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St. Mark's United Church, Saint John, NB

Believe, Belong, Become

Sermon for September 23, 2018

Sermon for September 23, 2018                 18th after Pentecost        “What are you Talking About?”

 

I was listening to a speech given by Steve Jobs this week and part of the message was that we need to trust that the dots will connect. He did not graduate from university but in his words, he dropped out and then dropped in on classes he liked. He and Steve Wozniak started building computers in the garage and then founded Apple, Jobs was fired and started an animation company that became Pixar, had cancer and was cured, back to Apple then more cancer. In the moment, he could not see that dropping out of university and dropping into a calligraphy class would lead to fonts and type faces and make the words we type have pizazz. He could not see how the dots connected until he looked back on his life and could see that his success was linked to his perceived failure and both were connected and essential.

‘The Son of God is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again’. In the moment the disciples just could not get their head or their heart to understand what Jesus was saying. So they did what people have been doing for thousands of years…change the topic. They started arguing as boys have done for the same about of time, who’s better, faster, stronger, smarter etc. It seems that when the spiritual alludes us we pick up the mundane.

This past Wednesday the Board agreed to launch a strategic planning process. Not all the details are worked out, but the general principles are in place with an openness to flexibility and to the leading of the Spirit. It seems to me in that journey we will need to work on our ‘why’. Why is St. Mark’s a great place to be? That to me means we will have to get our heart and soul engaged. It also means that we will listen to the ‘elders’ who know that failure does not always mean failure. It may mean you are currently just going in an unhealthy way. It will mean being patient with newbies who are filled with ideas that may not have worked before but now just might. And it will mean depending on Jesus and Spirit that even in dark places light can shine, that in impossibility there is the joyful unexpected and that as we look back to plan ahead we can be assured that like before we will make mistakes and like before new doors are opened.

So let me have a go at my why.

I believe that living a life that takes me past my comfort zones is exhilarating; I believe that being socially unconventional is a powerful mechanism for social change. I believe that walking this path with others is way more fun and life giving than when walked alone. St. Mark’s believes this to be so. I invite you to walk into this adventure. It will mean that you just might be last, the wisdom of children is honoured, that giving is the best way to live with abundance and that in surrender comes truly wholehearted living.

And by the way, St. Mark’s has the terrific worship, programs and a mindset to be all this and more. And yes, we are a Christian church.

 

What the disciples did not know until the resurrection was all the crazy stuff Jesus talked about before his death was absolutely true. What we do not know until we have the humility to try is that it is still true. If you want the best seat, sit in the back of the bus. If you want abundance, give. If you want life, give yours to others. It is when we get older that it all starts to make sense, not just because we might be getting closer to the time when we will meet our maker but because we have seen it happen in our lives. And once we get a taste of it we want more of this truly wholehearted abundant life.

What are you talking about is the question of Jesus to the disciples? It is the same question we are asked. If our answer is me, me, me or how can I arrange the deck chairs so that I will survive, or how can I be perceived as great and wonderful, then like the disciples we sink in our self-imposed separation from God. We cannot serve God and ourselves. Not going to happen in any reality. We eventually learn that extravagant living comes from giving ourselves to God.

Why St. Mark’s…we are on an adventure. Each day is new and exciting. We are opening ourselves to the wonder and grace of Jesus who started the journey. What are we talking about? The crazy idea of Jesus that we can truly be loving.

Sermon for September 16, 2018

Sermon for Sunday September 16, 2018                 17th After Pentecost       “Who Is Jesus?”

Welcome back, I am overjoyed with glee that you are here. You complete us with your presence and live in the paradox that we will never be fully complete as there is always one more to welcome.

I did a quick check on welcome and it is a greeting, usually in a glad and friendly way, salutation, relief, it seems to always be used in a happy or outrageously delighted sort of way. So when I say welcome, it matches our introit that exclaims: come in, you are part of the family.

I also took a look at ‘back’ and depending on context it can be many things; as a noun, you back from shoulders to hips, as an adverb; toward the rear, the opposite direction, as a verb; to give financial, material or moral support to and as an adjective; at the back of something like the backyard.

I did the word search to try to figure out why we add back to welcome, when maybe just welcome would do. But the phrase does make sense because it acknowledges a return, a joyous return. So with wholehearted joy I say welcome back.

