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Why We Don’t Hope Upon a Star

(Preached at Alma United Church on December 3, 2017)

Growing up, I was a big fan of the program “The Wonderful World of Disney.” Every Sunday afternoon at my grandparent’s house, a dozen or so of my cousins and I would stare transfixed at my grandmother’s colour television from the time the fairy castle and Tinkerbell appeared until the closing credits.

I was totally oblivious to the harm that the message of some of those movies could do. You know the message I’m talking about. In fact, sing along with me:

When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. When you wish upon a star your dreams come true.

Except, of course, they don’t.

It doesn’t matter how many times I say the rhyme: Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. Wish I may, wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.

I wish I was thin like the models in the magazines. I wish I had a million dollars. I wish I’d wake up tomorrow and someone else would be president of the United States. I wish I’d wake up tomorrow and find that the Residential Schools scandal was all a dream. I wish I’d wake up tomorrow and my son would not be autistic any more. I wish I was twenty-five again.

And I wake up tomorrow, and things are just the same, except I’m another day older.

Wishing doesn’t work. We know it doesn’t work, yet we do it anyway.

I’ll ignore the collection agencies hounding me; eventually they’ll go away.

I’ll ignore that lump in my breast; it will probably turn out to be nothing.

That engine warning light? Hah! Half the time it’s a malfunction—of the engine warning light!

I can get another few months out of those all season radials on the car.

Eventually I’ll get a promotion, with more money attached.

Global warming is a myth—eventually the climate will get back to normal all by itself.

Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, to make your name known to your adversaries so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

Even Isaiah indulged in a little wishful thinking.

At first glance, even our gospel reading might be about wishful thinking: “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”

Heady stuff for first century Christians, persecuted by Jews and Romans alike.

But as the following verses make clear, Jesus isn’t talking about wishful thinking here. To start at the beginning of the reading:

“In those days” means “at some point” after the suffering that the faithful have already undergone,

The sun will be darkened,

And the moon will not give its light,

And the stars will be falling from heaven,

And the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Reading my commentary helped me understand this passage a little bit more. The sun and the moon and the stars, in the ancient middle east, were believed to be gods, or to have god-like powers, and they affected every day life.

Even today, some modern folks believe in the power of the sun and the moon and the stars to affect every aspect of life—that’s what we call astrology. For those who might be tempted to believe (even if only a little bit) in astrology, consider this—predictions from any two separate sources will usually be quite different, even going so far as to be totally contradictory. If one keeps track, you’ll find more misses than hits, and often the ones that seem right are right because they’re general advice that will work for almost anyone: “You may experience difficulties in close relationships this month. A sympathetic ear will go a long way towards smoothing things over.”

Hmm. Maybe I should write horoscopes. Do you think it pays better than preaching?

But back to Jesus.

What Jesus is saying that superstition and magic will have no place in the workings of the world. Instead, he gives us hope.

Hope is not wishful thinking.

Hope is based on observation: “When you see these things taking place, you know that I am near, at the very gates. My words will not pass away.”

But hope isn’t based on a certain knowledge. No one knows the day or the hour when the hope will come to fruition. Maybe it won’t, or it will come in a way that we don’t expect it.

Hope is based on action.

Keep alert, be on the watch. Do the work with which you have been tasked.

The servants left in charge are not to go to sleep and wait until the master is seen approaching before they start to do their work—they are to work at their assigned tasks while the master is on his journey.

Likewise, we are not to sit around and wait for Jesus to come again and fix everything. We are to work at our assigned tasks, whatever they may be.

Instead of wishing I looked like a model in a magazine, I can find a diet plan that works for me, get my hair done, buy new clothes that fit and look good. I won’t ever look like the model in a magazine, but I’ll certainly begin feeling better about myself.

That’s hope.

Instead of wishing I could win the lottery, I can do a budget, get a second job, and start paying down my debts and put something into my savings account. I may never be a millionaire, but maybe someday I’ll own more of my car than the bank does.

That’s hope.

Instead of ignoring that lump or skin problem or burning sensation, I can see my doctor and get a diagnosis. I may not want to hear what she has to say, but together we can work on a treatment for my problem that will get me feeling better, and help me live as long and as healthy a life as I have it in me to live.

That’s hope.

Instead of a God who rips open the heavens and smites my enemies with lightning, I await the coming of an infant, illegitimate child of a teenager, who will become a refugee from the very enemies I want God to do away with. That infant will grow and teach me, and my enemies, and all of the peoples on earth, how to love one another and live in harmony.

THAT is hope.

Wait for it. Watch for it. Hope is coming.

Amen.

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How To Save A Life

 

(Preached at Alma United Church on November 19, 2017)

What comes to mind when I say the words “evangelism” or “evangelist”?

Often we think of:

  • Judgement
  • Asking for money
  • Televangelists
  • Door-to-door religious “sales teams”
  • Pressure
  • Run!!
  • Someone else—not me!
  • Paul, or the disciples, or John the Baptist, but most definitely not me!

But the word evangelism comes from the Greek euaggelion, which simply means “gospel” or “good news,” so what it really means is sharing the gospel, and an evangelist is someone who shares the gospel.

In all my 57 years in the United Church, I have to say that I am currently preaching the one and only sermon I’ve ever heard on evangelism. That just isn’t us—we can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those who are sick and in prison; we can love our neighbours as ourselves. We can even dabble in politics and try and change public policy for the better. But offer to pray for complete strangers? To tell them that God loves them, and that God sent Jesus to take away the burden of their sin? To invite them to church???

We aren’t really evangelists, are we? Aren’t good works enough?

In our minds, evangelism is associated with fundamentalism. Shouting Christians picketing funerals and telling others they’re going to Hell. Billboards in the middle of farmer’s fields, warning of Judgement Day. Are you ready to meet your maker? Condemnation.

Or we’re so respectful of the rights of others to have their own beliefs that are different from ours, we ignore our right and duty to share our own experiences of God.

Or we’re ashamed of the past sins of the church—anti-Semitism, slavery, inquisitions, forced conversions, and the almost total annihilation of Indigenous cultures—that we decide that the best way to avoid sinning in the future is to keep our faith to ourselves.

