180107 – Grand Opening

Yr B ~ Epiphany 1 ~ Mark 1:4-11

Happy New Year! We’re going to be spending the first part of this year exploring the first chapter of the first gospel – the gospel according to Mark. Now, if you know your bible well you know that Matthew is the first book of the New Testament, but Mark was actually written about 10-15 years earlier than Matthew and Luke, and about 25 or so years earlier than the gospel of John. So, Mark is really first.grand-opening

Curiously, and in stark contrast to the season we’ve just emerged from – Christmas – there is no nativity or birth story for Jesus in Mark. Well, perhaps there is, as I’ll suggest in about 10 minutes!
Instead, Mark begins with Jesus already as an adult. We’ll talk about all kinds of features of the writing in Mark over the course of the month, but the first thing you might notice is how direct and matter-of-fact Mark is. Church folks who have spent a long time in rooms like this and have good familiarity with the other gospels will tend to fill in the blanks and spaces that Mark leaves with details from the other gospels.
So it’s important for us to take a moment and remember that at the time Mark was written there were no other gospels!
This was it.
It’s a Spartan and unembellished text. And it will often feel raw and edgy.
That’s probably why it’s my favourite of the four gospels!

Today we get the familiar story of Jesus’ baptism – although the way Mark treats it may seem a bit unfamiliar! I’m going to go verse by verse and amplify the text as I go.
There is so much good theological material here! I hope you enjoy this! Mark 1:4-11.

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness [a place that symbolizes transformation],
proclaiming a baptism [which was not a unique innovation of John’s – baptisms were part of Jewish tradition as far back as Leviticus 13 and 15],
a baptism of repentance [the Greek word is metanoia, which literally means to go beyond the mind you have, to have a change of understanding, a change of heart, to live a new Way]
for the forgiveness of sins [sins are less about singular actions you did or didn’t do, and more about your state of being – a state where you feel you have missed the mark, fallen short, not lived up to the ideal God desires for us].

So, John appears in a transformative place, offering an old tradition for a new understanding to help us live out our ideals that God has inspired in us but that we’re not living up to. That sounds a lot like what happens at New Years every year! Hmm!

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem [obviously an exaggeration, but still!]
were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
To confess is to openly declare, admit, and acknowledge. The first step in making a change is admitting you need a change!

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist [an odd detail for Mark who doesn’t like details, but this is meant to directly connect John to the prophet Elijah who’s described the same way in 2 Kings 1:8],
and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 John proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
There’s actually no definite article at the start of this sentence in Greek, so it isn’t actually “THE one” who’s coming, but rather just “ONE who is more powerful than I is coming after me”. That’s not a big deal, but it’s one of those subtle ways that editors inject their own theology into a text when it isn’t there in the oldest documents.

John continues,
1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Enter Jesus. But watch how quickly the narrative moves in Mark.
There’s no dialogue, there are no explanations or descriptions, it’s just down to business.

read on

171217 – A Waiting Love

Yr B ~ Advent 4 ~ Luke 1:26-38

I’m going to resist the temptation. Kinda.
Texts like the one we’re looking at today are a huge source of contention both within and without the church, and it’s almost irresistibly tempting to weigh in on the debate. waiting-love

You know, that whole thing about the English word virgin having certain connotations of sexual purity that neither the Hebrew word almah nor the Greek word parthenos have (both basically meaning ‘young woman ready for marriage’ – which insinuates virginity but does not require it) – and the debate about whether this is an immaculate conception or not (it could be, but the text does not require it) – and the debate about whether if they knew that conception required a contribution from the female too (which they didn’t yet know) that the story would’ve been told differently (possibly, but who knows). But I’m not going to get into any of that! [lol]

I’m not going to get into any of that because ultimately, for me and my understanding of the big message that we as people of faith are supposed to take away from this, ultimately all that is a secondary concern – a rabbit hole – a diversion away from something truly important. If you get caught up in the insemination paradox you’ll miss something really, really special.

Generally, we tend to lift Mary’s story onto such a high pedestal and describe it all in a once-in-the-history-of-the-universe kind of way that convinces us that Mary’s story could never happen again.

Instead, I’d like you to consider this mind-boggling alternative: Mary’s story always happens!

Or at least it could always happen, depending on the “Mary”.

If you step back from the particulars of Mary’s pregnancy and look at the story you might see what scholars identify as a classic call narrative. It’s a pattern found especially in the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) that features a greeting from a manifestation of God’s presence (often an angel), a startled reaction, an exhortation to “fear not!”, a divine commissioning (God wants you to do such and such), an objection (the classic “Yeah, but…” or “Who me?”), a reassurance (“yes you!”), and the offer of a confirming sign that you’re not just dreaming this whole thing.
That’s a call narrative

That’s exactly what happened to Mary in this annunciation story – and you can find similar stories about Moses, and Samuel, and Isaiah, and Jonah, and others.

Here’s a curious thought.
If you were hearing this story when it was first being told, back in the first century of the Common Era when the church was just starting and these texts were being written, the thing that would surprise and shock you in this story probably wouldn’t be the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy but that it was Mary who was being called.
That would’ve shocked earlier audiences because she was a nobody.
The conventional wisdom was that God’s Presence hangs out with and commissions important people, not nobodies, right?
Put another way, the surprising thing about this is that Mary could’ve been anybody.
She could’ve been you.

And that’s the power of this story for us.
Mary IS you! You ARE Mary.

You are constantly being greeted by the Presence of God because we are constantly immersed in that Presence every moment of our lives – we just don’t notice. And when we do notice it startles us and we’re befuddled and distressed and confused because coming to awareness of Something so awesome is perplexing! read on

171210 – A Waiting Joy

Yr B ~ Advent 3 ~ Luke 1:46-55 (Mary’s Magnificat)

I’m going to start today by talking about something that might at first seem disconnected from Advent and Christmas and Mary. There are numerous theological concepts floating around the church that give me pause, and one of them is the idea of the second coming. Stay with me here!waiting-joy

Advent is absolutely a season of waiting – but we’re not waiting for God to finally act and “send” Jesus back to us from some far off place. All that second coming language betrays a remarkable blind spot in theology. Second coming language makes it sound like Jesus isn’t already here – that his light is somehow absent from the world. I guess it’s built on the texts that speak of Jesus “ascending to heaven” after his resurrection, and the texts in the book of Revelation that describe his blockbuster return. That would give the impression that Jesus wasn’t here anymore.

