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St. Mark's United Church

Believe Belong Become

Sermon for October 11, 2020

Sermon for October 11, 2020 Thanksgiving               “On Being Well”

There are two verses from the texts that spoke to me this week. Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God from Exodus and Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him, for Matthew.

As we experience Thanksgiving in the midst of a global pandemic it seems that remembering God and gratitude emerge as key for our faith, sanity and global well-being. There is also the wisdom and foresight of God that suggests we humans, when faced with abundance and become settled in home and faith, will forget God and move toward a place of entitlement. In Deuteronomy God is describing a glorious place, after generations of wandering in the desert, eating manna and quail, this must have sounded like an impossible dream, too big and glorious to be believed. And yet when the people arrived, the land produced… just as promised.

The rest of the story is that it did not take long for the people to forget God and rely on their own skill and work. Soon the scrolls were a dusty relic in the back of the cupboard, and God a distant belief of grandparents.

If we are prone to repeat our forgotten history then it seems to me that we are on the edge of a great revival of the Christian faith and a new embracing of the teachings of Jesus. It may not look the same as it did in the post WW2 era of Canada and NB, but it will emerge and we are called to prepare the way for this revival.

Gratitude has been part of the human condition for ever and across all ways and patterns of life. From our first conversations, all religions, philosophies or lack thereof, we have been prone to give thanks. In Jesus day and in ours, gratitude is often an afterthought. When the lepers were healed one returned with gratitude. One of the earliest and most persistent lessons of my parents was; don’t forget your please and thankyou’s.

And Jesus said ‘where are the other nine?”

When we a stunning sunrise or sunset do we say ‘that happens because of the rotation of the earth and vapour and particles in the air giving the diffused sunbeams opportunity to refract and reflect causing differing hues…or do we say WOW? When we see a rainbow or double or triple rainbow do we launch into a explanation about why or do we say WOW? When we view the majestic vistas of New Brunswick do we start talking about the cooling temperatures and the decreasing efficiency of photosynthesis or do we say WOW? When we share an amazing meal with family and friends do we enjoy the food and company, say thanks and WOW or do we meander on to a long discourse about the food industry in the world?

All year, every day and at Thanksgiving in particular we are in positions to say thank you and WOW. Jesus calls us to be a thankful people for all that God provides. So the question remains are we in the group that walks away or the group that pauses to say thank you?

Sermon for October 4, 2020 World Wide Communion

Sermon for October 4, 2020                        World Wide Communion

With the first cut the rough stone begins its journey of transformation toward part of a useful and beautiful whole that is brought about by the skill and imagination of the mason.

One of the teachings in the parable today reminds us that we so often choose to direct the path and plan of God by our own egos and self-interests. We just heard the parable so in short, it is about a vineyard owner who planted vines, built a press and protected that with a fence and watchtower. Acquired tenants and left them in charge. At the appointed time a steward arrived to collect a fair share of the profits and the tenants killed the steward. Another steward was sent with the same result. Then the son was sent, with the thinking that he would be respected, the son met the same fate. Now, the tenants thought the vineyard was theirs.

What you have rejected will become the cornerstone for the building of my kin-dom says the vineyard owner. The chief priests and Pharisees were not happy or amused as they knew deep down that the teaching was about them.

World Wide Communion Sunday and the preparation for this time has caused to me ponder the dilemma of ‘how do I reconcile others who believe in the same God and Jesus as me and yet proclaim a very different view of the interpretation of scripture and understanding of God and Jesus’?   I must confess that I do not see eye to eye with some Christian ministers or teachers. By times I would even argue that from my perspective some teaching is just wrong. But as the parable teaches it is not for me to kill the messengers in order to play the role of God.

I, like all humans are like the rough ashlars of a mason who first gazes at the pile of rough stone in the quarry, chooses one and then decides how to chisel away the unnecessary bits until each stone is perfect and all stones when placed by the master form a beautiful and complete whole. So I wonder, are all Christian churches and proclaimers of the Christian message valid is some way? Are each being prepared as part of a greater whole that I and we are not capable of seeing? We each are chosen, we each take time with the teachings to shine bright and eventually we will, by God’s good graces complete a magnificent whole.

The teaching of Jesus in the parable today is a caution to set aside our ego, our desire for greed and our desire to be God and allow God to be God and we the as yet incomplete workings of the master.

