Monday, July 10, 2017

Looking Ahead to July 16, 2017 -- The Conclusion of Ruth's story

This week we reach the end of our series on Ruth as we read chapter 4.

The Sermon title is Redeemed

Early Thoughts: As with any good story, in this final chapter the plot comes to a conclusion, the conflicts are resolved. Back in chapter one it was uncertain if the ending would be tragic or happy, but chapters 2 and 3 have been giving us ample clues and here we find that it is indeed a good news story.

In part this ending gives us a glimpse into a piece of Jewish custom (the business of who will redeem the land). In part this ending is a wrap-up of the story. And in part it is a launching point for the story of David (which is likely one of the reasons the text made it into the canon).

But there is something deeper too.  For the whole book we have watched Naomi as she has coped with the reality of loss. In chapter 1 she renamed herself Bitterness, even as Ruth proclaimed that she would remain faithful through all of life Naomi still found herself feeling empty. Throughout chapters 2 and 3 it has been unclear that Naomi comprehends the gift that Ruth has been -- focusing all that is good on the works of Boaz. Here, at the end, Naomi is told outright by the women of the village that Ruth is a greater gift than 7 sons. And maybe, as Naomi holds her newborn surrogate grandson she can see where the path to fullness has been all along.

Chapter 1 was about death and famine and emptiness. We have heard much about abundance throughout the rest of the book (directly in the form of grain, more symbolically in the burgeoning relationship between Ruth and Boaz). Now we are reminded that life wins, that life continues.  The land and family of Elimelech have been redeemed and restored. Life has won.

But where is God?

I have no doubt that some read the book of Ruth, get to the end, and presume that this is what God had planned all along. From the moment Elimelech took Naomi and Mahlon and Chilion to Moab God had this endpoint in view. I am not convinced God works quite that way. So where is God? Is God in the myriad acts of faithfulness and love which have pushed along the story of Ruth and Naomi and Boaz? Is God in the rules of life that created a space for Ruth and Naomi to find a life as childless widows? Is God in the healing of Naomi's empty heart?
--Gord

Monday, July 3, 2017

Stand Up Straight! (Newspaper Column for July 14)

Often when I was growing up my father would tell me to stand up straight, to stop slouching. I am not sure I ever listened all that well. Looking back I wonder why I slouched so much. Maybe I was tired, maybe I was lazy (this one gets my vote), or maybe there was another reason. Maybe something was bending me over.

One of my favourite healing stories in the Gospels is in Luke 13:10-17. In it Jesus heals a woman who has been bent over, unable to stand up straight, for 18 years. Luke tells it in such a way as to make us think it is about healing on the Sabbath, but I think it is about being set free from 18 years of bondage. And celebrating freedom is a big part of the life of faith.

The late theologian Marcus Borg lists the story of being set free from captivity as one of the meta-stories of Scripture. We find it most famously in the story of Moses and the Israelites fleeing from Egypt, but we also find it in the story of Jesus.Being freed is a large part of my understanding of the work Christ came to accomplish. So talking about being freed is hardly a small matter.

What do we need to be set free from today, in Grande Prairie in 2017? What has us bent over with a heavy load or left us chained? Is it possible that some of us don't even know we can be freed? Is it possible, or even likely, that we have been bound for so long that we think bondage is our normal, natural way of being?

Maybe a story...
In Junior high I was heavily bullied (admittedly I was a good target). And while I wasn't happy – not even close, there were days I was almost suicidal – there was a part of me that accepted how I felt as normal. And for years afterwards the chains remained, the chains that set me into a description of myself that was less than helpful.

Only when working with a therapist 15 years after the bullying did I really realize what had happened. We were using a technique that allowed or pushed me to remember the events of the past so I could process them. As I revisited the events of my teens something happened. I slumped lower and lower in the seat, my voice got quieter and quieter, I started feeling cold. As we talked about it afterwards, I realized not only how bent-over I had been but also that I had been freed. But for so many years I thought I couldn't be freed, that I was who I was and that couldn't happen. In hindsight I had been freed, the bonds were not there any longer. I just needed someone to tell me to “stand up straight” and find out that I was indeed free.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:30). In Christ God offers relief from our burdens. In Christ, God offers us freedom from bondage.

