Monday, November 20, 2017

Newspaper COlumn for December 1

Is There a Place this Year?
Let’s start with a story (I like stories):
The wind gusted, sending the fresh snow swirling around the lamp post. Miriam shivered, pulling the thin coat tighter around her chest. “Gonna be a cold one tonight,” she muttered, squinting through the darkness.

A little further down the block was the big old church. Miriam remembered going there as a child, remembered the beautiful stained glass windows. Suddenly a friendly voice boomed in her ear. “Merry Christmas! Please come and join us for worship!”

Miriam looked around, wondering who the cheerful man was talking to. Surely it couldn’t be her. Christmas Eve was a special service, someone wearing an old coat and wrapped in a hand-me-down blanket didn’t fit in with the fancy dresses and bright lights. But there was nobody else around. “Ar-are you talking to m-m-me?” she asked.

“Of course my dear,” the greeter replied. “Come in and warm up at least.” Miriam could hardly believe her ears; certainly a chance to get out of the wind was welcome. Gratefully she made her way up the old stone stairs and snuck into a pew way at the back of the sanctuary, just as the opening notes of the first hymn were being played.

As she listened to the familiar old carols Miriam couldn’t help remembering the Christmases of her childhood. Things were so much happier, so much simpler then. “What had gone wrong?” she muttered to herself. Then the pageant started. Watching Mary and Joseph get turned away from the inn Miriam felt her heart reach out to them. She knew what it meant to have nowhere to go.

After the service, Miriam started to wrap herself in the blanket again and sneak out without being seen. No luck. The greeter was right there beside her again. “Where will you sleep tonight?” he asked. Miriam said nothing, just looked away.

Finally she looked up, “I don’t know, there was no place at the shelter.”

“Well that will never do” the young man said. He paused for a moment then a smile came back to his face. “Please come to my parent’s house with me,” he said. The story we just heard reminds us that there should always be a place somewhere.

It might have been a trick of the light and wind. But at that moment Miriam was sure that the greeter’s face was shining, just like the angel in the window behind her. And somewhere she heard voices singing “Hallelujah!”…

We lose it in the lights and the carols. We focus on the baby in the manger or the angels on the hillside, or on the man this baby will become, and we lose it. We lose sight of the fact that Christmas comes to the least and lowest. In the New Revised Standard Version of Luke’s Christmas story we are told that Jesus is laid in the manger because there was no place for them in the inn. Not just the inn was full but there was no place, they did not belong. Then then angels appear to shepherds, dirty smelly shepherds who also did not belong in polite society (at least not without a bath). Where was the place for them?

Miriam was sure she didn’t belong either. But she was told otherwise, she was invited in.

Christmas is not about trees and lights and presents and carols. Christmas is about God joining in with our life. And Luke tells us that God chooses to do that with people who don’t belong, with people who don’t have a place, with those on the outskirts of their world. Christmas reminds us that in God’s eyes all have a place, in fact that those at the bottom have a special place in God’s eyes.

Over 40 years ago Miriam Therese Winter (of the Medical Mission Sisters) wrote these lyrics:
On a dark day deep in December, grinding the poverty, grey was the morn.
Only the clean of heart still can remember the day and the moment when Jesus was born.
On a dark day deep in the present, grinding the loneliness and plight of the poor.
Only the clean of heart dare to remember, the poor were His Gospel and their hope is sure

From Mary’s song of revolution, to the birth of Jesus and on through the preaching and teaching of Jesus it is obvious that God’s plan is for there to be a place for all – even (or perhaps especially) if established understandings and hierarchies have to be destroyed first. We are still waiting for it to happen. Maybe this Christmas it will start.

If Christmas happened in Grande Prairie in 2017 who would fill the parts? Is there a place for everybody in our Christmas celebrations? In our life as a community?

Looking Forward to November 26, 2017 -- Reign of Christ Sunday, Light in the Darkness

This Sunday we will be celebrating the sacrament of Baptism.

The Scripture Reading for this week is Isaiah 9:2-7 [in the Tanakh it is actually Isaiah 9:1-6 as they put the chapter break at a different place].

A little Handel for your day:

The Sermon title is Dawn.

Early Thoughts: This is a passage that is often read during the Advent-Christmas season. And to Christian ears (after almost 2000 years of teaching) all those words about light in the darkness and the child being born and the coming reign of peace do sound very Christ-like. 

I hunch that is not what Isaiah (or his original hearers) had in mind. In fact some commentators think that Isaiah is referring to Hezekiah, king of Judah.

IN the preceding chapters of Isaiah we learn that the nation is under threat. When a nation is under threat there are people who get very gloomy. If the threat is dire enough (or the people are made to believe it is dire enough) the communal mood becomes dark. [And history has shown that in these periods of darkness communities and nations can be lead to do horrific things, though Isaiah does not say that Judah follows that path.]