Now that we are mostly here we can learn a bit more about Jesus. Jesus; powerful and weak, demands we speak and be silent, healer and destroyer, human and divine, son, brother, Messiah and one who was is and always will be only about love. In the Gospel today Jesus beckons us to take up your cross and follow. Jesus did not say take up my cross, he is challenging us to discern our gifts and growing edges and from that tangled mess of life, take up your cross.

I was driving to the hospital on Wed and saw a man carrying a cross and I wondered why? I did not stop and ask so I do not have an answer. If he is showing that he is suffering like Jesus as an act of faith then I would suggest that he has misunderstood what Jesus is asking. If it is a personal journey like the 40 days in the wilderness or a pilgrimage, or seeking Sabbath time, or dessert time then I would say he is on a right track.

For years before Jesus’ death, the cross was a sign of oppression, a tool to keep the masses in line, a mechanism to silence the people with fear and it worked for the Empire of the day. When this pesky, disturbing Jesus was ordered to the cross the leaders of the Empire were convinced that, like before, it would silence and oppress. With resurrection, the cross lost all of its prior power. With Jesus, the cross is a sign of revolutionary love. It is a sign of love, so when Jesus says pick up your cross, it is about you discerning how you are best going to love. Not just love but revolutionary love for yourself and for every single person you meet. That is the hard work of being a follower of Jesus. Jesus did not call us to be a people who must suffer, self-inflicted or otherwise. He calls us to follow and to love.

I welcome you with extravagant joy and eagerness because I know that Jesus has work to do that requires you. Requires you to stoop down, pick up your way of love cross and rise to unimagined heights of fulfilled life. Jesus knew that love would lead to belonging and belonging would lead to worthiness and that would lead to increased capacity to love. That is the simple message. That is how I imagine church in its best self. A place where every word and action are motivated by love and that most elusive endeavor to serve leads to you craving to belong, for it lifts up your worthiness.

We are on the move. Not to a new local but a move that will see all welcomed with revolutionary hospitality, where all our words are life giving, where our actions holler Spirit and where the least will guide. Welcome back is also welcome to the journey. I am glad you are here.

Sermon for September 2, 2018

Sermon for September 2, 2018                   15 after Pentecost           “Not Letting Go”

When Nelson Mandela was a young man, he was determined to change the course of South African politics and the oppression of Apartheid. The correct way, at the time, was to meet force with force. For many years that was the way. One day he was arrested and sent to prison and there he was for 27 years. There he learned a new way and learned to let go of the former way. After he was released, he started a peaceful movement to heal his homeland. It was in that letting go of conviction that force must be met with force, that life was restored for himself, his nation and set an example for the world.

Jesus spent 30 of his 33 years living and working in and around Nazareth most likely as a carpenter. Biblical historians believe he was content with his life and community. One day he let all that go as he headed toward Jerusalem and the Jordon River. It was in the letting go that brought forth the teachings and wisdom of Jesus that inspires and informs even today.

The Gospel teaching today is about clinging to the past at the risk of not living today. At issue in not the washing of hands but the setting aside of justice seeking and tending to the marginalized. The Elders had fallen into the belief that if they followed the rules and rituals then they were being faithful. What was slowly lost was compassion for the people. They became guardians of the rule and not caretakers of the mind, body or spirit. The simple message of Jesus for us today is; what are we hanging on to so tightly that abundant life alludes us and those around us? And it’s companion; what is it that we need to let go of to make way for truly spirit filled living?

Jesus reminds us today that following rules is important but tending to the hearts of people is more important. Now I like rules mostly when I am driving. For example when folks come in the lower parking lot, or when people stop while making a right hand turn from Westmoreland to Lock Lomond. At the end of the day though I get to where I am going.

St. Mark’s has rules or at least practices that make sense to some and not so much to others. Jesus reminds us that it is the human connection that is vital and important, not that I miss a hymn or mess up the order of worship. If our practice hinders me or another from fully participating in the life of our church then it is our perception of rules and practices that need challenging.

This is Labour Day weekend, a time to remember the long history of labour and the work that is emerging. Even there things changed, from workers being not more than slaves to the wealthy owners and aristocrats to workers having a place of esteem and worth. There was change and hearts and minds had to change, some easily some not so much so. It is important that we give the early champions of labour their due and continue to seek ways to make the relationship between labour and management advantageous to all.

