SERMONS

Fishers of Humans

Fishers of Humans

Mark 1:14-20; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Let’s talk about the difference between a noun and a verb.

According to my Harper’s English Grammar, a noun is the name of a person, animal, condition, material, object, place or quality. There are common nouns like church, coffee, irritability or fish and there are proper nouns like Vancouver or Shannon or Anglican.

From the same source, a verb is “a word or a term with which one may make an assertion in regard to action or in regard to state or condition”. I learned a simpler version: a verb is an action word. Although sometimes the action is “to be”. So things like run, sit, think, climb, speak and fish are all verbs.

And there are words that can be both. Like fish.

But never mind fish for the moment. We’ll get to fish.

For now, let’s talk about you. What about you? What are some nouns that apply to you.

First of all there’s your name (or names). What other nouns are you? I tried this on Rowan and it’s harder than it sounds. As a clue these are sentences that start out: I am a….

  • person
  • man/woman
  • (profession – musician, accountant, teacher, nurse…)
  • (hobby like gardener, knitter, singer)
  • (family status – mother, brother, son, grandparent, aunt)

Now what about verbs – what do you do? In fact, what are you doing right now?

  • Sitting, listening, making notes, doodling, texting, tweeting, knitting

Other things you do –

  • Cook, clean, pay bills, walk, run, swim, paint, write….

Now – there’s a difference between what you are and what you do. Except maybe for breathing, what you are you are all the time and what you do, you do while you are doing it.

So you can be an accountant or a retired account but you are still an accountant. It’s how your mind works, it’s the things you notice, it’s the way you like the world to line up. Your mother can be dead or have dementia or be estranged for years but you are still a daughter. You can have too much arthritis to be able to garden much, but your tendency will still be to pull up that weed, to imagine how it would look if that plant were over there and there were some daisies over here. And if you are a real fan, you are fan no matter how badly your team is doing.

But the things you do, you do while you are doing them. You walk for an hour every day at 7:30. You sit while the other thing you do works better sitting. You cook when it’s time to get the meal ready. You listen when there’s something worth listening to . You pay bills before they’re due (probably) but not all day every day.

Do you see the difference? There are things that you are all the time, even when you’re not doing them and there are things you do while you are doing them. I garden but I’m not a gardener. I pay bills but that’s not who I am.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled fishing program.

Do you remember the King James Version of this story?

16 Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, [Jesus] saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers.

17 And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.

Now think about the way we just heard it, in the New Revised Standard Version:

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’

Do you hear the difference? Are we fishers or are we going to fish?

Normally, the New Revised Standard Version is a better translation from the Greek.

However, the New Revised Standard Version also tries really hard to use inclusive language for people. So we get brothers and sisters unless we’re talking about males with a sibling bond (like Andrew the brother of Simon) and we get people unless it’s clearly and specifically men.

Given the number of female followers Jesus had, and welcomed, it seems unlikely that Jesus was really focusing his ministry on males. So the great minds (and I say that with a complete absence of sarcasm) who put together the New Revised Standard Version translation thought they’d make that clear from the get go. They probably tried “fishers of people” and “fishers of folk” and maybe a few other things and eventually decided that they’d better just go with “fish for people”.

So which is it? The proper response at this time is always, “Well what does it say in the original language?”

I’m glad you asked.

It says “fishers”. So Andrew and Simon were fishers of fish and Jesus was going to make them fishers for people.

This is crucial for us and for our understanding of ourselves as people who heard Jesus say “follow  me” and did, because we do not go fishing from 5-7 a.m. on Saturdays, rainy evenings and for a couple of hours on Sunday, longer if the food is good.

We are fishers. We are constantly evaluating our environment to see if the fish are likely to be biting. We carry worms in our pockets and wear funky hats and vests with lots of pockets for those worms.

At this point I need to drop the fishing analogy because it’s getting ridiculous and the idea of baiting and hooking doesn’t really work so well. I can work with worms and hats and now I have to quit.

The worm, by the way, is not the food or the singing or the idea of going to heaven. It’s the story – the story that brings meaning and purpose and hope to our lives, to this community and to the world.

What Jesus was calling them to be was disciples who were going to wander around telling a story. And in that process they would find find others who wanted to be part of that story and follow in that same way. And they were not going to (forgive me) “disciple” from 5-7 a.m. on Saturdays, rainy evenings and for a couple of hours on Sunday, longer if the food is good. They were going to be disciples all the time. 24/7/52. Even when they didn’t really understand what it meant to be a disciple they were still disciples. Even when Jesus was shaking his head at their complete inability to get the simplest concept, they were disciples.

The reading from 1 Corinthians comes from a larger passage about how to live in this world with an allegiance to another world. Here, Jesus tells us in the big picture what Paul attempts to break down to a bunch of smaller pictures. We are here for now. We are disciples for always. It’s who we are and it’s more than just what we do when it works into our schedule. We are disciples.

Jonah: the Reluctant Prophet

Jonah: the Reluctant Prophet

I keep thinking of Jonah as The Reluctant Prophet which certainly was – but so was Jeremiah and so was Isaiah and especially so was Moses.

