Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Eve

WE have 2 services this year.  One at 5:30 and one at 7:00.

At the 5:30 service we will tell the Christmas story, we will sing some carols, we will light some candles.  And we will also have a different Christmas story A Special Place for Santa, followed by a special activity based on the story.

At 7:00 we will also sing carols, we will also light candles (at the beginning and at the end of the service), we will also hear and reflect on the story.

The Scripture Readings for this service will be:
  • Luke 1:26-38
  • Luke 2:1-20

The Reflection will be in 3 sections.
After the first Scripture reading we will hear about Mary's fear.
After the second Scripture Reading we will hear about the Shepherd's fear.
Both Mary and the shepherd are visited by an angel.  And in both cases the angel starts out by saying "Don't Be Afraid".  SO we need to ask what they might have been afraid of (other than an angel appearing and talking to you which would be a little off-putting in and of itself).

The 3rd section of the reflection is called Fear and Change Today.
The Christmas story is all about chagne.  The promise of Christmas is that God breaks into the world, God comes to be among us, in order to change the world.  This is encapsulated in my favourite of the magazine ads developed for the United Church of Canada Emerging Spirit campaign:
And yet change it truly terrifying for many of us, particularly when we can not control the change.  SO we need to hear again the words of the angel.  Don't be afraid. 

God IS breaking into the world again this Christmas.  God has hope for the world, hope that things will (some day in the near or distant future) get better.  GOd is among us, coming as a weak and dependent child--with all the potential that childhood suggests, coming to spur us forward, coming so that the world will be changed.  Do not be afraid!  This is good news for all people.  Hope will overcome despair, justice and peace will overcome inequity and violence, love will overcome fear and hate, joy will come even to the wilderness.

For unto US a child is born.  And unto US a child is given. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Blue Christmas

This Sunday Clairmont United and St. Paul's United host our Annual Blue Christmas Service at 3:00 in Clairmont.

The Scripture REadings for this service are:
  • Psalm 121
  • Isaiah 40:1-4, 11
Early Thoughts: There is no time of year that is happy for everybody.  It is just that simple.

And so what do you do when you don't feel the way the TV commercials tell you you should feel?

You give yourself permission.  Life is not all joy and merry.  Christmas isn't either.  So we give ourselves permission to name the bittersweet, or just plain bitter, aspects of the season.  And we look for comfort, for hope.

THE promise of faith is that we are not alone.  In our joy and in our sorrow, in our hope and in our despair, when we are surrounded by friends and family and when someone is missing, we are not alone.

Through Isaiah we hear the promise of comfort, for our time of troubel comes to a close.  THe Psalmist asks where to look for help -- and answers with God.  WE are not alone.  Whatever heaviness we carry into and through the Christmas Season we do not carry it alone.

ANd here is the secret, the one no TV special will tell you.  The christmas story, the real one we find in Luke and Matthew, is not all joy and light either.  It has people who are afraid, people who do nto know how they are going to get through.  Life is not always what we want it to be.  And so we give ourselves permission to lament, to name our losses, to mourn for what could have been, to acknowledge the pain.  And we look to GOd for the comfort and the strength and the help to carry on.

Thanks be to GOd.  In our Joy and sorrow, when the way is easy and when it is hard, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Looking Forward to December 11, 2011 -- 3rd Sunday of Advent

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Luke 1:47-55 (VU p.898)
  • Luke 1:68-79 (VU p.900)
  • Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

The Sermon title is Be Not Afraid, Justice shall be done.

Early Thoughts: Meek and mild? I don't think so. Mary's song announces a world about to be turned upside down.

Mary's song, the Magnificat, has been set to many tunes over the centuries. We are singing this one this week:

It is a song of defiance. It is a song of change. It is a song of revolution.

In Luke chapter 4 Jesus begins his ministry (as Luke tells the story) by reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  In fact he reads from what we call chapter 61. [side note: the original manuscripts of Scripture (both Hebrew and Greek) do not have chapter or verse number {nor punctuation} these have been added over the centuries, primarily for ease of reference].  Luke's Jesus is born to a woman with revolutionary ideas, and shares those ideas about justice throughout his ministry.

This fall we have heard a lot about Justice.  Between the OCCUPY movements and the Federal Government's omnibus justice bill the news has been full of the word, albeit in very different (though arguably related) meanings. What do we mean when we say that Mary sings of Justice, when we say that Jesus preaches the coming of Justice?

More or less we are talking about economic and social justice.  We are talking about asking the questions like "why do some have so much while others can't have enough to survive?"  We are talking about wondering why some people are treated like they are of less importance, less worth, than others.  To deal with these question means turning the world upside down, both in terms of economic assumptions and in terms of social/class/"in crowd" structures.

Over and over again Scripture talks about taking care of the "least of these".  It is arguable that the main theme of Scripture is about living in a just society, that the Peace of Christ comes not through victory in battle but through justice for all.  At Christmas we celebrate God's breaking in to the world around us.  And so we have to sing with Mary.  We have to proclaim that Justice will be done.  We also have to ask ourselves where we are part of the problem and where we are part of the solution.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Looking Ahead to December 4, 2011 -- Advent 2B

The Scripture Readings this week are:

From the Jewish Scriptures: Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72 (VU p.790)
From the Gospel: Luke 3:7-18

The sermon title is Be Not Afraid, Prophetic peace be with You

Early Thoughts: What is this peace for which we pray? Prophetic passages often seem wrathful and angry, not peaceful. But is there peace to be found there?

Every parent wonders about it at one time or another. What sort of world will my children grow up in? Will it be better or will it fall apart? Will my children and their friends know peace or conflict, prosperity or poverty, contentment or anxiety, hope or despair?

The Scripture promise is that of a world of peace. But this peace is a differenrt vision than the peace of empire (be it Davidic/Judean, or Babylonian, or Roman or American). Imperial peace is based on crushing the opposition. Imperial peace is based not the iron fist keeping the "rabble" in their place. The books we call Scripture were largely written as a protest against domination and Imperial peace. SCripture's vision of peace is based in justice and abundance for all.

The peace we wish for our children is that broader vision. The peace we are promised is what Isaiah describes often, including the passage we read this week. But how do we get there? How do we prepare the way for the reign of peace?

Biblical prophecy is an interesting animal. It really is not (as many assume) about predicting the future. More it is about truth-telling, calling people to account, naming the consequences of behaviour. Andso a lot of prophetic language appears wrathful and mean. John the Baptist is an excellent example. Apparently John is unfamiliar with diplomatic niceties and gentle language. Instead he calls the powerful in his world a brood of vipers and talks about an axe that will cut them down. Little wonder that John's career came to an untimely and bloody end.

But if we are serious about working towards the peace promised by scripture we need to pay heed to the role of the prophet. Only when we listen to the voices that name our reality for what it is can we see what might need to be changed. Only when we are willing to have our own culpability in the world's disfunction brought to light are we able to move forward. The prophets have a key role in preparing the way for God's work to happen.

What needs to happen to pass on true peace to our children? What preparations do we need to make? In three weeks we celebrate the birth of one who was called the Prince of Peace. At Christmas we remind ourselves that God breaks into the world to try and create the world God envisions. As we prepare for that in-breaking, how do we prepare for the vision?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Occupy Christmas -- A Newsletter Piece

It started last winter. A wave of unrest that toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt and (with a little more trouble and violence) Libya. The media christened it the Arab Spring and Western politicians and commentators were falling over themselves praising the movement to democratic ideals and civil rights that it seemed to represent (although how well those ideals and rights will be lived out is yet to be seen).

Then the phenomenon crossed into the Western democracies themselves. A group of people, disgusted with the way the current political and economic systems were operating, announced that they were going to Occupy Wall Street. This was their way of speaking out against the social inequality that is a reality in the Western world. This grassroots movement has since spread across the United States. And even up here in relatively law-abiding Canada parks in our major cities have been taken over by protestors in the same spirit. Their goals may be unclear, their methods may be controversial, the parks may be getting cleared out, but just as in Tunisia and Egypt it seems that an unstoppable force has been unleashed. Change is in the air. A new world is being born, these are just the first labour pangs.

Change is in the air. A new world is being born. Even without the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements I would be drawn to those sentences at this time of year. Because the Advent/Christmas story, indeed the whole of the Christian story is about the new world being born, the change that is in the air.

