Monday, December 31, 2012

Looking Forward to January 6, 2013 -- Epiphany Sunday

The Scripture Readings for this week are:
  • Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
  • Matthew 2:1-12

The Sermon isn't really a Sermon. Instead it will be a series of monologues under the title The Wise Ones Visit

 Early Thoughts: Who were they, these visitors from the East? Why did they come? What did they know? [Did they even exist?]

Matthew is really short on details in his account.  He does not even tell us how many there were!

 And so tradition has filled in the blanks.  After all, few people like a story with all sorts of details missing.

This week, drawing partly on tradition and partly on imagination, we will let three Magi tell their stories.  Stories which explain a possible logic behind the three gifts Matthew tells us about.

And yes there is a possibility that Matthew made up the story completely.  But we will save that line of discussion for another year...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Looking Forward to December 24, 2012 -- Christmas Eve

The Scripture Readings for this service are:
Isaiah 9:2-7 (which will form the backbone of the Call to Worship)
Luke 2:1-20

The Reflection is called What is Born for you tonight?

Early Thoughts:   Why do we celebrate Christmas every year?  Is it a great big birthday party?  Or is it because we believe that the Christ is born again and again, that God continues to become God-With-Us in new and surprising ways?

I say it is the latter.  I say that this (and every) year we are called once again to look and see where God is being born.  It will not likely be where or how we expect it.  But God comes again to bring hope, God comes again to push us toward peace, God comes again to reveal joy, God comes again to spread love. 

Both Isaiah and Luke make it clear that the birth we await is for the people of God, not for God. So for US a child is born.  What is being born for you this Christmas?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Looking Forward to December 23, 2012 -- Advent 4C

The Scripture reading this week is Luke 1:26-38

The Sermon title is What if She Said NO?

Early Thoughts:  What would have happened to the story then?  What if, after her discussion with the angel Mary had said "Thanks but no thanks" instead of “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”???

Ok I admit, I first came up with this title near the end of the US Election season when various candidates for federal office were making some rather stupid statements around rape and pregnancy.  And I may have been feeling a little bit confrontational.   SO what if Mary said NO and got pregnant anyway?  What would that make the story about?

6 weeks or so later I see that this may not be the best sermon to preach on December 23.  Or at least not quite as polemical as I was feeling that day.  But still I think the question bears asking, I just want to take it in a different way.  Maybe the question is more "Why did she say yes?"

IF we take it for granted that Mary COULD have said no but didn't.  What does that say about her and about God.  

Mary is an interesting character in the Scripture story.   And she is made more interesting by the layers of gender-role/gender-nature assumptions that quickly got added on top of the Scriptural story (this process probably started in the first couple of centuries of the Christian Era).  As a result tradition tells us about "Gentle Mary meek and mild", a young woman who quietly submitted to the will of God as revealed by an angel.  But I have my doubts.  To say yes meant risking social ostracism or worse.  There have always been grave social risks for young women who are pregnant "too soon", still are for that matter.  

Given that reality I think it say a lot about Mary, about her confidence in herself, about her confidence in God that she say yes.  But did she have to? 

Well that would depend on your understanding of how God interacts with God's people.  SOme would say that Mary really had no choice in the matter, that God's will overrides human will.  I understand that point of view.   It is tempting because it suggests that the other option is that human will overrides God's will.  And that can be a depressing possibility.  But I think there is another option.  

I believe God acts more through encouragement and co-operation than coercion.  So I believe that Mary COULD have said no.  But she said yes.  So this week let's explore why she made that choice....

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Newspaper Column....

It's the most WONDERFUL time of the year! So the old song goes. In the minds of many Christmas is a time of joy and happiness. Christmas is about carols, chocolates, children, and community. It involves Christmas parties and presents. It is a season when the world can pause from the everyday grind and talk about peace, hope, joy and love.

Well the truth can be somewhat different than our perceptions. For some people Christmas is anything but happy. Maybe this is the first year after a death in the family. Maybe this year one of the children isn’t coming home for the holidays. Maybe this is the first time you can't get home to be with family. Maybe there is added stress and anxiety because of your economic situation and the expectation to buy gifts. For a variety of reasons Christmas can be very difficult.

It is hard to go against the expectations around us. When people expect us to be happy and joyful it is difficult to tell them that we aren’t feeling that way. But it is important that people have a place and a chance to be honest with themselves and their family and friends about what they are feeling.

Last Sunday in our worship service I gave the congregation at St. Paul's a challenge. I work from the assumption that we all know someone for whom Christmas is difficult. And as members of a community of love we have an ethical duty to support other members of that community. So I share the challenge with all of you out there, if you know someone for whom Christmas is difficult this year, to help provide that place and opportunity to be honest about what we are feeling this Christmas. Together we can help each other cope with the ups and downs of life. I think that would be a great Christmas gift to give each other.

And now, because I think Christmas is mainly about stories, here is a story of someone who found a way to make a stranger's Christmas just a bit better:

The wind gusted, sending the fresh snow swirling around the lamp post. Miriam shivered, pulling the thin coat tighter around her chest. “Gonna be a cold one tonight,” she muttered, squinting through the darkness.

A little further down the block was the big old church. Miriam remembered going there as a child, remembered the beautiful stained glass windows. Suddenly a friendly voice boomed in her ear. “Merry Christmas! Please come and join us for worship!”

Miriam looked around, wondering who the cheerful man was talking to. Surely it couldn’t be her. Christmas Eve was a special service, someone wearing an old coat and wrapped in a hand-me-down blanket didn’t fit in with the fancy dresses and bright lights. But there was nobody else around. “Ar-are you talking to m-m-me?” she asked.

“Of course my dear,” the greeter replied. “Come in and warm up at least.” Miriam could hardly believe her ears; certainly a chance to get out of the wind was welcome. Gratefully she made her way up the old stone stairs and snuck into a pew way at the back of the sanctuary, just as the opening notes of the first hymn were being played.

As she listened to the familiar old carols Miriam couldn’t help remembering the Christmases of her childhood. Things were so much happier, so much simpler then. “What had gone wrong?” she muttered to herself. Then the pageant started. Watching Mary and Joseph get turned away from the inn Miriam felt her heart reach out to them. She knew what it meant to have nowhere to go.

After the service, Miriam started to wrap herself in the blanket again and sneak out without being seen. No luck. The greeter was right there beside her again. “Where will you sleep tonight?” he asked. Miriam said nothing, just looked away.

Finally she looked up, “I don’t know, there was no room at the shelter.”

“Well that will never do” the young man said. He paused for a moment then a smile came back to his face. “You will come to my parent’s house with me,” he said. The story we just heard reminds us that there should always be room at the inn somewhere.

It might have been a trick of the light and wind. But at that moment Miriam was sure that the greeter’s face was shining, just like the angel in the window behind her. And somewhere she heard voices singing “Hallelujah!”…

May God grant you the Merriest possible Christmas and Blessings in 2013!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What I wrote for the DHT Christmas SEction...

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

It is the heart of the story we tell at this time of year. The birth of a child. The birth of hope. The birth that was promised, the light in the darkness.

The original Christmas takes place in a world full of despair. This Christmas comes into a world that also knows too much despair. But still Hope is being born. Still Emmanuel, God -With-Us, is breaking into the world to bring change, to lead us into the Reign of God.

What is being born for you this year? Where is God breaking into your life?

The Congregation of St. Paul's United Church invites one and all to join us in celebrating the Birth of the Promised Child December 24 at 7:00pm.

We wish you all a Very Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year.

And as Tiny Tim put it so well. God Bless Us! Every One!

I also sent two pictures for them to choose between.  THey are from the recent Nativity Scene exhibit here at St. Paul's:


Monday, December 3, 2012

Looking Ahead to December 9, 2012 -- Advent 2C

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Malachi 3:1-4
  • Luke 1:68-79 (VU p.900)
  • Luke 3:7-18

The Sermon Title is Ready to be Refined? 