What Jonah was – and the Godly Play people  nail it with this title – is The Backwards Prophet:

  • He was meant to go to Nineveh, so went the other direction to Tarshish;
  • He was meant to tell people what God had said he refused to say a word;
  • As a prophet he was supposed to be close to God, but everything Jonah did was with the goal of getting as far from God as possible;
  • He was meant to be getting people to respond to God and change their ways, but then he got mad when they did.

In a tidy story, there would be a final scene where Jonah’s eyes and heart and whatever else were opened to the transforming and compassionate love of God, and he realized what a gift he had been able to show Nineveh on God’s behalf and went back to that great city and they threw him a ticker tape parade that lasted three days.

Or maybe he would experience that transformation and then live quietly in a hermitage on his hill, keeping a watchful eye on the city, being consulted by the King on ethical matters and awaiting further instructions from God.

But this is the Bible which is not long on tidy stories so we don’t know what happened with Jonah. He point is not to live happily ever after but to show us that God changes things and then to represent for us the person who hates change, even when they are part of it, even when it is good, even when it averts the destruction of 120 000 people who do not know their left hand from their right and also many animals.

Because in a story of transformation –

  • The sea from stormy to calm;
  • The sailors from pagans to God fearers;
  • The fish from eater to saver;
  • The people of Nineveh from lost to reconciled;
  • The King from full of himself (I assume) to humble;
  • The domestic animals from property to creatures of faith –

With all that change around him, only the agent of transformation remains unchanged. As far as we know.

In the film The Darkest Hour towards the end Winston Churchill says, “A man who cannot change his mind, cannot change anything.” It turns out he was quoting George Bernard Shaw.

Jonah messes that theory up because he changes everything but does not change his mind. He knew this was a bad idea in the beginning and as far as we know he is just as sure it was a bad idea at the end.

How many of us live through change stubbornly refusing to like it, accept it, or even see it as it happens all around us and changes even us?

Most of us – like Jonah – dislike change. There are a few people who love it and they’re called the Early Adapters or sometimes Bandwagon Jumpers. But most of us resist it – at least at first.

Eventually we might come around, but just because we do doesn’t mean we like it. And just because we get used to it and forget that it didn’t used to be that way doesn’t mean that we like it. It’s more that we forgot we didn’t.

Our resistance to change comes from many things – one of them is simply a preference for the familiar, even when it means that we are living with some kind of pain whether spiritual, physical or psychological. It’s easier to do the work of squashing what we don’t want to deal with than it is to look at it and discover what new lease on life might come out of it, what seas might be calmed, what might stop giving us a bellyache.

Or maybe we had a bad experience – we’ve seen what they do with the prophets and agents of change, we’ve tried to be open and gotten eaten up in the process.

And maybe there’s just nothing wrong with things the way they are. I’m sure Jonah had a pretty good life.

But more was possible. More is possible.

And the thing is – this faith of us? It’s built on change. Three of the four narratives of the adult ministry of Jesus start by harking back to the prophet Isaiah (How can I be a prophet? I am a man of unclean lips and I come from a people of unclean lips.) who spoke of a God who would flatten mountains, raise up valleys, and smooth out the rough roads. Immediately followed by “Change your direction! The Imperial Reign of God is here!” and a call to change priorities, self-image, relationships and understanding of what and who God cares about most. An invitation to trade our worry for trust, our separation from God and one another for reconciliation and our sense of doomed inevitability for an appreciation of possibility. And the promise that if we can do that the Kindom of God can come so close that we’ll be able to taste it.

We never see Jonah embrace that kind of possibility. He worries about how it looks, about whether God will believe in a God who follows through on promises when it could look like the follow through is actually a failure, who knew he was right all along and it was a dumb idea to reach out.

He sees all the people of Nineveh, their king and their livestock, trust God’s compassion and faithfulness as they put on sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their desire to draw close to a God who is not even theirs and turn a doomsday saying into a whole new future.

He sees all that and sits there complaining about his bush. That he had nothing to do with. Instead of getting exciting about the new possibilities that this God of his has set the stage for.

Of course it’s ridiculous. But that’s God for you – always up to something that will blow your mind.

Precious, Beloved and Called

Precious, Beloved and Called

Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11

There are a lot of directions a preacher can take with the Baptism of Jesus. A lot of erudite theological,

homiletical and exegetical points she can make.

And if you pick up a copy of the Bible Background Sheet you’ll get some of those and maybe you’ll like them and want to hear (or preach!) a sermon on them.

Someday.

Today I want to talk about this candle.

This is our candle, that we process in every Sunday in front of the Word,

and the worship leader;

and then place,

front and centre,

on our communion table.

 

This is the Shiloh-Fifth Avenue United Church candle,

representing God in our midst.

Reminding us that once there was a man

who said such amazing things

and did such wonderful things

that people followed him.

But they didn’t know who he was.

One day they asked him and he said “I am the Light”:

the light which was the first act of Creation

when the Spirit of God moved across the the waters,

when all was formless and void.