All this being said the essential truth of Jesus to love one another, to do justice and show mercy is not debatable how we go about that may change over time but to do it does not. If the great teachings of Jesus to the Christian church and the world are melted down to “whatever feels right at the time”, then we are in grave danger of extinction. As we move into a time of planning and visioning at St. Mark’s we are committed to holding to the core teaching of Jesus and at the same time inviting ourselves to let go of those things that no longer serve us well. This summer, Kathy and I saw the movie “Winnie the Pooh”. There is great wisdom that come from that wee bear. There is a scene where Pooh is sitting on a log contemplating what to do and he says: “well, I suppose if I’m to go somewhere I’ll have to leave where I’m at”. Indeed, if we are to get somewhere we have to let go of some practices, words, rules that no longer serve our vision. We say thanks to the ways they have served us well in the past, let them go and then live into new and even scary ways of being, that will in time have to change again. The teaching of Jesus to love one another especially those that do not love you is what we cling to. How we do that has, has to and will change. Pooh’s wisdom is both spatial and spiritual, for we will have to leave where we are to get where Jesus is calling.

July 1, 2018 Sermon

Sermon for July 1, 2018                  Sixth of Pentecost           “If Only I Could…”

The two healing stories in Mark’s Gospel are woven together for hope, impact, challenge and faith. At first reading they show the mercy and awareness of Jesus and his desire for healing, wellness and life. As the layers are peeled back we are exposed to even greater learnings and insights.

The first story tells of a man of privilege and place in society and church. Jairus represents order, status quo, the ‘true’ faith, and yet here he is talking with Jesus about his daughter. The love for his daughter outweighs any disturbance to his faith beliefs. On his way, Jairus is informed that his daughter has died so why bother Jesus further. Jesus continues to their home and takes Jairus, his wife and the disciples into the little girl’s room. Taking her by the hand, he says: Talitha cum which means ‘little girl get up’. She got up, they were amazed, Jesus asked them to tell no one and to get her something to eat. Hope is deepened and life is restored.

The second healing tells of a women hemorrhaging for twelve years. An outcast, unclean and unwanted, she had gone from doctor to doctor and spent all she had. She was in the crowd as Jesus was travelling to Jarius’ house and only wanted to touch the cloak of Jesus. As soon as she did, she was healed. Jesus felt the healing power flow through him and asked ‘who touched me?’ the woman confessed to touching him and Jesus reply is ‘your faith has made you well’.

For as much as two are healed in this story, many are not. I have sat with and prayed with many families for healing. In my whole career, healing has happened once. All the other times I have conducted a celebration of life, cared for grieving families, and loved ones. In Jesus day and ours some are healed and some are not, it just is and I do not think there is any real explanation and it is certainly not because one had more faith than another did.

The characters in the stories could not be more different. Jarius the man of privilege and named, and an outcast woman, un-named. The common factor is that they both seek out Jesus. Seeking Jesus is what started the journey, surprise is how it ended. How true is that still today.

The man is privileged and has position, the woman has for the past 12 years been bleeding her life force, all her spirit and energy gone. He approaches Jesus from a perspective of power, the woman from the position of outcast. Jesus treats them with the same dignity and respect. Beverly ZInck-Sawyer comments: “ Both victims of illness are female and ritually unclean, one as a result of death and one as a result of hemorrhage; both represent the significance of the number twelve in Jewish tradition (the twelve years of hemorrhage and the twelve year old girl); and both are regarded as daughters (the little girl being Jairus’s daughter and the woman is addressed by Jesus as Daughter). An act of touch restores both women to new life even as those surrounding them lack understanding.”

The question then and now is who has access to Jesus? I know the easy answer is everyone but is that really true. If Jesus were invited to Saint John who do you think would be the first invited? Then the next and the next and then the last. Would we get an invite. I raise this to get us thinking about status and privilege. Let me be clear that if Jesus came to Saint John, I think he would be with the poor and displaced and would outright reject the invitation to a ‘black tie’ event at the convention centre. And if Jesus came to town what lengths would we go to get a glimpse of him or to touch the hem of his garment.

How often do we say ‘if only’ and then leap into the next task.