But that also means that we’d be saying that major aspects of Jesus’ teachings were incorrect. Jesus says all sorts of things like John 14:20, “I am in you and you are in me,” and things like Matthew 28:20, “And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
So which is it? Is Jesus here or not? Because if he never left then a second coming makes no sense!

Why am I pressing this odd theological point?
Because I want us to shift our focus from passively pining away waiting for God to make the world all better, and for us to realize that what we’re waiting for and searching for is already here – waiting for us to awaken to it, embrace it, and enact it.

And that’s why Mary’s song of faithfulness, known as the Magnificat, is so incredibly important for us to understand – not so much for the exact content of the words that she sings, but for the circumstances of her life and her faith journey that put that song in her heart.

This is another key reason why churches work so hard to focus on Advent themes rather than Christmas ones at this time of year. It’s because Mary’s song is light years away from the usual stuff we get at Christmas.

But then again, especially from the lens of people of faith, Christmas is a weird holiday. Well, at least the way we celebrate it is weird. The major focus of it all is about gifts. The usual reason we trot out for that is that it’s because God gave the world Jesus, and the wise men gave the holy family gifts, so we are somehow participating in that gratitude and worship by giving and receiving gifts.

That’s a lovely sentiment. And it’s nice to be nice to people and celebrate your relationships by giving and receiving nice things.
But let’s not pretend that this is somehow a reflection about what’s really going on in the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth.
We should probably create a separate holiday called “Honour your friends and family day” – or as some have suggested just call it “Giftmas” and show our love through gifts and things that way.
That would be fine by me! Because then we wouldn’t mix up that stuff with the really big stuff that’s happening at Christmas in the bible.

We focus in on the Nativity story every year, but really, if you want to get down to the “so what?” of Christmas then Mary’s Magnificat story tells it all.
If Mary was a cartoon character she’d be picking up her blanket, walking to centre stage of the school auditorium, having the lights go out and a single spotlight shine on her and she’d be saying, “I’ll tell you what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown!”

What’s Christmas about? read on

171203 – A Waiting Peace

Yr B ~ Advent 2 ~ Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort. O comfort my people, says your God.
It’s a message so critical the writer of Isaiah had to say it twice! Comfort! Nope, not enough. Comfort, comfort! Yup. That’s it.

The Hebrew word translated as comfort is a really wonderfully rich word. Its root means to sigh! It certainly means to comfort as in to console and offer kindness and security, but it also means much more than that. The comfort the prophet offers is like a profoundly deep sigh. Go ahead and do a deep sigh right now. See how it feels. [sigh] That’s the comfort Isaiah is speaking of. waiting-peace

It’s about letting go of what had concerned and consumed you.
It’s about being released from that which imprisons you – things like guilt, negative self-talk, feeling inadequate, feeling like you let God down or didn’t live up to God’s expectations of you.
When it feels like the world’s ganging up on you Isaiah says something big: Comfort! Comfort, O my people! Deep sigh!

Our theme for Advent 2 is peace! Isn’t that what peace is? Isn’t that the heart of real, deep peace – to be released from your own personal bondage? It’s the peace of relief from the heaviness that parks itself on your chest and your consciousness.

Peace. Comfort. Deep sigh.

This isn’t just a Hebrew Scriptures thing either. The apostle Paul said something very similar in Romans 8:26. He said, Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

Now, here’s the question we don’t ask often enough. How did that heaviness get to your chest in the first place? How did you get into the bondage you feel like you’re in?
Did God put you there?
Let’s move on to Isaiah 40:2 and find out.

According to God, and this is God talking through the prophet, not me making something up to make us all feel better, according to God the message we’re supposed to hear in this passage is this:
“Hey! You and me – we’re good. All is forgiven. No worries. We’re golden. No harm, no foul, no grudges. All is well.”

It’s remarkable to me, and it bakes my brain, that this has been the consistent message of scripture through prophet after prophet, and through Jesus himself, and still after all these centuries we still don’t believe a word of it. We think,
“No way God, you can’t really mean that. I’ve done bad things. I’ve fallen short. I’ve screwed up. I’m the poster child for inconsistency. You couldn’t possibly let me off the hook.”

And God responds with a mind-boggling and heart-healing assurance:
God says, “But I’ve never ever put you on a hook. I am God. I am love. Love is all I can ever do.”

Friends, if that’s news to you, imagine what it must have felt like for the people of Israel. Isaiah 40 was written to describe the time immediately after the Israelites were released from exile and they were coming home. Now, we have to remember that for them, in their understanding of how God worked, that they were exiled because they had been disloyal to God. In their view the Babylonian army was an instrument of God used to punish them. That is fundamentally NOT our theological understanding. But it was theirs.

That’s why verse 2 here takes such pains to emphasize that whatever debt they thought they owed had been paid in full. Twice even!
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

Can you imagine how wonderful that must have sounded to a people who thought they had been punished for a couple of generations, and now they’re being told that their debt was paid? Double! And now they’re being forgiven and allowed to return to the land they had been exiled from.
What an amazing, unbelievable release that must have felt like! The 500 pound weight was taken off their chest. It must have been the deepest of sighs!

I doubt any of us have ever experienced actual exile, so how can we relate to this passage? read on

171022 – An Affirming Conversation

Today we’re continuing our exploration of what it means to move toward being an Affirming Church. We already know that we are a warm and welcoming place, and that we will strive to remove barriers for anyone who wishes to join us in journeying ever deeper into the Way of Jesus. The Affirming thing isn’t to make us welcoming – we’re already that – it’s to help us become aware of the barriers all sorts of people encounter at churches and to work hard to communicate to people out there that we really are open to them.

