170319 – TheoSpeak-Need

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Yr A ~ Lent 3 ~ John 4:5–30

It was absolutely scandalous!
If you knew more about their culture you’d know just how scandalous it really was. jesus-woman-well9
Women and men simply didn’t speak with one another if they weren’t with others, and it was definitely a no-no for a good Jew to speak with the despised Samaritans, and even more so a Samaritan woman. Speaking to her would have made Jesus “unclean” by Jewish standards.

On top of all that, women normally gathered for water early in the day and it was a social time for them – but this encounter takes place at noon suggesting that our heroine was not welcome in the morning group. That makes her an outcast – probably because of her multiple marriages.
And in the conversation between her and Jesus she is certainly not demure and deferential – she’s giving as good as she gets! So this is a culturally scandalous scene.

And if you knew more about theology you’d know that it was indeed absolutely scandalous, but for completely different reasons.
It was absolutely scandalous that Jesus’ disciples would look at something that Jesus, their mentor, was doing and because it crossed some of the accepted social norms of their day they assumed the worst. It was scandalous that these religious guys were so quick to judge.
It was scandalous that they couldn’t see the transformation that had just happened.
And it was scandalous that the disciples didn’t see that while they were off trying to meet their low level need for sustenance this ostracized woman was awakening to a much deeper need within herself.

The storytelling here is problematic because there are several things that don’t make much sense. Jesus and the disciples were travelling through somewhat hostile territory because Jews and Samaritans were enemies, so for a dozen disciples to all go into town for food and leave Jesus all alone is highly unlikely.
And the bit in the middle about Jesus telling the woman how many husbands she’d had doesn’t serve much of a theological purpose other than sullying her character.
But if we take the story in broad strokes and don’t get too hung up on some of its quirks there is some wonderful theology and spirituality in it.

It’s no accident that this story is placed right after the story of Nicodemus that we looked at last week. The juxtaposition is intriguing! Nicodemus was an upstanding man who came to Jesus under the cloak of night, representing secrecy and unknowing.
In contrast, this woman was presumably a disgraced person who came to Jesus in the full light of day.
You’ll notice that Jesus welcomed them both. He made no judgements.
And to both he offered profound insights into the nature of spirituality – and both of them pretty much missed the point. At first.

Like we talked about last week, Jesus is offering a profound paradigm shift from a religious world of rules and regulations to a personal, spiritual relationship with the Holy Mystery we call God. Nicodemus learned that to embrace that new paradigm is like being born anew. Now it’s the woman at the well’s turn. read on

170312 – TheoSpeak-Spirit

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Yr A ~ Lent 2 ~ John 3:1-17

Sacred conversations that reveal deep things about theology are our theme for this season of Lent, and today we have a conversation that Jesus settled once and for all, but for some reason his followers have struggled with it for around 2000 years now and we still haven’t all got it straight.theospeak-spirit

The quandary is set on the lips of a Pharisee named Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night – suggesting both that he’s doing it in secret because Pharisees were generally against Jesus, and also that the night symbolizes his not understanding. Nicodemus represents the institutional, educated, scientific, rational world – you know, us. That’s us.

We love rational, scientific explanations for things. Despite a recent fondness for “alternative facts” for many people today if you can’t prove something it isn’t true.
Although, to be fair, that attitude is changing in the actual scientific community and they are much more open to wonder and mystery these days, but the general public is still mostly caught in the “show me” phase.

Nicodemus begins by acknowledging Jesus’ authority, but he doesn’t even get a question out before Jesus bakes his poor brain.
His confusion comes from the Greek word anāothen which can be equally translated into English as again, above, and anew. And when you add the word “born” before that the fun starts!

Jesus says, Very truly [literally, Amen, amen], I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

And Nicodemus falls into the classic trap of trying to apply a physical, scientific lens to a spiritual, metaphorical thing. He hears “born again” as being impossible – and uses the graphically hilarious image of a person climbing back in their mother’s womb. Not happening!

So we need to turn to the other meanings of anāothen: “born from above”, which gets us part way there but still is problematic because it makes it seem like God is out there or up there – or we can go to “born anew”.

And for me, all of a sudden this whole passage makes way more sense.
It’s not that born again or born from above are wrong, it’s just that born anew says what I think Jesus means so much more helpfully.

He’s not talking about a biological birth. He’s talking about a spiritual birth – a spiritual awakening, a spiritual renewal.
Why is that so hard to understand?

John 3:6-8 Jesus says, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Of course it’s poetic. Of course it’s cryptic.
He’s trying to explain to Nicodemus – and us – that this whole spiritual God-thing is all mystery and wonder and especially relationship.
He doesn’t just say we are to be renewed in the Spirit, he says we are to be reborn in the Spirit. Being born implies there’s a parent, a nurturer, a person who loves you beyond all else.

That’s very different than a series of sacrificial transactions that Nicodemus was accustomed to. For Nicodemus and the Pharisees, if you sin you need to pay this penalty of two doves, or a sheep, or whatever. God stands far off as judge and disciplinarian demanding retribution for misdeeds.

But Jesus paints a picture of something very different – he describes a loving parent who gives birth to a renewed person ‘by the Spirit’.
And Christians have been missing that fundamental point ever since. read on

170305 – Theospeak-God

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Yr A ~ Lent 1 ~ Matthew 4:1-11

As with many passages of scripture in the bible today’s reading from Matthew lends itself to multiple interpretations – and that’s a good thing because in one form or other the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is used every year to start off the season of Lent. Even someone with no church experience at all probably has sense of what the story is basically about – especially if they ever watched cartoons as a kid and saw images of people with a little devil on one shoulder trying to talk the person into doing something wrong and an angel appears on the other shoulder to save the day.theospeak-god

That sense of personal, ethical choosing is a valid approach to take to interpret this passage. But of course, we’re going to take it in a different direction. Today I’m going to suggest that this story is not really about Jesus at all but primarily it’s about God and how we ought to relate to God. But before we dig into that we need to go through the story and make sure we are seeing what it is saying and not just relying on our memory of cartoons past!

