July 21, 2021
July 21, 2021
Yr B ~ Pentecost 8 ~ Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
I was at a church conference once, and at the obligatory Q&A time one of the questioners asked a really deep and heartfelt ‘elephant in the room’ kind of question that perfectly summed up what every person at the conference was desperately trying to get to the heart of. The headline presenter – the one whose wisdom everyone had come to hear – paused thoughtfully, breathed deeply, looked out at the anticipating crowd, and said this, “That is exactly the right question, and there is a simple and obvious answer to it that will solve this problem once and for all – and ‘Jim’ over there is going to tell you what it is.” Of course, ‘Jim’ had no clue he was getting thrown under the bus. Everyone roared in laughter (yes, even ‘Jim’), because we all knew that the question was not simple and obvious to answer. It was complex, and nuanced, and no quick and easy ‘technical’ answer was going to get anywhere near addressing the issue. What was needed was a paradigm shift, an ‘adaptive’ approach that requires a whole culture change.
I tell that story because this is the conclusion of a 3-week sermon series on the topic of the E-word – evangelism – and I teased this week’s message as being about ‘how’ to do it. The first week was about what evangelism is and isn’t – last week was about the enormity of the challenge of our current context, and also the hope that there are cracks in everything and everyone out there where God’s light can get in – and that we’ll need to help. And this week is supposedly about how to do it. And just like that heartfelt question at the conference I spoke of, we all want to get to the heart of this. And just like that equally heartfelt non-answer, we know that there’s no easy answer, and that the ‘how to do it’ part will never be a simple technique that we can just learn and apply. No, it’ll require a whole culture change – and those take time. So let’s get started!
I told you that I’ve been using a great book as a resource for this evangelism sermon series. It’s called Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism by Martha Grace Reese. So to prepare for this last sermon I went to her website and saw a ‘download additional resources’ link. Great! I happily clicked it! It began with a checklist for pastors. Awesome.
Number 1, read the book and decide if it will be a good fit for your congregation. Check!
Number 2 – (In all capital letters) “PLEASE DON’T PREACH or do a newsletter article about Unbinding the Gospel.” (Oops!)
She continues, “It doesn’t help. It will create resistance. Preaching won’t help. A newsletter article won’t inspire. Be quiet. Operate by stealth. Let the group process and the Spirit start working with people. You’re trying to help a lay movement emerge, not give them more information.”
Ok, so I guess we’re done! Short sermon! What’s the next hymn?
No, I’m just kidding. I get why she said that stuff though. She’s anticipating pastors speaking cold into congregations who may not be ready to hear these ideas. Happily, that’s not my context. And she’s worried it’ll come across as information – which is not at all the same as transformation, or culture change. This will become really clear as I get into her core ‘how to’ ideas. Spoiler alert – they’re going to sound really familiar to you – because we’ve already been immersed in these things for years!
You see, this book that I’ve been referencing is actually just the first of 3 books that outline her whole 3-year long transformational concept. The second book is called Unbinding Your Church, and the third book is called Unbinding Your Heart. Perhaps you’ve figured out by now that we’re not actually talking about ‘how to’ do evangelism but about ‘how to’ transform your church and the people who comprise the community of faith.
In other words, the simple and obvious answer that will solve this problem once and for all is the same kind of answer that we already know deeply whenever we say, “Surely, God is in this place. Help me notice!” Several years ago now this congregation began that journey of opening ourselves to noticing God’s Sacred Presence everywhere and always – in everything and in everyone. And that noticing tunes us in to beauty, and compassion, and love wherever we are. And that kind of immersion in noticing God’s constant loving Presence fills us with love, and helps us perceive God’s kingdom – which, like fish in an ocean, we’re already swimming in. It moves us from a head-based intellectual approach to faith to an integrated and fuller head-and-heart-based approach. And the more we swim in that love the more we notice, and the more our hearts feel strangely warmed.
And now we’re back at our first definition of evangelism. A person with a strangely warmed heart, nurtured in a vibrant, and loving, and supportive community of faith, sharing that warmth and love, and the reasons for it, with people they’re in relationships with, so that those people might experience the depth of joy, and peace, and shalom, and flourishing, and love that we experience through our faith.
In the actual ‘how to’ part of her book, Martha Grace Reese basically says that the very first step, before you do any other thing, is that you should be praying. Praying as an individual follower of Jesus, and also praying as a church (in small groups or as a whole) that hearts may be warmed, people may be nourished and nurtured, and faith stories and experiences may be shared both within and beyond the church.
You know how I always say love, love, love?
Well, the key to evangelism is to pray, pray, pray.
Steep yourself and your church in prayer.
Have prayer not be an awkward thing you tag onto a meeting ‘cuz you’re supposed to, but the kind of thing that absolutely grounds and powers your meeting.
Have prayer be so ubiquitous that it actually feels wrong if you don’t pray.
Have prayer be so celebrated and shared that numerous people offer to offer prayers at every gathering. (This isn’t just a lay person thing. You oughta see the eyes glued to shoes when someone asks ‘would anyone like to pray us in?” for a clergy meeting.)
