Acts 6:8-7:2a; 7:54-8:3

The sermon title is Witness and Reaction

Early Thoughts: Who knows who Stephen is? For much of my life the only reference I knew of to Stephen was in the first line of the carol Good King Wenceslas where we are told that the king looked out "on the feast of Stephen". And then even the first few times I was referred to his story in Acts it was in relation to the end when we see a man named Saul watching Stephen's execution with approval (reading into chapter 9 we find Saul having an experience on the Damascus road which leads him from persecution to proselytizing and , name changed to Paul, becoming the leading spreader of Christianity in the New Testament).

At the beginning of Chapter 6 it is evident that the Jerusalem church is not the utopia described back in Chapter 2.  Earlier we were told that all things were held in common and distributed to each person according to need, now in Chapter 6 we find that there is dissension about this very distribution. And the 12 seem to think that waiting on tables is below them, they have "more important" things to do (which may well be a possible future sermon, remembering the Christ who knelt down and washed their feet). And so they decide to name a group of 7 deacons whose task it will be to serve the community. Stephen is one of those 7. Which brings us to our reading...

Chosen to serve, it becomes obvious that God has other things in mind for Stephen. HE becomes known for being " full of grace and power," and doing "great wonders and signs among the people.". And this attracts attention (how could it not), which leads to Stephen being put on trial [with charges that seem eerily reminiscent of those laid at the feet of Jesus] for his preaching about Jesus and The Way.

Then follows one of the longer sermons in Acts (and there are some long passages of sermon/instruction in these earlier chapters of Acts). Stephen rehearses the entire salvation story from Abraham, through Moses, into the building of the temple,and the work of the prophets into the execution of Jesus (the Righteous One). He further accuses his accusers and those who stand in judgement of being in opposition to the Holy Spirit.

And this is where our reading jumps back in, at the end of the trial. For some reason the trial panel is not feeling warm and fuzzy after being called stiff-necked and labelled as betrayers and murderers. In the face of their fury Stephen remains grounded and trusting in Christ, sharing a vision of Christ standing by the throne of God. ANd then even as he is being stoned he dies in ways that are indeed reminiscent of the death of Jesus on the cross. Stephen becomes the first martyr for the sake of Christ.

Sometimes sharing God's vision for the world causes complicated reactions.

What do we do with a martyrdom story in 21st century North America?

Do we ask what the price is for being part of a counter-cultural movement (as the church is becoming once again)?
Do we remember our brothers and sisters in Egypt whose churches were bombed on Palm Sunday?
Do we ask how willing we are to witness and test the reactions?
--Gord

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Breaking Bread Together

(A column for the local paper on April 21st)

Was there a time in your life, maybe the time is now, when you ate most of your meals alone? I always found it a strange feeling. Meals became more a matter of sustenance than an occasion. There is so much more to a meal that is shared with friends or family.

While looking for lyrics to something different I came upon a Johnny Cash song which contains these lines:
It's not the barley or the wheat It's not the oven or the heat
That makes this bread so good to eat
It's the needing and the sharing that makes the meal complete.
Our English word companion speaks of sharing food. The Latin roots are together (com) and bread (panis). WE use it to talk about someone who shares a portion of life’s journey with us. Because we know that life is almost always better and easier when we share it with one or more others. We mark events and anniversaries by eating together with one special person or a group of special people. It isn’t about the food, we can eat alone if need be. It is about the people.

Yesterday I saw a video (actually a commercial for President’s Choice) where a couple of young women set up a table in the hallway of their apartment building. As the video progresses more and more people gather, each bringing something to share with the table. And as they gather they meet each other (how many of us never get to know our neighbours?) and there is laughter. Community is built when we eat together. As I watched it I saw the sacrament of the neighbourhood potluck.

Another song. There is an African American spiritual that I learned as a child (long before I knew what an African American Spiritual was) which says:
Let us break bread together on our knees;
let us break bread together on our knees;
It is a song often sung at communion services, the time when we gathered at God’s Table to celebrate the meal of faith and hope.

From the beginning of the movement that followed and continues to follow Jesus meals have been crucial. Jesus knew the power of sitting at the same table as others. Indeed on more than one occasion people sneer at and complain about Jesus because he is willing to eat with tax collectors and sinners and people of ill-repute. Jesus knew that to eat with people is a way to let them know that they belong, that they are loved, that they are accepted. Then, just before his death, Jesus told his friends to continue to break bread and share a cup of wine in remembrance of him. The common table, and the fellowship shared there, was a marker of what it meant to follow Jesus.

To this day the church continues to break bread and share wine or juice and remember Jesus. And when we do this together we meet God. We meet God in the bread and the cup and in the neighbours with who we share the meal. It is not about the ritual. It is not about wine vs. juice. It is not about what kind of bread is broken. Or rather it is about more than all those things. It is about the community which gathers to share and to support each other.

One of my favourite Easter stories takes place in Luke 24:13-35. A pair of travellers encounter a stranger on the road. They discuss the life and ministry of Jesus with him for many miles, and then invite him to spend the night with them. He breaks the bread and they recognize that Christ is with them. When we break bread together we enter a holy place, and Christ is revealed in our midst. Christ is in the bread and in the gathered community. In one of his books Bishop John Spong suggests that for some portion of the early Church Easter became revealed and real to them when they continued doing what Jesus had done and gathered people together at the table. Then they knew that Christ was still with them. I would tend to agree. A meal shared is a sign of grace.

Christianity is a faith based on being in community. We are a faith that knows that we are stronger in community. We know that we meet God in community. And so when we invite each other to eat, be that at a ritual Communion meal or at a potluck or at a neighbourhood BBQ we are inviting each other to a holy time, a place where we can meet God.