To begin, it’s important to locate this story in Matthew’s time line.
The temptation of Jesus happens immediately after the baptism of Jesus where he emerges from the water and has an overwhelming experience of communion with the Holy Spirit – it descends like a dove and rests on him! Immediately after the temptations he announces that the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near (like he just experienced in the water), and invites people to turn around and notice it, and he finds a few disciples.
Then in the next chapter he teaches all about the Kingdom of Heaven through his Sermon on the Mount which we just spent the last month or so on.
Ok, do you have the sequence? Baptism, temptation, announcement about the Kingdom, and teaching about the Kingdom.

So…my question is when did he become so wise about this Kingdom of Heaven thing? You might argue that he’s Jesus and he just knows these things, but that denies the need for him to go through things like baptism and temptation. If he already knew everything he doesn’t need to have a spiritual transformation – and a spiritual transformation is precisely what’s going on here! read on

170219 – On Planting and Watering

Our 20th Anniversary service featuring as guest preacher: The Rev. Dr. John Young

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I want to begin by saying how pleased I am to be here with you today.  To be asked to speak at an anniversary service is a particular honour.  But my pleasure today comes from two sources.  First, Larry is a former student but, more significantly, someone of whom I think very highly and value as a friend and colleague in ministry.  Second, church amalgamations are challenging things to pull off, and Faith United Church is an example of as successful an amalgamation as I know.  Indeed, I do not know of one more successful, though I am aware of many that have been far less successful.  So, I want to congratulate you on the success of that amalgamation, one involving first two congregations and then at a later point, Harmony United Church.

I chose a reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.  I shall come back to some specifics of the passage later, but I want to begin by talking a little bit about that church in Corinth.  We do not know a lot about it.  But we know a few things.  First, it was a church Paul founded.  He spent about eighteen months there before moving on either to found other congregations or to try to strengthen other congregations someone else had founded.  Eighteen months was a long time for Paul to stay in one place.  Generally he moved around a lot, visiting an existing congregation in one place, trying to start a new congregation somewhere else.  The Christian church at this point in time, twenty years or so after Jesus’ death, was not the kind of institution we think of today.  When Paul was writing, Christianity was a movement; there was nothing we would recognize as an institutional church.  Congregations existed as independent entities with little contact between them.  I use the term “congregations,” but that term could mislead.  These early congregations met in people’s homes.  A well-to-do early church member or family might have been able to accommodate thirty or forty people in their home with its accompanying courtyard, but many early Christian churches probably had a group of between fifteen and twenty gathering for worship.  We do not know the size of the Corinthian congregation, though we know from other things in the letter that the congregation did have some well-to-do members, so it is possible we have a group here of thirty or so.  My point is that these early churches to whom Paul wrote were not large, and they did not have buildings like the one in which we gather this morning.

Another important thing about the church in Corinth—they had not been around a long time at the point Paul wrote this letter to them.  We are celebrating Faith’s twentieth anniversary this morning.  The church in Corinth was probably three or four years old at the time Paul wrote.

A final thing about the congregation in the early 50s of the Common Era, the time from which this letter comes.  The church in Corinth, like all the Christian congregations, functioned in a wider society that knew nothing or next to nothing about what this new religious group believed, how it worshipped, or what it required of its adherents.  Those in the wider society who did have some knowledge of this new religion were generally ambivalent toward it, though some may have expressed a mild hostility.  An active persecution of the Christian church would come at a later time, but such was not a reality when this letter was written.

Paul, both in this passage, and in his letter as a whole, had three goals.  He wanted the Corinthian Christians to see that, as a congregation, they were involved in something God has initiated and maintains.  He wanted them to be a united community.  And he hoped to have them catch the vision of what they were called to do and to be.

Those three points of Paul’s are relevant to us in our time.  While the Christian church has been around for a long time, the environment in which we operate bears, I think, a striking resemblance to that in which the church functioned during the first several generations of its existence.  Then, as now, the wider society knows little if anything about who we are or what we do when we worship.  Then, as now, the values we have as Christians differ from those of the wider society.

Let me now come back to those three things Paul wants the church in Corinth to recognize.  The first is that they are involved in something God has initiated.   Enid DeCoe read the first nine verses of chapter 3 for us this morning.  In that section of the chapter, Paul spoke of the Church as God’s field and God’s building.  If I had asked Enid DeCoe read the entire chapter, the reference to God’s building would have been developed much more than it is here, and we would have discovered Paul also used a third image for the Church, namely that it was God’s temple.  By temple, Paul did not mean a building, but, rather, a place in which God’s spirit dwelt.  Paul’s point to the church in Corinth, whose members tended to think about their status, and what they would accomplish, and the gifts they had, was that they were part of something God had initiated.  In making this point, Paul was not saying that they did not have a role to play with those gifts they had.  However, he wanted to stress that God was the one who had brought the church into being for God’s own purposes.  Their temptation was to stress the gifts they had, what they brought to the Church.  Now Paul never, here or elsewhere, advocated passivity on the part of the Christians.  Remember this same letter to the Corinthians is one in which Paul used as an analogy for the Church the human body—the human body with each part needing to contribute or to do its part if the whole body is to function as it should.  But in this chapter, with his reference to the Church as God’s field, or God’s building, or, later in the chapter, God’s temple, Paul wanted to remind the Christian Church in Corinth that the Church is something God had established.  They had a part to play, but the Church was God’s entity, and God would use their gifts in ways beyond their imagining.

