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?

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...

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. (

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?

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?

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?

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]

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

June Newsletter

A bit of a flashback...

Canada 150

July 1, 1867. After years of negotiations and cajoling and hard work the British North America Act came into effect. Four British colonies in North America joined together to become the Dominion of Canada. Later the colony of Prince Edward Island would be convinced to join in. Then the vast area of Rupert’s Land, formerly under the nominal control of the Hudson’s Bay Company, would be transferred to Canadian control, with the resulting formation of the province of Manitoba. Then the colony of British Colombia would sign on. A few decades later two provinces would be carved out of the Northwest Territories. Then 4 decades would pass and the last “father of Confederation” would bring Newfoundland into the fold. Finally the people of the Eastern Arctic would succeed in getting a new territory named Nunavut changed. And now we have grown from 4 provinces in Eastern Canada to a nation that lives out the dream of our founders: a dominion that stretches from sea to sea and from the river [St. Lawrence] to the ends of the earth.

And now there are all sorts of events and campaigns across the country in this year where we mark 150 years of Confederation. How does the church respond?

That is a bit of a complicated question, particularly in a denomination that began with the hope of being the “church with the soul of a nation”.

National holidays are a big part of life. Our faith, we believe, speaks to all parts of our lives. So we expect national holidays and faith to speak to/with each other. And yet... In the end the church is not called to extol the virtues of any one particular country (or political party platform or economic system). The church is called to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. Sometimes that means we need to choose not to take part in acts of civic religion. For example this is why many churches make a conscientious choice not to have national or provincial flags in the sanctuary (for the record, in some places, particularly in the United States, the question of flags or no flags has been as hot a debate as pews vs chairs). What is our faith story saying to us as the nation around us celebrates Canada 150?

I think that the faithful response is to do two (well sort of three) things.

The first thing is to look honestly at the nation Canada is and how it got to this point. There are two sides to this task. One is to ask what is worth celebrating about who we are and who we have been, and then legitimately celebrate those things. There is lots of help in this task – much, if not most, of the official government resources out there are about celebrating the country. The danger is that we as a nation stop there. Even as we celebrate who we are as a notion (and as a nation) we remember that we are not the Kingdom of God on earth. As an act of faith and honesty part of commemorating Canada 150 has to be to ask ourselves about the shadows of Canadian history and present. This is hard work. God challenges us, as individuals and as parts of our various communities, to look carefully at where we have been who God has created us to be and when we have fallen short.

Once we have done this reflecting on who we are, and who we have been we are ready for the more important piece. I have always believed that significant anniversaries are only part about the past and present. For any community an equally important question is “who do we want to be in the future and how will we make that happen?”. If we only celebrate the past 150 year this year we have missed an opportunity.

And now the question for faith communities.

As faith communities we ask ourselves how we (positively and negatively) have contributed to the Canada of the last 150 years. As faith communities we look to our tradition and our Scripture to get a sense of what sort of community God is at work creating. And so, as faith communities we continue to ask the question we should have been asking all along. Where and how is God calling us to bring our faith into the life of the communities (from the local, to the national, to the global) of which we are a part? As people of faith how will we help to create the Canada we want to see in the future?

150 years ago the vision of a dominion stretching from sea to sea was borrowed from the book of Psalms. The Psalmist was not talking about this collection of provinces and territories we call Canada. The Psalmist was talking about God’s Kingdom. We in Canada are a part of that. God is at work in our midst, helping us make a better country, one more in line with the Kingdom. Where will we join in?

[More to follow. In church. On July 2nd (which means I have a month to sort out what I need to say).]

One of the marking posts of Canadian culture for all of my life has been an official understanding that we are a multicultural society. We have not always agreed what this means (personally I have always liked Joe Clark's image of a "community of communities") and we have not always agreed if it is a good thing but it is a part of who we are.  I found this article where it seems that the current Prime Minister moves even beyond his father's understanding of what it might mean to be a truly multicultural society.  Does it mean we no longer have a core identity?  Something I continue to ponder.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Looking Forward to June 4, 2017 -- Pentecost Sunday, the Fruits of the Spirit

This being the first Sunday of the month we will be celebrating the sacrament of Communion.  This will be the last regular Communion service until September.

