Abundant Life

Jesus says it so clearly, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Now that is a promise. It reminds me of the of the 23rdPsalm which we sang earlier. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” That is abundant life. 

Somehow that abundant life can seem elusive or hard to understand. But it is the heart of Jesus’ promise to us. The reasons chapter 10 talks about both the abundant life and Jesus being the good shepherd, starts in chapter 9. The Pharisees are objecting to Jesus healing a man born blind on the sabbath and they make a big deal about it. Asking everyone how this can possible be. Not only is it contrary to God’s laws to heal on the Sabbath but in Jesus’ time disabilities like blind were seen as a sign of sin. But Jesus says no to all of that. Jesus heals the man and reminds everyone that disability is not a sign of sin. 

The Pharisees put God in a narrow box believing that grace can be confined to certain days of the week and the people they deem to be righteous. Jesus stands for abundant life for all. God’s grace knows no limits. When the Pharisees question the blind man, he proclaims “here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been hear that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30 – 34) By the end of chapter 9, the Pharisees have driven the man born blind out of the temple, the blind man confesses his belief in Jesus, and the Pharisees are being told that they do not see properly. 

It in this context that Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) The man who was born blind not only gained sight but gained faith. We all gained the reminder that God’s grace is everyone. Dr. David Lose in his reflection on this passage shares a wonderful definition of abundant life, “Abundant life is not a quantitative statement – more, even lots more, of what we already have – but rather a qualitative distinction. Life in abundance is life that is no longer dominated by fear, but rather lives in and through the promise of protection and presence.

Think, for a moment, of all the many things we have been afraid of over the years. Or, of what we fear just now. It might be a transition in life, the loss of employment, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, loss of ability or memory, not being included in a friend group, the prospect of being alone. Our fears may change as we age, but the fact and presence of fear in our lives does not.

Nor is this true only of individuals. Think of those fears we are experiencing as a church: declining membership, tight budgets, an aging population, loss of cultural influence and prestige. Or as a culture and country: the end of upward mobility, a lack of cultural cohesion, fear of the stranger or newcomer, loss of status in the world, fear in some cases of anything or anyone who is different. These fears drive our decisions, influence elections, and weigh on us incessantly. These fears, in short, rob us of abundant life.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/04/easter-4-b-resurrection-abundance/)

Indeed, the role of the shepherd is to keep those in the sheepfold safe from those things that cause fear and anxiety. Jesus not only says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) but promises us the he is indeed the good shepherd who lays his life down for his sheep. Jesus says, “the hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me … and I lay my life down for my sheep.” (John 10:13 – 14)

 

A few years ago, I read this story that paints one picture of abundant life “One day a man stopped in a convenience store to get a newspaper. He noticed that the owner of the store had tears in his eyes and kept looking out the window. He asked what was going on.

The store owner said, “Do you see that bus bench over there? There’s a woman who comes there every day around this time. She sits there for about an hour, knitting and waiting. Buses come and go, but she never gets on one and no one ever gets off for her to meet. The other day, I carried her a cup of coffee and sat with her for a while.

“Her only son lives a long way away. She last saw him two years ago, when he boarded one of the buses right there. He is married now, and she has never met her daughter‑in‑law or seen their new child. She told me, ‘It helps to come here and wait. I pray for them as I knit little things for the baby, and I imagine them in their tiny apartment, saving money to come home. I can’t wait to see them.’”

The reason the owner was looking out the window at that particular moment was that the three of them--the son, his wife and their small child--were just getting off the bus. The look on the woman’s face when this small family fell into her arms was one of pure joy. And this joy only increased when she looked into the face of her grandchild for the first time. The store owner commented, “I’ll never forget that look as long as I live.” (www.sermons.com)

Abundant life is different for each one of us. For some it is a long waited for family reunion. For others it release from fears. For others it is the reminder that we are enough just as we are. The Good Shepherd, comes to each one of us offering gifts of abundant life. It is a pure gift of grace. JJ Heller sings in her version of the 23rdPsalm, “Don’t need a thing, My good shepherd brings me all. You are all I need. …  Goodness and mercy are following me/ You're all that I need/ You make a home for me/ Where pastures are green as far as I see/ You are all I need.” 

We are in the great 50 days of Easter. Dr. David Lose writes, “Easter isn’t simply a one-time celebration or holiday, but rather is a way of life, a life guided by the promise that there is something “More” than what we see, buy, collect, or hoard. Life, like love, is one of those things that, in the power of God’s Spirit, only multiplies as it is shared. And as love and life are shared, fear loses its grip on us and we taste, even revel in, not just life, but life in its abundance.” 

It is my hope and prayer, that as each of head into the week, you will remember that life in all its abundance is God’s desire for us. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Amen. 

Stay With Us

            It takes, depending on how fast you walk, around two hours to travel the 7 miles between Jerusalem and Emmaus. Normally this walk would fly by but not today. Not for Cleopas and the other disciple. They’d lost everything. They don’t know what we know. This is still the evening of the first day. It was only a few hours ago that the women came with the perplexing news that Jesus is not in the tomb and they women say, “I have seen the Lord!”  So with heart filled with worry they walk that road to Emmaus. Sometimes in silence, sometimes talking trying desperately to understand. Between the silences they tell stories about Jesus. “Do you remember when healed the blind man... how he fed the crowds with scraps and there were leftovers?” “I can still see his face...” “I remember how it felt in that boat battered by the waves... ”

Choir: 

1          Stay with us through the night.

                        Stay with us through the pain.

                        Stay with us, blessed stranger

                        till the morning breaks again.

As they walk, the two disciples meet a stranger on the road. It is Jesus but, as Luke says, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (Luke 24:16) Jesus asks them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” (Luke 24:17)  And they are amazed. He must be the only one in all of Jerusalem that does not know. They explain about Jesus and the hope that he gave to so many people. They told the stranger about his death and what the women had said about Jesus being alive and how they hadn’t seen him. They said, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  (Luke 24:21) 

“But we had hoped...”  Perhaps some of the most mournful words in scripture. I’m guessing that we can understand that long them comes with them. But we had hoped she would get better. But we had hoped this move would make a difference. But we had hoped he’d get a new job. But we had hoped the cancer wouldn’t come back. But we had hoped the counsellor would help us. But we had hoped for a new start in a new country. But we had hoped to find a home. But we had hoped for peace…But we had hoped...

The lists of life’s disappointments are many. I’m guessing that most of us could complete the phrase “But I had hoped....” with our own lost hopes and disappointments. Life does not always work out as we expect it will. Life throws us curve balls and sometimes, just like the disciples, we need to find a way to gain some perspective. 

 

Choir

2          Stay with us through the night.

            Stay with us through the grief.

                        Stay with us, blessed stranger

                        till the morning brings relief.

 

In an interview with the poet, writer, activist Maya Angelou speaks eloquently winning the Presidential Medal of Honour. She said that she accepted this honour on behalf of the African Americans who travelled in terrible conditions on slave ships, of those who suffer the indignity of poverty, of native Americans, of immigrants and all who came to the America as she said, “Traveling on a nightmare, praying for a dream.” (CBC Radio, Q)

Doesn’t that sound familiar? “Traveling on a nightmare, praying for a dream.” That’s where the disciples found themselves. Since Friday they’d been traveling on a nightmare. They had lost sight of hope and couldn’t find a dream to pray for. They had given up everything to follow Jesus and now he was dead and along with that all their hopes. They were living in constant fear of persecution. They killed Jesus would they be next? But they were also praying for a dream. They knew the tomb was empty – the women had told them all about it. Could it be true? 

            “But we had hoped...” they said to Jesus who meets them in their pain and confusion. He walks with them. He listens to their story. Then Jesus interprets scripture for them beginning with Moses. That seven miles flies by – their hearts burning within them. Not wanting to part with this stranger, they plead with him saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is nearly over.” (Luke 24:29) The two found something in this stranger and that want more of it. They urge him to stay.               

Choir:

Stay with us through the night.           

 Stay with us through the dread.

                        Stay with us, blessed stranger

                        till the morning breaks new bread.

            Jesus sits at the table with them surrounded by the food of everyday life bread and wine. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it and breaks it, and gives it to them. In that moment, their eyes are opened, and they see Jesus for the first time since their journey began. He is risen! All the pain that came with confessing “But we had hoped he was he one...” Luke 24:21) gone. With the sorrow and confusion lifted, the two fly back to Jerusalem to share the good news with the disciples. 

            The same is true for us. When we find ourselves lost and confused, when we’re “traveling on a nightmare,” when the words “but I had hoped” are continually on lips, Jesus meets us on the road, Jesus finds us where we are and stays with us. That is the promise of faith. Faith does not provide us with miracle cures or instant fixes to life’s problems. The promise of faith is that we won’t be alone as we do. The promise of faith is that there is always reason to hope. The promise of faith is that new life always has the final word. God meets us where we are and never leaves us. We are never alone. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Today we’ve come full circle in Lent which began on Ash Wednesday. There is a beautiful hymn in our hymn book called, “Sunday’s Palms are Wednesday’s Ashes.” It sums up so well this day of contradictions. The palms that we wave as we sing our hosannas become that ashes that remind us of our human frailty.

            “Sunday's palms are Wednesday's ashes

                        as another Lent begins;

            thus we kneel before our Maker

                        in contrition for our sins.

            We have marred baptismal pledges,

                        in rebellion gone astray;

            now, returning, seek forgiveness;

                        grant us pardon, God, this day!” (Voices United #107)

It is like the Palm branches that turn so easily into crosses. Today is a day of contradictions. A day of joyful music. But we also know what this week holds – we are on the road to crucifixion and death. Even Jesus knew what was coming. In Luke’s Gospel it says that Jesus, “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51) That particular phrase isn’t in Mark’s gospel but it is woven in the story. In the days and weeks leading up to Palm Sunday, Jesus talked openly about what was to come next. He says to the disciples, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”  (Mark 10:33 - 34)

            Now they are finally near Jerusalem. Jesus sends out two of his disciples saying, “Go into the village ahead of you and immediately as you enter it, you will there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it to me. If anyone says to you ‘Why are you doing this just say this ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately’” (Mark 11:2 – 3)

            I’m guessing that the disciples were used to following directions that seem a bit strange because they did just what Jesus asked. They put their cloaks on the colt. Large crowds gathered, spread their cloaks on the ground, cut branches from trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds began to shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark)

            It’s not a scene I imagine happening today. People lining streets because a prophet is coming to town. Perhaps now it would be more like filling stadiums with crowds crying out “Hosanna” which means “save us.” The expectation rings out in every word and with every wave of the palm branch or leafy branches as Mark says. The crowds believe that Jesus is the one who will save them from the cruel Roman rulers.

