faith

Why be a church Member

Our question this week, is in a way linked to last week’s question. Last week we talked a about why come to church? There are other options and things to do on Sunday morning that don’t involve going to church. People said everything from we go so that we know we aren’t the centre of everything, to needing it to get through the week, to finding joy in the people, the music, the service and for some it is the feeling of home. This week the question is, what does it mean to be a member of a church in today’s? 

            Confession. Until this question, I didn’t really spend much time thinking about the meaning of membership. It gave a chance to think of my own journey. I first became a member of the United Church when I was 13 or 14. I remember meeting with our minster Rev. Ted McCleod. I remember his asking us thoughtful questions and I remember celebrating becoming part of the church. The church that my parents of and the one that their parents before them belonged to. My mother loves telling me about her Presbyterian grandfather who not become a member of the United Church after Union in 1925. I’ve visited people here who tell me that they are Methodists and not United Church. As clergy, I am no longer a member of a congregation, but a member of a region. Over the years I’ve talked to people who want to be members and others who are deeply committed to their church don’t believe that the church is a club that requires membership. 

Our relationship with church membership has its roots in our beliefs about God and is also affected by the generation we were born into. Generationally speaking there is a different sense of denominational loyalty. Generations ahead of mine, chose one denomination and that’s what they were. There is a shift in the millennial generation. This generation Whereas my generation and the ones that follow mine, are less concerned with denominational loyalty and more concerned about the feeling of the local church community. The same is true when it comes to brand loyalty. Previous generations there was a high level of brand loyalty whether it was to car or to the company that you worked for. (http://discipleshipresearch.com/2017/03/millennials-dont-do-denomination/)  

I don’t usually bring up The Manual in sermons but there is a first time for everything! In the United Church we have a designation of full membership – you belong to a specific congregation as well as a denomination. We have what is called full members this happens through confirmation (reaffirmation of baptismal faith) or adult baptism and profession of faith.  (The Manual) We can transfer that membership between congregation. We have another group called adherents. They are people who attend worship and contribute regularly to the life of the congregation. In our daily worship together, we don’t often make a distinction between members and adherents. At our Congregational meetings those in full membership can make a motion allowing everyone to vote on all matters related to the life of the congregation. 

            In the past number of years the United Church has done several studies on membership. Some people want stronger regulations for membership and others like me want looser definitions of membership. I am on the side of wanting everyone who shows up, shows an interest and wants to be involved being considered members. This was shaped by my first congregations. Many of the most involved people in the life of several points were not in full membership. They were there every Sunday to turn on the lights and fix what needed being fixed or organize church functions. It didn’t seem to be that the polity of the church was in keeping with the practical day to day functioning of that congregation. I’m guessing that there are many other churches like this as well. It also likely that this is why the most recent survey on membership wasn’t conclusive – there was an almost 50/50 split on how to define membership.

            So what does it mean to be a member of a church? Why be would you be a member?  I think we need to move past polity and into how it shapes our faith. Years ago, I heard ago I heard a beautiful story about a man whose loved one passed away. I can’t remember if it was his mother or father or someone very close to him. All his life he’d attended church, singing hymns and praying/saying the creeds. On the day of his loved one’s funeral he came to church, it came time for the first hymn and he couldn’t sing. The words got stuck in his throat. Reflecting on this experience later, he shared that he was thankful that there was a congregation behind him who could sing the words of faith when he couldn’t. Someone else was believing and singing for him when he couldn’t.

            Together we are stronger because when I don’t have the words of faith and doubt or sorrow creeps in, you will believe for me. I will do the same for you in your time of need. The community of believers brings meaning to membership. There is something spiritual that happens to us when we sit together, sing together, pray together, and eat together from one week to the next. It reminds me of that great quote from Hebrews, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,[a] and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” (Hebrews 12:1)

            In our reading from 1 Corinthians, we have Paul’s reminder that we are all members of the body of Christ and each one of us brings our own unique gifts and every gift is important. The thing I appreciate about Paul’s letters is that he writes when there is trouble in the community and the community at Corinth was arguing about whose spiritual gifts were the best!! It happened then and it happens now. Paul says, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. … Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 27 – 31) That still more excellent way is the way of love that Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 13. 

            Membership in a church community gives a place to live out our faith, to work with one another and work things out when we do not agree. Membership in a community gives a place to express our doubts and explore our faith. It reminds us that we are not alone grown, learn, question and doubt. It gives us brothers and sisters in faith who will believe and sing for us when we cannot find the words of faith for ourselves. Membership is a way of supporting each other and hold each other accountable for a living faith. 

            In our gospel reading, Jesus invites the first disciples to drop their nets and follow. Membership in a church community is one way we live out our invitation to discipleship. It is not the only way. As members of the body of Christ, we follow in Jesus way of contemplation and action. Jesus often took time to pray and he also took time to make everyone feel welcome. Following in the way of Jesus is not easy. We need to the time to worship, sing, pray, and learn so that we can go out care for others, our community and our world. Belonging to a gathered, worshipping community helps to live into Jesus’ final commission. 