Any day now we can expect to hear, if we have not already heard, the opening salvos in the annual “War on Christmas”, the debate about what the mid-winter festival really means today. I invite us all to sit this one out, in a way. Personally I don't care if schoolchildren sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Away in a Manger”. I don't care if the store clerk says Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays or Happy Hanukkah. The culture wars have grown tiresome – partly because those wars have lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas.

Christmas is about God breaking into our lives. Christmas is about us allowing ourselves to hear about and celebrate a world-changing event. For unto US is born in the City of David a Saviour...Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth Peace among those of good will.

As I see it, the basis of the Occupy movement is that those people are committed to their cause, so committed that they will camp in a park in sub-zero temperatures to help see it come to reality. They will stand up and occupy not only that park but a place in the public discourse, a place in the public worldview so that others may see the world differently. They want others to see a new possibility. And they refuse to leave until they know that they have been heard.

This year I invite us all to Occupy Christmas. Stand up and name that the world is being changed by the baby who is being born. Set up your tent in the public forum and share the vision of a world where simple things like peace and hope, love and joy guide our choices. Claim a space in the public discourse and refuse to go away until your voice is heard, until others share the vision of a just world laid out by the Prince of Peace. That is the way we proclaim the true power and possibility of Christmas

Change is in the air. A new world is being born. For unto US a child is born and unto US a son is given and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, the Prince of Peace.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Looking Ahead to November 27, 2011 -- First Sunday of Advent YEar B

Happy New Year!  This Sunday we mark the beginning of a new year by the liturgical calendar as we begin again to await the birth of a child who will change the world.

The Scripture readings for this week are:

  • Isaiah 65:17-23
  • Revelation 21:1-4 (Responsive Reading)
  • Mark 13:24-37
The Semon title is Be Not Afraid: A New World is Coming

Early Thoughts: Advent means waiting, but what are we waiting for? Is it just a baby born long ago or is there something else?

It seems a little bit strange. As the rest of the world ramps up into a frenzy of gift buying (although maybe not so much this year) and baking and decorating the church starts its season of preparation with a discussion of the end-times. No wonder people sometimes wonder if the church is in step with the world. (Of course a strong argument can be made that the church should not be in step with the world but that is a whole other area for discussion.)

In order to explain why we have this happen we need to ask a whole set of questions. What are we getting ready for? Is Christmas just about the story in Luke's gospel? What hope for the present and future does Christmas offer?

In terms of faith Advent and Christmas are not only about the story of a child in the manger. The power of Christmas is that it speaks of a birth here and now. When we celebrate the birth of Christ we are celebrating God breaking into our world again. The incarnation is not a once and for all event, God becomes incarnate in every human birth (to quote a favorite Advent hymn).

The Scripture passages talk about the coming of a new world, a new time. The new world is coming. The Promised Land is in sight. Every year at Advent we prepare for God to break into our world again, we prepare for the world to be changed.

Because let's be honest, if God being active in the world means anything it means that we will be changed. The world right now may seem chaotic and troubled. There may be many reasons to be afraid. But Advent and Christmas remind us to Be Not Afraid, a new world is coming

Monday, November 14, 2011

Looking Ahead to November 20, 2011 -- Reign of Christ Sunday

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
  • Psalm 95 (VU p.814)
  • Matthew 25:31-46

The Sermon title is Who Are We Ministering to?

Early Thoughts: Back at the beginning of our faith story Cain asks (after killing Abel) "Am I my Brother's keeper?"(Genesis 4:9). Arguably the answer that Scripture points to is YES. We are our brothers' (and sisters') keeper. We have a duty and responsibility to care for our neighbour, to feed them when they are hungry, to support them when they struggle.

It is possible that this duty is made clearer in this Matthew passage (which is one of my favourite passages in all of Scripture) than anywhere else in our faith.  In my opinion this passage describes how we act when we live as if the Reign of Christ/Kingdom of God/Kin-dom of Heaven is a reality in our midst. THis passage answers the question asked by a lawyer in Luke's Gospel "Who is my neighbour?", it rells us what to do and why.  It is a call to action.

During Advent we will be collecting stuff for our partner agencies in town.  This Advent collection is part of how we live out our call to care for our neighbours.  And so this Sunday we will use our reflecting on the call to care as a kick-off for our Advent campaign.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Something New!

I learned on twitter today that the United Church of Canada is trying something new.

WEll new to the UCCan.  Other agencies having been doing things like this for years.

A catalogue for giving charitable gifts.  You can read more about it here

Monday, November 7, 2011

Looking Ahead to November 13, 2011 -- 22nd After Pentecost, Proper 28A

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
  • Matthew 25:14-30

The Sermon Title is: How Do You Use YOUR Talent?

Early Thoughts: Are you afraid to take the risk?  If you had to make an accounting tomorrow and justify how you have used what you have been given would there be a talent you had buried in a hole somewhere?

At some time or another we are all afraid to use what we have been given.  Maybe we are afraid we won't get credit.  Maybe we are afraid of looking foolish.  Maybe we are afraid of moving backwards instead of forwards.  But at some point in our lives we all have the fear of risking our talent.

But in the end, the parable tells us, an accounting will be demanded.  In the end we have to explain the choices we made about how we use our talents.  Near the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew has Jesus proclaim that nobody lights a lamp to hide it under a basket.  Here, in the days before his death, Jesus tells the story of one who is punished for letting his fear keep him from making good use of the stuff with which he has been entrusted.  HOw do you use your talents?

It is a question of stewardship.  It is a question of taking a risk.  It is a question of faith.  We have been given much.  What will we choose to do with it?

SErmon Videos

NO, not from St. Paul's.  At least not yet (maybe that can go on the wish list for the future?)

But here are some from a colleague in the US

Monday, October 31, 2011

Looking Ahead to November 6, 2011 -- All Saints' Day Celebration

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Revelation 7:9-17
  • Psalm 78: 1-7 (VU p.792 Part 1)
  • Matthew 5:1-12

The Sermon title is Saints of Peace

Early Thoughts: What is a saint? Who are the saints in your life and history?

From Dictionary.com we get:
saint [seynt]
1. any of certain persons of exceptional holiness of life, formally recognized as such by the Christian Church, especially by canonization.
2. a person of great holiness, virtue, or benevolence.
3. a founder, sponsor, or patron, as of a movement or organization.
4. (in certain religious groups) a designation applied by the members to themselves.
And further down the page it notes that the word comes the same roots as sancitfy, or to make holy.

SO who are the saints in your life, in your history?

In the Revelation passage for this week we see some of the saints.  They are those who have stood firm in what they believe is right, even at the cost of their own death.  In the Matthew passage we are given a potential description of what the saints might be like.  Traditionally the word Saint has been used (within some strains of Christian thought) to refer to specific people who have been recognized by the church for their gifts.  On the other hand the idea of the communion of saints (small s) has also been used in Christian tradition to refer to all those who have gone before us, the cloud of witnesses who have formed and reformed our communities.

So who are the saints in the life and history of your commmunities?

This Sunday is also the SUnday before Remembrance Day.  The point of Remembrance Day is not so much to remember teh dead, but to pledge Never Again.  Through the eyes of faith I see peace as being something distinct from what happens when the guns fall silent.  Peace in that form could simply be because the strongest crushed the weakest.  But with the eyes of faith peace means a win-win solution.  Faith calls for true peace, peace through justice, peace where all get what they need for life (and that in abundance).  How do the saints in our lives help lead us to peace?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Funeral Sermon

Sometimes in our lives,
we all have pain, we all have sorrow
But, if we are wise
we know that there's always tomorrow
These opening words from the song “Lean On Me” speak to where we find ourselves today. We come here today to lament T's death. But the odd thing, even if we may not feel it yet, is that we lament with hope. We lament a sudden, unfair, death; we rage against the cruelty and randomness of it all. But we also proclaim that there is hope, as people of faith we stare into the face of death and proclaim that life is the final victor.

There are some very hard realities we have all been forced to recognize this week. We have been forcefully reminded that life is not fair, that sometimes people die far too young, and sometimes people make choices which have disastrous consequences for others in the world around them. And, having been brought face-to-face with these realities, having no choice but to deal with them, we have to choose how we will respond.

One of our choices is to express our sorrow, our anger, and our grief. We join our voices in songs and prayers of lament. We name openly our loss, and our anger, and our confusion. We give ourselves permission to ask “WHY?” and to wonder what life will be like now. This is not only a natural choice but it is a good choice to make. It is only by expressing these feelings and asking these questions (even if the questions have no answers) that we are able to cope with them. To try and pretend they aren't there, or to try and suppress them because it doesn't feel good to express them only hurts us in the end. And so I encourage people today of all days to let the tears and anger and wondering flow through you.