Part of the journey is to learn about some of the groups of people that are largely absent from churches because sadly churches have made it difficult for them to attend – or worse, have consciously excluded them by judging them and telling them they were sinful (as if we aren’t!).

We are wheelchair accessible, we have hearing assist, we have large print bulletins, and we’re comfortable with sexual orientation questions – the LGB part of it. But I’m guessing that we’re generally less comfortable with the TQ parts – the transgender/queer parts – and mostly because I imagine that many of us just haven’t had the opportunity to learn much about it.

It’s pretty commonplace now to understand that a person’s sexual orientation isn’t automatically determined by their biological parts – but now we’re learning that people’s gender identity isn’t automatically determined by biology either. For those of us who are in the majority – that our biology, orientation, and identity all align in the dominant way this talk of differing identities can throw us at first.

But it shouldn’t. Identity is a constantly changing thing. Think about what it means to be a man or a woman today – now think about what those roles looked like 100 years ago. Generally speaking, women wore dresses (never pants) and stayed home and kept house and nurtured – and men brought home the bacon, wouldn’t dream of changing a diaper, and were taught to not show emotions. Imagine what someone from 100 years ago would think about our ideas of masculine and feminine. Gender norms have evolved in drastic ways – even in your lifetime!

Every one of us has several identity changes in our lives. The most common one is probably through marriage – especially if you’re a person who took your partner’s name. That’s a huge identity change – with a whole new name. And it’s actually very biblical!

In the reading from Genesis today, after a life-changing encounter with God, the person called Abram was renamed Abraham, and Sarai was renamed Sarah. Who renamed them? Who changed their core identity? God did!

Later in Genesis the person named Jacob wrestles with an angel (or maybe it’s God) and comes away with a sore hip and a limp – and a new name and identity. Jacob is renamed Israel. By who? By God!

In the New Testament we know the story of Simon who becomes the rock on which the church will be built. Simon becomes Peter. Who gave him this new name and identity? Jesus did.

I’m simply saying that our identity is a complex thing, and the idea that your identity might change from the one you started with – the one someone else gave you – is really common. It happens to all of us. So now I’d like to introduce you to my friend who’s going to help us learn some language and gain some understanding into the TQ parts of LGBTQ issues, because they are a person who has lived this identity story in a unique way. Friends, this is my friend Mynt Marcellus.

171126 – A Waiting Hope

Yr B ~ Advent 1 ~ Mark 13:32-37 (The Message Translation)

And so we enter the Season of Advent – a season of waiting with anticipation for the coming of Jesus. That’s a loaded statement, of course, and we’ll unpack it in a few minutes, but for now let’s talk about Advent in broad terms.
Way back when Advent was treated more like Lent. A sombre and introspective time of thinking about heavy theological things, and preparing the way. Over time we’ve shifted it a bit. Now we focus more on the waiting part. And considering when Advent happens waiting is really hard.waiting-hope

December is a month that’s been taken over by the hubbub and franticness of preparing for Christmas. People worry and fuss about decorating, and getting their shopping done, and entertaining (and being good for Santa). There are big concerts, and celebrations, and parties, and food, food, food!
Usually by the time Christmas actually arrives we’re exhausted from all the preparations! The 12 days of Christmas are supposed to START on Christmas day. Instead we tend to stop then. We’re tired of Christmas before the church calendar even says we’re supposed to start celebrating it!

And into that mix preachers like me get to stand here and tell everyone to slow down and wait.
Instead of shop, bake, clean, and party we offer theological words like hope, peace, joy, and love.
I trust you don’t hear me saying all that usual Christmas stuff is bad.
It just needs balance. And this Advent waiting and anticipation in church is a great balance to the way Christmas unfolds out there.

Church and culture don’t have to be enemies in Advent, but there is some tension. For example, you’ll notice that even though some radio stations have already gone to all Christmas music all day long we have only one Christmas carol during the worship service in the morning – and I do that reluctantly! We’re also experimenting with some pre-church carol singing because the mean minister won’t do it during worship!

Scripture too is a challenge during Advent because we can’t tell the nativity story yet. Even if we could get the world to stop focusing so much on Santa and instead to focus on Jesus Advent tells us, nope, not yet, gotta wait for Jesus until at least the 24th! Instead, all the texts are about waiting, and some of them are pretty harsh.

And that’s why we focus so much on those four themes – hope, peace, joy, and love.
This week the theme is about hope.
But the passage from Mark doesn’t sound like hope at first. It sounds like Santa saying “You better watch out!”

Mark 13:32-37 – a homeowner goes on a trip and leaves their servants in charge. The focus is on the gatekeeper. They’re supposed to make sure they don’t fall asleep on the job. To keep awake. To watch. To wait. (Sounds like Advent, right?) But then it says to watch and wait and stay awake because you don’t know when the master is coming!

Um, but we do.
We’ve got these neat things called calendars and it’s really clearly marked that on Dec 25th we’ll mark the day that Jesus was born.
(Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not the actual day – no one could possibly know the actual day – but that’s when we mark the day so we just go with it.)
Except even we in the church can’t wait that one more day and we actually celebrate Jesus’ birth on the 24th!

Scripture says we don’t know the day – don’t know the timetable. And yet we have these calendars that clearly mark off the days.
Some people start counting the days to Christmas in the summer!
Heck some even start the day after Christmas anticipating next year! (I doubt though that it’s Jesus they’re waiting for!) read on

171119 – Living Thankfully Day by Day

Misson & Service Sunday - Donna Bignell

M&S Sunday ~ Genesis 28:10-22

The message this morning has been taken from the Annual Congregational Giving Program sent to all Pastoral Charges from National Office.

