Monday, December 29, 2014

Looking Forward to January 4, 2015 -- The Magi Visit and the Aftermath

Happy New Year!

This being the first Sunday of the month we will be celebrating communion this week,  with a sung communion prayer.

The Scripture Reading this week is Matthew 2:1-23

The Sermon title is The Refugee King

Early Thoughts: How might it happen today?

A child is born, who will turn the world upside-down.  People seeking to visit and honour the child inadvertently alert the authorities to his existence.  The authorities then seek to get rid of the threat, forcing the child's family to make a hasty retreat into exile.

Seems probable.  In fact I would guess that similar things (likely involving politically active adults rather than young children) happen on a regular basis around the globe, both in democratic and non-democratic countries.  People who are deemed a threat to the established order are driven out or underground or just simply "disappeared".

Can we accept a refugee  king and saviour?

Amidst the carols and the pageants and the cuteness of Christmas we miss something.  Christmas, the Christ story in general, is revolutionary.  In both Matthew and Luke there is, if we stop to look, the signs of the revolution.  In both Matthew and Luke there are, if we care to notice, signs of the shadow that looms over the whole story.

Early in Advent I mentioned that Jesus is born into the world "just as it is".  But here is the other side.  Jesus is born to change the world.  Jesus is born to herald the coming of the Kingdom of God.  And for the Kingdom of God to burst into existence some people are going to lose, and lose a lot.

Which is why we have a refugee king and saviour.

Which is why we have the slaughter of the innocents.

Which is why there are tears mixed in with the glory of Christmas.

Herod was threatened and struck back.  And since he had no specific target (no laser guided bomb would help him here) he cast a wider net.  He did what those with power have done and continue to do throughout the ages.

Where would we stand now?  Would we wait while the soldiers rampage through the city?  Would we have to be on the run?  Would we accept the refugee "troublemaker" into our midst?

We have no way of knowing if the specific story told by Matthew in today's reading ever happened in history.  But we do know that similar things have happened and continue to happen.  What do we do about it?

Where is the refugee in our vision of the Kingdom?

Monday, December 22, 2014

Looking Forward to December 24, 2014

This Wednesday is Christmas Eve.  And we have two services.

At the first service (6:30) we will hear Linus share the Christmas story, as so many of us grew up hearing him tell it after Charlie Brown asked if anyone could tell him what Christmas was all about.  Then we will hear about A Candle for Christmas and the children (with help from their parents) will be invited to make themselves a paper bag lantern.

Our other service is at 8:00.

We will have Scripture and music, lots of music, and will close with candles and the singing of Silent night in a darkened room.  The handbells will play, there will be a duet between piano and organ, both Junior and Senior Choirs will sing.

The Scripture Readings for this service are:
  • Isaiah 9:2-7
  • Luke 2:1-20
The Christmas Reflection is called Light in the Darkness

Early Thoughts: One of the images used at Christmas is the counterpoint of light versus darkness.  Admittedly it is one the images that makes the most sense in Northern latitudes.  As the days grow short and the world gets darker we put up coloured lights and light candles and talk about the Light of the World being born.

This image is one I have been doing a lot of looking at this Advent season.  Darkness as an image is used for many things.  Many people, at some time in their lives, are afraid of the Dark.  Darkness conceals, you don't always know what lurks out in the shadows.  In both the Lord of the Rings and in Harry Potter the enemy is called the Dark Lord. And in both stories the world gets darker and darker as the story progresses--until the darkness is overcome (it gets harder and harder to watch the Harry Potter movies on our TV because they literally get so dark we can hardly see anything).  And let us be honest, there are plenty of reasons to see the world as a dark (and potentially getting darker) place in 2014.  Our news headlines have not always been the most joyful place have they?

But in the midst the dark world we have a strange star in the Scriptural sky, we have the glory of angel choirs, we have the light shining from the manger.

Undoubtedly there are hazards of the dark/light dichotomy.  It has fed into many unhelpful, unfortunate, and unloving descriptions of people.  And since darkness is part of the creation of which God says "it is good" we do it a disservice to always think of shadow and darkness as points of fear.  But it is a powerful image.  SO what does it mean to us in the here and now?

And if we are people who walk in a time of great darkness, how is light shining on us?  And might we learn something from the darkness?

Lots of possible directions for a short(ish) reflection.  Where will I end up?  SOme and find out!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Looking Forward to December 21, 2014 -- Advent 4

The Scripture Readings for this Sunday are:
  • Luke 1:26-38
  • Matthew 1:18-25
The Sermon Title is He Said She Said

Early Thoughts:  How did that discussion go?  That one between Mary and Joseph.

It is pure speculation of course.  We have no way of knowing what happened between them when the discovery of Mary's "too soon" pregnancy was made.  Luke tells us the story as Mary experiences it.  Matthew gives us an insight into what happens for Joseph.

But sometime they had to talk to each other...

Mary has a story of an angel and a conversation.  Mary can talk about her (mild) argument with the angel -- "How can this be".  She can share her feelings.  Maybe even share why she agreed -- or if she though not agreeing was an option.

Joseph has a story of a dream.  But before the dream comes his resolution to put Mary aside.  What was he feeling?  Why did he believe his dream?  Whyy did he change his mind?

What if Mary and Joseph each got to tell their story (a mixture of Scripture and imagination) and then turned to each other and talked to each other?  What might that look like?

This Sunday we are going to try and find out.
Will they find consistencies in each other's stories?  Will they have to apologize to each other?  How will they say they found out?  And where do they see God in the whole event?

Looking Forward to December 14, 2014 -- Advent 3 & Blue Christmas

There are in fact 2 worship services at St. Paul's this Sunday.

In the morning we have our Annual Sunday School Pageant, written locally, with an original song too!  This year we hear from the Birds of Bethlehem.

Then in the afternoon we have our Blue Christmas service.  This year we will be using our Advent candle themes of hope, peace, joy and love to reflect on light and darkness in this quieter service as we head toward Christmas.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Newsletter/Newspaper piece...

Since I had to prepare both a newspaper piece and a newsletter piece in the same week I thought I would double up and use the same piece for both (not lazy—efficient)

Light in the Darkness
The other day I was reading an article that described the depth of the darkness in the world today. Words like Ferguson, ISIS/ISIL, Ebola, Boko Haram filled our news this year. So did Murdered/Missing Indigenous Women in Canada and the Civil War in Syria. Some days it is difficult to be a person of hope.

