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

Believe, Belong, Become

Sermon for March 17, 2019

Sermon for March 17, 2019    Second of Lent                        “Nourishment”

“Surely I say to you, your house will be left desolate.” When you hear ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ you will discover that you have waited too long to seek the protection of Jesus and God.

To be nourished by the teaching of Jesus actually, at least in my mind, is to know the teaching and to live into them each day. The harsh words of Jesus that I opened with, are directed to those who know Jesus and yet choose to not pay attention.

Last week I looked briefly at saying yes and no, and your homework of when are you a blessing and when are you blessed. Today I would like to take a glimpse into how we go about using what we have been given. And yes, just to be clear at the outset, that is money and resources. Stewardship is really all about caring for, managing and using something that is not yours, but which you have been given for a time. It’s yours to look after and use on behalf of its rightful owner. A good steward always manages what they have been given as a response to the one who owns it and who have given it to them. And that includes our time and resources.

One day, two people from the same congregations were having coffee and talking about church stuff: you know, the regular chitter chatter. Finally, one says to the other, you know I’ve gone to worship for 30 years now and in that time I have heard like 3,000 sermons. But for the life of me, I can’t remember a single one of them. So, I think I’m wasting my time and the ministers are wasting theirs by their giving sermons at all. Well, the other person thought for a moment and then replied, you know, I’ve been married for 30 years. In that time, my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals. Bur for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals. But I do know this, they all nourished me and gave me the strength I needed to do my work. If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today. Likewise, if I had not gone to worship for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead today!

According to Graham Standish, a Presbyterian minister in the USA, worship must provide ‘a tangible sense that Christ is in their midst, an encounter and experience of God’. Worship is not just a show we attend on those Sunday mornings when we have time. Worship is not a spectator sport. Worship is not something that can only occur in this building and this space. Worship does not even require the traditional trappings of minister, organist, and choir: hymnbook and bulletin. ‘In worship, as we sing songs, listen to the messages, read through scripture, and pray together, we can experience that precious love of God that is for each of us, and in that love discover a sense of belonging and perhaps even purpose for our own lives…worship takes us into the heart of God’.

Worship like stewardship, is about our response to God; who God is and what God does. As part of our worship today we heard the psalmist proclaim: ‘God is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?’ and ‘I believe that I shall see God’s goodness in the land of the living.’ There is a response that is often used at Conference and especially youth forum: God is good…all the time, All the time…God is good. So whether we are in worship or the space between worship God is with us. All that happens is our response to God’s goodness

In our faith community, our community and world no one person can do everything. That is why we are called to share that which has been given to us. So that all may be benefit from the vast resources of the planet and it’s people. The budget committee is asking that you consider  a cup of coffee a week more than you do now, that is about $2, at least at MacDonald’s for the not seniors coffee. That will maintain our budget. To take on the challenge of the deficit the increase will need to be much more. I do not nor does the budget committee tell you what to give. What you give is your response to a loving and generous God. Before you decide on your giving, stop to pray…discern if you are giving only from the excess or from your heart of generosity. Then respond as the council of God directs.

Together we are about the witness of Jesus in this place. With our prayer, our gifts of time, talent and resources, St. Mark’s will sustain its place as a relevant and spirit filled sanctuary of hope and hospitality.

Sermon for March 10, 2019

Sermon for March 10, 2019         First in Lent                        “In the Wilderness”

In the next weeks I am going to explore the themes of Lent, the opportunities of stewardship and the delight of working toward a common goal. This may be a bit ambitious but I am sure that together we can move forward. As I turned my calendar to March, there is a picture of a wire footbridge spanning a large chasm. It reminds me of the nature of goals and in print are the words ‘you must keep your mind on the objective, not on the obstacle’.

Our Gospel lesson today is the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. As the story unfolds Jesus has fasted for forty days and is then confronted by the devil who challenges him to turn rock into bread,  that all glory and authority will be granted in Jesus bow to the devil and the claim that the angels will save him if he threw himself off the spire. Even famished, Jesus had his eye firmly fixed on the goal, which is to love and trust God. This time of preparatory fasting gave Jesus the insight and sight to know when something or someone around him was not of God.