Today’s message is called Living Thankfully Day by Day.  When I read and re-read this message I wanted to change it to make it mine but instead I re-read and asked myself what is in this message.  I found Questions, Trickery, Dreaming, Refugee statis, a Promise and finally Thankfulness.  I am sure you will find all of these things and maybe more as I share with you the contents of this message. It is based on Genesis 28:10-22 “Surely God is in this place – and I did not know it”.  This statement, at least part of it “Surely God is in this place” is very familiar to all of us here at Faith United.  It is taped all through our building.  Let us examine what the write of this message has to say.

Do you ever have those sleepless nights when you just can’t get your mind to shut down? Do you have times when life gets confusing and complicated, and try as you might you just can’t get to sleep? You try counting sheep, or taking deep breaths, or repeating a mantra, or even reading a boring book, but nothing works. As soon as you close your eyes, thoughts of what you should do, or what you should have done, or what you might try next keep popping up, and any sleep that does come is restless and fleeting. I imagine that Jacob was having one of those nights when he lay his head down on that stone at Bethel.

His life at that point was certainly confused and complicated. He was fleeing for his life, according to one story. He had tricked his brother out of his inheritance—stolen the inheritance, actually. Rebekah, his mother, overheard Isaac promise to bless the elder brother Esau as soon as he got back from hunting. While he was away, Jacob dressed up as Esau and fooled his elderly, blind father into giving him the blessing. His actions were akin to the one child who manages to get power of attorney from an aging and feeble parent and then empties the bank account while the other siblings are on vacation.

When he got back and found out the trickery, Esau was furious to the point of threatening murder. So his mother, Rebekah, who had been in on the plan, sent Jacob to live with her brother for a time till Esau cooled off. She didn’t want to lose them both! A different version of the story says that Jacob went to live with his uncle in order to find himself a wife from his mother’s people. She didn’t want him marrying one of the locals. As he fled to his uncle’s, Jacob was leaving all that was familiar and going to a strange land.

We read, “He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set.” The sun sets quite quickly closer to the equator. Jacob had been walking or running all day, trying to put as much distance as he could between himself and his enraged brother. He was exhausted and alone and it was dark, so he found a stone for a pillow, tried to get comfortable, and tried to sleep.

Can you imagine the thoughts running through his head? “At least I got father’s blessing. The inheritance is mine. No one can take it away now. But that won’t help if Esau and his gang find me and kill me. I hope Uncle Laban will take me in. Mother said he would, but things could have changed since she saw him last. Is he rich enough to give me a job; can he even afford to feed me? What are the women there like? How am I supposed to find a bride for myself? I thought matchmakers did that. Do they have matchmakers there? What if uncle doesn’t take me in? Where will I find work? I’m a farmer, but I don’t have land there. Will someone there need a farmhand? How long will I have to stay? Will I ever get to go home again?” Jacob eventually fell into a restless, dream-filled sleep.

Most of us don’t pay much attention to dreams today, but in Jacob’s time dreams meant something. Coming out of that dream, a “stairway to heaven” dream, he knew the ground he was on was holy.

“Surely God is in this place—and I did not know it!” There are times in our lives and places in our lives when the presence of God comes closer. Sometimes we don’t even know it, or recognize it, or believe that such an experience is possible, but it happens. The Celtic people called such places “thin places”—places where the barrier or the difference between the human and the divine is thin, almost transparent, and when we let it, the divine presence can shine through into our lives. When we have such an experience, like Jacob we are a bit afraid, awestruck, moved, and changed. Jacob was moved to make a promise to God. “OK, God, if you are with me, as I now know you are, and if you will be with me even as I travel and live in a foreign land, I will trust you to give me food to eat and clothing to wear, and I will trust that you will one day lead me home in peace. You will be my God, and from all the gifts that you give to me, I will give you one-tenth.”

Sometimes God gets through to us during the challenges that life sends our way. Paul was born 70 years ago to a doctor and his wife in a small city in Ontario. His life promised to evolve much like that of others his age: public school, university, good job, family, successful career, and easy retirement. His siblings’ life went like that, but Paul’s did not. His father died when he was about 15, and his mother moved the family to another town. Paul never did fit in. Life after that move was not kind to Paul. Mental illness, addiction, and a stint in the U.S. army in Vietnam all took their toll. But eventually, back in Canada, Paul learned to live with his situation, managing to get by on a small government disability pension, usually taking his medication, painting for enjoyment and to fill the time, and amazingly, living with an attitude of gratitude. Every week when he arrived at Bible study he reminded the group and himself to live with an attitude of gratitude. Paul, like the apostle whose name he bears, had known good times and bad times, and he learned that life works better when you give thanks day by day.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11–13). The secret to life is thanksgiving—to live with an attitude of gratitude, knowing that God is in this place, knowing that God is with us whether we know it or not, remembering that all we have is a gift that God entrusted to us to use and to share. Jacob committed himself to share one-tenth, and so began the tradition of the tithe.

Living thankfully and sharing generously is not easy in our culture because our culture teaches us exactly the opposite. Our faith teaches us to give thanks to God for the abundance of creation. Our culture wants us to believe that we live in a time of scarcity. We don’t have time. We will never have enough money. We are exhausted. We don’t have the energy. We don’t get enough sleep. And if we do get close to the point where we think we might have enough, someone will be there to tell us that we need a bit more or that someone else has more, and we should too. So thankfulness is subversive in a culture that is grounded in scarcity.

Being thankful turns that scarcity thinking on its head. When we are thankful, we remind ourselves that indeed we do have enough, probably more than enough. We live in abundance. God has blessed us with abundance. So we give thanks. Our attitude of gratitude, expressed in our daily lives to family, friends, co-workers, and neighbours, is subversive. So let’s all be a bit subversive. Let us thank God every day. And let’s not be afraid to tell others how thankful we are. Every word, every act of thanksgiving is a challenge to the culture of greed and scarcity in which we live. It invites others into those thin places where we, like Jacob, can notice that surely God is in this place. When we pause to give thanks, we bring joy and peace and contentment not only to us but to those around us.

Thanks be to God. Amen and amen.