So what is bending you over? What is bending over your neighbours or family members? Where are the chains in our lives? How long have you been bent over? How long have you been in bondage? What would it look and feel like to be set free? Who will set you free, who offers release from bondage?

In an old hymn by George Duffield we read:
Stand up, stand up for Jesus, /stand in his strength alone; /the arm of flesh will fail you, /ye dare not trust your own. /Put on the gospel armor, /each piece put on with prayer; /where duty calls or danger, /be never wanting there.

Freedom is one of the greatest gifts the Messiah brings. Freedom from what oppresses or holds you down. Indeed that freedom is one of the ways we are brought back into loving relationship with God and neighbour, because only when we know that we are free can we openly give ourselves to deep relationship. In the strength of the Christ we are freed from our bondage. Armed with prayer and a relationship with God we are able to stand tall. When we know we are free, we can accomplish great things.

God is calling you to stand up straight. God is trying to break the chains that keep us from being who we were created to be. God knows what burdens and bonds are holding us back. Can we let God lead us into freedom? Can we hear God saying “let my people go!”? May God lead us on the road to freedom.


Looking Forward to July 9, 2017 -- Ruth 3, What happens on the threshing floor?

This week we continue our tour through the book of Ruth as we explore chapter 3.

The Sermon title to go with this chapter is The Threshing Floor

Early Thoughts: The romance, which started to bud while Ruth was gleaning in the fields of Boaz in chapter 2, starts to blossom...

Or at least it moves to a new phase.

Naomi, in essence, counsels Ruth to seduce Boaz. After the party to celebrate the end of harvest, after Boaz has eaten and drunk his fill and lies down to sleep it off, Ruth is to go and uncover his feet. It is worth noting that feet may be feet. Feet may also be something a little higher up on the male anatomy.

The seduction is accepted. Boaz throws his cloak over Ruth, a sign of placing her under his protection (if nothing else). And as a kinsman of Elimelech Boaz is an appropriate husband for Ruth to allow the continuation of the family of Naomi and Elimelech. There is, however another closer option. But we will learn more about him in chapter 4.

Then we return to the abundance. AS Ruth leaves in the morning (early enough that folk will not know she slept on the threshing floor) Boaz gives her 6 measures of grain.

Boaz continues to be struck by Ruth's faithfulness. Boaz shows signs of being a model of faithfulness himself. Naomi is still on the fence. Has she yet seen the gift that Ruth is or is she still stuck in her bitterness phase? At least she is showing signs of worrying about Ruth's future as well as her own. But where is God? How is God active in this chapter of the story?

THat is the question for this Sunday...
--Gord

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Summer Newsletter

What are our Big Rocks??

On the first Sunday of August 2010, the first time I led worship here at St. Paul’s, I shared this story:
As this man stood in front of the group of high-powered over-achievers he said, "Okay, time for a quiz." Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.
When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, "Is this jar full?" Everyone in the class said, "Yes." Then he said, "Really?" He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.
Then he smiled and asked the group once more, "Is the jar full?" By this time the class was onto him. "Probably not," one of them answered. "Good!" he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, "Is this jar full?"
"No!" the class shouted. Once again he said, "Good!" Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. (http://www.appleseeds.org/Big-Rocks_Covey.htm)

What is the point of the story?
Some people say that the story tells us that there is always room to add more. These people tend to be the ones who are so busy they are working themselves to dis-ease.
The point of the story is to add the big rocks first. We have to know what the most important pieces are before we start worrying about the little ones, because given the chance the little stuff will fill up our jar and there is no room for the big stuff.

I told that story 7 years ago for a reason. As we started a new relationship I wanted us to be clear about what the top priority items were, where we needed to spend the brunt of our energy. Now I want us to have the discussion again.