We, too, need to hear this message.  We live in a society where we are taught from the time we are very young that everything depends upon us.  Indeed, our culture exudes this philosophy in all aspects of life.  Paul’s challenge to the Church of his day applies to us to.  It is not that we should be passive and live as though the world owes us a living or that the Church will prosper if we sit back.  However, what we need to do is to use our gifts as best we can, to give of ourselves as best we can, knowing that God can and will take and use these efforts of ours in ways beyond our imagining.  Those who founded St. Andrew’s United Church, or Courtice United Church, or Harmony United Church could not have imagined this future.  In this passage, Paul challenged a party spirit that had developed in the church in Corinth.  He noted that, as the founder of the church in Corinth, he had planted; a successor of his, Apollos, had watered; but it was God who had given the growth.  So, too, God takes our gifts, the planting by some, the watering by others, and develops those gifts.

A second challenge of Paul’s in this letter was community formation in two senses of that term.  He wanted to from a community, to get the Corinthians away from identifying with one leader or another.  In the opening chapter of this letter, Paul criticized the way the Corinthians had divided into parties.  It seems that some persons had identified with Paul as the founder of the community, while others had identified with Apollos, as a subsequent leader of the community. Paul made the point that he and Apollos had both had important roles, one as the founder or “planter” of the community and the other as the developer of the community or the one who “watered.”  However, Paul also made clear that such identifications were far from what either he or Apollos, not to mention God, wanted to see.  He and Apollos had played different roles, but their commonality was serving God in the leadership they offered to this new congregation.  Their common purpose was the growth of the congregation, and the congregation needed to see itself as one community.

As an amalgamated congregation, and a congregation that has developed its own identity following this two stage amalgamation involving three different congregations, you have had to be intentional about thinking of yourselves as one community.  You have had to work to be one community, Faith United Church.  From what I have heard, you have managed to do that in a most remarkable way.  You have become one and learned to think of yourselves in that way.  You have been able to do what Paul was working to persuade the church in Corinth to do.

But there is a second way to think about community formation.  This second way also applied to the church in Corinth and it applies to us.  Paul wanted to form a community designed to follow in Jesus’ way, a community of disciples, a Christian community.  He saw the need for a process of formation, for teaching the faith tradition and for preparing them for the life to which they had been called.  As Christians, that way of being differed from the norms of the world and culture in which they lived.  Part of their unity problem arose because in the surrounding society people sought leadership positions for status and power.  So, attaching themselves to a previous leader, saying that they were “of Paul” or “of Apollos,” was to follow the way of that society.  Some of Paul’s criticisms of them later in this letter concerned the sense to which they had retained their culture’s practice of valuing people on the basis of their race, or their gender, or their wealth.

Third, Paul wanted them to catch a vision of what they were called to do and who they were called to be.  This third hope of Paul’s may apply to us even more than the two previous ones.  Paul was quite clear that to become a Christian was to become counter-cultural in many ways, even if he did not use the term “counter-cultural.”  To be a Christian in our society is to have an alternative vision as to how the world can be, and when I say, “an alternative vision,” I mean a vision different from what our society and our culture sees as “normal.”  At one time the Church and the society seemed relatively close in the values we held.  That certainly seemed to be true when I was a child.  That said, I do not think the overlap then was nearly as great as we believed it to be.  Certainly it is not so now.  Our contemporary congregations, congregations like Faith United Church, need to help to form those who come here as Christians, as those who know the faith tradition and who are also prepared to try to live their lives according to it.

We live in a society that says what we have has come to us as a result of our own efforts; we practise a faith tradition that says that what we have comes to us as grace, as God’s gift.  Yes, we need to work at those gifts and develop them, but I did not choose the country of my birth, or the family that gave me much love, or any one of a number of other things that have helped to make me who I am.  Those things were gift; they were not my accomplishment.

We are part of a society that encourages us to look after ourselves and not to worry about anyone else.  Watch carefully the ads for investment counsellors or financial advisors that one sees on TV or that pop up when you are looking at something on line.  Our faith tradition tells us we need to love our neighbours as ourselves and to share what we have.

Our culture teaches us that our happiness lies in owning a particular type of car or having a house of a particular size, or having a TV with a very large screen.  None of these things are bad.  But none of them are the basis for our ultimate happiness.  And a consumer driven way of life that sets our valuing of ourselves on the basis of what we possess is proving toxic for the environmental capacity of our planet.  We are part of a faith tradition that says we find meaning in life through loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbours as ourselves.

In other words, our faith tradition provides us with an alternative picture for what the world should be, a picture different from the images we would draw from our culture.  In their book, Minding the Law, Anthony Amsterdam and Jerome Bruner assert, correctly I think, that every culture is, at its base, a “negotiated” compromise between what is “already established” and what is “imaginatively possible.”  Every culture has battles over how to conceive reality, that is, over what is real and over how things ought to be.  Or, to quote Amsterdam and Bruner, “In any culture, there are both canonical versions of how things really are and should be and countervailing visions about what is alternatively possible.”[1]  In the Christian church, we have an alternative imagination.  We do not have alternative facts, but we do have an alternative imagination of how our world could be, of how it could look.  In such a world, we would not have ongoing boil water advisories in a large number of indigenous communities here in Canada.  We would have more initiatives like the United Church Women’s one of several years ago that raised a large sum of money for maternal care in Tanzania.