The wonder of Communion, however it is celebrated across the traditions, whether you have bread or wafers of crackers, whether wine or grape juice or coffee, at homes or wherever the faithful and seekers are gathered is, that God in Jesus loves us just as we are, imperfect and perfect at the same time. Humans capable of love and cruel, joy and sorrow, seeking, lost and found all tied together by the unbreakable binds of the Holy Spirit. And we are left whispering and shouting our glorious hallelujahs.  

And so in the name of Jesus who says ‘follow me’, come, join the others with Jesus at the table…please…Amen

Sermon for September 27, 2020

Sermon for September 27, 2020                17th after Pentecost                        “give me give me”

In Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s search for Meaning” he says the one thing that cannot be taken away is our capacity to choose. More than anyone Victor has perhaps the right to choose despair. A Jew in concentration camps, his family killed in the camps along with thousands of friends, beaten, underfed, forced to work, need I go on. And he writes that the one thing that was not taken away was his capacity to choose. And he chose joy. He often quotes Neitchze who said ‘when you know your WHY the HOW does not matter’.

The saga of the Exodus continues this week. The people are fed morning and night, satisfied for a moment. But it seems that they are now thirsty. We are not sure how many weeks or years have passed but we do know the water has run out, there is no sign of an oasis to refill and replenish the water supply. So once again the people complain to Moses ‘how and where are we going to get water’ and once again the people look longingly at the good ole days with rose coloured glasses, and wish for the slave days when at least they had water. The long trek in the desert is about figuring out the why, the corporate why and the personal why. By all accounts that journey took a long time.

In the closing days and weeks of September the Provincial government is settling into its work and as people, groups, cities and municipalities are wont to do there is the refrain of ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’. We also heard the Throne Speech witch lays out in broad ideas the direction for governance. And the first refrain is ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’. The problem with all of this wanting of more is that it removes us as having to be responsible and we forget that all levels of government get money from you and me.

I know that we are in unusual times for us. For the world, not so much so. Yes COVID-19 has not been fun and we are challenged by some of our freedoms being restricted. We long for the good ole days but that is as far as we are willing to go. Nostalgia is great for reminiscing but we really do not want to go back.

Even today God will lead, but it is one of the things we often neglect, or just can’t trust, is belief in the truth that God will guide. So that there is no confusion we need to be aware that GOD will guide. Last night it seemed I wrestled with these texts, I had a sense that God was trying to covey something to me and in my awake state I just could not figure it out. In sleep the revelation came that the teachings today are about gateways that we pass through to greater understanding. We keep asking for more and forget that we have more than enough. The gimme that comes from greed, envy, malice and mediocrity will leave us trudging in the sand.  Without taking away the great faith people have nurtured in their lives, the church of the 20th century has been more concerned about tradition and maintaining an element of status quo, reliance on God has well…waned. And we complain that there is no food or water. Or whatever the 21st century equivalent is. We again are being asked; what is our why? And to choose joy and love.

It took 40 years for the people of Israel to get to the promised land. Not that the trek was that long, it wasn’t but it took that long for the people to learn and we hear in the story that not one person who left Egypt entered the promised land. Jesus was afforded three years to get his message to the people and it was not until death and resurrection that there was an aha moment. Since then followers have argued, sometimes violently, about how to live out the teaching to ‘love God, self and neighbour’. What has been consistent over time is that God is always leading and always opening opportunities for change.

The Gospel teaching offers to stories to guide our understanding of Jesus and God. The first about the question of John the Baptist reminds us that attempts to trick will not work. The second that our actions will always speak louder than words. That we have the capacity to live out the teachings of Jesus even when our words fail us.

This all nudges me to wonder where is God’s leading today. The evangelical conservatives would have us believe COVID-19 is God’s wrath on a sinful people or that it is nothing to worry about and masks, washing hands and physical distancing are not necessary because Jesus will protect. Take Tony Spell a pastor in Baton Rouge who said “we are God’s anointed, we will never wear masks, Jesus will protect’. Some churches have shuttered the windows and doors and teach fear. And there is everything in-between. My thinking in these days is that God is pushing us to listen to the good reason of science and faith and to be on the lookout for how we can be the best people of faith in these days.

