Monday, May 15, 2017

Looking Ahead to May 21, 2017 -- Law and Grace and Freedom

The Scripture Reading for this week is: Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29

The Sermon title is Freed

Early Thoughts: We often proclaim that God offers us freedom.  Marcus Borg suggests that one of the meta-narratives of Scripture is that of the exodus, the freedom from bondage, and another meta-narrative is that of exile and return (which also has a flavour of freedom about it).

But freed from what? Freed to what?

For Paul freed from the law, freed from the bondage of sin would be a big part of what being in Christ means. Paul spends much time in his letters trying to determine the role of law and grace in the Christian life. In the end he comes down firmly on the side of grace, God's grace that brings freedom. And so we are freed from those things that once bound us, which includes status words like Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free.

It appears that the Galatian church, after being founded by Paul, was visited by a person or group of people who tried to convince the Galatians that they needed to follow Torah in order to be full members of the Christian community. Paul finds this a terrible idea (to put it mildly). In this week's passage Paul suggests that the law did once have a purpose but now it no longer does. The law was needed to shepherd God's people along until the coming of Christ (who is often called the Good Shepherd, following from the Gospel of John). But now that Christ has come (and more importantly for Paul, now that Christ has been crucified and raised) the law is not needed. We are freed from the (in Paul's eyes unattainable) standard that the law places on people.

Christians continue to maintain that Christ sets us free. In the forgiveness Christ preached (or offered) we are freed from the burden of guilt and shame. In the (freely offered, not earned by our actions) gift of the Holy Spirit that flowed from and through Christ we are freed to a life of where God is active in and through us. We can put the ways of the past aside and live into the new thing God is now doing.

Sometimes we in the church want to replace the old law with a new one. I think Paul might suggest that this is just exchanging one chain for another. Are we ready to be free?
--Gord

Monday, May 8, 2017

Looking Forward to May 14, 2017 -- 5th Sunday of Easter, Controversy in the Church

The Scripture reading this week is Acts 15:1-21.

The Sermon title is Included



Early Thoughts: Who gets to be part of the community? What rules need to be met?

These are questions that the church has wrestled with from the beginning (and continues to wrestle with today).

The earliest church was a Jewish group. Jesus was Jewish, Jesus' disciples appear to have all been Jewish, the people who were flocking to the community in Jerusalem appear to have all been Jewish. But that only lasts so long.

In Acts Chapter 10 Peter has a dream, a dream in which he hears God challenging him to broaden the circle of belonging to includes Gentiles. In Chapter 11 Peter has to defend this action to some others in the community. As Paul begins his work he seems to have more success among the Gentiles than among the Jewish communities where he visits.

Which leads us to Chapter 15. Some people come to Antioch (where Paul is present, it is his "home base" at this point in time) and insist that all these Gentiles who have joined the Christian community need to be circumcised [and presumably follow the rest of the Law, though the text only talks about circumcision -- maybe a free pass for the female members of the community?]. The Christian community of Antioch discusses the question (Paul and his compatriot Barnabas appear to have led the argument against requiring circumcision) and are unable to resolve it. So a group are sent to Jerusalem to discuss it with the heads of the church.  Probably a modern equivalent would be for a Roman Catholic group being sent to the Vatican to discuss and resolve an issue, or a United Church Congregation making a proposal to the next meeting of the General Council.

In writing Acts, Luke has chosen not to tell us how the debate goes. We are left to guess how virulently the opposing sides made their arguments. He does say there was "much debate" and some of us in the church might have our guesses about how the debate might have gone --- based on our own experiences of the church discussing hot, divisive, topics. But really we jump to the decision. Peter reminds the listeners of his experience from Chapter 10. He reminds folk that at that time God showed Peter that God calls Jew and Gentile alike to the Spirit-led community of Christ. Paul and Barnabas share what they have witnessed God doing in their work among Gentiles. And then James, commonly believed to have been the leader of the Jerusalem church, speaks from the stories of Scripture. Interestingly, it appears to be James that makes the final decision, as listed in verses 19-21. The full Law is not required from Gentile Christians, only some very specific things.

So what does this have to do with us?

