Thursday, June 27, 2019

Summer Newsletter

Are we too afraid to take risks? Is the desire to be safe holding us back?

These questions have been floating through my mind since our last Council meeting. At that meeting Martha provided the devotional and that is what brought those questions to my brain

The devotional started with a reading of the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:13-30. To refresh your memory, this is the parable where three servants are given money to care for. One is given 5 talents and doubled the money. Another is given 2 talents and also doubled the money. The third is given 1 talent but is afraid of what might happen if the money is lost and so simply hides it away, making nothing – not even interest. The king rewards the first two servants richly but the third is punished. As individuals, and as a community, where are we in this parable? Is it better to play it safe or to take risks (hopefully educated, well-considered risks)?

Martha then shared an article by Dan Hotchkiss with us. In the article Hotchkiss suggests that churches are very risk-resistant. Most often, as Hotchkiss lays it out, this shows up when someone has an idea for a new program. While other non-profits often have a system where innovative ideas are weighed against the mission of the organization and a decision is made whether or not to allocate resources to them (because realistically all new ideas will need resources allocated to them if they are to happen) the church tends to freeze as soon as resources are needed.

Risk is a challenge. How do we know if a risk is acceptable? How do we know if it is worthwhile?

The third servant resonates with me. I tend to be very risk-resistant (and to be honest I think I am getting moreso as I age). Playing it safe, protecting what you have, make sure you don’t lose. These sound very sensible to me. But there is a problem.

Where do you grow when you play it safe, stay with the comfortable, protect the status quo? Simply put, you don’t. And in many cases you lose ground. The servant in the story buried the talent in the ground. It did not lose value but it also gained no interest. Which means that it did not keep up with inflation. When organizations play it safe we protect what we already have. We stay in a comfortable place. It keeps us with the familiar. But we lose ground.

What risks do we need to take if we are going to thrive as a community of faith?

This leads me to the question I asked in the “Words from Gord” section of the meeting. I asked “To keep us fresh and avoid falling into a maintenance mindset what should we do differently?”. One of the dangers I have seen n the church is that we fall into a rut, I know I do anyway. And that seems easy. But I don’t think it is being faithful to our calling.

We need to be able to try new things, or at least try doing old things in new ways, if we are to grow. I am sure we all want to grow. That may be in numbers or in finances. It may be to grow in our understanding of what it means to be people of Christian faith. But to grow we have to do things beyond maintaining what we already have.

The first two servants in the parable could have lost it all (which may have made for a very different parable). They were willing to take a chance. In many stories of churches that have grown I find there was a time when someone convinced them to risk losing something valuable. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But rather than worry about the risk they took another one. This, I think is the path forward for St. Paul’s, for the United Church of Canada, for the Church Universal.
I am not naturally adventurous. Far from it. But when I am realistic I know that continuing to be the church as we have been, to continue to maintain what we have, is a path to decline. For us to pass on this church to the next generations we need to be willing to take risks, to step out of the comfortable, to take the chance that something might fail miserably and then shake ourselves off and try again. And yes, to a degree that terrifies me.

I am not suggesting we become careless. The apostle Paul teaches that we have been passed a treasure in clay jars. We have to consider and research and discern what risks to take. But we have to be willing to take them. I need your help to step out and try different things.

What risks do we need to take? What risks are we afraid to take? What risks will we take?

Who’s in it with me?


{PS: the great irony is that doing nothing different, to keep maintaining they way we have been is a risk too. There is always a risk whatever choice we make.}

Monday, June 24, 2019

Looking Forward to June 30, 2019

As this Sunday is the day before Canada Day and a week after National Indigenous People Day we are sort of combining the two as we are invited to reflect on what we are as a nation, what we want to be as a nation, and what our role as members of a faith community might be in that.

The Scripture readings this Sunday are:
  • Psalm 69:17-36
  • Psalm 72 (VU p.790)
  • Revelation 21:1-8
The Sermon title is: Who Belongs?

Early Thoughts: National days are a challenge for the church.  History has shown that when the church thinks it needs to celebrate patriotism to the nation it tends to move away from the values of the Kingdom. And yet in addition to being citizens of the Kingdom of God we are also citizens of a country. Scripture calls us to live where we are placed and, in the words of Jeremiah to the exiles, "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29:7).

How are we called to be a part of Canada? How are we called to work for the welfare of the many communities of which we are a part?