So much darkness into which we need light to shine this year.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who walk in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined (Isaiah 9:2)

In some form those words have been a part of almost every Christmas Eve service I have led. Sometimes in a reading of Scripture, sometimes in a prayer, sometimes in a sermon or meditation. But they are a vital part of my understanding of Christmas. At Christmas we see a great light, a light that, as John's gospel tells us “shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

On November 30th, the first Sunday of Advent (the church season in which we prepare for Christmas), I started my sermon with these words: “Christmas comes into the world as it is...the Christ Child comes, not into the world as we wish it was but the world as it is”. I think we forget that. I think we get drawn into the joyous carols and the frenzied preparations and forget why Christ came. Christ came to be light in the darkness, to transform the shadows into places where God's Kingdom would grow.

In that same worship service we sang my favourite Advent hymn. It is a strange hymn for a season everybody assumes would be joyful, because it is more than a little bit melancholy. It talks about the world being “full of darkness, again there is no room” and “for the nameless millions the star will never shine” and “there will be no tomorrows for many a baby born”. And then we sing it in a minor key to make it even more sombre sounding. Why do I like such a sad song so much?

In part it is a favourite because I remember it from my childhood (as often makes things a favourite part of the Christmas season). But also because it names the reality that Christmas comes, that Christ comes, into a broken world. Just look through the news headlines and you will find plenty of evidence of the darkness in the world.

As I sit here looking back at the year that is ending it strikes me how easy it would be to give up on hope. It would be easy to decide that the darkness is stronger and decide just to live watching out for myself. But then there is Christmas. But then there is this season where coloured lights multiply like crazy on houses and streets, this time when candles become a part of our decorating, this time when we sing about Good News for all and Peace on Earth. And something starts to glow again.

That hymn I talked about earlier is not all sorrow and darkness. It also reminds us that Christ is with us, that Christ is being born again, that God's purpose will be fulfilled. That is the promise of Christmas.

Yes the world can be a terribly dark place. Yes the shadows grow long and deep (and based on the past week, terribly cold). But here in the darkest part of the year we celebrate the coming of the Light. When the nights are the longest we proclaim that the Light of the world is being born in our midst.

John tells us that the Light which was in the beginning, the Light of Creation, the Light that shines in the darkness, can not be overcome. So even when the world seems to be one shadow after another, even when despair seems more realistic than hope, when fear seems stronger than love, where joy and peace are just words – not realities, even then the light is still shining somewhere.

Where do you see the light shining this year?

This Christmas season I encourage all of us to look for the light. Often we find it in surprising places. But we only find it if we look. Sometimes the light is a faint glimmer. Sometimes it is so bright we are struck with fear and awe. But it is always there. And when we find it may we once again hear the angel's words: “Fear not! For behold I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be for all people. For unto you is born a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord”

God bless us, every one.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Looking Forward to December 7, 2014 -- Advent 2

This being the first Sunday of December we will be celebrating Communion.

The Scripture Reading this week is Isaiah 42:1-9

The Sermon title is The Servant

Early Thoughts:  Who is this servant?  And how does it tie in to Christmas preparations?

For most, if not all of church history the Christian community has interpreted the Servant songs of Isaiah as referring to Jesus, the Messiah.  It is, however, less clear what Isaiah might have meant.  He could have been sharing a messianic "job description" (although it misses distinct things that the Messiah was expected to accomplish--like the renewal of the Davidic monarchy) and so the servant is the Messiah.  Or the Servant could be the people/nation as a whole.  In English translation (both in Christian Bibles and in my copy of the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible) I personally think it reads as the Servant as a singular individual.  And as the inheritor of Christian tradition I see Christ in it quite clearly.

Which answers how this relates to Christmas.  It isn't about pregnancy and birth but it does tell us something about the one who will be born.

I think it also tells us something about the Kingdom.  Whatever else Jesus was or did, it is clear in the Gospel accounts that his primary passion, his main message was proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God.  And so he described what the Kingdom would be like, he showed how people would live in the Kingdom.  It could be argued that everything Jesus did or said--the wise aphorisms, the parables, the healings, everything--was about the Kingdom.  And so everything that the servant does in this passage is also about building or living in the Kingdom.

In the Advent season we are not only waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth 2 millennia ago.  We are also waiting for the Kingdom to be born in our midst in 2014.  Where do we look for the servant today?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Christmas Letter from the Chair of Presbytery

Brothers and Sisters:

I write this on the Saturday before Advent begins as there is a flurry of activity in the church putting up Christmas decorations. I guess I can no longer pretend that Christmas is months away and have to start getting more prepared.

We now enter one of (if not THE) the busiest months of the year, both in the church and in the world around us. And yet a month from now the fuss will be almost over for another year, in just over a month the decorations will be put away and the turkey will be made into soup. And maybe we will all have caught our breath again.

But in amidst the bustle of gift shopping and wrapping, the baking, the special events, the worship planning can we pause to find a moment (or a series of moments) to just experience the season? Can we stop and listen for angel song and look for the light of a strange new star?

That is my hope for all of us this season. My hope is that we can shut off the busy-ness and once again feel what it is like for God to break into our world. Because without that all the coloured lights and gaily wrapped gifts and plates of baking lose their meaning (except for chocolates—chocolates always have a meaningful place in life).

So I ask you today. How is Christ being born in your midst? Where is the Light of the World shining in the shadows of your communities?

I pray that we can all be open to see the Christ-child in places that we don't expect – because that is where we most often find God. I pray that in a world full of shadows, and here I remember my favourite Advent hymn (Tomorrow Christ is Coming, #27 in Voices United) which says “The world is full of darkness, again there is no room”, we will see the light shining. The light which shines in the darkness but the darkness can not overcome is coming into the world again. Do not be afraid, for this is news of great joy for all people. A child is born. A Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.

Blessed Christmas to one and all!


Monday, November 24, 2014

Looking Forward to November 30, 2014 -- 1st Sunday of Advent

Our Advent Candle readings this year are written by Rev Martha K. Spong, a United Church of Christ minister in the US.  They can be found here (though we will be using them as all read by candlelighters instead of as congregational responses)

Our Scripture reading for the first Sunday of Advent is: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:17-19

The sermon title this week is The Christmas Vision

Early Thoughts:  Advent is a time of hope.  A time of waiting.  A time of vision.  What is your vision this Advent?  What is OUR vision this Advent?

As we prepare for Christmas we are not only preparing for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem 2000+ years ago.  We are preparing for Christ to come into our world today.  We are waiting, as we are all year round, for the world to be changed, for the Kingdom of God to come into full bloom.  And when we look at our newsfeeds it seems we could honestly say "how much longer?"

But still there is the vision.  It is the vision and the hope that keep us moving forward.

There is not a lot of cause for hope in these readings.  Habakkuk lived in a land that had been, and still was devastated by warfare.  There is little to no light on the horizon.  Dawn is a LONG way off.  But still Habakkuk talks about the vision, still he exhorts folk to keep the vision in front of them, still he says it will (eventually, at the appointed time, in God's time) come to fruition.