In our effort to distinguish ourselves from our fundamentalist sisters and brothers, we keep our faith to ourselves.

I think that we’re making a big mistake!

Christianity is an evangelical faith. No matter how much we might wish it, the Christian faith doesn’t spread organically from generation to generation, and people won’t walk through our front doors just because there are front doors with a sign out front. We have built it, and they are not coming!

Over the past few decades, I have heard many theories about why the mainline churches are in decline. People are too busy. The service is at the wrong time. The service is on the wrong day. People don’t need God any more. God is dead. God never existed. The church is too judgemental. The church isn’t judgemental enough. We need to throw away the Bible. We need to go back to the Bible.

All of those excuses are just that—excuses. Because in the past little while I’ve observed that despite the fact that the majority of our churches are declining, there are some which are growing. And those growing churches seem to have one thing in common.

The members of those churches regularly ask friends and neighbours to join them. They share their faith freely. Those churches advertise their presence.

Think on this: when was the last time you saw or heard any advertisements for a United Church, or any mainline church, for that matter?

When and if you saw one, was it a bold, colourful ad with compelling detail, or was it a little black and white job in the bottom corner of an inside newspaper page: Nowhere United Church, Service at 10:30 am. Nursery provided. Join us!

Bring a pillow and an extra blanket and catch up on your sleep.

And how do we think about those people “out there”, and about why they don’t come to church?

They’re lazy—they just want to sleep in on Sunday.

They’re busy—the kids have hockey, and some of them work.

They just don’t care—God isn’t on their mind.

Do we ever think this:

They have no idea what we do in here on Sunday morning, or why we do it.

The only things many people know about the Christian faith are what they’ve seen and heard on the news, and so often, what they’ve seen and heard is not flattering.

They don’t even know we’re here! Before you think that this is ridiculous—after all, there’s this building, and we’ve got a sign out front, think on this—at the board meeting on Sunday, it was brought to our attention that the construction workers who are rebuilding the road had stored sod and fill and equipment on our lot because they thought no one was using the building!

Jamie Holtom, at North Bramalea United Church, has been asked by couples he has married, “Can anyone just come to your services?”

People really don’t know anything about Christianity any more. The idea that faith or religion might have any value to them is a totally foreign idea to most people.

And yet…

So many people out there are hurting; hurting in the same ways that people were hurting 2000 years ago, when Jesus walked this earth, preaching and healing.

They are dealing with strained and broken relationships.

They are poor, and even those with jobs are having trouble making ends meet.

They are rich, and wondering why their lives seem so empty.

They are lost, and can’t seem to discover their purpose for being.

They are anxious and afraid, and can’t find peace.

They are alone, grieving, hungry, thirsty, naked.

They are deeply mired in sin and can’t ever admit to the truth, because to do so would burden them beyond their capacity to cope.

And we are here, and we know that God can help, and we keep our arms crossed and our mouths shut. We know the gospel saves lives, because it saved ours, and we keep that truth to ourselves.

I love that text from Romans:

Everyone who calls, “Help, God!” gets help.

But how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? How can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard about Jesus or God? How can they hear if no one tells them? And who is going to tell them unless someone is sent to do it?

The point is this: Before you trust, you have to listen. But unless Christ’s word is preached, there’s nothing to listen to.

Pen Jillette of the duo Penn and Teller is a magician, comedian, and avowed atheist. Yet he respects evangelical Christians, going so far as to comment on the kindness of a man who gave him a Bible. In the clip on YouTube where he talks about that incident, he makes a comment that should be disturbing to all non-evangelical Christians.

He asks, “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

It’s like you go to Canadian Tire and buy a shiny new life jacket.

Then you walk along beside a river, and you come across someone in the water. Their arms are flailing; their eyes are bulging out of their head. They’re obviously drowning.

Do you throw them the life jacket, or do you keep on walking?

Would you say to yourself:

  • They won’t appreciate my help.
  • What if I miss?
  • That life jacket is brand new and I don’t want to get it wet and dirty. I don’t even know if it will work!
  • I’ve got a meeting in ten minutes.
  • Will I leave myself open to a lawsuit?
  • Stupid person—what’s she doing in the river if she can’t swim, anyhow!

Of course you wouldn’t say any of those things—you’d throw them the life jacket! Find a branch to reach out. Call 911 on your cell. Yell for others to come help you!

So why do we all too often keep silent when we see someone hurting, when sharing our faith in God might help?

Evangelism isn’t about filling our pews and our offering plates. It’s not about keeping this or any other congregation going and the building open. We don’t evangelise to validate our views and to try and make others be like us.

We evangelize because people need God’s help, but they can’t ask because they don’t know about God and what God has done for us through Jesus, and they don’t know because they haven’t heard, and they haven’t heard because we have built our cities underground; we have hidden our lamps under bushels; we have closed our mouths at the wrong times, and said the wrong things when we opened them.

We are all called, not just to give of our time and our money, not just to come to church and to pray and to read the Bible, but to share our faith with those in the world who are lost and wandering.

In closing, I have a few pointers from Jamie Holtom about how to share.

First, take the time to think about what God has done for you. When in your life has God been with you? How has God helped you through the difficult times in your life?

Second, think about times when it is easy to share your enthusiasm for something you’ve enjoyed—a new recipe or restaurant; a movie you’ve loved or a concert you enjoyed. What would you say about it to others? Would you share your enthusiasm? That’s evangelism!

Now translate that to church. What do you enjoy about coming to church that others might enjoy? Share that with someone.

Third, take an extra sixty seconds when you’re talking with someone. Instead of asking, “How are you today?” which invites the answer, “Fine,” ask, “What’s been going on for you lately?” Then listen! Let others know they’ve been heard, and that you care. Sometimes, that’s all they need.

Fourth, if they’re really hurting, offer to pray with and for them. Ask first. Give them the chance to say no. But even non-religious people will often say yes, and it helps.

The example I like best of this is told not by a church-goer, but by a young lady who describes herself as “not very religious.” She’d had a fight with her boyfriend. She was in a car crying while he was out doing an errand, and a random Christian knocked on her car window, asked her what was wrong, and offered to pray for her. She accepted, and in less than five minutes, her whole attitude had changed. Things weren’t fixed, but they were now not so hard to handle.