The readings for Pentecost Sunday this year are:
The Sermon title is Live in the Spirit

Early Thoughts: Many years ago, when I was in Junior Choir, we did a musical called the Music Machine. The premise was that there was a magical machine that would create a song about anything you put into it. Then they put in it a passage of scripture and we get a series of songs about the Fruits of the Spirit. That was my first introduction to this concept from Scripture (and I can remember snippets of some of the songs too--particularly the one about patience!)
Somewhere in my parent's house is this album that we bought around the time we did the show:

But since I probably should do something beyond playing the songs of the album...

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is recorded as saying (Matthew 7:15-20):
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits."
Paul teaches that in Christ we are people of the Spirit, we are people who have received the Spirit. Paul also suggests that maybe if we are living by the Spirit people should be able to tell. Which do your lives show more, the works of the flesh or the fruits of the Spirit? Maybe we don't always want to know the answer to that question.

The story of Pentecost reminds us that while the central story of the Christian community is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the power that pushes us onward is the breath of the Spirit, the same breath that blows over the primordial soup at the beginning of Genesis, the same breath that inspires the prophets, that descends on Jesus at his baptism. The Spirit of God is what changes and feeds our lives as people of faith -- if we let it.

We are known by our actions, by our words, by our fruitfulness. Do people look at us and see things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?

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?

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.

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).


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.

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?

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!

Looking Ahead to Holy Week-- Maundy Thursday (April 13) and Good Friday (April 14)

Traditionally folks gather on the Thursday before Easter to remember key elements of the Passion story. We remember the stories of what happened the night before Jesus was executed. Here at St. Paul's it is our practice to gather for a potluck supper during which we have our worship service. This year's service will be at 6:00 in the West (or Small) Basement. Please use the Northwest door of the church if you are attending.

From the Gospel of John (which does not have a "Last Supper" story) we remember the story of Jesus kneeling down and washing the disciples feet as a model of servant leadership. Within the Roman Catholic church there is a tradition that the Pope re-enacts this every year, often with a group of prelates [although the current Pope has been known to go to a prison and wash the feet of women or Muslims]. In this same section of John's Gospel Jesus gives his disciples a New Commandment "that you love one another as I have loved you". It is from this that the name Maundy Thursday comes as the Latin for Commandment is maundatum.

From the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- this year we will be reading from Luke) the key piece that we remember is the Last Supper, the Passover meal that Jesus shares with his friends and at which he institutes the Eucharist/Communion meal.

The Scripture Readings we will share this year are:
  • John 13:3-17, 34-35 Luke 22:24-27 (following which we will wash each other's hands)
  • Luke 22:1-23, 1 Corinthians 11:20-26
Early Thoughts: Eat and remember, drink and remember.

From the beginning of the Jesus movement gathering at table has had a special place. On numerous occasions in the Gospels the people mutter how Jesus is acting inappropriately by eating with tax collectors and sinners and people of ill-repute. And after Easter, after they experienced Resurrection, the followers of Jesus continued to put gathering at table at the center of how they worshiped. Paul's words to the Corinthians make it plain how central the Lord's Supper (or Communion or Eucharist) was to the life of Christian faith -- and that the Corinthians weren't quite getting it right.

So it is that we continue to gather at the table to break the bread and share the cup. We continue to find it important to eat together as a fellowship. Because we believe that when we do this, we meet God.

Let us break bread together,  let us drink wine [or some other liquid] together, let us praise God together...

On Friday there is a lot of story. Some places tell the story from arrest to trial to crucifixion to burial. Some only tell the last part of the story. This year we will be in the latter group.

There are other traditional Scripture passages to read on Good Friday. One is Psalm 22, a piece of poetry that the early church appears to have used as a resource as they told the story of Jesus' execution. Another is from Isaiah, one of the "Servant Songs". While there is a great deal of debate as to who the Suffering Servant in Isaiah was originally meant to be (the Messiah? the Israelites?) the Christian church has largely understood (or re-understood) it to refer to Christ.

The readings we will hear this Friday are:
  • Psalm 22: 1-22 (VU p.744)
  • Isaiah 53:1-9
  • Luke 23:33-38, 44-49
This year we are doing something a little bit different for Good Friday. Instead of telling the story and reflecting on why [if?] Jesus needed to be killed the service will take the form of a funeral for Jesus of Nazareth.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Looking Ahead to April 9, 2017 -- Palm Sunday, Stewardship 3

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • Luke 19:29-40 
  • Matthew 5:13-16
The Sermon title is Called to Shine, Called to Season, Called to Praise

Early Thoughts: A parade! Do we stand and watch and wait or do we join in?

Is the Palm Sunday story a stewardship text?  Not usually. But it might be.

