Tuesday, May 30, 2017

June Newsletter

A bit of a flashback...

Canada 150

July 1, 1867. After years of negotiations and cajoling and hard work the British North America Act came into effect. Four British colonies in North America joined together to become the Dominion of Canada. Later the colony of Prince Edward Island would be convinced to join in. Then the vast area of Rupert’s Land, formerly under the nominal control of the Hudson’s Bay Company, would be transferred to Canadian control, with the resulting formation of the province of Manitoba. Then the colony of British Colombia would sign on. A few decades later two provinces would be carved out of the Northwest Territories. Then 4 decades would pass and the last “father of Confederation” would bring Newfoundland into the fold. Finally the people of the Eastern Arctic would succeed in getting a new territory named Nunavut changed. And now we have grown from 4 provinces in Eastern Canada to a nation that lives out the dream of our founders: a dominion that stretches from sea to sea and from the river [St. Lawrence] to the ends of the earth.

And now there are all sorts of events and campaigns across the country in this year where we mark 150 years of Confederation. How does the church respond?

That is a bit of a complicated question, particularly in a denomination that began with the hope of being the “church with the soul of a nation”.

National holidays are a big part of life. Our faith, we believe, speaks to all parts of our lives. So we expect national holidays and faith to speak to/with each other. And yet... In the end the church is not called to extol the virtues of any one particular country (or political party platform or economic system). The church is called to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. Sometimes that means we need to choose not to take part in acts of civic religion. For example this is why many churches make a conscientious choice not to have national or provincial flags in the sanctuary (for the record, in some places, particularly in the United States, the question of flags or no flags has been as hot a debate as pews vs chairs). What is our faith story saying to us as the nation around us celebrates Canada 150?

I think that the faithful response is to do two (well sort of three) things.

The first thing is to look honestly at the nation Canada is and how it got to this point. There are two sides to this task. One is to ask what is worth celebrating about who we are and who we have been, and then legitimately celebrate those things. There is lots of help in this task – much, if not most, of the official government resources out there are about celebrating the country. The danger is that we as a nation stop there. Even as we celebrate who we are as a notion (and as a nation) we remember that we are not the Kingdom of God on earth. As an act of faith and honesty part of commemorating Canada 150 has to be to ask ourselves about the shadows of Canadian history and present. This is hard work. God challenges us, as individuals and as parts of our various communities, to look carefully at where we have been who God has created us to be and when we have fallen short.

Once we have done this reflecting on who we are, and who we have been we are ready for the more important piece. I have always believed that significant anniversaries are only part about the past and present. For any community an equally important question is “who do we want to be in the future and how will we make that happen?”. If we only celebrate the past 150 year this year we have missed an opportunity.

And now the question for faith communities.

As faith communities we ask ourselves how we (positively and negatively) have contributed to the Canada of the last 150 years. As faith communities we look to our tradition and our Scripture to get a sense of what sort of community God is at work creating. And so, as faith communities we continue to ask the question we should have been asking all along. Where and how is God calling us to bring our faith into the life of the communities (from the local, to the national, to the global) of which we are a part? As people of faith how will we help to create the Canada we want to see in the future?

150 years ago the vision of a dominion stretching from sea to sea was borrowed from the book of Psalms. The Psalmist was not talking about this collection of provinces and territories we call Canada. The Psalmist was talking about God’s Kingdom. We in Canada are a part of that. God is at work in our midst, helping us make a better country, one more in line with the Kingdom. Where will we join in?

[More to follow. In church. On July 2nd (which means I have a month to sort out what I need to say).]

One of the marking posts of Canadian culture for all of my life has been an official understanding that we are a multicultural society. We have not always agreed what this means (personally I have always liked Joe Clark's image of a "community of communities") and we have not always agreed if it is a good thing but it is a part of who we are.  I found this article where it seems that the current Prime Minister moves even beyond his father's understanding of what it might mean to be a truly multicultural society.  Does it mean we no longer have a core identity?  Something I continue to ponder.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Looking Forward to June 4, 2017 -- Pentecost Sunday, the Fruits of the Spirit

This being the first Sunday of the month we will be celebrating the sacrament of Communion.  This will be the last regular Communion service until September.

The readings for Pentecost Sunday this year are:
The Sermon title is Live in the Spirit

Early Thoughts: Many years ago, when I was in Junior Choir, we did a musical called the Music Machine. The premise was that there was a magical machine that would create a song about anything you put into it. Then they put in it a passage of scripture and we get a series of songs about the Fruits of the Spirit. That was my first introduction to this concept from Scripture (and I can remember snippets of some of the songs too--particularly the one about patience!)
Somewhere in my parent's house is this album that we bought around the time we did the show:

But since I probably should do something beyond playing the songs of the album...