What is the devastation we see around us?  What is the vision just over the horizon?  What do we hope for this Christmas?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Looking Forward to November 23, 2014 -- Reign of Christ Sunday, Jeremiah

This week we have two selections from Jeremiah:  Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11

The Sermon title is From the Mouths of Babes...
Early Thoughts:  Called as a child, convinced he was too young, Jeremiah goes on to challenge the understanding of the house of God....

Now there is nothing in the text to tell us how young/old Jeremiah is when he stands in the gates of the temple and gives his sermon, challenging the listeners to rethink their understanding of God.  But in conjunction with his call story it is tempting to see a teenager standing there lambasting the adults.  After all it touches a favoured saying from Isaiah "and a little child shall lead them" (Isaiah 11:6) along with Jesus saying "Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." (Luke 18:17).  And there is something attractive about the idea that children/youth are sometimes (often??) wiser than their older neighbours.

Within the Jewish Scriptures there is a variance in the idea of God's protection.  One strand holds that the Promised Land belongs to the people for ever and ever amen.  And in that stream the fact that the House of God (the temple) stands in Jerusalem gives Jerusalem special protection.  Another stream holds that the gift of the land may be revoked if the people do not live up to their part of the covenant.  If the people fail to live as God would have them live then there will be consequences.  AS do most of the Prophets, Jeremiah here stands in the latter stream.

In some ways he is in the same place as Micah from a couple of weeks ago.  Micah points out what God wants is not sacrifices of rams but justice kindness and humility.  Jeremiah points out the hypocrisy of ignoring God's desires, of worshiping other Gods, and then standing in the temple calling on God to protect the nation.

This is the last Sunday of the Church Year.  As we prepare for Advent to begin, we pause to consider how the Kingdom is closer this year than it was a year ago.  Jeremiah suggests that if we live lives of justice then we will know that God is in our midst.  So where are we along the way (because the profession of Christian faith has always been that the Kingdom is already here and yet the full bloom of the Kingdom is still coming--the Now and the Not Yet.

Referring back to Jeremiah's call experience, what needs to be pulled down and plucked out so that the Kingdom will bloom?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Looking Forward to November 16, 2014 -- Texts From Isaiah

This week, as we  continue our romp through the Prophets, the Narrative Lectionary gives us a few selections from Isaiah:
  • Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20
  • Isaiah 37:1-7
  • Isaiah 2:1-4
The sermon title is Whose Voice is Louder?

Early Thoughts:  I think I will begin this week with a quote from the Working Preacher commentary (a commentary I read every week):
We can learn from this story some basic dynamics of fear and trust.
1. The Assyrian king’s messenger speaks in the language of the Hebrew people, rather than Assyrian, a strategy to intimidate people on their own terms. Such voices try to “get into our heads,” using the things or people we care about most to provoke fear.
2. The loudest voice gets our attention. In Isaiah’s story, all the people line the city wall to listen to the impressive Assyrian delegation pronounce threats. We, too, are riveted by voices crying, “be afraid!” Even when we know God is faithful, the megaphone of fear captures our attention, quickly dominates our awareness, banishing our trust in God to a distant whisper.
3. We are formed by these loud voices. Just as Hezekiah and his retinue tore their clothes and put on sackcloth, we react, too. The daily barrage from Facebook to cable news is loud. That voice becomes “the way things are,” and defines reality, denying the deep, true reality of God’s life within and among us.
4. In the midst of anxiety, a leader whose gaze is clearly focused on God can make a difference. Hezekiah warned the people ahead of time not to listen to the threats, to keep their gaze focused on the God who had delivered them rather than on these bullies, no matter how impressive their uniforms were. And he turns to Isaiah to help him keep his eye on God. So, too, we need leaders who draw our eyes back to the One who made us, who knows our going out and our coming in, who keeps us and saves us. This One has the final word, defines reality, and steeps us love that casts out fear.
5. God’s first words are: “Don’t be afraid” (Isaiah 37:6). While telling people not to be afraid does not banish all fear, it is the first step to interrupting the false narrative of intimidation. “Be not afraid” is the word of truth in the midst of lies. We must proclaim this word to one another again and again.
6. God’s mission for the world is in contrast to fear, a different frame of reference altogether (Isaiah 2: 1-4). In this frame of reference, God is at the center. Isaiah draws attention away from the gaze on military might and toward the reign of God. Jerusalem is not the beleaguered people under threat, but the center of life-giving teaching, the flourishing of life, and a source of light for all people. When our gaze shifts from a horizon of fear to a horizon of hope, trust in God grows deep roots that sustain life.
As I read these passages with two voices offering contrasting messages the first question that came to my mind was the sermon title.  Whose voice is louder?

Unlike King Hezekiah we may not have an invading army at our gates.  But we have people trying to convince us that we do.  We have many voices in our world attempting to convince us of our dire threat and that the only appropriate response is to strike out/strike back.  But we also have many voices in our world that tell us different things, that share a different point of view.  Which voices are louder?

Really though I think my question is wrong.  The question, when it gets right down to it, is not which is louder.  The question is "which voice will we listen to?".  Will we listen to the voice of fear and destruction (We may think propaganda is a new-ish weapon of warfare but in this story Sennacherib of Assyria uses it masterfully) or will we listen to the voice of calm, the voice which says relax and trust?  Will we listen to the voice of hope and peace?

Well?  Which voice do we want to listen to?  Which voice do we actually listen to?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Letter to the Editor

Next Sunday there is an event called "Islam 101" happening in Grande Prairie. (Info here).  This is the second year running that the same group has held an event I find concerning. (see article from last year here)  As I researched this event and the speaker I became very concerned about the content and so have drafted the following letter to the editor for the local paper:

This is a letter I really wish I did not have to write, because writing it reflects my deep disappointment with some of my fellow residents of Grande Prairie.

A while back a poster was dropped off at the church advertising an event to be held at the Pomeroy on the afternoon of November 16. The event is called Islam 101 and the speaker is Bill Warner. I think an event to introduce us to what Islam is sounds like a great idea because I strongly believe we are a stronger society if we get to know about each other's beliefs. This event, however is most definitively (in my opinion) not what we need.

Because of comments made to me from a variety of sources I looked up the speaker who was coming. This is not someone I believe will give a helpful or fair picture of Islam. Indeed he has, under his actual name Bill French (his own website lists that Bill Warner is a nom de guerre) been listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the US as a part of the“Anti-Muslim Inner Circle”. As I perused his site on Political Islam I was deeply troubled. The content on that site, while not exactly hate speech, is the sort of rhetoric that leads quite directly to incidents like the vandalizing of a mosque in Cold Lake just a couple of weeks ago.

The other concern I have about this event is that I can not understand why anyone would not invite a member of the Islamic community to do an introduction to Islam. Would it not make more sense to have someone who actually has credentials in the topic to present? The speaker who is coming does have a PhD. But it is in Physics and Math, not in Religious Studies. He is a self-declared expert on “Political Islam”.