The disciples hoped? Knew? that Jesus was the one to save their people from the heavy hand of the Romans who ruled the land. They hoped Jesus was the one who would end their misery. The same is true for us today. Scott Black Johnson writes: “When we wave our palms and boldly cry out, "Hosanna," do we dare imagine what we really want God to save us from? Save me from anger. Save me from cancer. Save me from depression. Save me from debt. Save me from the strife in my family. Save me from boredom... Save me from the endless cycle of violence. Save me from humiliation. Save me from staring at the ceiling at three a.m. wondering why I exist. Save me from bitterness. Save me from arrogance. Save me from loneliness. Save me, God, save me from my fears. Please God take the broken places that will tear us apart and make them whole. We beseech you, God, jump into the water and drag our almost-drowned selves to shore. "Save us." "Hosanna." (www.sermons.com)

            Palm Sunday is more than the sweet band of children waving palm branches. It is an invitation to let Jesus come into the broken places in our lives. As I think about Palm Sunday and the story that unfolds during holy week. I can’t help but think about hands. The hands that waived palm branches while singing “hosanna”. The hands that became fists with angry shouts of “crucify.” We use our hands in so many ways. Hands create beautiful works art or music. We can use our hands to comfort, to pray, to care. With our hands we craft weapons of destruction, with our hands we can hurt, with our hands we can destroy. That is the contradiction of Palm Sunday and Holy Week – beauty and destruction, life and death, hosanna and crucify.

            The good news for us all is the hands that matter most are God’s hands. In this somber week, as we stand in the shadow of the cross we offer into God’s hands all our broken and hurting places, hoping, trusting that on Easter Sunday the tomb is empty and there is new life. Amen. 

Sunday School Faith Story

Today we are sharing our faith stories.  We have worked hard over the past few weeks to write down what we believe about God.  We have put together out responses to create one faith story to share with you.  We hope that in sharing our faith story with you that it will help you to think about your own faith.  

To help us think about our faith, the first question that was asked was, “Who is God for you?”  For us God is, loving because he loves people and doesn’t hate people.  God is Lord, Helper, Creator of the world, someone who watches us and helps us.  God is also holy and loving and sometimes feels faraway.  We know that God cares for people

We have bible stories that we love that speak to our faith.  Here is a variety of stories that we like and why. The story of Jonah and the whale because God teaches Jonah a lesson to never disobey God and that when God asks us to do something difficult that God never leaves us and will always journey with us. This is also a favorite bible story because it simply makes no sense.

Noah and the Ark: God tells Noah to build an ark and to bring animals on board.  It basically tells us that if you believe in God he will protect you and “I like rainbows”. 

A couple of other stories that were favorites were the story where Jesus was born because it is our favorite holiday and the creation story because of our love of Animals. 

Jesus teaches us many things, he teaches us to be a good person and not to do bad things.  Jesus helps us to be nice and helpful, to forgive and how to follow God.  Jesus also teaches us how to pray. 

God and our church are very important to us.  God is important because without God there would be no church.  That would be really sad because there are many things that we love about our church; it is the place that we come to learn about God and Jesus.  The place where we pray and sing to God and learn that God is loving.  We also love the food.  We have some good cooks in this church.  Meeting our friends are also important things about our church

For us there are many places that we feel close to God.  We feel close to God when we sleep.  Maybe we could have good dreams about God as we sleep.  We also feel close to God when we are at church.  The church is one of the places where we share and hear the stories for our faith. 

Thank you for listening to our Faith story today.  Please join us as we sing Lord Prepare Me to Be a Sanctuary printed in your bulletin.  We will sing it 3 times.  

Faith Story: Judy Kay

Thank-you Rev Miriam for creating this opportunity for the sharing of our faith stories again this year.

The beautiful contributions of the 3 story tellers before me, have been so thought provoking; thank-you all for inspiring us through this Lenten season.

Patent leather shoes, inner calm, heart break, snowballs - what could they possibly have in common? They all represent some stages of my faith journey.

I was born in Botwood and lived there until I was in grade 4. Our house was just across the street from the United Church. My first memories surrounding the whole experience of church was that it was a place that required you to dress in your Sunday best !-  little white gloves then, dresses and those lovely patent leather shoes. Unlike Oliver who seemed to have a deep understanding of faith at a very early age- I afraid mine was a much more concrete view; a child’s perspective looking in on an adult world that seemed somewhat mysterious- with words everyone knew, small drinks and small pieces of bread, though not every week for some reason, and then also this lovely sense of a special quiet that I couldn’t quite identify then, but certainly recall enjoying.

There was also though an early opportunity to experience the tolerance of an adult group for a child’s mistake that is also an important memory. In other venues of adults, children’s outbursts were not always dealt with so patiently as this next situation.  For those in the congregation who are old enough to remember a certain jingle that went with a beer ad back then,… you will have an even greater appreciation for this story. All 5 of us Antle kids were sitting between mom and dad in the pews one Sunday- when my younger sister Bev was suddenly struck by the thought that she knew one of those bigger adult words- she was  probably 5 years old at the time. She called down the row as soon as she heard the minister say it – “ Dad, he said Dominion, chug a lug a mug of Dominion”!! Goodness you could certainly hear a pin drop for a moment as the minister paused for a second during the prayer before continuing on. I realize now there were a lot of suppressed smiles- but I wasn’t sure at the time if that outburst, not necessarily the words as I was only 7, but the outburst would cause the adults to be upset. Yet all that happened was the feeling that that beautiful “church quiet” was a little more noticeable for a moment. And without missing a beat, Dad just had a small smile and picked her up, quietly managing both her excitement and the need for continued head down position for prayer.

The association of calm presence and church impact continued on for me as we came to St John’s. We became members of Cochrane Street United Church. It was a welcoming place with beautiful music and Sunday school. For those who didn’t know me then –it might be hard to believe I was shy and quiet, yes quiet, in the presence of others! This is true! A little bit of a paradox for someone who at the same time like to push the limits and try new things- just nervous when doing so. So as a teenager my faith expression was very much an introspective experience. I was more apt to not reference the church, God or their impact on my life in any way- that was just a “Sunday thing”, those feeling were private and they were definitely not cool. It was embarrassing to be one of those how framed their lives with reference to Jesus. Ultimately, this extended to something I never spoke about with my friends then for many years.

Yet as I left home and went to University in Kingston ON at the age of 17, to start my degree in Physiotherapy, there was a silent pull that drew me one early Sunday morning when I was feeling a little out of place there. I went for a walk to the edge of the campus which was bordered by Lake Ontario- just a short walk from my residence. I could find no solace in the quiet lap of the water. It was just not the satisfaction of the sound of waves from the North Atlantic that I loved whenever I needed to sort things out.

Continuing on I found myself in front of a small United Church and went in. There was a lovely couple who introduced themselves after the service and when they found out that I was from NL with no one I knew in the area, well I was invited back to their house for what became my home away from home for the 4 years I was there. Again the common experience was that wonderful sense of physical calm that would come each time I sat in that lovely church with that congregation- I could block out the noise of the stress of my very busy student life.

Back in the province and working in a job I loved I thought I would feel very satisfied, yet something felt incomplete. So I reconnected with Cochrane Street Church and found the congregation was invited to help with a social action project. Interestingly enough it turned out to be a housing project for those with some disabilities that was being started elsewhere in the city- so I offered to be on the Board of Directors….maybe a little foreshadowing of things to come??

Then sudden heartache as I received a call from my husband, while working on Remembrance Day– he met me at the hospital to tell me my younger sister had been killed in a car accident in Toronto. It is the first time in my life that I felt the energy just drain out and began that inward struggle of dealing with the sadness while also trying to make sense of it all. How could it be that someone so young, so giving to others could be taken so suddenly? I had lost one of my beautiful solemates. There was a period of time that those very usual questions and feelings surfaced- I still don’t have answers as to why but somewhere along the way the focus shifted from questioning why, to seeing the good she did while here, the impact she continues to have through awards in her name and memories she created, that have caused others to aim high/do their best in their field. I don’t know exactly when this happened- it was gradual. But the most important part of this transition was letting go having to have all the answers. That somewhere, somehow I felt I was learning to let go of my usual need to make sense of all things, to have a clear understanding of purpose and facts. This shift opened me up to listening more acutely to the world around and to be receptive to different opportunities daily. It was such a relief and soul satisfying to know I didn’t have to have all the answers but instead leave myself open to being present with people, with everyday life events and to experience god’s purpose each day.

At the evening Lenten reflection session last week, I was referencing an example of how I just no longer think of some things as a coincidence – just accept there was probably an element of divine intervention. I was coming down from the ICU with the intention to pick up a piece of equipment and head right back up. Instead I over shot my floor by 1 level when walking down the stairs and instead ended up in the lobby of the hospital just as an old colleague of mine was coming out of the elevator. Her husband was back in for evaluation of a lower leg problem that has surfaced again and was causing them great upset- partly due to not fully understanding what was happening. He was visibly upset and angry. He was disappointed that something that had taken a long time to settle enough for him to start getting back to things he enjoyed doing, was now a problem again. Taking a moment with them to explain a few things, answer a few of their questions- gave them some greater understanding and perspective they both indicated was very relieving. They then headed out the door, indicating they felt so much better. This is not an isolated incident- in terms of timing and moments. I’ve come to accept I don’t have to know why but that it feels right sometimes that I don’t need to question the purpose.

The fellowship I’ve found in the church, the restoring of energy from Rev Miriams reflections,  the choir and their awesome musical contribution to the service and the beautiful moments around tea buns and snowballs in the after service tea time continue to fuel me for the week ahead. I always feel no matter what surprizes we encounter, we will find a way to reframe the moment and move forward… though the path may have a number of speed bumps and potholes on the way!