As Luke tells the story, Jesus tells those who oppose him, those who want the mob to calm down (either to avoid arousing the ire of the Roman soldiers or simply because they disagree with the mob) that if the crowd were silent the stones themselves would cry out. Sometimes [often?] the presence of God in the world is so overpowering that we simply HAVE to respond.

SO how do we respond?

WE often talk about Palm Sunday as the story of a parade. But I think it is more the story of a carnival (Marcus Borg and John Crossan describe it as carefully orchestrated street theatre). A Parade is often a more passive event for many.  It goes by while the crowd stands and watches. Palm Sunday is a time when everybody is getting involved, indeed it is this level of participation that seems to raise the eyebrows of some of the powerful.

When God is evident in our midst the call is to respond, to get involved, not only to watch in awe and wonder.

Is God in our midst? How will we respond?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Looking Forward to April 2, 2017 -- Stewardship #2, More Salt and Light

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • Luke 11:33-36
  • Luke 14:34-35
The Sermon title is Called to be True

Early Thoughts: What does it mean to let our light shine (or let God's light shine through us)? How do we know if we have lost our saltiness?

A couple of weeks ago I asked the sermonic question "why do you give?"  One answer I suggested that day was that we give in response to knowing that we have been blessed.

But there are other reasons why we give. There are other way we encourage each other to give.

One way the church used to get people to give was to foster a sense of obligation or duty (or possibly guilt). And for some generations this was effective. Many people suggest that this is not a strong incentive anymore.

In our world these days people want to know that their gifts make a difference. Think of how many stories get published each fall (in what I tend to refer to as "please give to our charity" season) discussing which organizations have the best record in terms of administrative spending.

Which brings us to letting light shine through us, and remaining salty and zesty.

Centuries ago a theologian said that we are now the hands and feet of Christ:

AS a community of faith we want people to join in the work God has laid before us. One way to have that happen is to invite them, to ask them to share their gifts. An equally important part of getting people to join in the work is to show that it matters.

When we let God's light shine through us, when we intentionally set out to be salt to the world we make a difference. We show that change is possible. We show that we are committed to the ministry to which God has called us. And that makes it more likely that others will see something worth sharing in.

We are called to be light and salt. We are called to make a difference in the world. That take commitment. We often wish others would join us in the work. Showing that we believe it makes a difference, showing that it accomplishes something, showing that this is a good use of gifts (be they time or talent or treasure) is one of the best ways to grow the community of faith-filled workers.

Let us not hide the light. Let us not lose our saltiness. Let's remain bright and zesty.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

April Newsletter

The heart of the year is approaching. The reason we gather is soon to be celebrated. The holiest week of the Christian year, a time when we move from triumph to betrayal to death. And then, as a surprise, LIFE. Life wins!

God sent his son They called him Jesus
He came to love, heal and forgive
He bled and died To buy my pardon
An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives
(verse 1 of Because He Lives by Bill Gaither)
Our hope lies in a story that defies description. Our hope for the future lies in the story of an empty tomb, a crucified and raised Chosen One of God. In some ways it makes no sense. In many ways it makes no sense. Jesus proclaims the coming of the Kingdom and our hope is in an empty cave in a garden outside Jerusalem?

Because he lives I can face tomorrow
Because he lives All fear is gone
Because I know he holds the future
My life is worth the living just because he lives
(chorus of Because He Lives by Bill Gaither)
Every year as we approach Easter it is easy to believe in the power of those who crucify. The power of the powers and the principalities to defy the promise of the Kingdom seems unquestioned. This year is no different.

This evening, less than a month before Easter, as I sit and type this out, the news has stories of the FBI investigating possible Russian involvement in the 2016 US election. There is still a civil war devastating Syria, one that has caused the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. Last week a US court once again accused the White House of trying to ban people from entering the country based on their religion. And that is just a start.

The powers of death, the powers of oppression, the powers of despair, the breeders of fear seem in control. How can we be so naive to think that the Kingdom of Love, Life, Freedom, and Hope could possibly win.

As Bill Gaither says: Because He Lives.

Because God doesn’t give up. Because God looks at the worst the world can do and then says “My turn”. Because God is active in the world the cross is overturned, Jesus is raised, and Life Wins. And that means we have hope.