The church is often described as a family. Which works to a degree. The comparison reminds us to love and care for each other. And on the shadow side, church splits and disagreements can be just as hurtful and deep as some family estrangements. But the church is not a family.

Family tends to suggest a fairly homogeneous group. Family are those people who are related to us, for most of human history this has tended to mean that the members of our family are largely like us. Humanity being the tribal species that we are (or at least really tend to be), family can be a pretty closed circle. God might have different ideas.

I said above that "These are questions that the church has wrestled with from the beginning (and continues to wrestle with today). ". We continue to wonder where the boundaries of the faith "family" should lie. The challenge for us is to find where God is leading us in those discussions.

The gathering in Jerusalem does not decide that God has made a sudden turn. The acceptance of the uncircumcised is not a new thing God is doing. The gathering in Jerusalem determines that God has been at this work all along, God is just now calling the church to get with the program. They made that determination after considering Scripture, past practice, and lived experience. And it took time.

Luke tells the story in a few verses, accomplished in one meeting. But by the time of this one meeting it is likely that the discussion has been going on for years. [If we assume that Peter's dream in Chapter 10 was in the first year after the Easter experience.  Paul tells us that after his conversion experience he went away for two years to be instructed in the faith, and now Paul has made his first journey so we know that time has passed.]

To follow God is a long-term proposition. To live in the the Kingdom of God takes time. Change does not happen as fast as some would like it to. It requires us to listen to each other and to hold each other in prayer. And sometimes we find out that God has a much broader understanding of grace and community than we once believed.
--Gord




Sunday, May 7, 2017

The May Newsletter...

Membership – What Does it Mean?

As some of you will recall, at the Annual Congregational Meeting I asked for volunteers to start the process of reviewing our Historic Roll. The main reason that I asked for this to be done is because according to the statistics we send to the national church each year we are listing well over 300 resident members – I think the number is 380 but am typing this at home so can’t confirm right now. I want us to be sure we are providing accurate numbers.

In theory, the Historic Roll lists all those who have ever been what the United Church used to call “Full Members” [people who had either made a Profession of Faith (been Confirmed) at St. Paul’s or who had been members in another congregation and transferred their membership to St. Paul’s]. It would list when they became members and if they are no longer members when they ceased to become members (that may be through death, by requesting to be transferred out or removed, or by action of the Board/Council). People who have never become Members of the congregation are called Adherents. They may in fact be very active people in our community, people whose presence we would miss terribly if they were not here, but officially they are not Members

But it does tie in to another discussion. What does it mean to be a “Full Member” (from now on I will just say Member)? Does it make a difference in how one is a part of the community?

And that is a hard question.

In the United Church in recent decades we have chosen to focus on how inclusive we are. And do we rarely talk about the importance of membership. In point of fact the hardest sermon I have ever preached was trying to present why membership is important in the United Church. I tried to come at it from the old American Express line “membership has its privileges” and was at a loss.

In our structure there are very few things that are exclusively for members. One is that, officially speaking, only Members can be a part of our Council (as far as I know all of our current Council members are, in case you were wondering) since our Council fills the role traditionally held by Elders. Also only Members can be representatives from the congregation to Presbytery (and from Presbytery to Conference and from Conference to General Council). Only members can enter into the official process to discern a call to ministry. AT a Congregational meeting Members present automatically have a vote on all matters whereas Adherents can only vote if the Members present give them that privilege (and even then there are specific issues that Adherents can never vote – such as to call or to remove a minister, to buy or sell property, and other “Spiritual Matters” [though I have often wondered what matters in the life of a faith community are not spiritual matters]. I have heard of people who become members specifically so they can serve on a Search Committee.

Not really great privileges are they....
So why is membership important? And what does it really mean? As it stands now someone could attend and be active for years but not get a vote on an important matter whereas the next person might have been confirmed decades ago but only attend sporadically and not be really aware of what is happening in the life of the congregation but gets a vote as soon as they appear at a meeting. That does not quite seem right to many people.

