151213 – Do You Understand?

Yr C ~ Advent 3 ~ Luke 3:7-18

(A very loose translation of Luke 3:7-18 for today’s church)
Larry said to the crowd that came out to be preached to by him, “You self-righteous jerks! Who told you God’s standards don’t apply to you? Walk your talk! Don’t think just because you hang out at a church that you’re all good. In God’s way there’s no compromise. A half-hearted faith is good for nothing.Do-You-Understand

And the congregation asked him, “What then should we do?”
In reply he said, “If you have more than you need, share. Be ethical. Be satisfied with what you get. Don’t be a jerk!”

And the people were astounded that it sounded so easy and they wondered how did Larry learn this amazing stuff?

Larry answered by saying, “Look, I’m just splashing some cold water on you to wake you up a bit. Religious rituals are just a launching pad. The real work is the part that comes next. Transformation comes over time with the fire of the Spirit, and it’s hard to allow yourself to be worked on, but it’s worth it. Do you understand?”

And so, with many other brilliant sermons, he helped the people notice!

Doesn’t that just make you feel joyous on this “joy Sunday?”
Ok, let’s start with the context. If you weren’t here, make sure you read last week’s sermon on the website.

Today is part two. It picks up immediately following last week’s reading about repentance, forgiveness, and sin where I offered to you an interpretation that said you could also understand that as meaning a transformation to a new way of thinking that allows you to let go of the negativity of feeling crappy about missing the mark so often and opening yourself to allowing God’s bulldozers to come in and work on filling in your valleys of self-pity and humbling your mountains of self-importance.

So that’s what he was teaching – and here’s how he was teaching it! Immediately after John says all that stuff he looks the people square in the face and calls them a “brood of vipers” – which I think today would translate as a bunch of self-righteous jerks! Ouch!
Please know that I’m not calling you that.
I’m just trying to give you an approximation of how it might have felt to be there. I mean these are people who made a big effort to get out to the wilderness and gave John their time and their ears and he berates them with an insult. read on

151206 – Do You Hear?

Yr C ~ Advent 2 ~ Luke 3:1-6

There are two major themes about hearing in today’s scripture passage. It’s about our ability to hear and what it is we’re hearing. Please know that when I say “hearing” I’m meaning it not in the literal sense but in the metaphorical sense of perceiving or sensing or grasping something.
Do you hear? And what do you hear?do-you-hear

If this passage from Luke was written today it would begin like this: “In the first year of the government of Prime Minister Trudeau, the younger, when Wynn was Premier, and Foster was Mayor, during the Moderatorship of Cantwell, the word of God came to…me, in the wilderness of suburbia.”

The point is that it’s set in real life, in the historical time of real people. It starts with the political powers, then moves to the religious powers, and then to the local person – and significantly, the word comes to the local person “in the wilderness.” Notice that it doesn’t say that the word did NOT come to those with political power or religious power. My theology says the word was just as vivid and available to the powers that be as it is to John the Baptizer or you and me. The difference, and it’s a huge difference, is whether a person can hear it or not, and whether they choose to follow it or not.

The word wilderness is a powerful biblical word. Sometimes it gets translated as desert, or barren place, and that’s not wrong but it’s incomplete. Wilderness literally means an uncultivated and unpopulated place. For example, if you went behind our church and walked out a hundred metres you’d find yourself in an uncultivated and unpopulated wilderness. The significant part isn’t that it’s barren or desolate – it’s that it’s quiet! It’s away from the crowd, away from responsibilities, away from the hubbub of Christmas shopping and parking lot hell. The word of God is present in all those places but it’s human nature to not be very adept at hearing it there. We tend to need quiet.

What functions as wilderness for you? read on

151129 – Do You See?

Yr C – Advent 1 – Luke 21:25-36

My first day back last Tuesday was the day that the trees and bushes were all covered in a layer of light snow and it all looked like a beautiful winter wonderland. If I hadn’t already realized there was a change of season happening that certainly underlined it – with an exclamation point! Needless to say, I noticed!
Do you notice the change of seasons?
Do you notice the signs? do-you-see
Did you notice I was gone for a few months?