From patent leather shoes, to questioning the meaning of a sad loss, to opening up/shifting from a need to make sense of everything to just accepting being ready to see the world differently…. My faith journey has reached a point that I see many events that occur as opportunities to live out God’s grace in helping others.

It has been and continues to be an awe -inspiring, at times frustrating – yet always a rewarding beautiful journey. I am so glad to be here with all of you to be a part of this

…. So many interesting and surprising opportunities await- I hope I will always be ready to see them.    

Faith Story: Karen Critch-Chaytor

First I would like thank Rev Bowlby in allowing me to share my story of what faith means to me. I will take you back four years ago on my trip to Universal Studios on my honeymoon. It was the first day in Florida and we decided to start with Universal Studios and of all rides first we rode Dudley Doo Right a water ride. Now I did not know anything about the right but Charles insisted that it was a fun and easy ride and I went with it. We were on the ride and going around the track and every now and then we would go down a slope and that was fun but as we kept going the drops were getting bigger and bigger. I looked at Charles not that’s not so but until we started climbing more and as a looked around because we were outside I saw that we were pretty high up and the words were not out of my mouth “My were are high..” swoosh I never saw it coming but it was like we were shot out of a cannon and down what seemed like a 90 degree angle. Wow what a rush,  I have never felt so alive and pumped to ride another one and we rode many more that day. This is how I feel about faith both the highs and lows and that big swoosh at the end, now let me take you through my experiences of what faith means to me.

It first began when I was about 5 or 6 when I was asked to take part in the service, Rev Hiller was the minister here at the time. I was asked to lead in the Prayer of Approach, I was so excited to do this. I can remember being so little (not much has changed) that I needed to stand on a stool to read from the pulpit. This was the first time I read in church but would not be my last because as years went by I became much more involved in the church. Still in my younger years I became part of what was called “Explorers”, here we would meet after church was  finished and have a little bible study, make crafts and I will always remember singing  “This is my Father’s World, Mrs. Bradbury would always sing this hymn at our meetings. I still have some of the decorations we made and I hang them on our tree because it reminds me of the times we had making them. Later on I would graduate from Explores and would join CGIT know as Canadian Girls in Training in my teen years. The CGIT purpose is: As a Canadian Girl in Training, under the leadership of Jesus, it is my purpose to Cherish Health, Seek Truth, Know God, Serve Others and thus, with His help, become the girl God would have me be.

Here I would meet two lovely women whom became such an influence in my life, Elizabeth Purchase and Joan Soulier. As our leaders and mentors they showed us how to lead a service, help out in the church for example we would help with the turkey teas, I looked forward every year in working on the assembly line bright and early of course because we would have so many to do. It felt great to help with fundraisers whether big or small because I knew it helped the church. Our group also went on many road trips together,  one in particular I remember a time when we travelled to Musgravetown and met up with their youth group, we had a lot of fun that weekend shared stories, singing familiar hymns, and we made poster with all of our hands on it sympolizing our friendship bewttween the two groups. There are many more stories but these women gave me the guidance and support to continue my journey in faith.

Now, these were some of the better times that I can remember there were times when I thought my time was wasted or I did not feel like doing events. There was a time in my life that I did not want to do anything at all. I just wanted to be alone. At 17, last year in high school doing it all, school council, student council, editor of the year book, volunteer with church functions and road block. I had reached my limit of helping everyone but now someone had to help me. I had spent three months in hospital, but a familiar face would show up from time to time and it would be my minister Rev Edgar now Bursey. We would have lovely chats about life and how I felt and slowly I started to feel better and slowly introduced back into reality again. I was diagnosed as Bi Polar something I will have to live with but did not know how to come to terms with but Rev Edgar believed in me and my faith in God was mending. I finished school that year and continued to volunteer at the church but for the next 10 years it is a bit rocky. There were times I would not go at all, while other times I would be there with bells on. During these 10 years I served on the church council as the East District Representative when I learned a lot about how our church works a. I met so many people now and I even got the opportunity to go to British Colombia and representative Newfoundland as the Youth Representative I thought my faith back road block my sister passes suddenly away, I felt like shouting WHY, I was doing everything right so I thought I was helping out again. Gone again my hope was gone again. A year after that, my father passed away. I was done. Whatever spiritual feeling I had was gone. Six months after dad passed I found myself in quite a situation I was in hospital myself with a blood clot, luckily they had found it because I would have been the third person in the family in two years not my time. I had a visitor from the church while I was in hospital this was Rev Bowlby. She had made some first impression on me that day and I wanted to hear more from her. Once I got better and went on that following Christmas I knew I wanted to come back and that I had missed my church family. I then got involved on the Church Council but this time as the Treasurer, that was scary at first just like the roller coaster not knowing what was coming next. I made the best of what I knew and helped out to the best of my knowledge for 2.5 years until my work life was more challenging and my time needed there became much greater than for church and I had to make a decision to resign. I never lost my faith but I put it on hold, I did not want a repeat of 17 all over again.

 

I came back on Easter Sunday when the church reopened their doors since the renovations from the new Cochrane Centre. Wow to see all the people there it felt amazing and to hear the choir and how they sounded so good,  I missed being a part of this family ,definitely one of my swoosh moments, I wanted back so I approached the choir and asked when was practice, found out and been back ever since.  So I am back on the roller coaster feeling great road block mom passes away suddenly same day as my sisters passing. This time the feeling is different for I was there when she passed and was holding her hand as she rode on to the next life, I felt something that day that I can’t explain that her strength entered into me, and even a little birdie told me that you have your mom in you I can see it. This time I was prepared I trusted in God that this was meant to be, I was upset and angry but I felt assured that this was God’s will. This moment for sure was a test of my faith but swoosh like the roller coaster out of the cannon here I am Lord. Coming every Sunday singing in the choir and seeing & talking with everyone helps me keep my faith strong and I have hope for the future for you are as my church community have always been there and has built my faith from a very early age and will continue to do so. Faith is like a roller coaster, a ride where you do not know the outcome, where there are stops along the way, and the highs and lows of that ride; whatever the next ride brings here I am Lord.

Amen

Faith Story: Francis McNiven

I was born unwanted. The fourth child of an already too big family with an illness that stacked the odds against me. There were ten babies born with the same illness that I had, five died, four was developmentally delayed and then there was me, the only one who was passed for school. So I guess I was blessed from the very beginning. My father's mother took me in and became my Mom.

My church life was a bit different than most. We lived too far away from the church that my very religious mom was raised in but she did not know what church she wanted us to go to so we went to them all. It was the Anglican church on Sunday morning and United Church in the evening to sing in the children's choir. So it was pretty much a normal childhood until I turned 12.

Then everything changed. Mom wanted to move closer to her church. So we packed up and moved to Bay Roberts. Then slowly I began to lose everything I loved. First it was the TV and the radio. We weren't allowed to be in the girl guides or sing in the church choir anymore. Then we were not allowed to wear pants or cut our bangs any more. We were not allowed to give out candy for Halloween, or celebrate Easter. The last thing we lost was Christmas. I will never forget the sadness in my mom's eyes when they told her that their church do not celebrate Christmas. It had always been a joyous occasion for us but no more.

Turns out that my Mothers church did not celebrate anything. Their only message and goal was to prepare for death. At the tender age of 12 I was told that we are all going to die and the only way to get into heaven was to give up everything I loved, and I might not even make it in then. 

It was a heavy message for a 12 year old to take in. So as you can imagine I became very bitter resentful and angry. 

My teenage years were very difficult. I was an outcast on every side. At school I was too different and teased relentlessly and at home and at church I was not different enough and had trouble following the rules without question. It seemed that I was always fighting for what I wanted and the whole world was against me.

I was not a pleasant child. It was not until, after many years of fighting with guilt and a mental illness that lead me down many a dark road. I rejected my mom’s religion and that’s when things started to get better for me. But for a while it meant I rejected God as well. It left a hole in my life that I needed filled.

I don't know what made me come to church for the first time I think it was the sign out front. I used to walk past it and say 11 o'clock service . Gosh that isn't too late I could sleep in and still go to church. Ironically now I have to get up at 8 in the morning and take two buses. I spent years walking past the church saying to Gerard I should go to church, and him saying no you shouldn’t. He was afraid. He knew that religion and my mental Illness did not go well together.

Now he is the one who reminds me you should go to sleep you have got to go to church in the morning. He now sees the change the church has made in my life and knows it is good for me. It was the first Sunday after Christmas when I came here for the first time. I remember two things. 1. and this was to my great surprise, Christmas was not over. And 2 I was terrified. I did not know if I was allowed to be there. Was church a private club you had to sign up for to be a member?  The last time I went to a church was a long time ago.

I kept expecting someone to see me and kick me out. I sat in the last row closest to the door in case I had to make a quick escape. I was way off not only was I not kicked out I was invited to coffee time after.

That New Year’s Eve, I made the best new year’s resolution I have ever made. I was going to go to church every Sunday. Although I still will sit in the seat nearest to the door, a quick escape may still be needed. I love words. I understand them and know how powerful they can be. The words you use are very important. I was hearing words I never heard before like love and acceptance. I began to learn about peace and forgiveness. It replaces all I learned about fear and hate. It has brought me joy. I am always grateful for what I receive from this church and am glad to call it my home.

Faith Story by Oliver Dingwell

It may be a surprise to you, but when Miriam found out that I would be in St. John’s this weekend and asked me if would share my faith story, I responded with a very adamant no.

            Our wonderful tradition here at Cochrane Street of sharing our faith stories during lent was an idea that Miriam and I decided to implement during Lent 2016 and it has been a wonderful blessing to us all. The stories that have been shared here over the past two years have given us inspiration and insight, challenge and wisdom. I, too, was inspired by the words of various members of our church family and it made me think deeper about my own faith, especially as I began writing applications and lengthy essays for ordination and seminary. However, I have never felt the need, or the desire to publicly share my own story of faith. I think that probably stems from a fear of what some have described as the dirtiest and most taboo word in The United Church of Canada: evangelism.

