Monday, January 21, 2019

Looking Forward to January 27, 2019

The Scripture Reading this week is Mark 2:13-22. (or here is the passage as Eugene Peterson put it in the Message)

The Sermon title is New Wine

Early Thoughts: Do we want new containers? If we are honest do we really want new wine?

Some people fall easily into comfortable patterns. Most organizations do the same. And once we are in the comfortable new wine and new wineskins are sometimes a threat.

This, I think, underlies much of the conflict Jesus has with the Jewish leaders of his day. From dining with the unacceptable to not being ascetic enough, to proclaiming God's healing forgiveness in a much broader way than ever before Jesus upsets the comfortable pattern.

Do we want new wine?  Do we want our comfortable way of being to be challenged? I know that while there are days I would say yes to those questions there are far more days I would say most definitely NO.  And yet I almost always will say that maybe we need some of that disruption.

Jesus speaks of the dangers of trying to use old containers with new stuff (though personally I always use old scrap fabric when needing to patch something, why would I buy new cloth for such a thing). One of the realities is that our old containers were made to fit the old contents. Sometimes we just can't force new contents into that box. Maybe, like the cloak, the new just moves or adapts to the environment in a way the old can not. Maybe, like the wineskin, the new is still lively and growing or fermenting and expands beyond the old boundaries. Maybe the new is just of a totally different shape or nature and it is like the square peg for the round hole. It just won't work.

I think that sometimes we in the church get it wrong the other way too. I think sometimes we think up new forms and structures and think they will solve all our problems and yet we don't change the stuff inside. While it is too soon to say for certain, I suspect this is what we may find with the recent restructuring of the United Church of Canada. WE have shaken up the structure, but lots of people want the church to operate the same way. Where is the new wine for these new skins?

Jesus is about healing our dis-ease. WE need Jesus not because we are healthy but because we have dis-ease -- and sometimes we don't really want to be healed. Jesus is inviting us to celebrate because God is with us, and sometimes our ideas of what it means to be decent and orderly seem far from a celebration. Jesus is about transformation, about new things happening, about new growth springing from the old. WE need healing, we need to celebrate God's presence, we need to be transformed. We need new wine AND new wineskins.  ARe we ready?

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Looking Forward to Monday JAnuary 21, 2019 -- Week Of Prayer for Christian Unity Service

This year the local week of Prayer for Christian Unity service will be held Monday at 7:00 at Forbes Presbyterian Church. It is my turn to preach this year.

The Scripture readings for the service are:
  • Deuteronomy 16:11-20
  • Romans 12:1-13
  • Luke 4:14-21
The theme verse comes from the end of the Deuteronomy reading Justice and only justice you shall pursue

Early Thoughts: The Kingdom of God is a place of justice. Which means what exactly?

On the website for the Week of Prayer we find:
This year’s theme calls us to move from shared prayer to shared action. Drawing on the traditional values of Bhineka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) and gotong royong (living in solidarity and by collaboration), Indonesian Christians invite us to be a united witness, and an agent of Christ’s healing grace in a broken world, by making specific commitments to justice, equality, and unity. 
 In a world with many different expressions of Christianity what makes us unified? Christ is the obvious answer. Another is that we proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God both the now and the not yet. And one of the markers of he Kingdom of God is that justice shall reign.

JEsus, at the beginning of his ministry, reads a passage from Isaiah in the local synagogue. Judging from the words says after reading it is clear Jesus sees these words as a description of what his ministry will be. ANd those words are clearly a call for God's justice to be made real on earth.

Deuteronomy is, according to tradition, Moses' recounting of the Law just before he dies and the People of Israel cross the Jordan into the promised land. One of the themes in the book is that if the people do not choose wisely and follow the commandments then then land may be taken away from them. To choose wisely is to choose the path of justice. As the story of the People of Israel continues through those books we call the Old Testament we will find that they wander off the path of justice and so repeatedly the prophets try to call the people back to the right path.

WE as people of faith, one branch of the spiritual descendants of Moses,  are still called to follow the path of God's Justice. This year our service falls on the same day as Martin Luther King Day in the US. Dr King once said that "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." (though it appears that the idea behind this statement predated Dr. King by about 100 years and was used by various others before Dr. King said it). To be walkers on the path of justice means we follow those words from Isaiah that Jesus read in synagogue. It means we follow the song Mary sang before Jesus was born. It means we agree to take part n the transformation of the world as the Kingdom of God becomes more and more real in our midst.

How can we remain steady on such a path?

In and of our own strength and willpower I am not sure we can. But we are not alone. We trust in God. AS people of faith we place ourselves in the hands of God in whom we live and move and have our being. I his letter to Rome St. Paul bids us "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 and perfect.". We can follow the way of Justice because God is renewing and transforming us.

As followers of Christ may we continue to be people of justice.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Looking Forward to January 20, 2019

The Scripture Reading this week is Mark 1:14-28

The Sermon title is Why did they do that?

Early Thoughts: To be honest I just don't get it. What leads these men to just get up and follow this stranger? And as a side question what did Zebedee think when his sons just walked away from the family boat?

As Mark is telling the story of Jesus it is logical to think that this is the first interaction that Simon and Andrew and James and John have with Jesus. Given verses 14 and 15 it is possible that they have heard about him through the grapevine,  possibly they were standing in a crowd to hear him speak. But even if they have heard of him, even if they heard him speak once, it seems like a huge leap or faith to drop everything an follow him -- immediately. Maybe they had poor impulse control?