Pray, pray, pray.
Pray like you can, not like you can’t.
Start with mumbles and stumbles. But pray. Pray your heart out.
A church may attract a certain number of people by good deeds, or the charisma of a leader, but churches flourish and grow when the Spirit is felt to be moving – and the single greatest animator of Spirit has always been prayerfulness. Sing your prayers, speak your prayers, pray in silence – but pray, pray, pray.
This is why the author said not to preach about evangelism at first – because it’s gibberish to a church that isn’t a praying church – and it’s scary nonsense to people who aren’t praying people. read on →
July 14, 2021
I am very tired. I’ve been ready for a holiday for quite some time and starting this Sunday, right after church, I get one. Hallelujah! To prepare for my absence I had a long checklist of tasks to do – finding worship leaders, writing out tech instructions, arranging for song leaders, and creating 4 weeks’ worth of Noticings for the time I’m off. Well, with all that swirling there wasn’t very much left in the tank for noticing this week – except that I’m tired (but I think I mentioned that already). So I decided to let someone else do some noticing this week.
Last Sunday in my sermon I quoted from two modern prophets. Based on the feedback I received (which was more than most weeks) it seemed to have struck a chord. I thought you might like to read the entire lyric for Leonard Cohen’s hauntingly beautiful song “Anthem”. I couldn’t include the whole thing in my sermon, but it is worth taking the time to engage it in its entirety. Blessings as you ponder the cracks…
The birds they sing, at the break of day
Start again, I heard them say.
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
Or what is yet to be.
Yes, the wars, they will be fought again
The holy dove she will be caught again
Bought, and soul, and bought again
The dove is never free.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
We asked for signs. The signs were sent
The birth betrayed. The marriage spent
Yeah, the widowhood of every government
Signs for all to see.
I can’t run no more, with that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up a thundercloud
They’re going to hear from me.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
You can add up the parts; you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march, there is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Click here to listen – Leonard Cohen, “Anthem” (1992)
Yr B ~ Pentecost 7 ~Mark 6:14-29
I thought about calling this sermon “What We’re Up Against”, but I decided that sounded too ominous. So I kept searching for a way to lighten it up. Honestly, I’m not sure I can. It is what it is. I eventually landed on calling it “Cohen & Cockburn” – which I’m particularly pleased with – and I hope you’ll understand why by the end of it. But I’m getting way ahead of myself. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover before I can get into that inspired title.
This is the second week of a 3-part series on the E-word – yes, evangelism! If you weren’t with us last week I really encourage you to go to our website (faithunited.ca) and look up the sermon. It was called “Two By Two.” In it I went on at length about what evangelism is and isn’t, and why I feel it’s such an important thing for us to be focusing on now. So last week was groundwork, this week is about obstacles and realities, and next week is about strategies. I will say again that this series is inspired by a wonderful book by Martha Grace Reese called Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism.
Let’s start by thinking about that wild scripture reading we heard. Are you wondering why I selected such a thing? I mean, it’s nasty stuff, and it doesn’t seem to have anything whatsoever to do with evangelism – which is about person with a warmed heart, nurtured in a vibrant church, encountering someone they have some kind of relationship with, and somehow sharing a sense of the benefit of it all, and how it’s warmed and nurtured.
So while it doesn’t really speak to evangelism – it absolutely speaks to what we’re up against. And it offers a glimmer of hope that I think is really easy to miss – both in this scripture passage, and in real life.
The scene is in King Herod’s court. It starts with a debate over whether Jesus was the re-embodiment of the great prophet Elijah, or of John the Baptizer. Herod says Jesus is like John, whom Herod had had beheaded. And the narrator fills us in that John the Baptizer had taken Herod to task for Herod’s morals and ethics. And the narrator also tells us that despite John’s scoldings Herod had a great interest in John.
Here’s the line – the one that I think is the hidden gem in this passage:
Mark 6:20 – Herod feared John, knowing that John was a righteous and holy man, and Herod protected him.
When Herod heard John (speak), he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.
Then we get a flashback scene like in the movies.
It’s Herod’s birthday and there’s a great party. Herod’s daughter Herodias (who has the same name as his wife – yeah, it’s very confusing) – anyway, the daughter dances and mesmerizes everyone, and Herod in a moment of foolishness gushes at her that he’ll give her anything she wants. She goes to her mom, who because of Herod’s (and hers) illicit and immoral actions had been humiliated by John the Baptizer’s rebukes, and mom tells daughter to ask for John the Baptizer’s head on a platter. Herod, it says was “deeply grieved”, but he felt he couldn’t refuse and John’s head is lopped off. Gruesome stuff.
And that’s evangelism! [grin]
No, obviously I’m going to make a point. Soon. I promise!
The point is that this is what we’re up against. No, I don’t mean any of us are in any danger of being beheaded. But John in this story, well always really, was an evangelist. He was evangelizing Herod. John’s heart was passionately stirred by God, he had a supportive community of faith (including Jesus, if you’ll recall), and he wanted to share with Herod how John’s life was better because of the God-thing, and so too could Herod’s life be better.
