Monday, March 9, 2020

Looking Ahead to March 15, 2020 -- 3rd Sunday in Lent

For the next three weeks we have long stories from John's Gospel to reflect upon. This week's reading is John 4:1-42.

The Sermon title is Thirsty?



Early Thoughts: How thirsty are you?  Thirsty for what?

We NEED water. Without it we don't survive. Historically speaking, access to water is one of those things that  determines where towns would develop.

But is this story just about that clear life-giving liquid?

I think not.

At the beginning of their dialogue the Samaritan woman at the well thought Jesus was talking about water. Then she seems to have realized he was talking about something else. And out of that discussion she became a witness and evangelist. Jesus, it appears, touched some deep yearning inside her, some deep thirst that she needed to have quenched in order to have life in abundance.

What deep thirst(s) do you have in your life?

Jesus comes to bring us life in abundance. Jesus comes to quench our deep thirsts. I suggest we live in a world where many are incredibly thirsty. Sometimes we know what we thirst or yearn for, sometimes we just know that something is missing but have yet to identify what that is. Where does the faith story help us find what we yearn for? Where does faith help fill an empty spot? Where does the Living Water flood in and quench our thirst with a never-ending flow?

Jesus meets a woman at a well. They have a very interesting dialogue. Her life is changed. Through her Jesus meets her neighbours. When we have our thirst quenched how can we help but invite others to that same well? Maybe they too will find what they have been looking for?

For what do you thirst? What drops of Living Water can you share with your thirsty neighbours?

All who are thirsty.....COME AND DRINK
--Gord

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

March Newsletter



As I sit down to write this it is Ash Wednesday. Later this evening I will go to worship where I will have ashes smeared on my forehead in the shape of a cross, accompanied by the words “remember that you are dust and to dust you will return”.

Cheery beginning to the season of Lent is it not?

Then again Lent is not known as a season of fun and frivolity. That is part of why the day before it begins some people celebrate Carnival and others Mardi Gras as a last blowout before the solemn season. Lent is a time of preparation and reflection as we walk with Jesus on the path that leads to a cross on a hill. Lent is traditionally called a “penitential season”, a time to reflect on how we have or have not lived as Christ calls us to live. As we prepare for the New Life and New Hope of Easter Sunday we reflect on who we are and how we might need to change.

We begin with Ash Wednesday, a day to be reminded of our mortality. But what about those ashes? Some see the ashes as a sign of repentance. Some clergy have services where they get people to write confessions down, put them in a bowl, and then burn them as a part of the service. Some have then used those ashes for the marking of the foreheads.

Or maybe the ashes serve to remind us of the words of committal “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. Maybe they remind us that we are not permanent parts of this world. Maybe they give us a sense of perspective on how important we are.

I think both of those things can be true. But I think there is one more thing.

Traditionally the ashes for Ash Wednesday come from the burning of the dried out palm branches of the previous spring. Palm Sunday’s story has within it great hope and potential. “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!” Maybe this year the cheering will lead to the coming of God’s Reign in full glory?!?

But it doesn’t. The hopes don’t come to full flower. And then we mark ourselves with the remains of those hopes. Possibly as a reminder to hope? Possibly as a reminder of failure?

The Reign of God is not here in full glory – yet. We are not living as God wants us to – yet. But we are (hopefully) moving in that direction. The cross of ashes: a sign of repentance, a sign of our own eventual death, a sign of dashed hopes; calls us to reaffirm our willingness to allow God to transform our lives.

This Lenten season I invite us all to reflect on how we have or have not lived as people of Love. How have we loved God, our neighbours, our selves? How could we have done it differently or better? When New Life comes again where will we let it take us?

In the end the ashes are not the last word. From ashes can come life. It is happening in the wildfires of Australia as I type. As I ponder the ashes I will wear later tonight I also ponder the ancient myth of the Phoenix. But maybe more about that come Easter, when the ashes give way to new life, new hope, new possibilities.

WE are mortal. We can’t forget that. But we are invited into eternal life too. The ashes wash off the face. Life and hope and love will win in the end. Thanks be to God.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Looking Ahead to March 1, 2020 -- 1st Sunday in Lent

As this is the 1st Sunday of the month we will be celebrating the Sacrament of Communion and we will be collecting our 2nd Offering for the  Local Outreach Fund.

