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 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 " 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.