 

That’s why we have a candle.

We have this candle because we used to have a candle that was a white plastic column with an oil canister insert. When we ran out of oil canisters, Vilma and I were appalled by how much it cost to get more and how much more you had to get as a minimum order. I forget where Vilma pulled this candle from when she said “Let’s use this” and I said “Okay”.

 

The rainbow was obviously a good choice for us –

it fits with our logo,

it fits with our inclusivity,

it reminds us of God’s promise after the flood, of a time when sunshine streams through grey skies after rain.

 

But now it is many years later.

The colours are faded, and they kind of run together.

It’s a little wonky on one side on the bottom.

And the wick started to drown

so Vilma dug out a space

and we stick a tea light in it.

The tea light sometimes runs out during the service.

 

I have suggested that we get a new one.

So have other people.

A nice crisp, maybe white? new one –

fresh and with a wick that works.

One that looks like a church candle.

 

But first Vilma and then Rowan have pointed out –

separately and independently

– that this is theologically unsound.

They ask (indignantly) if I am implying

that only the fresh, the crisp, the beautiful,

the white (metaphorically not racially) (I hope) belong here?

If I am suggesting that anyone who doesn’t fit

the traditional mould

of what a church person looks like isn’t welcome to stay?

 

And they are right.

 

We are not here because of our good looks

and we do not get to stay only as long

as we look or feel beautiful.

We come and we stay even when we are not

fresh and shiny and perfect.

Especially then – this is the place for us.

 

We are here because we fade and blend

and are a little wonky in spots

and sometimes need a little outside help

to be able to shine.

We are here because we are imperfect.

Especially to the wider world.

 

We are here because here we remember

that we are much more

than our tired, wonky, imperfect, un-beautiful bits.

 

We are here because here we remember

that God has made us in all our glorious wonkiness

and because here we can be seen as God sees us:

Beloved,

Precious

Children of God.

 

Here we know that with all of our imperfections,

the light that is God’s first act of creation,

the light in the darkness,

the light that shone through the man who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things,

that light shines in us.

 

And while baptism may be the rite of initiation into the church

it is also intrinsically bound up with these words:

You are my child.

You are my beloved.

You are precious in my sight.

 

 

Baptism is a sacrament.

That means that it is the outward sign

of an inward grace.

That inward grace is in those words

and they are true with or without the water.

They are true even if you cannot imagine

God calling you any of those things.

Because – remember –

God is far beyond our imagining.

So never mind your logic or you life story

or what your parents told you.

Just believe.

 

Just believe and remember what is said at the baptism of Jesus and what is true for us even when it is not said:

 

You are God’s.

You are beloved.

You are beloved.

 

Believing, Behaving

Believing, Behaving

Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21

Fourth Sunday in Lent

I really dislike this passage from John, by the way, not for what it says but for the baggage it carries. I feel like I need to over-explain it every time it comes up because the culture around us has such a hold on it. There is so much tedious grammar and comparisons with the other gospels and digging into what Eternal life means to John and eschatology and so many big theological things that need to be explained and deconstructed and reconstructed that it’s almost impossible to create a non-boring, useful, related to real life sermon out of it all. And completely impossible to do it in under an hour. Especially if it’s going to stick with you so that I never have to do it again.

But for many people what they know of Christianity is a guy at a ball game with a big sign that says John 3:16 and they google it, if they don’t already know, and they find it and say to each other, Oh it’s those Christians acting like everyone else is going to hell. And no amount of grammar and theology and social context is going to fix that.

If I had my life to live over again I would have done the entire series of reflections during Lent on this because it actually goes with all the passages:

  • God loves the entire world – as shown by the rainbow covenant with all living things
  • Jesus is not going to go for power, glory, fame or popularity – as shown by his rejection of easy routes to those things during his time in the wilderness.
  • God is going to create a great nation and this is going to require commitment (aka belief), whether by leaving home and homeland and trusting an unlikely promise or by picking up a cross and becoming great by becoming least
  • There will be rules. And the importance of the rules is their ability to strengthen our relationship with God and our relationships with each other.

Which brings us to here. With things being lifted up. And God loving the world but those who do not believe are condemned.

Let’s start with lifting up. The bronze snake was lifted up so that people could see it. They had to look up, toward the mountain, toward God, to be reminded of what their grumbling had cost them and how trustworthy God had been. Lifting something up can mean exalting it – which is what ended up happening to the bronze serpent.

People stopped looking past it to God and started looking at it as a god until the righteous King Hezekiah had it smashed to pieces along with other idols that had snuck into Israel’s religious practices.

When Jesus, the Son of Man, is lifted up, on the other hand, it is on a cross and that not look like any kind of exaltation. It looks like humiliation and suffering and defeat.

That happened because God loved the world. To explore that properly you’re going to have to come on Good friday, but it’s part of what we saw with creation and with the rainbow covenant.

And all that stuff about condemnation and eternal life. This is tricky because “whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life” sounds like if you believe in Jesus you get to heaven. And “those who do not believe are condemned already” sounds like if you do not believe in Jesus you are not going to heaven.

