Monday, September 18, 2017

Looking Forward to September 24, 2017 -- Stewardship Begins

Over the next three Sundays we will be exploring our Stewardship as a congregation. We will be leaping off from the resource produced by the United Church of Canada We Sing Thanksgiving.

This Sunday after worship all are invited to stay for a potluck lunch in the large/east basement.

The Scripture readings this week are:
  • Exodus 16:1-18
  • Matthew 20:1-16
The Sermon title is What We Need...

Early Thoughts: Years ago the Rolling Stones told us:
You can't always get what you want,
You can't always get what you want,
You can't always get what you want,
But if you try some time, you just might find,
You get what you need.
Turns out Mick Jagger is a theologian! Who woulda thunk it?

Israelites Gathering Manna
The story of manna and quail in the wilderness is a story that reminds us that we just might (will?) get what we need. The people don't really believe it. Indeed some of them try, despite being explicitly told not to, to hoard some of the manna, to save it for the next day. After all what if it doesn't fall tomorrow? But it does. And for the next 40 years the people are fed, God provides what they need.

In the Parable we have a group of day labourers. All of them, those hired in the morning and those hired just before quitting time, get paid the same. And so the people who worked all day are a little bit upset. This doesn't sound fair, in our world where we expect that reward or compensation is somehow linked to effort and labour. Surely any ethical employer would pay those who work longer more...right?

Depends on your ethics.

Like most of Jesus' parables, the story of the day labourers is tying to give a glimpse of what it means to live as people of God's Kingdom. The amount paid to each of those labourers is the amount that is needed to buy food for that day, the amount needed to live another day. In the Kingdom of God people get what they need. That is the ethical guideline. People get what they need.

So what does this have to do with stewardship? Well there are a few ways to come at it.

One is to talk about the difference between wants and needs. A lot of us have trouble with teat from time to time. (And it does NOT help that there is an entire multi-billion dollar industry committed to making us think things we want are in fact things we need.) We need basics. We need the basic stuff for survival in some measure of security and comfort. Everything else is a want, although there are varying priorities in our wants. BUt if we have trouble seeing the difference it skews our impression of whether we can share what we have.

And that is the real connection between these stories and stewardship. If we believe and trust that we have/can get what we need then sharing is easier.  If we are not sure of getting what we need we are more likely to try and save our manna for a second day, we are more likely to get irate when we work harder.longer than those lazy good-for-nothings and don't get any farther ahead.

As people of faith we are asked and challenged and commanded to take the gifts we have been given and pass them on for the betterment of out neighbours. As people of faith we are reminded that  the common good is as much of a priority as our own personal safety. What we do with the gifts we have been given is our stewardship. We might be good stewards, we might be bad stewards. But I firmly believe that our level of trust or anxiety about having what we need is a big help or hindrance in our ability to see what we might have to share.

The STones were right. We can't always get what we want (and of we are honest that is probably a good thing). But the promise of God's Kingdom is that each of us gets what we need. And then we can use our gifts to support each other.


ANd to help with the earworm I planted earlier:

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

NEwspaper Column (for September 22 edition)

In the interests of Full disclosure, this is an expansion/adaptation of a column I wrote in Atikokan in 2009)

Who is Welcome?

The brightly lettered sign on the door said “All welcome, come as you are”.

Pete looked at his his wheelchair and asked “even me?” and then he continued down the street. How would he get up the stairs?

Next came Sue and Cathy. They looked at the sign, and the beautiful stained glass windows and for a moment thought about going in. But then they remembered the last time they had been, and the clear message that folks like them were “bad”. They knew they weren't welcome as a couple.

Next down the block was a young family. “Let's go see!” shouted the youngest. But the kids tended to be noisy, they had trouble sitting still. Not wanting to cause trouble the parents quickly walked away, dragging the kids with them.

Even as the children’s shouts could still be heard echoing down the block Jim wandered up. He remembered attending services as a child back home. It might be nice to do that again. He even peeked in the door. Nobody there looked like him. He was different. How would they react to his skin colour, his accent, his colourful traditional clothing and tattoos? And so he went away to find a church full of people more like him.

