190203 – Present Company Excepted

Present Company Excepted

Yr C ~ Epiphany 4 ~ Luke 4:21-30

This sermon may be uncomfortable. It might be uncomfortable for you to hear, and parts of it are definitely uncomfortable for me to preach.
Are you nervous? You shouldn’t be.
I’m not going to go ballistic and yell and scream or anything.
But I might poke a little, and it might poke some more than others.
And some who need to feel a poke may think I’m talking about someone else.
The truth is, we all need to be poked by this message. All of us.

We begin where we left off last week. A quick recap: It’s the very start of Jesus’ public ministry. He goes to worship at his hometown synagogue and is asked to read scripture. He selects a very provocative text about freeing captives, forgiving debts, erasing land ownership issues, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. This is a direct reference to a concept called Jubilee which is basically a giant reset button that utterly upends the entire world order as far as economics and power goes – and then he sits down.

But the sitting down is actually the teaching time. And he delivers a one sentence sermon (don’t get your hopes up!) that concluded last week’s reading and begins this week’s:
Luke 4:21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Last week we explored these challenging words from Jesus, and we pressed pause on the story to make sure we spent time understanding just how radical the Jubilee values he was championing were. I also tried to emphasize that having Jubilee values being fulfilled in your hearing meant the concept becomes active for you when you hear or perceive or understand it. And once you hear it you can’t un-hear it so you either need to say yes and act on it, or say no and ignore it.

Upending an economic order and a power structure that treats all of us here pretty favourably is a very hard thing to do. But it sounds really good, doesn’t it?

Jesus’ synagogue crowd agreed.
Luke 4:22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the words of grace that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

They’re great words. Faithful words. Inspiring words.
And the people in that synagogue that day, (and probably the people in this church last week, and now), received those words and judged them to be very good! They were impressed by Jesus – even though they knew he was just Joe and Mary’s kid – and they were impressed by these high-minded ideals and values.

And then, seemingly inexplicably, Jesus turns on a dime and starts poking them in the eye.

Luke 4:24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

Maybe he saw something as he looked at them. Sometimes a preacher can look out and know that their listeners did not take in the point they just made on the level they’d hoped to communicate on. (Present company excepted.)

Maybe Jesus knew that his proclamation should’ve produced more than just a few “atta-boy’s” and that his congregation should’ve been less impressed and more convicted.

Maybe Jesus realized that they were more pleased by their local boy making good than they were motivated to actually embody those Jubilee values and that world upending worldview.

Maybe he looked at them smiling and nodding and discerned that if they really understood they’d have a very different expression on their faces.

So Jesus went after them – and they didn’t like it! read on

190127 – Toothpaste

Yr C ~ Epiphany 3 ~ Luke 4:14-21

Let me set the stage for you. A couple of weeks ago we looked at Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3. Right after that Luke 4 begins with the Holy Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness for a 40 day spiritual retreat during which he’s tempted to stray from his path and give in to lesser ideals and values. He goes into the desert filled with the Spirit and emerges from it even more filled and committed.

And today we learn that the first thing he did after the desert was to start an itinerant preaching ministry where he would go around the province of Galilee sharing God’s word. We learn that he was making something of a name for himself, and we pick the story up at his first visit back to his hometown since he’s gotten somewhat famous.

Luke 4:14-16 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.

So Jesus has gone back to his hometown where he grew up.
I love that it says in verse 16 that he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath “as was his custom.”
Apparently even someone as advanced in spirituality as Jesus was clearly thought regular church attendance was pretty important!

Jesus wasn’t setting out to start a new religion. He was being a faithful Jew, practicing his tradition.
It would be fair to call him a reformer, but he certainly was not trying to undermine Judaism and start something new.
He was trying to remind them of their roots!

So when he’s asked to read scripture and offer a reflection he doesn’t come up with something brand new and innovative. He reaches deep into the tradition and comes up with something old, and revolutionary. It turns out the most revolutionary things aren’t new – they’re just following through with what the foundational concepts were but over time the people let them slide. (Why that happens is another sermon!)

The scroll (or book) of the prophet Isaiah is quite long, so that Jesus chose this particular section of Isaiah is significant. In Luke’s gospel this is the very first thing Jesus says in his public ministry. That gives these words a special weight and importance. We look to the first official words of a leader to give an indication of what they’re going to be all about. Here’s what Jesus chose:

We call it Luke 4:18-19, but he’s quoting Isaiah 61:1-2
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Jesus declares that his ministry will be bringing good news and proclaiming God’s love and care for the poor, those held captive, the blind, and the oppressed. In most ways that doesn’t describe anyone here today. Does that mean Jesus has nothing to say to us?
Who are the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed today?
What does it mean to release them, or free them, or relieve their blindness?

On a literal level we can imagine poor, captive, blind, and oppressed people and support helping them in their challenges. But maybe if we go deeper than literal we can see that perhaps in some ways we too are poor, captive to the ways of the world, spiritually blind, oppressed by our own choices and foolishness and desires. So maybe Jesus does have something to say to us too!

The quotation from Isaiah closes with the very cryptic “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Now, if you don’t know what that is referring to then you are proving my earlier point – that the really revolutionary things are already part of our foundation but we’ve tended to forget them – or worse, ignore them! But don’t feel bad, Jesus was scolding his own contemporaries too.

What does it mean to you that Jesus “was sent to proclaim the year of God’s favour”?

Well, it’s nothing less than an agenda of utterly upending the world order. “The year of the Lord’s favour” refers to the year of Jubilee.
You can read all about the Jubilee year in Leviticus 25.
The basic concept is that every 50 years a giant “reset” button gets pushed and everyone starts from scratch again. It had to do with things like every 7 years the fields should lie fallow, and every “week” of 7 years – in other words 7 times 7 years, or 49 years something major needed to happen. The year following those 7 weeks of 7 years – the 50th year – was to be a year of Jubilee. All debts would be forgiven. All captives would be released. Those in slavery (usually because of debt) would be set free. And most importantly, people were able to return to their ancestral lands because land belonged to God not people!