When Nicodemus came to see Jesus in the first place, Jesus explained about being born anew. He wasn’t talking about revisiting the birth canal as Nicodemus first seems to think. He was talking about becoming part of a new family, the family of Jesus followers.

Those who become part of this Jesus follower family express their family loyalty through behaviours that are compassionate, justice-driven and push us towards God, love, life, Spirit, Eternal Life and Salvation.

There is so much baggage in those words I can hardly stand leaving them alone. But I’m going to for the sake of all of our sanity and so we can go back to the Whosoever believes bit.

Belief is complicated in the Bible. First, it is not a one time offer. Numbers is the last of the grumbling stories. There are at least six times that God wants to give up on Israel and Moses negotiates a reconciliation. Even when God does give up, it’s temporary. God knows that. The prophets know that. It’s only the despair of the present time that makes it hard for everyone else to know that.

And the reason that things came to such an unfortunate pass so many times was usually because people didn’t believe. And by believe I mean act like they had faith.

Believe is a verb and faith is a noun and they go together but believe is not intellectual or emotional agreement with Jesus is Lord (not Caesar). Not in any of the gospels, even the gospel of John. Believe is behaviours that reflect an allegiance to Jesus as Lord (not Caesar). You can probably figure out what those are. They aren’t about profit. They aren’t about judgement. They aren’t about hoarding or hiding or staying safe. They are about hope. They are about compassion. They are about risk. They are about justice. They are about trusting God.

And the question that comes to the people of God, in every time and place,  over and over again, is: Do we trust God? Or are we – people used to being in control of our own lives – unwilling or even unable to trust God with our church, with our lives, with our hopes and dreams? THAT is a, maybe the, fundamental question of discipleship.

Do we believe? And can we behave like we believe?

If there were homework, that would be it: pay attention to how you view the world, some of the choices you make this week and ask: Do these choices reflect an active belief in God? Or do they say that I think I am (we are) the one in control and responsible?

Closing the Holiness Gap

Closing the Holiness Gap

Exodus 20:1-17 & John 2:13-22

Third Sunday in Lent

I want to invite you into a slightly warped and not necessarily biblically accurate way of looking at the juxtaposition of those two texts.

The first is a bunch of rules for living in relationship – first with God and then with the rest of the people in the community. They are, in this format, pretty low barrier.

Then there are three books – Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – with clarifications and further commentary and ways of ensuring that holy relationship between God and humanity and humanity and one another. The barriers began to mount. Things got complicated. Eventually, whether because of the passage of time or the influence of Babylon and Rome or the inevitable result of increased non-conquering encounters with other cultures, rules became more important than rituals. How things got done became more important than that things got done.

And when Jesus came into the Temple that day, in our second story, he saw

  • Commercialized sacrifice
  • Profit driving temple taxes
  • A smug elite that made sure undesirable elements didn’t mess up the system

And he lost it.

Neither of these seems like a particularly good reading for Annual Meeting Sunday. We already have our Mission Statement, our Vision Statement, our Congregational Covenant, all aimed at facilitating our relationships with God and with each other. We are progressive and radically inclusive and committed to creating a low barrier community for worship, faith, spirituality and fun. So if Jesus were to come in here, what would he have to say?

Just looking at the gospel of John so far, I wonder

  • Do we turn enough water into wine? (John 2:1-12)
  • Are we stuck hiding under the fig tree? (John 1:43-51)
  • Are we stuck on what God should be doing instead of paying attention to what we could be doing with God? (John 1:19-34)

It comes back to Kathy Davies’ question: Where do we want to be get to and what are we doing to get there?

Are we in a temple courtyard that we have filled with barriers to spiritual wholeness or have we got a sense of what will help us follow Jesus faithfully in community with one another? And where we are not there yet, what can we destroy or throw out in order to get there?

 

Doubt and Faith

Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 17:1-16; Mark 8:31-38

At this point in our Lenten Covenant Time of Reflection

  • After God has challenged Abram to leave his home and his people to become a monotheist with the vague promise that as a 75 (now 99) year old childless man he would become the Father of Nations;
  • And after Jesus has invited everyone who wants to follow him to pick up a means of execution, deny themselves, walk away from their families, homes and communities and lose their sense of self
  • After all those stories about Faithful Commitment,

I think we need to take a moment to talk about doubt.

Abram’s doubt is left out of the story. He is normally held up as the Absolute Ideal of Faith. A man so faithful that he left his ancestral home in order to follow up on a promise made to him by one of many gods running around the local theology. A man so faithful that he was willing to take his son, his only son, whom he loved, his only shot at the promises made by his God that he would have more descendants than stars in the sky, take that son to sacrifice him to the God who had hung an entire Covenant on him. A man so faithful that he was willing to circumcise himself on God’s say-so.

All for the sake of his One God.

And now, after this promise, made 24 years after the first one, with a few strings attached and no sign of a son or daughter or any other offspring, Abraham allowed himself a small chuckle. Because, really, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is 90 years old, bear a child?”