Like the church Paul was working to correct and to create, Faith United Church needs to be a place where people can learn about and grow in the faith tradition.  Indeed, that must be, or become, the reality for all our congregations.  All our congregations need to be places that help provide an alternative imagination, an imagination that can picture the world as we believe God would want it to be.  Hopefully our congregations are also ones that strengthen us not only to have such an imagination but also to work to bring that imagined world into being.

The United Methodist congregation at which I worshipped while doing my doctoral degree in Dallas celebrated its 25th anniversary during the time I was there. A hymn writer who was a member of the congregation wrote a hymn for the occasion, hymn that was picked up by a number of hymnals though not, alas, by ours.  However, I want to close with two stanzas from that hymn, for they capture well both a sense of what we owe to those who have gone before us, both here and in the history of the congregations who came together to form Faith, and a sense of what we contribute to a future for this congregation, a future that runs beyond what we can foresee.  Here are the two stanzas from Jane Marshall’s hymn “What Gift can we Bring”:

Give thanks for the past, for those who had vision,
who planted and watered so dreams could come true.
Give thanks for the Now, for study, for worship,
for mission that bids us turn prayer into deed.

Give thanks for Tomorrow, full of surprises,
for knowing whatever Tomorrow may bring,
the Word is our promise always, forever,
we rest in God’s keeping and live in God’s love.

In the days that lie head, may we water what others have planted, and plant for those who will come after us.  And to that God, in whose keeping we rest and in whose love we live, be all honour, glory, and praise, Amen.


[1] Quoted in Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), p. vii.

170212 – But I Say ~ Love

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Yr A ~ Epiphany 6 ~ Matthew 5:38-48

I think I’ll start at the end of today’s scripture passage, and then go way back to the beginning of the whole section, and then do some highlights! Because if I don’t start at the end there’s a word that will hang over the whole proceedings today and unhelpfully colour how you hear anything I may say. I want a different word to hang over us. I want the word love to be ringing in your ears this morning, but I fear the word you’ve already latched onto is perfect. It comes from the last verse of today’s reading, Matthew 5:48 – Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.but-i-say-love

Does that trip you up? Are you thinking that perfection is impossible so why bother even trying? Are you thinking Jesus is bonkers?
I wouldn’t blame you for thinking those things, if Jesus was talking about actually being perfect. But again, as happens so often, he isn’t. How we hear the word is not how the word was intended.

We hear the word perfect and we think “without fault or error, flawless.” We can probably agree that God is without fault or error but we are absolutely positive that we are not!
Try hard? Yes. Perfect? Not on your life.
But even in English that is only one very limited meaning of the word. Happily, that is not what this verse means.

The Greek word is teleios which primarily means “mature, full grown, complete in all its parts.” Perfect because the goal has been consummated. Jesus is not asking us to strive to be flawlessly perfect but to strive to be mature, and full grown or fully orbed in our faith. God is obviously the fullest completeness of loving-kindness and holiness, for God is love. We can’t be God (that job’s taken) but we can absolutely strive for spiritual maturity and depth. We can strive to love like Jesus, like God.

So if we start there – knowing that the goal here is not perfection but maturity – then maybe we can hear the whole thing in a much better light. Now let’s go back to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount takes up three chapters in Matthew’s gospel, but we’ve only had time to do the first chapter of it, chapter 5. We’ve done it as a four-part series (and today’s the last one).

The overarching theme of Jesus’ teaching is about the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is nothing less than a full-blown reordering of reality with God and God’s values at the centre.
It’s a spiritual orientation that we can be immersed in right here, right now.
It’s a realm and a way of being that is utterly and inescapably enfolded and immersed in God’s Presence and God’s love.
Jesus is inviting his disciples, his followers, us, into that kingdom, into that love, right at the start of the journey. read on

170205 – But I Say ~ Transcend

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Yr A ~ Epiphany 5 ~ Matthew 5:21-32

I know what you’re thinking: “Is he actually going to preach on murder, anger, indebtedness, adultery, lust, sin, and divorce today?” Yes he is! Except, no he isn’t! Because this text isn’t actually about those things. Well, it is, but it really isn’t! How do you like this so far?but-i-say-transcend

Unfortunately, texts like these have been used to argue for all sorts of very unhelpful things, in my opinion. I suspect more than a few of you have been pinched by texts like these. So I’d like to begin by apologizing for those in my profession who have profoundly missed the point. Preachers have stood in pulpits time after time and railed on and on about how Jesus is telling us what appropriate behaviour is for a follower of his Way.

Except that’s precisely NOT what Jesus is doing. But preaching on behaviour, and measuring behaviour, and judging behaviour seems so “religious” and it’s so easy to do. Well, I don’t think Jesus cared two figs for what seemed religious and he definitely was not about taking the easy road. In fact, this whole section of the Sermon on the Mount is about taking the hard road, the high road, the road less travelled by.

It’s a text about raising the bar for his followers. If, as you read it, you’re thinking that he raised it too far, that it would be impossible to ever live up to it and he’s dooming us all to failure, I’m going to suggest you’re missing his real point. And the main reason for that is that we think he’s talking to us, which he is, except he isn’t!

What Jesus is all about here is culture change. His newly called disciples have lived immersed in a transactional culture of “requirement and reward” or “infraction and fine” where keeping the letter of the law was rewarded and breaking the letter of the law required payments, or sacrifices, or penance of some kind.
In contrast to that Jesus paints a picture of a kingdom of heaven with values that challenge us to go above and beyond the requirements of the letter of the law and live according to a higher standard. To make his point he uses a classic form of discourse called hyperbole. It means he exaggerates for effect. He goes to extremes to underline his message.