People have been asking how it went and if I’m happy to be back. It went very well…and I am tickled to be back! Just to get everyone on the same page, I’ve been on a three month sabbatical finishing my thesis/dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry degree. There’s a 90 page version and a 35 page version. My topic was about helping ministers and congregations learn to notice God’s Presence more. Right now there are 20 some-odd churches from British Columbia to Nova Scotia and a couple in the States that if you said to them “Surely God is in this place” they’d respond with… “Help me notice!” It was called “The Presence Project” and the feedback was wonderful. I’m very pleased.

I’ve submitted my work and now I’m waiting for my advisors to send comments and suggest revisions – then we dance back and forth a bit – then I’ll do a presentation in January and get more feedback – then I do my final submission in February and in March they make it official. So I’m through the heavy lifting but not quite completely done yet. I have to wait, and wait. How perfectly appropriate for Advent! Having three months to focus on just immersing myself in that work was a tremendous gift and I am very grateful for it. Thank you! And I’m also very grateful that Dan did such a fantastic job leading you while I was away.

So yes, it’s good to be back. I’ve missed this, and y’all. And what better time to make a fresh start than today – Advent 1. Happy New Year, by the way. It’s the beginning of the Christian church year. We start with the season of Advent – a time of anticipation and preparation for Christmas. Advent scripture readings sometimes throw people for a loop because they tend to be fairly pointed and not very Christmassy. There’s a reason for that. We’ll talk about it in a minute. Today is definitely one of those weird readings. It’s called the little apocalypse! And it’s quite a distance from “silent night.” Let’s have a look at it. read on

150823 – Better Is One Day

Yr B ~ Pentecost 13 ~ Psalm 84

This being my last Sunday preaching for three months [sabbatical], I can’t tell you how tempting it was to choose Exodus 31 and 32 as my text today and cast myself as Moses the hero who goes away from his people, up the mountain to pray and encounter God, and receives God’s teaching about the Sabbath. While he was away the folks got into a bit of trouble with golden calves and wild parties and generally forgetting their spiritual roots.better-one-day

But I’m not Moses, and you’re not exactly the golden calf party types, so instead of wasting energy thinking about what might happen if… I’d rather immerse us in those spiritual roots – and Psalm 84 (which was on today’s lectionary readings) is perfect for that. I’m going to take us through this richly spiritual psalm verse by verse.

84:1 How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!

How lovely indeed is the place where God’s Sacred Presence dwells!
And where exactly would that be? Everywhere!
And where then isn’t God’s dwelling place? Nowhere!

So if God’s dwelling place is everywhere, and that dwelling place is lovely, then everywhere is lovely because God is there. The word for dwelling place also means tabernacle, as in church. But in other places in the bible we’re assured that our hearts, our physical bodies, are God’s tabernacle, God’s dwelling place. You are God’s dwelling place, and because God is present you are lovely!

84:2 My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.

What do you think it means to have your soul faint for the courts of the Lord? It’s not faint like you’ve just seen the Beatles or One Direction for the first time (not that I’m equating them!). It literally means to be complete, at an end, finished, accomplished, or spent. So it’s fainting in the sense of being so overwhelmingly open to God’s presence that you become both exhausted and complete in the same moment – complete as in fulfilled, having accomplished something worth giving your entire being to. My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord! read on

150816 – Church on the Rock

Yr B ~ Ephesians 4:1-8, 11-16

(A Newfoundland greeting) How’s she going? – Best kind!