Another choice is to tell stories and share memories. People here know T in different ways. He was a son, a brother, a student, a friend. Share the stories about time spent together. As we share stories we have a chance to balance the hurt and the anger over last weekend's collision with memories of happier times, possibly even bringing a smile or a chuckle to our lips. Sharing stories, keeping memories alive, helping each other to know T better – this too is a good choice to make.

There is another choice to be made. Will we lament with hope or despair? Will we choose to believe the claim that we can stare into the face of death, even unexpected, premature, tragic death, and proclaim that life still wins? It doesn't make sense after all. How can we, as I suggested earlier, lament with hope?

There is, in my mind, only one way we can lament with hope. We can only do it through faith. We can only do it by reminding ourselves of the promise we find in our faith stories, stories of people who often found reason to weep and lament and worry, but who also had hope. We only do it by reminding ourselves that we are not alone.

Every Sunday people gather together in this place to remember the story of Jesus, the one who promised his friends that there was something beyond death. At one point Jesus is talking to his friends and talks of going to prepare a place for them. Going to prepare a place means that there is a place for us. It is our promise that something lies beyond death. This is good news. Even in the face of tragedy this promise can give us hope.

Writing to the church in Rome, Paul proclaims his conviction that nothing, NOTHING can separate us from God. Nothing in life, not even death can separate us from the God who watched us grow in our mother's womb, who has shared every step, every breath of our lives. Here is more hope. If death can not separate us from God then there must be something beyond death. Something beyond the tragedy not only for T but for his friends and family who have been left to mourn his death.

“Yeah sure”, I can hear some of you saying. It's easy to talk about hope. Easy to talk about faith. Easy to talk about God. But where is God in these times? For that I return to “Lean On Me”, the chorus this time:
Lean on me, when you're not strong
I'll be your friend, I'll help you carry on.
And later
we all need somebody to lean on.
In times like this God speaks these words. In times like this God is the one who helps us get up in the morning, who helps us stand up when the weight of the world crushes in on our shoulders.

The book of poetry we know as the Psalms contains much wisdom for times such as this. In Psalm 46 the poet says that God is our rock, our refuge, a help in times of trouble. Even when the earth shakes and life seems uncertain God is our rock and refuge. In Psalm 121 the poet looks up at the seemingly barren hillsides and asks “where will my help come from”. Think of that image, down at the bottom of a deep valley, surrounded by high hills that seem insurmountable. That sounds to me like a good image for the depths of grief we feel at a time like this. And the Psalmist knows that his help will come from God, that God is always there, that God is not asleep at the switch, that God “will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”

God is not there to stop the tragedy from happening, as much as we might want that. But God is there to help us climb back out of the valley. Even when the world is falling to pieces around us, God is there to help us put the pieces back into some sort of order. And this is a cause for hope.

Last weekend our community was rocked by a tragedy. 4 young men lost their lives. Another lies in a hospital bed. Another will have to live his life with the memory of what has happened. There is so much grief and hurt and anger in our city right now. SO many people asking the hard questions. So much need for healing of broken spirits. But we are not alone in our grief and anger and wondering. God is with us. God is with us in the e-mails and Facebook messages that I and many others have received from people across the province, country, and continent sharing prayers. God is with us in our midst as we gather together to share memories and share our grief. God is with us, God will be with us, as we deal with the events of last weekend. God is the one we can lean on, the one who gives us strength when we can go no further on our own. God is there to help us find the life that lies beyond death.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Looking Forward to October 30, 2011 -- 20th After Pentecost, Proper 26A

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Micah 3:5-12
  • Matthew 23:1-12

The Sermon Title is Actions Speak Louder...

Early Thoughts: It is a classic complaint about the church "they are all hypocrites". Why do you think that is? What is our best response? (other than the rather snarky "always room for one more" or "then you'll fit right in")

That accusation is leveled because people listen to what we as people of faith say about loving and caring for each other and holding up a better (or at least different) way of living.  Then they look at how we actually behave.  And all too often they see a discrepancy between the two.  And as we have all heard many times, actions speak louder than words.

THe role of the prophets in Scripture is to reminds people what their actions say about them.  The prophets remind people that words and ritual are not what God wants.  God wants right action, justice to be done, people to be cared for.   REtired United Church Minister Rev, John Shearman says about this Micah passage:
Micah, of whom little is known other than that he was a rural Judean, holds an important place in Old Testament prophecy. He lived in the late 8th century BCE when Assyria threatened the existence of both the Northern and the Southern Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. His prophecies declared uncompromising justice as God’s sole interest at a time when more popular prophetic voices sought to please their political masters and accepted bribes for doing so.
Power has a strange way of attracting popular support by means of solicitous propaganda. We confront this every day, even in the most democratic societies, giving it the curious name of “spin.” As this passage points out so graphically, ancient Israel had its spin doctors too. They were called false prophets who sought favours by saying what their political masters wanted to hear.
The challenges of Micah’s prophecies were decidedly different than those desired by Israel’s leaders. In an era of great political and religious corruption and compromise, faithful Israelites had to struggle to maintain the purity of their faith tradition rooted in the justice and righteousness of Yahweh that required faithful obedience to the Covenant.
A growing gap between rich and poor characterized the age of Micah’s contrarian prophecies. Naturally, the rich and powerful sought to continue the comforts they enjoyed no matter how much it violated the nation’s religious heritage or whatever the cost to those less powerful than they. They found plenty of favourable support in the twisted prophecies of those whom they could bribe. At the same time they worshipped hypocritically believing that they were safe in God’s providential care (vs. 11). (found here)
Sound familiar?  THink the same could be said about the world today?

Jesus makes the same argument against the religious authorities and teachers in his world. They were big on the showiness of being teachers, they were quick to name possible breaches of the Law.  But they forgot that they had to live out God's Justice.

In the end, actions speak louder.  ANd so if we don't want to appear hypocritical, we have to get our actions to match what we claim we are all about.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Looking Forward to October 23, 2011 -- 19th After Pentecost, Proper 25A

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Deuteronomy 5:1-22
  • Matthew 22:34-40

The Sermon Title is Rules For Life

Early Thoughts: Love is a verb. Rules are needed for living together. What rules guide your life?

There are, of course, many rules that guide our lives.   Some of them are written down in the by-laws and constitutions of organizations to which we belong.  Some of them find their way into law codes.  Some of them are "house rules", rules of the "while you live under my roof..." variety.  ANd then there are those unspoken rules that we have simply absorbed.

This week we hear a lot about rules.  Rules that have been talked about so much and for so long that we think of them as automatic.  At least in theory.

Over the last couple of weeks we have heard a lot about rules in the media.  More specifically we have heard a lot about people who think that the rules guiding our collective lives are not fair.  The rules seem to favour those who have lots at the expense of those who have less.  And so people fill the streets to call for a change to the rules of the game.

JEsus was born into a culture that had a lot of rules.  613 of them are in the Torah.  These rules covered every aspect of life.  They talked about how to live day-to-day, how to care for each other, how to farm, how to run the society (no separation of church and state in the ancient world).  And so someone, seeking to test or possibly to trap, Jesus asks which is the greatest commandment.  OF all these 613 which one stands on top?  Jesus chooses two.  From Deuteronomy 6:5 he pulls "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" and then he pairs is with Leviticus 19:18 "...you shall love the neighbour as yourself".  ANd to this day people of faith consider these to be the rules which stand at the top of how we are to live.  And so these rules need to shape every other part of our lives, both personal and communal)  At least in theory.

What does it mean to follow these rules?  IS it possible to COMMAND us to love?  Not if we continue to think of love as a feeling.  Nobody can command us how to feel.  But that is not what the commandment means.  NOwhere in Scripture are we told how to feel about another.  Here we are told to love each other, not to like each other.  Confused yet?

The way to understand these commanments is to see love as the verb.  We are not told how to feel, we are told how to act.  And that can be commanded.  [As an aside, this is the basis behind human and civil rights legislations.  The legislation can not tell us how to feel about others but it can set limits about how we act toward each other.  The hope then is that by acting appropriately towards others our feelings/presumptions/biases about them will change for the better.]  So Jesus is reminding us that the greatest commandment is to act lovingly towards God, neighbour and self.