How sweet to hold A new born baby
And feel the pride And joy he gives
But better still The calm assurance
That child can face uncertain days because he lives
(verse 2 of Because He Lives by Bill Gaither)
In many eras of human existence people have wondered if it makes sense to bring children into the world. As a race we have wondered if the world is a safe place to raise children. But as people of faith the answer is that while parenthood may be a terrifying concept at times we trust that all will be well in the end. Because God has raised Jesus, because life wins, we can all face the uncertainty of life.

Because he lives I can face tomorrow
Because he lives All fear is gone
Because I know he holds the future
My life is worth the living just because he lives
(chorus of Because He Lives by Bill Gaither)
We are people of hope, we are people who trust that Love and Life conquer fear and death. Easter is coming. God is still active in the world. Resurrection brings hope and promise. Jesus lives. And so we keep on living, walking with God into the future.

Blessed Easter.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Looking Ahead to March 26, 2017 -- 3 Parables About Losing and Finding

The Scripture reading for this week is Luke 15:1-32

The Sermon title is Lost and Found

Early Thoughts: What makes something (or someone) worth finding?

These three parables suggest that God might answer that question differently than some of us.

Suppose you have 100 sheep and one goes missing. What fool would leave the other 99 alone in the wilderness (therefore in danger) to find the lost one -- who is likely dead or injured anyway?

You have lost 10% of you money.  Surely it makes sens to do everything that you can to find it. But then to celebrate finding it by having a party -- and therefore spending what you just found?

You have 2 sons. One of them violates every norm of politeness and parental respect by claiming his portion of the family's wealth before you are even ill, much less deceased. Then when he comes back you abandon all sense of propriety by running down the road to greet him. Then you abandon all sense of fiscal management by giving away property (robe and ring) that theoretically now belongs to the  elder brother (when you eventually die) and by throwing a party that involves killing a prized animal -- and forget to send someone to the fields to invite the elder brother. Then you tell the elder brother [who is having a very understandable temper tantrum] to get over it and come on inside.

These stories tell of the God who keeps looking, even when it makes no sense. They tell of the God who rejoices in the lost being returned to where it belongs, no matter the cost of the celebration. They tell of the God who, in grace, welcomes the wanderer home even before the wanderer makes an apology.

Robert Fulghum, in a story in one of his books, suggests that sometimes we get lost on purpose -- only we call it hiding. And then we sometimes hide so well that we get mad when people seem to stop looking for us. Fulghum also suggests that we try the same thing with God.

But of course the witness of Faith and of Scripture is that God doesn't stop looking. Or God never stops waiting for us to "come to our selves" and decide to stop being lost/hiding. And then there is a party! There is always a party!

So maybe we who sometimes feel lost, adrift, wandering aimlessly, need to all our selves to get found? Maybe we who sometimes get really good at playing hide and seek need to "accidentally" let our arm poke out from behind the bush? And then we can join the party too!

The love that will not let us go is the love that keeps looking for us. The wonderful love of which we sing is the love that declares it is always worth looking for the one who is lost.

This is Grace. This is Redemption. This is Hope.

Thanks be to God, the one is is always seeking.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Looking Ahead to March 19, 2017 -- Stewardship #1, 3rd Sunday of Lent

This year in Lent we are taking some (well many) of the Sundays to talk about Stewardship. The theme of the Stewardship resource we are launching from is Salt and Light.

The Scripture Readings this week are
  • Acts 2:44-47
  • Matthew 5:1-16
The Sermon title is Called to Share

Early Thoughts: How are you Blessed? How do you share your blessings?

I suspect we might answer that first question differently than Jesus...I mean look at those first few verses of Matthew 5 (the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount as it happens). DO those sound like reasons for blessing?

One of the challenges of faith is to find where and how God is present, both when it seems obvious and when it seems that God is absent. And when we recognize that God is with us we recognize a blessing. When we recognize how God is in the moment with us we can see the world differently.

And that is the first step in being salt and light to the world.

In a couple of weeks we will talk about the salt that has lost its saltiness and the light that is hidden. This week we need to ask how we share the blessings God lays before us.

WE are called to share those blessings. The early church had a particular understanding of what that might mean, as they attempted to live as a communal organization -- everybody contributing what they had for the benefit of all.

How else might we share the taste of God that we have been given? How else might we let the spark of divine light that energizes our souls shine through the shadows of life?

Stewardship is, according to one definition, everything you do after you say "I believe". Stewardship asks what we do with the gifts that flow to us. A big part of how we handle those gifts lies in out attitude...