Remember Mark 6:20 – When Herod heard John (speak), he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. read on →
June 7, 2021
My newly retired wife took advantage of her newfound freedom and went to the church yesterday morning to hang out with the gardening gang. She came home with all sorts of stories, and a giant smile on her face. Simply put, it was just the joy of being able to be with people and interact in-person again. There were 3 clusters of Faith folks around the property. The gardening gang was doing their toil in the soil thing at the front of the church. The CWID (Church Work in Durham) group had a food-drive truck (full to the brim, I’m told) set up at the driveway entrance. And the landscaping gang were doing their lumberjack thing in the back woods. In other words, Faith United was buzzing with activity and people again. All outdoors, of course.
My wife brought me several greetings from folks, and told me of how delighted everyone was to see one another. I also heard stories of excellent models of sensitive care – like one member who was double vaccinated and gently asking people if they were ready to receive a hug – and most importantly lovingly respecting anyone’s preference to say, no not yet.
You may remember that our Council has empowered a small group called the “Re-Opening Team” to take responsibility for keeping up to date on the ever-changing rules and regulations for gatherings, and for providing wisdom as to when and how we might gather in-person again. The Tuesday morning groups are one such example. We’re also now able to allow small groups of under 5 to be inside the building. But that doesn’t mean a free for all, because we’re still needing to ensure safety, signing in, disinfecting, etc. Not to mention there are very few keys being issued, so access is controlled. Also, the prevailing advice is for staff to work from home where possible, so that won’t be changing for now either.
As for when more of us can be together, I want to tell you about something we’re planning for Wednesday August 25th. It will be an outdoor, mid-week, in-person worship gathering on that Wednesday evening! We can’t possibly know what the rules will be like by then, but we’re very confident we’ll be able to gather together in a larger group by then. I’m very excited for that!
I don’t know about you, but these little glimpses of things opening up again, and people being able to be together again, well, they just feel really, really heartwarming to me. It’s like we’ve been holding our collective breath for a year and a half, and now we’re finally feeling like we can breathe it out – at least a little at a time. I’ll take it! And I’ll savour it. It kind of reminds me of the story we tell during communion each month.
“And in that moment their eyes were opened, and they recognized him (in one another). His Presence had been made known to them in their gathering together, and in their sharing of a sacred moment of reconnection.”
Surely, God is in this place! Help us notice!
See you soon…
Yr B ~ Pentecost 6 ~ Mark 6:1-13
It’s worship day, and Jesus finds himself back in his hometown. So he goes to the local synagogue – to what amounts to his home church – and he begins to teach. It says that many who heard him were ‘astounded’. But it’s not the good kind of astounded. It’s more like they’re shocked or mortified. I kinda get it. I mean, I love y’all, but if one of you went away for a while and then popped back in on a Sunday morning, and walked up to this spot, and looked into the camera, and started preaching, well, I’d be a little ‘astounded’ too!
Their complaints amount to “That’s Jesus. Joe and Mary’s kid. Who does he think he is?”
And Jesus responds, “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
In other words, Jesus is saying that it’s hard to talk to your family about religion!
Hands up all those who agree.
But that’s exactly what we’re going to be talking about today, and for the next two Sundays. I’m doing a sermon series on the E-word – yes, evangelism. My goal is to change that queasy feeling you just got when I said that word, and have you embrace it. That’s a tall order when for a lot of folks the E-bomb may as well be the F-bomb! For the series I’ll be drawing extensively on a fantastic book by Martha Grace Reese called Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism.
Let’s start at the beginning. We all know the E-word, but what does it actually mean?
You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘sharing/spreading the gospel’.
Hmm. What does ‘gospel’ mean? We call those 4 books in the bible the gospels, is that it? Nope.
Gospel means ‘good news’. So it’s about sharing the good news!
What good news?
And here’s where we stub our toes.
When I say ‘evangelism’ the type that probably comes to mind is a theological one – and it advances a certain theological interpretation that is not necessarily cut and dried – even though the people doing that kind of evangelism try to say it is. They would tend to say “the good news about what Jesus did for us on the cross.” And instantly we’re in a theological tussle and trying to convince somebody that our position is the right one.
Friends, that kind of E-bomb is an F-bomb!
And it’s absolutely the worst and least effective form of evangelism there is.
So if I don’t mean that, what do I mean?
Effective evangelism is really only about one thing: YOU.
Specifically, it’s about how your life is positively impacted by your faith. The ‘good news’ is that your life feels better because of your faith than it would without your faith. You don’t have to know anything about theology, or liturgy, or psychology, or any other –gy – you only have to know about your own self. And for most of us that’s our favourite subject!
What do you think Jesus was teaching that day in the synagogue? Was he schooling them in the finer points of theology, or debating their understanding of scripture interpretation and atonement? Not very likely.
Or was he maybe sharing with them how his own life had been so dramatically changed, and how his faith had deepened, and how his sense of God’s Presence had so intensified that it felt like every single breath was filling him with spiritual energy, and passion, and peace of heart, and empowering him to reach out in love and help the people he met as best he could?