Time to stop. Stop the ‘what if’ and come to the full realization that Jesus is here. Jesus is in you, Jesus is in me, Jesus is where ever two are gathered in his name. That is a powerful presence. I watched a wonderful face-book video where a teacher was teaching value of self and others. He asked the students to pair up, look the other in the eye and tell the other a truth. Then he asked them to look each other in the eye and say ‘I see me in you’. Barriers clattered to the floor like confetti at a wedding. There were tears and hugs as it began to dawn on these youngsters that they are connected at a heart and spirit level and not by status, looks, colour, or clothes.

In the Gospel story, both Jairus and the woman seek out Jesus from their own place in society. Jesus responds to both with love and compassion and both are not only healed but made well. Mind, body, spirit and heart are brought into alignment with the love of God.

This image of healing and wellness has added a layer to what makes a family of faith, a church, worship vital. Michael Lindvall offers this thought, which I agree with. “We are, in fact, shaped and made human in relationship to other persons. Our relationships: in the church, in friendships and in marriage, are not just something extra added on to life for distractions and entertainment, as if we would be complete human beings in individual isolation. Relationship, ‘touch’ if you will, makes us human and whole. As the contemporary Scottish philosopher John Macmurray on phrase it, ‘I need you in order to be myself’.”

For me and I hope for us, all this starts because we started seeking Jesus and have never stopped. Amen.

June 24, 2018 Sermon

Sermon for June 24, 2018              Fifth of Pentecost            “Who Then is This?”

In the Gospel story of Jesus calming the waters, we have Jesus wanting to get some rest after a busy day. His disciples get into a boat with Jesus and head to a quiet spot on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  A storm suddenly rocks the boat. They wake Jesus and ask; do you not care that we are about to perish? Jesus calms the waters and asks the disciples why they were afraid. Then disciples are terrified (some versions say ‘awed’) and say to themselves; who then is this.

When I step back and take a longer look at this story there are some interesting bits that emerge. I know that at least three of the disciples are fishers and fished the Sea of Galilee. I expect that most of the disciples are familiar with fishing on the Sea. Jesus grew up in Nazareth a town nestled in the valley with no Sea, so in our language a ‘landlubber’. So when the Sea whips into a frenzy, as it is known to do, Jesus sleeps and the experienced fishers are fearing for their lives.

When they wake Jesus, he calms the storm and wonders aloud why the disciples are afraid. It is at this point that the disciples are terrified.

Another interesting aspect is that all the waters were calmed so all the boats and people in them were suddenly in calm waters. Jesus then is the teacher for all who come near his influence and the Saviour for those who listen and are inspired by His teaching. Jesus did not calm the waters just around his little boat but for the whole sea. We are not privy to the comments on the other boats but I am sure there was speculation going on as to what exactly happened. I also suspect that when the disciples landed they spread the news of what Jesus had done.

I think that image is vital and essential to understanding Jesus but is only part of the truth of this story.

At least three of the disciples are seasoned fishers, they were afraid for their lives, and so it goes that the others would also have a heightened level of fear. All the while Jesus is sleeping in the back of the boat. In our personal and church life, there are often times when we are afraid. That our world is rocked. In some of these moments, we have the capacity to draw on a strength we did not know we had and that is a great personal learning. In the case of the disciples, they did not gather to devise a strategy; they did not try to solve the problem of the wind and waves. They woke up Jesus. Jesus calmed the wind and waves and the anxiety of the disciples.

There are times when all our cleverness and ability do not solve the problem or our problem. It is in these moments that we, like the disciples, turn to Jesus. Jesus then has the capacity to, in love, offer perspective to the problem, to calm the stormy seas, or make the calm seas stormy. And we are thankful that Jesus is our Saviour.

The part of the story that I find fascinating is at the end. It is after the calming of the storm that the disciples are terrified/awed and exclaim: who then is this! That even the wind and waves obey. Did you get that? After the wind and waves, the anxiety of the disciples is calmed, then they are terrified. It is perhaps the most poignant moment of insight and understanding for the disciples, that they now know their lives have and will be, forever changed.