This is the part that he’s not talking to us about because we have not lived in that transactional culture. Sure, we may tend to follow the world’s values of rewarding good rule-followers and punishing those who disobey, and that’s ok as far as it goes, but we’ve never been required to submit to religious purity codes and make sacrifices of birds or animals to clean our slate.

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So the main thing Jesus is doing by using this hyperbolic language is to shock his disciples out of their conventional mindset and get them to begin to reimagine the values they should live by. That’s not our mindset so the tone of the passage confuses us.

This is crucially important for our understanding of this teaching of Jesus. Without knowing that we will misinterpret what he’s saying about anger and lust and divorce and think he’s setting impossible standards that we inevitably break and then we feel terrible and beat ourselves up about it. That is entirely not the point.

The point is about a new mindset for living kingdom values. And here he brilliantly uses the “You have heard it said…but I say” device. read on

170129 – But I Say~Shine

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Yr A ~ Epiphany 4 ~ Matthew 5:13-20

So that. These are two very powerful little words.
So that. It’s kind of too bad that they’re such small words because if we’re not careful it’s pretty easy to breeze right over them. I’m about to argue that these two little words are among the most important and crucial for understanding Jesus’ teaching.but-i-say-shine

Jesus is a master at painting word pictures and using parables to come at his meaning sideways because if he came straight on he’d probably ruffle too many feathers with how audacious his message was. Today’s reading isn’t a parable, but it does paint some amazing pictures that are powerful enough to be the whole message but then he zaps us with a “so that” that shows us what his real meaning is.

When you say “so that” you’re saying that everything you’ve said previously is the build-up, the groundwork, the foundational concepts that you’re working with. I’m not saying that everything before the “so that” doesn’t matter – in fact, I’m saying the opposite. It matters greatly, because you need a strong theological foundation in order to launch your “so that.” So let’s start with that foundation.

First, we need to set the context. Remember that this is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teaching. It’s the first real teaching he did in the gospel of Matthew, and the indications in the text are that at this point he’s still talking to his newly formed inner circle of freshly called disciples.

The Sermon on the Mount began with the Beatitudes which were all about describing Christian values, or more specifically kingdom values – values which stand in stark contrast to the usual conventional wisdom of the world’s values. If you remember our discussion of that passage two weeks ago we underlined how important utter surrender to God is for understanding the kingdom Jesus speaks of and invites us to be immersed in. Kingdom values are about living surrendered, sensitively, using our power gently, yearning for God, being compassionate, having pure intentions, being diplomatic, staying on the path even when facing obstacles.

So Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount painting the picture of this kingdom and telling his followers that they don’t have to do a single thing to earn it – that they are already ready to simply open their hand and receive it as they embody those values beginning with surrender to God’s Presence. And immediately upon telling us that ours is the kingdom of heaven he begins to say how kingdom people should act.
Here’s the kingdom – it’s all yours – now here’s how to live it out.
The Beatitudes explain our inward orientation – this passage explains our outward actions. Our actions flow from our orientation toward God. We love because we are loved.

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Jesus teaches that because the kingdom of heaven is yours you are the salt of the earth! And then he warns us about the dangers of not being salty. Jesus says that because the kingdom of heaven is yours you are the light of the world. And then he warns us about the dangers of hiding our light. Salt is meant to be salty – lights are meant to shine. That’s us.

He says that a city on a hill cannot be hidden. He means us. If you’re immersed in the kingdom of heaven, because you’ve surrendered and strive to embrace kingdom values, then you are salty and lit up and stand out like a city built on a hill in full view of the world. If you’re salty and lit up people are going to notice. If Jesus didn’t want people to notice us he’d have told us to be cities hidden strategically away. But not us – we’re supposed to be visible, living our faith out loud, being noticed.

Now, that flies in the face of our usual self-understanding that as people of faith we’re supposed to be meek, and mild, and self-deprecating, and quiet, and humble. I submit to you that our usual self-understanding is flawed. You can be salty and shiny without being a jerk about it, but you can’t be salty and shiny hidden away and not causing any fuss. read on

170122 – A Firm Faith

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Galatians 3:23-29
Affirming Ministry Launch Day

Today is a special day because we are officially launching something called our Affirming Ministry process. The absolute number one question that always comes up about this is “We’re already welcoming and inclusive, so why do we have to do this?”
And the second question is, “What exactly are we supposed to be affirming?” I’ll answer that one first.a-firm-faith

Specifically, the Affirming movement grew out of an awareness that people who identify as LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) have historically been treated very badly by churches and have felt decidedly unwelcome and therefore unable to grow in their faith.

However, denominations like our United Church of Canada, who lead the way in being inclusive, have been working hard to change that story. The thing is that ultimately our national church cannot and will not tell individual congregations how to shape their worship policies, so regardless of national pronouncements and encouragement the experience at various churches can range from wonderfully inclusive and supportive to downright hostile.

For several years now Faith United has had an equal marriage policy that says that if you are legally eligible to be married in Ontario, opposite sex or same sex, and you desire a Christian ceremony that you can be married here by me. This is a clear sign that we’re already inclusive, but to be Affirming says something more.
If a congregation is an Affirming Ministry they are saying, out loud and to the public, that they “affirm” the radical inclusiveness, acceptance, and hospitality toward LGBTQ folks that our denomination encourages.

And that’s the answer to the first question.

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We here at Faith United are wonderfully inclusive. No matter who comes through our doors I know that as long as they were willing to learn about and practice journeying in the Way of Jesus that you would welcome them without hesitation, no matter how they looked, or how they self-identified their gender, or whatever their sexual orientation might be.

