Monday, October 30, 2017

Looking Ahead to November 5, 2017 -- The Sound of Still Silence

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

The Scripture reading this week is 1 Kings 19:1-18

The Sermon title is Hush Children! What’s that Sound?

Early Thoughts: Sometimes what you really need is silence. Sometimes you need to force yourself to pause and leave space for God to enter.

From his perspective at least, Elijah is fighting a losing battle. King Ahab and his Queen Jezebel are leading the people into apostasy, turning to the old local religion rather than remaining faithful to the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Just before this week's reading Elijah has had a "miracle-off" with a few hundred prophets of Baal and after winning the challenge proceeded to kill them all. Unsurprisingly, this does not win the favour of the Queen who promises to kill Elijah in return.  So Elijah flees into the wilderness, heading south out of Ahab's Kingdom of Israel through the Kingdom of Judah.

SIDEBAR: Many important things happen "in the wilderness" in the Scripture story. It is a common location.

Despite his low feeling (he really suggests it is time for him to die) Elijah is led to the holy mountain. God provides food for the journey of 40 days and 40 nights before Elijah arrives at Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. (which brings out echos of the Exodus story)

SIDEBAR #2: Many important things happen on mountains in the Scripture story, it is another favoured location (particularly in the Gospel of Matthew).

Here Elijah has a theophany, a time where God's presence is revealed. What is interesting, given the references already made to the Exodus story, is where God is found. In Exodus God is revealed in a pillar of fire, in the crashing of thunder, in signs and wonders. In the "miracle-off" God was revealed in fire falling from heaven God being revealed in an earthquake makes sense. But Elijah does not find God in any of these things. Instead God is found in what the KJV translates as the "still small voice", the NRSV translates as the "sound of sheer silence", and a newer translation (the Common English Bible -- CEB) puts as "After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet." (translation notes from here). It is at that point that Elijah makes himself ready for the word of God.

I think Elijah needed to be reminded to pause. The story up to this point is full of action and volume. Elijah is both panicked and depressed. The sound (or lack thereof) seems to start  breaking his panic and his depression. Not immediately because the next words out of his mouth will be to once again recount the horrible situation in which he finds himself. But it begins. Some would find that if God was not found in the fire or the earthquake or the mighty wind then the still silence is an odd place to look. Some would start to assume the God is absent (and there is a long tradition of people with deep spirituality having long periods where God seems absent).

But for whatever reason that is where, in this instance, Elijah finds God. ANd that brings a question for me...

Are we ready to look for God in places and ways we do not expect? Is there a part of us that wants the strong wind or the earthquake or the fiery pillar, that wants the signs and wonders and so we miss the still small voice?

We lie in a world where silence is often seen as the enemy. There is almost always a soundtrack to our lives. Get a group of people together to sit in silence and it is not long before it feels uncomfortable. But we can teach ourselves to be comfortable with silence, we can learn to pause and leave the space where something else can happen. Elijah did it (and then was given a bunch of work to do). Can we?

And I just can't resist...

OR this one (which prompted the sermon title)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

November Newsletter

Let Us Pray...

Earlier this year I was given a copy of a book called Bullseye: Aiming to Follow Jesus. And more than that I read it!

Bullseye was written by the ministry personnel from North Bramalea United Church in Ontario to share some of the wisdom they picked up as North Bramalea has been revitalized and grown over the years (for more information about NBUC talk to Karen Scott as she knows a bit about that community). There are lots of nuggets in this book. I would actually love to re-read it with a group of folks so we could discuss what we see there and where/if we see it intersecting with our life here at St. Paul’s. [And then I read Fishing Tips by John Pentland where he shares the learnings he found in the revitalization of Hillhurst United in Calgary, which was expected to close and now is a thriving multi-staff faith community, and want also to read it with a group from the congregation – maybe we can do both some day.] But early in my reading of Bullseye something struck me.

The book is about growing disciples, as that is what NBUC sees as a key part of who they are. The first target Jamie and Debbie write about is Spiritual Practises. One of those is prayer. Prayer is a vital part of how we reconnect with God. Prayer is vital to our growth both as individuals and as a faith community. And then I started to think.

How can we increase the ministry of prayer in our faith community? Is there a way we can become more intentional about holding each other, and the community around us, in prayer? I truly believe that the community that prays together grows closer. I believe that prayer clears our minds and allows us to gain an understanding of who we are called to be as people of faith.