As Christians we are called to be people of love. In John's Gospel Jesus says “a new commandment I give to you, that you love one another...”. In Matthew's Gospel Jesus tells us “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies”. What I see in the proposed speaker for Islam 101 is not love of neighbour, friend or enemy. What I see in his writings are fear-mongering and the politics of division.

We can do better. The Grande Prairie we want to be is about building bridges between communities, not walls. We should avoid doing things that would cause harm or insult to our neighbours.

Rev. Gord Waldie
St. Paul's United Church

Friday, November 7, 2014

November Newsletter

It has often been said that your ministry lies where your passion, your gifts, and the needs of the world intersect.

So where is your ministry? Where is our ministry as a community of faith?

It seems to me that to know that we need to know three things.

First what are we passionate about? What are the issues or things you just can't let go of? What is it that you work on and get energized through the work? This may be the easiest question to answer as individuals. It is much harder as a community of faith because we have differing (and sometimes opposing) passions. But what is it that we as a faith community are passionate about?

Second we need to identify our gifts. Strangely this is often harder than we expect, both as individuals and as communities. I think that is in part because we don't feel comfortable naming our giftedness lest it seem like bragging. I think it is also in part because we have been conditioned by a lifetime of advertising to look at what we don't have, what we “need” instead of what we already have. We have been taught to see scarcity instead of abundance.

There is an approach to budgeting and planning that I find deserves a closer look. It is called asset-based budgeting. What you do is you start by listing all the gifts you have. This could be “stuff”. It could be buildings and property. It could be cash. It could be people – their talents, their connections, their time. Then when you have all the gifts listed out (each one on a sticky note for example) you can start to clump them together, to look for connections. Then you look at the clumps and ask what can be done with those things. [Note that this is a heavily simplified description based on my limited reading on the topic] This seems to me to be a great way to discover gifts that you did not even know you had. It also could be a way to see potential in something that always seemed relatively useless.

Finally we need to know what the needs of the world are. This one, I think, deceives us. Sometimes it is easy to tell ourselves we know what the world, or at least what our community needs. But we need to check on that. I have a suspicion that many of us get to know a subset of the community relatively well but the whole community? Particularly in a community that changes quickly it is hard to always know what is happening out there. And unless we know what is happening how do we know what needs we might be able to meet?

This is a question that has been niggling at me in all the visioning discussions we have been having at Council meetings. We talk about wanting to meet the community, about wanting to connect with the community, but what do we know about the community? I know we each know a bit. So part of the way to get a picture of the community is a variation of the asset-mapping approach. We each share our own snapshots and a fuller picture emerges.

I have a plan shaping in my head. (One of these days I should probably write it down in case it falls out of my head – which I guess I sort of am doing in this piece.) I invite us to take Monday evenings during Lent learning about our community. Or maybe more than just during Lent (because that is only 6 weeks and we might want more discussions than that). My thought is to have people come and talk with us about what is happening in Grande Prairie, about what the issues are. Then we can know more (which is always a good thing) as we talk about how we as a faith community respond to the needs around us. So my question to you is (assuming there is interest) who do we need to hear from?

I look forward to your input. More details about the study will come out in January.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Looking Forward to November 9, 2014 -- Words from Micah, Sunday Prior to Remembrance Day

The Scripture Readings for this week are:
  • Micah 6:6-8
  • Matthew 25:31-45
The Sermon title is What Should We Do??

Early Thoughts: How should we live?  It is the quintessential ethical question.  How should we live?  How should we make decisions?  How should we act?

Micah tells us to love kindness, do justice, walk humbly with God.  Great.  Now what exactly does that mean?

Micah 6:8 has a prominent place in a lot of United Church discourse.  It forms the base of our Minutes for Mission this year.  It gives the structure for a recent video about the work of the Mission & Service fund.  But what does it MEAN?

How do we do justice?  How do we love kindness?  How do we walk humbly with God?

I think it is not about acts.  I think it is about attitude.  Especially in the last two.  And that attitude leads us to act in different ways.  A while back I read a book called Switch.  And the authors suggested that real change is not made by an ongoing act of will.  Because we get tired and the will fails.  Real change happens when the underlying patterns/systems/attitudes have been adjusted.  We can, in the short term will ourselves to act in a certain way.  But if we have a different attitude then the acts we want to make are automatic, not an act of will.

Which leads me to Matthew.  I love that passage, it is one of my favourite passages in Scripture.

It gives us a list of concrete actions that we could/should do.  But I think it also pushes us to see the world differently.  Not to see the "least of these" as those in need of charity but to see them as brothers and sisters deserving of our love and support.  When we see everybody in that way then how can we help but live as Micah (and Christ) challenge us?

It also strikes me that to live in this way is actually the path to peace as well.  Maybe this is what we need to hear on Remembrance Day--change how we see each other, change our priorities, change how we act.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Looking Forward to November 2, 2014 -- The Healing of Naaman

This week marks the beginning of a series of readings  from the prophets which will last until the Sunday before Christmas when we will begin to follow Matthew's Gospel.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • 2 Kings 5:1-14
  • Matthew 8:2-3
The Sermon title is Go Take a Bath!

Early Thoughts:  Wash and be clean.  A simple command.  So why does Naaman get so upset?

As it happens, I wrote a short devotional based on this passages from 2 Kings a couple of weeks ago.  Here is what I said there:

Why do we make it so hard?? Why do we think we have to jump through hoops to be clean and whole in God's eyes?
Maybe, like Naaman, we want a sign of wonder and power. Maybe, like Naaman, we think we are so important we deserve such a sign.
But remember the beginning of the faith story, where God calls all things good. Remember the Christ who told the lepers that they were clean, the Christ who proclaimed God's forgiveness.
It is easy to be whole in God's eyes. Easier even than bathing in the Jordan. We just have to say “here I am, heal me”. Why do we make it harder?
Action Step: On those days when you feel unlovable or unclean stop and look in the mirror and say “I am a beloved child of God”. For that matter do it at least once everyday.
Parent God, help me always remember how easy it is to place myself in your loving arms. Amen.
 In part I am wondering what does it mean to be clean?  To be unclean?  I don't think the story is about leprosy (a term which covers a whole range of skin conditions in Scripture).  Or at least I don't think the story is ONLY about leprosy and the power of God revealed in Elisha.  It is about contagion and how we respond to the unclean in our midst.

The Levitical law approach to "leprosy" had nothing to do with curing it.  It had everything to do with containing it, with limiting the spread. Much of the Levitical law is, in essence, a Purity Code -- it tells you what to do to remain "pure" or "clean" (and how to become clean again after something has made you unclean).  But this is not enough for Naaman, or for Elisha, or (apparently) for God.  It is not enough to limit contagion, why not get rid of it altogether.