Can you imagine?! Can you imagine it happening today? read on

190120 – The Holy Shoulder Tap

Year C ~ Epiphany 2 ~ 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

“What I want to talk about now is the various ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives.”

That’s how The Message Bible translates the first verse of 1 Corinthians 12, and that’s precisely what I want to talk to you about today.

“What I want to talk about now is the various ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives.”

I hope you notice that it starts with an assumption that I take as a fact. It’s not a maybe, or a hopefully. It’s a truth. A reality. It’s not, “Gee, I wonder if God’s Spirit might actually be part of my life?” It’s, “God’s Spirit absolutely DOES get worked into my life – and in various ways. That’s the fact Jack!”

It’s not just one way or one aspect of my life – and it may be decidedly different for the person sitting beside you – but even though it may look different and manifest differently there is no doubt at all in my mind that that Spirit’s working in our lives.

There are all sorts of things working on you right now. Some of them you may be actively participating in and cooperating with – some of them you might be outright resisting – and some of them you may have never given a second thought to.

Worship is working on your life right now.
Relationships are working on your life right now.
Democracy is working on our lives right now, but I doubt we think about it much apart from elections.
The social safety net and universal healthcare are working on us as Canadians, whether we’re accessing them currently or not.
To be ridiculous, gravity is working on us or we’d be floating away.
To be completely serious, love is working on us, whether we are aware or not.

I really like this translation, the various ways God’s Spirit gets worked into our lives, because it avoids some of the baggage and interpretive problems of the usual language – “spiritual gifts”.
The NRSV translates v.1 as,
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.

Spiritual gifts kind of sound like Christmas gifts. Sometimes you get one, sometimes you don’t.
Sometimes it’s just what you wanted, sometimes it’s not quite the right fit and you wish you could exchange it!

But that’s not how spiritual giftedness works. At all!
A spiritual gift sounds like it’s a self-contained package of skills or abilities or passions that you then take and use to help people or love people.

Really, what it’s talking about is our general state of blessedness. We are constantly being blessed by the Spirit.
We are in a never-ending, never-interrupted, never-diminishing stream of blessing. The Spirit is working into and through our lives just as assuredly as oxygen is! Spiritual gifts don’t come and go like Christmas – they constantly flow like your bloodstream!

Verses 4-6,

Now there are varieties of gifts or blessings, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services or ways to engage in ministry, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities one can faithfully engage in, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

So there’s all this variety but for some reason Paul felt the need to put in bold italics and underline the part about all of it coming from the same Spirit. I suspect that’s because before being Christians these Corinthian folks were likely pagans worshipping many different gods each of whom had their own thing to offer. With Jesus’ God, our God, there are many, many gifts but only One God! It also helps us to remember that there’s not just one way to serve or be faithful.

And then we get what is, for me, the most important verse in the reading.
v.7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Three big things in that one short verse.

First is the idea that each and every person is blessed and gifted.
Second is that the Spirit is manifested through us – meaning the blessings and gifts aren’t just silent, and personal, and internal – they’re meant to be seen, to be enacted, to be used. And how are they to be used?
That’s the third big idea – our gifts and blessings are for the common good! Each and every one of us is blessed and gifted to do faithful things, to do ministry, for the common good. Every one of us!

Look around this room.
As you look I bet you can catalogue all the wonderful ways various people here do ministry – how they love God, and love people, and love one another – how they show compassion, and kindness, and care.

The Message Bible puts it brilliantly.

v.7 Each person is given something to do that shows who God is!

This is why I don’t like the word volunteer very much. read on

190113 – SS Winnow

Yr C ~ Epiphany 1 ~ Luke 3:2-3, 7-17, 21-22

Ok, so this is supposed to be Baptism of Jesus Sunday, but I’m not really going to talk about that at all. Well, his baptism serves as a backdrop, but really this scripture passage, and this sermon, are all about John the Baptizer. In Luke’s telling of the tale Jesus is almost an afterthought, and his baptism is practically a throwaway line. The message is all about John’s message!

Key to understanding that message is understanding what a threshing floor and a winnowing fork are. Most of us don’t know that word winnow. But it rhymes with minnow, so in an attempt to communicate what John is saying…I offer you this song! A song about the S.S. Winnow!

[to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island”]

Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a faith filled trip
That started in the River Jord(an), our Lord his forehead dripped
Now John was a holy, wild man, who ranted, raved, and raged
The brood of vipers wondered if Messiah was uncaged!
Messiah was uncaged!

If you’ve two coats give one away, if you’ve resources, share
If cheating is your stock in trade, then henceforth “Don’t you dare!”
Now separate the wheat from chaff, by winnowing blow away|
The transformed heart must fruit produce, you can’t go forth unchanged
You can’t go forth unchanged!

With water I will baptize you, but this is just the start
One’s coming who will baptize true, with fire in your heart.

The crowd baptized, then Jesus too
From opened skies, dove came down
The voice of God, said
“You’re my son, beloved one,
Filled with Spirit and fire!”     [/end]

Now that I’ve softened you up is this the right time to call you a brood of vipers?
It’s not exactly the most pastoral way to talk about your congregation!

I suppose we might call John a “fire and brimstone” preacher – but actually, that language refers to preachers who bluster on about scaring listeners with threats of hell and damnation if they don’t profess the right theology. That’s not what John is doing here at all.
Baptism for John isn’t a “get out of hell free card”, it’s an “it’s time to turn around and really embrace this new life” message.
Baptism is the symbol of that new life. He’s actually more of a tough love preacher.

