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.