Early Thoughts:  Having the dross burnt away, or the impurities scrubbed out, or being threshed to separate the grain from the chaff.  Not the most helpful ways to approach God are they?

Malachi and John, like most Biblical Prophets. are speaking to people who have lost their way.  Malachi and John are trying to get people to repent, to change direction.  Malachi and John know that in order for people to get back on the right path some thing has to be changed, some part of their being (or at least their behaviour) needs to be excised/removed, the people God wants them to be needs to be removed from the excess so that their pure selves can shine through.

If we take Advent and Christmas seriously, if we seriously ask ourselves what it means for God to break into the world and call us to a new way of living then we have to ask ourselves where we might need to be refined/threshed/washed.  But there is hope in that question--far more hope than we might get from Malachi and John.

Malachi and John had a vision of how this purification thing was going to work.  They saw God coming in anger and justice to physically (and somewhat forcefully or violently) remove that which was impure.  But lo and behold God had a different plan.

Instead of a crucible burning away our impurities, or being scrubbed with fuller's soap (which would also burn the skin by the way), or being beaten with a flail, God calls us to a new life through love and grace and mercy.  In Jesus God calls us to embrace who we are meant to be and cast away that which does not fit.  God does not seek to strip it away by force.

Not that this is any easier mind you.  At times it still feels like we are in the refiner's crucible and the heat is getting uncomfortable.  But still the intention makes all the difference.  By choosing to act through love God says that we will be accepted and loved despite (and including) our impurities.  God does call us to repent, to change direction.  God will help us make that turn.  It will not be easy or comfortable.  But to be who we were created to be we have to do it. So are we willing?  As we prepare to make space in our lives for God to be born anew are we ready to be refined?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Looking Ahead to December 2, 2012 -- Advent 1C

This week we start a new church year as once again we begin the journey to Bethlehem and a baby in a manger.

This week we also celebrate the sacrament of Communion.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Jeremiah 33:14-16
  • Luke 21:25-36
The Sermon title is Hope or Fear?

Early Thoughts: Which do you default to in times of change? OR are they really two sides of the same coin?

I invite those of you who are parents to think back to when you first learned that a child was coming.  Were you excited?  Plausibly.  Did you start to dream about who this child would be?  Probably at some point in those 9 months this happened.   And did the concept of caring for a child, of shouldering that awesome responsibility scare the bejeesus out of you?  Maybe not all the time, but brief (or not so brief) flashes of utter terror?  For many of us the answer is yes to all of the above.

Each year the Lectionary gives us these decidedly non-Christmassy passages for the first Sunday of Advent.  I mean really, who want to read about the end of the world 23 days before we sing carols and celebrate the birth of the Christ Child?

And yet the Christmas story/hope/promise is about the world being changed.  The Child whose birth we await will start a ball rolling that will change the lives of millions.  When we see the signs of change coming we can react with hope.  Or we can be terrified.  Or more likely we can do both, either in alternation or concurrently.

What is waiting to be born in the world this Christmas?  What change fills us both with hope and with fear?  And more importantly, remember that once we name and admit our reactions we can then take response-ability for them.  So will we feed the hope or the fear?  Which way do we wait for the birth?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Looking Ahead to November 25, 2012 -- Reign of Christ Sunday

The Scripture Reading this week is John 18:33-37

The Sermon title is How Do We Know? 

Early Thoughts: It is almost lost in most discussion of this text. But it is a great question.  Because this passage comes from the Passion story and because the other time it shows up in the Lectionary is on Reign of Christ Sunday most discussions focus on the nature of Jesus' kingdom out of these verses.  Another common option (one I have used many times) is to extend the reading into the next verse where Pilate asks "What is truth?" (a question I always hear as it is sung in Jesus Christ Superstar).  But look more closely at verse 34: Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”  As people who bear the name "Christian" but obviously never knew the human person Jesus it seems we have to answer that question for ourselves.

Do we know Jesus or do we know about Jesus?

 Some people of faith can speak very passionately about the personal relationship they have with Jesus.  Some people of faith can speak very knowledgeably about Christology and who Jesus may have been and the stories about him and analyze those stories.  Some people can do both.

Do we know Jesus or just know about him?  Do we have a personal stake in our relationship with Jesus?

I think we need to take time to build that relationship with Jesus ad with the God we revealed.  Part of our faith will always be to hear and to pass on the witness of those who have gone before us.  But that is not where we need to stop.  We need to be able to sing with full conviction "What a Friend we Have in Jesus".  WE need to know Jesus, not just go on the witness of others.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Worship Teasers

November 25 -- How Do We Know? -- No not a take-off on the Whitney Houston song. (Although that sounds like a great idea! Maybe I will go with that) Instead it is asking how we know Jesus. Now I have to go write a song...

December 2 -- Hope or Fear?-- A baby being born changes life completely. And any parent will tell you that there is both hope and fear in that time of waiting. Why should Christmas be any different? Oh and we will have Communion this Sunday.

December 9 -- Ready to be Refined? -- Sometimes the lectionary gives us strange readings as we prepare for Christmas. But what if preparing for God to break into our world means refining our lives? Are we ready for that? Now to research charcoal burning and ore refining...

December 16 – Our Christmas Pageant Sunday. Come and see what the Sunday School has in store for us this year!

 December 23 -- What if She Said NO? -- Gentle Mary Meek and Mild. Or maybe not. Linnea Good has a song about Mary where she is bold and ready to claim her place in the world. And so I have to ask, what if Mary had said no???? Did God have a back-up plan?

Christmas Eve -- What is Born For You Tonight? -- If you are like me you always hear the Christmas story told in the voice of Linus Van Pelt “For unto you is born this night...That is what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown” But Christmas is about more than one baby being born. Christmas is about God breaking into our lives here today. So how is hope breaking into your life this Christmas?

December 30 – Shall we have a “regular” service this week? Or something more informal involving carol singing and chatting together? Maybe some looking forward to 2013 or reflecting on 2012? What would you prefer???

January 6 -- The Wise Ones Visit –Our Christmas story and season end with the story of visitors from abroad. This year the three “traditional” Magi will come to visit with us and tell their story. Anyone want to be a wise guy????

December Newsletter

People look east the time is near
of the crowning of the year.
Make your hearth fair as you are able,
trim the hearth and set the table.
People look east and sing today:
Love the guest is on the way.

( verse 1 of #9 in Voices United words ©1928 Eleanor Farjeon.)

“…the time is near of the crowning of the year”. What exactly does that mean? After all the peak of the year could mean a whole bunch of different things. It could be Easter, when we celebrate the Resurrection as the frozen earth begins to be reborn with the warmth of Spring. Or maybe it is the height of summer, with warm sun and swimming holes and relaxation. And guests may come at anytime. We need more information...

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.

People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

(verse 3 of #9 in Voices United words ©1928 Eleanor Farjeon.)

Seriously? Winter is the crowning of the year? Well yes, that is one of the possibilities. The coming of mid-winter, with its darkness and cold, also brings us reminders of the Light of the World, the Light that can never be blown out. We face the forces of hopelessness in our world, whatever they are, with the story of a baby’s birth. The crowning of the year is the news that we sing “Joy to the World! The Lord is Come!”

Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

(verse 2 of #9 in Voices United words ©1928 Eleanor Farjeon.)

Yes I know these verses are out of order. But it worked better this way (or blame it on new math?). Christmas is about the birth of hope, the birth of possibilities. What seed is being planted in your hearts and lives this winter? How do we need to prepare for the birth/planting that will come in a month? And then we start the work of nourishing the seed to full flower.

Angels announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth
Set every peak and valley humming
with the word the Lord is coming.
People look east and sing today:
Love the Lord is on the way.