Also our Annual Congregational Meeting will be taking place following the service.  Lunch and Childcare are being provided.

The Scripture Readings for this 1st Sunday of Lent are:
  • Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
  • Matthew 4:1-11
The Sermon title is Who Do We Want to Be?

Early Thoughts: Each year we begin Lent with the story of Jesus being led (or driven depending on the Gospel) into the wilderness for a time of testing. This year we pair it with the Genesis account of Eve being tested by the serpent. Repeatedly the Tempter says to Jesus "If you are the Son of God...". Part of the serpent's argument to Eve is "when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God". How many temptations in our lives tie in to questions of identity, questions of who we think we are and/or who we think we want (or perhaps ought) to be?

Jesus has just been baptized by John. Many people, then and now, see baptism as a significant life event. Matthew tells us that when Jesus was baptized he had a vision of the heavens being opened and God's Spirit alighting on him. How does one respond to a significant event like that?

Sometimes life-changing events [Jesus' public ministry begins after his baptism by John] prompt us to do some examination of our lives. We are pushed to ask if we are on the right path, or to ask which path we might follow from this point forward. At a deeper level we may start to wonder who we really are. This, I believe, is part of what lies under the story of Jesus in the wilderness.

So who do we [as individuals, as a community of faith, as a city, as a nation...] want to be? Who do we think God is calling us to be? What are we tempted to think we could be?

Traditionally the season of Lent is a time for self-reflection. Identity is a good thing to reflect on. We need to look at who we are currently and who we could be. We need to look at where we think we are living into our identity as beloved children of God -- and where we think we might be falling short.

In our myth of how the world came to be less than God created it to be, Adam and Eve were tempted to be like God. In the Wilderness the Tempter offers Jesus a variety of paths, but Jesus chooses to remain true to his understanding of who God calls him to be. What tempts us from the path of wisdom? How do we resist?
--Gord

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Annual Report for 2019


As a fire is meant for burning with a bright and warming flame,
so the church is meant for mission, giving glory to God’s name.
(Hymn #578 In Voices United, lyrics by Ruth Duck)
An Annual Report gives us the chance to ask how our fire burnt this year. In the pages of this document you will hear about many things that happened within this congregation in 2019. I am not going to recap them. I am however going to say thank you. Thank you for all the ways you have supported the work and mission of St. Paul’s United over the last 12 months. Thank you for financial gifts, for hours spent sorting Garage Sale Items, for food brought to the Beef Dinner. Thank your for reading Scripture, or greeting on Sunday morning, or serving communion, or preparing post-worship coffee. Thank you for sharing your music,. Than you for leading Sunday School and Youth programming. Thank you for holding each other in prayer. Thank you for all the other ways you have helped us live out the mission we share. Our flame has been bright and warm as we live out our mission because of you. THANK YOU.

From a more personal level, thank you for the support offered to Patty, the girls and me last May with the death of my father. This is a very generous and supportive congregation and you continue to show that each and every month.

We are learners; we are teachers; we are pilgrims on the way.
We are seekers; we are givers; we are vessels made of clay.
(Hymn #578 In Voices United, lyrics by Ruth Duck)
An Annual report is also a chance to look ahead. In fact I think the main purpose of the Annual Report and Meeting should be to look ahead to the year(s) to some. As people who are constantly learning and teaching, as people sometimes walking boldly on a clear path and sometimes inching forward trying to find the path where will we end up this year? I firmly believe that everyone reading this (and everyone who is not reading this) has gifts to give, to share with us as we continue to live out our Mission and Vision. I invite us all to keep seeking for the best way to be who God has called us to be in the 21st Century. It will likely be different than who God called us to be in the years past, and that may be troubling. But we can seek for it together.

“We are vessels made of clay.” As we move forward we will not always get it right. I invite us to be ready to take risks, to allow each other to make mistakes as we seek the path that God has laid out for us. I think the church is meant to be an un-fired piece of pottery, so that when the need arises we can be reshaped without being shattered. In the year(s) to come are we willing to let our clay be put back on the potter’s wheel and spun into a new shape?

