Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Looking FOrward to April 6, 2012 -- Good Friday

Our Good Friday Service will be held at 10:00
The Scripture Readings for this year are:
  • Mark 14:26-15:41
  • Psalm 22 (VU p.744 Part One)
  • Mark 15:42-47

The Meditation title is The Crosses of the World

Early Thoughts: A couple of weeks ago an unarmed young man heading home from the convenience store was followed and shot by the local neighbourhood watch captain because he looked "suspicious".  And as the story unfolds it appears that the real reason he appeared suspicious was not his wardrobe, or his activity, but the colour of his skin.  And once again the cross comes in to view.

What are the crosses in the world today?  Where are people unjustly tried and convicted and punished for being true to who they are, or merely for being who they are?

That is part of what Good Friday calls us to remember.  On Good Friday we not only remember the story, but we need to acknowledge that the powers and the principalities still rule the world.  WE need to ask ourselves where we stand when it comes to the crosses in the world today. 

This year I invite you to come and share in those thoughts...

Looking Ahead to April 5, 2012 -- Maundy Thursday

This is a combined meal/worship service (potluck) starting at 5:30 in the small basement.  Our worship will be interspersed with the meal.  There will be 3 little reflections:

Scripture Reading:  John 12:1-8
Reflection title: A Waste of Ointment? -- I'll be honest, I tend to read this story and agree with Judas.  It does seem terribly wasteful.  But is there something deeper there?????

Scripture Reading:  Exodus12:1-14
Reflection Title: The Meal of Liberation -- Since the beginning, Christians have linked Easter to the Passover festival.  And that festival was about being set free from bondage.  Truly revolutionary!

Scripture Reading: Mark14:12-26
Reflection Title: Our Meal of Faith -- "On the night before he was betrayed...." a phrase that often shows up in our communion prayers.  When we break the bread and share the cup we are, among other things, remembering this night and this meal. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Looking Forward to April 1, 2012 -- Palm Sunday

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Mark 11:1-11
  • 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25
  • Isaiah 50:4-9a

The Sermon Title is A Fool's Errand

Early Thoughts: 60 years ago the world watched as Queen Elizabeth II was crowned. This Sunday we talk about another coronation procession, one that seems turned upside down.

The imagery and language used in Palm Sunday liturgy makes it sound like Jesus is heading for a coronation.  "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord"  "Here comes your King, riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey" .  And quite possibly some of the people along the roadside truly expected that it was the road to a coronation, or at least a revolution.

But we who know the rest of the story can see different.  If Jesus understood that he was heading to glory in the same way those crying Hosanna understood it then he was on a fool's errand.  OR maybe it was the foolish hopes of those around him that are the topic of the sermon title?

To be a fool is to be willing to turn the world and its understandings upside down.  It isn't just about playing tricks on each other.  This year, on April Fool's day, come and celebrate a coronation procession turned upside down, in honour of the one who calls us to be fools.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

This Morning's Sermon--The Original Version

This Morning's sermon was an adaptation of one I first gave 6 years ago.  That one I recorded on a cassette tape and then spent time transcribing it.  Later I posted it on teh church blog and you can read it here however, in case that website someday dissappears I am going to repost it on this page too (to be honest I think I like this version better--but it has the benefit of having been reworked as I transcribed it):

Do You United Church Folks Believe Anything?

A Sermon Preached on April 2, 2006.

Scripture Readings:
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Acts 2:14-39
The Scripture readings we just heard are passages that I used in a paper during my first year of seminary. The paper was to identify the basic message of the early church as revealed in Peter's sermon on Pentecost and Paul's letter to the Corinthians. We continue to express our faith as we read together A New Creed, found on page 918 of Voices United.

We begin with a story. Several years ago, I was just starting a new job; it was probably my 3rd shift. I was working and my relief came in for shift change. As we were talking it came up that I was a candidate for ministry (not that I introduced myself "Hi, I'm Gord, I'm a candidate for ministry", I really have no idea how that came up). "Oh really, what church", came the response. "United". "Oh, the social club".

The social club, not really a proper church, just a social club. Many people across the country can tell similar stories about people's response to the United Church of Canada. And so we come to the question of the sermon title "do you United Church folks believe anything?".

At first I was tempted to stand up, ask that question, say YES and sit down. But I thought that might not be quite what you were looking for. I also think it might not be quite accurate. You see, as I have been asked that question it has tended to have 2 sides to it. One side is the accusation that we don't really believe anything, that we have no doctrine. The other is "are there any limits to what you believe?" Some of you may remember that about a year ago (February 2005) there was an article in the Observer about a movement called progressive Christianity. That article featured a United Church Minister by the name of Greta Vosper, who spoke in Thunder Bay this February as it happens.