(verse 5 of #9 in Voices United words ©1928 Eleanor Farjeon.)

Soon we will once again tell the story and sing the songs about the birth of a baby. But more than an infant boy in long ago Bethlehem we sing about the hope that is reborn in our hearts. Indeed the time is near of the crowning of the year. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, God-With-Us, is coming into our lives. Alleluia!

As a web-extra here is a YouTube so you can sing along with the whole hymn...

Monday, November 12, 2012

Looking Ahead to November 18, 2012 -- Proper 28B 25th After Pentecost

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Daniel 12:1-3
  • Mark 13:1-8, 24-37
  • Revelation 21:1-8

The Sermon title is The Day is When?

Early Thoughts: As the liturgical year draws to a close our readings encourage us to look to the end times.  The Day of the Lord is coming we are told.  BUt when?  Should we be worried? afraid? noncommital? hopeful?  Do the Mayans have something to do with this?

The last question is the easiest so let us get it out of the way first.  NO.  The Mayans have nothing to do with it -- despite all the hype about the supposed end of the Mayan calendar next month (so yes we do still have to get ready for Christmas).

The first question is also relatively easy, although the answer may be less clear than some would want.  The Gospels make it plain that Jesus told his followers "no one knows the day or the hour".  In this I see a suggestion that we should not spend a whole bunch of time trying to figure out when it will happen --although I note that several people over the ages have spent hundreds of hours (and thousands of pages) analyzing the world so as to make a specific prediction of a day and hour.  And to be fair it appears from the Scriptures that both Jesus and Paul expected that the Day of the Lord, the changing of the world, was fairly imminent -- that some who were alive then would still be alive when it came.

Before we continue on the when question (because it gets more complicated), a quick diversion into the middle questions.  On one hand the readings this week suggest we should view the coming of the Day of the Lord with great trepidation.  It does not sound like it will be a very positive experience.  On the other hand the changing of the world, the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God is a cornerstone of Christian Hope.  We live in hope for the time when the wolf will lie down with the lamb, when all will live in peace and all will have what they need.  But given how humans deal with change (and changing from how we currently live to the full bloom of the Kingdom of God will be a very substantial change in lifestyle and expectations) getting to the endpoint, however promising that endpoint may be, will be a somewhat torturous process.

In a way this brings us back to the when question.  Because in Christian theology the traditional answer to the when question is "now and not yet".  The Gospels and Paul proclaim that the Kingdom is present in the life and resurrection of Jesus.  So it is already here.  But obviously it is not here in all its fullness and potential.  So it is not yet.  Maybe the real question is "how is it growing closer?"  Are we moving toward or away from (or possibly remaining stuck in one place) the fullness of the Kingdom of God?  Are we responsible for bringing that fullness to existence or are we to wait for God to do it? 

And no, there is no easy (or universally accepted) answer to either of those questions.  But we continue to wrestle with them as we try to figure out how to live as faithful people in a sometimes very confusing world.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Looking Forward to November 11, 2012 -- Remembrance Day

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Isaiah 11:1-10 
  • Micah 4:1-8 
There will be no sermon as such. Instead we will have a couple of stories, and a video. The stories are called Bill Remembers and The Dreams.

Some Random Thoughts Some Sundays it is difficult to know what to do.  In a faith tradition that has (for at least the last 1500 years) been conflicted on the issue of strict pacifism versus some form of violence when needed/just war November 11 (called Remembrance Day in Canada, Veteran's Day in the US, still called Armistice Day by some) is one of those days.

What do we do with Remembrance Day?  How do we, as a faith community who tends (in many places nowadays) to lean towards the pacifism side of the equation handle a day to remember the wars of the 20th (and now the 21st) Century?  Some are happy to leave the commemorations to the Legion services at cenotaphs or arenas.  Some insist that the church service on the Sunday closest/prior to the 11th ABSOLUTELY MUST include some form of remembering and saying thanks--preferably with flags and a colour party and a piper.

But what are we doing when we remember and give thanks?  Are we falling into the easy trap (in the name of patriotism) of glorifying a selective memory of what the war was?  Are we being biased into remembering those who went on the "right" side -- or even more closely focussed to be those who went from our own community/congregation -- as gloriously brave and courageous fighting against an evil foe?  Or are we able to mark the day by naming that we are remembering horrors, that we are pausing to honour those who wore the colours of BOTH sides, that we are taking time in our remembering to say those key words (words the Royal Canadian Legion used for years in their November 11 materials) Never Again

As a person who professes faith in the one who was called the Prince of Peace, who said "Blessed are the peacemakers" I would hope that our commemorations--both in church sanctuaries and in Legion Halls--fit most closely with the last option.  To truly mark November 11 is to name that brave men and women died and suffered in a cause they were told was right and holy (during the World Wars church pulpits were used to encourage folks to enlist, even as some other ministry types may have doubted that war was the answer) on both sides of every battlefield [and yes in this I include Afghanistan and Iraq] in the course of human history.

This Sunday we will pause, we will give a "pittance of [our] time" to remember that humans too often fail to live up to God's vision of a Peaceable Kingdom.  And may we re-commit ourselves to Never Again.  May we re-commit ourselves to working for peace, true peace [which has a much deeper meaning than the absence of violent conflict] within the world around us.  And it is my belief that this is the way we truly honour those who have gone before us.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Looking Forward to November 4, 2012 -- Proper 26B 23rd After Pentecost

This Sunday we will celebrate the sacrament of Communion.

The Scripture Readings this Sunday are:

  • Deuteronomy 6:1-9
  • Mark 12:28-34

The Sermon title is Shema Yisroel

Early Thoughts:  This passage from Deuteronomy is a key part of Jewish religious practice.  It has been suggested by some writers that countless Jewish martyrs have died with the phrase Shema Yisroel, Adonai elohenu Adonai echad (Hear O Israel the Lord is our God, the Lord is One) on their lips.  It is a phrase that is used in daily devotions.  To quote from this essay:
 It was a familiar instruction, one that pious Jews recited in their morning and evening prayer services, urged their children to say at bedtime, carried in script on their wrists, and attached to the doorposts of their homes in a small container called a mezuzah. 
Is it any wonder that Jesus pulls it as one part of the greatest commandment?

And then Jesus pulls another verse from the Scriptures of his people.  "You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).  And while the Gospel portrays them as two separate commanments I truly believe that we can not do one without the other.  We cannot love God and hate our neighbour (because our neighbour is made in the image of God).  We cannot love our neighbour and hate God (because our neighbour is made in the image of God).

One of the markers of Judaism was and is its radical monotheism.  This is why the Shema has such a central place in Jewish devotion.  One of the markers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (and many other faith traditions) is a commitment to serve and care for each other.  Which brings us to love of neighbour.  One of the markers of our Scriptural story (and something that we seem to forget far too often) is that we are all part of the creation which God "said it was good" which brings us to those crucial last words about love "as yourself".

And so it seems to me that this threefold love of God, neighbour, and self sums up not only the law (which is what Jesus was asked) but also the life of faith.  What would it look like if we said daily that there is only one God, if we reminded ourselves daily to act out of a place of deep and abiding love?  It would not be easy.  For many of us it would require a whole-hearted change in our priorities and actions.  But maybe it is worth a try?????

Thursday, October 25, 2012

November Newsletter Notes...

Why Are We Here?

I have a test for you. Without looking at anything else, without scanning down the page for the answer (it is down there), can you say what the St. Paul's United Church Mission Statement is? Did you even know we had one? For more of a test, can you say what our Vision Statement (which is longer) is?

Vision and Mission Statements are strange animals. Some people call them essential, others say that they are not worth much. In theory an organization's Vision and Mission guide and drive every activity, every decision, every choice. In practice, in many church congregations, they are statements that a portion of the people remember exist, and fewer can tell you what they actually say and mean.