This is what Jesus did to prepare for his ministry; it is not what we have to do. Fasting for forty days is in all likelihood not a good plan. The message is to prepare, not too fast for forty days. Preparation and living a Christian live is a practice, with practice comes insight, with insight comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes the knowledge that in this life we can never complete the practice.

As those who follow Jesus, each of us, constantly get to choose ‘no’ or ‘yes’. Will I do this or will I to that? How will I use the time resources I have be given? That’s a stewardship and discipleship question.

Actually, that is THE stewardship and discipleship question. As people of faith, we believe that all we have, from mismatched socks to our very lives. Comes from God. God generously shares and gives to us, because God loves us. And not just us, but everyone. Every living being on the planet and beyond the planet. That is how expansive God’s love is.

It is up to each of us then to decide how we are going to use whatever God has given us. God knows us pretty well. So God has given us some guidelines, assistance, and yes, even some rules to help us make good decisions about how we are going to use all this that God gave us. It is not that God doesn’t trust us, but let’s just say our track record for using what God has given us hasn’t been exactly stellar. There is the story of Abram and Sari where God says go where I tell you and I will bless you and make you a great nation. All Abram and Sari have to do is follow God and they get it all. The catch is to follow, use all they have to bless God and lean into God’s leading and all around will experience the blessings of God.

God’s call to follow and be a blessing was not a one time thing. It is still true today. I want you to recall a time when you were blessed……. And now I want you to recall a time you were a blessing. Being part of this family of faith is a blessing.

Now for my not so rhetorical question: why is it that we keep our faith and St. Mark’s such a secret?

I know there are time when we want to speak to others about St. Mark’s and yet somehow we keep silent. Nowhere in scripture or the teachings of Jesus is there the directive to be silent about your faith or your church. There was no school yard pinky-swear to keep a secret. To use the Gospel language, I challenge you to speak the Good News and the good news of St. Mark’s especially when the “devil” implores you to be silent. I challenge you to not only speak but to invite someone or somebodies to join you in worship for any and all Sunday’s but especially March 31 when we will have a celebration Sunday and lunch. St. Mark’s seems to be the best-kept secret in town and that condition stops now. No longer will we be the church tucked in behind Barnhill School, we will be the place to be, to worship, to learn and to reach out in Saint John. Yes, we are planning to enhance our social media presence but our best presence is you. You speaking and inviting and living out the teaching of God and Jesus to follow and be a blessing. I assure you there will be a chorus of voices saying ‘you don’t really have to do that’ or ‘someone else will do that’ or ‘that will be embarrassing’, the sound of that voice is the one saying ‘be small, be silent, success is too costly’. That is the voice of obstacle and to that Jesus says ‘get behind me satin’. Keep your heart, mind, soul and eye on the objective. For us right now that is: alive with the Spirit, relevant and a place where all belong and are welcome.

Sermon for March 3, 2019

Sermon for March 3, 2019            Transfiguration                 “Hope for a Nation”

“Now about eight days after these sayings” can leave plenty to the imagination. But the 28th verse of Luke is referring to the feeding of the 5 thousand, Peter declaring that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus prediction of his death in Jerusalem. Perhaps that is why Luke refers back to these three critical teachings of Jesus. Then Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain to pray. There Jesus is transfigured as his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white, and to make this scene even more spectacular Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus.

Jeffery Tribble in his commentary on Luke offers this bit of insight: “Following Jesus, I believe that we must be clear about our identity, resolute in our mission and intentional in our spiritual formation. The transfiguration bears witness to the identity of Jesus Christ. By God’s action in the transformation itself and in the words of the Voice from heaven, a theological statement is made. Jesus Christ is declared to be the Chosen Son of God. The disciples heard the declaration: ’Listen to him!’ The Christ event- his incarnation, passion, death, resurrection. Ascension, gift of the Holy Spirit and promised second coming- is the defining script for our local performances of the gospel.”