It seems to me that many people have been told that they are somehow unclean or unacceptable or a source of contagion.  How do we respond?  Jesus, when faced with a leper, said "I do choose, be clean".  As followers of the Risen Christ we are constantly told that we are made clean.  Even without bathing in the Jordan.  Do we believe that we are clean?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Looking Forward to October 26, 2014

The Scripture Reading this week is 1 Kings 3:4-28

The Sermon title is The Gift of Wisdom

Early Thoughts:  What is wisdom?  What makes one wise?

Early in his reign Solomon is commanded by God to make a request.  "Ask what I should give you" God says.  Is it an offer or a test?  Apparently a test--one that Solomon passes.  Solomon asks for "an understanding mind" instead of wealth or power, and this so pleases God that in addition to wisdom Solomon is promised "riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you".

But what is wisdom?

The second half of our passage is one of the stories that purports to show Solomon's wisdom in action.  And it is a story many of us have heard many times over the years.  A version of it shows up in a Cosby Show episode (doesn't work there) and another version of it shows up in an episode of Murdoch Mysteries (with more profitable results).

Wisdom is threatening to cut a baby in half? defines wisdom as:
the quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight.

So wisdom is not necessarily about knowing all the facts.  That is knowledge.  But many of us know people with lots of knowledge but little wisdom.

Wisdom is something deeper.  Wisdom is aided by facts and knowledge but wisdom allows/helps/enables us to make best use of those facts.  Wisdom comes from an ability to see deeper, to put the pieces together, possibly in a wholly different order, and see the picture as a whole.  In some ways wisdom comes from age and experience.

Where do we find wisdom in the world around us?   Do we always recognize it at the time?  OR do we sometimes look back and see/understand the wisdom that was shared with us decades before--that we thought was really weird at the time?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Looking Ahead to October 12, 2014 -- Thanksgiving Sunday

The Scripture reading this week is Joshua 24:1-18

The Sermon title is Thank God! Serve God?

Early Thoughts:  After the conquest there is remembering.  And in the remembering there is a reminder.  Thank God for where you are, God has led you to this place and here is everything God has done for you.

Remembering is, I think, an integral part of thanksgiving.  Remembering is what clears space for us to say thank you.

But Joshua takes it another step.  Joshua challenges the people to not only remember and be thankful, but to serve.  In essence Joshua challenges them to put their money where their mouth is.

I want to encourage us to make the same challenge.  We are fairly good at reminding ourselves (periodically if not on an ongoing basis) how we have been blessed.  We are fairly good at reminding ourselves to say thank you.  But as people of faith our story and tradition pushes us to take the next step.  Do our actions show that we understand ourselves to be living in service to God? Or do our actions show that we understand ourselves to be living in service to ourselves/our families/some other god?  Which comes first?

If God is the source of our blessings, of our abundance, of our life then what is the appropriate response?  Service, says the faith story (Joshua and Moses and the Prophets and Jesus all appear to agree).  Commitment, says the faith story.  Putting God first, says the faith story.

What does it meant to say, as Joshua does, "as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord"?  How do we live that out?  I think it is shown in how we use the blessings and gifts we have been given.  What we do with our time, our talent, and our treasure shows who we serve.  I also think it shows something of the depth of our thanksgiving.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Letter to the Ministry Personnel of Northern Lights Presbytery

To my friends and colleagues in Northern Lights Presbytery:

Did you know that October is Pastor Appreciation Month, (also known as Clergy Appreciation Month)?

I had never heard of such a thing until about 6 years ago when I got a card from the Clergy Support Network in celebration of it. Apparently it was started by Focus on the Family 20 years ago and has since been adopted by Hallmark as another reason to sell cards.

To tell you the truth I am of a mixed mind about Clergy/Pastor Appreciation Month. Mainly because I think the supposed need for such a month shows how poorly we do as faith communities of living the Gospel. If we lived our faith fully then we would not need to be reminded or have special times to say thank you to our clergy, to our volunteers, or to God.

But I am also a realist. And I know that sometimes we DO need to be reminded to show our appreciation to others, we do forget to say thank you. As I often say to couples during pre-marriage discussions, it isn't that we intend to take each other for granted, it is just that we fall into a routine and we forget, and it seems that we take each other for granted sometimes.

So as this month begins I wanted to take time to say thank you to all of you for all that you do. As we all know, ministry is a career with many blessings and also many burdens. There are long weeks full of difficult meetings, there are times we hear stories that break our hearts. Then there are the blessed moments where we are invited to share the deepest moments of others lives, where we experience the wonder of sharing deep discussions about life and meaning. Then there are the myriad “other duties as required” that we are not always sure anybody notices we did.

For all these things I say thank you. For the service in your local community, for the time spent on the work of the wider church, for the many ways you live out your faith day by day, for all the times you were sure no one even thought about saying it I say thank you. Each one of you is a gift to the church, a gift to your community. And trust me people notice. They may not say it enough, but people notice.

God bless you all as you live out your ministry!

And yes, Happy Pastor/Clergy Appreciation Month!!

Gord Waldie
Chair of Northern Lights Presbytery

Or here is the Video Version....

October Newsletter

Let us talk about money.

I know I know, it isn't considered a proper topic for polite company. But then some would say religion is also not a topic for polite company and the church talks about it all the time.

On the 14th of September I shared a dream. I shared my dream that we would one day be able to use the “Christmas Miracle”, the large upsurge of givings that happens in most churches in November and December not to balance the budget for the year but for special projects, new ministry. The only way that dream comes to reality is because givings (and other revenues) for the whole year keep up with expenses. On September 21st there was an insert in the bulletin that let people know that the year-to-date deficit as of August 31 was $30 000.

What was I thinking?

I knew we were running a deficit for the year (but had no idea what size it was). But the thing is I truly believe that my dream is achievable. Honestly I do. I have that much faith in this congregation.

It is hard to take my dream seriously with the numbers in the bulletin this week. It would be easy to start to worry. After all, we are more in the red this year than we were last year at this time and last year we burned up most or all of our accumulated surplus. But I choose to be a person of hope. I honestly believe that if this congregation chooses we can not only overcome our current deficit but we can start to expand our ministry possibilities. But only if that is what we choose.

For me a deficit is always a symptom, never the problem. Certainly it looks like the problem. It is right there in black and white (or black and yellow given the colour of the bulletin inserts). But it is really a symptom of some deeper cause.

At one level the cure is easy. We need more money. Which means the same number of people giving more each, or more people giving, or (preferably to be honest) both of those things. And I truly believe both those things are possible to a greater or lesser degree.

But there is something deeper. How do we invite and encourage folks to commit themselves to the church with their money and their time (remembering that we have some committees that exist in name only)? What is that we are doing which intersects with the passions and needs of the people in our congregation and with Grande Prairie at large? How are we changing the lives of each other and our neighbours? How is God working through and in us as we share the vision, the passion, the hope of Jesus?