At the September Council meeting I asked the members of Council to finish this sentence “The main reason St. Paul's exists is....” (and then this month I had the same discussion with the M&P committee). There were a variety of answers. Some of them talked about being a different kind of Christian voice in the community. Some talked primarily about being a worshipping community. Some talked about serving the wider community. At least one person got quite practical and talked about the fact that we exist because of the work done by many who have gone before us and the continued giving (time and money) of those who are here now.

In those discussions I also asked them to finish this sentence “St. Paul's spends the most energy on...”. There was a less vocal and somewhat less enthusiastic discussion at that point but there was still a sense that the answers to both parts were linked. [This is not always the case. Some organizations have a clear sense of why they exist but then realize most of their energy and resources are on doing other things.]

Naturally that brings us to our Mission and Vision Statements. And since I promised, here is how we at St. Paul's describe our Mission:
Putting one foot in front of the other, we will continue to walk on the path Christ has set for us. The people of St. Paul’s will Belong...Believe...Love...Lead
and here is our Vision:
To be a loving and supportive community of faith where we celebrate the gifts of the spirit we bring, regardless of age, to the service of the Church, the Community, and the World. Our leaders, both Lay and Order of Ministry, will be supported and encouraged through our ongoing discernment of our mission and ministry and by our participation in the life and work of St. Paul’s United Church.

So what do those mean to you? When you read them and you look at the future what should we do more of? What should we stop doing? What are we not doing that we should be doing?

As we get set to begin a New Year (the church year begins with the first Sunday of Advent – December 2nd) it is time to think about what we want to accomplish in the next year. As an organization our goals need to grow out of our answer to the question “Why Are We Here?”. And really Vision and Mission statements are just fancy ways to answer that question.

So why are we here? What should we be doing in the new year? Or, to use more theological language, “Who and how is God calling us to be in Grande Prairie in the 21st Century?” AS your Council works on goals for 2014 and beyond I encourage you to share your hopes, dreams, thoughts and vision with us. Together we move forward into the future, together we are this small part of God's Kingdom. And that, as they say, is a good thing.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Looking Forward to October 28, 2012 -- Proper 25B 22nd Sunday After Pentecost

This Sunday we will celebrate the sacrament of Baptism.

The Scripture Readings this Sunday are:
  • Psalm 34 (VU p.761)
  • Mark 10:46-52

The Sermon title is Jesus the Healer

Early Thoughts:   Miracles in general, healing miracles in particular are not something we talk about a lot in many of our churches.  Some people see them as superstitious relics of a less "educated" time (note that educated and knowledgeable and wise are not the same things).  Some see these stories as difficult to reconcile with a modern scientific worldview.

And yet it is undeniable that people experienced Jesus of Nazareth as a healer.  We can spiritualize and theologize those stories all we want (and in doing so we can get some great sermons) but the witness that Jesus healed people is right there in the text.  What do we do with those stories in the here and now?

To be honest, I don't really know.  I have not spent much time in my lifetime reflecting on the healing stories.  When healing stories in contemporary religious culture come to the news I generally skip over them.  Still it is undeniable that for a substantial segment of contemporary Christian culture faith healing stories are a part of their understanding of faith and life.  To become a Saint in the Roman Catholic tradition at least 3 miracles need to be ascribed to the individual and these are usually healings (the church has a method for verifying these claims).

Jesus was a healer.  God's healing power is still active in the world.  IT defies our modern scientific mindset.  Hopefully by Sunday I'll have a better idea of what it means in today's worldview to talk about Jesus as a healer....

Monday, October 15, 2012

Looking Forward to October 21, 2012 -- 21st Sunday After Pentecost

This week we are going back in time (as far as the Lectionary is concerned) and reading a Mark passage (with additional verses) that we skipped in September as we read our way through James. And so the Scripture Reading this week is: Mark 8:27-9:10

The Sermon Title is  Who do YOU Say He Is?

Early Thoughts:  After all these years the question echoes.   And the question is not only asked to Peter.  We continue to read Scripture because we believe that these ancient words and stories continue to speak to us in the present.  And so as we read Jesus' ask the disciples "who do people say I am?" and then focus his question more closely "who do you say I am?" we need to pause and note that as people of faith we are now the ones being asked.  And what would we answer?

And our answer needs to be meaningful and personal. It is suggested that if Peter was a modern Jesus scholar the exchange might have gone something like this:
Jesus said, "Who do they say that I am." They replied, some say
Elijah, some John the Baptist, others one of the prophets." And he said, but who do YOU say that I am?" Peter answered, "You are the ground of our being, the ontological kerygma in which we find the ultimate meaning of our interpersonal relationships." And Jesus said, "...What?"
The answer needs to have meaning, not couched in jargon, not just rote recitation of the faith of our fathers. The answer has to be ours, for our context, for our time. Who is Jesus for us? How is God active in our midst?  The answers will be abundant and varied, just as the answers and descriptions in Scripture and in tradition have been abundant and varied.

It is worth noting that Peter's declaration of faith is followed immediately by the prediction of death and resurrection.  How does that colour who we say Jesus is?   Then right after that we have the mystical experience of the Transfiguration.  How does that story colour our answer to the question?  All our experience of life and faith will influence what we believe.  All our experience of life and faith influence how we answer Jesus' question.

Over the years there have been a multitude of ways people of faith have answered Jesus' question.  Some of the answers have been shown in writing--academic treatises and poems and sermons and stories and songs. Some of the answers have appeared in pictures.  Some of us remember that 13 years ago there was an exhibit of some of these pictures at the Provincial Museum in Edmonton.  That exhibit also has an online life now: Anno Domini.  COncievably this Sunday we will include some of those images in our powerpoint.  Maybe this one for example (which does not come from Anno Domini, I forget where on Facebook I first came across this):

And certainly this week you will be asked the question.  You will be invited to talk with your neighbour about who Jesus is for you.

So really.  Who do YOU say he is??????

Monday, October 1, 2012

Looking Forward to October 7, 2012 -- Thanksgiving Sunday

This week we will celebrate the sacrament of Communion.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
Joel 2:21-27
Psalm 126 (VU p.850)
Matthew 6:25-33

The Sermon title is Do Not Fear, Do Not Worry...

Early Thoughts:  Sometimes I think Jesus must be joking.  Most of the people Jesus is talking to struggle just to get enough food to make it through the year.  It would not be an overstatement to say that they have next to nothing.  And he is telling them not to worry?????  That is sort of like walking into the homeless shelter and just saying "everything will be okay, God will give you what you need".  How would we expect people to respond in that case?

Most of us have trouble believing that God will just provide what we need. We don't just sit back and rake it all in after all. But I am not sure that is the point of the passage. Or at least that may not be where the story intersects with our lives.

One of the dangers we have in our society is that we too often fall into the trap of believing that what we have we have as a reward for hard work or as an entitlement. These passages remind us that what we have is a gift that is graciously and freely given. One of the dangers of modern society is that we are taught to worry, we are taught that what we need is scarce and we have to ensure we "get our share". These passages remind us that what we have is he result of abundant gifts. These passages call us to reflect on the difference between worrying over the world's scarcity and rejoicing on God's abundance.

As I read and think ahead I am reminded of a song, a song about counting our blessings.  While we are counting our blessings it is harder to lament our lack.  When we count our blessings we see the world differently.  AS we approach a First Sunday, with the 2nd Offering that entails, let us count our blessings.  And as an act of thankfulness let us be ready to share those blessings with the people in the pew, the street, the community next to us.

And what better message is there on Thanksgiving weekend? If we stop worrying so much we may see the world differently. When we see abundance instead of scarcity it enables us to see what we have to share with the world. It enables us to practice better stewardship. In the end worry is a subset of fear, and fear is the opposite of love. Let us put aside worry so that we can live in love.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Looking Forward to September 30, 2012 -- Proper 21B, 18th After Pentecost

This week we will be celebrating the sacrament of Baptism, with 3 different families bringing children forward.

