29 July 2018

"What If?" (sermon)

July 29, 2018
Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
(This version recorded at Westfield United Church)

Scripture:  John 6:1-14 

This week I decided to record my sermon (audio only) - after all, a sermon is an auditory event rather than a written script.  So sit back, turn your sound on, and here goes!


22 July 2018

"A Bouquet of Memories" (Sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
July 15 (Westfield and Long Reach) and July 22 (Bayswater-Summerville)
Scripture Readings:  Matthew 6:25-33 and Romans 6:3-9

(For more background on the Flower Service, please see last week's post.)

Today is the annual Flower Service in the middle of July, so what better time to talk about one of my favourite Christmas movies!  The one that I’m thinking of is The Muppet Christmas Carol.  If you haven’t seen it before, I highly recommend it – you could wait until December, or you could watch it now in the middle of the summer.  But even if you haven’t seen this particular adaptation of Charles Dickens’ book, there’s a good chance that you are familiar with the story.

It’s the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, and as the story unfolds we see how a lonely little boy ends up growing up and living a life that is focused on only one thing – making more money.  He studies hard so that he can get a good job; when he has a good job, he works harder to earn more money; but as he earns more money it is never enough and he always craves more and more.  His single-mindedness ends up pushing away any sort of love or companionship.  He pushes away the other students who try to be friendly with him at school.  He meets and falls in love with a young woman named Belle, but his quest for money ends up pushing her away too.  His nephew Fred tries to draw him in to the family circle, but again Ebenezer’s quest for money pushes his family away.  His employee, Bob Cratchit (played by Kermit the Frog in this version) tries to act with love towards Ebenezer despite his miserable working conditions, but he gets pushed away too.

And so here you have Ebenezer, rich in money (which he could use to buy himself nice clothes or good food though he chooses not to spend it); but he very poor in love and very lonely.  The story of Ebenezer’s life to this point is a heart-breaking tragedy.

And that is where I see the connection to this morning’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus asks, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

This passage is found in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount – chapters 5, 6, and 7 in Matthew’s gospel – and all through this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is presenting an alternative world-view to his listeners.  In the passage that we read today, Jesus contrasts the Scrooge world-view – the constant worry about acquiring more and more; more food, more drink, more clothing – with God’s world-view of trust and love.

Jesus uses images that fit well with this time of year in New Brunswick – birds of the air and flowers of the field.  These are parts of creation that can’t live by the Scrooge world-view.  They live in partnership with God, not worrying about the future.

But this analogy breaks down at a certain point.  The flowers out in the field, no matter how mild the winter, won’t survive past a single season.  These beautiful flowers that were cut for our flower service, even if we take exquisite care of the bouquet, won’t last beyond a week or so.  The flowers live a vibrant life, but it is short and then it is over.

But we aren’t flowers; and this is where I turn to our reading from Romans.  In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul reminds us that we have an eternal source of hope – a source of hope with no limits; a source of hope with no ending; a source of hope that is greater than we could ever imagine.  Jesus Christ is our eternal source of hope.

Baptism is one of God’s gifts to us – a gift that is freely given.  And, as Paul writes, in our baptism we are united with Christ.  We are welcomed in to the family of the church which is the Body of Christ.  We are invited to join with the life and work of that body – to be Christ’s hands and feet and eyes and ears and heart in the world.  Paul goes on to write though, that we are also united with Christ in his death.  But the good news is that even when Jesus died on the cross and it seemed as though the world had won, the story didn’t end there.  Jesus’ death includes his resurrection; and so when we join with the Body of Christ in death, we also are invited to join the Body of Christ in resurrection.  And this is our eternal, endless source of hope.

We can see hints of God’s resurrection message throughout all of creation.  The flower of the field may die, but they leave behind seeds that will grow into flowers next summer.  The birds of the air lay eggs that will hatch and grow into the next generation.  Even in the middle of winter when the ground seems dead and frozen, there is life in the leafless trees that will spring forth to new life in only a few months.

We even see hints of God’s resurrection message in The Muppet Christmas Carol, when Ebenezer realizes that he is living a much more limited life than he could be; and he is resurrected from the graveyard of Christmas Yet to Come into a new life of love and generosity.

At this flower service, we gather each year to remember our loved ones who have died.  We remember those whom we love who are buried outside in this cemetery; but we also remember those whom we love who are buried far away from here. We remember our family members; we remember our friends; we remember those who are known to the world; we remember those whose names we carry close to our hearts.  We remember parents and siblings and children and spouses; we remember aunts and uncles and cousins; we remember babies who died at or before birth, and we remember people who lived for more than 100 years; we remember members of our church family and members of the wider community.  It’s amazing to think of how many memories we are carrying together in this room.