When placed side by side, believing in Jesus, and heeding his call to be about mission I have a feeling that we are most terrified about the latter. For the first we may have a sense that we will get our hands dirty and our hearts opened but for the latter we have no doubt. That terrifies us, at least it should for we come face to face with knowing that Jesus places in our hands the wellbeing of our neighbours and creation.

I wondered what constitutes a community of faith this week. Here is where I am at with my ever-evolving understanding; we are a group of individuals whose lives have and are being transformed by the glorious love of Jesus. We gather so that our unique skills and gifts can be combined for greater benefit to the mission of Jesus. We gather so that we can be encouraged by each other’s transformation and come to the humble realization that our lives are being transformed.  Like the disciples, we have work to do individually or in small groups, and we have work that requires us all.

It is after Jesus touches our heart with love that we are awed or terrified. Like the first disciples, we follow Jesus and there is no thought of turning back. The ending of the United Church’s Statement of faith rings clearer with sharper focus in light of this story: we are not alone, we live in God’s world. Thanks be to God.

Sermon for June 17, 2018 the fourth of Pentecost

Sermon for June 17, 2018      4th after Pentecost       “Little Things Mean A Lot”

I tell you the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, it is tiny and apparently insignificant but when planted grows to be a bush large enough for birds to nest.

Parables being parables have many meanings. The truth remains consistent but time and context add insight and new understanding. Jesus told the parable to help the people understand that the Kingdom of heaven is not what they expect. The kingdom is found in small, seemingly insignificant moments and things, yes like a mustard seed. It brings to focus the teachings of Jesus: the first shall be last, the least shall be the greatest, two mites are more than that given from excess, a seed must die to live, I must die so that all might live and have eternal life. This teaching was new, difficult and hard to imagine then and it is no easier now.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the Princess and the pea, or the grain of sand in the oyster. Perhaps you have been walking and had an annoying rock in your shoe or sandal? When you finally stop to shake it out, you are amazed that the annoying bit was not much bigger than a grain of sand, where you thought a small boulder would fall out. Little things matter. But let’s not just assume that they are there to annoy. Little things matter to make life richer , more meaningful and beautiful. Have you smiled at someone, have you bought a coffee for someone or someone did the same for you, did you get a call or email, did someone pick up the change you dropped and returned it. Has someone done some small thing that meant the world to you? Have you done the same?

Kathy reminded me of a story titled ‘Two Coffees’ where a young man in line buys the coffee for the man behind him in line. It seemed like no big deal but the older man was deeply appreciative. Some months later, they happened to be in the same place at the same time. The older man stopped the younger and recounted the story. He said he was going to see his wife in the hospital where she was being treated for cancer and the outlook was grim. He was feeling depressed and angry. You bought a coffee and in that instant my spirits were lifted and hope shined through. Thank you he said. The younger man was moved to tears that a random meeting and a $2 coffee would mean so much.

Jesus reminds us in this parable that we are the small thing for another.

The story does not end there. For Jesus is telling the parable as biography. I am the mustard seed and to grow into something grander I must die so that I can be more. A hard lesson for the first followers and for us in the 21st century. Jesus says repeatedly that I will die and rise again on the third day, the temple will be destroyed and I will rebuild it in three days. Jesus is the mustard seed that dies so that all might have life and life in abundance.

We are living in an age of staggering ‘me first’ and ultra-protectionism and if I have learned anything from history, those two false beliefs held together as a truth are dangerous and destructive. Through the ages, people have believed that Jews were evil, blacks were an abomination to God, that women were not persons under the law, that those who are LGBTQ are to be outcast and that Muslims are terrorists. These are false truths proclaimed as true so that some can be perceived as better. The first and best teaching of Jesus is: Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, love yourself and love others. Jesus died so that we might come to a better understanding of this truth.

The message of Jesus might seem like a small thing in the world as it is now. I believe that God will not let the seed of love die in the ground in the 21st century. I believe that God has planted that small seed in all of us who believe Jesus is Saviour and it will, through our small actions cause the calloused hearts and closed minds to be opened.

I would like to share one of my favorite poems with you again. Dawna Markova is the author.

“I will not die an unlived life, I will not not live in fear of falling or catching fire. I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me, to make me less afraid, more accessible, to loosen my heart until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise. I choose to risk my significance, to live so that which came to me as seed goes to the next as blossom. And that which came to me as blossom, goes on as fruit”

 

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