If membership gives a voice in the life of the congregation is it more important to be active or to have at some point in the past made a public faith statement? (which is a bit of a false choice since both are important in my mind).
In amongst all the other things that are being discussed across the United Church is this question of membership. Traditionally (and presently) membership in the church comes through baptism and (if baptized as a child) a Profession of Faith. But now there are more people who want to try out a faith tradition before making the step of a public Faith Profession. Does that mean they are not members?

IS membership about attending and participating?
Is membership about believing?
Is it about both?

What does membership mean to you? Why is it important to be a member?

On a related note, I am thinking forward to the fall. In September/October I am planning to offer a session of exploring what it means to be part of Christian Community. I was going to call it a membership or confirmation class but I am intentionally not doing so. I make that choice because I truly believe we are stronger in our faith if we take part in these discussions periodically, not just when we “become a member”. Look for details in the early fall (one plan I am looking into will include a meal together with each session).

--Gord

Monday, April 24, 2017

Looking Forward to April 30, 2017 -- Easter 3, The Road to Emmaus

This week we are celebrating the Sacrament of Communion. Normally our next Communion service would be May 7th but as the Youth Group is providing service leadership that day Communion has been moved up one week.

The Scripture Reading this week is Luke 24:13-35

The Sermon title is Known in Bread

Early Thoughts: How is the Risen Christ recognized? What breadth of things might Easter mean?

Most of us associate the experience of Easter with the empty tomb stories. However a further reading of Matthew, Luke and John (Mark's original ending only has an empty tomb story and the women fleeing in fear) suggests that people experienced the Resurrection in a variety of places. Matthew and John suggest that some only truly got resurrection once they went home to Galilee. Luke and John suggest that a meal (in John a fish meal following a miraculous catch of fish, in Luke a simple breaking of bread) was a part of the Easter moment for some.

Which brings us to this week's story.

Two people traveling away from Jerusalem. A third joins them (the text is not clear--does he overtake them on the road? or does he just appear?). In response to a couple of questions they pour out their fear, their grief, their uncertainty, their shattered hopes following the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.

Which cues the stranger to explicate Scripture to them, to review what those old passages might mean, to open their hearts to the possibility of Easter. Later the two will realize how their hearts burned during this part of the journey. Is this burning the fire of hope taking hold? Is it the Spirit stirring the embers back into life?

Then the journey comes to an end. It is evening. As a simple act of hospitality the two encourage the stranger to stay with them. But then...

The stranger takes on the role of host at the table, and as he breaks bread he is revealed as the Risen Christ.

It wasn't in the hearing from the women who went to the tomb early that morning that Cleopas and friend felt the reality of Easter. It was not from the reminder of what Jesus had foretold. It was not in the detailed exploration of Scripture they heard along the road. It was in the Breaking of the Bread.

Gathering at table was a marker of the Jesus community throughout the Gospel account. Gathering at table remains a marker of the Christian community for most of us. We trust that we meet God at the table. We Break the Bread and we share the cup and we remember Jesus. But we also meet Jesus, the Risen Christ, the one who invites us to the table.

I suggest that it is not only at the Communion table that this is true. I suggest that, if we are open, if we allow our vision to be cleared, we meet Jesus at a variety of tables. Maybe at the lunch following a funeral. Maybe at the church picnic. Maybe at the community BBQ.

There is an old joke about the United Church (or sometimes about other denominations -- this version comes from a Methodist source).
A kindergarten teacher gave her class a "show and tell" assignment. Each student was instructed to bring in an object that represented their religion to share with the class.
The first student got up in front of the class and said, "My name is Benjamin and I am Jewish and this is a Star of David."
The second student got up in front of the class and said, "My name is Mary. I'm a Catholic and this is a Rosary."
The third student got in up front of the class and said, "My name is Tommy. I am Methodist, and this is a casserole."
We sometimes laugh about the fact that so often in the church we find an excuse to eat together Personally I have been known to refer to the Sacrament of the Potluck. But maybe it is not a joke. Maybe we eat togehter so often because we know that in eating together we build community. We know that in eating together we meet Jesus, the Word made Flesh, the Risen Christ.
--Gord

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Looking Forward to April 23, 2017 -- Stephen, Witness and Martyr, 2nd Sunday of Easter