“Thank you, Random Christian,” she says. “You helped more than you will know.”

Holtom says that the chance to share Christ can happen any time, anywhere, to any one of us. Sharing Christ doesn’t need to be obtrusive or scary. We don’t have to convert anyone or prove anything. Our job is simply to be open and honest about who we are and why we’re here.

Our job is to invite, not to compel.

So before we leave the bullseye, I’m going to ask you to do one last assignment. I’m here until New Year’s Eve, and in the remaining six weeks, I’m going to ask every one of you to try and share your faith with at least one non-churchgoer who might need God, and if you’re really brave, to invite one person who currently does not attend any faith community to join you in worship.

Scary? Maybe. Uncomfortable? Definitely.

But life, and God’s blessings, often begin at the edge of your comfort zone!

Amen.

Don’t (Just) Send Money!

(Preached at Alma United Church on October 22, 2017)

The date: the third Tuesday of September, 2002.

For those of you in the know, the third Tuesday of the month back then was always the meeting of presbytery, and I had just started what would end up to be a two-year ministry at Zion/St. Andrew’s Pastoral Charge in Cambridge. I was there, and I found out that night that presbytery meetings can be life-disrupting, if you let them. Especially the announcements.

The Reverend Elizabeth Eberhardt-Moffat rose to speak about a program that Parkminster United Church was running for their youth called “Youth Trip to Central America.” A group of youth and leaders would be heading off in March to Nicaragua in order to participate in a Habitat for Humanity build, as well as to visit some of our Mission and Service partners. Did we know any youth who would like to go?

Now, at that point I was somewhat cautious of the whole “mission trip” idea. Wouldn’t it be best to send money, and employ people down there to build the houses? And what good would it be to send our youth to visit our mission partners? Was it just a ploy to get them to be life-long contributors, or was there a deeper purpose?

However, despite my caution, I did have a seventeen-year-old son who might be interested. His sister, to my way of thinking, was a bit too young—in Canada, you have to be sixteen in order to participate in a Habitat for Humanity build.

However, when Allison found out I was only considering David, she got a bit upset, and made me promise to ask if it was okay for her to go too. Months later, after a number of Saturdays spent at Parkminster learning Spanish, and Nicaraguan history, and how to function as a group, both Allison and David were off to Nicaragua.

Two weeks later, two very different teens got off the plane.

A number of people have wondered, over the years, why my two elder children, of all the young people they grew up with, stayed with the church. And not just stayed with it, but became actively involved, David as an ordained minister, Allison as a Sunday School teacher.

My answer is simple. They’ve been involved in service since they were very small children.

I took them to nursing and retirement homes when I preached, and they played their instruments. They helped pack shoeboxes and hampers. They took part in church dramas and musicals and worship services.

But most of all, they went to Nicaragua.

The ordination rate from that first group of what would eventually become “TCOW” (Two Countries, One World) was somewhere above twenty percent.

Think about that. What would our church be like if twenty percent of all the kids who passed through our Sunday Schools and youth groups felt called to work within the church as paid accountable ministers? What if another twenty percent wanted to become lay teachers and leaders?

It would change their lives, and ours.

But why does service have such an effect? Isn’t learning about poverty and injustice enough?

My answer to that is, not really.

What we miss when we send money, and stay in our little churches and learn, is the personal contact with those not like us. And it isn’t the money and the learning that changes us, it’s the personal contact with other human beings.

I can learn about the injustice we’ve done to our First Nations people. I can send money to be put in the Healing Fund. But nothing beats sitting on the concrete floor of a bus station, listening to a beautiful young man dying of AIDS tell me his story as he sips some kind of alcohol from a discarded Tim Horton’s cup.

I never learned his name, but only that he was from Vancouver and had contracted AIDS after sharing a needle with a woman who had tested clean, and yet was in the three month “window period” before the disease could be detected by the tests.

We can sit here and learn about poverty in Canada. We can donate to the food banks. But we’ll understand more if we sit with the people we’re helping, and ask them what’s going on in their lives, and is there anyway else we can help.

We can work for prison reform, but nothing beats visiting a woman from Nova Scotia in an Ontario women’s prison who’s there, far from family and friends, because there weren’t any federal prisons for women anywhere else. Or of talking to the chaplain, and learning that if she’d been white, or able to afford a better lawyer, she probably wouldn’t even have been convicted. Or of hearing that despite the fact that she had never taken the last name of her abusive ex-husband, the bureaucrats in the system insisted that she be called by that name.

Personally serving—feeding, clothing, housing, visiting—brings us into contact with others in a way that sending money does not.

When I worked at Forest Grove United Church, a woman who volunteered at the Out of the Cold program told me that her husband had been reluctant to participate, but that she had finally convinced him to go with her one day. That evening, while serving the meal, he met a former co-worker, lining up for food.

And that man realized that there but for the grace of God go I.

In the book bullseye, Jamie Holtum and Debbie Johnson separate “service” and “giving generously”. Both are necessary, and Christians who aim to follow Jesus should be growing in both areas, and not assuming that because they give to the food bank or the Mission and Service fund that they can stay home and not get their hands dirty.

Jesus tells the disciples much the same thing. When told that the thousands are hungry, he says to his disciples, “You feed them.” Not “pay someone else to feed them,” or “tell them to share with each other,” or “tell them to go home,” but “You feed them.”

When asked for an example of what it means to be a neighbour, Jesus tells a story about a Samaritan who stopped, bound wounds, transported the victim, and took him to shelter.

We are instructed by Jesus to do. To heal, to comfort, to feed, clothe, and shelter.

We are instructed to get involved in the world and with other people.

We are instructed to get to know our enemies, and our outcasts, and those who are simply different from us. To learn their stories, to understand their points of view.

We are being told that giving money isn’t enough.

We are being asked to give ourselves.

A story is told that during the bombing of a city in World War II, a large statue of Jesus Christ was severely damaged. When the townspeople found the statue among the rubble, they mourned because it had been a beloved symbol of their faith and of God’s presence in their lives.

