Monday, October 29, 2018

Looking Forward to November 4, 2018

As this is the first Sunday of the month we will be celebrating the sacrament of Communion.

This past summer folk were invited to suggest topics for sermons or sermon series. This week's topic comes from that box. The actual suggestion was "Is there a Devil? What is the Source of Evil?"

The Scripture Reading for the week is Genesis 3:1-10

The Sermon title is Is Evil Real?

Early Thoughts: Reading the news it seems like a ridiculous question doesn't it. Can one seriously question the reality of evil when just days ago people were gunned down at worship in a Pittsburgh Synagogue? Can we really ask if evil exists a week before we pause to remember those who dies in the largest wars of the 20th Century? Earlier this month I read the novel Indian Horse. Can we examine our own national history and even pretend there is a question that evil exists?

Which was sort of why I chose that as the title of the sermon. It is helpful to get the obvious answers out of the way first. Even if people would like to believe otherwise I think it is clear that there is a thing called evil in the world.

But how does it work? Where does it come from? Does it have a central personified essence?  Are there people who are purely/simply evil and people who are never evil? Those are harder questions.

The passage we read this week is often seen as the place where evil enters our faith story. Which is why we are reading it. But I am pretty sure it does not answer those questions up above.

It is tempting to be able to set clear boundaries of evil vs good. to have a personalized character of evil (devil), to say these people are good and these people are bad. It would be nice to say "evil comes from X".  Unfortunately life is rarely that cut and dried.

In the end I think much (maybe even most, possibly all) great fiction has, at its root, the idea of good battling evil. And in the best of them they have a sense of ambiguity. Someone, (I think it is Gandalf, might have been Elrond) tells Frodo that even Sauron was not evil in the beginning. When Harry Potter is worried he is turning evil his godfather Sirius tells him plainly that the world is not divided cleanly between good people and Death Eaters. The world of the story is about the fight between good and evil but the murkiness of the line keeps coming up.

Evil is in the world, I think, because we have free will and we have the freedom to set our own priorities. Sometimes those priorities mean we are willing to stomp on others (or let people stomp on other on our behalf) to get our way. And those things we call evil results. Evil exists because of things like fear, and jealousy, and insecurity, and hatred, and self-centeredness.  I am not big on demons or a person named the Devil (Lucifer, Beelzebub, Old Scratch....). I think evil is a part of the world, a sign of the broken-ness of the world. But I also believe that in the end, as Julian of Norwich was wont to say, "all will be well". Evil will not have the final answer.


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

November Newsletter

What Makes a Disciple?
OR The sermon I didn’t give on Confirmation Sunday

On October 14 we had 6 teenagers stand up in front of the congregation and re-affirm the faith statements their parents had made on their behalf at the moment of baptism. My sermon title that day was Membership Means... and was my attempt to describe part of what it means to choose to be a part of the Christian Church. And because of everything else that was happening that day it was a pretty brief discussion of that topic – a topic that we are encouraged to talk and pray and think about all the days of our lives.

As I was preparing for that service there was another track I almost took. Membership in the Church means committing oneself to the path of discipleship. We don’t usually use that kind of language in the United Church these days. I know it wasn’t the language used in my confirmation classes 35 years ago, but I think the concept was there even without the word.

Earlier this week I was musing online (hypothetically speaking of course), in a space where I knew he might be reading, what it might take to get the newly elected Moderator, Rt. Rev. Dr. Richard Bott, to make a visit to a place. Obviously there is a process to go through, official channels to ask – the Moderator’s schedule is very full, but I was wondering what sorts of events might make a particular option look more inviting. Richard took the bait. Richard said, and I quote: “The guy has this thing about wanting to help people to explore what it means for us to be disciples of Jesus in the United Church of Canada in the 21st century.”. Now that is something I already knew because last Spring a group of us worked through a study that Richard had co-written. And it was all about being a disciple.