The difference is, and the reason we’re embarking on this is, that WE know we’re inclusive, but LGBTQ folks out there may not be sure about us, because we’ve never taken the time or effort to tell them.
And make no mistake, they’ve been burned and hurt before by churches, so they’re likely not willing to give us a try and risk coming through our doors and finding out unless they’re sure.
And if we’re going to say out loud and publicly that we’re Affirming then we need to be sure that we understand the people we hope to welcome as best we can.

I think there are two key indicators that inform whether people are comfortable with these kinds of conversations: their view of interpreting scripture and their personal experience of people who are “others”.

So let’s talk scripture first. read on

170115 – But I Say~Blessing

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Yr A ~ Epiphany 2 ~ Matthew 5:1-12

One challenge with a passage of scripture like we have today is that it’s so well known it can be difficult to engage in a fresh way. “They’re the Beatitudes. The blessings. Everybody knows what they mean.” Oh they do, do they? We’ll see!but-i-say-blessings

To begin, let’s set the stage. In Matthew’s gospel the Sermon on the Mount is the very first bit of real teaching that Jesus does. He’s born, gets baptized, does the temptation thing, declares that the kingdom of heaven is near and people ought to change the way they see the world and open themselves to receive it, taps a bunch of disciples on the shoulder and says “Follow me” and they do, and then we get the Beatitudes.

The text mentions a crowd, but a careful reading suggests that it’s probably only the disciples that are hearing this teaching. Now that’s sad if you’re a Monty Python fan and you can’t help but imagine a crowd of hundreds and the people way at the back mis-hearing Jesus and causing all kinds of comedy. Instead of “blessed are the peacemakers” they hear “blessed are the cheesemakers” and then have a theological debate where they decide he meant makers of dairy products in general. Funny! But the way Matthew reads there was no crowd – just disciples.

And that’s important because this is a pretty heavy teaching. It probably isn’t appropriate for a passer-by. Even these insiders would have some trouble taking it all in – and maybe we will too, I don’t know. Jesus has just launched his ministry and just called his first disciples and now he’s telling these key insiders what it means to be a part of this movement – the goal of which is residing in the kingdom of heaven. He’s going to lay out what we might call Christian values or more specifically kingdom values. And these will stand in stark opposition to the world’s values, as you’ll soon see.

Now, as usual, there are some things we’re going to have to unlearn. This is one of the downsides of a very familiar text. We’ve heard the words for so long that we don’t really question what they mean anymore. And more than that, some of the words may not mean what you think they mean! No, I’m not saying everyone has had it all wrong and now we’ll get it right. But I am saying that once you hear this, and wrestle with it, you probably won’t read the Beatitudes in the same way.

The very first thing we need to be clear about is what the word blessed means. If someone is blessed it means that they are enviable because they’ve received God’s favour. Literally it means to become large, like you do when you receive compliments or affirmation.

And so, as we begin, we instantly hit a landmine because it’s hard to imagine how being ‘poor in spirit’ makes one large or enviable or favoured.

Matthew 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

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Notice that unlike the other Beatitudes this one is present tense and not future tense. All the other blessings are “will be, will inherit, will receive.”
But this one is “theirs IS the kingdom. These folks have it!
Which folks? Those poor in spirit.
We like the idea of having the kingdom of heaven, but how do you feel about being poor in spirit?

On the surface that doesn’t make sense. Don’t we all want to be rich in spirit? Filled with spirit? Why would we want to be poor in spirit?
The problem is that we’re not hearing the word ‘poor’ correctly. The word in Greek is ptóchos and it’s kind of a word picture. Literally it means bent over, as in one who crouches or cowers – like a beggar would – hence the translation of poor, but it means much more than just lacking! It does not describe a level of spirit but an orientation of spirit. read on

170108 – The Water’s Fine

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Yr A ~ Epiphany 1 ~ Matthew 3:13-17

We’re going to reflect on one of the absolute essential aspects of life today – water. What does water do? It refreshes us, cleanses us, cools us, hydrates us, nourishes us, and sustains us.

Water covers around 71% of the earth’s surface. 97% of the water on our planet is currently undrinkable because it’s salt water – and of the 3% that’s freshwater over 70% of that is frozen!water-fine

Half the world’s water supply is located in just 9 countries. Canada has around 20% of the world’s fresh water, and sadly about 20% of the world has no reliable access to safe, drinkable water. That’s why we do a well-drilling fund raiser in Advent each December! You raised just under $5000 this year (almost enough for 2 wells!) and you’ll save literally hundreds of lives because of that!

Did you know that we can live around 3 weeks without food but only 3-5 days without water?
Did you know that’s because you are mostly water?
Adults are around 60% water. Infants are around 75% water.

One of my favourite Star Trek lines was in an episode where Captain Picard and his crew discovered a new microscopic sentient life form and when they hooked up the universal translator it called them “ugly giant bags of mostly water!”

Whenever we send space probes to other planets the thing that excites the scientists the most is whether they can find any trace of water ever having been there because water is the fundamental element of life as we know it.
Some scientists and environmentalists predict that as the 21st century plays out water will become much more valuable than oil.

Middle Eastern countries have lots of oil, but not much water, and they use among the least amounts of water per person in the whole world, because freshwater resources are so scarce.
It’s no wonder, then, that the bible is somewhat obsessed with water!

Genesis chapter 1 describes the beginning of everything as nothing but deep, dark waters! And Revelation 22 (the last book of the bible) features the river of the water of life. That means the 2nd verse from the beginning of the bible and the 5th verse from the end of the bible are about water! And variations of the word are used around 722 times in between.

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I’m sure you could name 10 or 20 biblical references featuring water off the top of your head – Noah’s flood, the parting the Red Sea, water from a rock, as the deer pants, the woman at the well, washing disciples’ feet – it’s water, water everywhere!