That sounds like Jesus to me! And that’s what evangelism is. Sharing how your life has been positively impacted by your faith.
Before he was famous, John Wesley was becoming disillusioned in his work as a preacher. He wasn’t feeling it. He was going through the motions. read on →
Yr B ~ Pentecost 4 (Indigenous Sunday) ~ 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 (MSG)
It’s good for us to remember that these letters from Paul that we have in the bible were written because something had gone amiss and Paul needed to send a word of correction to a community of faith. That’s why his letters so often have an edge to them. He tends to come down pretty hard on the people, and you don’t have to read too deeply between the lines to sense his exasperation. And then we get passages like the one we’re looking at today, where Paul is gushing with praise, and gently urging the church to keep on doing the great stuff they’re doing.
Faith United is a very vibrant and healthy church. If Paul were around today, he wouldn’t need to be sending very many letters scolding us. But he might very well send the words we’ve heard today.
2 Corinthians 8:7 – You do so well in so many things—you trust [love] God, you’re articulate, you’re insightful, you’re passionate, you love us—now, do your best in this, too.
I think that sounds exactly like us! We really do so well in so many things – in so many ministries. We love God, we’re articulate, and insightful, and passionate. We’re caring, and compassionate, and generous. Last week was Celebration Sunday and we rightfully shone a light on some of the wonderful, faithful things we do and the wonderful, faithful people who do them.
But nobody’s perfect, and no church is either. After lauding them with praise Paul says, “Now do your best in this, too.” What is the “this” that he’s talking about? Well, in that specific case he’s talking about money. He’s talking about getting these wealthy Corinthian Christians to continue to support another of Paul’s churches that is financially poor. That would not be his message to us. So what would?
What ministry or issue might we collectively need to do better at? Remember, he’s not scolding the Corinthians here – he’s just nudging them to remember their professed values and put their money where their mouths are. And neither am I trying to scold you or point out some fault. But I will lift up an issue that I think we can collectively do better at. Today that issue is Indigenous justice. Let’s use that lens to look at Paul’s message.
2 Corinthians 8:10-12 – So here’s what I think: The best thing you can do right now is to finish what you started (previously) and not let those good intentions grow stale. Your heart’s been in the right place all along. You’ve got what it takes to finish it up, so go to it. Once the commitment is clear, you do what you can, not what you can’t. The heart regulates the hands.
It’s easy to be thinking about Indigenous issues these days. Sadly, that’s because the news has been full of terrible injustices inflicted upon Indigenous persons, especially children. We are understandably horrified by the finding of the mass grave of 215 Indigenous children who were forced to attend the Kamloops Residential School. More such graves are being found at other schools. The news will not be getting any better any time soon. Knowing that our denomination, our church, had a direct hand in running some of those schools makes our stomachs churn. Yes, such things were the way of the world in former times, and yes we’ve grown and learned and would not do those things today – but the legacy remains and the damage is still felt acutely in Indigenous people and communities.
I know with every fibre of my being that we want to do something to make this better. But we can’t ‘fix’ it. Paul says, “The best thing you can do right now is to (continue) what you started (previously) and not let those good intentions grow stale. Your heart’s been in the right place all along.”
What can we do? To begin, we can face the realities instead of turning away. And we can continue to learn, to listen, and to commit to doing better. As a denomination we are already walking that path. Our Church has acknowledged the hurt, offered a sincere apology, and is striving to walk a new path – a path of healing. I once heard an Indigenous elder speaking about how the hurt and the injustices built up over time. They said that it took a long time to walk into the forest and it would take a long time to walk back out, but that it was good that we are walking together.
I want to talk about language for a few minutes. Usually this work of Indigenous justice is called reconciliation. Lately I’ve been hearing some discomfort with this language from some Indigenous folk. read on →
June 30, 2021
As of today I live with a woman who no longer has any class or principals. My wife retires today after a wonderful 30 year career as a high school math and music teacher. I’ve been receiving video well-wishes, and Facebook notes from many of her colleagues and former students. Unsurprisingly, they’ve been glowing! I’m very proud of her.
And I must confess that I am a wee bit jealous. Had I remained a teacher instead of transitioning into ministry I also would have been retired by now. After a year and a half of pandemic stress and ministry reinvention retirement sounds pretty inviting. But because of my career change I’ll be working for another 9ish years. And I don’t regret it for a second!
Often the first question my spouse gets these days is “what are you going to do in your retirement?” Her first answer is to sleep! Pandemic has been pretty tough on teachers too. And of course she’ll have lots of time to establish her new pottery studio at our new house and dive headlong into that passion. But what will she ‘do’? Her answer to that question is very wise. She says that she’ll just enjoy the rest for a while and take her time to think about what calls to her.
The fancy faith word for that is discernment. Usually we want our answers instantly. We’re not generally fond of the inbetween times. We like to rush to the decisions instead of sitting thoughtfully with the questions. We prefer having things settled to having them unknown. Discernment is a time to pause, and listen, and ponder. Covid has forced us all to press pause on many things, but it hasn’t exactly been conducive to discernment. To discern you need some spaciousness, and peace of heart, and the ability to non-anxiously sit in the inbetween-ness and sense God’s nudging. Yes, it’s kind of a catch 22.
