Monday, May 21, 2018

Looking Forward to May 27, 2018

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Psalm 1 (VU p.724)
  • 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 4:6-10
  • Luke 2: 40, 52
The Sermon title is Live, Learn, Grow

Early Thoughts: What did you learn today? I remember being asked that question as I returned to my billet following a Presbytery meeting 16 years ago. The premise behind it was that any day on which you learned something was not a waste. I have always liked that premise (though I am not sure that I can accurately say that I learn something every day....).

In the song "If I Were a Rich Man" Tevye shares many dreams about what would happen if he had a small fortune. One of those dreams is that he would have the "time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray, and maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall. And I'd discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day. That would be the sweetest thing of all." One of his fondest dreams is to have the time to learn and grow in his faith. In this I hear echos of Psalm 1 which describes the rooted-ness of those whose delight is in the Law, in the gift of God's Word.

A paragraph or two ago I said I was not sure I learned something every day. I am about to hedge on that a bit. I think we do learn things everyday. I am not sure we can help but learn something. Because as we live we learn. If in no other school than the school of experience (I used to have a book with a title something like If Experience is the Best Teacher How Come I Keep Taking the Course). Of course not all the things we learn that way are helpful or healthy or desirable. However if we are going to grow as individuals we need to keep learning. In the end, we only grow deeper in faith by learning: learning about the faith story, learning about ourselves, learning where/how/why our story intersects the faith story, learning how we experience God's presence in our lives.

So what have you learned lately?

This Sunday we mark the end of our Sunday School program year. And we thank those who have offered their time and energy to provide leadership in that program. But we hope that learning continues over the summer. As people of faith, when we learn about ourselves we have the chance to learn about God as well. As people of faith we have a duty to try and focus our learning in the way that the writer of 1 Timothy suggests "you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness, ... For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe."

What might you learn over the summer?

Together let us continue to live and learn and grow in faith, in wisdom, in love.

PS: the sermon this Sunday will very likely contain a story about the first time I took part in the act of preaching...

Monday, May 14, 2018

Looking Ahead to May 20, 2018 -- Pentecost Sunday

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • Acts 2:1-21
  • Philippians 4:4-9
The Sermon title is Keep Calm and Keep On

Early thoughts: How can we continue to be the church? In a world of change how can we keep being something that has been around for 2000 years?

A couple of thoughts come to mind from our passages for this week.

One is that the Spirit is still blowing around this crazy world of ours, calling forth faith and courage. The Spirit still breaks into closed (even locked) spaces and sets itself free -- freeing people in the process.

The other is that if we honestly still believe that God is with us we are still called to "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice". Paul wrote to the Philippians from prison, but even then he did not give up on the church. It is not always easy to be the church (some might argue that it should never be "easy" to be the church). But still we are called to be the church.

We keep the faith. We try to keep calm, to avoid panic, to avoid giving in to "the church is dying" rhetoric (even if we half fear those statements might be true). And we keep on.

Not always in the same way. But with the same vision in mind. We focus on the vision, we focus on the Gospel, we focus on the God revealed in the faith story and we keep on being the church. We might use different language or different tools or different styles than our parents and grandparents (or even different ones than we ourselves used a few decades ago). We might put the emphasis on different parts of the story. We might even change our understanding of how God is calling us to react to some things. But we keep on. We keep looking for those things that are true and honourable and commendable. And we keep on being the church.

Centuries ago the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Risen Christ blew into the hearts and souls and lives of a small group of people and transformed them. They then went out to share a story that would transform the lives of dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of others. The same Spirit  blows in our world today. Are we ready to keep on being the church?

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

May/June Newsletter

Why?!? Why me? Why them? Why now?

Sometimes I think those are some of the most honest questions of faith. When the world does not make sense, when things do not seem fair there is a part of us that turns to God and asks “WHY?”.

I find myself asking those questions a lot lately. Like at least once a week in response to a news story. After all in April alone we have had: a bus crash in Saskatchewan, a chemical weapon attack in Syria, a bombing attack on weapons facilities in Syria, the van massacre in Toronto. And there are ongoing tragedies that we almost forget to notice anymore (teen suicides in First Nations communities. Murder and Missing Indigenous Women, the opioid crisis...)

If God is good and God is in charge (both assertions that come from Scripture and from our faith tradition) then why do tragedies still happen? And how do we react?

We ask why both at the “how could this have happened, what circumstances led to it” level and also in our search for meaning. Faith can not help us understand how two vehicles can be in the same intersection at the same time, or how a young man can have his assault rifle confiscated twice and still get it back to shoot up a Waffle House. But faith can, we hope and trust, help us deal with the questions of meaning. After all it has been trying to do so for millenia. People have long been wrestling with the whys of tragedy (both accidental and intentional).

Faith pushes us to ask why a whole sub-population of our society feels so isolated and alone and hurt that they see mass murder as an option. Faith pushes us to ask where God is as young people are taken from their families too soon. Faith pushes us to ask if anyone is in charge to prevent these things from happening. Unfortunately faith has yet to help us find any easy answers, some might say faith has yet to help us find any satisfactory answers.