Does that overarching rule guide everything in our lives?  HOw can you tell?  What makes you doubt it?  How does that overarching rule colour our response to the Occupy_______ demonstrations?

It sounds remarkably simple.  In practice it ends up being remarkably difficult.  But the essenced of Scripture, with all the rules we find there.  Comes down to these three things.  Love God.  Love your neighbour.  Love yourself.  And they come in a package.  It is impossible to do one of them without the others.

What rules guide your life?

Sermon From October 16, 2011

Open singing the chorus:
Da-da-yeinu, da-da-yeinu
Da-da-yeinu, Dayeinu dayeinu
Da-da-yeinu, da-da-yeinu
Da-da-yeinu, Dayeinu dayeinu
That is the chorus of a traditional Jewish Passover song. Dayeinu means “it would have been enough”. Each of the 15 verses lists one of the great gifts God gives during the Exodus story and then says “Dayeinu”.

At Thanksgiving it seems a good time to ask what would be enough? What would have us cry out “Dayeinu”? Do we have an awareness of what enough might be anymore? After all, our entire economy seems to be based on convincing us we never have enough, that we always need more. Is that what gets in the way of thankfulness? Partly perhaps. Hold on to that thought. We'll come back to “enough”. But first let's look at thanks giving and what might get in the way.

If you believe the news reports it would be easy to believe that we have little to be thankful for. In economy-related news alone we hear of riots in Greece and Italy, mass demonstrations in multiple US cities under the #OccupyWallStreet banner, repeated warnings about the possibility of another global recession. Even our own Canadian economy, we are told, is too fragile to withstand even a short labour disruption in the airline industry. Then there are the stories in our own backyard, the people we see struggling in our own community. What does it mean to be thankful in such a time as this? What is there to be thankful for?

It has been said that there are only two basic prayers. One is “Help” and the other is “thank you”. And yet it always seems so much easier to remember the first and forget the second. In bad or troubling times it is far easier to wonder what will come next, to wonder if we are going to get out of this mess than to stop and count our blessings But it is only when we count our blessings that we remember to give thanks.

The Scriptures we have just heard speak to the difficulty in saying thanks in the good times. In Luke we hear the story of some lepers who are made clean. To be made clean means to be re-admitted to the community. In their excitement and joy they forget to come back to give thanks – the only one who does is an outsider already, a Samaritan who would be unable to follow the instructions Jesus gives anyway. The story reminds us to pause in the times of unexpected joy to remember our blessings.

Deuteronomy highlights a different, and likely a more common issue. Deuteronomy warns the people “do not forget!”. Amnesia is the great threat. When all the great things of the land have come true there is the temptation to forget that the land is a gift from God. When times are good it is too easy to take the blessings for granted. When times are good it is to easy to believe the age-old myth – so prevalent in North American social thought – of the “self-made person”. Foreseeing that temptation, Moses says to the Israelites “DO NOT FORGET”. Moses warns the people to always remember that God has done all these things for them , to always remember that they did not get where they are by themselves or by their own efforts. It is only when we remember our blessings that we can remember to give thanks.

In a way this brings us back to (and answers) the question of how do we give thanks in a world of chaos. When employment is scarce, when families wonder where the next month's rent will come from, when the news fills us with worry and anxiety about the future, how then can we fill our hearts with thankfulness, with praise, with gratitude? How do we give thanks when we see so many reasons to not give thanks?

How? Well the same wisdom that we find in Luke and in Deuteronomy still holds. We can only give thanks when we take time to remember what we have to give thanks for. In times of uncertainty and chaos we need to intentionally think about what blessings we do have. We need to clearly name our blessings so that we are able to give thanks. And so that brings us back to the question of “what would be enough?”. In this era of crisis, what is it enough for God to have done? In a world where we are constantly told that we need to go and buy “MORE” or “NEW, IMPROVED” can we remember what the base of enough is? What gifts make us sing dayeinu?

1) If our God had merely made us
Formed us, blew life's breath into us
Simply gave us our existence
As Fraulein Maria told the Von Trapp children when they asked to learn to sing: “Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. When you read you begin with A B C when you sing you begin with Do Re Mi”. And in the life of faith you begin with? Our story starts with creation and so we give thanks to Creator God for life itself. If God had only given us the gift of life and set us free to face whatever life threw at us by ourselves then even that clockmaker God would be worthy of our thanks and praise. Even just life itself and nothing else would have been enough.

2) If our God had only fed us
Gave us food and drink to nourish
Fruits of earth for us to cherish
At some point last weekend, many families sat down at tables full of food. For many people the feast almost seems to be the main purpose for Thanksgiving. But when you think about it, when people of faith gather together for a meal how does the meal start? With grace, with a prayer of thanks. Even before we know if the food is good or not we give thanks that there is food. God not only gave us life, God gives us that which we need to sustain life. Thanksgiving is seen as a harvest festival by many to celebrate the miracle of growth but also because we know that even if God had only provided us with food that would have been enough.

3) Or if God had brought us freedom
Freed us from sin and oppression
Merely made us free for service
Freedom. An old Star Trek (the Original Series) episode called that a worship word. And indeed the faith story is one of freedom. God frees the people of Israel from slavery, reminding us that God's vision is of a world where none struggle with oppression. God commands that no member of the community is ever to be bound in servitude forever, reminding us of a different economy, one where our value is in our existence not our productivity. God redeems those who are exiles, reminding us that we can always come home again. And God frees us from guilt and shame and sin, reminding us that there is always a new start, a second chance to get it right. Freedom, that indeed would have been enough.

4) If our God gave us companions
Family and friends for comfort
So that we would not be lonely
The three “peoples of the Book” as Muhammed called us (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) share many things. We share a common God. We share a similar morality. We share a community focus. Our faith is not one that can be lived in isolation. Our faith calls us to live in community, caring for and with each other, being cared about by each other. In wedding sermons I often comment on the fact that humanity seems hardwired to seek out companionship and support. And God creates us so that this companionship and support is available. For community, for friends and family, we give thanks. And indeed that would have been enough.

5) Or if God gave us vocations
Tasks to do that give life meaning
Helped us feel that we had purpose
We all need to feel useful. We all need to know that our lives have meaning and purpose. Some of us find that in our career, but not always. But each of us has a vocation (that is with an o, not vacation with an a). There is something, or a set of somethings, each of us can do that make a difference in the world. When we discover what God is calling us to do and find a way to do that then we feel much better. For the knowledge that we have a purpose, for those things that make life meaningful rather than just existing, we give thanks. And most certainly all these things would be enough, dayeinu.
But of course the great cause for Thanksgiving is not that God does all these things. The greatest cause for thanksgiving is that God does them all over and over again and more. On Thanksgiving Day we pause again to think of all the ways that God gives us life in great abundance. God continues to bless us over and over and over. And in response to all these blessings we say thank-you not only once a year but regularly, daily, whenever we are made aware of our blessings. And for each of those blessings we say not only thanks but dayeinu, it would have been enough.

6) But our God provides more blessings
Gives us life in great abundance
And so daily we say thank-you

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Looking Forward to October 16, 2011 -- Thanksgiving Service

Because we had our Centennial celebration last week, we have chosen to have our Thanksgiving service this week.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • From the Jewish Scriptures: Deuteronomy 8:7-18
  • Psalm 65 (VU p.782)
  • From the Letters of the Early Church: 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
  • From the Gospel: Luke 17:11-19

The sermon title is Dayeinu!

Early Thoughts: When is it enough? Do we know? How does that knowledge (or lack thereof) impact our ability/willingness to give thanks?

There is a song sung at Passover that says If our God had simply...Dayeinu Dayeinu means "it would have been enough. The verses of the song go through a list of the various things God has done for God's people and each time says "That would have been enough". But of course God keeps doing more.

I think Dayeinu is a song of thanksgiving. It is a song that reminds the singer of all the things that God has done. And so I ask what verses we would sing. What would we name that God has done and say "that would be enough"?

What does "enough" mean anyway? Does enough mean all our needs are met? Does it mean all our wants are satisfied? In a world where we are deluged with advertising that suggests we always need something else are we even able to recognize "enough" anymore?

Thanksgiving is a time to recognize what "enough" means. Thanksgiving is a time to remember how God has gifted us. When we once again remember what "enough" means, when we can start to believe that "that would have been enough", we are better able to give thanks. Thanksgiving may have begun as a harvest festival but it is about far more than harvest. Thanks giving is an act of faith, a way of life, a different way of seeing the world.

