Monday, January 29, 2018

Looking Ahead to February 4, 2018

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

The Scripture Reading this week is John 4:1-42

The Sermon title is He Asked For a Drink...You Won’t Believe What She Said

Early Thoughts: A strange encounter, possibly a chance encounter, is the story for this week. A conversation about a cup of water takes on a whole new dimension.

It is a story about boundary crossing:  male-female, Jew-Samaritan.

It is a story about needs being met. What are people in the story thirsting for?

It is a story about God being revealed, and about a witness sharing the news.

It is a story full of questions.

This woman at the well is pretty amazing. Her life has not been easy.  She has either been cast-out/abandoned/divorced by multiple men or she has been widowed multiple times. It seems she is now relying on a relative (possibly the brother of a dead husband following levirate law) for shelter. And yet she has the gumption to engage in a theological discussion with this strange man from another place. Then she has the courage to go and tell everyone she knows "you gotta come see/hear this guy".

What strange things can happen when one person asks for a drink of water.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Remember That You Are Dust (A Newspaper piece)

(in the interests of full disclosure, this borrows heavily from this and this that I wrote over a decade ago)

This year you may see people with some, shall we say interesting, facial decorations on Valentine’s Day. A black smudge in the shape of a cross. Or maybe someone will be inventive and it will be a black smudge in the shape of a heart.

This year Valentine’s Day, a holiday dedicated to expressions of love and affection is also Ash Wednesday, a much more sombre occasion.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent, a time where church tradition encourages us to reflect on our lives and our world, to reflect on how we have missed the mark in our attempts to be who God created us to be. In some churches the day is marked by a worship service where the forehead of attendees is marked with ashes along with the phrase “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. Ash Wednesday also calls us to remember that we are mortal, that we will one day die, which can help give us a sense of perspective.

As we approach Ash Wednesday this year I want to share a reflection I used at a meeting a decade ago:

Ashes. Pale, grey, nondescript. Ashes. That is how our Lenten journey begins. We take the remnants of last years triumphant palms and turn them from signs of joy into pale grey nondescript ashes.
As we look at the ashes we remember to confess those times we have slipped in our attempts to be the people God would have us be. To quote an Ash Wednesday hymn, we "mark our failure and our falling" as we rub the grey powder between our fingers. We remember and we recommit ourselves to try again.

As we look at the ashes we are reminded of the old words "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return". Some of the ashes in our life are signs of bitterness, signs of mortality and destruction. And so we remember this year our brothers and sisters in British Colombia and California, who have just lived through a record wildfire season. We remember all who have placed caskets and urns into the ground to the refrain of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust". Ashes mix with tears to become a pasty mess, ready to mark our lives.

And yet ashes are also a sign of hope. The ashes of the forest fire provide a rich bed for the new forest to start growing. The legendary phoenix is only able to be refreshed after the fire, then to rise again from the ashes. From the fire of destruction can come hope.

The world around us is full of ashes. The ashes of burnt out souls. The ashes of burned up dreams and hopes. The ashes of regret and repentance. But amidst all the ashes and fear and depression lies a promise. "From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring". The Lenten journey takes us to Jerusalem and destruction. But beyond that lies the hope of resurrection and new life.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. These words remind us of our mortality. They call us to remember that we are not the center of the universe. They call us to remember that there was before us and there will be after us, that none of us are indispensable.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. These words prepare us for what comes next. Only when we take seriously the reality of death can we experience fully the glory of resurrection. The Lenten journey takes us to Good Friday but the day after Lent ends is Easter Sunday. The graveside gathering is a time of sorrow but the word of hope we share is that the grave is not the end. Individuals may come and go but we share in a larger work, the whole of which we may never know. No matter what may come there is hope, and promise, and possibility.

This year I encourage all of us to look at what changes can or need to be made in our lives and in the corporate life of this community as we live into the Kingdom of God. What needs to die so that God’s Kingdom can live? It is said that only by passing through death that we have life. In fact we do that many times throughout our lives – we pass through the death of what was into the life of what will be.

This year on the holiday dedicated to love we pause to remember the God who is love. As the ashes are smeared on the forehead what death do you fear, what resurrection do you await?

ANd as an online bonus, some music:

And another

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

February Newsletter

Many years ago the Whole People of God Sunday School Curriculum had a song called Who Is a Disciple? (JimStrathdee ©1991). The opening lines said:
Who is a disciple? Look and you will see
Those who follow Jesus, learning what to be.
And the chorus was:
Jesus, Jesus, teach me how to be
a disciple of your love for all the world to see.
The verses told of various folk from the Christian Scriptures who had chosen to follow the Way of Jesus, who became disciples.