The interesting thing about John’s approach is that he lays on the tough love pretty thick! He doesn’t pull any punches. And apparently he draws big crowds for it. Remember, this is out in the wilderness. It wasn’t just at the neighbourhood church. Those people gathered there had to make a journey to get there. They didn’t just hear a commotion or see a crowd down the street and wander over to check it out. John was becoming known for this. The word was spreading, and it was all word of mouth! And clearly, it was no secret because there were even some soldiers in attendance. Now, whether they were there on duty or off duty, we don’t know. But they too were there – getting some tough love.

And the very first thing John loves them with is calling them a bunch of snakes!
And more than that, he accuses them of being snakes that only really want a little water for making their snake-skins feel a little better.
Instead, John wants them to shed that skin – take on a new skin – and live differently.

In verse 8 he says it straight out, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”

If you’re going to repent – the Greek word is metanoia – which means to “rethink everything, to question your assumptions, to have a deep turnaround in your thinking and values” [Brian McLaren].
It literally means to change your worldview, to “go beyond the mind you have.”
To repent is to change your path, to change your way of living from a self-centred, self-indulgent, self-important way to living God’s way of communion, and compassion, and connection – God’s way of selflessness and generosity and kindness and love.
Those are fruits worthy of repentance! A little refreshing water on your dry skin is not even close to being the point.

John berates the crowd for thinking that because they are children of Abraham they’ve already got it made – they’ve already got all the blessings and they’re home free.
That’s like saying, “Well, I go to church, even pretty regularly, so I’m all good. I just go on Sunday morning and it makes me feel better so I’m happy.”

John would have a field day with much of what passes for church, I think.
Ask yourself, “Am I here just to feel good, or am I here to change my life?”

To their credit, the crowd is convicted. “What then should we do?” they ask.

John answers with what has become a famous line, verse 11, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

You see, the problem with that line is that it has no zing for us. read on

190106 – By Another Road

Yr C ~ Epiphany 1 ~ Matthew 2:1-12

Here are the broad strokes of this very famous story – a story that we usually mess up the details about and probably miss the big message of.
It’s the story of the three kings – except that they weren’t – who come to visit the baby Jesus in the stable – except that they didn’t.
How do you like the story so far?

The story begins “after Jesus was born” but it gives no indication that it was on Christmas, or even that it was on Epiphany (which is when tradition tells us it happened – which is what we’re celebrating today). It could have been some time after, maybe weeks.

So, sometime after Jesus was born his family was said to have been visited by wise men from the East – possibly Persia – and not necessarily 3 wise men (there could have been two or twenty for all we know), who were definitely not kings and definitely not named Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. (That’s purely from the hymn – and you ought to be wary of taking too much theology from musicians!) (j/k).
They were Magi, which is Latin for wise men and where we get our word magician from. Magi are something like a cross between astrologers and astronomers, so they were like mystic scientists!

So these dudes and their entourage showed up out of the blue and started talking about this star they were following and asking all around Jerusalem about a newborn king. It was pretty naïve to think the reigning king wouldn’t be upset to hear of a rival king… and it also apparently upset the people too. I mean imagine a gang of foreigners coming to your country and asking where to find the new king!

Herod catches wind of this and consults the priests and scribes about Messiah prophecies (strange that he wouldn’t have known them – perhaps an indication that not everyone was breathlessly waiting for the Messiah to come), and the religious guys loosely quote him Micah’s prophecy about a coming Messiah being born in Bethlehem. Obviously that worried Herod, of course, so Herod called the Wise Guys in for a little chat about this star they were talking about (notice that apparently neither he nor any of the religious types could see this star).

Herod directed them to Bethlehem and asked them to bring him back news so he could pay homage to the new king too (which we know is bunk, and they probably did too) and the star magically appeared again for them. The star led them and stopped right over Joe and Mary’s place – although Joseph is not mentioned. They went in and saw the child with Mary, knelt down, paid homage (or worshipped him), and gave him three curious gifts: gold symbolizing royalty; frankincense symbolizing the priestly (incense is called the “odour of God’s presence”); and myrrh which is a burial spice signifying sacrifice – not your typical baby shower gifts.

And then comes, for me, the most important line in the whole story – a verse that we usually just skip right over.
It says they would’ve returned to Herod but were warned in a dream not to, so “they left for their own country by another road.” (We’ll come back to that one!)

Ok, that’s how the story goes (with some correctives); now let’s think about what the story means. We usually talk about the “kings” that recognize Jesus as royal, the gifts (which set up our whole Christmas gift-giving thing), and the miraculous star that guides the wise men to the holy child. But I’m not going to talk about any of that.
Instead we’re going to look at 5 profound spiritual truths that this story teaches us.

The first is that the light of Christ reaches beyond the confines of “church”.
The season of Epiphany is all about seeing the light. It is the liturgical season of the ‘aha’! And what this story reminds us of is that the light of God is not the sole purview of any one religion.
Who does the light appear to in the beginning of our New Testament? The marginalized (Mary and Joseph), the outcasts (shepherds), and outsiders (the Magi). This is a radical theological idea – a big aha! read on

181223 – The Blessing and the Burden

Yr C ~ Advent 4 ~ Luke 1:39-45

It’s just so ordinary.
Two women – relatives – who both happen to be pregnant – get together and talk about the future. “What will it be like to be a mom? What will my child be like? Who will my child become? I can feel the weight of it – it’s my responsibility to bring this child into the world and then to teach them everything I can, to help them become who they’ll become. Am I ready? If not me, who?”

Two women – one probably too old to be having a baby – the other probably too young to be having a baby. And yet, they can sense that God has blessed them – that the life they bear is incredibly important – and holy. It’s so ordinary. The same scene probably happens a million times a day in the world today. The joyful hope of expectancy – expectant, but also inevitable – a blessing to be sure, but also the sense of a burden.