The Scripture Reading this week is James 5, as we conclude our journey through the book of James.

The Sermon title is 3 P's of Parenting: Patience, Prayer, Power

Early Thoughts:  This week's sermon is brought to you by the letter P and by the numbers 3 and 1.  (Being a product of the Sesame Street generation, I always love it when I get to use that phrasing.)

Now let's be honest.  James is not talking about being a parent.  James is talking about being a faithful follower of The Way.  To be faithful is to be patient. To be faithful is to lift each other up in prayer (and allow yourself to be lifted up in prayer).  To be faithful is to be open and honest with each other.  To be faithful is to trust in the power of prayer, the power of God, to change the world.

And now I invite you to consider how parenting fits in with all those aspects of being faithful as outlined above.  Does parenting require patience?  Who could doubt that?  Patience as we wait for development to occur, or for listening to happen (and to be honest sometimes it appears that the Day of the Lord will come before those things happen.  Does parenting involve prayer, lifting up the children and the parents in prayer?  (And praying for the above named patience is a given)  I would say yes.   And where does power come in to parenting?  Whose Power? How is it used?

As a part of our baptism service the congregation of St. Paul's answers this question:
Do you, the congregation of St. Paul’s United Church, commit yourselves to support and nurture these persons within a community where the love of God is made visible and known?
We do, by the grace of God.
How do we live that out?  I am bold enough to suggest that exploring and sharing our understanding of the 3 P's of Parenting: Patience, Prayer and Power as well as helping all members of our family to meet the ONE who creates and re-creates us are part of how we "support and nurture [each other] within a community where the love of God is made visible and known".

Monday, September 17, 2012

Looking Forward to September 23, 2012 -- Proper 20B, 17th After Pentecost

THe Scripture Reading this week is James 4.

The Sermon Title is Humble Yourself

Early Thoughts:  Verse 10 reads: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you"  What does that mean?  When I was in High School our youth group's default song (one we could easily sing at the drop of a hat when needed) was a two part song based on this verse.  But I don't remember us actually talking about what it meant.

That verse comes after a bit of a diatribe about how worldly and unholy people are/can be.  And it suggests that the real problem is one that is brought up often in religious discourse.  DO you trust in wisdom from above or from below?  And while that is a very common question, it is most certainly not an easy one to answer is it.

What does it mean to be humble?  Here is the first definition of humble found at
   [huhm-buhl, uhm-] Show IPA adjective, hum·bler, hum·blest, verb, hum·bled, hum·bling.
1. not proud or arrogant; modest: to be humble although successful.
2. having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, etc.: In the presence of so many world-famous writers I felt very humble.
3. low in rank, importance, status, quality, etc.; lowly: of humble origin; a humble home.
4. courteously respectful: In my humble opinion you are wrong.
5. low in height, level, etc.; small in size: a humble member of the galaxy.
 James calls us to be modest, to lower ourselves, to be respectful.  James challenges us to get out our egos out of the way.  James suggests that if we can do that then we will be less prone to doing things against the flow of God.

I think James is right.  But can we do that reliably?  What would it look like on the ground???

Monday, September 10, 2012

Looking Forward to September 16, 2012 -- Proper 19B, 16th After Pentecost

This Sunday we will celebrate the Sacrament of Communion

The Scripture Reading this week is James 3

The Sermon title is Bridle Your Tongue!

Early Thoughts:  What damage can a small slab of tissue weighing (on average) 60-70 grams do?  Plenty.

So much in fact that one of the pieces of business at this summer's General Council meeting was this:
The Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario proposes that:
the 41st General Council 2012
1. take a stand against the spreading of gossip in the same manner that it has taken a stand against gambling and other evils of society; and
2. direct the General Secretary, General Council to:
a) encourage Congregations to seek ways to raise awareness of the harmful aspects of gossip; and
b) encourage Congregations to open discussion regarding how to differentiate between gossip and a caring pastoral conversation.
(page Green12 of this document)
There was more than one person who read that in the docket and asked "this is important enough to be dealt with by General Council?????" (sometimes accompanied by a snort or two of derision).  And to be truthful I am not sure it was.  But it does raise an important question in the church about what we do or do not say.  What do we share? (and how do we share it)  When is it better to not say anything?  We need to use discernment in deciding how to use our tongues.

James is very clear to his listeners/readers that the tongue is an organ to be taken seriously.  James is very clear that speech is a serious matter.  So how do we bridle our tongues?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Looking Forward to September 9, 2012 -- Proper 18B, 15th After Pentecost

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Matthew 7:15-20
  • James 2
The Sermon Title is Sola Fides???

Early Thoughts:  Shall we talk about money or about faith without works?  Or maybe they are linked so we should talk about both?

AS this chapter opens James is chiding his readers/listeners for playing favourites based on economic status.  This is hardly new in the world of Judeo-Christian ethics and faith.  The prophets of ancient Israel railed against such things.  Jesus chided his culture for such things.  Paul lambastes the Corinthians for doing this.  And now so does James.  Apparently this is a common failing.  A number of people might suggest that the church of 2012 risks falling into the same trap.

But to me this is merely one example of how our works/actions/choices show what our faith REALLY is.  One of the best known phrases from the book of James is in this chapter "faith without works is dead".  And for some Reformed theologians this seems on the surface to be a problematic phrase (but it really isn't once you dig deeper).

One of the tenets of the Reformation was sola fides.  That is to say that we are saved by faith alone.  There is nothing we can do to earn our faith, our good works do not cause us to be saved.  (for what it is worth I suggest that we are in fact saved/forgiven/justified not by faith but whether we have faith or not, whether we know we need saving/forgiving/justifying or not, we are forgiven/saved/made right with God simply because we are creatures/children of a loving God.  but that leads to a whole other discussion.)  In part this was lifted up because of an understanding that the prayers and indulgences and other penitential practices of the Roman church were ways that people could earn salvation, could pay off the debt they owed to God.

Sola Fides is a theological strand that flows clearly through Paul to Augustine to Luther and Calvin.  While it is also present in much Roman Catholic theology, it has become a marker for Protestant churches, often tied with a specific understanding/theology of the cross and atonement.  In its most strident framing it is placed up against "works righteousness" which claims that people can earn their own salvation  And here we read James exhorting folks that faith without works is dead.  Is there a problem here?  Is James arguing against the Pauline view of things?

The short answer is "No".  James and Paul would in fact likely agree on this point.  James is not arguing that we need both faith and works to be saved.  James is arguing that the sign of a person having a living, breathing, active faith is the works they do.  The works are the fruit of the faith.

Really it is a continuation of last week when we were exhorted to be a doer of the word, and not just a hearer.  And arguably it is another way of saying "by their fruits you shall know them".

So what do your works say about your faith?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Looking Ahead to September 2, 2012 -- Proper 17B, 14th Sunday After Pentecost

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • James 1
  • Psalm 15 (VU p.736)

The Sermon Title is Someone I Would Like You to Meet...

Early Thoughts: For the 5 Sundays of September we will be exploring the Letter of James. Which works quite well since there are 5 chapters in the book, so we will read a chapter a week.

Retired United Church Minister John Shearman says about this book:
The Letter of James is one of the anomalies of the New Testament. Because it makes few references to Jesus Christ, it was one of the very last to be included in the Christian scriptures. It has more of the flavour of a moral essay attributed to James, the brother of Jesus. Of course, this claim has been disputed almost from the time the church set about the task of defining the NT canon. It may well be a collection of the sayings of James compiled after his martyrdom or a formal letter encouraging its recipients to live in a strictly ethical and deliberately spiritual way at a time of threatened persecution.