Finally came Fred and Alice. They thought it would be nice to have a warm place to sit and maybe a cup of coffee. But they looked at their shabby clothes and their unwashed faces and knew that their presence seemed to make others uncomfortable. So they went down the street to try and find a meal.

Meanwhile, oblivious to the people passing by and wishing they could come in, the congregation sat looking around the half-empty sanctuary and asked themselves: “Why aren't there more people here? We are such a friendly group?”

What moves us from saying “All are welcome!” to people actually feeling welcome? Do we show that we really mean all are welcome or are there unwritten rules about who is acceptable? Do we only welcome folk if they agree to be and act and believe like us?

I have noticed that we humans tend to be a terribly cliquish and tribal species. We tend to stick with other people who look, talk, think, and believe like us. We will welcome others but often there is an unspoken (or sometimes loudly spoken) expectation that then newcomers will conform to what is “normal”, that they will behave “properly”. People who stand out too much tend to make us uncomfortable. Behaviours or beliefs or customs that are different from what we do are easily seen as unacceptable. Asking the group to change is seen as a threat.

And when we fall prey to those thoughts we have forgotten the Gospel. We have forgotten that we are meant to be changed, our beliefs and behaviours and customs are meant to be challenged, that for the New Heaven and the New Earth to appear the world has to be transformed.

The Gospel message is clear. The love and grace of God are offered to all of God's people. Not that the people in our faith stories always get it right. Even Jesus has to be taught about God's amazing welcome. It takes a foreign woman challenging his prejudices to show Jesus that, as an old hymn says, “the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind” (see Mark 7:24-30). We all have our own set of blinders to the wideness of God’s mercy.

Every church I have attended has described themselves as warm and friendly. Every church wants to believe that all are welcome in their midst. Most municipalities tell themselves that anybody is welcome to move in there and make a life. But the reality people experience is far different. The story told earlier plays itself out over and over across this country. Still, God is calling us to a new way.

God is calling the global community to be a place where all are welcome. All. Regardless of age, or physical/emotional/mental ability, or gender, or race, or social background, or economic status, or marital status, or sexual orientation, or any of the multitude of other ways we have of dividing people; despite all of that you are welcome in the Family of God.

This is the challenge for the world, to live out God's amazingly broad and open welcome. We will sometimes fall short. Sometimes we fall short intentionally, sometimes we don't even know it. If we are going to do better we need to be challenged. Otherwise we are as oblivious as the congregation in the story. What barricades do we put up that keep others out of our clubs, our businesses, our communities? How do we go about breaking them down?

Looking Ahead to September 17, 2017 -- Jacob the Blessed? Jacob the Jerk?

The Scripture reading this week is Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17

The Sermon title is God Blesses HIM?!?!

Early Thoughts: Sometimes (often?) in our faith stories the hero is heavily flawed. Jacob fits right in with that description.

Jacob and Esau are twins. And as the story is told they were striving with each other in utero. Esau emerges first and so is the firstborn and in the family structure portrayed in Genesis Esau therefore is to be the next patriarch of the family.

Except there are issues.

One issue is certainly that Rebekah and Isaac each have a favored son. In any family that rarely goes well.

The other issue is that Jacob is kind of a jerk. Earlier in their story he extorts the family birthright from his brother in exchange for a boil of porridge (Admittedly Esau does not come off as the brightest bulb in that story). Then we have this story. Feeling his death approaching, Isaac sends Esau the hunter (and apparently Isaac's preferred son) out to get some meat and in exchange Esau will get the fatherly blessing. Rebekah hears this and decides that her preferred son Jacob should get the blessing instead. So she helps Jacob fool/deceive his father and steal the blessing from Esau. {I am still wondering why Isaac insists that he can not bless both his sons}

Esau is not happy. He promises that when Isaac dies Esau will kill Jacob. Which, understandably, worries Rebekah. And so she arranges that Jacob needs to go away to find a wife from among Rebekah's people instead of the people amongst whom they are living (who apparently are fine for Esau but not good enough for Jacob). And Jacob essentially flees for his life.