Experts were able to repair most of the statue, but its hands had been damaged so severely that they could not be restored. Some suggested that they hire a sculptor to make new hands, but others wanted to leave it as it was—a permanent reminder of the tragedy of war. Ultimately, the statue remained without hands. However, the people of the city added on the base of the statue of Jesus Christ a sign with these words: “You are my hands.”

You are the hands of Christ. Go into the world, and use those hands to serve.

Amen.

Send Money!

(Preached at Alma United Church on November 12, 2017)

An American joke for you, but it could very well be Canadian, too:

Two well-worn bills arrived at the Federal Reserve Bank to be retired – a $100 and a $1. As they traveled down the conveyor belt, they struck up a conversation. The hundred reminisced about the interesting life he had, traveling all over the country.

“I’ve been to the finest restaurants, Broadway shows, Las Vegas, and amusement parks,” he said. “I even want on a Caribbean cruise once. Where have you been?”

“Oh,” said the one dollar bill, “I’ve been to a Methodist church, an Episcopal church, a Baptist church, and a Lutheran church.”

“What’s a church?” asked the hundred.

Would you pray with me and for me, please…

Today is the fifth sermon in the bullseye series. So far in the series, we’ve explored drawing closer to God through worshipping weekly, using spiritual practices, creating authentic community, and serving, and so far in the series, I’ve felt like I’ve been preaching to the choir, so to speak. You and I might have learned a little more about these topics, and we might have been a little bit challenged, but in general, we’re doing okay. Not only that, we don’t mind talking about these topics in church. Reading the bible and praying and worshipping and caring for one another and serving are what we’re all about, right?

So it’s natural we talk about those topics.

Today and next week are going to be a bit more challenging. This week, I’m going to explore the bullseye target of giving generously, and next week I’m going to talk about sharing Christ.

Lots of churches seem fixated on sex. Homosexuality is a sin, adultery is a sin, sex before marriage is a sin. More churches, especially moderate churches like the United church, talk about social justice and social service. Many of our sermons are about how to live a more Christian life.

And yet how seldom we talk about money. In my experience, these talks happen twice a year—the first time when we make the budget for the year, and the second time, just before Christmas, when the finance committee realizes that its projections of givings were a bit (or a lot) optimistic, and appeals to the congregation to increase its offerings so that we can make budget.

There’s a lot of guilt involved. There’s a lot of “we can” or “we can’t” afford this or that. There’s a lot of worry involved—will we have enough to fix the windows or put on a new roof or pay the minister? Sometimes members of the finance committee have seemed to me to be a bit like Chicken Little—“The sky is falling! The sky is falling! The church is going to go under if we don’t get more money in the offering plates!” I’ve sat in church meetings where it was stated that the biggest problem was that the church needed “more bums in the pews so that there would be more money in the plate so that we can keep up our beautiful building.”

But in my years of being a church member and in sitting in on budget discussions, I haven’t heard a lot of Christ brought into the discussion.

Which is a bit odd, when you think about it.

Jesus said nothing at all about homosexuality. He said very little about adultery—there are only two references in all four gospels. He says nothing at all about war, with only one reference to peace, and one saying about interpersonal violence.

The gospels do mention him going to worship, and of course he talked about caring for others, and led by example in this regard.

But in the gospel of Luke alone, there are at least 37 references to money. Jesus talks a lot about money. How we acquire our wealth and how we spend our wealth are of utmost importance to Jesus.

Part of our problem, especially in North America, is our affluence. When we hear Jesus say to the rich young man, “Go, sell all your possessions,” we don’t put ourselves in his place, because we don’t consider ourselves rich. We identify with the poor widow putting in two coins, and not the rich man ostentatiously putting in a large sum. We hear, “Blessed are you poor,” but fail to hear, “Woe to you who are rich.”

After all, we’re not rich. Are we? Just a show of hands: who here considers themselves to be rich?

Who here thinks that they are in the top ten percent of wealth owners globally?

Here’s something that I found a bit shocking: It wasn’t news to me that only 8.4 percent of the worlds population controls a whopping 84.6 percent of global assets. What I did find eye-opening was that the amount of assets needed to put a person in that 8.4 percent was only a hundred thousand dollars.

In Canada, that means that anyone who owns more of their home than the bank does is in the top 8.4 percent of worldwide asset owners.

We tend to think of “the rich” as those who are super-rich. Billionaires like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. Not us poor Canadian farmers and factory workers! But the truth is, we live in a wonderful country, and all but the very poorest of us are rich in comparison with the majority of the world’s population.

So when we look at money, and what Jesus has to say about it, maybe we can look with different eyes.

The first thing I’d like to explore is what our culture has to say about money. Money is important in present day society—all of our indicators about how well we’re doing hinge around money: Gross Domestic Product is a dollar amount; the Poverty Line is a dollar amount; minimum wage is a dollar amount; the price of groceries or gas is a dollar amount.

And yet, for something so important, we’re not taught to talk about it rationally, and we generally don’t even think about it until disaster is imminent. Then when we do think about it, we have all the emotions that come with being in trouble: guilt, pain, fear. So as soon as the trouble goes away, we stop really thinking about money or keeping track, and we’re headed for trouble again.

An example of this is seen in those who win huge amounts in the lottery. On average, it takes just seven years for a lottery winner to blow through their money and end up back where they started, or even worse. Seven years, for a win that should have had them and their heirs living well for generations.

Most parents keep their financial situation from their children. They don’t share their budgeting process, if they have one, and the most common way they “teach” their children how to handle money is by giving them an allowance that’s often too small to pay for more than the cheapest things.

Our schools teach almost nothing about budgeting and saving and investing.

And the wider world is more invested on parting us from our money than teaching us how to handle it. Even bank investment councillors are little more than salespersons, who have quotas to make in order to increase the banks profits.

Ever present advertisements tell us that we need to spend in order to be happy. Buy this car, this beer, this trip, and all that horrible work will be worth it!

How many of us have ever heard or seen an ad that says, “Hey! You don’t need to buy that new iPhone—your old one still works just fine!”?

The world wants us to spend or give based on emotional response, not thought. Even many charities use emotional response as a tool for getting money from your bank account to theirs, and it doesn’t always result in the most effective solutions to world problems.