Here’s some wisdom I heard on the rock:
“We’re selling these dish cloths for a dollar each or 3 for $5. (That’s how we became a ‘have’ province!)”
Moderator Gary: “I’m going to say something because it’s my last day and if you don’t like it you can fire me.”
And Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde who famously said: “There are many roads to the Creator. I just encourage people to get on one.”synergy

For the last 12 days I’ve been in Corner Brook, Newfoundland attending The General Council of the United Church of Canada. GC draws together around 360 commissioners (half lay, half clergy) from across our church once every three years to articulate our denominational voice and make oodles of decisions about how we do our church’s mission and ministry. It’s part festival, part worship, and part business, including electing a new Moderator. This was my second General Council, and I had a very intense and wonderful experience.

After such an intense experience I’m grateful that we approved something called Full Communion with the United Church of Christ in the States which means if I snap one winter’s day shovelling snow I can now go to Florida and become a minister there! We’re not amalgamating but we could change our Facebook status to “in a relationship”!

In other big pieces of work we approved doing minister training in some different ways, but we sent some aspects back for more study.

Much to my chagrin we approved something called “One Order of Ministry” that suggests new ways to understand the relationships among ordained, diaconal, and designated lay ministers. It’s tricky, and highly contentious stuff, and frankly I think we got it wrong. But it isn’t a done deal yet.

We approved all sorts of things about the environment and carbon taxes, divestment of our pension funds from Goldcorp and fossil fuel companies (which is highly sensitive in some regions of our church), calling for an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and further refinement of our Israel/Palestine position. Some were done in the whole court and some in Commissions where we divided into 3 to handle important but not necessarily “denomination shaping” proposals. I believe all of our decisions are or will be available on the gc42.ca website. read on

150802 – All Things New

Pre-GC42 ~ Revelation 21:1-5

On Tuesday I will get on a plane bound for Corner Brook, Newfoundland for our national church meeting called General Council which happens every three years. I am an elected commissioner, and I’m also co-chairing a Sessional Committee that will be meeting 4 days before everyone else gets there to go over something called the Comprehensive Review.

For the past three years we’ve been in discussions about how to restructure the church in light of the reality of reduced finances and reduced people power. Sound familiar? gc42-logo
The Task Group that’s been looking at this has put forward an audacious plan that, if adopted, would significantly change the way our church functions. The committee I’m on will look at those 7 massive proposals and the 100 plus response proposals and make recommendations to the whole court by the time they arrive on the weekend.
I won’t lie, I’m feeling the weight of it. Please pray for me!

The scripture theme for General Council this year is Revelation 21:5 “Behold, I am making all things new.” Let’s have a look.

As with any scripture interpretation there’s more than one way to approach a passage. There is not one single proper correct interpretation, although sadly that’s the impression preachers sometimes give. We make choices all the time.
The big question for me is ‘what is driving your choices’?
Why do we choose this or that interpretive direction?
What’s the theological concept influencing your choices? read on

150726 – My Prayer for You

Yr B ~ Pentecost 8 ~ Ephesians 3:14-21

Ephesians 3:14-21 happens to be my absolute favourite passage of scripture in the entire Bible. I have it posted on my wall in my study here and I try to read it just about every day. I even reference it on my business card. I just love the way it speaks to me – it’s not a “here’s why you should be a believer” kind of text – it’s more of an “I’m so glad that you seek to walk in the Way of Jesus and here’s an encouraging reminder of why that’s such an awesome thing to give your life to” text.man-rooted-grounded1

I love that it’s a prayer from a leader to a group of Christians. The prayer begins: “For this reason I bow my knees before God, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory…” – It all starts with the “riches of God’s glory” – God’s awesomeness, God’s wondrous Presence – that’s our reference point – that’s the ground and foundation of everything we are.

Then the author (probably Paul) prays for 4 things for the Ephesians – for the church. He prays that
(1) “God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Holy Spirit,” and
(2) “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” Then he prays that we
(3) “may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,” and
(4) “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”

So, it’s from God’s presence that we may be strengthened through the Holy Spirit and be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ. God – Spirit – Christ – it’s a Trinitarian prayer. God’s presence empowers us through the Holy Spirit, and Christ dwells in our hearts and roots us and grounds us in God’s love.