Two women with suspect pregnancy stories – or at least unconventional ones. Why is such blessing conferred upon such obviously “flawed” women? Neither Mary nor Elizabeth were particularly special. If you were going to choose mothers for a great prophet and the one who would be called the Son of God would you have chosen them? And yet, that’s exactly what happened.
Whether you interpret these writings as history or as theology doesn’t change the fact that both John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth had very ordinary parents, and unusual circumstances surrounding their conceptions.

Elizabeth was “well on in years” – and Mary was barely a teenager.
Who among you who are well on in years would want the blessing of a baby now?
Or what would we call it if one of our church teens found herself “blessed”?
Would we see a blessing, or just a burden?

When she’s first told of her pregnancy, Mary, the probably 14-year old, shows courage and faith well beyond her years and answers, “Let it be with me as you say.” It’s an astonishing reaction to such surprising news! And then upon sharing the news with her relative, Elizabeth, Mary sings out what has been named the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” [Luke 1:46-49]

Could you sing that song? Do you see the touch of God’s hand in your life? Can you feel the blessing of God’s presence and grace? Doesn’t it make your heart want to sing with joy?!
What great work is God doing in you? Do you believe that something great can come of your life?
You should!
We are filled with spiritual potential – with spiritual promise – the Lord has done great things for you and more are coming! You will receive blessings – and there will be burdens.

God gave Mary the blessing and the burden of bearing Jesus. The story goes that the angel Gabriel came and announced it to her.
What a blessing – bearing the Son of the Most High – a child who would save her people.
What an honour. What a privilege – and yet…… what a burden – an unexpected pregnancy in a time when such things were seriously frowned upon.
She was unmarried, uneducated, and unprepared to handle this. What if she screwed up in raising him? What if Joseph divorced her – he had every right to – even if he was the father.

So which is it? – a blessing, or a burden – or both? Well of course it’s both.
Aren’t all the greatest, most important things – the things that really matter in life – aren’t they all both a blessing and a burden? The mix of the blessing of experiencing weighty things with the burden that comes with them is what makes our lives so rich and worth living.
Think about it. Marriage – a blessing and a burden.
Love – a blessing and a burden.
Friendship – a blessing and a burden.
Parenting – your career – and, of course, faith.

We are people of faith – followers of the Way of Jesus. And staking that claim means accepting an amazing abundance of overflowing blessings from God – and it also means accepting that those blessings come with a burden – a burden to give as we have received – to forgive as we have been forgiven – to love as we have been loved.

People of Faith – I bring you a message from God. You’re pregnant!
(Everybody look at the person beside you and tell them that they’re pregnant.)
We are all pregnant with the potential of spiritual purpose. We’re just like Mary and Elizabeth. We’re pregnant. read on

181206 – Praying – Advent Joy

Yr C ~ Advent 3 ~ Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice, Paul tells us. The Lord is near.
Rejoice always! It’s so important he says it twice in one verse: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Why? The Lord is near!
We might say that God is present. God’s nearness, God’s presence is a wonderful source of and producer of joy!

Then he says something a little odd. Paul says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”

Our ears hear gentleness as being soft and kind – and that’s good stuff. Paul certainly doesn’t mean for us not to be soft and kind.
But the deeper meaning of the word is about being fair-minded, being equitable, fulfilling the spirit and not just the letter of the law as you interact with the world.
Joyful people who know that God is near, are moved to live justly!
Our joyfulness isn’t just for our own benefit, it’s for the world.
We’re off to a great start!

What might derail all this joy and justice and noticing God’s nearness? Worry!
Verse 6 begins: Do not worry about anything. Really? Good luck with that!
But if we dig deeper we can see that the word worry here doesn’t simply mean the care and concern we have for our loved ones and others. It refers to being divided, distracted, going to pieces, literally it means being pulled in two directions.

Paul is not telling us not to have concern for things or people. We can’t care for people or be loving and compassionate if we don’t feel concern for them. No, the worry we’re being warned about here is more than just being anxious about something, it’s about the dangers of being overly preoccupied with things, being absorbed by them, being obsessed with them. Care and concern are healthy, preoccupation and obsession are not.

Care and concern and love don’t steal our joy.
It’s that general state of anxiety and disquiet that insidiously sneaks into our being and starts to run our life – that’s the real soul-sucking stuff. That’s the worry that kills.

So how does one avoid that?

Prayer is one of those words that we use all the time, but it amazed me that in over a decade of preaching here I’ve never gone deep and really wrestled with the core meaning of prayer. Hold onto your hats! Here we go!

The Greek word for prayer is proseuché (pros-yoo-kay) – it’s a compound word consisting of two concepts: toward-ness, and will-exchange. read on

181209 – Harvesting – Advent Peace

Yr C ~ Advent 2 ~ Philippians 1:3-11

My main focus today will be on the last couple of verses of this lovely passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, but to get there I’m going to go through all the verses and try to amplify it a bit as we go.
This is the second week of Advent, so our theme is peace, even though that word doesn’t appear in this reading. As you’ve hopefully realized by now the kind of peace we’re talking about isn’t just the opposite of war or conflict – it’s more about that inner peace of mind and peace of heart that comes when your spirit is in tune with God’s Presence. I’ll talk more about that concept in a few minutes.

And in case you weren’t with us last week, I’ll continue to speak a bit about what theology calls “the second coming” of the Christ. When Paul wrote this letter to the church in Philippi it was only a couple of decades after the physical life of Jesus. The narratives about Christmas were not yet known. The 4 gospels we have wouldn’t be written for another few decades so the Jesus story was likely shaped much differently than the one we know so well. In their day they had a sense that Jesus really was coming again soon in a physical form and he’d alleviate their oppression and persecution.