So today I’m celebrating my wife’s retirement, and I’m a bit jealous. Not just about all the free time she’ll have, but largely because she will have that great gift of spaciousness in which to discern her next season, and the luxury of not having to meet a deadline. The Church needs to do some discerning about our next season too as we ponder how to re-engage with our in-person ministries this fall. I hope our summer sabbath time can give us some spaciousness and peace of heart, so we can listen, and discern. But maybe we all need to start with some rest! (Happy retirement Cynthia!!!)
Our denomination generally follows a set of scripture readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s a three-year cycle with 4 readings offered each week: one each from the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalms, New Testament, and Gospels. It gives a nice structure to the year, and takes you to readings that you might otherwise not select. However, it has its faults too. One is that there are large parts of the bible that it never goes to at all. But the one that drives me around the bend is that it tends to skip over the hard parts. This is especially true in the Psalms.
I love the Psalms. If I was ever to go back and do more formal study that’s what I’d want to dive into. Psalms are essentially hymns, but we don’t have the music. Psalms have a flow, and they take you on a journey. But if you were only to read the suggested verses in the Lectionary you’d often be skipping over really important parts of that journey. You see, Psalms are also brutally honest, and nakedly real. The writers pour their hearts out, including their anger and frustrations. It’s not uncommon to find a psalmist ranting about injustices inflicted upon them, wishing harm on an enemy, or shaking their fist at their distant, uncaring, hurtful God. Of course God is none of those things. God is only and always Love. But when you’re in the midst of a hard time, or a hard season, it can feel like God is absent.
Psalms usually start with praise, and then they go into the hardship, and then by the end there is an understanding that God really is here, and really does love, and hope really is present. In other words, psalms resolve. Usually. Yet if you skip over the middle of the psalm you miss out on the wrestling with the ‘hard stuff’ parts. We’re in the middle of a psalm right now. This pandemic is taking its toll on us. I’m certain there’s a lot of fist shaking at God going on right now. It’s ok. God can take it! To deny that part of our being is foolishness, and unhealthy.
I think the Lectionary skips the middle of the psalm because we’ve inherited a bizarre notion that everything is supposed to be all nice, and happy, and good at church – and if you’re not feeling that way you’re doing it wrong. Ridiculous! “Smile, Jesus loves you.” Yes, that’s true – but that doesn’t eliminate the middle of our psalms! So go ahead and rant away. Shake your fist. Be angry. Vent. But don’t be unloving! And after you’ve let that stuff loose, take a deep breath. You’ll find that your thought-to-be-distant God has actually been holding you through your ranting and raving and flailing around, and will always be with you, strengthening you and encouraging you – loving you, and journeying with you as you inevitably face the middle of the next psalm. We can’t skip the hard stuff – but we never have to face it alone.
June 16, 2021
It worked! All the decluttering and clearing out of things. All the cleaning. All the stripping the house of anything personal or ‘homey’. All the froofy pillows. It worked! We are thrilled that our house has now sold, and quite quickly. This is new for us. For whatever reason we’ve always underperformed in the housing market. This time we did not. This time it all worked. We are very pleased with it all – and especially pleased that we’re done all the hard stuff. Yes, there are still many boxes to be packed and all the hubbub around actually moving to come, but it all seems easily manageable at this point. (Again, I’d like to note that we are just changing houses, not churches. I’m not going anywhere!)
Now, here in the aftermath of buying and selling, as we exhale deeply and allow the stress to dissipate, we have permission to make our house ‘homey’ again. The first thing I did was to reassemble my home office space so I could more effectively work. The second thing I did was to bring my guitars and amplifiers and whatnot out of hiding. It feels so great to glance over at them and know they’re there waiting for my attention. It was only a couple of weeks, but I really missed playing them.
The next thing we did was to bring our house plants home. It’s very strange to me, but it seems in the real estate game it’s better to remove all your vibrant, healthy, colourful, life-giving plants and replace them with tiny artificial plants. Again, I can’t argue with success. It worked. But what a difference when we brought our own plants back home. The rooms just came back to life. It was remarkable what a difference it made to see the greenery and the colours. It instantly felt more like home again.
It got me thinking about our current church exile. I’m in the sanctuary every week to do the livestream broadcast. But the sanctuary has no chairs set up. Our worship set is near the back of the room and the furniture is arranged to look nice on TV but it feels weird because it’s out of its usual place. I’ve learned to stand at my lectern and talk to a camera lens in a somewhat engaging way, but needless to say it’s nothing like interacting with a congregation. We sing hymns every week but it feels very lonely singing alone.
At some point this fall we will be able to gather in-person again. The sanctuary will go back to its familiar form. Chairs will be everywhere. The chancel will be reset. I’ll look up from my lectern and see people. And when I sing I will be joined by many, many voices, all praising God with joyful hearts and smiling faces. I know that we had to do it the way we’ve been doing it. It worked. The pandemic is slowly receding as vaccinations increase.