Later in his story Jacob will continue to use deception and trickery to his own benefit. At no point in his story does Jacob come across as a shining example of human potential. And yet God chooses Jacob to become the father of a nation, Jacob will be renamed Israel and from his 12 sons will come 12 tribes.

As a precursor to those events Jacob has a dream. While fleeing the wrath of Esau Jacob has a dream. ANd in that dream He is told that God is with him, that God's favor lies upon him, and that through him the world will be blessed.

Seriously? This lying, deceptive trickster is the one that God is going to bless? Through him will come the nation that will bless the earth? The actions of Jacob and his mother have broken up the family of Isaac and yet he is getting this blessing????

What is God thinking?

But God does this. Throughout Scripture God takes flawed people and raises them up. God takes the person others barely notice (or in some cases the person trying valiantly to escape notice) and makes them key in the story of faith. GOd does not seem to look for the most qualified, or the most virtuous, or the most likeable. God chooses based on some other criteria, criteria that are not always shared.

As readers that may confuse us. As people of faith that should give us hope. If God can choose flawed, even violent people like Jacob and David and Peter and Saul/Paul and work through their flaws. Then God can and will work through and bless us.

Or the neighbour we think is not worth thinking about.

Or the political candidate we find abhorrent.


Monday, September 4, 2017

Looking Ahead to September 10, 2017 -- The Beginning

This Sunday marks the beginning of a new program year.  Sunday School begins on the 10th, CGIT and Explorers begin on Tuesday the 12th at 7:00, and the Youth Group will start meeting on Sunday the 17th. Also the Adult Choir will begin this Thursday the 14th at 7:30, the Junior Choir will begin after church on the 17th. Beginner Handbells will start after church on the 24th with the Handbell choir starting Monday the 25th at 7:00.

The Scripture readings for this week are:
  • Genesis 1:1-2:4a
  • Psalm 104:24-34
The Sermon title is Who Has Created and Is Creating...

Early Thoughts: This Sunday marks the beginning of Year 4 in the Narrative Lectionary cycle.  Since the goal of the Narrative Lectionary is to carry the church through the scope of the Biblical Narrative between now and Pentecost Sunday it only makes sense that we (to quote a would-be nun named Maria) "start at the very beginning, a very good place to start".

To begin with, let us be clear. This passage is a hymn. It is a song of praise. It is not a historic account or a scientific explanation. It is a theological statement about creation.

It is also the beginning of the story. It is not the end. Nowhere in the text (nor in the 66 books that follow in our Scripture library) does it say that when God gets to the 7th day and rests that Creation is complete. Creation is an ongoing process, one that continues to this day. Maybe when the eschaton comes Creation will be complete. Maybe. (Personally I suspect that even then, in the fullness of the Kingdom, when the New Heaven and the New Earth have arrived, newness will continue to be created.) And so we turn to the phrase from the United Church Creed that describes God as the One "who has created and is creating". Indeed one phrase I have often used in benedictions speaks of the God who creates and re-creates us.

What is being created within, around, among, beside us today? How are we leaving room for God's creative energy to work? (Which does assume we are doing that, are we in fact leaving that room?)
Genesis 1, the Priestly hymn to creation, introduces us to the God who actively works with the creation to make more creation. It introduces us to the God who sees creation as a process, as something that takes time (maybe even 14 billion years and counting?) rather than some sort of fait accompli that happens in an instant. And perhaps most importantly, it introduces us to the God who cares about what is being created, who looks at it and says it is good.

So what? What is our response to reading this piece of poetry? What does it mean for us to profess that God is still in the work of creating? What does it mean for us to recognize that even in the beginning of our story God is working with that which is to create something new?

Surely we don't read this just to argue about Creation vs. Intelligent Design vs. Evolution?