In some ways I think this has been a more complicated question for the United Church because in our founding mythology is this understanding that we were to be a truly national church, a "church with the soul of a nation" as Phyllis Airhart termed it in titling her look at our history. In our attempt to be that truly national church we have indeed helped shape the nation through our advocacy for the social gospel. But in our understanding of what it meant to be a national church we as a denomination have also fallen prey to the idea that we had to share the goal of turning everybody into good White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. And that led us into a questionable space, particularly in our relationship with those people who had been here long before any Methodists or Presbyterians set foot on the continent.

I think that as citizens of God's Kingdom we are called to promote the values of the Kingdom, the kingdom where, as Isaiah has told us, the wolf will lie down with the lamb and a child will play over the den of the adder and they will not hurt or destroy on all [God's] holy mountain. That is what God is at work doing, leading us to the Kingdom. I believe that as citizens of the Kingdom specifically living in a country named Canada we live out that calling by helping to shape this country, to call it out when it fails to uphold the values of the Kingdom and lament where we have failed, to offer a different perspective and approach, to face the past and present honestly and commit ourselves to a new future, and to share the word of hope in a new heaven and a new earth. We need to be both bold and humble.

I believe God is at work in the United Church, God is at work in Canada. Sometimes God is at work despite the United Church, despite the policies of the nation. What kind of a nation is God calling us to help build?

Monday, June 10, 2019

Looking Ahead to June 16, 2019 -- Trinity Sunday

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
  • Psalm 8 (VU p.732)
  • John 16:12-15
The Sermon title is Three? One? God?

Early Thoughts: How do we understand God? To me that is what lies at the core of the doctrine of the Trinity.  How do we understand who God is and how God is active in the world?

The early church had a conundrum, one that reached a peak soon after Constantine legitimized Christianity. Growing out of Judaism they were very clear that there was One God. Jesus preached and taught about this one God. Monotheism was a non-negotiable. But...

At the same time there was a very clear understanding that in the life and teaching and ministry of Jesus the original disciples had seen God. In the Resurrected Christ there was a clear link between God and the man Jesus of Nazareth.  How could this be reconciled? Was Jesus God? But did that make two Gods? Then there was the Holy Spirit, present throughout Scripture but spectacularly a part of the story of the Early Church and Pentecost. How did all these things add up to one God?

After many highly acrimonious debates traditional Trinitarian doctrine came about. The church found a way to affirm that Jesus, the Word made Flesh was, at the same time, fully human and fully divine. The Church described the three parts of the Trinity as fully co-equal, none was over or below another.

ANd few of us have fully understood it since. In part because it tries to marry Jewish and Platonic philosophy. In part because it is a very metaphysical discussion. And in large part because any way to try and describe the Trinity using metaphor or analogy eventually leads into some form of heresy:

 In all of its faith statements the United Church of Canada has confessed itself to be Trinitarian. But if we are honest many people within the church struggle with the doctrine.  Some because it makes little logical sense. Some because of the male-centered traditional language. Some because only three expressions of the nature or work of God seems very limiting. Some because of the anthropomorphic imagery. But we still look to the Trinity to try and help us understand how the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is at work in and revealed in Jesus Christ. It is a part of our DNA.

Over the years many have tried to find other formulae to use to describe the Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; Lover, Beloved, Love; Papa, Junior, Spook...  All fall short (as I would argue Father Son and Holy Spirit does as well). They all fall short because we have no words that can fully capture our understanding of who God is and how God acts in the world.

And so I leave you with these words from A Song of Faith (2006):
God is Holy Mystery,
beyond complete knowledge,
above perfect description.
 With the Church through the ages,
we speak of God as one and triune:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We also speak of God as
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer
God, Christ, and Spirit
Mother, Friend, and Comforter
Source of Life, Living Word, and Bond of Love,
and in other ways that speak faithfully of
the One on whom our hearts rely,
the fully shared life at the heart of the universe.

We witness to Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love...

How do you try and describes the God "who has created and is creating; who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new; who works in us and others by the Spirit" (A New Creed)?

3-in-1 and 1-in-3, God be with you.

Have Some Pride

Hi, my name is Gord. I am a cis-gendered heterosexual male and my preferred pronouns are he/him/his. Admittedly that is an odd way of introducing oneself, and really not many of us would do that. However I can make that statement without worrying that any of that information will lead to me being treated differently or condemned or attacked. But what if instead of cis-gendered I said trans-gendered? What if I said gay male? Then I might be placing myself in a vulnerable position.