You see I think those questions are the deeper ones. I think if we live out our faith, if we can then share the difference made by committing time and energy and money to the church then my dream will come true. We will never balance our budget or fill our committees by making presentations on the need in worship, though that is part of it – we need to let people know what it takes to live out our shared ministry. We will balance our budget, fill our committees, and more, when we catch the fire of the Spirit and hold the torch high. When we live out our faith and our ministry, when we carry ourselves and our understanding of Christ to the world we can set fire to other Spirits.

Yes we balance our budget, we share in Christ's ministry in the world, by sharing the gifts we have been given. But more important is that this is how we live out our faith. And that is the more important part. The work of God is not about a balanced budget. The work of the church is about allowing God to transform the world through us.

Let's do that. I believe it will change the budget picture, but even if it doesn't, we will be more faithful to those who have gone before us by burning brightly than by spending all our effort keeping the fire burning.

Are you in it with me?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Looking Forward to October 5, 2014 -- Worldwide Communion Sunday, The 10 Commandments

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17
  • Matthew 5:17-19
The Sermon title is 10 Simple Rules for Living in Community

Early Thoughts: Living in community can be hard.  That's why we have rules.

The 10 commandments are a central part of how we, as a covenant community, understand what it means to live with each other and with God. It is a matter of great debate how much they impact our civic legislation, because many of the precepts we find in them, particularly the last 6 which talk how we treat our neighbours, are found in law codes from other areas (such as the law code of Hammurabi).  So maybe some of these are truly universal, and not a result of Judeo-Christian thought...

But we live in an era that seems to chafe at rules.  Well sort of, we routinely click OK on terms and conditions of websites without reading or questioning the rules and regulations and permissions they include.  But rules tell us what we can't do, and the idol of personal freedom and independence tells us that we should be able to do whatever we want.  (Admittedly this plays out differently in different generations and at different ages)

DO we still think rules are important?   And if so why?

Jesus tells us that he comes not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.  Christian freedom does not get rid of the rules (if anything Christian freedom places more restrictions as Jesus goes on to say in the Sermon on the Mount).  If we are going to live in community we need to name that without rules we have anarchy.  And anarchy means the weakest among us will be left on the figurative ice floe to drift away and die.

So how do we live in community?  How do we deal with the need both to have rules about how we live and the need to challenge/discuss those rules to ensure they are accomplishing their purpose (or to ensure that purpose is worth accomplishing)?  This week we will have a bit of that discussion, using the "Big 10" as our starting point.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Looking Forward to September 28, 2014 -- Crossing the Red Sea

The Scripture Reading this week is Exodus 14:10-14, 21-29

The Sermon title is Does God Take Sides?

Early Thoughts:  It is a truth that the God we meet in parts of scripture isn't always the God we talk about in the 21st Century.  For much of the story in the Hebrew Scriptures God is NOT the ruler of the whole world, YHWH is a family/tribal/national God.  And like in much ancient mythology God takes sides, God fights for God's people (and in later parts of the story it could be interpreted God chooses NOT to fight for God's people to teach them a lesson), God protects God's people, God defeats the enemies of God's people.

Is this the God we come to know in Christ?  Is this the God who is revealed to us in the scope of Scripture and the witness of the communion of saints?

I am not sure it is.  My experience and understanding of God goes far beyond protection of my tribe/nation.  And yet we regularly hear of sports teams praying that God would be on their side.  And there is a long tradition in multiple faiths of people going to war in God's name -- a tradition which continues to this day. 

At the same time the theology of a God who fights for and protects us leads us into some difficult theology.  If God is on our side why do our loved ones die too young?  If God is on our side and the other side insists that God is on their side how does that work?

So does God take sides?

I defer to the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln who pointed out that the important question was not whether God was on our side but if WE were on GOD's side.

But still I think it is important, as people who live in covenant, to remember that God is there to support and protect--and challenge--us.  There is comfort in knowing that, as the United Church Creed strongly proclaims, We Are Not Alone.  Even when the murdering hordes are thundering across the plain and our backs are to the sea God is there.  Maybe not to wash away all the threat.  Maybe to challenge our understanding of whose side we are on.  But God is there.

And that is Good News.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Looking Forward to September 14, 2014 -- The Promise of Land

A reminder that both Sunday School and Youth Group start this Sunday.  So does Junior Choir.

The Scripture Reading this week is Genesis 12:1-9

The Sermon title is Whose Land is It Anyway?

Early Thoughts:  In his novel Exodus Leon Uris describes the area we now call Israel, Palestine, and Jordan the "twice promised land".   And that is just in the era that the British were in charge of the area....

(for more about this video see this post)

God says to Abram, "Get up and Go!".  God promises to lead him to a land where he will have many descendants who will be a blessing to the world.

Great plan.  Only problem is --- there are already people living there.  So it always has been, not only on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, but many other places in the world.  So how do we know whose land it is anyway?

For most of human history the land has been the basis for wealth and power.  That changed a bit with the Industrial Revolution, as many British noble families learned the hard way.   To have land means you can utilize the things the land produced, and sell the surplus for cash to get other stuff.  To have land has often meant you had a population of serfs/villeins/slaves/sharecroppers you could use as either a labour force or a fighting force.

Land is important.  Land is life.  Land is future.

But most often land is also occupied by somebody else.  Then what?

In the Middle East we still have battles over the "twice-promised" land -- just last month there was an uptick in the violence.  Whose land is it?

I would argue that "Whose land is it anyway?" is a question that we as Canadians need to feel pretty sharply as well.  Because it is only when we ask ourselves that question and look at all it means to talk about land that we will seriously start to work on rebuilding our relationship with the descendants of the people who lived on THIS land when our descendants arrived on these shores.

15 years ago we had a lot of talk in the church about the Jubilee year and the forgiveness of national debt.  Part of Jubilee is also returning ancestral land to the "proper" owner (which in Deuteronomy and Leviticus means the Tribe/Clan/Family of Israel that the land was given to after the conquest--not the Canaanites who were there before Joshua led the people over Jordan).  I remember a couple of people in the congregation where I was serving my internship note that we did not talk nearly so much about that aspect of Jubilee in the Canadian church.  I wonder why that was so true.....

Monday, September 1, 2014

Looking Forward to September 7, 2014 -- Noah, the Flood, The Rainbow.

This being the first Sunday of September we will be celebrating the Sacrament of Communion.

This Sunday is also the first Sunday we are following the Narrative Lectionary.

The Scripture Reading this week is Genesis 6:16-22; 9:8-15

The Sermon title is A Promise in Many Colours

Early Thoughts: Technically it is the result of light rays bending through a prism and being scattered into different wavelengths.  But that is hardly romantic....