Progressive Christianity includes a wide range of beliefs. But among that range is a belief that God does not intervene in human affairs. Also, at its extreme end, is a lack of clarity around Christ. In fact, when Rev. Vosper spoke in Thunder Bay in February a colleague of mine asked at the end where Jesus fit in (apparently she had not yet mentioned him). And the answer was that Jesus was a role-model, someone whose example we should follow. But, and here is the rub, there was no place for Christ in Progressive Christianity. One might ask if it is actually Christianity then. Do you United Church folks believe anything?

The answer is yes, we do have beliefs. And the answer is no, there are limits; we can't just believe anything we want. We aren't Unitarian-Universalists, although I believe some United Church folks may well be more at home in that faith community.

There are at least two real challenges in trying to answer today's question, in trying to distil what the United Church believes. One comes from our heritage. We have, in our roots of Methodism, Congregationalism and Presbyterianism, 2 very distinct theological threads. In W.O Mitchell's play The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon, which is set in the 1930's Saskatchewan, the local United Church minister visits the lead character, a proud Scots Presbyterian. The minister asks why Wullie hasn't been around much. Wullie replies that he was born Presbyterian, will die Presbyterian and now that the church has turned (shudder) Methodist. This scene strikes to the conflict between those two threads.

The Presbyterians and Congregationalists came from the Reformed theological tradition, the strand descended from John Calvin. Methodists came from a movement within the Anglican Church founded by John and Charles Wesley. The two traditions held some things in common but disagreed strenuously on others, especially around the doctrine of humanity and free will. The tension between those two streams still exists in many places within the United Church. And it is because of that tension that it can be hard to say "this fully contains what we believe".

The second challenge also comes from our roots, specifically from the Congregationalists. They were a denomination where each congregation was quite independent, which is where the name comes from. Many churches are what we call Confessional churches. That is to say that when you become a member you agree to adhere to a specific set of beliefs -- some even require you to sign a statement to that effect. The United Church is non-Confessional. The story goes that at the time of union the Presbyterians truly wanted to have all members of the Order of Ministry sign in agreement with the Articles of Faith but the Congregationalists said no, we don't want that. Instead we are required to be in essential agreement. Believe me, in final year classes in seminaries across the country there is a lot of discussion about what essential agreement actually means. I believe that it is good that we are non-Confessional. It is good because is allows us to lift up the diversity and inclusivity that is a hallmark of United Church faith.

Whatever else we believe, we believe that we don't all have to be the same. And so it is hard to determine what we believe sometimes. In fact we were talking about this at our Conference Communication Committee meeting last month. One of the goals of the Communication committee is to get the United Church's story out there. And we realize that what most of us do is say "I can't speak for the church, I can't say what we believe or what we think. Somebody might disagree with me." But we realized that what we can all do, especially those of us who are long-time members of the United Church, who have grown in this church, is say "this is what I believe!". We say that and trust that the church has shaped us, shaped our beliefs so that by saying what I believe I help lay out what the United Church believes. What I believe has been shaped by where I have grown. If I had been raised Catholic or Baptist I would believe different things. Certainly there are things that we share. We share that message that Paul shared with the church in Corinth. We believe with the rest of Christianity that Christ died and that Christ was raised, that this has something to do with the forgiveness of sins (even if there is debate about how that forgiveness is tied to cross and tomb).

In preparing for this sermon I did some research, looking at various ways we can find out what the church, as an institution says what it believes. This is the United Church Manual. It is our constitution as a church. At the beginning is the Basis of Union, the document hammered out almost 100 years ago to bring the United Church into being. Part of that document is the 20 articles of Faith, those things ordained and diaconal ministers are required to be in essential agreement with. They are in old language, they are hard to interpret at times, and there are things that we find hard to agree with -- which is why essential agreement comes in handy. For example, here is part of the first Article Of God We believe in the one only living and true God, a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in His being and perfections; the Lord Almighty, who is love, most just in all His ways, most glorious in holiness, unsearchable in wisdom, plenteous in mercy -- and then it goes on from there. As I said, it is 100 years old, not language that we use all that often anymore.

In 1940 the church issued a Statement of Faith. It's article on God begins: We believe in God, the eternal personal Spirit, Creator and Upholder of all things. We believe that God, as sovereign Lord exalted above the world, orders and overrules all things in it to the accomplishment of His holy, wise, and good purposes. And then it goes on from there.