Now about 2000 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus contemporary Christianity has managed to package Jesus in such a way that he is acceptable to all with minimal work or effort. It falls to us to take off the shiny wrapping, the ribbons and bows and get to the authentic Jesus. It may be comfortable to have Jesus on a mountain top hanging out with Moses and Elijah but the call of Jesus to follow can only be heard in our real, authentic heart. The living out that call will take us to places and introduce us to people we never imagined. It will also take us to faith and spiritual formation places that we never knew even existed. I would suggest that this aspect of transfiguration is most vital. Learning to be resolute in our faith and spiritual development must precede, be part of and the future of any Christian or church community.

We are in the midst of a strategic planning process to map out the way forward for the next few years. Without our determined, persistent and ardent prayers, this task will not flourish as we hope. Without any hesitation or doubt I am convinced in my conviction that we are called by Jesus to be the place of hope, learning, spiritual nurture and faithful mission in Saint John. That is crystal clear to me, as clear as Jesus in dazzling white on a mountain, as Jesus in a Manger, as Jesus healing, as Jesus on a cross, as Jesus resurrected and as Jesus alive in my and our heart.

For the word of God rumbles in our heart, mind, body and soul, “this is my beloved Son, Listen to Him”.

Sermon for February 24, 2019

Sermon for February 24, 2019           7th after Epiphany        “Seventy Times Seven”

The sermon on the plain in Luke is not for the faint of heart. It should not be the first teaching for those new to Christianity. Vaugn Crowe-Tipton writes, “Congregations respond to this text in the same way my children respond to seeing cooked spinach on their plate at dinner. No matter how much I explain the nutritional value, no one around the table really wants to dig in. Even though we know enough to understand how texts can be bound by culture and time, we also know this text goes down hard, no matter when or how it is served.”

This lesson, first taught to the disciples early in the ministry of Jesus set the basic tenets of how to behave. If the disciples actually understood is a bit of a mystery. Or perhaps they were so mesmerized by Jesus they just agreed like bobble-head disciples. 2000 years later theologians and preachers are want to skip over the text or add honey so that it goes down easier. The text says, “But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt…Do to others as you would have them do to you.” And we gulp as we try to swallow this bite.

Jesus sets out right at the beginning that the path of a disciple is going to be hard, go against established convention and land all who follow in hot water. But a revolution does not happen by following the status quo. In the past 2000 years the church has struggled with a disconnect between what the Gospel calls us to do and be and what the church has actually done. Yes there have been moments of brilliance but all too often the church has acted in its best interest and not the interest of the Gospel and teachings of Jesus.

I read with interest an article in the Telegraph Journal about Mega Churches in the world. The conclusion was that these churches are more interested in popularity and entertainment than living the teachings of Jesus. That when you push past the veneer of the glossy cover there exists a shallowness and harsh exclusionism. I listen to the Roman Catholic’s conference and listen to the Pope push for justice for victims of abuse by priests and the same time hear that the church is not listening to the voice of women Nuns who were also abused. So not to exclude the United Church, we too have had our challenges with First Nations reconciliation, living into an inter-ethnic church, living with the learning of white privilege and living the hard teachings of Jesus between Sundays.

My suspicion is that I or even we are not going to change in any significant way the trajectory of this or any denominational church. That path will take years and may even require a few funerals. What I am convinced can happen is that we on a very personal level can try our level best to live out these hard teachings of Jesus between the Sundays.

While on vacation I managed to read plenty. Courage to Lead by Brené Brown offered some insight in setting values in leadership, any sort of leadership. I appreciate her writing as it comes from years of engaged research, struggle and a deep faith in God. The challenge she offered was to take time and name your core values. Name four, then place two as the guiding values for everything you are and are about. My first thought was, that will be easy, and started thinking of words that I would use. Then I read the rest of the chapter and thought oh no this is going to be harder than I thought. So after a few days of thinking and wondering I came up with four values that I tried to live and will live into more intentionally. The first two are the most important. Reverence for all creation, sincere gratitude, gentleness and sensitive integrity. They match my faith beliefs and most of the time I can remember two things. My pre-lenten challenge is for you to take time and wrestle with and discover for yourself you two vital values and live into them as you witness to your faith.