But God did not hold this against him. This chuckle of doubt.

And doubt is what started Jesus’ terrifying speech about discipleship. When “he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” Peter had his doubts.

Whether those doubts were about the plan, the necessity or the Resurrection, we don’t know, but Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. Because – it sounds like – Jesus was not completely immune to those doubts. They were more temptation from the Adversary, trying to poke holes in God’s ideals.

And the reason for the 40 day period of fasting, penitence and preparation, before Baptism and after a three year membership course was to allow time for doubts, for second thoughts and for settling into a whole new spiritual and theological practice.

Doubt is a necessary part of faith. It’s not the enemy of faith. The enemy of faith is certainty. Doubt is like a conversation that faith has with itself while it’s trying to learn more. Faith can’t grow if doubt isn’t allowed to ask questions.

I’m not talking about self-doubt, although some of this might apply. I’m talking about doubts around the Big Faith Picture, and about doubts about the details.

  • Can God be trusted?
  • Is the apparently impossible possible with God?
  • Is this the right thing to do?
  • Do I believe in a Bodily Resurrection?
  • Is hope a worthwhile pursuit?

These are big questions and important ones too. They are not questions we can or will have all figured out today.

So how lucky are we to have what is just as important as doubts, and that’s a place to ask them and people to ask them with. Not people who will give us the right answers. People we can trust with our questions and, along with our questions, our doubts.

How lucky – how blessed – we are to have places and people where we don’t need to be confident and sure of everything. How blessed we are to have places like Book Club and Bible Study and a Membership Course and Children’s Church where we can wonder and let faith and doubt and questions explore together. Where we can say Tell Me More about what you believe so that I can explore more deeply what I believe.

That’s how we learn. At least it’s one way. It’s how we understand our faith and what we believe – by being able to explore What I think now in with people who will say Tell Me More with no agenda, no judgement or no hidden right answer they’re pushing us towards.

The traditional approach to doubts has been to tell people to ignore them, express the faith statement and eventually the repetition will take hold and the doubts will go away.

I prefer the statement of the father who came to Jesus looking for help for his sick child. Jesus said, “If you believe, all things are possible.” The father said, “I believe, help my unbelief.” I don’t see any way to read that other than the father wanted to believe, and did believe, but had some doubts. He expressed that doubt to the very person with the power to punish him for it, and with that honesty – that faith in the face of doubts, that willingness to be honest and authentic and faithful – Jesus healed the child.

We are allowed to doubt. We need to doubt. Only through doubt can faith grown. How lucky we are to have permission to let doubt lead faith in community with others who are also trying to learn and to grow along our faith journey.

Belonging in Covenant

Belonging in Covenant

First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

What we have here is two wildly inclusive covenants – although Jesus’ isn’t yet labelled as such.

The Covenant described in this part of Genesis is made with “all living flesh” for multiple generations. Those Jesus invites to follow him respond to an open invitation to Repent and Believe in the Good News that the time is now and the Kingdom of God is here, which meant that the early followers were an amazingly diverse group, defying all demographic categorizations. In coming together those early followers became one group where no one belonged and everyone belonged.

Part of the point of baptism was to wash away the old self – your former relational, professional, geographical self – so that you could be made new in Christ. That was what early followers did during Lent: got ready for baptism and new life. Jesus was baptized first and then spent his 40 days in the wilderness, but for the early church the wilderness was a necessary preparation for the rebirth of baptism.

To join the early church was a lonely proposition: it meant leaving behind family, community, status, connectedness and your place in the world. This was not something to be undertaken lightly. But to join the early church also meant a whole new family, a whole new community and purpose in life, and it meant being part of something much greater than yourself.

So in the way you had always seen your place in the world, you had nowhere you know belonged. But in the new way you could see yourself in the world, you belonged to something very powerful and visionary.

Even after that 40 days of preparation, though, belonging takes work. No one magically emerges from Lent thoroughly reborn. If they had, Paul – and others – wouldn’t have needed to write all those letters explaining what it meant to be the church and care for one another and imitate Christ. No one, having been promised that God will never again destroy the earth with a flood, and that this promise is for all generations with all living flesh, is magically going to leave behind the tendency to violence – and the things that lead to violence – that they had grown up knowing was there and suddenly belong to the kind of human race that John Lennon described in the song Imagine.

The difficult work of belonging may be why God just couldn’t leave the covenant alone. That first covenant was all up to God. People didn’t have to invest anything into belonging to the covenant, so maybe they were less invested in the world it was aimed at creating. The early church needed heavily invested members. It demanded a lot of people – beginning with the separation from their former life and asking more and more along the way until it might event ask people to go to their death singing and praising God. Of course, those people needed a lot of time to think it over and strengthen their faith in the new religion they wanted to belong to.

Churches still demand things of the people who belong to them. They demand money, they demand time, they demand commitment and participation in programs and small group membership.Some churches have hard lines and high demands, others are less strict and more indirect in their approach.

