Monday, November 26, 2018

Looking Forward to December 2, 2018 --Advent 2 -- The Remembrance of Christmas Past

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

This week our Advent theme takes us to the 2nd Stave of A Christmas Carol and the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past. As a part of marking Christmas Past we will take time near the end of the service for a Blue Christmas commemoration.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Isaiah 40:1-2
  • Revelation 21:3-5
  • Luke 4:17-19
The Sermon title is Carry Forward the Past

Early Thoughts: We are all a product of our past, for better or for worse. In our past we have been taught various things, various ways of being, various ways of believing, various ways of interacting with others. In our past we have been wounded. In our past we have been blessed. All of those things from our past have shaped who we are today.

This can feel like a trap. It can feel like we are doomed to be who we are because of who we were. It can feel that because of our past wounds we are forever broken, because of the sorrow in our past joy is harder to find now.

What do you carry forward from your past?

Here is the redeeming word of Grace. While our past has shaped us, it does not need to trap us. Isaiah speaking to exiles in Babylon and the close of John's Revelation while on the Island of Patmos remind us that God is actively easing our comforts and bringing our pain to a close. We can learn from our past but not let it control us forever.

Christmas is one of those times of year that often seems inextricably bound up with the past, with traditions, with having to do things the "way they have always been done". This can be difficult for many people. Sometimes we need to find a new way free of the past. Sometimes the past leaves us in unhealthy places. I have come to believe that God (who is and was and yet will be, who is past present and future) calls us to look at how we got here with both a nostalgic AND a critical eye.

What will you do with what you carry forward from your past?

Scrooge is led on a journey of his past. This journey helps him see how he got to be the man he is. That journey reminds him of some of the pains that live in his soul. As we continue our journey to the manger we do need to name those things that dampen our joyfulness. Some of those are in our present, in our recent past, or deep in the depths of time. We do that not to allow them to take over. Nor do we think that by naming them we can "get over them". We do it because we we trust in the God who offers comfort, who conquers death. This is the God who is breaking into the world again this Christmas, the God who redeems our past and helps us decide what we are going to carry forward.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Newsletter & Newspaper piece

[I was needing to write for both the local paper and the December Newsletter in the same week. So I wrote this and sent it both places]

Let the Transformation Begin!

The lights are up on the streetlight poles. The decorations are in the malls. As I write these words there are ads out for Black Friday sales. It’s beginning to look more like Christmas.

Many of us have some things, without which Christmas is not complete. Maybe it is a favoured bit of baking, or a particular song, or a party or get together, or a visit with a close friend. Maybe it is a special church service. Whatever it is, you just need those things for the season to feel right.

Two of those things for me are reading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and watching the How The Grinch Stole Christmas (the original half hour narrated by Boris Karloff, not the Jim Carrey movie) on TV. In fact if I had to choose I would rather watch the Grinch over that other perpetual favourite A Charlie Brown Christmas. (Luckily we own both on DVD so I don’t have to choose anymore)

Why do those two things hold such a place in my vision of ‘making Christmas’? Certainly a lot has to do with history. The first time I was on stage was playing Scrooge in a school play when I was in Grade 5 and I grew up reading and watching the Grinch every year. But there is something more. Something thematic, something in the meaning of those stories.

Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch have something in common. They hate Christmas. At the beginning of their stories they are thoroughly unlikeable characters. They seem to have no redeeming values. At the end of their stories they are totally different. They are, to use churchy language, redeemed. The Grinch carves the roast beast. And Scrooge, well we are told that in his life after that magical night “It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge”. If Scrooge and the Grinch can be transformed and redeemed than surely there is hope for all of us.

Christmas is about many things. But at its heart it is about God choosing to reveal Godself in a new way to accomplish something. To me one of the biggest things God accomplishing in the story of Christ is transforming and redeeming us and the world around us. That transformation starts at Christmas. It starts at the beginning when a young girl hears she is going to have a baby when that shouldn’t be happening. Afraid at first, she ends up singing a song that really has the markers of a revolutionary manifesto: “he has filled the hungry...and sent the rich away empty”. This child will not only change Mary’s life but the world as a whole.

When the baby whose birth we are getting ready for grows up he will stand in his home synagogue and proclaim “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me ... [God] has sent me to proclaim release to the captives”. I hear echoes of his mother’s song in those words. In Christ God is working to transform the world, to turn it upside down and shake it up. In Christ God is showing us (as individuals and as a community) that we can be redeemed, set free from those things that bind us up. In Christ God is inviting us to be changed, to have our beliefs and priorities challenged, to turn and follow a different path.

I firmly believe that each of us has a bit of Scrooge, a bit of the Grinch, in our being. Sometimes we tuck it away, sometimes it comes out boldly. Sometimes our hearts are hardened or 2 sizes too small and we fail to care about each other as fully as God asks us to. I see this when we worry more about the bags of bottles someone grabs from our backyard than the fact that people need to steal bottles to get money for food. I see this when we worry about property values being lowered because “those people” are in the neighbourhood rather than asking how best to help people get their lives back in control. And yes, both of those examples grow directly out of comments I have seen from Grande Prairie people in various Facebook discussions.

When the Scrooge in us rears up its head we are reminded that we too need to be redeemed and transformed. When the Grinch speaks in our voice we know we need to find a different path (though hopefully our hearts won’t grow three sizes because that sounds medically dangerous). But here is the hope.

Christmas is coming! God is once again breaking into our world and our lives. Transformation and redemption are possible. Are we willing to let it happen?