            However, evangelism does not have to present itself in the same harmful way that we see in The United States of America, where there is an attitude of Christian supremacy, where the need and desire to convert heathens is still at the heart of many evangelical churches. Instead, evangelism can be a public witness to the power of faith in our lives, it can be a testimony to the power of love working in and through us. Evangelism can be an active living out of our faith, speaking out against the injustices of our world that prevent love from being fully realized. Evangelism doesn’t have to be a dirty word.

            I hemmed and hawed over Miriam’s proposal until I eventually decided yes. I hope that my own personal story of my experiences within the church and with my faith are of some interest to you all.

            For as long as I can remember, I have been involved in the church. I have always felt a call to ordained ministry. I legitimately cannot remember a time when the church was not a central part of life – to this day I can count on one hand all the times I missed worship on Sunday morning.

            This relationship with the church, faith, and spirituality, was not the overwhelming trend for the rest of my family. Although my maternal grandparents were faithful church goers and very active members of our home congregation, serving on session, stewards and were members of the men’s club and UCW; they were certainly the exception to the rule.

My parents and my paternal grandparents were not regular churchgoers. Although my paternal grandfather attended church most Sundays he was not heavily involved in the life and work of the church. On the other hand, my paternal grandmother’s faith can be best described as “staunch” atheist. A quick aside, the famous family story is that in her last months, Rev. Clayton Parsons (who some of you may know) came to visit her. My grandmother was not well, and as Clayton went to leave, he told her, “Joyce, if I don’t see you later, I’ll see you on the other side.”

 “Yeah, don’t count on it” was my grandmothers reply. It may have been the only time that Rev. Parsons was ever left speechless.

My parents attended church casually, probably two Sundays a month at best. They did not serve on committees or anything like that. This all changed around the time I turned two. The “terrible twos” I believe they’re called. For whatever reason, I would wake up on Sunday morning and insist that we would be going to church that day. If the answer was no, I would throw wild and now, legendary, temper tantrums. Needless to say, my parents became regular churchgoers pretty quickly – and the rest is now history, Mom now serves as the Clerk of Session and Dad as the Church Treasurer in our home congregation of Humber United in Corner Brook.

            My talent for singing was quickly becoming apparent around this time as well. The story goes that I would be walking around the house, singing (or screaming – it’s not quite clear), at the absolute top of my lungs – “O LORD MY GOD, O LORD MY GOD” over and over and over. My parents had absolutely no idea what to make of this, but it was eventually discovered that I was trying to sing the first line of the introit that my congregation used every Sunday, “How Great Thou Art.”

One year later, at the age of three, I had taken to singing solos of “How Great Thou Art” after church. The organist would gently accompany me and a small, but faithful crowd of grey-haired ladies would sit and listen to me sing the same solo week after week. Soon after this became a regular performance, I decided that I had enough experience – so at the tender age of three, I decided that it was time to join the Senior Choir. And so I did. One of the old Junior Choir gowns was altered and I proudly took my place in the choir loft along with the other members of the choir as I belted out the introit, “How Great Thou Art” each and every Sunday.

There are too many good stories from my childhood regarding church to tell you here – we would be here well into the evening if I had to regale you with all of them. The highlights include: forcing my entire family, including my atheist grandmother, to participate as I played church on Sunday evenings after family supper (complete with actual bulletins and miniature hymn boards that my father had made for me for Christmas) or instead of playing with a dollhouse or actions figures like other children, my Beanie Babies would take part in General Councils and Congregational Meetings – because that seemed perfectly normal to me. 

It was around this time that I also grew deeply suspicious of Sunday School – “why did I have to go downstairs when everyone else got to stay up there? What were they doing up there? What was I missing?” So around age six or seven I stopped going to Sunday School and stayed upstairs for the entire service – which, I think, seemed perfectly normal to the rest of the congregation, I think the only ones who were displeased may have been my parents, not because they objected to me being upstairs, but because they were the Sunday School Superintendents at the time of my revolt.

As I grew older, I was of course, confirmed and began to take on a more active leadership role in the church. At the age of twelve, I chaired my first church committee “The 50th Anniversary Committee for Humber United Church” – looking back on this, I now realize that my mother actually did most of the work, but I was immensely proud to be the chair of a committee. At the age of twelve I was also given the opportunity to lead worship and preach one Sunday when our minister was away – I was so excited for this opportunity. I can still remember that the Old Testament reading for that day was Noah and the Flood, and I compared it to the American reality show Survivor, which was at the peak of its popularity. I called Noah, “the ultimate survivor.” Looking back on the manuscript and knowing what I know now, it was a pretty terrible sermon, but… not bad for a twelve year old.

Throughout high school I took on a greater role within the church: becoming a member of session and becoming the youngest Chair of the Official Board in the history of the United Church of Canada. Also around this time, I began exploring what was happening beyond the walls of my own congregation: I took an interest in the United Church’s commitment to social justice and to living out our faith at all times, just not on Sundays, echoing the words of the Letter of James: “let us be doers of the word and not hearers only.” I started to attend district and conference meetings and sit on those committees as well, and in 2012, I served as a Commissioner to General Council in Ottawa.

When I came to University, I was misled by attending another United Church here in St. John’s (which shall remain nameless), but I eventually came to find this wonderful community here at Cochrane Street. Here I was able to grow and be supported by this congregation of wonderful people and receive mentorship, support, and lots of understanding from Miriam. It broke my heart to leave here in 2016, but I have been lucky enough to find another rich community of faith in Toronto where I can feel supported and encouraged as well, although, it will never replace Cochrane Street.

Now all of this is not to say that my experiences with the church have always been positive. I have often, especially in my earlier years, left committee meetings and church events with tears streaming down my face. There were those who discouraged and even sought to prohibit me from participating in certain aspects of church life when I was in junior high, there were those who thought that I was too involved in the church for a young person, and there were those who discredited my ideas. I have served as a verbal punching bag for clergy and laity alike, and often when I doubt myself, those screams of anger and belittlement still ring in my ears. Being this young and being this active in church means that although I have experienced the best of the church from a very young age, I have also experienced it at its worst.

It may surprise you, that more than once I have thought about leaving the church, about throwing in the towel and doing something else in life entirely. However, in my experience, the call to ministry, the call to a life of faith is like a bungee cord – each time you try and run away from that calling, you get flung back to it. Despite all the negative aspects I have experienced in the church, I have always known that God’s love is so ridiculously wide that I can never escape from that embrace.

I still have no idea what drew me to the church at such a young age or what keeps me here. Perhaps it was the fellowship, perhaps it was the music, or perhaps it was the community friendly and supportive people. Perhaps it is the unending love of God that keeps calling me back, giving me no other choice but to live my life in response to wonderful gift of unconditional love. Whatever it was, it stuck, and it continues to stick.

As I go forward in life, in ministry; my greatest hope is that I can help the church continue to operate at its best and not at its worst. To enable the church to be a place of love, compassion and caring – a place of family and belonging, for people like me, and for people like you. That is my story of faith – a story where God’s love, support, and encouragement is lived out through ordinary people doing extraordinary things. May we all know God’s love in this way. Amen.

Beloved

            I love the story of the transfiguration. It is full of mystery. There is no way to explain it or make sense of it so I’m not going to try. It is simply one of those glorious holy moments when God comes close and something amazing happens. It seems to me that it happens at just the right moment.

The disciples have been with Jesus for quite a while. They’ve heard him teach. They’ve seen him heal. They’ve watched him change the world around him. But lately Jesus has started talking about things that the disciples don’t quite understand.  And not only do they not understand it, they don’t like it. Jesus is talking about dying and being rejected and rising in three days. It was confusing for the disciples. It sounds like the end of something that has given them so much life. The disciples want to press rewind and go back to the days when Jesus was healing and teaching. It was easier. There was no shadow hanging over them. No end in sight.

            Our gospel reading begins with an invitation. Jesus invites Peter and James and John on a bit of road trip up the mountain. I imagine the disciples walking up the winding path to the top of the mountain heavy hearts because they don’t what is going on. But then Jesus was always surprising them so this was nothing new. When they finally reach the top of the mountain something extraordinary happens. It says in our reading that Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” (Mark 9:2 – 3) But it doesn’t stop there. Elijah and Moses appear. They are to Jesus. About what? The gospel doesn’t say. And Peter, well Peter just doesn’t know what to do or what to say. He, along with James and John are terrified. Not knowing what to say or do, Peter calls out, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here, let us make three dwelling places, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Mark 9:6)   The words are barely out of Peter’s mouth when a cloud overshadows them, and a voice says, “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him!” (Mark 9:7)

            These words echo the words from Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of Marks’ Gospel. It is a promise of love. Dr. Matt Skinner writes, “Because the Transfiguration is so bizarre and unusual, it can be easy to assume that we’re supposed to approach it with sober reverence and awe. But that isn’t how God views it. For God, the Transfiguration presents an opportunity to declare love for the one called “Son.” If God is capable of smiling, this would be the occasion in which that happens. I don’t see how anyone can talk of one’s “beloved” without breaking into a pleased grin.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2341)

            For one shinning holy moment Jesus stood in the glory of God basking in that love. Peter, James and John are reminded that Jesus is God’s beloved. It somehow puts all those things Jesus has been talking about death, rejection and rising into perspective. They are insignificant when they are reminded Jesus is God’s beloved. Peter fill with both terror and awe wants to hold onto this holy moment. The challenge of those holy times when God comes near to us, is that they come so quickly and are over so quickly. It says in verse 8, “Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.” (Mark 2:8) As they walk down the mountain, they are no longer worried about what comes next. They know what they must do. Listen to Jesus.

            I think that we all need those holy moments that remind us what we are about as a people of faith. It can be hard – especially when it seems like everything is going wrong. We don’t know when those holy moments are going to come. God’s love, as we will sing later, colours outside the lines and is always full of surprises. Here is what we know. God is love. God is with us in our doubt, in our sorrow and in our joy. When God calls Jesus beloved, God is reminding Jesus who he is and what he is about – love at work in the world. Jesus and the disciples, leave the holy place, God’s words echoing are echoing in their hearts. “This is son, the beloved. Listen to him.”