We are radically inclusive but we still ask things of each other, starting with a membership course, and going on to acceptance of a congregational covenant and regular participation, whether in worship, leadership, outside of Sunday activities, financial support or practical help like photo-copying, proofreading or counting. Rebecca and Donna, who have done that course and will be received into Full Membership today, are excellent examples of people of whom much has been asked and who have given more.

They belong here in ways that pre-date today. And we are grateful that they have chosen to hang their spiritual hat with us.

But belonging is not just about doing stuff that is asked of you. Believe it or not that would be too easy. Belonging is about conversations and connections, about authenticity and vulnerability – all things that we will see and hear in the stories of God’s covenants, and the stories of Jesus’ ministry in the weeks to come. Belonging is about trusting ourselves and trusting each other.

True belonging is is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.*

We all continue to work on those things: trust, connection, conversation, authenticity and vulnerability. This wildly inclusive group of followers of the way, companions on the journey, is a safe place to learn and to grow – in faith, as children of God, as spiritual seekers and as those who go out into the world with a daring and a tender love.

May it always be so with us.

*Brown, Brené (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York: Random House, p. 40.

Sardis and Philadelphia

Revelation 3:1-6, 7-13

Sardis and Philadelphia

My favourite fast food burger place is Harvey’s. Because since time immemorial they have been willing to make my burger a beautiful thing. It’s My Burger, My Way. And I don’t like ketchup. So at other fast food burger places I would have to wait at the side, clearly in the way, while they made a special burger for me. But at Harvey’s I could say I would like lettuce and tomatoes, no onion, and hot peppers, no pickle, mustard and mayonnaise. And then when I wanted my burger, my way, without the meat Harvey’s was on board with the veggie burger – possibly the first fast food place to do that and they still do. Also they have onion rings (good ones) and if my way is that I can’t decide between onion rings and fries I can get both: they call that Frings.

We live in a world where we have learned that we can and should be able to get what we want when we want it, how we want and where we want it. With no particular cost to us, because the people who want to sell us stuff whether it’s a burger, a car, a house, a political platform or a spirituality have figured out that if they make it personalized and convenient and make sure we feel special for getting it then we’ll pay more and appreciate more.

But church – most world religions, really, probably all in spite of the Tao of Pooh and the popularity of the Jewish Kabbalah with various celebrities a few years ago – aren’t like that.

We come to church for different reasons that we go for a burger. Usually because we’ve always come or we’re looking for something – authentic community, meaning, hope, something to do on Sunday morning – and discover a glimpse of that, and maybe as a bonus that God is love and God loves us and here is a place where we are appreciated as we are. So we end up staying because being here makes us happy and – maybe, I hope – strengthens our self-worth in a world where we are too often appreciated for what we can buy and how we present ourselves with what we can buy. And maybe because we feel like God has a little extra care for us and will give us a little extra protection against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

We discover in the process of staying because we feel happy and loved and uplifted, the church is even more not like a fast food joint than we thought. It’s about the Kingdom of God.

“Remember,” the letter to the angel of the church at Sardis says, “Remember what you received.” What did they receive? What was the world that got the early Christians so excited that they were willing to leave behind family and friends and face ridicule and ostracism and persecution and death?

“The Kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus – not Caesar – is Lord.” It’s not “My Kingdom, My Way”. It’s God’s Kingdom, God’s way.

We call it the Kindom of God here – at least when we say the prayer of Jesus together we do. We do that to get it away from earthly power structures of monarchy – historically possibly corrupt or tyrannical, currently sometimes apparently or effectively powerless – and concepts of government that too often seems to be for sale to the highest bidding lobbyist or trying to pander to too many perceived wants and needs of too many different groups to be able to work for justice, peace and orderly good government.

But it’s also a bad idea to separate ourselves from that original phrase “the Kingdom of God” was to set that against those corrupt, tyrannical, self-indulgent and for sale systems of government which were the norm then and often are now, when the people being governed can be threatened by violence, ignored until their votes are needed, bribed with tax cuts or promised programs, lied to with statistics and alternative facts, and generally distracted from seeing what is really going on.

“The Kingdom of God is at hand and Jesus is Lord – not Global Corporations, not convenience, not Trump or racism or bigotry or self-interest, but Jesus” is a rallying cry for anyone who wants to be part of reimagining the world not into My Way but into God’s Way, and calling us all to work not for my benefit or yours or even ours, but for the common good.

Sure it’s harder. When was God ever inclined to make life simple? Except for that Love God, Love your Neighbour, Love Yourself thing which I think we’ve managed to complicate as effectively as the lawyer who asked Jesus “Okay but who is my neighbour?” Only we start with How Best to Love Myself? Because only then can I love my neighbour – and I can buy lots of ways to love  myself. (By the way if you’re exhausted and on the brink of giving up on that neighbour, it might be time for some self-love.)

For many of us, too much of the time, there are too many ways to have it our way.  It becomes hard to focus on a common good that is beyond my burger, my home, my life, my news, my way. There are too many distractions and we have trouble remembering what we first received: the Kingdom of God, the place we belong and  our challenged to be more – not for us, but for that Kingdom. Because the Kingdom of God is at hand – Transformation is possible. Jesus is Lord. But if you need a burger the closest Harvey’s is in Port Coquitlam.