When that didn’t happen in an overt physical way a different kind of theological view of what a second coming of Jesus might mean emerged. Instead of a physical arrival a more spiritual revelation was embraced.
In this season we take that image and incarnate it in the story of a tiny baby being born in a stable.
But spiritually what we’re hoping for, what we’re anticipating and expecting and waiting for in this season of Advent, is a rebirth of Jesus’ spirit within us – a second coming, or third, or fourth, or fiftieth – that knows that while Jesus may not be coming in the same way Paul and the Philippians imagined he is most definitely coming, has come, and is always still coming to us, here and now, in and through our hearts.
And such a coming produces the peace that we so long for. That’s our topic for the day.

Let’s have a look at Philippians 1:3-11.

3 Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God.
4 Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy,
5 for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now.

Paul calls these church members his partners. But it’s actually even better than that! It’s a wonderful Greek word: koinonia! It means spiritual fellowship, communion with, sharing in, helping.
It’s more than just being partners, it’s what we have here at this church – a spiritual fellowship that works together – both staff and members – to share in the gospel.
What does that mean? Gospel literally means good news – God’s good news about God’s love and all the teachings and life of Jesus and all that great stuff. We all share in that – in communicating that – in living it out – in loving it out!

Paul continues, v.6:

6 And I am certain that God, who began a good work within you, will bring it to fulfillment and maturity as the Spirit of Jesus Christ is ever more fully revealed to and within you.

The good work that God has begun in you is nothing less than the transformation of your heart and spirit into ever-deepening Christ-likeness!
That’s not just a good work, it’s an awesome work! And it’s an unending work – not because you’re some kind of problem case, but just because deepening has no end, as God’s love has no end.
You are a good work! You are a work in progress!
And the good works you do are an extension of the good work God is doing in (and through) you.
Doesn’t that make you feel great?! It made Paul feel great too!

He continues, v.7: read on

181202 – Strengthening – Advent Hope

Yr C ~ Advent 1 ~ 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

It reads like a love letter from a minister to their congregation. It’s warm, and complimentary, and joyful. You can sense the pride this minister has for these people. A few verses before our reading starts the minister talks about how they sent a representative to check up on the congregation to make sure they weren’t falling away from their faith, and that the persecutions they were experiencing weren’t knocking them off the Way.
The report back was glowing. The congregation was exemplary. The pride is palpable. The minister is gushing over them.
It’s nice when a minister can do that! [smiles]

Now, let’s just pause a minute. The minister here in the reading is none other than the apostle Paul.
Paul! You know, the guy who’s always wagging his finger, and chewing people out, exasperatingly correcting their behaviour.
Paul has a reputation as a strict disciplinarian and stern task-master.
Perhaps more people should read 1 Thessalonians so Paul gets some credit for being a loving pastor too!

But none of this should really surprise us. Every one of us has experienced parenting (either giving it or receiving it!) and we know that the role of the parent is to sometimes be stern disciplinarian and sometimes be gushing supporter.
Sometimes it’s tough love, sometimes it’s soft love – but it’s all love. Parents hold those two things in tension all the time.
On one level it might seem like the two things are incongruent – but they’re actually just two aspects of a great love.
We hold them both simultaneously because they’re both true.

I’m pushing this metaphor because we’re now in the season of Advent. Advent is all about waiting, anticipation, birth. We spend the whole month going on about the coming of the Christ child and the light of the world shining in the darkness. And we do that as people who have been celebrating and honouring the birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of that child for a couple of thousand years!

Jesus is already here! Jesus lives in our hearts.
Jesus is coming. Let’s wait for Jesus to be born!

On one level it might seem like the two things are incongruent – but they’re actually just two aspects of a great love.
We hold them both simultaneously because they’re both true.

One theological way to express this is to speak of the “already and not yet.” Another is to say that Jesus “has come and is coming.”
So every December we play this theological game. We speak about how we’re waiting in anticipation for the child to be born – even as today we celebrate the sacrament of communion that commemorates the ending part of his life.

It’s a good thing to rehearse and relive the drama each year. It speaks to how deep and powerful the story is.
And it speaks to how we still have a yearning for the newness, the light, the potential for a fresh new start.
I’ve been following Jesus for a long time – but maybe I’m not always doing it the best I could – so along comes Advent and I get to think about how having Jesus born anew gives me a chance to have my faith born anew.
Over and over, if necessary (and yes, it’s necessary)!

It’s curious then that the readings for Advent aren’t more about the birth of Jesus. In fact, we don’t even get much of that story until Advent 4 with Mary’s pregnancy.
So if Advent readings aren’t about the coming of the Christ child, what are they about?
Well, mostly they’re about preparing our hearts and spirits for the coming of Jesus – but not the first coming, the second!

The scripture reading from 1 Thessalonians isn’t talking about Christmas at all. It’s talking about the second coming of Christ.
And I know that the moment I said that some folks in this room started to squirm.
The problem is that that “second coming” language has been so thoroughly coopted by fundamentalists that many of us can’t hear it without thinking we’re going to get hammered with damnation and the end of the world stuff.
I assure you I won’t do that to you. But I will speak about the second coming of the Christ for a little bit. read on

181125 – Kingdomtide

Yr B ~ Reign of Christ ~ John 18:33-38a

The church liturgical year does not follow the same calendar as the solar year, so while there’s still a month and a bit to go in that one, a brand new church year starts next Sunday with the season of Advent, and that makes today the last Sunday in the liturgical year. This Sunday has a variety of names.
I recently learned of an English tradition that called it “Stir Up Sunday” from a reading from Hebrews that speaks of provoking us to faith – where the word provoke in Greek means to be stirred to action – and from a collect (a prayer) in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer that said “stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.”
For us though, the most common thing is to call it “Christ the King” Sunday, or “Reign of Christ” Sunday.