When we eat together, we are stronger as a community. Thanks be to God. Let us break bread together.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Looking Ahead to April 16, 2017 -- Easter Sunday

The emotional life of Holy Week is a true roller-coaster.
  • We start in triumph on Palm Sunday with the parade into the city.
  • Then we get somber with the Last Supper.
  • Then we go down in to the valley of the shadow of death as we watch the crucifixion and burial.
  • and then...
then there is a BIG SURPRISE!

This year we will be reading the Easter story as it is told by Luke (Luke 24:1-12)

The Sermon title is Risen!

Early Thoughts: The climax of the Christian year has come!Without the Easter story we would not tell any of the other stories. We would not talk about a baby in a manger. We would not talk about a Cross on a hill. Without Easter there is little reason to believe that the other stories of Jesus of Nazareth, that the movement that coalesced around him, would have survived long past his death.

The women go to the grave to weep and mourn. They go to perform that basic act of mourning (anointing of the body) that was not possible before the burial. And when they get there...

A new beginning! New life! New possibilities!

AS Natalie Sleeth says in hymn (VU #175):
“This is the day that God had made!
Rejoice! Rejoice, and be exceeding glad!
This is the day that God has made!
Rejoice! Rejoice! Hallelujah!
Christ has conquered death at last,
Left the tomb that held him fast!
Gone the sorrow, gone the night,
Dawns the morning clear and bright!
Jesus lives who once was dead,
Lives forever, as he said!
Risen now our Saviour, King;
Songs of gladness let us sing!”

The world is changed. Life wins. Can we believe it?

The other disciples couldn't. They dismissed the women's story as an "idle tale" (one commentary suggest a more idiomatic way of saying that might be "a load of...", or more politely "wishful thinking"). Jesus was dead. They all knew it. Only when he went to the tomb himself did Peter believe.

Can we believe it? Can we trust that the end is not the end? Is the Risen Jesus here alive and among us?

More from Natalie Sleeth (VU #703)
In our end is our beginning, in our time infinity
in our doubt there is believing, in our life eternity 
In our death a resurrection; at the last a victory
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Christ is risen! Life wins! Hallelujah!
--Gord

Looking Ahead to Holy Week-- Maundy Thursday (April 13) and Good Friday (April 14)

Thursday
Traditionally folks gather on the Thursday before Easter to remember key elements of the Passion story. We remember the stories of what happened the night before Jesus was executed. Here at St. Paul's it is our practice to gather for a potluck supper during which we have our worship service. This year's service will be at 6:00 in the West (or Small) Basement. Please use the Northwest door of the church if you are attending.

From the Gospel of John (which does not have a "Last Supper" story) we remember the story of Jesus kneeling down and washing the disciples feet as a model of servant leadership. Within the Roman Catholic church there is a tradition that the Pope re-enacts this every year, often with a group of prelates [although the current Pope has been known to go to a prison and wash the feet of women or Muslims]. In this same section of John's Gospel Jesus gives his disciples a New Commandment "that you love one another as I have loved you". It is from this that the name Maundy Thursday comes as the Latin for Commandment is maundatum.

From the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- this year we will be reading from Luke) the key piece that we remember is the Last Supper, the Passover meal that Jesus shares with his friends and at which he institutes the Eucharist/Communion meal.

The Scripture Readings we will share this year are:
  • John 13:3-17, 34-35 Luke 22:24-27 (following which we will wash each other's hands)
  • Luke 22:1-23, 1 Corinthians 11:20-26
Early Thoughts: Eat and remember, drink and remember.

From the beginning of the Jesus movement gathering at table has had a special place. On numerous occasions in the Gospels the people mutter how Jesus is acting inappropriately by eating with tax collectors and sinners and people of ill-repute. And after Easter, after they experienced Resurrection, the followers of Jesus continued to put gathering at table at the center of how they worshiped. Paul's words to the Corinthians make it plain how central the Lord's Supper (or Communion or Eucharist) was to the life of Christian faith -- and that the Corinthians weren't quite getting it right.

So it is that we continue to gather at the table to break the bread and share the cup. We continue to find it important to eat together as a fellowship. Because we believe that when we do this, we meet God.

Let us break bread together,  let us drink wine [or some other liquid] together, let us praise God together...


Friday
On Friday there is a lot of story. Some places tell the story from arrest to trial to crucifixion to burial. Some only tell the last part of the story. This year we will be in the latter group.

There are other traditional Scripture passages to read on Good Friday. One is Psalm 22, a piece of poetry that the early church appears to have used as a resource as they told the story of Jesus' execution. Another is from Isaiah, one of the "Servant Songs". While there is a great deal of debate as to who the Suffering Servant in Isaiah was originally meant to be (the Messiah? the Israelites?) the Christian church has largely understood (or re-understood) it to refer to Christ.

The readings we will hear this Friday are:
  • Psalm 22: 1-22 (VU p.744)
  • Isaiah 53:1-9
  • Luke 23:33-38, 44-49
This year we are doing something a little bit different for Good Friday. Instead of telling the story and reflecting on why [if?] Jesus needed to be killed the service will take the form of a funeral for Jesus of Nazareth.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Looking Ahead to April 9, 2017 -- Palm Sunday, Stewardship 3

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • Luke 19:29-40 
  • Matthew 5:13-16
The Sermon title is Called to Shine, Called to Season, Called to Praise

Early Thoughts: A parade! Do we stand and watch and wait or do we join in?