Which brings me back to what I might have talked about on Confirmation Sunday. In the study Immersion: Investing in God’s World the last half was working through an acronym approach to being a disciple. The possible sermon was to go through the acronym and talk about how one is a disciple. The Acronym is U.N.I.T.E.D.
  • Uplifted by God’s Love: This reminds us that the basis of our life in faith is that God holds us in, as the old hymn says, a “love that will not let [us] go”. It reminds us that our worth, and the worth of those around us comes from being who we are, not what we have accomplished. We are important because we are part of God’s beloved creation and God loves us. This frees us to explore who God has made and called us to be and how God would have us live and act in the world.
  • Nurtured through Worship: There is a longstanding debate on the question “do you have to go to church to be a ‘good’ Christian”. I think we can live out God’s love without it but it is harder. Worship with others reminds us that there are other people asking some of the same questions that we ask. Worship reminds us that we are part of a community. Hopefully worship also reminds us of what is important, reminds us of what God thinks is most important. Hopefully worship challenges us and energizes us as we continue to live in God’s way.
  • Inspired through Scripture: Part of our exploration is looking at the stories left by those who have gone before. In Scripture we have this wealth of experience of people trying to understand how God is active in the world. As we read Scripture and wrestle with it and find where it intersects with our lives to day we learn more about God, about ourselves, and about where God might be leading us.
  • Transformed through Prayer: The apostle Paul, after whom this congregation is named, encouraged people to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Prayer is a chance to open ourselves to God’s presence, a chance to lay out what is on our hearts and minds but also to pause and listen for the still small voice of God. In one book on my Kobo Anne Lamott suggests that there are three basic prayers: Wow, Thanks, and Help. I would also add Sorry. Discipleship is way of life when we are in relationship with God as revealed by Jesus. Prayer is how we help build that relationship.
  • Empowered through Spiritual Friendships: One of the things I have come to learn about life is that we can’t do it alone. (As a teen I thought it was safer to do it alone and took on the Simon & Garfunkel song “I am a Rock, I am an Island” as my theme for a period.) IN the end, humans are a social species. We are stronger when we are together. As a community of faith we help each other grow in our relationship with God. The hope is that within a community of faith we find people who will help us along the road.
  • Developed through Service: I did touch on this idea on October 14. In the letter of James we are reminded that faith without works is dead, is meaningless. To be a disciple is an activity, it means we do things. The primary commandment Jesus gave us was to love each other. He didn’t mean to feel good about each other, he meant to act lovingly toward each other. To be a follower of Jesus is to serve as God’s hands and feet in the world.

To be a part of a Christian community of faith is to be invited on the path of being a disciple. We are all invited to learn and serve and grow together, U.N.I.T.E.D in faith and hope.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Looking Ahead to October 28, 2018 -- Stewardship Sunday #3

The Scripture reading for this week is Matthew 25:31-46

The Sermon title is Love Is A Verb

Early Thoughts: We think it is a feeling or an emotion. And so we wonder how we can be commanded to feel a certain way. After all, we are usually told that feelings are just feelings, we can not control what they are only how we react to them. How can we be commanded to love others? And yet the commandment to love others is at the heart of Christian ethical thought.

What if Jesus is talking about actions, as much (or more) as feelings? What if Jesus is talking about how we act towards others (which may well affect how we feel about them as well)? What if, in other words, love is an action?

After all, we know that actions can be commanded where feelings can't be.

It is said that stewardship is everything we do, every action we take, as people of faith. Stewardship is how we act with the gifts God has given us. Which means stewardship and love can not be separated from each other.

Maybe that is why the title for this year's United Church Stewardship resource is Loving our Neighbours.

In the passage we read this week Jesus reminds us that God is present in all of God's people. Loving God and loving God's people are intertwined. Loving God and loving God's people means doing concrete things to assist them when they are in need. Thought and Prayers are nice but not nearly enough of a response.

I do think it is a stewardship question.  How do you live out love as a verb? How do you use the gifts given to you in acts of love for God and God's creation?

Monday, October 15, 2018

Looking forward to October 21, 2018 -- Stewardship Sunday #2

AS a part of our Stewardship campaign  we will have the young folk take up a coin collection for Mission and Service this Sunday. A chance to lighten the load of coins in your purse or pocket!

The Scripture Reading this week is 2 Corinthians 9:6-15

The Sermon title is What Story Would You Tell?

Early Thoughts: And now for something completely different....

THis week our time of reflection is going to begin by watching this video:

and then people will be invited to share the Good News stories about what is happening at St. Paul's.  What would you tell a visitor (doesn't have to be the Moderator) about what St. Paul's does?

When we remember the good things that are happening we remember what difference our gifts makes. And that is important. After all, we are far more likely to share our gifts and resources when we think they are making a difference.

So what excites you about what happens around here?