Blessed Christmas.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Looking forward to November 25, 2018 -- Advent 1 -- Bah Humbug

This year we are starting Advent a week earlier than usual to give us time to work through a resource called The Redemption of Scrooge. This week's chapter of the resource is "Bah Humbug"

The Scripture Readings for this week are:
  • Galatians 6:7
  • Luke 16:19-31

The Sermon title is Marley or Lazarus?

Early Thoughts: Do we really get what we deserve? Do we truly reap what we sow? Or is there a chance to change the path?

Those are some of the questions that get raised in the opening pages of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. By the end of the story we get an answer. But as people of Christian faith we already know it. At least I think we do. In Christ, God offers us forgiveness and a chance to repent.

But the story of Lazarus and the rich man seems to suggest an answer different than the one we find in A Christmas Carol and the one offered in Christ. Because the rich man can not convince Abraham to allow his agony to be eased or to warn his family to change their ways. It appears that there is no way out.

Marley offers a different message. Marley tells Scrooge (and us) that there is a chance, nay a requirement, for Scrooge to avoid Marley's fate.

Who will we believe -- Marley or Abraham and the Rich Man? Often we want others to reap what they have sown but we would rather have a chance to change. That is assuming that we are willing to change.

In Christ God offers the world a chance for transformation and redemption. At Christmas the annual cycle of transforming the world, of transforming the people of the world begins again. Abraham was sure that the family of the Rich Man would not listen to another messenger because they had ignored all the messages before that. Scrooge starts out wanting to ignore Marley or explain the apparition away "more of gravy than the grave". Which will we be? Will we accept the challenge of transformation God offers us in Christ?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Looking Ahead to November 18, 2018 -- College Sunday

The Scripture Readings for this Sunday are:
  • Jonah 1:1-3
  • Proverbs 1:1-9
The Sermon title is Called to Learn

Early Thoughts: We value education. We in the United Church (speaking of the collective if not for all individuals) value education. One of our Methodist forebears, Edgerton Ryerson, was instrumental in creating the public education system in Ontario, which was a great gift to the development of Canadian society. At the same time our commitment to the value of education and our understanding of the purpose and content of education led us to take part in the Residential School system which, as we know, was a deeply flawed and damaging thing.

But still we value education. It is an expectation that the people we call into Ministry will take part in a specific educational program as part of the preparation for ministry and that they will continue to learn throughout their life in ministry. It is an expectation that our Communities of  Faith will offer some forms of Christian Education, preferably to adults youth and children. Because we place a value on the process of life-long learning as a practise of faith we offer opportunities to make it happen.

Every year St. Andrew's College, the United Church seminary in the Prairie provinces, asks us to take one Sunday and talk about theological education. In part this is a piece of their fundraising program. But more importantly it is a time to talk about why we find education important, why the United Church --like most other denominations, particularly those from the Reformed tradition-- values an educatied ministry. 

This Sunday we will explore the value of education in the church.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Looking Forward to November 11, 2018 -- Remembrance Day

To honour this 100th Anniversary of the Armistice of 1918 we will be marking the 2 minutes of silence as close to 11:00 as possible (so pretty much at the end of the service).

The Scripture Readings for this week are:
  • Micah 4:1-5
  • Joel 3:9-12
  • Matthew 5:1-10, 38-40

The Sermon title is To End All Wars

Early Thoughts: 11:00 November 11, 1918. After 4 long bloody years of warfare (most of which was spent in virtual stalemate) the guns stopped. The war which had hopefully and idealistically (or naively and nonsensibly) been called the war that will end war had come to an end. [Technically the war was not over until 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles was signed (or imposed on Germany) but to all intents and purposes the war ended when the fighting stopped.] And ever since people around the world have paused for a Pittance of Time at 11:00 on the 11th day of the 11th month..

One of the themes that has run through the last century of commemorations has been "Never Again". There has been some hope that eventually we will get to the time when warfare is part of the past and not the future. But we have yet to find the war that will end wars.

AS people of faith what do we do on November 11th? We stop and remember as many others do. We respect the price that was paid by so many over the "great" wars of the 20th Century. But is that enough? Within our stories and writings of faith is a promise that in the end war will be no more. The vision of God's Kingdom is one where lions and lambs lie down together and weapons are turned into tools. One of the criticisms that has been leveled, rightly or wrongly, at Remembrance Day celebrations is that the glorify war, that they glorify the sacrifice more than lament the loss. As people of faith what do we do with a hope for the peaceful Kingdom and the reality of a violent warring world.

And then it does not help that parts of our faith stories and writings seem in fact to be a call to arms, as this weeks' reading from Joel shows us.

As people of faith I think the question we need to ask is where is God in all of this? Where is God leading us? Which is not to say that the cure for war is for everyone to turn to Religion. After all it has repeatedly been proven that religion can be as much a force for war as a force for peace. But still it seems that the God we meet in Judeo-Christian Scripture  has a hope for peace, "neither shall they learn war any more".

AS I look at the example of Jesus I see part of the path. Don't return violence for violence. Don't return evil with evil. Don't seek payback and retribution. It reminds me of the slogan often seen at anti-war protests -- "Fighting for peace is like [having sex] for virginity". Maybe that is why we have failed to find the war that will end war?

IF we are to find peace, if we are to become the peacemakers who will be called children of GOD we need to find a new path. We need to push our leaders to find a new path. Because the governments of the world (in conjunction with what Eisenhower called the Military-Industrial Complex) have shown little real intent to actual bring an end to war, as Buffy Sainte-Marie laments in the song "The War Racket".

This year we will once again pause and remember and lament. How will God push us to change ourselves and our world so that "Never Again" is more than just a motto once a year?