A few ideas came to mind. One is that I want to set aside a period of time each week, at first I thought Wednesdays at lunch time but maybe there is a better time, for some of us to gather in the sanctuary and pray. What we would pray for/about would depend on what we bring to the circle that day.

Another idea was something we used to have. When I first arrived in Grande Prairie St. Paul’s had a prayer group. This was a group of people who had committed to offer prayers for people who were struggling in some way. We would meet every month to 6 weeks to update who was on the list and then people would pray at home for those names. Over time those who had been providing leadership and were the driving force behind that group became unable to be as active and the group sort of faded away. I would like to see if we can get it started. Because the community that is held in prayer is strengthened, just by knowing they are held in prayer.

A third idea was that I may create a prayer cycle for the congregation. This would be a way for us to hold each part of our faith community in the Prayers of the People at sometime during the year. Not because of some major celebration or concern (we would still have time in worship to share those) but simply because they are a part of our faith family and we care about them. If I start on that soon I might have it ready for 2018.

Beyond those things, I point out that prayer is a ministry we all can take part in. In invite, encourage, and challenge each one of us to hold each other, to hold our neighbours, to hold ourselves, in prayer. Prayer does not have to be fancy or formal or use special words. It can simply be laying names and circumstances before God. As people of faith prayer is part of who we are. Let us pray...

Monday, October 23, 2017

Looking Ahead to October 29, 2017 -- David is Anointed

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • 1 Samuel 16:1-13
  • Psalm 51:10-14
The Sermon title is Look to the Heart

Early Thoughts: David is a hero, for some reason. David is seen as a paragon of duty and kingliness, though I am not really sure why. God sees something in David's heart that is worth raising up -- though David's behaviour as king and husband and father will leave much to be desired.

The reading from Samuel this week marks the entry of David into the narrative of faith. A few chapters before now the people convinced Samuel  (and God) that they wanted a king like other nations and Samuel, with God's guidance, chose Saul. But by now Saul has fallen out of favour with God and Samuel is commanded to go find a new king. A risky duty -- kings tend to look negatively on people seeking to replace them, and in later chapters we will learn that Saul is not entirely stable.

Following God's commands Samuel goes to visit a man named Jesse. One of Jesse's sons is the one to replace Saul. And indeed it seems that God has already made God's choice.

Samuel has Jesse parade all of the sons past. Each time Samuel is sure that this must be the one but God keeps saying no, that Samuel is looking at external signs, which seems to be a pattern -- in chapter 9 when we first meet Saul we are told how handsome and tall he was, while God is looking to the heart. After 7 sons have gone by Samuel asks if there is anyone else. Only the youngest, David, out keeping the sheep. David is sent for and when he arrives Samuel is told to anoint him, for he is the one.  Interestingly, even though we are told that God is looking at the heart rather than a physical characteristics, the first thing we are told about David is what he looks like.

The other reading is from Psalm 51. Traditionally it has been believed that this Psalm was written by David in the depths of his guilt after he rapes Bathsheba and arranges for the death of her husband. This link may be accurate, it may be a tradition with little basis in fact. But the section we read this week talks about the heart. It is a prayer any person of faith could (should?) share at various times in our faith journey. The poet asks that his/her heart be clean, that her/his spirit be made right with God.

God looks to the heart. God looks to David's heart, God looked to the heart of Moses, God looks to the heart of Peter and Paul. God touches the hearts of those who live in God's way. God looks to our hearts. Not necessarily the literal pump that sits in the middle of our chest, but to the core of our being. Our core values, our deepest priorities, our essential beliefs. God looks there, God speaks to us there, God stretches us there. SO maybe we should pray "create in me a clean heart O God and put a right spirit within me".

But more than that, God calls us to look as God looks. David is chosen out of all of Jesse's sons because God sees something in David's core that says he will be a Godly king. David will at times hear God speaking to his core calling him to a new way of being (which is probably why Psalm 51 is tied to the story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah). And David listens to his heart.

Later Paul will be struck to his core and will listen to his heart and be lead to proclaim the Way of Christ rather than persecute it. Martin Luther will be struck to his core and in remaining true to the understanding of God he finds there will start a ball rolling that will change the church. When we listen to the heart we just may hear God calling us to be truer to ourselves. When we look to the core we find God.  What do you see and hear in the core of your being? How is God creating and sustaining a clean heart and a right spirit within you?