We had to be apart. We still have to be apart for a time. But I am starting to think more and more about how wonderful it will feel to have the sanctuary feel like church again. It’s not the furniture, or the bricks and mortar, or the physical space that makes a church a church. We’ve shown that our church transcends those things as we’ve continued to love, and worship, and serve, and thrive through this pandemic season. A church is God’s people – whether together or apart – whether in exile or in homecoming. But just like how the homecoming of our greenery made our house feel more homey again, I’m yearning for and anxiously anticipating how the homecoming of God’s people to Faith United will make our sanctuary feel more ‘churchy’ again. Homecoming is on the horizon. Just a little while longer.
Yr B ~ Pentecost 3 ~ 2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Walk by faith not by sight. Perceive the world differently.
That’s really what today’s scripture passage is about. Unfortunately, it twists and turns, and uses problematic language, and seems to suggest dodgy theology, but let me assure you that it’s not really like that. I’ll poke at some of it, but we don’t have enough time for us to try to undo some of the stuff it does. I think one of the reasons it’s hard to interpret at first is because we may not appreciate just how profound verse 7 is: we walk by faith, not by sight. It’s catchy. It’s probably familiar to you. But are you aware of how much of a profound paradigm shift it’s suggesting?
The ‘we’ Paul is referring to, I think, is we the body of Christ – those who follow Jesus – those who abide in God’s Love and celebrate God’s Ever-Presence.
WE walk by faith. THEY (those people who are not Christ-followers) walk by sight.
We trust in Something More – they trust in what they can see, and touch, and test, and explain. It does sound like it’s creating an ‘us and them’ thing, but it isn’t about exclusion, it’s just about explaining a difference. The difference is how one perceives the world. In biblical metaphors that often gets talked about as ‘seeing’ – or not seeing as the case may be.
Having a different paradigm for perceiving the world has huge implications for your life. If you see the world as God’s Kingdom, God’s realm, God’s really real reality – and you strive to follow the teaching of Jesus who says the way to navigate this kingdom of God that we swim in is to love – then your actions and your interactions will be shaped by that paradigm of love.
That’s what we’re celebrating today – on celebration Sunday. We’re celebrating the ways in which we, as a community of faith called Faith United – live out that love that fills us and flows through us.
The thing that kicks off our celebrations is that on a Sunday near June 10th we mark the anniversary of our denomination – the United Church of Canada – which is now 96 years old!
When we’re in-person Celebration Sunday always marks the end of the ‘formal’ Joyful Noise program and begins the shift into summer programming. We celebrate the kids – and we celebrate the leaders who share their spirit with the kids.
So I will celebrate Stacey Tremblay today – for the incredible and creative work she’s done through this pandemic season to provide wonderful resources for families. I know that others are also offering leadership with the kids, and youth, too. Thank you!
We celebrate that for 3 years now we have been an Affirming congregation. What does it mean to be Affirming? It means that we’re more than just nice, and more than just welcoming, and more than just accepting. It means we’re public, intentional, and explicit about our welcome. It means we really mean it when we say we’re inclusive. It means that we strive to provide a spiritual home that is openly welcoming, nurturing and safe whatever a person’s ability/disability, age, ethnicity, exceptionality, gender identity, sexual orientation, or social or economic circumstance; and that we encourage all who gather here to participate freely in the life and work of this church. I celebrate that!
I could go on and on about so many of our shared ministries here at Faith, but I will risk highlighting two – one that you know about and one that you may not. These two ministries exemplify exactly what it means to live out the love of God in action and interaction.
I’m talking about Sheila Ellis and our Church Work in Durham group (CWID) that supports so many community ministries and agencies on behalf of our church. To the CWID group, I celebrate your gift of leading us into loving others.
And I’m also talking about our Visiting/Care team. You may not realize it but Donna Bignell and this team of compassionate and caring folks regularly phone and visit members of this church who have a harder time being connected because of illness, or age, or circumstance. I am so grateful to this group for the ministry they share on our behalf. I celebrate your gift of loving one another.
I also celebrate all the people who are part of our worship experience each week. Zeljka (our musician), and also the choir who record themselves singing alone and then get mixed together for a video. The soloists and instrumentalists who share their talents. The scripture readers, the tech team who make this all work so seamlessly (most weeks, touch wood), Stacey who anchors our social media presence, and all of you who tune in and have church on your couch when you could be out doing something else, especially on a gorgeous day like today. I celebrate this gift of loving God together.
Why do we do all this stuff? Why do we engage in all these ministries together? read on →
June 9, 2021
I don’t even know where to start. I have no insights, no explanations, certainly no answers – just questions. Terrible, haunting questions. Why do some people so devalue and dehumanize other people that it is somehow deemed plausible to kill those people? How could any society, at any time, ever produce people who think their version of the way things ought to be is so superior that anyone with a differing view is expendable? How could an organization that was operated under the auspices of a Christian church have so devastatingly misunderstood the very basics of the teaching and values they supposedly represented? How are a family of Muslims out for a walk in any way a threat to anyone’s being? What am I supposed to do with all this?