It is my belief that one reason we read this song to give us hope. It is hopeful that creation is not yet complete, that God is still at work creating and re-creating (because if we are honest we all know things and people -even us-that need a bit of re-creating now and then). It is hopeful to be reminded that God looks at the creation and says it is very good.

It is also my belief that we read this song to give us a reminder. We are not in charge of creation.  We did not create anything all on our own. There have been partners (present and past), there will yet be partners, and one of those partners is, was, and will be God. God starts the ball rolling, invites participation from the rest of creation and keeps pushing. When we read this song we are reminded that we need to work with the Source. Neither standing back and letting things just happen nor stepping in with a heavy hand to control the final outcome are desirable. This is God's party. How will we be partners with God in the ongoing work?

Monday, August 28, 2017

Looking Ahead to September 3, 2017

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

The Scripture Reading for this Sunday is John 6:1-14.

The Sermon title is The Bread of Life

Early Thoughts: A simple meal. A cube of bread and a taste of juice. And yet we believe it to be as filling as a loaf of bread and a jug of wine. Because God is present in the meal. It is the center of our faith.

The feeding of the multitude is one of the rare things in the Gospels. It is a memory that shows up in all four of the Gospel accounts (even the Last Supper where Jesus breaks the bread and passes the cup, the institution of our communion meal, does not have that status). Which says something. It tells us is that this event struck close to the heart of what those first generation followers of Jesus felt to be important in telling his story. There was something about this event that said something vital about what the Kingdom of God would be like. It is no accident that from the earliest of days Christians gathered in worship shared a meal together.

As John tells the story a crowd gathers and eventually Jesus asks his friends where they plan to buy food for them. Sensibly the disciples point out that the cost to do so is beyond their means. They have a little bit of food, but not nearly enough for such a crowd. In the end all eat their fill with basketfuls of bread and fish left over. Where there was a very real sense of not enough there was an abundance and then some.When the Kingdom is made real in our presence we have more than we think.

After recounting the story John goes further. Most of Chapter 6 is further discussion about the Bread of Life, the Bread that Jesus offers for eating. It is in this chapter that John's Jesus makes the statement "I am the Bread of Life" (verse 36). To share in the Bread of Life is to be nourished in a different way than to sit down at a full turkey dinner. To share in the feast of faith (whether that be bread and fish on a lakeside hill, crackers and water beside a hospital bed, or bread and wine/juice in the midst of a worship service) is to be renewed in our souls.

As a faith community we greet each other at the table to be renewed. As a faith community we welcome all comers, all those who seek to follow The Way of Christ to share in the meal. We pass the Bread of Life to each other, we share Christ's real presence in our midst, we allow the meal to change us as we continue to strive to live as residents of the Kingdom.

Such a simple meal....right?

Friday, August 25, 2017

September Newsletter

Cast Your Nets...

At the end of August I started reading Fishing Tips by the Rev Dr. John Pentland. In this book John shares some of his learnings from the transformation that has taken place at Hillhurst United Church in Calgary since 2004. John is clear that he is not trying to right a “this is how to become a great church” manual. He is sharing what happened for them, with the hope that there may be some wisdom other congregations can use to explore what kind of a church God is calling them to be.

The Scripture passage John says sparked the structure of the book comes from the Gospel of John. It is an Easter story. Peter and the others have returned to Galilee and their lives as fishermen. They fish all night and catch nothing. Then a stranger on the shore tells them to try casting their nets on the other side of the boat. Why should they listen? They know how to fish! But sometimes anything is worth a try – and they catch so many fish they can hardly bring in the net.

In the Church this story has been used to remind ourselves (or to teach ourselves) that sometimes we intentionally have to do things differently to allow for renewal or growth or rebirth. It is a challenge, because often our corporate reaction is “don’t tell us what to do! We know what we are doing!”. But the reality is that some of what we do is timeless and some of it it universal, and much of it is limited to a certain context and time.

Earlier this year I asked folks to consider what the “big rocks” are in our life as a faith community. I want us to know what we understand to be the most important things to do as a faith community as we set priorities over the next year. A related question is “what do we do well?”, what do we do that is different, what do/can we do better than other parts of our community. Once we sort out those things we can look at what resources we need and what resources we have to make those things happen.