This kind of love is broad and long and high and deep – it’s multi-dimensional – it’s mind-bogglingly expansive – and we’re invited to intimately know this love that surpasses knowledge. It’s a beautiful paradox – we can know the unknowable. And the self-giving, compassionate love of Christ becomes our new paradigm. Strength, rooted presence, awareness and comprehension of God, and the love of Christ.
Let’s look at these 4 things more fully. read on

150705 – All My Relations

Yr B ~ Pentecost 6 ~ Psalm 130

From the moment I discovered it I’ve been drawn to Celtic spirituality. It’s so attractive – a blend of traditional Christian and so-called pagan Druid indigenous spiritual practice. St. Patrick was captured and held prisoner as a young man, escaped and became a priest, and went back to the land that had captured him and sought ways to bring the gospel to them. It wasn’t to tell them they were heathens or savages and they had to be brought around to his way of thinking – rather he learned to live with them and find commonalities between the formal religion of the church and the lived spirituality of the people.Crest-uccan-aboriginal

Through Patrick (and others), Christianity in Ireland took on the feel of the indigenous spirituality which was earthy and folksy and intimately interwoven with creation. In the end he is credited with “converting” the country but what emerged was a wonderfully authentic and rich Celtic spirituality that to this day we find very appealing.
Maybe the country converted him too.

How different was the North American experience. No doubt much good was done with and for the indigenous peoples by the church. I am not casting aspersions on the authenticity of their faith at all. But what happened differently here was that instead of listening our forebears spoke – because clearly we were more advanced and we knew better. The churches were caught up in the prevailing wisdom of the time which preached assimilation and annihilation of what was perceived to be inferior.
Looking back now it’s so clear how wrong-headed and hurtful that was.
I wonder what we’re doing today that a century from now they’ll look back and shake their heads at us?

Recently the Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed their work of listening to survivors of the Residential School system and sharing their recommendations for how we might move forward. I’m sure you saw it in the news. Some are using the term cultural genocide to describe the doctrine of assimilation that our government used and our churches were complicit with. The words sting. But the commission wasn’t called blame and scapegoat it was called Truth and Reconciliation.
Well, we’ve heard the hard truth.
Now it’s time to get on with the long process of reconciliation. read on

150621 – Planting Season

Yr A ~ Pentecost 4 ~ Mark 4:26-34

You may recall that I like to call parables thought bombs. If you read a parable and something doesn’t make your head explode with curious wonder you’ve read it wrong. Parables never tell it straight. Like Emily Dickinson would say “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant!”
Tell it slant.
The reason you can’t tell a parable straight is because there is no straight! As soon as you dip your toe in the ocean of spirituality you are out of the straight realm and into the slant.sowing-love-hearts

The first of our two parables today talks about seed that is planted and then harvested. But the thought bomb is that the usual middle parts are missing. There is no tending of the garden. There is no nurturing the growth. A seed is planted and then it grows – but the sower knows not how! The sower is oblivious.

The second parable tells us never to underestimate the power of the tiniest little seed. Our intuition tells us that for something so staggeringly and overwhelmingly important like the love of God and the kingdom that God lavishes upon us it should require some massive amount of input in order to bring it to life. We should have to go through a multi-year training process or an intensive boot camp, or make some sort of dramatic change in our lives like selling everything we have. You gotta invest a lot to get a lot, right? Apparently not. Not in God’s economy. The tiniest little seed is enough to bring forth the kingdom. read on

150614 – One Beautiful Mystery

Yr B ~ Trinity ~ John 3:1-17

                    [Abbot and Costello style]
When you come to church you need to know the key players . . . you know, the ones who’re worthy of honour and praise.
Honour and praise huh? Well who are they?

O.K., now listen closely. There is one God.
One God. That seems easy enough. What do you call this one God?

This one God is called, “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.”
Now wait just a minute. You told me that there’s only one God.

That’s right!
So which is it?