Join us this Sunday as we explore when we could say Dayeinu. And who knows, there may be some singing involved in that exploration...

Monday, October 3, 2011

Looking Forward to October 9, 2011 -- Thanksgiving Sunday, 100th Anniversary

The Scripture Readings this week are:
Joshua 4:1-8
Psalm 127
John 15:5-11

The sermon title is Remembering Forward

Early Thoughts: Looking back we give thanks. Looking forward we wonder what will come.

In all parts of life we need to look in both directions. We need to know from whence we have come and where we are going.  The challenge is to know how to look both ways.

Why do we look back?  Do we look back to see where we were or where we want to be again?  What do we see when we look back?  Maybe we see the struggles of the past as a foundation.  Maybe we see the triumphs of the past as a goal to meet.  Do we see a Golden Age that we are nostalgic about?

Why do we look forward? What do we see when we look forward?  DO we see a future full of hope or a future of struggle?

Significant anniversaries are times for celebration.  But they also carry a danger.  The celebration encourages us to look back fondly, to tell the stories, to share the memories (both real and mythic) that have shaped the organization.  But the danger is that we may wax nostalgic and fret about how we can re-create teh glories of those days.

The past is the past.  It has shaped us as a community.  It has led us to this point.  But it is not the present and it is not the future.  The most important way we honour the foundation laid by those who have gone before is by remembering forward.  To remember forward is to commit to using the foundation laid before us to build on for the future.  WE can't and shouldn't recreate the past.  WE need to be who God is calling us to be today and tomorrow.  But by remembering forward we honour the gifts given by countless others before our time.  By remembering forward we build on what they have done.

This weekend we remember those who laid stones before we came.  This weekend we re-commit ourselves to be growing branches of the vine.  This weekend we remember forward as we launch ourselves into a new century.  As a part of our celebration we will plant a tree.  And so I remind you of the old wisdom that you always plant a tree for those who will come later, when it has had time to grow into maturity.  Building a faith community is the same thing.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What is the Church? Newspaper piece

The dedication service of McQueen Presbyterian Church was held on October 8, 1911, with capacity attendance. Its name honored the Rev D.G. McQueen, who had played an important part in the creation of this mission. It was a proud moment for the Rev. And Mrs. Forbes – their first church in their new mission field... (And We Come After page 19)
McQueen Presbyterian would, in due time, become St. Paul's United Church. And our current building is on the same parcel of land as that original log church. 100 years of continual ministry on the same corner where Alexander Forbes originally drove a stake labelled “Presbyterian Church” in 1909!

On that corner have now stood a variety of buildings. First was the log building which now stands in the Museum. Then, 14 years after that first dedication, the congregation built a new building to house a growing community. In the early 1950's a Christian Education building was built. Then the current sanctuary was built in 1956. Finally the Christian Education building was demolished and the “new” wing was built in 1986-87. But none of these buildings have been the church.

That is right none of these buildings, nor any of the other buildings around Grande Prairie that bear the name “Church” are the church. They are merely structures where the church meets. So what is the church?

When I was first in Junior Choir we learned a song whose first verse went:
The church is not a building the church is not a steeple
the church is not a resting place the church is a people
That is where the church is. The church is in the people who gather in buildings large and small, sharing stories of faith, singing songs, and then going back out into the world. The church is not in what happens on Sunday morning it is in what happens 7 days a week. As St. Paul's celebrates its centennial this Thanksgiving weekend we remember how it has lived out being the church. We remember that as long as Alcoholics Anonymous has been in this area, there has been a connection with St. Paul's. We remember that folks from this congregation helped get the Community Dorm started, and the Native Friendship Center. We remember that folks from this congregation have served the community in many ways, sometimes under the name of the congregation but more often simply because they were moved to serve. And many other congregations in this community could tell similar stories. This is the church.

The church is present in the world to help God transform the world. We aren't called to be an insular members-only place. We are called to welcome all, to recognize the gifts that all have to offer. The church is called to have an impact on the world, on individuals and on communities.

After he had won the civil war and wrested the kingship of Israel from Saul, David promised God that he would build a grand temple in which God could live. God told him NO. God asked why God would need such a dwelling now when God had never needed it before. God continues to remind us that our buildings are not the church. They are tools that help us BE the church.

At this point in time, as the people with whom I try to be the church celebrate the centennial of our buildings, I have one question for all of us. How is God calling us to be in the world today? Who is God calling us to be today and in the years to come? Here is a hint, taken from the Gospel of Matthew:
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ ...Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
At the time of this anniversary we have stories of thanksgiving to tell about how those who came before us have been the church in this place. What stories will those who come after us tell about the impact we made on the world?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Looking Forward to September 25, 2011 -- Proper 21A 15th After Pentecost

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Exodus 16:2-15
  • Exodus 17:1-7

The Sermon title is The Back to Egypt Committee

Early Thoughts: When the early excitement of the journey fades into drudgery what happens? When the promise of change gets lost in the process of change do we lose heart? Does the comfort of the familiar (even if unhappy) trump the possibility of the yet-to-come?

They were terribly hungry and thirsty you see. Out in the middle of the desert with no food or water and no end in sight to their journey. You can see why they might start to lose hope. You can see why they might start to wonder about whether it was really worth it. Were there no graves in Egypt? they cry out. Why bring us here to die in the desert?

Of course they do continue across the desert. It may take a couple of miracles (bread from heaven, water from a rock) to get them past this hurdle but they keep going. They meet other hurdles and they keep going. It takes 40 years, long enough that no adult who left Egypt crosses into the Promised Land. None of those who first catch the vision and the hope actually see it come true. But as long as they resist the temptation to go back to Egypt, back where life was unhappy but possible, back to the relative comfort of the familiar the hope goes on. And in the long term the hope holds out.

In many ways the story of the flight (when it lasts 40 years does it remain a flight?) across the desert mirrors the way humans process change, both as individuals and as communities. A few years ago Jim Taylor wrote:

Canada and the U.S. are both in the middle of election campaigns. Typically, the campaigns have degenerated into attacks, on the party or the person. “They” – that is, the other guy(s) – are leading you in the wrong direction.
Opinion polls suggest that people want to go back to what they remember as a better time, when they felt confident, a time with less stress, less uncertainty.
La plus ca change, la plus c’est le meme chose – the more things change, the more things stay the same! Two refrains recur through Exodus:
– first, the people complain;
– then Moses pulls off another miracle to prove that the Lord cares for them.
On the shores of the Red Sea, at the rocks of Massa and Meribah, here in the wilderness, the people whine, “We would have been better off staying in slavery in Egypt.”
The Bible is more than history. The Bible is a story about us. Some parts ring true at one time, some parts at another time. At this particular time, I think we are the Israelites, constantly crabbing about our leaders.
Moses wasn’t always popular. But he always had a vision. Do our leaders have a vision? If so, what is it? And do we share it? Or would we rather return to slavery?

And I believe he speaks the truth.

When people first catch the dream, the vision of change, there is a sense of great excitement but when things don't just happen as fast as the dream that excitement can fade. In that time of transition uncertainty becomes the rule. We know we aren't where we were, we haven't yet got to where we were promised, and we aren't really sure we will get there. People generally don't like uncertainty, it leaves them uncomfortable and anxious. And as it appear that the dream was wrong or faulty we want to get back to a time when we had certainty. There is a comfort in the known, even if in our heart of hearts the we knew that the old way wasn't really right for us. When the world gets turned upside down we really want to go back to the way things were (and sometimes nostalgia blurs how things were so that they become the "good old days" even though in those days too we longed for an earlier time).

There is something within all of us that yearns at times to go "back to Egypt". When our personal lives are being changed (new job, new town, retirement...)there is a part that wishes we could stay where we are. When our community needs to redevelop/reinvent itself we ask why can't it be like when our kids were young. And churches are possibly more prone to back to Egypt committees than many other groups. With our placing an importance on tradition, with faith touching so close to people's hearts, with the church being something many people feel they have more control over than other institutions (also why the church is often one of the last things to close in a dying town--everything else the decision is made elsewhere). The desire to go back to a "better time" or a "happier time" looms large whenever the church (local congregation or national denomination) starts to make changes.

But what is the vision? What lies beyond the dis-comfort and the uncertainty of the wilderness of change? If we can avoid the temptation to drop out of the process where might we get to? Are we willing to stick it out?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Looking Forward to September 18, 2011 -- Proper 20A 14th After Pentecost

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Jonah 3:10-4:11
  • Matthew 20:1-16

The Sermon title is Labour Relations, Kingdom Style

Early Thoughts: Do we really get what we deserve? Do we really deserve what we get? Not just in the world as we know it but in God's economy.