In the middle of the fear and gloom Isaiah brings a word of hope.  In 7:14-16 he tells King Ahaz:
Therefore Adonai himself
will give you people a sign:
the young woman* will become pregnant,
bear a son and name him ‘Immanu El [God is with us].
15 By the time he knows enough
to refuse evil and choose good,
he will [have to] eat
curdled milk and [wild] honey.
16 Yes, before the child knows enough
to refuse evil and choose good,
the land whose two kings you dread
will be left abandoned.
Promising that the threat will be short-lived, that the armies which are threatening Judah will fade away.

Then we have our passage of the week. A promise that light will dawn, a promise of release from oppression [the reference to the day of Midian points back to the book of Judges and the story of Gideon].

Where do we look for dawn today? What darkness threatens to overtake our world?

This is the last Sunday of the Christian year. On the last Sunday of the year we celebrate the Reign of Christ even as we acknowledge that we have come to the end of another year and the Reign of Christ/Kingdom of God has not yet grown to full flower in the world around us. Next week we begin the season of Advent, a time both of preparing for Christmas but also a time of preparing for the coming of the Kingdom of God in full flower. We look at the darkness and we celebrate the promise of light.

Light in the darkness. Dawn is coming. We know darkness. We know those things that bring fear. Deep in our hearts we know that when we are afraid it is harder to be who God has called us to be. But dawn is coming. The kingdom of God is birthing.  We are people of hope, or at least we are called to be people of hope. 

Where do we look for the first rays of dawn?

PS: I think this is a riff off of the chorus of the dame name from Handel's Messiah..but it sure has a different musical feel:

Monday, November 13, 2017

Looking Ahead to November 19, 2017 -- Valley of Dry Bones

Following worship this Sunday there will be a potluck lunch.  Join us for this time of food and fellowship.

The Scripture reading for this week is Ezekiel 37:1-14

Complete with props for Children's Time.
The Sermon title is Can These Bones Live?

Early Thoughts: Ezekiel stands in a place reeking of death and despair and he looks for signs of hope and life.  Or more to the point, God leads Ezekiel to a place of death and asks if there is life.

Near the end of Lord of the Rings, after the battles have been fought and won, Gandalf takes the new king out to a desolate place. Aragorn asks for a sign of hope that his line will endure and Gandalf tells him to turn away from the city and look out into the desolation, where all seems dead. There Aragorn sees a seedling of the White Tree, a sign of the continuing line of Elendil. He finds his hope, not in the battle victory, or in his coronation, or in the celebrations of his people, but in the middle of a dead plain.

Similarly Ezekiel is looking for hope. His people have been enslaved and exiled. Their temple and city have been destroyed. They wonder if they have bee cut off from or forgotten by God. And God gives him a vision of skeletons lying jumbled in a ditch. "Mortal, can these bones live?"

Transformation needs us to be open to the Spirit's work within us. Transformation means we need to be able to give the same answer Ezekiel gave "O Lord God, you know". The bones were not alive even when reassembled and covered in flesh. They were only alive when the ruah, the Spirit that first moved over the waters of creation, the breath of life, was blown into them. For full transformation, for full resurrection, we need to let the winds of God fill us and change us. Are we ready to be transformed? Are we ready to look in the desolate places for new signs of life?

It is easy to lose hope. It is easy to think that death and decay will win. Ezekiel reminds us that God brings life, brings resurrection,  brings hope.  Where do you see God's transforming power bringing new life today?

Monday, November 6, 2017

Looking Ahead to November 12, 2017 -- Justice that Flows Like Water

The Scripture reading this week is Amos 5:1-15, 21-24.

The Sermon title is Flood time?

Early Thoughts: Sometimes we need a good strong washing to allow for new growth to follow. Sometimes we feel like we are in a drought, and are crying out for that flow of water.

It seems a little strange to say, but I have always liked Amos. Not that taking the words of Amos seriously is a cause for comfort -- just the opposite in fact. But something about Amos has always struck me as special. I  think it is his passion for justice, his passionate denunciation of the world in which he finds himself that attracts me so much.

At the same time I think we could use some more Amos in the world today. I think many of his complaints are just as viable in 2017 as the were in the time of Kings Jeroboam and Uzziah.

We live in a world where people are shot in a plaza in Las Vegas while attending a concert, where a vehicle mows down people on a walking path in New York, where others are shot while attending worship in Texas. We live in a world where some live high on the hog while others are barely paid a living wage and others sleep in shelters or in doorways. Are thoughts and prayers the only things we can offer?