Later we have the New Creed, first written in 1968 and updated in 1980 (when the language was made inclusive) and in the mid 1990's when the line to live with respect in creation was added. And the church is in the process of drafting a new statement of faith. It is 12 full pages long. One of the results of our diversity and inclusivity is that our statements of faith get longer. The new statement of faith's discussion about God covers 3 pages, as they try to cover the breadth and depth of our understanding of God.

So there are ways to find out what the church says. Why so many different ones? Because it is in our roots to say that in each new generation the church needs to restate the faith in the language and terms of that generation. As the preamble to the 1940 statement puts it: Christians of each new generation are called to state it afresh in terms of the thought of their own age and with the emphasis their age needs. In fact at the time of Union in 1925 there were already voices claiming that the Articles of Faith, then roughly 20 years old, were dated and inaccurate.

Other places to look would be what people have written about us. Both of these books, written as introductions to the United Church have a chapter on the faith. One is by Ralph Milton and is often used in confirmation classes This United Church of Ours, the other is by someone known to this congregation, Rev. Steven Chambers, it is called This is Your Church. They are good ways to look at who the United Church is.

We need to believe things to be a church. We believe in God who created the world, who was made known in Jesus of Nazareth. Some may remember about 10 years ago when then Moderator Very Rev. Bill Phipps was being interviewed by the Ottawa Citizen and made some relatively controversial statements about Jesus -- specifically that he did not believe Jesus of Nazareth was God. We debate how God worked through Jesus the man but we believe that God was revealed in Jesus. WE as a United Church of Canada believe that the cross is important. You can't always tell by looking at many United Churches on Good Friday but the cross is important. We believe talking about injustice is important, and the cross is a part of that discussion. WE also believe that Easter Sunday is important. We believe, as the New Creed says, in life, in death, in life beyond death God is with us. We are people of hope.

We also believe that it is important to take account of ourselves. It is important to ask ourselves how we express our faith and how that does or doesn't shut out people. And to ask if it should shut out people. We ask about shutting people out because our ethos, our way of living together says that we want to be seen as welcoming and open. We want to recognize diversity and welcome it. We want to recognize that the breadth of God's love expands human barriers, it is not set by human barriers. And so we believe that we had to take seriously question of gender equality, and human sexuality, and race relations. We don't always agree on where we get to, but if we take seriously a belief that diversity and inclusivity are valuable then we have no choice but to accept disagreement. And that disagreement and diversity continue to make it hard to describe this church in a sound bite, or in one article, or in one telling.

The answer, I believe, is to return to story. I don't think we ask for one over-arching statement. I think we start talking about what we as individuals believe and how the church has shaped that. Yes, sometimes that shaping happens because the church says something with which we disagree, and so we are pushed to put into words why we disagree. One of the things I have learned is that nothing pushes us to say what we believe as having friends and colleagues who will debate them with you. In debate we can grow -- when we don't engage our faith we run the danger of growing stale. We need to tell the stories of how the church has comforted, challenged, and led us as we grow in faith. The debate is not a sign of falling apart, it is a sign of honest, engaged Christians who take their church seriously. And as we tell enough stories we will start to get a picture of who the United Church is and what we believe.

The United Church does believe things. The United Church doesn't believe just anything. We are a diverse lot so it seems that we are fuzzy in our faith. But we believe in the God of love who is working in the world to change it. We believe that the faith we have inherited needs to be our own, which means that it will grow and change with the world. Our strength is in our diversity. Our witness is in our stories. Do you United Church folks believe anything? YES! Yes we do. Thanks be to God who challenges us to name and explore our faith.

ReferencesAvailable On the United Church Website:Summary of United Church Beliefs

Important Statements of our Doctrine

The 20 Articles of Faith from the Basis of Union (also available in every copy of the United Church Manual)

The 1940 Statement of Faith

The New Creed (Voices United p.918)

The New Statement of Faith (Draft)

Books Worth a LookChambers, Steven: This is Your Church: A Guide to the Beliefs, Policies and Positions of the United Church of Canada ©1993 The United Church Publishing House.
Milton, Ralph: This United Church of Ours ©2000 Wood Lake Books

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The April (and Easter) Newsletter

Be Afraid, Be Very Very Afraid.....

Or not, you know, no pressure.

In a couple of weeks we will once again descend to the depths and rise to the heights. Within the first 8 days of April we will move from triumph to despair to exaltation as we tell again the stories of parade, cross, and empty tomb.

But there is a difference this year. This year on Easter Sunday we will read the story that ends with “...and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”. And I can understand that ending.

When the world as you understand it has been turned upside down do you dance for joy or do you cower in fear?