The Scripture reading this week are some portions of the Story of Stephen, the first Christian Martyr. (The whole arc of Stephen's story starts at the beginning of chapter 6 with the decision to appoint deacons and continues through to his death and burial. The majority of chapter 7 is a sermon by Stephen which leads to his stoning.) We are reading Acts 6:8-7:2a; 7:54-8:3

The sermon title is Witness and Reaction

Early Thoughts: Who knows who Stephen is? For much of my life the only reference I knew of to Stephen was in the first line of the carol Good King Wenceslas where we are told that the king looked out "on the feast of Stephen". And then even the first few times I was referred to his story in Acts it was in relation to the end when we see a man named Saul watching Stephen's execution with approval (reading into chapter 9 we find Saul having an experience on the Damascus road which leads him from persecution to proselytizing and , name changed to Paul, becoming the leading spreader of Christianity in the New Testament).

At the beginning of Chapter 6 it is evident that the Jerusalem church is not the utopia described back in Chapter 2.  Earlier we were told that all things were held in common and distributed to each person according to need, now in Chapter 6 we find that there is dissension about this very distribution. And the 12 seem to think that waiting on tables is below them, they have "more important" things to do (which may well be a possible future sermon, remembering the Christ who knelt down and washed their feet). And so they decide to name a group of 7 deacons whose task it will be to serve the community. Stephen is one of those 7. Which brings us to our reading...

Chosen to serve, it becomes obvious that God has other things in mind for Stephen. HE becomes known for being " full of grace and power," and doing "great wonders and signs among the people.". And this attracts attention (how could it not), which leads to Stephen being put on trial [with charges that seem eerily reminiscent of those laid at the feet of Jesus] for his preaching about Jesus and The Way.

Then follows one of the longer sermons in Acts (and there are some long passages of sermon/instruction in these earlier chapters of Acts). Stephen rehearses the entire salvation story from Abraham, through Moses, into the building of the temple,and the work of the prophets into the execution of Jesus (the Righteous One). He further accuses his accusers and those who stand in judgement of being in opposition to the Holy Spirit.

And this is where our reading jumps back in, at the end of the trial. For some reason the trial panel is not feeling warm and fuzzy after being called stiff-necked and labelled as betrayers and murderers. In the face of their fury Stephen remains grounded and trusting in Christ, sharing a vision of Christ standing by the throne of God. ANd then even as he is being stoned he dies in ways that are indeed reminiscent of the death of Jesus on the cross. Stephen becomes the first martyr for the sake of Christ.

Sometimes sharing God's vision for the world causes complicated reactions.

What do we do with a martyrdom story in 21st century North America?

Do we ask what the price is for being part of a counter-cultural movement (as the church is becoming once again)?
Do we remember our brothers and sisters in Egypt whose churches were bombed on Palm Sunday?
Do we ask how willing we are to witness and test the reactions?
--Gord

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Breaking Bread Together

(A column for the local paper on April 21st)

Was there a time in your life, maybe the time is now, when you ate most of your meals alone? I always found it a strange feeling. Meals became more a matter of sustenance than an occasion. There is so much more to a meal that is shared with friends or family.

While looking for lyrics to something different I came upon a Johnny Cash song which contains these lines:
It's not the barley or the wheat It's not the oven or the heat
That makes this bread so good to eat
It's the needing and the sharing that makes the meal complete.
Our English word companion speaks of sharing food. The Latin roots are together (com) and bread (panis). WE use it to talk about someone who shares a portion of life’s journey with us. Because we know that life is almost always better and easier when we share it with one or more others. We mark events and anniversaries by eating together with one special person or a group of special people. It isn’t about the food, we can eat alone if need be. It is about the people.

Yesterday I saw a video (actually a commercial for President’s Choice) where a couple of young women set up a table in the hallway of their apartment building. As the video progresses more and more people gather, each bringing something to share with the table. And as they gather they meet each other (how many of us never get to know our neighbours?) and there is laughter. Community is built when we eat together. As I watched it I saw the sacrament of the neighbourhood potluck.