Don't get me wrong, thoughts and prayers are important. But if we stop there are we showing that we love the good and hate the evil as Amos exhorts? Or are we setting ourselves up for his next words "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps"

What might it look like if justice came down like waters? What would it mean if the everflowing stream of righteousness flowed through and nourished  our culture?

I see two image of water in those words. The first is the flood. Th rush of water that washes away many things. What might the flood of Justice wash away -- no matter how tightly we want to hold on? The other image is the constant steady flow of water that gives life. As people of faith we proclaim that Righteousness is a mainstay of God's kingdom. How do we feed and nourish those signs of righteousness, of justice, of peace so that the Kingdom will continue to grow in our hearts and in our world?

Takes more than thoughts and prayers.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Looking Ahead to November 5, 2017 -- The Sound of Still Silence

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

The Scripture reading this week is 1 Kings 19:1-18

The Sermon title is Hush Children! What’s that Sound?

Early Thoughts: Sometimes what you really need is silence. Sometimes you need to force yourself to pause and leave space for God to enter.

From his perspective at least, Elijah is fighting a losing battle. King Ahab and his Queen Jezebel are leading the people into apostasy, turning to the old local religion rather than remaining faithful to the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Just before this week's reading Elijah has had a "miracle-off" with a few hundred prophets of Baal and after winning the challenge proceeded to kill them all. Unsurprisingly, this does not win the favour of the Queen who promises to kill Elijah in return.  So Elijah flees into the wilderness, heading south out of Ahab's Kingdom of Israel through the Kingdom of Judah.

SIDEBAR: Many important things happen "in the wilderness" in the Scripture story. It is a common location.

Despite his low feeling (he really suggests it is time for him to die) Elijah is led to the holy mountain. God provides food for the journey of 40 days and 40 nights before Elijah arrives at Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. (which brings out echos of the Exodus story)

SIDEBAR #2: Many important things happen on mountains in the Scripture story, it is another favoured location (particularly in the Gospel of Matthew).

Here Elijah has a theophany, a time where God's presence is revealed. What is interesting, given the references already made to the Exodus story, is where God is found. In Exodus God is revealed in a pillar of fire, in the crashing of thunder, in signs and wonders. In the "miracle-off" God was revealed in fire falling from heaven God being revealed in an earthquake makes sense. But Elijah does not find God in any of these things. Instead God is found in what the KJV translates as the "still small voice", the NRSV translates as the "sound of sheer silence", and a newer translation (the Common English Bible -- CEB) puts as "After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet." (translation notes from here). It is at that point that Elijah makes himself ready for the word of God.

I think Elijah needed to be reminded to pause. The story up to this point is full of action and volume. Elijah is both panicked and depressed. The sound (or lack thereof) seems to start  breaking his panic and his depression. Not immediately because the next words out of his mouth will be to once again recount the horrible situation in which he finds himself. But it begins. Some would find that if God was not found in the fire or the earthquake or the mighty wind then the still silence is an odd place to look. Some would start to assume the God is absent (and there is a long tradition of people with deep spirituality having long periods where God seems absent).

But for whatever reason that is where, in this instance, Elijah finds God. ANd that brings a question for me...

Are we ready to look for God in places and ways we do not expect? Is there a part of us that wants the strong wind or the earthquake or the fiery pillar, that wants the signs and wonders and so we miss the still small voice?

We lie in a world where silence is often seen as the enemy. There is almost always a soundtrack to our lives. Get a group of people together to sit in silence and it is not long before it feels uncomfortable. But we can teach ourselves to be comfortable with silence, we can learn to pause and leave the space where something else can happen. Elijah did it (and then was given a bunch of work to do). Can we?

And I just can't resist...

OR this one (which prompted the sermon title)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

November Newsletter

Let Us Pray...

Earlier this year I was given a copy of a book called Bullseye: Aiming to Follow Jesus. And more than that I read it!

Bullseye was written by the ministry personnel from North Bramalea United Church in Ontario to share some of the wisdom they picked up as North Bramalea has been revitalized and grown over the years (for more information about NBUC talk to Karen Scott as she knows a bit about that community). There are lots of nuggets in this book. I would actually love to re-read it with a group of folks so we could discuss what we see there and where/if we see it intersecting with our life here at St. Paul’s. [And then I read Fishing Tips by John Pentland where he shares the learnings he found in the revitalization of Hillhurst United in Calgary, which was expected to close and now is a thriving multi-staff faith community, and want also to read it with a group from the congregation – maybe we can do both some day.] But early in my reading of Bullseye something struck me.

The book is about growing disciples, as that is what NBUC sees as a key part of who they are. The first target Jamie and Debbie write about is Spiritual Practises. One of those is prayer. Prayer is a vital part of how we reconnect with God. Prayer is vital to our growth both as individuals and as a faith community. And then I started to think.