 In chapter 1 we see themes emerge that will continue in later chapters (and we will pick up then). But this week we will take time to introduce ourselves to this letter--one of the ones we often do not talk about.

And just for reference, Martin Luther did not think the letter of James belonged in the canon at all. He called it an "epistle of straw". Maybe we will see why he disliked it so much

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

September Newsletter Piece

One of the realities of living and working in the church has always been dealing with change. And dealing with change (both as individuals and as organizations) is, to say the least, difficult. Here are some thoughts about change that I wrote for the newspaper while I was in Atikokan. Does it speak to us here at St. Paul's? What changes are on our horizons (both as a church and in Grande Prairie as a whole)?
The Mathematics of Making Change
Come gather ‘round people wherever you roam.
And admit that the waters around you have grown.
And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'
(Bob Dylan)

We live in a changing world. That much is certain. There is truth to the old adage that the only thing that is consistent in life is change. And yet why do we often find it so hard to change? Even when we think we are ready to change it seems that we easily get stuck in old ruts, old habits. What stops us? Is it just fear or is it maybe something mathematical?

Yes, that’s right I said mathematics might be our problem.

A few years ago I was introduced to an equation for change. It is: MC=fp(fv)(fs). Expanded that means Movement for Change=felt pain x future vision x first steps. The important part of the equation is that it is multiplication. Think back to your school days, what happens when you multiply by zero? The answer is always going to be zero. In our equation above, if any of the variables are missing then change doesn’t happen.

The first variable, felt pain, is easy. Many people, many communities, have that in abundance. Often much of it comes out of that experience Bob Dylan sings about – the times they are a-changin’. As things change we feel pain and grief. But that isn’t enough to change. We need a sense of where we are headed (future vision) and we need to get started (first steps).

So how do we fill in the blanks? Where do we find a vision? Well we begin with asking why we are here. Then we ask what our ideal result would be. For people of faith these questions are intricately linked to our understanding of God’s plan. What is needed for us to be the people (or the church, or the town, or the nation) that God would have us be? Who is God calling us to be? What is God calling us to do? As we explore these questions a vision or goal starts to appear.

That leaves possibly the hardest part of the equation – the first steps. Once we have found a vision, once we know here we are headed, why is it so hard to get going. Often this is where the fear kicks in. Maybe the vision leads us to a place very different from where we have been before. That is scary. Maybe the vision has holes in it and the first few tries might not work exactly. Failure also is scary. But remember that multiplying by zero equals zero. We have to conquer the fear and take the first steps. And for people of faith there is help in remembering that we are not alone. We live, move, and have our being in God. With God’s help, we can take risky steps, we can step out into the unknown, we can embrace change.

What felt pain do you have? What vision do you have for the future? What is the first step in your new path? Where will the mathematics of change take you?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Looking Ahead to August 26, 2012 -- 12th After Pentecost, Proper 16B

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • 1 Kings 8:1-30, 41-43
  • Psalm 84 (VU p.800)

The Sermon title is God's Dwelling Place??

Early Thoughts:  Where does God live? Where do you meet God?  And are we guilty of worshiping our buildings too much?

Buildings are a blessing and a curse for the church.  But it has not always been so.  For many cultures the local temple was seen as a (or the) place where that God dwelt on Earth.

Certainly that is how Biblical Judaism saw the Temple (and later the 2nd Temple).  While they wandered through the desert the Israelites carried the Ark of the covenant, in which rested the tablets containing the Law.  Now that they are established as a nation Solomon puts the Ark into the very core of the Temple.  And so the Ark is either where God lives, or at least where God interacts with God's people.

Is this how we view our church buildings?  Officially no.  Christian thought has never officially said that God can only be met in the church building (though it has often suggested that God can only be met in the church as institution).  And yet the phrase "House of God" is generally used to describe a place of worship.

So where do you meet God?  How are our church buildings a blessing?  How are they a curse?  And where exactly does God dwell?


Monday, July 9, 2012

Looking Forward to July 15, 2012 -- 7th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 10

The Scripture Readings this week are:

  • 2 Samuel 6 
  • Psalm 24 (VU p.751)

The Sermon title is Celebrate Passionately!

Early Thoughts:  What is your passion? What would make you lose yourself in the moment?  And, perhaps more importantly, are you able to live out your passion?

David was a person of great passion.  Sometimes his passion gets him in trouble.  But I would argue that if David was not as comfortable with his passion he would not have become the hero of Scripture that we know.

What is your passion?  Does following your passion guide your life choices?  How do you feel when doing something you are passionate about?

GOd calls us to be passionate people.  It is sometimes said that to find your own particular ministry you need to find that place where your passion and God's passion and the needs of the world all intersect.  And so God wants us to live out our passion.

Some of us (might I dare suggest especially those of us with British, Presbyterian roots?) have an uneasy relationship with passion.  To be  passionate might mean being disorderly, or out of control, or even imprudent.

But still I say that life is better when we live out our passion.  Still I say that God wants us to live full, abundant, passionate lives.

So what is your passion?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Looking Ahead to July 8, 2012 -- 6th Sunday After Penetecost, Proper 9 (using Proper 8 Readings)

The Scripture Readings this week are:

  • 2 Samuel 1:1-27
  • Psalm 130
The Sermon title is Bittersweet Victory

Early Thoughts: The King is dead!  Long live the King!

David hears that Saul and Jonathon have died in battle, leaving him to be the King of Israel.  And his reaction is, to say the least, interesting.  First he has the person who brings him the news, the person who knows Saul is dead because he slew the king, slaughtered as punishment for this crime. [Interesting historical note:  although there were various times in English history when one king deposed another there was a great reluctance to openly kill "God's anointed" in cold blood.  One of the reactions to both the beheading of Charles I in England (1649) and Louis XVI in France (1792) was horror at the impertinence of daring to strike the King, who was (in some eyes) still seen as placed and anointed by God -- not unlike the reaction of David in this story]

And then David sings a song of great lament and sorrow.  Instead of moving directly into celebration (although he will get there eventually) David takes the news with sorrow over the death of his monarch (albeit a monarch with whom he has, at best, a troubled relationship) and a very close friend (who was in fact the heir presumptive).  It is one of those points in his story where we are reminded of the very real humanity and complexity of David.  He is not simply a warrior, or a proud kingly man.  He is also a friend, a poet, and one who loves greatly.

And what does that have to tell us here and now?  What does that tell us about victory in the battles of life?  To me it suggests that victory is often bittersweet.  Victory for one comes at a cost for another.  30 years ago I remember watching Family Ties and in one episode the staunchly Republican Alex asks his former hippie parents if there was a time of lament in their social circle when Nixon was brought down by the Watergate scandal.  Apparently not.  But maybe there should be.  Maybe we should be ready to pause in the midst of our victory celebrations and ask what the cost of victory is?  Maybe when we can do that we can remember that those who oppose us are people, not caricatures.  And maybe that will help us to oppose with respect and love.  And that would be a very good thing.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Looking Forward to July 1, 2012 -- 5th Sunday After Pentecost

This Sunday we will step out of the lectionary and read/explore a story that is not included. You can find this story at 1 Samuel 25.

The Sermon title is Bad Manners, Good Manners

Early Thoughts:  It is a story about hospitality.  And in a twist, the one showing really bad hospitality is the (self-invited) "Guest".  Still, the narrator manages to try and make David look good (or at least favored by God) at the end.

But in my mind the real hero of this story is Abigail, the peacekeeper.  Without her actions this would be just another story of random violence and slaughter set in the middle of a country in chaos.

This story could be a chance to talk about bullying.  After all, David is being a bully in his interaction with Nabal.  This story could be a chance to talk about welcoming the stranger.  But that is complicated when the stranger/guest is a bully.  Why should Nabal automatically feed David and his men?  And especially why should he do so under armed threat?  And these are questions that abound in the world today.  Nabal is unquestionably in the right.  Mind you from a strict interpretation of a hospitality code David is too (at least until he responds with violence).  The stage is set for death and destruction and to the victors goes the spoils.