So it should not surprise us that the first action of Jesus’ recorded adult life in all 4 gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, features Jesus immersed in the waters of creation – being baptized and spring-boarding him into his public ministry. read on

161218 – Dreaming Love

Yr A ~ Advent 4 ~ Matthew 1:18-25

If you were going to make a kids Christmas pageant out of the nativity story according to the Gospel of Matthew you would be in a heap of trouble.
Journey to Bethlehem? Nope. dreaming-love
Birth in a stable? Nope.
Shepherds? Nope.
Angels? Nope.
Drummer boys, wise men, or reindeer?
Nope, nope, and we need to talk!
Well, there are wise men in the next chapter, but they don’t arrive for a few weeks! So we don’t have any of the usual Christmas nativity trappings here in Matthew’s gospel. All we have is Joseph, and in the background a scandalously pregnant Mary.

You know that whole controversy and argument that people get into over whether Mary was a virgin or not, and how did she really become pregnant, and maybe it was actually Joseph’s baby after all, and, and, and…

I am going to settle the controversy for you this morning once and for all because I have a very strong opinion about this, and it happens to be correct, and I’m not afraid to tell you what it is. Are you ready? The truth is…
it doesn’t matter!

It totally doesn’t matter. The means of Jesus’ conception does not matter one tiny bit.
What does matter, and what we ought to be focusing on, are Joseph’s reactions!

Ok, to be fair, maybe you’d argue that Jesus’ conception matters theologically. I’d agree, but probably for different reasons. And to make that argument you need to know a little Greek.
You’d need to know that the word in verse 20 that has an angel telling Joseph about Mary’s child is a form of the Greek word gennao. It is the same word that dominated the first 17 verses of Matthew – what we affectionately call the “begats”. This one begat that one, that one begat the next one, that next one begat another one. On and on it goes through the generations. They did a lot of begetting over the years!

So with 40 or so soundings of the word gennao ringing in your ears (and remember, the gospels were primarily spoken, not read) when you hear that the Holy Spirit is involved somehow in the begetting of Jesus your interest would be piqued. Gennao means begat, but it equally means “to engender, to cause to arise, to excite.” Maybe that’s how we should think of it, less conception and more that the Holy Spirit engendered or caused Jesus to arise?

Now add this.
This complex Greek word can also be translated as genesis. Genesis and gennao share the same root.
Verse 18 in English says “The birth of Jesus took place in this way…”
But the word isn’t simply birth, it’s genesis.
“The genesis of Jesus took place in this way…” – just like in Genesis 1 where the Holy Spirit is present and moving as a new creation is formed.
Us uptight Westerners all fixate on Mary’s supposed virginity (which I’ll get to in a second), but the original Greek speaking Jewish audience would only have heard genesis, genesis, genesis – and the Holy Spirit is moving again!

Now about the virgin thing, which I’ve already said doesn’t really matter, but it’s out there so I’ll say a few things about it. It’s all about the subtleties of language and things getting lost or added in translation.
Matthew builds his account on Isaiah 7:14 which we read as “Behold, a virgin shall conceive.”
But that’s English. Hate to break your bubble but the bible wasn’t written in English.

We get virgin from the Greek word parthenos – which strictly speaking means maiden or unmarried daughter, who most likely would be a virgin but not by definition.
And Matthew got parthenos from the Greek translation of the Hebrew bible – but in the original Hebrew Isaiah 7:14 uses the word almah which simply means a woman of child bearing age who has not yet had a child.
Behold, a woman who could have a child but hasn’t had one yet, shall conceive.” Previously childless, but nothing whatsoever about virginity.
So, if you need Mary to be a virgin in your take on the Christmas story that’s ok, but Matthew’s text does not demand it, at all.

Ok, now let’s talk biology. In biblical times they had no real concept of how babies were actually made. In their understanding women contributed nothing to the process except the fertile soil. To be blunt, a male’s contribution was visible and a female’s contribution was invisible, so they didn’t know she made one. So their language and imagery of conception was not about egg and sperm uniting but about seeds being planted. If this story happened today we’d be all worried about DNA and paternity tests – and we’d miss the whole point!

Again I’ll say that this stuff doesn’t really matter. The factual little details that many of us love to argue about are really inconsequential in the meaning of the story. The historicity and the scientific accuracy of the story are not even on the table. It is not a medical story – it’s a spiritual story.

The point is not that Jesus’ conception is somehow more miraculous than any other conception, it’s that Jesus represents a new Genesis – a new beginning. They want us to understand that from his very first moment, from his very conception, Jesus was absolutely and utterly surrounded by and immersed in Spirit. That means theologically we’re starting something significantly new here, and the Holy Spirit is what’s engendering it and causing it to arise!

Now let’s get back to Joseph. read on

161211 – Dreaming Joy

Yr A ~ Advent 3 ~ Isaiah 35:1-10

I should probably begin by telling you that this chapter in Isaiah, this profoundly joyful and optimistic chapter, is both preceded and followed by chapter after chapter of unrelenting doom and gloom. I mean, it’s really nasty. It’s bad enough the Israelites are in exile but to add insult to injury they are getting a real pounding from the prophet. And then, out of nowhere, like an oasis in the middle of a barren desert, we find chapter 35.dreaming-joy

To be exiled is to be displaced from your homeland and heartland. Exile is equated with being in the desert – the wilderness. It’s a dangerous, risky place to be. Resources are scarce. The future is quite uncertain.
But it’s also liminal space! Those uncomfortable places are also places of tremendous potential – for growth, for transformation.