Another song. There is an African American spiritual that I learned as a child (long before I knew what an African American Spiritual was) which says:
Let us break bread together on our knees;
let us break bread together on our knees;
It is a song often sung at communion services, the time when we gathered at God’s Table to celebrate the meal of faith and hope.

From the beginning of the movement that followed and continues to follow Jesus meals have been crucial. Jesus knew the power of sitting at the same table as others. Indeed on more than one occasion people sneer at and complain about Jesus because he is willing to eat with tax collectors and sinners and people of ill-repute. Jesus knew that to eat with people is a way to let them know that they belong, that they are loved, that they are accepted. Then, just before his death, Jesus told his friends to continue to break bread and share a cup of wine in remembrance of him. The common table, and the fellowship shared there, was a marker of what it meant to follow Jesus.

To this day the church continues to break bread and share wine or juice and remember Jesus. And when we do this together we meet God. We meet God in the bread and the cup and in the neighbours with who we share the meal. It is not about the ritual. It is not about wine vs. juice. It is not about what kind of bread is broken. Or rather it is about more than all those things. It is about the community which gathers to share and to support each other.

One of my favourite Easter stories takes place in Luke 24:13-35. A pair of travellers encounter a stranger on the road. They discuss the life and ministry of Jesus with him for many miles, and then invite him to spend the night with them. He breaks the bread and they recognize that Christ is with them. When we break bread together we enter a holy place, and Christ is revealed in our midst. Christ is in the bread and in the gathered community. In one of his books Bishop John Spong suggests that for some portion of the early Church Easter became revealed and real to them when they continued doing what Jesus had done and gathered people together at the table. Then they knew that Christ was still with them. I would tend to agree. A meal shared is a sign of grace.

Christianity is a faith based on being in community. We are a faith that knows that we are stronger in community. We know that we meet God in community. And so when we invite each other to eat, be that at a ritual Communion meal or at a potluck or at a neighbourhood BBQ we are inviting each other to a holy time, a place where we can meet God.

When we eat together, we are stronger as a community. Thanks be to God. Let us break bread together.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Looking Ahead to April 16, 2017 -- Easter Sunday

The emotional life of Holy Week is a true roller-coaster.
  • We start in triumph on Palm Sunday with the parade into the city.
  • Then we get somber with the Last Supper.
  • Then we go down in to the valley of the shadow of death as we watch the crucifixion and burial.
  • and then...
then there is a BIG SURPRISE!

This year we will be reading the Easter story as it is told by Luke (Luke 24:1-12)

The Sermon title is Risen!

Early Thoughts: The climax of the Christian year has come!Without the Easter story we would not tell any of the other stories. We would not talk about a baby in a manger. We would not talk about a Cross on a hill. Without Easter there is little reason to believe that the other stories of Jesus of Nazareth, that the movement that coalesced around him, would have survived long past his death.

The women go to the grave to weep and mourn. They go to perform that basic act of mourning (anointing of the body) that was not possible before the burial. And when they get there...

A new beginning! New life! New possibilities!

AS Natalie Sleeth says in hymn (VU #175):
“This is the day that God had made!
Rejoice! Rejoice, and be exceeding glad!
This is the day that God has made!
Rejoice! Rejoice! Hallelujah!
Christ has conquered death at last,
Left the tomb that held him fast!
Gone the sorrow, gone the night,
Dawns the morning clear and bright!
Jesus lives who once was dead,
Lives forever, as he said!
Risen now our Saviour, King;
Songs of gladness let us sing!”

The world is changed. Life wins. Can we believe it?

The other disciples couldn't. They dismissed the women's story as an "idle tale" (one commentary suggest a more idiomatic way of saying that might be "a load of...", or more politely "wishful thinking"). Jesus was dead. They all knew it. Only when he went to the tomb himself did Peter believe.

Can we believe it? Can we trust that the end is not the end? Is the Risen Jesus here alive and among us?

More from Natalie Sleeth (VU #703)
In our end is our beginning, in our time infinity
in our doubt there is believing, in our life eternity 
In our death a resurrection; at the last a victory
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Christ is risen! Life wins! Hallelujah!
--Gord