By our gentle, loving actions, we would show that Christ is light.
In a humble, listening Spirit, we would live to God’s delight.
(Hymn #578 In Voices United, lyrics by Ruth Duck)

In his book The Phoenix Affirmations Eric Elnes includes this Affirmation: “Acting on the faith that we are born with a meaning and purpose, a vocation and ministry that serve to strengthen and extend God's realm of love.“ This, I think is our call. To me, this is what it means to say: Through Faith, we walk on the path that Jesus set for us. The people of St. Paul’s Belong…Believe…Love… Listen…Lead. In 2020 we will continue to share God’s love, we will continue to light God’s light shine through us. We will do this because it is part of our very identity, it is where we find meaning, it is our vocation.

God is at work in the world. The congregation of St. Paul’s United is part of how God is at work in the world. It has been true in the past, it will be true in the future. I hope we can listen for God’s voice to guide us along. I hope that we share God’s delight as we share God’s love with each other, with Grande Prairie, and with the world around us.

Gord.







Monday, February 3, 2020

Looking Ahead to February 9, 2020

This week we continue our What the Church Means to Me series. This week I am answering the prompting question.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Romans 12:2, 9-13
  • Deuteronomy 11:18-19
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:12-17
  • Matthew 11:28-30
Reflection: Safety. Community. Learning.

These are three of the things that the church has offered to me over the years. Maybe with a touch of transformation mixed in. Oh and some recovery/rejuvenation....

Well and sometimes the church has led me to needing recovery or rejuvenation.

These are also things that echo with what people tell me about this congregation.

Telling my story will not be as much about this congregation, because my role here is different from our other story-tellers. So I will talk about the church over the course of my life. Touching on those places I have been in paid ministry but also those where I was a student, and the one where I was a child.

And the themes come through.  A place of safety and belonging. An place where we can ask questions and learn. A place of adoptive family (which sometimes one becomes closer to than your blood family).
--Gord

Monday, January 27, 2020

Looking Ahead to February 2, 2020

As this is the first Sunday of the month we will be celebrating the Sacrament of Communion during worship.  Also we will be taking our Second Offering to support our Local Outreach fund (which has been heavily used this month).

For the month of February we are inviting people to tell their stories about what the church means to them.  Each story will be followed by Scripture and a reflection based on what is included in the story.

This week our Scripture Readings are:
  • Psalm 98 (VU p.818)
  • 1 Peter 4:8-11
  • Amos 5:21-24
Possible Reflections: Psalm 98 is one of a number of Psalms that talk about singing. Many people here at St. Paul's have a love for music and a love of sharing their musical gifts. Music has a special place in the church in general but most certainly here at St. Paul's

Last year when we had a series of stories told one of the threads that ran through all of the stories was community. To me the 1 Peter passage talks about community. It talks about holding each other in love. It also talks about open-ness to sharing the gifts we have. These things are vital as we build up our faith community.

When people talk about the history of the United Church of Canada in general and this congregation in specific a word that often comes up is justice. In this congregation there are memories of hard work done around God's call for a just world. Amos is one of those prophets that challenges us to do this continuously.

Come on Sunday and find out whose stroy we hear this week! And do these passages mesh with their story?
--Gord

Monday, January 20, 2020

Looking Ahead to January 26, 2020

The Scripture Reading this week is Matthew 4:12-23

SOURCE
The Sermon title is Gone Fishing!

Early Thoughts:  What would happen if the Word-Made-Flesh showed up at your workplace? What if someone walked in while you were working and said "I have a better offer, leave this all behind and come with me right now"? What if the word 'better' was missing from that invitation?

This story possibly asks more questions than it answers, which may be why we read a version of it almost every year.
  • why did Jesus choose them?
  • why did they drop everything and go?
  • did they have a clue what was ahead of them?
  • what did their families think?
Answers to none of those are in the text. To a large extent these questions are never answered in the rest of the Gospel either.  For the most part they remain a mystery (other than the 3rd question -- I think it is safe to say they did not have a clue).  Still we have the story. We still we see people respond to a strange invitation with strange haste.

