Monday, 17 September 2018

What I Did On My Summer Sabbatical...

This blog post was originally a sermon preached on September 2, 2018


It was on August 20 to 24 that we had our annual Vacation Bible School at St. Martin’s, with the theme of Daniel’s Captivity in Babylon. The curriculum only covered the morning and so during the afternoons we did different activities like going to the playground, playing games, visiting the Fire Hall and crafts. And one of those crafts was Perler Beads.
              Perler Beads are one of those crafts that seems like a great idea but soon one discovers there are many hidden pitfalls – something like clothing staining acrylic paint or the impossible to get rid of glitter. The beads are small, meant for tiny hands, and go onto small pegs on a plastic tray and are ironed until they melt together and form a mosaic like picture. They are beautiful when finished but the beads easily scatter onto the floor – I would not be surprised if there are still beads scattered across the church today – and the plastic trays are easily upset causing 30 minutes to an hour’s work to be undone in an instant. So why do I put up with Perler Beads? Because they cause children to be relatively quiet and in one place for a long period of time. But they also have another effect which is to cause children to be close to each other and still enough for long enough that they have time to talk to each other and get to know each other. Later on, I will tell you about a particular experience that happened VBS week with Perler Beads.
              I returned from my three month sabbatical on August 7. What I studied during that time was not Perler Beads but was small groups in churches. Small groups are something like Perler Beads – they are a way to get people in one place at the same time for long enough to talk to each other and get to know each other. Last year when we were blessed by the ministry of Brian Walton, he started a few small Spiritual Conversation groups that met weekly four or five times to discuss the scripture readings from the Sunday worship services. We all benefitted from these groups as Brian had a place to test and refine his sermon ideas but those who were in those groups found a place where they could get to know people better. Sometimes it was people who didn’t know each other at all and sometimes it was people who knew each other for years but who hadn’t ever had a deeper conversation. These groups were quickly formed and there was a great demand for them.
              But what do these groups have to do with a church? Why should the church put its energy into these discussion groups? The scripture reading from the Acts of the Apostles today (Acts 2:43-47) gives a picture of the earliest form of the church. This is the Garden of Eden for the followers of Jesus. Just after Jesus gave his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit, and just before the group of the followers of Jesus gets too big that it needs to be organized, this is the ideal form of the church. Gathering together to eat and pray and learn about Jesus. Seeing good things done every day. Sharing everything so that no one had too much or too little. No wonder that it says that every day more and more people joined them.
              And what are the hallmarks of this Garden of Eden? Food – which we always do well in the church. Prayer – which we do every Sunday and strive to do every day in our lives. Good deeds – which we encourage every week. Sharing – an offering every week at worship and donating to the Mission and Service fund for projects in Canada and across the world. Learning about Jesus. And holding it all together – spending time with each other.
              Spending time with each other was not a new idea with the new church. It was there from the very first. Jesus called his disciples to walk, eat, learn and live with him. There are only a handful of cases where it says that Jesus was away from his disciples for some time. They spent time with each other, learning about each other and about God.
              Spending time together was good enough for Jesus and for the early church. It is for us as well? I think that it is an important part of being a church is spending time together – and not just in worship. Believe me, I think worship is important, but more is needed. There are few of us extraverted enough to share about ourselves in a church service. And if we went around the church asking about how everybody’s week was we’d have a service hours long. I love worship – but not that much! We need a smaller group with whom to share.
              These smaller groups used to be a usual part of the United Church. Many of the women used to belong to one of the United Church Women units. These still exist of course and provide great support and encouragement to those who attend. There were frequent bible studies, young people’s groups, social mixers and the hugely successful Family Camp. And there were informal groups that formed when couples invited other couples over for dinner and talked about their faith and their families. Some of these things still exist in different forms and it is good to see the Outreach committee resurrect the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner idea to great success. But our young families are being squeezed for time more and more and find it hard to even make time for their extended families, much less for strangers at the church. Heck, it’s not just young families but all of us who are busier and more distracted than ever before with the 24 hour news cycle, more immersive entertainment and more opportunities than we could have imagined before. Our lives are good and full, but we don’t always get the meaningful relationships that we crave.
              But we can have these meaningful relationships. Those people who are part of the choirs or Band, know that their co-singers are not just singers but friends. Those who attend the St. Martin’s Book Club know that they talk about more than books, those who go to the Card and Board Games group know that they don’t just play games. There are ways to experience that life together that Jesus wishes for us, that he led his disciples in. I want to be part of making that life together part of our experience at St. Martin’s. I want to be part of it because I have seen what happens in children’s lives when they live life together.
              We have not been seeing quite as many children here on Sunday mornings as we once did at St. Martin’s. But that is not unusual for any church. On my sabbatical I went to North Point Community Church in Atlanta, Georgia, one of the biggest churches in the United States with some 12,000 people attending worship over the weekend. Andy Stanley is their pastor, son of Dr. Charles Stanley. They are securely located in the buckle of the bible belt. And yet their church has been seeing decreased Sunday worship attendance over the past couple of years. But they aren’t worried because they still have thousands of people in their small group ministry, learning about God, eating together, praying together and living life together. Being together in following Jesus is more important than worship.
              As I said, we don’t have quite as many children here on Sunday morning but the children are here in the Professional Development Day program and in the Vacation Bible School programs and the Messy Church program. This year at VBS we had the most enrollment ever since I’ve been here and many of the children were there for the first time. But not for the last time. Many were interested in the PD Day programs. And from the PD Day programs many of attended one of the two Messy Church events I led last Spring. This year we are having a Messy Church worship once a month and I expect to have even more. This is because during those days of VBS or those PD Days there is time for the children to get to know each other and be known, to know that they are loved and cared for, by me, by the other children and by God. The time spent together learning about God, eating, praying, playing and living.
              Now for my Perler Bead story. Perler Beads are messy things that are hard to get together but when you do get them together it is beautiful. Kind of like people. So when we were on our last day, Friday afternoon, we were doing this Perler Bead craft and one of the girls had a little cat doll with her, talking to it and playing with it while doing the craft. Well soon one of the other kids made a little Perler Bead mat for the cat doll to lay on. Another kid made a water and food dish for the cat. The cat even got a little Perler Bead toy mouse to play with. I don’t think any of those children had met each other before this week, certainly they didn’t meet each other before this year, but they knew each other well enough to delight in doing something special for each other. Doing something together.
              This is what I see in children’s ministry. And I don’t want the adults to be left out. Not that I’m going to make you do Perler Beads together. But I want you to be able to know each other and be known. I will be calling a meeting soon of people interested in this kind of a ministry. If you are interested, please let me know because I can’t do it alone. But we can do it together, with God’s help. Amen.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