Almost 200 years after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus a (or maybe the) primary task of the church is to grow and nurture disciples. Our task is not to offer spectacular worship, or to have grand theological discussions, though both of those can be key pieces of growing and nurturing disciples. The primary task of the church is not even to support those in need, though both Jewish and Christian Scripture name that as an important part of what it means to be a community of faith. The task is to recruit and train new followers, with the expectation that people whose lives have been transformed by encountering God will then do things like help to support those in need.

What does it mean to be a disciple? A disciple is a follower, a learner. A disciple is one who follows the teachings and philosophy of a teacher. In Christian terms a disciple is one who follows the teachings of Christ, who opens themself to be transformed by an encounter with the Living God and the Resurrected Christ. A disciple is someone whose life has been changed, whose priorities have been altered to put God’s plan ahead of their own. A disciple is someone who tries constantly to answer the question “what would Jesus have me do?” before acting. A disciple is one who keeps learning and exploring, going deeper in faith as time goes by.

In my experience, I am not sure how good a job the church, particularly the United Church, is at creating and nurturing disciples. Sometimes what we do works really well. Sometimes it doesn’t.

The practice for a few generations has been that discipleship was a function of Sunday School and Youth Group, culminating in Confirmation. Those things, it was thought/hoped would give the foundation for a life of faith. In fact, for a few decades now, Confirmation seemed to have become seen as graduation from Sunday School (and often from the church) instead of a step along a continuing life of faith. At the same time, we are now in a Canada where there are whole generations of folk with no church background. When these folk find themselves drawn to the church we have a duty to find a way to bring them into the path of discipleship.

What to do?

There are likely many answers – all of which are elusive. If I had a way to keep young people interested and engaged in church life I could probably retire from the book proceeds. However I think that we have a duty, if we think being part of a faith community is an important thing, to work on that. There are plans afoot for a teen confirmation program this spring, and I hope we can talk about the “what happens after confirmation” piece.

But discipleship is an ongoing thing. And to provide a place where we can continue to explore what it means to be a disciple I am offering a study group called Immersion: Investing in God’s World. This is an 8-sesssion study developed by a couple of United Church ministers in BC. It leads us through some basics of Christian theology in the first few sessions and then Part 2 leads in discussions of what discipleship could look like in the 21st century church. This study will be on Wednesday evenings at 7:00 starting mid February. Please let me know if you are interested so I know how many copies of the resource book to order.


Monday, January 22, 2018

Looking Forward to January 28, 2018

The Scripture Reading for this week is John 3:1-21

The Sermon title is God Loves the World

Early Thoughts: God loves the world. God loves the world and all that is in it. Do we believe that?

This week's reading includes one of (if not THE) the best known verses in Christian Scripture. "For God so loved the world..." But I think that we miss the point of that verse when we forget to read the next verse.  Verse 17 reads "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.".  The point of the Christ event is that the world be saved, because God loves the world.

So why do so many people talk about what God hates? Why do so many people talk about what God condemns? (conveniently it seems that often God condemns and hates the same sorts of things that the speaker condemns and hates...)

In the beginning of the faith story we have a hymn to creation. And the refrain to that hymn tells us over and over again that God looks at what is created and says it is good. Because God calls the world good, because God created the world, God loves the world and desires the best for it.

This is the reason God becomes flesh. To show love for the world, to teach the people that they are loved, to redeem and save the world from itself.

JEsus loves us, this we know...

Monday, January 15, 2018

Looking Ahead to January 21, 2018

The Scripture Reading for this week is John 2:13-25

The Sermon title is WWJD?

Early Thoughts: A few years back there was a craze of bracelets bearing the 4 letters WWJD. The purpose of the bracelet was to encourage the wearer, when faced with a decision, to ask "what would Jesus do?" before acting. Given that there is a strand of Christian theology that maintains that the goal for the Christ-follower is to become more Christ-like this was a sound concept. But it had flaws (as all concepts do eventually).

One flaw was that I think it asked the wrong question.  I think the question for the Christian to ask is "what would Jesus have ME do?". WE can become Christ-like by trying to imitate Jesus. But Jesus lived in first-century Palestine and we live in 21st Century Alberta. And so we need to translate what we know about Jesus' moral an theological thought into a new context. We do not always know what Jesus would do...but we can think about how he would have us act.

The other flaw is that most people assumed that the question would always push people into being loving and kind. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with pushing people to be loving and kind but that is not all there is to being Christ-like. As a meme that sometimes floats through my Faacebook feed says, "when asked WWJD remember that pushing over tables and making a whip might be an option".

Sometimes to be faithful to Jesus means using anger in the work of Love's Kingdom. There is sometimes a desire to domesticate this side of following Christ. And yet just this morning this came
across my Facebook feed:
When we try to always answer WWJD in ways that have us being "nice", when we try to limit what it means to follow Jesus as acting (to use a strongly Presbyterian idea) "decently and in good order" we open ourselves to the criticism Dr. King shared so many years ago.