We remember our loved ones with these flowers, whose beauty represents the vibrancy of the lives that were lived, no matter how long or how short; but we also remember God’s promise of resurrection so that even in death we can be confident in new life.  Just as the flowers growing in a field hold the seeds to new life; our lives hold the seeds to our new life through Jesus Christ.  As we live, the seeds that were planted in us by a God who knew us before we were born, are tended and nurtured by the Holy Spirit as we move ever forwards to this new life in Christ.

And so today, we remember our loved ones who came before us; we celebrate the new life that they and we receive in Christ; and we look forward to a day when the whole earth is made new.

Thanks be to God!

(The Bouquet of Memories we built at Bayswater-Summerville United Church.
 Somewhere in the middle of this bouquet is a poppy in memory of Mum.)

16 July 2018

Flower Service

Yesterday I did a thing.  It wasn't a thing that they teach us in seminary - in fact, it was the sort of thing that they teach you not to do in seminary.  In my third Sunday at my first call, I messed with a beloved tradition.

The churches here have an annual "Flower Service" which is probably best described as a cross between a Memorial Service and All Saint's Day.  At the two smaller churches, this service is second in importance only to Christmas in the liturgical year.  (It is a newer tradition at the big church, but one that has been enthusiastically adopted.)  We remember everyone in the church who has died in the past year (or who has been buried in the cemetery) as we build a "bouquet of memories" at the front of the church after the sermon.  In previous years, this has been done by having a bunch of flowers added to the bouquet for each name that we are remembering, and then by adding a bunch of flowers to represent the different generic groups of people that we are remembering - mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends, neighbours etc.

My one concern with this though, is that no matter how comprehensive the list of groups that we are remembering, someone is going to get missed.  And so instead, I invited everyone in the congregation to participate in building the bouquet, adding flowers to represent the people that they themselves are remembering.  This involved people getting up from their pews and moving forward to place their flowers in the bouquet.

And it was a holy moment.  At the service at the first church, I was one of three people accepting flowers and adding them to the bouquet, and when we compared notes after the service, all of us found that some people were sharing with us the name of the person that they were remembering.  Sometimes different generations of the same family came forward together to offer flowers.  Sometimes the flowers were offered with smiles; and sometimes the flowers were offered with tears.

And the feedback that I heard after the service reflected my reason for modifying the tradition.  People felt more personally connected with the service and with the remembering; and people told me that they thought about people whom they hadn't thought about in a long time.

I was a bit nervous before the service - not lie-awake-unable-to-sleep nervousness; more like I-hope-that-I'm-not-breaking-trust-with-these-people-I'm-already-learning-to-love nervousness.  But it worked out well.  And we agreed after the services - at least those with whom I shared my nervousness - that a tradition that can't be messed with is a dead tradition; and changing things up for a good reason (and not only for the sake of change) is a living tradition.

The life-giving Holy Spirit was moving in these churches yesterday.

(I will be sharing my Flower Service sermon next week, after the Flower Service at the third church.)

Some of the flowers made their way to my office after the service

8 July 2018

"Power in Weakness" (sermon)

July 8, 2018

So confession time… I’m not much of a sports fan.  Sure I will cheer on the Habs when they’re playing, but I won’t go out of my way to watch football or baseball.  But I do enjoy a good soccer match, so these days I’ve been following the FIFA World Cup which is happening in Russia – the semi-finals are this week, with the finals happening next weekend!

So in honour of the World Cup, I want to try a little game that I’ve entitled, “Sport Slogan / Not a Sports Slogan.”  The way that this will work is that I will give you a phrase, and I want you to try and figure out if it’s a Sports Slogan or if it’s Not a Sports Slogan.

Ready?  Let’s start with an easy one:

“Winners never quit, and quitters never win.”
Sports Slogan or Not a Sports Slogan?

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
Sports Slogan or Not a Sports Slogan?

“Power is made perfect in weakness.”
Sports Slogan or Not a Sports Slogan?

“Faster.  Higher.  Stronger”
Sports Slogan or Not a Sports Slogan?

“For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Sports Slogan or Not a Sports Slogan?

“I will not boast except of my weakness.”
Sports Slogan or Not a Sports Slogan?

So you might have guessed where I’m going with this.  Some of the things that Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthian church are the opposite of the things that athletes and sports teams work for every day.  And if you think about it, the things that Paul was writing to the church in Corinth are the opposite of the message that we get from the world every day.