The task today is, I believe, the seeking to believing that God is guiding and the conviction to know that, with all our being. I don’t know is the best I can do for today but I can assure you that I will continue to seek the truth, to choose to live with joy and love, to daily discover my why and to nurture fellow seekers and applaud success wherever it emerges. Knowing that like the sons in the parable I sometimes offer an enthusiastic yes and then get side-tracked and by times I can say no and change my mind and in both circumstances Jesus is willing and ready to equip, love and forgive.

Sermon for September 20, 2020

Sermon for September 20, 2020                    16th After Pentecost    “Manna”

I am convinced that we can all relate to having food placed before us and we look at it and ask ‘what is it?’. The people of Israel have been wondering through the desert for days and weeks and are hungry. The hunger leads to complaining and Moses bears the brunt of the complaints. Moses turns to God and God simply says ‘I will provide’.

In the morning there is a white flakey substance on the ground, it is gathered up and placed on the breakfast table. The resounding lament is ‘what is it?’ And mom says yes.

What they and we may not know is that Manna literally means ‘what is it’. Let me go back to the previous statement and it may make more sense. And we can see this spiraling into a ‘who’s on first’ sort of routine. God has promised to guide the people, not only those travelling to the promised land but the people for all ages. Within that there was the assurance that God would provide. My preparation meandering led me to ponder how do we celebrate a question?

It is the really good question that produces that most headway, learning and innovation. It is the hesitancy to ask that leaves us wondering. How often have you thought of a good question, thought it a bit dumb, someone else asks the same thing and gets accolades for a great question? Questions are what push us to be creative. Even the annoying oft asked questions spur creativity. Are we there yet? Eventually garners some interesting answers. Believe me I have travelled across Canada with two young children, and that was when parents were the entertainment systems in cars.

For today, as we are in the midst of harvest, the question what is it? May lead us to our understanding of food and how incredibly fortunate we are to live where we do. When Jennifer and Nicholas were younger we would do the grocery shopping together. I would encourage them to pick a food (mostly in the produce section) that we had not eaten before or one that looked interesting. We had a few ‘what is it’ moments and many that were yum that is a do-over.

I think the question can also apply to the times we are living in today and our response to these times. One thing that is for certain is that God’s generosity has not waned or changed. In the teaching of Jesus from the Gospel today we discover the generosity of God and the provision of ‘enough for today’. All the workers were hired and offered a day’s wage. It is the response of the workers that challenges the generosity of the vineyard owner. When the question begins with ‘how come’ or ‘that’s not fair’ we know that greed and entitlement are not far behind. A more recent expression is ‘the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence.

I am sure that Jesus weeps as the people continue in a pattern of greed and miss opportunities to rejoice that God provides. Instead of experiencing the graciousness of God most of the workers grumbled and complained about the injustice of it all. There is a wonderful quote from Joan Chittister that says; “What breeds hopelessness is the failure to pursue the possible in the imperfect.” That sentiment fits well as we discover the wonder of the teaching of Jesus for today. It also works for the time we are in right now. I keep asking what is it that I am supposed to be open to in these days? The quote form Joan shifts my thinking to what is possible in these apparently imperfect times.

Manna, what is it; may it remind you that God will provide, that God is generous, that we live in a time that propels us to think and act on what is possible in these imperfect times. Then ‘what is it’ becomes hope.

Sermon for September 6, 2020

Sermon for September 6, 2020          14th of Pentecost Anniversary            “Holy Ground”

 

This space and all spaces are Holy when curiosity, insight, humility and acceptance merge in Awe of God.

 

Let me make an attempt to unpack that statement. When we think of Holy Ground our minds often go to the story of Moses, the burning bush and God saying ‘take off your sandals for you are standing on Holy ground. Some rabbinic traditions suggest the real miracle of the story and what sets Moses apart from others as a candidate for God’s liberating purpose, is not that God sets the bush on fire and Moses sees it.  Rather, it’s that unlike all the other sheep-herders who saw the burning bush and just passed by thinking there is really nothing special about a bush burning up in the heat, only Moses, when he sees it, actually stops what he is doing and goes over to it, and stands and looks at it long enough to see it actually isn’t burning up.