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is recorded as saying (Matthew 7:15-20):
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits."
Paul teaches that in Christ we are people of the Spirit, we are people who have received the Spirit. Paul also suggests that maybe if we are living by the Spirit people should be able to tell. Which do your lives show more, the works of the flesh or the fruits of the Spirit? Maybe we don't always want to know the answer to that question.

The story of Pentecost reminds us that while the central story of the Christian community is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the power that pushes us onward is the breath of the Spirit, the same breath that blows over the primordial soup at the beginning of Genesis, the same breath that inspires the prophets, that descends on Jesus at his baptism. The Spirit of God is what changes and feeds our lives as people of faith -- if we let it.

We are known by our actions, by our words, by our fruitfulness. Do people look at us and see things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?

Monday, May 15, 2017

Looking Ahead to May 21, 2017 -- Law and Grace and Freedom

The Scripture Reading for this week is: Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29

The Sermon title is Freed

Early Thoughts: We often proclaim that God offers us freedom.  Marcus Borg suggests that one of the meta-narratives of Scripture is that of the exodus, the freedom from bondage, and another meta-narrative is that of exile and return (which also has a flavour of freedom about it).

But freed from what? Freed to what?

For Paul freed from the law, freed from the bondage of sin would be a big part of what being in Christ means. Paul spends much time in his letters trying to determine the role of law and grace in the Christian life. In the end he comes down firmly on the side of grace, God's grace that brings freedom. And so we are freed from those things that once bound us, which includes status words like Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free.

It appears that the Galatian church, after being founded by Paul, was visited by a person or group of people who tried to convince the Galatians that they needed to follow Torah in order to be full members of the Christian community. Paul finds this a terrible idea (to put it mildly). In this week's passage Paul suggests that the law did once have a purpose but now it no longer does. The law was needed to shepherd God's people along until the coming of Christ (who is often called the Good Shepherd, following from the Gospel of John). But now that Christ has come (and more importantly for Paul, now that Christ has been crucified and raised) the law is not needed. We are freed from the (in Paul's eyes unattainable) standard that the law places on people.

Christians continue to maintain that Christ sets us free. In the forgiveness Christ preached (or offered) we are freed from the burden of guilt and shame. In the (freely offered, not earned by our actions) gift of the Holy Spirit that flowed from and through Christ we are freed to a life of where God is active in and through us. We can put the ways of the past aside and live into the new thing God is now doing.

Sometimes we in the church want to replace the old law with a new one. I think Paul might suggest that this is just exchanging one chain for another. Are we ready to be free?

Monday, May 8, 2017

Looking Forward to May 14, 2017 -- 5th Sunday of Easter, Controversy in the Church

The Scripture reading this week is Acts 15:1-21.

The Sermon title is Included

Early Thoughts: Who gets to be part of the community? What rules need to be met?

These are questions that the church has wrestled with from the beginning (and continues to wrestle with today).

The earliest church was a Jewish group. Jesus was Jewish, Jesus' disciples appear to have all been Jewish, the people who were flocking to the community in Jerusalem appear to have all been Jewish. But that only lasts so long.

In Acts Chapter 10 Peter has a dream, a dream in which he hears God challenging him to broaden the circle of belonging to includes Gentiles. In Chapter 11 Peter has to defend this action to some others in the community. As Paul begins his work he seems to have more success among the Gentiles than among the Jewish communities where he visits.

Which leads us to Chapter 15. Some people come to Antioch (where Paul is present, it is his "home base" at this point in time) and insist that all these Gentiles who have joined the Christian community need to be circumcised [and presumably follow the rest of the Law, though the text only talks about circumcision -- maybe a free pass for the female members of the community?]. The Christian community of Antioch discusses the question (Paul and his compatriot Barnabas appear to have led the argument against requiring circumcision) and are unable to resolve it. So a group are sent to Jerusalem to discuss it with the heads of the church.  Probably a modern equivalent would be for a Roman Catholic group being sent to the Vatican to discuss and resolve an issue, or a United Church Congregation making a proposal to the next meeting of the General Council.

In writing Acts, Luke has chosen not to tell us how the debate goes. We are left to guess how virulently the opposing sides made their arguments. He does say there was "much debate" and some of us in the church might have our guesses about how the debate might have gone --- based on our own experiences of the church discussing hot, divisive, topics. But really we jump to the decision. Peter reminds the listeners of his experience from Chapter 10. He reminds folk that at that time God showed Peter that God calls Jew and Gentile alike to the Spirit-led community of Christ. Paul and Barnabas share what they have witnessed God doing in their work among Gentiles. And then James, commonly believed to have been the leader of the Jerusalem church, speaks from the stories of Scripture. Interestingly, it appears to be James that makes the final decision, as listed in verses 19-21. The full Law is not required from Gentile Christians, only some very specific things.

So what does this have to do with us?