One final caution as we read this challenging teaching of Jesus and that is the tension between good works and grace. We respond to the needs around us both human and environmental because we follow the teaching of Jesus. Redemption in the free gift of grace given by God for which we are all utterly undeserving. The Gospel teaching is the best Good News we will ever encounter, it just may not be the easiest Good News.

Sermon for January 27, 2019 The First Miracle

This sermon was prepared for January 20, 2019 but due to weather worship was cancelled and I preached it on January 27.

Sermon for January 20, 2019       Second of Epiphany         “The First Miracle”

In my childhood church life, I was taught from an early age that it was a place of solemnity, prayer and quiet. When we sat down, we were to sit with eyes forward, no fidgeting, poking my sisters and certainly no laughing. The men wore three-piece suits, the women wore dresses and hats, and there was certainly an air of reverence in the church.

When I look back at the history of attitudes in church, the 70’s and 80’s were considerably more liberal than the latter 19th and early 20th century. That era took stoic and serious to the extreme. Yet for the past 2000 years or so we have used the same teachings of Jesus. In church today, I am constantly rethinking how we live and behave in our shared worship time. For example, a few years ago I teased you in a sort of serious way about cell phones. I said something like ‘if they beep or chirp then you owe money’ in an attempt to silence the phones. After all, there is a time and place for all things and phones ringing in church is barely tolerated. With some new understanding, I am more tolerant and even accepting. What if it is a call that a loved one is in distress or even better that you are getting a text from a child or grandchild just to say ‘thinking of you, love you’. Is this not the best place to be surrounded by care when we get distressing news or to celebrate the good news of love?

The miracle story today reminds us that it is time to unleash the fun Jesus. The Jesus that turned 150 gallons of water into the very best wine. The Jesus who said ‘I have come to give life in abundance’. The Jesus who healed, restored, welcomed and forgave thereby paving the way for abundant living. Time to let that Jesus out of the box and for the followers of Jesus to get into the habit of having a fun, abundant life and to do that in such a way that it happens all the time and not just in the confines of this or any other church building.

In his commentary on John, Robert Brearley writes “Sometimes the church has forgotten that our Lord once attended a wedding feast and said yes to gladness and joy. Prompted by his earthly mother, Jesus turned water into wine to point us to his heavenly Father, a God who loves to hear the laughter of people celebrating people. Sometimes the church has forgotten to live the joy of such revelation.”

Yes indeed, we need to take our fun selves out every now and again but like many stories of Jesus there are layers. In this case the issue is the very real issue of hospitality. The groom’s family would face unbearable shame if food and drink ran out. Mary knew this, Jesus knew this, everyone knew this. The miracle is also about hospitality. The grooms family is applauded for saving the best wine to the end. The family is happy and the community is happy. It is only a few who knew what happened that evening, and I expect that Jesus smiled.

Another layer of the story is that the guests are treated to grace and they do not even know it. There is just this expectation that the wine will not run out so there is no awareness of their role in the miracle story. How true is that in our day. We live with such expectations that we are numb to the miracles that are happening right in front of us. For the guests, I expect it takes some days for the story to break and spread and to realize that they shared in the abundant grace of a miracle.

Jesus teachings beckon us to open our eyes and ears and hearts to what is right in front of us and there witness miracle. Our 21st century challenge is that miracles have to be grand, huge super-extraordinary before our media saturated minds can take notice. Jesus points us to the ordinary, daily events and says there is the miracle. Perhaps the first miracle is that we see, witness or are part of a miracle at all. Open your eyes and ears, see and witness the miracles surrounding you, they may seem tiny or even a bit ridiculous to us but they are huge to our life loving, fun giving God.

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