 

This is what makes the ground and the story told upon it holy.  It is Moses’ extreme curiosity, his patience, and his willingness and openness to see through the appearance of a thing to the heart of it, and to the presence of holiness afire in the ordinary – even in what seems to be ordinary destruction and loss.  In the midst of the commerce of the day, the constant search for a livelihood, the routine back-and-forth across the hard, dry face of the earth to see the fire of God’s love at the heart of it all, and hear the call to live a transforming, liberated and liberating life?

 

As I read and re-read the history of St. Mark’s I see similar curiosity, determination and faith in the original Methodists who came to this land. Who wanted to worship in a style patterned after the style of Charles Wesley and the freedom to do so in peace. That zeal meant the first worship happened in a barn and since the circuit was so large (Sussex to St. Stephen) that, minister led worship was occasional. In between time worship was led by lay leaders. Some of the leaders and first members of the Methodist Carleton-Lancaster Circuit of 1858 are still familiar today: Dill, McPhee, Smith, Fair, Tippett, Lyman, Douglas and Nelson.

 

As the years unfolded there were fires, growth, amalgamations with churches and cities, the formation of the United Church of Canada in 1925, and new visions and buildings. The curiosity and zeal of the first worshippers has continued in the next generations and is still present today. As Grace, the current chair of the Board is so ready to remind us ‘our blessings are all around us’.

 

In the teaching of Jesus today we have a brief lesson on how to behave and resolve quarrels and then the stirring and settling image of Jesus presence where there are two or three gathered. One understanding of this text is to remind us that though our relationship with Jesus is a deeply personal one, it is when we are gathered that it has opportunity to grow and thrive and be a witness to others.

 

Today we celebrate being together and how great that is. In these days our being together also includes those who watch via Facebook, the real-time worship and the recorded worship later in the week. We celebrate our Methodist roots, our 161 year long history, ourselves and pass on the zeal for Jesus that has been St. Mark’s to the next generations.

 

Indeed, this is holy ground for here we have been and continue to be curious, humble, possessors of zeal all in the expansive presence of God; Creator, Christ and Spirit. It is my prayer that the rafters be lifted with joyful praise, curiosity filled mission and holiness afire in the ordinary. Praise be to God. Amen.

Sermon for August 30, 2020

Sermon for August 31, 2020        Thirteenth of Pentecost                “Serve The Lord”

Last week the teaching was to be transformed in Spirit and not conform to the world. Today Paul’s letter to the Romans offers a template of behaviour for the people belonging to ‘The Way’ started by Jesus. In Jesus and Paul’s time the dominate culture was the Roman Empire followed closely by the Synagogue community. Their rule by law was exacting and deviators were dealt with swiftly and most often with deadly force. Belonging to a group that was counter-cultural to the dominant was inherently dangerous.

Paul writes to the followers “let love be genuine; hate wat is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” as a basic template for living that will set them apart with full knowledge of the potential consequences. In order to be relevant, to have impact and attract followers the movement started by Jesus needed to look and be different. In this context the teaching to love your enemy, turn the other cheek and care for the traveler stood in stark contrast to the norm of the day.

This way of being caught on. As the disciples, Paul and others travelled and spread the word, more and more people came to know that there was a life-giving component to this teaching that was new and exciting and worth following. And the Way of Jesus grew and thrived.

Skip ahead several thousand years. Through events that we, in the 21st century had no part in, we are none the less left with a church that is aligned with the dominant culture. The history of how we arrived here is long and twisted and filled with behaviour that I personally believe Jesus would be horrified by.

What happens when the alternative community becomes the dominant culture?

Eleazar Fernandez in his commentary on this text writes: “It appears that many churches have become so comfortable with the world that they have lost their identity as an alternative community. Driven by the desire for relevance and seduced by the much-coveted three B’s of success (building, budget and bodies), churches have played footsie with the dominant culture without realizing soon enough that they have gone to bed with the culture of domination, privilege, accumulation and consumption. Worship is confused with marketing technique, stewardship with fund-raising, spirituality with meditation techniques, vitality with growth and ministry with programs and services… What the church really has to offer is an invitation to a new community that nurtures believers to live differently and to live out their calling both within the faith community and the wider society. Identity and mission are central here.”