[Excursus: The formal theological name for these sorts of discussions is theodicy. On my shelf are two books by Biblical Scholar Bart Ehrman who has named that the inability to find a satisfactory answer to questions of theodicy are what led him away from Christian faith. These questions about why evil and tragedy exist/happen are make or break for some people.]

The library we call Scripture contains many stories of people wrestling with tragedy. A prime example is the book of Job. Job has his life destroyed, his ‘friends’ ask what he did wrong to have this happen and Job insists this is not just. In the process the book of Job pushes us to look at questions of why (and the answers given are not great – I have always felt that the story of Job is one where God does not come off as a very positive character). Harold Kushner used the book of Job as a resource in writing his book When Bad things Happen to Good People, a book I first read almost 30 years ago and intend to read again this month.

Because I think these why questions are so important I am planning that we will spend the month of June (and the first two weeks of July) looking at the book of Job in worship and sermon. I want us to explore what we believe about tragedy and about God’s role in allowing/causing/witnessing tragedy and evil in the world. [I suspect that by mid-June I may be wondering why I took on such heavy questions.]

What do you think? When you have nothing to say but as why what answers come to your mind? Let’s explore them together.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Looking Forward to April 29, 2018 -- Easter 5, Paul in Athens

Because the Youth Group is leading worship the first Sunday of May we will be celebrating Communion this week instead of May 6.

The Scripture reading for this week is Acts 17:16-34

The Sermon title is The Unknown God

Early Thoughts:  How do you explain Christianity to people with no idea of the background?  What if they have a totally different culture, different poets, different understandings of the Divine, different thought processes? Would simply tell the story and hope it sinks in?

Paul shows that he knows a different way. Greek philosophical types are not likely to be swayed by references to Jewish Scripture (which is the tool used early in the book of Acts by Peter preaching to people in Jerusalem) so Paul shapes the message in ways that will interact with what they know. And apparently it piques their interest, at least for some who say they want to hear more.

This has been the challenge for any faith that tries to spread itself beyond the place where it was founded. How do we cross a cultural boundary? How do we make ourselves relate to this new people without insisting that they become like us? Christianity has a mixed record on that. At times, like Paul in Athens, the church has done it well. At others it has been a little heavy handed. Other times it has opened itself to accusations of cultural appropriation (from a modern viewpoint at least).

I think that the question is opening itself again. For generations, even centuries, in the Western World we have assumed that people had some familiarity with the story. We assumed that we shared enough culture that we could tell the story using all the old tools and people would be drawn in.  I suspect we have over-estimated how true this is for a few decades now--and that it is getting less true all the time.

Earlier today I saw this picture, it reminds me of the attitude we need to bring if we want to share the Christian story, message, and hope with a culture that is differnt from what we know, or what we want it to be: 

How do we tell the story today? What new images do we need to borrow and recast? What new poets do we need to quote in a new light? God remains known only in part, God remains unknown (and unknowable) in part. What is our message about the Unknown God in the marketplaces of Grande Prairie?

Monday, April 16, 2018

Looking Forward to April 22, 2018 -- Easter 4, Saul/Paul on the Damascus Road

The Scripture reading this week is Acts 9:1-22

The Sermon title is Open Your Eyes!

Early Thoughts: God is doing a new thing! Why is it so hard to see that? In this week's passage both Saul and Ananias have to have their eyes opened (in Saul's case quite literally).

By this point in the story we have already met Saul.  We saw him standing and approving as Stephen was stoned, then we are told that he was an avid persecutor of the new community. But then he experiences the presence of the Risen Christ and changes to an avid proselytizer for this new thing God has done/is doing.

All we are told about Ananias is that he is a disciple.  It would seem a logical guess to think he might have been a person of some importance within the Christian community in Damascus. God calls on him to bring Saul into the fold. But Ananias knows Saul...surely God must be joking? or God is mistaken? This horrible man who is out to destroy us, you want me to go to him? But Ananias does so and God's ability to change people is revealed. I do note that because the story is about Saul we do not know what Ananias thinks of the end result.

The work of the Risen Christ is to transform people. Sometimes that transformation is to bring the outsider, even the violent opposition, into the fold. Sometimes that transformation is to remind us that God can call and use "even them" in the work of the Kingdom.

What are the new things we might miss because we are too set in our understandings of how God is at work? Where do we need our eyes to be opened?  And what will it take to make that happen

Monday, April 9, 2018

Looking Ahead to April 15, 2018 -- Easter 3, Jesus by the Lakeshore

The Scripture reading this week is John 21:1-25

The Sermon title is Gone Fishing

Early Thoughts: The world is changed, but sometimes we just want to go back to what we know best...

But once touched by Easter can we ever truly go home again?

Not if you are Peter. By now we have had multiple appearance stories in John's Gospel.  Jesus has been seen and spoken with 3 times in Chapter 20. But still the Disciples have yet to become ready to go out and share the story. They have gone back to the beginning, back to where it all started [although strictly speaking John's Gospel does not have a story of the fishers being called by the lakeshore at the beginning of the story -- unlike Matthew Mark and Luke]. And once there I get the sense they are not sure what to do next.

