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 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?