A mass grave of 215 Indigenous children is found at a Canadian Residential School site. There are no words. It’s a horror too unimaginable to be true. But we know it’s true; and we know there are no doubt more such horrors awaiting discovery.
An individual in a truck in a random Ontario city purposely drives into a family, killing 4 and injuring another. There are no words. It’s a horror too unimaginable to be true. But we know it’s true; and we know there are no doubt more people capable of perpetrating such atrocities. Far more than we want to admit.
I am not in any way trying to equate these happenings. But I will say that they spring from the same root evil. The evil that views the ‘other’ as lesser, and views ‘self’ as superior. And when people with such unloving values have power they use it to devastating effect – whether that’s the power of a government, a school system, a church, or a big truck. None of us ran those schools, and none of us drove that truck, but all of us are part of a society that has at various times allowed such evil to happen, or turned away from it preferring not to take responsibility.
Where’s God in this? God is the one burning the import of this into your heart right now. God is the one stirring us to feel sad, and angry, and embarrassed. God is the one convicting us to not just stop at nice words and empty platitudes. God is the one urging us to look – to not turn away. God is the one weeping, wondering where we were.
We all want to do something about these repulsive injustices, and so we should. But how can we speak into such a massive challenge and problem? Perhaps a first step would be not to rush into action but to sit with it. The biblical word is lament. To lament is to grieve audibly, to mourn, to deplore, to regret deeply. Lament is uncomfortable. That’s exactly why we should do it. Yes, go to a rally or a vigil, carry a placard, tenderly place shoes at a memorial, write to the government, donate to a support fund – but do so with a spirit of lament. Don’t be in too big a hurry to let that lament go. It’s a form of prayer – and it binds spirits together and offers solidarity and support in deeper ways that we can imagine.
There is one small bit of hope that I’m sensing in these tragedies. We noticed. Twenty or forty years ago such news may have come and gone. Not today. In this season there is an awakening awareness that those who are ‘other’ than me are not ‘lesser’ than me, in any way. A society that not so long ago may have shrugged at such things has instead collectively been stirred. I hope it does not fade. I will hold that sliver of hope, as I lament.
Yr B ~ Pentecost 2 ~ 2 Corinthians 4:13-18 (MSG)
Ok, let’s just start by getting it all out on the table. There’s a lot of stuff swirling around these days. This month we become more intentional than usual about issues concerning LGBTQ2S persons with Pride Week. We become more intentional than usual about issues concerning anti-black racism as we acknowledge Juneteenth – the official end of slavery in the United States. Canada marks a similar day on August 1st. And we become more intentional than usual about issues concerning Indigenous, First Nations, Inuit, and Metis persons as we mark June as National Aboriginal History Month. With the recent unearthing of horrors at the former Kamloops Residential School, and the chilling knowledge that such horrors were probably not limited to that one school, a month of focus on Indigenous peoples seems supremely important.
Now we pile on top of all that the fact that we’ve been languishing under a worldwide health pandemic for almost a year and a half, with our lives dramatically altered and our spirits labouring under the weight of so much separation, and fear, and anxiety, and disconnectedness, and isolation, and frustration – not to mention the physical hardship of those who’ve been infected by the virus, the financial hardship of so many businesses who’ve been eviscerated by it, and the emotional hardship of those who’ve missed out on vital gatherings for things like funerals, or significant celebrations, or life milestones. Sure, our vaccination rate is steadily improving, and yes you should feel perfectly safe to go and get yours (all of my family has now been vaccinated – so too should yours be). But even though the light at the end of tunnel appears to be getting bigger and closer, it somehow feels even further away right now because we’re all so weary, and fatigued, and wrung out by this whole incomprehensible ordeal.
Like I said, there’s a lot of stuff swirling around these days. What does scripture say to us? In today’s reading from 2 Corinthians 4:17 the apostle Paul offers this: These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us.
Small potatoes? SMALL POTATOES?
No, Paul, with all due respect. These are all big, honking potatoes.
(Yes, I had some other choice adjectives in there but I edited them out!)
It’s true that everyone encounters hardships and suffers from time to time. Some seasons feel especially soul-crushing. Maybe that’s where you are these days. Whatever your challenges may be today, or however you may be feeling the weight of the world these days, to call that ‘small potatoes’ is an inexcusable insult.
Now, to be fair to our friend Paul, he was specifically writing about himself and his own situation – which was that he was in prison for daring to preach the gospel of Jesus that said God’s ways are better than the world’s ways (and Caesar’s ways), and that love, love, love (loving God, loving neighbour, loving one another) was better than anything. That kind of subversive talk got him chucked in prison, and beaten, and in legitimate fear for his life. Now, Paul himself looked at his own situation and evaluated it as being ‘small potatoes’ in comparison to the joy of his hoped-for and expected freedom. That’s ok. You can look at your own hardships and declare them small potatoes. I wouldn’t dream of ever making that claim for anyone other than myself.