Is the Palm Sunday story a stewardship text?  Not usually. But it might be.

As Luke tells the story, Jesus tells those who oppose him, those who want the mob to calm down (either to avoid arousing the ire of the Roman soldiers or simply because they disagree with the mob) that if the crowd were silent the stones themselves would cry out. Sometimes [often?] the presence of God in the world is so overpowering that we simply HAVE to respond.

SO how do we respond?

WE often talk about Palm Sunday as the story of a parade. But I think it is more the story of a carnival (Marcus Borg and John Crossan describe it as carefully orchestrated street theatre). A Parade is often a more passive event for many.  It goes by while the crowd stands and watches. Palm Sunday is a time when everybody is getting involved, indeed it is this level of participation that seems to raise the eyebrows of some of the powerful.

When God is evident in our midst the call is to respond, to get involved, not only to watch in awe and wonder.

Is God in our midst? How will we respond?
--Gord

Monday, March 27, 2017

Looking Forward to April 2, 2017 -- Stewardship #2, More Salt and Light

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • Luke 11:33-36
  • Luke 14:34-35
The Sermon title is Called to be True



Early Thoughts: What does it mean to let our light shine (or let God's light shine through us)? How do we know if we have lost our saltiness?

A couple of weeks ago I asked the sermonic question "why do you give?"  One answer I suggested that day was that we give in response to knowing that we have been blessed.

But there are other reasons why we give. There are other way we encourage each other to give.

One way the church used to get people to give was to foster a sense of obligation or duty (or possibly guilt). And for some generations this was effective. Many people suggest that this is not a strong incentive anymore.

In our world these days people want to know that their gifts make a difference. Think of how many stories get published each fall (in what I tend to refer to as "please give to our charity" season) discussing which organizations have the best record in terms of administrative spending.

Which brings us to letting light shine through us, and remaining salty and zesty.

Centuries ago a theologian said that we are now the hands and feet of Christ:

AS a community of faith we want people to join in the work God has laid before us. One way to have that happen is to invite them, to ask them to share their gifts. An equally important part of getting people to join in the work is to show that it matters.

When we let God's light shine through us, when we intentionally set out to be salt to the world we make a difference. We show that change is possible. We show that we are committed to the ministry to which God has called us. And that makes it more likely that others will see something worth sharing in.

We are called to be light and salt. We are called to make a difference in the world. That take commitment. We often wish others would join us in the work. Showing that we believe it makes a difference, showing that it accomplishes something, showing that this is a good use of gifts (be they time or talent or treasure) is one of the best ways to grow the community of faith-filled workers.

Let us not hide the light. Let us not lose our saltiness. Let's remain bright and zesty.
--Gord


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

April Newsletter

The heart of the year is approaching. The reason we gather is soon to be celebrated. The holiest week of the Christian year, a time when we move from triumph to betrayal to death. And then, as a surprise, LIFE. Life wins!

God sent his son They called him Jesus
He came to love, heal and forgive
He bled and died To buy my pardon
An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives
(verse 1 of Because He Lives by Bill Gaither)
Our hope lies in a story that defies description. Our hope for the future lies in the story of an empty tomb, a crucified and raised Chosen One of God. In some ways it makes no sense. In many ways it makes no sense. Jesus proclaims the coming of the Kingdom and our hope is in an empty cave in a garden outside Jerusalem?

Because he lives I can face tomorrow
Because he lives All fear is gone
Because I know he holds the future
My life is worth the living just because he lives
(chorus of Because He Lives by Bill Gaither)
Every year as we approach Easter it is easy to believe in the power of those who crucify. The power of the powers and the principalities to defy the promise of the Kingdom seems unquestioned. This year is no different.

This evening, less than a month before Easter, as I sit and type this out, the news has stories of the FBI investigating possible Russian involvement in the 2016 US election. There is still a civil war devastating Syria, one that has caused the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. Last week a US court once again accused the White House of trying to ban people from entering the country based on their religion. And that is just a start.

The powers of death, the powers of oppression, the powers of despair, the breeders of fear seem in control. How can we be so naive to think that the Kingdom of Love, Life, Freedom, and Hope could possibly win.

As Bill Gaither says: Because He Lives.

Because God doesn’t give up. Because God looks at the worst the world can do and then says “My turn”. Because God is active in the world the cross is overturned, Jesus is raised, and Life Wins. And that means we have hope.

How sweet to hold A new born baby
And feel the pride And joy he gives
But better still The calm assurance
That child can face uncertain days because he lives
(verse 2 of Because He Lives by Bill Gaither)
In many eras of human existence people have wondered if it makes sense to bring children into the world. As a race we have wondered if the world is a safe place to raise children. But as people of faith the answer is that while parenthood may be a terrifying concept at times we trust that all will be well in the end. Because God has raised Jesus, because life wins, we can all face the uncertainty of life.

Because he lives I can face tomorrow
Because he lives All fear is gone
Because I know he holds the future
My life is worth the living just because he lives
(chorus of Because He Lives by Bill Gaither)
We are people of hope, we are people who trust that Love and Life conquer fear and death. Easter is coming. God is still active in the world. Resurrection brings hope and promise. Jesus lives. And so we keep on living, walking with God into the future.

Blessed Easter.
Gord

Monday, March 20, 2017

Looking Ahead to March 26, 2017 -- 3 Parables About Losing and Finding

The Scripture reading for this week is Luke 15:1-32

The Sermon title is Lost and Found

Early Thoughts: What makes something (or someone) worth finding?

These three parables suggest that God might answer that question differently than some of us.