It’s a message for us today. For those moments when we get discouraged or when we forget that God loves us. We can remember God’s words to Jesus because they are for us too. And if we listen to Jesus and follow in his ways, then our world will be filled with loving community. Because when we love our neighbours as ourselves and we do unto others as you would have them do unto you, our world is a better place for everyone. It means safe places to live and food on the table and abundant life for all. And when the task seems daunting, we remember that each day God whispers in our ears, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased. Amen

Unclean Spirits?

The reading from Mark is one of those ones that doesn’t easily translate into our modern context. We don’t often talk about unclean spirits or demon let alone someone command that unclean spirit to leave. We see it maybe in sci-fi movies or maybe alien moves.

Just because it doesn’t easily translate to our modern world, doesn’t mean that we don’t know about unclean spirits or long for someone to command those demons to be gone. We know demons – we call them things like low self-esteem, self-doubt, anxiety, depression, perfectionism, anger, addiction to any number of things drugs, food, shopping alcohol, money. We know demons in our world, we just call them by different names. Maybe your unclean spirit is the voice inside your head that keeps telling you that you aren’t good enough as you are or maybe fear isolates you from community. Nadia Bolz-Webber Pastor, preacher and author writes, “I’ve confessed this before but I don’t always know what to do when it comes to talk about demons in the Bible.  Especially when the demons talk and have names and stuff like that. I’m never sure if back then they had the exact same things going on that we do, but they didn’t know about things like epilepsy or mental illness so they just called it all demon possession.  …But I do know that many of you, like myself, have suffered from addictions and compulsions and depression – things that have gotten ahold of us, making us do things we don’t want to. Or making you think you love things, or substances or people that are really destructive. So maybe if that, in part, is what having a demon is, maybe if it’s being taken over by something destructive, then possession is less of an anachronism, and more of an epidemic.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2013/06/demon-possession-and-why-i-named-my-depression-francis/)

Uncleans spirits or demons in our world today are those things that take us on a self-destructive path. I wonder how many of us hear wrestle with our own personal demons. I call my worry and anger and self-doubt.  What names do you call your demons?

And there are days when I wish I could tell that demon to leave me alone as Jesus did in our reading today. In our reading from Mark this morning is Jesus first public act of ministry. So far in chapter 1 we have John preparing the way, Jesus’ baptism, and forty days being tempted in the desert Satan. Jesus called his first disciples and together the go to Capernaum which is where we start today.

Jesus is in the temple and he begins to teach and everyone who hears him is amazed. They say he teaches like one with authority. He wasn’t anything like the scribes. The words of scripture came to life in new ways. As Jesus is teaching, a man enters the temple and he is filled with “an unclean spirit” (Mark 1:23) We don’t really know what that unclean spirit ways. The minute the man enters, he cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazraeth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mark 1:24) But Jesus has no part of these unclean spirits and say, “Be silent, and come out of him.” (Mark 1:25) And the unclean spirit leaves the man. And now the crowd is even more amazed.

David Lose in his commentary on this text writes, “Notice that the very first thing Jesus does in Mark’s Gospel is cast out an unclean spirit. We don’t always know exactly how to process “unclean spirit” in modern terms (and certainly want to avoid the way it has been conflated with mental illness over the centuries!), but from other passages in Mark we can easily imagine its impact and effects on the life of the man this spirit holds captive. He has likely become a danger to himself and others. If he hasn’t already, he will likely soon be socially ostracized. And we can imagine the distress of those who love him. Anguish over his plight, fear about his future. (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/01/epiphany-4-b-against-the-robbers/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28...In+the+Meantime%29)

Sound familiar? Jesus wasn’t just at work then but at work today. And Jesus stands with us and for us just as he did for that man so long ago in Capernaum. Jesus not only invites us to follow by stands up and says, “Be silent, and come out” to all those unclean spirits that hold us captive.  Our God as David Lose so eloquently puts it, is “God is opposed to anything and everything that robs [us] of abundant life” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/01/epiphany-4-b-against-the-robbers/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28...In+the+Meantime%29) Jesus, the Holy One of God, comes to bring us abundant life. It is a gift beyond measure. It is a promise that when the unclean spirits come we are not left on our own. It is not a matter of if it is a matter of when. We all face challenges – some big and some small. In all these challenges Jesus stands with us silencing those demons that do us most harm. Nadia Bolz-Webber, “I think our demons totally recognize Jesus right out of the boat and our demons are afraid of him.  Which is why they try to get us to stay away from people who may remind us how loved we are. Our demons want nothing to do with the love of God in Christ Jesus and so they try to isolate us and tell us that we are not worthy to be called children of God. And these lies are simply things that Jesus does not abide.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2013/06/demon-possession-and-why-i-named-my-depression-francis/)

Love has a way of making us whole. The love that Jesus showed to the man with an unclean spirit is the love that he shows to each one of us. As we head into this week, carry that promise in your heart and help be that face of love for friends, for family, for neighbours and strangers. Love changes us and it changes the world. It is much like the reminder I had from an article called “The radical but gentle faith of Mister Rogers” How many of you remember Mr. Roger’s neighbourhood? I grew up with his song, “Won’t you be my neighbour?” and the closing benediction, ““You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/01/30/the-radical-but-gentle-faith-of-mister-rogers/?utm_term=.d889e0f741a6) Fred Rogers was also a Presbyterian Minister. He lived his faith by reminding each of us of the importance of caring for one another. It says in the article, “ Rogers thought of the act of loving and accepting someone as your neighbor as holy business, as he said in a 2001 commencement address at Middlebury College: “When we look for what’s best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does; so in appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something truly sacred.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/01/30/the-radical-but-gentle-faith-of-mister-rogers/?utm_term=.d889e0f741a6)

Sundays we gather for that reminder that we are God’s beloved children and we can participate in the sacred act of sharing that love with others. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. That is a both gift and promise. Amen.

Fishers of People

I begin with thanks to the people who put together the lectionary. Today we have two great stories about how God calls. First, we hear about Jonah – who really doesn’t want to have anything to do with what God’s call to help the people of Nineveh. Doing exactly what God asked of him! It only took being thrown overboard and sometime in the belly of a whale. In our next reading we have the first disciples who hear nothing but, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (Mark 1:17) It seems that Simon, Andrew, James and John leap at the chance to follow Jesus. They drop everything to follow him. It is two completely different ways to respond to God’s call and God’s grace. I for one am thankful that God works with us no matter where we find ourselves.

            Today we start with Jonah. A story of God’s grace and the winner of the bible’s prize for most reluctant prophet. God says, “Go” and Jonah runs away. In his attempt to flee from God’s call he gets thrown overboard and spends “three days and three nights” in the belly of a whale. During that time Jonah prayed until finally the whale spit Jonah out on dry land.  Again, God says to Jonah, “Get u, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2) Jonah drags his feet but he goes to Nineveh. When Jonah finally arrives, you can hardly say he spoke a prophetic word with any kind of conviction. Oh yes he said the word that God asked him to speak. But I don’t think he did not put his heart into it. You might say his preaching lacked a certain amount of punch.

I imagine Jonah delivering his prophesy in the most monotone voice he could muster “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” No mention of who was doing the overthrowing. No mention that God had sent him on this mission. No talk of hope or of God’s abundant grace. Just, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” In spite of all that or perhaps because of all that the people of Nineveh listened but Jonah sulks. He is angry because he knows too much about God’s grace. Jonah plain and simple does not like the people of Nineveh. They are his sworn enemies and for him the idea that they would be saved is horrifying. On this front you cannot blame Jonah. The Syrian army was cruel. The King never relented. Some biblical scholars say that the people of Nineveh repented is more unbelievable than Jonah spending three days in the whale.

You can understand why Jonah did not want God’s grace to extend to the people of Nineveh. You can understand why Jonah said no to God and fled. The story of Jonah and Nineveh tells us everything we need to know about God’s grace. Jonah says it best in chapter four, “O Lord! Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abound in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”” (Jonah 4:2) God’s love reaches beyond our imagining and invites us to follow in our own ways.

This story is a gentle reminder that in spite of our no’s, God’s answer is always yes. God finds ways to work through us even when we are reluctant to follow or have closed our hearts to the abundant nature of God’s grace.  Jonah did not want to do as God asked, yet God still works through him to change the hearts of the people of Nineveh.

            The story of Jonah stands in stark contrast to our Gospel reading for today. Instead of running the in the other direction – Simon, Andrew, James and John drop everything and follow Jesus. It seems to me that the people of Nineveh and the story of the first disciples have more in common with one another than God’s chosen prophet Jonah and the disciples. When the people of Nineveh hear God’s word proclaimed they stop all that they are doing and repent – and not just a select few. Everyone from the King to the barn animals change their hearts and their ways as they sit in sackcloth and ashes repenting. In the same way, the disciples drop their nets, leave behind family and friends and go to pursue a new calling as fishers of people.

            As usual with the Gospel of Mark, the details are scarce. Here’s what we know. Jesus has just returned from forty days in the desert and John the Baptist has been arrested. Jesus now begins his teaching ministry “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News.” That’s all Jesus says before he walks up to Simon and Andrew and says, “Follow Me and I will make you fish for people.”  Simon and Andrew drop their nets and follow. We don’t know if they’d grown tired of fishing or if they’d known Jesus for a while. You might think that this kind of major life altering decision would take some time to make. You might think that Simon and Andrew would walk just outside of Jesus’ earshot and have a little conversation about what they should do. But that didn’t happen. They dropped everything to follow Jesus – no questions asked.

            Then the same thing happens again with James and John. Again, Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Once again, no questions asked, they drop the nets they are mending and follow Jesus. James and John even leave their father in the boat – confused by what is happening. There is something special about this story. The bible is full of people who respond in some way to God’s call.  But this story is different from the rest. The disciples just go. Jesus didn’t have to do anything to persuade them – they follow.

Often we talk about the courage it must have taken for them to go and leave everything behind not knowing what was in store for them. For me, miracle is the word that comes to mind. It is like some of the miracle stories in which Jesus says the word and they are healed. In this case Jesus says the word and they follow. Given, all the frailties and failings that come with our human natures, it really is miraculous.