A few weeks ago I was looking at the “rogues gallery” in the narthex. And as I looked I realized that over the last 30 years St. Paul’s has called a new minister every 5-9 years. That means that at regular intervals the congregation has, in whatever way the United Church structured it at the time, had a chance to ask itself what its priorities are, what the ministry needs of the congregation and community are. Key questions as we strive to be the church God calls us to be in Grande Prairie.

It is my belief that in a changing world we need to intentionally ask ourselves these sort of questions. I know that I personally am really good at getting into a pattern, or routine, or even a rut. I think communities have the same tendency. We keep on as we have been going. Unless we ask if this is the best way to keep going that is.

At most of our meetings Council takes time to have some sort of visioning conversation. One of the results of those conversations has been the revival of a Pastoral Visiting Team. This fall Council is going (they agreed to this at our June meeting) to work at bringing the rest of the congregation into that visioning discussion. As a prelude to this I asked them to think about the big rocks.

Now I ask you. What are the key things we do as a congregation? What are the big things you feel God is calling us to do as we move forward to meet the spiritual needs of those inside the building and the community which surrounds us?

God has called us to be the church in such a time as this. God is challenging us to be clear about why we are here. What are you hearing?
GORD

PS: I have some dreams. But I want to hear yours first.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Looking Ahead to July 2, 2017 -- A reflection of #Canada150

This Sunday we will celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism.

The Scripture passages we will hear are:
  • Psalm 72:1-14
  • Jeremiah 29:4-9
The Sermon title is What Kind of Nation?

Early Thoughts: National holidays are a bit of a conundrum in the church.  On the one hand (many would say the dominant hand) we in the church are called to recognize an allegiance beyond nationality, we are called to be citizens of the Kingdom first and Canadians (or Americans or British or...) second. On the other hand, when something is a large event (celebration even) can we truly ignore it?

Then there are questions about whose party it is....

On July 1, 2017 we recognize 150 of a political entity. 150 years since a group of British colonies officially joined together to form the Dominion of Canada. That is what the day commemorates. Technically you could say that the day is only #Canada150 for Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia since all other provinces joined later.

We are not commemorating the length of time Europeans have been present on the continent (Montreal marks 375 years since Ville-Marie was founded this year, and other communities are older than that). And to be really obvious, our Indigenous neighbours have been on the continent for 1000's of years before that. We are not even marking 150 years of colonization (though the reality is that colonization have been an integral part of our history) since that too goes back long before Confederation. We are marking 150 years of a political entity, nothing more, nothing less.

But even then, how do we bring our faith to bear on the commemoration? After all, despite what some people may claim, Canada is not a "Christian nation". We have no national religion, no national church. Our laws are not shaped to conform with any one theological position. So what does our faith have to say about what it means to be Canadian?

This is when I start to think it would have been easier to not build a service to reflect on #Canada150....

But the reality is that something is missing from all the party preparations. There has been, in the official resources, a focus on celebrating what Canada has accomplished -- as evidenced in April when we heard all about the battle of Vimy Ridge on it's centennial -- but a lack of encouragement to stop and reflect on who we are as a country, how we have gotten here, and at what cost. I believe that as people of faith, as people who are called to be citizens of a larger Kingdom, as people who have a faith story which points us to a way to live in community we are placed to have that reflection. SO that is part of what we do this weekend.

And then I remembered the passage for Jeremiah. As their world is crashing around them, as they are being lead off into exile, the people have a choice. They can lament. They can resist. They can make life miserable. Or they can, as Jeremiah says, " 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.". AS citizens of the Kingdom who happen to reside in and are governed by the nation of Canada I think that Jeremiah's challenge lies before us as well. We need to seek the welfare of the nation, as residents of a democratic society to seek the welfare of our communities is to be active in helping to shape those communities.

So I ask: What kind of nation do we want Canada to be? How does the nation Canada currently is reflect those aspirations, and how does it vary from them?

In order to seriously ask those question we need to take seriously that a large number of people who live within the political entity are not celebrating this year. We need to take seriously the ways that Canada has not been a nation of which we can be proud and ask how we can do better.