Suppose you have 100 sheep and one goes missing. What fool would leave the other 99 alone in the wilderness (therefore in danger) to find the lost one -- who is likely dead or injured anyway?

OR...
You have lost 10% of you money.  Surely it makes sens to do everything that you can to find it. But then to celebrate finding it by having a party -- and therefore spending what you just found?

OR...
You have 2 sons. One of them violates every norm of politeness and parental respect by claiming his portion of the family's wealth before you are even ill, much less deceased. Then when he comes back you abandon all sense of propriety by running down the road to greet him. Then you abandon all sense of fiscal management by giving away property (robe and ring) that theoretically now belongs to the  elder brother (when you eventually die) and by throwing a party that involves killing a prized animal -- and forget to send someone to the fields to invite the elder brother. Then you tell the elder brother [who is having a very understandable temper tantrum] to get over it and come on inside.

These stories tell of the God who keeps looking, even when it makes no sense. They tell of the God who rejoices in the lost being returned to where it belongs, no matter the cost of the celebration. They tell of the God who, in grace, welcomes the wanderer home even before the wanderer makes an apology.

Robert Fulghum, in a story in one of his books, suggests that sometimes we get lost on purpose -- only we call it hiding. And then we sometimes hide so well that we get mad when people seem to stop looking for us. Fulghum also suggests that we try the same thing with God.

But of course the witness of Faith and of Scripture is that God doesn't stop looking. Or God never stops waiting for us to "come to our selves" and decide to stop being lost/hiding. And then there is a party! There is always a party!

So maybe we who sometimes feel lost, adrift, wandering aimlessly, need to all our selves to get found? Maybe we who sometimes get really good at playing hide and seek need to "accidentally" let our arm poke out from behind the bush? And then we can join the party too!


The love that will not let us go is the love that keeps looking for us. The wonderful love of which we sing is the love that declares it is always worth looking for the one who is lost.

This is Grace. This is Redemption. This is Hope.

Thanks be to God, the one is is always seeking.
--Gord

Monday, March 13, 2017

Looking Ahead to March 19, 2017 -- Stewardship #1, 3rd Sunday of Lent

This year in Lent we are taking some (well many) of the Sundays to talk about Stewardship. The theme of the Stewardship resource we are launching from is Salt and Light.

The Scripture Readings this week are
  • Acts 2:44-47
  • Matthew 5:1-16
The Sermon title is Called to Share



Early Thoughts: How are you Blessed? How do you share your blessings?

I suspect we might answer that first question differently than Jesus...I mean look at those first few verses of Matthew 5 (the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount as it happens). DO those sound like reasons for blessing?

One of the challenges of faith is to find where and how God is present, both when it seems obvious and when it seems that God is absent. And when we recognize that God is with us we recognize a blessing. When we recognize how God is in the moment with us we can see the world differently.

And that is the first step in being salt and light to the world.

In a couple of weeks we will talk about the salt that has lost its saltiness and the light that is hidden. This week we need to ask how we share the blessings God lays before us.

WE are called to share those blessings. The early church had a particular understanding of what that might mean, as they attempted to live as a communal organization -- everybody contributing what they had for the benefit of all.

How else might we share the taste of God that we have been given? How else might we let the spark of divine light that energizes our souls shine through the shadows of life?

Stewardship is, according to one definition, everything you do after you say "I believe". Stewardship asks what we do with the gifts that flow to us. A big part of how we handle those gifts lies in out attitude...

If we believe the narratives of the world around us, stories that lead us to be fearful and anxious, tales that tell us to watch out for ourselves, our stewardship might be marked by defensiveness and wall building and protecting what (little) we have.

Or we could believe the narratives of faith, stories that tell us we are blessed, tales that tell us not to worry (as folks were reminded on Sunday March 12 with a reading from Matthew 6). Those narratives lead us to a place of greater ease of mind, a place where it is more natural to offer what we have for the service of others.

IT will not always be easy. Life is not always easy. There are days where we feel far from blessed. There are times when those around us feel far from blessed, when the taste of life is ashes, when that shadows grow dark and cold.

We are called to be salt and light.

God seeks to restore flavour to lives that have grown tasteless, to shine the light that can not be overcome into the dark places. God challenges us to be the hands and feet that help to make that happen.

WE share the blessing of life. We share the gifts we have been given to help God's mission to flourish. What do you have to share?
--Gord


Monday, February 27, 2017

Looking Forward to March 5, 2017 -- Annual Meeting Sunday, 1st Sunday of Lent

This year during Lent we will have a number of services looking at Stewardship questions.

This being the first Sunday of the month we will celebrate the sacrament of Communion.  We will also make our monthly Second Offering to support our Local Outreach Fund.

The Scripture reading this week is Matthew 28:16-20.  We will also read together our congregational vision and mission statements.

The Sermon title is Called To Be Church

Early Thoughts: In the Faith Statement we call the New Creed (other denominations have included it in their worship materials, often calling it United Church Creed) we proclaim that:
We are called to be the Church:
    to celebrate God’s presence,
    to live with respect in Creation,
    to love and serve others,
    to seek justice and resist evil,
    to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
       our judge and our hope.

Great. Now what exactly does that mean? How do we live that out?

On this Annual Meeting Sunday I ask that we give careful consideration to that quest. Both to look back at how we did it over the last year and as we look forward to how we will do it in the year to come.

The reason we have vision and mission statements is to guide us as we respond to God's call to be the church. They are there to test all our decisions and actions against. They help us choose how we stewards the gifts God has given us.

Also, during the sermon time there will be time to thank each other for all the ways we have participated in living out our call to be the church, for all the ways we have given of our time and talent over the past year.