But that’s how we tend to read scripture.
Paul was in prison and said it was small potatoes so therefore all my worries are supposed to be small potatoes too, right?
Nope. Paul speaks for Paul. You speak for you.
We can look at his experience and ask questions that may help us with our own situations, but that’s as far as it goes.
Scripture is not a paint-by-numbers, step-by-step, insert-your-situation-here kind of deal. It’s a journal or diary filled with the stories of ordinary people having extraordinary experiences of God’s Presence and Love. So we can learn from Paul’s experience, and even admire it and aspire to it, but this is not an I-did-it-now-you-do-it thing.
So let’s step back and read the passage from a more global viewpoint. read on →
June 2, 2021
I’m finding myself yearning for normalcy these days. The pandemic has obviously thrown us all for a considerable loop (more about that in Sunday’s sermon), but it’s more than that. If you’ve been following Noticings for a while you’ll know that my family is in the midst of a house odyssey. Last week we purchased a new home, and yesterday our current one was listed for sale. (Anybody wanna buy a nice house in Bowmanville?) As you can imagine we’re both elated and stressed at the same time. But the unsettling part is that our house doesn’t look or feel like ours anymore. All of our personal items and decorations have been removed and replaced with fluffy and furry things, and 10,000 throw pillows! (Yes, I’m exaggerating, but only a little.) We’ve finished all the heavy lifting (both literally and figuratively) and all that’s left for us is to keep it clean and sit and wait for offers. Except we can’t sit anywhere! (Did I mention the pillows?)
So I’m yearning for normalcy. I fear I won’t get it until we’re well moved into our new place, and the boxes are emptied, and we know where things are. I don’t need assurances that nothing will ever go wrong, or that life in the new digs will be perfect. That’s not normalcy. I’m thinking more of the simple rhythms of life and leisure. Having time (and energy) to pursue our passions. Being able to choose activities instead of our endless to-do list. Binge watching a favourite show. Binge reading another book. Binge anything except cleaning and packing!
Or how about the normalcy of walking into a public place without fear of viruses? Or having a conversation that isn’t through a mask? Or shaking a hand, or giving a hug? Or going into the church and seeing more than 4 people gathered? The normalcy of in-person worship. The normalcy of fellowship. The normalcy of meetings. The normalcy of a potluck dinner! The normalcy of not being so weary, and fearful, and cooped up, and restricted. Oh, how I yearn for normalcy! I know that day is coming, but as it approaches the waiting feels harder.
I’m not suggesting I want everything to go ‘back to normal’ – to how it was in the before-time. There are some formerly normal things that we could well do without. In time there will be a ‘new normal’ that we’ll all figure out. But it’s not here yet. The Leafs are out of the playoffs in the first round, so I guess that’s a step back toward normalcy! Every person vaccinated is another step. I hope everyone does their part. But that’s out of my control. Just like my house sale. For now I guess I’m stuck with the abnormalcy of froofy pillows and stressful showings. So I remind myself that it’s all temporary, normalcy beckons, and that even here in the abnormalcy of my world right now that I’m not alone. Surely, God is in this place. Somewhere. Maybe behind some pillows.
May 26, 2021
Tonight will be the last song in my “Songs Along the Way” series. If you’re not familiar with that, every Wednesday at 7:15 pm for the last 19 weeks I’ve shared on our Faith United YouTube channel youtube.com/faithunitedchurch a song that I’ve written over the years. I’ve told the story of what inspired the song, played an acoustic version of it, and then had some prayer time. Now that the series is drawing to a close I’ve been reflecting on it. Here’s what I’ve noticed.
I have really enjoyed playing these songs. One of the reasons I did the series in the first place – in addition to offering a mid-week pick-me-up during covidtide – was to give me a chance to revisit old friends (the songs). Some of them I haven’t played in years. Far too long! The chords, the grooves, the turn of phrase, the theological spark – it was really good to experience them again. Trying not to sound immodest but some of them are really quite good, if I do say so myself (and I just did).
Another thing I noticed is that, especially with the older songs, I was quite uncomfortable with some of my lyrics. Writing songs about my faith journey was one of the key things that led me into ministry. But before I studied theology I my language wasn’t very nuanced and my vocabulary was fairly traditional. My early songs tended to use “he” pronouns for God. And frequently I’d describe God as “up there” or “looking down.” So when it came time to play those songs for the Songs Along the Way series I found I had to rewrite parts of them. I just couldn’t bring myself to sing them as is. A few even made me cringe. It reminded me that we’re always growing, and evolving, and deepening.
So there they are. 19 songs on YouTube available for anytime someone cares to have a listen. They haven’t received a lot of views, but that’s ok. In the end they ended up being more for me than anything. Each week I had a fantastic excuse to dive into another chapter in my faith journey and remember. It was good for my spirit to sing and play them again. The songs are my faith story – a story of how “along the way I found my way along The Way.” (Yes, that’s a lyric from tonight’s song.) If you haven’t tuned into the series I hope you’ll check it out. And if you have, thanks for listening.