Jesus must have seen something in these fishermen by the sea. They must have seen something in Jesus. And what was seen led to them being called and, in turn, answering the call.

Which does bring us back to the question at the top. If Jesus showed up in the middle of your daily life and said "got something for you to do, come on!" how would you react? I suspect most of us would want more details first. After all it is only prudent to get more information before totally changing our lives. What would make the offer so intriguing that we would jump in without further investigation?

Usually in our culture Gone Fishing (or maybe Gone Fishin') is about leisure. It evokes images of escaping/running away from the trials and tribulations of daily life for a relaxing day on the lake. But if you make your living catching fish it has a very different meaning. Jesus is not inviting an escape from the world. Jesus is inviting hard work as these people will interact with the world in a new way.

I think Jesus offers us the same invitation. Following Jesus is not an escape from the world's troubles, following Jesus means engaging with the world and its troubles.  And we may not get a lot of information about what is coming.  Will we drop our nets and follow? Or will we pretend we don't hear?
--Gord

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

January Newsletter

Belong!
Through Faith, we walk on the path that Jesus set for us.
The people of St. Paul’s Belong…Believe…Love… Listen…Lead.

How do you know if you really belong somewhere? Is there a way of measuring it? Or is it more of a feeling?

One way to measure belonging is by membership. If you are a member than you belong. I think that is only true to a point. Certainly that is how structures may define ‘belong’ but it is overly simplistic. I have been places where the organization may have said I was a member, that I belonged and did not always feel like I did. I have also been places where people certainly felt they belonged but had no interest in being members.

Looking at my life I think feeling that I belong somewhere has a number of sides. One is “do I agree with what this organization/group believes or is all about?”. We may be fully welcomed in but if we feel out of step with the values of the group, or the members of the group, we may not feel like we truly belong there. It is hard to be the minority voice in a place. And let us be honest: no place is the right place for everybody.

Another aspect of belonging, in my mind, is “am I actually allowed to be myself here?”. If I am different in some way is that allowed? If I am in a place where the answer is no I will never feel that I belong, even if I am inducted into membership, or given a job, or placed on the Board. I may stay but it will be in a state of tension. An associated point is “do they really want me here for me or just for the skills and energy and labour I bring to the table?”. There was a time when being asked to be on a committee or help with an event was the way a newcomer knew they had truly become welcome in a church community. These days I think there is a bit more skepticism on that account.

A third aspect I want to highlight is “are they really letting me in?”. Are people drawing their circles wider to make room or do I feel like I am crashing the party? Sometimes the circle is kept closed in a very intentional fashion. But I believe that more often than not the people in the circle think that it is wide open when to the outsider it looks very different. Many of us don’t want to be the party-crasher. We may not want effusive, over-the-top welcomes but we want to feel that we are not poking in somebody else’s private space.

What makes you feel like you do (or do not) belong in the St. Paul’s community? How has/does that change over time?

I think it interesting that we begin our list of words with Belong. To me it says that we are first and foremost a community. Starting with Believe might say something different. But Belong says to me that we want to be seen as welcoming, as a place where the circle can always be drawn wider, a place where people can find a home.

And yet I wonder. Does everyone feel that they belong here? Does everyone feel welcome here? And I know that we who are already here can not answer those questions with full accuracy. We would like to believe that the answer is yes but we can’t know for sure. We need to be intentional at connecting with the people who are not represented in our midst to know for sure. There are a couple of ways we can do that. One would be to use the materials and self-study that are prepared by Affirm United for ministries wanting to declare themselves as Affirming.

To be honest I think we are more welcoming than other churches, even other United Churches, I have known. But if we claim that Belonging is a key value, and I think we do, we need to have the courage to explore what that means. And we need the courage to adapt to become more welcoming if that is what our exploration tells us is needed. Having new people join our community will change our community. That may be a good thing.
--Gord

Monday, January 13, 2020

Looking Ahead to January 19, 2020

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Isaiah 49:1-7
  • John 1:29-42
The Sermon title is Behold! The Lamb Servant

Early Thoughts: What did John see?  When he saw Jesus baptized? When he saw Jesus walking that day? What did John see that lead him to say "Look, here is the Lamb of God"?