WHat does our faith say about how we live together?
--Gord

Monday, June 19, 2017

Looking Forward to June 25, 2017 -- Ruth in the Fields of Boaz

This is the second of 4 Sundays where we are exploring the book of Ruth and so we will be reading Ruth 2.

The Sermon title is Gleaning

By Léon Augustin Lhermitte - lhermitte, Public Domain

 Early Thoughts: Within the Torah are commandment about caring for the vulnerable in the community. Within the rules of living together are guidelines about ensuring that all have access to resources. In the book of Leviticus we read:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien, You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien (Lev 23:22. Lev 19:10)
Ruth has come to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi. They are both widowed, Ruth is a Moabite, an alien, a foreigner. How will they make a living?

For most of human history their choices would be few. Arguably even today, in most places on the planet, their choices would be limited. Luckily in Jewish law there is an option. They can glean. They can walk behind the harvest crew and collect the missed grain.

Surely no farmer seeking to maximize his income would allow such grain to lie in the fields. Surely the prudent approach to farming would be to send a crew out to gather what was missed, that it too might get put into the barn, any good farmer would harvest right to the edge of the field. Right?

Unless care for the community, care for the vulnerable is made a priority. Then you might do things like leave some grain in the fields so that those who need it can come and get it for themselves.

At any rate, Ruth goes out to glean. And it appears she makes an impression on Boaz, the owner of the field where she ends up.  Is it love at first sight? Is it, as stated in the text, because Boaz has heard reports of Roth's faithfulness and devotion to Naomi? Is it God moving behind the scenes, stirring in the heart of Boaz? At any rate Boaz not only allows Ruth to glean in his fields but he ensures that her gleaning will be very profitable.

In the brokenness of her life, in her time of need, Ruth finds great abundance. Abundance which she then carries back to share with Naomi. Where there is abundance fighting against need and scarcity, is that a place where we see God?

WE have times of brokenness. We have times where something in our lives seems scarce. Where can we glean for what we need in abundance? Where is God's grace waiting to be found?
--Gord

Monday, June 5, 2017

Looking Ahead to June 11, 2017 -- We begin to explore Ruth

Over the next 6 weeks we will be taking time to explore the 4 chapters of the book of Ruth. This week we begin by reading and looking at Ruth 1.

The Sermon title is Family Bonds

Early Thoughts: What do you do when life falls apart? On whom can you rely?

For most of human history the first place you would look would be family. Family is the group that provides support (in theory at least, there have always been stories where family has been distinctly less than supportive). For most of human history family (extended to clan and tribe, not just our modern nuclear family) has been the social safety net.

Naomi has had her life torn apart. She and her family flee their home as economic refugees (ironically Bethlehem, the House of Bread, is hit by famine). The settle in a new land. Then her husband and both sons die, leaving 3 widows. What is one to do?

Naomi (who we will learn is as much of the heroine of this story as Ruth is) goes home. Assuredly there are still family there who will take her in, because that is what family does. But what about these daughters-in-law? What family are they a part of now? If they remain with Naomi Jewish law suggests that they need to marry within the family of Elimelech, preferably to an as-yet-unborn brother of their husband, to maintain the name and line of Elimelech. Naomi knows this is a dubious proposition.

So she releases them. Go home, find new husbands, live prosperous and happy lives. By all accounts this is the path of wisdom, however much it may break Naomi's heart to do so. One woman agrees. The other has changed her family loyalty already. And so Ruth refuses to go. This is a different type of wisdom, some might even call it foolishness.

In the ancient (and not so ancient if we are honest) world, to be a widow with no sons [and little or no financial resources -- money has always made a difference] put one in a highly precarious position. Unless you can find a source of support you will either starve or be forced to less than honorable ways of making a living. Ruth is taking a great risk. But her love of and commitment to her mother-in-law appears to leave her no choice.

In the next weeks we will learn how Ruth and Naomi will fare. But this week we only get this far. Ruth's statement of commitment (arguably the best known verse in the entire book) and love that contradicts and stares down Naomi's sacrificial loving offer. Life has fallen apart for this family unit. Where do they look for support?

And where is God in all this? [Because the text does not actually say anything about God]
--Gord