171112 – Hey Baby, What’s Your Cline

Yr A ~ Pentecost 23 ~ Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

I know you’ve done it. I’ve done it too. Someone official asks you a question and you know what the answer is supposed to be and you give that answer even though you don’t believe it, or you haven’t actually done the thing they’re asking but you say you have. Or maybe you have some doubts about something but you’re standing in a crowd and rather than go against the crowd you go with the flow. what-cline
Too often our actions belie our words.
We don’t practice what we preach.
We may not like to admit it, because it demonstrates a lack of integrity on some level, but we’ve all done it. And the sad truth is that we usually get away with it.

However, if the person asking the question is a good reader of people they’ll know what you’re up to and call you on it. You’ll probably deny it at first, but they’ll know, and sooner or later you’ll probably realize you’re not getting away with it and then you have a choice to make – double down and continue to misrepresent yourself, or admit the truth and come clean.
And the sad truth about that is that we usually choose to double down because it’s uncomfortable and humiliating to own up to a shortcoming.

I call it the mirror moment. It’s that moment when you look in the mirror and you realize that you can’t kid yourself anymore, that you see the thing you’re doing or thinking is wrong, that you can’t keep doing it, and that you’re going to act or think differently from that moment on.

In today’s passage from Joshua he has a wonderful way to describe that mirror moment. He says that the people are witnesses against themselves. Isn’t that a great way to say it? When you’re looking in that mirror you are a witness against yourself. But let me go back a bit and say more about what they were doing wrong that needed a mirror moment.

After their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness the Israelites entered the Promised Land. Moses had led them that far but he did not go with them into the new world. He passed the leadership on to Joshua. Today’s reading comes from the end of Joshua’s story, long after he’d fought the battles, and it shows that he may have failed in his most sacred duty. The people of Israel had drifted away from the One God, Yahweh, and were worshipping other gods.

So Joshua calls them on it. The entire nation of Israel, all the various leaders and key people, everybody is gathered together and Joshua rises up before them and says that they are supposed to be serving or worshipping God like he does. It’s one of the most famous lines in the bible,
“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!”

But the people aren’t following suit, and Joshua tells them they’re not.
They answer back, “Yes we are!”
He says, “No, you’re not!”
They say, “Yes, we are!”
He says, “No, you’re really not, and you know it.”
And they say, “Yeah, ok, you got us. No, we’re not. But we will now!”
(I may be paraphrasing a little.)

What it actually says in the end is this, Joshua 24:22
Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.”

Joshua makes them look hard at themselves in the mirror and become witnesses against themselves, realize that their actions are proving the case against them, and they finally admit, “Yes, we are witnesses.”

In church we have a name for the mirror moment. We call it confession. Did you know that you make a confession every Sunday when you’re here? We don’t call it that because some people find the word problematic, maybe because it’s been used poorly in their past, but a few minutes ago we shared a prayer of invocation and transformation and in the end part we all say,
“Standing in your light, hearts broken open, acknowledging our humanness, seeking transformation, savouring your Holy Presence, we pray.”

That’s confession. That’s a mirror moment.
Hearts broken open, acknowledging our humanness – meaning that we realize that we’re not perfect – and seeking transformation – seeking a new way and leaving behind an old way.
So yes, we do confession every week here. It’s a critical part of a disciple’s faith journey. read on

171105 – Walk Worthy

Yr A ~ Pentecost 22 ~ 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

There are several words in our theological vocabulary that cause people a significant amount of angst – words like atonement, judgment, salvation, sin, tithing, evangelism, and why don’t you lead the devotion today (!). Today we’re going to wrestle with another tough word – worthy. Worthy means having great merit, value, and character. It refers to someone deserving honour, respect, and admiration. It’s a good word to associate with Remembrance Sunday because without question, we name those who served in the armed forces in times of conflict as worthy of our honour, respect, and admiration.walk-worthy

Worthy is a word that easier to say about others than it is to say about ourselves. We don’t like to say it about ourselves. The word makes us uncomfortable because in order to claim it you need to make a value judgment and assessment about yourself and determine that you are, indeed, deserving. But that flies in the face of much of our religious thinking, right? We insist that this whole faith thing is about grace and has nothing to do with merit, and yet this word worthy suggests merit is involved. Don’t worry, I’m going to give you an out in a minute. But for now, let’s wrestle.

We love the idea of God being worthy, and Jesus being worthy – worthy of honour, and praise, and fidelity, and awe.
There’s no doubt whatsoever for us that God is worthy.
Of course God’s worthy! God is God!
And compared to God or Jesus of course we’re not worthy – at least not in the same kinds of ways.

But we need to be careful not to go too far. I mean, it’s funny in the movie Wayne’s World when Wayne and Garth meet famous rock stars and go “We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy!” But it doesn’t mean they think of themselves as vile worms. And that’s the problem with the way religion has tended to think about worthiness. God’s holiness is perfection, we can’t get anywhere near that so we’re not worthy.
But that doesn’t mean we’re worthless!
If we were worthless why would God bother with us?
If we were worthless why would Jesus call us friend?
We are worthy of their love and Presence apparently. Why not take them at their word and embrace it?

But we can’t go too far in embracing it, I guess, because then we risk being full of ourselves instead of full of God. We lack humility if we see God’s light shining through us and confuse it with our own light. The fancy theological term for this is imputed righteousness – we aren’t righteous on our own, but we become righteous as Jesus lives in us and we share in his righteousness. And yet we still don’t like to think of ourselves as worthy.

Paul clearly thinks he’s worthy. Many readers think he comes off as arrogant. Maybe he’s just super confident of his faith. The scripture passage we’re looking at today comes from the very earliest bit of writing we have in the New Testament. It’s from 1st Thessalonians which was written in the 0050s. Everything else in the New Testament was written down after this. Paul is writing to a church community in Thessalonica that he started, shepherded for a while, and then moved on to start or plant other churches. This letter is him writing to them to check in on them and solve a couple of problems that arose.