I am pretty sure the answer to both questions is no (at least in God's economy).  And that is a good thing.  It is what we call grace.

BUt there is more to this parable than giving thanks for what God has given (without worrying if we deserve it or not).  If, as I believe, the Kingdom of God/Heaven is here and now among us (as well as coming to fulfillment) and this parable (as do many of Jesus' parables) starts with the phrase "the kingdom of heaven is like" than what does the parable suggest about how we should interact??

In Jesus time, as in our own, a day labourer needed a full day's paid work to have enough money to eat for that day.  Someone who is not picked up until mid afternoon would not expect to make enough that day.  But in the economics and labour relatoins of the kingdom they all get a full day's pay.  When the kingdom comes to fulfillment all will get what they need to survive.  When we live in the kingdom way all are given enough.

But, many of us would say, it isn't fair!  Jonah says the same.  The Ninnevites were horrid people.  They (in the minds of many Jewish folk) deserved to be destroyed.  But there is a wideness in God's mercy and grace.  A wideness that eliminates questions of "deserving".  It isn't fair Jonah says.  It isn't fair that they get saved and the bush which gave me comfort gets destroyed.  It isn't fair the workers hired at dawn say, we worked longer and harder!  It isn't fair! IT isn't fair!

2 questions come to mind.  What does "fair" mean?  And whoever promised life was going to be fair?

Still, I can hear the union grievance being filed at the vineyard office.  Maybe we'll talk about that some more on Sunday.

And maybe we'll see what words of wisdom the children have about fairness.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

September Newsletter

The time has come....to speak of many things...

With apologies to Lewis Carroll, I have no opinions on shoes or ships or sealing wax. I do have opinions on cabbages and kings, but those will wait for another day. I don't know if the sea is boiling hot or if pigs do not have wings (but I have my suspicions). But I do know that it is September. And September means it is start-up season.

Sunday School starts on September 11, with some new curriculum and an new organization. As a congregation we need to offer our support to the leaders and members of the Sunday School and Youth Group as they meet and learn and grow. While we are talking about education, watch for news about upcoming Faith Study options. Any fans of Les Misérables out there? I think it would be a great topic for a study. And congregations across the country have been asked to look at the simple question of “What does the United Church of Canada believe?' Or maybe that is not so simple a question after all.

And of course as the weeks pass there are big events coming closer. A month from now we will be celebrating our 100th Anniversary as a congregation. Don't forget to register so we know how many will be at the celebratory supper! Do you have stories that need to be told about the history of this place? What is it that makes this place special? And of course the big question is---while we celebrate what others have left for us, are we thinking about what we will leave for those who will come later?

Then there is the REALLY big one. The event that will take a lot of work, but the work can be spread among many different people. In March (which is really only 6 months away) St. Paul's will be visited by a 150 or 200 people for the conference Junior High Youth Rally. These people will sleep here, and eat here, and have fun here, and lead us in worship. But they need support. They need food to be prepared and served and cleaned up. They need a team of First Aiders to be available, just in case. They need chaperones to sit in the church while they sleep to answer questions and provide support. They need people to ensure the bathrooms are restocked with paper products and the floors are kept passably clean. They need people to lead them in workshops. They need transportation around town. If you are interested in planning for or assisting with this event please talk to Paula Anderson or myself. A representative from the Conference Youth and Young Adult Ministry committee will be coming for a site visit in late October.

And of course our committees and the Council are starting to rev up again. This will include the Committee fair on September 25th – a chance for the Committees and Working Groups in the congregation to let you know what they do in our life together.

The time has indeed come to speak of many things. In our life together we share so much. WE learn and grow together as people trying to live in God's Way. Let's explore life and faith together shall we.

And let me know if you see a pig with wings won't you?


Monday, September 5, 2011

Looking Forward to September 11, 2011 -- 13th After Pentecost

This Sunday we mark the beginning of another year of Sunday School.  We also celebrate the sacrament of Communion.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
Exodus 14:19-31
Exodus 15:1-13 (VU p.876)
Matthew 18:21-35

THe Sermon Title is Victory, Mourning, Forgiveness

Early Thoughts: When our enemies suffer and we feel victorious what is the appropriate response? Remembering of course that we bear the name of the one who taught forgiveness of those who hurt us and love of enemy.

This Sunday marks the 10th Anniversary of the terrorist attacks known as 9/11.  As I remember that day, one of the images that people in North America found so disturbing was people in the ARab world dancing in the streets.  However a few short months ago people were dancing in the streets of Washington DC in response to the announcement that the man generally blamed/credited with orchestrating the attacks of 2011 (and several others over the years before that) had been killed [some of us would say assassinated].

Is this the way we respond to the suffering and death of our enemies?  Is this the way GOd wants us to react?

Reading the Exodus passage one could easily come to that conclusion.  THe Exodus story (written of course by the people of Israel) tells of how God is with the people, leading them forward, fighting on their behalf, destroying their enemies.  Little wonder that the people sing and dance (I suspect the Egyptians would have a very diferent version of this story, maybe of the terrorist rebels who slaughtered their people?).  But there is a rabinnic tale of how God might have reacted.

The story goes that it was the angels in the heavenly court who orchestrated the Exodus event (apparently God was out of town on business?).  God came back just as the waters destroyed Pharoah and his army.  The angels were very proud of what they had accomplished.  Then one of them noticed a tear in the Divine eye.  "Why do you weep, your children the Israelites are free?"  "I weep because my children the Egyptians are weeping".

The Matthew passage reminds us that we are to forgive as we have been forgiven.  It also reminds us that we don't always do that so well.  When we have been hurt how are we to react?  When we have "won" how should we react?

Ten years ago the world had a choice of how to react.  We all know what choices were made by people wielding great power and influence.  Was there a more "Godly choice"?  Where do we go from here?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

August 2011 Newsletter

(Full dsiclosure, this is a re-working of a newsletter piece I wrote in Atikokan 3 years ago, as they prepared to celebrate their 55th anniversary)

Do you know why the Israelites wandered around in the desert for 40 years?
Because even then men wouldn't ask for directions.

It is a joke of course, one that makes light of a stereotyped vision of how men and women operate differently. But the joke came to mind recently because sometimes life feels like one journey through the wilderness after another. Sometimes we wonder when, or if, we will reach the Promised Land. Do we know which way we are going?

I suspect that is just what those ancient Israelites felt like from time to time. They had been told that there was something good to come but they just couldn't seem to get there. You have to think that they wondered if this Moses really knew how to get there. Did he have a map and directions?

In his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time Marcus Borg suggests that the Exodus story is one of the 3 “meta-stories” of Scripture. It is one of the 3 basic stories that builds the foundation of Scriptural faith. And as such it is not something that happened once, it is an experience that echoes throughout the history of the faithful. Those elements of wandering, promise, and liberation continue to make up part of our story.

This October St. Paul's turns 100. Over those years there have been times of wilderness wandering and times of knowing we were in the Promised Land. Over those years there have been times when we knew where were going, times when we were pretty sure, and times when the road ahead was pretty well lost in the fog. When the road is lost in the fog, what happens?

If we are honest, sometimes, when the road is lost in the fog or the Promised Land seems more dream than reality, we want to stop and go back. Moses constantly dealt with people who wanted to go back to Egypt. The challenge is to keep wandering, to keep looking forward with hope, to resist the temptation to go back to the comfort of the familiar.

So where are our wanderings taking us here in 2011? What Promised Land is in our future? I honestly wish I could say I knew. But I can't. Mind you, I am not always sure Moses and the people knew what the Promised Land would be either. They just knew it was out there. They lived in hope. They lived in hope that they would get there someday.

So that is our task today. As we join with our neighbours near and far to struggle with an world in turmoil we live in hope. As we wonder how best to minister to God's world with limited resources we live in hope. As we try to re-vision what it means to be a community of faith in a rapidly changing world we live in hope. We hope for liberation. We hope for the time of abundance. We hope for that time when God's justice and peace are a reality not only here but around the world. We are people of hope.

As we start off into another year where we tell again the story of a child in a manger, a cross on a hill, an empty tomb, and a new community may hope carry us forward. In the face of a world of uncertainty, of a time of wandering in the wilderness, may hope in the Promise keep us walking. And may the God of hope, the God of promise walk with us as support and guide. And let's try to remember to stop and ask God for directions so we can keep a clearer idea of where it is we are supposed to be going.