WE are called to be the church...
--Gord

Looking Forward to March 3, 2017 -- World Day of Prayer

Each year the Women's Interchurch Council of Canada, in conjunction with sister agencies in other countries, produces resources for the World Day of Prayer. Each year the service is prepared by women in one country and shared around the globe. This year's service comes from the Philippines.



For more about the World Day of Prayer and the Women's Interchurch Council look here:
http://www.wicc.org/world-day-of-prayer/history-prayer/ 


Co-ordination of the services is generally handled by the Women's groups of the sponsoring churches. In Grande Prairie the sponsoring churches are:
St. Paul's United

St. Joseph's Roman Catholic
Forbes Presbyterian
Christ Church Anglican
Trinity Lutheran
The Salvation Army
with the service rotating between the various buildings. This year it is St. Paul's turn to host

The Scripture Reading that has been chosen for the service this year is Matthew 20:1-16.

The topic question for the service is Am I Being Unfair to You?

Meditation Early Thoughts: It is a complaint almost every parent has heard "it's not FAIR!"

Maybe the siblings got a different number of chocolate chips in their cookie. Maybe one got something another didn't. Or maybe they got the same but one thought they deserved more than the other....

That appears to be the complaint in this story. Everyone get paid the same, whether they started work first thin in the morning or only spent the last hour of the day in the fields. On the surface it does not seem fair does it? Most often our understanding of fair compensation would say that the more you do, the more you get.

The landowner disagrees. The landowner points out that the early crew got paid exactly what had been agreed to at the beginning of the contract. If he chooses to be generous (or even overly generous) with those who joined in later in the day what of it?

It is Gospel language. It is the wisdom of God's Kingdom. It is not, in the end about being fair. It is, to be truthful, about being just.

Think of those "fairness" discussions we have with our children. Most often it appears that to be fair means to treat each other equally, to treat each individual the same. Kingdom logic, Godly wisdom, says that to be fair means treating each individual as they need. Take this for example:
In the case of our scripture story, fair means different. The agreed upon wage for a daily labourer was what they needed to eat for that day. Are you less in need of that simply because you were not one of the first chosen? What if you showed up late to the casual labour desk?

Fair means just means needs are being met. It is parabolic logic. It goes against everything we have been taught about fair pay.

But that is what God calls us to do, to be people of justice. Are we willing to upend our understanding of "fair" to ensure all have their needs met?
--Gord

Monday, February 20, 2017

Looking Forward to February 26, 2017 -- Transfiguration, Jesus' Identity

The Scripture reading this week is Luke 9:18-36, 44-50

The Sermon title is Missing the Point

Early Thoughts: Sometimes it is hard to keep track.  Sometimes things don't make a lot of sense. Sometimes we get it wrong.

These things have always been true. Even people we think really "get it" can misunderstand quite badly...

Peter, James and John. If there is a triumvirate of "Best" disciples the Gospels would suggest that this trio is right up there. Surely they, who are so close to Jesus, who get taken up to the top of the mountain and witness the Transfiguration, understand what is happening right?

Sometimes they do. Sometimes they certainly do not....

Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah. Peter will also deny even knowing Jesus.

They hear Jesus say that the path he follows (and the path he invites them to follow) is not one of glory. At one point in the Gospels James and John ask for the prime seats at the table (this happens in Mark 10, when Matthew tells the same story he has their mother asking on their behalf).

Jesus proclaims the power of God to heal, to cast out demons. John gets worried about someone else doing the same thing, seemingly worried about the competition.

Sometimes it is hard to understand what it means to follow Jesus. The disciples are ample proof of this.

Maybe it is because some (much) of what Jesus says is counter-intuitive ("least among all of you is the greatest", the Messiah will be executed). Maybe it is because we don't want to hear. Maybe it is because we have yet to let go of more worldly understandings of 'how the world works'. But for the life of the Christian movement people have struggled with understanding. And that means we sometimes miss the point.

WE could beat ourselves up about that. OR we could remind ourselves that even Peter, James and John sometimes missed the point too. Sometimes they were afraid to admit they did not understand. [And I fully believe there are many things they did not understand until after Easter, when they looked back on what had happened, retrospection is a gift that brings understanding at times].

So to miss the point, to have questions, to be a little unclear makes us normal.

God help us in our understanding and in our confusion.
--Gord

Monday, February 13, 2017

Looking Forward to February 19, 2017 -- Jesus sends out the Disciples

The Scripture Readings for this week are Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-11

The Sermon title is Sent Out!

Early Thoughts:Building and proclaiming the Kingdom is a big job. Too big for one person.

It appears Jesus knows this. And it also appears that Jesus is willing to delegate.

Just for the record, the sending out is still in place.

Jesus sends his followers out to share in the work of the Kingdom. And to a large degree he sends them out on faith and trust, calling them to rely on the kindness of strangers and the law of hospitality. He also tells them to pay attention to the audience, if they are not open to the message, go somewhere else.

How do we live out this challenge?

How do we go out to proclaim the Kingdom, to bring health instead of dis-ease?

Are we willing to take risks with limited resources? Or do we want to make sure we have all the ducks lined up before we take the first step out the door?

Are we prepared to share something that might be offensive to or rejected by some? Or are we stuck in the need to be "nice" (and liked)?

What does it mean to describe ourselves as being sent out in Jesus' name?
--Gord

Monday, February 6, 2017

Looking Forward to February 12, 2017 -- John's Question

This Sunday we will be  celebrating the Sacrament of Communion.

The Scripture reading for this Sunday is Luke 7:18-35

The Sermon title is What Do You See?