So Peter goes fishing. It is what he knows best. Is he trying to get back to what once was? Is he seeking comfort in the familiar? Is he trying to earn a bit of money? Is he just trying to fill time with something because otherwise life is just too difficult?  We don't know.

What we are told is that the fishing was not good. Total failure in fact. A whole night of nothing. The some stranger comes by and makes a suggestion: "try the other side". Because every fisher likes to be given helpful advice from some stranger walking by. Right?

The miraculous catch that ensues reveals who the stranger is.  "It is the Lord!"  And then Peter and Christ have this shore lunch exchange about love and service. It is often suggested that the threefold declaration of love is John's counter to Peter's threefold denial during the passion story.

What does this story tell us about Easter?

One is that once having experienced Easter we can't go back to doing things the same old way. We have to be ready to "try the other side". Because life has been changed and so we also have been changed (if we let ourselves be changed).

The other is that as followers of the Risen Christ we have to remember that love is a verb. It is not enough to love Christ, we also have to follow him, we also have to put love into practice by caring for those whom God loves.

The second point pushes us to ask how we care for the lambs and sheep as commanded by the Good Shepherd. How do we respond when there is a chemical attack (again) in Syria? How do we respond to the reality that Grande Prairie has such a high rate of overdose deaths in the midst of the opiod crisis? How do we care for our neighbours near and far?

The first point pushes us to ask if we are truly open to being transformed. Often we really want things to go back to the "good old days" rather than be introduced to the "good new days". We are reluctant to admit we need to try the other side. Where do we, as individuals, as a community of faith, as a larger community need to be open for change? Where do we need to stop doing things the way we always have done?

Monday, April 2, 2018

Between Death and Life (a piece for the Newspaper)

In my line of work I am often asked “ready for Sunday yet?” Normally my response is something like “sort of”. But at this time of year I think the question is really quite apt. Are we ready for Sunday? Are we ready for resurrection to be revealed and the world to be changed? Or are we really spending our time living on Saturday, to stay in the space between death and life.

Holy Saturday, the time of waiting does not get a lot of attention. Some churches have prayer vigils on that day, but many use the time to change the decorations from the sombreness of Lent and Good Friday to the brightness that will accompany the Easter celebration. But we need to stop in that time in-between time, we need to ponder what it means to exist in the time between death and life.

There is a cartoon that popped up in my Facebook memories as Easter approached this year. It was about “Schrödinger's Easter” and said that as long as the tomb remains closed Jesus can be seen as both dead and alive. (The reference is to a thought experiment called Schrödinger's Cat and I only know that courtesy of Sheldon Cooper and The Big Bang Theory.) I think it is a great way to describe Saturday living. Dead or alive?

Jesus is dead. They watched him die. But we who know the rest of the story know that on Sunday morning the tomb will be empty. There us a temptation to jump to the end. Even as we tell the story of the death we want to jump to the end, because it makes us feel better to celebrate life than to name and feel the reality of death. I want us to stop and spend time in the in-between.

Being in the in-between allows us to name the reality of death and loss. Remaining in the in-between allows us to feel the reality of death and loss. I know it is not often a comfortable place to be but maybe it is the time spent in the in-between that opens us up for the transforming power of resurrection. Because, in the end, Easter changes everything. Unlike Lazarus, Jesus is not resuscitated, he is resurrected and transformed. Truth be told, I think most people actually look for resuscitation.

One of the biggest challenges about resurrection is that it means transformation. The Easter stories in the Gospel make it clear that people had trouble recognizing the Risen Christ. In a very real way the man they met in the garden or on the road to Emmaus was different from the man they had seen led out to be killed. It was not just life being breathed back into the old body and the stopped heart restarted. Jesus had been transformed; the new life after Easter was not the same as life before the cross.

The same can be said for Jesus’ followers. Before they experienced resurrection they were afraid, hiding, certain they would be next for the cross. Afterwards they were filled with strength and courage, able to launch a movement that would reach from a tiny Roman province to the center of the world and beyond. The transformation was complete and world-changing.

To embrace new life means we have to stop looking for the old life to return. To open ourselves to the possibility of resurrection life means that we need to be ready to be surprised (although that does sound like a contradictory sentence). Nobody expects resurrection, it comes out of left field and surprises us with a life we had not foreseen. Saturday time, the liminal space between death and life, gives us the space to let go of old hopes as we stand on the threshold of something new.

Maybe we need an economic resurrection? Not just the resuscitation of the way we have been for decades but a transformed way of living with each other. Maybe we are struggling with addictions, and we need to let that part of our life be killed so that healing can occur? Maybe we have been aiming at the wrong goals and now need to let those things fall away so we can work toward goals that bring fuller life? Where do you need death and resurrection in your personal life? Where do we need death and resurrection in our corporate life? Can we sit in the in-between to give God space to bring new life and hope?

Blessed Easter to all. Beyond the fear and uncertainty of Saturday time, the space between death and life, may we all find the promise, the hope, the joy of Sunday’s dawn.