La Loche

I was thinking of the unthinkable this week. Many of us were. I was thinking of the school shooting in La Loche and wondering how I might address it in my blog. An event like this deserves some response from people of faith.

My first thought was to write about how a Christian I believe that God does make meaning out of even the most meaningless events. Romans chapter 8 verse 28 says that "We know all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." At the same time I don't believe that God has some kind of plan for horrific things to happen. I don't believe that God manipulates the events on the Earth according to a heavenly blueprint (like the movie the Adjustment Bureau). I think things just happen due to earthly consequences and that we have to deal with them but with God's love and compassion for us as we do.

Then I wanted to say why I think this horrible event happened. I wanted to blame someone. Jesus, however, warns us against this. In Luke chapter 13 verses one to five he responds to some accidents and massacres that happened in his time and says that it was not because the people affected were sinners. In effect he sidesteps the question of blame and says that our impulse should be to become better people. In his words we must repent or perish.

My wish is to blame something concrete and then work on that concrete thing so that a school shooting may never happen again. It isn't that simple though. The only thing that we can change is the only thing that we can ever change--ourselves. We can become the people that God yearns for us to be and hope that process of transformation will make a difference in the world around us. It seems like a paltry hope when I want to rage against something on behalf of someone else but my responsibility is for myself. I am called to live an ethical, loving life like Jesus of Nazareth, to make mistakes and learn from them. And that is the only way that I will make a difference.


Thursday, 22 October 2015

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Sermon July 5, 2015

Well in case some of you are short on beach reading in these late days of summer and if you missed the joint service with Grace-Westminster United Church on July 5, here is the sermon I preached on that day...