Paul is not shy about claiming his worthiness! He says, “You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers.” (1 Th 2:9-10)

So is he arrogant or accurate? Maybe both! And I think we can learn a lesson from him.
False modesty is just as unseemly as arrogance. When you know you’ve done well, taken the high road, acted with integrity, accomplished good things, why would you say, “No, that’s ok, it was nothing.”
It wasn’t nothing.
It was important, and you did it.
If someone offers you an estimation of worthiness you should graciously accept it and affirm it. Unfortunately, Paul doesn’t wait for someone to name his worthiness – he names it for himself. Nobody’s perfect! read on

171029 – Give Er

Yr A ~ Pentecost 21 ~ Matthew 22:15-22

You know how lots of times I tell you about how scripture passages that appear to be straightforward are actually very tricky and need really careful unpacking to get to the deeper meaning? Well, today’s scripture is not one of them. There’s nothing tricky about it. And there’s nothing subtle about it either. Once we hear it there’s no mistaking what Jesus is saying to us. The only mystery is why do we have such a hard time following his teaching?give-er

I haven’t done this in a while, and if you’re a visitor today I assure you that I don’t talk about this all the time, but today you get a sermon mostly about money. Did you know that Jesus taught more about money than any other subject? Twenty-seven of Jesus’ 43 parables – that’s 62% – have to do with money and possessions. Approximately one of every ten verses in the gospels deals with money. The whole bible has around 500 verses on prayer, fewer than 500 on faith, but more than 2000 on money.  Then, as now, money was a huge faith issue.

So it’s not surprising that Jesus’ enemies choose to use the minefield of money to try to entrap Jesus into making a mistake so they can discredit him. A subtlety in the text that you may not have picked up is that Jesus’ testers in this tale are described as the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. In other words Jesus is facing off against agents of the church and agents of the state! They ineptly try to butter him up with false praise and then slyly ask him if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the emperor.

If he answers yes then the religious accusers will jump on him for abandoning the purity of the religion and if he answers no the state accusers will jump on him for going against Caesar. Jesus will have none of that simplistic, dualistic, either/or nonsense, and gives them a fantastic and penetratingly deep answer.

Jesus asks them to toss him a coin. Looking at it he says, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” (Matthew 22:20)

But the Greek word isn’t the word for ‘head’ it’s the word e-i-k-o-n – icon. An icon is something that represents something bigger. Another translation is ‘image’. Image is a powerful theological idea. We first encounter it in the book of Genesis when we’re told that humankind is created imago dei, in the image of God, as God’s icon.

So when you put that deeper meaning together you see that Jesus is actually asking a really profound question of us as he holds up that coin – and it isn’t really about Caesar at all. He’s basically asking “whose” you are.

Whose image? Whose image is imprinted upon your soul? Whose image does your life strive to resemble? Whose image is influencing your character, your actions, and your dreams?

Is it the image that’s printed on the coins? Because if you look at the state of the world it certainly feels most days like it’s money, or the frantic lust for money, that seems to be driving the bus.

Whose image? Whose likeness? Whose alikeness – as in who are you more alike? What does your life look like? If someone who didn’t know you well took a look at you, whose likeness would they see? Would it be more like Caesar’s or more like God’s?

I know, that’s not really fair – because when you look at someone all you can see is the tangible worldly stuff – the material stuff of money and possessions. You can’t see someone’s true likeness with the naked eye. The “God-stuff” is deeper.

And to be even fairer, Jesus doesn’t ask us to choose. Jesus doesn’t castigate people for having, needing, or spending money. He holds the coin, has us look carefully at it, and he asks us a key question: What is the rightful place of this coin in your life? read on

171008 – Thanks-Praying

Yr A ~ P17 ~ Luke 17:11-19

Today’s gospel reading is another one of those tricky bible stories that appear to be straightforward but is actually quite deep. It works on several levels. On one level it’s a simple story about thankfulness. If someone does something nice for you, go back and say thanks. That’s great for kids time, and a lesson worth noting for all of us, but if you stay on that level you’re missing a lot!thanks-praying

On another level it’s a testament to Jesus’ ability to heal people. Although if you read it carefully he doesn’t seem to do all that much! Getting more personal, on another level it could be a teaching about how thick we are – that maybe we’re all 10 lepers and we need to keep hearing Jesus’ message over and over again and finally after so many times we’ll hear and respond.

On yet another level it could also be a shot at our tendency to think that when it comes to faith just following the rules and checking off the boxes is enough. It isn’t! Not by a longshot! So that’s in play here too. (We’ll talk more about this one in a minute.)

But ultimately, at its deepest level, for me, it’s a story about what real spiritual transformation looks like and where real gratitude comes from. It’s this level that I want us to focus on.

Let’s think about the word ‘love’ for a minute. This one single word has so many levels of meaning.
I love that song, I love that TV show, I love autumn, I love chocolate chip cookies, I love kids, I love you man!, I love Faith United!, I love you Jesus, I love you honey.
One word can seemingly interchangeably refer to the trivial and the profound.

You can probably see where I’m heading. Thank you is the same.
We say thanks for simple things like holding doors open or being handed something like a pencil, or a bulletin – and we use the same words when someone has just rescued our whole family from a pending disaster, or told us that we’ve just been judged to have achieved our life goal. Thank you! And all those levels of thankfulness are good – but some of them are pretty inconsequential and some are life-changing.

Ten lepers were healed. Only one returned to give thanks. But don’t think for a minute that those other nine weren’t grateful. Of course they were! Because of their illness they were banished from their society and their family, so being healed, being made clean, meant they could go back to their lives. It’s ridiculous to think they walked away with anything other than gratitude for Jesus.

But, when offered spiritual wholeness, instead of having it change their lives they chose to use the gift to continue in their regular ways. They said, indirectly of course,
“Thanks Jesus! This is great. Now I can go to the priests and be declared clean and get back to life as usual. I’m so glad I met you! This spiritual stuff is great! It pumps me up and inspires me on my path.” My path.