I really like the language and imagery of ‘kingdom’ and ‘reign’, although I know some folks have issues with it. I’ll dive into that in a few minutes.
It’s fallen out of practice now, but up until a few decades ago, in the Methodist and Presbyterian traditions (both of which are a significant part of our United Church DNA), they called this season at the end of the Christian year Kingdomtide.

I love that!

The season of Easter is known as Eastertide – the season after Advent is technically called Christmastide – and although almost no one uses that beautiful language I really like it. The suffix –tide means a season of something.
A season in which one ponders the bigger meanings of the thing.
It reminds us that Easter and Christmas aren’t just one-off, one-day celebrations.

So too with this idea of Kingdomtide.
A liturgical season in which we’d focus on and delve into this deep imagery and meaning of the Kingdom of God.
How great would that be!
So in honour of the tradition of Kingdomtide, I will speak deeply of the kingdom today.
Why? Because Jesus did! In fact, he did it a lot!

Our scripture reading today explores a dramatic encounter between Pilate, who was the Roman governor, and Jesus. It’s a reading we usually associate with Holy Week because that’s the context in which it takes place, but because it speaks so much of the Kingdom of God it’s perfectly appropriate for this last Sunday of Kingdomtide!
Let’s have a look and see if I can stir you up!

Right off the bat it’s a curious reading because it’s difficult to imagine the Roman governor of the region bothering to take even one minute out of his day to talk to a Jewish peasant.
But Jesus seems to have caused enough of a stir – it’s stir up Sunday, after all – to warrant an audience.
Pilate opens with a weird question. “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Pilate knew full well that Herod was the Jewish king, so on one level this is as weird as me asking you, “So, are you the Prime Minister of Canada?” But it’s not a question about facts – it’s about perceptions!

Jesus wonders if Pilate is actually asking on his own or because the Jewish leaders prompted him.
I think Jesus is trying to gauge whether Pilate is ready for the deep philosophical journey Jesus is about to take him on.
He’s not. But Jesus had to try.

Pilate is confused as to why Jesus is in trouble, so he asks Jesus “what have you done to make your own people so angry with you that they’d turn you over to us?”

At first it seems like Jesus is avoiding the question with his answer, but he’s actually sharing a great truth with Pilate.
It’s not so much a ‘this or that’ which Jesus did that ran him afoul of the authorities.
It’s that he’s playing on an entirely different level, and those in power don’t like it – because it fundamentally threatens them – and now it’s going to fundamentally threaten Pilate.

Jesus says, John 18:36 “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

World in Greek is cosmos, but when we hear that we think of the stars and galaxies out there.
That’s not what it means in Greek. It means the ordered system of worldly affairs.
It means the world as we know it; the ways in which this world typically works. read on

181111 – Birthpangs

Yr B ~ Pentecost 25 ~ Mark 13:1-8

(A paraphrase of Mark 13)
As they came out of the church, one of the members said, “Look at this beautiful church. I just love these majestic buildings. Church architecture is wonderful.” Then Jesus responded, “So you love churches, do you? In time, not one of them will be left standing.” The church members were very concerned and asked him, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the signs that it’s about to happen?”

Then Jesus began to say to them, “Worry more about whether you’re following the Way than what the buildings are like. Many church folks say they’re all about God’s mission, but they lead people astray. You may start to hear rumours about how the church is dying. Don’t worry about those rumours. The end is not immanent. Sure, some church buildings will become empty, and some church members will argue with one another about theology (and what colour to paint the walls), and denominations will disagree on things – it may even get nasty. But all this is just the beginning of something new being born.”

Author Phyllis Tickle has a theory that every 500 years or so the church goes into a major crisis and an old way of being church comes crashing down and a new one emerges.
For example, 500 years ago Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation happened. It was a major change.
500 years before that was the Great Schism that divided the church into the Eastern/Greek Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic church.
She thinks we’re in the throes of another massive change right now. I think she’s right!

Our denomination, the United Church of Canada, was formed with a certain vision – that we’d be the church of the nation. And we set out to put a church on every corner so that we’d be a presence in every neighbourhood. Of course, that was back in the 1920s when cars were still a fairly novel idea and travelling distances was an ordeal. We also set up our structure with a vision of being the biggest church in the country, with overflowing numbers. It was a great vision – in its day. The day has changed.

And now the church is changing too.
Change is all we’ve been talking about for the last several years – there have been remits and rumours of remits! And those in leadership have been saying, “Don’t be alarmed! Yes, things are very challenging now, and the unknown is kind of scary – but it’ll be ok. Fear not! Trust that God is in the new thing. Even so, there’s no getting around it – as we change it’s going to hurt. That’s what birthing something new is like.”

But for some reason, even though it defies all logic, we seem to think that birthing something new is going to be like it is on TV – when a woman says, “Oh dear, I think my water just broke,” and she goes to the hospital, and squinches up her face, and pushes for about 15 seconds, and then woosh, out comes the baby! Right? It’s just like that, right?

No, of course it isn’t. I’ve been there! Well, I was in the room!
It’s agonizing. It’s super-hard. It takes a long, long time and it’s no walk in the park.
It’s messy. It hurts.
And it’s dangerous. Sure, it’s less dangerous now than ever before because hospitals are very advanced, but childbirth historically has been a very dangerous thing. Many mothers die in the birthing.

Now, on the other side of it, after that really hard ordeal, is a gift of new life that is overwhelmingly wonderful.
But you can’t get there without journeying through the painful ordeal.

This is what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples in Mark 13. He used the image of birthpangs because he knew it would be so visceral that it would make his point.
There’s another layer to that too. Mark’s gospel was written in the 0070s, right at or just after the time that the Jewish Temple fell in Jerusalem. There was a war, an uprising, and as the Romans crushed the rebellion they also demolished the Temple.