(Found this one on Facebook)
Early Thoughts: Who are you? Are you the one we have been waiting for?

Sitting in his prison cell John has obviously been hearing reports about what Jesus is doing. So why is he confused? Why does he send people to ask Jesus who he is?

Maybe in part because John can not see in person, he is forced to rely on hearsay.

And maybe because Jesus does not quite fit the picture John was expecting. Jesus does not seem like the one who has a winnowing fork in his hand.  SO are you the Messiah?

JEsus' answer is pretty simple, if a bit non-responsive.  "Tell John what you have seen" Not a straightforward yes or no, but share what have you seen.  And then think for yourself, from what you have seen, what do you say?

In a couple of chapters Luke with share the account of Jesus saying to his disciples "who do you say I am?", a question they then have to answer based on what they have seen and heard and experienced. This is how God is known, by people sharing and reflecting on what they have seen and heard and experienced.

Even after resurrection, the presence of God is known because people share what they have seen and heard and experienced.

SO what have you seen and heard and experienced to "prove" that God is active in the world?

When you look at the world where do you see God at work?

If people ask you to report bakc on whether God is present, how could you answer?
--Gord

Thursday, January 26, 2017

February Newsletter

Last year at the Annual Congregational Meeting you approved new Vision and Mission Statements. Just to refresh your memory, this is what they say:
Our Mission
Through Faith, we walk on the path Jesus set for us.
The people of St. Paul’s Belong… Believe… Listen… Love… Lead.
Our Vision
Celebrating the gifts of the spirit we are a loving and supportive congregation in service to the Church, the Community, and the World through Faith.

The theory goes that once you have Vision and Mission Statements they then guide everything that the organization does, that everything we do is to live them out. With that in mind, at our January meeting I asked Council to think about 2 questions. One was to name 3 things that are already being done in the life and ministry of St. Paul’s that show our commitment to our vision and mission. I am sure you will be happy (and hopefully not surprised) to know that Council had no problem answering that question – in fact they felt overly limited by only naming 3 (and did name 5 or 6 before being brought back on task).

How would you answer the question? What are the top things we do as a congregation that show us living out the words in the statements above?

The next question I asked them was looking forward. This exercise was actually part 2 of the exercise we had done at our November meeting, when I asked what we might do if we were suddenly gifted with $2 million (a previous newsletter asked that question). This month I asked Council to name 3 things that we could commit to doing in 2017 to further live out our vision and mission, suggesting that some of the “holes” we had identified in November’s discussion might help create ideas (ones that did not require the fictional money).

Your Council likes to dream. Once again limiting to 3 ideas was a challenge. There were lots of ideas about what we “could” do. In the end our ideas were more exploratory than concrete, ready-to-do tomorrow actions. But here is what we came up with:
- Explore ways we can partner with agencies that work with the homeless, for a more regular offering of a meal in our space – such as the one Memphis Blues hosted here, perhaps getting other restaurants on board to provide the food.
- Explore / ask the question of the men … on whether we need more opportunities, gatherings for men of the congregation to interact, meet and have fellowship.
- Explore / ask the question of the youth/ youth leaders: What more can we do or offer in terms of opportunities so they know youth are welcomed, applauded and appreciated for their involvement in services (doing powerpoint, leading services, serving at communion, etc) and in all aspects of the life of the church family?
- Continue to look for and foster opportunities for small group engagement such as the Sunday “Lunch Bunch”

Which of those suggestions excites you? What would you add to the list?

I like all of these ideas, we just need to get people who are excited and will help them grow legs. Given the chance, I might add finding some more ways of being present in/reaching out to the wider community. And I still have a dream of offering monthly alternative worship (or maybe we start with quarterly and build from there?).

I encourage us to be bold. I encourage us to take risks. Somethings we might try and they will not work. Some things we might explore and find enthusiasm or interest lacking. But unless we step out in faith we will never know what is possible.

What will we do this year to expand how we live out our vision and mission? Where will the path of discipleship, of following Jesus, of sharing in God’s work of Kingdom-building lead us this year?
Gord

Minister's Annual Report

Brothers and Sisters, Grace and Peace to You in the Name of Jesus Christ:
another year has come and gone and for the 7th time since joining the life and ministry of this congregation I sit down to write my Annual Report and reflect on the ministry that we share.

I want to begin this year’s report by saying thank you. Thank You to the Scripture Readers, Greeters Candlelighters, and coffee preparers who have added to our worship services over the year. Thank You to the leaders of our programs for children and youth. Thank You to people who organized our large events that raised funds and built community. Thank You to all those people who work in the background, doing dozens of tasks that make this place run smoothly. Thank You to the members of our committees. Thank You to the members of Council. Thank You for your support both of our congregational budget and for your support to the community through the Local Outreach Fund. The Stewardship & Finance Committee has tried to come up with a way to quantify the number of volunteer hours that make this place the faith community that it is. We have not yet found the equation to do so, but I am sure that the number of volunteer hours accumulated each year would be in the 1000’s. Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.

And on a more personal note, Thank You as a congregation for all the support that is offered to me personally and to us as a family. Many of my colleagues across the church will note that they often feel unappreciated or unsupported. That has never been true of my time in this congregation. You are generous in spirit and in action. Thank You.

Elsewhere in this report people are talking about what happened in 2016. I will let them tell the story. The thing that made 2016 different for me was the sabbatical. I had never taken a sabbatical before and to tell the truth was unsure what it would feel like to be off for that amount of time (and really it kind of felt weird). But as the start of the Sabbatical time approached last Spring I became more and more aware how much I was feeling the need for a time of rest and refreshment. And so another Thank You. Thank You for making the time possible, and Thank You to all who stepped in to provide support and leadership in my absence.