And then we meet Abigail.  Abigail sees what is happening and goes out to try and avoid the predictable result.  She keeps the peace. And so many have praised her for her courage, her quick-thinking, her ingenuity.  And yet I wonder?

AS one who was bullied I wonder is this the best response to the bully?  As a student of history I wonder if this is the best response to the aggressor?  David gets exactly what he wants and more--after Nabal's death David takes Abigail as his wife.

So many questions about how people interact.  Maybe Abigail's solution was the best of bad choices?  Maybe it was the only practical choice?  But as people striving to live as citizens of God's Kingdom it seems we need to ask what the best solution to this issue would have been.  Because the same scenario plays itself out on fields large and small every month in various places around the world.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Looking Ahead to June 24, 2012 -- 4th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 7

The Scripture Reading this week is:
  • 1 Samuel 17:1-18:16
The Sermon Title is Victory and Jealousy

Early Thoughts:
This week we have one of the stories many of us first learned in Sunday School -- David fighting Goliath.  But rather than simply telling the much beloved story of the slingshot, I thought this week we would expand the reading.

Part of that expansion is to set the scene.  But the majority of the expansion is to look at the aftermath.  What happens between David and Saul as a result of Goliath's death?

At first all is well.  David rises high in the esteem of Saul and of the people.  David becomes a leader in Saul's army.  But at some point it goes sour.  David's popularity becomes a threat to Saul.  And the relationship goes right downhill.

WE read the story knowing that David will eventually become King.   We read the story knowing that David has already been anointed and that God has made God's choice and that Saul is no longer in favour. [one of the intriguing things in the story is that a chapter before David is brought to the palace to play and sing for Saul and sooth his troubled hearts but here Saul shows no sign of having seen him before].

The plan for this week is to intersperse the reflection within the story.  It is a much beloved story.  But it is one that we often have not talked much about since we learned it as children.  Time to explore it some more.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Looking Ahead to June 17, 2012 -- 3rd Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 6

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • 1 Samuel 15:26-29, 34-16:23
  • Psalm 20
The Sermon Title is Second Choices

Early Thoughts:  Sometimes you have to start again.  When the first try has disappointing results it is sometimes just best to cut your losses.  And this, it appears, is what God does at the beginning of the monarchical period in Israel's history.

Saul has not been as great a choice as was first thought.  And so God has decided that a new king is needed.  {Note that the failing for which Saul is condemned is that he chooses not to destroy everything in his latest battle with the Amalekites, instead he almost acts prudently by saving some of the livestock.  Nevertheless this went against God's intention, as the story is told, and so is an act of rejection/rebellion which God will not accept}  Accordingly God instructs Samuel to go find the one whom God has selected to replace Saul. And then we meet, for the first time, a little shepherd boy who will, in due course, become the greatest King (for some reason he gets that title, although he is often a wholly unlikable man) of his people -- David, 8th son of Jesse.

Samuel, mind you, gets it all wrong for most of the story.   Had it been up to Samuel we never would have met David.  The story is, in part, about looking for other criteria than we automatically use.  Samuel is drawn to the sons who look "kingly".  God tells Samuel that it is what inside that really counts.  And that is certainly a sermon possibility.

However, it would be foolish to not at least look at the political aspects of this story.  Samuel has to travel to Bethlehem somewhat secretly because he is about to commit treason.  The elders of Bethlehem must have a sense that something is up because they are afraid when Samuel arrives.   David may be anointed here, but there is a long road of civil war ahead before the anointing translates into actual kingship.

A starkly historical reading may well be that there was a king, there was turmoil, there was a new king from a different house (in fact a whole different tribe).  But the writer/compiler/editor of the book of Samuel puts a theological spin on it.  For the writer, the guiding force behind the whole civil war was God.  And thus, the reader knows from this point on who the eventual winner will be.  The idea of a God who intervenes this directly in human affairs is, to say the least, challenging for many of us.  Do we believe there is this level of a plan?  Does this type of intervention turn all the humans into puppets?  How is God active in our lives?  That I think is where we will go on Sunday.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Looking Ahead to June 10, 2012 -- 2nd Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 5B

The Scripture Readings for this week are:
  •  Deuteronomy 17:14-20 
  • 1 Samuel 8:1-22 
The Sermon Title is Give Us a King!?!

 Early Thoughts: You can't blame them really.  As the storyline of Scripture runs, nothing really has gone right since Joshua died.  There was the period of Judges where, as the text says repeatedly "there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his eyes".  The last Judge is Samuel, and his sons are not worthy (although it is unclear why that is an issue since it does not appear that being a Judge was at all determined by heredity--more often like a war chief who could gather folks to him (or her as Deborah was a judge) by force of personality).  The system is not working, things have GOT to change they say.  All around us are people who have kings.  Things seem to be working for them.  Give us a king so that we can be like our neighbours!

Samuel is dubious.  Samuel knows what kings can be like.  God is dubious.  God knows what kings can be like.  God and Samuel also seem to take this personally, as a rejection.  But the people are insistent.  So God says (essentially) "Fine! Have it your way! Give them a king!"

What is a king?  What is the role of a king (or queen, given that we just watched Queen Elizabeth II celebrate 60 years on the throne)?  In the ancient world the king was THE BOSS (no constitutional monarch here).  In Israels tradition up to this point, God is the King.  God is the one in charge, with earthly intermediaries like Moses or Joshua or Samuel (or more tribal leaders such as Abraham or Jacob).

As it turns out, the change is less than positive.  In the history told by Scripture, precious few get a positive review.  None of them seem to measure up to the ideal king a (probably later) writer describes in the Deuteronomy passage above [personally I have a suspicion that this description dates, at least in part, to the reign of Solomon because it is almost a direct counter-point to much of what Solomon did].

The world is in chaos!  We need a strong leader! Give us a king!  Does that sound familiar?  It is a cry that has echoed down through the ages.  And rarely has it gone well.  So maybe we need a different response to the chaos of life?????

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Proposal itself....

Title: Clergy Family Retreat

Financial Implications if known: Meeting expenses for an ad-hoc committee. Should an event be planned the committee would gather information about the financial needs and planning for that event

 Staffing Implications if known: staff time to resource the committee.

Source of Funding if known:

Gord Waldie proposes that Alberta Northwest Conference form an ad-hoc committee to plan a 2-3 day retreat for clergy and their families.

 Background: For several years clergy within the United Church of Canada have reported feeling unsupported. This feeling also extends to spouses and children of ministry personnel. One way that we can support each other is by gathering together to have time to speak with others facing similar issues. The idea of a retreat, not only for clergy but also for their families, seems an important way to respond to the need for more collegiality and mutual support within the ranks of our ministry personnel. Such an event would/could include general social time and activities but also intentional time for specific gatherings of clergy, clergy spouses, and clergy kids so they can share stories/concerns/issues with others in the same or similar role in the church.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Intro I Never Made...

At the Conference meeting this past weekend I was on tap to introduce one of the proposals (only fitting since I wrote the thing--I will post it once I am back in the office where I have it on the computer--EDIT, it is now here).  However other business took too long and so that particular proposal was one of the ones referred to the Executive for consideration.  Had I made the intro here is what it would have sounded like...

Good afternoon.  I am Gord Waldie, and while Paul may tell me that I live and move and have my being in God, in more practical terms I live and work and share my ministry with Northern Lights Presbytery, the congregation of St. Paul's United in Grande Prairie, and my wife and our 4 wonderful (if often challenging) children.  And it is that last piece that brings me to this microphone today.