So which is what?
Which name do you use for this one God? celtic-trinity-fire

The name I gave you.
But you gave me three names.

That’s right.
What’s right?

God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
So you have three Gods?

No, one God.
So which is it?

Which is what?
Father, Son or Holy Spirit?

Yes!
Yes to what?

That’s God’s name.
Which God?

Our one God.
Why did you give three names?

Because they aren’t the same.
But you just told me there’s one God. So which is it?

Which is what?
Which name is the name of your God?

I told you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit
But that’s three.

Yes, but it’s only one!

 

Does the idea of the Holy Trinity confuse you? I had a prof in theological college who said “The Trinity is one of those things that you feel and know to be true but it’s incredibly difficult to put into words.” Just for fun, let’s look at a definition: “Trinity – God as three in one is experienced by humans as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three Persons of the Trinity share the same essence and relate to each other in love. God is a trinity in unity and a unity in trinity.”

Author, Rob Bell says, “Even the best definitions end up sounding like a small child trying to play Mozart on pots and pans in the middle of the kitchen floor.” read on

150607 – Like 90

Yr B ~ P2 ~ 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

Wednesday June 10th will mark the 90th anniversary of The United Church of Canada. I like to reflect on the state of the union, so to speak, at the major anniversary times.

90 is an interesting number. It’s a number that fits nicely into the age range of a person. If our church was 400 years old I wouldn’t be drawn to make this comparison. But we’re 90. (I’m aware that generalizations are only so helpful, but here goes anyway.) A mentor of mine joked when the church was 75 that we were acting like a 75 year old – still with some energy but kind of tired and starting to withdraw from most of our work, picking and choosing what we liked. We were comfortably retired, he said.dandelion-seed-renewal

So I wonder if we’re acting like we’re 90 now? 90 year olds can be very faithful folks, but they know that life doesn’t go on forever. And with advancing age comes increasing frailty, illnesses, slowing down, and in some sad cases giving up. Is the United Church like 90? Are we thinking the end is not so far away? Are we frail and slowing down and giving up? Depends on who you listen to.

90 is long enough in the life of a denomination to have really solidified who you are and what you’re about. Or at least it should be. But the problem for us is that we had a crystal clear idea about who we were back in 1925 when we started, but the silly world went and changed on us over the decades.

We began with the dream of Christianizing the country of Canada – of being the national spiritual identity of the country. It was as much or more a cultural goal as a spiritual goal, but the spiritual parts were deeply held by the early folks – so much so that they were “assumed” – and you know what trouble you get into when you assume! read on

150524 – When Gush Comes to Love

Yr B ~ Pentecost ~ Acts 2:1-21

Needless to say, Pentecost Sunday is one of my favourites in the whole church year. It’s nothing less than the birth of the Church. The followers of Jesus had been intrigued and inspired by their mystical encounters and experiences of the risen Christ in the weeks after Easter, but it was on this day, the day of Pentecost, that everything really changed.burst-water-pipe

Pentecost is a Greek word meaning ‘fiftieth’ as in the fiftieth day after Passover. The feast of Pentecost was actually a Jewish feast. Jews call this the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. It commemorates the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Back in biblical times this was one of the major pilgrimage festivals so just like at Passover Jerusalem would have been flooded with Jews who made the journey to mark this religious feast day.

Every year we engage this story and marvel at the change in the disciples that turned them from timid and hiding to bold and public. And every year preachers look for another angle to talk about it – the sound, the wind, the tongues, the crowd, the fire, the Spirit.

This year I’m going to riff on one single word: ekcheo – to pour out.
read on

150517 – For Me

Yr B ~ Easter 7 ~ John 10:22-30

Before we get into this we need a clear picture of where this scene takes place. In the centre of the Temple in Jerusalem, the tall part is the Holy of Holies where only the chief priest was allowed to go and only once a year. There’s also an inner court where only Jews were allowed.