There was a time when I looked up to my mentors in the ministry and thought to myself, “Why on earth do they not take all of their continuing education leave? When I’m a minister I will take every single one of the twenty one days allotted!” This January I found myself 15 years into the ministry and without a single day of continuing education taken—and in July those days would disappear. So I set out to find a conference that would renew my mind and spirit. So it was that on June 5 and 6 of this year I attended the Justice Conference in Chicago, Illinios. I knew that there would be a good many evangelical church leaders at that conference but I had hope that the subject matter would tame the usual evangelical enthusiasm for Jesus. I was wrong. We sang umpteen praise choruses about Jesus, about how he had saved us by his sacrifice on the cross, about how he is our Lord and Saviour (with a capital L and S).
But what was truly amazing was that as I listened to the words of the speakers at the conference there was none of the stereotypical arrogance that we hear from the most loudmouthed self appointed church leaders in the States. Rather there was a genuine seeking of relationship with those who were on the margins of society—not for the sake of self satisfaction but because it is the only way in which we can honour Jesus—the One in whom love and justice were united. There were enthusiastic explorations of the racism gripping the United States—including racism and oppression of the First Nations. There were calls to drop the constant vocal opposition to abortion and same sex marriage and to pick up a constant call against poverty and for reconciliation. I had some doubts before attending that conference but it turned out to be a wonderful way to recharge my faith and my understanding of justice.
And perhaps the most wonderful thing about it was that the seeking of justice, the stance of humility taken by the people there was done in perfect harmony with an emphasis on Jesus and who he was and is in our lives. The first keynote speaker was Dr. Cornel West from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, a black theologian who was arrested in the protests in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of Michael Brown. He was talking about the white supremacist society of America and the need for us to reconcile the race divide. But he surprised me when he said that the white churches did not need to come alongside the black churches as allies. I had a textbook in seminary called, “Becoming an Ally” and it was influential in my thoughts and behaviours around justice. Dr. West continued however, “We don’t need allies, we want you to come as followers of Jesus.” It then struck me that indeed, we in the church don’t need to learn how to be allies—well maybe there are some things we can learn. But the source of our energy, our humility, our gentleness and our boldness comes from the person of Jesus Christ. And we omit Jesus from the centre of our church at our peril.
In today’s reading from the gospel of Mark Jesus goes to preach in his hometown synagogue. And his neighbours are, shall we say, less than impressed. They thoughts are recorded, “Hey isn’t this the carpenter who used to live in town? His brothers and sisters all live here but he abandoned his poor mother. What is he some kind of big shot now?” This is not exactly what is recorded in the bible but I could imagine it happening. When they first started the CBC television show “The Smartest Canadian” much was made about the fact that no one from Saskatchewan was registered for the show. My personal opinion is that didn’t indicate a lack of intelligent Saskatchewanians but rather no one from Saskatchewan wanted to admit that they were that smart because everyone in Saskatchewan has a grandmother, grandfather, great uncle or aunt who will remind them that they aren’t so smart and I changed your diapers when you were a baby! We don’t want anyone getting too big for their britches! Jesus is surprised at this lack of support but he does his best to try to heal the people there who are willing to accept his help but it is difficult without his hometown believing that he is special.
I wonder if the United Church has given up on Jesus. Like Nazareth, we who have been Christ’s hometown in this modern world don’t provide our faith in the name of Jesus. We are embarrassed of him because of what has been done in his name the tragedy of the residential schools coming most to mind. How can we proclaim the name of Jesus when so many indigenous children were taken away from their families, ripped from their culture and even abused and neglected until death—in his name? Honestly even as a minister I have been at time ashamed of the name of Jesus and have done linguistic backflips to try to talk about God’s redeeming love without talking about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But seeing at the Justice Conference the love of people for Jesus, combined with the hunger and thirst for justice in this world, gave me a new perspective. Even though it was only days after the presentation of the Truth and Reconciliation report I could see that there was value in the gospel and in the person of Jesus. After all, it was the failure of the church that those children were abused in the name of Christ. Jesus the first century Jew would never have agreed with an empire occupying populated lands and seeking to eliminate the indigenous culture there. That is exactly what the Roman Empire tried to do with Judea in Jesus’ time! When the children were being buried at the residential schools Jesus was not with the priests and nuns at the Mass or with the lay people from the United Church but Jesus was with those children who were crying silent tears. Jesus, who let the children come to him, was plotting with the residential school students how to escape back to the reserve. Jesus was with them trying to spark their memories into remembering and learning some Cree or whatever language was their own. For Jesus did not die on the cross for white people—Jesus died for the sake of the world so that all of us might know God’s great and ever abiding love for us. And indeed Jesus was already present on Turtle Island if the settlers had only eyes to see. In the resurrection power of the frozen land from winter’s grip, in the wise legends of Raven who was able to turn his opponent’s words against him, like Jesus. That is not to say that we need to label Native spirituality as a type of Christianity. It is to say that the spirit of the divine was already in this land long before most of our ancestors. And the story of Jesus is not a story of coming and conquering, the story of Jesus is a story of eating together and listening.
If we are to be the people of God in this strange and uncertain time we have to rely on Jesus and put him at the centre of our church. Without Jesus there is the temptation to think that we can fix the problems of the world by ourselves which we surely cannot. Without Jesus there is the temptation to ignore the spiritual part of the world’s unjust structures of economy and war. Without Jesus who regarded status as nothing, who ate with tax collectors who would have been above him in status and prostitutes below him and Pharisees somewhere in the middle—without Jesus we would be tempted to think of ourselves as above or below in status. As it is we are all sisters and brothers in Christ, giving to each as there is need—not an equal share but what is needed by each.
And ultimately we need Jesus because of his self sacrificing love. Whether you believe Jesus was the atoning sacrifice for our sins on the cross or whether you believe that his death was the consequence of his actions in Jerusalem on Holy Week, Jesus’ death was the result of his love for humanity. Jesus refused to deny the link between love and justice and for that refusal he was crucified. But Jesus was vindicated because he was raised from the dead and the power of God’s love was revealed and the weakness of violence and domination was exposed. We need Jesus because he showed how this self sacrificing love is the cornerstone of living a life of integrity and peace. Jesus showed us this.
So do not be afraid to call yourself a follower of Jesus! There is nothing in Jesus to be ashamed about. Do not let the loudest and crassest voices in this world have the final say in who Jesus is! He is love, he is mercy, he is giving and he is life and life in its fullest. We are not members of the United Church here—we are not members of St. Martin’s or Grace-Westminster. We are followers of Jesus—wherever he leads us. Amen.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Dr. Cornel West