The church is often described as a family. Which works to a degree. The comparison reminds us to love and care for each other. And on the shadow side, church splits and disagreements can be just as hurtful and deep as some family estrangements. But the church is not a family.

Family tends to suggest a fairly homogeneous group. Family are those people who are related to us, for most of human history this has tended to mean that the members of our family are largely like us. Humanity being the tribal species that we are (or at least really tend to be), family can be a pretty closed circle. God might have different ideas.

I said above that "These are questions that the church has wrestled with from the beginning (and continues to wrestle with today). ". We continue to wonder where the boundaries of the faith "family" should lie. The challenge for us is to find where God is leading us in those discussions.

The gathering in Jerusalem does not decide that God has made a sudden turn. The acceptance of the uncircumcised is not a new thing God is doing. The gathering in Jerusalem determines that God has been at this work all along, God is just now calling the church to get with the program. They made that determination after considering Scripture, past practice, and lived experience. And it took time.

Luke tells the story in a few verses, accomplished in one meeting. But by the time of this one meeting it is likely that the discussion has been going on for years. [If we assume that Peter's dream in Chapter 10 was in the first year after the Easter experience.  Paul tells us that after his conversion experience he went away for two years to be instructed in the faith, and now Paul has made his first journey so we know that time has passed.]

To follow God is a long-term proposition. To live in the the Kingdom of God takes time. Change does not happen as fast as some would like it to. It requires us to listen to each other and to hold each other in prayer. And sometimes we find out that God has a much broader understanding of grace and community than we once believed.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The May Newsletter...

Membership – What Does it Mean?

As some of you will recall, at the Annual Congregational Meeting I asked for volunteers to start the process of reviewing our Historic Roll. The main reason that I asked for this to be done is because according to the statistics we send to the national church each year we are listing well over 300 resident members – I think the number is 380 but am typing this at home so can’t confirm right now. I want us to be sure we are providing accurate numbers.

In theory, the Historic Roll lists all those who have ever been what the United Church used to call “Full Members” [people who had either made a Profession of Faith (been Confirmed) at St. Paul’s or who had been members in another congregation and transferred their membership to St. Paul’s]. It would list when they became members and if they are no longer members when they ceased to become members (that may be through death, by requesting to be transferred out or removed, or by action of the Board/Council). People who have never become Members of the congregation are called Adherents. They may in fact be very active people in our community, people whose presence we would miss terribly if they were not here, but officially they are not Members

But it does tie in to another discussion. What does it mean to be a “Full Member” (from now on I will just say Member)? Does it make a difference in how one is a part of the community?

And that is a hard question.

In the United Church in recent decades we have chosen to focus on how inclusive we are. And do we rarely talk about the importance of membership. In point of fact the hardest sermon I have ever preached was trying to present why membership is important in the United Church. I tried to come at it from the old American Express line “membership has its privileges” and was at a loss.

In our structure there are very few things that are exclusively for members. One is that, officially speaking, only Members can be a part of our Council (as far as I know all of our current Council members are, in case you were wondering) since our Council fills the role traditionally held by Elders. Also only Members can be representatives from the congregation to Presbytery (and from Presbytery to Conference and from Conference to General Council). Only members can enter into the official process to discern a call to ministry. AT a Congregational meeting Members present automatically have a vote on all matters whereas Adherents can only vote if the Members present give them that privilege (and even then there are specific issues that Adherents can never vote – such as to call or to remove a minister, to buy or sell property, and other “Spiritual Matters” [though I have often wondered what matters in the life of a faith community are not spiritual matters]. I have heard of people who become members specifically so they can serve on a Search Committee.

Not really great privileges are they....
So why is membership important? And what does it really mean? As it stands now someone could attend and be active for years but not get a vote on an important matter whereas the next person might have been confirmed decades ago but only attend sporadically and not be really aware of what is happening in the life of the congregation but gets a vote as soon as they appear at a meeting. That does not quite seem right to many people.

If membership gives a voice in the life of the congregation is it more important to be active or to have at some point in the past made a public faith statement? (which is a bit of a false choice since both are important in my mind).
In amongst all the other things that are being discussed across the United Church is this question of membership. Traditionally (and presently) membership in the church comes through baptism and (if baptized as a child) a Profession of Faith. But now there are more people who want to try out a faith tradition before making the step of a public Faith Profession. Does that mean they are not members?

IS membership about attending and participating?
Is membership about believing?
Is it about both?

What does membership mean to you? Why is it important to be a member?

On a related note, I am thinking forward to the fall. In September/October I am planning to offer a session of exploring what it means to be part of Christian Community. I was going to call it a membership or confirmation class but I am intentionally not doing so. I make that choice because I truly believe we are stronger in our faith if we take part in these discussions periodically, not just when we “become a member”. Look for details in the early fall (one plan I am looking into will include a meal together with each session).