If you were among the first audiences hearing Mark’s gospel being read to you that news would still be very fresh in your memory. And it was a very painful thing for the Jews.
You see, if we arrived here next Sunday and discovered that this church building had been struck by lightning and burned down we would be devastated, because this place is very special to us. We’d be heartbroken.
And then we’d get the insurance money and either rebuild it or go and worship at another church building. There’s plenty around!

But for the Jews it was fundamentally different. The Temple wasn’t just a special place for them, it was actually the very centre of their religious practice – God’s home on earth! There were small synagogues and meeting places in the towns and villages, but only at the Temple could you make the required animal or crop sacrifices and only at the Temple could you properly and fully practice your religion.

So when their Temple was destroyed it quite fundamentally destroyed their whole way of understanding their religion, and themselves. There was no insurance settlement. There was no other church to go to.
That was it.
And it was gone.
Can you begin to imagine how devastating that was for them?

And Jesus points right at it and says, “Folks, as important and central as they are, it’s not about the buildings. It’s about the Way, the path, the journey. And we’re birthing something brand new here. And it’s gonna hurt! But then it will be beautiful.”

Most of you here were once part of another church – whether it was one of our three parent churches (St. Andrews, Courtice, and Harmony) or whether it was a church that you used to attend before becoming part of Faith United. This is a fantastic place. It’s a beautiful new thing that has been birthed.
But you had to leave something behind to get here. You had to sell your beloved church, or leave a beloved community, and that would have been painful. Devastating, even. And the creating of this ministry, and the forging of this community of faith was (and is) hard, hard work. But now you’re here and the new thing is a blessing. read on

181104 – Full of Wholes

Yr B ~ Pent 24 ~ Mark 12:28-34

My challenge this week is how do I say something new about something that’s so much a part of us that it forms our logo? Let’s find out!

Mark 12 is a really interesting chapter. It begins with Jesus telling a parable about how God sends messengers of love, and light, and grace – but those in power keep rejecting and even killing them. Of course, he tells the parable to a bunch of people in power – chief priests, scribes, and elders! In other words, “in your face!” Which, of course, they don’t like very much!

So these powerful people send two groups of authorities to try to trick Jesus into saying something wrong that will get him in trouble, so they can do exactly what Jesus’ parable said they would do!

First it’s some Pharisees who tried to get him on the paying taxes thing. Jesus shoots their arguments full of holes and says, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s!” (Mark 12:17)

On come the Sadducees, which were a powerful elite group. They come at Jesus with a riddle about the afterlife, which they didn’t even believe in, and Jesus slices and dices their theological shortcomings and zings them with, “God is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.” (Mark 12:27)

Then a Scribe comes to Jesus. You almost get the sense he quietly came over when no one was looking – it’s a lovely little encounter.

Mark 12:28 – One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

There’s no animosity in the question. This Scribe seems legitimately impressed with Jesus’ answers and he honestly wants to hear Jesus’ views on what the greatest commandment was.

It’s not like there was a set answer.
There are 613 laws or rules or commandments in Jewish theology. It’s not like they were numbered!
There was no consensus about what the most important one of all was.
Different Rabbis and Pharisees and Priests would emphasize different things – just like here at Faith I probably emphasize different things than my colleagues do at our nearby sister churches.

So the Scribe wants to hear what Jesus might emphasize, because he was impressed by how Jesus handled the inquisition!

He wants to know which commandment Jesus thinks is the most important, the principal idea, job #1.
It’s a great question.
If I asked you what your most important value or character trait is you’d probably need some time to answer, you wouldn’t like limiting it to one, and your answer would tell me a lot about what kind of person you are. Same goes for the Scribe’s question to Jesus. Of all those 613 wonderful commandments and laws, which one does Jesus think is the most important of all?
And more than that, the word “all” here does not just refer to all commandments but to all of everything. So, “Which commandment is the most important thing of all?”

And Jesus brilliantly and insightfully answers by quoting the Shema!

Mark 12:29-30 – Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’”

That’s the Shema, well, the start of it anyway. Shema is the Hebrew word for “hear” or “listen”. It’s from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 – “Hear (Shema), O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

The Shema is traditionally recited by every Jewish child and adult at the start and conclusion of each day. In other words, they knew it by heart – it’s a heart prayer.
They know it as well as you know “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

So Jesus does two key things with this. read on

181028 – Decloaked

Yr B ~ Pentecost 23 ~ Mark 10:46-52

Faith. The final frontier. This is the journey of the church ship Faith United. Its 21 year mission, to explore God’s world, to seek out renewed life, and new interpretations. To boldly grow where deep disciples have grown before. [sing theme]

In case you’re not a fan, that was from the opening of the original Star Trek tv series.
If you are a fan you’ll appreciate today’s sermon on another level, and if not, I hope you’ll be happy to come along for the ride.

It’s a tv show about space travel, and one of the alien cultures our heroes encounter have developed a technology called cloaking.
They can make their ships invisible, and then, when you least expect it, they decloak and try to blow you up.

Of course, because you can now see them when they’re decloaked they’re vulnerable too!
Decloaking carries risk, and maybe reward.
Now, nobody gets blown up in today’s scripture reading, but someone does become decloaked, and it’s a pretty big revelation!

So with that in the back of your mind’s eye I’d like us to look at this reading from Mark 10 and see what we can see.
And if you noticed that that last sentence had several references to vision then you get a bonus point!

As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving Jericho, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus” – which means “highly prized”), was sitting by the roadside begging.”

Couple things right off the hop.
At this point Jesus is travelling with a large crowd.
It’s not just his 12 disciples.
He’s attracted an entourage.
He’s becoming known.

That matters because Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is coming.
That means the people along the road are aware of who is at the centre of this crowd coming down the road.
It’s not “Jesus who?”
It’s, “Hey! It’s that Jesus guy everybody’s talking about!”