Jacob in the wilderness had a dream and realized that God was with him all along.
Jesus, driven to the wilderness after his baptism, emerged transformed for his public ministry.

Faith United started out in the wilderness.
There was a joyful dream of a new future, but it began in the risky wilderness of selling buildings and meeting in an elementary school for a season. That’s like exile – displaced from your heartland, yearning for a return, not necessarily to exactly the same place but a return to normality, to civilization, out of the wilderness.

I bet you heard more than a few words of hope, and peace, and joy in the midst of your exile in the wilderness of the school where you worshipped until this building came to be.

Some of us, maybe most of us, can speak of a time when we walked away from our church for whatever reasons. A time when we personally experienced exile from our faith life. And over time, considering that you’re here today, you found God’s highway home. Somehow your desert blossomed and water flowed in your wilderness. Somehow there was healing. And in the return there was joyfulness.

That’s what Isaiah was preaching about. He spoke of the tremendous gladness and joy of coming out of exile. That your place or situation can become transformed and the world would be filled with joy and gladness and leaping and singing.

And I hope you noticed that right in the middle of this joy-filled chapter are some of my favourite faith words:
Isaiah 35:4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.

Don’t be afraid. God is here. God is present. Surely God is in this place. But when you’re in exile sometimes you forget that.
Or worse still, what if you’ve never heard that before? read on

161204 – Dreaming Peace

Yr A ~ Advent 2 ~ Isaiah 11:1-10

It begins with a marvellous image of a shoot of new life growing out of a dead stump of a tree. Most of us have probably seen something like that. The stump in this case represents what seemed to them like the end of the line of Davidic kings. You see, when Isaiah was writing this passage the people of Israel were in exile and their kings were overthrown. And into that dark experience Isaiah prophesies a new branch growing out of the old roots. You can imagine how welcome such a word would be to these exiled and suffering people. A new king will come. In fact, it will be a messiah! And here’s what the messiah king will look like. peace-z

2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

There’s a lot in there. But I want us to notice what it’s all rooted in. Wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, good judgement, righteousness and faithfulness are the qualities of this coming messiah king, but all those qualities are rooted in two crucial things: The Spirit of the Lord, and the Reverent, Wondrous, Awe of the Lord. The English reads “fear of the Lord” but the Hebrew word means far more than just being scared or intimidated, it means to be awestruck. This messiah will be enfolded in the Spirit of God and will delight in being awestruck and reverent toward it.

(By the way, the word messiah in Hebrew is translated as christos in Greek which is where we get Christ from. It literally means ‘anointed one’, not king, and not Jesus’ last name.)

And what effect will someone like this messiah king, this anointed one, have on the world. Oh, nothing much – it’ll just turn the entire natural universe on its head!

6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

Wow! That’s pretty spectacular! It’s a description of utter peace. This passage is sometimes nicknamed “the Peaceable Kingdom” where all God’s creatures live together in perfect harmony.
Predator and prey hang out happily.
The innocent and the dangerous play together with no consequences.
Lifelong enemies coexist in peace.
It’s a lovely dream.

What if this was being written today? We modern citified folk might not be so tempted to use animal and nature imagery. So what would the depiction of utter peace look like now?
How about if we spoke of Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians, blacks and whites, refugees and citizens, the 1% and the 99%, the political left and right (republicans and democrats, conservatives and liberals)?
Could you even imagine that being possible today?
It would take a messiah, at least! And then some! read on

161127 – Dreaming Hope

Yr A ~ Advent 1 ~ Isaiah 2:1-5

In days to come. What do you think of when you hear that? In days to come.
Does it make you think it’s going to happen this week?
Does it mean something like the season of Advent when we know something is coming that we’ll celebrate at Christmas but for now those days are still to come, but they’re coming any day now?
Or does it mean some day in the far off future?dreaming-hope

How certain are you that those days are going to come?
Is it just a wish? A faint daydream?
A fairy tale about how things are supposed to be but very rarely are?
Or is it more than a wish?
Is it a hope?
They’re not the same thing.
A wish is for something that you’d like to happen but you’re not at all counting on it. “I wish I could win the lottery!” or “I wish he was better looking!” (says my wife!).

But a hope is different. They’re not interchangeable – wishing and hoping.
To hope, in the biblical, theological sense, is to trust in something that has not yet happened but will certainly come to pass because God has promised it.
And if you think that’s just wishful thinking then you are not yet getting it.
Hope is trusting in what will be, not what might be.

This reading from Isaiah is a reading of hope. Isaiah has received a vision. It was a word that he “saw”. Isn’t that great! How do you see a word? You envision it. So God gives a vision of a hopeful future to Isaiah, and Isaiah shares it with us.

Now, why do we need this vision for the future? Well, the truth is it’s because the present isn’t going so great in many ways. If you don’t believe me pick up a newspaper! If you were to go back and read the first chapter of Isaiah you’d see that they were doing even worse. The state of human affairs described is frightening. So into that darkened world Isaiah shares a vision, a hope, for the future. Sounds just like Advent!

Isaiah says that in days to come God’s Presence in the world will be so awesome and so wondrously manifest that everyone shall be drawn to it. His language is brilliant – God’s house on a mountain and everyone will stream to it – steam…UP the mountain. Fantastic! And the people will say, “Come on, let’s go to church and learn about God so we can walk in God’s ways!” Well, that’s not in days to come – you’re already here doing that right now! That’s hopeful!

Then we get to one of the greatest, most poignant, most famous verses in the bible. And I’m going to suggest that we’ve generally been reading it much too shallowly. I’m also going to open up some of the language to give a fuller meaning of what it says.

Isaiah 2:4 [God] shall [govern among] the nations, and shall [reprove] many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. read on

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