            In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ departing words to us were, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18 – 20) Let us go from this place to be the body of Christ in the world. Amen. 

Shh.... Not in Polite Company. Why can't we talk about Sex, Politics and Money?

This week’s question is mine. I’ve always wondered why there are some subjects that fall into the forbidden topic zone whether you are at church or work or a party or in community gathering. It’s like these few words are a flashing stop sign. And I understand why. The question is mine but that didn’t mean that I didn’t spend the whole week avoiding doing the bulletin because I was nervous. I posted the topic and my heart started racing because I was nervous. Should I broach this in church? Then I remembered the stories of the bible. None of them shy away from talking about money or sex or politics … and you don’t have to look very hard to find them. A few years ago, I attended stewardship. They gave us this definition for stewardship – it is everything after we say yes to God and that means no topics are off limits with God. In her new book Shameless Nadia Bolz-Webber writes, “…our sexual and gender expressions are as integral to who we are as our religious upbringings are. To separate these aspects of ourselves – to separate life as a sexual being from a life with God – is to bifurcate our psyche, like a musical progression that ever comes to resolution.” (Shameless page 4) And she is right, when topics that are central to our lives like sexuality, like our faith, like money, like politics are off limits they hide in the shadows, can produce shame, anxiety and fear. None of this is what Jesus wanted for us. Jesus invites us to wholeness and abundant life.

Just before we dive in – this is a beginning. There is no way we can cover all these deep topics in one sermon. But maybe if we dip our toes in to the waters of the challenging topics, it will help us to keep explore, talking and learning. And maybe as we have these holy conversations, we will catch a glimpse of the kingdom that Jesus talked about so much.

How many of you have read the full book of Song of Solomon? If you have you will know that it is the bibles erotic love poetry – filled with passion. Our reading this morning is just one small part of that poem and a PG rated reading. Listen: “My beloved is like a gazelle or young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for the now the winter is past, the rain is gone.” (Song of Solomon 2:9 – 11) There is a long tradition of Christian mystics, like St. Teresa of Avila, whose prayers mimic that language we use to describe a lover. There is strong connections between our souls need for God and our relationships with our lovers. Today, we know from research in our education system that the teenagers who get comprehensive sex education have lower rates of pregnancy and are less likely to get a sexually transmitted disease. They had a space where they could learn, ask questions and have a conversation with their peers. Even if its uncomfortable and the room fills with awkward giggles. I wonder what change if we talked about sex as both gift and blessing from God instead of something that is forbidden or sinful or only for marriage? I wonder open conversation about sex and sexuality change the silence that happens around sexual violence? I wonder if there would be less shame and more joy?

Psalm 139 says, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. …For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” (Psalm 139:1 – 2, 13 – 14)) We are all made in God’s image beautifully and wonderfully made and that includes our sexuality and gender expressions. It includes how we live together in our communities and how we use the resources that God gives us.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus makes just this point. He is teaching the crowds when the Herodian and Pharisees show up. The Herodians and Pharisees don’t agree on much politically speaking but they agree that Jesus is a problem that needs to be fixed. 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, “All of which sharpens the bite of Jesus’ response: “give, therefore, to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And suddenly the tables are turned, as all in attendance confess that everything belongs to the holy One of Israel. With just a few words, Jesus reveals the truth about his would-be accusers and simultaneously calls them to a higher fidelity than they’d imagined. I wonder if Jesus is doing the same to us? Not trying to trap us, of course, but rather inviting us to declare our allegiance. Perhaps the key issue in this exchange isn’t whose image is on the coin, but rather whose image is on us.”

(http://www.davidlose.net/2014/10/matthew-22-15-22/)

Back to our starting place. Everything after we say yes to God is stewardship – how we live out our faith. Jesus wanted to change the world for the everyone. Jesus talked about the kingdom of God – that place where all find home and welcome. It is our calling as followers of Jesus make this kingdom a reality. And if we can’t talk about how our financial resources get used and if we can’t talk about politics then, then how are we going to help transform our world so it reflects that kingdom?

I think it is becoming increasingly urgent for us to talk about money and politics. I turn on the news and I’m horrified that a world leader would have the audacity to citizens to go back to the country they came from. And in case you think it’s only happening in other countries, just listen to the rhetoric of some of our politic leaders at both the provincial and national level. We need to talk about racism and the kind of world we want to live in. I turn on the news and I hear about the many have no home or not enough money to buy food. We live in a world that has enough resources to feed and shelter everyone. Why can some people spend more money on a luxury item then some people make in 10 years? We need to talk about poverty and wealth. I turn on the news and hear about the planet that we call home and I worry for my children. We need to talk about climate change and how to change our destructive habits so our children can live in safety.

Father Gregory Boyle in a video by Work of the Peoplesays, “Jesus was only about dismantling the barriers that excluded. Jesus was only about expanding the circle of compassion hopeful that no one would be standing outside.” We need to keep talking about those things that make us uncomfortable or considered forbidden so that our world starts to be that circle of compassion where no one is standing outside. Amen.