Pergamum and Thyatira

Revelation 2:12-17 & 2: 18-29

Pergamum and Thyatira

There are two references to the Hebrew Scriptures in those letters. The second one is Jezebel who is somewhat well known for being the foreign wife of King Ahab who led him and therefore the rest of Israel into idolatry.

The other one is Balaam, whose story is less well known and a lot more complicated. Balak, king of Moab, tried to hire Balaam to curse Israel – either to encourage Moab or discourage Israel – but Balaam said he could only say the words God gave him so that didn’t seem like a good idea. Balak hired him anyways and Balaam gave in, and ended up blessing Israel four times on Balak’s dime. So that story ends with a triumph for Israel.

The interesting thing about that story is actually after the Balaam drops out of the story. Somehow the Israelites (the men) were seduced by the daughters of Moab – first sexually and then theologically – and the next thing you knew Israel had yoked itself to the god Baal of Peor, leaving behind the God who had led them out of Israel, manna in the wilderness, water from a rock, smiting Amalekites and the pillar of fire by day, cloud by night, and implying that Israel, supposedly so strong and blessed, was actually pretty weak and wretched.

Writing to the community of Pergamum, John blamed Balaam for all this even though he was out of the story by then.

So one thing to take from this is not blaming other people for your own bad decisions, but the other is just how easy it is to go down the path that isn’t the one we thought we were on. Whether it happens all at once or gradually, there comes a point when you may realize that this is not what you thought you believed.

More seductive, I think, than actually worshipping another god (which we would never do) is the shifting of priorities and values away from neighbour and God and towards ourselves, our self and our clan. After all, if we’re going to love our neighbour as our self, we need to be able to love our self.

Jesus did say we were all to have abundant life. And even if our Scriptures come from a time when community was much more significant than any individual, we know now that God made each us of unique and wonderful, loves us each one and sends us out into the world to shine bright like a diamond.

Welcome to the wonderful world of sneaky seduction, which leads us to forget that if you and I and all of us are wonderful, loved and brilliant, so are all of them – the ones like us, the ones not like us, the ones we like and the ones we don’t and the ones we don’t understand and the ones we don’t know.

Transcending difference has always been hard and there are things that are different that we don’t necessarily want to accept. But the fundamental humanity and right to safety, life, and love of all is not one of them.

I wore a Jersey for Humboldt on Thursday. For a visual display of support and compassion even though I have not gone to Humboldt to hold a hand, bring a casserole or conduct a funeral for emotionally and spiritually overburdened colleagues. I didn’t wear anything for the 40 or more people killed by chemical attacks the day after the bus crash. Or for the 23 children and 4 adults killed in a bus crash in India the day after that.

Why? Because a tragedy of this magnitude is so uncommon here that we have insulating layers of habit or distance or other-ness to take away our sense that that could my community, my child, my team, my hopes and dreams and love?

Is it because we cannot say “well that’s what it’s like there” when there is here?

That we cannot care deeply for everyone whose pain crosses our path is true. It would wear us out. But it is also a sneaky wedge that comes between us and our values of compassion for all, of inclusion, acceptance and diversity. We might not expect people in India to become part of our community, but that does not make them less worthy of our love, compassion and whatever support we can offer.

Of course there are the practical issues. How to give? What kind of support? What symbolic action can we take that will move people the world over? What meme can we create?

Those are true and valid. But they are not more significant than our call to love “even the least of these”. They are not more important that loving our neighbour like the Good Samaritan. They do not overrule love, faith, service and patient endurance.

John offers two reminders to call back those who hold to the teachings of Balaam and tolerate that woman Jezebel. First, that two edged sword which is the Word of God – dangerous, it cuts both ways. Kind of like if you point a finger at someone else there are always three pointing back at you. The sword of God’s Word is not just for others. It’s for us too. And then the eyes like flame – flame is purifying. It burns away what is bad and can nurture what is worth saving.

The Word of God reminds us to love all others – and that sometimes one bunch of others need love more right now – and those eyes of flame burn away all the reasons we might not be able to do that just right for everyone right now.

If I seem a little strident it’s because in addition to all the rest, I went to see Cabaret on Friday night. And I was reminded of how easy it is to say They are not like us and so they matter less. And how those little wedges of self-protection can create the cracks that develop into great yawning chasms of no longer being the faithful people we think we are.

We know that separating us from them has always been a problem for the people of our Scriptures. If it weren’t there wouldn’t be so many good stories about it – like Ruth and the Good Samaritan and the Woman at the Well – and there wouldn’t be some instructions on how to include the strangers among us. But those books are also full of separations – Christians from Jews, Israelites from Moabites, Samaria from Galilee – and some of those seem to be divinely endorsed.

If we pay attention though, we will probably recognize that God’s overall movement is always to include. Where it isn’t there is usually a reason why for now a group needs to be set apart. Or because somebody wanted to make sure that we didn’t have to include them and was pretty sure God would agree – no matter what the evidence suggested.