An annual report has two functions. One is to look back on what was. The other is to look ahead to what we hope will be. After all, on of the pieces of business at the Annual Congregational Meeting is to pass the budget, the spending plan, for the next year. And a budget is one of the ways an organization talks about what it wants to accomplish.

What are some of my hopes for the year? One is to spend less time in the church office. Periodically my elbow tells me I have been spending too much time on the computer. Optimally I would like to spend (in a normal week) 5 half days in the office at the most. To help make that happen I am looking for people to visit in those other hours. So call me and we will set up a time when I can escape from the computer screen.

Another hope of mine is related to the fact that I have been here for 6.5 years now. With time comes the danger of falling into a routine (which sometimes has the danger of becoming a rut). It is my intent to talk to some friends who have served a congregation for long term (in one case coming up on 30 years) abut how they kept the ministry fresh. It is my hope that we continue to try new things and keep each other growing as we try to understand what it means to follow Jesus in Grande Prairie in the 21st century.

A new year beckons, new challenges await (and hopefully no new floods).
Gord

Monday, January 23, 2017

Looking Forward to January 29, 2017 -- Sabbath Controversy

The Scripture reading this week is Luke 6:1-16

The Sermon title is Choose!

Early Thoughts: How do we use the tools, traditions, and rituals of our faith to best serve the cause of love?

Do those rules, tools, traditions and rituals sometimes get in the way of the life of love?

Then what do we do?

Sabbath observance is there to serve the people of God. Sabbath observance is there because we know that we are healthier when we are on "on" 24/7. Sabbath also helps us remember that we are not in control, that God is.

That is all and good.  But what if we lose sight of the ultimate goal? OR what if the balance point is hard to find?

That is where the text takes us this week. Jesus is in a debate with others about how Sabbath ties in to the life of love.

Jesus reminds his opponents that God trumps Sabbath, that grace and mercy trump rules. Jesus reminds us that caring for each other trumps all else.

Sabbath is a vital part of what it means to be Jewish. To this day Sabbath is a central pillar of Jewish faith. I think it is safe to say that Sabbath-keeping is no longer a central part of what it means to be Christian in Western society. But I suspect the principle about rules vs. people is still at stake.

We are often called to see where the life of love leads us to endorse and follow rules and traditions and rituals as they have been passed down to us. We are also challenged to know when those things need to be recast, or put aside. And it is often unclear which is which.
--Gord

Monday, January 16, 2017

Looking Forward to January 22, 2017 -- The Call of the First Disciples



This week we will be celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism.

The Scripture Reading for this week is Luke 5:1-11

The Sermon title is Follow!

Early Thoughts:  What would it take? What would lead you to change your priorities and pledge to live life helping to grow the Kingdom?

Jesus commandeers a boat to provide himself with a speaking platform. And then he decides that he will tell professionals how to fish. much of the time this would be the beginning of a story about someone who is taking advantage of people, or is full of himself. (Imagine Justin Trudeau or Donald Trump doing something like this.)

But instead we have the set up to a miracle and call story.

The advice about how to fish is accepted, albeit a bit begrudgingly, and results in an amazing catch of fish. But there's more!

Peter, recognizing that something special is happening, has a guilt attack. He is convinced he is not worthy to be in Jesus' presence.

Normally one would expect that the next line would be about forgiveness. After all that is what we find in the Isaiah story we read back in the fall. But Jesus appears to ignore (?) this guilt attack. instead he invites Peter to join in the new thing that is about to happen. And Peter, along with James and John, says yes. Jesus knows that they are not perfect (as they will prove more than once) but invites them along just the same.

What would it take to lead you to join in the building of the Kingdom? What sign of God's presence would change your life?

If God looks upon you while you claim to not be worthy and invites you to join in just the same, what would lead you to say yes?

And once you have said yes, what will it look like? DO you serve by leaving something behind? Do you serve by continuing to do what you are already doing, maybe with a new focus?

God and Jesus invite us to follow, as flawed as we are. How will we respond?
--Gord

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Help Wanted! -- A Newspaper Column

Many years ago The Who asked the musical question “Who are you? Who, who, who, who?”. As we mature and age we all wrestle with that very question. Who am I? What am I going to be? How will I make a difference in the world?

At the beginning of his ministry Jesus wrestles with the same question. Right after his baptism by John Jesus is led out into the wilderness for a time of testing, a time of sorting out what it means to be, as was affirmed at his baptism, "you are my [God] Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased"

It is a common part of growing up. Decades ago in Junior High I remember talking about “Walkabout”, the story of a young Australian Aborigine who was taking part in a coming of age ritual, a journey of self-discovery. Or think about the many people who finish school and take a year off to “find themselves”. Getting a sense of who we are, of who God has shaped us to be allows us to make choices about careers, about volunteering, about how we will live our lives. It also allows us to figure out how we are going to be a part of God’s ongoing mission in the world.

Because God is at work in the world. God has a mission in the world and God is constantly inviting as, as individuals and as communities to participate in the missio Dei, God’s mission. And what is God’s mission?

Some suggest God’s mission is convert all people to one specific religion. I would tend to disagree. I think God has a broader vision.

As Mark tells the story, when Jesus appears on the scene and begins his ministry it is with these words: “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has come near”. And from then on Jesus is all about proclaiming the Kingdom of God. God’s mission is to bring the Kingdom of God to full flower here on earth. As we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”.