The Rainbow.

Topic of songs about what is somewhere over them.   Symbol of inclusivity in the Pride Parade.  Scientific experiment.  And sign of the promise.

The story of Noah and the flood is one that many of us learned in early childhood.  And yet how many of us remember the part about the rainbow?  Yes we know about the animals going in 2 by 2.  But I suggest the longer term lesson is the rainbow.

God gives up on the world, God decides to wipe the slate clean and start over.  But then God appears to decide this was the wrong approach.  After the flood and the destruction God says "Never Again" and the rainbow is that sign of that promise.  No matter what happens, no matter how far we wander from God's hope, never again will the world be washed away in a flood.  God will stick with us, not try to replace us.

A promise in many colours, a sign of hope, a constant reminder of God's presence in the world.

And here is my favourite rainbow song:

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Newsletter Part B

Who are we?

Many times over the last 4 years I have asked in sermons, in committee and council meetings, in conversations who we think God is calling us to be and where God is calling us to go. Since the last Annual Congregational Meeting your Council has been wrestling with these questions in a much more focused way.

As I sat down to write this piece I pulled up our congregational vision and mission statements. Here they are to refresh your memory:

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

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.
{ASIDE:, I note that these were supposed to be reviewed in January 2012. I am not sure we did that, but I am REALLY sure we probably should talk about what they mean}

Who are we? How do we live out those statements? How COULD we live out those statements?

One of the things I have heard God whispering in my ear for most of my ministry is that it is time to find new ways of being the church. firmly believe that is trying new ways, new ideas, is part of how we will live out those statements. Furthermore, I firmly believe that sometimes we get so tied to the old ways (the church as a whole is notorious for getting caught in the trap/rut of tradition) that we limit our ability to live out those mission and vision statements.

So what are the new things God is calling us to try? Some of them will work well. Some will fail disastrously. And that is good. There is a proverb that tells us if you never fail it means you are not trying enough new things, you are playing it too safe.

Here is my first option. I want to offer an evening service on a monthly basis (I am open to input on what evening of what week we should choose). But here is the catch. I want this service to look radically different from our regular Sunday morning service. It would be our chance to experiment with different worship styles and themes. I want/plan to start offering these in October. I want/plan to continue offering them until at least next June, even if attendance is poor or spotty. Who's in with me? Is there something you have always wanted to try in worship but were afraid to ask? These services are the time!

God is calling us to try new things. Sometimes I think the hour of worship on Sunday morning has become a straitjacket, maybe even a bit of an idol. I want to cut loose the arms of the straitjacket and maybe put a crack in the idol. It might work great!!!! It might be a fun failure!!! We will only know if we try.

And if you have ideas of new things you want to try out – let me know. God is still speaking to all of us. Sometimes we just have to stop and listen.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Looking Forward to August 31, 2014 -- 12th Sunday After Pentecost

The Scripture Reading this Sunday is Isaiah 51:1-8.

The Sermon title is Listen!

Early Thoughts: One of the more common aspects of my "discussions" with my children is some variation of "Stop what you are doing and listen for a moment".  I wonder if God has the same feeling....

When you think about it what lies behind that word LISTEN.  When you think about it, it is a shorthand way of saying "pay attention! this is important! you need to know/hear/do this!"

In these 8 verses we have the command to listen three times:
  1. "Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug."  God calls us to look to our past, our heritage.  Why is that important?
  2. "4Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. 5I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope."  God calls us to pay attention to the promise, to look to the future, to be people of hope.  Why is that important?
  3. "Listen to me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my teaching in your hearts; do not fear the reproach of others, and do not be dismayed when they revile you."  God calls us to remember who we are, where our strength lies, where we can look for support.  Why is that important?

Past, future, and present.  Listen in all tenses.  Listen and learn.  Listen and move towards God's vision for the world. Listen and remember and be people of hope.

Maybe we should listen a little bit more...preferably BEFORE we start to act.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

September Newsletter...Part A?

I think I will likely write another piece for the newsletter as my "official column".  But here is something I wanted folks to know about:

And Now for Something Completely Different...

Well maybe not completely...
Maybe not even radically...
Maybe some folks won't notice the difference?

So how about “now for something a little bit different”?

For me the starting point (most of the time) in planning our weekly worship experiences is “what are the Scripture passages?” Sometimes I will start with a specific question or theme and search out passages that match that. But most often I take a set of passages from a list of readings called a Lectionary [a lection is “a portion of sacred writing read in a divine service; lesson; pericope” ( so a list of lections is a lectionary]. This pushes me to look at passages I might otherwise avoid or ignore, and so broadens my preaching.

Most United Church folk have gotten used to a Lectionary even if they don't know it, such is the power of the worship planner (at least we are powerful in our own minds). For most of my adult life I have attended churches that used the Revised Common Lectionary in worship. The stated intent of the RCL is to read all of the “important” parts of Scripture over a 3 year period. And so, generally speaking, each week it suggests a reading from the Jewish Scriptures, a Psalm reading, a reading from the Letters, and a reading from the Gospel.

I have struggled with the RCL since I started teaching Sunday School as a teenager. Even then I could see that there were many weeks where the 4 passages did not remotely link with each other, even though the Sunday School Curriculum we used at the time [Whole People of God] went through amazing mental gymnastics to make them appear linked. Over time I have dealt with this issue by simply not reading all the passages on a Sunday – which would tend to defeat the stated purpose of hearing all the “important” [sometimes I wonder how you determine what the important parts are...] parts of Scripture over three years but I dislike reading a passage and then not doing anything else with it in the service.

The other big problem I have had with the RCL is that it tends to make it more difficult to keep a narrative flow. Yes each year the readings mainly come from one Gospel. And each summer the Jewish Scripture readings tend to come from a specific story arc (this summer has been the stories of the Patriarchs leading to the story of Exodus). But the stories get chopped in odd places and sometime we jump around in the Gospel and read passages out of order. As a person who both loves stories and also finds story to be a great teaching/learning/exploration tool this bothers me.

So now for the completely/somewhat/sorta kinda different thing...

There is another option. A Lutheran Seminary in the US has developed what they call the Narrative Lectionary. Each winter/spring it follows through one Gospel from beginning to end (though it still does not read every verse) and then uses other stories for the rest of the year. The hope is that we will get a better picture of the narrative flow of Scripture, as a different way of sparking our exploration. Starting with the beginning of September this year I will be using the Narrative Lectionary as the basis of my worship planning. Which means that from Advent until Easter we will be exploring Matthew's Gospel.

The big question is.....will anybody noticed a difference???????

Monday, August 18, 2014

Looking Ahead to August 24, 2014 -- 11th Sunday After Pentecost

The Scripture Reading this week is Romans 12:1-21

The Sermon title is The Renewing of Minds and Souls

Early Thoughts: What difference does faith make?  How have you been changed, transformed, by God's presence and activity in you life?  Or to put it another would your life be different if you were not a person of faith?