If we believe the narratives of the world around us, stories that lead us to be fearful and anxious, tales that tell us to watch out for ourselves, our stewardship might be marked by defensiveness and wall building and protecting what (little) we have.

Or we could believe the narratives of faith, stories that tell us we are blessed, tales that tell us not to worry (as folks were reminded on Sunday March 12 with a reading from Matthew 6). Those narratives lead us to a place of greater ease of mind, a place where it is more natural to offer what we have for the service of others.

IT will not always be easy. Life is not always easy. There are days where we feel far from blessed. There are times when those around us feel far from blessed, when the taste of life is ashes, when that shadows grow dark and cold.

We are called to be salt and light.

God seeks to restore flavour to lives that have grown tasteless, to shine the light that can not be overcome into the dark places. God challenges us to be the hands and feet that help to make that happen.

WE share the blessing of life. We share the gifts we have been given to help God's mission to flourish. What do you have to share?

Monday, February 27, 2017

Looking Forward to March 5, 2017 -- Annual Meeting Sunday, 1st Sunday of Lent

This year during Lent we will have a number of services looking at Stewardship questions.

This being the first Sunday of the month we will celebrate the sacrament of Communion.  We will also make our monthly Second Offering to support our Local Outreach Fund.

The Scripture reading this week is Matthew 28:16-20.  We will also read together our congregational vision and mission statements.

The Sermon title is Called To Be Church

Early Thoughts: In the Faith Statement we call the New Creed (other denominations have included it in their worship materials, often calling it United Church Creed) we proclaim that:
We are called to be the Church:
    to celebrate God’s presence,
    to live with respect in Creation,
    to love and serve others,
    to seek justice and resist evil,
    to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
       our judge and our hope.

Great. Now what exactly does that mean? How do we live that out?

On this Annual Meeting Sunday I ask that we give careful consideration to that quest. Both to look back at how we did it over the last year and as we look forward to how we will do it in the year to come.

The reason we have vision and mission statements is to guide us as we respond to God's call to be the church. They are there to test all our decisions and actions against. They help us choose how we stewards the gifts God has given us.

Also, during the sermon time there will be time to thank each other for all the ways we have participated in living out our call to be the church, for all the ways we have given of our time and talent over the past year.

WE are called to be the church...

Looking Forward to March 3, 2017 -- World Day of Prayer

Each year the Women's Interchurch Council of Canada, in conjunction with sister agencies in other countries, produces resources for the World Day of Prayer. Each year the service is prepared by women in one country and shared around the globe. This year's service comes from the Philippines.

For more about the World Day of Prayer and the Women's Interchurch Council look here: 

Co-ordination of the services is generally handled by the Women's groups of the sponsoring churches. In Grande Prairie the sponsoring churches are:
St. Paul's United

St. Joseph's Roman Catholic
Forbes Presbyterian
Christ Church Anglican
Trinity Lutheran
The Salvation Army
with the service rotating between the various buildings. This year it is St. Paul's turn to host

The Scripture Reading that has been chosen for the service this year is Matthew 20:1-16.

The topic question for the service is Am I Being Unfair to You?

Meditation Early Thoughts: It is a complaint almost every parent has heard "it's not FAIR!"

Maybe the siblings got a different number of chocolate chips in their cookie. Maybe one got something another didn't. Or maybe they got the same but one thought they deserved more than the other....

That appears to be the complaint in this story. Everyone get paid the same, whether they started work first thin in the morning or only spent the last hour of the day in the fields. On the surface it does not seem fair does it? Most often our understanding of fair compensation would say that the more you do, the more you get.

The landowner disagrees. The landowner points out that the early crew got paid exactly what had been agreed to at the beginning of the contract. If he chooses to be generous (or even overly generous) with those who joined in later in the day what of it?

It is Gospel language. It is the wisdom of God's Kingdom. It is not, in the end about being fair. It is, to be truthful, about being just.

Think of those "fairness" discussions we have with our children. Most often it appears that to be fair means to treat each other equally, to treat each individual the same. Kingdom logic, Godly wisdom, says that to be fair means treating each individual as they need. Take this for example:
In the case of our scripture story, fair means different. The agreed upon wage for a daily labourer was what they needed to eat for that day. Are you less in need of that simply because you were not one of the first chosen? What if you showed up late to the casual labour desk?

Fair means just means needs are being met. It is parabolic logic. It goes against everything we have been taught about fair pay.

But that is what God calls us to do, to be people of justice. Are we willing to upend our understanding of "fair" to ensure all have their needs met?