Please listen carefully here. There’s nothing really wrong with that. This story isn’t meant to judge the failure of the nine lepers. Christians have done that far too often! Those 9 didn’t fail. They received from Jesus what they were able to receive and their lives were better for it. That’s a win. Lots of people come to places like this and hear messages about Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit and they go away feeling more positive, and feeling uplifted, and their lives are better for it. Hallelujah! That’s awesome! “Thank ya Ja-eez-us!”

And yet, there’s also Something More. There’s something even better than all that. This scripture story gives us some clues as to how amazing and life-changing this gift of Jesus’ can actually be. read on

171001 – University of Jesus

Yr A ~ Pentecost 17 ~ Philippians 3:4b–14

“Go forth, knowing who you are and whose you are.” No, we’re not finished already, but those are the words I typically send you out with at the end of our worship time. I’d like to push on the words for a few minutes and see what happens.university-jesus

“Go forth, knowing who you are!” Who are you? You’d probably start with your name. But who are you? I know you know, but can you put it into words?
When we meet someone for the first time we immediately ask a few probing questions just to get a sense of who they are. The psychologists will tell you that how you answer says a lot about you. Who are you? Define yourself in a few words.
Umm, Larry, husband, father, musician, minister, mystic?, umm…noticer!

You could probably answer that question too. But what if I asked who you are as a group?
Ok, quick, Faith United Church, who are you? Define your church in a few words. Don’t answer that yet. Let it stew for a while.
Let’s look at the other question – an even more foundational question – whose are you?

Philippians 3:10-14

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead

That’s a fancy way to say that that’s our goal – dying to the former and rising anew – in a word it’s cruciformity – and lived out it’s Christ-likeness.

Paul continues,

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

We press on to make the goal of Christ-likeness our own because Jesus has made us his own beloved. You are God’s beloved! Having this sense of identity – of knowing “whose we are” gives us energy and motivation for living – “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”
“Christ’s beloved” is our identity as followers of the Way of Jesus.
Who are we? We are Christ’s beloved – Christ’s own. We’re family. We’re part of the body of Christ.

But who are we as a church? If being “Christ’s own or beloved” is our identity globally, what’s our identity locally? read on

170924 – Creation – Granted

Yr A ~ Creation 3 ~ Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45

Give thanks, call on God, make known God’s presence, sing to God, sing praises to God, say what God has done in your life, exult in God’s name, rejoice, seek God’s presence, seek God’s strength, seek God’s presence continually, and remember – remember all God has granted, remember how the Spirit has surprised and delighted and moved you, and remember how following God’s way of love, love, love has guided your life on a better path.creation-granted

That’s a paraphrase of how Psalm 105 begins. And it ends in a similar way.
Praise God. Literally, the last words in this psalm are “praise the Lord,” which in Hebrew is Hallelujah! Praise God! Hallelujah!
Why? Why all this praising?
Because of all that God has done.
Ok, but what if you don’t think that God has done very much?
Well, I guess that all depends on how you look at things.

People of faith tend to look at things through the lens of God’s omni-presence. And while it may be hard to discern how God might be moving or what God might be doing in a given moment, people of faith can look back on their history and discern that God was indeed there – present – acting – somehow.

For the Jews the history they always look back on was what we now call the Exodus – their release from the captivity of Pharaoh in Egypt and their following of Moses into the wilderness and ultimately into the Promised Land. It’s the story of how they became a people. And they are convinced that God was at the centre of the story – guiding and acting and bringing it to be.

I can think of another exodus story that I think you will find even more pertinent! It’s a story about how a group of faithful people ‘escaped from’ a situation in which struggling and floundering were dominant. They spent their fair share of time in the wilderness – in that in-between time of knowing that leaving ‘what was’ behind was the right thing, but not really knowing what’s next yet. And then there was their deliverance to the Promised Land – a land not without challenge, but filled with the promise of the potential of flourishing.

Does that sound familiar? It should – because that’s the exodus story of Faith United.
Once there was a time when two (and later a third) church were struggling and perhaps even floundering, who ‘escaped’ and wandered in the wilderness for a while.
For some (St. Andrew’s and Courtice folks) it was a season of church in a school because church buildings had been let go of and sold.
For others (Harmony folks) it was a season of looking for a compatible group to join with.
Either way it was a time of risk, and leaving behind, and an unknown future. It was a time in the wilderness.
And then, ultimately, there was this place – Faith United – the Promised Land! A land of milk and honey and wondrous blessings!

Exaggeration? No, not really.
This is the language people of faith use. After a time in the wilderness arriving in a place like this feels like the Promised Land! And all along the journey I will bet that those of you who were there felt like God was with you – providing!
When you didn’t have a place to go and this property became available, didn’t it feel like a blessing?
When the original plans for an additional church hall didn’t work out and we ended up with this single multi-purpose space didn’t this turn out to be a great blessing?
When just the right people with just the right skills emerged at just the right time to make things happen wasn’t that an example of God providing?

This is our exodus story. And we need to keep telling it over and over again to remember how we got here and to remember how blessed we are to be here, in this place, together.
The ancient Israelites felt the same way, and still today, thousands of years later, they still tell their story for the same reasons. And their story is epic. read on

170917 – Creation – Delighted

Yr A ~ Creation 2 ~ Psalm 96

We are the Holy Rollers.
We value enthusiasm and spontaneity. creation-delighted
We love happy clappy music and we wear our emotions on our sleeves.
We will laugh or cry in worship at the slightest provocation.
We will fall on the floor overcome by emotion as we open ourselves and ponder the immensity of God’s love for us.

We think sermons are participatory so we answer questions and voice our agreement throughout.
We nod our heads vigorously when the preacher makes an interesting point and we’ll shout out affirmation when the preacher makes a great one.
We applaud after every hymn, praise song, and choir anthem because that’s how we say thanks.
We love and worship God in a noisy and exuberant way.
And we are moved to share this love of God that we feel so deeply with others.