Maybe we do both. Eventually. Maybe we eventually get to the joy of the new day, the new way of being. Maybe we can see the promise of this new life eventually. But not at first. For most of us, the first reaction is one of uncertainty, of worry, of wondering “what now”, indeed a bit of fear is quite understandable.

The Easter story is one full of uncertainty. The one they thought would lead them to freedom has been executed. The powerful in the world seem to have won. And then, in a seemingly final indignity, his body has been taken away. In the midst of all this, someone appears and tells you that the world has been changed, that the one who you know to be dead has been raised to life. I'd run away and hide too!

But the running away and hiding, the silence born of fear, didn't last. Eventually they told someone, and then someone else, and then someone else until the story was unstoppable. And while I sometimes wonder how many people they had to tell before someone listened, it is undeniable that after the fear came hope, after death came life.

What, despite all our hopes, is dying today? What did we hope would change the world only to see it smashed before our eyes? And out of those ruins where is the world being turned upside down? Are we ready to see past the fear and death to new hope and life?

This Easter I encourage all of us to learn from the women at the tomb. Fear and confusion may render us silent for a while. But eventually we need to tell our stories of new life, of hope beyond all hope. And when we can do that, the world can be changed. Easter changed the world. Not all of a sudden. It took time. But when we see new life, when we tell the story and share our hope and vision the world can be changed. And so we carry Easter with us all year long.

Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ is part of our lives! Happy Easter!


Monday, March 19, 2012

Looking Forward to March 25, 2012 -- 5th Sunday of Lent

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
  • Acts 2:14-39
 We will also read together A New Creed (VU p.918)
The Sermon title is Do You United Church Folks Believe Anything?

Early Thoughts: This Winter/spring Congregations and Presbyteries across the country are talking about what we believe because we have been asked about including new formulations of the faith into our Basis of Union (the constitution of the United Church of Canada).  You can read more about that here. So what do we believe?

The sermon title is a two-edged question. On the one hand, United Church people have been accused of having no set beliefs. On the other, we are sometimes accused of being the church where anything is acceptable. And neither is true.

A story. I was working one of my first shifts at a new job. My relief comes in and learns that I am a candidate for ministry. "What church?" she asks. "United." "Oh, the social club."

"The Social Club". Not really a church, in her estimation. Certainly not a proper one anyway. My hunch, after working with her a while, is that we didn't believe the "right" things.

It is difficult to condense what the United Church believes. We are such a diverse group that there is almost always someone who will disagree. But we have a belief system. We have a way of expressing ourselves. For more on that take a look at the national website, particularly this section.

This Sunday come and share as I, who was born and raised in this church, who learned what it means to be church in this denomination, try to explain what the United Church belief system is and a bit about how it developed/is always developing. And maybe, just maybe, we will then have an answer to the question Do you folks believe anything?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Looking Forward to March 18, 2012 -- 4th Sunday of Lent

Following worship this week we are invited to share in the CGIT/Explorers Mission Luncheon.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Philippians 4:4-7
  • Luke 11:1-13
  • Romans 8:26-27

The Sermon title is Lord, Teach Us to Pray...

Early Thoughts: In his letter to the Thessalonians St. Paul exhorts us to pray without ceasing. In his letter to the Romans Paul suggests that we do not know how to pray as we ought.  Many of us were taught as children that prayer is a major part of a life in faith, but why?  What are we doing in prayer? 

Scripture makes it very clear that Jesus prayed.  Periodically he goes off to be by himself and pray.  Observing this leads his friends to ask him to teach them to pray.  Out of that question comes the prayer most of us know as the Lord's Prayer (AKA the Our Father, the Jesus Prayer).

But WHY do we pray?  John Dominic Crossan suggests that we pray to recharge our batteries.  Others have insisted that Faith is a relationship with God and so prayer is a way of being in conversation and relationship.  I would say both are true (and also that they are not exclusive as the only reasons we pray).  But knowing why we do something is only a first step.

Years ago I remember meeting with someone who shared that she had trouble praying.  Her prayers felt "dead".  So she asked for advice on how to pray.  Many people, when asked to join a prayer team/prayer circle, say they can't because they don't pray well.  In part we get better (or maybe just more comfortable) at prayer simply by practicing it, by stubbornly praying through the dead times, by opening ourselves to the possibility that the Spirit will move in us.  In fact, Paul suggests to the Romans taht we can only pray when we let the Spirit move within and through us.

In the end, prayer is a ministry in which we can all participate.  Prayer is something we can all do.  And also, despite the wording of so many prayers, it is my belief that we do not pray to change God/change God's mind.  We pray so that we, and the world, will be changed.  And I believe that somehow, even if it can't really be measured, prayer makes a difference.