(not a perfect match but...)  (full lyrics seen on one screen here)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Looking Ahead to October 22, 2017 -- The Call of Samuel

The Scripture reading for this Sunday is 1 Samuel 3:1-3:21

The Sermon title is The Word of the Lord

Early Thoughts: When do we hear God whisper in our ear? What do we do next? Do we seek out the wisdom of others, possibly our elders? Do we engage the whisper? Or do we roll over and go back to sleep?

This week's reading tells us of the call of Samuel as a young boy. There is an element of misunderstanding in it as we see Samuel running to old Eli 3 times before anyone figures out what is actually happening.  But finally Samuel makes the response "speak for your servant is listening".

And if we actually stop and listen to the voice, what if we hear something that we don't like, or makes us afraid?

Samuel is given a message to pass on to old Eli. Eli his teacher and mentor, Eli the wise priest. Eli the father of troublesome sons. Samuel is to tell this man that because of the abominable behaviour of his sons the mantle of leadership is passing from Eli's house. No wonder Samuel is reluctant (the text actually says he was afraid) to pass on the message.

To his credit Eli demands that the message be shared even if Eli had reason to think it was not good news. [If you look back at chapter 2 you find out that Eli has already been given the message once but has been unable or unwilling to correct the behaviour of his sons.] More to his credit Eli is willing to accept the word of the Lord.

Often it is tempting to preach about the beginning of this story, about the farce-like scene of Samuel running back and forth to Eli. Then the sermon culminates with Samuel's eventual response "speak for your servant is listening". ANother temptation is to pick up on a single line way back in verse 1 "The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread." and ask if we are currently in such a time as that, to ask if/how God is still speaking today.

But this time round what jumped out at me was Samuel's fear/reluctance to share the word of the Lord.

Sometimes God reveals hard truths. Sometimes as people of faith we are led to share hard words, to say things that are unpopular, to say things we ourselves would rather not hear. What do we do then?

We can pretend we didn't hear properly. We can find some way to express the words in euphemisms or platitudes, if we do that well enough we might even rob them of their offensiveness. We might say "at a better time" and hold off. Avoidance is a common way of dealing with awkward conversations.

That is when we need an Eli. That is when we need someone to say "it will be hard but you MUST share the words" [noting that Eli even threatens Samuel with a curse if he does not share the Word of the Lord].

It ends well for Samuel. He becomes one of the heroes, one of the chief prophets of the story.  He will go on to anoint the first 2 kings of Israel. And he will continue to be called to do things that make him afraid -- such as anointing David while Saul is still king, such as telling Saul that God's favour is no longer with the king.

How will it end for us? When God challenges us with hard truths how will we react? Both as those who hear and those who pass on the truths?

PS: it also strikes me that if everything you hear God saying affirms all that you are doing and all that you believe then you might want to ask yourself if you are hearing ALL that God might have to say...

Monday, October 2, 2017

Looking Forward to October 8, 2017 -- Thanksgiving Sunday

Since I was away at a Presbytery meeting on the first Sunday of October, we will be celebrating the Sacrament of Communion this week.

The Scripture reading for this week is Deuteronomy 26:1-11

The Sermon title is Memory and Gratitude

Early Thoughts: Can you be thankful if you don't remember?  Probably not.

This passage from Deuteronomy, a common one for Thanksgiving Sunday, is not really about giving thanks -- at least not at first reading.  It is about remembering. And it is about giving from what you have.

The remembering what God has done is a common theme in the stories of the Israelite people. Does that mean they tended to forget to remember? Remembering is often a conscious act, it is something we choose to do (or choose not to do). BUt if we don't remember what happens?

I am not thinking here of Santayana's dictum that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it (though I tend to find wisdom there). I am thinking of how remembering or forgetting tie in to both our gratitude and our stewardship.

If we forget then are we aware of why we are grateful? I suspect not. If we forget the path that has led us to this point, the gifts shared and given to help us along the way, then it is easy to not express our gratitude.

ANd if we forget the gifts shared and given that helped us along the path it is easier to think that we did it all by ourselves. And then to wonder why others can not do the same for themselves.

Memory is at the base of our gratitude and our stewardship. In the Deuteronomy passage the act of remembering is intrinsically tied to the act of offering the first-fruits to God's service. Practically speaking it appears that this offering goes to feed an support the Levites (religious workers) and Priests as well as those who are in need. AS they remember they are thankful and they give from what they have received.

What memories make you thankful? What gifts do you pass forward as you remember and are grateful?