Because we really don't want to wander around aimlessly for 40 years do we?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Looking Forward to July 31, 2011 -- 7th Sunday After Pentecost

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Isaiah 55:1-5
  • Matthew 14:13-21

The Sermon Title is What do you Have?

Early Thoughts: There is so much need in the world. There are so many places asking for out time, our talent, our treasure. It can be overwhelming can't it?

Jesus hears that a friend (cousin? mentor? teacher?) has died.  And so he wants to go off to a private place.  But it doesn't work, word gets out, and the crowds descend upon his refuge. 

Jesus could have kept going farther but instead he sets aside his time and meets the people where they are.  But the kicker comes later in the day, as meal time falls.  The disciples encourage Jesus to disband the group so they can go obtain food.  Jesus says, "well if they are hungry then give them something to eat"

Give them something to eat.  Give them what they need.  the words echo through the centuries.  And the response does too -- "we can't do that, we do't have the money" -- a response not voiced in this version of the story but surely in the minds of the disciples.

Well what DO you have?  What can you do with that?  Jesus takes what they have and feeds the multitude.  We could spend hours debating what really happened on the lakeshore that day and still miss the point.  What do you have?  What resources are available?  Give them something to eat.  Help as you can.  The instruction remains.

It is the basis of faithful stewardship -- use what you have as best you can to help meet the needs of the people around you.

SO, in the face of the needs around you, what do you have?

Friday, July 15, 2011

WHat Observer Readers Believe:

Each year the United Church Observer does a survey.  Here are the results of this year's:

Or in print form

Monday, July 11, 2011

A RElevant Poem

As I mull the story of the Tares among the Wheat for Sunday (and the difficulty of knowing the weeds from the good plants) I am reminded of a poem (admittedly the first stanza is most relevant):
All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not reached by the frost 

From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from teh shadows shall spring
Renewed shall be blade that was broken
The crownless again shall be king. 

Looking Forward to July 17, 2011 -- 5th Sunday After Pentecost

The Scripture Readings this week are:
Psalm 139 (VU p.861)
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The sermon title is Not more Weeding!!!

Early Thoughts: It is enough to throw any gardener or farmer into a rage. You look out at your nicely planted land and see weeds filling the rows.  What to do?

In teh parable for this week the landowner gives odd instructions.  Leave them be for now.  LAter, when harvest comes, the weeds will be sorted from the grain.  But for now, to avoid damaging the field (the community?), to avoid uprooting the good plants with the weeds let them be.  It doesn't make sense.  Wouldn't there be a chance that the weeds will choke out the good grain?  AT the very least they will rob moisture and nutrients.

There are a few questions that come to mind:  Why cant' the weeds easily be separated from the good plants?  In a modern context, remembering the definition of a weed being "a pant growing where you don't want it" is there a danger of removing the wrong parts? 

Some have said that Matthew's gospel tells more about how to live as a church community than any other.  And so I have to wonder if the field is in fact the community.  The story does not say that all are acceptable in the field.  It says that the dividing will come later, when the harvest comes, when the plant is shown for what it truly is.  In so many of our communities (religious and secular) we are pretty quick to weed out the "troublemakers" as soon as they are identified as such.  But if we always did that we would weed out the Martin Luther Kings of the world pretty quickly--to our detriment.  If the field is the community and God is the one doing the harvesting, how dare we, as part of the field, claim to know what is a weed and what is not?

OTOH, maybe we are the harvesters.  And the story calls us to use wisdom to know the good from the bad.  THere might be a sermon there too.

Or are we left asking ourselves if we are teh land owner sowing good seed or the enemy sowing weeds?

Lots of possibilities here.  Be we weeds or wheat.  Be we harvesters told to wait a bit before pulling things up.  Or if we have to try and discern what it is that we are sowing--remembering the old adage that we will eventually reap what we sow.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Looking Forward to July 10, 2011 -- 4th Sunday After Pentecost

The Scripture Readings for this week are:
Isaiah 55:10-13
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The Sermon Title is Seeds Everywhere!

Early Thoughts: How do we plant? Do we carefully find the best places or do we scatter and hope?

It seems that only a very foolish gardener or farmer would sow seeds like the Sower in this parable.  What a waste to scatter seed on the path, or in rocky soil, or among weeds!  Well it is unquestionable that sowing by hand can be a challenge -especially on a windy day- in a culture where all sowing is done by hand people would ecome very practiced at ensuring the precious seed went only where it had a good chance of being productive.

THEre are a variety of places we might place ourselves in this parable.  Are we the seed, scattered whereever we might fall?  Are we the various soils?  Are we possibly even the sower?  Matthew offers an interpretation of the parable, offered (as the story is written) to a select group in a private time--insider knowledge perhaps?  But rarely can it be said that a parable has only one meaning.   MAtthew's version has us as the soil, responding to the seed (the Word) in various ways.  But what if we see ourselves as the seed?  The seed scattered to the world to bear fruit?  Or what if we are called to be the profligate sower, spreading our resources broadly, trusting what may happen?

On Sunday we may well explore these various options.  It is a parable after all.  Parabolic meaning is only found in exploration and testing.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Looking Forward to July 3, 2011 -- 3rd Sunday After Pentecost

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Psalm 145 (VU p.866)
  • Romans 7:14-25

The Sermon Title is The Devil Made Me Do It???

Early Thoughts: Sometimes Paul gets it right, hits the target squarely in the gold.  ANd this seems to be one of those times.

HOw many of us have ever said" oh I know I shouldn't but...."?  True often we say it openly for stuff that is relatively meaningless.  But we say it inside for more important things.  Or else we look back with regret and ask "why did I do something so stupid?!"  Paul understands, in fact Paul does the same thing.

This passage brings us to the heart of our understanding of human nature.  Why, when we have been taught a better way to live, do we continue to stray from The Way?  Do we really have the ability to choose not to "sin"? 

Volumes of theological text have been written about this question.  Blood has been spilled over it.  People have debated, people have removed others from the community because of differing views on this question.  And yet it keeps coming up in our lives.  And so it seems we have to discuss it every generation as we seek to understnad who we are as individuals and as creations of God.

So how do you understand yourself?  How much choice do you have in your actions?  Can you choose the right?  More accurately -- do you? 

ANd in the end do we try to escape accountability when we claim we can't help ourselves?  Is it just an excuse to say "The Devil Made Me Do It" or is it a statement about how the world works?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Looking Forward to June 26, 2011 -- 2nd After Pentecost

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Genesis 18:1-8
  • Hebrews 13:1-3
  • Matthew 10:40-42

The Sermon Title is Welcome In...

Early Thoughts: At the core of Christan Life and ministry is hospitality. For when we welcome anyone we welcome God.

But if we are honest, how good a job do we do at welcoming in the church?  I mean really welcoming.  NOt just those who are "like us" or who have a message that we agree with.  But how well do we welcome people who are different or who have a challenging message, or who start telling us how we need to change the way we operate.

The Matthew passage this week comes just after Jesus has commissioned the disciples.  He is sending them out to teach and preach.  The message they carry will not always be well-received.  And so I can't help but think that even as he points out how blessed those who welcome the disciples will be  he is also hinting that this welcome may be an exception rather than the rule

If we are going to grow in faith, we need to ask ourselves these hard questions.  If we are to grow in faith we need to ask ourselves how well we deal with difference.  THat is the side of welcoming we don't talk about as often as we should.  So this week let's talk about it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Looking Forward to June 19, 2011 -- 1st After Pentecost

This Sunday we will celebrate the ministry of Church Camping.

The Scripture Reading for the week is:
Genesis 1:1-2:4a

The Sermon Title is: Camping Ministry, God's Creation

Early Thoughts: This summer thousands of children will attend camps run under the name of the United Church of Canada. Why? Millions of dollars are poured into site maintenance, utilities, staffing, insurance, supplies. Good use?

I suppose I should name my bias up front. I spent a total of 6 summers on staff at church camps (5 in Alberta, 1 in Saskatchewan). There were also 3 summers when I spent most of my days off volunteering out at the lake. Church camping is responsible for my entering the ministry. So I have a fairly strong bias in favour of this ministry.