            The contrast between the miraculous call of Simon, Andrew, James and John and the reluctance of Jonah gives us some balance in perspective as we all struggle to respond in faith to God’s call in Jesus Christ day by day. God still calls us today. We might be reluctant like Jonah or filled with excitement like Simon, Andrew James and John. The contrast shows that there are many ways of being faithful to God’s call but in all things God finds a way to use us and the gifts we bring. Can you hear that voice calling, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Amen

Come and See

To really understand our gospel reading from John, you need to press rewind and go back a few verses. It really begins the day after Jesus’ baptism. John is standing there with two of his disciples. Maybe John’s disciples are wondering what John was getting on with saying that there, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! …And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1: 29, 34) Maybe they are preparing for the day’s work. Maybe they are just waiting for something to happen. As they are standing there Jesus walks by and John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:37)

            John’s two disciples follow Jesus so they can figure out what John is talking about. When Jesus notices them following him, he says, “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38) The two answered by asking, “where are you staying?” [Jesus] said to them, “Come and see.” (John 1:38 – 39) They did just that. I’m not sure what they saw or what they did during that day. We only know that one of the two was Andrew and Andrew’s brother is Simon Peter. Inspired by what he saw that day, Andrew boldly tells his brother, “We have found the Messiah.” (John 1:41) Then Andrew brings his brother to see Jesus. Jesus takes one look at Simon and says, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).” (John 1:42)

            It is almost miraculous how Jesus calls the first disciples – it begins with looking for something and an invitation to come and see. And when they see what Jesus is about they drop everything and him. It is only after the calling of Andrew and Simon Peter that we arrive at our reading for today.

Our reading starts the next day when Jesus decides to go to Galilee. This is where Jesus finds Philip and says him, “Follow me” and Philip does without hesitation. Philip finds Nathaniel and tells him the amazing news about Jesus being the Messiah. Now we hit the first road block. Nathaniel is skeptical. Oh he hears Philip telling him about Jesus and how they have found the Messiah in Jesus, son Joseph of Nazareth. All Nathaniel says is “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

            It’s a bit rude – playing on stereotypes and preconceived notions about people from a particular place. It’s sarcastic. It implies that there is no way Philip is telling the truth. Nathaniel is a sceptic. Philip doesn’t get mad. He simply repeats the invitation he received from Jesus, “Come and See”

            It’s a powerful invitation – especially since it seems that so many people are looking for something more. I’ve found often wondering or looking for something that gives more meaning. Perhaps you’ve been there too.  I think most of us can identify with that search for deeper meaning can’t we? As a society it seems that we are all searching for something whether it is meaning, or hope, or a new way of living, or that “thing” that will help everything else make sense. It reminds me of one of U2’s great hits “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”


I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was one empty night
I was cold as a stone
But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for
But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for

I believe when the Kingdom comes
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
But yes I'm still running.
You broke the bonds
You loosened the chains
You carried the cross
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I believed it
But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for

We are looking for “that something” that puts everything in perspective. I read an article in Christianity Today this week about the “new monasticism.” It is Christian monastic communities where people become “monks” but the target age is 20 – 35 and you commit to a year instead of a lifetime. In these communities they learn the ancient practices of prayer that have stood the test of time. The new monastic communities are attracting the people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Perhaps if Nathaniel were living today he would be spiritual but not religious. In the article it says “'There is a deep spiritual yearning for substance and depth,' says Rev Ian Mobsby of St Luke's Camberwell in Peckham, London. 'But people immediately assume the church has nothing to offer to that. That is why people call themselves spiritual and not religious.'  'People are asking, "What are the anchors to life? What is life about?"' he says. 'New monasticism is trying to say to a world increasingly interested in spirituality that Christianity has a lot to say.'” (https://www.christiantoday.com/article/new-monasticism-why-are-so-many-young-people-choosing-to-become-temporary-monksupdate1/123897.htm)

            I think that the heart of Jesus’ invitation. It is like Jesus says to us, “Come as you are with your questions and your doubts and concerns and see what I am about.” Jesus didn’t really answer Nathaniel’s questions but Jesus somehow sees him as he is. Philip asks Nathaniel to come and see. When Jesus sees Nathaniel coming he says, “Here is truly and Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47) The Message translates this phrase, “There’s a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body.” (John 1:47) Nathaniel couldn’t hide his questions or doubts or that he did not believe Philip’s proclamation that Jesus was indeed the One, the Messiah that they had been waiting for.

            You can imagine that Nathaniel’s reaction to statement about his was just as direct. “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (John 1:48) I’m not sure what happened for Nathaniel in that moment but something big happened. The next words out of his mouth are, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49) It is amazing.

Jan Schnell Rippentrop writes, “Nathaniel is not one of those folks whose faith developed gradually. He is one who was also himself startled when the reality of Jesus snapped unexpectedly into focus. There is something about that fig tree remark that made who Jesus is clear for Nathaniel. The reader does not get to be privy to what exactly transformed Nathaniel’s view of Jesus. What is clear is that epiphanies of the Christ come to different people in such drastically different ways that it can even be incomprehensible.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3529)

We come to faith in a variety of ways. For some it is just like it was for Nathaniel one-minute doubting and asking questions and then next minute full of conviction. For others it is a lifetime of questions and answers and gradually coming to believe. A friend of mine once describe the different ways of as faith as deep fryer faith and slow cooker faith –both create something beautiful.

Jesus invites us all to come and see. It is not an invitation rooted in the past but one that is given each day. With that invitation comes the promise that Jesus sees us just as we are and invites us to be about God’s work in the world. We come as we are with all our questions, fears, beliefs, doubts, joys and see what Jesus is about in our lives, community and world. Jesus to us today, “Come and see.” Amen. 

Baptism of Jesus

            I’ve been a minister for almost 17 years now. There are many things I love about the work I do but there is one thing that is always a joy for me – baptism. I enjoy meeting with the families and hearing about their little miracle and hearing about the challenges and blessings of being parents. But perhaps the part that I love the most is standing with person being baptised, placing water on their heads and reminding them that they are God’s beloved child. Every time I do baptism, I have the privilege of offering blessing in God’s name. It is a reminder to us that each one of us is special in God’s circle of love. We all are beloved children of God. The beautiful thing about baptism whether it is a baby, an older child, a teenager or a senior – is that it pure gift. You don’t have to earn the promise of God’s love. It is yours. It is mine. It is ours. No need to strive, or earn or be a certain way. God’s love is pure gift. And in our world where there is a price attached to everything or people have do or be a certain way to be accepted this is priceless.

            I think this is why Mark in his gospel gets straight to what is important. In Mark’s gospel there is no Christmas story. There are no angels or shepherds or dreams or genealogies because none of that matters to Mark. He says it in the first line of the gospel. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Then we meet John, clothed in camel hair and eating nothing but locusts and honey. He is a teacher and prophet called to prepare the way for Jesus. In this morning’s reading John is preaching about a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4)

            It sounds daunting doesn’t it? Repentance and sins are words with baggage. But repentance is about turning in a new direction and living in a new way. Sins are all those things that separate us from the love of God. Different perhaps for each one of us. They are the things that prevent us from remembering that we are God’s beloved. John is teaching and preaching to all who will listen about a new way living and a new of drawing closer to God. One day as the crowds are gathered, John says “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptised you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”(Mark 1:7 – 8)

            The very next words of the gospel are, “In those days Jesus of Nazareth of Galilee was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from haven, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9 – 11) With that, Jesus begins his public ministry of teaching and healing.

            That is the starting place for all of us to. We are God’s beloved children and God is well pleased with us. This past year, we started hearing the hopes and prayers of parents as they bring their children for baptism. Each family offers something different but they are all grounded in a deep love for their children. One family wrote, “Our hopes and prayers for our daughter are that she is healthy in mind, body and spirit. We hope to raise her in a supportive community of family, friends and neighbors - where she feels protected and supported, encouraged and challenged, and treated with respect. We pray that she learns and reflects Christian values in her everyday life: that she has optimistic faith, patience and peace; that she is thoughtful, confident and brave; lives with intention and purpose; gives thanks and finds happiness from within and shares that happiness with the world.”

            David Lose writes, “In Holy Baptism God just chooses us. …God says that we are enough. Already. That we are pleasing to God and deserve to be loved. And that identity of being God’s beloved child – precisely because it is established by God – cannot be taken away from us or, for that matter, lost by us. Rather, God continues to come into our lives to call us beloved and blessed and promise once again to be always both with us and for us. That promise and blessing, in turn, helps us face all the challenges we mentioned earlier. Problems at home or in the community, concerns about the world or our personal lives. We can face whatever might be plaguing us with greater confidence knowing that God is on our side.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/01/epiphany-1-b-powerful-words-for-a-new-year/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28...In+the+Meantime%29)

            As each one of us meets the challenges of this day, this week, this month we are reminded that faith is not a magical cure all but the constant reminder that God is with us lightening the burden and providing hope. Any challenges we face we do so with God’s help and the support with support from our community of faith. With the words beloved ringing in our ears each and every new day, we are called to be about God’s work in the world. And there are so many ways to respond but they are all grounded in a new way of living that is rooted in God’s grace. This makes all things possible. Rooted God’s love, Jesus showed us what that new way of living looked like. It was the face of compassion. It was mercy. It was grace. It was life giving. It was healing. It was hope.

We are invited to be about that work of compassion, mercy, grace, living-giving, healing, and hope. When we feed those who are hungry we proclaim the good news that God is with us. When we walk in the shadows with those who are lost and hurting we offer the light of new life. When we support our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our lives proclaim the good news that we are all God’s beloved children. It is the promise that comes with baptism and that has called us and claimed us as Christ’s own everyday since. 

            Baptism is a new way of living. Mark knew that. He knew that there could be no better way to start the story of Jesus’ life than on the day of his baptism. Today, we are God’s beloved and with us God is well pleased. Amen 

Home by Another Road

            Depending on where you live in the world, it depends on what yesterday gets called. Here we call it Old Christmas Day – one last chance to celebrate the joy of the Christmas Season. For Orthodox and Eastern Christians, yesterday was Christmas Eve and today is Christmas Day. It was also the Feast of the Epiphany – the day the Magi from the east arrive bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. I always love this day – maybe because it is like one last chance to delve into the Christmas Story but I think mostly because I admire those travelers from the east. They came not knowing what would happen or who they would meet along the way.