We can look with horror or delight at the USA and the role of churches in politics but we do that at the peril of ignoring our own history. The short story is that our government is based on the British system, which is firmly entrenched with the Church of England. We still have some of that continuing even if only ceremonially in our government. The perception is still that even though we say there is separation of church and state, perception looks different.

Here we are, in the midst of COVID-19 and somewhat successful attempts at new visioning, trying to re-imagine how we can be ‘church’ in our day. How do we ‘let our love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another with mutual affection, to not lag in zeal be ardent in spirit and serve the lord’? How can we become the alternative culture when we are so tangled with the dominant culture?

On this last Sunday in August I do not have all the answers. I am convinced that the answers lie in the teachings of Jesus to love God, others and self. The idea I would invite you to be thinking about as we re-imagine how to be Christian is this: is it enough to just think about being Christian or is being Christian, a follower of Jesus a daily practice?

 

June 28, 2020

Sermon for June 21, 2020

Sermon for June 21, 2020      Third after Pentecost              “Tough Good News”

Of all the noteworthy sayings there are, the two that get us into trouble for not heeding are; in social and family gatherings do not talk about religion or politics and three’s a crowd.

The texts today from Romans and Matthew are challenging and force deeper than the surface of the usual niceness of our relationship with Jesus. Jesus is more than rainbows and butterfly kisses. He is challenging, can push our buttons especially our ego buttons and Jesus loves us no matter what. So let’s wade into the waters of relationship, sin and the love of Jesus.

Father Thomas Keating expressed wonderfully the well-established path to maturity both mentally and spiritually in this way: “The freedom Jesus promises involves letting go of our small self, our cultural biases, and even our fear of loss and death. Freedom is letting go of wanting more and better things; it is letting go of our need to control and manipulate God and others. It is even letting go of our need to know and our need to be right—which we only discover with maturity. We become ever more free as we let go of our three primary motivations: our need for power and control, our need for safety and security, and our need for affection and esteem.”

Paul spends plenty of time teaching and preaching on sin. Much of what he says stems from his own challenges with living in right relationship with God. We tend to categorize sin into groups. Some sin is worse than another is. Over time what constituted sin changed. I define sin, if such a thing is even possible, as the actions and intentions that separate us from a full and complete relationship with God.

As Paul points out in Romans, because of our baptism we are born into a new relationship with Jesus and God. That new life places us in the path of decisions on how we behave each moment of each day. How we treat ourselves, each other and creation is a reflection on our relationship with God and Jesus. Will we be perfect? Absolutely not. Each miss-step that we recognize as such is actually a step closer to God. One of the detours we sometimes end on is about why we treat people and creation the way we do. Some believe that heaven is a reward sort of like allowance, If it do these things right or just do them then I get the reward. Jesus, I believe calls us into relationship with God and Jesus and from that place of profound love and acceptance we have the model and pattern for our relationship with all others and creation.

For example, there was a time when society believed we could treat people of colour or First Nations peoples how ever we wanted; enslaved, abused, raped, forced education. We recognize that is just wrong and not in keeping with a belief in Jesus. So we changed and are changing. Recognize our sin, make amends and work our hardest to live in right relations. It is not easy, reparation never is but it is essential if we claim Jesus as Saviour.

In Matthew Jesus talks about setting family members against one another. In a time of rigid adherence to orthodoxy and little tolerance for not towing the family or Synagogue’s idea of truth, Jesus teaches about a relationship with God first. Then all other relations will flourish. Jesus knew this was going to be challenging and that it had the potential to set family members against one another. Over the centuries, not much has changed. In our day we say, three’s a crowd’ because we know one will be left out or at least feel they are. Jesus teaches, first you and God, then everyone else. Again we have this desire or need to place family or friends before God and Jesus and our egos rebel when Jesus calls us to love God first. Loving God first enables our hearts and minds to be in better relations with family and friends. Sounds easy but living a life of faith is challenging.

Finally, Jesus embodies the love that God has always had for us and creation. It is in the context of this profound love that we can have life in abundance and love with vigor. It is not a reward; it is the benefit of knowing that we are first loved, beyond our understanding. It is in living our lives as if this matters that marks us as believers. My prayer is that our lives as individuals and as a church embody the teaching to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and body and to love others as God loves you”. A tough Good News but one essential for creation’s survival.

And Jesus extends the invitation…Follow me.

June 21, 2020

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