One tool that Christians can use to take away the emotional response factor in purchasing and investing and giving is to take the time to budget. Sit down on a regular basis with your bank book and really think about where you want your income to go, and what you want from your assets. What do you truly value, and are your expenditures a reflection of those values? And please, for the sake of future generations, include children and grandchildren in these talks!

The second thing I’d like us to explore is gratitude. Hearing that middle class Canadians are among the richest people in the world brings to me a feeling of gratitude. What a wonderful place we live in! Our crops are usually bountiful, we have a diverse industrial base, we have world-class universities. Our wealth enables us to fund social programs like universal health care and social assistance programs that mean that even the poorest among us have something, even if it’s not quite enough by our standards. As someone who isn’t rich, I’m grateful that I live in a country where others have more than enough and are willing to fund government programs that benefit all Canadians and not just some.

And gratitude can bring us to a place where we realize that all that we have truly comes from God. So often, we tend to think that we’ve earned what we have by the sweat of our brows, and so it is ours, ours, ours!

By widening my focus to a more global scale, I realize how untrue that thought is. Do I really work harder than a young girl in Africa who has to walk a mile or more just to get water for her family to cook and wash? Do I work harder than the factory worker in Bangladesh who made my blue jeans? I know I don’t—in large part, my wealth is not due to my own efforts, but to the fact that I’m white, I’m educated, and I live in Canada.

As Christians, we believe that everything belongs to God, and we are only stewards. But when it comes to giving, we think that we are “losing” something. We sing the words, “We give thee but thine own,” but fail to really feel them in our hearts.

What if, instead of saying to ourselves, “I’m really generous—I’m giving ten percent of my income to the church!” we think, “How generous it is that God lets us keep 90 percent of what isn’t ours in the first place?”

So how do we go about fixing our relationship to money?

When I first read this book, and decided I wanted to go through it with a congregation, I thought to myself that perhaps I should do it first. I’ve told you about my experiments with daily devotions, but the other thing I decided to work on was my relationship with money.

I started by taking the suggestion of turning the usual approach to budgeting on it’s head. After reading many books on the subject, I’d had author after author suggest that giving was an important part of financial acumen, but that saving and paying bills came first. Authors Jamie Holtom and Debbie Johnson instead suggest this: Share, save, give. So I decided that I would set apart my givings first, which is also the Biblical standard. I did not start at ten percent. Instead, I calculated what percentage I usually gave, when I did give, and decided that I’d continue with that amount, only budgeting for it first, before anything else came out of my income. As I grow more confident with the process, and as my income increases so that I’m earning more than I need for the basics of life, I hope to increase that percentage. But it’s working. I now don’t end up on Sunday morning wondering if I have the money to put in the envelope, and feeling guilty if I don’t—it’s all taken care of!

Holtom and Johnson suggest that if you want to increase your givings, but you’re not really sure you can, to take the pressure off a little. If you’re new to weekly giving, start small and work up, as I’m doing. If you’ve been giving for most of your life, but are inspired to try and increase your givings to a true tithe or even more, you can either work up to a new level gradually, as I’ve suggested, or pick a target and try it for a month or three to find out how it works for you.

Either way, I think that you will see changes. When your focus changes from what you’re giving away to what God has given you, you move from living in scarcity to living in abundance. You’ll be able to ignore the fear-mongering of sales people trying to tell you that you won’t have enough for retirement, to leave to your children, to pay for your funeral, and so on. You’ll realize that you don’t need a new car or watch or vacation to feel rich, because you already feel blessed.

You’ll see that you’re not giving  your  money to God, but rather that you’re investing God’s money in God’s mission.

You’ll find out not only that you can give, but that you want to give.

And that’s truly cause for celebration!

Amen.

 

Introduction to the Offering

The pastor of a tiny country church had been having trouble with stewardship and tithes and offerings.  One Sunday he announced, “Now, before we receive the offering, I would like to request that the person who stole the eggs from Widow Jones’s chicken coop please refrain from giving any money to the Lord. God doesn’t want money from a thieving sinner.”

The offering plate was passed, and for the first time in months everybody gave.

 

Remembrance Day

(Preached at Alma United Church & Melville United Church on November 5, 2017)

I’d like all of you here to engage in a little time travel.

It’s no longer November 5, 2017—it’s now June 3, 1916. You’re not in Alma (Fergus) Ontario, you’re in Moosomin, Saskatchewan. You’re a sixteen year old farm boy. Maybe you’re here because you want to join your cousin and fight for Mother England. Maybe you’re here because one dollar and ten cents a day is two or three times what you’d earn working on the farm. Maybe you’re here because your mother told you to do it—she wants that dollar and ten cents a day you’ll get as a private.

You’re only sixteen years old, so you have to tell a little white lie. You tell the recruiter you’re eighteen years and one month. He writes down that your apparent age is seventeen, but he lets you through anyhow. After all, you’re 5 feet seven inches tall, and you’re healthy. You haven’t had any vaccinations yet, but the army will take care of that.

You’re in. You and all of your comrades-in-arms in the 217th Overseas Battalion are sent to Valcartier for training, then are shipped to England. You arrive there on June 9, 1917.

From England, you’re shipped to France. Sometime during the day of August 15th or 16th, 1917, you step on the land mine.

The war is over for you, but fortunately not your life. You’ve got two broken legs, a broken arm, and burns on your hands and thighs, but you’re alive. A month later, you’re removed from the “Dangerously Ill” list. In the early spring of 1918, you’re invalided home to Canada, but not to Moosomin—you’re parents have moved to Windsor, Ontario in the meantime. You don’t even know their address—it’s listed as “General Delivery” on your service record.

You go on to marry a sixteen-year-old girl of whom your parents disapprove, and adopt one child and have six biological children, five of whom live to adulthood. Those six living children give you more than twenty grandchildren.

And you say nothing, to no one, ever, about what happened to you during the war.

Your granddaughter finds out much of this information reading your service records on the internet just two days ago.

There was some debate at the Guelph United Ministries meeting recently, I’ve been told. At the instigation of my mother and a few other faithful, it was decided to present a wreath on behalf of GUM at the coming Remembrance Day service in Guelph on Saturday.