As we sit here in the middle of Pride month I think we need to look seriously at the questions raised above. How good are we as a community at letting people know that they are welcome and accepted and loved no matter their sexuality or gender identity?

Humans are really good at drawing lines to divide each other. And if we are honest the church is just as prone to doing that In fact some might argue that communities of faith are better at drawing lines to keep others ‘in their place’ than other parts of society are. The challenge is that God appears to be pushing us to go the other direction. As a song we sometimes sing in the United Church says: “My Lord colours outside the lines...and takes me into places where I’ve never been before and opens doors...”. The God I meet in Christ is a God who pushes me to ask why the dividing lines are there, and maybe even erase them.

In the first creation story in Genesis we are told that God says “let us make humankind in our own image”. And so we proclaim that all of humanity bears the image of God. If everyone we meet is made in God’s image who are we to denigrate them because of their identity? Moving to the Gospels, Jesus is clear that the most important thing to do is to love our neighbours either as we love ourselves or as we have been loved. Can we actually claim to love people if we do not accept key parts of who they are?

Last year at the Pride carnival a number of people expressed surprise that a church would have a booth there. Those comments did not surprise me. They did sadden me. Part of what I heard in those comments was a reflection that for many the church has been a place that is at best unfriendly, at worst openly hostile to LGBTQ+ folk. And it is an honest reflection. The church has to be honest enough to name that it has behaved hatefully toward LGBTQ+ people in the past and in the present. Usually based on a few pieces of Scripture paired with tradition and old biases.

The church has, in my opinion, been wrong. Just as the church has learned or is learning that traditional attitudes toward the role of women or racial differences were wrong the church needs to learn that God is calling us to a new understanding of the place of LGBTQ+ people in our faith communities. The church has done harm. The church needs to repent (which means more than name that we were wrong, to repent means we commit to going a new direction) of what has been done in the name of faith.

Earlier I said that the church, like the rest of humanity, is good at drawing lines to determine who is in or out. Online you can find cartoons by “NakedPastor” ( . The artist pushes us to ask where Jesus is leading us as people of faith. One of my favourites is one with a bunch of people drawing little boxes while Jesus is busy erasing them.

Humanity is created in God’s image. That is a holy statement. That is an affirmation that, unless you believe God makes mistakes, all of us carry the image of the divine. Jesus challenges, asks, commands us to love each other both as we love ourselves and as we have been loved by Jesus. Historically the church has gotten that wrong. The church has bee n a place where what we now call hate speech has been shared. Sometimes aimed at women, sometimes aimed at people of colour, sometimes aimed at our LGBTQ+ neighbours. We need to stop that. If our understanding of God leads us to act hatefully toward a neighbour based on gender, race, sexuality, or any other criteria then our understanding of God is flawed.

An old hymn reminds me that “the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind”. God is calling us to an expansive understanding of what it means to be a child of God. God is challenging to love each other. Happy Pride Month.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Looking Ahead to June 9, 2019 -- Pentecost Sunday

This week we mark Pentecost, the celebration of the Holy Spirit and the "birthday" of the Church.

We will also be celebrating the sacrament of Communion.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Galatians 5:22-26
  • Matthew 7:16-20
  • Acts 2:1-4
The Sermon title is You Got Spirit in You?

Early Thoughts: On that first Pentecost of the Christian Era God arrived. The Holy Spirit blew in and through the community of Jesus' disciples and transformed them completely.

That is what the Holy Spirit does, it changes how we see the world, how we live, how we interact with the world. And the people around us should be able to see that, they should notice and wonder we we act the way we do.  Hopefully they won't sneer and decide that we are drunk, as some did on that first Pentecost.

This past Easter season we took some time to look at some of what Paul says grows in us when the Spirit is a part of our lives. This week we are reminded of wisdom from Matthew "Thus you will know them by their fruits". Now Matthew has a bit of a judgement twist, has no sense that transformation is possible, but the great witness of our faith stories is that transformation is possible. When God works in us and others by the Spirit transformation happens. We proclaim that the Church is populated by people who have been born by water and the Spirit. I sometimes wonder if people see the Spirit at work in our lives?

So do you have the Spirit in you?  What sort of fruit do you bear?