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Looking Forward to October 14, 2018

This Sunday we will welcome new members to the St. Paul's family through the Re-Affirmation of Baptismal Faith (aka Confirmation). And so we will be celebrating the Sacrament of Communion. There will also be a potluck lunch following the service.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • James 1:22; 2:14-18
  • Romans 12:1-2, 4-13
The Sermon title is Membership Means...

Early Thoughts: What does it mean to be a member? Some of us grew up with American Express commercials that told us "membership has its privileges". Is that true of the church?

Privileges? Not so many. But to be a member of the church challenges how we live (in theory at least).

One challenge is to ask oneself "how active a member am I going to be at this point in time?". To be a member of any organization means to take part in its life and work. For some people that means a lot of volunteering, for some it means showing up. For many of us the way we are a member, how actively involved we are, changes over the years depending on what else is happening in our lives. But to be a member means supporting the organization in whatever way works for us in that season of time.

That is true of any organization. But to claim oneself as a member of a church raises other questions. In the United Church Creed (aka the New Creed) we read, in part:
We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God's presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil, 
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen...
 This speaks to what membership means. Membership means we gather with others to celebrate that God is with us. Membership means that we recognize that the rest of Creation is just as important as we are, that we are all created by the Creator (though the actual logistics of such creation are fuzzy). Membership means that we remember the commandment to love each other, and that loving each other is as much or more about how we act towards them as what we feel about them. Membership means that we work with the people around us to name those things that are wrong/unjust/evil. It means we work with others to build a society where everybody is treated justly. It means we actively resist when the world seems to be going the wrong direction.

Membership means that in the stories and teaching of Jesus we find clues to help us live in God's way, and that we share those teachings in some way. Attached to that last one, membership means that as we live with Jesus, as we live as people of faith, we allow space for God to work within and change us. We allow God to reveal a different way of being in the world than our new feeds and advertising shows us. It means we sometimes intentionally choose different priorities, this is what Paul is talking about when he says "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable..."

There are also things that membership in the church does not mean. It does not mean we agree with everything said in church (worship or meetings or study groups). It does not mean we stop exploring and asking questions. It does not mean we have to pretend to be perfect. ANd I am sure each reader can think of some others

SO what does membership mean to you?

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Looking Forward to October 7, 2018 -- Thanksgiving Sunday

This week we mark the beginning of our Stewardship season by giving thanks.

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • Deuteronomy 26:1-11
  • Philippians 4:4-9
The Sermon title is Thank You

Early Thoughts: Why are you thankful? How does being thankful change how we live?

This week for our Stewardship campaign we begin by saying thank you. Thank you for all that people have done over the past year, and over the past 107 years, to make St. Paul's united Church what it has been and has become. Without the gifts shared by the people of God, Communities of Faith would not exist. So Thank You Thank You Thank You.

And yes, in part we say thank you because we hope/trust/pray that those gifts will continue to be shared.

But thanking each other for gifts is part of something bigger. It is a life choice. When we say thank you we remember that things are a gift, not something to which we are entitled. When we say thank you we remember that our lives are enriched by that gift. When we say thank you we live more with a sense of gratitude for abundance than a fear of not having enough, which often increases our contentment and happiness in life. When we live out of our thankfulness we are more likely to be willing to pass on the love which has been passed on to us.

Then there is the bigger picture. As we remember to thank each other for gifts, big and small, shared within our community we can more easily remember to look out and wonder where all those other gifts came from. Because of where we place it in the calendar we often jump to the conclusion that Thanksgiving is related to the Harvest being safely gathered in (though unless things dry up quickly this year that certainly will not be true). And it is -- partially. Certainly people of faith have had festivals of thanksgiving for the harvest for millenia, after all that harvest denoted food and survival. But they have also had feasts of thanksgiving for many other reasons.

Why are you thankful this year?

What gifts has God given you that demand you say thank you? What gifts has God given you that you take for granted? Most of us who gather for worship at St. Paul's have not spent hours driving a combine or or cutting hay or herding cattle. We join our neighbours who do those things in thanksgiving, but we also give thanks for many other gifts. And as I said above, when we remember to give thanks, even more importantly, when we make giving thanks a habit and regular practice, it changes who we are and how we live.

On the St. Paul's Facebook page I shared a challenge. I challenged the people who read and follow that page to make one Facebook post each and every day in October saying something for which they are thankful. I am using the hashtag #MonthOfThanks on my posts. I suggest that we can do that even without posting it on Social Media, we can name something(s) every day that make us thankful. And maybe it will get to be such a habit that we will continue beyond Halloween...

Why did you say thank you today?