But some members objected, saying that Remembrance Day services glorify war. And I need to ask, how many have they been to recently?

Because, yes, sometimes there are stories about “the good old times” when “men were men” and we fought for freedom and our principles. But always, there are stories like the one I just told you. If you haven’t guessed, had that mine done its job a little better, I wouldn’t be alive today, and neither would my mother or my children nor any one of my twenty-some-odd cousins.

We didn’t have a name for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder back when I was growing up, but my grandfather suffered from it. The only memories I have of him are of him sitting in his armchair, drinking beer and trying his best to ignore the cheerful mayhem that me and my siblings and all my cousins created during our weekly family meal on Sunday afternoon.

Remembrance Day reminds us that the cost of war continues after the war is over. For the families of the dead, grieving. For the families of the living, grieving and learning to cope with a new reality that may never include anything resembling normal interactions or trust. For society, the incredible dollar cost of PTSD and physical disabilities, as well as the rebuilding of infrastructure damaged by the war. For farmers in former war zones, decades or longer of ridding your fields of land mines and bombs, sometimes the hard way.

Remembrance Day, if we do it right, is a call to peace, a call to end this madness.

Amen.

 

The “Wittenberg Door Incident” 500 Years Later…

(Preached at Alma United Church & Melville United Church on October 29, 2017)

I should know better than to take suggestions from Marion about what I should preach. “October 29 is Reformation Sunday. You should preach about that!”

I thought it was a good idea, and she sent me an article about the Reformation.

Then I really started to research things, and realized that I’d have about fifteen minutes to make sense of five hundred years of intense theological disagreement, bitter recriminations and condemnation, grisly executions, political intrigue, and war.

Would you pray with me and for me please…

Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday, and it’s important in this day and age to understand what it is we are really celebrating and why.

First off, I’d like to say a bit about what a reformer is, and the examples we have from the past.

Reformers are generally those men and women who, while being raised in and loyal to a specific tradition, nevertheless see the problems within that tradition.

Moses, raised by Egyptian royalty, was a reformer. He saw a problem with the way slaves were treated, and after some heavy-duty prompting by God, set out to change it.

The prophets were reformers, speaking out against the corruption of the kings and priests of their days.

Jesus was a reformer. In our scripture reading today, it’s important to note that he was speaking as a Jew to Jewish leaders. Many folks don’t recognize the Jewishness of Jesus, and misunderstand his attempts to reform the leadership of Judaism with blanket condemnation of all Jews.

When that misassumption is corrected, it becomes most uncomfortable to ask the question, “If Jesus were to be born into today’s world and grow up as a Christian, who would he criticize, and why?” I’ll leave that to your imagination, but let’s not do the typically Canadian thing of patting ourselves on the back whilst pointing fingers at our neighbours, without seriously examining our own checkered past.

“The Reformation” which we celebrate today is akin to those other reformations, but speaks specifically to the split that occurred almost exactly five hundred years ago between the Roman Catholic Church and the now numerous Protestant denominations.

Many people who are heirs of both traditions don’t truly understand why there is a split, but as someone who took courses during my study at Catholic colleges in the Toronto School of Theology, I’ve come to understand quite a bit more about Catholic theology than I learned growing up.

I have many fond memories of my time at Emmanuel College, but perhaps my fondest memories are of a few courses taken outside the college. As part of the requirements for our degree, we had to take a certain number of courses from the colleges at TST run by other denominations. I chose to take a number of ethics courses from St. Michael’s College, which was founded by priests of the Basilian order.

The course which had the most impact on me was one in which we discussed, in a seminar-style class, various situations listed in the syllabus, and tried to decide what an ethical course of action would be for each situation.

My favourite situation was this one: A Protestant friend, who is not a very good driver, is taking a long trip and has asked to borrow your St. Christopher medal. (For those who don’t know, St. Christopher is the patron saint of bachelors, storms, epilepsy, gardeners, transportation, travel, holy death, and toothache.) Do you lend it to him?

The discussion of the Catholic students wavered back and forth between yes and no, but each of their answers had to be backed up by reference to Canon Law, which is like our Basis of Union, only longer.

Finally, it was my turn to answer. As the lone Protestant in the course, my answer was clear. With 500 years of Protestant theology clearly on my side, I proclaimed to the class in my best bible-thumping preacher voice:

“Blasphemy!”

Now, I should tell those of you who may be a bit shocked at this that my relationship with the professor of this class was one of deep affection on both our parts, made all the stronger by a shared sense of somewhat whacky humour, as well as the more laudable ability to celebrate and learn from our differences.

The differences between Catholic and Protestant theology, which were brought home to my in that course, do not seem, to many modern Christians, to be all that important. This is somewhat troubling to me, because I strongly believe that they are.

Even more troubling is the fact that many Christians of both the Catholic and Protestant persuasions still seem to believe that the differences between them are so important that they are justified in condemning each other or even killing each other. Christians on both sides of the divide have gone so far as to call others “non-Christian.” Five hundred years after the “Wittenberg Door Incident” as a recent article in the Observer called it, there are still residues of old prejudices and hatred that in the past have caused inquisitions, executions, and even wars.

While I believe it is important to understand what situations prompted the reformers of the past to challenge the Catholic Church, I also believe that when we fight or kill in the name of God, we are ignoring the words of the very God we claim to follow.

So what is it that we need to know about the Reformation, and those infamous 95 theses that Martin Luther nailed to a cathedral door on October 31, five hundred years ago?

First, we need to remember that Martin Luther, though distressed about what he saw, was a Roman Catholic monk at the time he wrote and distributed his theses. Like Jesus, like the prophets, he was trying to work within the tradition of his birth, and only when he was cast out of the Roman Catholic church did he found the denomination that would bear his name.

Luther wasn’t the first reformer. There had been some previous attempts at reforming the church—by John Wycliffe in England, Jan Hus in Bohemia, and Peter Waldo in Germany—but Luther was the first to gain a widespread following, mainly due to the recently invented printing press of Johannes Guttenberg.