May that not be so for us.

And may our struggle for that, create a new identity for us and a new authority over the nations of our world.

May that be so for us.

Loving a Zealous Church

Revelation 2:1-7 & 8-11

Loving a Zealous Church

One of the things that the Whole Bible Bible Study has been good for is context. There is always way more to put into a sermon in terms of context than there is time for and trying to make the connections to real life without me telling you what your life is about is the other problem.

This week in particular I struggled to come up with a sermon that was either judgemental about us or too easily dismissed as applying primarily to other people. A feel good sermon in the worst possible sense. Because I think that these letters have something to say to us. To the church in every generation. To the saints in every age. To every single person trying to live faithfully in their own context.

So here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to tell you a little about Ephesus and give you some time to think about how that might apply to your life – crazy as it seems. And then I’m going to ask you to find one other person and tell them one thing that occurred to you. Not the most profound necessarily and you don’t have to bare the darkest secrets of your soul. Just one thing. Then anyone who wants to can tell the us all – briefly – what they came up with.

Then we’ll do the same thing with Smyrna only this time we’re going to focus on the church – this church, The United Church, the mainline church, the church universal. And we’ll jump right from thinking to the whole group of us. Brief, though.

Then we’ll wonder what John’s advice to those two church might apply for us. And – I hope and trust – that I will be able to wind it up with some theological reflections. Now, we have a big agenda so let’s get going.

Ephesus and Smyrna were both sea ports. And they were both cities with a lot of temples, a lot of wealth and a lot of business. You’ve probably heard of Ephesus – definitely as the people who got the letter to the Ephesians and maybe because the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But it wasn’t the only temple there. There were a bunch and one of them was an Imperial Temple – the gods who had been Caesar. That temple featured a statue of one of those gods that was 25 feet tall. Only the head remains, but it was clearly meant to show that this was no ordinary man – bigger and better and definitely divine. Politically savvy worship was just one of those things you did because you belong to a certain profession or social group or whatever. It cemented relationships, set the right tone and showed people you knew how things were done.

In that culture “worship [was] a profoundly political act. Who or what we worship reflects our deepest values and our deepest beliefs.”

So what I want you to think about is not what you worship – because that’s too easy. We worship the living God. But if an anthropologist were observing your life, what would be taking up the most time and space? What would they figure was the most important thing to you based on how much time you spend on it?

For example – there was a guy who wrote in the paper about how he was trying to turn off his cellphone as soon as he got home from work instead of spending all evening on it – including scrolling through messages while sitting with his daughter at bedtime. I have noticed a huge trend among my colleagues where a whole lot of value is placed on how much they work for how long and how many funerals they do. And I know that from the outside looking in, food and emails would probably look really significant in my life. And British mystery shows.

It doesn’t matter why – or it may be true and unavoidable that you need to be on your blackberry because your boss demands it. This isn’t about judging the rhythm of your year or the healthiness of your work/life balance. We know we worship the living God and we’re doing the best that we can right now. It’s simply about noticing what is taking up a lot of space in our life. It’s entirely up to you whether that’s something you want to change – the guy with the cellphone problem tried and failed. So far – he hasn’t given up.

And now Smyrna. The letters and the whole Revelation to John were not written at a time when Christian persecution by the Romans was particularly fierce. Their biggest source of persecution was ill-usage from the Jews who had been their sisters and brothers in faith until recently. The Jews thought they were theologically dubious and probably didn’t appreciate being told they were behind the times. So what the anticipated testing and affliction were is unclear – but it’s fair enough to say that every faith community has troubles. If you’re too small, you’re too small and if you get big you have rifts and schisms.

But what is interesting in this letter, and very relevant to us, is that the church is poor and afflicted, even though they are rich. But those riches are not material. They don’t have wealthy members and investment accounts. Their wealth is spiritual.

So my question is – how are we rich? We don’t have huge membership numbers, our budget is shrinking, our volunteers are tired – but enthusiastic and creative. We do not all have white hair – which cannot be said of a lot of  more financially settled churches! What other wealth do we have?

Without these kinds of things – all the money, all the resources, all the able and willing volunteers in the world are useless. Hear what the spirit is saying to the church.

In the letter to the church at Ephesus, John warns about the Nicolaitans. Nobody knows what they are but one theory is that they represented a heresy in which Christians figured that they could engage in social sacrifices and other practices that were part of the imperial cult as good citizens. Because they knew it was meaningless. The zeal that the church at Ephesus had had at first wouldn’t have allowed for that and in spite of all the challenges they had faced since then, that was one fault they had never developed. If they could just take that line and keep pushing it back towards their early passion and enthusiasm and willingness to love extravagantly, they would get permission to eat from the tree of life – which was not just about eternal life, it was also about not toiling, not growing wearing and discovering wisdom.

The church at Smyrna, on the other hand, was rich even though it was poor and the reward that it was promised if it could hang in there was the crown of life. Not a royal crown for the poor church though – a victor’s crown, the crown of an athlete that had trained for years, developing strength, endurance and mental stamina.