Which leaves a few more questions (I was always taught that the most important things in life are the questions we ask). One is what good things are keeping you from sharing in God’s mission? When Jesus is led out into the wilderness for his time of testing the tempter offers three valuable and worthy options for how he can live out his life. He can feed the hungry, he can take political power and set things to right, he can be a miracle worker. Jesus sees through the trap and rejects all three. Then he goes on to be who God has called and shaped him to be – which includes feeding the hungry and working miracles as it happens. So what good options are drawing you away from what you truly feel called to do?

Another question is the one that started this column. Who are you? Who are you now, in this season of your life? The role we have to play in God’s mission is intrinsically linked to who we are. And so as we change our role may also change. Who are you? What giftedness is attached to you being who you are?

What is your passion? What are your talents (and yes everyone has talents)? I believe that if we listen with our hearts our passion tells us where God is calling us to go. Years ago Frederick Beuchner wrote “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Aristotle said “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.”. What is your passion, what are your talents? What needs do you see in the world around you that intersect with your passion and your talents?

God is at work in the world. God invites each of us to share in the building up of the Kingdom of God. Each one of us is challenged to use the gifts God has given us for the betterment of the world.

Look at yourself. Ask how you can use what you have to participate in God’s mission. And who knows, you may find that you are already doing it. In his book Already Missional Dr. Brad Morrison points out that many churches are full of people sharing in God’s Mission in their communities. We just don’t always recognize that what we are doing is part of building the Kingdom.

Thank you for the work you are already doing! And keep your eyes open, God may have a job waiting just for you.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Looking Ahead to January 15, 2017 -- The Temptation of Christ

The Scripture Reading for this week is: Luke 4:1-13

The Sermon title is Decide!

Early Thoughts: Who are you? How will you fulfill the mission God has for you?

That is a question we all need to wrestle with as we grow and mature as people of faith. God invites us to participate in the missio Dei, to share in the work God is doing in the world.

Turns out Jesus needed to do the same thing.

According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, right after his baptism Jesus is led (or driven depending on the Gospel) into the wilderness for a time of testing. This week we are reading Luke's version of that event.

The Tempter/Tester (because that is what Satan is in Jewish thought, a member of the heavenly court whose role is to test the righteous) offers the words "If you are the Son of God...". What does it mean to Jesus to be, as was affirmed at his baptism "you are my [God] Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased"?

In an exchange chock full of scripture references (on both sides) The Satan offers three different scenarios. Jesus could feed the hungry. Jesus could have political power. Jesus could be a miracle worker. Jesus turns down each of them. And, it would appear, in the process gains clarity about who he is and what his mission is.

What temptations might distract us from our vocations?

AS we explore who we are in this season of our lives, as we explore how God is calling us to join in the missio Dei what will we decide?
--Gord

Monday, January 2, 2017

Looking Forward to January 8, 2017 -- John the Baptist

This Sunday we will celebrate the sacrament of Communion.

From now until Easter the Narrative Lectionary will lead us on a journey through the Gospel according to Luke.

The Scripture Reading for this Sunday is Luke 3:1-22.

The Sermon title is Prepare!

Early Thoughts: In chapter 1 Luke tells us about 2 unexpected pregnancies. One or them, of course, is Jesus. The other is John the Baptist, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth.

Now we jump to chapter 3 and find the fully grown John making a bit of a name for himself. He is telling people to prepare for the coming of the Promised One. And he is not pulling any punches.

John is preaching "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins". And to do that means you can not be shy about people's shortcomings.  Not to mention that John apparently never read Miss Manners or "How to Win Friends and Influence People".  No nonsense about winning more flies with honey here. As Luke describes it, John is all about the vinegar.

Is this how we prepare for the coming of the the Kingdom?

In part I think it is. In Scripture, in the words of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus, we find a picture of what the Kingdom of God is/will be. In the Gospels Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom has come to reality in him, but also that it has yet to come in its full glory. And yet I think that if we are really honest with each other we know the may ways that the world shows itself to not be ready for the Kingdom. Equally important, if we are honest with each other (and ourselves), we know that we do not always live as Kingdom people.

Self examination and confession and repentance are a touchy subject with some people. Some parts of the church have, historically and in the present, focused far too much on our sinfulness and brokenness -- to the extent that humanity is seen as beyond redemption, unable on its own accord to live in accordance with The Way of Christ. On the other hand some people are too uncomfortable with self-examination to take a solid look at their behaviour and so remain apparently oblivious to their own mis-steps and shortcomings (there is a potential that this obliviousness is a public face and they are internally wracked by guilt and insecurity). Some parts of the church focus almost exclusively on private/personal morality and miss cultural/social/systemic sinfulness. Some focus almost exclusively on social/cultural/systemic issues and miss out the discussion of private/personal sinfulness. And all parts of the church (and all of us as individuals) tend to rate sins as more or less important.

But to prepare for life in Christ is to look honestly at the issue of sinfulness, of where we (as individuals and as a collective) have missed the mark. This is what John can do for us. This is why it is important to read about John and not jump straight to Jesus (for the record Jesus also calls people to account for their individual and collective behaviour, as does Paul as part of instructing folk how to live as followers of Christ) and talk about God's grace and forgiveness. If the Kingdom is growing within, around, and among us then we are being changed and transformed. To open ourselves to that transformation is to know who we are and look to who we are becoming.

Yes John seems to be missing God's grace. But John is not the Promised One, John points to and prepares the way for the Promised One. Jesus comes to proclaim the Kingdom, to proclaim God's Grace, to invite us to share in the transformation of the world, a transformation that has begun and is continuing. Are we prepared? Are we preparing?
--Gord