Luther was dismayed by the corruption he witnessed within the Catholic church of his day, especially with the sale of indulgences. In the doctrine of the time, a righteous person might accumulate a surplus store of good works over and above those required for salvation. These extra good deeds formed a kind of treasury or fund that the Pope could dispense to less righteous persons, who would then enjoy the benefits earned by others.

The church of the Middle Ages often sold these surplus good works in order to raise money for the building of cathedrals and the enrichment of the clergy. Although banned in Germany at the time, in 1517, a friar named Johann Tetzel began to sell indulgences in order to raise money to renovate St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Luther’s response was the 95 Theses. Tradition has it that he nailed the document to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, but some scholars believe that he merely hung the document on the door to announce the ensuing academic discussion he was organizing.

For those of you needing a short primer in Protestant theology, the major teachings of the Theses were:

Sola Fide – Salvation cannot be earned by our deeds, but is a free gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ

Sola Scriptura – The bible is the only source of divinely revealed truth

The Priesthood of All Believers – All baptized Christians are priests. We do not need a mediator in the form of a confessional priest to confess our sins to God.

Luther was also a proponent of having the mass said in the dialect of the people, and of having translations of the bible available to all in modern languages. In fact, when he translated the bible into German, he actually developed the dialect that later became known as “High German”.

He also influenced church music by introducing contemporary melodies for congregational singing. Some of them were bar tunes, and the organ was originally a pub instrument. No doubt some of the more traditional folk complained about this “new music,” because if one thing hasn’t changed in five hundred years, it’s people’s willingness to adapt to the new. 😊

It’s also important for Protestants to understand that the Reformation, as undoubtedly necessary as it was, had some very negative side effects.

Many know that Luther was an opponent of clerical celibacy, and a mere 8 years after the beginning of the Reformation married a former nun. What is less well known is that by the end of his life, Luther had become rather more strident in his views, condoning polygamy, declaring the Pope the Antichrist, and advocating for the expulsion of Jews from the Holy Roman Empire. The Nazis held Luther up as someone to emulate.

All of these prejudicial viewpoints, as well as those defending the subjugation of women, the destruction of the natural world, racial prejudice and slavery, homophobia, capital punishment, and the physical and cultural genocide suffered by Aboriginal peoples in many countries have been justified, and continue to be justified, by the misuse of Sola Scriptura.

 Sola Fide, the understanding that salvation comes through God’s grace alone and not by any works on our part, has given rise to a Christian faith that is often lazy and introspective, with believers unwilling to get their hands dirty with the work of God.

The Priesthood of All Believers has led to the birth of many small, independent churches with extreme beliefs and little or no pastoral oversight to guide and discipline the leaders of the flock. Some of these churches have gone on to do tremendous harm to their believers with extreme interpretations of obscure scripture passages.

And even those churches which claim to follow the principles of Luther’s 95 Theses have sometimes gone astray. The televangelists who offer prayers or healing in return for cash aren’t generally Roman Catholics. And generally those who claim to know when the world is going to end are also of Protestant heritage.

It’s easy to forget where we came from, if we don’t keep it firmly in mind at all times.

It’s even harder, sometimes, to know when our Reformed traditions need reforming.

Is Sola Scriptura truly possible in our age of incredible scientific knowledge? Scripture really doesn’t have all that much to say about many of the ethical questions of our day, burdened as we are with an average lifetime that would seem unbelievable to those who would have been lucky to live past age 50, a global population in excess of seven billion, the ability to totally destroy life on earth with the push of a button, and an understanding of the genetic code for life and heredity that was beyond the comprehension of even the scientific elite only scant decades ago.

Our understanding of what the bible really is and how it was written and put together has also changed dramatically since Luther’s days. Serious scholars of the bible no longer believe that Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament. New discoveries of ancient manuscripts have created more questions than they have answered. Closer reading of the texts by scholars of differing backgrounds and insights have led to new understandings of the relative importance of certain texts, and insights into how those texts have been misused by mostly European male scholars of good education and better than average income.

The need for reform and for reformers is as urgent as ever, because the church is made up of humans, and humans, by nature, are imperfect. But our modern-day reformers, of whom there are many, often pay a price as steep as that of those in the sixteenth century.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Junior stood up and said, “I have a dream.” His dream of a world where Christians would not use the bible to justify racism and segregation is taking a long time to happen, but it will. Unfortunately, Martin Luther King did not live to see even the scant progress we have made so far.

Susan Maybe started a veritable storm in the United Church by seeking ordination as an out lesbian, eventually left the United Church, but the debate she started raged on, until in 1988, General Council stated that homosexuality was not a bar to ordination. That reform spurred a split in the church that lasted for years. Even today, there are many members, churches, and ministers who cannot in good faith approve of that motion. And yet, we as a denomination have moved on, and many of us note with some amusement that others are beginning to follow.

Today there is much debate about the views of Reverend Gretta Vosper, who is the author of the article that Reverend Marion sent to me. While many, if not most, of us may not agree with her viewpoints, I think we would be wise to hear her voice and ask ourselves: What does she have to say that is a valid criticism of Christianity and of the United Church. Is there anything we should be doing differently?

Today is Reformation Sunday. We are here today because one man saw something about the church of his day that he felt was contrary to the Spirit of God, and instead of keeping silent, chose to say something about it.

He wasn’t a perfect man. But he spoke up, and he held to his convictions even when he was persecuted. He wasn’t Jesus, but he did do his best to follow the example of Jesus.

Let us do likewise, learning from Martin Luther’s mistakes as much as his example. Let us love others by listening to dissenting views with respect; let us in humility be willing to change our minds if facts dictate that we are wrong; but let us always speak up for what we know in our hearts to be right.

Amen.

Our Gang

(Preached at Alma United Church on October 15, 2017)

We’ve had a couple of weeks away from the book bullseye, and I thought I’d revisit what I’m doing and why.

The premise of bullseye is that the church’s purpose is to support those who wish to grow in their relationship with the Christ. In other words, to grow disciples.