So I was going to do blog posts in real time about the Justice Conference and my time in Chicago but things got a little hectic. You see there was so much to think about and absorb that I was just enjoying the moment. As we all should.

The Justice Conference opened with worship (which was mostly praise songs which I didn't know). Then we heard from a black spoken word artist, Malcolm London. Then Dr. Cornel West.

Dr. West is an old school well educated black preacher and theologian in the line of Martin Luther King Jr. He was awesome! He challenged us to be bold followers of Jesus. He encouraged us to draw on the faith of those who came before us for passion and humility.

He said Justice is what love looks like in public and tenderness is what Justice looks like in private.

His words were only part of his delivery. It was like the Holy Spirit was contorting his body as he spoke. He leaned on the pulpit, crouched beside it, leaned back. And (most impressively from a United Church of Canada point of view) he spoke of justice not only for black people but for all people of color, gay and lesbians, Transgender, economically disadvantaged, etc. etc.

A great talk to set the stage for the rest of the conference. Oh and did I mention he was arrested at the protests in Ferguson Missouri when the peaceful protests happened around the death of Michael Brown? A great man.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Willow Creek Care Center

Spent the afternoon at the Willow Creek Community Church, one of the biggest churches in the USA. It certainly was big and swanky. It reminded me of a huge showhome or corporate headquarters. But the really amazing thing is that the church did research on the local community, found that poor and struggling people were being pushed out of urban Chicago because of gentrification and were ending up in apartments blocks away from affluent subdivisions.

Now Willow Creek has built a food bank that looks better than any Sobeys in Canada. Why? Because the dignity of their guests (they don't call them clients) is their primary value.

Money is cool but what is more rare is following your articulated values.

http://www.willowcreekcarecenter.org/

The Justice Conference

I'm at the Justice Conference display floor, waiting for my pre conference event on activism in suburban churches. There are red curtains everywhere dividing book tables from kiosks on justice driven church organizations. There are booths to promote justice against human trafficking, poverty and for development work and fair trade. I'll definitely be visiting the book tables later!