What did John's disciples see? What did they see (or hear) that made them take John's words seriously and follow Jesus? What did they see or hear that lead them to go find others and say "We have found the Messiah"? What was in their voices that prompted those others to seek out this man?

From such questions a movement is started.

As I mentioned about the so-called 'Servant Songs' last week, there is a strong tendency in Christian history to read this Isaiah passage as if it is talking about Jesus. On the surface it is not clear who it is talking about, but I doubt it was meant to be about one who would not be born for several centuries when the words were written. But for those who had seen and known Jesus, those who were trying to understand how God had been revealed in this man, reading the old words would have rung a bell.  2nd Isaiah was not talking about Jesus, but maybe we can use the words of the prophet to help us understand who Jesus was and is. Maybe we can use those words to try and clarify what God is up to in the world today.

We proclaim Jesus as the Light of the World.  A few verses earlier John talked about the Word as being the true light (which shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it). Later in John's Gospel Jesus will say "I am the Light of the world". Isaiah proclaims that the servant of God will be a light, not only to Israel but to the nations.

We read that Jesus chooses to live and serve God. We read that because of who  Jesus is people choose to seek him out, to learn more, to ask questions. And some of them choose to follow him (I assume there are other who choose not to follow).

Two men heard John talk about Jesus and they got curious. One of them went to find his brother, who also got curious.  There is an attractiveness about the one who serves. It draws attention.

Almost 2000 years later we still have questions. We are still drawn to the one known as the Lamb of God, the Servant.  Will we be willing to ask our questions? Will we listen and watch for the answers? Will we share our curiosity with others?
--Gord

Monday, January 6, 2020

Looking Ahead to January 12, 2020 -- Baptism of Christ Sunday

On the first Sunday after Epiphany we are invited to reflect on Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. And to reflect on our own Baptism.

During Children's Time this week we will be invited to choose a "Spirit Word" to carry with us for the year. The idea is that we draw a word and are "asked to reflect on that word for the coming year. The people are invited to ponder what significance this word might have in their lives, and how God might be speaking to them through that simple message" (source and more on the idea here). Often this is done with Stars on Epiphany Sunday but we will use Doves, an ancient symbol of the Holy Spirit. and link it to the dove in the Baptism of Jesus story.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Isaiah 42:1-9
  • Matthew 3:13-17
The Sermon title is Beloved Servant

Early Thoughts: Baptism. In Baptism we acknowledge the Baptisee as a child of God. In Baptism we are, as our Baptism liturgy says:
By water and the Spirit,
we are called, claimed, and commissioned:
we are named as God’s children,
claimed by Christ,
and united with the whole Christian community
of every time and place.
Strengthened by the Holy Spirit,
we live out our commission;
to spread the love we have been given throughout the world.
 When Jesus is baptized, over John's objections, Jesus is named as God's Beloved Child, with whom God is "well-pleased". As Matthew tells his story of Jesus' ministry this is the beginning. Yes we have a Christmas story with visitors from the East before now but this moment is the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, the beginning of Jesus starting to live out who he is called and formed to be.

Whoever that is...

In the writings of and stories about Isaiah we have these odd passages we tend to call the "servant songs". They talk about God's servant and what that servant will do.  We read one of those this week. There has been much debate about who the servant in these songs is meant to be. Is it the nation? Is it the "prophet like Moses" that tradition says will come? Is it the Messiah? Many Christian writers have read these passages and assumed that the servant is Christ. I think this is a reading backward, reading Christ into a passage that was not about him in the first place, an interpretive choice. Which does not make it automatically invalid, I just think we need to be honest about what we are doing.

If we read the servant songs of Isaiah and we see Christ then what to they have to say about Christ?

If we combine the "job description" from the servant song and the baptismal blessing then where do we end up? We end up with a Beloved Child and Servant. We end up with a vision for what Christ is all about. And since it has long been understood that to be Christian is to strive to be Christ-like we have a glimpse of who we might be called to be.

Are we ready to be Beloved Servants as well?
--Gord