But I want us to be open to the voice on the shore that says “try the other side!”. In the Gospel story, once the net is full of fish the disciples eyes are opened and they see that it is Jesus on the shore. What does he know about fishing? He was a carpenter after all? Some scholars have suggested that from the shore maybe he could see a shadow in the water that showed where the school was swimming. Possibly so. But I think that throughout his ministry Jesus is trying to make people see differently. Jesus continuously tries to make people understand that it is time to do life differently, that in the difference is where God can break in. I suggest that this is still just as true.

Maybe we need the voice of those on the edges, or even outside the community who see the things we can’t see. Maybe we need the voice that reminds us that just because one approach or activity or style has been meaningful in the past it may have had its day.

But at the same time we need the voices that remind us why something had meaning, why something worked before. Because there might still be wisdom there to live by.

When I started seminary 25 years ago a recurring theme in my theology class (at least one I heard) was that tradition was problematic. A recurring theme I hear in many organizations is that tradition is the guidepost by which we need to live. I think neither statement is true (especially given my mother’s definition of a tradition as “something we tried once and it worked”). I think tradition can be problematic, it can also be helpful. When we plan we need to talk through and see which side it falls on in each instance.

And so I ask you. Where do you hear God challenging us to throw the nets on the other side? Where do you hear God calling us to keep on keeping on? (I suspect that some of your answers will contradict each other.) Where are our traditions moving us forward? Where are they holding us back in a changed community? And along those lines, if there was one big piece of ministry you would love to see the congregation take on or expand or revive in 2017-2018 what would it look like?

Monday, August 21, 2017

Looking Ahead to August 27, 2017 -- The Bent Over Woman

The Scripture Reading for this week is Luke 13:10-17

The Sermon title is  Stand Up Straight

Early Thoughts: What is holding you back or bending you over? And do you know when it is time to allow the interruption to take precedence?

This has long been one of my favourite of the healing stories. And there are two things that jump out at me this exploration.

One is the first question above. Sometimes we don't even know the answer. I have known people who have lived  with undiagnosed depression for years. Then they hit the crisis point and start to get treatment. Suddenly the world changes for them. Sometimes we assume that something is "normal" when in fact it is because we have adjusted to and accepted the weight that is sitting on our shoulders. I wonder if that was what the woman felt like. After 18 years of being weighed down did she think that life without that weight was even possible? What was it like to adjust to her freedom?

The story of Scripture is, among other things, the story of a God who wishes God's people to be free and whole and healthy. The work of Jesus was, in part, to bring the good new that we are set free. From what chains do you need to be set free?

The other thing that jumps out of the story at me this time is the interruption. Jesus is busy doing something (teaching) when he sees this woman across the room. He stops what he is doing and goes to her. And at that point the interruption becomes more important than what is being interrupted.

Any parent knows the feeling. You try to get something done and a child comes in with a question, or a book to be read, or a crisis to be solved. Sometimes (often) our first reaction is to get irritated and wish for just a couple hours of time to get our own plans accomplished. But what is more important?

Many people find that the same thing happens in their professional lives. There is that letter to write or article to read but then someone stops by to chat....

Many of us have learned that sometimes the most profitable ministry we do is done in the unplanned interruption. The child who gets the hug that makes her day, the co-worker who needs emotional support because his world is crumbling, the woman who has been bent over for 18 years get freed.

I believe that when Jesus saw her enter the room he knew in his heart what was most important. Freedom. Wholeness. Health. Practical and visible signs that God is at work in the midst of the gathering. Yes it was an interruption. But it was a holy interruption.

Where are the holy interruptions in your lives? When have we missed them because our own agenda got in the way?

Reflecting on the events of the last couple of weeks another thought occurs to me.  When God acts to release people from chains, to allow them to stand up straight, why  does the rest of the world so often try to put the chains back on, to add weight to each other's shoulders?

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.