As I recounted in an earlier sermon, there are many congregations out there that seem to have lost their way. We in the church are afraid. We’re afraid that our message will offend others. We’re afraid that we’ll have to give up our cushy lifestyle or do things we don’t want to do or interact with people who are not like us. We’re afraid that we’ll end up sounding and acting like those sign-toting believers who seem to be stuck in a much earlier century. We’re afraid that we’ll be asked to believe things that we simply can’t believe, things that contradict the world as we’ve come to know it.

And so we end up running away from the harder points of following Jesus. We’re happy as we are, thank you very much. We love our neighbours, we come to church every week. Or almost every week. Or at least once a month, right? And when we come we put money on the plate, and we show up for the major fundraisers.

Isn’t that enough?

Well…

Yes.

God sent God’s only son into the world so that those who believe might share in God’s kin-dom.

Full stop. End of story.

Except…

There’s so much more to experience, if we let ourselves be changed by that belief.

A faith like the one I just described is lukewarm at best, and here’s what the book of Revelation has to say about lukewarm faith:

“…you are neither cold nor  hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So because you are neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.  You say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.”

The bullseye presents six markers of the Christian faith that can be that gold, those white robes, that salve. By faithfully following them, and therefore Christ, we become rich in the things that truly matter, and our joy increases.

To refresh your memory, the six markers are:

  • Using spiritual practices,
  • Worshipping together weekly,
  • Discovering authentic community,
  • Serving,
  • Giving generously, and
  • Sharing Christ.

In previous sermons this fall, I’ve covered spiritual practices and worship—copies of those sermons are downstairs in the folder or available on my online blog if you’ve missed them or would like to review them.

Which brings us to this week’s topic, which is discovering authentic community.

A question for you. Have any of you here worshipped with other congregations or faith communities? How did you find it?

As I’ve told you previously, I’ve got more experience than most travelling around, and there is one thing that stood out.

Some of those worship services had better preaching than I’m used to, some of them had good music, some had great mission projects, and some were very friendly to visitors. One congregation was so friendly that I was asked to join the choir before they even knew my name!

But none of them were home.

I have to admit that my history at my home congregation of Trinity United in Guelph has had some difficult times. After analyzing those times, I came to the conclusion that the problem with Trinity is that is comprised mainly of fallible human beings, including myself. And sometimes, fur and feathers fly when those human beings have opinions or beliefs that differ from one another.

But Trinity is my home congregation. They know me, and they (or at least a number of them) love me. And I know them and love them back. Every Sunday, or almost every Sunday, or at least once a month, even when I’m not present in worship because I’m preaching here, I head there after leading worship, pick up my mother, and we and a bunch of others head for Swiss Chalet for a meal and some serious talk about life, the universe, and everything.

I call us “The Gang.”

We function as an unofficial small group within the larger Trinity congregation. In a congregation the size of Trinity, there are often many smaller groups—UCW, committees and church council, choir, badminton and volleyball groups, and so on.

These groups help to connect folks in the church beyond the worship service. They help us to know one another.

Of course, a church the size of Alma is a small group. Every Sunday, before the service, I see you checking in with one another. I suspect you keep tabs on each other during the week, as well. Together we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries; together we mourn deaths and misfortune.

Being in authentic community is a way of showing love for one another. Having the support of people who truly know us, and knowing that even though they know our faults they still love us, is a critical foundation to growing in faith. In loving one another, we reflect the love that Christ has for us. In forgiving others and being forgiven by others, we learn to accept the radical forgiveness that Jesus showed in his life and on the cross.

I’ve emphasized small groups for a reason.

Authentic community entails a lot of communication, and as the size of a group increases, the number of communication channels increases exponentially, meaning that each individual has less time and emotional space. A group the size of this congregation is just on the edge of the largest small group size that can effectively serve as an authentic community, and will need to form small groups within the larger group.

We can see this happening a few times in scripture. Moses, leading the Israelites in the desert, was advised by his father-in-law Jethro to have leaders over tens, and fifties, and hundreds, and thousands, so that he would not have to deal daily with every single complaint that the refugees had.

Jesus, who had thousands listening to him on the hillside, chose only twelve to be his closest friends and disciples.

The thousands converted to “The Way” on the day of Pentecost worshipped daily together in the temple, but then separated into smaller groups to eat and share and learn.

Not every small group, of course, functions as an authentic community. A small group that meets to play a sport, with little interaction off the court or field, will not function as a community. It’s just a group of people with a common interest.

But it could become an authentic community easily, just by adding a short time to check in and pray before playing, and going out for wings or pizza afterwards.

Which is to say that small groups take many forms. And not everything that looks like a small group is a small group. A bible study that meets weekly for a specific period of time may not be an authentic community, despite being based around scripture. If there is no time set aside for people to get to know one another, if the study breaks up after the twelve week course is over with no further interaction, then it’s not functioning as an authentic community.

Authentic community is what binds people to the church. If someone goes to church just because the preaching is inspiring or the music is good, and they are not connecting with anyone else in the congregation, you can almost be sure that they probably won’t stay for long. There are some excellent preachers on television, and the music on YouTube is exquisite. And one can listen and watch without getting dressed, or even getting out of bed!

If the seeker does stay, chances are without the interpersonal connections, they won’t participate in anything other than worship. They won’t be as dedicated to the mission of the church. They’ll be like that person who shows up at a funeral, signs the guest book, says a few words to the family, and is first in line at the sandwich table and first out the door. We all kind of know who that person is, and isn’t it nice that they took the time to show up, but who are they, really?

God asks for more of us. Jesus told us that we are to love one another as we love ourselves. And don’t we all want to be known, and loved because of and despite who we are?

We can do that easily in the church. It’s one of the things that small congregations, especially small rural congregations, do best, which is why I took up half the sermon with review. You folks have an advantage.

But the world is changing. As you go forth together, you might decide that you really want this church to grow, rather than die. You might decide that it would be nice to have new people come through the front doors.

If that’s the case, take the time to get to know them. Invite them to stay for the monthly luncheons, eat with them, talk to them. Before worship introduce yourselves and get to know their names and a bit about them. After worship, thank them for coming, and ask if they’re coming back next week. Smile, shake hands, even hug if they’re receptive. Let them know they’re loved, valued members of God’s family.

But don’t ask them to join the choir, even if they have a really good voice. That’s going a bit too far, even for me. Amen.