Every day the world determines our value by how much we have achieved or succeeded.  Think of who becomes famous – who the world worships.  Athletes who win become famous; politicians in power become famous; movie stars become famous – but only as long as they are acting in successful films.

So living in a world that worships and celebrates fame and power and wealth and success, how can we hear these words of Paul when he tells us that “I will not boast except of my weakness,” or “power is made perfect in weakness” or “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Now you might think that things were different back in Paul’s day almost 2000 years ago – the world was a less busy place, there was none of this modern pressure to succeed.  But if you look closely at the city of Corinth – the city where the church was that Paul was writing to – you will actually find a lot of similarities between that culture and our culture.

Corinth was located in what is modern-day country of Greece.  It had deep roots in the ancient Greek culture, but at the time when Paul was writing, it was a modern Roman city.  The old city had been destroyed by the Roman Army – razed to the ground – about 200 years previously; but then re-built by the Romans about 100 years later.  By the time that Paul was writing to the church there, it had a population of over 200,000 people, and it was a major point of trade, commerce, and manufacturing.  There was a big discrepancy between the small group of rich and elite, and the much larger group of people living in poverty.  And there were stories of people who managed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, so to speak; but there were also stories of people who tumbled in disgrace from positions of wealth and power.

Now in addition to being a busy and bustling city, every two years the city of Corinth hosted the Isthmian Games – a big event where people competed in sporting and artistic activities.  In terms of importance, these were second only to the Ancient Olympic Games held west and slightly south of Corinth in Olympia.  At the Isthmian Games, winners were celebrated with poetic odes and statues and money – they were the celebrities of their day.

Now the early church in the city of Corinth that Paul was writing to was more like a network of house churches.  The church would meet in the homes of wealthier members of the community, and their friends – the other elite members – would be invited to join them early to share in a meal and to get the best seats before worship began, leaving the poorer members of the community sitting out in the courtyard.  The class divisions, and the celebration of wealth and power that you saw in the city as a whole were reflected in the church.

And to this group of people, Paul dared to write, “Power is made perfect in weakness … whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”  These words were likely heard in ancient Corinth in the same way that we hear them today – that’s crazy-talk!  How can we get ahead by being weak?!

But then you have to look at the one whom Paul worshipped, the one who was worshipped by the early church in Corinth, the one whom we worship today – Jesus Christ.

We worship a God who found power in weakness.  In the story that we re-member every year on Good Friday, when God-in-Jesus was brought before Pilate and before Herod, Jesus didn’t respond with flowery speeches or great feats of oration.  Instead he replied with the power of silence; the power of weakness.  When God-in-Jesus was tortured and nailed to the cross, Jesus didn’t reply by throwing lightning bolts at his tormentors or by blasting the cross into splinters.  Instead he replied with the power of vulnerability; the power of weakness.

The God that we worship is a God who embraces vulnerability; who embraces weakness.  I receive a daily meditation by e-mail from Franciscan mystic Richard Rohr, and one of his e-mails this week expressed this very well.  Rohr wrote, “We worship this naked, homeless, bleeding loser, crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem.”  But Rohr continues.  He writes, “We worship this naked, homeless, bleeding loser, crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem … but we want to be winners.”[1]

And I think that this might be the key to Paul’s message to the church in Corinth, and to us today.  Even though the world tells us that we must be winners, we must always be better (after all, just look at all of the self-improvement books in every bookstore); and that it is only by doing our best and trying harder pursuing strength and power and wealth – even though this is the message that the world bombards us with every day, we don’t need to listen to the world.  We follow a different path.  We follow a path where we don’t have to be strong or powerful.

Instead, God invites us to let go of our vain attempts at strength or power.  God invites us to embrace our weakness – to acknowledge the fact that, next to God, we really have nothing.  And by letting go of all of this baggage, we open up space for God.

We don’t have to be “all that” – we have God instead.  Paul had to go through this process too.  He asked God to take away his weakness – what he referred to as a thorn in his flesh – but eventually he had to embrace his weakness, he had to accept that this unnamed weakness wasn’t going anywhere, and he had to hear God when God said, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

The church is a place where we can acknowledge our vulnerabilities – a place where we can acknowledge our human-ness – a place where we don’t have to be perfect – a place where we can be vulnerable together before God.  And there, in our weakness, in our human-ness, God’s power is made perfect.

[1] https://cac.org/changing-sides-2018-07-04/

"Silver Jug - Isthmian Games"
CC-BY-2.5 © Marie-Lan Nguyen
What sort of power are we chasing after?