When Bartimaeus heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Bartimaeus calls out for mercy.
In their day a person with a disability or an illness probably would have been thought to have done something to deserve it.
I know, it sounds horrid to us, but if he was blind it was thought to be because he sinned greatly.
So he doesn’t ask for healing, he asks for mercy.

Then there’s this wonderful and weird detail put in.
Many rebuked or silenced him.
One translation says they said “Shut up!”
What’s not clear is whether it’s the entourage with Jesus that’s shushing him or the other bystanders along the road.
Either way, our boy Bart ignores the naysayers and yells louder. read on

181021 – Be Careful What You Ask For

Yr B ~ Pentecost 22 ~ Mark 10:35-45

I’d like everyone to turn and look at someone else in the congregation right now, make eye contact, smile, and now say these words, “I’d like you to do for me whatever I ask of you.”
Did they say, “Sure! I’d love to! What do you want?”
Did they say, “Shyeah right! Good luck with that buddy!”
It’s a weird thing to say to someone, isn’t it? The logical response is to ask, “What is it you want me to do for you?” – Well, the likely response is to be very warry of anyone who asks the “do whatever I ask” question in the first place, but curiosity will probably get the best of you and you’ll at least ask what exactly it is that they want.

That’s how this scene starts out in Mark 10. James and John, two of Jesus’ inner circle, decide to ask Jesus to do whatever they ask of him. I wonder if they thought that because Jesus is such a nice guy that he’d just say yes? (Christians are nice people – they always say yes!)
Or maybe they thought because they were part of the inner circle that they could capitalize on their position and gain some benefits?

Of course, that kinda makes you wonder if they’d been listening to anything Jesus had been teaching all this time, but we’ll set that aside. There’s a reason why I like to call them duh-sciples! They often seem to really not get it (which makes me feel a little better about myself, I must say).

So James and John ask for a yes to whatever they ask – and Jesus asks what exactly they’re after – and they say, v.37, Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

And Jesus replies, v.38, “You don’t know what you’re asking!”

It wasn’t part of today’s reading but directly before this scene in Mark’s gospel Jesus teaches his disciples about how considering the path he’s on that he will surely be killed in the near future. It says, in Mark 10:32-34 that Jesus astonished the disciples with this teaching – even though it was the third time he’d taught them about his looming death! (Did I mention that they’re duh-sciples?)

And with that sobering teaching still ringing in their ears these two clowns run up to Jesus and ask to sit at his right and left hand in glory.
That means that they still think Jesus is going to be super-powerful and they want to share in that power. It is a remarkable exercise in missing the point!

Jesus says, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

vv.39-40 They replied, “We are able.”

The Greek word is dynametha – as in dynamic, powerful – “we are powerful,” they say!

Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

The language is a little odd and cryptic, and the metaphors are fairly complex – but I think what Jesus is saying here with the cup and baptism thing is that he’s on a particular path – the life of faith is a particular path – full immersion in the presence and love of God propels one into the Way of Jesus which is a particular path that has significant consequences – and if you are really a follower of Jesus then you need to be prepared to live out that love and follow that path and know that there will be consequences.

In other words, he says, “Be careful what you ask for!”

I’ll come back to this. I want to finish going through the scripture passage first. read on

181007 – Steep Ye First

Yr B ~ Thanksgiving ~ Matthew 6:25-33

I was having trouble getting going with this week’s message. Then one word changed and everything started to flow. And I was thankful!
A different word was giving grief to our bible study group – the word worry.

Let’s be clear right from the start: I do not think that Jesus is telling us not to have concern for things or people. We can’t care for people or be loving if we don’t feel concern for them. No, the worry Jesus is warning us about in Matthew 6 is more than just being anxious about something, he’s teaching about the dangers of being overly preoccupied with things, being absorbed by them, being obsessed with them. Care and concern are healthy, preoccupation and obsession are not.

When Jesus says “Don’t worry” he’s really talking about a general state of anxiety and disquiet that insidiously sneaks into our being and starts to run our life. That’s the real soul-sucking stuff. That’s the worry that kills. I guess it’s always been a problem or he wouldn’t have taught it, but it sure seems like we’ve got a nasty case of it today. We need this teaching more than ever!

I think you’d agree that we live in a hyper-anxious and worried culture. Why do you think that is? What fuels this feeling?
The media is a big one – you can’t turn on a TV or pick up a newspaper without being inundated with doom and gloom from every corner of the world. Commercials and advertisements are constantly telling us that we’re not good enough, or pretty enough, or thin enough, or wealthy enough, or don’t smell good enough, and judging by the stuff we buy we believe them.

Then on top of that you add in the pace of life that we’ve chosen to live at. We’re always on, always plugged in, there’s no down time, our technology owns us. Just threaten to take away someone’s cell phone for a week, or a day, and watch them squirm. We are all wound way too tight.

The problem isn’t really that life has sped up and become more complicated; the problem is that we’ve lost our grounding in what’s most important.
Instead of drawing on our deep spiritual reservoir built up over years of loving God, loving people, and loving one another, we find ourselves worrying and fussing about too many things.
We can even become paralyzed by it all.

Maybe we’re in such an anxious culture because we patently refuse to follow Matthew 6:33. You know this verse by heart – we all do, but we steadfastly ignore it. Here’s the big message today:
Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all the rest will follow.
God first! Seek God first. Make the primary goal of your life seeking God and you’ll find the rest of it works out much better.

The trick seems to be to figure out what seeking means. But even that word “seeking” is anxiety producing! Seeking is an action verb. The NRSV suggests striving instead. That’s just as bad! Seeking, striving – “oh no, what if I’m not doing enough? What if my efforts to seek God fall short? What if my striving isn’t strong or thorough enough?” And boom, we’re right back to being paralyzed by worry again!

Remember I said I discovered one word and it all changed for me?
The word came from the Message bible translation. I want you to hear the whole passage from the Message – it’s really, really helpful. read on

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