Christian faith is about being transformed.  Living in faith is about striving to align our daily lives with God's hope for us as persons and the world as a whole -- or possibly not "striving" but rather letting go of our own need for control so God can move in and through us.  Living in faith is about listening for God's voice and discerning God's will -- then going ahead and following the path laid out.  To live in faith means, as Paul points out here, to be a living sacrifice.

A sacrifice?!?  What do we have to give up?????  Potentially lots.  But that is not what a sacrifice is.

When you look at its Latin roots you find that the word sacrifice means to make sacred (see here).  To live in faith is to make your life sacred, set apart for God's purposes.  So yeah it means giving up stuff, ideas, plans.  But the important part is not so much the giving up, the important part is the purpose thereof.

When we allow ourselves to be transformed by faith, to be renewed in mind and spirit by God's Word alive in our midst, we move to make our lives sacred, to set ourselves apart for God's purposes.

The mark of deep faith, of a transformed being is not in how loudly we pray.  It is not in how stridently we argue that the world must follow our interpretation of God's law.  It is not in how openly devout and religious we are.  The mark of deep faith is in how well we live out the last half of this passage.  I would suggest the only way we can live in that way is if we have been renewed, transformed, changed.  I also suggest that this renewal is not a one-time thing but rather an ongoing process as we grow and learn and experience life.

May God continue to work within us as individuals and as a community, renewing our minds, our souls, our selves, so that we would be a living sacrifice, set apart for God.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Looking Forward to July 13, 2014 -- 5th Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 10A

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • Genesis 25:19–34
  • Genesis 27:1-41
The sermon title is Sibling Rivalry

Early Thoughts:  Twin brothers, at odds since the womb.  And it doesn't help that the younger twin appears to have a faulty moral compass.

Jacob (whose name means he takes by the heel or he supplants according to the footnote in the NRSV) is an interesting character to say the least.  As the story progresses he will be renamed Israel (one who strives with God), he will have 12 sons (by 4 different women) and will become the father of a nation -- the people of Israel.  But he gets there by trickery, deceit, and (almost) outright theft.  He is, at best, a flawed hero.  Or maybe he is a chance to reveal that God chooses to use the oddest people.

First he extorts the birthright, the inheritance of the firstborn, from his brother Esau.  Yes maybe Esau shows signs of poor decision making in trading his birthright for a bowl of stew, but who does that to a hungry brother?  Then with the support and urging of his mother (apparently Rebekah has a favourite son) he deceives his blind aging father to steal the blessing that was supposed to go to Esau.  Is it any wonder that Esau threatens to kill Jacob?

Not that Jacob seems to learn from his fear.  His relationship with his father-in-law is one of mutual distrust and deception.  So much so that when Jacob leaves that household many years later (stealing the family idols at the time) his father-in-law's parting words are a threat/curse/warning [though it sounds like a blessing] "May God watch between me and thee, while we are absent one from another".

The strange thing is, for all the talk in Judaism and Christianity about loving your neighbour, about brotherhood, about family, there is no family in Genesis that actually seems to get along.  Brothers are constantly at odds with each other, wives are jealous of each other.  Yes later Jacob and Esau reconcile, but before that happens, as Jacob is returning home, he is terrified about what his brother will do when they are once again together.

So what is there in here for us?  Well we all have times when we have trouble getting along with our brothers and sisters (both the blood relatives and the metaphorical relatives).  If we are honest there are times when we have not dealt properly with our siblings.  There are times we have acted like rivals instead of family members.  And sometimes we reconcile like Jacob and Esau do.  Sometimes we don't and the family or the community is split.

How will we deal with our petty, and our not so petty, disagreements and rivalries?  If we are all family (blood or metaphorical) ho will we grow the family stronger despite the times one of us acts like a jerk?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

July Newsletter

It must be getting close to vacation time. As I sat down to write this I heard a voice saying “write something about Sabbath” over and over again.

And since I have, sort of, learned that I should sometimes listen to the voices in my head, and because I have no other ideas, and because sabbath time is such an important thing....

How are you taking Sabbath Time this summer?

Note that I assume you are. Which might well be a big assumption – and assumptions are always dangerous – but it is an assumption I am making intentionally. For many of us, particularly those of us with school-aged children, summer is a bit of a slower season. Many programs have gone on hiatus, we have more free time, and so we find it a season of “taking it easy”, or at least of being busy in a different way.

So how are you taking Sabbath Time this summer?

There is another assumption behind the question. The assumption that sabbath time is a good thing, that it is something we should be doing. In fact my assumption is that sabbath time is mandatory for our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

Why else would it be a commandment?

Because look at the 10 Commandments. There it is in black and white, chizelled on the stones that Charlton Heston carries down the mountain. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Take time off. Don't work all the time.

Scripture gives us two reasons for keeping sabbath. One is that we rest because God rested. God rested on the seventh day and so should we. Later in the Scripture story we find the Jesus also takes sabbath time. He also disappears to rest and pray and rejuvenate himself. The other reason we are told to rest, to take sabbath, is because we are no longer slaves. Slaves don't get to choose if or when they get to rest. People who are not slaves DO get that choice [and Scripture then enjoins salve-owners to also ensure their slaves do not have to work all the time].

I think in modern culture we understand the need for rest. We understand the bit about it being good for us. I think we have trouble with the slave/freedom part.

One of the (bitter?) ironies of life is that all these “labour-saving” improvements we were promised have in fact made us work harder. One of the (bitter?) ironies of life is that the more easily we can be connected to the world the harder it is to intentionally dis-connect from the world. And in my experience, if we can't disconnect we don't really do a good job of taking time to rest, time to just “be” with each other. Think of the last time you went somewhere and forgot your phone, or were in a place where there was no phone coverage. How did that feel? Anxiety-producing, or freeing, or a bit of both? It is my contention that we have become enslaved by the devices that were meant to make life easier. It is my contention that it has become too easy to keep working even when we are not “at work”. And it is my contention that we suffer as a result.

So how are you taking Sabbath Time this summer?

I freely admit I am not good at this. In the past I have spent time during my vacation doing things like watching the live feed from the General Council meeting, or getting a start on worship planning for September, or checking my work e-mail, or getting into church (often church-geek) conversations with colleagues on social media, or attending Presbytery Executive meetings by phone, or even stopping by the office “to do a couple of things”. It is my plan/hope/dream that this year between July 18 and August 17 I will do none of those things. I am going to try harder to cast off the slavery of needing to feel that I have to remain connected. How successful will I be? Time will tell. But I am trying because I believe true sabbath time is important. I want to do it because I think I will be healthier and happier when I get back.

What about you? How will you make time for sabbath this summer?