            Think about what they did. These wise ones who study the stars noticed something in the sky that made them curious. They’d never seen this particular star before. It wasn’t in any of their charts. Their curiosity led to follow a star to parts of the world perhaps they’d only imagined. As they travelled following that star, perhaps they talked among themselves about the meaning of the star. What is the universe saying to us? They landed on royalty.

So much so that they when they arrive in Jerusalem they start asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:2) In the palace King Herod hears about the visitors from the East looking for the one born to be king of the Jews and Herod and all Jerusalem are frightened.

King Herod was not someone to be trifled with. He was about power and he was politically savvy. He built an empire and somehow, he kept the peace with religious establishment and the engagement of those who were not Jewish. Herod was shrewd and cunning. In her commentary on this passage Jan Schnell Rippentrop writes, “This man, who had spent his whole life climbing to the political height he had achieved, is unlikely to favorably receive news that a baby is to be born with a right to Herod’s rule. Furthermore, Herod is used to getting rid of people who don’t serve his ambition. He:

had ten wives,

ordered multiple assassinations, including assassinations of some of his own sons, and,

changed succession plans multiple times as he decided who would take his throne when he died.

When Herod heard that a baby could get in the way of his plans, he defaulted to his regular pattern of figuring out how to execute the problem child.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3523)

So you can understand why all Jerusalem was frightened by the news that the Magi were bringing. For Herod this was a threat to his power and when Herod felt threatened so did everyone. What is important to note is the difference between Herod’s kingship which brings terror and God’s kingship which comes as a baby filled with love. When the chief priest and the scribes quote form the book of Micah telling Herod that the king is born in Bethlehem, he says to the Magi, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:8)

The Magi, undaunted by their search to find the ones whose star they say at its rising, go to Bethlehem. There they find Jesus with his mother. The kneel and pay him homage and offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Magi, attuned to every sign, are warned in a dream not to return to Herod so, as it says in Matthew, “They left for their own country by another road.” (Matthew 2:12) And they were right to do so. What happens next is what happens when those in power feel threatened. He searched out all those who might supplant him as king and killed them. Joseph was also warned in dreamed not to return to his home. He took Mary and Jesus and they flee to Egypt.

            It scary and terrifying part of the Christmas story in Matthew. One we don’t often tell or read about. We talk about the arrival of the Magi, but we don’t often talk about the courage that it took for the to defy Herod and take that unknown road back to their home. Like most endings, it is also a beginning. The beginning of journey for the Magi as they travel home by that new road. Herod did not have the last word. The Magi, trusting their dreams, head home by different road and just maybe they got the courage to defy Herod because they met Jesus who changes everything.

As we contemplate how we live in light of the good news of Jesus’ birth, we too can take a page out of the Magi’s book, and travel home by a different road. It is the road that calls us to be bold in caring, to stand up against injustice and to be a voice for those who need it. It is an uncertain road, but it is the one that will take us home.

Jan Richard writes this poem called Blessing of the Magi

 

There is no reversing
this road.
The path that bore you here
goes in one direction only,
every step drawing you
down a way
by which you will not
return.

 

You thought arrival
was everything,
that your entire journey
ended with kneeling
in the place
you had spent all
to find.

 

When you laid down
your gift,
release came with such ease,
your treasure tumbling
from your hands
in awe and
benediction.

 

Now the knowledge
of your leaving
comes like a stone laid
over your heart,
the familiar path closed
and not even the solace
of a star
to guide your way.

 

You will set out in fear
you will set out in dream

but you will set out

by that other road
that lies in shadow
and in dark.

We cannot show you
the route that will
take you home;
that way is yours
and will be found
in the walking.

But we tell you
you will wonder
at how the light you thought
you had left behind
goes with you,
spilling from
your empty hands,
shimmering beneath
your homeward feet,
illuminating the road
with every step
you take.

            The Magi come from East, from the direction of the rising sun, bearing gifts for the one who is the light of the world. At the dawn of this new year, let us remember, that no matter the challenges we face, that Jesus who brings light and life to this world, is strength and courage and grace for all the roads we travel. May the light that shines from the stable illuminate every path your travel. Amen. 

God Comes Near

We started our service today with the hauntingly beautiful Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” It’s the first hymn in the hymn book. It is a hymn of longing, of hoping, of praying for the time when God comes near. Emmanuel means “God with us” The church has been singing this hymn for centuries “The antiphons, sometimes called the ‘O antiphons’ or ‘The Great O’s’, were designated to concentrate the mind on the coming Christmas, enriching the meaning of the Incarnation with a complex series of references from the Old and New Testaments.” Each antiphon begins as follows:

O Sapentia (Wisdom)
O Adonai (Hebrew word for God)
O Radix Jesse (stem or root of Jesse)
O Clavis David (key of David)
O Oriens (dayspring)
O Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)
O Emmanuel

Put together, the first letter of the second word of each antiphon spells SARCORE. If read backwards, the letters form a two-word acrostic, “Ero cras,” meaning “I will be present tomorrow.” https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-o-come-o-come-emmanuel

            Advent is the time of getting ready and preparing the day when God comes near. The Mark reading set for the first Sunday of Advent is a bit scary sounding. Certainly not what you expect for a day of celebration. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with God coming near or the promise that God is with us. Mark writes, “But in those days, after that suffering, 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.” (Mark 13:24 – 27) It doesn’t sound like we are waiting for something good. It sounds scary – maybe like the childhood story of Henny Penney and the sky falling.

            Mark’s “little apocalypse” may sound daunting but he is not talking about the end of the world in the traditional sense of apocalyptic literature. Mark is writing at the time of the destruction of the temple. The temple was the centre not only of worship but of their economic and community life. The destruction was an ending of something that was central to who they were as a people. Karoline Lewis writes, “At the heart of apocalyptic literature is encouragement and hope. To some extent, this is Jesus at his pastoral best. That which looks like devastation and defeat will be God's victory. Out of the theological turmoil and confusion surrounding the destruction of the temple will be a new presence of God. Out of the suffering and death of their Messiah will be new life. God's new way of being in the world will turn a cross into resurrection and a baby in a manger into salvation for the world.” https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1145

            At the heart of this season of waiting, is a hope that cannot and will not be dimmed. During the year and a half that we worshipped at the Seventh-day Adventist, we did so trusting that God was and is here with us on the journey. Those moments when it was hard and we had to learn how to be and do church in news ways, also reminded that together with God’s help so much possible. There was an abundance of God’s grace at every turn in the road.

            Today we celebrate our return home. We celebrate all those times when God drew near. The moments when we found hope when it seemed like there was no reason to hope. Those moments when we did not know which path to take and God guided us. It has been and will continue to be remarkable journey marked by God’s guiding spirit.

We do not know what the road ahead holds for us as a community but we trust in our God’s enduring presence to show us the way. God’s Spirit is with us as we begin the next part of our journey as God’s people. In the words of our hymn, “O come, O Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind … Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” (Voices United, #1)

What My Church and Confirmation Mean to Me

“What Confirmation and the Church Mean to Me”

The 2017 Confirmation Class

In our confirmation class we’ve talked about a few things like God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, how the United Church of Canada works, prayer, communion and baptism. In our last class, Rev. Miriam asked us to write about what church and confirmation means to us. Here is what we said:

Church means that you celebrate God and your religious faith. Confirmation means to officially become a part of your church. I like the coffee time because I can get a snack and talk to people.

You get to talk to lots of people who care about you. I like the cookies Henrietta gave me because they taste good. I also love the time of fellowship after church. We get to socialize with the people of church community and we get to eat some delicious food (especially the cheese).

My church and my confirmation are important to me. I think that it is import to be part of and get confirmed at my church at a younger age. I love singing in the church choir which I especially love when Evan is teaches it. We get to sing lots of beautiful music.

I think it is important to stay with my church as long as I can since the population of the churches in Newfoundland is going down. Sunday school is fund because we do crafts and make lots of stuff.

What my church and confirmation mean to me is that it is a place where I can take a break from the problems I have and feel safe. It’s to be a part of something magical no matter how different your opinions are on society or politics. We are one! I like communion because the grape juice tastes good and they bread is chewy.

It means I’m an official member of this church. My church to me means learning about the Holy Spirit and eating the food after the church service. Confirmation is about coming closer as a member of the church. It is also a place I reflect on myself. It is a place I can ‘reset’ my mind and helps me be able to relax and be. 

Keep Awake

Have you ever had those dreams where you show up at the wrong time and wrong place for some really important function? When I was in school they all revolved around exams or papers. The dream would usually start with going to the classroom where my exam only to realize that I’m the wrong place and even worse than that I studied for the wrong exam. In the last number of years, I’ve moved on to Sunday morning dreams. I show up at the church but I can’t find my sermon or I didn’t write a sermon or sometimes I just can’t seem to turn down the right road to get to the church.

The parable Jesus tells about the 10 bridesmaids – the five foolish and the five wise, reminds me of those dreams – well at least on the part of the foolish ones who couldn’t get into the celebration because they didn’t pack extra oil. Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this…” (Matthew 25:1) Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t is like but will be like? It is so clear. And yet the parable is anything but clear. There are 10 bridesmaids who all took their lamps to meet the bridegroom. 5 were wise and brought extra oil with them and 5 were foolish and didn’t bring extra oil. But the bridegroom is delayed and all those bridesmaids fall asleep. Finally, at midnight someone shouts, “The bridegroom is here! Come to meet him.” The Bridesmaids rub the sleep from their eye, get up and trim their lamps. Then the foolish ones realize that they are going to run out and ask the wise ones to share their oil with them. They refuse and send them off to buy more oil. When they come back, the bridegroom won’t let them in. Not only that the bridegroom says, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” (Matthew 25:12)

Here are some of my questions. So much of the gospel story is about love and mercy. Why didn’t the wise ones share with the others? Why did they get locked out? Jesus is all about opening doors for everyone. As you can tell, my sympathies are with those 5 foolish bridesmaids. Locked out of the wedding banquet after waiting so long and then running to get oil and running back to the feast only to be told they can’t come in. You can see why the parable reminds me of a bad dream. First not prepared. Second having to go on a mad dash to pick up what you forgot and then not being let in. This does not sound like the kingdom of heaven that I’m used to hearing about. The kingdom of heaven is normally a place where justice and mercy are plentiful. Where God’s love seems abundant.