Jesus was passionate. To follow Jesus means to be passionate. Passion may lead us to act in ways that others say are not "nice" or "proper". How we do this becomes the big question.

What are the issues where we need to flip over some tables? What are the issues where anger in the service of Love's Kingdom is required rather than gentl prodding to do the "right thing"?

WWJ(have you)D?

Monday, January 8, 2018

Looking Forward to January 14, 2018

The Scripture reading this week is John 2:1-11

The Sermon title is Party On

Early Thoughts: The party must go on.

Jesus and company are at a wedding. Weddings in their world were generally a multi-day affair. And after a couple of days the wine runs out. Not a good thing.

The (unnamed in this passage) Mother of Jesus encourages him to intervene. At first he is reluctant, but then accedes.  With the result that 120-180 gallons of good, indeed the best, wine are made available. And the party is able to continue. I suspect I have known a few people in my life who would welcome such a party.

[SIDEBAR: Raymond Brown has suggested that part of the reason that the wine ran out may in fact lie with Jesus and his friends. The wedding celebration may well have been a Bring Your Own Wine event. Jesus and his friends may have been living a life of voluntary poverty that did not allow them to bring wine...but would not have stopped them from consuming. As one blog I read put it "maybe if Mary had not brought all those "+1" the wine would have held out longer. It does help explain why Mary is so concerned that the wine has run out.  Another theory that has been posited for why Mary was so concerned is that the wedding was for someone in Jesus' family and so they were sharing the hosting duties]

Why tell this story?

For the writer of the Gospel this incident, like many other things that will come, is a sign pointing to what is happening in Jesus, it is a sign to reveal who Jesus is. That is one reason we tell this story.

WE also tell the story to remind ourselves of the abundant and overflowing grace of God. We remind ourselves that just when we think we have run out of resources Jesus, the one who Matthew describes as talking about the lilies of the air and the birds of the field who neither sow nor spin, is there to provide what is needed.

We tell the story to remind ourselves that the party continues. WE remind ourselves in this story that Jesus brings new wine, new hope, new possibilities and so in Jesus we celebrate the new wine, the good wine, the zestiness of life.

NOw I have to go research science experiments to turn water into wine...on Sunday you can find out if I have any success.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Looking Ahead To January 7, 2018

This being the first Sunday of the month (and indeed of the year) we will be celebrating the sacrament of Communion.

From now until Easter the Narrative Lectionary has us exploring the Gospel of John. This week's selection is John 1:35-51.

The Sermon title is Come and See

Early Thoughts:  Evangelism.  What thoughts does that word evoke?  Possibly signs like this?
Photo Credit
TO be fair the person who posted that labelled it as "A very poor evangelism attempt"

Or maybe this is the image that comes to mind? (Looks like a Watchtower Society pamphlet to me)
Photo Credit
Those would be common images.  OR maybe the couple knocking at the door, or the street corner preacher...

And because of images like that many of us find evangelism to be a hard topic. It is a word we don't use much anymore.  Not many United Church of Canada people would say they are evangelical.  But is that true?

Have you ever invited someone to come to church with you?  If so you have been an evangelist.

Have you ever shared some part of your faith story with someone?  Have you ever said that your faith influences the choices you make/priorities you have?  If so then you are an evangelist.

In our John reading for this week we see evangelism.  We sort of see it in John's proclamation "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" but we see it most clearly at the end of the passage.

Having met Jesus, having talked with Jesus, Andrew felt something.  And that something led him to go to his brother Simon and say "you gotta meet this guy!".  Andrew is the first evangelist in John's Gospel.  He is the first person to lead someone else to meet Jesus, to share the person he has met. Then a few verses later Phillip does the same thing (even if Nathanael is dubious that this fellow from Nazareth could be that special).

I suggest this is evangelism in its best and healthiest form. A gentle invitation, no threats of eternal punishment, no promises of eternal reward or earthly riches, no guarantee of a miraculous event, just a gentle invitation, "Come and see, come and experience for yourself, come and decide for yourself".

Can we say to a friend "there's someone I want you to meet"?  Can we be evangelists?

I would argue that we have no choice.  If our faith makes a difference in our lives, in how we live, in what we choose, in what we find important, then people should be able to see that difference.  And that is being evangelistic.  And if people ask why you make such "weird" choices and you link it to your faith?  Then you are being evangelistic.

Can we do that?

Oh and more than one article has stated that the #1 reason people first come to experience a church is because someone personally invited them, because somebody said "you should give this a try"...

To whom would you say "Come and see"?