But first I need to make a confession, because they say that confession is good for the soul -- and I am sure that at least one of the 2 people in this room who taught my first year Pastoral Care course at St. Andrew's told us we should encourage people to do things that are good for the soul.  I am, as many people in this room can attest, a Below Average Minister.  And in fact this is related to the proposal I am about to make, because to move from being Below Average, to Average, to (hopefully some day) Above Average means that you need support along the way.  [If you want to know why I am so sure I am Below Average, come visit me at the Business table and in exchange for a contribution to the M&S Fund I will tell you].

573 weeks ago this afternoon a group of us gathered here in Calgary for a worship service where then Conference President Stuart Jackson declared a group of us to be members of the Order of Ministry in the United Church of Canada.  For most of my time in ministry the United Church has been talking openly about the expressed reality that many ministry personnel feel isolated and unsupported and wondering how best to deal with that reality.  And many good suggestions have been made in those discussions.  But they have often missed a key piece.  If you want to support me as a minister then you need to also support my family.  And this brings us to the proposal (see I did get to it eventually).

To be honest, this is not my idea.  The seed of this idea was planted by my wife.  So if you like the idea please give her the credit. If you think forming a new committee is a bad idea, give me the blame.   But one day while we were watching TV Patty shared a vision of a retreat for clergy families.  This would be a time not only for clergy to gather but also clergy partners/spouses (I always think that should be spice, given what they add to our lives)/significant others and their children.  During the retreat there would be general community building and worship and relaxation and recreation activities.  But there would also be time for clergy to gather together and talk about whatever issues that they want to discuss, for clergy partners to do the same, and for children to do the same in some way.  Since that evening the idea has niggled in the back of my brain.  And this year I decided it was time for the next step.

To me the logical next step is to get a group of people together to discuss the feasibility and logistics of this type of event.  And so I am proposing that this Conference create an ad-hoc committee to determine if such a retreat is feasible and, if so, to plan out the where, when, how of running it.  This committee would then take their findings and/or plan to the Conference Executive for further action.

PS> here is the post where I first mused about this retreat idea

Thursday, May 24, 2012

June Newsletter

Seeking the Way
Sometimes it is hard to know which way to go. The maps may be unclear. Or we may not even have a map. Or we may not really be sure where we are trying to get to. But we get to the crossroad and we wonder. How do we get there from here?
This is what it is often like trying to live as the people of God. Amidst all of the voices pounding in our ears, among all the “suggestions” of which way to go, it can be painfully difficult to make out the Word of God. Now sometimes it is easy. Sometimes the path is clear, the choice is obvious. But most of the time it is hard.
There are many ways to seek God’s will. Certainly prayer and silence are important. Trying to discern what is right for the whole Creation (not just ourselves) is important. But I think that the most important thing about trying to hear God is being ready to let go of what we already think.
Have you ever tried to give directions to someone who is sure they know how to get to their destination? I am convinced that God has the same problem. Sometimes we are so sure we know what God wants we ignore all hints to the contrary. This is why we have to look and listen closely. What I have found is that much of the time the harder path, the more unknown path, is where God is calling us.
“Take the hard path,” God says. Take that path which makes you change. Take the path that leads to a world reborn, where all Creation can flourish. And here is the rub. To take that path means giving up. It means giving up on our assumption that what benefits us is always right. It means giving up our comfortable seats.
In many ways the world we live in is broken. The economic system is broken, the environment is breaking, the connections between neighbours are being shattered on a regular basis. What path does God offer out of the chaos?
The irony is that the hard path leads further in. The hard path means rethinking how our economy works (or doesn’t work). The hard path means that we will do less with less. The hard path means that in the short term people will get hurt. But the long-term promise is that a new economy will be born, a new sense of living with (as opposed to on) the Earth will be born, and people will move past individualism and nationalism into a newfound sense of community.
The world is at a crossroad. The world needs to change direction. There is a lot of noise trying to drown out God. There is a lot of noise insisting that variations on the old path will make it work. But cutting through the noise, if we choose to listen, is God calling us on a new path. Which way will we go?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Looking Ahead to May 27, 2012 -- Pentecost Sunday

This week we Celebrate the Sacrament of Communion, and also the Rite of Renewal of Baptismal Faith (aka Confirmation)

The Scripture Readings this week are:

  • Ezekiel 37:1-14
  • Acts 2:1-21
 The Sermon title is Called to be the Church

Early Thoughts:  Whenever we say the United Church Creed we affirm that we are called to be the church.  But what does that mean?  The Creed has some suggestions, but what else might it mean?

Ezekiel was called to speak the word of God to a valley of dry bones.  And new life emerged.

On the day of Pentecost the disciples were changed from people living in fear to evangelists sharing the Good News with all they met.  And something new was born. [Full Disclosure:  In my mind PEntecost is 2nd only to Easter as the most important Festival of the Church year -- surpassing all others by a wide margin]

We are called to be the church.  And we will reflect on that statement as we welcome 2 people making a public faith statement.  And we reflect on that as we hear the story of Ezekiel and the story of Pentecost.

Does being called to be the church mean continuing what has gone before?  Or does it mean celebrating the start of something new?  Something beyond our imagining, something that comes out of nowhere, something completely surprising.  Scripture suggests the second choice.  Pentecost is often referred to as the "birthday of the church".  But it is not because we celebrate something that was born a long time ago on this day.  It is because we celebrate what is being born in the here and now.

We are called to be the church.  We are called to be open as the full meaning of that phrase is revealed to us.  And just when we think moving forward in a new way is impossible -- remember Exekiel and the dry bones, remember the disciple moving from fear to boldness. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Thank You List

Here is the list of thank-yous from last Sunday's Sermon:
  • those who worked on the Garage Sale
  • those who made the Beef Dinner happen
  • Worship Committee
  • CD Committee
  • Social Events Committee
  • Finance & Stewardship Committee
  • Property & Maintenance Committee
  • Ministry & Personnel Committee
  • Outreach Committee
  • Healing Touch
  • Labyrinth
  • Volunteer Drivers
  • Prayer Team
  • Council Members
  • Offering Counters
  • Worship Assistants (greeters, readers, after-church coffee)
  • those who come to clean and tidy
  • those who visit others
  • musicians
  • UCW
  • Pancake Supper
  • Financial Supporters
For all that you do to make St. Paul's a vibrant community.  THANK YOU!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Looking Ahead to May 20, 2012 -- 7th Sunday of Easter

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Acts 4:32-5:11
  • Psalm 1(VU p.724)
  • Ecclesiastes 5:8-17

The Sermon title is Money, Money Money

Early Thoughts: "It's a rich man's world" so the song goes.  And in some ways it is hard to argue with it.  Money (actual bills or virtual cash) plays such a key role in our lives.  Some might even say it controls our lives in many ways.

What is your relationship with money?  How do you interact with it?  Do you even think of it as a relationship?

It is my belief that we all have a relationship with money.  That is to say that money is more than just another tool we use in our daily lives.  The key thing (to me anyway) is that if we recognize that we have a relationship with money then we can start to shape the relationship -- because that is how relationships work.

Often when we talk about money we use transactional language.  We talk about purchases and  balance sheets and bank statements and tax returns.  But we also need to talk about how money makes us feel (I have a very clear memory of two people I used to work with talking openly about indulging in "retail therapy").  WE need to use relational language as well as transactional language.

Before the Annual Congregational Meeting I named my belief that the most Spiritual document we would talk about at that meeting was the financial report and budget.  The same holds for our personal relationships with money. Where/how we spend it or don't spend it (or save it or don't save it) (or give it away) says more about our priorities than pretty much anything else in our lives.  And so talking about money is essential for our spiritual health.

This week's sermon is not about convincing people to give to any one specific cause (such as St. Paul's United).  This week I invite us all to enter into a time of looking at our relationship with money.  And ask how that relationship is shaping us -- and/or how we are shaping it.  As I say, it is not a financial question, it is a spiritual question.