A little context helps a lot with this parable. Matthew’s gospel was written long after Jesus’s death and everyone is waiting for his return. David Lose writes “By the time Matthew wrote this parable, the discipleship community may have been waiting for Jesus’ return for fifty years or more. Most of the eye-witnesses were likely dead. The church had spread, but it had also been oppressed. The Temple revered by both the Jews who confessed Jesus and those who did not had been destroyed, wreaking havoc on Jewish and Christian communities (sometimes worshiping together) alike. Where was Jesus? Yes, the waiting is the hardest part.” (In the Meantime, November 8th)

Waiting is hard and I would say many if not most of us are not all that good at waiting. I know I’m not. I like to have the things I want right away. Dr. Seuss in his book OH the Places You Will Go describes the waiting place as the most useless of all places. “Waiting for a train to go or the mail to come or the rain to go or the phone to ring or the snow to snow or waiting around for a yes or no or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting. Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for the uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or string of pearls, or a pair of pants or wig with curls or another chance. Everyone is just waiting.”

For over two thousand years, as a people of faith, we’ve been waiting for that day when Jesus will return. The early disciples believed that Jesus return was going to happen right away. It was a complete surprise to them that they waited for something that did not happen. It is almost as though Jesus is telling this parable to help us with what we aren’t good at – waiting. Because every parable says we do not know the day or the hour of Jesus return. But no one dreamed that it would take over two thousand years. The waiting Jesus was talking about is not a usesless kind of waiting. It’s not about watching the hours tick away on a clock. It is waiting with purpose. This is a kingdom of God parable.

Jesus showed us the way at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel – we heard them last week. The beatitudes set the stage for how we wait. Our calling is to comfort the grieving, to be merciful, to be pacemakers, to care for others in our midst. As we do all these things we are making God’s kingdom real. It’s the waiting Jesus talks about later in this chapter when he says,
“Come, you that are blessed by Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and visited me. …Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34 – 36, 40)

            In this waiting time, we are sometimes going to get it just right like the wise bridesmaids. We are ready and celebrating at the feast. And sometimes we are going to be like the foolish ones, we are going to be late and not have everything we need to enter the celebration. But our God’s mercy is infinite and there are always second chances. As we wait in hope, for that day when Christ comes again, let us be about God’s work of mercy and compassion. Amen.  

Lest We Forgot

Memory and imagination are powerful. They have a way of reminding us of where we’ve been and pointing us to where we need to be. This past week I spent a lot of time remembering with my grandmother. She told about her parents, who I’ve never met, yet though her memory somehow they became real. Her father, who along with his two brothers, moved to London to become police officers because they were all over six feet tall. Her mother, who was 4 ft 10 and somehow managed to raise 10 children. How she went to the farm only for a few months and stayed a lifetime with my grandfather. Memory reminds us of where we’ve been. In this week of All Saints – it is important to remember those who’ve gone before us. Not only those who fought in battles, those who tended the home fronts, and those who built churches and raised families and cared for others.

Memory tells us where we’ve been. Imagination on the other hands helps us look ahead to the future. So many people over the years have gone into battle with brave hearts because they were imaging a world that is different than the current present.

In many ways that is what Jesus is doing in our reading from Matthew. Jesus and the disciples are gathered at the top of a mountain. Jesus is teaching them. He is helping them to imagine a future that is so different from their present. Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3 – 11)

            It is hard to wrap our heads around those who are grieving or poor in spirit being blessed. It is not how we normally use the word “blessing.” We talk about blessings often as something that is going our way or seems really good. Susan Hylen writes, “The Greek word, makarios, which is central to the Beatitudes, is a fairly common word. It’s not really hard to understand, but it’s difficult to translate into English. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates “blessed,” which is by far the most common translation of the Beatitudes. The problem with blessed is that it sounds a little unreal, like a quality that applies only to those saints whose stories we celebrate on All Saints Day and whose example may appear a bit unattainable to us.

New Testament professor Margaret Aymer has translated makarios as “greatly honored.” This is another good option for translating this word because it emphasizes the theme of reversal that is implied in the Beatitudes. The meek and the merciful are not revered by the world’s standards, but they are honored by God and by those who would align their lives with God’s ways.”  (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3453)

            That changes how we read the beatitudes doesn’t it? They are a way of imagining a different future for all God’s children. In God’s kingdom, the one we daily strive for, those who are most vulnerable are greatly honoured. They who are grieving are greatly honoured. Those who show mercy are greatly honoured. The peacemakers are greatly honoured. Jesus is laying before us a new way of living the seeks the welfare of all – it is a world of peace.

            Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the bible called The Message translates Matthew 5 this way: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. … “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.” (Matthew 5:3 – 6, 9)

            There is so much happening in our world today that is difficult and sets us to be at odds with one another. Jesus is pointing us to a world where love, mercy, compassion and above all peace are real and lasting. Jesus is asking us to imagine a future that is the reversal of many of the norms of this world. If we pause for a moment we can catch glimpses of that peace and love at work in our world. Hold onto those moments because they help us to imagine what is possible.

            Memory and imagination allow us to both remember what was and hope for a better world.  Today we remember. Today we pray for peace. Today we follow in the footsteps of the prince of peace who asks us not only imagine a world of peace to live each day working for that peace. May it be so. Amen 

Everything after we say yes

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            There are several unwritten rules that our culture seems to abide by. Things we are permitted to talk about. Things we are supposed to stay quiet about. That is even more true in church. I grew up learning that you do not talk about religion, politics or money. I guess Jesus didn’t get the message. He is always talking about all three. It is tempting to believe that somehow we can parcel off those three parts of our lives and remain silent or pretend we don’t have opinions. Politics these days are hard to avoid – especially if we tune into international politics. It is hard to remain silent in the face of injustices and discrimination. The political arena shapes the world we live in with laws that govern our daily living. Money while it does not make the world go around, if you don’t have any it is a big problem. Money covers off those basic necessities of food and shelter. And if we don’t talk about religion our lives of faith then how will people know about what God does for us and it shapes our living.

The truth is, it is impossible to parcel off politics, religion and money from our daily living and conversation. This past week I attended a conference all about stewardship where I learned the best definition of stewardship. It is everything after we say yes to God. Wow! It is how we live from day to day. It is how we take care of our children or care for aging parents. It is how we care for others around us. It is how we do our jobs each day. It is how we use our money. It is everything after we’ve said yes to God.

Jesus knew that all too well. He is teaching the crowds when the Herodian and Pharisees show up. That is the bible’s way of saying trouble is coming. The Herodians and Pharisees don’t agree on much politically speaking but they agree that Jesus must go. Here is what you need to know about the Herodians and the Pharisees. The Herodians are fine with Caesar’s tax, given Herod’s cozy arrangement with Rome. For the Pharisees, the tax is a problem but so is the coin used to pay the tax. The coin proclaims Caesar as a god which runs contrary to the commandment that says ``you shall have no other God before me.`` So they set the trap with flattery and what seems like a simple question.

 “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" (Matthew 22:16 – 17) Their goal is to cost him his following or his life. If he approves payment of the tax, he supports the empire and people will abandon him. If says they should not pay the tax, he is committing treason.

Jesus calls them all hypocrites. "Show me the coin," Jesus says. With the coin in hand, Jesus then asks the two simple questions: Whose image is that? Whose title? They say, “The emperor’s” What follows is a well known passage of scripture. The King James Version translates it this way: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22: 21)

Dr. David Lose writes, “Because if their question is clever, Jesus’ response is ingenious or, more appropriately, inspired, leading to an exchange that is as revealing as it is brief. After asking if any of his questioners has a coin of the Empire – the only coin that could be used to pay the tax in question – they quickly procure one. Jesus asks whose image is on it, and they answer “The Emperor’s.” There’s more going on here than meets the eye, as along with that image is an engraved confession of Caesar’s divinity, which means that any Jew holding the coin is breaking the first two of the commandments. All of which leads to Jesus’ closing line, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And with this one sentence, Jesus does not simply evade their trap or confound their plans, but issues a challenge to his hearers that reverberates through the ages into our sanctuaries.” (In the Meantime, October 15, 2017)

Jesus knows what we know – everything belongs to God. We live in a place that governed by laws but we also follow in God’s ways. In Jesus time, the politics were complicated. The people were governed both by religious law and secular law. Jesus lived within the Roman Empire, ultimately under the rule of the Emperor. The Roman Empire granted Jewish people a unique status that allowed them to practice their religion and use the rules within their religion to govern themselves. Jesus owed allegiance to Rome and to his religious community.

Lynda Wright in the book This Is the Day reflects on the need to not only spend time in prayer with God but also to be in relationship with others, to be part of the community. This is reflected in two central parts of Jewish spirituality: “’Devokut’ or ‘clinging to God’ – our need for contemplating the Mystery [of God] and in it finding our nourishment and ‘Tikkun O’lam’ or “repair of the world’ our responsibility to work for justice and the bringing in of God’s kingdom.” (This is the Day)

To be whole we need to be connected to all parts of our lives. We need time to connect with God through prayer and contemplation. We also need people. Recent studies show that loneliness is worse for our health than smoking or obesity. We need community and part of living in a community is those systems that help us live together. That is what the ten commandments are about. That is the role that government plays. That said we also know that governments can be corrupt or do things that hurt the ways we live in community. That is when we need to engage the system and let our voices be heard.

            With Jesus, no topics are taken off the table. Our whole lives are an offering to God. So of course, we give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.  More importantly we give to God what is Gods. Stewardship is everything, everything after we say yes to God. We give thanks to God by following in Jesus’ footsteps and living with compassion, with mercy, with grace and with love. And when it seems hard, we remember that we are made in God’s image and with God nothing is impossible. Amen.