One Tiny Seed

Jesus tells two parables in our gospel reading for today. Neither of them is very long. Parables are sometimes challenging to understand. Whenever I tell the Godly Play parables, which come in gold boxes, we are reminded that parables are more valuable than gold and presents given to us long before we were born. We also say, “The box has a lid on it. Sometimes it is as if parables have doors that are shut. You can’t go inside even if you are ready. I don’t know why. It just happens, so don’t be discouraged. Keep coming back again and again. One day the parable will open for you.” (Godly Play, Parable of the Good Samaritan) 

            I find these two parables have doors on them that don’t open easily and I need to keep coming back to them again and again. I read the words and I try to imagine what the message is that Jesus has for us, particularly in the parable of the mustard seed, and I struggle to find it. What’s the good news about seed growing or a tiny seed growing into huge shrub or birds nesting in a giant shrub? What does it tell us about how to live in this world? These are kingdom of God parables and Jesus is trying to tell us something important. 

Perhaps the biggest help to me in opening up these parables to me was the weekly blog written by Dr. David Lose called In the Meantime. He reminded me what parables are all about. “Parables are narrative contrasts – Eugene Peterson somewhere calls them, more provocatively, “narrative time bombs” – that are meant to undermine our assumptions of the various “givens” and even “realities” that we accept unquestioningly and offer us a vision of something different. …“parable” comes from two Greek words, para, “beside,” and ballein, “to throw.” A parable is then throwing one thing (a vision of God’s kingdom) beside another (the world as it is) to see what happens. The comparisons are unpredictable” (vhttp://www.davidlose.net/2018/06/pentecost-4-b-quiet-dynamic-confidence/) 

            The second thing he writes is this, “The challenge with that translation is that “kingdom” seems so static, as if describing some fixed place, whereas basileia is far more dynamic, describing the arenas of God’s activity and influence. Some therefore translate it “the reign” or “rule” of God to highlight that more active dimension of the word. …when we see the world as God does, and when we act toward each other as God would have us, we are living in God’s rule. That means that we can experience and enact the kingdom here and now as well as recognize that even our best efforts fall short of God’s vision and so recognize that God’s activity and reign is not yet fully present among us.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/06/pentecost-4-b-quiet-dynamic-confidence/) 

Jesus says, “‘The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then then head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickly, because the harvest has come. “He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’” (Mark 4:26 – 32)

The first parable is about us. Our faith. How does God’s word take root in us and in our daily living. “Dr. Fred Craddock, the eminent retired seminary professor who has influenced so many pastors …once told of the teacher who most influenced him. Her name was, “Miss Emma Sloan.” Miss Sloan was an elderly woman, single. She taught him in the primary department, and since there was nobody to teach his group as juniors, she went right on with them, and taught them for years. She gave him a Bible. She wrote in the front: “May this be a light to your feet, a lamp for your path. Emma Sloan.” She taught the children to memorize the Bible; she never tried to interpret it. …She said, “Just put it in your heart, just put it in your heart.” She used the alphabet, and they’d go around the room saying verses. “A A soft answer turns away wrath. B Be ye kind, one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, as God also in Christ has forgiven you. C Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden. D Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. E Every good and perfect gift . . . F For God so loved the world . . .”

He says he can still remember those verses. Miss Emma didn’t explain what the verses meant. She just sowed those seeds of Scripture from the King James Bible in their hearts. … “I can’t think of anything, anything in all my life that has made such a radical difference as those verses,” says Fred Craddock. “The Spirit of God brings them to my mind appropriately, time and time and time again.” (Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories p. 33-34.)

I’ve noticed the same things about scripture. Sometimes those passages and stories which are written in our hearts, sown likes seeds, come to us at just the right time. They remind us how to live following in Jesus way. It helps us to remember who we are as God’s people. This is especially important in a week when passages of scripture were be used to justify separating migrant children from their parents. Thankfully churches of all denominations have stood up and loudly proclaimed that this is not what the bible says. People remember that God calls us to welcome the stranger to care for others in our midst. Some have used the opportunity to remember that Jesus himself was an immigrant. It is at times like this, when the words of scripture are distorted and used to justify cruelty, it then that we need the second parable … the mustard seed. 

In this one tiny seed we are reminded that God’s kingdom is something unpredictable and can take root in the most amazing places. The mustard seed is really a tenacious weed. It grows whether we want it to or not. One tiny seed reminds us that God’s rule, is something right now and something that by God’s grace we live into. And when God’s word takes root in us our world can indeed be a place where all God’s children are loved and cherished. God’s kingdom of love cannot be stopped. God’s justice that flows in the desert. 

And when God’s word take root in us we live with compassion and mercy. With God’s words ringing in our hearts we live our faith daily by show love to our neighbours and one another. When we plant those seeds amazing things happen in our world.Archbishop Oscar Romeo writes, “This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one-day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. (http://rainandtherhinoceros.wordpress.com/2007/11/05/we-plant-seeds-by-archbishop-romero/)

            Just like the tenacious weed, God’s kingdom cannot be stopped. God will work through us and our brothers and sisters in faith to transform the world bringing healing, hope, justice and peace for all. Let us live into that kingdom. Let us live into that love. Amen.