How can we increase the ministry of prayer in our faith community? Is there a way we can become more intentional about holding each other, and the community around us, in prayer? I truly believe that the community that prays together grows closer. I believe that prayer clears our minds and allows us to gain an understanding of who we are called to be as people of faith.

A few ideas came to mind. One is that I want to set aside a period of time each week, at first I thought Wednesdays at lunch time but maybe there is a better time, for some of us to gather in the sanctuary and pray. What we would pray for/about would depend on what we bring to the circle that day.

Another idea was something we used to have. When I first arrived in Grande Prairie St. Paul’s had a prayer group. This was a group of people who had committed to offer prayers for people who were struggling in some way. We would meet every month to 6 weeks to update who was on the list and then people would pray at home for those names. Over time those who had been providing leadership and were the driving force behind that group became unable to be as active and the group sort of faded away. I would like to see if we can get it started. Because the community that is held in prayer is strengthened, just by knowing they are held in prayer.

A third idea was that I may create a prayer cycle for the congregation. This would be a way for us to hold each part of our faith community in the Prayers of the People at sometime during the year. Not because of some major celebration or concern (we would still have time in worship to share those) but simply because they are a part of our faith family and we care about them. If I start on that soon I might have it ready for 2018.

Beyond those things, I point out that prayer is a ministry we all can take part in. In invite, encourage, and challenge each one of us to hold each other, to hold our neighbours, to hold ourselves, in prayer. Prayer does not have to be fancy or formal or use special words. It can simply be laying names and circumstances before God. As people of faith prayer is part of who we are. Let us pray...

Monday, October 23, 2017

Looking Ahead to October 29, 2017 -- David is Anointed

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • 1 Samuel 16:1-13
  • Psalm 51:10-14
The Sermon title is Look to the Heart

Early Thoughts: David is a hero, for some reason. David is seen as a paragon of duty and kingliness, though I am not really sure why. God sees something in David's heart that is worth raising up -- though David's behaviour as king and husband and father will leave much to be desired.

The reading from Samuel this week marks the entry of David into the narrative of faith. A few chapters before now the people convinced Samuel  (and God) that they wanted a king like other nations and Samuel, with God's guidance, chose Saul. But by now Saul has fallen out of favour with God and Samuel is commanded to go find a new king. A risky duty -- kings tend to look negatively on people seeking to replace them, and in later chapters we will learn that Saul is not entirely stable.

Following God's commands Samuel goes to visit a man named Jesse. One of Jesse's sons is the one to replace Saul. And indeed it seems that God has already made God's choice.

Samuel has Jesse parade all of the sons past. Each time Samuel is sure that this must be the one but God keeps saying no, that Samuel is looking at external signs, which seems to be a pattern -- in chapter 9 when we first meet Saul we are told how handsome and tall he was, while God is looking to the heart. After 7 sons have gone by Samuel asks if there is anyone else. Only the youngest, David, out keeping the sheep. David is sent for and when he arrives Samuel is told to anoint him, for he is the one.  Interestingly, even though we are told that God is looking at the heart rather than a physical characteristics, the first thing we are told about David is what he looks like.

The other reading is from Psalm 51. Traditionally it has been believed that this Psalm was written by David in the depths of his guilt after he rapes Bathsheba and arranges for the death of her husband. This link may be accurate, it may be a tradition with little basis in fact. But the section we read this week talks about the heart. It is a prayer any person of faith could (should?) share at various times in our faith journey. The poet asks that his/her heart be clean, that her/his spirit be made right with God.

God looks to the heart. God looks to David's heart, God looked to the heart of Moses, God looks to the heart of Peter and Paul. God touches the hearts of those who live in God's way. God looks to our hearts. Not necessarily the literal pump that sits in the middle of our chest, but to the core of our being. Our core values, our deepest priorities, our essential beliefs. God looks there, God speaks to us there, God stretches us there. SO maybe we should pray "create in me a clean heart O God and put a right spirit within me".

But more than that, God calls us to look as God looks. David is chosen out of all of Jesse's sons because God sees something in David's core that says he will be a Godly king. David will at times hear God speaking to his core calling him to a new way of being (which is probably why Psalm 51 is tied to the story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah). And David listens to his heart.

Later Paul will be struck to his core and will listen to his heart and be lead to proclaim the Way of Christ rather than persecute it. Martin Luther will be struck to his core and in remaining true to the understanding of God he finds there will start a ball rolling that will change the church. When we listen to the heart we just may hear God calling us to be truer to ourselves. When we look to the core we find God.  What do you see and hear in the core of your being? How is God creating and sustaining a clean heart and a right spirit within you?

(not a perfect match but...)  (full lyrics seen on one screen here)