CAmp ministry is one of the UCCan's greatest outreach ministries.  In my experience many of the children who come to camp are not "church kids".  But at camp they get a chance to experience a different way of living as we tried to model a form of Christian community.  Church camping is also a chance to introduce many urban kids to the outdoors.  Working at Camp Maskepetoon, on Pigeon Lake, we would have some kids who had never been outside at night without streetlights, or had never had a chance to walk through the forest.  And so part of our program was making use of our surroundings.

CHurch camping also provides a chance for people to explore who they are as leaders.  Either as volunteers or as paid staff, many young people heve their first leadership experience in a camp setting.  WE develop the leadership of the next generation by giving them chances to be leaders.

Camp is a life-changing event for many people.  Camp can be a safe place for someone who needs it.  Camp, when done well, can be a place where people of all ages feel free to be themselves (or to explore what it means to be themselves) instead of trying to be what others say they should be.

Camp is a very important part of our presence in this country.  The camp program I worked with in Ontario was created precisely to provide a different theological perspective than any of the other church-based camps in that area (many of whom, including us, rented the same space -- a Kiwanis owned camp site).  Our life as a church would be lessened if we didn't have camps.

FOr the record.  Did you know that there are 70 United Church Camps across the country (well sort of -- some of those are rental only sites and some [like the one I just mentioned] don't appear on that list because they don't have a fixed site).  This is in addition to all the VBS programs run by various churches.  If each camp has an average of 50 campers and they have 7 camps a summer that would be 24 500 campers (plus paid and volunteer staff) touched by the United Church this year.  Oh and of those 70 camps, 112 of them are in Alberta)  You can find out more about United Church Camps on this page

Church camping--a good use of our resources.

And of course there is another way to look at camping in general:

Monday, June 6, 2011

Looking Forward to June 12, 2011 -- Pentecost Sunday

This Sunday we will celebrate the Sacrament of Communion.  The next time we do this will be in September.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
Numbers 11:24-30
Acts 2:1-21

The Sermon Title is Spirit-Filled, Hot and Windy?

Early Thoughts: What is our response to those who claim to speak when moved by the Spirit? Do we honour their words or do we dismiss them as a lot of hot air?

As we know all too well this year, fire and wind are dangerous.   They can be a destructive combination.  ANd yet they are both classic images for God.  They occupy a central place in the Scripture readings on this, the 2nd most important Sunday of the Christian Year.

Still it can be said that even as images of GOd/God's Presence it is important to remember that fire and wind can be dangerous.  Allowing oneself to be moved by the Spirit of God can be dangerous and risky.  IT can lead us to do and say things that others find ridiculous or threatening.  It can lead us to find ourselves on the outside looking in, taking a position contrary to the "norm". 

However we are a people of Pentecost (I'd say Pentecostal but that has a different meaning these days).  This means we are a people who are shaped by the wind and fire of God.  THis means we are called to let God's fire burn in our bellies/souls and God's wind fill our sails, drive us forward.

THe question remains though.  Will we be seen as hot and windy, on fire for the kin-dom? OR will we simply be seen as hot-headed windbags?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Article on St. Paul's

WIthin Alberta Northwest Conference there exists a body whose purpose is to tell the story of the United Church (and our Methodist and Presbyterian forebears) within the area served by the Conference (all of Alberta, the BC Peace, Yukon, Northwest Territories).  Each year they publish a Journal with articles sent in by UCCan folks in the area.  They also have a web-presence in the form of this blog.

Earlier this year the 100th Anniversary Committee had submitted a write up about St. Paul's United (nee McQueen Presbyterian) Church for the 2011 edition of the Journal.  This article was accidentally missed but has been posted on the blog.  You can find it here

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

KJV Turns 400

As an addendum to yesterday's post....

In preparing for Sunday I found a website dedicted to the KJV turning 400.  You can check it out here

Monday, May 30, 2011

Looking Forward to June 5, 2011 -- 7th Sunday of Easter

This year the King James Version of the Bible (also called the Authorized Version) turns 400.   In honour of that we will read our Scriptures from the KJV this week and spend time talking about how we approach Scripture.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • 2 Timothy 3:14-17
  • Revelation 22:16-21
  • Psalm 119:105-112 (VU p.841 Part 5)

For Children's Time we will have a variety of Bibles up front to look at--one of which is very special.

The Sermon Title is The B-I-B-L-E

Early Thoughts: OK, be honest, did any of you start singing this song when you read the sermon title? Well here is a video version of it for you to sing along with (done "boy band" style):

But really, what is the Bible? How do we, as people of faith, make use of it?  Is it "the Word of God" or is it words about God that contain a Word from God?  Where did it come from?  How do we interpret it?  Is the Bible "true"?  And what do you mean by true

These are important questions for us to talk about.  They are also questions for which faithful people have a wide variety of answers.

The KJV is an important artifact in English literature.  By some studies (see this article) it is still the most common version of the Bible on household bookshelves (although I suspect that this may be due to inherited Bibles rather than because everyone is buying KJV for personal use).  It was not the first translation of Scripture into English, but it was the first one with the official stamp and permission of the monarch (which is why it is called the Authorized Version).  And the committee that worked on it tried, as best they could with the scholarship of the early 17th century, to be as accurate as possible.   Some people still remember the shock and horror that many felt a half century ago when the RSV came out and changed the translation of some much beloved verses --there were some who called the RSV an atheist text and an abomination.  To this day there are a few people who maintain that the KJV is the only proper English version of the text to read, study, and use.

But we need to look beyond one version.  The KJV is an artifact from another time.  There are more accurate translations.  And more importantly there are translations that are written in the language we actually speak (which was the whole point of the KJV in the first place).  We have Scripture in our language so that we can read and study and discuss it.  Which brings us back to the questions I asked earlier.

TO find out how I answer those questions, you'll simply have to come on Sunday!

In the meantime, here is a song that grows out of the Psalm passage for this week:


PS>  here is a thread from WonderCafe about 18 months ago discussing the Bible.  I referenced the same song in its title...

Saturday, May 28, 2011

June Newsletter

Spin me a story in spinning you'll find.
One strand is yours another is mine.
Each alone has beauty to see;
reflecting the joys of what we believe.
Only when shared do stories take form.
Join in the telling a new strand is born.
By weaving the fabric a richness we'll see,
woven into God's great tapestry.
(“Spin Me a Story” verse 1 ©1991 Nancy Chegus)
Whether it is as our child heads off to bed, or gathering friends and family to remember a loved one, or at a faith gathering, or simply something to read as we relax on the beach we are story-people. Despite all the science and technology we use everyday it is stories that really tell us who we are. And so we all have stories to share.

This is especially true for us as people of faith. Our faith is not passed on through complex theological concepts or philosophies. Our faith is passed on through stories, stories from Scripture, stories from the life of our denomination, stories from our congregation, and our own stories of exploring faith, of encountering God in our lives. And so we have stories to share.

150 years ago Katherine Hankey wrote these words:
I love to tell the story; more wonderful it seems
Than all the golden fancies of all our golden dreams.
I love to tell the story, it did so much for me;
And that is just the reason I tell it now to thee.
I love to tell the story, for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song,
’Twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.
(“I Love to Tell the Story” verses 2 & 4)
Hankey knew something too many of us have forgotten. She knew that as people of faith we have a responsibility to tell the stories of faith to the people around us. And just like the stories we tell at family gatherings it really doesn't matter if people are hearing them for the first time or for the 100th time. We all have those stories we love to hear over and over again – like the child who knows her favourite story book by heart but still wants it read every night.
In theological language telling the stories of faith is called evangelism, sharing the Good News. That is a word we tend not to use much these days. But it is my considered opinion that we need to reclaim our evangelical heritage. We need to start telling our faith stories more. We need to tell our faith stories to help each other grow stronger in faith, to deepen our relationship with the Holy One. We need to tell our faith stories so that people we have not yet met can hear how our relationship with the Holy One has changed our lives. We need to be sharers of Good News, not to increase the number of people in church or dollars in the plate, but because we are people of story. Only if we share our stories can we share our understanding of God's vision for the world in which we live, in which we do our ministry.
Spin me a world that is free from all wrong.
Peacefulness reigns, all conflict is gone.
Hungry souls are fed by our love,
inspired by the hope of the dove.
This is God's world for us to weave.
Picture the future then start to believe.
Spin me a story in spinning you'll find,
one strand is yours, another is mine
(“Spin me a Story” verse 3)
What stories will we share as we try to live out this life and world transforming faith we call Christianity?
I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.
(“I Love to Tell the Story” refrain)