The entire Temple grounds are much larger and contain outer courts where Gentiles can go. Jesus is in the outer part of the Temple at a place called Solomon’s Portico, or Porch. It’s not a little porch like at the front of your house – it’s a colonnade, which means it’s a long wall of a building with a covered area held up by a series of columns. The royal porticos were all around the perimeter of the Temple grounds.heart-love-speak-me

Solomon’s Porch, where today’s reading takes place, was in the long wall closest to the entrance to the inner courts. So it’s still in public space where Gentiles were allowed, but it’s right on the very edge of their official inner sanctums. That’s no accident.

Interestingly, Jesus isn’t just standing there, he’s walking. The way the Greek reads though is curious. It could mean he’s simply putting one foot in front of the other, but it could also mean that he was doing “the walk” as in “the walk of faith” as in following the Way. That’s important because if it’s the more metaphorical walk then it amplifies that he’s doing that walk right in the midst of the Jewish Temple.

So he’s living and teaching a reformed way to be faithful right in the heart of the place where the classic way to be faithful was celebrated.
Are you perhaps living a “reformed” or new understanding of spirituality right in the midst of a more classic form? I hope so! That’s very Jesus-y! read on

150510 – Ands If We Can

Yr B ~ Easter 6 ~ Acts 10:44-48

Let me set the stage for you. A Roman centurion named Cornelius is a spiritual guy who is doing spiritual stuff with his friends. He hears about the People of the Way (which is what Christians were originally called) and sends messengers to get Peter to come and teach him. Meanwhile Peter is having wild visions about letting go of the way they’d always done things and breaking down the barriers that his religious tradition imposed – what to eat, who to associate with, whether or not circumcision mattered. Those were huge things for Jews at that time.ands-if-can

So Peter’s primed to imagine the world in a radically different way and Cornelius’ buddies knock on Peter’s door. Now, Peter represents the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem. This is different than the churches Paul planted among the Gentiles. Peter clearly saw Christianity as a reform of Judaism – which meant you first had to be Jewish and then could be Christian. Paul saw it differently.
(Gee, imagine that, a difference of opinion about how churches should work!)

Anyway, Peter and some Jewish Christian leaders go to Cornelius. A huge barrier breaking! And as Peter is sharing the story of Jesus – which he was specifically invited to do – the Holy Spirit is revealed and moves through everyone in the room.

Acts 10:44-45 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers (the Jewish Christians, the insiders) who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.

The insiders were astounded that the Spirit had been poured out “even on the outsiders.”
Friends, the church has never had a lock on the Spirit.
Spirit moves where it will. Our job isn’t to try to control it, our job is to try to notice it and go with it! read on

150503 – Nones on the Run

Yr B ~ Easter 5 ~ Acts 8:26-40

Let’s start with some numbers. A recent (2011) National survey (because we don’t do census anymore) had this to say: Out of 33 million Canadians – 22 million are various flavours of Christians – almost 13 million are Catholics – 2 million are United Church – there’s 1.6 million Anglicans and about 1 million Muslims – but the second largest single group after Catholics, at around 8 million strong, are the Nones. No, not the nuns, the Nones! No religion!Joggers-river-stretch

There are 4 times as many Nones as there are United Church people – and 16 times as many Nones as there are United Church people who actually go to church – which maybe means the ¾ of Uniteds are actually Nones!

2 out of 3 Canadians identify as some sort of Christian, but almost 25% of Canadians say they have no religion. None.

The Nones are the fastest growing group in Canada. A whole generation or two is now living with virtually no connection to the church – they don’t know who we are, what we do, or why we do it.

The numbers are similar in the United States. Religiously non-affiliated Americans now make up nearly a quarter of the overall population and a full third of Americans under the age of thirty.

I bet you know some of the Nones. I bet you have some Nones in your family. And this is where the conversation gets uncomfortable – because we start to ask ourselves “if I can’t even communicate something this personally important to me to my own family how am I going to engage some None that I barely know?”
Or the even more uncomfortable question: “How did all these people become Nones on our watch?” read on

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