We are the Frozen Chosen.
We value order and dignity.
We love majestic organ music and we hold our emotions very close to the chest.
We will laugh in worship on occasion, and cry if dealing with something profoundly sad, but generally we keep our emotions to ourselves.
We sit in our pews and think deeply about the immensity of God’s love for us.

We think sermons are educational and inspirational so we respectfully listen as the preacher shares their insights.
We will nod our heads at interesting ideas and furrow our brow when we disagree.
We offer an affirming nod after choir anthems to allow the sanctity of the moment to resonate.
We love and worship God in a quiet and steadfast way.
And we are moved to share this love of God that we feel so deeply with others.

We are Faith United!
What do we value? What music do we love?
How much emotion do we dare to show?
How do we use our bodies in worship?
How do we interact with sermons?
How do we respond to music?
In what manner do we love God?

Are you feeling closer to a Holy Roller or a Frozen Chosen?
Or will we do the typically Canadian, United Church thing and declare ourselves to be right in the middle?

Perhaps you’re wondering why we’re talking about worship in the Season of Creation, when the usual topics are about the environment or nature? Well, this year I’m looking more at the Creator than Creation, and worship is our response to the loving action and being of the Creator. So it makes sense to think about what that response, what that worship, looks like.

Worship is really our main thing as a church so it really deserves some thinking time. Worship is the one time we gather together each week as a large community of faith and focus together on what is supposed to be job #1 – to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. This isn’t the only way we love God, but it’s arguably the most powerful.

Our spiritual energy is amplified when we gather. We share our gifts in creative and helpful ways. We set everything else aside and allow ourselves to be immersed in the presence of God.
A church is healthy and vibrant for many, many reasons and the people who make up a church community of faith need to be involved in many, many different aspects of discipleship such as learning times, and supporting one another, and helping in the kitchen, and grounds keeping, and preparing for various wonderful fundraisers and events, and even simple things like lugging chairs or speaking positively about the church.

But the centre point, the hub, the engine, the power cell, the fuel tank, the core, the foundation – pick whatever image works for you – the main thing, our raison d’être is to gather together and worship the Holy Mystery we call God.
Our buildings are specifically designed to support this gathering of God’s people.
Our biggest budget expenses go toward supporting this activity.

So if worship isn’t right, if it isn’t deep, and spiritual, and moving, and challenging, and inspiring, and life-changing, and soul tending, and action-provoking then this whole church enterprise loses its power and passion and drive – and it withers and dies.
(No pressure!)
I can get a lot of things wrong (and there are days when I certainly do!) but if I get worship wrong I’m in big trouble.

So let’s talk worship and make sure we get it right! Let’s see if Psalm 96 can help us! read on

170910 – Creation – Awed

Yr A ~ Creation 1 ~ Psalm 114

This is the seventh September that we have marked the Season of Creation at Faith United. For some of us here this has become another regular part of the church year. Some of us probably still find it new and strange. And some may not have paid much attention to the church seasons and are happy to take the themes as they come. So it’s probably good for us to begin with some thinking about what it is we’re focusing on in this new church/liturgical season.creation-awed

What do we mean by creation? One aspect is to think about the natural world, the planet we share, and to raise theological issues about sustainability, respect, resources, stewardship, and greed. We can talk about the environment, the physical world, and celebrate the wonders that it holds.

Another aspect is to think about the act of creation, and focus on God. While it makes for a good visual, I don’t for one instant imagine that a humanoid figure with a white beard physically shaped the stars and planets and all that is. So what do we mean by the act of creation? The big bang maybe?
Did it just happen? Was it caused? What banged together? These are big scientific questions, but they’re also spiritual questions.

For me creation is about the existence of life that can in many ways be explained scientifically but also holds a mysterious, miraculous sense because the complexity and interrelatedness of it all inspires awe and wonder and we sense that more than just being a happy accident we are somehow the product of a loving intention. We give that mysterious intentionality the name God, and we celebrate how we are part of it all.

So, we could go in any of those directions, but I’m more intrigued by the God part, which you could’ve probably guessed. So perhaps a better name for the way I’m approaching it isn’t the Season of Creation but the Season of the Creator!
How can we talk about God as creator without falling into troublesome anthropomorphism?
How do we acknowledge the remarkable understandings that science has given us and at the same time acknowledge that there’s more to it than just science?
And how do we find language that can speak to the theological side without leaving our brains at the door?

Today we’re going to explore some of that language – and probably the best language to use to talk about God is poetry – and the best poetry in the bible is found in the Book of Psalms, which is more or less a hymn book – which means poetry and music in the service of speaking of spiritual things. Poetry and music have the potential to help us access deep truths and meaning that science can never get to.
Today we’re looking at Psalm 114. It’s a psalm that recalls the exodus and tries to offer a sense of how momentous a thing it was – and how awesome was the God who inspired and guided it.

1 When Israel went out from Egypt [that’s the exodus], the house of Jacob [which is all of Israel, which was his other name] from a people of strange language [a colourful way to say a foreign land],
2 Judah [a territory] became God’s sanctuary, Israel [meaning the people] God’s dominion [or realm].

The Israelites were once under the rule or domain of Pharaoh – now they’re under God’s domain. That’s the story of the exodus. For the Israelites this was an epic, epoch-making event, and they knew deep in their hearts that God was at the centre of it.
Now, how do you tell that story? How do you describe something so ginormously life-changing for you and your people?
You write songs!
Because the metaphors in poetry and songs give you the potential to express deep truths in engaging and effective ways.
So when that momentous action happened how did not just the people but the planet react?

3 The sea looked and fled; [the river] Jordan turned back [on itself and flowed the other way].
4 The mountains skipped [bounded, danced, frolicked!] like rams, the [little] hills like lambs.
5 Why is it, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back?
6 O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs?

Why? Why? Here’s why!

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint [an extremely hard rock that gives sparks when struck] into a spring of water.

How awesome was the exodus? Well, the way they tell it it rocked their world!
And this psalm was one of the ways they tried to express their overwhelming gratitude and awestruck-ness.

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.

Trembling in awe before God. read on

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