I think a big part of the answer lies in the verses that follow. Twice in the back half of the passage we hear that Jesus teaches with authority, authority unlike the scribes, authority that even unclean spirits obey. That speaks of the Charisma Jesus exudes. And those of us who have heard stories (or who remember directly) the effect that leaders like Pierre Trudeau, and John Kennedy and Barack Obama had on people know the power of Charisma to get people energized and fired up. It is apparent that when people heard and watched Jesus they saw and felt that something extraordinary was happening.

And so some of them made choices that, on the surface, make little to no sense. They dropped everything to follow him.

There is a follow-up question. What would make us do that?

The YouTube video above is the final hymn we will sing on Sunday. It asks Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Well would you?

I believe that Jesus, the Risen Christ, is indeed calling our names. I believe that Jesus is inviting us to a new way of living. I believe that Christian faith is about being willing to be changed, transformed, led in a whole new direction. I also believe that sometimes dropping everything to respond seems unrealistic, or illogical, or unwise, or even dangerous.

What would help us do what Peter, Andrew, James, and John did?

Monday, January 7, 2019

Contagion! Contamination! -- A Newspaper Column

What are you catching? What are you spreading? I have found that much of the important stuff in life (like our beliefs and attitudes about each other, about ourselves, about the world) is caught. We pick it up by osmosis, by contact, sort of like the flu. So what are you catching?

First a story, I like stories. One of the few vegetables we can grow successfully in our house is potatoes. The manse where we lived in Ontario had a cold room under the front steps, so we had a place to store our potato crop, which some years would last us most of the winter. One day I went downstairs and there was a foul odour coming from the cold room. Maybe I had not knocked all the dirt off, maybe it was still wet when I put it in the box, maybe it was just bad luck, but one potato had started to rot. Which in and of itself would be smelly and off-putting but easy to deal with. But of course it was not limited to that one. Each potato that was touching that first on had started to rot. Had I left it long enough the whole box would have turned – imagine the smell in that case.

I think as people of faith we are supposed to be like that potato. Or maybe we should be like the first patient in a flu epidemic. Or maybe that first drop of food colouring in a glass of clear water. We need to be that contagion or contaminant that seems small but can, over time, change the surroundings.

There is a time when Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven that gets mixed into three measures of flour until all is leavened. In the end many traditional leavening agents are contaminants. What is yeast but a fungus with dreams of grandeur? What is sourdough but partly rotting dough? But centuries ago people discovered that some contaminants can be very helpful. Contamination can, sometimes be a very good thing.

Of course the reverse is equally true. Contamination and contagion are words which do not bring up the best of images. They are generally seen as negative things. The Kingdom of God can spread like a flu bug, but so can hatred and violence. Like my rotting potato, the promise and power of love can infect each person it touches but so can fear and distrust. Which are you catching? Which are you spreading?

It strikes me that some things are easier to catch than others. Some forms of contamination spread really quickly and some forms of contamination are kept walled up pretty easily. At the same time a lot more energy goes into spreading some things than others. So if there is something we want people to catch, if there is some thing we want to spread out that will change the world in a positive direction, we need to be find a way to make sure people get in contact with that instead of something less helpful. Unfortunately it appears to me that the beliefs and attitudes and understandings that spread easiest these days are contaminants and contagions in the worst sense of the words.

To be a person of Christian faith means we are called to ensure people are contaminated with love. We are called to ensure people catch hope. We are called to help change the world to align more with our vision of God’s Kingdom. What do I see spreading most easily in the world today? Not those things.

I see fear spreading like an ebola outbreak. I see the politics of division, of wall-building, of “us or them” discolouring the waters of public discourse. I see distrust and possessiveness and prejudice against “the other”. I see things like these all over: in our politics, in our economics, in our approach to immigration, even in our churches. Our world is full of negative contamination and contagion and I think the only way to counter it is by offering an alternative. Love is caught not taught.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened...”. As people who follow The Way of Christ we are called to be infectious, to contaminate the world with Good News. As people who live in this world there are a lot of other things that try to infect and contaminate us. What are you catching? What are you spreading?

Let’s all go out and try to infect the world with the Love of the God who has created and is creating. Maybe the infection we carry will kill off the bugs of fear and distrust and division.

Looking Forward to January 13, 2018 -- Baptism of Christ Sunday

One of the Sermon suggestions received last summer was a series on Sacraments. This is actually morphing into a series called "practices of the Church" which will mainly be during Lent. But this week we have a precursor to that series, because it seems very natural to talk about Baptism on the Sunday of the Church year designated "Baptism of Christ".

The Scripture readings for this week are:
  • Mark 1:1-11
  • Matthew 28:18-20
The Sermon title is Why do we do this?

Early Thoughts: At one level the answer is easy. We baptize people because a) Jesus was baptized, and b) the Risen Christ tells us to go out and baptize people.

Wow, that would be a short sermon! There must be something more to it...

And of course there is.  Why do we baptize children over adults? What do we think Baptism means? What does is accomplish or signify?

These are the big questions.

One of my seminary profs wrote a book called Eager for Worship about United Church of Canada worship practices.  While I intend to re-read her comments about Baptism this week (because I first read the book 17 years ago) I do remember that Charlotte suggests that a number of understandings of Baptism exist in the United Church. I think to know "why we do this" we need to look at those understandings and ask which ones mean the most to us as individuals and as a congregation.

Oh and for the record the liturgy for Baptism is one of the very few places where we are required to use specific language in worship in the United Church of Canada. Come on Sunday to find out what that language is and why it is required.